Kathleen Mary Mulraney (photo c. 1948) 1933-2016

You don’t know what you’ve had till it’s gone. I’m sure I’ve heard this phrase, or ones similar, said innumerable times over the course of the years. Its truth is never more poignant than when someone we care for passes suddenly.

We lost my mother on Monday. And, while it was somewhat sudden, the reality of the Alzheimer’s disease that she’d been diagnosed with over 3 years ago meant that it was just a matter of time. The hard truth was that my siblings and I had started losing my mother years ago. When she finally passed, the woman that we had known wasn’t really there anymore.

Four years ago, we visited her at her home in Arizona after she’d had a particularly nasty fall. That accident had revealed a host of other problems; forgotten bills, missed medications, lost money. We had conversations about the past and there were major gaps in her history. She had no idea how old she was. She couldn’t distinguish between two of the residences that we’d lived in during my lifetime. What frightened me most was that she’d still been driving a car at that point.

Within a few months, she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. None of the medications they put her on did anything for the illness. Worse yet, they often made her suffer sever hallucinations. Bugs crawling out of her water bottle. Her father (who passed in ’88) coming out of a black hole in the ceiling. Eventually, she needed to be relocated to an assisted living facility.

But, before that could happen, her condition declined significantly. And, being as she was alone in Prescott, AZ, she was moved into a facility near my eldest sister out in Colorado. While this made the most sense for the family, it made it very difficult to visit. I spoke with her on the phone, lamenting her continued decline with every call. Our final visit with her was last year, during the summer of 2015. She recognized me, recognized my then 9-year-old son a bit, and at least pretended to know my wife. She could hold a bit of a conversation, laughed at some jokes, remembered songs, and was generally cheerful. But, by then, the past was a confused collection of bits and pieces, often crossing between strained reality and absolute fiction. My sister warned me before I saw her, “It’s like dealing with a 3-year-old. You have to do everything for her and lead her.” She was right, of course. But, no amount of warning can prepare you to see your parent in such a state.

When we left, I was struck hard by a sense of loss. Yes, she was still there, but, mentally, it was a shell of the woman who had been my mother. Beyond the visual recognition and general understanding of who I was, there was no longer a connection to the past. The ties had been cut on her end, to no fault of her own.

Upon returning home from that trip, I found myself already mourning my mother’s passing. Not just the passing of whom she had been, but of the family history both shared and that which had come before me. I mourned knowing that I would have to poorly relate her stories to my son, instead of him being able to hear them first hand. I mourned knowing that I wanted to accomplish just one more thing, anything really, just to have her be proud of me one more time, but that it was too late.

By Christmas of 2015, she was unable to use a phone. By then, the siblings received text updates from my sister on a regular basis. Sometimes funny. Often frustrating. Maddeningly halfway across the country. All the while, despite her decline in mental status, her overall health remained steady.

On August 21st, my sister texted, “Was shocked when I came to see mom this afternoon.” I was on vacation in NC at the time. At the time, the content of the text didn’t seem like too much of a problem. Mom’s knees were bothering her, or at least that was suspected. She looked pale and lethargic. That was all we heard about. What my sister would later tell me was that my mother was having trouble keeping her head up and raising her hand. She just didn’t want anyone to worry. And, as the week went on, Mom showed signs of improvement. Her color improved. She was responding better. Just seemed to have had a lapse. By the time I returned from NC, the texts were fewer. Mom was lethargic on September 4th, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

On Labor Day, my sister texted late in the afternoon that my mom had taken a drink of water, but apparently forgot to swallow, only to have the water come out as she dozed off a moment later. This was followed by a funny comment about how she was swallowing sherbet just fine. I laughed a bit, but was worried. An hour later I texted my discomfort at this new development. Forgetting to swallow could be dangerous. Something to mention to the doctor? My sister texted back: Hopefully I talk to someone tomorrow.

That message arrived at 5:47 pm ET. Later, I would hear that my sister left, the staff fed Mom, got her showered, and put her to bed. When they checked on her an hour later, she’d passed in her sleep. Her body had finally caught up with her mind.

In the end, my mother died without fear or pain. She’d lived some her happiest years at the end because she no longer had the burden of this world on her mind. I can think of many worse ways to go out.

The hardest part of this disease was watching my Mom slowly fade away. Knowing what had been and what would never be again, and watching it all unfold at an agonizing pace.

Mom’s active part in the story is over. That much is true. And her departure leaves a large gap in my life. But, I’m comforted knowing that her story carries on through me and my little family. That my love for my child is a reflection of all of the love she gave me. That I will tell her story to the best of my ability for as long as I can. And I will never wait to appreciate what I have until it’s gone.

Becoming Unstuck

cat-head-stuckWell, now you’ve done it. You went there. And now you’re stuck. Not just a little stuck. Bad stuck. Like, devastatingly stuck. Like, how the hell did I get here stuck. Like, I’m ready to walk away stuck. Don’t do it. It’s good work. It’s salvageable.  You just have to use your head to get back on track.

The first step to getting unstuck is acknowledging the fact that you are really stuck. You’ve gone off the rails and now you’re at a point where the story your writing is not the story you want to tell. It happens. Sometimes it’s a good thing. “The characters just have a mind of their own and they took me to this awesome new place full of possibilities.” But, remember, you’re not there. You’ve entered into a realm of aimless wandering and meandering plots. You’ve got problems.

Ok, so you’ve admitted the problem. Now, it’s time to assess the damage. How far into being stuck are you? A chapter? Two? Five? You’ve written the entire novel and realized none of it makes any sense after the first page? Not even the gods can help you, my friend. So, it’s time to read through what you’ve done. If you’ve outlined, it may help to see where your story and your outline starts to divert and why. Did you follow a fascinating plot bunny down a bottomless pit? Or did you stick to the outline, only to have it meander? If you can pinpoint where the train started going off the rails, you’re a step closer to resolving your stuck-ed-ness.

Now, you’ve identified the sticking point. Depending on where you discovered the problem, it may mean rewriting a few chapters or, gods forbid, tossing a few completely. Deep breath. It’s ok. This is part of the process. Trim a finger or two to save the hand. In this case, it’ll grow back. I promise. And, it’ll be so much better. Your story will thank you. If you’ve really taken the time to assess the situation, you’ll save yourself some work, but don’t be afraid to cut and start over. Remember, we’ve admitted to the problem back at step 1. It’s no use going forward, so taking a few steps back and taking a different approach is probably what your story needs.

Lastly, in order to avoid another sticking point, try and give yourself a solid path ahead. Create a detailed outline of at least the next couple of chapters. Stick to it… at least until you get over the hump of what stopped you before. That’s your new goal. Get past that sticking point. Then you could be off to the races. The floodgates will open and reams of smart, taught storytelling will flow from your fingers. Well, ok… maybe not exactly like that, but you’ll feel a lot better having been able to move on.

I hope this little method helps. I get stuck all the time and it can be frustrating. It can make a writer stop writing. But, we know that’s not the answer.

Have a way of getting unstuck? Be sure to share in the comments below! Thanks for stopping by. In the meantime, write on!


It was a good week

I had a good week. It wasn’t phenomenal, but good in general. I hope you can say the same.

Writing-wise, it felt really good to get back into some of my old work. It’s been too long for some, but reading through it again, it reminded me of why I love to write. It’s discovering those little moments of truth that strike deep at an emotion. It’s not superficial. It doesn’t feel forced. It’s a genuine human emotion being felt by people, not characters. And that’s a powerful thing to be able to relate. We know what it is when we come across it, but to be able to put it into words is something else.

Another thing that happened this week was that I realized why I’d lost the fire to write. The irony is that it was something I’d warned others of and it’s, “Don’t get caught up in the minutiae of self-publishing.” It’s so easily done because you are responsible for everything. The problem is, you can spend a lot of time on all the little things, and forget to do the most important thing of all; write. I was so obsessed with what I thought I had to do, I didn’t bother doing what I needed to do. And, the whole process just stopped being fun. And that’s no bueno.

So, I’m going back at it with the intention of simply writing good stories and publishing them in their own time. Sure, I’ll post here (once weekly if I can) and on Twitter, but I’m not going to bother with a lot of the other things I used to do. The story and the writing are the most important parts. It’s what I fell in love with so long ago.

Thanks for swinging by. I hope you have a fantastic week.

I read the news today, oh boy

I want to write about writing and books and how great it is to be productive again. But, then I read the news. Another shooting. Another act of violence. Another story about someone dying because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because they are at the end of their rope and think that their only option is to take someone with them for a cause.

As a writer, I try and use empathy to drive the emotions of my fictitious characters and the branded writing of my day job. Given a particular situation, how would a person feel? So, when I see these stories (police shooting innocents, people shooting police, religious zealots slaughtering as many people as they can), I immediately try and put myself into the shoes of the aggressor:

How did we get here? How on earth did we arrive at this very moment of action? What small event triggered the cascade that eventually led to this one? When was the point of no return? When did this become inevitable? When did this decision, this plan, this action, become the logical choice? Or the only choice?

My Mom used to say, “Well, some people are just sick in the head.” I don’t buy that. These things that have filled our news feed over the last weeks, months, years… they’re not random acts carried out by madmen. They’re planned and plotted by people whose algorithm for life has led to this final question and the only answer is Yes.

I can’t answer the ‘Why?’ of it all. I don’t know. I’m not there. I’m a white male in my early 40s who has a good job and a steady family life. My complaints are few and relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I don’t feel oppressed. I don’t feel like I’m treated negatively based on the color of my skin. I’m not afraid to go to work and do my job. I don’t worry about my safety every moment of every day. I don’t feel like entire countries are trying to destroy my religion. But, there are people who do feel this way… and not just as a passing thought. It dominates their lives.

Now, before someone claims that, by empathizing, I’m agreeing with their actions. Not in the least. I’m trying to raise a child in this world. And, as I’ve always told him, violence is not the way. But, merely condemning violence without trying to see the root cause is foolish. Through empathy, we can begin to try and understand, hard as it might be, what drives us all as human beings. Why we make the decisions we make. Why we do the things that we do. A little more understanding from everyone could go a long way toward making this a world where mass shootings and destructive violence are a thing of the past.

Thanks for stopping by and listening to me waffle on. Have a peaceful day.

Nope, that fire’s not a mirage

If anyone ever says writing is easy, laugh in their face and walk away. They’re insane and should be shunned like the delusional miscreant they are. While writing can be a joyful, fulfilling experience, it can also be filled with enough despair and self-doubt to make anyone go running for the hills.

I reached that point over a year ago. And, while it wasn’t the first time I’d reached that point, it was certainly the most extensive. Writing requires dedication and drive. But, somewhere along the way, I lost the fire. I felt like a hack. A pretender. Someone who just wanted to be a writer, but who lacked wherewithal to actually do what was necessary to be one. This, after having already published 3 novels. I just didn’t feel like it was in me.

I stopped reading. I essentially walked away from my writing. Even when I attended my writers group meetings, I felt like a sham. Just going through the motions in order to not expose the reality of where I was. Absolutely lost.

A few months ago, I started a new job. It’s been great and creatively challenging. And, despite working hours that would make writing a challenge, I started to feel the fire building again. I decided not to push it too hard. I started reading again. I jotted notes down. I reassessed some of my old writing. I started looking at the unfinished business of my trilogies. I checked my social media accounts. I looked at my Amazon reviews for the first time in forever. 5 new 5-stars for my first book. I nearly cried. People like what I write. I started a story and I owe them, at the very least, a conclusion to that story. And I know I have more in me. Most importantly, I started writing again. Nothing consequential. Still taking small steps. But, the fire is there. I just have to keep stoking it.