The Spider Season

The first one was waiting in the kitchen, pre-dawn. The cats ran down the hall ahead of me, their wriggly, wiry little bodies ever-joyful to start a new day. Little Kitty and Petey dropped to their bellies and began batting the thing back and forth, like some feline version of air hockey. Without my glasses, the creature was a blur, but I managed to scoop her up in an empty Bonne Maman jam jar and escort her to the safety of a patio lavender plant.

I’m afraid I wasn’t as benevolent a few days later when I came upon another lounging in relative ease behind a sofa throw pillow. The vacuum hose was already in hand, the motor drowning out the “Fuck Me” I let loose in startled horror. I emptied the canister, full of cat hair and sand, into the compost. I’m sure she’s fine.

And then the next day, I turned around in the shower to wait out the requisite one minute of conditioner soak-in and encountered one the size of a small island nation nestled in a fold of the shower curtain. Cue Psycho‘s mad violins. I couldn’t be bothered to rinse or even turn off the faucet. I stepped dripping into the hallway, saying in my most calm, stern, General-at-Battle voice, “Andrew. I need you to come here immediately.” I disavow all knowledge of what happened next. Really, I’m trying to put the entire horror show behind me.

Yes. It’s Spider Season. You may have noticed how the light has changed in recent days, deepening into its late summer denim blue and burnished gold. Summer delivered her hottest days over the weekend, but early mornings hold a freshness that has me reaching for my favorite, stretched-out-beyond-hope cardi-hoodie.

Another season is passing into the next. When I look back at my journal of two seasons ago, mid-March, I read with wistful melancholy my assumption that by late June, summer, this would be behind us. This is now nearly nine months old, if I count back to that January day when I was asked at the clinic’s reception if I’d traveled to China in the past two weeks.

 

I’m taking a precious few days off, the first day job PTO in over a year.

I’m not going anywhere. Oh, believe me. I’d love to. I haven’t been more than 50 miles from home since last fall. I dream of road trips, of numbing flights. I dream of Ireland, Iceland, Iberia. But now is not the time, not for me. I will remain close, tend to my garden. To my sweetheart.

Last June I rented an AirBnB and hid away, alone, to accrue some serious word mileage on my novel. I thought by the same time next year, I’d have a polished draft in to my agent.

Just like I thought all of this would be behind us by now.

Didn’t happen.

But I do have a novel in revision. And days of peace to do the work.

Why yes. That is a glass of rosé in a jam jar, on my desk.

Yesterday, after three 10-hour butt-in-chair days, I finished Draft 4, Revision 3 of The Deep Coil (as a point of reference, by the time my novels reach the bookstore shelf, they’ve been through upwards of 30 revisions. Not sure why I think any of this is anything other than complete madness.)

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m not much of an outliner or plotter — completely counter to my Virgo tendencies in most other aspects of life. I write from character and trust the plot will catch up. This current revision was to bring those two elements into alignment, a structural revision to weave the heart (the internal journey, my protagonist’s arc) and the head (the external conflicts, aka, the plot) together into the web of story.

Art is fire plus algebra – Jorge Luis Borges

Although I’m a pantser, I’m a big believer that we’re hard-wired for story, that, as Lisa Cron states in her fantastic 2012 book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence: “there is an implicit framework that must underlie a story in order for that passion, that fire, to ignite the reader’s brain. Stories without it go unread, stories with it are capable of knocking the socks off someone who’s barefoot.”

In the revision just completed, I searched for that implicit framework, the inevitability of my protagonist’s actions and reactions based on who she is, how her past has shaped her belief systems, and what she believes she wants at the point we meet her, and how that, and she, change through the course of the story.

Even though the revision revealed structural weaknesses, ankle-snapping plot holes, and myriad scenes to be written, the story’s foundation is there, solid and sound and ready to be built upon.

I woke to the sound of rain this morning, blessed, cool, healing rain. On this autumnal teaser of a day I set aside triumph at the completion of another revision and turn to Page One, Chapter One, to begin Draft 5, Revision 4.

Weave On, Writers. Attention aux Araignées.

The Only Time We Have*

I’ve written a dozen blog posts in my mind since March. I’ve even started a few of them here, half-paragraphs, lists, an attempt to chronicle and catalogue this strange, and strangely beautiful, time.

Nothing stuck. I couldn’t hold onto a theme long enough to see it through before something else snapped my attention away. Fatigue, busyness, depression, procrastination, even just sitting in silence, letting the now wash over me in wonder and despair, have all occupied the spaces where words might have gone.

Suddenly, mid-June. Nearly three months ago Andrew and I moved into our home, the yard a patchwork of bedraggled weeds and barren sand, the side lot a bramble of blackberry and massive Doug fir stumps, left after a previous owner hacked down the regal beauties to sell for firewood.

A cool, wet, late spring = jungle greens, and so many flowers nigh on bursting open with color

We are nested in, now surrounded by lush greens and expanding bursts of color. Fiery orange nasturtium, indomitable yellow calendula, feverfew daisies, so white and small, petunia’s deep magentas and purples, the English garden romance of lavatera and penstemon pinks and burgundies — and these are just the early bloomers after a cool May and a soaking start to June. In a few week’s time, we will be tasked with a daily vegetable harvest. The field of vicious blackberry that covered our side lot has been plowed under, the stumps pushed to the side thanks to a one-day Bobcat rental. In their place are mounds of amended soil covered in 2-foot high clover and buckwheat to welcome back the bees and butterflies, a pile of biochar that smoldered for two weeks, and a pétanque court. Yes. We have our own pétanque court.

Inside we have feathered another sort of nest that is both full of light and cozy, with nooks to escape with a book, a guitar, a laptop, a yoga mat, a purring cat and a cup of tea. Speaking of cats, we added a third to our wee family: Agatha, lately of the streets of Cabo, Mexico. She made the trek north in a caravan with her rambunctious litter of six, just a week after hernia surgery. Her kittens have found other homes; we took Mama, who at 18 months is barely more than a kitten herself. She’s attached to me, and the affection goes a long way toward filling the hole that Camille’s death left two years ago.

Miss Agatha, at rest

Our move, the day before the Governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy orders went into effect late March, could not have come at a better moment. Andrew was able to pour all his anxiety and empty hours — after his March and April painting jobs cancelled — into creating our beautiful, and imminently sustaining, gardens; I have found solace and comfort in a sweet space full of love and joyful energy. Coming home is a becoming.

I hold these gifts in gratitude and reverence. This space that is nestled in green, looked over by the cedar and maple and Doug fir that tower just over the backyard fence, whispering their ancient magic. For there has also been so much anxiety and anger. Nights when I begin to weep as soon as I lay my head on a pillow. For no reason, other than for the whole world. For the fear, the masks, the violence, the knee-jerks and real jerks, the distancing, the confusion, all the voices silenced, whether for four hundred years or since yesterday; those who will never recover from the pandemic lockdown, and the generations of BIPOC men and women locked in systemic injustice.

A Room of Her Own: my writing studio, and lately, my office away from the office

I write in fits and starts. I taught a weekly writing workshop via ZOOM for five Thursdays in April, and was smart enough to include myself in the participant roster. We wrote 300-max-word stories each week. I submitted one of my stories for publication, another I am working into a larger narrative for submission to an anthology of women writing about climate change. The Deep Coil is still with me: I edit a few pages a week. I crave time away, just a week, to do the deep dive it needs, but that is at least two months off. It is not the time to take a vacation, even though I am desperate for a break. I am one of the fortunate who is still clocking in and I am in the thick of writing my first federal grant proposal. Until I hit “Submit” in mid-August, I am chained to 9-5, or whatever it is these days with the blurred boundaries of working from home, Zooming with colleagues, workingworkingworking, all of us, for fear that if we stop, we will lose everything.

I miss my friends. I miss my family, though half of us aren’t speaking anymore because right left, backwards sideways. I no longer really know why. I deactivated my Facebook account in fury over my community’s obsessive fears of tourists invading our sheltered space, bringing their disease with them, when it seemed that more important issues were at hand, i.e. one in four Washingtonians now going hungry, a man lynched, his murder finally coming to light. Hours after I resigned from Facebook in disgust, George Floyd became another Black man whose life was ended by law enforcement.

After days and days of rain, suddenly the sun. Little Kitty- we can’t seem to remember to call her Agatha – is clapping her paws at bees in the lavender, the others are sun-drunk on the back patio. It feels good to be here with you. How are you? Share your world with me. Let’s be fully present in this, The Only Time We Have.

*Inspiration from poet Samuel Green, whose collection The Grace of Necessity I reread during this time of shelter-at-home

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

Refilling the Well

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Obelus (Episodes of Grief)

Because one night I was in a room
listening until only one heart beat.

From “After Words” by Kimberley Blaeser (Full Poem )

 

i.

after my miscarriages, i am told

‘you can try again.’

‘at least you know you can get pregnant.”

‘there was probably something wrong with the baby.’

i am reminded again and again how common it is to lose a child in utero.

 

i want to scream, ‘but it’s never happened to me’

 

ii.

 

my wedding dress is transformed into a collection of burial gowns for stillborn infants.

 

i think to share this with you, for that dress represents twenty-five years of our lives. what it has become seems a beautiful tribute to the losses we endured together.

 

but without warning, you have ceased speaking to me. i reason you won’t care what i’ve done with my wedding dress.

 

this may be why we are no longer married.

 

the seamstress sends me a remnant as a keepsake, a small beaded pouch. i press it to my cheek, then bury it in the bottom of a drawer, empty.

 

iii.

 

i take you to the vet. you’re fierce and cranky, chatty and loving, and just a wee thing, but smaller than you should be.

 

your condition isn’t serious; one pink pill twice a day will set you to rights. but you will have to be on medication for the rest of your life.

 

i don’t know then that the rest of your life is seven days.

 

iv.

 

on this day.

 

facebook sends me reminders of my past.

 

in one week, two photos. cheek to cheek. arms

 

wrapped until there is no space between one body and the other.

 

i think of you as a sister. a woman whose heart seems entwined with mine. you are family. my friend.

 

(my life companion + my best friend) / (what happens in life that defies explanation) =                      .

 

in one of those photos i am pregnant, but i don’t yet know it.

 

in both of those photos i hold so many endings. i don’t yet know that, either.

 

 

v.

 

‘i’d like to meet your mother’ – you tell me.

 

i’d like to meet her, too. for the woman who let go of me wasn’t my mother.

 

and yet i worry i’ll end up just like her.

broken. alone.

 

when i was small and thought you were whole

 

was it already too late for you?