Quick: when was the last time you royally fucked something up? As in, “This was my fault and absolutely preventable; what was I thinking?”
Feel free to share it in the comments after reading this, but let me tell you one of my experiences. I’ve never talked about this with non-family members because it’s embarrassing to think about. I’ve always wanted to just pretend it never happened. We learn, and we can become better people. But before that, we mess up pretty bad. And then we still mess up pretty bad later, just in different ways.
When I was a teenager, I occasionally had to babysit my younger siblings. This usually went smoothly (it was only supposed to be for an hour at most), but sometimes we fought. At the time of this exact fight, my sister was about seven years old. She began jumping on her bed. I told her to stop, and she wouldn’t. I probably yelled and repeated myself–a fourteen or fifteen year old expects a strange amount of respect, don’t you think? But I did. I yelled and expected her to listen because I was the Mom & Dad-approved babysitter.
And then she said something that came out as an insult at the time. She yelled, “Goth!” the same way you would say, “Fucking asshole!” I don’t know where she learned or heard the word. Did I often dress goth? Yes, and while it wasn’t an everyday thing, it was frequent enough that I had to deal with certain classmates saying “Goth” the same way my little sister was saying it then. That doesn’t excuse what I did, but I think it explains where the emotions were when I acted.
I was so angry, and, instead of processing the emotion (I can’t even feel safe in my own home! Jeez, teenagers are hormonal), I picked up something and threw it with remarkable accuracy at Danielle’s face. I had picked up a piece of bookshelf backing– you know, that compressed cardboard stuff that isn’t quite wood but not quite cardboard, either? There was a squarish piece somewhere and I threw it the way you would throw a ninja star. The square flipped end over end towards my sister, struck her in the forehead, and she screamed out in pain. I hadn’t expected it to hit her. I hadn’t expected, if it did hit her, for it to hurt. That stuff is so flimsy, you know?
But the side of that cardboard hit her dead-on, on her forehead, and with the kind of force that didn’t even make her bleed. Instantly, the skin beneath her bangs was blue-black, with a seemingly cauterized crack swelling up rapidly.
Here’s the worst part: while she was crying in pain (and probably a good amount of fear and confusion), all I could think about was how this would look to the parents. I asked her not to tell Mom and Dad, please, I was so sorry, I was so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt her, but if she told Mom and Dad it would be so bad, or something. When she calmed down, she agreed. I called my mother and told her that my sister had been jumping on the bed and fallen. I said that she had hit her head on the bookshelf. Mom seemed to half-believe me (or maybe I was paranoid because I rarely lied) and focused on discussing the wound and what kind of medical attention it did or did not need with my grandmother, retired nurse.
It wasn’t until years later that I finally confessed to my mother. My sister and I are great friends nowadays, but I’ll always feel like the biggest piece of shit on the planet for being so reckless, selfish, and deceitful.
On that note, let me introduce our writing challenge and the book it’s based on:
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
“Exquisite, cruelly wise and the opposite of reassuring, these stories linger like dreams and will leave readers looking over their shoulders for their own ghosts.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
This blog isn’t intended to be a book review site, but I have to say just a little bit about Get in Trouble. First, it’s a collection! Of short stories! Until now I’ve only written regarding novels. What each story in Get in Trouble has in common is just what the title suggests: all manner of fucking up. Characters face their desires and aren’t sweet about making their dreams a reality. They make hard choices, and sometimes they make the easy choices in the face of scary-looking forks in the road. I clearly know what that’s like.
My favorite short story here was “Secret Identity”, set in a world of superheroes as common as dentists. The main character herself is constantly told she could be a sidekick, but she bucks the idea; she’s only at the hotel convention center to meet someone she’s been exchanging romantic correspondence with. This person, whom the main character bonds with inside a MMORPG, has said they are a man, a dentist, and thirty-four years old. The main character has been lying about who she is. I’ll let you read the story yourself to find out what choices she makes.
Your Writing Challenge: Confront Failure
Here’s a fork in the road: your failure, or your character’s.
The Left Path: Your failure. First, brainstorm or list your writing strengths and weaknesses. I love this technique described by Gabriel Roth, but you can just do my actually short version, too.
For example, if you are good at dialogue, maybe your challenge is to practice narrative. Or maybe, expand the cloud around ‘dialogue’ to include different kinds of dialogue and subtext. Where is your weakness there? Whatever you’re weakest at may actually be an important skill to master. You probably skirt the confrontation, the possibility of failure, the way intermediate artists skip the difficult task of drawing hands by sketching models whose hands are behind them. This is a limitation.
It’s not quite the same as getting in trouble, but the process hits the same emotions that Link’s collection does.
The Right Path: Your character’s failure. How does your character fuck up? Picture them having a nightmare in which they have tried to get to the airport on time, only to be distracted by a taco stand and somehow completely forget that they had a plane to catch. What is going on in their real life to make this dream happen? Or, write the nightmare they’re foreseeing: what is scaring them at this point in the story? What five things will they readily do before facing down that fear, and will they be too late when they’re actually ready?
Your Culinary Challenge: Battle Adrenal Fatigue
Are you stressed? I’m stressed. Just from reading short stories that don’t hold back the emotional punches and laying bare my own painful story, my stomach keeps clenching up. We can’t keep a steady state like this, though, and I recently saw this video:
I decided to try one of the snacks. Whether or not they actually fight ‘adrenal fatigue’ and help lower stress, they’re definitely a healthy option for snack time. After combining apples, celery, and dates, it’s now a regular meal option for me, either as a veggie/fruit side for something else (mmm, fish and chips) or as a light snack between meals. Here’s how I prepare it:
Ingredients: 2 stalks of celery, 1/4 apple, sliced thin and small, 1/4 cup of dates, and lemon juice (optional; squeeze over the apple pieces).
Directions: Cut the celery into 1-inch-long valleys, where you place the dates and bits of apple. Eat. Enjoy. Repeat.
I tried one of the other combinations from the video (sweet potato, chard, and lemon), but I failed. Horribly. I couldn’t eat the chard (I roasted it from frozen after unsuccessfully following the bag’s directions for stewing with tomatoes –I had no tomatoes– and paprika).
So maybe you can help me out. Try making that or any of the other combinations and get at me with your recipe. In the face of failure, community can be just as important as bravery.