Mind Twister: Writing and Publishing a Book

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt


I woke this morning with renewed respect for my Mama, who gave me so many notepads and diaries with lock and key, and told me to “go write about it” from the time I could hold a #2 lead pencil in my fat little hand, and who wrote and published four books in her lifetime, plus endless stories and articles and short pieces that never saw the light of day. Renewed respect for all my writer friends, as well. 

I turned to writing for so many reasons: to live in my imagination and engage myself in an all-consuming activity when I was bored; to get accolades from my teachers when I turned in an assignment; to unravel my jumbled thoughts and figure out what was really going on in my head; to describe something beautiful or horrible or see the magical in the mundane; to record the events of the day or to make up stories about little girls who were like me, or who I felt I really was inside in spite of my skinny legs and awkward ways. Plus, I saw my parents writing every day of my childhood, so it was almost a foregone conclusion that I, too, would write.

“Writing mattered in our house. It was a noble thing, an adventure: to live by your wits, by the powers of your observation, then put it in print to tell a story. Both my parents wrote for a living; my father was a newspaperman, my mother a novelist, biographer, and historian. Revealing the way you saw life had value. Writing was considered a brave act.” 

From Shopping with Mama: Write ’til the End out fall, 2018

Publishing a book, however, is an altogether different task. It involves critique and endless revisions, writing queries and synopses, chapter outlines, long and short bios, tag lines and log lines, making the pages pretty, creating a cover and a website, advertising. (Tip: That’s what an experienced writing coach can help you with.) 

A writer who gets her work out into the world is not the person who wrote it. An often introspective introvert must turn into a high level administrator and self-promoter, an extrovert. She needs to get out into the public eye, ask people for help, talk about her work, and know how to ask for a sale. She must handle the slings and arrows of many rejections, and when she finally publishes, know some will not like it, might refute the events in her accounting, think she has a “big head” or worse, not mention it at all. (A book or a poem is like a baby, you know. Imagine never even mentioning someone’s child.)

Seeing her baby grow into adulthood, to send it, independently on its way, involves taking the next step, and the next, breathing through her inexperience, her anxiety and timidity, doing it regardless of the outcome. It’s like going a little crazy, while still believing in yourself. 

Meanwhile, the writer is often already creating another “baby” – a blessed act where she can let her heart sing and dig into her interior thoughts and feelings, returning to her natural self. Moving back and forth between these two personas can feel schizophrenic. But as long as the writer has the interior space in which to create, the rest feels at least, possible, if not comfortable.

I saw a meme on Facebook this morning that said the following:  “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life work super fucking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally.”

Pretty much. 

But there are Big Benefits to finishing, too—to publishing.

For one, there is an incredible amount of learning and clarity that comes from taking a project across the finish line. (The alternative is not better! Imagine how it might play havoc with your self image, needle and nudge you relentlessly, reinforcing old stories that you can’t, you aren’t good enough or talented enough….) The fact that you do it can transform these stories, and you become another person.

Finishing gives you head-space: to rest, enjoy life, and then, create what’s next. Learning what you can only learn in the very final stages of a project, especially one that is going to be read or watched or any way interact with other people, requires you to add to and improve your skills, fine-tune ideas, accelerate effort. It requires you to grow. 

And then there’s the deep satisfaction of doing what you said you would do and keeping your promises to yourself (or in this case, Mama.) And the joy of beholding something now in existence that was previously only an idea in your head. 

You do know how to wash your face and meet the public; how to read aloud, answer questions politely, maybe even with some depth or insight. Your Mama taught you that

As for publishing, it reminds me of the old Pete Seeger song … “Step by step, the longest march can be wonmany stones do make an arch, singly none.” It’s micro-accomplishments, bit by bit..

Here I am, spanning the writer/publisher divide. 

I am looking for the keystone.

Iceland’s Got Legs

“I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been.” ―Pooh

Iceland's got legs

Each day, there’s a chance of rain and thunderstorms in North Carolina, yet I am still drawn to things at the top of the world.

The Icelandic word for journey is ferð (with a little boat over the o that changes the pronunciation completely – to something like ferth.) And I, a ferðamaður in Iceland last month, witnessed and was told things from the contacts we made, that are still with me, largely our Airbnb hosts (farmers, artists, a fisherman, a policeman, a hairdresser, an activist, and a retired tourist guide) – as well as other worldwide travelers with their feet in the wild hotspots we dipped in. (In summer, the tourist population is seven times that of Icelanders. Think of it!)

♥ Iceland is an island at the edge of the Arctic with its own beach and harbor culture. Whether for commercial purposes or preservation, Icelanders are intimate with the sea. They came here on boats, and they know seafaring ways. There are also so many amazing waterfalls – thin, broad, towering, roaring, that after a while, you just expect them around every twist and turn of the road, not to mention rivers, glaciers, black, white, and pink beaches, and the secret lagoons. Iceland is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

“Geothermal, Baby.” All through Iceland, water is central to your experience. Naturally hot water is piped into each home for a small, flat fee (regardless of income or usage.) Each town and hamlet also has a sundlaug, which translates as a water facility, with swimming pools, and hot and cold pools of different temperatures, saunas, steam baths, sometimes slides for kids. Everyone goes to the sundlaug after work or school, sometimes before. The health of the entire population is greatly enhanced by these pools.

We did not go to the Blue Lagoon for several reasons. First the cost: $91-118 each just to get in. (We would go on our way out of the country if time and money permitted, we told ourselves.) But the amazing wild hotspots and sundlaugs in every town warmed us up for free or the $3 Senior fee, kept our muscles and joints limber, and offered so much more intimate talk with others that we are quite sure wouldn’t have happened at the Blue Lagoon, a beautiful, but very large, commercialized geothermal park. Not that you shouldn’t go. It’s just the way we rolled.

Iceland has a very low crime rate. We stayed with Kristian in Borgarnes, a policeman for 18 years, and asked him what he did all day. He shrugged, “Roadside help, maybe a traffic accident here and there. We just drive around all day.”

Our friend, Alma, told us there are a lot of guns, but no one has shot anyone in Iceland since 1976. Can you fathom that? “We fight with words,” she said, smiling. “And swords.” The last execution in Iceland was in 1850, and it was very traumatic for the country. So. No capital crimes, no capital punishment. There are many, many hunters, though, and they work very hard to secure their gun licenses. “It’s not easy,” Alma reported.

Kristian, our policeman host, gets a great salary, six weeks paid vacation, and up to nine months paternity leave, along with his wife, as well as no-to-low cost health care and free education through graduate school. Everyone has a job, and most make a livable wage, in spite of high costs. There are virtually no homeless people.

Icelanders are serious environmentalists, and they LIVE what they believe. They sit on the point of the earth where they see a lot of the weather changes currently happening, and nine months of little-to-no sun, plus storms and rain, preoccupy them with the weather. “We like it when it snows,” one man in the southeast told us. “It makes the sky brighter.”

We went to wonderful National Parks. Everywhere you go, if you pack it in, you pack it out. Because there are no plants in the world more sensitive than moss, and large swaths of Iceland are covered with moss, everyone is quite protective of it, warning you about harming it in any way. Many are oriented to protecting sea creatures, too, though some few also hunt whales.

“There were many good things when we were heathen,” Alma told us, “because then we understood Nature.”

Icelanders are relaxed and practical. They are also not modest, and it is so apparent there that modesty is learned. All the women we met were flat out, honest, adventuresome, and friendly. They were politically aware and active. Proud of their Viking heritage and island culture, they know their history, and want you to know it too. From the earliest age, they strip naked and wash off together once or twice a day in the sundlaug showers before they get in their bathing suits and go out to swim or dip in the hot waters. They do the same getting out. Everyone is a part of the human body, and it’s no big deal. They often warn foreigners not to be surprised in the locker room.

Icelanders love to be outdoors. They carry chairs and blankets in their car’s boot to sit out at a favorite spot, a stream, or a hotpot between the mountains.

It is still possible to shame a politician out of office in Iceland. There are several parties in their coalition government, and a new Pirate’s Party, about 12% of the people, mostly geeks who use the internet to find out about corporate ties various politicians have, or their other wrongdoings, and then broadcast them on the internet to affect the outcome of the election. It works. Alma is a Pirate, too, at 60. Remember “words and swords.”

The downside of the small population in Iceland, one man told us, – 340,000, only about 175,000 adults – was that if you argued with the opposing party or point of view, you would likely be talking to a member of your own family or neighborhood, so that made political discussions tough. (The same is true here, in spite of our large population.)

Horses are just part of the family. Other than sheep, no other animals are as prolific as the many wild horses of every shape and color running freely along the roadsides, or loosely paddocked on peoples’ farms, long manes flying. Do not mistakenly call them ponies, I was warned.

And the sheep! Every sheep family has at least one black sheep, so I felt completely at home in Iceland. Plus there are usually many black sheep!

♥  ♥  ♥  ♥  

It was liberating to be with these strong, friendly, progressive Nordic people. Expensive, yes, though I found out you can get there cheaply on Iceland’s Wow Airline. But, it’s, oh, so worth it. Put Iceland on your Bucket List! Try two weeks in July. I intend to apply to various writers retreats and return in the winter to see the northern lights, and finish my tomes amidst the many other supportive artists and writers there, possibly in 2019. Want to come?

Please tell me about your Icelandic adventures below, if you, too, have been a ferðamaður there.

How to Travel With an Extrovert on a Long Trip in a Rooftop Tent.

IMG_3893 2

“Talent is nurtured in solitude;
character is formed in the stormy billows of the world.”

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A lot of folks disbelieve it when I tell them I am an introvert, because I am a ‘talkative introvert.’ Yes, we exist. Introversion has nothing to do with talking. Its about how someone gains or loses energy.

I am not the ‘pull-up-the-moat’ kind of introvert my father was, though as I get older, I find maybe I am: the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. For an introvert, energy stores are depleted in social situations. To rebuild them, we need to be alone for awhile. We’re not always shy, but we are easily worn out when there’s heavy engagement with others.

Extroverts gain energy from others. They can end up inadvertently dominating introverts, because they bubble over with the enthusiasm that connecting with the world provides them. They may assume introverts have no important thoughts or intentions of their own.

Now, picture this: I am married to an full-on extrovert, and we love to travel together. So what to do when we are in a car together 24/7 for three-plus weeks, and sleeping in a very tight space on top of it?

Here were my life savers:

  1. Bring the difficulty of the two types together out into the open. Talk about it. It’s just two types bumping together, nothing personal. Explain you need lots of quiet time to feel comfortable and happy. Don’t assume he knows. For example, if you’re a writer cooking on new ideas for your book, deeply involved with your characters, or just need a quiet morning, tell him so, and ask for quiet. Establish parameters. We use Gasho* times to do this, as well. (See #9 below.)
  2. Read a lot. Take naps. Bend over your journal and pretend to write. Better still, write. Slip out to the bathroom. Stay in there a long time. Meander a little off the trail. Study a flower. Take lots of pictures.
  3. Ask him not to read aloud from the travel guide as you drive, and explain to him that you are enjoying your own mind. Reassure him he can read it to you later, or ask him to preface his remarks with “May I share something with you,” so he won’t just assume you are ready to listen.
  4. Nod and smile if you don’t want to engage with everything he saying, but to let him know, with minimal cues, that you are basically following along.
  5. Encourage him to go inside to ask directions or inquire about the best things to see and do in the area: if there is live music somewhere, an ATM, where the campground is.
  6. Establish “Chat Circle” etiquette: My husband cannot help but get into chats with people he meets everywhere. He is open, eager, gracious, and talkative, and he truly likes other people most of the time. Sometimes this is enjoyable and brings much into our lives. But often there’s someplace we need to be at a particular time, too. He has left me in the car at a gas station for what seems like hours, because he’s gotten into a fascinating conversation inside. So, if it’s really important, ask him, in advance, to please not get into a chat circle. And keep a book with you at all times, just in case.
  7. When you are ready, or even when you are not, but it’s important to do so, listen as deeply as you can, and let him know you have heard him. Deep listening is healing.
  8. Look for the good in your situation. There’s lots of it. You may give him ‘depth,’ but he gives you ‘breadth,’ too, and brings so much into your life that you would otherwise have to go out and get. (Or, more likely, not.) Be sympathetic, because he’s having just as hard a time with you. Genuinely appreciate all he brings to your journey together.
  9. We learned the Gasho process at a silent retreat, where we were to remain quiet throughout the entire four days. (It was hard for both of us.) If we had to speak to each other, we were to put our hands together in a prayer pose and whisper the word “Gasho.” Only when we were acknowledged with a nod, could we speak, and then only quietly and briefly. We use it, now, all the time. Respect for our own and other’s silence goes a long way in renewing our interest in each other.
  10. AND … Invite him to write a blog about how to survive a flaming introvert!

Surviving A Long Road Trip with An Introvert

Art’s Response:

  1. Realize your partner needs lots of silence, and don’t take it personally.
  2. Know your introverted partner will initiate conversation when ready. Sometimes she will engage a lot!
  3. If there’s something you really want to talk about, ask for a time/meeting to discuss it.
  4. Get some time every day away from each other, and take advantage of that to engage with others.
  5. When you are without your partner, around others, get your gab on.
  6. Listen to music and talk radio on earphones.
  7. Sound your partner out about how they feel in a group setting. Your partner might be very talkative and engaged in a social situation and then want to leave early. Prepare for it.
  8. Take something to do by yourself: reading, crosswords, puzzles, sketch book, etc.
  9. Be careful not to burst in on conversations your partner might be having with someone else. It may seem natural to you, but feel offensive to your partner. Introverts frequently like to have conversations one on one, and not be interrupted. The same is not necessarily true with extroverts.
  10. Keep in mind that you are two people trying to get energy in two decidedly different ways. That’s all. No one is right or wrong.

And a final note from us both: Get an Airbnb!

Writing And Reading In Iceland

IMG_2208Iceland, an island nation of just over 300,000 people, has more writers, more books published, and more books read, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Let that sink in for a moment.

There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” which means everyone gives birth to a book, or, literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach.” One in 10 Icelanders will publish a book. This is an astounding statistic.

My husband thinks the reason Icelanders read and write so much is because in bad weather (winter), they are not outside much. When it is dark and cold, the people have nothing else to do, and thanks to the their poetic eddas and medieval sagas, Icelanders have always been surrounded by stories.

But I suspect it is something more, and, from what I can tell, Icelanders seem to be decidedly outdoor people: intrepid, adventurous, and hardy in all kinds of weather.

There is an active and supportive writers’ community here, and appreciation for poetry and literature, and all of the arts, is embedded within the culture. The Icelandic government awards competitive grants and stipends to writers annually, making the dream of working as a full-time professional writer a reality for some. Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit. The coffee-shop culture in Reykjavik is bustling, and writers who love frequenting coffee shops with character, charm, and a good cup of joe certainly benefit from it. (NOTE: Starbucks has been knocking on the nation’s door for a while now, but Icelanders adamantly refuse to let the giant coffee chain in.)

My Airbnb host, Alma, who seems to be the Mother of Iceland, encourages me to apply for a grant and return to write. I am thinking of doing just that. Her next door neighbor is the famous Stefan Mane, who writes mysteries, the biggest current boom along with crime stories. Iceland’s black lava riverbeds, steaming, bubbling earth, towering volcanoes, and fairytale streams make it the perfect setting for such stories.

The Iceland Writers Retreat has compiled a list of reasons why every budding author should come to Iceland and experience its extraordinary literary culture firsthand. They include 1) the otherworldly, breathtaking, and inspiring landscapes, 2) being one of the few places in the world where anyone can easily drive out into the wilderness and be truly alone to clear one’s head and write, 3) Icelanders’ love for language, 4) the ease of professional networking here, where everyone knows someone who knows someone who can help bring your project to fruition. (There is apparently a lack of competition among writers here, a true desire to help each other out.)

One of the most wonderful examples of Icelandic love for literature is the jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, when most books are published. Every household gets a book catalogue through the door. They pore over it like a furniture catalogue. Everyone receives books as Christmas presents, hardback and shrink-wrapped.

“Even now, when I go the hairdressers,” Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, says, “they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.”

So here I sit in a campground field near Husavik, one degree from the Arctic Circle, writing. I am wrapped in down and wool, and it is chilly, but I am inspired. It is just hours after France’s World Cup victory, which we watched with an international crew whooping and cheering in the Campgrounds Community room. But outside it’s quiet at 9 PM, and there is no sign of the sun going down anytime soon. It’s time to write.

Last Chances Count.

stephanie IMG_3575As a writer making a “third-chapter” public debut, I say they do.

But as the daughter of writers, I can attest to the fact that there is no final word.

After a lifetime of focusing on other things, I am now looking to the public presentation of my craft. Though composing since preschool, putting it out there—publishing it, doing the work of writing—is a new beginning for me.

The clack of the old Corona typewriter, the whirr and bell of the return carriage was background noise to my childhood. My father, a newspaperman, rode around in the back of cop cars at night for a story. My mother was forever in her pajamas back in the bedroom typing up her tales. It was something we did. We wrote. Words counted. Stringing letters into sentences counted more. Revealing the way you saw life had value. My parents’ models and my mother’s encouragement cheered me on. “Go write about it, Marion!” she would say again and again.

I accumulated boxes full of notebooks and napkins and scraps of paper with dashed-off tidbits about whatever was going on during every phase of my life, plus short stories and novellas.

“There’s gold in those boxes, Marion. Wait five or ten years. Get a little distance from it. Then pull it out. Pure gold.” Her prospector eyes gleamed.

It’s true. I have a new book: A memoir of the last decade of my mother’s life and our relationship, both as a fractious mother/daughter duo and as writers together. It’s called: Shopping with Mama: Write ’til the End, and it will be out in Fall, 2018. I hope you will want to read it. (Here, hyperlink the words Read it and go to the contact page.)

Our lifelong arguments were often about duty versus enjoyment: which should prevail? A placard on the wall of my house reads, ‘Be happy. Happiness is a form of wisdom.’ It’s certainly my inclination, a product of the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ generation, to choose happiness as often as I can.

But I didn’t escape the grasp of duty either. I wanted to be the best daughter I could be for my mother on her way out, even after decades of disagreements and wildly disparate world views.

What I say is if you’re fortunate enough to have a parent live long enough, and cogently, as I did, so that you can help them into the next experience, last chances count. At least for you. You can go home again. You can rethink the whole experience, help another person, and come home to write about it

What are beginnings and endings anyway? Aren’t they happening every second of every minute on the subatomic level deep within us? We have unlimited chances. Every exit line is also an entry to something else.

Whatever the goal, whatever the time, last chances count, though, truthfully, they are never really final. I still have conversations with my now dead parents and learn something new in the exchange, settle an old hurt, finally understand. Some things are never-ending.

But don’t wait. Do it! Whatever it is you think may be beyond you, or out of reach, or not really gonna’ happen for you in your lifetime.

Don’t die wondering. What if things go right?

Take the leap!

This is mine as I reach for the next trapeze.