Lessons Learned from Sue Grafton About Being a Sociopath

When I was in grade two, a woman who lived down the street insisted to my parents that I be put on suicide watch.

I was told as an adult that this neighbour was watching me walk home from elementary school every day and found it incredibly alarming that I wasn’t skipping or laughing. I picture her now as a plump cartoon character, peeking out of her blinds with binoculars, seeing my somber face and crying out in a voice oozing with self-righteousness, “My god, that child isn’t laughing! She’s obviously suicidal, and I must do something! ME to the rescue!” before dialling my parents’ number and consequently inflicting damage that would follow me for the rest of my life.

I have been emotionally cold for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my dad often called me Wednesday, the murderous little girl from The Addam’s Family. Back then, I was tickled that I was different. I liked my dad’s silly nickname for me until that neighbour butted into my life.

I didn’t know about the busy-body woman on our street. I didn’t even know what suicide was. All I knew was that suddenly every day when I got home from school, my parents were saying things like, “Why can’t you just smile? Everyone thinks you’re miserable,” and “It’s not that hard.” But it was hard. Governed by a rigidly analytical nature, it seemed illogical to be disingenuous and force a smile, and therefore, I couldn’t do it.

The frustrating thing was that I was actually my happiest when this lady was spying on me. I looked forward to my walk home because it let me drift into the world of the latest book I had read and make up my own stories. My love for daydreaming is why I became a writer. But I couldn’t do it anymore because I didn’t smile when I daydreamed. Because I was weird.

Wednesday, that name I had previously felt tickled by, morphed into a syringe, piercing deeply and sucking out my self-esteem. It asked, why can’t you just be like everyone else? Later in life, that question rephrased itself as romantic interests repeatedly described me as simply cold.

As I grew up, I’d see my likeness in the serial killers on Criminal Minds, in Patrick Bateman American Psycho, and it didn’t help that I love murder mysteries. I often have to check what I say about the stories I love, worried people are thinking the prospect of human death is what excites me, not of the thrill of solving a mystery. I worry that they think I’m just like Wednesday Addams in every way, not just in her severity. Eventually, I began to think of myself as a villain, inherently evil because I shared so many similarities with the ones I saw on TV.

That is until I came across a passage in W is for Wasted, the 23rd book in Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries series:

“Here’s how hard-hearted I am: I was irritated by Pearl’s wailing. It seemed pumped up, artificial, overdone. My response was to disconnect, as though I were pulling a plug out of a wall socket. I couldn’t react to the news of Felix’s death because her excess had shut me down. It was as though she’d pre-empted any honest feelings generated by his passing. At the same time, I wondered if Pearl was the normal one and I was too psychologically stunted to experience sorrow. This didn’t seem like the proper moment to sort out questions of such complexity, but the idea had occurred to me on previous occasions—this sense that I was somehow out of step with the rest of humankind.”

Like the narrator, Kinsey Millhone, I’ve spent my life thinking that it’s everyone else who is normal, and I’m the deformed freckle on the skin of society. It never mattered that I find joy in the other’s joy; I can’t show emotions, so there has always been an implication that I have none. I felt destined to only relate to characters like Patrick Bateman forever.

It wasn’t until I read W is for Wasted that I realized my resistance to showing emotion is something that isn’t singular to myself and the serial killers on Criminal Minds. Kinsey, the protagonist and narrator, isn’t the epitome of mental health, but she’s not a bad person; in fact, her whole career as a private investigator revolves around helping people. And she is emotionally cold just like me.

Sue Grafton, the creator of Kinsey Millhone, passed away on December 28 2017 before she could complete the Kinsey Millhone series. Her writing showed me that I’m not a monster. Hard-hearted, absolutely. But not evil. In my typical way, I don’t have the proper words to mourn her. But the feeling is there. It always has been. The world lost an excellent storyteller when she passed. RIP Sue Grafton.


Perseverance and Pickle Jars

On perseverance when battling pickle jars.

Something I’ve been confronted with since moving out on my own is that I’m not strong enough to open a jar of pickles. This is problematic as I’ve recently taken a liking to homemade pickle hummus.

The first time I bought pickles after moving out on my own and discovering my ineptitude,  I googled tricks to try to get the jar open. I tried running it under hot water then twisting again. Nothing.  I tried hitting the edge of the lid against the corner of the counter, but had to stop because I was worried I’d miss and shatter the jar. I really wanted hummus, but the lid wouldn’t budge. I kept twisting until my wrist was aching, but it just wouldn’t move.

All while doing this, I was remembering a woman I used to work with who was a single mother of two. She told me that they hadn’t had ketchup in months because she wasn’t able to open the bottle, and there was no one around to help her. That ketchup bottle represented what her life had become since leaving her husband: a task she couldn’t possibly complete because she didn’t have the resources, the strength. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.

I think of her every time I engage in battle with a pickle jar and wonder if that’s what my life is becoming, if the pickles represent all of the obstacles I can’t overcome: mental illness, getting out of retail, being terminally single etc.

Finally after all of my attempts, I tried the last option google suggested: I took a knife and stabbed the lid of the jar–which was easier than I expected. When I pulled the knife out, after the sound of scraping metal, I heard the sound of air moving. The pressure of the jar had changed, and this time when I twisted, the lid came off as if it had never put up a fight. I was the reigning champion of the pickle battle!

This has been my tactic ever since. After twisting until my wrist hurts, I get the knife out and feeling like a little bit of a failure because I can’t get it open the normal way and now I have to store the pickles with plastic wrap over the top,  I stab it. However, my feelings of failure are usually forgotten in the ecstasy of my delicious hummus.

Today when I played Lady Macbeth with the pickle jar, I didn’t hear the air moving after I stabbed the lid. There was no pressure change, and the lid was still stuck.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t run it under hot water because there was a hole in the top and water would dilute the juice which I needed for my recipe, and I still didn’t trust my aim enough to hit the lid against a corner. My wrist was already sore from crocheting the day before (of course it was a stereotypical feminine task that caused my injury) and it was the most I’ve ever felt like a weak woman. I was becoming the coworker who’d gone up against the ketchup bottle and lost. I had been defeated and the jar represented my fears: my independence was obviously a sham, my mental illness would win, I would die alone, and most importantly I’d probably never have homemade pickle hummus again. Devastating.

But you know what? I really wanted pickle hummus. So I did the only thing I could think of: I kept stabbing the lid. I carved through the metal and made a hole just big enough for me to poke the knife into and pull out a slice of pickle, and then another, and another, until I had enough for my hummus.

When I was done, I looked at that pickle jar with it’s fucked up lid and it still represented my life, but in a different way.

I’ve been though a lot in these last few years. More than once I haven’t been strong enough to get the lid off the jar. I am a mentally ill single woman. I dropped out of university when I had one semester left, and I might not go back and finish. I am stuck in retail and I live in a province I hate. But I’ve kept plugging along, creating little holes that I can reach into and pull happiness out of. I can’t get the pickles the way everyone else does, the way we’re all supposed to. It takes me a little bit longer, and it’s difficult to saw through metal with a kitchen knife. When I get my pickles, I have to check them for little bits of metal, but it doesn’t matter because. In the end, I still get the pickles. I persevere.

I persevere.

My hummus was delicious by the way.


A horror story.

I’m in purgatory.

Today I spent the first half of my shift working with a bunch of married men who are just five to ten years older than me who were referencing TV shows and websites that are just before my time. The shifts of the 30+ men ended midday when the college and university students started their shifts. I was doing a nine to five, working half of my time with both. The evening coworkers talked about turning eighteen, the memory of wounds still fresh from finishing high school, and being too afraid to get credit cards.

After work, I went to the creative writing club I’ve just joined. This time, I was the youngest person in the room. Instead of being thirty and up, the age group for the club is largely fifty and up. Despite it taking place in a college, no college students actually attend. I am one of the few members who doesn’t have white hair.  You would think that the shared purpose uniting us, writing, would enable me to connect with these people, but it doesn’t because I’m just so far out of their spheres of life experiences.

We were silently scribbling away, responding to writing prompts, when the music from the campus bar in the room next door started thumping. The college Halloween bash was in progress while I was sitting in a room with a bunch of people double my age. Half of me wished that I could join the party next door, but I knew that I would likely be the oldest person in that room. I wouldn’t belong there either.

I recently had to let a romantic interest go because despite ticking off many boxes that match my own situation, he’s at a point in his life where he wants to experiment with drugs. To use the terms I told him: drugs are a deal breaker. Why? Because I’m beyond the point in my life where I want a partner who’s doing activities like that. Even though I’m the right age in some respects, in the end I turned out to be just slightly wrong. Close, but no vape.

I feel like everywhere I go, I am either too young or too old, too accomplished or not enough, too mature or too immature. The void I’m stuck in seems to be enveloping this city like the vaporous fingers of mist. I keep bringing out my flashlight, thinking I’ve seen movement and found another survivor in the fog, but the shadows in the dark keep turning out to be trees or buildings. The truth is that I’m alone out here.


Above & Beyond

When I applied to a store belonging to a company that I’ve previously worked at for five years, I went in for the interview and before I’d even sat down, the manager asked, “Do you want to be a supervisor?”

“Yes!” I told her. I’d applied to be a cashier. The store I worked at before gave me all the responsibilities of a supervisor, but never gave me the title to avoid giving me the pay raise. Yeah. I gave five years of my life to those assholes.

Anyway, she told me my wage (quite a bit higher than minimum which is what I’d be making if I’d been hired as a cashier), and I left the interview high on life. I’d finally found a job after dropping out of school and considering that I was expecting minimum wage, I was stoked.

In fact, I was feeling so good that I texted my mom to let her know.

“That’s disappointing,” my mother responded upon hearing my wage and popping my bubble of excitement.

I promptly ignored her for the rest of the week. This in itself is huge accomplishment considering that for my whole life I’ve let her opinions change mine, making me think yeah, I guess that is disappointing about something I’d been excited about only moments before.

I’ve since been working steadily and you know what? I love it. Every aspect about this store is an improvement from my former store, and I’m happier than I ever was in the education program. I’m still living in a city that’s NOT Bumbleton, and now I’m supporting myself for the first time in my life. I’ve been thriving, having mostly good days at work and spending my evenings doing things I love (as opposed to marking and creating assignments and seriously considering setting myself on fire).

A couple of days ago, I went for coffee with a friend, and she asked how I was liking my job.

My response was weird.

Despite how I was really feeling, I said, “It’s okay.” But that’s not all I did. I avoided eye contact and put my head down when like a puppy being asked about the last time it got kicked.

What the hell, right? I’m doing so well, yet I was acting like I was being tortured eight hours a day, five days a week. Why did I do this?

I’ve realized that I lied about how I feel about my job because I felt that unless I pretended I was miserable, how dare I get satisfaction from working in retail? That is my parents’ perspective. It is not mine, not at all. Yet, I was letting their view point was make me feel inadequate.

They think of working in retail as a rung just above servitude, that the only people who work in it are “losers” like my relatives who are in and out of jail and stealing from charity. It’s just dawned on me right now even as I’m writing this how cruel saying that to me is. I’ve worked in retail for over a decade. My parents have been very vocal about their perspective the whole time. Yes, I worked in retail to get through school, but their perspective robbed me of the ability to feel pride or take joy in those 20 hours a week I spent working in a store. That’s ten years of my life that by their standards, I’ve been a loser. That should be the title of my memoir: Ten years of loserdom: a Kat story.

Their view about retail work was one of the hardest parts of dropping out. In my head was always exempt from loser status if I worked in retail and was in school at the same time. Even when I graduated with a bachelor’s degree on the president’s list and I couldn’t find work anywhere else because the economy was shit, I was a loser because I wasn’t in school. I’d just made a huge achievement, but I felt like I was a go-nowhere. A nothing. Destined to be miserable until some prince charming in the form of a career rescued me from the supposed dregs of society.

That’s why I’ve been attending post secondary school for seven years.

But not anymore.

Now I’m a drop out with a retail job. I am the epitome of loser in my parents’ and society’s eyes (even though I have a degree). Of course this job isn’t where I want to be five years from now, but…this is where I want to be right now. It took a lot for me to realize that.

I am going to stop hanging my head with shame every time someone asks what program I’m in and I have to say, “I’m not in school.” Because I’m not ashamed. I haven’t been in and out of jail, and I don’t steal from charities. I’m not my relatives.

This job pays my bills and leaves me with an extra bit that I can put away for traveling, and when the time comes, it will let me have the time off to travel. This job doesn’t come home with me at the end of the night, and because of that, I have time to write, crochet, play the ukulele etc. A career, especially teaching, wouldn’t allow for that. Best of all, I’m happy. This is especially considering that I’m trying to learn how to deal with emotions again after being on anti-depressants for the last four years.

I’ve been clinging to this Postsecret since I dropped out:


I feel like I’m finally in a place where I can be “above & beyond” happy too, no matter what I’m doing.

Also, this is just one more thing I am grateful for: this city actually has a creative writing club! If my life hadn’t lead me to this city, I wouldn’t be able to attend. Boom.

Writing Character Arcs: The Lie Your Character Believes

I feel like this is a good blog about character arcs, but I’ve also had two glasses of wine, so who really knows?

When a fellow blogger, robertcday, told me that he was a pantser, I assumed it meant that he was someone who yanked down people’s pants in public for fun. However, after some research, it turned out that a pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little (thewritepractice.com). The world is safe from having to see your undies if you run into a pantser (admittedly, I am feeling kind of upset about the hilarity I’m missing out on because of this).

If you’re a pantser, the kind of person who writes without planning, you probably think that you don’t have much need to think about character arcs and that this article won’t be useful to you. However, this article isn’t about writing: it’s about revision. Once you have the story written out, elements like character arcs are things that you need to consider if you’re looking to get published.

Revision is hard especially if you don’t have the disposable income to spend on a professional editor and your friends can’t seem to ever get around to reading your work (Hint, hint. Was that passive aggressive enough?), or can’t provide any critiques other than, “It’s good!” I’ve been working on revising a draft of my completed manuscript for over a year because of these struggles. My strategy has been to break down the revision process into important elements, and my current focus is the character arcs in my novel.

Character Arcs

Firstly, what the heck is a character arc? A character arc is the evolution of your character throughout the story. There are arguably three basic character arcs: the positive change arc, the negative change arc, and the flat arc.

The Positive Change Arc occurs when a character begins their journey with some sort of unfulfillment or denial; after going through a number of trials that challenge their beliefs, the character will ultimately end up changing positively.

The Negative Change Arc is essentially a backwards version of the positive change arc: the character will have degenerated and changed for the worse by the end of the story.

The Flat  Arc centers around a static character who doesn’t change throughout the story; they are already complete, and it’s often the character arcs of the minor characters that change because of them.

 The first two arcs involve The Lie Your Character Believes.

The Lie Your Character Believes

We all have things that we cling to even if we know that they’re not necessarily true.

The lie I’m currently believing is that there’s a chance I can not only meet a quality person online, but also like said quality person when in reality, the chances of me liking anyone I meet in an inorganic situation are astronomically small. 

We resist accepting that these things we believe are lies because quite often, the alternative is unappealing. In my Tinder example, if I accept that I won’t like someone I meet off of a dating site, that takes dating out of my control, and my depressed brain will likely think, “OH MY GOD, I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE.” See? Not appealing at all.

When it comes to writing, this resistance against the truth is good. Resistance creates conflict, and conflict creates interesting plot lines.

Helping Writers Become Authors provides and excellent list of lies characters from pop culture believe:

  • Might makes right. (Thor)
  • The only way to earn love is through servitude. (Jane Eyre)
  • Kids aren’t worth taking care of. (Jurassic Park)
  • The people you love will always lie to you. (Secondhand Lions)
  • Your only worth is in being the favorite. (Toy Story)

Only a few things can happen over the course of a story when characters believe lies. They will:

A. recognize the lie they believe which will make them into better characters than they were at the beginning of the story (positive character arc).

Or on the flip side of the coin:

B. the characters will still change, but for the worse (negative character arc). They will either never recognize the lie and continue down a path of delusion, or even worse, recognize the lie only after it’s too late (see: Othello).

Accounting for The Lie Your Character Believes is a great way to develop any character because no matter how your character responds to the lie, the character won’t be static, and will change over the course of the story. A character that has believable change over the course of a story is a well-written one.

The best part of this character element, is that it doesn’t just apply to the protagonist of your story, but to the secondary characters as well.

Let’s look at the villagers in The Beauty and the Beast. The lie they believe can best be summarized in this line from the mob song:

We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact, it scares us.

That is their lie. If they don’t understand something, they must fear or dislike it. They exhibit this all throughout bith the the cartoon and the live action movie. They don’t understand Belle because of her passion for reading, and therefore label her as “odd.” This lie reaches its climax when the villagers are incensed to violence because of their misunderstanding of the beast and storm his castle with the intent to slaughter him.

After the curse is broken, the villagers learn that their lie, fearing what they don’t understand, is wrong because it lead them to fear their forgotten loved ones. If they hadn’t learned to stop fearing what they don’t understand, they likely would have been very frightened to see clocks and candlesticks transform into men, but they didn’t because they have a positive character arcs.

The villagers are just background characters to the plot, but even they have a lie that they believe. When they respond to their lie (ie alienating Belle, nearly murdering the Beast, and recognizing their fault by accepting their enchanted loved ones), it makes them believable characters. They’ve grown. This makes for quality writing (not saying that Beauty and the Beast is the epitome of English literature, but you get the idea). Character’s believing lies exists in essentially every well-written work.


To Do

When revising your work, analyze each of your characters and answer the following questions about them (including the minor characters): What lies do they believe? How do they develop over the course of the story? Do they have positive or negative character arcs? Do they have an arc at all?

If the answer to the last question is no, then I think it’s time to take creating a Lie for them into consideration.

I answered tgese questiond for my manuscript, and it really highlighted the characters which are well developed, and more importantly, those who aren’t.

I have a character, Jaclyn, who systematically tortures my protagonist, Scarlett, whenever she encounters her because of a lie she believes. However, after Scarlett deals with the lies she’s been holding onto, Jaclyn’s lies are never addressed again, leaving the story feel somewhat unresolved. I would have never noticed it had I not revised for the lies my characters believe.

Whether you’re a pantser, a planner or a plantser (a mix of both!), accounting for the lies your characters believe will improve the quality of your writing.

Surviving Not Thriving

On recognizing mental illness.

One of the worst things about mental illness is that it tends to creep up on you when you don’t even realize it. If I was aware that I was getting bad again, I would have dedicated time to work on my mental health with mindfulness meditation and self-reflection. But I thought I was doing fine. That is until I went to see my doctor.

I’ve realized that one of the main reasons I dropped out of school with only one practicum left isn’t that I don’t want to be a teacher (I mean, that was pretty significant part of my decision, but I could have gritted my teeth and finished the program), but because I don’t know who I am when I’m not on anti-depressants.

After I got off of my anti depressants, I expected to go back to the stellar state of mental health I acquired before withdrawal. But I haven’t. I’ve been having major issues regulating my emotions which is very unlike me. I am notorious for my cold unemotional nature among friends, family, and even my practicum supervisors (the critique I continually received from them is that I’m robotic). Now I’m losing my temper and crying all the fucking time. I knew that I couldn’t put myself in a position to care for a bunch of kids when I’m having issues like this, so I dropped out.

I told the head of the education department about my withdrawal and feelings of instability, and they agreed to hold my position in the program if I provided them with a doctor’s note verifying that yes, withdrawal is actually fucking awful (hey, that kind of rhymed) and a leave would benefit me for mental health reasons.

So I went to my doctor, and told her about my emotional regulation issues. And she gave me a test to evaluate anxiety and depression. And I scored high on both. And she suggested that after going through the hell of withdrawal that I go back on medication. Sigh. At least she gave me the note.

Although only vaguely aware that I was struggling, I attributed my current feelings of unhappiness to the tumultuous nature of my life right now–dropping out has provided me with an endless amount of judgement and condemnation from friends and family alike. It has affected me more than I’d like to admit. In addition to that, applying to a plethora of jobs has meant that although some places have shown interest in me, I’m getting repeatedly rejected. I also ended a friendship with one of my closest friends because she dropped off the face of the earth when she got a boyfriend which has made me feel like I meant nothing to her after years of being there for her. But I didn’t think I was depressed or anxious again.

I’ve been playing the ukulele, crocheting, and going for walks every day which are things that usually die a fast death when I get depressed. But I hadn’t been going to the gym, reading, or writing. In fact, my last blog post was about forcing myself to write when I didn’t want to. I had interpreted my reluctance to write as laziness, not depression. It was the latter; I can see that now.

But here I am, writing again. It’s part of my plan.

When I saw my therapist last, he walked me out after our session and he asked me what my plan was. I told him to apply for jobs. He responded, “No, not that. What is your plan to cope with everything that’s happened?” Oh. I mumbled something about going to zumba every now and then and left.

But now that I’ve recognized that my state of mental health really is in decline, I realized that I needed to made an actual plan. So I decided to start meditating again, watching what I eat (easier said than done. All I ever want is pizza or sushi), exercising, reading and writing. Most exciting is the latter. Because of my plan, I wrote chapter one of a new manuscript!

I’ve been working on revising the completed manuscript of my other novel for so long, that I haven’t let myself write anything other than short stories and blogs in years. But now, thanks to taking care of my mental health, I’ve started working on this new piece, and I’m so excited about it. What a lovely gift to myself.

I think what I’ve learned from all of this is that even if things seem to be going well, I need to stop and check in with myself at least once a week to evaluate my mental health to prevent decline and promote happiness. Everyone should do this.

In the meantime, I found a job yesterday and I have a date tomorrow!