Running for My Life

It’s not as hard as you’d think to lose a part of yourself.

Usually, for me, it works the other way around. As I get older, I add more to myself. I become larger, in the Walt Whitman “Do I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” kind of way. The older I get, the more risks I take, the more new skills I acquire, the larger my definition of myself.

But sometimes I lose something. Lose track of a part of my person that I had thought was mine for good.

I haven’t run at all, really, in 2014. If you’d asked me how I felt about not running five years ago, I would have told you that not running was my general state of being. I had never been athletic in my life. I tried. I wished I was. I flirted with various sports like rock climbing or sculling or…well, that’s pretty much it. I ran two sprint triathlons in my twenties, and the 5k runs at the end of them almost killed me, but I was beyond proud of myself for finish those races. The markered-on race numbers on my arms and legs? Friends and co-workers marveled at how long it took for those numbers to fade.

I confess that I might have touched them up just a little. A dab of the Sharpie here or there…

This is NOT me.

This is NOT me.

Letting go of that feeling of being a total badass for completing those triathlons was hard, but let it go I did. I was not athletic. I was also a smoker. (Although triathlons are BRILLIANT for people who want to quit smoking, let me tell you. You can bullshit your way through a bike ride or a run if you’ve been cheating and sucking down Camel Lights out back behind the bar, but you cannot cheat on a swim. If you only have a split second with your face out of the water to suck in oxygen, you learn rapidly that the diminished lung capacity of smoking and swimming simply do not mix.) Running the triathlons was an aberration. Not really me. So they faded away, along with my race numbers (eventually).

Then, five years ago, my sister ran a marathon. Much like me, my sister had never been particularly athletic, and I was blown away by her accomplishment. By her commitment, which was challenged when she was injured during her training and had to spend weeks running on the elliptical machine instead of the road. By her strength, which shone out of the photographs I saw of the far-away event, like she’d swallowed the sun.

I wanted that. Wanted it badly enough, for once, to get off my ass and make something happen.

When my sister moved back to Chicago the next year, I asked if she’d run the marathon with me. We’d joked about it before, but I was serious this time. I don’t think my sister had any burning desire to run another marathon, but she loves me, so she said yes.

We registered. We trained. Separately mostly, although we did the occasional long run together, but work schedules (and my need as a single mom to find a babysitter every time I ran…hello, treadmill at the gym!) got in the way most of the time. In eight months I went from barely being able to run around the block to finishing a 26.2 mile race.

Best. Sister. Ever.

Best. Sister. Ever.

Not speedily, I should make clear.

There was a lot of walking on our dangerously hot race day, and that could realistically be called a life-saving decision. The wail of the ambulances taking overheated runners to the hospital was a constant background noise that day. I wanted to give up the entire time. At one point, I was running (barely faster than walking) next to a woman who burst into tears when she spotted a friend on the sidelines, sobbing, “I can’t do this anymore.” I wanted to slap her in the face. Couldn’t she see that I was barely hanging on to the will to keep going forward? Sobbing and carrying on about quitting was only making it worse. Sheesh!

I lack a little something in the compassion department around Mile Twenty, apparently.

One of the things you learn while training for a marathon, though, is that running a marathon is almost entirely mental. Putting in the miles is just putting in the miles. You do it and your body will get stronger, will gain endurance. It’s an equation: miles in training, miles out racing. But what makes or breaks you as a marathoner is your brain.

During those long runs every weekend, you have all the time in the world to build yourself up. To be your own cheerleader. To marvel at how you are running each week longer than you have ever run before in your life. To remind yourself that you can do it, even when it feels like you are maybe dying, like you can’t possibly go another two miles after having run fourteen.

That’s what you can do with all that free time.

That is not what I did. Not at first.

I spent the time on my long runs telling myself I was weak, I couldn’t possibly complete this enormous task, and I should probably give up. Getting to the point where I managed to shut off those voices and change how I thought about myself was a life-changing experience. Because you can do it and you are amazing and the magic thing about those messages from your body telling you that you simply must quit is that you don’t have to listen to them.

It’s a marvelous lesson to learn. And it directly impacted the rest of my life, jump-starting the writing which had been on the back burner since my son was born. Unfortunately, despite running three marathons and seven half marathons since that first long, hard race, it’s a lesson I’m having to learn all over again.

Earlier this year, I did something—something bad—to my back. For the first time in my life, I went to a chiropractor, which was only possible because my good friend Dr. Nancy is one, and she didn’t charge me for my visits. Healthcare, y’all. It’s a bitch. Thank goodness for friends with skills.

In any case, after sessions with the electro-stim machine, and heat therapy, and ice therapy, and adjustments, and stretching, stretching, and more stretching (god, I loathe stretching—give me a marathon any day), I finally got my back in order again. But for months I hadn’t run. Some weeks, I had barely moved. I spent sixteen hours a day at the computer much of the time and had taken to sneaking out on the back porch once or twice a week at midnight to smoke a cigarette, which really felt like giving up.

Somewhere in all that time, I lost the part of me that had come to think of myself as a runner. As an athlete. It had taken me years to redefine myself, but it only took months to lose the belief that running was an intrinsic part of my life. So, I’m back at the beginning again, trying to get ahold of that part of myself I’ve lost because I’m not willing to let it go. And it’s hard. It’s hard, but I want it.

Last month, I released CALLIE, UNWRAPPED, an erotic novella about a woman trying to regain a part of herself, via one night with her ex-boyfriend and his current girl, that’s been lost for years: the sense of sexual adventure and play she had before her recently-ended marriage smothered all that. Writing that book made me think a lot about what parts of myself I needed to grab hold of again. So I’m putting on my running shoes and hitting the road.

More my speed now.

More my speed now.

You can buy CALLIE, UNWRAPPED at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play & ARebooks now.

Is there any part of your younger self that you wish you could get back? Or have you experienced that expansion of possibilities that comes with more experience and wisdom as you get older? Am I the only one who needs ridiculous challenges like marathons to get motivated?

Posted in Life & Wonk, Shameless Self-Promotion, Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Hurt/Comfort Fic: Why It Appeals — A Guest Post by Bonnie Dee

Hi everyone! I’m happy to bring you a guest post from Bonnie Dee today on the appeal of hurt/comfort fiction. Enjoy!

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One character is either physically or emotionally wounded in some way. Another character supplies nurturing and draws out the other’s pain. How many times have we all read this trope in one form or another, usually with a brooding hero who hides his sorrow under a stoic mask? Only a special someone can reach through the layers to the vulnerable man underneath. What draws romance readers to such scenarios over and over? Does it have something to do with the basic nurturing instinct in women—this is presuming that the majority of romance readers are women and that we all have a built-in instinct—or is there more to it than that?

I tried to do research on the underlying psychology of the subject, but all my searches mostly brought up definitions of hurt-comfort as it relates to fanfiction. In fanfic, an injury, wound or illness can serve as a catalyst to bring together two characters who might not usually come into proximity in actual canon. It’s great for shipping unusual pairings, or, on a more distasteful note, to bring in a Mary Sue character to do the “nursing”.

But fanfiction aside, this trope is well traveled territory in romance. Sometimes the damage is physical, ie. a wounded warrior, but at the core it’s the underlying psychological scarring only the lover can heal that appeals. The moment of the reveal of that bruised heart, when the lover finally breaks through the protective shell, is the peak of romance. It satisfies deeply.

If I was a smarter, wiser person, I’d share some scientific reasons why. But my uneducated gut instinct is the “mommy” factor. I believe women are genetically programmed to want to comfort and heal and fix. There’s something about having a strong, competent man laid low, vulnerable, completely exposed like a raw nerve that grabs hold of that instinct and tugs hard. Although maybe it’s not only females who respond that way. The hurt/comfort dynamic runs strong in gay romance as well, including those not penned by women.

Wild at HeartDigging a little deeper, maybe it has more to do with everyone’s common need to be needed. If the reader is identifying as the nurturing protagonist in the story, then the satisfaction in comforting has everything to do with their basic desire to feel absolutely vital to at least one other person in this world. To touch and move and affect someone no one else could reach—how fulfilling is that? Answer: supremely.

So maybe the hurt/comfort dynamic is egoistic at heart. Altruism becomes egoism if you scratch deep enough; love becomes self congratulation. “See what I can do? See how I heal with my magic love power?” Such an idea is deliciously empowering, isn’t it?

Or maybe that’s all bullshit. I am not psychologist nor have I recently stayed at a Holiday Inn Express so there’s nothing to qualify my rambling. What do you all think about the subject of hurt/comfort and why it appeals? Any particular favorite reads you’d like to share?

One of my perennial favorites is Wild at Heart by Patricia Gaffney, in which only the patient and loving Sydney can reach and teach the “wild man raised by wolves” Michael. It hits all my hot buttons with its touching comfort scenes, an uncivilized virgin hero, and the totally outside the norm premise.

Of course, the crux of hurt/comfort is that it’s never really one-sided. Whatever is lacking or damaged in the nurturer is also fixed by the nurturee. “You complete me” becomes “we complete each other”, and that’s what makes a love story.

Posted in Guest Post, Thinky | 3 Comments

Perspectives: Growing up poor and the HEA

Hi, everyone! Audra here. Today is Charlotte’s day to post, but we decided to do a joint thing because of a conversation we had last week on Twitter about growing up poor and how that influenced the way we create and consume romance stories. We got together shortly after that convo and decided to turn it into a post in which each of us offers our perspective on this topic. So…since this is a longer post, I’m gonna keep this intro short and just jump right in!

Charlotte says…
rtnThe thing is about growing up poor—I never knew we were until much later. Even when Audra started talking about it, my first instinct was to think: did I really have it that bad? We were very loved and my grandparents did a lot for us so maybe not right? But then as we carried on chatting I realized the same thing I always do. The same thing I see when I look at old pictures of us. Those pictures look like something out of This Is England. I had five years being raised by a single Mother (after being abandoned by our alcoholic Father) who sometimes had to walk ten miles with us to get us food, and then another ten living in the worst area in Leeds. Riots happened a minute from where we lived. Our school was voted worst in the county and briefly closed down. Both my early schools are now gone.

I was pretty much the only kid who read books, and though I didn’t understand that we had nothing I did understand that. It’s the reason I don’t hold “being weird” in as high estimation as some people do.There is nothing fun and special about being bookish in a world where everyone is struggling to get by. Nor is there anything fun about being the only girl who grew up poor at college and university—because I was that too. Nearly every friend I managed to make had a beginning rife with grammar schools and Latin lessons and private tutors. Most of them took Shakespeare for granted.

I was the only one listening during that semester. The only one with no sense of style or grace: because here’s the other thing you don’t often hear about being poor, and particularly in fiction. You don’t know how to dress because you were always dressed in whatever there was. And if you’re a fat girl, you get double the bad luck there. Fat girl clothes were twice as expensive and twice as unpleasant when I grew up. I spent years in stretchy cycling shorts and cheap t-shirts, and even after I slimmed to a size twelve we just couldn’t afford the type of thing other girls wore.

I distinctly remember one of my very best frenemies almost constantly shaming me about “designer” labels. Of course looking back now I completely understand that her labels weren’t really designer at all. She wasn’t strolling around school in Prada. She thought Calvin Klein was the epitome of cool, and so did all of us because we could barely afford Top Shop. That was what being poor was: a different perspective and mindset. We weren’t dreaming of Gucci.

We were praying for half price high street.

I didn’t splurge at book stores the way I do now. I saved one pound a week pocket money to buy a single Christopher Pike title per month. And when one year I broke my arm and had relatives all randomly buy me books, I thought it was goddamn Christmas. I craved books. I cried when I found ten pence Enid Blyton at a car boot sale and my Dad said I could have as many as I wanted. It broke my heart that my school library was one shelf in a hallway.

So really, with all this in mind, is it any wonder that I love romance? I longed for the world romance heroines inhabited, far away from the unrelenting grey mundanity of being poor. Because that’s another thing no one tells you either: poverty is an endless series of dull moments. The glamorous flashes of drama that seem to happen in everyone else’s lives never happen in yours. You lose to the smallest and most pathetic of things. You stick out like a sore thumb—and not in a good way.

In a clumsy, little, embarrassing way.

So yeah, I love that romance HEA. I love the promise of it; I love writing that promise. My books are full of neuroses and panicked inner thought and realism, because that is what I know life to be. And they end happily, because that is what I always longed for. I want my heroines to have their brass ring, to finally belong, to have it not matter, because I know what it’s like to go without those things.

It makes you look back and think everything was fine.

Then cry, when you realize it wasn’t.
Audra says…
rlIt all started with the underwear.

Doesn’t everything start with underwear?

A few days ago, I had to throw away a pair of old underwear. They were just too worn out. And somehow, my brain (in the way of brains) decided to reach back 15 years and remind me of Jude Deveraux’s River Lady. I knew I had liked that book, but at that moment—and even now— all I can remember from it is the underwear bit. Basically, the heroine, who grew up in poverty, wears these plain, serviceable dresses on a long wagon journey, yet has these super cute undies. While her rival, who wears silk and satin dresses, has hole-riddled, faded-grey drawers. Now, to be fair, at some point in between being massively, horribly poor and going on this agonizing Oregon Trail-type adventure, the heroine had been taken in by a wealthy family and given new clothes, so her having nice underwear was sort of believable.

But that memory, in turn, sparked a bunch of other memories about other romances in which poor heroines who are mad struggling for cash—like, fainting from fucking hunger—are somehow wearing nice, sexy underwear when the hero finally strips her clothes off.

And after all these random romance novel memories surfaced, I was like, I need to say something about this.

Until I was twelve years old, I was a poor kid. Not starving poor, but more often than not, food wasn’t easy to get. My dad had a low-level engineering job, because he lived in the weird in-between work of highly-educated-with-terrible-English. And my mom was a piano teacher. The money that kind of stuff brought in…well, it was enough to keep us alive and in tattered hand-me-downs, but it wasn’t enough to let us break through that bubble—that weird, malleable divide between poor and middle class that wraps around you no matter where you go and won’t let you out without some serious combat skills. When the lunch your parents packed isn’t enough because that’s all they could afford, and you start begging your friends to give you some of their lunch, they know. When you recycle the same two outfits, day in and day out, they know. The bubble is transparent, but still visible.

We ate huge quantities of white rice, convincing ourselves that it was healthy. But really—mostly—it was just cheap and filling. We often couldn’t afford milk or meat, but we could afford processed cheese, which is one of the reasons why I was overweight when until I was nine and the doctor told my mom to stop giving it to me. It’s not like my mom knew any better—she’d grown up poor, too, without access to the kind of information about health and hygiene that kids with money took for granted. I didn’t know that flossing my teeth was important because we couldn’t afford visits to the dentist, and we weren’t taught those things in school. None of us were beautiful, healthy, glowing-from-the-inside people despite our poverty. Poor romance heroines who do this are either extremely fortunate in their access to knowledge and foodstuffs…or irradiated.

And then there were the cultural differences. I mean, apart from being the child of an immigrant, which has its own set of issues. It’s the money-based culture that I mean here. I divided my peers at school into two groups: the girls who learned dance and the girls who learned to sew. I don’t know why I used this as the division when I was just a child, but somehow in my kid-mind, I already knew there was something different between girls who learned how to make their own clothes and girls in leotards and special shoes who plié’ed and tapped their way to something beautiful.

Anyway. So. Back to the underwear. My mom never had nice underwear. I know, because I used to do our laundry. I never did, either, when I was growing up. It was always ripped or the elastic was shot, or whatever. Just…not nice. I know my experience is not the defining “Poor Kid” experience. I know there are poor women who buy nice, sexy underwear because they want to feel pretty, and I’m not saying that’s wrong.

But what I’m getting at–what my point is about underwear and glowing good health and dancing skills, it’s that I hate when romance novels use things like a heroine’s nice underwear as a legitimation of femininity. I really hate it. Because that kind of stuff is wealthy femininity. We don’t need to justify a poor heroine’s poverty by giving her a rich woman’s femininity. That device is nothing more than a contrived way to make sure that the poor heroine’s femininity cannot be questioned.

But that’s crazy. Panties can’t make a woman break through that bubble. Dance lessons can’t do it. And in the end, trying to use these things as a way to do that—to put the heroine firmly on the other side of that visible transparency by, say, giving her a mysterious wealthy benefactor who saw her truefemininity when she was young and paid for dance lessons—feels wrong. Because it is wrong. Because poor femininity is beautiful, too. It might not always be in flawless porcelain skin, but it is in the way that a poor woman can move just as gracefully in her two-for-a-dollar polyester panties as a rich woman can in La Perla. It is in the hard work of rough hands and the hugs that feel just as good for the love that they represent. It is in their sighs as they breathe and the stitches they sew.

It sucks to be poor. It sucks. It can be the worst of all that is lonely, in so many ways. But I will say: though I am grateful for the way things changed when I was twelve—when my mom got a job as an accountant after finishing school and our world improved considerably—I refuse to believe that women are only allowed to be seen as worthy of love if they have rich lady panties.

The underwear does not make the heroine.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 12 Comments