Well, the wedding happened!

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.
-Leo Tolstoy

My next door neighbor Diane watered our patio plants all through the St. Louis 100-degree days we were gone attending our son's wedding in Flagstaff, Arizona. We returned home last Tuesday and when I popped over to say thanks and share tales of the wedding week, I was sitting at their dining room table when her husband Bill asked me a normal question; yet, it caught me off guard. Will I use any memories of the wedding in writing my book?

No, I answered (too quickly). There is no church ceremony or white veil or vows planned in the plot. 

But the question needled me.

So, now I've changed my mind: Yes, I will have ideas from the wedding in the novel. 

Just not what you may think. 

There was so much joy in the wedding, but there also is a loss. If life is a trilogy, now one book has been read. The child whose favorite article of clothing was a safari jacket (lots of pockets for his collections of sticks and rocks) and who pulled dirt to him like a magnet is a man who looked wedding-handsome in a well-cut suit at the ceremony. The goofball who choreographs his karaoke now has a career advising people on investments. Those powerful warriors, time and patience, have done their work. 

Suddenly, I don’t think I paid enough attention.

What role does a mother have?

It's a question that's come up in my book. One of the first things that caught my notice when I was researching the life of my protagonist, Jo, was the story of her son. Since her husband died when the baby was an infant, the child Vincent (named after his artist uncle) of course did not know his father or uncle. He grew up with their ghosts. 

For one thing, he would have seen his mother, night after night, bent over his father's large desk, painstakingly translating letters the brothers wrote to each other from Dutch to English. Secondly, as a young boy, his evenings would have frequently been interrupted by late-night guests gathered to see small Van Gogh painting exhibits set up by Jo. Because she also shipped the paintings to museums and art dealers, more often than not, their front room was clouded with dust and noise from building custom cases and packing the paintings for shipping. And Jo made trips back and forth from the local railway station to send or receive the cases for years — I imagined her son accompanying her to help.

His mom is a single parent, so Vincent Wilhelm’s primary role model is Jo. He would have witnessed her tenacity, determination, and passion for his uncle's paintings. I imagine he also would have felt her devotion for him. Here is just one glimpse of concern found in the diary Jo kept, writing to her husband after he's deceased: “My darling - my dear - dear Theo - at every word, between every two lines, I am thinking of you - how you made me part of yourself in the short time we were together - I am still living with you, by you. May your spirit go on inspiring me, then everything will be all right with our little fellow.”

I wondered  — after such a childhood — wouldn't Vincent Wilhelm have felt compelled to take on his mother's work as his life passion too? 

Wouldn’t it have made Jo happy to work side-by-side with her son? Proud, even?

You’d think so, but here’s what happened: Instead of art, Vincent Wilhelm studied mechanical engineering at Delft University. He went on to work as an engineer in France, Japan and the United States. Upon returning to the Netherlands in 1920, he set up a management consultancy with a former university friend — the first in the country. 

He took on the nickname, “The Engineer,” to differentiate himself from his artist uncle.

It wasn’t until his retirement that Vincent Wilhelm approached the Netherlands government with a proposal to form a Van Gogh Foundation in order to transfer his inheritance of Van Gogh drawings, paintings and letters to the government. In return, the state built the Van Gogh Museum to ensure the collection would stay intact and accessible to the public. Until the end of his life, Vincent Wilhelm spent most days in the museum, devoting himself to it. 

I like to think his life reflects the values of his mother. Not a smidgen of guilt or expectation that he should join her in work she’s devoted her life to, rather, he was given the gift of finding his own path, despite growing up in a home permeated with his mother’s purpose. 

So, what will I share in the book about this past weekend?

The depth of a mother’s love, for sure. The fierceness of the instinct to tirelessly protect. The comfort of knowing when a son is okay and deeply loved. The joy of knowing he has found a life partner. The celebration of allowing the next book to open in life's trilogy.  The confidence that a son is walking his own path toward his own purpose. 

I can write about that. 

Delighted mama!

Delighted mama!

Somehow they're all 'adulting': Eric & Angela pose with daughter Cristina and fiance, Jay. 

Somehow they're all 'adulting': Eric & Angela pose with daughter Cristina and fiance, Jay. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Developed a Timeline: With the pace of pre-wedding events, catching up with family, making new friends -- I found it challenging to try to write many pages in Flagstaff; however, one morning opened up so I created a timeline for the major events in Johanna and other characters' lives, major artists and paintings being created, as well as a smattering of current events. The timeline revealed some mistakes I've made -  all fixable when I edit. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: In the last blog I wrote about reading author Kristin Hannah's The Great Alone for a book club. Evocative landscapes, an intricate narrative stitching together the story of a family's dysfunction and eventual resolution. I loved the backdrop of the 1970's (my high school days), but I read the wrong book for Tuesday's book club! The correct one is Hannah's Winter Garden. Gripping, beautiful, the last several chapters caused tears to run down my cheeks. The story laces together a mother's chilling, secretive experience living through Stalin's revolution and how it gradually spills into open through a family tragedy. Plus, I am dog-earring pages of this book to study Hannah's writing technique for bringing back origin scenes when the mother's character was set. 

Love in the air still lingers... in addition to my daughter Cristina's wedding next March, my niece Sabrina will be married to boyfriend Zack in November! 

I’ll close with another quote from Tolstoy - he doesn’t call this quality out as a "warrior," but you know it’s powerful:

All, everything that I understand, I only understand because I love. 


How have you been?

You may delay but time will not.
-Benjamin Franklin

Decades of routine die hard.

This week will be my seventh week of retirement. 

But you wouldn’t know it, if you were a fly on our wall each morning. 

Still up around 5:30. Still a quiet period of study, prayer and journaling with the cat curled up beside me. Then my get-ready routine kicks in so that about 7:15 there’s usually a mascara wand in one hand while I check for iPhone emails with the other. Not much different from my work routine except that I’m not rushing out the door and I’ve pulled on comfortable jeans instead of a suit.  

It just feels better to get going. 

I remember another time when this worked well for me. 

Years ago I had a similar situation when I abruptly stopped working. I was laid off from a job as an advertising manager for a patio furniture company in Passaic, New Jersey. Glad to end the traffic-crushed commute through the Lincoln Tunnel each day I started looking for a job in NYC. My only time collecting unemployment benefits. I lived on 30th Street in the Murray Hill area of Manhattan (between Second and Third Avenues) in a 2-room fifth-floor walk-up. That first night, climbing up 10 sets of cracked linoleum stairs, rounding each corner of its scratched dingy walls, felt like a climb of defeat.

Even though I was jobless, each morning I’d still rise at 5:30, pull on shorts and running shoes, then skip down that stairwell to run three miles of city blocks. The same routine I’d had when working. I loved morning runs. The sidewalks seemed broader without the day’s crush of people; the air cleaner because of the cool dawn air. 

As I ran along, the city felt friendlier than during the day. Fewer cars cruised the streets. Gradually, shop owners would arrive to pull up the garage-door covers of their storefronts, the metal jangling as the doors rose.  It felt good to feel part of a new day starting.

I remember thinking that if I could keep the same routine when working, I’d be ready, in a more open state of mind to find a job. At the end of the run, I’d charge up those stairs, gasping, to the top. A quick shower, dress into decent clothes, hair & make-up…and then I’d sit on the edge of my futon paging through want-ads over coffee and toast, planning that day’s strategy. 

For a long time I felt stuck. No job leads that fit or some that started out as promising but petered out into nothing. Morning after morning, though, I still followed the same routine.

Until one day, I picked up a phone message about a job lead. I paced in front of the futon to call the hiring manager. This HR person agreed to interview me. That interview led to a second interview, then another with Dan, the person hiring. Then Dan offered me a job as a writer on his communications team at Met Life, the large insurance company headquartered then on 23rd Street. 

This job enabled me to stay in New York where I ran road races and talked about racing with a guy I met who invited me to a group run up Fifth Avenue every weekend who became the guy I married. 

Would I have found a job and met Juan eventually anyway? I don’t know. But I think the be-ready morning routine helped.

So now I’ve been following a similar approach. 

After the writers’ workshop a few weeks ago, I hit my mornings with new momentum, using former office hours to work on the crappy first draft. I have been doggedly going at it. But as I write new questions form: 

  • Should I stop writing in order to dig into more research (Questions are piling up - were carriages more common than cars in London? Did Paris have cafes then)?
  • Should I stop writing in order to go deeper into developing my protagonist (First I had her mom be a meanie, then I changed my mind and killed her off, but which scenario would impact Johanna "best")? 
  • Should I stop writing in order to take some time to work on my writing as craft (This first draft is so basic)? 

I need feedback. So I am thinking of joining a program in which I start working with an editor right now, even before a first manuscript is done. I have a feeling the questions will only increase and an editor will have the experience and perspective to answer them. 

I’m making the decision this morning. Right after coffee.

How I'm Writing the Book
Scrivener Writer Software: The software is downloaded; my writing uploaded into it but then I promptly got tangled in it. "Uncle!" - after burning a bunch of time trying to figure it out, I bought Jeff Michael's training material, which is chunked up by short 3-minute videos. I'm learning faster than trying to DIY-it. 
Squarespace:  My web designer, Jamie, walked through some Squarespace basics so I can publish this blog straight to my website myself. Learning and taking notes is the first step; next step will be to actually do it.
88 Cups of Tea: I just recently started to listen to this podcast of inspiring interviews with creative people. Good for listening to while on the elliptical machine!

Before I end this, Juan and I just got back from Kansas City this weekend. We met with a wedding planner (Miranda — she used to do wedding planning at Disney! — we like her) and then Cristina and I went bridal gown looking with strict instructions not to buy yet. Except we had to. We found the perfect gown! Cristina claims it will be her last act of rebellion….

In closing, recently, I read a surprising note about Benjamin Franklin. So many of his witty observations have become a part of our daily language I was surprised to find out he was not a “natural” writer, but worked diligently to develop his writing ability by collecting essays, reading and rereading them, then putting them away so that he could attempt to rewrite them in his own words. He’d then compare his version to the original, identifying flaws and trying again. 

This type of diligent practice of writing helped him to develop his own style and aphorisms, such as: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest;” “A penny saved is a penny earned;” and “Never leave till tomorrow what you can do today.” While there are many more I’ll leave you with this:

There are no gains without pains. 

May you have a gainful week!


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.