So this Paris thing.

I sometimes wonder if, as an atheist, I can believe in capital-E Evil. Goodness faces badness; kindness faces cruelty; Evil seems like it ought to face something like Holy, which isn’t a concept I connect with.

But not everything needs an opposite to exist. What, after all, is the opposite of a platypus?

So maybe I can believe in evil, and Evil, and its daily presence in the world. Maybe part of the reason I sometimes doubt it is that I’m often removed from it, physically and mentally and emotionally. I will confess—and it is a confession, something I am ashamed of—that I am not very up-to-date on global happenings. I have the luxury of ignoring Evil.

I can’t explain why Paris hit me as hard as it did. By most measures, I’m no more or less connected to it than I have been to any of the other sightings of Evil. But Paris had me glued to my computer screen, watching the coverage, hearing the different numbers and speculations.

The point of terrorism is to terrorize. I don’t know why it worked on me, though obviously only fractionally in comparison. Part of it is the act itself—the shooter waiting outside an emergency exit, the total mundanity of some of the sites—but part of it is the fallout. I was almost twelve on September 11, 2001; I had no concept of what it would turn into. I may still be cushioned by ignorance, but I’m not naïve like I was then.

But enough about that. Other people will write more insightful things about Paris; it’s not actually the point of this.

November, as you might know, is NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. 50,000 words by the end of the month, all that. I first did it in 2005, just after my sixteenth birthday; I then did it in ’06, ’07, and ’08. In ’09, I slipped, and life got the better of me; in ’10, I decided I would make up for ’09 by doubling down and doing 100,000 words. I succeeded, and then some, and ended up with a chunk of novel weighing in at about 140,000 words, almost all of which needed revising.

I got about 75% through a first pass, big-picture revision. I can’t remember exactly what got me off track, but for whatever reason, I got wrapped up in other things.

I reread it this past week, surprised by how much I didn’t hate it.

Flash back, for a moment, to 2005. It was a novel, and it had a plot, but I was sixteen, okay, and so of course I was pretty heavily present in one of the characters. This character was like me, except that he possessed the capacity to tell people off—to call them out on self-destructive behavior and be all, “Knock that off!” He said to the people around him all the things I wanted to say to the people around me. It was cathartic. It helped me cope with the sense of helplessness you get watching someone self-destruct.

Over time, my writing has gotten less overtly self-reflective, although I don’t believe we can ever fully remove ourselves from our work. I indulge fewer fantasies through my characters, and when I do, it’s never so dramatic. (Perhaps by giving them a witty comeback I wish I’d used when it was opportune, or an Irish Wolfhound, because in reality, I know I shouldn’t actually have one, but oh man, do I wish I could justify it, because who wouldn’t want a shaggy grey dog the size of a pony? Lame people, that’s who.) Only here’s the thing about that novel.

It’s about hate crimes, and intolerance, and violence in the name of principle. And it’s about working against those things. And I think I might finish revising it as my NaNoWriMo substitute this year. NaNoCoMo, I’ll call it: National Novel Coping Month. When you can’t fix the real problems, invent some new ones you can. There are worse strategies.

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The False Climax

Note: This post is not about faking orgasms. I will say, however, don’t fake an orgasm. It’s a lie, and there are plenty of ways to find pleasure that don’t involve orgasm. Experiment. Find what works. Have good, honest fun. Anyway. On to the real subject.

I recently read Room, by Emma Donoghue. It’s an unexpected thriller, by which I mean, look at that cover: colorful crayon letters in a child’s handwriting. And the first few paragraphs:

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two,, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

“Hmm?” Ma does a big stretch.

“Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three—?”

“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”

“Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”

“You said it.” Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.

See? A bit odd with the whole “Wardrobe” thing, but other than that, it’s just a kid on his fifth birthday, in his own voice.

Point is, it doesn’t introduce itself as heart-pounding, anxiety-inducing, adrenaline-spiking material. But one night, as I was settled in bed with my dog and my cat and my stuffed animals and my tablet, reading the Kindle version, that’s exactly where I was—heart pounding, anxious, flooded with sympathetic adrenaline. It was climactic … except that I was only half way through. I won’t give details, but I’ll say this: story arcs, particularly traditional drama arcs, often have what’s called a false climax. Here’s an example I’m inventing:

Character’s name is Joe. Joe’s estranged cousin, Tom, sends him a package and asks him to deliver it to a guy who will be arriving at the bus station, because Tom doesn’t know the guy’s new address. Don’t worry, Tom assures Joe—it’s not drugs or anything. Just something he meant to give this guy before he left town. Joe asks for the guy’s name, but Tom says the name doesn’t matter—just look for the guy in the Dodgers cap.

So Joe goes to the station, feeling weird but wanting to be rid of this package. As he’s driving, though, he realizes he’s being followed by another car. No big deal, he assures himself—the bus station is a common destination. Only he parks, and the other car parks right next to him. He locks the doors, doesn’t shut off the engine. Two people get out of the other car. One knocks on the passenger window, and the other comes around to the driver’s side, flashes a holstered gun. Just as Joe is about to unlock the doors, the guy with the gun seizes up, falls to the ground. A guy in a Dodgers cap stands behind him with a taser and grabs the fallen man’s gun. He waves it at the passenger side guy, who raises his hands, retreats into the other car, which squeals away.

The guy shouts, “Open up,” and Joe does. The guy leaps into the car. He is Tom’s contact and he tells Joe to drive anywhere, just somewhere that’s not here. He explains: The package contains evidence regarding Tom’s father’s death, implicating one of the men in the other car as attached to that and several other murders. Dodger’s cap guy asks Joe to take him to the nearest police station so he can get in touch with the feds, and as he’s getting out of the car with the package, he gives Joe a twenty and thanks him for the ride.

Joe goes home and uses the twenty to order himself a pizza. He cracks a beer, thinks of giving Tom an angry call, decides he’d rather just be done with it. We, as readers, totally sympathize with that. Thing is, there are still 200 pages left.

Poor Joe.

It’s like watching an hour-long cop show and seeing the criminal arrested, then looking at the clock and seeing you’re only 27 minutes in. It’s like seeing the soulmates’ wedding and knowing there’s an unfired gun waiting at the reception hall. It’s like finishing a research paper and realizing there’s a gaping hole in your argument.

(You can take the girl out of academia, but you can’t take the academia out of the girl.)

In ways, the false climax is more painful than the tension leading up to it. At least when we’re all heart-poundingly anxious and flooded with adrenaline, the characters are on the alert. It’s when they let their guard down while we know better that the tension dials up to eleven. The most painful sort of dramatic irony, I think, is that following a false climax.

Here’s what I’m saying: I want to knock that beer out of Joe’s hand and slap him across the face with a slice of Meat Lover’s Supreme. And I think part of what makes any piece of writing effective is creating that desire to wriggle between the printed lines and get in ourselves. Maybe it’s being romanced by a millionaire or riding a dragon; maybe it’s avenging an unjust death or reuniting with a long-lost father; maybe it’s being able to intervene when you know something a character doesn’t.

Here’s the other thing I’m saying: Seriously, don’t fake an orgasm.

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Writers who live here are more prolific—is it time to pack up and move?

You know how it goes:

“University Study Shows Link Between Tooth Size and Memory”

Yes. A correlational link. In male rats learning their way through a maze.

“Are we on the brink of a major cholera outbreak?”

No. Here’s what it would take for a major cholera outbreak to happen. No worries.

“Six Easy Ways to Lose Weight—Without Exercise!”

Well, there are lots of things you can do that aren’t “exercise”—take the stairs instead of the elevator! Oh, and about those donuts …

“If you don’t know this, you could be poisoning yourself with toothpaste!”

Here’s an article about why you shouldn’t use Colgate, courtesy of Crest marketing.

What I’m getting at here is that misleading headlines (a relative of clickbait) suck. On some level, I bet we can all agree with that. If I title an article, oh, say, “Writers here are more prolific—is it time to pack up and move?” and then tell you about how this weekend, a friend came to visit me in Asheville, and we both got an above-average amount of writing done, you’d probably be annoyed.

That is, if you read the article.

And that’s the problem. There are so many headlines these days, even just online. Facebook, Twitter, sidebar feeds, home pages, articles shared by friends and family, and whatever else the kids are doing these days. (No joke: I had to ask my students on more than one occasion what a social network or app was, only to be greeted by a swath of startled faces. Not because I’d stumped them—just because I’m 25 and how am I already outdated?)

I’m a curious person by nature, and chances are, if you’re reading this, so are you (or else a blood relative with a sense of obligation). I’m intrigued by more headlines than I have time to read, assuming I want to do anything other than sit at my computer and read all day. Well, assuming I know better than to sit at my computer and read all day. I try not to take headlines as 100% reliable truth nuggets; it’s not that they’re often false, just that they’re … artfully crafted, let’s say. (Misreporting/misinformation is a whole different issue.)

With all the words out there, though, it gets hard to remember what I saw as a headline versus what I actually read. For instance, I recall seeing headlines recently about how schizophrenia has been linked to smoking, creativity, and/or toxoplasmosis (you know, the cat poop thing pregnant women are supposed to avoid). Mental health interests me, so I’m sure I read at least some of them, but can I confidently tell you what sort of links they’re talking about, what sort of analysis found those links, how they’re defining, say, “creativity”? Nope.

Part of this is because I don’t have a great memory. That’s how I got the concept for first fake title, in fact: a headline announcing a link between sex and improved memory. I read on—sex and improved memory are both pretty great—and found that there was in no way the right sort of data to justify a memory-boosting pickup line. (Want to make this a night to remember—even better? I bet I can memorize your phone number with a bit of help? I don’t know. I’m not good at pickup lines.) I’m not, so far as I know, a male rat running a maze.

Anyway, I don’t have a great memory. Would someone with a better memory be able to keep track of the read-vs.-did-not-read distinction? To an extent, maybe, but more often than not, we aren’t paying close enough attention to file something away that specifically. All we can say is, “Oh, I think I read about that …”

We’re smart, you guys. We can fight for the sanctity of the headline. Well, realistically, we probably can’t, not on a large scale, but on a small scale we can. When you share an article, make sure the headline isn’t misleading, and if it is, include a short explanation or quote that will give a more accurate portrayal. When you read a headline that sounds extreme, earth-shattering, or otherwise too good to be true, trust that instinct and either dismiss it or read the article to get the actual story.

Words can be beautiful, evocative, delightful … but they can also be sneaky, sly, and deceptive—or, I should say, the wielders of words can be all those things. The world is interconnected and able to communicate on an unprecedented level, and we better not fuck that up. Great power, great responsibility, all that.

And listen, Asheville has been good to me thus far, and I’ve been able to get some good chunks of writing done. But you know the thing that headline doesn’t mention? Part of that extra writing comes from the fact that I’m no longer a student and am still unemployed. It’s easy to find time to write when your life is 95% free time. Yeah, it’s nice to have cool places to write—I love Dobra Tea, for instance—but more than that, it’s nice to not have homework to do or essays to grade or shifts to show up for. What’s not nice the fact that, in not very long, I’ll be out of saved money, and although I like to dream, it’s pretty unlikely that between now and then, I’ll land a book deal with a huge advance.

(That said, if you know anyone with a spare book deal with a huge advance, let me know.)

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I’m a master, okay?

I’ve mastered English. Or, at least, I’ve earned a Master’s degree in English. It feels …

Not really any different than before. Who’d have thought that a piece of paper doesn’t actually change the way you feel about yourself as a writer? (Unless that piece of paper is a publishing contract, perhaps, but I can’t speak from experience.) In fact, I don’t even have the piece of paper; at the ceremony, we got diploma holders, since final grades aren’t submitted until the following Wednesday. It’s possible we won’t actually get the grades we need to graduate.

I passed, by the way. Barring postal mishap, I will soon have that piece of paper.

The most exciting part about being done? Having the energy and brain power I used to spend on school back to myself. For writing, in part, but also for other pursuits—taking my dog for leisurely walks, studying Mandarin, maybe even finding a place to take up yoga seriously. That last one, though, will have to wait a bit; it won’t do me much good to find a yoga class in Muncie when I am, in short order, going to be elsewhere.

to ashevilleSpecifically, Asheville, North Carolina.

I’ve spent a bit of time in Asheville, enough to become smitten, and, having no factors requiring me in a given place, I decided to make it my plan. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was on a whim, but I didn’t exactly make a pro-con list comparing a wide range of options. Still, it’s been on my mind for several months, and I haven’t yet come up with a reason to think it’s a terrible idea, so I have given it some thought.

Monday, I’m driving down to look at a house to rent. I’ve been putting in applications for jobs all over the spectrum. (My resume that includes a link to my website, so if you’re reading this because I applied for a job with you, hi! I’m super competent, I promise.)

We’ll see what happens.

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It’s that time of year. AWP 2015 has arrived; I’m writing this now from my third-floor hotel room, looking out over Washington Ave., in Minneapolis.

Emphasis not on Minneapolis, although it’s nice to be out of Indiana for a bit, or AWP, although that’s certainly the reason I’m here, or third-floor, even though it gives a bit of a view. No, emphasis on my.

When I was sixteen, my ever-indulgent parents got me a retreat for Christmas. Nothing extravagant, because I didn’t need extravagance; it was just five days at the Super 8 maybe twenty minutes from our house, but for me, with a brand new draft of a novel sitting in front of me, begging to be torn apart and reworked, it was a perfect writerly sanctuary. I stayed in my room with DO NOT DISTURB on the door, blinds drawn, music playing, and manuscript pages and maps and note cards splayed out all around me.

I drank alcohol-free merlot, ate tortillas with pesto, kept my own hours, and hermitted it up (although I think I reached out by text a few times for advice).

I’m not going to hermit in Minneapolis; I’m going to the conference, and to the book fair, and around the city. Still, I have a room, and it’s mine. Not in a permanent way—just in an exclusive one. My little hotel sanctuary.

This evening I took myself and a book to dinner at a restaurant across the street, Sanctuary. I’d read the menu online, and it looked exciting—and it was, but it was also much classier than I anticipated. (Seriously, look at the website. I feel like it was not an unreasonable assumption on my part.) I walked in and was seated by the very well-dressed host … and then looked around and realized that it wasn’t just the host—everyone was very well-dressed.

My first impulse was to apologize profusely—my jeans and Payless shoes and shirt with hops on it had tripped and fallen in here by accident, and I would get out of the way right now. Instead, though, I stayed; I lingered for two hours, over …

garlic, spinach, and parmesan artichoke tartlets, provincal olives, cornichons and a shot of white verjus

liquor 43 bread pudding with salted caramel ice cream and ristretto espresso crème anglaise

a quasi mojo—and absinthe mojito

and a cup of coffee

Not surprisingly, especially to anyone who looked at the menu, it was an expensive linger. Still, it was mine, whether or not I fit in.

Plus, part way through my meal, more conference types started to come in, and writers are a notoriously shabby lot. Suddenly I was not so out of place after all.

Sanctuary takes different forms, see?

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