All Used Up

A few weeks back, some folks asked if I’d be ‘blogging NaNoWriMo’ again this year.

I said yes. Of course I said yes; I have a strong need for a feedback loop in the creative cycle, so knowing there’d be one built into a certain string of blog posts is an automatic draw for me.

But there was a seed of doubt.

Yes, I wrote a lot of advicey posts last year, and they were generally received very well — more importantly, folks found them useful. But the non-secret secret of those posts is that I was really just writing notes to myself, figuring (correctly) that if the writing process followed a fairly clear pattern from beginning to end (it does, at least for me), I’d end up writing something worthwhile for lots of people.

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I can do it again.

I mean, the process is the same, right? The stages are the same, right? What if I said everything useful last year? What if I don’t have anything good left to say?

Then again…

Every single time I’ve ever written a story (obviously not just in November), it’s been different. The challenges have come in different places, and with different parts of the story. The stories themselves have been different, and certainly I’m learning different things (and the same old things, again) every time.

And I’m different. In editing together that ebook of the advice I wrote last year, I found some things I didn’t entirely agree with. I left them in, because it’s still good advice, but it’s not quite me anymore.

The question basically boiled down to whether or not I thought I still had any words left at all.

And there’s really only one way to find that out. You go looking for them.

Story Time
I grew up in South Dakota, on a farm. On that farm, we raised cattle. Cattle are pretty simple creatures; they generally require only two things:

  • Grass. (The ‘corn-fed beef’ ideal is a dangerous, illness-creating myth.)
  • Water.

Now, out on the Great Plains, grass isn’t much of a problem, but water sometimes is, and if your pastureland doesn’t have a convenient lake handy or an artesian well set up, your livestock has to rely on a dugout.

A dugout’s basically a man-made watering hole — it looks like a rectangular pond about the half the size of a football field, with a suspiciously uniform hill lying directly along one side of it. The reason it looks like this is because of how it was made; basically, someone just hopped in a backhoe and dug a big hole in the ground about where someone decided there must be an underground spring, then piled the dirt up alongside the hole for no other reason than it was the easiest thing to do.

As a kid, all the dugouts around my home where preexisting affairs — old enough for the piles of dirt next to them to have settled down, grown grass, and become practically indistinguishable from burial mounds. I had no concept of them as a Thing That Was Made.

Then, sometime during my teen years, a well in one of our more distant pastures dried up, and my dad decided to get a guy out there with his backhoe and make a dugout.

It was a pretty epic undertaking. Via methods I’m still not entirely clear on (and on which my dad and granddad disagree), the optimal location for a dugout was determined, the heavy equipment was rolled in, and the digging commenced.

Problem was, it was two days in, and they weren’t hitting a spring. The hole was getting DEEP; both it and the pile of dirt next to it were bigger than the backhoe that had made them, and still no water.

I and my granddad had driven out to check on the digging (partly, I’m sure, so my granddad could rib Dad about the big dry hole), and after a bit of ‘conversation’ on the topic, Grandpa had walked over to talk with the foreman. I was left standing next to my dad. We stared into this enormous hole for awhile — it was pretty damned impressive.

“So,” I asked, “what do you do when you don’t find water?”

Dad didn’t respond at first; he was still looking down into the hole, and I wasn’t sure he’d heard me over the roar of the backhoe. Then: “If you know the water’s there,” he said, “you just keep digging.”

“No matter what?”

“Yep,” he said. “You’ll hit it eventually.” He put his right hand on my left shoulder, leaned in, and pointed so I could sight down along his left arm like the barrel of a .22. There, along the walls of the dugout, where the backhoe had just pulled another scoop of dirt away, there was a thin, silvery snake of water, running down toward the bottom of what would become, over the next four days, the biggest and deepest and most consistently full dugout we’d ever had.

“Now,” he said, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “Walk around t’ other side there, and make sure your granddad sees that.”

He sounded more than a little smug.

This is a cold hard fact about writing. Sometimes, you won’t feel like there’s any words there. You’ll sit at your keyboard and think “Everyone’s got a novel in them, sure… but what if I only had one? What if I don’t have anything left to say?”

The water’s there. You know it is.

Keep digging til you hit it.

The story behind Vayland Rd.

As always, Vayland Rd. is for my Dad. It’s not a subtle story, or graceful, or maybe even good — but I like it.

I originally wrote it as part of a fundraiser for prostate cancer research, which was the goblin Dad was fighting at the time. The prognosis was bad, but the end result was a full remission.

Since then, he’s fought another tribe of the little bastards, this time involving surgery around his mouth. He won that one, too.

He turns 60 today. We have the same birthday, actually.

Strong connections. Better than a silver needle in the collarbone any day.

So, on his birthday, I’ll say the same thing I said to him when I wrote the first draft of this silly, simple little story:

“You keep swinging, old man, and I’ll keep handing you the big sticks.”

Kate’s wanted to see this story for awhile, and kept asking about it, so in a way this revision is for her.

It’s also for Chuck, who reminded me of the goblin/cancer connection a few months ago.

Here’s a list of links to each part of the story, in order.

… and with that, I’m taking the day off.

Happy Birthday, Dad.


I mentioned a few days ago that my dad got through his surgery with flying colors, no complications, and a mighty war wound to show for it.  The question of what caused the cancer in the first place runs from “lack of sunscreen” to “#*@#ing tobacco”, and in all honesty, it’s a coin-toss: either one has been a factor for several years more than I’ve been alive.

Said wound runs right from the end of his lower lip to his chin, so it’s going to be quite the rakish scar when everything heals up, and I’m gratified to hear the tone of his voice when he says “this is the last one” — he means it, and I know that because I know the tones of my own voice, which are often his.

The LOVEly close-up picture my mom sent of the stitches got me thinking about the little wounds and scars we pick up over the course of a lifetime.  My list should be relatively short: I’ve never had any kind of major surgery — four wisdom teeth, and that’s it. No appendix or tonsil problems, no compound fractures (no bone breaks of any kind, actually, except for two that I didn’t realize were breaks until long after they’d healed).

And I’ve never been a cutter.  I don’t even understand that particular angst expression.

So… head to toe, here’s the list.

  • Right at the very very  top of my head.  I fell head-first out of my bunk bed in the middle of the night and collided skull first with a cast iron International Harvester toy tractor that looked exactly like this.  I seem to remember bleeding.
  • Just to the left of the spot on the back of your skull where you have to shoot Syler to kill him. Pretty sure that was a chicken pox scar that I simply refused to stop scratching.  Don’t scratch, kids.
  • Forehead, two inches (my)left of center, star-shaped.  I was trying to pedal my red Schwinn Stingray (god what a great bike) up a steep gravel road for the first time.  I lost momentum, started to tip over, stubbornly refused to give up pedaling to – you know – catch myself, and plowed face first into the gravel.  Blood everywhere.
  • Right temple. Another chicken pox scar I wouldn’t leave alone, this one subcutaneous.
  • Left cheek, just below the eye. Three faint parallel lines. From a girl in high school who tried to slap me (I deserved it, I imagine) and instead caught me with her demonic claws.
  • Right under my chin. And inch-long scar where my whiskers don’t grow.   How should I explain this?  I was three years old. I went into my grandparents bathroom, covered most of my face with shaving cream, grabbed my granddad’s safety razor (which looked EXACTLY like this), tucked my chin up in the air as I had seen the men in my family do dozens of times, and sank that fucking razor into my chin right up to the bone.  Then there may have been some crying.
  • Left hand, thumb, bottom-most knuckle, top side.  The scar perfectly spells out “Hi” – entirely accidental. My foot slipped off a bike pedal while I was hauling ass to a class in college. In a stunning bit of nimble bad luck, the newly-freed foot shot forward, lodged itself in the spokes of my front wheel, and brought my bike to an abrupt halt. I, on the other hand, went sailing over the handlebars, somersaulted, and landed on my back in the middle of the street.  Then the bike landed on me.  Except for the scrape on my thumb, I didn’t have a mark on me.
  • Left hand, thumb, bottom-most knuckle, bottom side. A half-inch long scar that I got while breaking up a dog fight last year.  The little dog was in the big dog’s mouth and, unable to reach the big dog, reached me. Repeatedly.
  • Right hand, thumb, bottom-most knuckle, top side. A half-inch long scar that I got while moving into my current house.  That’s all I know — I didn’t even realize I’d gotten cut, then I looked down and there was a damn trough gouged out of my hand.
  • Right knee. Perfect blue dot.  It’s not exactly a scar, but it is a permanent mark.  In high school, someone jammed a pencil into my kneecap. The graphite marked my skin at that ‘tattoo’ level where it always shows, but never fades.
  • My feet.  Man… where do I start?  I’ve got a long one on the top of my right foot from the time the rain-slicked brakes on my road bike gave out and I plowed into a bike rack at full speed (late for another class), but most of the more recent and shinier ones are from the dog fight I broke up.  I was barefoot at the time and my hand wasn’t the only thing the little bastard got hold of.   I also have a really nice one right on the bottom  of my foot from when I stepped SQUARE on a protruding ring shank nail when I was about six.  That scene from Army of Darkness, when he steps on the nail? That was me. Damn thing went right through my work boot and up through my foot; it’s a wonder it didn’t come out the top.  Also? Ring shanks are designed to be hard to withdraw.  Ow.

Is that it?  Probably not, but I think those are the main ones.  Reviewing the list, I think the key takeaways are:

  • I simply shouldn’t ride bikes. I got off to a bad start, and I have not demonstrated learning behavior at any point since.
  • I have really poor awareness of where my extremities are.  Honestly, it’s a wonder I didn’t end up on one of those cautionary Farm Safety videos when I was a kid.  “Remember kids: don’t leave your hand resting on the thresher.”
  • I was late to class a lot in college.  Stupid, yet karmic-apt things happened as a result.

How about you? What kind of evidence-you-shouldn’t-be-here are you carrying around?

The neverending battle

No, I’m not about to reveal some heretofore unknown affliction – I’m just fine, thanks for asking.

I don’t think of myself as having been involved in a lot of cancer drama, but when I look back on my life, I see a different pattern.  My grandmother’s breast cancer, when I was still in grade school.  My dad’s battle with prostate cancer that became one of our main topics of conversation for half a decade.  The wildfire lung and liver cancer that took my granddad not too long ago.

And once again, I’m involved in that same long fight; once again, I’m on the sidelines – watching, cheering as much as I can, but ultimately more than a little helpless.  My dad is back in the crosshairs, this time for something operable that’s hopefully been caught early and is easily excised.


I’m starting to hate that word.