Sticky Stance

The place where you made your stand never mattered. Only that you were there…and still on your feet.
— Stephen King

I'm NOT on my feet. I'm in the air and I’d like to tell you this quick thing, but I haven’t much time.

Stickers.

I’ll explain. But first, I am jammed into seat 20F, next to the window but in the back of the plane, flying DC to St. Louis. I have already flown Bangor to DC and SHOULD HAVE WRITTEN THIS BLOG ON THAT FLIGHT. But I did not. Instead I read Martha Hall Kelly’s, Lilac Girls, which is riveting about three women and their intersecting paths in WWII.

I want to share something. But, ouch, my Mac slants half off the tray table in my lap because the guy in the seat in front of me slammed his seat back shoving the corner of my computer into my belly button (that’s the ouch). He has a right to lean back. But still. I am noticing that he’s going thin and grey around the crown of his head. And I’m not proud of it, but this makes me feel a little bit happy.

“Stickers.”

I am returning from a trip to Bangor, Maine, writer-extraordinaire Stephen King’s hangout. No one in her right mind goes on a writer retreat, knowing she will leave 48 hours later for a month in Europe. No one picks a retreat teetering on the far northeastern tip of Maine, on a scrap of land that leans into the Atlantic, jammed with creepy lichen-laced woods and moss-covered rocks. Where the paths are so plush with decayed fir needles that your feet sink an inch as you walk along paths of hushed echoes.

No wonder Stephen King lives near there. It’s the place to birth horror stories. Not really the place for a girl with an historical fiction genre. Good thing I’m going to Europe.

The writer workshop was so, so good. Whenever you hang with people doing what you’re doing, you talk shop and pick up wonderfully potent tips and tricks. “Stickers” is one of these small, but mighty, ideas.

Here’s how it works: If you have something, anything, you want to start doing regularly — like learning French, or improving your golf game, or being assertive in a conversation, or finishing the next draft of your book (yours truly) — the idea behind Sticker is to break those overarching goals into daily actions. As in, learn one new French word/day. By the end of a week, you’ve memorized seven new words. Voila - you’ve made progress. And you'll keep making progress, if you keep it up.

Sounds deceptively simple, but it isn’t, of course, because it’s hard to incorporate new stuff into your already very full day.

However, if you find a friend that will be your “accountability buddy,” someone who also wants to make incremental progress on her big goal, then you can strike a Sticker deal. Each day you each have a daily goal you’re trying to hit. If you hit it, you text your buddy the word Sticker. (You can actually GIVE yourself a sticker if that’s motivating.) But mostly the very act of knowing someone is waiting and you are holding yourself accountable to her, can make the difference in finding the time and energy and effort to accomplish that daily task.

If my goal is to write 1200 words/day and I do it (or more) — I text "Sticker" to my buddy. If I only write 800 (or even 1199 words) - I send no text at all. The little pressure behind this idea is that not only do I know I didn’t hit the goal; my buddy knows too. There’s someone other than me who knows I missed it on that day.

You would think that the pressure to perform is embarrassment, but, no…I don’t think that’s it. Frankly, I don’t need help feeling down about myself; I’m an expert in that.

The force of a Sticker is faith.

The motivation underlying Sticker is that I have another person who cares about my progress and believes I’ll do it. Cares about my aspiration enough to say, “I know you can do this. I am here for you and I believe in you and your amazing talent and the important voice that you are to this world. I know that sh*t happens, and your day may go nuts sometimes and you don’t make it, but I still stand by you. I have your back. I’m in your corner. I haven’t given up on you.”

I have a story about this.

There was a time when my mom was a caregiver for her father. My grandpa was well into his 90’s and pretty much stayed in bed. It was a 24-hour non-ending care-giving cycle. Mom was in Illinois and I lived in New Jersey with two little kiddos.

One day on a phone call Mom mentioned to me that in the midst of the constant care-giving every day she would try to sit down at the piano and play, even briefly. She and Dad had a baby grand that sat just outside the area where my grandfather slept. Even if she could only play a single sheet of music for a few moments, she would try to slip onto the piano bench every day.

A thousand miles away, I was so grateful that Mom was taking a few moments for herself in the midst of exhausting care for another. I imagined the gentle, soothing musical notes strung together, blending, harmonizing, hanging in the air like drifting flower petals caught in a breeze. I loved imagining my Mom finding a few minutes of release in front of those piano keys. When we talked on the phone, I would find myself asking a frequent question, “Did you play the piano today?” Sometimes the answer was yes. Sometimes, no. But really it was less whether she actually played that mattered between us, but rather what the question meant. “I care about you. I want you to take care of yourself. I am reminding you; you are worthy. You are important too. You are valued.”

You are loved.

Coming off of this writer retreat I now have two Sticker friends. With their help I am Sticker-armored-up to tackle the next phase of work on my book. I have broken down the many little steps into daily tasks for the next few months. There is an outline to deepen. Bits of research to gather. On our trip to Europe we are going to walk the steps and eat the food and stroll the streets where Johanna van Gogh lived. My daily task will be to journal and write and do my best to chronicle how I can use this wonderful experience in the book. I will post these bits on Instagram and in this newsletter too.

Do you have a goal that could use a Sticker friend?

(We have just been told to put away all “approved large electronic devices.” I have closed up my tray table and now have my Mac on my lap - that kinda counts right?)

A path through Maine's Arcadia National Park where I attended this past weekend's writer retreat, and a quick dash to Kansas City for Mexican food with our Daughter and her Husband.

A path through Maine's Arcadia National Park where I attended this past weekend's writer retreat, and a quick dash to Kansas City for Mexican food with our Daughter and her Husband.

How I’m Writing the Book

Writer Retreat - The 3-day workshop retreat was put on by Author Accelerator where we dug into using a phenomenal writer tool called the Inside Outline, taught by its creator Jennie Nash. If you have a book that gnaws at the back of your mind, this Outline will bring it closer to reality.

"How I Became an Author" video - I recorded a 4-minute video (you can see it on this Youtube link) about the process of deciding to retire from my full-time corporate career to becoming a full-time author. I taped it for a Washington University event in St. Louis for a program called, "Your Next Move: Transitioning to the New Retirement." What I really like about "new retirement" is how it's less about stopping and more about starting -- I'll put it on my LinkedIn or website (post-Europe).

Personal Stuff
Planning for this trip got started last January when Husband and I slapped together an itinerary that honored our frequent flyer miles. We'll go to Barcelona, then Lisbon, to a farmhouse north of Marseilles, then by train to Paris and another train to Amsterdam. We have local tours set with folks, including one in Paris who will take me to Johanna's apartment(!!!). I'll be posting pictures and comments on Instagram (#joanferndz) and Facebook. And be checking in here too.

Finally, I wanted to end on an inspiring quote from Stephen King related to the Sticker idea. I found this: “When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘one word at a time.’” The quote is Sticker-great, but it’s a little ho-hum. I prefer this one:

People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.

Hope that's not too jarring,

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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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The short game vs. the long game

Twelve years from now, your future self is going to thank you for something you did today, for an asset you began to build, a habit you formed, a seed you planted... -Seth Godin

There’s a kicker to this quote at the end of the blog, but first...The weeks are flying by. I thought it was high time to check in. Even with a short post to say hello. 

Last week I said to my book coach Sheila, “I’m in it for the long game.” We were discussing whether my contract with her had another week in it (if it does, good, but I will be renewing it, regardless). Working with her is rewarding. I hear immediate (within a few days) feedback on my latest chapter submission, which acts like an encouraging nudge to keep going. The 17th chapter of the book is underway right now, which puts me at about 70,000 words. I anticipate maybe another six or seven chapters to complete the first draft.

Sometimes I feel really daunted by this project. The feeling is part-horror (what have I gotten myself into?), part-aching (I long to write this book and I hope I do it), part-intimidation (still so much research to do about the times and people). Oftentimes when writing I think, “This is terrible, terrible." For example I can get stuck in a rut on describing the physical reaction to anger or embarrassment. Right now, my protagonist Jo has felt heat rising from her chest and reddening her cheeks about a jillion times. I just write on. Being less repetitive will be the job of the second draft.

In the last post I mentioned the emergence of a bad guy, Georges. It’s been super fun to have an antagonist because I can make him really bad and actively act in opposition to what Jo wants. (He’s really handsome too.) At every turn Jo is treading on new territory and I’ve found that the key to narrative drive is to make sure she has agency. As I keep this in mind, quirky twists occur to me to add to the story. This girl’s got gumption. 

Actually, in every chapter, there are other people who each have desires and intentions. Jo doesn’t necessarily know what is motivating others. So I focus on making sure the other characters act and speak true to themselves, and on Jo acting and speaking true to herself, then see how all of these moving parts come together and drive the story. I wrote “see” how this happens because so often dialogue and action come to life as I write. It’s multi-layered and moving and I’m trying to keep it true to the human condition. 

This entire effort to write a book is probably the longest “long game” I’ve ever done. 

If writing was a short game, it would provide visible and immediate benefits. If writing was a short game, it would be easy and quick.

Playing the long game with writing is pretty boring. Basically I open up the Mac book or sit at my desktop and hammer away at the keys. I write nearly every day. I have a book related to the craft of writing going all the time (with a highlighter clipped to it). Most afternoons I work out and listen to podcasts on publishing or books. And I try to have a novel or other book always underway on my nightstand too. I’ve mostly resigned from my outside volunteer work; I’m inconsistent on social media. I’m trying to winnow out the distractions.

The long game is delayed gratification. It is small, daily steps with no visible giant outcome. It is mostly alone.

Not everything can be a long game — how could you focus?  I’m finding it’s a very different way to lead my days. 

Only time will tell if it works out. 

How I’m Writing the Book

Year-end Goal: On chapter 17 now, my goal is to get a draft done by the end of the year. It can take me 1-2 weeks to write a chapter, so I’m cutting it close.

Ah-ha Scene Done: I decided to leap forward in the plot and write the ah-ha, or climax, scene when all the crazy stuff hits the fan and Jo faces her final challenge. This took me three weeks. The benefit is now I have a north star to keep my sites on as the action moves forward. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Recently I read a beautiful memoir, A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas. It's written with heart-rending clarity about how her life changed after her husband Rich is permanently injured from an accident. The book begins with a definition: "Australian Aborigines slept with their dogs for warmth on cold nights, the coldest being a 'three dog night.'" She writes with such surrender and peace the sad story transcends into room for comedy and grace. 

In late September I traveled to Albuquerque to a 4-day workshop by the Women Fiction Writer’s Association. Guest speaker Jennie Nash, founder of   Author Accelerator,   led the fantastic sessions.

In late September I traveled to Albuquerque to a 4-day workshop by the Women Fiction Writer’s Association. Guest speaker Jennie Nash, founder of Author Accelerator, led the fantastic sessions.

A quick note about the next WEDDING. We just got treated to our long-awaited "tasting" for Cristina and Jay's wedding dinner last week in Kansas City. We sampled about 12 Cuban tapas - delicioso! -- leaving the difficult choice of what to leave out to the kids. Meanwhile we are headed out to southern California next week for niece Sabrina's wedding. 'Tis the season!

Back to marketing guru Seth Godin to complete his quote:

...Even if you’re not sure of where it will lead, today’s the day to begin.

Today!

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Hey, partner!

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. 
-Duke Ellington

Oh, wow, two days. Only two more days of work! Unbelievable.

I am swinging between anticipation (freedom!) and trepidation (what will retirement be like?)

The workaholic in me is wringing her hands... will I be bored? Waste my time? I know of other retirees that have struggled with finding a new routine and being happy when their jobs ended. 

Will I procrastinate on my self-promises like cleaning out the storage room, tossing all the mate-less socks, or starting a new workout routine? All are waiting in the wings for "as soon as I retire." 

I've started to think fondly about the revolving-door entrance to my company's building: "Just a few more days of entering here." 

Ha!

This past week I had lunch with a friend I met 22 years ago when I began my first job in the company's equity research area. Chris and I bonded quickly. Behind our titles of supervisory analyst (Chris) and editor of the client newsletter (me) we were both moms, about 10 years older than the majority of the either single or childless research analysts. We could laugh at how our younger colleagues would marvel at our calm in the office. "An emergency is not the fax machine breaking, " we'd agree. "A real emergency is taking the kids to the ER!" 

Over the years our career trajectories took us in different directions. Exchanging stories over lunch Chris reminded me about past conversations when she'd pull up a chair in my cubicle, I'd swing my chair around to face her and we'd talk about our passions. Chris loved volleyball. She went on to coach each of her three kids who all continued with the sport in college, especially her daughter who played internationally as a professional. 

Chris reminded me that I used to talk about writing a book. "I did?" "All the time."

What happened? Somehow, over the years, the dream kept getting pushed to the back of the line. The intellectual and emotional pull of work with its unending gauntlet of planning and projects and politics kept up a constant pressure. Family life roller-coastered. I marveled at my sister's career as a teacher with its miraculous summer breaks. There never seemed to be the mental room to push back against others' expectations in order to find the space to imagine something else. 

And I enjoyed my work. It was engrossing and challenging until a few years ago, when, imperceptibly at first, my interest began to ebb. I started to think about experimenting outside of my job. 

It was 11-1/2 months ago when I took a small step. Earlier in the year self-doubt had brought my writing to a skidding halt. But, in December, I remember thinking, "I can't expect anything to change unless I do something different." So I signed up for a 3-month virtual class dedicated to how to be a creative professional -- whether in writing, music or art.  Each day we'd connect via the virtual meeting platform, Slack, on a daily topic and learn from each other -- how people approached their days, removed obstacles and took practical steps. From January to March I was mostly a listener.

In April - I re-upped for another three months and during this period swallowed my doubts and re-started my blog, telling myself I need to do (write) what I say I want to be (a writer). I decided to do a public 100-day Challenge to write for 30 minutes/day and post proof on Instagram. I bought a selfie stick. 

In our Slack group when I shared the story of Johanna van Gogh and how it was her persistence that brought Van Gogh's art to worldwide recognition and how I wanted to find a story "like that" to write, one of the members cheerfully wrote, "Or you could write that one!" 

I could write that one. 

In July I re-upped for another three months of the virtual class, finished the 100-day Challenge (here's the video) and traveled to Amsterdam and Paris, two of the settings for the book. I started reading and researching about the period of time when Vincent van Gogh lived and the significant people that crossed his path. Images and context for the late 19th century period began to play in my mind - the book started to become more real.

Corporate executive by day; writer by night. With each step my identity felt like it was ever-so-gradually shifting. 

In September I held a "Plot Party," a focus group with historical fiction readers to learn more about what draws them to a good story. In late October, I signed up for a writing "sprint" -- could I sustain writing over a longer period than my usual 30 minutes? At the end of the 2-1/2 days, the intense class left me exhausted and clearer than ever on how hard writing a good book will be. 

Yet, the challenging feedback I received for each of my submissions also felt strangely encouraging. It is a new world of intellectual and creative challenge. 

Two things kept me going: 1) small steps and 2) accountability to others. Day-to-day living is a headwind; self-doubt can feel like a gale force. Against such pressure, big moves were impossible. But a small step - that I could take. This led to another step and another.

Then, it was not enough to have the dream and take the steps without letting others know what I was doing. It helped to be accountable to people outside of myself.

So here we are.

Twenty-two years. It's taken 22 years to come full circle.

Time to write this book. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Books I'm Reading:  I've started The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. It's a reference guide on writing techniques for connecting with readers emotionally. In late January I'll attend a writer's workshop with Maass so thought I'd begin to prepare. In addition, I've also started author Peter Wohlleben's book, The Inner Life of Animals. Based on research the book demonstrates that animals think, feel and know much more than we tend to give them credit for.(Finally! A book to unlock the mystery of Natasha, our cat!)

Resources: Dan Blank is the professional coach who offers the 3-month classes via Slack. He has three new programs beginning January 1. The writing sprint I took at the end of October will be repeated in January by Jennie Nash and her team of book coaches. Lovely author Teri Case gave me the cheerful push to adopt Johanna as my protagonist. Check out Teri's book, Tiger Drive, coming out in February. 

That's it for this week. Other than journaling every day for 30 minutes my book has slid into low gear while I'm winding up work and taking care of holiday stuff. 

Let me end with Duke Ellington again:

A goal is a dream with a finish line.

Thank you, Jamie -- accountability partner! --  I'm standing by to be one for you.

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