Recently, one of my free-spirited, creative friends and her equally creative husband spent the weekend with my husband and me at an old house we purchased and are working to rejuvenate. My friend is a talented and passionate teacher with a penchant for languages and writing. Her husband, though he works in the technology field, is a gifted painter. My own husband builds lamps from
re-purposed materials and has recently begun creating beautiful stained glass pieces. And I? Well, I identify mainly as a writer, though I dabble in painting and amateur photography from time to time.
As the four of us painted the front foyer of our 1919 farmhouse, my friend gave me candid feedback on my novel, which I recently asked her to read, giving her free rein to rip it apart if necessary. She gave me some really insightful advice, and admitted she felt relieved that I had taken her constructive criticism so well (granted, she did an excellent job tempering her criticisms with compliments, but I digress).
She followed her critique of my novel with the admission that she had decided she was no longer going to identify as a writer, in part because she needed more validation than she felt writing could offer her, and in part because writing simply offers less tangible and fewer results. When you paint a wall, for example, you can see the effect of your efforts almost immediately–as proven by the way our foyer brightened up with every coat of paint. When you write a story or a novel, the progress is often much slower, and much less noticeable. In addition, while a newly-painted room is sure to get oos and ahhs, a story or novel is likely going to face dozens and dozens of rejections before it ever sees an acceptance (if it ever sees an acceptance).
You can show people a painting, a sculpture, a photograph–and they need only seconds to get at least a cursory appreciation of your work. But someone has to invest a lot of time and energy to read your poem, story, essay, or novel. And lots of activities vie for our time and attention. Writers compete for an audience with TV shows, movies, sports broadcasts, sleeping, errands, etc. We must not only write our story, but then convince people to commit their limited time and energy to reading it. After all, more energy and time are required to read a book than to look at a piece of artwork or watch a film or play.
Plus, producing a tangible product, like a painting or a sculpture, can be satisfying. You can display it. You can sell it. You can hold it, gaze at it, touch it. All of these things are much more difficult, if not impossible, to do with a poem or novel–not to mention the fact that a written work never feels finished. We feel always like we could find a more perfect word, more effectively structure our chapters, more expertly develop our characters or write our dialog or set our scene or or or…. At a certain point, we just have to decide it’s done, whereas other artistic endeavors we can more definitively finish, and that completion is satisfying and fulfilling.
For the first time in my life, I am painting a piece of furniture. So far, so good! While I love writing, and identify as a writer, finding new creative outlets is satisfying.
For the first time in my life, I am painting a piece of furniture. So far, so good! While I identify as a writer, finding new creative outlet is fulfilling.
I understand what my friend is saying. I have often questioned my drive to identify as a writer. Is it really necessary? Why do I care so much? Why do I write? It’s really hard, and I enjoy many other forms of creative expression–painting, singing (though I can’t say I’m any good anymore), sketching, design, photography, and even theater at one point in my life–and these open me up to far less criticism and rejection.
As a writer actively seeking publication, rejections have become routine for me. Getting published is like winning the lottery–just as rare, but just as thrilling. I think maybe that’s one reason I keep writing: It’s hard (really, really hard sometimes), but the sense of accomplishment and elation I experience when a publication accepts my pitch, when I see my work in print or on-line, or when I get that long-awaited paycheck for an idea hatched a year before, far outshines the sense of disappointment that accompanies (yet another) rejection. Maybe I have come to accept that rejections are part of writing–at least for someone who seeks publication. I am no less a writer for having become more familiar with a sense of resignation at another thanks-but-no-thanks than with a sense of validation and accomplishment. In fact, another rejection at the very least means I’m producing enough work–enough writing–to send out into the world. The real fear sets in when I haven’t written anything new in a while–when my list of rejection e-mails shrinks because of a dearth of ideas, a sort of writing drought. My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.
My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.
Lauren and I sit in her Jeep in an alley across the street from the building where we take a writing workshop together. It’s dark, almost 9:30 at night, Lauren’s face illuminated by the glow of her car’s dashboard, street sounds filtering through our open windows. The
night air is warm and still–and electric with the nightlife of nearby VCU, the students energized from their summer hiatus, enlivened by reunions with sorority sisters and roommates and classmates.
“One thing I struggle with,” Lauren tells me, “is feeling like my emotions aren’t valid. Like, I have it so good compared to other people. What do I have to complain about–to feel sad or angry or upset about?”
I get what she’s saying. I mean, how do I dare say I’m overworked or overwhelmed or stressed out when, somewhere in the world, someone else spends 12 hours a day toiling in a sweatshop for pennies–and feels grateful, maybe, just to have a job? How could I dare complain about missing my sister, who lives 10 hours away, when somewhere in the world, someone else’s sister lives even farther way–or maybe isn’t even alive anymore at all? How dare I feel sad or stressed when my biggest problems are wishing I didn’t have to get up for work Monday morning; not getting enough sleep; and trying to figure out how to cram a full work day, a trip to the grocery store, a run, and a family dinner into one day? Especially when I compare those worries to the much more burdensome concerns of people around me? How ungrateful am I? If my problems were more extreme, wouldn’t I find myself saying, “I wish my biggest problem were finding time for the grocery store. If only my biggest concern were having to work Monday morning.” Wouldn’t I see my old troubles as trivial, silly? Yeah. Probably. In all honesty, yes.
If my problems were more extreme, wouldn’t I find myself saying, “I wish my biggest problem were finding time for the grocery store. If only my biggest concern were having to work Monday morning.” Wouldn’t I see my old troubles as trivial, silly? Yeah. Probably. In all honesty, yes. But that doesn’t necessarily make my stress or sorrow or dread any less valid.
But that doesn’t necessarily make my stress or sorrow or dread–or Lauren’s, or anyone’s–any less valid. (And, on a side note, how interesting that we beat ourselves up over the validity of only negative emotions. I’ve never heard anyone say, “How dare I be happy when someone else has it so much better?” but I’ve heard time and time again, “How dare I be sad when someone else has it so much worse?”) Your sorrow might result from X; mine, from Y. But we both experience sorrow, regardless of the cause. My anxiety might come from this; yours, from that. But we both experience anxiety. The experience of the emotion makes it valid, not the cause of the emotion. It’s the emotion that counts, not always its cause–not all the time.
Think about it like this: I’m currently working on an article about the ingredients and “superingredients” (think: super foods) you should look for in your dog’s food, and one thing I’ve learned in my research is that more important than the individual ingredients, are the nutrients found in those ingredients. So, while you might want salmon or chicken to be included on the ingredients list, what you’re really after–and what your dog’s system is really after–is the protein (or the omega-3 fatty acids or the omega-6 fatty acids–but you’ll have to read the article for more on that) the salmon or chicken (or dried egg product or oatmeal or lamb…) provides. Just as the nutrient is more important than the ingredient that provides it, so the emotion is more important than the experience that causes it.
When we read, we feel familiar emotions in unfamiliar circumstances. It is the emotion we recognize, not necessarily the situation, not the emotion’s cause. We understand the emotional experience, even though the circumstance prompting it is foreign.
Our conversation put me in mind of two things, the first, something I read recently: Reading makes us more empathetic people. If we know what grief feels like–even if the only cause of it in our own lives is the impending fade of summer vacation into another school year–we can understand what grief feels like when it’s caused by a situation we have never experienced–a divorce, the loss of a beloved friend. When we read, we feel familiar emotions in unfamiliar circumstances. It is the emotion we recognize, not necessarily the situation, not the emotion’s cause. Perhaps you’re reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. You’ve likely (SPOILER ALERT!) never had to kill your best friend to spare him a worse fate–that has probably never been the cause of your sorrow, grief, or loneliness (I hope!). But you likely have lost a best friend, to one situation or another, and thus are capable of empathizing with the character’s sense of sorrow, grief, and loneliness. You understand the emotional experience, even though the circumstance prompting it is foreign.
The second is this: a fellow writer’s assertion that writers feel more deeply than, well, non-writers. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if it is, than we creative writer types, well–our sorrow over the death of yet another glorious summer might feel akin to the sorrow someone else feels over something others might deem much more worthy of sorrow. And, as a writer, having known sorrow, you can now transfer that sense of sorrow, however trivial its cause, to your characters, who might be likely to experience it as a result of whatever circumstance they’re in.
In any case, reading, writing, and emotional experience are intimately and inexplicably intertwined. Whether your emotion is triggered by something even you yourself deem trivial, or something almost anyone would deem worthy of the resulting emotional reaction, pain is pain, love is love, anger is anger, joy is joy. Emotions are part of the human experience. We do not all share the same lives, the same experiences, the same situations. What we do share, though, are the human feelings these lives, experiences, and circumstances cause. We all know love. We all know vengeance. We all know fear. We all know gratitude. We all feel, no matter the source of the feelings.
Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).
The Mad Hatter
As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.
“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”
One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.
On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.
At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)
At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:
Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God(which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of
putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:
“He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
“He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.
These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.
One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.
Recently, I got to spend some time with my niece from Florida, who, just having reached the age of five, will begin kindergarten in about two weeks. She knows my husband and I collect sea glass, and as we were walking down a sidewalk in town, she picked up a broken glass bottle and held it up, exuberant.
“Look! I found some glass for you!” she exclaimed, impressed with her find.
My sister, her mother, quickly told her to put it down.
“But she gathers glass,” my niece said, clearly confused about the difference between sea glass and any old glass you might find in the street. After we cleared up the confusion, and her protest echoed in my head, I thought, “‘Gathers?’ What five-year-old uses a word like ‘gathers?'”
Other words I heard her use over the course of the next day or so included “scurry,” “scuttle,” “scamper,” and “scepter,” all of which she would casually and correctly use–just as if she were using the word “run” or “walk.” I started keeping a list. My niece knew about this list, and a few days after she returned home, I got a call from her.
“Hi, Aunt Amanda,” she said. “I have another word for you to add to your list.”
“Oh, you do?” I said, amused–and touched that my list had made such an impression on her.
“‘Glimpse,'” said my niece.
“‘Glimpse,'” I repeated. “Can you use it in a sentence?” My niece knew that in order for one of her words to qualify for the list, she had to use it correctly in a sentence. A few days prior, I had denied the inclusion of “humiliated” on the list, because although she had used it in a sentence, it hadn’t made any sense. (Though I must admit, I was impressed at her attempt, and told her as much.)
“I could barely see the bunny–I only caught a glimpse of him,” she said.
“Very good! You’re right–another one for the list.”
My sister’s voice came over the phone.
“Where does she get all these words?” I asked her.
“Well, we read to her all the time,” my sister said, matter-of-factly. And of course she’s right–the regular reading sessions every night and at various points throughout the day, as requested, no doubt play a significant role in my niece’s impressive and ever expanding vocabulary.
Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book.
My niece’s enthusiasm for her growing vocabulary reminds me of my own experience with words. I can remember in third grade learning to use and spell the word “conservatory.” I felt so important, possessing such a large, polysyllabic word. Later, I can remember encountering the word “alabaster,” specifically in the phrase “her alabaster brow” (I think it was in an Anne of Green Gables book), and using it in my own writing every chance I got. It was exhaustive, really. The number of times you’ll find that phrase in my early writing is laughable.
When I first started this blog, I was rather good about composing a weekly Word of the Week post, and though I haven’t been very consistent with that recently, I still keep my eye out for new words, many of which I find in my reading. Currently, I’m (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and in my last sitting alone, I became acquainted with the following new words:
impecunious–habitually poor (a word I can, unfortunately, employ regarding my own circumstances!)
philatelic–having to do with the study of postage stamps
crepuscular–relating to or resembling twilight (which might be my favorite of these newly acquired words),
just to name a few.
And, as it past my bedtime (my niece might say I should have scurried to bed long ago; I might say I should have started my crepuscular routine before allowing myself to grow this tired and the night to grow this old), I’ll wrap this up simply by saying: Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book. The stronger our individual words are, the stronger our overall writing, and the more striking our impact, will be.
As the title of her blog post makes plain, Charlene writes about universal truths in our own writing. When I was in AP English Literature as a high school senior, my teacher refused to use the word “theme,” instead demanding that we discuss universal truths. I embraced this idea. To me, it made the literature more relevant–more real. I wasn’t searching for some obscure (to teenage me) author’s message, which, I was sure, wasn’t really his message, anyway, but some critic-imposed theme originating in academia; I was looking for truth, a pursuit that seemed much more noble.
Our ability to discern the universal truth in the writing of others directly correlates to the value we will or will not place on that writing. It directly affects our ability to understand a work of literature beyond its surface elements (characters, plot, setting–that sort of thing), and to instead see those elements as tools used to communicate a truth about the human condition. At the same time, as Charlene explains, while our ability to discern that universal truth does not depend on our having had the same life experiences as the writer or characters, it does depend on our having had the same emotional experiences.
Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature.
For example, the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was unimpressed. Really. It was, as they say, “meh.” I was unmoved. It was my fourth year teaching. I had just been assigned the honors classes, and the book was to be the students’ summer reading assignment. I read the book from cover to cover–all the introductory material, all the acknowledgments, everything. I took notes in the margins. I read carefully. But I didn’t like it. It was a chore. A year or two later, we changed the summer reading book, and Their Eyes Were Watching God collected dust on the shelves of the English department work room for several years. Two years ago, though, we reintroduced it as part of the core curriculum for both the honors and academic level classes. Since several years had gone by since I’d read the book, I decided I’d better read it again. Sigh…
The second time around, I loved it. What had changed? It was the same book with the same introduction, the same acknowledgments, the same notes in my same handwriting. Certainly, the story hadn’t changed. The writing hadn’t changed. Even the universal truths hadn’t changed.
But I had.
While I had not been married off by my grandmother to a man three times my age; while I had not run away with a man who swept me off my feet only to find myself stuck in a loveless marriage; while I had not nearly died in a hurricane or (spoiler alert!) shot my one true love in self-defense, I had a deeper capacity to understand the emotions these situations elicit because I had had my own life experiences that had deepened my understanding of what it means to be human–of love, loss, friendship, and self-actualization.
Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated a decade of marriage. The experiences we have shared helped open me up to the truths expressed in Hurston’s novel. Our marriage, and the sense of love and commitment I feel for my husband, expanded my emotional capacity, and helped me feel what Janie feels, though our situations are very different.
I had a similar experience with one of my all-time favorite books, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate at Michigan State. I. Loved. It. The complexity of the characters’ relationships, and of the characters themselves, fascinated me. It all seemed to so novel, so shocking, so eye-opening.
Several years later, having graduated and been in the working world for at least as much time as I’d spent in college, I reread it. I still loved it–I still refer to it as one of my favorite books–but my love wasn’t as enthusiastic the second time around. I was older. Maybe a little wiser. Maybe a little jaded. Whatever it was, somehow, the book’s impact wasn’t as powerful.
A book is never the same book twice, because you are never the same reader.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has also affected me very differently at various points in my (emotional) life. When I read it as a junior in high school, despite my teacher’s assertions that Daisy was shallow and flighty, I really admired her. I wanted to be like her, or, more accurately, I wanted to be loved like her. Now, 15 years later, I’m far more fascinated with Nick and Gatsby’s characters, and with ideas like personal responsibility (or lack thereof), the American dream and how far one is prepared to go-should go–to achieve it, what it means to be American and how this book fits with our national identity, among others.
Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature. We don’t need to have had the exact same life experiences as the writer or characters, as long as we have had life experiences that allow us to have the same emotional experiences. You may never have lost your spouse to a car wreck, but you may have lost him to another woman, and thus experienced loss and grief (among other feelings, no doubt!). A book you may have genuinely related to as a teenager may seem trite when you reread it as an adult. Something you may not have grasped in a book when you were a bachelor may be crystal clear when you read the same book after you’ve been married for fifteen years and have two children. For these reasons, and others, rereading is valuable. A book is never the same book twice, because you’re never the same reader.
But I Already Know What Happens
I’ll admit it. Sometimes I dread rereading a book I’ve already read multiple times. Even if I’ve actually read it only once. Even if I really liked it. Even if it’s been years since I read it. I mean, I already know what happens.
But the fact is, I’m an English teacher, so sometimes (lots of times), I have to read the same book more than once. Besides the fact that reading the same book twice (or more than twice) can prove a different experience every time, every time I reread a book (and as an English teacher, I reread many books, many times), I find something new. Students sometimes marvel at the way I can read aloud and write notes in my book at the same time, without missing a word. Here’s the trick: When you know the story line and characters and setting–the basic stuff–your mind is free to notice deeper elements like motifs, author’s purpose, writing strategies–or even universal truths. The more times I have read a book, the more familiar I am with its fundamental parts. The more familiar I am with the fundamental parts, the more literary elements I am free to notice and attend to.
While you may know the plot like the back of your hand, and have certain sections of dialog memorized, rereading a book can still prove an enlightening and surprising experience. Instead of waiting for just what happens next, you’re waiting for what revelation dawns on you next. What will you notice about the author’s word choice or rhythm? What epiphany will you experience regarding theme or the use of setting? What literary devices have you somehow missed the first (and second) time you read the book? What cunning turn of phrase has escaped your notice–until the fifth reading of Huck Finn?
As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.
On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.
And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.
Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.
Though Jill Breugem works full-time as a Learning Specialist, finding training solutions for internal business partners and facilitating and designing training, and is the mother of two children, she somehow manages to find time to write books on the side. Her debut novel, Read Between the Lines, launches on January 24, followed by a February 11 launch party at Blue Heron Books. What follows is my interview with this delightful debut indie novelist.
Jill Breugem: I always wanted to write a book and the inspiration came while having a chat with a friend. He talked about making sure that beyond our families, careers, and regular day to day, we find time every day to do something that we really love. If we are lucky, that is also our career. I do love my career; I also love writing. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.
The idea for my first novel literally woke me up in the middle of the night. I got out of bed, walked across the room and wrote some notes down.
I squeeze writing in when I can. Sometimes with everyone running around the house around me, sometimes in the late hours of the day when everyone was in bed and other times very early on the weekend before anyone got up. My favorite time is at 6am on a Sunday when everyone is fast asleep, the house is dark, and I have a hot cup of tea beside me.
MTD: How long did it take you to write it? What was your process like?
JB: It took me 15 months to write the book and an additional four months to complete edits, book cover, etc.
There were times I went weeks and didn’t touch it–I wanted to; I wanted to write so badly, but I just couldn’t. There were times I would write several chapters in only a couple hours and then other times that I would stare at the same sentence for hours, only to delete it. I created an outline of the story and mapped out the chapters. I set up goals in the program Nozbe to stay on track and organized.
MTD: What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?
JB: Once I set out to write the book, it became a goal of mine to finish it. Many times I had started to write something and would stop. So, just the fact I finished the book was a major accomplishment for me. I always thought I would self-publish and admired a couple authors who self-published and were very successful. Bella Andre and Marie Force are two that quickly come to mind. They have been extremely successful with self-publishing ebooks in the last five years. Marie Force’s first novel, Maid for Love, was originally turned down by ALL publishers. She went on to sell 2.5 million books of her Gansett Island Series.
Getting published the traditional way was something that if it happened and the timing was right, the royalties reasonable, then that would be a cherry on top.
JB: I squeeze it in when I can. I work full-time and am a busy mom of two kids, a dog, a husband… Sometimes I write with everyone running around the house around me, sometimes in the late hours of the day when everyone was in bed and other times very early on the weekend before anyone got up. My favorite time is at 6am on a Sunday when everyone is fast asleep, the house is dark, and I have a hot cup of tea beside me.
Write because you want to, because you need to, because you have to – – for you, and for you alone.
MTD: What do you wish I would have asked you that I haven’t asked you yet?
I have a soft spot for romance. I love the anticipation and the happy ending. Like books, my movie choice is always a romantic comedy, too.
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
JB: Go for it! Write because you want to, because you need to, because you have to – – for you, and for you alone. Think positive and whatever happens from there…happens.
Social media is very important. Most authors will tell you that connecting with fans and other writers on social media has been key to their success.
Surround yourself with like-minded people. Follow (through social media!) authors that inspire you, authors you aspire to be, and people you can connect with.
Inventory is key. You need to have the next book ready for the readers. Once you have several published, offer the first for free or major discount through something like Book Bub. This will build up your fan base and hopefully inspire fans to buy your other books.
MTD: Have you already begun your second book, The Distance Between Us?
JB: YES! So excited! It is coming together so nicely. It is about two characters that you meet in the first book, Read Between the Lines. These will turn into a series. I have the next four books planned.
JB: My daughter designed my covers – I absolutely love them. You will see branding of the stripes on the next four books, as well–in different colors.
MTD: You mention that a portion of the profits from Read Between the Lines will benefit families touched by Autism. Tell me a little more about that.
JB: My amazing eight-year-old son lives with Autism. He has developmental delays and is non-verbal. Therapy, although VERY expensive, has been VERY important to his progress and growth. His learning center has been very good to us, and I want to make sure that I pay it forward and help other children like my son get the therapy they need.
MTD: What can attendees at your book launch party on February 11 at Blue Heron Books expect?
JB: My book launches on January 24th, but the launch party is on Feb 11th at Blue Heron Books. The party is for friends, family, and readers/potential fans to come and celebrate the launch of the book with me! I will sign books and there will be cake!
MTD: How did you go about setting up your book launch?
JB: I approached the bookstore and told them all about my book and asked if I could have the party there. They were happy to! It’s a quaint bookstore that draws you in; it’s an older building, with beautiful wood floors and shelves. It is a bookstore that just makes you want to stay…
For the last three days, the school where I teach has been closed due to snow. While I have indeed gone sledding, made snow angels, napped, taken my dogs for snowy walks, and even taken two snowy runs, I have also spent the last three days crafting a letter to the Virginia Department of Education regarding an insidious policy up for discussion later this month–a policy similar to legislation already vetoed by our governor, but that pro-censorship groups are attempting to push through the VDOE as a sort of backdoor approach. Below, read my take on the issue, and if you live in Virginia, please join me in writing to:
Emily Webb, Director for Board Relations
P.O. Box 2120
Richmond, VA 23218-2120.
Better yet, if you are free at 9:00 on the morning of Thursday, January 26, attend the public hearing on this issue.
Dear Ms. Webb:
I am writing to make you aware of my strong opposition to policies reminiscent of House Bill 516, wisely vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, and currently up for discussion by the Virginia Department of Education, specifically the potential requirement that schools “provide policies on the use of sexually explicit instructional materials to parents or guardians with the copy of the syllabus for each high school course and to include a notice to parents identifying any sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials.” While I will be unable to attend the public hearing on this matter, as I, like many of my equally concerned fellow educators, will be on the frontlines in the classroom with my students that morning, it is very important to me that my voice on this matter be heard.
Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school.
Though the language reproduced above seems innocent enough, it could very easily act as a catalyst for future censorship that would prove detrimental to our schools. I have been in the classroom for eleven years, and hold a Master’s degree—during the earning of which I wrote a lengthy, research-based paper on the problem of unwarranted censorship (as most censorship is). The regulations and policies that will be discussed on January 26 border on dangerous and senseless censorship (as most censorship is) that in no way helps, and in fact hinders, the intellectual, emotional, and moral progress of our young people. Censoring the literature they read based on minimal “sexually explicit” or otherwise “offensive” content or language—that may appear on merely one page of a much larger work—unnecessarily shelters students from reality and does not help prepare them to function as well-rounded, productive adults in the real world. Furthermore, the interpretation of “sexually explicit” is far too broad and subjective to be of any real value, and would allow for many relevant, artistic, classic, and important works to be excluded from a child’s education.
Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.
The intellectual development of our students lies primarily in their ability to think critically. One of the most effective means of teaching children how to think for themselves is to present them with various viewpoints, circumstances, situations, cultures, and people different from their own and from themselves—to help them learn to ask the right questions, see problems from various perspectives, and consider other points of view. Based on the policy under consideration, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men would likely be considered for banning based merely on the brief mentions of cat houses and the fact that Lennie’s innocent petting of a dress was once mistaken for attempted rape. Many years, this is the only book some of my weaker students actually read—and love. Their focus does not rest on the cat houses or the non-rape; it rests on the characters, the emotions, the situations. They love to discuss the ideas of companionship versus loneliness, tolerance of “the other,” friendship, and sacrifice that the book brings up. The infinitesimal role of sex in this novella does not distract or demoralize them; instead, books like this encourage students to think about multiple perspectives, and expose them to time periods in which they can never live, places they may never visit, and people they are likely never to meet.
Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.
Books like this broaden their understanding of the world, and the human condition—thus helping to make them into more adept thinkers, able to consider different ideas and viewpoints, as well as to ask meaningful, insightful questions. What a shame it would be to deprive students of that opportunity simply because a cat house or glove filled with Vaseline is mentioned in passing once or twice in the course of the story.
In addition to helping children develop intellectually, reading books that this policy would likely deem inappropriate, such as The Great Gatsby for its (extremely subtly implied) sexual content, helps students develop emotionally. Reading books that contain challenging content matter exposes children to topics they will encounter in their adult lives, and gives them a safe, nurturing, and neutral place to discuss these topics before they must handle them on their own in the real world. Giving students the capacity to imagine what it would feel like to be in the multiple moral dilemmas Nick Carraway faces or to be so lovesick so as to engage in criminal activity just to get the girl, as is the case with Jay Gatsby, gives them an emotional foundation on which to stand when they themselves face real-life difficult decisions and moral dilemmas. In addition, asking them to put themselves into the shoes of various characters in these novels helps them develop the ability to sympathize and empathize, thus fostering in them a sense of compassion and emotional intelligence that I would rather nurture with “provocative” literature than stunt with senseless censorship.
I can think of very few instances in history when censorship has ever been looked on in a positive light or yielded positive results. In fact, quite the opposite: Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.
Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity?
As a final point, I will simply say that if every work of literature that contains a scene, a sentence, or a situation that someone somewhere in the state might construe as “sexually explicit” were removed from the classroom, I cannot imagine what would remain at the secondary level. I would be hard-pressed to find a single novel that is devoid of any hint of sex. Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity? Students need the emotional intelligence, the moral basis, and the critical thinking skills to face all of these issues and more. Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school. If we do, we—and they–will certainly have more to fear than the mature content—expressed in prose so poetic, I would grieve to see my students deprived of it–of Their Eyes Were Watching God or Romeo and Juliet. We do our students no favors, no kindness, by shielding them from real life issues and experiences presented in works like these.
I ask you not only as an experienced educator, but also as a devoted aunt, a writer, and a concerned community member to please block these pro-censorship policies that will only foster the preponderance of ignorance and bigotry trying to take hold in our world. Now, more than ever, a student’s ability to think for himself or herself is critical, and limiting a student’s access to literature in any way only limits his or her capacity for compassion and critical thinking. Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.
By day, Luke P. Narlee works for the government, doing transportation security in the intelligence field. By night, he writes and publishes his own novels. His first novel, Guest Bed, explores the complex issues couples face after years of marriage. His second novel, The Appointment, which he hopes to release within the next two months, imagines a future world devoid of all enjoyments and meaning, a world in which depression runs rampant due to a collective sense of hopelessness and purposelessness–until Jacob Johansen agrees to attend a mysterious appointment. Below, read Narlee’s take on the writing life, including indie publishing.
Mind the Dog: Where did you get your inspiration and idea for your first novel, Guest Bed?
Luke P. Narlee: The inspiration for this story stemmed mostly just from being married myself. There are a lot of emotional ups and downs associated with marriage, and it’s no different with the couple in Guest Bed. Of course, being that it is fiction, my first priority was to entertain and keep readers guessing. But I also wanted to explore some of the deeper issues that tend to occur between couples when they’ve been married for several years. For example, when couples are struggling to make the relationship work, what is it that’s truly causing the arguments? What is it they’re yearning for when they decide to separate or commit adultery? I also wanted a lot of the focus to be on communication. In the story, the two central characters, Ron and Kate, have an abundance of communication issues, which is the cause of the majority of their arguments. I think that the characters in the book say what a lot of couples only think or keep internalized. My hope is that people will find their issues to be relatable.
An Excerpt from Narlee’s Novel, Guest Bed
She narrows her eyes. “You still don’t get it, do you?”
I sit up so that our eyes are level, trying to keep things as even as possible. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“I need more from you, Ron. I want to know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. You don’t share yourself with me anymore. Yes, we had fun downstairs, catching up on our days and exchanging witty banter. I enjoyed it. But that’s not what I need from you.”
I stare at her, breathing heavily.
“It’s not enough!” she says.
MTD: How long did it take you to write Guest Bed? What was your process like?
LPN: It started out as a short story that I wrote just for fun at least a decade ago. It took me a month or so to write it and set it aside. Then, within the last five years, I found a way to incorporate it into my soon-to-be published novel, The Appointment. Within The Appointment, there are a few chapters that read like short stories, and I thought Guest Bedwould be a perfect fit for that, but eventually my editor at the time convinced me that the story was too good to stay merely a chapter in a novel, and that it should stand on its own, somehow. I had no idea at the time that it would eventually become my first published novel.
Overall, I’d say it took me six months to write Guest Bed, and be fully satisfied with it, and about ten months all together from start to publish.It was relatively quick, considering I’ve been working on the The Appointment for five years.
MTD: Why do you think your progress with The Appointment has been slower in comparison to Guest Bed?
LPN: It’s a much larger book, with a more expansive story. Many more characters and things going on. It has taken me a long time to make sure everything fits together and aligns correctly in order to make a cohesive story.
MTD: How did you find or select your editor? Describe your relationship with your editor.
LPN: I personally have always hired freelance editors to work on my book, the majority of them on Upwork.com. It’s a great website, full of fantastic people who are very enthusiastic about helping people with their stories. I’ve worked with many different editors over the years, some better than others, but this year, in 2016, I’ve definitely found one or two new favorites that I hope I can continue to work with for many years to come.
MTD: What about a specific editor or group of editors appeals to you? What do you look for in an editor?
LPN: For me, it’s all about chemistry. You have to have good chemistry with your editor, meaning they understand your writing and the way you write and are able to help you improve it without ever changing your style. You have to find someone you click with and are comfortable with. It definitely becomes a relationship of sorts because there is so much back and forth communication. You have to have chemistry. It can’t just feel like a forced exchange between two people, where the editor is just doing a job and waiting to get paid. Also, a good editor is very thorough and will go the extra mile to make sure you are fully satisfied with the results.
I personally have always hired freelance editors to work on my book, the majority of them on Upwork.com. It’s a great website, full of fantastic people who are very enthusiastic about helping people with their stories.
MTD: What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?
LPN: A couple reasons, actually. For one, I don’t generally have a lot of extra money or free time to spend searching for agents, and mailing out my manuscript, and begging publishing companies to accept my book as their own… The whole process felt overwhelming. I’d rather spend that time writing. Also, I don’t really like the idea of being forced to let the editors of the publishing companies have the final say in what is written in my books. I prefer to have full control over the content. Of course, this means more work on my part once it’s actually published, but so far it’s been worth it to me.
MTD: You mention that self-publishing means more work on your part once a book is actually published. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
LPN: When you self-publish a book, promoting it and marketing it are your responsibility. Some people just publish a book themselves and leave it at that, apart from telling close family and friends about it. But I’m definitely motivated to spread the word to as many people as possible because I love talking to people about it and hearing their thoughts on the story after they’ve finished reading it. I’ve been putting a lot of time and effort into marketing it on social media, particularly Instagram, Twitter, and Goodreads. I hope to be able to do more in the near future, as well, such as schedule a book signing at a few local bookstores. The reviews have been wonderful so far. The story has already touched a few people in profound way, and to me, that is more important than anything else. That alone makes all the hard work worth it.
LPN: The Appointment is quite a bit different from Guest Bed, which is a much smaller, personal mystery involving only two or three characters. The story in The Appointment affects an entire country and is more dystopian in nature. It involves a government that has become overly controlling due to recent terrorist attacks, and they’ve been forced to put the whole country on lockdown for a year. Nobody in and nobody out. Meanwhile, unexpectedly, all the citizens of the country begin to lose both their memories, and their ability to feel emotions. The main character, Jacob, is one of the last remaining people who still feels something, and is able to conjure little bits from his memory here and there. Then one day he gets invited to a secret facility to act as a guinea pig for a few experiments that may or may not fix everyone. If he agrees, he will be given the ability to relive old memories, enter parallel universes, and also live the lives of other people for a day, all in hopes of fully regaining his emotions. But the real question is… is that truly what he wants? Or is life easier when you don’t have to feel anything? To say that I’m very excited to publish this book would be an understatement.
MTD: How do you make time in your day to write?
LPN: I basically write whenever I have a chance. I don’t have a good, consistent schedule for writing yet, so if I have time between work at my office, I will do some quick writing. And when I’m home, particularly on the weekends, I make a habit of trying to carve an hour or two out of my day to sit with my laptop and write. But I don’t have a specific location or room that I do all my writing. Someday, I hope…
MTD: What do you enjoy most about writing?
LPN: I love the process of creating an entirely new world in my head and putting it down on paper for others to read and enjoy. The characters have a way of taking on a life of their own once you get into a groove. The story and the dialogue will just flow out of my brain without any forethought. Sometimes I’ll be typing, and the characters will surprise me with what they’re saying, like they’ve come alive and I’m just translating for them. That may sound weird, but most writers have experienced this at one point or another. It’s a beautiful thing.
The characters have a way of taking on a life of their own once you get into a groove. Sometimes I’ll be typing, and the characters will surprise me with what they’re saying, like they’ve come alive and I’m just translating for them.
I’m also a big fan of writing stories that are not only entertaining, but also make you think about your own life as well. I want my books to linger in people’s heads for a while after they’re done. There’s almost always a bit of ambiguity to my writing because I don’t like to make things too easy for people. I believe in leaving certain things open for interpretation, so the reader can decide certain elements for themselves. I think that makes for a more interactive experience between the reader and the book.
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
LPN: First, write for yourself. If you want writing to be a truly meaningful experience, write a story that you love and want to exist in the world. Next, don’t ever give up on your dream of becoming an author if that’s what you want to do. If I can do it, then so can you. It can feel impossible at times because it’s so time consuming, but it isn’t. You just have to set realistic goals for yourself and stick with them, such as scheduling blocks of time to accomplish each step along the way and planning how long it will take you to accomplish each of these steps. For example, maybe you need a few months to write a first draft. Then another month to do your first round of self-edits. Then eventually you hire a professional editor to go through it for you. Then you have to do more rewrites. You can’t expect any of it to happen too fast. If you want to write something that looks professional, and will stand out amongst the millions of other authors in the world, it takes a lot of time and patience. But it’s worth it. Whenever I hear someone on social media comment that they are losing hope on finishing their first novel, I immediately try to motivate them to think differently. I believe anyone can do it if they set their mind to it and plan accordingly.
If you want writing to be a truly meaningful experience, write a story that you love and want to exist in the world. Next, don’t ever give up on your dream of becoming an author if that’s what you want to do. If I can do it, then so can you.
It also helps to know the ins and outs of the process and when and how to make wise choices, particularly when it comes to publishing. I’m currently trying to get a list together of everything I’ve learned about writing and publishing in the last few years, so I can help others reach their dream of being a published author without breaking the bank or their minds. I haven’t had time to set up an official website or a blog yet, but I plant to, and in the meantime, I may self-publish a small self-help book about indie publishing as well. I’m all about helping people with this. In the world of writing, I feel that it’s absolutely essential that writers look out for one another, share their experiences with others, and act as mentors for those who are just starting out. It’s a team effort, for sure. Writing is a gift–your book is a gift, but it’s a gift that no one will want to open if you don’t do your homework and make smart choices.
Writing is a gift–your book is a gift, but it’s a gift that no one will want to open if you don’t do your homework and make smart choices.