Issue #5: Back to Basics
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”
I have such good memories of my college days at ASU, celebrating Guy Fawkes Day at a local British pub here in Phoenix (The George & Dragon) with good friends around a bonfire with a pint and a pasty. Waking up this morning brought that specific memory back to mind. Happy Friday to you all.
October was tough on the creative front, and I feel like I’m behind on everything, which is honestly nothing new. It would be easy to beat myself up over it - but it is what it is. I had contractors in my house all month. They worked their asses off for three straight weeks, six days a week, from dawn until after dark, and it wore me completely out, having to live around it. Watching them work so hard made me feel bad about being exhausted from having them there, and I really did no physical labor at all. It was all mental labor.
Husband was displaced from his work area, so he was in mine for a few weeks and I got no real work done. So, I did a lot of cooking, organizing, and going down research rabbit holes on the internet. When I go down rabbit holes, I tell myself it's all for future stories that are brewing in my deep dark psyche. Honestly, I just love to research stuff.
Regardless of all that, I am just getting back into the swing of things this week. It feels good, a relief. An itch I’ve needed to scratch.
Reading back over my draft for Library Confidential so far, I’m thinking I need to shift gears a bit with it. I’m five chapters in, but it’s a big blobby mess and I’m already feeling bogged down.
And also, I don’t know why I automatically fall into writing chapters. I need to shift my thinking again into writing scenes. I wrote all about this in my second book, The Magic Key, and yet, I fall back into old habits that didn’t really serve me well when writing my first book. Scenes first, then chapters.
I guess there is muscle memory to this and the more I do it the easier it will get.
I fall right between being a planner vs. pantser. I love pantsing it for a little while just to get the thing moving, but then I like to play around a bit and poke at it. Do some analog brainstorming, mapping, scene sketching, and then lay it all out on what looks like a proper timeline, kind of like a map of where things are going, or a blueprint on how to build the story forward.
After going through all the editing and teeth-gnashing, the story may or may not end up like the plan - but at least it’s a place to start. I can see where to place or switch scenes along a timeline, where I can identify a few themes, where I can see how things tie in. Sometimes the puzzle pieces fit together better with a few adjustments.
I dug up my old friend, the Archplot Structure, put together by writer Ingrid Sundberg. I don’t know why this particular tool seemed to unlodge my story last time, but it did. I love how she has it visually compiled and labeled in ways that are familiar across many genres and formats, but they also seem to tickle your intuition a bit.
Anyways, I used the diagram when writing Metalhead Librarian. I still have the original. Not sure why I wrote it in red. My book didn’t end up in this order at all - #5 became #1, for instance - but doing this gave me something. Something I could SEE. Once I could see it, I could write it. Once I wrote it, I could edit it.
I need to do the same with Library Confidential. Just sit the heck down and do this mapping work. I know it will get me back on track to some degree.
Does any of this make sense? Any other writers feel me here?
Anyways, here is a blank copy of the Archplot Structure if you’re curious. I can’t find it on her website anymore.
Blank Archplot Structure by Ingrid Sundberg
These past few months, my husband and I sat down to rewatch The Sopranos. And when I say ‘sat down’ - I mean we watched one episode two or three nights a week in that one hour we get together laying on the sofas after the kids go to bed and before I pass out from exhaustion.
We didn’t start The Sopranos again because of the new movie, or for any other reason than we finally got new phones last Spring and HBO Max was included in the data plan. Groovy! When we got it all set up, the first thing that flashed by on the screen was our old friend, Tony Soprano.
We first watched the show almost two decades ago before we had kids and before I was writing - and I will tell you, the series has aged beautifully. It was a deeper and more meaningful experience to watch it now as a writer, because I finally understood the story structure and could recognize the energetic markers, the turning points, the foreshadowing. (Thanks, Archplot!)
Appreciating the subtle visuals and juxtapositions of character, the dialog, the soundtrack, the connections - all of it is powerful and masterful storytelling. I see it now. I felt it before, but I see it now.
Tony and Carmella were older than me and had teenagers when I first watched it and now I’m older than them and I have teenagers. Whatever your opinion is of the final episode, Tony is dead in the sense that we’ll never see James Gandolfini again, and it bums me out so much. It was a mixed bag of emotions and a different perspective experiencing it from this side of middle age.
But what I really loved was revisiting my Italian heritage. Hearing the names, the culture, the expressions, the superstitions, the food. My people. Well, almost my people. I think the Soprano’s are from Avellino and di Napoli.
My family is about a hundred years off the island of Sicily, a place that was overrun in waves over thousands of years, by different cultures, languages, peoples. My mother told me these things as a child, just as her parents told her. There is a family coat of arms from Florence in the 1400’s. Rumors of a family castle and great treasure. I’ve always been intrigued by the tales of Crusaders, Kings, Queens - and Druids, and Celts, and Romans, and Vikings.
I think part of the reason I studied medieval history in college was me trying, at the very core of it, to figure out where I had come from.
Mama and Papa were born in a village built right next to and on top of an ancient city, evenutally built up by the Greeks, and then inhabited over thousands of years by many different cultures. On the outskirts of their village there are ruins to explore as a state park.
And of course, what I’ve learned as an armchair historian and amateur genealogist - is that humans migrate and always have, and indiginous Sicilians disappeared into the cultures that settled the island over thousands of years. There are just diverse remnants of occupiers and invaders as my mother’s recent DNA tests revealed.
My tiny 5’1”, hardworking Papa started as an apprentice in a marble quarry at the age of 8 and came to the United States at 13 with his three older brothers to wash dishes and wait tables in a hotel in Lorain, Ohio.
Mama left school in the 4th grade because her father couldn’t afford shoes for her and her siblings, and he was too ashamed to send her barefoot.
They came to this country while Sicilians were being lynched and blamed for all the evil and disease streaming into the country at the time - even more so than the Irish and the regular Italians - the Sicilians were considered particularly dirty and undesirable. But, Papa didn’t “look” Sicilian, with his chestnut hair and blue eyes - so he just went to work, built a life, and became an American at the age of 32.
Not to say they didn’t experience discrimination in the small Ohio town they lived in, but they thrived anyways. He was a stonemason by day, but he dreamed of being a writer. He wrote short stories in English by hand, and then painstakingly typed them out by hand, trying to get published. (I still have those stories, and his rejection slips.)
So for these past few weeks, in addition to finishing The Sopranos (ironically) on Columbus Day, and with my house still occupied by contractors where I was interrupted constantly and got no REAL writing done - I dove headfirst into the rabbit hole of genealogical research.
Luckily, my library card still works and they have free access to Ancestry.com through the end of the year - yippee! So I logged in for a few days and got to digging. I’ve dipped in every few years for the past 15 years to try and connect pieces together, and I work from some old notes.
Anytime I Google-Earth it around Sicily, I am astonished that ANYONE would want to leave this beautiful island. It’s spectacular. The mountains, the beaches, the harbors and cities, the volcano, the architecture - my heart aches when I think of my grandparents LEAVING this place, this beauty - by choice - but probably more by necessity and under the duress of crushing poverty and corruption.
And they came here, to the United States. Millions of them came here.
And as I was researching, I hit the jackpot on a few different levels but most of it just leads me to FAR more questions than I will ever have answers to in a logical sense.
Intuitively, though, there is something inside of me calling - DEMANDING - me to write about our family. I know that sometimes family history is passed through DNA. And I also know that I have a strong enough sense of history, of culture, of my family's own stories that somehow I can write in a way that will connect me to family directly as they guide me forward.
One thing I know for sure - my intuition is everything, and my ancestors are calling to me. There are many stories there to examine. Maybe my grandfather’s dreams of being a writer are finally manifesting in me.
If you read my first book, Adventures of a Metalhead Librarian, you’ll already know that I’m a big fan of Free Speech, and that it was heavy metal music, the PMRC and Frank Zappa that educated me on the basics of our First Amendment. I also explained how libraries have played a vital role in making information available in a non-biased and equitable way so that the citizens of this country - no matter where they came from or their station in life - could enrich their lives, educate themselves, and make informed decisions about their communities and their government.
This was a big part of the vision of Andrew Carnegie and his massive funding of public libraries during the Industrial Age - to help immigrant populations thrive in their new communities. Libraries were a piece of the puzzle that helped equalize the American Dream for those who were willing to make the effort.
And it worked. Papa used the public library. Papa was a reader and a book collector. I have his entire set of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Despite his own limited formal education, Papa valued learning and knowledge and personal development. He was completely self-taught.
When I realized The First Amendment was one of the core values of public librarianship, I knew even more so that it was MY thing, the hill upon which I will die.
And maybe I’m on that hill now. Maybe I’m risking something by declaring my love for free speech during a time when such things feel...a bit dangerous. When the oligarchs control the flow of information, the algorithm, the narrative.
I mean - I do have an information science degree. We ran through all the scenarios and possibilities in grad school twenty years ago, when Google was still in beta and Gmail was by invite only and Facebook was still a secret DARPA program. I knew this was all coming. Something deep inside me knew that this would happen. It’s been like watching one long, slow train wreck.
But part of me - the part that has been so blocked with this story overall - knows that the only way to get past all the angst is to just be true. Be true to myself and don’t worry about “all that”. It’s my job AS AN ARTIST to be true.
That’s where the freedom is - by living true. Even if it’s uncomfortable, or risky. Even if people don’t like it, or disagree, or say mean things.
It’s worth it, though, because it’s a beautiful thing. Freedom is beautiful. Free speech, intellectual autonomy, the right to live and express your values, speak your truth, make your art, worship your deity, be part of an informed citizenry, along with the dignity of self-determination - man, it gets me going. Living in freedom and truth is a beautiful thing.
Freedom. I’ve always wanted all the freedoms. My ancestors risked everything so I could have all the freedoms. I feel a responsibility here, not just as a writer or an artist - but as a human being. As a parent. As a granddaughter of dirt-poor immigrants who came from nothing but had the freedom here to become something. And that’s what inspired me to become a public librarian.
I want us all to have all the freedoms. I want us to crave freedom. I want us to fight for freedom. And right now, in this crazy world, the only thing I can do is write as truly and as clearly as I can about my own lived experiences and how much I value freedom.
But the culture has tilted - towards fear. It’s programmed into the mix now. It’s everywhere. It’s insidious. We are abandoning the idea of freedom so we can combat fear - and it just doesn’t work that way.
But I refuse. I refuse to live in fear. It’s one of those things I decided when I was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago. NO FEAR. I soundly reject it as a concept.
And look, I internalize plenty of fear - but I’m defiant towards it. It’s there to warn me, but it doesn’t linger. It pisses me off, kind of. I was raised to believe that you don’t show fear. Not in public, at least. Fear makes you easy prey. Fear makes you addicted to fear. Fear makes you weak and zaps your rational brain.
The only way to defeat fear is to face it, to lean into it, and to double down.
And that’s what we need to do. All of us. Especially all of us artists and writers and creators and performers.
We need to double the fuck down and challenge our fears and declare our autonomy from it. We need to call it like we see it.
Flip fear the double-bird and make your art anyways. Declare your place. Put it out there. Make people think. Make people feel. Inspire bravery of heart and the dignity of every human soul. Declare your emancipation from old habits of mind. Spread love.
LEAN INTO FREEDOM.
Of course, looking back now at my career and in our current state of affairs around the world, I realize what a complete failure and disappointment my efforts to further our personal freedoms have been.
What an illusion I was under. I assumed everyone understood what free speech was. I assumed people were proud of it and valued open dialog. I assumed people loved freedom and being able to live autonomously. I assumed people knew about history and tyranny. I assumed people were skeptical of censorship and understood what it was.
What first clued me in to my faulty way of thinking was how many younger readers of AMHL have reached out to tell me that it was the first book they’ve read that explained the depths of the free speech issue in relatable, real-life terms, and how they now had a better understanding of the importance of the First Amendment.
Say wha? From my little book that only scratched the surface? Were you not outraged when they tried to cancel Prince and Motley Crue?
Oh wait. I’m old. It seems many Millennials were not raised with that sense of rebellion or questioning authority some of us GenX’ers had. Not to over-generalize too much, but they are a more obedient generation than we were. You know, we were busy shouting at the devil.
And because of that heavy-metal rebelliousness, my first reaction to being told what to do, or what to read, or what I could listen to, or what to believe - is a hearty “fuck you”. It’s my instinct. My common sense is strong. I want to know all the things. Even if it’s “crazy”. I want to know your sources. I want to weigh different theories. I want anecdotes. I want data. I want to imagine. I want to connect. I want to understand WHY.
And I'm always suspicious of the intent to censor and limit my freedom to do these things, always. Why do you not want me to know these things? The harder you push me into a corner, the more you censor - the less I trust you and the more I will peacefully disobey by educating myself.
A confrontation with divinity, your own higher intelligence, is going to change you, and some people don't want change. They should be warned that if you come into this temple, you're going to face blazing activation of your brain. You're never going to be the same.
And boy, my brain is blazing, and not from LSD. I have educated myself and I always will - it’s ongoing and enduring, this curiosity. It’s why I loved working in a library. I could indulge my curiosities all day long.
And honestly, these days, curiosity is a matter of survival. Willful ignorance makes victims out of people.
And I don’t like being manipulated. I catch on to that shit really fast. You play me, I play you, capisce? You get to know what I let you know, you know?
I mean, I did study Niccolò Machiavelli.
Maybe it’s that Sicilian in me - the hardass, that bit of Tony Soprano, with a good dash of Sebastian Maniscalco thrown in. His comedy describes the Sicilian mindset so perfectly. My husband of 20+ years said he finally really understood me after watching all of Mr. Maniscalco’s work. We’ve seen him three times, now.
The suspicion, the defiance, the pride. It’s a matter of personal honor. Of family honor. Of basic human dignity. There is this sense in me to fight, to defend what is mine and to call out the ridiculous.
For me, every issue at its core comes down to the question of freedom.
And everything lately seems ridiculous.
It’s not just about speech, as in “saying things out loud”. It’s about the ability to hold and express our thoughts, our questions, and our values, freely, in multiple ways, without fear of economic harm and violence. Let people decide what resonates with them. Hands off.
It’s about Art. Music. Religion. Politics. Comedy. Free expression. It’s the right to not only question authority but to DEFY it if it is a moral hazard not to.
It’s the responsibility we have as humans to speak truth to power. It’s about our right to our own bodies and how we choose to live in them. Self-governance. WE are supposed to decide. WE are responsible for our own lives. It’s the deal we make as a free society: You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone and we can all be happy living in freedom from the boot on our necks.
It’s just so OBVIOUSLY FUNDAMENTAL to me, at my very core - the concept of personal freedom and responsibility. It’s why I served the public, and why I felt honored to do so. I wanted everyone to enjoy all the freedoms. I wanted everyone to take responsibility for their lives and rise up to their dreams.
And yet, here we are, at a very weird place in our country, in our world. We have regressed into the very things my grandparents fled from and rejected. Groupthink prevails. Fear is praised. Freedom is yielded. Information is supressed.
And I ask myself - am I brave enough and free enough - mentally and spiritually - to write about these things? Am I centered enough in life, in my courage, and in my own heart to share my many uncomfortable truths and risk...everything? Is it everything? Is there a risk in truth? Maybe. It feels a little scary. And I guess that’s why I have to do it.
It’s one thing to write a book about being a doe-eyed, idealistic young public librarian who was beaten down by disappointment and transformed into a cynical gray-haired old lady with a dark sense of humor.
But it’s another thing entirely to examine the deep dysfunction and institutional ideology that led me there. And yet another thing to question every belief I ever had as I watched my profession, my life’s work, my health, my coworkers - and my country - crumble all around me.
But as an artist and a writer and a lover of all the freedoms I know what the real risks are, and deep down I know this to be very true:
The greatest risk is to risk nothing at all.
Talk to me, friends. Reach out to me email@example.com or comment or share.
Do good in the world, even if it’s risky.