And Still I Write*

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

 

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

 

It was a good life. We were happy.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Follow her on Twitter @JulieChristineJ

 

 

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

More Than Our Anger

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Today, I Am Anger.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

She is safe now. I got her out.

 

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

 

(whatifiquitmyjobdoihaveenoughtimehowcanilivewithoutherhowisanyofthishappening)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Loving the Questions

I settled into Virasana, tailbone sinking to the earth between my feet, wrists loose on folded thighs, spine straight, chest taking in more air than I’d breathed all day. I’d arrived to class several minutes early, unrolling my yoga mat in my favorite place before the west-facing window. After a long weekend of torrential rains and gusting winds, the day had been mild–warm really–for mid-October, and the early evening sun was an orb of burnished gold.

 

Suspended light wavered and caught hold of a web just outside the window, illuminating a gloriously fat spider at its center, her world shifting and shimmering in the soft breeze. She glided from the web’s bullseye to make slight adjustments to her woven marvel, returning to the center like a queen to her throne. For the next ninety minutes, as I rose and folded in salutation to the setting sun, I glanced at Spider when I could, until darkness descended in a blue curtain and I lost her to the night.

 

Spider’s commitment to her task, the faith she has in her own strength and purpose, the beauty and rightness of her creation, however temporary, moves me to my core.

 

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My life is in flux, with strands as shivery and delicate as Spider’s web, but no less connected to the Universe and just as strong for the determination and resolve with which they were spun. Massive changes of heart and mind, changes I have not yet shared here for they are too raw and new, complicated and bittersweet, private and yet rippling with aftershocks into lives tied to my own.

 

At the heart of it, at the heart of me, are my words. I’ve turned inward these past months, writing very little for public viewing. Publishing and then promoting a novel sucked me dry and I’ve had little desire to offer more beyond what’s already out there, or the energy to do more than hone and polish the next novel to meet the next deadlines. But I’ve filled pages and notebooks with private thoughts, all in preparation for  . . . and I cannot complete this sentence. Or perhaps it is already complete. All in preparation. 

 

One of those notebooks, nearly full, ripe and bursting with hope and sorrow and wordswordswords, was tucked in the front pocket of a suitcase, a suitcase that was stolen from a train on one of the many stops between Marseille and Nice a month ago. As maddening as it was to lose everything but the clothes on my back at the start of a three-week journey, the things were all replaceable (and if one is going to lose all her clothing, one should be happy one is in France. Shopping.).

 

My words, however, are not. I mourn the loss of my journal. All that work, gone in an instant, like a cruel hand or a gust of wind ripping apart the strands of Spider’s web. How frustrated she must feel to see her handiwork, her livelihood, torn asunder. But she never fails to start anew. It’s what she does. Spin or die.

 

The occasion of the loss of those words led directly to writing retreat during which I wrote more than I have in a year, since the months leading up to and following the publication of In Another Life and the preparation of The Crows of Beara for its upcoming launch. And every word I wrote was shared with a group of magnificent writers. The writing, the sharing, brought me back to my writer, my storyteller, the center of my web.

 

In his turn-of-the-20th-century Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke implores his friend to stop searching for the answers, to love instead the questions. I realize, as I let go of my losses and look ahead to what I have left and what I have gained, that writing through my private thoughts is a search for the answers. Telling stories is a celebration of the questions. I’ll always dance between the two, but I think I’m ready to live the questions now. And living means writing.

 

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Divine Sparks

“Certain bodies… become luminous when heated. Their luminosity disappears after some time, but the capacity of becoming luminous afresh through heat is restored to them by the action of a spark, and also by the action of radium.” ~ Marie Curie

 

I’d been warned by authors who’ve launched many a book before me that the muse would flee in the weeks and months leading up to and following the release of In Another Life; all my energy would be taken up by the demands of supporting my book virtually and in person. It would need to be nudged along, out of the nest, set free to soar on its own, but I’d need to remain close by, watching, guiding, occasionally letting the book draft behind my lead.

 

And to be sure, these past weeks have been filled with a busyness bordering on frantic. There’s a sense that no matter what I do, it, it isn’t enough. And then there is a novel I’m on deadline to revise. So I carefully apportion my time and energy, reminding myself to focus, to breathe, not to skip yoga or a hike or making dinner or folding the laundry—the meditative, restorative, ya-ya releasing activities that take me out of mental chaos into the sweet comfort of routine.

 

Much of my time has been spent writing guest blog posts and responding to interview questions as part of an extensive blog tour to promote the novel (fifty blog spots and counting!). It’s extraordinary to be so warmly welcomed by these hosts, whose blogs exist simply, wonderfully, to celebrate books and those who write and read them.

 

One of the unintended consequences of writing/talking about my book’s subject matter, its themes, the research, characters, setting and inspiration, is to be enthralled again by the Cathars, Languedoc, the tangle of history and geography, the wonder of an afterlife that weaves reincarnation with redemption with angels with good and evil and all the layers in-between.

 

And somewhere in those layers, my imagination, my writer’s soul, continues to work, digging in, excavating, uncovering ideas and holding them in her hand, like tiny embers just waiting for the breath of words to burst into the flame of a story.

 

In this time, when my attention and energy is as far from the blank page as it’s been since I committed to a writer’s life, a torrent of sparks has burst into the air.  A character has risen—a bit wobbly and unformed, a slip of clay that needs other elements to take solid form—but she is there, complex, a little feverish with her own possibility.

 

And then came a scribble on scrap paper, an opening line of humor for my upcoming author readings. I pulled my pen away and laughed for a different reason. I’d just released an idea that I may love. A story idea crazywonderfulsparklethisisnutsbutiloveityesyesyes 

 

The Cathars regarded stars as divine sparks—angels if you will—created by one fallen angel from the crown of another who had dominion over the waters of the earth. From half the crown, the Fallen Angel made the light of the moon and from the other half he created starlight.

 

Somehow, that starlight-moonlight illuminated the parts of me gone dark in this rushed and anxious and excited time. Though I can’t pull away just yet to follow the tendrils of light, I no longer fear the luminosity will fade. I hold the divine spark in my hands.

 

A Goodreads Giveaway for In Another Life. Click to Enter!

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Chartres, France © 2016 Julie Christine Johnson

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

Of Crows & Copper Mines

Dithering around today, trying to find the right way to begin this post. Which, not unrelated, is one of my greatest writing challenges. Cutting through the backstory, pruning the exposition, digging through the compost to find the story’s true beginning.

 

The beginning may be May 2002, when I traveled to Ireland for the first time and hiked the Beara Peninsula, losing my heart to boggy mountains and wind-shrieked coastlines. It may be October 2010, when I took my first writing class—a workshop on travel writing at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle—thinking I should find a way to meld my love for exploration with the growing desire to release words onto a page. It may be June 2011 and the publication of my first short story, when I realized that if I wrote one perhaps I could another, and I owed it to myself to try. Perhaps July 2012, when the ending of life inside my body brought me to create a different kind of life on the page.

 

Or it may be July 2013, when I walked away from paycheck and health insurance, a series of panic attacks in my wake, hope gilding the clouds of uncertainty ahead, into a full-time writing life.

 

But many of these stories I have already shared with you here. That backstory, that exposition, all running counter to the technique of in media res: beginning in the middle of the action.

 

In January 2014, as I set a first novel aside to rest, both of us exhausted by the effort to cull and corral 170,000 words into a 99,000 word manuscript, I created the story of a recovering alcoholic who has a marriage to repair and a career to salvage. And an artist who cannot forgive himself for the tragedy he caused. I brought them together on a lean claw of land on Ireland’s southwest coast: the Beara peninsula, where the endangered Red-billed chough-—a member of the Corvidae family with the scientific name made for a poem: Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax—congregate on land that could yield a fortune in copper.

 

That story became the novel The Crows of Beara. That novel was named a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by PEN/Faulkner author and Man Booker prize nominee Karen Joy Fowler.

 

And as of this week, my Crows has found an amazing nest: Ashland Creek Press. Ashland Creek Press, a publisher based in Oregon, is dedicated to publishing literature—fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction—focused on environmental, conservation, ecology, and wildlife themes. My crows and my words could not have found a more welcoming, nurturing home. The Crows of Beara is set to take flight September 2017.

 

There. That’s a beginning.

 

Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)
Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)

Here. Not Here.

I don’t much feel like talking. I’m home, present and accounted for. Bags unpacked, laundry done, hiking shoes still sporting small clumps of Beara bog. Photos loaded on smugmug, receipts piled in a stack on my desk, a bottle of Connemara 12-year-old Peated Single Malt awaiting whiskey weather.

 

Yes, sure, and I’m here. But not here, so.

 

Where I am is there, in that land of soft rain and impossible greens, of peaches and cream sunrises and salmon-flesh sunsets, of wind and wind and wind.

The Cows of Beara
The Cows of Beara

Where I am is in the land of poetry and legends, of An Cailleach, Clan Ó Súilleabháin, St. Caitighearn; the land of sky and water where battles were fought on gorse-cloaked mountains and warriors marked their Ogham runes on tall pillars. I am where the ruined shadows of a British Coast Guard station destroyed by the IRA in 1920 pale against the shadows of history cast by circles of ancient altars—these slabs of stone sculpted by Bronze Age hands now scratching posts for the russet and inky-black flanks of Angus and Friesian.

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Ardgroom Stone Circle 3000 B.C.

I am walking through Eyeries village where rows of houses line up like Crayons and lace curtains flutter in open windows; in MacCarthy’s Bar, Castletown-Bearhaven, enjoying the craic with new friends, laughter stealing my breath.

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Eyeries, Beara Peninsula, Co. Cork

I’m in a blue room, one wall lined in shelves bursting with novels. Tucked in bed, I watch the sun sink behind the Kerry peninsula; it is approaching 11:00 p.m. and I think I will lie awake as long as there is sunset, until suddenly it is morning again.

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Sunset from my window

Where I am is high on a hillside peering into the green and blue infinity, sheep scattering in my wake, boots soaked through with bog, fingers wrapped around a trekking pole, pack cinched around my waist like a lover’s arms, and I am so happy I could explode from the very fullness of my heart.

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The Beara Coast

I am inside a poem. Inside Eavan Boland’s Quarantine Inside W.S. Merwin’s Thanks Inside Seamus Heaney’s When All The Others Were Away At Mass Inside Sharon Olds’ The Race Inside W.B Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree I am inside the voice of poet Leanne O’Sullivan as she reads William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments.

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Mass Rock, Allihies Road

I am inside my own head, hearing my own poetry. I am the pen scribbling on the page. I am the tears that flow.

All the cool kids are wearing blue.
All the cool kids are wearing blue.

Something happened to me out there, on the Beara, in the chorus of wind and waves, of birdsong and poemsong. As a writer, as a woman, I am changed. But I’m not ready to talk about it. I’m not ready to come back.

Ag dul síar ar m’aistear
Le solas mo chroí
Fann agus tuirseach
Go deireadh mo shlí

Going west on my journey
By the light of my heart.
Weary and tired
To the end of my road

Excerpted from Mise Raifteirí an File by Antoine Ó Raifteirí

 

New friend, native Corkonian and poet, Michael Pattwell, writes a weekly column for Cork’s The Evening Echo. Enjoy his lovely poetry and reflections on our workshop at Anam Cara with Leanne O’Sullivan: Finding My Poetry in the Wild West