Divine Sparks |

“Certain bodies… become luminous when heated. Their luminosity disappears after some time, but the capacity of becoming luminous afresh through heat is restored to them by the action of a spark, and also by the action of radium.” ~ Marie Curie

I’d been warned by authors who’ve launched many a book before me that the muse would flee in the weeks and months leading up to and following the release of In Another Life; all my energy would be taken up by the demands of supporting my book virtually and in person. It would need to be nudged along, out of the nest, set free to soar on its own, but I’d need to remain close by, watching, guiding, occasionally letting the book draft behind my lead.

And to be sure, these past weeks have been filled with a busyness bordering on frantic. There’s a sense that no matter what I do, it, it isn’t enough. And then there is a novel I’m on deadline to revise. So I carefully apportion my time and energy, reminding myself to focus, to breathe, not to skip yoga or a hike or making dinner or folding the laundry—the meditative, restorative, ya-ya releasing activities that take me out of mental chaos into the sweet comfort of routine.

Much of my time has been spent writing guest blog posts and responding to interview questions as part of an extensive blog tour to promote the novel (fifty blog spots and counting!). It’s extraordinary to be so warmly welcomed by these hosts, whose blogs exist simply, wonderfully, to celebrate books and those who write and read them.

One of the unintended consequences of writing/talking about my book’s subject matter, its themes, the research, characters, setting and inspiration, is to be enthralled again by the Cathars, Languedoc, the tangle of history and geography, the wonder of an afterlife that weaves reincarnation with redemption with angels with good and evil and all the layers in-between.

And somewhere in those layers, my imagination, my writer’s soul, continues to work, digging in, excavating, uncovering ideas and holding them in her hand, like tiny embers just waiting for the breath of words to burst into the flame of a story.

In this time, when my attention and energy is as far from the blank page as it’s been since I committed to a writer’s life, a torrent of sparks has burst into the air.  A character has risen—a bit wobbly and unformed, a slip of clay that needs other elements to take solid form—but she is there, complex, a little feverish with her own possibility.

And then came a scribble on scrap paper, an opening line of humor for my upcoming author readings. I pulled my pen away and laughed for a different reason. I’d just released an idea that I may love. A story idea crazywonderfulsparklethisisnutsbutiloveityesyesyes

The Cathars regarded stars as divine sparks—angels if you will—created by one fallen angel from the crown of another who had dominion over the waters of the earth. From half the crown, the Fallen Angel made the light of the moon and from the other half he created starlight.

Somehow, that starlight-moonlight illuminated the parts of me gone dark in this rushed and anxious and excited time. Though I can’t pull away just yet to follow the tendrils of light, I no longer fear the luminosity will fade. I hold the divine spark in my hands.

Chartres, France copyright 2016 Julie Christine Johnson

Chartres, France copyright 2016 Julie Christine Johnson


A Word of Resolution for 2016 | CHALK the SUN

“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” ― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

January is tricky. I don't know if this happens where you live, and I've been back in the Pacific Northwest long enough to have scrubbed memories of common, dull Januarys elsewhere. But there is no darkness like that of a January morning. In fact, here at least, Sunrise simply defies the Solstice that is weeks old—rising later than ever, while Sunset tugs at the other end, stretching away from the day, striding farther across the Pacific Ocean. I notice the creeping length of the afternoons in increments: Last week at this time it was pitch black when I left class, now there is a faint glow of white across the Olympics. But the mornings. Oh. They grow heavier and darker.

I used to watch the calendar—where the timing of Sunrises and Sunsets are writ in tiny italics—for the day deep in January when the sunrise began to tick backwards. On that day my soul would inhale deeply and rise toward the light.

This year, though, I haven't minded. I'm out early most mornings, grasping a chunk of fresh air and getting a few miles under my feet before I put my seat in a chair. Something about starting in the dark, in the privacy of absolute shadow, allows me to hold my inner stillness for a little while longer. Several miles later, as I close the distance between hill and home, it is light and I must reenter the world, share the sidewalk and the rain with other bodies, others' thoughts.

It's the first time I can recall ever embracing January (except, of course, in New Zealand, where January is a cathedral of light and July is an ache of chill and damp.)

Last January I joined the practice of naming a word to define the year to come. My word for 2015 was a sensation, a representation of feeling, a metaphysical concept wrapped up in a gorgeous set of syllables: charmolypi, loosely translated as joyful sorrow, a kind of letting go.

This year, however, I am going with something simpler. A verb. A drawing in, rather than a letting go.

 



Embrace. The solace of shadow, the singular sweetness of the dark season. No longer keeping my head down in January, simply waiting for the darkness to end.

Embrace. This season of madness. Book launch two weeks away, my every moment accounted for, writing guest blog posts, doing interviews, preparing for book talks, this busyness that borders on frantic as I reach out, connect, and try not to slip on the ice of my own expectations.

Embrace. The distant sparkle of creativity, the flashes in my periphery, reminding me that although I am here now and the open meadow of the blank page is a few days' journey in the distance, I'm only just visiting and I'll be back my story home, soon.

Embrace. That pain deep in my hip and groin grinding like a pepper mill. I've stopped running, perhaps temporarily, perhaps for good. And as my hips shake loose and my back releases from the confines of a runner's constricted muscles, I have access to yoga asanas I never thought possible. My body, embracing me in gratitude, my ego rebuilding. I walk 8 miles in my running shoes. I feel no pain.

Embrace. The softening of my shell in the warmth of others' support. The love and encouragement that has come my way in the past year leaves me trembling. I shed a carapace of doubt and insecurity and learn to accept others' generosity with grace and in wonder.

Embrace. The singularity of this time, as uncertain and strange, as full of bright lights and blue shadows as it is. For it will change, as all moments do, blurring into the next or bursting apart like a camera flash.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.~ T.S. Eliot "Four Quartets"



Letting Go

I’m about to hand off a manuscript to my agent—my novel Tui, set in New Zealand. It took me a long time to get to this story, as I sorted through and made some sort of peace—a poignant truce—with my time in Aotearoa. And yet the more I wrote, the more any of the “I” that may have been present in the story dissolved and became something utterly distinct from me and my experiences. That’s the magic of writing for me. That I, as the storyteller, really have no idea where a narrative road will lead, no matter my intended destination at the beginning.

A sense of melancholy accompanies the completion of a novel, that point when it’s time to set your story free from the shelter of your imagination and open it to the eyes and feedback of others. You’ll never again encounter these characters with the same sense of wonder and discovery. But this time, the wistfulness is paired with disquietude. When I press send and release these few hundred pages into the ether, I will be without a new novel to work on.

Oh, the ideas are there; the stories stand half-slumped against the wall, whistling softly, waiting for me to crook my finger and call them forth. But now is not the time.

The preliminary planning and first draft work are, for me, an all-encompassing commitment of energy and emotion. When I begin, it’s like being inside an empty dance studio: there’s some structure—four walls, a ceiling—but the room is vast-white-bright, filled with the natural light of possibility, creativity, echoing with the happy shouts of ideas. I can whirl and leap on the pages for hours a day, weeks or months on end as the work expands and grows, breath filling my lungs, blood filling my heart. It demands everything and I acquiesce with joy.

Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

But for the immediate future, that dance studio has become a recital hall, crowded with chairs, noisy with clinking glasses, tapping feet, voices rising and falling; a cacophonous celebration of the performance I’m preparing for: the launch of In Another Life. And in the quiet moments, my editor and I will put our heads together over revisions of The Crows of Beara. 

Three novels in three years. It’s time to channel all my energy into sending one off into the world and reshaping another, while letting the third go, for now. It’s time to sit with my disquietude and wistfulness, as the well I have emptied these past three years refills, until the moment comes when I can dance again in that great, empty, silent room.

There is writing when you are intending to, and this other, less frequent, sometimes more beautiful writing that just comes. ~ James Salter

While the Iron is Hot

Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.
—Henry David Thoreau

The writing slipped away quietly. I’m not really sure when it happened–such a gradual thing. Looking back in my daily planner, I see September busy with preparation for a day-long workshop and the start of my weekly novels-in-progress sessions. Revising my own novel-in-progress. Preparing a marketing plan. A writers’ conference proposal. October, more of the same, but then suddenly, unexpectedly, I became mired in editing proofs of In Another Life. “Second pages” became Third, then Fourth, pages. Weeks went by.

The heart and head rush of a second book contract.

I took on private writing clients—a joy I haven’t had time to blog about. My career expanding in ways I only dared dream of six months ago.

Somewhere in the midst of the busyness, the stress and the joy, I lost my way. I lost my words.

The symptoms were those of withdrawal: irritability, restlessness, an undercurrent of anxiety and depression. Nothing fit right emotionally, doubt and frustration pulling at me like an over-tired child tugging on his mother’s skirt. A sense of running in place.

How does this happen when a writer is writing every day? Working harder, perhaps, than she has ever worked on her writing?

There is something precious, essential, imperative, about making the time and space for new words. That which is not part of a revision or an edit, but which flows fresh and for the first time. The act of creating.

_____

Late in the summer, I’d come across a contest for an all-expenses paid entry to an exotically-localed, big name writers’ conference. The parameters were a 500-word-maximum story, poem, or essay built around a loose theme. I had an immediate inspiration for a story, threw down a few words, then set it aside. Deadline was more than two months away. I had time.

The story kept appearing on my to-do list. Over again, for weeks, until finally it dropped off. Real deadlines pressed down, people counting on me to show up, finish things, get others started. I had no time for this nonsense. Winning this contest was a folly, completing the story wasted effort.

But still. The soul. Emptying out. Restless, itching, frustrated, sad.

By early November, I’d met my deadlines and like a break in heavy clouds, space appeared in my mind. I opened up the Word document that had sat on my desktop for weeks, quiet but persistent, my ribs expanding as I inhaled deeply.

Over the next several days, a story grew. Far too big for the contest entry, but that’s how I write: say all the things, then pare away until the essence remains. It’s work I love–I’m good with limits and deadlines; the challenge of creating something first from nothing then from too much is delicious.

In writing, I was returned to my element, utterly at peace. It was all so simple, this revelation. Elemental. The act of creating as vital to my soul as air and water are to my body. Entering this contest mattered not a bit, winning even less. A deadline gave me a way in, but what held me, what brought me back to my element, was the process: discovering a story, the crafting of two characters with a world between them, clearing the weight of history and politics and geography, and in two pages, bringing them together.

The coming months—as I usher a first novel into the world and prepare a second for its debut—will demand this constant recalibration of writer with author. I cannot forget that the first makes the second possible. I must burn a hole in the page every day with the searing hot iron of my creativity.

There is some ebb and flow of the tide of life which accounts for it; though what produces either ebb or flow I’m not sure.
—Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

Of Crows & Copper Mines

Dithering around today, trying to find the right way to begin this post. Which, not unrelated, is one of my greatest writing challenges. Cutting through the backstory, pruning the exposition, digging through the compost to find the story’s true beginning.

The beginning may be May 2002, when I traveled to Ireland for the first time and hiked the Beara Peninsula, losing my heart to boggy mountains and wind-shrieked coastlines. It may be October 2010, when I took my first writing class—a workshop on travel writing at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle—thinking I should find a way to meld my love for exploration with the growing desire to release words onto a page. It may be June 2011 and the publication of my first short story, when I realized that if I wrote one perhaps I could another, and I owed it to myself to try. Perhaps July 2012, when the ending of life inside my body brought me to create a different kind of life on the page.

Or it may be July 2013, when I walked away from paycheck and health insurance, a series of panic attacks in my wake, hope gilding the clouds of uncertainty ahead, into a full-time writing life.

But many of these stories I have already shared with you here. That backstory, that exposition, all running counter to the technique of in media res: beginning in the middle of the action.

In January 2014, as I set a first novel aside to rest, both of us exhausted by the effort to cull and corral 170,000 words into a 99,000 word manuscript, I created the story of a recovering alcoholic who has a marriage to repair and a career to salvage. And an artist who cannot forgive himself for the tragedy he caused. I brought them together on a lean claw of land on Ireland’s southwest coast: the Beara peninsula, where the endangered Red-billed chough-—a member of the Corvidae family with the scientific name made for a poem: Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax—congregate on land that could yield a fortune in copper.

That story became the novel The Crows of Beara. That novel was named a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by PEN/Faulkner author and Man Booker prize nominee Karen Joy Fowler.

And as of this week, my Crows has found an amazing nest: Ashland Creek Press. Ashland Creek Press, a publisher based in Oregon, is dedicated to publishing literature—fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction—focused on environmental, conservation, ecology, and wildlife themes. My crows and my words could not have found a more welcoming, nurturing home. The Crows of Beara is set to take flight September 2017.

There. That’s a beginning.

Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)

Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)

Reading Virginia Woolf's 'A Wrier's Diary'

Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My copy of A Writer’s Diary and its forest of little tags poking out from the side. All the passages I’ve marked. Some of those passages I share with you below, inbold as I try to sort out the meaning, comfort, madness and beauty of Virginia Woolf’s writing life. 

As a writer, I move daily between despair and joy. A good day of writing leaves me scoured clean and refilled with peace;
There is some ebb and flow of the tide of life which accounts for it; though what produces either ebb or flow I’m not sure.

but the stress of rejection and of praise is an invasion of the external world into my emotional and intellectual equilibrium.
…the worst of writing is that one depends so much upon praise. One should aim, seriously, as disregarding ups and downs; a compliment here, silence there.

The only way to right the imbalance is to shut out the world and offer myself up to the page. To sit and write until my limbs are stiff, my eyes ache, my brain empties out.
The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.

Then, to take a walk, letting the words sift from my head down to my toes. When I return home, I have room for the words of others.
The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature.

A Writer’s Diary show the decades of a writer’s life unfolding in real time: the highs and near-shame of success; the deep, quiet pleasures of the life of the mind; the fear and resignation of failure, which is usually far more a product of the writer’s imagination than of the external world.
Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Never be unseated by the shying of that undependable brute, life, hag-ridden as she is by my own queer, difficult, nervous system.

It is a gift to be embraced and supported by communities of writers, to learn, to mentor and be mentored, to share and commiserate. Yet there are moments that stun and wither me: writers who may have achievements of publication or prestigious degrees, mocking those who are struggling to learn their craft; writers sizing each other up, sniffing at genre or publisher, determining another’s literary merit relative to one’s own with that barely-concealed sneer of competitive literary criticism.
I am, fundamentally, I think, an outsider. I do my best work and feel most braced with my back to the wall. It’s an odd feeling though, writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current. Yet of course I shall.

What would Woolf make of the cult of personality she has become?
Now I suppose I might become one of the interesting–I will not say great–but interesting novelists?

What would we have made of her work, what more could she have offered us, if mental illness had not had the last word, if she could have found her way to a different final chapter?
A thousand things to be written had I time; had I power. A very little writing uses up my capacity for writing.

I remarked to another writer what an inspiration this book is to me, what comfort I have found in Woolf’s own struggles and doubts. She reminded me how things ended for Woolf. That she took her own life. How strange a response. She missed the point entirely.

Instead of being haunted by Woolf’s end, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Oliver asks.

Perhaps this is how Woolf would have answered:
Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever; will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world—the moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves.

Virginia Woolf passed like a cloud on the waves. But her words have become moments upon which we all stand, strengthened, made taller by the foundation of her genius. And we look up at those clouds, mouthing,Thank you.

Pencil, Meet Eraser

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966

When I received the production calendar for In Another Life last December I noted something called “2nd Pages”, scheduled for October. Caught up in the overwhelming excitement of IHAZBOOKCONTRACT I never thought to ask what it meant. Figured it would all come clear when the far-in-the-distance month of October rolled around.

Yeah, well. Roll around it surely did.

See, I thought I was finished with edits and proofreading. The hours spent combing through the ARC in June, curled in a wingback in a loft in a house in Ireland, the ticking of a mantle clock, rain on the skylights, the ack-acking of ducks in the back garden the only sounds as I read and reread all my sentences, fussing over a word here, a comma there, tsk-tsking at typos—I filled pages of edits on that round.

Weary of Our Own Words

Weary of Our Own Words

And then I thought, I never have to read this book again. 

Right. Well. For future reference, “2nd Pages” is yet another round of copy-edits and proofreading sent with a throat-closing series of in-line comments, known as queries. You are once again on deadline. Forced to deal with this thing, this creation of 368 pages, you swore you’d never look at again.

These people. This amazing team of copy-editor and proofreader who both broke my heart and earned my undying gratitude last spring when they tore open my manuscript and forced me to consider this phrase or that, questioning this word, that translation, pointing out that I had Lia crossing the wrong bridge from the Marais to Île-de-la-Cité, that the sun was shining in the wrong direction, or that people seemed to be traveling endlessly NORTH at the ends of scenes. These people.

They’re baaaaaack. 

The edits I’d submitted in June, after poring over the ARC, had been incorporated, but here were more: more questioning of word choices, more “Chicago Manual of Style says this, what do you want to do?”, more (oh my god) “WAIT, here it says April, but later on, it’s still March” (ohmygodohmygodohmygod).

It took an 8-hour non-stop day to go through each query one-by-one, to consider, amend, agree, or state my case as to why I wanted something left as is. Not too bad, really. And at each turn, I felt this warm flush—a combination of gratitude at the opportunity for this second pass and utter horror What if there were no 2nd Pages?

But I’m not done. Responses to the queries have been submitted, but in these days before deadline I am doing what I thought I would not, never, ever, do again: I am rereading In Another Life, baby, one more time.

It’s going to be okay.

After a three-month interval since I last read these pages my words are again fresh to me. I catch myself simply reading along, forgetting that I’m supposed to be sifting each sentence like a handful of uncooked rice in a sieve, looking for the tiny pebbles and flawed grains. That’s a delicious feeling—to get caught up in your own story, turning the page in smiling anticipation.

And loving these characters so fully, perhaps for the first time, with an understanding of the grace and joy they’ve brought to my life.

Delete. Change. Add. Move. Replace.

Two-thirds through this reread and I have a list of sixty-five edits—beyond the copyedit and proofreading queries I’ve already addressed—small things, vital things, things this writer now sees and understands that the writer I was a year or two or even six months ago did not, could not.

Can I just tell you how excited I am to share this novel with you?

And with all the irony I can muster, I invite you to subscribe to my occasional newsletter—your subscription enters you in a random drawing to receive one of my ARCs while they last (through the end of 2015). A Collector’s Item, right? Because the ARC version and the published version will have differences—dozens, shoot, well over a hundred—that tilt the book’s horizon just so. Once I run out of ARCs, I’ll be drawing for copies of books that have enchanted, moved, blown my mind—books I think everyone should read!

Julie Christine Johnson’s Author Newsletter

Always Be a Beginner

Black ants crawl up my arch and march over the top of my foot like Roman legions hellbent for the Holy Lands. Sweat meanders between my shoulder blades; what doesn’t soak into my bra trickles down my spine into the waistband of my skirt. Inside the classroom, hot, moist air creates an atmospheric event in which tropical plants could grow into monstrosities and tornadoes could collide in green-black funnels of fury. Outside the classroom door, fifty boys and girls in white shirts, black pants or skirts, and flip-flops queue in two jostling, giggling, good-natured lines. A tall boy, the designated classroom leader, claps once and everyone falls into line. They enter the room, stealing sideways glances where I stand on a low platform at the front, a broken blackboard behind me. They have no textbooks, just identical blank copy books with a silhouette of the African continent set against an orange background on the cover. I have no teacher’s manual, just a handful of lessons I practiced in front of my fellow Volunteers, and hope.

Whatever difference teaching English to middle-school students in Chad may have made was lost to a teacher’s strike, a civil war, our decision to leave before our program was discontinued. A story for some future time. But mitigating the heartbreaks was discovery I made as I stood there that first day, twenty-two years ago, ants clinging to my toes, sweat running like tiny fingers down my legs: I loved teaching.

That isn’t what I went on to do, however. I’d married a teacher, of course, and worked in higher education for many years, sending American students abroad to experience the same magical, lonely, stumbling, rare freedom I’d dipped into as a university student in France—a career that put me in front of a classroom to deliver workshops to colleagues or pre-departure orientations to students. This introvert who suffered through years of weekly staff meetings and networking events came into her confident, joyful own when the setting was a conversation between mentor-guide-teacher and learner.

A propos of nothing. Just felt like a medieval castle today.

A propos of nothing. Just felt like a medieval castle today.

There are so many ways the writing life can bring you down and the sense of isolation—even for hardcore introverts like me—can be acute. If I go for too long without talking to, learning from, working with other writers, I look into the well and I can see bottom. We need one another, to be challenged by others’ voices, to experience our words in different ways, to see the business of writing for what it is, what it can be, to be advocates for one another, to celebrate, to commiserate.

What grace to live in a community that embraces artists, where there is a world-renowned poetry press, Copper Canyon Press; an annual writer’s conference at Centrum that brings some of the finest prose and poetry artists to our village each July; and a bookstore, The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books, where the book displays in the glowing front window invite in readers, and the posters that fill one glass panel announce upcoming classes, workshops, readings—so many opportunities for writers to learn and hone their art and craft, through workshops and classes. And as of this summer, offering this writer a chance to teach.

When I made the choice to pursue writing as a career, I saw three paths that would run parallel, so closely they are hardly discernible, one from the other: writing, learning, and outreach to my writing communities, which includes giving back and sharing what I learn along the way. Where I feel most at home, where it all the loose bones snap into place, is in that conversation between learners—for I feel that even if I am the one standing at the front of the room, leading the conversation, the class or workshop is a collaboration, and I have as much to learn as anyone.

“’In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Always be a beginner.” Sherman Alexie, quoting Zen master Shunryo Suzuki, Opening Plenary, Chuckanut Writers Conference, June 2012.

 

Lucky Me

“You’re so lucky,” she said. Outside, the rain beaded like quicksilver on the blooming hedge of hydrangea. Inside, a pot of steel-cut oats burped from its perch in the yellow Aga.

“Lucky?” I echoed. We’d met the day before. I knew about her as much as she did about me: we were writers, living on opposite ends of North America, seeking solace and inspiration on a wind-tossed island in the Atlantic. “How am I lucky?”

“To have had such an easy life, to have things work out so you can write and publish your first novel before you’re twenty-five? That’s lucky.”

Fortunately, I’d already swallowed my mouthful of toast. Otherwise I may not be writing to you now, a couple of months after this amazing assessment of my life.

“How old do you think I am?” I asked.

“You couldn’t be more than twenty-three.”

We were sitting closely enough at the small table for her to see the June light dancing with the silver in my hair and pleating the fine lines around my eyes, to see the tendons underneath the dry, spotted-brown backs of my hands shifting like ropes as I gripped a coffee mug. Surely, jet lag had done me no favors.

Flattered? No. I felt dismissed. An adulthood—all the heartbreak and blessings; hard work and sacrifice; the careers, the moves, the losses, the triumphs, twenty-three years of marriage—denied by someone who would have been a high school senior to my freshman. This woman had created an entire story about me, had appropriated my history for her fiction, and then thought to recount her version back to me as if it were fact.

You always think of the perfect thing to say in the hours, days, weeks, after someone blows your mind. I still haven’t. What I did say was this, “I began writing when I was forty-one. I’ll be halfway to forty-seven when my first novel launches next year.” Breakfast continued in silence.

Being on the engineered side of someone else’s story startled me into reflecting on my own behavior: how often do I construct stories about others that deny them their reality? Not the stories I put on the page, where they should be, but of the flesh-and-blood characters in my life? How often have I not asked, not listened, but jumped right into assumption, motivated by envy or impatience, by detriment of unrecognized privileged or sheer mental laziness?

Seeing through the mist: early morning, Sancerre ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Seeing through the mist: early morning, Sancerre ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

As writers, we assume that we are keen observers of the human condition. Perhaps we turn to the page because it’s an outlet for the overflow of all that we take in and churn over, trying to sort out and make meaning of the unknowable. It’s our job to witness the world and then to bear witness in our essays and poems, our stories, our streams of thought. We don’t always write what we know; more often we write what we observe, how it makes us feel, and through our imaginations we construct plots to hold all the seeing and feeling together.

I begin work my novels by learning about the characters. Sometimes I have the thread of an idea floating, untethered, but I let it drift and spend the early period of discovery—before I begin writing a single word of story—crafting the personalities, goals, and motivations of the people with whom I’ll be spending the next months. I ask dozens of questions and as I determine the answers, themes coalesce and a plot etches a distant outline, like the silhouette of a mountain range emerging from the mist.

“The story is not what happens. The story is why it matters.” Lidia Yuknavitch

We can’t know why things matter until we understand the nature of the lives affected. This applies not only to our fictional narratives, but to our real world encounters, as well. And what’s required of the writer is required of any human being: we must set our personal narratives aside—our histories, assumptions, envies, fears, rules—and invite in others’ realities.

The key to creating empathetic characters is to work them through the questions we raise as we write; the key to being an empathetic person is to listen to others’ stories without seeking answer or explanation.

To pay attention: this is our endless and proper work. Mary Oliver

All good fiction is moral, in that it is imbued with the world, and powered by our real concerns: love, death, how-should-I-live. George Saunders

 

A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The WavesThe Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

The Way In

“What is a poem?” poet Leanne O’Sullivan asks, her soft voice straining to be heard over the rain pelting the conservatory roof. “How do prose and poetry differ?”

“There is more room for the reader in a poem,” I reply. “More room for interpretation and emotion.” I think of Colm Tóibín, one of my prose idols, who states that he writes the silences. I think poetry must be this, an honoring of the silence between the words, between our thoughts.

dot dot dot. question mark. Sitting with a blank notebook, uncertain in my ignorance, rattled by my fears, what the hell do I know?

Before arriving in Ireland to participate in this poetry workshop, I give myself permission to not write a poem. I’m not a poet, have never studied poetry, and my reading of it is determined, but haphazard, picking up recommendations during conferences or writing classes, from names dropped in books or by friends, from an obituary—for when does the world talk about poets, except when they die? As a writer of prose and essay, I know the value of rhythm and form, of the carefully chosen word, the breath taken, the meaning conferred in a phrase or in the spaces between. These are essential to developing my storytelling and writing art and craft. But to actually write my own poems?

All that I have to learn about poetry, all the poems I have yet to read, poets yet to discover . . . it makes me panicky, really. Yes. I would be the one to panic about poetry.

A creature of process, the kid forever tugging on a sleeve asking, “Why, mommy? WHY?” I pore over The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s lovely, lucid guide to poetry; I’ve got Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary on my equivalent of speed-dial (sitting on the end table next to the sofa); I sift through the teaching resources on poets.org

I am searching for a way in.

Yet on this workshop first day, as the storm blows off Slieve Miskish and hurtles toward Coulagh Bay, peace descends. My notes capture Leanne’s sure hand, leading me past my doubts: Poetry is permission to write; it is the places where language cannot go; it is the recognition that there is no language; it is the waiting, the revising; ‘The talent is knowing what’s called for,’ she quotes Seamus Heaney. Poetry is awareness. Awareness of what you are writing. Deliberate. Purposeful. Considered. Waited for. Poetry reveals or tells a truth, not fact. 

“What is your way into your poem?” This question Leanne poses to our workshop group is the essential question. It is the one I should be seeking the answer to. For finding my way in will take care of all the rest.

Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

“What is your way in to your poem?”

Something vital and tangible. Something real and describable. Leanne tells us, “The real things of the world are the entry point to the imagination. Keep your feet on the ground. Keep your writing grounded by writing from a real place…”

I find my way in on a small road overlooking Coulagh Bay, sitting in the rain, remembering. I find my way in through the memory of a little girl with her arms wrapped around a stereo speaker, trying to draw the music into her body because her ears fail to hear it. I find my way into my first poem.

The moment is so natural and unbidden. I hear Leanne’s voice saying, “Maintain a sense of awe in the initial inspiration. A waiting has to happen for the poem to come.”

What is a poem? is, in its essence, a question that needs no answer. No immediate answer. No complete answer. For an answer excludes the entire process of discovery. Learning what a poem is comes from studying the poetry that has come before, the poetry that is happening now. Experiencing what a poem is happens when awe and meaning embrace, when experience takes over from expression.

“…there’s part of poetry that’s always about what cannot be said.” W.S. Merwin

In Retreat

Friday, early evening. I'm warm and sleepy, face burnt by wind and sun, limbs thick and loose with fatigue.

I hiked the Beara Way from Eyeries to Allihies today. Not so far really-11 kms, just over 6 miles. But the way was challenging: across the Slieve Miskish range, skirting the boggy and desolate peaks of Miskish and Knockgour,  whistling through lonely valleys. Not a soul, even now, in the height of trekking season in Ireland. Just the wind, the sheep, kestrals, and my thoughts to keep me company.

Early in my novel, The Crows of Beara, three characters go on a hike along the Beara Way: Daniel, an Irish guide, Annie, an American, and one of Annie's Irish colleagues. Daniel drives them from Castletownbere until they reach a service road. He parks at a crossroads, then the three clamber over a turnstile into a farmer's field and begin their ascent up a boggy mountain. It's overcast, windy, and the bays below are hidden by a layer of fog.

I wrote the scene not from any specific memory of my time hiking the Beara in 2002, but from a composite of images I'd captured and held onto.

Today, I came to a sign pointing me back the way I'd come—Eyeries to the north, or east to Castletownbere, or south, to my intended destination of Allihies.  

I crossed a service road, clambered over a turnstile, and tromped through a field, scattering sheep in my wake. I began to ascend a boggy trail as thick mist raced down the mountain, obscuring my view of the sea.


When my character Annie reaches the peak on the trail, she pauses to catch her breath. The wind shoves the fog and mist aside and the bays, fields,  and villages below reveal themselves. Something constricts and then expands inside of her, as if her very soul had stilled in wonder, before filling its lungs with hope and longing and inexplicable joy.

As I paused on Knockgour to catch my breath, the wind pushed past me, carrying the mist up and over the mountain and out to sea. 

And my very soul stilled in wonder, before filling with delight. I realized I had written this moment. I had found the very place where Annie begins her transformation from one self into the next.

I'm on retreat here at Anam Cara. I'm a bit in retreat as well. I arrived a week ago (already, oh!). Only one other writer in residence this week; tomorrow the poetry group arrives. By the time you read this, I'll have left behind a routine to which I've so easily, quietly adapted: an early morning run along country roads, breakfast in a steamy kitchen, writing until noon, followed by a couple of hours proofing the ARC of In Another Life, lunch, a long hike, home again to write before dinner, then a few more hours of writing and reading before the sun finally sets, well after 10 p.m. I leave my curtains open and from bed, I watch the clouds change colors and shapes over Coulagh Bay, until suddenly it's morning again. Exquisite solitude.

I've written a couple drafts of an essay that's been agitating for months to be released on paper. I finished proofing my novel. I worked on a class I'm offering at the end of July. There's been an awful lot of gazing out the window from the desk in my room and meditating during my hikes, churning around ideas for the next novel. Tomorrow I'll start researching some of these ideas. Go for another hike. Be deliciously alone.

But a new week begins Sunday, as the poetry workshop convenes, and I must open my heart to learning, studying, and sharing. Poetry. I'm terrified. I can't wait. We'll be doing some exploring, as well, including other sites in The Crows of Beara I've yet to (re)visit.

It's Saturday now. I hear the others arriving. If I sneak out the back, with my pack, camera, notebook and water bottle, I can remain in retreat a little while longer . . .

 

Drafting

Saturday afternoon, as the Pacific Northwest bid an unusually warm and clear adieu to spring, I completed the first draft of my third novel, Tui. No drum roll accompanied my typing of The End. No one witnessed the tears. I hadn't made any particular plan to finish on that day, but by Friday I knew I was close. Saturday I knew I was done.

It's a hollow release, this finishing of a novel. It comes with a particular wistfulness and melancholy for which there is no word. No matter how many months of revisions lay ahead, you will never experience these characters and their journeys in quite the same way again. If you're a pantser, like me, most of what happened on the page happened as you were writing. Experiencing the story's events and your characters' reactions and growth in real time is magical.

I'm not sure if I've told the story I set out to tell. I wrote the first half in fits and starts—six weeks in November and December, two weeks in February. Finally, by early April, after I'd submitted the final copy-edits of In Another Life to my publisher and the last revision of The Crows of Beara to my agent, I cleared out the worst of my to-do list to focus on Tui. As soon as I returned, new characters entered the scene and a certain light filtered into a dark narrative. I felt freer to play with styles and structure.

Tui is the most personal of my novels, inspired not only by my deep feelings for a place (in this case, New Zealand), but for a little girl I once knew, with whom I'd shared peanut butter and jam sandwiches, jam I'd made from the peaches that fell from her tree into my yard. I have no idea what happened to that child. She disappeared one day. I disappeared too, not long after. Hers was a physical disappearance, mine a descent into a dark abyss. This novel became a way to tell a little girl's story. And maybe bits and pieces of my own.

My second novel, The Crows of Beara, is on submission, a process that takes months, perhaps years. Yesterday, in my angst and restlessness, I rewrote the beginning of that novel. I revised the first forty pages and fired them off to my agent. If we need to go into a next round of submissions to publishers, this is the version I'd like to use. Because I think I learned something about my central protagonist, Annie, that I didn't know until I'd stepped into the heads and hearts of characters from a completely different story.

Or perhaps I rewrote those opening pages because finishing a novel is so bewildering.

What happens to Tui now? Nothing in the short-term. The novel will sit for weeks or months, resting, settling down. Sorting itself out. Revisions can be done only with a mind that sees the story from a fresh, well-rested perspective. I need to forget what my intention was when I started writing and work with what actually happened over those weeks and months as the story unfolded. Sometime in the fall, I'll open the manuscript again and see where it leads me.

Besides, I have this idea for a new novel and I'm itching to get started on it . . .

Pacific Coast, Canterbury, New Zealand 

Pacific Coast, Canterbury, New Zealand 

The Chaos of Everything

The storage bin sits on the top shelf, at the back of the closet. Impossible to reach unless you dismantle the row of boxes beside it, navigate on tip-toes the winemaking equipment below. My journals.

2015-06-07-17-04-02.jpg

I quit journaling several years ago. Around the time I began blogging. No coincidence, that. After thirty-three years—my first journal was a Christmas gift when I was seven, a small blue, faux-leather book with a lock and tiny key, and gold lettering on the front: My Diary—I realized my words were going nowhere. I felt trapped by the private page.

Blogging became a way to hold myself accountable, even in those early days when I had no audience. As long as there was a chance someone would read my words, I sat up little straighter as I wrote, I paid attention to my digital penmanship. I chose my words carefully, not out of self-preservation or self-censorship, but to create a small work of art on the page, rather than a mud pie of emotion.

And it worked. That's the beauty of it. My gambit paid off. Taking my writing outside my head and throwing it to the intersphere allowed me to step out of my own mind and into others' perspectives. That's how characters are born. That's how conflicts are discovered. From the blog posts came the desire to write more. From the desire came the practice. And from the practice came the stories and the novels.

But now. The words. There are so many. The more I write, the more the words crowd around my mind's exit, pushing and shoving in an attempt at simultaneous escape. Not all are fit for public consumption, but they need to go somewhere.

It's time to begin journaling again.

I'm aching for the private, blank page. For the feel of a pen. The possibility of paper. I think and feel differently about my words when I engage in the physical act of writing. It's why I do all character sketches, theme building, initial plotting and later, the working out of plot holes, by hand. I need to feel my way through a story before I can make sense of the parts I see.

I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone, John Cheever once said, and until recently I would have agreed with him. But now I need to save some words for myself.

“Writing, then, was a substitute for myself: if you don't love me, love my writing & love me for my writing. It is also much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Full Circle | CHALK the SUN

“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This photo was taken in May 2002. My first trip to Ireland. Alone, I joined a small group of strangers to hike the Beara Peninsula, West Cork. And I fell truly, madly, deeply in love. On the flight home two weeks later, I turned my face toward the window and sobbed. I felt torn from a lover whom I was never meant to see again. Ireland had changed me. I had felt on the Beara a sense of peace and wholeness I had never experienced before.

I've returned to Ireland several times since then, each time to hike. My husband and I have traveled together, he under her spell as much as I. But that first time—and the Beara—remains a dream crystallized in photographs and memories.

 

A year ago January, I began thinking about my second novel, knowing only that it would be set in Ireland. Then I let go of wondering about the where and the why and concentrated on the who. As my characters began to take shape, I knew the threads connecting them to the setting would be found in a legend or a poem that expressed Ireland's power over the imagination and the soul. When I discovered An Cailleach Bheara, the legend of the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland, I knew I would return to the Beara Peninsula, if not in reality, then in the pages of my story.

Researching the legend of the Hag of Beara led me the poetry of Leanne O'Sullivan, a native of West Cork who published her first volume of poetry at the age of twenty-one. I wrote about her beautiful collection An Cailleach Bheara in this post: An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and her sunrise

 The Beara Peninsula was once a site of the copper mining industry, before those reserves were exhausted in the late 19th century. The skeletons and scars of those mines are visible today. In my novel, I brought the possibility of copper mining back to modern Beara, a place in need of an economic lifeline after recession felled the Celtic Tiger in the late 2000s. And Leanne O'Sullivan's poetry answered me yet again, in her collection The Mining Road.

 The wild, scabrous beauty of the Beara belies its fragility. In a cove, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, a population of Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax chatters and clings, nesting in the shadow of industry and development. These birds, the Red-billed chough-a member of the crow family—became a sort of character in their own right and their plight, one of my novel's central themes. The Crows of Beara was a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction and is now on submission, looking for its publishing home.

 And I am packing for Ireland. The Beara Peninsula, specifically. In a month, I will be spending two weeks at the Anam Cara Retreat Center, one week in residency working on my own, one week in a workshop led by Leanne O'Sullivan: Lining Our Thoughts, A Poetry Writing Workshop. I'm terrified. I've never written a lick of poetry in my life. But I knew the minute I learned of this workshop—a chance search on the internet—I had to be there. The Universe is granting me the opportunity to come full circle. I'll visit An Cailleach Bheara for the first time. I will thank Leanne O'Sullivan in person for the gift of her words. Perhaps find a few more of my own.

 My heart is quite calm now. I am going back.

"The Beara Peninsula stretched away from the southwest coast of Ireland into the North Atlantic like the long foot of a lizard. At the tip of the foot was a gnarled knuckle of land: the Slieve Miskish mountains. The knuckle slid south to end in three claws—the westernmost tips of the country. Ballycaróg wasn’t at the very end of the earth—that distinction belonged to the edge of Dursey Island, ten miles south—but it was tucked into a cove that looked toward nothing but ocean, all the way to Canada’s Maritime Provinces."

from The Crows of Beara, by Julie Christine Johnson

Taking Care of Business

I missed my Monday blog this week. First time in over two years. And here I am at 4 a.m. on a Friday, the eastern sky a faded bruise blue, waiting for my coffee to steep, catching up with you.

 

The skipped blog post . . . It's not that I didn't have anything to say. Oh my, there's so much I haven't told you. The workshop that brought me back to my old neighborhood and face-to-face with my dread, handing me a story and delivering me from my lingering longing; the adventure that is right around the corner, a return to a place of inspiration and soul-peace; the nagging self-doubt that comes with waiting for someone to accept my work, assuring me that this thing I'm doing is really a career and not a one-off lark. Preparing to teach my first writing class. Taking my first writing class in ages. So much to share.

 

But I'm working hard to fit everything in and for once, something had to give. I've regained my footing with Tui, my third novel, and that momentum has meant everything. To write fresh material, to not quite know where a story is going, after months and months of revising and editing two novels, with deadlines looming and others' hands on my work . . . this is to return to the essence of me, what gives shape and color and texture to my writing spirit. It also helps pull my thoughts away from the other, this business of being an author that is so counter-intuitive to my introverted, scribbling-away-in-the-garret self.

 

This blog is meant to be a commercial-free zone. Although I share stories of my writing and publishing journey, it's a place of refuge from the book promotion to-do lists and author platform-building. Those things must be done, but they can be done elsewhere.

 

Except today. Because there are things I want to share with you and I need to let you know where to find my news. I received the front and back covers for the ARCs (Advance Reader Copy) of In Another Life earlier this week—well, the front cover I've had for quite some time, but now it is more than just a .pdf snapshot, it's the real deal, with log line, back cover copy, a price, EVERYTHING. It's beautiful. It's real. So exciting.

 

As this commercial break winds down and we return to our regularly-scheduled programming, this is what I want to share with you: I'm just about to launch an occasional newsletter from my website that will have updates on the publishing process and eventually, this author's events. Right now, and through late summer, signing up for the newsletter means you'll be entered to win a signed ARC of In Another Life (I'll have several to give away); next week's inaugural newsletter has a glimpse of that cover I'm so thrilled about!

 

Plus, I've been futzing around with the website, adding new content, playing with the design. I'd love it if you'd take a look and tell me what you think: Julie's Author Website and Newsletter Sign-Up 

 

And now the sun has cleared the eastern mountains. Time for a run, and a day of writing.


Une porte, Sancerre, France © 2015, Julie Christine Johnson

Past Meets Present: A Story Finds a Home

Those cooking magazines stacked on a shelf. I hold on to so little from my past that is tangible, but these long, glossy journals contain dreams and memories about which I cannot speak. I never look through them, and yet I take comfort in the pretty swirl of logo on their spines. They tell of a land where I once made Spicy Pumpkin, Peanut and Spring Onion Fritters, Harissa Lamb Mince, Black Cherry Cake with Ricotta Cream, savored wines from Gimblett Gravels and Central Otago, and pressed flat the corners of color-drenched articles about Waiheke Island, Hawke's Bay, Akaroa, planning future explorations of our new home: New Zealand.

~

A photograph of three men on a bridge in southwest Ireland. Their waterproof jackets in primary red, blue, and green are playful beacons in a drizzle that softens the air so the photograph looks brushed with mist, like the picture of a dream. One of those men is gone, now.

~

A disaster I watched unfold from thousands of miles away. A city crumbling, streets liquefying, familiar buildings collapsing on themselves, as if dealt a sucker punch to their architectural sternum. The café where I had served slow-braised lamb shanks and poured glasses of pinot noir now in ruins, streets I had walked and biked to yoga, the library, the tea shop, the bookstore turned into canyons filled with rubble. But I no longer belonged to that place. There was nothing I could do but mourn.

~

"We write to exert power over something we can never control," says Nellie Hermann, creative director of the narrative medicine program at Columbia University. "The past."

~

The stories that live inside me are threads of evidence. Evidence of my past, real and imagined, remembered and wished for. Many of those threads dangle, barely visible unless the light shifts or the breeze picks them up. But sometimes a thread catches on a thought, and then another, until they weave themselves into a pattern, and that pattern becomes a narrative of character and place, of movement and change.

~

A stack of cooking magazines that hold regrets and broken dreams. A photograph of a moment that holds memories of a man who walked by my side on a green peninsula, where together we built a bistro in the misty air. An earthquake that shattered a place I'd called home. These threads found each other last summer, twirling into a rope I held as I wrote.

~

It is an honor when someone selects your story to share with the world. It is a thrill to press a beautiful volume of prose and poetry and art against your heart and know your words beat within its pages.

~

Mud Season Review, the literary journal of the Burlington Writers Workshop, selected my short story Prix Fixe for its first annual print issue. I am so pleased.

 

Layer Cake

Cake baking has never been my thing. Too fussy. The ingredients make it look deceptively easy—butter, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, milk, eggs and Bob's your uncle. But the ingredients must be at a just-so temperature. The flour must be aerated, light. And if we're talking layers and frosting, know that my inner klutz is cringing. Candy thermometers. Cake plates. Offset spatulas. Crumb coating. Pastry bags. Cakes that bubble on top or sink in the middle. Cakes that cling to the bottom of the pan, peeling away like a thick layer of epidermis. Frosting that is too thick, tearing at the fragile skin, or too thin, running down the sides like desultory rain, pooling on the plate, soaking your cake's feet.

But when it comes to writing, I'm Martha Stewart. I'm a Six-Layer Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd filling.

I'm revising my second novel, The Crows of Beara, following my agent's suggestions, questions, and cautions as a guide. I'm in a bit of a rush, emotionally. Agent wants to get this out "on sub" by mid-spring, before the summer doldrums sweep everyone out of their offices. On sub is writer jargon for 'agent sending manuscript to editors, looking for novel's publishing home.'

Practically speaking, the story is hitting its stride. When I finished the first draft a year ago, it had 105,000 words. After three revisions last fall, I submitted a 99,000 word second draft as my entry for the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction. The Crows of Beara was one of two finalists for the prize, which gave me confidence that publication was worth pursuing.

Now into my second revision of a third draft, I'm working with 88,700 words. Over fifteen percent of a novel, gone.

My first drafts aren't brain dumps, per se, but I do try to silence the inner editor. I do resist returning to earlier scenes or chapters, for fear of falling into a doubt trap, or miring myself in the revision process. I'm simpatico with Cheryl Strayed, who so succinctly gets it: "I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right." (From The New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 24, 2015)

Once I begin revising, it's a meticulous excising of excess detail and repetitive language and meandering thoughts and conversations to get at the heart of the story.

I may delete. But I never throw anything away.

During the first round of writer-editor revisions of In Another Life, I encountered notes from my editor requesting more detail here, more exposition or background there, clarification of background. In some cases, she was asking for layers—character motivation, a shoring up of sub-plot; in other instances, she was looking for frosting—a rounding out or plumping up of detail, filling in the crevices of the story's foundation. Fortunately, I had nearly all of what she wanted from earlier drafts. It was a matter of copying, pasting, refining to fit the story as it had evolved.

The notes off to the side of The Crows of Beara read a bit differently. My agent has been unsparing and insightful at pointing out where I've gone too far, given away too much, overdone it, rambled on. These revisions have been like restoring a piece of furniture, stripping away the layers of thick paint to reveal the clean bare bones beneath.

In careful revision, I see the layers of story for what they are. I'm able to shift sentences and phrases around, picking up something I discarded on page 113 and adding it to a paragraph on page 87. I see where the second scene in Chapter 12 really should be the first scene and a thoughtful transition shows something about a character not yet revealed or a clean end to a chapter leads the reader naturally to the next. All these minute layers building to a stronger whole.

I'm a bread baker. It's not fussy, it's physical. I've learned over the years that it all comes down to the knead. You can knock most mistakes out of a lump of yeast dough if you're willing to put time and energy into kneading (bread machines and Kitchen Aid bread hooks need not apply. That's not bread baking, that's an assembly line). Forget what the recipe says; most underestimate the time it takes to knead dough into submission by at least half. Probably because they know you wouldn't start the process if you knew the truth.

Kind of like writing a novel.

Pumpkin Layer Cake with Maple Cream Frosting. I made this. Yes. Yes, I did. 

Pumpkin Layer Cake with Maple Cream Frosting. I made this. Yes. Yes, I did. 



Elena Ferrante #ReviewWomen2015 | CHALK the SUN

Discovering authors whose works I've either never heard of, or for some reason passed by, is one of reading's great joys. Something—a friend's recommendation, an author interview read or heard, a change of heart—compels me to read one of the unknown or forgotten, and I find myself in the lovely spot of suddenly having an author's backlist to catch up on. Because the book, the writing, the everything is THAT GOOD. It's like finding $50 in your pocket, just as the clouds clear on a dreary day and the sun beams through.

I'm already in for two new-to-me authors this year, and 2015 isn't even three months old. The first was Lily King, whose Euphoria I waxed euphoric about last month; I read another of King's right away, and was enthralled once again: Father of the Rain. The second is Italy's enigmatic Elena Ferrante.

I don't have time to determine why these writers' previous works escaped my notice; I have too much reading to do.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

And so begins Olga's descent into the heart of her own darkness. The Days of Abandonment packs a wallop of tension and cringe-inducing desperation into 188 pages of elegantly-rendered narrative. This isn't the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is THE nervous breakdown, in all its raw ugliness. We may tut-tut as we read Olga's hair-raising mayhem, but really, isn't this what we fear, in the wee hours, in our most vulnerable moments? As Shakespeare's Polonius declares in Hamlet, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

The method is familiar: husband leaves wife for younger woman (in this instance, the very young daughter of a former family friend). Wife, who hasn't worked outside the home for many years, is left with the children, the house, the bills, and her own aging body. Disbelief, depression, anger, the divvying up of friends, the hope and fear of running into the ex and his paramour ensue. But Olga's madness? There is nothing expected in the way Elena Ferrante portrays Olga's domestic drama.

Olga's recounting of her freefall is detached and unsentimental. She tells it some years distant, but I also wonder if there is not some translation styling at work here. Although Ann Goldstein has translated all Ferrante's Europa Editions-published works, so I have to assume her tone is true to the author's own.

Contrary to that sense of emotional detachment, The Days of Abandonment is an intensely physical story. Olga is both obsessed with and horrified by her body, which at thirty-eight is showing the inevitable signs of age. She ruminates frequently about sex, reducing it to a purely animal act, torturing herself with images of her husband Mario, and his young lover, and then seducing her neighbor in a pathetic cry to recapture her crushed sexual self. Ferrante uses pain-an errant piece of glass in pasta sauce that pierces the roof of Mario's mouth; the threat of a mother to cut off her daughter's hands with sewing shears; a child's forehead smashing into the windshield to the sound of screeching car brakes--to frame Olga's sanity. It's almost as though pain is a stand-in for emotion: as long as Olga can envision pain and feel it, she'll be alright. She had reinforced locks put in the front door and at her lowest point, she struggles to open the locks, finally resorting to using her teeth. At one point, Olga asks her daughter Ilaria to poke her with a paper cutter if her concentration wanders

 

I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like the coiled skin of an orange after the knife has begin to peel it. ...For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized Ilaria had left a deep wound.

 

Most disturbing is the toll Olga's depression takes on her children and Otto, the family dog. The upsetting scenes of abuse and neglect may well kill any empathy you develop for Olga as an abandoned woman. But without them, Ferrante's narrative would simply be a mildly prurient glimpse into the life of the newly forsaken.

Olga wrestles with her post-abandonment identity, and her struggle is an alarm bell the author sounds relentlessly as she mocks the absurd circumstance of marriage that calls upon women to set aside their professions and their physical freedom, to attend to home, family, husband.

 

I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, ... Still I couldn't avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn't die, it doesn't want to die.

 

What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is... Indeed. Foamy. An interesting choice of word. So sensual, evocative, invoking the fluids of sex, but also foaming at the mouth—a sign of madness, a rabidity of rage.

The Days of Abandonment is frank, gutting, oddly funny, and awfully sad. But it is not without hope, and throughout you are reminded that Olga survives her madness. Even swirling in its whirlpool, she has one hand above water, reaching, grasping.

Elena Ferrante's brilliance is withholding her judgment of her characters. She writes their truth and allows readers to create their own morality. Her writing, though not warm, is full of heat. The carapace of narrative rage cracks to reveal tender new skin beneath.

That’s a Wrap: My (almost) Final Edits | CHALK the SUN

I just clicked Send. My final edit deadline is tomorrow. I made it. It's gone, for better or for worse. The Novel is gone. It is in the hands of an editing team who will clean up my commas and semi-colons and whip the manuscript into shape à la The Chicago Manual of Style. I can do no more.

The next time I see In Another Life, in a month or so, it will be in galley proof form. I'll be allowed to make only line edits or proofreading corrections. The story is what it will be today, tomorrow, and a year from now, on Publication Day.

I entered the editor-writer conversation and exchange process with a focused humbleness. Knowing I had so much to learn about this part of the publishing journey, I expected the story to be challenged and questioned, coaxed and tamed. What I didn't expect—not at this late stage—is that I would be my harshest critic. Even after the revisions were complete and the story set, each read-through brought more changes to language, tone, rhythm. It's not just that I felt the story and writing improve with each draft; I felt the writer and storyteller improve.

And so I think about a year from now, how it will feel to release this novel when I will no longer be the same writer. I'm certainly not the same writer who began In Another Life on a July day in 2012.

A sense of writer's remorse sits heavy on my soul. I should have read it through one more time. There will be something, I know, something critical I have missed—just as there has been on each pass—a better way to construct a phrase, a scene, a novel.

But I have to let that go, don't I? This is part of the process—accepting that what's published today might not be what you would write tomorrow. In Another Life is my apprenticeship and my act of faith. It taught me many things about the writing process, lessons I hope never to relearn: don't write without some sort of a plan; don't write more than a handful of scenes out of sequence; don't share your work too early; don't listen to that inner critic telling you to hang it up and go home.

Do listen to the voice that says, Keep Writing. The story will sort itself out in time.

And now a year looms. A year to worry that no one will ever read the thing. A year to worry that they will. A year to plan blog tours and blurbs and fret about that damn launch party.

A year to revise the second novel and pray that it sells, and to finish the third. The fourth is already wrapping tiny, thin tendrils of idea around my brain . . .

Speaking of marketing and promotion, here's my new website: Julie Christine Johnson Don't judge. I created the site just yesterday. Not much there, I know. It'll get fleshed it out in time, probably go through a template change or three. But for now, I've snagged my domain name and a fresh, clean canvas to paint.

You guys. I wrote a novel. It's going to be published. That's just silly.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
― Dorothy Parker

Deception Pass,   Whidbey Island © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Deception Pass,  Whidbey Island © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson