How Ridley Pearson’s Plans for Murder and Dave Barry’s Confession Saved My Life

In May 2005, hugely pregnant and ugly crying, I waved goodbye to my husband and backed my car out of my driveway. If one were to see me at that moment, it would appear something was horribly wrong. And it was.

I was leaving my house and my husband to go to a reading conference in San Antonio. Not leaving permanently or anything, just simply leaving their presence. And it undid me. At the time, I was fighting terrible anxiety—panic attacks, generalized anxiety, near-agoraphobic. In short, I feared I was going crazy.

I pulled it together enough drive my fellow teacher and me three hours to the conference. For three days, I would learn about reading and teaching. I’d get to stay in a swanky hotel and dine finely okay-ly while my school district signed the receipts. For my unborn baby’s sake, I tried to be cool, calm and collected. It was important that I was chill, dang it, and in spite of all the things that could go wrong.*

During the fourth general session of the conference, Dave Barry took the stage. He spoke a little and then made a joke at Ridley Pearson’s, his co-author, expense. Pearson soon joined him and they spoke about the book they’d written (Peter and the Star-catchers). The talk was interesting, and, I’m sure, funny, but I was too busy having my life saved to remember much of it.

In introducing Pearson, Barry made some comment about walking into Ridley Pearson’s house and finding sticking notes of various ways to commit crimes. My first thought was, “I can’t believe this guy is outing Pearson’s crazy like that.” Then, I realized with a slow-blooming awareness, that if it was okay that Ridley Pearson was crazy, then maybe it was okay that I was crazy too.

I didn’t feel so scared all of a sudden. Like my weirdo thoughts of things that could happen might not be the worst thing ever. In fact, maybe the barrage of what-if’s and fabricated motives and conspiracies could be productive. And maybe, just maybe, if Ridley Pearson was a writer, then I was a little bit of a writer too.

After the fateful conference, where, despite my fears, the only life-altering thing that occurred took place inside my own mind, I came home and pregnant-waddled into my house, kissed my husband, sat down with my laptop, and embraced my crazy.

My first book was bad. So, so very bad. BUT my brain felt like it finally sneezed after years of being tickled with a feather. My next book was a little better, but not ready. The one after that got me an agent, and the future is yet unknown for that one and the two that followed.

My unborn baby is now a wonderful, twerpy 9-year-old boy. He’s got a 7-year-old brother and a 5-year-old sister (and they all listened to Peter and the Star Catchers our on last road trip). I’ve stopped thinking I’m “crazy” and now understand I’m “creative.” I invite the thoughts that used to interrupt my day. I sift through those creative thoughts to determine if they’ll be strong enough to carry a reluctant hero through to the other side of a story.

But those particularly scary thoughts, the ones that keep me up at night, I have a trick for them: I grab a pen and a sticky note, and I write them down. Then I put the sticky note somewhere that my neighbors won’t see it. That was another thing I took away from the speech where Barry and Pearson saved my life.

 

* Things such as: ONCE UPON A TIME, when the convention center was being built, the construction worker in charge of mixing concrete stayed up all night gambling. After losing all his money, he lost yet another bet and was forced to streak across downtown San Antonio. About two blocks in, the cops saw him and chased him through the city as they yelled things in their walkie-talkies about a naked man running through the streets. (One of the cops got close enough to get him, but there really wasn’t any good way to grab a nude.) To the cops’ dismay, the man escaped. To the man’s dismay, his wild night meant that he did not get a single wink of sleep before he replaced his missing britches, donned his hard hat and went to work mixing concrete for the corner stone of the convention center. Because of this man’s lack of slumber, he used a 2:1 ratio instead of the necessary 2:1.37 ratio. All seemed fine until that fateful day years later, the day 3 of the reading convention, when the natural frequency of the wind, the ground shift due to fracking in a neighboring town and the incorrectly combined cement mixture caused the cornerstone to collapse, bringing the rest of the building with it.

And that was just one possibility.

Even if the effects from fracking hadn’t quite reached San Antonio, there were so many more things that could happen.

Like maybe… In a nearby prison, a just-found-Jesus convict had uncovered a plan for his untimely demise by his cellmates–he took the last yeast roll during grub the day before, so he knew it was coming. Actually, since he was now a religious man, he snatched the roll on purpose as his current choices consisted of spending the rest of his natural life scratching hash marks in a 8×8 cell or running headlong into the pearly gates. He intended to meet death on his own terms, and it would not be at the hands of the men that would never let him have the good seat on TV night! He escaped (Shawshank style) simply to feel the air outside of confinement one last time before he met Saint Peter and for a cigarette in case heaven had nary a smoking section . Knowing it was simply a matter of time before he was hunted down by The Man, he wandered through the streets of downtown San Antonio, steady and resolved and waiting to be recognized. He felt almost relieved when the cops finally saw him. He knew two things when he heard their shouts: 1. If they caught him alive, they’d just put him back and let his “friends” do the dirty work, and 2. He had to give them a reason to shoot. That’s why he ran into the convention center where some big meeting was going on. Tons of witnesses, tons of people the police felt they had to protect. As the bullets flew, he wondered why the people were all gathered. The large banners probably would have explained it, but alas, he had never learned to read, which sadly, gave him little other choice for his future other than this doomed life of crime.

But I don’t even know if there are prisons near San Antonio.

And that doesn’t even matter, because maybe on a crazy-winding day, the manager of the hotel that held the convention was feeling on a little on edge as she walked into work. She thought she’d moved on with her life, pushed her past into the deep, dark confines of her soul where it belonged. But that was before she got an email from her ex-husband professing his forgiveness for her transgression. She knew something was up. Her ex was not the forgiving type—and most certainly not for the fact that he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime his didn’t commit because of her. But it wasn’t her fault really. It was her family’s. She had such low self-esteem because she always felt judged by her family, never felt like they trusted her. Probably because of the time her big sister fell out of a tree and broke her leg and the said sister told everybody, including the doctor’s and nurses, that her little sister had pushed her. And they all believed her. Even though it was just a tiny push. It was probably her family’s lack of faith that made her always fall for the wrong men—including the guy she married and her (ex) lover. The latter, in fact, was the one that pushed her to find freedom with the framing. Too late she’d discovered his true nature. The second he’d managed to crack her bank account code, he’d come clean, saying he felt guilty because he didn’t really love her, he’d tricked her in order to steal her money and also something about a mistake he’d made due to sleep deprivation. He had a gambling problem, he confessed, and his construction job wasn’t enough to pay his bills. He swore the guilt was eating him alive between her and the improperly mixed concrete or something stupid and he intended to come clean. She’d barely listened as she made him pay.

But now, it was all okay, she told herself. She just needed to sit a minute, to relax and reset. She ducked into the large auditorium with hundreds of people shuffling around in various stages of seat finding, chatting and waiting for something to start. As manager, she should have known what it was, but didn’t really care. She chose a spot next to a particularly nervous looking woman. Settling into her chair, she reminded herself that her ex was tucked safely away in prison, and her (ex)lover was unable to—well, anything. Just as she was really calming down, a commotion started behind her. Turning to see if she was going to have to put on her manager-hat to address it, she gasped. Her past had come for her. How did her ex-husband find her? Why were the police with him? Were they coming for her? But her ex never looked her way as the cops aimed at him and pulled the trigger. She used her seat-neighbor as a human shield as the shots rang out. Thank goodness, she thought, she sat next to this hugely pregnant woman whose sheer girth would protect her.

When she felt the rubble hit her head, she looked up as a reflex. Even through the chaos simultaneously heard the wind outside howl as it hit the building and felt the ground shift beneath her feet. Right before the building fell onto them, the woman she ducked and covered behind sighed and said, “I knew something exactly like this would happen.”

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My New York Trip

I’m back from New York and almost settled in again (more chocolate is needing before the settling is complete) and reflecting on my entire NY seminar experience.

A little over a year ago, my manuscript got accepted to the NY Seminar through SMU. I spent the next year editing, revising, rewriting. At one point, I took my lovely, perfectly fine 70,000 words and cut those little darlings down to 20,000 and back up again. It was painful. It was worth it.

And all the while, I knew I the trip would make me face one of my biggest fears: Getting on a plane.

I had my very first panic attack on a plane over 11 years ago. Since then, I’ve felt the way Poseidon and Percy Jackson do about air travel: I don’t belong in the air.

It is rare that we actually know when we will be required to face our fears, but I knew a year out and it was scheduled down to the minute.

And it was rough. Before my trip, I went way past the ugly cry. Past the stress tummy. One night, a couple weeks before I left, I sat on the couch in the wee hours of the morning and had one of those hot, sweating, opened-mouthed, no-sound-coming-out, body-shaking weep fests. I wanted to back down and give up. I didn’t want to go on that stupid plane. I wanted to stay here, safe, in my house, with my husband and children.*

But, as I was about to face my phobia, that was all to be expected.

I hate(d) flying–the lack of control, the claustrophobia, the sitting (so much sitting)–but flying got me to New York. And in New York, I would to listen to people that knew what they were talking about in writing. I would get feedback about my book. My will to write and learn about writing was (and is) bigger than even my phobia.

My friend sent me this as I got on the plane. And I believe it:

courage

There are endless quotes that say something like, “Fear is not real,” or “Fear is just a feeling.” They make fear sound minor and weak.

I remember in the height of my panic attacks, I would wish that fear WAS real. If it was a thing or person or object, I could destroy it, be rid of it. Fear is tainting. It becomes part of you. You have to fight yourself in order to defeat it. That is a daily fight for me.

So, last Wednesday I woke up and thought. “I am going to face my phobia today.”

And I made it! Nobody else on board, except for my traveling companion and fellow writer, Amy, knew the level of this victory for me. And that was good: It meant I didn’t scream on the plane. I challenged myself. I faced my fear. If there is one sentence or theme I would use to describe my trip, it would be: Acknowledging my fear and doing it anyway.

welcome

Welcome to New York!

*I know the statistics about flying. Trust me–I’ve looked them up myself, they’ve been listed to me a bunch of times, I’ve even tried to memorize them. But it didn’t help.Tthat’s the thing about phobias–they don’t really make sense. The very definition of phobia has the words “irrational fear” in it. Unfortunately, that is why it doesn’t work so well to ration your way out of it. The only thing you can do is face it.

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New York or Bust (But Please Not Bust!)

In preparation for my trip to New York, I have been editing and revising and editing and revising and so on. This has left little time for other writing (such as blogging), but since I head to New York in two weeks, it’s time for an update. If I wrote about everything going on right now, it’d make another novel. Instead, here are the highlights in list form:

1. In two weeks, I am going to NYC to pitch my revised and polished novel to several editors and agents.
2. I have to get on a plane to make that happen.
3. I have a phobia of flying.
4. I planned on the phobia being better by now.
5. It is not.
6. I have worked my rear off to get here, so I am going to get on the plane anyway. (Fellow passengers, please excuse me as I curl up into fetal position and rock.)
7. I’ve learned that getting to the root of your fears brings up a bunch of emotional sewage.
8. It is not fun to deal with emotional sewage. In fact, it stinks. (Haha! I love puns! They make me so happy.)
9. This has been one of the most challenging times in my life.
10. This has been one of the BEST times of my life. (Except for the fetal position times.)
11. I take that back. The fetal position times are worth it too.

As New York gets closer, I’ll continue to post. In the meantime, I’d LOVE your prayers for peace, diligence and confidence.

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Words and Destruction

Sticks and stones will break my bones,

But words will never hurt me.

In a world of lies, that is one of the biggest ones we repeat.

Words hurt. They rip apart. They destroy and tear.

An interesting fact: In the ten years I’ve been married, words have been involved in every single fight between my husband and I.

So I think the new poem should be this:

Stick and stones my break my bones,

But words will utterly destroy me.

I have the amazing ability to attract words and comments from strangers. And every time I get them, I cry.

I have several theories on why people feel okay or even compelled to tell me when I am doing something wrong:

  • My height (really short) makes me unintimidating
  • My face is round so I look younger than I am (Good when I am older, not so      good when student teaching and the teacher yells at you to get against the      wall during a disaster drill or you have to go to the principal’s office)
  • Or, maybe it is because I make eye contact with everybody because I don’t remember faces and I don’t want to insult people that I have met before

It happens by proxy too. People will never say anything to my husband or friends. Then, when we are together, BAM! You think my kids are too loud stranger-in-a-restaurant? Please come tell my husband how to discipline for that. My friend and I turn our back for a second and the kids pick up a orange cone. Hello, football-coach-accusing-us-of-never-parenting-our-children!

Those people often react better than I do. My husband tells the guy to go outside if he doesn’t want to hear our kids. My friend rolls her eyes and shrugs it off. But every single time, no matter what, no matter that the guys an idiot and absolutely wrong and stupid and, and … It doesn’t matter. I open my mouth to stand up for myself, but the words can’t squeeze past the very large lump. Suddenly, I am reaching for my sunglasses and pretending to have dust in my eye.

I’ve googled how to stop tearing up like that. According to my very exhaustive internet search, I have low self-esteem. I don’t. I mean, yes there are times I don’t like myself, times I embarrass myself, times when I promise myself I will never again say a stupid thing like that stupid thing I just said for as long as I live, only to immediately say something stupid.

So, if it is not crippling low self-esteem, I thought maybe I could figure out other ways to make the tears stop.

At first, I thought I should ignore them completely. But, in my opinion, to become a better person, you should not automatically disregard what people say. Consider the delivery, the deliverer, of course, but consider if they were right. If they were (which is so irritating), figure out if it was a fluke or if it needs more attention. That time the football coach said I was not being an attentive parent—you know what? Through my tears I realized, he was right. At that moment, I was not paying attention. It was the same week my husband had been out of town everyday. The kids had homework and soccer practice. After the special allergy-free meal I made from scratch and the book I read to them and the thirty-minutes I played with them at the park, that guy caught me on the five minutes I took a mental break and talked to my friend. He caught me right before I took them home, gave them a snack, got them clean, tucked them in, said our prayers and got ready to do it all again the next day. He was right—unwarranted and inappropriate—but his correct in his assessment: at that moment I wasn’t a great parent.

My last option to stop the tears was to be less sensitive. I imagined would that would look like. Maybe an eye roll, a mental middle finger to the commenter. But then, I realized that in being less sensitive, I would be less sensitive. Then I might not filter what I say or what I judge. I might not consider that the mother not paying attention to her children has a husband that is out of town, is exhausted, in need of help, in need of a friend, in need of a childless potty break. Of all possibilities to break the habit of crying from comments, this seemed the worst.

Words are so strong. We offer them up thoughtlessly. And maybe, if I wasn’t so sensitive, I wouldn’t have realized their power.

Recently, I was in a season of comments. For weeks, people had given me their unsolicited opinions. Each one felt more critical than the last. I started to rethink my theories. I wanted to ignore, close up and judge. So many negative opinions made me really start to doubt myself.

Then one Thursday, I took my son to preschool. I signed him in, hugged him and off he went. When I briefly spoke with his teacher, like it so often happens with me, she made a comment. She gave me words. She told me, “Your son is so freaking smart.”

I couldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t wait to tell my husband about what our son’s teacher said—the words she shared. I barely made it out the door before I started crying.

You know the kid poem? The one about stick and stones I changed in the beginning? So that our kids know the truth, so they understand what they are capable of as they get older and begin to share their words and make random comments to strangers, maybe this is how the poem should go:

Sticks and stone can break my bone,

But words can utterly destroy me.

Sticks and stones can break my bones,

But words can wonderfully transform me.

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Secrets and Laptops

I’ve been keeping a secret. For over seven years.

In May of 2005 I was hugely pregnant with my oldest child. I had just finished teaching 8th grade and stuffed all my classroom gear in boxes.  I filed away my freshly earned Masters degree (that I have never used). With a few weeks to wait until I got to meet my firstborn, I sat on our couch and opened to a blank Word document and starting typing.

That was my first manuscript.

When I finished it two years later, I printed it at Kinko’s (for $30!) and stacked it on the kitchen counter. I took pictures. I sent it to one person to read. They were generous with any compliments because it was terrible. Really bad.

I wanted to get better.

Through a writing organization I joined, I found out about continuing education classes at SMU. When I started the classes, I realized how much I didn’t know I didn’t know. So I started learning it.

And I wrote another book.

This one was better.

I submitted it to agents–a bunch of them. I got five full reads on it, but they all ended in rejection.

While I submitted, I wrote my third manuscript.

I’ve stayed with the SMU program, now called The Writer’s Path. In December I submitted my latest manuscript for something called the New York Seminar. Every other November, SMU takes 13 writers and their manuscripts to New York to discuss their work with agents and editors.

Today I got the call that my manuscript was accepted.

It’s not getting published, but it is getting closer.

Today, I told my fellow writing friend that maybe I should finally admit what I spend all my free time doing. She said, “Egads, Woman! You only live once.”

I’m finally ready to admit it. I am a writer.

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By Blood or By Law

There is a part of myself I hate.

I’m afraid to even write it because people will be like, “Oh, I see it. She is like that!”

I am a bit of a know-it-all. There. I said it.

It’s better than it used to be. I’m so embarrassed with I think about my high school days. Memories come rushing back that I try to supress. This one time in high school, for example, I went toe to toe with some boy about a math proof. I didn’t even like math! We argued about the right answer, both getting madder and our tempers escalating until he called me a bad word. (Coincidentally he called me the other thing I am worried about being besides a know-it-all.) It ended in me crying in my geometry class with uncompleted proof and a gut full of self-loathing.

I tried to keep my mouth shut after that.

It didn’t work. I argued back all the time. Sometimes it was fun and good-natured. Sometimes not.

As I grown up, though, I’ve gotten the hang of it. I’ve attempted to suppress and hide the know-it-all part of my personality. Almost to a fault. Now, when somebody argues with me, and I feel my self rising to meet the challenge, a warning bells goes off in my brain. I deflate and tell myself they are probably more right than I am. I’ve turned into a bit of a know-nothing, letting others tell me what to think.

Except with family.

To those related to me by blood or by law, I am as insufferable as ever. If a family member does something that I (mis)construe as selfish, I want her to know she is being childish. If my in-laws annoy me, I let it fester. If my husband is not doing what I think a good husband should do, I “help” him see the light.

Why is it that I have become grossly understanding to the world and cut my family no slack?

And here is the real question for me: what is the RIGHT way to be? I know need to love my family regardless, but do I cut them slack or seek to understand. For the rest of the world, those not related to me, do I stand up for myself or try to serve them by listening? Is the answer somewhere in between?

The answer to that is in some wisdom that I haven’t happened upon yet. Someday I will hopefully find it, but I don’t have to know right now.

My goal right now, like I said before, is to improve. To be better today than I was yesterday. So, for those related to me by blood or by law, I am going to be better. I am going to love them no matter what.

If the part of myself I hate shows up, I’ll let it go. I’ll love me too.

And just in time for the holidays too! I’ll let you know who it goes.

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The Impossible

There are moments when I think about giving up with writing.

In these moments I ask myself,  “Why do I even bother? Am I good enough? Will I ever get published? Why am I wasting my time?”

For years, I have worked toward this goal of writing and creating fictional worlds. So at what point do I stop?

And here is my answer:

At my five-year-old son’s soccer game the other day, he missed the ball every time it came close to him. He had one really great stop–when he was facing the opposite direction and the ball just happened to hit his feet. When he wasn’t missing the ball, he walked around like a zombie (arms out, knees locked, shirt over his head) or performing awesome break dance moves next to the goal.

With my first child, I would have been a mess watching him play. I would have yelled things like Hussle! and Pay attention! and Watch the freaking ball! This time around, I know better. I know that my kids are probably not going to earn their livelihood through soccer. I know that my idenity doesn’t come from how well my kid kicks the ball. I also know that the child I was watching has a brain like mine. (Bless his poor little heart!)

So when it was his turn to sit out, he jogged off the field and snuggled into my lap. On the sidelines, we made up a story.

In our story, the ball was a bomb. The other team was the “bad” guys (or just misdirected people that didn’t understand the consequences of their actions). If the villains got the ball back to their headquarters (aka made a goal) the world would blow up. We, the heroes, had to stop that from happening. If we could get the ball back to our headquarters, we could dismantle the bomb and save the world!

My son and I sat on the sidelines cheering for the “good” guys and holding our breath if the other team got too close to scoring (thus getting the bomb to the bad guy headquarters).

When he got to play again, he was not playing soccer–he was defending the world!

Sadly, his heroics are not yet fully developed. The world blew up and we never got the chance to dismantle the bomb.

That game took place the day after I had about decided to give up on writing, and as the kid and I walked to the car after the world blew up, it hit me: I can’t give up.

Not “I can’t” like I really, really don’t want to. I mean “I can’t” as I am not physically able to do so.

The stories are there, in my head. I can choose not to try to share them professionally, but I can’t give up creating them. They are just there. Not even a conscious thought.

And they carry me.

The stories get me (and my kid) through soccer games. They comfort me when I feel anxious. They make me feel like myself. Two years ago when I was dealing with debilatating anxiety and panic, one of my stories completely righted my world.

So while I do have the choice about what to do with the stories, I can’t stop writing and creating them.

It is actually not possible to quit.

What is that thing for you?

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