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A tomato is a tomato is a tomato . . . unless it’s November and you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo and you’re behind 12,096 words and look! There’s a post on Facebook about raisins! What a perfect opportunity to make an obscure reference to an old movie by saying they’re humiliated grapes!

Maybe you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, but instead have a deadline at the end of the week with edits due to your agent and wow! Check out that new video by OK Go! Umbrellas! Lots and lots of umbrellas. Not as good as the Rube Goldberg one though. Or cats. Maybe you should look at cats. Or tattoos. Or cats with tattoos.

Some of us are easily distracted. Some of us (ahem) may be the Queen of Distraction.

I know a lot of writers use different programs to shut down the internet while they’re working, but I can’t do that. When I’m writing (and even when I’m revising), I have lots of questions — questions that only Uncle Google can answer, like “What could someone make by weaving feathers?” or “Do mice have a paw preference?” I need to refer to old emails, or check the thesaurus to get just the right word. I can’t go offline. I’d distract myself by trying not to forget what it was that I needed to look up when I went back online.

So when I’m working I either need the willpower of an ascetic or a few tricks up my sleeve. Yes, you guessed it. Tricks.

In Rachel Wilson’s last post, she mentioned a technique that Mary Winn Heider taught us at our last S3Q2 & Friends retreat: the Pomodoro technique. It sounds fancy, but really the word pomodoro is simply Italian for tomato, and refers to a tomato-shaped timer used by the developer (Francesco Cirillo) of this technique.

In short, you set a timer for 25 minutes and work like the dickens without interruption until the timer goes off. Then you set the timer again for 4 minutes to clear your brain. You repeat this a few times until you have the mental capacity of a wet noodle, but loads and loads of work accomplished, and the rest of the day free to watch videos of dogs jumping through screens or to take personality tests (“What kind of cheese are you?” or “What’s your Santa’s elf name?”).

If you find yourself having trouble focusing on your work, give it a try.

For more information, check out this video:


Then and Now

As a former teacher, I tell time in school years. Last year, I had a lot of time to write. I was unemployed and waiting on a baby. I wrote every day for hours and hours. With coffee in hand and my dog at my feet, four hours was a minimum on a weekday.


I finished a draft of the middle grade novel I’ve been writing for five years. After the celebration, I sat down to read my complete draft. I didn’t like it, and for good reason. It’s not any good.

So this year, the name of the game is revision. That first full draft wanders through characters and happenings, that in the end, don’t matter to the core of my character’s story. They’re boring and blah, which is a pretty bad review coming from the author.

Now, when I sit down to work, I have my first draft on one screen and a new document on another. My focus is precision. For each new scene, I take my idea and ask myself a few hard questions.

  • Does this scene provide my character with a choice to make? (Is she active?)
  • Does the choice at hand make life harder for my character?
  • Does the scene propel the story forward? Or can the story go on without it?

Little by little, my blank document is filling up. Sometimes I reach over to the other screen, grab an entire scene and drop it in. Those are good moments. Easy moments. Other times, I find myself recreating so that I can answer the above questions with a resounding, yes.

Some of the original scenes play in my head like a movie. Those are the scenes that make it over. I know where they are in the first draft. They have clarity and purpose. The scenes that get left behind are so forgettable, that even I can’t remember what’s in them. And that’s okay. They helped me along the way the first time I made it to THE END.

This year, I don’t have so much time to write. This happens when I get out my computer:

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There’s a generous woman from my church who watches my son three hours a week. That’s my dedicated writing time. Other than that, I take the few moments I can find here and there. I made a goal for the month of November to wake up at 5:30 and write before my son gets up, usually around 7:30. The first few nights, he woke up ten times each. I was not able to make coherent thoughts at 5:30. After that, the time change got him. Now he wakes up at 6:00. I find it kind of humorous, actually. That’ll teach Momma to make goals.

But in all seriousness, the few moments that I do find are productive. Rather than writing with abandon as I did last year, I now write with precision as the goal, both in my use of time and words on the page. My writing is better for it, and so am I.

A Classroom Visit Featuring Gayle Forman


On Thursday, October 30th, my after-school creative writing group and I were thrilled to welcome author Gayle Forman to our classroom. The weeks leading up to the visit were filled with intense excitement. Students asked in disbelief, “THE Gayle Forman? Is coming here?” and “Will she sign my book?” and “Can I tell her about my character?” The answer to all of these questions was yes.

photo(66)By having the students ask “What if?” questions, Gayle and the students came up with an idea for a story. She then guided them towards developing a conflict, a character, and even a setting. The students greatly participated in the activity and didn’t want the story building to end.

When the story building was over, leaving the students with a good plan for a story that could go in any direction (let’s just say the working title is “Switcheroo”), Gayle answered SO MANY QUESTIONS! I was impressed by how insightful the students’ questions were. They asked about If I Stay, Gayle’s book (turned-movie) that is in high demand across the grades. They also asked questions about Gayle’s process and her other books.  Gayle answered all one-zillion of their questions with patience and grace.

photo(64)The students then told Gayle about the characters they are developing in our writing workshop, and she listened and commented on each one. To end the visit, she signed their books – some had their own copies of If I Stay, and those who didn’t had Gayle sign their writing notebooks, which I think is the best place for an author autograph.

Afterward, the students wandered around completely star-struck and in awe. THEY HAD MET GAYLE FOREMAN! SHE HAD TALKED TO THEM! ANSWERED THEIR QUESTIONS! SIGNED THEIR BOOKS! It was an unforgettable day for them. It was perfect.

Book Give-Away Contest: WRITING NEW ADULT FICTION by Deborah Halverson


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writing-new-adult-fiction-halversonSome of you may know Deborah Halverson as a former children’s book editor at Harcourt. Some of you may know her through the children’s books she’s authored: HONK IF YOU HATE ME, BIG MOUTH, and LETTERS TO SANTA. And some of you may subscribe to her advice at DearEditor.com website. While well familiar with all that Deborah Halverson does with triplets in tow, I became a huge fan of her how-to-write-YA book, WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES. It is my number one go-to-craft-writing-resource in the courses I teach at UC Berkeley and Stanford because she nails every point I want to cover with my students in a clear, concise, and understandable manner and simplifies my job.

Halverson has now come out with a new writing craft book, WRITING NEW ADULT FICTION no doubt because of all the buzz this new genre featuring eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-old characters is getting. She solicits NA contributors–Alana Albertson, Sylvia Day, Karen Grove, Robin Ludwig, Kevan Lyon, Molly McAdams, and Nicole Steinhaus–to give those of you interested in writing or teaching NA fiction more insight. And like she does in her YA writing craft book, she breaks down just what you need and want to know about writing NA fiction in the same clear manner with full engagement.

contest-clip-art-300x181So if you have questions about writing NA fiction and want answers, leave a comment on this post and share this book give-away contest on any social media platform of your choice. The winner will be selected on November 8, 2015 and sent their very own signed copy of WRITING NEW ADULT FICTION. 

In the meantime, for more information about NA fiction check out these sites: NA Alley, New Adult Authors, #NaLitChat (weekly on twitter), New Adult Book Club on Goodreads, and Camp NA podcast series.

Thanks for stopping by and happy writing!

Annemarie O’Brien, author of Lara’s Gift (Knopf, 2013)

The Fourth Annual S3Q2 & Friends Retreat


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It’s been a while since I posted … I took a break to focus on the launches of DON’T TOUCH and THE GAME OF BOYS AND MONSTERS, but now both of my beasts are out in the world.

And in between those launches, I took a much-needed breather at the FOURTH ANNUAL S3Q2 & Friends Retreat! We returned to good old Beverly Shores, Indiana for a third year.


We being S3Q2 (that is, original members of the VCFA class known as the Super Secret Society of Quirk and Quill) …

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… and Friends (that is people we love who’ve been kind enough to join us for one or more years of retreating):



That’s right. The friends now outnumber the Quills! This year’s Quills included Ginger, Larissa, Varian, myself and Jen, and the Friends included Amy Rose Capetta, Mary Winn Heider, Rachel Hylton, Katie Bayerl, Marianna Baer, Steve Bramucci, and Carol Brendler.

We also made friends with a peacock who wanted to come inside.


I think he blessed us with good luck, but we did worry about him running into the spooky coyote pack that we heard while lounging in the hot tub.

Per usual, we enjoyed dining at Bartlett’s …


And cooking for ourselves!


Steve was our newbie, which worked out well since he stressed to impress with some amazing cuisine …


Mary Winn led us in a productivity workshop with some inspiration from Jeff VanderMeer’s The Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction and the Pomodoro technique, which many of us are still using daily.



We wrote all over the place …

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Carol can be seen here giving the evil eye to snap-happy Varian during a Pomodoro.

Some of us took breaks to stretch …



I can be spotted yoga-ing in the background.


… or to visit the beach …

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… and when we tired of all of that, we got really goofy …


This is me wearing Varian’s shoes, or, as I prefer to call them, clown shoes


Mary Winn and Carol sizing each other up


Larissa testing the capabilities of Varian’s smartphone camera.


This is either another camera test or the cover for Larissa and Varian’s new chamber pop album


Again, Steve was new

At one point we were even haunted by the ghost of a last-year Friend, Trent Reedy aka The Phantom, who sent each of us a mysterious message. Hylton (aka the plucky Final Girl) and the Phantom traded a series of ominous messages.


And, of course, we took lots of pictures of each other in our many and varied groupings…


The pics in this post were all taken by Varian and Amy Rose!


FIVE of us are Sara Crowe clients


Two of us belonged to the Cliffhangers class


Three of us used to have a Chicago writing group called TOOCF (aka The Other Other Chicago Fire)


Three of us were more recently at VCFA together, write together virtually …


… and MIGHT secretly be triplets separated at birth.


All of us, but especially this one, are prone to mischief.

As you probably can tell, we love each other lots and miss each other terribly.20140920_140214

Chat with Larissa Theule, Author of Fat & Bones


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Larissa TheuleI have the great pleasure of interviewing my friend, Larissa Theule, author of the newly released Fat & Bones: And Other Stories, illustrated by Adam S. Doyle, (Carolrhoda Books, October 2014). I asked her about this delicious collection of interconnected stories set on a farm that is rife with tension, feuding and sacrifice, and the perfect dose of humor in the most surprising places.

Fat & Bones CoverLinden McNeilly: This is a collection of interconnected stories about those living on a farm that is falling apart. Why did you choose that structure, rather than a novel form, to tell this particular story?

Larissa Theule: The first story in the book was written a year before the others. It’s the story of Bones the farmer and Fat the fairy who hate each other. One of the lines early on says, “Their hatred had grown dense and deep, too thick and round not to roll over everything in its path.” The idea that their venomous dislike for each other wreaks havoc on the world around them seemed like a great opening for other stories. Hatred is never without collateral damage and I wanted to explore how their personal war directly or indirectly affects other creatures on the farm. The short story format allowed me to move the spotlight around the farm and train it on other characters, giving them undivided attention so that they live for a moment with a fullness that would otherwise be denied them in a novel.

LMc: Did you work with the illustrator, back and forth? Or did he do his work after you’d done the final?

LT: Adam S. Doyle is the illustrator and I’m so glad he worked on this book. We didn’t work together but I think we might have had fun if we had. Adam’s illustrations would be beautiful as stand alone works of art but they also serve the book by visually communicating the stories’ strange balance of gravitas and whimsy. Here is his Leonard Grey III who is a terrible excuse for a spider and while going on an adventure loses a great deal of blood to knife-wielding Fat.


Isn’t he perfectly, charmingly ridiculous? Aren’t you appalled by the thought of anyone hurting him? I don’t like spiders but I like this one.

LMc: Can you explain the part self-sacrifice serves in this book?

LT: I’m really glad you asked this question because I think of self-sacrifice as the heart of these stories. Fat and Bones is said to be bleak and cruel. This is true, because war is bleak and cruel and the farm is at war. What interests me more than the war, however, are the choices characters make to either add to the chaos or fight against it. Plenty of characters add to the chaos in sometimes funny and naïve ways, but there are three characters that risk everything for a feeling of rightness they don’t even really understand or have words for.

One of my favorite characters is the vengeful pig Esmeralda. This one horrible pig with a heart full of bitterness makes a spontaneous sacrifice for someone she despises. When writing “The Dance,” I remember feeling amazed and proud of Esmeralda for the choice she makes. If a creature as awful as she is capable of such tender sacrifice then even when all the world seems bleak, still there is room for hope.

I can’t resist the urge to share another of Adam’s illustrations. Here is Esmeralda, horrible, wonderful pig.


LMc: What surprised you as you worked on this story?

LT: I was surprised by the humor that popped up. This is a little bit of a trivial example but I’ll go ahead with it anyway: Many years ago I was living with my best friend in an old brick apartment building in Chicago and the man I thought I was going to marry had just broken up with me. My friend and I sat at the front window talking it out and at some point I said, “Well, I guess it’s back to square one,” as if finding love is a game of Candy Land and I had been kicked back to Start. This struck us both so funny that we laughed until we cried, and the laughter softened the hurt a little. I adore irony and silly physical humor and unpretentious make-believe and when my kids are hurt, after the band-aid has been applied, we try to make them laugh. Humor brightens the darkness, and so every time a moment of funny popped up while writing Fat and Bones, I was delighted and grateful.

LMc: Readers will expect this type of flavor in your next book. What do you think of that?

LT: You will be either disappointed or relieved to know that in the next one not a single drop of blood is shed. It is a picture book titled How Do You Do? (Bloomsbury), about friendship and exploring the world. There is sunshine, and a goat.

LMc: Thank you spending time here, and good luck on the release of Fat & Bones, available at booksellers and through Lerner at https://www.lernerbooks.com/Search/Pages/results.aspx?k=yqzpdka

Some Dessert Books


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In keeping with Joss Whedon’s “eat dessert first” philosophy of writing, I’ve been dipping into some books that approach writing from a different angle: visually. Here are a few that have intrigued me.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards.

“A course in enhancing creativity and artistic confidence.” Truly a course in perception, this is a fascinating look at how the two modes of our brains — the verbal, analytical mode and the visual, perceptual mode — work as we create. Edwards asserts that when we draw (a task best left to the visual, perceptual mode), our stronger verbal, analytical mode takes over. She takes the reader through various exercises, teaching anyone (and I do mean anyone) how to tap into the visual, perceptual mode and perceive what’s before him, and then translate that to paper.

While engaging with this text may seem to negate all the verbal stuff we do as writers, I think it actually brings a new dimension and a balance to our words. I find that it’s also relevant in thinking about drafting (creative, visual, perceptual) versus revising (verbal, analytical).

The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity, Nick Bantock.

This book begins with a dedication: “For the wide-eyed wonderers.” While Bantock may have specific “wide-eyed wonderers” in mind, I’d like to put myself in the category of wide-eyed wonderer, wouldn’t you? After the dedication comes a warning: “If you want a shortcut to originality…this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re wiling to be led hither and thither down unlikely paths by a fellow of dubious reputation, if you’re prepared to keep a sense of humor and not be fazed when he plucks the unexpected out of a mischief-stuffed hat, if you’re ready to zigzag, detour, and wander if search of a better understanding of your artistic core, then please feel free to slip-slide further into these pages.”

Again, this is a book that begins with artistic creation, but continues into both visual and verbal meaning. And he uses “hither and thither” in the second sentence.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Jeff Vandermeer 

“[T]he history of the world could be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations…. Your imagination and your stories exist within this wider context, and sometimes you’ll find you need to break free of other people’s imaginations to allow your own uniqueness to shine through.”

Wonderbook is a dense book, full of images, stories, exercises, and wisdom. It turns to visual art in order to understand how to create fiction.

Picture This: How Pictures Work, Molly Bang

“Our feelings arise because we see pictures as extensions of the real world. Pictures that affect us strongly use structural principles based on the way we have to react in the real world in order to survive. As soon as you understand these principles, you will understand why pictures have such specific emotional effects.”

This is a brilliant little book (and the only book of the four that I’ve finished so far, seeing as how it’s only 96 pages and mostly illustrated). It analyzes the reasons why shape, color, and composition evoke certain emotions.

Even if you feel like you don’t have an artistic bone in your body, I recommend checking these books out. They provide an antidote to BIC, and give your brain something new to chew on: dessert.


WIP: Blog Hop // Steve Bramucci

Disclaimer: I am probably the worst blog hopper ever. Mostly because I accepted Adi Rule’s invitation when I don’t actually have a blog. Also, because after being tagged roughly a decade ago, I am just now getting around to this.

Fortunately, the crew at Quirk & Quill took me in like the starving internet-urchin that I am. They gave me a blanket, a crust of bread, a platform for posting, and a deadline. So many problems solved so quickly!



ABOUT THE PERSON WHO TAGGED ME: Adi Rule is a writer/cat lackey from New Hampshire. Her [TOTALLY AWESOME! -ed.] YA novel STRANGE SWEET SONG is out now from St. Martin’s Press, with [TOTALLY AWESOME SOUNDING! -ed.] REDWING forthcoming. When the cats approve, Adi also sings in the chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra/Boston Pops.

Which is all fine and well and clever. The bio writer chose to focus on Adi’s cats more than one might expect, but so it goes—no bio writer is perfect. My bio writer once called me a “writer of ‘some’ renown” when clearly what was intended was “internationally beloved man of mystery whose books you should purchase by the truckload.” I could deal with the slip-up, but the ironic quotes around the word ‘some’ were not appreciated.

CAMERA WHIPS TO ADI RULE: All cats aside, Adi is truly one of the most gracious writers I know. And talented to the extreme. I once heard her read a scene that included the sentence “What ho, Hat?” I have no idea how to punctuate that, but it was a boy talking to a hat and it was the funniest scene I’ve ever heard aloud and if Adi will just send it to me, I will print it up on a t-shirt and wear it at all times.

Lastly, DAMN! Adi’s book Redwing sounds awesome.



WHAT DOES THE TITLE MEAN? In pirate speak it translates to “we will kill you instead of taking you captive.” The black flag is the visual embodiment of this concept. In publishing speak it translates to “no one knows what it means and you might have to change it.”

Pirate Flag

WHAT IS THE NAME OF YOUR CHARACTER: Virtually all of my characters lie about their names at some point, so listing them would be futile. The most interesting name is probably “Death’s Abbot”—a pirate who got his name by surviving a poisoning by the plant monkshood. He is not historical but if he were and he met Blackbeard, there would be a fight. Blackbeard would leave the encounter in a wheelbarrow.

WHEN AND WHERE IS THE STORY SET? The story is set on Isla sin Nombre—whose inhabitants simply call it Sin. The island is made up, but certainly inspired by my career as a travel writer and my travels through the tropics.

It is set in an ambiguous time period during which bounty hunters roam the sea on giant turtles and oversized rogues keep snarling hyenas as pets. There is no WiFi.


WHAT SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT THE PROTAGONISTS? Nick and Sophie live in a den underneath a gnarled oak. Their father, a famed pirate, left them with a map, a key, and two throwing knives. In the book’s opening pages, a one-eyed man finds them and offers a simple trade: in exchange for the map and key, he will sail them to Sin and show them the man who killed their father. By the end, the siblings will need every millimeter of those two throwing knives.

WHAT IS THE MAIN CONFLICT? If there’s one thing this project has an excess of, it’s conflict. The main emotional conflict is between Nick and Sophie as they each separately wrestle with the idea of revenge, what it means, what its ramifications are, and if it is worth seeking in light of the fact that the entire island is trying to capture them.

WHAT IS THE GOAL FOR THE MAIN CHARACTER? Nick and Sophie’s goals often diverge. Nick wants revenge. Sophie wants to stay alive. These two goals are often in conflict. As they evolve and new information comes to light, their goals change dramatically.

WHEN CAN WE EXPECT THIS TO PUBLISH: Tomorrow? Next week? Tough to pin down. But I do know that my incredible agent will be receiving a draft very soon.

ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO SAY? Yes, please! I have another book—much lighter in tone—called Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo! (these are more whimsical pirates) which comes out from Bloomsbury in fall 2016 with a sequel the following year. I really hope you read it, because I think it’s funny.

Also, I’m on Twitter. www.twitter.com/stevebram


Pending. I forgot about the tagging part. Anyone want to be tagged?


Want versus Want

One of the standard questions writers ask ourselves is: What does my character want?

As we design our plots, we come up with answers: A friend to trust. The elimination of a disease. Equality. Healing from loss. Parental approval.
what every kid wants photo

Asking my characters what they want, and finding the answer has been in my author toolkit for a long time. But I’ve gotten predictable results, which has made me decide to look at the idea from a different angle.

First, let’s start with precision of language. When I say I “want” a cookie, I am really saying that I desire a cookie. To go deeper with our characters, many writers have learned to ask: What is her heart’s desire?

Hearts desire many things. Most of them are intangible. The kid who wants a friend to trust desires safety and companionship. The teen that wants the disease to go away desires physical wellness and the ability to be “normal.” And so on.

These kinds of desires drive much of kid lit plotting, including my own. But today I am thinking of wanting from the point of view of lacking, rather than desiring. And I am seeing it from behind a longer lens.

The main character in my work-in-progress is really different from most everyone in his backward little village. He wants to belong, to be accepted for who he is. So what does he lack, other than a sense of belonging and acceptance? If I think more deeply, I find that he lacks skill in adapting to his village’s prejudices. He lacks the strength required to be different, to be rejected. These lacks are driving my plotting. I need to give him opportunities to try to adapt (and fail, of course). I need to put him in circumstances in which he can learn (painfully, of course) strength in the face of rejection. He may or may not get what he desires, which is acceptance. But if I give him enough opportunities, he will evolve into someone who can live through that.

Looking at characters from the point of view of what they lack, rather than what they desire, can help writers go deeper and help their characters evolve in unpredictable ways. If you plot this way, or want to try, I’d love to hear from you.

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The following is the introduction to a longer piece that I wrote in 2011.  I’ve never had an outlet for it, nor have I been ready to share it, but I think it may be important for the people of my generation to know they’re not alone.  We were on the brink – somewhere between child and adult -, and what happened on September 11th, 2001, kept us there.

September 11, 2011

The media has forgotten us.

We’re not the babies born to those lost in the tragedy. We’re not the family, the friends, the heroes. We didn’t grow up thinking of Osama Bin Laden as a monster – we were barely even aware of who he was.  Ten years ago, we were old enough to understand why people hate the country we live in. We didn’t condone the attacks, but we didn’t think war was the answer, either.

Ten years ago, I had just started my last semester of college.  I don’t think people realize the impact the attack had on those of us about to leave childhood and enter into a scary, new world. Everything we had hoped for, for ourselves and our futures, had to be reevaluated.

We had many questions that no one could answer. What would it mean to enter a world where terrorism was tangible? How could we seriously think of careers when our worlds had fallen apart? Was what we were deciding to do with our lives meaningful? And if there was another, even greater tragedy in the world, would the careers we chose be vital?

Many of us wandered aimlessly after graduation. We stayed at part time jobs we hated. We went to grad school because we weren’t ready to enter this world yet. We lived like we had in college – with roommates and cheap rent and spending weekends in oblivion – because we couldn’t be part of the grown-up world yet. In a way, we still can’t.

Sure, we’ve got real jobs now, and real apartments. Some of us are married. Some of us have kids, cars, mortgages. But in our heads, I can guarantee, we’re all having a hard time accepting this grown-up thing. We don’t feel like real adults, and we don’t want to.  We don’t want to own this world the way it is.

Why are some of us still wandering aimlessly? Where’s the report on that? Where’s the news article on the stifling of lives, lives that were just about to begin, as planes crashed into our safe, little world?

Everyone wants to remember, but I wish I could forget. Just for one brief minute. I want a moment where the heaviness that sits on my chest, the anxiety that courses through my system, and the panic that has made it self a constant just isn’t there inside of me.

I want to unremember the moment that has shaped the last 10 years of my life more than anything. But I can’t.

None of us can.