A Final Good-bye

Photo by Greg Wagoner, Flickr's Creative Commons

Photo by Greg Wagoner, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Online life can be strange. We “meet” people, friends, and connect briefly…or permanently. We can connect superficially or deeply. Often it’s like our friends IRL—we aren’t really sure what draws us together. Something unknowable, intangible, fleeting. Right place at the right time? Maybe something serendipitous or simply a similar interest.

Like writing.

One such writer I’ve connected with is Tracy Seeley. She was one of my earliest writer friends in my online writing community. I don’t really remember exactly how we “met.” On a blog? Twitter? (Not Facebook, I know that, because we were never friends there.) I only know that we connected deeply over her memoir My Ruby Slippers about a roadtrip to explore her past in Kansas and Colorado, spurred on by a cancer diagnosis.

I wrote to Tracy after reading her memoir, first on email, then on paper…by snail mail. I told her how much I enjoyed her book, and I was honored she wrote back. We exchanged a handful of cards—talking about our shared interests in gardening, places we’d both lived (Colorado and San Francisco), and of course writing.

We also talked about her ongoing battle with breast cancer.

We stopped writing to one another a few years ago. It wasn’t anything in particular that stopped us—not even that we ran out of things we could say—it was just that we both got busy, as friends do.

So today, when quite by accident I stumbled upon Tracy’s obituary, I was caught short. She died last year, and I didn’t know. That’s perhaps one of the cruelest tricks of modern life: someone who you’ve never met in person, who you think you know, feel like you know, can be gone just as quickly as they appeared. And you don’t even know. It feels like Tracy could be alive because I never saw her at the grocery store or on my way around the block with the dog or every year at a family reunion or conference and I never even talked to her on the phone or Skyped or Google-chatted with her as I have with many of you.

From time to time I talk to MEH (My Engineer Husband) about what he should do if I die suddenly. How he will tell my online community…who he will tell who will then spread the word. We’ve never come up with a hard and fast plan. He doesn’t even remember where I keep my passwords. In truth, I keep them on my Macbook, on an electronic post-it, but of course he’d need my computer password to see them—that’s on the same post-it. I’m not sure it would be the first or second thing he’d think of; maybe he’d never think of it at all.

I do. And yet I don’t know what the answer is. For me. I imagine it’s different for each of us.

What I do know is that I wish I’d written to Tracy one more time. To say good-bye. To thank her for her lovely book—which I’ll treasure even more now. To say how much her cards and time meant to me; her acceptance and affection as a writer.

But mostly, I’d say this:

I’m so glad you were my friend, Tracy. You were a beautiful and wonderfully warm woman and lovely writer who I’m so happy to have shared time on Earth with, however briefly. Thank you for being my friend. I will miss you. Love, Julia

My love to you all,

Julia

 

Two Truths and a Lie

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Truth: One of my favorite things to photograph are dinghies.

When my friend Hallie Sawyer tagged me today to write a post based on the Two Truths and a Lie game, of course I jumped at the chance. For one thing, I haven’t posted a blog since February. (Truth. Sad, but still a truth.) For another, Hallie and I just talked about how I wanted to blog more (Again, truth). But, most importantly, Hallie is one of my very favorite friends I’ve met in the blogging world. (Truth.) Hallie is one of the funniest women I know–we laugh together all the time–and she has a heart the size of Kansas. She’s a mom to three kids, a holistic health advocate, and a physical fitness guru who has helped me become more physically fit. So when she tagged me, I couldn’t turn her down. (Truth. This one’s for you, Hal. Love you.)

I’m going to list two truths and a lie, and then I’ll challenge another blogger to do the same. So…here goes…one of these is a lie and the two others are truths:

  1. My first kiss was with a boy named Martin, and I married a man with the last name Martin.
  2. When I was in college, I worked as a squid cleaner at a seafood restaurant.
  3. I grew up all over the world, and I’ve lived on every continent.

Leave me a comment with your guess of which one is a lie (or which two are truths). Come back on Monday when I’ll post another blog and you can find out whether you’re right! Thank you Hallie for the push to post a blog. You’re the best (Truth.).

Now my turn to tag someone: Jamie Miles, one of my favorite bloggers. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly where I met Jamie…but it was about four years ago. We connected over our sense of humor and our kids and (of course) writing: Jamie has been a beta reader for one of my novels, and I hope to return the favor. She lives in Georgia, she’s an award winning humor columnist, she blogs, and she writes fiction. Jamie has three kids and one of her kids has the same name as one of mine (Truth.). She and I both love okra (Truth. I’m not sure Jamie knows this; I learned it today from her blog.). She is an avid runner and, I’m just guessing here, is always on the go. Will you play along, Jamie? I hope so because I love your blog posts–they always make me laugh!

Jamie, this is a two post game–like Hallie said–you state your three things in one post, adding a link to the blogger who tagged you (that’s me!). In the second post, you admit which of the three things was a lie, and you tag another blogger.

Now, you should go read Hallie’s Two Lies and a Truth post…and then subscribe to her blog. Because she’s the best. If you want a blast from the past, here’s another Two Lies and a Truth post I wrote back in 2011!

And don’t forget to guess which of my three statements is a lie. And just for fun…leave me three of your own and I’ll guess, too!

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

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?

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.)

 

 

 

 

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.

 

It’s All About Relationships: A Conversation with Novelist Erika Marks

9780451418869_large_It_Comes_In_WavesToday I’m beyond excited to be interviewing my author friend Erika Marks – here with her fourth novel It Comes In Waves. As with each of her novels, Erika has been kind enough to visit my blog. Thank you, my friend! Erika describes herself in her bio this way: “a native New Englander who now makes her home in North Carolina with her husband and their two little mermaids.” Here’s what the bio doesn’t say: she’s one of the nicest and funniest and most-fun-to-talk-to writers I’ve had the good fortune to get to know online. But here’s the best part. Erika grew up very near where I live today, which we realized  after we met through our blogs, and so we can talk about all the places I go that she used to. So fun! I’ve also met her in person when she was home visiting!! Believe me that was one fun meeting and I have high hopes we’ll meet again next time she’s in her hometown here in Maine.

If you haven’t already read it, you should check out Erika’s new novel It Comes in WavesI loved it as I have all her wonderful novels: The Guest House, The Mermaid Collector, and Little Gale Gumbo.

It’s All About Relationships: A Conversation with Novelist Erika Marks

It Comes in Waves addresses many kinds of relationships—romantic love, friendship between women, friendship between men, mother-child, father-child, even grandparent-grandchild. This Q&A will focus on those relationships…and I’ve learned through her four books that Erika is a pro at describing these relationships. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to focus this Q&A on just that.

I warned you I would ask this question! One of the things I really enjoy about your novels is that each of them has a (well, at least one) love triangle. It Comes In Waves is no different. I don’t want to give anything away but how could anyone not be in love with Foss? What is it about the “rule of three” that makes love relationships more interesting to write about than “just problems” and tension in a relationship? Where do you get your ideas for the love triangles…do they come from your real life, or…?

This IS a great question—and I know you will think I’m being coy, but the truth is the theme of love triangles is not born of my own experience but there’s no question I find the idea intriguing. Okay, maybe it had something to do with playing Helena in my high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and as anyone familiar with the play knows, there is no end to the drama (and humor!) when a love triangle (or square in the case of AMND!) ensues. However, I am always interested in exploring how we evolve in our relationships and how, as we grow, our attractions grow and change—which will often lead to having conflicting romantic feelings and not knowing how to express them, which is what I think happens to many of the characters in my novels. Dahlia from Little Gale Gumbo, and Foss from It Comes In Waves, are examples of that.

I’m not giving anything away (it’s on the back of the book) when I divulge that best friends Claire and Jill reunite after a long estrangement. Have you ever had a friendship that ended? If so, did you end up reuniting? If not, did you base the Jill/Claire story on other friendships you watched crumble? How did your own friendships make you more or less sympathetic to each woman?

Believe it or not, so often my fictional relationships come out of a lack of personal experience. I think of a situation that I may not have any context for, and it fascinates me to explore it through the novel. Sometimes pieces of my own life creep in (You’re a writer, Julia, so I know you know how can it not, right?), but from the outset, it is the unfamiliarity of the relationship that intrigues me and compels me to write about it.

Slight spoiler question… if you haven’t read the book you might want to skip this one. Am I the biggest sap in the world? I kept hoping that the third generation (Jill’s son and Claire’s daughter) might end up together. I was kind of surprised, in fact, that Claire’s daughter left Folly Beach. Did you consider this possibility? Claire and her daughter have a tense relationship with some serious trust issues. Is it strange that when I write about teenagers I always take their side (not the parents’), so I’m curious—are you the same way? Did you find yourself on one side or the other or are you more impartial than I am?

Such a great question because I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I will comment after watching a movie how you know you’re a parent when you identify more with the plight of the adult than the child. However, that said, when I write, I go back and forth, depending on the character. In the scenes of Claire as a teenager, I definitely took her side more but when it came time to show her present conflicts with her daughter, I wanted to be more balanced, as I hoped to be when showing Claire’s tensions with her own mother in the present. What interests me as a writer is seeing both sides and showing them because the older I get, the more I see the different perspectives and I think it makes for a more interesting and compelling story to reveal both sides—or at least, have the characters grow through understanding that the other side exists.

Re: Luke and Lizzie, it’s funny—when my mom started the book, she assumed Luke and Lizzie would end up together too—and honestly, I never considered it. But now, I can’t help but wonder What if…

I don’t know if you ever saw that old movie Romancing the Stone? At the beginning of the movie, the main character is crying as she’s writing…she always does. I’m that kind of writer. When I’m writing, I always cry…at emotional times in the story but especially if there’s heartbreak and always when I’m writing (or reading) the end. I’m curious, do you cry when you write? If so, what kinds of things make you cry? What parts of It Comes In Waves did you think were the most sad…that you thought, as you were writing, would make readers feel most sad?

You mean, have I seen it in the last two months??!! (It’s one of my very favorites—and was even before I became published!) I love that you cry as you write—very rarely do I, but sometimes when I’m at the very end of the process, maybe far enough away from all the edits and can see the story through fresh eyes again, I will definitely tear up. (And of course, I always hope I look even one quarter as adorable doing it as Kathleen Tuner does in Romancing the Stone!) In writing WAVES, I definitely teared up when Ivy spoke of needing a place to honor her son’s memory—and when Luke admits that he didn’t want to see the shop go because it might mean losing the only tie he had to his father.

I’m playing relationship therapist here a bit! Here’s a list of (some of) the relationships in It Comes in Waves… for each pair, can you give me a few words to describe the relationship and tell me which character in each pair you related to more or perhaps felt more sympathy for? Also (of all of them) which of was easiest to write, which was hardest to write? For those of you who haven’t read the book, I’ve noted the relationship…now you can see what I mean about Erika being the expert, right?!

Jill & Luke (mother-son)  I related to Jill more but I definitely felt for Luke. I have daughters but I think there is something different about sons—so possibly this was one of the harder relationships for me to write.

Claire & Lizzie (mother-daughter)  It went back and forth—I felt for Claire needing a closeness to her daughter and being so afraid of losing that bond but I also felt for Lizzie’s need for independence.

Claire & Jill  (estranged best friends)  Honestly, this one was challenging to write, but in a good way. As I wrote their scenes, I vacillated between who I felt more tenderly for, depending on the scene. I wanted the balance because I didn’t want one woman to come off as “the good one” and the other “the bad one” which might have been easy to do based on their history.

Foster & Shep  (best friends)   For whatever reason, maybe because I had so many male friends growing up, and was very observant of the way males relate to one another, I felt this relationship came together very naturally as I wrote it.

Jill & Foster  (love)   I loved writing their relationship because there was a purity to their growing feelings, a sense that they belonged together and they both knew it, even if they didn’t dare act on their feelings for a long time to spare the hearts of those they loved.

Claire & Foster  (love)   This one was tough because I knew as I wrote it that their love would eventually become unbalanced and I hurt for Claire’s longing for something Foster couldn’t give her. The mother in me came out, wanting to protect Claire from heartache but knowing she had to feel the blow before she would accept the truth.

Jill & Shep  (love)   This was a tougher relationship to unearth, because there is so much history, and because Shep takes Jill back after she leaves him for Foster. But it was the layers of that history that made it such an interesting relationship to explore.

Claire & Maura  (mother-daughter)   I felt more for Claire when she was young in this relationship but in the present, I definitely felt torn between the two. For better or for worse, Maura is who she is, and Claire is resistant to accepting that, as well as resistant to taking responsibility for her own choices and not blaming them on her parents.

Ivy & Claire (friends…and kind of MIL/DIL…well, it’s complicated)  There was such warmth there—the mother figure Claire never got to have with her own mother, and Ivy saw so much of herself in Claire.

Ivy & Jill   (MIL-DIL)  By contrast, Ivy and Jill were forever prickly, but their relationship was a fascinating one to write, because the tension was thick and I knew eventually it would boil over—but what would be the final straw?

Ivy & Luke  (grandmother-grandson)  Like Foster, Luke is Ivy’s everything and he validates her choices and her dreams—even if she knows deep down they are ill-fated. I loved writing their scenes.

Gus & Claire (new love)  Gus is such a dude and I couldn’t wait for him to swoop in and shake things up for Claire. The fact that he knew her from way-back-when and reminds her of her passion for surfing (and the fiercely independent young woman she once was) makes him so irresistible and lovable. And let’s not forget…

Margot & Gus (just joking but you still have to answer…dog-man)  A man who loves his dog and makes her as much a part of his world as anyone? Sign me up! I know this will come as a big shock to you, Julia, but I’m tempted to say this might have been the easiest relationship of all of them to write!

Thank you again, my friend! So happy you were able to take the time for this visit!

Bio: Erika Marks is a native New Englander who now makes her home in North Carolina with her husband and their two little mermaids. She is also the author of THE GUEST HOUSE, THE MERMAID COLLECTOR, and LITTLE GALE GUMBO.

 

Fresh Ink Flipped: Q&A with Natalia Sylvester

ChasingTheSunLima-e1403897593544I can’t tell you how happy I am to post this interview with writer friend Natalia Sylvester—because it means her debut novel Chasing the Sun has been released! I hope you’ll forgive me for injecting a loud “YAHOO” here… because Natalia and I have been great blogging and Twitter friends since I first went online, and I have followed her path to publication with great anticipation and excitement. In addition to being a close writer friend, she is one of the finest writers I’ve met through social networking. I have been fortunate to have Natalia as a super-duper early reader on two of my novel WIPs, and she gave me invaluable feedback that helped me shape my thoughts not just about the partials she read but also about my fiction writing in general—thank you Natalia! Although Natalia and I have not yet met in person, I’ve had the great pleasure to talk to her via Google Chat, and I can tell you she is as charming in person as her book is in writing.

I highly recommend Chasing the Sun…And here’s the good news! You could win your own signed copy of this wonderful novel—Natalia has generously offered to give one copy away. Simply enter the Rafflecopter at the end of this post!

Natalia and I are often on the same wavelength in our blog posts (and without any coordination have posted about very similar topics on the very same day)…but her Fresh Ink series is uniquely her own. Fresh Ink focuses on debut novelists and their journey to publication. When I prepared for this Q&A, I thought it might be fun to ask Natalia some of her own Fresh Ink questions…and here’s what Natalia said when I asked her:

You won’t believe this! Talk about being on the same wavelength: JUST the other day I was thinking how it’d be fun to ask someone to do a Fresh Ink interview with me, flipped! So of course I’m beyond ecstatic to see question #1 (but not surprised that you read my mind).

I just want to take a moment to say how thrilled I am to be a guest at your blog today, Julia. You’re one of the first bloggers who I connected with when I sought out social media to meet other writers, and I never imagined that I’d not only find writers, but true friends. Thank you so much for having me!

Thank you, Natalia! The feeling is entirely mutual!

1. Here goes…this first question is Fresh Ink…flipped!

Length of time from book’s start to pub date: 9 years (Though I did set this book aside for a period of 5 years in between.)

# of agents you queried before signing: 17

# of books written before this one: 1

# of revisions you went through: 3 complete rewrites and probably 3 revisions per rewrite

We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?

I never would have predicted how much I’d learn throughout the process of talking about the book and being asked questions I’d never really thought about. Since the book launched, I’ve learned that the first memory I have—one that I thought took place after we’d moved away from Peru—is actually me remembering a night in Peru when we all the power had gone off in our house. These blackouts were common at the time; groups like the Shining Path would often set off bombs, set fires, or set off the power throughout the city.

ChasingtheSun_Cover_jpegI’ve also remembered the moment I learned about my grandfather’s kidnapping in more vivid detail that ever before, because talking about it forced me to dig deeper than I’d tried to dig in the past. I’d always expected writing a book to be an act of self-discovery, but hadn’t anticipated that promoting it would be just as eye-opening. The curiosity that readers bring to a story opens up a whole other world of possibilities.

2. Can you describe a little bit about your writing process? I know that in addition to being a novelist you’re also a busy freelance writer—how do you balance those two (potentially competing) writing endeavors?

It’s funny that you ask how I balance them, when in fact I feel like they balance me! Writing fiction has always been a very emotionally intense process for me: most days, I’m overwhelmed by insecurity, wondering if the words will come, if the story and the characters will take shape like I hope they will. This, paired with the scary or difficult-to-imagine places that fiction tasks us with going, can be draining. So I can’t imagine writing fiction all day every day, but my work as a freelance copywriter allows me to keep pulling from my writing “toolbox” daily. Things like voice, word choice, tone, and the importance of telling a story, are parts of the craft I get to practice through copywriting.

At the same time, switching between the two forms doesn’t always come easy for me, so I try to write fiction first thing in the morning—two hours before I’d normally wake—and then spend the rest of the day on social media, marketing, and also my freelance work. Of course, that’s in ideal conditions! I’ve had deadlines for revision force me to mix things up a bit, and that’s always a welcome challenge because it pushes me out of my comfort zone.

3. You’ve talked about how Chasing the Sun was partially inspired by your grandfather’s kidnapping in Peru. Having written fiction that started with a tiny germ of my own life, I know it doesn’t take much…and I’m so curious how your story strayed from reality and where…

Where it’s most rooted in reality is in the questions I was hoping to answer through the story, things I’d always wondered about my grandfather’s kidnapping but had been too afraid to ask: How does living through an experience like this affect a person? How does it affect not just the victim, but the family, who are also victims tormented by the waiting and the not knowing? What happens when this person returns—can things ever go back to normal, and does normal even exist? And most importantly, is there any hope left once we’ve survived such a dark, traumatic experience?

But from the beginning, it strayed from reality starting with the characters because I wanted this story to be about something bigger than my family. At the same time, I wanted to create some distance and give my grandfather’s story the privacy and respect to be his own, while still exploring it in what I hoped would be a more universal approach. Andres and Marabela very quickly took on a life of their own—I didn’t even realize they were having marital problems until the end of one of the first drafts. Suddenly the story wasn’t just about a kidnapping. It was about a frail marriage, and on top of it, Marabela is taken and all these hairline cracks in their relationship are exposed. I was much more interested in this because even tragedy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, under ideal conditions. There are always so many complex factors at play, rooted in the deeply personal. So the book also became a character study, which I think all stories are, to some extent: if we’re only looking at the action and not at the characters it’s affecting, are really looking close enough?

4. One of the things I loved about Chasing the Sun was your use of language—your writing flowed beautifully and simply and yet was complex in language (I hope that makes sense), and I found it quite reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its descriptions and visual richness. I felt I was seeing the world as the characters saw it, particularly so with Andres. His voice and presence is so loud and clear. Very impressive. Can you describe a bit how you came to see the world through his eyes and talk through his voice? How did you make him come alive to yourself and to the reader?

You awe and flatter me by bringing up Gabriel Garcia Marquez—thank you! Much too kind of you!

It’s interesting that you bring up Andres’s voice because out of all the characters in the book, his voice was the one I struggled with the least. I think it’s because, while I don’t agree with a lot of the choices he’d made in his life (and does make throughout the story) I could most relate to him being on the outside perspective of this kidnapping, because that’s how I’d felt my whole life in relation to my grandfather’s kidnapping: I didn’t know what it’d been like for him, and all I could grasp at were my imagination and unanswered questions.

I also knew from the beginning that he was a very driven businessman, that he’d put everything into starting his company and growing it, sometimes at the expense of spending time with his family and nurturing his relationship with Marabela. As a freelancer, I’ve also started my own company, and though I don’t feel I’ve neglected my family for it, I’ve often feared getting to that point. So developing Andres’s character ended up being an exercise in placing myself in some of my deepest fears in order to better understand a person like him.

5. I love when I find a line in a novel that makes me realize where the title originated—and when I read the sentence about Andres driving like he was chasing the sun, I immediately understood the significance and the importance of the title. I know you had a different working title…and I’m wondering, can you discuss how you came up with the first—and this—title?

Oh my goodness, titles, my weakness! I went through so many throughout many stages of the process, but once I submitted it to my agent (it was called Take This Woman then, and already I was begging for alternate suggestions!) we decided to shop it as Where We Once Belonged, and that’s what it sold as.

During the revision process with my editor, we discussed how, while the title was beautiful and hinted at the importance of the past and relationships, it didn’t have a sense of urgency, or any heat (yes! She and my agent actually used that word). I reread the book, highlighted lines that stood out to me, and kept coming back to Chasing the Sun for many reasons. One: the sun is such an important symbol in Peruvian culture. For the Incas, the sun was their god (named Inti, Quechua for sun) and even our currency was once called the Inti and later became the Sol. And two, I felt Chasing the Sun captured how so many of the characters, including Andres, are always chasing after what most eludes them, and what perhaps will always be out of their reach.

6. “In the eerie glow of the red light, they work in silence, and when they’re done the room is just another poorly lit windowless office with a view to nowhere.” This sentence (on page 68) was so evocative for me. I loved that Marabela was a photographer during the time of darkrooms—as a photographer myself, I can say you described the processes and feelings and products so very well…particularly later about the spools for the film, in the pitch dark. Have you worked in a darkroom?

I took photography in high school, and this was a couple of years before digital had really become a thing. My school had this big, beautiful darkroom where I would spend hours and hours developing pictures, waiting for the images to manifest in the liquid-filled trays, and even days after, I could always smell the chemicals still on my fingertips. I loved everything about the process because it was so sensual: not just sight and smell, but a special kind of silence, paired with the act of feeling your way through the dark, developing spools of film in complete blackness. I have to admit this is one part of the novel that involved very little research. I miss the darkroom so much that really, Marabela’s desire to go back there is my own. It’s really what made her come alive for me, because I didn’t know she was a photographer until the second to last draft. Suddenly, we shared a passion and I felt I understood her, and how she saw the world, so much more clearly.

7. If you were a novelist being interviewed for your own Fresh Ink, what question would you ask her/yourself? (And then please answer!)

One question I was recently asked that I really enjoyed was from a reporter who said he loved the exploration of masculinity and what it entails, particularly because Ignacio, Andres’s son, is a teenager but also on the cusp of being a man. He wanted to know if this was intentional. I was fascinated by the question because I wonder how much of what we write is truly intentional, and does it really matter? Intentional or not, these words and themes still come out of us, sometimes from our subconscious, and the process of writing actually becomes a process of learning about ourselves. So while Ignacio’s struggle with becoming a man is something that I didn’t originally set out to explore, once I noticed it in my drafts it felt very true, and I intentionally left it in. I think in writing there are choices we make, and choices we don’t realize we make, and both teach us something new about ourselves.

Thank you again, Natalia. I am so thrilled to have had you on my blog for this Q&A! 

N_Sylvester-150x150A former magazine editor, Natalia Sylvester now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. CHASING THE SUN, partially inspired by family events, is her first novel. Connect with Natalia on Twitter and Facebook and on her blog, too.

 

Readers…don’t forget to enter the Rafflecopter for your chance to win a copy of Natalia’s book!

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An Interview with Jolina Petersheim, author of The Midwife

untitled (6 of 18)Please welcome author friend Jolina Petersheim to my blog! This is her second visit; not quite a year ago, she was here with a Q&A about her debut novel The Outcast. Today she returns with a Q&A about her second book The Midwife. Jolina was one of the first bloggers who reached out to me when I  joined Twitter—over three years ago—and she remains one of my closest blogger friends. I’m so happy to congratulate her on The Midwife, a fascinating book that absolutely captivated me. What I love most about Jolina’s books is that they pull me into wonderfully engaging new worlds. Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog for the second time, Jolina, and congratulations on your second book baby!

At the end of this Q&A you’ll have a chance to enter a Rafflecopter for a chance to win a copy of one of Jolina’s books, a Starbucks gift card, or an Amish wall hanging!

I read that you got the idea for The Midwife after a friend considered using a gestational surrogate. In the course of writing the book did you talk to surrogates or parents who used surrogates? What types of research did you do before and while writing this book? Was there anything that surprised you about surrogacy or swayed your own opinions about it?

I didn’t talk to parents who used surrogates or to surrogates themselves, but I did discover an online surrogacy forum early in the research of The Midwife that just transformed everything, providing me with a range of valuable information at the click of the mouse (which was very convenient since I had a newborn at the time). I didn’t realize, for instance, that a surrogate has to have carried a child to full-term and had a natural birth to qualify for surrogacy. This threw me off at first, because I wasn’t anticipating for Beth Winslow—the surrogate in The Midwife—to have lost a child through adoption when she was in college. However, as Beth’s backstory started to reveal itself to me, I realized that this loss of a previous child is one of the main reasons she refuses to lose the child in her womb when the biological parents of the surrogacy learn there might be a genetic abnormality and attempt to coerce Beth into terminating the pregnancy, which she refuses to do and instead runs and hides in an Old Order Mennonite home for unwed mothers called Hopen Haus.

You balance writing with motherhood—what advice would you give to a woman about to embark on a career in writing combined with motherhood? What has worked particularly well for you? What has been the most challenging?

Give yourself time! I wrote The Outcast (my first book) in six months—working up to eight hours a day because I had an agent’s interest but no official contract, and also because I knew I had a narrow window of time until my daughter was born. After her birth, however, I signed a two-book contract with my publisher. While talking about the timeline for my next book, I asked for a year instead of six months, and they kindly agreed. Trying to find my footing as a debut author and as a debut mom was a little challenging for a while, but with my husband’s and family’s help, it all worked out. I found that taking an afternoon to write at the library or at the coffee shop really strengthened my focus and gave me renewed zest for the story. And now, looking back, I see that having a creative outlet to pour myself into during my daughter’s difficult period of sleep deprivation was such a blessing to me. I would do it all over again!

978-1-4143-7935-7What inspires you as a writer and keeps you writing? Follow on: how do you keep track of your writing ideas? Do you keep a daily journal or notebook?

Books inspire me! I keep one next to the bathtub, one next to the bed, one in the diaper bag and/or my purse. Since my daughter’s birth two years ago, I haven’t had quite as much time to read, but I’ve made up for that by listening to audiobooks in the car or while I’m cooking. Hearing the story rather than reading it is almost more rewarding, in a way, as so many of the performers put their entire heart into the work (like the wonderful narrator, Tavia Gilbert, in The Outcast and The Midwife; I love working with her!). If I’m ever having a dry time creatively, taking a day or two to read or listen to a quality piece of literature refreshes me like nothing else. For instance, I read The Orchardist while I was working on the first draft of The Midwife, and those lyrical passages reminded me that writing is an art form, and we should give it the respect and time that it deserves.

As for recording ideas: I kept a journal from the time I could write until I got married, but six months after I married my husband, I started blogging and drafting my first novel (the latter which shall never see the light of day!). So, rather than using my spare time to record our life in my journal, I used the spare time to work on my story. This pattern has continued to this day. I used to think that finding a story idea must be the most difficult aspect of writing, but now that I’ve trained myself, I can see the ideas everywhere. Now I realize the difficult aspect is turning ideas into story!

Do you follow a certain daily ritual and/or schedule? Do you write at the same time every day? Are there things that have to be the same in order for you to write, e.g., a lucky coffee cup or other token you always need to have with you? How did these things change or remain the same after you had a child?

My husband teases me and says I’m one of the most routine-oriented creatures he’s ever known. Indeed, I do get a little flustered when something throws my day off, and I’ve had to acquire more flexibility after giving birth to my daughter, because newborns and toddlers have a schedule all their own! However, usually I try to write in the morning from 6 until 8. My husband, at 7, gets our daughter up and gives her breakfast before he leaves for work. I respond to emails and do a little social media by sitting on the tiled floor during my daughter’s bath time (she would stay in there until her fingers and toes are pickled!), and then – during her nap – I work for two more hours. Rarely do I work more than four hours a day, even on deadline. It just doesn’t seem to work out with my family’s schedule. Still, I’ve found that slow and steady does win the race, so I just plod away a little bit each weekday (saving blogging and guest posts for weekends), and at the end of the year, I usually have a manuscript.

I don’t have any special place that I write, though in the winter I do gravitate toward a comfy chair in the living room with a footstool (sometimes, if cajoled, my husband will build a fire in the fireplace). The other seasons, I like to write outside on the front porch that has a panoramic view of our field and the surrounding mountains. This past week, the farmers baled our hay, and it was so beautiful to watch the gold pieces rising into the air and the grasshoppers springing across the field.

Before my daughter’s birth, I used to write up to eight hours on weekdays, so that has certainly changed, but I have definitely found a routine that I love now and that works for everyone. Come September, though, when our other baby is due, I know that this routine is going to change. By the time I’m eighty, I’m really going to have this flexibility thing down pat!

I really liked the name Ernest Looper, and I’m fascinated by the name Rhoda Mummau—and I’m wondering if there’s significance to these name or other names in the book? Do you choose based on just “what you like” or is there a method to the naming?

Earnest Looper was actually a road sign we passed one afternoon, and I liked the sound of it and just changed the spelling a little. Rhoda seemed, to me, like the name of someone you wouldn’t want to trifle with—which Rhoda closes herself off to the pregnant, unwed girls in her midwifery care, although she is ministering to them in such intimate ways—so it fit. Mummau was actually the last name of my great grandmother, Verna. I like to choose names that I am familiar with in some capacity because I think they ring true. I have a nonfiction book on my shelf called The David and Anna Miller story, which records the names of everyone in my Mennonite heritage, back to the 18th century. I like to sort through the names and rearrange a first and last name until I find one that I enjoy. For instance, I found the name Leona Ebersole—the main character in my next book—by using this method.

Sometimes during my writing, I find one character in the book that I can identify most closely with—was there a character in The Midwife you felt most similar to? If so, why?

Though Beth Winslow, the surrogate in The Midwife, is an introvert and I’m about as extroverted as a golden retriever, I really found myself relating to her journey of learning to overcome fear with faith.

Because she has lost a child in the past, she holds on to the child she’s carrying as a surrogate with an even greater fervency. When her worst fear comes true, and she is unable to get the child back from her biological parents because they share no genetic connection, she must walk through a journey of healing and self-discovery.

I was in the editorial process of The Midwife when my husband and I miscarried a child at ten weeks, and suddenly I found that Beth’s journey of healing and self-discovery was my own. It was such an incredibly powerful time for me—rereading the scenes that my own fingers had typed before our family’s loss and seeing how God had orchestrated those scenes to later minister to my soul. I believe the redemption I experienced during the editorial process is conveyed in the midwife’s story, as it is not just the midwife’s story, it is also my own.

When I interviewed you for your last book The Outcast, I asked if you had actors in mind who might play the characters in a movie or in a reader’s mind. I’ll ask the same for this book… what actors might play the lead characters in this book?

I love this question! Again, I had so much fun with it that I created a Pinterest board with the characters. I would share the names of the actors I’ve chosen, but I believe you have to see them in the poses that I’ve selected to get an idea about what kind of character I imagine.

Thanks for having me here, Julia; what an incredible honor to visit with you!

The honor is all mine, Jolina! Thank you so much for being a return visitor to my blog! You can connect with Jolina on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Goodreads. And don’t forget to enter the Rafflecopter for a chance to win one of her wonderful novels.

 

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My Shrinking World

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The photo that started me thinking

In my last post I wrote about how addicted much I love Instagram. If anything—since I wrote that post I’ve become even more of a fan. But that’s not what this post is about.

The other day (for the first time ever) I met an Instagrammer in person (@montaukpete)—someone I’d never met before nor do I “know” on Instagram. A guy was getting ready to kayak on the river I pass each morning on my walk. I asked him if I could take a photo of him for Instagram and that’s when he told me he was on Instagram too!

That’s not what this post is about either—not exactly.

I’m also on Facebook where I’m “friends” not just with people who are friends in real life but also (probably like a lot of you reading this blog) lots of other writers and readers, too, most of whom I’ve never met in real life. The other day I posted one of my photos on FB instead of on Instagram (the accounts are not linked and I plan to keep it that way)—

That’s when it happened—and what this post is about. My worlds collided.

First things first: right before I posted the photo, I became friends on FB with two Instagram friends. It was wonderful. One in Montana and one in Norway. The kind of connections we all hope to make in social networking. Friends without boundaries. One of those Instagram friends “liked” that FB photo. But so did my daughter, my cousin, and my son’s girlfriend. A neighbor. The mother of one of my daughter’s friends who has become a close friend. And another two close IRL friends. Then several bloggers who are now also FB friends. Next a couple of friends I’ve also only met on Facebook. A few of these Internet friends I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to on Google Chat, too—and they’ve become IRL friends.

Back to the photo. It was also liked by my hairdresser and a former co-worker who has become a good friend, and a friend I’ve known since high school. That photo brought into sharp focus that I have several different worlds, Instagram being my latest. I also have my world of Mom and family. My world of Facebook and author friends. My world of Writer Unboxed (where I’m a contributor and also an admin assistant). My world of Twitter and blogging that I’ve been part of for over three years. My real world of neighbors and town as a Maine citizen. And the world of my childhood.

But with that one photograph, I also realized that all my worlds are closing in fast to create one small world. Kind of like a reverse big bang. And I have to say, I’m a fan. Now there’s something I like even more than Instagram—because the way I see it, no matter how I find friends (or they find me) I can never have enough of them.

Which leaves me with just this: thank you for being a part of my world, my friend.

How has your world changed with social networking? Have you made friends with people online who have become IRL friends? Do you like your life blended or do you prefer to keep it compartmentalized?

Cheers,

Julia

Friends along the way: Shary and Lola

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Lola says good-bye to me (note the coffee mug in the background…it kept me going to the next blogging stop!)

Yesterday I got home from my cross-country road trip, and it’s feeling awfully quiet and a little lonely at the dining room table. You see, in addition to all the driving and sightseeing along the way, I also saw some old friends, some family, and I had the opportunity to meet two of my blogging friends, too!

The first of my visits was with Shary Hover (@sharyhover on Twitter) and her dog Lola. The three of us took a lovely walk in her San Diego neighborhood—the weather was perfect as only San Diego can be—and then we sat outside in Shary’s backyard. Shary is quite the gardener, let me tell you. It was a delightful reprieve from road weariness to sit at a shady table and have a glass of wine and talk about books and writing with a good friend. I’ve known Shary since I first started blogging over two years ago, and not only are we blogging/Twitter buddies but Shary is also a trusted critique partner, so we’ve had the opportunity to talk on the phone several times, but this was our first in-person meeting.

Shary was lovely and welcoming and the tour of her garden and neighborhood was a lot of fun, but I have to say that a true highlight of my visit was Lola. She is one smart dog, let me tell you. Not only does she help Shary with her blog posts, but she is a master at tricks! She does the usual: sit and stay, down, but then… on command she can also do a high five, wave with both paws(!), crawl along the floor on her belly, and perform a twist and a ric (turn one way then the other). She also knows the difference between her inside and outside tennis balls, and she alerts Shary when there are airplanes “in her airspace” or squirrels and birds in the trees. In addition to her great intelligence, she is light on her feet, and her fur is beautiful and soft. She’s also one of the snuggliest dog I’ve ever met. Shary says Lola has faults, but I don’t actually believe it!

After a delicious dinner with Shary and her husband, I had a great night’s sleep and for breakfast some of the most delicious California grapes I’d ever had (no, this is not a paid endorsement for grapes or for San Diego, either), I hit the road with a travel mug filled with delicious coffee, heading for my next destination: blogging friend Melissa Crytzer Fry’s desert abode. More about that later this week!

I feel incredibly lucky to have met Shary in person. I only wish we lived closer by so we could meet more than once in a blue moon! Thank you again for being so welcoming, Shary!

Have you ever met a blogging friend in person? Please share your experience!

Cheers,
Julia

A Busy Day

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Part 1: Dorm Living

I’m sitting on the beautiful campus of Swarthmore College—where my daughter has spent the last four years. In addition to being an outstanding liberal arts college, its campus is also The Scott Arboretum. It’s early (6:59 a.m.) but MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I are sitting in a small courtyard outside Willetts Hall where we spent last night. There is a coolish breeze and robins are singing; it’s quiet save for the few other early risers and Public Safety readying for commencement.

It was hard to sleep last night—did I mention in my last blog that there’s a heat wave on the east coast? “It’s always like this on graduation,” one of my daughter’s friends observed last night. Six families gathered on Parrish Beach—the large sloping lawn central to campus—for a celebration of our daughters’ achievements and graduations. Five young women who have become among my daughter’s best friends. They were saying good-bye to one another as we were meeting families, some for the first time.

photo copyAfter we shared delicious Indian food and warm conversation, we sat and watched one of the most spectacular (and closest!) fireworks displays I’ve ever witnessed. Then, after saying our goodnights, the almost-graduates went on to later night parties and packing of their worldly possessions. We parents left for our night’s lodgings—some of us, like MEH and me, staying in Willetts where it was hot and impossible to cool down. But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. An opportunity to get up and immediately see the amazing gardens of Swarthmore, to be woken in the middle of the night by the happy laughter of students enjoying one last night together, to experience a taste of what my daughter has experienced these past four years.

Later this morning, our family—our son and his wonderful girlfriend are here as well—will watch these remarkable six young women graduate with their peers, and our hearts will swell (can they swell anymore?). And I will sit in the beautiful Scott Ampitheater and marvel at the beauty of my surroundings and the moment.

 

Part 2: We Hit the Road

photo copy 5After graduation we packed up my daughter’s room in the sweltering heat… in addition to packing, we were visited by many of her friends, and my daughter made frequent trips to say good-bye to friends while I sat on her bed and held a fan about an inch from my face.

We turned in my daughter’s keys at “key central,” a final sign that she truly had graduated, then we hit the road at around 5 p.m. with the eventual (next day) goal to make it to Chicago to visit one of my daughter’s best friends. We knew we’d spend the night somewhere on the way, and once we got on the Pennsylvania Pike and saw the sign for Hershey, PA, we both knew where.

CHOCOLATE WORLD! No, we didn’t stay there. But we did stop there. This Hershey attraction is open until 10 p.m. and we walked in at 8:30 p.m. Late, I know, but many people were leaving so it was pleasantly empty. We asked the very nice ticket saleswoman what we could “realistically do” knowing how close it was to closing (activities were priced per the each). She suggested a 4-D movie or “create your own candy bar.” Was there really a choice?

Minutes later we were in aprons and hairnets (definitely no photo, no way!) and on the factory floor. This was a really fun (and funny), and easy way for us to start the trip. We were both very tired and emotional from the long and busy day. We each created a custom candy bar and wrapper. Although I couldn’t control the creation of the chocolate bar, I wish I could have. As I looked at ours (and other) creations moving through the conveyer belt, I couldn’t help but notice my bar turned out bumpy, cratered, and less than perfect. My daughter’s was smooth and without flaw… I won’t draw the obvious youth vs. middle age analogy… wait, I just did.

Today: On the road to Chicago!!

Cheers, Julia

My Name is Ann, and I’m a Foodie


Ann’s food journal and a few of her HUNDREDS of cookbooks

I am so happy today to welcome my friend Ann as a guest to my blog! I met Ann when I first started blogging two years ago. She had a wonderful cooking blog, and I simply loved all the recipes she posted. We became fast friends. Last year Ann retired from blogging, but we still kept in touch and shared photos and recipes. Recently when I wrote a post about my new Moleskinejournal, I found out, in comments, that Ann keeps a very special kind of journal. I asked her if she would write a guest post about it. Being the generous friend she is, Ann agreed without hesitation, and I couldn’t be happier!
Please enjoy this post by my friend Ann!
About two years ago, I stumbled on Julia’s blog and since then, I’ve made a cozy home here as a devoted reader…and never left. Whodathunk?! A writer, who writes about WRITING who is so…interesting…so captivating?!  I figure that’s the hallmark of a talented writer, and Julia certainly is that!  She is positively MADE of awesome! 

My name is Ann and I am a foodie…

Recently, I came to the realization that canning and bread making are a lost art. I decided to take up the mantle and continue both. Happily, I discovered, both online and in person, that there are pockets of folks who think the same, and I am enjoying the old-fashioned culinary arts.


Speaking of old-fashioned…I have to confess that I adore electronics. I have an e-reader, an iPad, an iPhone, a Macbook, and a regular Mac computer. I keep my calendar, address book and just about everything else online. I haven’t bought a paper book in five years. I have, however, purchased 392 ebooks in that time (I checked…).

There is one exception—and to me, it’s an old-fashioned biggie! When it comes to cooking, I want a paper book. I want to touch it, I want to put tabs on marked pages. I write notes in the margins about the recipe and notate any changes I made. I cook 95% of the time from a cookbook and try 3-5 new recipes each week, so this is helpful to me. Did I mention that I have several HUNDRED cookbooks? 
So, here I am, a foodie chatting with a writer…

….who was gifted a Moleskine journal!


Julia and I started a conversation–via the comments section—about MY journal. The conversation quickly moved onto texts so we could chat more. Since I am a woman of limited interest, my journal is a FOOD journal!

I have a beautiful leather-bound journal where I keep my week’s menu, my grocery list and any party planning I do. When I have a party (or do the occasional catering for a friend), I keep a detailed plan, including the menu, timeline for cooking and setting up…even the table or buffet plate placements.

It’s also a resource when I want to re-make a recipe. Rather than search through all the books—which is it’s own kind of fun. I flip through my journal to the time I made the recipe, and I have the title, the date I made it, and what book and page number it’s on!

Flipping through my journal gives me a tremendous amount of pleasure and a great sense of accomplishment. I cheered Julia on with starting a journal…any journal!  Whatever you’re interested in, keeping a record of your time is never a waste of it. I am a richer person because of my little brown leather bound book, and I know Julia will enjoy her new Moleskine.

I also wanted to share another favorite. I think everyone has their favorite cookbook…here is mine! I love thisbook so much that if I’m stranded on a deserted island, THIS is the book I’d take with me!  This book has it all!  I love, LOVE it!  When it doubt, I run home to this book!  (This is not a paid endorsement—I’m a small fry who adores this book—no one’s paying me or twisting my arm, I promise!)

Julia asked if I was willing to make a recipe for you, and I did from my favorite cookbook. I made the classic (dare I say old-fashioned?) Quiche Lorraine. The classics are called that for a reason. This recipe is deceptively simple, but packs a real flavor punch. Rather than take up a bunch of room with the recipe, here’s the link!




…And here are a couple more iPhone shots (just a small sampling!) of what I’ve been canning lately!



Thanks a gazillion, bajillion Julia for letting me guest post on one of my favorite blogs, you really do rock, girlfriend! You rock, too, Ann! I love your journal even more now that I’ve seen the photos, and I love quiche and can’t wait to make the Quiche Lorraine! Your canning photos are wonderful, too…
Please let us know in comments: What’s your favorite recipe or cookbook? Do you keep a journal? Ann and I would love to hear all about your cooking, recipes, cookbooks and journals!


Cheers,
Julia & Ann

Author Mia March says "Thank You, Maine"

Today I’m happy to introduce you to author Mia March and her wonderful debut novel The Meryl Streep Movie Club. Mia and I met on Twitter and thenin one of those real life meets Twitter life storieswe realized we both live in southern Maine. We met for coffee and the rest is history. After I read The Meryl Streep Movie Club (and loved it!), I was delighted when Mia agreed to guest post on my blog about something near and dear to both our hearts: Maine. 
GIVEAWAY! Mia has graciously offered to give away one signed copy of The Meryl Streep Movie Cluball you need to do to be entered is leave a comment before noon on Friday, August 3, when I will select a winner at random.  The giveaway is now closed. Congratulations Christine Grote! 

Thank you, Mia!
Almost ten years ago, my then husband brought home a guidebook on Maine and a copy of a magazine article about how the Greater Portland area was rated the #1 place to raise a child in the U.S. We lived in a city, and I am a city girl through and through. I like crowds of strangers. I like tall buildings. I like billions of twinkling lights. I like the idea of turning a corner and passing Harrison Ford (who smiled at me when I gaped at him). But that summer, my son was turning two, and the idea of a back yard, of preschools that you didn’t have to apply a year in advance to possibly get into, of an easier lifestyle, all won out. The husband said it would be like a writing retreat from which I’d never have to return. I said yes, and we drove up to Maine and rented a house in a small town with one traffic light and a great school system. Just like that, we were Mainers.
The first month, living in Maine, with all those trees, all that fresh air, all those bodies of water, big and small, including a narrow creek running across the winding, hilly, rural road from our house, in which I had my own tiny office with a view of it all, it really did feel like a writing retreat. And Maine, as you know if you’re a regular reader of Julia’s blog, is not just beautiful, but beautiful in a way that soothes and calms the soul. Three months in, though, I was ready to go home. My husband wasn’t. And our son, well, he did love the open field of wildflowers on our property, the tire swing in the yard, hunting for treasures in the creek after breakfast every morning. The horse farm a few houses down from us was a three hour activity as close to life-school as I could dream. My son had nature and the freshest air on earth out his door. So I stayed. But I’ll be honest: I didn’t like it, not one bit. The ocean, the lighthouses, the rocky shoreline, the state parks—none of it moved me. Two, three years in, Maine felt as unfamiliar as it always had. It didn’t feel like home.

Yadda, yadda, yadda, my marriage ended—very far away from friends and family. Two things saved me. The first, I expected. The second, I didn’t.

The first was movies. And particularly Meryl Streep movies. I rented five and plunked myself on the couch with tissues and popcorn and was swept away by the stunning Out of Africaand the funny, poignant Heartburn. My Meryl Streep marathon reminded me of another time a Meryl Streep movie had a huge impact on me, and I got myself off the couch, opened the laptop, and wrote the words: Chapter One, inspired in a way I hadn’t been in a long time. I had an idea to write a novel about a fractured family of women who reunite in an old family inn on the coast of Maine and find themselves reconnecting through “movie night” in the parlor—via the surprising and heartfelt discussions raised while watching Meryl Streep movies together. I had a good sense of that old family inn in my mind, but I wanted to really see it, not just in Googled images, but in person. I wanted to find that inn in order to have my characters, my story, inhabit it.

So I set out on a road trip along coastal Route 1 with my son to find a Victorian inn that would bring my fictitious Three Captains’ Inn to life in my mind and heart. My son, with the promise of stopping at the aquarium in Boothbay Harbor to visit the shark tank, kept his eye out in the small towns we stopped in on our inn hunt. This mini road trip was the second thing that saved me.

I didn’t find the exact inn of my imagination, but all that looking, all that searching, made me notice Maine in a way I hadn’t before. For a few years by then, I’d been so busy wanting to “go home,” that I never stopped to pay attention to Maine’s small treasures, beyond the vast Atlantic and the rocky shoreline and lighthouses. Suddenly, I was enchanted by yellow cottages with low white wood fences poked through with blue hydrangeas. By plaques on the front of centuries-old houses with the original owner’s name and year built. By blueberry stands on the side of the road with baskets to leave money. Farms dotted with belted galloways with their black and white big bodies making my son laugh. Narrow paths, lined with rosa rugosa, down to little beaches strewn with shells and interesting little creatures for my son to collect. And the dogs. I don’t think I’d ever really noticed Maine’s dogs before. From big to small, from mutt to champion breed, but all very happy looking. Up along the coast from our small town just north of Portland to Camden, now one of my favorite places on earth, I fell in love with the adopted home state I came to kicking and screaming, the state I ignored for several years. I saw Maine in a new way, my own way. I came home with the setting of my novel, its spirit, firmly entrenched in my heart, and I wrote about the coastal harbor town setting, about that robin’s egg blue Victorian inn perched high on a hill overlooking the harbor—the inn I never did find—with the same love and affection that I had for my characters.

Were it not for the idea for a novel and a life-changing road trip up the coast, I might have never known that a pot of blue hydrangeas has the power to change my mood, that you can take a class called: How to make whoopie pies, that you can see things in a whole new way if you go looking for something that only exists inside yourself, inside your imagination. So thank you to Maine. And thank you to Julia for inviting me to share my story with you.
———-
Mia March lives on the coast of Maine, the setting of The Meryl Streep Movie Club, published this past June by Simon & Schuster. The novel is slated to be published in over 18 countries. Kirkus Reviews kindly describes The Meryl Streep Movie Club as “a heartwarming, spirit-lifting read just in time for beach season.” Mia’s next novel, Finding Colin Firth, will be published by Simon & Schuster in the summer of 2013. For more info, please visit Mia’s website at www.MiaMarch.com. You can also friend her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MiaMarch.author and follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/March_Mia

Are You Addicted to Social Networking (Like I am)?

As I put the finishing touches on this post, I found out—much to my immense surprise and thrill—that the July issue of The Writer magazine named me (@wordsxo) as a “Top Feed to Watch.” I’m greatly honored and thrilled, but I can’t help but marvel at the irony.

Am I addicted to Twitter? Are you?

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while—ever since I’ve been having so much trouble focusing on my new WIP. Ever since I feel like I’m missing out on something if I don’t check Twitter or Facebook at least several times a day. Ever since I started querying and email is my new best friend (and worst enemy). Ever since I got my iPhone, and now I’m never away from social networking. Ever.

But recently I have an increased incentive. It’s bothering me more. I’ve been restless when I don’t check in. My first thought when I take a photo with my iPhone is I need to tweet this. Then I read an article about social networking addiction. Recent research suggests that all the tweeting and friending and posting we’re all doing may actually be addictive. And there’s a serious problem with addiction in my immediate and extended family.

First. For the purposes of this discussion: What is addiction? Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist, defines it as “a matter of inbalance—between your personal desire to engage in the addictive behavior and your conflicting desire to avoid the negative consequences of said behavior and/or do something else.”

According to one study I read about, people may have a harder time controlling their desire to check social media (when they really didn’t want to) than they do controlling urges to smoke or drink alcohol. The same study showed that workaholism is a very real thing, too—that many people will work when they really don’t need to.

It occurred to me after reading these results that we writers kind of have a double whammy. Not only is it a requirement of our job to build the all-important platform, but building the platform actually involves the requirement to be a social networker. Compounding this, we often work alone, and social networking allows us to connect with other writers and feel like we’re a part of a community. Further, since the majority of us work at home, we can work 24-7 if we want to—hmmm, does that make us workaholics too?

All this made me wonder…. are we as writers more susceptible to becoming addicted to social networking? And then I wondered further….am Ialready addicted? Like I said, as I set out with a brand new WIP, I’m having a harder and harder time focusing—more difficulty with the balance. Some days I give myself an ultimatum: it’s all or nothing. Shut down the social networking altogether. Because here’s the thing.I often can’t figure out a way to limit myself in a positive way. Then, if I cut myself off I end up feeling left out of the social networking scene but if I don’t cut myself off and write less, then I’m disappointed with my writing effort or just generally frustrated without really understanding why.

Of course I know I’m not the only writer who grapples with this—it’s a frequent subject of conversation and blogs and tweets among all the writers I know. In fact, just recently one writer friend and I were lamenting over email (yes, this too can be a part of the addiction) about how unproductive we were with our writing, and I asked my writer friend about the idea that social networking might be addictive. Here’s what he/she said:

“…Social media is an angel AND the devil all wrapped into one, is it not? Yes, I recall you talking about the research saying that it’s addictive. I can see that in myself, too, where some days I can’t pull myself away and am there for HOURS…”

That comment prompted me to email other writer friends—a combination of women and men, published and unpublished, traditional and indie published, new to the profession and lifers, and across genres, too. The general consensus: we all struggle with the balance in some way, shape, or form. It’s a continuum, but we’re all in this together, no question.

Here’s a sampling of what some of my writer friends had to say, clearly I hit a nerve.

Writer A: “…With the publication of my book and a newly realized need to “build a platform,” my social networking mushroomed into a blog, a couple of groups on the Writer’s Digest site, a Twitter account, and a second Facebook “author” page. There is a substantial list of other sites I’ve read that, as an author, I should be participating in, but let’s get real….”

Writer B: “To me, social networking is the epitome of a double-edged sword. It has introduced me to so many outstanding writers and authors that I can’t imagine my life without it. I have found “my people”! But in all of this wonderful relationship building, my writing has suffered….If I don’t check Twitter, Facebook, etc. at leasta couple of times a day, I feel anxious. I do think it is because of my “profession,” though, that I am so addicted. Writers are supposed to build their platform to gain an audience but then we don’t know when to quit! I think through social media it is evident that people desire connection, but there is a price we pay.”

Writer C: “It’s difficult for me to balance social media, life, and creative writing.  I don’t like to inundate people on any social media platform with lots of posts or re-tweets, but I worry that, “being out of sight is out of mind.” That’s a constant struggle.  And social media can be a time-suck, albeit a pleasant one.  So when I write creatively, I tend to just have my document file open and nothing else.”

Writer D: “I know exactly what you mean about social media feeling like an addiction; for me it’s a constant struggle. It’s the strangest thing because as much as it’s interfered with my life, it’s enhanced it in many ways too. So it’s not easy for me to describe in such absolutes as love/hate. There are days when I absolutely know I can’t go on Twitter, whether it’s because of work or because I’m out, away from my desk. There are times when I’ve gone on Twitter and had the most wonderful conversations and made genuine connections, so that when I’ve stepped away from it I’ve felt like it was a worthy way to spend my time. But the flip side of that is, there have been many, many times when I’ve stayed on longer than I should have, disengaged from the Tweets I’m reading but perhaps hoping that the next one will be like the last time, fun and full of great links, replies, etc. And I’ve stepped away wondering, “What did I just do with that hour of my life?” In that way, it’s very much like an addiction.

Writer E: “The internet, and especially twitter, has been a wonderful source of both friendship and support for me. I have made many fine friends there.  (And three of the authors who gave me fabulous blurbs for my novel were people I met on twitter.)… Of course, like so many things, the trick is knowing when to stop (and then actually stopping.)  I have precious little willpower, and so I employ artificial means to save myself from temptation when I really have to knuckle down and work.  I use software called Freedom that disables the internet completely.  Knowing that I can’t check email or social media sites allows me to put it out of mind completely, so I can concentrate on the job at hand.”
Writer F:I think one of the hardest parts of the writing life nowadays—life in general, really!—is how to find a way to keep social media’s impact at a minimum without losing touch with it’s very worthwhile points. I know for me it’s push and pull. I can’t say enough how grateful I am for the personal connections I have made through social media—the friends I’ve made…and there’s no question that social media can broaden a writer’s reading audience. But that said, it can sometimes feel as if we spend more time online than off it. For me, not having a smart phone is one way I am forced to curb my time online—and by not being able to access social media at all hours (and it not being able to access ME) I think has allowed me a modicum of boundaries. All in all, I am glad to have jumped in to the social media pool. I just wish some days I didn’t feel as if was sinking more than swimming in it!”

Can you relate? I know I can, and we’re clearly all in this together. I’d love to hear from you, to start a conversation…

Do you spend more time on Twitter, Facebook, blog responses, etc., than you think you should or than you really want to? How many hours a week do you spend on social networking—have you ever kept track? Has social networking ever interfered with your writing productivity or your “real life”? Are you like me? That some days you chalk up greater word count in tweets than on your WIP? Can you resist better than I can? Or maybe you think that the idea of social networking addiction is just not really a problem and/or not worthy of too much attention? Please leave a comment!
Cheers,

Julia

The Santa Box

The Santa Box: Yes, Julia, there is a Santa Claus. She exists as certainly as friendship and kindness and curiosity exist. (Paraphrase of New York Sun 1897 reply to “Virginia.”)
At the beginning of fall, I became friends on Twitter with a writer tweep in England. I can’t remember how we started chatting—how do these things happen?—but if you’re like me on Twitter, you’ll probably understand: one day a random tweet turns into a friendship. It’s one of the most mysterious yet more wonderful things about the great Twitterverse!

And sometimes out of that, if we’re lucky, we may find a true friend, and sometimes if we’re even luckier, we may find a Secret Santa!
Such it was with Abi Burlingham. We hit it off quickly, and within a few days we were exchanging daily tweets about our writing and editing, the weather and gardening, then even what we planned to make for dinner tea! (And we discovered differences….for instance, me: refried pinto beans. Her: Shepherds Pie.) At first we communicated only by Twitter, often asking one another: “What does that mean?”—because turns out British English is quite different than American English!

Then we started writing emails back and forth—which gave me an idea to write a blog about our language differences. Although we could communicate perfectly well, our words to describe things and even names for things were so different. Fascinating!

I learned about jacket spuds, dorts, bubble & squeak, fry ups, and grotty jobs. Abi learned about being “socked in,” skosh meaning small, Thanksgiving, and Blue Jays. Of course there was a lot more. Like we both learned that crisps and chips mean the same thing as do chips and fries, and that baps are rolls are cobs. Ace means excellent. And 100% is 100%. Most of all we learned that friendship transcends all these language differences.
And of course, a writer is a writer—so we read each others’ blogs and found out we have a lot in common—we both love typewriters and our families and our dogs and birds and nature. That we’re both mostly vegetarian. That we both love family traditions and surprises (like Santa Boxes).

For lunch we had homemade pizza and assorted “nom noms” from
the Santa Box, including Twiglets, crisps, and cheese twists.
Abi is very creative and an amazing writer. She loves poetry and is an accomplished children’s book writer. I cheered her on with a recent book launch, celebrated wonderful book news, but also cheered her up when she had bad writing days and “tweeted chicken soup” when she had a cold and the flu.

For me, in the middle of editing drafts of my WIP, I’ve felt so lucky to have writer friends like Abi who encourage me on down days when I wonder if I’ll ever be able to finish. Abi is also very understanding of my frequent absences from Twitter as I battle the social media dragon and balance it with the demands of the WIP. 

Origin of an Idea

One day in October, I had an idea—not sure where it really came from—that we could exchange “Secret Santa gifts.” After the weeks of talking about different foods and customs, I thought it might be fun to put together an exchange. Abi quickly agreed. And October 7th an idea was born: I would send a Santa Box of presents from the US, and she would do the same with British pressies (oh, I found out that’s what presents are called in England).

And then the fun began. On Twitter and via email, every time we talked: “Do you have such and such?” It became our standard question. “No reason,” we’d quickly add. My mental notes added up: no cheese popcorn, no Reeses peanut butter cups, no Trader Joes! Her mental notes: no smokey bacon crisps, no Curly Wurlys, no Twiglets!

November 28

I sent an email to Abi on Thanksgiving, a photo of our table, an explanation of all we cooked, an invitation to join us in a future year. Her first glimpse of Thanksgiving except what she’d seen on American television: Friends. The day before Thanksgiving she mailed her Santa Box! And a few days after Thanksgiving, I mailed mine!

Here’s Abi’s lovely painting in front of the tree where the crow
was perching when I took the photo!
In the package I included a letter explaining everything I sent—I wanted to explain why I’d picked each thing. Some food, some small gifts, a book. I wanted to give her a flavor of not just Maine but of the US, of the things I enjoyed and were important to me. I sent a gift for each of her children and even something small for her husband—something he’d remembered having when he was younger (Kool Aid!).

And then we waited. And chatted some more, of course.

December 5

When I mailed my package to Abi, the US Post Office told me it would take 5 to 7 days, and I “might be able to” track the package with the customs number. On the seventh day, I went online to check and it said the package “had been delivered.” I was so excited!

I emailed Abi who said that she had not been home so the package was left at a neighbor’s house. They weren’t home. I was in the middle of baking cookies when ten minutes later my doorbell rang, and it was my letter carrier. He had me sign a card to receive an international package! Then he went back to the truck to get the package!

When he returned, he gave me the Santa Box, and I gave him a handful of warm cookies! As soon as I closed the door, I ran to the computer, and had just received an email from Abi with the subject line: HO HO HO. And I knew that Operation Santa Box was complete. A flurry of about 7 trillion emails back and forth confirmed our extreme excitement!!

And then we waited some more! 

The Santa Box

Abi’s book GRUB’S PUPS and the cover of her upcoming book
A MYSTERY FOR MEGAN (click photo for link to Abi’s book page!)
For a while Abi’s Santa Box was the only thing under our tree. Little by little other pressies joined the cardboard box. On Christmas Eve, my college-age daughter wrapped the Santa Box in bright paper then returned it to under the tree.

Christmas morning MEH, our daughter, our son and his girlfriend, gathered around the tree and began to open gifts. One of the first things we opened was the Santa Box. It was so exciting!

The small bird hangs from a metal basket
on my desk, a lovely reminder of Abi
and my other Twitter friendships!
For one thing, it was my first chance to see Abi’s handwriting—she sent a letter too! And her books, the first I’d seen of them! When we decided to send the boxes to one another, I arranged to buy an inscribed set of her Ruby and Grub books to donate to my local public library—so happy to know that children in my town will have a chance to read Abi’s wonderful books! To my surprise, Abi also sent me as a wonderful gift a copy of her latest picture book: Grub’s Pups!
Abi also sent an assortment of “nom noms,” including Twiglets—Abi’s and her daughter’s favorite and now my son’s; cheese twists (I LOVE these!), and crisps/chips in flavors we don’t have in the US (smokey bacon and steak). Also, a lovely handwritten recipe card for Shepherds Pie—a recipe we talked about on Twitter!

Two items in the Santa Box were quite sentimental…an incredible painting Abi made of a photograph I once tweeted—a crow in the tree outside my house. I was quite moved by this as well as by a small tin bird ornament, which to me represents the origins of our friendship on Twitter.

The small bird hangs from a basket on my desk. It not only reminds me of the wonderful Santa Box, but also of my new friend “across the pond,” and of all the wonderful writer friends I’ve made on Twitter! As Abi says “It’s brill!” 


Click here to visit Abi’s blog and read all about the Santa Box I sent her!
Cheers,
Julia

Have you ever had a Secret (or not so secret!) Santa?

7 Links: Past, Present, Future

The PRESENT

When one of my very favorite blogger friends, Melissa Crytzer Fry (my Mr. Bacon Partner-in-Crime!) nominated me to take part in the 7 Links Challenge, I was honored and happy!

Then I was daunted. To go through 178 posts from the past 8 months and pick just 7 to highlight in specific categories? It was pretty overwhelming. To be honest, when I started to go through them I realized there were some posts I’d completely forgotten about!

In the end, I felt like Melissa had given me a present, and I enjoyed re-visiting blogs of wordsxo past. I hope you do too!

The PAST

Most Beautiful Post: Melissa cheated on one of her categories, so I’m going to too; I’m going to say that my Sunday videos have been my most beautiful posts. In fact, I’ve been surprised at how popular these have become. I started out thinking I’d make a video once a week of one certain beach spot near where I live: through the seasons, low and high tide, regardless of the weather. Here are two examples: “Waiting for Irene” and “Vacationland Real-live Beach Day Video.”

Most Popular Post: This one was hard. I couldn’t decide: should I list the most popular by number of comments—in which case it was a tie between “What’s a Writer to Do?” and “Are We Competing?” (each with 31 comments—not counting my responses). Or by number of hits on the post—in which case it was a guest post “Are you a Comfy Writer?” by Milli Thornton. In any case, cheating again here and listing them all! (See how I am?)

Most Controversial Post: One of my goals when I started my blog was to not write anything controversial. That said, I did write a post that was controversial without even trying! And believe it or not it was one about punctuation—commas to be exact: “I’m Just a Serial Girl.”

Go figure, writers have strong feelings about commas!

Most Helpful Post: As a rule, I don’t offer advice in my posts—I only talk about my personal experiences. However, one of my earliest posts, called “True or False, I can Help You with Your Resume” offered some tongue-in-cheek advice on resume writing. If nothing else, it’s worth a laugh and it only received one comment, so it deserves some blog love!

Most Surprisingly Successful Post: I’m tempted to say it was the posts I wrote about the message in a bottle, because I was pretty surprised at how many people enjoyed those posts! But the truth is that “Mamas Please Let Your Babies Grow up to be Librarians” surprised me most. It was one of my early posts that helped people find my blog—and it continues to be one of my very most popular posts. It was a review of Marilyn Johnson’s wonderful book: THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE! and led me to actually meeting Marilyn when she was in Portland at a book reading, which led to another very popular post: Libraries Rule, Part 3!

Post That Didn’t Get the Attention It Deserved: In my early days of blogging there were posts that never got any comments. And then there was a period of time that posts would get just one or two comments each. Like most bloggers, I spend a lot of time writing my posts and when they don’t get many comments, it can be dispiriting. That said, if I have to pick just one post (suddenly I’m a rule follower? What’s up with that?) then it’s: “MEH, the Amygdala, and Me.” When I first started out I wanted to write about science, and this was an early attempt to write about science in a humorous way.

Post I Am Most Proud Of: Of all the posts I’ve written, I’m most proud of the “personal essay” posts. Those are the posts that are closest to my heart, and I’ve written about friends, my house & neighbors, my grandmother, my kids, and MEH (My Engineer Husband). But the one that I think I’m proudest of is “The Ghost and Mr. Able” because it’s outside the usual realm of what I write, but it was still very well received.

The FUTURE

The final part of the 7 Links Challenge is to nominate five bloggers to participate in this challenge. Here are five blogs I read regularly, and I think you may enjoy reading them too! (There are many more I could have nominated, but I can only name 5!)


And now…a question…do you have a favorite post of mine that I haven’t mentioned? I’d love to hear about it!

Cracking the WIP

Last Friday I typed “The End.”

As a recap… I had two WIPs, lying virtually untouched all the time. Both were about one-third done, and both were good stories. I’ve been blogging for seven months yet writing almost no fiction.

But then a funny thing happened after I wrote my last blog post of August (the one lamenting the fact that I couldn’t focus to write my WIPs): I started writing. A lot.

I joined a small group on Twitter that planned to write 10,000 words over Labor Day weekend (#LaborDay10K). I’ve done these kinds of challenges before and been disappointed. But this time? This time—from Friday to Monday—I wrote over 10,000 words.

And I kept writing. I really got into the story and realized how much I like it; in short, I fell in love with my story all over again. This story, in my head for about 7 years had grown and shifted and developed layers I didn’t think of before. Subsequent to this I’d written Chapters 1-7 and three other pieces that I knew would fit somewhere, including “the ending” (but as it turns out, that became the next to the last chapter).

And I kept writing, encouraged by MEH (My Engineer Husband) who actually wrote a blog post for me during my crunch time.

Honestly, I wrote almost all the time—for 8 solid days. The day before I finished, I wrote for 10 straight hours, so long that I ached.  The story came so fast I couldn’t type fast enough. I had to take notes on a pad next to me to make sure I didn’t forget what else I wanted to write. So distracted by writing that I ate cereal for lunch—and after taking the first bite I found a (live) earwig in the bowl. So consumed with the writing that I didn’t read blogs or go on Twitter for more than a few minutes—and then I just wanted to get off. And I never went outside except for the walks in the morning and evening with the dog and MEH.

And my WIP grew into a full-grown novel: 26 chapters.

And I can honestly say I have no idea why…why was I able to do this after all these years? I don’t honestly know. But…

The blogging really helped. (Which is great, it was one of the main reasons I initially began to blog!) In the past seven months I wrote over 90,000 words for my blog. From February through the end of May I posted every single day. It was a powerful habit to get into. In June when I stopped posting daily, I kept writing everyday and submitting work to various places: essays, short stories, guest blogs.

Which brings me to the second reason I think I suddenly wrote so much: I got some rejections. I know, paradoxical, right? But not right. One of the rejections was from a really good literary magazine. I got a personal note from an editor, and here’s the thing: she liked my story and my voice. She encouragedme to send her another story next month, thismonth.

And, also paradoxically—although we writers (including me) worry about social networking—during all that blogging and tweeting, I made some good writer friends—friends who checked in with me on how my writing was going, friends who I checked in with on how their writing was going. (I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my good writer friend Melissa Crytzer Fry; she not only gave me support and encouragement during the 8 days, but she also gave me some much-needed pointers on how to approach some difficult scenes I had to write.)

Oh, and it didn’t hurt that while I wrote, I fell in love with my book and all its characters. The day before I finished, I wrote a list of the scenes I still had to write. After I wrote the list, I looked at it and got really really sad. It’s almost over, I thought to myself. When I finish, all these people will be out of my head—and someday maybe other people will know them. At that moment I didn’t like that very much.

The next day, the 10-hour-writing-day, I was jubilant, happy beyond belief: I was almost done with the first draft. And I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. After the day was over, and I was walking the dog with MEH, I had an epiphany about the ending of the book.

And the next morning, last Friday, I finished the last two chapters…including that new ending. It wasn’t a sad ending (although not necessarily happy), but it was important. My Main Character had a moment of self-realization and so had I. 

I got pretty emotional: to be honest, I shed a tear. Honestly, I didn’t want it to end. I felt sad that I would never really know how my MC would end up—for the last 8 days I lived and breathed this woman’s life. I didn’t want to say goodbye.

But, more, I felt sad that my 8 days of intense writing were over.

Is the first draft perfect? Far from it. But I have captured the story. Today another kind of work is just beginning—I have layers and layers of edits I need to make, I still have some research I need to do, sources to talk to, gaps to fill, probably even re-writing of the early chapters. And I can’t wait.

Because now I know: I can get to “The End.” 


What breakthrough moments have you had with your writing? Do you, like me, have times you’re not sure why you are able to write more freely than others? How do you feel when you finish important milestones in your writing? Can you relate to my feelings of sadness?

Cheers,
Julia


P.S. You only have a few more days to enter The Great Giveaway! Just leave a comment on the post and you will be entered! Maybe that little house is what did the trick, who knows?? Contest ends September 15!

Borders: It’s Personal

From Wikimedia Commons

Last week just before she left to go back to college for her junior year, MOD (My Outstanding Daughter) and I made a last, sentimental trip to Borders, her childhood bookstore.

As we entered, I walked toward the back of the store—toward the children’s books.

“Mom? Why are you going to the kids’ section?” MOD sounded worried that I might force her into a walk down memory lane.

But that’s not what I was thinking…

“To see H, of course!”

H is the mother of one of MOD’s classmates from high school. Every time we go to Borders, H helps us when we can’t find something—whether it’s in the children’s section or not—but more importantly H knows books and has given me great reading advice over the years. I hadn’t talked to H since I found out Borders was closing, and I wanted to see how she’s doing, and (I admit) I also wanted her take on the closing.

We found H right away, standing by a shelf busy as always. H is one of those archetype bookstore “bookies” who is always talking to a customer, putting away books, tidying up, or getting familiar with the merchandise. She loves books and it shows; she’s the kind of person everyone wants to work in their neighborhood bookstore.

H was happy to see us, and the first thing she did was ask my daughter all about college and how her summer had been. Then we visited for a while longer, catching up on her kids, my kids.

Before that day, I’d never seen H anything but happy at work, but of course those days are gone. That day, H was somber because, in addition to losing her job, H is losing something else: her local bookstore. And she’s really sad about it. We shared her sadness and we told her this was our last trip to Borders together, MOD and me.

I asked H how the closing is going and how much longer they’d be open. She wasn’t sure how much longer, but she said even though they are still open, the store is much different.

“The liquidators have started shipping us all kinds of weird things for the shelves—things we’ve never carried before,” H said. “Like knock-off men’s cologne and baby towels!” H laughed and shook her head. “Cologne!”

Then I showed H the photo I took the day before at Target—a mother reading to her two young daughters, sitting in an aisle on the cold linoleum floor.

“It’s the new bookstore!” I lamented. “This is all they’ll ever know as a bookstore: Target!”

She shook her head. “Someone will have to fill the gap here in Portland (Maine)…there’s nothing!”

The new bookstore? Mom reads to
two daughters in a Target aisle
(note the rubber balls they borrowed
from the toy section to use as chairs)
I wondered. Maybe nothing willfill the gap and Target, or places like it, will be the new bookstore—or worse…. I asked H if she thought it was the beginning of the end for all bookstores.

H said customers would often come into Borders for a book, and when they couldn’t get it right away or saw the price, they would say: “Oh I’ll just get it on amazon.” She wonders if that’s part of the reason Borders failed.

“It makes me so sad.” H paused, she looked like she might cry. “My husband and I met in New York City, and for our dates we went to bookstores. All the books, lying out on round tables, where you could see them and touch them. It’s sad to think that soon you won’t be able to do that anymore here or anywhere maybe.”

And what about ebooks? I asked H, and I learned something about her I never knew before. She’s not so sure whether all the technology is moving in the right direction. H handwrites all her letters to her two kids who are in college out of state. She certainly knows how to use the technology; she just chooses not to.

In the end, we got some great bargains: two calendars, four postcards, and five books for $79. But despite the bargains, we lost something too. We said goodbye to our friend H and our neighborhood bookstore. And we couldn’t help but wonder if it might be the last time we would ever be at a bookstore together anywhere. 

What’s your favorite memory of your local Borders? Do you have friends who work there? Do you think this is the death of all bookstores? Does it matter as long as we have amazon.com? Or ebooks?

Cheers,
Julia

1 in 140 Million

With approximately 140 million bloggers and 175 million tweeps out there, what are the odds that it’s possible to make connections? To build friendships?
When I started blogging four months ago my goal was simple: to “build a writer’s platform.” Beyond that, I expected nothing. Beyond that I knew nothing. In short, I had no idea what I was getting into….

But the truth is, I found out the real power and strength behind blogging and Twitter is in the relationships and friendships you build, like the one I have with Natalia Sylvester who writes beautifully at one of my favorite blogs: finding truth through fiction.

So today I’m happy to say that I’m guest blogging at Natalia’s blog about this very thing. How against the odds, the massive number of bloggers and tweeters out there, it’s possible to build real friendships and connections like I have with Natalia and my other Twitter and blogging friends.

Please be my guest and read my guest blog What are the Odds? at Natalia’s blog!
Cheers,
Julia

Mushrooms in the Middle

The longish process of planting shiitakes:
we had big hopes, E and I
This is a story about an oak log, a bag of shiitake mushroom spores, and two women over three years. It’s also about hope and growth and joy and surprise. But most of all, this is a story about friendship.

“There’s always hope, Julia!” My friend E stood jubilantly on my porch, clutching the 4-foot long oak log.

I knew exactly what it was. Three years ago to the month, almost to the day, E and I took a road trip to a mushroom farm, about an hour from where we live, to buy shiitake mushroom spores. And a few days before that, E called and asked me what I know about growing shiitake mushrooms (“nothing”), and more importantly, was I interested in a joint venture of growing shiitake mushrooms together (“yes!”).

At the mushroom farm, we bought a ziplock bag full of small plugs that had been dusted with shiitake spores. These delicate plugs sat in the backseat of my friend E’s car as we wended our way home down the Maine coast. In the backseat of the car, on a hot May afternoon—way hotter than the early season would suggest—the mushroom spores sat while we drove and while we went out for a nice lunch in beautiful coastal Damariscotta. And while we were at lunch, the bag got all condensed and mushy and cloudy and moldy looking.

When we got back to the car, we looked first at the bag and then at each other, remembering that neither one of us brought the recommended cooler we both meant to bring along.

“Oops,” said E.

“Oops,” I agreed.

“Maybe we should’ve taken them to lunch with us.” E suggested.

I nodded my head, thinking she was probably right and wondering if there was any hope we’d ever get any mushrooms. I know E was thinking the very same thing.

On the way home, we planned. The next Saturday would be mushroom planting day. It sounded like a longish process, this shiitake mushroom planting, and we knew that we would be enlisting the help of MEH (My Engineer Husband) and E’s husband M. The mushrooms would grow at E’s house—because she had a lot more land and also a very shady area (shiitakes need that) under some pine trees. We lamented the fact that I didn’t live next door—because if I did, we joked, we would start a business called Mushrooms in the Middle. And the mushrooms would live between our two houses.

We had big plans, E and I….for feasting on shiitakes until we were so sick of them that we would take all our many excess pounds of mushrooms to the local farmer’s market, and then eventually in about a month or two we would produce so many mushrooms that we would really truly have a business called Mushrooms in the Middle, and we’d be famous, and we’d probably be on the Oprah show as famous women entrepreneurs or at least on the Today Show and we’d get to meet Meredith Vieira. Okay, we never actually talked about any of that (beyond the name Mushrooms in the Middle and the feast and maybe the farmer’s market). I started to talk about it, but my friend E is a lot more sensible and less fantastical than I am and she simply said:

“Let’s wait and see, Julia.” In that matter-of-fact tone she always uses when I dream big and get way ahead of myself like I do about almost everything in my life.

Anyway, E dropped me and the spores off at my house. To be honest, I can’t remember if we really talked about this, but I remember thinking to myself that if E got custody of the mushroom babies (yes we did call them that) for most of their lives, then I could at least take care of the babies for a few days.

So, there they sat: the spores, in my refrigerator, for several days. Every time I (and more especially MEH) looked in the refrigerator, we wondered what delicious new snack we’d purchased that we forgot all about. Then we remembered: the next Saturday was “mushroom planting day.”

Which, as it turns out, was not a simple process. Without writing an instruction manual for planting shiitake mushrooms (although I probably could write a better one than the one we used), it involves many large (6-8 inch in diameter) oak logs, a drill, paraffin wax, a mallet, LOTS of water to soak the logs in, and something to prop the logs up on. Thank goodness M, E’s husband, has a big pick-up truck that he was willing to use to haul freshly cut oak logs.

On that Saturday morning, MEH and I were supposed to go along to get the logs—we were going to meet M and E at the wood farm (I think it’s called a woodlot, actually), but we got lost on the way to the hard-to-find place, and we gave up (okay, it’s embarrassing, but that’s really what happened!).

Instead, after a few attempts via cell phone to locate the place (we failed), we instead met up with E and M at their house. It was a little quiet for a while, because I think we were all a little grumpy: E and M because they had to do the job alone, loading the logs, and MEH and me because we were pretty embarrassed and frustrated that we never found the woodlot.

Our baby mushrooms
(the spore plugs)

Anyway, we had the logs, and we drilled holes in them—a LOT of holes all over each of about 15 logs. Then we pounded the little spore plugs into them, then we covered each of the little plugs with melted wax. Then we soaked the logs in water. Or at least that’s the order I think we went in….what I really remember is that it was a long, long, LONG process. And we had several points of discussion. For instance, whether the logs were really freshly cut (we decided they weren’t) and whether we soaked the logs before or after drilling the holes (I don’t remember what we decided or even what we did) and whether we really had to cover the spore plugs with paraffin (we disagreed about this, E and I), and how hard we should pound the plugs in or whether we should drill bigger holes.

Did I mention there were FOUR of us making these decisions together? And during each of these brief decision points, we would look at each other, E and I, and realize even though we were in charge, we were far from shiitake mushroom growing experts. And did I mention that it was hot and we were tired and grumpy?

Finally, we weren’t so careful about anything, maybe even including each other, and we rushed to get done.

“I think that’s good enough,” said E.

“Me too,” I agreed.

“Maybe we should’ve gotten fresher logs,” E mused out loud.

“Maybe so,” I agreed. “And maybe we should have gotten better directions.” (Doesn’t the writer always want more information and better directions?)

“Maybe so,” E agreed.

And we both nodded our heads—and I wondered if there was any hope that we would ever get any mushrooms. I think E was thinking the very same thing.

Still, we finished, although not to our complete satisfaction, any of us, because in the end we all made compromises we maybe wish we hadn’t. Then, we put the logs away, and MEH and I went home. And all my thoughts of Oprah, and the Today Show, and even of being an entrepreneur at the farmer’s market and maybe even having a shiitake feast, and, yes, even getting one shiitake mushroom, had pretty much been dashed by then.

But at that point all we could do was wait. Supposedly, said the guy at the mushroom farm, by mid-summer we’d have all the mushrooms we could eat. Supposedly the next year even more, he said, from all the tendrils growing below the bark of the oak log. All we had to do was wait. All we could do was wait. So we waited. And waited. And no mushrooms grew that summer, or the next summer. Then one day sometime after the second summer, E called and said, “Let’s have lunch, I have some news.” (No, this is not the big announcement you think it is, still no mushrooms!)
The big announcement was that E and M were moving to a new place—about two hours away, to a beautiful coastal village. Of course I was sad, no question. But what about the mushrooms? Believe it or not, it came up because the biggest part of the announcement was that they were selling THEIR house and OUR mushroom logs.

And if that had happened, this would’ve been the end of the story because it was already two years after we planted them, and there were still no mushrooms. Neither E nor I really believed we would ever get any, ever. We talked about moving the logs, but MEH and I really didn’t have a place to put the logs at our house, and even if we did we might not have taken them because no one wanted to lug those 15 or 16 logs, covered with bugs and who knows what else, in the back of a pick-up truck!

But it’s not the end of the story because even after E and M moved, and more time went by and E and M couldn’t sell their house because of the bad economy (that was bad), their daughter decided to live in the house while she became a teacher (that was good). But by then, when I heard this news, I didn’t give the mushrooms a second thought, and I doubt E did either. We were just thinking about the house and E’s daughter.

And then more time went by, another whole year in fact. And all this time, now three years since the planting, E and I shared our personal joys and triumphs and tribulations as friends do—her mom’s and my brother’s deaths, our good-byes when she moved to her new-old house and the enjoyment of both our gardens and her ordeal with not being able to find her well (they eventually found it), both of our indecisions and decisions about career changes, joys and worries and achievements of our kids, her husband’s very-successful new business, and my husband losing his job, not to mention countless cups of coffee and lunches, and rainstorms and snowstorms, and horrible heat waves with visits to her new house and the beaches nearby.

Two of the most beautiful things
you’ll ever hope to see!

And then one day, two days ago, I was sitting and writing my blog at my desk, and I saw a car pull into the driveway. Then I heard MEH talking to someone on the porch. And I ran out, and there standing on the porch was my friend E, who had driven two hours in a fancy concert-going outfit to see a friend in a farewell concert and on the way there dropped by her old house to visit her daughter. And in her fancy concert-going outfit, on a whim decided to look at the mushroom logs, which she hadn’t done in a about a year or more.

And there, on the log, now cradled in E’s arms, against her very bosom in her lovely concert-going outfit, were TWO SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS!!

My friend E stood jubilantly on my porch, beaming. “I had to come straight here to show you!” E said. “It just proves, there’s always hope, Julia. Never give up hope!”

And both of us stood there, with tears in our eyes, and we marveled at the two small beautiful mushrooms on the log before us. And I knew E was right: you never can give up on hope!

What joys and hopes and adventures have you shared with your friends? Do friends enrich you as a writer, like they do me?

Cheers,
Julia

Hello Old Friends, Please Forgive My Absence!


My new “fiction workstation”

Ever since I started blogging, my non-blog writing has stagnated. Specifically, my fiction writing has stalled. Sure, I’ve had spurts of activity, but I’ve only written about 7,500 words this past month, not a great improvement since I blogged about it here and here.
Over the weekend I sat down to re-familiarize myself with my WIPs (yes, I have two in progress and another in revision/submission)—and I realized I’m a little out of touch. I felt sad when I realized I had to get to know some of the characters all over again, revisit scenes and even settings. It was really disheartening, almost like I had lost touch with a friend.

Just like when there’s been a rift in a friendship, I need to put in some extra effort. I’m just not pulling my weight, and things can’t go on this way! Although I am heartily discouraged, I also know that I’m not so unique. Lately I’ve read some similar blog postings, specifically by Aanna and Hallie Sawyer. And I’ve talked to other writers about this via Twitter and email, so I know it’s a struggle for other writers, too.

The real culprit for me is the blog-tweet-blogcomment-retweet-blogrecomment cycle. In the almost-three months since I started blogging, I haven’t found the right balance—but I’ve come up with some ideas of how to start. I’m hoping with my compromises and changes, my old friends will welcome me back with open arms—and that we go on to become even better friends, maybe even create permanent relationships through publication!

So, my dear WIP friends, please forgive my absence, and now you have my word as my seal:

Time tracking: Starting today I will track all my time. For starters, I’ll use a pad of paper and pen, but I may get more sophisticated with a time tracking app. 


Renewed commitment: To 1000+ words a day.
Daily Blogging: When I started blogging almost three months ago, I made a commitment to blogging everyday. This actually is working well for me because I’ve set an early morning deadline, and it helps me get the day started out right. Daily blogging stays.

Twitter: This is a huge time sink, especially if I keep it as an open window! I need and want to limit my time here. For now, I will track how much time I really do spend—with the eventual goal of limiting myself to a total of 20 to 30 minutes a day. I am also finally going to check out Hootsuite and Tweetdeck to see if they will increase my productivity and time management. This is a tough balancing act, because I get so much writer-now-friend support via Twitter! 

Reading and commenting on blogs: Again, this is tough, because I enjoy it so much! But I need to limit it to a maximum of 1 hour a day. Now that I use Google Reader and I am not notified by email, I can wait until it’s convenient for me to scan my list of blogs and see if new postings have been made.

Change of Venue: I usually blog/write at my desk. Over the weekend, I moved all my fiction writing to the kitchen table. I’ve decided that until I have a handle on the division of work, I will work on my fiction at the kitchen table and keep my blogging and other writing on my desk.

This is definitely an ongoing process. If you have any suggestions, comments, or thoughts, I’d love to hear them! How do you get organized? Do you have apps that help you? Do you use Hootsuite or Tweetdeck? Productivity or time tracking apps? Are you better than I am at focusing on your WIPs and avoiding other shiny objects of distraction like Twitter and other blogs? Do you ever feel like you’re out of touch with your WIPs?


Cheers,
Julia