New Audiobook Release! “Arrow of the Mist” by Christina Mercer

The audiobook version of Arrow of the Mist, by Christina Mercer (narrated by ME!!) will be available on Audible.com later this month.

My most recent audiobook narration project has just been released on Audible.com! Check out Arrow of the Mist, by Christina Mercer. It’s a great, Celtic-inspired fantasy for middle grade and YA listeners, following the adventures of a Lia, brave young woman gifted in the art of herb lore, who must travel into a dangerous, magical realm on a quest to save her family and village from a murderous, enchanted vine. She meets a succession of magical beings and creatures and must use her wits and the knowledge left behind by her grandmother to make it home with the cure for the vine’s poison.

I really enjoyed narrating this book. I got to use a lot of cool accents, and I fell in love with Lia and her world. I definitely recommend this one for fantasy-lovers of any age.

Arrow of the Mist is available now on Audible, and it should be added to iTunes in the next couple of weeks. If you don’t already have an Audible subscription, what are you waiting for? Your first month is free with their 30 day trial period, so you can get this audiobook or any other for free if you join now. Happy listening! I’d love to hear your feedback!

I’m Going to ODYSSEY!!!!

Through Space!!!

Through Space!!!

A few days ago I got an email that is probably the most wonderful and exciting piece of communication I’ve received since the midwife told me I was pregnant with my now nine-year-old daughter.

It started like this: “Dear Leslie, Congratulations!  You have been accepted for early admission into Odyssey.” And I almost dropped my tea mug on the tile floor.

For those who don’t know, Odyssey Writing Workshop is an annual, six week, intensive, residential writing program for science fiction, fantasy and horror writers. One of the most highly regarded workshops in the world for writers of fantastical fiction, it is a BIG deal. To me, certainly. But also to the speculative fiction community as a whole. The workshop is facilitated by Jeanne Cavelos, a veteran editor with decades of experience in helping people to grow and improve as writers. All of the alumni accounts I’ve read are pretty much unanimous: Odyssey will be the most powerful experience of your writing career. It will kick your ass, melt you down and reshape you. Your assumptions will be challenged, your writing skill will be taken up about ten notches and you will emerge from the six weeks dazed and exhausted, but with half a lifetime of writing craft knowledge under your belt and some awesome new friends as well.

I still can’t believe I was actually accepted. It’s like I’ve been whisked away to some alternate dimension. The Dimension Where Starr Gets To Go To Odyssey.

When I applied, I treated it as an exercise in trudging along despite disappointment. I was sure it would be just another rejection letter to add to the pile I’ve received from numerous submissions to science fiction magazines. I don’t know how many people apply to Odyssey, but I do know that it’s one of only three workshops of its kind in the US and the only one taught by an editor, that it only accepts 16 students each year, and that a lot of really talented writers apply. I am incredibly honored and humbled to be included in that group.

So this puts me in the position of fundraising. Attendance will cost me around $4000, not including any missed income while I’m away, or the summer programs I will have to enroll my daughter in so that my husband will still be able to work while I’m gone. Luckily, there is this awesome thing called Crowdfunding! I’ve started an IndieGoGo campaign to help raise part of the money I’ll need for tuition, lodging and travel to and from the workshop.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what kinds of perks to offer, and I think I’ve come up with a few really sweet ones. Like audiobook narration services, “Totally Fabricated Bios”, and some of my vintage science fiction posters, for instance. And lots more. Check out the campaign, and even if you can’t or don’t want to contribute right now, please consider sharing it on your social media platform of choice. Or if you’re a blogger or podcaster, think about doing before and after Odyssey interviews with me. I really appreciate everyone’s help!!

How I Learn Accents for Audiobook Narration

When I was a kid, my dad and I used to speak to each other in different accents for fun. By the time I was 14, I was pretty capable with a British accent and an Indian one, in addition to the Southern accent I was surrounded with growing up. I’ve dabbled in other accents over time, and now, as an audiobook producer, I’ve found a fun and profitable way to put these oddball skills to use.

The audiobook version of Arrow of the Mist, by Christina Mercer (narrated by ME!!) will be available on Audible.com later this month.

The audiobook version of Arrow of the Mist, by Christina Mercer (narrated by ME!!) is available NOW on Audible.

When I audition for audiobook roles, sometimes the book requires an accent that I’m not yet capable with. For instance, the audiobook I just finished, Arrow of the Mist, contained characters with Celtic accents. And the book I’m about to start has minor characters who speak in Latino and Caribbean accents. So I had to learn to do these accents. (Note that I will not audition for or accept a gig that requires me to narrate the whole book in an accent with which I am not already familiar. If I’m not well practiced yet, I can voice minor characters in that accent, but not major characters, and certainly not the non-character narration. I can sustain the new accent for short stints, but trying to do it through the entire book would be too much, and I would slip in and out of the accent.)

So how do I learn new accents? Well, I am fortunate enough to live in this amazing, technologically advanced world, with this incredible thing called the Internet at my disposal. First thing I’ll do is go to YouTube and search for videos by native speakers of whatever accent I’m trying to learn. If I can’t find enough good material on YouTube, I’ll google movies that feature characters with those specific accents, and I’ll rent them or watch on Netflix.

The Voices, Ryan Reynolds, Irish cat

Ryan Reynolds is great, but the cat is really the star of this film.

For instance, when I was studying up on Irish and Scottish accents for Arrow of the Mist, just by happenstance, I watched a movie with my husband called The Voices. In case you’re wondering, it’s an exceedingly strange horror-comedy about a psycopath killer who has conversations with his cat and dog. The cat tells him to murder people, and the dog tries to discourage him from murdering people. The great part of watching this movie, at the time, was that the cat was voiced in a really excellent Irish accent, which I imitated for this magical character in Arrow:

Arrow of the Mist – Audio Sample (Open in a new tab to avoid leaving this page.)

I find that learning a new accent is much more than memorizing the pronunciation of specific words. In fact, that is not what I do at all. When I watch the YouTube videos or the movies on Netflix, I’m mainly listening for the general lilt and rhythm of the accent. I’ll pause at certain points and repeat exactly what the speaker or actor has said two or three times before proceeding with the rest of the video. I do this even when I’m not researching for particular roles. For instance, when I watch Game of Thrones episodes online, I often find myself rewinding to hear a particular phrase again, so that I can try to reproduce the inflection used.

For practice, I will sometimes use the accent in conversation at home with my family. This always gets lots of giggles out of my daughter. Once, we made a game of it. I created a character named “Tatiana the Great”, a fortune teller with an Eastern European accent and a hot temper. My kid played a succession of different customers with burning questions that needed answering, and I, as Tatiana, peered into my crystal ball and offered dubious but hilarious advice. My husband even joined in as “Jakov”, the kind but bumbling male servant.

Does the accent need to be absolutely perfect? Probably not. Think of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Andrew Lincoln, the actor who plays Rick Grimes, is British, and performs the role with a very good southern accent. BUT, if you’re very familiar with southern accents and you go back and watch all the episodes from Season One, you can see that the accent started out good but definitely flawed.

This is not how a southerner says "Carl".

This is not how a southerner says “Carl”.

The Internet has made fun of Lincoln’s pronunciation of Grimes’ son’s name, Carl. Throughout the first and second seasons, Lincoln would often say “Coral”, in what seemed to be a misguided attempt to imitate the drawled vowels of the southern lilt. But even though the accent was flawed, it was still believable. I am sure that any native Irish person would find the flaws in my imitation of an Irish accent immediately. But for everyone else, they are not likely to be noticeable. And like I said before, it’s all about the lilt and rhythm. If you can capture those and manage to keep your pronunciation right for the most part, you’ll do fine. And of course, the more practice you get, the better you’ll be.

So if you’re thinking of narrating audiobooks, or you have some other strange purpose for learning accents, don’t be too intimidated! The resources are at your disposal, and it’s not as hard as it seems. Have fun with it!

Are you a “natural” at voices and accents? Or have you ever studied an accent to learn how to imitate it? Do you do audiobook narration or another type of voice work? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

Also… I am running an IndieGoGo campaign right now to help me get to Odyssey Writing Workshop! I am super excited about this opportunity, which I believe will help me reach the next level in my science fiction writing. I’d be pleased as pie if you would check out the campaign and, if you like it, contribute, share it with your friends, or interview me on your blog or podcast!

The Night NASA Flew Over the Ingles

international space station, iss, nasa, from earth

Perhaps one day…

One unseasonably fine evening earlier this month, when the blue of the night sky resembled the blue of Billie Holiday’s voice and the asphalt of the Ingles parking lot glimmered under the starlight, a strange and wonderful thing occurred.

I was at the supermarket that evening because I wanted to check my email. This particular Ingles has a Starbucks inside, and a cafe area with free wifi. So there I sat, typing away on my laptop, sipping at my too-hot chai, when I noticed that someone very tall was standing rather close to me. Just standing. I looked up to see a 60’s-ish man in smart Ingles managerial dress gazing out of the window, scratching his scalp at the crest of his receding hairline. I couldn’t help but stare; his expression as he peered out into the dark seemed distinctly out of place on the face of a supermarket manager. If I had to pin down the emotional source of that expression, I’d call it wonder. Or maybe longing.

The manager snapped out of his window gazing daze to check his watch. Yes, this man wore an actual watch. I would not deceive you. Apparently, the time for Something was upon us. He looked around the cafe excitedly and asked, “Do you know what time the space station is going to be visible?”

Now, I am a fairly enthusiastic enjoyer of All Things Space. I go up on the parkway when there’s a meteor shower. I get all misty-eyed when NASA proposes sending probes to yet-unexplored planets. I post stuff about SpaceX weekly on Facebook. I watch rocket launches with my kid. I consume science fiction (both literature and film) with a mad passion. And I have been known to fantasize about living under an overturned salad bowl on Mars as part of the Stage 1 terraforming crew (handling the preliminary equipment set-ups and so on). But I must admit that it had escaped my attention that the International Space Station’s orbital path would bring it to my neighborhood on that particular night. I said as much, and the people at the table next to me looked up long enough to shrug their shoulders, and then went back to their riveting game of World of Warcraft.

The manager pushed his glasses up his nose and shifted nimbly from foot to foot. He said, “I think it’s about to fly over right now. One of the bag boys told me about it. Rick.” His eyes widened. There was no doubt about it. The dude was straight up breathless with excitement. He was aflame. He was about to swing right off his tenterhooks. My writer’s mind started making up stories about him. Inspired by the Apollo missions as a boy, he’d wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, but he was afflicted with bad joints, or a malformed lung. Or maybe he was just too tall. He tried drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes to stunt his growth, but to no avail. Faced with the horrible unfairness of it all, he chose a career in grocery store management because, as his father insisted, people always need to eat.

“Oh, I think it’s flying over now! Rick’s out there looking at it!” and the manager turned quickly on his heel and positively speedwalked out of the cafe, toward the automatic sliding doors and into the parking lot.

I had to follow. Even though I’d seen the space station and other satellites fly over countless times, I needed to see it again. Perhaps it was that the manager’s eagerness was contagious. I don’t know. I packed my laptop up (because I’m not making the mistake of leaving it sitting on a cafe table ever again, even for a second. Don’t ask.) and went out into the parking lot.

By the time I arrived, there were five people standing in the middle of the traffic lane, looking up at the sky. Five RANDOM people. It was the bag boy, Rick, the manager, and three customers. And me, so that’s actually six. Sure enough, ISS was making it’s swift arc over our neck of the woods. For a minute, no one spoke. Then the manager, his voice straining with emotion, said, “This is once in a lifetime.”

“Not really,” said a short, stocky man who had just joined our impromptu skygazing party, making us seven. “It happens quite often. It’s just that it’s a particularly clear night, so it’s really easy to see.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Doesn’t it orbit the globe every forty-five minutes or something?”

“Ninety minutes,” said the stocky guy, our residential space station expert. In my mind I nicknamed him Copernicus. “But whether or not you can see it depends on Earth’s rotation in relation to the satellite’s orbital angle.”

“Ohhhh,” said Rick, the bag boy. “I wonder how fast it’s going.”

“About 15,500 miles per hour,” said Copernicus.

“Wow.”

I looked around. There were now eleven people blocking traffic in front of the grocery store, looking up at the sky in rapt fascination. Three of them were children. It gave me such a feeling of hope. Earlier that day, I’d been commiserating with a friend over the seeming lack of excitement our culture has for space exploration. But this, this completely random, serendipitous moment shared among eleven strangers in front of the supermarket, totally proved me wrong.

And then it was gone.

We awoke from our collective reverie and went our separate ways. Rick the bagger and Mr. Manager and I returned to the grocery’s fluorescent bosom, along with the lady with the three kids. Copernicus and the other customers pushed their carts dreamily off into the parking lot.

Inside, I overheard Rick the bag boy telling a teenaged female cashier about the experience.

“NASA’s flying over the Ingles?” she said, a twinge of nervousness in her voice. “Why would they do that?”

I sighed and went back to my chai. On my way I passed Mr. Manager, sorting restock items, a glimmer of a smile on his lips. He shook his head and dabbed at the moisture collecting in the corner of his eye.

On Completing NaNoWriMo Without Finishing the Novel

I did it. I completed the NaNoWriMo. I kept my butt in the chair three to five hours a day, every day, throughout the month of November and tippity-tapped away on my keyboard in hopes of producing an assemblage of words that somewhat resembled a novel. And I succeeded. Sort of. Well, I got this:

Impressive, right?

Impressive, right?

But that’s not all! I also completed 52,000 words of my novel’s first draft! I really surprised myself. I was ecstatic! The story was good. The characters were engaging. Everything was far better than I would have expected. But, I was not DONE. Turns out, probably because of the three points-of-view that I insisted upon having in my story, the first draft is probably going to end up being more like 70,000 or 80,000 words. So, while I was feeling (justifiably) accomplished and capable, it was really not time to celebrate yet.

Now, what I should have done after completing the NaNoWriMo challenge was just to keep on keepin’ on. I should have cranked it out until the first draft was finished. But I did not. Instead, I said to myself, “Well Starr, pat on the back. You did it! Now it’s time for a break!”

Hint for writers: DO NOT TAKE A BREAK. It seems like a great idea. Just a couple of days, and then you’ll get back to work. But those couple of days come and go, and pretty soon it’s almost Christmas, and your kid is making a Christmas list that includes impossible-to-obtain items like “a foot of snow”, and your Mom is trying to get you to decide between yeast rolls or hot cross buns for the family holiday dinner, and your dog chews up her dog bed leaving a shredded foam disaster zone in your living room. And you think, I might as well get through Christmas before I get back to work on the old novel. But then Christmas passes, along with all its extra demands and stresses and delights, and then comes a day when you think it might be nice to just sit down and tap out a few words on the novel. So you prepare a nice, hot cup of tea, clear off your desk, dust off your laptop and open up the document. You stare at the words on the page for about half an hour as the realization slowly dawns on you that you can’t remember where you were going with this! There are minor characters in here- with NAMES- who you have no recollection of creating. The main character is in the middle of doing something completely daft, and you can’t remember WHY you put him in that situation- or how it was supposed to turn out. Ultimately, you resolve to go back and read the entire 52,000 words- something you’re NEVER supposed to do in the middle of the first draft- to recover your grasp on this plot. Uggggh.

This was my first NaNo. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I got to meet several other writers in my area. I got a free pass to go to my favorite brewery two to three nights a week (because the environment- and, ok, the beer- got the words flowing for me), and I wrote 52,000 words that were at least somewhat cohesive. I’m really glad I did it. I will probably do it again. But next time, in order to avoid the thing that happened this year, I will do it a little differently. I’ll either commit myself to writing a novel whose draft can actually be completed in 50,000 words- something with a simpler plot, perhaps, OR I will just throw the thirty days out the window and demand of myself that I keep doing my butt-in-chair time until the novel is finished. NO BREAKS. Not even for Christmas menu planning. Not even for the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead (which, by the way, I’m still sad about).

I’m not going to beat myself up about it. For one thing, I actually did an awesome job. I just didn’t do a complete job. But this isn’t a widget factory or a doctoral thesis. This is art. Completion can wait a little bit. I’d like to be a real professional and be one of those writers with daily quotas who “writes every day, no matter what”, but you know what? I’m getting there. Back off, dude. At least now I know I can do butt-in-chair time for approximately 2,000 words a day, every day. The habit will form eventually. And for another thing, if I beat myself up about it, I’ll be too depressed and self-loathing to ever finish the damn thing. And that won’t do. Live and learn and all that.

Well, I’m off to review those 52,000 words. Wish me luck!

Belated Introduction Post

Introductions and Salutations

I’m not so good at introductions. It comes from being an introvert, I think. I don’t really go to parties or gatherings of more than four people if I can help it, but sometimes it is unavoidable. And if I do find myself at a party, I don’t just walk up to someone I don’t know and say “HI! I’m Starr and I love to read and write and hide in dark rooms with my thoughts!” And even when a mutual friend introduces me, I feel terribly awkward at all of the I-don’t-know-anything-about-you-but-I’m-gonna-pretend-to-be-interested-and-engaged banter.

Once I get to know a person a little bit, and my internal character-judgement scale has more or less settled on an initial rating for that person (It’s a pretty simple system: Everyone starts at 0; positive qualities move you into the positive; negative qualities push you into the negative. Values can fluctuate over time.) then and only then do I start to feel comfortable divulging information or, you know, making eye contact. The longer I know (and like) a person, the more comfortable I get engaging in conversation with him or her. But if a stranger is thrown in the mix, I start to withdraw, which often makes people think I’m a total bitch. Introvert Excuse Anyway, this not being so good at introductions thing is probably why I did not include the seemingly-obligatory “Introductory Post” on this blog. What would I say? I don’t even know who will be reading this! What should I write about? Let’s see… an introduction is like showing folks a little bit about myself, just a glimpse, like a movie trailer. So should I talk about my job? That doesn’t really define me. My family? I mean, I love them and spend most of my time with them, but they are not ME… My love of writing and reading? I don’t know, that might be kind of boring. (“So, I love to read. Here is a list of my favorite books… when I read I like to let my internal narrator give all the characters different voices, blah, blah, blah TMI.”)

As you can see, the question of what to write in my first blog post was overwhelming. I created the blog, and then it was two more months before I made an “actual” post. I stalled. I posted a funny video. I read other people’s intro posts as research. I stalled some more. I sat down to write the intro post several times, but just couldn’t bring myself to get past the first paragraph. Finally, one day, I got really frustrated at something that I kept seeing on Facebook, and in a fit of emotion, I wrote a blog post. And I published it. Reading back over it, I thought, Hmmm. This isn’t really an introductory blog post. It does not introduce me.

But in a way it did. It didn’t talk about what I do, or what I love, or what I am passionate about, but it did offer a glimpse into my personality. So a couple days later I wrote another non-introductory blog post. And a couple days after that, another. And so here we are on Blog Post #6 (which is really only Blog Post #4, because the first two posts were a video and a quote), and now that I’ve gotten to know the feel of the blog, and gotten to know my audience a bit, I feel I am ready to introduce myself.

HI! I’m Starr. I love to read and write and hide in dark rooms, alone with my thoughts!

I have a family! My family members include my husband Eric and my 9 year old daughter, who shall be referred to on this blog as “the kid”, “the litigator”, “the rock enthusiast”, or any number of other creative epithets that may occur to me. We live in the mountains of North Carolina! On a “farm”. Not a salt-of-the-earth, up-before-dawn, fresh butter and cream farm. More of a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, 19 acre time suck. With pigs and chickens. And half a garden.

For a living, I post updates to Facebook, Twitter, and a dozen other social media platforms for small businesses. Also, I blog for small businesses, about diverse topics from “how to assemble your futon frame” to “what to expect at your first biofeedback treatment session.”

But when I have some moments to spare, I usually devote them to writing, plotting, researching or editing my fiction. I like to write speculative fiction- which basically means there has to be something wildly improbable in the plot or setting of a story I’m writing in order for it to hold my interest. My imagination thrives on the “what-ifs”.

 What If?

Ok, I still feel that this introductory post is somehow lacking… but I don’t know what is missing. I’ve shared my interests, what I do for a living, where I live, and the people who occupy the biggest, warmest spaces in my life. Let’s see… how about some random facts?

  • I attended a Catholic high school and actually enjoyed it, but my enjoyment was not so great that it prevented me from dropping out in the middle of my junior year.
  • I like to sing and have written a few songs.
  • I’m a libertarian anarchist. (I don’t intend to do much political ranting on this blog, but we’ll just put that fact out on the table in case I fail to resist the temptation to rant.)
  • My favorite TV shows are Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
  • I find the subject of economics to be infinitely fascinating.
  • I really am a failed waitress. No, really.
  • My favorite beverage is chai tea.
  • I love sushi.
  • My typing speed is 67 WPM.
  • I know how to grow several types of edible and medicinal mushrooms.
  • I also know how to use chopsticks, a pressure canner, a carpenter’s square and a gun. But I don’t know how to drive a stick shift, operate a sewing machine, or program a remote control.
  • And arguably the most important fact you should know about any person. Which is, where do I fall on the toilet paper debate? Should the toilet paper feed from the bottom, behind the roll, or from the top and in front of the roll? I’ve dedicated some thought to this conundrum, and I believe I have come up with a solution that will please everyone. It’s a toilet paper holder that swivels 180 degrees from left to right, so that the user can choose the TPFD (Toilet Paper Feed Direction) that suits him or her.

I hope all of this serves as a satisfactory introduction. And just to make it a fun, participatory experience for you readers, I invite you to post an introductory comment of your own, below. If you feel so inclined, post two or three random facts about yourself, or some biographical information (not NSA-level, just the kind of stuff you’d tell to a stranger at a social function.)

How to Kill a Spider in 14 Steps (If You Must)

Spider with fly

WARNING: THE TITLE OF THIS POST IS ONLY A TEASER. THE ACTUAL INSTRUCTIONS FOR HOW TO KILL A SPIDER APPEAR WAY, WAY DOWN AT THE BOTTOM OF THE POST, AFTER A BUNCH OF REALLY INTERESTING SPIDER COMMENTARY. IF YOU ARE EXPERIENCING A SPIDER EMERGENCY, PLEASE SCROLL TO THE END OF THE POST NOW.

Otherwise, read on.

I’ve never really been scared of spiders. This may be due to the fact that the house I was raised in was nestled deep, deep in the middle of the woods, where spiders were such a common sight that to be afraid of them would have meant living in a constant state of fear. In fact, I was far more likely to encounter a spider than another kid. Come to think of it, this may account for a number of my idiosyncrasies. But I digress.

To arm me with the knowledge necessary to protect myself in the fierce wilds of Franklinton, North Carolina, my mom bought me a poster with images of all of the poisonous snakes and spiders that are native to my home state. That poster hung over my bed for years. In the arachnid category, there were only two species: the black widow and the brown recluse. Black widows are pretty easy to spot; they’re black and kind of scary looking, and the female (the only one with a poisonous bite) has distinctive red markings on her undercarriage. The markings are usually shaped like an hourglass; which is meant to remind us that our time is running out. (Just kidding. A black widow bite, while not exactly pleasant, is rarely fatal.)

Whoever designed the Black Widow should receive a promotion. Her sinister appearance serves as an ingenious early warning system to would-be prey.

Whoever designed the Black Widow should receive a promotion. Her sinister appearance serves as an ingenious early warning system to would-be prey.

Brown recluses are a little harder. First of all, they’re kind of, well… reclusive. Even more so than spiders in general, which is saying something. Secondly, they kind of look like your average small, brown, unassuming spider. They are supposed to have a “fiddle shape” on their backs, but it doesn’t look very fiddle-ish to me. More like a nondescript, curvy thing. And many small, brown, unassuming spiders seem to have some sort of nondescript curvy shape on their backs. So even after many years of staring at this photograph of a brown recluse in the morning while I was waking up, I still can’t confidently identify one.

The brown recluse spider is also called the "fiddleback spider", due to what some delusional scientists insist is a distinct violin shape on its dorsal (back) side. Do you see it? No? Me neither. The designer of the brown recluse ought to have his pay docked.

The brown recluse spider is also called the “fiddleback spider”, due to what some delusional scientists insist is a distinct violin shape on its dorsal (back) side. Do you see it? No? Me neither. The designer of the brown recluse ought to have his pay docked.

Anyway, I’ve always just viewed spiders as basically non-threatening entities that kind of hang out on the periphery of everything. Innocent until proven guilty. In the case of an alleged brown recluse, the adjudication entails lots of indecision and referencing of the National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders, which, if the verdict is guilty, nicely doubles as an instrument of execution. Luckily, brown recluses are typically not aggressive and will wait patiently for you to decide, as long as you don’t make any threatening movements, in which case they will scurry under the nearest piece of furniture, never to be seen again.

There is one other type of spider that you need to watch out for in North Carolina, according to the old timers. Not because of a poisonous bite, but because it is reputed to be psychic. I am referring, of course, to the writing spider.

If you see your name woven in this spider's web, don't operate any heavy machinery for at least 48 hours.

If you see your name woven in this spider’s web, don’t operate any heavy machinery for at least 48 hours.

She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Well, traditional wisdom dictates that she’s also a killer. If you see a person’s name written in the writing spider’s web, that person is soon to die. I have met some individuals who claim to have witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. I can’t testify to their level of sanity, though. I don’t personally hold with this theory, but if you’re the superstitious type, you might want to consider legally changing your name to something really long and hard to spell, like “Mahershalalhashbaz”.

It can’t be denied that there are some seriously scary spiders in the world. Spiders that make the three previously mentioned in this post look like fluffy kittens in comparison. For instance, there are those spiders that lay eggs under your skin while you’re sleeping. Ew! You wake up with an itchy bite that gradually turns into a big, purplish boil, and a few weeks later, baby spiders hatch out of it. And then there’s this guy:

image

Two words: Muscle Paralysis. Yep, pretty scary. But even a bite from the dread Brazilian Wandering Spider, the deadliest spider in the world, is rarely fatal, due to the fact that modern medicine has discovered an effective antivenom. Also, the toxin causes long-lasting erection in men, so, take that, Viagra!

Irrational fears in general are not on my to-do list, and it sort of irks me when people have them. But this is especially true of arachnophobia. I mean, come on! Spiders are really pretty awesome. They enjoy lurking in dark, out of the way places. They kill all kinds of insects that can prove to be much more annoying or even dangerous. They are often pretty to look at. And they’re just all-around badasses. They make sticky thread that comes out of their butts and is as strong as alloy steel, yet flexible enough to withstand hurricane force winds. They paralyze their prey before wrapping them up in the arachnid version of duct tape and draining their blood for sustenance. They have eight legs and eight eyes. How awesome is that!? And they are possibly the most accomplished artists of the animal kingdom. Sure, it kind of sucks when you accidentally walk through a spiderweb, but think how the spider must feel!

image

Ok, as promised, I will now offer advice on how to kill a spider.

How To Kill A Spider In 14 Steps (If You Must)

  1. Don’t kill the spider.
  2. Seriously. What did that spider ever do to you?
  3. Still want to kill the spider? Ok. But first, do the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants a favor and determine if it is, in fact, a poisonous specimen. Here’s what you do. Place an overturned cup or jar on top of the spider
  4. Slide a piece of paper under the jar and quickly flip it right side up.
  5. If you have performed steps 1-5 properly, you should now have a spider in a jar.
  6. Now. Get on the internet and try to identify the spider. Go ahead. Google it. We’ll wait.
  7. Is the spider poisonous? No? Refer back to step 1.
  8. Yes? Ok. Now take a moment to think about how unlikely this spider is to hurt you or your loved ones. Seriously unlikely. Let that sink in for a minute.
  9. Isn’t the primary objective to Not Have Poisonous Spiders in the House? You’ve already got the spider trapped in a jar. Why not take it outside in the back yard, or across the street, or on your least favorite person’s porch, or you know, whatever distance is most comfortable for you, and release it?
  10. Step 9 too humane for you? Ok. I suppose you may kill the spider.
  11. Here’s what you do: get a newspaper.
  12. Roll up the newspaper.
  13. Release the spider from the jar.
  14. Smack the spider with the newspaper.

All done! Enjoy your spider-free existence, you murderous fiend! Have fun fending off all those extra house flies.

Minimalism for the Modern Woman

The other day I was standing in a long line at the grocery store, and to entertain myself while the lady in front decided which half of the contents of her shopping cart she no longer wished to purchase, I picked up an interior decorating magazine and flipped to a random page. It was a picture of a gorgeous room. A blindingly clean, practically empty room. The kind of room my overwhelmed, stressed-out mind yearns to own, so that I can sit serenely on the solid-color sofa, staring off into blank space.

I would dearly love to have such a room. And it wouldn’t be only for staring into space. I would also use it for writing. And reading. And thinking about writing and reading. And doing research on topics about which I intend to write. You know, just a place that is dedicated to feeling inspiration and acting on it.

My dream writing studio looks like this, but with more books. And maybe a solid colored sofa for staring off into space.

My dream writing studio looks like this, but with more books. And maybe a solid colored sofa for staring off into space.

Ha! Fat chance!

There are several factors that contribute to the extreme unlikelihood of my ever having such a room. They are as follows:

  1. My Humble Abode: I live in a three bedroom home. It has about 1450 square feet. In addition to the three bedrooms there are two bathrooms, a living room, a dining/kitchen area, and NO storage areas apart from the small clothes closets in two of the bedrooms. As you will see in the points to follow, this setup is not conducive to the outlandish “minimalist writing studio” dream.
  2. My Husband: My husband is a musician/audio engineer/collector of various types of cables and gadgetry. He has claimed the third bedroom for his own. This is where he composes music fit for choirs of Hell’s Angels (not in a bad way!) and sometimes does profitable work that entails playing the same snare sound thirty six times in succession at a fairly loud volume. This is also where he keeps his assortment of noisy things, broken guitar strings and pieces of paper with cryptic messages written on them. Because my husband’s art requires so much more STUFF than mine (All of my writing accoutrements will fit neatly in a case the size of a placemat), it only makes sense for him to claim the one extra room in the house. It’s fine, really. I’m not bitter. I actually enjoy doing my creative work in bed. The ensuing stiff neck and sleeping legs are just the sort of privations that drive the soul of my craft.  
  3. My Daughter: A packrat if there ever was one, my daughter’s bedroom is filled to the brim with headless Barbies, mateless shoes, real estate circulars (don’t ask) and rocks from every place she has ever been, including the laundromat and that place on the side of the highway where the car broke down a few months ago. Oh, and toilet paper tube sculptures. And she refuses to throw anything out or give it to Goodwill. Last year we somehow persuaded her to get rid of about half of her stuff, but only when Grandma allowed that she could bag it all up and keep it in her storage unit. You know, just in case she ever has need of three giant stuffed rabbits or a baby doll with a mustache drawn on its face in Sharpie. But even after trucking all the stuff over to Grandma’s, there was still a sea of stuff in there, and it overflows into the rest of the house like some kind of alien slime invasion.

    image

    My kid’s rock collection is like this, x 10.

  4. My Dog: The reason we don’t have a couch in our living room.
  5. Myself: If you asked my family members and friends to list my positive personality traits, no one would mention “domestic goddess”. Or even “pretty neat and organized”. That’s because I’m not. I’ve got that mad scientist thing going on. There is a stack of books on the desk in the living room that has been waiting to be moved to the empty space on the bookshelf for about two months. Every time I think to myself, “I am going to put those books away now”, I start leafing through them instead. Three hours later, I’ve learned several things I did not previously know about the tribal culture of the British Isles prior to Romanization, but the books go right back where they were on the desk. Albeit in a different order. I’ve gotten better over the years since I formed a hive. I am usually on top of the laundry situation, and I make extra effort to wash dishes daily and keep the floor swept. My husband helps a lot, and our little worker bee enjoys scrubbing toilets, of all things, but becomes petulent when asked to pick her alien slime off the floor. Suffice it to say, I accept my share of the blame here. But I’m just saying, if I lived by myself, I would have a blindingly clean room with a solid colored sofa, and I’d hire a maid to clean it.

    I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that if this lady and I had a kitchen cleaning showdown, she would win and I would end up in the hospital.

    I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if this lady and I had a kitchen cleaning showdown, she would win and I would end up in the hospital.

Anyway, as you can see, my home can not physically contain a minimalist room, and even if its proportions were increased through some sort of magic embiggening charm or perhaps one of these high tech “additions” I keep hearing about, a minimalist room would soon become a wormhole of dog hair and missing socks. I’ve thought of obtaining a tiny house (I love them) to use as my own office space.

It would look something like this.

It would look something like this.

In fact, I’ve more than thought about it. I plan to do it even if I have to build it myself out of woven grasses and bricks of compressed dryer lint. I would hang a sign on the door that said “DO NOT DISTURB… UNLESS I’VE WON THE LOTTERY. OR IF YOU INTEND TO CLEAN.”

But lately, it occurs to me that perhaps minimalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, there are a lot of extra little things that significantly improve my day to day life. Like ice. And my iPad. And retractable pens. These things don’t impact my ability to survive. I could probably even live comfortably without any of them. But darn it, they make me happy! And realizing that helps me to relate to my husband’s compulsion to stack coils of cable from the floor to the ceiling, organized by circumference. And it gives me a little insight into my kid’s thing with rocks. I mean, rocks aren’t particularly useful, and, at least to me, the ones you find on the side of the road don’t tend to be beautiful, but to her, there’s something special about having several boxes of rocks under the bed. Ok, who am I to judge? I like to always be within ten feet of a stack of random books.

There is something to be said for a comfortable, distraction free space that can be entirely dedicated to the practice and development of a craft. “A room of her own”, and all of that. But isn’t it an even worthier goal to learn to overlook the small distractions, the imperfections, and all the ways in which things “aren’t quite right”? Because a room of your own is still a thing. It can burn to the ground. It can be infested by hornets. It could conceivably be zapped to another dimension, never to be seen again except as a sliver of something the color of dryer-lint that disappears when you walk past it. But the ability to focus on a project, to allow yourself to be consumed with it, to love it and nurture it to completion and then destroy it and build something even better out of the tear soaked shreds; now THAT is something to strive for.

What do you think? D0 you have trouble finding the space to work on your art? Or are you a domestic goddess who always finds the time and space for everything? (If so, would you be interested in taking on a second domestic environment?) Let me know in the comments!

 

 

The Schmeducation of Leslie Starr O’Hara

That's not a graduation gift from Dad. That's how much your monthly payment's going to be on those student loans.

That’s not a graduation gift from Dad. That’s how much your monthly payment’s going to be on those student loans.

Lately, I’ve been witness to quite a bit of smack-talking about people who do not have college educations. And this kind of judgment-passing really gets under my skin. A small sampling of the kinds of statements I’ve been hearing:

“She’s not qualified to have an opinion. She didn’t even finish her freshman year of college.”

“You should have to have at least a bachelor’s degree in order to vote.”

“College graduates are, I think, so much more likely to raise smart, capable children than parents who never attended college.”

(Paraphrasing) “I find your opinions on politics to be wrong and stupid. It is no wonder you think this way. What more can be expected of a high school dropout?”

“Come back and tell me what you think after you get a college degree.”

Where do you find these intolerant, self-satisfied a-holes? You might be wondering.

Facebook, okay? I mostly find them on Facebook. I probably shouldn’t hold the people on Facebook to a very high standard. I’m sure they’re nicer and more tolerant and level-headed in person. After all, for many people, social media seems to be the place where they can vent their frustrations and say what’s really on their minds.

But it’s not only Facebook. It’s in the news. It’s on the floor of Congress. It’s in the hopes and sometimes the expectations that parents hold for their children. It’s coming out of politicians’ mouths when they imply that the American Dream necessitates a college degree.

Well, it didn’t when my grandparents were growing up. My grandad had a fifth grade education. He was also fully literate, an excellent carpenter, a successful family man, a musician, possessor of a very green thumb, and an inventor of many ingenious devices. He and my grandma worked hard, raised their six kids, and eventually retired happily in a house that my grandad built on the shore of a lake. American dream achieved! No expensive piece of paper required!

Dropping out clearly results in subpar intelligence and miserable failure in life. Case in point: Oprah Winfrey

Dropping out clearly results in subpar intelligence and miserable failure in life. Case in point: Oprah Winfrey

Ok, I have a confession to make. I am a high school dropout. Gasp! It’s true. I did obtain my GED two years after withdrawing from school, but I never pursued a college education. (Well, there was that one semester I pulled at the community college, but that was just to meet the requirements of this awesome summer program on economics that I really wanted to attend, but you had to be a full-time student to go. I went.)

I knew exactly what I wanted. I could not stand school. It was alright up until about ninth grade. But then this strange thing started to occur. I started developing serious interests of my own. And I wanted the time and resources to pursue them, on my own. I wanted to immerse myself in these subjects without having a figure of authority standing over me or assigning me work to check and see if I comprehended what I was learning. School became colossally boring and unfulfilling. I did not want to read those books. I had no interest in learning that subject. I was into history and poetry and fiction writing, but both my English and History teachers that year were those drone-voiced teachers who only wear mulch-brown and never laugh. Ugh. I had to get out. So, to the disappointment of my parents and probably to the slight relief of the school’s administrators (Boredness is directly correlated to troublemaking), I did.

Looking back at my decision to leave high school before graduating, I still think it was the right choice for me. It’s been almost fifteen years, and while I am definitely not serving on the board of a multi-billion dollar corporation or seeing patients in a busy medical practice or teaching in a schoolroom (I would NEVER! That’s how much I dislike school), I am also not paying $300 per month for my piece of paper that won’t get me a job in the field of my choice. When you look at it that way, who’s smarter? The non-college graduate or the debt-laden liberal arts degree holder?

I have, however, done a lot of traveling and a lot of writing. I’ve worked in a lot of different jobs and learned a few skills that may or may not come in handy during the zombie apocalypse. I’ve started a family. I’ve homeschooled my daughter (another big no-no among the intolerant crowd. A high school dropout teaching her own child how to read and add and subtract?! Inconceivable!) and I’ve had my own talk show. I’ve started a business and thus far kept it running, and I know how to find the area of a triangle and how to use a semicolon.

Frederick Douglass was denied any kind of formal education whatsoever. But he didn't let that stop him from educating himself.

Frederick Douglass was denied any kind of formal education whatsoever. But he didn’t let that stop him from educating himself.

None of this is to say that there is no value in a college education. Certainly there are professions that require that kind of preparation. And if you have a college degree or are working toward one, I applaud you and hope that it is benefiting you greatly.

But there are other ways to get an education. There’s travel, working at a job, trade school, apprenticeships, hobbies that become passions that become careers. You can conduct your own science experiments, create your own art, and start your own business. There is Google, Ted Talks and io9.com (my FAVORITE!) There are books! Glorious, fascinating, precious books that you can read in both analog and digital formats!

I just think that college is over-hyped. I would like to see more people like myself in the world: smart, curious autodidacts who are passionate and motivated enough to take charge of their own learning. Actually, there are quite a few of us, but our culture fails to take note.

William Shakespeare. Hans Christian Anderson. George Washington. Abe Lincoln. Frederick Douglass. Thomas Edison. Wilbur Wright. Mark Twain. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Walt Disney. Henry Ford. Coco Chanel. Ray Bradbury. George Orwell. Dave Thomas. Will Smith. Rachel Ray. Richard Branson. Bill Gates. Sean Connery. Ellen Degenerous. Mark Zuckerburg. Steve Jobs. Oprah Winfrey. Jim Carrey. Al Pacino. Steve Jobs. Wolfgang Puck. Tom Hanks.

Don't drop out of college, or you might end up like this bum!

Don’t drop out of college, or you might end up like this bum!

What do all of these people have in common? They either did not attend college, or dropped out before graduating. They are pioneers and iconoclasts who contribute(d) massively, or even revolutionize(d) philosophy, literature, science, technology and the arts. They are, above all, NOT STUPID.

We know not to judge a book by its cover. We know not to judge a person’s character by the color of his skin. Can we please stop judging people’s intelligence by the level of formal education they’ve received? And stop insisting that every high school student needs to go on to college in order to “make it in the world”?

What do you think? Does college make you smarter? Do we need more college graduates, or less? Is higher education over-hyped? Have you ever met a guy with two doctorates who nonetheless could not string together two coherent sentences, even in a non-academic setting? (I have.) Let me know in the comments!