Letting Go

I’m about to hand off a manuscript to my agent—my novel Tui, set in New Zealand. It took me a long time to get to this story, as I sorted through and made some sort of peace—a poignant truce—with my time in Aotearoa. And yet the more I wrote, the more any of the “I” that may have been present in the story dissolved and became something utterly distinct from me and my experiences. That’s the magic of writing for me. That I, as the storyteller, really have no idea where a narrative road will lead, no matter my intended destination at the beginning.

 

A sense of melancholy accompanies the completion of a novel, that point when it’s time to set your story free from the shelter of your imagination and open it to the eyes and feedback of others. You’ll never again encounter these characters with the same sense of wonder and discovery. But this time, the wistfulness is paired with disquietude. When I press send and release these few hundred pages into the ether, I will be without a new novel to work on.

 

Oh, the ideas are there; the stories stand half-slumped against the wall, whistling softly, waiting for me to crook my finger and call them forth. But now is not the time.

 

The preliminary planning and first draft work are, for me, an all-encompassing commitment of energy and emotion. When I begin, it’s like being inside an empty dance studio: there’s some structure—four walls, a ceiling—but the room is vast-white-bright, filled with the natural light of possibility, creativity, echoing with the happy shouts of ideas. I can whirl and leap on the pages for hours a day, weeks or months on end as the work expands and grows, breath filling my lungs, blood filling my heart. It demands everything and I acquiesce with joy.

Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson
Kaikoura, New Zealand © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

But for the immediate future, that dance studio has become a recital hall, crowded with chairs, noisy with clinking glasses, tapping feet, voices rising and falling; a cacophonous celebration of the performance I’m preparing for: the launch of In Another Life. And in the quiet moments, my editor and I will put our heads together over revisions of The Crows of Beara. 

 

Three novels in three years. It’s time to channel all my energy into sending one off into the world and reshaping another, while letting the third go, for now. It’s time to sit with my disquietude and wistfulness, as the well I have emptied these past three years refills, until the moment comes when I can dance again in that great, empty, silent room.

 

There is writing when you are intending to, and this other, less frequent, sometimes more beautiful writing that just comes. ~ James Salter

Drafting

Saturday afternoon, as the Pacific Northwest bid an unusually warm and clear adieu to spring, I completed the first draft of my third novel, Tui. No drum roll accompanied my typing of The End. No one witnessed the tears. I hadn’t made any particular plan to finish on that day, but by Friday I knew I was close. Saturday I knew I was done.

 

It’s a hollow release, this finishing of a novel. It comes with a particular wistfulness and melancholy for which there is no word. No matter how many months of revisions lay ahead, you will never experience these characters and their journeys in quite the same way again. If you’re a pantser, like me, most of what happened on the page happened as you were writing. Experiencing the story’s events and your characters’ reactions and growth in real time is magical.

 

I’m not sure if I’ve told the story I set out to tell. I wrote the first half in fits and starts—six weeks in November and December, two weeks in February. Finally, by early April, after I’d submitted the final copy-edits of In Another Life to my publisher and the last revision of The Crows of Beara to my agent, I cleared out the worst of my to-do list to focus on Tui. As soon as I returned, new characters entered the scene and a certain light filtered into a dark narrative. I felt freer to play with styles and structure.

 

Tui is the most personal of my novels, inspired not only by my deep feelings for a place (in this case, New Zealand), but for a little girl I once knew, with whom I’d shared peanut butter and jam sandwiches, jam I’d made from the peaches that fell from her tree into my yard. I have no idea what happened to that child. She disappeared one day. I disappeared too, not long after. Hers was a physical disappearance, mine a descent into a dark abyss. This novel became a way to tell a little girl’s story. And maybe bits and pieces of my own.

 

My second novel, The Crows of Beara, is on submission, a process that takes months, perhaps years. Yesterday, in my angst and restlessness, I rewrote the beginning of that novel. I revised the first forty pages and fired them off to my agent. If we need to go into a next round of submissions to publishers, this is the version I’d like to use. Because I think I learned something about my central protagonist, Annie, that I didn’t know until I’d stepped into the heads and hearts of characters from a completely different story.

 

Or perhaps I rewrote those opening pages because finishing a novel is so bewildering.

 

What happens to Tui now? Nothing in the short-term. The novel will sit for weeks or months, resting, settling down. Sorting itself out. Revisions can be done only with a mind that sees the story from a fresh, well-rested perspective. I need to forget what my intention was when I started writing and work with what actually happened over those weeks and months as the story unfolded. Sometime in the fall, I’ll open the manuscript again and see where it leads me.

 

Besides, I have this idea for a new novel and I’m itching to get started on it . . .

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Pacific Coast, Canterbury, New Zealand

Past Becomes Present: A Story Finds its Home

Those cooking magazines stacked on a shelf. I hold on to so little from my past that is tangible, but these long, glossy journals contain dreams and memories about which I cannot speak. I never look through them, and yet I take comfort in the pretty swirl of logo on their spines. They tell of a land where I once made Spicy Pumpkin, Peanut and Spring Onion Fritters, Harissa Lamb Mince, Black Cherry Cake with Ricotta Cream, savored wines from Gimblett Gravels and Central Otago, and pressed flat the corners of color-drenched articles about Waiheke Island, Hawke’s Bay, Akaroa, planning future explorations of our new home: New Zealand.

~

A photograph of three men on a bridge in southwest Ireland. Their waterproof jackets in primary red, blue, and green are playful beacons in a drizzle that softens the air so the photograph looks brushed with mist, like the picture of a dream. One of those men is gone, now.

~

A disaster I watched unfold from thousands of miles away. A city crumbling, streets liquefying, familiar buildings collapsing on themselves, as if dealt a sucker punch to their architectural sternum. The café where I had served slow-braised lamb shanks and poured glasses of pinot noir now in ruins, streets I had walked and biked to yoga, the library, the tea shop, the bookstore turned into canyons filled with rubble. But I no longer belonged to that place. There was nothing I could do but mourn.

~

“We write to exert power over something we can never control,” says Nellie Hermann, creative director of the narrative medicine program at Columbia University. “The past.”

~

The stories that live inside me are threads of evidence. Evidence of my past, real and imagined, remembered and wished for. Many of those threads dangle, barely visible unless the light shifts or the breeze picks them up. But sometimes a thread catches on a thought, and then another, until they weave themselves into a pattern, and that pattern becomes a narrative of character and place, of movement and change.

~

A stack of cooking magazines that hold regrets and broken dreams. A photograph of a moment that holds memories of a man who walked by my side on a green peninsula, where together we built a bistro in the misty air. An earthquake that shattered a place I’d called home. These threads found each other last summer, twirling into a rope I held as I wrote.

~

It is an honor when someone selects your story to share with the world. It is a thrill to press a beautiful volume of prose and poetry and art against your heart and know your words beat within its pages.

~

Mud Season Review, the literary journal of the Burlington Writers Workshop, selected my short story Prix Fixe for its first annual print issue. I am so pleased.

Peter, Randy and Brendan, Dingle Peninsula, June 2006
Peter, Randy and Brendan, Dingle Peninsula, June 2006

Mud Season Review Print Issue

Mud Season Review  Volume 1 May 2015
Mud Season Review Volume 1 May 2015

The Souls of My Shoes

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The LuminariesThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Wild, Wild West, a frontier filled with dreamers, convicts, schemers and entrepreneurs. Some hope to make that lucky strike, others attach themselves like parasites to stars on the rise and the canniest let the eager do the dirty work while they provide the booze, drugs and women for which all men—regardless of their luck—will lay down cash money. This is the Gold Rush, the West Coast, the late 1860’s—but we’re not in California, Toto. This is the South Island of New Zealand, circa 1866, in the wet, green folds of the Southern Alps where they tumble into the Tasman Sea.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is also the frontier of storytelling—a no-holds-barred, raucous flight of imagination that I devoured with Epicurean pleasure. Jumping into its alphabet-soup cast of characters with chewy names like Emery Staines (an angelic young man, popular, rich and missing), Cowell Devlin (a man of God), George Shepard (whose flocks live in the town jail) and Anna Wetherell (a prostitute~ingenue who weathers all kinds of storms) is like tumbling in a dryer with towels and tennis shoes. You never know when you’ll get smacked upside the head with a plot twist.

This is a Gold Rush-era version of The Usual Suspects: Everyone’s got a story and no one is telling the truth. In this case, a hermitic prospector is dead, the town’s richest man is missing, a prostitute is senseless and wearing a dress lined with gold, a politician is being blackmailed, a body rises from its makeshift coffin in a doomed ship’s cargo hold and a beautiful redhead has just sashayed into town, claiming to be a widow and seeking what remains of her husband’s estate. Spinning all around this stage are twelve Luminaries: a constellation of men whose points of view we dip into throughout the novel, trying to unravel a mystery that is woven more tightly with each page.

Much has been made of Catton’s clever structure: The Luminaries is a set piece held aloft by an astrological chart that divides each part into smaller and smaller sections (Part One is 358 pages long; Part Twelve, two), according to celestial logic. But don’t be deterred by this ornamentation. I didn’t pay a whit of attention to the charts that precede each section—I couldn’t be distracted from carrying on with the story. Yet, there is something to be said for Catton’s conceit. The novel begins with a crowded, opulent jumble of characters and detail, like a sky full of dazzling stars. As its 832 pages turn, black space is allowed in, the focus narrows and individual details begin to sharpen.

The tale is told first from outside-in, then inside-out, from high to low, back-to-front, by the dead and the living, in court, in bed and in confession. Mystery is added to adventure and star-crossed love eventually conquers all.

I can’t remember when I’ve taken such delight in reading, when I felt the author’s sheer joy in writing. I’ve seen a handful of gripes that Catton’s story and style lack warmth and her characters are shallow. I dunno. I didn’t get a sense that she intended to write epic historical fiction in which the characters’ characters rise and fall and rise again and we feel morally lifted from the lessons learned. Sometimes it’s perfectly all right for the reading experience to be sheer pleasure. When it’s not only pleasurable, but intellectually stimulating, laugh-out-loud surprising and historically illuminating, you’ve got a five-star read.

Eleanor Catton has crafted a rollicking, unexpected and deeply satisfying carnival ride that ends all too soon. I doff my top hat and bow. Brava.

View all my reviews

Wherein I rail against cheap wine and contemplate unemployment.

For many years, the résumé folder on my hard drive remained unopened. A small lifetime of sorts passed by, rendering those dozens of NAFSA: Association of International Educator conference presentations meaningless and nullifying my skills in various software programs (PeopleSoft? Access database? Anyone? Bueller?). I let the bones of my career as a study abroad program administrator calcify. Once I turned my back on the Ivory Tower for the green shores of Aotearoa, I never looked back on that decade-plus of world travel and helicopter parents (would I have turned to salt had I tossed one last glance over my shoulder?).

Then it was off to the world of wine, first in vineyards, then in store aisles and finally in a cramped office in Seattle’s University District, sipping and spitting dozens of samples a week. A terrific gig, really – leading people to phenomenal wine is awesomesauce.

Inserting impassioned parenthetical:

Working in vineyards in foreign lands sounds very glamorous, but the months spent pruning and training vines wrecked my hands and wrists: for several months I couldn’t hold a coffee cup, I had to sleep on my back because of the pain, my liver suffered from the massive doses of NSAIDs. It was bliss. Best job I ever cried in pain over.

So when I see people who would bite off their right pinky toe before tossing Kraft Cheese Singles on their grilled sammie throw good money after cheap wine, it breaks my heart.

Ever ask yourself how a labor-intensive, high-overhead agricultural product made from raw ingredients subject to the vagaries of weather and disease can be produced so cheaply? Because the “winery” used crap juice. Best case scenario the juice was rejected by producers who don’t want their names associated with poor quality, so they bulk it off. Worst case, your $5 steal was produced not by people, but by machines, factory-style. It’s made from fruit laden with herbicides and pesticides grown on a massive farm with little regard to land stewardship, and the wine was manipulated to taste exactly the same every time, vintage in-vintage out (if it even boasts a vintage). You paid for a bottle or a box, a cutesy label, overhead, maybe even an ad campaign. You did not pay for wine anyone gave a shit about, except to rip an easy buck from your wallet.

You can do better. You should do better. You don’t have to spend a lot for quality vino. Ask me for a $10-12 wine recommendation. I’m thrilled to oblige. Because I love wine. I love the process. I love the people who grow the fruit and craft the wine with passion and integrity. Because I will never forget the shooting pain in my hands as they closed around a pair of pruning shears or wrapped a cane around a wire. Those tortured hands were producing something of beauty.

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Alas, a manifesto for another time.

I find myself opening that résumé folder not once this spring, but twice. I may be in for a record number of W-2s to track down next year. So far, the count is three (Wait, you say, I missed one! Yeah, well, you blinked). Pretty sure I’m guaranteed a fourth.

Unless.

Here’s where I admit I am strangely relieved that the non-profit for which I have been Business Manager since April is about to go belly up. The Board of Directors recently passed a unanimous vote to close it down over the summer (ahem, not my doing, folks – this is a disaster eight years in the making. I’ve just been paying the bills for six weeks. In theory. Well, not the bills – there are plenty of those. How to pay them, and myself, is another matter entirely).

How can I be relieved the spectre of unemployment and over-paying for inadequate private health insurance is now a real-life ogre? Because it has forced me face what I’ve been pushing off for yet another “Someday.” It’s giving me an out.

I’ve known since those anxiety attacks of mid-April, which I wrote about here, that my head was trying desperately to tell me something. The message finally found a way through my heart, with those terrifying moments of choking panic (which have ceased, tap wood). And this is, in part, what I believe the message to be:

…  … …

This is the hard part. The part where I stare out the window for long moments, check my iPhone for possible life-changing Facebook updates, rearrange the coffee shop punch cards in my wallet. Because it’s so difficult to come out and just say it. Here’s a practice run:

I think I should let this job run its course, not look for another one for (an undecided period of time) and write. Finish my novel? Maybe. At least get it to the point where it’s ready to be turned loose on beta readers, which means a couple more rewrites. Pour out some of those short stories clamoring for attention. Pull together a book proposal – a several-week endeavor. Submit said book proposal to those agents and publishing companies I have yet to research. Attend at least one week of the Centrum Writers’ Conference in July (located conveniently one mile from my house).

And heal. Heal after a year of loss and anger. Run and bike, walk on the beach, cook healthful meals, open my home to friends, read Thomas Hardy, find a park bench overlooking the bay and sit. Sit still. Work on being present, not six months or six years or twenty-six years in the past or similar time spans in the future. Be amazed to have a partner who needs no explanation, who asks “What are you waiting for?” Have faith that even without my income and with the added burden of said stupid health insurance policy, we’ll make it.

Step off the ride, leave the carnival. Do Not Pass Go and definitely do not collect $200.00.

There. I’ve gone and said it. I might just do this thing. This “What do you do, Julie?” “Who, me? Like, what do I do for work? I’m a writer.”

Right. Well. I just submitted a résumé to an art gallery in town, in response to a Help Wanted in the weekly paper. My résumé’s pretty cool, actually. I mean, how many people do you know who have a Masters degree in International Affairs and can boast a stint at a slaughterhouse in New Zealand? What’s that? You say you want to see this résumé? What, you hiring?

Then again, I promised my husband if I ever sell this book, I’d buy him a vineyard in the south of France. Because next to growing stories, growing grapes is the best job there is.

I guess my feet know where they want me to go

Spring entered as she should: with hair tangled and knotted, streaming in the wind. She shivered as the sea air pierced the holes in her ratty sweater, but her bare toes burrowed in the sand, the only surface which absorbed the sun’s fragile warmth. Tossed between two seasons, one wan and weary of red fingers and runny noses, the other brazen and heady with the scent of lilacs and sweat, Spring arrived to claim her equinox.

 

And so have I arrived on the other side of winter. It began in a stew of anger and bewilderment, passed into determination and defiance, ending at last in hope.

 

Had you told me at Winter’s Solstice that the turning of the seasons would find us not just in a new home several zip codes distant, starting new jobs—hell, completely new lives—I would not have thought it impossible, but not likely. Had you told me what we would have gone through to get here, I would have slammed the door in your face. Absent a door, I probably would have asked you to get me silly drunk.
 

But we did what we seem to do best: we took the pieces that remained and we rebuilt. I hope we did it with dignity. I hope what we left will make it easier for someone else to stand up and say “No.” Or whatever form of “You will not fuck with me” one is comfortable with issuing (see above comment about dignity). I hope the truth we shared will be set free.

 

But that is in the past. It belongs to Winter. This moment, in its blossoming present, belongs to Spring.

 

I find myself in this town which seems to capture all the precious places that have shaped my character and spoken to my heart. It is the pastoral peace of my childhood, in the gentle climes of Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the mountain-to-coast splendor of the Olympic Peninsula, (where I am once again, a short drive from the home of my formative years). It is the feisty mix of town and gown of central Washington, where hyper-educated ivory tower types knock elbows at the bar with old timers who have more sense than money. It is the casual warmth of New Zealand, the muddy cheerfulness of Ireland, the pride and passion for place and history of France. It is a place of such profound beauty that my heart skips with joy each time I wander out the door.

 

I cannot make sense of what happened this Winter. I can neither believe the cliché “It was meant to be,” nor in a cosmic manipulation of circumstances that made this end – this beginning – inevitable. I do believe that we took back control of our lives, at least as much as the universe allowed. Without knowing the outcome, we set out the intention to move forward with hearts open to possibilities.

 

And now I have what I have so long wished for: a room of my own and a part-time job that will allow me the hours and energy to write, in a community steeped in creativity. Water and forest surround this peninsula in the rainshadow of the Olympics. It reaches for Canada while turning its pert backside to the Big Smoke smothered by rain.

 

And I’m terrified. Terrified by paychecks gone “Poof!” in the breeze, terrified by the budget that marches in columns more red than black. Terrified by the cursor that blinks black on a white, white, empty, empty screen. If we’re talking clichés, how about “Be careful what you wish for”?

 

But I can’t squelch the hope and joy which blooms inside, anymore than I can halt Spring. And who would ever wish to?

 

My writing routine has been torn asunder by the move, the transition, the emotional strain of our bittersweet farewell to Seattle, the risk we took by not leaving quietly, the physical wrenching of two people in their mid-40’s tackling the same moves they made with disquieting regularity in their mid-20’s.

 

The routines are the first thing to go in a move. The challenge is to embrace the new while clinging to those most dear. I have more time to write but a more wily work schedule; I must be ready to crack my knuckles and call upon my muses at odd hours and in unlikely places. But my morning pages are immutable: the last routine to go in the final throes of moving, the first to return.

 

The story hasn’t stalled completely; I have worked on scenes here and there these past weeks (those morning sessions). I am so close to the end of this first draft that I am tempted to begin a rewrite to fill in the missing parts and call it Draft 2. But I’ve latched onto a magical final word count for Draft 1 and for the moment, until I get back into the groove, I work toward that end before I allowing myself to edit. But I have written the ending. Now I write just below that ending, trusting I will know when it is time to stop. And to begin, again.

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