21 Writing Lessons A Wise Man Would Share (and no, I’m not calling myself wise)

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  1. Commitment is what transforms an idea floating around in your head into reality. Putting pen to paper speaks boldly of your intentions to write and are the actions which speak louder than the words. It is making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to shape ethereal things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.
  2. No one is perfect. The quicker this is realized the faster you can get on with being excellent. Start every morning ready to write harder than you did the day before and plot further than you ever imagine.
  3. Avoid over-explaining yourself in writing. Be confident that your audience is intelligent enough to understand.
  4. Write down what’s most important to you in your writing career and the steps to accomplish that goal and show up for it. Sometimes we tend to do the things that are most important to us when it’s written down.
  5. Play the hand you’re dealt. Stop envying someone else’s talent or success. Have the courage to face your own writing challenges head-on. It builds character. Start looking for a way through instead of a way out.
  6. Become a student of life. Learn something new every day. The day you stop learning is the day you become obsolete so keep learning and keep writing.
  7. No more excuses. Stop making excuses for not writing and replace them with ways to do better writing. Excuses are a waste of time and energy.
  8. Never be ashamed to tell anyone you’re a writer, whether you’re published or not. The definition of a writer is a person who writes or is able to write. Being ashamed to acknowledge this fact to people speaks to self-doubt, which is a desire killer.
  9. Never be afraid of a writing challenge. If you never strive to be more than what you are, you’ll never truly know what you can become.
  10. Be of service to other writers. Pointing people in the right direction is such a small thing. Give advice to those who ask for it. Offer support to those who want it. We’re all here to teach as well as learn.
  11. Work like hell. If you want to earn a living as a writer, that is. Treat it like a profession, put your absolute best foot forward and be thorough. Cross every “T” and dot every “I”.
  12. Discover yourself. Find your passion, and life purpose, and pursue them…then write about them.
  13. Don’t take it personally. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge and laugh at something that you’ve written in the past that’s just plain awful. Self-awareness and self-confidence show that you’re comfortable in your own skin.
  14. Manage your time. Our situation and environment are ever-changing so be careful not to confuse the things that are urgent with the things that are important. Look for time wasters and eliminate them.
  15. Ask for help. Writing can be tough and although you do a majority of it alone, you should never write in a total vacuum and there’s no shame in seeking advice when you’re stuck.
  16. Do your homework. Know what you’re getting into before you start writing in a particular field, format, or genre. Doing your homework reduces uncertainty and fear.
  17. Daydream often. Your imagination is a muscle that requires exercise and daydreaming is an excellent way to flex it. Embrace and preserve your daydreams at all costs.
  18. Forgive and set free. Freeing your mind to write is almost as important as actually sitting down to write, so cultivate a healthy dose of forgiveness and set someone free. Learn to forgive others and stop carrying those bags of hate, guilt, or regret.
  19. Stay one step ahead. Avoid big fish/small pond thinking if at all possible. If you’ve mastered a particular style of writing, why not be proactive, take the initiative, and see what other types of writing challenges are out there for you?
  20. Love yourself. Become your own priority. Strive to be the you, you want to be. Once you accomplish this, it will show in your writing, trust me.
  21. Finish what you’ve started. Avoid the urge to stray. Distractions are the writer’s most fearsome adversary. Avoid jumping off a project because a better idea has come along. Jot the better idea down, set it aside, and come back to it when you’re done with your current project.

Sally forth and be wisely writeful.

50 Questions That Can Help Free Your Mind (to concentrate on writing…hopefully)

 

The common advice for freeing your mind to write is to create a journal. I’m fairly certain that most of you have either 1) created a journal that you may or may not keep current, or 2) heard the advice and decided journaling isn’t for you (hey, it happens).

So, what other options do you have when you’ve lost your self in a quagmire of self-pity, mundane daily obligations, and insurmountable life woes and can’t quite seem to maintain your true identity or nurture your creative center?

Why, you slap on your pith helmet, turn your gaze inward, and explore that largely ignored country of your core self, naturally. And the best way to accomplish this is with the list below. Why a list? Because you’re a writer and writers love lists.

Be advised that there are no right or wrong answers because sometimes simply asking the right questions is the answer.

  1. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
  2. Which is worse, failing or never trying?
  3. If life is so short, why do we do so many things we don’t like and like so many things we don’t do?
  4. When it’s all said and done, will you have said more than you’ve done?
  5. What is the one thing you would most like to change about the world?
  6. If happiness was the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?
  7. Are you doing what you believe in, or are you settling for what you are doing?
  8. If the average human life span was 40 years, how would you live your life differently?
  9. To what degree have you actually controlled the course your life has taken?
  10. Are you more worried about doing things right, or doing the right things?
  11. You are having lunch with three people you respect and admire. They all start criticizing a close friend of yours, not knowing she/he is your friend. The criticism is distasteful and unjustified. What do you do?
  12. If you could offer a newborn child only one piece of advice, what would it be?
  13. Would you break the law to save a loved one?
  14. Have you ever seen insanity where you later saw creativity?
  15. What is something you know you do differently than most people?
  16. How come the things that make you happy don’t make everyone happy?
  17. What is one thing have you not done that you really want to do? What’s holding you back?
  18. Are you holding onto something you need to let go of?
  19. If you had to move to a state or country besides the one you currently live in, where would you move and why?
  20. Do you push the elevator button more than once? Do you really believe it makes the elevator faster?
  21. Would you rather be a worried genius or a joyful simpleton?
  22. Why are you, you?
  23. Have you been the kind of friend you want as a friend?
  24. Which is worse, when a good friend moves away, or losing touch with a good friend who lives right near you?
  25. What are you most grateful for?
  26. Would you rather lose all of your old memories, or never be able to make new ones?
  27. Is it possible to know the truth without challenging it first?
  28. Has your greatest fear ever come true?
  29. Do you remember that time 5 years ago when you were extremely upset? Does it really matter now?
  30. What is your happiest childhood memory? What makes it so special?
  31. At what time in your recent past have you felt most passionate and alive?
  32. If not now, then when?
  33. If you haven’t achieved it yet, what do you have to lose?
  34. Have you ever been with someone, said nothing, and walked away feeling like you just had the best conversation ever?
  35. Why do religions that support love cause so many wars?
  36. Is it possible to know, without a doubt, what is good and what is evil?
  37. If you just won a million dollars, would you quit your job?
  38. Would you rather have less work to do, or more work you actually enjoy doing?
  39. Do you feel like you’ve lived this day a hundred times before?
  40. When was the last time you marched into the dark with only the soft glow of an idea you strongly believed in?
  41. If you knew that everyone you know was going to die tomorrow, who would you visit today?
  42. Would you be willing to reduce your life expectancy by 10 years to become extremely attractive or famous?
  43. What is the difference between being alive and truly living?
  44. When is it time to stop calculating risk and rewards, and just go ahead and do what you know is right?
  45. If we learn from our mistakes, why are we always so afraid to make a mistake?
  46. What would you do differently if you knew nobody would judge you?
  47. When was the last time you noticed the sound of your own breathing?
  48. What do you love? Have any of your recent actions openly expressed this love?
  49. In 5 years from now, will you remember what you did yesterday? What about the day before that? Or the day before that?
  50. Decisions are being made right now. The question is: Are you making them for yourself, or are you letting others make them for you?

Sally forth and be free-mindedly writeful.

Swing Away, Merrill…Even If Every Editor Rejects Your Best Work

 

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“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” — Newt Gingrich

Recently, I chatted with a fellow writer in dire need of commiseration. She slaved over a story for nearly two years, rewriting draft after draft following feedback from writer friends and polishing and refining it until she was not only happy with it but considered it her best work to date. And she wasn’t wrong. It’s a pretty damn solid story.

When it was old enough, she released the story from the nest and let it fly to her targeted list of the publishing houses a story of this type was properly suited for. It wasn’t her first time at the rodeo, so she knew precisely what she was doing.

Skip ahead past the anxiety-filled months of the story crossing the desks of slush readers and editors to the point of contact, only to discover that her baby, the best story she’d ever produced, had been rejected by everyone on her list. Majors and minors alike. Which, of course, raised the question:

What does a writer do when they’ve put their all into a story and no one wants it?

The answer is obvious, and I’m sure you’re already thinking it before you’ve read it here:

You put your best, unwanted story away for later use, and you start writing again. Instead of moping and getting down on yourself and allowing them pesky writing demons to take up valuable real estate in your head, start your next project. And it doesn’t have to be some laboriously over-complicated piece. If you’ve got something easy-breezy on the back burner, something you can bang out relatively quickly, why not give it a go? A sort of cleansing of the palate before your next magnum opus—and there will be another magnum opus, trust me on this.

My old man was a fountain of homespun wisdom and one of his favorites was:

“Nothing beats failure like a try.”

And he was right. Perseverance trumps rejection. That’s the advice I gave my friend and that’s the advice I’m giving you. Since she’s a diehard Mets fan—a trait she shares with my mother—I tried delivering it with my best baseball analogy:

When you submit your work, you’re like a hitter crowding the plate in order to have a better swing at pitches on the outside half of the plate. Rejection slips are the brushback pitches, fastballs coming at you high and inside, designed to intimidate and force you away from the plate. If they make you quit the game, you didn’t really come to the stadium to play ball. And sometimes opportunity also comes at you high and tight, so—to quote M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, “Signs”—Swing away, Merrill. Merrill, swing away.

Of course, she laughed at this because she knows I don’t know squat about baseball and my analogy stunk, but it lifted her spirit, so despite looking like an idiot, job well done, I’d say.

Well, it’s half past wrap-up time, but you know me, as long as there are famous authors to quote, I never travel alone. They’ll take the mic in a second and talk to you a bit about rejection—sans the baseball references, I promise. Until next time…

Sally forth and be swinging-at-the-pitches-ly writeful, my friend.

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” — Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” — Jennifer Salaiz

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“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” — Sylvia Plath

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

Related articles:

Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection

It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done

Wanna Succeed as a Writer? Buddy Up to Failure, it’s the Best Friendship You’ll Ever Make

You’re Where You Are Because of Who You Are (but that ain’t necessarily a bad thing)

One Hell Of An Offer

Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that had been removed, and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.

The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy-saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, waiting as patient as the lamb she was in life.

She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain, or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that had been mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.

Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure—she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture—getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in Heaven.

While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.

Finally, an angel arrived. He was tall and thin, wearing black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he obviously no longer needed. It was a remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.

The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the unsundertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.

“Hi, I’m Modestine,” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.

Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.

Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you,” and she tried her best to match the noise he made…but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.

Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”

Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?”

“Heavens no, that’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”

“I’m here to take you to class,” Phil said and with a single flap of his wings, shot into the sky.

“Oh, okay.” Modestine imitated Phil’s action and was understandably a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.

Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.

“Here you are,” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.

“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”

“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh-look carried a sting.

“What? Why?”

“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”

Modestine nodded, “Underprivileged kids. Twelve years.”

“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.

“Oh, no…no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”

“The information will present itself as you need it. Heaven’s cool that way.”

“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”

“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”

“From Hell?”

“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.

The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned, and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”

Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.

“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”

The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.

The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell, and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several ice-breaking games before the class broke for recess.

As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.

“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.

“Just Modestine, and yes?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.

The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”

“You’re not? Then who…?”

“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”

Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch, what is it you want?”

Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”

“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”

“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”

“By whom?”

“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”

“And do my superiors know you’re here?”

“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”

Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.

“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”

“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may summon me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”

“Just Modestine, and why me?”

“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you,” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat, and read the agreement more thoroughly.

Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word No. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.

Wanna Succeed as a Writer? Buddy Up to Failure, it’s the Best Friendship You’ll Ever Make

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Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. — Theodore Roosevelt

The act of screwing it up, getting it all wrong and falling flat on your literary face is the worst, most evil thing that can be thrust upon the fragile ego of a creative person. No writer ever wants to be standing hip-deep in a congealing bucket of epically proportioned failure. Not only does it cling to you, branding you with the scarlet letter of incompetence, but the fumes from it seep into your pores and attack your confidence, enthusiasm, and self-esteem.

And even worse than failing? Atychiphobia:

From the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear” or “morbid fear” and atyches meaning “unfortunate” atychiphobia is the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure, often leading to a constricted lifestyle, and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness to attempt certain activities.

But “fear of” is getting kicked to the curb in this post because—if you haven’t guessed from the title—I’m actually advocating for failure, which in my insolent opinion, gets a bad rap.

When you first begin to write for an audience, or writing in a genre that’s new to you, or in a different format, etc., your first attempts will most likely not be optimal. No two ways about it, no getting around it. Why? Because your life isn’t a movie, wunderkind wasn’t conveniently inserted into your backstory, and greatness isn’t DNA-encodable at this point in time, it still has to be strived for.

You. Will. Fail.

Fail to connect with your audience. Fail to notice logic issues in your plot easily spotted by a reader. Fail to end a story properly (if you even complete it at all). Fail in your use of words to convey the intended images. Fail to make a sale. Fail to impress your literary heroes. Fail to please everyone (always), the majority (on occasion), and anyone (trust me, it happens).

The only surefire way to avoid writing failure is to either never commit your ideas to paper—let them swirl around in the magical kingdom of your imagination, living their Peter Pan existence, as you vegetate in front of the TV—or never put your writing out into the world. If either of these sounds like a viable solution, good on you, and go for it. I’m not here to judge.

If, however, you’re not satisfied with letting ideas fester in your gray matter as you wait for the opportunity to unleash your genius in that perfect moment that never ever seems to swing around your way, you’ll need to look disappointment square in the eye and accept the fact that the outcome of your writing endeavors will not always line up with your expectations.

And though I’m not here to judge, should you actually consider never committing your ideas to paper, one possible adverse effect is that idea can metamorphosize into a bloated squatter that takes up an unnecessary amount of mind space, thereby blocking the arrival of new ideas. If it were me, I’d serve it an eviction notice and make way for a new tenant. But that’s just me. Still no judgments.

Once you’ve wrapped your noggin around the simple truth that you will fail and have given up feeling hopeless, weak, and belittling both yourself and your talents, you’re finally ready to accept the fact that failure plays a very important, incredibly positive role in your writing life. In fact, it offers you a chance to grow and learn.

The first step in learning how failure breeds success is to let yourself fail a few times. Experience it in it’s totality. When you discover that it does not, in fact, destroy you, feel free to brush yourself off and climb back on the horse. All successful writers have experienced failure (and a great deal of the time the success/fail ratio favors the negative) but what made them successful is they weren’t afraid to fail and if they did, they just learned from their mistakes and moved on.  They didn’t allow themselves to be defeated by rejection, hurt, or disappointment.

There will be those of you who poo-poo (yeah, I said poo-poo, deal with it) the notion of getting accustomed to failure because you personally know someone whose first-ever novel made the bestsellers list, whose first draft screenplay became a Hollywood blockbuster, whose tweets became a TV series, blah-blah-blech. There’s a professional name for that phenomenon. It’s called a miracle. Right place, right time, all the planets fall into alignment. This is great when/if it happens, but you shouldn’t factor it into your overall game plan. It’s akin to being dirt poor and signing the deed on a mansion just because you’re sure you’re gonna win the lottery.

Well, writing calls, so I must be off—I’m sure I’ll speak more on this topic in the future—but before I go, let me leave you with a list to help you on your way to palling up with failure:

  1. Read.
  2. Write.
  3. Fail.
  4. Learn.
  5. Repeat.

It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.

Sally forth and be failingly writeful, you intrepid writer, you.

Love’s Love Lost – A Valentine’s Day Tale (sort of)

Once upon a time, in New York’s gloomy and perpetually rainy Alphabet City, there was born a girl who was said to be the living embodiment of love.

From the doctor’s first slap, the girl giggled instead of crying and flushed the neighborhood of all its gray. Her smile was a bottomless thing, its roots branching up from her soul, and it beamed so brightly as to cause blindness if it caught you unawares. Her large jade eyes radiated an innocence so pure it momentarily took your breath away. Given her birthright, she was destined to have but one mate throughout her lifetime, and that person would live a charmed life ever after.

Or so the story went.

While an urban legend to most, Cadogan believed the girl existed and based on the age of the story’s telling, surely had to be an adult now. He also was convinced it was his mission to locate the girl and put an end to love, once and for all.

Cadogan worked fingers to the bone for years and all the wealth he amassed selling off his various successful startup companies was spent on all the matchmakers who claimed to have an in with the living embodiment of love. Most were scammers, of course, the rest were simply delusional and bestowed the honor upon the wrong women. Only one woman was genuine. She knew the embodiment’s true identity and so deep was her jealousy that she gladly agreed to arrange a match if it meant obliterating the anomaly from the face of the planet.

When Cadogan met the matchmaker in a single occupancy room off Delancey Street, he thought of all the people he had ever encountered, this woman was the flipside of the living embodiment of love’s coin. Emaciated with a rat’s nest for hair, her features were packed together tightly as if God had pinched her face when she was born and left it to set that way.

“Your fee’s been paid in full, so why haven’t you set up the introduction?” Cadogan asked.

“You’re not ready.” the matchmaker spat the words like a cawing crow. “As long as you wear your true intentions like armor, she’ll dismiss you outright.”

“If I pretend, she’ll spot the ruse instantly. I’m sure she’s developed the ability to detect friendly facades. I’ll approach her as a man scorned, which is the truth, and win her over from there.”

“Interesting. And how do you mean to kill her?”

“Those were not my words. I mean to put an end to love.”

“The difference being?”

“I intend to woo her, make her love me, and when she’s at her happiest moment, I’ll argue with her, break her heart with harsh words and hurtful actions. And I will not let her leave, and I will not stop, not until the shine dulls in her eyes and the smile becomes a rootless tree, and even then I will continue until she withdraws, from our relationship, from her happiness, from the world.”

“That will take years if it ever happens at all.”

“It will. I’m a patient and persistent man,” Cadogan said.

“But I doubt you’re strong enough.”

“Then refund my money and I’ll find her on my own.”

The matchmaker leaned in closer and eyed Cadogan head to toe. His nose was full of her scent, decaying food left to stew in its own rancid juices.

“A deal is a deal,” she said. “So we’re clear, when I make the introduction, my part will be done. Should you fail in your attempts, the fee won’t be returned, understood?”

Cadogan nodded and she led the way out of the Delancey room. Under the cloak of night, they dipped down into a subway station marked, Closed For Restoration. Past the turnstile and empty platform onto the train tracks. Cadogan masked his apprehension as he gave the third rail a wide berth and occasionally peered over his shoulder at the sound of distant train rumblings.

Between stations, they encountered a society of people, homeless and long abandoned by the surface society, who barred their path. Cadogan thought he would have to fight his way through, but the matchmaker had things well in hand. She mumbled something to the leader, a password perhaps, and pulled a tin of potted meat from her handbag and placed it in the man’s bony hand. When he stepped aside, the pair carefully waded through a field of displaced people’s bedding and cooking stations until they finally reached the service passageway that led to a room not much larger than the one the matchmaker used as an office.

In the room were two chairs that faced each other. The matchmaker sat in one and gestured for Cadogan to sit opposite her.

“If this is some sort of trick…”

The matchmaker waived off the comment before it could become a threat. “She will be here, I promise.”

“Why here?” Cadogan asked.

“There’s an interesting story behind that,” the matchmaker said, clearing her throat as she spat a gob of phlegm to the side. “It seems the gift of unconditional love that Everleigh was born withthat’s the name of the woman you seek, Everleigh—the gift that flowed freely from her, the gift that touched everyone within her sphere of influence and filled them with ecstasy, proved too much for most people to bear.”

“Are you telling me people fell too much in love?” Cadogan asked.

“To the point of delirium. It drove them mad. Imagine the feeling when you have loved someone or something in your life, more than anything else in the world, loved it so much that it hurt. Now multiply that by ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, even. Never any hatred, or indifference, only a love for everything that increases exponentially the longer you remain in Everleigh’s presence.”

“I never considered that.”

“Most people don’t.”

“So what happened?” Cadogan leaned forward in his seat.

“Nothing like a good story, eh?” The corners of the matchmaker’s mouth curled slightly. “Everleigh’s parents, immune to her gift, fearing for their daughter’s safety as well as their own, moved in the small of the night to parts unknown, somewhere far removed from society at large, and remained in seclusion.”

The matchmaker stopped talking. Cadogan waited, thinking she paused for dramatic effect, but after nearly ten minutes of silence, asked, “Is that it?”

“All the true bits. The rest is apocrypha. I figured that wouldn’t interest you.”

Cadogan shrugged, his disinterest unconvincing, “Since we’re here…”

“Well, the way I heard it, the family managed to get along fine. True, they were isolated but they were also together and safe and Everleigh’s constant state of happiness helped the situation be less stressful. Their lives remained uneventful…until the day their daughter reached puberty.

“On the fourteenth day of the second month of her eleventh year, Everleigh began growing distant, her once innocent eyes darkened and the luster faded from her smile. The gift once thought to be good was slowly transforming from its former sham and ruse into the corrupt curse it truly was.”

Cadogan’s brow knotted. “So she’s not actually a child of love?”

“Why would you think that? Everleigh is the physical embodiment of love. At birth, she was the love that was new and innocent and when she entered womanhood, she became the other side of love, the dark side none of us admit to feeling or acting upon.”

“Well, whichever side she represents, when I make her mine, I will cause it to wilt away to nothingness.”

“Do you have an alternate plan?”

“A what?”

“Should she find out what you are attempting, is there a fallback?”

“The only way she would find out is if you tell her…”

“Oh, I won’t have to tell her anything…you already have.”

It took Cadogan a few moments to piece together her meaning. “You’re…?”

The matchmaker spread her arms wide. “The genuine article.”

“But you’re…”

“A hag? Not at all what you expected? It’s the only bit the urban legend got wrong. I was born an ugly child, but people viewed me through the eyes of unconditional love, so my looks didn’t matter.”

“You tricked me!”

“How? Hello, Cadogan, I am Everleigh, pleased to meet you. Consider yourself introduced. Now, live up to your word,” Everleigh said as she moved from her chair and sat on Cadogan’s lap. “Woo me and put an end to love. I dare you.”

Cadogan wanted to push her off…but perhaps he hadn’t really wanted that at all. Up close, Everleigh wasn’t that horrible to look at. Her mottled skin was actually clear and smooth. Her nose once bent and crooked, appeared aquiline now. Her lips, full and delicious. Her build, athletic.

“Something the matter?” Everleigh asked.

Cadogan’s heart beat in his throat. “What are you doing to me?”

“Giving you a taste. I can control the power now. Love, hate, passion, jealousy…to greater and lesser degrees.”

Cadogan tried to scowl but his face wouldn’t cooperate. “What are you going to do to me?”

“Offer you the opportunity to become my mate,” said Everleigh. She climbed off his lap and drew her power back into herself, allowing Cadogan to see her in her true form again. “If legend is to be believed, a charmed life awaits you.”

“And if I decline?”

“Then you join the loveless,” Everleigh gestured toward the door.

“You mean the people we passed…?”

“Men and women, not much different than yourself, unable to deal with heartbreak or rejection. Selfish people who, being denied love, sought to prevent others from experiencing it.”

“But why do they remain here living like rats in a sewer?” Cadogan asked.

“They were unable to fulfill their supposed heart’s desire of removing my influence from the world and refused my offer of companionship. Once you turn your back on love, what else is there?” Everleigh drained the dark room entirely of love and let him ponder the notion as he sank deep into loneliness and wallowed in abandon and despair.

After an eternity of brooding silence, Cadogan spoke up, “I…accept your offer. I will become your mate.”

“And will you woo me, make me love you, and when I am at my happiest, will you break my heart and make me withdraw from the world?”

“That I will indeed, even if it takes the rest of my life.”

“Challenge accepted,” Everleigh shook the man’s hand firmly.

The contract sealed, Cadogan put his plan into effect by telling the living embodiment of love his story. Of the woman he loved, that he did nothing to deserve but was blessed with nonetheless. Of their happiness together. Of the sharp knife of cruel fate that cut their time short. Of the anguish that swallowed him whole the instant her body was committed to the ground.

And when his tale was through, Cadogan pulled her into his embrace and kissed her with every ounce of his intent, and Everleigh was forced to admit she felt a slight tingle. They battled for years in this game of hearts, each giving as good as they got, and if he actually succeeded in putting an end to her, it was with kindness. Despite the competition that continued to their dying days, the couple wound up living happily ever after.

Oh, and they had one child, who was said to be the living embodiment of peace…but that’s a story for another day.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I Put This Moment Here

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“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.” ― Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

I have a memory like a sieve.  My recollections of the past come to me in flashes and snippets and I have to be mindful not to fall into one of the many great blank holes when traipsing around in half-forgotten yesterdays. Part of it is the result of a built-in self-defense mechanism, tamping down the harmful events that one never quite survives intact. The rest? Just plain negligence. I am a poor caretaker of retrospection.

And for a while, I wasn’t bothered by it. Then I reached a point in life when memories—of love and pain and the whole damned thing—became important because I found myself wanting to catalog my journey before I reached the end of the race (it’s always closer than you expect and they say you never see the finish line with your name on it).

But now, when I recount the tales of the various and sundry someones who impacted my life before blowing away like a leaf in the wind, someones whose names I used to be able to recite by rote, those names have now taken up permanent residence on the tip of my tongue but never so close as to venture past my lips.

I find that in order to remember a past event, I have to place it in a location that’s visible so that I don’t misplace it along with my keys and smartphone. I have chosen this place as the soil in which to plant my evaporating memories before they’re gone forever.

I put this moment here:

Of the girl that I fancied in the first grade whose name might have been Cheryl or Shirley but for some reason, I remember it as “Squirrel,” whom I wrote about when the teacher asked the class to write about something we loved. And that selfsame teacher thinking it was so adorable that she took me to Squirrel’s class and made me read it aloud to her. You’re never too young to discover embarrassment.

I put this moment here:

Of the German woman who made me my first brown bag lunch for school that consisted of a healthy liverwurst sandwich which I enjoyed the taste of but stopped eating altogether after being teased at school by the other kids for eating dog food. It hurt her feelings and I wish I had a stronger conviction to continue eating the lunches she prepared with love.

I put this moment here:

Of the asexual woman I worked with at a car rental agency who looked like a young Peggy Lipton (an American actress most famous for the 60s tv series, “The Mod Squad” and her marriage to music producer Quincy Jones) and lived in New Jersey.

We went on our own personal pub crawl, saw a local band perform live at an indie bar (who turned out to be the Spin Doctors long before signing with a label) and wound up back at her apartment. Her place was small, spartan and very, very tidy. A place for everything and everything in its place. Except for a television or radio. She had neither. She was an avid reader and nearly every wall contained bookshelves. Nothing wrong with that…except that every book dealt with serial killers, cults, true crime unsolved murder mysteries. Again, her library, her business.

But her furniture was all covered in plastic, the floors were single sheet vinyl and the tables and countertops were resin…and my mind did the connect-the-dots-thing, teamed with my overactive writer’s imagination and I realized that no one knew I was there. We arrived at her place around 3am and her neighborhood was a ghost town, no one saw me enter her apartment, and blood could be wiped from all these surfaces easily with a little bleach and elbow grease. And given all those books, she probably knew how to make an enzyme solvent to get rid of any nasty little DNA traces of me.

Everything turned out fine, naturally, she was just a fellow insomniac looking for some company and we had an interesting conversation and broke dawn, but I did follow her into the kitchen whenever she offered to get me a drink. Just to be on the safe side.

I put this moment here:

Of the woman I worked with at a banking institution who I wound up spending a bizarre New Year’s Eve with as we searched Manhattan for the perfect place to ring in the new year and wound up buying tabs of acid off some guy on the street and tripping balls as we lay in the grass of Central Park, making insane resolutions and wishing on shooting stars (real or hallucinated) for a better year to come.

Sometimes when my mind is idle, I struggle to recall the names of people and events trapped within synaptic pathways that withered from non-use, names and events I feel I should remember because of the emotions that linger despite the fact the memories have faded and recognition has faltered.

I lament the loss of these remembrances because they’re all a part of me and I’m afraid to learn the answer to what of myself will remain when all the memories have faded away.

Gather ye memories while ye may. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

The Long Haul to One Hundred and Seventy-Five Short Stories

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“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.” ― Andre Dubus

I began writing when I was young.

Well, back then I drew pictures and wrote little stories beneath them in a prehistoric blog-like fashion. The first story I remember writing was about God. Couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time and I’m sure it wasn’t much of a story. The only reason I remember it is because I was severely punished for it. Not the story so much as the crayon drawing of God accompanying it. Just a bearded man sitting on a chair in the clouds. To this day I have no idea why it sparked so much anger.

In school, I devoured comic books and my storytelling reflected this as I scribbled comic panels in my composition notebooks and sometimes my textbooks if I ran out of paper. I only shifted gears to prose after Frank Herbert absolutely blew my mind with the first book in his Dune series that I read in the sixth grade to impress a girl named Jeanette Baker.

It was her favorite book.

Ultimately, she wasn’t all that impressed by either me or my ability to read feudal interstellar societal science fiction, but Paul Atreides, The Bene Gesserit, The Fremen, and The Spice Melange left a lasting impression on me.

Unavoidable circumstances after college pulled me away from writing for longer than I’m happy to admit, but today marks the completion of my one hundred and seventy-fifth short story since I was lured back into writing after reading a copy of Harlan Ellison’s short story collection, Strange Wine, in a public library tucked away in Portsmouth Virginia.

Another mind-altering experience, as Harlan introduced me to the world of speculative fiction.

This milestone doesn’t include my detours into graphic novel self-publishing or article writing and short/feature-length screenwriting. Nor does it include the many and various unfinished stories that inhabit my Story Box Full of Regret. Many were picked up by a number of magazines, vanity press, and now-defunct publications during the halcyon days of snail mail querying and submissions, some of which are posted on this site, two are viewable at MasticadoresIndia, and only thirteen have been forever filed away in the fad drawer due to severely outdated themes.

Of the remaining one hundred and sixty-nine stories, only six are so cringe-inducingly bad that I refuse to revise them. They serve as a reminder of just how awful my writing can be when I’m off my game and a yardstick as to how far I’ve come since my far-too-late-in-life return to the medium.

The one hundred fifty-two on the rung above are mostly inspired by actual events, ripped from the pages of my journal—when I used to keep a journal—and fictionalized into speculative and science fiction, horror, and modern-day twisted fairy tale pieces. This was when I followed that old chestnut piece of writing advice, Write what you know. These stories know the terrain well enough since they’ve been around the block a time or two. All they need is a bit of a touch-up, light revision at the most, before they make their rounds again. I’m confident they’ll find a home somewhere.

The final eleven are hatchlings, newbie stories that are a tad more introspective and feature solid speculative elements. I’m a proud Papa so I must admit that these tales are my best, though if I had my druthers I would have planted their roots more firmly in the soil of either horror or science fiction instead of having them languish somewhere in the bleed of the two genres.

Of these, four are out for approval which leaves seven that I’m in the midst of revising before they join their brothers and sisters in the cold cruel world. The aim naturally is to send them all out so that can quit bugging me about wanting to be read. They can be so annoying that way.

Cheers for humoring me as I wool-gathered.

Braiding Tales: We Built a World, Row by Row (a true story)

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“We gave the Future to the winds, and slumbered tranquilly in the Present, weaving the dull world around us into dreams.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

I spent most of my early teens in the Bronx. The street I lived on, corner to corner, ran the length of three average city blocks and was the picture of diversity—the melting pot that New York had become famous for. It was all about migration. Italians were moving to new ground as black people nestled in and on their tail were Hispanics followed by West Indians. It was a neighborhood in transition where multi-cultures learn by cohabitation that differences in race didn’t make a person less human.

It was also the 70’s and I rocked a killer afro to end all ‘fros. Metal pronged afro pick with the handle clenched in a black power fist and a peace symbol carved out on the base, tucked in the back of my hair.

It drove my parents crazy. They rode my back constantly to get it cut but there was that preteen Samsonian fear that the strength of my personality—-my Madd-ness—-would be stripped away, were a barber to lay clippers on my precious locks. When I got the “as long as you’re living under my roof” speech, I knew I needed a solution and I needed it quick.

Enter: Cynthia Holloway. I mentioned my plight in passing and out of nowhere she offered to braid my hair into cornrows. So, we sat on the stoop of a private house and armed with only a comb and hair grease, Cynthia worked her nimble fingers like a loom.

She was one of those neighborhood girls that I’d never really spoken to before outside the odd hello. Not that there was anything wrong with her, she was simply a person that kept herself to herself. The type of person you’d have to make an effort to get to know.

It would take many years for me to become that type of person.

But in sitting with her I discovered she was both intelligent and imaginative, with interesting stories to tell. Her father was a retired Army Ranger colonel, who spent a great deal of his free time on the road in a jazz band.

I’m not sure how much of that was true. No one could ever remember seeing Cynthia’s dad, so maybe it was a story she invented to keep nosy kids at bay. Or perhaps it was one of the quiet lies that parents tell their children to spare them from the harsh realities of troubled marriages.

Since we had nothing but time to kill, we talked about our constricted home lives, mentioned the odd hobby, told a few jokes and had a couple of laughs, and when all the conversation wells had run dry, we told each other stories.

At the end of every month, when the braids began to look a little ratty, I’d take them out and Cynthia met me back on that stoop to repeat the process. And after a brief bit of catch-up, we’d go back to telling each other imaginary stories and without meaning to, wound up designing an illusory sanctuary from the burdens and pains of our everyday pre-teenage lives.

While we mentally terraformed our neighborhood row by cornrow, we got to know each other in those months as the monarchs of our fantasy world. We explored the surroundings, went on adventures, and basically forgot the world for a few hours a month.

Come the fifth month, I sat on the stoop and waited, my hair a wild crop of imagination waiting to be plowed, but Cynthia never showed. I later learned from a friend of a friend’s sister that she and her mother had moved away in the middle of the night without telling a soul where they were headed.

I tried to imagine all the possible reasons that would cause them to make a hurried escape under the cloak of twilight and seriously hoped it had nothing to do with her retired-Army-Ranger-colonel-jazz-band-dad. Nothing negative, anyway.

And yes, I eventually had no other choice than to submit to the butcher shop barbershop haircut. Much to my surprise, I managed to retain all of my Madd-ness afterward. I was still filled with my nerdy sameness and when I missed her a bit, I’d sometimes sit on the stoop and give an imaginary Cynthia updates on the latest goings-on in the world we created.

Thanks for humoring me as I wool-gathered.

PS. Cyn, if through some bizarre happenstance you should come across this, hit me up real quick. There’s a world in some need of serious upkeep.

Duchess and the Anecdote

Duchess

They come from miles around, my characters do, traveling the great distance from the fringes of my mind’s eye, some even making the long and arduous haul from my childhood, just to sit and talk. They do this whenever I’m alone.

As they gather ’round, I cast an eye upon their many and various faces and can’t help but feel the slightest twinge of remorse. Being in my company, locked within the confines of my imagination, is not wholly unlike a purgatory for them. A holding pattern, a waiting room, where they converse amongst themselves in voices audible only to myself, trying to catch my attention in the slimmest hope of being set free. Birthed into a story.

Some are fresh meat, the rest lifers, each easily spotted by the differences in their appearance and the strength of their voices. Fresh meats are gossamers—newly formed characters, little more than a stack of traits—who shout in whispers. Lifers, on the other hand, are as fleshed out as you or I, perhaps even more so, who have acquired the proper pitch and turn of phrase to catch me unawares during the times when my mind idles.

Before the talks begin–serious conversation, not the normal natterings they engage in–a flying thing the size of a butterfly, jewel-toned blue stripes, greenish-gold spots, with flecks of silver on the wings, lands in the palm of my outstretched hand.

“What is that then?” a childlike voice asks from somewhere deep in the crowd, low to the ground. I recognize it instantly.

“It’s an anecdote, Duchess. Come see for yourself.” I reply as the creature’s wings beat softly on my palm.

The throng–my personal rogue’s gallery whose roster includes reputables and reprobates alike–part like the Red Sea, making way for the noblest of all serval cats, The Duchess.

“An antidote? Have you been poisoned?” The Duchess queries as she saunters into the open space, a dollop of concern gleaming in her vivid blue eyes.

I try to not laugh, partly out of respect, but mostly due to the fact that though she is the eldest of my unused characters, she is technically still but a kitten. “No, Duchess, it’s an anecdote, as in a short, amusing, or interesting story about a person or an incident.“

“I know full well what an anecdote is, thank you kindly. I was merely attempting to lighten the dreadfully somber mood with a bit of levity.” Not her best faux pas cover, but it was swift, which should count for something. As casually as she could manage, the kitten turned to see if anyone found amusement at her expense. No one did. They knew better. “May I hold it?”

I hesitate and stare at the leapling. Created on February 29th all those many years ago, it was my rationale–on paper–for keeping her a kitten, seeing as she had fewer birthdays, she would naturally age at a decelerated rate. The actuality is I have an affinity for kittens. For full-grown cats? Not so much. And now the dilemma is if her kittenish nature should come into play, and without meaning to, cause injury to the anecdote, then all this would be for naught.

Her eyes plead with all the promise of being good and I have no choice but to relent. “It’s fragile, so be gentle. Take care not to crush it.” I gently place the anecdote in her cupped paws.

“Why does one need an anecdote?” The Duchess of Albion asked, her nose twitching whenever the creature moves its wings.

“To tell a proper story,” I answer. “More than just a sequence of actions, anecdotes are the purest form of the story itself.“

“But I thought characters are at the heart of every great story?“

“They are and anecdotes connect the hearts and minds of those characters to a story.” I try to feign calm but I can see the kitten’s body tensing up. Her eyes, those glorious baby blues, are studying the creature closely. Was I wrong in my decision to trust that she rules her instincts and not the other way around?

“They also add suspense to your story, giving the audience a sense that something is about to happen. If you use them right, you can start raising questions right at the beginning of your story—something that urges your audience to stay with you. By raising a question, you imply that you will provide your audience with the answers. And you can keep doing this as long as you remember to answer all the questions you raise.“

The kitten’s breath becomes rapid and her paws close in around the anecdote and I want to cry out, urge her to stop, but it’s far beyond that point now. She is in control of her own fate. Canines bare themselves, paws pulling the creature closer to her mouth.

“No!” she shakes her head violently. Her ears relax and her mouth closes as her breathing returns to normal. Then, the oddest thing happens…

The Duchess begins to vanish. All the characters look on in dazed silence, uncertain how to react.

“What is happening to me?” she shoots me a panicked glance as cohesion abandons her form.

“Haven’t you sussed it out yet?“

“No… I’m scared!“

“Don’t be,” I smile. “Look around you. You’re at the heart of a story. You’re free.“

“Truly?” she is suddenly overwhelmed with delight, her expression priceless. “But — but what do I do with the anecdote now?”

“Open your paws, let it fly off.”

She unfolds her paws. Tiny wings beat their path to freedom. Then someone from the back of the crowd gives The Duchess a slow clap. Soon, others join in, building into a tidal wave of applause.

The now translucent Duchess waves a tearful thank you to the crowd, before turning back to me with a request, “Say my name.“

“Why?“

“Because you always simply address me as Duchess and I want to hear you call me by my full name one last time before I g– —“

And just like that, she was gone.

I bid you a fond farewell, Your Grace the Duchess of Albion Gwenore del Septima Calvina Hilaria Urbana Felicitus-Jayne Verina y de Fannia. Enjoy your journey. You will be missed.

Text and Audio ©2013 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys