A Writing Journey

I just published my first novel, but it all started with a poem.

I was in high school and my brother was leaving for college. I wrote him a poem, in pencil, on lined yellow ledger paper. He broke my heart by leaving me, but I knew that's how it had to be. We couldn't stay kids forever. We had to grow up. Writing to ease a broken heart seemed like a good thing to do at the time, and I took solace in the words.

Over the years, my writing has come from many places: joy, despair, confusion, introspection. I've written hundreds of poems, thousands of personal journal entries, 20 or so short stories, and several unfinished novels. It had always been about me and what was going on in my head at the time.

In 2006, I joined a local writer's group here in Cincinnati. We'd gather once a month, on Saturday afternoons at an English pub across the river in Kentucky. I drank Blue Moons, and they drank whisky and smoked cigarettes. We would share and peer review each other's works. My writing was amateurish at best, compared to the rest of the group. They talked about going on writing retreats and sharing a writing space downtown. I had babies at home and we were struggling financially. There was no way I could join in, even though it sounded amazing. They were professionals and I was just a hack pretending to know what I was doing. Eventually the group broke up and I left my writing career behind.

I guess when something's in your blood, it never really goes away. Five years later, my son was in kindergarten. It was Christmas, and he went shopping with his own money at Candy Cane Lane at the elementary school. He bought me a Cincinnati Bengals pencil. When I opened the gift, he said, "It's a pencil, Mommy. Now you can be a writer."

I don't think he really understood the impact that pencil and those words would have on me.

My writing bug resurfaced, and I began submitting my poetry and short stories to various contests around. I bought the Writer's Market and the Poet's Market (resources for connecting with publishers and agents). I took a few writing classes in hopes of upping my game. Writing was not a part of my formal education and I felt my skills were subpar. I bought books and books and books on writing. I bought software that would help you organize your thoughts into a coherent novel. And I read like crazy.

I would get an idea for a novel, I would be thoroughly excited about it, I would get about 25 pages in, and the magic would dissipate. I'd lose interest once I figured out how the rest of the story should go. Filling in the blanks became tedious and uninspiring.

I competed in NaNoWriMo a few times, but never finished the 50,000 words. I was in a writing rut that went on for years. Working on projects that went nowhere. Cranking out crap poetry and short stories just so I could feel like I finished something.

The expert writers tell you that you have to make yourself write something every day, and that will make you better. You just need more practice. You just need to make it a habit; part of your routine. You need to make it a priority.

I followed that advice. I made myself write for a few minutes every day and it became a chore. It was no longer something I looked forward to, but something I just did for the sake of doing. I felt like I wasn't getting any better, just getting faster at writing the same old crap. It was pretty disheartening.

Then last summer, I stumbled upon a Writer's conference in Lexington called the Books-In-Progress Conference. Lexington is an easy drive from Cincinnati, and the schedule looked pretty interesting. I'd never been to a writer's conference, so I decided to go.

It's been a long time since I felt like a newb at a conference. It was fantastic. The keynote speaker was a poet named Nikky Finney. She was amazing. I stood in line afterward to have a few words with her. She asked what kinds of things I wrote.

"Well, I wrote some tech books, but I don't count those. None of my fiction has been published. Nobody's paying me to write. I'm not a real writer," I said.

"Do you write words?" she said.

I laughed and said I'd been writing words for 25 years.

She took my hand and said , "Then you're a writer, darlin'. You don't need anyone's permission to call yourself that."

That was a revelation.

She was right, of course. I didn't need a paycheck or permission and neither do you. If you write words, then that by definition makes you a writer.

With this newfound confidence, I embraced a little story seed that was stashed away in my mind, and I let it out on paper. I no longer cared about "being a great writer." All I cared about was telling the story as it was in my mind.

The words flowed like they never had before. Writing was no longer about fixing my innards or trying to prove myself to the rest of the world. It sounds silly, but the writing became more about the experience than the story itself. I had a blast.

I didn't have to "make" myself write every day. I wrote every day because I wanted to. I was excited to. It was a treat. The story unfolded before my eyes, and I was simply the messenger.

I then decided I would create my own cover. I had gotten recommendations for professional designers from some writer friends, but selfishly, I wanted to try it myself. I decided I wanted to experience every piece of this process. I edited it myself and formatted it myself. I did the research and decided to publish it myself. I didn't need anyone's permission or approval. And I loved every minute of it.

I no longer worry about being judged. That was a huge obstacle for me. Writing is a very personal thing, and allowing others to read what you've written puts you in a pretty vulnerable spot. My writing might still be crap, but none of that matters. The experience was worth it. And if someone wants to take time out of their busy lives to read it, then that's pretty awesome. Even if they hated it.

I've already started the next novel, and I know what will happen in the next one after that. I also have a nugget of inspiration for the next whole series of books. I don't plan on quitting my day job, but it's all very exciting to me, and I can't wait to see how these things unfold.

My novel's called The Storytellers, and it's available on Kindle. Print version will be available soon.

2 Days in a Cabin

I’m going to tell you something you already know. Life is stressful sometimes. My days usually start at 6:00 am and end at 11:00 pm and there isn't much room for relaxing along the way. Between getting kids where they need to be with school, and football practices, and gymnastics, and other evening events, working, making dinners and doing other housey stuff, and finding a few minutes to work on my novel, there are some days when I feel completely spent. I know I’m not alone; millions of other people do it every day. It’s just how it goes.

I decided last week that I needed just 2 days. Just 2 days in a cabin away from all people, from the internet, from everything. I wanted to relax, and read, and write, and hike. Just me and my dog. "It'll be lovely," I said. "The world can live without me for 2 days," I said. So I found a cabin near Ashland, Kentucky, and made my reservations.

I woke on Thursday morning at 6:00 am, got my daughter to school, dropped off some stuff they'd need at their Dad's house, went back home, got my son up, printed off some things he needed from the internet for a school project, got him to school, dropped off more stuff at his Dad's house that we'd forgotten about. Then I got home, packed my bags, loaded them up and headed out with Raisin my dog in tow.

Then I exhaled.

The route assigned by the GPS took me down the Appalachian Highway, a road I hadn't been on since high school. Every year growing up, we used to make the trek to my grandparents' house in West Virginia via this road. Happy family memories came flooding back unexpectedly; I hadn't even made the connection that this was a road buried deep in my road trip memory. I passed a road called "De La Palma." My brother and I called it "Louie De La Palma" and cracked up every time. I know, it’s not that funny. We were big fans of Taxi, what can I say. I passed lots of other fun landmarks along the way, and I made more dumbass inside jokes in my head.

The weather was beautiful, and the dog had her head out the window as we zipped down the road, curving, and winding our way through the foothills of eastern Ohio. We passed quaint farmer's markets and gas stations where it was still cheaper to pay with cash. Life was grand. I was on my way to relaxing the shit out of my 2 days in a cabin.

Within the first hour of me getting settled in, I locked myself out of the cabin, the school nurse called to say she thought my son had a concussion, and I dropped my phone in a muddy creek while trying to take a picture. Yay for relaxation!

A little later, my dog got herself stuck under the cabin somehow, so I had to cut her free from her leash, then try and find a Walmart or store somewhere to get her another one. I drove 20 minutes to the nearest one, and while I was there, I heard them announce on the PA system "If you are a Walmart employee, and you received a 15 year certificate today, please make sure you picked up the right one. Thank you." So not only have you been working 15 years at a Walmart in Ashland, Kentucky, someone swipes your certificate to boot. I paid for the leash and left. My life was pretty awesome in comparison.

The rest of my time alone consisted of meditation, photography, nature hikes, writing, and campfires. By Friday afternoon I actually felt relaxed, and when I got the text that it would be $300 to fix my daughter’s broken school laptop, I was all “whatevs, yo. I saw a wild turkey today.”

Saturday morning, I got up early and headed back home to the Land of Grownup Stuff, refreshed, rejuvenated and recharged.

So what did I learn in 2 days?


I learned that somewhere in Wayne National Forest, the Easter Island head has a little brother.


I learned that Ron Webb really, really likes this rock.


I learned that Kentucky has some amazing sunsets.


I learned that when you drink wine out of a red solo cup, it’s really hard to determine what a typical pour would be, so you kind of end up drinking the whole bottle.

I also remembered a few things.


I remembered that when s’mores and campfires are involved, it really is all good.


I remembered that even the most trivial and ridiculous childhood memories deserve not to be forgotten.


I remembered that lakes are still amazing, serene, and teeming with life.


I remembered that love is everywhere just waiting for you to notice it.


I remembered there is no substitute for the feeling of moss under your feet.


I remembered that I am still boss at finding 4-leaf clovers (and I really am a lucky so and so.)


I remembered that dog really is man’s (and woman’s) best friend.

And finally, I remembered that the world really is fine without you for a few days.

Uncomfortable

This is not a post about sexism or misogyny. It's not a post about diversity or how to get more women in tech. It's a post about being uncomfortable.

Most people who know me would say I'm a friendly person. I like to meet new people, I like to hear about what cool project they're working on. I like to talk about geeky movies, and music, and books, and all the other things that come up in friendly conversation. And I high-five, a lot. I also watch Archer and adore Louis CK, and I don't mind a good that's-what-she-said joke.

Sometimes, when people figure out I'm friendly, they assume they can talk to me as if I was an old friend of theirs. And sometimes, jokes get told to me that flat out make me uncomfortable. I can hear an off-color, suggestive joke from a close friend and think it's hilarious. I can also hear the same thing from someone I met 5 minutes ago, and feel like I want to run the hell away (in fight or flight, I'm definitely a flight). When I mention that, and I get an "it's just a joke, relax" reply, it makes me feel invalidated, insecure, and even more uncomfortable. So am I defective for feeling like that? Do I not have a sense of humor? Am I overreacting? Am I a prude? What is wrong with me? Everybody else seemed to be fine with it, so it *must* be me, right? What if I don't even really know why it made me feel uncomfortable, just that it did?

Fortunately for me, I am not the only one who struggles with this. I'll get back to this in a minute.

We all know that everything humans do revolves around context, but let me say it again. Context is everything. Sometimes, here in the Land of Open Source, we forget that. We hang out in our jeans and t-shirts, and chat on IRC, and go to conferences to meet up with old friends and have a beer. We recruit our friends to work on our projects with us, and we bitch about stuff on Twitter, or Hacker News, or Reddit. Lost in our own bubble of protection from mainstream society and grownups, *we* make the rules. This is Open Source! We value freedom, and openness, and we defy the status quo! We keep the context of the LoOS nice and tidy and all wrapped up with a little bow, same as it ever was.

And then come new additions to the LoOS. We dub them Newbies and drop them in the middle of it; a sort of trial-by-fire. Sink or swim. Either you fit in as one of Our People, or you don't. This is the way we behave; either you like it or you don't. These are the expectations; either you agree with them and fit in, or you don't. Chances are if you aren't comfortable with anything in this LoOS society, and you want to change it, then you have a long road ahead of you. Because we are free to do as we want, and this is what we've chosen, it will be difficult to convince us otherwise. We're not giving up that freedom to behave the way we want just to placate *you* of all people. And we've always been fine with it, so it must just be you. You should get over it, or you know, there's the door. Some of us have been here a long time, and you just got here.

Hmm, you just got here. Unfortunately for you, history creates context, so any new people coming in essentially have none. Inside jokes, social norms, insider information: these things are all taken at face value by a new person entering any group, without any context whatsoever. This is another piece that I will get back to in a moment.

There's a grocery store near my house that I don't like. It's small, dark, and dirty, and it just makes me uncomfortable. So I never go there. It doesn't make me angry, it doesn't offend me, it doesn't push me down and take my lunch money or call me fat. It's just not a place I want to be; there are other grocery stores around that I like better. It's not worth my energy to try and change the place.

I also joined a gym once. It was full of bodybuilders and supermodels who were all very interested in each other. It made me uncomfortable, so I never went back. I paid the money and I never went back. You may think that's a very silly thing, and they certainly weren't offending me or making me angry. It just was not a place I wanted to be, at all. I've since found a gym that is more open and welcoming and has people of all ages and shapes and sizes, and I feel comfortable there. They send me emails to see how I'm doing. It's nice.

The same is true for our personal relationships. When we say and do things that make the people around us uncomfortable, they are less likely to want to keep hanging around us. They may not be angry or offended, they just make other choices. And they may not even say anything about it because of the internal struggle I mentioned before. Sometimes it's easier to walk away than to spend the energy defending or explaining the way something makes you feel, especially if you know the other party is not particularly receptive to your point of view. I'll get back to this in a minute, too.

Yesterday, I posted this picture on Twitter and asked people to simply tell me if it made them uncomfortable. My goal was just to get honest answers, and not to judge anybody for their reaction (and I hope you can do the same). The results were fascinating.

102 of you replied with a reaction.
3 said no it didn't make you uncomfortable, and gave a lol.
14 said no
42 said no, but thought it was poor taste/didn't want to see it at a conference/made them judge the wearer poorly
37 yes it made them uncomfortable/wow I can't believe that
3 said it made them angry
3 made jokes about the code itself (I love you guys)

The most interesting thing about it was that the results were also quite mixed with regard to gender and location (best I could tell from Twitter). Men and women said it made them angry, men and women said the joke made them laugh. There was a wide array of people expressing widely different opinions. I think the only exception to that is that 4 of you also mentioned a concern with personal safety in being around that person, and you were all women. The majority of you would likely agree that something like that was not appropriate for a professional conference.

Hmm, professional conference. What do those words mean in the LoOS? It seems like an oxymoron in a sense. I mean, we're rebels! We do what we want! We wear jeans to our conferences! We have beer and stuff! And we act just like we always have because we're among Our People.

But look at Your People. Your People have a wide array of widely different opinions about how something makes them feel, and for some, those feelings are pretty strong. Your People do not agree. What's happening here?! And for those who say we should all just act based on "common sense," well, you can see that our sense is not entirely common.

Oh, and remember that thing about context I talked about earlier? Several of you pointed out that the code on the shirt is a very old Linux joke that has been around for years. Those of you with context were not upset at all by the shirt. UPDATE: I did have one more person say that even though they knew of the joke's origin, it still made them feel uncomfortable.

And wait, some of Your People may not mind acting like a professional. They may not mind treating this LoOS as more than just a Google hangout IRL. In fact, for some of you, this is a career and an industry just like any other, and settings where we all come together for this purpose should have different expectations.

So let's get back to what's really important here: me. So I'm feeling uncomfortable because I'm in a weird social situation, and expressing myself makes the weird social situation even weirder. Maybe I'm one of those 36 people who are uncomfortable with the shirt. What do I do? What if there were 10 people with that shirt on? What if there were 300? Do I say anything? Or do I just shut up and sit down?

Elizabeth, it sounds like you're telling me I can't wear what I want or say what I want because "somebody somewhere might be made to feel uncomfortable." No, I'm not saying that at all. Do whatever you want that is authentic to you. That is your right. If you're a company, you absolutely have the right to market yourselves any way that you choose. What I will ask is that you consider the possibility that everything you do and say has a direct effect on those around you. And I will ask you to consider the possibility that if others around you *are* being made uncomfortable in some way, that you ask yourself if that's ok. If the answer is yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, then maybe having a discussion about it is a worthwhile venture. And I will ask that you keep in mind that how you make people feel directly ties into their perceptions about you.

We can talk all day and night about whether something is sexist, or offensive, or inappropriate. What I'm concerned about is that we're judging each other based on where our lines of appropriateness are drawn, and we're not considering the fact that somebody else's lines might not match up with our own. We just get angry at the other side because they can't see our point of view. Worse still, we trivialize and discount serious concerns of others because we don't feel like changing.

In my opinion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to how something makes you feel, deep down in your gut. As I said before, what is hurtful for someone isn't for another. What's a huge deal to some is trivial to others. That doesn't make it any less of a big deal.

If we don't respect Our People, and the new people coming in to our community enough to afford them the freedom to express what they feel without penalty, then this community will be lost. If we don't afford them the common courtesy of compromise and understanding, then this community will be lost. And lastly, if we don't learn to change with a changing tide, and remember that the face of Our People looks very different than it did 10 years ago, then this community will be lost.

For a person to leave our community, or at the very least be much less a part of it, they don't even need to be offended, angry, afraid, or upset. All they need to be is uncomfortable.

Stop Drinking Spoiled Milk!

It occurs to me that this is the second blog post I've written recently that was inspired by a conversation I watched happen on Twitter. (And people say Twitter isn't good for much.) The conversation was around change, and how some people aren't fortunate enough to be in a position where they feel they can make their situation better. Change is scary as hell, and many times the path isn't clear. How can we change if we don't know where we want to go or how to get there? And then if it's something that impacts the lives of others, things become a bit messier, don't they. It can feel like you have no way out. Stuck in the mud, with no alternative but to stick it out until something better appears. Or maybe just forever.

I offer these words to those who feel stuck in a situation like that: Your world is a carton of milk. Everything you have, everything you are, everything you know. Everything around you has an expiration date. Your job, your car, your relationships, your life. Even the Earth has an expiration date (which hopefully doesn't fall in 2012). For some reason, it's human nature to try and beat this inevitability.

Like putting a carton of milk in the refrigerator, we can take measures to extend the expiration dates of things around us. We may eat better and exercise to extend our body's expiration date. We may work late and on weekends to extend the life of our career. We may perform regular maintenance on our cars so they last longer. But sometimes even if we change the oil exactly when we are supposed to, and do all of the other things we should, eventually, we will have to get a new car.

My point is, depsite your best efforts at making things work, sometimes the expiration date comes anyway. The milk eventually spoils. So why continue to drink milk that's gone past its date in the hopes that it will taste better? You can put all the chocolate syrup you want it in it, but it's still going to taste like shit.

If the expiration date has come and gone of whatever it is that makes you feel stuck, that's okay. It's all okay; it's the natural flow of the world. It's supposed to happen. Recognizing that is the first chance you have to make a change.

When we need to get a new carton of milk, do we just wait for a new one to show up on our countertop? No, of course not. We go out and we buy a new carton of milk, and we try again. You may think you are doing the right thing by staying put, and suffering through whatever situation you're stuck in. Just remember that spoiled milk will never taste good. Although it might seem overwhelming, the effort of "going out and buying a new carton" will pay for itself tenfold. Who knows? Maybe you'll even try something new and buy orange juice. It's your life. Own it. Drink Whatever. You. Want.

Tending the Gardens of Open Source

Imagine your neighbor has a garden. It's a beautiful garden, and she's out there evenings and weekends, carefully tending her petunias and impatiens. Gently pulling the weeds in between her seedlings. Carefully watering in just the right amounts.

One day, you say to her, "Hey! You should open that garden up to everybody. You know, share the joy."

"Brilliant idea," she says, and she puts a sign on her gate that says "Free flowers."

Soon after, people start coming to get flowers. Some just look and admire the garden. Some take a few for their kitchen tables. Some take handfuls to use in bouquets that they can re-sell to brides-to-be.

Soon after that, people start to offer feedback.

"You're watering these too much."

"You're not watering these enough."

"I like your purple petunias, but what you really need are hot pink ones. With white around the edges. They would match my kitchen better."

"Where are the goddamned roses? How can I sell a bouquet to a blushing bride without goddamned roses?"

She ponders these points. She was pretty sure she was watering at just the right level, but maybe she'd been wrong. She vows to have another look. She didn't think putting in hot pink petunias with white around the edges would be a big deal, it would just take some time to find the seeds and make some room. She would add that to the list. She wasn't sure about the roses, though. She'd have to do some research on what it would take to grow the roses, about the soil and climate, and sunshine levels her garden got every day. This would take quite a bit of time.

In the meantime, she hears her little ones calling her to come play. Her laundry is piling up. Work needs her. Her spouse wants a date night, and her dog needs fed. There are also some new flowers she read about and wants to try growing, but she has nothing left. She is tired. Her garden is suffering.

She needs a break, but decides that instead of closing her garden, she will till a new spot and get it ready for planting. She will open that spot up to whoever wants to plant something else. She spends a few hours preparing the soil, then lets the rose-guy know. Maybe he knows more about growing roses anyway.

"Hey, I was just trying to help. Well, if you're going to be an asshole about it, then screw you," he says. "I will take all the money I made from selling the free flowers you gave me and bash you all over the internets."

She sighs. She thought people would be happy to get free flowers, especially fellow flower lovers like herself. Suddenly gardening isn't as fun anymore. She spends less and less time tending her garden. The weeds start to overcome the flowers. People complain even more, and eventually stop coming. It will be a long time before she opens a garden again.

And thus we have the phenomenon of Open Source. An interesting Twitter conversation today between me, Chris Hartjes and Juozas Kaziuk?nas (affectionately known as Joe) spurred this blog post. They are both good friends of mine, and are never short in the opinions department, which I love. They are passionate about what they believe in, and I think that's always a good thing. Basically they were saying that replying with "Pull Requests Accepted" when users offer feedback to your software is a copout. It's an easy escape for Open Source project leaders to disregard and discount feedback. (Then we got into a discussion about intent, but that's another discussion altogether.) While I think that being open to feedback is generally a good thing, and I totally understand what they were saying, I respectfully disagree, and think that's a completely reasonable response. Also, I think there is a greater discussion to be had.

Really it comes down to the question of how much responsibility is placed on an Open Source project leader to satisfy end users? And how much is placed on a community of users (who actually know how to code and can make changes) to help fix things and make them better? The answer is, "it depends." In a perfect world, I'd say there is a shared responsibility, an equal balance where everybody wins. But this doesn't always have to be the case. Some projects aren't conducive, by design, to receiving random pull requests. And some project leaders are only running the project to satisfy their own needs and not the needs of the users, which is also totally fine. They're glad if someone else uses it, or takes it and makes it better, but they're just doing it on the side for fun, and don't really have a desire to solve everybody's problems or make it the Next Big Thing. Shouldn't this be ok too?

What I'm saying is that it's important to remember that Open Source is ultimately about choice. If you have feedback or feature requests about a project, remember that the person on the other side is doing this in his/her free time. They may be inundated with other requests or criticisms, and not getting anybody saying simply "thank you." They may have just had a child or a sick parent. They may have just been laid off. They can make the choice that other things are taking precedence over your feedback. And that should be ok. In turn, you can make the choice to react by either bashing them or taking some time to make it better.

We all know how much hard work goes into an Open Source project. We fully understand and appreciate the value that it provides. If it's something that we use to make a living, then we owe a debt of gratitude. We're getting free flowers, after all. Gratitude is really the only currency we have in FOSS.

If we don't stop bashing and abusing each other for not writing code the way we think it should be written, or for it not being perfect and polished, or for not responding to us in a way that we think we should be responded to, then we will effectively kill off Open Source. We will kill all the flowers we've worked so hard to grow. We will have nobody to blame but ourselves when there's no one left to tend the gardens.

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