Our New Neighbors

When we bought our house in 2012, the plot of land across the street from our neighborhood was empty. It’s been empty for the last four years. Several months ago we saw a For Sale sign pop up on the land and immediately started speculating who might buy it and what might they do with the 6+ acres.

Two days ago we got our answer.

New neighbors

You guys. YOU GUYS. If you don’t know how significant this is for me, then you need to read these blog posts: First and Second.

I’m trying not to be the person who reads everything as a sign. I’m really trying.

But seriously.

SERIOUSLY.

Today we met the people who will eventually be building a house on the property, but in the meantime they’re letting their three beauties get used the plot and graze on the freshly razed land.  We swapped phone numbers and I told the owner that I’d be happy to keep an eye on the horses while they are away. I don’t know beans about the care and keeping of horses, but I’m happy to learn.

So yeah. We have the most beautiful new neighbors, and I can’t hardly believe it.

One foot at home, one foot in the Abbey

It has been terrifically challenging to fold back into day-to-day life after three days at the Abbey. I know – the math of that statement doesn’t make sense. Three whole days versus my entire life? Nonsensical.

And yet, that’s how I feel. Each day has been a careful step into what I hope will be my new normal. Less noise, more quiet. Less indulgent, more intention. Fewer complaints, more careful with my words. All of these disciplines are challenging because I’m not a single person who lives alone and has control over most of my environment. I’m an active member of a busy family so I have to make sure whatever habits I start will mesh with the vibe of the house.

For example, my “no noise until 10 a.m.” rule is working beautifully. When we start school in a couple of weeks, we’ll move it to 9 a.m. The boys have learned to move about the house a bit more quietly in the mornings, which I appreciate.

Though I’ve gotten back on Facebook a few times, I still do not have the app on my phone, nor do I plan to put it back on my phone. I am doing my best to limit Twitter, but with election season and all… It’s hard. The negativity is so strong, but the information is so good.

Television is… noisy. Still not fully integrated there.

Instead of busying my mind with what’s going on outside these walls, I’m readying the boys and myself for the school year. I’m editing the book and preparing for the literature and creative writing class I’m teaching at our co-op. We’re signing up for fall sports and volunteer work, and I’m thinking about what race to run this fall.

There’s plenty to focus on, like these two cuties who sit at my feet while I type.

Major and Sam July 2016

I did not expect the Abbey to leave this deep of an impression on me, but I’m not mad about it. Tomorrow is my birthday. Year 38. I’m curious to know if any new habits or disciplines will positively affect the course or outcome of the next 12 months. This time last year I was very down about all the rejection letters I’d received from literary agents. Though they were plump full of compliments and constructive criticism, they were rejections still. (My sweet husband planned the most fantastic birthday surprise ever and it was just the boost I needed.)

birthday surprise 2015

This week, I’m taking it slow. I’m listening and watching. I’ll be writing query letters again soon, and it’s quite possible that I’ll endure another painful round of rejections in 2017.

Or, maybe not.

Whatever happens in Year 38, I’m going into it with my eyes and ears open. A lot can happen when you pay attention.

Diary of a Retreatant: The Last Hours

*This is the sixth and final post about my experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, on July 22-24. Links to the previous five posts are below.

Diary of a Retreatant: Showing Up
Diary of a Retreatant: Hike to the Statues
Diary of a Retreatant: Saturday Morning Sunrise
Diary of a Retreatant: Father Carlos
Diary of a Retreatant: The Horses

The experience in the woods on Sunday morning was by far the most meaningful to me. It aligns with dozens of circumstances and conversations that have unfolded since I decided to chase the dream of writing fiction. Things happened when writing the first book and they’ve happened while writing the second. Each event – big and small – have made tiny deposits in my heart that confirm that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

After the two-hour walk and those precious few seconds with the horses, I returned to the Abbey just in time to quickly shower and eat lunch. It was my favorite meal thus far: asparagus, roasted red pepper soup with gouda cheese (yummers!), and seafood salad. Annette and I sat in silence over a meal for the last time. Afterward in the elevator, I whispered to her that I’d like to edit the last few chapters one more time and then I’d be ready to go. She was accommodating either way, which I appreciated.

It’s important to note here that neither Annette nor I knew what to expect out of this weekend, at least not fully, but we both went into the experience open to whatever God wanted to do with us. Both her camera and cell phone were unexpectedly out of commission, thereby forcing her to fully disconnect in a way she didn’t intend. I won’t divulge the details of her silent retreat experience (they aren’t my details to share), but she too came away feeling as though God spoke directly to her heart on specific matters.

There is nothing, nothing, nothing greater
than knowing that God is actually interested in you
and cares about the stuff you care about.

I re-read and edited the last five chapters of the book and worked on some dialogue until I couldn’t see straight anymore. It was time to close up shop and go home. We agreed to leave at 4 p.m., but by 3:30, we had turned in our keys and taken to the road.

Room 311

My experience at the Abbey – in the library, in the chapel, in the silent dining room, in the woods, in room 311 – cannot be summed up by overused words like special, spiritual, moving. Annette and I spoke about this yesterday on the phone. We talked about how difficult it’s been to plug back in to normal life, how the noise seems noisier, how the chaos feels more chaotic.

But it’s more than that. I’ve said several times now that we went in with no expectations, but now I think that had to have been an impossibility. Surely I expected something to happen, even if I couldn’t name it. I know I expected to sleep well (I didn’t sleep well), I expected to observe but not fully connect with the Catholic tradition (I definitely connected), and I hoped to finish the book (I did). I thought I’d come away with some inner peace of some kind, but actually I feel unsettled (and still sleep deprived). I spent most of yesterday deep-cleaning my house and getting rid of things because I missed the simplicity of the Abbey.

Chapel balcony

And TV? I tried watching about half an hour the other night, but the noise of commercials and the negativity of the news (bad choice, I know) left me feeling… icky.

Coming home has required more effort and energy than what was required to adjust to the silence and schedule at the retreat center. That is something I definitely didn’t expect. 

On the drive home Annette and I talked about ways to incorporate the discipline of silence and stillness in our homes. With children, it’s a challenge. With adults, it’s a challenge. With blue tick hounds, it’s a big challenge.

But there is always hope.

Path to the sunlight

Two silent retreats a year might be wishful thinking, but one per year is doable. I have to believe this is good for the soul.

One last thing and then I’ll let you go. If you were to approach me in person and ask about my experience at the Abbey, I honestly wouldn’t know what to say. Even though I’ve written six blog posts about it, I still wouldn’t know what to say to you verbally. (This is when mind-reading would come in handy.) My hope is that you can somewhat grasp what it’s like by reading these words, but my greater hope is that you would experience it firsthand and come away with your own conclusions.

Come to think of it, if you ask me in person what the experience was like, there is nothing left to say, except, “You have to go and find out for yourself.”

Learn more about the Abbey of Gethsemani here.

Diary of a Retreatant: The Horses

*This is the fifth post about my experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, on July 22-24. Links to the first four posts are below.

Diary of a Retreatant: Showing Up
Diary of a Retreatant: Hike to the Statues
Diary of a Retreatant: Saturday Morning Sunrise
Diary of a Retreatant: Father Carlos

This one is long.

After lunch on Saturday, Annette and I walked over to the visitor’s center and gift shop to poke around and get some sunshine our faces. We talked a bit, which felt nice, and afterward parted ways again. I went back to the library and wrote until 4:30 p.m., until my rear end was sore and I was tired of being indoors.

At first I thought I’d go for a run, but then the thought of wearing my running shorts (emphasis on short) made me feel insecure, like there would be just too much leg showing around so much modesty. Instead I went for a quick walk in what I was wearing.

I have no pictures from this walk because I took nothing with me. The woods across from the Abbey are vast with lots of overgrown foliage, and the paths are minimally maintained. About 15 minutes into the walk, I felt vulnerable to all the things I could not see, and thought, “No, this isn’t wise,” so I turned around and went back. I showered, went to Vespers at 5:30, then supper at 6 p.m. – Kielbasa, sauerkraut, broccoli and cheese soup, salad, fruit.

That night, Annette and I sat in the talking dining room. We swapped stories about what we’d done that day and I told her all about Father Carlos. We laughed and joked, which felt so good after being quiet for two days.

A funny thing though – after we were done, I was ready to go back to the silence. I missed it. I wanted to return to my purpose of being there, which was to finish my book. So I grabbed my laptop again and went back to the library until the WIFI turned off at 9:30.

Again, back in bed for the night, I couldn’t rest. What a cruel reality it was to learn that peace of mind is not something that can be absorbed simply be breathing in the same air as people who possess it. I felt calm, yes, but not at peace. As soon as the lights were off, I sorted through all the conflicting emotions of my writing career – 22 years in journalism, 0 years as a published author. It matters, it doesn’t matter. Write for myself, write for the literary agent. I know what’s true: I should write for myself. But what am I to do with the dream of being published? Why have these stories come to me if I’m to do nothing with them? 

Somewhere in between these thoughts, I fell asleep.

Lauds was at 6:45 a.m., then breakfast at 7:15. Oatmeal again. Back in my room, I considered going back to sleep. You could do it, I challenged myself. You can go right back to sleep. You have all day to write.

So I laid down. Immediately I poured over the last chapter in my mind, knowing I had just a little way to go until I could be completely done with the first draft. I thought of a specific character, and suddenly realized, She has more to say.

I jumped out of bed, grabbed my laptop, and went back to the library.

At 10 a.m., Sunday, July 24, I sat at a table in the library, Annette just a few chairs away, and I typed the last sentence. I finished. It was done. Editing was next, but still.

The second novel was done.

My body vibrated as I sat there, eyes darting around the room. Here I am in a silent library, in a silent retreat center, in a silent monastery, and all I want to do is scream.

I quickly ran back to my room and pulled out my cell phone, breaking a rule I’d made for myself. I texted Chuck that I’d finished the book but could not scream – obviously! – so, here you go “AAHHHHHHHHH!”

He replied that it was exciting, but it wasn’t the same as hearing his voice, as hearing my voice tell his voice that I’d reached my goal.

I laid down on the bed, nerve endings on fire, fidgeting. Mass was at 10:20. I could go, but I could also meet God in the woods. I could take my camera (and my phone for safety) and I could burn my energy there. So that’s what I did.

Butterfly

Butterfly2

Frederics Lake

Spider haven

I walked and smiled and took photos. I glanced at the map here and there so I knew whereabouts I was. I felt glorious, free, like I could run a marathon. Silently, I thanked God, I thanked Him over and over again for the weekend. I thought about my characters and how flawed and lovely they all were. I thanked God again.

And then, around the bend, out of nowhere, I saw the horses.

Horses by surprise

Friends, can we just take a moment here? There are no advertised horseback riding stables in Trappist, or New Haven, the closest city to the monastery. There is no horseback riding at the Abbey. There was no information at the retreat center about this being an option.

I DON’T KNOW WHERE THEY CAME FROM.

But then again, I did.

Did you know that I’ve been researching horses and competitive riding since the start of last year? Did you that I went to Franklin, Tennessee, in March 2015 to interview a farrier and spend time at a stable? Did you know that horses are a foundational part to the background of my book?

When I saw these horses and the strangers that were riding them, I knew they were there for me. I felt that they were there for me. 

My gift from God

As soon as they passed, I broke down and cried. There, in the middle of the woods, not 30 minutes after finishing the book, God saw fit to reach down into my tiny world and say, “I see you, and I love you.”

As silently as possible, I wept.

Sunshine through the trees

I kept walking but I no longer watched my direction. I took turns and curves and kept crying. HOW AM I THIS LOVED? I could not process it.

Mossy

An hour later, I was still walking through the woods. I was still in a state of euphoric gratitude that I could not manufacture on my own.

St. Enochs stone house

The Hermitage

I checked my phone – it was nearing noon. I’d been walking for nearly two hours. Lunch would be served at 12:30, and I was a pool of sweat. If I didn’t get back in time to eat, so be it. I still had protein bars.

The walk home

By 12:10, the Abbey came into view. We would be leaving in several hours, but in that moment, I could have stayed forever.

The Abbey from the road

 

 

See you in August

Tomorrow morning I leave for a brief retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. While it is home to 40 Trappist monks, there is also space for people to come and find peace. Until a year and a half ago, I didn’t know the abbey existed, but in the span of one year, two people who have no connection to one another (one being a complete stranger) told me that I should go. Unsolicited, they said go. I’d been yearning for somewhere to go, but time and money being the ultimate barriers prevented me from booking some cottage on the beach or cabin in the mountains. I never looked elsewhere.

And then, there came the abbey.

The original plan was to go alone, but the more I thought about it the more I wanted a companion, someone to share the experience with me in a similar way. First and foremost, it had to be someone who would appreciate the silent, sacred space. Second, it had to be someone who I’d want to be in a car with for the drive there and back. There was only one person who came to mind, so if she said no, I would go alone. Happily, Annette said yes. She and I will leave around sunrise on Friday morning. We’ll check into the abbey before lunch time and then we’ll part ways. Since neither of us knows what to expect, we are going in with open eyes and minds.

Prayers of the People

Matthew 11:28 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”


For me, the goal of the retreat is two-fold. First, I want to finish my second book. I’ve been knee-deep in freelance work that I haven’t given it attention since May. It’s time to finish it, so that’s my primary goal. The secondary goal is rest. Just rest. I want to sleep, calm my brain and body, and just be. Even as I type these sentences, my entire torso is rigid and tense. I am as high-strung as a fiddle, so I’m going to a monastery to see if that will help me relax.

Finally, since symmetry begs a third thing to list here, I am intrigued to experience a new level of theology, an alternative view of faith. Though I am Protestant, I’m open and interested in all the ways people experience God. Why not step inside the faithful lives of Trappist monks, men who actually left the world behind to follow Christ and Christ alone? As retreatants, we can attend their services – all eight of them – and even participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), if we so choose. It would do nothing for me to be only a spectator. Instead, I hope to gently, respectfully dip my toe in their place of worship and receive whatever blessing comes my way.

When I come home, my hope is to hang on to whatever level of peace I’ve acquired and dwell in that space for as long as possible. And while I will share my experience here on the blog when I get back, I’m going to stay offline for the rest of the week.

See you in August.

Update on Novel No. 2

At least once a week, sometimes more, someone asks me, “So how’s your novel going?”

Here are all the things I don’t say: 

“It’s going really well! I’m so pleased with my work.”

or “Oh, everything is just falling into place perfectly. I couldn’t be happier.”

or “Every night is another chapter!”

or “My character development is spot on and the plot has no holes.  Yippee!”

or “I got an agent and I’ve signed a book deal! Keep your eyes peeled!”

Instead, I smile and don’t cry and say, “Fine, thank you.”

Which is the truth. It’s going fine. It’s not horrible, but it’s not fantastic. I have days when I get a lot of writing done and I feel good about the direction I’m heading. I have days when I talk to another writer and feel encouraged because I’m not alone. I have days when God provides me little bits of providence that confirm that I’m taking all the right next steps. Those are the best days.

But I also have days when I feel like the crappiest writer in the world, that I’m a dreamer with zero talent, and I have no business trying to write fiction at all. AT ALL. I feel like a fraud. Those are the worst days. 

I don’t intend to share plot details publicly, but I will say that this second novel is different from the first for several reasons. I’ve changed the point of view from third to first. The main character is not endearing, and the story is a single plot, not a dual one. The writing is tighter and cleaner, a task that is much harder than I initially thought it would be. I don’t love this story more or less than the first one. Simply, it is different. The two novels are unrelated to one another.

Here’s what keeps me going: 

  1. There is an agent waiting for this novel, so I will not let her down.
  2. There is a story to tell and it must be told by me.
  3. I would not forgive myself if I quit now.
  4. When I hit a low moment and want to quit, providence steps in to convince me otherwise. (One day I will make these events public, but for now I’m savoring them and keeping them close.)

Here’s what will help me: 

  1. Some time away. My children are lovely but they are hugely distracting. This is why writers retreat and hibernate. I never needed hibernation in journalism, but for fiction writing, I do. There is a monastery in Kentucky that allows guests for week-long and weekend retreats. Two people have suggested this place to me, so it’s on my radar. I’m thinking springtime.
  2. A break. This one I need to give myself. If I could find the secret serum to CHILLING OUT and resting my own brain, I would benefit tremendously. Currently, my coping mechanisms include running, reading, and wine. What’s missing is a good night’s sleep.
  3. Your continued encouragement. I remain in a constant state of bewilderment that so many people have faith in me. Really, it leaves me speechless and uncomfortable in the most magnificent way. Thank you, and please don’t stop.

Big Magic for NaNoWriMo

On October 21, in the middle of a crazy busy week, Lesli, Susan, and I met in Nashville to attend an event on Liz Gilbert’s book tour for Big Magic. (Book review coming soon.)

Girls at Flip Burger 2015

The night was an informal discussion between Liz and fellow novelist Ann Patchett. Their conversation centered around creativity – how it manifests and what to do with it.

I was on the verge of tears the entire evening. As I tried to explain to Chuck later, listening to Ann and Liz talk about writing brought me to a place of emotional convergence: fear and doubt smacked right into courage and confidence. Dread faced excitement and anxiety was challenged by calm. It was all too much and not enough at the same time.

Patchett and Gilbert 2015

Our evening in Nashville was providential as it unfolded just prior to National Novel Writing Month and my big push forward on the second novel. The same thing happened in 2013 when Liz was on her Signature of All Things book tour and I had just started NaNoWriMo for the first time. Though some might say the intersection of Liz Gilbert’s book tours and my own novel writing has been a coincidence, I say hogwash. It’s providence. It’s big magic.

It’s only November 2 and we’ve got the whole of the month to go, but when I look at our family calendar, I see that it’s fraught with busy-ness. It will take effort on my part to carve out substantial writing time. NaNoWriMo isn’t about perfecting a manuscript and getting it all right the first time. It’s about transferring the ideas from my brain to my hard drive and harnessing the energy of writers everywhere who are doing the same thing.

The blog won’t be well-attended to this month, but I know you understand. In fact, I’ll just end the post with my favorite quotes from the evening:

writing quotes from Big Magic

 

Blog Challenge Day 16: Dream Job

What’s my dream job?

I’ll give you ten guesses.

A handful of you have approached me cautiously, carefully, to quietly ask, “How’s your novel going?” When asked, I answer, but I don’t go around talking about the novel because it’s so dear to me, and the whole process of writing a novel and submitting it to agents is like stripping naked and going door-to-door in a neighborhood full of really attractive people, arms out and asking, “So what do you think?”

Thank you for handling me with kid gloves because it’s been a challenging year. I’ve been rejected 38 times. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’ve been rejected 22 times and ignored the other 16.

But let’s be Silver Lining People for a moment and look at the bright side. I’ve had three agents ask for the full manuscript after reading the first three chapters – which is a big deal – and all three of them were from well-known national and international agencies. One agent in particular wrote a lengthy rejection letter that included some inspiring words, like:

“You’re one to watch,” and –

“Many writers have to write that first novel and get it out of the way so they can write the one that will sell,” and –

“Don’t let this discourage you,” and –

“I hope you’ll consider submitting to me again.”

I jumped on the last part and told her I was already at work on a second novel, and when it’s finished, could I send it directly to her? She said absolutely. After a good cry, I resolved that her rejection letter was the best out of the bunch and I was lucky to have captured her attention.

It’s true that I’m working on a second novel and I’m loving it just as much as the first one. The difference between now and then is that I’m not finding (or making?) as much time to work on it. I could sound off a list of excuses, but instead I’ll tell you that I’m participating in NaNoWriMo for the second time and hope to use the month of November as a catalyst for finishing the story in a timely manner.

Print

So what’s my dream job? Doing exactly what I’m doing now but with a solid shelf of published books in every bookstore and a faithful group of followers who enjoy reading my stories.

Everything forward.

That horrible, no good, tempting stamp of validation: Do you like me?

Be it cosmic intersection or divine intervention, I was meant to read Everything Belongs at this particular season of life. I’ve been smacked upside the head by Richard Rohr.

Thanks, Richard Rohr. 

It’s taken me longer than I anticipated to read through Everything Belongs, and here we are past Easter and I’ve yet to get to Thomas Merton. Lent just slipped by me, but it wasn’t because I was inattentive. Every morning I sat down to read whatever Lent-specific book I had on the side table, but nothing has been elementary enough to breeze through it – Rohr’s book, in particular. I’d read a few pages, then ponder them. Then I’d read a few more, then I’d look around the room because I was sure he was writing this book just for me and it creeped me out.

When I was in high school, I went through a troublesome time with my body image. I was self-destructive, insecure, desperate to be validated in one way or another. That ugly beast followed me to college, and I’d be lying if I said it was entirely gone even now. However, instead of dwelling on the things of teen girls, now I’m battling the beast of rejection letters and more than ever I want that stamp of validation that says, “Yes, your writing is just the work we’ve been looking for. And, we like you!

But back to Richard Rohr.

In chapter three of Everything Belongs he talks about the ego, that precious little part of ourselves that we try to protect with lots of validation. It’s the part of us that keeps us asking, “Do you like me? Do I look okay? Did I do that right? Am I skinny enough? Have I done enough? Am I enough of anything?” The spiritually mature person does not waste her time with questions like these because she is fully rooted in the foundation of truth and living in the assuredness of now. She is content just to be.

He writes, “When we live out of ego, we impose our demands on reality. But when we live in God’s presence, we await reality’s demands on us.” What does it say about us when the most common one-liner in the entire Bible is “Be not afraid,” but we’re all so freaking scared of failure and rejection that we live these stressful, bogged-down lives seeking approval from anyone within arm’s reach?

follow your dreamsSo here I am – absorbing all of these meaty spiritual concepts about what it means to live freely and in the moment and totally okay with myself because God is with me/for me/behind me/ahead of me, and yet I’m awaiting actual approval from literary agents so I can get on with this dream I’m trying to live out.

HOW DO I RECONCILE THIS, RICHARD ROHR? WHERE IS THAT PEACE I’M SUPPOSED TO HAVE?

He writes a lot about living in response to others, saying, “To my ego, my wealth, my intelligence, my moral goodness, and my social class are what they are only in contrast to the person next to me.” Guilty as charged, because as much as I love going to bookstores and finding a little jewel to bring home, my ego is saying, “You aren’t yet good enough to be on these shelves. You aren’t yet good enough.”

Curses.

I’m in the midst of dream-following here, and it’s downright dirty. I’m going to get hurt (already have) and I’ll want to quit (it’s tempting) and walk home with my tail between my legs. But I can’t quit, because as much as I know Jeremy and Jackson are mine, I know I was given the gift of writing and I’m supposed to do something with it. Even something fiction.

Dream-following isn’t easy and it’s not for the weak. Somehow I need to compartmentalize the rejections and not let it ignite my ego into needing validation elsewhere. Like Rohr says, “We have the power to decide what each moment means and how we will respond to it.” I want to be a contemplative person, at peace and full of gratitude. But I’ve chosen a vulnerable path, so I must work doubly hard not to get distracted by the speed bumps.

I must keep my eyes fixed on what’s right in front of me and hold tight to the dreams of what’s beyond.

Research trip to Franklin, Tennessee

During our drive home from Chicago after Thanksgiving, the idea for my second novel was born. I would be remiss if I didn’t credit Chuck with helping to plant those plot seeds. We talked at length about a potential plot and once the conversation ended everything exploded in my brain. Names, places, ideas. It all flowed. The characters started introducing themselves, just like the other ones did, and I started taking notes.

Curiously, there are horses in this story and I know beans about horses. Hence the research trip to Franklin.

Let me talk briefly about providence. Just as it happened with my first novel, Leona of Uncertain Origin, there have been a dozen little confirmations that I’m on the right track yet again. I refuse to call them coincidences because this thing I’m doing is too big for such an insignificant word. Be it conversations, landmarks, connections, or a hot air balloon floating over my hotel on Saturday night, there is something about this story that feels right and true. There is providence in this process and I don’t even feel crazy for saying it.

We have friends (who started out as relatives of friends) who live in Franklin and live the sort of life I needed to research. I went with this family to the stables on Saturday and met their trainer and farrier, both of whom indulged my questions and curiosities. Nothing was off limits, including the horses.

Curious creatures, horses are. They looked at me as if they wanted to be interviewed too, like they had something to say or a story to tell. I’m thankful for their candor, for it confirmed that their role in this second story is more than just background.

It will be a while before I start writing the actual content so for now I’m taking notes, learning the terminology, and making sure I know each character inside and out. There’s also more to research than horses, but I’ll save those details for another time. In between all of this, I’m still sending out query letters for Leona.

Speaking of query letters, as soon as I got to Franklin Friday afternoon I met with a published author to glean advice and gain perspective on this hugely vulnerable task of finding representation. She’s currently working on her fourth book, so it wasn’t lost on me that she could’ve spent her time doing something other than letting me cry on her lap. I soaked in every word she said, including her advice to press onward no matter what. She also offered critique on my query letter, something I didn’t expect but consider priceless. Like always, fingers crossed.

Before leaving Franklin on Sunday morning, I went for one last drive. I snapped photos and imagined scenes and took more notes. As I circled around to head for the interstate, I drove past a piece of property that looked just as I’d envisioned for the protagonist’s family. I quickly pulled over, flipped on the blinkers, and grabbed my camera. It was providence, tire swing and all.

 

“I’ll remember your name.”

After church on Sunday I met a friend for lunch. It was the sort of lunch that excluded spouses and children because we both needed to divulge feelings and thoughts without self-editing. I needed to tell her that I’m feeling low, like a dark cloud is coming and I’m well aware of it, that I knew this road would be long and hard but it’s feeling longer and harder than I anticipated. The things I said had no logical basis. It’s all feelings, which we know are unreliable. But that’s what friends are for – to listen to the irrational and offer comfort.

When our lunch was over we parted ways and I went to a local independent bookstore to peruse and daydream. I found a couple of used books as well as the 2014 Guide to Literary Agents. A dead giveaway, if ever there was one.

Union Ave Books

As I placed my findings at the check-out, the man at the register raised his eyebrows.

“Are you a writer?” he said.

I paused, then said, “Yes.”

“Well you know we like to feature local writers here, so when you’re published and want to do a book reading or signing, let me know,” he said, scanning my books and tallying the cost, as if what he’d just said didn’t shake the whole Earth.

My eyes welled with tears but I blinked them away.

“That would be great,” I said. “Here’s hoping.”

He looked at me, tilting his head so his long gray ponytail shifted.

“That’s humble of you,” he laughed. “That’s unusual for a writer.”

“I’m a realist,” I said, handing him my debit card.

He scanned the plastic and read my name.

“Jennie Miller,” he said, “Jennie Miller. I’ll remember your name.”

He swiped the card and handed it back to me as I choked down the breakdown I wanted to have in his bookstore.

“Thanks,” I said with a grin. “I appreciate it.”

Then I bolted out of the store and cried all the way back to my car. From his mouth to God’s ears.

A love letter to my husband

Dearest,

You were already a long-suffering, understanding husband and now your wife wants to be fiction writer.

God bless you.

You’ve been supportive and encouraging, wise in your advice and patient in the process. So when you received my text message this morning saying I’d just gotten my sixth rejection, no doubt you felt my pain.

You know these rejections are little stabs in my hot air balloon and yet you continue to add fuel to my fire. You are my underpinning, my weight-bearing beam. You offer words of validation and warm embraces. And today, you offered doughnuts.

doughnuts

You knew that I’d want to eat my feelings this afternoon and you took the extra step to make sure I could. How funny, then, that I picked up cupcakes on my way home. How blissfully ironic that now we have both treats with which to medicate ourselves because six literary agents turned down my novel.

cupcakes

We are only at the beginning of this marathon, and I’m guaranteed more heartache. The good news is that sometimes I’ll self-medicate with a long run or maybe a good cry so we don’t have to worry about adult onset diabetes.

Regardless of my coping mechanism I hope we’ll always be in sync. Thank you for the doughnuts and for knowing what I needed today.

The Boston Creme Pie Cupcake is for you.

A Game of Hope and Fear

I wish I could be one of those sorts who is endlessly positive, overflowing with optimism and possibility. Annoyingly so.

Alas, that’s not me, not even close. It’s only when the calendar turns from one year to the next that I get of solid whiff of that glorious mindset, a brief taste of believing this could be my year.

And then the melancholy returns, the doubts and discouragements, the little whispers of worry that remind me that I carry a heavy family trait, described best by something my grandma said once: “I guess I’m just turned that way.” Like her, I get sucked into my own irrational space of worry and resignation. I get blue and defeatist. Every New Year’s Eve is game of table tennis – hitting the ball back and forth over the net that separates hope and fear.

It makes for a dizzy night even when champagne isn’t involved.

This morning is no different. I settled on the orange couch in my office to read and simultaneously wondered if the stars will align for me this year professionally. Will I find an agent? Will the novel ever leave my computer? Should I even start on a second book? Has this all been a waste of a dream?

I hit the ball.

Of course it’s not a waste! Think of all I’ve learned! Think of what I’ve already accomplished – a graduate degree and a 135,000-word novel that a handful of people find enjoyable. I’ve come to appreciate fiction in a new way entirely and reignited my love of storytelling! So much as already been gained, you silly girl!

I hit the ball again.

But what if it was all for nothing? Going back to journalism feels like going backward. My heart isn’t in it anymore. That was then and this is now. I want to write fiction yet I expect a slew of rejection letters this year. How does one remain hopeful with those sort of odds? Why bother?

I hit the ball again.

Because it’s worth it. All of it. The process, the hope, the disappointment, the pick-yourself-up-and-try-again attitude… THIS IS LIFE. Doing what I love makes life worthwhile. And so what about odds? I hate math anyway.

I hit the ball again.

And every time someone asks me how it’s going, I’ll have to tell them nothing is happening. I’m right where I was a year ago, working on this piddly little project that I love so dearly and every day it goes unnoticed makes me want to apologize to my characters for letting them down.

I hit the ball again.

I didn’t let them down at all. I heard them and did what they asked. They came alive because of me, and whether or not anyone else meets them is not in my hands. Besides:

on the other side of fear

And so it goes, and so it will be.

Our coming year will be much more than what comes in the mail for me. Jeremy will turn 12, Jackson will turn 9, and Chuck and I will celebrate 15 years of marriage (19 years together in total). We’ll forge ahead with our wonderful life and be grateful for the blessings seen and unseen. We will triumph and fail and learn from it all. I pray the same for you.

CHEERS to you in the new year, my friend, and may your dreams be big enough to scare you. xoxo

And the bloody execution begins.

I’ve got good instincts, so when my first professional(ish) critique on the first chapter of the novel came back yesterday, I knew what it was going to say: There are too many characters introduced in the beginning, the toggling back and forth in time needs to be rearranged, and my point of view needs to be better defined. None of her remarks were a surprise, but my foreknowledge did not prevent the twinge of discouragement. Even with comments like, “Wonderful!” and “Well done!” and “Nice Southern dialogue here!” I still shrank in my seat knowing this long hard road is still going to be long and hard. Continue reading “And the bloody execution begins.”

Thanksgiving Family Photo 2014

Years ago my sister and I settled into a holiday rotation for hosting and being together so both sides of our families get equal shares of each other. We’re together for Thanksgiving one year and Christmas the next and vice versa.

This year we met at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, including my parents and Mamaw. Per usual, the week went by too quickly but I’m left feeling ever thankful that we had the time at all.
Family photo high resThis is my last week of graduate school. It’s not even going to be a full week since the novel (my capstone project) is due Thursday. I have one remaining assignment for Genre Writing and then I’m officially done. I’ll take a short break to enjoy Christmas and then I’ll start writing query letters (and crossing my fingers, and rubbing a rabbit’s foot, and looking for four-leaf clovers, and picking up pennies when I find them on the street…)

Being December 1 and all, Timmy showed up. I admit that I wasn’t prepared for Timmy to show up so soon, but we made it work. Thanks, Mom, for providing Timmy’s first treat to the boys.

Timmy on December 1

The Wire and Favorite Photos

I’m down to it. The wire. The end of the semester. Everything’s about to be due and I’m feeling the pressure.

In the next three weeks I must complete a synopsis of both my novel and one I’ve read this semester (they are not easy to write), a mock query letter, an essay about the pros and cons of traditional versus self-publishing, a fifteen-page introductory paper for the novel, a mock dust jacket for the novel, and – oh yeah – the novel. Even though the rough draft is finished, it’s not tidy. It’s fraught with misspellings and needs a good going-over.  The errors have mostly to do with fast typing. It’s maddening.

I’ve been a lucky little photographer lately and have enjoyed a smattering of photo sessions with wonderful people. That blessing will continue over the next few weeks and, honestly, I’m grateful because it allows me to be creative in a way that has nothing to do with graduate school. Here are a few of my recent favorites:  Continue reading “The Wire and Favorite Photos”

Insert panic here

Suddenly we’re at the end of October. As I type, my bacon and goat cheese grits aren’t sitting well as my stomach is turning inside itself with worry. I have six weeks left in the semester, which means I have six weeks to finish the novel, edit it, design the front and back matter, write a synopsis, and complete a fifteen-page companion paper to introduce the project, explain my process, and cite sources of influence.

I also have to complete four big assignments for Genre Writing, homeschool the kids, do a few photos shoots, and say hi to Chuck every once in a while.

There’s a temptation to pull back and say no to certain things, but that’s really hard to do when you love everything you’re doing. I mean, when I’m taking photos like this, I don’t want to say no:

DSC_0275 low res w

(By the way, if any of you know to whom this sweet baby belongs, DO NOT talk about this photo to the baby’s grandmother, unless you want to spoil her Christmas present surprise.) Continue reading “Insert panic here”

School update and a book review

We’ve begun our second week of school and if the boys keep at this pace we’ll be finished by March. Not really, but they are zooming through the first few units of math. Things will slow down when we hit fractions and multiplication hard core. Jackson dances around saying, “Multiplication is easy peasy,” but he’s only started with zeros and ones. I’m letting him enjoy the little victories.

As for my school, I’m loving it. Genre writing is the perfect class to take while finishing the novel for my capstone. Right now we’re reading a brainless romance novel, but next on the list is Gone, Baby, Gone. It won’t be a fresh read since I’ve seen the movie, but I expect it to be good.

The Girl You Left BehindSpeaking of books, prior to the start of the fall semester I finished The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes. It was recommended to me a few weeks ago when I asked friends on Facebook to suggest their current favorite reads. The story is a lively mix of historical and contemporary fiction that revolves around the portrait of a French woman, titled appropriately The Girl You Left Behind.

The book begins with Sophie Lefèvre, who runs a hotel in a small French town in 1916 during the German occupation. Her husband, Édouard, is away fighting in the war but has left his wife with a sweet reminder of their love for one another – an informal yet irresistible portrait he painted of her. The painting is all well and good until the German Kommandant takes notice of it. Subsequently, Sophie and the Kommandant become uncomfortably intertwined.

Fast forward nearly one hundred years and The Girl You Left Behind hangs in Liv Halston’s house, a comforting yet cruel reminder of her dead husband who bought the portrait for her as a wedding gift. Liv is in a pit of mourning and complacency when she is threatened with losing the portrait on account of restitution.

Though there’s a bit of predictability with how the book will end, the mystery is all about discovering how the portrait went from hanging on a hotel wall in 1916 France to an unrelated widow’s home in London a century later. There’s also a some suspense when it comes to finding out what happened to Sophie, who disappeared the same time as her portrait.

Overall the book was an enjoyable read and it was the first I’ve read from Jojo Moyes. Her writing is fluid and descriptive, and even though a few of things I suspected early on came true, my attention was kept until the final page because the unfolding of the portrait’s story was so interesting.

In other news, is it autumn yet?


 

Hello, 36.

My birthday came ’round while in Santa Fe. It’s the one day of the year when Facebook is really lovely. For all of it’s annoying-ness, more than a hundred birthday well wishes on FB put a big smile on my face and my heart swelled with gratitude.

The trip out west was a huge gift. It was a strain on the family budget, one that we planned for but we could’ve easily funneled that money elsewhere.  However, my husband is one of those guys who always says, “Go! You need this.” And he’s usually right.

I had other birthday treats that made me feel loved – gift cards, books, and little British tidbits, like Brit Wit: The Perfect Riposte for Every Social Occasion, given to me by my mother. The inside cover reads, “Ever been at a loss for words? Ever wished that the perfect wry remark or putdown would spring to mind? The great, the good, the intellectual, and the downright insulting can all be found in Brit Wit.” Mom knows me well! A few excerpts:

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. – Margaret Thatcher

The pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with. – Marty Feldman

The older one grows, the more one likes indecency. – Virginia Woolf

When I got home on Sunday, I saw one last present from Chuck and it moved me so greatly that I burst into tears. He took a mock cover of my novel that I designed and had it matted to a canvas. In that moment I was terrified that my story might be published for the world to read, even though that’s my greatest desire, and there was the cover all exposed. Fear and joy poured down my face as I hugged him (while he laughed at my silliness). I want so badly to show you, dear readers, but that fear is really strong.

At any rate, so far, 36 is just fine.

36

On the subject of killing someone

I’ve spent the last week trying to formulate someone’s death and so far nothing feels right.

Need some context? There’s a character in my novel who must die and I’ve been trying to construct the way in which it should happen. During my run yesterday morning I imagined several different ways the death could occur, and at one point I was so distracted that I nearly slipped off the road into a ditch.

This dilemma is a new plot point, one I had to talk myself into exploring. Now that I’m confident in my decision, I have the burdensome task of inflicting a great deal of pain on many characters. It’s the right thing to do, but I admit it feels odd to sit around imagining ways one could die.

These are Karen Eiffel moments and I’m totally loving it.

2006 Stranger Than Fiction  004

Have you seen Stranger Than Fiction? It’s my most favorite film, one that continues to mean more to me as I trudge along in this journey to write a book.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/mtkRGIegvug] [youtube=http://youtu.be/JjsQ04Ad5BA]

I don’t have writer’s block, but until I figure out how this person will die, I’ll continue to play out different accidents and illnesses in my mind. Come late August, I’ll be back to writing the novel full time and I’ll have to have this death thing all sorted out.