After sailing through her fascinating memoir in which issues of love, faith, work, and passion are examined, I interviewed author Lisa McKay. Lisa, who presently lives in Laos, answers questions about Love At the Speed of Email as well as the writing process, and her thoughts on traditional versus self-publishing. Below is an excerpt from her book.
What drives any of us to stick with something for years when it’s not a constant carnival? For many, a need to pay the rent and eat, clearly. But that’s not all. Few of us who live in the Western world must do exactly what we do to feed and clothe ourselves. Many times our career choices are really more influenced by a cocktail of duty, fear, apathy, talent, priorities, and passion. Alternate lives, at least one or two of them, often lie within reach.
Thank you so much for your time, Lisa!
Can you describe LOVE AT THE SPEED OF EMAIL for us?
Love At The Speed Of Emailis the story of an old-fashioned courtship made possible by modern technology. Here’s the back cover text:
Lisa looks as if she has it made. She has turned her nomadic childhood and forensic psychology training into a successful career as a stress management trainer for humanitarian aid workers. She lives in Los Angeles, travels the world, and her first novel has just been published to some acclaim. But as she turns 31, Lisa realizes that she is still single, constantly on airplanes, and increasingly wondering where home is and what it really means to commit to a person, place, or career. When an intriguing stranger living on the other side of the world emails her out of the blue, she must decide whether she will risk trying to answer those questions. Her decision will change her life.
While writing your memoir, you split your time between humanitarian work in several countries while being newly married. When did you actually find time to actually do the writing?
It was a challenge (although I must say I think it’s usually a challenge to find/make time to write, no matter where you’re at in life). I wrote the first draft during our first year of marriage. Mike was away for about a third of the year working on consultancies in different countries, so I had several months of free evenings. I was also only working four days a week – I had previously made the decision to drop down to 80% schedule and take a 20% paycut to concentrate on my writing. (Here I should pause to say that although that did cost us financially, it was a decision I never regretted. I loved having that extra time on Fridays).
The 2nd and 3rd drafts were a lot easier to find time to work on – we’d just moved to Laos, and apart from doing some consulting all I had on my hands was time. That first nine months in Laos was a huge luxury for me in that regard.
What’s the hardest part of taking your relationship, analysing it, and putting it intoa book for all to read?
The hardest part of writing about my relationship with the man who is now my husband was figuring out what to leave out. We had written each other 90,000 words worth of letters before we ever met, and that was just the start of the raw material I had to work with.
Writing about my previous relationships was harder. One chapter, in particular, I must have rewritten a dozen times. I went over that story over and over again, trying to pin down what had happened during that time and, in particular, my own contribution to the unhealthy dynamics of that relationship.
How was the process of writing memoir different than writing fiction?
When I was writing my first novel (My Hands Came Away Red) I found myself getting surprised by what was happening. As I figured out the “what” of plot, however, an understanding my character’s actions and reactions followed fairly naturally.
Writing a memoir reversed this process. I already knew what happened – I’d lived it – but I had to work much harder to figure out what it all meant to me, then and now.
The plotting process was different, too. With the novel I wrote my way into the story blind, without an outline. As I wrote, the story gained momentum as events unfolded.
In contrast, I had a clear vision for the start and end of the memoir, but little idea of how I was going to get from one place to the other. Despite repeated outlines I continued to flounder in the middle until the very final drafts of the manuscript.
How has the process of promoting your self-published book been different than your traditionally published novel, MY HANDS CAME AWAY RED? What role has blogging played?
Self-publishing’s been more work than I had anticipated, taken more time, and has cost me more money. How’s that for a depressing summary?
In all seriousness, I don’t regret having self-published this book. I’ve learned a huge amount through this experience that I’m sure will serve me well. However, I also have even more respect for the role played by traditional publishing companies now. The editing and mentoring I received during the process of publishing my first book was invaluable – I am so grateful to all the staff involved in that process.
A word about money on this topic … Proponents of self-publishing often ridicule the royalty rates that traditional publishers pay (often in the range of 17%), and there is perhaps room for those to be increased. But on many versions of my self-published books I’m not earning a huge amount more than that. Amazon, for example, only pays you 35% on kindle downloads from a whole bunch of countries instead of the 70% it pays when a US customer downloads your e-book. Sure, that’s double what you’d earn if you had been published by a traditional company, but you’re also out there working to sell books without the benefit of marketing or publicity help unless you pay for it. (If you want to think more about money, jump on over to a pair of posts I wrote recently about costs and earnings associated with self-publishing. Here’s the link to the first one, Let’s talk money: What it cost me to self-publish my book).
As for the role blogging has played … the blog has been a useful forum for helping me process the self-publishing journey and keeping people up to date. I also have no doubt that I’ve already reached more people with this story because I keep an active blog than I would without it. But I don’t have a huge audience by blog standards. I’m not nearly a mega-blogger, and it’s the mega-bloggers who are in a position to sell thousands of books just through the power of their own blog. So blogging for me has been something I do because I want to more than anything else, not a calculated publishing move.
Do you have any words of advice for others who want to write a memoir?
Screeds have been written on this topic, but here are a couple of points I tried to keep in mind:
Tell a story:When I started writing this memoir I thought I might be able to “glue together” a whole bunch of essays and blog posts I’d previously written and call it a book. A friend and editor bluntly told me that I was neither famous nor good enough to get away with that yet and that I had to tell a coherent story if I wanted to write a memoir. He was right. If you want to write a memoir and you don’t know anything about story arc, google it (for starters).
Write into the unknown:I don’t know who it was that said that if the author hadn’t discovered anything during the course of the book the reader likely wouldn’t either, but it’s stuck with me. If you want to write a memoir be prepared to do some soul searching and struggling to put into words some of your shadows and your fears. Work to learn about yourself while you’re writing.
Take your time:I know some people can write a book in a couple of months. I’m not one of them. My work is always stronger when I’m prepared to edit, edit, edit, and let it sit and breathe between drafts.
I’d love to hear about the Lao charities you support, and what you’re working on next.
A portion of my profits on this book will be going to support charities operating here in Laos. The two I have in mind at present are two organizations that focus on literacy and education, Pencils of Promise and the Luang Prabang Boat Library. Pencils of Promise builds schools and trains teachers. The Library Boat carries books up and down the Mekong to villages that can only be accessed by boat.
As for what I’m working on next, I’m not sure. Long term I know I want to write more books, but not in the next couple of months! A couple of things I know I will do in the next six months is guest posting to help get the memoir off the ground and starting to write more on the topic of long distance relationships. If you have a blog and you’d like me to guest post for you, do let me know! I’d love to hear from you.
MMy longtime friend, Dr. Sally Dorman, will return to Alaska next week for a summer visit.
Twenty-something years ago, I worked at an agency that served battered women and children. Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis. Sally was one of my favorite coworkers. We worked in the trenches together with other dynamic staff members, facilitating groups for battered women, creating school curricula for grades K-12 on family violence, and giving countless school presentations on the topic.
In the late ’90s, Sally moved out of Alaska to advance her education, and I became a social worker. We lost touch. Two years ago, we reconnected through Facebook.
Today, Sally is Dr. Dorman, a school psychologist in Maryland specializing in violence prevention programming. Her research on the impact of training school personnel to recognize the signs of childhood exposure to domestic violence was funded through a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. in 2008.
Thank you Dr. Dorman, and welcome!
How did you go from working with battered women and children in the battered women’s shelter to the violence prevention work you do today?
I did clinical work for my master’s degree at a community health center while attending Mansfield University for a degree in Community Clinical Psychology. As a part of that, I worked at a local community mental health center for my internship, which got me thinking of the dire need for mental health promotion and prevention.
After the prevention work we did back in the day, it was only natural that my interests lie in violence prevention and decided to enter a doctoral program in school psychology. I wanted to do the prevention work through policy change.
What kinds of projects have you worked on to address kids affected by domestic violence?
I worked on a coordinated community response around domestic violence in western New York. We used a public health model, looking at primary, secondary, and tertiary responses. The response focused on getting everyone in the community to realize domestic violence is a problem, and we all have a role in solving that problem.
As an example, if the police respond to a home in which 8 year-old Suzi is a child witness of domestic violence, they’ll make an arrest if applicable, and give community referrals to the family to address their concerns. The officer would notify Suzi’s school staff the next day so that they can follow up with Suzi to make sure she has counseling or supportive services that she needs at school.
With the coordinated community response, everyone in a community has a role in the intervention and will have training to know what that role is. The state of Texas has a project that outlines agency roles related to domestic violence. It is very innovative.
What’s the focus of educators today with regards to children exposed to domestic violence?
The study I worked on for OJJDP demonstrated the importance of giving educators information on how to recognize kids exposed to domestic violence and how to respond individually, in the classroom, and school wide through policy. It was important because those same kids were being mislabeled as having ADHD, and were getting medicated for symptoms that mimicked ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity, inattention to classroom work, and fidgety when they may be reacting to trauma.
I’m at a the US Department of Education’s Safe and Healthy Students conference right now, and yesterday, the topic of bullying was being covered. The definition given for bullying was just about the same as the definition of domestic violence; when one person uses emotional or physical force to gain control of another person. The behavior has to be repeated, intentional, and used to gain control in both cases.
That really surprised me, and I think we’ll be hearing more about the link between domestic violence and bullying in the future.
Please give some examples of how we can support kids we suspect are witnessing the abuse of one of their parents by an intimate partner.
I think it’s important to let them know that if abuse is happening, it’s not their fault. Domestic violence is an adult issue, and it’s not theirs to fix. Let the child know you believe him/her, and tell them where they can get support.
Lisbeth’s new memoir is described as covering the trauma of abuse, the joys of motherhood, and the challenges of immigration alongside the vagaries of mental illness — and the power of a friendship that saw her through it all. I Asked the Blue Heron begins with a simple sentence:
I was 16 when my mother chased me with a hammer.
Q. Did you always know that this would be the beginning line of your book?
A. No. I didn’t know that was the beginning of the book. When I started writing my story, my writing teacher at the time, Theo Pauline Nestor, suggested to start there, but I contradicted her and decided I didn’t want to make my book about my childhood experiences. Instead, I wanted to honor my friend for guiding me for most of my adult life. With that in mind I started the book with the moment I met Zoe Graves.
I finished my manuscript, revised it the best I could, and started sending it out to publishers. A year later, I was disappointed and frustrated with the rejections, and vented on Facebook. I was extremely lucky. Out of the blue, a Los Angeles poet I admire, Ashaki Jackson, offered to have a look at my book. On the first note she wrote, “move this line to the opening page.” Still I refused. She said, “mine are only suggestions. This is your book.”
Many more hours of editing down the road, I started looking for other writers to blurb my book. I reached out to Suzanne Finnamore, author of Split. The same night she received the manuscript she wrote me back a beautiful email that I will keep in safe box for the rest of my life. She started saying, “your book starts with this line. This is your voice.”
It was the third time somebody pointed it out to me, so it was time to pay attention. It took a while to rewrite the first chapter, but I kept an eye on my schedule and worked night and day to do it. It changed the focus of the book completely, but I hope my story still honors my mentor and best friend.
Q. How have you promoted I Asked the Blue Heron.
A. I have found that book promotion is the hardest part of self-publishing. I still don’t have it under control.
I network a lot, and I’m grateful to several reading series in Los Angeles for inviting me to read from my book. I have promoted online, through social media, and through my blog. I’m constantly speaking about “I Asked the Blue Heron” to anybody I meet. For that purpose I carry it in the trunk of my car.
I will have more time this summer for book promotion, and plan to travel to a few cities in the US and Canada to promote my memoir. I have been lucky. People keep inviting me to events. This week, for instance, I will attend a meeting in Torrance, CA to tell my story and bring my memoir with me.
In July, I will speak to the congregation of a Unitarian Church in Redondo Beach. Little by little, by word of mouth, one book at the time, I continue to sell it.
Q. You’ve bravely shared your experience with mental illness. Can you give a few tips for others experiencing mental illness?
A. Stay on top of symptoms. If I tell my doctor, “I’m fine,” and I look fine, the doctor doesn’t have any way to know I am spiraling down (or up). I can’t wait until I believe helicopters with cameras are chasing me on the street to get the doctor’s attention, say, on a psychotic episode. Those things don’t start full-blown. Subtle symptoms show up before a crisis, and if treated on time, I can prevent crisis. Catching my symptoms requires honesty and understanding of my condition. If I know that I have a tendency to become paranoid, and I feel that NPR is talking about me, I have to tell my doctor as soon as possible. I’ll require smaller doses of medication to treat mild symptoms than those required to treat a full-blown mental crisis.
B. Work or volunteer. I have to do something that requires to wear clothes other than pajamas during the day, and get out of my house early in the morning. A well-earned pay check at the end of the month feels much better than medication, and doesn’t have side effects.
When I couldn’t find a job because I didn’t have a specific certificate, I went back to school to get the certificate. When I wasn’t able to work because of my immigration status, I volunteered. I shelved books in my son’s school library, planted flowers in a public garden, gave water to runners in 5K events, or taught English As a Second Language free. I kept myself busy to change the focus of my thoughts. Human beings need to feel useful and appreciated. I suffer from a mental condition that makes me feel like crap, and if I don’t find a reason to get out of my bed, I feel worse. Apart from money, satisfaction, and a sense purpose, volunteer or paid job also provides me with a starting point to become part of a community.
C. Structure. Structure helps me live through my days with a sense of normalcy. People who do not understand my condition may think I am fastidious, or compulsively organized. I’m neither, but I want to prevent crisis. I prepare the entire wardrobe to wear each day of the week on Sundays because I freak out and cry if I don’t know what to wear in a hurry (which looks like Monday morning for every other woman I know, only they don’t become paralyzed.) I do shopping lists even to buy underwear because I can’t decide and get frustrated. I take pictures of where I park my car and where I enter malls because I get lost and panic. I have a large planner and know exactly what I will do every hour of the day. If I don’t, I literally walk around in circles. I write to do lists every day. Most importantly, because I live alone, and I’m responsible for my life, I have a Safety Plan posted on the refrigerator door, above my bed, and above my desk. If I start considering to harm myself, I have a plan to safe myself from harm. Nobody is with me to watch over me.
Still, there are things that are beyond my control, but I keep working on them. Self-destructive thoughts and unpredictable reactions when I am extremely frustrated continued to be a challenge for me.
To reach Lisbeth Coiman to book an author event or to find out more about her story, you may find her here.I Asked the Blue Heron is available here in both kindle and paperback.
I felt like I’d struck gold. This online support group, co-founded by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, is a resource for writers and editors, providing tools and support as well as a place for writers of all levels to connect.
Ms. Ackerman and Puglisi have now co-authored more than a dozen description thesauruses, including the most recent addition, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus.
I’m honored to have Angela Ackerman as my guest today.
Q. Can you describe that magical moment when you and Becca Puglisi realized you’d stumbled upon a recipe for success with your thesaurus series?
A.When we started the Emotion Thesaurus, we posted entries on our blog, one per week, and immediately saw our hits skyrocket. That helped us see that people struggled in this area and liked the idea of these unique lists of brainstorming ideas we were providing. Years later we self-published The Emotion Thesaurus and it quickly climbed Amazon’s bestseller lists. More incredibly, it has stayed in the top 5 in different categories ever since (six years and counting). People seem to be huge fans of our list style and we are so grateful. Word of mouth referrals are so important in our industry.
Q. What have you learned about the book promotion process that you’d be willing to share using your readers/supporters?
A. I am not a fan of promotion but I love marketing. Marketing is all about understanding who your audience is, what they need, and then making sure to provide it. My best advice is to take the time to know who your readers are and what they are interested in. and then supply whatever it is that they will find the most entertaining, helpful, or interesting based on who they are. (I have lots of marketing handouts, interviews, and swipe files on marketing at Writers Helping Writers, so people can check those out for more help.
Q. Can you give a simple description for how writers can best use one of your thesauruses?
A. All of our thesauruses take a challenging area of description and break it down. Each book is part instruction, part brainstorming list. The Emotion Thesaurus looks at how to show the body language, thoughts, and visceral sensations for over 75 emotions, offering a huge list of ideas to describe each feeling. The Negative and Positive Trait Thesaurus books tackle character personality and how writers can show, not tell, different traits through behavior and actions, creating deep, compelling characters. Our Urban and Rural Setting Thesaurus books explore the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures for 220 different story locations…and a lot more. Our Emotional Wound Thesaurus book investigates nearly 120 different types of painful events in a character’s past which explains their behavior, how they view the world & themselves, and fears they will have in the current story.
Q.Was it ever difficult when compiling the Emotional Wound Thesaurus?
A.Oh yes. I would say this was the hardest book we’ve written simply because emotional wounds aren’t fictional. Each traumatic event we profiled is something that people, including some of our readers, would have experienced. Some of the wounds in our book were personal ones too, forcing Becca and I to dig around in our own pasts. This wasn’t easy. We spent hours researching the accounts of people who have experienced things like domestic abuse, childhood neglect, racism, and rape. It took a toll on us and we needed to take a lot of breaks to mentally recharge (I ended up baking a lot of cookies for my kids!) Once we finished, we had a psychologist vet every entry for accuracy, because we knew writers would see themselves in some of the entries as we so often write about things that are personal to us.
Q.What has been the most surprising feedback you’ve received from publishing it this past fall?
The most wonderful feedback we’ve had is that people are finding this book is actually helping them work their own unresolved wounds, which is wonderful. This isn’t something we’re surprised by because Becca and I both found the process of looking at our own past trauma and thinking about how important it was to move past such things to live a full life very cathartic. This book does exactly this, showing writers how characters will behave when influenced by trauma, and how internal growth is the key to them becoming stronger and more capable so they can achieve their story goal. If anyone wants to see an example entry of this thesaurus, it can be found here.
I should also mention that we have many more thesauruses than books, too. If anyone wants to see all 14 of our description thesauruses, they can be found at our second site, One Stop for Writers.
To meet Ms. Ackerman in person, consider attending the Alaska Writer’s Guild Conference 2018 in Anchorage, Alaska with me this next September.
Just before my initial book launch, I had the pleasure of meeting author Ashley Sweeney and her husband Michael as they were wrapping up Ashley’s book tour in Alaska. Their chemistry was obvious, as was their mutual respect. And as it turns out, their romance ignited the spark that turned in to the award- winning novel, Eliza Waite. I’m thrilled to have Ashley as my blog guest today.
Q: What was the inspiration for your debut novel, Eliza Waite?
A: The idea for Eliza Waite was born on my first date with my husband, Michael, in the fall of 2008. While hiking across largely uninhabited Cypress Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands, we came across an abandoned cabin perched steeply above the beachfront on the island’s remote north side.
We were curious. The small, rustic cabin sat in sad disrepair, missing its door and windows, and sporting a sagging roof and mouse droppings throughout. It was evident that no one had lived there for a very long time.
But who had lived here? And what was his or her story? I couldn’t get the image of the cabin out of my mind, and from that chance discovery, I began crafting the novel.
Q: How did you research and promote the novel together?
A: Eliza Waite recounts the story of a disenfranchised woman who finds her way in the world, first as a lonely preacher’s widow in Washington, and then as a successful business owner and enlightened woman in Skagway, Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.
Both Michael and I derived much pleasure researching for the novel, which took a full six years. We especially enjoyed our first trip to Alaska together in 2013. We cruised up the Inside Passage and stopped in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Anchorage (Michael had spent much time in rural Alaska in his career as a fisheries biologist; I’m a native New Yorker and had never been to Alaska before). At each of the stops, we conducted interviews and pored over myriad archival media: books, photos, essays, magazines, diaries, and cookbooks from the late 1800s.
Returning to Alaska with the finished product in 2016 was satisfying, particularly when we revisited bookstore owners, editors, museum curators, librarians, authors, and locals who helped with initial research. Michael and I often joke that Eliza has been with us since our first date, and we talk about her as if she’s an old friend.
Q: What are the unique challenges of a new relationship over 50?
A: Michael and I were 51 and 58 when we met at a party at a mutual friend’s home in the late summer of 2008. I had been married for 28 years and was newly divorced; my husband had never been married.
We took our relationship very slowly. For three years, while we were both still working fulltime, we visited only on weekends. Then we lived together for three years before our marriage in 2014.
Kindness is the basis of our relationship; it cannot be underestimated in any union, marriage or otherwise. We also share base values and political views. On a personal level, we have learned to give the other what he/she needs the most. I crave emotional support; Michael is a strong listener and offers steady encouragement. Michael craves independence; I give him lots of space to hike, explore, and do projects. Another key: we laugh a lot.
Q: Do you have any encouragement for singles looking for love after 50?
A: Enjoy yourself, your friends, your job, your activities. We’ve all heard the old adage that you’re apt to meet someone when you’re not looking. If you do meet someone with whom you feel a genuine spark, be gentle, honest, and kind with him/her. Trust your intuition. And don’t force it. Everyone comes with his or her own life experiences, and oftentimes by our 50s (or older) hearts have been bruised or broken more than once. Give it time to see if your lives mesh and the relationship evolves to a deeper level.
Age alone is not a dead-end for possible happiness with another partner. Michael had given up on marriage after many failed relationships; I had sworn off marriage after a long and unhappy marriage. Just goes to show you that our perceptions were shattered when we met each other.
Q: After the success of your first novel, do you have another in the works?
A: My second manuscript is finished and out on review. It centers on a feisty young Scottish botanical illustrator who is forced to accompany her authoritarian uncle to Oregon Territory at the height of the fur trading empire in the early 19th century. The novel spans 29 years and four continents and is filled with intrigue, deception, heartbreak, and lust; it chronicles one woman’s desire to be recognized in life and love.
I’m now working on a third manuscript that follows the ill-fated Donner Party as they travel west on the Oregon/California Trail in 1846. Just recently, I was turned on to another story, which may develop into a fourth novel set in the desert Southwest at the turn of the 20th century. It’s interesting that all my stories have come to me by chance, so I’m always listening!
Q: How can readers contact you?
A: Please visit my website: www.ashleyesweeney.com. There you’ll find info about me and my novels, and you can access my monthly newsletter, Word by Word.
In 1992, when I was a welfare mom trying to finish my degree before my girls were old enough to feel the stigma of poverty, I met a professor who immediately felt like family. Later, it made sense. Not only was Professor Ginny Carney an inspiring and nurturing person, her roots from Southern Appalachia were close to mine from Eastern Kentucky.
Before she moved to Kentucky from Alaska to live near Berea College,while she attended graduate school, Dr. Carney became Ginny to me, a treasured friend and confidante who helped me believe that anything was possible.
Though I’ve not seen her in person in more than two decades, Ginny Carney remains a mentor and a dear friend.
Who mentored you and fostered a love of stories and literature?
Neither of my parents was a high school graduate, and they were probably never aware of what a strategic role they played in cultivating a love for words in their children; both my mother and father, however, were avid readers and would often tell stories, sing ballads, or recite long poems from memory. Although we were very poor, they always subscribed to a newspaper and a couple of magazines, and when I was about three, they found a way to “buy on time” a set of the Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia. I loved those books, and somehow, I learned to read from them by the time I was four years old. Since our family had no car and no electricity, reading introduced me to worlds far beyond Southern Appalachia, and I developed an insatiable appetite for books.
When did you know you wanted to mentor others? How did it begin? Was it through foster parenting or parenting?
I’ve never really thought of myself as a mentor, but for as long as I can remember, I have had a passion for learning—and I have always wanted to share that passion with others. By the time I was four years old, I already had three younger siblings, and playing “school” with them was excellent preparation for my years ahead as a mother/grandmother/great-grandmother.
You enjoyed a second career after nursing. How did that come about? Was there a pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a professor?
My childhood dream was to become either a medical doctor or a registered nurse. Due to lack of financial resources, however, completing college was a much greater challenge than I had anticipated. After getting married in 1963, I did begin applying to nursing schools, but was stunned to discover that none of these programs accepted married women (a story in itself!).
I did eventually complete nursing and work for several years as a pediatric/NICU nurse, but adopting a sibling group of four (ages 2-6) in the late 1980s, eventually compelled me to think about a profession that would allow more time with my family. Subsequently, I enrolled at UAA, where Dr. Arlene Kuhner (Professor of English) became an incredible mentor/friend, encouraging me to be proud of my Cherokee/Appalachian heritage, and to incorporate that into my writing. I completed an M.A. degree in English in 1990, was privileged to teach at UAA for three years prior to my acceptance into a PhD program, and I continued working in higher education until my retirement in 2016 at age 75.
Do you have any advice on how emerging writers can find a mentor? Are there secrets you have learned in being a mentor?
Of course, it would be wonderful if every emerging writer had a trusted mentor of his/her own. Often, however, mentors are individuals who don’t necessarily think of themselves as mentors, but who, as a result of life’s experiences, have gained a wisdom, compassion for others, and encouraging spirit that they instinctively share with others—especially with those who may be going through similar experiences. Therefore, emerging writers (of all ages) often find that their greatest support comes from authors like you, Liz—writers whose stories they may have only read, but whose words light an inextinguishable flame of creativity and hope within them.
Is there a story or two you would like to share that you’re most proud of?
Of the hundreds of narratives that I could share, this story of an elderly Ojibwe woman in Minnesota is one of my favorites:
After outliving three husbands and retiring as a Licensed Practical Nurse, 85-year-old Miss Lois said, “I’m bored! Maybe I’ll take a moccasin-making class at the tribal college!” So, she enrolled in that one class, and she so enjoyed being with young college students that she decided to enroll as a full-time student.
One of the classes she took was my American Indian Literature course—a course in which we read about and discussed a number of emotional topics, including the Indian boarding school era, which has resulted in PTSD for thousands of American Indian/Alaska Native students and their families. At first, Miss Lois only alluded to the sexual abuse she and other young children had experienced at the hands of their “teachers,” but one day, she began joking about a group of girls “ganging up on a priest and tying him up.” Her young classmates (who had never attended boarding schools themselves) did not laugh. Instead, they voiced indignation that their elders had “put up with” the physical and sexual abuse inflicted on them in many American and Canadian boarding schools. At that point, Miss Lois, who always seemed full of laughter and fun, shocked her classmates by breaking down in tears, and she began pouring out things she had kept inside for almost 80 years. During the next several classes, other students began openly sharing their stories of incest/sexual abuse, and Miss Lois became their trusted (and highly esteemed) confidante/mentor. She went on to graduate from college, touching untold numbers of lives with her stories in newspaper and television interviews, as a participant in numerous panel discussions, and in her handwritten memoirs.
I first met her at a farmer’s market, and with our common interests in writing and Alaska life and our kids, we developed an easy friendship. I so enjoyed her book Homestead Girl, and now follow her writing in the local newspaper. Now, knee-deep in writing a second book, Chantelle reflects on her process of writing and connecting with readers.
When did you know that you wanted to share your stories in the form of a book?
It sounds kind of hokey to say that I wanted to write a book since I was a child, but it’s true.
After I read The Outsiders when I was about ten years old, I had a distinct thought: “I could do this…” I thought it again after reading The Prophet and after I finished Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which was my favorite book as a young child.
I knew that I loved writing, but I didn’t pursue it as a serious craft until I was in my early thirties. My education and professional background is in Human Services, not journalism, so it took some time and permission-seeking from others, before I finally told myself, “If you want to be a writer, just write!” I had notebooks and computer files full of writing, but when I shared my first piece with friends and family, I was trembling. Any offering of writing is an act of vulnerability, and most of my stories are very personal in nature, so it was scary.
I discovered that my writing resonated with people, beyond my friends and family, when I started submitting pieces to the Anchorage Daily News as well as to local and regional publications. I began getting feedback and encouragement to keep writing. I even received phone calls, letters, and emails from some state officials after certain essays were published in the paper. At some point I decided that I had earned the right to write a book. I didn’t have a degree in journalism or creative writing, but I had a body of work that I could stand on. I applied for, and received, an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation, which funded my first book project.
What was your favorite part of Homestead Girl to write? I don’t know that I have a favorite story, but I love the process of story making. One essay in Homestead Girl describes the feeling I get when a story is ready to come through. I liken it to a “joik”, a style of song that is native to the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe. They don’t joik about a person, place, or thing. They joik it into being. It’s not a retelling, it’s a conjuring. I don’t even bother sitting down to write, unless I feel the story coming. It’s not a thinking process, it’s more like feeling the spirit of the story and giving it a body. Sometimes a story will flit about for days, or weeks, before it’s ready to come through. When it does it’s a great relief, and frees me up for other things…until the next story starts whispering. What surprised you the most about writing and publishing nonfiction?
I am pleasantly surprised that I don’t get more hate mail! I get a bit, and it’s to be expected because some of the subject matters that I explore are controversial or uncomfortable. My intention, always, when I write about things that are not so pleasant (a recent sexual abuse article comes to mind), is to shine a light and offer solutions. I also write from the ground level, not up on a pedestal. I promised myself a long time ago that if I were going to write about sensitive subjects I would put myself right in it, and share my own failings, not just point out problems and act like I’m perfect. I had to get over the desire to want to be liked or to look good.
Generally, people appreciate the honesty in my writing. I know it’s not always easy for my family or community when I share certain things, but I do believe that the truth sets people free. Your book has done very well, and I’ve noticed your articles that appear in the local newspaper reference your book, increasing its visibility. You have also done some out-of-the-box promoting.
What promotional advice would you give prospective author about publishing his or her book?
You have to put it in front of people. Your friends and family will buy your book, but others won’t unless they know about it. I go anywhere that will have me (book fairs, farmer’s markets, book clubs, craft fairs, etc.), but I don’t think of it as marketing. I think of it as an opportunity to meet new friends and readers. This has truly been the best aspect of the book release. I did a Books and Brew tour that was really fun! I was able to do readings and pop-up book signings at some of our Alaskan breweries, and met really fantastic people. That’s what it’s all about for me. How can readers best connect with you? Go to www.chantellepence.com and fill out the form on the Contact page.
Writers Helping Writers is an easy site to navigate, and offers a number of author reference books. Books like The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and The Positive Trait Thesaurus are in giving writing dimension.
I checked in with author and co-founder Becca Puglisi about what’s new in Writers Helping Writers community since I ran the below Q and A originally in 2015.
Coming soon to the Writers Helping Writers Collection…TheEmotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma. Of all the formative experiences in a character’s past, none are more destructive than emotional wounds. The aftershocks of trauma can change who they are, alter what they believe, and sabotage their ability to achieve meaningful goals, all of which will affect the trajectory of a story. Enter The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, which explores over 100 possible traumatic experiences and how they can impact the character in the present. Armed with this unique resource, authors will be able to root their characters in reality by giving them an authentic wound that causes difficulties and prompts them to strive for inner growth to overcome it. Look for this book to be available by the end of October 2017!
I’m happy to have author Becca Puglisi as my guest in today’s post.
Well, it started when I noticed that my characters were constantly smiling and shuffling their feet. I wanted to get rid of those repetitions, but I didn’t know how else to show the emotions. Angela was having the same problem with her characters, and there just wasn’t anything out there to address the issue. So we started making lists of different emotions and brainstorming how people often express them.
When we shared the lists with our critique group, they jumped on it, sharing how they each struggled with the same problem. Years later, when it was time to start our Writers Helping Writers blog (then called The Bookshelf Muse), we wanted to include practical and fresh content that would keep writers coming back for me. We decided to share our lists, releasing a new emotional entry each week. And The Emotion Thesaurus was born.
You write Young Adult Fantasy Historical Fiction Writing in addition to the series of guidebooks for writers, two vastly different forms of writing. How did you develop the structure for The Emotion Thesaurus?
Well, in its original state, it was just a bunch of simple lists: one for fear, one for anger, etc. By the time we started our blog, the lists were so long that we needed something a little more organized and user-friendly, so we split each entry into fields: physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and so on. And when we decided to publish the books, we added a few more fields that we thought would be helpful to writers.
What is the process like of working with a co-author? Did you each divvy up sections in advance or teleconference occasionally to check progress?
Our process is fairly smooth because Angela and I complement each other very well. I think that in comparison to many people, we each tend to over-communicate; we talk A LOT—about possible ideas, problems that we anticipate in the future, how to break ideas down into a process and format that make sense, how the final product should look.
For any potential idea or project, we do a ton of pre-writing before we ever put pencil to paper. At the end of this stage, we usually have a template and a list of overall entries that we’d like to include. At that point, Angela writes one half and I write the other. When the drafting is done, we switch halves to edit—usually a few times. By that point, the writing has blended into an end product that is a mixture of` both of our styles.
I imagine you receive a lot of feedback from readers about this book, your site Writers Helping Writers, and the other great tools you’ve shared with the writing community. Is there any one example you would like to share that is especially gratifying to you?
Oh my gosh, there are so many examples. We’ve heard from Special Ed teachers using The Emotion Thesaurus with their students to help them read and identify other people’s emotions. Another time, I led a workshop on backstory that shows writers how events from the past can determine who a character becomes. Afterwards, one of the attendees told me that during the workshop she had identified an emotional wound from her own past that she hadn’t realized had impacted her so much, and now that she’d named it, she was going to be able to deal with it.
It was incredibly gratifying to see how a book of ours had impacted someone so meaningfully on a personal level. But I think the best note I’ve ever received was from a visually-impaired writer. Blind from birth, this writer had always had trouble describing character emotion because he had never seen it. With The Emotion Thesaurus, he said he could finally picture what a frustrated, excited, or terrified person looked like, and he was able to write those emotions realistically. I was floored. Who would’ve thought that our book would be able to help someone in such an amazing way?
I read that you were a teacher long before you were a writer. What inspired you to take the plunge and become an author?
This is my favorite interview question, because it exemplifies how good God is—and also shows that he has a sense of humor. My church was running a ministry project and, as a private school teacher, I had very little money. I prayed, asking God how I could make some extra money, and he told me to write a book. Haha. ‘Cuz writing is so lucrative, right? I had never written anything before, but I started working on what would become a middle-grade chapter book. And I was hooked.
It was eight years before I made a single cent from my writing, and that ministry opportunity never benefited from it, but with the sales of our books over the past three years, I’ve been able to pass on the blessings in ways I’d never imagined.
What has been the most surprising part of being a writer?
When I considered a career as a writer, I had this image of me happily writing—in a café somewhere sipping a drink, sitting by the fire in winter, staring out a widow at a picturesque view while contemplating my plot line. It was a shock to discover how much of my writing time was spent doing other things.
I spend an awful lot of time networking on social media, blogging, reading about writing, keeping up on industry news, bookkeeping, and responding to emails. It was discouraging at first, because with two small children at home, my writing time was very limited. But it’s all part of the deal. And for me, it’s been totally worth it!
Author Bio–Becca Puglisi is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others. This is one of her reasons for writing The Emotion Thesaurus, The Positive Trait Thesaurus, and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. Her website, Writers Helping Writers, is a hub for all things description, offering tons of free resources to aid writers in their literary efforts. A member of SCBWI, she leads workshops at regional conferences and teaches webinars online.
Imagine raising a family in the confines of a boat or catamaran on the open seas.
I picture the closeness. The sunshine. The fun.
Then I read Bluewater Walkabout: Into Africa by Tina Dreffin.More than a travel memoir about the misadventures of a woman and her family sailing the world, Bluewater Walkabout tells how Tina’s travels promoted the healing of deeply rooted traumas in her life: a sexual assault like the loss of her first born baby.
A 2017 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY) Silver Medalist, Tina has established a thriving writing career while managing family responsibilities on a boat in exotic locations.
I’m happy to have connected with her recently, and to have her as my guest.
Thank you, Tina!
You endured so many hardships during, or even as a result of your travel, including losing your first child. What is the takeaway you want your readers to embrace as they pursue their own dreams?
Never allow hardships to minimize you.
After losing my baby, I needed to release tremendous guilt in having failed my child as a new mother, especially since I felt partially responsible for her death. Trauma inflicts emotional pain. To recover from the pain, I needed to forgive myself and learn how to love myself better. If I hadn’t, I knew I would lose my life and my marriage.
Travel brought me full circle to where I could look at myself clearly and make healthy changes.
When I journeyed to Africa, Asia, and South America, I witnessed women suffering the agony of war, lack of clean water, and disease.
Suddenly, my issues appeared less painful. I may have suffered sexual abuse and my baby’s death, but I still had my family who loved and cared about me. I lived in a safe community and had access to clean water and proper health care.
What was the most difficult part of the book to write?
Writing about my sexual assault proved the most painful episode in writing my book.
No one in my family knew of the attack, not even my good friends. I told my friends first before I told my husband. I felt women would understand and relate more. I also wanted to test their reaction, to prepare for how my husband and sons would react. My friends advised me to leave out the history of my sexual assault in my book. They only wanted to read ‘happy books,’ they told me. My sons didn’t want to talk about their mother’s sexual assault. And my husband … I failed to find the words to reveal my history with him. I chose instead to include the rape in my book, allowing him the freedom to decide whether he wanted to know about it or not.
The night my husband finally learned of my past in the book, he looked me tenderly in the face and held my hand. No words came. It felt good. I had been right, after all. Still, the reaction of my family and friends left me baffled. No one wanted to talk about it. As a result, I doubted myself and began to drink too much. I drifted away into solitude. I grew angry and depressed. Where was my support? When our forty-year marriage began to unravel from my self-inflicted strain, I knew I needed to jump-start personal growth. “You’re only hurting yourself, Tina,” I told myself. Only I could fix the problem. So, I looked at my rape differently and in a short time, the way that I looked at my abuse, changed. I now saw it as an experience that I had recovered from successfully.
My book became the tool to bring women out of the closet. The conversation about rape had begun, and I would never stop sharing again. I would tell all who would listen because the more I talked about it, the quicker the healing came. Upon the release of my book, young girls and women began to open up and reveal their sexual assaults on Facebook. Their stories were even more devastating than my own. Many responded, sharing their own sexual assault experiences and discovering support from complete strangers who shared theirs as well. Suddenly, I knew I had healed my soul by taking a direction to open the conversation of sexual assault, giving others permission to do the same. As a result, we all found healing.
And which part was the most fun to write?
Recounting our wild adventures in the African bush while on safari proved to be a delightful experience. I relived the remarkable experience with my mother who has since passed. Mother proved to be an adventurous soul when a bull elephant- arguably one the world’s most dangerous predators-held us captive after trumpeting and charging at our van. He was followed by a herd of Cape buffalo.
You recently won an Independent Publishers Book Award for your memoir. Congratulations! How did that feel, being an indie author getting this great nod?
I felt elated when “Into Africa” won the award since it was my first book. I felt validated of my feelings in wanting to save other women from making the same mistakes as me. Suddenly, I knew I was on the right path. Inspiring personal growth and healing in others today remain a critical motivating factor of my writing.
What’s next for you?
I currently reside in Exuma, Bahamas, aboard my catamaran, Yacht Freebird. I’m finishing BluewaterWalkabout: Into the Pacific, due out in 6 weeks. It continues our adventures in the South Seas, the 2nd leg of a global circumnavigation by boat with our family. All of us about Yacht Scud.
It’s estimated that one in five Americans lives with a mental health condition. All of us know someone who struggles. But despite this, mental health too often remains a topic we don’t discuss until it’s too late.
Why did you want to share your story with the world?
I needed to make something positive come out of my daughter’s death. I just couldn’t let scattered ashes be the end of her. While Sadie was alive, we didn’t share much about our mental health struggles. We thought no one else would understand—rather that our sharing would drive people away. A woman I worked with stated this thinking so well. She said “I am afraid to tell people about my mental illness because it might destroy people’s perception of me as normal.” We allowed the stigma to interfere with our finding the community and help that we needed. While I cannot change that, I decided I could share our story now, after Sadie’s suicide, to build awareness of the prevalence and cost of mental illness, to share resources and new developments that provide help and hope to those struggling and to inspire action that increases funding for mental illness services and research. Most importantly, by sharing our story, I hope to help others avoid my daughter’s fate.
What are you most proud of about the impact your memoir is making on the world?
The book is building awareness of mental illness, helping others that are struggling and inspiring improvements in the mental health system. This is best illustrated by feedback I have received:
From a 20+ year-old male relative: “I don’t normally read this type of book but reading it made me realize if someone as bright and full of life as was Sadie, someone coming from a good family, could be struck with mental illness—then it could happen to anyone.”
From a colleague who shared my book with her friend—She told me that after reading the book her friend was in tears saying I may have saved his daughter through my words and that he and his wife feel less alone in coping with things they have a hard time understanding.
Inspiring improvements in the mental health system
From a state government agency manager who is responsible for publically funded youth residential treatment programs—“When I read your comments about the lack of long term outcome data for residential treatment programs, I realized that we don’t have that kind of data for our programs either and should.” What do you think your daughter would say about your book?
My daughter Sadie had a great deal of empathy for people that struggled. I believe that overall she would have positive things to say about my book because it is helping others that struggled as she did. More specifically, I think she would be:
Proud that that she inspired me to write the book and proud that I included her writing so readers better understand from her own words how her mental illness made her feel.
Proud of me—that I reached way beyond my comfort zone to write a book and to share our story.
A bit embarrassed that I shared intimate details of our story—she would not have wanted people to think poorly of her.
Overall I believe she would be pleased that she and I are making a positive difference in the lives of people struggling as she did.
What resources would you endorse for parents supporting a child that is struggling with depression or bipolar disorder?
I included an annotated list of helpful, credible resources in my book and on my author website. Some offer information (e.g. signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder, latest research findings), others offer on-line community (e.g. blogs, connections with others, etc.), some offer support (e.g. crisis lines, chat rooms, etc.).