A Hive of Words

My head is a hive of words that won’t settle. ~ Virginia Woolf

 

The urge, the need to write. I tremble with it. And yet all that must spill from my head onto a page overwhelms me: essays and Author Q&As for imminent blog tour; a client’s manuscript awaiting feedback; three workshops in September to assemble, not to mention a weekly class beginning in October. Presentations about new novel. A newsletter; book reviews; e-mails to write and respond to. Most importantly, and yet the one thing I put off in favor of mopping the kitchen floor, arranging the spices, venting on Facebook about health care reform: my work-in-progress.

 

Today is graced with hours of unstructured time. I swim at dawn. A haircut this afternoon. Yoga and a date later this evening. But in-between, I sink into these two days off. I vow not to check work e-mail. To do what I promise myself I will do when I have a stretch of time: write. I finish my client’s manuscript. I submit an essay for my upcoming blog tour. I start another. I hide from the heat wave with the blinds drawn, my glass full of lemon water and snapping ice, the dog twitching with dreams, the cat ‘s sleek little body sprawled on the cool tile floor. I think I will take a nap, a slim memoir my companion until my eyelids close, my mouth slackens, my breath deepens. I am so tired. I will write after I sleep. But sleep giggles and I am awake. Because of the words.

 

At some point in these past two months, I abandoned my Bullet Journal. This assiduously maintained analog system that is the intersection of daily to-do list, planner, and diary stalled and then blacked out. Where once were plans and ideas are now the blank page equivalent of Crickets. A Black Hole.

 

The thought of chronicling all that I need to do seems far more harmful to my psyche than simply leaping onto the windmill blade itself, giving myself up to the spinning madness of daily life. A new job. The end of love. The beginning of love. A novel to launch. Another novel newly on submission. A dog who ate my sofa and my yoga mat and several blankets. Furniture. Shoes. We still find feathers from a demolished down comforter floating down the stairs on breezy afternoons. She becomes the symbol of what is wrong, what must be changed, how mismatched expectations and impossible hopes strangle love.

 

I quit attending to my organizational system when it seems my daily bullet points will read

  • Breathe
  • Accept
  • Heal
  • Buy one-way ticket to Chile

And yet. There it is. A new notebook, slowly filling with character, settings, questions, possibilities, themes, magic. I leave myself a trail to follow each time I write. My planned life ends in June, about the time my writing life kicks into gear. Even as I arrange those spices, mop that floor, craft others’ work schedules, delight in stolen moments with a beloved, even as I catch up here with you, I’m working on what matters most. A young woman trapped in a land of eternal rain, plagued by dreams of summer and a family lost to battle, possessing a power that renders her both misfit and divine entity; and a shepherd, five thousand miles and five hundred years away, haunted by his own dreams and a war that will prove to be without end.

 

Today’s to-do list

  • Write
  • Read
  • Breathe
  • <deliberatelyleftblank>

I shared with you recently that In Another Life had been nominated for a Foreword Indies Book of the Year Award. I’m delighted to report back: the novel received GOLD for Fantasy Book of the Year, awarded at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago, June 2017. 

Neverending Story

As a rule, I don’t read reader reviews of my work. By the time a book hits the shelves, my work is complete and the reading experience no longer belongs to me. I do read trade reviews and those from sources I’ve actively sought out, such as book blogs. Occasionally, friends will send their thoughts to me directly, but I try not to ingest their words.

 

Why such caution?

 

I’ve been a member of Goodreads, the online reader review community—which now numbers in the millions of members—for nearly ten years. I’ve written hundreds of reviews and formed wonderful connections with book lovers around the world. Writing reviews, thinking carefully about the books I read, their construction, style, themes, and storytelling, became a vital part of my self-directed MFA. It’s what led me to seek out writing instruction and begin to craft stories of my own. There is no better way, in my opinion, to become a writer than to read deeply, broadly, and reflect deliberately on others’ writing. I saved $30,000 on tuition and fees, thank you so very much.

 

But people, because people are people, can be unspeakably cruel in a forum where relative anonymity is possible. Monstrous things are written about books for no reason other than spite and sheer nastiness. Even simple negative reviews, just plain old “this was crap”, make me cringe.

 

I decided a few years ago to cease publishing critical reviews of books. Not to be a Pollyanna, but because I came to understand that the negativity reflected on me and cost me far more than it did any possible good in the world. If a book does not capture me within the first pages, I set it aside. I don’t have time to waste and the only fair thing is to admit it’s not the read for me. Occasionally I will get all the way through and be frustrated, disappointed, resent the wasted time, but I’ll let the reading experience go with minimal to no comment.

 

I’d much rather exhale joy for something extraordinary. If I spend time writing a review, it’s because I want the world to know about this book.

Salt Creek, WA Copyright Julie Christine Johnson 2017

 

So that’s where I come from as a reader. As an author, I’ve come to accept that readers’ opinions are none of my business. I’m honored that anyone would spend time with my words. But hoping my intent will be understood or appreciated is futile. Readers come in with their expectations, hopes, and biases that have nothing to do with me or my words.

 

At the close of each writing workshop I lead, I read aloud Colum McCann’s gorgeous Letter to a Young Writer . It is a meditation on the power and purpose of writing for writers of any experience. I first read it months before the launch of In Another Life and it’s what made me decide that reviews were not mine to read.

 

Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Colum McCann

What is good. What is good? What is good is to keep my head down and write. To trust the editorial process and know that multiple eyes and brains have pored over and picked apart my work with the sole objective of making my story as true and strong and fearless and beautiful as possible. That it went to print when it was ready. My books will find their readers in their own time and own ways, but my work will not be for everyone.

 

So there. Now, scratch all that. Sometimes you run into yourself.

 

A few weeks ago I went into my Amazon Author Central profile to make some long-overdue updates to my bio. And front and center in the reviews of In Another Life was this comment: “… This was just a ripoff of Outlander. I couldn’t finish it. It was HORRIBLE. Skip it.”

 

Oh, the Outlander thing. I could write columns on how that comparison has haunted me. Not one I invited or welcomed, a delightful book that was not remotely an influence on my novel. This comment stung at first, but then I listened deeply. The needle entered, bit, and then disappeared. It’s okay. It’s not mine to own. Not my experience to worry about.

 

Minutes later, I hopped over to Amazon.co.uk. I didn’t realize that I had to claim a separate author profile over there; I assumed one common profile lived throughout the Amazon Universe. Crikey. How exhausting. But there is was. Front and center: “This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Well-plotted with great characterization.”

 

If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Colum McCann

 

Like opening a bag of pretzels, once I started, I couldn’t stop. And then I read something that sated me. This. This is enough. “It is a love story which involves reincarnation, it is not about time travel. Comparisons to Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ and Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, are misleading. ‘In Another Life’ reminded me in style of Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy, though the stories are completely different.”

 

You beautiful reader. You were inside my head. In fact, I read Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth years ago and that wonderful story sparked my imagination. I went in search of contemporary novels about the Cathars and couldn’t find any. I was so captivated by the history, the land, the potential for story that I decided to write my own.

 

Any writer who says they don’t care about validation, well, fine. But I don’t believe you. We care. We publish because we truly want readers to seek out our work. We want to be noticed, to build a readership, to engage with readers, to know that our words reach and touch and move and inspire and entertain. We write because we must. We seek publication because we believe we’ve done something worth sharing.

 

I’m so pleased to announce that In Another Life is a 2016 Foreword Indies finalist for Book of the Year, Fantasy.  Winners will be announced during the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago in June.

 

Further delight in sharing that In Another Life is a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association annual STAR award for Debut Novel. Finalists’ novels are now being read by a panel of librarians, and winners be announced at the WFWA annual September retreat.

 

A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Colum McCann

 

The Grief of Writing

Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place. Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2017

 

Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

I’ve been mulling over this essay, In praise of doubt and uselessness, by writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Rereading it. Pulling out phrases that fire me up and comfort me. In the most potent way that the personal is political, Nguyen tells the story of his evolution as a writer in the larger context of supporting the arts and humanities “for their privileging of the mystery and intuition that makes moments of revelation and innovation possible.”  The hope that the public will continue to value its artists and nurture them, to support their work despite lack of quantitative measurements of success—beyond awards received or units sold—is felt as keenly now as ever.

 

But it is Nguyen’s phrase, the grief of writing, that plays a soft and constant refrain in my mind.

 

A professional writer and editor asked me the other day what I liked to do. Well, beyond strapping a pack to my back and lacing up my boots for 20 kms on trails in southwest Ireland, I like to write. Even those tortured hours of feeling bound by the limitations of my skills, squeezing out 100 words after four hours of pounding work, yes, even that I like. This writer/editor regarded me skeptically, stating he found writing tortuous, the evil means to an end. He preferred editing others’ writing, work he could walk away from without worrying if it mattered to anyone else.

 

Hearing this, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phrase came to mind. The grief of writing. Knowing that, even as we spill our souls on the page, it might not—it likely won’t ever—matter to anyone else.

 

For the past year, I’ve mourned the lack of writing in my life. Revising, promoting, promoting and revising some more, have taken precedence. But in recent weeks, I’ve come close to capturing my bliss. As I near the end of revising a novel, the first draft of which was complete nearly two years ago, I’ve written new scenes and reconnected with characters I love. The hours I’ve been able to carve out for this writing have brought so much peace and healing. Knowing that in a matter of weeks I will be able to start on something completely new, so new I’m not even certain yet what it is, fills me with joy.

 

I vaguely knew, but didn’t really understand, how much writing would demand from me, how much it would dismantle me as a professional, much to my own grief but ultimately for my own betterment as a writer and a scholar. Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

This past year has been a dismantling of a writer. Necessary, perhaps. Inevitable, according to so many of my mentors who walked the publishing road ahead of me. The grief of writing comes from realizing all that you do not know and accepting that not only are there no shortcuts to gaining that wisdom, but that no one is all that interested in your progress. It is, as Nguyen reminds us, an act of faith and “faith would not be faith if it was not hard, if it was not a test, if it was not an act of willful ignorance, of believing in something that can neither be predicted nor proved by any scientific metric.”

 

And so I come full circle, back to knowing that it is the writing itself that matters, not the outcome, over which I have so little control. The peace and release are their own rewards, and how I know, in the very meat and tendons and veins and blood of my soul, that I am a writer.

 

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

 

The Answers are Inside the Mountains

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing LifeThe Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Memorial
In Nagasaki they built a little room
dark and soundproof where you can
go in all alone and close the door and cry.

William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 until 1990, crafted over 20,000 poems during his time on Earth- a staggering output. A pacifist—soft-spoken, yet fierce—Stafford was a teacher, a mentor, a wide-eyed, gracious observer and recorder of life. His poems are clean, without guile or pretense and most often set in the natural world. He eschewed the rules of writing, rising above convention to state simply that showing up to the page was enough. That writing made one a writer, not publishing, not critical acclaim, not commercial success.

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

The earth says have a place, be what that place requires; hear the sound the birds imply and see as deep as ridges go behind each other.

I immediately lent it out to a writer friend and now I am bereft, trying to write this review without the treasured work beside me to flip through and reread. But I took notes in my journal, and took great comfort in reading that Stafford too kept journals, that they were the source of his creativity, one of the places he turned to in crafting his poems, where he worked out ideas and themes, from which he pulled his own material.

Save up little pieces that escape other people. Pick up the gleamings.

At this precarious time, when I struggle to find hope and beauty, I am reminded the answers are in the mountains, the mountains of art that surround me.

We drown in ugliness. Art helps teach us to swim.

I’m closing with a poem that wasn’t in the book, because in searching for another poem, I came across this. It’s been one of my favorites for years and reading it again opened up a river inside me. A river frozen over, now melted by Stafford’s words.

Ask Me
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

View all my reviews

A Word of Resolution for 2017

ra·di·ate verb ˈrādēˌāt/
  1. emit (energy, especially light or heat) in the form of rays or waves. To shine brightly.
  2. diverge or spread from or as if from a central point.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may recall that in lieu of making resolutions to ring in the New Year, I’ve selected a word to center myself for the months to come. Here’s a look back at 2015 and 2016. I haven’t mustered the courage to reread these posts, but I’m not certain it matters. The intention is the journey, no? Looking back to see if you’ve made it to the point, the self, the outcome you’d imagined just seems an exercise in disappointment and regret.

 

But I do see that I chose “embrace” to define 2016. Had I known what the Universe had in store for the year, I may well have chosen “reject”, instead.

 

This year. This achingly difficult, beautiful, complicated, change-ridden year.  A year when life turned itself inside-out. When the world stopped making sense for so many on a bewildering November night. Yet, as much as I welcome an end to 2016, I know that it defines much of what is to come.

 

I ran into a friend in a pub the other night. A new friend, a writer, whom I met at a joyous occasion a few weeks ago, something I’ll tell you more about in a moment. He complimented me on my author website and mentioned reading the page where I cross-post this blog. He expressed admiration for how I lay it all out here, how vulnerable and real I allow myself to be. How ironic, given that I’ve kept so much on the down low these past months, hinting at but never revealing the divergent path I’ve been stumbling down, seeking, but never quite finding secure footing. As a writer. As a woman.

 

My first novel launched on February 2. A novel about grief, rebirth, reincarnation and the muddled line between history and the past, debuting on the day we shrink from shadows, and from a mindless repetition of the mundane. An extraordinary day for me, to be sure. And as the weeks and months unfolded in a celebration of this joyous accomplishment, behind the scenes a twenty-five year marriage was coming to an end. Quietly. With great sadness and bewilderment. More than half my life, defined by partnership with another. And suddenly that which I took for granted, a word, wife, was no longer mine.

 

But other words remained. Woman. Writer.

Local Authors' Night, The Writers' Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.
Local Author’s Night, The Writers’ Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.

Yet, it often felt as though I’d lost sight of even those. The fundamentals of who I am, my place in the world. But looking back on these months, I realize I have never lived more fully as a woman, as a writer, than I have in 2016.

 

Betwixt and between the mind-blowing joy of launching a novel into the world was the agony of divorce. The stress of being a very public “author” vs. the solace and creative growth of being a writer; the delight in sharing my book with readers coming up against the inability to step away to nurture my muse; the heart-quickening embrace of new love meeting the reality of stepping into a traditional “day” job to support myself, thereby letting go of precious writing time… it’s all been so much. So glorious. So painful.

 

In early December, my LBS (aka Local BookStore, you know, those beloved indies that have survived and thrived by connecting dedicated readers with beautiful works of art, one book at a time), hosted a Local Author’s Night. For the first time in months, I was surrounded by readers and authors alike, friends I hadn’t seen in far too long, others I had never met, such as the new friend I mentioned above, who lives across the street, as it so happens. It was a celebration, a coming together of a beloved community, a return to my heart and intellect, a precious reminder of who I am and what I am meant to do.

 

It was also a reminder in this time of political turmoil—as many of us mourn what has been lost and fear what is to come—what role artists play in lifting up, exposing, bringing together, voicing, and providing moments of escape, connection, entertainment, joy, and compassion to our communities. How very important it is to engage and contribute, to be present, not only in one’s own life, but in the world.

 

And so I choose for 2017 the word Radiate. For I am determined that in this new year, which will see the release of my second novel, The Crows of Beara, my work, my words will emit light and energy, will spread from a central point—my soul—to serve a greater purpose.

 

New Year’s Eve day I came across these lines by one of my favorite poets, W.S. Merwin. Here’s an excerpt:

 

“… so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible.”

From ‘To the New Year’

 

Isn’t that extraordinary?

 

Love and hope to everyone for a blessed 2017. Let’s please just do this, all of it, better.

Wait, For Now

Early morning. Hours yet before there is light enough for me to see the full extent of damage to my car.

 

Returning home last night from work, after a stop at the grocery store (oh, if only I’d gone back for the bundle of kindling, which was the reason I’d stopped in the first place, but I was so tired.), eggs and wine and something to stir fry in a sack pressed snug against my laptop bag and the rinsed-out remains of my lunch. I’m traveling the speed limit. I note this for you, because the stretch of road that drops into my village from the hill overlooking two bays is a notorious speed trap. It’s all too easy—when you’re so close to home, when, in the daylight, you’re distracted by the sunglints and sailboats on the water and the mountains beyond—to let the car cruise past thirty, flirt with forty.

 

But I am careful. I drive this stretch a dozen times a week, at least. I know just the right amount of pressure on the gas to keep the speedometer hovering at the limit.

 

On this night, last night, as I dip down into town, glowering headlights consume my rearview mirror. Dodge Ram crawls up my ass, past the diner, past the Safeway, through the intersection and all along the stretch that borders the shipyards. Must not be a local. I let it go, lost in my end of a long workday, rambling, footsore thoughts of dinner, copyedits. I ignore the menacing glare of light behind me; so close to home, one of us is bound to make a turn soon.

 

I’m certainly not thinking about getting sideswiped. I’m not prepared for the driver behind me to decide, suddenly, that he will take the same left turn I’m making, but that he’ll make it first, and in trying to get ahead of me, he runs into me.

 

The driver tells me in the parking lot where we end up, two sets of hazard lights flashing, that he “got tired of waiting for me.” The molding of my side mirror wobbles on the hood of my car, my hands shake as I search in my purse for my insurance card.

2015-08-07-08-44-14-1
Collision Course

 

Awakened by anger in the wee, lonely hours. Dismayed. Hurt. In my mind’s playback loop I keep hearing, “I got tired of waiting for you.”

 

What happened to me last night feels like a metaphor for this long, bitter night of election season. We’re all just so very tired of waiting for each other. And so we ram our own way forward, regardless of anyone else’s safety or well-being. To hell with common sense or what is legal, moral or ethical. We’ve lost our compassion, our empathy, our sense of a greater good. We’ve lost our way.

 

I don’t really know what to do now. I’m not of a mind to forgive. Not today. It’s hard to muster the energy to be an activist, a writer, an engaged human being when merely driving down the road puts you at risk of someone else’s thwarted sense of entitlement.

 

I’m too tired to do much else today but move forward. I have to leave for work again soon. I have to, like everyone else around me, pick up and continue, despite the anger, the despair, the bewilderment. I have to find hope.

 

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

~ from Wait by Galway Kinnell (1927-2014)

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.

 

14231240_10207402653600668_1895796262099603548_o

 

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