“The Turning Point, or I Never Saw a Playwright Make Out with a Girl in a Parking Lot” by Timothy Braun

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Timothy Braun reveals how he found a “good enough” reason to write…

A turning point in my writing came before I started taking my writing seriously. I was a freshman at Ball State University, the only school that would take me, and for my first semester I only wanted to take deathly cool classes, because I assumed I would never make it to the end of college, or if I did it would take a decade, so I decided to have a cool time. The classes I took that semester were Mythology, 20th Century American History (was always a history buff), Acting, Biology (I got to chop things up and see how they work), and Fencing. No, not “stealing,” sword fighting. At the age of eighteen, appearance was important to me and I wanted to make certain people see me as a smart and cool rapscallion, even if I was a loser.

In high school I had “acted” in a few plays, and when I say “acted” I’m talking about yelling across a music pit at overprotective parents. This was fun, something I could do with my friends. We smoked a lot, drank a little, and made out with girls in a high school parking lot behind the auditorium. I thought that was a good enough reason to be an artist and I figured college “acting” would be similar. I was wrong. My acting teacher was an old, gay man from Detroit, who lost his teeth from drinking too much sugar. He gave me a book during my second week of classes called An Actor Prepares. It had a pink cover, the most uncool cover there could be, and was written by a Russian guy. My teacher told me not to read the whole book, knowing that I wouldn’t. He directed me to a few chapters where the author was playing a black man on stage. The author smeared his face with chocolate cake to become something he wasn’t, at least on the surface, and could never grasp the character. That is until he tripped on stage and stopped trying to be something else and started saying his lines and playing his character in a moment of panic from his guts, his heart, from himself. My teacher thought I would like the story. He said I was a bad actor, but I was good at telling stories and I should consider writing plays. At that time I could never think of a good enough reason to be a writer. I never saw a playwright make out with a girl in a parking lot.

Years later I was dating a girl and I did start writing plays, really bad ones, plays where I tried my damndest to be someone I wasn’t, plays about cool and dangerous characters. I wrote plays about boxers (I can’t take a punch), and ghosts (I’m not dead, yet), and all my titles I stole from albums by The Pixies, but nothing I wrote was sincere. It was all hollow and cosmetic and skin-deep. I used to wear a black motorcycle jacket when I wrote that was a size too big and I looked like a fraud. Then, my girl of two years broke up with me. It hurt. It hurt for three days. The kind of hurt where you sit in bed and shake. On the third night I wrote a play about our relationship and when I wrote I didn’t wear the leather jacket. The dialogue wasn’t hip, and it wasn’t cool. The play was simple and how I saw things in that moment. In it a young man boarded a train for nowhere, leaving a girl behind who never loved him. With no sleep I printed the script and I showed it to my old toothless theatre teacher. I sat in his office as he read, and he told me this was my best play yet, and asked me if I thought about being a playwright.

“For a living?” I asked.

“No. You don’t write plays for a living. Just ‘being’ a playwright.”

“Weird,” I thought. “But I’ll think about it.”

I got up, went home, lay down without shaking, and went to sleep for a few hours. When I woke up I started contacting graduate schools. I wasn’t certain how to write, I had no technique, and knew I had to talk with more people, more professors, about all this writing business. I think back to that time when my teacher gave me Stanislavski to read and understand that acting, art, writing, is about being truthful with yourself and being vulnerable to your audience. I wear a gray cotton-blend jacket now. I got it at The Gap. On sale. And it fits nicely. I often tell my students that writing comes from between the lungs, not the ears.

And that is a good enough reason to write.

—Timothy Braun

Timothy Braun is a writer from Austin, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter at @timothybraun42 or on Facebook.

To learn more visit timothybraun.com.

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

I’m Teaching an Online YA Novel Writing Class

A little interlude for an announcement: 

I’ll be teaching a twelve-week *online* Young Adult Novel Writing class with MediaBistro.com! Here’s information about the class (though my syllabus will be different; what’s up there is a sample).

The course starts April 19, and the goal is to come away with the first draft of a YA novel (or middle-grade novel—writers of middle-grade are welcome) by the end of the class! We’ll be talking about ideas, characters, plotting a novel, outlining and how it can help to write the dreaded synopsis before you finish your book, voice, strategies for moving forward and making it to the end, and we’ll also be thinking ahead to revision strategies and agent querying and what publishers are looking for. But mostly, if you take the class, you’ll be writing, writing, writing, and I’ll be reading and commenting on your pages as you go, as will other writers in the class with you! I can’t wait to read the students’ novels.

The class is entirely online, so you don’t have to be here in New York City to take it… There is a one-hour chat session each week, and it’s late enough to accommodate writers on the West Coast (and a transcript will be saved every week if you happen to miss it). So the class will be a lot of work, but it’s flexible… and I think that’s the best part.

You can apply for the class on MediaBistro.com.

And here’s information from MediaBistro on what their online courses are generally like.

If you have any questions about the course, please feel free to email me. If you have questions about the application process, though, please ask MediaBistro directly.

Turning Points: The Laughter of Sanity by Camille DeAngelis (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Camille DeAngelis reveals how she gave up on the publishing conflicts and ambitions she used to think were so important… and found sanity…

I believe in bibliomancy. It means something because I believe it means something. At 2AM on New Year’s Day I took down a dusty hardback copy of Meditationsby Marcus Aurelius, that wisest of emperors—closed my eyes, and flipped to a page.

Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshiper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all right acts. Strive to advance toward what philosophy tried to make you. Reverence the gods, and help men. Life is short.

Sound advice (excepting those bits about revering the gods), is it not? The emperor goes on to suggest his readers disregard the lure of “empty fame.” Aha! This is precisely what I wanted to talk to you about. This is why I believe in bibliomancy.

Mary Modern

There are, of course, many turning points in the life of a writer. I could tell you how I talked endlessly about writing a novel before September 11th, and how I watched the towers burning from my friend Angela’s dorm room; and how I sat sobbing on the floor of a south-bound Amtrak train that night, wondering how many people who’d died had been working on novels during their lunch breaks. That was the day I stopped talking.

I could also tell you about my practice novel, and how, well into a second interminable round of reject-o-rama, my dad pointed out a USA Today interview with Big Fish author Daniel Wallace, who spoke frankly of his drawerful of unpublished novels. That article gave me the heart to try again. But I’ve already written about these turning points on my blog, and in the case of my 9/11 epiphany, well—you’ve just heard it.

This turning point has to do with a different sort of book magic. Back in April I met a girl in India who gave me a ride on the back of her motorbike. Long TMI story short, I was feeling frustrated about something, and told her about it. My new friend advised me to relax, to stop seeing petty inconveniences as capital-P problems. She told me that Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now was changing her life.

Now, I can guess what some of you are thinking. What are you doing, Camille, peddling some new-age hooey on Nova’s blog instead of giving us some useful writerly tidbits?!

All right. We’ll start here: ruminate for a moment on the phrase “struggling writer.”

At first you think: well, DUH, of course it’s been a struggle! There have only ever been two choices, to struggle or to give up, and giving up is unthinkable. Therefore you struggle: to glue your tookus to the chair, to come up with stories worth telling; to see the story through, to perform round after round of red-pen surgery, to find someone to believe in you, and then to find a team of bookworms tucked away in some Midtown skyscraper who’ll believe in you too. Struggle and struggle and struggle some more. You can call it perseverance, but that’s just struggle in a suit and tie.

And just when you think the struggle is over: blurbs, not enough blurbs, no blurbs, nightmares of a gaping black hole on the back cover. Pre-pub reviews. Spoilers. Snark. Marketing yourself. Social media blah blah blah. Sales figures. All the important newspapers that could have reviewed you, and didn’t. A small handful of faithful friends at your reading, asking you questions as if they don’t know you just to make it look like you have a real audience. One- or two-star Amazon reviews (marked “helpful”—!) in which the reviewer can’t even spell your name correctly. Envelopes you can’t bring yourself to open because you know there’s a royalty statement inside. Losing your editor. Losing your publisher. Remainders.

I used to think all this “struggle” was inevitable. Every day I got to live in worlds I’d furnished myself, and I paid for that blessing with intermittent bouts of doubt and loathing (maybe I’m a two-trick pony. Maybe I should pack it in and apply for a job at Trader Joe’s), not to mention some hilariously irrational jealousy (why, why, WHY is EVERYBODY ON THE PLANET reading those COMPLETELY INANE VAMPIRE NOVELS?!?!).

Until I read Eckhart Tolle, I didn’t know I didn’t have to live like this. Many years ago, when Tolle was a graduate student in London, he found himself on the Tube on his way to school one morning sitting opposite a woman who was talking to herself. The train was crowded, but of course nobody wanted to sit anywhere near her. “And I said to her, who do you think you are? How could you treat me this way? How could you betray my trust?…” Tolle became interested. She was obviously mentally ill, but where was she headed? How could she be an ordinary commuter? Surely no one would hire somebody in her condition. When the train reached his stop and the woman got off too (still talking), he resolved to follow her as long as she was headed in his general direction. Block after block he followed her—and, curiously enough, she was taking the same route he would ordinarily walk to get to his school.

You see where this is going. Still ranting to herself, she approached the very building where Tolle was doing his graduate work, and went inside. Tolle lost her in a crowd. He walked into the men’s room and sidled up to the urinal, still pondering. I hope I don’t end up like her, he thought. Except he didn’t only think it. Another man at the urinal glanced up at him, hurriedly zipped up, and quit the restroom. Oh no! he thought. I’m already like her!

That’s when he realized that we are ALL talking to ourselves. The only difference between we “sane” people and that “crazy” woman is that she’s doing it aloud. Tolle looked at himself in the mirror, and began to laugh. To anyone else, he wrote, it would have seemed like the laughter of a madman—but it was truly the laughter of sanity.

This, Tolle points out, is the great self-inflicted tragedy of our existence: we are imprisoned in our minds. We enumerate our failures, sulking inside our heads like the awful brats those VHS home movies prove we once were. We take ourselves and our “problems” SO SERIOUSLY. The ego is an ugly, fragile little demon that gorges itself on our eternal discontent. Again and again we relive old traumas, bolster grudges, rehearse what we should have said, revel in our rightness. Nobody cares. Everyone treats us so unfairly. We measure ourselves against the achievements and the smiling, shiny exteriors of others, and we always, always fall short. Basically, life is shit.

Except that it isn’t. Like a ritual that works because you believe it will, a problem is only a problem when you label it as such. A struggle, by definition, perpetuates itself. This isn’t just semantics, people. When that quiet, unflappable part of you—the you outside of ego—detaches itself from the endless stream of mental bullshit and listens to it as it flows by (not judging, just listening), suddenly something begins to shift. Now you’re observing it; therefore you are not it.

I’ll give you a concrete example. I was still in the middle of A New Earth (the sequel to The Power of Now) on audiobook when, one morning, I picked up the arts section of the Philadelphia Inquirer and found a front-page, above-the-fold feature on a debut novelist. Here is pretty much exactly what ran through my head:

What the f**k? I’m way more local than this guy, and the Inquirer book editors completely ignored both my novels. Uh huh, a bildungsroman. Whoop dee doodle. And they’re sending this guy on a twenty-city book tour? WHAT THE F**K?

Ordinarily this sort of thing would have thrown me into a funk for the rest of the day. This time was different. So that’s what it means to be stuck inside my head! A marvelous calm fell over me as I refolded the newspaper and laid it on the table. This isn’t me. It may be baggage, but I can let go of it any time. And I did. I went to the library and got back to my world building.

Yeah, I do still have those internal tantrums sometimes, but these days there’s that part of me that’s able to wade out from that stream of mental sludge and watch it as it passes, smiling at the madness. Let me emphasize that anyone can make this shift. (Yes, even you.)

Life is so much easier than it used to be. It’s easier because I have given up. Oh, not my dear little coterie of imaginary friends, not my world building—no, I’ve only given up caring about the stuff that’s pretending to be important. Now, when I reflect on old conflicts and old ambitions, I think: When did this matter? Why did this ever matter?

None of my books have earned out. So what? That’s no gauge of literary merit.

But what if I never get another book deal? Oh well, I guess I’ll self publish. And I hear Trader Joe’s is a really nice place to work.

Somebody didn’t like my novel. So what?

In fact, somebody thought it sucked ass, and said so ALL OVER THE INTERNET. This reminds me of that now-classic cartoon in which a frantic husband sits hunched over his keyboard, his worried wife hovering in the doorway. “I can’t come to bed, honey. Somebody on the internet is WRONG!”

I’m not making any money right now. It’ll be fine. I’ll get by because I believe I’ll get by.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t about putting on a pair of Pollyanna blinders. I’m not saying that if I wind up living out of the back of a minivan that life will be all dandy and perfect. But there are plenty of artists who lived (and live) quite humbly, and keep on working through it all. What you don’t have doesn’t have to become a barrier to your creative work. After all, what more do I need besides a few sheets of paper, a pencil, and a sandwich?

* * *

Petty Magic

There’s something else Eckhart Tolle says that has stuck with me, and it might do you good to hear it too.

“Greatness” is a mental abstraction and a favorite fantasy of the ego.

I find this notion so liberating that I sometimes want to lock the bathroom door behind me and wedge myself behind the toilet. “Greatness”—as we typically interpret it in this twisted, vapid culture of ours—is an illusion. We’re forever confusing recognition with inherent value. Heck, if Leonardo had been preoccupied with painting a Last Supper scene that would “last through the ages,” he wouldn’t have used that weird mixture of oil tempera on dry plaster. He took that risk, got on it, and made something of profound value to the monks of Santa Maria delle Grazie every time they sat down to eat.

So try this the next time you find yourself thinking I want to be a great writer, or envying another author who has been “hailed as the voice of [your] generation” (or some rot), or daydreaming about being an extra in your sumptuous big-budget film adaptation. Remember: when Kim Kardashian “writes” her next “konfidential,” it will immediately, IMMEDIATELY hit the bestseller list. It’s true. Even if you write the best damn novel in the history of the universe (pretending for a moment that any such consensus is possible), Kim Kardashian is still way more famous than you (or Marcus Aurelius, or even, sadly, Leonardo) will ever be.

Now you want to laugh, right? So laugh. Laugh as the endless carnival of bullshit whirls by. Throw back your head and laugh the loud and cackling laughter of sanity.

—Camille DeAngelis

Camille DeAngelis is the author of two adult fantasy novels—Mary Modern (2007) and Petty Magic: Being the Memoirs and Confessions of Miss Evelyn Harbinger, Temptress and Troublemaker (2010)—as well as a first-edition guidebook, Moon Ireland (2007). She is currently writing a novel for young adults.

Visit Camille online at camilledeangelis.com.

Follow @pettymagic on Twitter.


Mary Modern

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:

Aik won a signed copy of Mary Modern! Congrats! I’ll email the winner to ask for a mailing address. Thank you again to everyone who entered!

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Kim Purcell (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Kim Purcell reveals how she removed the distance between her and her character and found a way to love her novel again…

My big turning point came at a time when I hated my main character. Even worse, I hated myself for creating her. My debut novel, Trafficked, is about a girl named Hannah who comes from Moldova to LA to be a nanny and ends up a modern-day domestic slave. When I first started writing the novel, I really liked Hannah. She came to me as this sarcastic, funny, kind soul, but then, even though I thought she was pretty neat, I decided this just wouldn’t do.

She was a victim. Any person who’d been trafficked and enslaved would have to be weak, right? I wanted to be “realistic.” So I made her into this frightened, weepy character, and then I sent her down a path of misery during which one thing after another would befall her. Oh, your life doesn’t suck enough, yet? How about this? I felt like I was beating an injured horse.

After a few years of writing, I no longer liked her at all and I didn’t know what to do. I’d made her into this person that made you cringe. When I brought her to my writing group, they said, well, it’s good writing, but will readers want to stick with this miserable story for three hundred pages?

I felt defensive. There were plenty of miserable stories out there. People loved them. Some of my favorite stories were miserable stories: Angela’s Ashes, Invisible Man, The Lovely Bones. There was nothing wrong with a miserable story.

But then, I sat down with my miserable story and I felt miserable. I thought it was shit. I didn’t know why. I’m not normally overly critical about my writing. I generally believe that if I keep writing, it will get better. The problem was that after two, three, four years, I still wasn’t feeling the magic.

Writing became a chore. It was an important story, I told myself. I had to keep going. But every time I sat down with my character, it just felt like a bummer. Her life was so awful, I couldn’t stand it.

So, I decided I was going to quit the book. I switched to another novel-in-progress, but I kept thinking about Hannah and how I’d abandoned her and not just her— by not telling this story, I’d abandoned all the people who are enslaved around the world. That made me feel even shittier. What kind of person does that?

I talked to my husband and my writing group. They told me to keep going with it, that they liked the story and they believed I could do it. So I returned to the story, rewrote it a couple more times, and somehow, miraculously landed a fabulous literary agent. I could not believe it. That was it, I thought. I’d sell it and be done with the miserable thing.

The thing that I didn’t know was that I was far from done with it. My agent and I went through a couple rewrites and she sent it out to the first round of editors. They found it too bleak. A couple of the editors didn’t like my main character. I felt ill. I didn’t like her either. I mean, she was okay, but I wouldn’t want to be her friend. It was a dark night of the soul. Either I had to admit defeat, or I had to rewrite from scratch. After five years of working on the novel, which I was sick of, rewriting it from scratch sounded like hell.

And then, a little voice in my head chirped, “But what if you put more of yourself into her?” What if she was someone who could be a friend? What if she was not weak, but strong? What if I let her be that sarcastic, funny, kind soul she started out as? And then terrible things happened to her? How much of her humor would she hold on to? How much of her kindness?

This was the big turning point for me. The novel became interesting to me again. I decided if I was going to rewrite Hannah, I had to get rid of the distance between my character and myself. I couldn’t be safe. I had to be able to inhabit the character in order to care for her and make readers care for her. I had to de-victimize her and make her a survivor.

Over the next year, I rewrote the novel from scratch, keeping the basic plot, but changing the character and her reactions to everything that happened. While I wrote, I thought of all the girls and women I met in Moldova. I thought of the nannies and housekeepers and immigrants I’d interviewed here in America. They were smart, funny, and determined to live in a vibrant way, despite everything that had happened to them, and I put their collective spirit into Hannah.

Not once was I bored, depressed, or disheartened. I was on a journey and when it was finished, at last, I felt proud of the work I’d done. My agent and I were ready to send it out again. I felt like I was at last linking arms with Hannah and walking with her to her next destination, instead of tossing her at the first editor who’d take her off my hands and relieve me of the burden.

A few days later, I was on the F train, heading to Brooklyn from Manhattan. I was talking about the book with some friends. I spoke passionately about Hannah and her story, and while I talked, I noticed a woman watching me a few seats over. I had no idea, but this woman was an editor at Penguin. She got off the train at my stop—we lived close to one another at the time—and she said, “Excuse me.” She said she was sorry for eavesdropping, but she was an editor and she’d love to read my novel. She handed me her card. I looked down at the card, which read Penguin. I couldn’t believe it. I sent it to her and Viking bought it a few days later.

Now, just this month, the book has come out. Hannah’s story will be heard. The story of slaves across America will be heard. And none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been willing to rewrite from scratch and allow Hannah to be strong in order for her story to come alive.

—Kim Purcell

Kim Purcell is a novelist, journalist and teacher. As a radio beat reporter, she interviewed drug dealers, prostitutes, and murderers and became interested in the trauma many of them experienced as children and teenagers. She wanted to tell their stories in a more complex way, and decided to focus on writing novels while teaching English as a Second Language. She wrote two novels before Trafficked. After hearing the painful stories some of her immigrant students shared with her, she became interested in the subject of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. She traveled to Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, to research this book. She had two babies and wrote it mostly when her two wonderful daughters were napping. She loves to run, do yoga, and dance in random places, like elevators. Sometimes her husband and kids stop her and sometimes they join in. They all live in Westchester County, near New York City, with their rescue dog, Lola.

Visit Kim at www.kimpurcell.com.

Follow @kimberlypurcell on Twitter. 


Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:

Amy @ Kissed by Ink won a signed copy of Trafficked by Kim Purcell! Congrats! I’ll email the winner to ask for a mailing address. Thank you again to everyone who entered!

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Christine Lee Zilka (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Christine Lee Zilka reveals how she fought to keep writing after a stroke at age 33…

I have had many turning points as a writer, some more dramatic than others, each bringing a unique encouraging message.

I remember my first litmag acceptance from ZYZZYVA for the first piece of fiction I’d ever written; it was a sign for me to pursue this long-subjugated dream.

I remember my first novel workshop with VL, the one in which I began writing my novel. I wasn’t sure I had a novel in me, but by the end of the semester, I had 100 fresh pages. I’ve thrown out all 100 pages since, but the core of the idea remains and flourishes years later.

I remember JD who doesn’t pull punches telling me, “You should be proud. You’re almost there” after reading the opening chapters of my novel-in-progress this past summer. The ensuing discussion made it so I could see the light at the end of the novel-in-progress tunnel. I was so inspired. I got my second wind.

But no turning point has been so life-changing and incredible as the time during which I had zero writing achievements, when I was unable to write fiction, let alone read a novel for two years. It was then that I knew I would do everything in my being to be able to write again, and that I would never give up on my novel.

I had a stroke on December 31, 2006, at the age of 33. Amidst the festivities of New Year’s Eve, no one thought much of the fact that I appeared quiet and spacey. I’d had the weirdest migraine of my life earlier that day in the parking lot of a South Lake Tahoe shopping center; the world tilted 90 degrees and every object doubled. If I were to write an imagist poem about that moment, I’d write about the twinned red snow blowers lined up in the snow outside a hardware store.

My husband says I complained of an enormous migraine-level headache, but I don’t remember pain. I remember disorientation and wonder and sudden exhaustion. What was happening? I should say something, but what is it I could say? What were words? What was language? I felt like my Self was buried under a thousand layers of cotton blankets.

It wasn’t until we got back down from the mountains a day later that we realized that something was seriously wrong. I couldn’t remember my way home from the neighborhood grocery store and I couldn’t process the labels on the shelves of the store and I couldn’t remember my husband’s phone number when I decided that perhaps I needed to go to the hospital. I wondered what the phone number for 911 might be.

At the hospital lying in bed my neurologist told me that I had had a stroke.

My stroke didn’t affect my body—I didn’t limp and my face didn’t slide like melted wax. I looked completely normal. My stroke had occurred in the left thalamus, the mysterious “hub” of the brain, and it among other things, the stroke affected my short-term memory, my coping mechanisms, and it affected my ability to retrieve memories, spin language, and weave stories.

In short, I was Dory the Fish in Finding Nemo.

My doctors told me to keep a journal as my memory bank—to write every happening inside the journal and to timestamp each entry. It was my physical short-term memory repository (and it worked a lot better than tattooing things on my body a la “Memento Mori”).

That Moleskine journal saved my life.

I was determined to “come back like Lance (Armstrong)” and I wrote my feelings and happenings in my Moleskine every single day. I often slept 20 hours a day. My waking hours felt like what healthy people feel like in the first few minutes after waking up in the morning; hazy and not quite present. In the first months, it took me two of my four waking hours to compose three paragraphs. But I wrote them.

I was convinced that if I kept writing, my brain would heal and make me a stronger writer. That I’d come out of this better than before. That somehow the synapses in my brain would synthesize a new and better writer. (Cue Six Million Dollar Man theme music).

Several months into my recovery, I was well enough to comprehend my situation. And yes, I cried. Yes, I got depressed. I would pick up books, and find myself reading the same paragraph over and over and over because by the end of the paragraph, I’d forgotten what had happened, so I’d keep reading and forgetting.

At around the year mark, my doctors told me “I was cured.” I was not cured, I told them. I couldn’t write fiction. How was this cured? Most of my doctors and therapists shrugged with a shadow of pity behind their eyes. My neurologist said I would keep improving, but this was, he said, as far as most doctors would go.

I was functional. I could hold a conversation. I couldn’t balance a checkbook, but I could get money out of the ATM and I could pay for my purchases. I could read People magazine, and I could even read a short story by then. I could go on drives and remember where I’d parked my car and find my way back home, but I couldn’t yet read a novel.

My stroke helped me to realize that the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, was to write. My marker for “being cured,” was not what the doctors designated. It was not being able to function in life. It was not what my friends designated, which was to appear normal and be able to participate in discussions. My marker for being alive was to be able to write fiction again. To write my novel.

It took two years before I could look at my novel, and imagine worlds again. Two years before I stopped flipping homonyms in my writing. Two years before my prose became more than pedestrian.

I’m not sure if my brain, as I’d hoped, formed new synapses such that they made me a better writer—but I’m most certainly a more determined writer. And that has made all the difference. There is a black spot in my brain now, and it will always be there, near the center of my brain. And I consider that my writing birthmark.

Christine, about to read an excerpt from her novel at the Sunday Salon reading series this past November. (I was there! She was fantastic!)

It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.

—Christine Lee Zilka

Christine Lee ZilkaChristine Lee Zilka is the Editor-at-Large at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVAVerbsapYomimono, and Men Undressed: Women Authors Write About Male Sexual Experience. She was awarded a residency at Hedgebrook in 2006, placed as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open in 2009. She has a novel-in-progress.

Read Christine’s blog 80,000 Words at czilka.wordpress.com.

Follow @czilka on Twitter. 


Men Undressed

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to Christine for donating the anthology for a prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:

Alexa O. won a copy of the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience, edited by Gina Frangello, Stacy Bierlein, Cris Mazza and Kat Meads, with a foreword by Steve Almond, and featuring writers Aimee Bender, Jennifer Egan, Susan Minot, A.M. Homes, Christine Lee Zilka, and more! Congrats! I’ll email the winner to ask for a mailing address. Thank you again to everyone who entered!

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Revision Fever

So yeah it’s my birthday this Thursday (and E’s birthday today! and the anniversary of the day we went to City Hall and got married tomorrow!), and I know I should want to do something special for my birthday to kick off the year, but all I can think about now is this revision. I dream the revision. I wake up and the first thing I think about is the revision. I work on the revision all day. I read only things related to the revision (and I had to stop reading novels I really want to read to avoid distracting from the revision). I look at things that remind me of the revision. Guess what I want to do on my birthday? Work on the revision. Then go to dinner after. Then probably go home and work more on the revision. Thankfully the blog series is still running, or this blog would be a big blank space until the revision is handed in, or possibly a live feed of me sitting in front of my laptop, making faces, typing furiously, rearranging things AGAIN (and oh how I regret abandoning Scrivener now), editing, re-editing, adding more pages, aaaaaah! It would not be pretty. Even so, I love doing this. Isn’t that sick? Revision is the best part of writing, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s so rewarding precisely because it’s not easy. Going back in.

Turning Points: Guest Post by Steve Brezenoff (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Steve Brezenoff reveals the two big turning points in his life—death and birth—that also proved to be turning points in his writing…

My first novel was a long time coming. I’ve often said it took fourteen years to finish, but that’s mildly disingenuous. I didn’t labor over the thing for all those years. Instead I attacked it in fits and starts, driven not by some urge to finish a novel, but instead by an urge to get some scenes on paper—catharsis. In the fourteen years in question, I started many short stories and several other novels. I even finished one novel, a derivative middle-grade fantasy. The truth is I always fancied myself a middle-grade writer. I looked up to Lloyd Alexander, C. S. Lewis, and Susan Cooper. The novel I’d been fooling with since college—the one that would become The Absolute Value of -1—was a diversion.

Two turning points changed that, and they’re the Big Two: death and birth. If one was a creative impetus, the other was the great pragmatic motivator.

The Absolute Value of -1

The Absolute Value of -1 was based on a short story I’d written in college. It was about a boy obsessed with two things: death and family, particularly his older sister, off at college. Whenever I approached the novel-in-progress (or whatever you’d call a collection of random scenes with no plot or end in sight), I’d stab out another scene in a violent fit. The sum was definitely not greater than the parts at this point, so I’d retreat again to think about some or other middle-grade project I thought I should be focusing on instead.

Then my father died. Suddenly the boy in my story, who’d often dwelled on his grandfather’s death, was about to get hit with the most difficult event of his fifteen years: his father would get cancer and die. It had to be. After all, this novel was my diversion. Where better to deal with the emotional destruction I was facing in real life? Certainly not a derivative middle-grade fantasy novel. (Full disclosure: my middle-grade work betrayed my real-life crisis at this point as well, with the protagonists in two distinct works-in-progress dealing with missing or otherwise suffering fathers.)

The protagonist of The Absolute Value of -1, Simon, tore through the rest of his story, with a little help from me, and before long I had a tidy little novella. One editor I worked with enjoyed the voice and liked what I had down. She even gave me an editor letter. It was a big deal. Even so, the not-a-novel-yet sat in a digital drawer, stagnant, because while Simon and his story had finally found their thrust, I still didn’t have mine. And that’s where the second turning point comes in.

I didn’t touch Simon’s story again for some time. I had no big ideas on how to make it a real novel, and no good reason to do so. After all, though I now saw that YA was a viable format for me, I still favored middle-grade. I dabbled over the next couple of years with one middle-grade trilogy in particular, outlining it, writing scenes, sketching characters—both in words and drawings. In those couple of years, I’d also started writing work-for-hire chapter books. They weren’t quite middle-grade, but they were damn close. Things seemed to be moving along, albeit slowly and without a lot of passion in the work.

Then my son was born. Here was this new little person. He would come to depend on me, look up to me, ask me for things like food and a home. If I didn’t begin to take my writing career seriously right then and there, it was never going to happen at all.

In the same way the death of my father had lent gravity to my story, and therefore to Simon’s story, my son’s birth added urgency to my goals and gave me a sound kick in the rear. I joined a professional organization, met another editor who liked Simon’s novella, and—most importantly—found the time and did the work necessary to turn that novella into a full-fledged novel.

—Steve Brezenoff

Steve Brezenoff

Steve Brezenoff has written dozens of chapter books for young readers, and The Absolute Value of 1 is his first novel for teens. His second, Brooklyn, Burning, came out in fall of 2011. Though Steve grew up in a suburb on Long Island, he now lives with his wife, their son, and their terrier in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Visit Steve at www.stevebrezenoff.com.

Follow @sbrezenoff on Twitter.


The Absolute Value of -1

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:

Elissa J. Hoole won a signed paperback edition of Steve Brezenoff’s debut YA novel, The Absolute Value of -1! Congrats! I’ll email the winner for her mailing address. Thank you again to everyone who entered!

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.