Five Little Things

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These guys make me almost as happy as the baby goats!

Sometimes it’s the little things. That’s what this blog is all about: five little things that are making me happy.

First…if you like baby goats (and who doesn’t?), check out the Sunflower Farm barn cam. I’m a little obsessed. Sunflower Farm is a pygmy goat farm near where I live in Maine. The cam shows baby goats being born and generally frolicking. It is (a) highly entertaining, (b) cute off the chart, but (c) a little stressful (for me) to watch. Apparently I’m either a goat wimp or cross-species maternalistic because I get very worried and protective of these baby goats. Warning: this site can be very addictive. And very dramatic. But you really should check it out. Hint: It’s much more exciting with sound turned up so you can hear all the goats bleating!

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It doesn’t look like much yet, but just wait…and yes we do still have some snow

If baby goats are being born, then it must be spring, right? YES! Spring. We finally have spring! There are no leaves on the trees yet (and only a few flowers), but we went from snow last week to 70 degrees this week. Today I saw an Osprey and two Great Blue Herons flying over. Song birds are everywhere. Our temps (and winds) will be all over the place for a while, but I don’t think we’ll get anymore snow until fall—which is the important part—so we can get our garden area ready. This all makes me very, very happy. (Until I saw a fly in the house…no. I won’t complain yet.)

Parchment baked chicken breasts. I usually don’t write about food on my blog, but once in a while I need to. A few months ago I started baking chicken in parchment paper—I put (usually three skinless boneless breasts on a piece of parchment paper, squeeze juice of one lemon onto them, add a few tablespoons of wine, sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper, cover with another sheet of parchment, and crimp the edges. Bake until done (usually about 30 minutes), and you’ll have the moistest most delicious, healthiest chicken breasts you’ll ever taste. I’ve also used soy, balsamic, and lemon juice marinade, equally delicious. You can also use this method for fish and vegetables. Cooking Light has a better description of the method—you can find it in this article by Lia Huber.

In case you haven’t been to Google today…you’re in for a fun surprise. In honor of the 155th anniversary of the Pony Express, Google has developed a fun, easy video game. I’ve wasted spent at least half an hour on this today… and I’ve only collected 25 envelopes at best—you have to see it to truly understand. Check it out on Google.

After you finish collecting envelopes, check out today’s post on Writer Unboxed by Therese Walsh. It’s an incredibly helpful blog about multi-tasking—Therese’s third in a series. Therese says this: “If you multitask because you feel you have to in order to stay on top of things; if you’re overwhelmed with too much information and an inability to sort though it all; if you’re losing momentum on your writing projects because there is just too much on your plate… This post is for you.” She goes on to give methods for diagnosing what’s going on (or wrong) with your work habits, strategies for better productivity, and tips and suggestions to be more productive. It’s a really useful and helpful post….

Especially after you’ve been watching baby goats, cleaning your garden, playing Google’s Pony Express game, researching new ways to cook chicken, or generally trying to figure out how to focus more on writing and less on those other non-writing things.

What are some little things making you happy?

Cheers,

Julia

I Always Cry at THE END

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I took this photo a few years ago, but it seemed right for today…

This is one of those mixed up blog posts. I haven’t posted anything for a while, and yesterday I thought I should. I should blog, I said to myself. But I didn’t feel like it, I just didn’t. I dug around for a while (in my mind) to try and figure it out, and here’s what I came up with.

Winter. My next thought was about winter, of course. My next thought is always winter these days. The wind is howling outside. It’s cold and I’m really really grouchy about it. Right now, March 18, it’s 18F degrees. I’ve given up checking, searching the web, to see if we are having normal temperatures. I don’t care anymore. (I know we aren’t, I feel it in my bones.) I just want it to be warmer. I don’t want to wear a fleece jacket in the house anymore. I got an email from an (out of state, WARM state relative) who said he’d heard spring was coming to parts of the east (SOUTHeast, I told him). No. Not Maine. I was grouchy. We haven’t had a spring day since a year ago, last spring. We had snow showers yesterday and we’re getting more this weekend. And next week.

This blog is not about winter. (I think my last five are plenty.)

Reading drought. I love reading. I always love to curl up and read a good book. Sometimes I get so lost in reading that I need to lie on the couch and ignore everything else and finish in a rush. Last year I read a book that I loved so much I slowed it down. I couldn’t stand to read more than a few pages a day because I knew it would end soon. And it was a short book. When I finished reading, I cried. Cried and cried. It was a sad ending, a hard ending to read, but more than that, I loved that book, and it was over. Since then, I haven’t been able to read a book that I really fell in love with. And this year in particular I’ve barely read. I keep telling myself it’s because I’m so focused on writing (more about that later). I keep telling myself it’s the winter. I can’t stand to sit for so long. I’m antsy to get going. I tell myself it’s the books I’m reading. I’m picky. I need the right balance of good, unpredictable story with amazing writing. I like minimalist writing (usually) and sometimes books are overwritten for my taste. Anyway, I’m not sure why, but I can’t really stay engaged with any book. Most recently I’d been looking forward to reading a book (in a big way, I pre-ordered it), and I could barely finish it.

This blog is not about reading (but if you can recommend a book you love, please do!).

Experts. I’m a journalist by training. And one of the things that was drilled into my head when I was in college was the source. Find the right expert. Find the correct information. Be accurate. By training and by nature this is the kind of writer I am. I want to know. I want to know that I’m portraying something accurately. My current WIP (more about that in a minute) has a lot about horses in it. One of the horses gets injured (it’s integral to the story and the arc of the main character). Here’s the thing. I don’t know if I’m being accurate. I have a good friend who is helping make sure all the general horse information (behavior, care, tack, riding, etc.) is accurate, but I need to talk to a veterinarian. I have another good friend who is a vet, but she’s a small animal vet and has recommended I talk to a large animal vet. I haven’t been able to find someone, and it’s frustrating me.

This blog is not about experts (but if you know a large animal vet who might be willing to talk to me, please tell me!).

THE END. Back to that WIP. I just finished a major revision of one of my WIPs—the novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo in 2013. Yes, that’s not last year but the year before, so I’ve been living with this story for a long time. In some senses, I’ve been living with this story for even longer because it’s loosely based on a real-life thing that happened to me (you can read about that here), a sad thing. Anyway, I miss those characters. I know I have to move on, but in a way I don’t really want to. Kind of like that book I loved so much. I know I’ll write another story (I’ve started a few), but it’s going to take a little time. As I type the words THE END, I always cry, every WIP I write, but with this book I cry every single time I read and reread the end (and believe me I’ve read it a lot of times). I miss those characters as though they were real-life best friends.

This blog is about mourning. Mourning THE END. I cried. And I always do.

Writing friends, do you cry when you write THE END? Everyone, please recommend books you love, large animal vets I can talk to, and please, please, think spring!

Cheers,

Julia

This winter is about…

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This winter has been trying. The coldest February on record in many parts of Maine. More snow since mid January than we get in an entire winter most years. The statistics speak for themselves.

But this winter is about more than statistics.

This winter it’s hard to get around. There are huge snow banks at the entrances to roads and driveways that makes driving treacherous. People seem grumpier. In their cars. At the grocery store. At the gym. It’s grinding us down, this winter.

This winter is about isolation and crankiness and tiredness. It’s wearing me out. Twenty-two or more days below freezing (I gave up trying to keep track), so I really don’t want to go out. I love being inside at my desk writing, but I am tired even of that. I reach out to friends, but planned outings often need to be postponed due to yet another snowstorm. For a while we were on an every-weekend then every-Wednesday snowstorm schedule. It was predictable. The weather guys on one channel who usually wear sweaters (instead of suits) for storm days stopped wearing them. They stopped playing the “storm center” music, too.

This winter is about water leaking into the house through a new window. It’s about MEH (My Engineer Husband) coming home from work early last Friday to climb up a ladder and scrape snow off the roof with a roof rake. (We have a two story house.) Then he used an axe to break ice a foot thick off the edges of our roof, all around our house, to ensure no more ice dams formed that would allow more water to leak around the roof shingles, through the walls, into our house around our windows. “The water finds a path,” MEH said before climbing another ladder onto the porch roof to shovel snow off of it. MEH spent the better part of the weekend shoveling snow off the roof.

This is usually water...Casco Bay... that's an Osprey nest out there

This is usually water…Casco Bay… that’s an Osprey nest out there on the pole

This winter is about new words and new ways of talking to our neighbors (that we see more at the grocery store than around the neighborhood). Ice dam, roof melt, roof rake, “the water finds a paths,” and “where will we put it?” become common conversation starters.

This winter is about giving up, giving in, embracing. One end of our driveway is unshoveled, unplowed. We have enough room for our two cars. Why should we shovel more? The end of the driveway (that’s not shoveled) has a five foot frozen-solid berm at the end. Snow is piled everywhere. The mailman used to avoid that end of our driveway; now he just walks through the snow and over the frozen berm.

This winter is about layers. Most winters I’ve worn fleece and (TMI?) sometimes long underwear (on top). This winter I wear long underwear (top and bottom) every day, pants and turtleneck, fleece top and bottom over that. Boots outside. Fleece slippers in. Down jacket everyday. And an indispensable lavender scarf my daughter gave me for Christmas. I often wear it in the house, while under the electric blanket.

This winter is about hats. I knit two hats in January before the historic snow season started. One for MEH and one for me. (No, they aren’t the same—color or style—I write that in answer to the question forming: “are they the same?”…a question my daughter already asked me.) I hate hats. (Especially with all the dry air creating static electricity.) But I wear that hat every time I leave the house.

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These robins found the morning sun…

This winter is about appreciating…

…the sun. Last weekend we had one day of 40 degrees. We reveled in the warm weather. It was a good day. A great day. It made us remember spring. And that spring is coming.

…the landscape that looks so foreign. The water froze over between the mainland and Cousins Island (a town island connected by bridge). Then it snowed over the ice. And the ice and snow got craggy and crazy looking. I’ve loved taking photos of the unnatural looking landscape. The landscape is so foreign that sometimes when I’m driving I miss a turn and find a new way home.

…the birds. Watching the crows roost. Hundreds upon hundreds of crows flying from tree to tree at sunset, looking for a place to roost. I’ve never seen this before. It was amazing. I also watched flocks of robins…I never realized that some robins winter over in Maine. I thought a lot about being a bird and trying to survive outside in this winter.

This winter is about new terrain, new landscapes, new landmarks, new ways of thinking and feeling and acting, new sights and sounds.

This winter is (I hope) almost over.

How’s winter going in your neighborhood? What is winter about for you?

Love Notes: things to love mid-winter

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This photo was from a much warmer day (last summer), but it seemed perfect for a post about love… 

I meant to get this blog posted yesterday, for Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t, and here’s why…

Another blizzard. More snow predicted. But here’s the thing: it missed us. (Collective sigh, followed by a cheer.) Various predictions said we’d get one to two more feet of snow out of this storm, adding to the four feet of snow already on the ground. Instead we woke up to two inches! Yesterday was a flurry of activity to get ready for the possible power outage, being snowed in, etc. We even succumbed to the “bread and milk” grocery run, except since we were baking bread and I’m lactose intolerant, instead we bought flour and yeast. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the hilarious bread and milk youtube video, here’s a link.)

Here are a few more things I love this month:

For my post on Writer Unboxed yesterday I asked other Writer Unboxed writers to contribute Valentines to Writing. Why and how they love writing. Check out “Writing…Will You Be My Valentine?” to see the twenty wonderful love letters, poems, and words about writing. I loved compiling this Valentine box of words.

At Great New Books this month I posted a recommendation for Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. I saw this book as a long love letter to her parents (as they went through the aging process). The book is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking and Chast is amazing at expressing feelings through her cartoons. I loved this book.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of Common Ravens. These massive black birds, “cousins” of the crow, are larger than a Red-tailed Hawk, and I don’t see them often in Maine. (I don’t think… they are solitary birds so if I saw one alone, without comparison to another bird, I might think it’s a crow—crows weigh about half as much, but without comparison, this difference is hard to see). You can tell ravens from crows in flight by the raven’s wedge-shaped tail. I saw a lot of ravens in the west when I drove across the country, but it’s really spectacular to see them in the snow. The contrast is beautiful and striking. I haven’t gotten a photo of one yet, but I would love to by the end of the winter.

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Winter is far from over. This is a shot of the Cousins Island Bridge, looking toward the mainland.

Winter…which is far from over, despite the lack of snow from this particular blizzard. We are in the deep chill, with temperatures well below freezing (we’ve had thirteen days below zero in February; I don’t love that). I still go out and take photos, but with clear skies, sunrises and sunsets are less spectacular (we’ve had a few good ones), most boats are out of the water, and it’s harder to get access to beautiful areas—the snow banks are huge.

Another thing I really love today is that it’s only 32 days until the Spring Equinox. And even though I’m sure we’ll still have snow on the ground, there’s a lot of hope resting on that day!

How’s your winter going? What do you love this month?

The Winter of Sisyphus

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Yesterday’s view out our front door

This morning I looked out the window and saw a neighbor shoveling snow. With each new scoop, thrown onto the gigantic pile next to his driveway, at least half rolled back down. I immediately thought of the story of Sisyphus (didn’t everyone)?

You know, in Greek mythology, the first king of Ephyra who was a chronic liar and all around bad guy who murdered and pillaged and…well, read about all the heinous things he did here on Wikipedia. The story goes that Zeus (after being tricked and betrayed by Sisyphus) gave Sisyphus the punishment to forever roll an immense boulder up a steep hill, only to watch it roll back down…repeating this action endlessly.

Yesterday we got another foot of snow, on top of Juno’s (the blizzard last week or was it the week before?) two feet and another smaller storm in between and a few inches or so before that… well, I honestly can’t remember the progression of the layers and layers and feet of snow.

Here’s what I do know. We have a lot of snow. A. Lot. Of. Snow. Feet and feet of it. Spilling onto the porch from the ground (and our porch is three feet off the ground), blocking one end of our driveway (we have two entrances, thank goodness), covering our basement windows (will they leak, who knows?). Encasing one of our cars (I don’t really want to drive anywhere until tomorrow to be honest). Delaying school. Forcing people to work from home. You get my drift (yes, pun intended).

When we texted our daughter a picture, she immediately replied. “Can you get out?”

I mused to MEH (My Engineer Husband) what will happen with the next storm (predicted for Wednesday night into Thursday) and the one after that and the one after that… where will the snow go?

One of MEH’s co-workers emailed his department that she’s working at home again today: “I give up. I want to hide until Spring.”

We all want to give up. We all want spring. Well, everyone I talk to. That’s MEH, because I actually haven’t talked to anyone in person in about three days. I deposited checks (for the first time) with my phone app. I’ve barely stepped outside my door in two days. Did I mention we have a lot of snow, and it’s hard to get around?

Tomorrow I plan to go to the gym, but until then just call me Sisyphus. And the winter is my boulder.

But for what am I being punished?

Is it the plight of the writer, thus to be punished? I’ve made up lies upon lies—lets call it fiction. And now, after stories, pages, hundreds and thousands and millions of words of lies, I’m condemned to the life of Sisyphus, forever rolling the piles of snow up onto the berms surrounding my house, my car, my exit from the life of the hermit writer.

The writing life.

Groundhog Moments

Portland Head Light

Portland Head Light

It’s Groundhog Day, and Punxutawney Phil predicts six more weeks of winter. As two of my Instagram friends discussed this snowy morning, “there’s never been a more Groundhog Day than today.” (Thank you @littlelodestar and @lemead)

You see it’s been snowing pretty much nonstop for a while now. It all started with Juno, the Blizzard of 2015—was that only a week ago? When I realized it was Groundhog Day today, I started hoping, irrationally that Phil (the groundhog) would see his shadow and in six weeks voilà it will be spring. (I say irrationally hoped because I really don’t believe that Phil can predict or not predict anything—he is a Groundhog after all.)

But predict he did.

That’s not what this post is about. Not really. It’s about the iterative process of life. About the predictability (and unpredictability—shall we say serendipity?) of life. The hopes of life. The moments of life. Because the other side of Groundhog Day that has become legend (in addition to Phil) is the movie Groundhog Day. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Not only because it’s good, but because it has become iconic.

And that’s what I was thinking about this morning. Not the snow falling outside (yeah, yeah, another foot. What’s another foot when you’ve got three or so already?). Well, first I thought about the snow. Then I thought about the movie, and Bill Murray’s character reliving the same day over and over again.

I started thinking. Which day, days would I want to live over and over again? Murray’s character didn’t get to decide. But as long as I’m reinventing things, I’ll say I can. Decide. I started thinking while I woke up this morning. Which days?

Topping the list (of course) are the obvious ones. The days my children were born. The day my husband told me he loved me the first time. I reconsidered, realizing that while I definitely would want to live those days over and over again, there are other less obvious contenders.

The day my son harvested garden vegetables with us when he was just four. He carried a pumpkin he’d grown from a seed onto the stage of the 4-H Perfect Pumpkin competition (alone, he told us to stay in our seats in an auditorium of about 400 people), and walked onto the stage to claim his prize for “the perfect pumpkin.” That day.

The day I strolled arm in arm with my teenage daughter down the L’Avenue des Champs Elysées in Paris. That day.

The day our young family drove across California on the roadtrip of a lifetime and my son made up a song about “Dusty Mountains in the Distance,” and my son and daughter (five years old), unbeknownst to me, got into a competition to see who could make me mad first. That day.

Actually, any road trip day with either of my two kids is a day I’d like to live over again. Talking, playing, singing, napping, looking at colleges, the companionable silences, even the bickering and the complaining (mine as well as theirs). Those days. All of them.

Or a day like yesterday. MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I enjoyed the first sunny day in a good long time by going on an outing. It was cold and of course there was snow, but it was beautiful. We went to Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth and watched children (and some adults) sledding with the Atlantic Ocean as the backdrop. We visited the “Portland Head” lighthouse. We took photos—many—as is our wont to do. Ice coated the huge rocks surrounding the lighthouse. We met a small Yorkie Terrier running faster than any dog I’ve seen, across fields of ice. We chatted with Clyde’s “parents” for a few minutes about Clyde’s Patriots shirt (yes the Yorkie was wearing a shirt). They were excited about the Superbowl, and they’re probably even more excited today. Maybe today’s a day—or yesterday—many Patriots or Patriots fans would want to live over and over again.

I digress.

Yesterday was a day—an everyday day—that I’d want to live over and over again. Days like yesterday provide the framework of my life, they give my life meaning. They remind me that it doesn’t take much. A sunny day. An hour car ride with someone you love. A beautiful lighthouse to take photos of. A call from your daughter. An email from your son. A warm house to call home. A delicious meal shared.

These are my Groundhog Days. My Groundhog moments.

What are the days you’d want to live over and over again? The moments?

 

 

 

 

 

How to Prepare for a “Potentially Historic” Snowstorm

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This is from another (smaller) storm…but you get the drift

The storm is brewing. “Potentially historic,” the forecasters are saying. “Up to two feet.” In Maine, you grow used to this. The storms and the predictions. The rush to the grocery store for bread and milk. It’s kind of a joke (that people focus on pre-storm bread and milk), but it’s based on reality. At least that’s what my checker friend Carol says.

Carol is one of the people I see almost every time I go to the large supermarket in our small town. She’s one of the people I enjoy talking to. She’s engaged with customers, but she’s focused on her job, too. I know she has two sons, twins, who are now adults. She loves reading. She’s always upbeat so I seek her out when I look for which line to stand in.

And I’m not the only one. Yesterday while I was standing in Carol’s line, an elderly woman rolled up behind me in a seated shopping cart. She asked if it was a “14 or fewer” line. I said no. When Carol overheard us, she asked me what the woman had said. When I told her, she smiled and said, “That’s because I’m usually at the 14 or fewer registers.” Because Carol is fast. She’s fast and courteous and positive.

I knew the woman in line in front of me, too. She works for a friend of mine—Mark—who runs a catering business. She’s the best at rolling pie dough than anyone I’ve ever seen. And by best, I mean she can roll perfectly round pie crusts, seemingly effortlessly. Mine? Mine are more like oblongs or amoebas or some other amorphous shape.

Mark is famous (I told Carol) for his chicken pies.

“Oh I know,” Carol said. “Mark and I grew up together. We were like cousins.”

Of course. Everyone knows everyone in our small town. In Maine, too. There are only 1.5 million people in the entire state. Here, we have two degrees of separation (compared to the normal six). You don’t mention the name of someone to another person unless you’re saying something flattering—unless you want a fight or a cold shoulder. And those cold shoulders can last a long time (take it from someone who’s breached the two-degree rule on occasion).

The pie roller paid and left, and Carol started ringing up my purchases.

“You know those leftover edges from your rolled dough?” Carol said. “My mom used to make them into popovers. My mom made the best pies…”

Carol spoke lovingly about her mother’s pies—how they grew all the fruit, how she’d fill the freezer with unbaked pies to be baked mid-winter during a storm. I imagined Carol as a small girl, sitting next to the wood stove eating a piece of blueberry pie that was made from berries she and Mark picked the summer before. They wouldn’t care about the weather outside or a power outage, either, because they’d be warmed by the stove and by all the love that went into that blueberry pie.

I paid for my bread and milk and drove home.

Here’s hoping we don’t lose power—and if we don’t I think I might just bake a pie. I have the ingredients. Carol made sure of it.

How do you prepare for an epic storm…or the threat of one? Do you buy bread and milk?

9 Questions: How I Write

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“Am I?”

Last month my writer friend Kristen Ploetz asked a series of questions in a blog post called Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers. I answered Kristen’s questions in comments to her blog, but two of my other blogging friends—Nina Badzin and Lindsey Mead—answered the nine questions on their own blogs, and I liked the idea so much, I decided to do the same.

Because here’s the thing…Kristen hit a nerve. With me. With a lot of others, too. Many have answered in blog posts, and I’ve read a lot of those  posts, too. They make me feel more connected to the online writing community and help me understand what it is to be a writer, to call ourselves writers—because, here’s the thing, just like Kristen (her incentive to the post), sometimes I struggle with identifying myself as a writer.

For me it’s back to that old question. What is a writer? I’ve worked as a technical writer and a freelance writer, and now I write fiction, blogs, and essays, yet, I do sometimes wonder if I have the cred to call myself a writer…which goes back to the question of what “other people” think of when they hear the word writer, i.e., a novelist? A traditionally published novelist? A newspaper writer? Aren’t we all writers?

Ironically, this was the topic of my very first blog post, published  February 6, 2011. Yes, I’m approaching my fourth blogiversary. In that post, I wrote this:

As a long-time technical writer, by training and profession, I’ve often been told “you’re not a real writer.” I remember the first time someone said that to me, I’d just finished writing a 400-page technical manual. Let me tell you, I certainly felt like a writer. Still, even as I branch out to business, creative non-fiction, fiction, those words ring in my ears. But, when I really think about it, I come back to this: words are words, writers are writers. As a cross-over writer, going back and forth from technical and business to fiction and creative nonfiction—I’m blurring the lines. This blog examines those writing lines and the people and pieces that blur them. Writers are writers, regardless of genre or specialty, we’re all putting words together. As Maya Angelou wrote: “We are more alike, my friends,/ than we are unalike.”

I still feel that way! And that’s why I’m chosing to revisit this question through Kristen’s nine questions. And here they are.

1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet?

Yes. I (almost) always share with my husband. Sometimes in draft form, sometimes even as I’m writing.  In fact, MEH (My Engineer Husband)—as he’s known in this blog—is one of my trusted readers.

2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it?

This is complicated. Some of my friends are also part of my beta reader circle. For fiction—my WIPs—four friends have been part of that circle for one or all of my novels in progress. As for family, I have one aunt who’s read three of my novels in progress. I also have one self-published mystery novel. A lot of my friends and family have read this.

As for my blog, I can’t say for sure. My gut reaction is that almost no one I know IRL reads what I write—but I’m not sure. I’ve had comments from unexpected people, like random people I’ve run into at the grocery store, someone I met at the gym, one of my daughter’s college friends…my mother-in-law. Sometimes people will tell me they “keep up with what I’m doing” by reading my blog, and it makes me cringe because my blog is NOT necessarily representative of my life.

3. What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go?

I have lots and lots of words and articles and essays and multiple novel manuscripts in “the drawer.” Sometimes an essay I write and submit will end up on my blog (more usually a blog post I write might be expanded into an essay I’ll submit elsewhere). Fiction, which is what I am focusing on almost exclusively right now, never winds up on my blog. Anything that I write that gets rejected continually (there’s a lot, by the way) goes into the drawer. I view this as my training ground. Everything I write makes me a better writer, I know that for certain.

4. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?

Everything I write gets reworked some time, some how. It may just be a feeling or emotion, maybe a character, a scene I’ve witnessed, a conversation overheard. The specific passages I’ve written for one thing are rarely (I can only think of one chapter I ever pulled out of a past WIP to rework for another), but the feelings of a piece are definitely used at times for the bones of other scenes…everything is always stored away in my mind for future work.

5. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?

Novels, short stories.

6. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?

My biggest inspiration is what I see (and hear) and what I imagine. I have a crazy insanely wild imagination.

7. Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?

Last year I read a book written in 1986 that I think is the best novel I’ve ever read, certainly my favorite by a long shot: The Blind Corral by Ralph Beer. It is out of this world good. It’s the only novel he ever wrote. I also love Tim O’Brien’s writing in The Things They Carried, and think it should be essential reading for content alone, but the writing is brilliant. I also reread The Scarlet Letter last year. I think Nathaniel Hawthorne (though well read) is not appreciated enough in the current day. His writing is incredibly modern in thought.

8. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?

I really liked the first half of Stephen King’s On Writing. And the other craft book that is indispensible for me is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Burroway and Stuckey-French, editors.

9. Have you ever regretted having something published? Was it because of the content or the actual writing style/syntax?

I’m not sure “regret” is the right word, but if I had it to do over again, I doubt I’d have self-published my mystery novel.

As I said to Kristen in comments to her post: “Long story I’ll tell you over coffee someday.” If any of my writer friends make a trip to Maine (or I travel to wherever you are), we can meet up. We can talk about why I’m not so sure I’d self publish again and much, much more about writing—I’d love that.

Now it’s your turn. I would love to see how you answer these questions—in comments to my blog or on your blog (if you do answer on your blog, please link back to this post and of course to Kristen’s).

Happy Writing!

 

Confessions of a Constant Writer

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It felt a little like this. Darkness with light around the edges.

Last year I had a writing crisis.

That’s not completely true. I had a blogging crisis. Based on a cascade of events that I don’t fully understand, my blogging fell off. Almost off the edge of the world, or that’s what it felt like.

I was writing like a demon—don’t get me wrong—I finished one manuscript, started another, edited a third. But I was blogging shy. It started with a bad comment experience, then my confidence and blogging interest started freefalling. The experience soured me. (That’s all I’ll say about that.)

I’m back now. And truth is, I was never gone. Not really. Not in my mind. Here’s the thing. My first confession. When I started my blog almost four years ago (then called Wordsxo), I wrote a post a day. I loved it. Because I write everyday. I’m not talking “butt in the chair time” or fiction or even words on the page/screen. I’m talking head writing. Mind writing. Constant and unceasing and incessant writing. In the background. All the time.

Have you seen the movie Stranger than Fiction? It’s kind of like that. I almost hear a narrator in my mind.

My second confession. If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about how I’ll write something. The event that’s happening.

So when I went to the library on Saturday and ran into my sometimes-I-go-to (okay I’ve been twice) knitting group, my first thought was about writing…the characters (of course).

When our dishwasher broke down, I wondered how’d I turn that into a blog.

Saying good-bye to my kids at the airport, wiping a tear away, I confess I truly thought first about my breaking heart…then my very next thought was how would I write this heartbreak, how it might translate into fiction.

Yet, here’s where I stumble. In fiction I don’t “go there” (very often).

In blogging it’s the same. I’m a very private person. It’s hard for me to be open up about my personal life, my feelings. I want to blog about things, but sometimes I hold back (it’s why I took my semi-hiatus after all—the very hurtful thing that almost stopped me completely from blogging is still too hot to touch).

It’s a paradox. When people leave comments on my blog or on my posts at Writer Unboxed (like my last one called The Lonely Writer), I get comments about how open I am, how brave, how transparent. But I hold back. Is it because I’m open and transparent about what I do reveal? Or am I good at making things up? Embellishing? I’m not quite sure.

Here’s what I do know. My final confession. I have a hard time being open. Transparent. I want to go there. To stop being afraid, to stop holding myself back. I wrote about this last year in my post about Pushing Through, after our beloved Abby dog died.

But it’s hard. And I’ve accepted that like my writing I’m a work in progress. The very things I want to write about, so I can touch people, make people think and feel, are the very things I skirt. (Part 2 of my final confession: Sometimes I wonder if it’s why I haven’t gotten published yet.)

The very first thought after I wrote the paragraph above, was how would I write that? In a character. My second thought was, what would I tell a writer friend? I like that question more. Because I’ve had writer friends lament that fear to me. And to them I say what I need to say to myself.

Be gentle and kind and patient with yourself. Don’t get me wrong: Write like a motherfucker. Never stop writing. But don’t be so hard on yourself. You can do this. Keep the faith. And when you’re afraid, come find me. I’m here for you. We’re in this together.

Have you ever had a writing crisis? (I’m here for you.)

 

 

 

 

My Year of Living Dangerously

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A sunrise from December…

It’s the seventh day of the new year, and I haven’t made any real resolutions yet. I’m not going to. The truth is I have only one goal this year: to live in the moment.

This is something I’m not very good at.

I like to plan. I like to analyze “what went wrong.” I like to talk about things endlessly—before, during, and after. I don’t know if that’s why I’m a writer or if I write because I like to do those things, but the two are intricately interwoven.

But for a series of reasons—a combination of reasons—it’s become necessary for me to live more mindfully, to live in the moment. Because lately I’ve felt I have very little (virtually no) control over my life or things that happen in it. I’ve sought advice, and every person I’ve asked (even some I haven’t asked) have said the same thing—

Live in the moment.

So here I am. But the truth is, where else can I really live? We’re here. In this moment. Whether we choose to look back or look ahead. We’re still here. Right? When it’s gone it’s gone.

John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.”  (Or was it John Lennon? I wondered and briefly searched—see, this is the type of rabbit hole I often go down. Check out this link to see if it really was Lennon. I’m not trying to withhold information, I just didn’t read it, choosing instead to return to this blog post, this moment!)

When my children were very young, I was much better at this than I’ve grown to be. In those days I had no choice but to be present. When you’re a caretaker of young children, you live moment by moment (even if you plan things, sometimes it doesn’t go the way you think). You play Legos or dress up, you draw and color and paint, you read aloud, you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you walk to the park and pick up rocks and look at the trees and the dogs, and then you get tired out and you go home and nap. Sometimes you feel like you don’t get much done. A load of laundry is an accomplishment. Sometimes brushing your teeth is an accomplishment. But you also have that small person who is along with you, admiring and loving your every move, as entranced by your ideas as you are by his or hers. Life is fun and work all rolled into one.

Well, that life is clearly well behind me (my son will get his M.D. this year, my daughter is applying to medical school—I know, I know, it’s taken me a while to get here…what can I say except it was a dream life for me, the life of motherhood). Now I need to figure out how to entrance myself, and I feel a bit untethered about it all.

I’m living in the moment while thinking about how I can enhance my own life. What I want to do. New things. I considered giving up writing completely in order to pursue new things, but that’s not an option—I write.

But while I write I want to do new things.

Sometimes I think of it as my leap into danger. Sometimes I want to live dangerously. Roll down the windows when it’s five degrees and turn up the music really loud. That’s dangerous. That’s dangerous? No it’s not. Clearly it’s not. But that’s part of it. I’m figuring out how to figure things out. As I go.

I suppose that’s as close as I’m coming to a resolution this year.

Figure it out as I go.

And that’s okay.

What about you? Do you have trouble staying in the moment?

Happy New Year!

Julia

 

Great New Books Favorites

2014 GNB Favorite Books copy

One of the best things I’ve done this year was to become a contributor to the Great New Books blog team. When my writer friend (and Great New Books founder) Jennifer Lyn King visited Maine last year, she contacted me and asked me if I had time for a cup of coffee. Instead, Jennifer and I took a tour of my little corner of coastal Maine. Jennifer and I both love photography and the day we went out was absolutely gorgeous…we had an amazing day and both of us posted photos on Instagram before Jennifer headed out for a sunset lobster dinner with her family (who I also had the happy opportunity to meet).

I digress. Before we parted ways, Jennifer asked if I might be interested in joining the Great New Books team—if an opening came up. I quickly said yes, and I was thrilled when just about a month later she emailed and said she was expanding the team and asked if I would like to join.

When I joined Great New Books, I became a part of an amazing group of readers and writers; in addition to founder Jennifer, they’re Hallie Sawyer, Nina Badzin, Jessica Vealitzek, Lindsey Mead, Stacey Loscalzo, Cathleen Holst, and Katie Noah Gibson.

Great New Books is all about weekly sharing of a new book one of us loves:

Our passion is for recommending quality books which keep us turning pages long through the night, great books which have the potential to touch hearts, and lives, and open doors to a better world.

But Great New Books is so much more than that. We’re nine women. All from different backgrounds, at different stages of life, but our lives intersect at a passion for reading and writing. And I can now happily say that I call these eight remarkable women friends. We share our lives through weekly emails, something I count on every week…continuity in my life that’s a little discontinuous of late. For that I’d like to say thank you. To Jennifer for the invitation to join, and to the other women in the group. Thank you for being a part of my life and for allowing me to be a part of yours.

This week’s posting on Great New Books is even more special than usual because we each contributed to it (Jennifer did an amazing job compiling it, too!). Each of us picked the favorite book we read this year, and that’s what this week’s post is all about.

Over the past several weeks, the nine of us on our GNB team — Lindsey Mead, Nina Badzin, Jess Vealitzek, Hallie Sawyer, Stacey Loscalzo, Cathleen Holst, Katie Noah Gibson, Julia Munroe Martin, and Jennifer King — have worked hard to each try and pick our favorite book from 2014. Between the nine of us, we’ve read over 450 books this year. It hasn’t been an easy task to choose just one book apiece. But here, after long deliberation, are our favorite book picks (old and new) we’ve read this year …

So please head over to the Great New Books blog. Read about our favorites, and sign up to receive the weekly posts while you’re there, too. I can promise that every week you’ll read about books that we feel passionately about—and isn’t that what reading is all about?

Happy New Year,

Julia

 

 

 

Are You A Lonely Writer (like I am)?

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Maine winters are long. Not just by the month, but by the day. Darkness falls around four in the afternoon and the sun doesn’t rise again until after seven. Then there’s the snow. A lot of snow. Worse, once it falls, it never goes. Piles and piles and heaps of it stick around until at least late March, could be May.

This post is not about the weather.

All that darkness and gloom takes its toll. On a body, on a mind. On a writer. More time inside. More isolation. More potential for aloneness and loneliness.

For me, this has already been a problem this year. In case you wonder what loneliness looks like, this is what it looks like for me.

You know that overly-chatty mailman you usually run into your house to get away from? You invite him into your mudroom when he delivers a certified letter—then you chat for five minutes. You’re sorry to see him go. When you hire a carpenter to do some work around your house, he tells you, “We need to limit our conversations to two minutes a day.” (No I didn’t make this up.) You have gone through your friend list—twice—and wonder why it’s taken half a day (okay ten minutes) for people to respond to coffee invitations. You look forward to grand re-openings of the grocery store, of the library, of the new bridge to town. You spend more and more time on social networking (which of course raises its own set of issues). Your characters become your best friends, and you talk to other people about them as though they are real. You stop random people on the beach to tell them how much their dog reminds you of yours that died the month before (except they have a Shizh Tzu and you had a black Lab)…

That’s an excerpt from my post on Writer Unboxed today: The Lonely Writer. I hope you’ll head over to read it—it talks about the loneliness of being a writer, of this writer, but it also talks about ways to cope.

I’ll look forward to your thoughts, your input, but mostly I’ll look forward to having one more writer friend by my side along this solitary path.

 

Pushing Through

Happy trails, Fella, wish I could be there to watch you run one more time!

Happy trails, Fella. Wish I could be there to watch you run one more time…

I’m somewhere in the middle. 28,481 words down, 21,519 to go (for NaNoWriMo). Of course to reach a rough draft of the complete novel, I’ve got a lot more than that to write. 

If last week was the highpoint of this month-long intensive writing, this week I definitely hit a low. Because this week I remembered. Sometimes writing is hard. Really hard. I hit a patch that didn’t come easily and I wondered: is the story really going anywhere? Worse. Is it (any of it) really worth it? Even worse: writing this makes me too sad or I just can’t let go enough to “go there.”

This week I hit one of lowest points I can remember in my fiction writing experience. Partly because life got in the way. That’s a funny way to describe writing, isn’t it? Sometimes when things go easily and flow (and I’m loving the feeling), I think writing is my life, but it’s really not. This week I had some emotional turmoil (I won’t go into it), and it made me think about giving up. Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, they did.

We said good-bye to our beloved Abby dog yesterday. She was my daughter’s puppy, but I spent a lot of time with her. Okay. All the time. As a writer, I spend long (sometimes lonely) hours at the dining room table. But I wasn’t. Abby was always there with me.

But lately, Abby slept all the time. She could barely make it across the kitchen without her legs buckling. Robbed of freedom of movement by crippling arthritis, doomed by genetics, Abby wasn’t the most active dog in the world for the past few years—she couldn’t be—but she soldiered on through the pain she lived with daily, never complaining, always ready for a run through her favorite dog park, Twin Brook, albeit more and more slowly. Always sweet and stalwart, steadfast and kind (can a dog be kind?). She was without a doubt the best dog I’d ever met. My soul dog I called her.

I thought about quitting NaNoWriMo after we had to have Abby put down (yes, it was our final decision, one more way we had to take care of her, to help her escape her failing body—which is the only way I could think of it). MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I were with her at the end, as was her beloved Dr. Renee (if you have a great veterinarian who’s also a good friend, you know how impossibly important that person becomes in your life). We all cried.

Abby leaves a hole in my heart the size of a galaxy, and this morning I feel like I’m in a black hole, but I’m writing. I will finish this book despite my crushing sadness. I will finish this book despite the many things that feel out of my control in my life right now that are struggling mightily to control my ability to write. I will finish this book because writing is my salvation. It’s what wakes me up in the morning, keeps me going in the middle of the day, and gives me dreams and hope at night.

I will push through.

Why I Love NaNo More Today than Yesterday

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Yesterday’s sky as I drove to the coffee shop to write

I learned something new about myself and my writing today—something I’m not sure I’d ever have learned if it weren’t for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Okay, I know there are split camps on NaNoWriMo. In fact, you might either love it or hate it. Think it’s a great thing or the dumbest idea on earth. Writing a novel in a month? Why would you (or I for that matter) want to do such a thing? By the way, that used to be my opinion…so hear me out.

Truth is that up until last year (when I finished a draft of a novel during NaNo) I thought it was (a) pretty stupid, (b) pointless, and (c) defeated the entire point of writing (writing well, that is). I used to think that something good—especially something creative—couldn’t be forced. That is, that it really had to be done in its own time, at its own pace—fast or slow.

But now I wonder. Here’s the thing. This morning I wrote a scene I never ever thought of for my novel in progress (I’m a plotter by nature, most of the time, with occasional smatterings of pantser). The scene came out fast and furious, and when I looked up I’d spent not quite an hour writing almost 2000 words. But that’s not what surprised me. I tend to write very quickly (for first drafts). It was the actual scene that was different: the writing style and certainly the content, much different than I’d ever written or considered writing (for this novel or any other fiction project).

After I finished, I remembered having this experience with a scene I wrote during last NaNoWriMo—last year. It was a scene about an LSD trip, a wild car race up into the California foothills in a semi-stolen car, a young afraid woman desperately trying to understand and make sense of a young man’s actions and feelings. It’s a scene in the novel I’m currently querying (that I wrote last year during NaNo). It’s a story that has gone through many revisions since the first draft—and will most likely go through additional revisions because it’s a story worth working on. (The novel was named a semi-finalist in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition.)

The important takeaway for me is that the scene I wrote last year and the scene I wrote today taught me something important about myself and about NaNoWriMo. It’s not only that I can force myself to write. The first time out of the gate with NaNo, I figured out that I can force myself into the creative zone, the writing zone, pretty much any time I want to. I’m guessing that most writers who write fiction on a regular schedule know this, but here’s the new thing I learned today.

That sometimes I can actually write more creatively when I push myself. Even—and maybe especially—when I’m not “in the mood.” That sometimes, something very creative and very different comes out. A piece of writing that I love, a piece of writing that I’m proud of.

Just one of the reasons I love NaNoWriMo a lot more today than yesterday.

Can you force yourself into the creative zone? Do you write differently—maybe even more creatively sometimes—when you aren’t in the mood?

 

Do You Believe in Magic?

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Back to the coffee shop… more magic!

It’s all coming back to me. Two days into NaNoWriMo and the drama has begun. And it’s not all about the writing. I’m beginning to think NaNo (or birthing a first draft of a novel) is a bit like birthing a baby. You forget all the bad parts—the physical pain, the fears and the feelings it can’t be done, the fear that something will go wrong, the sleepless nights, the anguish of worry—or maybe you’d never be willing to do it again.

Last year I “won” NaNo. That is, I wrote 50,000 words during the month of November: National Novel Writing Month. Actually, to be technically accurate, I wrote more than 50,000 words. And I finished the first draft of a novel.

Last year I also wrote four blogs about my NaNo drama. In one, I detailed how I decided (somewhat spur of the moment) to commit to NaNo. In one I recounted my injury that I was afraid might sideline me from finishing (I shut my hand in the car door)—well actually MEH (My Engineer Husband) typed that one for me. In one I recounted certain NaNo truths (and lies). And in a final one, I talked about how I won.

Today I reread those four blogs. Believe it or not, I’d forgotten all about them—except the one that talked about winning! I forgot I slammed my hand in the car door. I forgot it was a last minute decision. I even forgot how much fun it was. It kind of went by in a whirlwind to be honest.

Yesterday after my first writing session (I wrote only 782 words—and I knew that to finish the 50K I’d need to average about 1600 a day), I was discouraged. I felt pretty sure that my idea wasn’t a very good one. Then this morning I got up early. I made a pot of coffee and started writing. Before I knew it I’d written a thousand words. Then two thousand. The idea still didn’t feel like the best one I’d ever had, but I was inhabiting the world, I was seeing the scenes in my mind. I’d even identified a song that was emblematic of the story. (It wasn’t  one of the ones from my last post. It’s “A Sky Full of Stars” by Coldplay. It’s now on endless loop while I write. Yesterday I heard it on the radio in the car and I had to turn it off—I started to feel my eyes drift closed, started to feel a writing trance coming on…no, really.)

And there’s more. That drama. It’s all falling into place. Like magic.

Drama.

I forgot when I got up that it was Daylight Savings. In fact, last night I accidentally set my clock ahead instead of back. So did I wake up two hours early?

I made coffee.

I wrote my words (2695 this morning).

I went into the kitchen and a spaghetti squash fell off the counter onto my little toe (as MEH said, “a squash squashed your toe.”

The first snow of the season started to fall.

After I posted a snowy pic on Instagram, I started thinking more about the novel I’m calling TYAAD.

More pieces fell into place, and I fell a little more in love.

Magic.

What are you doing for the month of November? Do you believe in magic? I do.

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. if you’re doing NaNo, too, let’s be buddies! I’m Julia.M.Martin!!

Saturday Six

Here’s what’s happening this week in my world…keep reading for how to enter a giveaway for an ITunes gift card!

1. Fact or Fiction? Today I’m on Writer Unboxed with a post called Gender Bias: Fact or Fiction about three things that got me thinking about whether men have an edge over women in the publishing and writing world. Here’s the beginning:

 Lest you think I’m a ‘man-hating feminist,’ let me assure you I am not. In fact, I like to think that in my day-to-day life mine is a pretty equal world—all things considered. But when I hear things that make me think that women aren’t equal (for whatever reason), I pay attention…

A huge thank you to my wonderful daughter for taking time (on very, extremely short notice) from her busy job to give me her insight and help in editing this piece.

2. Diary of the Fall. This week I also had my first post on the Great New Books blog! I wrote about Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub and translated by Margaret Jull Costa. It’s about three generations of diarists, and it’s an interesting book on many levels—for me it was most interesting in its structure: nonlinear in nature and very short chapters. I hope you’ll take a look at the post, here’s an excerpt.

Lately I’ve been fascinated with nonlinear stories—in fact I’ve been searching them out. That’s how I stumbled onto Diary of the Fall written by Michel Laub and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

This story of three generations of men—all diarists—is told through the eyes of a single narrator: a forty-something (unnamed) man, who relives and retells the story of a dangerous prank he and other Jewish thirteen-year-olds at an elite school in Brazil play on their one non-Jewish classmate, João. At João’s thirteenth birthday party, the boys decide as a group to drop João during a ceremonial “13-bumps” tradition, and João is seriously injured in “the fall.”

3. That giveaway. I’m putting together a new play list for the WIP I’ll write during NaNoWriMo. If anyone can guess what I’m writing about based on this playlist, you’ll win a $10 gift card from ITunes. Here’s a screenshot of the songs I’m listening to in repeat while I’m in planning mode.

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click to enlarge

Not that this will necessarily help you with your guess, but my favorite song so far is “Cool Kids” by EchoSmith. (I never was one of the cool kids, by the way, maybe that’s why.) Seriously, leave a comment and if you guess correctly (or even close!), I’ll send you that gift card.

4. It just goes on and on. We’re still in the midst of one of the most prolonged and beautiful falls I can remember. In fact, we’re just about “at peak.” The colors are dazzling and distracting and stunning…I can’t think of enough descriptors, so how about another photo?

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This sugar maple next to a neighbor’s house is what I’m talking about…dazzling right?

5. King Tide. I missed the lunar eclipse but caught the “King Tide,” the year’s highest astronomical tide, and it was something. I stood on the tiny piece of remaining shore on Cousins Island Beach and let the water wash over my sandaled feet. Yes, it’s still been that warm here…in Maine…in October. It’s amazing and wonderful.

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This is all that was left of the beach during King Tide!

6. Can’t break the habit! MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I gave up cable TV a few years ago—actually right around when I first started blogging. Now, instead, we binge watch TV. (No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either, except that we no longer have a cable TV bill.) We’ve gone through Rescue Me, The Guardian, The Mentalist, Castle, The Mindy Project, and now we’re about to wind up Chuck. Any suggestions on what we should start next would be greatly appreciated. Clearly we like an eclectic mix but tend to like quirky and shows that have (at least some) humor and a lot of mystery.

How are things in your corner of the world? What are you writing and watching and listening to? Don’t forget to guess what my new WIP is about, and you could win that ITunes gift card.

Cheers,

Julia

“Precious Autumn Sunshine…”

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This is the tree I see out my office window

“I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

A tree on Bowdoin College campus (where Nathaniel Hawthorne went to college)

A tree on Bowdoin College campus (where Nathaniel Hawthorne went to college)

I find myself thinking of the Hawthorne quote again and again as I go through fall this year. The foliage started turning very early, and we’re having a particularly mild fall—we’ve barely had a frost and usually have had a hard freeze by now—so spending my daylight hours in the open air (to borrow Mr. Hawthorne’s words) has been quite enjoyable. Leaf peeping season is in full swing. And boaters are enjoying the long fall to get out on the water as much as possible.

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This sundial is on the Bowdoin College campus. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also graduated from Bowdoin College. He and Hawthorne were classmates!

Our long fall has lead to a wonderful season for photography. This post has some of my favorite photos of fall and the coast (in no particular order). I hope you enjoy looking at them even half as much as I enjoyed taking them!

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The iconic leaf on the water, as MEH (My Engineer Husband) says

 

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Sunsets have been spectacular as the sun shifts south…

 

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Another view of last night’s spectacular orange juice sky and water (no filter!)

I think orange would be a good word to describe the season for me right now. What signals the turn of season in your corner of the world? What color? Are you spending time outside enjoying the changes?

Cheers,

Julia

Poetic Crossroads

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“At the Crossroads” by Thomas Guignard, Flickr Creative Commons

I’m pretty excited because today I’m having a blog exchange with writer friend Annie Neugebauer. I’m also excited because its the first time I’ve had a poet guest on my blog! To be honest I can’t remember exactly how, where, or when I met Annie, but from the beginning I was drawn to her blog for it’s varied and interesting content and also as a writing resource (she has a series called “The Organized Writer” and another called “The Decorative Writer”—all about writer spaces), but one of the things I love most is that Annie writes amazing prize-winning poetry and she’s a horror writer. And to be honest, both those things frighten me as a writer. (Okay, I couldn’t resist the joke, but it’s true. I am a mediocre poet, and I’m such a wimp I’m afraid to even read much horror.) Now Annie and I are co-workers, too: we are both bimonthly contributors to Writer Unboxed.

My post at Annie’s is part of her Decorative Writer series, where you can see photos of my home office. Check it out!

 

Last year, I found myself staring at the fast-approaching deadline to a national poetry manuscript contest. (A poetry manuscript is an unpublished book-length collection of poems. The winner’s prize is $1,000 and publication.) It was a well-respected contest that I had entered once or twice before, but for some reason that year I was procrastinating, and I wasn’t sure why.

Route Fatigue

I had two different manuscripts “ready to go.” One was a memoir collection of poems about me and my relationship with my father, whose alcoholism eventually led to his death. Obviously, that one was intensely personal. It was a mix of traditional form poetry, rhyming, and free verse poems. I knew it was a good manuscript; it had placed second in a state poetry manuscript contest two years before. But almost winning did something strange. When my name wasn’t called, I felt relieved. Sensing that something was wrong – but having no idea what – I shelved the collection for the next year.

My second collection was less narrative and less personal. Instead, it focused on life theories, true but less intimate anecdotes, and it mixed those together with poems about Pandora and the surrounding Greek myths. The theme of the collection was hope. It was almost entirely free verse, which is what most prestigious judges/contests are looking for these days. (Don’t get me started.) It had some great poems in it, but my gut told me it wasn’t quite cohesive enough as a collection.

Perhaps it was my subtle doubts about both of my manuscripts that had me hesitating. I suddenly felt I couldn’t justify a $20 entrance fee for something I knew I wouldn’t win – that’s $40 to enter both. (Hey, I’m a poet; I’m not exactly raking in the dough.) I knew that my use of rhyme was out of vogue enough to discount the first manuscript, and I knew that the lack of cohesion was enough to discount the second. Despite my husband’s encouragement to send both and “give it a shot,” I felt it was useless. Why bother?

The deadline loomed. I pouted. I decided to skip that year. Even if I knew how to fix either manuscript, it was too late this go-round.

Changing Course

Three days before the deadline, I woke up perfectly awake. If you don’t know me well, you might underestimate that. Trust me; I’m the polar opposite of a morning person. So for me to wake up and my brain be not foggy – that’s something on its own. But not only did I wake up perfectly alert, I woke up with an idea fully formed, sitting right at the top of my head. What if I combined my two manuscripts?

It was a mad idea. They were both full-length, so to mesh them into one manuscript I’d have to cut half of all of the poems. (Ouch!) And yet… once I’d thought it, I couldn’t let it go. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. At the root, both manuscripts were actually about the same thing: the dual nature of hope. And cutting so many poems might allow me to get rid of the rhyming ones that, though I adore them, really worked against me for the judges. I called my mom (she’s a great sounding-board), and as soon as I started explaining the idea out loud, I felt excitement bubbling. It was crazy, but what did I have to lose? I saved both original versions an extra time, just in case, and then I printed them off so I’d have hardcopies to play with.

I wish I had a video of the next few hours in my office that day. I must have looked like a madwoman, muttering to myself, shuffling through binders, tossing pages over my shoulder. I went through each manuscript as fast as I could so my subconscious would do the work. I threw out every poem that I even suspected needed to go. If it rhymed, it was gone. If it was weak, it was gone. If it didn’t fit in with my new, more cohesive theme, it was gone. If something nagged at me about it, it was gone. I didn’t let myself second-guess for even a moment – a trick accomplished by promising myself I could always put them back in later – and pages started flying. My floor was coated in poems. Good poems, solid poems, even poems that had already been published on their own. If I hesitated for a moment on a poem, I cut it. It felt like an exorcism.

Once I had cut a total of 121 pages of poetry down to 50, I set to work mixing them together and getting them in order. The poems from the first manuscript were easy to do, because they told a story, so they went in chronological order. The poems from the second manuscript were a little trickier, since they were about Pandora, but it didn’t take me long to realize how beautifully that myth spoke to my experiences with my dad and his addiction. I started “clumping” poems that spoke to similar things. I had a beautiful poem about Hephaestus, for example, who was the god who created Pandora, and how after creating her he had to let her go. It fit perfectly with the poem about my leaving home for college, which left my dad by himself in a house that used to hold four.

A New Path

In the end, I put the entire collection together in a day. I wrote eleven new poems to fill in some gaps and flesh out the new intertwined stories and motifs, but they flew from my fingers like they’d already been written. My personal story brought the myths to life in a new way, and the myths leant my personal story a new level of sophistication and universal meaning. It felt exquisitely “meant to be.” I gave it a new title that brought out the best of both books and sent it off to the contest on the last possible day. I knew that even if I didn’t win I had something special. The real clue was that I didn’t miss any of the cut poems, and I knew I would never, ever go back to the original two manuscripts.

The new manuscript received an honorable mention that year, which put me in the top five in the nation. It’s the biggest honor I’ve received for my poetry to date, and I couldn’t be more proud. I’ll continue to polish that manuscript and send it to other contests in the next couple of years, and maybe I’ll get lucky and hit the right judge at the right time – who knows?

But what I really gained from the experience was much more than acknowledgement or bragging rights. I learned how to trust my artistic instincts. There was a reason I didn’t want to submit those two manuscripts, and that reason was that I knew, deep down, that I could do better. I learned to take greater risks. I learned how amazing it feels to let old work go, even if I still like it.

Most of all, I learned how truly in control I am of my own narrative. I’m not chained to what I’ve done and exactly how I’ve done it. I am free to tear down and rebuild, to restructure and recreate, to go back and reinterpret again and again, because this story is mine. And somehow, in making it more fully my own, I’ve made it more fully everyone else’s, too. I think that moment when we reach the crossroads of fully realized self and fully accessible public consumption is what art is all about, don’t you?

 

Annie lives in Texas with her husband and two cats. She describes herself as “hyperactively organized” and she willingly shares “that neurosis” with other writers at The Organized Writer. While you’re there, check out her current projects, and browse pictures of writers’ offices at The Decorative Writer. She posts new blogs two to four times a month, and she loves to read comments! You can also connect with her on Twitter @AnnieNeugebauer and on Facebook. She also writes a bi-monthly post for Writer Unboxed.

On Starting Again, Again

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Because wouldn’t you rather look at this amazing sunrise than a blank screen?

The blank page (er, screen)…

It’s staring me in the face these days.

That’s not entirely true. My alter-ego, mystery-writing self J.M. Maison is busy at work on the next book in The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series (it will be done soon).

But me? Myself? I?

I’m starting over, again. The wheels are churning. I have an idea, several, they’re coming together (I wrote about it here on Writer Unboxed last month…about cooking an idea). I’m hoping this: that I’ll finish the mysterious first draft, then just in time for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month in November) the pieces will have fallen into place for the next novel.

That’s what happened last year. NaNo was a big success for me (you can read my husband’s funny post about it here). I wrote the first draft of a novel (I’m now querying). I love the exciting wind-in-my-hair feeling I got from NaNo. And I think I’m going to do it again.

Okay, that’s all today—I’m off to write. Have a great day everyone!

What about you? Have you ever NaNo-ed? Did you like it? Or not so much?

Cheers,

Julia

The Ramblings of a (Dis)Organzied Writer

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My coffee shop subset

I am disorganized.

Not true. In my mind I am organized—and by this I mean that by nature I’m very organized and can keep everything I need to do in my mind. I’ve never missed an appointment (okay, there was that Easter party my son almost missed when he was four—he’s in med school now). I never almost never forget anything. I always almost always get everything done that needs doing. I always (I think) remember everything I want to make a note of. I don’t remember if I do. For instance, I had this great next sentence… but I just forgot it. (I’m only partly joking.)

But in my mind I’m disorganized. And by this I mean that I feel disorganized.

When I got an iPhone four years ago, I thought it would be better. With all the apps and calendars and organizational systems available, I decided that would be my salvation. I’d keep notes and calendar only on my iPhone. Then somehow all my notes got wiped out. Months of notes on my iPhone. Literally months. Luckily I was disorganized (or organized) enough that I didn’t miss them.

That’s when I started the notebooks.

Let me back up. For a year or so I’ve wanted to write a post about how organized I am. How I have this great notebook system that helps me be incredibly organized. But that was when I was developing this great notebook system, one that involves six seven eight I’m not sure how many notebooks of different shapes and sizes.

Movies to watch. Books to read & books read (yes I consolidated these into one notebook a few years ago, thank goodness). Future writing project ideas. Blog notes—for my blog and for Writer Unboxed. Household tasks and future posts. Things that needed to be done right away. Daily writing journal. Current WIP notebook. Quotes. Agents. The small notebook I keep in my wallet for when I’m not at home.

One notebook for each.

Now that the system is (pretty) developed, I’m not so sure.

When I’m at home, it’s not an issue. I have the whole of the house at my fingertips. But when I work outside the house, at a coffee shop for instance (where I am right now), I scoop up an entire pile of things (and by things, I mean notebooks) I might possibly need (thank goodness it’s only a subset since I leave “home task notebooks” at home) and load them into my bag along with my laptop.

The other problem is this. I’m not consistent. I don’t (necessarily) write things down in the right notebook, and the catch-all becomes the small spiral notebook next to my computer (if it happens I’m working at my desk)… or the pad of paper on the kitchen table (if I’m working there). And the phrase “you can’t take it with you” takes on a whole new meaning with the notebook system. When I’m working at a coffee shop, any old scrap of paper will do.

Don’t even get me started on my calendar. Kitchen wall? iPhone? Post it stuck to the back door. Yes, all systems apply.

And the other problem is that once I write something down—using the notebook system—I may or may not ever look at it again.

So that leaves me with…why? Why do I do it?

  • An act of passive resistance to being controlled by paper? Or phone?
  • Too much to do?
  • Not enough of a system?/Too much of a system?
  • A love of notebooks? (Can a writer ever have too many notebooks?)
  • The fear of putting everything on my iPhone/computer for fear “out of sight is out of mind”? And/or losing notes again?
  • Busy with writing so I don’t want to bother with the act of getting organized (that’s my favorite, by the way).

The truth is I’m not sure why. This post has helped me to identify the overarching possibilities. Sometimes I wonder if the mere act of writing something down in one of the notebooks (or a scrap of paper) will help me remember, and maybe that’s enough. (I’ve actually read that for some kinds of learners this is true.) Sometimes the mere act of writing a blog post (like this) will help me figure things out. Or start me thinking about it and help me solve it.

Maybe my system is too complicated.

Maybe the real problem is the feeling that things are slipping through my fingers. Not that I’d be more productive if I remembered everything necessarily (whatever everything is), but that I would be happier and less stressed if I didn’t have to worry about it.

Maybe I don’t really have a problem.

Or maybe I can think about this tomorrow and for today it’s more of an attitude adjustment I need.

Because maybe I am disorganized, but maybe I’m as organized as I need to be. For today. But tomorrow? Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be organized enough to figure out how to be even more organized.

What about you? Are you an organized person? Any tips, ideas, apps, or suggestions you have for me?

Cheers,

Julia

11 Coffee Shop Commandments

1408971366.556579.IMG_7976The RB closed. It’s as simple as that. One day when I got to one of the two coffee shops in town, the guy behind the counter explained—to me and to everyone else in line—that Sunday would be “our last day.”

Want to buy a coffee shop? He directed us to the sign next to the cash register. Only $10K, he said when I asked what they were asking. Basically the cost of the expensive espresso machine, he said. Of course there’s the rent. That was my next question, briefly entertaining the notion of buying the place—having a coffee shop all to myself. What writer wouldn’t want that?

But seriously. This is a problem. Granted I live in a town of only 8,500 people. But here’s the thing. Both of our two coffee shops—the RB and the MRC—are always crowded. MRC is always my first choice. In fact, I wrote one of my WIPs at the choice corner table. (It’s the most coveted table in the place.) But I would go to the RB when the MRC was full (which it often was even before RB closed). And if you sometimes (or more than sometimes) work in a coffee shop, this is especially a problem.

That’s not what this blog is about. By the way, I don’t want you to get the impression I go to the coffee shop every day (I don’t…not anymore). No, this blog is about coffee shop etiquette and acceptable coffee shop behavior. How you should (and should not) behave in a coffee shop—according to me, of course, because it is my blog and it is critical to my life right now with coffee shop real estate (and I mean in both the table- and shop-sense) at a premium. Good behavior is mandatory.

Here’s my list.

1. Thou shalt not talk on the phone. Especially all the time. One woman does this non-stop (she used to be at the RB and has now moved to MRC—yes at the coveted corner table). She had her headphones plugged into her phone last time I was there when she was; she talked for over an hour before I couldn’t stand it and had to leave.

2. Thou shalt not listen to movies/trailers/music outloud. This seems self evident (to me), but I’m just saying.

3. Thou shalt not hog electrical outlets. Back to the phone-talker. She does. Talk on the phone and hog the outlets…many outlets at once. What is she doing? It’s hard to imagine what combination of electronics could require four plugs. Shouldn’t she get a room (and by room I mean office)?

4. Be polite and friendly to all. This includes pulling in your chair when someone is trying to go by, keeping your voice at a normal speaking, inside—not outside—voice level, kindly greeting others who greet you first. You know, all the things most of us learned at home or if not at home then in kindergarten.

5. Don’t act like you’re at home—you’re not. No matter if you do go everyday (or almost everyday). Don’t speak in a loud voice (even if it’s an interesting story), don’t yell across the coffee shop to other patrons, and never ever put your feet on the furniture…yes, that means you Miss Pink Flip Flops who just put her foot on a table.

6. Make yourself comfortable, but not for too long. And if you do stay too long, for the love of God, don’t bring your own food, particularly coffee. Or soda machine. Or… is it just me or is this self evident? Even if you don’t buy something to eat every day, I like to at least sometimes buy a bagel or croissant—just to show I understand it’s a business. (Maybe then the RB wouldn’t have gone under and then maybe other places won’t go under like the RB did).

7. Make friends with the barista. Sometimes this is impossible (no matter how much you try). But let’s face it, if the barista’s not happy, no one’s happy. Smile at the people behind the counter, put something in the tip jar, care about their lives.

8. Chat with your fellow “coffee shop workers”—but only if they want to—and then not too much, after all—like you—they’re there to work. Making friends with other regulars can be fun and also is helpful when you’re looking for someone to empathize with about other particularly annoying “co-workers.” Need I mention phone-woman again? Or the couple who had the huge argument one day?

9.  Thou shalt not take cuts in line—yes even if it’s to ask “a quick question.” Again, is this not self evident? And yes, I’m talking to you, lady, the one who cut in front of me a few minutes ago to ask for napkins and didn’t even bother to excuse herself to me.

10. Clean up after yourself. Throw your trash away. Bus your table. Brush crumbs away. Sometimes things are so busy the staff doesn’t have time. Anyway, I’m pretty sure this is standard. (I’d extend this to the bathroom… there’s nothing worse than going into a public bathroom that someone hasn’t bothered to keep tidy during their visit. Throw paper towels away where they belong, don’t leave hair in the sink, and—well, I hate to be the toilet police, but shouldn’t guys always lower the seat?)

11. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor-writer’s computer. Now this is totally in fun, offered to me by one of my writer friends at MRC. He calls this the 11th commandment. By the way, he does covet my computer. Last month I got my first new computer EVER. A Macbook Pro. Retina display. Super light. My first very-own, non-handmedown computer. It’s pretty slick, I do have to say, and I have to pinch myself occasionally to believe it’s really mine. Don’t worry, there are downsides, if you doubt it, take a look at the blog I wrote about email.

Can’t we all just get along?

What about you? What are your pet peeves and commandments—or am I just too picky for words?

 

Going to the Birds

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The Arctic Tern

 

Summertime is prime bird watching time in Maine. We get the songbirds of the meadows and woodlands, but we also get the water birds. Gulls, terns, waders like Great Blue Herons and Egrets. A lot of birds of prey too. Ospreys and Eagles and hawks, oh my.

I confess I love them all.

Yesterday MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went for a drive to Wolfe’s Neck Farm (yes it’s as beautiful as it sounds). We saw all kinds of birds. In fact on the mouth of the Little River, where it flows into the bay—on the tidal flat—we saw six Egrets along the river. It was an amazing sight. We took a few photos from afar, but when I got home I looked at them and decided none was close enough nor could be enlarged without looking blurry so I threw them away.

A hawk... I think a Broad Winged (any birders out there want to chime, er, chirp in?)

A hawk… I think a Broad Winged (any birders out there want to chime, er, chirp in?)

This is very uncharacteristic (I have almost 10,000 photos on my computer and another 6,000 on my iPhone, so clearly I rarely trash anything), and I immediately regretted it (well when I decided to write this blog). I wanted to include that distant photo of the six egrets but I didn’t have it anymore. Moral: don’t throw anything away. Better moral: Keep at least one photo of everything. Addendum: buy an external hard drive to store photos.

Anyway, last night we watched A Birder’s Guide to Everything—a sweet coming of age movie about bird watching and life. And today I went bird watching again at the Town Landing in the next town over, the place I go almost everyday. And boy was I glad I went. I immediately saw several small seabirds flitting around, plunging into the water and diving for fish. I knew they were terns, but what I didn’t know until I got home was that I was watching the Arctic Tern.

This gives you an idea of the speed these birds move. I guess they have to in order to cover as much ground as they do!

This gives you an idea of the speed these birds move. I guess they have to in order to cover as much ground as they do!

This is what I learned from the Cornell Bird site: the Arctic Tern has the farthest yearly journey of any bird. It migrates up to 25,000 miles from its Arctic breeding ground to where it winters in Antarctica. I probably could’ve stood on the dock and watched these birds all day. They were as beautiful as they were acrobatic.

Although there's no bird in this photo, it is my favorite of the week. Partly because it's so beautiful, partly because the people in the photo are friends of mine and I know how happy they are while they're out sailing together!

Although there’s no bird in this photo, it is my favorite of the week. Partly because it’s so beautiful, but mostly because the people in the photo are friends of mine and I know how happy they are while they’re out sailing together!

Although none of my photos of the Arctic Tern are that great, I still decided to include them in this post (I learned my lesson with the egrets!), because I guess the Arctic Tern may top my list as my favorite bird this year.  My all-time favorite is still the Hermit Thrush. A songbird, its song is just beautiful. (If you have time, you should follow the link and listen to the “typical voice,” well worth it!)

Are you a bird watcher? What’s your favorite bird? What’s your favorite outdoor activity this summer?

Cheers,

Julia