In Defense of Tragedy

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When I cry, I remember why forever. When I laugh, I forget about it tomorrow. –Anonymous

 

I’m trying my hand at a few definitions of sad things that we might experience:

 

Tragedy—def: the destruction of human lives or hearts on a massive scale. A loss of profound consequences.

Tear-jerker—def: you know after witnessing this kind of movie or song that you’ll hold your special someone tighter (or that you’ll wish like crazy that you’d found that someone by now).

Downer-def: something that leaves you feeling lower than you started.

 

I don’t believe the above three concepts are synonymous. I grew up understanding tragic stories as beautiful. They felt deeper and more powerful to me. I’d always viewed weeping as nothing shameful.

I have many friends who hold tragedy and sorrow at arm’s length. Sad stories, films, books, and ideas are more bitter to swallow, no doubt. They even feel like poison sometimes.

But the Greeks were onto something, when they claimed that drama created catharsis, and that these strong emotions were purging and healthful for the soul.

I encountered a Kahlil Gibran quote that perfectly sums up how I feel about tragic stories and my own personal dark valleys of life:

 

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. –Khalil Gibran

 

When it comes to entertainment, telling stories, or just experiencing life, I don’t always reach for the sob stories.

But I think it’s important for all of us that we don’t shun tragedy entirely. Sorrow and loss are real things, and pushing them away doesn’t make life better. I dare say it can make life shallower.

Gibran said that sorrow carves deep hollows within us, and from those, we are able to feel a greater capacity of joy. This is because we’ve seen what it is like to weep. It makes us more ready to dance when our season of life calls for it.

We’re in the thick of Christmas season when the lights and the fragrant greenery and the carols push us toward contented thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with feeling contented! But for anyone in the midst of grief or hardship, I like to remember that this pain is expanding our capacity for joy. I really, truly, believe that it is.

What’s your attitude toward tragedy?

One of the Siblings

harvestAnyone who’s ever gotten married and spent a major family holiday with the in-laws knows that it can be awkward at first. No amount of love and welcome can make the different traditions and communication styles feel effortless to the “stranger.”

And by this, I mean the one who is only included because of their spouse, not because of a lifetime of memories and shared blood. I don’t say this to paint my husband’s family in a poor light. I admit that it’s awkward because that’s how most of this starts.

James and I have been married for six years now. Even before we’d tied the knot, I came down for the long Thanksgiving weekend as “the girlfriend” to see his folks and meet his family. I remember the moment, a year later, after James had proposed to me and I had a ring on my finger, when his sister threw her arms around me and whispered, “My sister!” It was one of those first moments that hinted that my heart was finding a place here to rest.

Becoming part of The Stephens Clan has been a process for me. I’ve had a bad attitude at times. I’ve made valiant efforts to contribute at others. I’ve lamented the far distances that separate most of us, making year-long relationships very challenging.

This year, I hit a shining milestone toward my membership in The Clan. Once again, like the hug from James’ sister that touched my heart and sealed itself forever in time, this moment had to do with the siblings.

We had an event to plan and we needed to do it by ourselves. James’ brother and sister and their spouses crammed together with James and me into a single bedroom of the house and, as we examined our schedules, we had a chance to share what was going on in our lives. We talked about what was important to us when we got together, and how we wanted to divide labor.

We were a team.

I was part of that team and I had as valid a voice as anyone else. As I placed a reservation and handed the phone to my brother-in-law to manage the billing info, there was a bonding that filled the room. I felt like an important cog in some big machine, something that would endure beyond myself. It would stretch out to the memories of my children. It would leave a legacy. It would knit me closer to these siblings from my husband’s clan.

This moment during event planning in which I realized that I belonged is my nugget of gratitude from this Thanksgiving that I’m bringing back with me.

What are you bringing back this year?

War Effort

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If I were to tell you what I’m most afraid of, it’s this: doing something wrong.

Perfectionism runs deep inside me, cutting deep canyons, and though I once thought I could call myself a “recovering perfectionist” but the truth is the trait doesn’t ever shake itself off completely.

It sickens me to think I might pass along this harsh critical eye to my little son. As part of the war-effort on perfectionism, I made a post-it note that I fixed to my fridge with the circle with the line through it that you usually see along with a smoldering cigarette to tell people they can’t smoke here, but I replaced the cigarette with the word perfectionism. It’s a good reminder for me, and I get it multiple times a day.

My fear of messing up currently takes the form of my ridiculous desire to follow all of the advice and counsel I get from people who know more than me. There’s hours and hours worth of wisdom and tips and advice out there, and it’s laughable to think I can follow it all, but I try to because I’m an overachiever and a perfectionist. (I somehow manage to forget how much advice disagrees with other advice that’s out there.)

My perfectionism makes me a very bad listener. I try so hard to do everything right, there’s no time to pause and pray and see what God might want me to do. There’s no space to let myself stumble and screw up and disappoint people and step into freedom or explore because doing things “right” requires so much mental effort and it doesn’t allow for experimentation.

I wish I knew how to think myself out of this one. I wish I wasn’t this frightened to lose control of my life, even when the threat of losing control is nowhere on the horizon.

This is my counterstrike: In the morning, before the sun rises, I light a little round candle in a blue ceramic bowl. I focus all of myself on listening before the buzz of the world deafens me. I am striving to hear what God wants me to do, what he wants me to know, what he wants me to hear, rather than chasing the hundred other voices that are also trying to advise me.

In those quiet morning moments, there’s nothing perfect or imperfect. There’s a stillness of waiting. And in that gentle respite, for a few minutes, I’m not afraid.

How to Read Out Loud in 6 Steps

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We all read out loud.

It’s part of daily life. But what many of us don’t realize is that reading out loud is a skill, and, with a little practice, it can be honed in a way that transforms anything we say.

A mediocre story can become something fantastic with one simple tweak—the voice-acting of the narrator who breathes it to life. A well-written piece of communication can catch fire in a crowd when delivered by an eloquent and passionate performer.

Not everyone is a theater geek like me who loves to combine stage training with the delivery of a message or story, but almost all of us are forced to read out loud in a public or semi-public setting on a regular basis. After considering this, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. You don’t have to be an extrovert to speak well in front of people. Introverts are fully capable and equally gifted at this.

From my history of delivering speeches, telling stories, and communicating through many mediums, I’ve drafted some tips and tricks that will help anyone improve and even electrify their skills at reading out loud.

  1. Pre-Read Your Content

The chances of tripping over a word or mistaking it for its similar but incorrect cousin are almost zero if you’re already familiar with your content. Pre-read it out loud.

  1. Select Your Tone

Everything you read has some sort of attitude. If you’re reading a comedic piece, determine whether your stance is lighthearted or sardonic. If you are delivering a long list of information, decide what bullet points deserve the most focus. If your message is an urgent one, you must know this.

  1. Mark Your Beats

Once you grasp the content and appropriate tone for the piece, mark your manuscript. I find this easiest on printed paper, but you can make notes on an electronic document as well. The big trick: Look for where an audible pause in speech would underline your meaning. In theater, these pauses are called “beats.” Add another other annotations that will help you remember your tone and emphasis for when you read out loud.

  1. Establish the Cast

For a speech on one subject, you might have just one voice for the piece. For a short story involving three characters, you will need three voices. You don’t have to make your young boy talk with a high pitched squeak, and your jazz diva doesn’t have to talk in a honey-coated rumble (though you’re free to try it!). The primary goal is to keep the voices distinct from each other.

  1. Visualize Your Setting

If your reading will be delivered in a large room or hall, you’ll need to use a large voice to fill it, no matter how delicate the content. If your reading will take place in a circle of armchairs by a fireplace, you’re allowed to play with the subtler nuances of murmurs and soft volumes. Plan accordingly.

  1. Read Slowly. Never Rush It.

This last piece of advice, along with the first piece of advice are the most important. A rushed speech is hard to understand at best, and makes the reader sound ill-prepared and nervous at worst. Reading slowly may take some practice before it feels comfortable. Watch a video of a public speaker and note the speed/flow of words. It is actually quite slow, which allows listeners to absorb and interact with the message. Practice your reading several times, if necessary. It makes reading slower easier.

If reading out loud is something new for you, be prepared to feel silly at first. I’ve embarrassed myself loads of times, especially when I tried to don foreign accents for some of my characters and failed. But remember this—the life that you give to the written word when you devote yourself to a vivid delivery of reading out loud is absolutely worth a few embarrassments. The story is so much better for it.

I’ll say it again: the most important thing is to be familiar with your content (Tip #1). As fun as it is to dash something off, then instantly share it (if you’re reading out loud your own work) or to rapidly skim something great and then leap up to share it (if you’re reading out loud someone else’s work) if you take the time to give the writing a careful look over, consider your tone, mark the beats, number your cast (if there is one), plan for your setting, you will be ready to deliver your message in a way that has listeners hanging on your every word. Because you’re giving more than a reading.

You’re giving a life-infused, confident performance.

Less and Less

leavesI’m doing less and less these days. (In quantity, I must add. I dare not say I’m doing less “in quality.”)

Do it well and keep it simple. It’s so much better than reaching too high and failing miserably.

I shall elucidate: Picture me with four pots on the stove, veggies in the colander in the sink, meat thawing in the microwave, bread warming in the oven, sauce burning on the stove…and then correctly deduce my emotional state as losing my mind because my son is getting fussy and ready for his bath, but I have fifteen more minutes of chopping left before I can put the main dish in the oven to bake–you get the idea. I’m trying to cook something fancy for dinner, but if I’m interrupted (likely) or James gets home late from work (a frequent occurrence when he’s in a busy season), then the meal is ruined or cold and my mood is, shall we say, a lot like the dinner?

Here’s another example: A have a dear group of friends who often trek down to a local pub on Friday nights to grab beers after reading out loud excerpts of their fiction projects together. I haven’t been able to join them in months because I have a darling little human alarm clock who goes off between 6:30-7am every morning, without fail. I am now a dedicated morning person, weekends not excepted. I climb into bed early in the evening and have real feelings of affection for my new down comforter. I don’t think I used to love my bed quite as fiercely.

A third illustration: Walking around Seattle’s Green Lake with my stroller and baby in front of me and a good friend beside me is one of my favorite things to do. But meeting up with anyone requires me to arrive in a physical location at a specific time, and I can seriously feel the new gray hairs when I struggle to get my son and myself out the door. Friend dates have made themselves impossible to accomplish on a daily basis. The pressure and anxiety isn’t worth it.

I feel I should clarify what I’m saying here: This isn’t settling. This isn’t accepting defeat. This isn’t setting my sights low. Anyone who knows me knows I hold myself to ridiculously high standards in my art and professional work, as well as my community relationships. After that, everything else must be simplified.

If I cook fancy dishes, I resent mealtimes. If I stay out late and disregard my sleep needs, I wind up a grumpy basket case. If I book myself tightly with social engagements, I have nothing left for my husband at the end of the day and I’m shorter-tempered with my son.

You might hear echoes here of my post on Simplicity and Sunglasses.

Here’s where I’ve come out on the other side: I love early mornings again. I’ve found freedom in dinner-prep by doing spurts of chopping in the morning or afternoon. I can cherish outings with my friends as a treat, not a mandatory way to fill time.

It’s not easy. Life simplification can quickly swing to under-stimulation. When when I find myself surprised on a Monday morning by a peaceful, calm heart, I know I’m treading new ground.

Peacefulness is a victory that cannot be overstated.

Pearl

pearlI was hardly prepared for the weekend that just passed. I have a habit of being revved up and excited before a writer’s conference (and grumpy, exhausted, and burned out, after one), but this excited pre-conference state is understandable, right? It’s like being a candy shop of learning that’s jam-packed with people who are just as crazy as I am about how to tell a good story.

I didn’t feel that way this year. I didn’t want to go.

I wanted to use all the time I had to just write on my projects. It struck me that, though there are always new things I can learn (and someone please slap me if I ever develop a different opinion), there are also periods of my life when it’s the time to work, not the time to fill my head with new suggestions and techniques. I’m currently in that place where it’s my time to work: I’m revising my Irish fantasy with dragons and magic. I have a short story selected for publication in a fantasy anthology that tells a love story of heartbreak and loss that I’ll soon be revising. I have a precocious 14-month-old baby boy who is almost walking, and living up to the name (Curious) George with flying colors.

I’m busy.

Thus, I approached this full weekend of classes with a bit of pessimism. I desperately needed another perspective. I was feeling alone and small and exhausted. I prayed and asked God to come with me to the conference. Then I set for myself the goal of connecting with people and refusing to allow myself to become overwhelmed by what I would learn.

You know what happened? On Saturday evening, I found myself talking to another author, a friend who I met through my publisher, about being a parent and finding time to write in the midst of raising a child. I confessed my fear that my window of writing opportunities was closing, that I’d have to give it up entirely for the very worthy task of parenting, and how sick with dread that thought made me.

Writing is part of who I am. It’s not just a hobby. It’s a deep part of me and what I was made to do.

This author friend looked me right in the eye and told me that I wouldn’t have to stop. Even if I wrote poetry on napkins. He told me that I was a real writer, and obstacles like this don’t stop the real ones from continuing to write. He shared his own stories of attending night school, raising two sons, having a full-time job, and skimping on sleep in order to still write. I cried and walked around the table to hug him. He’d seen me and understood.

This was the highlight of my writing conference: sharing a human fear with another writer and having that fear addressed and quieted with compassion. It’s a funny morsel to take back with me from a writer’s conference, yet it shimmers in my heart like a pearl.

Stay

windowI grew up in Seattle my entire life. I never moved away for college, but attended the University of Washington, a thirty minute bus ride from my house. I’ve kept many of my relationships and friendships for years and years, which might be why I’m not one to quickly make new friends, and also not one to quickly burn proverbial bridges when the going gets tough.

My husband and recently ran the numbers for what it would cost to move into a bigger “family” house in this neighborhood. *Gulp* In all likelihood, making some assumptions, we’d need to stay in our two bedroom townhome another four to five years before the finances worked out into our favor. So, unless one of us gets an unexpected chunk of money from somewhere (and yes, I’ve heard the advice that “Elise should write a bestseller” about a dozen times already), we’ll be in this place a fair bit longer. A lot longer.

I’ve been subjecting our house to organizing spurts recently, wracking my brain for better solutions to messy and half-hearted arrangements. And I feel powerful every time I conquer a few square feet of clutter. But am I content to stay? It’s going to get tighter if we have another baby. It’s going to get crazy as George is almost walking and will undoubtedly want to run over anything his feet can touch.

Am I content to stay? It feels like a deeper question. Staying and working with what we have is much harder than starting fresh, isn’t it? I know there are countless families all over the world who never leave their homes of birth, who stay in the same city their whole lives. There’s no shame in it.

I didn’t realize what an anchoring effect it is to give birth to a baby. He loves to stay. George loves the familiarity of his house. He doesn’t like sleeping somewhere new and different. When we unload him from the car and carry him past our neighbor’s yard, George barks at the fence because he’s used to hearing the neighbor’s dogs bark at him. He draws comfort from knowing where his home is, day after day.

It’s hard to wrap my mind around what our life will look like as we stay. I’d like to think it makes us a faithful, reliable refuge for friends and family as other friends move away for school or jobs or simply where they feel they need to be.

As for me, I’ll be right here where you left me.

Not to Brag but… {This Title is Sarcastic}

fountainI  made a strange resolution recently. I’m not sure I’ll be good at keeping it, but I’m going to post it publicly here to hold myself accountable.

I’ve decided to stop bragging on social media. That includes Twitter, Facebook, and this blog here.

There are moments throughout my life in which I have good news to share, but I’m now personally convicted that it’s not polite to shout this news from the internet mountaintops. I want to bend back toward something the resembles real, authentic life. That means, in order to share my good news, I’ll do it through personal communication with the people who matter.

This is the crux of the issue for me: So many times, when I’m logged onto social media, browsing my feeds, I’ve become deafened, drowned, and overwhelmed by pictures and posts that inspire depression or envy in the pit of my chest. “I wish I was there.” I’m never as lucky and successful as that.” “Why is my life so dull in comparison?” etc etc.

Is it ultimately my responsibility for how I react to these stimuli? Yes. Responsibility accepted. But then I realized I played my own part in the online bragfest.

So I’m pulling myself out.

I’ll still share good news. I know the difference between bragging and thankfully reflecting on something wonderful that has happened, and I know that everyone has to draw the line differently for what they feel is healthy to share. If I need to tell someone directly about my news, in a burst of excitement, I’ll tell friends and family. If they want to pass along the news, that is their freedom to do so. I’ll still be online. I’ll still be marketing my work. I’ll still share things. I just want to stop bragging. (And I’m not sure exactly what this balance looks like. Insight welcomed!)

This is what I know: there are unquestionably moments when I know that sharing a particular bit of news online would only be done to boast about how lucky or talented or special I am, essentially, to ride a boost of e-cheers that often come at the silent emotional expense of others.

I’m no the only one who’s found the news online difficult to endure. And I don’t want to just close the door on everything and walk away.

So I’ll just stop tooting my own horn.

I’ve tried this out unofficially for a few weeks now. My life feels less fake, which is strange to say. And, in a few surprising moments, I’ve felt more receptive to gestures of love from my friends.

Who would have thought?

Things I Want to Tell You

IMAG0691This was a letter that I planned to use as a blog post before Baby George arrived in the world. He decided to arrive 10 days before his due date, which might have been the reason it missed its original release date.

However, all the advice I had for him still applies. I think it’s funny that Relationships and Social Media seem equally important as categories in this letter. I hope someday George will read this and laugh and maybe even get something out of it. But until then, you get to enjoy it.

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Dear Little One,

With just weeks remaining before you’ll be born into the light, I have a few things to say—and I doubt you’ll understand any of them. Humor me. Mommy won’t be able to wait the years required for your language processor to be ready for this download.

Sometimes I just have to dump a lot of words out of my mouth. Your daddy is used to this, and he still loves me, so I know you’ll survive.

A few tips about life out here:

Communication -This might be the most important skill I’ll ever teach you. Find ways to explain how you’re feeling as fast as you possibly can. I’ll do my best to help you along, give you an emotions vocabulary, and listen carefully to you.

Understand Mommy’s Communication Style - I need lots of kind words and encouragement. Your mom gets depressed when she’s overwhelmed, so find a way to tell her what you appreciate. I’ll take any form of affection you want to give me.

About Relationships -You’re going to land smack in the middle of a complex web of giving and taking in this world. My best advice is to a) bring your communication skills out as often as you can, b) don’t assume anything, c) don’t take anything personally. Also, look for the very special friendships where you love the person so much, you can pour yourself into him/her and never feel like it’s too much. That’s called a “kindred spirit.” These friends are very rare and hard to find.

Don’t Fear Love - You’ll experience love in many forms. Your mommy and daddy are both hopeless romantics, so you’ll pick up some of this at home. My wisdom here: love people deeply, honestly, and carefully. Your feelings might seem at moments like an unstoppable wave that strangely evaporates a month or even a day later. Don’t throw away your life or happiness on a whim. Love is more dangerous and beautiful than fire, but you can’t live a full life without it.

Watch Out for Popular Media - Fake things can be made to look very real. Movies tell you that a glamorous life is normal, that successful people look perfect, and things will always work out in the end if you just believe in yourself. It’s bogus. Don’t look to Hollywood or Facebook or magazines or whatever is popular for people your age to get ideas on normal expectations. Don’t let people scare you away from going near any of it, either. Learn to sort beautiful truth from beautiful lies. Complicated? Yes. Your mom is still not an expert at this.

Keep Your Sense of Humor - Laugh a lot. Laugh at yourself as much as you can without being cruel. Go ahead and make mistakes, but don’t be afraid to start something, even if you’re not sure you can finish it. Failure is a lot less awful if you immediately get up and try again.

Seek God-There’s much you’ll have to learn and discover for yourself about Him, but I’ll tell you what my parents told me—He loves you even more than I will ever be able to. If you can understand this and grow from there, I will be glad.

I can’t wait to meet you.

Anxiously yours,

Mommy

New Story Published!

LostEyesCoverI have a special place in my heart for archaeology adventure stories like Indiana Jones, The Mummy, and Romancing the Stone. While I was envisioning the universe of Forecast, and where it would be fun to explore more story history, I realized I needed to tell the tale of the Peruvian door, the first door Tobias Randolf encountered, the door that was the first domino in a chain of sweeping events.

Randolf has gained quite a reputation by the time he enters Forecast, but in this story, he is a young man searching for his destiny among ancient ruins and South American culture. He becomes entangled quickly in the myth and magic of Cuzco, Peru, and his most ardent helper is a beautiful woman who…I’ll stop myself before I give too much away!

My new short story THE LOST EYES is a prequel to FORECAST. You need not worry if you haven’t read FORECAST. It is its own story with a feeling of familiar danger and mystery that is found in the novel that follows it.

The cover was designed by the talented Daniel Ramer and the editing wisdom of Katie Flanagan helped make it even better!

Enjoy!

Click to Purchase The Lost Eyes on Amazon

(This is an e-book short story.)