Book Review: The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

Happy New Year everyone. Yes, I know, it’s the sixth. Better late than never.

Now that 2020 is out of the way, I can get back on track. The year was distracting, to say the least. I still managed to read some books, but my audio book game was off for sure. Somewhere in the summer of last year, I took part of a workshop with a book agent who was going to help us learn how to query an agent. For those of us without degrees in writing or any earthly clue what that even means, this workshop was going to be great.

It was until she gave us a homework assignment to come up with several comparative books to the ones we had written, but the caveat was that they had to be from the last five years. Insert panic. Waves of glorious, crying panic. Let’s just start with the fact that most of the books I read are from dead authors or from ones who are publishing, but not at the breakneck speed of mainstream fiction. I attempted to look up books which I thought would stand with my themes or time setting. I had a hard time taking books at their word and not reading them first to see if it was really comparable. Add to this the fact that I hadn’t read any recent fiction in a fair bit of time.

What does all of this have to do with N. K. Jemisin? I’m getting to that. This year one of my goal is to try to read a great number of Time Magazine’s Top 100 books of 2020. I am doing this to open my reading comfort zone and maybe grow as a writer. My palate for the word isn’t as broad as I had hoped, and I learned this from the workshop. My second novel has touches of science fiction and fantasy… both categories of fiction that I DON’T actually read. How do I expect to pull that off successfully? I have started my novel writing career as a pantser 100% and I’m telling you this is beyond painful in the editing phase.

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin has found its way on Time Magazine’s list, as I’m sure it is on many others as well. Before this, I had never even heard her name. You may gasp, I get it. Her book about the creation of New York City from a multi-universe point of view rocked my world. I have to admit that I listened to this as an audio book and Robin Miles is an amazing voice actress. She made Jemisin’s words come alive. I was in this book. I could see everything she wanted me to see. I am not sure how many pages it is as a traditional book, but it was a whopping 16 hours of listening. It was a race to the finish line for me as it was due back in the morning with a waiting list already formed.

I’m not going to tell you anything more about this book because I think you need to explore it for yourself. The adventure is in parsing it all together like a puzzle. It was a fabulous way to start my new journey of writer’s I’ve never read before. Get ready. This year will be ripe with book reviews.

Writing: Oh, 2020…

It is hard to know where to begin. The year started out with a trip to Arizona just as the pandemic was starting to be more than a whisper in China and Europe. I saw my brother for the first time in twenty years. I spent time with family and time in contemplation.

I changed jobs just as the pandemic started to hit locally going from being an ER nurse for nearly 14 years to going back to the medical floor. It felt like both an insane and a sane thing to do. Switching gears from critical care back to non-critical care felt like going backward, but what I have learned is that my critical knowledge can save people in that space too. Everyone has the potential to take a turn for the worse. The work has been just as hard or harder. The deaths of patients hit much deeper when you have spent weeks caring for them rather than minutes. Not that each death I have ever witnessed hasn’t take a piece of my soul. I’m learning that I like to take care of old folks more than young folks. They are appreciative and have good stories. They make me laugh and cry.

Being an introvert (possibly a ambivert), I thought I would have it made in the shade when they closed down practically everything in my town in New York, but I was wrong. I realized just how many places I went in a day, how much public I soaked up by just being in close proximity. Forced isolation has a much different feeling than when it is freely chosen. I did what I always do and that is find a way around it. Much of the year was spent playing disc golf and walking… so much walking. I found new places to explore in my town and found peace in nature like I had not before. I played my first tournaments in disc golf and got an official PDGA number. I even placed 3rd in one event.

In April, after spending a month writing poems from tandem prompts, I fell in love. I had really settled on being alone for the rest of my life. A string of bad relationships makes you feel like it is hard to trust and I had trust issues in the background already. The pandemic had me looking for friendship and I found that along with love. Sometimes I don’t feel like I deserve all the kindness this man wants to shower me with. I feel broken and selfish and a bit closed off when I shouldn’t. But he is always there waiting to offer solution and patience. From a distance (we live 8 hours apart), we have built a beautiful friendship and have worked diligently around every corner to be present in our own individual traumas while being there for each other. Our holiday plans were foiled by Covid, but not for much longer.

This year I finished writing the first draft of my first novel. My writer’s group at the library was a great influence in getting me back into finishing this book and my dear friends Mattea and Jerry pushed me across the finish line. It was no where near what I wanted it to be and it is currently on its third draft. In the spring, I set the first novel down to start an idea for the second one. Seven chapters into that one and I went back to the first. The foundation is laid. Yesterday, the book cover for the second book came to me while in deep rest during acupuncture. It is going to be an exciting new year.

This fall I was diagnosed with Melanoma and had a huge chunk excised off the side of my face which I promptly named Edgar Allen Mole. It started as a way to cope with this disfigurement and the fear of dying. The skin is the body’s largest organ and the most exposed. The potential for more cancer is always in the back of your mind. I was never a big sunbather, but I do enjoy the outdoors and disc golf and hiking. I only wore sunscreen if I were going to a beach with “wide open sun.” Life is different now. Hats all the time. Sunscreen all the time. No activity (if I can help it) with a UV index over 4. The hardest part was watching my kid silently unravel with the thought of losing me. That made me determined to kick some ass. Since the first excision, I have had four more biopsies with negative results. My eyes are free of melanoma as well. This year may find me having another ten biopsies, but I will cross that bridge when I get there.

An opportunity opened itself in December for me to sell all the things I make. I’m a crafter and artist. It is my meditation. It is what I do instead of take anxiety medication. I had always wanted to know if the things I made were of interest to anyone else. I took the plunge when a local store opened up that sells only handmade items from locals. Happily, I have sold enough this month to cover the rent of my spot for two more months plus some cash in my pocket. It was a goal I had for myself and I was happy to have achieved it in a pandemic situation.

Now for the fun stuff! Here is a list of books that I was able to read or listen to this year:

Poetry:
Like a Begger by Ellen Bass
Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatahil
Under the Influence of Nothingness by Dan Provost
Human Hours by Catherine Barnett
Heroin Love Songs X
Blisters on My Soul by Jack Henry

Non-Fiction:
Guest Book by Leanne Shapton
The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
Girl Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Songbook by Nick Hornby
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Fiction:
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Salt Dancers by Ursula Hegi
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Oryx and Crake by Margarat Atwood
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Lanny by Max Porter
The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Weather by Jenny Offill
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Graphic Novels:
Redlands
Black Magik
Regression

Buddhist Text:
Journey Without Goal by Chogyam Trungpa

Poem: The Fine Art of Vigilance

Photo by Aleathia Drehmer

The Fine Art of Vigilance

This replication, this hidden secret 
beneath my skin unlocked by 
the sun has me searching 
for shade and shadows.

Everything that grows
needs light and warmth.
It’s a power we all
take for granted.

I feel my mind fall into obsession
about times of day and UV index
about covering every inch of my body.

A hole in my face slowly fills in
with new skin and new life, the margins
deemed clean but suspicion lingers.
What happened once, can happen again.

Purple circles outline more areas of worry
like small targets the universe has given me
to remember the fine art of vigilance.
No more long walks on the beach
or sun filled moments in any season
or carefree days taken by the hand at whim.

There are only hats
                        and SPF
                        and being unfashionably
                                                        overdressed.

Writing: Taking Pause

Photo by Aleathia Drehmer

I’ve been gone a month. A lot can happen with one doctor’s visit. It changes the landscape of an entire life. The end of August I got a new doctor, one that was local and in walking distance. During a basic exam she noted the large number of moles on my back and briefly scanned them, then asked if I had any more.

On the right side of my face between my ear and eye there has been a mole that I thought may have changed size. She immediately sat down and made me an appointment to see plastic surgery about this mole. I went and had a punch biopsy which returned positive for melanoma in situ. If you have to have cancer, this is the best one to have.

Yesterday, I had a wide excision of this mole that left a quarter size crater in the side of my face that they did not want to fully close in case they needed to remove more. Then we talked about skin grafting. Then I sat in my car alone and cried. The hope is the cancer is removed from that spot, but then there are the hundred other moles on my back that now need scrutiny.

I am not a sun worshiper. I do love the outdoors and have for many years sported a “farmer’s tan” from playing disc golf, hiking, walking and mowing the lawn. I never stay out in the sun for more than a few hours and wasn’t a big fan of hats or sunscreen. I wasn’t opposed to them, but I never thought they were necessary. Where I live, most of the population lacks sufficient vitamin D levels and I used the summer sun as a bolster to that. I never considered that I would get melanoma.

The last month has been full of not knowing. Questioning whether it was cancer or just a wayward mole. There was a lot of hoping for the best, but deep inside I knew what the answer would be. I’m a realist at heart. I know too much not to be. What I have learned is how surrounded by loving people I am. My friends have been uplifting even when I didn’t seem receptive to this. Knowing they are out there wishing the best has been helpful.

I’ve had to do a lot of pausing due to biopsy and surgery and in this I found the proper beginning to the novel I had finished in March. There has been a revitalization to my writing and maybe this comes with the fear that life is fleeting. Don’t waste time on thinking you’ll get to things later. Get to them now. Live robustly…but with sunscreen. #SPF100 for life

Writing: When you can’t write, edit.

A month ago I took a step back from producing fresh work on my novels. It has been a hard block of weeks and I wish I could say that my coffers were brimming with words, but they aren’t.

This week my two best writing friends had some exciting news. One agent took her whole book, the other had a few chapters requested. This is big news. This is years of hard work on both of their parts. This is motivation.

They have both been writing fiction much longer than I have, but it doesn’t take away that sense of feeling like I’m tagging along behind older siblings (though one of them is younger than I am). If I’m honest I have been sitting around feeling sorry for myself the last month which isn’t something I’m prone to doing. It needs to stop. Today.

I went back to the gym today and I know this bite of information seems incongruent to writing, but it isn’t. When I feel strong in my body, I feel more clarity in my mind. Though I have been active with disc golf, it hasn’t been enough to really given me the same feeling as lifting weights. A persistent foot injury because of increased outdoor activity has also made it harder to get out and play as much as I want.

Today at the gym, I got that old feeling back–the one that helps me push limits and reach for more. I started editing The Secrets of Womanhood again this morning, amid the kitten circus, but with headphones on. Sometimes I need to get out of my own way. I’m hoping to have the complete manuscript edited by November so I can have it ready for my next outside beta reader. This is my goal. Bigger muscles and bigger dreams.

Thanks for reading.

Poem: this is somehow sad and beautiful

Photograph by Aleathia Drehmer

This is somehow sad and beautiful

I realized no one has missed me
or my words as I faded from the poetry scene
silently as I arrived.
                No one noticed I was gone
                no one knocking at my door
                  or requesting anything of me.

I had settled into my life before
where poems rushed out
because I would die if they stayed;
                no longer writing to be seen
                  or heard, after so many years of invisibility.

I miss them sometimes,
the writers and the connection
and the sense I belonged
to something greater than myself.

Most of them are in the same place I left them,
huddled in a café reading or putting out meager books.
                No one has made it
                    like we all dreamed we would.

Book Review: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Photo from James Clear website

I suppose I am late to this pandemic party in a sense. Being a nurse has had me on the front lines the whole time. Shelter in place happened only four days a week for me and then I was at work the other three. I maintained a partial normalcy as far as that was concerned. All my social outlets were changed, but I was still leaving the house.

Living in New York State has had its advantages. Our Governor locked down the state rather quickly to help decrease the spread and we opened much slower than any other place. Despite this, I am starting to see increased cases in our rural community because many people don’t feel the threat is real. They walk the streets without their masks on because they don’t want to ruin their makeup or they are too cool or they just don’t care. Meanwhile, I have so many people that I worry about who could catch this virus and die.

What does all of this have to do with James Clear’s Atomic Habits? I thought you’d never ask. At this stage of the pandemic game I have lost my usual habits. Time has become strange and marked only by the days I work and Tuesday when I have my group meeting online. I started to lose interest in the things that bring me joy. I lost my schedule basically.

I am also dealing with a teenager who we discovered recently is high functioning ASD but has a hard time making routines and doing things they liked before due to focus issues and some changing health issues. When scrolling through the available audio books at my library, Atomic Habits popped up and as it is only a five hour listen, I thought I could squeeze it in.

This served two functions. I could learn how micro changes effect your habits and it has me back into audio books which had dropped off my radar during the height of the pandemic because I was no longer driving long distances to work and I couldn’t concentrate.

The book is full of very simple and helpful tips on how to build good habits and he has several different ways you can achieve these things depending on the type of learner you are. The rules are very simple and easy to manage. I did find the book a bit over plugged. After each helpful thing he announced you could find it on his website and then listed it. It was repetitive and clearly a marketing strategy which I know works. Kudos to him, but it didn’t get by me.

There are a lot of helpful resources on his book page that could steer you in the direction you need if you are having problems keeping up with your good habits or trying to build new ones. It was worth the listen or read, whatever you’re into.

Publishing Updates

Photo by Aleathia Drehmer

I don’t have any official links to share with you at this time, but I would like to put a bug in your ear about upcoming publications I will appear in.

My poem “You Don’t Get to Win This Time” will appear in the inaugural edition of Misfit Quill.

My poems “The Language of Flowers” and “The Night Tiger” will appear in the inaugural edition of The Last Day of the Year Poetry.

My poems “The Fine Line” and “Filthy,” as well as my short story “Rancid Meat Fingers” will appear in the inaugural edition of Rogue Wolf Press. I will also have several photographs in that publication.

I will be sure to do official postings once all of these are live. Support small press and small press writers. We all want to swim in the big pond someday.

Writing: Knowing When to Step Back

This is my note wall which houses editing ideas for my first novel, The Secrets of Womanhood. It also has filled in with ideas for my second novel, The Hunted & The Hidden. What you can’t see to the right is another wall full of sticky notes for all the other projects I currently have my fingers in.

Let’s just say it is all a bit overwhelming.

I finished the first draft of my novel The Secrets of Womanhood on March 31, 2020. This novel was over ten years in the making. It was something I pulled out every year, added a few lines, felt discouraged and put away. Last year when I started going to a writer’s group, I began working on it in earnest. The problem with this novel was that in its first draft is more fictionalized autobiography than fiction. The story arc isn’t where it should be. The characters under developed because of one personal issue or another.

By the time I started the second draft, I was no more sure of what I needed to do to make it better. The pandemic was in full swing and I used this time to write a collection of poetry with a friend, I took poetry workshops online, and I proposed a fresh novel idea to my small writing group. The proposal went well, and it fell into a brainstorming session that set me on fire.

For seven weeks, I wrote a chapter a week. Sometimes a chapter in two days if that was all the time I had with a busy summer schedule of work, new kittens, and disc golf. This week I hit a plateau in my desire to produce anything. I think my over productive tendencies have finally caught up with me in the worst way. I spread myself too thin, and now I lack the momentum to get going again.

Much of the problem comes from not wanting to be a disappointment. I love my small writing group because they elevate my writing and they are two tough cookies with editing. They don’t let me get away with anything. We are brutal with each other and then also caring and tender.

(Shhhhh, don’t tell Jerry I said that. He hates feelings.)

Another part is I think the pandemic is finally taking its toll on me. I can do more social things, but not the social things I want to do. It has taken me a long time to curate friendships and I miss the human connection and the freedom to connect that we had before all of this started. We are all staying safe, but it makes me feel lonely sometimes. I find it very difficult to produce enjoyable work when this happens.

Today, I passed out on the couch for an afternoon nap. I rarely allow myself to “waste” free time, but the air was cool in front of the fan and I had a kitten curled up behind my knees. The sky was brilliant blue with cotton candy clouds. The recipe was right for recharging. It is hard to recognize in this age of instant gratification, perfection, over-production that we all need to slow down and take a break. Re-cooperation is what drives meaningful work. Go ahead, give yourself a free pass. You deserve it.