Category Archives: Writehack/Lifehack

We Might Not Come Back. Drink Anyway.

I’m moving away, and I’d like to talk about The Tavern.

Scene: Adventurer’s tavern. Night. The bar is full, and the old friends, gather at the same table. Again.

*FELIMIR
Well twas long, long ago, back when the trees were talkin’

KNIGHT FERGUS
T’was only yesterday.

FELIMIR
Yes, yes, I’m getting to it, there’s a formula you know.
Where was I?
A long time ago, long ago, so long ago that no one can remember and no tree can remember and no rock can remember, a place so far away beyon’t that –

KNIGHT FERGUS
It was last night across the river. Now tell the fighty bits.

FELIMIR
Alright, if you’ll have all the heart taken out if it.

Moving is the most stressful thing a human can experience. It’s loss, change, and the elimination of all points of reference. It can also be incredibly rewarding. I’m moving from Oakland, CA to a red state, and true to form, I’m all set to inject drama into this situation where perhaps there was none.

When I left New York, there were parties, yes, but there was also crying, gnashing of teeth, and “don’t go!” conversations.

When I moved from Seattle to San Francisco, only two friends came over to help me load the U-haul. There was no pomp or circumstance. We chatted and taped boxes as though it were any other Saturday afternoon, and parted with a “see ya.”

The lack of drama surprised me a bit.

I don’t typically keep friends for longer than five years. A friend once told me that your friends aren’t people you share values with; they’re the people you do stuff with. That made me think that friendships end because interests change. Another told me that when we move, we create a self-shaped void in the lives of those we left behind — but our life becomes a giant mass of voids (where do I hang out? Where’s the grocery store, place to watch the sun rise? Dojo? Job? Hospital? Coffee shop? Diner?). We get stressed, while everyone else is fine. The world rolls on without us, and the place we left disappears.

The last time I visited familiar places in New York, it felt like wearing a sweater that was too small. License plates were a different color. People had grown physically and emotionally. Items from my childhood that should have been dear sparked nothing in me. I was so unmoored from the things that were supposed to be meaningful that I felt the foundation of my identity crumble.

Because of those experiences, I anticipate losing people as soon as I meet them. The impermanence of relationships looms large in my brain. This fear became self-fulfilling. I freaked out with my New York friends, and tried to keep everything the same with an obsessive fervor. You can guess how badly that ended.

Since that time, I’ve tried to accept that paths diverge. My interests change, so do others’. People drift apart, so that’s ok.

The problem is that I’ve applied the same obsessive fervor to ACCEPTING THAT PATHS DIVERGE so I pull out the scissors as quickly as I once pulled out needle and thread.

It’s not the drifting or the grasping that’s destructive; it’s the fervor. 

Leaving my core group in California will be hard, just like it was hard to leave my core group in New York. These relationships have been special and illuminating — supportive and challenging. They’re all very different people, with different specialties and perspectives I would never have had access to. I felt sad, not that I was going to leave them; but that I was going to lose them.

When I mentioned this to one of them, they responded with an eye-roll.

“I’ve always taken some issue with your idea about paths diverging and not diverging and all that.”

“In what way?”

“In every way. You’ve been asking if we’re about to diverge since the second time we met.”

Even in my writing, the opening paragraph is usually this is the story of how it all went wrong. I’m so scared of the ending that it colors the beginning.

My friend said, “I see us on different adventures, constantly meeting in the tavern between quests, and then setting off on new ones in the morning. You’re my brother forever and I’ve been fucking loving you across the current of you asking me if our paths were diverging for, like, seven years. Calm down.”

Which brings us back to the tavern. It’s got a million names. It’s The Winchester, The Bronze, Ten-Forward, The Hanged Man, Cafe Solstice, Cafe La Boheme. Facebook. Twitter.

“This may be the last time we drink together in this tavern,” Felimir gloomed into his tankard.

“Dude,” said Fergus, “you get like this every time. Drink your fucking mead, we’ll be back in two days. Chill.”

Tomorrow morning we all have to get up and fight dragons, my friend said. I get that we’re all nervous about it, and we all have our own way of coping. Maybe you’re right, and it won’t be the same. That doesn’t mean it’s over. For fuck’s sake, just drink.

Where do you gather with your friends? A living room? A cafe? A chat box, or a number on speed-dial?

Where’s your tavern?

*Excerpt from: The Sorrows, or Deirdre From The Legend Kills Herself In Every Version But That Doesn’t Mean You Always Have To, currently under development through Custom Made Theater’s Undiscovered Works Series.

SFF Short Fiction 101 (from a slusher)

**THIS POST DOES NOT REPRESENT THE OPINION OR METHODOLOGY OF ANY ANTHOLOGY OR MAGAZINE I HAVE WORKED FOR. ALL VIEWS ARE MY OWN.

Hello new writers! Welcome to the game.

Here is some stuff I’ve learned about short fiction submission (and hopefully sales) in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. I expect that some of this will be wrong, or not true in all cases. If you’ve had stuff published before, you probably know all this.

My credentials: I write mostly fantasy, and have slushed for the Upside Down anthology released by Apex Magazine. I currently slush (am a first-reader) for Escape Artists, specifically Podcastle and Cast of Wonders. I also have written a small number of spotlights (tiny interviews based on short stories) for Lightspeed.

Why am I writing this: I tweeted something re: short fiction submissions, and discovered some people saying the process is opaque. Hopefully these 9 items will shed some light on what happens to your story.

1. What is a slusher? Why should I listen to you?

When a short story gets sent to a publication (sometimes called a market), it enters a queue. The first round of readers, called slushers, read through the stories and decide which ones to pass up to the editor. This is sometimes called a “bump.” If the story doesn’t quite match the publication, or the prose isn’t quite there yet, it will be rejected at this stage. More on that below.

The word slush comes from back in the day when people would submit their stories by printing them out and tossing them through the mail slot. You can visualize how a thick pile of white manuscript paper resembles a chunky, half-melted snow drift.

Why listen to me? You don’t have to listen to me, there are lots of posts by much more successful writers, editors, and agents — but after about a year of being a slush reader, I’ve observed a few missteps that are pretty easy to fix. You know. If people know about them.

2. My story is done, and revised, and ready to go! What next?

Are you sure it’s done?
Have you gotten feedback on plot, sentence structure, pacing, plausibility?
Have you checked for common tropes that might be overused?
If no, go back and fix it.
If yes, read on.

Do not skip the revision step. Once you send a story to a market, you cannot re-submit it. Consider that bridge, for that story, burned.

But you can always submit different stories.

There are lots of places to submit your story, and new markets and anthologies pop up all the time. My go-to search engine is the Submission Grinder.  There I can search not only by subgenre and length, but I can also search by the pay-level. Around 3cents a word is semi-pro, and around 6cents per word is considered a pro-rate.

Pay rates matter if you care how much money you’re making, and they will also qualify you for membership in organizations and guilds like Codex and SFWA.

Why join a guild? Friendship, news, and some resources. You’ll need to make at least one sale at 6cents/word in order to qualify for either of those.

3. How do I know if my story is what that market is looking for?

Well… you don’t. We don’t either. That’s why “don’t self reject” is common and good advice. However, here are the elements at play in a decision.

  1. You have to learn that market. Read the magazine. Listen to the podcasts. There are many styles within a genre. Some fantasy markets want old-school Conan adventures. Some fantasy markets are deeply committed to beautiful, understated language that cut to the emotional core.
    1. Subbing to a market without a broad sense of their taste is like going on a date with the editor and only talking about yourself. Hard to make a meaningful match that way.
  2. Is your story the best story in the pile, at the time? Sometimes we’ll get five stories in a pile that we absolutely adore, but we only have two slots available.
    1. I’ve had one friend get rejected because their story was similar to one that was recently purchased. They waited a year, the editors changed,  they resubmitted, and sold the story.
  3. Taste is subjective. The stuff I like, the stuff my fellow slushers like, and the stuff my editors like might not match exactly. My editors have been kind enough to let me know if I’m going in a different direction from them, and I’ll adjust. If I don’t click with a story, but I recognize that the writing is really good, I leave it for someone else to judge.

4. I found a market I want to submit to. What next?

Check their web site for submission guidelines. That includes file type, formatting instructions, and cover letter content. I can’t speak for all magazines/markets, but most cover letters for short fiction should be brief.

I see a lot of cover letters that are fluffed up into more details than this. To be honest, as a slusher (and kind of a jerk) I’m not interested. If your story is good, then people will like it, and they will like our magazine by extension. This is a business. There are no pity-sales.

If you don’t have previous publication creds, that’s totally fine. You can also list esteemed workshops and awards if you like, such as Clarion, Viable Paradise, or Taos Workshop. I don’t really care about that stuff, though. Mostly I will be envious you got to enjoy those experiences, and I haven’t yet.

I care about your story.

5. What about inclusion? Don’t you want to know if I’m non-binary?

This is the one exception to the above tweet. I do look for things that indicate the author has come from an underrepresented demographic, and I also look for notes on their occupation or other lived experience (i.e., refugee, Indigenous Cultural Advocacy, etc).

This does not include your feelings or intentions.

The reason I glance at this information depends largely on the topic and themes of the story. These qualities lend veracity to stories about those particular topics, but quality comes first, always.

I have also used this information to make sure I’m not misinterpreting unfamiliar language as “improper” language. Everyone slushes differently, and I’m still learning how to do this properly.

6. What if I get rejected?

There are a few kinds of rejections.

Form rejection – general, no details about your story. Either a poor fit, or the writing wasn’t quite ready.

Personal rejection – these are actually really great! The top 10% of rejections. They’ll tell you something specific about why your story wasn’t working for the editor. The trick is to go from being in the top 10% (personal rejections) to the top 1% (publication).

Rewrite request – “if you’re willing to make these changes, then we can send you a contract. LMK if that’s ok.” When I’ve been asked for rewrites in the past, I have done them — with the intention to revisit the cut material in other stories (if what was cut out was really important to me). It’s totally ok if you don’t want to make changes. No one will blacklist you for sticking to your guns.

Silence. Check the magazine’s website. Sometimes they’ll indicate how long you should wait to query. Querying is totally fine IF you do it during the time-span suggested (i.e., after waiting 3 months).

Regardless of what kind of rejection you get, it’s totally fine. It happens to most of us, all the time. Keep writing new stories, keep revising, and keep sending them out. It’s totally ok to “trunk” (put a way) a story if you’re not sure if it will sell. You should start the next one as soon as you can, though. If you have writer-buddies, this is how we keep our spirits up. If you don’t have writer buddies, check out some forums or Twitter or G+ and see if other people are looking. That’s a whole other post by itself.

7. What if I get accepted?

There will be a contract and a celebration, most likely. Possibly also dollars. Once the party’s over, start writing the next story.

8. You’re so mean! Why do you say you don’t care?

It’s not personal, it’s business.

That said, in light of privilege and intersectionality, there’s still a lot of work to be done. There are millions of stories not getting told, that really need to be. There are voices that aren’t getting their share of the spotlight, that really should be. All of our experiences are unique, as are our voices. You might have some insight I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear. I want you to keep writing, reading, learning, growing, improving… so that when it’s your turn, you’re bulletproof.

I don’t want you to miss out because your sentences are clunky. I don’t want you to miss out because you’ve been sending your military SF to urban fantasy markets. I want you to have every opportunity available, and I want you to not waste it by making small, fixable mistakes.

9. What if I have more questions?

Slushers are largely invisible because of the odd person who will respond to a rejection with an argument, or in some cases, a baseball bat. Never EVER argue. Ever. Don’t even send thank-you notes. By allowing slushers and editors a bit of professional distance, we have the spoons to do our jobs correctly, voting on each story on its own merits.

This is a business. We are more likely to do business with other people who treat it like a business.

If you really want to get back at us, or thank us, keep writing. Write something that knocks our socks off. Keep trying. You’ll get there.

In the end, all that matters is the story.

Final note…

The writers that are loudest about process advice tend to also be the newest (and not successful, yet). Don’t worry too much about finding the right path into the industry. Write and read, write and read.

When trying to figure out who to listen to, check their publication credits. How many books do they have out? Are they selling well? What awards to they have?  Are they regularly invited to speak at conventions? Have they been interviewed or published in trade magazines like Locus?

Spoiler alert: I have done none of these things. So if you have the opportunity, become a slusher yourself. You’ll see what it’s like out there.

Container Store Visualization

During one of the last coping skills classes, the instructor took us to the container store (visualization meditation. I like going places in my brainspace). She told us to pick out a container. Could be a tupperware, could be a shoebox, anything that catches your eye. Then we had to put something in it, and put the box somewhere, to help shelve the problem in the event we’re not really able to deal with it right now. Some of my classmates put their containers under the bed, or buried under flowers in the backyard, or shipped it around the world so that they’d have a few months before it was returned to sender.

I picked a stone urn, where the lid was held in place by the clamped jaws of five dragons, then I threw it off a cliff and into the sea. We’re coming up on a year since that shitstorm. There are some riddles about it I haven’t solved yet, but rather than 30% brainspace I’m about ready to give it 2%, then maybe 1%, and hopefully, eventually, archive it entirely unless it’s absolutely relevant.

There is no “back to normal,” just the new normal.

 

Today holds:
Finishing touches on the script
Consultation with a game designer
Short story revisions
Probably brownies and wine.

I really wish it would rain.

 

P.S. one of my friends joked, “imagine finding that on a beach.” There’s a story seed for you.

Birthday Wisdom and Tank Drift 2016!

Quick note… I went to the beach to watch the sun go down on the Solstice. Which is also, frequently, also Father’s Day and my dad’s birthday.

solstice

Summer Solstice was accompanied by a full moon, which hasn’t happened since the year my dad was born. To make an already memorable day even more fantastic, we saw three whales and a dolphin, spouting, tail-flipping, and more than one breach. The clouds looked like an oil painting, casting a rose-colored glow over everything. I wish I could have recorded it all, to convey the depth and breadth of the open beach — the pine and sea smell, the waves, and birdsong — and yet feeling cradled by mother nature in perfect peace.

Each year, I request wisdom rather than gifts for my birthday. Here are the collected thoughts and musings of 2016.

  1. Get off the line of attack, blend with the force directed at you.
  2. The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.
  3. Be as kind to yourself inside your head as you are to your friends.
  4. Plan for success as well as you plan for failure.
  5. Live as though the world were the it should be, to show it what it can be
  6. We have as much power to sculpt reality as environment and situation provide, though we can always grasp further.
  7. It’s okay to realize that some responses are instinctive rather than considered, especially once you become aware of that.
  8. You can’t save other people. They can only save themselves. You can only help. You can save yourself. You should ask for help.
  9. Worrying is using your imagination to create something you don’t want.
  10. Show people you love them while they are here.
  11. Being ethical in your business conduct is more important than making money.
  12. Obituary columns are filled with love, while most of our lives are filled with minutiae. Tell people what they mean to you while it still matters. Also, if you really like a bit of wisdom, neck-tattoo that mofo asap!
  13. The Girl Scouts have a saying, that we should leave a campsite in better condition than it was when we arrived. It means, as we bravely forge a new path into the wilderness, not only do we have a responsibility to tread lightly and avoid doing damage but make a place better by our presence.
  14. Force and flow. Sometimes you need to use force to move obstacles in your life, but sometimes you need to just flow around them. Be the river, which is both. 
    knifeknife
  15. As you go through life, ask yourself, “What am I doing to positively impact the world?” I have struggled with this one, and it took me years to realize that “the world” doesn’t mean it needs to have a global impact, but really means to think beyond yourself and see the impact you make around you. This can be on any scale: global, national, regional, local, your community (whatever form it may be), friends, and/or family. When I’m having a bad day in one area (at work, for instance) I think about where I may be having a positive impact somewhere in the world (bringing joy to friends on FB, providing housing to local bees, being a loving pet parent).
  16. Focus on what you love, and what you can control. Keep trying. Surround yourself with kindness.
  17. The hardest part of any task is starting. It gets easier after that. Also, the world is full of bastards and backstabbers. Never let them grind you down.
  18. You can have anything you want, you just can’t have *everything* you want.
  19. Things are never as bad, or as good , as they first appear. It is amazing how as we get older, mature wisdom begins to resemble being too damn tired. Don’t sweat small change.
  20. The Dick abides.
  21. Never date a man who owns a white van or knows all the words to Monty Python.
  22. Dear sister! I learned from Terry Pratchett that as soon as you finish writing something immediately, without pause, wrote at least a little of the next piece. That way you don’t get stuck between projects.
  23. Only you can make yourself change. Also, everyone gets Stuck. It takes a lot of work to get Unstuck, but the work can be done in little pieces. The best way to get something done is to begin.
  24. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, no matter what troubles you encounter in life… there are nine hundred million people in India who really don’t give a shit. So you might as well be happy.
  25. No matter how cold and wet you are, just as long as you’re warm and dry…
  26. Kelly Shiflet Treat yo’ self! Especially with high tea, warm scones and cream!
  27. When faced with big decisions think about others and then yourself. Also, syrup is good on pancakes and everything else.
  28. Elders ‘taught’ me (sometimes with a sledgehammer…) that it isn’t about achieving what you want or acquiring things or attaining goals, it is about thinking and doing the right thing in the moment of decision that is Now. Most everything else is an illusion.
  29. This is a simple one, but when I wanted to go backpack around New Zealand and Australia for a year and was getting overwhelmed by everything I needed to do to do that, my mom told me “if it were easy, everyone would do it.” I’ve kept to that motto for the twenty plus years since.
  30. Three pieces of wisdom from the same brilliant source: 1) there isn’t any dream so huge that it can’t be divided up into manageable steps; 2) “Because if you are yourself as loud as you can be, you’ll only find yourself in places where you’re accepted, and then good things will happen….. LIKE WHALES!”; 3) “so feel your feels the way they feel/ and don’t fight them too hard/ all the flowers plants and cacti too/ all have their place in the yard.” Oh and this one, from the same brilliant source as the above. Reduce your tolerance of fuckery yearly, possibly with treaties and a fuckery reduction council. If you are approaching your fuckery tolerance limit, it is sometimes acceptable to share with friends who have not yet reached their fuckery quota, but proceed with caution and the understanding that we all need to gradually eliminate our reliance on fuckery and make the transition to a zero-fuckery-powered society. And while we will probably fail in the short run, in the long run this will be better for everyone. This has been a carefully considered attribution with commentary.
  31. Honestly, Yoda. “Do or do not. There is no try.” That’s gotten me to finish more stories than anything else. And while I’ve never seen the marked-up drafts of the Empire script, hidden away in a Lucasfilm vault as they are, I have always deeply suspected that line was one of Leigh Brackett’s.
  32. Remember why you do what you do…and tell the people you love that you love them.
  33. Always consider the alternative point of view. And fail a lot — you learn better that way.
  34. Dance.
  35. It is never too late to have a happy childhood.strawberries
  36. Tell the people in your life you love them. Every chance you get. Also be as positive as you can. You will have bad days but when you share something Positive, it helps others too. You never know whose lives you have touched by being a positive light in the world. Yes it is sappy but true. I know because I have had it hit me when I was told “You inspired me to do X.” That’s the best. And very humbling, too.tank girl
  37. Always create. The time will go by anyway. Create even when you doubt. You never know who you are inspiring.
  38. Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself – just a bit better than you would feel about yourself without them.
  39. When you feel like you really get it and your technique is working, you are not learning, just practicing what you’ve learned. When you are struggling and confused, that is when you’re actually learning. One of many useful lessons from my Aikido instructors. It’s helped me to be patient with myself through the learning process (on and off the mat), which is often daunting.

    Transplanting the feathers from a snapped arrow to a limping one.

    Transplanting the feathers from a snapped arrow to a limping one.

  40. Get a kitten.
  41. I don’t do wisdom, but always remember you’re awesome and ther
    e are people who get you…not everyone, but then some use different definitions of the term.
  42. I’ve always lived by this “koan” from British humorist Spike Milligan’s science fiction play, The Bedsitting Room: “Happiness is egg-shaped.”
  43. All things in moderation. Especially Moderation.
  44. If you try to be anybody but yourself, you’re going to fail. Be you. Be the best you possible.
  45. You can’t “should” people into doing what you want them to.
  46. You can’t bully someone into loving you.
  47. Think carefully on the negative archetypes within your own personality. What positive aspects do they have? For example, an addict’s determination and perseverance.
  48. If someone were to ask you why you work hard in those areas, and if you were to answer “to give to others”, how would you respond if then challenged with the question, “Then what are others here for?” This year on your birthday, think long and hard about what things you accept as virtues, and why it is you see them as such. Who in your life reinforces the perception of those things as virtues? Do those virtues truly serve you or do they serve the people who perceive them as virtues? …In short, look for the most subtle ways in which others might be exploiting you, and put an end to it for a while, just to see how it feels.
  49. Much satisfaction can be found in the intersection of the serenity prayer and the oracle’s command to Socrates.shuriken
  50. (In response to, “my sail has become a tablecloth/my shuriken have become coasters.”  They –and you — exist in both states. Shuriken were hidden as belt decorations and deadly weapons. We are, none of us, just one thing at any one time.
  51. Perhaps they (and you) are not so much domesticated as lying in wait for the next opportunity.
  52. What I should have had was a plan. What I should have done was examine why I felt so small that I had to prove anything at all… There’s a god in you. Be like him. He’s the coolest motherfucker you will ever meet. The more you act like him. The more you become him.

Finally… these are the two bits I figured out on my own and want to remember this year.

First, the only difference between the heroes of good and evil is that evil has resigned itself to what must be done. Good mourns.

Also… There are people that will make me feel not only unloved, but unlovable. That is not a reason to change. That is a reason to get as far away from that person as possible.

tank drift

Happy birthday. Happy Solstice. Happy 2016. Despite its brutality, despite the losses we’ve suffered, hold close the truth that the planets do align… and there are whales.

pair02

I’m going to villain today!

Nobody says this.

But fucked up things still happen. We still do fucked up things, and endure them — regardless of our strength/wit/wisdom.

I read this article on comedy and abusive relationships, which reminded me of something my dad said.

When I was recovering, my dad recommended a book to me called Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon–and the Journey of a Generation, by Sheila Weller. He found it eye-opening.

The thing he found most astounding was that these women — who are powerhouses — kept getting screwed, literally and figuratively, by the men in their lives.

He wasn’t shocked by the fact it happens. He was shocked at how consistently, carelessly, and callously it happens. The harm was always casual. The guys either had no idea of the damage they were doing, or they didn’t care.

No idea, or they didn’t care.

I just nodded and said, “yep.”

Interrupt the thought spiral

This is an anchoring exercise. You should practice it when you don’t need it, so that you can call on it when you do.

Start by rubbing your thumb and index finger together in a circle motion. have your eyes closed. As you do this, think about someone that you care about and who cares about you. Think of the good times together and why you are friends/close/etc.

Then move to rubbing your thumb finger and middle finger together. Focus on a happy memory that really brings you joy.

Then your thumb finger and ring finger. Focus on an event where you were successful.

Then thumb and pinky. Focus on where you would like to see yourself in the future.

Make sure to have your eyes closed and really visualize it. Spend about 30-60 seconds doing this with each finger. If you practice it regularly, it’ll be an easier tool to call upon when you get stressed out. We have a huge catalog of memories and experiences to draw from. This anchoring exercise helps you flip to your favorite sections of that catalog when you need them the most.

Also, as a bonus, here’s a quick article on interrupting the negative thought spiral. http://www.valorieburton.com/freebies/resilience/5-ways-to-keep-negative-thoughts-from-spiraling-out-of-control/

Anger for Sprints, Humor for Marathons

Yesterday was my third mounted archery lesson. I show up early enough that the mists still cover the hills. The vineyards, the barn, and the arena are still chilled and dewy. Usually, no one’s around except for the dogs, cat, and occasional hen that come to see if I have food or cuddles, or both. When someone asks how my training is going, this is never what comes up. They expect the hobby to be fueled by revenge. They expect me to be angry.

Anger gives energy in short bursts. It can be an extra jolt of motivation, and armor to wrap yourself in. It converts two-way communication into a one-way street. Under certain circumstances, when you need to protect yourself, when you need to pull yourself up over the ledge — anger is excellent. Anger rises when someone has crossed a boundary. Anger is both an alarm system and a security system, and it will snap shut on the offender. It is as intense as it is instant, and when you’re done, you’re worn out. Even for those who have a long fuse, I’m referring to the moment the fuse triggers the explosive.

The obsessive mind latches onto a perspective and holds there. It takes a stance, chooses a narrative, and makes it into the sole truth. It chews and chews until the original flavor — the objective truth of events — is gone. Only the narrative is left, and that’s what the obsessive mind feeds on. If the narrative is the story we tell ourselves, then we have the power to choose that narrative.

For example, I’ve unconsciously started looking for his car when I’m out driving. I can’t help it. Since I don’t know how to stop playing this game, I look for the cars driven by people I love and am still close to, instead. Chew, chew, obsessive brain, chew on something healthier.

After the breakup and subsequent loss of our child, I couldn’t find my anger. I felt drained of strength, and without my strength, I had no identity. Without anger to shield me and energize me, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. What confused me even further was that the strongest feeling wasn’t anger, but love. I was still in love, and generated love, but I had no place to put it.

Without anger, I felt weak, but the love and warmth in my heart kept growing and growing. Love wrapped itself around the heartbreak and grief. I didn’t want to be bitter. I didn’t want to destroy or be destroyed. I wanted to transcend this, and be transformed by it. When I started practicing archery more often, those feelings imbued the experience. I wasn’t ok, (I’m still not ok), but archery helped me get out of my head and into my environment for a little while. I felt the bow, the arrows, the targets, the trees, the grass, the hawks and the quails, and my fellow archers. They and I were all wrapped in presence and stillness. In that stillness, I could pay attention to the tiny movements that influenced my technique. Shooting wasn’t about the kill; it was about the stillness.

When I found a mounted archery teacher, it was the same thing. We think of warriors on horseback as a thundering wave of death; but one-on-one hasn’t been like that at all. It’s me and the horse, learning to talk to each other. You have to listen to the animal, and acknowledge the terrain and other distractions. You also have to listen to your own mental state, and its effect on your body language. Riding wasn’t about taking power; it was about listening.

My body has always told me early on when something was wrong, from vitamin deficiencies to appendicitis. I’ve learned to trust it. It knew that anger wouldn’t make me better this time.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot of giggling in the midst of the zen. I’ve had arrows hit the target and then flip over themselves and land in the grass somewhere. I’ve done a great fast-draw and then dropped the arrow on my toe before I could shoot it. More than once, while standing in the stirrups, my horse would just stop and pitch me forward. This is silly, slapstick shit. Beauty and stillness is all well and good, but it’s not really fun. Fun is being able to laugh at yourself. If you want to climb a mountain, you’ll have a much easier time if you enjoy walking and sweating. If you can make your fuck-ups funny, you’re set. You look forward to the victories, but also for the jokes. It’s hard to quit if you love what you’re doing.

After the ride, I feed the horse and sit with him until he finishes. I brush him and pet his flank while he eats, the same way I pet the other animals at the barn when they ask for it. Then I take him back to his pasture. The exercise, the countryside, and being with animals is helping me heal in a way that breaking, burning, and screaming never could.

Even the self-talk has shifted. Rather than say “fuck!” when I make a mistake, I say “well, that was silly.” Maybe I was silly. Maybe the horse was silly. Maybe the arrow or the target was silly. Blame and negativity aren’t part of the learning experience. Each success is a surprise, and each mistake is hilarious.

So no, I don’t picture my ex when I’m shooting. I have no desire to do harm. My own pain was enough. When I ride, I’m with the horse. When I shoot, I’m with the landscape.

There was a woman I trained with a long time ago who always smiled. I’ve never seen a photo of her where she didn’t have a big toothy grin. At the time, I took her less seriously because of it; but I was wrong. She’s knowledgeable, formidable, and a fantastic friend. I think she was on to something.

If I were angry, I couldn’t do any of these things. I’d be stuck in the cycle of raging, passing out, and raging again. That’s not a long-term strategy.  Instead, I’m learning to flow with what is, and let go of what isn’t. I won’t hit the bulls-eye every time. I won’t always be graceful in the saddle. But if I’m laughing the whole time, who cares? I’ll be back tomorrow, no worse for wear.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
― Sun Tzu

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
― Samuel Beckett