The Process of Critique and Revision of #OwnVoices Stories

I decided to submit to the Pitch Wars writing contest this year. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, this isn’t the usual sort of writing contest, where you submit a “perfect” polished story and the “best” one wins. Pitch Wars contestants submit the query and first chapter of a book that has been edited and revised, but which might benefit from some revision before being pitched. The contestants chosen then spend several short weeks working with a mentor—a professional, published author—in order to rework and polish their manuscript and query. The resulting queries and books are then showcased in an agent round, where agents request to see more pages of the books that catch their eye. A large percentage of the writers chosen for this contest end up signing with agents.
The question came up during this contest, as it always does: how willing are potential mentees to do complete rewrites of their books based on mentor suggestions?
Because of the nature of this contest, everyone’s answer should be “extremely willing!” However, when this question was posed, my answer was somewhat more hesitant. “Yes, but…” I have a good reason for this hesitation, however. I’ll surely do myself no further damage by discussing why, in further detail.
Accepting hard critique and doing major revisions of your manuscript is never easy. At times, it can be excruciating and brutal. Stories about the revisions Pitch Wars contestants have done based on mentor suggestions are often tales of terror: “I had a few weeks to change the main character, their goals, the stakes, and the main love interest.” (That might be slightly exaggerated, but really not much.)
Most writers would balk at this level of rewriting, it’s true: our stories are our babies. However, we did enter this contest. It’s what we signed up for. And if we’re not willing to make revisions and go the extra mile to make our stories better, we may be in the wrong business altogether.
Don’t get me wrong: it may be hard for me to take critique sometimes, but I take it. I’ve ended up making major revisions based on critique that at first blush had me howling, because once it had sunk in I’d seen its validity. And, though I do believe an artist’s vision is something to be treasured, I’m not one of those jerkoffs that thinks tampering with it in any way is “selling out”. In my experience, the phrase “selling out” is only used by people who have never seriously tried to be artists. Critique and revision is an intrinsic part of the artistic process. Even songwriters (of which I’m one) work with other musicians, band members, producers, and engineers in order to hone and polish their work. Not all changes will be met with universal approval, but it’s still part of the process.
My reason for hesitation with regard to unconditional acceptance of critique with my Pitch Wars manuscript in particular isn’t because I think my vision isn’t to be tampered with. It’s because the book I submitted to Pitch Wars this year is an #ownvocies book. I’ve had some really bad experiences in the past with critique of my #ownvocies writing.
The Pitch Wars mentors are top notch. They are seasoned professionals with an excellent grasp of what makes a great story, and also of what makes a story marketable. I do trust them. I trust my CPs and betas, as well. I think they all have my best interests at heart. The root of the problem in an #ownvoices situation is that, sometimes, what makes a “great” and “marketable” story isn’t always compatible with an #ownvocies writer telling their story “how it is”. This is the whole reason for the need for diverse books and #ownvoices writers to begin with: we’re telling the story the way you haven’t heard it before, from our point of view. That isn’t always the story readers want to hear, or the one the market wants, because it’s not always comfortable. But there needs to be room for #ownvocies writers to tell the stories they need to tell without outsiders changing them to be more in line with what people expect.
I do know that I need to work hard to make my characters and my stories appealing and relatable for readers and agents. I DO work hard to do this. With characters like mine, not to toot my own horn, but I really have learned to bend over backwards to make them resonate with readers, in a way a lot of writers don’t have to do. That’s how I’ve gotten my books published so far, even though they’re written from the points of view of some pretty traditionally “unlikable” characters: characters that readers generally have a hard time identifying with. But if I had taken all the well-meaning suggestions of CPs/Betas/Agents/Editors, my stories would not have been #ownvoices any longer.
The first book of mine that could be called #ownvocies is The Hustle. When I first started putting the book out with critique groups in late 2014, #ownvoices wasn’t a thing yet. There was a call for diversity, and of course the idea of #ownvocies was there, but a real push for members of diverse groups to tell their own stories in their own way is startlingly new, and still developing. So, when I put The Hustle in front of critiquers, I knew that I felt differently about their advice, but I didn’t have the umbrella of the #ownvoices hashtag, as it were, under which to discuss the reason for that different feeling in a safe place where I might be understood.
The main character in The Hustle, Liria, had a pretty rough childhood. She has some mental health and addiction issues resulting from that, and when the book opens she’s homeless and addicted to heroin, with only the beginnings of realization that she won’t live much longer if she doesn’t make some changes. Liria, however, is in a position where she doesn’t have a lot of real options, and she has to do a lot of stuff she isn’t exactly proud of in order to get by and try to get ahead.
Critiquers said things about The Hustle like, “You need to give us something to like about your main character. Is she at least pretty?” (Direct quote there.) They were frustrated with Liria for her continued relapses and bad choices. “It’s like she doesn’t even want a better life.” As examples of compelling stories of people like Liria that I could integrate into my narrative to make it more compelling, critiquers would cite tales of homeless addicts they’d seen in the media: stories of beautiful blonde girls who had fallen into meth addiction because of some terrible tragedy outside their control, and ended up murdered.
The reason for these well-meaning suggestions is that Liria’s situation is something most people in the literary world truly have no concept of. They sometimes think they do, but they don’t. If you haven’t been an addict on the streets, you really can’t understand what it’s like. You can’t understand that sometimes you make bad decisions because there are no good decisions left to you. Even if by some miracle there are, you have no idea what they are or how to make them, because you’ve no experience with how to make good decisions, and/or you’ve no confidence in yourself to make them. Most of my critiquers had no insight into Liria’s hopes and fears and, despite it all, her joys and loves: because a lot of folks miss that there is good in even the most destitute and desperate of people, and that they have inner lives every bit as rich as their own. With The Hustle, the critiquers wanted me to use pity to hook the audience, instead of helping me to hone my own voice in order to draw readers in with the dark (but compelling) beauty and nuance of what life on the streets can actually be like. If I’d taken their suggestions, I might have had an easier road to publication; I might have better sales now. However, I wouldn’t have been adding my own voice to the literary world.
My voice has value. It’s all I have to offer, and I have to offer it, even if it hurts my career 
I faced similar problems with my book The Other Place (which isn’t an #ownvoices book, but it is extremely close) and with the #ownvoices book I submitted to Pitch Wars, True Story. Both of those books have neurodiverse main characters: Justin from The Other Place has schizophrenia, and Mike from True Story has bipolar psychosis, like me. Critiquers asked me to make Justin and Mike “less crazy”. They said it seemed at times like they were “acting out for attention” and like they were “bad news”: in short, all the things people sometimes say about me in real life.
People tended, also, to be disbelieving about the treatment my neurodiverse characters received from the community, the police, and mental health professionals in these books. If you haven’t experienced this discrimination first-hand, it might seem outlandish and unrealistic, but unfortunately it’s not.
I also had one very nice, very professional, and very insightful agent tell me, after reading the full manuscript of The Other Place, that she would have rather the story have been about Justin coming to terms with his toxic mother and others in his environment that misunderstood him; learning to control his schizophrenia (with the help of his well-meaning girlfriend, of course); then getting his GED and becoming a successful, somewhat stable artist. That’s a beautiful narrative. It’s also one we’ve all heard before. My experience as a neurodiverse person is not so simple, nor is it for many of the neurodiverse people I’m close to and care about. That narrative is a good narrative, but it’s not really an #ownvoices narrative. The lives of people like me tend to be messy—even rather messier than the average person’s. We tend to alienate a lot of good, well-intentioned people because they don’t know what to do for us or with us. We tend to fail at a lot of things we try to do, because our mental illness causes us to behave in a certain way and/or people in our chosen profession see us as a liability and aren’t willing to give us a chance. We tend to be exploited, hurt, disenfranchised, discriminated against, and downtrodden more than people in the general population.
A lot of folks think neurodiverse people need to be “saved” and shown how to live a “normal” life, and so these are the stories they want to hear about neurodiverse people. But I want to tell stories about people like me who save themselves and people who make good lives out of the supposedly “flawed” materials they are given. Those lives may not always look the way most people want their lives to look, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good lives.
The thing that may surprise SOME of you is that I did, indeed, take all the critiques I’ve described above into consideration. After all, this is my audience. I need to make my characters as accessible as I can, or no one will read the book in the first place. Learning to work with these critiques has been a really excruciating process, and one that has really helped me to grow as a writer: I’ve had to find ways to make my characters and stories more compelling without sacrificing their authenticity.
I still have plenty of room to grow in my craft, of course. I would really love a mentor and/or agent to fall in love with my stories, and to help me to take my writing to the next level. The best thing for me and my writing, however, would be if that person understood me and my characters, so they could help me to hone my own voice so that I can use it to the best of my ability. No matter how wonderful, talented, savvy, and well-intentioned potential mentors and agents are, this job is more difficult and nuanced when you’re working with someone’s #ownvoices story. Not everyone will be right for the job. The Pitch Wars mentors (as well as literary agents) know this, of course.
This is the reasoning behind any hesitation I’ve expressed with regard to arbitrarily accepting all revision suggestions.

Pitch Wars Bio: “Coming Out” about my #Ownvoices Book

I’m late to the Pitch Wars #Pimpmybio party, which is odd, because I usually have a bad habit of showing up way too early at most parties.

I just this morning resolved to enter the contest. This will be my third time entering Pitch Wars, and I’ve entered with a different manuscript each time. The first time, I entered the very first novel I’d ever completed, the first in a series of seven YA urban fantasy novels. I’ve since put that series on the back burner; it needs serious editing with my now-more-trained eye before I pitch it again.

The novel I entered last year, The Other Place, is an upper YA/NA contemporary magical realism novel. It’s about a young man with schizophrenia trying to make it as an artist, find love, and find his place in the world. This book was released by Limitless Publishing on 7/5/16.

Yes, I know. I’m a published author, and so I feel a little shy entering Pitch Wars. I know (from experience, unfortunately) that some other contestants are likely giving me the stink-eye, wishing I’d step aside to give the less fortunate a chance. But I don’t have an agent, and really want one; my books are getting great reviews, but I’m a marketing doofus and I think I could get wider exposure if I had an agent on my side, holding my hand and cheering me on.

This competition brings in some of the best aspiring authors in the English-speaking world, and I know I don’t have any more talent or chance of being selected than a lot of the unpublished entrants. The fact I’m published and others aren’t, isn’t a measure purely of talent, but also of hard work and persistence.

In fact, no matter how awesome I think my manuscript is, I don’t have a ton of hope it will be chosen. That isn’t the real reason I’m entering this contest. I’m entering because, in past years, I’ve made so many great friends in the Pitch Wars feed, and I’d love to make some more. I’m also entering because I’ve had so much going on in my life lately, both good and bad, so I’ve not been doing much querying. Pitch Wars will make me focus on trying to find this book a home.

The book I’m entering this year is entitled True Story. It’s a diverse YA romance. The main character is a seventeen-year-old Native American foster girl with the unusual name of Mike Charley. She isn’t trans; she was named after her grandfather by her bipolar mother, who thought Mike was his reincarnation.

This is an #ownvoices book. I’m not Native (though I have family in the same tribe Mike’s mother was from), but Mike has bipolar disorder with episodes of psychosis, like her mother did…and like I do.

I’ve been hesitant about pitching True Story as an #ownvoices book, though I know it might make some people more curious about it. I only recently “came out” about my neurodiversity, and it has definitely been a mixed bag. I’m lucky that my diversity isn’t visible; most days, I seem like a perfectly normal, if maybe somewhat eccentric, person, so not a lot of people knew about my neurodiversity. Since I opened up about it, I’ve gotten such a wonderful outpouring of support, but I’ve also suffered a lot of negative and hurtful comments.

Bipolar is a condition that comes with many misconceptions. People either think you’re a howling nutjob, or that you’re attention-seeking: “I get mood swings, too, and you don’t see me crying about it.” I’m not a howling nutjob on most days; nor am I particularly attention-seeking. These stereotypes are hurtful.

When I wrote True Story, it wasn’t my intention to “educate” the world about bipolar disorder. I was just telling a cool story about a wonderful girl. But now that the book is written and edited, and steaming up the windows in its boisterous urge to get on the road, I really do want to find a wide audience for it, to show one insider’s perspective on living with bipolar.

I also think it’s important to have YA novels with bipolar and otherwise neurodiverse main characters. After my first episode of psychosis when I was 15, I was terrified. I thought my brain would completely desert me; that I might lose control of myself and hurt people. That’s what most people think “psychos” are, after all: homicidal maniacs. Most books reflect these misconceptions, and portray psychotic characters as killers or otherwise evil antagonists. At best, characters with psychosis are often complete wastes of space, objects of nothing more than pity and contempt, and are there only to be somehow “saved” by a neurotypical character.

Because I’d swallowed all those stereotypes, it was decades before I had the courage to admit even to a doctor that I’d suffered psychotic episodes. Instead, I got pretty good at managing them myself. I tried to avoid the situations that might trigger them, and I self-medicated. A lot. When I was in my late teens, I discovered that heroin made my brain chill out, and eased my crushing episodes of (sometimes suicidal) depression. It took me years and a trip to prison to kick that habit, but I eventually found healthier ways to deal with my symptoms.

But those ways don’t always work, especially when you’re like me and don’t even try to control your episodes of mania.

I love being manic. My last manic episode started in the summer of 2013. That’s when I first started writing in earnest: I finished seven novels in a year, and another five in the year after that. However, the episode coincided with a huge shift in my marriage dynamics and caused it even more strain. My husband became very insulting about my inability to “grow up and act right”. His behavior felt very abusive to me, which triggered both my bipolar disorder and my PTSD, and made my behavior even more erratic. I ended up having a psychotic break last summer (my first one in more than a decade), and a few close brushes with suicide, before the relationship finally ended for good.

My dream with regard to True Story, and my other books (and other authors’ books) with neurodiverse characters, is that people will read them and be less afraid to talk about their own experiences with neurodiversity. I want people with mental illness to know they aren’t “less” than neurotypical people; they’re not dangerous or creepy, or in any other way unfit to take their rightful place in society. Then maybe they won’t have to go through some of the stuff I’ve gone through.

So I’m standing up (with somewhat trembly knees) and proudly declaring that True Story is an #ownvoices book. I know my admission that I have a serious mental condition might make some agents leery of working with me, but I console myself that they might not be a good match for my work anyway. When I finally do get an agent, that person will see my value, and will believe in me and my writing. They won’t buy into the negative stereotypes about bipolar disorder or PTSD. They’ll know people like me can be productive, professional, intelligent, and easy to work with.

So, that’s why I’m entering Pitch Wars: because I deserve to, because I believe in my books, and because I believe in myself and others like me.

Thank you for reading this. I’d love your comments and get links to your blogs, as well. Like I said, making new friends is one of my main goals in entering Pitch Wars 🙂

Good luck to everyone!

 

RELEASE DAY FOR THE OTHER PLACE !

other place front cover

Today is release day for my magical realism novel, The Other Place! This is book two in the series, but it can be read as a standalone. It is the story of Justin, a young man with schizophrenia, who is trying to make it as an artist, find love, and find his place in the world. Basically, it’s a sort of coming-of-age story, but with a very unique character and more action than those sorts of books usually have. It’s not a dark book at all; it’s very different from The  Hustle, though you do get to read about the further adventures of Arty and Liria.

The Other Place is based on my own experiences with psychosis, as well as the things I’ve witnessed and experienced while hanging out with my friend Phoenix, who has schizophrenia.

People with psychosis can live beautiful lives, but they deal with a great deal of discrimination, misunderstanding, and outright abuse by police and the general public.

I hope you check it out and enjoy it!

Surviving, and Writing About, Abuse

I wanted to give my thoughts on a subject that’s close to my heart: how people in our society view, and write about, domestic violence and other types of abuse.

I’ve participated in a lot of discussions, both online and in the real world, about what makes people stay in abusive relationships. The answers people often give are along the lines of, “They’re insecure.” Or, “They just don’t know anything different.” And, “They don’t see any way out.”

I have been in abusive relationships, and I’ll tell you what I hear when people give the answers above: “It’s your fault. You stayed with your abusers because you’re defective: weak, ignorant, and stupid.”

I’m not saying there isn’t a grain of truth in the fact that people living in abuse are insecure, sometimes lacking in objectivity with regard to their situation, and that they might have a hard time taking whatever steps they need to in order to leave their home and family. Do you know who else fits that description? Pretty much everyone else on the fucking planet.

Unfortunately, more than a few fiction authors portray abused women (the abused character is usually a woman, though that isn’t always the case in real life) as creatures we should both pity and cheer on as they inevitably overcome all their difficulties and reinvent themselves as strong, confident individuals.

Conversely, some readers of my novel The Hustle have expressed frustration with the main character, Liria, who goes through a string of ill-advised and abusive relationships throughout the course of the story (will she do better in The Other Place? I’m not telling 🙂 ). “I just don’t understand why Liria keeps getting involved with people who treat her so badly,” some people say. “It’s like she doesn’t want a better life.”

That’s another way of saying it’s the abused person’s fault for being abused. And yes, I know it is upon each and every one of us to take control of our lives and try to be the best we can be. However, suffering people’s ignorant judgment doesn’t help us to feel empowered. Nor does pity, because pity doesn’t really equal understanding…though it’s definitely better than sneering judgment.

When I was a teenager, I was in a relationship that was physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive. After that, I was in a couple relationships that maybe weren’t exactly healthy, but were marred to a greater extent by addiction than abuse. Then, I met my current (ish) husband.

My husband is a Ph.D. professor of biophysics; a hard-working, incredibly intelligent guy who comes off in company as perhaps a little odd, but sweet and quiet and nerdy. I, on the other hand, have only an undergraduate degree and a history of incarceration and heroin addiction (that stuff is far in the past, but still). I felt sort of like I’d hit the jackpot when I landed my husband; not just because of his education and the fact he didn’t do needle drugs, but because he was unfailingly kind to me, never so much as looked at another woman, and was always reliable and safe. He had his frustrating weirdnesses, sure, but doesn’t everyone?

About three years ago we moved to California for his job. The dynamic of our relationship shifted, and his frustrating weirdnesses turned against me. I’d quit my job and started (compulsively) writing when we moved—we didn’t need a second income, and we’d discussed my being a stay-at-home mom when he got a tenure track job. But, for reasons I won’t go into again here, my husband ended up not liking this situation. He accused me of lying around all day and writing silly stories. He called me selfish, lazy, and immature. He said I was using him for money, and didn’t have the guts to leave him only because I didn’t want to get a job to support myself and my kid. Pretty mean stuff, right? But think about it: if you were lucky enough to get to stay home and write all day (and, you know, clean the house and cook and garden and all that), you might feel a little guilty about it, right? That’s pretty normal among others I’ve spoken to who are stay-at-home. So, when my husband said that stuff, I didn’t really think it was abuse: I thought he had a point, because he’d hit the bull’s-eye of my guilt.I mean, his words pissed me off and hurt me, sure, but this was a man I loved and had been married to awhile. I respected his feelings and opinions. Plus, he had never been so critical of me before, so I thought he’d get over it. I even tried to get a job to make him happy, because sometimes doing stuff to make your spouse happy is part of marriage. But we’d moved to the worst economy in the known universe so I didn’t get a single call back.

Some friends I cried to about this stuff told me he was being abusive. But I’d suffered real abuse, I thought, and it hadn’t really been the same. Other people thought I was overreacting. After all, my husband was the big fancy doctor with a sweet nature, and I was just some weird, emotional chick with a sordid past who thought she was a writer. This argument hit home with me, as well. All you writers out there probably know what it’s like to feel like a fraud and like you suck, especially when those rejections are rolling in.

Anyway, my husband moved on to saying he had lost all respect for me and was done with me. He told me he wasn’t interested in having sex with me ever again, and told me to get the fuck out of the house on various occasions.

Now, you think, any self-respecting woman would have packed up and got the fuck out of the house for sure at that point. And I actually did, many times. But I would always come back. I loved him, and I was worried about him. His behavior seemed erratic, and I was concerned for his mental health. I told him to go to a psychiatrist, which he did. We also went to marriage counseling. I still had hopes things would get better. And besides, I was a little selfish and immature: I just wanted to stay home and write, and I wouldn’t get to do much of that if I left to be a single mom. Plus, destroying a household and uprooting your kid never seems fun, under any circumstances.

My husband didn’t get better, though. He got worse, and I “dealt” with it by getting smashed-ass drunk several times a week and hanging out with another man. I can forgive myself for this a little bit now, because I was truly miserable and going off the deep end, but at the time I felt horrendously guilty and weak for not being able to change my behavior. I knew I had some mental health issues of my own, as well, and that I wasn’t really taking care of myself, which exacerbated all these problems. So when my husband yelled at me and berated me for all of this stuff too, it again didn’t feel like abuse: it hit home. I felt like it was mostly my fault our relationship had gotten so bad, and that I could fix things by being a better person.

It was true I needed to change in some ways, and I did, eventually: I cut down on drinking, etc. And, eventually, I took my kid and left. I went home to my parents’, where I renovated and built onto a cabin on their property. Now I lie around here all day writing, editing, gardening, playing with my kid, building cabinets and making homemade wine. I don’t know how long this situation will last, but I wanted to still live my life on my own terms for as long as I could. I didn’t want my husband to win, and force me into a miserable life that I don’t want.

Now, a lot of you who are still reading this (if anyone) might say that I stayed in my abusive relationships because I was insecure, because I didn’t know any better (having been in abusive relationships before), and that I didn’t see a way out (at least that allowed me to live the way I want). You’d be right, in a way. But what you might be wrong about is the fact that you would never act that way in my situation. Whenever I hear someone say they’ll never be with anyone who doesn’t treat them like a princess/prince, I usually roll my eyes inwardly. Because there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just a human being who has made decisions that made sense at the time. I’ve done the best I can do with what I’m given. I don’t always do the right thing, but if you think you always do the right thing there might be something wrong with you.

Anyone who has been lucky enough not to experience abuse is just that: lucky. They weren’t subjected to it at a young and impressionable age, and they didn’t get sucked into it slowly and insidiously like I did later, or any of the other things that can lead people into abusive relationships. Because I didn’t stay with my husband because I’m weak or dumb or ignorant: I stayed with him because I loved him, and I didn’t want to give up our life together: the same reasons people stay in healthier relationships.

What we need to do, both in life and in fiction, is see abused people as human beings—intelligent human beings with rich inner lives, just like anyone else—not as objects of pity and contempt.

Find The Hustle, my book that deals with abuse, here.

The Other Place is Available for Preorder!

other place front coverAfter a long and daunting struggle, release day for The Other Place is almost here. You can preorder the book in either Kindle or paperback format, and read the story of Justin, a young man with schizophrenia trying to find his place in the world.

It’s not easy being a person like Justin, but I think you’ll find a lot of beauty and wisdom in his life, and in the way his mind works.

I hope you read and enjoy this book.

Kindle Preorder

Paperback Preorder

News About The Other Place Series

other place front coverI just wanted to swing on by here and tell y’all that I’ve officially signed contract addendums on the remaining installments in The Other Place Series. First will come a novella from Arty’s point of view entitled Love and War (yes, I know it’s a similar title to Love or Money, but it just fits so well.) The last part of the saga is a full-length novel from Justin’s point of view entitled Synchronicity. I don’t have release dates yet, but I’ll  let you know.

The second book in the series, entitled The Other Place, comes out on July 5, in just a few days! This is a book from the point of view of Justin, the Kid in the Park in The Hustle. Justin is schizophrenic, so you might think this book would be darker than The Hustle, but actually it’s not. Not even close, really. Justin has his struggles, but he lives a beautiful life. The Other Place is a book for all ages, whereas The Hustle is for the 18+ crowd.

You don’t have to have read The Hustle in order to read The Other Place, but it does add depth to the story. You can read them in reverse order, as well.

I really hope you read and love these books. I put a lot into them.

Invisible Friend Jesus vs. The Universe

“People say life is a beautiful gift, but it’s hard to believe that sometimes.”

I sit with my back against the trunk of a Russian olive. The breeze rasps through the bunch grass and sage, kicking up spirals of dust. I’d come out into the middle of nowhere, because of how sometimes society and all the things people build start to jumble up in a mishmash of wrong shapes and smells.

Invisible Friend Jesus sits next to me, the hems of his white slacks fluttering around his bare ankles.

“The universe exploded out of nothing,” I say. “I mean, a point of infinite density. It’s the same thing as nothing, because of how infinity and nothingness are two sides of the same Mobius strip. So it exploded out of nothing and has been falling apart ever since.”

I pluck a stalk of yarrow and weave it between my fingers. “Life on earth arose because of molecular forces and the way chemistry has to work. Carbon chains put themselves together and had to keep putting themselves together more and more because that’s the way things react. Life arose out of the dust, an elaborate house of cards. Plants and animals and people are just complicated constructions of chemistry and entropy, eating themselves up in violent exothermic reactions and turning it all into heat until one day there will be nothingness again.”

Invisible Friend Jesus squints into the distance. The sun washes out the landscape like an overexposed photograph.

I strip a leaf from the yarrow plant, its limp, fleshy stem shredding to ribbons. “Chemistry put us together. It put our brains together. Brain chemistry dictates how we act, and how we in turn put the world together for ourselves. The way my brain functions makes it so that I don’t fit in other people’s construction of the world. They batter my world apart like bullies kicking over sand castles, but I still can’t rebuild my universe the way they want me to. I don’t fit in their machinations; that’s why I can’t affect the world. I’m like a cog without a machine. I can’t turn anything. I can barely control myself.”

I toss the yarrow into the sand. “But it doesn’t matter. We exploded out of nothing, and we’ll return to nothing again. Life is a faint flame flickering in the void. Consciousness and self-awareness are just dreams within a dream. Any sense or beauty we create dissolves into the ether, the way the entire cosmic firmament will eventually fizzle into oblivion, dying its heat death when the chemicals have done all the reacting they can do, energy spreads too thin, and gravity stretches space-time flat.”

I draw a circle in the ashy dirt, but it isn’t very round because the pebbles get in the way of my finger. “I try to believe in God, but it’s hard to believe in anything like that. God is a brick in the world people have built for themselves, because they feel like it will fall apart if He isn’t there. But that whole illusion could crumble and nothing would change, because it wasn’t real to begin with.”

I clutch the cross around my neck. The silver plate is rubbed off, showing the cheap brass beneath it. The chain is tarnished and all tangled up with my hair. I glance over.

I expect Invisible Friend Jesus to have disappeared, but he’s still there, squinting at me with his little smile.

Author of gritty fiction|Freelance Editor