Writer’s Blech

That was some break, huh? I mean, I’ve taken a few vacations in my time—a couple from this blog; many more from reality—but 370+ days is pretty ridiculous.

I feel compelled to offer an explanation, although I suspect I am alone in believing one is absolutely necessary. But since you’re here and apparently have some time and/or braincells to kill, please allow me to take a stab at it.

As difficult as it will be, I shall resist the impulse to make up a bunch of crap to make myself seem glamourous, worldly, or socially conscious—like my high school classmate and former best friend Lisa used to do every fall when we went back to school after summer vacation, and everyone wanted to know what everyone else had been up to for the past three months. I had no problem telling people I’d been reading, babysitting, swimming, visiting my grandparents, and fighting with my brothers, but she was not content to admit she had been involved in anything so pedestrian.

I haven’t spoken to her since 1986 (when she gushed about having been accepted into a sorority and asked me how many kids I had as if expecting me to say nine or ten with number eleven on the way) but if I were to call her up now, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear her say she’d spent the past year perfecting her Meridional French while quarantining with Sting and Trudie and a few of their friends in Turks and Caicos (Perhaps you’ve heard of it?) or sequestered in some lush and remote location writing the screenplay for a documentary she hopes to make with (insert obscure indy filmmaker name here.) 

To be honest, at this point I’d give almost anything to be able to say I’d spent the past 12 months reading, babysitting, visiting my grandparents, and fighting with my brothers—or even listening to Lisa brag, lie, name drop, or pretend to be an independent filmmaker. Especially since that would mean I had not spent the year avoiding almost everyone—including my children—while washing my groceries and lurching back and forth from wanting to write something that would make people laugh and realizing there wasn’t much about 2020 that didn’t make me want to cry.

Even the election, which appeared to go my way this time around, could not budge my writer’s block. Because the results were not in for what seemed like decades after the polls closed. And when the votes were finally counted, I couldn’t even celebrate or joke about that because first, I am not one to gloat and second, I very much believe in Murphy’s law and I wasn’t going to do one damn thing that might jinx the final electoral college tally. And then came recounts, the legal challenges, that psycho Sydney Powell, as well as Lin ‘I’ve Completely Lost the Plot’ Wood, and the insurrection and—oh never mind. You know what happened. You were there.

In March of 2020, when the Jarhead and I went into lockdown, I was on the verge of writing about our latest renovation project and excited to make fun, as usual, of all the trials and tribulations associated therewith. We had a whole new team of contractors; an entirely different type of house upon which to test our skills and the strength of our marriage; and a completely new set of issues we had never run across before. In short, it should have made for comedy gold.

But instead, the mine went bust. Somehow joking about unreliable contractors, bail-jumping contractors, nonexistent footings and egregious electrical code violations didn’t seem all that amusing. Especially when Covid-19 was literally killing someone every 33 seconds or so. 

Add to that mix the fact that so many people didn’t seem to give a good goddamn. Instead, they were mocking, complaining about or flat-out ignoring mask mandates and attacking anyone who tried to follow or enforce them. Some even called them violations of their civil rights and likened them to being forced to wear the Star of David or a number on their wrist. Wow. What a bunch of drama queens.

As if they were being singled out and mistreated instead of simply being asked to protect the more vulnerable members of their communities. As if wearing a mask is some giant burden. As if surgeons have been wearing them for fun all these years and not for the safety of their patients. As if they don’t wear them for hours at a time during complicated operations without suffocating, all without whining or crying about it. I know. Let’s not confuse the issue with facts.

While we’re on that topic, here are a few points for folks to ponder: If mask mandates violate your constitutional rights, does it not follow that the DNR rules that require the wearing of blaze orange during deer hunting season do the same? And does it not follow that the city ordinances requiring you to cover your junk in public are, by that same logic, unconstitutional?

Seems to me, your righteous indignation is a bit inconsistent and your sudden interest in our beloved constitution a tad convenient. After all, seeing your junk might make me sick, but it probably won’t kill me. Which makes me wonder: if you don’t like laws requiring you to cover your face, how are you remotely okay with laws requiring you to cover your ass?

Perhaps, in addition to flouting the mask mandates, you should also be flouting these other forms of governmental overreach? Perhaps you fellas should skip the pants and underwear next time you head to Lowe’s and march proudly into the store to pick up your wood—I mean, lumber. And maybe you gals should just go topless to the office or the gym. And if someone challenges your right to do so, you can just look them in the eyes (ahem, they’re up here) and give them a quick lesson on constitutional law. What’s the matter? Are you shy?

Perhaps that’s taking things a bit too far. So how about instead you get up a group of people to protest the laws requiring you to wear blaze orange while deer hunting. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Just convince your peeps to grab their guns, throw on some camouflage and some doe urine and say, “Screw that shit, man. I’m an American, and ain’t nobody forcing ME to wear orange.”

Now THAT is a protest I can get behind. I will not only support your cause; I’ll go to your rallies and help you spread the word on social media. I will even drive you to your favorite hunting spot and offer you a hearty ‘good luck!’

Okay. I probably won’t say good luck. But I will say this: If plane crashes were killing as many Americans a week as this virus has, these people would be singing a whole different tune. If their own kids or other loved ones were dying from Covid-19 as fast as all those anonymous sick and old people they’ve never met; if they had to work in hazmat suits caring for patients as they lay dying alone, they would not only wear the damn masks but also urge everyone and their brother to stay TF at home. But they aren’t living that reality, so they have the luxury of not giving a damn.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The people who refuse to cover their faces may dress it up to be a constitutional issue but that’s only because they could never say with a straight face that it’s a hardship or a sacrifice. At best, it’s an inconvenience or a nuisance. And don’t let them kid you either. They may say they oppose government overreach but what they’re fighting for is the right to endanger the lives of as many of their fellow citizens as they like. They can tell themselves it’s bigger than that, but they’re full of crap. Because you don’t see them strapping on their assault rifles and marching to the nearest state capitol to protest laws requiring them to wear seatbelts, drive a certain speed, or carry car insurance.

Just like the parents who demanded that teachers and other educators ‘do their effing jobs’ and work in classrooms without the protection of a vaccine but who couldn’t do that ‘effing job’ if their own lives depended on it (as many of them proved with aplomb) their interest lies not in protecting the teachers who typically have to manage 20 to 30 children per hour for 7 hours a day, but in not having to manage their own 2.4 children 24 hours a day. I’m not even going to address the stunning lack of empathy it takes to accuse teachers of not wanting to do their jobs when in fact what they want is simply to not get exposed to a deadly virus and die.

And let us not forget the state and local officials and school board members who insisted that it was okay for teachers and support staff to be up to their elbows in germy kids all day even though they themselves won’t meet in person because they’re not willing to sit in the same room with other adults. Ah, how I love the smell of a double standard in the morning.

The worst part is, if we had done what needed doing for as long as we needed to do it, we would not have nearly half a million dead in the US alone. And we might have been out of the woods already. 

But alas, for some that was too much work. Or maybe it wasn’t as satisfying as belittling the staff at the grocery store when they offer you a mask because you ‘forgot’ yours, or as entertaining as the news reports about hospitals running out of capacity. Or maybe it just wasn’t as much fun as dressing up like Rambo and brandishing weapons that you only fire at helpless deer, glass bottles, paper targets or clay pigeons.

I know. That was a low blow. How could I possibly know for sure that all those deer, bottles, targets and clay pigeons are helpless? I actually I have it on good authority from Eddie Izzard that clay pigeons are in fact fuckers.

Which perfectly illustrates my point: Apart from making fun of these people and devising creative ways to punish their ignorance and/or selfishness, there has not been one ounce of laughter or pleasure to be gleaned from the situation that isn’t, somehow, also painful AF.

And yet it seemed every other writer and humorist on the planet was able to carry on. SNL was still making episodes—albeit from their own homes and in their own clothes. And the late night talk show hosts were all still cracking jokes. They just weren’t doing it in front of a live audience for a while. But they still did it.

So what was my excuse? I had never had a live audience. Or a team of writers. It had always been me and my computer. In my own home and in my own clothes. Or more accurately, pajamas.

Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I need to change things up a bit. Maybe tomorrow I’ll dig out some of the Jarhead’s cammies and storm around the house ranting to my cat about the Bill of Rights and see if I can make her laugh.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Exclamation Points

Try our new filtered water bottle refill system!!!

So read the electronic message board in front of a local grocery store that I drove by recently.

Not to be negative, but I couldn’t help wondering how anyone gets that excited about water. Filtered or otherwise, it’s just not that exciting. At least not exciting enough to warrant three exclamation points.

Maybe it would be different if the store were located in, say, Flint, Michigan or some other place where filtered water has become a necessity and where a bottle refill system would make it easier for people to meet their daily need for potable H2O over the long term. In that situation, the message would serve the public good by letting folks know that another option exists for refilling their bottles with filtered water.

But even that fails to justify the use of three exclamation points.

In fact, if you live in a place where the tap water is not safe to drink and you must rely on filtered and/or bottled water, an electronic sign in front of your local grocery store bearing the words Try our new filtered water bottle refill system!!! may not be a welcome sight. It would be perceived, I imagine, as more of a cruel taunt rather than a helpful suggestion. Because context matters, and multiple exclamation points suggest a level of enthusiasm that people might not appreciate when they have been forced to drink, cook, and bathe with bottled water for months on end. And so the use of three exclamation points even in that situation might be considered inappropriate and perhaps more than a little insensitive.

To be honest, even two exclamation points would be excessive in this case and in almost any other. In fact, unless the store has been inundated with requests from legions of people calling for a filtered water bottle refill system, and the management is themselves THRILLED beyond reason to finally have the means to meet this demand, there really is no excuse for using more than one exclamation point.

Now some folks might say that even one exclamation point is excessive given the content of the message, and that a period would have been sufficient. On this point let me be clear: These people are insane. As any marketing major knows—and I’m sure Elaine from Seinfeld would agree—any message that is important enough to appear on an electronic sign outside of a store—even a grocery store—is important enough to be accompanied by an exclamation point. Period.

Just kidding. I’m nowhere near finished…

In truth, I’m not sure the message about the filtered water bottle refill system is exciting enough to warrant a mention on electronic signage. Seems to me that the store could have found something more worthy of mention on that sign. Doughnuts, for example. A sale on rotisserie chicken, perhaps. Or even, a message welcoming a new employee or castigating someone for writing bad checks. Something other than an announcement about a filtered water bottle refill system. Please.

It would be different if the message had the word “FREE” in there somewhere. Free filtered water is definitely worthy of three exclamation points. Then again, free ANYTHING is worthy of three exclamation points. And it would definitely entice more people to enter the store than a filtered water bottle refill system, regardless of how many exclamation points you slap on the end!!!

Despite the foregoing, I can understand the temptation to overuse punctuation. I myself once became so enamored with the quotation mark that I lost control of my senses, and used it with such abandon in one assignment in school that literally every other word appeared in quotes. Of course, I was in first grade and didn’t understand the purpose of a “quotation mark” as Mrs. Roehl was kind enough to “point” out. I just thought they looked “nice” around all the great “words” I was including in my “story.”

Apparently not a lot has changed since then.





Truth and Confer-ences

Let me first apologize for the title of this post. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a bad pun. That’s the first truth in this story. The second truth is that I LOVE a bad pun. The badder the better, as far as I’m concerned.

But the real star of this post is neither the pun nor the truth, but the confer-ences. Specifically writers’ confer-ences.

If you’re not a writer yourself, you may experience an irrepressible urge to flee or fall asleep at the mention of the such an event. Even some of us who ARE writers may bristle at the idea. For although most writers enjoy writing, not all of us enjoy talking about writing.

Now when I say I may not enjoy talking about writing, I don’t mean talking about what I write. In truth–there it is again–that’s the easy part for me. The characters in my books and short stories–not only those I’ve published but also those still fluttering around in my head–are all so real to me, that I can carry on about them for hours and hours provided I have the time, space, and access to a willing audience. And sometimes even the willing isn’t a requirement.

So what gives me trouble is not talking about WHAT I write, but talking about the HOW. I know it’s sometimes necessary to talk about things like character development and plot pacing; but for me, talking about the elements of a story is like talking about the ingredients of a gourmet meal or a decadent dessert: I know they’re important, but I’d rather talk about the dish or the dessert itself–what it tastes like or what kind of wine to pair with it–rather than the taste, smell, color or consistency of all the stuff that went into it.

It’s not that I don’t care about the elements of a good story. Combine the wrong ingredients–to use the cooking metaphor, again–and you may not get what you set out to make. To paraphrase Rita Rudner, you can mix flour and water to make glue, but if you add sugar and eggs (and baking soda) you’ll get cake.

So the components ARE important when it comes to food–and the same is true for a story–be it a novel or a bit of flash fiction. If you don’t have the right elements, you may not get the product you’re aiming for. But for me, I’d rather talk about the story itself–the characters, what they do, and where, when, how and why.

Which is why this weekend you will find me at the Lakefly Writers Conference at the Waterfront Hotel and Convention Center in Oshkosh. I won’t be presenting on any of the elements of writing. Nor will I be attending any of the workshops discussing any of the elements of writing.

Instead you’ll find me at a table at the Author’s Showcase. I’ll be there, behind a stack of my books and bookmarks, talking about my stories–but not necessarily how I wrote them or why.

It’s About Time

After more than twenty years, my first book is finally going to print. Yes, after many false starts, a few forced stops, and several revisions, Thinner Skin will finally see the light of day as a complete work by yours truly.

That paragraph may be confusing to those who have purchased and/or read Unmatched, so I will explain:  Although Unmatched was released first, it was actually written eighteen years after Thinner Skin for the purpose of entering it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition in 2012.

I had planned to enter Thinner Skin in that same contest in 2011, but had to scrap that plan when I realized its word count exceeded the contest’s limit by a substantial amount. With only weeks to go before the contest—and having tried and failed to reduce the word count several times in the past decade—I decided I had a better chance of writing a new book before the contest deadline, than I did of trimming Thinner Skin by almost 20 percent.

Although I made a good show of it, I missed my deadline for the 2011 contest by a mile, which is how Unmatched came to be a 2012 entry instead. And although it made the first round of the competition, it failed to place in the second round, which is how it came to be released as an indie novel in October 2012.

Since then, I have spent my time promoting Unmatched, writing this blog, and revising Thinner Skin. Although it still exceeds the Breakthrough Novel Award competition word limit by a smidge, it is significantly lighter, funnier, and cleverer than at any point since its conception. Although I do not have a firm release date yet, I am confident it will be available sometime this month.

And so, without further ado—and in the interest of stoking your interest in reading the rest—I hereby present the prologue of Thinner Skin.

Bon Appetit!


Thinner Skin, by Billie Jean Diersen


I’ll never forget the night I met the only man I’ve ever killed. Despite my efforts to erase it from my mind, I remember it as clearly as I do the night my mom died, the day I got married, and the days both of my children were born.

That’s not to say I make a habit of committing to memory my every experience—much less the circumstances surrounding each new acquaintance. For example, I have no idea how or when I met my husband. Nor do I recall meeting any of my closest childhood friends. Although I can ballpark the geneses of these relationships, when I try to summon specific dates or memories of the occasions, I draw a total blank.

Maybe that’s how it is for anyone who’s moved around as much as I have. You come into contact with so many people over the years that you don’t stop to document the moment you become aware of their existence. Unless you keep a diary—or have OCD—you don’t bother; there just isn’t time.

So the kid who sits behind you in fifth grade gradually becomes Tony Zeigler and, later, the first boy you ever kiss, while the girl with the pink-rimmed glasses becomes your science partner and, over time, your best friend, Quinn. You don’t remember your initial meeting or when you first spoke. Unless there was something special or significant about the event, you only know that at some point they appeared on your radar and you somehow learned their names. You also learn that relationships are fluid, and you don’t expect them to last.

That’s how it should have been with Rob Copeland. And yet, although there was nothing at all significant about that Friday, I remember it as if it were yesterday, and in fine detail. I don’t recall the date, but I can name the location right down to the zip code. I also remember what he wore, what he was drinking, and nearly every second I spent with him until the moment he was no longer of this earth…


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The Princess Diaries

Contrary to what folks may have gathered from some of my previous posts, I do not spend all my time contemplating death and disaster. In fact, I spend almost as much time imagining the wonderful things that are unlikely to happen as I do the terrible ones.

Like when I was a teenager and would imagine myself the parent of five or six children, each lovelier and brighter than the last. Or after my kids were born, when I would picture myself running into an old flame or an ex-friend and realize that of the two of us, I had aged better. And like when, more recently, I envision myself being discovered by some hot editor who wants to offer me a hefty advance to reissue Unmatched, or being approached by Goldie Hawn with an offer to buy the movie rights.

Thanks either to nature or nurture, Princess Primrose, has also been blessed (or cursed, depending on the day) with a vivid imagination. Generally, she devotes hers to creating characters and drafting dialog, or sketching and inking artwork. Sometimes, however, she likes to speculate as to how awesome she would be were it not for the three to five minutes she went without oxygen thanks to the complications that occurred at the time of her birth.

Despite the oxygen deprivation, and the seizures and treatment that followed, the Princess appears to have suffered no permanent injury or disability and seems to have grown into an articulate, responsible, funny and artistic young woman. And while there are few among us for whom there is no room for improvement, whenever she speaks of the qualities she might have had or the abilities she might possess were it not for the brain damage she suffered, I literally shake my head because I can’t imagine any area of her life that would be different had she taken her first breath on her own rather than with the assistance of modern medicine.

Let’s start with academics, since it comes first alphabetically. Although the Princess has, without a doubt, a brilliant mind, she is a solid B student. And the fact that she is a B student rather than an A student has nothing to do with the condition of her gray matter. The simple fact is that she would rather read a graphic novel or the Sunday comics than a text book, journal article, or other required reading. Likewise she would rather write a 30 page piece of fan fiction than a 3 page essay on any topic—with the possible exception of video games and graphic novels. So she does the bare minimum it takes to keep me off her back and leaves herself free to pursue her primary passions. Thus, her academic performance is not the result of a lack of oxygen but to a dearth of interest and self-discipline.

The same goes for athletics. Although all her limbs and bodily systems are in working order, the Princess eschews sports and most all forms of physical activity—to include driving and walking. If she had her way, she would use a jet pack or teleporter not only to get to work and school, but to get from one part of the house to the other. She would also shower, shampoo, style her hair, and get dressed with the assistance of a robotic device. And this isn’t because the cells in the part of her brain that houses gross motor skills shriveled up and died twenty years ago. Rather, it’s because the part of her brain that houses imagination, emotion, and creativity has ballooned out of control and, in the words of Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory, is giving the rest of her brain a wedgie.

Let the record show that we did our best to raise a well-rounded, active individual. We set a good example by taking her and her brother walking, swimming, to the park, the pool, and the tennis courts; encouraged them to take part in school sports and community recreation whenever possible; and signed them up for any activity in which they expressed even the slightest interest—which, in her case included t-ball, soccer, ballet, tumbling, and karate.


But when the rubber hit the proverbial road, the Princess had her own ideas about what she needed to practice and how long she would do it. And she did not want to run drills, catch, kick, throw, or try to score. Nor did she want to stand around doing the same thing over and over again. She just wanted to skip about in tights and a tutu and do somersaults and cartwheels until she got dizzy; kick a soccer ball down an empty field unhindered by anyone from either her team or the opposing forces; and, in the case of t-ball, sit in the outfield collecting and comparing dandelions, daisies and dung beetles.

And so, apart from P.E. class, Princess Primrose has never played an entire game of soccer, t-ball, tennis, or volleyball, or performed a complete tumbling or dance routine. Although she did learn enough karate to earn her fourth belt, she gave that up when practice started cutting into her PSII and drawing time. And while she is capable of riding a bike, were it not for my willingness to tolerate a variety of insults and personal attacks aimed at getting me to give up and leave her to her own devices, she would still be doing so with the assistance of training wheels.

So it’s not a damaged brain that’s keeping Princess Primrose from making the honor roll or the dean’s list, or winning a scholarship to Harvard or Yale. Nor is it brain damage that has kept her from breaking speed or distance records, training for the Olympics, or being drafted into the WNBA.

Rather, it is her creative, dynamic, and obstinate personality that prefers drawing, reading, and writing over any other activity, and which—brain damage or not—I wouldn’t change for anything.

Excuses, excuses…

When I started this blog, I intended to post an entry at least every other week. Unfortunately, since my last entry on July 12th I haven’t written anything other than a grant proposal and, despite rumors to the contrary, even I can’t make that sort of thing amusing. At least not without jeopardizing the reputation or financial stability of the organization on whose behalf I am writing it.

This is new territory for me since never before have I used writing as an excuse for not writing. Ordinarily I cite yard work or household chores as the reasons for my lack of productivity in that realm. Now and again I’ll point to errands or family obligations to explain my absence from my desk, but for the last few weeks that situation has been reversed, with writing—and not the fun kind—being the reason there are no groceries in the house and the oil change for the Jarhead’s car is being put off for another week. Thank goodness the family reunion isn’t until mid-August or several people with whom I share DNA would no longer be speaking to me.

While you debate the pros and cons of that last sentence from your own perspective, I’ll add that although the type of writing I’m up to these days is a departure from the norm, it is not unusual for writing to get in the way of my other responsibilities. In fact, chores and errands have taken a back seat to writing so often that when we run out of food no one ever asks me why; they just suffer in silence. Mostly.

Let it not be said that I don’t WANT to keep the pantry stocked and the floors clean. It’s just that I’m a planner and sometimes I get so bogged down drafting my list of chores, errands, and the groceries we need that I never make it out the door. Or I race out of the house without my lists and waste so much time zig-zagging from department to department—or store to store—that I have to throw in the towel and go without something another day.

Clearly I’m not the only one who wrestles with priorities and comes out less than victorious. Compared to congress, for example, I’m doing A-OK. And don’t get me started on the people at the DOT.

On that note, it’s time to get back to my proposal. Because, although I may have bought myself some time with this post, I’d like to have something better to talk about in two weeks than why I haven’t been to the gym in a month.

I heart John Boy

(Originally posted Friday, April 5th, 2013)

I have a confession to make: I love John Boy Walton.

I don’t love him the way I do, say, the Jarhead or hot caramel sauce on chocolate ice cream—but it’s a pretty close race.

One reason I love John Walton, Jr. is that, like me, he was a writer. In fact, right after Erma Bombeck and my high school English teacher Lois Julsrud, Bill Bryson, Jane Austen, and three or four authors whose names I recall from either my freshmen English syllabus or a deck of children’s playing cards, John Boy is perhaps the biggest reason I became a writer.

Now some may infer from this that the reason I’m writing and not engaged in some other more lucrative line of work is that I was too busy watching The Waltons in my younger days to develop any useful skills. But I assure you that my choice of career has less to do with how much time I spent watching TV as a child than how much time I wanted to spend in my pajamas as an adult. Either way, John Boy deserves some of the credit—or blame, depending on your perspective—for the fact that you are reading this column instead of working, exercising, or reading the newspaper. And for that—to quote Daniel Tosh—I thank you.

As I write this, it occurs to me that in addition to influencing my job goals, my admiration for John Boy may have had something to do with how I wound up married to the Jarhead. Especially given their many similarities, the theory has merit. For example, like John Boy, the Jarhead grew up in the country, has a slew of brothers and sisters, served in the military, and—as evidenced by the fact that we’re still together after nearly three decades—has the patience of Job. Granted, the Jarhead grew up on Pig Tail Ridge instead of Walton’s Mountain, and lacks John Boy’s blue eyes, blonde hair, spectacles, and suspenders; but while they differ in terms of geography and their outward appearance, they are practically twins when it comes to temperament and intelligence.

Despite its many Emmy nominations, The Waltons was not without its critics. Some, for example, felt that the show was unrealistic; that its characters were impossibly virtuous people, especially given their circumstances; and that poverty in real life is rarely so sweet or lacking in dysfunction. That all may be true, but what kept me from buying the whole premise of the show is the ease with which John Boy wrote in his journal. The fact that we never saw the man using an eraser, scribbling anything out, angrily ripping a page out of his tablet and crumpling it up, or setting his entire body of work on fire induces me to wonder: Was he really that good of a writer, or just that generous of a critic?

Maybe I’m the outlier here, but I couldn’t write anything publishable—or legible for that matter—in long hand if my life or the future of the human race depended on it. (Those of you who would argue as to my ability to write anything publishable in ANY hand are invited to reread my previous posts—especially those on bullying.) In fact, the previous sentence alone took me three edits to get right, and there will likely be fragments left over from all the cutting and pasting I’ve done when I finish when I finally finish it.