"Every failure brings with it the seed of an equivalent success. "
-Napoleon Hill

This past weekend I blew it. 

I am living the first part of the "two steps back, one step forward" phrase..with a couple of steps back.

Or should I say, paddles back

It was not about fear exactly; I honestly never felt panicky breathing from the air regulator while underwater. It was not about discomfort (other than my mask gradually filling with water -- later I discovered even one hair between the mask and my skin breaks the water seal), anyway this made me a pro at clearing my mask while under water. 

It was an incessant little voice, "I don't want to do this." Each time the instructor covered the next skill (switch to your buddy's emergency regulator; take off your mask -- hold it for 60 seconds -- than put it back on and clear it; maintain neutral buoyancy, moving neither up nor down) the little nigglingly mental voice would repeat itself, only louder.

"I don't want to do this." 

I would shut it up and concentrate on the dive-master's instructions for the next skill but this only seemed to make the voice pushier.  It was a battle. 

I loved the feeling of weightlessness in the water though. In fact, an hour into the swim, I'd grown so used to it that when I slid a foot onto the pool step and pushed out of the water it brought a sudden weighty drag that surprised me. Too,  I'd grown used to the noise of my own breathing. We are attuned to tuning ourselves out and the racket of breathing in the air dispenser distractingly commanded my attention.  

So I finished the class but canceled my return to the second one Sunday morning.

Lessons learned:  

  1. It's hard to do hard stuff when you don't have to. In this blog I like to write stories about people who's backs are up against the wall and how they persevere through challenges. Sometimes that "backs against the wall" can be an advantage. As I am collecting ideas for my historical novel, conflict is key and I can see how an internal barrier for a character can be a greater obstacle than an external one. 
  2. A little space and distance bring clarity. I'm using this blog as reflection and noticing things I didn't see while in the water, such as how the mental voice got louder. I can use this experience for my protagonist. Just because an objection is silenced once, doesn't mean it won't return repeatedly until truly resolved. I tried ignoring the cautionary thoughts, but that made them worse. 
  3. Wet suits jam up on dry skin (get Lycra socks and shirts to avoid the building up of frustration). Not sure if I can use that in a book on 19th century France. 

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Writer community: I went to my 40th high school class reunion on Saturday night. In between crooning along to Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" and  Michael Jackson's "Rock with You," and then lining up for class photos I caught up with a former classmate, Allison, from all those decades ago. It turns out -- she's a writer! --  one more person to weave into my writer connection tapestry. She's written a fantasy (not published yet) but when it is, I'll be sure to let you know. 

I just checked on my scuba gear and it's still a little damp. While it's drying out completely, I'll be thinking about whether to return to the water or not. Meanwhile here's a final thought from Napoleon Hill. 

Your big opportunity may be right where you are now. you scuba dive?






It always seems impossible until it's done. 
-Nelson Mandela

We've just had a glorious weekend in St. Louis. The mornings started out a little cool, then relaxed into sunny blue-skied afternoons. This was the weekend of the annual St. Louis Art Fair. I serve on the board so have an insider's view of the nearly impossible detail that goes into staging the 3-day outdoor event. It's a relief when the weather cooperates. 

One of the perks of the job is to meet the 100+ artists and hear their stories of why and how they came about their choice to be artists. "To be an artist, you must want it so bad that you can't NOT do it," said painter Rey Alfonso Santana. We are drawn to him: he is Cuban; Juan is Cuban. So, of course, they had an instant connection. But Rey's words captured my imagination, too, because it feels so similar to my desire to be a writer. I can't NOT do it, without feeling that I'm forsaking some essential core of who I am.

Do you remember the longing you felt as a teenager? Your future spread out before you like a big empty canvas. You yearned to escape, leaning toward an undefined future. I remember the ache of wanting so desperately to be the person I knew lying low and under the surface. I remember standing on top of bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River and screaming into the wind in frustration. 

My future self called.

We asked Rey: how did he become an artist? His answer mesmerized us. Once we returned home I did more research, then wrote an outline of his narrative, filling in details with my imagination. His experience reflects the mission of this blog to share stories of perseverance through challenges and how this connects us to what matters, and each other. 

It starts when he's a teenager:

Rey is small for 17. Slight, with a shock of unkempt black hair, at first glance he looks younger than his age and still a child. He appears unimpressive compared to the other soldiers with whom he's marched and shouldered guns. His slight build belies the strength of his core, built up from his years running on the island prison.

He must escape tonight. 

The humid air is a deep, almost blue, black. The moonlight so well-blanketed by thick clouds that at first Rey can not see his hand when he puts it up in front of his face. A few moments ago, once the clock showed 1:00 am, like a cat he'd softly padded along the floor of his grandparents' living room, gently turned the bolt on the kitchen back door and edged it open. Now he stands on the back porch, listening intently for any unusual sound beneath the chorus of Cuban tree frogs.

He smells the salt in the sea air brushing his face. Briefly, his mother's face appears. Dead just five years earlier -- a lifetime ago -- she is smiling at him and he catches his breath. 

Her laughter had swept through his childhood; her love for rhythmic mambos and swaying rumbas the music of his youth. Every day had been a happy repetition of soccer with friends on the beach, school lessons in an open-air classroom, and noisy meals around a table where his brothers and sister shoved elbows to be the first to ladle arroz con frijoles onto their plates. 

It was his mother who had put the paint brush in his hand and brought him tubes of intense color, encouraging and marveling at his creations. "Igual que tu padre," ("Just like your father") she'd murmured, but he'd never met the man. At age 12, when she died, life changed. Separated out among relatives across the island he and his siblings were split apart. He ended up in Matanzas on the outskirts of Havana with his grandparents. No music, no dancing, no painting. They had their own troubles. Then at 16 he'd been conscripted into the Army for required training. 

He shakes his head; his mother's visage disappears. He slips from the porch and begins to jog. This is no time for dreaming. Yesterday he received word that he is to leave later today for Angola. Cuba is known for the skills of their mercenary soldiers and, unless he escapes, it will be his future.

The boat is submerged with heavy rocks holding it against the bottom of a shallow tributary leading out into the ocean. Quickly, he splashes into the water and begins to heave the rocks out of the hull.

This is his thirteenth try at escape. His first attempt was a year after his mother's passing and the Cuban Coast Guard picked him up from a raft that had already begun to break apart in the waves. Although he was thrown into a holding cell for two terrifying weeks, Rey began plotting his next escape immediately. He built another raft and was picked up again. Tried an escape with a group of friends and was caught barely off the beach. 

Each time he is caught, slapped around and jailed. But with each attempt his boat construction improves. This past month, on leave from the Army, he had worked quickly. 

This boat will have a motor. 

He heaves the last rock out of the hull and the boat floats freely. He braces his feet as best he can along the sandy bottom and pushes it toward the shore, the waves helping it ride swiftly. When the boat shoves up onto the beach, Rey tilts it to drain out as much water as possible. Alongside the beachhead, in a small dip in the dunes, lies a burlap bag buried in the sand. He pushes sand and folds of burlap aside to pull out a motor.  Hoisting it up and onto the boat, he then secures it with bolts to the boat frame. He is reaching for his knapsack of provisions when a torchlight blinds his eyes. 

"Hey dejas de!("Hey you, stop!") a voice calls out, frighteningly close. 

Rey swings the knapsack into the boat and tries to jog through the water, shoving the vessel forward. More voices are shouting and now he is pulling himself over its edge. "Loco!" an angry yell. Rey pulls out the choke. Trying to stay calm he turns the hand grip on the throttle control arm to neutral. He yanks at the starter rope, nothing. Cursing, he tries again, a slower tug until he feels resistance from the starter gear, then pulls forcefully. The engine sputters, catches, then roars to life. Again, a torchlight blinds his eyes.

"Mantaner la luz de el!" ("Keep the light on him!") a voice carries out from the shore. Rey's engine is rumbling; he moves the throttle control arm from neutral, then eases the shift lever forward. 

"No esta vez," Rey mutters, not this time, and points the boat north. 

The year was 1990 when Rey arrived in Miami on his own in his makeshift boat. These were the years of U.S. "wet foot/dry foot" policy when Cuban refugees were returned to Cuba if the U.S. Coast Guard picked them up on the water, but allowed to remain if they made it to U.S. shore. Hundreds of balseros, or rafters, attempted the treacherous 90-mile journey across the Florida Straits.

Rey found his way to a Cuban community in Miami. Upon arrival he is counseled to become a lawyer or doctor or other trade to make money. When he replied, "Ï want to be a philosopher, poet or painter," he is told, "You're going to starve." But Rey replies now, "Being an artist, you're that. It's BEING an artist. You don't do art for fun."

Rey moved to San Francisco where he found work with metal craftsman and sculptors who taught him about metal design and fabrication. Gradually, he found his own identity as an artist. Initially, he worked extensively with aluminum, then evolved to combining his knowledge of metal with painting. He uses pure pigments and fire by painting on Baltic birch, then building color, layer upon layer, distressing the surface then painting it again. Sometimes he carves or burns songs and sayings from his youth into the wooden canvases, tracing memories of people and the culture he recalls.

Today, Rey's paintings can be found in collections in more than 40 countries. After nearly 20 years since he first arrived, he is back in Miami where he and his artist wife, Patricia Deleon, make their home.

When we talked to them at the fair, they had changed their plans to stay in the Midwest for a few weeks and were headed south to check on their home and studio following Hurricane Irma. 

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Research tools: Last week I realized I lacked a basic resource -- a library card! -- so picked one up, then browsed through research materials on late 19th century France. The research material was almost too detailed; I need more general background first so hit the Internet when I came home. My goal is to begin to collect information on day-in-the-life detail, such as clothing, housing, food, politics, etc., of the upper class from around 1850-1900. Plus I need a Chicago Manual of Style to site bibliography entries correctly right out of the gate.  

Writer community: This weekend I had an opportunity to strike up a conversation with someone new. "What do you do," she politely asked. "(gulp) I'm a writer" I replied, trying out this identity. It turned out she is an English lit professor from a local college who teaches creative writing! While her teaching is for a beginner level, she gave me the names of colleagues to reach out to for more advanced workshops and public readings. Person by person I am building a new network and finding out more about the St. Louis creative community.

Rey's words echo in my mind, "Being an artist, you're that. It's BEING an artist." I am learning that to BE is reflected in what I DO, consistently, one day at a time, small steps, imperfect steps, simply the next step, on the path of discovering who I am as a writer. 

Are you on a path of discovery too?

In closing, let me return to Nelson Mandela:

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, 
and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death
again and again
before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.

One step at a time,






Some people see things that are and ask, Why? 
Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? 
Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that.
-George Carlin

How has your summer been? To me, Labor Day carries this teeter-totter feeling of being between seasons. 

It's one last summer dip in the lake (thinking happily of my daughter at the Lake of the Ozarks) and one step forward into an autumn's fresh beginning (thinking expectantly of my son changing careers). Lately my commute has been clogged with an influx of school traffic since classes begin in August these days, but I fondly recall my childhood when the schoolbus didn't pull up to its stop until September.

There's a little wishfulness in the air. 

It is four months before I retire.

I have begun to gather up the fruitage of my career. I want to pause, recognize and honor the successes and the mistakes, recall and be thankful for the people that made a difference. After 22 years I know a lot of people at work and greet familiar faces every day in the halls and on the elevator. But I wonder: did I do enough? Could I have paid more attention? Been more kind?

I find that my thoughts are less about grand achievement and more about individuals. 

I've been thinking a lot about the difference between "transition" and "transformation." Transition as movement and transformation as change. I can simply move into ending my job, the clock will ultimately take care of that at the end of the year. Or I can lay the groundwork and make decisions for transformative change, which I don't need to wait for but have been doing slowly all year. On the outside this begins with identifying myself as a writer (versus a corporate title or association), but on the inside, to make it stick, comes mentally moving writing from hobby to vocation or new walk of life. 

What I am realizing is that I bring all of my past to this change - skills, acumen, perspective, relationships -- and that these are not left behind but are being applied in new ways, helping to shape the transformation. 

This must be true for you too. You are simultaneously laying a groundwork even while you are contributing now. 

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Mastermind professional creative class:  Just turned the corner into the last month of this virtual class - the time is flying by! The topics this past week were on making money and marketing. It's made me recall marketing guru Seth Godin's comment about staking out the smallest market you can imagine. The smallest market to sustain me, the smallest market I can adequately serve. So, how do I apply this idea? The genre I'm writing -- historical novels -- is huge. I will be doubling-down on figuring out who my ideal audience is in the weeks ahead. By the way, Seth Godin does a great daily short blog.

Books I'm reading:  Last week I told you that I've been reading a wonderful biography, Van Gogh's Ear, by Bernadette Murphy. I'm thick in the book now and -- guess what? -- Johanna Van Gogh (I'm hoping to be the protagonist for my book) has been making an appearance! The biographer calls her "Jo." Love this nickname! And I found a new source to check out of letters between Jo and Theo, Vincent's brother. I knew that Theo had fallen in love with Jo quickly. Here's a snippet from her diary from a visit Theo made to her in Amsterdam:

         "I was pleased he was coming. I pictured myself talking to him about literature
          and art. I gave him a warm welcome -- and then suddenly he started to declare
          his love for me. If it happened in a novel it would sound implausible -- but it
          actually happened; after only three encounters, he wants to spend his whole
          life with me... It is quite inconceivable... but, I could not say 'Yes' to something
          like that, could I?"

Jo, Jo, little did you know.

This blog has become a little contemplative so I'll end with another quote from comedian George Carlin to lighten up: 

Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty.
I see a glass that's twice as big as it needs to be.

If you read this when the email hits your inbox, it's 117 days, 17 hours, 32 minutes before I'm retire.

But who's counting?






Caged birds accept each other but flight is what they long for.
-Tennessee Williams

Imagine meeting someone and feeling an instant connection. 

You meet him by coincidence when he comes to visit. He's a prospective employee and a friend of a family member. While lingering in the dining room after breakfast or using the excuse of a crisp morning to go out for a walk, over the course of a week you strike up conversation after conversation. 

You find you have a lot in common; you have similar perspectives on life. The conversations stretch into hours and you look forward to your talks and plan for them. 

You begin to fall in love. 

But you can not -- you must not -- be together. 

So began an intense, anguished love affair of 30 years between Helene Kroller and a man 20 years younger. 

Remember I walked in the woods of Helene's estate and the halls of her lifework: the Kroller-Mueller Museum outside of Amsterdam. I've written about Helene because she relates to the topic of the book I'm pursuing about Johanna Van Gogh. Helene was the wealthiest woman in the Netherlands when she began to collect Vincent van Gogh paintings in a frenzy in the early 1900's. Her targeted search for the painter's work generated an interest that helped pull Van Gogh from obscurity.  I had thought her motive was in recognizing how Van Gogh's paintings evoked an "exalted feeling" through his technique and color. 

What I had not realized is that Helene saw herself in the paintings. 

She saw suffering. 

Here's the background: Helene and Sam van Deventer met around 1908-09. Sam was a classmate of Helene's eldest daughter. When he sat for his final exams for school, his examiner was Helene's husband and shipping tycoon, Anton Mueller. Impressed with the young 20-year-old, Anton invited Sam to visit their home to consider working in his business. 

When Sam came to visit, he met Helene. Historians believe Sam fell head over heels for Helene first.

Helene and Anton's marriage had been a business arrangement. Although Helene's father, Wilhelm Muller, had founded his own company, (Wm. H. Müller & Co.), by the time Helene was 19 it was failing. Her father implored her to marry industrialist Anton who subsequently inherited the company and drove it to extraordinary success.

I haven't yet done research on what marriage was like during this time period; yet, an arranged marriage between industrialists in order to shore up the financial health of a company doesn't seem far fetched. Helene and Anton had been married 20 years and had four children when she met Sam. She had a marriage but not a soulmate. This is what Sam became to her.

For 30 years Helene poured out her innermost feelings in letters to Sam, often writing several times a day. The letters were eight, 12-, sometimes 20-pages long. Sam saved them all -- more than 4,000 -- in a chest in his attic, later imploring servants that should there be a fire, the chest must be saved. 

Helene and Sam were passionate in their letters. She wrote:

"You see, Sam, this is how I like you best. This way I love you and feel happy. Forgive me if I hurt you, but everything inside me tells me it can't be, it mustn't be. Oh, God, let me be honest, Sam...let me be silent about it."

Historians speculate that eventually Anton became aware of the intense friendship. Sam was fired from the company in 1937. Yet, he retained the positions of chairman and treasurer of the Kroller-Mueller Foundation, which held Helene's substantial art collection including her 90 Van Gogh paintings. When Helene died in 1939, and Anton in 1941, Sam stayed on, eventually sympathizing with the Nazis when they occupied the Netherlands. He was tried for war crimes after the war, including giving away three paintings from the collection, but never convicted. 

Last week I wrote about how the local lore of Helene connected her to the Nazis. Perhaps its Sam's connection that got confused with her?

Secrets and inner motivations can drive external actions. What looked like a wealthy woman single-mindedly pursuing an expensive hobby last week became an unexpected and multi-dimensional view of the same individual this week. My friend, Martine, told me about a Dutch documentary, Helene - a woman between love and art, (thankfully with subtitles!) that revealed Helene's unspoken motivation - thank you, Martine!

Perhaps Helene will emerge as an important character in Johanna's story when I write it. Her story reminds me of how rich and important it is to know the internal motivations of each character before they enter the story for this inside intel drives their actions. 

What secrets do you have that are driving yours?

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
St. Louis writer group: This blog is sharing my transition from a career in marketing for a corporation to becoming a full-time writer. One of the first things I realized a while back is that I don't know that many published writers. My network has been all business and marketing. This past weekend I visited a meeting of the Saturday Writers, a group in St. Louis, and met a bonanza of talented creative people. I am in awe, a little intimidated. And motivated to join them.

Books I'm reading:  I found a wonderful biography, Van Gogh's Ear, by Bernadette Murphy, that's bringing Van Gogh and his years in Arles to life. Murphy is unraveling the truth of what actually happened the night Van Gogh famously cut off his ear. I am loving it! 

My apology:  Lastly, I need to apologize for my publishing blunder last week. It was embarrassing to miss some coding that enables me to personalize this letter to each subscriber. In fact, when I start this blog each week I address it to a subscriber so that I am writing to a specific name. It feels personal to me. I am sorry for giving the opposite impression last week in the salutation. 

Here's a last word from Tennessee Williams whose quote fits the hidden side of Helene nicely: 

I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.

I hope you have a great week!