Choices

Imagine this scenario:

Your brother is a heroin addict who has tried multiple times over the span of a year to get sober and each attempt has failed. Fearing that he may die if he does not stop using, you try to admit him to a rehab center but he refuses to go, saying instead that he will agree to go through detox by himself in the privacy of his apartment—which has already been cleared of contraband. After his history of drug use there is a very likely chance that detoxing in an environment lacking professional help will hurt or even kill him. Knowing this you have two options:

  1. You stay with him for the week while he comes down so there will be someone present to help or call an ambulance should he need one. This involves spontaneously taking time off from your new job where your reputation and work ethic have not yet been fully established, putting your employment and, therefore, your family’s financial stability at risk.
  2. You leave him to detox on his own, knowing that there’s a chance he could die without assistance during the experience. This also means that he will have greater opportunity to acquire more heroin and fall off the wagon before he even begins to detox which, given his history, will also put his life at risk.

 

You could treat this scenario as a thought experiment, if you wish, juggling the two options in the air until only one lands in your hand while the other drops away. Which option is right and which option is wrong?

First you might weigh the options on a moral scale: Moral scaleWhich is good and which is bad—or more simply, what would Jesus do? The Good Man would probably stay and help his brother through detox, call an ambulance when he started having seizures and prayed that the ambulance would reach him fast enough so that he wouldn’t have to watch his brother die right in front of his eyes. But whether or not his brother lived through the detox, that good man would probably lose his job. He called out of work for two days with little more than ten hours heads up and now he must find a new job by the end of the week or he can no longer afford the house that shelters his family or the food that feeds his kids. On the other hand, the Bad Man takes option two and leaves his brother to detox alone. He goes to work the next day, makes the money that will keep a roof over his family and food in their belly, but he lives with the knowledge that his only brother is most likely dead or dying because there was no one there and the Bad Man will have to live with the knowledge that he had the choice to stay, despite the risks, and chose not to.

Then you might weigh the options on an emotional scale: Emotional ScaleWhich feels more important and which feels less important? The Sibling Bond would stay, believing that he could always bounce back from whatever consequences came from potentially losing his job. There’s no guarantee, after all, that he will and if he does then he’ll find another one at some point. His immediate family will have to struggle for a while but they’ll still have his brother in their lives and he’ll have another chance to stay sober this time. Perhaps he’ll have an even better chance of staying sober because this experience will have shown him that he is not alone even at the worst of times. On the other hand, the Family Man would leave, knowing that his family depends on him for strength and stability. Without his job to pay the bills he would have to watch his family struggle, believing that it was his fault for not putting their worth before that of an addict’s, regardless of his relation.

Lastly, you might weigh the options on a logical scale: Logical ScaleWhich is logical and which is illogical? To be perfectly honest, unless you can provide me with a real argument against, I believe most Logicians would leave. “The need of the many outweigh the need of the few,” as it were. The immediate family is your responsibility, and your brother is his own responsibility. Or, more darkly, what is the life of an addict, no matter whom he is, when compared to the lives of a whole family?

 

This scenario may appear dramatic, but think about it as a real world experience. There will be those who read this and instantly think, “I’m going to stay!” and half of the observers will commend them for their selflessness while the other half sneers are their irresponsibility. There will be those who read this and instantly think, “I’m going to leave!” and half of the observers will commend them for being responsible while the other half sneers at their selfishness.

In reality, neither choice is obviously good or obviously bad. They both put lives at risk, some more severely than others. They both put your sanity and emotional stability at risk, as well as that of others. They both have their pros and cons, as it were. So, knowing that there is no magical third option where you can choose both or neither, how do you choose?

You weigh them on all three scales, some holding more water than the other two, depending on you, your personality, your lifestyle, who you see yourself as, who you want others see you as, and so forth. But if you were honest with yourself, you would have to admit that your choice would probably depend on one major factor:

Which one can you live with?

Just as they do every living person, these dilemmas are what drive characters in their decision-making. Sometimes they get lucky and are presented with obviously good and bad options, but that is so rarely the case, as well it should be. Life is not filled with cut and dry options. The crossroads in life are often foggy and cold, and after trudging for what feels like forever through the muck and catastrophe of the long road your weary eyes have to squint to see the dark brambles and haunting shadows that each subsequent path leads to. None of the roads available are easy but in order to keep moving you must choose one.

Heroes are often misunderstood because of this. Tried and true ones like Captain America are often criticized for being goodie-goodie Boy Scouts who always choose to do the moral thing even if it’s illogical. IronmanMorally bankrupt heroes like Ironman are often misunderstood for being selfish risk takers who always use logic to justify their immorality. They’re heroes, that’s who they are and that’s all the motivation they need. But that’s not the crux of it, is it? I mean, just saying that you’re you, you are who you are and that’s all the motivation you need to do anything isn’t really true, is it?

We could say they’re heroes, saving people is what they do so they should try to save everyone. Or we could say they’re heroes, but even they can’t save everyone so they should try to save as many people as possible. Or as many of the really good people as possible. Or as many of the really influential and smart people as possible. Or as many of the world shakers as possible, you know, those who will really do more for the world as a whole. But what are we really saying here? We’re giving them options to choose from.

So let me put it this way: Captain America.Ironman is the man who will choose restrictions of liberty for the greater good of the mass population because that is the option he can live with the most. Captain America is the man who would die attempting to save everyone and his or her right to live because he cannot live with choosing every other option provided.

So, here’s another scenario for you:

You are standing in a locked, windowless room with four other individuals: a revolutionary activist who inspires thousands into attempting peace through the use of fear, a corrupt priest who uses his influence and power to provide shelter to orphans and the homeless, a biologist who has discovered a cure for cancer that can also be used as a biological weapon, and a child who at some point in their future will go on to either solve world hunger and save billions of lives or inspire mass genocide and cause the death of billions. In your dominant hand is a pistol with only one bullet. You are aware of all of this. In the ceiling there is a camera with an automated rifle pointing right at your face and a speaker that says you must shoot someone or everyone will die including yourself. Which do you choose?

Gun in handWhen faced with equally terrible choices that can affect more than just yourself, what do you choose?

What can you live with?

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Speak Even When Your Voice Is Stolen

I wrote a poem a little while ago that went something like this:

 

I could talk…

But my tongue is too slow for my brain.

I could yell…

But my voice is too weak for my passion.

I could cry…

And I do. But tears are silent.

My gasping whimpers are not, but they are not words.

They do not speak, just as my tears do not tell my story.

I am tired of a slow tongue and a weak voice.

Tired of silent tears that stain my favorite shirt.

My truths, my lies…

How will you know them?

How will you hear them over a stumbling tongue and a rasping voice?

Listen…

Is that the scratch of pen on paper?

Is that the rhythm of the voice-less?

The symphony of the silent?

Their words are bold and strong…

Touchable, as the meaning the convey.

Can you hear my words?

 

I don’t claim to be a poet, and you will never find the words “good poetry” and “Jackie Schickling” on the same page, let alone in the same sentence, but sometimes it’s not about how you get the words out, only that they are finally out.

I wrote that poem from a place of powerlessness. As the youngest in my immediate and extended family growing up what I had to say was often disregarded. It didn’t help that I was a very opinionated, strange kid back then, either. Growing up in my household from an infant to a young adult I learned very early that if you wanted a chance to be heard you had to be the loudest one in the room, otherwise whatever you had to say wasn’t important enough to hear. You had to belt your words like you were trying to reach the passengers in the planes passing overhead, and the only way to make sure you could prove that you were the loudest was to yell at the same time that everyone else was yelling, otherwise how would you be able to judge everyone’s volume? I learned very young that my little lungs could not outdo anyone older than me in my household—which was everyone. I could not scream louder at them than they could scream at me. So, I must not have had to say anything worth hearing.

Now, as an adult that has spent many years in a completely new environment of my own design, I know that logic is deeply flawed. The volume of my voice has no bearing on the importance of what I want to say, just as the importance of what I want to say should have no bearing on my volume. Old habits die hard, though, and there have been many times over the years after my rehabilitation that I find myself reverting back to a screaming mess. Particularly, I’ve found, when I’m in the presence of another screamer.

The strange thing, though, is that I never felt bad for yelling. I could sometimes be rude in getting my point across, but the weird thing is, looking back I didn’t feel sorry for my abrasive methods of communicating. What I did feel sorry about was that I said anything at all. I felt like having something to say made me rude, more so than how I was saying it. I’ve pondered why that is for some time and I think I have some ideas as to where that illogical repentance comes from, but what I think really matters is not being afraid to speak.

I’ve talked about personal censoring before, but this something else. This isn’t fear that you’ll be judged for what you say or do, this is the twisted belief that what you have to say does not matter. As a child, I was the youngest, which meant I wasn’t as smart as everyone else, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have a point of view. True, my point of view wasn’t always as mature, being a child and teenager, but that did that mean my words were any less important? Why can’t a child be correct, occasionally? I’m sure it’s happened once or twice in human history, where a youngling was correct when a grown adult was not. In reality, I know now that it didn’t matter if I was correct or if I was making things up; the amount of attention my words would have received would be the same: very little if any.

Child me did not believe that what I said mattered in the big scheme of things, and it lead me to a lot of downward hills in my teenage years. The one positive that came out of all of that suppression was my writing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all the fiction I frantically wrote as a teenager, the three big novels and lots of little shorts that I created from my youth, they were my way of being heard. They were all about protagonists who would lose something dear to them and be forced to overcome absurd obstacles in order to regain some semblance of what they were missing. Sort of how a young Jackie would lose the power in her voice and be forced to absurdly subconsciously speak through the traumatic experiences of fictional characters in order to feel like someone was listening.

Now I know that kind of thinking is a load of poop, but it has taken me years to clear myself of that deprecating mindset. And while I am still opinionated, as well as strange I have been working on more tranquil methods of communication and usually I do well. The exception being those moments when I’m in the presence of a screamer, of course.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t blame anyone for my old mindset. No one purposefully set out to make me feel like my voice wasn’t worth listening to, abusing me to succeed with some nefarious plot; it was simply the result of thoughtless actions that anyone and everyone is capable of.

I am grateful that I had writing as my outlet back then, and I’m grateful that I know how important my voice is, now. It did teach me something very important though: Everyone has a story, we all have a point of view whether it is shared with another or not. But I strongly encourage you to share it.

Even if you feel like no one will listen, even if you’re sure it will fall on deaf ears and get wafted away on the next breeze, say what you have to say. You don’t have to scream to be heard, because the right people, the ones who matter won’t feel the need to compete for volume. Sometimes those people are not the ones we wish they are, and sometimes those people need to learn their own ways to stop screaming and start speaking, but I think you’ll find, as I did, that the people who choose to listen, even when your voice is soft as a whisper, they are the ones who matter.

And if you don’t have someone like that yet, someone who will listen to your words with respect and awe, please don’t give up and stop communicating altogether or no one at all will hear what you have to say, and that would be a shame. For all you know, that person who really wants to hear you speak is holding their ear to the walls, hoping to hear your voice, straining for just a peep from someone with something to say.

Silence is golden, but it has never been answered with the sentence: “Yeah, I hear what you’re saying.” Don’t be silent. Use your words, even if the only way you can is through the silent symphony of writing. That’s still my preferred method.

So, say what you have to say! Speak it out loud, or write it down. You can even go ahead and say it here, if you like, I’m always happy to listen and hear a new point of view. They’re all relevant, you know!

On Finding Out That People Give A D@mn About Sh*t

cursingWhen I put my short story up for sale I immediately warned my entire family that it contained a lot of foul language. I did not mean that it had one or two cuss words, I meant exactly what I said: A LOT of foul language. My characters in that story had the dirtiest sailors’ mouths—F-bombs everywhere!—and I wanted to make sure my family, especially my ninety-year old Grammy, were aware of that before they read it. I thought for sure that all those curse words would make them loose all respect for me. That they were going to be disappointed in me and kick me to the curb, because as the baby of the family (the late-twenties aged baby of the family) I was shaming their name by allowing my characters to spew the ugliest four-letter-words with abandon.

Out of the handful of friends and family who read my short that first day, only one person had been dismayed by the characters’ language. They gave me the constructive criticism, “You shouldn’t need to rely on cursing to get your point across. There are more intelligent ways.” It’s a valid thing to say, I admit. But, and maybe I’m being a little unfair, I tend to hold that argument on the same dusty shelf as the classic reprimand, “If you are constantly resorting to curse words in your speech then your vocabulary must be lacking.”

When they said this to me at first, my initial reaction was embarrassment.  Feeling like I needed to defend myself, I said, “Well, sure, they curse a lot, but not all of my characters do,” and assured them that not everything I wrote would be riddled with a ‘lacking’ vocabulary. It was just shy of saying, “I’m sorry,” and the realization made me pause. I thought about it for a while and I wondered why I was apologizing. Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of truly constructive criticism for my work, some harder to hear than others, but as I’ve done my best to absorb it all in, as a storyteller I’ve grown in skill immensely. Yet, whenever someone has pointed out errors or necessary improvements, I try to take them with grace but I have never felt the knee-jerk reaction to apologize for them the way I did about cursing.

It made me wonder why that is. Why did I react so differently upon hearing that particular criticism? Why does the comment that my characters were too foul-mouthed drive me to atone for them, rather than find a way to solve the problem?

Then it hit me: I didn’t immediately hunt for a solution because it wasn’t actually a problem. It wasn’t an obvious grammar error, a gaping plot hole, or awful prose, or anything like that. It was simply word choice.

As for why it made me feel apologetic, that was even easier to figure out: failed censoring. By censorship, I don’t mean the asinine practice of societal censorship as a whole (that’s a long conversation for another day); I mean the innate censors we put on our actions, words, and appearances everyday to protect ourselves and those closest to us.

Censorship

Maybe you avoid talking about certain topics, despite your interest in them, because you know they upset your relatives. Maybe you get quiet when your friends put down a particular song or music style that you secretly like because you don’t want to offend them or lose their respect in your opinions.

You hide the things you know they’ll hate and don’t force the things you like on others because it could hurt their thoughts of you. You have learned to enjoy those touchy topics for yourself and only discuss them in particular company. You censor what you do, what you say for the comfort of others and you make yourself be content with that.

It’s when we slip up that we face those negative visceral reactions.  When you allude to the pros and cons of the modern political agenda and accidentally rile up your extremely conservative uncle at dinner.  When your friends catch you singing along to that really catchy pop song that you like, but they find so cliché.  When you write the f-word about fifteen times in a 4,000 word short and put it out into the world for your family to read.

What do you do? You get embarrassed. You’ve been caught with your figurative pants down, or you took a careless risk that backfired. Now, they’ve seen something that you’ve always kept hidden and they’re confused or, even worse, disappointed.

For shame. Shame. Shame. *ding, ding*

But, they don’t have to be. If you apologize and show them that you didn’t mean it, their opinion of you won’t diminish, because they’ll know that that you—the one that likes political debate, bopper music, or writing gritty dialogue—that’s not the real you, right? Right?

So, when my relative confronted me about the exorbitant amount of cursing in my short story and told me that I should be smart enough to rely on more intelligent ways of expressing myself, of course I felt that first flash of embarrassment. I had created these characters, written their manner of speech, which meant they were a direct reflection on me. They were potty-mouthed barbarians and so I, too, was a potty-mouthed barbarian! With a poor vocabulary to boot!

Like my fictional characters I, too, must be lacking in resourceful terminology, relying on an antagonistically volatile lexicon employed primarily by the mentally deficient, or to carry out the juvenile objective of constituting instantaneous stupefaction while in the midst of an acrimonious debate with a colleague!

Or… maybe those two characters just tend to curse.   And maybe that’s okay.

When I went in search of reviews of my short, something funny happened. With the exception of that one person, everyone who read it messaged me and said, “Geez, when you gave that warning I thought there would be a whole lot more cursing!” When Grammy told me she didn’t know what I was worried about, that the characters’ language wasn’t nearly as appalling as I’d let her to believe, I was the shocked one. I told her that while editing the first draft of “Hunting the Howl” I ended up cutting the amount of curse words in half, thinking that even that amount was probably too much. She laughed it off and said, “I think you’d need a bit more to shock me, anyway!”

That almost sounded like a challenge… But I digress.

I don’t create delicate ladies or chivalrous gentleman characters. I don’t write about plucky circumstances with conflicts that could be resolved through the power of love and dark chocolate. The worlds I create are dark and menacing. My characters are hardened survivors that I shamelessly send into the pits of hell and drag them through brimstone and bonfires in order to earn their (often temporary) happily-ever-after. Sometimes they speak intelligently. Sometimes they speak in obscenities. Sometimes they speak in other languages entirely! The important thing, I realized, was that they speak as they themselves would, and not as would a watered-down version of them that won’t offend.

I stopped feeling embarrassed by the fact that my family now knows that my writing style is not as upbeat as they wanted it to be. Not all of my characters curse, but Creed and Enid certainly tend to, and that’s not going to change unless their personalities do first. It is in their nature to cuss whenever they feel like, and if that is a reflection on me, well then so be it.

I’ve never been one to believe that cursing is a sign of poor vocabulary.  After all, I have a tendency to cuss with the worst of them and I’m secure enough in my abilities that I don’t need anyone to affirm the quality of mine.

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Does anyone else out there find you censor your writing or your work for others? Do you ever apologize to those closest to you when they encounter something that conflicts with their idea of what you should be doing?

Workspace: Not Ideal, But It Works

For the past week, I keep hearing this voice in my head. It’s been whispering three terrifying words over and over again:

“You’re falling behind…” echo… echo… echo…

Blerg.

Yes, I have fallen behind. I still plan to finish the initial draft of the first Creed and Enid novel by the end of August, but it may require some extra work in order to deliver on time. That means I need to rebuild my creative brain, so, I’ve been coming to a new workspace: the library.

I’ve spoken about the importance of a good workspace before, but this past week really hit me with how little I was taking my own advice. At home I expected to have privacy and a respected work desk. Well, I never really had the privacy I was hoping for, and I lost my work desk to my husband. To bounce back from that, I tried to make due with a little lap desk on the bed and that worked for a little while, but I still had no privacy. So, after a month of realizing I wasn’t going to get anywhere with this set up, I decided to make a change.

This afternoon, I am here at the library, creating away. It is not at all my ideal workspace, but it does the job and that’s what matters. Where you work is extremely important in general, and that goes double for a writer.

This is a classic example of the distracter beast: genus species, Angus Catticus.
This is a classic example of the distracter beast: genus species, Angus Catticus.

Being creative is a lot like working out. Your mind is a muscle, after all. The more you practice it, the easier it is to practice. You need to keep at it consistently, even on weekends and vacations, or you’ll atrophy, and when you return to it after the break you’ll find it harder to pick back up at the same level. Finally, while you can be casually practicing anywhere, if you really want to master it, you need to find a good place with all the tools you need, and where you feel comfortable enough to really let loose.

Your workspace should be like going to the gym. It should have everything you need as far as tools or help on hand, and it should have a distinct lack of distracters.  At the library, I’m surrounded by books for inspiration and nearly any reference I might need. The WiFi is free, but I can choose to turn that off if it’s detracting too much from my task. The people here are, usually, also working on their computers or studying, so there’s a good chance no one will be coming around to bother me or take up a lot of my time.

What I consider the Golden Rule for creative workspace can be said in one word: comfort. You should feel safe and comfortable no matter what in your space. I’d even go so far as to say you should feel like an untouchable monarch, and that desk, corner, or nook is your kingdom. Being creative can be a very personal thing and you need to be able to feel comfortable when you are opening yourself to that kind of exposure. No one wants to be laughed at when they run on the treadmill, just like no one wants to be laughed at for creating something unusual.

This table is my kingdom.
This table is my kingdom.

To be honest, this whole experience has made me curious whether or not my struggle is normal. So, creatures of the internet, tell me: What is your ideal workspace? How does it compare to the workspace that you’re currently using? And, if you could, how would you improve your creative workspace?

 

Home.

Debut Short Story!

Hello world!

My name is Jackie and I am an excited bundle of excitement!  After months of hard work and years of doubting myself, I’ve finally mustered up the nerve to go for my dream!  I’ve just published my debut short story “Hunting the Howl: A Creed And Enid Short”, which is now available through Smashwords.com and Amazon.

HuntingTheHowl_Schickling

“Sixteen people have mysteriously gone missing in the deep Pennsylvania woods. The locals believe them to be victims of wild animals, but there are those unfortunate few who have looked into the shadows and know better.

Crass monster hunter Enid Tolbert and her unusual partner, sometimes boyfriend, Creed Marsden are among those few. Sent out to the icy woods, their mission is to stalk a screeching nightmare created through cannibalistic artifice, and the only way to slay it is a burning shot to the heart. Those who hear its howl suffer agony, and the closer they get to their mark, the worse the danger. If Enid can’t get close enough to shoot it, they’ll end up as the monster’s next meal.”

It is for sale at $0.99US.  If you’d like to purchase a copy on Smashwords, click here.  For Amazon Kindle, click here.  A version will be made available through B&N shortly.