Writer Business: Emergency Files

Now that I’m well into business school, I want to share what I’m learning about ways you can improve your financial situation (as a writer or other freelancer, whether self-employed full time or not) and your personal life by applying practical information. I will label them all “writer business” so they’re easier to find, but most of them won’t only be relevant to writers.

I spent the last few days of 2015 organizing my files. I keep copies of paperwork related to all sorts of things: my child’s medical information and school reports, my personal taxes, apartment leases, car insurance, contracts and expenses related to Lakeside Circus, and so on. I have a small filing cabinet for recent and relevant files, and a plastic file box of “archives” that I don’t need often but should keep just in case. I’ll talk more about this in another post, but today we’re going to start with the most important bit.

You need to have a file for emergency information. You need to have it today.

This doesn’t have to be complicated but it is vital. You might think it’s not necessary because you don’t have children, or pets, or investments; you might assume that a few conversations with your spouse or parents mean that you’re prepared for an emergency. Unless you have a designated spot for emergency information, and unless your designated agents know where it is and have easy access to it, you’re not prepared.

No one wants to think about dying. I certainly don’t. I have a child who needs me, a partner who relies on me. I can’t be absent from the world. Most of you have the same, and so rather than picture a time when they’re crushed by your death, it’s simpler to ignore the possibility. Or, you’re afraid that no one will care at all, so why bother planning for it?

Unless you are truly alone in the world with no friends at all, no loved ones, no parents or partners or even a cat to care about your loss, and you don’t have any desire to see your belongings disposed of, make certain that you set aside time today to put together a file of the following items:

  • Your completed and witnessed health care proxy (original).
  • Your lease or mortgage information, including landlord or bank’s contact information.
  • Your life insurance information, including beneficiary and contact phone number.
  • Your social security card/number and medical insurance cards.
  • Your completed and witnessed will, which includes burial wishes (original).
  • Your credit card information, including account numbers and phone numbers for the companies.
  • Your banking information.
  • Student, car, or other loan information.

This is the bare minimum. You can easily get almost all of this together tonight. Anything with your signature on it should be original, but everything else can be a copy. I’m assuming you will have a lot more information in your files, and within a week or so of your emergency, that information can be accessed. What I’m giving you is a list of what needs to be immediately accessible, the moment your agent learns that something has happened to you.

What’s an agent? This is the person that you designate to act out your desires in the case of an emergency. It can be any adult of sound mind that you choose. Mine is my partner, but yours can be a roommate, a friend, a sibling. Try to choose someone who doesn’t benefit as much, financially, from your death as your other beneficiaries might, if at all possible, but it’s okay if your agent is your spouse or child, too. You just want to make certain that they know you’ve chosen them, and where to find your files.

Why this stuff?

Health Care Proxy – this is the document your agent will use first.

A health care proxy (also known as a durable power of attorney for health care, medical power of attorney or appointment of a healthcare agent) is a document that lets you to appoint another person (a proxy or agent) to express your wishes and make health care decisions for you if you can not speak for yourself. – via Medicare Interactive

If you’ve been in an accident and require serious medical care, but are not dead, this advance directive document will allow your agent to be there in the hospital with you. It will allow them to assist the doctors in making choices for you in accordance with your wishes. Depending on the form you fill out, it will set up rules for end of life care.

In most states, the default is that your spouse or, if unmarried, parents will make those decisions for you. But it’s not guaranteed. Worse, in states where your parents are the default (for example) they may be the last people you want deciding these things for you. Historically, unwed partners, roommates, and children have been excluded from the decisions when absent – or hated – parents rush in and take over. Even ex-spouses can claim to be current by bringing in a marriage document but no divorce papers, and insert themselves into the situation.

If you are married but something happens to both you and your spouse at the same time, that once again opens you up to this kind of problem. A health care proxy will let you designate a tier of agents, so that if your primary choice isn’t available, the next one can step up.

You can Google “health care proxy” and your state, and usually find state-certified blank forms that can be downloaded and printed out. In New York State, for example, we can use this one. You don’t need a lawyer to look over it, though you can certainly get one if you choose. You only need to put into writing your wishes, and get two adults to witness it. (Don’t have two people who aren’t the people you’re granting power to in the proxy? Take it to your bank, or your work. Any two competent, unrelated, adults will do.)

Banking and Credit Card information – Depending on what has happened to you, it might be necessary for your agent to immediately cancel your ATM and credit cards. Even if that’s not the case, they will want to notify your financial institutions right away. Your bank will help to ensure against fraudulent use, and will be able to grant your beneficiary access. (This will be the person you designated when you opened the account. Don’t have that set up, or want to change it? Pop into your bank and let them know. It only takes a moment.)

Your credit card companies will either be able to freeze charges, interest, and payments due (if you’re merely injured) or they will start the process to close your accounts and delete your balance due, if you’re dead. You want to make certain this happens because otherwise your heirs will be expected to pay that balance out of whatever money you leave them. If you don’t have emergency protection set up on your credit cards – it usually costs only a few dollars a month – and you carry a balance ever, call your credit issuer to arrange for it. It’s like life insurance for your debt. You want that.

Loan information – like above, student loans are generally forgiven when you die, and can be put on hold if you’re temporarily disabled/hospitalized. You want your agent to contact the loan issuer immediately to start this process for two reasons: if you aren’t dead, it will help keep from wrecking your credit while you recover, and if you are dead, you don’t want any automatic payments you’ve set up to come out of the bank account you’re presumably leaving for someone else. Other types of loans will probably still need to be paid off by your heirs, but the bank will be much more likely to work with you agent on this if you contact them before the payments are past due.

Mortgage or landlord information  – your agent will need to be able to get into your home, if they don’t already have a key; they’ll need to be able to arrange to keep the lights on, or to sort out a plan for disposing of your property. This is desperately important if you have children who should be able to keep living in your home as long as they need to.

Life insurance – the process to get paid out on a life insurance policy can be complicated, and take longer than you need. It’s generally not as simple as notifying them of your death and then they show up at your beneficiary’s house with a check. It could take months, so the sooner your agent can begin the process, the better. In many cases, being able to share that information with a mortgage lender or other financial institution will help in arranging delayed payments, if your agent needs to do that.

Your will – this is one of the most important documents that you could possibly have, second only to the health care proxy. However, your agent generally won’t need it until after you’re deceased. Even if you’ve only been seriously injured, though, if they have your will it will help them start making arrangements, and possibly stave off any potential disagreements that others might have about your wishes.

A will basically establishes an executor to carry out your plans (your agent is probably the best person for this). Those plans should include what you want to happen to your children, your assets, and your body, after death.

You can use an online site like Willing to help you get started – the will is free, though they do offer paid services to help you set up other types of paperwork. Unless you have a lot of assets, a simple online will might be everything you need. It’s certainly better than none at all. Remember that you’ll have to print it out and get it witnessed for it to be vaild! But even printing it out today and signing it yourself is a start at protecting yourself and your family, so do that right away, even if you can’t get to a notary until tomorrow or later in the week.

Where should you keep this stuff? Where’s the place your agent can easily find it in an emergency? In a colored file folder at the front of your filing cabinet? In a sealed manila folder taped to your refrigerator door? As long as they have access to it 24/7, and know exactly where it is, you’re good.

Any questions? Please feel free to leave comments below.

#SFWAPRO

Reflection, 2015

Looking back over 2015, and really, over the last several years, it’s immediately obvious that I have had a lot of struggles. My life now is vastly different from where it was 10 years ago. I’ve left California – where I was born and raised and never intended to leave – to drive across the county, trying out Philadelphia and New Jersey before ending up in a little city in Central New York. I adore it here, and now I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

I went from starting community college at 31, with a new baby, to the last semester of my BA in a History of Art degree at an Ivy League university – only to run out of loans, leave school, struggle to find work, and end up back in community college pursuing a (much more marketable) degree in business. I started freelancing as an editor, and found, one by one, all the ways that freelancing can be a disaster, all the ways I can screw up.

I screwed up as a writer, too, missing opportunities and losing the time and focus I am desperate to put into my writing, spent on dealing with everything else.

I’ve been unemployed – I am, at the moment, uncertain how I’m going to pay the rent next week. I’ve been scared about whether I can provide for my son so much more than I ever thought possible.

My son was diagnosed with a severe speech disorder and autism and ADHD, and we were given a laundry list of all the things he’d never be able to do wit his life. I have spent most of his life being worried and frustrated, struggling to communicate with him, to teach him, to be his advocate; I’ve spent countless hours fighting the state, the school systems, doctors, teachers – anyone who wanted to give up on my son – and educating myself in the process. I’ve done it mostly alone, without any family or good friends close by.

I know I’ve made mistakes, made bad choices, broke down, and been lost. But my child has grown up, found his voice, and exceeds even my expectations, every day. He’s well on his way to becoming a man who can graduate school, go to college, live on his own, and make a life for himself. Not now, not for years and maybe not in the way you’d usually think, but someday.

I was married, and now I’m not. The idea of caring for a child with a disability was the last straw for a man who already didn’t want to make a better life for us, only for himself. We were left without a father for my son, without a partner for me, without child support. We haven’t seen or heard from him in years, and I don’t expect he’ll ever see us again. It was his choice, but in choosing him (and every other bad relationship in my life), it was my failure too.

Over the years, I’ve realized how much I didn’t know. I was horrible with finances, and life-long poverty had never given me a chance to learn. I was never taught how to do well in school, how to be organized and on time, and I had to teach myself while going to college and raising a child. This last semester, going back to college (without the childcare and support I had before) made me relearn it again.

I had a undiagnosed eating disorder for most of my adult life. Over the last few years, I’ve figured that out, sought treatment, sorted myself out, and begun the long process toward a healthier life. But all the years of dieting and fighting with food and “succeeding” only to gain it back… All that time,  I spent disappointed in myself.

I didn’t know how to make a healthy relationship work either. That may have been the biggest failure of my life. So much drama, hurt, wasted time, wasted money, wasted opportunities.

And then, randomly, I found the person I was looking for. The last five years has been hard on us both, as we taught and challenged and supported each other while we both figured out what love and family and a real, solid, partnership was. I don’t know I’ve ever put so much into another relationship, another adult human being, in my entire life, and along the way,  I’ve discovered who I really want to be. And a person who inspires me to be my very best.

Today I am dwelling in my failures. I have made grand efforts, and I have failed. I admit that. I have to.

But I am so loved. I have a family now that I never believed possible. Not easy (never easy) but worth it, and the foundation for the best possible future. I’m writing again. I have a plan for a better life. I fought for that, and that I won.

The rest is a temporary state of learning from my mistakes before back I get up, and try again. I regret every mistake, every failure, every time I hurt someone else or let myself down,  every wasted moment. But I don’t regret where I’ve ended up, or the beautiful life in front of me. I just need to make it happen.

Writing Process Blog Tour

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam invited me to join this blog relay on writing craft. Her post is here.

1. What am I working on?

I’ve got three big projects right now, as well as a couple of short stories I need to revise, and my editing work. I’m concurrently writing two novels and compiling a mosaic novelette of SF poetry. The working titles are:

  • Sonnets for the Rocket Queen – 144 Shakespearean-style sonnets about love, loss, and space ships.
  • Shades of Gray – first person, female protagonist, modern day, ghost story. Urban fantasy without the tramp stamp. Miéville noir with a female lead.
  • Caudal Ballad – third person PoV, multiple protagonists, surreal/interstitial. Borges meets Nabakov, with traces of Burroughs and Poe.

Shades and Caudal are set in the same universe, same town, at the same time, and explore a series of events from very different perspectives. They don’t need to be read together.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

No one else has read what I read, in exactly the same way, or lived my life, or shares my exact sense of humor. That’s true of all of us. For that alone, I’d like to think what I write is different. When you add to that mix that I write because I have a story in my head I want to get out — instead of for fame, money, respect, or notoriety — and that if I’ve read the same story elsewhere I no longer want to write it, then what I do produce fits into a small space occupied by not much else.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Have you ever read something and thought, “Oh, yeah, that is true”? You learn some fact you didn’t know before, but based on everything else you know, this thing makes sense. I love to read fiction that has that resonance of truth, and I don’t want to put any of my own writing out into the world unless it speaks to me in the same way. It has to answer a question, or provide a viewpoint which clarifies a confusion you didn’t even know you had. I want to feel more alive, more knowledgeable, when I’ve finished a piece of reading. Even if the knowledge is sad.

I’m also interested in mixes of genres or the places where multiple genres lean against each other. I think that when you work in solid, simple, mainstream, genres, whether it’s literary or epic fantasy or hard science fiction, you’re more likely to be retreading the same old ground. There are stories which slip between the cracks, tales that don’t quite fit, and are therefore told a lot less often. Those are the stories I want to tell.

4. How does my writing process work?

My current writing process was developed over years of failing to produce consistent work. Ideas, I have. Ideas are easy. They’re everywhere. I’m lucky that my subconscious, what I call my lizard brain, is strong enough that I can decide I want to work on a story, spend a little time thinking about it, and then move on to another task, another piece of writing. Meanwhile, my lizard brain will keep writing, until one day, it taps me on the shoulder and says, “Here you go.”

The hard part is always writing it down. I’m chronically overbooked, overworked, and exhausted. I don’t have time to read for pleasure, be with my family the way I’d like. So, how do I find time to write?

I carefully manage what I have, and the rest I need, I steal. The managing comes from being organized — two white boards at home, online spreadsheets, Field Notes books in my bags to scribble down thoughts, post-it notes on the wall, documents saved to Drive so I can work on them anywhere. I manage my time like I structure my writing, so I’ve got spreadsheets for how much time is spent on each freelance project, to do lists, and even my daily word count.

Doing that means I’ve got everything I’ve written down whenever I want it, and knowing whether I’ve spent enough time on other projects that day tells me how much I have left for writing. If it’s not enough to get out the part of the story I’m ready to write down, I take what I need from other places. I write instead of going out. I write instead of getting to bed on time. I write on my lunch breaks, before work, while watching tv, during dinner. Not all of those times every day, but whatever I need to make sure that every day, I am writing.

I’m a better writer because of it, and I think that I more fully enjoy the times I spend with my family, partner, friends because I know what I give up to write, and what I give up to be with them. I cherish everything. To me, making time to write feels like having it all.

* I was supposed to tag two more writers who’d then complete this meme and pass it on. Instead, I am tagging all of you. Write your own posts, and leave me a comment with the link so I can go read yours too.

#SFWAPro

Celebrating National Poetry Month the SF way: In the Beginning

April is National Poetry Month in the United States, and I’ll be celebrating one of my favorite forms of writing by talking about speculative fiction in poetry. I’ll be exploring themes and structures, poetry and poets I admire, how to bring SF/F/H elements into poetry effectively, and sharing my own work. I’ve been cobbling together these blog posts for a couple of months now – on lunch breaks, between writing or editing other projects – so I’m excited to finally see them publish to my website. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, or suggest work you think I’d like to read.

Where do we start? With history, of course.

Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.

Though a recent creation, this “holiday”, poetry has been a vital part of American culture since before there was an America. Poetry has existed longer than writing, longer than what we think of as culture. It is a living, breathing, exhalation of humanity.

Speculative fiction – that umbrella term which covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, slipstream, surrealism, and so much more – has existed just as long. The oldest known spec fic poem is “Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor”, a Middle Kingdom Egyptian text about 4000 years old. In it, a sailor nervously confides in a servant that he thinks the king will kill him for sinking a ship. The servant tells his master a story to reassure him: previously, the servant had been a sailor, and sunk a ship, and washed up on an island ruled by a giant serpent. This serpent spoke to him of family, gave him gifts, and inspired him to return home, where the sailor told the king his story and was considered a hero.

This is the basis for most of the storytelling which came after: the accidental quest, the mythic beast/figure dispensing wisdom, the hero’s journey. We find this framework too, the storyteller being presented in a contemporary setting, and then telling a story about someone or sometime else within the tale we’re reading or listening to. Like Scheherazade’s creator, the author of the ancient servant’s tale embeds a narrative into the frame story, which ends in a moral lesson. It’s a structure we see in both fiction and non-fiction, over and over again, for the next the four millennium, with great success. (Read the Bible? It’s in there, too.)

The moral here? The serpent tells how he lost his family when he was off adventuring:

It happened when I wasn’t there —
burnt when I wasn’t among them!
Then I died for them
when I found them as one heap of corpses.

If you are brave, be stout-hearted,
and you will embrace your children,
kiss your wife, and see your house.
This is better than anything.

Since today I got to kiss my man, kiss my child, and feel both safe and loved, I can tell you – the serpent was right.

#SFWAPro