Shards

Concrete walls with long shards of glass embedded along the top, brutal points glinting in the hazy yellow light of the Sahel, surrounded the American embassy compound. Similar defenses protected private homes in the few neighborhoods that boasted living trees and roads with some tarmac still intact. Those with any means walled themselves behind concrete and cut glass, the only entrance a metal gate guarded by men with semi-automatic rifles and chained dogs kept on the cruel side of hunger.

 

Once, two Marines in a LandCruiser drove us to the home of an American defense attaché to spend the night. It was meant to be a treat. Air conditioning. Eating with utensils instead of scooping with our right hands. A bath. A bed not tented by mosquito netting sprinkled with termites. No snakes, frogs, cockroaches. No feral dogs seeking shelter, watching us from across our one-room mud hut with eyes glinting in the moonlight. A toilet.

 

As a Chadian man cleared the dinner table with white-gloved hands, the attaché’s wife said–she actually said–“It’s so hard to find good help here.”

 

I have tried to write about Chad for years, since an aborted attempt as Peace Corps volunteers in 1993 left us emotionally and physically compromised, and full of shame at not having endured the full length of our assignment. Leaving was an ethical decision: Chadian teachers were caught in a cycle of not being paid, striking until a bit of money and empty promises of reform were tossed at them like crumbs. Peace Corps volunteers stepped in to fill the gap in local schools and suddenly, who needs the Chadians any longer? Where’s the impetus to effect real change when outsiders will save the day? We were sick, morally, at the arrogance and illogicality of our presence.

 

We left. Alone. Months later the program collapsed behind us.

 

After Chad, we lived with friends in western Colorado, a place of intense and majestic beauty. We shared their tipi on a patch of high mesa. No concrete walls, no shards of glass embedded to keep out those intent on harm, or perhaps just justice. Only thick canvas walls. We came to rest and heal. To rebuild. Yet we were wounded all the same by invisible, razor-sharp shards of expectations and assumptions. A proposition made and rejected. A rejection that resulted in retaliation and betrayal. I have tried to write this story of Colorado for years, as well.

 

Because these stories, this particular time, are as locked together in my mind as Chad is by desert and Colorado by mountains and plain, I feel them as inextricably linked. A husband and wife lost, bereft, betrayed by expectations, by those they assumed would give them shelter: the U.S. Government; two close friends. Even now, twenty-three years later, I know I have not forgiven.

 

At last, the story is written, Chad and Colorado woven together, a needle pulling thread.

 

It’s rare to receive feedback from literary journals. They reject your work with a form e-mail that offers no insights, just “Hey, this isn’t for us. Good luck!” But this particular story garnered editorial feedback from two literary journals in which I’d be thrilled to be included. I am proud of these Nos, for they came accompanied with high praise. But the story was ultimately rejected by both for the same reason: the events just seemed unbelievable. What the young married couple had experienced strained credulity to the point of exasperation. Of course, everything that happens was ripped from the headlines of my life, as true as my memory and my journals of twenty-four/three years ago recall.

 

So I brought my story to a multi-day writing workshop recently, requesting insights on how to pull myself, the author, out of my own narrative and write in service to the story. How could I craft a better story, regardless of what really happened? If I intended to write a piece of non-fiction to honor my personal truth, I could go the essay route. But what I really want is tell a good story.

 

Critique is also meant to be in service to the story. How can we, as writer-readers, offer feedback that will help the writer take the best parts of her narrative and improve upon those?

 

At the start of the workshop, our instructor outlined the conditions whereby feedback was to be given: Our critique should determine how the work has affected us emotionally and intellectually, without criticism, without judgment, without using phrases such as I don’t like or this doesn’t work, which blame instead of exploring a story’s nature and its possibilities. We were promised safety.

 

Yet, the very first writer to offer up her story crumbled as parameter after parameter was crossed, the understanding between writers crumpled and tossed out the window. She finished the day and never returned, impaled on shards of poorly executed critique. Expectations shattered by reality; trust, betrayed. She and I shared a 3:00 p.m. bottle of wine later in the week, lamenting the irony that only the instructor could be heard using the verboten phrase, this doesn’t work . . .

 

“It’s so hard to find good help here.”

 

And what of my own work? A dozen copies of this story, with a dozen sets of interpretations and suggestions, sit in a folder. I am left with the shards of my narrative, my truth, shining and cruelly sharp at my feet, ready to be melted down and reshaped into something new.

Pencil, Meet Eraser

“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966

 

When I received the production calendar for In Another Life last December I noted something called “2nd Pages”, scheduled for October. Caught up in the overwhelming excitement of IHAZBOOKCONTRACT I never thought to ask what it meant. Figured it would all come clear when the far-in-the-distance month of October rolled around.

 

Yeah, well. Roll around it surely did.

 

See, I thought I was finished with edits and proofreading. The hours spent combing through the ARC in June, curled in a wingback in a loft in a house in Ireland, the ticking of a mantle clock, rain on the skylights, the ack-acking of ducks in the back garden the only sounds as I read and reread all my sentences, fussing over a word here, a comma there, tsk-tsking at typos—I filled pages of edits on that round.

 

2015-03-24 12.54.26-1
Weary of Our Own Words

And then I thought, I never have to read this book again. 

 

Right. Well. For future reference, “2nd Pages” is yet another round of copy-edits and proofreading sent with a throat-closing series of in-line comments, known as queries. You are once again on deadline. Forced to deal with this thing, this creation of 368 pages, you swore you’d never look at again.

 

These people. This amazing team of copy-editor and proofreader who both broke my heart and earned my undying gratitude last spring when they tore open my manuscript and forced me to consider this phrase or that, questioning this word, that translation, pointing out that I had Lia crossing the wrong bridge from the Marais to Île-de-la-Cité, that the sun was shining in the wrong direction, or that people seemed to be traveling endlessly NORTH at the ends of scenes. These people.

 

They’re baaaaaack. 

 

The edits I’d submitted in June, after poring over the ARC, had been incorporated, but here were more: more questioning of word choices, more “Chicago Manual of Style says this, what do you want to do?”, more (oh my god) “WAIT, here it says April, but later on, it’s still March” (ohmygodohmygodohmygod).

 

It took an 8-hour non-stop day to go through each query one-by-one, to consider, amend, agree, or state my case as to why I wanted something left as is. Not too bad, really. And at each turn, I felt this warm flush—a combination of gratitude at the opportunity for this second pass and utter horror What if there were no 2nd Pages?

 

But I’m not done. Responses to the queries have been submitted, but in these days before deadline I am doing what I thought I would not, never, ever, do again: I am rereading In Another Life, baby, one more time.

 

It’s going to be okay.

 

After a three-month interval since I last read these pages my words are again fresh to me. I catch myself simply reading along, forgetting that I’m supposed to be sifting each sentence like a handful of uncooked rice in a sieve, looking for the tiny pebbles and flawed grains. That’s a delicious feeling—to get caught up in your own story, turning the page in smiling anticipation.

 

And loving these characters so fully, perhaps for the first time, with an understanding of the grace and joy they’ve brought to my life.

 

Delete. Change. Add. Move. Replace.

 

Two-thirds through this reread and I have a list of sixty-five edits—beyond the copyedit and proofreading queries I’ve already addressed—small things, vital things, things this writer now sees and understands that the writer I was a year or two or even six months ago did not, could not.

 

Can I just tell you how excited I am to share this novel with you?

 

And with all the irony I can muster, I invite you to subscribe to my occasional newsletter—your subscription enters you in a random drawing to receive one of my ARCs while they last (through the end of 2015). A Collector’s Item, right? Because the ARC version and the published version will have differences—dozens, shoot, well over a hundred—that tilt the book’s horizon just so. Once I run out of ARCs, I’ll be drawing for copies of books that have enchanted, moved, blown my mind—books I think everyone should read!

Julie Christine Johnson’s Author Newsletter

That’s a Wrap: My (almost) Final Edits

I just clicked Send. My final edit deadline is tomorrow. I made it. It’s gone, for better or for worse. The Novel is gone. It is in the hands of an editing team who will clean up my commas and semicolons and whip the manuscript into shape à la The Chicago Manual of Style. I can do no more.

 

The next time I see In Another Life, in a month or so, it will be in galley proof form. I’ll be allowed to make only line edits or proofreading corrections. The story is what it will be today, tomorrow, and a year from now, on Publication Day.

 

I entered the editor-writer conversation and exchange process with a focused humbleness. Knowing I had so much to learn about this part of the publishing journey, I expected the story to be challenged and questioned, coaxed and tamed. What I didn’t expect—not at this late stage—is that I would be my harshest critic. Even after the revisions were complete and the story set, each read-through brought more changes to language, tone, rhythm. It’s not just that I felt the story and writing improve with each draft; I felt the writer and storyteller improve.

 

And so I think about a year from now, and how it will feel to release this novel when I am not the same writer. I’m certainly not the same writer who began In Another Life on a July day in 2012.

 

Writer’s remorse sits heavy on my soul. I should have read it through one more time. There will be something, I know, something critical I will have missed—just as there has been on each pass—a better way to construct a phrase, a scene, a novel.

 

But I have to let that go, don’t I? This is part of the process—accepting that what’s published today might not be what you would write tomorrow. In Another Life is my apprenticeship and my act of faith. It taught me many things about the writing process, lessons I hope never to relearn: don’t write without some sort of a plan; don’t write more than a handful of scenes out of sequence; don’t share your work too early; don’t listen to that inner critic telling you to hang it up and go home.

 

Do listen to the voice that says, Keep Writing. The story will sort itself out in time.

 

And now a year looms. A year to worry that no one will ever read the thing. A year to worry that they will. A year to plan blog tours and blurbs and fret about that damn launch party.

 

A year to revise the second novel and pray that it sells, and to finish the third. The fourth is already wrapping tiny, thin tendrils of ideas around my brain . . .

 

Speaking of marketing and promotion, here’s my new website: Julie Christine Johnson Don’t judge. I created the site just yesterday. Not much there, I know. It’ll get fleshed it out in time, probably go through a template change or three. But for now, I’ve snagged my domain name and a fresh, clean canvas to paint.

 

You guys. I wrote a novel. It’s going to be published. That’s just silly.

 

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
― Dorothy Parker

2015-03-12 15.35.00-1
Deception Pass, Whidbey Island © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Getting the Words Right

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015
Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

A Word of Resolution for 2015

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

ece11b0097e5f108db50171fba3f58dc

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Charmolypi: the play of light + shadow
Charmolypi: the play of light + shadow Copyright 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Can’t Stay Long: A Writer On Deadline

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

From the ruins, a dream. Copyright 2014 Julie Christine Johnson

Bottoms Up

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Heh heh heh.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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