Pencil, Meet Eraser

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

 

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

 

Yeah, well. Roll around it surely did.

 

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

 

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Weary of Our Own Words

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

 

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

 

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

 

They’re baaaaaack. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It’s going to be okay.

 

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

 

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

 

Delete. Change. Add. Move. Replace.

 

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

 

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

 

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

Julie Christine Johnson’s Author Newsletter

Always Be a Beginner

Black ants crawl up my arch and march over the top of my foot like Roman legions hellbent for the Holy Lands. Sweat meanders between my shoulder blades; what doesn’t soak into my bra trickles down my spine into the waistband of my skirt. Inside the classroom, hot, moist air creates an atmospheric event in which tropical plants could grow into monstrosities and tornadoes could collide in green-black funnels of fury. Outside the classroom door, fifty boys and girls in white shirts, black pants or skirts, and flip-flops queue in two jostling, giggling, good-natured lines. A tall boy, the designated classroom leader, claps once and everyone falls into line. They enter the room, stealing sideways glances where I stand on a low platform at the front, a broken blackboard behind me. They have no textbooks, just identical blank copy books with a silhouette of the African continent set against an orange background on the cover. I have no teacher’s manual, just a handful of lessons I practiced in front of my fellow Volunteers, and hope.

 

Whatever difference teaching English to middle-school students in Chad may have made was lost to a teacher’s strike, a civil war, our decision to leave before our program was discontinued. A story for some future time. But mitigating the heartbreaks was discovery I made as I stood there that first day, twenty-two years ago, ants clinging to my toes, sweat running like tiny fingers down my legs: I loved teaching.

 

That isn’t what I went on to do, however. I’d married a teacher, of course, and worked in higher education for many years, sending American students abroad to experience the same magical, lonely, stumbling, rare freedom I’d dipped into as a university student in France—a career that put me in front of a classroom to deliver workshops to colleagues or pre-departure orientations to students. This introvert who suffered through years of weekly staff meetings and networking events came into her confident, joyful own when the setting was a conversation between mentor-guide-teacher and learner.

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A propos of nothing. Just felt like a medieval castle today.

There are so many ways the writing life can bring you down and the sense of isolation—even for hardcore introverts like me—can be acute. If I go for too long without talking to, learning from, working with other writers, I look into the well and I can see bottom. We need one another, to be challenged by others’ voices, to experience our words in different ways, to see the business of writing for what it is, what it can be, to be advocates for one another, to celebrate, to commiserate.

 

What grace to live in a community that embraces artists, where there is a world-renowned poetry press, Copper Canyon Press; an annual writer’s conference at Centrum that brings some of the finest prose and poetry artists to our village each July; and a bookstore, The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books, where the book displays in the glowing front window invite in readers, and the posters that fill one glass panel announce upcoming classes, workshops, readings—so many opportunities for writers to learn and hone their art and craft, through workshops and classes. And as of this summer, offering this writer a chance to teach.

 

When I made the choice to pursue writing as a career, I saw three paths that would run parallel, so closely they are hardly discernible, one from the other: writing, learning, and outreach to my writing communities, which includes giving back and sharing what I learn along the way. Where I feel most at home, where it all the loose bones snap into place, is in that conversation between learners—for I feel that even if I am the one standing at the front of the room, leading the conversation, the class or workshop is a collaboration, and I have as much to learn as anyone.

 

“’In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Always be a beginner.” Sherman Alexie, quoting Zen master Shunryo Suzuki, Opening Plenary, Chuckanut Writers Conference, June 2012.

The Way In

“What is a poem?” poet Leanne O’Sullivan asks, her soft voice straining to be heard over the rain pelting the conservatory roof. “How do prose and poetry differ?”

“There is more room for the reader in a poem,” I reply. “More room for interpretation and emotion.” I think of Colm Tóibín, one of my prose idols, who states that he writes the silences. I think poetry must be this, an honoring of the silence between the words, between our thoughts.

 

dot dot dot. question mark. Sitting with a blank notebook, uncertain in my ignorance, rattled by my fears, what the hell do I know?

 

Before arriving at this poetry workshop in southwest Ireland, I give myself permission not to write a poem. I’m not a poet and have read poetry in a haphazard way, picking up recommendations here and there, from names dropped in books or by friends, looking through slim volumes in a bookstore, from an obituary—for when does the world talk about poets, except when they die? As a writer of prose and essay, I know the value of rhythm and form, of the carefully chosen word, the breath taken, the meaning conferred in a phrase or in the spaces between. These are essential to developing my storytelling and writing art and craft. But to actually write my own poems?

 

All that I have to learn about poetry, all the poems I have yet to read, poets yet to discover . . . it makes me panicky, really. Yes. I would be the one to panic about poetry.

 

A creature of process, the kid forever tugging on a sleeve asking, “Why, mommy? WHY?” I pore over The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s lovely, lucid guide to poetry; I’ve got Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary on my equivalent of speed-dial (sitting on the end table next to the sofa); I sift through the teaching resources on poets.org

 

I am searching for a way in.

 

Yet on this workshop first day, as the storm blows off Slieve Miskish and hurtles toward Coulagh Bay, peace descends. My notes capture Leanne’s sure hand, leading me past my doubts: Poetry is permission to write; it is the places where language cannot go; it is the recognition that there is no language; it is the waiting, the revising; ‘The talent is knowing what’s called for,’ she quotes Seamus Heaney. Poetry is awareness. Awareness of what you are writing. Deliberate. Purposeful. Considered. Waited for. Poetry reveals or tells a truth, not fact. 

 

“What is your way into your poem?” This question Leanne poses to our workshop group is the essential question. It is the one I should be seeking the answer to. For finding my way in will take care of all the rest.

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Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

“What is your way into your poem?”

 

Something vital and tangible. Something real and describable. Leanne tells us, “The real things of the world are the entry point to the imagination. Keep your feet on the ground. Keep your writing grounded by writing from a real place…”

 

I find my way in on a small road overlooking Coulagh Bay, sitting in the rain, remembering. I find my way in through the memory of a little girl with her arms wrapped around a stereo speaker, trying to draw the music into her body because her ears fail to hear it. I find my way into my first poem.

 

The moment is so natural and unbidden. I hear Leanne’s voice saying, “Maintain a sense of awe in the initial inspiration. A waiting has to happen for the poem to come.”

 

What is a poem? is, in its essence, a question that needs no answer. No immediate answer. No complete answer. For an answer excludes the entire process of discovery. Learning what a poem is comes from studying the poetry that has come before, the poetry that is happening now. Experiencing what a poem is happens when awe and meaning embrace, when experience takes over from expression.

 

“…there’s part of poetry that’s always about what cannot be said.” W.S. Merwin

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative LifeStill Writing, by Dani Shapiro

 

A few weeks ago someone dear to me asked, “Are you still writing? I wondered if you’d decided to get a part-time job.” I’ll admit right now, right here, this crushed me. My first novel is still months away from launch and my second novel is out on submission. I recently finished the first draft of a third, and I’ve just returned from a life-altering residency and poetry workshop. Yet in the space of fourteen small words, I felt my entire raison d’etre smashed to smithereens. This didn’t come from an acquaintance or a well-meaning but clueless friend, this came from someone I hope would be a champion for my work. My job. Which is writing.

 

It wasn’t until I read the final pages of Dani Shapiro’s sublime meditation on the writing life that I realized the universality of my hurt and exasperation. I had to laugh. I’ve been dipping in and out of this book for two months and the title only just dawned on me as I closed the back cover. Still Writing. Jesus.

 

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of Creative Life is part memoir, part collection of meditations on what it means to be a writer. I think we writers gravitate to these books on process and creative endeavor in hopes of finding a few answers, and perhaps a mentor. I found both. I nodded in breathless agreement at each entry, exclaiming, “Yes! This!” I reread passages, underlining sentences and paragraphs, dog-earing the pages to remember later until I realized that I would be marring every page with pen or corner fold, and that it would be possible to return, open any page, and find comfort within.

 

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I need permission to accept I’ve chosen a life inherently insecure and dependent upon the moods, whims, and tastes of others. The notion of the artist scribbling away in blissful solitude in her light-filled atelier or in the warm bustle of a café, pouring her soul onto the page, is lovely and romantic, but in reality—if one hopes to make a living writing—the risk and vulnerability are breathtaking and sometimes stupefying. You are dependent upon forces beyond your control: the gatekeepers of the publishing world. You refine and hone your craft in the small and lonely hours, hoping each day of writing will make you that nebulous better writer. It is so refreshing, therefore, to read someone who has found success (i.e. readers), call it like it is:

“When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt—spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.”

And yet those lonely hours in that atelier (or, more accurately, in the dining room, on the living room sofa, tucked in a messy corner of a shared home office, and yes, in that bustling café) pulse and burst with all the lives that have written before us, the books we have read, authors we have studied, mentors who guide us, the few encouraging comments we cling to like life rafts to avoid the whirlpool of rejection and doubt.

“Though we are alone in our rooms, alone with our demons, our inner censors, our teachers remind us that we’re not alone in the endeavor. We are part of a great tapestry of those who have preceded us. And so we must ask ourselves: Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us?”

For we have the calling, the responsibility even, to push past the doubt and keep writing. I struggle with this every.single.day. Ironically, the only thing that quiets the demons of doubt is the work.

“Donald Hall writes, ‘If work is no antidote to death, not a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can.” There is this—only this. It would be good keep these words in mind when we wake up each morning. Get done what you can. And then, the rest is gravy.”

At this stage of being in my mid-late forties and only just getting started as a writer, it’s hard to see the gravy from the smorgasbord crowding my plate. I don’t have the luxury and seeming-invincibility of youth to build a career. I write with a sense of urgency. It took me until the age of forty-one to find my voice and five years later those pent-up words continue pouring out, but I’m still this raw and unformed writer who has years of fundamental learning ahead of her. Who knows that fiction writing alone will not sustain her financially. Yet the world of freelance writing, of speaking engagements, of being asked is a foreign land to which I haven’t yet been approved for residency. But I’ve been granted a visitor’s visa and hopefully, I’ll be able to stay. I taught my first writing workshop this weekend and there are more to come in the fall. Yesterday, I started the class by reading from Still Writing, specifically the lovely section entitled Shimmer. Here’s part of it:

“That knowledge, that ping, that hair on our arms standing up, that sudden, electric sense of knowing. We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note. I’ll have to write about this. It happens when our histories collide with the present. It comes with the certainty of its own rightness.”

I have returned to Shimmer several times since my initial reading, knowing this is, in part, why I write. It is the inevitability of the calling. The endorphin rush of the words, a craving of the soul that must be redeemed on the page. These moments of shimmer that, when I recognize and respond to them, reward me with a sense of wellbeing. Not money, recognition, external approval, guidance or proof of my skill. But a simple, complete peace of heart and mind. It is a privilege to feel this way and I recognize what a privilege it is to call myself a writer.

“Unlike other artists—dancers, sculptors, or cellists, say—as long as we hold onto our faculties, writers can continue to grow creatively until we die. The middle of a writing life is much like being in the midst of a book itself. Here we often discover our weaknesses and strengths.”

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book, touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, to turn you around and push you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

 

Yes. Yes. I am Still Writing. In hope. In terror. Sometimes with one eye on that dwindling savings account. Because I can read Rilke’s question: “Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?” and respond: Yes. Yes, I must.

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Drafting

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Pacific Coast, Canterbury, New Zealand

The Chaos of Experience

The storage bin sits on the top shelf, at the back of the closet. Impossible to reach unless you dismantle the row of boxes beside it, navigate on tip-toes the winemaking equipment below. My journals.

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I quit journaling several years ago. Around the time I began blogging. No coincidence, that. After thirty-three years—my first journal was a Christmas gift when I was seven, a small blue, faux-leather book with a lock and tiny key, and gold lettering on the front: My Diary—I realized my words were going nowhere. I felt trapped by the private page.

 

Blogging became a way to hold myself accountable, even in those early days when I had no audience. As long as there was a chance someone would read my words, I sat up little straighter as I wrote, I paid attention to my digital penmanship. I chose my words carefully, not out of self-preservation or self-censorship, but to create a small work of art on the page, rather than a mud pie of emotion.

 

And it worked. That’s the beauty of it. My gambit paid off. Taking my writing outside my head and throwing it to the intersphere allowed me to step out of my own mind and into others’ perspectives. That’s how characters are born. That’s how conflicts are discovered. From the blog posts came the desire to write more. From the desire came the practice. And from the practice came the stories and the novels.

 

But now. The words. There are so many. The more I write, the more the words crowd around my mind’s exit, pushing and shoving in an attempt at simultaneous escape. Not all are fit for public consumption, but they need to go somewhere.

 

It’s time to begin journaling again.

 

I’m aching for the private, blank page. For the feel of a pen. The possibility of paper. I think and feel differently about my words when I engage in the physical act of writing. It’s why I do all character sketches, theme building, initial plotting and later, the working out of plot holes, by hand. I need to feel my way through a story before I can make sense of the parts I see.

 

I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone, John Cheever once said, and until recently I would have agreed with him. But now I need to save some words for myself.

 

“Writing, then, was a substitute for myself: if you don’t love me, love my writing & love me for my writing. It is also much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Taking Care of Business

I missed my Monday blog this week. First time in over two years. And here I am at 4 a.m. on a Friday, the eastern sky a faded bruise blue, waiting for my coffee to steep, catching up with you.

 

The skipped blog post . . . It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say. Oh my, there’s so much I haven’t told you. The workshop that brought me back to my old neighborhood and face-to-face with my dread, handing me a story and delivering me from my lingering longing; the adventure that is right around the corner, a return to a place of inspiration and soul-peace; the nagging self-doubt that comes with waiting for someone to accept my work, assuring me that this thing I’m doing is really a career and not a one-off lark. Preparing to teach my first writing class. Taking my first writing class in ages. So much to share.

 

But I’m working hard to fit everything in and for once, something had to give. I’ve regained my footing with Tui, my third novel, and that momentum has meant everything. To write fresh material, to not quite know where a story is going, after months and months of revising and editing two novels, with deadlines looming and others’ hands on my work . . . this is to return to the essence of me, what gives shape and color and texture to my writing spirit. It also helps pull my thoughts away from the other, this business of being an author that is so counter-intuitive to my introverted, scribbling-away-in-the-garret self.

 

This blog is meant to be a commercial-free zone. Although I share stories of my writing and publishing journey, it’s a place of refuge from the book promotion to-do lists and author platform-building. Those things must be done, but they can be done elsewhere.

 

Except today. Because there are things I want to share with you and I need to let you know where to find my news. I received the front and back covers for the ARCs (Advance Reader Copy) of In Another Life earlier this week—well, the front cover I’ve had for quite some time, but now it is more than just a .pdf snapshot, it’s the real deal, with log line, back cover copy, a price, EVERYTHING. It’s beautiful. It’s real. So exciting.

 

As this commercial break winds down and we return to our regularly-scheduled programming, this is what I want to share with you: I’m just about to launch an occasional newsletter from my website that will have updates on the publishing process and eventually, this author’s events. Right now, and through late summer, signing up for the newsletter means you’ll be entered to win a signed ARC of In Another Life (I’ll have several to give away); next week’s inaugural newsletter has a glimpse of that cover I’m so thrilled about!

 

Plus, I’ve been futzing around with the website, adding new content, playing with the design. I’d love it if you’d take a look and tell me what you think: Julie’s Author Website and Newsletter Sign-Up 

 

And now the sun has cleared the eastern mountains. Time for a run, and a day of writing.

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Une porte, Sancerre, France © 2015, Julie Christine Johnson