Concerned with Possibilities

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

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

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

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

Petey: Garden Summer 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewal

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

re·new·al
rəˈn(y)o͞oəl/
noun
noun: renewal; plural noun: renewals
  1. an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption.
  2. the action of extending the period of validity of a license, subscription, or contract.
  3. the replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.

 

And Still I Write*

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

 

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

 

It was a good life. We were happy.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Julie Christine Johnson’s short stories and essays have appeared in journals including Emerge Literary Journal; Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt; and River Poets Journal. Her work has also appeared in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and psychology and a master’s in international affairs.

Named a “standout debut” by Library Journal, “very highly recommended” by Historical Novels Review, and “delicate and haunting, romantic and mystical” by bestselling author Greer Macallister, Julie’s debut novel In Another Life (Sourcebooks) went into a second printing three days after its February 2016 release. A hiker, yogi, and swimmer, Julie makes her home in northwest Washington state.

Visit www.juliechristinejohnson.com for more information on Julie’s writing.

Follow her on Twitter @JulieChristineJ

 

 

*This essay originally appeared on Women Writers, Women’s Books, November 8, 2017.

A Hive of Words

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Today’s to-do list

  • Write
  • Read
  • Breathe
  • <deliberatelyleftblank>

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

Neverending Story

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

 

Why such caution?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Salt Creek, WA Copyright Julie Christine Johnson 2017

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Grief of Writing

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

 

Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Atmospheric River

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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