Desiderata: The Best Reads of 2019

Desiderata (things desired): A monthly review of books recently read.

As a new year turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in 2019 that stirred my soul.

100 books read in 2019. Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, Essays, not enough poetry. Many in the crime/mystery/thriller category as I continued to study the genre for inspiration for my own work. I hadn’t intended to read so much, prioritizing my limited time to finish the first draft of THE DEEP COIL. Which I did. It seems to naturally follow that the more I write, the more I read, the more room I must make in my life for words.

These are the books that wowed me, that I longed to press into every reader’s hands. Two categories, Fiction and Non-Fiction, no particular order. Clicking on the book will take you to my full review on Goodreads.

FICTION

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Somewhere around page 230 of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine I began to ugly cry. Deep, shattering, heaving, snotty sobs. 5-star weeping. Eleanor Oliphant is definitely not fine. She’s a train wreck from which I couldn’t look away, until it became clear that I was looking at the mirror image of my most dreaded self. Alone Me. Lonely Me.

In a perfect balance between self-effacing humor and tender self-awareness, the author touches the live wire of our greatest and most private vulnerability: loneliness. Eleanor is a heroine of our times- the consummate misfit who makes us cringe —those of us who see our own misfit reflected in her.

I'll Never Play The Hammered Dulcimer by Jan Hanson

I’ll Never Play The Hammered Dulcimer by Jan Hanson

The poems I love, that launch tiny tremors in my belly, close a warm hand around my heart, make my throat ache with unshed tears, my eyes sting with those about to fall, are made up of life’s small moments. A poet who captures the seemingly mundane and makes it shimmer with meaning is one who captures my attention.

At my grandmother’s house in Texas,
I wear an organdy pinafore and eat Sunday ham
and Kentucky Wonders off a pink-flowered plate,
swinging my legs under the ladder-back chair.

From IN TEXAS

Jan Hanson is just such a poet. In her debut collection, she captures the small moments of beauty and disappointment within the breathless steamroll of life — raising children, falling out of love, and stumbling into new passion, the grind of work when the call to create is so strong — with a voice that is as gentle and fierce as a hummingbird.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

On a quiet winter’s solstice night deep in the 1880’s, regulars huddle in the Swan — an inn tucked in the bend of the river Thames, not far from Oxford— swapping tales and sipping pints. The door slams open and into the shadowy room stumbles a man, his face battered, holding the lifeless body of a little girl. He is shown into a room where his wounds are tended by the local nurse, Rita. The little girl, drowned by the river that gives and takes according to its whim, is laid to rest in a cold storeroom until her body is claimed and her soul blessed into the afterlife.

And then a miracle occurs. The child takes a breath. She lives! But who she is and how she cheated death become the mysteries around which this rich, meandering, immersive story are wound.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

In classic hero’s journey structure, Madhuri Vijay creates a deeply intimate story of a woman searching for personal identity in a place caught in political turmoil. As a child, Shalini has only a tacit understanding of the deep rift in the mountainous state of Jammu & Kashmir between the Hindu and Muslim populations. As a young adult, living so far away and so deeply in her own head, she pays little attention to the continued conflict. But once in Kashmir, she becomes embroiled in the turmoil, to catastrophic effect.

This is an astonishing debut. Vijay’s prose is gorgeous and evocative, poetic in its spareness, immersive in detail and content. Her themes and settings are epic and majestic, and yet this is a deeply intimate portrayal of friendship, betrayal, grief and remorse. The characters are rich with complicated histories and behaviors; the reader’s heart is broken open time and again by the people who guide Shalini into a better understanding of herself and the world.

The River by Peter Heller

The River by Peter Heller

First comes the scent of smoke. More than a campfire, it’s persistent, pervasive. It travels with Jack and Wynn as they canoe along the Miskwa river toward Hudson Bay. Jack climbs a tree and is horrified by what he espies across the vast Canadian forest: a massive fire consuming the forest with tsunami-like force, bearing down on them. Paddling tandem, even as skilled and in prime physical condition as they are, they can’t hope to outrun the fire, but they are determined to try.

The River is a brilliant tour-de-force thriller. Heller moves across the stunning landscape, at times brutal with careless treachery, at times heavenly with bounty and gentle ease, with breathless tension.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope meet as rookie cops in New York City and end up as next door neighbors in a small town just north of the city, raising their families and rising in their careers. Lena Gleeson is the perfect suburban mom, giving birth in rapid and delighted succession to three daughters. Anne Stanhope, however, is distant and cold, rebuffing all attempts at friendship and support as she recovers from a stillbirth, and when she becomes pregnant again with her son, Peter.

Told from the viewpoints of several characters over multiple decades, Ask Again, Yes examines mental illness, addiction, childhood trauma, family loyalty, and enduring love with grace and wisdom. Mary Beth Keane brings us into the hearts and minds of her characters and leaves us there, allowing us time to know them deeply, to develop the real ambivalence of empathy and fury, frustration and love.One of the most deeply moving novels I have read in a long time. Immersive, thoughtful, poignant and profound, Ask Again, Yes asks the reader to breathe with its characters, even through the worst of the pain, and not to look away at what we see reflected in their faces, even if it frightens us.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Big Sky (Jackson Brodie #5)by Kate Atkinson

We Jackson Brodie fans have waited what felt like an interminably long spell for our favorite private eye, in all his glib and glum glory, to return to the scene. But author Kate Atkinson has been rather busy in the interim, penning literary gorgeousness into Life After LifeA God in Ruins and Transcription. We’ll forgive her.

Our patience is richly rewarded with Big Sky, the fifth entry in the Jackson Brodie series. Although the novel could stand alone, fans of Jackson Brodie will shiver in recognition at the return of Reggie Chase, and nod heads with comforting familiarity at Julia’s throwaway affections (and affectations) and Jackson’s photographic recall of country and western lyrics.

The plot of Big Sky is a Venn Diagram of stories that contract until they become one, and Jackson is, of course, at the center of it all. “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” is one of Jackson’s favorite maxims, borrowed from some long ago episode of Law and Order. Kate Atkinson’s astonishing skill is not only to wink and nod at crime fiction tropes, but to render the plot so that coincidence feels utterly inevitable.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

This novel slipped quietly on and off my radar more than two years ago when it debuted. I think I had it on my TBR list and removed it when I couldn’t get a copy from the library and Goodreads feedback proved greatly ambivalent.

A few weeks ago, the 2019 Dublin Literary Award was announced and Emily Ruskovich’s 2017 novel was the winner. This award made me sit up and take notice because the books are nominated for the Award by invited public libraries throughout the world. I love libraries and hold librarians in the highest esteem. The great percentage of short-list titles that are books I have loved makes this an award I pay attention to. So I thought I’d give Idaho another go.

And I’m so very glad I did (and thank you to my local public library for ordering in a copy at my request).

What begins as a literary thriller transforms into a quiet litany of grief, redemption, and the shifting nature of memory. The brutality of the narrative contrasts with the beauty of the language to create a captivating, unforgettable story.

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Brilliant. Just brilliant. Everything about this novel, from its premise — a fictionalized account of the true plot by the CIA to thwart communism through “cultural diplomacy”— to its the multiplicity of perspectives, including the Greek chorus CIA typing pool, the haunted Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, imprisoned in a Gulag for her involvement with famed writer Boris Pasternak, the “Mad Men”-esque characters of Cold War Washington D.C., and their fashions, passions, parties — to the women who became spies, their stories all but forgotten by modern readers until Lara Prescott breathed life into their legacies — just sings and sparkles with verve and vibrancy.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

It is the early 1960’s and Jim Crow still holds sway in the South, even as monumental civil rights changes are sweeping across the land. Reform is slow to reach the Florida Panhandle and yet Elwood Curtis, a bright, shy, studious young black man raised by his officious grandmother, is determined to rise and shine, despite the heavy hands of racism holding him down. Even after he is sent away to the Nickel School for Boys for the non-crime of DWB- Driving While Black (in this case, Elwood is a passenger, blithely hitchhiking on his first day of college), he focuses his energy on achieving early release for exemplary behavior.

But the Nickel School for Boys, which houses white and black young men — separately of course — is not so easily endured. Punishment for any real or perceived infraction is torture and abuse, including solitary confinement, and even death.

Colson Whitehead based his fictional Nickel School on the Dozier School for Boys, a real house of horrors whose past was exposed in an investigative series in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. For 111 years, from its opening in 1900 until the Dozier School for Boys was finally closed in 2011, boys as young as five years old were brutalized and dozens were murdered.

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick(Goodreads Author)

It’s not lost on me that I consumed most of this book in the lonely clutches of insomnia, my internal lights on deep into the night. Sometimes I think I embrace this torture, for it offers the opportunity to do the thing I most love in life besides writing: reading.

And this was one worth having insomnia for. One of the year’s most moving (trembling, shaking) reads for me. I gasp in wonder and humbleness that Lights All Night Long is Lydia Fitzpatrick’s debut. Lights All Night Long is beautifully written, with characters cast in tenderness and compassion, landscapes that crackle with ice and throb with humidity, and an intricate, carefully woven plot that will leave you gasping at the end. But it is the relationship between the brothers Ilya and Vlad that will burrow into your heart, and break it, over and over. One of the year’s best. Now, let’s all get some sleep.

As a River by Sion Dayson

As a River by Sion Dayson

Debut novelist Sion Dayson has created a novel like blown glass- somehow beautifully fragile yet impossibly strong- a work of art that changes shape and color and texture depending on the angle and the light. I loved it. I loved it. I slipped so easily into Greer, Caroline, Esse- everyone- the characters have textures and depth that took such skill to layer in. As A River is not to be missed.

NONFICTION

What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

Carolyn Forché was twenty-seven when she traveled to El Salvador for the first time in 1978. Her searing, remarkable memoir is both a reportage of the brutal recent history of El Salvador, and the recounting of how an activist is created. During the twelve-year war, largely funded by American money and American military training, in this tiny, beautiful country, 75,000 were killed, more than 550,000 Salvadorans were internally displaced with 500,000 becoming refugees. The reverberations of the conflict are felt today, in the refugees who continue to flee poverty and political terror in Central America.

Dopesick by Beth Macy

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

Dopesick, centered in Appalachia where the opioid crisis began in the late 1990s with the release of OxyContin and where it remains the most virulent, delves deep into the circumstances of opioid abuse and addiction through intimate portraits of the victims, their families, the dealers, cops, and health care providers and activists. She explores every angle, revealing the blatant corruption of Big Pharma and the sickening failure of U.S. regulatory bodies to recognize and respond to criminal behaviors. Even the public shaming of the Sackler family and the lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers, which roll through every day in the headlines now, don’t seem to sway average America from reconsidering what’s in their medicine cabinet. From Adderall to Ambien, we are hooked.

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Right now, the only visible sign that you’ve crossed the border between the United Kingdom and Ireland is the change on road signs from miles to kilometers. In the twenty-one years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast, signaling an end to the decades-long conflict known as the ‘Troubles’, the checkpoints have come down, the armed border patrols have been decommissioned, the observation towers are nowhere to be seen.

With Brexit looming, however, the visible division between the two countries may return, and with it, renewed calls to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and reunite it with the Republic. The prospect of reopening old wounds that are still so very close to the surface is so very real for communities on both sides of the border. Patrick Radden Keefe’s incendiary modern history of the bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland could not be more perfectly timed. Say Nothing is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and all true. It reveals not just the cost of war, but the costs of peace.

No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

“Fifty women a month are shot and killed by their partners. Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness. And 80 percent of hostage situations involve an abusive partner. Nor is it only a question of physical harm: In some 20 percent of abusive relationships a perpetrator has total control of his victim’s life.” From An Epidemic of Violence We Never Discuss by Alisa Roth, New York Time Book Review, June 7, 2019.

If you want to understand the horrific hold violence has on this country, this book will show the links domestic violence, or the more accurately-termed “intimate partner terrorism”, has to mass shootings, homelessness, substance abuse; why the #MeToo movement resonated so deeply; why it is so hard to generate commitment to laws and regulations that honor the safety of women in their own homes (yes, not all victims of domestic violence are women. Transgender and gay and lesbian partners are particularly vulnerable. Heterosexual men can certainly be terrorized by female partners in their own homes, as well. But 85 percent of intimate partner violence is perpetrated by men against women, so I, and the author, opt for the dominant model pronouns here).

This book is not just for those interested in the causes of and solutions to domestic violence. It is for anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of and compassion for the most vulnerable in this culture.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

With her memoir and meditation on lesbian domestic abuse, In The Dream House, Machado reconstructs the rooms of her experience and memory to create a narrative filled with complexity and nuance.

Using vignettes that range from a chronological walk down the hallway of her recent relationship, to academic discourse on domestic violence between queer women, to a tapestry of self and sexuality woven from childhood memories, Machado experiments with form and tilts the function of memoir on its head. Each chapter offers a different narrative trope, a shift of the kaleidoscope through which to view her relationship and her responses to the growing doom she feels, recognizing the abuse even as she still loves the abuser.

She Said by Jodi Kantor
I devoured this in a day. No matter how familiar the headlines, the journey of a news story from idea, rumor, tip, to the front page is fascinating, particularly when that headline launches one of the biggest sociopolitical movements of the decade. My race to the finish of She Saidmade me think of how much I love watching All The President’s Men. I never tire of that movie. It doesn’t matter that you know the ending— not just to the movie, but all these years later, the political legacy left by Nixon’s impeachment — it’s the chase for the truth these reporters undertake when they aren’t certain what that truth is, how big, who else is involved. A deep bow and grateful embrace to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey for their tireless work, and to The New York Times for continuing to support their reporters.

Joining the Attention Resistance

Every rare once in awhile a Facebook friend announces their imminent departure from Facebook. Or simply quietly slips away, leaving behind a shadow profile in my friends list. I send up a silent cheer when I realize they have deactivated their account, knowing in my belly they are better off without this ubiquitous social media overlord.

For a long time, I’ve felt a sense of disquiet about social media (here’s a post from 2011: The In-Between Times), but the disturbance has become a growing alarm and a deep sadness in recent months, feeling like we, all of us who are connected, have just lost our way.

Then two things occurred almost simultaneously, one horrific, one glorious. First, The New York Times ran a feature on child pornography, a hideous crime that’s exploded in volume because of social media. The wretched creeps who exploit and abuse children have multiple platforms that make it harder to track their behavior and make it all the easier for children to be preyed upon. The social media companies, like Facebook with its Messenger platform, are complicit in these crimes, just as they were in the travesty that was the 2016 election. They want users, regardless of the consequences.

Second, a friend fulfilled a lifelong dream, which also happens to be one of mine: hiking the Camino de Santiago. She chronicled every day of her trek via photos and anecdotes posted on Insta and Facebook. As much as I treasured joining her journey from afar, I also wanted to plead with her to put down the phone, forget all of us, and be there, in her head and body and heart, and just walk. Walk for the sake of it, not for the Instagrammable moments. Being disconnected from the world is natural, healthy, necessary. I imagine my own Camino and know that I want it to be private, meditative, transformative. Not shared, liked or retweeted. Pure.

Into all this walked Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, giving me yet more reasons, and now a strategy, to reframe and redo my relationship with social media.

Cal Newport isn’t a Luddite. He’s not against social medial or digital technology. He does throw down the gauntlet, however; challenging his readers to look their use and habits squarely in the screen, to recognize and deeply register the power Silicon Valley has in nearly every aspect of our lives, our time, our children’s brains, our attention, our pocketbooks.

Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addiction.

Newport demonstrates throughout Digital Minimalism that, while some of these addictive qualities are accidental, many have been exploited by tech and social media companies whose driving purpose is to keep us online as often, and for as long, as possible. Through intermittent, unpredictable social approval (likes, loves, retweets), we become dependent on the feedback that shows someone, somewhere, has noticed us.

I’ve moved around so much as an adult; social media has offered an easy way to keep in touch with friends from whom I’m separated by oceans and lifetimes. Facebook and Twitter brought me into communities of writers crucial to the development of my career. I might never have started writing if it weren’t for Goodreads. Writing thoughtfully about the books I read became a DIY MFA. I learned story structure, narrative depth, character development, and how to construct a beautiful sentence not only by reading great (and not so great) books, but by being a part of a community that discusses them. Instagram brought visual arts into my life. I know nothing about the technology of photography, but I’ve got a great eye, I love taking and sharing my photographs, and being inspired by others.

It’s not that any of these tools is bad. To be fair, they can bring pleasure and satisfaction. It’s just that they are too much. And we, no matter how professional, intelligent, disciplined, have been manipulated to respond like rats to a sugar drip. Our brains are tired. We’re overstimulated, over-connected, over-info’ed. It’s not natural to have hundreds of “friends,” to share not only the minutiae of our daily lives, but its most intimate details, with people we wouldn’t recognize if we passed them on the street, to constantly seek social approval, not to spend time in solitude, not to look up and observe the world around us.

Newport, and his co-frères/sœurs James Clear, Atomic Habits, Jenny Odell How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, among others, are part of the emerging Attention Resistance, a loosely-knit group of educators, researchers, artists, and business professionals who are decrying the outsize role digital technology and social media play in our lives.

‘Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, has called the platform a “social-validation feedback loop” built around “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Tristan Harris, who worked as a “design ethicist” at Google, has said that smartphones are engineered to be addictive.’

“What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away,” by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker April 22, 2019.

This just isn’t right. I don’t want to play the game anymore. Or more accurately, I don’t want to be played anymore.

I am accepting, moving toward embracing, that time spent on social media is “low quality” time. No matter how much I appreciate the connections, the sharing of fun moments or commiseration over the bad, I am coming to accept that I will be happier, more focused, productive, and peaceful the less time I spend on social media. I already take periodic breaks, employing various tips and technologies to reclaim my time and attention, but as Newport states, “willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.”

Social media isn’t that big a part of my life. I have a full-time + day job and rarely check social media during the day, even though my actual job requires that I post on both Facebook and Instagram. I am finishing the first draft of my fourth novel; I am in the yoga studio, the city pool, the gym, on forest trails; I read copiously. I’m busy, engaged in the real world. But still. I think social media is compromising my—and our society’s at large—mental, intellectual, physical, and communal health. It’s time to start doing things differently. Hey, there’s an app for that! (actually, quite a few: Moment, Forest, Freedom, Focus, and one new to this Mac user: Ulysses, which looks an awful lot like Scrivener).

Seriously, Cal Newport has a plan. Detox for thirty days, And then, once your 30-day detox is over, rebuild your relationship with digital technology from the ground up, with intentionality and minimalism, where technology serves you and what you deeply value.

“The goal is not simply to give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life.”

Newport recommends that you spend your time away from optional technology by discovering, or rediscovering, what you enjoy. It’s the Marie Kondo approach to a digital life: if it’s not useful or doesn’t bring you joy, it needs to go, as much as is reasonable. Most of us have aspects to our jobs that make some of these technologies, including emails or texting, inevitable.

There are engrossing sections of this book that discuss the beauty of solitude- a beauty we’ve all but lost with the constant presence of our phones in our pockets, by sharing the carefully curated moments of our lives or reading about others’. He argues that we are suffering from Solitude Deprivation – A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds. There are also alarming looks at younger generations who’ve never known life without iPads or smartphones: the stunted growth of empathy, focus, motivation, and observation. It’s not just terribly sad and weird, I believe it’s a public health crisis.

So in a couple of weeks, beginning November 1, I will be starting my 30-day digital declutter. For me, that will be Facebook, including Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram.

I’ll journal my detox. I won’t force myself to finish this first draft of my novel by the end of November, but at the rate I’m going even before I begin my detox, I just might! I look forward to all that I will add to my life as I let go of the ubiquity, the artificiality, of “connection.” I want to learn to be better connected to and more present in my real world life.

The Lesson of the Falling Leaves

“the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith

such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves”

Lucille Clifton

I celebrated my 50th birthday two weeks ago. Well, celebration is a stretch. It happened, I was in attendance by default, but I spent the day and several that followed otherwise occupied in the cardiac unit of a regional hospital. My heart was safe, at least physically, but entwined with that of another’s whose own was at risk of failure.

I’d made vague plans to do something epic to greet this milestone birthday: a hike in Ireland or a week in Paris went as far as bookmarking airlines and clearing my work calendar. But my sweetheart, who paints houses during the spring and summer and canvases during the autumn and winter, was still in full work mode in early September. So we tried on plans for Hawai’i, New York or a Highway 1 road trip in October, instead.

September is a crazy quilt of changes that elicits such emotion. It is the calendrical beginning of so many seasons that ruled my life, from the schoolgirl years through professional careers in higher education and the wine industry, where September is the busiest of times. The month of my birth. Once the month of my marriage. A month of renewal, transformation, anticipation. It’s long felt like the year’s beginning, with such a palpable change in activity and air, temperature and energy, rather than January, winter’s dark, secretive core.

Yet for the past several years, since returning to the Northwest — where summer is a shimmering, spinning carnival of gold and blue, forever days, and dusks that burn out long after I’m in in bed — I’ve mourned the end of sundresses and freckles, resented the sudden descent of dark mornings and the melancholic echo of foghorns, warning of the thick, wet blanket wrapped around the bay. I dread the cold and rain, such a shock after months of dry and gentle warmth. It takes me a few weeks to grieve, accept, and at last embrace the gorgeousness of wood fires and close-toed shoes, of frost and wool.

 

This year, however, as suddenly as the transition from summer to autumn rumbled in on a Saturday night, bundled into a rare thunderstorm, I welcomed the blustery days that followed. My nesting instinct pinged loudly, my internal gears shifted down. Bring On The Night, I thought. I’m ready. 

The eve of my birthday, my sweetheart and I bought a washing machine, and then I drove him to the ER (not related, although I get how purchasing a major appliance could be a trigger for some men). A few hours later, I followed an ambulance through the warm summer’s night an hour south, where a larger hospital had a heart and vascular unit that could provide the acute care he needed.

We checked him out five days later, on his birthday. The next day the skies opened, washing away summer’s dust and lazy heat.

He’s resting, healing, getting his head and soul around all the many changes required to restore his heart. There will be no epic getaway to fete my fiftieth; there is another surgery in the weeks to come. Instead, we settle into a season of rest. Of books and writing, naps and painting, bare feet entwined under quilts as we lounge on opposite ends of the sofa, reading.

A truck just rolled into our driveway, bringing two cords of maple and fir. I can’t wait until it’s chilly enough for the first woodstove fire of the season.

I agree with the leaves.

No Longer Knocking from the Inside: A Writer on Retreat

September 2016. The last time I spent time alone, and away. My divorce would be final in a few weeks, I was starting a new job in early October, my first since becoming full-time writer three years earlier. I was moving forward, on my own, accepting that I could not sustain myself as a writer without the financial support of a steadfast and generous partner.

But first came a long-planned writer’s retreat in the south of France. I knew then how precious the opportunity was, how very long it would be until my situation — financial, emotional, logistical — could support another stretch of time to devote to my work.

Earlier this year I could at last begin thinking about traveling again. I had built up so much vacation (two jobs removed from the one I began in October 2016) that I was in danger of losing the chunk I couldn’t rollover to the next year. I renewed my passport and determined I would be lacing up my hiking boots to tramp on foreign soil while my 50th birthday raced along above me, dissolving like a cirrus cloud high in a late summer sky.

But I just couldn’t seem to hit confirm on the reservations.

At first, the excuses were circumstantial. I perform myriad roles at my job, a non-profit with two and half employees: the thought of two or three weeks away was crushing. My partner and I are saving to buy a house: an extended overseas vacation felt indulgent and short-lived when we are planning a future. And we’d had that month apart last fall, which was so hard. Time apart is vital, and healthy, but weeks simply didn’t feel good to my heart.

 

Yet, I was craving a change of scene. Craving to go for days without talking to anyone more than shop clerk. And when I listened, deeply, to what I really wanted, it was simple: time alone to write.

I booked a week at an AirBnB not all that far as the crow flies from where I live, but a world apart. Immediately, my ambivalence about when and where and how to go disappeared. This. This was the thing.

On Father’s Day I shoved random clothes into a duffel bag, packed my laptop, iPod and a bag of coffee, filled the gas tank, and on a bright, warm Sunday after yoga, soon after his daughters arrived to fête his Hallmark holiday, I kissed my sweetheart farewell and set forth.

And I wrote. After months of dipping in and out of this story, feeling the frustration of moments stolen to devote to its unfolding, I had hours, days, to focus. After five days, I emerged with half again as many words as it had taken me thirteen months to write. I discovered new characters, wrote new opening, jotted down threads of ideas for the next installment, filled a crucial plot hole I’d been circling for months, and regained the momentum I’d given over to mourning the endings of an old life and falling in love with a new present.

Of course, in the weeks since my return, life has pressed in again, with its urgencies: weekends away, or filled with events, houseguests and family dramas, insomnia and fatigue. The new possibilities of my narrative threaten to overwhelm me, but I manage words here and there, a slow moving along.

My new passport is locked away, cover stiff and shiny, pages smooth and blank. It’s there and I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, I look ahead to September, to another week of writing on my own-not far, mind you-just far enough for the words to flow, unencumbered, in the blissful silence of away...

“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.”

― RUMI

Refilling the Well

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

More Than Our Anger

“In a time of anger or despair, even if we feel
overwhelmed, our love is still there. Our capacity to
communicate, to forgive, to be compassionate is
still there. You have to believe this. We are more
than our anger, we are more than our suffering.
We must recognize that we do have within
us the capacity to love, to understand,
to be compassionate, always.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

4:30 a.m. Sunday. My birthday morning. I’ve gone to bed only hours before, but a racing brain will not let me rest.

 

On Friday, I released my second novel. It is about the power of art to heal and redeem lost souls. It is about the pain of addiction, and the necessity of hope.

 

So much to do. So far behind. Three workshops to prepare for. A fall class to plan. A blog tour in support of my novel underway. I have essays to complete, interviews to respond to. Articles to pitch. Bookstores to contact. Clients awaiting feedback on query letters and manuscripts.

 

I’ll get to them. I always do. But right now, in the warmdark of this still-summer dawn, I hold pieces of my broken heart. A shattered mirror of my life. What it reflects—this distorted fun house image of reality—terrifies me.

 

Five days ago. On my yoga mat. Our teacher asks us to silently answer the question, Who Am I? I answer, I Am Loving Kindness. I Am Compassion. I Am Enough.

 

Today, I Am Anger.

 

Someday perhaps I’ll unpack why I spent a year in an emotionally destructive relationship. Or not. It is over now, and I emerge with my soul intact, fully aware of my worth and certain that what I gave, what I sacrificed, was offered in the grace of compassion and love. All that, it seems now, was wasted on another incapable of reciprocating. Or perhaps unwilling. Except that it is never a waste to have felt or to have given love.

 

Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me -The Baal Shem Tov.

 

Images of myself curled tightly in the stairwell, unable to go up or down, able only to pray for a light to show me which way. Often that light came in the form of a white dog, a wet nose nudging me, onward.
Last winter a therapist asked me to create an image of safety and peace I could conjure up in those moments when things got so bad that I stopped breathing. An image to return me to my breath. My breath, my place of safety, was a meadow where a white dog curled beside me.

 

Collateral damage. She wasn’t mine to begin with and so I am forced to let her go. I hope that her healing soul will offer comfort and constancy in the transition from together to separate.

 

Days later, I learn that she has been taken to the shelter–a choice made in desperation. For reasons I cannot fathom, she is declared not adoptable, and put into the queue to be killed. Had I known, I could have prevented the damage those days in a cage have done.

 

I write a novel about saving endangered creatures and then suddenly, the one creature I love more than any other is in peril and I flail in acid-rage and fear. I can’t write through this one. I can’t reason with words, or find hope in a poetic turn of a phrase or cause a character to make a choice that will redeem his soul.

 

She is safe now. I got her out.

 

Every fiber of my being wants her beside me. She needs constant companionship, a place to roam, room to dig, not shut in an apartment while I am at work. The search is on for a forever home. It may be the safe harbor where she is now; we’re taking it one day at a time while I continue to search for options. Including turning my life upside-down to make a home for her.

 

(whatifiquitmyjobdoihaveenoughtimehowcanilivewithoutherhowisanyofthishappening)

 

I cannot say that I am more than my anger, that I am more than my suffering, for it is not my suffering that I bear. Yet I must be more, for the one I could not save and for the one I continue to fight for.

 

It is love that motivates me. That is more than anything. That is enough.

 

** Update 09/07/17: Veela has a permanent, loving home. Thank you Universe and social media for getting this one right. 

 

 

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