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Opening the Door to Criticism

Back when I was in high school and was still very involved in music, I remember the terror of upcoming performances. A school orchestra concert was fine, but it was the solo moments of performing that always terrified me. It was the recitals, auditions, festivals, competitions, and all that jazz that had me a nervous quaking mess.

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My trophy for six years of consecutive excellent ratings in the Certificate of Merit festival

After failing one audition my senior year, I had a long talk with my private violin teacher where I lamented how my nervousness had destroyed me, even though I’d been very well prepared. Her advice to me is something I’ve never forgotten.

Practice regularly in front of other people, she said. Sit down and make your family and your friends and other people listen to you over and over and over again. And you’ll start to get over some of the jitters. The best thing you can do is practice.

I took her advice for my next piano festival, pulling a few friends aside after class to make them sit in a practice room with me while I played my pieces for them. And it really did seem to help in some respects.

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Me at my violin recital

What I’d never considered before this year, was doing the same thing with writing and the thing I feared above all else: criticism.

I am a sensitive person. I hate hearing negative things, whether about myself or my writing or something else entirely. I just don’t take it well. At all. But the thing is, this last year I decided to do a novel for my senior thesis project. I knew that would involve regular checkups with my professors who would end up reading my works and looking at them critically. I was understandably nervous.

And yes, my first few meetings with my advisors were rough. I was embarrassed and extremely jittery. What I found, however, was that the more I practiced giving my works to others, the easier it became.

I had to do a writing group for one of my classes, I was taking a fiction writing class at the time constantly putting short stories in front of my peers, I sent out a plea on Facebook for readers and gave a few drafts to different friends.

Now, I won’t just pretend I can now hand over a manuscript with absolutely no fear, but I certainly stopped hesitating in hitting a send button to send a section to someone. I stopped having to do three edits before being brave enough to give my work away. I started feeling less hurt every time someone told me something I needed to change or suggested I do a rewrite.

Constructive-Criticism

I think my violin teacher really hit home with the basic concept. The more you get used to something that seems intimidating and difficult, the less scary it becomes. Normalizing and immersing yourself in a fear can help you adjust to it.

So my advice for being more open to criticism may seem a little odd, but the best thing you can do to is to take more of it. Keep giving your work out to people. Keep working on being more open to feedback and realizing it’s helpful. Keep being brave and testing yourself. But also keep recognizing the small victories for what they are. It isn’t easy sharing with others, nor is it easy facing potential negative feedback or more critical points, but like any good thing in life, practice makes perfect.

Here are just a few ideas: join a writing group, put up a Facebook post asking for readers, ask a friend, find an online writing community, ask a mentor, teacher, or professor (for students especially), find a website to post works on, try posting sections of your work on a blog, and just keep an eye out for opportunities to submit works to different places or give it to further readers.

How do you deal with criticism? What methods do you use to be brave? How do you choose who gets to read your work? Just a few good questions to get some conversations rolling. Let me know your thoughts!

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Stormy Skies

I thought about spending some time revising this, but with the amount of essays I have coming up I decided to just post it for your viewing pleasure instead. Here’s another free writing exercise I did for my writing class. We were supposed to write about a scene on a vacation and convey something through the setting. Hope you enjoy it!

Stormy Skies

The beach was under assault. Whenever Ashley had pictured Mexico, she’d thought of sun and sand and clear blue water. But today’s forecast had chosen gray and windy with a chance of hurricane instead. She sat on a chair in her room looking out over the sea, watching the waves crash along the edge of the empty beach. Hotel workers along the strip of wild sea were hastily gathering up beach loungers to be put away until the sun returned. Ashley watched one of the large umbrellas topple down and begin a swirling run along the sand, moving further and further away from the original destination. A worker started chasing after it, shouting something in Spanish to the other men.

Ashley curled tighter under the blanket she’d dragged off the bed. What was there to do in Mexico with awful weather, she wondered. Well, perhaps if the internet was working it would prove a distraction for a few brief minutes. Grabbing for the computer she’d set on the desk Ashley pulled it onto her lap, glad for the warmth, drawing her legs off of the cold tile to meet the heat of the device. She typed in her password, fingers clacking against the keys and echoing in the small chamber.

Once online she scrolled through Facebook before flipping to her email. She let it load for a moment before scanning the ten new messages. It was the third from last that had her fingers pausing over the mouse.

Her brother had emailed her, a rare occurrence to be sure. She opened the little message, smile growing on her face, only to be dimmed as she scanned the actual words.

Dear Ashley,

I know you’re on vacation, but I figured it was better if I told you this now. I hope it doesn’t ruin things for you, but I knew you’d be upset if I didn’t tell you.

Leila was found dead yesterday morning. Her boyfriend found her in the bathroom with her wrists slit. It was a real mess apparently. I guess she’d been off her meds again. I didn’t realize. You probably didn’t either.

I know we haven’t been close for a long time, but I wanted to let you know I’m here for you.

Your brother,

Paul

Ashley stared at the words for a long moment. She was distracted by the clattering nearby as the chair on her porch blew over. She muttered a curse and stood, walking over to the door and opening it, staggering out into the storm, robe flapping. The wind whipped her dark hair into her eyes, blinding her momentarily, but she pushed it aside and hastened over to pull the chair up and tuck it in the porch corner. She grabbed the other one and stacked it on top, hoping the two wouldn’t fly away.

After a long moment she turned to the railing of her hotel, placed her hands against the hard wood, raindrops cold beneath her fingers. The sea air filled her nose, salt and sand forcing their way towards her on the wind. She stared out at the sea, and wondered if this storm would ever end.

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Reality in Fiction, AKA Don’t Anger the Writer

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So I’m working on a novel for my senior project. And it’s about a college freshman who goes to school in Idaho and her weird roommate she lives with, and the problems that go on in their strange relationship. For a true synopsis see my What’s in the Cup page that includes my fiction works summarized for your perusal. However, in writing about a college student, I’ve had multiple people ask me if it’s a true story.

No.

I had a wonderful freshman roommate. We’re still friends and we even lived together a second year and would have lived together this year if housing had worked out better. Sure, I include a few elements of inspiration I found from other parts of life. I mean the roommate first meeting, a few random quirks about living with a different person, and the roommate bonding experience have little bits of truth to them. But the majority of the plot is fiction.

Real life circumstances can be great inspiration. They provide a level of realness to the text, probably help show your real feelings and passions as well. It’s usually not the happy times that really inspire me though. No, it’s the ones where I’m upset or hurt. And sometimes I include those. And other times I don’t. However, I feel like life inspiration requires balance.

A few months back I was working on a fiction piece specifically inspired by real life feelings and circumstances. Sure, it had a lot of fiction thrown in, but it had enough basis in reality that one could easily track what had inspired it. I wanted an outlet for the crazy emotions of the moment. I felt dedicating a book to unrequited love and the pain of that might be meaningful as I wrote about in When a Writer Falls in Love.

However, the circumstances surprised me. I felt overwhelmed by putting all of my life on a page. I worried what people would think of me, became too concerned about how my protagonist would be received, and hit writer’s block at a certain point on realizing some of the story I felt was important was obviously meaningless. My emotional connection to the work was simply too much to deal with.

Similarly, my roommates of last year asked me to write a book loosely based on us. I came up with a crime novel, hoping that would remove some of the reality of the story, but still it was hard to write about real people. I was concerned they wouldn’t like how they were portrayed, sometimes felt I didn’t understand their motivations and actions the same way I do with characters of my own creation. I still do hope to continue working on that one some day, it’s a fun story really, but there are challenges included regardless.

Sometimes I find my writing subconsciously absorbs what I’m dealing with in my life, whether I want it to or not. Writing last year I was dealing with friendship issues and I suddenly found this randomly interspersed:

“The options before her battled fiercely. In the end what did it really come down to? People came and went in everyone’s life. Living as long as she did she knew that this was simply a reality. Friends moved on. Family changed or died or left. And often one was left seeking newness in their life. Her heart, however, was in utter rebellion with this logic. Wendy. Her name was being called by every fiber of Melanie’s being. Smart interesting funny clever Wendy. Did she abandon that for nothing? Or did she cleave instead an infectious tumor beginning to turn malignant? There was no true telling. Would removing this woman from her life remove a part of her very soul? Or could she survive, thrive, come to new life as a result?”

I stare at that looking back. Hold on, did I just write about choosing my own health over friendship? Did I just put myself in one of my character’s shoes? Did the brutal death later represent that coming to an end, my own frustration with all that had happened?

I don’t tend to try to write other characters as people I know. Sometimes it happens. However, I can’t deny there is something therapeutic in letting off steam at people who frustrate me, at situations that are distressing. So, if anyone who ever pisses me off reads my works and wonders “hmm is that me she’s writing about as a villain/brutal murder/pathetic character?” Probably, but you’ll never hear those words from my mouth.  You can simply live knowing that if you make me angry, you’ll likely face the consequences in my fiction.

So yes, writing can emulate life. Sometimes that’s purposefully, using experience to create a greater sense of emotion in writing. Other times, it comes out subconsciously, especially in negative emotions. And sometimes I simply have to separate fiction and reality, because they become too overwhelming together. It largely depends. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see how the two cross over.

Fellow writers, how much do you include real life experiences in your writing? Any other writers relate in how they react to people who have hurt or angered them? Any other remarks to make? Any of my friends suddenly scared?

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Mourning as a Writer

I’ve been writing a new novel lately, hopefully one I’ll get some blog posts out of at some point. But the thing is it reflects a lot on death…and I guess that’s just made me reflect a lot on it too, but also on related issues, like grieving and moving on.

My dog died recently. I initially wasn’t going to mention this, but I feel like it’s relevant. The creature I’d loved for thirteen good long years was suddenly gone, and I’m still at a loss sometimes to explain what I feel. And it’s been tough. In many ways this school year has very much seemed to be one filled with loss, loss I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with as hopelessly as most others who’ve come before me. His death hit me harder than I’d expected, though in loving him for so long, I’m not sure why I’d expect to be so unaffected.

But this was not the only loss I’ve suffered recently. A few months ago I laid to rest one of my favorite novel series I’d been working on, the one that included the first four novels I’d ever written, the one I’d been working on for probably five or six years now. It was unfortunately co-authored, and the other writer wanted to move on to more “mature” things, newer things, fresher things… I suppose in life we change and our writing changes with us. And for a time I thought I was ok with that, thinking moving on to new things wouldn’t be too hard.

I muddled along on my own, then gradually just realized it wasn’t working anymore. Maybe it was like the passion was cut in two without her. Or maybe I simply grew up too, and in time I began to realize there comes a time we grow too old and have to put aside things of the past. Sometimes I feel like the children in Narnia being told they’ve outgrown their beloved kingdom. And regardless, after she left, my characters, my world, my novels seemed to whither and die away. And for a time it seemed like part of me died with them. Maybe it did.

I poured the better part of my young adult life into those books. I had those characters at my sides as I dealt with those awkward teen years, when I cried about not having a date to prom, when I felt alone, when my parents just didn’t understand. They were some kind of a therapy and comfort as I dealt with anxiety, depression, confusion about life and boys and angsty teenage problems.

I buried them all in a swift flash of fury, smacked my hands onto the keyboard to create a little half-sheet apocalypse of my magical world that undid all I’d created. ” The chaos of untold proportion took over, the already potent disease spreading insanity in its wake. ” To give some idea of what happened. Sometimes that’s just how things are for me. A flash of rage and before I realize it I’ve destroyed what I love. Funny how anger is one of those stages of grieving when it seems so utterly different from sorrow.

It has been a few months now. But still sometimes it feels like fire has swept the fields of my imagination. Life is attempting to poke through bits of scorched earth, but it doesn’t have the same strength that it once did. It feels feeble, crippled. My characters feel like half-life’s, something not quite fully created. They speak perhaps a touch on the page, but I do not love them as I used to love. They feel like mere creations rather than friends. I do not sense them with me in those moments I need bravery or inspiration or a little more strength to make it one more day. And sometimes I fear it will be forever, that I will now forever have this sense of loneliness no author should, that I will never again be able to create with the same youthful passion and vibrancy I once did.

But that is the way life works. We grow up. We move on. Things of the past become less important. Goals and ideals and values shift and change like the ever moving tides. People and animals and characters we care about die, leave us, forget about us, move on. There is no control over these. They are simply patterns of life that dictate how we live.

Still, I’ve recognized by now that I’m in mourning, both for my beloved dog, for these stories I once loved, for the parts of myself I that may not be relevant anymore, for the things I’ve lost this year.

Somehow, someway, we move on. Past grief, past pain, past anger. It’s never easy. These feelings may never completely go away. But we find new people to love, we get new pets to share our time with, we write new stories either on the page or in life. Mourning can’t be underestimated. But it is crippling at times. And I only hope I’ll continue to heal, to grow, to move past these darker times towards brighter ones ahead, hopefully filled with better and fresher writing.

This year, more than any other before, I’ve considered throwing in the towel on my life-long dream of writing. I’ve considered giving it up and moving on to new things. For now, this remains something I cling to in spite of the troubles I’ve had. But who knows? Maybe some day writing will leave me too. Nothing is certain I suppose. The sun sets each and every day, sorrows happen, we simply have to hope it will rise again, and that good things too will come once more.

How do you grieve? What things or people or other elements of life have you mourned? What have been the best ways you’ve moved past hard life events? Anyone feel like writing a therapeutic response blog, if so please do.

PS: If I seem pathetic whining over a dog and some writing I no longer have, I apologize. My intention is not to make my spoiled life sound ridiculously hard, but rather to interconnect the human experience of loss and moving on, something I hope others can relate to as well in whatever means they can.

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Past vs. Present

So, I’ve been pondering more about the actual craft of writing thanks to taking a fiction writing class recently. And I’m sure I have many important things to say, but today in class I was startled to accidentally listen in on a conversation in class (I know I’m terrible).

“I’m so bad at writing in past tense,” one person says (see what I did here!).

“Well, from what I’ve heard you should mostly try to write in present anyways,” the other in the group says. “So it’s good you’re already writing that way. Everything I’ve heard says that’s how you should write.”

I had to stop myself from interjecting myself into the conversation, giving away the fact that I was eaves dropping. And besides, I didn’t want to look like a snob. But I was very confused by what these non-English majors were saying. You are supposed to write in present tense? What on earth? Where had they learned that?

I am not usually a fan of present tense. It was one of my main complaints with The Hunger Games. I’ve always felt it’s a bit awkward and clunky and the few times I’ve started writing in present tense, I invariably end up switching back to past by the end. It’s like a magic trick of mine. Ta-da! Past tense again.

The thing is, most narratives are written in past tense. It’s tradition. In fact, until more recently past was all people wrote in. Present is a recent development. Classic books: Great Gatsby– Past tense, Wuthering Heights– past tense, Frankenstein- past tense, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn– past tense. Just a few I have on hand to check. I’m not sure how these two were so misinformed, or maybe I just missed parts of the conversation and they were referring to something else. But nonetheless, there is a tradition of past tense.

That’s not to say you can’t write in present tense. Well-known books have used this technique, such as The Hunger Games, All Quiet on the Western Front, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Handmaid’s Tale, Room to name a few.

In fact some of these books I like quite a bit, so it’s interesting to me to realize I didn’t notice the style in some of these books, and yet in others it felt strange.

As with all writing styles and choices, there are advantages to either. Present tense sometimes helps to give a sense of being in the moment, it’s easier to write with showing rather than telling. I know one of my best pieces on here “Closing the Door” was helped along by my use of present tense. But past tense sometimes creates more narrative flow, it’s common place. If you look at fairy tales or other traditional narrative forms that’s usually the tense that’s used. If you’re going to kill off characters present tense might be better though because otherwise you wonder who’s narrating (at least in first person). They’re telling their tale from beyond the grave? What?

I honestly can’t even process all the reasons why you should choose one over the other, but it’s certainly a big question. Which do you prefer as a writer? What do you see as advantages or disadvantages? Are there stories you liked in present tense vs. past tense? Goodreads has a nice list of present tense books here, but be wary because I noticed there are a few mistakes (like David Copperfield). Always good to hear other’s thoughts on the matter. Just had to share my own on this conversation I overheard.

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What’s in a Protagonist?

I’m back! November has been insane but here’s a new post ready to be read for December since I’m getting back on track with writing.

My Thanksgiving weekend consisted of the standard relaxing and eating good food. But one little point stood out to me. And that was the movie my brother and I went to see.

Nightcrawler. I’d never heard of it before, but I decided to check it out in the name of spending time with family and enjoying my evening. To sum it up it tells the story of a man who takes up work as a “freelance journalist” filming crime and accidents in the area and selling them to major news organizations. Slight spoiler alert…he ends up taking things a bit too far.

Really, he ends up being a bit of a psychopath… but as I’ve read many psychopaths are, he’s charming and kind of funny in his own quirky kind of way, and he knows how to draw people in with ease. So in spite of it all, it’s difficult to really hate him the way you’d think would be so easy.

As I sat there that evening thinking over my emotional reaction, I wondered about what really makes a protagonist an audience can follow. I recently read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure for class and had trouble stomaching it simply because I hated all of the main characters. I didn’t find anyone I really liked or admired. So I brushed it off as disliking the characters as my reason for not having any interest in the play.

But was that the cause? If I can become interested in the story of someone with such low morals, then does character really play that big of a role? Or is simply a matter of story, or other elements that form my opinions?

I was recently working on a book and thought about how my character’s low self-esteem might negatively effect readers opinions of her. I was worried maybe because the classic “to get others to love you you must love yourself” might ruin my story. But now I’m not really sure anymore.

If you google greatest literary characters you end up with types like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Sherlock Holmes, Tintin, Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet, Matilda, Jane Eyre, The Cat in the Hat, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, Beatrice in Muchado About Nothing, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Frankenstein’s monster, Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, Peter Pan, Pip from Great Expectations etc etc etc . Try it yourself and see what pops up or check out NPR’s 100 best listed here.

What are the similarities between all of these? Nothing other than all being entirely dissimilar. We have little girls and old men, romantics and obsessed madmen, lawyers and detectives, monsters and men, magical and utterly normal, super smart and somewhat dull, animals and humans, royalty, millionaires, crooks, orphans, and more. Everyone has their own favorites, but those who seem to be universally recognized in some capacity still remain quite different, not the standard heroes one might think would first be listed.

So is there an ideal main character type? Audiences often hate larger than life perfect ones, but someone selfish and rude or utterly prideful might push them away too. How does one build a perfect character? That is a tricky question to be sure.

Does anyone have any smart ideas on what makes for a good main character? Is there a way to build an ideal type that most people will like, or is it just a random process? I’m tempted to start doing character studies after this and find out what seems to be a common theme amongst them. But for now I’m simply left to ponder.

Any thoughts from my readers? Is there a certain character you love the most? What characters on mainstream lists do you most agree are legendary fictional achievements? What do you like to do in making your own characters.

Well, hoping to be back writing regularly for the rest of the month. Be on the lookout for more!

 

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Deepest Blue- A Writing Prompt

So I’m responding to yet another writing prompt in an attempt to get myself going on being productive. I’ve been impossibly uninspired lately, which has been frustrating. This response is a bit depressing as it’s from a very troubled character’s point of view. Anyhow, so here’s a little bit of a novel I’m currently in the progress of writing with this section written to fit the prompt.

Take a point in your story where a character is traveling, whether it’s a long or a short journey. Describe not only what your character sees, but also how it makes her feel, what it reminds him of, the emotions evoked.

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Deepest Blue

A rather unexpected journey met me that day. I don’t really know how it started, only that I went to my car with my backpack, hopeful to escape the realities of the day. I slipped into the driver’s seat and I was off, driving down the road without a second thought.

For a spring day in Washington the weather cooperated beautifully, sun shining, only a few sprinkles here and there. A rainbow stretched above me, a distraction painted in the sky. And a reminder of renewal, divinity, and promises. I took it as a blessing for my journey and I drove on.

Time faded, blended together, became some unchanging entity as I passed little seaside towns, gazed out at the ocean I’d finally fixed my mind upon seeing on my Saturday trip. Blue. Beautiful calming blue.

It brought back old memories of different times. Of being fifteen and begging a sign. Of closed eyes filling with a different color than the traditional black but instead of cleansing azure, cerulean, sapphire, the deepest richest shades imaginable dancing there before my very eyes. A sign. A symbol. Blue.

I pulled my eyes from the waves, not wanting to linger on these fleeting images of the past. After all, I’d been told doing too much of that was a poor idea. Then again I’d also been told not to drive anywhere by myself. Especially somewhere isolated. And here I was breaking that rule without a care in the world.

My driving came to a slow stop along a small rocky section of beach that didn’t appear to be private property, and yet didn’t seem to be highly popular either. I scanned the shore in either direction and saw no one. And so, I grabbed for my blanket and backpack, and set out to go sit on these lonely shores.

My gaze was drawn once more to the vast waters as I made a small safe place for myself. My little square of blanket on the rocky ground, a haven I’d invented, my hermit’s house, sitting on the rocky beach to look out upon the waters. I found the horizon let my eyes linger  there. I had only been to the beach twice before on family vacations, but I remembered even then how I felt drawn to the water, as though the ebb and flow of the tide was dragging me in with it, pulling me out to sea.

A buzz from my phone interrupted me, and I looked down to see Brielle’s name flash across the screen, the urgency magnified somehow by the quietness of the scenery around me. I looked at it for a brief moment, then placed the obnoxious electronic back into my bag to ignore for later.

I pulled out the paper, began scribbling down my thoughts.
The ocean had always represented the immensity of this life. And the minisculity of my own little brief blip of an existence. There was certainly a sense for me of standing before something that seemed so eternal and unchanging (though from a scientific standpoint I’m sure I might determine it is not). I felt ephemeral. Fleeting. And I allowed those feelings to linger in spite of all the past advice I knew would contradict it.

And then there was the little moment I considered simply going and walking into the waves, letting them close in over me in healing azure. And it would all be over and done. My blip would finish, cease to exist. And no one would remember any differently.

I rose once it was all down on paper and looked towards the sun sinking back into the sea, the ocean swallowing up the orange glowing orb in an illusion of power. Perhaps too this should be where my light is dimmed too, absorbed into these cold northern waters.

And yet I walked back to the car before temptation could take me.

I drove slowly. I tended to be careful in the first place, but today was different. I let people honk, speed past me, wave a finger at me in some disgusted manner. But I was indifferent, focused only on the asphalt bathed in orange light, the sparkling waters slowly disappearing back into the trees as my path carried me from the coast. I let myself drink in the scenery, wondered if I should hold onto the day or forget it ever existed.

The phone rang as I caught one last fleeting glimpse of sea. I answered this time, though with all that had traversed my mind I was too wearied to truly put the fakeness into my voice such a call would require.

“Hello?” I said as I pressed the button to put the phone on speaker.

“Where are you?” she asked immediately, her garbled voice still chiming with some level of anxiety through the little speaker.

“I went for a drive.”

“For half a day!” Brielle hissed.

I shrugged and then of course realized this was useless when conversing through a cell phone. “I felt like driving. I’ll be back in an hour or two.”

There was a long pause and I let it go, relieved to have a bit of silence for a moment, unused to voices after such a long period by myself.

“Did you think about what we talked about yesterday?”

I stared out at the road watching it wind and curve, to where I could not see, only because I’d looked up directions did I know it would take me home. Life. This was just like life. I was so caught in the beautiful image that I almost forgot to respond.

“Yes,” I whispered.

“And?” she asked, attempting to sound casual but the rising tone only adding to my image of her pacing through our shared living room.

“And I…I think I’m going to do it,” I said with a long sigh. “Just let me get home first.”

Brielle’s smile could be heard in her voice. “Really? Good, I’m so glad. Drive safely I’ll see you soon.”

I hung up and focused back on the winding road. I would drive it for now, enjoy the sights along the way. But Brielle was right. I required a destination, a goal. Life was short. I had minimal time to drive these roads. I settled into my seat as my eyes wandered to the taillights in front of me, night closing in fast. I’d drive in the direction Brielle had told me attempting to reach my target. And if not the gardens I so longed for, then I’d settle for the depths of the sea I had only narrowly escaped.

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