Category Seventeen: (Not Writer’s Block)

The Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Poets & Writers contains an excellent essay by playwright and poet Sarah Ruhl on many of the reasons why writers aren’t writing when they could or should be. In Writer’s Block: Variations on a Superstition, Ruhl describes sixteen categories of writer’s avoidance. Instances from the basic general sloth and distracted by the modern world to the searing abandoning a piece of writing that is not meant to be written. I saw myself in nearly every one of Ruhl’s categories, taking comfort in the universality of my reasons excuses.

After finishing the first complete draft in THE DEEP COIL just before Thanksgiving, I’d intended to let it sit for a few weeks before digging into revisions. I almost couldn’t wait. In early December I had two brainpicking sessions that made my fingers twitch with excitement to return to the page. Over beers at the Pourhouse, I talked big league crime in small town America with a writing buddy and a former county sheriff. Then came a long phone conversation with a former Seattle homicide detective. This retired detective volunteers to solve local cold cases along with a few other former law enforcement officials who just can’t let the job go. I shared my premise with these good men, and they shared many of their experiences with me, steered me toward some agencies I needed to research, suggested awesome plot points, and generally made me feel my crime story, protagonist, and sub-plots were not only plausible, they were authentic and full of potential. Writer’s Gold.

And then stuff happened.

My sweetie’s back-of-envelope landscaping plans.

Of course, stuff is always happening to distract us from our work. Some writers fear the blank page; others, like me, stand at the bottom of the Mountain of Revision, dreading the Sisyphean task ahead. At the end of my walking away from the canvas — as Sarah Ruhl terms the period when we break from a work that we are too close to — I made an offer on a house. This is a joyful thing, as I was certain that being a single woman in her 50s, broke in that postmodern feminist way of being broke after an amicable divorce, working at an arts non-profit in a community where the median home price is well north of $400k, home ownership was right up there with new car smell: things I would never experience again. Joyful, but terribly distracting, as it suddenly introduced concepts of permanence and commitment to community, job, relationship. It meant stability but also responsibility. 

Just as that process entered the phase where nothing can be done but wait (for the holidays to be over so everyone is available to sign endless documents, for agreed-upon repairs to be completed, for the appraisal, for the lender to put urgency behind the oars as it navigates the shipping lanes of bureaucracy), the pain started. 

January saw me in Urgent Care twice, visits with specialists and twice to my PCP.  Multiple prescriptions and lab tests, an ultrasound, and painful examinations, but very few answers. One of the specialists sat across from me, after mansplaining my reproductive system, and asked, “What is it you want me to do for you?” To which I can reply in all certainty, “Absolutely nothing” as I will not be darkening his door again.

The weeks passed, the pain eased, the fog of worry lifted, and I decided to change THE DEEP COIL from past to present tense. This became my way into revisions, as every single sentence needs to be touched, examined, possibly changed. And yet the humming anxiety remained. I managed only coffee-fueled bursts of editing here and there in the wee hours.

A CT-scan the day before Valentine’s brought only more questions. Wide awake at 3 a.m. questions. I picked out paint colors for my new writing studio. Tried to steer my racing brain from thoughts of “unspecified masses” on my liver and spleen and kidneys to the flower beds I would plant and the pantry I would organize. 

Last Monday, I signed a ream of papers and picked up the key. I walked through the empty bowels of a house, my house, my and my sweet man’s home, feeling the same sense of possibility and impossibility as I do when I open a blank page to begin a new story. 

The next morning I took a deep breath and squeezed my eyes shut as the technician tucked a blanket around me and slid my prone body into tube of an MRI. I inhaled and exhaled when the disembodied voice told me to and tried to compose a symphony from the mechanical beeps and clangs, whirrs and groans. I tried to love my body even as it seemed to be failing me. 

Two days later the test results landed in my in-box with a message from my physician, “Hi Julie, I’m happy to report…”

This morning I am sore and exhausted. My lower back feels like hardened, cracked rubber. My fingers are stiff, my hamstrings ping, even my toes feel used. A weekend of scrubbing, wiping, wringing, bending, stretching, my nose stuffed with odors of fresh paint and Lysol, white vinegar and black coffee. And we haven’t even started packing. 

Yesterday I stood in the empty shell of what will be the Room of My Own, arranging in my mind’s eye my desk, sofa, bookshelves, imagining how the view out the window will change as trees are planted and flowers bloom, and I knew that even as my writing sits in Category Seventeen- (i.e. too much life happening- did I mention the promotion/new job?), it won’t stay there forever. It’s okay to let hope and joy blossom of their own accord, and trust the words will follow. 

If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention. – Ben Marcus

Tender Is The First Draft

Tender Is The First Draft

Eighty-four thousand six-hundred and fifty-seven words. A premise that came fully-formed during a walk through the forest on a late afternoon in May of 2018. It seemed so simple, that bright and shiny idea, just a filling in of details and I’d have it. Nearly eighteen months later, after those stolen pre-dawn moments and weekend afternoons in a café, the Julys and Augusts where I didn’t write at all, a new writer’s group that filled me with inspiration before it fizzled out from life’s demands, a five-day DIY writer’s retreat that likely saved this entire endeavor from the DELETE key, and at last, there is a first draft. 

I typed THE END late Sunday afternoon, the sun falling down behind the bony, stripped trees in our backyard, distant sounds of a football game in the living room breaking through when the classical music on the bedroom Bose paused for a breath. My goal had been to finish this draft by Christmas but as the words began to flow this autumn — I wrote nearly forty percent of the draft in the two months between late September and Sunday — I closed in on Thanksgiving as a target date. And here I am with .pdfs of Thanksgiving dinner recipes and 303 pages of THE DEEP COIL to send to the unsuspecting printer.

During the journey of this draft I spent a lot of time trying to escape from writing, until at last it became something I was able to emerge into. This was the second “from-scratch” novel I’d attempted since my marriage fell apart in the spring of 2016 when I was promoting the debut of IN ANOTHER LIFE, editing THE CROWS OF BEARA to prep for its fall 2017 publication, and revising UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL. From November of 2017 to May of 2018 I worked half-heartedly on a YA fantasy novel inspired by the research on the Cathars I’d done for IAL (I love it, actually; just not the right work at the right time). I’d underestimated the time and space I needed to do all heavy lifting of my messy life – new jobs, new relationships, moving, grieving, celebrating, gathering all the pieces and reassembling them into something that resembled a fresh start. I was hard, so very hard, on myself youshouldbewritingyourenotawriterwhyarentyouwriting until I finally gave in and accepted that when it was time, when I at last felt safe,  I would write.

This draft is, well, it’s a Shitty First Draft, as first drafts tend to be. I got it in my head that because this is a genre novel — crime fiction — not to mention the start of a series, I ought to come up with a solid outline. That never happened- it’s not the writer I am. I write by feel. I write to find out where I’m going.

“Stories are agile things. So the containers they go in should be pliable. You should have a grand vision, of course, an eventual endpoint, or at least the dreams of an endpoint, but you must be prepared to swerve, chop and change direction at the same time. The best journeys are those where we don’t exactly know what road we will take: we have a destination in mind, but the manner of getting there should be open to flux. … the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.”                                                                                                                                                             — Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

Last spring I realized that this first draft would be my outline. So here it is, an 84,657 word outline. There’s a beginning, a couple of them, really. A bunch of words stuffed in the middle, and some possible endings. There are subplots and backstory, landscapes and dialogues. There are great characters whom I can’t wait for you to meet, shadows of beings who may stay or may go, others I’ve lost track of along the way. There are scenes that even now I know I need to write. I have a number of law enforcement officials to interview regarding who does what in a territory that covers two small cities, two large counties, and a vast national park in between. Several hikes to take, a shooting range to step into, and a gun expert friend to run key scenes by. 

Revision. Where all that gorgeous raw material is shaped into a story. 

But today I hold the story that will be in tender respect. The magical first draft, with all its promise and potential, is complete. 

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?”
― Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

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

No Turf of Strangers: Literary Citizenship and the Author Platform

We haven’t quite settled on a name yet, though I love the suggested Guild of Dangerous Writers. We’re a new writers’ group on the Olympic Peninsula penning mystery and crime fiction; some of us cozy, others procedural, one writing YA, another romantic suspense.  A handful are published authors, others entering the fray for the first time. But whatever our experience or category, inside the covers there is Murder & Mayhem.

Deciding that we have other avenues for critiques, this group isn’t exchanging work and feedback. Instead, we’re exchanging resources, advice, and planning genre-related excursions (e.g. touring a jail; visits to the local gun range) and lectures by experts (current police detectives, a former county sheriff), as well as monthly accountability check-ins. It’s the motivational shove this writer needed; since our inaugural meeting, I’ve doubled my novel-in-progress word count. Doubled in two months what took the previous eight to achieve. We shared our premises and trouble spots, and I received suggestions that gave me traction to jolt my work from the mud where it was spinning. It’s the best thing that’s happened to my writing since the Chuckanut Writers’ Conference in June 2012, where I finally took IN ANOTHER LIFE from vague idea to print on a page.

For our next meeting, I volunteered to present on the frightening topic of Building An Author Platform (or, How to Develop A Marketing & Promotion Plan Without Losing Your Mind & Breaking Your Bank). Forget chilling thrillers that have you triple-checking the locks before to bed or clever whodunits that find you second guessing every possible clue, wondering which is the key to unlocking the mystery… the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is book marketing and promotion and building a reader base elicits blood-curdling screams from most authors.

I’ve spent weeks poring through the wisdom I’ve collected about author platforms and book promotion since 2015, when I prepared for the launch of IN ANOTHER LIFE, and combing through favorite old and new sources for details on the ever- and rapidly-changing world of book marketing. When I began building my strategy four years ago, Facebook Author Pages were must-haves, writers were expanding their Google+ circles, author newsletters were published faster than you could say “MailChimp”, and #bookstagram was just about to become a thing.

Much has changed in four years (Google+, anyone?). New Facebook algorithms have all but made author pages irrelevant. Twitter use has exploded, thanks to the Twit-in-Chief, but savvy authors know it’s a place for conversations, NOT to announce the $.99 sale of your e-book. Facebook bought Instagram; Amazon bought Goodreads. Tiny Letter folded. Kirkus is now charging $495 for a review. Print publications are cutting back their arts sections, book reviews are getting harder and harder to score, and virtual blog tours seem sooooo 2016.

It’s hella daunting out there. This author knows she didn’t do enough to promote her first two novels. Spend enough, focus, plan, anticipate, enough.

ENOUGH.

Success in publishing—if you define success as bestseller, or even pretty good seller—is largely a matter of luck. If your publisher selects your novel or memoir as that season’s “Big Book”, you are a rare and fortunate bird, indeed. Realize now that you have very little control over the publishing process; even if you choose to self-publish you cannot predict what will happen after your book is pushed into the world. 

What you can control, however, is your visibility and your voice. Your author platform. Building an author platform is not about garnering likes or retweets. It is about broadcasting your voice—and building relationships with those who listen. 

Two elements of a solid author platform remain constant in the constantly changing publishing industry: quality writing and literary citizenship. And what could be more rewarding for a writer than to focus her time and energy on becoming a better writer, and to celebrate the achievements of others? Never has it been easier to join communities of other writers, to reach out a hand in support or to raise one in need. Frankly, literary citizenship is one of the few reasons this writer remains on Facebook and Twitter; my virtual writing communities are endless sources of inspiration, support, and friendship.

You owe it to your books to do all that is reasonable—given your resources of time, money, and emotional energy—to find and engage readers. But this is not a race against the thousands of titles that threaten to push yours aside on the shelf. It’s a long walk shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers. Understanding that a collaborative, open-arms approach to publishing will become the deep inhale that propels you up the steep slopes of publishing.

Suggested Read: Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship? and subscribe to Jane Friedman’s blog while you’re there. 

We can walk into the world of business feeling we are on the turf of strangers, possible enemies. Or we can enter that world in a way that brings our own turf with us, so that we no longer feel defensive but expansive. With the realization of the power our art wields, we can become generous. When we do, we become compelling, enviable, impressive, and we have the ability to change things.

Elizabeth Hyde Steven, from Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career

Since you’re visiting, let me know how you like the new look here, and at my website: juliechristinejohnson

Writing as Fast as I Can

We’d been anticipating his journey for months and by mid-summer, we’d set the departure date: the Monday after the Saturday when his youngest daughter would leave the nest for her college freshman year.

 

How long he would be gone was vague. Once, in the late spring, he mentioned Thanksgiving and my heart sank. I would be spending the autumn alone, each day growing darker and colder, the daily phone calls becoming perfunctory. I would grow used to taking up space in the bed again. Folding only my own underwear. Dinners of popcorn and wine.

 

But I knew this journey had to be taken. A man on the cusp of life change, a nest emptied as last as the last child took flight. Before he could look to the future, he needed to reconnect with his past.

 

And so I began sinking into the hammock of alone time. Day job, during this almost-busiest time of the year, would suck up hours. One of the yoga studios I frequent announced a 30-day challenge (okay, 31 days, on account of October being the month). So my morning and early evening would be bookended by intense practice.

 

And I would write. The quiet evenings and weekends held the promise of words. Uninterrupted by conversation or dinner, the setting aside of laptop to curl into his arms, snuggling into that broad chest and the oblivion of Netflix or NFL or one of the books stacked on the nightstand. No, my keyboard would softly click and the counter would tick upwards, filling in the gaps of empty space with words. I set myself a word count goal — not anything like NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 extravaganza, but something momentous for me, at this time.

 

Four years ago, in the dark and tender ten weeks between mid-January and early March, I completed the first draft of THE CROWS OF BEARA, some 110,000 words. The novel poured out of me. I had the time to catch all the words on paper. It was a synchronicity of circumstance—the graciousness of my then-partner that allowed me the time, free from the pressure of a day job, to write—and inspiration that brought the most precious elements of the story to my heart and soul. It is a standard I continue to hold myself against, as ridiculous as that is, for few among us have uninterrupted time to write our stories. We have vocations, ailing parents, second families, our first children, partners with dreams of their own who need our support, financial or otherwise.

 

Still, I have my own past productivity — three novels written in three years — against which I measure the writer I am now.

 

I’m often asked when my next book is coming out. I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago the triumph of having a short story placed in a literary journal. A number of people misread my post and congratulated me on my forthcoming novel. Someone reported having seen my third novel in a bookstore, which thrilled me to no end, except that the novel is still on submission in its quest for a publishing home. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe I’m manifesting my own misguided expectations.

 

During that time alone – a month as it turned out- I realized I’d gotten stuck in my own story. Not the one I’d been trickling into Scrivener, but the one I had stored in my heart. I took the time to do so many things other than write. I sat in silence. I remembered. I mourned. I began to forgive myself.

 

And then I continued to write.

 

This novel will take as long as it takes. If I have one resolution for this year, it is to manifest grace. Grace, and its sister-words mercy, generosity, tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, is my journey, the only way I will make it to the page. 

 

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.   Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage 

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.

 

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