Gateway

You are not a beggar at the gate. You are the gate.
-Donald Maass

It’s 8:30 pm and I’m on a plane flying through a star-studded clear night back to St. Louis. I’m in row 12, seat A, and my seat back is stuck at an awkward 90-degree angle. My elbows squeeze my ribcage thanks to the large snoring seat mate spilling over the armrest on my right. My Macbook is unsteady on the tray table, rocking a little as I type, but I am happy. 

I am really happy. 

I want to send you a note about the writer conference in Irvine, California, I’ve just been attending. 

It was awesome to take a class from someone who is generous and down-to-earth and just loves stories and thoroughly knows his craft. Based on his recent book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass (New York literary agent) taught the three-day session with a simple idea: Write emotion. 

Write so that you, as a reader, have your own emotional experience while reading my novel. 

Not by simply being a witness to the actions of my main character, Jo (I’ve given my protagonist Johanna a nickname) but by writing so that you are inside Jo’s head, seeing more than just what she is doing, but why… and then you can react: agree, disagree, anticipate what’s next, be happy or worried or touched or mad or moved or any other wild emotion you wish to feel through your own emotional experience when reading the story. 

So, in contrast to writing the external events of the story, I practiced and struggled with going deeper, inside and behind what’s happening on the surface. 

What’s funny is that even at this early stage of writing I’ve been worried that my writing about Jo has been too shallow. I don’t want to short-shrift you or her or her story. So now I’m more determined than ever. I have 100,000 words to write and  20+ techniques to turn to so that I can create a place and people and story you’ll want to spend time with. 

The book still feels a little distant and out of reach, only now I believe I have a map.

So in the spirit of sharing both what’s happening on the outside, as well as what’s going on under the surface, here’s a snapshot of the 72 hours in Irvine. 

21 women + 3 men. Multi-published to first-draft writers. Don’s two adopted young teenagers. 15-meter diving platform panic. White-chocolate chunk cookies. A row of slim silver-backed rectangles with softly glowing apple icons. Loud A/C air blower. Gesturing hands. Pacing feet. Soft patter of fingers on laptop keyboards. Infusion of rich coffee aroma. Purple-ribboned name badges. Barely legible black-marker scrawl. Cancer and chemo. Orange-brushed sunsets. Confidence. Resistence. Nervous reading aloud. 15-minute writing sprints. A dying queen. An Oklahoman leisurely drawl. Psychic teenager misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. Assassins taking ethics training. Tragedy in a remote Canadian oil town. Mermaid trilogy. Crimean War nurses in love. Twin brothers who-done-it. 19th century hack. Group dinner of Irvine baby back ribs. Business card exchanges. Facebook friend requests. Offers to be beta readers, to email encouragement, to see you at another workshop, to be well. Travel safe. You can do it! Get to the end! Get to the end.

Get to the end!

How I'm Writing the Book
Daily Writing: To maintain the awesome workshop momentum, my new specific goal is five good pages/day - we’ll see how it goes. 

Scrivener Writer Software: I’m buying the download. At the workshop a fellow writer, Sheri, demo-ed it for me and shared its pros and cons. Time to bite the bullet.

Books I'm Reading:  I downloaded Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani onto my iPad to read on the plane (thanks for the suggestion, Ruth!) Wow - a thought-provoking, inspiring Near Death Experience and spiritual journey of a young woman who completely recovered from cancer following this experience. 

In the meantime, as I was in Irvine, Juan and Eric met up in Phoenix to watch the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks battle on the basketball court (the Knicks won) and then drive up to Flagstaff. I asked them to do a little wedding recon on Airbnbs for guests coming to Eric and Angie’s June wedding. When I called to check in, I didn’t get much info. I think the guys did recon on bars instead. Critical research!

Back to the parting message Don gave our mighty workshop group:

Write fearlessly!

Here’s to a fearless week!

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Nothing good gets away

Don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens - The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away. -John Steinbeck

I’ve been in a hurry, and this past week I was called a loser.

(By me.)

A week ago was the first stretch when I kicked into actual writing.  Ever since I became officially retired I’ve had a nagging sense that I wasn’t doing real writing yet. A little internal voice wondered if all the planning could be a form of procrastination. 

For example, among the plans is a multi-page plot outline, both the external events and the emotional/inner events. I’ve mentioned a poster board where post-its march across it to show a story arc, but there’s also a second one that shows critical dates in Johanna and Vincent van Gogh's lives so I can figure out when their paths should cross. And I have a start on research notes about the 19th century, artists during that period, life in Paris, my protagonist Johanna, and on Vincent van Gogh.

Plus I’ve been reading books on the craft of writing (like The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass) and making notes on when I could apply his ideas in the story.  

But this is not writing. This is not pulling up my office chair, turning off the phone, powering up the Macbook and committing myself to writing THE BOOK nonstop. 

So, this past week, I tried.

This is when loser thoughts crept in, all on the writing decisions I've made:

  • Third-person point-of-view (I've been writing in third-person ("Johanna thought..."), instead of first-person ("I thought...") then I wondered, wait! The books I've read lately are in first-person (The Orphan Train, The Paris Wife, and The Handmaid's Tale) - perhaps third-person is wrong?
  • Voice - investigating first- or third-person point-of-view led me to reading up on “voice,” or a writer's style. I wondered, oh no! My text sounds really boring or as though I'm imitating someone else, not authentic or genuine, fake. Do I even have my own "voice"?
  • Including emotion -  Then as I read over the words written so far, I saw that I'd moved too fast from scene to scene. It's too shallow. There’s not enough about thoughts and feelings, letting the reader in on why characters are acting as they are. I'm not used to writing about feelings! Good business writing, the skill I've honed for 20 years, is the practice of brief bullet points and next action steps, not creative writing. Maybe my business writing is too deeply ingrained for me to change?

The loser thoughts lined up and took their shots: Writing is hard! You're not good enough! You don't know what you're doing!

Has my dream of writing a book all been a mistake?

Among all of this second-guessing and mental spin, I’d been texting a writer-artist friend Deborah. Like a lovely shaft of light piercing a thick cloud bank, she sent me this message:

"The reason NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] is so successful is because it encourages writers to just get words down on a page or in a computer file. They respect “first draft energy.” My recommendation is to not worry about voice or POV. Pick a POV and go with it…it can always be changed later. If you have a rough outline, you are ready. Sure, read in between writing sessions to inspire you, but just let your characters — Johanna tell her story through your fingers. Get your head out of the way. Like a friend told me back in the 1980’s when I was considering quitting my job to go full time to college to finish my degree — JUST DO IT. As they say, writing is all in the editing process. But you first need words to work with. Lots of them.”

“Get your head out of the way.” Sharply, I realized that I’d had a hidden sense of ego. I think I’d been secretly imagining that I would do such a great first draft that I’d skip a few rounds of editing. So, instead of feeling like good discoveries, the questions derailed me. I’m glad to realize this early and even to have experienced such severe self-doubt so I can recognize and dismiss it in the future.

Just do it.  And do my best to enjoy it. 

Nothing good gets away. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Daily Writing: This week I am writing (not planning or researching) each morning (except Friday/Saturday when I'll be in a writer's workshop.) I have a feeling the writing will be crappy, but, hopefully, I'll have lots of crappy words. 

Scrivener Writer Software: So far, my first draft is in Microsoft Word, but I've been reading that there’s a software program called Scrivener especially for writers that will make life much easier when it comes to editing, incorporating research, etc. It has a sharp learning curve but I'm thinking of making the investment sooner rather than later.

Books I'm Reading:  Author of the Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, also wrote, A Thousand Splendid Suns. (Choice of  my W4 Book Club.) Intense and gripping, the story is about two women in Afghanistan, from the 1970's to early 2000's, and how their lives are impacted by terrible regimes and war. Hosseini is masterful at bringing the Afghan culture to vivid life through showing, rather than telling, details of daily living. Plus I'm still reading Peter Wohlleben's fascinating book, The Inner Life of Animals. (Each chapter is a standalone so I can dip in and out of it.)   

Meanwhile, there are two weddings to think about now (Eric and Angie's in June and Cristina and Jay's in the fall) so I have been quietly creating a spreadsheet of out-of-town guests for the first one, and doing phone interviews with KC wedding planners for the second one. It is super, super fun and I am in heaven being the mom of a groom and a bride. Juan is concerned that I have my own ideas -- well, of course, I do! 

Back to John Steinbeck and his parting counsel:

And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good. 

Amen!

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Possibilities

The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.
-Dan Gilbert

Change?!

We're only a few days into the new year... 

…and I got stuck already. 

We’re only a few days into the new year and it feels like I should be going back to work any day now. I am gradually adopting a new retirement routine but, honestly, it feels more like I’m on vacation. 

Work demands used to crowd into my thoughts as soon as I woke up. Into this vacuum now has flooded lots of miscellaneous, un-prioritized stuff. For instance, no one mentioned that when you stop working all the unkempt corners of the house, hidden behind closet doors and inside dresser drawers, will rear up, exclaiming, “Look at me! Take care of me!”

We’re only a few days into the new year.

I got stuck on the plot outline for my book. I had been dutifully working on a story arc (a series of cause-and-effect incidents that propel the story’s action forward) for Johanna van Gogh and how she eventually promotes Vincent van Gogh’s work after he dies. 

I have the major milestones, of course, like Johanna meeting Theo (her future husband, Vincent’s brother) and Theo dying (when Johanna faces a decision about whether to return to her parents or strike out on her own - not an easy choice for a 19th century woman), but there are many other decision points in her story. 

I put a large poster board in my office. I’ve been jotting plot ideas onto post-it notes and adding them to the board, moving them around. I know that Johanna will need to explain the motivation behind her decisions. For example, the story needs to answer the question of why she thanklessly promoted Van Gogh’s work for 15 years without much success? Was this because of values she was taught as a little girl or an experience in meeting Vincent or something else?

What external events do I select for her? What challenges does she face that moves the action forward? 

Then it struck me. 

I shouldn’t map out the external events first; it’s her internal journey that’s the trajectory. Once this is penciled in, the accompanying external events serve as either an influence into, or outcome of, what she’s thinking.

It dawned on me that this is why I’ve been stuck: I was uncertain of the WHY behind her actions. Without this, my ideas felt too random and disconnected. 

A clue came from my professional marketing study of generations. Generational research claims our values come from two major influences in roughly the first 20 years of our lives: The primary guiding light of our first 10 years is family -- what you learn and soak up from your immediate home life. Major influence in the second 10-year span comes from outside your family -- your peers and society. 

This framework helps. In response, I'm sketching out what family values Johanna absorbed as a young girl, and then, as an adolescent/young adult, what societal factors would be an influence. These can be reasons she makes decisions and how she feels. 

In the 19th century, as a member of the rising middle class, Johanna is up against some big headwinds:

  • Women are put on a pedestal; but the trade-off is that they must be willing to accept a lower social standing -- no involvement in commerce or politics. New urbanization has caused a division between the roles women and men played. When life was rural, a married couple worked side-by-side. With urbanization, when men left to go to work, women gradually took on the role as guardian of the household, especially its moral values. 
  • Women can not own property. If they have earnings, a father or husband controls it. They can not go into business without a husband's permission or get credit without a male co-signer.
  • A woman can become educated to a degree in subjects such as music or languages; yet, her true learning is in topics such as deportment (walking with a book on your head to have a straight spine) or moral education (reading the Bible aloud) -- all designed to land a husband. 

Looking back through history's lens in my research I've found a few individual women who beat these expectations. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861), the greatest female poet of the 19th century, is one who came up with a creative solution. 

The oldest in a family of 12 children, Elizabeth was expected to follow the pattern of other young women: learn how to organize servants, go on morning social calls and look after elderly family members. She'd begun to scribble poems as a child and wrote constantly. When Elizabeth turned 15, she became an invalid, consumed by an illness for which doctors could find no cause. Perhaps she talked herself into the ailment, at any rate, she spent her days bedridden or sitting by a window. By being removed from the normal running of the household, she was able to continue to write and publish poetry. 

When she was 38, her poetry caught the attention of Robert Browning, also a poet. He started a correspondence and eventually asked her to elope. Remarkably, she found the sudden strength to sneak out, get married and move to Italy with Browning -- and then continued to write poetry.

Invalidism gave Elizabeth the socially acceptable way to have the freedom to follow her passion, sort-of a 19th century hack.  

When passion calls, Johanna, too, will have to find the internal strength to hack the system. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Writer Habit: The new habit I’m trying to form is to write or research the book for at least 2 hours/day. Though I’d begun sporadically in December, I’ve started the clock on January 1 to see how many days in a row I can be consistent. 

Books I'm Reading:  I finished The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass and loved it. It's about how to write so that the reader connects emotionally to the story — I’ll be sharing specific ideas with you over time. I also read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. It’s a moving story based on true events from the early 1900s when orphaned children were sent to the Midwest to join new families. The story is of two young women and their search for family. I related the helplessness of the children -- they were not in control of their lives -- to how and when Johanna would feel helpless and not in control of her life. Meanwhile, I've started The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and am still reading Peter Wohlleben's fascinating book, The Inner Life of Animals. 

Back to Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist who delivered a TED talk called "The Psychology of Your Future Self," where I found these quotes.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. 

We're only a few days into the new year...

Possibilities await!

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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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