The Writing Life

Not To Live Too Small: Thank You, Kent Haruf

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I can tell you the moment I decided to be a writer when I grew up: I was six and I'd just read Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. I wrote a bunch of stuff for years—stories, mostly—oh where did they all go? But I can't tell you when I stopped writing. I just sort of drifted away.

 

Junior year of high school, there was Mr. Compton, who turned around the life of a kid determined to fail of her own accord before the world could catch on how worthless she really was. He reminded me how much I loved to write and pushed me to keep at it. There was Professor Martin from English 301 in college, who handed back a paper with a long note at the end that basically said, "You're an outstanding writer. I wish you hadn't switched your major." (Yeah, Doc Martin, me too. Psychology was worthless, but someone convinced me along the way that I'd never get a job as an English major. Not that I got one with Psychology, either. I sure as hell would have learned more had I stuck with English.) Yet somehow by thirty, the only writing I'd done for years was in my journal.

 

I'd never stopped reading, of course, but I hadn't sought out literature in any meaningful fashion—I read whatever came my way: highbrow, lowbrow, and all sorts of stuff in between.

 

But then, late in the 1990s and early 2000s, as I was zooming up the slope of a career I clung to until we chucked it all and moved to New Zealand in 2006, a handful of contemporary literary fiction nudged me toward a different path. In 2003, it was Wallace Stegner's classic deconstruction of marriage, Crossing to Safety (1987); 2001 introduced me to Jhumpa Lahiri and her transcendent short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999); a bout with the flu late 2000 put David Guterson's atmospheric slow burn Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) into my hands.

 

Plainsong by Kent Haruf, which I read the year it was published (1999), was the first of these transformative reads. Its prose is so powerful, its narrative profound; I was astonished that anything so quiet could pack such a solar plexus punch.

 

These works knocked something loose inside of me. They changed the way I read and changed the way I thought about writing. These novels and stories continued the preparation and education of my heart and mind, which had started decades earlier with Harriet the Spy, for the time when I would finally decide that every other ambition had to go.

 

Kent Haruf visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—where I worked—to read from and discuss his new novel. He signed my copy of Plainsong. I wish I had a clever anecdote, something that I learned about writing just from being in the presence of so gifted and hard-working a man, but I recall only that the author was gracious, gentle, soft-spoken, and full of quiet dignity, just like his books.

 

From my own review of his novel, Benediction:

'Kent Haruf is a master of the understatement. He is a sublime observer, less a storyteller than a whispering carney offering glimpses into the circus of life. His narratives are quiet, moving to a gentle rhythm. At first glance, they can seem as dry and simple as the flat, square towns on Colorado’s eastern border where his stories are set. You think you have taken it all in, standing there on the edge by the feed store, looking straight down 6th avenue to the water tower that rises like at sentinel on the other end of town. But you must look beyond what you see to discover what is really there . . . Haruf rarely grants redemption to his characters, just as life itself doles out redemption in meager dribs, offering only enough grace to keep us going until our time is played out.'

 

Last week, Kent Haruf's time played its last notes. But the quiet strength of his gracious prose will continue. Our Souls at Night, the novel he was editing when he died, will be published in 2015.

 

Earlier this fall, Granta published an essay by Kent Haruf as part of its series The Making of a Writer. Read it, please, it's lovely. Ironically, I captured the link in an obituary in The Guardian: Kent Haruf, 'a great writer and a great man,' dies at age 71 I'm thrilled a British paper memorialized this American treasure; he wasn't well enough known in the United States, which perhaps suited him just fine.

 

Thank you, Kent Haruf. Rest in peace.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger YearMy Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had a category for Most Charming Read of the Year, there would be one entrant for 2014: My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s blithe memoir of her tenure at the Agency—her arch moniker for Harold Ober Associates—one of Manhattan’s most venerable literary agencies.

 

I know, I know: the year has many months and reads ahead, but I’m calling this one right now. My Salinger Year is imbued with a Bright Young Things shimmer and a Woody Allenesque-patina that warms the city’s brownstones until they glow with autumn light or sparkle with the diamonds of freshly-fallen snow.

 

The year is 1996 and Rakoff, fresh from completing a Master’s degree in English in the U.K., needs a job. She really doesn’t need a boyfriend, but she finds lover and employment in quick succession. The latter becomes her entrée into the New York literary scene. The former, a struggling novelist, informs her emotional and artistic development and breaks her heart more times than he's worth. Which is, as it happens, not much.

 

Although the digital publishing  and e-reading revolution is a mere ten years away, the Agency doesn’t possess a single computer and has only recently acquired a photocopier. Rakoff, hired as an assistant to the Agency’s president—to whom she refers only as “my boss”—types dictation on an IBM Selectric, Dictaphone headphones planted on her head, her feet working the pedals beneath the desk. Correspondence is done via the postal service. There are telephones of course, but no one has voicemail. If clients call after hours, the office phones simply ring and ring, echoing down the dimly lit hallways lined with plush carpet.

 

Enter Jerry, the Agency's most celebrated client. And if the Agency's president doesn't step up her game, he might be the last client standing. Delivering a breathless scene with a comic's sense of timing, star-struck Rakoff meets another famous client, Judy Blume. Just the one time. Judy, along with a steady stream of other writers, quits the Agency to seek representation where the 21st century is acknowledged as a done deal.

 

Jerry is, of course, J.D. Salinger. A writer whom Joanna Rakoff, budding writer herself, has never read. Jerry, hard of hearing, reclusive, and endearing, has expressed interest in having his long short story, Hapworth 16, 1924—which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1965—published as a novel by a tiny press in Virginia. For eight months, Rakoff resists reading Salinger, certain his lionized status is but hyperbole and his writing trite. Yet, she is immediately fascinated by the enormous volume of fan mail the author continues to receive, thirty years after his last publication. It is her job to inform each correspondent that the Agency, per Mr. Salinger's directions, can neither forward the letter to the author nor respond to any requests. When she finally does read Salinger, it is in a revelatory binge. That weekend of Salinger sets the tone for the brief time that she remains at the Agency, but it also leads her to finding her writing voice.

 

The interactions with J.D. Salinger and the near-farcical subplot of the reissue of Hapworth ground the story in the disappearing age of traditional publishing, when a few elite readers determined what the rest of us would be checking out from our public libraries, or purchasing from the rapidly-vanishing independent bookstores, or once-were-giants Borders and Barnes & Noble.

 

But at its tender heart, My Salinger Year is the coming of age tale of a young woman and writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to talk in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and yes, utterly charming. Rakoff's writing is breezy and self-effacing, completely in character with the twenty-three-year-old woman who recounts this seminal year. Only an accomplished and confident writer could manage to sustain that tone with authenticity. Joanna Rakoff enchants readers with an elegant memoir that reads like a curl-up-with-a-cuppa novel. She's just won a new admirer.

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If you don't have time to read ...

... you don't have the time (or tools) to write. So sayeth Stephen King in his most excellent memoir and writing guide, On Writing (Pocket Books 1999)  

I began the summer with such grand writing goals and by the middle of August, I was nearly there: I'd written one of two short stories; completed two flash fiction pieces; created a database of literary agents to query and finished my query letter (or at least revised it 684 times); drafted one-, two-, and four-page novel synopses; I blogged and book reviewed. In between were two revisions of my first novel, Refuge of Doves—undertaken after receiving story and copy edits from my editor. I was determined to dance through my writing project list and take a bow on August 31.

 

Draft 2: Novel 2, begins September 1.

 

The second short story wasn’t going to happen. Writing the first story, and then trimming it from a bloated 8,500 words to a civilized 6,000-something, took weeks. That one story and the two flash were about all I had in me. I accepted I couldn't start fresh on another story in the final two weeks of August—a period that included a lovely visit with out-of-state guests, when I stepped away from writing for more than one day in well over a year—and have something worth sending out for submission by the end of summer.

 

Saturday afternoon, after our guests had gone, and I’d emptied the dishwasher and brought up the last load of laundry, I poured myself a glass of Saumur rouge and opened Francesca Marciano’s short story collection, The Other Language (click for my review).

 

The next morning I sat down to write. By Tuesday evening, I’d completed the first draft of a 5,100 word short story. Several revisions later, it lives and breathes at 4,800 words. I’ll give it, and myself, a bit of a rest before a final edit and proofread, but it’s solid. Complete.

~

 

A few weeks ago, I landed in the middle of a discussion with a few writers about routines and patterns, the things we must or cannot do at certain stages of our writing process. I was baffled by the number of writers who stated they read nothing, other than what they might be using for research, while writing new material. Several fiction writers commented they could read no fiction because they feared losing their own writing voice, imitating another writer, or being otherwise influenced by his style. Another commented how she feared comparing her work to other, published authors and losing heart. Still others cited lack of time, energy, interest.

 

I thought my head might explode.

 

If I stop reading, it means I've stopped breathing. Reading brought me to writing; from the first eager devouring of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy at the age of six, I ached to wrap my hands around a pen, smooth open a spiral-bound notebook, and scribble. Something. Anything. The words. All the astonishing words.

 

It had never occurred to me that a writer could be anything other than a helplessly voracious reader. I can’t fathom silencing other writers, or emptying my ears and eyes and brain of beautiful language, of precise structure, of rhythmic flow.

 

But hey. We each have our own processes and systems and conditions by which we work the best. Some need near-silence to hear their own voice. I have never—tap wood—lost my voice in the presence of great writing. Instead, I overflow with inspiration and feel a sense of release and possibility.

 

My ear for music and language turns me on to a writer’s cadence and I find myself playing along in my own sentences, discovering new ways to structure my thoughts. It’s an invisible collaboration with another writer, a jazz riff played in admiration and homage in a quiet room, or in my case, in the front seat of the car, where I get most of my writing done. No wi-fi, you see. There are other voices I need to silence, to hear my own. But as for reading, it’s what sustains me as a writer. As a human being.

 

Grazie cara, Francesca Marciano. Your gorgeous stories, your strong and confident voice, restored me. You made me crave to write. The words gushed out. I had one more story in me this summer, after all.

 

Shedding Light

Seeking a Literary Agent: The Quest Begins

Alternate title: The Crying Game. Ah, but I'm not crying. Not really. I'm just curled up in a fetal position on the floor, rubbing noses with the cat, whimpering a bit. And I have yet to send out a single query letter to a literary agent.  

No, I'm in the Agent R&D stage. I spent the past week–a few tedious hours each day that zapped my creative writing energy, blurred my vision, and caused my head to throb–compiling a list of potential agents to query. One of whom I hope will fall in love with my novel, Refuge of Doves.

 

From a list of 1000+ U.S.-based literary agents, I narrowed my search with a few key words and came up with 364 potentials. I created an Excel spreadsheet, opened up some Chrome windows, and started cross-referencing. I culled the list of 364 to 238. In addition to the standard name, agency, city, and agency website, my spreadsheet has a Submission Preferences column (Snail Mail? Email?). A Notes column. Columns for Date Query Submitted; Response Received; Resubmit? I ranked each agent who made it through my first pass with a Tier 1, 2, or 3 designation.

 

At this point, my spreadsheet has 144 Tier 1 agents. This is just Step One in a process that will take several more weeks. Again, all before I send out that first hopeful, stomach-looping round of query letters.

 

Several agents are from the same agency, and OF COURSE I will determine which of these is the best fit for my novel (you know this is protocol, right? Unless the agency's guidelines indicate otherwise, query only one agent). This will whittle the Tier 1 list down to ≈ 111 names. And I bet, as I dig further into the agents, their agencies, their preferences, discover who is not accepting new clients or non-referrals, my Tier 1 list will come in well under 100 names. That's about right. To start.

 

Then, and only then, will I begin sending out query letters. Just a few at a time, to gauge the nature of the rejections. Form letter/canned rejections are a clue that my query needs work. Real feedback will let me know if my story itself is the problem. I can't even begin to contemplate what I will do about that. Rewriting. Again. But, as is my custom, I'm already fretting over it.

 

It helps me to focus on the spreadsheets, the research, and the content of my query, see, because they are the things over which I have control. If I stop and think too much about what I'm doing and where all this is heading, I will stumble. I will sink.

 

Seeking agent representation is like searching for a job and searching for a romantic partner. You want to be recognized for your skill at your chosen craft. You want to show that you can do the job. Your query letter, like your job cover letter, has to be unique and rich with voice, but it must be short, clean, concise, and follow some standards. The query must sell your novel in the first 10 seconds–three short sentences–or it's into the rubbish bin.

 

And you, human being that you are, just want to be loved. Well, okay, you want your book to be loved, but who is really so thick-skinned they can separate their work from their soul? Certainly not I, not at this tender stage of my writing life. A rejection of your writing is like watching someone pore over your online dating profile and hearing them snort at your too-big nose and your freckles. Oh, the hurt.

 

Yet, I believe in approaching this process with respect, humility, and mindfulness. Even though I am but one in the faceless mass to an agent, it's my integrity on the line if I am anything less than authentic. I don't know if traditional publishing is the right path for me, but I know I must travel this road to find out. I must face the rejection and learn from the feedback. And I won't walk alone. Serendipity wrapped her warm and gentle arms around me this week and guided me toward a group of aspiring novelists who are on the same journey.

 

Each agent receives thousands of query letters a year. Thousands. The odds are so stacked against me, it's not funny. No, it IS funny. It's funny that anyone does this. It's funny that anyone believes this can work. It's funny that sometimes it does.

 

Oh, and I haven't even started working on my small/independent press spreadsheet. That's next week.

 

This lovely essay appeared in my blog reader this morning. So a propos of the query process, I had to share:

Don't Take It Personally, Kathryn Craft, Guest Blogger: Writers in the Storm

Resources which have come in super-handy as I get my brain around this Herculean task:

AgentyQuery.com

Association of Authors' Representatives

Mark Malatesta's Directory of Literary Agents

Poets & Writers magazine, on-line tools for writers

Predators & Editors

QueryTracker Track your submission in addition to, or instead of, a self-built database

Writer Beware

The Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino

2014-05-30 08.33.27

History is Not the Past

It pains me to admit it now, but I dreaded the rewrite of Refuge of Doves. Setting aside the first draft of a novel that had poured forth so naturally from mid-January to early April, I opened the drawer on a novel that was already eighteen months old. And still in need of So. Much. Work. But that kernel of there's something there, keep going had burrowed deep, fertilized by my inherent mulishness. Finish what you started, Johnson. Take this as far as you can.  And so I dug in.

The very week I began the rewrite, Terry Gross, the host of NPR's Fresh Air, interviewed Bart Ehrman, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian and professor of religious studies, about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeI will forever remember that Eureka moment, walking through the woods just east of the Chinese Gardens at Fort Worden, when Professor Ehrman said ".. there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that's miraculous ..." I did a little dance right there on that forest trail. Probably scared the bejesus out of any onlooking deer.

 

Serendipity, Baby. 

 

My protagonist is a historian faced with accepting past miracles made manifest in the present. The very suspension of disbelief she faces is the same that any religion asks of its followers. It's the same that writers ask of their readers when the story leaves the realm of historical fact and plunges into the hinterlands of "what if?" I had been been flirting with this theme from the very first word, but finally I understood how to take the story deeper, to tie the narrative set in the present with that set in the 13th century. To depart from known history and delve instead into the nebulous past. 

 

The story became something different. Not hugely, but significantly.

 

The first change was immediate, drastic, even: I switched the protagonist's POV from first person to third. Writing this character in first person allowed me to understand her completely, but the story is greater than her character alone. Intimacy and immediacy are richer in first person POV, but third is a better fit for the style of the story. We'll see how I feel after this week's read-through ...

A minor character was shredded, his scenes folded into others. One major character has gone through three name changes in six weeks, bless his heart. A handful of new scenes written, and one dredged up from a long-ago draft. It's one those darlings I hated to kill, and there it sat, waiting patiently to find its place. In the end, I excised 10,000 words. And more will go, I'm sure, as I sit down with a paper copy and red pen.

Plot holes opened and scenes were reengineered. The ending changed from happy to hopeful. Love scenes went from blush-making to black-fading or dropped altogether. Dialogue tightened, personalities sharpened but characters became more ambiguous. Hopefully, you're not entirely certain whose side you're on. Because few things in life are black and white. Especially the truth.

In two weeks, this happy mess is off to a real, live, professional editor. It will be time. I have a couple of passes to make, an out-loud read-through to get through, but I feel it in my belly. The story is becoming what it should be—its own. Now I am ready for someone to tear it apart and work with me to rebuild. I believe in it in a way I haven't before. I feel a smidgen of giddy. this could be something.

2014-05-22 07.04.30-2

 

 

Flowing with the Go: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Understanding must move with the flow of the process.” ― Frank HerbertDune For the past several weeks, a lovely meme has been spreading around the blogosphere, nurtured by a generous community of writers. It's a forum to share what we're working on and how we do it. If you follow the meme backwards, set aside a few hours. You'll wander through a world of writers and emerge dazzled and inspired.

The meme goes a little something like this: accept an invitation to the blog party, show up in your party dress, thank your host, answer a few questions, and extend the invitation to three more writer-bloggers.

Since this is the season of activityeither harvest for my friends below the equator or planting for those aboveI'll simply tag a few authors whom I'd be delighted to see in their Friday night best. Folks, if you have the time and the energy to carry on with the blog tour, let it roll when you can!

Virtual hugs to Edith O Nuallain, an Irish writer and poet blogging at In a Room of My Own, and Bianca Bowers, a South African writer and poet, living in Australia. Read her at B.G. Bowers Thank you both for inviting me to participate in the #MyWritingProcess tour, and for sharing your words and writers' journeys with me.

The Main Event

1) What am I working on?

Rewrites of my first manuscript, Refuge of Doves. My goal is to finish the rewrites by the end of May, send it off to a developmental/story editor, and perhaps have a manuscript ready for the agent/publisher search by early fall. I received some very wise counsel in recent days about the relative value of critique groups and beta readers, with whom I've had decidedly mixed experiences. It's time to turn my words over to a professional. That's the other thing I'm working on: deciding whom to use. If you love your story editor, do let me know.

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

Perhaps the biggest difference is that I'm working outside of genre. Taking a page from Deborah Harkness, I choose not to pigeon-hole my fiction. It's literary in style, but commercial in content. How's that? There are elements of mystical realism woven through contemporary lives, but at the heart is an exploration of women's emotional journeys. In Refuge of Doves, a young widow works through her grief; in Crows of Beara, addiction and recovery are themes. My short stories have addressed miscarriage, war, and isolation. Dark stuff, to be sure, but I write in light, not shadow.

A sense of place is one of the strongest elements of my narratives. My settings become characters in their own right.

Ebb and Flow ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

3) Why do I write what I do?

Ah jeez. This is a tough one. Following the advice of Stephen King, I write what I want to read. I try not to overthink inspiration, I just try to stay out of my own way. As my confidence grows, it becomes easier to release the story to my characters and allow them steer the narrative.

4) How does my writing process work?

As the writer evolves, so does her process. I wrote here Fast and Furious: First Drafts how my approach has changed from Refuge of Doves to Crows of Beara. 

Since I began writing fiction in 2011, I've been a serious student of the craft. Part of my process is to read about and absorb as much as I can from other writers, and to experiment with different ways of approaching the craft of writing, while still respecting (and discovering) my artist's voice.

I write every day. What I'm working on determines how much. With first drafts, I let it pour forth, no revising or editing.

Now that I'm in rewrite mode, I have no word count goal, but I do have a time frame. Some scenes and chapters are trickier than others, so I just keep working and pushing ahead.

My Work-in-Progress and I are together five to six days a week, several hours a day. I set aside one day for other writing businessresearch for the book, researching agents, editors, publishers, working on my business plan. I work on blog posts or book reviews at any time. I don't plan rest days, but if I need one, I take it.

I regard my writing as a small business and I'm the sole owner and employee. It's a more-than-full-time job and if I'm to reach my ultimate goal—to earn a living through writing—I feel obligated to pour every spare moment and a not-insubstantial amount of cash outsourcing those things I cannot do on my own (e.g., editing, book design, e-pub formatting and distribution) to make it happen. And if it doesn't happen, at least I'll know I gave it every chance.

And now for the writer-bloggers whom I invite to pick up the meme and run with it:

“You came here because we do this better than you and part of that is letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.” 
― Don Draper

My Lemonade Stand

The "I finished my novel" honeymoon recedes into memory like the scent of suntan lotion on last year's bikini. The road to publication stretches as far as the eye can see. And damn. That road ain't paved with yellow bricks. The lovely, optimistic and oft-asked, "When's your book coming out?!" is answered with a cheery "Someday, I hope!" while inside my heart stutters. The true answer is, "Well, you see, writing a book and publishing a book? It's the difference between graduating from university and getting a job. The first is never a guarantee of the second. You got the goods, and hopefully the goods are good. But before anyone buys your goods, you must do all the hard work of selling them."

First, generous strangers and writing buddies dissect your pounds of literary flesh.. You revise, then pay a story editor cash money to tear apart your work again. Revise again. Maybe find a few more willing, generous readers. Pay more cash money for copy editing and proofreading. Only then do you release it to the clutches of agents and publishers who, in all likelihood, will send you a rejection six months later.

Meanwhile, you agonize over the traditional vs. self-publishing routes, potentially spinning that roundabout without ever choosing an exit.

You despair of ever seeing your name in print again, because you've all but abandoned writing and submitting short form prose for this freaking-fracking what-am-I-doing-with-my-life?-Help-Me-Rhonda novel.

I anticipated this period of waiting, doubting, towel-throwing-in contemplation and immediately started work a second novel. It's given me needed distance from the first and released the pent-up desire to create new material after months spent in revision mode. I'm six weeks and 60,000 words in—and finding the process more graceful the second time around. This writer is more confident, disciplined and determined.

The other day, I did a little something else to keep myself focused on my goals. Somethings else. First, I signed "Writer" to the occupation line on our tax return. Go, me.

Then I did the other something else. I organized my creative life for business. It was my way of saying "Hey, not only is it okay to think that you may, someday, make an income as a writer, you'd be hella smart to start organizing your writer's financial life now."

The IRS says I have to make money from my writing 3 out of 5 years to be considered a professional writer (versus writing as a hobby). But there is more to convincing the Taxman that Julie Christine Johnson, Writer is a legitimate Lemonade Stand.

As a writer residing in Washington state, I am a sole proprietorship and make quarterly estimated tax payments. Or would, if I had, you know, any income. But I'm planning ahead. The IRS wants evidence that I regard myself as a professional. This means attending classes and workshops and participating in conferences to learn, network and pitch my work. A bank account. Computer and office supplies. Detailed receipts... Not a problem. I do details for a living.

The day my Lemonade Stand opened for business, the universe threw me a bone.

Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers

This is the just-published Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, edited by Patricia Flaherty Pagan. It is a collection of thirty-three works of prose by writers from around the world. I'm gobsmacked to be included and honored that my story, Colorado, was one of six read at the Up, Do launch on February 24 in Houston, TX.

I haven't made a practice of flogging my writing for sale here. I don't know why, because it is my party and I can flog if I want to. Maybe it's that I love writing about writing so much, if I used my time here to say, "Buy Me! Buy Me!", I'd feel like a pop-up store in a suburban mall.

But this one is a bit different. Patricia Flaherty Pagan created this anthology to be a voice of protest at the paucity of women writers featured in leading literary journals, as evidenced by The Vida Count, an annual analysis of women's place in the literary arts. More than that, and true to Patricia's ultimate vision, Up, Do is celebration of the power of prose and the glorious voices of women.

In addition, five percent of the book's sales will be donated to the Houston Area Women's Center, B.A.R.C.C. of Boston, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, and Day One Rape Crisis Services of Rhode Island. Contributions are also planned to the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust and the Wounded Warriors Project.

You, cherished reader, can order a copy from the publisher Spider Road Press or CreateSpace Marketplace or Amazon.com

My copy of Up, Do arrived in the mail the day I ran around town, making my Stand. My Lemonade Stand. My personal Stand that, despite my best efforts to doubt myself, I'll at least go through the motions of believing. Up, Do is a beautiful and important reminder that my words can help heal.

Slip Sliding Away

I locked the door behind me and slipped into the cool morning, my final e-mails sent, my final bank statements reconciled. I slipped the key into the mail slot next to the front door and just like that - no fanfare, no trembling of the earth -  I became unemployed a full-time writer. I think I've done what I could to set this up so I can look in the mirror every morning and assure myself it's going to be all right. Private health insurance for me, new and improved life insurance for the hubs, enough set aside for a disaster. I have a sense of direction and a few self-imposed deadlines. I rearranged my office, ordered a stand-up desk for my laptop, made out a writing to-do list and sallied forth.

The Gremlin of Self-Defeat perches on one shoulder. Picture him nearly tumbling off, he is cackling so hard. The Faerie of Belief (who looks amazingly like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North) twirls her sparkly wand and makes all sorts of soothing noises, but thus far hasn't been particularly helpful. Like, not giving me the right words so I don't have to sweat them out on my own.

Still, I had a lovely transition to the writing life last week, attending the Port Townsend Writers' Conference. The Conference offered the inspiration I needed to believe I had to give this a try. That even failure would be better than a lifetime of woulda-shoulda-coulda. It's been only a week, so I'm a little wobbly with what I'm supposed to be doing, besides writing. Which I was doing before unemployment  I decided to try writing full-time, of course. But now I have so many more hours to fill. And finding they aren't enough for all I want to do.

In the past week, I revised an already-published short story and sent it off for consideration for a new anthology. I'm revising/polishing two other published short stories for a couple of contests and two unpublished shorts and a flash fiction piece to send out to journals. I started a new short story. I'm thinking I'll take a day or two each week to work on these - a little cross-training for the main event.

I landed on 128,000 words a couple of weeks ago - roughly a 340 page novel. I'm so close to the end, but struggling to write the final scenes and bring all the pieces together in a tidy but satisfying dénouement. I decided it was time to print out the whole crazy mess and start a re-read and a revision from page one, trusting I'd find resolution of the end along the way.

Ah, Jeez. What year is this? How does 2015 sound for a goal end date? Crikey. This is going to take some time. I park at the beach and read aloud to myself in the front seat of the car, red pen in hand. I spent Sunday afternoon filling pages with plot notes that I had to sort through and transcribe. Two mornings spent rearranging scenes. Literally laying them out on the floor and rearranging them, storyboard-style.

But more on the process of revision later. I had a couple of a-ha moments last week, thanks to some super-amazing lectures and workshops which I'll share in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, here I am, with Gremlin and Faerie on my shoulders, doing their thing. I had some very dark moments during the week, rereading and falling into my own plot holes. I thought, "Julie, this is shite. Really, sweetheart. It's crap." But then I'd read a passage or part of a scene and I'd feel it, I'd feel the story. I'd lose myself and forget to look for junky little filler words or moments of telling instead of showing or a better verb.

I tell myself I have to see this through, I have to take it as far as I can. There will always be jobs - I'm through with careers, but I can always find another job. I won't always have this time, this summer, maybe I won't even have this hope. But I have it now. And I want to use it, before it slips, slides away.

Whoah God only knows, God makes his plan  The information's unavailable to the mortal man  We're workin' our jobs, collect our pay  Believe we're gliding down the highway, when in fact we're slip sliding away 

~Paul Simon

 

Emptying Tomorrow

What's said in the marriage, stays in the marriage. Mostly because age is kind and I can't remember the petty comments we've flung at each other over 21 years. The loving comments are said often enough they are ingrained in my heart. But there is something Brendan said to me long ago which I will share with you: "Julie, you're not happy unless you have something to worry about." This resonates still because, well, it's mostly true. I would cut the word "happy" -  worrying doesn't make me happy. It makes me.

Let's rewrite that sentence: "Julie, you're not, unless you have something to worry about." Anxiety is my fuel.

This terrific blog post about anxiety and the creative process flowed into my Twitter feed last week: Let's Talk About Anxiety and the Creative Process. It got me to thinking about the nest of anxieties I create and where it fits into my writing life. Author Dan Blank reminds us we all bear the burden of uncertainty and our fears are relative - no more, no less than the guy in the coffee shop we are eavesdropping on. But in this up-by-the-bootstraps, My-Facebook-Life-Is-Perfect society, we are loath to name our anxieties lest they reveal the gross flaws in our character.

On the heels of Dan Blank's blog post was an interview with comedian Marc Maron on WHYY's Fresh Air. Maron is hilarious guy, clever and endearing. And a chronic fretter (Fretterer? Fretishist? Chronically fraught?). When asked by host Terri Gross if he related to the idea of suffering as inspiration for his creativity, Maron replied "...I have found that ... I experience a tremendous amount of dread and fear and panic. I think that misery for people that incredibly anxious or frightened is something consistent. I think obsession sometimes works as almost a spirituality. You know, you have a routine that your brain kind of loops around that you call home, but that's usually in defense of some other part of you that's unruly. And for me, I think it's anxiety and panic and worry and dread." So what you're saying, Mr. Maron, is that you are not, unless you have something to worry about. You bow at the altar of Dread. Hey, we're a religion!

A couple of weeks ago I went out for a trail run. On uphill stretch I realized my heart was trying to leap from my throat. I stopped but could not catch my breath. This scared the shit out of me and made my heart race even faster, which made me panic more, which... A man passed me and we waved at one another. I thought it would be bad form to collapse in front of a stranger. Finally my heart slowed and my lungs opened. I hobbled back to the car, chilled and cowed by my body's betrayal of my mind. I'd been on that same stretch only days before and bounded up the same path. I chalked it up to running on an empty stomach and tried to push away darker fears.

Early the next morning while sitting on the sofa, writing and drinking my morning joe, my heart zoomed. I could have been sitting in a cramped airplane seat in the middle of a 10-hour flight, the way the panic attack came on. Now I was scared. I know, I know, I should have called my doctor (new in town, I didn't yet have a GP and I was one week away from a new health insurance plan taking effect. God Bless America, Land of It's Cheaper to Die Than Visit the ER). The next day I sliced my coffee intake in half (a fun few days of withdrawal drudgery ensued) and all but eliminated alcohol. I wondered, at nearly 44, was this the start of hormone-induced perimenopause? I eat clean, I run, swim, bike, yoga - I'm fit as a fiddle. A little creaky and soft in many spots, but sheesh...

Although I couldn't completely rule out a physical cause for my racing heart (and I do have a doctor's appointment scheduled. In June.), I'm pretty attuned to my emotional heart. I knew all those tiny eggs in the nest of anxieties I've been incubating over the past several months were hatching in the warmth of spring. And some of them are full-grown birds of prey, coming home to roost. Here are my chicks and hawks, complete with ID bands so even if I set them free, we'll keep track of each other:

Things I Worry About Constantly

  • something will happen to Brendan and I will be alone
  • I will contract a terminal illness (Cold comfort that I already have a terminal illness. It's known as being born)
  • I will fall victim again to depression and an Amber alert will have to be issued for my soul
  • I will have another running injury and be denied the addictive substance I crave: endorphins
  • I am irrelevant. This is wrapped up in the heartbreak of infertility, miscarriage and the failed attempts to adopt. I have a surplus of love that feels like it's draining into a black hole of regret and sorrow
  • Money. This is back again, after taking a few years' hiatus. We've given up a lot to follow our hearts' calling and the compromise, at least in the near future, is financial security
  • I'm missing fundamental truth of my life, something that's right in front of me. And I'm not getting any younger.

Not on this list:

  • Writing

I search for it. I listen for the scratching the door. But I feel no anxiety about my writing. This is not a matter of self-confidence - I have no illusions about my skills and talents. It's simply the one open space in my life not crowded by my fears. Perhaps more importantly, I don't feel anxious when I write. The world slips away and I don't feel much of anything - not my belly, my bladder, my stiff neck or aching shoulders. I feel the story.

Nor do I entertain illusions about publication, as least not through the traditional channels. I've released myself from that pressure and those expectations. When I finish this monster and return to writing short stories before tackling the next long-form project, I'll hope for the same publishing success as my recent short story endeavors. I'll do all I can to bring my novel to the shelf, but I remind myself daily that the writing process is what brings me peace and fulfillment, not the reward of extrinsic acknowledgment.

Perhaps this is the fundamental truth about my life over which I seem to lose so much sleep. And I'm not getting any younger.

But I did run that damn hill again.

bending not breaking  admiralty inlet may 2013

Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths. Charles Spurgeon

Entering the Wilderness

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover is yourself.” ― Alan Alda This year - no longer new and fragile, but not yet settled in its skin - has been defined by intuition. I've held my intuition at arm's length, examined it from all sides and shoved it back in the drawer. Only to take it out, shake it out, and embrace it at last.

Intuition is what you turn to when you have exhausted the alternatives. It's the last entry name on your dance card, the partner ready with a firm hand and a sure foot to waltz you into the new day.

We knew, way back that dreadful New Year's Eve day, that moving on was the only option worthy of our consideration. But we argued against it, fearing the unknown; fearful of losing the comfort and security which appeared like magic in our bank account every two weeks; of losing our identities, our community, our friends.

But we knew. I knew the moment I heard Brendan's shaking voice on the telephone telling me he was coming home. He must have known several minutes before, standing up from his chair and standing up for his dignity. We would have to go.

And we did. We moved on, in our own time. In our own way. Ten weeks later - our decisions made, papers signed, notices given, bags packed, boxes filled - we turned faces westward, toward the water, toward the mountains. Toward home.

I gave in to intuition again last week, knowing that no matter how much you hope something will be the right thing, it can often be the wrong time. Or you're not the right person. So I rinsed off my gumboots and set them on the back patio. Yesterday morning, I walked down the hill to a new job, one my gut tells me is the better choice.

Without tapping into intuition, creative writing is about as inspired as a grocery store list. It's what compels a writer return to the page day after day. By releasing our creative unconscious, by listening deeply to our instincts, we connect with our characters and through them, our true stories are revealed.

I had a word count goal in mind for this first draft - something in the 110-115,000 range. A complete novel. Not a long one, but something of substance. Not that word count much matters in the dung heap of first drafts, but it gave me an end point from which I could see across a chasm of edits to less crappy drafts. I also allowed for Plan B - the Intuition Plan - that gave me an out if I felt Draft 1 was ready to be pillaged and plundered by my red pen in search of treasure worth salvaging.

Not surprisingly, the Intuition Plan was put into effect 'round about the time I unpacked the last box, set my office to rights, and this long winter of our discontent came to a close. I had a beginning, a bunch of middles, and an end. I had started to write circles around myself, falling into plot holes and bringing the earth down around me in my attempt to clamber out. It was time to bring scenes together, to strategize and lay out, in systematic fashion, the story's arc. And to shake out the bogeys. IMG_0183

April 1, (no foolin'!), 90,000 words of Draft 1 became (magically!) Draft 2. While I was upending all other constants in my life, why not toss my writing routine into the mix?

Early morning sessions with my blue Pilot and Moleskine, scribbling to fill blank pages with scenes and silliness became, after a few awkward attempts, early morning sessions with my red Pilot and 8.5 x 11 Helvetica-filled Hammermill.

And hours - at all hours - of retyping and tweaking, shuffling pages and shaking my head.

I worried that editing would mean an end to creating. Yet, despite the taking away that is inherent to the revision process, Draft 2 finds itself 5,000 new words the richer. And I'm still in the early scenes. I'm have a sense of what Draft 3 will entail (You didn't think this would be over any time soon did you? Honey, we're just getting started): the fleshing out and enriching of detail, the gathering of historical minutiae, most of which will be discarded in...Draft 4? I jest. Or not.

But Draft 1 - there it is, on the table, in black and white. Now being sliced and diced into something resembling a story by my fine point red pen.

I'm still a bit wobbly - one month into this new life - my emotions giddy but uncertain, like a colt taking his first steps. The world around me is so fresh, brimming with the vibrant colors of new growth, the richness of blossoms and sea air, the madness of wind and the changing tides. I feel that delicious disconnect of being far away on holiday, in a place that is so beautiful you feel simultaneously calmed and energized. But I'm not on holiday. I'm in the wilderness of my intuition. And I think I'll stay here awhile.