What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside you.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the surface it was a good week: 

  • 19 pages submitted, 5,723 words written — 158% of my weekly goal. Awesome, right?
  • Wednesday is my weekly submission deadline -- I’ve already received great feedback from my book coach. On the right track, right? 

Something felt off. 

Has that ever happened to you — on the outside humming along, but on the inside you’re unsettled? Like a buzzing invisible insect close to your ear, the mental insistence feels hard to pin down. It's not clear: Does the mental irritation mean you've missed something important, or is the needling the emergence of a new question?

Last week I ignored these unsettled feelings in order to just write. I had a 12-hour goal I had to meet so I wrote a series of events that take my protagonist, Jo, from Amsterdam to Paris. The journey is important, eventually she needs to meet Vincent van Gogh there. I researched how she would have traveled and found in the late 19th century, today's comfortable 3-hour train ride would have been a much longer, exhausting day: Amsterdam to Rotterdam by train, then to Antwerp by boat, and from there another train into the Gard du Nord station in Paris. 

And just as travel today often means crossing through airports and their chaotic cross-section of people, train stations in the late 19th century were epicenters of bedlam. Here’s a sentence I wrote trying to capture what Jo saw in the Amsterdam station: Everyone seems to be in constant motion as though a great sea had rolled them all in and they were stumbling and turning and spinning where the tide dropped them. 

All fine and good, right? I spent a bunch of time describing this and the rest of her journey. Still felt a little off. 

Last week, too, important characters in Jo's life showed up in the scenes I wrote -  in particular her favorite brother Andries (nickname "Dries") and his friend, Theo van Gogh (who eventually becomes Jo's husband). Hopefully, the scenes are spirited and surprising, and dialogue, too, is coming along. (My favorite 19th century expression is What the deuce!)

All fine and good, right?

But the writing still didn't seem right. Too shallow. So I turned to my journal and paged through previous entries, the musings I make in the morning to rev up my writing. Funny, I noticed that I'd been writing similar questions to myself, over and over:

  • What is Jo's limiting belief?
  • Why does she long for something more than the typical Victorian Age woman?
  • What happened so that she thinks outside these norms?
  • Why would she be feisty? And later, courageous?
  • What is her mis-belief - the thing she believes that's unknowingly holding her back and that she will have to overcome...and this is the why she makes the decision to promote her brother-in-law's work...thereby, giving the world this incredible gift?

This last question relates to why I like some of my favorite books. They are stories based on the protagonist suffering from a mis-belief. In The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd), Lily believes she killed her mother. In News of the World (Paulette Jiles), Captain Kidd believes he's meant to be a loner. 

Even though I'm just four chapters in, I realized I need answers to these questions now because I'm putting words in Jo's mouth and having her encounter people that will help and hinder her. All of this needs to be aligned to the actions that ultimately lead up to her role in history. Since saving Van Gogh's paintings will be an outcome of her life - what change in Jo's  thinking precedes this action?

I asked this question on Thursday afternoon on a call with my book coach, Sheila. In my thrashing around with these questions I'd come up with two possible solutions: Should I be focusing on a different genre? (maybe literary fiction -- though I wasn't exactly sure what that meant). Or, should I create a deep character sketch of Johanna?

Sheila had a different answer.

"Read a book called Story Genius by Lisa Cron," she said. "It tackles how to think through these questions. Or, better yet, it turns out there’s a deep-dive class based on this book. Guess what: It starts Monday."

"Guess what," I responded. "I already have the book," turned and pulled the red-covered paperback off my "writer craft" bookshelf, an arm's reach away. 

So, perfect timing. Four chapters in have brought these issues to light. I feel like I'm asking new questions that wouldn't have made as much sense until now. Like a real person, Jo keeps nudging me and asking, why did I do that? 

Ok, ok, I need to get the why right. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Words/Week:  I'll suspend the Manuscript Accelerator program while I take the Story Genius class. My goal shifts to 10 pages/week, though not all of it will be actual scenes as I'll be completing assignments too. In 10 weeks, I'll restart MA in order to complete a first draft of the manuscript this year -- still a stretch goal. 

Determine a book genre: Upmarket fiction? Literary fiction? Commercial fiction? This decision needs to come soon. If you're curious on what makes them different here's a good infographic developed by a literary agent.

Watching movies as research: One way I'm mixing up my research is to watch 19th century period movies for their settings, dress and mannerisms. So far I've seen Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh, and Vanity Fair (2004), starring Reese Witherspoon as a young woman in Paris. I welcome any recommendations of movies to watch!

Books I'm reading: I'm still in the thick of Teri Case's Tiger Drive. Four characters are duking it out; each has secrets they are keeping from each other!

Meanwhile, on the wedding front, Cristina, Jay and I checked out a KC wedding venue Tuesday night --  almost perfect! Just not available on the preferred date. Eric and Angie's wedding is about to hit 100 Days Before the Big Event. I decided to order three mother-of-the-groom dresses from Neiman's Last Call website so I can calculate how much weight I'll need to sweat off before June. Lastly, Juan and I are flying to Maui this upcoming Saturday. Freezing temperatures are forecast in St. Louis for that weekend. Darn it, so sad to leave town. 

I'll end with a blessing for Johanna (and you!)  from Mr. Emerson again: 

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. 

Get the why right!


Excellent Conspiracy

Hey, it’s Monday! Here’s a cool quote:

Once you make a decision the universe conspires to make it happen.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I like feeling that the universe is on my side. It’s just that sometimes the path to get to the decision I’ve made can feel more like a zig zag instead of a straight line. (Darn it; I think that’s when the learning happens!)

After last week’s Monday quote about being “coachable,” I heard from a friend who added that she had found out that being open to learning, or being coachable, can be obstructed by excuses or defensiveness. It made me think of all the times I’ve said automatic “no’s” as an excuse, when in hindsight I suspect I was lazy or even afraid of doing something new. So this idea of continuous learning is a possible theme for tomorrow’s blog.

I write possible because I just came back from a rabble-rousing weekend with my mom and her friend Mary Ellen in Fort Collins, Colorado! They got into the Western spirit of things with their six-shooters and there was no way any blog writing was going to happen with all my ducking.

Weekly Snippet
If the topic does become continuous learning I have an example in the blog about some well-known people:

I read that Albert Einstein made an effort to “rewire” his thinking in order to figure out ways to think differently by learning to play the violin. His wife Elsa claimed it helped him think through his theories. Winston Churchill took up painting landscapes in order to exercise thinking from a different perspective. Both of them said these activities helped them develop their abilities to think in new ways.

Playing the violin! Painting landscapes too. Before I read this I thought I had no time to take up a new pursuit. These examples made me pause. So in the spirit of living by believing in pushing through boundaries and the edges of limitation, I hope to have some ideas and stories tomorrow.

On with the day and your universe-conspiring decisions!


Conspiracy Theories

A funny thing happened on the way to last Monday’s email…our internet went down. And then we moved my makeshift work area (setup on the dining room table) back to my newly carpeted office, but didn’t finish getting everything in order. And then I travelled to San Francisco. So logistics and time were against me and I decided not to force-fit an email into your Monday inbox last week.

Here’s a thought related to tomorrow’s blog:

Once you make a decision the universe conspires to make it happen.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

What Got Cut
Tomorrow’s newsletter explores theories about random and maybe-not-so-random events. Can you conspire to make them happen? Here’s a little illustration that got cut:

I am heaving a bulky phonebook onto a table, combing my memory for anyone I know in NYC. I have just arrived; I am unnerved. The friend-of-a-friend I’d arranged to share an apartment with has turned out to be a hoarder; the piles are claustrophobic and I feel far from home. My good friend Peter had answered his phone but he is house-sitting on Long Island and a long train ride away. Then I think of Betsy – though barely an acquaintance I suddenly remember I’d heard through the grapevine that she’s in New York -- I find her name and call. 

Unhesitatingly, she responds: “You just moved here? I get it! Meet me uptown,” and with some instructions on what bus to take, I am out the door. 

It is the only evening I spend with Betsy. She kindly unraveled Manhattan’s street labyrinth, chatted calmly over dinner, and answered my endless questions. In hindsight the evening was a lifeline, for before long I had my street legs under me, found work, moved to another apartment, made new friends. I didn’t see her again.

Was my encounter with Betsy random? I’ll be interested in what you think about this and tomorrow’s blog.

Until then!


You Never Know

Here’s a quote that’s a bit of a follow-up from the Un-random Acts blog last week:

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon will be too late.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

This quote spoke to me. I feel as though I often think of kind gestures but then allow really lazy reasons to delay or bypass opportunities. 

It relates to the beginnings of next week’s newsletter too, though I'm not sure whether the final newsletter will include it. Today’s email marks the 15th week of following my desire to begin writing via weekly emails and the bi-weekly blog. Among the things I’ve learned so far… the newsletters never end up where they start. So the following excerpt “Weekly Snippet” may or may not show up in the final:

From the doorway of our bedroom I see that the blinking light of our answering machine has a message waiting. I’m yanking on a suitcase handle, its wheel stubbornly resisting rolling over the door jamb. One more pull and I stumble a little making my way to the phone.

It’s late on a Sunday night. We’ve returned from a long weekend to Tulsa. Won at a fundraiser, the 2-night package was a surprise. My husband and I had shrugged, why not? We’d never been to the city. The package included a night at The Mayo Hotel, a steak dinner and brunch the next day. It was a 7-hour drive but we found an open weekend with the bonus of comedian Chris Tucker doing a Tulsa show on the same dates. Folk singer/composer Woody Guthrie has a museum there (“This Land is Your Land” ), downtown has tons of art deco and there’s even a stretch of the old highway 66 with a whale in a nearby pond. You don’t see that everyday.

Now we were home and I’m pushing the Play button. There’s a pause and then a female voice: “Joan? I hope I have the right number. Joan, this is Linda, Mike xxxx’s wife. Joan, I’m calling to let you know Mike died in August. We are... Carol and I are doing all right. Would you call me please? I’d like to talk with you.” She leaves a number. The machine falls silent.

It’s a story with the potential to write about friendships.

In everything we do we believe in pushing through boundaries and the edges of limitation. And right now, the way we push through boundaries is to share ideas and stories. Hope you have a wonderful, wonderful week!