Writing Life

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

Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I'd wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn't care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens' Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.  

But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner's class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I'd find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.

 

Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I'll include links to a few of those at the end.

 

I could rant about Mr. Boudinot's silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve "success", or his revolting remark,"Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more." (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.

 

Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.

 

I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare "Real Deals", as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.

 

A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:

 

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? ...  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

 

Okay. Here's the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don't. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can't see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I'm a "real writer")? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?

 

NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner's World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that's not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one's otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.

 

Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven't put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.

 

Someone commented that we don't want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It's the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The "Real Deals" are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The "Real Deals" make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.  

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” ― Ken Kesey

Cutout Heart

Walking past a jewelry store a few days before Valentine's Day, I see a window display of cutout hearts dangling on silver ribbons.

 

I forget, until I remember.

 

Hearts cut out, dangling on ribbons of memory. I see tender threads of sorrow connecting us to our losses: loved ones passed on; friends who have passed us by; lovers whose touch has faded with time. My cutout hearts: our first child, due February 10; our second child, due February 14.

 

I forgive, until I rage.

 

This time of year usually finds me deep underground, out of the chatter, holding my grief silent and sacred. But this year—the year of charmolypi—I decide to hang on and hang out, to push through and pretend. I forget how raw I can become, as though my skin has been stripped away.

 

I am together, until I fall apart. 

 

What happens is coincidence. A curse of timing. Mercury in Retrograde. At my most vulnerable, I linger in a social media forum on the cusp of a weekend, like a child in the schoolyard at recess, watching as a group knits together, their backs to me, intent on their own games, speaking their secret language. The language of sisterhood. The language of motherhood. Languages I will never speak, countries I will never visit.

 

I am whole, until I break. 

 

All the rage. All the raw hurt. It pours out in little-girl loneliness. I lose my shit. I really do. For days, a ticker-tape parade of all my faults and shortcomings replays in digital neon shoutycaps:

JULIE, NO ONE WILL EVER PICK YOU FOR THEIR TEAM BECAUSE YOU ARE

withdrawnawkwardweirduglysillyclumsyboringnotasisternotamothernotoneofus

 

And then it stops. Not all at once. It takes some serious self-talk and soul-searching. The gushing fire hydrant of self-hate eventually diminishes to a lawn sprinkler, and then to the last trickle from a closed water spout. It takes keeping my eyes peeled for moments of grace.

 

I stand in shadow, until I turn my face to the sun.

 

Grace comes first from the inside. A recognition that all my rational energy is fighting the good fight—the one that keeps my head above water when it sees the tsunami wave of depression bearing down. It comes in the letting go of unfair expectations—of myself, of others.

 

Other moments of grace follow: an article, shared by Rene Denfeld—whose powerful writing and capacity for compassion serve as inspiration for the writer and woman I strive to be—and in the reading, I accept my grief for what it is—endless and all right (Getting Grief Right); an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert that makes me realize I must reclaim the shit I've lost and own it. Own that I hurt, that I overreact in moments of acute pain and loneliness, and forgive myself for not always getting the really awful stuff just right.

 

Emotional healing guru Iyanla Vazant says, “When you see crazy coming, cross the street.” In this case, I meet crazy in the middle of the road. I put my arms around her and say, "You are loved. You are worthy. Now, let's celebrate."

 

I walk, until I dance. 

 

A wee package arrives in the mail from someone who has never met me, but who offers up her faith in me, her heart, her home. In the grace of a sparkling just-spring day, I melt.

 

"I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." I pulled this from that lovely New York Times article to which I linked above. The thing is, I'm writing about my sorrows. I'm writing a whole huge novel about the sorrows. It's the toughest work I've ever done. My character, Holly, she isn't me. The story isn't autobiographical, although some of the places are places I've been, some of the experiences are ones I've had. But it's not so much that I'm writing about what I know; rather, I'm writing what I feel.

 

I write, until I heal. 

 

That girl on the playground feels a warm hand slip into hers, pulling her away from what she doesn't have, into the embrace of what she does: the love of wonderful boy. My Valentine.

 

I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy. ~ Isak Dinesen

 

2015-02-23 08.31.08

 

Getting the Words Right

Friday morning. Café. Rain. Quad shot Americano. It's early afternoon in Chicago. Here on the island, I check my inbox like a lab rat presses the sugar water lever. This craving for the e-mail from my editor. The e-mail with her responses to my five weeks' worth of edits on IN ANOTHER LIFE. The e-mail that signals the beginning of another five weeks of editing. Craving, yet dreading it, too.  

I'm tired, feeling fragile. Sleep was elusive last night, although my restlessness allowed me to finish Tess of the d'Ubervilles and I surely could not have spared a moment's thought for my characters while Tess was wandering forlorn and forsaken in pages yet unread. I'm debating the wisdom of opening that e-mail when it does come. Tomorrow morning, after a solid night's rest and a peaceful hour of yoga, would be the smarter bet for my soul.

 

Maybe I shouldn't look at my e-mail for the rest of the day.

 

The past two weeks of freedom from the manuscript have been devoted to tying up loose ends before I dive back into the Slough of Revision: assembling 2014 forms and receipts for the tax preparer (can you believe it, I found someone who works with writers!); preparing two writing residency applications; making dentist, optometrist, and doctor appointments that I've pushed down the to-do list to the next week or the one after that; emerging from my cocoon to see friends, send thank you notes, connect with family, bake bread, go the movies.

 

I've also been working on TUI, my third novel. I think longingly to a year ago, when THE CROWS OF BEARA poured out of me, unfettered by other obligations, free from competing distractions. The story flew from my fingertips with such certainty: 105,000 words in ten weeks.

 

What a different writing experience this time, in part because I had to set TUI aside for so long and I'm about to set it aside again. In part because the storytelling itself is different—deeper, more personal. There's something I'm reaching for and I won't get there in a first draft. I won't know the layers I need to uncover until I see the whole of it spread out before me.

 

This is something new, this switching of writing gears from revision mode into first draft creativity, this distraction caused by the business of writing—all the thinking about websites and blog tours and blurbs and head shots and author platforms.

 

If I'm fortunate and THE CROWS OF BEARA sells, I will be in a cycle of writing-revising-promoting for the foreseeable future. What a gift that cycle will be in sustaining a viable career, but it's something I will need to learn to manage: making the intellectual and emotional leap from one work to another, from one type of writing to another, scraping together the free moments—whether for a day or a few weeks—to clear my brain and allow new material to enter unabated.

 

It's late afternoon in Chicago now. Cold and clear. Maybe my editor is watching the clock, hoping to be on her way home before dark to a quiet night in with her husband, or dinner out with girlfriends. Maybe she's nearing the ending that I decided I wanted to change after I'd sent her my edits.

 

It's not too late to make that change. But by April it will be. And I will be ready for too late. I will be ready to move on.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do? Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied. Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you? Hemingway: Getting the words right. — Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

Behind the Curtain: A Novel's Publication Schedule

March 2016. Mark your calendars. Okay, plan on marking your calendars. I haven't gotten around to filling in important 2015 dates, much less thirteen months from now.  

Well, there are a few I've inked in. A series of deadlines, a set of anticipated events, a dream that's fast becoming a series of To-Dos, as REMEMBERING walks this path toward publication.

 

When I tell people that March 2016 is the publication date, most—unless they've gone through the process already—look at me with eyes wide and mouths agape. That long? they exclaim. Why the delay?

 

Oh, there's no delay. In fact, REMEMBERING is a bit rushed. Most novels run on an eighteen-months-from-contract-signing-to-publication calendar. Mine's about fifteen. And I'm grateful for each month, week, day between now and launch. Here's a glimpse of what's happening, what will happen, and what I need to make happen, in the time I have:

 

Approximate Manuscript Schedule:

First revision back to editor: January 26, 2015

Next edits to me: February 6, 2015

Final ms due: March 20, 2015

Cover for Author Review: probably Feb or March 2015

Copyedits for Author Review: April 13, 2015

Reading Group Guide & Author Q&A: April 27, 2015

ARCs** printed: Early June 2015

Synopsis for Sales: July 1, 2015

2nd pages for Author Review: Late September 2015

Blurbs due: Mid-October 2015

Final Closes to Printer: November 2015

**ARCs stands for Advance Reading Copies, which are sent to reviewers and other publicity/marketing contacts several months before the book is published. From these, cover and promotional blurbs are generated.

 

Last Thursday, five days ahead of deadline, I submitted my first round of edits. I stand back, a bit trembly and astonished at how many story changes I've made in these five weeks. Entire chapters eliminated; a character killed off; another just erased, as if he'd never existed; material I wrote a couple of years ago and then deleted—now revived, revised, restored. Names changed, plot points altered. And the revising is not over. A couple of weeks to breathe, to return to TUI, before I receive the next round from my editor. By sometime mid-April, when the copyedits are complete and I've submitted a Reading Group Guide and an Author Q&A (a little shiver of delight!), I'll be released to think about other work.

 

Kinda sorta.

 

In late fall, I'll begin working with my publisher's publicist on planning the book's "launch"—a publishing term I love: launch means the book's release. I get this visual of a rocket lifting into the sky from a platform of flames, of confetti tossed from the window of a high rise, of a great bird spreading its wings and rising on a current of air. I love the idea of REMEMBERING launching into the world.

 

What I don't love is the idea of a launch party. I'm an introvert. I hate parties. Do I have to have one? Who's going to pay for it? What will I wear? What if no one comes? Would you bring your dog so I have someone to talk to? These are the things I worry about at 3 a.m.

 

But of course, that promotion work begins well before next fall. It's work I must do, work my agent and I will map out together. It's what I'm most dreading and most excited about. Self-promotion gives me the heebie-jeebies—it embarrasses me terribly—but it must be done. The learning curve will be steep, and my challenge is to find ways to make it thoughtful, compelling, inclusive, fun and sustainable. What excites me is the possibility of engaging with readers, but of course that won't happen until I actually have some. Sigh. For the time being, I soak in and glean wisdom from writers in a couple of Facebook groups who are in the same stage of publication or a few steps ahead; arm myself with back issues of Poets and Writers, Midge Raymond's excellent Everyday Book Marketing, and Dan Blank's weekly newsletter, and scribble out must-dos and wish-lists, budgets and bios.

 

I remind myself what a gift I've been given—this hand on my shoulder that says, "We believe enough in this book that we're taking it out into the world." This opportunity to realize a dream.

 

I don't have to have a launch party. But if I do, you're all invited!

You write because you need to write, or because you hope someone will listen or because writing will mend something broken inside you or bring something back to life.” ― Joanne Harris, Blackberry Wine

One month, four drafts, 1300 pages: First Round Edits

A Word of Resolution for 2015

“For last year's words belong to last year's language And next year's words await another voice.” ― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

I admire the notion of wiping the slate clean for the year to come, particularly at a time when the cold, dark hours are just beginning their slow creep toward the light. But it doesn't really work that way, does it? Chances are, regardless of our resolve, we will wake on February 1 still in these same bodies in need of more exercise and less sugar; in these brains in need of more fresh thought and less group-think; in these hearts in need of more gratitude and less comparison.

 

I'm not immune to the My Year in Review tradition, but I find as I age that it's less harrowing to keep rolling through the process of life, rather than marking an end to another year. I already have my birthday to thank for that time of mourning. Serendipitously, my birthday comes at the beginning of autumn, which is a far more natural time for me to renew and reflect, to make resolutions (intentions toward permanent change) or establish goals (markers toward a specific achievement).

 

Yet on January 1, 2015, I came upon this essay by Molly Fisk Pick a Word for the Year. Being a logophile, the idea of selecting a word to guide me through the year, instead of making a resolution, made me clap my hands in delight. Yes! This is a ritual I can embrace!

 

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This is my word. Isn't it beautiful? Greek. It's a whisper that tickles the ear, a cirrus cloud that skims across a blue sky: Sɑːr-moʊ-'lɪ-pi.

 

From the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I found this description most meaningful: ‘Charmolypi evokes a metaphysical reflection, expressed through the language of the body’ (Dziennik Teatralny). Loosely translated, charmolypi means ‘joyful sorrow’.'

 

Charmolypi belongs to a tiny family of words I adore, including Hiraeth, Saudade, Sehnsucht and Natsukashii, that contains sentiments of bittersweet longing, a yin-yang of joy and sorrow. It is a feeling that comes only when we allow ourselves to feel deeply, profoundly, painfully, wholly. The yearning is not for a specific place, person, or thing—it is the unnameable ache when you hear a particular piece of music, when the light slants a certain way, when a scent or taste catches you unawares and sends you reeling back into memory.

 

What Charmolypi signifies to me, why I've chosen it as the word to guide me this year, is the acceptance of sorrow as it mingles with joy. I have come to accept the inevitability of depression and anxiety in my life and rather than fight against that tide, I am learning to swim with it, to recognize the beauty that comes with the still, dark moments. These are the time when I listen most deeply, not only to myself, but to the world around me; when I touch the most compassionate parts of my soul and emerge with a stronger, bigger heart.

 

In harmony with 'the language of the body,' Charmolypi is embracing this body as it ages, learning to treat its limitations with respect while still pushing it to greater heights. I've been craving the power and playfulness that seem to fall by the wayside as the years pass. I've kept up a yoga self-practice for years, but since returning to formal classes a few weeks ago, I am again witnessing the transformation of my body and mind. It is with Charmolypi that I turn away from training for a marathon, which is only a date on the calendar, a short-lived event, but represents the pounding stress of increased mileage and intensity that this body doesn't need. Instead, I turn toward a practice that builds up what aging naturally whittles away: strength and flexibility and balance. I embrace the grace that comes with intention and breath.

 

Charmolypi is the bittersweet process of letting go. It is my determination not to expend emotional energy on those who cannot respond in kind; of finding that sometimes-wobbly balance between compassion and patience and the sweet relief of release; of accepting that forgiveness does not mean I need open the door to unhealthy people.

 

It is the understanding and acceptance that as I walk on the path to publication, my time and my words will not always belong to me, that as much as I am lifted up by the support of others, there is also a surrender. I am acutely aware of this now, in the thick of the editing process, when I see my vision, my story, reflected in others' eyes. I prepare myself for the day when it is released and belongs to anyone who reads it. There is Charmolypi—joy mixed with regret mixed with hope mixed with resolve.

 

'Last year's words belong to last year's language,' T.S. Eliot reminds us. Which words await your voice in 2015?

Charmolypi: the play of light + shadow

Can't Stay Long: A Writer On Deadline

This will be short, raw, uncut: I'm on deadline. I'm also a little hung over from a wonderful dinner with friends, where there was paella, cheesecake, and bourbon. No one paid attention to the time until suddenly, it was tomorrow. Which is today. And I have so very much to do.  

They're heeeeere . . . the first round of REMEMBERING edits (I believe that's the title we've arrived at. First Lesson in publishing—don't get too attached to your title. And don't balk at change. It will make it easier to move onto the Second Lesson: You're not as good a writer as you think you are).

 

I knew to expect the manuscript at some point on Friday. I knew that once that manuscript arrived—Track Changes activated, the accompanying letter meant to brace me for all the notes my editor left within—it would be weeks before I returned to TUI, my novel-in-progress. It would mean saying goodbye to characters I was just getting to know, interrupting a train of thought, a progression of story I was finally settling into. I reached a stopping point, the end of a scene, a turning point in my protagonist's life, 40,000 words into a complicated, emotional story that I hope to make even more complicated and emotional when I can return to it. One critical character is in the wings, waiting for my cue to make a first, defining appearance.

 

I saved TUI in all the right places, closed down Scrivener, left my editor's e-mailed attachments unopened, and went for a long walk. I regretted what I had to leave behind, felt vulnerable and anxious about the work on REMEMBERING that lies ahead, and just ridiculously excited for this next part of the process—seeing my novel take its final shape and come roaring to life.

 

Returning to REMEMBERING means welcoming back characters who've become such an important part of my life. Characters who've changed my life. Do they know? Do they have any idea that in a year, their pasts, presents, futures; their mistakes, secrets, and hopes will be open for all the world to read? What have they been up to in the months since I laid them to rest on my hard drive? What will I be asked to change? How will I give them even greater depth, higher stakes, complicate their choices and alter their stories to make a more cohesive whole?

 

As I walked and breathed, buffeted by winter winds, I was reminded how this uncertainty and this feedback are so priceless. We write in isolation much of the time, hoping against all odds that we will be called forward, chosen, set on a path with a team of professionals devoted to making our work the best it can be. It's a what-if I barely allowed myself to imagine. As I begin to consider the suggestions and changes, I accept that this thing is now bigger than me. REMEMBERING has left the shelter of my imagination and enters the real world of publishing, and I with it.

 

In between REMEMBERING and TUI sits my second novel, THE CROWS OF BEARA. Last week, this happened:  The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature 2014

 

The writer hugs herself with glee. And gets to work.

Taking the Long View

Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.  ~ Stephen DeStaebler

 

A mighty struggle these past weeks to settle down and write. Late October arrives and I haven't written anything new since July. Oh, I've been busy: one novel completed and in others' capable hands; another novel revised and ready for critique; two short stories sent out into the world, in search of acceptance and homes.

 

But I'm restless and panicky, wondering how much conditioning I've lost in the months since I last faced down a blank page.

 

Starting a new novel is an emotional gambit: vulnerability—certain; risk of failure—absolute; excitement—total. First come the heady days of pouring ink onto the page: the spark of an idea that transforms into character sketches, themes, research notes and eventually, the plot outlines that precede the first lines of typed prose.

 

The first day of writing. The second day of writing. The first week. Frustration borne of restlessness, feeling words spilling over the dam, but having my fingers in too many holes to catch them all. Attention span shifting this way and that and days of grinding out words I can barely hear through the chatter in my head.

 

A perfectly good excuse. I have one. I want to tell you. I'm bursting to tell you. A day when the course of my life shifts, perhaps just a bit, perhaps seismically, like a train shunted onto a new track at the last moment to a destination yet unknown—not the next station in the next small town, surely, but maybe the one after that or maybe a long grinding roll onto the big city. I'll tell you as soon as I can. It's the blog post I've been dreaming of writing.

 

But no matter what happens next, I must be present in the now. I must do my job. I must write.

 

A sucker for the carrot of simple goals, I pop open the Project Targets box in Scrivener and reset my daily word count. I sense this story will not come as easily as The Crows of Beara—10,000 words a week netted me a 105,000 word novel in ten weeks. For all that is happening external to this novel, for all that is happening inside the story, I need to give myself room to breathe. I set my session goal for 1,500 words, with an eye toward a completed first draft by March. A winter of writing in cafés and in the library's bright and warm Reading Room.

 

A few days of hitting my target, even though it takes hours. Upon hours. I force myself to stay in the hardback chair at the library, draining the laptop battery, stomach groaning in hunger, eyes dry and throbbing. Nothing is coming easily. I reread, move scenes around. It's there. There story is there. Too much brain dump exposition and back story—I know that, but I'll find a way to fit it in later or get rid of it. I remind myself: stop editing, stop worrying whether what you've got works, keep writing until you get to what does.

 

And then yesterday. Doing what I knew I had to. Shifting my protagonist's POV from first person to third. There is much about this story (entitled Tui (tōō-ē), a native bird of New Zealand and in my novel, the name of a child in need of wings to fly away) that is so personal to my life—not the events or the plot—but the emotions, the longings, the hurts. Yet, by keeping the protagonist's voice in first person, I struggle to separate her "I" from my eye, her "me" from my own mind. So, Holly Dawes, welcome to the world. I'll step back now and let you go your own way.

 

Today. Two hours, two thousand words. Time enough left over to run seven miles. To wash the car. To write a book review. To write this blog post. To get some perspective. To take the long view.

 

Taking the long view / Dordogne Valley / © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

The Janus Gate

There are times of passage in everyone's life: times when we leave the old familiar self-image and move to a new understanding. 

Author Janet Lee Carey, from her workshop Plot and Passage, 

2014 Whidbey Island Writers Conference

 

Unable to afford the real thing, I've pulled myself through a DIY-MFA these past few years, attending workshops and conferences; reading books on craft; subscribing to magazines and writing blogs; stuffing my Readability account, Pinterest boards, three-ring binders, and file folders with articles on writing craft, the publishing industry, and creative inspiration.

 

At a certain point however, all the craft advice, the bullet point lists, the twelve different ways to structure a plot, began messing with my brain and disrupting my writing. And it only stands to reason, more time studying my craft means less time working on my art.

 

Gradually this past year, I've unsubscribed from all but a few choice craft blogs and I've stopped clicking article links—except for the brilliant essays on art and creativity Maria Popova writes and curates for Brain Pickings and the occasional New York Times series Draft. Leaving a day job for the full-time writing life means a budget of one conference a year, one workshop a quarter.

 

Easing up on the intake of information allows the real gems of guidance to sparkle, as they did at the recent Whidbey Island Writers Conference, where author Janet Lee Carey tilted my writing life ever so slightly, but significantly, on its axis. In her workshop Plot and Passage, Carey introduced us to the concept of the Janus Gate. Janus is the Roman god of Passages, both literal—the history of Ancient Rome describes a long temple with two arched gates on opposite ends and a statue of Janus between; and temporal—our calendar year begins with the month named in his honor.

 

But as a literary device, the Janus Gate represents an emotional passage for your characters. One side of the Gate is safety, the familiar, home. It can also be a trap, stasis, stagnation. Your plot may push a character across the Gate's threshold into risk or danger, or perhaps into opportunity, new relationships, and a greater understanding of himself. Your plot may also hold your character captive on the "safe" side or force her to return to the old way of life, thwarting her efforts to change.

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Of course, it's the writer's job to make life difficult for our characters—that's Storytelling 101. But if we just throw events and situations at our characters without taking time to consider how choices, passages, cause our characters to evolve, the story will read like a series of Post-It Notes. As Carey states, "Character Changes Story. Story Changes Character."

 

I'm never certain when I begin writing a story how my characters will change by the end. I am learning that delicate dance between my expectations of/plans for the plot and the characters' actual responses and actions. With Janet Lee Carey's metaphor of the Janus Gate, I have this simple tool—a beautiful visual, really—of character arc and plot progression.

 

Recently, a character I've been thinking about for years made the passage from my mind onto the page. I watched as she wobbled on unsteady legs, turning this way and that, toward the unknown, back at the familiar, before she finally stopped in front of me and asked, "Which way do I go?"

 

We'll find that out together, she and I.

 

A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It's a story I've carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner's Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region's history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.  

But I'm wasn't looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It's all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn't need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn't disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I've read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr's novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan's won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

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Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I'd been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I'd opened a yawning chasm of "Now what do I do?" My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I've learned anything along this writer's journey, it's to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn't new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I'd let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.

 

 

 

 

Nuit Blanche

Nuit Blanche . . . White Night—French for sleeplessness. It sounds almost celestial, doesn't it? A vast, shining stretch of emptiness, a field of untouched snow, a freshly laundered sheet floating over a soft, welcoming bed.  

Mais non. A nuit blanche is a very dark, lonely sort of hell. But it is inevitable, this desperate return jet-lag, the body crying for food, coffee, bright lights, a farmers' market, a castle reach at the most inconvenient times.

 

Wide awake at one a.m. the day after our arrival, with just a handful of restless hours of sleep in reserve and still trembling from the stress of twenty-four hours of travel (white-knuckle driving in Paris morning rush hour traffic; white-knuckle queuing in a snaking line of hundreds for a flight leaving in two hours; white-knuckle bouncing along jet streams in a hot, cramped metal tub; white-knuckle winding through dark forests to return at last to our windswept island), I crept downstairs to the moonless dark of the living room—littered by luggage and still chilled from our absence—to wait out the nuit blanche with a movie and hot, buttered toast.

 

The afterglow of our journey lit my way and warmed my skin, freckled and peachy from days of hiking in the Dordogne. The region, resplendent in its sultry, tempestuous arrière-saison, had graced these fortunate travelers with October sunshine and a few welcome splashes of cleansing rain. I powered up the slide show function on my Nikon and took another journey, this time with knuckles unclenched.

 

I had fretted and fretted about this trip, shredding myself with worries about money, my flight claustrophobia, our sick cat, the resurgence of an Icelandic volcano, pilot strikes in France, not writing, oh, the list of the legitimate and the bizarre goes on and on.

 

The unfolding of my heart and mind, the releasing of the tension that had built since we hit 'Confirm Purchase' on those airline tickets back in April, began the moment we landed and continued as we explored anew, physically and intellectually, this place that means so much to us, to our individual and joined pasts, to our future.

 

But it was the present that captivated me, for I finally allowed myself to revel in it. My senses were gleefully pummeled by the taste of duck confît, the sight of pre-historical troglodytic dwellings beneath medieval castles, the wine-drenched scent of a village draining its fermentation tanks, the touch of acorns raining on my head from a sudden breeze, and the sound of French syllables swirling from all the mouths around us, including our own. I was grateful for the vulnerability and challenge of adapting to the whims and whiles of the different, eager as a hidden language revealed itself and poured out in a tumble, and delighted when a shopkeeper exclaimed, "Oh, I thought you were French!" As a traveller, I am renewed, replete with wonder and prismatic joy, able to see past the smallness of my worries as I open my heart to the newly possible.

 

There is linear time, real time, the actual days and weeks spent away. But then there's travel time—the sense that you've been gone for ages, because of all that you experience during your sojourn. A traveller never returns home unchanged and that time travel is the distance between who you were when you left and who you are upon your return.

 

Yet, this time away returned me to someone I'd lost sight of during these past two years of change. To keep hold of her and not lose her againthat journey now awaits.

 

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

— John Steinbeck

 

 

Reflections on the Dordogne: Périgueux, October © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

The Journey of 1000 Lists: A Writer Travels

The lists that precede a journey. They begin in broad strokes, months in advance: where we will go, how we will get there, where we will stay, those travel Epiphanies that occur as we drain a bottle of wine or ramble along a forest trail. One year, while mapping out cycling routes in Burgundy, we realized we were meant to hike the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest Ireland. This year, while choosing a town in Burgundy to base ourselves, we decided it was time to visit Dordogne. Someday, we'll actually make it to Burgundy.  

A plan thus put into motion, the lists multiply, separate, fan out: packing lists; project lists; things to buy in preparation; things to do before we leave; an itinerary; do we want to end our trip in Paris, or visit someplace new? Which cat sitter did we feel most comfortable with?

 

Once scattered on the desk, pinned by magnets to the refrigerator, tucked into a book, the lists merge as the date of departure draws nigh. The big decisions are made. The small ones become a running stream of consciousness: which books to take (no e-readers here, thank you); which shoes—the shoes are everything, aren't they? What happened to the spare phone charger cords? Will Lola spend three weeks under the bed, or will this new cat sitter coax her out and love her a little? I probably won't get around to dusting the furniture before we go . . . Oh God, the milk . . . don't forget to dump the milk.

 

No matter how far in advance I plan—and I'm a planner, bless my heart—these final days are filled with last-minute urgencies and "did you?" and "don't forget!" and "what about?" Timing the loads of laundry, the paying of bills, the meals; must leave the laundry basket empty, the refrigerator hollow and shining.

 

Of all the things on my pre-departure lists—now list, singular, on the kitchen counter, beside the spare house keys for the cat sitter—I haven't planned for writing. Not sure how I feel about that. This isn't an intentional holiday from writing, though I haven't left the page for more than three consecutive days in over two years. Maybe I should.

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I will return in late October and head straight to a writer's conference. The query letter for my first novel is poised to begin its long journey through agent in-boxes. These past two weeks, since learning about a thematic competition for a novel that dovetails perfectly with the theme of my second novel, I have been frantically revising and editing, trying to get it into some sort of shape for a Gonzo submission by the September 30 deadline. Short stories written over the summer still need to find homes. I have work behind and ahead of me. I'm burned out.

 

Yet, this stopping business doesn't feel right. Perhaps it will, when I'm pulled out of this element and routine and settle into another. Days of hiking and castle-hopping in the Dordogne, nights of cooking simple meals in our gîte, drinking supple Cahors and sipping creamy-spicy Armagnac—that should be enough to pull me out of the exigencies of word counts and submission tallies. A break from social media will slow the mind-chatter that insists I should be out there, engaging, commenting, posting, liking.

 

It is time to lift my head and look around, to pull out of the world of my imagination and let another world suffuse my senses. It is time to use a different language, quite literally, so that I may free my intellect from thinking in one so familiar.

 

I've packed one blank book (though that's a bit of a cheat; I have a thing for papeteries and no doubt I'll stock up on Rhodia or Clairefontaine or Calepino). Perhaps I will begin journaling again. Perhaps I will write, simply for writing's sake. Perhaps those pages will remain blank, the Moleskine left forgotten at the bottom of my bag.

 

There's a story idea I've carried around for years. For the first time, I travel to a specific place with the intention of absorbing its details—the contours of land, the quality of light, the aromas of villages and fields, the accents and colors of people—so that I may recall them in the months to come as I sketch out the idea I intend to sculpt into a novel.

 

There. See? I do have a plan, after all. It's just not on my list.

 

Traveling- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. - Ibn Battuta

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. - Robert Louis Stevenson

We like lists because we don't want to die. - Umberto Eco

The Souls of My Shoes

"Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them." —Marc Jacobs  

It started out as a search for our hiking first aid kit, but ended as an epic closet clean out. I’m a Virgo; I can’t help it. I’m hard-wired to sort, categorize, and arrange. We have more containers to put things in than we own things to put in them. I have banned myself from The Container Store, for I cannot resist the siren song of baskets, bins, and boxes.

 

Stuff, however, I can mostly do without. I’m not terribly sentimental about things; I’ve moved too many times to become attached to more than a handful of keepsakes. My collections are contained in pretty jars (shells and stones from around the world), or on bookshelves (Austen and Dickens in those beautiful Penguin Classics Hardcover editions), in my iPod (hundreds of albums), or bound in archival albums (travels and life moments captured on film).

 

But every so often I let something go and mourn a little at its passing. Perhaps for the object itself. Perhaps for what it represents and the memories it holds.

 

Pulling this pair of shoes from its cubby, I admitted their time had come. The soles are disintegrating, the soft and supple leather has been worn irreparably thin at the toes, and on the sides where I pronate. I love these shoes. Comfortable beyond all reckoning, they have traversed Seattle, Christchurch, Paris, and Dublin in recent years, but mostly, they’ve just been my go-to shoes, the footwear equivalent of your favorite pair of lived-in blue jeans.

 

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These shoes appeared in my life in early 2007, on a day very much like today—a warm splash of gold at summer's end—in Christchurch, New Zealand. Which means it was February, not September, in that topsy-turvy shift of hemispheres. I recall telling Brendan, "I never want to work at another job where I have to “dress up.”" We were several months into our new lives in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I’d just finished culinary school and we’d bought a house in a village on the Pacific Coast, leaving Christchurch to make our way in the vineyards and olive orchards of the South Island's pastoral idyll. I’d found an office job, but it was all-casual, all-the-time. At a slaughterhouse, actually. But that’s a story for another time.

 

But never did I dare dream, when I made that declaration in a tony shoe boutique on a summer’s day in Christchurch, that I would find myself slicing away at my wardrobe, discarding piece by piece all those blouses and skirts, dress pants, and heels worn by the white-collar professional I had been, for a writer’s uniform. I don’t know what you all wear to the page each morning, but my current wardrobe, workout gear notwithstanding, could fit on the end of a pencil. Once the weather is such that I must remain indoors to write, I grudgingly don denims and comfy shoes before heading to a café. These shoes, specifically.

 

I have other shoes. Sure, I do. But I don’t have other shoes that represent a decision, a moment in time, a dream. A heartbreak. For never did I imagine that in less than a year after buying these shoes, we’d be back in the United States, looking for work, that our hearts would be broken, if not our spirits. Turns out, I did end up in one more job that called for the occasional pretty-girl tights and mascara, but I loved that job, and sigh. Yes. I do love the occasional dress-up.

 

These shoes walked, worked, wandered. I’ll never have another pair like them, for I will never be in that place again. It's the road I've already travelled, the road behind me.

 

Here is another pair of shoes from New Zealand, which I found in a tiny boutique in central Christchurch that no longer exists. 2014-09-07 12.33.14The building collapsed in a heap of stone and brick and beams and dust in the February 2011 earthquake. These are my dressiest shoes and I reckon they’ll be around a while. But I don’t have a thing to wear with them.

 

Bottoms Up

"When I've painted a woman's bottom so that I want to touch it, then [the painting] is finished." Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841--1919).  

Last October, two-thirds of the way through a desperately messy first-ish draft of Refuge of Doves, I turned to my husband and declared, "I'll finish this thing because I've come this far, but once I get to The End, it's going into a drawer." There was little worth salvaging other than a learning experience.

 

But then I joined a writing group, and since I had to share something, I gave them chunks of the novel each time we met. They encouraged me to go on. Then came a few beta readers, whose feedback inspired me further. In the spring, I undertook a major rewrite, changing point-of-view, tone, themes, even the ending.

 

I don't have any stats, but I reckon most unagented writers do not seek professional editors before submitting their manuscripts to the Slush Piles of Doom (aka: Literary Agent E-mail Inboxes). The usual course is to seek an agent. If the book is picked up, the agent will tear apart your manuscript before she tries to sell it and you to a publisher. And if she succeeds in finding a publisher, your assigned editor will tear apart your book all over again. Why would someone pay cash money for something all sorts of people will do for "free" on your behalf?

 

Because the publishing world is changing and hand-holding agents are becoming a remnant of a sepia-and-whiskey-toned past. Because all the writing groups and beta readers in the world, at least in my writing world where most are aspirants like me, don't have the skills, time, courage, or interest to tell me what I need to know. Because I'm pretty good with the little voices. Listening to them, that is. And the little voices said, "There's something here worth believing in. But it's not ready . . ."

 

Do you know what I thought would happen? I thought my editor would return Refuge of Doves with a heartbreaking assessment of all the many ways my plot fell flat, my characters said ridiculous things, or tripped over themselves in a hurry to get out of my way. Let's face it, I'd bitten off a big chunk of crazy by mixing historical fiction with contemporary with religious intrigue with romance with supernatural with winemaking. Hang your disbelief at the door, please.

 

But that's not what happened. She LIKED it! Hey, Mikey!! Yes, of course, there were wobbly bits and I had to rewrite a scene here and there and rearrange a few others, but at first glance of her edits, I thought, This is going to be easy. 

 

Heh heh heh.

 

What really did happen is hard for even this writer to articulate. In the course of six weeks of rewrites, I changed. My writing changed. Seeing, hearing, feeling my words through someone else's perspective took me inside my brain and I began to toss things from that cluttered closet. One outstanding beta reader led me inside this mind-closet over the winter, prompting my spring rewrite. But I'd still leaned into that closet door with my hip and shoulder to shove it all the way shut. This time, most everything I threw into the hallway went straight into the rubbish bin.

 

Working with a professional editor was the clean sweep this story, and my writing, needed. She exposed my bad habits, while showing me the tendencies that are a part of my writing and storytelling voice, and how refining, correcting, and tightening my language would strengthen that voice. But, aside from an occasional suggestion, her comments weren't prescriptive or instructional—they were all show, don't tell. She gave me the tools I needed to come to an understanding of my writing and make changes on my own.

 

In the first post-edit revision, I waged war on comma splices and clichés and conjunctions. Another read-through and I tore into it again, considering the rhythm of each sentence and how it fit into the melody of the sentences around it. I let go of the need to make certain the reader was thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing what I thought they should and allowed the language to settle into itself, to belong more to the story and the characters than to me.

 

With my heart in my throat, I returned the manuscript to my editor for her second pass edit, expecting to hear a scream that would splinter the Continental Divide. I'd sent back a mess of Track Changes that looked as if a child had splattered fingerpaints over 320 pages of Times New Roman 12-point.

 

That didn't happen, either. My editor cleaned up my mess, praising me for the work I'd done during those long weeks, my Summer of Revision. And here sits my manuscript, white and full, like one of Renoir's women. For accessories, she boasts a query letter and a synopsis. She's ready to be presented to the Literati. 2014-08-31 12.35.59

 

I believe, for better or for worse, that I must present to potential agents and publishers the very best this story can be. And if I choose to shepherd Refuge of Doves along the independent publishing road, I know I've considered my readers with that same spirit of respect and hope.

 

Today I begin the second draft of my second novel. Don't worry. I've got this. For a while, anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Walking the Black Dog

Since the news of Robin Williams's suicide broke, I've had some incredible, brave, and heartbreaking conversations with friends about the nature of depression and what would bring someone to the point of taking his own life.  

It's been disheartening to see accusations of "selfish" leveled against those who commit suicide, and frustrating to hear, "But why didn't he ask for help?" But ignorance is an opportunity to open dialogue and educate, and our collective mourning is a chance to lift the veil of shame that covers mental illness.

 

There is a perception that if you don't look or act as if your world is falling apart or if there is not some profound triggering event in your life, that you couldn't possibly be ill. I'm a confident, positive, strong person who has been brought to her knees by depression. It's not the blues, it's not a reaction to crisis, it's a cocktail of biology, chemistry, genetics, and personality that I have to work daily to keep in balance. I haven't asked for help when I most needed it, either. I can look at the woman who suffered so greatly and think, "Did she know she needed help?" I don't remember thinking much of anything but a suffocating hopelessness that I just wanted to stop. There surely was a point when a mental health professional could have helped me turn things around before I fell so far, but depression is insidious-- it creeps in and swallows you whole.

 

Asking for help assumes a level of energy and rational thinking, a sense that you would even know what help looks like or that you don't feel profound shame and guilt for your entire existence. Asking for help means you hope. When severe depression hits, there is no hope. There is only white noise and emotional exhaustion. No one chooses this.

 

I believe that even though I can't change my genetic makeup or my biology, I can alter my chemistry and improve my mental health through diet, exercise, writing, and meditation. I can change my responses, be on guard for my triggers, and prepare myself when I feel I'm starting to slip. I accept now that I will have to manage my depression and anxiety for as long as I live. I'm beginning to find the beauty in the scary times. As a writer, those ebbs become times of quiet gathering, a gentle harvest of words and feelings, a drawing down of reserves, and a turning inward to listen and be still.

 

I have no idea what my future holds and when or if I will tumble again into an abyss. None of us with mental illness do. But I do know that talking openly about mental illness is a powerful step toward managing the worst of its evils. Depression is not logical, it is not fashionable, it is not a choice. But it is not a curse, either. It is.

 

Let's just keep talking about it until we're no longer ashamed. Until we no longer condemn someone for reacting to something beyond his control.

 

I sit beside Robin Williams. I take his hand and I say, "I'm so heartbroken, not because you didn't ask for help, but because I understand why you couldn't."

 

Take a moment to view this video. I had a black dog, his name was depression

For those with depression, watch and take heart. For those puzzling over the whys and wherefores of depression, watch and understand.

Fault Lines

Last week, a writer friend 'fessed to our online group that this birthday, her 45th, had her feeling blue. She lamented landing smack in middle age in a culture that turns up its nose at gray hair, wrinkles, and sagging flesh. She felt old and unwanted, washed up.  

Hey now. Hang on just a cotton-pickin' minute. I'M turning 45 in less than a month. It hadn't occurred to me to feel washed up and unwanted. I poised my fingers over the keyboard, ready to tap out a cheery response about how liberating the 40s are, how it's up to us to reclaim our bodies and redefine what's beautiful and sexy and blah blah blah. But I held off. She wasn't in the mood for chipper. She needed a hug, some chocolate cake, a hot bath and a good cry. Forty-five is sort of the tipping point, isn't it? Most of the big, fun, memorable stuff has happened. Your youth and beauty began to dim around the first season of Mad Men. Now the Big Slide begins. Forty-five is (at least) halfway to dead.

 

I dunno. I might have to get all chipper on your ass with a WOO HOO! I'm 45 and fabulous! Not that this decade started out bright and shiny. In the months leading up to my 40th birthday, it seemed my body was staging a coup against me. Surgery for a softball-sized tumor on an ovary (benign, TG), followed weeks later by my first pregnancy, followed months later by our first child loss. Additional surgeries in subsequent years, anemia, another pregnancy, another loss, depression, anxiety, and the most vexing to my vanity—the dual indignities of gray hair and acne—along with the most troubling to my heart—the pooch of a belly that has held children my arms never will.

 

But I kept my head down and kept going. Kept running up hills and folding into Downward Dog. I ate kale, I wore sunscreen. I'm cresting the hill and seeing 50 on the horizon. And I feel fine. Twenty-five years ago, you couldn't have paid me to run half a mile. This morning, nine easy. Yes, okay, the right knee got a little gimpy on the downhills, not sure what's up with that, but I felt joy. Pure, ageless, joy. It occurred to me as I read my friend's words that I must have landed, at some point in these past five years—after a lifetime rueing my lumpy features and freckles, wishing I could find some way to part with my mother's wide hips and her broad backside and add the height denied me by the family gene pool—on the make peace side of the physical me.

 

I live in the county with the state's oldest median population and our city average is even older: approaching 60. I swim at the YMCA a couple of times a week and my lap lane partners smoke me. Men and women in their 60s, 70s, 80s, eating my lunch with their smooth strokes. The women's aging bodies, on full display in the locker room with all their lumps and stretched out tattoos, their surgical scars, their scalps showing pink through their cotton-white hair, fill me with awe. They are so beautiful. They are so alive. They giggle and sing, they talk about their house renovations, grandkids, and trips to Vienna. When I grow up, I want to be just like them.

 

There's a hollow place in me where all the terror of getting old and dying goes. The fear that cancer-m.s.-alzheimer's-stroke-insert-irrational-health-scare-here lurks just a step into my future, or that I will end up homeless and alone, or that existentially, my life has little value—those Wide Awake at 3 a.m. Worries—(although, since I started ingesting a teaspoon of hops/valerian tincture before bed, my peri-menopausal night sweats are gone and I sleep soundly most nights, insomnia is rare. Seriously, women, this stuff is amazing) plague me.

 

But in the bright light of day, I feel beautiful and strong. Perversely, there's a bit of pushback from the sisterhood—a sense that it's one thing for a middle-aged woman to make peace with her flaws, but another entirely for her to be proud of her skin and the flesh underneath, or that somehow it's an easier road for some (a woman informed me last year that my shape came from the fact I hadn't given birth). It's a reminder that this nebulous "society" we vitiate for not accepting us the way we are is, in fact, the very us we see in the mirror. 2014-07-31 12.14.38

 

Another friend celebrated a birthday this week, too—she's just north of 50—and she articulated more of what's in my heart as I approach this half-life age: a melancholy, not about a changing, aging body, but about those missed or messed up opportunities, the might-have-beens, the what-ifs, the if-onlys.

 

It is the making peace with the regrets that, along with eliminating processed foods, eschewing sugar, and pounding out the trail runs, I am counting on to ease me into the next half of this life with grace and dignity. It's a daily struggle.

 

Letting go is the hardest workout of all.

 

 

 

 

“If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present…gratefully.” -Maya Angelou

 

“The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” William Saroyan

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving An Impression

The only characters I ever don't like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don't write characters that leave no impression on me. ―Lauren DeStefano  

One of the criticisms an early reader offered about my novel Refuge of Doves is that my protagonist, Lia, is too likable. As a young widow, the readers' sympathies are already with her, so this reader asked that I flaw her up, muss her up, make us not like her so much. Granted, the critiquer didn't read the manuscript past Chapter Three, so she saw little of Lia stumbling through her world, but this notion of likable characters has been on my mind.

 

Literary food fights broke out last year when Claire Messud blasted back at an inane question during a Publisher's Weekly interview after the publication of her novel The Woman Upstairs. Jennifer Weiner penned this tart rebuttal to Messud's reply for Slate I Like Likable Characters and lines were toed in the sand. You can Google the hell out of this and come up with endless commentary on this fascinating debate—I'll link to a few articles at the end—but, well, back to ME and MY characters, right?

 

Honestly, I hadn't considered Lia's likability score when I created her. I wanted her to be believable, even if the story itself requires significant suspension of disbelief. I envisioned a woman conflicted by grief, loneliness, and the physical and emotional longing she's waking up to eighteen months after her husband's death. I created a historian caught between her dedication to facts and the proof that fantasy, or what the religious may consider faith, is real. I wanted an ambivalent, angry, compassionate, curious person, but I hadn't considered whether I was asking the reader to like her.

 

I've seen what happens to readers' opinions of the writer when her protagonist is deemed unlikable. They flat out don't like her book and dismiss the author. This has been nibbling on the edges of my brain since encountering readers' reactions to Claire Messud's character Nora in The Woman Upstairs. I wonder how much of my ego is at play when I write. Am I subconsciously creating sympathetic characters because I, the writer, want to be liked?

 

I write women. I don't write for women and there are a fair number of XY-chromosome characters in my stories, but to date, my central character is a woman crashing around in large or small ways. She is written with ambiguous motives and sometimes slippery moral imperatives, but she is reacting to and processing in ways I believe most of us do: with self-preservation, compassion, and utter bewilderment. I've seen my novels' characters deepen in revisions, becoming perhaps less sympathetic, yet more relatable. But likable? Dot Dot Dot

 

As I work through these questions, I must own this truth about myself as a writer and a woman: I want readers to feel for and identify with the characters I create. I want them to experience the same depth of emotions, appreciate the mistakes, nod knowingly at the flaws. Perhaps some day I will create protagonists who so infuriate or frustrate, like Claire Messud's Nora, that I risk alienating readers. But frankly, it's not the readers I'm thinking of. It's me. I don't relish spending months or years with protagonists I don't like.

 

Maybe someday I will. And I bow in thanks and amazement to Claire Messud and every writer before her who had the goddamned incredible writing chops and confidence to create characters who get under our skin, making us squirm, gnash our teeth, and grind our jaw. Because it takes courage to stick with such characters and write them with integrity.

 

Really though, I will not write with a likability agenda. I didn't sit down with Pilot Fine Point and a blank Moleskine in January to start a second novel and plan how I could create what Meg Wolitzer calls "slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends." I found a woman fresh out of rehab who screws up her marriage, her job, and is handed an opportunity to make at least one of those whole again, only to discover the opportunity is a stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. The story that follows is what she does with the messes of her own and others' creation. She's not perfect. But yeah, I probably wouldn't mind meeting her for coffee.

 

Excerpt from an interview with Claire Messud in Publisher's Weekly, 4/29/13

PW: I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

CM: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.

Great Male Protagonists We Wouldn't Want to Be Friends With

Meg Wolitzer: Men Won't Read Books About Women

A Brief History of Jennifer Weiner's Literary Fights

Lady in Waiting ©JulieChristineJohnson 2014

Aegean Dream by Dario Ciriello

Aegean DreamAegean Dream by Dario Ciriello My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are moments of pure magic in every life, glimpses of beauty no grief can tarnish, that live on in the sheltered niches and alcoves of memory. This was one of ours. Remember these places and their treasures, that you may find your way there whenever the darkness of the world presses too close. ~ Dario Ciriello, recounting a night swim in the Aegean, surrounded by bioluminescent plankton.

 

This quote comes late in Aegean Dream, Dario's story of the year he and his wife, Linda, spent on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos. Sounds like just the sort of reflection someone who lives on an island so beautiful it became the setting for the movie Mamma Mia can afford to make. But read it again. For there is such sorrow in Dario's phrases. By the time he comes to recognize this moment of beauty, he and Linda have already made the wrenching decision to leave Greece.

 

Linda and Dario had left behind a comfortable life in California to immigrate to Greece barely a year before. It was a bold move, but not a crazy one. They had spent time in Skópelos and Dario, a British national, had EU citizenship. They were assured by the Greek consulate that residency for Dario would be automatic and Linda would have no trouble obtaining hers once they were in country. They had thought through plans for small business ventures for soapmaking (Linda) and housepainting (Dario), as well as the opportunity for Dario to spend more time writing. They spent over a year in the planning, including intensive study of the Greek language.

 

Their motivation, besides envisioning a life in a whitewashed cottage, shaded by olive trees, perched on an island in the middle of the cerulean Aegean? Oh, man, I could have written this.

Why then fear moving to another country, shooting for the moon? Life was to be lived, and they knew how to do that in southern Europe, where people had time for family and friends, and didn't measure their worth by how many hours the worked. We knew there were risks. But the risk of growing old and having regrets because we'd been too timid to follow our dreams was the most frightening of all. What to others seemed like courage was, to us, necessity. It was survival.

Yes. This. ^^^

 

A year later they returned to California, on the edge financially and crushed emotionally. The same corrupt and convoluted bureaucracy that sent Greece into an economic tailspin and nearly took down the Eurozone not long after they left, slapped these two souls into a corner. Their only way out was to leave.

 

We're all familiar with the "Despite the infernal locals and all that annoying sunshine and cheese, we rallied and restored a medieval barn into the perfect home-within-a-vineyard residence in southern Europe" tale -- you know, those memoirs we love to hate: A Year in Provence, Under A Tuscan Sun, etc. We devour them like gluttons, unable to squelch our envy but helpless to stop building our own castles in Spain as we live vicariously through someone else's dreams come true.

 

But few of these stories have unhappy endings. It takes a very brave soul to admit when the dream has become a nightmare, it's time to cut losses, and move on. To turn back and reopen doors which you'd slammed shut and tossed aside the keys. It takes an even braver soul to release that story to the world.

 

Dario's recounting of their experiences is vivid and maddening, but fair. Funny. Honest. Reflective. There is so much affection for Greece and for the dear Greek friends who sheltered and tried their best to help usher the Ciriellos into the community and through the maddening maze of bureaucracy that you hold out hope it's not going to end the way you know it will (and this review is no spoiler-- even a cursory glance at the book's description lets you know what to expect). This is not a dump-on-Greece misadventure. This is the story of two smart, resourceful, courageous, and imperfect people trying to meet a culture on its own terms.

 

Aegean Dream hurt me with thousand tiny cuts. My husband and I left the Pacific Northwest for New Zealand just a few months before Dario and Linda left California for Greece. Our stories unfolded very differently--we had Permanent Residency and moved to a country where everything works with astonishing efficiency. I cannot fathom a place easier to immigrate to than the Land of the Long White Cloud. But we returned less than two years later, our hearts shattered. The how and the why shall become fodder for my own memoir that I'm still -- seven years after our return -- building the courage to write. But even though our circumstances were very different, our emotional journey has so much in common with Dario and Linda's. Aegean Dream was a cathartic and healing read for this traveler.

Others have had it far worse than us, and we count ourselves fortunate. Our trials have tempered us and made us realize how resilient and adaptable we are. We learned to live for the day, and to be happy with little. Would we risk such an adventure again? It's a question we don't dare ask ourselves.

A copy of Aegean Dream was provided to me by the publisher. My thanks to Panverse Publishing, founded by Dario Ciriello after his return to the United States. Now, there's a happy ending.

View all my reviews

An Enchanted Life

An enchanted life has many moments when the heart is overwhelmed with beauty and the imagination is electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, a place, or a person. ~ H.L. Mencken  

Oh great, here comes AFPGO: Another Fucking Personal Growth Opportunity. ~ Unknown

 

About a mile into a run last week, I stopped. Just stopped. I couldn't. There are times when my body needs a break from running and I try to listen. I try not to judge. I walked home with tightness in my chest and heaviness in my limbs. I thought, "I'll just swim laps at nine." Nine came and I lowered myself into a hot bath. That was the water I needed, water like the warmth of the womb. I needed to be comforted, not challenged. I needed to soak, before I sank. I was utterly overwhelmed.

 

The slow creep of mud that finally reached my mental shoes, stopping me in my tracks—this weird blend of acedia and agitation—wasn't a surprise; I'd felt it coming. It started, perhaps, a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in the midst of a tremendous online chorus of writers, some of whom are my literary heroes. I was amazed and delighted to have been included in their ranks. Their voices swelled and rose in a mighty roar of energy and affirmation that took my breath away. I found my way through the crowd to quieter corners and rooms down the hall, making personal connections with a few voices that reached me with calm clarity, but I couldn't shake the feeling that somehow I didn't belong there, that these writers, these thousands, were accomplished and ambitious in ways that are completely foreign to me, perched as I am on this almost-island, in my quiet sunroom, spinning my modest tales that no one would mistake for great literature or groundbreaking creative non-fiction.

 

Time to retreat. I stopped reading the bios that made me feel so woefully inadequate, I withdrew from conversations that sped past faster than I could read or type, reminding myself that time spent wishing I was more, did more, risked more, reaped more, was time spent not doing the one thing that mattered most: writing.

 

I returned to my keyboard and to my mind, wrote a flash fiction piece, finished the first draft of short story, and began researching literary journals to submit each. I did yoga on the beach, I hiked, I walked. I read a volume of beautiful poetry. I filled two boxes for Goodwill, because when I get like this, I want to lighten all my burdens, I want to clean out, get rid of, eliminate, discard, set myself free.

 

But still the disquiet remained. A torpor dulled my sense of possibility and joy, sitting heavy in my core, while anxiety beat a woodpecker's refrain against my heart. I knew I hadn't gone far enough in seeking the peace that would guide me to back into the light.

 

When the interwebs cease to be a source of information, of playfulness, of social release and friendship, I know that something is happening inside of me that bears watching. I know it's time to be careful, that the world is about to swallow me with noise. When I agitate instead of participate, it's time to shut it all down and walk away.

 

When I begin to despair that my writing doesn't stack up and that my future will never brush the dizzying heights of those in my online communities, it's time to recommit myself to the page.

 

Echoing a remark a writer friend made here recently, it's possible to read too much about and into the writing and publishing process. It's possible to fill your mind with so much advice on craft, so many dos and dont's of seeking publication, that you get mired down and find yourself unable to move forward.

 

It's possible to let the world get too loud.

 

I shared a draft of my query letter on a limited-public board last week, seeking critiques from fellow writers. One commented that my query was too perfect, too textbook. I'd felt the same, so the comment didn't sting, it confirmed. It came as a relief. I was right. In trying so hard to adhere to all the pro tips, I'd lost my voice. I rewrote it (again. again. again.) and I feel there's more of me in there, but it's not yet where it needs to be.

 

Until I can find my stride and run again, I'm deleting those writers' tips blog posts that get routed to my inbox. Until I feel safe in myself again, I'm staying away from the social media where I feel vulnerable.

 

I want to be overwhelmed with beauty. I want to be electrified by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within. These happen only in two places for me: outside and on the page. That's where you'll find me, in case you're wondering where I've gone off to ...

 

7/5/14

ETA: A couple of wonderful articles have made their way into my life in the week since I first published this post. Just had to share:

The Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasan, for The Atlantic

Why Every Story You Write is a Guaranteed Failure by K.M. Weiland, on her eponymous blog

 

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