Stories That Stick: The 11:59

You know the stories you read as a kid that stick in your brain forever? You might go years without thinking about them, then some little trigger pops up and suddenly you not only remember the story, but where you were sitting when you read it, or what shirt you were wearing. Since I began writing, these stories slip to the surface of my consciousness more and more easily. One of the strongest recurring story memories for me is The 11:59.

The 11:59 is from a short story collection called The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack (1992). It’s the story of a retired train porter, Lester, who’s telling the young porters the tale of the Death Train that will take them all one day.

“Any porter who hears the whistle of the 11:59 has got exactly twenty-four hours to clear up earthly matters.  He better be ready when the train comes the next night…”

I don’t remember how I got my hands on the book, whether it was from the bookshelf at home or the school library, but I distinctly remember sitting on my bed reading it. I’m not sure what shirt I was wearing, but there was probably a Blue Jays ball cap on my head or somewhere nearby. I also remember that for quite some time afterward (years maybe) I couldn’t help but check my watch if I heard a train whistle after dark, just to make sure it wasn’t 11:59—on at least one occasion, it was. I told myself my watch must be off by a few minutes to stave off a panic attack (and obviously lived to tell about it).

I’m not sure if it was this story that left me with the indelible impression that trains are magic, or if this belief was already there to enhance the chill it gave me (my reading of The Polar Express might have come first), but I still think of The 11:59 when I hear a train after dark. Though, I no longer check my watch. I swear.

Recently, I was compelled to track down The 11:59 (gotta love Google). It was tugging at my memory to the point that I just had to confirm the story was how I remembered it, and not some jumble of other stories mixed together by my all-too-human memory over two decades. Sure enough, the plot was almost exactly how I remembered it.

Reading it again as an adult, I was more aware of the simplicity of the storyline (intended for a young audience) and a typo jumped out at me that I’m sure I would neither have noticed nor cared about when I was ten or eleven. Even reading it in elementary school, I remember finding the story predictable. When Lester hears the 11:59’s whistle, he’s taken over by panic and a mission to accident-proof himself for the next twenty-four hours in hopes he will survive. All the while ignoring the pain in his chest and tingling in his left arm—duh.

But knowing where the roller coaster was going didn’t lessen the thrill of the drops and turns. And years later, the final scenes haven’t lost their magic.

The Obvious Unexpected Pairing

What do these two women have in common?

Amanda Palmer: punk-cabaret musician/songwriter/artist.

Brené Brown: researcher/storyteller/academic.

They are both awesome, but I can’t say I ever considered them a pair. Until now.

Amanda Palmer’s TED talk was recommended to me by my friend Cate. Back when we still lived in the same city (sigh) we used to get together on a semi-regular basis to write together. A lot of our ‘writing’ time was spent talking and watching TED talks. Before we started watching this video, Cate commented that there was something unusual about Amanda’s eyebrows. Consequently, I spent most of the talk trying to figure out if they were makeup or tattoos, but that didn’t stop me from finding her speech amazing. 

I also discovered Brené Brown via her TED talk. I have read her book The Gifts of Imperfection and I’m working on another, Daring Greatly. I recommend them both, but this post is actually about Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking (in which, to my delight, she answers the eyebrow question).

Brené Brown’s books (to over simplify) are about connecting with people, and the importance of being vulnerable and genuine in order to obtain that connection (and about how most of us are not very good at this). If Brené’s books are guides toward connecting with people, Amanda Palmer’s book is the practical embodiment of this philosophy. Perhaps then, it is perfectly natural that Brené Brown wrote the forward for The Art of Asking. There are also excerpts from Brené’s writing scattered throughout the book, and they fit perfectly.

Even so, I was a little surprised to find The Art of Asking categorized in the self-help section of the bookstore. I certainly learned a lot from it, so I guess it belongs there. It could also be at home in the biography/memoir section. Amanda expands on her TED talk, and then some, explaining through honest and detailed accounts of her own experiences how to do that thing we all must do from time to time: ask for help, support, payment we’ve earned, etc. How to express our needs, admit our fallibilities, and cope with hate that comes our way. Also, how to get more comfortable doing these things, because most of us loath the vulnerability with every fiber of our being. We’re so afraid of being an inconvenience to, or judged by, one another that we forget we are meant to connect and cooperate (a number of scientific disciplines agree with me on this). We are a social species. Most people not only don’t mind helping, but actually derive pleasure from it. Still, we all go around thinking we’re not deserving of the help and doing everything we can to avoid asking for it.

Perfect example: Two days ago, my neighbour locked herself out of her house. She knocked on my door, totally embarrassed, and asked to hang out with me while she waited for her spouse to get home. Of course, I said yes. We had a really good chat and I was glad for her company. That said, if it weren’t for the prospect of her four-year-old son getting home from school before she could get back into her house, I think she seriously considered just waiting outside (in -8°C) for two hours rather than confess to the error of locking herself out–a mistake most of us have made at least once and some, like me, multiple times–and risk some kind of rejection in my response.

I think every room I occupied in university required creative entering at least once. The funny thing is, as I was sharing this with my neighbour I also had to confess that I too would have debated whether looking like an idiot to another person was better or worse than freezing my ass off in private. Without a child to worry about, I’m not even sure which side of the fence I would have landed on. A close friend of mine (with whom I can comfortably share my moments of stupidity) has a key to my house to avoid this very scenario (and so she can check on my cats when I’m away). God help me if I’m ever locked out while she’s at work.

I think my favorite example in The Art of Asking of the self doubt we all share is the brain surgeon: 

For real? I dropped my cell phone in a puddle this morning, couldn’t find my keys, can’t hold down a relationship, and here I am clutching a sharp knife about to cut someone’s head open. And they could die. Who is letting me do this? This is bullshit.

(If you happen to find yourself in need of a brain surgeon’s services, relax. I’m sure your brain surgeon is a super hero.)

The first example Amanda gives in the book is a little more gender specific: WHO’S GOT A TAMPON? I JUST GOT MY PERIOD. I don’t think I’m the only one who cringes at the idea of having to shout that out in a public bathroom, but wouldn’t give a second thought to reaching into my purse and handing one over to someone else, without an ounce of judgement because I’ll be thinking: totally been thereAmanda points out that there are other things–pens, paper, quarters–we all give and take without keeping score, assured the karma will balance out eventually. 

She uses the story of the Indian Giver to illustrate the point:

A Native American tribal chief welcomes an Englishman into his lodge and shares a pipe of tobacco with his guest, then offers the pipe as a gift. The valuable object is a symbolic peace offering that is continually re-gifted from tribe to tribe, ‘belonging’ to no one. The Englishman doesn’t understand this and thus sees the gifted pipe as his property. He is completely confused when the next tribal leader comes to his house and, after they share a smoke, looks expectantly at the Englishman waiting to receive the pipe. She calls the opposite of the Indian Giver the White Man Keeper. The one who removes the property from circulation.

This is the one place of discord that came up for me while reading this book. I am all for the practice of paying it forward, but I don’t think the Indian Giver is a good depiction of the ever flowing river of gifts, favours, and volunteerism described throughout The Art of Asking. The voluntary aspect of the flow is key. If you are being forced to give something up, it is no longer a gift and the meaning of the gesture is lost.

The story of the Indian Giver gains power because of its historical context. We are predisposed to see the Native American as the victim and the Englishman as the villain. Replace tribal chief with CEO and Englishman with Bill, visitor from out of town. Bill has committed a social faux pas by not taking part in a ritual that, as far as I can tell, he knew nothing about. What’s worse, his error is taken as a deep insight into his character (and the character of all other out-of-towners) rather than simple misunderstanding. Even between the tribal chiefs (or CEOs) who pass on the pipe willingly, I don’t get the sense of goodwill that comes with the natural flow of giving/sharing. Because it’s expected, it’s an obligation not a gift.

Amanda also expresses the importance of voluntary participation in any exchange. She sums it up like this: 

I deserve to ask; and; You are welcome to say no. Because the ask that is conditional cannot be a gift.

I totally agree.

From this I can only assume she interprets the Indian Giver story differently than I do. I guess, that’s one of the great things about any art. Whatever the intent of the storyteller, the listener may hear something else. And interpretations between listeners will be different too, coloured by their own states of mind and needs at the time. 

Final verdict, everyone should read this book. I found myself thinking (maybe blurting out loud once or twice), ‘Holy crap! I sooo get that,’ over and over. If I recounted all the instances here, this post would be seriously out of hand.

Mind Body Green: Good and Bad…or at least funny

There is a site called Mind Body Green that I first came across through an interest in yoga. It’s one of those group-blog-like sites with articles from lots of different people on lots of different topics, mostly in the health-and-wellness genre. It’s definitely a site that requires reading with a critical eye as many of the sources are more anecdote and opinion than rigorous science. But some of the contributors are MD’s and PhD’s. If, like me, you’re looking for some yoga tips or meditation exercises there are worse places you could look. However, some Mind Body Green articles make me cringe.

I’ll start with one I liked:

Don’t Blame Big Food For Our Health Problems, Just Stop Buying Crap: The title is fairly self explanatory.  What I love about this article and others like it is the message regarding personal responsibility.The gist is this: companies can only sell what we are willing to buy. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. Change will come with knowledge and choice, not laws and restrictions. Companies want to make money. This is not evil. In fact, it can work in your favour.  

The same goes for non-food items. For example, some years ago, a warning was going around that cheap candles made in china were being found to have lead in them (same is true of some made-in-china chinaware by the way). Even if selling these candles were made illegal immediately (cause, you know, the government works fast like that) who is checking every candle coming out of china for lead in the wick? Personally, I didn’t wait for anyone fix the candles. I just stopped buying cheap, made-in-china candles. So did a lot of other people. When we know better, we do better. Higher quality, locally-made candles are now a lot easier to find than they were 5-10 years ago, because that’s what people are willing to pay for.

Now for some Mind Body Green articles that make me laugh (and roll my eyes):

1) A Raw Chocolate Caramel Pie To Die For

2) 3-Ingredient Vegan Ice Cream Sandwiches

3) This Is The Mother Of All Vegan Mac-N-Cheese Recipes

Before I elaborate let me say, I am not writing this from either a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ stance on veganism, raw foods, paleo, or any other diet/lifestyle. I am in no position to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t eat. If you have found a diet that works for you and it falls into one of these categories (or doesn’t), awesome.

What raises my eyebrows when it comes to these recipes is the names. If you have chosen not to eat a particular food, why go to such great lengths to pretend you are still eating it?

1) Caramel definition: a liquid made by cooking sugar until it changes color, used for coloring and flavoring food. Note the word ‘cooked’ in the definition. There is no such thing as raw caramel. If it is raw, then it is not caramel. In this recipe, the ‘caramel’ layer is made up of macadamias, coconut oil, maple syrup, and vanilla extract. That is not to say this pie wouldn’t be delicious; why not call it chocolate coconut pie?  I also feel the need to point out that maple syrup is made by boiling tree sap–not exactly ‘raw’ either. You might as well eat real caramel. They are both cooked sugar. 

2) Ice Cream definition: a frozen food containing cream or milk and butterfat, sugar, flavoring,and sometimes eggs.The only thing that could make ice cream less vegan would be if it was steak flavoured. The three ingredients in this recipe are: bananas, strawberries, and oats. All good things, but it’s a fruit-ice sandwich not an ice cream sandwich.

3) Cheese definition: the curd of milk separated from the whey and prepared in many ways as a food. And to make the mac-‘n-cheese sauce creamy one traditionally adds milk, cream, and/or butter. Need I say more?

(Definitions from dictionary.com)

As for this one:

A Kale Smoothie That Tastes Like Ice Cream

I call bullshit 😉

Thoughts on: The Problem of Susan – Neil Gaiman

Where many may have become Neil Gaiman fans through Sandman or Coraline, I first took note of his story telling as a result of an episode he wrote for Doctor Who. Later, I saw his now-famous commencement speech, Make Good Art. This was around the time I was really getting interested in writing, and I thought I could learn a lot from the way this guy approaches work, writing—where they meet—and life.

Recently, I picked up an anthology of short stories, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction. Aside from my amusement at seeing religion and science fiction side by side, I noticed Neil Gaiman listed as one of the authors. I skipped ahead and read his story, The Problem of Susan, first. I loved it. To get to why I loved it, I have to back up a bit. Continue reading

How Not to Write a Novel – Review

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To all aspiring novelists out there—to all writers period—I highly recommend reading How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. Between them, these two authors have lots of experience with writing, editing, teaching, and reviewing. They’ve seen a lot of good and bad writing come and go.

Rather than try to explain what makes good writing good, as most writing how-to books do, this book explains instead what makes bad writing bad. Going through the major points of plot, character, and style, it gives detailed examples demonstrating the various traps most new writers fall into, send their precious manuscripts to the trash can—sorry, recycle bin.

Some of the tips you will have seen before, though probably worded somewhat differently, if you’ve ever read anything on writing. And yet, you probably still make these mistakes from time to time, and another reminder wouldn’t hurt. For example: “Fuck You!” He Said Profanely: Where the author uses adverbs to no purpose.

Others will be new, at least they were to me, like: The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special: Where clothing is given too much prominence.

Though written with the novel in mind, the majority of these blunders are not unique to novel writing. The examples are often woefully exaggerated for humour’s sake, but also clearly make their point. As essential as examples of the ‘right thing’ are, examples of the ‘wrong thing’ are valuable too. It’s a lot easier to find mistakes in your writing when you know what the mistakes look like.

Also, the book was simply fun to read. Not a hint of textbookiness to be found. I will warn you, however, unless you are most impeccable writer in existence (in which case, what are you doing on my blog?) it will at times be painful when you see hints of your own writing peeking out from the what‑not‑to-do pile.

Though I’d like to think none of my writing is quite as bad as the comical passages in this book depict, there was lots of ‘yeah, ok, I might do that sometimes.’, and ‘Crap, I’ve definitely done that.’, going through my mind as I came across the traps most applicable to me. I’d list them all, but there are too many (feel free to read any of my writing and I’m sure you’ll find a few on your own).

Here and there, I got to think ‘Phew, I know I’ve never done that.’ Usually when the error described in no way applied to the kind of writing I do, like: Gibberish for Art’s Sake: Wherein indecipherable lyricism baffles the reader. I have been accused of confusing my readers in the past (Dosterra Chapter one), but certainly not with lyricism.

How Not to Write a Novel also includes: The Crepitating Parasol; The Whatchamcallit; and “Yo, Charlemagne, how dost thy big war?”, to name a few more intriguing subtitles that make it impossible not to wonder, ‘What’s that about?’ If you’d like to know, pay a visit to Amazon, or your local Chapters.

The Ticking Clock

Every aspiring writer (or anyone with a personal goal of any kind for that matter) has the same problem. I don’t mean that all of our problems are the same, of course they are not, but with the potential exception of the fully-actualized human being (if such a creature exists) we all share one problem in common. You know the one.

We feel the urge to procrastinate, and the longer we do it the worse the feeling gets. All the while the clock ticks. Before you know it, it’s supper time. Oops, where’d the day go?

We comb books and blogs (and there are a ton of them on the subject) for quick fixes. We look for that technique that, if we could only find it and master it, would solve the problem. Though we know that no such thing exists, we keep looking and over time find puzzle pieces here and there that add to the picture of our own individual ‘block’ and what works for us to overcome it.

A puzzle piece fell into place for me while reading a particular passage, from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, called We’re All Pros Already.

The War of Art looks at the urge to procrastinate (he refers to it as ‘Resistance’, an apt name) and how to deal with it from many different angles. This particular passage is a reminder that not only do you have the skills you need to push through the but-I-really-don’t-want-to feeling, but if you’ve ever had a job, or any responsibility for that matter, you already know how to use them.

I am very glad that a friend handed this book to me (thank you C.E.). It’s one of those rare finds where I knew from the first page that it was worth my while. Whether reading it when I should be writing actually counts as ‘Resistance’…well, I won’t go there.

It occurred to me that back when I had what some would consider a ‘real job’ I was not defeated by procrastination the way I am now. Not that I didn’t procrastinate, I did. But when it came down to it, not only did the work always get done, I was even efficient. Whereas now I struggle to complete a to-do list full of tasks I really want to do, back then I was actually one of those people capable of handing in a project before the deadline—even though I might abhor the task set before me. Discounting my first two years of university that is, which brings be to my next point.

Sometimes we have to relearn lessons. If you don’t use it, you lose it. After reflecting on the differences between my approach to work then and my approach now, I came up with the following list of changes, or backslides, in my attitude.

One

Now: But I like writing (running, swimming, french, piano, insert self-improvement activity here) it shouldn’t be this painful. Maybe it’ll be easier tomorrow (on the weekend, after the holidays, when the weather improves etc, etc).

Then: If it sucks now it’ll still suck later, just get it over with; then at least I can stop agonizing over it (I know it sounds cynical, but it’s also accurate).

Lesson: It’s ok to be uncomfortable. Yeah, nine years in the military and I still had to relearn this, sheesh. Possibly I forgot this one on purpose. Anyway…though the ultimate goal for us all may be to attain a psychological state where getting started on a task isn’t painful or scary—a state I believe you can get closer and closer to, but never actually reach—in the meantime it will be uncomfortable. Suck it up. It won’t kill you (if it will, disregard and rethink your course of action) and you might even feel good afterwards. Or during, I’ve often been surprised by how much I can enjoy just about any task once I’m on a roll.

Two

Now: Staring at task A. I should be doing B by now. I should have started this sooner. Maybe if I just got C out of the way. No, C will take too long. Maybe I don’t have time to do all of these before X. I’m hungry. What time is it? Crap! It’s been half an hour already.

Then: Make list (in head, on paper, doesn’t matter). Pick item. Do it. Maybe I don’t have time to do all of this before X; at least this one will be done (half done, outlined, anything is better than nothing).

Lesson: Focus on this task for as long as you are doing it. Then move on to the next one and keep plugging. There are various ways to approach this: 1) Priorities: If I could only get one thing done today what would it be? Do it first. 2) It will take as long as it takes: I’d rather get one thing done today than start five things. Conversely, 3) Pick a time: I will work on A until (5min from now, an hour from now, 5:30pm at which time I must get in the shower if I’m to be ready to go out on time). Take note, set a timer, whatever you need to do. Now relax, you don’t have to think about it again until the deadline arrives. Then move on to the next thing. Not finished? So what?

Three

Now: Not sure how to do this, I might screw it up….stuck.

Then: Not sure how to do this, I might screw it up. Ok. If I screw up then I’ll know better for next time.

Lesson: It won’t be perfect; do it anyway. Once it’s out there in the world you can learn from the feedback. If you finish with time to spare, even better. Your brain will continue to chew on it while you do other things. The brain is cool like that, give it the time and likely it will formulate improvements you couldn’t see while looking too closely. If you can’t finish early, that’s ok too. Better to have a finished product with room for improvement than ten never-finished-because-they-weren’t-perfect products.

Four

This takes a lot of practice. It is one that I have learned, forgotten, relearned, and forgotten again… and again…and again…

Lesson: What’s done is done, relax and get over it (closely linked to the above mentioned “you’ll know better for next time”). This generally works best if you have a time of day when you mentally shift gears and let all the crap go. This could be when you walk in the door in the evening, when you’re in the shower, yoga class, anything that works for you. The important thing is to practice it regularly. Note that I said ‘relax’ then ‘let it go’, not the other way around. I think that what a lot of people don’t realise is that the relaxing comes first. Not after the novel is finished, or the kitchen is renovated, or everyone’s had some time to forget how much I screwed up X, Y, or Z. Relax first and the letting it go part will come naturally.

You may be thinking wait a sec I thought we were talking about procrastination, not meditation. How many times, whilst procrastinating, have you found yourself thinking of your past failures? Or how disappointed you are with how long your current project is taking you and the road bumps you’ve hit with it so far?

That’s what I thought.

I am currently relearning all of these lessons and many more. Feel free to join me.