Sunday, June 25, 2017

On persistence, tears, and love

Thoughts on the morning of Seattle Pride:

In an unprecedented time when the U.S. administration is unrecognizable to many of us as American, perhaps like you, I’ve been living with what can feel like insurmountable fear and loathing, feelings I fear and loathe. 

I live in a blue bubble here in Seattle, by intention, and I’m naturally optimistic, so I was one of those who kept saying in the fall of 2016, “Don’t worry, it will never happen.” I had faith in my fellow Americans to value their constitutional rights and freedoms more than the quackery and far-fetched promises and claims of a snake oil salesman. (Exhibit A in the “loathing” department.)

The night it happened, I'd bought a bottle of champagne to pop when the right thing happened. Instead, like so many others, the night ended in gut-punching shock, tears, and nearly the same level of fear I felt on the morning of 9/11, when we didn’t yet know how extensive the attack was going to be.

I’ve been through all the phases of grief many times over the past six months: denial, anger, sorrow, and every once in a while, a wee bit of acceptance that this is what is, for now. 

I’ve watched too much news, scrolled through too much social media, clicked through too many op-eds, and in the process, developed an obsessive behavior of clenching my jaw and teeth to the point that I give myself a headache every day. Sometimes, I wake up with one.

I’ve been through phases of not watching any media, of turning the other way at any sight or mention of the great pretender. Even so, despondency and a yellow-threat-level anxiety subsumed me. 

I’ve started meditating, using an easy online app. I’ve never been a successful meditator in the past; I’d written it off as something I’d never be able to do. Turns out, I can, and the more I do it, the more I want to. Talk about your soft addictions. 

I’ve sought treatment for the obsessive behavior, but after meeting with various western and eastern practitioners, I still face a months-long waiting list to enter a cognitive behavior therapy program, one that is not covered by insurance. Insurance does cover prescription medications, however—drugs I prefer not to take. 

(To be clear, I do take an antidepressant for a lifelong anxiety disorder, which has always worked well for me. I prefer not to take drugs that are addictive or that leave me brain fogged, like benzodiazepines. I believe in appropriate medication.)

So, I’ve embarked on developing my own damn CBT plan, combining meditation and mindfulness, bringing my attention back to a place of calm whenever I feel my jaw clench or working too hard. My ability to notice the behavior is spotty, as I do it while working and focusing on my writing, while driving, while solving problems in every day life—clearly, when I’m laser focused. But I keep trying. Many failures make for eventual success, if we persist. If we pay attention as much as we can, and forgive ourselves when we lapse, and lapse, and begin again.

I’ve turned to books about people who overcome adversity and persist, people who resist and keep on going. Who get knocked down and get back up. These are the kinds of books I’ve always read, from the time I was a kid, and turning my attention specifically to them now is like making new, strong and brave friends

The Sunday morning I write this is the weekend of Seattle Pride, a celebration that moves me to tears each year as I show up to be an ally, to be a supporter, to say “I’m so glad you’re here.” Pride is a celebration of our humanity as well as a community outpouring of support. It’s a testament to the fact that no matter what, love wins. 

I’m a lifelong volunteer for the same reason, to show up for others. Perhaps it’s because I desperately wanted someone to show up for me as a kid of a mentally ill mom, but didn’t know how to find that someone. I now have the strength and ability to be that someone. And as all volunteers know, what we gain through our volunteer experience is balm for our own souls. We give love, we receive it, even if not in the moment. We give of ourselves and we lose ourselves in the moment, focusing on someone else instead. We get out of our own way. We experience joy from being of service. 

So, now six or so months into this administration, when I’m worn out and weary of resisting, of persisting, I have to remember to remember: what makes me well? What makes me feel whole and calm, like me?

I’m no expert for anyone but myself, but in my nearly six decades so far on the planet, here are the places I land:
  • Resistance with rest. Focus with calm. Persistence with love.
  • Being an ally. Being of service
  • Reading good books. Taking time out. 

And because our souls need a good scrubbing every once in a while, tears. We move on through tears: of grief, of anger, of joy in knowing that no matter what, love wins. 

Love will always win.
 And now, I have a parade to attend.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Writers: To Group or Not?

I'm often asked if I'm in a writers' group, if I think they're a good thing, and if I know of any good ones to join! 

All good questions, and the answers are: sometimes, if you're diligent, and sorry, wish I did. But for those who are out there searching, or who have a group that may not be functioning as well as you'd hoped, I do have these guidelines for creating successful writing groups.

Really, there are different kinds of “writers’ groups,” and you must first decide what you want your group to accomplish together:

 -Writers’ support groups meet to help each other stay emotionally afloat during the process of writing and submitting work for publication. Wine is often involved. Hugs. The sharing of wisdom, books, quotes, and encouragement. Members’ writing is not generally shared, not for the purpose of critique, anyway. Sometimes for encouragement, but when critique becomes involved . . . issues may arise because there are no guidelines in place.

 -Writers’ critique groups meet to apply the collective knowledge, wisdom, and sensibilities of the group to each writer’s work, distributed evenly and fairly among members. All members must be actively writing and sharing with group. Guidelines are established and followed.

-Combo groups work when the critique portion of each meeting follows established guidelines and happens at the beginning of the meeting. Social time follows for encouragement, kvetching, wine, etc.

-Online groups work well for isolated or too-busy-to-meet writers. You may choose to do critique in written form and send by email, or to have Skype meetings.

How to have a successful writers’ critique group:

1.    Establish group guidelines
a.     Minimum and maximum size of the group (small is best)
b.    Regular meeting date, such as third Tuesdays at 7pm
c.     Regular location
1)    Neutral, library or coffee shop
2)    Rotating homes
d.    Format of meetings
1)    How many critiques per session
2)    Written or oral presentation*
3)    If written, how long in advance to be sent
4)    How many pages per piece
5)    How many minutes spent on each piece (use a timer)

2.    Establish critique guidelines
a.     All members agree to read each submitted piece in its entirety and provide sincere, helpful feedback that is specific, constructive and positively phrased.
b.    Steps for providing feedback
1)    Start with an overall statement of what works well in the writing.
2)    Point out what you feel isn’t clear, what pulled you out of the story, what doesn’t work as well as it could, or could be improved. (Not “liking” something is not constructive feedback, and not everything in a story is meant to be liked.)
3)    Rather than “fixing” another’s writing, provide an example or two of what you think might work better. Offer it as a gift. If you have no ideas, it’s fine to simply say, “This felt unclear, took me out of the story, stopped me, felt like it needed more” etc.
c.     Steps for receiving feedback
1)    As the writer, your role is to listen and take notes, without participating in the conversation.
2)    If you have questions, wait until the end of the critique to ask for clarification, further detail or thought.
3)    Don’t defend your work. It’s normal to feel defensive during critique and for several days afterward. Take a deep breath and listen, and withhold objections. It’s your work and you get to do whatever you want to with it.
4)    Thank your group members for the thoughtful reading and critique.

NOTE: If one person points out something you feel is not at issue, you might decide it’s just one person’s opinion and not worry about it. If several people point to the same problem, you must figure out what the problem is, even if it is not what they’re pointing to. (You may not have given a detailed enough introduction to a topic earlier, for instance, or clearly shown the character’s motivations.)

3.    Avoiding the writers’ group from hell
a.     Stick to time limits and established guidelines.
b.    Save social time for afterward; get down to business first.
c.     Wine is not your friend during critique sessions. Loose lips hurt feelings. Again, hold off until afterward to celebrate, kvetch, support, catch up.
d.    Don’t allow toxic members to poison the group. No member may dominate the conversation, create a negative environment, attack another writer emotionally or verbally, consistently ignore constructive input, regularly go off topic, regularly arrive late/leave early/miss all together.
e.    Agree as a group to hold to these guidelines, and if a member goes rogue, you must act in a timely manner to remove her/him from the group.
f.      If all else fails, consider leaving the group. There are many writers in the world who will want to work together productively.

Oral Presentation
The writer being critiqued brings hard copies for each member to write notes on during the meeting, and reads the piece aloud. Then discussion begins, and members make notes on the printouts to give back to the writer. This works best for monthly groups who want to move through a piece of each members’ work (10 pages max) at each meeting. While no one gets in-depth time to study the piece, it is akin to a real-world reading of the writer’s work. Lends itself to longer, less frequent meetings.

Written Presentation

The writer being critiqued (usually one per session) sends the piece (up to 20 pages) to members ahead of time (establish how long is required as a group) by email or by posting to a private online group such as Facebook or Google Drive. Members print, read and make notes on the piece before arriving at the meeting. Discussion begins right away. This method works well for working longer sections in a weekly group, as each member will get a shot approximately once per month or so. Lends itself to shorter meeting duration as well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When Young Frankenstein Flew

The movie Young Frankenstein has been in the public consciousness for most of my life, a classic comedy inspired by a classic piece of literature. When a musical was produced for the stage, it previewed here in Seattle before heading to Broadway. The creators of the film, Mel Brooks and Michael Gruskoff, came to town for that premiere. They asked their hotel concierge what they might do in town during the day, and the concierge made a list, including visiting Elliott Bay Books in Pioneer Square.

Later that week, I would be doing a reading there for my new book at the time, When She Flew. It would be the final reading at the Pioneer Square location. In the store, a stack of my books were on display in front.

You see where this is heading.

Michael Gruskoff (producer not only of Young Frankenstein, but of many perennial favorites including Quest for Fire, My Favorite Year, Silent Running) was attracted to the cover image and title of When She Flew. He picked it up, turned it over and read the description of the book on the back cover. Again, it intrigued him. I'd like to think he looked in the pages and felt some excitement at the words there, but that's just my wild imagining.

He bought the book. He took it home and read it and started trying to contact me to obtain the rights. It would take him over a year to track me down, but he kept trying. I'd changed agents, and my former agent was no longer interested in my work or me. But Michael found me.

He explained why he loved the story, why he had to try to make it a film. He could already see it, and he described scenes to me that broke my heart afresh, the thought of my characters so beautifully visually represented. That was several years ago, and he's still trying.

It's not easy to get films made. In fact, a low percentage of proposed movies make it to any screen, even your television set. He sent the book to everyone he knew in Hollywood. There were no takers, even though others also loved the story. "It's not what Hollywood is making right now," he was told
over and over.

Screenwriters are working on a screenplay for a small independent film; we hope to read it over the holidays. Even if it never gets made, though, I've found through this experience that the richest things in life are those that sneak in while you're envisioning something much grander. It's been such a delight over the years, talking with Michael about the characters, the story, the possibilities. He's old-guard Hollywood, and his experiences are vast. He's generous with stories and with his time on this project. As his pal Barry Levinson told him, When She Flew is his "heart" project. (In Barry's context, this meant it would probably never get made. But we all know heart projects that win over adversity, right?)

So I thank my lucky stars for Young Frankenstein, for Seattle's thriving theatre scene, for Elliott Bay Books, and especially for Michael, who believes so strongly in the story.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sad Isn't Bad

Note: Among my favorite spirit/soul resources have always been the wonderful "Comfort" series of books by Jennifer Louden. In some awesome crazy twist of life, I got to meet her this summer, and now she's a friend. I'm so honored to be here on her blog this month.

Dispatches of Love & Insight—Jennifer Louden’s Blog

One of the ways I am actively exploring creating my truer life is regularly busting the story that I don't belong.  Jennie helped me do this by inviting me to a Seattle7Writers event a few months ago. To say I was thrilled like a little kid invited to a birthday party would be … accurate. And then to be inducted into the Seattle7? Color me belonging. Of course, I knew Jennie from reading her five bestselling novels. To get to know her personally has been even better than reading  her work--she's just one big love and such a connector! 
Thanks for being here, Jennie!

Sad Isn't Bad, by Jennie Shortridge

I am a soldier--have always been a soldier--of optimism. I have fallen six times (more like six hundred) and gotten up, over and over again. I've healed old wounds, instilled new patterns, and faked it till I made it. My mantra, when low, has always been "I feel good," a la James Brown. The lower I've felt, the louder I've sung it.

This optimism may be why I find myself leading a busy nonprofit collective of authors, why I've joined a new organization (The Stability Network) to help destigmatize mental illness, why I teach and volunteer and mentor, and oh yes, write novels and then do all I can to help my books find readers. And usually I do it all with joy and a satisfyingly clear sense of purpose.

But right now? Well, I don't feel good. I feel sad. My work is suffering. In the past few months I've been confronted by a string of life changes not of my choosing, including the recent loss of my feline companion of twenty years. Now, I'm unmotivated and closer to tears than singing, right at holiday time when high expectations are inescapable and daunting.

It's a recipe for self destruction. For eating more and exercising less. Having an extra drink. Spending too much time at screens and not enough in the real world.  Forgetting to reach out to others. Self pity on a grand scale: "I have no power over these changes, therefore I am doomed."

Perhaps then, it is the optimist in me that realizes I do have some power--the power over how I react to these things, to how I hold them in my gut and heart and head, and how I move myself through them with as few casualities of physical and mental health as possible.

In wintertime, it's natural to turn inward and take stock of our reserves. Like Winnie the Pooh counting hunny jars, I can count the things for which I remain grateful: my dear husband, family and friends; a love city and home; a vocation I never believed I could have. The striking lime color of moss on dead branches if I can't think of anything else, or the smell of baking bread and wood smoke hanging in the fog as I walk through my neighborhood.

I also have the power to decide how I react outwardly to these changes. While speaking my truth, I can do my best to remain thoughtful and respectful with some semblance of grace. And when I react too hastily or harshly, I can forgive myself. Sure, sometimes only after stewing too long in toxic broth, but eventually, yes, I can climb out and say, as I would to any friend, "Forgive yourself, you're human. Move on."

Here's the thing: I really don't want to be a soldier anymore. I don't have to be un-sad to be worthy, or to be generally optimistic. Sad is part of life. But I can sweeten my broth doing the things I naturally do when feeling better:
•Take walks in nature
•Eat exquisite food
•Take hot baths
•Spend time with friends I find delightful
•Watch funny or sweet movies
•Get enough sleep

And though this last one can be the most difficult, there is one sure-fire way I've found to beat insomnia: acknowledging those golden hunny jars with gratitude, one by one by one, over and over again. And, as the song goes, I fall asleep counting my blessings.

Thanks for your honesty and hope, Jennie. It's so easy w hen we are building our lives to think that other women have it all togeter, especially a successful author and activist like yourself. I used to look at your picture on the back of your books and think, "She's so talented and  beautiful, her life must be so good." I know, comparisons suck, but our brains make them anyway. Thank you for opening your heart to us. (And now I know how beautiful and talented you are, which is even more amazing in person!)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


A new book emerges slowly, unwrapping and untangling itself from dreams and images and experiences, from lines of poetry and memories.

I'm writing a story now that I've wanted to write for a long time, but it's not yet untangled enough to tell you too much about it, other than at its center is a 93-year-old nun who is delivered in the middle of the night to a nurse on duty at a long-term care facility. The old woman has suffered a stroke, as my aunt Alayne did this summer. Alayne passed away, but my character lives on with more than a hint of my feisty auntie in her.

In the story, Sister Rose has right-side paralysis and aphasia, loss of speech. When her nurse, Johanna, tries to remove her garments to examine her, she fights against it. It's a battle she can't win, and all is revealed, including a large butterfly tattooed on her chest.

This weekend I was walking downtown, and passed Luly Yang's, a shop of beautiful formal and wedding dresses. In my last book, Love Water Memory, this shop had a cameo as Lana Tang's, a place the main character Lucie loved, slowing down as she drove by (as I do) to admire the dresses.

Imagine my delight when I saw this dress on display on Saturday! A good omen? A sign that I'm on the right track?  Or just a dress inspired by Halloween?

Whatever it is, I can't stop looking at it, which is weird for a person whose idea of formal wear is Seattle-typical: nicer-than-everyday jeans.

Where do books come from? From things large and small that shimmer in a certain light.

What inspires you?

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Stop on the Pacific NW Writers Blog Tour

I've been tagged by the fabulous writer, Shannon Huffman Polson, to post for the blog tour today, and in turn, I'm tagging Claudia Rowe, Kitty Harmon, and Jennifer Murphy, three great and wonderfully diverse writers in Seattle.
The point is to share a bit about the writing life by answering these questions:
1. What am I working on?
2. How does my writing differ from others in its genre?
3. Why do I write what I do?
4. How does my writing process work?

The quick answers:
1. a new novel, 2. I have no idea, 3. because I want to, and 4. I wish I knew.

The more complex answers:

1. I've embarked on an idea I've had for twelve or so years about characters from the 1930s, during the Depression, and the very odd thing they do for a living.  I'm not yet ready to talk a whole lot about it, and historical fiction is new for me, but these characters have been pulling at me for so long. I'm in heaven writing right now, but it will be at least a year before I finish! This is the reality of novel writing. It just takes a really, really, really long time.

2. We all write how and what we write as individuals, and I never really think of it as how writers compare. Some writers delight us with their beautiful prose, the kind you can read over and over and take pure delight in. Some writers pack their stories with so much meat and muscle that you feel you've been taken on a thrill ride by the end. Some writers are quiet and introspective. Some are hilarious. Most writers don't know how to characterize their own writing. Now that I have five books in the world, I do feel fairly confident saying that I think my strengths are concision, ease of reading (which is important to me; I want readers to feel pulled through my pages as much as possible), creating real characters, and an attempt to get at the emotional truth. I hope so, anyway.

3. I write what I do because it's what bubbles to the surface. As it turns out, my stories are often about characters who do battle with emotional trauma or mental illness (in themselves or others). I'm glad for that, because it gives me a way to talk about my own issues with those things in a way that might help someone else and reduce stigma one tiny step at a time.

4. First, I do a lot of thinking. I keep my eyes and ears and heart open to what's happening around me in the world, in my life, even on my walks and shopping and visits with friends. Certain things will "glimmer" and begin to coalesce into characters, themes, plot lines, etc. I'll gather them all up and begin to write about these things, looking for a way to build something from it. I'll have a few false starts and adjust, and eventually, I will launch. From there, I draft every weekday morning for about a year, and then I will revise for another year or so. I get help from trusted readers and experts, including my agent. Every book works a little differently, but that's basically how it happens for me. And if you ask me this in a year or five, it may have changed. It's ever evolving.

If you are a reader, thank you. If you are a writer, bless you. We're all in this together!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

It's my job

Writers have an uneasy relationship with the business side of said writing. Most of us nurture seriously introverted personalities in order to write in the first place. A few of us (like me) have fairly robust extroverted sides as well. Even so, when it's time to spread the word about a book release, it's…uncomfortable. So with all necessary caveats and excuses now out of the way, I bring you:

LOVE WATER MEMORY in glorious paperback (Jan.14)! I pleaded with the publisher to keep the hardcover artwork for the paperwork, but when they showed me this beautiful image, I loved it equally, as one does each child born, even though we thought we could only love the first.

I'd love your help spreading the love. If you've enjoyed the book, please consider writing a review online (Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites). Or, do that verbally with friends and family you think will like the book. Let your book groups know they  might enjoy discussing it. Ask your local libraries to stock it if they don't, and your bookstores, too.

Books that don't make it into the top ten lists (and there are tens of thousands of us) survive on word of mouth, readers talking to readers. Whenever you like a book, any book, let someone know! You're helping the entire literary ecosystem survive. (And thank you to loyal readers who do this all of the time; you know I love you, right?)

Now, for fun:

•Watch the book trailer!
•Listen to the music!
•Attend an event!
•Order a copy!

My work here is done.