A Writer's Journey

Lost and Found in Fiction: What Writing Revealed to Me

Six and a half years ago, I returned to writing. I can’t describe the kind of freeing relief it brought me. I returned to blogging and started writing a fairy tale that I thought would be a short story.

I wrote because I could no longer ignore the call. I wrote because not writing was draining me of energy. And, completely unbeknownst to me at the time, I wrote to tell myself about long-buried, long-forgotten trauma.

Most of my experience until then was in writing stories for children’s magazines. Not one had sold, so far. The story of a princess and the mysterious statue that appears in the castle grew and changed and evolved. At some point, the short story demanded to be a novel. (I’ve written a little about this before.) I had no idea what I was doing then, but the process has been rewarding, not always in a pleasant way, but in a way I needed more than I knew.

In the years it’s taken me (still taking me) to write this novel, I began to see parts of myself revealed in the words I’d written. Parts of me I’d forgotten or didn’t know. And not just parts of me, but memories, memories I’d suppressed and forgotten.

One day as I learned about the nature of suppressed trauma memories,  recognition flooded my body and mind. I froze, panic choking me. This was shockingly familiar. Over time, I read about it and spoke to a therapist, confirming what I knew even before memories began to surface: that when I was barely old enough for kindergarten, someone trusted had fractured my childhood. At that age, when actions and people are still usually categorized as either good or bad, the brain doesn’t always know how to store memories of a trusted individual  doing something bad. Those memories don’t get stored properly. But they don’t leave. They just manifest differently.

For me, one way they manifested was in a fairy tale turned fantasy about a protagonist who must return to the scene of  long ago, forgotten events in order to stop a villain from wreaking havoc on the world.

I was writing to tell myself that something was wrong. That world was me and I was trying to remember something that wreaked havoc on my life. It was time to start facing that havoc.

Today, this novel has gone through six or seven drafts. I have changed many details that once spoke deeply to me about what I’ve lost or grappled with. At first I wondered if this made the story lose something good in the original version or something of personal value to me.

But writers know that if you toss something out of a draft, it doesn’t evaporate. You store it carefully away for another time, where through time and life it ferments into rich material. If something meaningful didn’t make it into one book, it will appear in another one.

Secondly, whenever I wish I this novel was written, edited, and published by now, I remember that I was writing to tell myself things. Deep, life-altering things that demanded recognition. Things that somehow, could only be said through a long story process. Because somehow it was story that finally led me to battle the monsters that lay hidden deep inside.

And it was worth it. Because I needed it. The things I wrote for myself were worth the time. And story, I have learned, can offer a unique opening to the path towards healing.

This is where I would tell you some beautiful story of God’s nearness to me in the midst of all of this. He has been near, and he’s given me many tools to work through this trauma, specifically story. But as much as I wish I did, I don’t have some amazing parallel insight on my relationship with God to share with you. Maybe this needs more fermenting time. For now, it’s enough for me to say in awkward prose that he was and is near, he’s trained my hands for battle, and in my hand is a pen. And I’m not done wielding it yet.

With words we share, shape, and name. With words, we can cut a path through darkness.

Why do you write? What are you telling yourself? It may not be about trauma (I sure hope it isn’t), but maybe if you have been writing the same story over and over again, you are trying to get a message across to one reader: you. Don’t ignore that message.

You are worth it.

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A Writer's Journey

(White) Writer Meets Diversity

I’m writing something like the 7th draft of my novel. The characters have been pretty homogenous-everyone in my fantasy world was white, despite there being three different kingdoms. Over the past couple of years, as I slowly grew more aware of my predominantly European setting and focus in writing, it no longer seemed ok. I have friends who don’t look European. They matter to me and it bothered me to see how little representation people of color have had in literature. So to honor my friends, I wanted to include people of color in my story.

It seemed like a simple changing of skin and hair color for my characters. It wasn’t difficult to do at first, because I’d never really settled on what my characters had looked like anyway. And in the fantasy genre, as Janelle Garrett reminded me, the writer creates her own cultures and peoples: it doesn’t have to mirror ‘real’ life, but it should certainly avoid racist language and character typing.

Ok, I thought, this is easy! Just add some different skin colors in here, and voila! A little more representation in literature. Yay me.

Or is it easy? At this point the over-analytical side of my brain kicked in and I did what I’m good at: panic that my efforts aren’t enough.

Who am I, a white woman, to be trying to include people of color? What if I offend someone?? Should I scrap my characters and make them all black? But I can’t do that, because now we’re back to square one here, just a white girl who has no business writing about black people. Even ones in a made up culture.

Help.

Actually, getting help is a great idea. Asking friends for their thoughts helps me get out of over-analyze mode and they will tell me if I’m totally nuts or just a little. So that ‘s what I’m doing, asking for input.

And really, this is yet another opportunity for me to let go of perfectionism. I’m going to make mistakes as I learn to love my black friends and I already have. What matters is that I am humble and I am listening. That I am moving towards instead of hiding in fear of, basically, not being perfect.

So yeah. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m willing to learn. Because I love my friends.

So share your thoughts if you like, especially if you are a person of color. I value your comments.

A Writer's Journey

Seasonal Writing Suggestions

I’m not a gardener. One day I’d like to be. I hear from my gardening friends how digging in the dirt teaches you. You learn patience and pacing, dirt and beauty in ways only gardening can teach you. No one plants the same cucumber seeds all year long. No one harvests pumpkins all year long either. (Maybe you hate both of these and I’ve already lost you.) I’d venture to think, that despite my black thumb, that I can see a few similarities between writing and gardening. In fact, I think writers need these seasonal rhythms.

I’m going to share a few small ways that I am beginning to discover what influences my writing seasonal rhythms, and some ways I have adapted over the last few years. Keep in mind I’m a mom with small children at home. This is one of the best enforcers of creativity, in my experience!

Natural Light

Do you have to write in daylight? Do you do your best work late at night? If you’re a natural daylight junkie, early summer mornings of writing might become afternoon winter sessions. My rhythms are greatly influenced by the fact that my children wake up very early with each Fall Back, and they do that for several weeks. Sometimes I can squeeze a few words during those early mornings in while my little ones play. Morning is my preferred time to write, but sometimes those winter months mean I write during nap time instead. With Spring Forward, I can look forward to the return of morning writing.

Energy

Does winter slow you down and summer give you the itch to move? Or maybe like me, it’s the opposite. If the temperature slows you down, maybe you need a change of scenery to revitalize you. If your summer writing spot turns into a nap-inducing nook in the winter, consider writing at the kitchen table or at a coffee shop.

Summer is often the time for vacations and school breaks. If you can identify the seasons in which you will be busier, perhaps planning for smaller spurts of writing will help with your goals. Maybe you can’t write 2k words every day, all year, but you can squeeze 250 words in-between errands, events, etc. during the summer. You can still be clear about your progress. Then, in the slower months, set bigger goals to catch up.

Another way to steward your energy in these more hectic months is to tackle shorter writing projects. Maybe you set your novel revisions aside after the first round and write blog posts for a month. If you have that flexibility, sprints may serve your goals rather than trying to maintain a marathon.

Adaptability

The key to all of this is adaptability. I have never been great with sticking to a schedule. Changing nap times, bed times, colds, and everything that comes with being a mother has made that even trickier. Instead of feeling like I’m starting over with every change, I try to see it as finding the larger picture of the year. Yours may or may not mirror aspects of the earth’s seasons, but you can create your own seasons to best cultivate your creativity and reach your writing goals.

For other seasonal resources that might help you create these rhythms, check out Emily P. Freeman’s What I Learned posts, which she writes quarterly and invites other writers to join. Here’s the link to her recent Spring post, with a download and links at the end.

Mohawk Momma Loves offers several amazing resources for identifying soul rhythms that can impact every area of your life.  Few things are as freeing as realizing you don’t have to plow through the year with the same structures and spaces if they aren’t serving you.

Recognize your natural rhythms, then create the environment you need to best utilize them. And give yourself time. Remember, seasonal change doesn’t usually happen overnight. If one year the green beans just don’t sprout, maybe next season, you can try something else.

Do you have helpful seasonal writing practices? Let’s talk!

Books and Stories

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

 

Jade is a Sophomore at a private school looking for her voice and place in the world. She leaves her friends and neighborhood and takes a bus five days a week to get there, aware that she does not fully fit in. She signs up for a mentorship program that allows her the chance for a scholarship. Her mentor, Maxine, misses the first meeting, to Jade’s disappointment and frustration. Jade wonders if the mentorship program is worth her time, if the women running it really get what girls like her want out of life, and learns to become fully herself in a world fraught with challenges.

Piecing Me Together is a story of friendship and family, racism and the contrast between wealth and poverty. It is the story of one young woman’s discovery of the power of art for self-discovery and bringing people together. Jade faces difficulties of learning to speak up for herself and decides what’s worth fighting for. This coming of age story brought me to tears several times. Watson’s story is powerful, real, and eye-opening, and the ending is hopeful and realistic.

Part of what makes this story so wonderful is that Watson never condemns any one person or any one side of any issue. It’s both the mentor and the mentee who offer wisdom. The old life and new lifestyle both offer healthy contributions to Jade’s life. There is good to be found in the wealthy and the poor. Real life reflects this kind of healthy weaving of disparate parts and Watson reminds us that when everything works together, we often have a healthier whole.  (Reviewed by Bradley Sides). From BookBrowse.com

Here are some quotes from the book. I tried to pick some that stood on their own, without the need for pages of context. Now I wish I’d taken a screen shot of the poem near the end by LeeLee, Jade’s friend. But I guess you’ll just have to read it yourself. 🙂

 

Books and Stories · Other Thoughts

Through the Magnifying Glass: Racism in Beloved Books

I have been thinking about and writing this post for about a month and a half. As a reader, parent, and writer, it’s one of the biggest elephants in the room when it comes to books. Racism and xenophobia are prevalent amongst some of my favorite authors, but what do we do about it? Chuck them in the burning pile?

This post really began back in March when I read L.M. Montgomery’s Further Chronicles of Avonlea. I have read and loved many of her books, but this one short story collection I hadn’t read before. In it I revisited not just one of my favorite author’s delightful writing style, but prejudices and xenophobia as well.

At the end of the book, full of Montgomery’s humorous mishaps, reunited lovers, and a few other items that belong in their own class, Tannis of the Flats is the tale of a woman in the wilds of Canadian frontier who falls in love with the man who spurns her for a Canadian-born woman.

Oh my.

If I wasn’t aware of Montgomery’s xenophobia before (such as Marilla’s insistence that they only get a Canadian boy, and I’m paraphrasing), this story couldn’t leave anyone in the dark. In the small town where the story takes place, the native peoples are called breeds, or half-breeds if their origin is mixed. There is the stereotypically lazy, no-good native man. Tannis is the ‘heroine’ of the story, referred to as a ‘half-breed’, and has been distinguished by some education in Prince Albert, but it has only served to add

[…] a very thin, but very deceptive, veneer of culture and civilization overlaying the primitive passions and ideas of her nature.

The next paragraph is worse and further illustrates the fact that even a good education cannot make one of these “breeds” into a respectable person, and that their intelligence and value is already determined by their ancestry. They are not the white person’s equal.

Notice how the white woman in the story, at her point of choice, is portrayed:

The good, old Island blood in Elinor’s veins showed to some purpose. “Yes,” she answered firmly. “No, Tom, don’t object-I must go. Get my horse-and yours.”

I’m not sure if that “Island blood” is Great Britain or P.E.I.(probably Great Britain), but it makes the point.

Tannis is the hero of the story, not primarily because of her deeds, but because she overcomes her nature, her ethnicity, which is apparently the source of her evilness:

In a white woman, the deed would have been commendable. In Tannis of the Flats, with her ancestry and tradition, it was lofty self-sacrifice.

Anybody ever said that about a white person’s ancestry? With the possible exceptions of references to socio-economic class, I don’t think so.

Now the first time or two I read Anne of Green Gables, Marilla’s comments went over my head. That’s not really surprising as I’m privileged, and it took a few more obvious examples of racism for me to pick up on it in Montgomery’s stories. I think it was Alicia Montressor from the story “The Red Room” in Among the Shadows that first opened my eyes. The brooding Italian boy Neil Gordon in Kilmeny of the Orchard is another glaring example.

You know the saying, the victor writes the history? I’d say the same is true for much of literature.

Little House in the Big Woods and all Laura Ingalls Wilders’ books hold a place in my heart as the first novels I ever read. Pa and Ma’s pioneer spirit is admirable and inspiring. But what kind of language is used to describe the Native Americans? It’s the kind that caused her name to be removed from a children’s literature award.

I love many of the characters in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, but have you noticed that an entire nation marked as the enemies of Aslan’s country are identified by their brown skin and culture reminiscent of Middle Eastern countries?

Likewise, the breathtakingly vast and detailed world of Middle Earth inspires many imaginations including mine. But what about the fact that, again, many of the human-like enemies of the good guys (who also happen to be referred to as “Men of the West”) are dark-skinned?

Sometimes people say that these authors were simply a product of their time, and we shouldn’t take these elements too seriously. If Montgomery and Tolkien are products of their time, well, so are we. Today, we know better. Try putting yourself in the shoes of someone of a different culture or with darker skin than yours and then try not to take seriously the fact that books with protagonists like you seem to be the development of recent decades or less, rather than centuries. Try to overlook the fact that most books written about people of color aren’t actually written by people of color.

As a mother and reader, I can think of two things we can do to address this. First of all, welcome and pursue people of different backgrounds. On social media, in stories, person to person. Listen to their voices. It’s not something to check off our list. And obviously you don’t have to be either a mother or a reader to do these things!

Secondly, I think we need to employ critical thinking skills when we read. I’m not going to hide Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books from my children. I’m not going to throw out Tolkien, Lewis, or Montgomery. But understanding how characters are portrayed is important. Understanding cultural context from the author’s point, even in fantasy worlds, is important. My friend and elementary teacher Tamara Russell offers three simple questions to consider when it comes to the voices present in any story. Even if you are not a teacher, you’ll find this (and her blog) to be informative and challenging.

You guys, I still have so much to learn. Sometimes I’m terrified of saying ‘the wrong thing’. I’ll admit I was sad, deeply grieved, when I began to see evidence of  racism in literature. I’d be lying if I said part of that wasn’t  because it be so much nicer/easier if life were simple and racism weren’t a thing? But it is real, people deal with it daily, and I can’t look away. If Jesus came with a message that included liberty for the captives and oppressed (Luke 4:18-19), then I cannot pretend to be blind to systems of thought and acton that uphold oppression. (There’s a lot to unpack there and I don’t have all my thoughts put together yet, but I’m not arguing that Jesus simply came to improve our life’s conditions. I hope that makes sense, but shoot me a question in the comments if it doesn’t.)

Later I’ll write about how these discoveries are influencing me as a writer. For now, here’s a fantastic article written by a woman and mother of color: Does Race Matter if Books, Like Anne of Green Gables, Touch Your Heart? 

As always, I welcome thoughtful, respectful comments and discussions.

Books and Stories

Waiting for the Magic by Patricia Maclachlan

My kids and I just finished Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It always feels like an accomplishment to finish a book that big with them! Afterwards, I was more than ready for a shorter read-aloud. I picked up Waiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachlan from the library.

Patricia MacLachlan is probably best known for Sarah, Plain and Tall. This story has its similarities: two siblings grapple with a missing parent. In Waiting for the Magic, the older brother, William, is the protagonist. The missing parent is the father, who has left the family for an unknown period of time. MacLachlan treats a difficult topic with just the right amount of gravity and gentle prose, and ties up the story with a neat, happy ending, which children may or may not be able to relate to.

The four dogs and one cat in the story provide much of the humor, along with Eleanor, William’s little sister. MacLachlan writes Eleanor’s dialogue like you’d expect a four-year-old to talk without being cliché-ic or annoying, and she gives the dogs and cat their voices without falling into some of the worn-out ‘talking pet’ themes in many books and movies. All of this illustrates and provides contrast for, rather than detracts from, William’s own internal struggles.

This sweet story belies MacLachlan’s skill for conveying childhood struggles through simple words and actions. I think, as a read-aloud, it might require a bit of audience awareness, because children who have experienced a parent walking out on them might find this story to be a reminder of how it didn’t turn out for them. Otherwise, I’d recommend it for sure.

A Writer's Journey

Writing Personalities: Introverts & Extroverts

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Happy Friday! In collaboration with other lovely writers, I’m answering some questions today related to introversion/extroversion dichotomy and my writing. I decided to stick to the Q & A format. Be sure to read the other bloggers’ posts at the end of this one!

  1. Are you an extrovert or an introvert?

  2. Introvert!
  3. What stigmas have you come across with your personality type in life?

I’m not sure I’ve personally experienced anybody associating any stigmas directly with my introverted self. It’s been more like people shaking their heads because I expressed a need to be alone. *Chuckle*

3.  Do you view your introversion/extroversion as a help or a hindrance?

I think both have their advantages and disadvantages. Introversion most often feels like a hindrance when I consider the energy output certain tasks require. And as a parent with young children, I have to weigh and plan so that I don’t burn out during the day without some sort of downtime space for us all, so that I can make it through bedtime. Simple outings can be exhausting. Part of that is just the stage of parenting Mike and I are in. (No doubt both extraverted and introverted parents can relate to that in one shape or another.)

On the plus side, I am never ever bored when I’m alone. My imagination is vast and complex, which feeds my writing.

4.  What stigmas have you come across, specifically in the writing community, in terms of your extroversion/introversion?

The deck seems to be stacked in favor of introverts here. Much of the writing community seems to be geared towards introverts; we might even be the dominant half of the writing world in terms of percentage. I personally have not come across any stigmas, other than the general stereotypes such as the dramatic artist or the starving artist, and most of those are applied by those outside looking in. However, we all know that while those stereotypes aren’t complete, but they can be part of the writing life!

Just ask me about why I considered driving a garbage truck as a career option yesterday. Hint: it’s not because I love garbage trucks.

5. How would you say your introversion/extroversion affects your writing? Does this have a positive or negative effect on you as a writer?

Well, I don’t need environments like coffee shops to get my best work done, so I love writing at home. In fact I’m too easily distracted/drained if I write anywhere but home.  I think and work best in quiet, so that can also be hard to find in a household of six, but it’s possible to find the time. And it can be recharging for me.

6.  Do you write characters with a similar personality type? If not, how do you write characters with a differing personality?

I try to write different character types. My current protagonist is so much like me, though. I didn’t mean to do that, and when I kept discovering our similarities, even my attempts to change her didn’t work. She’s just too real and wants to be who she is too much for me to fight it now. So, I embraced it. With other drafts I wrote last year, I intentionally researched and made choices about my characters’ personalities before I wrote. It helped.

7.  Does your personality affect which genre you write in?

I hadn’t thought of this before. I think it’s more my imagination that affects my genre choice here. My imagination is too big and sprawling to not make up my own new worlds, so I gravitate towards fantasy.

8.  How are your storylines affected by your extroversion/introversion?

This may or may not have anything to do with it, but I haven’t yet attempted an epic with multiple main characters. I’m having a hard enough time getting the events straight for my one protagonist!

9.  How does your introversion/extroversion help or hinder your marketing of yourself as a writer? What challenges or benefits does this create?

Navigating social media has its challenges for me as an introvert. Even though it’s not face to face interacting, engaging on line feels overwhelming and exhausting at times. In order to really connect with future readers and be genuine, I’m trying to cut back on pointless scrolling (which helps no one) so I can be intentional when I’m on Instagram. I haven’t been on Facebook much since last year. For me, it’s about pacing myself and learning, but being content for now with slow growth. However, I really want my stories to genuinely touch people’s lives, and I dream about the day someone tells me that my book had an impact on them. That will be the day.

Do you think your extroversion or introversion influences your writing? If so, how?

This blog was a collaboration with other bloggers. You can read their take on this subject at their blogs:

Jaq Abergas
A Writer's Journey

Revisited: The Wood Between Worlds

Hello there! I’m sharing this post from June 2015, when we said goodbye to our home for several months. This morning we said goodbye to Central Florida again, perhaps for good. As we greet this next adventure, I thought I’d revisit this place and the solace I’ve found there in the past. June is a time of transition for us. I will always remember this place with gratitude, and many others. The words at the end of this post ring true once again. 

Past the playground, around the “sandbox”(aka volleyball court), past the dock, towards the trees that rustle with the perpetual breeze from the water, the sidewalk winds its way out of sight. The kids and I have enjoyed this park for a couple of years.  How has it taken me this long to find this little bit of solitude?


The other day this park was my sanctuary when I needed a few minutes to regroup. I started walking towards the pond, but there was a party nearby. So I turned right down the sidewalk. That’s when I found it.

It was just what I needed. When I can’t do anything because it’s been so long since I had any solitude that I can’t even hear myself think, this is where I find quiet.

A place where I can bid my heart be still

And it will mind me

A place where I can go when I am lost

And there I’ll find me.
(“The Girl I Mean to Be” from The Secret Garden.)


When I returned from the walk, the pond reflected a brooding sky, and the breeze had picked up, rustling the water into agitation. Change is coming, warned the wind. You entered the woods and have returned to a different atmosphere. Soon you’ll be in a different place altogether.


I love this little wood between the worlds. Though I am leaving it soon, I can only imagine the new secret places I will find in the next few months. They are sure to be worth discovering.

My little adventurers love it too. They have their own new stories ahead of them.
Books and Stories

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander

Theo goes on the run when an attack destroys his master’s printing press and kills his master. Now a fugitive from the law, he travels through the country of Westmark, falling in with a con man, a revolutionary, and a girl with a gift for mimicking voices. Against the backdrop of growing political unrest, Theo wrestles with his own motives and actions: is he as good as he thinks he is, or is he a coward? Where does he stand in rising tumult?

Westmark is Lloyd Alexander’s first book of the trilogy by the same name. Plot driven, this is one of his largest and most complex casts of characters. Westmark is a land where cruelty and corruption have left their gruesome marks, making it one of Alexander’s darker books for young people. Despite this, Westmark showcases the author’s humor and clever turns of phrase, if somewhat less so than in his other books.

This short book packs a lot into its pages. As always, Alexander’s prose is sparse and vivid. Fans of well-developed inner conflict, action, and epic-type plots will enjoy Westmark. I’m looking forward to tracking down the other two books, The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen, this summer.

For a peek at a few of Alexander’s other books, read  this post about Tamar of  The Iron Ring. This post also has a few lines about The Arkadians and The Illyrian Adventure.