Moral Decision Making

Kennedy High. One time, I threw a frisbee out of one of the third story windows. I also used to jump off this handrail into those bushes. It was funny, because it looked like I was going to die, and then I'd completely disappear into the hedge. Miraculously, I never got hurt doing that.

The best class I ever had was at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, WA. It was called Moral Decision Making. Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? Sounds opposite of exciting. It sounds excruciating. It probably would have been, had the class been in the hands of a less capable teacher. As it was, Moral Decision Making (I & II) was taught by Mr. Brian McCluskey.

He was not my favorite teacher. That was Mrs. Giles, my 7th grade science teacher. She taught me a tremendous amount, gave me much needed love and affirmation, and exuded joy. But as much as I enjoyed Mrs. Giles, no teacher made a bigger impact on me than Mr. McCluskey. In fact, I’d venture to say no one impacted me more, save my parents. It’s a big claim, I know, but here’s why I make it – Mr. McCluskey taught me how to think.

On day one, Mr. McCluskey taught us about something he called the “Pyramid of Opinions.” The idea being that there is one best opinion. For example, let’s say people are arguing about how the government should handle a problem. There will be a best opinion out of the group, never multiple best opinions. In other words, screw relativism. It may not always be easy to discern which is the best idea, but there is a best one out there. It was our job, in Moral Decision Making, to hash out who had the best opinion.

A typical day would begin with Mr. McCluskey solemnly handing out a sheet to each student. On each sheet was a detailed scenario describing a thorny ethical problem. Frequently, they were real life cases. We’d read in silence and then make notes. Over the year, we covered just about every controversial topic you can think of. Abortion, drugs, death penalty, euthanasia, you name it. After making our notes, Mr. McCluskey would make opening remarks, then he’d tell us where the Catholic Church stood on the issue and where he stood on the issue – because those were not always the same stance. His willingness to share his own unorthodox views (although to be fair, he was no radical by any stretch) set a tone of freedom of speech and the students exercised it – with vigor. After Mr. McCluskey laid out his opinion, he’d open up the topic for discussion.

To this day, that classroom remains the pinnacle of intellectual rigor and integrity in my life experience. On the one hand, it’s a sad thought – a bunch of high school sophomores expressing themselves with greater dignity and honesty than any group of people in my adult life. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if most everyone goes through life having never experienced anything like it. It was a tough, pull-no-punches sort of environment, yet unfailingly respectful. We were passionate, but not personal. Confident in our own take, yet willing to listen. If only all the world could be like Mr. McCluskey’s classroom.

On a personal level, I wasn’t a favorite student of Mr. McCluskey’s. I like to fight. Back then, I liked to fight even more, and I was born with innate certitude about my own righteousness. It wasn’t often that I crossed a line in that room, given the precision with which he governed the space, but sometimes my natural aggression got the better of me. Toward the end of the semester, we held debates in lieu final exams. We were randomly assigned a position by drawing a piece of paper out of a basket. No matter what your own beliefs, you had to argue the side you drew. So, you might be fervently anti-drugs because your dad OD’d, but if you drew full legalization, you were arguing full legalization.

I happened to draw pro-life in the abortion debate, which was more than fine by me. The person opposing me happened to be pro-choice. Our debate was a feisty one. At the end, we fielded questions from the students. One girl questioned me, and within the context of her question she shared the fact that she wished her mother had aborted her, instead of giving her up for adoption. She was, in essence, sharing a suicidal frame of mind. My response, delivered none too kindly: “Everybody has a burden to bear.”

Mr. McCluskey held me after class and said, “Don’t you think you were too hard on her?” I said, “No,” and just left.

Obviously, I am not sharing this story because it makes me look good. The point is that it is a weakness of mine. I can be cold and hard. My feeling can too easily drift toward, “Life is tough. Be tougher.” Up until Mr. McCluskey came along, I didn’t question this inclination toward hardness. It’s just the way I was and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.

But there was another semester waiting for me in Moral Decision Making II. It was pretty much just like the first one. There was no dramatic turning point, no sudden realization, but over time who Mr. McCluskey was as a human being made an impression. From him I learned that compassion is a greater form of strength than declaring one’s righteousness. I learned that people from opposing viewpoints still had much to teach me. I learned that quiet confidence is the best position to argue from and that sometimes, we are not called to argue at all, but just to love and accept and be still. He became my role model, the one I still look to today. I frequently fall short of the standard he set, but I never stop trying to reach it.

The spirit of intellectual integrity that pervaded Kennedy Catholic High School remains the high watermark in my life experience. The teachers there did not operate from the defensive crouch that I’ve seen in many churches since. Instead, there was a bright, shining confidence about the way we celebrated our faith, and that spirit allowed us to embrace the world. I believe Kennedy in the mid-90’s would have pleased Pope Francis greatly, because it was with that sort of joy and courage that the school operated.

The summer following my semester of Moral Decision Making II, Mr. McCluskey found out he had cancer. He passed away in 1996, leaving behind a wife and four kids. He was only 38 years old. I was extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to be taught by him. It’s hard to imagine what my worldview would be like now, without his influence.

***

“Where your treasure is, your heart will be there also.” – Matthew 6:21

Yesterday, I finally got paid. In case you’ve been playing along at home, yes, it took them four months to pay me. But in any case, I now have the check in hand. The very best thing about being single with my own money is that I can do whatever it is I want to with it. So, the first check I am going to write will be to St. Anthony’s of Padua Catholic School in Greenville, SC. The teachers there don’t make much. They’re there because they love to teach. That’s how it was at Kennedy, too. Mr. McCluskey could have made more in a public school. But Catholic Moral Decision Making isn’t a class they offer and he had a calling. It makes me happy to think I can help support teachers like him. It’s the least I can do, considering all he did for me.

Of Shibui, God and Grace

I think this picture is cool looking, so I am including it.

This year has been full of surprises. Except I don’t like that word. At least, not for these purposes. Surprise is great for a party you weren’t expecting. This is something else.

Mr. Ollis taught production for filmic writers. He was the sort of teacher who grew on you over time. Freshman year I didn’t much care for him, by the time I graduated I loved the man. He had a Japanese word he adored and used whenever applicable – shibui. If a student managed to throw a clever twist into their short film Mr. Ollis would light up, smile, and say, “Shibui.” Whether it took the story to a dark place or provided a happy ending, Mr. Ollis loved a twist.

Whenever people have asked me how I’m doing over the course of 2013, I’ve responded with Dickens’ line from The Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I don’t like Dickens, but that line works as a convenient shorthand. The truth is, however, 2013 hasn’t been the worst, even when it was really bad.

The worst times of my life have been the inordinately long stretches of nothing.

Nothing is harder to take than the nothing. By the nothing I mean, the feeling that things aren’t right, but that they aren’t going to change, either. The feeling of stasis. Entrapment. Sameness. And not good sameness, either, but problematic sameness. Unsatisfying job, unsatisfying marriage, unsatisfying life. In some ways, I was a champ at finding happiness despite the nothing. It’s easy for me to find joy in the little things. But in many other ways, I wasn’t a champ at all. The nothing ground me down.

It felt like I was swimming upstream. Life was an unending effort to swim upstream. To figure out how to work with other humans at a job (NOT MY STRONG SUIT), to figure out how to make my husband happy (SPOILER ALERT: DIDN’T SUCCEED), to figure out how to save every person and animal I came across (BAD IDEA), and most importantly, trying to figure out how to become perfect. I believed that if I could please God in everything I said and did and thought, then God would help me with my construction project. I was trying to build a perfect life and I knew exactly what the thing should look like, you guys. I believed if I just forced it hard enough it would all come together. SO MUCH FORCING. Also, worrying, plotting, and fretting, because when I wasn’t busy physically doing something I got brownie points for thinking about it. SO MUCH THINKING.  And I believe He did help me – by tearing the whole thing apart.

When T2 came out, I rented it as soon as I could and watched it 16 times over one long weekend. (Apparently, I didn’t have a lot going on in 1991.) One of my favorite lines (both because I found it humorously melodramatic and because it’s genuinely evocative) was, “The future, always so clear to me, has become like a black highway at night.” That line pops into my head a lot. Sometimes just because I’m on an unfamiliar black highway at night.

That’s what my life is like right now.

I have no clue whatsoever what the future is going to look like. I have a decent idea of January. February, sure, kinda. March? Roll the dice. I could be in LA, NY, here, there, everywhere. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, only I’m choosing a bunch of adventures concurrently. After a whole bunch of shibui twists and turns, my whole life has become one giant twist, one I can’t predict. And it’s so, so, so great. So great. It brings me much peace and happiness and contentment, to know that I don’t know.

Here’s the thing – five years ago I would never have guessed that this life would suit me so well. In a life ruled by anxiety, one of the comforts I had was familiarity, routine, sameness. The same sameness that hung around my neck like a dead weight felt like safety to me. The idea of being uprooted filled me with dread. Stephen-King-at-his-best level dread.

Here’s the other thing – after everything imploded, I stopped striving for perfection and just sorta checked out. I played comedy a lot and played hanging out with my friends and played travel around the country. After I’d pretty much given up hope that anything would come of my book, I decided to move to LA and spent September being very self-indulgently sad (hence September became known as Drunktember).  But all that playing and being selfish did do something very productive indeed – it shook loose the death grip I had on my life and gave God some room to breathe. On Drunktember 30th, I got a call from an agent. Shibui. Such is the nature of grace. Grace, the freely given and unmerited favor of God. Unmerited is the key word there. I didn’t do anything to deserve this.

After so much time swimming upstream because I thought my life depended on it, I found my real life once I relaxed, let go and allowed the current to take me. I have no idea where this river is going, but I’m more than okay with that. I was terrible captain. God does a way better job at it than I ever did.

This is already long, but I want to share a quick story. One of my favorite people in the whole wide world is Hilary Gebhard Ellis. I will never forget where I was (Gray Court, SC) when she called to tell me that she and Andrew were getting a divorce. It felt like my insides melted out of me. It struck me as so incredibly wrong, because in my humble opinion, they had one of the most magnificent love stories I’d ever heard. Which is why this Facebook status update remains my favorite Facebook status update of all time:

Happy birthday Andrew Ellis, my Halloween baby, ex husband, baby daddy and current boyfriend. Proof that the universe gets what the universe wants, despite our feeble attempts to do things otherwise.

An Awesome Talent Scout of Awesomeness

Some of the people I love.

So, I went a’hobo’ing across this great country of ours. Learned some things. Middle America – it’s not doing well, guys. Like, at all. On the plus side, I saw a vast flock of grackles descend upon a harvested corn field in Iowa on a dark gray afternoon. It was in October and it was the most Octobery thing I’ve ever seen. I could go on about the sights. I could also go on about how lovely it is to live without any sort of plan and let serendipity be your guide. I could go on about how nice it is to be alone in the middle of Utah without another soul for miles. Maybe at some point I’ll back track and talk about those things, but for right now I want to talk about the one thing I am really proud of.

My friends.

I’ve had a nice success recently (a book of mine sold) and along with a nice success comes nice compliments. For example, “You’re a really good writer!” I hear that and I think, “Well, I was born with a talent for visual arts that I never fully developed, but the pictures never stopped coming, so I wrote stories around those pictures instead. Language is H-A-R-D for me and it was a process of practice and practice and more practice until I found a way to communicate images by using words. Even so, practicing with words was still easier than practicing with paints, so I took that path of least resistance.” So, “You’re a really good writer!” is nice to hear, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Here’s what I am really good at.

I am really good at finding people.

Not in a Dog the Bounty Hunter way, but a “I see them when they’re standing in plain sight” sort of way. I am a talent scout for awesomeness, awesomeness I collect and keep, like so many shiny things in my nest.

I drove from South Carolina to Kentucky to Illinois to Wisconsin back to Illinois to Colorado to Nevada to Los Angeles. Then I stayed in LA for several weeks, before going to Arizona then finally returning to South Carolina. At every point in my journey I got to spend time with people who are not just nice or kinda fun, but hugely fascinating people. People who are big and bright and shiny and amazing. People who make me laugh, people who are willing to be honest with me, people who are smart and challenging and tough. People who are adventurous and willing to be ridiculous and strong enough to be vulnerable.

If I’ve done anything good in this life, it can be found in the friendships I’ve made with an assortment of extraordinary people.  (I’m friends with my family, too, btw. “Friendship” is a big umbrella.)

Here’s the thing about extraordinary people. They are not always easy. Sometimes they are. Sometimes extraordinary and laid back go together. More often they don’t. But I love people who keep their sharp edges, who retain their quirks and their oddness. People who have such a strong sense of self that they don’t let this world dull them. They keep their shape, despite all the hard times they go through, because Lord knows – we all suffer. We all go through hard times.

Not all of my friends think as highly of themselves as they should. Here’s the thing on that – I am right and they are wrong. I am a really, really good talent scout, you guys. When it comes to awesome people, I am always right. So, if you’re a friend of mine, know that you are awesome. Know that you are talented and amazing and capable of anything you set your mind to. Know that I believe in you and that I want you to live a life as big and as beautiful and as glorious as you are. We only get one time around on this little blue globe. So be brave. Be you.

Love you guys.

The Butterfly Effect & Ben LeRoy

It started, as everything always does, with Janet Reid.

Because I followed Janet on her blog and on the QueryShark and the assorted what-have-you, I became savvy to the existence of Barbara Poelle. Because of Barbara Poelle, I learned about K-9 attacks as birthday presents, talking to your clothes, and the Hey Dead Guy blog. Because of the Hey Dead Guy blog, I discovered Ben LeRoy.

I read Ben’s blog post, “Five Reasons I Hate Your Protagonist” and was hooked. You gotta love direct, honest and knowledgeable. At the time, I was working on my rough draft of RUTHLESS and knew my antagonist was a hollow shell. I requested a blog post on villains in the comment section. Ben reported back he was working on it.

The next week, Ben posted Five Things About Bad Guys that Make Me Want to Punch their Creators in the Face. I read the title and thought, CLEARLY, THIS IS THE GUY I NEED TO HELP ME. Just as I became bent on the idea of figuring out a way to get advice from Ben LeRoy, an opportunity presented itself with this post. If I donated $250 to a very good cause, namely, funding jaw surgery for the beloved Kate Ogden, I could get a 50 page critique of my manuscript.

Problem was, I didn’t have $250. What I did have were a bunch of Transformers in my attic. It may sound like a trivial thing, selling one’s toys on eBay. It wasn’t. I am a sentimentalist. It hurt. To a stupid degree, actually. But sometimes sacrifices need to be made. I wanted that critique, and it would be mine – oh yes, it would be mine. And so it was.

This guy.

Ben wrote about this story last week. I know I’ve linked the holy heck out of this blog post, but if you open any of the links, that’s the one you should go to. In that story, Ben graciously takes responsibility for the huge lapse in time between my donation and the actual critique. The truth is, that was a two-way street. Just as Ben’s life got busy, I entered the hardcore stretch of Marriage Destruction University. When I surfaced from my trials and tribulations, he was able to give the book a read. During this time, I continued to comment on the Dead Guy blog. At one point, after Ben had been talking about adventures, I was all, “If you ever want to do stand-up comedy, I can show you the ropes because I know all about that stuff, because I’m totally an expert.”

At the end of January 2013, we spoke on the phone and I got some UH-MAY-ZING notes out of the conversation that changed the shape of the novel. At the end of the talk, Ben was like, “Oh hey, so, the stand-up thing, I am going to be in the South April 8th and we should do that! Okay cool, see you then!” To that I said, “Uh-oh.” I’d kinda over exaggerated my stand-up experience, you guys. By a lot. I resolved to do every single open mic available to me prior to April 8th so that by the time Ben arrived, I wouldn’t look like an idiot.

In February, I went to my friend Cody’s birthday party. It was my first time hanging out with comics and it turned into a grand revelation. I HAD FOUND MY PEOPLE AND IT WAS AMAZING. Ben’s trip wound up taking him down state instead of upstate and he missed the open mic. But by that point comedy had become a self-perpetuating machine. Since then, I’ve performed in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Washington State, and soon enough I’ll start doing some shows in California. I’ve met a ton of awesome comics, even the sort of folks you see on the TV. I do love me some stand-up. The moral of the story? Go ahead and tell white lies, kids – maybe they’ll throw you into hot water and you’ll have to learn how to swim.

When not on stage, I was at home implementing Ben’s notes, as well as another idea sparked by his comments. Those were hard changes to make. It’s like Hemingway says. To paraphrase – Writing is easy. All you have to do is open up a vein and bleed. And bleed I did, my friends. Bleed I did.

Time passed. Here and again I exchanged a message with Ben. A couple of months ago, I decided to embark on a circuitous cross-country trip. I’d never been to Chicago before and then the trip wound up including Madison, WI. As it turned out, just a couple of days after Simon & Schuster bought RUTHLESS, I found myself meeting Ben for the first time. He almost high-fived my hand off when I told him the news. It was pretty cool.

Long story short, there are few individuals I’ve spent so little face-to-face time with who have had more of an impact on my life. From the notes on RUTHLESS that made all the difference to serendipitously inspiring my stand-up comedy, I owe a lot to Ben LeRoy. He’s one of the good ones, you guys.

RUTHLESS

Peter Exline would tell me not to bury the lede, so I won’t.

I sold a book, you guys.

It’s a big deal. Simon Pulse, an imprint at Simon & Schuster, bought it. You’re going to be able to buy it at Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore. You WILL buy it, right?  Right?!? Of course you will.

Selling your first book is a big deal for every writer. Here’s why it’s a big deal for me.

I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some sort. By 15, I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter. By 17, I knew I wanted to go to USC Film School. It’s the best in the country and the only one with an undergraduate screenwriting program. I didn’t meet the minimum GPA and SAT requirements, which made it all the sweeter when I made the cut.

USC Filmic Writers '99

There weren’t many of us. I think we started with 22 or 24. Either way, people started dropping like flies. The rate of attrition those first two years was pretty staggering and most of the quitters were women. By the time we graduated, there were only five women left. It was survival of the fittest, man. And you know what? I was totally okay with that.

Quick story. We had this awesome production-for-writers class with a teacher named Mr. Ollis. One week, a lazy classmate phoned it in yet again. My friend, Aaron Schimberg, raised his hand. “How long was that?” he asked. The classmate responded, “Three minutes and twenty-three seconds.” Aaron said, “It was three minutes and twenty-three seconds too long.” Ah, man, I’m laughing all over again. Rhino skin. It was required.

After graduation, I didn’t find success. I almost wrote “struggled” – but that’s the wrong word. I didn’t struggle. I was something too close to complacent and entitled. I wasn’t full-on complacent and entitled, but I was complacent and entitled adjacent. I wrote screenplays, but I didn’t know how to network, didn’t know how to get them in front of people. I found that part difficult, so I avoided it. As it turns out, you can’t sell anything if nobody is reading it. Eventually, I moved to South Carolina, to my husband’s hometown.

Many members of the class of ’99 went on to have incredible success. Josh Schwartz made the O.C., Chuck, Gossip Girl and a bunch of other shows. James Vanderbilt wrote The Amazing Spider-Man and a bunch of other big action movies. Ron Anderson wrote features for Disney and Gustin Nash wrote smart indies like Charlie Bartlett and Mikey Ireland produced cool horror films like Orphan and I got a job cutting trails through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But it wasn’t just cutting trails. I worked for a crazy lady who owned pigs and I worked for a crazy lady who owned Arabian horses and I worked for my parents, who aren’t crazy, but unfortunately I’m not crazy about accounting – and that’s the family business. For awhile I worked in marketing, but then the economy fell out. My husband suggested I stay home and write. He’d gotten a job that paid the bills, so I got focus on what I do best. Which was, in many ways, amazing and wonderful. But it was also a strain, as the years stretched on.

Last November, almost a year ago now, I called my USC Film School sister Ana-Lisa Siemsen to tell her my husband had asked for a divorce. Ana didn’t get sad or mad. Because Ana knows who and what I am, she said in a dead-ruthless intonation, “Girlfriend could use a book-movie deal about now.”

She had cut straight to the heart of the matter.

By the time I talked to Ana, the idea that I would ever sell anything felt as remote as the South Pole. It had been a long, long fourteen years of wandering in the wilderness. It sounds dramatic, but the truth is, I no longer experienced hope. For me, hope became an intellectual choice, a decision that I acted upon. But it was not something that I experienced. I did not feel hopeful. Not about anything.

This is not to say I was miserable. I had a great time performing stand-up comedy, enjoyed my friends and family, went on long walks with my dogs. But I lived wholly in the present. I did not dream about the future.

I kept writing, because writers write. One friend, Debbie Vaughn, read my third novel early on and her enthusiasm kept me going. A second friend, Danielle Stinson, read it halfway through, and her enthusiasm kept me going. A third friend, Tom Emmons, read the final draft, and his enthusiasm gave me the impetus to query agents. Through it all, my mom remained perfectly confident that things would turnaround for me. During this time I learned the importance of having cheerleaders in your corner. They are invaluable.

Mandy Hubbard was one of a handful of agents I queried. In addition to her obvious attributes, we had similar childhoods – showing horses in the Enumclaw area, growing up with the specter of the Green River Killer, living with 300 days of rain a year. I felt like she’d get me.

She did get me.

A week after she offered representation, we went out on sub. Five days later, on a Friday, Simon Pulse offered. The following Monday, we officially went with Annette Pollert at Simon & Schuster. In case anybody missed the obvious, Mandy Hubbard is made out of magic. MAGIC, I TELL YOU.

Last January, I went to LA for a visit. A bunch of us from the class of ’99 got together at the Burbank Hooters. Why? Because the Burbank Hooters is inherently funny and we are nothing if not a bunch of comedians. We talked for hours. I hadn’t seen them in ten years. It felt like no time had passed. Two months ago, at the height of my hopelessness, I decided to go back to LA. I stuck with my plan, which meant the day after Mandy and I decided to go with Simon & Schuster, I got on the road and headed west. Right now I am in a coffee shop in Burbank. Nash is about to come over so we can write together. While I’m waiting on notes from my editor on RUTHLESS, I’m revising another novel.

In the end, I am glad I wandered for as long as I did in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively. I learned how to work hard and I learned to love working. I’d always been a survivor, but I learned that in order to thrive I needed to get over myself. Life is too short to hold onto security blankets. Most importantly for the purposes of this post, had I not lived through all that I did, I would never have met Ruth Carver. I can’t wait for all of you to meet her, too.