A Piece of Cake: Foreshadowing in my Own, Real Life

Today is my birthday. In the world as we know it, birthdays and cake are synonymous. In the world of An Expected End, my novel manuscript, deathdays and cake are also synonymous. In fact, cake features pretty prominently throughout the story. Marshall learns his deathday at Shyndigz, a real bakery in Richmond, Virginia. And although he is eating their signature oatmeal cream pies, as opposed to cake, while he dials into the Hotline to get his official Date of Departure (DoD), Shyndigz is also known for one of my favorite menu items, their salted chocolate caramel cake.

Cake also features in the story when Marshall’s colleagues, much to his chagrin, surprise him with an office deathday party, complete with deathday cake.

Marshall is eating the last piece of his birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.

Perhaps one of the most important roles cake plays in the manuscript is that of being the reason Marshall meets Penelope. He goes to her bakery, The Cakery, a fictional bakery in Richmond, to pick up a deathday cake for a colleague’s office deathday party. Later, on his thirtieth birthday, he revisits The Cakery to purchase himself a birthday cake, which is really just an excuse to see Penelope again. He is eating the last piece of that birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.

In its final role in the manuscript, cake features again when (**spoiler alert**), after Penelope has died, Marshall bakes a birthday cake from one of her recipes for their daughter, Evergreen’s, birthday.

Recently, cake has also featured prominently in my own, actual life.

Sunday, my husband came home from mountain biking in Richmond with our nephew. “I stopped at Shyndigz on my way home,” he told me.

“What did you get?” I asked.

“Oatmeal cream pies.”

“What else did you get?” I asked, taking for granted that he also brought back a piece of salted chocolate caramel cake for me.

“Nothing.”

Surely, he was pulling my leg.

“No, seriously. What else?”

“No, seriously. Nothing.”

I waited for him to break down, and admit, cackling, that a piece of cake waited for me on the kitchen counter. When he didn’t, “What?” I said.

“I didn’t get anything else.”

On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake.

“You didn’t get me any chocolate cake?” I was incredulous, still sure he must be kidding, dragging the joke out as long as he could.

“No. Really. I’m not lying to you. I was in a hurry and I just didn’t think to get any cake.”

“Are you serious? You went to Shyndigz and didn’t get me any cake?”

He laughed at the utter shock that must’ve been on my face. “Sorry?” He was still laughing.

For the course of the the week, I lost no opportunity to remind him of the fact that he had gone to one of my favorite bakeries where they make one of my favorite cakes, and neglected to bring a piece home to me. I must’ve found a way to work his negligence into every single day at least twice.

On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake, complete with a to-go cup of extra salted caramel spread. During his lunch break, he had driven downtown to get me my long-awaited piece of cake. He has been forgiven.

I let him in and set the cake down on the counter, every intention of savoring it after the Chinese takeout we’d ordered for dinner with a couple friends. As we finished our lo mein and rice and pot stickers and egg drop soup, I eyed the piece of cake on the counter. But before I could eat that: New Year’s Eve fortune cookies. We each cracked open our fortune cookie and shared the fortune within with the rest of the table. Mine? “A piece of cake is awaiting for you.” Forgiving the misuse of “awaiting,” never has there been a truer fortune. Just a moment later, I was sinking my fork into the moist chocolate cake, savoring the thick chocolate icing and salty caramel goodness of the slice.

Today, being my birthday, is also likely to involve cake in some capacity, at some point.

And I’m hoping my New Year’s Eve fortune holds a longer-range, figurative meaning in addition to its immediate, literal one. I’m hoping it’s prophetic, foreshadowing that my manuscript, rife with pieces of cake, will achieve publication this year–will become a real book, one I can hold in my hands, flipping through its pages, savoring its existence the way I do a piece of chocolate cake.

Never has there been a truer fortune than the one I got on New Year’s Eve. (Sidenote: The above is only a third of the actual slice of cake, which will likely last me three to four sittings.)

Thank You, 2020: My Writing Year in Review

I know, I know. Everyone is waving an enthusiastic sayonara to 2020 and never looking back, the expectations high for 2021. I don’t know whether to wish the new year good luck meeting everyone’s extreme expectations for improvement, or congratulate it on the fact that it won’t have to work very hard to seem better than its predecessor. Either way, as I sit here on December 31 reflecting on my year in writing, it was a pretty good one. (And yes, 2021, my writing and I have high expectations for you, too.)

January

The first week of the year, I entered three different writing contests. I didn’t win any of them, but putting my work out there is a huge accomplishment in and of itself (and one of the photos I entered in one of the writing/photography contests did earn second place).

Before the month was over, I taught two, single-session writing classes for the dog handlers of Canine Adventure, Richmond. This experience was a lot of fun because it combined two of my favorites: writing and dogs. In addition, I got to meet some fellow dog-loving writers, and give them some resources to further their own writing endeavors.

I also wrote two pieces for The Village News and one for the AKC.

I pose with some of my “students,” dog handlers for Canine Adventure, after a writing class in January 2020.

February

In February, I wrote a piece for Everyday Dog Magazine, which ran March 1. I also wrote another piece for The Village News, in addition to submitting work to two small presses.

March

Things got a little crazy in March, as we are all aware, but I did compose a blog post to help parents navigate the whole, then-brand new school-at-home thing. I also wrote an article for The Village News about a local, self-published author, especially fun because I love when I can use my own writing to support other writers in theirs.

April

In April I managed to write 30 poems in 30 days as part of the Poetry Society of Virginia National Poetry Month Challenge. I also attended two virtual Master Classes on self-publishing, both organized by James River Writers. One was taught by Tee Garner, the other by Ran Walker.

This month, I also wrote my first Covid-related article, a piece about a local emergency nurse deployed to what was then ground-zero of the virus: New York City.

May

May was particularly exciting, as I learned a piece I wrote about Jack and Sadie was selected to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs. The story, an unabridged version of which appears on this blog, is one extremely close to my heart.

I wrote my second and third Covid-related pieces, both of which focused on local businesses. The first was an article about a how a local barbecue restaurant was serving the community and surviving the pandemic. The second focused on how a local hair salon planned to reopen under the Governor’s Phase I Guidelines in Virginia.

Near the end of the month, I learned my essay “My Return to Mountain Biking” earned first place in the Bike Walk RVA essay contest.

Finally, for the first time ever, I opened the blog up to guest posts, and enjoyed reading submissions from writers about their beloved dogs.

June

In June, I participated in a virtual event honoring the winners of the Bike Walk RVA essay contest, and collaborated with QueryLetter.com on a blog post about query letters.

July

I again found myself working with the folks at QueryLetter.com to share a blog post, this time about book blurbs.

This was also the month The Magic of Dogs was released (on the same day as our wedding anniversary), and the month I received my copies of the book.

Soda (left) and Nacho (right) with a few copies of the book

August

In August, things were kind of quiet in my writing world, but I did compose a blog post for teachers about back-to-school amid the pandemic. I was also hired as the Outdoor Writer for Cooperative Living Magazine, a role I am still extremely excited about.

September

In September, I partnered up with Cool Canines to host a virtual book signing, reading, and fundraiser for the Richmond SPCA. Dog treats and signed copies of The Magic of Dogs raised $178 for the shelter.

I also read and reviewed Mary Oliver’s collection of poems, Dog Songs.

October

After an editor at a small press provided me with very thorough and valuable feedback on my manuscript for An Expected End, I began earnestly to revise. I also wrote a blog post and a few poems, as well as an essay entitled “Pandemic Picture Day,” which was published on the United States Department of Education blog.

Before the month’s end, I finally figured out how to share “Sadie’s Song” online. The song is a collaboration between my uncle and me. It began as a poem I wrote back in April, which he then set to original music.

November

In November, I interviewed a Covid-19 survivor and told his harrowing survival story in an article in The Village News. I also continued working on revisions of An Expected End.

December

As the year winds down, I have heard from the small press I have been in contact with that my piece isn’t for them, but I am still grateful for the communication with them, and for the guidance they provided me, as well as for the resulting revisions, which I believe make my manuscript that much stronger.

Following that news, I entered my manuscript in the Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest. Please feel free to support my endeavor there! 😉

I also embarked on my first adventure for Cooperative Living Magazine, a weekend at Twin Lakes State Park, and I eagerly await the publication of the piece next month (next year!).

I learned about another small press, TCK Publishing, when they reached out to me about writing a book review for them. I read the book, wrote the review, and submitted my own manuscript for consideration.

Currently, I am also holding my first-ever giveaway on Instagram–signed copies of Chicken Soup for the the Soul: The Magic of Dogs and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive, Live Happy. The winner will be announced on Instagram tomorrow (next year!).

This year held both disappointments and rewards for my writing life. The rewards were validating and exhilarating; the disappointments yielded progress and growth. Here’s to a successful 2021!

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Book Review: Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing, Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know

The operative word in Peter Yang’s book The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know is “everyone.” As he writes in his introduction, “Everyone can be a writer, if they so choose” (XII). Indeed, the book expresses the idea that, regardless of profession or position, we all need to write, and write well, and is a book for everyone. The seasoned writer might gain insights from the way Yang breaks down and analyzes the practice of writing, but the book would likely prove more useful to those desiring to improve their writing for the workplace, pleasure, or posterity, as well as to beginning writers. With the exception of the fact that an experienced writer or writing instructor is likely to understand concepts in the book that Yang merely glosses over as opposed to deeply explaining, a feature of the book that might prove a disadvantage to its intended audience, it would serve as a helpful handbook to the aspiring writer, regardless of field.

Yang sees “writing as a fundamental life skill” (X), a very valid position, though I would also add “process”–writing is a process and a fundamental life skill. Given the way Yang’s book progresses, it seems he would agree with that addition. He examines what he believes are the four fundamental principles for effective writing: economy, transparency, variety, and harmony. A writer, he posits, who masters these four areas can, as a result, write artistically, making writing “a joyous activity” that leads to “personal fulfillment” (XIII). This type of writing does not endeavor to impress, Yang explains, but to communicate.

He goes on to list five distinguishing attributes of artistic writers: meticulousness, awareness of audience, sincerity, realistic expectations, and flexibility with the four aforementioned principles. While his list of attributes is certainly valid, and he provides short explanations of what these attributes are, the list lacks examples of artistic writers to illustrate how they employ these traits.

A lack of examples and in-depth explanations does plague the book, making it perhaps more useful as a supplemental text in a writing course than a thorough examination of the written word and how to best communicate through it. If employed as a supplemental text with a competent writing instructor to provide examples, explanations, and exercises to accompany the book itself, it would prove incredibly useful.

Economy

The first principle Yang examines is economy. According to Yang, “The composition of your writing should imitate the anatomy of a flower–every part should be necessary and contribute to the whole” (3). This is sound advice. Yang goes on to provide a short explanation of how to simplify a sentence, an explanation that makes sense to a seasoned writer, but might be lost on a beginner.

Following the paragraph, Yang provides several examples to illustrate his thoughts, but the examples, while accurate, lack explanations that might be helpful to a novice writer. The first several sections of the chapter on economy are rife with examples, but lack clear explanations of what they illustrate. In addition, exercises with a key would prove practical and useful–another reason this book would work well as a text in a classroom with an instructor to facilitate practice.

Transparency

According to Yang, “A writer’s work can hew to the other three principles but fail to be artistic if it does not conform to the principle of transparency” (23). Transparency he defines essentially as clarity. “Transparent writing is writing that is lucid and explicit. It leaves no room for doubt and assures the intelligibility of your ideas” (23). Given the assertion that writing cannot be artistic if not transparent, even if it complies with the other three principles, I did wonder why transparency appears second in the book, as opposed to first or last.

Despite their questionable placement in the book, Yang’s ideas regarding transparency are spot-on. Particularly relevant areas include the use of figurative language (which Yang himself employs very well throughout the book), the use of shifts in tense, and the avoidance of flowery language.

One thing this chapter does better than the others is provide explanations of the examples included.

In a nutshell…

Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing is likely to prove interesting to a veteran writer, who would appreciate his breakdown of writing into four fundamental principles. It is an ideal text for the student of writing, provided the student has an instructor to elaborate on the concepts Yang touches on. The book is a good introduction to writing, and with the right elaboration, would prove an excellent text for anyone looking to hone their writing skills.

Variety

Yang’s chapter on variety is accurate, but ironically enough, the three section titles are:

Vary Your Sentence Structure

Vary Your Paragraph Structure

and

Vary Your Word Choice.

While all the above advice is sound, I found the lack of variety in the headings amusing, though not inapproriate (here I violate Yang’s advice to “Write in the Positive,” as explained on page 12). The headings are indeed transparent, and the explanations that follow are legitimate.

Harmony

The fourth and final principle Yang examines is harmony. The explanations in this chapter are clear, concise, and understandable, but do lack concrete examples to illustrate the ideas. While a lack of examples is not likely to matter to a veteran writer, it could matter to a new writer.

Coda

After explaining the four basic principles, Yang includes a final chapter that expresses his “Meditations on Writing.” In this chapter Yang writes, “Writing is not for the impatient. Mastery of writing is a lifelong endeavor” (75). Yang could not be more correct. In my experience, Yang is also correct about the value of taking breaks from one’s writing to increase motivation, as well as about the value of taking risks in one’s writing.

Overall, Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know expertly distills writing down into four basic principles. It is an incredibly accessible and digestible read, but perhaps too broad and generalizing. That said, it is a book for the general population, so perhaps that is all fitting.

While veteran writers would be most likely to understand and agree with the concepts expressed in this book, they do not necessarily need this book. Instead, the book would be most enlightening to novice writers or people who do not necessarily consider themselves writers, but do write, whether in their professional or personal lives; however, they would be perhaps the least likely to fully grasp the concepts as they are explained in this book–somewhat skeletally. For that reason, this book is best suited for a fairly experienced writer interested in analyzing the written word, or as a guiding or supplemental text in a writing course wherein an instructor could provide further examples, deeper explanations, and practical exercises.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest

I’ve been a little absent from the blog lately, but it hasn’t been without good reason. After receiving favorable feedback from a small press back in August, I’ve been working diligently on revisions of my manuscript, formerly titled The Experiment, recently retitled An Expected End. It’s no secret I would love to see this manuscript morph into a real book, one that is “absolutely real,” with “pages and everything,” to quote Owl Eyes in Fitzgerald’s famed The Great Gatsby. To that end, in addition to continuing to look into agents and small presses, I have entered the piece in the Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest.

Nacho and Soda keep me company while I work on revisions one day before work (also before 5:00 AM).

As part of the contest, I will be posting a new chapter of my manuscript every Tuesday and Friday (with the exception of Christmas day; I will post Tuesday and Wednesday that week). To read them, just visit An Expected End on Inkshares, and click “Read” just under the cover (which is not the actual cover yet).

If you like what you read, a cross between Adam Silvera’s novel They Both Die at the End and the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and want to help my manuscript move forward in the contest for its chance at publication, I invite you to follow the project on Inkshares, leave comments in the Discussion, and write a review in the Reviews tab. One element of the contest involves reader engagement, so if you follow the manuscript, any time you read, discuss, or review it, you’ll be helping it find its way to bookstore shelves!

Nacho and Soda sit with me during an early-morning revising session.

If you really like what you read, I hope you’ll pre-order your own copy of the book. After 750 pre-orders are placed, Inkshares will commit to publication, regardless of the manuscript’s performance in the contest. If the manuscript doesn’t reach 750 pre-orders, everyone who pre-ordered a copy will receive a refund.

So, let me send you off with a book blurb, in the hopes that it will whet your appetite to head on over to Inkshares and follow An Expected End (the first chapter is already up!).

Book Blurb

The year is 2045 and science has made a breathtaking discovery: People can predict, with incredible accuracy, the day that any man, woman, or child will die. But Penelope Hope won’t accept that. She wants to live her life without the overwhelming knowledge of her death, no matter how many people in society choose to learn their deathday (officially known as one’s Date of Departure, or DoD). That is until her self-centered fiancé, Sebastian Flach, and her spunky best friend, Bea Adams, convince her to enroll in the Experiment and learn her deathday for the sake of her future family. What she learns turns her world upside down, breaks up her engagement, brings new love into her life, and forces her to make a stark choice: Does she tell her new love, Marshall Mitner, whose child she now carries, that she will die very soon, or force him to live in the ignorant bliss she wanted all along–and break his heart?

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

I Write Best When I’m Asleep

I write best when I’m asleep.

Well, not really–but sort of.

There is something particularly fertile about the thoughts that float between the waking life and the sleeping, that swim in the twilight of consciousness. I have known for years now that I am most creative and most open when my self is out of the way, in a state where only mind and imagination exist, independent of any self, any ego, any personal effort. Even when I feel fully awake and aware, when I have found what is known as “flow,” it seems I am merely a conduit for my creation, not its personal author.

In this way, praying and writing are not unlike. I write best from my proverbial closet, my mind closed to all the minutiae of daily existence, and open to everything–anything–else.

I had two experience with this phenomenon this week alone. The first was mid-week. Nacho woke me up for a quick potty break around 2:30 in the morning. For whatever reason, as I pulled the fleece sheets back over my shoulders and settled into bed again, a concrete thought, born no doubt of some unconscious musings still lingering in my mind, so recently asleep, presented itself to me in isolation: “We think our plans are set in stone.” And after that, another thought, and another–until it became clear to me that I was writing a poem, a poem about planning–and its futility (perhaps or perhaps not inspired by what it’s like to be a teacher right now. Read: near daily unexpected and inconvenient if not debilitating technology glitches, students with quarantine dates that continually change, the absolute necessity for patience and flexibility).

I stayed awake for maybe 30 minutes, reciting the stanzas over and over again in my head to cement them there for when I could write them down. (On my to-do list: a bedside writing station). Plagued by a slight fear of losing them (as often happens) before fully awake, I awoke several times between 3:00 and 5:15, each time reciting–and slightly revising–the poem in my head. As I finished breakfast a little before 6:00, after I had fed the Littles and let them out to potty, I finally wrote it down in my journal:

The Insanity of Humanity

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
--Not Albert Einstein

We think our plans are set in stone,
this life, this time--all our own,
entitled to our every plan--
Oh! the arrogance of man!

Until catastrophe takes shape,
putting us back in our place,
reminding us we're not as great
as destiny or cruel fate.

So we retreat to lick our wounds, 
gather comfort from the gloom,
then emerge renewed, refreshed,
having learned we don't know best.

But then we lament what might've been,
and the cycle starts again.

The second experience was early this morning, long before sunrise.

I am currently working on revisions of a manuscript for a novel I submitted to a small press under the working title The Experiment. Among the many revisions suggested to me was to come up with a better–a more apt–title (fair enough, as the working title applied to the very earliest conception of the piece, but really isn’t very relevant to its current form). I received this feedback in August, and have been struggling to divine the perfect title ever since. Over the course of the last couple days, several have materialized out of my half-awake mind, four of them in succession this morning. I now have a list of fifteen potential titles. Maybe I’ll use one; maybe the perfect one has yet to arrive. Either way, I have begun to have fun–and usually (as in when I am awake), titling a work proves a struggle for me. (And let’s not even get into the (albeit beautiful and fulfilling) struggle that is revising an entire manuscript!) Here are the now fifteen working titles:

  1. Feel the Chill of Each Yearly Encounter (thematic; allusion; partial quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
  2. The Chill of Each Yearly Encounter (thematic; allusion; partial quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
  3. Everything Precious is Scarce (thematic; pulled from a conversation in the manuscript)
  4. I Have Measured Out My Life with Coffee Spoons (a motif; a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” referenced throughout the manuscript)
  5. This One Thing I Know (thematic)
  6. One Thing I Know to be True (thematic)
  7. One Thing I Know For Sure (thematic)
  8. One Thing Certain in an Uncertain World (thematic; also a phrase that pops up here and there in the manuscript)
  9. Every Plan is a Tiny Prayer to Father Time (thematic; lyric from Death Cab for Cutie‘s “What Sarah Said”)
  10. An Hourglass Glued to the Table (thematic; partial lyric from Anna Nalick‘s “Breathe (2 AM)”)
  11. T-Minus (thematic; plot-inspired; suggested to me by one of my readers)
  12. In So Many Sunsets (thematic)
  13. All the Water in the River (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)
  14. Time is But a Stream I Go A-Fishing In (thematic; symbolic; a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden)
  15. The Water in the River Flows Only One Way (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)

And now, perhaps because I am fully awake, I am having trouble writing a conclusion for this post. Maybe I should try later tonight–from the quiet confines of my bedroom and the soft desk that is my pillow; after all, I write best when I’m asleep.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

The Book of Joy: A Response to the Final Pages

My greatest and broadest takeaway from pages 228-348 of The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, was that everything is practical. So many teachings on how to live a more joyful life can seem abstract and theoretical, things I find myself saying, “Well, that sounds great in theory, but in practice, not so much” about. But in this book, almost everything was applicable to real life, in practice. 

Practical forgiveness is defined on page 234, when readers are advised by the Archbishop to see forgiveness as a means to freedom. “When we forgive,” he says, “we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” A few pages later, on page 239, he explains a practical way to forgive: separate the person we perceived to have wronged us from his or her actions.

Practical gratitude is discussed on page 248, when the book describes how we can practice gratitude by writing gratitude lists or keeping gratitude journals. Engaging in these exercises helps us focus on what we have as opposed to what we don’t. “Gratitude,” Abrams writes, “means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings” (243). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration.)

“Gratitude means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings.”

–Douglas Abrams

Practical compassion is also discussed, which is no surprise, considering “There is probably no word that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop use more when describing the qualities worth cultivating than compassion” (337). The Dalai Lama tells readers that “when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness. So this is a very practical thing. In fact, it is common sense” (254). The way to practice compassion in our daily lives, then, is to do our best to both understand and alleviate the suffering of others. As the Archbishop says, “It’s something that you have to work out in actual life” (255)–it is something practical, and reminds me a little of the command in the Bible that we all “work out your own salvation.”

On page 272, the book talks about educating youth to be compassionate. As an English teacher, I feel I have a real opportunity to engage in compassion education through the literature I read with my students. Books let us live other lives and walk in other shoes. They allow readers to experience situations and places and emotions and people they might not in their own real lives. Teaching literature is one way I can help educate students in compassion. 

The section on compassion also reminded me of the message conveyed in the required #EdEquityVA PD. Like the Dalai Lama says, “the only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion” (296).

“The only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion.

–His Holiness the Dalai Lama

These pages also focus on acceptance, an area in which I often struggle. I suffer from a dangerous idealism that drives my husband (and me, sometimes) crazy. Abrams writes about the Dalai Lama’s ability to “accept the reality of his circumstances but also to see the opportunity in every experience. Acceptance means not fighting reality” (243). When I was a junior in high school and my family was moving from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I overheard Art, a man who attended our church in Pennsylvania, say to my dad after the last service we would attend there, “Well, change is the only constant.” I was, at the time, appalled–and still today, I sometimes wish that awful truth weren’t true. But it is, and I was reminded of it when the Dalai Lama says, “Impermanence … is the nature of life” (unfortunately, I have no idea what page this is on). The fact behind that statement is difficult for me to accept, something I fight against a lot. I do not like change. Acceptance is a pillar I will need to cultivate. A lot.

Lately, I have been pondering the idea of “unselfed love,” and what those two words actually mean together. In my religious faith, our text, Science and Health with Key to the Joy coverScriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, includes the line: “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, — a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love” (1:1-4). The Book of Joy has helped shed a little light on the subject of unselfed love for me. The Archbishop says, “So, our book says that it is in giving that we receive. So I would hope that people would recognize in themselves that it is when we are closed in ourselves that we tend to be miserable. It is when we grow in a self-forgetfulness–in a remarkable way I mean we discover that we are filled with joy” (263). I think the concept of unselfed love relates directly to the idea that when we forget ourselves and instead tend to the joy and lessen the suffering of others, we experience pure joy. There is a letting go of the self, the ego, involved. 

Lastly, I want to talk a little more about how these pages relate to my teaching practice and the English 11 curriculum. Lots of what I read reminds me of the Transcendentalists, which is maybe a little bit ironic, because they emphasized individualism so much, while the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama advocate for looking outside of oneself and to others, using the idea (and I paraphrase) “we are people through people.” Still, the idea that people must realize that “the source of happiness and satisfaction … is within themselves” (297) rings true with the Thoreau and Emerson’s advice that people must look within to find their true selves, and self-fulfillment. I also think excerpts of this book, particularly the death mediations, could pair really well with William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis,” which translates to “a meditation on death” or “a view on death.”

“Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.”

–Brother Steindl-Rast

In the vein of education and curricula, I found it stunning that at the Tibetan Children’s Village, students “had been studying how to find joy and happiness in the face of adversity” (277). This was not an implied lesson or a byproduct of a larger unit geared towards passing a standardized test or earning a specific grade; they were studying joy for the sake of joy. Joy was the lesson. I would like to find a way to incorporate the teaching of joy, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. more overtly in my current curriculum. I am hoping the lesson and unit plans from Positive Action, Inc., touched on in one of our required PD sessions for the summer, might help with this.

Along those lines, in English 11 Honors, we work throughout the semester to answer an essential question. Because the class is American Literature, the essential question we explore is: What does it mean to be American? I think this book has a place in helping answer this question. For the last two years and up until this year, when the pandemic canceled summer reading (which I really, truly hope is not a permanent change!), students enrolled in English 11 Honors for the upcoming school year read two books over the summer, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck and Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. Provided summer reading is reinstated in the future (please, please, please!), I would like to add The Book of Joy as the third book, as it provides a perspective different from the other two books (which are very different in their own right), and offers a very different idea about national (and human!) identity.

Now, I want to close with one of my favorite quotes from these pages, which comes from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment” (245). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration, assonance, and consonance.)

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

The Book of Joy: A Reaction Paper

I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, riding along the country roads in the Northern Neck on a Saturday morning, my two little dogs asleep between us on the bench seat, their scruffy hair blowing in the air conditioning. It was a hot, sunny day in late June, and we were heading to a small beach on the shore of the Potomac River, where it opens wide to the Chesapeake Bay. Outside my car window, I watched the fields, green with corn, and the wildflowers, alive with butterflies, flourish under the summer sun. It was summer break. I was beachbound. 

And I was crying. 

Despite my situation seeming so pleasant–even idyllic, I felt pretty miserable. My inner experience was completely incongruent with my outer experience. I felt so stressed and anxious about the upcoming school year and all I would have to learn and change and do to prepare, much less be effective (not to mention safe), in the face of a global pandemic, that I was struggling to enjoy the present moment. My worries and uncertainties about the future were stealing any present peace I might have hoped to enjoy.

Joy Littles on the beach BQS
Nacho (left) and Soda (right), AKA The Littles, lounging on the beach later that day.

Around the same time as the situation described above, I began participating in a book group begun at my school. The group, which focused on the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, could not have been better timed for me, both professionally and personally–especially since my professional life and my personal life often seem to bleed into each other.

On page 88 of the book, we read that “…so much is determined by our own perception.” My perception of the pandemic and how it would affect me at work and at home come August was an extremely negative one–one that did not serve me or the people around me. It was a perception that brought about fear, insecurity, self-doubt, and stress. Some of what I have read in this book has helped me think about reshaping my perspective to see the current situation and next school year as a challenge instead of an obstacle, as an opportunity for professional and personal growth instead of a hindrance to peace. Part

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The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

of what makes this perspective shift possible is an idea expressed on pages 196 and 197. Douglas Abrams writes, “When we confront a challenge, we often react to the situation with fear and anger.” He might as well have replaced “we” with “you,” so accurately does this sentence describe my initial reaction to challenges, which I tend to see as frustrating inconveniences at best, insurmountable obstacles at worst. On the next page, Abrams advises, “…what we think is reality is only part of the picture” and “our limited perspective is not the truth.” The book goes on to talk about taking a broader perspective–about realizing that we are not alone, and that all of our roles (AKA Teacher During A Pandemic) are temporary. Thinking about my present situation in a longer view, “in the larger frame of [my] life” (198), enables me to see that in the future, it will be just one strange year of a years-long career, a little blip in the otherwise mostly smooth (I hope!) experience. Thinking about my present situation in a wider view, I am able to see that even now, in the throes of it, people around me are innovating and collaborating like never before. They have all learned to “…respond instead of react” (181), a lesson I am trying to take to heart for myself.

In the vein of learning, another idea that comforted me was the concept that we are all learning–that our lives consist of innumerable lessons, each tailored to our own needs. At one point in the book, we learn that Abrams’s father suffered a terrible injury as a result of a fall. When Abrams’s brother told their father he was sorry he was going through such a rough time, his father’s response was: “‘It’s all part of my curriculum’” (157). I love this idea. “It’s all part of my curriculum” can serve as a reminder that we are all getting the lessons we need. In my case, these are likely lessons in flexibility and grace (not to mention instructional technology…).

A few days ago, I was lamenting to my husband about the fact that I don’t believe I will be as effective a teacher next year as I hope I have been in years past–that I don’t know how to use the technology and even if I figure it out, I won’t know how to use it well. That I don’t have the first lesson plan done. That I don’t even know where to start. That I feel woefully unprepared on a number of levels. On page 211, the Archbishop says, “…even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” I don’t think I am going to be the best anything next year, least of all teacher, but I am going to be the one who is there, in the classroom, and for next year, that might have to be enough.  

I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, watching employees scurry around a parking lot at a Chick-Fil-A, tirelessly delivering to-go chicken to cars parked in numbered spaces throughout the lot. It was a warm, humid evening in early July, and we were heading to my parents for dinner with my sister and her family. Outside my car window, I watched as what must have been a dozen masked people ran around in black pants and red polo shirts. They had not worked like this before–wearing masks in the heat, serving food through car windows, hoofing drink carriers from the drive-through

Joy Littles on the deck
One of my greatest sources of joy comes from doing my best to give The Littles a good life. Here, they look over their side yard and driveway from the outdoor couch on  our deck.

window to the far end of the parking lot. But here they were, uncomplaining, productive, and efficient, serving the needs of their customers. Reading this book enabled me to draw a parallel between what I was watching from my passenger seat, and the work I myself need to do for next school year. If these Chick-Fil-A employees could work this hard and this well under these conditions–then couldn’t I do it, too? Granted, we waited 30 minutes for our meal–but everyone I saw was working so hard, the wait hardly seemed important. What was important, though, was realizing I wasn’t alone. I’m not alone. None of us are. Since the shutdown in March, essential workers all over the world have had to adapt how they operate–including my own husband, who works at a bank. I can’t promise I won’t find myself crying again before school starts in September, or several times throughout the school year as I struggle to adjust to the demands of the unknown, but now I can remind myself that we are all in this together. That other people are struggling, too. That it is okay not to be the best one. And that it’s all just “part of my curriculum.”  

Enticing Readers with a Killer Book Blurb

Writing a book is one thing. Selling that book is another.

The countless hours you’ve poured into your manuscript will be for naught if it never makes it onto readers’ bookshelves or Kindles, and one of the key elements in successful book marketing is a compelling book blurb. Condensing your entire novel into a couple paragraphs of densely packed promo is not easy—but you’ve already written an entire book, so you can do this, too.

Don’t underestimate the importance of a book blurb: Self-published authors need one to entice readers to buy the book, and authors hoping to land a deal with a traditional publisher need a tantalizing blurb to hook prospective agents. So take your time to write an effective blurb, allowing for many drafts and dog-walking breaks to keep your spirits high.

Query Letter Blurbs for Traditional Publishing

If you’re going the traditional publishing route, you’ll almost certainly need a literary agent. Most major publishers won’t accept direct submissions from authors, and the professional guidance of a literary agent can work wonders for your publishing career. Landing an agent is the difficult part.

To convince an agent to represent your manuscript, you’ll need a query letter. Short and sweet, never exceeding one page, query letters succinctly describe your manuscript, your experience as an author, and why the given agent is a good fit for your book. The most important part of a query letter is the book blurb, your chance to convince the agent your manuscript is worth reading.

Selling your manuscript to an agent isn’t entirely the same as selling it to readers. While readers are simply looking for entertainment and may be more willing to take a risk on your book, agents are searching for professional opportunities and need to know reading your full manuscript won’t be a waste of their time. That’s what your blurb is for. Without giving away the ending, you need to promise the agent an interesting and worthwhile read.

Promotional Book Blurbs for Self-Published Books

If you publish traditionally, your publisher will take care of crafting an effective book blurb, but if you self-publish your book, you have to do everything yourself. Your book blurb is almost as important as the book itself, because the book isn’t much good if no one ever reads it. It’s crucial that you take the time to learn how to write a compelling book blurb.

Query BooksThe key to book blurbs is succinct, concise writing. Keep it short and skimmable, and emulate the style and tone you use in the book. Hook your prospective readers with a creative and interesting first sentence, and end on a cliffhanger that leaves readers hungry for more. Choose the vocabulary carefully to build atmosphere and spark your readers’ curiosity. Focus on the most important themes of the book, but don’t forget that less is more, and packing in too many details can turn potential readers away.

Writing is a creative field, and no two books are the same. Consequently, there’s no one perfect approach to writing a book blurb, but that doesn’t mean you can’t draw inspiration from previous successes. Go to Amazon or your local bookstore, browse the blurbs in the bestseller section, and take note of which blurbs most strongly spark your interest. Using similar techniques can help you boost your own blurb.

Book Blurb Example

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, the classic format for fiction book blurbs is to introduce the situation, add a problem, and raise an intriguing question. Blurbs typically end with a single sentence that describes the mood of the book. Keep it short: Don’t go over 150 words. The goal is to convincingly sell your book in as few words as possible.

In a previous post on query letters, we used the example of a middle-grade novel, Good Boy, about Spot, a canine detective who has to begrudgingly collaborate with a leading detective cat to uncover a pet treat black market in their hometown. Here’s what the book blurb for Good Boy could look like:

Spot is your average border collie detective: observant, deliberate, energetic, and passionately anti-feline. The star detective of Inouville’s canine police force, he’s only one groundbreaking case away from the most coveted detective award in the canine world: the Good Boy Award.

And then that case falls right into his lap. Or, more precisely, the leading detective from the rival feline police force comes hurtling through his open window, claws out, and whacks his favorite pet treats right out of his paws (cats never were polite). The cats have discovered a major pet treat black market—and the only way to uncover it is through cooperation. Is Spot a good enough boy to put aside his anti-cat bias and expose Inouville’s largest organized criminal group?

Good Boy is a uniquely creative comedy exploring crime and mystery, bias and prejudice, and indefensibly rude felines.

Professional Help with Query Letters and Book Blurbs

Need help writing an effective query letter or book blurb? Don’t be discouraged. Plenty of authors seek external help. QueryLetter.com is a fantastic resource for authors Query Logostruggling to summarize their masterpieces succinctly and successfully. QueryLetter.com hires publishing industry professionals with vast experience in the field, which means they know exactly what agents and publishers are looking for. Whether you’re looking for help with your query letter or need assistance finding the right literary agents to query, the publishing professionals at QueryLetter.com can help you.

If you need practice writing book blurbs, QueryLetter.com’s blurb-writing contest is perfect for you. Let your imagination run wild! The winner will be awarded $500—a great incentive to practice your blurb-writing skills.

Why Query Letters Matter—and How to Write a Great One

So you’ve finished your manuscript. Congratulations! Take a moment to celebrate. Indulge in some celebratory sweets, play with your dogs, and revel in the glory of having written a book.

And then get back to work. If you’re looking to get published, you’ve finished only the first step. Assuming you’re hoping to go through a traditional publisher, your next step should generally be to write a query letter and land a literary agent.

What Is a Query Letter?

Query letters are what authors use to hook agents and publishers and get them interested in their work. They essentially serve as an advertisement, with the goal being to entice the agent or publisher to request a full copy of a manuscript.

Query letters should be short and sweet (like the Littles!), not exceeding one page. The exact content will vary depending on the manuscript, your writing experience, and the agent’s personality, author list, and preferences, but generally, you should include an opening hook, a blurb, a quick overview of the target market and any comparables, and, if relevant, an author bio.

How to Structure a Query Letter

Don’t rush through your query letter. It’s a crucial part of getting your book out on bookshelves. If sending your letter by mail, use the same professional format as a business letter, meaning standard black 12 pt. serif font on white paper. Provide the agent with your full name, address, phone number, and email address, followed by the name and contact information of the agent you’re addressing.

If sending your query by email, you’ll likely wish to include your contact information under your signature at the end of the message, and you don’t need to include the agent’s contact information. Otherwise, the format of the query itself, discussed below, will be identical.

First Paragraph

It’s time to dive into the body of the letter. Start with a hook—something creative and unique to draw in the reader. For example, say you’ve written a book about a sassy detective dog who has to begrudgingly work with a feline detective to solve a major case:

Enclosed are three chapters of my middle-grade novel GOOD BOY (50,000 words). When a pet treat black market emerges in his hometown, experienced detective dog Spot has to abandon his anti-cat principles and collaborate with a leading feline detective to solve the case.

In general, your first paragraph should contain an extremely brief summary of your book that also highlights the more subtle themes of the story. In the Good Boy example above, the overt themes are detective work and dogs, but the deeper theme is overcoming biases and prejudice.

Query Publish Scrabble Tiles

Second Paragraph

In the second paragraph, you should outline the plot of your book. (Think of the book blurbs you see on the backs of novels.) Your goal is to entice the agent to request the full manuscript, so make it interesting without giving away the ending. Many authors struggle with this part because condensing an entire manuscript—your labor of love, no less—into a few sentences is difficult. Take your time. You may require several iterations to sculpt the perfect blurb.

The blurb, which is the most important and powerful part of a query letter, is also a good opportunity to show off your writing skills. Target clarity while emulating the tone and writing style of your manuscript. If your book is a comedy, add a few jokes and aim to get a laugh out of the reader.

Third Paragraph

In the third paragraph, discuss your target audience. For example, Good Boy is likely to appeal to middle-grade readers, especially dog lovers. Also consider mentioning any recent successful books that address similar themes or topics to yours to give the agent an idea of where your book might belong in the market.

The third paragraph is also the ideal place for your author bio. Don’t tell your life story! Keep it brief, like the rest of the letter, and mention only relevant information about yourself as a writer or subject matter expert. If you’ve previously published books or won any awards, be sure to mention those.

Closing Remarks

Close the query letter with a statement of appreciation for the agent’s time and consideration and state that you look forward to his or her response. If sending your letter by mail, also mention that you’ve enclosed a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the agent’s convenience (and actually enclose one).

How to Tailor Your Query Letter for Specific Agents

After writing the perfect query letter, you’ll need to personalize it for each agent you query. This involves more than changing a couple of details. Take the time to mention why you believe this specific agent is a good fit for your book or how your manuscript relates to previous books she has represented or is looking to represent. (Some agents discuss the types of books they’re looking for on social media, so keep an eye out.)

If you’ve met the agent before, definitely say so. It’s best to include these details at the beginning of your letter to establish rapport right away.

Professional Query Letter Help

Query LogoIf you’re struggling with your query letter, don’t be afraid to request professional help. At QueryLetter.com, you can find publishing industry professionals who will craft a compelling query letter, as well as a succinct synopsis and outline, to help you sell your manuscript. It’s a valuable resource for any author seeking publishing success.

QueryLetter.com is currently holding a blurb-writing contest, with a $500 prize for the winning entry. Consider submitting a blurb! This is a great opportunity to practice your writing skills and maybe even win a cash prize in the process.

 

Guest Post: 14 Pounds of Courage

Charlie is 14 pounds of Toxirn courage. He is aggressively friendly and has never met a person who doesn’t love him. This little guy has a long list of funny fears, though. He hates bicycles, mopeds, and unknown items by the curb on large trash day. He hates the robot vacuum that, to him, turns itself on and chases him around the house. He even hates walkers. Imagine my surprise when we first adopted him and he barked not at random strangers, but at an elderly woman with a walker!

The thing about Charlie, though, is that he’s incredibly brave. In such a big world, he is always gentle to creatures smaller than himself. He adores head rubs and scratches

Charlie III
Charlie enjoying some rubs and scratches

behind the ears from children, even as they run at him in groups clambering to love the little dog. “Look how tiny he is!” they giggle with delight, even sometimes awkwardly trying to pick him up. He licks their faces all the same. He fearlessly runs to greet huge dogs and doesn’t think twice about the fact the other dog could eat him for breakfast. He doesn’t care, either, because in his mind, he’s just saying hello. He’s incredibly happy and loves to share his toothy smile with everyone.

What’s amazing is that this boy doesn’t hide from things that scare him, but confronts them directly, barking to deter them. He perches on the edge of the couch to valiantly defend it from the vacuum. He barks menacingly at dogs walking in front of our house…on the other side of the street. This is his home and he wants to make that clear!

Charlie shows me it’s okay to be scared, but to face those fears instead of hiding from them. When he’s around, it becomes clearer what it means to be a good person and have an appetite for life. Above all, he proves that love wins in the end. People will still love you even when you look a little wild (up to and including having Albert Einstein hair). Happiness is achievable just by virtue of being around the people who love us most.

Charlie II
Charlie with a favorite toy

Charlie’s people are everything to him, and that’s perhaps the most profound message anyone can learn. Community, family, and love for others are some of the strongest

Charlie
Charlie enjoys an outdoor adventure.

bonds we can create. It doesn’t take money or fame to achieve true happiness, but compassionate connection and the realization that we’re all just people trying to live joyful lives. We often get caught up in surviving monetarily and forget the simple pleasures – Charlie doesn’t, though. Watching him really puts life into perspective.

We are Charlie’s people, and he is our boy. I can’t imagine a life without this smiling, tiny-mustachioed boy who is a continual source of joy in our lives. It’s just a plus that he proves taking multiple naps in a day is completely acceptable.

Author Bio

Charlie IVRachel Tindall is a passionate writer, blogger, and writing confidence coach. She has worked with numerous students in the classroom and building confidence in others is at the heart of all she does. When she’s not writing, she’s reading books, learning and building her business Capturing Your Confidence, watching lame TV shows with her husband, and playing with her adorably sassy dog, Charlie. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.