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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The wedding happened!

Give it away! Give it all away!    
-Jennie Nash

The deed got done.
The knot was tied.
The aisle was walked.
The father cried!

Tears came to his eyes anyway.  Mine too.

After months of leaving you bread crumbs in this blog of steps leading up to our daughter's wedding, I had to write and let you know: it happened. They got married. Saturday night. In a big, spacious “industrial sheik” venue — lots of concrete and exposed brick next to sparkling chandeliers and hundreds of bright flowers and candlelight, in the middle of family and friends. 

I’m really happy.

This life is so short, isn’t it? Because it really, truly was just yesterday that Cristina was 4-years-old dancing the chicken dance at her first Father/Daughter Dance. That she was ecstatic when she finally got her braces off in high school. That she was first going away to college, and when we visited her dorm room I eyeballed the floor space and said, “There’s enough room here for my sleeping bag.”

Cristina laughed; I meant it. 

I have loved every single minute of being her mom.

How I’m Writing the Book

Four Chapters to Go (I think). My protagonist Jo has a way of surprising me and coming up with plot twists, but for now, I think I have four chapters to go to finish the first draft. 
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. Kate Morton has written another suspenseful, intricately-woven beautiful story, The Clockmaker’s Daughter. She masterfully, seamlessly travels back and forth through time, keeping each character squarely in place (including a ghost!) so that as the reader you have the fun of slipping plot puzzle pieces into the right, surprising spots. 

Father/Daughter Dance at the wedding while a tape from their very first one, doing the chicken dance, plays in the background.

Father/Daughter Dance at the wedding while a tape from their very first one, doing the chicken dance, plays in the background.

Back to the phrase up top, I’m quoting Jennie Nash, the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, the premier book coach program I use. “Give it all away!” from Jennie means don’t be stingy in writing, put it all on the page, don’t hold back. (I’m trying.) 

Meanwhile, I liked the play on words with a wedding being about “giving a daughter away.”  The thing is...

I am not giving her away; she just has this permanent guy by her side.

Warmly,

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How to live a meaningful life

Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for. 
-Immanuel Kant

So simple! I found the German philosopher Kant (1724 - 1804) and his quote after I turned to my iPhone and asked Siri, "What's the meaning of life?"  Her answer came in a second.

"I Kant tell you - ha!" (thanks, Siri)

The reason I asked Siri? It was inspired by a friend I've never met.

Let me explain: I have a separate gmail account to subscribe to blogs and e-newsletters. Maybe you’ve already done this, or have another system for catching content you like that doesn’t have to be read right away. It keeps them from clogging up my other email account. My collection is skewed to writers and marketers. As though they're sitting on bleachers, the group hangs out on the sidelines, friendly, talking among themselves, no pressure -- “read me when you have time!” — it’s an eclectic mix, women and men, and because their names have grown familiar, it's as though if we were ever at the same party, I just know we’d all be friends.

One of these friends is Alison. Last year she caught my attention when I read in a blog about how she packed up her life (and her 90-year-old mom) and moved to Italy. Just up and moved from Arkansas to Europe to pursue writing after spending nearly her entire life in the Midwest. Had never traveled overseas. Doesn’t speak Italian. Every few weeks she sends out a newsletter/journal entry, promoting her Arkansas writing school programs, sharing what her Mom is saying, and the exploits of her tiny poodle, Prose (the section's called "a dash of Prose" - ha!) 

Recently, she wrote about ideas I want to piggyback on today. They come from the book, The Power of Meaning, Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness by Emily Esfahani Smith. To be clear, I haven’t read it, but my friend Alison has and assures me there’s a ton of research behind its identification of the four pillars to a meaningful life.

Let's see what you think of them. As Alison observes, you’d probably guess the first three. The last pillar could surprise you. 

  1. Belonging and Connection. This is an intuitive pillar. We've probably all felt the pain of not belonging, not sensing connection, and the loneliness of not feeling accepted. I’ve found that the less sure I am of belonging, of course the less I reach out for connection, and the isolation perpetuates itself. Touch, the nerve receptors under our skin, fires instantly when coming into contact with something. The absence of connection heightens this sensitivity. There's research about how infants that are held and touched do better -- physically, emotionally and more -- than those who are touched less. This pillar makes me think of two things: Rebuke isolating self-hate self-talk and reach out, reach out, reach out, even if there's no immediate return. 
     

  2. Purpose. “It’s not always easy to find our purpose, but it’s a product of our unique talents, background and interests.” -- so says Alison. The tailwind behind my decision to become a full-time writer came from a potent, nagging mix of restlessness and anxiety, as though I was running out of time, as though I'd overstayed an old purpose and a new one insisted on being found. I believe that we have more than one purpose (even as I nod to Joseph Campbell who said “follow your bliss," perhaps he should have said bliss-es). Sometimes we are called to be there for another — that’s purpose. Sometimes we are called to get through very tough things (betrayal, loneliness, fear) obstructing our purpose. Sometimes purpose can be simple - celebrate a wedding, a graduation, appreciate another. It's the reason we are here. My protagonist Jo struggles with purpose.  “Purpose,” though is not within demographic identifiers - job title, age, wealth, social status. Those labels are impostors to purpose, and like barnacles sail along unseen on the bow of your life until you realize they’re slowing you down. 
     

  3. Transcendence. Oh, an elusive, favorite pillar for me. Not religion, per se, or doctrine or ritual or culture. Rather moments that crack open a brief awareness of the grand magnificence of existence. For instance, I’ve had moments of transcendence watching my son run in a race of raw heartbreaking dominion. Slow down enough and nature can turn the key to a transcendent opening. I remember one night a few years ago, on a girlfriend getaway to Santa Fe, that we four women piled into a car and drove out of town, far away from the city’s lights. After driving up a climbing country road, tall corn stalks on either side marking a long corridor, we pulled over, turned off the car and got out. It was quiet, a light breeze ruffling corn tassels. Looking up, we drew in our breath. The sky was jammed with light — packed with pinpricks of stars, a beautiful tapestry of glittering incandescence — the Big Dipper difficult to find with all the crowded blinking around it. We stared upward. Under such immensity how small, infinitesimally small, our troubles were...then, a stirring in the corn stalks. Another, a few feet away...a chain-saw toting murderer? We jumped in the car. Peeled away. We city girls can’t be too careful.
     

  4. Storytelling. Surprise! Think of it - storytelling is a pillar of a meaningful life. It’s literally a way to make sense of what you've experienced. It’s the means to determine what’s important to you, what your values are, how you went astray and how to find your way forward. Why you’re here. Around the holidays I went to an open house at my financial adviser's office. I met a woman there named Rita. I ended up becoming completely absorbed by her story — her husband’s death, her taking up marathon running, an interest in racquetball, a new companion in her life. I was drawn in, an instant connection. Then about a month later I was helping out at a Christmas charity event, wrapping presents of clothes and toys donated to kids. Over a table of wrapping paper scraps and scissors, Rita and I looked at each other. “How do I know you?” It took a minute to know when we'd made a connection, but not whether we had one. Telling her story had done it, as well as my listening to it. 

I’ve come to realize that in writing my book, while I’m writing Jo’s story, of course, I’m also trying to make sense of my own.

Speaking of which... here's the book update:

How I’m Writing the Book

Weekly Page Submission. After taking the holidays off I’m back on the treadmill of submitting weekly pages to my book coach. My deadline is on Wednesday so each week on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday a healthy deadline panic typically sets in. My goal is to try to finish the first draft before Cristina and Jay's wedding.

Movie about a Strong Woman. My friend (in person, not just inbox) Joyce and I saw On the Basis of Sex, a drama telling the true story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the case that overturned the first of hundreds of laws that discriminated between men and women based on gender. Interestingly, it was a case that discriminated against a male. Pair this with the documentary, RBG. Justice Ginsburg is an inspiring example of a purposeful life.

On my refrigerator

On my refrigerator

 The wedding is 40 days and counting down!

I got my first facial peel last week (recommended 6 weeks out before the wedding). A little stinging, not really painful, but what I didn’t realize is that the banana-yellow peel (think Jim Carrey in The Mask) needed to stay on my face for 3-4 hours after it was put on. And I already had booked a hard-to-get appointment with a tailor to alter my Mother-of-the-Bride dress just a few hours after the peel! I called the tailor to explain my face. She said, “No problem.” When I arrived at her work-from-home location, there were four cars in her driveway. Oh dear. I kept my head ducked getting out of the car, skulked up the driveway and rang the doorbell, standing a little off to the side. The door swings open. A woman with straight pins in her headband gazes at me. A few seconds tick by... “You might glow in the dark, honey.” On that note, I think I need to become philosophical again with another quote from Kant: 

Look closely. The beautiful may be small. 

Be well.

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Learn by going where you have to go

First off, the most important thing I have to write is thank you. Thank you for reading this blog. Though I cut back on the frequency mid-year, I think about you and this hardy band of subscribers often. What I know for sure: I would not be writing my book, if not for this support. Thank you. And now...

Happy Christmas Eve!

I learn by going where I have to go. 
-Theodore Roetchke from "The Waking”

If you read this on Monday morning, think  of Juan and me on interstate 70 headed west towards Kansas City, our Christmas destination. Gifts are shipped, cards are sent. A few stocking-stuffer parcels are tucked in the trunk. We’ve left behind our cat, Tasha, who has an automatic round-robin food dispenser set up to rotate and pour out pre-measured kibbles twice a day. (I imagine her cat-crouched before it when we’re out of town…staring it down and daring it to turn.)

In some ways, this scenario is a microcosm of this first year of writing in this first year of retirement. Speeding forward towards the destination of writing a novel, and yet spinning a bit (a lot) in the process. Roethke's quote, "I learn by going where I have to go" is a good description of this year of writing and learning, doubling back and moving forward. .

As the weeks have gone by, again and again, pre-conceived ideas about the story have been forced aside. I've had to strike a balancing act between researching facts about Jo's life while also allowing the story to unfold. The genre I'm writing is fictionalized biography -- based on a real person, yet fictionalizing events -- and in some cases, people.

When I first looked into writing my book, i came across an interview with a biographer who described Johanna van Gogh this way:

"She was the perfect spouse, and it was like she was bred for that. For a guy like Theo...it was important to marry a wife who was...well instructed, she had good manners and she would know how to do the household and how to keep everything tidy. Of course there was love between the two, but she was a girl who was getting prepared throughout her life to find a good husband."

Though the biographer does go on to give Jo her due, the description didn't sit well with me. Through my 21st-century sensibility, the phrase "perfect wife" rankled. It also didn't square with how Jo herself described her marriage. Here's an excerpt from a letter Jo wrote to her sister Mien four months after she'd married Theo:

"He [Theo] is so good and kind and I love him..But in saying this I am pronouncing a eulogy on my husband but not on marriage -- you say 'is it not pleasant to be your own boss?' -- well you are infinitely less when married than when you are unmarried...You have infinitely less freedom -- nothing, absolutely nothing belongs to you anymore, and I can assure you that it has been difficult for me to get used to that, me who was as free as a bird! You gain a great deal of love, but only at the expense of a great number of sacrifices." 

Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Van Gogh and Jo Bonger (p. 33)

I love that passage. 

These are not the words of a passive "perfect wife." Jo's voice calls out from the page, doesn't it?

So, as I write forward I've been cautiously supplementing my research bit-by-bit with passages such as the one cited. The new information can help. For example, there are times when my writing stalls out and I struggle to find words. I've come to recognize that when that happens I need more "inputs" to get going again -- a bit of research, a podcast, a book, a marketing blog. Notice that the inputs are all over the place: I've found that when a chapter is stuck and I set it aside, the back-burners of my mind still work on the problem, and an idea inevitably connects and solves the issue. My last chapter was like that; I had to rewrite it three times until it finally came together. 

Next time you're stuck on a problem, try increasing the "inputs" and see what happens...

In the case of my last chapter, struggling with it felt like I was spinning, going around and around in the same section -- it certainly didn't feel like progress -- and, as a result, I became increasingly frustrated and scared (What if I can't finish??). In hindsight, though, I can see that the repetition helped. Gradually, the writing became deeper, adding Jo's internal thoughts behind the external action. In the scene Jo is learning news about the plight of some children in a nearby town, which takes her into thoughts about her own son, in turn giving the reader insight into some decisions she's made. Will I revise this scene in the future? Maybe. But for now, it's good enough to move on. 

Again and again, I'm learning that if I'm persistent, keep the inputs coming), allow myself to "go where I have to go" an answer will reveal itself. Suddenly, new connections between ideas emerge. 

But I'm cautious about research, too, because I don't want facts to get too far ahead of the narrative drive of the story. If I start to relay only what happened in her life, and not why it happened and how she's thinking, then I'm afraid that I'll have squandered the chance to write a story worth connecting to. 

Progress = two steps forward, spin. 

How I’m Writing the Book

Resetting Goals for 2019: I had hoped to finish the first draft by the end of the year; it didn’t happen (see above!). I’m developing the project plan for 2019 now. In addition to finishing the manuscript, it will include a schedule to read all 902 letters between Vincent and Theo for insight into the brothers' relationship. Juan gave me a complete official six-volume set of letters a year ago for Christmas.  

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: The close-calls-with-death memoir, I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O'Farrell, has an intriguing structure. The table of contents is not chronological but instead is listed by endangered body part and year in which she nearly died. Skipping back and forth through her life, O'Farrell stitches together scenes and people and experiences that are both comic and revealing. Once I got over getting scared by her descriptions of near-misses (she does make it, after all!), I couldn't put the book down. 

One of Jay and Cristina's official engagement photos.

One of Jay and Cristina's official engagement photos.

The clock is ticking toward my daughter's March 2 wedding. The groomsmen's suits have been fitted; Cristina's dress is being tailored; the venue, the food, the band are all finalized. However, I do not have a mother-of-the-bride dress. So, when Cristina mentioned the "special occasion dress" website JJ's House, I was ecstatic! Easy shopping. I found four dresses I liked and ordered them, planning to return three, of course. A few days later, in my inbox, a little note from their customer service: Was I sure about my order? All dresses are custom-made and non-returnable. Yikes! Just what I need: four pearl-grey ballgowns. I cancelled the order. I'll circle back after New Year's for possible sales. Meanwhile, kudos to their customer service!

A final word about progress with another quote from poet Roethke:

Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.

Moving forward! I hope you're having a beautiful holiday.

Warmly, 

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