What NaNoWriMo Taught Me About Writing. And Life.

[Ed. There is now just a normal comment form at the end of my posts. I got rid of Disqus commenting, so if you left a comment using Disqus anywhere on this site before, it is probably gone now. Sorry. It just slowed the site down and a few people emailed to let me know they were having trouble figuring out how to comment, so we're going back to the normal way because comments are important. How else will strangers insult me and call me names? ;) ]

My last post was written exactly a month ago. I would apologize for that, but I've been very busy, you see. I procured myself a regular writing gig (more on that later), and oh, I also wrote a novel. That's right: I finished NaNoWriMo. The novel I wrote is, well, a complete and total piece of shit. That was sort of the point, though. I've started more than a few novels over the past few years and I always reach a point where I start to hate it and then eventually give up. NaNoWriMo was sort of about breaking that cycle, and I did it. I wrote 50,000 words. My t-shirt is in the mail.

No, really. It is.

Something really wonderful happened when I submitted my novel for the final word count at the end of November. Something that seemed so momentous and magical suddenly lost its splendor. That sounds like a bad thing, but it isn't. NaNoWriMo washed the glitter away from the novel-writing process, and I needed that desperately because the glitter is what always distracted me. I imagined the greats sitting down at a computer (Or typewriter. Or paper and pen. Or - good Lord - quill and ink.) and churning out this compelling, rich story on the first take, correcting a few comma splices here and there, and sending it off to be read in undergraduate literature courses for the rest of time. My inability to pour magic goo from my fingertips on the first try has always stood in my way. It's always stolen my confidence and led me to believe that I should just stop writing because obviously I have nothing worthwhile to say.

NaNo taught me that's simply not true.

I wrote that novel and it was mostly tedious and difficult, but every few thousand words I'd experience a hint of genius - a great sentence, an intriguing idea for a plot twist, an unplanned arch in a character's story - and even though I occasionally had to go on a tangent describing a lamp for 500 words just to keep the creative juices flowing, somehow I ended up with the bones of a story; something that could be built up into greatness. I realized even the greatest writers have first drafts and fight through the monotony of their own bad writing. I realized that writing novels is something I can do; writing a novel is something I did.

So now I am addicted to the process and applying that process to all sorts of different things in my life. I applied it to freelancing and persevered and bugged the shit out of editors until one offered me a job. I am applying it to my latest goal of getting in incredible shape, not stopping when things are hard or I have a bad day, but instead fighting through it and keeping my eye on the end goal. It's kind of amazing to me all of the ways I suddenly refuse to quit on myself, and NaNoWriMo gave me that. Or, maybe I gave it to myself by showing up. Either way. The point is I did something big and now I have no reason to believe I can't do anything I set my mind to, and knowing that is slowly rocking my entire world.

With that in mind, I've decided to make a list of intentions for the year ahead. I'm going to create a page for it in my site navigation and cross things off as the year goes by - because I know how eager you all are to watch me complete my goals in real time [sarcasm font needed here]. I strongly encourage you to identify your own dragons and sleigh them methodically, one little sword poke at a time, with the ultimate goal of eating dragon soup when it's all said and done kept always in the back of your mind.

A List Of Intentions For 2015

  • Complete the first draft of a novel I've been plotting. Working title is Boomerang.
  • Read 30 books.
  • Send a submission to (and hopefully get published in) New York Times' Modern Love.
  • Submit to at least 5 publications outside of my usual freelancing/writing gigs.
  • Drink enough water every day.
  • Make more small romantic gestures towards my husband.
  • Teach my daughter to read.
  • Meet all activity/nutrition/weight loss goals I've set with my FitBit.
  • Learn about lifting and become confident lifting at the gym in front of other humans.
  • Make new friends.
  • Learn how to knit.
  • Try something new.

That's all I've got for now. If I think of more before January, I'll add them. What are some of your intentions for the new year?

In The News: Barbie Can Be An Engineer...and other tales

The holidays are right around the corner, and if you're anything like me, you've been wracking your brain pretty hard to come up with new and interesting ways to indoctrinate your children into the patriarchy. Luckily, the folks at Mattel have your back (Was there any doubt they would, really?) with a new book about Barbie being an engineer. Now, before you raise your signs in protest thinking this book might encourage your daughter to think outside the icebox, you should know they keep it real with the tale of a ditzy know-nothing who relies on men to fix all her troubles.

"Silly, Skipper! Steve and Brian do the hard stuff. I just, like, pick colors and giggle a lot."

"Silly, Skipper! Steve and Brian do the hard stuff. I just, like, pick colors and giggle a lot."

In the book, aptly titled Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer, Barbie designs a game so some of her male friends can use their big male brains to code it. Then, as she is explaining her game to Skipper, her computer breaks! She uses her engineering skills to turn it on and off a bunch of times, but for some reason that doesn't seem to work. Luckily, she has all of her cute puppy files backed up on a pink, heart-shaped flash drive. She loads them on to Skipper's computer, along with a virus, and *GASP* oh, no! Skipper's computer is broken too. Barbie tries to fix the computer, but her vagina is just too vagina-y and Brian and Steve have to do it for her. Then, Barbie takes credit for their work fixing the computer, as well as the game they code for her, and her professor gives her extra credit, proving any woman can get ahead in the tech field if she just gets some nice men to help her out and do her work for her.

Like you, I was rendered speechless by this harrowing tale. I mean, the way they made it seem like a woman might be able to do things and then subtly reinforced that women are stupid and technology is a man's field? Top notch stuff. I've decided to abandon my dreams - let's face it: they're probably too hard for me anyway - and devote all of my time to coming up with ideas for new Barbie books. Here are a few I've had so far, although I'll have to get a man to write the actual stories for me because words are hard and I'm pushing it just writing this blog post. Come up with the idea and then enlist a man to do the heavy-lifting, amiright?

1. Barbie: I Can Be An Epidemiologist!

Barbie discovers the cure for cancer...almost. She's forced to leave the lab due to a broken nail and Steve has to come in and wrap things up for her. It's a good thing too because it turns out the cure has to be injected and Barbie doesn't like to be around icky blood. Maybe if they had a way to make blood pink...

Barbie calls Brian and tells him about her idea for pink blood. He uses his man brain to make it happen, even incorporating Barbie's last second idea to also make it taste like bubble gum, and once again the world is changed by Barbie's superior design aesthetic.

2. Barbie: I Can Be A Surgeon!

Barbie gets accepted to medical school! Unfortunately, scrubs make her look fat and do nothing for her complexion. She drops out to design a new line of flattering scrubs for women, but her ideas are rejected because there are no female doctors to wear them (duh!) and nurses with bare midriffs prove too distracting to the male doctors who are trying to do serious male doctor things.

3. Barbie: I Can Be A Writer!

This one is sponsored by Bic. Barbie has always had lots and lots of ideas - women are all talk and no action, after all - but she has a hard time finding men to write them down for her because they're all busy having jobs. One day, she sees a commercial for Bic Lady Pens. They're even pink!

Barbie finds a man to drive her to the store and then gives Ken's credit card to another man so he can buy the pens for her. Once a man shows her how to remove the caps and explains what paper is, she's all set and she begins writing a pink, scented, hand-written outline for Ken to turn into a novel about a woman with a zit who is out of concealer. Barbie has always been interested in horror! Unfortunately, no one told her to put the caps back on her pens when she was finished using them. They dry out and Barbie is silenced once again.

4. Barbie: I Can Be A Firefighter!

No, she can't. That hose is really, really heavy, and smoke ages you.

5. Barbie: I Can Be A CEO!

Barbie is on track for a promotion, but then one day she hears two other dolls talking about the glass ceiling. Terrified of bumping her head on the glass ceiling and messing up her hair, Barbie immediately requests a demotion to secretary, but gets fired shortly after because she can't figure out how to take memos without pink lady pens.

If you'd like to see these books on your shelf, share this post and spread the word!

 

But whichever way I go, I come back to the place you are

Do you have a song with your significant other? My husband and I have two songs. The first is Radiohead's Codex, which is our song for each other and is so hauntingly beautiful that I was moved to tears the first time I heard them play it live. The second one is more my song for him. It's Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes - the boombox song from Say Anything. Why, you ask? Well, it's kind of a funny story...

I'm terrified of heights. Like, TERRIFIED. When I was a child I couldn't even go on slides at the park. I'd get halfway up the stairs, stop and lie down, and scream for my mom to come and lift me off of them because I was too paralyzed by fear to move. That could be a metaphor for a lot of things in my life, actually.

I've gotten much better about my fear as I've aged, but I still have my moments outwardly, and internally I will always be clutching the guardrails in my mind while small children gallivant around me like, "Weeee! Heights are so fun and not at all scary! That grown woman over there is a giant weenie!" Such was the case the first time my husband and I attended a sporting event together. 

We're both huge Texas Rangers fans, and after months of watching the Rangers together in bars, we finally got the opportunity to attend a game together with my family. A family friend had purchased the tickets for us as a gift and the seats were, whew. They were way up there. To reach those stratospheric heights, we had to take two gigantic outdoor (read: no walls to keep me from falling over the side to my death) escalators. I've been to the ballpark many a time, so it wasn't my first rodeo, but still. I wanted to curl up and live. Not die; LIVE. As in, not fall off of this fucking escalator.

We rode up the first one and I shut my eyes tightly and jabbered on about how freaked out I was. Zach held my hand and I just reminded myself to take deep breaths, deep breaths. Hee-hee-hoo. We got to the second one, and I started sort of wigging out. I mean, I wasn't throwing myself down on the floor or anything, but I actually took a second to gather myself before stepping on. It could have been ugly. Zach stood with me, and when we stepped onto the escalator he squeezed my hand tightly in his and said, "We're almost there. Wait for the ding. I'm just going to keep talking until that ding happens."

Say Anything is one of Zach's favorite movies, and when he told me to wait for the ding, he was referencing the end of the movie when Diane is afraid of flying and Lloyd is talking her through it. He says:

If anything happens, it usually happens in the first 5 minutes of the flight, right? So, when you hear that smoking sign go ding, you know everything is going to be okay. I’m just going to keep talking until that ding happens, which is going to be soon.

Then the ding happens. Fade to credits.

I don't think my husband realized he was being romantic, but he was, and it's something that's stuck with me ever since. In the months and years following that baseball game, we've had two unplanned children, gotten married, survived numerous family dramas, survived postpartum depression and anxiety, moved across the country, etc. And in 4 years he has yet to let go of my hand. He has yet to stop talking me through to the ding, if I may be so sickeningly metaphorical.

I thought about this last night when we were having a blast decorating our Christmas tree as a family, and I thought about it again this morning when I was at the pediatrician's office for my son's 4-month check-up. I think about it when I'm struggling in my work and my self-image and my daily life. I think about it all the time because I am so lucky, and I forget how lucky I am.

You know, I don't think I am a particularly easy person to love. My husband and I have had to work really hard to have the kind of effortless, loving, trusting relationship we have now. He's had to see me through a lot of personal growth and personal struggles, and I've had to learn how to support him the same way. I get restless and tired, and it's so easy for me to feel trapped in motherhood and marriage and the demands of this life. There are weeks where my head is everywhere but here because it's just so much to be responsible for; it's so much to ask of one person to be and do so many things for other people. It's so easy to take for granted what I have inside these walls and to dream about whatever adventures I think I'm missing outside. It's criminally easy. In fact, I do it all the time.

But in every one of those instances, I come back to the truth that I have found a remarkable partner, lover, and friend in my husband. I come back to this man who chose me - who stands beside me, always - and I choose him again and again, every day. I know it's kind of sappy and lame, and no, it isn't our anniversary or anything. It's just something I think about a lot, and I needed to write it down. 

Here's to holding boomboxes outside of each other's windows eternally.

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Possible Scenarios for Hell...With Toddlers

So, you did it. You died. You roll up to the pearly white gates high on premarital orgasms and liquor consumed before noon, your hands stuffed full of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches procured illegally on a Sunday (you know a guy), and whoever guards the gates - John? Paul? Ringo? - is there waiting for you like a bouncer at a night club. In this particular scenario, it is ladies night at Club Heaven, and you're the dude in a track suit who violates the dress code and can't come in.

Ringo points to the elevator across the street, and you walk over to investigate. The elevator has plain silver doors, no dents, no visible burn marks. Somehow you thought the entrance to hell would be more dramatic. Where's all that fire and brimstone? To the right of the doors is a panel with a single button shaped like an arrow pointing down and another one to go up that can only be accessed with a key. (Really, God? Keys?) You press the "down" button and the doors part with a barely audible "whooosh."

You step inside.

As the doors close and the elevator begins its descent, you're surrounded by the sounds of "Rude" by Magic! Notice how Magic! went ahead and added an exclamation point to the end of their name because they know they're so fucking terrible they must force you to feign excitement about their crap existence. Anyway, they're Magic! And they're accompanying your descent into hell. This is the first sign that maybe you should've been more careful about eating shellfish and wearing mixed fibers.

The doors open and you exit the elevator into an empty room with nothing but a small podium and an iPad opened to a video. It has a Post-It note taped to the front that says, "Play me." You press play and it's - why, it's Ann Coulter!

"Hello, [Your Name Here]. Welcome to Hell. I'm your host, Ann Coulter, also known as Satan. Ann is my human form. Sorry I couldn't be there to greet you in person, but I'm out robbing food banks on Christmas Eve and creating all the content for Fox News. When this video ends, a door across the room will open, and you'll be presented with your eternal reward. Something tells me you're going to have regrets about that tattoo now, Sinner. Enjoy!"

The door across the room opens, and you walk inside to find another empty room. Behind you, the door slams and then disappears. There is no in or out now. This is your personal hellscape. A toddler appears. He explains that he's the fallen angel assigned to your case. He's not actually a child; they all take the form of toddlers. They had a staff meeting and discussed the advantages of various hellacious creatures, but they kept coming back to toddlers as the best, most intense form of punishment. The rest of eternity, he explains, will be spent acting out various toddler-led scenarios. There will be no sleep, only bed-wetting and night terrors, lost blankets, and requests for new socks because these ones feel funny. There will be no wine, no nap time, no internet, and no one is ever coming to relieve you because it is NOT 5 o'clock somewhere. Here is a sample of how you will spend the rest of your days:

1. You're on a staircase with arms full of groceries. The toddler is in front of you. It's 97 degrees and one of your bags is about to break. The toddler wants to go up the stairs on all fours, and also, oh my God, is that a lady bug? I'm scared of lady bugs, Mommy. I'm going to stand very still on this step for 25 minutes, and - Look! Dirt! A French fry someone dropped. I'm going to eat it and your arms are too full to stop me. Let's scream! La-la-la-la-la-la-la. Okay, I'll take another step. Oops. My shoe fell off. I need to go get - Ooh! A rock!

2. You're on the toilet and there is no toilet paper. No one else is home, so you must wait for the toddler to bring you some from the other bathroom. It's been 35 minutes. They've come back to ask you what you're doing 3 times. You hear splashing coming from a room in the house that doesn't have a sink, and you're pretty sure something is on fire.

3. Dinner time. It doesn't matter what you've prepared because it's unacceptable. Make something else, please. What's that? Peanut butter and jelly? Sorry, too spicy. Also, I only like bread every other Thursday.

4. What show do you hate? Put it on. Again, please.

5. Bed time. FOREVER.

6. In the car: What's that? What's that? What's that? Why? Why? What's that? Mom! Mom! Mommy! Mom! What's that? Look! Look! What's that?

7. I'm hungry. It doesn't matter what we're doing. I'm hungry.

8. Are you busy? Is this a bad time? There's no bathroom here, huh? I have to pee right now. Right now. RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOOO - too late. Oh, look! Pee AND poop. This is all so unexpected. I took my extra clothes out of the diaper bag and hid them in the trash can before we left.

9. Five minutes to get out the door. Toddler needs shoes on. They want to do it themselves. Oops, shoes are on the wrong feet. Toddler takes them off, puts them back on, and oops! Wrong feet again. No, no, don't help. Oops! How does this keep happening? Oops! This is insane. How can someone make the same mistake so many times? Oops! I said back off, bitch! I don't need help. Oops!

10. Pediatrician's office. They leave you waiting in the exam room for 25 minutes. Your toddler asks to wash his hands 17 times and licks all the tongue depressors. The doctor finally comes in, and the toddler informs her that McDonald's chicken nuggets are his favorite food, then he says "fuck" and asks to watch Netflix.

Make friends with what you are

Know your fight is not with them;
Yours is with your time here.
Dream your dreams, but don’t pretend.
Make friends with what you are.
— John Mayer, Age of Worry

In fourth grade, my teacher gave me an empty book and asked me to tell her who I wanted to be. It was our big end of year project - our autobiographies - except instead of stopping at fourth grade, we had to go all the way to the end of our lives, which was somewhere around 3,000 for most of us, since 9-year-olds are pretty uncool with the concept of death.

Our autobiographies had to include photos, so we were each instructed to cut people out of magazines to represent ourselves, our families, our future spouses, and our friends. I chose Cindy Crawford to represent me, and I was, of course, married to one Leonardo Dicaprio because Titanic. Hello.

                                                                                           [image credit]

[image credit]

Our children were either nonexistent or some Photoshopped babies I found in a Gerber ad or something. Who cares about them? Oh, also I was a pop star. Basically, this was less fantasy autobiography and more textbook because that's how full of real, credible information it was.

I'd argue that my fourth grade ambitions were pretty standard for a 9-year-old, but I've always harbored unrealistic expectations for my life. I clung to the pop star dream all through high school, and honestly, I sort of clung to the idea that one day I'd wake up as gorgeous as Cindy Crawford too. I started college as an idealistic journalism major, thinking I'd not only write for Rolling Stone one day, but I'd actually end up taking over the magazine. Then I switched my major to English and started imagining my eventual 6-figure book deals and lecturing at Stanford. I've always been a little bit, um, nuts, I guess.

It certainly wasn't ambition. I never actually worked all that hard to achieve any of these insane dreams. I think it was more growing up poor, insecure, and invisible, and all I wanted for myself was just to be seen, to be heard. So, I held tightly to fantasies in which it was impossible NOT to see me, in which I stood out from the crowd in ways that could only ever exist in my dreams. My adulthood has been a slow, steady descent from the clouds, a decades-long reality check with which I'm just now coming to terms. And, funnily enough, smacking into the pavement gave me the tools to create real dreams, real goals, real achievements.

So, welcome to my website. I am Ashley Austrew, and I am a writer. I have zero book deals, and I only give lectures to my toddler when she's dipping toilet paper in the sink and sticking it to the walls. I get paid sometimes to edit things, and sometimes I even get paid to write them. I'm simultaneously drafting a novel and working on a children's book. They both might be terrible. They both might great. The point is, they exist. I'm working towards something. And, this website is a tangible piece of that.