Life in a Dry Lakebed

The U.S. Deep South is known for heat, humidity, and the occasional hurricane. But two years ago, we were in the midst of a drought. If we weren’t exactly hoping for a hurricane, we would have welcomed a tropical storm.

It was early fall, and after weeks of little to no rain, the oak trees wilted. The leaves faded to a greenish-beige, like day-old avocado flesh.

The soil turned sandy in some places and hard as terra cotta in others. The pastures were parched, and what grass was left was brown and crunchy underfoot.

After several more weeks of dry weather, our lake receded. The water retreated from the maple trees lining the shore, revealing more and more of the lake floor. Bream, bass and mud turtles crammed into an ever-shrinking stagnant pool. The ground cracked into muddy puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit together.

dry lake bed

It was about this time that our twenty-odd Katahdin sheep broke through the fence, wandered into the yard, and ate my potted red geraniums — retaliation for confining them to their pasture.

Over the next few days, we got into a pattern: they would escape through the fence, my husband and I would lure them back with a bucket of sweet corn. Again and again.

Giving In

Eventually, they wore us down; we knew we were beat. They needed more vegetation than their small pasture could provide, so we closed our front gate and let them roam over the whole fifty acres. And though I resented the loss of my flowers and the pebble-size droppings sprinkled over the yard (walking was tricky), the sheep were quite happy with this arrangement.

They ranged far into the woods during the day, and at night, they’d camp in the front yard close to the house. We’d peer out our bedroom window and watch them, frozen in place, sleeping on their feet. Or more eerie still, the ghostly figures would drift across the lawn in the darkness, their emerald eyes glowing.

The Wasteland

As the drought persisted, I’d walk past the dying lake on my way to the mailbox and bemoan the water loss.

I missed the reflection of the trees and clouds on the mirrored surface. I missed the gray heron and the snowy egrets fishing in the shallows. The not-so-attractive Muscovy ducks and loons. They’d all left for deeper waters.

The lake bottom was an ugly wasteland that smelled of rot.

But sometimes the death of one thing gives life to another. And just when you’ve filled your empty cup with cynicism, a dry lakebed surprises you.

Hope Springs

At first, the dirt took on a mossy hue. Then vegetation sprouted from the mud which, over the next few days, grew tall and thick.

Glossy, lush grass. The flock feasted on it, spending long days in the lakebed, until their bellies grew big and round and they were satisfied.

sheep eating in dry lake bed

When winter came, the rains returned and replenished the lake. The drought ended, but so did our days as sheep farmers. After years of battling predators, especially coyotes, we were losing the war.

Quite unexpectedly but providentially, an elderly man in overalls knocked on our door one afternoon. He’d seen the sheep from the highway and wondered if we would sell them.

Yes, we said reluctantly.

This Baptist preacher said he knew a lot about raising sheep. I suspect he knew something about shepherding humans, too. In the end, no money changed hands. We gave them away.

He called not too long ago. “I didn’t want you to worry,” he said. “The sheep are thriving.”

As sad as I was to give them up, his call reassured me. They’re in a better place now. A safer place, with a good shepherd, lots of fresh grass and, hopefully, a lake of their own.

cropped-single-white-bird-on-lake.jpg

 

 

Advertisements

Why You Should Compare Yourself to Others

When Comparison Hurts

This morning I read a post from a fellow blogger. It was succinct, engrossing, fairly long, and beautiful. I thought about it while struggling to write this post.

My thoughts don’t flow like this other author. His sentences are pithier, his images more vivid. He writes from the heart and pulls the reader in with emotional impact. And he does it quickly. He couldn’t have labored over the piece for days because it contains recent information. I picture him at his laptop, fingers flying, never looking up until the entire post is finished and published ten minutes later. And it’s brilliant.

This hurts a little. Why can’t I do that? I am exceedingly, excruciatingly, agonizingly slow.

Some will say, Don’t compare yourself to others. I know they mean well. And I get it: it’s hard to be grateful for your ’96 Dodge when your colleague drives a new Jaguar. And that two-bedroom apartment doesn’t seem as spiffy after you visit your relative’s mountainside mansion with the dolphin-shaped pool, guest house, and scenic view.

It’s hard to be proud of your own accomplishments when they seem

small

compared to others’.

But comparison isn’t the problem. Coveting is. And that’s a response I can choose to indulge or not.

Picture1
Only it’s not. COVETING is the thief of joy.

 

Comparison is Not a Thief — It’s a Teacher

Ira Glass, producer and host of “This American Life,” expressed the struggles of creative people in a video a few years ago, and an excerpt of his talk shows up periodically on writing sites. He offers encouragement to writers whose work doesn’t live up to their aspirations. (He was speaking off the cuff, if this transcription seems jerky. Listen to it in his voice here.)

“Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me…we get into it because we have good taste. But…THERE’S A GAP, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…It’s trying to be good, but it’s not quit that good. But your TASTE, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is still good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…A lot of people never get past that phase. And a lot of people at that point, they QUIT. And the thing I would like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of YEARS where they had really good taste, and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short

The most important possible thing you could do is DO A LOT OF WORK. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week or every month, you know you’re going to finish the story. BECAUSE IT’S ONLY BY ACTUALLY GOING THROUGH A VOLUME OF WORK THAT YOU ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO CATCH UP AND CLOSE THAT GAP. AND THE WORK YOU’RE MAKING WILL BE AS GOOD AS YOUR AMBITIONS.”

And this is why comparison is a good thing, because it forms our taste. When I read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, it raises my standard. It improves my taste. And if I will analyze his exquisite writing, I may see the mechanism behind his lyrical prose and learn how to lift my own writing to new heights.

If I can humble myself and shun covetous self-pity when I read better authors, I will make progress. 

Maybe sometimes what we need is MORE comparison, not less.

 

 

 

When an Editor Is a Bad Fit

I wrote a novel. It was technically my second — I completed my first novel for NaNoWriMo in 2013. But I hid it away, and I have no regrets on that score. It was truly terrible.

I spent three months on the first draft of my second story. This was THE story I wanted to tell, the one that came from deep down. It gushed out of me like a geyser in the space of three months. Then I rewrote

2055866250_c702dcd5e6_m
Image by Mitchell Joyce via Flickr

it three times over the next five years.

During those years, I read a million writing books and took a course on novel structure. I submitted chapters to Critique Circle – a great place to learn from other writers and readers.

I polished the story as much as I could, but I needed expert advice to mold it into a masterpiece worthy of the greats: Austen, Bronte, Dickens. Well, at least to make it good enough to self-publish.

To reach my goal, I hired a highly recommended editor (who shall remain nameless) and sent her the first five chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t expect coddling. I expected criticism. How else could I improve the story? I wanted criticism.

I got it. Plenty of it. On every page. As I read through her sometimes blunt comments on the first couple of chapters, I saw many errors I had missed. She pointed out other elements I had failed to develop. But she was spot-on, and I knew I was getting my money’s worth. I was enthusiastic about revising…

Until I got to her comments on the fifth chapter in which I introduced another prominent character, the Love Interest.

In a nutshell, the editor told me not to “waste my time” on the novel because this character was fatally flawed.

I am, admittedly, sensitive. If, like me, you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve – or if you insert your heart into your story — BEWARE. Less-than-gentle (yes, harsh) criticism can cause acute myocardial infarction.

I have also been known for taking things too personally. But in this case, it felt personal. You see, anxiety and I are old friends, and the character in question suffered with an anxiety disorder. The editor couldn’t believe that someone with severe anxiety could also be high-functioning and rational in other respects. Ouch!

I asked many questions about her conclusion and explained the character arc — her growth from fear and solitude to strength and victory.

The editor stood her ground.

It’s been a year, and I haven’t had the fortitude to delve back into my novel since I received feedback. At the same time, I can’t get the story out of my system. It haunts me. Family and friends have encouraged me to send the chapters to a different editor. Maybe I will.

Over the past few years I’ve submitted short stories to four other editors. Each offered words of instruction and encouragement while not sparing the red marks in my manuscripts. They made my stories better without crushing my spirit. They were worth every penny.

Hopefully, my experience will help someone else. So here are a few lessons I’ve learned:

1) Don’t wait FIVE YEARS before you get professional advice on your story. A good editor will catch developmental weaknesses that will save you time in the long run. And everyone needs an editor because everyone has blind spots. Even editors need editors. You may not agree with everything they recommend, but they will catch mistakes you missed.

2) If you don’t gel with one editor, hire another. You are paying them to HELP you, not tear you down. Some people will say it’s their job to tell you the cold hard truth, but the WAY they tell it can encourage or discourage, inspire or demoralize. Find a professional who gives it to you straight in a constructive way.

3) If you feel strongly about a story, don’t allow ONE person’s opinion to hold you back. I’m still learning this lesson.

Perhaps this should be number four: if you can’t work with one editor, don’t wait a whole year before you find another. Maybe it’s time to dig through the box by my easy chair and pull out that manuscript…

 

 

The Myth of Perfection

I read a wonderful little book by Kristine Kathryn Rusch titled The Pursuit of Perfection and How It Harms Writers.

She says, “I spend most of my time in the craft workshops that I teach repairing damage done years, sometimes decades, earlier. That damage isn’t deliberately malicious. It comes from the assumption that perfect stories not only exist, but can be revised into existence.”

Hmm. I’m guilty of this faulty thinking — that if I revise a short story one more time, I’ll remove any weak dialogue or plot elements. My characters will shine with authenticity. My grammar and punctuation will be stellar without a comma out of place. The story will be practically perfect in every way.

I’m guilty of not showing anyone my manuscript (or blog post) because it might contain errors, those little gremlins that lurk unseen until you click “Publish.”

I’m guilty of not finishing a piece (or worse, not starting at all) because I’m afraid I can’t get it “right.” I become paralyzed by the fear of failure.

Of course my writing is far from perfect. It will always contain errors. It could always be better.

Here’s Rusch again:

When you strive for perfection in your writing, you’re dooming yourself to perpetual failure.”

Producing an error-free story isn’t the goal.

Voltaire quote perfect

I should aim to write a story that touches the reader and says something meaningful rather than one that follows all the rules at the expense of art. Like the pianist who plays Chopin with precision, every note spot-on, but his music lacks feeling. It is lifeless.

If I wait until a piece is flawless, I won’t put it out there at all. In fact, I’m tempted to spend more time on this post. If I worked on it for a few weeks, it might be almost perfect. I could make it funnier, clearer, deeper…

“Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit…Then release your book on an unsuspecting public. The book will never be perfect.”

But it can be good. And that’s enough.

Because Calm Waters are Dicey Enough

“None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”  Jane Austen, Persuasion

I beg to differ, Jane.

It was going to be easy. We’d done it before. We knew the route.

The plan? Motor our Pearson 365 sailboat from the Carrabelle River in Carrabelle, Florida through the Intracoastal Waterway to Panama City. A twelve-hour trip.

Why Panama City? Because the boat would be easier to sell there. Because after two decades of sailing, we realized that neither of us has the stomach for blue water. My husband was once seasick for thirty hours straight crossing the Gulf from Tampa to the panhandle. And I get sick within five minutes in unprotected waters. It is time to furl the jib, so to speak.

The first morning of our trip was cold — 43°F/ 6°C. My husband, aka the Captain, untied the six ropes which held the Pearson in the slip while I stood on the bow, boat-hook in hand, ready to push off the pilings. Leaving the dock is always a nerve-wracking process (especially for this anxiety-prone INFJ) because the river current pushes the stern sideways, putting our boat — and any vessels in the vicinity — at risk for damage. The Captain has learned how to compensate for the current, however, and is now an expert backer.

But this time, the bow swung sharply to the left. Nimble first-mate that I am (think Gilligan), I dodged the boom, leaped over sheets (ropes), and pushed off a wooden piling to keep our hull from scraping the cruiser beside us. The Captain was pushing from the stern, too. After a stressful half-minute we were free and clear of the dock and the pilings and the neighboring boats.

We were also drifting backwards downstream.

“I’ve lost forward and reverse!” my husband called out to me. “I don’t have any control!”

He raced down the companionway, and I heard him talking on the radio. “We’re dead in the water!”

We floated past the marina office where a man in a brown work jacket stood on the dock with his hands in his pockets, watching us. A woman came out of the weathered building, hugging herself to stay warm. She spoke to the man, and then she shouted to us, “He’s gonna get his skiff. He’ll pull you back.”

We were drifting dangerously close to a sandbar which rose above the surface of the river like the back of a giant white alligator. Just in the nick of time, the small white boat appeared. The Captain threw a rope to the man in the skiff who pulled us to the large dock adjacent to the marina office. We tied up and a few phone calls later, we had hired a diver to take a look at our propeller.

The diver, a twenty-something man equipped with wetsuit, knife, and scuba gear, plunged into the frigid water. Bubbles broke the surface for the next few minutes while he unwrapped a frayed rope from the propeller. Another fifteen minutes and he had scraped the prop clean of barnacles.

With our reverse and forward restored, we were ready to begin again.

Getting Underway — Again

We traveled down the river and out into the bay, following the buoys which mark the Intracoastal Waterway (IW)– green on the right side of the boat, red on the left. The St. George Sound is shallow on either side of these markers, and with a keel draft of 3’11”, we’re always careful to motor “between the lines.” A couple of nifty tools help with this: a depth finder, which tells us how deep the water is, and our Garmin GPS, which shows us exactly where we are on the map. The latter is a great aide for guiding us through the shallows.

Only this time, it didn’t.

We were well inside the IW near the four-mile-long St. George Island Bridge, in what should have been deep water, when the boat suddenly lurched. We had run aground. No amount of revving the engine or changing directions freed us.

It was low tide. If we waited another three hours, we might float off. But we’d already been delayed once that day.

The Captain launched the dinghy, grabbed an anchor and a lot of rope, and climbed in. He rowed off some distance and was about to drop the anchor in deeper water — a clever trick for pulling your boat off a sandbar — when the boat freed itself.

He rowed back and scrambled aboard while I motored under the bridge at a manatee’s pace in case we hit another shoal.

Without further incident, we navigated through the bay and down the Apalachicola River for a short stretch. Then we veered west when the IW split from the river.

IMG_1165I love this part of the Waterway. The canal is narrow, lined with lush palmetto bushes, oaks, palms, wild magnolias. And lots of birds: seagulls, herons, eagles, hawks, ospreys, owls, cormorants, and my favorite, pelicans. It’s rare to pass another boat, but you might pass an alligator. I’m 99% sure I saw one about five feet from shore. His pointy back broke the surface of the water, then he disappeared in our wake.

It was near this alligator sighting that we ran aground again, in what should have been deep water. It felt like the boat was skimming up a hill, but just as quickly as we hit it, we were free of it.

And thus, I have drawn the following conclusion: In the Intracoastal Waterway and in life, even calm water holds surprises. Expect Sandbars.

sailing 3 2018-04

Anchoring Overnight

We overnighted in a horseshoe-shaped cove. And now I know what they mean when they say, The silence was deafening. The pure absence of noise was remarkable. And a bit spooky. Like we were hundreds of miles from civilization. (I checked: the nearest road was only a mile away.) The hoots of Barred and Great Horned Owls added to the eerie atmosphere. And in the distance, a high-pitched screeching cry (a bobcat?).

To state the obvious, that night was dark. Very dark. No street lamps. No car headlights. No farm poles. Not an electric light in sight. And yet, the sky was brighter than it is at home near the city. I saw more stars than I’ve ever seen before. More stars than void.

Day Two

The next morning we continued on our way which took another five uneventful, pleasant hours.

We docked at the Panama City Marina around three in the afternoon. After being fingerprinted, signing a hundred pages, and undergoing a credit check, polygraph test, and FBI background check (I exaggerate), we were allowed to rent a slip.

After that, the marina personnel did everything they could to make us comfortable. It almost made me question our decision to sell the boat. I enjoy certain aspects of sailing — salty air, warm sun, cool wind, friendly dolphins, and the only sound coming from the lapping of the waves on the hull, the ping of the sail on the mast, and the laughing gulls overhead.

But sometimes, when I’m dealing with sensory overload, the ocean becomes too much of a good thing. And as I lay that night in the V-berth with a migraine, rocking, tipping, and bouncing with the waves, I felt seasick. I missed the calm water of the canal. This was why we needed to sell the Pearson.

Back to Carrabelle

We had reached the end of our journey, but we’d left our car in Carrabelle.

Plan A* was to rent a car and drive back to get our own, but nothing was available. ALL the rental cars in town were booked. So we settled for Plan B: call Uber.

We’d never used Uber, and being naturally wary, we downloaded the app with  skepticism. My husband typed in our destination. A driver would arrive in eight minutes.

And he did. Like clock-work.

Our bags and gear piled around us, we stood next to the dock at the PC Marina and flagged him down. The trip had taken two days, but we’d been on board for three, and we probably looked like the weary travelers we were. We loaded our luggage into his Toyota Camry and took off. But when he realized the trip would take two hours, he balked: he couldn’t take us all the way because he had a doctor’s appointment.

Plan C

Forty minutes down the road, we left our first Uber driver and took up with another  — a thirty-something immigrant from Uganda. During the 80-minute trip back to Carrabelle, we learned a lot about him: how he’d lived in the slums but decided to leave his country, join the U.S. Air Force, become a U.S. Citizen, learn to drive, buy a car AND a house. He’s starting his own business in cybersecurity and driving for Uber on the side.

This up-and-coming Ugandan-American didn’t get where he is today by staying in calm waters, that’s for certain. No doubt he’ll accomplish something impressive, even if it’s not his current plan. Even if it’s his Plan Z. He’s a high seas sailor.

I am not. I don’t have the constitution for it. And that’s okay. I celebrate his achievements while realizing that different people are suited for different waters.

And our new plan? Sell the Pearson and get a trawler. A vessel that will take us places inland where the water is flat and the shores are filled with wildlife. Where we can hear the silence and see the stars. A boat that will navigate the Great Loop — a system of canals and rivers that spans the Eastern U.S. and part of Canada.

I haven’t told the Captain yet, but I have a name for the new boat: Calm Waters.

20160511_001440291_iOS

“He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”            Mark 4:39 NIV

*Fracturedfaithblog.com has a great post on Plans A to Z called “A Tree on the Line.” It inspired me to write this post. You can read it here.

 

Encouragement for the Overwhelmed Writer

Keep going. Don’t give up.

inch worm

 

An inch, a word at a time, will do.

Big things begin with small efforts.

 

 

 

 

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”                                                                                 Earnest Hemingway

 

 

IMG_1185

 

 

Cultivate one true thought and write it down.

Then do it again.

And again…

 

 

 

 

…until you have a story.

purple flowers

 

 

Information Gluttony and Lack of Creativity Go Together

Recently, I’ve been struggling to write. I had the seed of a story that wouldn’t sprout. I brainstormed and jotted down some notes, but in the end, my setting was boring, my characters were clichéd, and my premise was just dumb.

I was stuck.

So I did what I usually do when I need inspiration: I scoured the web. I turned to my favorite writing blogs and podcasts — rich sources of encouragement and instruction over the last five years. I watched videos. I opened the newsletter emails I subscribe to. I pulled out my favorite books on crafting fiction and ordered new ones.

The muse was silent.

I doubled my efforts. Every spare minute, I read another article or listened to more of my favorite writing podcasts until I was steeped in information, as if I expected to fix my writing by osmosis.

But my mind was waterlogged by other writers’ advice. I was inadvertently drowning out my own voice.

Don’t misunderstand me: it’s helpful to draw from the well of others’ experiences; we all need teachers. I’m grateful for authors and editors who share their knowledge. What would I have done without them?

But if we rely too heavily on outside sources, if we never trust our own instincts, we may become stunted.

“We are most original when we are most ourselves.” Rebecca McClanahan

It’s harder to be myself when various voices are shouting the rules in my head — when I’ve consumed too much advice, too many rules, too many instructions.

At some point, I must stop procrastinating because I have enough information. I HAVE ENOUGH.

For me, creativity blooms with white space. Mental white space. So instead of taking in another brilliant podcast about plotting, I should take a walk instead. Or sit on the rock in front of my pond and let my imagination wonder.20150908_231813959_iOS

Even bite-size tweets and Pinterest memes add clutter to my mind like salty French fries add pounds. Too many articles and blog posts and podcasts lead to information gluttony. The resulting bloat doesn’t feed my creativity. It stifles it.

I need a mental environment where creativity can grow. Here are a few things that seem to help:

  • Information fasting. Limiting outside voices (podcasts, emails, blogs, articles, news).
  • “Brain-dumping” on 750words.com. When problems mount and anxiety overwhelms, it’s hard to concentrate. Pouring out my worries (often as prayers) helps unload these burdens.
  • Stay home. Take on fewer activities. Accept fewer invitations. Run fewer errands. Stilling my body stills my mind.
  • Solitude. This might mean waking early before anyone else (sometimes insomnia is a good thing). Or taking a long walk, which, yes, is not being still, but it feels like “cleansing movement.”
  • Knitting.More cleansing movement. When my hands are busy, my mind can rest.
  • Focusing on small things.

Nigel sitting up (Daniel's)

Like watching my tuxedo cat bathe himself. Nigel licks his paw and draws it over his face starting at his eyes, reaching further with each stroke until he has cleaned behind his ears. His sandpaper-tongue catches my skin as he considers my hand an extension of his body.

Focusing on one small action is the opposite of multi-tasking. It’s a luxury. It calms and clears the mind.

 

Photo by Daniel McLendon

I hope these practical suggestions will help someone else, too. In the last week I’ve realized how much my mindset also smothers my creativity, but that’s a post for another day.