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.


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! 
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?



Bon Voyage

We're back!

How will we know it's us, without our past?
-James Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath

Reflection on this trip to Paris and Amsterdam started 72 hours ago. Ever since, I feel as though I've been surfing waves of history.

We returned Friday night after 12 hours of flying (we connected through Dallas to get back to St. Louis). The gift of air travel is suspended time. Slipping from time zone to time zone the hour on my watch felt irrelevant and between dozing and watching a few movies a mental slide show of the last two weeks shifted and sorted itself in my thoughts. 

I had made the trip for work but tucked in a personal goal of conducting research for my book while in both cities.  By exploring the idea of basing a book around Johanna Van Gogh, the sister-in-law who brought Vincent's work to acclaim after his death, I'm starting with the artist, Vincent, himself with lots of questions: What made his paintings so admired? What influenced him? How did his painting evolve? What was his relationship with his brother Theo, and through him, Johanna? 

Why wasn't Vincent recognized in his own time?

Like scattering puzzle pieces across a table before fitting the picture together I have bits of info sliding around in my imagination. One of the clearest from Paris is a scene of struggling artists come alive.

Imagine a group of men clustered around a cafe table arguing. They are in Montmartre, an area that sits on the crest of a hill overlooking Paris. Once farmland it is now the location of a growing labyrinth of streets, cafes and clubs on the outskirts of the city. Over wine and cigarettes the men debate artistic styles. Pushing against the boundaries of classical art taught in their art institutions, they debate unconventional ideas about color, subject, technique and light. Scathingly criticized, they are not professionally successful and live in exile from the main artist community.

In fact, the word "impressionism" came from a harsh critic of Claude Monet's work, who called his work only an "impression" of art versus classical reality. 

Later this period (1872-1914) would be called the Belle Époque (beautiful period) but this community of future greats -- Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Degas, Bernard, Gauguin, Van Gogh and others -- had no idea. They struggled with poverty, worked other jobs, labored to paint and evolve their artistic expression in spite of the lack of recognition.

Sometimes they banned together. For example, in 1873, unable to find art dealers to support them, a group of four (Monet, Renoir, Piassaro and Sisley) created their own society, wittily named "The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers."

Other times they directly supported each other, like when Theo and Vincent purchased three of Gauguin's paintings for 900 francs just when he needed it.

I imagine the group expanded and contracted as individuals moved in and out of Paris -- making friends, exchanging contacts, influencing each other. This avant-garde artist community started before Vincent got there (1886-88) and extended long after him. I had imagined a vibrant community, a "golden age" breaking through boundaries of expression; yet, now realize I'd romanticized it by ignoring their poverty, doubt, jealousy and pressure from family alongside small breakthroughs of recognition. They had no crystal ball to assure them that one day their art would hang on museum walls. And, no doubt, there were artists among this group whose names we do not know, whose art did not break through.

Perhaps this is a setting or context for the book? 

This brings me back to Johanna. She's in these ruminations somewhere. She -- but for her circumstance of being the widow of Vincent's brother -- would not have played the role she did. Like a comet Vincent streaked across the European landscape driven to create as he did, churning out his paintings in a single decade. In his last five years, from 1885 to 1890, he lit up the sky in the world of art. Blink, and we'd have missed him. Blink, and without Johanna's unsung role to bring Vincent's paintings to recognition, he could well have been among the other Montmartre artists we do not know.

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Research:  I need a better research note-taking strategy. At this stage my notes are now strewn in journals, along margins of books and on printed out references. My nemesis has always been the afterthought of organization. (I'd rather jump into exploring ideas instead of setting up and obeying an electronic filing system.) I definitely need to create a visual way to see the context of events and how they might impact my characters. Here's an idea from an interview with author Margaret Atwood:

"Atwood believes the social context into which you are born informs your entire life. 'One thing I do for my characters is I write down the year of their birth, and then I write the months down the side and the years across the top, and that means that I know exactly how old they are when larger things happen... So, if you’re born in 1932, you’re born into the Depression. That’s going to have an effect on you.'”

I'm going to try this as one way to capture information. If you have any ideas, Jamie, I welcome them!

Books I'm reading:  My head's still spinning from Love's Fiery Prescription and Love's Fiery Resolution by Yvonne Kohano. They were excellent page-turners on the long airline flights. Next up, and fresh from this trip, I'm going to return to dipping into The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (this is just one of several versions), as well as starting Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for my book club. And I have more airline travel to do it because tomorrow we leave for a week in Oregon to celebrate a family wedding. (All the Paris laundry is done, just need to pack.)

One final note, Juan and I visited Montmartre on our first day in Paris. It's no longer on the outskirts and today teems with artists. Three hundred registered artists live in Montmartre and there's a 10-year artist waiting list to move there. Tourists crowd the streets and markets where paintings can be purchased and quick charcoal portraits sketched. Hardly the exiled world of starving artists I've been describing. The vibrant creativity drew us in and we wandered among the canvases for a while. The memory of that sunny afternoon is vivid. As Steinbeck said, 

Many a trip continues long after movement
in time and space have ceased.

Passez une bonne semaine! (Have a good week!)