Not Every Love Story

Mind if I think out loud about love and writing?

A very strange thing is happening this year. Last year, I wrote and published a number of books. This year, all I seem to be able to do is write half-novels because I start something new before they are finished.

Do you know how people will say, “I don’t know what their problem is”, but they actually *do* know what their problem is? It’s just that the real problem is a lot more difficult to face up to. Maybe this is me.

In just two years, I wrote and published a three book series, two novellas, and a novelette. I told myself that if I kept putting new stuff out there (different genres and different lengths) eventually I’d hit a chord with most avid readers. I believed that people reluctant to read one of my books would find another of mine that would be more to their taste. That was my plan and I saw it through. But nothing really changed.

During that process, I learned how to focus my efforts on giving readers what they want. I focused on keeping my stories “between the lines”, not pushing readers too far outside their comfort zones. It’s strange looking back. When Winter Seedlings first came out, I bragged about making grown men cry. I marketed it as a book designed to touch every emotion, twist you up inside until you could never fully untwist from it. Readers would remember it always. These are things I was proud of. But somewhere along the way I became ashamed of this aspect of my writing. I listened when I shouldn’t have to people saying they always need a happy ending. I listened when people said they couldn’t read my books because they were triggering. I listened and I tried to change my writing, to write less triggering subject matter and inject it with more happiness. The last book I published was The Departed, which was supposed to be a tame and sentimental story. Despite my intentions, The Departed was still considered by reviewers to be a good, yet melancholy work.

It feels good to see a book sell or a review written. I tried to think of a story that would sell even better than Winter Seedlings. I tried to think of a story everyone would want to read but would also be important to the world. My definition of success had shifted from creating a work that is important to a couple of people to actually making a decent profit. From a business perspective, this isn’t such a bad focus. Most people can’t afford to lose money on their work, and so why would anyone expect that from authors?

As it turns out, I’m terrible at marketing. Making money is just not something I know how to do. It isn’t why I started writing. It’s depressing to think about it. But we’ll leave that as another subject for another day.

Right now, the thing bugging me is how and what I write. I have started six books in four months. I even have one half-novel with 50,000 words. I abandoned it two months ago. Yesterday I stopped working on a 22,000 work in progress that was going really well and out of the blue I started another new story. This is where I tell myself I don’t know what the problem is, but I’m lying to myself.

This is the lie I tell: I want to write a love story with a happy ending so people will love it and talk about it on social media. I want to write a love story so I can be in a romance writers’ groups and laugh about inside jokes and talk about chocolate and the next hot couple I’m shipping. I want to be able to say “I’m writing about an honestly represented bisexual woman” and have people say “Oh, that is so needed in today’s fiction! I can’t wait to read it!” And then everyone will read it and love it and I can earn back the money I spent for the cover art.

But this is the truth: I can’t write about love like a noun, like people get *it* one day because they deserve *it* and now they have *it* and everything is fantastic. (*it* = love). I don’t want to admit to you that I don’t believe in *it*. That is a very, very sad thing to have to say, but it’s true. I don’t believe there is a love that can be given and held onto like a set of milk glass doves. Love is work. It’s work that might not feel like work, but it definitely is an action that is performed, not an object that is received. Sometimes love takes place even when it hurts, even when there is no joy, even when the end is near.

“But books are supposed to be an escape from all that misery. Happily ever after can happen in a book and it will feel real and that’s why we need these books so much.”

I understand. I do. I agree. Please stop beating me up about it (note: I know you aren’t beating me up, I’m doing it to myself). If you want happily ever afters, there are entire publishing companies dedicated to giving them to you. Want the romance genre to be more diverse? I would love to help you with that. As a matter of fact, I have tried because I know it needs to happen, I know it’s the right thing to do, and I know there are readers waiting.

But I can *not* write it. I can’t. Maybe you can, but I’m throwing my hands up.

Every time I sit down to write romance, I end up writing a thriller. My main character is not looking for love. She’s look for an escape. She isn’t trying to find happiness, she’s trying to find freedom. She isn’t looking for acceptance, she’s looking for inner peace. None of it comes easy. Everything has a price and there are no guarantees.

I don’t want to admit to the truths this might tell about my life. But writing any other tale feels like lying.

I have two stories I am actively writing at the moment. One is abstract and hard to keep from derailing. That one is about the space between life and death. A love story was intended to take place in that in-between world, but I am complicating (sabotaging) it by giving my main character some very persistent flaws. It’s getting ugly.

The other story, the new one, is meant to be about a woman who leaves a mean boyfriend and hits the road with nowhere to go. She was intended to end up forming a very healthy, loving relationship with another woman she meets miles away. I am 2,000 words in and have already changed the mean boyfriend to a literal kidnapper who has held her hostage for over a year. Instead of meeting a nice person after escaping, she has met her captor’s brother who will trick her into being returned to the evil guy. This is what I do to things.

I try to think about what readers want and a tug-of-war happens between one side wanting sweet romance and the other side finding everyday life very dull. My daughter laughed at me, perhaps because of the desperate tone, when I asked if it was over-the-top for me to have my main character searching for loose change in the beat up car she stole and have her end up grabbing a snake.  I explained, “I just don’t want the reader to get bored.”

Seriously. I can *not* write romance. I give up trying. My books are psychological fiction. They are disturbing but in a very real, get inside the pain of a person, kind of way. I never meant to be Stephen King (and I’m still *not* like Stephen King). But my real life has been something you’d be more likely to find in his books than a romance novel. I’m just writing what I know, what it means to love even when it hurts (the hurt part is the center of my comfort zone).

My writing is evolving. I tried to push it to be sweeter and more optimistic. I tried. I’m not trying anymore. I’d rather write a terror of heartbreak with a satisfactory ending than start writing a hundred books I can’t force myself to finish. With the ocean of other authors in the world all trying to write the next big seller, I’m not really needed to pretend to be something I’m not. Someone out there already is what I’ve been trying to be. (May the universe bless them with recognition.) But no one else in the world can be me. I’m owning it. (Universe, please bless me, too.)

 

Expertise

My son is 7 years old. He is autistic, but he has very little interest in understanding what that means. He has more important things to contemplate like Minecraft, board games, and planning skits with his plush toys. One night this week he got out of bed and came downstairs. I was on the couch watching tv in the dark.

“I’m scared,” he said.

“Of what?” I asked.

“I heard a very weird noise and it was coming from outside my window.”

I sighed, “No, that was your dad. He was making weird noises [meowing and squirrel calls] in the bathroom which is right under your bedroom. Come over here and sit with me and he will tuck you back in bed when he gets out.”

“Yay!” He climbed up and got under my blanket to snuggle. Then he spied something on the entertainment center. “Is that a battery charger?”

“Where?”

“There,” he pointed, “It looks like a battery charger beside the Xbox. What is that?”

I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t know, honey. You’ll have to ask your dad. That is his area of expertise, not mine.”

“What is expertise?”

“It’s when you know a lot about something and are really good at it, like Dad knows a lot about computers and technology. What do you think is my area of expertise?”

He thought for a second, “Hmm, I think it is taking care of me.”

“You are right! I am good at taking care of you because I love doing it so much.”

I could not have been happier to know he recognized this part of me as the most important one. Yes, I am an author and spend much of my day writing. But I hope I’m always best known for other things, at least in his eyes.

Pouring

Sometimes I think the only way to write is by pouring one’s heart into the story. I inject not only compassion I feel for people I know, but also very personal experiences from my own life. I pour myself into my work.

Sometimes I feel like readers can recognize these bits of my truth about pain and longing and hope. I feel like they read what I write and deeply connect to the story. These feelings are validating and make me want to continue writing from my heart.

But sometimes I feel like I have poured my heart out and people look at it and think, “What a freakin’ mess that is. Step carefully around that, dear. Don’t get any on your shoes.”

Different days bring different ways of seeing it. I try not to make major decisions about my future based on either of these ideas. But lately I just don’t want to write anymore. So I don’t. I cut fabric into tiny squares thinking I might sew some patchwork dogs to give to special education classes next December. I cut squares because they are precisely 2.25″ x 2.25″ but each varies slightly by pattern. I cut squares because it is repetitive work which requires very little thought. I cut squares because I’ve acquired so much fabric over the last two years and am ashamed to have  left it neglected so long.

I cut squares because I’m avoiding writing.

I don’t think there is a story left to be written by me which is more intimate, important, or heartfelt than Winter Seedlings and Silencer. What could I say more? At the moment, not much. I am still empty from pouring myself out into all that work in such a short period of time. The issues presented in those works were things I had rolled over in my head for ten or twenty years. It was everything poured out at once.

So, what kind of writer am I that I can’t just type up a love story, or a documentary, or a quaint tale of Appalachia? Am I a writer at all if I can’t write daily, even to type up a blog post? Successful authors should be able to do at least that much.

But, I’m not that kind of writer, I guess. I don’t want “it” bad enough. “It” = anything. I just want to be quiet until I see a space to make a difference, whether it be with a patchwork dog or a new novel. I don’t want to pour myself out for nothing, or worse, to be stepped around. There are plenty of other authors to read in the meantime.

Three Day Quote Challenge: Day Two

I was nominated for the Three Day Quote Challenge by A Willful Woman. I don’t often get nominated for such things, and I really appreciate this one. I need a nudge to update my blog and get back into the habit of posting more often. I hope the bloggers I nominate will find this challenge equally helpful.

Rules:

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  • Publish a quote on 3 consecutive days on your blog.  The quote can be one of your own, from a book, movie, or from anyone who inspires you.
  • Nominate 3 more bloggers each day to carry on this endeavor.

Today’s quote is something my middle daughter said when she was six years old:

Love is the heaviest thing.

-Maya Towe

She was always very interested in the illustrations inside picture books, the lines drawn thick and thin, shapes, the marks created to show movement. When she told me “Love is the heaviest thing”, she was referring to the shape of a heart, how it is heavy on top and seeps down into its point as if the weight of it can not be held by the two sides of the heart meant to hold it.

But, of course, the quote has many meanings. Love is very heavy. It’s more difficult to love than be indifferent, and even more difficult than hating someone. As for being loved, it keeps us grounded. When someone loves us, truly, we have a responsibility to care for ourselves, too. And sometimes we don’t want that responsibility.

My kids, through the years, have given me lots to think about. The way they see the world has broadened my own views. Loving them sometimes feels like walking with weights on my wrists and ankles, but I am so much stronger now because of them.

I don’t know who to nominate today. If anyone wants this spot, let me know and I’ll add a link to your blog and update this post. Anyone feeling particularly sentimental about a favorite quote or three?

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

What You Owe Me

Sycamore Seed in Child's HandYou owe me
Nothing.

You do not even owe me understanding
That I mean this.

You owe me
Nothing.

How can I believe you
If you are indebted to me?

How can I trust your words
If you are obligated to say them?

How can I feel
Close to you,
If you owe me
Performances?

The world is yours.
Your thoughts are yours.
I will not reach in
To you,
Or ask you to reach in
For me.

When you do so freely,
That is love,
Because I know
You know

We owe each other
Nothing.

Books by Julie Roberts Towe

My Mom Wants to Nickname You and Other Facts

At the end of yesterday’s depressing blog post about the publishing industry (warning: it contains deep sadness and sarcasm), I said I would make my next post about rainbows and unicorns. Well, this post is about something even better: My mother.

Here we are in 1973 in east Tennessee.

JulieandCarol

You will be hearing a lot about my mother in the coming year. She and I are writing a novel together. Much of it will be based on her childhood years after her mother died. I can not wait to get started on this project with her. Actually, she is the creative drive behind it and I am just the one to make it happen technically. My mom has macular degeneration (which came on quickly in 2012 making her legally blind, though she still has some eyesight), and arthritis in her hands which makes typing difficult.

But today, because it is Mother’s Day, I am making a top ten list of things she has done to make me a better person.

1. Mom never judged us or our friends for the clothes we wore, the crazy hair styles, tattoos, piercings, or cleanliness. Mom treated all our friends the same whether they were rich or homeless. She would invite them in and ask if they’d like a glass of tea. Then she would begin telling them stories to put them at ease and make them comfortable to share their own. But she never pried.

2. Mom took us for walks along our dead end road. We carried plastic bags for picking up aluminum cans. We didn’t need the money from recycling. It was just something fun to do, like a roadside Easter Egg hunt. But if we were on certain roads we were not allowed to pick up cans because it was the Potter man’s territory. He needed the money from recycling, so we didn’t take his cans. As a matter of fact, if we were driving down a road where he frequently looked for cans and we had some in the car, Mom would tell us to “toss them out for the Potter man”. This backfired the year my little brother tossed a can out the school bus window believing he was doing something kind. He ended up being suspended from riding the bus for three weeks.

3. Mom was terrible with directions and she wasn’t that great at driving in general, at least not when we were really young. But she decided now and then to take us on vacation by herself. My two brothers and I would climb in the car and she would drive us toward Myrtle Beach with the assumption that one way or another she would find it. Every time we would reach Florence, SC she would point at a car and say, “I bet they’re going where we’re going. I’ll follow them.” And somehow we made it.

4. She used big words we seldom heard anyone else use. She would ask if we knew what the words meant. If we didn’t, she would have us look it up in the dictionary. Mom always wanted to be a writer and has kept journals since the mid-80s. She enjoyed telling us true stories, rumors from her childhood, and superstitions. When I outgrew being read the Berenstain Bears books, Mom and I would read Woman’s World magazine together, take the quizzes, and read each other’s horoscope. She wrote short essays for similar magazines and had a few printed in the sections designated for reader submissions. Words made stories and stories made us live forever.

5. Cake. My mother loves to make cake. When she was a little girl she would have her little brother steal their grandpa’s chicken eggs so she could bake a cake for them. She always had a cake made for Sunday dinner. Before her macular degeneration forced her to retire from her job as a rural mail carrier, she would make cakes for all the other carrier’s birthdays. To her, cake is what you give people to make them happy and there can never be too much happiness.

6. Mom did not just deliver mail to her customers. She listened to their stories, worried about their problems, looked in on them, set them up on dates, and fed their animals if they couldn’t. One elderly woman called her at 6:00 in the morning to ask if mom could please bring her some toilet paper as she came by on the mail route. You may wonder how the woman got my mom’s cell phone number. Well, mom gave it to out to certain customers who might need her. My mom stopped and bought toilet paper and took it to the woman.  She is not afraid to be needed.

7. Thanksgiving is a time for family. Christmas often revolves around the children, but Thanksgiving revolves around the mothers and fathers, grandparents, and cousins. It can be a very difficult holiday for people who have no family. Mom never hesitated to invite people from her mail route or friends of ours who were alone to come share food with us. Not everyone took her up on it, but some did. When there is a stranger sitting at your Thanksgiving table, you see your family through their eyes. It was a gift to be able to do that.

8. Mom nicknames everyone, especially if she loves you and maybe if she doesn’t care much for you. It may be as simple as adding “Lou” to the end of your first name. Her children were “Number 1 son”, “Little Girl”, and “Woody”. Co-workers were Wild Child, Hollywood, Mary-Mary, and others I have forgotten. Sometimes she would use the person’s real first and middle names or create a new middle name. With pets, it went quite overboard. My miniature dachshund, Dorothy, had a plethora of names. Dorothy was Dorothy Diane, Pidy-Tah, Pidy, Pie, and Tah. She called dad, “Chum” and every now and then when I was very little she would say “Chump” under her breath and laugh. Her brothers were Ronald-A, Donald William, Douger, and Rinky-Dink. Whoever you were in all the rest of the world did not matter. Mom saw you as you were to her, and that needed a name all its own. (She may have picked this habit up from her Daddy.)

9. When I was between the ages of 9 and 13, mom would buy things for me and say Dad bought them. I believed Dad had actually bought me an Olivia Newton John record and my very first eyeshadow until many years later. When she told me that she, not Dad, had bought those things and had all but forgotten ever telling me they were from Dad, I was surprised and confused. But looking back on it I remembered how I felt at those times, as if the gifts were proof he really did care about me. She was not interested in being a favorite parent. She really wanted us to have a good relationship with Dad, too. Part of her efforts in bringing that about was to buy me gifts “from Dad”.

10. Mom is a peace keeper, sometimes a peace maker. She calls people Sir and Ma’am. She apologizes when people are upset, even if they are upset at her for things she did not do. We marvel at people who do these things. But as her child, especially as IBooks became her grown child, it is hard to watch. I was not born with her temperament. Justice before peace was my motto. It was difficult to see her hurt by people and know all she wanted was to move on in peace when my entire being demanded I seek justice for her. As an adult I have been known to confront people who have hurt her. I do it in private and shame them mercilessly for hurting her. I leave them with, “All she wants is to be left in peace. If you tell her I talked to you it will just upset her more than you already have, so don’t mention that I came to you.” And because everyone knows my mom is, in fact, a selfless and kind person who does not deserve to be hurt, they would agree not to say anything.

I did not turn out to be a carbon copy of my mother. But everything she is has made me a better person than I could have ever been without her. Growing up knowing my mother had lost her mother to breast cancer when my mom was only 7 years old, I valued her in a way some kids may never think about. I know I am lucky and I never take her for granted.

Hate, Forgiveness, and Self-Control

My mom would often tell us, “You don’t hate anything.” Hate was not allowed in our house.

But when my uncle would visit, he would tell us elaborate stories from their childhood, finishing with, “I hate that woman/man.”

Mom would say, “Now, now. You don’t hate anyone.”

My Uncle responded, “Hell yes I do hate them, and you should, too!”

I tend to be more like Mom. I’m not comfortable with hate. I think it can eat away at the heart of the person holding it, and does nothing to change those we feel it toward. There are plenty of people I have reason to dislike, some of them are hopelessly flawed and unrepentant. But, I can’t think of anyone I hate in a forever kind of way.

Forgiveness is a different issue. Despite hating no one, I seldom forgive the most harmful people. They simply don’t deserve it, having never asked for it, or even acknowledged the harm they caused. Some people say we should forgive those who have hurt us so we can move on, but I’ve moved on quite well. Forgiveness is not the key to happiness. The assertion that we are going to be carrying around the weight of another person’s transgressions unless we forgive the person who hurt us is a lie.

As a perfect example, nearly a decade after leaving an abusive relationship, I called the guy. I wanted to hear him apologize. I scheduled a meeting in a park. We sat in my car. I asked him why he had physically hurt me so many times. I listed all the atrocities he had committed. He listened, then laughed. He said, “You used to be such a damn crybaby.” And then he leaned over and kissed me. What a prick.

Forgiveness? I’ll pass. But, I don’t hate him. I don’t have room in my life for it. There are occasions when I wish there was justice because I love it when people get what they deserve. But, it’s important for me to feel in control, so I try not to brood over things I can do little about.

Feelings of great dislike do arise, but they are usually short-lived. They usually happen on social media, or when one of my kids is hurt by someone, or someone messes with my mom. I am capable of passionately, momentarily, hating. But if it lasts more than a couple of weeks, I know it’s time to either do something or let it go.

Just for fun, I’m going to tell you about some things I hate right now, in the momentary, yet passionate sense.

I hate the t.v. show The Slap. I hate it because there are no likeable characters. They are all so stereotypical that I think the creators wanted the audience to hate them. That must have been the entire premiss: “Let’s create a show to fuel discord by having non-realistic characters as stereotypes people already love to hate.” And it works. I looked at feedback on twitter. Lots of people hating the characters, no one noticing it was a set up. Lots of people arguing about the show as if it reflects any semblance of reality, and it doesn’t.

I hate the song Jealous by Nick Jonas. My kids know I hate it because every time it comes on, I switch the channel while saying, “I hate that song, I hate that song, I hate that song.” And then I explain to them, every time, “He has no right to act hellish just because he’s jealous. He doesn’t own her. He should either be with her or not. There’s no excuse for being a jerk.” Repeat: No one has a right to be hellish. (Are you listening, Nick Jonas?)

I hate that girl… no, correction, I hate WHEN that girl on twitter mocked Quentin Alexander’s appearance on twitter while he sang I Put a Spell on You by Screamin Jay Hawkins. The girl posted a pic of Quentin and asked something to the gist of “What the hell is on my tv screen?” I’ve never before come so close to calling someone an asshole on social media. I know lots of people just like her. They distract from their own flaws by creating a constant barrage of insults toward others, mostly those perceived as underdogs. I could rant all day about how much I hated that girl at that moment, and how actions like hers almost always set me off. But I won’t. I’ll just share Quentin’s performance because it was rich with emotion, beautiful and smart, and everything that girl isn’t.

So, I was going to list more things I have hated this week, but that video just derailed me into a happy zone. That’s okay. I’m not trying to bring everybody up onto the hate wagon.

Sometimes people are just not worth the price of hating them. It’s not that they don’t deserve the hate. It’s not that letting go of your hate for them means you forgive them. It just means that getting them out of your circle so you can heal means not having to think about them at all. They don’t deserve the power we give to villains. They deserve to be sad and pathetic nobodies.