Four Tips for Conducting an Interview

Perhaps because I am nosey by nature, one of my favorite elements of writing is the interviewing process. I have no formal training in this arena, but my natural curiosity and talkativeness has helped me out, as have my roles as English teacher, yearbook advisor, freelance writer, blogger, newsroom receptionist, and college-level writing instructor. For the last year in my role as a contributor for The Village News, I have conducted interviews on a regular basis–and love it. If you’re about to embark on an interview, here are four tried-and-true tips for you.

20190710-IMG_6793
My most recent interview included Bella, a Rottweiler who recently retired from work as a therapy dog. I interviewed her two owners for a story about Bella’s career and retirement. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots.

1. Be Prepared

Come with a few questions prepared and an angle in mind, but also be prepared for the story to reveal itself as the interview unfolds. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions that weren’t part of your original plan, or abandon some questions altogether. I typically end up asking all the questions I came with–and then some. In some rare instances, I didn’t prepare questions at all. Instead, I was prepared to let the conversation unfold completely organically. Usually, I find the theme of the story reveals itself as I interview my subject. By the end of my interviews with several students in and a sensei of a special needs karate class, I knew my theme would be smiling despite trials and tribulations, but I did not start the interview with this message in mind. See what threads you notice, and follow them.

 

2. Get the Basics

Sometimes, I get so lost in the stories my subjects are telling me, I forget to note down the fundamental facts of those stories. Make sure you get the basics–dates, job titles, full names, ages, spellings, locations–whatever might be relevant to the subject matter. I’ve learned to do this up front. I begin by asking as many basic, formulaic questions as I can think of, and when my subject tells me about something that happened, I have learned to immediately follow up with whatever who, what, when, where, why, or how I might need when I sit down later to write the story.

3. Respect the Silence

Sometimes, you’re going to ask a question that your subject isn’t going to answer right away. It may feel awkward, but if someone is silent for a long time after you ask a question, respect the silence. Let them be silent. Sit in it. Let them think. It may be you’ve dredged up an emotionally charged memory and your subject needs a moment to compose himself before he can answer. It may be you’ve asked a question that requires your subject to delve deep into the recesses of memory, retracing facts and dates, before she can respond adequately. Wait. Be patient. The silence will yield to conversation again in due time, and the answer you get after a prolonged silence is likely to be a better one than an answer you prodded for.

image (3)
After my June interview with combat wounded war veteran Carlos Rivadeneira, my photographer kindly commented on what an adept interviewer I was. In this particular interview, respecting the silence played a key role. Photo Credit: Sarah Blanchard Photography.

4. Be Clear

Always be clear with your subjects about what is on the record and off the record. If a subject says something that you’re not sure they want published, ask. If you want to ask a question you know isn’t relevant to your story, let your subject know you’re asking “off the record.” If a subject precedes a statement with “not for the story” or “don’t print this,” don’t even take notes about it. This will help you avoid inadvertently including it, having forgotten your subject told you in confidence.

No matter how strong a writer you are, to write journalistically, you must also be a strong interviewer. In fact, over the course of the last year writing for my local paper, I’ve learned that if I conduct a good interview, the person I’m talking to essentially writes the story for me. I just have to put it all in the right order to convey the theme I need to communicate.

Advertisements

Five Reasons I Write

I’ve gotten a lot of rejection e-mails lately. Like, a lot. From literary agents, websites, and magazines. It happens. Rejection is commonplace when you write, in part, to get published. Still, it’s pretty painful to hit what you think is a homerun only to have it caught in the outfield.

Lots of writers will tell you–wisely–that rejection letters can be a sign of productivity, and even success. At a Writing Show I recently chaired, one of the panelists even said during her first year freelancing, she made it her goal to get as many rejections as possible. Hey–if you’re getting rejection letters, that means you’re writing, right? And getting your stuff out there. Hey–if an outfielder catches your homerun, that means you’re swinging the bat, right? And you hit the ball. So, kudos. Rejections are just a reality of the write life. But that doesn’t make them feel any better than it feels to hear the umpire holler “out” before you’ve even reached first base, certain of your homerun status.

While I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that rejections mean I am writing and putting my writing out there, and are thus their own form of validation–it also helps me to remember that, while I do have publishing goals, I write for many other reasons, as well.

1. Leaving a Legacy

I don’t have children. I don’t plan on having children. Any legacy I leave will be in the form of literature. Each piece of writing I produce, I leave behind for my nieces to read someday, for my nephews to read someday. For someone I have never met to read someday.

2. Telling People’s Stories

In addition to leaving my own legacy, I write to tell other people’s stories. I tell the stories of people who can’t, for one reason or another, tell their own–or, sadder still, people who don’t even realize their story is worth telling. I have an almost insatiable curiosity about others. I love hearing their stories. Most of the time, people don’t realize how interesting they really are. I want them to know–and then I want to tell everyone else, too.

3. Empowering and Educating People

I like to think the stories I tell, whether my own or others’, empower and enlighten the people who read them. I hope when people read stories like Carlos Rivadeneira’s and Mary Setzer’s and Larry Gable’s, they find hope and strength and perseverance. I hope when they read stories like Ashley Unger’s, they broaden their understanding and capacity for compassion, as well as find self-worth. I hope my stories connect people, build community, inform people, and enhance people’s sense of belonging and place.

4. Immortalizing Loved Ones

I write about the people and animals I love, because that is the best way I know to keep them alive. If I write about someone, she is not only alive in my memory, but also in the mind of anyone who reads what I wrote. It is the best way I can think of to honor the people and animals I love. Writing is my gift, more so than any other means of expression. I love to use it to memorialize my loved ones.

5. Serving Others

One of the most fulfilling aspects of writing is its ability to help me give back–to my community, to worthy organizations that have enhanced my experience or life, to people I care about, to the world. I haven’t yet found a way–written or otherwise–to express how satisfying it has been to use my essay, “The Reward,” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog to raise money for the Richmond SPCA, Richmond Animal League (RAL), and Bay Quarter Shores. I experience a similar sense of satisfaction each time I work with a friend to produce an article, complete with stellar photographs. I find helping my photographer friends gain experience and exposure (no pun intended!) fulfilling, and the sense of collaboration and teamwork is exceptionally rewarding and, well, just plain fun!

While rejection after rejection can be disheartening, to say the least, I find it helpful to remember that while I do want my work published, I write for a myriad of other reasons, as well–not the least of which is the fact that I am simply compelled to do so, even if I strike out sometimes. More often than not, though, after I write something–anything–I am left with the same delicious sense of satisfaction produced by the sound of a ball smacking into a glove when I am the outfielder.

If you’d like to help the latest additions to our pack, Soda and Nacho (we call them The Littles), and I continue to support RAL, please consider making a donation here before 8:00 PM EST on August 17.

IMG-0085.jpg
Nacho (left) and Soda (right) are littermates Matty and I adopted from the Richmond SPCA on June 22. They are almost eight months old, and are ready to start giving back! Please help them raise money for the dogs and cats at Richmond Animal League by donating to their calendar contest page.

My First Three Book Signings

Shortly after I learned that Jack’s story, “The Reward,” would be included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the DogI also learned that I could hold readings and book signings. I was so excited to get the word out about the book and Jack’s part in it, and even more excited when I realized I could use his story to raise money for organizations important to the two of us. I immediately began reaching out and planning. I contacted the Richmond SPCA because Jack loved his many agility classes there. In addition, Jack, Sadie, and my parents’ pug, Smokey, completed the shelter’s one-mile Dog Jog a few years ago, and I have both run the 5k Dog Jog and volunteered at the race. I contacted Richmond Animal League (RAL), because Jack and Sadie inspired me to volunteer there for four or five years. Finally, I contacted Bay Quarter Shores (BQS), because Jack and Sadie loved to go there, my husband and I got married there (Sadie was at the wedding rehearsal), and the story takes place there.

Richmond SPCA

My very first reading and book signing took place Saturday, April 27, from 1:00 to 3:00 at the Richmond SPCA. I planned to sell books for $15 each, with $10 of each purchase staying right there at the SPCA to benefit the animals.

When I arrived, the staff had already set a table up for me in the lobby, to the left of the reception desk and right in front of the gift shop. The reading was to take place in the adoption center.

The audience for the reading was sparse, with my husband and parents making up about a third of those in attendance. Still, I stood up in front of the room with Sadie beside me and read Jack’s story. I made it to the last few sentences before my voice broke, and I gave up trying to hold back tears. When I finished reading and looked up, many of the audience members were wiping away tears.

reading spca 3
Sadie stands beside me for most of my reading at the Richmond SPCA in April.

As I made my way to the book signing table, a woman from the audience approached me. As serendipity would have it, she told me she owns a place in White Stone, a town in the Northern Neck of Virginia not far from the scene of the story. We chatted for several minutes about dogs and the Northern Neck, and she purchased a book for her sister, whose dog had just passed away.

The next person to approach my table was a journalism student at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He explained to me that he’d been assigned to attend and report on an event, and he had chosen mine. I expected him, as a journalism student, to have a few questions, but he asked only three, took my card, and went on his way.

Next, a woman who arrived specifically for the reading and book signing approached. She bought the book and explained she has several sisters, one of whom has six dogs. The sisters plan to mail the book between themselves. “It’ll be The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book instead of the traveling pants,” she told me. I love the idea of Jack’s story–and all the other stories in the book–traveling around the country.

One of the highlights of the event was when a troop of young Girl Scouts lined up to pet Sadie. They were learning how to properly approach and interact with a dog. Sadie remained calm on the floor, letting each little girl approach her, offer her a sniff of her hand, and gently pat her head.

In the end, the two hours raised $160 for shelter where Jack loved his agility classes.

Richmond Animal League at Cafe Zata

My second event was, appropriately, a dog-friendly reading and signing that took place on the outdoor patio at Cafe Zata. I was pretty excited to be the cafe’s first-ever patio event, and that dogs would be invited to attend. It was also exciting to see my name beside the word “author” on the sidewalk sign Zata had set out to advertise the event, which would raise money for Richmond Animal League.

20190518-IMG_5021
My friend and fellow writer, Lauren Mosher (left), and I pose outside of Cafe Zata beside the sidewalk sign advertising the May 18 book reading and signing to benefit RAL. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots

This event took place on Saturday, May 18, from 1:00-3:00 pm. Despite the heat, it was exceptionally well-attended. Every chair on the patio was full, and several dogs panted in the shade under the umbrellas. I felt so supported. Two volunteers from RAL attended, along with Gertrude, a beagle available for adoption at the shelter. Several of my friends, family members, and neighbors were there. A few strangers and even an old high school friend (and her dog) came. My friend Jamie, who owns Radiant Snapshots, photographed the event for me, and my friend Lauren, a fellow writer and longtime RAL volunteer, introduced me to the crowd before I began reading.

As with my reading at the SPCA, I cried, and I was told later by a few people in the audience–some of whom knew Jack–that they teared up, as well.

After the event, I was parched, so once the patio had cleared out and I had cleaned up all my materials, I went inside to purchase a cold drink. The owner generously gave it to me for free, and I was happy to hear that the reading had brought in some extra business.

In the end, we raised $285 for RAL that day.

If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.

Bay Quarter Shores

My third reading took place Memorial Day weekend, on Saturday, May 25, at 4:30 pm during the annual Bay Quarter Shores Memorial Day potluck and picnic. The reading and book signing was a fundraiser for BQS, where story takes place. Jack loved to go there and swim, walk on beach, walk on the nature trails, SUP, and ride on the speed boat. In the end, we raised $140 for BQS.

I cried more at this event than at the others, despite the experience behind me at this point, perhaps because I was standing so close to where the story takes place, and it was only the second time I’d been there without Jack.

readings bqs
I read Jack’s story at the Bay Quarter Shores Clubhouse Memorial Day weekend. Right outside is the setting of the story.

People came up to me to tell me they cried, too. People told me about dogs they recently lost and showed me photos. Dogs really do bring people together. One woman said she couldn’t bear to buy the book right now because she had lost her dog two weeks prior, and that I should write a piece about loss. I told her I already did.

In preparation for my three events, I had ordered 60 books–and I am all sold out. I’m looking forward to possibly another event or two this summer, and maybe one in September. It was so fulfilling to give back to groups that have meant a lot to me and my pack. I love being able to use my writing this way. My main takeaways are not procedural or logistic. They are this: Dogs bring people together–and I have the most loving, supportive family and friends a girl could ask for.

If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.

310d1554-37c5-4cf6-a080-506859b4846e
The above photo features Soda, clearly a natural pin-pup girl (get it!), at Pony Pasture Rapids this past weekend. Help make her a calendar girl with your donation to RAL!

If Soda and Nacho raise…

$125, we can cover the cost of microchips for 15 animals

$250, we can cover the cost of a spay/neuter surgery for 5 kittens

$500, we can cover the cost of one day of Parvovirus treatment

$1,000, we can cover the cost of heartworm treatment for 3 dogs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss

IMG-8526 (1)
Jack and Sadie on a trail along the James River at Pony Pasture Rapids on April 11

April 11

It is a Thursday afternoon, warm–but the kind of warmth easily defied by the shade. The tall, thick, green grasses along the James River have just begun sprouting up out of the newly awakened earth. Jack stops every few feet to snack on some of the young blades. Bluebells hang their pretty little heads all along the paths that parallel the river at Pony Pasture Rapids. Some delicate white flowers–I don’t know what they are–join the bluebells along the trail. The wetlands are soggy and stagnant, but haven’t been that way long enough to accommodate mosquitoes just yet. The day is quintessential spring, and I am grateful to have this afternoon to take Jack and Sadie adventuring. We don’t get very far; not too warm for me is slightly too warm for Jack and Sadie, always wearing fur coats–but we spend close to an hour wandering around the woods, watching the river race past its banks, swollen with spring rains to the west.

April 13

I sit in the lobby at Veterinary Referral and Critical Care (VRCC). It’s cold, over-air conditioned. Jack is somewhere in the back, having his bladder emptied. He began shaking as soon as we walked into the clinic, but not because it’s cold. Because he is scared.

I look around the lobby. A wall of windows behind me. A wall of windows to the left of me. Magazines scattered on every flat surface (who can read a magazine in a time like this?). A TV endlessly playing cooking shows–but once, a wildlife show. I like the wildlife show better. The reception desk is straight ahead. Two industrious women sit in swivel chairs with wheels and answer phones and take payments and file folders. Above them, perched atop a door leading into what looks to be a file room, rests a hand-painted wooden sign. “Be Kind,” it reads, in bold, black lettering. It’s adorned with red and pink hearts on a white background. I assume it’s a gift from a grateful client whose dog (or cat) is happy and healthy again. I like its message. I find it somewhat comforting.

April 15

Last night I promised Jack I wouldn’t take him back to VRCC to have his bladder emptied again. He has been on new medication for going on three days now. It should kick in any minute.

It is a little before 11:00 PM. I have to break my promise to Jack. He is in the back at VRCC again. I am sitting in the cold lobby with a plastic cup of water in my hand. A competition cooking show is playing on TV. One of the contestants is cooking plantains. The receptionist behind the desk under the “Be Kind” sign tells me she doesn’t like plantains. I don’t like plantains either. I stare at the clock. It is a Monday night. I am tired. Jack is tired. We get home sometime after midnight and fall asleep together in the family room.

April 16

It is a Tuesday afternoon, warm–but it started out chilly. I have shed my coat and sit beside Matty and Sadie in the backyard grass with Jack, leaning against the sun-warmed brick foundation of our house. Jack doesn’t want to come inside. He lays in the grass or makes a nest in the moldy dust under the shed. The sky is robin’s egg blue. When the wind blows, yellow clouds of pollen dust drift through the air, taking flight from the tufts of white pines’ needles. The dogwoods are almost done blooming, their white blossoms giving way to green leaves. A pair of robins build a nest in the bushes to our left. New life is everywhere.

The medication is not doing its job.

I text our sister-in-law, also our vet, who gave Jack a home until he joined our pack. I fill her in on the latest details, ask for her honest professional opinion.

“I think it’s time,” her text tells me.

I put my arm around Jack and cry, my hand shaking after I text back, “Okay.”  Jack stands beside me, squinting in the sun, wagging his tail.

Less than an hour later, I squat on the floor of Room 5. Jack is lying like a sphinx on a cold, metallic table draped in a plush, blue blanket. The hairs of other dogs and cats are stuck in the fibers. Matty, Sadie, and my mother-in-law are there. Jack is trembling. My face is level with his front paws, my hands on his shoulders. I talk to him. I sing to him. “Shepherd Show Me How to Go” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” I tell him not to be scared; it’s okay. But I am scared and none of this is okay with me. I sing again. I am amazed at my ability to sing and not sob. How am I doing this? After a shot the shaking starts to subside, and his eyes grow drowsy, though he is fighting sleep with all his might. I lift my face to look into his eyes. He meets my gaze. His eyes hold mine as I sing, until they glaze over and he gently lowers his head. He is asleep. I rest my head on the edge of the table. After a moment, I stand. I press my face into the fur on the back of his neck and inhale deeply. I will miss this warmth, this softness, this smell.

When we turn around and walk out–I am the last to leave–I can’t shake the feeling that I am abandoning him.

April 19

Jack and I used to go for a walk every single morning, no matter what. He and Sadie would eat breakfast, I would eat breakfast, and then Jack and I would head out, Sadie joining us on occasion if it wasn’t too dark, too early, or too cold, by her standards.

Now that Jack is gone, my morning routine feels disjointed, inefficient, disturbed. I am awake, I have eaten, but there is no dog waiting to go for a walk with me. Sadie is snuggled back up in her bed. I hold up her harness and dance around and sing and try to convince her she wants to go for a walk. She looks at me and lowers her head, resting it on the bolster of her bed. I decide to go for a quick run. I lace up my shoes and step out into the cerulean morning.

Alone.

I am about half a mile away from home when the sight of a black sock on the shoulder of the road stops me in my tracks. The sense that Jack is with me, leaving me a message, is overwhelming. Every morning when we woke up, Jack would stand patiently in front of my dresser, waiting for me to take out a pair of socks and give it to him. Then, he’d run around the house with the socks in his mouth until I had his breakfast ready. Every afternoon when I got home from work, Jack would root around in my gym bag or work bag until he found a sock (or shoe) to parade around the backyard with. Matty and I were forever finding missing socks and shoes out in the backyard, where Jack had deposited them. In this moment, in the quiet predawn with the birds singing, when I would normally have been out walking with Jack, it feels like he is with me.

April 20

The next day is a Saturday. Matty, Sadie, and our four friends (two humans and their two dogs) are at the Northern Neck. It is the first weekend we have come here without Jack. Last time we were here, just weeks ago, he was here, too. I am walking Sadie with my friend, Ashley, and her dogs, Gryff and Ellie. I look down to my left and a slight, delighted gasp escapes my throat. I feel elated. A well of emotion springs up in my chest. “Look!” I say. There, on the sidewalk, is a single green sock.

April 22

Yesterday was Easter. Ashley and I don’t have to work today, so we decide to take our dogs to Pony Pasture for an afternoon adventure. It is the first time Sadie and I walk these trails along the river without Jack. Eleven days ago, he walked them with us. Eleven days. A week and a half. Last time we were here, Jack was here, too.

We are almost to the trails in Ashley’s white Dodge minivan when something catches my eye on a tree to my right. It is a white sign with pink and red hearts. “Be Kind,” it says in bold, black lettering.

April 23

It has been one week since we said goodbye to Jack. I am half a mile from home on one of Jack’s favorite walking routes, out for a quick run before work. In the grass along the sidewalk, in the half-light of morning, I see a brand new, unused dog-poop bag. I stop running, bend down and pick it up. No sense in leaving it there to litter the neighborhood, especially when I could use it on a future walk with Sadie. The bag bears some kind of cutesie pattern, but I can’t really see what it is; it’s still fairly dark out.

When I get home and turn on the light in the mud room, I can see the bag’s decorative pattern. It is a white bag, adorned with tiny, little, green alligators in a repeating pattern. Some of Jack’s (many) nicknames were Alligator Face, Alligator Mouth, and Chompy-Chomp, because when he was really excited, really happy, or really trying to get me out of bed, he would smile and gnash his teeth like an alligator trying to snatch an unsuspecting gazelle from around the watering hole.

Instead of adding the poop bag to my stash in the mud room, I tie it to the handle of Jack’s red leash, still hooked to his black and gray, reflective, skulls-and-crossbones harness.

April 27

In January 2015, I wrote a diary entry about a walk I took with Jack and Sadie in the Northern Neck. It morphed into a blog post, which morphed into a submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, which morphed into a story in the book. Over a month ago,  several weeks before we lost Jack, I  scheduled a reading of the story and a book signing at the Richmond SPCA to raise funds for its dogs and cats. Jack and I had had a fulfilling experience completing three or four levels of agility classes there, so it seemed an appropriate venue and beneficiary. After the reading, as I sit in the lobby with Sadie and Matty, I look up to my left. There, above the reception desk, is the same sign I saw at VRCC and Pony Pasture: “Be Kind.”

IMG-8803
One of the many “Be Kind” signs I began seeing around the Richmond area in key locations. This one hangs at the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed several levels of agility classes and I held a reading and book signing to raise funds for the shelter.

April 28

This evening brought my most intense bout of regret yet. People talk about our pets crossing the rainbow bridge and waiting for us while they scamper and play. I don’t know what I believe, but tonight I am tormented because popular belief says Jack crossed the rainbow bridge; Jack was afraid of bridges. Jack was afraid of bridges and I left him while he was asleep and didn’t stay for his last breath like I always thought I would and what if he was afraid to cross that bridge without me?

May 4

I am just blocks away from my dad’s birthday brunch when my car strikes and kills a bird. I slam on my brakes and peer down at his little broken body–just in case. Maybe he’s not dead. But he is dead and I am as crushed as his delicate bones and I arrive to lunch a wreck. But as I approach the door, I see a stone with a dog painted on it. A dog that looks like Jack. And, instead of feeling more sorrow, I feel slightly comforted. And then I walk inside and on the floor is a mat bearing the same canine likeness. And in the bathroom, a sticker on the paper towel dispenser.

 

After I order my food from a waitress who discreetly supplies me with extra napkins (I don’t even have to ask her) to blow my nose and wipe my eyes, I glance around the restaurant and there, just above the mirror at the bar, hangs the sign: “Be Kind.”

IMG-8879
The “Be Kind” sign at Millie’s

Eventually, my sobbing subsides and I am able to eat most of my food, though I hardly touch the virgin drink I ordered. My dad, mom, brother, and I pay, and they walk me back to my car. As I get in and close the door, I look up to see the back of my dad’s T-shirt. “You Should Know Jack,” the lettering says.

And I did. And I am so glad I did. Jack and I shared a bond that, for a while, I took for granted as the bond all dog owners form with their dogs. It took me a long time to realize that Jack and I were a special pair. It was not telepathy, not really–but we had an understanding that transcended words. We communicated with each other through a look, a slight gesture.

An emergency vet I took Jack to several years ago in the middle of the night when he was suffering from pancreatitis commented on how in-tune he and I we were with each other. Strangers sometimes approached me to comment on the way Jack watched me. Matty was always telling me, “I have known people with dogs all my life, and had dogs all my life, and I have never seen anything like what you and Jack have.” If any dog could find a way to reach me, to communicate with me beyond my ken, I know Jack would be that dog. And there is a skeptical side of me that says the socks and the signs and the subtle little hints are just coincidences, or would have been there but gone unnoticed if Jack were still with me. But I prefer to believe that’s not true. I prefer to believe Jack is with me, somehow.

A few days ago I was out for a run when I came across two of my neighbors walking their dogs. I stopped to chat and pet all the dogs. In the course of conversation I heard myself say, “When Matty and I were walking Jack and Sadie earlier–” I stopped. “Well, Sadie,” I corrected myself. But as the conversation wound down and I resumed my run I said aloud, “But maybe Jack was there, too.”

IMG-8949
I love you, Jack. Forever and ever, my whole life long.

 

My Writing Buddies have Four Paws

It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.

Chicken Soup II
The view I was treated to when I let Jack decide which way we should walk one January morning in 2015.

The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.

I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.

Radio
Kat Simons, local Richmond radio personality, was kind enough to have Jack, Sadie, and me into the studio for an interview this afternoon. We talked about my upcoming fundraisers for two local animal shelters and the soon-to-be-released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, in bookstores April 9.

Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.

Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.

A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Chicken Soup III.jpg
Sadie and Jack pose with a few copies of the book they’re in.

My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.

If I don’t already have enough to thank my precious little dogs for, I can now add publication, book signings, fundraisers, and a radio interview to the list of experiences they’ve given me.

 

Why You Should Join Writing Groups and Organizations

During a recent visit to the Northern Neck, I found myself sitting across from my aunt at a Mexican restaurant where we had met for lunch, along with my uncle, my husband, and my parents. As we noshed on tortilla chips, waiting for our burritos and fajitas and taco salads to arrive, she observed, “So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.” Her observation is completely accurate. (And, if I know her, she’ll probably take credit for inspiring this blog post–as she should.)

While writing itself often requires at least some solitude, “no man is an island.” Since I’ve gotten more involved with Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) and James River Writers, my writing has taken off, and I am learning more than I ever knew there was to learn–about writing, publishing, networking, motivation, you name it.

Poetree III
My mom, me, my friend, Ashley, and my dad enjoy lunch at The Market at Grelen after the PSOV awards ceremony and poetry reading.

One of the benefits of becoming involved in–or at least aware of–the various writing groups in your area is learning about opportunities to enter contests. The Poetry Society or Virginia (of which I am also now a member) holds a contest I learned about when I attended the James River Writers Annual Conference. I entered several poems, and one earned second-place sonnet in one category of the contest. Not only did this success bolster my self-esteem and increase my enthusiasm, but it also meant I got to attend an awards ceremony and luncheon at a nursery near the mountains, where I not only had the opportunity to read my poem to an audience of fellow poets, but where I also got to sit in a greenhouse on a hillside and listen to dozens and dozens of other poets read their winning poems. I left the awards ceremony inspired, awed, and filled with creative energy. (I also bought a dragon plant I’d been eyeing in the greenhouse throughout the readings. It’s my poetree, and since I brought it home and re-potted it last April, it has grown and thrived in tandem with my writing practice.)

In addition to the opportunity to enter and maybe win writing contests, becoming involved with writing groups gives you the inside scoop on classes, workshops, and conferences. I learned about the year-long novel-writing class I enrolled in at VisArts at

VOWA
Ashley and I outside the Double Tree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, with our Excellence-in-Craft award plaques.

the James River Writers Annual Conference. Had I not joined that group and attended that conference, I never would’ve learned of or taken that class. Had I not taken that class, I can almost guarantee you I would not have finished my second manuscript, and if I had (which is unlikely), it would not be nearly as strong as it is (though it still needs some work).

 

Participating in the class at VisArts not only ensured I completed my manuscript, but also allowed me to meet several other really talented writers, people I learned a lot from and who are still helping me with my writing today. And if that isn’t enough, it was through taking this class that I was asked by a classmate to co-chair the 2019 Writing Show with her. (Shameless plug: The next one is this Wednesday! Topic: How to Write a Killer Synopsis.) This opportunity has been priceless, and we’ve only just begun. Already, I have met so many intelligent, literary people; learned a TON about the writing industry; and been inspired over and over again. My involvement in James River Writers paved the way for me to take the VisArts class, which in turn paved the way for me to become more deeply involved with James River Writers.

My involvement in VOWA may also soon support my role as co-chair of The Writing Show. Yesterday, I attended VOWA’s Annual Conference. One of the panel discussions centered on how to please an editor. It just so happens the May Writing Show topic centers on how to make freelance writing financially rewarding. My hope is to contact one of the editors I heard speak to VOWA yesterday about speaking at The Writing Show in May.

“So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.”

Finally, I learned about Life in 10 Minutes at a James River Writers class a few years ago. Since learning of Life in 10, I have taken several of their workshops, attended a one-day event, and taken a class. These experiences have produced several pieces of writing, a few of which have gone on to appear in sweatpantsandcoffee.com, Nine Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, and more. I even got to interview Valley Haggard for a blog post, which was later republished in WriteHackr Magazine. The same class where I learned about Life in 10 Minutes was also the reason I finished my first manuscript.

Joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.

Through a James River Writers newsletter, I learned about Cafe Zata, which is going to make an excellent outdoor venue for a dog-friendly book signing and reading coming up in May.

Joining writing groups and participating in their contests, classes, conferences, and workshops is not the only decision that has helped support my writing–my family, fellow writers, friends, and colleagues have also played a role–but joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.

 

To Teach or Not to Teach (English)? Five Things You Should Know

I began my teaching career in the fall of 2006, just weeks after graduating from college and returning home from a five-month semester abroad in Germany. Nearly thirteen years later, I still teach at the same high school in the same classroom I walked into as a fresh-faced, 22-year-old, first-year teacher, barely older than my students. Looking back at the past decade or so, I realize there are a few things any aspiring English teacher might want to know.

Your life will be a revolving door of essays and papers to grade.

1. You are always going to have more grading than anyone else in your building. Ever. Stacks of essays, research papers, journals, etc., and they will require a lot of attention and time and thought and feedback. As soon as you finish grading one pile of papers, the next paper is due. Your life is a revolving door of essays.

If you can deal with #1, go ahead and read #s 2-5. If you can’t handle #1, just stop reading right now and reconsider your career path.

You will have the joy of discovering and rediscovering literature for the duration of your career.

2. You are going to get to know your students very well because of the things they write. They will often write things they will not say–things that will surprise, sadden, and delight you.

3. You are going to have the joy of discovering and rediscovering literature for the rest of your career. You are going to become an expert on the books you teach, and yet see something new in them–Every. Single. Time.

Writing college recommendation letters is a lot of work–but it’s also one way you will directly, positively impact your students’ futures.

4. Lots of students are going to ask you to write lots of college recommendation letters and scholarship letters because, well, presumably you can write. For the same reason, lots of students are going to ask you to look over their college admissions essays (as if you didn’t already have stacks of papers to read!). It’s a lot of work–but it’s also one way you directly, positively impact your students’ futures.

5. You will have opportunities to be active “in the field”–to judge, run, and enter writing contests, and to attend writing workshops, classes, and conferences. Of course, this is what you make it and you get what you put in. I try to take full advantage of this perk of the job. I believe participating in and facilitating contests, attending workshops, and completing classes all enrich me both personally and professionally. I also feel like the fact that I blog, publish articles and essays, and continue honing my craft and content knowledge earns me some credibility with my students  When they notice the byline on the framed articles around my classroom boasts my name, they are often surprised and in awe. When they see the awards for articles and poems on the windowsill, they often want to know about what I wrote. I could be wrong, but I feel like knowing I actually WRITE helps them feel like I am more capable of teaching THEM how to write. I am not just a talking head, parroting back the rules of writing; I am also a writer. I love that my job lets me directly engage with activities I would be doing anyway: writing and reading. And, often, my career as an English teacher directly SUPPORTS my writing endeavors outside the classroom, as well. Many times, I have earned professional development points for my teaching license. My school even supplemented the cost of my graduate degree in creative writing.

There are many reasons not to become an English teacher: endless stacks of papers and essays, trying desperately to help students understand Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” standardized tests, the persistent struggle to find effective ways to teach proper grammar.

But, for me at least, the reasons to become an English teacher are even more numerous: watching students notice their own improved writing, taking advantage of professional development opportunities that also nurture your personal literary interests, diving deeply into beloved books, helping students learn to read between the lines. I could go on.

If you can stomach the less enjoyable aspects of the job (and, remember, every job involves these), the rewards–at least at my school–far outnumber the inconveniences and struggles.

 

 

 

 

Take a Hike! (Or a Walk… Or a Run…) And Then Write

I hadn’t run the first mile of this morning’s run when my mistake occurred to me, striding into my consciousness as clearly as the morning sun shone through the frigid air. I stopped mid-stride and unlocked my cell phone, accessing my e-mail.

“My pre-morning run mind must’ve been misfiring,” I typed as fast my thumbs could dance across the screen, in an attempt to explain the initial, embarrassingly erroneous e-mail I had sent not 20 minutes before setting out for this run. My mind, unaware of its own cloudiness before my run, had suddenly cleared as I ran. As my body warmed up to the run, my thoughts, too, became more awake and fluid and ran through my mind freely, unencumbered by any morning fog.

We all know people who live by the mantra: “But first, coffee.” I feel a similar sentiment, but my coffee is a morning walk with my dogs or a morning run (or, on a particularly good day, both).

walk III
Jack, Sadie, and I enjoy a November morning walk on the shores of the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, not far from the scene that inspired my essay, “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, set to be released April 9.

I don’t do anything important before my morning dog walk (I mean, besides breakfast–the most important meal of the day). I don’t have the mind for it yet. I need the time to move around outside in the fresh air and quiet, to gather my thoughts from wherever they roosted for the night and sort through them. My day–at least, the productive part of it–cannot start without this ritual: breathing the morning air, communing with nature, watching the morning roll in as my morning mind-fog rolls out. My body burns the calories and my mind burns off its fog.

I find the act of walking or hiking or running outside integral not only to my preparation for the day, but also to my writing. My personal essay “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, to be released April 9, was

walk II
Sadie enjoys the boardwalk at Henricus Historical Park one morning this fall.

inspired by and tells the tale of a morning walk with my dogs. My essay, “The Mountains are Calling” describes, in part, a hike in Montana. My piece, “The moon was late to the party” also centers on a walk. While out walking or running, I have met countless interesting neighbors about whom I have written articles for The Villages News. I’ve even written longform articles about the benefits of walking your dog and how to maximize the advantages of your dog walk. Many of the descriptions of nature in my poetry, manuscripts, essays, and short stories come from scenes I witnessed or thoughts I had while out walking, hiking, or running.

Several years ago, I read a profile of a poet in Poets & Writers Magazine. I wish I could remember his name and the exact quote, but what I do remember is this: He loved to go for walks. He explained that he would begin a walk, his mind full of worries and stress over his own and the world’s problems. By the time he finished his walk, the

walk
Jack finds his stride on an early morning walk in Callao, Virginia.

problems were still there, but the worry and stress were gone. A walk’s ability to peel the worry way from problems allows us to think about them more clearly. This holds true not only for problems in our lives, but also for obstacles in our writing. I don’t typically begin a run or walk or hike with the intention of unraveling the knots in my tangled plot or finding a word to rhyme with “marathon” or “silver,” but often, the solutions and ideas simply present themselves as I move, as if the unrestrained movement of my body also releases my thoughts to wander my mind without hindrance or boundary.

This past summer, a neighbor let me borrow her copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningNow, several months later, one aspect of the book I remember most vividly is Murakami’s conviction that he runs so he can keep writing. And indeed, there are many parallels between running a long race and writing a long work.

“Don’t talk to me; I haven’t had my coffee yet” has never held true for me (which is good, because I don’t drink coffee, so I would be decidedly anti-social if it were true), but the same concept does hold true if I haven’t been outside for a walk yet.

Reflecting on the Start of 2019

I love the idea of New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes I set them; sometimes I don’t–but the idea of a fresh, new start and setting goals for the new year appeals to me. Despite my love of a good goal, this January, I didn’t begin the year with any specific goals in mind, other than to revise my manuscript and hopefully send it off to an agent by April. Now that we are coming to the end of the first month of the year, I have taken a little time to reflect on what I have achieved, even without a particular list of goals in mind.

reflectionnnk
While setting goals is important, equally important is taking time to reflect on what we have achieved. I snapped this photo in the Northern Neck of Virginia during a walk with my dogs, Jack and Sadie, in January 2015. They, along with the scene above, to which they led me on our walk, inspired an essay that will appear in an upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul.

The First Achievements of 2019

  1. My first published piece of 2019  ran in The Village News on January 2 (also my birthday!).

    unnamed
    My first published piece of 2019 ran on my birthday.
  2. A few days later, on January 7, a short piece I wrote called “How to Eat Dark Chocolate: A Lesson in Living” was posted on Lifein10Minutes.com.
  3. Around January 15, I learned my short personal essay “The Reward” had made it to the final selection round of pieces to be included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog. About a week later, I got unofficial word it will be included, and I can expect my official notification sometime next week. This particular achievement is actually the indirect result of a  resolution I made in 2017 to submit pieces to publications on a (somewhat) regular basis.
    jackandsadieponypasturewetlans
    My dogs, Jack (left) and Sadie (right), pictured here on a boardwalk through the James River Wetlands near Pony Pasture Rapids last week, are the inspiration (and subject) of my short essay, “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, set to come out in April 2019.

    4. Last night, January 30, I co-chaired the first of the James River Writers 2019 Writing ShowsBalancing Writing and Life: Inspiration and Practical Strategies.

    writingshowii
    Kristen Green (left), author of New York Times bestselling Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County acted as the moderator for last night’s first 2019 Writing Show. Our panelists were writer and MFA student Rachel Beanland (center) and writer, blogger, and photographer Marc Cheatham (right).

    5. I also took time this month to read my manuscript through as a one whole piece for the first time, addressing issues as I found them (I am sure there are more to find, and another–probably multiple other–read-throughs are in my future). In addition, last week I submitted a short story to a literary magazine, and am in the process of reading through a writer friend’s middle grade novel manuscript.

All in all, I’d say it’s been a strong start. Now: to keep the momentum going. Maybe I should set some goals…

  1. Finish revising my manuscript
  2. Write a query and synopsis for my manuscript (I am sure writing the manuscript itself will prove a less arduous endeavor!)
  3. Send my manuscript to an agent, preferably before the end of April
  4. Continue to co-chair the 2019 Writing Show
  5. Continue writing for The Village News
  6. Take at least one writing class or workshop in 2019
  7. Submit to publications as opportunities arise
  8. Continue to maintain this blog
  9. Continue my involvement as Board Member and Collegiate Contest Chair for  Virginia Outdoor Writers Association.

 

The Christmas Letter: Why a Mass Text or a Social Media Post Won’t Cut It

Christmas Letter
This year’s Christmas-card kit: a one-page letter, holiday stamps, a family portrait, and a signed card.

“We were going to send you a Christmas card, but just look for our ‘Merry Christmas’ mass text message instead.” That flippant statement blared over my car’s radio speakers as I drove to work listening to Christmas music earlier this week. It’s true–I myself will send out a few “Merry Christmas” texts of my own come Christmas day, but not in the form of a mass text to the majority of my contact list. I will send them to a few intimate friends and family members as a small reminder that I am thinking of them, that I love them, that I truly wish them a happy holiday. And these texts will not be in the stead of my annual, page-long Christmas letter, sent in a signed holiday card, in some cases with a personal message and wallet-sized family portrait.

Technology has seemingly diminished our need for the annual holiday update, decreasing the value of a year summarized in an annual Christmas letter. After all, we can post anything to social media for all to see with the swipe of a finger across a screen. And just like that–POOF!–the need to sit down and spend time writing a Christmas letter, signing a card, and addressing an envelope have vanished.

When I was a kid, my parents always sent out a Christmas letter detailing our family’s year in the trips we had taken, the family and friends we had visited or hosted, our most recent move, the achievements we had experienced, etc. Many of my parents’ friends and family members did the same. I loved reading everyone’s annual update, typically folded neatly into a festive card, which my parents would tape to the garage door until it was completely covered in Christmas cards. I always loved that colorful door, decorated with season’s greetings from people we loved.

When I was a kid, I loved reading everyone’s annual update, typically folded neatly into a festive card, which my parents would tape to the garage door until it was completely covered in Christmas cards.

Now that I am an adult, in many respects living in a world very different from the one I inhabited as a child, technology has seemingly diminished our need for the annual holiday update, decreasing the value of a year summarized in an annual Christmas letter. After all, we can post any major milestones, achievements, sorrows, job changes, moves, new arrivals, and adventures to social media for all to see with the swipe of a finger across a screen. And just like that–POOF!–the need to sit down and spend time writing a Christmas letter, signing a card, and addressing an envelope have vanished. If anyone wants to know what we’ve been up to, they can check our Facebook page or our Instagram account or our Twitter feed.

The need to let someone know you’re thinking of them goes beyond a “like” on Facebook or Instagram. Why not put in a little more effort (it’s just once a year!), and take the time to sign a card? Even better–write a quick personalized message. You know–in your handwriting. With a pen.

But these posts, while informative and fun and entertaining, are impersonal announcements. They do not say to any one friend or family member or neighbor, “Hey–I wanted you to know about this. You are special to me. I am making an extra special effort to stay in touch with you, because you matter to me.” Similarly, while studies have shown we all get a little kick out of “likes” and comments on our social media posts, as well as a thrill out of the sound of the text message alert on our phones, the need to let someone know you’re thinking of them goes beyond a “like” on Facebook or Instagram. If you truly care about someone, why not put in a little more effort (it’s just once a year!), and take the time to sign a card? Even better–write a quick, personalized message. You know–in your handwriting. With a pen.

Composing a Christmas letter provides an excellent opportunity for you to reflect on the year. It gives you space to sit down and look back on the growth you and your loved ones have experienced in the past 12 months, allows you to go back and savor the year before a new one begins, and might even help provide some clarification regarding what your priorities for the new year might be.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Along with saying to loved ones, “Hey, look! You’re so special to me, you made my Christmas card list!”, composing a Christmas letter provides an excellent opportunity for you to reflect on the year. The things you remember from the year and the things you want to include in your letter are likely the things that were most important to you, or that made the most impact on you. It gives you space to sit down and look back on the growth you and your loved ones have experienced in the past 12 months. The changes you have made. The goals you have achieved. The trips you have taken. All the things we quickly post to social media, and then likely forget about until they show up on TimeHop or in our Memories on Facebook. Writing a Christmas letter allows you to go back and savor the year before a new one begins, and might even help provide some clarification regarding what your priorities for the new year might be.

Writing my Christmas letter and signing my cards doesn’t feel like a chore; it feels like a beloved holiday tradition.

A few days ago, I was talking to my sister about Christmas cards and letters. We both agreed that sitting down to address envelopes for our annual holiday mailings was therapeutic. We watch a favorite TV show or listen to Christmas music and just leisurely write out our cards. It gives us reason for pause, a break from the go-go-go. For those moments while I am writing my letter, signing my cards, and addressing my envelopes, nothing else is on my mind. All the thoughts running through my head involve the highlights of my year, or the loved ones whose names and addresses I’m handwriting on the page. It doesn’t feel like a chore; it feels like a beloved holiday tradition.

I should say that even as I bemoan the lost art of writing Christmas letters and signing Christmas cards, many people do still send them–and I eagerly check my mailbox every day from Black Friday to New Year’s Eve in anticipation of receiving them. I don’t adhere them to my door like my parents did when I was growing up, but I do display them–in a kind of Christmas card garland. The cards and letters and family photos cling festively to a strand of Christmas lights adorning my back entryway, where I walk under them every time I leave home, and every time I come back in. These greeting cards bring me joy when I find them in my mailbox, when I walk under them to leave home, and when I walk under them to return. They fill my heart with Christmas cheer. I dare a mass text message to do that.