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Today I was reminded of another winter day almost ten years ago, when I was out walking my dog in the early evening. It was cold and slushy, so I was looking for the clearest route home, which turned out to be the parking lot behind an apartment complex that had been plowed. As we walked through the lot, I saw a cell phone lying on the ground next to an empty parking space. Generally speaking, I believe in good deeds. If I’d lost my phone, I would appreciate someone picking it up and getting it back to me, instead of leaving it to be run over.

photo by Arthaey Angosii

I was surprised to find that it didn’t have a passcode, but that made it simpler. I called the number that seemed in heaviest rotation on the phone, figuring that person could help me. A girl answered, and when I explained what had happened, she passed me to her boyfriend, the owner of the pho

Far from being grateful or pleasant, the boyfriend, who hadn’t even noticed his phone was gone, swore at me and accused me of stealing his phone. I asked him why he thought a thief would call him on his phone and repeated that I’d found it in the parking lot.

“What do you want me to do with it?” I said, completely over my good deed at that point. Foolishly, I imagined that he would tell me his apartment number and I would put the phone in his mail box.

“I’m on my way to Kansas City. I’m gonna be at the Applebee’s on Metcalf,” he said.

Okaaaaay. What I really thought was Who the hell drives all the way to Kansas City to eat at Applebee’s? Who drives anywhere to eat at Applebee’s?

“So you need to come over there and turn over my phone or I’ll call the police.”

He really said that! Turn over his phone! I couldn’t help but think of the the saying No good deed goes unpunished. For the first time I thought of why that is, and I had to conclude that unfortunately a lot of people are not prepared for kindness and don’t know how to do gratitude. Why? I’m not sure. My theory about this guy is that he was a terrible person, so he expected everyone else to be terrible too. What a sad way to go through life.

As for me, I opted out of having my good deed punished. I certainly wasn’t driving anywhere to deliver a phone to some jackass. As I stood out in the cold with my dog, there was a temptation to power down the phone and throw it into one of the apartment complex’s trash dumpsters. I’m not inherently an evil person, though. More Chaotic Neutral, really. So I said, “There are three empty lots at the corner of 19th & Tennessee. I’m going to throw your phone in one of them. It probably has enough battery power left that you’ll be able to call and find it, if you get here in the next 2 hours.”

I hung up without waiting to hear what he would say. I didn’t answer when it rang. My dog and I walked on to the corner of 19th and Tennessee, and just as I said I would, I threw the phone as far as I could into one of the empty lots. Then we walked home.

Later, at bedtime, I took the dog on the same route, out of a sick curiosity. At the corner, I could see two people walking around in one of the empty lots, using a cell phone as a flash light. Reader, it was the wrong empty lot.

Two years ago, I was overwhelmed by a lot of things. Writing, career, family, health, dogs, personal stuff. In order to keep going, I gave myself permission to let things slide. I figured as long as I was keeping myself and the dogs alive–safe, fed, with a roof over our heads–I would let everything else go, including social media and newsletters and my blog. Permission given, whoooo, I let a whole bunch of things slide.

Those two years have been good, though, because they’ve allowed me to reassess what I’m willing to let go and what I want to hold on to. One of the things I really want to let go of is Facebook. As a corporation it’s awful, but also almost all their user interfaces are terrible, too. Among the things I want to hold onto are my blog, because unlike social media, I’ve always felt like my blog really belonged to me. It’s my content, presented in the way I want, with control over who can interact with it. The real question now becomes how do I want to handle having a private place for us to talk books and writing? I don’t know yet. I’m considering doing a members only aspect to this blog, or possible a Patreon. Still thinking through that, but definitely something, because I want to be able to share things I’m reading and working on, without it being open to public consumption (and bot harvesting).

After a year of serious personal upheaval, I’m back to writing, too. I’m working on two novels, hoping to get a first draft of one of them finished by the new year. I can’t figure out which one will reach the finish line first. The only way to answer that is to keep writing. So I suppose I’d better do that, while the dogs are napping.

two large dogs--one brindled, the other white & liver--are sleeping on a chaise covered with a wrinkled floral sheet
It’s supposed to be a reading chair, but the dogs don’t read

There are a lot of literary prizes in the world, but not that many awarded on the basis of readers’ votes. This is why one of my favorite second place finishes was when All the Ugly and Wonderful Things came in second in the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2016. Nearly 28,000 people voted for my book, and it beat out such big name authors as Jodi Picoult, Ian McEwan, and Jonathan Safran Foer. My mind was boggled that so many readers voted for my book.

This year, sadly, The Reckless Oath We Made didn’t make the first round. Then something amazing happened: readers wrote my book in. Enough readers that it moved on to the semifinals. You still have about 12 hours left to vote in the 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards. You could even vote for The Reckless Oath We Made, if you wanted. It would be an even more astounding little miracle if it moved onto the next round.

Even if I don’t make it to the next round, however, I feel like I’ve experienced one of the things that writers don’t talk enough about. We talk about awards, we talk about reviews, we talk about advances, and we talk about the disappointments and frustrations of publishing as an industry. So rarely do we talk about that small piercing feeling of joy in community that comes from connecting with your readers, and hearing from them that they connected with your book.

For writers like me who are extreme introverts with mental health issues that make appreciating ourselves difficult, it’s a huge feeling to know that you’ve stitched this fragile thread between your work and its readers, to know that there are people out there who are nodding along as you tell your stories, and they’re passing those stories onto others.

So while it feels like a little miracle that my book garnered enough write-in votes to end up in the semifinals of one of the few really big reader awards out there, knowing that my people have found me is a big deal. Thank you for the part you’ve played in that.

It’s possible you ended up here because you read my essay about sex work. Or it’s possible you’re here because you read my new book, The Reckless Oath We Made. (Or my last book, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.) Whyever you came, you may be thinking about bad life choices and mistakes.

Whether you came here to judge me or to sympathize or to say you’ve been there, what I most want to tell you is that not every bad life choice is a mistake. Sometimes the only choices available to you are bad, worse, and worst. In that scenario, the best choice you can make is a bad one.

Sometimes those bad choices bring good things. They’re not all mistakes. I never felt like the choices I made around performing sex work were mistakes. They brought me here, where I am alive, succeeding at my chosen career, and have people who love me. May all your “mistakes” be so beneficial.

The characters in The Reckless Oath We Made are also in situations where all they can hope for is to make the least bad choice available. Those choices may look like mistakes from the outside, but that doesn’t mean they won’t bring good things. So if you’re here to process your thoughts about your own choices and “mistakes,” welcome. If you’re here to lecture me about my choices, you’ll likely leave disappointed. I’ve had plenty of time to evaluate the choices I’ve made in my life and I’m okay with them.

My new book, The Reckless Oath We Made, is nearly here. In just one week, it will be on sale everywhere, but even now it’s out in the world. People have advance copies to read, and if you’re a Book of the Month member, it’s one of the August selections.

I’m starting to hear from people who’ve read both All the Ugly and Wonderful Things and The Reckless Oath We Made, which is a little scary, because people can’t help but compare the two books. The verdict? They’re very different books.

The funny thing about having an unexpected bestseller like All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is that it creates expectations. Publishing wants me to write another book that is somehow exactly like my bestseller, but different. Readers who’ve only read that one book by me expect that all my books will be like that one.

The problem is that I’ve never been interested in writing the same book over and over. There are authors and genres that specialize in recreating the same sensations and feelings over a series of books. In fact, that’s one of the big selling points for a known author with a particular style: you always know what you’re going to get.

It’s true that I frequently revisit certain themes in my writing–poverty, drugs, mental illness, dysfunctional families–but I like to investigate those themes through different characters, different points of view, even different styles. I suppose I could try to recreate the feeling behind ATUAWT, but I don’t see the appeal. Lightning may strike the same place twice, but why would you want it to?

So if you pick up The Reckless Oath We Made expecting it to be exactly like All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, you might be disappointed. If you come to it looking for a new story with new characters, I think I can show you something interesting and moving. Does The Reckless Oath We Made have poverty, drugs, mental illness, and dysfunctional families? Oh yeah. It also has a lot of other things: knights, a waitress in distress, a prison escape, suitcases full of weed, a castle in the Flint Hills, love, loyalty, a heartbreaking betrayal or two, and even some medieval dirty talk.

You still have time to pre-order it from my local bookstore. If you do, you’ll get a signed hardcover first edition and some bonus book swag.

Elephant pregnancies last approximately 95 weeks, and so I often think of my novels as baby elephants. They take a long time to gestate, they’re always a lot bigger than I think they will be, and once they’re loose in the world they’re adorably awkward. Or something like that. My new book is not much different. It took a year to write, a year to revise, it came in many tens of thousands of words over my goal, and when I think about it I’m both proud and a little scared.

I sold my new book back in June, but after some protracted debate about the title, I can finally send out the official “baby” announcement! The new book is titled THE RECKLESS OATH WE MADE, and it will be published by Putnam (an imprint of Penguin/Random) in the fall of 2019. Exact “due date” to be announced at a later time.

I am extremely excited about this book as it marries together a wide variety of my interests and concerns: poverty, health care, mental illness, medieval French literature, Middle English, sword fights, the Flint Hills, drugs, dogs, redheads, and guys with bad haircuts.

August 9th has been something special to me for quite a long time. When I was 24, August 9th was the day I arrived in Japan to start my adventure teaching English in a Japanese high school. I spent my first day participating in the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.

I was a long way from home, and I spoke to my grandfather that night to try to calm my nerves. He had always been reticent to talk about his experiences in World War 2, but that night, separated by thousands of miles, he talked about his own time in Japan. He arrived there in late August 1945, with orders to help rebuild Yokohama, which like much of Tokyo had been destroyed by US bombing raids. (We think of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as extraordinarily destructive, but the firebombing of Tokyo destroyed half the city and killed 100,000 people. The firebombing of Yokohama killed 35,000 and left every major building in the city destroyed or damaged.)

Until the war, my grandfather had been a farmer, and for much of the war, he was a radio repairman for Navajo codetalkers in the Pacific Theater. Following Japan’s surrender, he was repurposed again as an engineer and construction supervisor. While I was in Japan, I went to Yokohama, where I was able to visit a grade school and a hospital that dated to 1945, and almost certainly would have been reconstruction projects that he oversaw. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet one of the Japanese people he worked closely with, as he had passed away a few years before.

In Japan, I taught at Nagaoka High School, which was the alma mater of Admiral Yamamoto. While I wasn’t teaching, I wandered the countryside and wrote. I wrote so many things, including first drafts of two different novels. Japan is the place where I swore that if it was possible to write books, sell them, and get paid for the work, I would do whatever I could to get there.

It doesn’t hurt that when you’re snowed in somewhere between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range with only 3 television channels, you have plenty of time for writing. The first winter I was in Niigata Prefecture, it snowed over 40 feet. No, that’s not a typo. Snow fall was really in excess of 480″. It snowed every day for four months, anywhere from a couple inches to dozens of inches.

When I learned that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things would be released on August 9, 2016, I was happy, even though it was too late to share that joy with my grandfather, who was the most bookish adult in my life as a child. That day will always carry the ghosts of those who died in Nagasaki, but it also holds a lot of powerful memories for me, including the bond with my grandfather, and now the day my publishing career was well and truly launched.

On this day I often think of the resiliency of humans, and our capacity to rise above obstacles and limitations. I think of my grandfather, far from his wife and newborn son, charged with a task that he was wholly untrained for. Handed a set of blue prints and assigned a Japanese translator and a crew of men, he helped build schools and hospitals. I think of those men, too, and their families, living in the aftermath of a devastating war. My grandfather was part of an occupying army, and yet those men treated him with respect and invited him into their homes, where he shared the modest wealth of his rations and their hope for a better future.

So many things in life are not easy. There is pain, suffering, disappointment, but there is also joy, success, and the bond we share with other people. I hope we can all remember that today.

Bryn and 3 students standing under a cherry tree

Celebrating the end of winter

(If you’re curious a what good old fashioned Nagaoka snow storm looks like, here‘s some footage from 1963 that’s even worse than what I experienced.)

I have been rather scarce these days, because I’ve been completing a serious revision on my next book. So often, people talk about writing as a mental task only. Soft work for soft people. The people who talk like this have never wrestled 300,000 words of chaos into a coherent story that will fit inside the covers of a book, and make people who read it laugh and cry. Writing is emotional labor, and intellectual labor, and physical labor. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
 
The printed manuscript weighs only eight pounds, and in its electronic form, it weighs nothing. The first few times I lift it, only testing its heft, but before it’s done, I will press, curl, and squat it millions of times. I will lift it until every muscle in my body sings an aria of pain. My shoulders have locked up, and my arms are burning with twenty years of nerve damage caused by this work.
 
Lift with your legs, that’s the advice about furniture, but when it comes to stories, you must lift with your whole body, including your heart, your viscera, the slippery goo of your brain.
 
At the end of this telling, my fingers are raw, my eyes are red, and veins in my legs have burst in protest of the punishment. There is no longer any writing position–sitting, standing, lying down–that doesn’t hurt.
 
So when they tell you that writing isn’t hard work, nothing like ditch digging or fire fighting, show them your wrecked back, your ruined hands, your rheumy eyes, the raw spaces between your flesh and your soul.

As I’ve confessed before, I’m a very chaotic writer. I start in the middle and write my way out in the most spectacularly messy and unorganized way. The thing that guides me–since I never know what the plot will be–is character development and motivations. As I write scenes, I’m always asking, “What decision will this character make and why?” Sometimes I come up with different answers for the same character and the same scene. As a writer, I have the power to let a character investigate different choices, even if it splits the story in two.

While writing All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, the world split in two fairly early on. In Part 2, Chapter 5, Kellen is presented with a decision that strikes at the heart of his uncertainty about his place in the world. A one night stand with a woman he barely knows, or an evening spent with someone he truly cares about.

On its surface, it looks like such a minor choice. One night out of so many. An act of self-indulgence that nobody could blame him for. Well, almost nobody. But when I wrote that other choice, it changed the angle of so many things in Kellen’s life. It changed so many things in Wavy’s life. It changed the whole book.

 

That’s what’s going out in my newsletter this week: the first part of that alternate version. The one in which Kellen makes a different decision and the planets change their alignment. If you’re curious about how such a minor choice can change Wavy and Kellen, or if you’re curious about how I investigate my characters during the writing process, you can read this months newsletter here, or you can sign up for the newsletter here.

I have spent a lot of time this week dreading talking about this, but knowing that I absolutely must talk about the deluge of revelations about sexual assault in the news, including a woman accusing Judge Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was fourteen years old. Having written a book in which a grown man has sexual contact with a fourteen-year-old girl, I don’t get to take a pass on talking about this.

To have this conversation requires me to ask you to accept that I am simultaneously two contradictory things. I am a woman who has been sexually assaulted, as an adult and as a child, but I am also a woman who at the age of thirteen had a loving and consensual relationship that involved sexual contact with a man more than a decade older than me.

I will never argue that relationship wasn’t illegal. Of course it was. He knew better. Hell, I knew better, but thirty years later, I have no regrets. Quite the opposite, I have very fond memories of a relationship in which my consent was respected in a way it has never been since. It was my first sexual experience, and I got exactly what I wanted, and was never pressured into doing things I didn’t want to do. In fact, that relationship taught me about the importance of consent and about my right to refuse anything I didn’t want.

Despite my personal feelings about my relationship, I will never suggest that it shouldn’t have been illegal. There’s a reason I wrote a novel in which the man involved in such a relationship goes to prison. We need age of consent laws to protect young people from predation. While I felt capable of consenting at thirteen, most thirteen year olds are not. We need the laws to be black and white, even as a whole lot of gray exists in the world. We also need to enforce those laws, but for that to happen, we have to listen to victims of sexual assault and believe them. The laws are meaningless if we don’t listen every time.

The first time I was assaulted as a child, I told exactly one person. That person didn’t believe me. I didn’t tell anyone else. The second time it happened, I didn’t tell anyone, because I had learned that no one would believe me. This has been my experience as an adult, too. People refusing to believe me when I say I wasn’t a victim at thirteen. Police officers explaining to me at nineteen that I hadn’t “really” been raped. The second time I was raped as an adult, the only person I told was a counselor at an abortion clinic. She was literally the first person who believed what I had to say.

I tell you all of this to acknowledge that my personal experiences and the novel I wrote are troubling and problematic. I write these kinds of books, because they reflect my lived experiences.

I tell you all of this to affirm that when someone tells me what has happened to them, my default is always to believe them. I would rather learn later that my faith and compassion were misplaced than fail to offer them in the first place. If we truly want to protect people from sexual harassment and assault, the first step is to believe that these things happen. And they happen without regard for whether the accuser has a “troubled past” and without regard for whether the accused is liked or respected in their field. If we’re tired of people coming forward ten, twenty, thirty years after the fact, we have to make it possible for people to come forward immediately. That starts with listening and believing.

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