She & I… (& Rheumatoid Arthritis)



haven’t been able to bend my left pointer finger for the last six months. It moves far enough to form the shape of a claw. No farther. It’s as if I’m perpetually pointing at everything in my path. Look there. Go there. Over there. Right there. It’s pink and resembles a crooked sausage. The corrosion of rheumatoid arthritis is crawling into my palm.


types seventy words per minute, opens mason jars, and lifts mozzarella-laden lasagna out of the oven. She can scrub her hair and push down the pump of her favorite perfume. Her hands are beautiful and slim and her fingers rest together, straight and aligned. Perfect.


follow behind my boyfriend when we take our walks. I’m ten feet back. Limping. My right foot will no longer take my full weight. I just have to manage Chloé because I only have the one fully-functional hand. I watch him run through the grass with So-Kr8z and Sancho to get their pent-up energy out. My pent-up energy rests inside me like a ball of unrisen dough.


runs alongside them. She’s still really fast. In tenth grade her P.E. teacher singled her out for the track team. Asked her to join. This same teacher watches her now from the sidewalk as she runs through the grass with the pups trailing along behind her. The teacher nods, approving of her speed.


want to connect with my guy later that night. I’m on top and I ask him to hold on to my forearms so I don’t have to use my hand. I’m a lover in traction.


is an acrobat. She digs her fingers into his chest. She only feels pleasure.


try to remember the jump rope rhymes. What were they? My niece, Adri, and my boyfriend twirl the rope so I can show her how to jump in while its moving. I count one… sway forward and back… two… forward and back… GO. My bum foot hits the ground and crumbles underneath me, the rope burns as it stops against my calf.


doesn’t count. She knows the rhythm. She’s in. She jumps and jumps and jumps. Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, Turn Around. Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, Touch the Ground. Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, Touch Your Shoe… 


decide hopscotch will be easier. I grab blue glitter sidewalk chalk and draw the outline, I make the boxes and write out the numbers. I find the perfect round rock and toss. It lands on six. “Watch me, Adri.” I make it to four. I stop. I try to show her with my words and direct her little body down the board.


hops—two feet, one foot, two feet, one foot, one foot. She picks up the rock one-footed and completes the course, hop-twisting her body to go back down. Showoff.


travel to Pennsylvania for my week-long master’s residency. I stay at a beautiful bed and breakfast where Sister Renata greets me with one of the best hugs I’ve ever received in my life and says, “Welcome home.” After a full day of classes and thesis readings, I sprawl on the floral bedspread at 7:00 pm, exhausted. I fall asleep as soon as possible, so I can keep going the next day. I haven’t drank since my thyroid was removed in 2011 except for three solitary sips of wine and a single taste of limoncello.


attends every science fiction/fantasy dinner and young adult writer’s meet-up. She goes to the Comic Ball as Poison Ivy. She belts out Don’t Stop Believing at the karaoke bar and she closes down the place that night with her fellow writers. She’s still the life of the party. She wears a construction cone as a hat. She dances the soul train at the hip-hop club, and the next night she clears the dance floor, just like she did at a discoteca in Zurich to rounds of clapping and cheering on of the “crazy American.” She orders orange mind erasers for all. She pays.


try to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. No sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no fun. I make it five months. I cheat. I make tortillas out of quinoa and sour cream made with coconut milk. I cheat again. My Pinterest board is full of peanut butter and date ball recipes. I’m sick of eating cashews. I want a sundae with a cherry on top. Instead I order the avocado salad. I’m always hungry.


eats creamy mashed potatoes slathered with gravy. She eats Nerd Ropes and roast beast. She has seconds. She feels full. She is satiated.


gauge the movement of my joints before bed and decide whether I want to risk a steroid knowing they’re causing the new inches around my middle and the mood swings. I worry that what happened to a friend of a friend will happen to me. That I’ll be full of blood clots if I take one. I wake up groggy, there is never enough sleep for me to feel right. I test my hand and my toes to see how much movement there will be. And… I try to discern how many spoons I have to work with that day. I plan accordingly.


dives out of planes. She wakeboards in the summer on Lake Erie and she snowboards in the winter in New York, both sponsored by Redbull. She traipses through Europe with a backpack twice her size. She goes to the gym. She lifts weights. She runs on the treadmill. She rides mountain bikes. She does yoga. She climbs rock faces.


attack myself. Every cell.


loves me. Every cell.

On my good days, we merge.

On Writing the “Shitty First Draft”


I’ve been working on the same novel since 1999. Let me do the math for you. That’s sixteen years, folks. Now, mind you, I wasn’t “applying ass to chair” every day of those sixteen years. I took a five-year hiatus to drink my face off in Cleveland, for example. I was on break during my divorce and moves back and forth across country. I was definitely on leave during my five surgeries.

When I look back with my hindsight goggles, however, there weren’t many days that went by when I wasn’t thinking about my story and my characters. (Okay, perhaps while plugged into the morphine drip, but otherwise, yeah, I was writing in my head the whole time.)

On paper, I had written 224 pages of my trilogy. One day last fall I decided it was time to get back to it. (I’ve often wondered if I had a whole lot of living to do before I could tell this story.  I think there’s real truth there or, at least, that’s the story I’m sticking to.) Suffice it to say, I signed up for a master’s program, trashed my glorious 224 pages, plus notes, and started over on draft number two which, in essence, is really just another first draft because, just like me, my beloved novel had changed. I’m 128 pages in this go-round and, holy hell, is it awful.

Disclaimer: My “glorious” 224 pages were awful too. A complete and utter heaping pile of bat dung.

I’m not being modest.

Trust me.

The state of my second attempt at a fecal first draft has me pondering the brilliance of Anne Lamott and her concept of the “shitty first draft.” I haven’t read “Bird by Bird” (my favorite writing book of all time) for years, but I’ve used the term “shitty first draft” a billion times since then in my writing coaching. I’m not going to try to recreate Anne’s words or write them in my own voice because you just shouldn’t fuss with perfection. Here’s what she has to say:

“…shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)”

Here’s the rub… As I re-read those words I realized I really did think I would get an exemption. A hall pass. An official letter that said, “Hey, you’ve read thousands of books in all the genres, you’ve taken every writing course known to man, you went for a bachelor’s in creative writing and now you’re working on a master’s in the same vein. You’ve studied all the craft books. You’ve been blogging consistently since 2009. You go ahead and write out your brilliance on the first take.” I quite literally believed that all of those logged hours of writing, reading, studying, and helping folks to birth their own books, would mean I was off the hook for the “shitty first draft.”

I wasn’t.

But in knowing this concept inside and out, what strikes me most is what a hard time I give myself over my crappy writing. I mean, this is my work in the world. I give writers permission to write their own shitty first draft every single day. I profess it like a mantra. I’m sure my clients would like to bash my head in sometimes. I also give writers full autonomy to write what comes and I advise them to keep the creation process wholly separate from the editing process so their inner critic can’t raise its ugly head so often, or so harshly. And their books are born that way. Yet somehow, I assumed that my book baby would rush out of my creative center devoid of mucous, cooing happily, and without the cone head.

What an idiot. Or not… How can I say yes to a shitty first draft? Well, for one, I know what I want my book to be and I know it’s not there yet. That is beautiful, people. Enough cannot be said about that inherent knowing of how you want your work to be in the world; of how you see it in its future incarnation; of how glorious is its potential. That’s where all my logged hours of reading and study comes in. I know what makes up a good book, for me, and I know I’m not there yet. So I get to sit, draft after draft, and clean off the slime. If I didn’t enjoy the process so much, I’d take up nail filing or something.

Regardless, I don’t get a hall pass. I don’t get an exemption certificate. No letter is coming anytime soon. I get to sludge through every gaping hole in my plot. I get to tackle every character detail disconnect until I know my characters as well as I know myself. I get to swim upstream through my passive voice and my cloyingly annoying adverbs and -ing words. <— See what I did there?

Just like every other writer in the world.

[tweetthis]No writer gets a hall pass excusing them from writing a “shitty first draft.”[/tweetthis]

Except that one woman Anne mentioned.

And… I don’t like her very much either.

For my visual peeps out there:

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