April 11, 2006

The Terrible Thing With A Snake (Part 2 of Yesterday's Squall)

The following entry is not a good bedtime story for children. I will be somehwat less horrifying tomorrow. Pinky Swear.

So as you may recall from yesterday's blog, I decided to skip being mentally ill and simply coast along not working and not worrying about the fact that I was not working until the internal knot I always wind myself into 1/3-1/2way through a book unwound itself and I felt like writing again. I decided I did not HAVE to be unendurable for one month out of every 2 years. I would write when I was ready, whenever that might be, without making everyone who had to interact with me SORRY about it just because I wasn't working. HEH.

My friend Karen Abbott has been on a long research trip to Chicago and NYC and Philly. She would call me on her way to the library and say, ARE YOU WORKING? And she would say it in the frenzied freaked out voice of a girl with a hard, contractual deadline, and I would say, "Nah. I am playing World of Warcraft." And there would be this BOGGLED silence for moment and then she would say, "So, are you going to work later then?" and I would say "Work on what?" and listen to the boggled silence some more. It was kinda fun, except I had little internal hiccups about how LONG it was taking me to ZEN my placid way back into the book. On the other hand, my family and I were certainly enjoying the part where I wasn't two clicks away from screaming batcrap. That part was good.

Talking to Karen and Lily and Mir, I would say "I certainly am not writing any books." And then I would muse, "I wonder if the TIME OFF isn't what makes the book go? What if the freak-out itself is an essential part of my process, and as long as I stand here cud chewing I will never write again." And they would assure me that probably this was not so, and I would amble on, completely not working. At all.

So, flash forward to Thursday. Picture me, not working. Also not freaking out.

Me: KIDS! We must go to Kroger and buy nutritious fruits and verdant greens!
Sam: Why do you talk like that?
Me: Run outside and staple youselves into your carseats while I find my keys!
Sam: Mom we don't literally STAPLE ourselves---
Me: And nine year olds don't say LITERALLY, but there you have it. GO GO GO!

Off they go, and just as I find my keys, I hear the shrieking of the damned coming from my front yard and then Sam bursts back in through the door, Maisy hard on his heels.
Sam: MOM! MOM! There's a dead snake in our driveway and I think he is alive!
Me: ... What?
Sam: There is a dead snake! Alive in our driveway!

I go outside with my distraught children following me, and there he is. A dead snake. Alive in our driveway. He is brown and small and charming, a garden snake, probably a foot long if you stretched him out. He is very unhappy. His mouth opens and closes. It opens too wide because he is unhinging it and yawping it open and then closing it again as if he is yawning or imagining that he must now swallow a whole possum and seeing if he can get his mouth to open enough. His eyes are bright and alien and perfectly round. Right at the second half of him, a cat has gotten to him and torn big pieces of him out and some stringy guts and small organs trail away and the meat of him has been somewhat eaten. This snake is beyond all hope of shoebox veterinary medicine and repair, but this snake is still alive. We look at it and my kids are trying to decide how much to panic so I panic a lot less externally than I am panicking internally.

Me (Calm voice): Oh, poor snake. Go on in the house. Don't touch him. It's fine. He is fine. Mommy will handle it.

I don't remember a lot of the next parts clearly. There was some confusion about where they would go because Sam wanted to go get in the car and I didn't want them in the car to see what I would do next and then a bee came and they had to scream and beat the air and run in circles about that and at least forty agonizing seconds that must have been very long in snake time passed before I got them hustled into the house. I told them to go down to watch TV in the basement recroom because it has no windows.

I called Scott on my cell and I think that's when I started screaming. I screamed: HOW CAN I KILL A BAD HURT SNAKE IN PIECES IN THE DRIVEWAY?
He was in a meeting, so he said, "I'm going to need to step out for a minute," to everyone there and then told me to open the garage. He said, "Do you need me to come and home and...fix the snake."

I pushed the garage button in the car and he told me where the shovel was and then I went back out and then got very close and I personally hit the snake in the neck with the edge of the shovel a lot of times until his head came off. But still he was opening that mouth up wide at me and closing it, so I asked Scott about it, surprised to find that when I tried to talk I was still screaming. IS HE DEAD I HIT HIM UNTIL HIS HEAD CAME OFF HOW CAN HE STILL BE LOOKING AT ME AND HIS MOUTH IS OPENING UP AND THEN HE CLOSES IT.

He was looking at me too, and his eyes were blank and bland, as perfectly round as plastic beads.
Scott's voice was very gentle as said, "His head is off, so he is dead. Things with their heads off are dead. It is only nerves twitching."
I let him go back to his meeting.

I scooped all of the little snake up with the shovel and carried him back to the woods behind out house. I set him down in the leaves there so that something hungry could find him and eat him instead of eating a different still-alive little snake that probably had business elsewhere. Then I leaned the shovel against a tree and stood back there where my children couldn't see me and I cried until I threw up because I've never done anything like that before, and look, I'm a country girl. I'm not sentimental. I've watched my daddy take the head off a cottonmouth and never blinked, but I had never killed something nice, something I have fondness for, by myself with my two hands looking in its eyes. And I like those small brown charmers in my garden.

After I was finished throwing up, I stood looking at the snake and then I understood my book.

Look, I'm never going to win the Pulitzer---The books I write are driven by character, not some underlying brilliant theme, and they don't have any sort of international scope. They have a strong sense of place and are often funny and suspenseful because that's my favorite kind of book to read. I write to entertain myself, primarily, and I am more pleased than I can say when other people read my stories and find that they are entertained too. It's one of the greatest pleasures in my life. But under the keeping myself entertained, I also write to figure things out. Not how the world works, or the nature of man or God or evil -- that's Pulitzer stuff and I don't frankly know. It's smaller than that. I'm smaller than that. It's much more personal. I write to understand, if not how this world works, then how I can work in this world. I write about things that are important to me, and if you like levels in a book, they are there for you. You can take 'em and have a great book club discussion, or you can leave 'em where they lay quietly under plot and character and go read on a beach with a HUGE flaming pineapple cocktail, and I would very much like to join you.

Underneath the black comedy and the mystery, gods in Alabama was a book about my personal relationship with redemption. Between, Georgia, is my weird blend of humor and violence layered over a family drama, but I was writing about identity, nature v/s nurture, trying to define motherhood for myself and trying to understand the dual nature of my own extended family. This book I am writing now, one of the underneath threads is my tangled relationship with time. Time upsets me, the way it moves hideously, inexorably forward and, as my favorite redneck professor used to say, "Done's done done, baby." This snake....he was done. He couldn't be fixed or changed, and it was what it was. I was upset less because of the snake (I didn't know him very well) and more because I was powerless. The cat had come and gone, and the snake was over. All I could do was to try and choose what was best and kindest to do, and it was an ugly, ugly, awful thing, but it was also right.

When I was standing back in the woods and he was dead in the leaves, the way through the book I had been assiduously not working on began to make sense to me. I knew what would happen next, because I could finally see what my character would have to do. I went inside. I sat down at my keyboard and I let her do it. I spent all weekend letting her. I've written almost 10,000 new words in the last three days which is why I haven't blogged. And If I don't see my way clear to the end yet (and I don't), at least I have a righteous path that's lighting up through the middle.

Now that I seem to be on track, I'm wondering about process. Scott is accusing me of "growing as a person," which is one of those catch-phrasey mental health terms that drives me up the wall, and he says it with such a smarmy, hopeful look on his face that it makes me laugh every time.
"I am not," I say to him, I say to you, "not not not growing as a person."
He looks skeptical. At least one of you does, too. I think maybe that's Amy-go.
"We don't do that here," I tell him and Amy-go, and you, if you need telling. "It's trashy. All we do here is try to be kinder next time, every time."
There's always room in the world, I think, for being kinder, even if you have to do it with a shovel.

But I would like figure out what caused me to go back to work. Is puking in the woods a legitimate epiphany? Was it simply a matter of waiting until things finished stewpotting on my brain's back burner, and I would have seen the answer in any image or moment containing something that had moved in time past my ability to control its outcome? Or was it only that I stood in the yard and wailed until I was sick? DO I ALWAYS HAVE TO WAIL UNTIL I AM SICK? Have mercy, that's SO dumb, but maybe I can dress it up and call it cartharsis and be all "puking over dead snakes is SO classic Greek theatre." You'd buy that, right? If I said it with conviction? Bah. Me neither.

Snakes aside, it seems now barely possible that when I hit the wall again (and I will), that if I wait, if I am calm (for me) and patient (for me), the way over or through or around the wall will come, hopefully next time in a form that doesn't require violence. We'll see.

Posted by joshilyn at April 11, 2006 9:14 AM

Okay, I can relax- she writes! Congrats Joshilyn, it sounds like in a crying, puking kinda way you and your book are both growing. I can't wait to see the results. Smooches to you.

Posted by: Nic at April 11, 2006 9:31 AM

How? How do you always make me laugh? Where do you come up with it all? Screaming batcrap? *ROFLMAO* You are priceless, do you hear me? Priceless! Thank God you still maintain at least a modicum of Mental Illness. I'm glad you're typity-type-typing again, and glad it's a kinder, gentler process for you now. Oh, and just so you know I'm not schmoozing, Amy-Go is right, you are TOTALLY becoming a better person. Of course, you're a pretty good one right now and I'll bet there's plenty of folks that'll back me up on that. So there!
P.S. R.I.P the poor little snake.

Posted by: David at April 11, 2006 10:30 AM

"After I was finished throwing up, I stood looking at the snake and then I understood my book." ~ For some reason, this made me bawl. Breakthroughs come in the weirdest and most unexpected places. I'm sorry you had to go through that to get there, but glad you put the snake out of its misery. And very glad that you found the path through.

Posted by: Aimee at April 11, 2006 10:36 AM

I'm with Aimee and David. I laughed, I cried, and that's just at the blog post about how you started writing the book again. How the hell will I react to the book??

Personally, I'm of the opinion that if it hadn't been the snake something else would have made the idea click for you at some point, perhaps without death and puking. So we'll hope for a non-violent epiphany the next time around. This time, I'm just glad to hear you're past the wall and writing again.

Posted by: DebR at April 11, 2006 10:49 AM

I have an "unreasonable" fear of snakes. I think it is very stupid for fear to demand reason. But there you have it the balance of reason and fear. I know snakes have good and bad places in this world. If they want my backyard, I will gladly work in the front while they gobble up badly little bugs in my poseys. I will try to abide.

You were ever so kind to the poor little snake - I would have been blaising the trail for Sam and Maisey to the basement Rec-room while figuring out disposal with a 10 foot handled shovel (Mine is only 4.5 feet long.)

Hallehalujah! Joss is writing again, the world is turning around, and many live in peace with healthly mental numbers. I have to admit I was worried when you said you weren't writing and not worried about it.

Posted by: Cele at April 11, 2006 11:27 AM

Oh, I wish I had enough sleep last night to respond to this glorious post with a tiny modicum of that massive applause it so deserves. And it *itself* should get the Pulitzer, IMHO.

Was kept awake by unicycle-banging child from 2:30-5:30, however, so it just made me cry and I can't think of enough glowing things to type about it well enough to do justice.

YAY YOU!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Cornelia Read at April 11, 2006 11:34 AM

You rock, glad you found your way.., the snake appreciates it too, but write, WoW will be here....grins, and hopefully won't be so dang slow. Hugs to Mr. Husband and kids, who I'm sure are relieved you are the Snake Goddess...we need to get you a new character, SNKGOD in game...Horde or Alliance?...Smiles and hugs....

Posted by: Gabi at April 11, 2006 12:31 PM

1) I love you.
2) I love Scott. ("Do you need me to come home and... fix the snake?")
3) I am sorry for the snake, but I also think he was your very own personal sign and as the lives of snakes go, that's pretty cool.
4) I could not drink flaming anything while reading your writing; I would end up singing off my eyebrows.

Posted by: Mir at April 11, 2006 12:33 PM

I love your blog. I do not always comment but you always make me laugh and remind me to get back to writing!
This post also gives me hope. I am so glad that there are husbands out there who would offer to leave work to "fix the snake for you!"
(Congrats and hugs regarding that event!)

Posted by: LoryKC at April 11, 2006 2:06 PM

Joshilyn, You are FABULOUS. Not only do I LOVE your book BUT I love your blog. And I especially love how willing you are to share the process with us all. You give me hope for my own writing and allow me to stop beating myself up and carry on with writing as well. [I say, 'Well, Joshilyn has these little mental health outages and SHE is clearly a writer, a real one. So... I could be one too! These little fits of writing insanity don't preclude me.']

And I love most of all that just when I think I'm reading some nice little story about a woman killing a snake and I'm laughing... you pull out this wonderfully wise thing and KPOW it on me.

Nice. Very nice. You're my Hero of the Week!


Posted by: Alicia at April 11, 2006 3:02 PM

Redemption, fixing dead snakes alive in the driveway, redneck professors, Zen, flaming cocktails - your blog has it all. Thank you!

Posted by: Lilymane at April 11, 2006 4:00 PM

I smiled, I sniffled, and I have to know... Did you ever make it to the grocery store?

Posted by: Christina at April 11, 2006 5:05 PM

I am with Christina, did you ever make it to Kroegers? I have a child that has used the word "actually" since she was 3. I understand Sam. Only in the South can one have an ephinany over a dead alive snake. : )

Posted by: Robbie at April 11, 2006 8:16 PM


Posted by: rams at April 11, 2006 8:43 PM

Yes, you are right, that's me looking skeptical, because I SEE YOU! I see you GROWING AS A PERSON! Do NOT try to fool me! The mentally ill do not handle such things gracefully nor do they have full-blown epiphanies over poor pitiful snakes dying in their driveways! The mentally ill scream and flap and totally miss the point and they MAKE SCOTT COME HOME AND FIX IT. YOU are growing as a person. Face it. ;)

Posted by: Amy-GO at April 11, 2006 9:42 PM

That's the second time today you've made me weepy, Peach, and I thank you for both!

When you write your book on how to write books, be sure this blog is in there, verbatim! It's brilliant, as are you!

Posted by: Fran at April 11, 2006 10:18 PM

Loved this post!
But I have to admit to being very sad for that poor snake.
I would have puked also.

Posted by: Kim at April 11, 2006 10:44 PM

Country girl??

Posted by: RonTarbox at April 11, 2006 11:25 PM

I think this post was amazing. Thank you for writing it and sharing it with all of us.

Posted by: Pattie at April 12, 2006 8:26 AM

Congrats on getting over/through! I'm currently reading gods in Alabama and loving it and can't wait for your next book to come out! Keep writing because I'm sure I'll keep loving what you write.

Posted by: Jessie at April 12, 2006 9:03 AM

No, that's a totally legitimate epiphany!!! Your writer's heart kicked in and recognized a heroic moment-- heroism that was also sad, beautiful, pitiful, brutal, scary, sympathetic and nauseating. That there's writer territory!

Thanks for another great post.

Posted by: Renee at April 12, 2006 9:37 AM

"The books I write are driven by character, not some underlying brilliant theme, and they don't have any sort of international scope. They have a strong sense of place and are often funny and suspenseful"

This sounds a lot like the Pulitzer prize winner "A Confederacy of Dunces" by O'Toole.....

In your books, and in your blog, you have a profound way of writing light humor which cleverly disguises gut-wrenching emotion which seems to appear out of nowhere and turns the universe on its head. Thank you for sharing the entire story of the snake and not just ending with throwing up and (eventually) going to the grocery store. Something good came out of that awful experience.

Posted by: Elizabeth at April 12, 2006 12:56 PM

I agree with Fran! Can you include this in the forward of your new book? It needs to be officially "out there" as it is simply wonderful!

Posted by: Andreia at April 12, 2006 1:31 PM

Joshilyn, honey, don't forget you are first and foremost a Southern woman. Our hissy fits, in part, define us! your just having your hissy fits over every book you write. Kinda like I have a hissy fit every time I tell my 16 yr old to clean her nasty,pig sty, can't have company over, room.
(some of us are more prone to hissy fits.)
Elizabeth put it perfectly!

Posted by: desi at April 12, 2006 3:18 PM

Only you can make dead-alive snakes and throwing up both seem like wonderful things that I wouldn't mind seeing/doing myself...

I know. huh?

I can't tell you how much I look forward to reading another book of yours. Thanks for the blog in the meantime.

Posted by: Tracy at April 12, 2006 10:41 PM

I have the top seven. I was just making one last decision. I'll email them to you shortly.

Posted by: Autumn at April 13, 2006 12:48 PM