Monthly Archives: August 2013

I Think It’s Time You Told Me That Story About Why You’re Still Wearing That Towel

Or, Talent VS Training

I was showing pictures of my costumes-in-progress to one of the men I work with, and his comment was “You have a real talent for this stuff.”

I accepted the compliment graciously, because I have learned over many years of being complimented for things I disagree with (or had nothing to do with and thus feel I shouldn’t be praised for) and showing that in my reaction, that rejecting a compliment only makes you look like one kind of asshole or another. Either you’re arrogant or insecure, and either way you’re attempting to invalidate another person’s opinion. So I just give an abashed smile and say “thanks” and let the conversation roll on.

But that comment struck me because, with sewing, I do not feel like I have a talent AT ALL. I feel like I have dedication, yes, and stubbornness; ambition and ingenuity and a really good eyeball for measuring short distances without a ruler, but are any of those things a TALENT? Not in my opinion. To me a talent is a natural aptitude that allows someone to perform a task with minimal frustration on their part; it is a process that just clicks for them, that they can do intuitively and without a great deal of hair-pulling. When talent gets to the point of hair-pulling, it is creating something that borders on genius.

But my hair-pulling and cursing and do-overs are invisible in the story photographs tell. Even if I admit that this design took multiple weekends to finalize, the way that story is heard by someone besides me still elides my sense of plugging away at a project that I have no talent for, only a hard-won and somewhat incomplete skill set.  So I get why my co-worker used the word “talent.”  Most people use the word to describe the process of creating something which they feel like they could not create.

You know what? When I first conceived this particular costume project, I wasn’t sure I could do it, either. But as I have mentioned before, one thing I do have a talent for is taking a big project and breaking it down into manageable chunks. Not just manageable–actionable. As in, “These are the available steps you can take from this point. No purpose is served by thinking about the other steps that will need to be taken to complete the project, because these are the only steps you can take right now.” If you look at a project in that way, the sense of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to start or go next tends to disappear. Once you understand that even the largest project has a narrow range of steps that can come next, the consumer’s paradox of too many choices being paralyzing no longer applies.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that what someone else perceives as talent is often merely the application of skills and logic that the person seeing talent just hasn’t taken the time to acquire/think through.

All that said: fair readers, I think it’s time I told you the story of how I came to view writing as craft and not talent.

As my “About” page attests, I began writing in a serious way in 8th grade, when I was 13 or 14. In my freshman year of high school, my favorite unit of study in English was grammar, because I learned all sorts of rules to apply and got articulations for why some sentences made sense but others didn’t. That point was my last formal grammar training until college. I picked up tips in later English classes where a teacher would point out (and define for us) things like parallel construction and dangling modifiers, and in studying Spanish I learned about mood and reflexive verbs, but those were piecemeal tidbits of knowledge.

The university I attended did not offer a creative writing major. I chose English instead, but never took a single creative writing course. Every semester I would look at the course descriptions and the syllabus each professor posted online about his or her course, and every time I would not want to take any of them. The course descriptions were so…squishy. “We’ll talk about character development and themes” (things I could study just as well from reading and analyzing literature in my normal English courses), and the focus was always on short stories, and always with the implication of literary bent (as opposed to SFF, which was what I wanted to write in those days).

Instead I took courses cross-referenced with linguistics, including an alternative grammar course that was meant to expose the natural grammar of English (as opposed to the grammar of Latin superimposed onto an entirely different style of language). The linguistics courses taught me more of the mechanics of language than I had learned since I was 15.

I also took a class on writing memoirs, because it was not through the English department and satisfied a particular elective credit. In that class I learned not to trust other writers just because they are writers. My first essay was, shall we say, offensive to the Ivory Tower sensibilities of my classmates. I sat through 45 minutes of being told I was a horrible person with my head high and then went home and cried. My only solace was they’d had very little to criticize in my actual writing–and I learned a valuable lesson that day: being told your writing sucks can never, ever, compare to being told you suck as a person. Most of my classmates from that course followed it with the most serious non-fiction writing class offered by the English department. I did not, at the time thinking I had no interest in non-creative non-fiction, but looking back I think I just didn’t want to take that class with the rest of them. I could get nothing out of it when I had no trust for any of them, not even in the sense of assuming strangers will take you as you present yourself.  When I did take that course, I knew no one in it, and heard stories about how the previous semester’s group had been so close. Ha ha ha, I thought–my old classmates. I would have hated being in that group. I might have dropped the course, and what a shame that would have been, because it changed my perspective on writing.

The course itself was combined to function as basically three rhetoric and composition classes in one. We wrote 13 essays of 13 different types of non-fiction, one every week, and line-edited the entire class set. So it was both a writing-intensive class and an editing-intensive class. Class meetings were once a week, and focused on workshopping two essays per night; everyone in the class got two essays workshopped during the course of the semester. The edits were done on communal copies, so that we could see the edits our classmates made on not just our own work but also everyone else’s. We could agree or disagree with their edits, and sometimes that was more illuminating than anything–having three different, contradictory, opinions on the exact same sentence. Nothing says “subjectivity in editing” like that.

I walked in a better writer than most, maybe even all, of my classmates. I walked out a better writer than I had started, but I feel like that course gave me the last 10% of knowledge and growth that I needed to become a professional-level writer. Some of my classmates had dramatic transformations. Their first essays were muddled, riddled with errors and inconsistencies, meandering and repetitive by turns–generally the products of people who had most of their college education finished and still didn’t know how to write. By the end they were writing some of the best essays in the class. I could never say that about my essays; mine were comfortably middle-of-the-road, because while my writing might have been better, my ideas were not. At least a couple of the ones who started with lower writing skills had amazing clarity of ideas and only needed the training to present them in a clear and exciting way.

And that was the most profound lesson I took away from the class: writing elegantly can be learned.

I truly believe this. I have seen it happen. It takes time, yes, and the desire to want to learn the tools of the craft, and a good teacher (be it in the form of person, peer group, or book), and the willingness to experiment and fail and do over again until you can do it by instinct. But writing well–by which I mean clearly, engagingly, and interestingly–is a skill, NOT a talent.

I am not saying some people don’t have a talent for writing (in the sense that writing well comes easily to them), or at the very least an innate ability that gives them an advantage. For example, some people have affinities for learning languages; I am one. Some people have a good mind for wordplay. Some people naturally think in multiple layers. But a lot of the people who are perceived by beginners as having “talent” are really just further along in their study of the craft.

And let’s face reality: the way writing is taught in the American education system is a joke. Students are told to write it how they would say it, or write what they are thinking–but this helps nothing if they are not also taught to think clearly and have never been taught to speak correctly. Students are given grammatical rules out of any context of the process of writing and then expected to internalize them without any practice or practical application of them. No one ever sits down with a student or a class and dissects, sentence by sentence and word by word, all of their mistakes and all of the things they got right just by instinct or accident. No teacher ever clarifies why the sentences s/he did not mark as wrong are correct–they just assume the student knows why, when in fact the students might not know why at all; they just took a lucky guess or just wrote it the way they would say it without knowing why.

Why? Because we are not taught how to write. We are told, Yoda-style, simply to do, on the assumption that we learn by doing.

Most writers are autodidacts. We take our understanding of English and then start “speaking” on paper. We develop a style that suits our personality, and refine it until we have a particular voice in which we write.

Most writers, though, are never given the actual tools to be able to write correctly. Sure, many are able to absorb by context and examples they read most of the rules of writing well. A friend for whom I beta-read has no formal training, for example, and her writing is better than plenty of published authors I’ve read. Even without the benefit of my last writing course, my own writing was “good enough” just by my attempts at self-education and the intuitive grasp of language a native speaker has. But none of that equates to having an actual understanding of what you are doing and why.

To bring this back to the example I started with: I am a self-taught sewer. I just jumped in and started doing, and every time I finish a new project–or start one and fail–I learn something. The heuristic learning style is effective for sewing because of the immediate feedback, the immediate awareness of whether something is “right.” You can look at a garment and tell if it matches the picture of it; you can try it on and know right away if it fits. You can wear it and see the seams falling apart or staying together. You know whether you reached your goal, because the goal is quantifiable, not qualitative.

Writing is not as good a subject for heuristic learning, because of its flexibility and subjectivity. As a beginner, especially, practice is almost pointless without guidance. Without a teacher to show you not only what is wrong but why, but also what is right but why, you have no way of knowing whether what you’re doing is effective or correct. You cannot know which instincts and habits to trust and which to break.

Therefore, when someone tells me I have a talent for writing, I do not give them an abashed smile and say “thanks.”  To do so would be to propagate the myth that good writing is reserved for certain people who were born with a talent. It also invalidates the hundreds to thousands of hours I have consciously put toward improving my skills as a writer. So instead of accepting the compliment as if I agree with their assessment, I say, “I’ve been at it for a long time.”

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Obsession VS Lifestyle

As I’ve mentioned here before, for the past few weeks (and continuing for one more week!) I am spending almost all of my free time on costumes. And not in the way I mean it when I say “I spend most of my free time writing,” because in comparison to the first statement, the second is simply untrue.

When I am going about the course of my normal life, I spend SOME of my free time writing. I spend a great deal more of it avoiding writing, or considering writing and rejecting the idea because I am tired, or the words aren’t anywhere in my head, or the thought of sitting down to write creates anxiety and I don’t want to make writing an act or place of anxiety for myself. I guess this current obsession is making me face the fact that in many ways I do still write only “when I feel like it.” Sure, I get up early a lot of mornings to write before work, but you know what? That is the only point in a normal workweek when I do feel like writing, barring some flash of inspiration or a day when I am obsessing over the words and the story such that I can barely focus on my work and just sit at my desk with my skin crawling like I took some party drug and my brain short-circuiting every 20 seconds like Tweek on South Park. I do not, in general, manage to make myself work on a story when I don’t want to.

I am also realizing that…I am fine with this state of affairs. Yes, having a day job I only like and don’t love sucks, and my life goal is to build enough income from writing to quit. The quickest way to do that is to publish a lot of books, so if I really want to quit my job, I should be spending every second I am not working or sleeping on my writing.

But…that is not who I am. I am too Aristotelian in my life philosophy: everything in moderation. Basically working 13 hours a day, every day, is not moderation. It would ruin my friendships. It would ruin my marriage. My husband, bless his heart, has been so patient the last few weeks, not complaining about the state of the house (covered in my projects and clutter) or my relative inattention to him when he is home in between jobs (his off days I do make a point to give him my full attention). And my friends have been great at either dragging me from the house for a break or sitting at my place, watching movies (and sometimes cooking for me!) while I keep sewing. All of that is fine for a month, for a finite and specific goal. It is NOT fine for a lifestyle. I would drive myself mad. I would drive my health into the ground. I would destroy some of the things I value most in my life–my relationships, which, as an introvert, I do not build easily, value highly, and never want to lose (because then I would have to find new friends and…*shudders*).

So while I might ask my friends and family to help me accomplish NaNoWriMo for once, and pursue writing with the level of obsession normally reserved for cosplay for a month, a finite and specific time period, I could not pursue writing on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis with this kind of energy. All I can do is keep chipping away at stories in the mornings and on weekends when I have nothing better to do. It might take me the long way to get there – and I might never reach my goal of not working; novel-writing might remain something I love too much to give up, but which I pursue on the side of my real life – but the flip side is, I have a fuller, richer life that satisfies more of my needs than the Slytherin hiss of ambition and accomplishment that burns in one corner of my heart. The other three corners together outweigh the one, and I am happier for it.

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Good Words Gone Bad: Literally

Question for you word-conscious writers out there: what do you do with a word that you use in its original/literal sense, that has been co-opted by popular vernacular into a different meaning?

I am thinking here of “literally.” that word has, to my mind, gone rogue and become an unpredictable menace to clear communication.

I do not use it figuratively, in the sarcastic exaggeration sense, and never have. I literally use it literally…so how do I make that clear if I use it thusly in writing, either in my authorial narrative or via a character’s dialogue? Is the context still going to be enough to clarify matters, or has the word been so thoroughly subverted that it must be consigned to the “miscue” bin and abandoned from my lexicon?

I do not think I have yet had occasion for this question, probably because there are few times I would need that word in fiction. I mean, if the author simply states “he jumped five feet up” there is no need to qualify the statement with “literally.” But I dislike the thought of losing a word of my vocabulary because I would use it in a way that might create ambiguity in my writing.

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Sometimes Asthma Is Good for Something

Finished my line edits on the Christmas novel, for real this time. Started the last 20 pages at 433, finished at 558. A slower pace than I had been working at, probably because the things that weren’t right needed more pondering than simply adding or removing a comma or finding a more descriptive verb than “said.”

My plans for the day did not involve getting up that early, and certainly not in order to edit. I was actually planning to sleep until 6 and simply get up, get ready for work, and get Friday at the office over with. The universe had other plans. I woke up at 3:48 from a nightmare in which I had tried to plug something into a wall socket, only to have the current run through the cord. I could feel my left hand shaking and managed to drop it. Then I woke up, and my left hand was shaking, and I freaked right the hell out.

My hand was a foot from the nearest socket. I was lying on my side, and it was pinching a nerve somewhere. After I got a drink and lay back down to go back to sleep, I found that I couldn’t. I was anxious. Restless. Something was wrong.

Generally when I get that feeling, it is from an asthma attack. I have almost no other symptoms, and certainly not the obvious ones like coughing or wheezing. I am still breathing; I can’t tell that something is wrong. That’s a little scary, to be honest. It makes me glad for my subconscious monitoring that can send up a warning signal.

This turned out to be a more severe disruption in breathing than I have had for a while. A couple years, perhaps. I gagged and nearly threw up I was coughing so hard, once I took the hit on my inhaler. By the time I stopped coughing and had cleared my lungs enough to breathe normally again, it was 415 and I was wound up with adrenaline and fear. Needless to say, sleep was not going to come quickly, and I saw little point in tossing and turning for 30-45 minutes just to get an hour of sleep, when I was already up, fully awake, and not feeling unrested despite the abbreviated night.

I contemplated writing. There were no words there; no stories. My mind is not in the storytelling place right now.

I considered sewing, but despite my mental acuity, I could tell my fingers were not awake enough for work that requires precise motor skills.

Which left my line editing project – something I was awake enough to do, and a project that would engage me enough to keep me from dwelling on the nightmare or the asthma.

So I got to work. I do understand why I found so few problems with the last pages before; they really were written with a cleaner narrative line than the rest of the story. Probably this is because they were, well, written last. The ending was clear to me when I wrote it so there were fewer false starts or muddled ideas. It was written with the style and tone that had been developed in the previous 45,000 words and my full knowledge of the characters’ personalities and perspectives. I did find enough things I missed before to be glad I went back over it, but it was definitely the smoothest section of the whole book.

And now I am finished with my line editing pass. All that remains is to integrate them into my electronic file and do one last read-through to be sure none of my word shifts created new echoes. You know, “all.”  But the heavy lifting is done.

Now to just finish the companion novelette before October….

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1000 x 1000

I realized while driving to work today that I have published somewhere in the range of a million words to the web. Obviously not all (most?) of them are here, but across the years and various blogs I have either run or contributed to, I have written at least 1,000 thousand-word* essays, reviews, or rants. *A lot of pieces are shorter. Some are longer. The total of pieces in reality is well over a thousand. Averaged out my production would be about 1000×1000.

It shocked me, to be honest.

I passed the magical one million word mark for this particular type of writing without fanfare, without noticing, without even sparing a thought to it. After all, it’s just blogging…right?

But since I am applying for a web-writing job in the real world, there is no “just” qualifying the experience. It is a useful and impressive statistic.

I should add it to my business cards: Lily LeFevre, masterblogger.

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Dead Space

I am so used to a nonstop barrage of mental noise and narrative that a day when it isn’t there feels like a day in someone else’s mind. I am so mentally exhausted right now that my mind cannot form a complete, coherent sentence. It is literally talking nonsense, crossing disparate streams of thought again and again and short-circuiting with the zzzzz that reminds me I should have slept more. But today this fatigue is not really physical; it is mental. Too many hours solving problems over the weekend, too few relaxing my mind. And so today? Today my normal Magorium Wonder Emporium of a headspace is this dank, echoing tin warehouse where the few fluorescent bulbs still lit buzz incessantly and reveal only the emptiness of the building.

Can you see me? How is that possible? I am not here….

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Finally, Chris Harrison, the ACTUAL Most Dramatic Bachelorette Finale Ever!

This post is dedicated to the first member of my Awesome L squadron. L, I am so glad we discovered our mutual fascination with this show early enough to become friends, and I still miss getting to dissect episodes with you on Tuesday mornings. Next season I’ll blog about it in real time and we can discuss in comments!

I often have mixed feelings about the ending of a season of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. I watch the show in part to laugh at it, but inevitably I wind up shipping one of the pairings and wanting to believe in their love story. At the same time, I am rarely convinced it’s real, and the subsequent break-ups usually prove that right.

I have a confession about last Monday’s finale for Desiree’s season of The Bachelorette: I actually teared up watching it.

The editors on this season’s narrative did a great job balancing hope and doubt, tension about what will happen with the trust in a given storyline created by establishing events. Really, it was masterfully done: the two guys her decision really came down to, Brooks and Chris, were both shown early on as favorites, Brooks from the first date episode and Chris from I think his second group date; possibly it was his first. Every time Des would get close to being too far down “Brooks Is the One” Lane to turn back, we would get a really great moment with Chris and a confessional of her saying “I thought Brooks, but Chris….”

They also highlighted the men’s progressions well; we saw Brooks having doubts and struggling, and got to enjoy the dramatic irony of knowing Des would pick him if he reciprocated, and also the tension of knowing just how much he was struggling when she didn’t know how hard a time he was having. Chris, on the other hand, went through a pretty believable transition of skeptical of the situation to falling hard for the right girl, and so we had the dramatic irony of watching him fall in love with her knowing she was falling for Brooks…but also getting that reassurance every time she said “but” to maintain hope. There was a point when Chris Harrison asked if Des was done, if Brooks was it and they should all pack up and go home, and she said no, because of Chris.

I was shipping Chris from I think the second episode. Not necessarily for Des at first so much as “this is the one of all the group I’d be most interested in having a date with.” He was serious and seemed pretty grounded, and even if his poetry wasn’t great I found the fact that he wrote it charming and a little weird, and I need that dash (or more) of weirdness. (Plus the only way to write good poetry is to write a lot of bad poetry for practice–he might eventually get good. At least his rose’s perspective was an interesting one.) But pretty much every time we saw him after the second episode was in the context  of him and Des having a really great date or moment together and her face just lighting up around him. (Brooks said he saw that happen in the After the Final Rose, and she totally did.)

One aspect of their story that was kind of coincidental–in the sense that her one-on-one the day Bryden left happened to be with Chris–but, by the end, one of the establishing points of their relationship, was the day Bryden left. Chris’s first solo date with Des almost got wrecked by Bryden’s little breakdown (seriously, jackass, you couldn’t wait till that night to tell her and go?…or did one of the producers see an opportunity to set the stage for later in a potentially useful way?), but Chris managed to turn the day around. Took her for beers, told her he was there till the end as many times as she needed, and laid a subtle foundation for both his character as a guy that’s going to stand at her side through anything and the dynamic of their relationship as it played out later. The story editor at the end of filming had to be dancing the “I hit the jackpot” dance to have that moment in Germany to use to help build the plausibility of Des and Chris at the end.

The other “plot turn” for Des and Chris’s story, of course, was what happened with Brooks. Obviously Des had decided to play out the rest of the season despite knowing she had fallen in love with Brooks before the end, so we won’t know for sure what would have happened if Brooks hadn’t left–but chances, I think we all agree, are high that she would have picked him. There’s always the chance not; that something in the final date with Chris would have clicked (or something in the final date with Brooks would have come undone), and she would have chosen Chris anyway, but we cannot know. I give Brooks a lot of credit for leaving when he realized he was not going to fall in love with her–it’s a gesture of good faith on his part that Des really was there to find a husband, and if there was a chance of her finding that with one of the other guys then he needed to leave as soon as he knew he did not want that with her.

I think everyone watching the first half of the finale–the part with Brooks’ endless, most-painfully-slow-break-up-speech-ever monologue–came away wondering if Des really could pull back from having her heart broken that hard, that close to the end, and still find love with one of the other guys. I think, more than that, was the question of whether either of the other guys, if she did finish out the show and choose one, could stay in a relationship with her knowing that while he had been falling in love with her, she’d been falling in love with someone else, and he (the winner) only got her by default.

The other dynamic, of course, was would Brooks come back and try and get her back? I hoped he didn’t; learning that someone you didn’t think you could fall in love with loved you is a reason to run from them faster, if you’re running because you can’t give them what they need, rather than a reason to go back…but yet how many of us have friends who go back into unsatisfying relationships because the other person loves them? When I said Brooks better not come back just because she said she loved him, my husband (yes, I force him to watch this show with me) pointed out that Brooks’ problem might have been not being confident in her feelings for him, and that hearing that might make him feel safe enough to fall in love. While I can sort of understand that, especially in this kind of context, I also feel like Des had given him every reassurance, so that him having a change of heart because of her feelings would only make him a coward. So would letting her tears and heartbreak change his mind. I give Brooks credit, as well, for not changing his mind.

As an aside: I do not give Brooks credit for how he handled the actual break-up. Four words–six if you are extra-sensitive and need to add “I’m sorry” to the statement–suffice for a woman in this situation: “You’re not the one.” I think every woman has had the experience of a guy liking her more than she likes him, and examining his qualities “on paper” and not being able to come up with a better answer than that as to why she doesn’t want to be with him. Sometimes that’s just how it goes. Flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and leavening are all you need to make cookies, but if the proportions aren’t right the cookies aren’t good; just because someone is smart, funny, cute enough for your minimum standards, and reliable doesn’t mean you’re going to fall in love with them. People aren’t interchangeable; sometimes the only articulateable reason is you’re not the one.

That was the answer Des had for Drew. He wasn’t it. Should’ve been, based on personal qualities, but was not, based on their interpersonal dynamic. I think she was absolutely right to send him straight home on the day of their final date. What made the ending with Chris believable was precisely that she didn’t vacillate between him and Drew. Drew wasn’t it; Drew was gone.

I want to back up and talk about Des’s decision to keep going even when she was heartbroken. I think she made that choice because of the relationship she had with Chris; I mean, even after hometowns she was unable to tell Chris Harrison “Brooks is so unquestionably the one that we can wrap up now.” My husband didn’t think any guy who watched that break-up would stay with her after the show; I said that if she told him what had happened and the extent of her feelings for Brooks, and he didn’t leave then, that it would be a non-issue. The issue would be if she didn’t say that she’d been in love with Brooks and probably going to pick him.

So we end up with Chris as the last man in the ring. Here is where Germany comes back–she can look back and see this pattern of him being there for her, being dependable and supportive and unequivocal in his interest and then feelings for her. That bedrock matters. It might not be a glamorous way to finish falling in love with someone, to realize they have been there for you even when you didn’t notice, but I think it is a much more real way to fall in love than the flashpan emotions that get stirred up by someone new and fun and exciting. I think Des and Chris probably came out of the show with a stronger relationship for her having gone through the Brooks thing than they would have if she had chosen Chris out of a Brooks/Chris finale.

Their engagement was just priceless. I loved that Des didn’t let Chris propose until she had told him what really happened with Brooks (Chris’s reaction to her stopping him from kneeling was hilarious–that poor man thought she was about to kick him to the curb). I loved that she basically proposed to him before he proposed to her…it made the engagement feel very mutual and also played to the dynamic of her proving to Chris that he wasn’t just a rebound or the default winner but the man she really needed and wanted in her life.

I am glad for Des that Brooks showed her what she had with him…and what she had with Chris. I am glad that Chris was able to look at the entirety of the story and see how it was his character and his actions that had him standing there at the end as much as it was Brooks’ absence. Des’s comment, what was it, “I almost feel guilty; how did I not love him like this from the beginning?” goes to the point about needing the wrong thing to make you appreciate the value of what you have. Maybe she should have seen it sooner; maybe if they had just met in the real world she would have.

I hope the two of them work out. They had a very sweet love story, and the kind that I like best–the kind built on compatibility and a history of reasons to trust one another enough to fall in love forever. I hope I get to cry watching their wedding.

And ABC production editors–I tip my hat to you for making a truly satisfying narrative that both kept me biting my nails till the end yet, after the fact, felt entirely supported by what came before. Well done.

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