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Monday, October 23, 2017

Terror is Here and it is Us

Does art imitate life? If it does, can we expect darker stories in the books being published in the near future? Or does art make us strive for better, and thus fantasy is likely to explode in every genre and category because we desperately need escape? Or will life infect fantasy and bring more mashups like Nazi zombies?


Our current reality includes an interesting shift in crime in the last couple of years, but especially in the last year, where assailants (mostly male) either randomly attack, rape, or mug victims by striking them hard enough to knock them down.

The pure anger fueling the action is terrifying. The randomness makes it terroristic. Victims range from men to women of all ages, color and ethnicities, age, sexuality… I don’t think it matters. And there is nothing sacred: Clergy, elderly, disabled. They all get hit with equal hostility.

There is power in striking another down with enough force to maim and possibly kill, to feel their bones break under the force of contact. But I suspect that this new crime trend may have more to do with accumulating felonies. A good punch doesn’t score as high in the criminal justice system as assault with a deadly weapon.

This doesn’t make the incidences any less horrid or less terrifying. They happen at all times of day and night, in public places (train stations, in restaurants, in the street), inside residential buildings, in urban as well as borderline suburban areas.

You never know where or from whom the attack will come.

So I listened with a non-committal face, with no trace or tick that would betray my queasiness or my broken heart that the horror has probably reached us in the mythical borough (we were never crime-free in Brooklyn, but we have been pretty shielded from it in our little corner for almost 30 years now).

Mom told me how she went to buy the Sunday papers and noticed a young man in a leather jacket outside the supermarket. She went in and picked up a couple of staples that'd just gone on sale. She noticed him again after she’d cross the street to make a stop at a green grocer a block away. The third time she spotted him; she slowed down and stopped abruptly. He stopped too and began a pretend conversation on his phone.

She was almost home but now had to consider whether she wanted to try to outrun him or fight him, if he tried to attack her. She backtracked half a block, crossed the street again and stuck her face in the biker bar.

“Excuse me,” she announced, “I think I need some help.”

The customers are all local and so more than a few recognized her.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” the bartender asked.

She explained her suspicions, and as she expected, the young man, had remained across the street, still watching her.

One of the bikers said, “Alright, gimme the bat!” and walked out into the street resembling a bigger and taller Negan, with three others following him out to go have a word with the young man—who suddenly decided he needed to be someplace else, and stepped it up quickly and out of arm’s reach.  


Mom made it home without the need of a protective biker escort, but she was nervous enough as she told me the story. She tried to sound nonchalant but the truth is neither of us can or will pass the moment off as blasé.

We are living the origin days for Thunderdome… Perhaps it is the right time to start writing revenge porn where the little guy can still win a battle or two with some modicum of cleverness because I am afraid we’re losing the coming war.


Forget the zombie apocalypse, the criminally poor will get us all first—and the label will fold onto itself as we all become equally unrich. Happy Halloween, suckers and losers all!



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Finish What You Start

The last couple of years have been trying for a good number of us for a variety of reasons; not the least of which seems to be that the world is upside down and insanity rules our world. It’s hard to maintain your head clear under the circumstances.

My biggest worry was that I’d lost my ability to create. But I was churning out story ideas and creating a portfolio of projects for the future. Still, there was a growing concern that as that portfolio grew no finished work materialized.


Was I unable to put “The End” to anything? I know I can finish a story, a collection of stories, novellas, memoirs, cookbooks. I remember finishing books. And it felt so good! Nothing replaces that feeling you get when you finish a writing project. I sometimes think writers write chasing that feeling, like addicts chasing a high.

I finished two stories for the final infidelity collection, He Done Her Wrong, and one was relatively decent (for having undergone no rewrites yet). I tested its mettle. The beta readers responded in a mostly positive manner and guided a few changes, necessary for clarity. Once I got that done, an improved ending suggested itself.

While there is still feedback due, and we shall see if they agree with the rest of the panel; I am done with that story and confident it will make the final manuscript.


The real problem is me, of course. I have lost focus and let my discipline trail off. I answer to no one, but right now I am not even answering to myself. It’s total anarchy in my head! And while the freedom to create is a good component in the creative process, so is a work ethic.

And even as it is fascinating to observe the craziness that happens daily in our world (from the sublime to hilarious to the truly horrifying), unless it’s research (YEAH, RIGHT!) it does nothing for productivity. You can promise yourself to do better, but you’d be lying to yourself. It’d be more effective to create deadlines and serious consequences for missing them.


The cost has to be painful enough to leave psychological scars otherwise you’ll never learn the lesson. I read that a writer pledged to give a substantial donation to a political candidate he hated if he missed a deadline, and gave the signed check to someone else to send it out – making the consequence very real because once he missed the deadline, there was no going back!

Like I said, I now have two stories finished. Surprisingly they both involve food, though in different kinds of engagement. I haven’t decided how many stories in total the last collection will have, but as I went through the story ideas for the collection, I realized that there is a third story involving food (one of the main characters is a chef).

Suddenly, for a woman who a month ago wasn’t sure whether she’d lost the ability to put two sentences together, more creative ideas continue to come to me. There’s a book of food stories somewhere in me… “A Recipe for Disaster” lends itself to consideration, and surely my friends can come up with even better ideas (complete with puns intended).

Ah, but first, to finish what I started and think of consequences for my own inaction.




Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Saved by Taco Truck

I’ve been having an interesting time with my writing. I have about two dozen short stories started but need closing. For days, and in some cases weeks, I have produced nothing. I have written, but more often than not, I’d write, reread, and delete in disgust and utter disappointment.

No writer likes to talk about her writer's block, but then I am not sure that's what is happening here. I think that a lot of what is happening around me is affecting the writing in ways I did not expect. Writing feels almost frivolous some days. My heart is rejecting the short stories I am working on…


Stephen King wrote a decade ago that, “[t]here may be a stretch of weeks or months when it [writing] doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it.”

It is possible that I have poisoned the champagne fountain I keep in the back of my head for the Muse, and she doesn’t want to hang out (I wouldn’t either if my hostess tried to poison me!). I have, in effect, pushed creativity aside because I cannot throw myself wholeheartedly into the process right now – there are extenuating circumstances that are screaming louder than art can.

Sometimes you get bombarded by things that are unrelated to your work and still it affects your ability to create – because it distracts and detracts, because it maximizes stress and minimizes your love for creativity… The reasons are many and it doesn’t matter whether it is justifiable or not, as long as you pick up a pen or tap on a keyboard and cannot come up with true words.

I think I am a little offended that my writer’s block is limited and without nuance. 

When playwright Lillian Hellman lay dying, her writing partner came to her side. Before he saw her, he was informed that Ms. Hellman was in agony. She was blind, half paralyzed, had suffered several strokes and was snappy--just as liable to go into a rage or crying fits, she could not walk or eat or sleep and she could barely find a sitting position that did not cause her discomfort and great pain.

He entered the room and greeted his friend, “How are you doing, Lillian?”

She replied, “Not good…”

He resigned himself to listen to his friend’s endless list of complaints, and said, “What’s the matter?”



Lillian Hellman’s reply was epic and I have never forgotten it: “This is the worst writer’s block I’ve ever had.”

I figure if you are doing better than Lillian Hellman in her deathbed, then you have no right to bitch about it.

And as it turns out, an idea for a quick scene turned into the core of a story. I wrote! I wrote and wrote. I didn’t self-censor. I did not delete. I was not dissatisfied. No block here, then, just life (bizarre as it is these days) getting in my way.

All I can tell you is that a taco truck saved the day (just not in the way you think!).


Monday, July 24, 2017

The Summer of Meh

Knowing summer might slow down in many aspects I couldn’t control, I accelerated work production around here in the spring. That gave me a comfortable cushion to operate with just in case no projects came my way in the off season.


In fact, I thought that would make for the perfect opportunity to start working on my own projects – rather than focusing on stuff for clients.

I cleaned up the coding on my e-books and made the EPUBS flow a little more elegantly. I’d started the process and got interrupted when I landed in the hospital. In my mind I thought the task had been completed.

In the meantime, I am translating some short stories and rewriting some work for a new compilation.

The translation is slow going because some of it was meant poetically and doesn’t quite translate literally. In fact, I may have to drop a couple of stories from the project (perhaps try to add new work to make up for it). Some names were chosen carefully, almost as clues for nerds, but the Spanish translation almost begs not to go that way because the gimmick loses its cleverness. But I also find that I keep using a very rudimentary Spanish to retell the stories, stripped of colloquialism or flavor, and I am displeased with its blandness. This is entirely my fault as I have been neglecting my other mother tongue.

The rewrites are something else. I can’t complain that my muse is silent, but I am also not pleased by her morning-after pronouncements. Rereading the work, it feels as if my muse is sneaking out of my head when I fall asleep, partying like it’s 1999, and then handing me the worst hung-over ideas!


The other day I wrote for hours and left the document open. I napped. I made a salad and ate. I watched the news and shook my head a lot. I reread the work I did and closed the document. When it asked if I’d like to save it, I clicked no and let it go where bad documents go to die. Then I cleared my memory and turned the laptop off to make sure it would never again pop up as a temporary file archive.

At least I got one thing done! Perhaps I ought to look at it as a deserved vacation from everything.


I also wanted to learn a couple new tricks but it’s hard to learn when all I want is to fit inside my freezer (and not just because the ice cream lives there). Nobody writes songs, poems, or even worthy blog entries about summers like this. I officially proclaim it the Summer of Meh.




Monday, June 26, 2017

Write What Scares You


Smart cats, writers, teachers, coaches will advise you to write what scares you. Much like acting, writing scared is about the courage to dig deep and the choices you make to portray that fear.
For a long time I considered this question. Was abandonment my thing? I tried to write it but reached no emotional climax, no closure… All I was sure of was my own apathy.

Flying bugs scare me, but that fear is temporary and you can end it in one of two ways: you get stung or you kill the bug. Not much creativity needed to complete that journey.

I considered fears I’ve had or experienced since childhood – the ones that left scars. For a long time I thought I was afraid of death and dying, but it was far more horrific than the existential nature of it.

When I moved to my grandparents’ home in Puerto Rico, there was a period when there were several deaths. To be fair, a good portion of the homeowners were retirees, so it was natural that some would die off. I even recall that, in one case, there was a terminal patient and a mercy killing--my very first murder/suicide. 
My grandmother never quite took the time to explain what was happening, and made death akin to a long sleep that we never wake from (but I was a toddler and never was not in my vocabulary). Try explaining zero to a two year old and see how long you can keep your own sanity! She did not think it was something I’d be too curious about and once suggested that an old fellow I’d befriended – with a granddaughter around my own age – had died from swallowing gum (a white lie she invented to give me an incentive to stop swallowing gum).

Funerals and the novenas involved were a social event, and not having the benefit of a babysitter, she took me with her to each one. I think I had seen or been in a room with a cadaver more than I had seen television by the time I started school.

Death did not scare me. A big sleep was not scary. The problem was some throwaway comment Mami made when I asked where the dead went to sleep – because I noticed that they were taken away after the prayers were over.

I had not seen nor been witness to burials, so the question remained what was done with the remains. Mami did not think I could handle the idea of burial, so she told me they closed the casket and threw them in the ocean.

And that’s where the fear began.


I began to have nightmares about being trapped in a glass box, but the glass was opaque and could not see out--not clearly, just patterns of light. I knew the swaying of the waves and the feeling on the box sinking. I also knew what drowning felt like, the panic and horror of gasping for air and finding the dreaded wetness wouldn't allow it. All this I experienced in dreams but could not articulate clearly so she'd understand it was her that brought me to those nightly terrors. Soon enough, even that was muted in my head. It evolved.

Of course, I have avoided closed, cramped spaces since. I grew up in an island and do not swim because I always had a healthy respect for the water and its ability to make me sleep long…

But that never stopped me from doing death-defying things in my teens and twenties. Nor have I obsessed with death and dying as the decades piled on me.

So, can I write about my fear of death? It turns out, other than one instance in 2001 when I was struck with a sudden existential angst that gripped and shook me deeply for almost two minutes, I rarely think about it. I accept its inevitability and when the probability of it arriving sooner rather later comes up, it doesn’t stir me.

That leaves me with snippets of emotional context for a scene or two in a larger story, but not the meaty idea of writing what scares me as the foundation to some foreshadowed emotional catharsis.

So I began searching for things that scare most normal humans: Darkness. Change. Aging. Silence. Poverty. Failure. Rejection. War. Pestilence. Most of these I can surpass and have. I have not added political fears because I firmly believe those can be overcome, even in the face of blatant corruption. I fear not lies for truth always finds a way to shine brightly.
Then it hit me! Fear is losing control. I define control simply as having my wits. Control means mastery of language and memory. The enemy then becomes dementia.

I have the story cued, waiting for me to tackle it. Every time I try, it swallows me whole and leaves me floundering on the side of a surreal road in my head. At least for today, I lack the courage to write scared. (On the other hand, the anxiety just thinking about it should make for interesting nuance when I am ready to let the words flow.)


To be continued...

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Day Shaniquah Saved the Day

Today I am sharing a memory, a little professional advice, and an affirmation that the most difficult interaction can be overcome with a little humor. Always.


Customer service depends heavily on the rep’s ability to communicate with what is often an angry, frustrated, confused, or harried customer. This means that they are not on fine listening mode. Under those circumstances, effective customer service becomes the chore of breaking through whatever is preventing those customers from hearing what you need to communicate to them.

There are best practices to get there, and any business concern worth its mettle properly trains the people who communicate with their clients and try to resolve issues for them. Bad customer service can cause a business serious money.


These days, despite efforts to contain globalism, one of the biggest efforts in customer service is simply the transfer of information. Diversity means that you will communicate with people in a variety of demographics—from place of origin to educational level, to name but two. It's hard enough to break through the strata when nuances of culture and language put up additional hurdles in the process, but that's beyond the topic at hand.

For a variety of reasons, you may need to give out strings and combinations of letters and numbers (because you need to spell something out or because you are giving people a confirmation/tracking number).

I always trained staff by telling them that they needed to enunciate clearly (which I admit did not always render the desired effect).

I also like to rely on standard/uniform solutions that everyone could implement easily and understand just as well.

For numbers, I always suggest breaking down by the digit. Digits have their own specific sound from zero to nine, but if you start combining numbers, the possibilities for misunderstanding increase exponentially--especially with the elderly whose hearing may be impaired.

source: http://wheresmysammich.com/picture/70085/nato-phonetic-alphabet/

When spelling out words, I generally rely on the NATO phonetic alphabet. It has been in use for over 50 years, and even if you are not military or in aviation, it is part of popular culture. Who doesn’t know what Alpha, Bravo, Charlie represents?

Make no mistake, you will run into someone who doesn’t know or will feign ignorance, and you’ll have to work around it.

I love words and always have. I used to read the dictionary for fun, and playfully skim through a thesaurus because I loved the way it added a funky taxonomy to the process! And word geek that I am, I'd sometimes write lists for fun (something I recommend to keep your mind sharp).


One of the things I tried to stress to my staff was that if you could connect to a customer on a human level, it made the whole exchange better and easier. But the aforementioned anger and frustrations sometimes presented a tough wall to crack; if you could make them laugh or connect to something they cared about, you were more than halfway there.

So I use spelling to disarm their emotional state. The NATO Phonetic Alphabetic remains a standard but I supplement it. If I have any piece of personal information, I related each code word to a specific topic of interest to customer. For instance, at Professional Press Books I used medical terms because my client base was composed of students, professors, doctors and surgeons in ophthalmology and optometry. 

Sometimes there is nothing you can do to make them happy. And sometimes folks reject the codes, for spite or in spite of their popularity, in which case you are free to substitute. You can try simple words (A as in apple, B as in boy) like a kindergarten lesson plan.

I just can’t do that, it’s boring and uninspired, so instead I opt for lists of related words (often food-related, from herbs and spices to pasta shapes). I have used the Roman pantheon of gods, candy bar brands, countries of the world, superheroes, cheeses, international currencies, colors beyond the rainbow, dog breeds!


Most people tend to find it easier to relate to when you use first names--with Juliet, Mike, Oscar, Romeo and Victor setting the precedent. But then, I have taken the opportunities to blow up their expectations by using Spanish names and pronouncing them correctly (A for Alejandra, B for Belkis), or Italian names with a Brooklyn accent (A is foh Ant-knee, B is foh Bobo)…

My personal favorite was the crabby old man who made every step of the process a living hell but whom I made cackle by delivering his payment confirmation code as nine-zero-four-four-A for April-six-eight-D for Daniela-nine-S for Shaniquah…


The double take dislodged the pole he had stuck up his behind, and that was the day Shaniquah saved the day.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Writing About Empathy

empəTHē/
noun
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

All the political intrigue and infighting going on about healthcare in America reminded me of the last time I had health insurance* (when I was in the hospital in ’14).

I volunteered to go to the emergency room when I realized something was terribly wrong. Doctors came to my side for hours trying to figure out what the problem was. It was well past midnight when they transferred me to a bed, and it took over a week to figure out what the problem was.

Since it was a teaching hospital, doctors came by with interns doing rounds. They do ask for your cooperation. You are not required to participate. I am student-friendly and allowed interns to examine me, ask questions, and make homework of me.

I was very popular. There were consults with a number of department heads, each one trying to determine the nature of my pain. Everybody got to prod, prick or send me into cold rooms with loud machines. I was treated well, but not everybody showed empathy. Empathy requires understanding and action; it is more than words, there must be intent to soothe the soul of its pains as well.


The head of oncology was a lovely man, tall and imposing, but also very polite and transparent. After our first visit and a round of tests, he did a personal consult to inform me that the problem was not cancerous in nature, and asked if I’d allow him to return with his students on rounds. I agreed.
Mom happened to be visiting when he rolled around with his interns. She was sitting back, catching her breath after a hot and humid commute on a slow bus. I was laying back in the Wonder Woman socks Barbara sent me, playing WWF with La Belle Dame de Baton Rouge, while he lectured the interns on what they could expect on a worst-case scenario (with varying degrees of horrific details).

Somehow, Mom missed a word or two of the intro; and, when I looked up, she’d blanched to the point I think she was ready to drop (whether faint or to a stroke was unclear). It quickly dawned on me what was happening.
“No! No, Mom!!! That’s just for them, not about me,” I tried to explain but words got twisted in the delivery.
The doctor stopped, and both he and a dozen students turned to watch my mother’s eyes watering, her skin pallid, her breath clearly gone. 
{Houston, we have a problem: complete meltdown in three, two, one…}
“Mom?” She couldn’t hear me. Her eyes were fixed inward in the horror of the words she had just heard—
She just heard a man tell a bunch of strangers her baby girl was dying!
A good number of the interns were still taking notes or trying to digest the gist of their mini-lecture on differential diagnoses. The doctor, on the other hand, immediately realized the problem, stepped forward toward Mom, and shielded her from the students’ view.
“I apologize,” he said. “The worst case scenario I just mentioned is for academic purposes only, not at all the case with your daughter. The problem with her pain is not an oncology problem.”
He dismissed the students and asked that they wait outside. He hugged Mom and reassured her. His voice was soft, the delivery self-assured and authoritative…

“We have a few very capable teams on the case,” he told her. “She is a strong young woman and I’ve no doubt you’ll have a diagnosis soon.” He spoke to her for a few minutes, and offered to answer any of her questions. Despite not having concrete answers, he gave her enough of a foundation for hope by simply addressing her personally.
He stopped short of promising her they’d fix me, but his moral support implied it. That was all she needed. Slowly her color returned to her lovely face—though she was tired and worried still.

Empathy and excellent bedside manner can be an elixir in itself. Even if applied to someone other than the patient herself.

In writing that scene, with no other details, I wonder if the empathy is palpable on its own. Perhaps it was a combination of the doctor’s no bull approach coupled with an Old World genteel civility. Maybe that was all that it took to perceive empathy. Or perhaps we desperately wanted to see one of these authority figures to possess empathy.


Showing empathy can be tricky in writing—you always run the danger of making it all exposition. And while I don’t necessarily condone profiling, I bet those who literally felt the empathy knew how unusual the main character here is from the archetype of an institutional doctor who is also an administrator (I wrote the anti “House”). 


*For the record, I have health insurance, although I did spend about two years without, and am likely to lose it again soon enough, but that's another story and there is no empathy involved.