Being A Writer Has Made Me A Bad Wife, Dog Mom, Housekeeper & Employee

Writing takes up a lot of mental real estate.

You need room for characters to be born and mature. You’re always observing–people, the environment, situations–for beautiful descriptions, interesting turns of phrase, or plot inspiration.

If you’re outlining or revising a story, your mind is completely overtaken by the minutiae of perfecting your plot. Without warning, an idea will come to you–perhaps in the middle of a conversation–and you have to stop what you’re doing to write it down before if flies away.

If you’re a writer, you’re always lost in those made-up worlds, oft-times oblivious to the real one around you. And that’s why being a writer has made me suck at life just a little.

I’m an absentee wife. Neglectful dog mom. Distracted employee. And a really crappy housekeeper.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Your marriage! Care to join me?

People with busy minds need exterior calm.

Seriously–I have entire worlds unfolding in my head. Characters being born, then talking. To each other and to us. Works in progress, playing in my subconscious. Visions–of faces, or homes, or entire plots–that pop in and out like intrusive neighbors.

So when my dear spouse has a story to tell, or a problem, or simply wants to go do something, I may not be in any condition to listen, advise, or leave the house.

Of course, the natural state of the writer isn’t a comatose, selfish, and temperamental pain in the ass. That’s just how we feel when we’re in revision mode. Or waiting for our editors to return a manuscript. Or trying to work through a thorny plot issue.

So just don’t just burst in, interrupting my characters’ very important conversations. Wait a minute. Let me take a breath, calm my mind and prepare myself for real-world activities.

Given this preoccupation, I simply may not be emotionally available at a moment’s notice. And that’s not very convenient, nor does it make me a very good partner. But of all the shortcomings I try to mitigate, this is the one I work at the hardest.

‘Want to play mom?’ the dog pleaded. ‘Just one more minute!’ the writer answered.

Violet, the redbone coonhound, is just over a year old. When she was little, we spent our mornings in my office, where I write. She was a rambunctious, very energetic and mischievous puppy. She’s still all those things, but now thirty pounds heavier.

She went through this phase where she wanted to play but didn’t know how to ask. So she’d sit in the middle of the floor and stare at me while barking incessantly. Or she’d tug on my clothes–sleeve, hem of a dress, pant leg.

That phase has passed. She asks to place nicely now. But it’s often when I’m writing, since that was the routine from her puppy days. We’ll tug, we’ll play catch. I’ll indulge her for maybe five minutes, then I’ll turn back around to my computer.

If it’s not enough, she’ll ask again and again, until she’s all played out.

I never say no to play time. But I always stop it before she’s ready, because I’m on a deadline, self-imposed or determined by my editor. I write in the mornings, and need a break before I go to work. This writing time is precious, and I only have so much left over to play.

And every time I cut fetch or tug short, I feel guilty.

Writing, then work

My day job is perfect for writing.

It’s easy. It requires little mental energy. It’s (usually) stress-free. I work at the family business, a very busy restaurant that serves pizzas, subs, and wings. I run the kitchen, manage the employees.

My mind is able to wander while frying wings or rolling pizza dough. I can mine the customers for character quirks, and use their personal stories for inspiration. And it gets me out of my head and into the world, doing something physical. That’s important for a writer.

I work with my husband and in-laws. I’m allowed to be on my phone, which is the life line to my creative world. I can jot down ideas that pop into my head. Receive emails from my editor. Do some quick, furtive research.

My job is second in my list of professional priorities. I’m never fully present when I’m there–I always have one foot in my imaginary world. I care about my job, in so far as I appreciate its value in supporting my writing career.  Though I enjoy it, immensely, I’d still rather be writing.

Writing comes first. It’s a good thing I work with family, because chances are, anyone else would fire me.

Move over life, I’m trying to be creative

Here’s a list of things that need to be done in my house.

Clean the fridge. There’s some sticky stuff on the shelf. It’s been there for a long time and I have no idea what it is.

Organize the cupboards. They’re full of crap I don’t remember buying.

Clean my office. It’s a mess; there are piles and piles of random stuff everywhere.  I wonder what’s hiding beneath them…

Sweep my floors. The aforementioned redbone is expert at making messes. I need to start cleaning them up.

I could go on, but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a hog. I’m not. I keep my house just clean enough. That’s what I have time for. It doesn’t stink, I keep up with the dishes and cleaning the bathrooms. It’s fine.

But could it be cleaner? Yes. Absolutely. Do I have time? Maybe next week…

Despite all my failings at life, I’d argue that it’s a small price to pay for what I’ve achieved. Three books under my belt, soon to be published, and I think they’re pretty darn good.

And after all the damage I’ve probably done, my husband and dog still love me for some reason, and the house will get cleaned.

Eventually.

Click here to read the first three chapters of my book, “Wicked Innocents.”

Seven Ways Criminals Would Use Magical Powers to Wreak Havoc on the World

Where there is a human problem, someone has devised a magical incantation to deal with it.

If it actually worked, magic would be the easy way out. Human beings love the easy way out, the simplest route around an obstacle. I know I do. If I had a choice between working hard to get what I want and flicking a wand and having it appear, I’m not ashamed to admit I’d flick that wand.

I’d use spells to clear acne, stop a stomachache, ensure safe passage for traveling relatives, or make me speak another language fluently. I’d definitely use the one that allows me to teleport or be invisible. I wouldn’t think twice about it.

And because I’m a (relatively) good person, I’d like to believe that, should I be blessed with magical powers, I wouldn’t use those powers to do bad things, like curse those who scorn me with dandruff, bunions and red traffic lights.

Let’s imagine for a moment that magic is a natural ability one is born with and can’t acquire. This ability is gifted randomly, meaning to both good and bad people. It’s a chaotic and unpredictable ability, wielded by creatures with free will in a society that values individual rights.

Think of all the extra precautions and security measures that would have to be in place to prevent magically-facilitated crimes. Citizens could never let your guard down or relax, because at any moment anyone could be victimized.

And you know the victims would most certainly be the easiest, most vulnerable targets: people who were not blessed with magical powers and can’t really fight back.

As wonderful as Harry Potter makes it look, I think a world with magic would be an absolute nightmare. In that world, anyone could get anything they want, any time.

Including criminals.

A world with magic would be a world rife with crime, because the obstacles preventing or stymieing crime wouldn’t exist. Magical powers meant for good would also be used for evil.

With this philosophy in mind, I’ve devised a rather grim list: seven hypothetical spells/incantations/charms that would most certainly be used to commit crime.

A Spell To Overcome Barriers

Without magic, burglars have to pick locks, break windows, or pry open doors to gain access to your home. That trail of destruction is a trail of evidence, leading back to the perpetrator.

Imagine a world where this criminal can just mutter a few nonsense words and the lock to your door simply unlatches for him. Or perhaps the window glass silently melts away and climbs right in. I couldn’t sleep soundly in such a world.

A Spell That Makes Objects Come to You

I’d use this one to fetch the remote control without getting up. Because I’m lazy.

The more criminally-minded would use it to lift your wallet from your pocket. Float your laptop off your desk and through an open window. Surreptitiously steal your prescription narcotics right from your medicine cabinet.

If a magical thief wants something, and there’s an open path to get it, he’d certainly use this spell.

A Spell To Slow People Down

In a foot chase with police, a criminal would have an advantage thanks to this spell. He could just flick his wand over his shoulder and recite the words and boom–the cop’s legs buckle beneath him and he falls to his knees. The criminal’s escape from the law is assured.

Or, alternately, a criminal is attacking a victim who’s just a little too feisty for his own good. He just uses this spell to slow him down and the victim is unable to defend himself. Perfect. The criminal is free to complete his felony without further impediment.

A Spell To Teleport Or Become Invisible

I would use teleportation to travel. Think of the money saved on airplane tickets!

But once again, being able to teleport from one location to another in a split second would just make the criminal’s life easier. With this power, he can leave the scene of a crime without a trace. He can get out of dodge, mid-misdeed, as soon as the police arrive.

As to being invisible–the advantages there are obvious. How easy would it be for a serial killer to stalk a victim if the killer couldn’t be seen? How hard it would be for a victim to fight back against an invisible attacker? And forget about witnesses. They can’t report what they can’t see.

A Spell to Wipe Memories

This is the perfect power to cover your tracks. If, somehow, the criminal’s powers of invisibility don’t work, he could simply wipe the witness’s memory. He could wipe the memories of the victims who remember critical details or the detectives close to tracking him down. He could wipe the memory of everyone who ever knew him and navigate society anonymously.

A Spell To Cause Pain

The violent magical criminal could cause physical pain in one of two ways, neither of which would require him to lay a hand on his victim. Unless that’s his thing, of course.

He could inflict pain that doesn’t leave a mark, igniting his victim’s sensory receptors and nerves from a comfortable distance, as much or as little as he wants. Or he could recite a spell that slashes and cuts and stabs flesh, or restricts airways without using his hands.

No physical contact means no physical evidence. It would be as if his victims were killed by a phantom.

A Spell to Control Someone’s Mind

While you could use any other of these spells for benign reasons–to lazily fetch the remote, travel to Paris, or cut veggies–this one doesn’t have an innocent application. If you want to manipulate someone else’s mind, no matter the reason, you’re simply up to no good.

Such a criminal could convince a detective to investigate another suspect. Force an innocent person to commit crimes for him. Create more willing victims. Or convince others that his crimes aren’t crimes at all.

So, to conclude, I don’t wish for a world filled with magic. If somehow mankind evolved enough to develop magical abilities, I think that would spell apocalypse. Call me cynical, but mankind must be limited.

Without the benefit of magical powers to make his plans easier to achieve, mankind has already wreaked havoc and destruction upon himself and the planet.

Let’s not give him magical powers, too.

Photo Courtesy Pexels

Click here to read the first three chapters of my book, “Wicked Innocents.”

Touched by the Devil: The Year H.H. Holmes Lived in My Neighborhood

Mooers is one of those Northern New York towns that doesn’t look like a town at all. It’s just a collection of houses and a few rundown old buildings you drive by on your way down U.S. Route 11.

If you’re passing through Mooers and its hamlet, Mooers Forks, you’re probably on your way to or from Canada or Plattsburgh. The only people who linger long are the people who live there.

Most rural towns are like that.

There’s a border crossing there and that’s how I know Mooers Forks. Just over the border is the Quebecois town of Hemmingford. You pass through it to get to Parc Safari, a very unique zoo every child in the Northern New York has visited at least once.

But Mooers Forks is hiding something in its history. That’s the other problem with rural towns. Our most interesting days are behind us.

The secret story in this sleepy little hamlet is about a serial killer. A man who said, years later, of his quiet time in Mooers Forks: “Here I stayed for one year doing good and conscientious work.”

And then H.H. Holmes moved to Chicago and brutally murdered hundreds of people.

Blue-Eyed Stranger

I imagine small towns haven’t changed much since 1885, when H.H. Holmes decided to move to Mooers Forks. He was 25 and a doctor, with dark hair and blue eyes. He reportedly awed the local women, who were likely bored of the same dozen male faces they’d seen all their lives. I’m familiar with the feeling.

According to a 2006 article in Adirondack Life on the serial killer’s stay in the North Country, Mooers Forks was a bustling town in 1885. It had a “hotel, a couple of restaurants, creamery, grainery, railroad depot” and a school house.

Herman Webster Mudgett was fairly familiar with the area. He went to school in Burlington, Vermont, just a quick hop from Mooers Forks across Lake Champlain. He grew up in New Hampshire. He was familiar with small towns but according to Annie Stoltie’s article, he found Burlington–a cultured metropolis compared with its surroundings–to be “too bumpkin.”

Mooers Forks was more bumpkin than Burlington, but he found a group of people there willing to believe he was a good man. They trusted him.

And he may have rewarded their trust by killing one of their own.

Principal H.H. Holmes

Holmes once said of himself that he was “born with the devil in me.”

Holmes’ “Murder Castle” in Chicago. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But the people in Mooers Forks didn’t see a devil. They saw a nice man with “gentlemanly manners.” And they trusted those manners enough to appoint H.H. Holmes principal at their two-story school house, the Winter School on Pepperhill Road.

Holmes said later that he was paid in gratitude, not money, and money is what he desperately needed. He recalled facing starvation and had to sell his horses.

Life in the cold North Country wasn’t for everybody–and still isn’t.

Erik Larson, who wrote “The Devil in the White City” about H.H. Holmes, speculated that the dapper doctor dug up corpses in local cemeteries to get by. It was a scam he performed well and often: filing fake policies and presenting the corpses ostensibly attached to those policies, then collecting the insurance clam money.

The most disturbing and haunting chapter in this strange story is the mystery of a missing boy–a student at the Winter School who was last seen with the gentlemanly principal. H.H. Holmes told the neighbors that the boy went home to Massachusetts.

I wonder if people bought the story. Larson claimed that the locals would never have believed the “charming Mr. Mudgett could harm anyone, let a child.”

But the thought must have crossed someone’s mind.

Devil in the North Country

Of course, 1885 was the time before “serial killer” was a common term. H.H. Holmes has since been granted the lofty title of America’s first serial killer, though I think that title should be revised to the first known serial killer.

The people who lived in Mooers Forks in 1885 weren’t accustomed to seeing devils like H.H. Holmes. One-hundred-thirty-three years later, people here still aren’t. We’ve seen evil and murder and cruelty, but Holmes was a different creature.

I first learned about his stay in the North Country in a Facebook post made in a group called “History and Legends of the Adirondacks.” I tracked down the Adirondack Life article, went to my local library, and had the article copied. Someday, I’ll investigate further, because the tale haunts me.

A report on H.H. Holmes’ confession. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Since reading this article, I’ve often imagined a scene. Of H.H. Holmes, young and twisted, but not yet a serial killer, sitting next to a young boy in a carriage. For some reason it’s winter and the carriage glides across a sheet of unbroken snow. Flakes drift slowly to earth, dusting the shoulders of the child and his killer.

Holmes guides the horses further and further away from town, into the quiet North Country woods. All is silent. The boy, thinking he is in the safe company of his school principal, suddenly and violently learns he is mistaken.

And I remember this quote, from H.H. Holmes himself.

I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.

Source:

“Murderer in Mooers Forks: When the Devil Came to Town,” by Annie Stoltie. Adirondack Life, March/April 2006.

Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Click here to read the first three chapters of my book, “Wicked Innocents.”

The Allure Of Other People’s Lives: Why We Can’t Mind Our Own Business

You never know what goes on behind closed doors.

My mother said this often when I was growing up, usually after learning something unexpected about an acquaintance, co-worker, celebrity–whomever.

The thought always frightened me and I often studied friends and strangers with suspicion, wondering: “what do you do that no one knows about?”

Perhaps they did drugs. Or their house was unimaginably filthy. Or their family had nightly, ritualistic fist-fights. I usually imagined abuse of some sort, and I think this is what my mother was alluding to.

As I’ve gotten older and society has become so open, I’m often aghast when I learn what people do in their private lives, from the obscene to the bizarre. And I’ve only grown more interested.

But why do I care about what other people are doing? Why do people care about what I’m doing?

Why can’t we all just mind our own business?

You Won’t Believe What He Did!

Talking behind each other’s backs is hard-wired into our brains, so it seems. Where there are groups of people, there’s gossip.

Anthropologists think gossip is the glue that bonds people together. We also use it to exclude and isolate people who aren’t contributing to the well-being of the group. Think of a group of hunter-gatherers like an ancient version of an office. There’s always that one berry picker who doesn’t pull her weight, taking breaks while the others fill their baskets. Gossip may be a way to motivate her to try harder. If she doesn’t, she’ll end up alone.

In other words, we bond over shared frustrations and sometimes hatred. It’s a survival tactic. If we align with other people, we have a better chance of surviving. If we tick off the group and become the subject of gossip, we may just die.

Underlying gossip, of course, is judgment. And this common human habit also serves a purpose: it’s much easier to judge than it is to understand.

Who Does He Think He Is?

We judge because we don’t have time to figure out why everyone around us is doing whatever it is they do. We don’t have time to figure out their motivations.

It’s easier for us to conclude someone is being rude to us because they’re a jerk than it is to figure out why they may be acting like a jerk in that moment. It’s a difference between situational versus personality attributions; the former is the understanding kind, the latter the judgey one.

In order to truly understand someone else, we have to know the actual motivation behind their actions, which is a very complicated thing. In the absence of that, we draw our own conclusions. So being judgmental is just plain lazy.

As part of this laziness, we speculate, we offer opinions based on our speculations, we condemn and demean based on those opinions.

But we never actually look behind that closed door.

He Should Be More Like Us

People like to tell me the intimate details of their lives. I have one of those faces, apparently. Or maybe they can sense I’ll actually listen.

The other day, a perfect stranger told me about his lifestyle choices. He has a kid he barely knows, but never wanted kids at all. He divorced his wife after seven years of marriage. He has no interest in getting married again, but has had lots of girlfriends.

He wisely acknowledged two things about himself: he doesn’t want to negotiate every decision in his life with another person, and he’s selfish. Good for him, I thought, for knowing this about himself. He knows what he can give to another person, and what he can’t. Most of us don’t understand ourselves this well.

But people judge him, brutally, for his lifestyle choices. They think he should live like them, and if he doesn’t, something is wrong with him. “Like them” means the heterosexual, nuclear family. Mom, Dad, two kids.

I listened to this man explain the “why” behind his choices. It was simple: he just doesn’t want the same things as everyone else.

But the people who judge him don’t ask why. They compare his life to theirs, and determine theirs is better. They isolate him through gossip, because he’s not contributing to society by adhering to its norms. Perhaps their beef is with the fact that he’s not reproducing. Perhaps they feel he’s not doing his share or he has it easy. Unlike them, he’s not struggling through life to support a family, but instead coasts through with freedom and plenty of money and no responsibilities. Regardless, what this man decides to do with his life is still nobody’s business. He’s not hurting anyone; if anything, he’s hurting himself.

But despite all the natural drives that explain gossip and judgment–which make sense–I’m still left wondering why we care how other people live.

With some exceptions, what other people do behind closed doors doesn’t affect us. So are we interested out of morbid curiosity? In general, we’re afraid of what we don’t know–not knowing the private lives of our neighbors is a scary thought if they’re evil people. What about insecurity and jealousy? We have to know that what we’re doing and what we have is better, so we can live with ourselves and, theoretically, be happy.

Perhaps the human habit of “not minding our own business” is a way to measure ourselves. Alone, without anything to compare ourselves to, we’d have no idea how we’re doing. When we pry into the lives of others, we’re really searching ourselves.

YOUR TURN

Why do you think we’re so interested in other people’s lives? Have you ever been the subject of malicious gossip? Have other people ever openly judged your lifestyle choices?

Photo Courtesy Pexels

Empathy for a Killer: Why We Can’t Ignore Ted Bundy’s Grotesque Story

Serial killers fascinate me. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Jeffrey Dahmer. Robert Pickton. H.H. Holmes. Ed Gein. Ed Kemper. Ted Bundy.

I listen to the stories behind these devious, evil men because their actions open a terrifying window into human nature. They reveal what man is capable of and ask the tantalizing but impossible-to-answer question.

Why?

I’m not an expert. To answer this question for myself, to settle my own fears and confusion, I have only my writer’s habit of “putting myself in their shoes” and the gift of empathy. Like everyone who writes about people who have committed inscrutable evil, I can only speculate, and I believe whatever I say will far short of the truth.

After all, even the serial killers themselves can’t always answer that question.

“I don’t think anybody doubts whether I’ve done some bad things. The question is: what, of course, and how…and most importantly, why?” — Ted Bundy

Consumed

Ted_Bundy_HS_Yearbook
Via Wikimedia Commons, English: Associated students, Woodrow Wilson High School [Public domain]
On the outside, Ted Bundy was charming, fairly handsome, and evidently normal, as we all know. I think there’s a reason Zac Efron plays him in a new and very controversial movie about the prolific killer–to trick the audience into believing this falsehood. Because in real life, the killer tricked a lot of people.

As a big fan of “Mindhunter” on Netflix, I was jazzed when I heard about their documentary “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” I’m three episodes in to the four-episode series (side note: I was astonished to learn that was born in Burlington, Vermont, a mere two-and-a-half hours from where I live!) and I’m absolutely fascinated.

 

Of course, I’m disgusted as well. Besides his more obvious faults, Bundy was an obnoxious pathological liar, narcissistic, self-involved, disingenuous and entitled. If he hadn’t killed scores of women, he still would’ve left this word as a detested, abominable human being.

But he did kill scores of women. He committed untold horrors upon the corpses. He took the heads. When he talked about killing, his blue eyes turned black, according one expert. His own defense lawyer said Bundy was “the very definition of heartless evil,” and Bundy said the same about himself.

I’m the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.

Bundy spoke highly of his childhood and his family, but at some point learned that the man he believed was his father was not his father at all. His mother gave birth to him at a home for unwed mothers and then tried to leave her baby behind; her own father wouldn’t let her. Some have suggested that Bundy is the product of an incestuous relationship between his mother and grandfather.

To any armchair psychiatrist, this seems an obvious trigger for Bundy’s murderous nature. One of the documentary’s experts suggested a link. But the killer himself refuted that, saying in the tapes that that people in general are complicated and there’s no way to truly know what combination of circumstances create a serial killer.

Besides, long before this revelation about his parentage, Bundy was an odd boy. A childhood friend saw beneath his self-congratulatory lies and said that there was always a “gap” in him. A quote from Bundy himself reveals more.

I didn’t know what made people want to be friends. I didn’t know what made people attractive to one another. I didn’t know what underlay social interactions.

Of course, there’s no way to know if he was born with this inability to connect with other people or it developed as he grew up in a troubled home. But I think it’s the basis for everything else he did.

When Bundy was arrested after his infamous killing spree in Florida, he called his girlfriend. She then relayed their conversation to police, in which Bundy attempted to explain why he had killed so many women; he had alluded this in his tapes, revealed in an earlier episode of the series.

Bundy described some unspecified hunger that wracked him in his youth, which eventually transformed into a desire to kill women. This hunger needed to be filled, but each killing failed to satiate him, so he killed again and again, hoping each time to satisfy it.

Then, to his girlfriend, Bundy confessed that he was consumed by something he couldn’t explain. He’d spent years trying to live a normal life, but could no longer put up a front.

Whatever this force was, he said he couldn’t resist it.

The Impossible Question

There has been quite a bit of commentary about the documentary and the Efron film, much of it accusing both projects of glamorizing Bundy. The mere observation that the serial killer was charming and handsome has rankled people; such a characterization may be accurate, but it makes people uncomfortable.

In the fraught landscape of the #MeToo movement, much of this criticism seems focused around the argument that in talking about Bundy, we’re ignoring his female victims. But here’s the brutal truth about why society has placed its focus on the killer: the victims can’t answer that question we’re all asking.

tumblr_inline_okyt7keDDr1sabgqe_540

Why?

The focus on Bundy, or any other serial killer, is always an attempt to pick apart the ingredients that created him. If we can do that, perhaps we can prevent or anticipate the next incarnation. We want to know how a human being can be so evil. We’re terrified by the idea. And in the darkness of our fear, we want explanations.

Sever what Ted Bundy did as an adult from the tragic story of his youth: rumors of incest, a violent “maniac” for a grandfather, a childhood allegedly exposed to pornography, discovering a disturbing family secret. Now consider the actual facts of what he did: killing dozens of young women, committing sexual acts with their corpses, keeping severed heads in his home, feeling as though some force guided his actions. And beneath all this, an awareness of being separate from other people, irreversibly different.

This is a man warped by mental illness, whose mind works in a much different way than that of a normal person. Imagine, for moment, that your own mind fed you such desires, images, and hungers. Imagine that you don’t understand why and you feel you can’t resist.

Maybe Bundy was speaking nonsense when he spoke of this force. But maybe he wasn’t.

We’re not supposed to sympathize with men like Ted Bundy, but sympathy isn’t the same as acceptance. I can sympathize with the qualities that made Bundy who he is, while at the same time feel disgust for what he did.

There should always be room for sympathy and empathy, because both can lead to understanding. And understanding is a weapon that we can use to fight against men like Bundy. I’ll close with words from the man himself.

I don’t want to die. I’m not going to kid you. I deserve the most extreme punishment society has…I think society deserves to be protected from me and others like me.

Your Turn

What do you make of men like Ted Bundy? Do you think documentaries and books and conversations about serial killers is akin to glamorization?