What WAS It?

I was born in San Francisco, CA at the tail end of the sixties, and when we moved out of the city proper, my parents bought a house in Pacifica, straight up a hill. I would have been approximately two at the time of the move, and we lived there for five years. I have no recollection of how old I was at the time of this incident, but I was probably five or six.

The house was small, but it had a huge backyard (which also went uphill) full of a variety of fruit trees. It also had a wooden privacy fence around the property, and if you climbed to the back corner of our hill and climbed halfway up the fence on the southwest side, you could see the ocean at the bottom of the hill on a clear day. I used to do that a lot, but one day, right at twilight, I happened to look up the hill instead of down.

At the crown of the hill above the neighborhood was a park surrounded by pine woods. It had meager playground equipment (swings, maybe a slide) but it had long ago turned into a place you did not take your children. It was known to be a spot favored by criminals and drug users, and in the wild and wooly sixties, you just didn’t go up there at night if you wanted to be alive the next day.

When I looked up toward the park, my eye caught a flash of something white. Having been born with an overactive imagination, I instantly thought it was a ghost. The memory is both dim and frustratingly clear at the same time, and it is seen now through the funhouse mirror of childhood perceptions, which clears up nothing. The only thing I am sure of is that it looked like a white sheet floating horizontally through the air and moving into the trees, and the sheet had a vague human shape to it. To a child, a human-shaped sheet is a ghost – I saw them every Halloween, so I knew that was what it was at the time. Normally, (I was a weird kid) seeing a ghost would have delighted me; but something about this incident terrified me. I jumped down off of the fence and ran madly down the hill and into the house to tell my mother.

I was frantic, and I guess she was just trying to calm me down, but she told me there must be people up there putting on a play, and there was a ghost character in the play, and it was someone dressed in a sheet. I don’t think I ever believed that, even then.

I never saw it again, but I’ve never forgotten the memory of the sight of it, either. As an adult who ended up a fan of true crime books, I’ve since come up with a macabre theory. In studying serial killers who were in operation in that area at the time, I discovered two case histories of killers which mentioned Pacifica as a dumping ground for their victims. Perhaps what I saw was a body wrapped in a white sheet that wasn’t floating, but was being carried by a man wearing dark clothing so that he was not visible at that distance. This perhaps sounds far-fetched, but further research dug up the fact that bodies had been found in that park more than once; one of them had even been stuffed into an old steamer trunk that had been dumped up there with some other garbage.

Or maybe it really was a ghost? I’ll never know, of course. What it left me with was something I am (perhaps weirdly) grateful for: a macabre sense of wonder that there truly are creepy things in the world, and for a kid (and adult) like me, that is a marvelous thing.

Ghostly Encounters – TV Show

Saved from endlessly watching the latest hurricane on the Weather Channel, along comes “Ghostly Encounters” on the Biography channel. I love this show. Not much spooks me anymore, but so far, this show has managed to give me a good “creep” twice. Relieved that something can still spook me, I watch the program with delight whenever I catch it (or later on, as I have it recording on DVR).

One of the best stories was a tale told by a Greek woman about her experiences as a young person in Greece. Greek legend says that when an evil person dies, their soul will stick around for a bit if something is unfinished in their life, or if there is some revenge they didn’t get while living, etc. A woman in the town who was alleged to be a practicioner of dark magic died of a disease (cancer, I think) but she was still angry about the man she’d wanted to marry having married someone else. The man in question’s daughter (the lady telling the tale) went to the water pump after dark to get water for the family, and she saw an apparition coming at her slowly through the brush around the pump. She said it looked like a dark moving lump, and made weird sounds, seeming to be crawling laboriously. Then it paused and what turned out to be its head lifted to look up and hiss at her. The girl dropped her water pitcher, frozen with horror a moment, before turning to flee back home. As the camera returns to the storyteller, she explained that the fear and horror had eminated from the apparition, and she had had no doubt that it intended malice toward her if it could have touched her. When she said the thing’s face resembled the woman who had died, I felt the hair stand up on my arms. Good stuff!

Hurricane Gustav Cometh…

After trying all week to ignore endless emails of warnings or updates on Tropical Storm Gustav (for reasons why, read the post “Why the Media and the Government Tick Me Off During Hurricane Season”), I got a call today from my aunt in Michigan telling me that it was no longer a tropical storm – it was a catagory 4 hurricane. Lovely.

Now the question is: do we stay or do we go? After the Hurrican Rita evacuation, I want nothing to do with “going”. Just seeing people from New Orleans on the news, stuck in traffic with dwindling gas options, makes me want to twitch. The proverbial scheisse is supposed to hit the fan (the exact spot yet to be determined) on Monday night/Tuesday morning. If it’s really going to hit near us, we can go where we went for Rita, to our friend Susan’s house, animals and all. Safety first, yeah, yeah, yeah. I can’t help feeling outraged (at the weather? Yeah, it’s not sensible, but there it is) but mostly at the media. They can’t wait to have hundred die so their ratings will go up, and they seem willing to scare people into risking their lives for nothing over and over again. It makes me a bit reluctant to make a decision to leave my home, to trust their judgment on the danger factor (when they are the only input you hear, and you know they can’t wait for a real disaster), etc. *Sigh* I’ll comment/update later on this as it develops. At least this time, I’ve had some practice with roadway disasters.

Update: We stayed put, as Gustav never came this way. I hope Florida fares okay too, and Louisiana as well. These storms could go away and stay there, I don’t think anyone would mind.

From DVR to DVD-R … conquered, sort of.

I’m sort of a late-bloomer with the whole DVR thing, but I’m getting there. The actual recording process is conquered, but now I’ve gotten a VCR/DVD player that will burn DVDs (early birthday present) and I’m learning how to take the DVR shows and put them onto discs. Heck, just setting up the machine and making it work with my whole entertainment system, cable, etc was a feat in itself. I think I do have it all sussed out, I’ve even discovered how to take the commercials out (I don’t have TIVO) so all I have to do now is finish up a disc, finalize it, and then see if it all worked right by moving it to another machine and seeing if it will play.

The only thing I wish is that you could “grab” certain things in the DVR list of recordings and move them over to burn onto the disc like you do on a computer without having to sit through all the stuff to put it on a disc. If it will do that, I haven’t found it yet. As usual, the “instructions” are more lacking than helpful. Mostly, I jump in, fly blind, and push buttons until I figure out what works!

Why the Media and the Government Tick Me Off During Hurricane Season… Part 3


My father left Susan and Mark’s house on Sunday morning to check on our town and homes. After he left, we lost another of our cats. Que, another oldster, hadn’t been able to survive the punishment of the traffic gridlock. His health failed over the next days before he died. But we only lost two, and others lost much more, including human family members, so we counted our blessings.



My mother and I stayed with them until Monday night, but left the barn cats there, as well as the horses. We brought the dog and the house cats home first. The neighborhood had some trees knocked down, but we only had to spend one night without power in San Leon.



After clearing some of the tree damage in order to be able to drive the trailer back to the barn, (a week later) my mother and I returned for the barn cats on the following Monday night. They all came running to me when they heard my voice at the rabbit cages. They weren’t thrilled about the kennel cages again, but most went in without a fuss, including the tomcats. One or two of the rescue Siamese cats were a pain, and had to be noosed again to be caught. Without the heat or the traffic, they all endured the two to three hour trip much more easily. My sister Karen drove up from her Florida trip at the moment when we were unloading barn cats, so we all unloaded and got them all out and free again. Karen and I returned to Susan’s to bring the horses home on that Wednesday night.


I’m so grateful our neighborhood was undamaged, and the other animals and all the people were fine and safe, but I’ve never wanted to be in a traffic jam again. The last time I got into one, I started to get anxious. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anyone? I know I don’t have driving phobia for real, but traffic jams still make me uncomfortable, and my old love of long road trips has evaporated.



With my horrid saga in mind, now you know why I get angry when the media starts trying to scare us into running from hurricanes (most of which are still tropical storms nowhere near us when they start their crap up). When Tropical Storm Edouard was “bearing down upon us” (that’s how the news media put it) everyone just grumbled and went about their business. My family, friends, and I actually went out to lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant that day for a “It’s not a dang Hurricane” party.



Rita was supposed to be a catagory 5, or so the media hyped it. It got downgraded to a catagory 3 by the time it hit. The city officials were supposed to have fuel trucks along the evacuation route – I never saw even one. Their contraflow plan was a miserable failure. On Saturday, September 24th, the news started reporting that the city officials had a scheduled plan for when people could return home, by regions. No one paid attention to them. They had failed us – why should we obey them now?



These days, the city officials have a new plan, which would have saved a lot of lives if it had been in place for Rita. The plan is that those who live within three miles of the water is to evacuate first. Evacuation by regions according to danger, and no one in Houston proper or above should leave at all unless a catagory 5 is imminent on our doorstep. It remains to be seen if this will work, or if people who have been terrified by the media will listen to that reasonable plan at all.



For me and mine, it would have to be seriously impending danger to get us to leave just to end up in traffic gridlock again, and I know many others feel the same. The problem is, will people take a real threat seriously, after the media has cried “wolf” so often? I hope we never have to find out.




Why the Media and the Government Tick Me Off During Hurricane Season… Part 2


In the morning, one of cats was really bad off, a hand-raised favorite named Numa. Afraid for him, I took him out of the trailer and put him in my car, loose. He lapped up more water and then slunk under the driver’s seat for most of the day.



For a while, we thought the next day might be better, but morning proved different. The highway was just as clogged as when we left it. We got ready to go and I felt a horror of getting into that gridlock again. Susan and I texted more, keeping track of where we were. I had passed up a shot at getting on the Beltway the day before, and agonized over it the next day. Would it have been better? (We found out later it wouldn’t have been).



The radio stations pretty much stopped playing music. They were airing feeds from television stations, monitoring the traffic jam, and airing bits of city authorities discussing how to deal with the traffic. Everyone was scared that we’d still be on the highway when the hurricane hit. I was supposed to be a category 5 when it hit – at least that was what the media kept saying, and they sounded eager for it, too. I’ve always believed some of them (if not all) love terrible news just because it boosts ratings. You can see it in the sparkle in their eye when they report about how many deaths there were on a given day.



Besides telling us all to “be patient, we know you’re frustrated” (a DJ and city authority mantra I grew to feel quite violent about) the radio stations started talking about the contraflow (opening up south-bound I-45 as another north-bound – this was why 59 was worse – they never got this option for reasons I never understood). We all clung to this idea as our saving grace, but then the hours kept going by. I had to use the cell phones often through the trip to warn my parents about stalled vehicles in our lane, or which lane to move to next to get back together when we got separated. Without the phones, it could have gotten seriously ugly. I hugged the stuffings out of Wolfram for the loan of his phone as soon as I could.



At one point, the radio finally said they were opening the contraflow. That was at Noon. I was staring at the Louetta Road sign for over an hour at the time, growling at the idiots on the overpass who had stopped their cars to take photos and video of us in our misery. If I could have reached any of them, they’d have been pulped. I’m normally a nice person (in spite of the horror stuff I like to write) but the stress was getting to me. The authorities kept closing off exits for fifty exits at a stretch, and with the gridlock traffic, we couldn’t move off to give the cats water. So they were stuck in a trailer that wasn’t moving much, and the heat was soaring over ninety degrees. I heard later the heat index was a hundred-something. We all thought we’d be able to use the contraflow soon. I called the parents and made our plan: we wouldn’t try to get over to the south-bound side. It was too hard for my mother to get through with the trailer, with no one letting her into a lane (except the 18 wheelers, and we always helped them change lanes, too). We would stay on the side we were already on and when many others moved over, our side would clear up.



That was the plan, but the city authorities screwed it up. They weren’t making an opening for people to get on the south-bound side untill FM1488 (a road that lives in infamy in my mind). When I, at Louetta, realized how far we had to go yet, it was pretty hard not to panic. Susan had heard the news too. She texted me and let me know she had IV fluids ready for the cats when we arrived, and we both knew they would need it. (Susan is a veterinary technician in college to be vet). I was already scared that some of them could be dead. I kept trying to get Numa to come out, afraid he might be too sick to make it, but he just laid under the seat and wouldn’t respond to me.



I started having my nervous breakdown when FM1488 came and went. It was early evening again, Thursday, September 22nd, but daylight savings time still had us all baking in the sun. The promised relief of the contraflow was a broken promise. For a time, we started to see people driving north over on the south-bound side, and they were going over eighty miles per hour, too. But there seemed to be no way to get on it, for anyone. I had the horrible feeling that the cats were in deep trouble, and I started to cry. Numa actually chose that moment to crawl out and into my lap. I think he knew I needed him to be okay. He tucked his face in the elbow of the arm I was holding him with, and stayed there. 



My father called me and was pretty startled to find me crying, and starting to freak out. He took charge beautifully. This man had been only a few months past an emergency surgery he nearly didn’t live through, and the hardships of the gridlock and heat hadn’t been easy on him. But he took me in hand (via phone) and talked me into leaving the highway again. He had to convince me, too. I was clinging to the idea that relief could be nearby if we kept going, but losing hope and any ability to deal at all at the same time. He took the lead spot and got us out at a road called ‘242’. We went under the highway and found a boarded up Wal-Mart that many others were escaping to. We got circled up and stopped. I set Numa on the driver’s seat and gave him more water. 



Then we had to get the trailer cats some water. I opened up the trailer and was so relieved to hear meowing voices. I called in among them (it was a tight and non-straight fit) and started passing them water with my parents. My mother went and asked a nice guy nearby to help lift the two heavy dog cages down so I could get to the rest of the cats, too. We’d put them in there, but it was too much for any of us to deal with then. Many of the cats were literally near death from dehydration and heat. Then I saw Pouncy.



Pouncy was old, and had been sick before we started. She was a favorite who always asked to be petted if someone was holding the gate open at the homestead for a car to drive through. She was in a rabbit cage with three other cats (we had many more cats than cages), and she wasn’t moving. I guess I already knew she was gone, but in stressed out panic, you don’t want to see it. I got to her cage, opened it, and found she was stiff. I started to sob, and pulled her into a hug. She was a mess, and so was I after that, but I just didn’t care. My mother coaxed me out, and I heard my father’s baffled whisper, “I didn’t know she ever cried.” (I’ve got a family rep for not doing so, pretty much ever; I’ve been “the tough one”). They got me out of the trailer, and my mother took Pouncy, whom I’d wrapped in a towel that was lying on the trailer floor. My father got me into one of the folding chairs from the batch of camping gear packed for “just in case” and brought me a bottle of water.



When I could settle down enough to think, I almost felt drunk. It was a strange feeling I don’t ever want to repeat. I looked up at I-45 and knew the rest of the cats would die if we got back into that mess. I tried to call or text Susan. The text finally worked. I sent a message: “Help. On 242. Pouncy died.” When the phones would work again, I called her. She’d been trying to call or text, too, for quite a while. She got hubby Mark on the phone to give me directions through backroads he knew from 242 so we could avoid the highway.



That was when Numa decided he felt better. He started crawling all over me and the car, opened one window (I set the child-proof locks after that), soaped my windshield with wiper fluid (right as I was entering a turn in the road!) and tried to crawl onto my shoulder and be a parrot (something I allow when I’m NOT driving). Periodically, he would perch on a pile of stuff at the back and watch the world around us go by. He eventually settled on a pile of stuff on the passenger side and watched me. It was good to see him feeling better, but I learned my lesson about having a cat loose in a moving car! But we were able to go at a clip of about forty miles per hour on the empty backroads. I was back in the lead because I had the directions in my head, and I’d have driven faster if not for the extreme hills and curves of our route.



Susan probably saved most of the cats’ lives when we got there. She had two helpers from her vet clinic with her, and when we got there, they had set up a M.A.S.H. unit for the cats with IV fluids and everything. I’ve never been so impressed and grateful. Two of my sister’s Siamese rescue cats bit the girls, too. I felt so bad about that, but they dealt with it well. Susan got bit by Bootstrap three times in about as many seconds, on the arm. A helper got bit on her finger knuckle, and the other helper almost got bit. Then Susan decided if those cats were that energetic, they didn’t need the IV. We lost one under another horse trailer on the way out to the chicken coop and rabbit hutches that were to be their refugee homes.  Susan caught that cat again with a vet’s noose and a towel. I was impressed. Feline refreshments and litter boxes were made available, and then the humans were able to relax.



We had brought lots of groceries with us, thanks to my mother’s foresight, and another friend who was out of the hurricane danger area drove down from another city to bring more supplies, as well as a huge drum barrel of water, just in case. I fell asleep on the couch until Friday morning, when they transferred me to the bedroom my parents had been in the night before. I went back to sleep there and didn’t wake until dinner time on Friday night. Mark told me later that my father had asked about waking me, and Mark had told him they should let me sleep it all off. Bless you, Mark! 



Later, I heard that there had been an a lot of deaths on the highways among those still in the evacuation gridlock. One bus exploded on Friday morning, killing everyone, and they were from a part of town that didn’t need to evacuate at all. This was thirty-eight elderly residents and six workers from Brighton Gardens, an assisted living center in Bellaire, a part of Houston. Multiple explosions engulfed the bus in flames after six in the morning. The initial fire was caused by mechanical problems with the bus, and then oxygen tanks on board exploded. The burned-out wreck of the bus blocked the highway, making the twenty mile traffic jam all the worse.



*Continued in Part 3*

Why the Media and the Government Tick Me Off During Hurricane Season… Part 1

The media is guilty of hype and fear mongering. The Government (in this case the city officials of Houston, Texas) is guilty of poor planning, too little too late assistance to evacuees, and no control of the evacuation itself. What am I talking about? The evacuation from Hurricane Rita in late September of 2005.


The Evac was hideous. The radio DJ people kept saying we were “frustrated” in traffic, but it was more akin to torture and abuse, for everyone caught in it. In that two days of traffic horror, I got two hours of sleep, had to be the strong tough person for both of my parents through most of it, and had my first and only nervous breakdown.


We were told to run from Rita, and after all the horrible photos from Katrina, we did it. All at once. And maybe they didn’t think we would, I don’t know. But I know the “Powers That Be” didn’t plan very well (or at all) for how to cope with all of us on the highways of Houston at once. The result was a gridlock traffic jam that killed more people than Rita did, at least in Houston.


My mom and I evacuted my sister’s horses, the house cats and dog on that Tuesday night, September 20th, 2005. It contributed to my lack of sleep in the evac, but I am very glad we did it then. The mare is expensive, and was expensively pregnant at the time, and the gelding was 29 years old! Neither of them would have made it through two days of that hell. Many people stuck in the evac with horses had dead horses when they got to their destinations. Many others lost other pets. After it was all over, I heard horror stories of people trying to remove dead horses from their trailers. Imagine attempting to get the body of an animal you care for, which weighs a thousand pounds, out of a small constrictive space – hopefully in one piece.


On Wednesday, the 21st, we had to toss things that could never be replaced if we lost our homes, into our vehicles, and I had the task of saving our family’s collection of barn cats, many of whom had arrived on their own and stayed, but we’d grown to love them all.


I had the idea of luring the barn cats into the garage with canned food so we could cage them all for the trip. They were all hissing and afraid, and fighting each other. Animals, I believe, know when this sort of crap is brewing, and they were as scared as the people. But it was life and death to catch them, as far as we knew, so I caught them, even though I got lacerated rather badly about three times in the process.


Impending disaster affects people in different ways. My sister was out of town on a business trip to Florida with her boss, so it fell to me to help my parents in the evacuation. I was not prepared for my normally solid, calm parents to behave as they did. My mother, ever practical, was loading the living quarters section of the horse trailer with food (canned goods in a laundry hamper, frozen meat in a cooler) and stocking our cars with “eat on the road” food and bottled water, but she was taking a long time to do it, and we were running out of time. My father was moving about like a zombie, loading up things that we’d be sorry to lose, yes, but not things that should have been saved, especially his collection of radio controlled model airplanes. Such things can be bought and build again. Important papers, photo albums spanning generations, computers, etc. I can see, but paintings and planes should be left behind. My main frustration was that I had caught the cats, and then they were sitting in cages in the sun. I couldn’t load them into the back of the horse trailer until we were ready to roll out of the driveway, and my parents kept loading things like we had days to do it. After moving all of the cages into the shade twice, I had to become the parent. I played drill sargeant and got it all on the road. I didn’t even have time to be amazed that they listened and obeyed without argument when I put on the whip-crack “we have to go NOW” voice.


Three vehicles, one pulling a horse trailer, and the trailer full of 24 barn cats in an assortment of kennels. Quite a zoo, and a zoo that was going to need frequent water stops. We set off at around 2:30pm. The radio was saying if you waited until 6pm, the cops would pick your route for you, and route we were slated to be given was not the way we needed to go to reach our safe haven.


 We got on I-45 (not the worst, as it turned out – that was 59, where my friend Judy was, with another zoo, including her goats!) and the gridlock started as soon as we crawled up a feeder onto the highway. We were headed to Grimes County, to our friends Susan and Mark, where the horses and other pets were already. The drive usually takes two and a half hours. It ended up taking two days.


I had borrowed my friend Wolfram’s cellphone so my mother could have one, and it ended up being a saving grace for us, being able to communicate in the traffic. My friend and his family live in Montrose in Houston, and they weren’t going to evacuate. If more people in Houston, Conroe, The Woodlands, and others had decided to sit tight, those of us who live on the coast might have been able to get out.


My father and I had our cell phones, but Mom didn’t know how to use my friend’s phone. She would answer it, but couldn’t deal with calling on it and driving the truck and trailer at the same time, so I had to call her and my father like a middle man throughout the trip. Sometimes the cell phones wouldn’t work at all. I would keep trying to reach them both, but for thirty and forty-five minute stretches, the system was too overloaded to allow calls. I learned how to send text messages that day. Susan texted me asking where we were, and I had to learn how to reply on the fly. After that, we kept in touch that way whenever the calls wouldn’t go through. But my parents didn’t know how to text, so I had to keep trying to reach them to check on them.


We were averaging about one full mile each hour through most of the day. My Chevy Tracker was newer, and didn’t try to overheat, but my parents had to turn off the AC in the truck and Cadillac and roll down windows. Lots of people had to, and the heat became a serious health risk for many.


I reached my sister once that afternoon, and called her again on Thursday. She was upset about not being there to help, but when she inquired about flying back, no one was allowed to fly into Houston. Plus, she and her boss had driven to Florida, and it was a two day drive. They’d have returned in time for it to be over. When I called her on that Wednesday, it was around five in the evening, and she told me “Happy Birthday.” I had forgotten it was my birthday until around two that afternoon. When we were inching through downtown, ambulances kept screaming by us down the left-hand shoulder of the road at top speeds. We heard afterward that they were evacuating critical patients from hospitals in downtown, Clear Lake, and Galveston. When the day and the traffic got worse, and people started driving on the shoulders, the ambulances would get blocked and it was a mess getting them through. I never saw one cop through any of this until much later on the second day.


It was around eleven at night when we reached Richey Rd. I had called my mother and she confirmed what my father had already said when he called me – she was exhausted, barely able to keep the truck and trailer between the lines. We’d had only the food and water that was in our cars (though we were stocked better than some people were) and no one had had a chance to use a bathroom, either. I got my flock of three together again and made a plan – we’d get off at Richey and find somewhere (hopefully safe) to get some sleep.


People were driving like mad things, too, all over the shoulders of the road. We took our lives in our hands and got off the highway. Then I saw the Flying J sign – a huge truck stop! I led them in and we finally stopped. We got some food in the restaurant after watering cats, but we couldn’t leave them unloaded and had to put the cages back into the trailer and lock it up. There were too many unsavory and desperate folks around to trust anyone much. When we entered the restaurant, a manager was on the phone telling someone to send them supplies, that they were running out of food. It was a frightening moment, like walking into a post-apocalyptic movie and not being able to get out.


We all slept in our vehicles next to each other, locked up tight, and I was parked where I could see the back of the horse trailer. The restaurant was busy late, I don’t know if they ever closed, but it was probably the only place to get food in a twenty mile radius. Most of the stores and restaurants had boarded up and fled. In one day, the world had turned into “Beyond the Thunderdome” and frankly, I was wondering if zombies would be next. By midnight that first night, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least.


I’ve never been able to sleep in the heat, and the loudspeaker kept announcing when someone’s shower was ready (it’s like renting a hotel room, but on a small and soapy scale where long-haul truckers can rent a shower) by announcing their number. Plus, I was on “bad element alert”. We didn’t know if any fellow traffic refugees would try to mess with us or not. So after being up all night Tuesday, too, I got about two hours total of fitful interrupted sleep.


*Continued in Part 2*

Training Your Muse: Prose (plus, fighting writer's block)

Training the muse of prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a lot trickier than the poetry muse. Now and then, no matter how long she’s spent in harness (if you’ll allow me an equestrian analogy) she will pick up a weapon called writer’s block and chunk it at the back of your head. That having been said, let’s discuss ways to train the prose muse. Again, as with poetry, you have to find your own method; you’re free to try mine, but it may not work the same for someone else.

Generally, I train my prose muse the same way I trained her sister: by getting into character and letting the story flow from that character. I liken it to being an actor – you research for the role, practice it, and eventually perfect it. Once you can slip effortlessly into that role, you can act the part (or write the story) seamlessly.

Different readers will tell you they prefer plot to drive a story, but most I’ve met fall in love with the books that are character driven. If you love a character, you’ll accompany him/her/it through any plot the writer throws at them. Take a fave of mine for example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over the course of seven seasons, Buffy and her friends have had a LOT happen to them. Some episodes are favorites, others you can take or leave, but what makes you sit through the ho-hum ones? The characters you love.

Taking all of that into account, why not use your characters to combat writer’s block? Some writers make up character sheets (similar to the roleplaying game concept) and these can be a valuable tool and resource, for many reasons. They can also help fight writer’s block.

Step back. Take a deep breath. Now, instead of fighting it, don’t worry about writing the story you’re stuck on. Think about your characters. Focus on the main character and maybe a secondary one or two. Put yourself in their shoes (you invented their shoes, so this should be easier than it sounds) and imagine being that person for a while. After a time, you’ll find that inspiration and drive start to creep back in, edging writer’s block out.

The more stubborn muse, with the bigger writer’s block rock to your head, might require more effort or completely different methods. Try looking at the stresses in your life, basic health issues, etc. If something is lacking or off in your life, it can easily affect your writing, or your ability to be motivated to write at all. Fix that sleep-depravation schedule a bit, rest a couple of days if you’re sick, talk to a friend about problems you’re having trouble sorting out. Once these issues are balanced better, it’s easier to fight off or end writer’s block.

Another trick is the old “bait and switch”. Stuck on your Sci-Fi story? Set it down for a bit and pick up your Adventure tale. I always have more than one thing going precisely so I can do this method. It works for writer’s block, and for basic boredom if you’ve been at one story too long. Instead of stopping your writing habits, switch to another project. If you stop writing regularly because you’re a bit bored with one story, you may find you’ve stopped writing more often than you planned. This is a lot worse than writer’s block, folks. Writer’s block is when you feel stuck; but sufferers of it want it gone, because they want to write. This other malady is incidious, and it can steal years from your plans to finish a novel before you are even aware of it.

One last point on the subject of training your muse: if you want a character-driven story, you eventually need to hand the steering wheel to your characters. Instead of writing it all as YOU, work yourself into the skin of your characters and make your muse conform to that person or critter’s point of view. Slipping into that other skin can help you to jump into the story, leap over the block, and dash off into the far reaches of plot.

Training Your Muse: Poetry

Most people will tell you the old joke: you can’t write poetry unless you’re miserable. Not good poetry, anyway. I used to agree years ago, but that was before I trained my muse. Unfortunately, I haven’t got a step-by-step guide to share with you, and in any case that wouldn’t really work. Everyone is different, so you have to sort out your own training methods. What I can do is tell you how I arrived at having my own well-trained poetry muse.

Way back when, I wrote some cool poetry while I was miserable. When I was happy, though, it just didn’t seem to flow. The real point is, it didn’t flow because I was too busy being happy to think about stopping to write a poem. That Doug Stone song hits the nail on the head with the lyric, “I was too busy being in love.” Misery is a whole different ball of wax. You’ve heard the saying, “Misery loves company”? I’m sure it does, but another saying should be, “Misery loves poetry”. Whether you are genuinely miserable for a specific non-love reason, or due to love directly (lost love, unrequited love, etc) poetry doesn’t sit around and wait for you to write it; it nearly crashes out from head and heart, to fingers, to pen, to paper (or keyboard to screen).

The problem arrived years later when I began writing my novel, Grimmie. In the grand tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, I wanted poetry in my book. Like my favorite novel, Watership Down by Richard Adams (read 35 1/2 times to date) I wanted that poetry to be at the start of each chapter. Adams actually has quotes at the chapter beginnings, but you get the idea. My first thought after I decided I wanted my chapters this way was, “How do I write these poems? I’m happy.” LOL. To make it an even bigger challenge, I wanted each poem to have clues to things that would turn up either in that chapter or at some point in the future.

It came down to discipline in the end: I sent my muse to poetry boot camp. First, I had to get into the main character’s head. Then I focused on the mood, theme, direction, or metaphor I wanted the poem to have. Moving into that character’s POV, just like I do while writing him, I just started slapping those words down. I usually let them all come tumbling out and then look them over and perhaps tweak them later. Either way, the real key, for me, is to put myself in the main character’s shoes and let fly.

At first it was a bit weird, but the more I did it, the easier it got and the better the poetry turned out. Oddly enough, the poems at the chapter beginnings of Grimmie sound more third person, in spite of the fact that when Corwin Grimm is “on deck”, so to speak, the book is in first person. One or two sound like they are first person, but most of them don’t. It gives them all a bit of mystery, in a way, though, instead of sounding like Corwin is reading poetry “at you”.

In any event, this technique now works wonders for me. At the drop of a hat, I can pen a poem that fits my angle. It took work, though – the muse of poetry was not easy to train by any means. For instance, it is still difficult to write personal poetry when I’m happy. God forbid I should try to write good love poetry while happy. I can usually pull off decent erotic poetry, but the good swarmy/sweet/sticky variety more often comes out sounding like something a monkey penned with his feet using a broken crayon. Essentially, I don’t worry about that, as I’m not wild about happy love poetry anyway. The only good love poetry (in my opinion) is the unrequited sort, with that sharp angst twist in it, or the straight-up miserable sort. Mind you, I’m talking about MY poetry writing. You may have the talent to write beautiful and touching happy love poetry. I don’t. And that’s okay; because personally I’d rather be “in the moment” while happy. That way, you don’t miss anything. Poetry, by its very nature, is about reflection – and it’s difficult to reflect and be in the moment at the same time!

However, I am deliriously happy that this only applies to the personal poetry. Poems I write for “work” (if you can call doing what you love work) can be anything I want them to be now, with my highly trained muse. So if you’re tired of waiting until you’re miserable to craft good poetry, send that muse to school! Find out what works for you and run with it. Once you hit your stride and figure out your key, poetry can actually become fun again…whether it’s a happy poem or not.

Goofy Cat

I had to share this one. This is probably one of those marvelous “ICanHasCheezburger.com” images, but when I got it, there was no tag line on it. I have this picture at home and at work, because it makes me happy no matter who or what manages to tick me off. Good stuff.