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

 

Confessions of a Constant Writer

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

Last year I had a writing crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

My Year of Living Dangerously

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A sunrise from December…

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

This is something I’m not very good at.

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

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

Live in the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

But while I write I want to do new things.

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

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

Figure it out as I go.

And that’s okay.

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

Happy New Year!

Julia

 

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.

 

Do You Believe in Magic?

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Back to the coffee shop… more magic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drama.

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

I made coffee.

I wrote my words (2695 this morning).

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

The first snow of the season started to fall.

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

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

Magic.

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

Cheers,

Julia

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

In Writing, Tell the Truth

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Today I’m very happy to have my friend Jessica Null Vealitzek as a guest on my blog!

Jess and I met online, connecting over writing and a mutual love of good books when she first got involved with Great New Books, where she is one of six contributors (by the way, if you haven’t seen this blog, you should check it out). We started talking about writing and reading and publishing (we were both writing novels). Fast forward to the current day, and Jess just last month debuted a wonderful first novel (that I just finished reading and loved!): The Rooms Are Filled. In addition to Great New Books, Jess writes for PDXX Collective and has her own blog at True STORIES. She also contributes to the anthologies Three Minus One and The HerStories Project. (Did I mention that Jess also has two young children?)

Please welcome Jess with a post about something near and dear to her heart.

 

In Writing, Tell the Truth

I often think back to one particular assignment in Ms. Jenewein’s Expository Writing class my senior year of high school. We had to interview someone and write an article.

I chose to interview a friend’s father because, starting with almost nothing, he had worked hard to become quite successful. I asked him questions, typed up the answers, and turned in my profile. Probably B-worthy. Fine by me.

Ms. Jenewein handed it back with something like, “You can do better,” written at the top.

Excuse me? It was a perfectly respectable article. I’ll take the B, thank you.

I walked up to her desk, article in hand, hoping to talk her out of making me re-do it. She asked me why it was so dry, why she didn’t feel she knew the subject of the interview. Finally, I crinkled my nose and quietly admitted, “I don’t like him very much.”

“Aha!” she said. “Write the real version. He’ll never have to know.”

The final article, the one I earned an A for–the one I was proud of–was called, “Interview with a Vampire.” (The movie was big at the time; I was being clever.) Ms. Jenewein hugged me and said, “This is the result when a writer tells the truth.”

Russian proverbI have never received another piece of advice more useful. Tell the truth. Readers know when you’re lying, when you’re fitting the story into the words you want to say, or don’t. You know it, too. And when, in the midst of writing, you hit upon a truth you didn’t even realize was there, it’s golden.

That happened to me just a few years later, in college, and it was an experience that has served as one of the more important moments in my life, both creatively and personally.

I sat in my dorm room revising a creative nonfiction piece, a letter to my alcoholic uncle I’d been working on for some time. The piece was dear to me, as was my uncle. He was a poor father, a poor husband, he was in and out of rehab, he borrowed money, but I loved him—we all loved him. He was a goofy, playful, charming man and I’d always felt a special bond with him. Once when I was young, he pulled me aside at a Christmas party and told me how much I meant to him. It was one of my most cherished memories. His slide into homelessness had been devastating.

I wrote all of this in my letter to him. And because he once wrote me a card that said, “I am proud to be your uncle,” I ended with, “I am proud to be your niece.”

Something about the piece, though, didn’t feel right and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I stared at the words. Then I found myself picking up the pen and writing: “I found out later that you were drunk the time you told me how much I meant to you.”

I continued writing almost without thought: “You were drunk. But that’s okay.”

And it was. It was okay. At the time, this was a revelation—that not only my uncle could be flawed, but our relationship could be flawed and I could still love him and be loved by him. Instead of writing the story I wanted to tell, I’d told the truth. I felt lighter. And my letter was much, much better.

There are loads of books that use many pages explaining how to write. In my opinion, it comes down to just three things: Read a lot. Write a lot. And tell the truth. These don’t ensure you will be a good writer, but you can’t be one without them.

It’s such a tall order and yet so absolutely freeing: simply tell the truth. It will be more than good enough.

pic-screen-shot Jessica Null Vealitzek is the author of The Rooms Are Filled, the 1983 coming-of-age story of two outcasts brought together by circumstance: a Minnesota farm boy transplanted to suburban Chicago after his father dies, and the closeted young woman who becomes his teacher. You can read more about Jessica and her book on her web site.

The Coveted Moleskine

Right there on the label it says it all: Legendary notebooks.
Ever since MEH (My Engineer Husband) gave it to me for Christmas, it’s been sitting on the kitchen counter next to my to-do list. I kept it wrapped in its lovely shrink-wrapped perfection until yesterday when I finally opened it, stripping away the bright green paper wrap. I put the notebook back down on the counter—still nervous about opening it.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted one of these notebooks… surely since the first time I saw one. They’re beautiful. The classic black cover is soft to the touch, the pages smooth. An elastic band keeps the journal closed, a narrow silk bookmark is attached within. On the bottom of the back cover, Moleskine is engraved.

I’ve watched for years as my son filled up Moleskine after Moleskine. (He got another one this Christmas, too.) But me? I have to admit I have trepidations to start even one. You see, I’m a failure as a keeper of journals.

Inside the front cover, on the facing page, is printed In case of loss, please return to, followed by four lines, then As a reward $: A reward? For something I’d written?

Most of my failed journal attempts are on a shelf next to my desk. Nothing as beautiful as the Moleskine graces these: a handful of spiral notebooks of various sizes, a few old lab notebooks, two or three less beautiful bound books—each one abandoned, each one with a painful jagged edge where I tore out the first few pages.

I’m afraid to start the Moleskine, that it will end up with the others. As long as I don’t start writing in it, I can save it from the shelf. But why? Where is this fear coming from? When I was younger—much younger: in middle school, high school, even the first years of college, I kept a journal. But something made me stop. It wasn’t that I stopped writing—I write much more than I ever did in those days. But I wanted to stop writing anything too personal.

Doesn’t that sound crazy as a writer? Somehow writing something so personal that only I would read, see, is slightly terrifying to me. When I wrote nonfiction (particularly technical writing), I never had one bit of myself on the page—never an acknowledgement or even authorship. Just one time, in just one computer guide, I used my name in an example—in the hundreds of thousands of pages of writing I did. That was as personal as it got.

And now, as I write fiction, I hide behind the mantle of my characters. Maggie True, Annie Byrne, Ellen Langton. Those women, each of them also a writer, two write in journals, one even has a Moleskine. They are free to write about their feelings, their innermost fears and dreams.

But me?

No. Right now I don’t know if I’m ready to bare my soul, to live up to the Legendary notebook, the coveted Moleskine. And so for now the Moleskine will remain unopened on the kitchen counter.

What about you? Do you keep a journal? A Moleskine? Are you ever afraid of baring your soul, of getting toopersonal?

Cheers,

Julia

Julia and the Purple Crayon


I made it to the Jersey Pike
even without the purple path!
Whenever I go on a road trip, which is a lot these days, I rely on “Nuvi” (my GPS) to tell me which way to go. I just follow the purple path on Nuvi’s screen. That said, sometimes Nuvi does not give me the most direct path to follow—as is the case when I go to pick up my daughter from college and “she” sends me on a circuitous route to get from the Garden State Parkway to the Jersey Pike.
And by “she,” I mean Nuvi (not my daughter). It’s a female voice, so why not?
But I digress. The point is, this time before I left home I looked at a map so I could deviate (with confidence) from the path Nuvi directed me to take. Still, when I came close to the exit (.9 miles to be exact) Nuvi kept telling me to take the purple path on her screen. And I felt a sense of uncertainty and panic. Her voice, after all, is rather insistent and commanding. And I was, after all, surrounded by a zillion cars.

I couldn’t help but wonder: do I trust myself enough to go off Nuvi’s purple path?

It reminded me of what I’m going through with my fiction right now. I’m in the midst of revising a mystery novel I finished two months ago. And I’m also planning my next WIP—women’s fiction with dark, thriller overtones. But then something happened. Two weeks ago I had an idea for a new story—an idea that would cause me to deviate from my writing plan. And because of the age of the two main characters and the story’s premise, it makes sense it would be written as a Young Adult novel.

I’ve never written YA before, so this means going to an entirely new genre. My internal writer’s voice is telling me in no uncertain terms to not deviate from my plan, my map. And her voice, much like Nuvi’s, is rather insistent and commanding.
Yet here’s the thing: I can’t stop thinking about this new story. Not only has the whole thing come together very quickly, but it is also consuming my writing mind. And to be completely honest I’m already a bit in love with the premise and the MCs. Nonetheless, I’m also not entirely comfortable with going off the familiar terrain of the novel I’d already planned to write. Just like when I considered avoiding the path Nuvi directed me to take to the Jersey Pike, this time I’m contemplating taking a trip through unfamiliar writing terrain.

And I wonder: do I trust myself enough to go off the purple path?

Much like the iconic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon when Harold draws his own path with a purple crayon, I took my crayon in hand and followed my own path. In short, I trusted myself to go off Nuvi’s directions and found my own way to the Jersey Pike. . . I made it!

But what about the writing dilemma? I don’t have a map to consult, to see the end point. Nor even an objective Nuvi telling me where to go, something to blindly follow. So this time, as I take my purple crayon in hand, I’m firmly on my own. Just like Harold’s, my path is a constantly changing landscape, fraught with uncertainty, my final destination unclear.

What about you? If you come up with a new idea off your planned route (in writing or on a road trip…or life) are you comfortable deviating? Is it an easy decision or one that’s tough to make?

Cheers,
Julia

‘Can Do’ Tomboy Lessons

“I saw only two vehicles this day – both as I was heading home. Both men with surprised looks on their faces when they saw me.”

Today I am very happy to have Melissa Crytzer Fry as a guest on my blog! Melissa was one of the first writers I connected with in the blogosphere. We became friends over our mutual love of writing, photography, and the natural world around us—even though we see very different parts of the world: she in the middle of the desert and me on the coast of Maine. Her blog, appropriately called What I Saw—helps me really see and think about what I see every day around me. If you haven’t read it, you definitely should. It’s an amazing combination of great writing, beautiful photography, and wonderful observations about nature (and life). Please enjoy this small sample from one of my favorite bloggers… 


‘Can Do’ Tomboy Lessons by Melissa Crytzer Fry


My dad wanted boys. But when two pink-bottomed girls were placed gently into his arms two years apart, he did what any good dad would do. He loved us without hesitation.

And he did something else. He taught us that we could do anything that his boys might have done. Was he still pining for the sons he didn’t have? Maybe.

But I wouldn’t change a thing. Because, in our rural corner of Pennsylvania with its cornfields, hay bales and Holsteins, we grew up doing things that most girls wouldn’t dream. We drove tractors, chopped wood, played basketball, shot guns, rode motorcycles and drove go-karts faster than we had a right to. We dug ditches, changed spark plugs, knocked down chimneys with jackhammers and restored vintage cars.

View of Grandpa’s silos from the backyard of my childhood
 home. Grandmother’s (and grandpa’s) house was not over the
 river and through the woods. It was more like “over the
 meadow and through the cornfield.”
I wouldn’t say we were fearless. We were simply beef-fed and garden-raised tomboys, groomed for independence (even though we had boyfriends, went to prom and knew how to apply our makeup). Maybe that independent spirit guided me to Arizona in 1998, while my family remained in PA.
Maybe that same “can do” spirit led to my newest creative outlet: Jeeping. Alone*. In the remote rattlesnake-, bobcat-, scorpion- and mountain-lion-laden Sonoran desert. With my laptop.

My Jeep, Betty, takes me to a nearby natural desert spring.
This aerial view taken from a helicopter on my 40th birthday
shows the remote road I traveled during my first solo
 adventure (see photo above).
This office location in another nearby wash included
serenading by a lovely canyon wren. Betty has
ignited my creativity!
Oh – did I forget to mention that, in between Jeeping, freelancing and blogging, I’m an aspiring novelist, chasing the same publishing dream as so many others? You know: feeling a bit knocked around, bruised and bloodied over the years – but equally hopeful, optimistic and determined. Probably more of the latter. Can anyone say Taurus? Or maybe … maybe it’s that ‘can do’ attitude inadvertently drummed into my thick-skulled tomboy head by my dad?

*Of course, all of this outdoor adventure required
some refresher training at the gun range (thanks, Neighbor Mark).
And I obviously depend on my wonderfully supportive husband
 to help me learn as I go. Yep – I still need to work on tire changing,
using the Jeep winch, and even more practice with 4WD terrain.
What holds you back from reaching for those seemingly impossible dreams? Naysayers? Gender or age stereotypes? Something else? What activities might you try in pursuit of that ‘can do’ attitude?

—————
Melissa Crytzer Fry is a freelance writer and journalist living out her writing dream in southern Arizona, among wildlife ranging from javelina, bobcats and quail to mountain lions, coyotes and Gila Monsters. She pays tribute to Arizona’s natural world on her blog, What I Saw, sharing photography and asking questions that apply to writing in particular, and life in general. Her literary novel-in-progress was named a semi-finalist in the 2011 William Faulkner William Wisdom Writing Competition. Twitter: @CrytzerFry.

The Curious Writer’s Mind

Prince Edward IsAland

I am writing this post far from home: approximately 430 miles southwest of Maine. This early morning in Philadelphia, in a guest bedroom—more specifically guest bathroom (stay with me here) of my aunt’s house—I discovered this: I never turn off my writer’s curious mind.

But I get ahead of myself. MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I are here to celebrate an important birthday. Our daughter’s 21st! Last night we took her and four of her wonderful friends out for dinner at a delicious Malaysian restaurant. Then we wandered behind them through the streets of Philly, in search of a bar. Can I tell you it’s been a long time since I’ve done this? Of course I’ve never done it with my daughter! We had so much fun!

(An aside: If you have a daughter who at age two asks for a pony? Don’t expect she’ll outgrow wanting one. Even at age 21. Even as she’s sitting next to you on a barstool, ordering a drink called “Bulletproof.”)

I digress. What does this have to do with the writer’s curious mind? Earlier, on our way to the restaurant I took a photo—two houses with pretty unbelievable art displays in their front yards. I thought it was Halloween decorations, MEH thought it was more of a year round thing—and we discussed it for a while. But more importantly, I wondered: who lives there? What is their motivation? Why? What is the course of life events that leads someone to have such an assorted display.


The houses with the amazing art displays in their front yards.
Later, when MEH and I left our daughter and her friends to enjoy the late night scene, we wandered back to our small nondescript white station wagon. On the way we saw an amazing old building, beautifully lit up. I had to take a photo, of course, but I had no idea what building I was looking at—yes, I wondered and briefly tried to figure it out via Google on my iPhone. After I took the photo, we walked by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel—a couple dressed to the nines was getting out of a dark Mercedes, being helped by the doorman with their luggage. I had to wonder: who are they? Why are they in Philly? What’s theirstory? Are they in the foreign service? Are they spies? Are they here for their daughter’s birthday?
The mystery building turned out to be
none other than Philadelphia City Hall!
It just doesn’t stop. And so it was this morning (I told you, I’d come back to it), standing in my aunt’s guest bathroom, looking at the Map of the World shower curtain I noticed something. An island off the coast of Africa labeled: Prince Edward Isaland. No, that misspelled word is not a typo (well, not my typo). Of course I did what any curious writer would do: rushed back to my room for my iPhone to find out if there really is a place called Prince Edward Isaland—more specifically is it a typo?
The answer is yes, it is a typo. But, wait, there’s more! The first five search items returned in Google were other blogs written about this very same typo on this very same shower curtain (well, not my aunt’s shower curtain but another one just like it)! And one of the blogs was “overly harsh” (that blogger’s description, not mine) about this shower curtain, and not just because of the typo, but more about the mapping strategies and politics. And again, I wondered: why? Why the harsh reaction? What was that blogger’s motivation? It is, after all, only a shower curtain.

And that’s my short (not overly harsh) blog for the week—a look into this writer’s curious mind.

Do you, like me, see stories everywhere you look? Do you try to imagine what the people (and places) around you are all about? Can you turn off yourwriter’s curious mind?


Cheers,
Julia

"What’s it like being married to a blogger/writer?"

MEH on one of our daily early morning dog walks
My Engineer Husband (MEH) makes frequent appearances on my blog. But yesterday when I read a blog by blogging friend, writer Jamie Miles, about what her husband thinks about her blogging, I realized I’d never written a similar blog. When I started putting together questions to ask MEH, I remembered another blog I’d read a few months ago by writer Annie Neugebauer, asking her husband what it was like to be married to a writer. I’ve been a writer all our married life, but since I’ve only been a blogger for the past year and a half, I decided to merge the two questions.
When I asked MEH if I could interview him, this is what he said: “I really think you can do something better with your time. Doesn’t seem like it’s a productive activity. There must be someone more interesting out there to interview.”

But, that’s just MEH being modest, because he’s my biggest supporter and helps me anytime I ask. He always reads my blogs and everything else I write, too. So naturally I want to know what he thinks.

JMM: What is your impression of blogging in general?

MEH: It’s a crazy crazy world that I don’t understand. 

JMM: In what way?

MEH: There seems to be this whole social network of bloggers interacting with one another—a whole culture and society. It’s very different from my culture of engineering where I just go in and do my job with very specific milestones and end results.

JMM: Twitter?

MEH: (Laughter) Even more incomprehensible.

JMM: What do you think when I blog about you?

MEH: I don’t know why you’re blogging about me. I’m embarrassed and I think you’re incredibly creative and have actually created an entirely new character (of me) out of thin air, and it’s very impressive.

JMM: Are you implying that you’re nothing like you are in the blog?

MEH: Yes. That’s what I’m implying. You’ve created a character and attached my acronym to it—or more accurately, your acronym for me to it. (Laughter)

JMM: What do you think of the time I spend in blog world?

MEH: Sometimes you come out of it looking very dazed, as though you’ve gone into another world through a porthole in our dining room. You come out and regale me with stories of what happened in this parallel universe—it’s very science-fictiony.

JMM: Twitter?

MEH: It causes you to have incomplete thoughts. It makes it very hard to talk to you sometimes after you’ve been on Twitter because sometimes thoughts need to be longer than 140 characters.

JMM: What’s your favorite blog I’ve ever written?

MEH: MEH the Amygdala and me. It was a funny blog about our life.

JMM: Any blogs you wish I hadn’t written or can’t understand why I wrote them?

MEH: The blog in the middle of winter when we were out there on the bridge in minus 10 degrees in the wind and the snow, videotaping the overlook. I thought we could’ve done without that. (Note: for the first year of this blog, we videotaped a certain spot in Maine every week. Here’s one of the winter videos.)

JMM: What’s the best part of being married to a writer—please tell me there is a best part?

MEH: (Laughs hard) There are so many. I love it when we’re sitting in a restaurant and I can see the misty eyes you get and then I realize you’re listening to somebody else’s conversation. The amazing trips and stories we’ve gone on in our minds after observing ordinary actions of life, like overhearing a snippet of conversation that takes us down a rabbit hole in your creative mind. These are things I never would’ve seen or done if I hadn’t been married to you.

JMM: What’s the worst part of being married to a writer?

MEH: Trying to understand what you’re saying in 140 characters. (laughter). Seriously, watching and feeling the angst and pain when you get rejections—and the self-doubt that it inflicts.

JMM: How would you describe what I do all day?

MEH: Torture. You torture yourself until you’re happy.

JMM: Torture?

MEH: I see you sitting there with your head in your hands, sobbing (laughter), and you stand up and you stomp around and you sit back down and you pull your hair and then you throw things away and then you start over again. And then you say: “this is awful.” But in the end it seems to make you happy.

JMM: What’s the craziest thing you’ve found yourself doing in the name of helping me do research?

MEH: I think that would have to be pawing through a trashcan. Although taking pictures of random people in the grocery store is up there. And standing out there on the bridge in minus 10 degrees, when you used to do the videos for the blog, seems incomprehensible, although fun at the time.

JMM: Not being interviewed today?

MEH: That’s not crazy. Perplexing, maybe, but not crazy.

Have you ever asked your partner what he/she thinks of being married to/living with a writer? Would you (or have you) blogged about it? Did you discover anything surprising?

Cheers,

Julia

Nichole Bernier, Author: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

I am very happy to welcome Nichole Bernier to my blog for a Q&A. Nichole’s recent debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., tells the story of Kate Spenser who inherits a trunk of journals from her best friend Elizabeth. I finished this wonderful novel last week, and I highly recommend it. Thank you, Nichole, for the opportunity to interview you!

GIVEAWAY: One lucky commenter will receive a copy of Nichole’s book (thank you Nichole)! Nichole will also send you a personalized bookplate! All you need to do to enter the giveaway is leave a comment before noon on Friday, August 24th. The contest is now closed, congratulations DINDY YOKEL, you won a copy of Nichole’s book!!

Welcome Nichole!

One of the reasons I enjoyed your book so much is that I’m fascinated with the dynamics of friendship. This particularly resonated with me: “…that’s a funny thing about people who don’t fit into a box. They grow to infiltrate everything, and when they suddenly go missing, they are missing everywhere.” I love that. Can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration behind the “friend who doesn’t fit in a box”? Where it came from? What made it so important for this particular story?

I’m glad it touched you, thanks. I’ve always been intrigued by the way people play certain roles in our lives — how, depending upon circumstances and the way we’re thrown together at certain times, we can become quite close without actually knowing one another in a three-dimensional way. I moved a lot growing up, and I’ve moved a good deal as a married adult with young children. And these PTA and playgroup friendships can be quite intense and candid and supportive — though we may be personally and politically quite different, and under other circumstances, might never have become friends. That fascinates me: where people intersect, and what common ground matters most at that moment in time, and where/why we draw the line at becoming closer, consciously or not.


I was also so fascinated with how much Kate learned about her friend Elizabeth that she never would have known if she hadn’t inherited the journals. Was this based on specific real-life friend experiences you had? What was the seed for the “unknown quality” about her friend?
 

The inspiration for the book, and for the friendship between the two women, was the loss of a friend in the September 11th attacks. In that first week I helped her husband by returning the media calls and describing her, over and over, in sound bites that I hoped she would have approved of. But I wondered then — and then for the next few years — how she would have wanted to be described, and to be remembered. And it occurred to me that it’s probably inevitable that there be some difference in the way we see ourselves, and the way we’re seen by others.

My novel is in no way about my friend, but is about the questions that stayed with me about identity women have as wives and mothers, sisters and friends: The difference between the faces we show the world and the aspects of ourselves we keep private, the quiet aspirations and fears. The “what-if” of the novel spooled off from there, and became about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend, and learns she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought — including where she was really going when she died.

I blog a lot about writing from a strong sense of place. In The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. much of the story takes place on Great Rock Island, and you created a vivid scene in my mind. What was it about this setting, outside Kate’s normal life, that was important to the story? Did you visit a similar place? And did you use a particular house as a model for the beach house?
 

My main character Kate Spenser is isolated and lost in the anxious summer of 2002. Though she’s on vacation with her family on the island they love to visit each year, she’s becoming increasingly unhinged by the anxiety of parenting in an arbitrary post-September 11th world. She knows her emotional response has gone beyond the realm of normal but she can’t stop the tapes. Putting her on an island gave her the physical and emotional sense of being marooned, and being amid the pleasant summer-tourism island languor but with the melancholy of being in a bind, seemed the best way to represent a person who is stranded in her own life.

There was a model for the house, and it was a wonderful ranch bungalow we rented one summer on the water on Martha’s Vineyard. When I came home I drew an architectural rendering on a giant white board to keep it in sight.


Follow on to the previous question: I loved the loft space you created for the house—the place that Kate read Elizabeth’s journals. Was there some place that inspired this idea? Why was it important that Kate was so removed from the rest of the house and activity while she was reading?

I loved the idea of Kate reading in a place that was a slight retreat from the chaos of the family, unwatched and uninterrupted.The reading loft was not a part of the bungalow we rented — it was an added figment of my imagination. But I love it so much I’ll probably have to build it someday.


I love the Beyond the Margins blog—one of my daily go-to reads. I know you along with other Grub Street writers started that blog in 2010. Some social media experts think that blogging is on the decline. I’m curious whether you think this is true—both for individual and group blogs? Also, what benefits have you seen from being involved in the group blog—is it something you would recommend to other writers who have an opportunity to be involved in one?
 

I really don’t know about the state of blogging in general, but I can say that good blogs build community, and that’s why we first formed Beyond the Margins: To have an excuse to come together for daily essays on the craft and business of publishing, but also to celebrate the writing of others. We call it a literary magazine run amok, and it’s been great fun as well as a good platform for our writing, but it’s also been an important source of networking. The relationships we’ve formed through the blog over the past three years have been invaluable — with fellow writers, published and not-yet published, editors, agents and editors.


In addition to Beyond the Margins, you also have a personal blog, a very successful freelance writing career, and now a very successful novel. Oh, and you have five kids too. Impressive. Do you write at home? Can you tell me a little about how do you juggle all your commitments? Are you a planner or a pantser (in life and in writing)?

I’m afraid I’m doing more pantsing than planning — or should I say I plan just elaborately enough to let me pants it where I can. I have the kids’ schedules on two electronic organizers and a wall calendar, and when I sit down to write (usually at my coffeeshop or library). I do plan in advance what I’m going to be working on because I’m so thrilled for the babysitting time that I don’t want to fritter it away in warm-up exercises the whole time to figure out what I’d like to say.

But regardless of what I’ve planned or outlined, when I write, I depart from it liberally. A manuscript, like a big family, can be an unruly thing and you have to work with what comes along.

Nichole Bernier is author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, a finalist for the New England Independent Booksellers Association fiction award, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. AContributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She is a founder of the literary blog Beyond theMargins, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found online at nicholebernier.com and on Twitter @nicholebernier.

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 Case for Blogging


The box holds my just finished WIP;
the blue folder is my WIP mystery;
the slim notebook in front: WIP #3!
The tulips? A gift from MEH!

Yesterday WordCount Blogathon 2012 started, and I was tempted to join…because it brought back great memories. One year ago I participated in Blogathon 2011: pledging to blog daily for the month of May. In fact, for the first four months of my blog (February through May) I posted daily. Because I started out that way, it didn’t seem like any big deal—daily blogging was a way of life.
One of my original blogging goals was to kick start my fiction writing—and that happened. By June I was writing fiction every day and blogging about every other day. Then gradually it started to shift. In October I blogged twelve times, in November ten, in December seven, until finally last month I blogged four times—I am now consistently blogging once a week.

I also finished one of my WIPs, something I haven’t done since around 2001 when I finished a middle grade novel entitled Sciurus Maximus. This book—which was never accepted for publication—was finished when both my children were at home, and my life was much different. My days rose and fell by the school day, meals were arranged around sporting events and other extracurricular activities, and I had two built in beta readers anxiously interested in reading everything I wrote. I was a full-time, very happy mom. I should add that I was also a part-time, very happy writer…until something happened.

One very close and very good rejection from a big publishing house, a mere re-write short of a sure thing (as it turned out it was not so sure a thing). It took the wind out of my sails, that close call. And now, I have three middle grade manuscripts in a filing box under my desk—in the drawer so to speak. And it took me all those ten years to want to write fiction again. Sure I dabbled, but nothing very regularly—at all.
When I stopped writing fiction all that time ago, I had a partially written women’s fiction manuscript. I had it outlined and about one third written. Last year, after beginning to blog, and kick starting my writing, I pulled that manuscript out and I started writing again. My life was very different. Both my children out of the nest—one in college and one in medical school—now my days rise and fall by the call of the computer: to write. And last September I finished a draft, and two weeks ago I started to query agents with The Cottage on Quarry Island.

Now, I have two more WIPs. One I started a few years ago—a mystery starring Maggie and Joe, amateur detectives—it is fully outlined, and I’ll start to write next week. The other is women’s fiction—dark and suspenseful—that I’ve almost fully outlined. It came to me one night last month as I was lying on the couch, from a simple and very random comment from MEH (My Engineer Husband). It is developing into a full-blown, very deep and rich, very exciting story.

I know there are a lot of different opinions about whether blogging is a good or bad thing, necessary or not, to do as a fiction writer. If I hadn’t started blogging, I don’t know if I ever would have started writing again. It gave me the boost in confidence and the daily deadline I needed to get started. In fact, blogging kick started me so well that I wrote an estimated 200,000 words last year. It kick started me so well that I spend eight to ten to twelve hours every single day either writing or thinking about writing. My WIPs run through my mind as though they are movies, and I see my characters in the faces and actions of many people I cross paths with every single day. My ideas and energy for writing are seemingly endless.

So back to that question about whether blogging is a good or bad thing for fiction writers? I can’t speak to everyone, but for me? For this writer? I owe blogging and you, my blog readers, a huge debt of gratitude. Because I will take the opinion that blogging is good—no make that very very good—and for me I would even say a necessity. Blogging kick started my writing and is now my lifeline to continue to pursue that passion.

Writers, what do you think, is blogging good or bad for your fiction writing? And if you’re a reader—do you enjoy reading blogs by fiction writers whose books you love?

Cheers,

Julia

The Glamorous Writing Life

One of my blogging/Twitter writer friends, Natalia Sylvester, and I joke about the glamorous writing life—you know the one we all have in all our free time, lounging around and writing in our PJs…eating bonbons, that one. Sometimes I think about that life these days—when I’m deep in a project like I have been recently, because then….

The house goes down the tubes—as the expression goes—like it always does during one of my intense writing sprees. As I worked steadily at the dining room table, toward the final draft of my WIP, each and every one of the other surfaces in the house eventually got covered.

The kitchen table: by whatever came into the house (oh that was also MEH’s—My Engineer Husband’s chosen work at home spot, quite possibly because I’d consumed every other spot). The office “home desk” is covered with bills and incoming mail; my desk in the office is covered with various other writing and research projects. Yet another, a table we use for games, still has a half-finished and very dusty jigsaw puzzle left from my daughter’s last visit home.

This weekend, as I de-cluttered the dining room table and loaded up a file box with all my notes and research folders and everything else from the finished novel, I started cleaning up a little, too. Because when I stopped writing so intensely, I noticed the house was an abject mess. Let me just say, I could never be described as a neat freak…. but I also do not like an overly messy but especially not an overly dirty house. I hate that. Nonetheless, that’s what I have.

It’s one of the (very) few luxuries about having an empty nest: not worrying too much (if at all) about the house being remotely clean. (Don’t ask me about the other luxuries, I don’t write that kind of blog.) We don’t entertain a whole lot; if we see friends we usually meet them somewhere else. That means no one really comes in and out of the house except us. Used to be our kids’ friends’ parents would drop by to pick up their kids from play dates and gasp at the drifting dog hair. In truth this never actually happened at my house but once I picked up my daughter at a friend’s house and was truly shocked, truly, by the large quantities of dog hair drifting by—something I’ve thought of once or twice or every hour as I pondered the near-ankle-deep dog hair in my own dining room. When you have a black lab, like we do, especially in the spring these things happen, or that’s what I told myself…

On Saturday a Furminatorarrived in the mail. (If you don’t know what a Furminator is and you have a dog that sheds, especially a dark coloreddog, you should definitely check it out because “unbelievable results” does not begin to describe this dog brush.) Okay, this is pretty embarrassing…but here goes: we bought ours on rush order by direct instruction from our vet; last week she tested Abby for hypothyroidism because she (the dog, not the vet) had gained some weight and her fur looked “uneven and unkempt,” something that might indicate her thyroid is out of whack. It wasn’t—out of whack—it was because we didn’t have time to brush our dog (and were giving her too many peanut butter treats). The vet called to give me, as she said, the good and the bad news… “Her results are normal. Here’s what I want you to do. No more peanut butter treats and buy a Furminator.” We bought.

But it wasn’t just the dog hair. Laundry was piling up. A lot of it. In fact yesterday when I sorted it all out on the kitchen floor, there were ten loads in all. Don’t judge too harshly. Six of the ten loads were sheets and towels—the kids are coming home and we’re preparing. But it wasn’t even just the laundry.

Every spice I’d used in the last month or so (maybe even since the new year started) was out on the kitchen counter, and I use a lot of spices…. And even the sprinkles I used on MEH’s April Fool’s Day birthday cake had not been put away. To be fair to myself (and MEH, who pulls half the cleaning duties in the house), we did do the basics: washed dishes, loaded and unloaded the dishwasher, took out the trash, washed and wore clean clothes (most days), fed and walked the dog, wiped up spills on the stove, occasionally (very) swept the dried up mud out of the mudroom. But beyond the basics? Not a lot.

And there was a lot to be done. So yesterday I did some cleaning—not all of it but I got a good start—and I’ll admit I feel a lot better: the spices and sprinkles are back in the cabinet, the counter’s cleared off, the jigsaw’s still there (and will be until my daughter is home next month…who knows, maybe she’ll still want to do it…yeah, that’s it) but the rest of the tables got cleared off. We vacuumed the drifts of dog hair in the dining room. Oh, and we “furminated” Abby.

Last night I literally gasped with pleasure as I slid between our clean sheets (nothing more about that! Remember? Not that kind of blog…). This morning I woke up and saw only three loads of laundry lingering on the kitchen floor. Another gasp. And then I knew it was true… I really do lead the glamorous writer’s life.

Today as I sit down to start anew, the fresh and shiny WIP awaiting me on the cleared-off kitchen table, I’ll happily watch the dog hair build around me, the spices congregate on the counter, and the tables fill one by one…. Because in truth, there is no other life I’d pick over this one, not one.

Cheers,

Julia



Some Words About Word

My current WIP is in the final stages of edits—over 300 manuscript pages, 30 chapters, over 80,000 words.
And almost every day when I sit down to edit, revise, hone my words, I struggle with MS-Word: the word processor I use (I can’t say word processor of choice, it’s just what I have, what I use). And MS-Word and I? We often don’t get along. And that’s a problem because I spend a lot of time with Word, approximately 12 hours a day these days.

First, some background: I’ve been using word processing software since before there was word processing software. The truth is I’ve been using computers to write since before computers were used to write—since typewriters were used to write. And I’ve written users’ guides about computer software. So I know a thing or two about software and computers. Furthermore, I’ve read a lot about using MS-Word.

So why can’t I figure out the best way to use MS-Word to write a book?

For one thing, Word keeps changing—I recently upgraded to Word for Mac 2011 and had to learn a whole new way of using it. Frustrating in the middle of trying to finish my novel. But as much as it changed, some of the most annoying things remained the same, for instance: “Why the heck did you auto format that? Please don’t make that into a list…indent that text…change the font size…start a new page…or whatever else you did automatically—unless I want you to!” (Yes that’s in quotes because I actually speak out loud to my computer, specifically to MS-Word.)

But that’s not why I’m writing this post—the real reason I’m writing this post—the thing that is really confounding me about MS-Word right now is: “Why do you not have a way to write (and by write I mean manage) a long document, say a novel?”

The thing is, I keep all my chapters in separate files—for me they’re easier to manage that way, easier to revise as I’m writing, easier to go through, easier to find things in. But now… toward the end, it’s so annoying. To have to repaginate everything every time I make a change, doing seemingly endless searches through 30 chapters for things I want to change. Keeping track of which chapters I’ve changed what things in. And I can’t believe there’s not a better way.

I have writer friends who have one long novel-length document—which is what I started to create this morning from all the separate chapters—but I worry: will it be unwieldy? Will it take too long to load? To search? Should I use an MS-Word “master document” with chapters as contents—which is one of the ways MS-Word suggests to do long documents? (Not that I’m particularly interested in any advice MS-Word has for me.)

And that’s why I’m writing this post, to ask you my writer friends: how do you manage your long documents? What are the tricks you’ve developed, the resources you use? If not for this novel, this WIP, then for the next, I’ll be ready and start with a system that works. So that when I reach the end of my novel, I’m not equally consumed with figuring out MS-Word as I am with celebrating THE END of my novel.

Please leave your advice in comments!

Cheers,

Julia

If You Give a Blogger a Pie….


This is my first “real” blog in three weeks. Not counting the coast videos or the scientific reports on crows.

I love blogging but it’s kind of falling by the wayside as I’ve focused on my Work-in-Progress, on Thanksgiving, now on Christmas countdown. And the problem is the longer I’m away the more I miss it but the more unsure I feel. Kind of like when you haven’t seen someone in a long time: how will they feel about me now?

And that’s exactly how I’m feeling: how will they (and when I say they, I mean you) feel about me now. Sure, I can write about crows, about Canada geese on Casco Bay, about the sunset and the moon and the tides. But can I write about feelings, about writing….can I still write a blog?

Which made me think: what exactly is a blog? And what makes me think I have anything at all to add to the 145 million other blogs out there. Which made me realize: this is crazy. It’s the same question I’ve been asking since my very first blog post. And which reminded me that this is the way I always am when I’ve waited too long to do anything.

Like make a pie crust. When I made the pumpkin pie this year for Thanksgiving, I was afraid. I love making pie crusts and I used to make them all the time—when my daughter was in her last year of high school I made a quiche every single Sunday. But since she left for college, I haven’t. And I lost my mojo. (Haha, I just love to use that word even though I don’t really know what it means, see second definition in urban dictionary.) Or I thought I lost my mojo (haha again).

But I didn’t. I remembered how to make the pie crust—and it was one of the best pumpkin pies ever. And then two days after Thanksgiving I made a quiche, and that was pretty spectacular, too, if I do say so myself.

And then it hit me. I really didn’t ever forget how to make the pie crust, and I really haven’t forgotten how to blog, either. It’s all coming back. Right? And next time I promise a real blog, whatever that is, or maybe a quiche.


Do you ever doubt your ability to blog or wonder if you really have anything to add to the blogging world?

Cheers,
Julia

How Far Would You Go?

“Harold, I’m sorry. You have to die…It’s her masterpiece, possibly her most important work in her already stunning career. I’ve been over it again and again, and it’s absolutely no good unless you die at the end….it’s the nature of all tragedies that the hero dies but the story goes on forever.”  – Dr. Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman), Stranger Than Fiction

The other night I watched Stranger than Fiction—one of my favorite movies about writing. If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it for its entertainment value alone. Harold Crick (played by Will Farrell) is a hapless IRS agent who, it turns out, is also the main character in a novel being written by author Kay Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson). It’s not entirely clear if Eiffel invented Harold or if somehow she is writing things that begin to happen to him. It is clear—however—that Harold Crick must die.

I don’t want to give away the whole movie, but to figure out what’s going on—why someone is narrating his life—Harold goes to see a professor of literature. The series of visits and literary analysis that the two go through are hilarious…as Dr. Hilbert devises a series of questions to figure out whether Harold’s story is a comedy or a tragedy. Sadly, ultimately Dr. Hilbert confirms that Harold’s story is a tragedy so he must die to ensure the success of Eiffel’s novel.

It made me consider. And admittedly, this is an outrageous question. How far would I go to ensure I had a masterpiece? Or for that matter, to have a book published? Would I care if my main character—who turned out to be a real person, albeit that I didn’t know, could die as a result of me finishing the book?

To me, this extreme allegory could be the expression of what we all go through as writers. How do we get the words on the page, get the job done. Make our characters come to life? What games must we play in our minds? How do we convince ourselves that the story is worthy of telling?

Do we need to imagine a real person at the other end of what we’re writing? I’ve been thinking about this a lot while I’ve been revising the draft of my WIP. Primarily because I have pictures in my mind of most of my characters—but two (my main character and her new love interest) have been hazy in my mind’s eye.

Then about two weeks ago I went into Starbucks, and a group of women was seated at a table a few feet from where I stood at the cash register. When I glanced over, one woman seemed familiar, almost as though I knew her (I didn’t), and I realized in a flash that it was how I pictured “Annie,” my main character. A strange sensation passed over me as I surreptitiously glanced over at her several times, memorizing details that I could write later.

And yesterday, at Trader Joe’s, when MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went to buy some wine, we were approached by a Trader Joe’s employee. The second I saw him I knew: he was “Annie’s Will,” her new love interest. I briefly considered using my iPhone to snap his picture—but decided that was going too far, and anyway he might have noticed.

After he answered our questions about Proseco, “Annie’s Will” walked away, and as he did, MEH—who knew I was in search of a face to fit the character in my mind—turned to me and said: “Let me guess: Will?” He had seen my writer’s face.  


As I consider my main characters—these two individuals who have come to personify them, yet with whom I have no relationship beyond my imagination—I wonder. Could I like Kay Eiffel write a scene that I knew would affect them? What if it was a good thing—that as a result of what I wrote, “my Annie” and “my Will,” selected seemingly at random, would really meet and fall in love? 

Could I cause one of them harm? (In truth I can’t even write the words in this blog “to die” in relation to anyone, so I think I know my answer to that one.) But a broken arm? A minor accident? A cold? To ensure a bestseller, a masterpiece, or simply a published novel?

How far would I go?

How far would you go? How do you put faces to your characters? 
Cheers, 

Julia

Do You Enter the Zone?


This week I’m knee deep in editing the first draft I finished a couple of weeks ago.
And I’m in “the zone.” I actually did a google search to figure out what was going on—was I the only one? I started by searching for “writer becomes character.” Because a weird thing is happening: almost every time I sit down to work on this book, I start “seeing” my main character’s world, feeling her feelings—entering “the zone.”

After a few minutes of searching, I finally stumbled upon an older post called “Getting Into Character: Fiction Writing Exercises.” (This post also has some great exercises for helping you get in the zone.)

“Many artists and creative people talk about entering “the zone.” This is a state of mind in which you’re running on automatic pilot. Your right (creative) brain is fully engaged and your left (logical) brain is snoozing with one eye open. It is in this state that people often get lost in an activity, lose track of time, and produce some of their best creative work.”

When I am in the zone, I am quiet, more focused. I’m watching and hearing things in my mind: a conversation, a vignette, a scene. I can see places and people. I visualize walking into my main character’s kitchen and from the kitchen to the left, past a peninsula to the main room, a bank of windows straight ahead overlooks the water—to my right a staircase leads upstairs.

Sometimes, if I’ve been working intensely for several hours and I need to run an errand, go out of the house, I am silent and anti-social. I don’t want to leave the world I’ve created in my mind and now on paper. MEH (My Engineer Husband) says he can tell when I’ve entered the zone because I have the same look on my face I get when we’re in a restaurant and I’m listening to others diners’ conversations, like in this post. If I talk about someone—he feels he needs to ask: “Is this a real person or someone in the book?”

Getting into the zone is not always easy. These days it usually happens right when I sit down to work. I’m there. But sometimes I need to go somewhere to trigger the feelings. When this happens, I’ll go and sit in the spot I imagine is the view my character sees from her window. I sit on the rocks and I wait. I think about that place in my mind, that other place in another world, and my view shifts away from what’s in front of me—and into the world in my mind.
When you’re deeply involved in your stories, your characters, are you overwhelmed by their presence like I am? 

Do you enter “the zone”? 

Cheers,

Julia

What’s a Writer to Do?

Unfortunately this beautiful brass bird bell from
Denmark has come to represent Twitter to me:
the big bird in the room that chimes for attention

Have you noticed how some blog posts leave you thinking: “Oh that’s nice.” Others make you think a little more. Still others you could take or leave. Then there are some, just a few, that really make you sit up and pay attention. 


In the past 10 days, I’ve read 3 posts like that. Posts that reinforce the little voice I’ve been hearing in my head, saying: I NEED HELP! Why don’t I write?


The day before yesterday, Nina Badzin posted Mixed Blessings of the Internet. Nina issued “a cry for help,” asking how we writers get our daily WIP writing done while still keeping up with social networking.

I responded (inadequately) in comments. (The truth is I had gotten about 2 hours of sleep after Hurricane Irene. Add to that, I was in a pretty down mood. I think my comment reflected it.) The gist of my answer to Nina is that I DON’T get my WIP done, or not very well. But that I keep doing it (social networking), drawn like a moth to the flame.

The second truth is that in the middle of a hurricane I was thinking about how to tweet about it—I was actually a little more worried about that than I was about not being able to cook a hot meal. (In fairness the storm had been downgraded to a Tropical Storm by the time it reached us, but still…)

Just like all writers, there are a lot of things vying for my attention!
The bird bell, of course front and center, represents Twitter and all social networking

Why do I spend my time the way I do? I started thinking about this last week when I read Post #2 that struck home: Slaying the Green-backed Dragon on Cynthia Robertson’s blog. Cynthia wondered if writers are more productive when working another job full time or when they are able to write full time on WIPs. In essence I responded that it didn’t seem to matter to my productivity level, whether I worked or not.

Right now I don’t work full or part time (about a year ago my part time job dwindled down to two or so hours a week—budget cuts). I no longer have children at home, like some of you lucky mothers. And thanks to the economy, my freelance client base has eroded away. In essence I have all the time in the world for my WIPs.

But my third truthis that my writing productivity is based more on my state of mind—how happy and relaxed I am—than on how much time I have. In fact, my most productive time, as a writer (of fiction), was when I was home full-time with two children. I wrote three middle-grade novels, one early reader, two picture books, three published essays, one nationally published short story. And the editorial feedback I got back from “good rejections” (there were plenty) was, well, good. But, note to self and readers: still no novel published.

Which brings me to Post #3, How Much Time Do We Really Need to Write, posted this morning on Natalia Sylvester’s blog. After reading Cynthia’s blog post, she experimented by dedicating an entire day to her WIP, nothing else, to see how much more productive she might be if she only had her WIP to work on—like I do.

And that, dear readers, brings me to MY problem. I have two really promising (my opinion only) WIPs: “Heavy Duty” and “Manila Folder.” One is over one-third written, the other slightly less. But I spend way too much time (more than I care to track) on Twitter and commenting on blogs.

My two WIPs AKA
“Heavy Duty” and “Manila Folder”

I rationalize: Twitter and blog commenting is necessary—it’s part of building my writer’s platform. That’s why I started. Way back six months ago when I first started, a blog post told me to.

But now something more important has happened. You tweeps are my friends: Nina, Natalia, Cynthia, and about 14 others of you that I talk to almost everyday. I wrote a guest post for Natalia a couple of months ago about this. If I’m not on Twitter as much, I’d miss you! My writing life is very solitary. I don’t go to coffee shops, I don’t have a writer’s group. I sit at my desk or at my kitchen table, (purportedly) writing.

Nonetheless, the fact remains. I need to get to work on my WIPs, drum up freelance writing business, write and submit short stories and creative nonfiction, write my blog, and—oh—live my life, maybe even clean my house. And then there’s Twitter, the big bird in the room…

But the real problem isn’t Twitter, it’s me. Why don’t I write? My two WIPs are well defined, great ideas (just my opinion, granted), but I am making much-too-painfully slow process. I honestly believe it’s not because I’m doing anything else, like blogging or Twitter, too much—it’s just that everything else takes priority. And I’m just not writing enough. So, why don’t I? What’s a writer to do?

Have you had times that you simply can’t or won’t work on your WIPs? What have you done about it?

Cheers,

Julia

Are We Competing?


Truman Capote (From Wikimedia Commons)

Note: all statistics in this post are made up. Nothing refers to a real person (except when I talk about myself, Harper Lee, or Truman Capote.)

Sometimes when I look at my “numbers,” I get scared. Am I a good enough blogger? I have 86 blog followers, but she has 229. I have almost 800 followers on Twitter, but he has over 1000. I got 15 comments on my last post, but that blog got 74.

I get more scared when I think of publication: She’s twenty years younger than I am but has 4 books published, and I’ve had only one short story and some essays published. Wait, I try to reassure myself, I used to be a technical writer—do 400-page technical manuals count? He has an agent, and all I have is two unfinished WIPs sitting on my kitchen table.

Before my daughter left to go back to college, we sat down to watch Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird—a documentary about Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird may be my daughter’s all-time favorite book, and we’d been waiting all summer for Hey Boo to come out on Netflix DVD. I was so happy it came before she left!

And it was a great movie—I think I may have actually liked it more than anyone else. Maybe because it talked so much about how Harper Lee wrote the book: her writing style, her writing life, her avoidance of the fame the book brought her, her fears and her insecurities. The fact that Harper Lee never has written another book since.

In an interview this year with the Daily Telegraph, one of her close friends said Lee told him she never wrote another book for two reasons:

“…one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

But more than that, what struck me as the most interesting part of the movie was Harper Lee’s friendship with Truman Capote. I knew the two were friends, but I never realized they grew up next door to one another in Monroeville, Alabama. I also didn’t realize that the character Dill, in To Kill a Mockingbird, was inspired by Truman Capote. And further, Harper Lee inspired a character in Truman Capote’s novel Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Harper Lee receives the PresidentialMedal of Freedom
in 2007. I’m guessing Truman Capote would have
been jealous of this, too. (From Wikimedia Commons)
The two remained friends for many years—in fact Lee went with Capote to Kansas to help him research material for what would become In Cold Blood. But their friendship soured. In Hey Boo, Lee’s sister said after Lee won the Pulitzer Prize Capote was consumed with jealousy.

I’ve thought a lot about the movie: about writers’ friendships and competition and about publicity—something that I certainly hope to have some of (if one of those WIPs on the kitchen table is ever published) but the movie made me wonder: how much is too much?

Are we as writers competing on a daily basis—for blog readers? On Twitter for followers? For a spot in the limited marketplace? A share of the spotlight? And—like Truman Capote with Harper Lee—are we also competing against each other? Or could Truman Capote have been as insecure as I sometimes feel?

It’s a paradox because my favorite part, hands down, of blogging is the writer friends I’ve made, and I certainly root when each of my friends has a victory: lands an agent, publishes a short story, sees a debut novel in print. But deep down, am I envious? If I watched a writer friend win a Pulitzer Prize would I ever be so envious or so jealous, like Truman Capote, to end a friendship?

Really Truman? Isn’t there enough to go around?
How about you? Do you look at your “numbers”? Do you compare? Do you ever feel like you’re competing with other writers? For blog readers? For publication? For numbers in social media? What would it take? The Pulitzer Prize? Would you or have you ever ended a friendship because you were jealous about a writer friend’s success?


Cheers,
Julia

Bee-ing the Writer

Do you have trouble concentrating on writing in the summer like I do? There’s a lot going on, no question. For me, summertime means spending a lot of time in the garden. Growing fruits and vegetables and flowers.

And along with all that growing goes pollination: bees, beetles, all kinds of other insects, birds and sometimes even mammals.

Bee on Oregano flower
This week I started watching the pollinators—especially the bees—and it occurred to me I could learn a thing or two from them about beeing buzzzy (sorry can’t resist). They are industrious all day long, buzzing from flower to flower, feeding on nectar and collecting pollen.
As a writer, I wish I spent as much energy on my writing as those bees do on pollination. Buzzing around my WIP as though it were a garden, honing in on each individual idea like a new flower—and collecting as much from one before moving on to the next. Then cross-pollinating my ideas with new thoughts picked up at my last stop. Working all the time, industrious and focused.

Wasp on Dill flower
Next time I’m having trouble concentrating, I think I’ll try to “bee the bee.”

Do you have trouble concentrating on writing in the summertime, like I do? What are your distractions? And what can you learn from them that you can apply to your writing process?


Cheers,
Julia