The Secret History Versus The Goldfinch

Recently, I finished reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It’s about a college student by the name of Richard Pappen going through the process of starting college at a remote institution. He finds a group of people and a subject that consumes him. In the end, they get involved with the murder a fellow classmate.

 

I read Tartt’s other book The Goldfinch a few years ago. I remember it fairly well. It’s about a boy, Theo Decker. The book starts with the death of his mother. The entire book is about Theo struggling to find a sense of normalcy in his life. Ultimately, he finds solace in what life has to offer.

 

Reading two things from the same author is something that helps me see how to improve my own writing. Seeing another writer’s progression suggests a way forward. My direction will probably be an amalgam of the authors I like best. I thought a lot about the differences and everything the author carried across both books.

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Photo by Mingwei Li on Unsplash. Picture enhancements by Graham Kar.

Both protagonists are chronic malcontents. They’re unhappy in their lives. They cling to fictional versions of everything that has happened to them. Richard lies to everyone about his life back home in Californa. Theo clings to the remnants of his perfect life with his mother, in any way possible. That has do with the way they romanticize the lives of others and the past.

 

Romanticizing something imbues it with qualities that are rarely apparent when something actually happens. I think of romanticizing the past as embellishing it to feel some comfort that wasn’t there in the moment. Seeing the lives of others as better, whether that’s the truth or not, feeds into the self-fulfilling prophecy that your life sucks. Digging a well of self-pity rarely gives you a good feeling. I’ll admit this opens up a lot story possibilities. And sometimes that, above mentioned thought process strangles us. That’s where these stories start. Then something shakes everything up. Richard is always in that strangling thought process. Theo is too young to be disaffected without something going catastrophically wrong, the death of his mother.

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Photo by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash. Picture enhancements by Graham Kar.

Frequently, Tartt casts characters with a dreamy air. Characters like Pippa and Camilla, as well as scenes. Sleepy in an ethereal light. That’s done with a few different elements. Elements like cigarette smoke, drawn shades, night time, dense fog, pure light, and drug induced states. That lends a slight fictional air to the proceedings, like lightening in Frankenstein. The environment lends a sense to what’s about to happen or has already happened. A drugged daze when the character feels lost. Cold when the character feels alone. Dream-like sights for the people we love romantically. A straight forward translation of a dreamy woman or guy. That nonetheless adds a unique dimension to her stories. The pictures and events described are picturesque and always interesting. Making the scenes simple wouldn’t work very well to translate the protagonist’s mindset. Saying a character is stuck with their head in the clouds isn’t the same as making it felt on nearly every page. Might I point out that this is very similar to how writers see the world. We examine mundane events to shed light on the human experience. It’s fascinating to see the part Tartt shares with us.

 

The protagonists love the unattainable. Pippa or Camilla depending on the book is the one Theo or Richard love. Not exactly them as people, but they fall in love with the idea of them. Theo is attracted to his first love and the possibility that if everything was different, they could be together. Richard loves the woman who is incapable of loving him. Camilla is in love with the strength of another. “We love in others what we most lack.” Richard H Stoddard.

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Photo by Arnaud Mesureur on Unsplash. Picture Enhancements by Graham Kar.

Richard dreams of Camilla and is dissatisfied with any other person. Theo knows it’ll never work with Pippa. They are broken in much the same way, and that can never work. Love of the unattainable is a continuation of their malcontent mindset. As you can probably tell, I’m masking a slight disgust and jealousy throughout this post.

 

The protagonist goes through the daily motions of life wishing for more. Theo attends school despite the turbulence in his life. He finds a job despite his obstacles. He gets engaged and on. Richard faithfully completes his assignment. He misses classes every now and then, but things work out. They find a way to keep from worrying, so the actual story has time to play out.

 

Drug high states are used for dramatic effect. That contributes to the dreamy quality present throughout the books. The descriptions of their experiences are interesting to read. I wonder how factual they are. It would be not that difficult to write from research and fictionalizing the rest. I suspect that everyone’s reaction would be slightly different. And drugged out experiences can be found if you look for it, as with probably everything these days. The characters take uppers, downers, and psychedelics throughout. The Secret Histroy features smoking and drinking. Theo does a ton of drugs with his friend Boris.

 

I’ll highlight a few differences. I really didn’t pay much attention to this while reading. The Secret History takes places during two years of Richard’s college existence. Identifying the time setting was tricky. It happened sometime be 1978 and the 1990’s. The Goldfinch follows Theo from middle school through to adulthood. It happens very close to the present at the end. Richard experiences guilt, and Theo deals with grief. Both of them never feel they fit in where they are. That’s something I’ve felt, and I really struggled to find my place in this world. When I started writing, that feeling waned a little. The more I pursue it, the more it feels more like I’ve found my place.

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Photo by Andrew Preble on Unsplash. Picture enhancements by Graham Kar.

Hampden College, the setting of The Secret History is as far from New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam as you can get. The Goldfinch goes on in Greenwich, NY, a suburb of Las Vegas, and Amsterdam. The Secret History is more action based but sometimes feels like a series of conversations in dream-like space. The Goldfinch is entirely internal with everything else taking a backseat. Richard, the protagonist of The Secret History tries finding the best path forward to achieve his goals despite everything thrown in his way. Theo accepts that his life will never be as he has expected. He has basically given up because he was broken at such a young age. Theo does his best to gain the approval of others. When he goes after his own ends, things backfire.

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Photo by Roberto Júnior on Unsplash. Picture enhancements by Graham Kar.

I enjoyed reading both books. Any fan of literary should read them, if you haven’t already. Their experiences shed light on what we have going for us. The stories are superb works of fiction, and say something as it was never said before. The Secret History and The Goldfinch.

 

Title photo credit: Shiro hatori on Unsplash

Planting Ideas and Watching Them Grow

The process of generating ideas and expanding them is the most fun for me. I’ve always been an idea person. I also like trying to find the possible basis for an idea. For example, what’s the source for a story like Shutter Island? I think of it as a combination of the process of going insane, investigating the supernatural, and solving a crime. That was fun. Never thought through that story idea before. It explains it for me, but that probably isn’t the truth.

 

All ideas start as a seed from something we see in our daily lives. It doesn’t have to be something completely external. Frequently, it’s something that resonates with something inside. Anyone else witnessing the same event doesn’t feel the same way you do. Once the idea is planted, it can either grow or die right there. That process is the same, no matter if it’s a story idea or something that makes you see the world differently.

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Ideas come in two fashions. We have an epiphany or just a realization/new idea. An epiphany is a realization that you can’t go back from. An idea that changes everything, and there’s no way back. This happens to me generally over an internal struggle I’m having.

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A few years ago, I struggled with reawakening my emotions. My writing was emotionless and felt inauthentic. I needed to remember how it felt to really feel. Then things started building gradually up to something, an epiphany. I started seeing changes in my writing. I wasn’t struggling like I once used to, figuring out what a character should feel. I knew how those emotions would manifest externally. I started feeling more useless than I have in a long time. I stopped blowing off emotional passages in books. And then, the epiphany came. One night I was ridiculously bored. Then this horrible feeling took me over. I felt intensely hungry, not for food, but everything I had denied myself. Things like friends, honesty, connecting with people, and being myself. I felt angry and sad that I had denied those things for so long. Then the epiphany came. That was everything I was hiding from for most of my life. That was why I was afraid to feel. I knew I would never allow myself to return to hiding. Nothing would bring me back to that scared kid hiding in the dark.

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Finding a new story idea has a fraction of that energy. Ideas come from connecting two tidbits of information you’ve learned. They are two things you’ve never put together before. For example the Earth and teleportation. That’s how this one came along.

 

The Earth is really one big machine that can teleport.

 

And combining Wiccan rituals with technology.

 

Ritualistic technology: A different society of humans with slightly different technology. Wiccan tech fusion.

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Those ideas can grow into something bigger if more thought is applied. The ability to put together two things you’ve never put together before is free association. I personally employ meditation to help enhance free association. Frequently, I ask a question to myself. What are issues average people go through? An idea prompt if you will.  Am I good enough at something? Rock star and nerd. A famous rock star holes up in his bedroom practicing during an after party. I prepared an example from my list of story ideas.

 

For a while, I’ve been toying with the superhero genre. How to change everything that’s going on around superheroes into something I want to write? Combing everyone with powers, superheroes, and aliens experimenting on humans for amusement. I got aliens drop masks across the globe and everyone gets superpowers. Where’s the story conflict? Superpowers make everyone do bad things. One person is trying to turn everyone back. The mask didn’t work for him. He lost everyone he cares about and wants them back. The superpowered want to stop him.

 

I kept expanding and got this.

 

Superhero mask idea #2. Masks fall, everyone gets, everyone keeps. Except one guy the mask doesn’t work on. He keeps looking to figure out how masks work. He was relevant scientist that can reverse engineer the device. The masked put someone on him to stop him from finishing or kill him. Dr. Good set up a dampening field against physical manifestations of strong powers, strong enough to kill. Toxic powers and non-harmful physical changes allowed. Everyone lives in fear of the Evil Eight or some coalition of evil masked. One of which, Scarlet is a shaper, mind hacker, and love toxic. She watches him work trying to kill him with bodies she puts on. She accesses his mind and temporarily becomes them. She turns into his super brilliant PhD student and actually helps. It doesn’t hurt Dr. Good was crushing severely. She gets a kiss and thinks she won. He escapes with an antidote he worked from a sample of her toxin. He gets back to work. Other evils turn up. He watches them outside. They drag him out. Right before he dies, a Mega shows up. Megas are people with prior inclinations and super-super powered so they stop caring for masks, evils, goods, humans, aliens, and life. They’re all powerful and don’t care. This Mega is unfathomably strong. He plucks everyone up to his cloud palace. Masks stop working. Mega turns everyone to help with his mind hacking and shaper abilities. Scarlet helps most as anyone he needs. Mega descends and enslaves everyone. Scarlet falls in love with Dr. Good. Dr. Good defeats Mega, masks, and evils. Scarlet driven insane. Masks bolster each other. With weakened masks, she can’t keep everything straight. Mask has fused to face. Dr. Good turns Mega to save her and almost looses himself. Scarlet brings him down. After Dr. Good becomes himself, Scarlet leaves him. Or maybe she has already fallen in love as herself.

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I wrote a part for book 2, The Trouble With Dreams about my process of choosing what to write in a particular scene. This is a short excerpt from The Trouble With Dreams. One notable difference, meditation instead of LSD.

 

The novel started with Drystan talking on the phone with a flirty client. Michael imagined a boyishly handsome guy of average stature, if a little thin. Melisande from accounts came around for the daily client information pickup. As a security measure, account information was on paper. It was a messy reason for their first meeting. Melisande was new to the company. Drystan was uncomfortable with the new recruit around. Fawn colored hair tied into a ponytail. A soft comfortable face to be around that wasn’t pretty enough to bring on thoughts of insecurity or so dull as to be bland. He felt like he had known her for years but they just meet. Later a fraudulent payee, brought Drystan down to her office. He spent a few minutes with Melisande looking over his shoulder. Drystan felt things he had never before.

Later that evening, they discovered they had been neighbors for a few weeks and never meet. Their relationship evolved into a deep friendship. A few things happened to draw them together, until they were having friendly dinners. A superstrom in Florida, where she was from, and getting locked out of her apartment after getting stuck jogging through a number of rain bursts, among other things. Michael remembered the getting locked out incident.

 


 

Drystan opened the door to Melisande drenched all the way through after jogging. He wasn’t sure exactly what was going on.

“Hi. I need my spare key. I got locked out.”

“Sure.” Drystan got his bunch of keys. “This is the sticky key right?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want help?”

“I really don’t care at this point.”

They walked next door to 117. Drystan dropped to his knees with her right near him. The key went in with some jiggling. A sideways push seated the key. A warm humid presence at his back was comforting. He turned the key with a grunt and the door opened. Melisande went inside. Drystan stood there looking at her. Melisande had removed her t-shirt, hung the dripping garment over her shoulder. With each breath, water dripped down from her equally wet sports bra. The drips smoothed out and rolled off.

“Do you want to come in, Drys?”

“What?” He cleared his throat. “No.” How much he wanted kiss her surfaced, but he couldn’t move beyond his doubts. Drystan thought about what could have been if he wasn’t anxious all time and a better person. He would have kissed her breathless, made her warm, and taken on some of her wetness. The images of what he wanted to do to her flashed through his head. Melisande had tried making the first move, but he freaked out. If he had the desire, she would accept him. He wasn’t ready, and it hurt.

Melisande said, “Thank you for everything, Drystan.” She held his arm.

Drystan wanted the feeling to last, but didn’t have it in him. “No big deal and you’re welcome.”

“Later Drys.”

“Bye.” He couldn’t bring himself to say her name. She shut the door and Drystan left hating everything he couldn’t do.

 


 

Michael ingested the drugged slice of LSD. He remembered the outline. A few more dinners and Drystan suggested they try dating. Getting Melisande to understand the semantic difference took some time. The first few dates happened without much difference. Their second kiss was far from perfect. Their first night together was embarrassing for Drystan. They ended up making out and fall asleep, clothes once removed.

Michael set aside his laptop, closed his eyes, and allowed the drug to take him into the story as Drystan, Melisande, or both. He woke up as Drystan, dressed in something comfortable. Finding her in his bed was freaky and oddly soothing at the same time. He made coffee, something Michael didn’t do in real life. He got the cereal. Then he saw Melisande, putting on the same clothes as the night before. Anything unimportant to the story skipped through. The cereal tasted like nothing except a starchy paste similar to papier-mâché glue. The coffee was good and the breakfast left her bored. Maybe they should go to that place around the corner. She suggested it to Drystan. He agreed.

She showered first. Drys ate his cereal and watched TV to keep his mind off the fact that she was feet away. It troubled him now, even though she was bathing a few additional feet away the day before. It was frustrating he couldn’t take her when she wanted. If he had been more of a man then or now, they would be so much closer than they already were. He was mad at his impotence. Drystan got a glimpse of her dressing through the open bathroom door. It felt exciting and risqué, basically anything could happen. They left the apartment after Melisande made a short trip to her apartment.

Breakfast arrived at the dinner that Michael could see as if he was actually there. Drystan extended his hand to meet hers. He still wanted to feel closer to her, so he moved around to the other side and slide across his plate. Holding hands wasn’t enough. Drystan held her leg and drew circles on the inside of her thigh. Melisande held his forearm in tension. What if someone saw them and thought the worse. She relaxed after realizing she shouldn’t care, in truth, Michael realized it. With breakfast finished, she turned his head for a kiss.

Michael dived into Drystan’s head. His anxiety had taken root and begun to flourish. Worries flooded his head. What if we kiss too long? What if I gag at the taste of food in her mouth? What if I choke on spit? The worries grew more absurd. What if a car dives into the building and we don’t see it coming? What if an Earthquake cracks open the floor and swallows them? What if they weren’t supposed to be together? What if his true love was watching them kiss, and that ruined the possibility of true love? What if I ruined everything with my anxiety? What if I mess up this kiss? The worries swirling around were too much. He had to do something to make it stop.

Drystan slapped her. A small laugh echoed across the back of Michael’s head. Michael agreed it was funny, but did he want it to happen? It worked on a few levels. Drystan reacted to anxiety with a physical response. The slap is an effeminate gesture. He did something against his best interests, characteristic of anxiety, something that’s good in some conditions but generally self-harming. It worked as well as seating the key.

Melisande looked at him, glum and a hand pressed to her cheek. Drystan said sorry, I don’t know what came over me. A guy came up to Melisande, asking if she was okay. Another guy came up to Drystan lecturing him about hitting women. He froze and couldn’t say anything. The guy threw Drystan into standing. The lecture continued. Melisande went around or tried to. She spat out the words Let me go. She came to Drystan and held his arm. Once everything was smoothed out they left the restaurant.

Michael was ready to write something.

 


 

Drystan woke up the next day, forgetting who was sleeping next to him. The second set of breaths startled him. The buzz of worrisome ideas erupted through his head. The thoughts accrued, building pressure to the conclusion that it was Melisande. He turned around to see her sleeping there and felt relieved. The duvet tucked in around her neck gave him a deep longing to be there in its place. Drystan got out of bed and into something clean. By the time he devoured his first bowl of cereal, Melisande escaped the state of sleep. She came to join him in drinking coffee and partaking in cereal, which decidedly tasted of starch decoupage paste.

“Why don’t we go out for breakfast?” Melisande asked, spooning through the cereal mush.

“Sure, it could be fun.”

“That place around the corner work?” She was relieved with his agreement. Getting Drystan out the door, except to work reduced to a battle.

“Yeah, sure.”

“I’ll go in the shower first, my tub drain is choking.”

Drystan eat a little more sugary cereal, trying to keep his mind off Melisande through the open bathroom door. Drystan fixated on his inability to do the deed and give her what she wanted the other night. If he was a real man, nothing should have stopped him from the thing they both wanted. His feelings of impotence taunted him, a jeering list of inadequacies that made his life nothing desirable. He watched TV with her a few feet away bathing in steaming water. He wanted to make her hot, but the water would have to suffice. She was an additional three feet away every single day, but today the proximity was too much. Drystan swore. The TV wasn’t doing a thing for him. He watched it as drudgery with a pleasant view of her dressing through the open door.

Drystan excused past into the shower. It was his turn. Melisande told him she was off to her unit for a fresh change of clothes. They met downstairs and walked over to the restaurant down the block. The restaurant was just as Drystan remembered. Glass block walls, retro dining booths, bare bulb fixtures, neon menu signs, parquet floors, and regulars mixed in with some people they knew. They found an empty booth. The dour waitress took their order.

The food found them sitting quietly and looking at each other. They began eating. Drystan felt cut off from Melisande sitting across the table. A feeling of watching her with no connection whatsoever, she could have been any other woman at that point, and he wouldn’t have felt any different. That wasn’t true. He needed some acknowledgment from her. Drystan stretched his arm out to her. Inching closer, brought them to meet. Drystan felt an immediate reassurance that she was still with him. The feeling fled as quick as it came. He wanted more.

Drystan motioned his intention to sit beside her. With her nod, he switched places. He held her hand at a spot on the bench between them. Interweaving their fingers together became a great thing for Drystan’s self-confidence. There now was something irrefutable about the allowance to do that. They went beyond friendship — not that he didn’t know that — but it nullified the ability for his anxiety to interfere.

Drystan grew more daring and cavalier than he knew what to do with. The warmth from her bare lower thigh called to him, the smooth hot skin inches away. Drystan climbed out of her hand and walked over to her thigh and landed below the hem of her skirt. Drystan satisfied his hunger, unable to think of anything he wouldn’t want to do to her. He needed more but that wasn’t the place. His index finger split off and wandered up her thigh. He took to tracing his finger around in a circle.

Melisande couldn’t believe what Drystan was up to. She had to practically seduce him the other night and nothing came of it. This was the Drystan she wanted then. There was nothing they could do there. She held his wrist tight, but thought naught should come of it. Nobody was looking under there. Drystan kept it hidden, but Melisande was almost driven crazy by the sensation. She wanted him and wasn’t sure about waiting until they got home. She laughed at the feeling. With the food done, Melisande turned his head to her with a smile. They kissed.

Drystan enjoyed it for a moment, before the thoughts returned. What if this was all a big mistake? Something he would regret for life? An unforgivable grievance because he wasn’t ready for her? He wasn’t ready to grow as a man. That relationship wasn’t something he deserved. The guilt of falling for her. The questions grew more illogical and worrisome. What if Melisande wasn’t the one for him? What if he was missing the girl for him right now outside his apartment window? What if a garbage truck tore through the intersection and killed them as they kissed? A kiss of death. What if a massive Earthquake split the ground right below, swallowing them whole? The worries build and grew to immense proportions, making him ready to do anything against them.

Drystan slapped Melisande across the face. The sound lingered in his ears. Melisande looked up at him, her hand pressed to her face. She couldn’t understand what happened.

“I’m sorry.”

She looked worried and held her hand there. Drystan took out his wallet, counted up fifteen bucks, and a guy came up to Melisande. “Is everything okay here?”

That was all he heard before another guy came over to him. “What’s your name son?”

“Drystan.”

“Well, Drystan we don’t treat women that way. Do you understand me?”

Drystan couldn’t bring words to his mouth.

“We have to respect each other or everything degrades to primal instincts. That’s something neither of us want. Speak up son.”

He began poking at Drystan’s shoulder. “We need you to stop hurting women. They deserve respect. Respect keeps us civil. Civility is what we want. I don’t see that here. Say something.” The guy threw Drystan up with his collar.

Melisande was explaining the situation. Seeing Drystan standing there shaking, she tried to get to him. The guy in front of her held her back. “Let me go!” she spat out, laced with venom. The guy let go, startled. Melisande went to Drystan. She was angry with the other guy for saying “bitch,” under his breath, as if she couldn’t hear him.  She held Drystan’s arm, explaining that it was a big misunderstanding. They were fine. Everything was good. The two guys backed away after some additional explanation. Melisande turned Drystan’s head to kiss him and waited for the panic to leave him. Drystan threw his money on the counter. They both left.

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That’s basically the final step in the creative process from an idea to prose. Editing is needed after. I wish I could type faster. I wish I could write more. I have more ability to type than ever before. Maybe it’s enough. I’m thinking of writing a lot of short stories with the ideas I’ve come up with and a book or two. It’ll be fun.

The Influx of Technology and How it Changes Us.

Technology has changed so much in the span of my lifetime. From 1989 to 2017 isn’t that long, and everything before took much longer than the span of a life. In 1995, we were using Apple II’s and Windows 95 on absurdly expense desktops. A monitor a CRT monitor, a tube TV hooked up to a box the size of a handful of college textbooks. And no internet except that annoying sound of a dial-up connection that wasn’t easy to use. Then fast forward 5 years, and we have the first laptops that people actually use in everyday life. Then 7 years more and we have smartphones. Now almost everyone has a cell phone. It doesn’t matter where you look across the globe. In some places, they skipped the whole personal computer and went straight to phones instead.

 

This blog post isn’t about the technology, but what it does to people. What having an internet connection always at our fingertips does to us? That quickly gets to the idea that it matters what we do with the available tech out there. Technology is a tool and the effects are controlled by the user. The technology isn’t evil. The way we use it can be.

 

We’re connected all the time, and there’s an expectation that we’ll be reachable at most times. It seems unusual that someone can’t be reached unless they don’t want to be. But connection is still possible. And distance doesn’t mean what it used to. From across the world, it can feel like you’re in the same room. Using things like video chat, texting, e-mail, and phone calls. The latency, the time between sending something a receiving a reply, has really shortened. A letter takes anywhere from 3 to 7 days, and an e-mail takes a few seconds, and it’s free. Things could get even better with telepresence. Where you can remotely control a robot and facetime with anybody you run into or your robot runs into.

 

I should probably say I’m a smartphone Luddite, because I lack the physical ability to use one. I have a smartphone and use another person’s help to operate the device. I use a laptop with a drawing tablet and click with the other hand. That’s how I’ve written everything as a writer. The mental overhead of using an on-screen keyboard is exhaustive, but you can adjust to anything, right? I check my phone three times a day and that’s basically all the interaction I have with the smartphone thing.

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Stock from Unsplash, Adam Birkett. Enhancement by Graham Kar.

The other side of that is the constant distraction. A smartphone is a device designed to get your attention when something important happens. I know phones have a ton of settings about when and how to get your attention. The issue with that is the average user doesn’t meddle with deeper settings except for ringer volume. We’ll talk about a typical user. The phone is always with you and asking for attention. Unlike an actual person, you don’t actually know why the device wants your attention. And the whole thing is addictive. I’m probably using too strong a word.

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Stock from Unsplash, Rosalind Chang. Enhancement by Graham Kar.

When your phone rings, there’s a need to answer. After five rings, the person calling goes to voicemail. Something like a text doesn’t carry the same urgency. There’s more time between each action. There’s an associated sound when each message comes. And each time that beep goes off, you know a message came in. It’s basically training. The beep is slowly associated with a message and eventually what you feel reading a message. Reading a message feels good. And then we crave that beep. Sometimes something strange happens. You hear that distinctive beep, check your phone, and there isn’t a message. Or something else makes a similar beep and you suddenly feel happy.

 

And the beep isn’t the end of it. If you don’t check the message it really bugs you. You’re constantly wondering what the message says. You think of possible messages that could have come in. And you can’t stop thinking about it until you read the message. That all depends on how frequently you get messages. The novelty can wear off depending.

 

That device designed to get your attention is always with you. Quickly pulling you out of a conversation or anything you’re focusing on. This is happening more now than before.

 

We can be reached at any time. That’s a good thing when nothing is going on. Interrupting a conversation to check your phone is quickly becoming a social taboo. And a distraction that frequently follows us. Multitasking has taken on a whole new meaning. Younger people are slowly specializing in multi-tasking. Switching between different tasks decreases the ability to focus on one task. It never feels like multitasking reduces how well we do things. But multitasking is actually switching between tasks multiple times. Getting refocused takes a long time. And now we’re searching for the zone or flow state. Multitasking reduces access to that state. Imagine being in that flow state all the time. How would that feel? Probably how multitasking feels except the results are better.

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Stock from Unsplash, Juliette Leufke. Enhancement by Graham Kar.

We’re slowly moving away from being present. Being focused on the situation happening right before you is getting really hard. Ignoring a text message is really difficult and impossible at times. Not checking your phone is tough. It takes a special kind of person to decide differently. It’s like saving money. We save money for some future event and have less in the present. The ability to save can easily separate poverty from a better life. And saving money is historically a difficult thing. Credit card debt, insufficient retirement funds, college loans, and adjustable rate mortgages are all symptoms of the inability to save money. And reversing that is going to be really hard. Not being present is just as difficult a problem to fix.

 

The internet gives us access to information that would be unimaginable twenty years ago. A quick internet search could define verdigris in seconds. A fraction of a sec faster, you could remember if you already know the answer. The information in more readily available than ever before. It’s like the argument about calculators. Sure they make students terrible at mental math. They don’t need to do mental math every day. They know addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Practice changes nothing. Well, using a calculator for basic stuff took longer than doing it in my head. It was difficult for me to operate a calculator and do the math on paper. Practice is the only thing separating any of us in my belief.

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Stock from Unsplash, Prateek Verma. Enhancement by Graham Kar.

Looking up something isn’t everything. Memorization isn’t the mark of intelligence. In it’s simplest terms intelligence is how quickly you can bridge various things you’ve learned, and use what you have learned. The more disparate those ideas you connect moves into genius territory. That ability to make connections isn’t easily taught. In fact, we are taught specialization and compartmentalization. That goes to the fact that researching something isn’t the same as understanding. Memory versus intelligence. Take an encyclopedia. You need to know some things before using such a tool. Like the ability to read, and the ability to spell the topic you want to find. Knowledge helps you acquire more knowledge. Looking up something is throw away knowledge. It’s like studying for a test and forgetting everything. There’s no real point unless you use and understand the knowledge you find.

edho-pratama phone lookup definition
Stock from Unsplash, Edho Pratama. Enhancement by Graham Kar.

This recent push to understand something quickly without too much effort is bothering me. Things like infographics, listicles, and tweets. They offer this tantalizing proposition of understanding something complex very simply. Infographics help show complex things in a way people understand. Except, a portion of the data is lost in the process. And the source can easily distort the data in that way. They choose what data to show and present it in a different way. Listicles bug me. They very rarely drill down to anything of substance. They thrive on presenting a wide array of information so that something works for the reader. Listicles promise understanding, a feeling of belonging, and quick/easy knowledge. They deliver not much of the promise generally. When there’s something useful it’s small.

 

The internet gives everyone a voice. You can find viewpoints you’ve never been exposed to. Like what it’s like to be a woman in tech. What it’s like when someone steals your cultural identity? What is it like to have an STI? What is it like having BPD? But there’s also the flip side to that. We frequently set up situations where we only hear the people that agree with us and completely dismiss other opinions as foolish. Then the nastiness that anonymity brings out. People frequently say stuff remotely through the web they would never say in person. #Gamergate, Trumpism, Fake News, Alt-Right, and so many other things wouldn’t be possible without the internet.

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Stock from Unsplash, Mark Solarski. Enhancement by Graham Kar.

The change in technology over my lifetime is massive. Now we have to figure out where to go from here. It’s a personal choice how we use technology. We have to decide to take in the good and search out what we’re missing. The goal is to understand people and not alienate them. The future is bright if we take it there. The world is filled with possible catastrophe around every corner it seems, but it’s up to us. We have to choose for ourselves where we want our little corners of the world to go.

 

Featured image stock from Unsplash, Roland Larsson. Enhancement by Graham Kar.

Book Cover Contest

Recently, I ran into an advertisement for a book cover contest. I don’t usually try entering contests. The need for structured competition feels a tad bit ridiculous to me. I have nothing against people that enjoy competition. It’s just not for me. I prefer keeping an internal tally of my improvement over what I’ve done before. Competing with people I believe are my betters in my mind, can sometimes motivate me.

 

Keeping up motivation through a competition is the hard part. The way it’s supposed to work, doesn’t work for me. Nonetheless, I followed the traditional structure. First, I amped myself up with the thought that I would win. Every time I wanted to stop, I braced on that mantra, I’m going to win. And there was always fear. If I didn’t win, I would be crushed, and I’d never want to do something like that again.

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Anyway, I had to design a special edition book cover for Dan Brown’s next book, Origin. The rules were simple. Include some text and make it the right size. Choosing what cover design to make was the difficult thing. If I supremely made a cover of something they didn’t want, it wouldn’t matter how good it looked. I could design anything I wanted. Making something they wanted as the cover was the hardest part. I needed details on the book. Those were sparse. Origin is the sequel to Inferno. Origin was about modern art. That was everything we got.

Day 1

In addition to entering the contest, I wanted to learn Adobe Illustrator. I had two months to submit a book cover. I choose what to make. I decided Origin was about something Biblical like the other books in the series. I knew the protagonist would be Robert Langdon. And modern art. I wanted to make a cubist picture of a guy for the cover. Then add the text and block out behind it, like a reversed redaction.

Day 2

I started. First, I made a reference image from stock I found on Unsplash.

day-4

I drew shapes.

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I merged and divided shapes so everything was at a depth of one layer.

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I colored the squares.

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I made shadows.

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Finally, I blocked out the text.

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I combined all the layers.

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Ultimately, I didn’t become a finalist. I learned a lot and probably won’t enter another book cover design contest again. My cover was over-designed. I frequently over-complicate things. The focus wasn’t the legibility of the text. I focused too much of the cover picture. If I make another book cover, I’ll fix all that stuff. And my design wasn’t what they wanted.

 

These are the finalists.

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Thank for reading.

Experience, Write, Publish: Thoughts on a Memoir

 

I’ve never been drawn to reading memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, or creative non-fiction. It feels to me that people can say almost anything in those literary forms. Selectively choosing moments that fit into the conventional craft of writing fiction. It’s like those movies based on true events. The screenwriters dramatize the story and your left wondering what exactly happened and what was changed for dramatic effect. The truth is always elusive and that genre really makes it too apparent for my comfort. And anyway, my life is far from typical, muscular dystrophy, mediation, immigration, and intense emotion. Maybe that’s just a little too much ego there, but that’s the starting point.

 

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A writer I’m following that writes great satire. I’m totally new to reading satire.

 

Around a year or two ago, things started to change. I discovered Medium for the first time. Medium is this micro-blogging site taking off right at the moment. It was a hidden writing community when I first joined. A lot of things changed from that time. Getting sold to Facebook and the introduction of membership. Medium specializes in creative non-fiction, point of view pieces, and lastly, fiction. Now it’s shifting to listicles like the rest of the web, sadly. Throughout this post, I’ll link out to the best articles I’ve read on Medium.

 

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A listicle I actually liked reading.

 

I went there from a link on Facebook, originally. I don’t read news frequently, and Facebook mentions are what I go by. Reading the news feels too real for me. I logged in and found a few stories, not in the news like the refugee crisis in the Middle East. A POV piece by Piper Perabo visiting a midway point in the refugee’s path. That happened a few times.

 

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That POV piece by Piper Perabo as mentioned in the paragraph above.

 

Then I dived into the creative non-fiction and POV. It was a window into the life of women. Medium has a surprising number of things I had never been exposed to in my entire life. Pieces about the bad experiences that a ridiculous number of women have gone through, sexual violence. Things like rape, unwanted sexual attention, harassment, inappropriate gestures, and trouble with mostly men.

 

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One such piece.

 

 

 

My thoughts were astonishment. For a really long time, I couldn’t figure out how women even functioned in society. How could people get out of bed with the looming threat around every corner? Knowing it was virtually impossible not to run into someone that had done something like that in the past. It was unfathomable that was the case in 21st century America. This is America. How is it possible?

 

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The possible future state of America.

 

Sure we could blame so many things. The over-sexualization of American culture, women, and body image. But the cause isn’t the big issue. What can we do now? How do people still function?

 

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This is an article about Pick-up Artists and Ovid. I used it to help research a character I was writing for The Trouble With Dreams.

 

Simple. By accepting the condition as it is now. Continue with life as it is. And wait for change. Is that really what’s going to happen? So far it has.

 

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A story of finding yourself.

 

I’ve basically gone on a rant of incredulity for the last handful of paragraphs. Let’s return to the topic. What changed after discovering Medium? Not much. I subscribed and tried writing a few things. After that nothing really changed.

 

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A story of not belonging.

 

Then I read Eat, Pray, Love. I’d watched the movie ten years ago when it came out. I didn’t think it was a memoir. The movie seemed too neat to be real life. Everything fit perfectly together and smoothly transitioned like fiction. I’ve seen a ton of biopics, but it was never so neat. I happily went on for years, bought the book, and eventually read it. It had always been a memoir. The book wasn’t as neat as the movie, but the events were rearranged a little, to fit conventional storytelling craft. I kept merging the images from the movie with images I constructed in my head. Reading to me isn’t a series of phrase but a series of pictures based on the written text.

Eat Pray Love

Liz started in New York and her messy divorce. The book spent way more time before the travel started. The mess with her rebound relationship. Then the happenstance of finding her guru and the Balinese Medicine man. With that, her travels began.

 

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Got to love satire. For the longest time, I didn’t.

 

In Italy, there was so much more than food. Learning the language and living in a city for months. I never knew so much research went into a memoir. Liz explained why Italian is such a pretty language. I fell in love with Italian through reading it. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very enthused to read my first memoir. If Liz wasn’t so funny, I wouldn’t have finished it. I found the description of tastes wanting. I haven’t eaten solid food in years and wanted to imagine the tastes of Italy. The taste should run a few paragraphs in my mind. I was glad to see she asked the locals what was good. That’s the only way.

 

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Ella Dawson. Written really well.

 

The Thanksgiving was a big difference between the book and movie. In the movie, they fell asleep in the dining room. But in the book, the turkey took way longer to cook than they expected. Turkey was for breakfast.

 

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Another article I liked.

 

Then it was off to India and the ashram of her guru. India is a very spiritual place. The saying goes, you walk a few paces and run into a guru of some kind or the other. Gurus are that plentiful in bigger cities. Liz went to a remote ashram filled with foreigners and local devotees. I don’t agree with a few things. I have never learned from a guru and figured out meditation mostly in isolation. I don’t think a guru has to bless you to have a chance at enlightenment. Learning in isolation leads to a longer, meandering, and wandering journey to the same goal. Three months isn’t enough to learn a self-guided meditation practice. I have a lot to learn about describing meditation practices. When I try to explain meditation or my deep experiences, the person listening doesn’t understand what I’m saying. I’ve spent too much time in self-monolog and isolation, that explaining things in an understandable way is really difficult at times. Before writing a memoir on me, I need to learn how of write deep things in a way that other people get.

 

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A deep discussion well written by another writer I like, Emma Lindsey.

 

I don’t believe a set of holy words must be used as a mantra. A mantra should have the required associations in the mind. The final description of Liz’s experience with the divinity inside her wasn’t that clear to me. Some experiences can’t be put into words even by the best. I was nice to see the ashram through the author’s eyes.

 

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A perspective on defining something that shouldn’t need defining in a perfect world. 

 

The Bali part was about balance. I would state it as filling your life based on your loves. Whether it’s meditation, writing, and thought or meditation, love, and writing. Ketut and Balinese culture were strangely familiar to Indian culture and weirdly different. Liz had so many facts and peculiarities that I enjoyed reading. Meeting Filipe was interesting. Ex-pats are a microcosm of the world writ large if everyone wanted chill above all else.

 

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Emma Lindsey figuring things out for us.

 

Her dealings with Wayan, another healer, and Ketut, the medicine man were interesting. Sometimes Ketut didn’t remember some things. And Wayan was a rarity there. She was divorced. The family is really important in Bali and acts like a compass to help navigate the world. Wayan and Liz were both divorced. Then Liz finds a way to help Wayan and works through the hiccup associated with it. Ketut teaches Liz a few mediations and many life lessons.

 

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A possible answer.

 

The third to last chapter felt odd to me. It was a flashback to her first trip to Bali. Liz was silent for a few weeks on a remote island. She eventually discovered that her current life wasn’t working and she needed a change. It felt like an epiphany and it came in the right place. It was placed out of time, towards the end of the novel. The sequence of events in time doesn’t matter to the sequence of the memoir. The majority of the events should be in chronological order but a scene here or there is fine.

 

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Another article for book research.

 

The memoir worked like it was supposed to. Reading a genre before writing in it is essential to the craft. Not sure which ones I’m going to read. I have no idea when I’ll even write a memoir. Everything is up in the air. I’ll work towards getting my deep experiences across on the page. Sometime down the line, I’ll try writing a memoir, maybe. Experience, Write, you know the rest.

 

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A woman working through illness.

 

 

GK

Failed Story

 

This is the fervent work of two months, 42 pages, 28,451 words. It fits into the grandiose plan I had for basically an epic. This is 1/16 of my total plan. Get the plan here as pdf. This is way too much like a documentary. It details almost everything that happens in Inslee’s life for a period of two weeks with too many flashbacks. The writing seems almost horrible to me now. Writing it felt great at the time. TL:DR Inslee wanders through life dreaming of something more but never really getting there in any true sense. If you guys get through to the end, please tell me what worked. That would really help.

 

Later guys.

 

 

Inslee

 

I was trapped in a state between dreaming and awake. Everything felt like I was conscious, but I couldn’t exactly remember much after the fact. I woke with bits and pieces, feeling there was so much missing. He appeared in it, holding one of my near frozen hands. I pictured a bench by a duck pond, then walking around. I was so tired after, but sleep refused its company. I threw off my bed sheet and crossed my arms.

 

Closing my eyes for at least a few minutes changed nothing, except making me more awake. I looked up at one of the ribs surrounding the ship inside the inner hull.  High tension cabling joined almost every structural element to them. Everything above — as with every other surface was coated in some impact-resistant material. The overhead skylight showed a multitude of stars appearing overhead as if still on Earth but in a configuration suited to a nearly two-thousand-year journey from home.

 

I pulled the covers back over, hugged them to my chest, and arose from bed, wrapping myself with the cover. A tripped over to the only window by the foot of the bed. The hunched back of the ship truncated by the med bay wall and punctured by massive windows, crossed with invisible ribs. Spare pods barnacled the ceiling. On the deck below, eighteen flesh colored pods held the next three gens.

 

I moved over to the door as it opened and out onto the grated walkway. This followed with the usual unpleasantness of bare feet on grated floor. I reached a space in the rail and stepped off. I floated weightless while the ship gradually lowered me down. The blanket stayed with me, unaffected by grav through everything. I landed beside the first row of illuminating pods and proceeded over to the corner most pod, the home of DB. Pressing a spot on my left shoulder, generated a set of bedding in my hand, which I laid down besides the pod. I lay down beside DB.

 

He looked peaceful in the pink glow of the pod with one arm under his head and the other hand at his chin. All of us on ship now pod or otherwise would’ve spent a minimum of twenty-five years dreaming life away before consciousness with a saved neural scan. Dreaming without any outside experience ended up a jumble of user generated stimuli. They were almost empty vessels awaiting a consciousness or experience. DB dreamed with his brilliantly green eyes running around behind closed lids. I remembered him best as the moody lyricist of thirty, wandering from quarters to job with notes hanging around and the occasional rendition. His hair was growing in nicely in the month it had.

 

I couldn’t help but think about one of my kids, Trish as she liked to be called most of her life. She inadvertently exposed herself and half the crew to radiation, myself included in one of the labs. At the time, the hands-on three-year-old required almost two weeks in pod. The consensus was consciousness in pod helped avoid developmental issues. Two weeks exceeded all known cases. We deployed a pod into the shared three cabin space for the family. Removing the pod’s outer covering allowed interaction through the confines of treatment. When everything righted, Trish couldn’t experience the biological imperative of sleep without the pod. We reintroduced the pink pod lighting, gel mattress, and soothing white noise with the plans of future dependence removal. In about ten years, everything returned to normal and pod consciousness hereby regulated to ten days max.

 

Looking at DB, sleeping, and thinking about Trish delivered me safely into slumber. A few sc later, the ship lights came on. The black and white clarity of darkness replaced with the multicolor coherence of day. I rewrapped myself in sheet and returned to cabin just as the Captain came around for pre-day checks with the night flight crew.

 

Read More >>

 

GK

Instant Feedback

This is a guest post from my friend, Cori Nelson. She’s a writer of children’s books and middle-grade novels. Right now, Cori is writing her thesis. She traveled halfway around the globe to continue her writing career. Check out her WordPress blog and scroll through her tweets if you’re so inclined.

 


 

Writing is a lonely business. That seems like a pretty generic statement, but it’s true! As a writer, you sit alone with your computer or notebook and argue with yourself over and over and over about plot and grammar and spelling. Being trapped in your own head all the time is not only lonely, but it can hinder your ability to make good decisions (not to mention drive you completely crazy). This is why I think every writer should join a writing group.

 

This year, I’ve been studying Writing for Children at the University of Winchester. Through the course, I’ve had to share my work in progress with others and then receive instant critiques on my writing. As an introverted, I’m-fine-sitting-in-the-corner-by-myself kind of person, I was very nervous about this concept. I remember reading my first piece out, my voice and hands shaky, my brain forcing me to read at top speed to get it over with. But afterwards! After my voice faded away from the room, after the short awkward silence that follows any reading, after everyone stopped writing down their thoughts on the excerpt in front of them and looked at me, was amazing. My classmates, people I had just met for the first time a week ago, went around the room and told me all of their thoughts, good and bad.

 

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It was incredible. And it felt so good to share my writing with others and have them not only like and understand it, but give me feedback that was helpful, too.

 

Receiving the feedback immediately after reading my writing out was great, too, and something that I think makes in-person writing groups better than remote. It’s nerve-racking enough to read your work in progress out in person and getting feedback right away. I can’t imagine the agony you would feel sending your work in progress to someone and having to wait weeks for their thoughts. Plus, as a children’s writer, I like to write funny. There is simply nothing better than reading something you wrote out loud and listening to your group members laugh at the moments you were hoping were actually funny. That’s something you cannot get with a remote writing group.

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It can definitely be very scary to share your writing with others, as writing is a very personal thing, but there are so many things you just do not catch when reading through your own work. Your eyes glaze over a missing ‘the’ just assuming it’s there, your brain tells you that a sentence makes complete sense, when really it’s just a jumble of nonsense. Someone unfamiliar with your work, though, will catch all of those things. She’ll notice when you’ve used the same word twice within two sentences and when one character sounds the exact same as another and will ask the all-important “but why?” to a scene that actually, now that you’re thinking about it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Having someone else read your work is so helpful, I can’t say it enough!

 

All of my classes here in Winchester were designed to have a lecture for the first half and a workshop for the second half. Eventually, I began to yearn for the workshop half of class, especially when it was my turn to read and there was something I was stuck on with my piece and needed to discuss.

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Along with helping you find grammar and spelling errors, and helping you to better understand your own story by asking questions and giving suggestions, a writing group is a great support system. The group I’m in now (that I sadly have to leave in less than a month!) is amazing, to say the very least. It is made up of some of the most talented children’s writers I have ever met. Each and every one of us is devoted to each other’s writing as if it’s our own. When one member of the group has a victory (like hitting a word count goal), the entire group celebrates. When a member has a setback or is doubting themselves and their work, the entire group comes together to reassure them that they’re not a terrible writer, to offer suggestions to help stimulate new ideas, to offer the sympathetic and always appreciated “it’s going to be okay”. And when a member is having irrational thoughts about their work in progress, the entire group is there to help talk them off the ledge, to remind them that an idea had mid-dream is not always the best idea, and that “no, rewriting your entire dissertation two weeks before hand-in probably isn’t the best idea.” talking from experience, here. I honestly had a thought about rewriting my entire book even though it’s due at the end of the month. Thankfully, my writing group members stepped in with some rational thinking to save the day.

 

It’s important for everyone to have people like this in your life, true. But as a writer, I think it’s even more important because they’ll help you to keep going. As I said earlier, writing is a very lonely business. It is so easy to get lost in your own thoughts, especially the bad thoughts that tell you you’re not good, that your writing is awful, that you should just give up.

 

JK Rowling got hundreds of rejection letters when she started querying Harry Potter. As did Stephen King before he made it. As did Kate DiCamillo. As did every single author who’s ever been published. And I can guarantee you that all of them had a support system of some kind to help them get through the many rejections. If not an entire writing group, then at least someone who believed in them and their writing. At the end of the day, what more can you ask for?