Becoming a “Real Writer”

Before attending last night’s  James River Writers Writing Show, “Writer with a Capital ‘W,'” with moderator Kristi Tuck Austin and guest, author and founder of We Need Diverse Books, Lamar Giles, I was maybe a little delusional. I had this idea that someday, eventually, my book would get published, sell lots of copies, and the hard part would be over. I would live a life of luxury that required nothing more of me than to write for a few hours each day, and maybe make some appearances on television, and in between these two activities, I’d do whatever I wanted. Travel. Sleep past 5 a.m. Read. It would be leisurely.

Last night’s Writing Show was nothing short of a reality check for me.

The point of the Show was that as writers, we need to take ourselves seriously. That seems encouraging, but taking oneself seriously means a lot more than I bargained for. Mr. Giles spoke on topics I hadn’t even considered yet–things like speaking fees, my responsibilities to my readers, business licenses, taxes, handling setbacks, etc. Below is what I learned.

Lamar Giles’s Publication Journey

Lamar Giles has loved writing since he was a child. He began writing his first novel when he was 14, finishing it six years later, at the age of 20. When he was 21, he started his first job, which involved sitting in a cubicle eight hours a day. He recalled how hard he thought it was to get up every single day and go to work to sit in that little box all day. He also recalled always hearing people say how difficult it was to get published, and thinking to himself,

“If getting up in the morning to sit in this box is hard, and getting published is hard, why do this hard thing I don’t want to do?”

In response to that question, he made his life even harder. He started getting up even earlier, at 5 o’clock in the morning, so he could work on his writing career before heading to work each day. He would write until about 7:30, at which point he would prepare to go spend the rest of the day in his cubicle at his “real job.”

In the early 2000s, he managed to publish several short stories, and at the age of 32, ten years after setting his main goal of publishing a novel, he did. However, he also experienced a three-year dry spell during which he couldn’t seem to sell any of his writing to anyone. A $5000 grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts pulled him out of this slump, and pushed him to keep writing.

Precise Plan for Publication

Mr. Giles said one thing he believes helped him get his books published was a precise plan. In 2009, he loved writing horror, but the genre didn’t seem to be selling well. Instead, dystopian series like The Hunger Games and vampire stories like Twilight were extremely popular. However, that trend also meant those were the types of stories everyone was trying to sell. Agents’ pipelines were clogged with stories similar to Divergent, The Hunger Games, etc. So Giles asked himself: “What can I do that’s missing?” He decided on an answer: Young Adult (YA) mystery. And so he began.

He started writing in January and finished in June. He spent June through September revising the draft. He spent the entire month of December crafting his query letter, deliberately picking this month for this task, because, he informed us, the publishing industry virtually shuts down in December, but opens up again in January. He wanted to be one of the first writers the refreshed agents found in their inboxes upon their return to work. So, right on schedule, he mailed his query letters to ten agents on January 2, 2010. By the end of that same month, seven of those ten agents had requested his full manuscript.

But it wasn’t all easy from there. By the end of March, all seven had ultimately rejected his manuscript after reading it in full. Undeterred, Giles queried five more agents in June. In July, three of those five offered him representation.

His overall advice regarding getting representation can be summed up as follows:

  1. Research agents, and query those who you think would be the most interested, and the most likely to follow up with you.

  2. Make sure your query letter is well-crafted and personalized. Revise it meticulously. Spend lots of time on it.

  3. Even when you get rejected (and you will), try again.

  4. Most agents won’t invite you to resubmit, so query agents in small batches to test your query letter. If no one bites, there’s probably something wrong with your letter. Revise it, and query a new batch of agents.

And that brings us nicely to our next topic…

Researching Agents

Giles knew he wanted an agent that used to be an editor, sold frequently, and was part of a major agency. He used two main sources to find his: the  Writer’s Market and Publisher’s Marketplace.

Money, Money, Money, Money!

I always thought that once my book was published and money started materializing out of my efforts, I would be on Easy Street. Wrong. We work to make money, but once we make it, we have to work to manage it, too.

Taxes and Money Management

Giles recommends finding an accountant to help manage your money, especially because taxes may not be taken out of your book sales, and you may have to pay quarterly taxes. He also recommends getting a business license, and warns that depending on where you are, you may need to be zoned to have a home office. In addition, you might need to file with the state for state sales tax.

IMG_7169
Author Lamar Giles (left) and moderator Kristi Tuck Austin (right) speak to a full house on the topic of taking yourself seriously as a writer.

One more piece of advice: If you plan to leave your job for a full-time writing career, have at least two years’ salary saved up, because publishing money comes slowly. The checks might be big, but they might only come once a year.

Speaking Fees

For the first six months of his appearances, Giles worked for free or cheap, letting the venue set his fee. Then, he started speaking at a rate of $1000 for three hours. In the fall of 2016, he will begin charging $1500 for a day, if the venue is local, and a $2500 flat fee if he has to travel and get a hotel room. These fees are meant to cover expenses and taxes, and to compensate him for his time. Time he spends presenting or speaking is time he cannot be writing, which is his real bread and butter. Giles advises us to say no if we have to, and to get a virtual assistant to handle these negotiations.

Supporting Sales

Even once your book gets published, your work is not done. You have to market your work and you have to cultivate a relationship with your readers. Giles and Austin offered online activities and offline activities we can do to support our endeavors.

Three Online Activities

  1. Get a Publisher’s Marketplace subscription. This will allow you to see what’s selling week-to-week.

  2. Take out ads on Facebook and Twitter, and consider Amazon’s Author Central, which allows you to see where your book has been selling well, and where it hasn’t been, thus helping you target your market.

  3. Hire a virtual assistant who can help you manage your e-mails, social media accounts, in-person appearances, etc.

Three Offline Activities

  1. Take a course in public speaking at a local college, or get involved with your local Toastmasters.

  2. Learn to use graphic software like Photoshop so you can design your own marketing materials, as opposed to always having to pay someone.

  3. Write and finish and do it again.

  4. Connect with a community of writers.

  5. Get to genuinely know your local librarians and booksellers.

On Taking Yourself Seriously

Giles reminded all of us in the audience of the importance of taking ourselves seriously as writers. If we don’t, who will? You have to take yourself seriously and believe in yourself before others will. In addition, if you don’t have faith in yourself, the people who do have faith in themselves will crush you. Don’t be ashamed of your goal; if you take yourself seriously, the rest of the world eventually will, too.

 

Books: The Best 75 from the Last 75

Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time sitting out on my back deck in the sunshine, flipping through the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was pretty excited to find that the week’s edition of Parade was dubbed the summer reading issue, and featured an article listing the best 75 books from the last 75 years. The article categorized the books by decade, listing the best books from the 1940s through the 2010s, with as few as four and as many as fifteen books listed under each decade (the 1940s fared the worst, with only four books listed, while the 1960s and 2000s performed the best, each with fifteen books listed). I’ll leave it to you to read the list in its entirety, but below are those I have read, as well as those I would have included had I been given the task.

Books I Have Read from the List

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty smith (1943)

    I read this delightful coming of age novel a few summers ago, and enjoyed it so thoroughly that the following summer, I offered it as an option for my incoming honors students’ summer reading assignment

  2. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)

    What can I say about this book except, though I have not read it since late middle school, it is one of my favorites?

  3. Night, by Elie Wiesel (1960)

    I taught this book to high school sophomores during my first year teaching. Of all the books we read, this short, readable, and factual book written by a Holocaust survivor was a favorite among my students–even the ones who didn’t like to read. (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men usually has the same effect on my high school juniors.)

  4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

    I haven’t read this book since I was in high school, but I remember enjoying it, and feeling a particular sympathy for Boo Radley and a particular admiration for Atticus Finch. I am told the latter might change when I begin reading Go Set a Watchman this week, so I am curious as to what my own reaction will be.

  5. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

    My father read this to my three siblings and me when we were elementary-aged. All four of us loved it. I have fond memories of sitting on the floor around my dad, either by the fireplace in our family room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or in the bedroom my little sisters shared, listening to him read until it was time for bed.

  6. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)

    Of course I’ve read this one. My brother even had the stuffed animal monster.

  7. Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1980)

    Maus is one of just two graphic novels I’ve read. I didn’t expect much, as it was a “comic book,” and I’m not really into “that sort of thing,” but Maus, written by the son of Holocaust survivors, is really something artful.

  8. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (1990)

    I read this book during the summer of 2013, as Tim O’Brien was one of two authors (the other being Ernest Hemingway) I studied for my Capstone project to complete my Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a Creative Writing major from University of Denver. I cannot rave enough about this book. It is raw, it is gripping, and it is honest, though at times hard to read for these very traits. Even in its most difficult-to-stomach areas, I had a hard time putting it down. It left me thoughtful and reflective for months, asking myself questions about the human condition, our capacity for kindness, our capacity for evil, and what I could realistically expect of myself if put into situations like those described in the book.

(Some of) the Books I Would Add to the List

1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939)

This book is incredibly moving and touching. One of my favorite characters is the genuine and conflicted Jim Casy. I also admire the way the book is structured, some chapters told in an almost stream-of-collective-consciousness fashion, and others narrated clearly and directly about the Joad family.

IMG_7134
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of the books that would have made my list.

2. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946)

Written by a Holocaust survivor in part about what he believed allowed some people to survive the miseries of concentration camps while others succumbed and perished, the book is a philosophical and psychological examination of the human spirit. Despite its many references to the Holocaust, the book is uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring.

3. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1952)

When students ask me what my favorite book is, my answer is East of Eden. I’ve heard Steinbeck himself cited it as his masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why. The characters and story are enthralling–rich and complex. I have read it three times, and each time come away with a different impression, a new insight, or a new idea to ponder–if not all three.

4. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein (1964)

Next to The Velveteen Rabbit (which can’t be included in this list, because it was published in 1922) and The Ugly Duckling (1844), The Giving Tree has to be one of the most emotionally involved children’s books I have ever read. Despite its seeming simplicity (simple language, simple illustrations), the book discusses the complexities of human relationships–the give and take of love, the meaning of sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, etc. It is one of the few children’s books that still moves me to tears, and I still remember how affected I was the first time the book was read to me in a classroom when I was in elementary school.

5. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (1981)

A few years ago, a friend of mine suggested we read this together. I don’t think my friend ever got around to it, but I ended up reading the script, as well as the novel. It. Is. Fascinating. I would go so far as to label it epic, actually. The book is about as thick as East of Eden or The Bible, but don’t let that deter you. You’ll love every page and be disappointed to find you’ve arrived at the last one. I enjoyed it so much, that I conducted a deep enough reading of it to create a sample project for the Literature Portfolio assignment my honors students are required to produce for each piece of literature we read.

IMG_7135
Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed seems worthy of the list.

6. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Next to East of Eden, this is quite possibly one of my favorite books. It is also the only book one of my most difficult students enjoyed reading, and may have been the only book he actually read during his time in my classroom. This book begs the reader to question the ethics of warfare and survival, as well as brings up questions about “The Other.”

7. Room, by Emma Donoghue (2010)

A fellow English teacher let me borrow this book from her last summer. The imagination of Ms. Donoghue is truly enviable. She tells her story from the perspective of a young boy whose whole life has been lived in a small backyard shed, which he calls Room, with his captive mother.

8. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini (2013)

There are two things I remember clearly about this novel from my reading of it a year or two ago: 1) It left an indelible emotional imprint on me; it was incredibly poignant, and 2) It did an exceptional job presenting various perspectives of the same situation, illustrating expertly the complexities of human dealings.

IMG_7107-1
The cover of this week’s Parade Magazine, the summer reading issue, featuring a list of the 75 best books in the last 75 years

Word of the Week: Sessile

A couple weeks ago when I was looking up a recent word of the week, fustilarian, Dictionary.com suggested I might actually have meant “sertularian.” I didn’t, but I went ahead and looked up “sertularian,” anyway (because, why not?), and in so doing, exposed myself to another new word: “sessile.” Not to be drawn too far off course from my investigation of “fustilarian,” I resisted the temptation to further research “sertularian” and “sessile,” saving them for a future Word of the Week post. Well, the future is now, and I have found particular poetic potential in “sessile.”

Dictionary.com defines “sessile” within two contexts, the first being botany and the second being zoology. In the context of the former, the word means “attached by the base, or without any distinct projecting support, as a leaf issuing directly from the stem.”In the context of the latter, it means “permanently attached; not freely moving.

Merriam-Webster’s definitions are similar: “attached directly by the base; not raised upon a stalk or peduncle” and “permanently attached or established; not free to move about.”

Though Merriam-Webster rates “sessile” as landing in the bottom 40% of word popularity (so I need not feel so silly for never having heard the word before, or at least not remembering if I have), I think its potential for figurative use is pretty immense. For instance, a character in a story or speaker of a poem could be described as sessile–tethered, for example, to a lover or to the past, or held back by a physical deformity or someone for whom he or she feels responsible. George Milton of John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men comes to mind as a character who might well be–albeit somewhat ironically–described as sessile. Though he and Lennie are migrant workers–seemingly the exact opposite of people whose situations might be described as sessile, or “permanently established,” and they are more than “free to move about”–George is still not “freely moving.” Both he and Lennie are held back by Lennie’s always being misunderstood and doing “bad things” that keep the two constantly on the run. **SPOILER ALERT** Until George must shoot Lennie near the end of the novella, prompting him to realize how much he actually needs and cares about Lennie, he definitely feels sessile–“permanently attached” to Lennie, “not freely moving,” “not free to move about” (forced to move about, perhaps, but not free to establish the dream ranch he and Lennie imagine and settle down).

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week

fustilarian

lachrymose

kalopsia

 

 

 

 

 

Alot vs. A Lot

One of the most common errors I see in my students’ writing is the combining of “a lot” into one word (that doesn’t actually exist): “alot.”

The main difference between “alot” and “a lot” is that one is a word, and one is not.

Many of us are so accustomed to seeing “alot” that we ascribe to the misconception that it’s a word, but–surprise!–it’s not. The proper way to employ “alot” is actually to separate it into two words, a noun and its article: “a lot.” One helpful way to remember this is to think of a plot (or a lot) of land. If you own one lot of land, you own a lot of land, but not onelot of land, or alot of land. Just as you would not write “onelot,” you would not write “alot.” The proper structure is, instead “one lot” and “a lot.” Another way to think of it is this: You wouldn’t write “alittle,” so you also wouldn’t write “alot.”

IMG_6376
I don’t love my dogs alot–but only because “alot” isn’t a word. I do, however, love them a lot!

 

Based on a True Story: Why Writers Write Fiction

Anne Lamott writes, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” This advice resonates with me, because one of the struggles I face most frequently regarding my writing life is what I can safely say, and what I would be safer never to say at all. Because of this ongoing internal battle–to write it, or not to write it–I focused my graduate Capstone project in 2013 on arguably semi-autobiographical fiction. Three years ago, I spent six to eight hours of each summer day immersed in research for my Capstone project in order to complete my Master’s of Liberal Studies in Arts and Culture with a focus on Creative Writing from the University of Denver. This process ranks among one of the most arduous, yet most enjoyable and rewarding, of my academic career. If, like me, you often wonder if you might be risking too much by writing this or revealing that, the research below on authors Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien might interest you.

Abstract

This project examines the semi-autobiographical fictional work of two American authors, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien. The research is mainly secondary, analyzing not only pieces written by these two authors, but also dozens of essays and criticisms about the work of these authors. This project seeks to understand what fictional techniques draw writers to work in fiction, despite the fact that their subject matter may be drawn from real life. This piece argues that writers like Hemingway and O’Brien opt to work within the genre of fiction because doing so allows them to utilize techniques such as imagining multiple points of view, creating emotional distance, imposing coherence onto their stories, and preserving not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of their subjects. Works examined include the short stories that make up Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Ernest Hemingway’s shorts stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Up in Michigan, and “Old Man At The Bridge.”

Analysis Essay

Based on a True Story:

Literary Techniques that Make Fiction an Appealing Genre for Writers

Introduction

When I was a freshman in high school, there was a banner on the wall of my English classroom that read in big block letters, “We read to know we are not alone.” Ever since, I have been struck by the truth in that phrase. How many times have I been reading a poem, novel, or memoir (nearly anything!) and been suddenly touched by how true the words I read are to my own experience—even if the experience related in the poem, novel, or memoir is, on its surface, very different from anything I myself have lived? How many times have I read words written by another and thought, “Yes! That’s it! I know that feeling!”? The incidents are innumerable. As I have grown and taken up studies of literature as well as creative writing, I have come to believe that we not only read to know we are not alone, we also write to know we are not alone—and to let others know they are not alone. Fiction writing is one genre among many that allows writers to play their role in the larger human family. Although traditionally thought of as a genre in which occurrences and characters are drawn from the writer’s imagination, due to the many literary techniques it provides, fiction can also be appealing for writers who wish to deal with material drawn from their own real-life experiences. Working within the genre of fiction allows writers to utilize techniques such as imagining multiple points of view, creating emotional distance, imposing coherence onto their stories, and preserving not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of their subjects.

Multiple Points of View and Counterfactuals

Many writers of fiction seem to agree that there are two types of truth, the factual truth and the emotional truth, the latter referring to the truth about the way it feels to be human and the former referring to indisputable facts. Writing fiction allows these writers to imagine and explore the points of views of multiple characters, who, though experiencing the same circumstance, may experience it very differently. None of these perspectives of truth are necessarily untrue (or factually true); they are simply different experiences of the same circumstance. By allowing a writer to experiment with multiple points of views, fiction allows a writer to explore the multiple truths created by various perspectives.

In The Writing Life: Authorship and Authority in Recent American Autobiographical Narratives, Jonathan L. D’Amore argues that even when writing non-fiction, the presentation of truth is “slippery, mutable, and inexact” because truth is “tied to their [the authors’] experience of their lives” (D’Amore 2011, 5). In other words, a writer’s experience is colored—biased—by his or her own point-of-view, regardless of the degree of objectivity he or she is attempting. Fiction writers’ work, however, does not purport be factually true at all. With fiction, there is no need for writers to “overcome their subjectivity and ‘tell the truth,’” which is nearly impossible (D’Amore 2011, 11). Instead, through fiction, writers can expose subjectivity and reveal multiple truths, or multiple perspectives of the same reality. In fact, although the traditional perception of fiction is that it is inherently made up, novelist Anneli Knight asserts that “fiction is an ideal form through which to explore the multiplicity of realities” (Knight 2011,1), or the variety of ways different characters might perceive the truth. This, she claims, is due to the fact that fiction allows “a freedom and flexibility of form that enables the author to present the perspectives and inner lives of multiple characters” (Knight 2011, 6). To illustrate her point, consider the following circumstance: A young woman sits down to write about her parents’ impending divorce. She has many genres from which to choose. For example, she can write a narrative essay from her own perspective, based on her own emotions and thoughts regarding the situation. She can also choose to write a fictional story loosely based on her experience. Choosing the latter option would allow her to include not only her own perspective—perhaps embodied by a young girl experiencing the loss of a cohesive family, but to imagine what her parents might be experiencing, as well. If she chooses an omniscient narrator, she will be free to imagine the way each party is experiencing a singular event, namely, the breaking up of a family. In this way, “fiction can work to reveal, and create an understanding of, the subjective realities of others” (Knight 2011, 2).

In examining the works of two well-known authors, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the drive for fiction writers to explore and express multiple points of view is clear. For example, in Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan,” readers are made privy to the inner thoughts and feelings of the character, Liz, who pines away for another character, Jim. Readers are also made privy to Jim’s perspective; they learn he does not think of Liz, though she often thinks of him. In its simplest form, this is the circumstance: There is a man and there is a woman and they know each other. The man experiences the acquaintance as just that—Jim knows Liz exists. He knows who she is, talks to her, finds her pleasant, but not much more. The woman, however, experiences the acquaintance much differently. In fact, Liz is so infatuated with Jim that she “couldn’t sleep well from thinking about him” (Hemingway 1987, 60). Had this piece been written in a genre other than fiction, Hemingway would not have been free to imagine the points of view of both parties involved. He would have been confined to his understanding and his perspective of the happenings. By opting to work within the genre of fiction, Hemingway was free to imagine into each point of view whatever worked for the story.

Like Hemingway, Tim O’Brien uses his memory and his imagination to create his fictional works (Calloway 1995, 2), and these works “often offer multiple versions of reality” (Smith 1994, 2). Tobey Herzog, an English professor and Chair of the Division of Humanities at Wabash College, asserts that fiction allows O’Brien to “explore recurring subjects from different angles, especially subjects from his own life” (Herzog 2000, 908). In a review of O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, Andy Solomon of The Philadelphia Inquirer states that the work is “a series of glimpses, through different facets, of a single, mysterious, death stone” (Solomon 1990, 1). O’Brien’s tendency to relate different points of view of the same circumstance is evidenced in many of the short stories included in The Things They Carried.

The first story in the book, which bears its title, is an apt example. As it opens, readers are made privy not to narrator-O’Brien’s[1] perspective, but to what author-O’Brien imagines to be the point of view of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. The fact that O’Brien is working within the genre of fiction allows him to imagine the point of view of any of the characters that people his story. In this case, O’Brien—though he could not possibly know with any factual certainty unless Cross himself told him—conveys what Cross imagines, knows, and wants with regard to his love interest, Martha. “He [Cross] would imagine romantic camping trips…. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there…. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her….” (O’Brien 1990, 1). Although author-O’Brien very well could have observed a fellow soldier tasting the envelope flaps of a letter he had received while in the field, he would have had no way of knowing why. However, fiction allows O’Brien the liberty of imagining why, and of imposing this perspective on his character. In a similar fashion, O’Brien takes liberties with point of view regarding Kiowa’s thoughts after their comrade, Ted Lavender, has been suddenly shot and killed. Narrator-O’Brien explains what Kiowa wished, felt, and wanted regarding the situation (O’Brien 1990, 18), though author-O’Brien can only have imagined this, or imposed upon the character of Kiowa what author-O’Brien himself wished, felt, and wanted.

Two more examples of O’Brien’s ability to explore multiple points of view due to his choosing to write fiction appear in “Speaking of Courage” and “The Man I Killed.” In the latter, narrator-O’Brien imposes on a corpse certain fears, memories, and experiences that neither narrator-O’Brien nor author-O’Brien could ascertain in reality. In the former, narrator-O’Brien imagines Norman Bowker’s point of view regarding his thoughts and emotions upon returning to his parents’ home after the war has ended. Either author-O’Brien is imposing his own experiences on the character of Bowker, or he is able to speculate on what Bowker’s point of view might have been using his own imagination and drawing somewhat from his own experience. In addition, writing this story in fiction allows O’Brien to imagine counterfactuals that his character, Bowker, considers.

A counterfactual is essentially an occurrence that could have happened, but did not. It is any happening that did not occur, but could be imagined to occur. The genre of fiction allows writers to use the technique of counterfactuals in their work. Herzog asserts that the use of counterfactuals enables O’Brien “to explore events years after the fact, imagining alternate possibilities, reaffirming previous decisions, and recovering key emotions” (Herzog 909, 2000). For example, O’Brien’s Bowker imagines telling the story of Kiowa’s death to his father, though he knows he will never tell it. The not telling is the fact within the story; the telling is the counterfactual.  As author-O’Brien imagines what Bowker would imagine, and narrator-O’Brien relates Bowker’s musings to readers, O’Brien is able to reflect on his own return home after the war, just as he allows the character of Bowker to reflect on his actions in the war as he imagines relating them to his father.

O’Brien also imagines counterfactuals in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Narrator-O’Brien explains that characters Mary Anne and Mark Fossie had always “known for a fact that someday they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children, and grow old together” (O’Brien 1990, 94). This scenario, ironically, ends up being not the fact, but the counterfactual, as Mary Anne ends up joining the Green Berets and, ultimately, disappearing into the mountains of Vietnam.

Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” also provides an apt example of the use of counterfactuals. Most of the story is told through dialogue, a conversation in which a wife assails her husband with could-have, would-have, should-have elements. The husband, in turn, laments his lost promise as a writer; he is dying, having never written down all the stories in his head. Not only does Hemingway give his characters the opportunity to imagine counterfactuals to their circumstance (they are on safari, an activity Hemingway himself experienced), but the story in and of itself imagines a counterfactual for Hemingway; namely, he could have ended up like the husband-character he creates—having never written any of his stories down. Instead, he seems to say, he is the opposite of this character, having mastered his art and used his talent to the fullest (Harding 2011).

A Safe Way to Explore Threatening Subject Matter: Creating Emotional Distance

In addition to allowing writers the freedom to imagine various points of view and counterfactuals, many writers may choose to write fiction because it allows them to establish emotional distance from their subject matter, thus enabling them to feel safe exploring human experiences (their own, or those of others) that might otherwise seem too intimidating or traumatic. For some writers, the subjects they explore in their fiction may seem too threatening to convey in any other form. Somehow, fictionalizing the topic, whatever it may be—war, domestic violence, crime, regret, disappointment—makes the topic more accessible to the writer as subject matter. In his discussion of some of Norman Mailer’s work, D’Amore asserts that Mailer’s use of the third-person, even in his nonfictional autobiographical work, “allows Mailer freedom” because it distances him from his own experiences (D’Amore 2011, 116). Fictionalizing a life experience can provide further emotional distance for a writer, thus allowing for more fearless exploration of the experience. John Edgar Wideman, another author studied by D’Amore, “has protected himself with…fiction, his ‘memory whiting out what it doesn’t require to construct a representative day’ that lets him keep what he want [sic.] to remember and forget what he feels he needs to” (D’Amore 2011, 166). In fictionalizing a traumatic or difficult experience, a writer is able to choose with which material he or she will work. He or she can consciously decide on which elements of the experience to focus, and can fill in the blanks with imagination. An author studied by writer Anneli Knight explains that with fiction, “you can really answer those bigger questions…. You can explore things that are really difficult to explore” (Knight 2011, 3).

Fiction’s allowance for the creation of emotional distance is likely one reason it is a genre in which Tim O’Brien chooses to work. Much of O’Brien’s writing is self-reflexive, and The Things They Carried is no exception (Smith 1994, 1). In “Notes,” narrator-O’Brien explains, “…the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that really happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that…help to clarify and explain” (O’Brien 1990, 158). Herzog writes with some perplexity as to why author-O’Brien, in talks and interviews, has often “given contradictory responses to questions about his own postwar adjustment” (Herzog 2000, 901). Based on O’Brien’s statement above and his use of fiction writing to help “objectify [his] own experience,” one may wonder if perhaps he himself does not know the answers, but is using the emotional distance he creates through his writing to find them. Narrator-O’Brien says in “Good Form” that writing allows him to “look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God” (O’Brien 1990, 180). In other words, the emotional distance fiction allows O’Brien to create enables him to explore deep human emotions and questions, such as those mentioned above.

One threatening incident author-O’Brien considers in The Things They Carried is the fact that he entertained the idea of fleeing to Canada rather than allowing himself to be drafted into a war he did not support. The actual details related in his short story, On The Rainy River,” however, are not factually true. They are imagined, invented (Herzog 2000, 895). Imagining a scenario in which to express the inner conflict he felt allows O’Brien to achieve the emotional distance he needs in order to relate the real emotions he experienced as a young man. Through a make-believe situation and make-believe characters (narrator-O’Brien and the old man who houses him for six days), author-O’Brien is able to safely explore and express the real emotions he experienced. Narrator-O’Brien relates, “I can still feel the tightness. And I want you to feel it…. You’re at the bow of a boat…. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared….

“What would you do?

“Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood…?” (O’Brien 1990, 56). In this passage from “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien uses emotional distance in at least two ways. First, he begins in the first-person perspective. Despite the use of first-person, O’Brien has achieved a small degree of emotional distance for himself here solely in the fact that narrator-O’Brien is not exactly the same man as author-O’Brien. In creating narrator-O’Brien, who experiences a similar internal struggle but in an imagined circumstance, author-O’Brien allows himself to relive and explore this emotional and tumultuous experience. Second, though O’Brien increases emotional distance for himself, he decreases it slightly for his audience. When he jumps from first-person to second-person, O’Brien is demanding that the reader consider how he or she would feel in the same position. He is almost forcing his reader to feel what he felt, to ask the questions he had to ask himself. Marilyn Wesley, an English professor at Hartwick College, asserts that O’Brien’s desire to “engage the reader”—to make the reader feel what he felt—“is so powerful that O’Brien frequently presents his own experiences in the second person” (Wesley 2002, 2).

Another example of an experience for which O’Brien uses the technique of emotional distance is the death of his childhood love, Linda, who died at age nine. Narrator O’Brien explains in “The Lives of the Dead”: In objective reality, Linda is dead, “But in a story…I can revive…that which is absolute and unchanging…. Miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up” (O’Brien 1990, 236). It is very possible that one reason O’Brien choose to render this and other difficult experiences in fiction is due to the fact that the genre allows him not only to create emotional distance that enables him to look back with a little less pain, but also because it provides him the opportunity to imagine the counterfactual: Linda as not dead, but as being saved, and very much alive, in a story.

Hemingway, too, writes in a way that allows him to maintain emotional distance but that creates a very impactful emotional experience for readers. His short story “Old Man At The Bridge” is based on a first-hand experience he had in Spain, and provides an example of this talent. At just 800 words, the story is one of Hemingway’s shortest (Schoettler 1999, 1). The tale tells of an old man, a refugee of the Spanish Civil War, who has had to leave the farm where he was taking care of a few animals, about whom he is very worried, and feels badly about leaving. At the end of the brief story, a reader is left with a keen sense of tragedy and sadness. In under 1000 words, “Hemingway sums up the hopelessness of the refugee and the ultimate tragedy of the Spanish Civil War” (Schoettler 1999, 4). MIT associate professor William B. Watson calls the short story a “portrait of a moment central to the experience of…all wars in which ordinary people are innocent victims” (Schoettler 1999, 4). Although this story aligns very closely with what Hemingway himself was believed to have experienced regarding this old refugee, he still opted to write the tale as a fictional one, allowing himself the comfort of emotional distance.

Coherence, Meaning, and Human Connectedness

Thus far, two techniques usable in the writing of fiction have been discussed here; namely, multiple points of view and counterfactuals, and emotional distance. Another technique fiction writing allows a writer to utilize is imposed coherence in order to communicate a specific purpose, meaning, or theme. While people read to know they are not alone, they also write because they are not alone. “The primary purpose of fiction is to make us feel less alone” (Hallberg 2012, 50). One might note here that whether “us” refers to writers or to readers is ambiguous, and likely, the pronoun refers to both antecedents, because “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist…loneliness” (Hallberg 2012, 51). Fiction writing, then, satisfies one’s own need to feel connected, as well as communicating to others their own connectedness, their own belonging. Because fiction writing allows a writer to add, subtract, or imaginatively create certain scenarios, conversations, circumstances, etc., the fictional story can be made to work for the writer’s purpose—can be made to convey the exact theme or message the author intends. So, why write fiction? Allan Peterkin, MD, the founding editor of Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine; The Arts and Humanities, asserts that many contributors to his publication choose to write fiction because “stories…insist on meaning” (Peterkin 2010, 1650), something humans have always sought. Peterkin goes on to explain that to make a story “comprehensible or…interesting” a writer has to “re-enter and re-imagine” the motivating real-life experience at the story’s core. “Fiction-writing physicians…identify the impetus for a story…. Part of craft is using that detail as a point of departure, then moving onto something entirely new” (Peterkin 2010, 1651). Essentially, each writer’s life is clay. To write fiction is to take each real-life experience, and morph it as necessary to extract the desired message or meaning.

Poet Inger Christensen explains that “One of the most important elements…is the novelist’s message,” the emotional truth he or she wants to impart (qtd. in Calloway 1995, 4-5). Because fiction allows a writer to impose his or her own structure and coherence to express the desired meaning, it is a desirable genre in which to work for writers who have a specific theme in mind. “Narrative structured as fiction can provide clarification and some access to the truth of one’s experience” (D’Amore 2011, 224). Fiction writers who write from their own life experiences then, as O’Brien and Hemingway do, are—because they work in the flexible world of fiction—given the capacity “to select, and then translate and illuminate, everything that has been observed so that it seems to the audience something entirely new, something entirely true” (Trollope 2001, 1). In her critique on O’Brien’s semiautobiographical novel The Things They Carried, Lorrie Smith explains that the book “celebrates the reconstructive power of the imagination, which gives shape, substance, and significance to slippery emotion and memory” (Smith 1994,1). Indeed, much of what narrator-O’Brien relates to readers seems to support Smith’s assertion. In “How To Tell a True War Story,” narrator-O’Brien asserts, “All you can do is tell it…adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth” (O’Brien 1990, 85). In this statement O’Brien confirms the fact that writing fiction—“adding and subtracting, making up a few things”—is what allows him to impose coherence on an experience, and thus to extract meaning, or “get at the real truth.” In “Spin,” narrator-O’Brien fairly states why author-O’Brien might use fiction to impose coherence: “Stories are for…when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are” (O’Brien 1990, 38). In fiction, what is forgotten can be filled in with imagination, and what is imagined is malleable and can be worked into a piece that conveys the author’s specific intent.

For example, author-O’Brien does not have a young daughter named Kathleen, but he makes one up for narrator-O’Brien of the novel. Why? The character of Kathleen, who constantly questions why her father feels the need to write war stories all the time, allows narrator-O’Brien to remember, reshape, and reflect on his war experience (Smith 1994, 4). “All we have are a series of disconnected moments with infinitely discoverable meanings” (Whitlock 2003, 1), and writers can discover and express these meanings through fiction writing by imposing coherence—such as author-O’Brien’s need to create the fictional daughter, Kathleen.

Herzog refers to O’Brien’s somewhat muddled mixing of his real life with his fictional Tim O’Brien narrator’s life as “literary lies” (Herzog 2000, 895), and discusses readers’ frustration with their inability to discern what is fiction from what is fact. He asserts that what many readers may be missing, is the fact that O’Brien’s goal through his fiction is to “make readers feel rather than know” (Herzog 2000, 911). Author-O’Brien is not interested in whether or not there was a real man named Henry Dobbins who always wore his girlfriend’s stockings tied around his neck for comfort and good luck. He is not interested in whether or not when, upon learning that “his girlfriend dumped him…he went quiet for a while, staring down at her letter, then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck as a comforter” (O’Brien 1990, 118). What author-O’Brien is interested in is that his readers are made to feel, through his constructions, the loneliness of all soldiers at war. What writing fiction does in allowing for imposed coherence, is allow the “use of imagination to transform facts and reveal emotional truths transcending the limits of his or her [the writer’s] memory” (Herzog 2000, 906). As O’Brien’s character Mitchell Sander’s says after telling his own story to some of the men (which is then retold by narrator-O’Brien to the reader), “I had to make up a few things…But it’s still true” (qtd. in Calloway 1995, 3). Similarly, as narrator-O’Brien explains regarding “On The Rainy River,” “Some of it’s true,…not in the literal sense,” but “in the way I worried about it” (qtd. in Mehren 1990, 2).

O’Brien’s short story “Speaking of Courage” is an apt example of O’Brien’s using imposed coherence on a story in order to communicate his desired meaning. The story tells of character Norman Bowker’s experience after he has returned home from Vietnam. It predominantly traces one evening, which Bowker spends driving around and around the same seven-mile circumference of a lake near his house. In the story that comes after “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” narrator-O’Brien confesses his use of the fictional device of imposed coherence, explaining he had used a letter from Bowker as the “emotional core” for the story, and then, “To provide a dramatic frame, I collapsed events into a single time and place” (O’Brien 1990, 158). He also created a “natural counterpoint between the lake and the field. A metaphoric unity….” (O’Brien 1990, 159). O’Brien’s reasons for choosing to express this story in fiction are clear.

“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” also hints at O’Brien’s reasons for writing fiction. In this short story, narrator-O’Brien relates to readers a story he heard from another character in the story, Rat Kiley. Rat is narrating the story to Mitchell Sanders, and at one point asks Sanders to predict the outcome of the story. To explain why he predicts the outcome he does, Sanders lists the occurrences and clues provided in Rat’s story, and then says, “—all that had to be there for a reason. That’s how stories work, man” (O’Brien 1990, 102). Sander’s response is telling.

Preservation of Privacy

In addition to allowing writers to explore multiple points of view and counterfactuals, create emotional distance to explore and reflect on difficult subjects, and impose coherence for the purpose of extracting meaning, writing fiction also allows writers to preserve their own privacy, as well as the privacy of others who may somehow play a role in their literary works. “Whether labeling their work fiction or nonfiction, writers who use their own lives as source material…work within the same constraints they live; namely, that we are not alone” (D’Amore 2011, 69). In other words, people will read what has been written, and people’s lives may be affected by what was written. Fiction, however, can guard against some negative effects of possible public scrutiny of an author’s personal life, or the personal lives of his subject, because fiction allows far more than the simple changing of names and dates; in writing fiction, an author can alter entire situations, as needed. When writing fiction, “A writer can use his or her own life as  material…in a way that distances the finished text from the private person” (D’Amore 2011, 56). Because there is no need to be honest—factually truthful, that is—in writing of one’s life in the context of fiction, a writer of fiction can take creative liberties that a journalist or other nonfiction writer may not be able to take (Herzog 2000, 894).

David Ignatius, who writes spy stories based on experiences he has had working as a journalist overseas, sometimes in precarious situations, says he writes fiction to protect not only the identities, but also the safety, of the people who inspire his stories. He explains, “I learned…the inner details of the operation [the CIA’s recruitment of Yasser Arafat’s intelligence chief in the 1970s]—including the names of people who were still at risk…. [T]he best way to narrate what I knew as in a novel” (Ignatius 2011, 1). Ignatius’s decision to write of his experience in fiction was pragmatic; it allowed him to get at the emotional core of his experience while avoiding the endangerment of those involved.

Former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and author Oliver North, who writes mysteries and thrillers inspired by people he considers real-life heroes, chooses to write fiction for a similar reason. He explains, “…telling these stories presents the prospect of disclosing information or identities that would put brave men and women in…peril. That’s why these are novels—where actual names, dates, places, and classified tactics, techniques, and capabilities are altered” (North 2012, 1).

Hemingway, too, likely chose fiction in part to preserve his own privacy and the privacy of many of the women in his life. In his short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” discussed earlier for its use of counterfactuals, Hemingway’s character Harry considers why he never wrote about all the good times and bad times he had experienced with his various past lovers. Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that “He had never written any of that because…he never wanted to hurt any one” (Hemingway 1987, 49). If, as discussed above, Harry is somewhat representative of Hemingway in his talent for writing (despite his lack of ability to now use that talent), and is in fact a sort of anti-Hemingway in that Hemingway seems to be declaring to readers that he himself has not squandered his talent as his character has (Harding 2011), readers can also deduce that while Harry did not write of “any of that” to avoid hurting people, Hemingway did write it; he just wrote it in fiction, in a way that would still preserve the privacy of those who had been involved.

Conclusion

Although popular thinking on the genre of fiction seems to imply fiction is imagined or otherwise untrue, many writers choose to write fiction for the flexibility it offers in terms of the use of artistic literary techniques. Working within the genre of fiction allows writers to imagine multiple points of view, thus enabling them to explore multiple emotional (as opposed to factual) truths. Fiction writing in particular allows writers to explore multiple truths or points of view, because they can create and access the perceptions and perspectives of the various fictional characters they create. In addition, because fiction allows for a certain amount of creation and imagination, it permits a writer to imagine counterfactuals, or the way things could have been. Exploring the way things are not allows writers to explore possible reasons for the way things are. Fiction also allows writers to establish emotional distance from their subject matter, thus enabling them to feel safe exploring human experiences (their own, or those of others) that might otherwise seem too intimidating or traumatic. Some fiction writers use their works of fiction to explore the meaning in their own experiences, as well as to give significance to their lives and the lives of others, as D’Amore (2011) asserts of Norman Mailer’s novel, Armies of the Night: History as the Novel, the Novel as History[2]. Because fiction allows its writers to create emotional distance between themselves and their subjects or topics, these writers are able to explore otherwise difficult topics, as may be the case with Tim O’Brien’s war stories. While exploring the way things are and expressing truths about the way things are, writers of fiction are also able not only to discover they are not alone in a myriad of ways, but also to express this grand and comforting truth to their readers. Fiction enables a writer to do this because it allows a writer to manipulate occurrences for his or her own artistic purposes. In other words, fiction allows for the imposition of coherence on a story and thus can allow the writer to more effectively communicate his or her intended message, theme, or meaning. In this way, fiction writing becomes not only a selfish act of self-reflection, but also a selfless act of communicating to others their own connectedness to a larger human family, a family that shares similar emotions and experiences. Lastly and perhaps most simplistically and obviously, some fiction writers choose the genre based on their need to protect their own privacy and/or the privacy of those about whom they write and from whom they glean inspiration.

[1] In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien gave his fictional narrator his own name. To distinguish between the real Tim O’Brien and the narrator of the novel, the distinctions “author-O’Brien” and “narrator-O’Brien” will be employed when necessary. The former refers to the real man, whereas the latter refers to the speaker in the text.

[2]  Although Norman Mailer’s novel, Armies of the Night: History as the Novel, the Novel as History is often labeled nonfiction, Mailer says “The idea that non-fiction is reality and fiction is fiction is something I have been trying to disabuse people of for 50 years…I have always liked to mix the categories…to the point where they [the readers] will begin to see there is not that much difference” (qtd. in D’Amore 2011, 67).

Reference List

Adams, Tim. 1998. Novelist leaves his wife and kids. Novelist writes about

why a man leaves his wife and kids. Fiction. Or is it? The Observer May 11.

Calloway, Catherine. 1995. How to tell a true war story: Metafiction in

The things they carried. Critique 36, no. 4: 249.

D’Amore, Jonathan L. 2011. The writing life: Authorship and authority in

recent American autobiographical narratives.

David, Dan. 2004. Why do they write? Windspeaker 22:18.

Hallberg, Garth Risk. 2012. Why write novels at all? Riff January 15: 50-51.

Harding, Jennifer Riddle. 2011. “He had never written a word of that”:

Regret and counterfactuals in Hemingway’s “The snows of

Kilimanjaro.” The Hemingway Review 30:21-35.

Hemingway, Ernest. 1987. The complete short stories of Ernest

         Hemingway: The Finca Vigia edition. Ed. Charles Scribner, Jr. New York: Scribner.

Herzog, Tobey C.  2000. Tim O’Brien’s “True Lies” (?). Modern Fiction Studies

        46, 4: 893-916.

Ignatius, David. 2011. Why I write. Publishers Weekly 258, no 18: 25.

Knight, Annelli. 2011. I believe you, liar: Can truth be told in fiction?

         Journal of the Australian Universities Modern Language Association

116: 45-63.

Mehren, Elizabeth. 1990. Fiction rings true in O’Brien’s Vietnam. Orlando

        Sentinel April 06: E4.

North, Oliver. 2012. Why I write…Oliver North: Mysteries and thrillers.

Publishers Weekly 259, no. 47: 20.

O’Brien, Tim. 1990. The things they carried. New York: Broadway Books.

Peterkin, Allan. 2010. Why we write (and how we can do it better). Canadian

         Medical Association Journal 182:1650-1652.

Schoettler, Carl. 1999. At times he put pure gold on paper. The Sun July 21:

1E.

Solomon, Andy. 1990. Review of The things they carried, by Tim O’Brien

The Philadelphia Inquirer Book Review, March 25.

Andysolomonwriter.com.

Smith, Lorrie N. 1994. “The things men do”: The gendered subtext in Tim

O’Brien’s Esquire stories. Critique 36, no. 1: 16.

Trollope, Joanna. 2001. One of England’s most popular novelists reflects on

what writers do and why fiction matters. The Washington Post September 30: WBK.8.

Wesley, Marilyn. 2002. Truth and fiction in Tim O’Brien’s If I die in a combat

        zone and The things they carried. College Literature 29, no. 2: 1-18.

Whitlock, Nathan. 2003. Twisting one’s own arm to write fiction. Books in

        Canada 32, no. 5: 3.

 

 

Songs to Write to: Playlist

I recently realized that certain songs tend to get me in the mood–to write, that is. I decided to keep a list of these inspiring, creativity-inducing songs, and noticed a particular pattern: It seems I am most inspired by songs that include piano, and/or by mellow melodies rich with melancholy, and/or by heartbreaking lyrics I wish I had written myself. Here is my ever-lengthening Writing Playlist:

  1. Fine Frenzy, “Almost Lover”
  2. Coldplay, “The Scientist”
  3. Gary Jules, “Mad World”
  4. The entire soundtrack to the film Dances with Wolves
  5. Counting Crows, “Colorblind”
  6. Bob Dylan, “Boots of Spanish Leather”
  7. Adele, “Someone Like You”
  8. Ben Folds, “Fred Jones Part 2”
  9. Evanescence, “My Immortal”
  10. Rhett Miller, “Come Around”
  11. Straylight Run, “Existentialism on Prom Night”
  12. Dashboard Confessional, “So Long Sweet Summer”

What kind of music awakens your muse?

Daisy Buchannan and the Summer Solstice

Lest you miss it like Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchannan in his novel The Great Gatsby admits to doing each year, I feel compelled to make you aware that today is the first day of summer, also known as the Summer Solstice. It’s the longest day of the year, in terms of daylight hours. In the opening chapters of The Great Gatsby, when Nick is first reunited with Daisy and Tom, Daisy asks, “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” When her friend, Jordan Baker, responds with, “We ought to plan something,” Daisy asks, “What’ll we plan? What do people plan?” When I first read The Great Gatsby in my junior English class when I was 16 or 17 years old, I was fascinated by the character of Daisy Buchannan. She was beautiful and desirable and the seemingly random things she said, like the above, captivated me as they did Gatsby and Nick and apparently many other men who met her. But mostly, I think I found her so admirable because I wanted someone to love me the way Gatsby loved her. It must be so delicious to be so admired. My 32-year-old self has a somewhat different opinion on Ms. Daisy Buchannan, but that is neither here nor there.  What matters here is the fact that despite my changed view of her character, Daisy’s words have stuck with me these fifteen or sixteen years since my first reading of them, and I have felt an obligation–however unmet (up until now)–to recognize and celebrate the longest day of the year ever since, or at the very least, not to miss it.

This year, I finally succeeded. And I took it to a-whole-nother level. I didn’t make epic plans for just the longest day of the year; I made epic plans for the entire weekend leading up to it, as well.

So, Ms. Daisy Buchannan, since before Nick could answer you, you became suddenly distracted by your bruised pinky finger, here is what people plan–and thank you for the inspiration.

Saturday’s Summer Solstice Agenda

1. South of the James Farmers Market

IMG_6911
We kicked off our weekend before the longest day of the year strolling through the South of the James Farmers Market and eating lunch out of food trucks there (Goatacado and Intergalactic Taco). We were able to purchase all sorts of locally sourced products, from a hand-carved wooden door stop to handcrafted soap; from a chocolate mini bell pepper plant for our vegetable garden to homemade, human-grade dog treats for the pups; from bumper stickers to T-shirts, just to name a few. Picture above, I enjoy lunch at a picnic table at the edge of the farmers market with my husband (behind me) and my best friend (far left), who made the trip down from Pennsylvania specifically for the summer solstice celebration we had planned.
IMG_6938
While the South of the James Farmers Market is very pet-friendly (we saw dogs, cats, and goats there!), our own pups stayed home (bringing them along would have meant making them wait in the car during our next adventure, which would have been unwise at best and murderous at worst). We didn’t forget them, though! When we got home, I treated them to homemade, human-grade dog treats we purchased from one of the vendors at the market.

2. Segway Tour of Downtown Richmond

IMG_6942
From the farmers market, we drove straight to Segway of Richmond for an hour-long tour of the city. We visited the Canal Walk, Brown’s Island, and the Governor’s Mansion, just to name a few of the stops. Above, we engage in some silliness on the Segways at the bottom of the steps of the Virginia State Capitol.

3. Summer Solstice Potluck Celebration

IMG_6994
Over thirty friends and family members turned out with dishes to share to celebrate the Summer Solstice with us on Saturday night. Above, amid lanterns and moonlight, some of them gather around the bonfire.
IMG_6985
A good friend and I pose under the twinkly lights and beside one of the glowing lanterns in celebration of the approaching longest day of the year. Our Summer Solstice Potluck Celebration has likely become an annual tradition, which will ensure I never “watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it” (though I will be watching for it!).

Sunday Summer Solstice Agenda

1. A trip to Belle Isle on the James River

IMG_7017
My husband and I spent about an hour sitting on the rocks of Belle Isle with my best friend, who took this photograph, watching the whitewater rafting tours go by, admiring the many herons fishing for brunch, and wading in the warm, rushing waters of the James.

2. Father’s Day Food Truck Lunch

IMG_6907
This particular Sunday was not only the Sunday before the Summer Solstice, but also Father’s Day, so after our time at the river, we headed to Stone Brewery to meet my parents for lunch from Monique’s Crepes. Later that night, we celebrated my dad again when we brought Chinese food over to my parents’ house for dinner.

Monday Summer Solstice Agenda

1. Soak up the Sun at Pony Pasture

IMG_7036
After a walk with my dogs, a run through my neighborhood, and a few household chores, I set aside a few of the daylight hours on this the longest day of the year to write, read, sleep, and just generally relax at Pony Pasture on the James River.

So, I say to Daisy and the rest of you: 1) Perhaps you can now understand why, despite the ever-lengthening days, I haven’t had time to squeeze in a blog post over the last week, and 2) We have almost two hours of daylight left (at least in my neck of the woods) in the longest day of the year. Carpe Diem!