How I Found my CPs

I’ve been seeing a fair bit of talk around the Twitter-sphere lately about finding critique partners (or CPs) and it got me thinking about sharing my thoughts and experience. Now, I don’t think there’s any tried and true method that will guarantee you a CP, and it’s very likely you will jump around for a while before finding the person/people that you really trust with your work, but I think there are some basic tenants that could help.

Before I jump right into it though, I think there’s some groundwork we should cover.

What exactly is a critique partner?

As a disclaimer: I don’t think everyone has exactly the same definition of critique partner, and you might not agree with mine. That’s okay! But this brings up an important point—you’ll want to communicate with a potential CP about what your expectations are. It will likely lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and heartache if you’re hoping to find someone who will read every piece of writing you ever pen in your entire life, and your potential CP thinks you’re doing a beta swap. If you’re looking for an involved CP, be clear about this. You’re hoping to find someone to regularly share your work with.  

With that out of the way—what is a CP?

A critique partner is someone who is regularly involved in the process of critiquing your early writing. This could be workshopping ideas, reading early chapters, alpha reading, beta reading, looking at your query/synopsis, rereading passages you’re having trouble with, brainstorming when you’re stuck, etc. Regardless what exactly their role looks like from project to project a CP is typically more involved than a beta reader is going to be. It’s not just one set of eyes on one draft one time, the end.

While a CP doesn’t have to read everything you ever write (as that might be a bit of an unrealistic expectation), they tend to be familiar with your style, voice, areas of strength/weakness, etc. As a CP will likely be reading for you often, you’re going to want to find someone who a) reads in your genre(s), b) understands your vision for your work, and c) has a communication/feedback style that aligns with your interests.

Pretty large order! No wonder it’s so difficult to find a quality critique partner!

It’s a two-way street

In my experience, having a critique partner goes both ways. They read for you, and you read for them (this doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a swap as you may not always be at the same stage in your writing journey, but it can if that’s what works for you). It’s a symbiotic relationship that mutually benefits both parties. I find this is the most effective way to have a flourishing critique partner relationship. Neither party feels as though they’re being taken advantage of, you become very familiar with each other’s work, and you can celebrate and grow together. It’s a partnership, not a job, and it should feel that way.

While you may be able to find a critique partner who is willing to read for you without reciprocation, you have to be open to the possibility that this will be a harder role to fill, and a potentially less satisfying relationship than you would find if you’re reading for each other.

NOTE: This is NOT the same as finding a beta reader. While it’s usually polite to offer to beta read for someone who is going to be reading for you, there’s not that same expectation of reciprocity. I have read for a number of people in the writing community without them reading for me, and vice-versa.

Which brings me to my next point:

Be willing to read, and read a lot

When I first started making solid connections with people in the writing community, it was because I started beta reading. And beta reading. And beta reading. I would have six or more projects on the go sometimes (which, let’s be serious, wasn’t healthy, and I limit myself to two now). Sometimes people I read for would read for me back—but not always, and that was okay.

I just wanted to get connected; help where I could; and learn more about craft, critique, different writing styles, etc. And I did that! I think beta reading is one of the single most useful tools for improving your craft as you get to see what kinds of things you think work and don’t work, you have to reflect on and articulate WHY these things work or don’t work for you, and you see different approaches to doing things. But I digress—another blog post topic for another time.

Being willing to beta read for people allowed me to make connections, which allowed me to discover who was a good fit for me, and who wasn’t.

The process of finding a CP requires a lot of trial and error and it’s probably not going to be as easy as asking for a CP and finding one. You might have to slog through manuscripts you do not feel like reading; you might have to give up an evening you could be playing Among Us (we’re all obsessed with this game right, it’s not just me?) to offer feedback on someone else’s work instead; you might have to read for people who aren’t able/willing to read for you.

None of it is going to be a waste, I promise, but it might feel like it sometimes. If you read a manuscript you really didn’t enjoy, you’re going to know that person probably won’t be a good critique partner as you’re not going to want to read for them therefore eliminating any chance of that reciprocal relationship. If you do a beta swap with someone and you do not understand their feedback on your work, or they want you to rewrite your manuscript to fit a different vision, then you know they probably aren’t going to be a good CP for you as they don’t understand what you’re going for. Scratching people OFF the list can be just as important as putting people ON the list of potential critique partners.

It’s not personal

I could use the dating analogy here about finding the right person, but I’m not going to, because as much as finding a good CP is interpersonal, it’s also professional and you can’t take it as a reflection of what people think of you.

If you’re a very blunt, direct person who calls it like it is (and subsequently offers feedback in a similar fashion), I might respect you and your opinions very much, but I probably won’t be able to be your CP. I know that if someone straight up tells me a scene I’ve written is awful (even if it is) I’m going to cocoon in a blanket burrito and pretend I’m not crying. That’s not personal. That’s a professional choice because I know blunt feedback doesn’t mesh well with my rampaging imposter syndrome so I won’t want to enter into a reciprocal feedback relationship with someone who offers that kind of feedback. Or, if you write high fantasy, I’m probably not going to be a good CP for YOU because I cannot keep intense worldbuilding straight in my head so I don’t actually read a lot of high fantasy. I’m not going to be able to offer you relevant, helpful feedback, industry insights, comp titles, etc., if that’s your genre of expertise.

If you ask someone to be your CP and they say no, or if you start a CP relationship with someone and it ends up petering out or doesn’t work for either of you, it’s not a reflection of you. Interests, feedback style, genre preferences just might not align. That’s to be expected in such a subjective industry with such a large, diverse, community.

It’s going to take time

I mean, this piece is pretty straightforward. Know that the process is going to take some time. It probably took me about a year and a half of being in the Twitter writing community before I connected with an initial CP—it might take you longer, it might take you less time, depending what kind of CP relationship you’re looking for, what kind of feedback you prefer to give/receive, what genre(s) you write in, etc.

I did a lot of beta reading in that time, found a lot of people who weren’t quite the right fit, and tried to initiate CP relationships that failed. Ultimately, it was when I wasn’t actively trying to find a CP that I connected with one. We’d read for each other a couple of times, liked each other’s writing, we understood the vision the other person was going for and offered feedback to support that, our critique styles aligned, we read/wrote in similar genres (or at least, genres familiar to the other person). I don’t even think we officially asked each other to be a CP, there was just this unspoken agreement that we would be willing to read, workshop, reread, and be involved if the other person needed this. This was borne out of a mutual relationship of trust and understanding that we wouldn’t have found if we hadn’t been willing to read, connect, and support each other.

Be positive

It’s definitely easier said than done, but try to be as positive as you can throughout the process. It’s natural to get discouraged and feel crappy about yourself, your writing, the process of finding a CP (because, let’s face it, this is a tough industry to be in, and who of us doesn’t feel like an imposter sometimes). Let yourself feel those emotions—but maybe that’s not the time to be trying to find a CP.

Whether we intend it to or not, our attitude can bleed into our writing, our feedback, and our relationships, and it’s hard to support and uplift someone who doesn’t seem to want to be supported and uplifted. Take the time you need to wallow, talk to someone you trust, drink some water, work through your feelings, and then get back on the horse (so to speak). Come back to the CP search with a positive attitude, knowing you’re doing everything you can to accomplish your dream. How many people can say they’re doing that?     

Be flexible

This is definitely something that requires some flexibility. You may have a very specific idea of a CP relationship you want, and that’s fine—go for it, be patient, and try to find it! But you might also have to adjust some of your expectations and/or be willing to roll with the punches.

I do currently have more than one CP, but they’re not all what I might have initially considered my “ideal” CP relationship. And you know what? I’m much happier with things the way they are now. While I do have some relatively involved CPs, I have a few informal CPs as well where our relationship tends to be more beta-like in nature. We ask each other if the other is free, we read a clean manuscript and offer feedback, then we do it again the next time there’s a new project. I still consider this a CP relationship because we’re relatively familiar with each other’s work by this point, but there’s not a lot of workshopping, there’s not a lot of consistency, and there’s very little expectation for the other to read if they’re busy or don’t want to.  

Maybe this isn’t the kind of CP relationship you’re looking for, but being willing to change your expectations to meet someone else where they’re at can create a space where you have more than one CP. This can be incredibly beneficial. I have CPs who write and read in different genres, with different experiences, who are available at different times, with different insights into the same project. This offers me a greater perspective and greater range of feedback on my work, which has been wildly helpful on numerous occasions. 

It’s worth it

Well, Ashley, you’re saying to yourself. That’s a lot of information and sounds like a lot of work without any guarantee of finding a CP. 

Yeah, you’re right. It’s tough, and some days it’s going to feel like it’s never going to happen. But I truly believe it’s worth it if you’re willing to continue to put yourself out there. Finding someone you trust, who understands what you’re doing, and can help you reach your vision with your projects in a way that makes sense to you, was a game changer for me. But it was an investment of time, it took a lot of trial and error, and sometimes I felt rejected or hurt when it didn’t seem people wanted to be critique partners with me. But learning the things I’ve outlined in this blog post—to be flexible, to be positive, that it’s not personal, that it takes time—helped me get through the searching process.  

Now, this method might not work for everyone. It’s my experience, which, as with everything else in this industry, is subjective. You have to do what works for you and if, at the end of the day, you’re just happy beta reading for people and having them beta read for you, do that! Just like writing advice, there’s no cookie cutter method (as much as people will try to tell you there is).

But if this resonates with you, then I’m thrilled, and I’ll have my fingers crossed that you’ll find your CP soon!  

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

I’m not the kind of person who looks like a runner. I don’t have cuts in my thighs that I could crack a walnut in. I don’t have a lean, aerodynamic form. I don’t own $400 running shoes. The armband that I put my phone into has this yellow powder on it from a fun run and I am convinced it is NEVER coming out.

I don’t even really look like I know what I’m doing when I’m out there bobbing around to my music. But I run 3-5 times a week, so I’m going to call myself a runner for the purposes of this post, and you’re just going to nod along and believe me.

As I’ve been on this journey of self-discovery with running and writing, I’ve been struck a number of times about how similar the two are. Now, I know what you’re thinking: one is very athletic and one has you sitting in front of your computer for hours (if you’re lucky, you’re actually writing your story and not on twitter).

But they’re also both very mental. It depends a lot on where your head space is at. I can run (most days). I know what I’m capable of, and I can set goals accordingly. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to accomplish them. I might go out on a chilly day, or the morning after I ate way too many french fries, or an afternoon after I didn’t drink enough water or get enough sleep.  Or it might seem like the stars have aligned for the perfect running day, and I will still phone it in after a couple of kilometers because my head just wasn’t in it. And there’s not a heck of a lot I can do about that.

It’s the same with writing. We know what we’re capable of, we know what a good writing day feels like, we can set ourselves up for success, and still find ourselves staring at the blinking cursor.

Sometimes, our mind is our greatest enemy, telling us we can’t do it, or it’s too hard, or just realistically acknowledging that this isn’t what we want to be doing today.  And while we might not be able to silence those voices, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right. Some of my best running days have started with me gasping and wheezing, fixated on how hard it is to run. Some of my best writing days have come after literal hours of procrastination, after writing pages and pages of absolute garbage before hitting my stride. Sometimes, it’s just about digging a little deeper, and seeing what we have left. I don’t believe it’s about telling ourselves–when we feel like we cannot even–that we’re going to reach our personal best. It’s not about telling ourselves when we start the first kilometer feeling like crap, that we’re going to run a 10K. It’s about setting realistic goals you can try to reach, places you can stop, knowing if you do so you’ve done your best for today.

Just 500 more words. Just 20 more minutes. I can do it.

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It’s about being kind to yourself and giving yourself the grace to fail. Because some days aren’t going to be as good as other days and that’s okay. I’m going to say it again for the people in the back. Some days aren’t going to be as good as other days and that’s okay. 

Runners aren’t expected to run a marathon every day. Writer’s aren’t expected to write a book every month, 5000 words every day, 3 books a year every year. We need to stop putting the pressure on ourselves to reach a level that’s unsustainable.

I’m going to be completely candid with you here. I have never run a marathon. I haven’t even run a half. Keep in mind that I live in Canada, which means I have about 3 months of the outdoor running season and 9 months of snow.

But in all honesty, I discovered my love of running about a year or two ago, and have just started to realize that running a marathon is something I actually want to do. So, with that being said, please trust me in what I’m going to say next:

Writing is a lot like running a marathon. There’s this huge goal that’s all we can focus on at the start. 42 Km. Publishing a book. It seems impossible. And I’m not going to lie to you, each step we take very often feels like it’s getting us nowhere. We forget to celebrate the little successes because we’re focusing on the bigger goal.

The first kilometer you run, the first chapter you finish, the first short story/poem/screenplay you enter into a competition, HECK, the first time you share your writing with someone else is a BIG deal. But it’s not running a marathon, and it’s not publishing a book so we don’t look at ourselves and say “I am so proud of you for accomplishing something you’ve never done before, even when it felt impossible.”

And we really should, shouldn’t we?

If you surround yourself with like-minded people, people who write, people who run, people who have completed a marathon or published a book, we can get so caught up in what they’ve accomplished, that we lose sight of the journey we’re on. How come they’ve done it, and we haven’t? How come they’re progressing faster than us? How come we had a crappy day on the couch with a chocolate bar, and they went for a 15 Km run this morning? The jerks. Don’t they know that everyone runs on the same schedule and our bad days are their bad days too?

We forget the reason we surrounded ourselves with these people in the first place. To inspire us.

Here’s the thing. We all need to take breaks, we just might not be taking them at the same time because we’re not all living the same life.

The concept of taking a break is something I think we intuitively understand on the physical level but have trouble comprehending on the more creative side. When running long distances, you have to back off. Your muscles will cramp, your feet will blister, your toenails will literally bruise and fall off. If we push our bodies beyond where they can go, they’ll let us know.

Investing creative energy in the writing process is the same way. We’ll burn out. Headaches, exhaustion, depression, stress, anxiety, sickness. But often, I find that writers try to push past it. The dialogue we have with ourselves sounds something like this: I don’t understand why it’s not working. Why is it so hard? I just need 1000 words today. I just need to finish this draft. I just need to…I just need too… 

We push ourselves beyond the threshold of what we can reasonably endure, and for what? At some point, I know the joy leeched right out of the process. How is that worth it anymore? Why don’t we understand it’s because: We. Need. A. Break?

People expect runners to take a step back to keep themselves in tip-top shape, and writers have to do the same. Because it’s a LONG process. It’s a frustrating process. It’s a daunting process. We have to hold onto the idea that this is something we WANT. The end goal is something we WANT to achieve. Nobody is going to come up behind you and force you to run a marathon or write a book (as far as I know). We just have to keep trekking, one foot in front of the other, one word after another.

We have to remember that some days are not going to be as good as others, and that’s okay! It’s not something we do once and forget about. Nobody writes a book in a sitting, gets an agent the next week, and decides that’s it for their writing career. This is something we want to commit to, and with the ebbs and flows of life, that means not every day is going to be easy. Not every day is going to feel worth it.

We have to remember to celebrate the little successes along the way. Because we are only going to be on this journey for the first time, once.

The first 5K, the first big race, this first time you crush your personal best!

The first competition you win, the first manuscript you complete, the first time you get an agent rejection (because come on son, that means you tried)!

It’s worth celebrating the fact that you’re further than you started. That you’ve done something you never thought you were going to do.

Nobody said it was going to be easy, but what worth doing ever is?

 

My Best Friend Google

Research, in the most far-removed application of the word, is something every writer must be familiar with, at least to some degree. Of course, in this day and age, that means being well acquainted with the Google search bar. I am quite certain that, in the event of a stranger stumbling upon the browsing history of a writer, they would quickly flee the premises, screaming. Bizarre knowledge demands attention mid-narration, and a writer must pursue this strain to whatever end they require. So doubtless, a writer is also a researcher.

None of us has,  despite our honest effort or desire, found out everything there is to know about the world. A shame. If only I could be so intimately aware of the table manners of English Royalty; the history of rural Japan; the origin of the Death-Metal genre of music; the name of that part of the telephone that clicks when you hang up the receiver; as well as everything else that could ever possibly be relevant to a story, then the need for research would escape me. Alas, this can never be the case.

As writers, we attempt to write comprehensibly, and believably, about everything under the sun. A lofty goal. Being that we are haplessly incapable of knowing infinite amounts of knowledge, we must learn what we can, about what we need, when the information becomes pertinent.

It is never obvious at first, what unique snippets of seemingly useless fact, will be essential to a writer to communicate to their readers. I cannot recount the number of times that I have begun a journey through blase narration, only to find it taking an unexpected turn. Out of nowhere, I find myself intently bound on uncovering an answer for which I did not anticipate there being a question. In the most extreme cases, I admit that I have plunged my economical investigation (read, free research) into things that would make any self-respecting employee of the Edmonton Police Service a tad bit suspicious. I promise officer, I was only writing a murder mystery!

To add insult to injury, we can never pre-prepare ourselves for the information we do not yet know we will need. I have never fired a gun, made a homemade pie crust, listened to the voices over a police scanner, taken sleeping medication, or, to my chagrin, driven in another city. While it may seem these things are not essential to a short story about a Harvard Alumnus (purely an example), our narrations can barrel high speed towards an off-ramp, taking us to a destination that wasn’t on our roadmap. Suddenly, the graduate is an unsuccessful one that never found a job in his field of Forensic Anthropology. He joined the police force instead. He gets involved in an investigation that goes far beyond what he wished to uncover; popping sleeping pills and making homemade pie crust is the way he copes with the strain of this new case. Unexpectedly, we are now caught in the conundrum of how to depict actions we’ve never done, through the scope of a character that is more familiar with them than we are. For you see, characters, real or imagined, are capable of being people outside of the experience of their authors, and thank goodness, or that murder mystery would take an unfortunate spin in a very different direction.

And so, we must research.

There is a misnomer about writing that as authors, we are boxed within the confines of what we already know if we wish to be successful. Nathan Englander, Stephen King, and certainly numerous others, have spoken to this inaccuracy. It is not about writing what you are already intelligently competent in (for what, as writers, are we truly intelligently competent in, except perhaps stringing meaningless symbols together? At that, every author will tell you there are moments and words for which that capacity completely escapes us). No. These writers tell us that it is about writing what you know to be true, and what you know you can express. Writing about the emotions that you know all too well because you are both uniquely human, as well as unbearably tethered to the mortal coil. Write about that. Research the rest.

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Forgotten Things

I am not the most organized person in the world when it comes to my writing. I only recently jumped on the Scrivener train, and that helps, but each document sort of finds its way into one communal writing folder on my desktop. Occasionally, I sift through this and find some forgotten gems. Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a fantasy story I had started writing—oh—AGES ago. But I found I sort of liked it. I can’t remember where it was going for the life of me, but it’s kind of fun, and instead of letting it fade away, I figured I would post it on my blog.

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The city was quiet and grey. There was a drizzle from the clouds above; a smattering that pelted the cobblestone walkways and the brick faces of the buildings. Everything seemed damp, cool, darker than normal on that day.

The two of us had cloaks drawn over our heads, grey and as innocuous as we could generate from the simple fibres and dyes that we drew from the earth. I pulled the hood closer around my face, trying to shelter it from the inquisitive eye of any onlookers.

She was walking beside me—the skin drawn tight around her face, her blonde hair tied back with grey wisps around her temples and her forehead. Her eyes caught mine, and I saw the vibrancy of them—a liquid pool of blue light, so stark in contrast to her dulled features. I smiled reassuringly, despite the fact that my heart stopped when I looked at her. I swallowed hard and quickly averted my vibrant brown eyes to the ground, knowing that anyone who caught sight of either hers, or mine, would know the truth. The brilliance that shone from them was just as tragic as it was beautiful. The deep, living colour was a sign that we weren’t like everybody else. We weren’t like anybody else.

She understood without me having to say anything and lowered her head so the brim of the cloak fell over her face. It seemed such a shame to hide her beauty—such a waste. She was a rose among thorns; a unique commodity in a world of mediocrity, and she had to hide it.

My thoughts were interrupted as I felt, more than saw, her hand reach out from underneath the wide cuff of her grey sleeve. When her delicate fingers wrapped around mine I squeezed instinctively. I could feel her pulse in her fingertips, and it was wildly out of control—as I’m sure—was mine. It was such a risk we were taking, but it wasn’t like there was much of a choice anymore. We had waited as long as possible and there wasn’t any time left. She would argue that we could wait forever. I would never allow it.

I had to take a steadying breath when I noticed the shop that I had been looking for only a few feet away from us. I stopped and dropped her hand instantly. The door was made of glass, and a dark green wood; an elaborate gold work of embossing on the front.

It was an apothecary.

I remembered myself and gave her a sidelong glance that expressed my remorse. She just smiled back at me, though it was frail, and forced. She seemed so weak now; it was almost like the disease had taken the strength from her spirit as well.

“You have to stay here,” I said reaching my hand towards her face and drawing the outline of her jaw with my index finger. My thumb brushed her cheek—cold, and damp from her sweat, though I told myself it was from the rain.

She grabbed my hand and pressed her cheek against it, closing her eyes and breathing in deeply.

“No Dom,” She said after a moment, and I saw a flicker of her old resilience. “You’re going in there for me, but I’m not letting you go in without me.”

I looked down at her, unsure what to say. Her eyes were glassy and bloodshot, dark bags underneath them, and lines that emphasized how hollowed out her face had become. And yet, for the first time in a long time, there was a light in them. A determination. I didn’t even want to try to crush it, but I also didn’t want anything to happen to her. Without saying anything, I pulled her close to me, wrapping my arms around her fading body and breathing in the scent of her. With a hand at the back of her head, I pressed her face against my chest as though I could hide her from everything. From the sickness, from the city, from the people who lived inside of it—letting their fear and hatred of us control our very existence.

“What do I do?” I murmured into the fabric of her hood.

“What we do,” She said quietly, “Is go into that apothecary. Then we go home to Isaac, Joel, and your father.”

“One, two, three, just like that,” I said, doubt seeping into my voice.

“Just like that,” she said back, but her voice trailed off at the end, and I could feel her shaking in my arms.

“Okay,” I said, pulling away from her and holding her away at arm’s length. “Let’s go.”

I stood as far away from her as I could bear, about a foot or two, to try and appear as normal as possible. We weren’t desperately clinging to each other for life and companionship; we weren’t slowly dying in a world build from concrete and fear. We were just like everybody else.

A golden bell chimed as we pushed through the door. I stiffened, and so did she. We both stood there for a moment, motionless.

The shop was cramped, a small square room in the adjoined building. Shelves were built from the floor to the ceiling on the walls, and the middle of the room was clustered with glass shelves. There was enough room for one person to pass between the shelves, and that was all. Tucked into the back corner was a glass cabinet, with an elaborate cash register balanced on top of it.

Every surface was covered in bottles, and jars, filled with all kinds of different liquids; some that seemed as dull and lifeless as stagnant water, and others that absolutely radiated with life. They seemed to swirl of their own will and had a depth and colour that seemed to breathe. There were books stacked on the side shelves; old books with torn leather bindings, and cursive titles like Balancing the Humours and Herbs, Barks, and Healing Plants written in gold along the spines. Some were left open on the counter, the dark, aging paper smudged from where a finger had been drawn down the words countless times. There were strange apparatuses with plastic bulbs and glass tubes, there were small vials and thick brown bottles. Dried plants were hung on nails in the wall. Glass dishes, mortars, and pestles, you name it, it was smashed somewhere in that tiny room.

I moved forward towards the counter tentatively. Every step I took brought one shoulder or another closer to brushing something off a shelf, and I made an effort not to touch anything.

“Well hello,” the cracking voice came out of nowhere, and my heart leapt into my throat. I stumbled backward a few steps and sent a clear bulbous bottle toppling from its spot on the shelf behind me.

The elderly man reached out a hand, catching the thing before it shattered, and one of his impossibly long white eyebrows arched curiously. I stammered, unable to say anything, and he smiled, looking down at the bottle and brushing some dust off of it.

Miscela di amore,” he said, running a hand through the white, groomed beard that hung off his chin. “Blend of love. This simple concoction of aromatic spices and endorphin raising herbs will cause any woman to fall wildly in love with the man who purchases it. But that’s not what you’re here for, is it?”

His eyes were dark and beady, but there was a light of mischief in them as he looked up at me. I had to remember to avert my eyes, though I couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t seen the brilliance that shone from their earthy iris’ before I forced them to the ground.

“No,” I said finally, and my voice came out without tremble. “I’m here for a healing potion.”

Jolie, my beautiful, wonderful wife, slowly weaved her way through the shelves and stood a few paces behind me. I could feel her looking over my shoulder at the old man that had now moved in front of me.

He wore a brown tunic, tied at the waist with a loose rope belt and long sleeves that had been tied up at the elbows with a similar type of rope. It made him look almost like a monk of sorts, though his long, wild white hair and his beard did little to convince me such was the case. His face was heavily wrinkled, though he appeared to have a youth and a spring in his step that many his age didn’t. He stood fairly tall, and had a knowing look in his eyes that made me extremely nervous.

“Oh?” he said, a small smile playing on his lips. “And what, pray, tell, is the ailment that you seek reprieve from, my dear?”

He bowed at the waist, and looked up, directly at Jolie. I couldn’t help but stand in front of her, moving my body in the way of the old man’s gaze.

“Who said it was for her?” I asked adamantly, feeling heat flare up my chest and around my neck.

“Why young lad,” he said, setting the vial of Love’s Blend on a different shelf than the one it had come from and taking a step closer towards me. He picked another thing off the shelf and examined it. It looked like water, perhaps with a slight green hue to it, though every time I stared at it to see the colour it seemed to dissolve back to a clear, colourless solution. “If it were you that needed the healing potion, you wouldn’t have brought along the woman. As it were, here she is, trembling from head to foot, and wrapping that sad, wet piece of cloth around her as though it were the only thing that could offer her warmth.”

I felt disarmed as he looked back at me. Without knowing how it happened, I found myself staring straight into his eyes.

“You are the chroí briste, aren’t you?” he asked.

I couldn’t take in a proper breath, and I backed up into Jolie without meaning to. We both stumbled. I threw out a hand to catch her and keep myself from knocking over an entire shelf on my way out.

And I certainly needed to get out. The only thing that stopped me was knowing that, without a healing potion, Jolie would die.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said unconvincingly.

“Perhaps then, you are the only ones who have not heard about the chroí briste in the entire city.”

“Well—”I stammered, holding Jolie tightly around the waist with my one arm.

“There is much lore about the chroí briste,” he started, interrupting me and striding toward the counter. I contemplated grabbing Jolie and bolting while his back was turned, but he seemed to have eyes in the back of his head and waved me forwards without turning. “You can leave if you want, but your maiden will surely die.”

I looked back at Jolie, realizing I still had a death lock around her hip. I dropped my hand to my side instantly, and she supported herself on a shelf, glancing up at me with a weariness that seemed to physically drag her down.

“Stay here,” I whispered, brushing away a strand of hair that had fallen out of its tie and tumbled out from underneath her hood. I tucked it back behind her ear and strode toward the man at the counter.

He set down the concoction he had picked up and snapped a book off the shelf, one that looked to be about a hundred years old, with hand-drawn illustrations and elaborate artwork around the first letter on the page he flipped to. It was the letter “C”, embellished with a number of leaves that sprouted from it, and shattered hearts that bled around it. The first word was “Chroi” and the one that followed was predictably, “Briste”. My heart froze at the name. As I tried to read more, I was frustrated by the language. It was all written in Irish. I stared at the picture though, enthralled by it.

There was a woman with long braided red hair, clothed in a green dress, and leaning down off a white horse towards a man on a hillside. The man was kneeling before her with affection etched on his face, but he had ethereal wisps of white coming forth from his opened mouth and gathering in the palm of the woman’s hand.

My blood ran cold, and I felt chills ripple up and down the length of my arms.

The whole picture appeared to be painted in dull, earthen tones in comparison with the flamboyant green that the artist had used for the eyes of the woman and the eyes of the horse. She rode before the forest, which faded in the contrast to the vibrancy of her eyes, and she leaned toward the man, who faded in contrast to her dominance. She was half engrossed in nature, half consuming man.

“W—what does it say?” I asked.

I had always known that there was mythology associated with the Chroi Briste, just as there was lore surrounding every other beast that was thought to roam the earth—the man with the head of a dog, the one-legged creatures that lived in the far East, bloodsuckers, goblins, will-o-the-wisps, ghouls—but had I the access to the books that told of them, I’m not sure I would have read them. Now though, presented with the image, I had to know what it said. It was an unquenchable desire for knowledge, a desperate thirst to understand, it was all-consuming. I forgot the reason we were in the apothecary in the first place and needed only to have the man explain the book to me.

“I will tell you,” he said softly, “but first—”

His hungry gaze fell on Jolie, and I was brought back to the present, to the circumstances that had brought us there in the first place. My hackles raised and I was put on the defensive.

“I want you to show me,” he said, glancing between me and Jolie. “And then I will explain to you the story that is told on these pages. And then I will give you your healing potion.”

I swallowed hard, frozen in indecision. We needed the healing potion—but would the man give it once he saw what we could do? Did his old books and his fancy tales prepare him for the reality, or would he be horrified and angered like the rest of humanity, and refuse to help us?

“Give me the healing potion first,” I said adamantly. “Then we will show you, and then you can explain to us this—this lore.”

He started to stroke his beard again, a contemplative look coming over his face. After a moment he counter-offered.

“I will tell you the story, and then you will show me. I will give you the potion after that. I can’t be entirely certain you wouldn’t take my potion and leave once I’ve given it to you.” He chuckled a soft, old, crackly kind of chuckle, and then rested both hands on the counter on either side of the book.

I looked back at Jolie, my heart constricting in my chest. Her eyes were wide, and she put most of her weight on the arm supported on a shelf. There was terror in her—she didn’t want anyone to know what she could do any more than I did. But we both knew she needed that potion.

“Show me the potion we need,” I said.

He stared at me for a moment and then conceded with a smile. He picked up the potion he had set on the counter, the clear one with the inherent green tinge. He held it for a moment, his eyes locked on mine, before setting it down again with a soft clank, the sound of glass on glass. The air grew impossibly thick and the moment stretched around us as though it would continue on into eternity.

He finally broke the silence, turning his back to me and starting to talk in a loud, clear voice.

“The legend of the Chroi Briste originated in Ireland. It’s a beautiful country from what I have heard. But it has always been said that the beauty of the land and the beauty of the countryside couldn’t compare to the beauty of the Fae maiden Achroi. Born as part of a superior race, the Tuatha de Danaan, she was gloriously and inexplicably connected to nature. But Achroi was enticed by humanity in a way that the other Faeries were not. They were born out of the earth, and their loyalty was bound to the earth. Achroi was different and was sighted by many humans as she rode on a brilliant white stallion with blazing green eyes, to the outskirts of the villages of man. Those who saw her were lured to her, enticed by her eyes perhaps.”

There was a break in his voice as he paused to look up at me and Jolie. I had moved closer to him, and so had she. I found myself with my arm around her shoulder, and the two of us were staring at the picture as though it had come to life and were showing us the story of our history.

The man continued the story.

“There were many men who saw the beauty of Achroi and were drawn to her only to be disappointed when she fled from them in dismay. Achroi knew that she was supposed to stay away from humanity—only interact with them if it were to gain some sort of support for the land. She tried desperately but found herself getting weaker and weaker as she tore herself away from man.

There was one who had seen the mystical Faerie woman and became consumed with thoughts of her. He packed his belongings and left house and home in pursuit of her. By this point, she had become so weak and so numb that she lay in a field of wildflowers, refusing to move for any reason. Unable to move.

The other Fae tended to her, but there was nothing that they could bring her that would ease her discomfort, or cure her ailment. Rumours began to circle about Achroi, surely the superior Tuatha de Danaan wouldn’t fall ill the way she had. What if she were not descended from the goddess Danu as were the rest of them?

The one who had been captivated by her searched through all the woods, desperate to find the maiden who had stolen his heart with one glance of her vibrant eyes. He had stumbled upon her after the other Fae had left. Finding her laying there, staring up at the brilliance of the sky, he threw himself upon her, and wrapped her in his arms, confessing his undying love.

It was then that he began to feel the change in him, as did she in herself. The life began to be restored to her, and the man before her became weak and frail. His hair turned white before her eyes, and his skin became wrinkled upon his bone. Ten, twenty, fifty years taken off his life, until he finally pried his arms from around her, and collapsed in the flowers, gasping.

His love for her died, and he fled from her instantly.

Acroi had stolen his soul, using it to sustain herself, and restore the life that had slowly begun to ebb away from her.

The man returned to his village, unrecognizable by any that had once known him. He told the story to those that would listen, warning them of the Faerie Maiden in the hills. Achroi, knowing now that it was mans’ life that sustained her own, began to pursue those who could still be enticed. She ceased to be known as Achroi—‘love’, or literally translated as, ‘a heart’, and began to be known as ‘Chroi Briste’, heart broken. It was thought that Achroi spawned a race with some of the men she consumed, humans with the ability to steal the soul—just as she had. The Chroi Briste.

The apothecary became deathly silent. Nobody moved; it seemed as though nobody breathed. The old man finally closed the book, creating a small puff of dust as one ancient page met its counterpart.

“You want us to show you that?” I clarified, pointing at the closed book.

Blank Page Competition

I had the amazing opportunity this month to enter a short story into the Blank Page Challenge (at the prompting of some great friends). When results came out, I was astonished to find that I had placed in the top three! The final decision comes down to public voting, which closes Tuesday September 4, 2018.

If you have a chance, it would be so greatly appreciated if you checked out the top three stories (here) and gave your vote to your favorite! Each of the other entries have been submitted by some friends of mine, and are so well deserving a place in the top three.

Thanks so much for being a part of this journey!

 

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The Dark

One rule: you must use the words, “you can’t fight what you can’t see.”

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The darkness presses around him, like a physical weight. A chill creeps into his skin, damp against the curve of his spine through the shirt on his back. A headache pulses in his temples, sharp, violent pain creeping behind his eyes.

What is this? How did I get here? 

He plants a palm against the icy wall at his back, supporting himself as he pushes up off the ground. His hand comes away wet, and the empty thwack of a drip hitting the floor sends his heart pattering in his chest.

His eyes widen, attempting to see something, anything in the inky blackness which stretches around him. The empty grey outline of a door emerges through the fog. He stumbles for it, adrenaline flooding his veins with dizziness.

Where do you think you’re going, my pet? 

The words slice through his head. He crumples to the ground, pressing his eyes shut and clapping his hands against his ears. He recognizes the voice, sweet but deadly, like ethylene glycol.

Where is it coming from? Where is she coming from? 

He jerks his head on his neck, though he can’t see his hand before his face, never mind a form in the darkness. He glances forward again, struggling to make out the faint edge–the hint of light beyond his cage of cold black. He gets up slowly, legs shaking beneath him. The voice has gone silent. He makes the short journey to the door, his shoes scuffing the floor beneath him, the only noise. Sccccrrrrfff. Scccrrrffff. Scccrrfff. 

The door rattles as he plants both palms against it. His body shivers and shakes, faint bruises and scratches screaming in the silence. He fumbles for a knob or handhold, his fingers grasping against the mottled surface, finding nothing.

Mason.

He feels her breath brush his ear, and spins, arms flailing through empty air.

“Where are you?” he shouts, and the darkness swallows his words.

A frantic desperation fills his chest, and he grasps for the door, fingernails grinding between the thin edge where the grey light seeps in. He manages a hold, and reefs on the heavy slab. It gives a little, enough to give him hope. He pulls harder and the door opens, only to catch after an inch. The heavy clank of chains rattling together sends his stomach into his feet.

The cold hands clamp around either side of his head from behind, paralyzing him, feet freezing to the spot. A chill drips down his spine like ice water, his breathing catching in his chest.

“Oh Mason,” she says, her nails biting into the flesh at his temples. “You can’t fight what you can’t see.”

The deep violet clouds fill his vision, seeping through his skull, making his head swim with disorientation and darkness. He feels himself slipping, his body growing weak, the violence of her spirit consuming him. The chorus of screams echo in his ears, and his are the loudest.

GasLighting

The lovely Ms. Radina Valova is a talented screenwriter, photographer, and author friend of mine, who hosts a writing prompt every week (feel free to check out her website here). She gives a photo to inspire us, and adds required lines, phrases, props, etc. to incorporate into our writing piece. It’s a lot of fun, and open to anyone who is interested! Look for it on twitter every Thursday with the hashtag #PhotoStoryPrompt.

This week’s challenge: Write the start or part of a story based on the image below. One rule, you must use the words “truth is a cold mistress, but steel is colder.”

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The night is dark, the only light coming from the harsh white fixtures embedded in the aluminum canopy over the gas pumps. The streets lay empty and quiet before him, the occasional swoosh of a distantly passing vehicle, the only thing to break the silence.

Mason’s heart does an unsteady dance in his chest, sweat rolling down the back of his neck as he stands in the humid hours of the early morning. His eyes flicker to the road, and he knows he’s waiting for something, but that’s the only thing he knows.

He barely remembers crawling out of bed in a daze, hours ago, his body moving of its own accord. But he does remember. Like sleeping walking, he’d watched it happen through groggy, squinted eyes. At first, he figured he must need a drink or something. He often switched into autopilot, trudging through the night to lumber through the kitchen and run himself a cold stream of water from the faucet. He’d duck his head into the sink, swallowing a few mouthfuls until he was satisfied.

But he hadn’t done that. Not in the murky hours of this early morning. He wrestled into a dark pair of jeans and a shirt, mismatching his socks, and slipping on shoes. The fear still hadn’t started, not then. Not until he grabbed his keys by the door, and slipped into the dingy hallway of his apartment. Then the pulse itched at the back of his head, a need to satisfy some desire he couldn’t identify. And with the pulse, the panic.

Turn around, he told himself, but he didn’t.

He got in his car, and drove as though he knew where he was going. Inside, his thoughts spilled, incoherent lifts and falls of fearful intonation.

What is happening, where are you going? Turn around, Parks. Turn around and go home.

But he didn’t. He drove, not checking his mirrors, not checking his speed, not checking his shoulder as he drifted into another lane. If the streets hadn’t been empty, he would’ve killed himself, undoubtedly.

Standing here now, he knows he should go home. He wants to go home, to crawl back beneath the covers and slip into a dreamless sleep, though he knows the thought is fanciful. The world is not kind enough to let him drop into oblivion. He will crash into another nightmare, with swirls of deep violet, and shrieks of the dying. He will toss and turn, waking up with sweat soaked covers, and trembling hands.

Maybe that’s why he stays, his back ram-rod straight, his eyes focused on the road. Maybe that’s why he’s left his car without bothering to close the door behind him, and stands out here in the middle of an abandoned gas station parking lot. Because it’s better than the alternative.

And yet, his pulse pounds in his throat, and he feels dizzy.

What are you waiting for, Mason Parker? What are you waiting for?  

The response in his head shakes with the voice of a child, terrified.

I don’t know, he thinks.

When the car pulls up, the windows tinted, the lights flickering off the ebony paint, a rush of relief sweeps through him. He’s not crazy. He was waiting for something.

The sensation is soon overcome with horror.

He was waiting for something…

A woman slips out of the back seat, and his heart beats harder. Run. Run. But he doesn’t.

The woman’s hair spills in dark waves over her shoulders. As she stands, taller than him, dressed like an actress at an awards ceremony, her eyes flicker in his direction. They’re darker than the night around them. His heart seizes, and he can’t breathe, but he doesn’t move.

She smiles faintly as she clatters up to him in stilettos. Her legs, long, pale, exposed through a slit up the side of her dress, are all he can look at. He can’t bring himself to look up. To look into her eyes.

“Good evening, Mason,” she says.

A flash, and his heart is beating again, far far too quickly. He’s not just standing straight anymore, he realizes, he’s standing at attention. His eyes stay on the ground, submissive. He says nothing.

The gravel and dust swirls around her feet, clouds of deep violet that crawl up her legs, revealing glimpses of her true form beneath. Shimmers of interlocking silver scales, reflecting the light from the canopy.

“Look at me.”

His gaze creeps up at her insistence.

Her eyes are entirely black, her teeth sharp slivers of bone. As she grins, dark, shimmering wings beat behind her back, and he feels the grip of her power crush his heart. He fights for a breath.

He hadn’t known when he’d fallen in love with her. Corrine.  In his chest, the stab of her betrayal works further and further in. The pain of surrendering his will to her lights through his memory. She only lets him recall the truth sometimes, and she does it to hurt him.

As though reading his thoughts, she reaches out a hand, her cold palm against his cheek. Inside, he shivers. On the outside, he does nothing.

“Truth is a cold mistress,” she says, then drops her eyes. She reaches into the clutch at her side, pulling out a silver six-shooter, which she plants in his hand. “But steel is colder, and you have a job to do for me.”

His fingers curl against the pistol grip. Bile creeps up the back of his throat, but he swallows it. He’s nothing more than a pawn for her in this world.

And he had loved her so much…

“Of course,” he finds himself saying, glancing up at her once more, looking for some hint on her face that she feels something. Anything. Though her glamour, the illusion, has settled back in place, there’s nothing human in her expression.

“Don’t get caught,” she says.

He wakes in the morning, having slept through his alarm. He grumbles, rolling over, and throwing the covers off himself. He’s going to be late for work. As he stands, his body protests, stiff and sore. He feels like he’s been crushed beneath a steam-roller. He wonders where it comes from. He hasn’t been to the gym in a few days, and he can’t figure what he could have done yesterday to make him feel like this.

He simply can’t remember. He never does…

 

 

My Muse is a Jerk

My friend, Brian Buhl, wrote an incredible piece about his muse (you can find it here). The idea of personifying that ineffable quality that us, as writers, wrestle with in order to put out words on a page, was intoxicating. I had to try it. I meant to finish some editing I had been working on first but, lo and behold, I couldn’t even wait for that. I had to write this piece. And here it is. Hope you enjoy!

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“Come on, kid,” he says. His grin comes slow and easy, my scowl comes hard and fast. “It’s not that difficult.”

“Sure, okay, you say that,” I start, but he presses a finger against my lips, effectively shushing me.

My face flushes, the heat rising into my cheeks, and up to the top of my ears. My heart drums faster in my chest, pulsing in my throat. If I didn’t know I need him, I’d tell him off.

My eyes dart, up and to the right, where I can glower at him. His pale skin flickers now and again, revealing flashes of his veins of varying hues of color, weaving dizzyingly beneath the surface. Sometimes I catch the dance of teal around his throat, sometimes it’s the spark of purple in his eyes, sometimes it’s the yellow in his fingertips. Sometimes I see them all at once, rainbows of magic. It comes as easy to him as breathing.

Sometimes I don’t see anything at all. Just another man.

“Look,” he throws an arm over my shoulder, waving out at the expanse before us. Off the edge of the roof beneath us, there lie rows and rows of high rises, reaching endlessly in every direction. They clamber to the skies, lit up as though with fire in the drizzly night. The streets below are empty, no cars, no people, no sound but the gentle up and down of his voice, and it’s eerie. “You have whatever you need at your disposal. It’s all in here.”

He reaches back to me and gently taps my forehead with his index finger. I swallow hard.

“It’s not that easy,” and I know I’m whining, but I can’t help it.

“It’s not that difficult either. You’ve done it before.”

“But what if—”

He hisses, “Shhh.”

His eyes flash with amber, then it fizzles, and dies, leaving them the same green as my own.

Tears bristle, and I try to bite them back. I’m always afraid if I show weakness, he’ll leave. Only the strong can do this, and I’m not that. I just pretend, and it doesn’t always work.

“Look, Scrittor—”

“Don’t call me that,” I say. “I don’t know what that means.”

It only makes him smile wider, and I swear I could punch him in his perfect face when he does that.

“Not everything is about understanding, love. And what you want to do? That certainly isn’t about understanding. It’s about feeling. It’s about emotion. It’s about trust.”

His fingers wrap around my wrist, and I can see the excited dance of crimson flashing across his knuckles. My eyes widen, snap up to him, my heart stutters. He’s walked to the end of my arms-length. My elbow is locked, turned up to the sky. He glances back, and his eyes swirl with a rich tapestry of color.

“No,” I say, tossing my head violently.

He takes another step forward, and I dig my heels into the loose gravel on the roof.

“I thought you said this was what you wanted,” he says with a laugh that echoes off the surrounding buildings.  

With the prominence of the red glowing in his irises, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture him killing me. Rationally, I know I’ve survived him before. He seems—mostly—to have my best interests at heart. But he’s also wild, unpredictable, untamable. A mystery to me, even after so many years.

I grab his fingers in my own, trying desperately to pry them off from around my wrist. It’s effortless, the way he pulls me to the edge. Already, the dizziness swims in my head.

“I’m scared of heights,” I squeak, as though he’s forgotten.

“Trust me, Scrittor,” he says.

“You? The one who won’t even stop calling me some name I asked him not to?”

“It’s not about what you want.”

“Isn’t it?” I quirk an eyebrow.

His eyes slip back to normal, and I see my reflection look back at me from his black pupils. He doesn’t answer, his gentle grin causing a hum of familiarity to grow in my chest. No. It’s not about what I want. It’s about something bigger. For a minute, I’m comforted, peace running through my veins like water. This is right. Somehow.

Then I see the pavement below, dashed with white lines, empty, so so very far away. My vision bugs in and out of focus, my stomach lurching into my chest.

“I can’t,” I say, not even realizing the words are leaving my mouth.

“Trust me, Scrittor.”

“I don’t,” I shriek, grinding my short fingernails into his flesh. He doesn’t bleed, not the way I do, but licks of ink mix with the misting rain, and drip onto the rooftop beneath our feet. His grip remains firm, and I scream, tears building pressure behind my eyes.

“Hey,” he whispers so gently I stop, looking up into his eyes. He uses his other hand to brush damp strands of brown off my face. “It’s going to be okay.”

As though lifting a heavy duffel bag, he leans forward, grunts, and hefts me over the edge. My desperate cry is snatched away in the wind, and I don’t hear my voice come back to me. The sick sensation of falling wrenching my insides. I writhe, my fingers grasping uselessly at the air as it passes so quickly. My eyes press shut, and then I feel it stir within me. Something. Something I didn’t know was there. I fight against the rush of wind, and then I work with it. It swells beneath me, and I’m not falling, I’m soaring. My raucous laughter echoes off the buildings, and people start to spill out from the doors, craning their heads to look up at me. I take note of each one of them, a manic smile splitting my face. I see a man in a patchwork jacket, a woman with wrinkles of worry creasing her eyes, a thug with a tattoo inked into his skin.

And I smile as I rush up, up, back towards the rooftop, where he sits, his feet swinging back and forth as they dangle off the edge. He gives me a quick, two-finger salute. I told you so, is written all over his face.

“Jerk,” I say as I rush past him with the breeze, but I can’t keep the laughter from bubbling up with the word.  

“You’re welcome!” he cries after me, but I’m already off.

There’s so much to see. There’s so much more to discover. The next story is waiting.

Bucky Barnes is my Hero

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I’m not even going to pretend this was a semi-original idea. I’m just going to own the fact that I read Clementine Fraser’s post, called Why I Fell For Captain America, and I got very excited when, at the end, she asked who our favourite hero is. I responded with a comment that was probably longer than is socially acceptable, and it still wasn’t enough. So here I am.

Hi, my name is Ashley, and I have an unhealthy obsession with Bucky Barnes.

My Pinterest board is flooded, I mean, FLOODED with fan art, stills from the “Bucky scenes,” interviews, fun facts from the comics, screen shots of tumblr posts where people have mirco-analyzed the crap out of Sebastian Stan’s facial expressions in the movies. I have a Bucky Pop-Figure, wallet, shirt, notebook, and the collection grows each day I feel like I can neglect the costs incurred with the responsibilities of being an adult, and buy those things which remind me of my hero instead.

But here’s the thing. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is littered with ‘cool characters,’ right? They can fly, they can fight, they can move things with their mind, they can stop time, they can swing from the rooftops, they can phase through walls, they can summon lightning from the skies (but can any of them pull some passing guy off his motorcycle, turn it, take it, and take off, all without missing a beat? Just Bucky? Yeah, that’s what I thought).

Though Bucky is by far the coolest–with his metal arm, and the six thousand different weapons he can wield with deadly precision–that’s not the reason he’s my hero.

Arguably, Bucky has one of the most traumatic backstories. Don’t fight me on this, okay, I said ‘arguably’ and I said ‘one of.’ We can all agree he’s been through Hell and back again. He lost everything when he fell from that train in 1944. He lost his family, he lost his best friend, he lost any semblance of normal, he lost control, he lost himself. He became a weapon, and an object.

And yet, somehow, he’s managed to find his way back. We know he didn’t do it on his own, one Mr. Steve Rogers had a lot to do with that, as did the scientists in Wakanda, but let’s not ignore the fact that Bucky had to crawl through years of indoctrination and mind-control to find himself again. How much easier would it have been to forget? To let the memory-wipe take him back to the place where he could watch, but not control his own actions? Where he could submit his will and his resolve, and give up?

But he didn’t.

That’s the thing I love about Bucky. Just like Steve, he could “do this all day,” fighting to stay on his feet, fighting to keep the barest scrap of himself, even if it means struggling with the realization of what he’s done. Because, let’s be honest, being the Winter Soldier gives Bucky an out, whether he’d take it or not. The Winter Soldier’s loyalty is to Hydra, and there, he’s simply following orders. Bucky’s loyalty isn’t, and he can look back on all those orders he’s followed with shame and regret.

You see, saving himself comes at a cost. Being himself, comes at a cost. It comes with the cost of owning up to a checkered past, splashed with red, and dripping with guilt.

This is the thing, this is the kicker, this is what really gets me. Bucky would rather be himself than be absolved of responsibility for the things he’s done wrong. He’d rather do the hard thing, if it’s the right thing, than allow himself to be used.

It no secret that in Civil War, Bucky is a mess. He’s trying to piece his life together in a world he doesn’t understand, from a past he can’t quite access. He struggles with his fragile psyche, he struggles with his own helplessness to do what he knows is right, he struggles to feel like he’s worth the time and attention his friend puts into him. Hm. Relatable.

Despite all that, he doesn’t give up. It’s not that he wants to keep going, it’s not that he thinks he’s strong enough to keep going, it’s that he has no other choice. And how many times do we grind through the difficult things in life because we have no other choice? If Bucky can do it, with years of suffering, pain, and torment behind him–with literal voices of dissension that can send him on the wrong path–can’t we?

You see, this is what makes Bucky so admirable. Sure, he fights the bad guys (erm, well…mostly we’ve seen him fight the good guys), but he also fights himself. He fights the things he doesn’t like about himself, all the evil inside of himself, and slowly but surely, he wins. One memory at a time–in all their glory and shame–he reigns it back in.

And that’s what a hero does.

 

Should…

I’m going to be straight with you here. I suck at blogging. I can’t seem to motivate myself to sit down and write in this GIANT white box, even when given amazing prompts by my friends. No, I sit, I think about blogging, and then I feel this smothering weight of dread. I may find myself going to my blog when the idea hits me that I SHOULD, and then I wonder why I’m not working on my latest work in progress, I wonder why my blog looks like crap, I wonder why I haven’t eaten anything in the last twenty minutes, and I get up to make myself a snack.

 

Basically, I am the picture of motivation and productivity, always.

 

 

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But I’ve been talking to some of my writer friends lately, explaining my belief that “real writers blog.” They all informed me that, if it feels like a chore and it’s something I don’t enjoy, I don’t have to do it.

 

It’s sad, but that was quite the concept to me.

I swung a little too far to the other side in response. I figured I’m free, I’m off the hook, I never have to blog again. Except then there came moments where I wanted to, and didn’t, because I’m ‘not blogging’ now.

Long story short, here I am, and I came to a realization:  I hate the word SHOULD.

Should is something we tell ourselves when we’re motivated by guilt, or fear, or unrealistic expectations. I should write a blog, because that’s what ‘real writers’ do. I should study this evening, because that midterm is coming up. I should get a better job, because I hate the look in their eyes when I admit what I do for a living. I should stop wasting time on this project, because it’s never going to go anywhere.

In life, there are things we have to do, things we want to do, and things we get to do. There are no things we SHOULD do, it’s a construct.

I have to go get groceries tonight, or it’s KD for dinner. I have to study for that midterm, if I want to get a good grade. I want to write this evening, because I have some great ideas. I get to spend time with my family this weekend, because we’ve planned to go to the park while it’s nice.

It’s a re-framing of your perspective, and I think it makes all the difference. I WANTED to write a blog post today, so I did. If I ever think I should, I’m going to evaluate my motivation. Life’s too short to waste time on things you think you should do.