In Retreat

Friday, early evening. I’m warm and sleepy, face burnt by wind and sun, limbs thick and loose with fatigue.

 

I hiked the Beara Way from Eyeries to Allihies today. Not so far really-11 kms, just over 6 miles. But the way was challenging: across the Slieve Miskish range, skirting the boggy and desolate peaks of Miskish and Knockgour,  whistling through lonely valleys. Not a soul, even now, in the height of trekking season in Ireland. Just the wind, the sheep, kestrals, and my thoughts to keep me company.

 

Early in my novel, The Crows of Beara, three characters go on a hike along the Beara Way: Daniel, an Irish guide, Annie, an American, and one of Annie’s Irish colleagues. Daniel drives them from Castletownbere until they reach a service road. He parks at a crossroads, then the three clamber over a turnstile into a farmer’s field and begin their ascent up a boggy mountain. It’s overcast, windy, and the bays below are hidden by a layer of fog.

 

I wrote the scene not from any specific memory of my time hiking the Beara in 2002, but from a composite of images I’d captured and held onto.

 

Today, I came to a sign pointing me back the way I’d come—Eyeries to the north, or east to Castletownbere, or south, to my intended destination of Allihies.  

Crossroads, Beara Way

 

I crossed a service road, clambered over a turnstile, and tromped through a field, scattering sheep in my wake. I began to ascend a boggy trail as thick mist raced down the mountain, obscuring my view of the sea.

image

 

When my character Annie reaches the peak on the trail, she pauses to catch her breath. The wind shoves the fog and mist aside and the bays, fields,  and villages below reveal themselves. Something constricts and then expands inside of her, as if her very soul had stilled in wonder, before filling its lungs with hope and longing and inexplicable joy.

 

As I paused on Knockgour to catch my breath, the wind pushed past me, carrying the mist up and over the mountain and out to sea. 

 

And my very soul stilled in wonder, before filling with delight. I realized I had written this moment. I had found the very place where Annie begins her transformation from one self into the next.

 

I’m on retreat here at Anam Cara. I’m a bit in retreat as well. I arrived a week ago (already, oh!). Only one other writer in residence this week; tomorrow the poetry group arrives. By the time you read this, I’ll have left behind a routine to which I’ve so easily, quietly adapted: an early morning run along country roads, breakfast in a steamy kitchen, writing until noon, followed by a couple of hours proofing the ARC of In Another Life, lunch, a long hike, home again to write before dinner, then a few more hours of writing and reading before the sun finally sets, well after 10 p.m. I leave my curtains open and from bed, I watch the clouds change colors and shapes over Coulagh Bay, until suddenly it’s morning again. Exquisite solitude.

 

I’ve written a couple drafts of an essay that’s been agitating for months to be released on paper. I finished proofing my novel. I worked on a class I’m offering at the end of July. There’s been an awful lot of gazing out the window from the desk in my room and meditating during my hikes, churning around ideas for the next novel. Tomorrow I’ll start researching some of these ideas. Go for another hike. Be deliciously alone.

 

But a new week begins Sunday, as the poetry workshop convenes, and I must open my heart to learning, studying, and sharing. Poetry. I’m terrified. I can’t wait. We’ll be doing some exploring, as well, including other sites in The Crows of Beara I’ve yet to (re)visit.

 

It’s Saturday now. I hear the others arriving. If I sneak out the back, with my pack, camera, notebook and water bottle, I can remain in retreat a little while longer . . .

 

 

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.

2015-06-07 17.04.02

 

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

Past Becomes Present: A Story Finds its Home

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

~

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

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

Mud Season Review Print Issue

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

Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I’d wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn’t care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens’ Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.

 

But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner’s class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I’d find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.

 

Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I’ll include links to a few of those at the end.

 

I could rant about Mr. Boudinot’s silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve “success”, or his revolting remark,“Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.

 

Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.

 

I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare “Real Deals”, as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.

 

A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:

 

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? …  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

 

Okay. Here’s the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don’t. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can’t see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I’m a “real writer”)? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?

 

NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner’s World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that’s not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one’s otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.

 

Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven’t put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.

 

Someone commented that we don’t want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It’s the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The “Real Deals” are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The “Real Deals” make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.
 

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”
― Ken Kesey

This has nothing to do with my blog post. I just love it. Chartres Cathedral © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

Things Fall Apart

Last night the adapter cord to my MacBook Pro gave out. There is a notice flashing on my printer’s display panel that the drum needs to be changed and the toner is nearly depleted.  I have a raging case of tendonitis in my right arm and my neck wobbles on my spine, as if it can’t quite carry the load of my heavy head–technological and physical manifestations of too much time spent on the computer.
 
The computer power cord is a minor crisis.  A new one should arrive Wednesday. In the meantime, I’m coming to you from an iPad, wondering how anyone types on this thing without a keyboard. Just don’t judge. This week’s formatting and editing will be half-assed. I’m typing with one finger.
 
Folks, the power cord incident could have been a major crisis. A meltdown of epic proportions averted by the mere shadow of days. Monday (tomorrow as I write, today as you read), my next-to-penultimate round of novel edits is due. Not only that, but a literary journal to which I’d submitted a short story back in July finally turned around their edits last Wednesday, requesting that I make my changes by . . . Tonight. Yup.
 
Done. Dusted. Damn. I submitted novel edits on Wednesday and short story edits Friday. You just go ahead and fall apart on me, Crucial Technology. I’m way ahead of you.
 
The end of the edits is nigh and I’m so ready. I’ve read The Novel so many times in the past two months, I can quote entire passages by heart. Knock Wood, revisions are behind me as of one draft ago; now I’m fine-tuning, line-editing, killing not plot darlings, but literary ticks. I read The Novel out loud last week, catching repetive words and phrasing (I had a thing for the words bitter, bloom, flat, drain, north, and all manner of breath, breathing, inhaling, exhaling. Jeepers). From the Read-Aloud Edit alone, I cut 1000 words.
 
For my next edit trick, I shall read The Novel backwards. I kid you not.
 
My editor promises to hand off the next round by Wednesday, just in time for that power cord to arrive. For me to hope that the fix is a simple change of hardware. Otherwise I am, to put it bluntly, screwed.
 
I’ll have about ten days to edit, and then back to the publisher it goes. A month of freedom to tackle revisions of THE CROWS OF BEARA, which my agent turned back to me last week (I used precious battery power last night, printing off the manuscript; printer toner and drum survived to print another day), then The Novel will be shuffled off to the Production team. It will undergo a final scrubbing–line editing and proofreading–before being formatted into something resembling a book. A cover is forthcoming. A frontpiece map. Sometime in April I will have galleys to proof. Then that’s it: other than minor corrections that become apparent after the ARCs go out this summer, it is what it is, and it will no longer be mine.
 
Three elements of The Novel remain on my to-do list: Acknowledgements; Reading Group Discussion Questions; and an Author Q&A. Yesterday, I made an iPhone video of myself talking about the inspiration for The Novel for the Sales and Marketing team. No, you don’t get to see it. Don’t even ask.
 
I realize I keep calling The Novel, The Novel. It does have a name, but it’s not what it was once, or even what it was after that. Can you bear one more title change? Although I’m learning never to say never when it comes to publishing changes, I’m thinking this one may just stick. And I love it. At last.
 
Here’s a glimpse of the editorial decision making process:

Hi Julie,

We have come up with an incredible new title for (the book formerly known as REFUGE OF DOVES, and then REMEMBERING! This title came out of taking a hard look at the positioning of the book and what the heart of the story is. Part of what you wrote in your first response to my editorial letter was really helpful for us– We’re not concerned with the how of reincarnation, but rather the more profound emotional reactions to it. This pointed us in the direction of focusing on the experience of reincarnation and got us thinking about books like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE and LIFE AFTER LIFE, both of which have time travel/reincarnation elements, have been hugely successful, and also have very revealing titles that tell you basically what the book is about.

My latest idea was to shift focus from just the title to concentrating on the entire front cover—what the title, cover tag, and cover image together as a unified package will communicate about the book. I think we have come up with a really strong title and tag that play off of each other in a compelling way.

Title: In Another Life
Tag: Three men are trapped in time. One woman could save them all.

 
Well, I’m tapped out. Please laugh at that. I need to know you’re laughing.
 
Just one last thing.  Do you know what else I ordered yesterday, in addition to that damnable power cord? Of course you don’t. I ordered a portable keyboard for this tablet. It’s coming with me this summer on a grand adventure. Which I’ll tell you all about, soon . . .

Blooming! Copyright 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Getting the Words Right

Friday morning. Café. Rain. Quad shot Americano. It’s early afternoon in Chicago. Here on the island, I check my inbox like a lab rat presses the sugar water lever. This craving for the e-mail from my editor. The e-mail with her responses to my five weeks’ worth of edits on IN ANOTHER LIFE. The e-mail that signals the beginning of another five weeks of editing. Craving, yet dreading it, too.

 

I’m tired, feeling fragile. Sleep was elusive last night, although my restlessness allowed me to finish Tess of the d’Ubervilles and I surely could not have spared a moment’s thought for my characters while Tess was wandering forlorn and forsaken in pages yet unread. I’m debating the wisdom of opening that e-mail when it does come. Tomorrow morning, after a solid night’s rest and a peaceful hour of yoga, would be the smarter bet for my soul.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t look at my e-mail for the rest of the day.

 

The past two weeks of freedom from the manuscript have been devoted to tying up loose ends before I dive back into the Slough of Revision: assembling 2014 forms and receipts for the tax preparer (can you believe it, I found someone who works with writers!); preparing two writing residency applications; making dentist, optometrist, and doctor appointments that I’ve pushed down the to-do list to the next week or the one after that; emerging from my cocoon to see friends, send thank you notes, connect with family, bake bread, go the movies.

 

I’ve also been working on TUI, my third novel. I think longingly to a year ago, when THE CROWS OF BEARA poured out of me, unfettered by other obligations, free from competing distractions. The story flew from my fingertips with such certainty: 105,000 words in ten weeks.

 

What a different writing experience this time, in part because I had to set TUI aside for so long and I’m about to set it aside again. In part because the storytelling itself is different—deeper, more personal. There’s something I’m reaching for and I won’t get there in a first draft. I won’t know the layers I need to uncover until I see the whole of it spread out before me.

 

This is something new, this switching of writing gears from revision mode into first draft creativity, this distraction caused by the business of writing—all the thinking about websites and blog tours and blurbs and head shots and author platforms.

 

If I’m fortunate and THE CROWS OF BEARA sells, I will be in a cycle of writing-revising-promoting for the foreseeable future. What a gift that cycle will be in sustaining a viable career, but it’s something I will need to learn to manage: making the intellectual and emotional leap from one work to another, from one type of writing to another, scraping together the free moments—whether for a day or a few weeks—to clear my brain and allow new material to enter unabated.

 

It’s late afternoon in Chicago now. Cold and clear. Maybe my editor is watching the clock, hoping to be on her way home before dark to a quiet night in with her husband, or dinner out with girlfriends. Maybe she’s nearing the ending that I decided I wanted to change after I’d sent her my edits.

 

It’s not too late to make that change. But by April it will be. And I will be ready for too late. I will be ready to move on.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015
Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015