Thick love

Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.
— Toni Morrison

I've got a story about thick love.

I write stories about women and men who use determination and compassion to beat the odds. I came across a post by Drew Dickson that's just this type of story. It struck a chord on so many levels I wanted to share it in it's entirety. It's a bit long, but worth it. (Thank you Drew for being so forthright.)

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This is going to be an uncharacteristic departure for me. This story is deeply personal, for our family, and for our oldest son in particular. But it is a story he’s letting me tell, because it is a story he wants people to hear.

My son Max was born in Detroit in 1997, he spent the next summer in Hong Kong when I was interning at Fidelity Investments, and moved to London before he was two when I accepted an offer to work for Fido there full-time.

He was an amazing child, and became an amazing young man. But he had his demons. And just before he turned 16 years old, those demons arrived with a vengeance. I will spare you the details, but for the next three years, he went through a personal hell. Imagine all the things you don’t want to have happen to your teenager. They happened to him. For three years my wife and I would wait on our front stoop until 5:00 am, in the shadow of the Albert Bridge, hoping that he would come home. On those nights that he didn’t, we would call the hospitals, and call the police. And sometimes the police would call us.

We tried all the things that parents try, and we were very lucky that we could afford to try just about everything. But none of it helped. The change in schools didn’t help. The psychologists didn’t help. The wilderness therapy didn’t help. Our closest friends and extended family all waded in too, but nothing helped.

Max didn’t want to be here. He didn’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere. His self-esteem was non-existent. The anxiety was paralyzing. He often contemplated ending it all, and only the thought of the impact on his three younger siblings prevented him from doing so.

It was a living hell for Max. And honestly it was a living hell for us too. There was nothing we could do about it. The most difficult thing for my wife and I to accept was that only Max could make the choices. It wasn’t up to us. We couldn’t save him. It was up to him if he was going to live, or going to die. As one of my best friends told me at the time, only Max could choose to live.

Just over two years ago, he realized that the scene in London was poisonous for him, and he asked if he could head out. He’d asked before, and we’d let him go to far-flung destinations, but the grass wasn’t greener in any of them. And we didn’t honestly expect anything to come of it this time, but told him that we’d pay for the flight, because he really did need to get out of London, and there was almost no way things could get worse.

He chose a destination a lot of rudderless kids like to visit. It might as well have been Goa, Tulum, Koh Tao or Maui, but he chose Costa Rica. A friend of his, a good guy, was backpacking there, and invited him to come. I told Max we’d cover the first week, but if he wanted to stay longer, he had to get a job and support himself. We honestly didn’t know what to expect, but it felt like a last shot for him.

He loved that first week there, and indeed got a job working at one of the hostels (in exchange for room and board). But after the honeymoon was over (and eventually, the honeymoon is always over), reality set in. His anxiety set in, and his depression set in. At the darkest point, he almost called it. And there was nothing we could do about it. Even if we weren’t 5,000 miles away there was nothing we could do about it.

But, for some reason, he decided not to. Max decided to stay in the game.

We later learned the reason. He’d found an eight-week old puppy roaming the streets of Santa Teresa. The dog had been abused, was eating scraps from trash heaps, and was terrified of people. But Max and the dog, which he named “Chica”, connected with each other. Max and Chica became inseparable.

Max, who by then was 19 years old, started to realize he had something to offer. Chica needed help, and Max was there to provide it. Max started doing adult things, like earning and saving money so that he could take Chica to the vet for check-ups and vaccinations. And Chica started getting healthy. And Max started getting healthy. I could hear it in his voice when he would call. There was an excitement about life and the future that I hadn’t heard since he was 14 years old. He was starting to get his groove back.

On one of those phone calls he said to me “Dad, I think I’m ready to leave Costa Rica.” Then he continued “and while I miss you guys, I don’t think I should come back to London.” “I want to go somewhere where I won’t be tempted by my old habits, but where I can feel at home, and restart everything,” he said. “Somewhere like Georgia or Indiana.”

He said “Georgia or Indiana” because he was vaguely familiar with both. I grew up in Indiana, and then moved to Atlanta, where I lived for several years, and ultimately met my wife, Max’s mom. I told him that either Georgia or Indiana would be a wonderful idea, and that there were great people in both places. I mentioned that I would be comfortable knowing that my old buddies in the ATL would be around just in case he needed a backstop; and that back in Indiana, he’d of course have his grandparents and uncle there for support as well.

So he chose Indianapolis. My wife and our other kids flew over to help get him settled into a new apartment downtown, and they got to meet Chica. And before we knew it, Max was working a full-time job, and not doing any of the bad stuff he used to do. He still had his demons (these kids always have them - heck we all have ‘em – they just learn to manage them), and things were by no means perfect yet. But he could work through the anxiety, and work through the depression, because he had responsibilities now. He had Chica.

On his own in Costa Rica, Max had figured out how to get Chica into the US, and convinced someone at American Airlines to let her fly on his lap, because they wouldn’t let dogs fly in the hold due to the heat. Thereafter, he and Chica settled into their little apartment downtown near the White River canal, and each of them began their new life, together. Max had saved Chica. And Chica had saved Max.

One afternoon three months later, when Max was walking Chica, she saw something she hadn’t seen in Costa Rica. It was a squirrel, and before Max could stop her, Chica chased that squirrel straight out onto Indiana Avenue. Right in front of a speeding car.

The car ran over Chica. My son screamed. In that brief moment everything that Max had worked for, everything he had overcome, everything that he was living for, was gone.

But the blow didn’t kill the dog. The driver that hit her sped off and left Chica half-dead and crying in the road. But the next car did stop. It was a young black kid. A young black kid who saw a young white kid on his knees in the middle of downtown Indianapolis. His name was Kenny. He opened his door, got out of his car, walked up to my son, and said “hey, I got you”. He then walked Max out to the middle of Indiana Avenue and they picked up a bloody Chica and loaded her into Kenny’s car.

Turns out that Kenny had just moved to Indiana, and had grown up down in Georgia. He had been traveling around a bit, and had recently lost his job up north. He subsequently found an offer for a temporary position down in Indianapolis, and had just started work there. He was apprenticing at his new shop, and was hoping to be made a permanent employee. Kenny was just 21.

But none of that mattered to Kenny at that moment. What mattered to Kenny was Chica and my son Max. So Kenny looked up a vet clinic on his phone, and took Max and Chica there. The vet said that without surgery, Chica would die, but the vet wasn’t a surgeon, and they needed to go somewhere else.

Luckily Kenny had stayed. Kenny was there by Max’s side, like a big brother, and this wonderful young man then took Max and Chica to another vet, one that could do the surgery.

The vet did the surgery. It worked. Chica lived. Her pelvis was broken, but over the next six months Max nursed her back to health.

Without Kenny, none of this would have happened.

Kenny even stayed in touch with Max afterward. He would text and see how Chica was doing, and how Max was doing. This last Thanksgiving, about one year since the incident, Kenny even got some tickets to go see the Colts play, and asked Max if he would like to come, and then took him out to dinner afterward.

Max is doing great now. He’s been working full-time, got super healthy, started running marathons, and is now on the good path. These were his choices, they had to be, and he did it. But it almost didn’t turn out this way. Kenny made sure he stayed on that path.

This guy Kenny, I want to reach out and give him the biggest hug he ever got. I want to tell him that he is special. I want to thank him for saving Chica’s life. I want to thank him for saving my son’s.

Oh, and as a follow-up. We got some news about Kenny this past week. It’s some really good news.

Kenny not only got that job offer, he just got a nice long contract along with it. Kenny Moore, from Valdosta, Georgia, just signed a contract with the Indianapolis Colts to be the highest paid slot cornerback in the NFL, in a deal that is going to pay him at least $30 million over the next four years.

Good things happen to good people.

Kenny stayed in the game too.

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There are tears in my eyes again. How caring for another living being is healing. How compassion is not turning away -- not from a broken puppy, or a crying teenager by the side of the road, or making sure they're at the right vet, or even staying in touch. Or being a parent letting go. How selflessness is self-care.

How love is taking a risk.

If the story made an impression on you... in what way?

Oh, may my writing be true to these truths.

I decided my grandma name is Jojo. Husband settled on Gov'nor (!) We were in Flagstaff when Toni Morrison died and on that same day came across a used bookstore where I purchased one of her books,    Jazz   .

I decided my grandma name is Jojo. Husband settled on Gov'nor (!) We were in Flagstaff when Toni Morrison died and on that same day came across a used bookstore where I purchased one of her books, Jazz.

How I'm Writing the Book
I have an interview with a Van Gogh Museum Director! No kidding, my heart speeds up writing that (Deep breaths.) Here's the scoop: I've been procrastinating sending an email to the Van Gogh Museum for months. It's intimidating to tell officialdom that I've written a first draft of a novel about an individual in the Van Gogh family. Their family. I worried that they'd be mad or throw up roadblocks even though my story celebrates Johanna van Gogh. But I've been thinking that sooner or later, I should let them know. After all, it was in their museum that the idea of the book first hooked me. I finally got the nudge I needed to write the email. The museum's research area has been working on a biography of Jo for ages. I've been hoping they'd publish it soon because I have questions about Jo and her world I haven't been able to find answers to yet. A few months ago, I noticed an announcement on the museum website: The biography will be published in September! So Husband and I put together a plan to be in Amsterdam in October. Time to write the email and ask for a meeting. I write an introductory email to the Senior Director heading up Jo's biography. With the help of Google translator, I address him in formal Dutch (hoping this will be a gesture of respect). I cheekily request a meeting during the time we're in Amsterdam, then hit "send." I check my email the next morning. Nothing. That entire first week... crickets. Another week goes by... thunderous silence. (Darn it! Maybe I wrote "m'am" instead of "sir" in Dutch?!) The third week...a hollow, aching voiceless void. So I'm back on the museum website hunting around and notice a link I hadn't paid attention to before: Press Office. The site says the office takes requests from media and bloggers. Bloggers?!! I can say I'm a blogger! Okay, so I send them a note and receive a nice reply back, "We'll be in touch soon. We're all on holiday." Phew! Then this week I received a wonderful warm response from the Senior Director saying he's crazy busy with the book launch but will still meet with me. YAY!!!

Personal Stuff
Just call me the Baby Whisperer. Little Jackson can wail like a champion, but I have the magic of bouncing out troublesome bubbles he needs to burp out. Yes, that pretty much sums up our super-happy Flagstaff visit. Jackson was born on July 24 (early), so we flung mismatched clothes into our suitcases and took off. Being around a newborn brought back a flood of memories of being a new mom. Time recedes. It's a 24-hour continuous cycle of breastfeeding, changing a diaper, cooing, napping, repeat. Giving a good fuss every now and then to break things up. There's no rushing. You must surrender; your reason for being is simply that moment.

Thank goodness for social media or we'd already be on a plane back there.

On a final note, with author Toni Morrison's passing two weeks ago, I've spent some time going back to her writing. Reading her is like taking a masterclass in writing. Toni was 39 when she published her first book. In her early 60's, after writing six novels, she won the Nobel literature prize. In 1988 she won a Pulitzer for her novel, Beloved. Her writing is exquisite and searing. No sentence is neutral. Her storytelling is so indomitable it's intimidating. Then I read this wonderful remembrance of her from the Paris Review, which made her feel more approachable and fun.

So, here's a last quote from Toni:

Make a difference about something other than yourselves.

Lay the love on thick,

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How to break the rules

Hello -- broken any rules lately?

If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.
— Katherine Hepburn

I ask, because I’m trying. To be clear, I’m attempting to obey the rules of storytelling. It’s the rules of society I’m trying to break -- more on this in a moment.

First, about doubling-down on the rules of storytelling...

At this stage of researching and revising my book, one of Storytelling 101's lessons is to be clear about the story's "Rules of the World." Suppose you have the idea for a sci-fi fantasy. You can really have fun creating its Rules of the World. Imagine mapping out a fanciful country - what does it look like? Who is in charge? Does it have a special language?

For instance, think of the name Offred, the main character in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Her name has two parts, "Of" and "Fred" to indicate she's the handmaid "of Fred," her Commander. Once this is explained, we understand her friend, Ofglen, is the handmaid for a guy named Glen. Right away, this rule within Gilead, the book's fictitious setting, gives us creepy insight into the authority and relationships these women will navigate.

As readers, we get Rules of the World instantly because we all live under societal rules. Standards for "normal" behavior are steeped beneath our skin. Every society has them. We know intuitively that if an individual steps outside of her/his expected behavior there will be backlash. First, informal sanctions from peers. Worse, actual punishment by those in authority if the person deviates too far.

Yet, the gradual evolution of society goes on, in spite of this risk in confronting the status quo.

I remember in the early-1970's when it was taboo for women teachers to wear pants in the classroom. I was just a 12-year-old kid and I don't remember exactly why this memory sticks. My mom was a kindergarten teacher and the rule that dresses and skirts were the "right" way for women teachers to dress lagged the sticky reality of kindergartners crawling around on the floor. Mom's fellow teachers objected, "Kindergarteners are short!" They appealed to the all-male school board. Eventually their persistence paid off and the men okayed pantsuits.

Polyester knit. No bell bottoms.

Still.

In this case, the "dresses-only" cultural standard got relaxed because some teachers thought to object to it. In fact, my mom told me she was not part of any protest around the teacher dress code. It never occurred to her to change it. Women wore skirts and dresses. A simple expectation, right?

Rules of society are so ubiquitous we only notice them when they're missing, not when we’re obeying them.

So, how does this apply to revising my story? I've had a nagging worry that I need to be clearer about what societal rules my heroine Jo is living under in the late 19th century. Just like now, at the time of my book, in Paris and Holland where Jo lives, society is a patriarchy. Patriarchy is more than white European men getting first dibs on stuff. The patriarchal authority is interwoven into all aspects of living — dressing, speaking, walking, gesturing, etc. And enforcement of this power is embedded in relationships -- of men-to-women, men-to-men, women-to-women, parent-to-child. I figured if I can get this society more distinct in my mind, it will pack wallop into the yucky visceral mess Jo stirs up.

This is important because, as readers, we are lightening quick in spotting inconsistencies in the worlds of stories. And we don't need to be experts about a particular time in history to do it. Every society gives constant cues on what "right" behavior is, so I need to include these in my book. Jo can hack the system, but I better be sure to explain not just how, but why and what she's up against to do it.

To help me explore these rules I got in touch with a new friend, Sally, who is a PhD professor of women and gender studies. We met at a Starbucks on a blistering hot Saturday a few weeks ago. Our iced coffees grew warm as we talked for 2-1/2 hours. I'd sent questions to Sally in advance; she brought answers and more. Since our meeting I've spun out nine pages of notes on how and where I'll edit my manuscript. Here's an example of what these changes will be.

  • 19c societal rule: Girls are raised to have the aspiration to marry, care for children and run a household. Their upbringing emphasizes learning about domestic duties and ladylike skills such as conversational French, playing the piano and dancing.

  • Jo's bio facts: Because Jo is the youngest daughter, she's spared from household duties since her older sisters take care of them. This freedom also means her education goes much further and she ultimately earns the equivalence of a college degree in music. After that she travels to London to work in the British Library and then as a teacher at a boarding school before marrying her husband.

  • New insight: This unusual background gives me one reason why Jo would make the unconventional decision to try to sell Vincent van Gogh's artwork herself, even though art dealing is a men's-only club. Her deeper education and independent-earning experience as a single woman gives her a background different from her peers.

Here's another editing note:

  • 19c societal rule: Boys must separate their identity from their mother's in order to be masculine. One way this was done is to have boys leave home to go to a boarding school at a young age.

  • What I wrote in the first draft: Because young Vincent, Jo's son, is being raised by a single mother, the need for him to go to boarding school is keenly critical. He must overcome the stigma of having no male role model growing up in order to be a "man" and successful in life. So, Jo is desperate to find the money for his boarding-school tuition.

  • New insight: Later, young Vincent rejects following in his mother's footsteps as an art dealer, but instead chooses to become an engineer. He leans towards an analytical career far removed from the art he was surrounded by in his youth. Originally, I'd interpreted this as Jo generously encouraging her son to choose work that was true to himself. Now I wonder whether she encouraged him to help solidify his separation from her so that his masculinity is beyond question. In so doing, she protects his ability to succeed in life with an occupation separate from his mother's.

Notice these two examples are less about the external action of plot and more about digging into the internal motivation of Jo and young Vincent. This is where story happens -- not what is going on, but why.

This past week I decided to list out the characters in my book. First of all, I found out there are 47 - who knew?! 28 men and 19 women. I'd no idea. Secondly, I started discovering right away that peering through the gender lens is bringing each individual into sharper relief for me. Each one must serve a purpose in the story. Each one is in various stages of accepting or objecting to the rules.

And you know this means they're in various stages of accepting or objecting to Jo.

A girl's gotta know who her friends are.

I met women and gender studies expert Sally at Starbucks. I tucked notes from our conversation into my "Rules of the World" folder in my author files.

I met women and gender studies expert Sally at Starbucks. I tucked notes from our conversation into my "Rules of the World" folder in my author files.

How I'm Writing the Book

Held another "Jumpstart Your Art" workshop. I held a second workshop last week thanks to my good friend Diane who organized the gathering. Eleven artists-in-the-making committed their lunch hour to explore ideas on how to make room for pursuing art in a jam-packed life. I start the workshop with quoting the No.1 Regret of the Dying: "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." To be true to oneself can be to express the art that calls to you. In this workshop we had writing, painting, music and photography represented.

Went to Hear Actress Jane Fonda. My friend Joyce and I just attended "An Evening with Jane Fonda" in Kansas City. We packed up our one-night bags and cruise-controlled west on interstate 70 to catch her at the beautiful shell-like Kaufmann Center a few weeks ago. Jane’s just wrapped the fourth season of her hit Grace and Frankie Netflix show (co-starring Lily Tomlin) and her website shows she’s now doing a brief speaking tour across the country.

Jane told a bunch of great stories, especially about the movie On Golden Pond. Her father, Henry Fonda, had been told he was dying so the movie was really important to Jane. It would give her a last chance to act with him. One day the phone rings. Jane answers it. "Jane? It's Katherine Hepburn. I need to be in your movie!" Jane had never met the venerable actress, and she'd heard she could be tough on set. Jane travels to Ms. Hepburn's Manhattan apartment to meet with her about the role. Ms. Hepburn asks her, "Are you going to do your own back flip?" (If you haven't seen the movie, Jane's character has to do one into a lake.) As Jane explained it, she'd already decided no, absolutely not, and had hired a double. "Yes," she replies to Ms. Hepburn.

The day of the back-flip shooting -- after months of practice, first with a harness on a mat with a gymnastics instructor, then a pool, lots of bruises -- there's Jane on the dock. Camera crew is all set. There has to be one take (too much delay to dry hair and a dry bathing suit to do it all over again). One. Two. She does it! As Jane comes out of the water sputtering, Katherine Hepburn steps out from behind a bush, shaking both fists in the air, "You did it! You did it!"

I love that image.

Personal Stuff

Our new grandson's arrival date is getting closer! When Husband and I get the phone call that he's arrived, we'll toss clothes into bags and the cat in the kennel. Our neighbors will know we're gone by skid-marks on the street. Stay tuned for photos!

I started this blog by saying I'm working on breaking societal rules. What I mean is that this research has challenged me to be more conscious of unconsciously accepting limitations. To take calm charge of my own thoughts. To question. To keep moving.

Or, in the words of Katherine Hepburn,

As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.

Call if you break a rule and need bail money,

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I made a hole-in-one!

Couldn’t help it. Had to butt right into the top of my own newsletter to announce I made a hole-in-one on the golf course! Skip to the end of this email if you must read the riveting tale right away. If not, let me get into the guts of today’s blog first. It begins with non-golfer Andy Warhol...

Sometimes the little times you don't think are anything while they're happening turn out to be what marks a whole period of your life.
-
Andy Warhol

When artist Andy Warhol said this I wonder if he was recalling his childhood. When he was a little boy he was so sick with scarlet fever that his mother kept him home from school frequently. She set up a sickroom for him next to the kitchen so that he'd be nearby. This room became his first art studio. Andy and his mother spent hours in constant art-making, cutting up comic books, forming flowers out of tin cans. Many years later Andy credited his fascination for pop culture from these kitchen-art experiments.

I love this image of a mom turning a quarantine into a cocoon of creativity.

How she turned a sad situation on its head.

Instead of mourning her son's loss of a typical childhood, she created moments of exploration and creativity using everyday things at hand from the cupboards in the kitchen.

Neither she nor Andy knew that their play -- all of those little moments easing the boredom of a bedridden child -- would become the impetus for him to become a leader of pop culture, a whole new visual-arts movement. The culmination of those countless moments of discovery and love made the sum bigger than the whole of its parts.

“The little times that don’t mean anything” - Andy said. Sounds like a description of lots of my days. Especially since the focus of writing my book is revision, not creation.

Revising is not glamorous. This is a period of unromantic, day-in/day-out, slogging along. It starts with me opening up a chapter's Word document, then renaming it by doing "save as" to add a "v3" (version 3) to the file name ("v1" is the first version; "v2" is the version with editing comments from Sheila, my book coach).

My first edit: I very authoritatively type Chapter (and the number) in bold, centered, in 16-point font at the top of the page, and then sit back and admire it. Excellent progress.

Then the trudging begins.

Midway through writing the first draft of the book I changed from third-person to first-person — so I’m updating that — and also from past tense to present tense. So those are fairly rote corrections. But I do have little moments of discovering bigger issues. Here are a few examples:

  • I realized there are three “Camille's" in the book - the artist Camille Pissarro; Claude Monet's first wife, Camille; and a third fictitious Camille who is a snooty, high-society ex-pat Dutch woman living in Paris. Since I made up this last Camille, she's the one who must change her name... do you have any suggestions? (Just googled "Dutch female names" There's Sofie, which means wisdom. Rebecca, which means a young woman whose beauty ensnares men...now there's a contender!)

  • Secondly, I've discovered I'm out of control on the seasons. I just read through a scene when my protagonist Jo goes into the countryside outside Paris: "Grasshoppers jump out of my way and the whirring sound of insects rises and falls in the hot air when I step down onto the train platform." (please don't judge that sentence) Just note that this scene take place in February! Winter! When the temperature is in the 30's and 40's and all those insects are dead. What was I thinking? Well, I was thinking about Jo. What was in her head and what she was trying to do and how she was scared and at her wit's end but toughing it all out anyway.

Which leads me to my last revision discovery.

  • My writing got better. As the months of writing my story went by, I got better. Each week when Sheila sent me edits, I read them, but didn't go back to make the corrections. I was scared that if I didn't keep writing forward I would stall out and stop. Besides, I had to turn in new pages every week. So, I saved the documents ("v2") of Sheila's versions knowing I would be making her corrections in the future when revising. Reading them now I see I must have absorbed her coaching instructions because I know I didn't make as many of those early mistakes later on. Here's one of her instructions:

"Always be suspicious of adverbs. Sometimes they are needed, but usually not. If you have a strong verb, you usually don’t need the adverb. In this case, 'race' is strong. It tells us things are moving quickly. Therefore, you don’t need ‘abruptly.’"

As you can clearly see, my writing deeply absorbed her lesson so that my verbs are pungently, eagerly, fragrantly accurate and don’t need superfluously decorative adverbs.

Ha!

What are your “little things”? What are the moments that come to memory that define a period of your life? As Andy says, “The little times that don’t mean anything at the time they’re happening?”

I just had a bunch of those little moments at my nephew Doug’s wedding in Lexington two weeks ago. I had dozens of little conversations — with my Brother who bought a new company, with Sisters I hadn’t met before (my Brother-in-Law’s siblings), with my Navy Nephew contemplating life outside of a submarine, with the Bride Mandy’s lovely mob of delighted family and friends — lots of details and updates and trivia were shared that over time will likely fade from relevance. So what remains? A residue of connection, tendrils of common ground, to be picked up again next time we meet.

The little times — making up a whole period of life — are everything.

Look how that ball nestled right in for my hole-in-one! Meanwhile, I visit a St. Louis literary site, 4504 Westminster Place, meeting place for the women's cultural literary Wednesday Club (author Kate Chopin was a member) with fellow writer Ashley.

Look how that ball nestled right in for my hole-in-one! Meanwhile, I visit a St. Louis literary site, 4504 Westminster Place, meeting place for the women's cultural literary Wednesday Club (author Kate Chopin was a member) with fellow writer Ashley.

How I'm Writing the Book

Incorporating Art History Research into the Manuscript. I pulled together 12 pages of art-history questions into a Word doc, attached them to an email to my PhD friend Sara, held my breath and hit Send. Would she freak out by the quantity? A week later we met at a coffee shop, and I thought it was to review my questions. Instead, she'd answered them! Neatly typed with links to references, of course. Now I have to incorporate her insights into my story. I'm thinking of pulling out the 3-inch binder that holds a hard-copy of my manuscript and write the art-history notes into the margins. It's old-school, but in the long run, I believe faster than trying to incorporate the ideas straight from a keyboard. Some of her insights rattle the plot, but don’t derail it. Need to think it through a bit.

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. My neighborhood bookclub just read, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows). The book’s title hints at its charming style. You guess it will be a playful; you find out it's inventive. The story is told through a series of letters, which makes it all the more impressive how the authors paint background and context and character cleverly all through the voices of the letters. The story takes place just after WWII in which a London writer, Juliet, begins a correspondence with members of the society, people who lived through the German occupation of their Channel island. Eccentric and kind, the characters radiate wit even as they depict the hardship and sadness they lived through. This is one of those small classics. Wonderful book, especially if you’re looking for witty summer reading.

Personal: THE STORY OF THE HOLE-IN-ONE
It was partly-sunny and in the low 90s when Husband and I decided to take advantage of a low-humidity day and tuck 18 holes into the afternoon. I am still so new at the game I don’t have a handicap so have been trying to get playing time in to gather enough scores (you need to play ten 18-hole games to get a handicap calculated).

That afternoon we were both concentrating on each stroke, trying to make every shot count, when we came to Hole 5 — a simple par 3 — but ominously set on a little peninsula, its three sides surrounded by water. For me, its about 105 yards to the flag, so I chose my 7 hybrid club, ran through my mental checklist (club-head aim, grip, weight to the left foot, body still), I swung back and let the club glide - thwack! — that sweet sound of centered connection! The ball sailed over the water and bounced near the flag. “Good shot!” said Hubby. We jumped in the cart and buzzed over. But after we grabbed our putters and were walking up onto the green, Hubby’s ball was there, but not mine. Oh no! I hit it too hard and it rolled into the water! I ran over to the green’s edge to peer into the watery muck, looking for the ball’s white shadow. “Hey, Joan,” behind me came Hubby’s voice. “You’re not going to believe this...” I turned and he was standing over the hole, grinning and pointing down, “You made a hole-in-one!” Couldn’t believe it! Dashed over to the hole and sure enough, there sat the ball, coyly cradled inside the pin. Woot! Woot!

We high-fived a few times then continued playing and were set to celebrate at the clubhouse when we were done except the temperature plummeted 20 degrees on the 17th hole, and a thunderstorm broke out over the course sending us all scurrying.

Doesn’t matter. I’ll be celebrating for awhile!

Now would be the time for me to make the analogy of practicing golf swings and concentrating on each stroke as similar to the “little things” this blog is about. I’m not going to. That game is not a whole period of life. Just an awesome afternoon!

Better is the parting advice of Andy Warhol who says,

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Little by little,

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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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