Winging It

Dragonfly wings II

I had a moment the other day. After spending several hours working through feedback from my editor, I was struck by the number of kind, supportive comments that she included. Things like, “great line” and “keep this. It’s LOL funny.” Don’t get me wrong; these were sparingly sprinkled among the other comments that constituted the meat in her praise sandwich, but I digress. As I kept reading, I realized that these comments generally regarded lines that had come to me on the fly. They weren’t the lines that I’d plotted out or spent much time revising. These were lines I’d pounded out quickly, in an off-the-cuff, even slapdash manner. This got me to thinking about other times in my life when I felt like I was winging it.

Like it or not, I’ve done a lot of that over the years. I can be a wretched procrastinator. In college, I used to have to download Tetris onto a floppy disk (yes, and don’t ask), delete the file on my hard drive, and give the disk to my roommate with strict instructions not to return it until I showed her my finished paper. In grad school, I remember beginning to read Angela Carter’s Wise Children at two AM so that I could write a paper due at nine. I banged out an essay on Toni Morrison’s Beloved in three hours, and another on Poe’s “Sonnet to Science” by the pool in Vegas while accompanying my husband to a trade show. Each of these efforts were met with successful feedback, praise, and grades. Lest you think I procrastinate only on writing, I’ve also done it (occasionally) while teaching.

I always endeavored to be an overly prepared classroom teacher, but there were days—here and there—on which Life happened and prep did not. The year I returned to teaching after having my second baby I was split between two schools, teaching four different preps to five classes of students each day. I taught four novels simultaneously for 180 days in a row. Between mothering, sci-fi lit, Dickens, Shakespeare, and reams of grading, sleep sometimes won out.

One such occurrence was on the day of my first administrative evaluation by my new principal. She arrived at 7:20, unannounced, to “ask” me whether she could do my evaluation. While by contract I had the right to say no, I didn’t feel comfortable going there. And so she sat in on my sci-fi class, the one for which I had the least background and not one thing planned; no great questions, no lecture prepared, nothing but me, my 31 seniors, and our tattered copies of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the seconds before class started I decided how I’d approach the day and set about orchestrating the learning activity. Once my students were off on their tasks, the principal asked me some follow up questions. She wore a big smile and patted me on the shoulder. “That was great!” she whispered. She glanced back over the classroom before turning back to me. “They’re all so engaged. Do you mind if I share that strategy with the faculty at our meeting this afternoon?”

Really.

This is not a humble brag, but shared to illustrate a point. Sometimes, our gut guides us down the right path. Our ability to make good decisions stems from experience, practice, and the errors of the past. And don’t get me wrong, I hate the feeling of being unprepared and I work hard to avoid feeling that way very often. But doesn’t it feel as though the universe is sending mixed messages when we get away with less than diligent work? If I get praise and love when I am unprepared, or for lines I’ve tossed off like a torn sweater, why bother to edit, to prepare, or even to work at all? What’s a girl to do? After much (over) thinking about this, I have come to believe that I’ve misunderstood the message.

One of the benefits of having taken a few spins around the sun is that I have become more familiar with myself; my faults, my strengths, and quirks. I am a terrible multi-tasker. My brain simply fritzes out when I get over-stimulated by loud noises, bright lights, even strong scents. I’m terrible in the kitchen. I can’t tell you how many pots I’ve boiled dry. I get distracted and burn stuff All.The.Time.

I think the secret to my successful winging of things lies in knowing what I’m good at—and owning that shit. I’m a good teacher. I wield words effectively, and I can outline the big picture in a variety of situations. My superpower, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Gilbert, is my (admittedly spotty) ability to get the hell out of my own damned head.

Overthinking is the battle shield in the war we wage against our fear of failure. But at some point, this analysis keeps us from connecting with the deep well of knowledge and experience that guides our intuitive thinking. We get in our own way. Winging it can help us rise to the next level of our success (and sometimes it just means you’re a slacker, but that’s a different post). In the process of working with my editor, I have learned that when I listen to that little voice in my head—the one that whispers words to my fingers—is, seemingly, when I do my best work. My new goal is finding out how to tune into this “finger whisperer” more often and let IT write the next damned book.

I challenge each of you to post, tweet, or send a smoke signal in which you publicly share a wing it moment, a time at which, despite your best efforts to get in your own way, you plumbed the depths of your own success. I’m hijacking the #wingitwednesday hashtag from the chicken wing industry and using it instead to proclaim awesomeness.

P.S. Please feel free to share and tag friends. They deserve to embrace their ability to wing it.

P.P.S. It’s ironic that it’s taken nearly three weeks to write this post.

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An Excerpt from The Apothecary’s Apprentice

Tree and lily of the valley

Chapter One

The late winter light dappled the forest floor through the needles above. Tightening her grip on the satchel slung over her shoulder, Evee crept toward the canopy overhanging the base of the tree. This is where the salvia grew. Over the past month, she’d slipped into the apothecary’s garden in order to snip cuttings from the same shrub. While she’d read online it was an easy plant to propagate, Evee’d had no luck convincing it to take root. But here it seemed to grow easily, sprawling over the ground. She headed toward the tree’s base and bent down, her shears in hand. Grasping a small cluster of the soft green leaves, she cut the tender stalks. She worked carefully not to damage any of its leaves. Clutching the small bundle, she stepped back and surveyed her work. It’s like I used a samurai sword.

She heard the swift snap of a twig underfoot. “Crap.” Shoving the handful of leaves into her bag, she looked back over her shoulder. The bright red knit of her striped scarf was like a blinking neon sign. She wished she hadn’t worn it. Withdrawing behind one tree in a small stand of cedars, she crouched down and hid. There’d never been anyone out here before. She peeked out from behind the tree. She saw something move. It was him. His boots squelched in the mud, but grew fainter the farther away he moved from her hiding spot. She pulled back, hiding behind what felt like the skinniest tree in the woods.

She didn’t know this man at all, other than having walked by his store a few times. Was he the ‘call the cops and ruin her life’ type? Or the ‘open carry gun’ type? She didn’t know. But if she was caught, it’d be worse than the last time she got in trouble. The cops wouldn’t be as forgiving. And their reaction would be nothing compared to Sister Agatha’s.

Now what? Taking short, small gasps, her chest felt like it was being pressed on by a boulder. She didn’t want her breath to give away her hiding spot. Edging away from the tree, Evee saw a ramshackle shed across from the way out. She took a step from behind the tree into the clearing. She tugged the strap on her bag, pulling it tightly across her chest. She looked up to see the apothecary moving around the corner of the shed. He stood directly in front of the gate. She was trapped.

Sneaking through the thick, wet underbrush, she felt like an elephant. Every cautious step she took seemed like a beacon, blaring her location through the forest. Her feet sunk into the duff, crunching through layers of twigs and pinecones. Brambles and vines grabbed at her, clinging to her pants as if trying to slow her down. Glancing over her shoulder, the apothecary stepped into the clearing behind her.

Their eyes met for a split second. Although he stood far off, she could tell h’d been watching her. Could see her well enough from there to identify her? His lips moved, like he was speaking, but she couldn’t hear what he was saying. And really, she didn’t care. But his words floated toward her as if tracing the tendrils of fog snaking through the garden. The menacing look on his face turned her stomach sour. Run.

She darted past a large evergreen, tripped on a root, and landed face down on a carpet of sharp needles. She pushed up and tried to regain her footing, but her right leg was pinned. A thick, ropy vine twisted its way around her ankle and moved up her leg. She watched it slither around her leg like a snake. She didn’t want to know how high up her thigh it might go.

She thrashed against the vine, cutting her wrists and ankles on its bark. She yanked and tugged, but couldn’t pry her leg free. “What the—?” Her chest felt like it might explode. Quickly exhausted by the fight, she fell back onto the ground, edges of black seeping into her field of vision.

She forced herself to breathe more slowly. The fingers of black loosed their grip, her heartbeat slowed, and she worked to slow her breathing. She looked up, tracing the path of the vine through the trees. It seemed to spring out of the ground near the apothecary’s feet. He stood in the middle of the garden, his arms crossed over a picture of Chewbacca’s furry face. A dark, scruffy beard and thick, wavy hair echoed his choice of tee shirts. She smiled, but then she remembered Chewbacca was trying to bust her.

Gathering all the energy she possessed, she bucked her hips and legs upward, fighting against the vine to free her leg. She checked on the apothecary. A knot twisted itself into the center of her gut. There were those black fingers again. He’d moved, standing now only a few feet from where she lay. It felt as though he towered over her. Her position, arms and legs splayed awkwardly in different directions, like a crab on its back, made her terribly vulnerable. She thrashed against the vine and slipped around on the wet needles. The contents of her bag spilled out—but not the incriminating stuff. Drained from fighting, she let her trapped leg drop as she fell back onto her elbows. Her breaths came in short, quick puffs of vapor into the cold morning air. She wasn’t going anywhere. He closed the gap between them in a few quick strides, coming to kneel right beside her.

Now that he was closer, he was younger and more attractive than she’d imagined. Rather than the grandfatherly image of an apothecary she’d pictured, he was more like someone’s hot older brother. Or at least an older guy rocking a pretty decent dad bod.

He reached out and touched her necklace where it lay on her neck.

She pulled away, but given the vine, she didn’t have anywhere to go.

“A crucifix.” He looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “You’re one of Sister Agatha’s girls.” It wasn’t a question. He stood and looked down on her from above. The discrepancy in their sizes magnified by the effect of his height as he loomed over her. “Why the Salvia divinorum?” His words, clipped and fast, startled her.

Evee decided not to waste time pretending she didn’t know what he meant. He’d probably seen the hole she’d left when she cut it. And it wasn’t the first time she’d taken cuttings from the same plant. Tense, ready to spring to action the moment she saw an opportunity. But her back ached in the cold morning air as the muscles in her back stiffened, like fingers digging into her spine. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to put much distance between them. Despite the cold, she a bead of sweat trickled down the edge of her face. In her head, she snapped back at him, matching his bark with her own. But when she opened her mouth, not a sound came out.

He leaned over and grabbed the satchel. She scuttled back and tried to pull the bag away, but he snatched it easily. He reached inside and pulled out the small bundle of salvia she’d cut. He lifted one of her legs and gave the vine a good tug.

Evee heard an odd ripping sound, as if the roots were being torn from the ground. She yanked her leg back, tucking it beneath her body.

For a second, the loose end of the vine dangled freely in his hand. When he tossed it aside, she watched it coil itself into a circular pile at his feet like an obedient hose.

“Holy—” She knew it was impossible for a vine to move across the forest floor, writhing like a snake, and then put down roots in the seconds it’d held her down. She rubbed her eyes and shook her head. She couldn’t explain what she’d just seen. Darting backwards like a crab, she put as much distance as possible between herself, the apothecary, and these crazy plants. She wasn’t sure what had happened, but something was wrong out here. Plants didn’t move on their own. Chills raced up and down her spine as goosebumps prickled her skin.

“Well done. Thank you, friend,” the apothecary said.

“Who are you calling friend?” Her eyes darted around the garden, taking in every shadow and dark patch.

He ignored her question, plowing ahead with an interrogation instead. “What’d you do with the salvia?”

She felt her jaw tighten. She winced as the muscle spasmed under the pressure. “Someone dared me to come out here and get it.”

He arched one eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ll get nowhere with bullshit,” he said.

“I sell it.” As soon as the words took shape, a tightness slithered into her belly. It probably wasn’t a smart thing to say, given how isolated she felt out here. Crawling backward a few more feet, it felt safer to have some distance between the two of them. “But you can’t prove anything.” She crossed her arms over her chest, pulling her jacket closed around her body.

“My name is Silas Wardwell.” He stared at her, as if waiting for her to say something.

His eyes were really green. They seemed to match the color of the trees and garden around him. It made her think of a chameleon. He continued staring, his head cocked to the side. It seemed as if he was figuring something out. The pause lasted a while, too long, as she shifted her weight from foot to foot. Awkwardness settled into the quiet space between them. He nudged the vine next to him and let out a loud breath.

“This is no common vegetable patch. My plants are dangerous. Some can poison you by the lightest touch. Others are fatal if ingested. And all of them are extremely dangerous in the hands of the ignorant.”

He emphasized this last word. She wasn’t sure if he was trying to make her feel stupid, or small, but it worked. Flame rushed to her cheeks. Her eyes pounded painfully with every heartbeat.

“Given your interest in things that grow,” the apothecary tipped his head in the direction of his garden, “perhaps you and I can come to an agreement. You come to work in my garden. I think you owe me that much. In return, I can teach you things you never imagined possible.”

She tightened her grip on the edges of her coat and gritted her teeth. “I didn’t actually take anything.” She pointed to the bundle in his hands. “See, you have all of it right there. I never actually left the garden.”

Silas raised an eyebrow then pulled out a cell phone from his back pocket. “I’m happy to call the police.” He shrugged and began to dial a number. It looked like a short number.

Evee reached out and grabbed his arm. “Wait! OK. Fine. I’ll do it.”

He pulled the phone away from his ear, turned it off, and slipped it back into his pocket.

“It doesn’t seem like I have much of choice.” She hated how her voice sounded like a whiny toddler and she worried about what she’d gotten herself into. She surveyed him from head to toe. He wore dark jeans and black rubber boots; standard issue outer wear on the island this time of year. Aside from his thick, wavy hair and rather decent shape, he pretty much looked like every other guy in town. He seemed normal enough. Except for the whole creepy plant thing. She held out her hand. “I’m Evee. Evee Ellingson.”

He looked at her and chuckled. He put out his own hand and shook hers. Her fingers burned as his warm hands squeezed her own cold ones. He pulled her up in one quick motion. “Follow me.” He turned on his heel and set for the gate with a long stride. Evee slipped her satchel across her body and scrambled after him to catch up.