Celebrate Good Times (Even During COVID)

A couple weeks ago, the U.S. passed 500K deaths from COVID-19. So many others have lost their jobs, their businesses, their homes. They’re struggling in ways they weren’t even a year ago. There is so much chaos and hate. It’s staggering. This last year has been nonstop.

It’s been 363 days since I’ve been remote for work. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work safely from home – but I am still so saddened that I didn’t know until the week was over that this was happening – that the last time I was in the classroom with my students would be the last time I’d see them in person. The last time I’d set foot inside a classroom for a long time. Remember that hope? We thought moving remote for two weeks was all it would take. We’d be back soon.

It’s also been almost six months since I first signed a contract for publishing my first book. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, a dream came true. I haven’t told a ton of people about it just yet, partly because it hasn’t felt real, or like something could still happen that will rip this dream right from my fingers – but also because it feels a bit out of touch to be celebrating (even when rationally I know it’s emotionally important to celebrate the good things at times like this). I was reading an article a few months back in Bustle, an interview with Dan Levy about the added success his show Schitt’s Creek has found amidst the pandemic. In the interview, he said, “There are moments when I think it is important for your sense of self to also be OK to say, ‘Something good happened to me this year, and I worked really hard for it.’” This struck a chord with me. (Also, if you haven’t seen the show, what are you doing??)

On Friday, I received my manuscript back from my editor. She had gone through and edited the first three chapters to give me an idea of what she is looking for, and I’m to take it through the rest of the book before handing it back. My initial reaction, of course, was an emotional one. Not a bad one, just emotional – this is my baby – and a woman I have never met is telling me what to do with it! I understand the process, though, so I allowed my feelings to romp for a bit, throw their little tantrum, run off to Kavarna for some lunch – and then I set those feelings in the corner for a timeout so that I could get to work.

All I want to do is edit my book. That’s it. Well, edit and sleep. But there is life to attend to – there is work and cleaning and cooking. I have cats demanding snuggles sans laptop. Even so, I’ve managed to edit my way through a third of the manuscript so far, and I’m feeling good about the process and how the story is filling out.

I’ve also started telling a few more people the last few days. This step in the process is making it feel a bit more concrete.

Research Rabbit Hole

I really love doing research for a project. I love learning random facts and exploring places and meeting people – even if it’s only via the internet. I definitely would not have been as productive with my writing during this quarantine if not for the internet. Well, the internet and my training on how to suss out credible sources.

I can’t even tell you how I landed on it, but in the midst of researching for a project yesterday, I ended up in an ancestry rabbit hole. I have a book for my mother’s side of the family (put together by her aunt). We’ve always known from where her family lines had descended – Germany, France, and Poland.

My dad’s side is a bit a more of a mystery, but we were always told Germany, Italy, and Norway. Well, it turns out, we can add Luxembourg, Austria, and Ireland to that list – and that’s just from my paternal grandfather’s line. I’m even more of a mutt than I originally thought! 🤭

The Irish ancestry caught my attention, and I did a little more directed digging. It seems we descend from Clan Ó Duibhgeannáin (anglicized to Dignan), which was a “family of professional historians in medieval and early modern Ireland.” Suddenly, my love of research and Irish Whiskey makes a lot more sense… (Looking at you, Writer’s Tears – which I had sought out because I loved the name, and now it’s one of my favorites!)

I realize fully what a privilege it is to know as much as I do about my ancestors, and there is still so much to learn. (My paternal grandmother’s line is a bit of a mystery beyond the Norwegian.) It is mind boggling to consider all of the people that had to line up for me to exist.

A Year Since…

It’s hard to believe it’s been an entire year since I completed All Falling Things, but Facebook reminded me of how I had posted this picture when I finished.

Life looks a lot different today than when I typed those two little words. For one, we’ve been in quarantine for almost ten months due to a world wide pandemic – I’ve forgotten what three dimensional people look like. And yesterday, a mob breached the U.S. Capitol while the House and Senate were attempting to confirm the electoral college votes. The H/S members were forced to evacuate, and the mob ransacked offices and hung confederate flags in place of American flags. (The Capitol was eventually cleared, and the certification did finish a bit before 3 a.m. CDT – and yes, I was still awake for it.) And so much chaos has happened in between. The mind boggles.

For me, life has been relatively small and quiet. I’ve been working remote since March 13, and we are slated to be remote again in the spring (*sobs with understanding and gratefulness for being able to stay safe and still work but also with the missing of my three dimensional students*). I spent the two weeks after finals to get spring up, and so I’ve been “off” since Dec 24, and it’s been lovely to not be glued to email and constantly grading and putting out figurative fires (I teach over summers, so this is my first true break since…well, last winter break). But I miss being in the classroom so so so much. It’s going to be so weird the first time I get to step back into one.

I’ve been able to spend extra time with my nephews. Starting over the summer when school ended, I’ve helped out watching them (both my sister and brother-in-law are essential workers). When my oldest nephew, my lima bean, was a baby, I watched him a bunch – we spent a lot of nephew/auntie time together for the first few years of his life before he started school. I was a bit sad that I didn’t get the same experience with the second, my mini muffin. And then voila – that all changed. (This is me trying to be all silver lining – when in reality, the reason behind this chance to spend time together is devastating.)

I’ve gone in fits and spurts with reading. Sometimes I just can’t get myself to sit still. Sometimes I get this insatiable thirst that can’t be quenched. Stress sure does interesting things to a person. (I’ve been stalled at starting the second chapter of Little Women for almost two months. I had to look it up – and I was shocked to realize it’s been that long…what is time?)

Probably the one truly consistent thing for me has been writing. Well, writing and my youngest cat’s demands for constant lap snuggles. It’s astonishing to me that it’s been a year since I finished the initial draft of All Falling Things. Partly because it took me two years to write it. Partly because it seems much longer than that. Since then, I wrote the initial draft of my second novel, still untitled (and I’m waiting on feedback from two of my beta readers), and I’m 3/5 of the way through my third. Amazing how much time one has to write when they aren’t driving eight or nine hours every week. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s also astonishing because that year also feels so short. In the eight months that followed me finishing it, I edited and revised it several times, got feedback from my beta readers, edited and revised some more, and then started querying agents. Eight months after I finished it, I was offered a contract to publish it. Eight months seems so very short considering I had been dreaming about this for almost thirty-eight years.

At the moment, I’m waiting on the editor (my book is in their queue) and to see the cover design. I know publication is a slow process, and I’m doing my best to be patient – especially since there are so many other things to be impatient about. Like the vaccine and the chance to teach in the classroom again. Or the package I ordered from Singer that has been making its way from Ohio to Wisconsin for *checks calendar* eleven days now. (Please know – I fully understand the issues COVID and the holidays and people not traveling and instead mailing their presents have causes. Just confused since three other things I’ve ordered since then have already made their way to me. Again, I say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

If someone had told me all of these things a year ago, I never would have believed them. And yet, here we are.

Sounds Like Me

Sara B, St Paul, MN, 2007

The first time I heard Sara B perform, it was at an in-store signing/meet & greet at a Borders in MN. My significant other at the time had been a fan of Sara’s music ever since seeing her playing a song in the background of a movie called Girl Play. They had looked her up (a much more difficult thing to do in those days) and found a copy of her first album, Careful Confessions. At the time, I was in graduate school in Mankato, MN, and my SO was in town for a visit. It was October of my second year, and I knew of but hadn’t yet heard any of Sara’s music. This day was a birthday present for my SO. Including me driving up to and around St. Paul in a time before GPS. For me at least. After the mini performance, we got to meet with Sara B and chatted with her and took pictures and got signatures, and we found ourselves outside and my SO was flying high and said – I’m good. We can go home now.

Which would have been fine – other than we had tickets for a concert that night, Oct 1, 2007, at the Xcel Center. Had I known about the signing prior to shelling out the money (which when combined with the gas money it took to get there and back, was a lot for me at the time), I wouldn’t have bought the tickets. But I had bought them – and we were going. And we were going for the sole purpose of seeing the opener for the opener of the headliner – Sara B. Again. This was time number two – Sara and her piano up on stage playing to a half empty arena singing her heart out.

Sara B w/her band, St. Paul, MN, 2007
Sara B, Madison, WI, 2008

The third time I saw Sara perform was at a small bar in Madison, WI, called the High Noon Saloon. This is also the night that, while we waited after the show for Sara to come out and do signatures, my SO leaned over and asked me to marry them. I said yes. And because of this, when Sara B finally did come out, and I walked up to her, my hands were shaking quite noticeably. She asked what was up – and when I told her what had just happened, she smiled brightly and hugged me. This is an anecdote we told for years to come as a part of the proposal story since upon my return to my SO’s side, they replied, “So, what was that hug all about?”

The fourth time I saw Sara B was a little over a year ago at the United Center in Chicago as she supported her album Amidst the Chaos. At this point, I was divorced several years and wanted a memory of this great singer in action that wasn’t tied to my now ex. It was yet another stellar night of music and storytelling.

Sara B, Chicago, IL, 2019
Sara B, Book Tour, 2015

There was one other encounter in between the third and fourth, though not a concert. Two days before my sister’s birthday in 2015, I sat in a small auditorium listening to Sara B, on her book tour, call herself a “salty angry woman” and give writers the advice to “make yourself sit the fuck down and write.” (The notes I took from this event five years ago are still in my phone.) I bought two copies of her book that night, and even though we were instructed by the folks running the event that she wouldn’t be personalizing them beyond our name (thankfully written down on a post-it so that it would be spelled correctly…if I had a nickel for every book I own inscribed to Amy…), I whisper-asked if she would add a Happy Birthday to my sister’s copy that I was buying to gift to her in a couple days – and she smiled that smile and said sure.

The thing I hate to admit is that even though I did start reading the book when I first got it, I maybe got ten pages in and then stopped. I have no idea why. But when I was telling a friend of mine about all the heavy books I had been reading lately (of the last four, two were historical fiction about Shoah/Holocaust, one about biases, and one a memoir about female incarceration and starting a movement to aid women recently released from prison), he suggested that maybe the next book I read be something light. When I scanned my bookshelf, I saw this title sitting there still waiting to be read.

It was exactly what I needed in this moment in so many ways – the break down of her songs were interesting, her honesty and openness were welcoming, and her vulnerability was much needed at this moment in my life.

COVID and Reading, Part Two

I hit another reading slump after my frenzy back in August. Part of this might have been because on top of everything else, the Fall semester began. It would be several months before I would read anything other than student papers – but once again, I suddenly became ravenous for it.

I opted to switch between fiction and non-fiction – all of these have bee on my bookshelf patiently waiting to be picked up. I can’t wait for the day I can wander around a bookstore. Until then, I have plenty of lonely books waiting for me here.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn — Back before COVID, my friend Jack and I would meet up when he was in town and wander around bookstores and drink tea and eat chocolatey goodness. Three of these books came from the last time we did this. I do love historical fiction, and Quinn did a great job of putting me into the shoes of a spy in 1915 in enemy-occupied France and into the shoes of a young woman, pregnant and unmarried, in search of her missing cousin in 1947. There’s even a charming Scotsman – so how was I to resist? I will definitely be rereading this sometime.

Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt, Ph.D. — This book should be required reading for everyone. Everyone. Eberhardt does an incredible job of explaining bias and bringing the receipts. I’ve done a lot of reading and work in the realm of bias, and still, I was blown away. This was a book I found through Eberhardt’s Armchair Expert interview – if you don’t have time to commit to the full book (though you should find the time), then at the very least give her episode a listen.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris — Ok, so this book, it’s noted, started out as a movie script that Morris wrote after interviewing Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1942. During his time there, he became the tattooist of the camp, having to permanently scar those imprisoned with him with the telltale numbers on their arms. It was through this position that he met Gita, a woman he would fall in love with. Lale also risks his life, along with the help of some of the women he befriends, by smuggling jewels and money to workers who come and go – trading these for food and other supplies. The story itself is an account of Shoah/Holocaust that I have never experienced before – but I do have to note that the novel still reads very much like a script, which makes sense since that was its first iteration. It’s a lot of telling when I ached for showing.

Becoming Ms. Burton by Susan Burton & Cari Lynn — This was another Armchair Expert interview find, an interview with Susan Burton. Burton tells the story of her journey through sexual abuse at a young age and her subsequent battle with addiction and incarceration – and how one small thing changed the trajectory of her life – something that she has replicated with over 1200 incarcerated women. I gobbled this book up in one day – the entire thing. I couldn’t put it down. It’s heartbreaking and devastating and so full of hope. This is another MUST READ – a true testament to the difference one person can set into motion.

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antono Iturbe (translated by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites) — This book was a thing of beauty. Devastating, as it is also about Shoah/Holocaust – but beautifully written. It’s based on a true story about the family camp set up at Auschwitz and the brave people who created a school right under the Nazi’s noses – risking their own lives to educate the children kept there. Within the school are eight smuggled books – anyone caught with these will be punished by death. Even so, Dita takes on the role of the librarian, taking care of the books, having to fix their covers and sew their pages back into place – risking her life to make sure the children have access to these books and the knowledge and stories contained within their pages. And this book – I lived and died within its pages.

The following excerpt comes from Iturbe’s afterward in the edition that I have:

~ Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites

Things I’ve Learned on the Path to Publication

If there is anything that I’ve learned on this journey, it’s that there is no one set path to publication – though it can sure feel like there is a path and everyone is just keeping it hush hush. But there really is no chronological “to do” list that will guarantee publication – even if you have written the best book that has ever been written. It’s an isolating path, and it can seem overwhelming because so much of it is out of our control. I am in now way an expert – just sharing what I’ve learned along the way.

Beta Readers. Once you have a manuscript completed, and you’ve gone through and revised/edited it, the first step is to find beta readers (several – and try to make it an odd number so that if there is a disagreement on anything, it can’t be split down the middle) – specifically find people that you can trust to be completely honest with you. Having a love fest is not going to help you. You need people that can and will point out confusing passages and plot holes and things that just don’t work. This can be where having a writing group would come in handy – although your readers don’t have to be other writers. When you get your manuscript back, do your best to be honest with yourself as you go through and consider their feedback and your revisions.

Documents to Prepare. While your beta readers are reading, there are some documents you will want to put together. The first is the query letter. There are a lot of resources out there that can walk you through how to write such a letter, but the essentials are as follows: address the agent by name (obviously leave blank for now – but you should not be sending form letters with “to whom it may concern”), start with the hook and comps (titles of published books that would fall along the lines of your own), follow with a brief summary of your novel, mention why you chose to query them specifically, and end with a brief bio (mention platforms and previous publications/experiences only if they are meaningful). I emphasize brief – try to stick to one page/less than three hundred words.

Next, write up a synopsis of your novel. Again, be brief – one or two pages. If you are tipping over a thousand words, you are telling too much. Stick to the main characters and plot points – this is not a time for minor characters or subplots. On the flip side, this is not just a simple laying out of the plot – it needs voice, it needs character of its own. This is a chance to show off your own voice. Write it in third person. (NOTE: A lot of writers find it really helpful to write a two page synopsis before they even begin writing their novels.) Again, there are a lot of great resources out there for writing such a document.

Revise these documents. Have people read them over. Revise again. Edit like your life depends on it – because your book’s life depends on it.

Once you’ve done all that, attempt to write a Twitter pitch – it doesn’t have to go on Twitter, the point is just the brevity. If you had to sum up your novel in 280 characters, how would you do this? (Bonus if you can leave enough characters for a couple hashtags, such as those used for social media pitch fests.)

Editors. Before you send your manuscript to an agent, you may want to consider getting an editor. This step requires funds, though, and not all writers can afford this. An editor is not a requirement to submit to agents, but an editor can make sure your manuscript is truly ready. This is another place to be really honest with yourself about what you have written. Do you need a content editor? Do you need a copyright/line editor? Can you afford to do this? Your eventual publisher will assign an editor at their cost once you have a contract, but if your manuscript is riddled with plot holes and typos, it likely won’t grab the attention of an agent/reach a publisher. I often tell my writing students that an essay riddled with typos tells the reader that the writer doesn’t care about their work – so why should the reader? The same applies here. You don’t need to be an English major to be a writer, but if you don’t have a handle on grammar/mechanics, it’s best to get some help.

Searching for an Agent. Agents are the gatekeepers to larger publishing houses. There are a number of publishers that won’t accept unsolicited/unagented work. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there are a lot of places out there that will provide searchable lists to help you locate agents that are interested in the genre you are writing in. Two such lists are AgentQuery.com and Manuscript Wish List (MSWL also has an editor search). The key here is only submitting to people with interest in your genre and who are currently open to submissions. It doesn’t matter how good your book is – if you don’t meet their requirements, they will not even open your query. (The same goes for works outside their stipulated word count range.)

Also, make sure you only submit what they ask you to submit. The majority of agents will ask you for a query letter. Some might ask for a synopsis. Others might ask for a specific number of pages (I’ve seen requests for the first five, ten, twenty, or fifty pages). There may be other things they request. Biggest note: only send your manuscript when you are asked to do so.

If all goes well, you’ll get a request for a manuscript and then an offer to work together. The agent will then work to get you a contract with a publisher.

I would advise tracking which agents you have submitted to (you can submit to multiple agents at once) and when you sent them. Some agents will send letters (via email, generally) letting you know they aren’t interested. Others won’t respond – they will just note that if you don’t hear from them in, for example, six to eight weeks, that means they aren’t interested. (I had submitted to seventeen agents. I only officially heard back from six of them.)

Alternate Routes. If after a time, you find that you are not getting the bites you hoped for, or even alongside sending agent queries, there are other ways to get your manuscript noticed. One is contests – smaller publishers may offer contests that allow them access to manuscripts. The winner of the contest is usually published. (There are also usually reading fees associated with these contests; sometimes, there is a monetary reward for the winner in addition to what they will eventually get in royalties.) You can find these by searching for publishers that publish in your genre and see what they list on their websites. Another is a pitch fest on social media. For example, there is #PitMad and #DVPit on Twitter. (#RevPit is a contest to win a free edit of your manuscript.) Like contests, pitch fests can be tailored to specific genres, author identity, etc.

Small publishing houses are also (sometimes) open to unsolicited manuscripts. Get to know books that are in the same genre/line as your own – see who is publishing them, who their agents and editors are – then see if any of them are open to queries.

Contracts. My first piece of advice if someone does offer you a contract is to take a deep breath. Take five. Sleep on it if you can. This was an exciting experience for me – and it was a bit strange because they emailed me to let me know they wanted to offer me a contract and was I interested. I said sure since it couldn’t hurt to look – and looking didn’t obligate me to anything. When they send you the actual contract, read over it – but take a few more breaths. I was not given a date I had to decide by (I even asked if there was one, and they said there wasn’t). If the publisher is rushing you – that might be a red flag. You should have the time to explore legal representation (which is again going to cost money).

A piece of advice offered to me that I took was to apply to the Authors Guild – this was given to me about a week after I was sent the original contract. I wish I had known right away – so I’m telling you, whoever is reading this. Please note, this is ONE option – you do NOT have to do this. There is a fee associated with membership – but when you have a published book or a contract offer, you can apply for a membership level that includes free legal assistance in a couple of ways – including reviews of contracts. This will allow someone who does this for a living to catch any red flags that might exist within the contract.

Another piece of advice I offer you is this – ask the publisher if your contract is open to negotiation or if it is the finalized offer (i.e. take it or leave it). While you want to make sure you have someone look over the contract, you should know what they should be looking for – are they only looking for red flags, or are they looking to offer advice on what you should negotiate for? This will affect the time you then take to consider the offer – either you are looking for a straight yes/no, or you are considering the points the legal advice offers and deciding what you will then turn around and ask the publisher. Understand negotiations are a discussion – they may say no; they may come back with a counter-offer. Just don’t waste the time coming up with that initial response if their offer is already finalized in their eyes.

The biggest piece of advice I can give you is this – you have a right to walk away, and if you feel at all uncomfortable with an agent or a contract offer, walk away. I know this sounds bonkers considering this is the goal – but you wrote the book, and you deserve to feel comfortable with how it will be handled moving forward. Don’t sign everything away just because you want to see your book in print.

The next piece of advice – ask questions. Even if you feel like you have asked too many questions. Get your questions answered before you sign anything.

Last bit of advice – read rules/stipulations carefully. Some agents will note not to send to other agents at the same agency until you have heard back from them. Some contests will stipulate things like unpublished authors only or stipulate things like an author’s sex or race/ethnicity. Don’t submit to things that you don’t qualify for.

I Signed It

It has been twenty-four days since the email wanting to offer me a contract to publish All Falling Things arrived in my email inbox.

It’s been one day since I signed this contract. It’s official – my manuscript is one giant step closer to being published.

After many emails back and forth with the editor-in-chief, after asking questions through an author support page on Facebook, after learning about and then applying to the Authors Guild, after many conversations with a few of my friends, after several FaceTime sessions with Jack, after twenty-three days of debating and consulting – I signed it. Jack and I were FaceTiming when I initialed each page and then signed (electronically – which felt anticlimactic). And after all that, I felt – numb. It’s still sinking in, I think, but All Fallings Things is officially “forthcoming”.

24 days can be converted to these units:

  • 2,073,600 seconds 
  • 34,560 minutes 
  • 576 hours 
  • 24 days 
  • 3 weeks and 3 days
  • 6.56% of 2020

What’s in a Name?

This post contains spoilers for All Falling Things.

Though most of the characters in this book are connected by name only to AIW (mostly the secondary characters), there are a couple who are based more around characteristics. Because of this, I had a little more room to play with their names. I really like finding names that are significant to the character in some way.

Take Kya Asho, the woman that becomes Alice’s bestie. Kya means “diamond”; Asho means “pure of heart.” She embodies both these things (diamond by way of her sparkly personality – it also alludes to a stressful backstory, which we don’t get to in this book).

Then there is Lucas Shiri. Now, if you don’t want a major spoiler…stop reading right now.

Lucas means “light”. Shiri means “song of my soul.” In the original ending of this book, one of Alice’s goals was going to be to explore her relationship with Lucas. It was in my head from the start that she and Lucas were soul mates (if such a thing exists). Sorry to those that were #TeamStanley – he was never meant to be her forever. Lucas is. BUT – I didn’t want this story to be about “finding a man.” Love is wonderful – but it’s not what Alice came all the way to Chicago to seek. The story instead ends with her finding herself. (Also, at the end of the book, she is intrigued by Lucas, but their romance has not yet bloomed. Alice was telling the truth when she told Stanley there was nothing between them.)

And then there’s Cat. Again, it was never my intent for Cat and Stanley to end up together. (Don’t worry – their loves are out there.) For one, it felt too easy. It also felt more like Stanley would have been using Alice, and he really wasn’t. He did truly love her (and she did truly love him). But Cat – poor fierce fabulous Cat. Her last name, Scordato, means “forgotten” and “left behind” in Italian. Cat is on her own journey – and she will find her happy ending. But a romance with and marriage to Stanley is not part of it. She is finally on her own path, too, by the end of the book.

Then there is the title, the name of the book – All Falling Things. This is reference to the idea that all of the people within its pages are searching, are on their own journeys. For some it’s falling in love (Kya and Simone). For others it’s falling out of love (Cat). For others yet, it’s both (Alice and Stanley). For most of them, it’s tripping and falling over their own feet (metaphorically, of course) as they try to find their places in life. Even Cat, who seems so sure of everything, is seeking her place.

When a Life Dream Comes to Fruition. Maybe.

I’m a bit numb. You’d think after a few days, this feeling would wear off – but no. I’m still having trouble sleeping because I can’t turn my brain off.

Last week Thursday, I went into my gmail, like I do a couple times a week. Only this time, there was an email from a publisher saying they would like to offer me a contract for All Falling Things if I am still interested. This is the publisher from #DVPit. They’ve had the manuscript for ten weeks without any other communication, so I had figured it was over. But nope – there they were, in my email.

I did what any hopeful author would do: I freaked out internally so as not to frighten the cats. I asked my BFF/Writing Buddy to FaceTime and help me sort out my feelings. He calmed me down. (Thank you, Jack.) Still, I did not sleep well that night, which wasn’t great since I was on nephew duty the next morning.

I did email the publisher to say that I would be interested in viewing a contract. Couldn’t hurt to look, right?

Then I did what any hopeful author would do: I obsessively checked my email, even over the weekend when I knew they wouldn’t likely be working. And last night, the contract showed up. And I read over it. And Jack calmed me down. And Cody calmed me down again. And I didn’t sleep well. (Do you see a pattern?)

I remember sitting in so many sessions through AWP and UntitledTown, listening to authors talk about how they landed their publishing contracts – which usually involved a path that one could not follow. Chance seemed to play a big part in all of it. I think that is why this process can feel so isolating. I mean, here I am sitting at my kitchen table reading a contract, and I have no idea what to say to my sister when she asks me if it is “good”. I don’t have an agent* to fight on my behalf – an agent far more well-versed in all this than I am. Someone who can tell me if it’s “good” or if I’m getting screwed. But no, it’s just me and a large cup of coffee I probably don’t need to be drinking. I can’t sleep as it is.

I remember being so frustrated during all those sessions – like, how am I supposed to get my book to print if there isn’t a path to follow, if it’s all chance and luck? This doesn’t help me at all.

Yet here I am, contract in hand, and it was all by chance. And because it’s all chance, I have no idea if this is good for me or not.

The publisher’s editor in chief did offer to answer any questions, so this morning I wrote out my thoughts, had Jack read it over, and then sent it. And now I wait. Again. During which I will probably obsessively check my email and fail to sleep.

*On the same day that I received this contract, I also received a rejection from an agent who had, thus far, the most crushing rejection letter to date – telling me that perhaps someone else might see possibilities in my book, but she just didn’t. So, you know, there’s balance.

COVID and Reading

On March 13, life shifted for me. Officially. The college where I teach decided to shift to remote learning. The following week was turned into another week of break for our students (in addition to our actual spring break set the week after – when I was supposed to finally get to go out to WA to see my BFF…) and into a work week for us. I was devastated that the decision came when classes for the week were over and that I would not get a chance to see my poets in person again. I made a trip the following week to grab much needed supplies from my office (like my coffee pot), and I haven’t been back since.

I feel really lucky that I have a job that allows me to teach from a distance. I can’t even fathom the fear other folks felt, and are still feeling, the ones that had to continue going into their work place. I also feel really lucky that I have been teaching online for years. For one, a couple of my classes were already online in the Spring, along with release time for my Teaching Chair duties. I only had one class to move online…and it was a beast to do so. I, once again, can’t even fathom how my colleagues who don’t teach online and aren’t familiar with the tech even managed to survive the last half of our spring semester. But they did. I saw my colleagues pull rabbit after rabbit out of their hats. We all managed to get across the end-of-semester finish line one way or another, even if it meant dragging each other across it.

When it came to reading for fun, well, that didn’t happen. Who had the time? But when summer rolled around, a semester I usually teach online only as an effort not to have to commute such a distance, I found I still didn’t have the energy to pick up a book and get lost in it. I couldn’t find the right mood. I would try – but would just end up reading the same page over and over without retaining any of it. Eventually, I just stopped trying.

When I did have free time (which I suddenly had a lot of since I wasn’t able to spend my Wednesday downtown at the farmer’s market or to plant myself at my favorite coffee shop and write for hours on end or even to wander through the bookstore…), I would re-watch things – TV shows and movies. By this time, my social media feeds were all inundated with articles and studies about how creative folks were having trouble creating and everyone was having trouble with new things. Why? Anxiety. I mean, duh? The world is figuratively and literally burning down around us. Of course, we’re anxious. But books and movies and shows – stories – have always been my escape. Let me escape!

Turns out, those studies show that we tend to gravitate to things we know – in other words, endings we can be sure of – when there are other things we aren’t sure of. Makes sense.

But the world is still burning – that hasn’t changed. But for some reason, at the end of July, I felt the need for something new. So I watched a few movies on Netflix. I ran through the available episodes of Sweet Magnolias (y’all – Aida has upped and moved to South Carolina!!!). And I DEVOURED all four seasons available of Lucifer (three times…in a row…that show is something else). I’m still not sure what sparked this ability to consume new things once again – but I was grateful for it. It was refreshing to not know what was coming next.

On Aug 14, I started reading again. Still no idea what switch got flipped (or where such a switch is even located), but I haven’t been able to stop. I’ve managed to devour five books so far. Devour is the best way I can come up with to describe the feeling – because I seriously just gobbled them up.

I started with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a book I stumbled upon when I was trying to find comps for my query letter. The premise promised an unusual character (which Honeyman delivered on), and reading the first couple pages was enough for me to want to know more about Eleanor.

I came across Judson Brewer through his interview on the podcast Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard (a podcast I really love – my one regret about not having a long commute at the moment is falling so far behind). The interview was fascinating, and his book, The Craving Mind, was mentioned. I added it to my list, and this was the second book I tackled. It definitely got me thinking about some of my own habits, especially their roots, and opened some stuff up.

The third book is a memoir by a friend of mine from college, Failing Better by Christina Brandon. Written about her two years of teaching English in China, Christina is open, honest, and reflective about her time there – what she learned not just about the country and its people, but about herself and her reactions to what she was experiencing. She’s not afraid to lay her own imperfect moments on the page – and I think we can all learn a lot from her about that.

There’s a drive in movie theatre where my sister lives (where I lived from the age of ten until I left for college) – the Skyway Drive-In, owned by two of the kindest brothers you’d ever want to meet. During the summer of 2015, my sis and I, with my then three-year-old nephew, went for the double feature. We figured he’d be asleep before the first movie even finished. We were wrong [strained smile]. We ended up leaving about fifteen minutes into the second movie, The Martian – a movie I still have not seen – but that fifteen minutes was enough get me hooked. I did buy the book, though it sat my shelf for a bit – so this was the next one I picked up. And Oh. My. Goodness. It felt like a race to finish it. I’ve been talking about it nonstop – and I’m pretty sure people are sick of me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But I’ve also convinced a few friends to read it. (Weir did an amazing job with the science of it – I didn’t ever feel like I got lost. I also appreciated what a smartass the character is without becoming insufferable.) Now to get my hands on that movie. And Andy Weir’s other books.

The book I just finished tonight is How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community by Mia Birdsong. I stumbled across this book when Christina (who wrote the memoir) posted a photo of it on her Instagram account. It’s a fascinating look at how we are “supposed” to construct families here in the States – and alternatives to that idea that are far more successful. What she had to say made a lot of sense (especially about chosen families and creating villages to raise kids) – and I do believe she is right: this American Dreamism and individualistic society we live within is making us all miserable.

Up next – The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. I’m sure there’s some escapism happening in my insatiable urge to read – but I’m just gonna let that ride for now. Bring on the stories.