About Powerlessness

I miss Laser Cat.

It usually comes over me at bedtime, which was when she’d most often have her bursts of affection. It was easier for her when we were lying down; we were less scary, I think, when we were flat and lower to the ground. She would purr and curl up and push her head into my hand insistently, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes before she’d give up.

And when my daughter was upset, she would jump up on her bed and purr and allow herself to be hugged and squeezed and all the other things she would angrily refuse at other times.

My daughter misses her a lot. She’s never had an animal love her like that. She’s never loved an animal like that in return.

None of this takes anything away from the kittens. (They are still kittens, despite the fact that Dexter is HUGE and heavy and looks very much like a grown cat.) Pets don’t replace each other. That’s both the pleasure and the pain of them. We are getting to know the kittens, and they are warming up to us as they age and their play changes. They have moments of being affectionate, but fundamentally they sort of breezily coexist with us. They’re happy, and they clearly feel safe with us, which is nice.

But there is still a gaping Laser Cat-sized hole in my heart. I miss Editor Cat, too. But she was older, and had been ill for a long time. Laser Cat was young, and we should have had her for so much longer. The pain of her loss is different.

Time moves one way.

This is a story of powerlessness. It has a happy ending. But while it was happening, I didn’t know that. I only knew it when it was done.

***

Last spring, my daughter casually mentioned, in the middle of another conversation, that she thought she was having seizures, and I had one of those moments where my brain instantly cast around to find some benign explanation for what she was describing. When my brain hit on nothing, the next step was to freeze. I went for casual, because I didn’t want to freak her out. I knew there were all kinds of reasons this might be happening. I knew I couldn’t answer any of her questions, and that we’d have to see a doctor.

I hit the freak-out point around about the time I called her pediatrician. Her pediatrician is lovely, and spoke calmly while I was crying, and gave me a referral to a neurologist’s office.

***

When she was an infant, everybody was talking about SIDS. There’s been some good research on that in recent years, suggesting that serotonin levels are a big risk factor, that babies at higher risk could be identified and monitored. But when my daughter was little, it was only “nothing in the crib, put her on her back, she might die anyway.” She had her own room, and I would get up frequently at night just to listen to her breathing. She was a terrible sleeper, and despite the fact that I was getting two to three hours of sleep in a row, max, I felt somehow safer when she was yelling for food or refusing to settle down. I used to be relieved when she had a cold, because I could hear her snuffling over the baby monitor.

One night when she was five months old, she slept seven hours straight. I slept, too. When I woke up and saw the sunshine I ran into her room in an absolute panic, convinced she had died in the night. But she was fine.

***

The first thing they did for her was an EEG. It was an interesting, albeit tedious, process, and the worst thing about it was that she was only allowed four hours sleep the night before (she needed to doze off during the test). We stayed up until midnight watching movies. Waking up at 4:00 am was less exciting. We watched more movies in the morning. We bought donuts on the way to the hospital. We did what we could to make it fun.

She’s remarkable, my kid. Every parent says that, and for every parent, it’s true. But she really is remarkable.

The next week in the doctor’s office, they showed us the spiky brain waves that meant absence seizures. The doctor was even able to induce one while we watched. Later on, as we drove home, she expressed irritation at that. Her brain was betraying her. That this could happen to her, and she could not even notice while everybody else did, seemed outrageous and unfair.

***

Seizures are actually not uncommon. One in a hundred people in the US is epileptic. I know this for two reasons: one, my daughter had febrile seizures as a child, and I’m a mad Googler when things go wrong; and two, I had to do a PSA poster for a graphic arts class, and I chose to do mine on epilepsy. The only thing I learned that I hadn’t known already was how common it was.

When she started having absence seizures, I learned all the many and varied reasons they can happen, including that wonderful medical catch-all of “Who knows?” Head injuries can cause them (she’s had a concussion). They can be genetic (nobody in the family that we know of). Benign brain lesions can cause them. So can tumors.

***

They scheduled the MRI as a non-urgent procedure. To “rule things out.” There was nothing to suggest that what she was going through was due to a serious brain issue. She had no change in personality, no coordination issues, nothing other than these moments when she’d just go somewhere else.

Throughout it all, I maintained big, cheerful, everything-will-be-fine momness. But my remarkable kid is no fool, and she knows me. She can pick up vibrations in my mood from halfway across the house. There are no false reassurances with this one.

I held her one night, when she was scared. I told her the truth: that odds were there was nothing whatsoever wrong with her. That this procedure would show nothing serious, that they just wanted to know what was going on. That I worried because that was the sort of person I was, but that if we looked at the facts, everything pointed toward her having a fairly common condition that she would most likely grow out of.

We took her to the hospital. We got donuts again that day. They had room to have one parent in with her, and I volunteered. They gave me poorly-fitting salmon-pink scrubs to wear, and I got to sit in a rocking chair while they secured her on the table and explained the machine to her. She had headphones so she could listen to music. She had a panic button that she could press if she freaked out. The machine was massive, and the opening was tiny. I’m claustrophobic, and I don’t think I could have done it. I smiled, and told her it’d be fine, and she could do it, and they slid her in where she couldn’t see me.

She’s a tall kid, but in that machine, she looked tiny.

I tried to read a book. I don’t remember what book it was now. It was good, and it held my attention. I don’t think I’ve picked it up since. Mostly I got used to the rhythm of the incredibly loud noises, and wept in terror. Not of the machine, not of my tiny child in that massive magnet, but of what they might find in her beautiful brain.

When she got out, she told me how close she had come to hitting that panic button. But she didn’t.

***

I got pregnant easily. This is not to say the path toward trying was simple; but once we got there, it was quick. I remember the positive test, and giving my husband a hug, and having this lurching feeling in my stomach like I’d just been locked into a roller coaster and oh God what had I been thinking getting on this thing. I was certain it was what I wanted. I was certain I was not prepared for what was coming.

There is nothing quite as uncompromisingly physical as being pregnant. People call it a miracle, which is a misnomer. Miracles are rare. Pregnancy isn’t rare. But it’s transformative, strange, unsettling, uncomfortable. All of these things, even when it’s desperately wanted.

I was so sure I’d feel less worried about her once she was born. I would be able to see her. I would be able to tell she was all right without waiting for her to kick or for the midwife to pick up her heartbeat. If I could get her safely through the pregnancy, everything would be fine and I could relax.

I was a fool.

***

The strange thing about medical results is that waiting becomes a good thing. When you don’t hear in an hour, you breathe easier. When you don’t hear in a day, your heart rate finally slows down. We didn’t hear and didn’t hear, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to see the lab report online in five days, before anyone called me on the phone about it.

There’s one word I remember in the report: “unremarkable.” The MRI was unremarkable. My remarkable girl has an unremarkable brain. No lesions, no tumors.

She was fine. She is fine. She is epileptic, and she is fine.

***

I have trouble with powerlessness. I like to think of myself as rational person, but I’m insanely superstitious. When my daughter was a baby, I would never leave her room at 13 minutes after the hour. I never make jokes about truly awful things, just in case. Every morning, when my daughter gets on the school bus, I wave at her until the bus goes around the corner. I tell people I love them when we part. I hate going to bed angry.

But the truth of it is we are all powerless. There are little things we can control, but there is so much that is arbitrary. When something arbitrary happens to us, we eventually adjust. It’s so much harder when it happens to someone else.

I carried my daughter for 40 weeks and 5 days. I felt like I had control. I could eat right, and take my vitamins, and do all the right things. But even then, there was so much I couldn’t do. I couldn’t affect her genetic makeup. I couldn’t affect how she was growing. I couldn’t affect when I went into labor. I didn’t even have much influence over what happened during her birth. All of that was the alchemy of her chromosomes and the physical interaction between the two of us as she grew. Luck. Luck is just another name for powerlessness.

There are a lot of things in life that result from a web of conscious decisions. Sometimes the result is predictable. Sometimes we can’t see the web unless we’re looking back on things that have already happened. It’s a compelling idea, that if we learn to see the web before it’s complete, if we focus on our own part in it, we can change its shape to whatever we want.

And maybe we could, if we could see. But most of the time the web is too complicated for us to understand, and so much of it is assembled without our input. Powerlessness. We can’t know what steps to take until we see the result, and time moves one way. We have to make the best choices we can in the moment, and we still get it wrong.

This story had a happy ending. It was frightening. I would wish it on nobody. But the end is happy. Even with the powerlessness, I find the future looks happy, too.

But I remember that powerlessness. I remember how it feels to need control, and to not get it. I remember the overwhelming urge to bargain, sacrifice, do anything to take control of the situation, and the profound disorientation of realizing what I needed didn’t matter.

I have this sense that the act of embracing powerlessness would be incredibly freeing, that it would allow us to change our lives in ways we can’t begin to understand now.

But I suspect the truth is we’re all, always, too bound up in the web.

 

All About Toad

This is Marmalade, a.k.a. Toad:

marmalade

“I hate all you people.”

Yes, it’s one of those serendipitous photographs. Most of the time she looked like a perfectly normal, vaguely annoyed cat. She was a beauty, really; she’d sometimes get knots in that coat, but it was silkier and smoother than the coat of many long-hairs I’ve known. And all the color: black and brown and gorgeous orange and bits of cream here and there.

But she was not the friendliest pet on the planet.

She chose us, as animals sometimes do. A few days before the 2008 ice storm, she showed up on our doorstep, thin and covered in bloated tics, hollering her lungs out. We took her in, warmed her up, and gave her food and a litterbox. We took her to a vet, who removed the tics, checked for a chip, gave her a bunch of shots, and sent her home with us. We called a couple of no-kill shelters in the area, but they were full. We put up some flyers: no response.

rescued_toad

Scrawny, just-rescued Toad

So she was ours, and I was leery at the start, because she was so non-social. Not like a feral cat—she’d clearly lived with humans before, and not only because someone had declawed her—but like an animal who preferred the company of no one. She was not a lap cat, she did not like being picked up, and although she liked, on occasion, to be petted, she would not put up with it long. And when she was finished accepting whatever attention you paid her, she would let you know, with a loud, constant, Siamese-level wail that didn’t seem to require any breathing on her part. She was, perhaps, part bagpipe.

To my daughter, who was less than five when Toad joined us, she was just another big fluffy kitty. She would pet her, and pick her up, and listen to her howl. When Toad howled, my daughter would talk to her lovingly. When Toad was really done, she’d bite—but gently. A mama telling her kitten to knock it off. Some cats, I have found, seem to understand about young humans.

When my daughter got older, Toad would greet her in the morning, jumping up on the bed and purring, succumbing to a little affection. At night she would jump up and stay on the bed until my daughter went to sleep. If she woke in the middle of the night, Toad would go to her to check.

This is what is missed the most: Toad’s routine. Her caretaking. Her grumpy, howling, resentful caretaking.

People describe her as an unusually bad-tempered cat. I suppose she was. My old Siamese could be a grump, but she was nothing compared to Toad. I loved that about Toad. She took what she wanted, and when she was done, she let us know. She’d insist if she had to. She knew herself, and her tolerances. She let us take care of her just enough, but no more.

pedestal_toad

If you stare at this picture long enough, she looks like a head on a pedestal.

I think one reason I’ve mostly had cats instead of dogs is that I love this aspect of the feline nature: “Sure, you’re upset, fine, here’s some rubbing and some purrs, now stop making that damn noise because shouldn’t you be feeding me?” That utterly unabashed self-centeredness. Genuine affection, but no neediness.

Or almost none.

The best guess for what got her is FIP. There was no way to test for it while she was alive, but all of her symptoms fit: digestive issues, lethargy, jaundice, paralysis. We treated symptoms as best we could, but she faded so fast. I fed her through a tube for a week and a half, and in the end she couldn’t even keep anything down that way. Ten years old, and we had to let her go.

I’ve lost pets before. That’s the life of a pet lover: unless you get a tortoise, you’re going to be saying goodbye to them. I lost my Siamese eight years ago, and there’s still a gap in my heart. But Toad was not my cat, not really, although I took care of her at the end, feeding and medicating and cleaning and taking her to and from the vet. She was my daughter’s cat, and that made it so much worse.

There’s an instinct that parents have to spare their children pain. You try to explain the world to them, in hopes that they won’t make the mistakes that you did, that they won’t go through the same awful experiences. You can know those experiences shaped you, made you stronger, made you a better person; but you wish, somehow, you could give your child all of that shape and strength without the pain.

I couldn’t do anything about this. I couldn’t save a cat my daughter should have had with her for many more years. I couldn’t save this animal who comforted her when she was sad, who was a companion when she was happy, who grumpily got up with her in the mornings and waited for her in the afternoons. I was powerless to save my daughter from the agony of swift and meaningless loss.

She will be stronger for it. And more compassionate. And more loving toward the pets—and friends—she has now. I remember my own childhood losses. I remember how they felt. So easy to see, in retrospect, that the pain meant I knew how to love.

But I still remember the pain.

I woke up that first day after Toad was gone, and I thought of all the times she would greet me: jumping on the bed, walking halfway toward my head, purring, accepting a few pets before she jumped down, lashing her tail, impatient for her breakfast. Such a lovely cat, with her bright green eyes and gorgeous tortoise shell fluff. So annoyed with everyone, always. So annoyed with needing affection. So annoyed that she loved us.

floofy_toad

That cat left us weeks ago. The animal we kept hoping to get back was already lost to us. The time that passes between recognizing your animal is suffering and recognizing that you need to let them go is the span of realizing that the only thing you can do anymore is help them hurt a little less. After everything they give, you have to help them. They are creatures of feeling, and we owe them all of our love and compassion.

We took her to a medical facility full of people she knew, people who had cared for her and been kind. They put in a catheter, which was undoubtedly unpleasant; but after that she was curled up on a piece of my husband’s clothing, surrounded by the smells of home, with me petting her and talking to her with my familiar voice. She dozed off. I stroked her. She died, and now she is gone. She will always be gone.

We have curled around each other, me and my little family, and we will survive. We will have this shared pain to remind us that we can count on each other, that we will hold each other up when things are hard. That’s good, right? That’s a small grain of not-awfulness in all of this.

Someday, maybe, it won’t feel so hollow.

 

Small Things

When the world falls apart, small things become huge.

It’s been over a month since we lost Editor Cat. A couple of weeks ago, we acquired kittens, who came with a cold that they gave to Laser Cat, who became quite ill. She spent a couple of days in the hospital getting a hydrating IV and more x-rays than any cat in the entire state. Now she’s home, and not eating much, and sleeping a lot, and sneezing, and I worry.

I have two friends who have lost people to suicide in the last few weeks.

Laser Cat is a strange creature. She showed up on our doorstep in 2008, the afternoon of an ice storm that took out our electricity for nine days. She was declawed, and covered in ticks, and weighed less than five and a half pounds. We took her to the vet, put up a couple of posters, and, when nobody claimed her, called her our own. She’s damaged, psychologically. She howls when she’s held, great long, low sounds that she sustains without perceptibly inhaling. She’ll bite and slap people with those clawless paws when she’s really had it. And she’ll climb up next to you if you’re upset, and purr for a while, and even let you pet her, until it becomes too much and she runs away.

I know a child who keeps asking if her family will be allowed to stay. Nobody can tell her. She was born here. They are legal immigrants. It shouldn’t be a question. She should be worrying about school dances and getting good enough grades to get into Algebra I. She should not have to think about any of this.

Laser Cat is on the mend, sort of. I bounce between optimism and deep anxiety. She is sleeping a lot, and she still has a cold. Sometimes it takes me a while before I can coax her to eat. Tonight I couldn’t get her to eat at all, but she had been up earlier, wandering around where the dry food is, and tonight she fought me off much harder than usual. So: She didn’t eat, but she seemed stronger. More pissed off. Much more Laser Cat than she has been. The vet prescribed her an appetite stimulant which will be delivered tomorrow–it was compounded, and there were no local pharmacies that would do it, so it had to be mailed–and I get to see how easily I can get her to take a pill. I hope she bites the hell out of me.

People I know, who claim to agree with me on substantive issues, are bouncing on the “identity politics are responsible” train, as if the entire history of this country hasn’t been identity politics, just not the kind they’re talking about. I get unspeakably angry, which isn’t an emotion I handle well.

The kittens are growing. One of them put on a pound in a week. He’s going to be massive. He has huge panther feet and a long nose, as if somewhere in his bloodline there is Abyssinian. The other is still tiny, a little black and white girl, picture-perfect kitten cute and tough as hell. She’s the instigator, the first one to pounce, the last one to curl up and settle down. She takes us utterly for granted. Neither of them has the kind of psychological injury that Laser Cat has. They are deeply curious about Laser Cat. It turns out Laser Cat’s formidable glare works pretty well on kittens.

I would like my Laser Cat back. I would like one thing to go well, to have one reason for optimism, to have one sign that there is a path forward–different, difficult perhaps, but forward.

Small things become huge.

Presidents are elected, every time, based on domestic policy. Sometimes it’s vitally important. Sometimes it’s bullshit. But every single president in my lifetime has been almost entirely absorbed, while in office, with international issues. Domestically, it’s pretty clear how this is going to go, and it’s a fucking shitshow and I’m glad they at least lost the popular vote because that does suggest there may be enough of us to hang on. Which won’t save everyone. It already hasn’t saved everyone. But it may save some.

But internationally? The domestic stuff depresses me deeply. The international stuff actually frightens me. And it’s not just the ignorance–it’s the deep incuriosity, and the facile idea that xenophobia will solve everything. This is Planet Earth 2016. There is no way to draw into your own borders and cover your ears and wait for the rest of the world to decide whether or not to blow itself up.

I realized, a while back, that you can tell a lot about people based on who they mean when they say “us” and “them.” The US has always had this romantic view of itself as a melting pot, a home for everyone. And no, it’s never been that, not for everyone, not easily for anyone who does not have white skin, white ancestors, a white name. But it’s a goal to strive for, and it’s hard to look at all of this and think that I am surrounded by people who have deliberately shoved that goal aside in the name of fear.

I have sympathy for fear. But real people have been hurt, are being hurt, will be hurt, because some people are amorphously afraid. I can have sympathy. But I cannot forgive.

We don’t know how old Laser Cat is. Our best guess is that she’s roughly ten. Not a young cat, but by no means an old one, not really. All of my cats live a long time. I’m counting on many more years of Laser Cat, and at the same time I am holding my breath for her to make it to tomorrow so I can try feeding her again. There has been too much loss lately. She is one cat, rescued on an unlikely day after having survived weeks in the woods with coyotes and no claws, and we love her and small things become huge.

The world changes and the pendulum swings. What is an annoyance for some is life and death for others. One step back for me, twenty steps back for someone else. I am lucky. Am I strong? What’s the definition? We all need strength. We cannot draw into our own borders and cover our ears. This is the world we are in. This is now, and this is us.

Ways to Cope

I’ve been trying to figure out what to say post-US election, but I find myself uncharacteristically short of words. So here are some words from others that have resonated with me:

And some actual, concrete things you can do to help:

  • Places to donate. There are more than this. Your home town undoubtedly has organizations and resources that could use some help right now. Google can help you.
  • If you write – whether or not you’re currently published – consider this.
  • If you see anyone being harassed, help however you can. (This seems like a reasonable strategy.) If you can’t intervene, find someone who can.
  • Be public about your position. Be counted.

And remember, we are all in the world every day. Some of us are going to be more vulnerable through all of this than others. We can reach out to people who are more at risk than we are. We can stand up and be proudly inclusive, and live by what we believe. This has always been important. It’s especially important now.

The Romance Thing

I actually wrote this a while ago, and tabled it. But here, on the cusp of the release of REMNANTS OF TRUST–which is also not a romance novel–it seemed like a good one to resurrect.


WARNING: This post contains spoilers for THE COLD BETWEEN, although if you’ve read any reviews, they’re probably spoilers you’ve already seen. Still: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

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If you want to discuss genre, it’s probably closest to say that I write military SF (or possibly space opera).

But the first two chapters of THE COLD BETWEEN read very much like a romance novel. (You have to skip the prologue to get the full effect of that, which is part of why the prologue is there.) I always liked that about it. I like the idea of launching the story with an intimate and personal incident, something private between two people. Something nice.

Because boy, it runs off the rails pretty quickly. There’s not a ton of nice in this book, and I wanted to have a little bit of time when Elena could actually be happy and not angry and stressed out. I wanted to let people see the sort of person she was most of the time, the kind of person who could believably be someone’s best friend and trusted colleague.

And to me, it was very clear from the beginning that these two people weren’t going to have a life together.

Elena loves her career. Loves it. More than that, she loves living on a starship. She loves space and travel, and the sound of machines. It’s in her blood, and it gives her strength and comfort. Trey, on the other hand, loves his home planet. He has longed for home for decades. Even feeling ostracized by his fellow colonists, not to mention his own family, there’s a contentment he gets from being there that nothing else in his entire eventful, productive life has ever given him.

How can these people stay together? Spoiler: They can’t. And I wrote it that way on purpose.

Y’all know I’m no spring chicken. I’m 52 years old. I was nearly 38 when I got married. I have a couple of exes for whom I wish nothing but loneliness and unrelenting misery. (Pretty sure grudge-holding is my superpower.) And I have a couple with whom I would sit down for coffee, catch up, and listen with delight to what I hope are the lovely things that have happened to them since we parted.

Because for me, while love was not always Happily Ever After, it was also not always acrimony and bitterness. For me, as often as not, love was real, and nurturing, and not meant to last any longer than it did.

I wanted to write about that: the sort of truly loving relationship that ends not because of betrayal or foolishness, but because sometimes you’re not headed the same way as your partner, and that’s all right. You can be sad, and wish things were different, and still know that the best thing for both you and them is to part.

I love reading romance novels, but I didn’t write one. I enjoy happy endings, but sometimes the best choices life offers you don’t give you a Happily Ever After option, and it doesn’t mean your life is over or you have to be miserable. Or celibate. Or never fall in love again.

I wanted to write that kind of love story, because that kind of love has been part of my life, and I suspect I’m not alone.

There’s sadness in the ending. I love Elena and Trey together. They are so good for each other in so many ways. He helps her see shades of gray. She helps him choose happiness. I cried when I wrote their last scene together. It’s a sad thing, that their paths are so divergent.

But they do not belong together.

In its own way, this book does have a happy ending, despite the severing of Elena and Trey’s romance. The romance is a piece of the story, not the point of it. The point of it is a bunch of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. There’s mystery, and friendship, and mistrust, and misunderstanding, and lies, and explosions, and betrayal. Melodrama.

And if it’s enjoyed as such…that’s exactly what I intended.

Art vs. Commerce

There are two sides to this writing thing: the creative side, and the business side.

This is not news to anybody, right? It’s just that, based entirely on my own experience, I’m pretty sure not everybody knows what it means. sure as hell didn’t understand. Even now I’m only just beginning to see it. And it’s not a matter of missing facts. The facts are out there, and easy to find, and pretty basic, actually. But it’s not the same as living through it.

Two things happened this week that made me start thinking about this. The first was the #WhyIWrite tag that showed up on Twitter a few days back. I didn’t participate. Not because I don’t have an answer to that question — at this point in my life, it’s just a thing I do, like any other lifetime activity.

Not very profound, is it? Especially since there are some days when I’m really at a loss. Some days writing is hard, and uncomfortable, and it feels futile, and couldn’t I find something else to be just a thing I do?

Did you see that word futile in there? That suggests some discrete purpose that the writing is not fulfilling. So what does that mean? What am I not accomplishing that makes the word futile flit through my head? Why do I write? Never mind everything that came before — why do I write now?

It might be easier to ask what’s been making it a struggle. To that, I can only say…publishing is exposing. And yeah, that’s the point. But it’s sort of like rejection, in that I’m not sure it’s a thing anybody really understands until they experience it themselves.

Publishing a book is a commercial act. You’re putting something in front of the public, and hoping they’ll trade money for it (or take it out of the library, love it, and talk it up to their friends, who will then ask their own libraries to order it). You become like any other supplier in the capitalist system: you produce a Thing, which is worth what others are willing to pay for it. How much work you put into the Thing is entirely irrelevant. Markets are both dispassionate and mercurial. Whether the market is kind or not, you — if you want a career in Thing-making — need to create another Thing, and offer it up to the market again.

I did just that when I was in software. There were far more people between me and the market, but it was essentially the same idea: the development team produced software, and somebody on another team sold it. We all hoped it would sell well and demand would remain high, but in the meantime, it didn’t matter: we had to keep writing software, improving on what we’d already done, thinking of new software that would potentially sell, working to specs and schedules.

I’d never suggest that software can’t be art. But it isn’t art like writing is art. Software comes from problems that need solving. It can be elegant, beautiful, efficient, remarkable; but the precise implementation isn’t generally what gets exposed or critiqued.

By necessity, there is so much more of yourself made vulnerable with writing. In one sense, that’s the only thing that can make a story work: that core of personal truth in the center of the fiction. You’re holding up a part of yourself to the world, and saying, “You know?” And you’re hoping that there will be someone out there who reads it and says, “Oh, yes, I know.”

But whether or not you reach that person, you still have to sit down and write the next book. Because if you don’t, it won’t matter who you reach, because your writing career will be done. Whether or not you have that cosmic connection as motivation, you have to produce the next Thing.

And that is the intersection between commerce and art.

The other thing that happened this week was a conversation about query rejections. I remember query rejections, with all of the frustration and self-doubt they brought. My own querying experience was, in retrospect, not at all bad, but it was bad enough at one point for me to seriously consider just hanging it up and never writing again.

Today I can recognize the absurdity of that moment. Would I really have given up on writing if this one book could not find me an agent? Really? After writing all my life, with everything else bouncing around in my head waiting to get on the page? The failure of one manuscript would have killed my desire to do it?

I didn’t hang it up, but I came awfully close. And I suspect there are writers out there who do, indeed, give up.

There’s this myth with writing: that if you’re any good at all, you’ll produce a novel easily, you’ll find representation easily, you’ll sell it easily, it’ll be insanely popular and get only good reviews. Conversely, if it doesn’t work that way, it means you’re hopeless and should give up. It’s the talent means you don’t have to work at it myth. It’s not restricted to writing, and it’s utter bullshit.

Writing is a craft. This isn’t to say there’s no talent involved, but working with words requires thought and practice. It requires experimentation and failure, and it requires sticking with it when it’s not fun. And it’s something at which every writer, no matter how accomplished, can improve.

The talent myth leaves no room for craft, learning, or improvement.

I suspect there are far too many writers out there who gave up, despite what they might have produced in the future, because they were discouraged by the lack of instant success. I’m not talking about the people who cling to the idea that we’re all just too stupid to recognize their genius. (We all know these people, don’t we? They’re in pretty much every industry out there.) I’m talking about the people who take a rejection as more than what it is. Instead of seeing rejection as “I can’t sell this specific book,” they see it as “You will never be good enough, no matter how hard you work.”

Nobody in the business of writing is going to say that to anyone, because they can’t know that. When they reject, they’re not rejecting a body of work, or an entire writer, or that writer’s future. They are rejecting the work that’s offered. They don’t know the path the writer took to write it. They don’t know what the writer might produce tomorrow, or even what’s lurking on the laptop today. They don’t know anything about the writer at all. All they know is “I do not wish to buy this one piece of work.” And that’s it.

There is no one in the business of crushing ambitions. There are only people in the business of selling stuff. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they fall in love with books just like any other reader. They have to focus on commerce, yes — but for the most part, they want to sell what they love to read. If they don’t love your current thing, they may very well love your next one, or the one after that. You don’t know, and you can’t have a career if you don’t keep writing. Even — especially — when you get rejections.

I always talk about how lucky I’ve been, and it’s true. But I also work hard. I put words on the page. I revise. I kill my darlings (*sob*). I study the edits I’m given and swallow my pride and listen and learn about the story I want to write by working to be open to the ways I’m still getting it wrong.

And do you know, I think that’s #WhyIWrite: to improve. I love the craft of writing. I love reading something that was torturous for me to write, but reads as smoothly as the bits that were easy. I love working out what needs changing, what needs removing, what needs to be added. I love learning how to tell stories I want to tell, and the only way to do that is to keep writing.

So it seems the best way — for me, at least — to do the business of writing is to keep the business part as distant from the actual writing as I can. Hit my deadlines, yes. Know what I’m doing when I agree to new ones, and fulfill all obligations. Answer emails, interact with people, be positive and professional at all times. All of those things, of course. But mostly: write. All the time, write. With or without a contract, or feedback, or even a story goal: write.

Not enough time

Editor Cat died today.

People write on line about losing animals. It always makes me cry. But not like this, not like the reality of it. Empathy is one thing, but as part of your own life—wherever you look, this loss, this absence—no matter how much you cry for strangers, it’s not the same.

This was not a surprise. She was ill. She had cancer, and congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. They did not think we would have as much time as she had. To the surprise of both us and the vet, she remained active and affectionate and very much herself for an entire year after her cancer diagnosis. But a few months ago she became less active, and we increased one of her medications. She did fairly well until about two days ago. And yesterday she stopped eating.

Her name was Seven. She was a lilac-point Siamese, with possibly a bit of mongrel tossed in there. She was the most remarkably good-natured cat I have ever known. She understood apologies if you accidentally stepped on her tail. For the price of a few pets, she provided warmth and purrs for hours. She would wake me in the morning by knocking her nose into my jaw. When we came home she would greet us with meows and rubs and demands to be picked up. She was kind to our daughter, and taught her gentleness and patience. She was a Good Cat.

Grief is a strange thing. It was a few days ago when I first cried, recognizing that no matter what happened she was never going to knock her nose into my jaw again. I cried yesterday, when I realized we needed to take her to the vet, and what the vet would probably tell us. I cried watching my family cry for her. I cried when I petted her on the head and scratched her under the chin for the last time, while I watched her wheeze and force her breath in and out, the exertion of being awake exhausting her. I cried when they brought her to us in a box, the technician, a thick-necked boy who’d be at home on any football team, soft-spoken and empathic and kind.

Grief, initially, is a wave of massive length and amplitude. It hits hard, and harsh, and tumbles you around. When it eases, in the beginning, it doesn’t ease for long before it crashes into you again. But over time, grief becomes quieter. The worst of the crash is not quite so bad. Sometimes the down times last long enough for you to smile, and laugh, and function. And eventually the wave subsides enough so you only notice it when you’re still, when a memory becomes particularly raw.

That eventually can take years. And for some sorrows? It never comes.

I have not, in the grand scheme of things, lost so many animals. I was very young when we lost our first cat. I don’t remember the animal, but I do remember my mother’s grief. The first cat I remember losing was a kitten, perhaps six months old, son of our other cat. He ran into the road in the rain. The man who hit him stopped and brought him to us and was sobbing. That kitten’s mother, years later, disappeared one day and never came back. An ambiguous and uncertain type of grief.

The first time I elected euthanasia for a pet it was not for a cat, but a ferret. I lost three of them in a short period of time, all to adrenal tumors, which tend to plague ferrets bred in captivity. The first cat I had to let go was another beloved ancient Siamese. My father came with me, and I stayed with her throughout it all. And there was the moment, between life and death, when she was first herself, and then she was not.

I found it comforting. Is that strange? I found it comforting that the body that had failed her, that was in horrific agony, no longer contained her. Wherever she was, she was not hurting anymore. I had given her that, if nothing else.

It’s not enough.

They don’t live long enough. We can’t do enough for them. Time is a relentless bastard. Life is grief and loss and pain strung together, never ending. There’s always more ahead.

We are not catless today. We have our other cat, younger and fluffy and irritable and a little confused this evening. She is not sweet natured, but she is tough and animated and occasionally warm and purry. She is loved, and will hopefully be loved for many years to come. And there will be, I suspect, another cat added to the household, when we are not so raw and broken. They do not replace each other, not ever. But we need to love them, so we find them to love.

Adieu, sweetie. You were yourself, entirely, and we will love you always.

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