Posts Tagged ‘to-do list’

The Post – Under the Pier: Research Part I – Turning the Dream Into Flesh and Blood

March 3, 2008

According to the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh.” (John 1:1,14) Something similar happens when performing a science experiment or writing a novel. First there is the idea. But before the idea becomes a scientific paper or a book in the hands of a reader, a few things have to happen. Again, given my science background, I’ll define the process in terms of the scientific approach.

The scientific approach involves a series of steps:

1) Define your hypothesis – the question you are trying to answer or the idea you think you want to prove and a rough idea of how you will do this

2) Outline the procedures and supplies to be used

3) Research your idea to see if it has merit, if there are any invalid assumptions, or new information out there

4) Run your tests and record the results

5) Do a preliminary analysis of your results

6) Re-test anything soft or questionable and make any changes or additions to the experiment

7) Analyze the data and draw conclusions

8) Write the report

Now the same steps adapted for writing a novel:

1) Define your premise – the deeper story question you want to answer – and create a rough outline of the story plan you will use to do this

2) Create your research plan and to-do list: what areas will the research cover, who can you talk to, what information should you collect, where can you find it, what places might be good to visit

3) Do any interviews, phone calls, site visits, library visits, obtain books, pictures, maps, DVDs, music, anything to “put the reader” in the story. Look for any new or unusual information that could add a twist to the story

4) Refine the story framework, such as plot action points or chapter structure then write some sample scenes, character descriptions, dialogue, and chapters

5) Review what you’ve written to see if the characters, emotions, and setting ring true, if the rules of your story world hold up, if the path you’ve taken will in fact answer your story question, and if the pacing is correct. Read any scenes, dialogue, or chapters out loud to see if the voice sounds real or fake. Decide if the point of view is correct

6) Make changes to the story framework such as adding, deleting or rearranging chapters; If needed, add, delete, or change characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, voice, themes, story action, point of view, or pace.

7) Review your plan and tweak where needed

8) Write the first draft

Before I go on, I’m going to put one disclaimer in here. My computer shows #8 on both of these lists with a smiley face. No matter what I do, I can’t get rid of it. I didn’t put it there and it annoys me, but I’m not wasting any more time on trying to get rid of them. If your computer doesn’t show the smiley faces, that makes me happy.

I’ve already covered item one. I know that my story question involves the theme of connection: Do you run from yourself and others or risk connection? The setting includes the worlds above and below the pier in a fictitious New England port town, and there are dual protagonists – a 12-year-old girl and a hermit crab – each with a predicament that forces them to answer this question. I’ve already roughed out a chapter structure and a story line with plot action points, crisis, climax, and hopefully, the correct resolution. This post introduces the next step: Your research plan and to-do list

Research is a kick. In fact some authors will tell you they love it so much they can get lost in it. They have to literally pull themselves out of it and force themselves to start writing. Research unearths specifics, those delicious details that bring the story world alive. They besiege the readers’ nose with pungent smells, their skin with sticky salt water mist, their hair with humidity-generated curls, and their ears with the dull moan of foghorns. They answer questions like: How DOES a fishing trawler catch fish and why does it use cookies and rockhoppers? Can a child operate an ROV? WHICH seagulls are in Narragansett Bay and where?

Specific details make the difference between a man “on a beach looking at the ocean,” and a man “staring longingly out over the east passage of Narragansett Bay, while slipping on black-algae coated shale next to a tide pool containing blue mussels, orange-striped anemones, Northern rock barnacles and red-gilled nudibranches, at Brenton Point State Park, in Newport, Rhode Island, on a steamy August afternoon, just before the black cumulus clouds erupt into a violent thunderstorm.”

Research helps answer “why.” Why is the character looking out over Narragansett Bay instead of Long Island Sound, the Gulf of Maine, Buzzards Bay or the Outer Banks? It explains why the story action is set in January and June instead of July, and why the fish you wanted in your story can’t be used because it’s not in Narragansett Bay near the shore in June.

This story required LOTS of research, and I had a ball with it. All the research really fell under two categories: Characters and Setting, though in some respects, setting can be a character too, but for simplicity, I’ll keep them separate. I will deal with each of the two categories below more extensively in separate posts, but for now a general summary of the approach for researching characters and setting issues. Like the journaling phase, you start with questions:

1) Characters/Creatures/Place as character

First you need to know who you have. In this story, for both people and animals, there are primary, secondary, and background characters. Real people and animals have lives. Good characters – human or animal – have back-story. What’s the story behind each primary and secondary character?

Since there are animals, there need to be rules of the story world. No Suzy Squirrels, no ducks in clothes, no seagulls driving cars. There are long-clawed hermit crabs, hydroids, slipper snails. common periwinkles, Atlantic oyster drills, dogfish sharks, winter flounder and Northern lobsters – in short, real animals, specific to the location. But do they talk? To each other? To only certain animals? To certain humans? No humans? No one? Do they understand “human talk”? Do they know what boats, piers, fishing nets, and otter boards are? Is the human world totally foreign? Do they think?

Regarding place as character – are there particular places in the story that are characters in their own right? Why? What do they feel like? What is THEIR backstory?

2) Setting – This story has a dual setting – under the pier and above the pier. The setting issues include the “broad picture” – what is the surrounding area like, and the “narrow picture” – what is the protagonist’s home turf like? For example, what is her house like, or what is the hermit crab’s tide pool like? What kinds of neighbors do they have? What places do they like? Avoid? Why?

Topics to investigate include things like: topography, geography, geology, climate, the natural flora and fauna above and below the pier, environmental issues, financial and sociological concerns, local economy, business and industry, higher education and research universities, military installations, availability of technology, an educated populace, the effects of prevailing attitudes, ethnicity, and superstitions on the types of jobs, housing, architecture, food, dining, shopping, churches and civic institutions there, the effect of the area’s history on its attitudes, the incorporation of historical buildings or artifacts, legends and myths as part of every day life, and whether historical values influence current day life at all.

Once you’ve brainstormed about all the possible areas to look into, what questions to ask, what references to get, who to talk to, and where to go, the next step is start digging. In the next three posts I’ll show how steps 2 and 3 were applied for my character and setting research.

Coming up Next: Under the Pier – Research Part II: Human Character R&D

Soon to come:

Under the Pier – Research Part III: Animal Character R&D

Under the Pier – Research Part IV: Setting as Character

Under the Pier – Test, Review, Retest, Analyze, Conclude

Under the Pier – Write Your first Draft

General Writing Journey Topics – Broken Bits, Writer Sanity, The Writer’s House – That Swarming Bacteria Proteus mirabilis

The Post – Under the Pier: Next Step – Scaffolding

February 26, 2008

Okay. Besides sitting in the chair playing 20 questions with my stories, what else happened as Under the Pier took shape? I spent a lot of money at Office Depot and Staples. Let me back up.

In the early stages of the journaling and “assessing what did I have” it wasn’t obvious at first that I was combining all of these various stories into one big one. I am a stubborn person. I have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the reality I’m supposed to confront in life. I was still trying to “finish this story fast” so I could go to my to-do list and say “Yup! Finished a story, mailed it, waiting for the money, move on to story number two.” Yes, I told you I learn slowly. So I tried to make the animal story into a chapter book. I thought about making the Max-Jamie problem into a chapter book. Chapter books are longer than than the picture books I couldn’t write and shorter than the novels I didn’t want to write. It was just my last vestige of resistance and it didn’t last long. God finally hammered it into my head that 1) you have to write the story that’s meant to be written, not the one you can cross off your list fastest, and 2) if you’re not going to do it right, why bother? In any event, the bottom line – novel.

I think it was about this same point that it suddenly occurred to me I might have something bigger than a simple novel. That’s how I am. One minute I’m trying to get away with writing a sound bite, the next minute I decide to go for the other extreme – TWO novels intertwined. And that’s what this has become – the story of a girl and her world above the pier, the story of the hermit crab and his world below the pier. The two worlds intersect at points until they meet at the climax, then go off their separate ways. The two worlds reflect similar struggles, and mirror the question “will I reach out for connection or run away?”

Now that I’d finally gotten the message it had to be a novel AND figured out the one line premise, there was that whole HOW in God’s name do I combine all this and keep track of details? How do you remember who did what in the various chapters, never mind between two different worlds? For that matter how could I keep track of who was who? And then what about when the worlds intersected? Lots of places to drop the ball. Hence – I needed infrastructure. Scaffolding.

Some people can do all this in their head, or their computer. I need to “see it on a wall.” I need paper. Sorry, trees. And I had to tackle this like a business otherwise the brain says “hobby…play” and nothing gets done. Writing is a business. A novel is a project. When I worked at Glaxo, we had project planning – calendars, files, SOPs, to-do lists, wall charts. I had to manage multiple projects at once. If you don’t keep track of details, it all comes crashing down. So, manage two novels at once when I’d never even written ONE novel? Yup – go back to what I know. Organize.

That meant binders, index cards, binder section separators, page protectors with binder holes, stickies, markers, highlighters, cork boards, Styrofoam boards, push pins, a spare toner cartridge for the laser printer, pens, crayons, large sheets of paper to plan on…. Yes, I go to Staples a lot.

I set up binders for character bios – animal and human. I made short “at-a-glance lists” of characters for both sides of the story, so I could quickly know who was who, saving the binder bios for the complete facts. I also made an index card for every invertebrate, fish, algae, plant or mammal that might show up in the story, with scribbled references on the back to find more elsewhere. More on these in the research post.

There are binders for the settings above the water and binders for the places below. I had binders for all the research I did and the background info I created. Again, I’ll discuss this separately under the research post.

As I reviewed all the journaling I did on the story line, I established a “time-line” and figured out what times in the story would be covered and in what chapters. Once I had a rough idea of chapters, I took a cork board and huge sheet of paper. I drew a large box on the paper for each chapter/time point. Any idea, shred of paper, page of journaling that pertained to the events on a certain day, I tacked up in the appropriate box. Every time I thought of something new, another note got tacked up under that day. Some of those days had an inch thick stack of idea notes.

I made a wall chart that showed at a glance the chapters in the novel, human on the top half, alternating with the animal chapters on the bottom half, and listing on each, the chapter number, human or animal, exactly what day of the week each took place, and relevant plot points in each chapter. On this same chart in the middle between the human and animal chapters, I graphed the rise and fall of emotions and action for the plot. I wanted to see at a glance how the story tracked for rising and falling action, both in each chapter, and in the story overall. I knew the story needed to have balance – not all snoring nor all white-knuckle rides, but a mix of intensity with catching your breath. However, I did want to make sure that overall, the trend of emotion kept rising until the crisis/climax, and then dropped for the resolution. Hence my chapter graph.

I made a chart of the human world characters – their family trees and interrelatedness with the other characters and locations in the story. This was helpful actually, because I discovered a couple of characters who didn’t really connect to anyone and hence I cut them. If they don’t connect to anyone in the story, why have them?

I made a chart of all the chapter happenings on the animal side of the story- where the action happened underwater for that chapter, which critters were involved, what happened. I wanted to make sure that 1) I wasn’t having the same thing happening in 3 different chapters, 2) I had the right animals in the right place at the right time, and 3) if the animal appeared in both the human and animal chapters, I made sure the action matched up

I kept a running to-do list of things to check on, research, fact check, people to call. I have logs for each chapter in each draft of the novel and can tell you the dates I worked on a particular chapter in a particular draft. I made organizational charts to show the chapter numbering changes from draft one to draft two and there’s charts on foam boards of all the elements to check on when revising the stories – one board for the human story, one for the animal side, one for elements of revision applying to both worlds.

And calendars. Yes. I kept a calendar. I even set deadlines for finishing certain milestones. In business, you have deadlines. It’s the only way your product gets out the door. Now, most of the time I missed those deadlines because things always take longer than expected. Still, the thing about deadlines is that you set them. Even if you don’t meet them, you’re a hell of a lot closer to the end goal, than if you never set one.

So, lots of infrastructure. Other authors may be ripping their hair out. This may not be their way to work. I may not be this detailed for another story. This is not the only way to write a novel. It’s probably not the best way. It’s simply my way – what my brain needed. I’d never written a novel before. Also, given the complexity of this one, the level of technical, scientific, and real-life detail, and the fact that I was writing two stories at once that intertwined, infrastructure was the only way I could keep anything straight.

Next : The First Half of the Scientific Approach – Define Your Hypothesis, Assemble Your Gear, Do your research

The Post – How Do You Take Three Picture Books and Make a Novel?

February 22, 2008

In writing this post I feel the same amount of confusion and struggle as I did when I was trying to get my head around how to set up the novel. Where do I start? There’s too many thoughts and ideas, too much to wade through or convey. My brain feels overwhelmed and I want to give up and go have hot chocolate at Starbucks instead.

Back then, I was surrounded by papers…drowning actually. I had a binder full of hermit crab story versions from all the different submissions I’d sent out, as well as their rejection letters. I even filed each rejection letter neatly alongside the particular story version sent to that publisher, and the binder was organized in chronological order. That way I could see the not only the history of all the submissions, to whom, and the result, but also, the evolution of the story itself as it changed for each new submission. So in reality, for that one picture book, I had about 20 versions of that story as I tweaked, changed, revised, and resubmitted it.

I had another binder with the multitude of revisions (and rejection letters) for the Max and Jamie un-picture book. Then there was that third short story whose revisions and versions filled, first a folder, then a box. Climbing Mount Everest would have been easier. That journey of a thousand miles seemed shorter than whatever it was going to take to wade through all that stuff and find the story that needed telling. And worst of all, here I was, this very goal-oriented person who lived to finish things fast and cross them off the to-do list. The thought of what this job was going to take to start it, never mind finish it, seemed too daunting to face.

You can drive yourself crazy trying to find the exact perfect place to start or the exact perfect way to work. In fact, I don’t think either exists. As far as getting started, you just have to pick a nipple and get going. It’s like Billy Joel said about the songs in his dreams never matching what he created. Nothing will be as perfect as our dreams and visions. So you can either give up right then because you can’t have perfection, or you swallow your ego and create the best you can. Even the imperfect can move souls. But you still have to write it. Tabitha King, wife of novelist Stephen King, and a critically acclaimed author in her own right, noted in an interview in Writer’s Digest magazine that, “…fiction never turns out the way it’s imagined. Your expectations are never gonna jive. …But that doesn’t mean it’s not a success.” So you put your butt in the chair and start somewhere, working through it all, somehow.

This is where going through Stage 2 helped – you have to know yourself. If you do, you have at least 2 things going for you: 1) you have at least some idea of the questions in your heart that might need to be answered in a book; 2) you have a pretty good idea of how you work best.

How you work defines what your processes and tasks will be. Some writers just sit down and start writing. They write several hundred pages until they finally discover their story and characters. Then they throw away those pages and write the story. A few, like Isaac Asimov, can sit down and organically know where they’re going and just get it right the first time out. And then there’s us plodders. We think, percolate, plan, research ….plod.

Tabitha King said that she likes to research “the living crap out it” before entering the story. Jodi Picoult, best-selling author of 14 novels, said that often she spends more time on research than writing. Why? In her June 2007 column, “This Writer’s Life,” for Writer’s Digest magazine, she said, “…fiction’s a tightrope. I’m supposed to whisk the reader away from his everyday life, but to do that, I need to create characters and situations real enough to entice him to follow. To that end, I’ve found myself living the lives of dozens of people, all in the name of research.” She said that research allows you to write with authority so readers can trust you to get the facts straight, and it gives you the “chance to walk a mile in the shoes of a character that might have lived a life very different from your own.”

I knew I wasn’t Asimov. I also know that to meander aimlessly through hundreds of pages before knowing where I was going, would drive me crazy. I need order, organization, planning, research. You should see how I plan a road trip. After all, my natural tendency was to be General Patton. Generals assess what they’ve got, research their enemy, plan their strategy, then execute the battle. That’s me.

So, first I assessed what I had:

1) I knew now what kind of book it should be – novel.

2) I had LOTS of raw material. I knew the setting, the time of the story-current day – and had some ideas about characters and plot points because I had MANY versions of each story to choose from.

3) I finally knew about what age my own child was inside, 11 or 12. That sort of tells you what age the reader of your book might be. Also, knowing about what ages you and your readers are points you toward what kinds of story questions you can tackle.

At least for me, writing is all about questions and choices. As you ask, you learn something. As you learn, you make a choice about something in the story. Another question comes up, another choice. Before you know it, characters appear, setting, time, places, problems. Others are excluded. The story evolves. So at this point, the question for me became: What is my story about?

I came out of childhood with scars and resentments and issues. So has everyone else. If my own life has depth and there’s more to ME than meets the eye, the same is true of everyone else out there. This means there’s lots of potential for conflict and issues and depth of characters, quirks, oddities, and unexpected twists and turns. No need for clichés, stereotypes and superficial stories when you have some real meat to work with under the surface.

The very story you tell comes out of a choice when answering the questions – Do I write what I know? Or what I want to know about? Sometimes you choose a place or character or issue that you know personally. Sometimes you choose something you have no experience with. You could even choose something that repulses you, but you want to explore it so you can stretch yourself and grow. George C. Scott did that when he portrayed General George S. Patton, Jr. in the 1970 movie, Patton. In this quote from a special features documentary included on that movie’s DVD, one of the former executives at 20th Century Fox, David Brown, spoke of all the issues they had to deal with in making that movie. One was casting an actor for the lead role:

“…of all the critical decisions made for the project, perhaps none was more crucial than the casting of George C. Scott as Patton. George C. Scott was not very fond of General Patton. Why he accepted it was because it was a good script and it was a reach for him as an actor.”

Jodi Picoult noted that she’d grown up happy in the suburbs. Everyone in her family liked each other, there were no dark secrets in the family’s closet, and she worried that she was doomed as a writer before she even got started. “Frankly, I didn’t have enough trauma in my life to write about.” She came to the conclusion she had to alter that “write what you know” rule a bit to “write what could be learned.” Tabitha King said most people assume that “write what you know” means “tart up your autobiography.” Her feeling is you should “know what you write.” All of these things come back to…questions.

But which question do you start with to unlock the answer to “What is my story about?” For my money, if I was allowed only one question, it would be ‘why’? That’s the one I used most heavily in getting this novel going.

Why write this book? Why have these characters and not others? Why does someone do what they do? Buried in the answer to why, is the story of that whole character: flaws, strengths, wishes, dreams, disappointments, crimes, family background, personality traits, likes, dislikes. Ask “why” and you’ve opened the can of worms. Everything is folded into “why?”

People act a certain way. Pretty girls, tomboys, shy ones, party girls. They each have their personality and behaviors. Why? Were they born that way? Did something happen to cause them to act that way? Both? What was it that happened?

Why leads to more questions:

– Where do they live? What’s their environment like? Why are they living in that environment? Are they rich? Poor? Brilliant? Anti-social?

– Who do they live with? Why? Do they get along? Why or why not?

– What’s the story behind the people they live with? Work with? Go to school with? Why do THOSE people act like they do? Who is or isn’t in their lives? What happened to them if someone, say a parent or spouse, is missing?

It’s like spinning a web. You start with one thread, one character. Give that person one trait and ask why. The minute you do, other pieces of the puzzle pop up. You choose a few pieces. More questions come up. Add another trait. Exponentially, the character expands before your eyes. Things you didn’t even know about your character show up on the pages. And so far, you just have the one character.

Now. Want some real complications? Add in another character. The minute you add in another character, the possible choices for how they interact, what they are like, what’s going to happen when those two collide, expands. Then add in a third, a fourth. Add in the environment. Add in the weather, the teacher, the dog down the street, whatever. The minute you add ANYTHING to that one solitary person, you get a reaction. It’s like adding a second chemical into a solution with something else – chances are, you get a reaction. That reaction is based on the properties each chemical brings. And why does a particular chemical have those properties? Because of it’s structure, it’s formation process. So, mix two people together and based on their structure, formation, properties in the form of their birth, environment, personality, etc. you get a reaction.

If you haven’t had enough, add in the question “What if?” What if one character jumps off a bridge and the second one tries to save him and the first one lives but the second one dies? What does that do to the person who tried to kill themself in the first place? Questions multiply the possibilities.

With all these questions and answers, your story seems to be beyond your control, right? It’s not. It’s messy, but that’s good. For right now, you want your right brain to just explode with the possibilities and get it all down. This is still part of the “what have I got” stage. You want to have as many options as possible, as rich a palette of colors as possible, to choose from. Save controlling it for later. Right now just throw all the mosaic stones on the table and see what you’ve got.

You will have to reel in the storyline at some point. Your story will need a road map – the plot, and its soul – the premise. Premise is a one line summary of what the real heart and soul of your story is. Premise may take time but it is percolating in the background as you go through assessing, researching, and planning. It may even change after you put your first stage wild ideas through the research and planning process. But all of this can come later. Right now, just keep throwing things on the pile of “what have you got?”

So how do you do all this? I’ve thrown in all kinds of theoretical process information and questions. But you’re me sitting in that room with these folders and binders of pieces of stories all around you. You’re not sure how to put them together, if to put them together, which characters to keep, create, jettison . . .

I don’t know about anybody else, but the way through all of this for me, was to journal. I have a couple of binders of journaling. Maybe those journals were my “couple hundred pages to find the story” that other authors write then throw away.

I picked a version of each of those three stories and used that as my starting point. If there were scene variations, better wording, or different events in other story versions, I cut and pasted those into my journal or made a “list of possible things to add later” to the version I started with. The point is – I had to pick a version to begin with, then journal from there. I might in the end decide a particular version, scene, person didn’t work. In fact, I know I did. But at least, I had a starting point. You can always add, take away, or start over. But you have to pick that one nipple and just start journaling.

Every day I sat down and did a piece of a scene here, a character description there. I wrote up thoughts about what if you mix these two characters in that setting with this problem – how that might play out? I did sample plot lines. Again and again and again. Dialogue samples. Setting descriptions. List of things to check on. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and made to-do lists.

It’s a messy, imprecise process, but what I was doing was slowly working my way to the soul of the story and its characters. I was pruning. Refining ideas, discarding others. For me, it’s a gut, organic kind of process, like baking bread. You mix up this mess of ingredients, knead it, set it aside. It rises. You come back, push it down. It incubates some more, then you come back and roll it, stretch it, bake it. You eventually end up with a concrete product: a loaf of bread, that you can hold in your hands, see with your eyes, smell with your nose and taste. The same happens with your story and characters. By the end of the journaling, you have this concrete mass of information about the story structure, who’s in it, you may have even answered that one line premise question. The reality is, if you can’t describe your story in a sentence or two, you don’t know the story and need to go back to the journaling. At least I did. Once I could write that sentence or two, it was time to put up the scaffolding. It was time to run all of it through the concrete tests of research and planning. Construction was on the horizon.

Next: The scaffolding – index cards and binders. LOTS of them. And maps. And lists. And books and….

The Post – Another Side Trip – In an Instant, Life Changes – The ER and Patton

February 17, 2008

One minute you are moving through your day, clearing tasks off of your to-do list and anticipating all the things you will still tackle during the rest of the afternoon. The next moment you’re wondering if you will make it through the afternoon, and can you ever get what is choking you, out of your throat? In an instant, life changes.

I talked the other day about “awareness and staying in the present moment” in relation to my racquetball game. Shift to the future and you blow the present shot. The same thing happens in life.

My meditation class talks every week about paying attention to what you are doing, and that anything can be a meditation if you do it mindfully, full of awareness. I never thought about this extending to swallowing pills. I also never thought about how I swallow pills as a possible life-altering moment.

It’s something we do automatically. Grab the pills, toss them back, throw in a mouthful of water, all while in motion through the day’s to-do list. As you tip your head back to swallow, your mind is already on the afternoon’s plans and everything you want to get done. Suddenly there is this sense of something horribly wrong.

It is said that when we are in pain, our world narrows. While that’s usually said about emotional pain and our tendency to pull away and close down our connections to the world, the same is true of physical pain.

In just a second or two, the brain, reacting to that sense of something horribly wrong, starts reeling in the attention and cranking down the focus. It shifts gears from 4 p.m. back to 2 p.m. Within another second or two, it registers panic and pain. It tries to rally its resources to deal with the emergency. Whatever was on your mind before evaporates. It is suddenly incredibly irrelevant. You may never get to it.

Now focused very much in the present the brain is frantically trying to get a clear picture of what the hell is happening. It’s processing emergency signals from several places in your body simultaneously – heart rate, throat, blood pressure, lungs, mouth, cervical nerves. The eyes bulge, hands go up to the throat, and the left brain finally grasps that the pills you swallowed without thinking, tumbled down the wrong way. In a one-in-a-million shot they’ve lodged side by side in your esophagus and are blocking the whole passage.

At the same time you’re looking for a waste basket to throw up in and get those things out of you, additional panic shoots through you. The brain has further grasped that not only can’t you swallow, but that the water you took with the pills has backed up into all of your air passages and is now choking you. Inside your head you hear the liquid close off passages. For an odd moment, like time standing still, you notice that the sounds in your head right now are the same as when you’ve dived underwater and everything is flooding with fluid. Except you’re not in someone’s pool. You’re standing in an office wondering if you’ll ever take another breath.

The breath. All those meditation classes. Come back to the breath. Breathe in your pain and fear, breathe out caring and calm. But even the breath has been taken from you. Panic. Focus. Panic. Focus. The battle in the brain begins because it knows if panic wins, you may lose the battle completely.

Suddenly the water drains out and you can breathe. The breath. Come back to the breath. You’ve been given another shot. Don’t blow it. The brain is in command. Stay in the moment. Just this moment. Breathe – just one breath. Assess. What’s your next move? Think. Take stock. Breathe again. Just one breath.

You determine you can’t swallow except for tiny amounts. Okay. Focus. One swallow at a time. Look around. What are your options? Get help. Someone to be here in case they have to call 911. You remember the pills are large. Hard. Coated. They’re not going to dissolve. You need assistance. Get to the ER.

Someone stays with you. They’re trying to help. It’s a comfort and calms you, even though you can’t really respond. You’re using all your focus and energy on “Breathe – just one breath. Swallow – slowly. You cringe. Intense pain shoots up your throat as the liquid shoves the pills against the esophagus wall and ever so slowly drips around them and down your throat. Breathe. It takes a few seconds to swallow saliva that you normally don’t even notice is there. A few seconds more and the swallow is finished. Take another breath.

The brain starts to race – how long will it take my husband to get here? How long to get down the street? How long to the ER? How long before they can do something to make this better? Panic. The brain takes charge again. Stop. Stay in the present. Breathe. Swallow.

Every shift of the car gears hurts. You want to be sick. Take a breath. Swallow. Another bump. Breathe. Rounding the corner. Still a mile to go. Breathe. Swallow. Traffic backing up. Panic rising. Breathe. Swallow. Close your eyes. The ER doesn’t exist. Just this moment. Breathe, swallow. Breathe, swallow. Lean forward because it doesn’t hurt so much. Breathe. Swallow. You turn into the hospital. The ride to the door might as well be an eternity. Close your eyes. Breathe, swallow.

You struggle through admissions. Whisper name, date of birth, insurance, address. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse typing in your vitals seems to be taking forever. Will you ever get relief? Come back to the moment. Breathe. Just one breath. You spot your blood pressure and heart rate. It scares you. Close your eyes. Breathe. Swallowing is harder. Lean forward. Get ready. Breathe, swallow, tighten your fist to take your mind off the pain in your throat. Breathe. Stay calm.

I know my husband is there. His presence is calming. I can’t respond to him. Can’t even focus on him because I am focused on breathe, swallow. For a second I feel his hand on my back. Its warmth relaxes me, radiates through my muscles. Calms them. But I can’t tell him yet. Just breathe. Swallow.

The doctor is approaching the room. Breathe. Swallow. You stare past the doctor and see a room across the department that looks just like the one your husband almost died in a little over a year ago . . . when he almost choked to death. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse pushes in the needle for the IV line. Breathe. Swallow. Meds are moving through your veins. Breathe. Swallow. Breathe. Swallow. Calm. The meds are calming. The muscles in your throat unlock. Breathe. Swallow. Suddenly, a tiny burp. Air is moving up. Breathe. Swallow. They give you water. Tiny sips. It slides down your throat. Pills shift and hurt. Breathe. Swallow. Ever so slowly, the burps get bigger. The sips of water larger. The medicine slows your heart rate. Your blood pressure has dropped. You can swallow and breathe without total concentration. Will you ever take another pill unawares?

Joan Didion wrote a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about what it was like the year after her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was with him when it happened. It happened in an instant. In that moment as he fell, dead, everything changed.

Even as Kate Braestrup stared at her husband’s cereal bowl in the sink that morning, he already lay dead in his state police car, killed when another vehicle lost control and crashed into him. Her life changed in that instant as she described in her book, Here If You Need Me. Lee and Bob Woodruff wrote a book, In An Instant. He was covering a story for ABC News in Iraq when an IED exploded near his vehicle. In an instant he nearly died. In an instant everything in her day changed dramatically.

It happens so often. It happens to everyone. Yet we all try to ignore that an end will come. We pretend that reality doesn’t exist even though it does. In an instant we are reminded that though we think we are masters of our fate, we never are. It’s out of our hands.

Friday night, terrified after what had happened to my day, my body, and with the calming effects of the valium wearing off, I scrambled to put myself in a place that brought me back to a time where I felt I had power. I retreated to the movie, Patton, about the controversial, powerful, and legendary World War II general, George S. Patton, Jr. His nickname, given by his men, was “Old Blood and Guts.” He never retreated.

It’s a standing joke in my house, that especially when I was younger, I was Patton. I was the general. I ran the situations. Whatever needed doing, I gave the order or executed the action. Failure or retreat was not in my vocabulary. Back then, my thought was, work hard enough, push hard enough, refuse to be defeated or back off, and you can do, achieve, overcome anything.

In the movie, there is one scene where Patton, played by George C. Scott, speaks and my family looks at me and laughs. Patton, has been reprimanded and his command taken from him. Patton, like him or hate him, was a brilliant field commander. He also put his foot in his mouth constantly, and some of his actions were controversial. Yet he was a power to be reckoned with. He bludgeoned his way through things, though aware of the pecking order, did manage to yield some deference to God. In this scene he is speaking to his aide after being told he might be sent home from the war in disgrace:

“I feel I am destined to achieve some great thing, what I don’t know. But, this last incident is so trivial in it’s nature and so terrible in its effect, it can’t be the result of an accident. It has to be the work of God. The last great opportunity of a lifetime . . . an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! God will not permit this to happen!! I am going to be allowed to fulfill my destiny!!!” [LONG PAUSE] “His will be done.”

The last four words are said almost as an afterthought, Patton remembering that God just “might” have some say in things. For some reason, at that time in my life, maybe even now a little bit, my family saw a lot of me in that scene. 🙂

So Friday night, I took comfort from retreating to a place and time in life where I felt powerful and in control of everything. Yet, in truth, even as I watched that movie I knew it was just an illusion, a temporary salve for a traumatic day. None of us are really in command of our destinies, only our responses to life’s questions. Even the powerful General Patton learned that. He preferred to die in battle. Instead, in Dec of 1945 he was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of injuries in a car accident. He died a couple of weeks later from an embolism.

I took temporary sustenance from the movie, even as I am aware that we can only take charge of some things, our choices, but for the rest, there is just the one and only powerful tool we can use: stay aware in the present moment, and breathe.