How I Lost My Certainty and Found Curiosity

At fifteen years old, I decided that everything I had been taught about the world was wrong.

I had just freed myself from a depression – a three-year ordeal in which nightmares had jolted me from my sleep. I had a collection of tear-stained pillowcases, dampened by years of agonizing religious confusion.

A Bible teacher at my Christian school in South Carolina had done the confusing by warning my class that God heard our every thought. He further declared that God would someday broadcast these thoughts to the angels and everyone who had ever lived. “There will be tears in heaven, folks, even for the saved,” he had said. “Tears and remorse beyond anything you can imagine. Be careful what you think.”

At thirteen, I became convinced that my thoughts were offensive to God and that afterlife humiliation awaited me. I tried in vain to impede my “impure” thoughts; instead, I became neurotic and depressed.

My fear of my own mind began a three-year journey, starting when I was in seventh grade, of guilt, religious doubt, and tortured prayers. The summer after leaving ninth grade, my belief in God shattered.

I would have expected the loss of my belief system to fuel my despair. Instead, I was suddenly free of it – leaving me to wonder about the world in a way I never had.

If there is no God, I thought, how is anything here?

I entered my new public school the following fall bright-eyed with curiosity. Until that year, I had dozed through my science classes. But my new school encouraged critical thinking, a practice that my previous teachers would have deemed as sinful as stealing tithes to buy porn. The “new” educational philosophy dovetailed with my new habit of questioning everything. Nothing was too sacred for scrutiny anymore.

I fell in love with biology. Before taking the class, I had known that I was made of cells but I had never cared. Now I knew that I was cells, and suddenly they mattered. Was I actually a just colony of cells that mistakenly thought it was a single self? How did cells produce my consciousness?

I became so caught up in studying, I made no effort to make friends at my new school. My solitude led me to another realization: I could be happy with just my own company.

As a previously bullied kid, I had absorbed the message that hordes of friends were essential for happiness. That was untrue.

Although I had enjoyed some good friendships in my life, I could do without them. I missed least of all the gaggle of back-stabbing frenemies that had stampeded through my childhood.

Alone, burrowing down in my beanbag as I studied, I could follow my own interests without worrying about seeming weird.

But I did feel weird. I felt like an extraterrestrial that had been shipwrecked in my home town in South Carolina. Everything felt new, even my English literature classes. I had always read novels, but mainly for escapism. Suddenly fiction was about discovering who I was and even what it meant to be human.

Without a soul, I no longer knew what “human” meant. Were we really just animals with inflated opinions of ourselves?

I had once seen humans as soulful creatures supervised by an authoritarian yet loving father God. Now I saw the world as a planet of confused aliens desperately searching for their origins – which was how I felt personally.

Whenever, I studied, I felt like I was doing something more than homework. I was searching for some sort of cohesive world view to replace the religious one I had lost. The more I learned the more ignorant I felt, yet for the first time ever, I made straight A’s.

I gave up watching television. Suddenly, real life interested me more than fake people on a screen. I was made of tiny cells, I had a simian ancestral past, and I lived on a rock that was whirling around a star. Who needed sit coms?

I liked books better than television anyway. Books let me read minds, but because I was increasing my reading, I was also spending more time alone.

My mom, noticing this, said, “All you ever do is study. You need to go out more. Have some real experiences. Don’t you ever want to go shopping for new clothes?”

I answered by sinking deeper into my beanbag, peering at my novel through my curtain of long bangs, and wondering what it meant to have a “real” experience.

On one night, I wandered down the hall past the blaring television in the living room where my mom and brother were watching it. I entered the den, savoring its silence–-a welcome contrast to the clamor of the television.

Seeking further solace, I was drawn to a framed photographic print that had been hanging on the living room wall for years. It showed a canoe floating on a lake that was rendered orange by a sunset. I thought about what my mom had said, wondering why she thought shopping for clothes was a “real” experience but not reading about alleles in a beanbag or gazing at a photograph.

I conjectured that simply staring at a photograph of a place could be as satisfying as really being there if I fully absorbed the sight—instead of zoning out the way I usually did when I went places.

To test my theory, I meditated on the photograph and even tried to creatively project myself into the scene. I imagined myself floating on the orange lake with the boat rocking beneath me and a breeze stroking my nose.

I tried to summon the contemplative mood lakes sometimes engendered in me. Before long I felt so much like I was there that a feeling of euphoria settled over me.

I felt triumphant. Ever since letting go of dogma, I had felt like I was traveling without physically going anywhere–-a journey I had begun not in a boat or a car, but in my mind.

I had once assumed what my mom did—that to legitimately “experience” anything, I had to leave home and go someplace like a circus, a party, or a beach. But that was untrue. Every moment I took a breath was an experience.

I reviewed my bizarre year in my mind. I had spent it letting go of what I had been told all my life by adults, and my loss had turned out to be priceless.

By ejecting my childhood beliefs, I seemed to have entered an upside-down dimension—one in which looking at a photograph could be an adventure, where not having friends could free me to be myself, and where disbelief in God could be the most spiritual experience I had ever had.

Staring at my boat, I knew I would always remember that quiet, seemingly unimportant moment. Alone, unmoored, uncertain, and insecure, I was the happiest I had ever been.

How Time Bends My Perception of My Writing

No writing critic stirs such terrors in me as my Future Self.

I may think my brand-new story about peppery kittens is the best thing since the Iliad. I may soar on currents of self-congratulation,  but all the while Future Me is lying in wait to smother my zest.

That is because the delay between giddily finishing my first revision and returning to reread it somehow strips the sheen off my opus. The manuscript I re-evaluate after a hiatus is never the manuscript I remember. My clever metaphors seem too florid. What once seemed like eloquence has become bombast. “Once again, your ego has deceived you,” Future Me says. “Poorly executed and shoddily constructed. Start over.”

I have a name for this maddening phenomenon: temporal subjectivity. Everyone knows that writing is subjective from person to person. But writing is also subjective from moment to moment. I may hate at night a story I loved earlier in the day. Sometimes my attitude shift takes only hours. Maybe it is my bipolar disorder, but the writing process seems to lend itself to abrupt mood shifts,

I would be less crestfallen if my future self only denounced my rough drafts. I expect a rough draft to be rough. But the damning verdict from Future Me always occurs after I have painstakingly revised a written piece and mentaly declared it a success.

The difference of opinion between my present and future selves creates a dilemma. If Current Me loves my work but Future Me deems it blather, which self should I believe? The distinction is fateful. If I believe the grim denunciations of my future self, then I might have to scrap everything and start over. But if my past self was mistaken to love my work, I risk tossing a disheveled manuscript into a world already ailing from mediocrity.

Before I start razing walls of text, I have to think. The worst thing I can do is start making random, desperate changes. Frantic edits made to coddle a wounded ego are rarely good for stories. I might as well cut my hair by trial-and-error – which I have done with predictable results and would not recommend to anyone.

Nor is it a good idea to gaze at text in the hope of divining how to fix everything in a few facile strokes of a key. Staring at a wall of words only triggers frustration. The epiphany I am looking for is never going to come if all I do is wait.

It is better to go through a checklist of diagnostic questions, but first I do some the emotional screening. Could it be that my problem is not flawed text but a shift in my state of mind? Is a mood swing causing me to view my manuscript in a distorted way? Am I depressed? If so, it might not be the best time to revise a humor piece. Humor writing rarely strikes me the same way twice on my best days, much less when I am agonizing over the ephemeral nature of life or my inability to open a pickle jar.

On with my checklist. Do I have a migraine? Itchy toes? Are my pants too tight? What is going on in my life that could be affecting my perception? Do I feel hostile toward my manuscript because my cat just lost her kibble on the carpet? Or is it because when I called my pharmacist, she put me on hold and forced me to listen to gospel music for an hour only to hang up on me?

Anything that happens, no matter how trivial, can warp how I see my work. But if I finally decide that my mental state is fine and my prose is in fact culpable, I move on to forming a new plan.

I leave the screen and jot in a notepad what I think needs improving, basing my diagnosis on a quick impression. I ask questions, stating them positively when possible. Are my figures of speech fresh? It my story logical and well-structured? Are my characters consistent? Is my grammar solid? Is my tone the same throughout?

Detached analysis may not solve my problem right away, but at least it jolts me from helpless befuddlement and propels me toward clarity. Analyzing also encourages me by reminding me that any error in writing, no matter how egregious, can be changed.

But what if I solve all my writing problems and address all my concerns, only to later discover that I still hate my story without knowing why? Maybe statistics will help. I can say, “If I reread my story ten times and I love it at least seven of those times, then my story is a-go. Otherwise, I will revise it more.”

But this process is arbitrary and maddening. It propels my mood pendulum into violent motion. It triggers alternating periods of confidence and self-doubt. Nothing is more dispiriting than to believe you have written scintillating prose only to later find – again and again – that its luster was a mirage.

Worse, often I will reread my original revision only to find that of all my grinding rewrites, I like my original best. My first version crackles with spontaneity and freshness, I suddenly realize. Why did I ever think there was anything wrong with it? Past Me was correct after all. I have spent hours revising for nothing.

This absurd plight leads me to one other possibility for how to deal with Future Me: fire her.

Future Me is too fickle. She is not even me. She pretends to be a quality control expert, but she is really just a front for my control freak of an ego, which wants to micro-manage everything, so that I will always look good – an impossible task. If I have painstakingly revised my work and I have done my best and I love it, why is my single moment of approbation not enough?

Writing is relentlessly subjective no matter who is reading it — whether it is me or someone else. In fact, my inability to love my writing from one day to the next puts a whole new spin on the subjectivity of editors, publishers, teachers, and everyone else.

The world is brimming with potential readers who, like me, suffer from headaches, depression, sick cats, strict diets, messy houses, itchy toes, tight pants, leaky sinks and intransigent pickle jars – all of which affect perception. What does this mean? It means that trying to please anyone, including all my fickle future selves, is futile. I can do my best, but at some point, I have to let my work go.

Nothing I write will ever be beyond reproach. If I fully accept that, I can write whatever l like and have fun doing it. Freedom comes from accepting that writing to please anyone but myself – my present self – is unnecessary and possibly futile.  

I do not have to make all my future selves happy. If at some point in time, I thought that what I wrote would have made Homer rethink The Iliad, then I can rest easy, let go, and begin something new.

My Fantastical Fall from Cyberspace

Many months ago, I slipped off the edge of Cyberspace and plunged into the mysterious dimension called Reality.

Reality was as strange as everyone said it was. I discovered that I had something called a body, which I had to lug around everywhere I went. I had to spend all day pumping it full of air or it would stop moving.

I saw other natives hauling their bodies around, too, snorting air like fiends.

One of them claimed to be my brother. “Come off it,” he said. “Social media is not some other dimension and you are not your Gravitar! You always had a body. You were born here.”

Suspecting a prank, I made a mental note that Reality People like to play odd mind games.

I hit snags in communicating with the other natives too. Every time anyone said they felt hot or cold I became so excited that I could hardly speak. Since having a body was new to me, I found all mentions of heat and cold fascinating.

So, whenever anyone mentioned temperature, I would frantically start looking around for a “like” button, hoping one might suspend itself in front of me, allowing me show how much I approved of the topic.

When a “like” button failed to show, I became severely agitated. My palms would sweat, and my jaw would quiver until finally, in a fever, I would blurt, “I like your comment!”

At first when I did that, the Reality People smiled in a polite, puzzled way, but after a while they started to avoid me. They said I was impossible to talk to because I kept interrupting every sentence to praise them. With great regret, I stopped declaring my heartfelt approval and learned to merely smile and nod.

The strangeness marched on. Reality had an impossibly weird alien called a “cat” in it that ruled over everything. And something called ice cream. From what I could gather, ice cream is the best thing reality has going for it. 

My brother said, “You always loved ice cream. You were born here, in the solid world, not on some social media website. You do know that, right?”

Once again, I was dubious, but my “brother” seemed genuinely worried that I could not remember my previous life. He said I had something called a diploma with my name in it to prove I went to college. “If was a physical building, too, not some online course.” He further suggested that I also have clothes hamper full of socks with my DNA all over them. But that means nothing to me. Do Gravitars have DNA?

My “brother” theorized that during my Cyberspace sojourn, I must have forgotten my previous life altogether. He seemed so worried about me that I became concerned about him too. To humor him, I checked the identification that “Reality Me” had supposedly kept in her purse.

I felt guilty rummaging through her personal items, but I was shocked to find that the photograph on the license looked exactly like my Gravitar! My name was even printed on it.

I was astounded. I must have had a trans-dimensional twin! What other surprises awaited me?

I yearned to venture out and further explore this alien dimension called Reality, but someone told me that Reality was in the grip of a terrible virus, which I know something about because Cyberspace has them too.  I became terrified that the virus might delete all of Reality with me in it before I had a chance to safely return to my real home in Cyberspace.

Homesickness began to tug at me even more. I had a yen for pics and pixels. I missed updates and down votes. I missed the wordless beauty of emoticons and the jaunty thumbs-up graphic I used to express my wildest enthusiasms. There was simply no place like Cyberspace.

Strangely enough, I could not remember exactly how I had gotten to Cyberspace in the first place. It just seemed like I had always been there. Until I slipped that day.

I had read somewhere that when you wanted to go to space you needed a rocket ship so I asked a neighbor how I could build one. She told me it was too expensive to build a rocket ship; she said, all you need is the internet.

I began to worry then because I had heard nets were used to trap animals, and what if I got trapped between dimensions? But the neighbor assured me that crossing was easy; she did it all the time. She had such a soothing voice she finally convinced me. My fears evaporated and a thrill took their place. I was finally going home!

Now here I am, home at last. I now live in the part of Cyberspace called the Blogosphere. I am not sure what happened to my body, but it feels nice not to have one anymore.

It is a wonder I ever got anything done, having to inflate that wheezy gadget in my chest all day. I therefore plan to stay here for a while. But I may have to visit Reality again someday. Only because I miss the ice cream though. If the Blogosphere ever gets any ice cream, I will never have to leave again.

Unless, of course, I slip.

Can Video Games Capture Emotion?

I love exploring virtual space. Real space, at least on Earth, has too many boundaries: fences, locks, private roads, no trespassing signs. Videogames have those, too, but in games there are usually clever ways to get past locked doors or other barriers. Surmounting them is part of the gameplay. In a video game like Skyrim you can go anywhere, walk through castles without having to wait in line as you would as a tourist. In video games, freedom is almost absolute.

Other than unlimited freedom to wander, it is becoming harder to tell the difference between reality and virtual reality.

Since I first played Super Mario on the NES, gaming evolved rapidly from a flat side-scrolling world to three-dimensional landscapes.

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Easing the Emotional Risk of Sharing Stories

Years ago, I shattered a stubborn case of block by deciding not to heed writing advice anymore.

The trick to ignoring the “authorities” was to pretend I was ten — a time before I had learned to stutter out dry, self-conscious prose for teachers. I had never blocked as a child when I was penning exuberant stories featuring my dog as the hero. For a while I had fun flouting every rule I knew. I could now be silly, trite, or sentimental if I felt like it.

My new attitude quieted the voice of criticism inside me, and playfulness nudged its way back into my art.

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Why Drawing, Even Badly, is Worthwhile

Recently I told my brother I had been drawing a lot during the pandemic.

He said, “I envy you. I wish I could draw. I remember how much I enjoyed it as a kid. I’m too old now to really get good at it.”

I knew how he felt. I’ve spent much of my life talking myself out of fun activities by asking myself, “What’s the point in learning a new skill at this stage? To achieve the Ninja-like mastery I require, I would have needed to start as a three-year-old.’ Therefore, it’s not worth it to even begin.”

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Writing is Not a Jealous God

I was soaring. It was April 2019 and I’d just finished the draft of my new novel Prowl, which I’d painstakingly written three times, each time starting from scratch. I was eager to release something new, but I needed feedback before publishing it.

But before I could get any Beta readers, I suddenly found out I had to move. Two weeks after finishing my book in Florida, I found myself trundling across three state lines with a yowling cat.

That move was only the beginning.  I moved several times in a one-year period, bouncing from Florida to North Carolina and finally on to South Carolina.

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How Cat Logic Vanquishes Worry

When life gets too confusing, when petty worries seem profound, I rely on three ways to realign my perspective. 

One is to ask myself, “What difference will this make in a hundred years?” That can quiet my thoughts quickly. 

Another trick is to imagine I am standing on the moon looking down on Earth with all its boundaries erased by distance. From far above the stratosphere everything appears silent and serene.  

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Why my Depression Got Miffed and Stormed Off to Starbucks

Over the summer my depression made an unwelcome reappearance on my emotional doorstep. For therapy I tried this exercise I had read about somewhere, which was to write an imaginary dialogue with my depression. This roll-and-tumble dust-up of a conversation was the result.

The transcript:

Depression: Gee, I just arrived. Why are you not smiling? After all this time, do I not get a hug? Have you forgotten about me?  After all the great times we have had together, the least you could do is invite me in.

Me: You are not welcome in these parts, buddy. Go. Away.

Depression: Why, you treat me like a total stranger. How could you? We share so many fond memories together.

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What Is a Hero?

The panelist seemed super-human. She had drawn awed murmurs after telling us at the indie writing conference in Orlando that she had written and published over fifty romance novels. She was barely over twenty.

I was eager to hear what the prolific author was going to say, especially when the moderator asked her a question I loved, “How do you define a hero?”

As a novelist myself, I had read many definitions of a hero in how-to-write books. Many were dry and technical: “A hero is the main character of a story who struggles against overwhelming obstacles, usually for some principle, ideal, person, or goal beyond the narrow scope of his or her own ego. Heroes may be flawed but, in the end, they will always act according to their conscience, even when it means risking everything, including, sometimes, their lives.”

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