I’ve long known that writing fiction and screenplays for a long time makes the whole process second nature. I eat, sleep, and breathe word wrangling. Writing is who I am. I found out just how much so this winter.

By the time my mom had to go to the nursing home, I had been taking care of her by myself for a long time. I reached a point where there needed to be a new word invented to define my level of stress and exhaustion. I expected to recover from at least some of that once the worst of the strain from dealing with her failing health was spread out among others too.

It didn’t work out like that. Over about a six week period when she was in the nursing home, she wasn’t in the nursing home much. Instead, counting twice during the three days before she could be admitted, she went to the ER six times and was hospitalized three times. This was every bit as stressful and exhausting, just in a different way.

I stayed at the hospital at night and drove about a 60 mile round trip a day to go home and sleep, after talking with her doctor during rounds. She was expected to die more than once, but due to her remarkable strength and resilience, she’s now gone weeks without an ER trip. I’m still trying to rest and destress.

There was something that happened to me during her hospitalizations that I could not understand. After having many, many new names and faces thrown at me in a short period of time, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of remembering who I was speaking with at any given moment. Then I discovered I was calling a nurse by the wrong name. Okay. Exhaustion will do that. Which it continued to do, also with not one but two doctors. Everyone was very kind. “No, that’s not my name. I’m (fill in the blank).” I apologized and tried to carry on as if it didn’t matter, but by the time I’d done it three times it started to really worry me. I had been totally convinced I was using the right name.

As things started to settle down, I stopped assigning random unrelated names to people I met, but it kept bothering me. Even though I’d only done it three times, it just seemed so strange and worrying that I kept thinking about it. Eventually, my ponderings finally landed on the part about randomly assigning names to people. These names had nothing to do with their real names. I heard them once, apparently completely blanked thereafter, and gave them a new name that was the right one only to me. No wonder I was worried!

Eventually, I figured it out. I think.

I believe it went beyond the strain I was under making me absent minded. Extreme exhaustion caused a wall to be hit that robbed me of the ability to take in and process information in my usual rapid, seamless manner. Some corner of my brain did not like this at all. So, it went to the default.

One of my favorite parts of the writing process is naming stuff. Characters, places, pets…I love running possibilities, picking and choosing, then firmly deciding on the keepers. It’s a little different with screenwriting, where I often test possibilities out verbally to make sure they’re easily pronounceable outside my head. With fiction it’s all mental.

So I think what happened is that the areas of my brain I consciously use for writing leapt into the gaping chasm where names usually lodge…as an involuntary response, supplying fictional names for the ones I couldn’t hang onto even
briefly. It sounds as bizarre as it was, and since I’m not Big Bang Theory’s Amy Farrah Fowler or her actress, Mayim Bialik, who are both neuroscientists, I’ll never know for sure.

What I do know is that once I got enough rest and the stress eased it hasn’t happened again. I’m constantly encountering new people in the course of overseeing my mom’s care, and I can easily recall an alarming number of names and their corresponding faces on demand. I also know that it’s pretty darned awesome that my muse tried to have my back during a time of crisis. A little scary, but awesome as well.

*So titled to avoid confusion with Maggie the Smith.

***SPOILERS***

The movie Maggie takes us down a new zombie path. Very different from the visceral and brutal fight for survival of The Walking Dead and the stylish science fiction of the Resident Evil franchise, Maggie comes closest to World War Z’s personal journey through a midapocalyptic wasteland. It takes the personal angle, and makes it simply heartbreaking.

Abigail Breslin gives a quietly powerful performance, as the title character. When we join her story, Maggie exists in a place between life and death. That’s not exactly right. Technically, she’s already dead, living on an existential road that inevitably leads to the moment when she’ll turn. There’s no cure, only a cocktail that puts an end to the process. With extreme pain.

Maggie’s father searches for her, finds her, and takes her home to be loved until her final moments. Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing beautifully against type, is Wade. He is a father facing the unfaceable, with compassion, kindness, and the courage to make choices no parent should be asked to make. Schwarzenegger’s weathered features display a maelstrom contained in one man’s experience. When his little children are sent to live with relatives and eventually his wife (a wonderful, understated Joely Richardson) leaves out of fear of the stepdaughter she loves, Wade remains in the heart of tragedy, for the love of Maggie.

For all its quietude and often isolated grace, Maggie is not without moments of violence and blood, gore even. Still it’s a departure from stereotypical zombification adventures. At its painfully beating heart it is a story of family and love and fear and courage. Maggie’s final moments are honorable and beautiful, played out with a context of grief and loss. The way she chooses to spare her father the anguish of living with ending her, carried out on a flutter of memory, is etched on my memory. As I said, not your typical Schwarzenegger. Not your typical zombie movie. Not your typical movie, period. And all the better for it.

Maggie Official Trailer

You know the question some people have to think long and hard about and others snap out an instant answer? The one that goes: If you could go back in time and have a conversation with anybody from the past, who would it be? I’m one of the snap it out people. Rainer Maria Rilke (though I will admit Nikola Tesla is a close second).

I first discovered Rilke’s poetry through the beautiful TV series Beauty and the Beast. The Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton one, not the CW one. That show made me fall in love with poetry. I’m not quite sure how Rilke’s distinctive, gorgeous, and not as accessible as many others poems struck such a cord with me that they rose above all others, but I’m grateful for the introduction to what has become a lifelong love for all things Rilke.

Yes, all things. In addition to his poetry that paints word pictures with its rhythm and lyrical descriptiveness, he also wrote equally lyrical prose. His book Letters to a Young Poet, in which he instructs and encourages a young friend, serves to do the same for me. There’s a particular line about creativity and the ability to write on command being different for different people and the way it must rise as sap in a tree (paraphrased, but the way I remember it many years after reading it), that resonated with me at a time when I struggled to fit into the molds of others with rigid ideas about how one must write. I felt that I had been “given permission” by my mentor from long ago to write the way my brain insisted was my way. That that made it THE way for me. Even still, when I rue the way I work, taking however much time my way needs to plot, and name characters, and order stories, the words “as sap in a tree” creep into my being, I relax, and go about my thing, my way. Even in a passing comment in correspondence, Rilke enhanced my own life, so, so many years after his death.

His death…. I read a story that he pricked his finger on a rose thorn, contracted blood poisoning, and died. What a tragic, yet romantic story. How fitting, though terrible, for a tragic, romantic poet.

This Brain Pickings article gives a taste of Letters to a Young Poet, and a flavor of Rilke himself, a man with such talent, such wordsmithery that he made me love the line “my feeling sinks, as if standing on fishes”.

I literally just finished The Shifting Tide moments ago. I’ve written here before about how much I love Anne Perry’s books, the William Monk series in particular. This one is my favorite of them all. So far anyway.

Former policeman Monk is a man with little past. He started out after a terrible carriage accident with no memory at all, but slowly bits of the life he no longer remembers fully return to him. In large part he is an enigma to himself.

His wife Hester is a fiercely independent woman, a nurse who served in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. Together they have built a life of fierce love and joy, and hardwon happiness. Monk scrapes together a living as a private detective, while Hester sacrifices her own safety to help those less fortunate. They are a match like no other, and in The Shifting Tide they very nearly lose everything dear to them. The most dear being each other.

Especially with my head still so filled with imagery and action and dialogue and story from this novel, it’s tempting to go deeply onto the details that made me love it so much, but I want to leave all that a mystery for readers to discover for themselves, as is fitting for such
a wonderful mystery novel.

The thing is that Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries go far beyond the genre used to describe them. They are fascinatingly historical, filled with action and adventure, often laced liberally with travel, and always deeply romantic. They defy pigeonholing in such a way that fans of myriad genres could easily fall in love with them. Especially the Monk series, as they venture well into the realm of medical drama as well.

I think what has made me so enthralled with The Shifting Tide is the way this one novel encompasses all of the genres I just listed, and in such a way that reading it made me feel as if I was actually there on the great Thames with Monk and in the cesspool that the splendour of London hid behind its genteel facade with Hester. Exhilarating, terrifying, beautiful, and awful…it’s all there. For me all of Anne Perry’s Victorian gems are like that, but The Shifting Tide stands out as something special that demands special attention.

I also must say that Anne Perry’s writing always makes me read it with a writer’s eye, even as I become so deeply involved in the story. She is one of those authors I both admire and envy. Which means that while I feel it unlikely that I will ever reach the heights of the beauty of her prose, I find myself striving toward the shining example of the excellence of it. Simply put, reading her writing makes me a better writer. My dreamy writerly hope right now is to someday make a reader feel as I did while reading The Shifting Tide.

I am very happy to announce that my story “Mom in the Moon” has sold to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Analog has long been the genre magazine I most wish to be published in, so this milestone is a dream come true.

*Spoilers below *

In the unlikely event no one has seen it yet.

I was disappointed to miss Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the theater, and hoping that would be where the disappointment would end. I love the original trilogy. A New Hope was on first viewing a transcendent experience. It marked the beginning of a new era in visual storytelling. From the scrolling words opening to the innovative FX to the characters and their struggles, joys, and triumphs, it was an event as no other movie had been before. Many instant fans didn’t even know it actually had a five word title. It was simply Star Wars, the most exciting movie of its generation, perhaps of all time.

It held up so well that The Force Awakens was able to slide into the mythology, with near perfect segue. The key to this was the inclusion of so many familiar faces, most importantly with their familiar actors, right down to the droids. In particular, the dynamic between Han and Leia made the transition intact. Not many movies can give the veteran viewer a jolt of pure joy, but I felt just that multiple times while watching The Force Awakens. First sight of the Falcon, Han, Chewie, R2-D2 and C3PO…and Leia, then Leia and Han together again at last. Star Wars fans dreamed of that moment, some for decades. It did not disappoint. It thrilled the way movies need to do a lot more often.

The new additions brought their own separate thrills. Tough and remarkable Rey, flawed hero Finn, dashing pilot Poe, and of course adorable droid BB8, all bring out memories of what has come before, even as they blaze new trails that belong to them. Kylo Ren is an admirable foe, bristling with his bitter darkside darkness, yet carrying the vulnerability of a struggling child.

Action is actionier due to 21st century FX, but the core of Star Wars tradition runs through The Force Awakens right down to Han’s shocking apparent death. Apparent? Of course. I have little doubt and lots of hope that the tradition of dead is not as dead as we think will continue throughout the new incarnation of the beloved series.

There’s an unspoken extra bit to the title…Star Wars: The Force Awakens A Newer Hope. This is the kind of storytelling that instantly becomes the stuff of legend, even as it continues the legend at its foundation. It brings a ray of light into the endless parade of franchise reboots and movie remakes. Most importantly of all, it is the Star Wars we love moved into the next millennium. How fitting.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer (Official)

This year the Nicholl early entry deadline loomed on my personal horizon, daring me to hit it in time. With so much going on in my nonwriting life, as my mom’s health started to decline at a rapid rate, I was afraid I’d miss all the deadlines entirely.

So of course I took advantage of an unusually quiet night to make sure I got my requisite three entries in and confirmed well before the early deadline. That turned out to be just ahead of the point where we reached real crises mode, so it worked out the best it could have.

I’m still happy to be a part of the Nicholl experience. The waiting. The fun of reading the anonymous reader comments on their Facebook, imagining too many of them could be about my scripts. The waiting. The breathless anticipation of announcement season. Um, did I mention the waiting?

There’s also the wishing I’d had a new script ready to go in time. Maybe next year.

I think I have too much on my mind this time to be as devoted a waiter, wisher, and maybe–er as I usually am. That could be a good thing, because all of those other things come with an extra dose of stress I don’t need right now. Anticipation a little less coated in stress is a welcome bright spot.

Three dramas.

Three virtually hole punched dreams, bound with two shiny imaginary brads, all PDFed and waiting for their closeup…scrutiny.

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