What you must not ever do

You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility of your life.
— Mary Oliver

Oh, easy to write, Mary Oliver.

Tough to do!

I am a sucker for quotes about "living your best life." Even if they are on bumper stickers. 

These last few months I feel like I've been struggling with this be-lighthearted/be-accountable framework. Two months ago I finished the first draft of my book (Woot! Woot!) Then once the euphoria settled down, I got busy planning the next phase of work: 1) plug up some research gaps in my book, and 2) focus on how to market myself as an author. I'm taking a virtual 3-month marketing course to guide me.

But the book's not done!  Why would I be marketing now?

Because in today's age of jillions of books being published (tons of self-published as well as those through traditional publishers) -- if I hope to be read -- it would help to figure out who my potential reader is now, and find out what's important to her/him, and to begin to show up where they are.

So, I've been experimenting with things like:

  • Reading books in my historical fiction genre and posting reviews of them in Goodreads and Amazon and Library Thing websites.

  • Following, liking and sharing/retweeting other women's fiction authors on social media

  • Tweeting and hash-tagging topics that align with my book's message like #progress and #inspiringwomen 

  • Teaching a how-to tactical workshop on "jump-starting your art" at my former employer

To be honest, this last idea, sharing steps on how to follow the creative yen that pulls at you, felt pretty far afield of marketing my book. I mentioned it briefly in my last newsletter. The workshop was all about the process of getting started. My book was just a frame of reference. And, frankly, I wondered whether I was credible. I mean, the book's not done yet. Does that make my title of "author" a sham?

Still, I just liked the idea: Sharing a story with others of how to pursue the art that tugs at them. 

Taking a step to being true to yourself.

So, when I drove down the highway to teach the workshop, I'd stamped down the "you're an impostor" demons enough to be cheerful. Traffic was light, the sky a bright clear blue. Thank goodness that day was "business casual" -- I'd recently gleefully donated away my suits and heels. And after a late dash to a Fed-Ex print shop the night before (my printer quit working), I had colorful handouts in my bag. I'd practiced a little; I'd controlled as much as I could.

Now what was left was completely unknown: Would my story connect with the 10 people that signed up? Would the journey I've followed to be a writer be relevant to them?  Would one hour be the right amount of time? 

(Would I be boring?)

I find the conference room, and women and men begin arriving. There's been a last-minute flurry of sign-ups: 14 hurry into the room, plus four more call in to a conference line. Gulp. I have just enough handouts! There's a little bustling of introductions, then we settle in. "Let's get started," I say, "Would each of you share the creative thing that pulls at you? Why are you here? What art are you trying to jump-start?"

A beat or two of silence.

Then the magic begins.

Imagine sharing an idea you've barely given yourself permission to think, let alone, say aloud. At first, the voices are self-conscious: "I have a knack for scrap-booking. Making cards" and "I paint with oil, like to draw with charcoal." Whispers. "I love design -- gardening and interior design." A throat clears, "I've had this screenplay in my head." Words spill out jumbled together, "Theater and dance and photography." A glance up, just enough for eye contact, "I love woodworking." 

A few people use words of identity --  "I am a singer" and "I am a writer" -- they've crossed the threshold of doing their craft and now look to keep going.  A few are at the very beginning, "I've always liked photography."

Ah, and so right away I learn the hour is not about me. The content takes on a unique life to each person because the steps I share are like water to the unique seeds of each individual's deeply rooted creative expression. I needn't have worried about being authentic. The authenticity lies within each workshop participant and the steps they choose that make sense to them.

We laugh. Lightheartedness lifts the room. It's so joyful. It's as though fragile ideas are forming into skeletons and with each step in the process, a little more sinew and muscle and blood forms. It is really fun.

And it is really hard. Each individual in that room and on the conference line has demanding careers and an absorbing family life and lots of life obligations. My hope was that just seeing a path forward to do their art -- opening up the possibility, whether they choose to walk it now, or later -- is a step forward in itself.

Wow, the hour flew by. 

Here are a few of the comments I received later:

"I thought that the workshop was inspiring...The biggest goal that I have for my family is to find more time for joy. It's funny how things like that tend to slip when you're busy with the daily grind."  

"It really lit a fire under me as well has motivated me even more to perfect my craft. I went home and told my husband about how much I enjoyed your work shop and had a whole discussion surrounding your statement, 'I wish I'd had the courage to live true to myself, not the life others expected of me.' "


I'm grateful for these thoughts, but in getting back to how this whole experience got started... was the workshop a worthwhile marketing strategy for my book? Well, I...

  • Made 1:1 personal connections with others who now know about my book - Win!

  • Feel grateful for the progress I've made so far on the book - Win!

  • Have three more invitations to do similar workshops in the future - Win!

  • Recognize I am not a "sham" 

Big win.

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Never mind the baby will be in Flagstaff -- he'll be a Cardinals fan! Meanwhile I try on my first "Fabulous Grandma" t-shirt...you bet I am.

How I'm Writing the Book
Filling in Research Details - Found a cool new book on our trip to Washington DC's National Gallery, The Vincent Van Gogh Atlas. It's full of info bits. For instance, since the time period is the late 1800's I'd wondered whether it was OK for my protagonist, Jo, to send a letter and receive a response in just a few days. Turns out because of the telegraph and rapidly growing train network in some cities (like Paris where she lives) the postman made as many as four deliveries a day! 
Trave
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors - Please, please pick up Teri Case's, In the Doghouse. Perfect summer reading. A dog is the main character and he is trying his dogged-hardest to patch up a human romance. Behind this silly premise and funny story is a gifted storyteller's warm wisdom about loss, family and love. (The dog is a dude; his human is a woman who ultimately finds her own strength.)

Would you share your summer reading recommendation with me?

Personal Stuff
Last week my husband and I took off to visit our Son and Daughter and their Significant Spouses (I first wrote, "Significant Others," but that phrase --  "Others" -- makes them sound like aliens, right?!)  Our visit to our Son was a flight to Flagstaff to attend a baby shower for soon-to-appear First Grandson. The other was a 24-hour Daughter birthday-blur drive to Kansas City and back. We DO NOT SEE THEM ENOUGH, so each visit is super fun.

Also...since the drive to KC is 3-1/2 hours each way, I brought along the hard-copy of my manuscript to thumb through and make sure I'm capturing all my research questions. Thirteen chapters to KC; 13 chapters back. At the end of reading and making the last of my margin notes, I closed the 4-inch binder and said to my Husband, "You know. I think this is a pretty good story!" It's been awhile since I actually read it page-to-page. 

By the way, if your interest is piqued on taking the marketing course, Dan Blank's Mastermind, registration is now open for the July - September time-frame. 

Let me say goodbye for now with another lovely quote from poet Mary Oliver. 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Wildly,

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Kick in the a**...pants!

Some crazy stuff has been happening, 

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.
— Theodore Roosevelt

Ha! 

I couldn't resist this quote. That's me right now. 

Here's the trouble I created: I knew while I was writing my book that I was forging forward with only quick dips into researched facts. Writing it felt like my pen was a battering ram. So I was scared to relax the drive of getting the story on the page by looking up too much stuff. Now I'm thick in the muck of digging to find answers to research questions I pulled out of the first draft once the story was finished. 

It's not the most fun I've ever had. 

For example, by trying to get unknown Vincent van Gogh's art noticed, my protagonist Johanna runs up against the Official Art Establishment. First up, she's a woman who has no business in the business of art dealing. Secondly, she's in Paris, the glittering 19th-century center of all-things-art, so that Parisian authority figures have a heightened self-righteous huffiness about what "true" art is, and a self-proclaimed haughty duty to keep Art's sanctity from being tainted by new artists. 

Imagine their disdain of Jo. 

Like bestowing a Good Housekeeping stamp-of-approval, one way Authorities kept artists in line was to control entry into the Paris Salon art exhibition, a major biennial event giving artists exposure to patrons and reviews in the local press. Critical for artists trying to make a living.  

So, I've written how Jo runs up against all that.  

Except that my book opens in 1891. And in my research I found out the last Paris Salon was in the fall of 1890! 

Arghhh! 

See what I mean?! And I have no one to blame but me. 

This is what revision is for, I guess. Because, of course, all those bureaucratic, protect-my-turf characters are still roaming the streets of Paris. It's not as though suspending the Salon got rid of them. I just need to rejigger some of Jo's opposition. The core of the ages-old conflict is still there: The old way versus the new way. 

When she leans into the new way, other avenues and solutions reveal themselves. Which, interestingly, crazily, is what's happened with this research.  

The "old way" has me hunched in front of the computer screen. When I met with a local research librarian a few months ago, she turned me on to HathiTrust digital library and Google Books and an archive site for newspapers. I've been doggedly searching for answers to my spreadsheet of questions, trying not to go down too many rabbit holes, getting a little bleary-eyed, when a couple of cool things happened: Two people showed up. 

  • Sara - an art history professor who has a deep specialty of the artists and period of my book. I'd been unsuccessfully contacting local universities to find an art-history graduate student to help me when through a friend-of-a-friend I was able to track down Sara. We met a week ago; she is thrilled to help me!

  • Kathy - a friend in my neighborhood who pulled me aside at a happy hour to say, hey, she enjoys fact-finding, and can she help? Yay!

After such a long solo journey writing the book it's a nice little nudge to know there's collaboration in my future. 

The universe works that way sometimes, doesn't it? As the old saying goes, just as one door closes -- keep a look out -- another is opening. And when that solution involves another person, well, the potential for fun exponentially explodes.

Have you ever had an experience when the right person showed up in your life at just the right time?  Tell me about it. 

I'm grateful they do.

Whistling while presenting at my art workshop.

Whistling while presenting at my art workshop.

How I'm Writing the Book
Did a "Jumpstart Your Art" Workshop:  I got the chance to conduct a workshop on how to get started with pursuing art at my former employer. Eighteen brave souls -- people daring to take the first step of leaning into their artistic curiosity--  came together. Using lessons learned from the last 17 months in writing my book, we charged through tactics and ideas and how to overcome the worst critic -- ourselves -- as an hour flew by. Yay, to these folks for exploring next steps for their art!

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Author Marie Benedict has been churning out novels based on real people.  Her latest is The Only Woman in the Room, a behind-the-movie-star story of Hedy Lamarr. This absorbing novel centers on the complex life of Austrian-born Hedy Keisler – wife of a high-level Nazi sympathizer, anxious Jewish daughter, Hollywood superstar, scientific inventor. Benedict captures a voice for Lamarr that’s distinct, desperate, intelligent. Told against the backdrop of WWII’s mounting tension, the book shows Lamarr caught between Hollywood’s indifferent glamour and her nagging need to take action. Her scientific mind saw the opportunity to solve a persistent problem with torpedoes. She did it, only to face frustrating opposition. Benedict captures the frustration Lamarr felt of her keen mind being trapped behind her beautiful face.

Personal Stuff
Husband and I are on a quick Washington DC getaway when you read this. On the agenda: Checking out the new International Spy Museum, seeing if we can get a same-day pass to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and saying hello to the Van Gogh's in the National Gallery of Art. Plus, for me, just spending time with my best friend away from laundry and errands and, oh yeah, book research. 

Back to Teddy Roosevelt and his thoughts on moving forward from mistakes:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena...who strives valiantly...who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds...who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly...

I dare you!

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What to cut and what to keep

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil. 
-Truman Capote

I read that novelist Truman Capote worked only from lying down on a couch, writing and revising by marking up his pages with a pen. He'd start out with a cup of coffee by his side in the morning. Then switch out the coffee cup for a glass of sherry in the afternoon, and end the day with a martini. 

He was a prolific novelist, screenwriter, short-story writer, and playwright. Breakfast at Tiffany's and the nonfiction In Cold Blood are among his well-known works. Surprising to think he wrote them all on his back like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

I'm revising now; maybe I should try that.

Perhaps lying down would actually settle me enough to focus.

Here it is the end of April -- it feels like one blink and the days on the calendar whipped up a froth and now the suds are settling down and it's a month later already. April's slipping away with a big sucking noise.

I have MEANT to do so many things. Start on the revision, rethink my marketing, read and review more books. Instead my desk is a mess of iterative notes and lists and calendars and intentions and hashtags and spreadsheets.

Yes, shockingly to this English-major mind, a SPREADSHEET has reared its little digit head. Because now that the first draft of the manuscript is done I've entered a new phase. The Stage of Reason: logic and structure and analysis and fact-checking.  I've gone through all 26 chapters of the manuscript to note details I want to verify. Imagine 396 rows on an Excel spreadsheet filled with phrases like, "Were Montmartre's streets cobblestone or dirt?"

It's hard to settle down. I mean is fact-checking really writing? The restlessness has been like an undercurrent flowing against me, an invisible resistance making it challenging to move forward and progress.   

And it's come out of nowhere. A big dip down from the euphoric high I felt completing the first draft.

Here's what I think: After so many months of a tight routine of focus to get the story down, when I finally finished and mentally let loose, a flood of pent-up thought rushed forward. Many of the voices are negative: Who are you to think you can write a book? Look at all the other people around who have published dozens of books. You've started too late. You don't know enough. No one knows who you are. No one will care.

Have you ever felt like this, an impostor?

Other mental voices needle that I'm not doing enough: I should update my website. I should gather essays and create a digital giveaway. I should post more online. I should become a speaker. I should update my photos. I should find more collaborators. I should, should, should.

Have you ever felt like this, paralyzed with so many next-actions you can't choose one?

Clearly, something had to give. And, finally, it was this week that I think I broke through the mess into a way forward to silence the negative, spinning thoughts. Two cool sources gave me the perspective to connect the dots. 

  • Love vs. Commerce.  I heard a podcast interview with Brian Heiler, a guy who runs a thriving online community dedicated to 1970's toys and pop culture. His motive is love not money, and in the interview (by Dan Blank), he observes how art and commerce have gotten mashed together so that often collectors get obsessed with what an item is worth, keep it in pristine condition and close it up behind cellophane, and end of obscuring the joy the item. TV shows on finding treasure in abandoned storage units or getting a pawn shop to estimate the worth of an old keepsake have created a culture where value is all about the bucks. The message is that commercial success is the yardstick for true value. So, by taking in this message, a frenzy to build an audience of potential readers or to attract thousands of social-media followers clouded the reason I'm doing this. 

My purpose for writing the book -- the joy and love for crafting an important story -- is shoved aside and forgotten. No wonder I felt like an impostor. 

  • Live True to Yourself. The second nudge on this topic came from a blog post on Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware, who worked for many years in palliative care, most often with people expected to die.  In 2009 she wrote the first article on this topic (others have come along since.) Gathered from her conversations with those she was caring for, she shared the five most frequent regrets from people who knew they were dying. The most common regret struck a chord with me: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 

This is how Bonnie explained it: "This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made."

Reading this statement quieted my spinning demons. I am not in a race; I am pursuing a choice that feels true to myself. Yes, I can improve my website and change my communications, etc., etc.,  but these can be an outcome of the love I have, not an obligation to my marketing sense.

I am calmer.

I hope the restlessness is gone, but, in a way, I'm grateful. The distraction and anxiety forced me to keep searching and listening for what I needed to hear. That's what revision is, right? Deciding what to cut away and what to keep.

I'm keeping the love.

Signs of spring... a pink snowfall after an April shower and the opening of baseball season. (This is a poster soon-to-be-hung in the Baby's room -- YES -- see below!)

Signs of spring... a pink snowfall after an April shower and the opening of baseball season. (This is a poster soon-to-be-hung in the Baby's room -- YES -- see below!)

How I'm Writing the Book
 Filling in the Gaps: My goal is to finish fact-checking and making little corrections from my book coach by Memorial Day. This will prepare me to do a proper manuscript audit to figure out what I need to cut out since the book's a little long. Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. I hope you find your way to A Matter of Chance by Julie Maloney. It is a beautiful, heart-rending tale of a daughter's kidnapping, and the vivid, intense, close-to-crazy experience inside Maddy, the mom's head. The whole time I imagined, "If it was me..." with all the anguish of never, never, never giving up hope for a vanished daughter. Police detectives. Russian Mafia. New York streets. Exquisitely desperate. 

Personal Stuff
My Son and Wife are expecting a BABY! End of July. I told my Husband that instead of "Nana" or "Grandma" I want to be called "Lolly" so he could be "Pop." So our Son can say to the Baby, "Lolly Pop is coming!" Ha! (My Husband is not amused.) A final word from Capote: 

The brain may take advice, but not the heart.  

Cut away!

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Fight your way through...(the first draft is finished!)

It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.”
-Ira Glass

It’s done.

Those are the last words Jo says in the novel.

Coincidentally, the same words I’d hoped to utter weeks and months earlier when I kept charging forward to punch through the finish-line tape of completing my first draft...but the tape kept getting moved. Every time I lunged for that final sprint, a new hurdle would appear out of nowhere. ARRRRGGGHH.

  • I had to write more when Jo (my main character) still had stuff to say — I’d been too stingy letting her speak her mind but withholding what was in her heart.

  • I had to write more when I (satisfyingly) made the bad guy, Georges, GET HIS DUE — yet I hadn’t explained why he was such a mean old bully to begin with.

  • I had to write more when I cockily thought all I had left was a cakewalk-of-an-epilogue to write — then my book coach enthusiastically commented that she couldn’t wait to see how the loose ends come together like how Jo reconciles with her family and why she will end up marrying that guy and how she paid for her son’s tuition….

“Shoot,” I  thought, “No cake walk. Another real chapter to write!”

So when the final words revealed themselves —  “It’s done” — (I kid you not) tears came to my eyes. It felt right that Jo and I should say them together. We have been through this journey side-by-side for 15 months and I have to say I admire her. I slung a lot of mud at her. Somehow she always found a way to wipe her face and keep going.

Twenty six chapters. One hundred eleven thousand four hundred eighty words. 

Writing is an intense, messed up, horrible thing. I would write until my mojo bled out. I know that is a disgusting image but hey writing is a nasty business. It got down to power-writing. I would sit down and write, write, write just getting the words down on the page even when I knew they weren't good, until I was disgusted and had to stop. Then I'd make a bunch of notes on where I had to insert feeling or detail or something-missing-but-I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it, and power off. The next day I'd open up the Word doc with fresh thoughts and nimble fingers to fill in and pat down those gaps, then power on. These last few weeks I've felt the end coming and I couldn't help it, I was getting a little bit happy, feeling a tail-wind begin to whip up at my back.  The head-rush came when my book coach wrote back, "Woot!" then I got giddy, Juan popped champagne and the cat danced a jig.

(Oops. Got carried away. Natasha, the cat, is way too dignified for jigging. Only does River Dancing.)

You and I would go to lunch with Jo. She’s cool. She got over all the BS about doubting herself and the bad guy gets it in the end plus she finds a new honey who loves her. She had to stand up in front of all these people and prove she wasn’t crazy. (Now could you do that? Or me? Spoiler alert: She pulls it off.)

When I started the book I felt a little desperate. In my heart I knew it was time for me to say goodbye to my Corporate America career, but…Still. It was a big step to walk away from identity and salary and certainty. I am most certainly not “done” yet, but I know that retirement can carry a stigma of stepping back and taking it easy. I don’t want to be identified that way. 

Whoa. I had NO IDEA I was entering this world of Survival-of the-Fittest, Take-No-Prisoners, Naked-Til-You-Make-It tough world of WRITERS. They can spot hogwash a mile away and aren't afraid to call it out.

So, what's next?

This next week I'm headed to Madison for a writers’ conference put on by the Univ. of WI’s Writer Institute. Dear heavens, I opened up my email on Friday and saw that I have HOMEWORK from one of the master classes I signed up for. Three hours, just six of us. With a heavy heart I realize I will not be able to hide. We have to submit our first 5 pages to be critiqued… which means I need to REWRITE those pages since it was months and months ago when I was a wee young tyke and wrote them. I'm also taking classes on revision and publishing. The conference is Thurs – Sun and it comes at the perfect time since (drumroll….can't say it enough!) my first draft is FINISHED.

My final thought:  We are not meant to do stuff alone. Our lives are about connection. The law of reciprocation means that sometimes our role is to accept, and other times to give. I was not alone. My wonderful book coach each week gave me tough love and encouragement. I have found some awesome writer communities online (WFWA and Author Accelerator's Mighty Network and Reader Connection on Facebook and more). And there's YOU. When friends and family asked, “How’s the book going?” it felt like a vote of confidence, like they believed I could actually do it. And I can’t even get started on my husband’s support. I’m not sure if he popped champagne for me or him.

There’s more to write about this, but I will stop here.  It just feels so good to hit a milestone and I wanted to tell you about it.

By the way, 111,480 words is too many… so I’ll be revising and cutting soon, but, for now: Every.Word.Is.Golden.

There's only so much comma correction a cat can do in 15 months before needing a nap.

There's only so much comma correction a cat can do in 15 months before needing a nap.

I can’t sign off without sharing this fuller quote from Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio/internet show This American Life.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners...is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.     For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential but it’s not... but your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work...    It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. 

It’s done? No, it's begun!

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