And/Both

I’m thrilled to announce that my (er, humorous?) short essay on balancing parenthood and creative endeavor appears in the Fall 2017 issue of And/Both magazine.

And/Both is a new art and literature publication based out of my former home state of Kansas, making this a double honor.

The debut issue comes out in November, and pre-orders are available now at http://andbothmagazine.bigcartel.com.

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For more information, visit http://www.andbothmag.com or http://www.facebook.com/andbothmag.

 

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Groundwork

I have no innate sense of direction. When tasked with an important appointment in unfamiliar territory, I like to make a preliminary visit to my destination—and ideally, I like to walk around. Often such a scenario is simply not feasible. Time, distance, and convenience limit such a luxury. But when it is possible and I take the opportunity, much of my new-situation anxiety falls away. Walking provides a means to get a feel for a place at ground level. Walking is slow: it provides the details. Walking is meditative: it allows the mind to make connections to what the senses perceive.

I’ve recently realized an equivalent tendency in the realm of my writing. I began a new story several months ago in the form of feature-length screenplay. As I struggled and struggled—with the outline, the direction, the theme, the beats—as I set it aside repeatedly in exchange for shorter, swiftly-completed writing gratifications—I wondered. Maybe I’m just not up to the task? Maybe the idea is bad? Maybe both.

However, I was loath to give up on it entirely. I sorely miss working on a long storyline. I spent recent years—years—wrestling with a sprawling, epic novel, the end of which I simply could not reach. Although at times immensely frustrating, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I loved working on it despite the complexity.

But ultimately the novel became an exercise in futility: I was so deep in the weeds, so low to the ground, that I couldn’t keep the story moving in any one direction. I wanted to reach a worthwhile destination, but I was lost.

In school last year, I used that novel’s story as the subject of a screenwriting project. I was forced to rise above the details and simplify both my narrative and my thinking. I had to focus on basic plot points, singular character motivations, and essential themes. From the bird’s-eye vantage point of a screenplay beat sheet, the story’s destination came into view at last. The finished product isn’t perfect, but for now, I’m satisfied: that story exists. It has officially been told. I can make clean break and step away.

And I need to step away. The necessary work to finish a major writing project is more laborious sweat than creative spark. Right now, I don’t want sweaty labor to be the bulk of my creative life. I’m yearning for that early-stage spark. I want to regain that sense of story-passion. That sense of fun.

With this new story idea proving troublesome, I considered the wisdom of giving up. It seemed like a dead end. Yet still it lingered in the back of my mind….

And so it lingers today. Scenes appear in my imagination unbidden. Characters show up in insomniac hours to make conversation, and to make their pleas. Exhausted, I acquiesce. Fine, I’m listening.

Maybe they’re right.

Perhaps this new story does hold potential, considering my subconscious is so insistent (or is it my sanity fraying at last?). Maybe it is my next chance to reclaim that endurance-enabling creative passion. But to find out—to get there—I must feel the story, sink into it. I need to set aside the outline for a while, put away the beat sheet, stop overthinking the possible themes.

I need to walk through it at ground level.

I must slow down, go deep and detailed, get lost inside the minds of the characters, immerse myself awhile in the new imagined world. Direction and destination aren’t important during this preliminary amble. The goal is to sense-perceive the story in its incipiency.

Several days ago, I fired up Scrivener for the first time in a long while. I saved a novel template. I started writing prose: a purple, long-winded, overly-detailed account of my opening scene, complete with the character’s thoughts and feelings—what he saw, smelled, heard, tasted.

It was fun.

Each successive morning since then, I’ve awakened early and excited to return to that world, to squeeze in a tiny bit of writing time before morning’s workaday busyness sets in. If this excitement keeps up, and with the help of a parallel script-in-progress, I think I can navigate to the narrative’s end (eventually, anyway—as the crazy-working-mom schedule allows). Thanks to an awesome screenwriting instructor and gracious feedback from my writer’s group, I know much more about storytelling now than I did a few years ago. I hopefully have the skills now to alternate groundwork for a bird’s-eye view of the plot when it’s necessary to gain perspective.

But for me, it’s groundwork that fuels initial passion for a story. In the past, the energy generated by groundwork was what sustained me through the long trip of telling a tale—and it ultimately propelled my writing to its completion.

I hope that will be true of this story too.

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House Show (Story Excerpt No. 6)

 

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In a room full of strangers, I’m alone. The surface of a red plastic cup flexes under pressure from my fingers, and beer inside sloshes subtly. I gauge my surroundings: student-ghetto kitchen, my back to the sink, sundry Goodwill pots and pans in the dry rack. I look around at the people in my vicinity, briefly tune in on peripheral coversations. I consider interrupting someone, introducing myself, maybe asking for directions to the restroom—something. But upon my chest presses the invisible, awkwardly-splayed hand of social anxiety. Nah, says the hand’s master, you’d better just stay put.

A pod of savvy conversationalists migrates toward the living room, and as they pass, I hear murmurs of “They’re about to start.” Excitement subsumes anxiety. Curiosity pushes the invisible hand aside. I move through the kitchen as if through a rite of passage, my sneakers sticking to the floor in spots. I grasp my beer cup like a talisman, red for luck.

Under the threshold’s arch, I stand at the edge of a crowd smooshed into a room-shaped mass. Generally everyone faces the fireplace wall, where a band has finished setting up within the tiny space allotted. Among layers of human shapes between me and the cold fireplace, I discern musicians strapped with guitars.

I weave through the crowd, navigating among erratically-gesticulating bodies, protecting my beer cup. I take root in front of the bass cabinet. Okay, it’s not ideal in terms of bleeding ears. But just behind the cabinet stands a set of sliding patio doors: my emergency escape route, beloved by the panic-prone in a room at max capacity.

The band tunes and warms. Strings strum discordantly, drums snare-snap and thump. More people crowd in, streaming from the front porch and other areas of the house, and soon the living room is packed with bodies. The kitchen holds the overflow, and people have closed me in on all sides. My chest tightens. But I work to I keep calm, keep my gaze trained on the patio doors, beyond which the darkness of the summer night spreads quiet, open, and empty. Meanwhile, within these walls, the humid air is alive with mingled scents—sweat, smoke, incense, marijuana, beer. My head spins as I breathe it all in.

Well, it could be worse.… I sip beer and concentrate on the band. The two burly dudes and petite girl in the band are drenched in sweat and cramped among their own equipment. They glance around at each other, then out at the room. The guitarist nods with finality, stares down at his hands, rocks on his feet in rhythm. The girl lowers her head, and long hair covers her eyes as she positions her bass guitar expectantly. The drummer lifts his sticks and clicks in time—one, two, three, four—

The room transforms. A wall of sound from the speakers electrifies the hot, damp human flesh and hair around me. Pummeling percussion draws us all in, mainlining us with a common pulse, a cyclical life-force-electrical lift and shudder. People begin to move: heads thrown forward and back, arms crowd-risen and topped by thrusting fists and devil’s-horns. Torsos rock rhythmically in place—though unable to gain additional space in the crowd, they’re unwilling to be still. Cannot be still. Guitar chords emphasize the overwhelming beat with spine-thrilling harmonics. The bass guitar’s colossal sound shudders through my body, vibrations entering through my feet and shoulders. Each note grabs and shakes my insides: overpowering, inexorable, utterly possessing.

It’s all so loud, I can’t hear myself breathe. Can’t hear myself think. I sink into the music, seep into it, close my eyes, clasp the red cup to my heart. Mathy hardcore mixed with dissonant metal riffs—this is not a style I listen to, or even normally like. But the unfamiliarity of the music only facilitates its total conquest. The dual song-screams of the guitarists resonate with primordial urgency. All thoughts of past and future fade, clobbered back into the subconscious’ dark corners, defeated by the animal present—destroyed by the percussive and clamorous here-and-now, as insisted upon by every fiber in my being, and by all joy of matter in the room….

Songs melt into one another, vaguely punctuated by passages of wailing feedback and cries from the crowd. Or is it all one eternal song? Time passes. Time morphs. Time ceases to mean anything more than the rhythm surrounding me. That rhythm transforms—speeds up, slows down, counts odd syncopations, ceases for brief passages of silence that carry their own crucial beat. Feedback screams and sustains. Chords change, melodies manipulate, sounds invoke emotions like demons from the heart. Sweat pours from the faces and arms of the musicians in front of me, but their concentration is uninhibited. The energy with which they have charged the room cycles back upon them, an electric loop. Empowered, they continue to play with violence and emotion despite the heat and the crowd. Invigorated, the crowd continues to thrive and pulse and writhe in time.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the noise screeches to a halt. Mid-song, a guitar string springs from its formerly taut and tortured position on the instrument. It wavers in the air desperately at the tuning end of the fretboard, as if struggling to free itself. The guitarist looks to his bandmates questioningly—should he change the string, or abort the mission? The drummer shakes his head and holds one stick up, sweat flying from his brow and running into his eyes. At this weary gesture, the other band members raise their hands in farewell, then yank the instrument cords from their amplifiers.

People around me shove and shout and scream for more. Vitalized, I yell too, hands raised. But it’s no use: the band is finished. The crowd continues to fester and swoon with the last vestiges of shared energy.

Anxiety dispelled, I gaze at the teeming horde around me now with newfound affection. I finish the rest of my beer, warm and flat. The red cup is empty and my thirst is slaked.

The Inexhaustible Well

Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky houses one of the most poignant literary passages I’ve ever had the pleasure to read:

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Ruminating on this passage recently shaped a notion in my mind. The presumption of the “inexhaustible well” of life’s potential is a subliminal, self-preserving instinct. It’s a mindset of blissful privilege. It protects against panic-triggering awareness of one’s own vulnerability.

Behind any instinct, nature’s intent is rooted in survival. Certainly this seems a benevolent cause. But human survival instinct takes on many mitigated and illusive forms.

In America since its beginning, struggles for rights and resources have shaped the social landscape. Other nations have long known such struggles. Our mutual instincts regularly pit us against each other in a battle for resources. Instinct is enacted through our self-created social constructs: battle field, courtroom, corporate boardroom, street rally, online forum. Words themselves become actions in the effort toward instinct’s goal, whether it be a vicious tweet gone viral — or gentle words spoken quietly by a parent to a child. So instinct also brings us together: through love, collaboration, education, mutual protection.

In recent months, I’ve returned to favorite artistic, philosophical, and literary comforts with the hope of finding answers to questions that trouble me: about the future awaiting my children; about the changing face of social deviance and what it means to dissent; about the paradox of maintaining a compassionate worldview in a world where compassionate acts are increasingly marginalized.

Bowles’ concept of a perceived inexhaustible well lends poetry to a new perspective I strive to establish. My lifelong privilege has been to assume civil rights, social compassion, and humanitarian outreach are ingrained in our society — often challenged, never perfect, but ultimately taken for granted.

Yet I’ve recently come to understand that the well from which these things flow is not ethereal or passively divine. We comprise this well: each of us, together. Our actions, our words, our very thoughts. This particular well is only as inexhaustible as our hearts.

Tense Beat

Around this time last year, in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, my 2016 writing goal seemed simple enough: start an online blog.  I hoped the self-imposed monthly deadline to write something (anything!) for Punctuated Equilibria would provide enough pressure to keep me writing regularly. I presumed the benefits would include both good practice and mental exercise. Furthermore, the public nature of blog writing seemed a means to gain confidence with the concept of “putting it out there.” A means to a thicker skin. Perhaps to a braver self.

Okay, okay. Neither brave nor thick-skinned enough yet to enable comments. But I digress.

Committing to this blog all year forced me into a deeper-thinking mode on a routine basis. Do you sometimes get the sense that “deep thinking” has lost its cultural value lately? Is there a Boromir meme for “One does not simply think things through”? I’m the first to admit, I could stand to develop better habits of mind. I believe Punctuated Equilibria has been helpful to that end. Of course, one could further debate the dubious cultural value of overanalyzing topics like dog bites and goth zines. Still, good mental habits develop from the exercise of analyzing a given topic—appreciating multiple perspectives, considering the devil in the details, and drawing analogous connections to invoke a message. Critical thinking expands awareness and increases understanding.

Ironically, sometimes the awareness is that one doesn’t totally understand. But that’s part of the work of thinking: there’s a reason it’s easier just to not.

Overall, writing here regularly for the past several months has been gratifying. Some entries stole many hours away from sleep and weekends; I dutifully traded the time. I consider writing a vocation. And for what that’s worth, keeping a blog has been an important experiment with a contemporary forum for personal writing.

As 2017 looms, however, my next New Year’s writing goal weighs heavily on my mind. Last year’s screenplay competition deadlines came and went. For all my revising and story-convention-contemplating and believable-character-flaw-development and all-around big talk—I still haven’t deemed my scripts ready to participate.

I need to cut the cord on one of these stories and, well… put it out there.

The artistic balance to strike: between putting-best-foot-forward and perfectionistic-control-freak-ism. Can I muster enough insight to know when to stop revising, say “good enough,” and move on? Sure I can, given all the time in the world. But in lieu of that, even better: give myself a 2017 writing goal.

With only so many available hours each week to devote, and with only so much mental energy to expend, I’m re-committing all my writing time toward the new goal of submitting a script to a competition next year.This blog will go silent for a while—silent as I focus on the writing I consider closest to my heart these days. Silent, certainly until I upload something to Withoutabox and rightfully toast a completed goal.

Maybe it’ll be March? Okay. Maybe October.

Best wishes to you with the New Year,

Lara

Overwhelming Questions

Overwhelming questions:

From a standpoint of compassion, from a position of immense privilege, what actions can I take to protect the vulnerable in my community?

How does one cultivate compassion while remaining vigilant and active in the fight against injustice?

 

Current steps:

Gathering information. Vetting veracity. Processing emotions.

Working toward answers to these questions.

 

In the meantime, I implore anyone reading this:

Please actively engage in street-level kindness and face-to-face compassion.

I’ll do it too.

Finite

time

When I was a kid, time seemed infinite. In those dreamlike years before junior high’s end-of-innocence reckoning, summer breaks were an annual stint of freedom: three full months of 70s-era-childhood, running free range in a small town. Meanwhile, each elementary school year endured eternally; graduation to the next grade was a personal evolution.

I had no concept of the finite back then. Time was a vast ocean. I floated, buoyed and boundless. I recognize a similar mental paradigm in my own kids’ assessment of time, change, and future plans. Yes, they are impatient, and often bored as children are prone to be—things consistently take “forever,” and rewards delayed in any way will “never” happen. Yet these very words themselves belie childhood’s core naivete: sweet oblivion to the gristly existential meat of what forever and never really mean.

Through later childhood, this sense of floating in time gave way to a new mental paradigm: movement through time. Forward trajectory. The precise analogy varies with the environment of the era. A sense of transformative growth accompanied new creative pursuits and many years in school: upwards, outwards. Caterpillar to butterfly. Seed to tree. Tendrils of a vine, expanding in many directions, intertwining and combining with its environment to climb higher.

During a dark period of change in my late twenties, time’s forward-movement analogy best befit a tremulous walk along a tightrope in the dark. Only my most immediate steps were illuminated, and I had no confidence in my final destination. One wrong move seemed to threaten disaster. In such anxious times, excitement for the future was exchanged for dread and uncertainty.

In the earliest years of new parenthood, time flowed like a powerful river (please forgive the cliché). Control was surrendered to new-infant chaos—which was, in truth and retrospect, not chaotic at all, but rather a discernible pattern of feeding, sleeping, and growing. These were sweet little cycle-patterns of eddies and swirls, all moving together in the general direction of time’s rushing river. Oh, man. Time’s rush is everything with a baby in the house. Exhilarating. Exhausting. There were moments when I felt in harmony at last, flowing with All Time. There were also moments I felt myself drowning, crushed by the rush, unable to cope.

The concept of time’s finiteness has loomed dark and imminent lately. Just in the past year, my mental paradigm began to transform again, although I struggle as yet to identify the best analogy. What triggered this change? Perhaps returning to school last year—being on campus again, participating in a creative classroom setting. It was a pleasant if bittersweet re-experiencing of a youthful tradition. Or perhaps it was the onset of new, degenerate effects of age, beyond the occasional grey hair and laugh line. I hear it just gets better….

In anticipation of my forty-fourth birthday, I’ll call this new looming finiteness a midlife crisis of mind. Maybe a midlife epiphany. In all recent considerations of time, awareness of the finite has lent a new sense of exhilaration—if alongside a twinge of morbidity. It has invoked a life-affirming restlessness—or maybe it’s panic, dulled by midlife exhaustion. Time’s running out! Only forty-four more years to go! But I’ll still be in bed by ten.

In all recent considerations of time, the sense of time as finite has, for better or worse, replaced previous paradigmatic concerns. It has replaced worry over the crushing river’s rush. Replaced dread over the trembling tightrope in darkness. In the first mistaken analogy, the river rushes on forever. In the second mistake, the tightrope never ends.

Sometimes it seems like life is taking forever. But listen up, kids. It isn’t.

Time is running out, and it is never guaranteed.