Human bites make it hard to type

Anselm Hook via Flickr

Last year, a burglar bit my hand.
About 1:30 in morning, I thought the kid was up sneaking video games, so I pulled on my robe and went out to say “Go the f*ck to sleep.” But just as I reached my bedroom door, I heard the front door spring twang. I rounded the corner and there was a man in our landing.
I grabbed the back of his jacket, spun him around and said, “What the fuck are you doing in my house?”
He bit me.
I’m told I screamed.
I don’t remember that bit.
What I do remember is tackling him, hearing him say, “Run, Vinnie,” while I yelled for my husband to come help. The dog, who’d started new arthritis drugs that day, realized he should start barking. In the background, I could hear our son on line with 911.
Burglars are stronger on the ground.
He squirmed and wriggled and generally tried to get away. The burglar stank of aged sweat, alcohol and drugs. I told my husband to get his leg. He told me that was his leg. My husband grabbed the burglar’s flashlight and hit him in the head.
He yelled about his cabeza (Spanish for head).
I leaned over him and cursed him and his entire family.
He cried for his Mamacita.
The police arrived and an adrenaline drive blur of checking the house and giving statements accompanied a review of the burglar’s pockets. They emptied them on the hood of a police SUV. There was my jewelry along with three large knives.
The canine unit went after Vinnie.
One set of cops thought my dog had bitten me. The paramedics thought it was the canine unit. I was insulted that they’d besmirch either dog and explained it was a HUMAN bite. At which point they informed me that I needed to go to the hospital.
Human bites require antibiotics to make sure you don’t end up with a nasty infection. What they don’t tell you is that you can get HIV, herpes and hepatitis. What few law enforcement and legal officials seem to know is that in Washington state, you can’t get a search warrant for a burglar’s blood, not if you’re just the victim.
If you’re a good samaritan, healthcare provider or law enforcement official, getting the blood is automatic. The victim of a sexual offender? You wait until conviction. Me? You depend on the kindness of the guy who just sank his teeth into your flesh.
The burglar plead out. In exchange for dropping a drug charge, he gave up his blood. My blood work is okay, but the months of nerve and tendon damage forced me to restrict writing to paid-as-I-go tasks. Turns out I’m not great at dictating stories. I need to feel my hands on the keys or a pen.
And my hand needed time to heal, including the use of contrast baths. My skin smelled like me, but the spent water? Whenever I would dump it, I would get a whiff of burglar sweat. I kept at the contrast baths until the smell came up clean.
Embarrassed, our dog is now off his meds and barking furiously if a squirrel farts and there are alarms on all our doors.
Vinnie got away. The biter got 23 months. Despite my insistance that they get him into a rehabilitation program, I suspect he’s just being warehoused. I Googled the guy as soon as I had his name. We were his sixth offense. This is how he makes his living. My hope is that he can find something else to do, so no one else has their life stalled by a bite. And, yes, when all of the more pressing political issues settle down, I plan to work on changing Washington state law so that no one has to beg to make sure they haven’t just contracted a deadly disease.

No, really, disorientation is part of the writing process (written to reassure a worried friend)

Seattle, Green Lake, fog, JC OBrien

As long as I’m not driving, I love fog. Wandering somewhere I half know, only able to see a few feet in front of my face while mist renders the air nearly solid is exciting for me.
I want things to come out of the fog. I want to go into the mist and find secret islands.
But the thing about fog is I know it will be burn off. Sooner or later, I’ll see the shape of what I know is there. Eerie and damp as it can be, I know it will disappear.
I’m working on maintaining this confidence as I write.
New projects I start and finish without pausing to worry over whether or not I’ve written the right scene or chosen the right word. I still work with care and attention, but I’ve shed the stress that comes from obsessively worrying about whether or not I’m making the right choices.
But that doesn’t apply to the unfinished works sitting in a folder on my laptop.
There are a couple of books that really want to be done. Pieces I could claim got interrupted by deaths, illnesses, accidents, other people’s deadlines, but the truth is that the stories are still somewhere in the fog inside my brain. As long as I believe the fog will eventually burn off and I’ll figure out how the story really goes, I’m fine.
The disheartening part of finishing these stories is that I’m not always certain about parts to keep. Or if the structure is clear. Or if I’ve focused on the right characters.
I just know there’s something out there, in the fog, and, like Mulder, I want to believe that if I hang in there long enough, I’ll figure the whole thing out. Or at least enough to type to the end of the book and send it to my copy editor.
Leo, JC OBrienAt my keyboard, all of this makes sense. I don’t need to explain it to my dog, who is there for most of my confusion, breathing the same essential oils I burn to motivate, nudge and clarify. Dog is my co-writer. He types nothing, but having him in the room is an essential part of my process. He’s there by my side as we metaphorical travel the fog together. Essential. Silent, except for his farts.
Explaining this to friends who want to know what’s going on with me is harder. The ones who don’t write hone in on my disorientation and worry or merely end up confused by my inability to narrow my mess-in-progress to a pithy pitch line. I write fiction without an outline. It just works better for me, but it leaves little to say to other people. Mermaid, blah, blah. Steampunk, blah, blah. My central character is giving me troubles because she might not be the right central character, blah, blah.
And then I’m driving home, realizing that my friend is concerned for my mental state. I haven’t done a good job of explaining that this lost, uncomfortable, occasionally boring bit is an integral part of the process—that, yes, I really do like spending my life in a muddle a good part of the time.
Other writers get this. We swill tea or alcohol and spout half sentences at each other and despite the lack of clear conversational structure, a kind of communication happens.
It’s comforting really. Not quite the clear communication my dog achieves through sniffing other dogs, but close. And, fortunately, since writers are for the most part human, not as physically intimate.


Hiring a new internal editor

I wrote my first short story at my grandmother’s kitchen table while she and my mother drank Cokes and talked family business. I was fifteen. My burnout boyfriend had dealt (and smoked) a little pot while I was in his friend’s car. At that time, I didn’t drink or smoke and since we were within three blocks of our high school I was freaked out. Honor students didn’t get busted for pot.
Instead of talking to him, I wrote a surrealist story that explained how I felt better than the “what the hell” that was running through my mind. I wrote longhand while my mom and grandmother chatted and I finished the thing in one sitting. I turned it in and my English teacher suggested I enter a local college’s writing contest. If I made it, I’d get to go to a writing workshop with other teens and maybe win a scholarship.
I got in. But instead of putting me with all the other short story writers, I ended up at drowningtable full of poets. The teens were cool. They put up with reading all the extra pages of my writing compared to the handful of poems they’d each submitted. The adult running the table was a published poet and he proved less helpful.
He fixated on a central image in the story and told me it was wrong, but explained that he didn’t know why. So I turned to the teens and asked them what they’d gotten out of the story. My feelings of drowning, struggling to swim — all seemed to have come across. So I shook my head at the poet and explained that I’d reached my audience. I hadn’t written the story for him. I’d written it for other teens and they had the exact reaction I was after — they got that it was about drugs and all they confusion and trying to fit in and fear that went with them (this was the ‘Just Say No’ era). He continued to disagree with me until the speaker started talking.
Oddly enough, I don’t clearly remember my boyfriend’s reaction to reading the story. A part of me wants to say that I tried to give it to him and he laughed it off, but I can’t be sure. What I do remember clearly is that poet sitting there in his three-piece suit shaking his head no while I was so certain I was right. Maybe I didn’t win the scholarship, but I walked away confident.
Or I thought I did.
I’ve never liked editing my own work. Give me someone else’s story and I’ll do my best to remain true to their vision, to tease out the lines of what’s there and ask questions so that the story remains the author’s, but ends up stronger than when it first landed in my hands.
I edit this way for other people because I have a deep respect for them and their stories. I feel it’s my place to help them find their own way, not grab their story and rework it until it’s mine.
I’m working on two large projects at the moment: a 600-plus YA novel that’s about to be beta-read by a teenager and a steampunk that’s given me troubles off and on for three years. I just realized that the editor in my head looks nothing like me. The editor in my head doesn’t even have a clear sense of how to tell me what he thinks is wrong.
And there it is.
The editor in my head is that male poet in his three-piece suit, leaning on the back of his chair, shaking his head no. And here I am trying to figure out how to politely thank him for his input and ask if he could kindly go find another member of the faculty. I don’t remember what any other teacher at that event looked like, so I’ll have to make someone up. Toni Morrison comes to mind, but frankly, I find her daunting. I’m not certain I can live up to her standards. So I’m going to pick someone I think would be more encouraging, but perhaps just as tough. Right now, I’m doing my best to get my cool, new editor to hang out with me. If you’re wondering what she looks like, she’s a bit like Stevie Nicks.
Yeah, the suit is still bleeding through, but this is new. I just created Editor Nicks in my mind. I need to give her some time to settle in.

Try a little empathy

Image courtesy of Janet Ramsden via Flikr
Image courtesy of Janet Ramsden via Flikr

Maybe it’s seeing people get all pissed because Hermione is going to be black. Or maybe it’s because I read a women’s lengthy response to being criticized for identifying with “Lolita.” Or maybe it’s Trump.
The thing is I have had it with being asked to view everything through white male eyes.
As an English major, I was trained to read canon, which means white, male, Anglo-Saxon literature. I learned to peer through the eyes of the (white, male) main characters and understand their thoughts, challenges and joys. Many of the female (white) characters were there for sex, whether they offered it freely or not. Anybody else was often just not there.
Over the years, I’ve been mistaken for Latina, Hawaiian, having black blood, Jewish, Egyptian and Black Irish. With those assumptions has come the expectation that I will read these white texts (books) in a specific way or that I’ll understand other texts from a whole different place. I’ve disappointed those people as well because I am not any one thing. I’m a mutt — a mix and regardless of everyone else’s designs on my provenance, there’s nothing I can do to change the body I was born with.
To tell the truth, being forced to spend my entire educational career analyzing the hearts and minds of those in power has proven useful. And a great deal of what’s out there is art, even if, say the protagonist became my next door neighbor, I’d be forced to turn him in for his criminal acts.
Art is where we can explore anything.
I still like that about art.
But I am really effing tired of reading about old white men and young white men and their desires. I’m tired of them being put forth by lists in Esquire as the best and most important bits of literature.
I read because I can be anyone or anything. I read to lead more than this one life, so, yeah, it’s been great to play at being a white dude, but I’m hungry for something else. I’m after an inclusive canon, where everything can be explored and there is no expectation that I have to match the protagonist’s skin tone or genitalia. But there is the possibility that every reader will, at one time or another, see someone who physically is like them in the position of hero and there is the requirement that others, who do not look anything like that hero, will be asked to look out through there eyes and see the world through a non-white gaze and open their effing hearts and minds so they can gain a little empathy.

Places where inspiration finds me

Seattle alley, Pioneer Square, J.C. O'Brien, Night Shift
While I’ve witnessed some racy things happening in Seattle alleys, I have, fortunately, not run into any of the scenes that happen in my novels.

I find my inspiration in Seattle’s dark alleys.

Seattle burned to the ground in 1889. 32 blocks of the city were rebuilt to new fire standards and so far (fingers crossed), they’ve done OK with quakes (with a few exceptions).

Seattle’s rain is no myth. Like New Orleans, downtown’s streets end up with puddles of “mystery” liquid that sometimes develops an oily sheen. Mix in some moss and subtract some sunlight and it doesn’t take much to imagine something dark and lovely hunting through Pioneer Square’s streets.

I also like to include real locations in my stories. Bars like the Alibi Room or restaurants like the Crumpet Shop show up in my work because I want readers to be able to taste what it’s like to live in Seattle.

But while I might go out in the streets at night hunting inspiration, when it comes time to express it in a story, I turn to locations I visit almost on a daily basis.

[soliloquy id="301"]
[soliloquy slug="green-lake-inspiration"]

My favorite place is probably Green Lake. Designed by the Olmsted brothers, who’d been hired by Seattle in 1903 to oversee park planning, this manmade lake includes a nearly three-mile track that I walk five to six days a week with my husband and dog.

But my history with Green Lake goes back to when I moved here from Detroit in 1987. I’ve walked that same track for nearly thirty years, oddly enough, almost always in the same direction. I’ve watched the seasons change, rabbits, eagles, hawks and red-winged blackbirds appear and disappear and had the opportunity to watch my own child and others grow into teenagers.

In other words, the lake provides a familiar place where I can go and observe change — a sort of laboratory of human expression, storytelling and condition combined with my absolute favorite source of inspiration — movement.

There is something to be said for knowing a large swathe of land with great intimacy and knowing that you share that space with people having a similar experience.

The Olmsteds created their parks with this kind of sensation in mind. If you’re lucky enough to live near one of the spaces that they created across the U.S. or in Canada, it’s worth exploring. But the same feeling can be had anywhere that you call home, because it’s going back to that same space day in and day out and looking really closely sometimes and not so closely the next that layers experiences in your brain. I believe an activity like walking or running allows you to coax those experiences onto the keyboard and combine your knowledge of daily existence with any dark, magical thing that strikes your fancy.

This piece was written as part of a blog carnival with six other others. Find out where they find their inspiration.

How to train your mind and body to let creativity find you


For me, the secret to staying inspired is movement.

Whether it means that I move my fingers across the keyboard from the moment I sit in my writing chair until I leave, or that I get up for regular dance or tea breaks, it’s shifting my body that shakes ideas loose.

I think ideas are sticky. They’re the product of all kinds of processes and I think they get stuck in our heads and it can be hard to pry them out.

This is why movement works.

Instead of concentrating on the outcome or the absence of an idea, you shift your focus and move.

Much of day we shorten our gaze to the width of a screen. Whether it’s on a phone, a computer or a television, that flat screen defines the span of what we encounter. Despite the knowledge literally at our fingertips, creativity can flatten and shrink during the hunt for small pieces of information if we don’t expand our gaze.

There are moments when you need to narrow your focus. Instances when the ability to zero on your quarry is what allows you to push through a deadline with the requisite number of words.

But to create those moments when the work feeds itself, I need to allow it to come to me. Instead of hunting creativity, I need to let it find its way into my story.

I do some of that by removing doubt.

After I walk the dog, unless there’s blood or fire, I’m going to eat breakfast and write for two hours. Whether or not I feel like it or am inspired is irrelevant. It’s what I do at that time of the day.

Once I’m in my writing room, I follow a set pattern of turning on the electric fireplace, the weird dolphin light I got at Good Will and lighting my candles. My dog gets off his bed and stretches out on the cool basement floor and I make my fingers move. I don’t stop to think if what I’m writing is good or if I like the scene I’m working on because I might not like the answer. And more importantly, when I get to the editing process, I might find out that “writing me” was wrong.

Thanks to NanoWrimo training, I write through to the end of the story and when it’s done, I start the next one, because it’s easier to keep going than it is to get started.

Momentum works.

And movement, done with intention, can keep the momentum going.

Instead of zeroing in on your screen or book or task at hand, softening your gaze allows you to notice things out of the corner of your eye. Lulling your brain with rhythmic movements allows it to relax and make connections between a random comment on Facebook, the music playing through your speakers and the trouble with the pacing your last chapter.

Movement done in a relaxed, steady manner, whether it’s walking, dancing or loading the dishwasher replaces chasing after the story with an invitation for it to come to you.

This is easier if you pay attention to your breath. Allowing your in breath to descend into your diaphragm to spread your ribs like wings and following the breath through a complete exhale can help you relax enough to let your story find you.

If all of this sounds like yoga or meditation, you’re close.

For me, creativity comes when I achieve a state of trance. I can get there through rhythmic movement or immersing in a task, but it’s the product of relaxed action.

This doesn’t come easily.

It’s not like you can go sit wherever you write, snatch a couple of breaths and tell yourself to relax and it will work. Especially when faced with multiple demands on your time, the state can be hard if you haven’t laid the groundwork. This takes practice. You have to train both your mind and your body.

Figure out when you do your best work by trying to write at different times of the day. See if that time meshes with your schedule, which may take some rearranging. (My best time doesn’t work for mine or I’d have written this at three in the morning when the only sound is the world breathing.) If you have too much to do, get your writing done first. Even that shift in priority can provide the perspective to receive other ideas throughout the day.

Because you’re in a story mind, co-workers may offer bits of dialogue or plot points. You might encounter colors or situations that suit your plot.

Putting your story first sets you up to receive inspiration instead of chase it.

Because inspiration is a little like love — it finds you best when you’re doing something else.

Need more inspiration? This post was written as part of a Blog Carnival of Inspiration with several of my fellow writers.

What if you approached writing the way your dog approaches a walk?

Black dog, nose, Seattle, J.C. O'Brien
Writing companion and nose model, Leo O’Brien, shows off the entrance to his 300 million olfactory receptors.

A dog about to head on a walk is worried about three things: the leash, his human and getting out the door. Even if what happens after he’s outside is the same route he takes every day, the dog’s excited to sniff to find out who else has walked that way, how the weather has shifted and if there is anyone exciting up ahead.

In other words, even though he might use his 300 million olfactory receptors , he’s only concerned with what actually reaches his nose.

Which is a lot like writing:

  1. Take in as much information as you can.
  2. Figure out what it means.
  3. Share that information with others.

The dog’s sharing takes the liquid form of paying it forward or swapping sniffs with dogs he might meet along the way. Writers can do the same thing, with shorter missives like this blog post, or through longer, crafted works.

But the main thing is that the dog saves his worry for important things, like when the hell you’re going to get home, which proves to be great advice for a writer. Save your worry for when the humans are going to return and write as far as your nose takes you.

Risky business

I want to be seen.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be heard, but some of the time I want to speak with my hips, my hands and my false eyelashes (because belly dancers wear them now … they’re like weights for your eyelids).

While I’ve never vomited before performing, my stomach used to roil (and not because I was doing belly rolls) and my head would spin without my ever turning my feet.

That stopped last August.

Not because I got on the stage when asked, but because a caring teacher planted the idea that I might be ready and, a few months later, another teacher lovingly pushed me into scheduling a performance.

In my head, dancing on a stage is the equivalent of submitting stories: you’re inviting judgment. You may be hoping for feedback, but the opportunity for a negative response is there, which, given the involvement of your heart in whatever you’re doing, could be rather painful.

But I’m realizing that the greater risk lies in practicing, but not showing.

If you never risk being seen, you slowly fade until your spine is a thin line of vapor.

People squint at you and still can’t see who you really are.

So, *deep breath*, even though dance is ephemeral, video changes that. I’m posting the dance that took me over to the other side, to that place where it’s not only OK to be seen, but where the graciousness of your audience can fill in all the thin spaces.

Whatever you do, take the risk and let yourself be seen.