Writing As Fast As I Can

We’d been anticipating his journey for months and by mid-summer, we’d set the departure date: the Monday after the Saturday when his youngest daughter would leave the nest for her college freshman year.

How long he would be gone was vague. Once, in the late spring, he mentioned Thanksgiving and my heart sank. I would be spending the autumn alone, each day growing darker and colder, the daily phone calls becoming perfunctory. I would grow used to taking up space in the bed again. Folding only my own underwear. Dinners of popcorn and wine.

But I knew this journey had to be taken. A man on the cusp of life change, a nest emptied as last as the last child took flight. Before he could look to the future, he needed to reconnect with his past.

And so I began sinking into the hammock of alone time. Day job, during this almost-busiest time of the year, would suck up hours. One of the yoga studios I frequent announced a 30-day challenge (okay, 31 days, on account of October being the month). So my morning and early evening would be bookended by intense practice.

 And I would write. The quiet evenings and weekends held the promise of words. Uninterrupted by conversation or dinner, the setting aside of laptop to curl into his arms, snuggling into that broad chest and the oblivion of Netflix or NFL or one of the books stacked on the nightstand. No, my keyboard would softly click and the counter would tick upwards, filling in the gaps of empty space with words. I set myself a word count goal — not anything like NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 extravaganza, but something momentous for me, at this time.

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Four years ago, in the dark and tender ten weeks between mid-January and early March, I completed the first draft of THE CROWS OF BEARA, some 110,000 words. The novel poured out of me. I had the time to catch all the words on paper. It was a synchronicity of circumstance—the graciousness of my then-partner that allowed me the time, free from the pressure of a day job, to write—and inspiration that brought the most precious elements of the story to my heart and soul. It is a standard I continue to hold myself against, as ridiculous as that is, for few among us have uninterrupted time to write our stories. We have vocations, ailing parents, second families, our first children, partners with dreams of their own who need our support, financial or otherwise.

Still, I have my own past productivity — three novels written in three years — against which I measure the writer I am now.

I’m often asked when my next book is coming out. I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago the triumph of having a short story placed in a literary journal. A number of people misread my post and congratulated me on my forthcoming novel. Someone reported having seen my third novel in a bookstore, which thrilled me to no end, except that the novel is still on submission in its quest for a publishing home. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe I’m manifesting my own misguided expectations.

During that time alone – a month as it turned out- I realized I’d gotten stuck in my own story. Not the one I’d been trickling into Scrivener, but the one I had stored in my heart. I took the time to do so many things other than write. I sat in silence. I remembered. I mourned. I began to forgive myself.

And then I continued to write.

This novel will take as long as it takes. If I have one resolution for this year, it is to manifest grace. Grace, and its sister-words mercy, generosity, tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, is my journey, the only way I will make it to the page. 

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.   Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage 

Concerned with Possibilities

“Scholars look for final truths they will never find. Creative writers concern themselves with possibilities that are always there to the receptive.” 
― Richard Hugo

One of my greatest joys as a writer is being in communion with other writers. I’m not able to teach as much as I once did and I long for the weekly Novel-in-Progress workshops I led; I gained at least as much as I gave by thinking critically and constructively about writing. I left each week intoxicated by the beauty and spirit of those writers’ words and their dedication to craft. 

I continue to offer the occasional one-off workshop, and I freelance as a developmental editor. During the hour-long drive home after a workshop a few weeks ago, my true calling as a facilitator came to me. I help writers find their stories.

So often writers arrive at a workshop, or send their manuscripts or query letters, certain they are writing about one thing. During the course of a weekend, or over the months we work together on a developmental edit, we so often discover together that their true story (so to speak) is something else entirely.

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I ask, over and over, hoping it will become a mantra in the course of writing draft after draft, “What does your protagonist want?” For it is the protagonist’s internal goal that becomes the spine of the story.

The brilliant Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, talks about driving desire – the emotional agenda that steers your protagonist -which shapes how she views and responds to the world. That driving desire, and how your character moves through the story to satisfy it (i.e achieve the goal), is how you get under a reader’s skin, and hold their heart fast to page.

I think of my protagonist in my WIP, Kate, and her driving desire. Justice. She abandons the desire when it seems pointless and pretends that all she wants is to be numb, to move on with her life and forget the past, but her desire, the core of her, is too great to be denied. That driving desire is the story; the plot becomes all the obstacles in her way and how she overcomes them, or doesn’t.

As writers we are so often concerned with what’s happening, how we can move this scene forward into the next—the plot. We forget that the plot is the vehicle moving the story forward. But the driver behind the wheel is the protagonist’s internal desire.

Isn’t this how we move through life? The doing of it, the to-do lists, the goals and expectations, appointments and obligations that become the plot of our lives, when the real story is the why and who of those endless lists and obligations. 

If you are a writer, I challenge you to identify your characters’ desires and goals, how these change throughout the course of the narrative, and how each scene and plot point acts in service or awareness of the driving desires. 

I challenge us all as humans to step back from the plot of our lives to examine our stories for our own driving desires. 

“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Brene Brown

Refilling the Well

“You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted. Begin again the story of your life.”  Jane Hirshfield

My last post here (since removed) was an outpouring of grief. I’d just lost my beloved cat, Camille, a loss that stops me cold in quiet moments. But in her death was the grace and necessity of catharsis, for in the mourning of that sweet creature, I released the grief of other losses, regrets, and pain: my marriage, my mother, my miscarriages, even of friends who fell away when my personal storms blew the satellite models of normalcy to hell.

I resurfaced in the midst of grief, still surrounded by it, but no longer carried away in its current.

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At some point I wandered away from social media, without intention (I feel frissons of Fremdscham when people announce on Facebook that they are taking a Facebook break; I imagine someone loudly announcing their departure in the middle of a crowded party. The room goes silent for a second, then there is a collective shrug, a turning away, and the cacophony resumes at a higher intensity, uncaring and annoyed). I’ve felt strongly the need to reserve my energy and thoughts for my work, to preserve my words. At the same time, my reading picked up pace, resuming its former, pre-marriage-ending levels when my concentration was intact: two, three novels a week. I wondered if I were procrastinating—all this reading of others’ work instead of focusing on my own—but I realized this too was part of the work, as it ever has been. I am refilling the well. Reading, writing reviews, brought me to the page in the first place. The more I fill my soul with sentences and phrases that make it sing, the more I have to work with. The more I write. First comes the necessary stillness, then the slow trickle of ideas that become words that become a story.

It’s been nearly three years since I’ve given myself over with abandon to new characters, although our time together is only so many stolen moments—in the stillness of early morning, a warm late afternoon at water-view beer garden picnic table; a sleepy Sunday in the backyard as the dryer vents out heated air…

I’ve written through three weeks without a laptop, after mine died and I waited for the replacement to travel from mainland China to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Alaska, Kentucky (?), Seattle and finally my front door. I indulged in new notebooks, copying passages from Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, scribbling story ideas while researching news articles on my phone.

I can’t recall when I stumbled across the Hirshfield line, “How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” Yet there it is, in a scene of my new novel, clumsily recited by Ben to Kate, who lets him ramble on, unaware the line isn’t his, and frankly, not caring. She’s not a poetry fan. She slips away from the reading a few minutes later, muttering something about a bad oyster in the ear of her friend Gina, who dragged her to the event. It’s Kate’s fragile moments I am exploring, even as mine become anecdotes in a larger life.



Renewal

The annual invoice from WordPress sits in my inbox. It assures me I don’t have to do anything, that my plan will renew automatically, billed to the credit card on file. But I know have to do something. That credit card was 86’ed last summer, when someone skimmed my number and posted $2000 worth of charges in an overnight online shopping spree. There were a couple of runs to a mini-mart somewhere in New Jersey that night, as well. Likely snacks to fuel the freeform larceny. At any rate, should WordPress try to charge the card that end in the digits 0824, it will be sorely disappointed. And I’ll receive another e-missive telling me the attempt failed.

So, the invoice sits there, sandwiched between a recall notice from my local Subaru dealership and an invitation from Shelf Unbound to enter my small press-published novel in their annual literary contest.

My plan was to cancel my WordPress account. After eight years, it seemed time to dismantle this blog. Who blogs anymore, anyway? I have so little time to work on my novel-in-progress, why waste a moment here, strokes on a keyboard that could be, should be, directed toward a word count in Scrivener, churning through plot holes and character development? I took the renewal notice on my defunct credit card as a sign. It was time to leave the blog world behind.

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That was three weeks ago. Yesterday morning, in a fit of industry, I caught up on my expense reports, tracked down how much I have left in a long-forgotten HSA, figured out what I need to do to change the beneficiary on my 401(k) (which is strangely far simpler to do than changing the street address associated with my account). I have yet to deal with the car recall or enter that literary contest, but I have decided to keep this blog.

I’ve said goodbye to so much that has brought my writer a sense of clarity and forward momentum since the publication of my first novel in 2016. In two messy, wearying years, I’ve gone from writing full-time, coexisting joyfully with my words, to wondering if I still have the right to call myself a writer because I’m not at it every day. There was a time I published a blog essay every Monday. The more I wrote, the more the words flowed. I had the space in my brain and guts for all the words: the novels-in-progress, freelance editing projects, essays, newsletters, short pieces, classes to take, classes to teach. Now I despair of ever getting back to that sweet spot. I mourn what was.

Perhaps that’s the necessary part of the process to get at what’s newly possible.

I began this blog eight years ago simply to have a place to write that wasn’t a journal, where my words weren’t hidden away. I hadn’t yet begun to write creatively, but the need to release the words was visceral. This hasn’t changed.

Giving up on this blog means giving up yet one more thing that defines me as a writer, one less place where my words fit and mean something, at least to me. I won’t put the pressure on myself to be here in any sort of regular capacity, at least not until the other parts of my writing self get the full attention they deserve, but knowing this space is here, when the mood fits the time available is a comfort. A shout.

re·new·al

rəˈn(y)o͞oəl/

noun

noun: renewal; plural noun: renewals

  1. an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption.

  2. the action of extending the period of validity of a license, subscription, or contract.

  3. the replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.

Pulling the Trigger

It's every single day now, isn't it? Each morning brings reports of another powerful man falling from his high chair, a cringing apology-not apology "That's not how I remembered it, but ..." until I am worn out, we are, so very many of us, so very worn out.

How to make sense of the relief we feel that our stories are finally being heard and yet we are flooded with anxiety as the tidal wave of trauma washes over us, released by friends and strangers, the famous and the overlooked? #MeToo has given us the voices we have stifled, or simply forgotten how to use, or never knew we had. But the movement is also fraught with triggers as we remember all that we've been trained, or simply wish, to forget.

Stillness in solitude. November Dawn. Copyright Julie Christine 2017

Stillness in solitude. November Dawn. Copyright Julie Christine 2017

Until it happens again.

A few Friday nights ago. Alone on the dance floor. Fully in my joy. Stone-cold sober (why do I need to mention that? As if it matters. As if I need to assure you I didn't bring this on, but had I been drinking, I might have been responsible? This is what we do. Footnote lest we are blamed).

Unseen hands on my body. I am groped from behind. In the space of a moment, the time it took my brain to register what was happening outside of me and yet fully within my sacredness of my space, my skin, my flesh. I turn to see a stranger's leering face and I watch as the heel of my hand smashes into his nose, feel the crunch of cartilage, the snap of bone . . . but of course, I don't. My rage stays tucked away. I wrap my hands around his elbows and push him back, breaking the connection of his hands on my body. And in an instant there is another stranger, stepping in between, dancing me from the scene, putting his body between mine and that twisted leer. I can take care of myself, I think. But at that moment, I don't want to. I'm so tired. Tired of paying for letting my guard down. This man says, "That was disgusting. I'm sorry I didn't get there sooner."

I am told later that I should have hit the groper. This fills me with despair. Shame. Guilt. Bewilderment. I'm strong. In the moment, I wasn't afraid. Disgusted. Repulsed. Ragey. Yes. But not afraid. Why didn't I? Why didn't I smash the grin off that mask?

The pieces come together when I discover this article, written in 2016.

Our Legal System Punishes Women For Their Neurological Responses To Assault

Women aren’t trained to resist their natural instinct to shut down when threatened — and they’re socialized to avoid threats passively rather than aggressively. “[Women] are taught how to politely resist someone making unwanted sexual advances without angering them,” says Hopper. “They learn how to say no without coming out and saying no.” Once that resistance is ignored, the amygdala’s response takes over, and it’s too late. They’re under attack and their brain, controlled by fear and running on instinct, leaves them at the mercy of the perpetrator. “And then they blame themselves for the assault,” says Hopper, “and other people blame them for not reacting more effectively. But would they blame a man who’s been sent to the front line with no combat training?”

And this is to say nothing of the fact that we shouldn’t be blaming victims at all, instead of the perpetrators of assault and abuse.

In the grand scheme of the daily degradation of women, being groped on a dance floor is hardly worth mentioning. This man was nothing. I'd never seen him before and he vanished into the thick of the crowd.

But it is the very quotidian nature of this imbecile's behavior that wears me down. This shit just happens all the time. I can tick off my fingers other small things in recent weeks: the former boss who, in eavesdropping on a conversation between a colleague and me about the dress I was wearing to an event that night, exclaimed, "Why don't you go NAKED?" The man who lives somewhere in my neighborhood turning his car around to follow me down the block, slowing, leaning out the window to gape at me. That would it occur to anyone to say or do these things boggles my mind. Men with wives and daughters. What is wrong with you? That's the only thing that occurs to me to ask anymore.

Most of us aren't celebrities violated or demeaned by men in powerful positions. We're just your sisters, daughters, lovers, friends living with these small and large aggressions, trying to get through our days with grace and dignity. We'll never make the headlines. Most of us will never speak out. We feel either paralyzed or just so fucking tired; reaction, response seems futile. Having to respond makes us that much more vulnerable. And when we tell our stories, we're scolded for not having responded appropriately.

What is wrong with you?

Maybe you're getting tired of hearing these stories, too. Or of telling them. Just know that for every story you do hear, there are dozens left untold. If you are triggered, step back and take care of yourself. Be gentle with your soul and know that any emotion you feel, any reaction from your heart, mind, body is a valid one. Here's a good read to help you make sense of the complicated emotions: How to Cope If You're Feeling Triggered by the #MeToo Movement

There is no dénouement here, no redemptive ending. This is a story followed by an ellipses, because most of us are just waiting for the next scene. When it happens again.

 

And Still I Write

In the early spring of 2013, my husband and I left our careers in Seattle to move to a remote peninsula in the northwest reaches of the state. It’s the place where we’d intended to retire someday, but we had another twenty years of work ahead of us. After crisscrossing the country and oceans to the east and west, we’d at last found jobs we felt we could live out our salaried lives growing into. We worked for the same company, one that seemed to espouse our personal and political ideals. We were earning a comfortable combined wage with excellent benefits.

And I was writing. By the winter of 2012, I had published several short stories and I was deep into the first draft of my first novel. I’d been admitted into an MFA program starting in the fall at a local university, and thanks to a flexible schedule, I knew I could make it all work.

It was a good life. We were happy.

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There’s a story churning in my gut, a contemporary drama about a corporate culture that allowed a stream of employees to be bullied into impossible corners and intimidated into silence, a cautionary tale of a mentally unstable, power-sick company executive who targeted a worthy rising star, and bullied him with impunity. It’s a story with ripple effects both beautiful and grave, circumstances that opened doors and burned down buildings. In it, a couple refused to remain silent or back down; they worked in solidarity to shine light in the darkest of those tight, unforgiving corners.

Seattle is now a place where I once lived. All that happened is a memory in a shared life story.

That ending to our tidy lives, the cleaving of our employment, became the beginning of my full-time writing career. Leaving the city life for a village by the sea meant simplifying and we created a budget that allowed for one income. It also meant sacrifices and a resetting of expectations, but my husband declared his willingness to support us for as long as it took me to build a sustainable writing career. He became my sponsor, a gesture of grace and generosity.

I worked hard, writing hours a day, seven days a week, rarely a day off. I landed an agent and sold two novels and completed a third in the first two years as a fulltime writer. I published short stories and essays, my first poem. I began leading writing workshops and started a freelance editing business. I was awarded a writing residency in Ireland and saved up enough to send myself on a writing retreat in France. I was living a writer’s dream, at least one in its early stages. My income was modest: moderate advances and whatever I netted from teaching and editing gigs. Not enough to sustain myself, but enough to give me confidence that I was on the right track.

My first novel launched in February 2016, an event concurrent to the collapse of my marriage. That spring, as I publicly celebrated the most fulfilling, rewarding thing that could happen to a writer, a twenty-five year marriage was very privately coming to an end. How a couple slides from unity to dissolution is a tapestry of mistakes and sadness I will be unraveling for years. But the ending became delayed by something that still shames me to admit: I knew if my husband and I separated, my life as a fulltime writer would end. My security would vanish. I would be forced to return to a day job, giving up my dream almost as soon as it began. Yet to continue in a marriage that was less than either of us deserved would be to continue in a lie.

Ten months to the day after my first novel released, I punched a time card. I was fortunate to have found a job in the wine industry, a world I’d left three and half years before. I worked first for a resort, where the hours were long, the nights were late, the work physically demanding, commuting white-knuckled on dark roads all through the fall and winter. The summer I spent at a winery close to home with better pay, but no benefits and an uncertain future.  Then a few weeks ago, a phone call from a new, local, non-profit arts school asking if I would join their staff. A return to my long-ago, rewarding career in education administration, creating systems and processes to advance a mission I could wrap my head and heart around.

And still, when people ask what I do, I say, “I am a writer.” Somehow, in the midst of life’s chaos, the grief of a marriage ending, the bewilderment of another broken relationship blundered into from fear of loneliness and excitement of freedom, I scribble away still, determined to hold on to that which defines me: my words.

My second novel, THE CROWS OF BEARA (Ashland Creek Press) released in September. I had neither the time nor the funds to mount an in-person book tour. I released myself from the expectation of a sprint after launch and the novel is serenely flying alone. I settle into my new job, reclaim my routines, and set my sights on making bookstore rounds in the spring, knowing now from experience that promotion is a marathon, a slow and steady race without a finish line. A third novel is recently on submission. I have made tentative steps into a fourth project, having promised my agent I would have a draft of something solid by summer. Late summer.

I know of few writers who write fulltime, sustaining themselves on advances and royalties. Most of us, even those with bestseller in their bios, teach and freelance to supplement an uncertain and meager income, or we work full or part-time at jobs unrelated to our writing, jobs that provide health insurance, that pay the mortgage, the college tuition, the credit card debt, the medical bills. Those who have partners able to provide financial stability are the fortunate ones, as I was once. And fortunate I am still, for I have found stability on my own, with a vocation that sustains me financially and intellectually. My avocation, that as a writer, sustains my soul.

A Hive of Words

My head is a hive of words that won’t settle. ~ Virginia Woolf

The urge, the need to write. I tremble with it. And yet all that must spill from my head onto a page overwhelms me: essays and Author Q&As for imminent blog tour; a client’s manuscript awaiting feedback; three workshops in September to assemble, not to mention a weekly class beginning in October. Presentations about new novel. A newsletter; book reviews; e-mails to write and respond to. Most importantly, and yet the one thing I put off in favor of mopping the kitchen floor, arranging the spices, venting on Facebook about health care reform: my work-in-progress.

Today is graced with hours of unstructured time. I swim at dawn. A haircut this afternoon. Yoga and a date later this evening. But in-between, I sink into these two days off. I vow not to check work e-mail. To do what I promise myself I will do when I have a stretch of time: write. I finish my client’s manuscript. I submit an essay for my upcoming blog tour. I start another. I hide from the heat wave with the blinds drawn, my glass full of lemon water and snapping ice, the dog twitching with dreams, the cat ‘s sleek little body sprawled on the cool tile floor. I think I will take a nap, a slim memoir my companion until my eyelids close, my mouth slackens, my breath deepens. I am so tired. I will write after I sleep. But sleep giggles and I am awake. Because of the words.

At some point in these past two months, I abandoned my Bullet Journal. This assiduously maintained analog system that is the intersection of daily to-do list, planner, and diary stalled and then blacked out. Where once were plans and ideas are now the blank page equivalent of Crickets. A Black Hole.

The thought of chronicling all that I need to do seems far more harmful to my psyche than simply leaping onto the windmill blade itself, giving myself up to the spinning madness of daily life. A new job. The end of love. The beginning of love. A novel to launch. Another novel newly on submission. A dog who ate my sofa and my yoga mat and several blankets. Furniture. Shoes. We still find feathers from a demolished down comforter floating down the stairs on breezy afternoons. She becomes the symbol of what is wrong, what must be changed, how mismatched expectations and impossible hopes strangle love. 

I quit attending to my organizational system when it seems my daily bullet points will read

  • Breathe
  • Accept
  • Heal
  • Buy one-way ticket to Chile

And yet. There it is. A new notebook, slowly filling with character, settings, questions, possibilities, themes, magic. I leave myself a trail to follow each time I write. My planned life ends in June, about the time my writing life kicks into gear. Even as I arrange those spices, mop that floor, craft others’ work schedules, delight in stolen moments with a beloved, even as I catch up here with you, I’m working on what matters most. A young woman trapped in a land of eternal rain, plagued by dreams of summer and a family lost to battle, possessing a power that renders her both misfit and divine entity; and a shepherd, five thousand miles and five hundred years away, haunted by his own dreams and a war that will prove to be without end.

Today’s to-do list

  • Write
  • Read
  • Breathe
  • <deliberatelyleftblank>

I shared with you recently that In Another Life had been nominated for a Foreword Indies Book of the Year Award. I’m delighted to tell you that the novel received GOLD for Fantasy Book of the Year, awarded at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago, June 2017. 

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Neverending Story | CHALK the SUN

As a rule, I don’t read reader reviews of my work. By the time a book hits the shelves, my work is complete and the reading experience no longer belongs to me. I do read trade reviews and those from sources I’ve actively sought out, such as book blogs. Occasionally, friends will send their thoughts to me directly, but I try not to ingest their words.

Why such caution?

I’ve been a member of Goodreads, the online reader review community—which now numbers in the millions of members—for nearly ten years. I’ve written hundreds of reviews and formed wonderful connections with book lovers around the world. Writing reviews, thinking carefully about the books I read, their construction, style, themes, and storytelling, became a vital part of my self-directed MFA. It’s what led me to seek out writing instruction and begin to craft stories of my own. There is no better way, in my opinion, to become a writer than to read deeply, broadly, and reflect deliberately on others’ writing. I saved $30,000 on tuition and fees, thank you so very much.

But people, because people are people, can be unspeakably cruel in a forum where relative anonymity is possible. Monstrous things are written about books for no reason other than spite and sheer nastiness. Even simple negative reviews, just plain old “this was crap”, make me cringe.

I decided a few years ago to cease publishing critical reviews of books. Not to be a Pollyanna, but because I came to understand that the negativity reflected on me and cost me far more than it did any possible good in the world. If a book does not capture me within the first pages, I set it aside. I don’t have time to waste and the only fair thing is to admit it’s not the read for me. Occasionally I will get all the way through and be frustrated, disappointed, resent the wasted time, but I’ll let the reading experience go with minimal to no comment.

Salt Creek, WA Copyright Julie Christine Johnson 2017

Salt Creek, WA Copyright Julie Christine Johnson 2017

I’d much rather exhale joy for something extraordinary. If I spend time writing a review, it’s because I want the world to know about this book.

So that’s where I come from as a reader. As an author, I’ve come to accept that readers’ opinions are none of my business. I’m honored that anyone would spend time with my words. But hoping my intent will be understood or appreciated is futile. Readers come in with their expectations, hopes, and biases that have nothing to do with me or my words.

At the close of each writing workshop I lead, I read aloud Colum McCann’s gorgeous Letter to a Young Writer . It is a meditation on the power and purpose of writing for writers of any experience. I first read it months before the launch of In Another Life and it’s what made me decide that reviews were not mine to read.

Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Colum McCann

What is good. What is good? What is good is to keep my head down and write. To trust the editorial process and know that multiple eyes and brains have pored over and picked apart my work with the sole objective of making my story as true and strong and fearless and beautiful as possible. That it went to print when it was ready. My books will find their readers in their own time and own ways, but my work will not be for everyone.

So there. Now, scratch all that. Sometimes you run into yourself.

A few weeks ago I went into my Amazon Author Central profile to make some long-overdue updates to my bio. And front and center in the reviews of In Another Life was this comment: “… This was just a ripoff of Outlander. I couldn’t finish it. It was HORRIBLE. Skip it.”

Oh, the Outlander thing. I could write columns on how that comparison has haunted me. Not one I invited or welcomed, a delightful book that was not remotely an influence on my novel. This comment stung at first, but then I listened deeply. The needle entered, bit, and then disappeared. It’s okay. It’s not mine to own. Not my experience to worry about.

Minutes later, I hopped over to Amazon.co.uk. I didn’t realize that I had to claim a separate author profile over there; I assumed one common profile lived throughout the Amazon Universe. Crikey. How exhausting. But there is was. Front and center: “This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Well-plotted with great characterization.”

If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Colum McCann

Like opening a bag of pretzels, once I started, I couldn’t stop. And then I read something that sated me. This. This is enough. “It is a love story which involves reincarnation, it is not about time travel. Comparisons to Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ and Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, are misleading. ‘In Another Life’ reminded me in style of Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy, though the stories are completely different.”

You beautiful reader. You were inside my head. In fact, I read Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth years ago and that wonderful story sparked my imagination. I went in search of contemporary novels about the Cathars and couldn’t find any. I was so captivated by the history, the land, the potential for story that I decided to write my own.

Any writer who says they don’t care about validation, well, fine. But I don’t believe you. We care. We publish because we truly want readers to seek out our work. We want to be noticed, to build a readership, to engage with readers, to know that our words reach and touch and move and inspire and entertain. We write because we must. We seek publication because we believe we’ve done something worth sharing.

I’m so pleased to announce that In Another Life is a 2016 Foreword Indies finalist for Book of the Year, Fantasy.  Winners will be announced during the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago in June.

Further delight in sharing that In Another Life is a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association annual STAR award for Debut Novel. Finalists’ novels are now being read by a panel of librarians, and winners be announced at the WFWA annual September retreat.

A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Colum McCann

The Grief of Writing

Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place. Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2017

Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

I’ve been mulling over this essay, In praise of doubt and uselessness, by writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Rereading it. Pulling out phrases that fire me up and comfort me. In the most potent way that the personal is political, Nguyen tells the story of his evolution as a writer in the larger context of supporting the arts and humanities “for their privileging of the mystery and intuition that makes moments of revelation and innovation possible.”  The hope that the public will continue to value its artists and nurture them, to support their work despite lack of quantitative measurements of success—beyond awards received or units sold—is felt as keenly now as ever.

But it is Nguyen’s phrase, the grief of writing, that plays a soft and constant refrain in my mind.

A professional writer and editor asked me the other day what I liked to do. Well, beyond strapping a pack to my back and lacing up my boots for 20 kms on trails in southwest Ireland, I like to write. Even those tortured hours of feeling bound by the limitations of my skills, squeezing out 100 words after four hours of pounding work, yes, even that I like. This writer/editor regarded me skeptically, stating he found writing tortuous, the evil means to an end. He preferred editing others’ writing, work he could walk away from without worrying if it mattered to anyone else.

Hearing this, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phrase came to mind. The grief of writing. Knowing that, even as we spill our souls on the page, it might not—it likely won’t ever—matter to anyone else.

For the past year, I’ve mourned the lack of writing in my life. Revising, promoting, promoting and revising some more, have taken precedence. But in recent weeks, I’ve come close to capturing my bliss. As I near the end of revising a novel, the first draft of which was complete nearly two years ago, I’ve written new scenes and reconnected with characters I love. The hours I’ve been able to carve out for this writing have brought so much peace and healing. Knowing that in a matter of weeks I will be able to start on something completely new, so new I’m not even certain yet what it is, fills me with joy.

I vaguely knew, but didn’t really understand, how much writing would demand from me, how much it would dismantle me as a professional, much to my own grief but ultimately for my own betterment as a writer and a scholar. Viet Thanh Nguyen

This past year has been a dismantling of a writer. Necessary, perhaps. Inevitable, according to so many of my mentors who walked the publishing road ahead of me. The grief of writing comes from realizing all that you do not know and accepting that not only are there no shortcuts to gaining that wisdom, but that no one is all that interested in your progress. It is, as Nguyen reminds us, an act of faith and “faith would not be faith if it was not hard, if it was not a test, if it was not an act of willful ignorance, of believing in something that can neither be predicted nor proved by any scientific metric.”

And so I come full circle, back to knowing that it is the writing itself that matters, not the outcome, over which I have so little control. The peace and release are their own rewards, and how I know, in the very meat and tendons and veins and blood of my soul, that I am a writer.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

 

Atmospheric River

‘Atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics.’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Atmospheric river . . . In less lovely terms, it’s pissing rain. You’d think, living in the western reaches of the Pacific Northwest, we’d be less disgruntled by the wet sheets tumbling from the sky. It’s not that we’re unaccustomed to moisture; rather, we’re offended by the torrents. Northwest rain is gentle and intermittent. But the seasons are in flux and with change comes a disturbance in the force. Those rivers in the sky now burst through the dams of clouds, and rush to drench us in something that feels almost like jubilation. This seemingly endless winter is dying at last.

I feel my own Atmospheric River coursing inside, this rush of words building and tumbling into a cascade of stories. Phrases and memory-snatches leap into my awareness, like spawning silver salmon in a coastal stream, asking to be spun into stories. Hold that thought, I tell myself when a story idea flashes like sunlight through a river current, but I don’t worry. I know it is my heartbrainimagination awakening after a long winter, one that bore no resemblance to the calendar. A winter of the soul.

Other possibilities unfurl from small buds of hope, blossoming as they reach for warmth and light. By chance, I find The Crows of Beara listed on Goodreads and Amazon, in that stealth way the publishing Universe has of capturing data and populating virtual bookshelves. September, the novel’s official release month, suddenly looms very real and large. 

And my first love, In Another Life, has been nominated for a FOREWORD INDIES Book of the Year Award. Foreword Indies Awards, judged by librarians and booksellers, recognize books that are published outside the Big 5 New York publishing world. IAL was nominated in the Fantasy category, which thrills me to bits. I never quite understood the Historical Fiction attachment. I always feel as though I need to wave a disclaimer banner when someone labels it HF: YOU GUYS I MADE THIS UP  But the delight remains.

Revising my third novel (the first draft completed nearly two years ago, but oh all the things that have come between me and those subsequent drafts) means that I must put off chasing after those silver salmon ideabursts just a little while longer. But just as the rain heralds the change of seasons, my internal atmosphere forecasts a change of heart.

CROWSCOVER.jpg

A Word Of Resolution for 2017

ra·di·ate

verb

ˈrādēˌāt/

  1. emit (energy, especially light or heat) in the form of rays or waves. To shine brightly.
  2. diverge or spread from or as if from a central point.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may recall that in lieu of making resolutions to ring in the New Year, I’ve selected a word to center myself for the months to come. Here’s a look back at 2015 and 2016. I haven’t mustered the courage to reread these posts, but I’m not certain it matters. The intention is the journey, no? Looking back to see if you’ve made it to the point, the self, the outcome you’d imagined just seems an exercise in disappointment and regret.

But I do see that I chose “embrace” to define 2016. Had I known what the Universe had in store for the year, I may well have chosen “reject”, instead.

This year. This achingly difficult, beautiful, complicated, change-ridden year.  A year when life turned itself inside-out. When the world stopped making sense for so many on a bewildering November night. Yet, as much as I welcome an end to 2016, I know that it defines much of what is to come.

I ran into a friend in a pub the other night. A new friend, a writer, whom I met at a joyous occasion a few weeks ago, something I’ll tell you more about in a moment. He complimented me on my author website and mentioned reading the page where I cross-post this blog. He expressed admiration for how I lay it all out here, how vulnerable and real I allow myself to be. How ironic, given that I’ve kept so much on the down low these past months, hinting at but never revealing the divergent path I’ve been stumbling down, seeking, but never quite finding secure footing. As a writer. As a woman.

My first novel launched on February 2. A novel about grief, rebirth, reincarnation and the muddled line between history and the past, debuting on the day we shrink from shadows, and from a mindless repetition of the mundane. An extraordinary day for me, to be sure. And as the weeks and months unfolded in a celebration of this joyous accomplishment, behind the scenes a twenty-five year marriage was coming to an end. Quietly. With great sadness and bewilderment. More than half my life, defined by partnership with another. And suddenly that which I took for granted, a word, wife, was no longer mine.

But other words remained. Woman. Writer.

Local Authors' Night, The Writers' Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.

Local Author’s Night, The Writers’ Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.

Yet, it often felt as though I’d lost sight of even those. The fundamentals of who I am, my place in the world. But looking back on these months, I realize I have never lived more fully as a woman, as a writer, than I have in 2016.

Betwixt and between the mind-blowing joy of launching a novel into the world was the agony of divorce. The stress of being a very public “author” vs. the solace and creative growth of being a writer; the delight in sharing my book with readers coming up against the inability to step away to nurture my muse; the heart-quickening embrace of new love meeting the reality of stepping into a traditional “day” job to support myself, thereby letting go of precious writing time… it’s all been so much. So glorious. So painful.

In early December, my LBS (aka Local BookStore, you know, those beloved indies that have survived and thrived by connecting dedicated readers with beautiful works of art, one book at a time), hosted a Local Author’s Night. For the first time in months, I was surrounded by readers and authors alike, friends I hadn’t seen in far too long, others I had never met, such as the new friend I mentioned above, who lives across the street, as it so happens. It was a celebration, a coming together of a beloved community, a return to my heart and intellect, a precious reminder of who I am and what I am meant to do.

It was also a reminder in this time of political turmoil—as many of us mourn what has been lost and fear what is to come—what role artists play in lifting up, exposing, bringing together, voicing, and providing moments of escape, connection, entertainment, joy, and compassion to our communities. How very important it is to engage and contribute, to be present, not only in one’s own life, but in the world.

And so I choose for 2017 the word Radiate. For I am determined that in this new year, which will see the release of my second novel, The Crows of Beara, my work, my words will emit light and energy, will spread from a central point—my soul—to serve a greater purpose.

New Year’s Eve day I came across these lines by one of my favorite poets, W.S. Merwin. Here’s an excerpt:

“… so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible.”

From ‘To the New Year’

Isn’t that extraordinary?

Love and hope to everyone for a blessed 2017. Let’s please just do this, all of it, better.

Wait, For Now

Early morning. Hours yet before there is light enough for me to see the full extent of damage to my car.

Returning home last night from work, after a stop at the grocery store (oh, if only I'd gone back for the bundle of kindling, which was the reason I'd stopped in the first place, but I was so tired.), eggs and wine and something to stir fry in a sack pressed snug against my laptop bag and the rinsed-out remains of my lunch. I'm traveling the speed limit. I note this for you, because the stretch of road that drops into my village from the hill overlooking two bays is a notorious speed trap. It's all too easy—when you're so close to home, when, in the daylight, you're distracted by the sunglints and sailboats on the water and the mountains beyond—to let the car cruise past thirty, flirt with forty.

But I am careful. I drive this stretch a dozen times a week, at least. I know just the right amount of pressure on the gas to keep the speedometer hovering at the limit.

On this night, last night, as I dip down into town, glowering headlights consume my rearview mirror. Dodge Ram crawls up my ass, past the diner, past the Safeway, through the intersection and all along the stretch that borders the shipyards. Must not be a local. I let it go, lost in my end of a long workday, rambling, footsore thoughts of dinner, copyedits. I ignore the menacing glare of light behind me; so close to home, one of us is bound to make a turn soon.

I'm certainly not thinking about getting sideswiped. I'm not prepared for the driver behind me to decide, suddenly, that he will take the same left turn I'm making, but that he'll make it first, and in trying to get ahead of me, he runs into me.

The driver tells me in the parking lot where we end up, two sets of hazard lights flashing, that he "got tired of waiting for me." The molding of my side mirror wobbles on the hood of my car, my hands shake as I search in my purse for my insurance card.

Awakened by anger in the wee, lonely hours. Dismayed. Hurt. In my mind's playback loop I keep hearing, "I got tired of waiting for you."

Collision Course

Collision Course

What happened to me last night feels like a metaphor for this long, bitter night of election season. We're all just so very tired of waiting for each other. And so we ram our own way forward, regardless of anyone else's safety or well-being. To hell with common sense or what is legal, moral or ethical. We've lost our compassion, our empathy, our sense of a greater good. We've lost our way.

I don't really know what to do now. I'm not of a mind to forgive. Not today. It's hard to muster the energy to be an activist, a writer, an engaged human being when merely driving down the road puts you at risk of someone else's thwarted sense of entitlement.

I'm too tired to do much else today but move forward. I have to leave for work again soon. I have to, like everyone else around me, pick up and continue, despite the anger, the despair, the bewilderment. I have to find hope.

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

~ from Wait by Galway Kinnell (1927-2014)

 

 

Loving the Questions

I settled into Virasana, tailbone sinking to the earth between my feet, wrists loose on folded thighs, spine straight, chest taking in more air than I'd breathed all day. I'd arrived to class several minutes early, unrolling my yoga mat in my favorite place before the west-facing window. After a long weekend of torrential rains and gusting winds, the day had been mild–warm really–for mid-October, and the early evening sun was an orb of burnished gold.

Suspended light wavered and caught hold of a web just outside the window, illuminating a gloriously fat spider at its center, her world shifting and shimmering in the soft breeze. She glided from the web's bullseye to make slight adjustments to her woven marvel, returning to the center like a queen to her throne. For the next ninety minutes, as I rose and folded in salutation to the setting sun, I glanced at Spider when I could, until darkness descended in a blue curtain and I lost her to the night.

Spider's commitment to her task, the faith she has in her own strength and purpose, the beauty and rightness of her creation, however temporary, moves me to my core.

 

My life is in flux, with strands as shivery and delicate as Spider's web, but no less connected to the Universe and just as strong for the determination and resolve with which they were spun. Massive changes of heart and mind, changes I have not yet shared here for they are too raw and new, complicated and bittersweet, private and yet rippling with aftershocks into lives tied to my own.

At the heart of it, at the heart of me, are my words. I've turned inward these past months, writing very little for public viewing. Publishing and then promoting a novel sucked me dry and I've had little desire to offer more beyond what's already out there, or the energy to do more than hone and polish the next novel to meet the next deadlines. But I've filled pages and notebooks with private thoughts, all in preparation for  . . . and I cannot complete this sentence. Or perhaps it is already complete. All in preparation. 

One of those notebooks, nearly full, ripe and bursting with hope and sorrow and wordswordswords, was tucked in the front pocket of a suitcase, a suitcase that was stolen from a train on one of the many stops between Marseille and Nice a month ago. As maddening as it was to lose everything but the clothes on my back at the start of a three-week journey, the things were all replaceable (and if one is going to lose all her clothing, one should be happy one is in France. Shopping.).

My words, however, are not. I mourn the loss of my journal. All that work, gone in an instant, like a cruel hand or a gust of wind ripping apart the strands of Spider's web. How frustrated she must feel to see her handiwork, her livelihood, torn asunder. But she never fails to start anew. It's what she does. Spin or die.

The occasion of the loss of those words led directly to writing retreat during which I wrote more than I have in a year, since the months leading up to and following the publication of In Another Life and the preparation of The Crows of Beara for its upcoming launch. And every word I wrote was shared with a group of magnificent writers. The writing, the sharing, brought me back to my writer, my storyteller, the center of my web.

In his turn-of-the-20th-century Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke implores his friend to stop searching for the answers, to love instead the questions. I realize, as I let go of my losses and look ahead to what I have left and what I have gained, that writing through my private thoughts is a search for the answers. Telling stories is a celebration of the questions. I'll always dance between the two, but I think I'm ready to live the questions now. And living means writing.

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Shards

Concrete walls with long shards of glass embedded along the top, brutal points glinting in the hazy yellow light of the Sahel, surrounded the American embassy compound. Similar defenses protected private homes in the few neighborhoods that boasted living trees and roads with some tarmac still intact. Those with any means walled themselves behind concrete and cut glass, the only entrance a metal gate guarded by men with semi-automatic rifles and chained dogs kept on the cruel side of hunger.

Once, two Marines in a LandCruiser drove us to the home of an American defense attaché to spend the night. It was meant to be a treat. Air conditioning. Eating with utensils instead of scooping with our right hands. A bath. A bed not tented by mosquito netting sprinkled with termites. No snakes, frogs, cockroaches. No feral dogs seeking shelter, watching us from across our one-room mud hut with eyes glinting in the moonlight. A toilet.

As a Chadian man cleared the dinner table with white-gloved hands, the attaché's wife said–she actually said–"It's so hard to find good help here."

I have tried to write about Chad for years, since an aborted attempt as Peace Corps volunteers in 1993 left us emotionally and physically compromised, and full of shame at not having endured the full length of our assignment. Leaving was an ethical decision: Chadian teachers were caught in a cycle of not being paid, striking until a bit of money and empty promises of reform were tossed at them like crumbs. Peace Corps volunteers stepped in to fill the gap in local schools and suddenly, who needs the Chadians any longer? Where's the impetus to effect real change when outsiders will save the day? We were sick, morally, at the arrogance and illogicality of our presence.

We left. Alone. Months later the program collapsed behind us.

After Chad, we lived with friends in western Colorado, a place of intense and majestic beauty. We shared their tipi on a patch of high mesa. No concrete walls, no shards of glass embedded to keep out those intent on harm, or perhaps just justice. Only thick canvas walls. We came to rest and heal. To rebuild. Yet we were wounded all the same by invisible, razor-sharp shards of expectations and assumptions. A proposition made and rejected. A rejection that resulted in retaliation and betrayal. I have tried to write this story of Colorado for years, as well.

Because these stories, this particular time, are as locked together in my mind as Chad is by desert and Colorado by mountains and plain, I feel them as inextricably linked. A husband and wife lost, bereft, betrayed by expectations, by those they assumed would give them shelter: the U.S. Government; two close friends. Even now, twenty-three years later, I know I have not forgiven.

At last, the story is written, Chad and Colorado woven together, a needle pulling thread.

It’s rare to receive feedback from literary journals. They reject your work with a form e-mail that offers no insights, just “Hey, this isn’t for us. Good luck!” But this particular story garnered editorial feedback from two literary journals in which I’d be thrilled to be included. I am proud of these Nos, for they came accompanied with high praise. But the story was ultimately rejected by both for the same reason: the events just seemed unbelievable. What the young married couple had experienced strained credulity to the point of exasperation. Of course, everything that happens was ripped from the headlines of my life, as true as my memory and my journals of twenty-four/three years ago recall.

So I brought my story to a multi-day writing workshop recently, requesting insights on how to pull myself, the author, out of my own narrative and write in service to the story. How could I craft a better story, regardless of what really happened? If I intended to write a piece of non-fiction to honor my personal truth, I could go the essay route. But what I really want is tell a good story.

Critique is also meant to be in service to the story. How can we, as writer-readers, offer feedback that will help the writer take the best parts of her narrative and improve upon those?

At the start of the workshop, our instructor outlined the conditions whereby feedback was to be given: Our critique should determine how the work has affected us emotionally and intellectually, without criticism, without judgment, without using phrases such as I don’t like or this doesn’t work, which blame instead of exploring a story’s nature and its possibilities. We were promised safety.

Yet, the very first writer to offer up her story crumbled as parameter after parameter was crossed, the understanding between writers crumpled and tossed out the window. She finished the day and never returned, impaled on shards of poorly executed critique. Expectations shattered by reality; trust, betrayed. She and I shared a 3:00 p.m. bottle of wine later in the week, lamenting the irony that only the instructor could be heard using the verboten phrase, this doesn't work . . .

"It's so hard to find good help here."

And what of my own work? A dozen copies of this story, with a dozen sets of interpretations and suggestions, sit in a folder. I am left with the shards of my narrative, my truth, shining and cruelly sharp at my feet, ready to be melted down and reshaped into something new.

Reflections on Jhumpa Lahiri's 'In Other Words'

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I realize that the wish to write in a new language derives from a kind of desperation. I feel tormented, just like Verga’s songbird. Like her, I wish for something else — something that I probably shouldn’t wish for. But I think that the need to write always comes from desperation, along with hope. Jhumpa Lahiri

Twenty-one summers ago I was finishing up one graduate degree in International Affairs and preparing to start a second degree in Linguistics, moving from an inquiry the effects of women's levels of education in the developing world have on household income, birth rates, and infant mortality, into an examination of how language affects our creativity. I intended to pursue a Ph.D in Linguistics and was mulling over a dissertation on expatriate writers in France who wrote in their adopted language. I planned to explore how writing in French had changed their approach to the language of their stories, how this second—or some cases, third or fourth language—influenced the content, rhythm, and expression of their thoughts.

Then I was offered a job, a great job, in my first field. I pondered the inherent financial and professional insecurities of a life in academe and I turned from the Ph.D path, away from Linguistics.

Oh, the irony as twenty years later I try to make a living as a writer, having turned from the path of financial and professional security and stability because it wasn't a life authentic to me. If someday I achieve a measure of commercial success, I will relocate lock, stock and barrel to France, where I can immerse myself wholesale in a language and culture that fills and sustains my heart and intellect.

Along comes Jhumpa Lahiri with In Other Words, a luminous meditation on how immersion in another language changes a writer's soul. In this evocative and earnest collection of brief essays on learning to express herself in Italian, Lahiri touches on everything I felt to be true or what I have experienced with equal intensity living in France and living in the French language: the daily intoxication and despair, the loss and discovery of self, the intimacy and estrangement that come with linguistic and cultural displacement.

This is not a book on what it's like to live in Italy. It is not a travelogue, a glimpse into a place any of us fortunate enough to have traveled there or who dream of going can mine for memories or tips. It could be set in Poland or Peru. This is a memoir of the mind of a writer who finds herself humbled by language. Lahiri writes of her first experiences crafting a story in Italian, “I’ve never tried to do anything this demanding as a writer. I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic. I have to start again from the beginning, as if I had never written anything in my life. But, to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor. Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”

I am reminded as I savor these hesitant, glorious essays that my instincts two decades ago were right. Even then, so many years before I began writing, I understood the metamorphic potential that profound engagement with another language held for a writer. In Other Words has given me reason to take up that dream again, this time not at a scholarly remove, examining other writers' lives and work, but as a way to enhance my own.

As Stars Begin to Burn

Three months to the day since my last blog post. Sounds rather like a statement fit for the confessional booth, doesn’t it?

“Forgive me Father, for I have . . . ‘  

I’ve been asking for forgiveness often of late. Of myself, for myself. Life, having flipped upside-down in recent months, leaves my inside-out heart pushing through a thick fog of self-doubt and anxiety with occasional glimpses of bright blue joy above. Love and belly laughs. Bonfires and beaches. Une chienne blanche. La ville rose. 

EndingsBeginningsLossesFinds freefalling like a poem snipped apart and flung into the air, its wordpieces floating to the ground to form new lines, new meanings.

When I began writing full-time three summers ago, I worried that stepping off the traditional work-life stage would distance me from life’s theatre, that I would fall into a too quiet existence, all the potential characters and their stories passing me by. I would no longer really live life, only observe it from a comfortable remove.

Turns out, I had nothing to fear. Life chased me down. Smacked me upside the head. Said don’t even think about getting comfortable, girlfriend. 

And so I am in the thick of it. My own story as large as life, almost larger than I can handle some days. But, fuck. It’s mine. In all its hot mess merry-go-round spinning whiplash glory of possibility and bewilderment of massive change. I am so alive I can scarcely breathe from the force of it.

And ever the writer, a part of me stands slightly outside, taking note of the emotions that hit my solar plexus like a hammer blow, the characters who crash through my heart’s door in all their noisy love and fury, unlooked for, uninvited, but inevitable. Intended. I create word photographs of the tsunami, knowing my way through this to the other side, to peace and equanimity, will be found on the page.

Thank you, precious friend, who read this Mary Oliver poem to me over the phone last night, over the sound of my sobs. Thank you, Poetry, for always speaking my heart.

Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to me these past weeks, wondering where I was, whether I was all right, when I’d be back. I’m here. Writing my stories. I’m here. Living this one wild and precious life.

I’m here. 

The Journey

 One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

by Mary Oliver

 

Taking On the Darkness

A bright spring morning. The boat haven is abuzz with industrial activity, the parking lot in front of the nearby diner, full. The scent of frying bacon follows me up the trail before dissolving into the stench of low tide rot.

When I first pass him—me walking at a fast clip, he sitting on a bench, head surrounded by a black hood—my internal radar begins pinging hard. The glance I take from my periphery reveals a face contorted in rage, his hands gripping the edge of the bench, a coiled thing. He is shouting, incoherent, words garbled, but enough of the syllables take shape to understand they are directed at me. I have no choice but to keep going. Coming toward me, about 300 yards up the path, are a cyclist and runner in tandem. I wait until they are close, then turn around.

As a runner in Seattle, my guard was always up. I ran in the early mornings, often in the dark, often around Green Lake, where there was safety in numbers—it’s one of Seattle’s outdoor fitness Meccas—but also trees and restrooms and secluded areas to be aware of. Two weeks before we left Seattle for the Olympic Peninsula, a man began attacking women in the early mornings at Green Lake, precisely on the trails I ran, at the times I was there. What a relief, then, to set myself loose on the trails in this idyll of beaches and mountains. My whistle and pepper spray remain in my pack for the occasional coyote or loose dog, or, most troublesome of all, the roving pairs of raccoons, who hiss and charge and move in slinking, snakelike speed if the mood strikes. 

It happens so fast.

I feel as much as see him spring off the bench, words spilling out in growls, nasty and lewd. I don’t run, I don’t turn, I just keep moving until I feel him at my shoulder, smell him behind my back. And then there is shouting from different voices. The cyclist skidding to my side, the runner’s pounding steps. And the young man, retreating. He returns to the bench, face again behind the hood, rocking back and forth, already imprisoned by drugs, alcohol, his own demons.

The couple walk me to safety, and seeing that I have my phone in my hand, offer to stay as I call 911. I brush them off. “I’m fine,” I say. “He was high, it doesn’t matter.” I am ashamed. Ashamed that as a physically strong woman, I didn’t try to take him down. Ashamed that I’d been so afraid. Ashamed of my vulnerability. Ashamed, perhaps, of my own body, that someone would say the things he said to me, that I could attract such ugliness. Because I’d been walking, with no intention of heading into the woods, I had carried only my phone and my innocence.

And then I see two women, separated by a few dozen feet, making their way up the trail, in the direction of the man who had come after me. In the distance, I see he still sits, waiting. What am I thinking? Of course I will call. If not for myself, than for all the women behind me. I hold out one hand to stop the first woman, even as I dial 911 with the other.

The officer who responds to my 911 call sees me out walking two mornings later and stops to give me an update and a bit of the man’s story. The 28-year-old is well known to local police. He was arrested twice on this day—once for accosting me and then again a few hours later for unrelated charges. Drunk. High. Unhinged. I’m sure there is much more that I’ll never know. Frankly, I hardly care.

~

In nearly six years of blogging, I have never received a negative comment. WordPress does a great job of catching spam, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean a comment from a real person that is intended to wound and harm. But it happened recently, in response to my post Getting Ready To Exist. What this woman, who identified herself as a writer and mother, wrote does not bear repeating. But in a space in which I shared my grief at having literally lost my chances at motherhood through multiple miscarriages, someone thought to express their conviction that because of my obvious weaknesses, the flaws in my character, I couldn’t handle motherhood, anyway.

In thinking through how these two events have affected me, with their immediate and latent anger, hurt, and shame, I recognize the destructive power of the untold story. Sitting on shame and regret only allows those feelings to fester and infect perspective. Conversely, when we share our truths, reveal the things said and done that wound and harm, we open ourselves to empathy for others, we allow in healing. Our personal narratives become shared connections and conversations that hold value beyond our own lessons learned.

My safe places are no longer safe. Were they ever? Of course not. The trolls, whether they lurk on park benches shrouded in black hoodies or in the virtual world behind the anonymity of a computer screen, have always been there. But I haven’t stopped my early morning hikes or my blogging. I reclaim these spaces. I reclaim my voice.

“I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’ But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.” Colum McCann, author and founder of Narrative 4, a non-profit that trains schools, students, community leaders in storytelling and storycraft as a way to foster empathy and build community.

Getting Ready to Exist

The human heart is never still. There is a divine restlessness in each of us which creates a continual state of longing. You are never quite at one with yourself, and the self is never fixed. There are always new thoughts and experiences emerging in your life; some moments delight and surprise you, others bring you to shaky ground. John O’DonohueEternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections On Our Yearning to Belong

I am on the edge, the edge where this peninsula meets a strait, straight line to the ocean. The water a dull green expanse like worn seaglass, except where it crashes ashore in brown breakers laced with white foam. The skim milk sky has a faintest bruise of blue underneath its watery skin. It is a battered day, spent and cold, seasonless, reasonless. One more soaking bluster to add to the wettest few months in Washington state history.

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My car faces the strait, windshield blurred by the weeping sky. Rain pelts the back window like a child hurling handfuls of gravel. I have had enough. This rain. This cold. This stasis.

Yet my life been anything but static for weeks on end. I lament the daily rollercoaster of praise and criticism that accompanies the public release of a very private effort. Routines disrupted, privacy jilted, my winter retreat from social media thwarted by the need to be present, responsive, accessible. And then, you know. Feeling like an asshole for even hinting that a dream realized could be fraught with stressors I wasn’t prepared for. The emotional tangle of being on, accountable.

I am filled, made complete, when I give of myself.  Because I have been receiving so much input, with too little output, a certain disquiet, an uneasy longing, has taken hold. A hole has opened inside. It is an emptiness in search of belonging.

“I’d woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.” – Fernando PessoaThe Book of Disquiet

I am not a joiner. Although I have causes vital to me, to which I donate time and resources, write letters to my elected officials, work to educate and inform my opinion, seek to acknowledge my own privilege and biases, mine is participation in solitude. Sure, I put in time during the growing and harvesting season at a community food bank garden, but even that is solitary: planting, weeding, watering, harvesting according to instructions left by the garden manager. The writing workshops I lead each week bring a certain calm joy that reminds me how much being a guide, a mentor, a teacher contributing to others’ creative process sustains my own.

But now, in this time of spotlight, what am I giving? How am I using my words, my voice, to create something beyond and greater than my own needs and ego?

Two weeks ago, the launch month of In Another Life culminated in an evening at a local bookstore, a celebration with my community. I took parts of the talk I normally give during author readings and tossed them together with a recounting of what led me to begin writing the novel in the first place: the miscarriage of a pregnancy in the final hours of my first writing conference in 2012:

‘This wasn’t the first loss, but I knew it would be the last. I was forty-three. After years of unexplained infertility, attempted adoptions, then the unexpected pregnancies, miscarriages, and surgeries, my body was battered and my soul couldn’t take any more. It was time to stop.

Those years of attempting to be a mother came to a definitive end at that writers’ conference. Yet something else sparked to life: a determination to find a way not only to cope with the despair, but to celebrate the life I did have, to create something beyond and greater than myself.

Two weeks after the conference, I typed the opening words to my first novel, the novel that became In Another Life. I didn’t set out to write about a woman recovering from grief, about the impermanence of death, the possibility of rebirth—of the body and the heart. In fact, I thought I had chosen the one story that would take me furthest from my own reality: a past-present adventure exploring a 13th century murder in southern France. Funny what the heart does when the head is distracted. It works to heal.”

These were the words I offered, to reveal how my personal grief ultimately led me on a very public journey.

Not long after this night, I received a message from someone who had been in attendance. She wrote, in part:

‘You did an incredible job tonight. You made standing in front of a full house and talking look easy. When I read the first pages of your book I feared you had experienced grief. The line “it had been so long since she had looked at her reflection in the mirror.” “It took someone else to make a decision about her life to propel Lia into finally making a few of her own.”  All feelings someone who has lived with grief would understand. I’m so so sorry for your losses. I think in your writing others will. . . encounter their own memories of grief & joys of finding love again. Your grief may turn into a gift you give your readers.’

The act of writing, which so often occurs in selfish solitude, is ultimately about finding a connection with readers. But most of us never really know what effect our words will have, if any; if the stories we tell resonate beyond a surface level that compels someone to keep turning pages. Just as I never expected that writing a romantic timeslip of a novel would bring me to my redemption, I never expected the finished story could speak to someone else’s mourning and healing process. With her words, this woman gave me a gift.

Be patient and without resentment and think that the least we can do is to make his becoming not more difficult for him than the earth makes it for the spring when it wants to come. – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I am so ready for spring to come. My divine restlessness, which sets my soul afloat on this dull, churning sea, pushes me ever forward, seeking beauty, questioning my longings, testing the shaky ground on which I stand. “Be patient,” I tell myself. “But get ready to exist.”

Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections

Some books simply find you. They enter your life at the right time, when you are most in need of and receptive to hearing their message. This book. My soul. The Universe recognized what I needed and offered up these words in response.

 

I’ve been aware of John O’Donohue’s work for some time: I have a collection of his poetry, gifted by a dear friend, that I dip into and feel embraced by; I’ve been to a writing residency at Anam Cara in southwest Ireland, named for one of his works of essays and reflections. But it wasn’t until I read a quote in the amazing weekly newsletter of curated wisdom, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings (you must subscribe, you simply must) that I learned of Eternal Echoes and knew it was the book for me, at this time, in this place.

 

There is a divine restlessness in the human heart. Though our bodies maintain an outer stability and consistency, the heart is an eternal nomad. No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart. As Shakespeare said, we have “immortal longings.” All human creativity issues from the urgency of longing.

That quote has become the centerpiece of the talk I give at author readings, for it speaks not only to the central themes of my novel, but to the themes playing out in my life.

 

Eternal Echoes is about coming to terms with the emptiness inherent to one’s soul, an emptiness we seek to fill with religion or drugs, love or work, instead of accepting that it is the very space inside we need, in order to grow into our compassion, our true selves.

 

There is something within you that no one or nothing else in the world is able to meet or satisfy. When you recognize that such unease is natural, it will free you from getting on the treadmill of chasing ever more temporary and partial satisfactions. This eternal longing will always insist on some door remaining open somewhere in all the shelters where you belong. When you befriend this longing, it will keep you awake and alert to why you are here on earth.

 

For this reader, acknowledging and living with this longing has been a particularly painful and recent exploration. I am a problem-solver by nature and when something is off, when my soul is akilter, my instinct is to root out the source of the maladjustment and fix it. It’s hard to accept that I need to sit with my discomfort and listen to what it is trying tell me.

 

Most of the activity in society is subconsciously designed to quell the voice crying in the wilderness within you. The mystic Thomas à Kempis said that when you go out into the world, you return having lost some of yourself. Until you learn to inhabit your aloneness, the lonely distraction and noise of society will seduce you into false belonging, with which you will only become empty and weary.

 

By necessity, I have been spending a lot of time “in society” lately, losing bits of myself along the way. And the more time I spend engaged in society, the more Fernando Pessoa’s lament from The Book of Disquiet (yet another collection of wisdoms that has found its way to me at the right time): my “passions and emotions (are) lost among more visible kinds of achievement.”

 

Eternal Echoes is informed by Celtic mysticism and a fluid Christian theology. Although I am not a Christian and actively avoid anything that smacks of faith-based advice, O’Donohue’s approach is philosophical rather than theological. It is something akin to gnosticism, that compels the individual to be an active participant in her own journey to wholeness, not a blind believer in an all-powerful god. He writes of allowing in vulnerability, for vulnerability leads to wonder, and wonder leads to seeking, and seeking leads to growth, and growth makes room for everyone else.

 

Dog-eared and underlined and highlighted and journaled, Eternal Echoes enters my library of go-to soulcatchers, along with the writings of Richard Hugo, Rilke and Pessoa, Woolf, Didion and Solnit: writers who understand what it means to allow in the darkness and sit tight while it slowly becomes light.

A Book is Born!

Friday afternoon: Exhaustion has turned my limbs to chilled butter. Tears press against the back of my eyes, my nose stings with heightened emotion. Nothing is wrong; everything is right. I am just so very tired and this week, the week I saw my novel launch into the world, is nearly at an end. Half an hour on this ship, another hour on the road, and I will be home. Silence. Bath. Cat. The last season of Mad Men on Netflix. Wine.

Photo: Dave Herron

Photo: Dave Herron

How to put into words what this week has meant, all that has happened; the outpouring of love and support from people I've never met in the flesh; others whom I have not seen in nearly thirty years, taking a seat before the podium where I stand, poised to talk about my novel; the flooding of photographs on my Facebook feed by friends who have found my book on shelves in Hawai'i and Florida, Boston and Houston; others holding up my book in Ireland and Scotland while their friends and family chime in to say, 'What's this? You know the author?'—all who have embraced me with such unqualified belief, joy . . . the words don't come. Only the warm flush of gratitude, the spark of amazement.

photo: Dave Herron

photo: Dave Herron

While I've been in Seattle, reading, meeting, signing, celebrating, In Another Life has had at least as full and busy a virtual launch week as its author has had in real life.

Here are a few highlights:

Trade Reviews

  • A gorgeous review by Nicole Evelina from the Historical Novel Society's print publication: Historical Novels Review (Feb 1, 2016)

  • And another that left me wanting to throw a ticker-tape parade, from the Washington Independent Review of Books (Feb 5, 2016). Ann McClellan brought out the novel's themes with such clarity and grace.

On the Virtual Road

The Blog Tour for In Another Life kicked off a few days before launch and it's been a whirlwind of interviews, guest posts, and reviews. Here are my stops so far. Warm hugs to these bloggers, who do what they do out of sheer love for reading and the satisfaction of supporting authors and bringing books to their readers:

Virtual Launch Party!

Tuesday, February 9, beginning 11:30 EST, I'll be part of a party of 13 authors whose novels launch between January and March, 2016. Join us for an incredible opportunity to chat with these amazing writers about their beautiful books. And me! Women's Fiction Writers' Association Online Book Launch Party

Current Giveaways

  • Goodreads Giveaway (3 copies) happening now through February 14.
  • Teddy Rose is hosting a giveaway of In Another Life: 10 days left to enter!
  • And, I'm giving away a gift bag of love, plus a signed copy of In Another Life, now through February 13. Subscribers to my newsletter are automatically entered into the random drawing. Giftbag Giveaway

As I wait for the boat to bring me from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula, a tweet arrives that pulls the exhaustion from my limbs and delivers tears and laughter. Three days after publication, In Another Life returns to press for a second printing.  My gratitude knows no bounds.