The Stories We Tell Ourselves

My book CALLING HIS BLUFF (The Tylers, Book 3) released recently and one of the reviewers commented that she enjoyed the “remember when…” moments. Sarah and JD, the main characters, have known each other from childhood. JD is Sarah’s brother’s best friend and he spent years practically living with Sarah’s family, due to the chaos in his own home. Their memories of each other are very different though. She remembers him as the older boy she had a crush on who never wanted her. He remembers her as the quiet place to land in the middle of the noise. These memories influence them as adults, to the point where they don’t see each other clearly because of them. This reviewer’s comment started me thinking about the stories from our childhoods that we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, about our families and friends, and how we use those stories to define ourselves as adults.

My son has been asking questions about his dad since he was less than three years old.

For seven years, I’ve been talking with him about why his dad isn’t a part of his life, what my son might choose to do about the situation when he’s older, and how to manage the emotions that often rumble beneath the surface (or not so beneath) of his generally calm nature.

“Do I have a dad?”

“Where is my dad?”

“What does he do?”

“What’s his name?”

Deciding which questions to answer, at what age my child is capable of understanding what I share with him, is like taking the most important test of your life, again and again, without ever being told how to study for it or even what the questions might cover. It is like telling a story serially, but in layers instead of episodes. Each time I tell him the story, I decide whether or not this time he’s old enough to hear new information. To be told things that I previously withheld from him out of protectiveness. He knows, because I am brutally honest about this part, that I am not telling him everything. That I will tell him everything. That I think this is one of the hardest things he will ever do, figuring out how to negotiate this big empty space in his life, and that I give him the tools and the information I think will not hurt him.

As he gets older, the tools are sharper, the information more complicated.

I know there are stories from my childhood that define me still. The one about the time I got a fishhook stuck in my hand and didn’t cry. How I watched Halloween at a fifth grade sleepover party and then spent the next few years checking in my closet and under my bed before I went to sleep each night. That my grandpa drew to an inside royal flush in the stock car poker game on the Army cavalry train. That my dad and his best friend started skipping school to attend the Cubs home-opener in elementary school and continued the tradition for years. How my mom and her best friend moved to Hawaii in their twenties with no jobs and no place to stay, planning to get a room at the YWCA.

These are stories that define my childhood. Of adventure and loyalty, of bold action and anxiety. I tell these tales to my son now as a way to help him know his family, especially the people who weren’t alive to see him born.

I know that my son will grow up with his own set of stories. His memories of his childhood will be different than my memories of it. Moments that seem huge to me might not register as blips on his internal radar. And the most important stories he remembers might be ones that he never shares with me.

I wonder how many of his stories will be about his dad.

I wonder how my son’s stories of his dad, and his dad’s absence, will influence him.

I know people who have gone to great length to track down family members—fathers, mothers, lost siblings—because they feel as if there is a gaping hole in their life without some kind of resolution, even if it’s the resolution of learning that you are indeed not wanted.

I also have a friend whose dad was never a part of his life and my friend has absolutely no interest in ever speaking to the man. “Good riddance, bad rubbish” is his philosophy regarding the man who abandoned his mom.

My son’s father has an open invitation to contact me at any time, but has not yet chosen to do so. I type ‘yet’ in that sentence as a promise to myself that nothing is ever certain and anything might happen. Someday. I fantasize while I am writing this post that he might occasionally search me out online, although I don’t think that he does. I think that he closed a door and has never looked back.

I told my son’s father about my pregnancy while sitting on a bench across the street from a Starbucks in Andersonville. I stopped in the coffee shop first and bought a frozen mocha coffee thing, even though I rarely drink coffee, because I was pretty sure giving myself something to do with my nervous hands was going to be a good idea.

Now, whenever I go into a Starbucks, I think about that day. When I drive through Andersonville, I pass that corner and see the bench and think, “That’s where we sat when I told him.” I wish sometimes that they would remove that bench, or move it down the block, so when my eye is drawn to that corner as I pass, as it inevitably is, there would be nothing there. Just an empty concrete pad where a bench used to be on which I once sat and offered someone a chance to make their own judgment call.

The story I told my son when he asked me about his dad for the very first time went like this:

“Sometimes people become parents when they aren’t ready to be parents. It doesn’t make them bad, it just means they weren’t ready. Your dad isn’t a part of our lives, but that doesn’t mean you can’t think of him and hold him in your heart with love.”

And then I listed every aunt, uncle, grandparent, and cousin my kid had ever met—and all of the friends that we consider a part of our family—all the people who loved him, in an effort to make sure that our family of two didn’t feel small. I did that every day for years. I do it still. I have always wanted my child to feel surrounded by love.

I’m guessing that this story I told, which was as simple as I knew how to make it, didn’t make a lot of sense to an almost three year old, although my kid is pretty damn clever. But he’s figured it out since.

He’s also made his own additions to the story at times. He told me once, when he was about six, that he thought his dad had died and that I was concealing it from him.

I almost wished it were true. This makes me feel like a horrible person. But death is so much more manageable than explaining to your child that yes, his other parent is alive. Yes, that person knows he exists. No, that person does not seem to have any desire to know his child. There is no way to tell that story that does not make a child feel less than.

My son has speculated about what his dad’s job might be. About where he lives. About what his full name is. I have answered more questions every year, but reserve the full story still for “when you’re older.” We debate about what “when you’re older” means. Kids are too internet-savvy these days and it’s not that hard to find my son’s father online. I don’t want to put my child in the position of being able to initiate contact before he’s capable of handling the fallout if that goes badly.

So I wait for my son to write his own stories and then bring them to me, or not. He is of an age now where he talks to his closest friends about important stuff. His friends are good kids and, because they are human, many of them have important stuff of their own to share in exchange. I hope the stories he tells himself, and them, from his childhood are about many things. About the time I took him out into the ocean and the giant wave “made us go swimming” (how he remembers it…far more gently than I do!). How his uncle’s dog once raced around a corner so fast she knocked him on his butt and ran right over him, and he got up, saying, “I’m not crying! I’m laughing so hard the tears are coming!” About how his uncle skied into a tree and could have died and we spent night after night distracting him from the pain by watching every episode of Top Gear and Storage Wars ever made. That he comes from a family of pool hustlers and poker players and trivia fanatics.

I hope that whatever stories my son tells himself about his dad, they are ones in which my child sees himself as worthy of love and a person of value, despite this early rejection that haunts him. I hope that these stories, the ones that I know are made of anger and pain and loneliness, are a skinny thread in the world’s biggest fucking afghan of love and laughter and poop jokes. (Let’s be realistic: It’s my family. There will always be poop jokes.)

It’s funny how hard it can be to see the things you’re writing about while you are putting the words on the page. When I was writing CALLING HIS BLUFF, I wanted to do something fun and light, with a Vegas adventure and a woman who keeps her wild side close to her chest. Turns out that I was also writing a book about something else, as always. I was writing about the stories that we tell ourselves about our own lives. How they follow us, define us. I was writing about something real.

Posted in Life & Wonk, Shameless Self-Promotion, Writing Wonkomance | 28 Comments

Women and Music ~ Part Two

The first part of this series about women and music is here, and started in 1990.

The summer of 1994, I went into a music store, a shop that sold instruments and made and repaired them, and tried to buy a pick-up for my cello.

I had a second-hand Fender 20 watt solid-state amp, and I wanted to mess around. I had played cello professionally at that point, but was interested in how I could make a cello work in contemporary ensembles. You know, a band.580460_539772149397646_585640830_n

I don’t know I’ve ever had the kind of daydreams a lot of performers do – I’m not sure what the daydream of a musician is. But I had performed a lot by then, in venues for classical music. I had played with other musicians, and gotten hooked on that energy. I had been to countless concerts, glutting myself with noise because I didn’t have access the way I grew up.

It felt big. My new-to-me-amp felt heavy. I had discovered a knack for arranging the music I loved to include cello parts that I was interested to figure out how they would translate in a session.

A session.

Already, I had hung around, after local concerts, watching dudes sit in with local bands, watching local bands jam. And even though the time was over when I was walking past tables of boys in the high school cafeteria talk music, and wasn’t invited, I had this faith that if I just hung around long enough I could sit in. I often took my cello to these events, strapped to my back. I could talk music. It was 1994, music was happening, everywhere, in every garage and house share and dive venue.

I heard yeah, hold up, maybe the next jam so many times by young men in plaid flannel and dread nubs that I stopped bringing my instrument. Stopped hanging out. In Olympia, Washington, across the country from the backrooms of Lawrence, Kansas, where I was trying to make this happen, there were girls like Kathleen Hanna and Heidi Arbogast and Tammy Rae Carland who got fed up with dudes owning the shift in popular music and they organized. Formed collectives that splintered into labels and supported women musicians and tours. They were loud, their music was loud, and because I had also been subscribing to zines, making and writing my own, I heard their signal, all the way where I was, in the form of distorted tapes made at house parties and “reports” of happenings in photocopied zines.

I was working as a barista in Chicago that summer, saving money to go overseas. I splurged on my amp, wanted a pick-up, walked into a music store with my cello strapped to my back.

I didn’t walk out with a pick-up.

The television show Gilmore Girls had one of the first dramatizations of the coming of age of a female rocker I’ve ever seen, including the significant barriers. Lane Kim’s barriers were not mine, but they felt familiar in their overwhelming impossibility. Carole King played the owner of the music store in Lane Kim’s small town, and this recurring role introduced a history of the difficulty women have faced in in music. In one episode, for example, Lane discovers Sophie’s (Carole King) album of original songs, an album Lane remembers listening to in childhood, and wants Sophie to tell her everything about it. Everything about writing and performing and making it. Sophie takes the album from Lane’s hands and looks at it for two beats, looks at Lane, says oh, this. And inside of that utterance is a world that brought a woman who wrote and produced her own album to a small town running a music store. Lane is oblivious, of course, rapt in the light of her own trajectory towards a life she’s certain will bring her to an arena filled with fans. It was a scene, that when I saw it, ten years past when I first walked into that music store in Chicago, I wept.

Carole King, of course, made it. She’s Carole King. Her portrayal of Sophie, however, is weighted with her own awareness of an alternative history. What makes this storyline important, however, is that Sophie, while steeped in the gravitas of the consequences of sexism, never loses her passion for music, her passion for young women discovering it. In this scene I’m sharing, we get a sense of Lane’s yearning, her barriers, her drive and commitment. We also get a sense of Sophie’s recognition that maybe this time, one of us will make it.

Lane does get her band. Her tour. She gets right to the leading edge her dream. Then, she gets pregnant with her band mate, who she marries and loves. Her story, when the show ends, is still suffused with love, and it’s too early to know if she won’t make it to her arena, but it’s a story I feel with ten different parts of my heart.

The music store in Chicago looked a lot like the music store in that scene. Instruments of every kind on every wall and in every path. It was a warren of potential noise, and potential connection. I spent a long time just looking, and like the scene I shared, not touching. There wasn’t anything about it that wasn’t perfect.

Feeling like that, your own instrument warm against your back, the confidence and hope is intense. You love music beyond reason, and you have evidence others do, too. This is the headquarters of your tribe. This is where your dreams are understood.

You don’t have any doubt that the dude behind the counter, his left fingertips callused, will understand what you need. You are certain you’ve left the sessions behind, the ones where you wait and wait, your own fingers restless. You’re certain this the beginning. You’re certain you exactly where you are supposed to be.

This is part two of a short series I’m writing for Wonkomance on women and music, including women musicians

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 2 Comments

The Rise and Fall of Radiation Canary: A Guest Post by Geonn Cannon

Hey, everyone! Audra here. I am so excited to welcome guest poster Geonn Cannon today! I recently had the immense pleasure of reading one of his works–The Rise and Fall of Radiation Canary–and within a few chapters I knew I absolutely had to recommend this book to everyone. It is such a gorgeous, women-positive work, and he delivers the story with the perfect blend of humor and poetry. Not to mention the kickass song lyrics. Geonn graciously agreed to guest post today about his work, and I would urge everyone to read the book and love it as much as I do. So here he is…Geonn Cannon!

One of the biggest problems writers have is finding the time to write all the stories they want to tell. It might have a character you really want to share with the world, or it might just be an idea that hasn’t been done before and you want to be the first to feel out its nooks and crannies. We all have stories like that, which are just banging at the walls of our subconscious wondering when their turn will be. Too many great ideas and not enough time.

A slightly less common problem is being saddled with a story you don’t want to tell. It could be any of a half dozen reasons that keeps us from putting pen to paper. My example is when a friend of mine shared a song she loved and casually said, “You should write a novel about a singer! That would be cool!” I had no interest in that idea, but another thing authors have in common is that we can’t just leave a plot bunny by the side of the road. We’ll pick it up, brush it off, and put it in the trunk just in case we get desperate one day. That was what I did with this nugget of an idea.

My friend was persistent. She didn’t bring it up every time we spoke, but it became a part of our interactions. “When are you going to write a story about a rock star? Are you still thinking about that singer story?” The truth was no, not really. I had it filed away as her story and I knew that if I ever did write the darn thing, it would be specifically for her. Not for me, not for my other fans. Heck, I might not even publish it. I would just write something and send it to her and that would be one bunny down.

Finally one day I decided the time had come. I had figured out who the central characters would be – I decided there would be more room to explore if I made it a band, and the band was named “Radiation Canary” after a line from 30 Rock – and I had a vague idea of what story I wanted to tell. I started writing and, to my surprise, it started to form seemingly without effort. I was able to take several elements I’d always wanted to use in a story (Karen’s virginity, for instance) and finally found a place for them. I was able to write a character who ends the story without a significant romantic entanglement and showing that she was absolutely fine with that. Not every happy-ever-after ends with two people strolling into the sunset. These four characters, the four characters I’d fought a whole year not to write, were suddenly embodying everything I’d always wanted to put in a book.

It’s easy to write the stories we want to write. We’re fond of them and we go to great lengths to craft them just right. We live and breathe with them and we put that care on the page. There’s a fear of “I can’t screw this up” so we go the extra mile to make sure it’s absolutely perfect before we show it to anyone. With stories we don’t want to write, the freedom is different. We’re less precious about them and more willing to experiment. With Radiation Canary I did things I would never have done in another book. I had one character cheat on her girlfriend. I didn’t plot out relationships ahead of time so that when one character started to fall for another, it felt natural and authentic rather than forced. I even threw out the idea of chapters, instead separating the novel into “albums” with sections labeled as “tracks.”

I’m not sure what The Rise and Fall of Radiation Canary would have looked like if it had spawned from a seed I nurtured and adored from the moment I received it. I don’t know if I would have let Lana and Karen be real people or if I’d have forced an unnatural ending for them. I hope I would have kept Codie’s journey intact. A big part of the story is that the girls don’t know what the future holds, so they’re enjoying the moment while they can. If I’d wanted to write the story more I don’t know if I would have allowed them that freedom.

One of my delaying tactics on the novel was that I said I wanted to write all the lyrics beforehand so I could just plug them in without slowing down the actual writing. I kept going round and round, and when I finally did start I didn’t have any of the songs ready. To my surprise, when I got to the first instance where I needed the lyrics, they came as fluidly as the dialogue. For once, instead of putting all the pieces together before I started constructing the puzzle, I had to wait for the picture to start drawing itself.

We can avoid stories for any number of reasons. We can be afraid of their themes, we can think it’s an uninteresting or unoriginal idea, or we might just not know what we have on our hands. I fought Radiation Canary tooth and nail and only gave in when I couldn’t fight it anymore. What I got in return was one of my personal favorite story, not to mention one of my best-received novels. I’m insanely proud of this novel, and I’m terrified of how I would have screwed it up if I had gotten out in front of myself.

Wanting to write a story can make something precious. But being dragged kicking and screaming into a plot you don’t think you want can open doors you never thought about going through. It can help you knock off your old familiar tricks and explore a whole different world. You never know what you’re going to find.

rccoverThe Rise and Fall of Radiation Canary
Karen Everett isn’t looking to join a band the day she loses her notebook of poetry. She plays the cello and is unsure about what she wants in life, but she’s pretty sure it doesn’t involve being a professional musician. But a crush on the band’s beautiful lead singer Lana Kent, along with the desire to have her poetry shared with a larger audience, leads her to throw caution to the wind and play an audition that leads to her being invited to join the band at gigs.

After a spur of the moment decision lands them a spot on national television, Karen and the band find themselves riding an unexpected wave of popularity. Soon they’re touring the country, recording albums, making music videos, and trying to find time to have a personal life amid all the craziness. Aware that their surge in popularity is due to a fortuitous combination of popular trends and knowing they only have a few good years before their celebrity begins to wane, the ladies of Radiation Canary strive to make the most of their time in the spotlight before the public moves on.

With one eye on the inevitable end of their fame even as their popularity hits its peak, the band learns that it’s not how high you fly, it’s how gracefully you fall.

Buy it on: Amazon ○ Barnes & Noble ○ iTunesKobo

About Geonn Cannon
Geonn Cannon was born in a barn and raised to know better than that. He was born and raised in Oklahoma where he’s been enslaved by a series of cats, dogs, two birds and one unexpected turtle. Geonn was inspired to create the fictional Squire’s Isle after a 2004 trip to San Juan Island in Washington State. His first novel set on the island, On the Air, was written almost as a side project to another story he wanted to tell. Reception to the story was so strong that the original story was put on the back burner to deal with the world created in On the Air. His second novel set in the same universe, Gemini, was also very well received and went on to win the Golden Crown Literary Society Award for Best Novel, Dramatic/General Fiction. Geonn was the first male author to receive the honor. Geonn is currently working on a tie-in novel to the television series Stargate SG-1, and a script for a webseries version of Riley Parra.

Posted in Guest Post | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments