I Have Never Been Great at Goodbyes

A long, long time ago, we bought a house . . . and we turned it into a home.

This old house has sheltered us through all the seasons, bearing witness to laughter and tears, to joys and sorrows, to deaths and births, to weddings and anniversaries. It is the only home our children knew growing up. It provided sanctuary for them and their many friends from pre-school through university . . . and sanctuary too to five dogs, one cat, a lizard, a turtle and too many fish to count.

I wrote twenty-five books here, hundreds and hundreds of articles, countless school notes and at least 1600 shopping lists. My babies came home to this house. They took their first steps and spoke the first of many, many words (much to the chagrin of many, many teachers). They had chicken pox and sleep overs, their first jobs, their first loves, their first cars (and with the latter came my first gray hairs).

This house birthed me too – as a mother, as a writer, and as a gardener. And today, though the garden is deep in winter slumber, I see roses blooming and kiwis hanging low. I smell sweet peas climbing up the side of the greenhouse, see the heron swooping in to steal fish in the pond, hear the laughter of the kids as they whisper secrets to their besties, and the laughter of my love as we sip our wine and watch the sun set on warm summer nights.

The sun is setting on our time here. In a few days we will turn out the lights and shut the door for the last time. We will put Team Sheltie in the car, climb behind the wheel and we will drive away. We’re moving to a smaller community several hours from here, a place we’ve visited often, a place we love. We haven’t found a home there yet, at least not a permanent one, but hopefully we will soon.

We aren’t being pushed to leave by anything other than an inner knowing that it’s the right thing to do. It took us a couple of years to come to this, after many discussions and a great deal of thought. Our neighborhood has changed, we have changed and, with the kids grown and gone, our family dynamic has changed. It’s simply time. That said, it is much, much harder than I ever thought it would be.

There’s a saying that pops up on social media occasionally: Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. It’s good advice, sound and solid. But the fact is I am absolute shit at goodbyes. Never have aced them. And, yes, I know we’ll take our memories with us – people offer that up as if it’s some sort of consolation – but it’s no consolation at all and it doesn’t touch even a corner of my sadness.

This isn’t just the closing of a chapter, it’s the closing of a book. The story of our time in this house is over. And the new book, the new story, that important first chapter, hasn’t yet been written.

Right now, my heart is full to nearly breaking. Smiles are out of the question. My fountain of tears, as Mr. Petrol Head calls it, is perpetually running. But as teary as I am, there is one thing that makes it this process a little easier.

New owners are poised – eager even – to move in.

We’re leaving them a welcome letter, telling them a little about the history of the house and garden, their new neighbors (they will have wonderful neighbors!) and a few of the quirks that old houses inevitably have. It will be fun for them to discover what life here has to offer. Knowing that lightens my sadness.

It reminds me a little of sharing a book. You can only read a book for the first time once. No matter how much you love it, you can’t go back and experience that freshness, that joy of discovery, again. But you can pay it forward and share the book with another reader, taking solace in the fact that they’ll love it too. That the story will live again through them.

I know we can’t go back. Time goes forward and so do we. How fitting that we’re leaving the past behind at the start of a new year.

A long, long time ago, we bought a house . . . and we turned it into a home.  And though we’re saying goodbye and leaving this old place behind, it will be filled with love and laughter and life long after we’re gone. It will stay a home. And for that I’m grateful.

Warmest wishes . . . .

The countdown is on to Winter Solstice and Christmas Day. However and wherever you celebrate, may your holiday be filled with joy and light, and may you be warmed by the presence of friends and family.

Happy solstice and Merry Christmas! See you in 2019.

The Gift of Reading Non-Fiction

If you have non-fiction readers on your gift giving list, you have many books to choose from this year.

In the biography category, artists will undoubted appreciate Ninth Street Women: Five Painters and The Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel. Young sports aficionados will be inspired by Open Heart, Open Mind by Canadian Olympian and advocate for mental health Clara Hughes. And memoir lovers with an interest in politics will enjoy Michelle Obama’s Becoming Michelle which details her journey from working class Chicago to the White House.

For the coffee drinker who loves to travel, consider The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers. A gripping account of a 24-year-old Yemeni American man, raised in San Francisco, who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee and travels to his ancestral home to source the beans only to face militia roadblocks, kidnappings and threats against his life. Another option for foodies: Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by award-winning journalist Jonathan Kauffman. An outstanding food and cultural history that traces the colorful origins of once unconventional foods and shows how the concept of health food evolved in the kitchens of young baby boomers before becoming mainstream.

If your reader is focused on social justice and immigration The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu is a shocking insider look at US immigration from the perspective of a border patrol agent. Another powerful read is The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Iraqui-American poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail.

An Amazon best book of 2018 that reads like a thriller and will appeal to crime aficionados as well as business geeks is Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. Bad Blood is the story of Theranos, a Silicon Valley start-up whose charismatic founder, Elizabeth Holmes, raised nearly one billion dollars over 15 years for a company founded on lies, falsehoods, bullying and fraud.

In a year when laughs were hard to come by, at least as far as current events were concerned, John Cleese, Professor At Large is a sharp and clever collection of Cleese’s lectures at Cornell University while he was a visiting professor. For some mother-daughter humor, I See Life Through Rose`-Colored Glasses by Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella is a hilarious collection of essays about the pitfalls of daily life.

And finally, for inspiration and motivation an ideal pick is Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan.  Named a best book of the year by Real Simple and Bustle, this is a story-driven collection of essays on twelve powerful phrases we use in our relationships including I don’t know; tell me more; no; I was wrong; and I love you. Both funny and touching, Corrigan’s book is a fabulous read heading into a new year.

 

The Gift of Books

Tis the season for giving but it can be hard to pick just the right book for each recipient.  I usually blog once a month about what I’m reading, and if a book makes my monthly post you can bet I’ve enjoyed it. You can source those blogs by checking through my archives for ‘My Reads.’  Here are some titles that stood out for me this year.

I really enjoyed Girl Who Drank the Moon, a middle grade novel that was published in 2016 and won the 2017 Newbery Medal. Luna was raised by a witch and must figure out how to handle the magical powers she has accidentally been given. A solid fantasy fiction choice for middle grade readers.

Teens who like realism will appreciate The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater. For an historical teen read you can’t go wrong with Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse. Set in Amsterdam during WW11, this mystery novel is gritty and deserving of last year’s Edgar Award. For teens who appreciate a terrific love story, my pick is The Problem With Forever by Jennifer L. Armentrout.  Well-written and emotional, you might want to include a box of Kleenex with this one.

For older romance readers, I was captivated by Between You and Me by Susan Wiggs. This contemporary love story straddles two worlds and two cultures: Pittsburgh as well as Amish farm country. Richly-layered and compelling.

I could not put down All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin. This is a heavier, more issue-oriented story than Giffin’s usual fare and the through line that carries the novel is how far are you willing to go to protect the ones you love? Though this book is marketed for adults, one of the point of view characters is a teen and I think this story would be a great jumping off point for discussions between parents and teenagers.

For more fiction ideas, check out Goodreads Best Books of 2018. https://www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/books/g25361954/goodreads-best-books-2018/

Or go here to see what the CBC recommends: https://www.cbc.ca/books/the-cbc-books-fall-2018-reading-list-18-must-read-canadian-books-1.4821996

Next time, some ideas for the non-fiction readers on your list.

My November Reads 2018

Dusk comes early at this time of year, and the short days remind me that another season has come and gone. The garden has been put to bed, the greenhouse has been tidied for the winter, and the seeds are all packed away. Spring lettuce and summer tomatoes are a sweet memory as we snack on this year’s crop of kiwis.  I’m spending my evenings getting ready for the holidays and, when time permits, relaxing in front of the fire with a book. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

 

By the fire: All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin

At the gym: The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith

Before bed: Love Among the Ruins: A Memoir of Life and Love in Hamburg, 1945 by Harry Leslie Smith

Books read to date in 2018: 73

In The Beginning, Take Three

Our lunch was winding down but our beginning writer friend had several more questions. What, she asked, is the one habit that most effectively supports your writing career?

My answer came relatively quickly but I couldn’t limit it to one habit; I had two: writing every day and finishing what I start. Those two habits are the backbone of my writing career.

While I’ve blogged before about the importance of a daily writing practice, I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the importance of finishing what I start. To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have a few half-baked ideas waiting for me in the drawer. I was going to call them partially finished manuscripts but they aren’t even that. They’re embryonic ideas in paragraph form. A couple of them go on for maybe two or three pages. They’ll be there when I’m ready for them.

Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are waiting for us to give them life. That they hang out in the ether somewhere until a creator comes along, picks them up and breathes them into being. I don’t know if it’s true, though I love her idea. What I do know is that once I start a story or a novel, I can’t not finish it. Even when I suspect the story isn’t hanging together or the character’s motivations aren’t working or I don’t like what I’m producing, I can’t stop. Finishing it becomes a compulsion. To leave it undone would be akin to gathering the ingredients for a cake, preparing the pans, mixing the batter and failing to put the whole thing into the oven. Finishing what I start and writing every day have taken me from unpublished to published. It’s as easy (and as hard!) as that.

For Lea Tassie, www.leatassiewriter.com her most effective daily habit is self-discipline and making writing part of her routine. “It’s not easy,” she says, “but it’s necessary.”

The last question our beginning writer asked was also the hardest for me to answer. What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

There were milestones for sure: my first sale, my first foreign edition, my first award. And while those certainly were accomplishments, with the exception of my first sale which I definitely had something to do with, many of my other career milestones came about because others worked to make them happen, or because of serendipity. Claiming them as my accomplishment didn’t feel right. And the more I thought about it, while getting books published was an accomplishment I was proud of, it wasn’t the true reward. The real reward came later when readers wrote to say how much they loved my story. Touching readers through my books is, and always will be, my most rewarding accomplishment.

Lea Tassie shares the sentiment. In her futuristic Green Blood Rising series, trees fight back against development and begin to take over the world. One of her most rewarding moments came when someone read the novel and afterwards commented that they were “driving home one night and these young trees were growing up out of the ditch and I got scared.”

Writing a book that lives on in the hearts and minds of readers is the most gratifying achievement. In the end, I think it’s the only accomplishment that truly matters.

In the Beginning, Take Two

It’s time for more questions from our new writer and answers from more seasoned ones. This week: what lessons did I learn the hard way, and what did I wish I knew starting out?

Let’s take the last question first. What did I wish I knew at the very beginning of my writing career? As I told our beginning writer friend, I wish I’d understood at a visceral level that this whole business is a long game, a marathon really, and nothing even close to a sprint. After my first book came out and I was contracted for my second, I figured I was on my way, or launched so to speak. Not that there wouldn’t be plenty of hard work ahead – I had no illusions about that – but I didn’t envision so many hills and valleys, so many meandering paths taking unexpected turns.  I hadn’t yet learned the importance of fluidity, of pacing myself, and of being open to adjusting for the unexpected. Like a marathoner pays attention to training, to footwear, to staying healthy and hydrated, and bases their success on a slow, steady pace, I’ve learned how important it is for me to pay attention to craft, to my health, and to a balance of work and play.

Lea Tassie, https://leatassiewriter.com author of the Green Blood Rising Series, wishes she’d had more patience back in the beginning, and that she wasn’t so naïve about the publishing industry. Her comment about naivete is the perfect segue into question two: what lessons did you learn the hard way? “I learned that money flows first – or it should flow first – to the writer, not to people like editors or agents who are providing services,” Tassie says. Never go with an agent or publisher who demands money up front, she adds.

My hard lesson was learning and coming to accept that publishing is a business, that decisions are often made with the bottom line in mind, and not always on the merits of a particular manuscript. A ‘no’ on a manuscript doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with the story in question. It could be that the publisher has something similar due for release next season, or that their marketing department feels, for whatever reason, that the marketing hook isn’t strong enough to generate a good sell through on your particular story. Of course, this is all based on dealing with traditional publishers. Going the indie publishing route means you’re in control of if, when and how to publish. But that option, as lovely as it sounds, also comes with added responsibilities.

Next week, what is the most effective habit you possess to support your success as a writer . . . and what has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

 

In The Beginning

Not long ago, I was asked by a woman just starting out on her writing journey if I’d be willing to answer a few general questions about the industry, and some specific questions about my path to publishing. Our conversation really made me think. Over the next few weeks I’ll bring you some of her questions and my answers, along with answers from other authors as well.

This week, question one: what does your writing day look like?

That one was easy. I write every day, or at least every weekday. I don’t strive for a set word or page count, nor do I put in a minimum number of hours, but I usually work from 9 or 9:30 until 4 in the afternoon, with a short break for lunch. Mornings are reserved for whatever novel I’m writing, and if I have an article to write or an editing job to do, I usually tackle those in the afternoon. Unless I’m on a deadline, I don’t write on weekends. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when my kids were young and I wrote when they were in school, or perhaps it’s a holdover from my days working a five-day-a-week job, but I usually take a break on weekends. I might ponder my work-in-progress or attend a writing workshop or do some kind of research, but I try to avoid sitting at my desk and staring at a screen.

Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying that when he works, he ‘works every day, three or four hours, and aims for six clean pages.’  Working daily for two months, he ends up with a 360-page manuscript. And if his books and interviews are to be believed, he also doesn’t outline. He starts with a basic ‘what if’ premise and sees where it takes him. I like the idea of deep daily immersion in a story, and I LOVE the idea of producing a 360-page manuscript in two months. But without an outline? It’s unlikely to work for me. For one thing, I don’t have King’s experience. He’s written close to 90 books; I’ve written about 25.

Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning, without fail. Susan Sontag wrote every morning too, and always by hand. Another Susan – Susan Wiggs – also writes her first drafts by hand, in a spiral bound notebook and always with a peacock blue fountain pen. Michael Connelly writes daily and wherever he finds himself, but if he’s at home and in any kind of routine he prefers morning since he ‘likes to get a lot done before the city wakes up.’  Stephenie Meyer is the exact opposite: she can’t focus on writing anything fresh when the sun is out. Only when her kids are in bed for the night can she concentrate on writing her books.

Which just goes to show you that a writing day can also be a writing night.

Next week, what lessons did you learn the hard way, and what do you wish you knew starting out?

A Time of Transition

Today is Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, also known as Samhain to those who follow these sorts of things. Traditionally, October 31/November 1 marks the end of the harvest season and the start of winter or the ‘darker half’ of the year.

It is a time of transitions. We are halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Transitions mark the process of changing from one state or condition to another, apropos for this time of year and also for me personally as we ready ourselves for the transition to a new home. Personal transitions aren’t always easy because they upset the status quo. Fictional transitions can be difficult too, but they’re incredibly necessary. Transitions hold scenes together, weaving the bits and pieces of your narrative into a cohesive whole, and giving an important sense of completeness to your story.

Transitional scenes can be used to break tension, provide description, to slow the pace or advance time, to change location or even to change viewpoint characters. In the same way a falling leaf can signal the start of a transition to fall, certain words and phrases can signal to the reader that there’s a transition coming. Consider these phrases:

A week later

Months passed

On the first sunny day

When the snow finally came

Labor began in the wee hours

After the diagnosis

To celebrate

Spring was late that year

It took weeks but

 

Transitions. Often overlooked, frequently feared but incredibly necessary if we (and our stories) are to move forward.

Happy Samhain everyone! 

My October Reads

Some days chickens, other days feathers. When the feathers are flying and the chickens are in short supply – in other words when life isn’t unfolding according to plan, escaping into a good book can be a godsend. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing lately. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Beside the fire: The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

At the gym: The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren

Before bed: Bringing Your Soul to Light by Dr. Linda Backman

Books read to date in 2018: 65