Kick in the a**...pants!

Some crazy stuff has been happening, 

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.
— Theodore Roosevelt

Ha! 

I couldn't resist this quote. That's me right now. 

Here's the trouble I created: I knew while I was writing my book that I was forging forward with only quick dips into researched facts. Writing it felt like my pen was a battering ram. So I was scared to relax the drive of getting the story on the page by looking up too much stuff. Now I'm thick in the muck of digging to find answers to research questions I pulled out of the first draft once the story was finished. 

It's not the most fun I've ever had. 

For example, by trying to get unknown Vincent van Gogh's art noticed, my protagonist Johanna runs up against the Official Art Establishment. First up, she's a woman who has no business in the business of art dealing. Secondly, she's in Paris, the glittering 19th-century center of all-things-art, so that Parisian authority figures have a heightened self-righteous huffiness about what "true" art is, and a self-proclaimed haughty duty to keep Art's sanctity from being tainted by new artists. 

Imagine their disdain of Jo. 

Like bestowing a Good Housekeeping stamp-of-approval, one way Authorities kept artists in line was to control entry into the Paris Salon art exhibition, a major biennial event giving artists exposure to patrons and reviews in the local press. Critical for artists trying to make a living.  

So, I've written how Jo runs up against all that.  

Except that my book opens in 1891. And in my research I found out the last Paris Salon was in the fall of 1890! 

Arghhh! 

See what I mean?! And I have no one to blame but me. 

This is what revision is for, I guess. Because, of course, all those bureaucratic, protect-my-turf characters are still roaming the streets of Paris. It's not as though suspending the Salon got rid of them. I just need to rejigger some of Jo's opposition. The core of the ages-old conflict is still there: The old way versus the new way. 

When she leans into the new way, other avenues and solutions reveal themselves. Which, interestingly, crazily, is what's happened with this research.  

The "old way" has me hunched in front of the computer screen. When I met with a local research librarian a few months ago, she turned me on to HathiTrust digital library and Google Books and an archive site for newspapers. I've been doggedly searching for answers to my spreadsheet of questions, trying not to go down too many rabbit holes, getting a little bleary-eyed, when a couple of cool things happened: Two people showed up. 

  • Sara - an art history professor who has a deep specialty of the artists and period of my book. I'd been unsuccessfully contacting local universities to find an art-history graduate student to help me when through a friend-of-a-friend I was able to track down Sara. We met a week ago; she is thrilled to help me!

  • Kathy - a friend in my neighborhood who pulled me aside at a happy hour to say, hey, she enjoys fact-finding, and can she help? Yay!

After such a long solo journey writing the book it's a nice little nudge to know there's collaboration in my future. 

The universe works that way sometimes, doesn't it? As the old saying goes, just as one door closes -- keep a look out -- another is opening. And when that solution involves another person, well, the potential for fun exponentially explodes.

Have you ever had an experience when the right person showed up in your life at just the right time?  Tell me about it. 

I'm grateful they do.

Whistling while presenting at my art workshop.

Whistling while presenting at my art workshop.

How I'm Writing the Book
Did a "Jumpstart Your Art" Workshop:  I got the chance to conduct a workshop on how to get started with pursuing art at my former employer. Eighteen brave souls -- people daring to take the first step of leaning into their artistic curiosity--  came together. Using lessons learned from the last 17 months in writing my book, we charged through tactics and ideas and how to overcome the worst critic -- ourselves -- as an hour flew by. Yay, to these folks for exploring next steps for their art!

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Author Marie Benedict has been churning out novels based on real people.  Her latest is The Only Woman in the Room, a behind-the-movie-star story of Hedy Lamarr. This absorbing novel centers on the complex life of Austrian-born Hedy Keisler – wife of a high-level Nazi sympathizer, anxious Jewish daughter, Hollywood superstar, scientific inventor. Benedict captures a voice for Lamarr that’s distinct, desperate, intelligent. Told against the backdrop of WWII’s mounting tension, the book shows Lamarr caught between Hollywood’s indifferent glamour and her nagging need to take action. Her scientific mind saw the opportunity to solve a persistent problem with torpedoes. She did it, only to face frustrating opposition. Benedict captures the frustration Lamarr felt of her keen mind being trapped behind her beautiful face.

Personal Stuff
Husband and I are on a quick Washington DC getaway when you read this. On the agenda: Checking out the new International Spy Museum, seeing if we can get a same-day pass to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and saying hello to the Van Gogh's in the National Gallery of Art. Plus, for me, just spending time with my best friend away from laundry and errands and, oh yeah, book research. 

Back to Teddy Roosevelt and his thoughts on moving forward from mistakes:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena...who strives valiantly...who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds...who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly...

I dare you!

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Fight your way through...(the first draft is finished!)

It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.”
-Ira Glass

It’s done.

Those are the last words Jo says in the novel.

Coincidentally, the same words I’d hoped to utter weeks and months earlier when I kept charging forward to punch through the finish-line tape of completing my first draft...but the tape kept getting moved. Every time I lunged for that final sprint, a new hurdle would appear out of nowhere. ARRRRGGGHH.

  • I had to write more when Jo (my main character) still had stuff to say — I’d been too stingy letting her speak her mind but withholding what was in her heart.

  • I had to write more when I (satisfyingly) made the bad guy, Georges, GET HIS DUE — yet I hadn’t explained why he was such a mean old bully to begin with.

  • I had to write more when I cockily thought all I had left was a cakewalk-of-an-epilogue to write — then my book coach enthusiastically commented that she couldn’t wait to see how the loose ends come together like how Jo reconciles with her family and why she will end up marrying that guy and how she paid for her son’s tuition….

“Shoot,” I  thought, “No cake walk. Another real chapter to write!”

So when the final words revealed themselves —  “It’s done” — (I kid you not) tears came to my eyes. It felt right that Jo and I should say them together. We have been through this journey side-by-side for 15 months and I have to say I admire her. I slung a lot of mud at her. Somehow she always found a way to wipe her face and keep going.

Twenty six chapters. One hundred eleven thousand four hundred eighty words. 

Writing is an intense, messed up, horrible thing. I would write until my mojo bled out. I know that is a disgusting image but hey writing is a nasty business. It got down to power-writing. I would sit down and write, write, write just getting the words down on the page even when I knew they weren't good, until I was disgusted and had to stop. Then I'd make a bunch of notes on where I had to insert feeling or detail or something-missing-but-I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it, and power off. The next day I'd open up the Word doc with fresh thoughts and nimble fingers to fill in and pat down those gaps, then power on. These last few weeks I've felt the end coming and I couldn't help it, I was getting a little bit happy, feeling a tail-wind begin to whip up at my back.  The head-rush came when my book coach wrote back, "Woot!" then I got giddy, Juan popped champagne and the cat danced a jig.

(Oops. Got carried away. Natasha, the cat, is way too dignified for jigging. Only does River Dancing.)

You and I would go to lunch with Jo. She’s cool. She got over all the BS about doubting herself and the bad guy gets it in the end plus she finds a new honey who loves her. She had to stand up in front of all these people and prove she wasn’t crazy. (Now could you do that? Or me? Spoiler alert: She pulls it off.)

When I started the book I felt a little desperate. In my heart I knew it was time for me to say goodbye to my Corporate America career, but…Still. It was a big step to walk away from identity and salary and certainty. I am most certainly not “done” yet, but I know that retirement can carry a stigma of stepping back and taking it easy. I don’t want to be identified that way. 

Whoa. I had NO IDEA I was entering this world of Survival-of the-Fittest, Take-No-Prisoners, Naked-Til-You-Make-It tough world of WRITERS. They can spot hogwash a mile away and aren't afraid to call it out.

So, what's next?

This next week I'm headed to Madison for a writers’ conference put on by the Univ. of WI’s Writer Institute. Dear heavens, I opened up my email on Friday and saw that I have HOMEWORK from one of the master classes I signed up for. Three hours, just six of us. With a heavy heart I realize I will not be able to hide. We have to submit our first 5 pages to be critiqued… which means I need to REWRITE those pages since it was months and months ago when I was a wee young tyke and wrote them. I'm also taking classes on revision and publishing. The conference is Thurs – Sun and it comes at the perfect time since (drumroll….can't say it enough!) my first draft is FINISHED.

My final thought:  We are not meant to do stuff alone. Our lives are about connection. The law of reciprocation means that sometimes our role is to accept, and other times to give. I was not alone. My wonderful book coach each week gave me tough love and encouragement. I have found some awesome writer communities online (WFWA and Author Accelerator's Mighty Network and Reader Connection on Facebook and more). And there's YOU. When friends and family asked, “How’s the book going?” it felt like a vote of confidence, like they believed I could actually do it. And I can’t even get started on my husband’s support. I’m not sure if he popped champagne for me or him.

There’s more to write about this, but I will stop here.  It just feels so good to hit a milestone and I wanted to tell you about it.

By the way, 111,480 words is too many… so I’ll be revising and cutting soon, but, for now: Every.Word.Is.Golden.

There's only so much comma correction a cat can do in 15 months before needing a nap.

There's only so much comma correction a cat can do in 15 months before needing a nap.

I can’t sign off without sharing this fuller quote from Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio/internet show This American Life.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners...is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.     For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential but it’s not... but your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work...    It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. 

It’s done? No, it's begun!

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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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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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