Chatting With A Hero – A Video Interview of Therese Walsh

ThereseDefining “Hero”: So I was sitting here wondering how to title this post. I jotted the words: “Chatting With A Hero.” Then I wondered if I was overselling (I’m sure she’d humbly say as much). But a hero is someone admired for their courage or outstanding achievements. And, I would add, someone who inspires courage or the aspiration of others to strive for the outstanding. I was surprised when I googled “hero” to find the words “typically a man” in their definition. I consider quite a few women to be heroes, my wife first and foremost. So then I wondered if I should switch it to “heroine.” But that word seemed to relegate the subject to the pages of a story or the script of a movie. And Therese Walsh is definitely a real-life, flesh-and-blood person that I admire; for her courage, for her example in persevering to accomplish the outstanding, and for her inspiration. She fits the billing. So hero it is.

An “Interesting” Experiment: What (I hope) you are about to witness is an experiment. I’ve never really interviewed anyone, let alone in a video format. But when Therese and I stumbled across the idea, I thought that it would be a lot of fun, at the very least. And it was. But in hindsight, it also gave me a huge appreciation for those who interview writers they admire, and for those who do so on camera all the more. I hope you’ll forgive my inexperience but, as I said, at least it was a lot of fun. And although I’m not the most experienced moderator of such a discussion (we occasionally got a little carried away, enjoying our shared passion for writing), thankfully my subject is interesting and wise and her new book is wonderful. These things, I think, come clear throughout our occasionally rambling discussion. Besides, as I said, T inspires me. And I’m willing to bet she’ll inspire you, too.

So, without further ado, please enjoy my discussion of a new favorite book of mine, The Moon Sisters, with its author–my hero and friend, Therese Walsh.

(Side Note: The reason I’m laughing at the opening is that I couldn’t get our Skype session to record. My guest was not only gracious during my 20 minute technical struggle, she googled the problem and read the step-by-step solution to me as I fumbled to success.)

About The Moon Sisters:

“The night before the worst day of my life, I dreamed the sun went dark and ice cracked every mirror in the house, but I didn’t take it for a warning.”

After their mother’s probable suicide, sisters Olivia and Jazz are figuring out how to move on with their lives. Jazz, logical and forward-thinking, decides toThe Moon Sisters get a new job, but spirited, strong-willed Olivia, who can see sounds, taste words, and smell sights, is determined to travel to the remote setting of their mother’s unfinished novel to say her final goodbyes and lay their mother’s spirit to rest.

Already resentful of Olivia’s foolish quest and her family’s insistence upon her involvement, Jazz is further aggravated when they run into trouble along the way and Olivia latches on to a worldly train-hopper who warns he shouldn’t be trusted. As Jazz and Olivia make their way toward their destination, each hiding something from the other, their journey toward acceptance of their mother’s death becomes as important as their journey to understand each other and themselves.

Buy the book! (Yes, now, before you forget.) 

About Therese Walsh: 

Therese’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, was published in hard cover on March 4th, 2014 by Crown (Random House). Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2009, was nominated for a RITA award for Best First Book, and was a TARGET Breakout Book.

Therese is the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction.

Before turning to fiction, she was a researcher and writer for Prevention magazine, and then a freelance writer. She’s had hundreds of articles on nutrition and fitness published in consumer magazines and online. She has a master’s degree in psychology.

Aside from writing, her favorite things include music, art, crab legs, Whose Line is it Anyway?, dark chocolate, photography, unique movies and novels, people watching, strong Irish tea, and spending time with her husband, two kids and their Jack Russell.

Visit Therese: At Her Website, On Twitter, and On Facebook:

Your turn! What are the unique aspects of your writing process? Have you read either of Therese’s books? If not, what are you waiting for? Could there be a more gracious interview subject, or a more bumbling interviewer? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 

The Arts & Crafts of Writing Fiction – Writer Unboxed Redirect

Horseshoe Front door 1Having one of my essays featured on Writer Unboxed is always a thrill and a distinct honor for me. Since I always say this, may I attempt to explain? As most of you know, it’s the Mothership blog of my writing community. It’s so special for me because it’s the first place I found that I felt the empathy and specific, relevant instruction that one can only feel from others undergoing the same journey. It’s a special sense of belonging, and it’s ongoing. And I hold the founders and regular contributors in such high esteem.

This time around, I wanted to demonstrate how my love of all things Arts and Crafts fits into my philosophy on writing. Some of you might have read my post on what building our Arts & Crafts bungalow taught me about writing, which might give you some idea. This time I delve a little deeper into the A&C Writer’s lifestyle I strive to live. It’s about how beauty can be found in simplicity and functionality (like our front door and Pewabic pottery–a few of my favorite Arts & Crafts possessions). So please head over to Writer Unboxed and join the conversation. A&C Pottery

Don’t Discount Your Courage

the-frontiersman-N.C. Wyeth (1911)Reflecting on my Deflecting: I’ve been deflecting. Ever since my friend Tonia Marie Harris, an inspiring and courageous writer in her own right, started her #BeBraveIn2014 campaign a few months ago. Each time the topic arises among my friends I say something along the lines of, “I’m not sure what being brave this year will mean for me.” I said it again recently on a small group thread, and in response Tonia posted a fabulous (and inspiring!) post called What Being a Brave Writer Means to Me. You should go read it.

As great as Tonia’s essay is, I still don’t know. Sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Sorry. But the post got me reflecting on courage. In the interest of showing my support for the #BeBrave theme, I do know that in whichever direction the next steps of my writing journey lead, it will take courage to take them. And I am committed to taking them.

A Bit of ‘Smalley’ Talk: I hate to get all Stuart Smalley, but, okay—haul out the looking glass. Let’s sit stuart_smalleyand have a little affirmation together, you and I. Say it with me: I’m good enough, strong enough…

But seriously, I realize that I’ve already taken some steps that require courage. And I’m pretty sure you have too. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge these things once in a while. In the interest of affirming my own fleetingly-felt courage, and fostering yours, I’ll want to share a few of the brave bits of the writer I’ve become.

“Courage is knowing the sum of all your fears, and proceeding anyway.” 

*I Am A Writer, Dammit: I’m not sure how many years I dreaded the inevitable question. You know the one, at the dreaded social event—the kind where you meet strangers, and they almost always say: “So, what do you do?”

I’m not even sure how I finally got over it, but I’m beyond the squirming and the hemming and hawing (not to mention the dissembling that preceded it). I can now, without batting an eye, say, “I’m a writer.” And unsurprisingly, the more unhesitant the assertion, the less they prod you about it.

For me this took time and practice which, in hindsight, resembles courage. Small steps of it, but courageous steps nonetheless. I now realize most new acquaintances are not asking to see your tax returns, or looking for a way to judge you. Most just want some interesting small talk (and the others shouldn’t matter to me anyway). They’re looking to get through the dreaded social event, same as you. Talking about writing really isn’t so bad (after all, it’s why we’re here, right?). And if they aren’t interested, or if you find it uncomfortable, you can always throw it back: “And you?” Problem solved (most people love to talk about themselves).

*I’ve finished something: Four somethings, actually. Sure, I recognize that all four of my manuscripts are all still works-in-progress. And they will be until they are published. But I persevered through to “The End” four times now. It takes a leap of faith and no small amount of resolve to finish a manuscript. As Barbara O’Neal recently said in a great post on Writer Unboxed: “Over and over I have said to you that writing requires such a weird combination of gifts and faults that anyone who has written a novel hasn’t done it by accident. The work called you, made you insane for it, and you followed. The world might not understand that, but I do. So does everyone else here.”

By “everyone else here,” she means us. Those of you who’ve finished a draft know. And I’m sure that those of you who haven’t yet are determined enough to know it, too. It’s not just that it doesn’t happen by accident. The faith and resolve required throughout are borne, in some measure, by courage. Regardless of what we face afterward, we should own it.

*I’ve Submitted to Feedback’s Four Stages: This is something ongoing for me. And I think all four stages require some measure of courage. They are: 1-Acknowledge I need feedback. 2- Actively seek it. 3- Evaluate it without reacting (or overreacting) to it. 4- Formulating a plan based on it, and purposefully executing that plan.

I must admit, I still struggle mightily with this one. My stomach still twists every damn time I hit the send button. And I’m jittery each time I hear back from someone reading—both excited and terrified. Initially, I’m usually overly focused on the negative (often to the point of being temporarily blind to praise). I remind myself that everyone who takes the time to read and provide any amount of critique is offering a great gift. One they most likely would not offer if they didn’t believe in me. Their belief lends me the necessary courage to endure the stages. But lent or not, it’s courage nonetheless.

*I’ve decided I’m committed to Dania! This last one is rather personal. And some might interpret it as stubbornness rather than courage. But it feels like courage to me.

Allow me to explain. It seems like every time I turn around someone is advocating that writers should be willing to shelve a manuscript and move on. Especially a first manuscript. I’ll admit to occasionally considering it—wondering if this might be “the brave thing to do.” But let me tell you, nothing gets my characters riled up like considering shelving them. They invade my brain in open revolt. Makes it tough to sleep, let alone consider other courses forward.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot abandon them. And it’s not just to quell the voices in my head… Well, maybe that’s part of it. But after all we’ve been through together, after all they’ve taught me, after all the laughs and the tears, I feel like I owe it to them to make the books worthy of their ongoing inspiration. It’s fitting, since so many of them are brave. I know they make me a braver writer. (Even if some of them are also pretty damn stubborn.)

Eowyn and MerryThe Courage of Friends: I hope I was able to remind you of your own bravery. But I know I’m more lucky than brave. My writing journey is blessed with the time to write, and the perfect place to do it. I am blessed by a loving spouse who not only encourages and supports me, but who reads and offers brilliant input and suggestions. I have friends who read and believe in me, and who pick me up when I am down. Thank you, one and all.

In contrast, there are writers I know and have heard about who overcome so much to pursue their literary dreams. I routinely hear the stories of writers who struggle to find an hour or less a day to write (often at the expense of sleep); of writers who overcome health issues and difficult living conditions to practice their craft; of writers who continue to write with little or no support or encouragement; even writers who write in spite of the discouragement or open opposition of those who surround them. These are the truly brave writers. I am humbled and inspired by their efforts.

What about you? Have you given yourself credit for your courage? In what ways are you a brave writer? Are you inspired by your friends?

The Truth Is Place (A Foundation for an Artistic Life)

HD Sunset“A song to thee, fair State of mine,
Michigan, my Michigan.
But greater song than this is thine,
Michigan, my Michigan.
The whisper of the forest tree,
The thunder of the inland sea,
Unite in one grand symphony
Of Michigan, my Michigan…”
~Douglas Malloch (from Michigan, My Michigan,1902)

Late- Winter Blues: I’ve done a bit of bitching about my home state this week. More specifically, about the weather here. Which is unusual for me. I’ve written about my love of the Snowy ravinechange of seasons, and my fondness for winter, here. But what a winter we’ve had here in the Mighty Mitten! With record-setting snow levels and a near record number of days below zero degrees Fahrenheit, I think I’ve finally gotten my fill.

But I still can’t imagine living anywhere else. In fact, even after such a brutal winter, I can honestly say that if I could move anywhere, I’d move further north, right here in my home state. Give me the tall, singing pines of Hartwick, the deep blue lakes of Leelanau, the soaring dunes of Sleeping Bear, the cold, clear streams of Little Traverse Bay.

Soaring Pines That SingTighten Your Rust Belt: I so often hear that people’s impression of Michigan is not one just of inclement weather, but one of closed auto factories, high unemployment and crime. I even saw a comment on a tourism site that condemned the whole state as having a “foul, sulfurous smell.” This from a guy who lived in Chicago. Makes one wonder about the prevailing westerly winds that originate from his industry intensive area. But nevertheless, it’s a bit silly to say that an entire state can have a certain odor.

Certainly Michigan has more than its share of closed factories. We’ve had our ups and downs. But to anyone who imagines these things define our state, I simply say: You’ve obviously never been here. Or at least: You’ve never really looked around outside the somewhat rusty belt of the state’s major cities’ limits.

Been Called Home:

I wanna live in a land of lakes, where the great waves break
And the night runs right into the day
I wanna be with the ones I left, but I’m way out west
And the years keep on slipping away
I
wanna run on the sacred dunes, through the ancient ruins
Where the fires of my ancestors bur
ned
I remember that fateful day, w
hen I ran away
And you told me I couldn’t return

You made me swear I’d never forget, I made a vow I’d see you again
I will be
back one day, and I’ll find you there by the great big lake…” ~Lord Huron (aka Ben Schneider of Okemos, MI, from the song, I Will Be Back One Day)

I have lived elsewhere. I’ve lived near enough to smell the ocean in Southern California; within sight of the capital across one of the majestic lakes of Madison, Wisconsin; in a quaintHazelhust as Lothlorien turn-of-the-century neighborhood in suburban Chicagoland; and in a rural village on the edge of farmland so flat and far-reaching one can watch an errant dog run away for days.

And I love to travel and spend time in other parts of the US and the world. I’ve seen places so beautiful they take your breath. I’ve been among folks so welcoming you’d think they considered all visitors to be kin. But these old dirt roads always beckon me. No other place can truly be home for me. As excited as I am each time we get out to see the wide world, I always end up longing for the contentment of home. In all the years I lived elsewhere, I think I always knew I’d end up back here.

Finding My Truth Is Place:

“In the end, of course, the truth is place.

Place is where we first become conscious of the world outside ourselves, then outside the family, then outside the community. Place is where we draw our first and last breath. Place either smothers our spirits, or liberates it.

A startlingly beautiful and varied place like Michigan most often frees the spirit. In doing so, it is parent to creativity—sometimes to everlasting art.” ~Dave and Jack Dempsey (from Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors)

I’d like to think I would’ve pursued my writing journey if I’d ended up living elsewhere, but sometimes I wonder. If I had started elsewhere, I’m guessing it would’ve been quite a different journey. Certainly living here, where I drew my first breath, and became conscious of the world outside myself, has been conducive to pursuing my writing dream. Maybe I’m as rooted in my journey here as Georgia O’Keeffe was in the New Mexican desert, or as Anne Rice is in New Orleans. Not to compare myself to them, but I do feel my home is my artistic foundation. Few writers have been more closely identified with a place than Carl Sandburg with Chicago (“City of big shoulders…”), and yet he did much of his writing on his rooftop deck overlooking the Lake Michigan shore, less than a mile from my house.

Majestic CloudinessThere is such a comforting lull to life in the woods near the shore. I even love the cloudiness—a condition often experienced living on the leeward side of a great lake. I remember longing for cloudy days when I lived in SoCal, where they are rare. Big billowing clouds have a way of filling me a nostalgic melancholy. For me it’s an ideal state for creativity—for letting my thoughts wander. I’m sure many of you won’t get it, but perhaps some of you will, when I say that cloudiness takes the pressure off.

And history is all around me. Our roads and beach paths were once trod by Potawatomi and Ottawa Indians; French voyageurs paddled our shores and rivers; and English forts originated our nearest towns—perfect for immersing myself in a historical world on the page.

Dania Looks Suspiciously Like Michigan: For those who have read my work, whether you realize it or not, you have undoubtedly sensed my world here in the Mighty Mitten in the settings. From the blue ribbon of the Danian River, to the log walls around the village of Danihem, to the pine and fir forested foothills of the Skolani Rainy day in the foresthunting grounds, and eastward to the ancient beeches and oaks of Afletam Forest and the open grasslands of Oium—Michigan haunts the world I’ve created on the page. Even the weather is familiar. There are lots of cloudy and inclement days in Dania—have you noticed?

I once thought my first novel would be a fantasy based on first encounters between Native Americans and Europeans, set here in the Great Lakes Region. In hindsight I can see how much of my interest in that history suffuses my story. It’s in the conflict between a self-identified civilized culture versus another they deem to be less so. I particularly see it in my creation of the Skolani tribe. It’s in their love of, and dependence on, their horses. I see it in their Kabitka—a moveable village of wagons and hide tents.

And I haven’t discarded the notion of writing the one set in the New World. After all, the research is right outside my door.

For Those Who See: As for our tough Michigan winter, I know this too shall pass. Past experience shows me that things change, even in the Mighty Mitten. I might even say especially here. And there’s beauty in change. Beauty that has the ability to inspire.

“To those who see bare branches –
and know they hold the buds of spring
 
To those who see stars falling in the heavens
and know the constellations will remain forever
 
To those who see long lines of geese fade far beyond –
and know they come back again to nest
 
To those who see with wonder in their hearts and know –
what glories there can be for those who see…”

~Benzonia, Michigan native Gwen Frostic (To Those Who See, from Contemplations, 1973)

IMG_0329 

What about you? Do you believe that “the truth is place”? Has your world informed your writing? When you hear the name “Michigan” do closed factories or flourishing forests and white sand beaches come to mind? How do you feel about clouds? 

What If…

Today I have a special guest for you. Please meet and welcome Peggy Duffy. Besides being my awesome sister-in-law, Peggy is a yoga instructor and the founder of Miss Fit Girls—a wonderful yoga-based mentoring program for girls aged 10-16. I encourage you to check out Miss Fit Girls, either at their website or their Facebook page.

I said Peg is a “special” guest, and she certainly is. She’s special in a lot of ways, but once you read this post, you will undoubtedly be surprised by one of those ways—she’s not a writer. (Well, not yet. She’s certainly a natural storyteller, so she’s more than halfway to being one of us. ;-) )

From the moment I read this wise essay, I knew I needed to share it with my writer friends. After all, we are the ultimate askers of “What if,” aren’t we?  Enjoy!Megan and Peggy

What if…

We all do it. What if it works? What if it doesn’t?! What if I don’t pass this test? What if I can’t get out? What if I can’t find a job? A partner? What if I fail? What if…what if I don’t?!

May 10th, 2010 – She just came home from her first year of college. The next day was starting her internship at a swanky ad company. It was a beautiful May day. She was shining too. She had so much energy that a quick bike ride would help dispense it.

I answered and heard: She’s going to be fine.

It’s funny how time blurs, instructions are not ‘heard’ but understood. I was one mile from the accident. I pulled up wherever. And I saw… I saw a car, and the back tire of a bike sticking out from under it and the ambulance. It’s true when they say all sounds disappear. I heard nothing. I only wanted to see… her.

I stepped into the ambulance. There she was, head brace, strapped down, bloody. As I stared at her head, she rolled her eyes back to see me.

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” Oh, she’s always trying to protect me. I looked down at my girl. I looked her up & down, watching the EMT’s prepare her arms for IV’s.

“No. I’M FINE. YOU just got run over by a car.” She gave me a look of “Really? Sarcasm now?” It’s my go-to.

“So, you’re ‘fine’, right? Have you seen who is working on you?” I was referring to the fine looking EMT boys saving my girl’s life.

She smiled and raised her eyebrows. She’s fine.

“Fine” can be defined in many many ways. She was driven to the hospital in an ambulance, her clothes cut off in front of 27 nurses and doctors, cone of shame, iv’s, X-rays, poking, pinching, blinding flashlights to the eyes. All for good reason: what they found… road rash, tire skid mark on her back, a small crack in the transverse process, and a bunch of pulled muscles. They left us alone. She was fine… then the shock wore off. It was like the blanket that had covered and protected her was now of no need and slowly pulled down off her body. Her face changed, she looked at me wide eyed and became a very scared, very young child. She wailed. And so did I. What if her head had hit the cement, the bumper, what if her back was crushed by the tire? What if…yes.. what if I had lost my girl that day? We both LOST it. Deep deep belly cries that filled the room. It filled the halls all the way to the nurses’ station. I knew our cries were heard because a few minutes into our bawl-out, a little nurse slid in like Joel in Risky Business with her finger raised and a loud “HEY!”

“STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW!” She was pissed? Sort of.. but more than that, she had a message. Mid-bawl we both stopped.

“SHE is fine. She’s alive and not broken, not dying. She’s here … Now.” (… and this next line changed our lives).

“Those ‘what if’s’… those ‘what ifs’ will only steal from you!! What ifs will kill you.” and she left us. *perfect entrance, perfect exit.

I looked at Meg. Laying in her hospital bed, scraped, bruised, sore. She was here. I would get to see her grow more into the beautiful girl she already is.

The next few weeks were rough. A frustrating recovery and a joyous journey to full-on enjoying life and all it has to offer. No accident, illness, disease leaves you the same as you were before. It changes you, challenges you. What are your ‘what if’s’? WHAT IF… you lived it without the fear of losing it, rather living it with the love of having it. That is my only ‘what if’ question. I don’t even ask it anymore, I know the answer so well.

What are your “what ifs”? Do they ever get in the way? Please share.

Miss Fit Girls LogoAbout Miss Fit Girls:

Connecting, Encouraging, Strengthening, Accepting, Celebrating

Miss Fit Girls is a unique yoga-based  program for girls ages 10-16 years old. With fast and intense changes going on in their bodies and minds, Miss Fit Girls, gives them the time they need to slow down and enjoy. At MFG, they learn to trust and listen to their own thoughts and emotions, embrace the movement of change and learn to respond rather than react. They come to the mat to practice so they are prepared for the ups & downs in their daily lives.

Lessons on Burning Brightly

V & Belle at Sparkly Time“Life is no brief candle…. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” ~George Bernard Shaw

[Be forewarned: If you are not a dog person, you may not be interested in this post. Conversely, if you are one, and dislike discussions of losing one, or of pet grief, I won’t be offended if you choose to stay away. My wife stubbornly refused to read or watch Marley and Me for this very reason, so I get it.]

Our Bright Star, Dimmed: Those of you who know me or follow me on Facebook know not only that I had Belle, but that she was a star in my life. My wife and I lost our beautiful girl this past Wednesday. She had recently lost the use of her hind legs to a cancerous tumor on her spine. We took her to the Michigan State University Veterinary Hospital, seeking everything in our power to help her to beat it, but it was not to be. It was left to us to put an end to our stoic girl’s worsening pain.

She may have lost her battle with cancer, but she never lost her spirit. She could not have faded, or slowly withered. She burned brightly, undiminished, right up to the final day, the final moment. Till this last year, even as she slowed her step slightly, she was an eleven year old puppy. Even though it’s difficult for us, I know in my heart it is rightful.

Utterly Unique: This is a difficult post for me to write, on so many levels. But it’s one of the things Belle helped to teach me: I am a writer; I deal with life by writing. About the only thing I’m sure of is that I won’t be able to do her  justice. (Maybe in a novel, but…)

For those who never met her, you need to know she was utterly unique. Some dogs are called sweet or gentle, but not Belle. She’s been called quirky, funny, intense, an exuberantWinter walk, Jan. '12 008 greeter, a hard charger, and more than one observer has remarked that they wished her energy could be bottled for human consumption. She was vocal and bouncy, and at times seemed barely within control, but it was always due to an abundance of enthusiasm—not such a bad thing. When you think about it, wouldn’t the world be a better place if more of us had too much enthusiasm, rather than too little?

We Are Family: We had another black lab before Belle who taught us that Life’s Too Short, and I’ve already written about Maggie, here. Belle was most certainly blessed by Maggie’s sacrifice and life-lessons. Because of Maggie, we no longer left a dog alone all day while we worked our lives away. Because of Maggie, Belle led a pretty stellar life, if I do say so. She walked twice a day through forests and on the beach. I can easily assert that she swam in Lake Michigan on more than half of her days on this earth.

As difficult as Belle was as a puppy (an entire story all its own), she settled in to our lives with absolute symmetry. She was a sentient being in our home, a powerful presence in our lives, and an integral part of the triad of our family. Some dogs are relatively unattached to humans, some are one-man/woman dogs, but not Belle. As my sister put it, she was: “our daughter, sister, and best friend, all wrapped up in one.”

We Are FamilyAs a demonstration of how important our togetherness was to Belle, as we made ready to go out on either of our daily walks, she would literally herd the one of us who seemed to be lagging (which was usually my wife – sorry honey). She would walk behind, nudge, and bark at the laggard until they had their coat, and all three of us were ready to go. Once out on the porch, if one of us lagged even a pace, to pick up a toy or grab a leash, they were scolded and urged forth with a bark or two (even at 7am, much to our neighbors’ chagrin on a summer Saturday morning). If one of us had to stay back from walking, for whatever reason, Belle had to be all but dragged away, with much glancing back—fret written upon her expressive face—until the house was out of sight.

My Writing Partner: Since this is a writing blog, I do want to share the parts of my writing life that involve Belle. Many of you have undoubtedly heard me refer to Belle as my writing partner. This is not just a clever nickname. She was with me at a carpentry jobsite the day I first put pen to paper with an idea for a story. She was with me every day throughout the drafting of the trilogy and through dozens of rewrites. She tilted her head when I asked questions aloud, and followed me around the house when I paced and muttered over a plot point. She was a vital component of every break, every brainstorming walk, every reflective hour sitting on our bench atop the dune.

Canine Writing Lessons: But most importantly, she taught me so much that enhanced the writer that I’ve become. Here are just a few lessons that spring to mind like a lab springs onto the tailgate of a pickup.

*Be patient; Find joy amidst the chaos. Belle was always a handful. When she was a puppy, I fought to find a way to control her—to bend her to my will. She was having none of it. She was so damn smart. She knew entire sentences, let alone words. She knew: come, sit, lay down, stay, fetch (on land or water), drop, heel, halt in place off leash, get in her bed, bring various toys (by name)—and most of those either with hand signals or verbal commands. But if someone came to the door, or met us on the beach, it was all forgotten. No matter what I did, she danced and wiggled, wagged and barked for the first ten minutes of any visit with most anyone—moreso for those she knew and loved. I learned to accept it, and to even smile over it. Over the years we had a noticeable decline in visitors. But what did it matter? We had each other, and who needs visitors who dislike joyful enthusiasm over being seen?

She taught me to be at peace over what I couldn’t control. But also that I could rely on the fact that I worked and had gained mastery when it mattered—in issues of safety or when someone was genuinely afraid of her. She was the living embodiment of my version of the Serenity Prayer (Lord, grant me the patience to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.)

*Show up every day—there’s joy to be found in routine. Since Belle’s been gone, we are up and out for our morning walk. It’s as she would’ve wanted it. Indeed, while she was alive, she Belle of the Balldemanded it. We never eat breakfast or have coffee first. We don the appropriate gear and go out into whatever weather. And we fill our lungs with fresh air, and watch the sky turn amber with the dawn. We see deer and hear woodpeckers sounding on hollow trunks. And the day is vital, from the moment we rise. Same for evening. At five pm, if I hadn’t stopped typing, I felt her stare, or heard her not-so-subtle hums: “Um, V, it’s getting to be time to shut it down. And you’d better text Mo to come home.”

She taught me that routine is a useful tool in the writing life. That start times and end times were important to the process.

*A job well-done is a reward in and of itself. Belle’s job, besides being there for me while I wrote, was to fetch. Which fetch toy did not matter. If it was a Frisbee, it had to be caught and brought back, preferably before it hit the ground. If it was a bumper, it had to be brought to shore. If it was a squeaky ball, it had to be subdued and returned to my hand, with as many squeaks as possible in the process. Although she was a phenomenal athlete, and often made leaping catches to the ooos and ahs of onlookers, she did not do her job for the acceptance or admiration of others. If it was just she and I alone on the shore, and she made a great catch, with the surf crashing around her before the Frisbee hit the wash, she pranced and shook it with the same proud zeal as she would’ve if there had been an audience.

She taught me that the effort and practice that lead to success are fulfilling on their own, and meant to be enjoyed—each and every day.

Gratitude and Resonance: Our house feels so damn empty. She is everywhere I look. There are moments when I don’t know how I’ll go on without feeling this intense sense of loss and sadness. But I know I will. We are already laughing over the memories. Not quite as much as we are crying, but that will change. We’re taking it day by day. The well-wishes and condolences of those who knew her, or of her importance to our lives, has been a healing blessing. We are thankful for the love of our friends and family at this difficult time.

Our hearts are broken. And I know there will always be an empty space in mine, carved by her absence. But Belle’s joy continues to resonate. And I know it will go on, for the rest of my days on this earth. And for that I am immensely grateful.

I will share with you one of the last things I said to Belle, in an intensely personal moment. I share in the hopes that it will help to cement her lessons, for me and for my friends. I share in the hopes that her joy will resonate all the stronger. I said: “Thank you, Miss. For everything—for all the lessons, all the stories, all the laughs and tears. I promise you, they will not go to waste. I will never forget. Thank you for being my partner and my friend.” I buried my face in her fur, and she nestled her head against me and sighed, letting me know that she believed me.

The Last Walk

[Photo credit for the shot of the three of us goes to Harrington Photography, Three Oaks, MI]

Spartans, What is Your Profession?

The Spartan (Sparty) MSU CampusFaltering Fandom:  I don’t often talk about sports with my writing friends. Other than the occasional, “You knocked it outta the park,” I’m not even a big fan of sports metaphors. They mostly seem clichéd or contrived. That’s not to say I’m not a sports fan. I am. Back in my days in business, watching professional and college sports was not only entertaining but an undemanding diversion from the work-a-day life. On occasion I still watch entire games, but I think since I started writing I’ve filled the majority of those hours with reading. In spite of my faltering enthusiasm for sports, I still follow the progress of my favorite teams.

Loyalist or Masochist? I suppose largely because football (of the American variety) was my dad’s game, it’s always been my favorite as well. Seems like an old-fashioned notion, but my dad believed in staying loyal to a team. When I was a boy, because they were successful at the time, I once told him I was a Green Bay Packers fan. This did not sit well with Dad. His disapproval must’ve struck a chord with mini-me. Because of this, since I’ve always considered Michigan my home, and since I graduated from Michigan State University, my two football teams have always been the Detroit Lions and the Michigan State Spartans. Yep—I’m one of those: a (mostly) longsuffering fan. A sports masochist, so to speak.

Magic in the Air: There’s been a stirring in the late autumn air here in the Mighty Mitten. A sort of gridiron magic that is lingering longer than the typical cold snap. This time it’s gaining momentum—like a winter storm front sweeping across the Great Lakes. As of the writing of this, the Lions are leading their division at 7-5. Just before I started writing I actually heard an analyst call the Lions: “The most talented team in the NFL.” (Reality check: He also called them sloppy and inconsistent, but still…)

Prepare for Glory! Then there are the Spartans. Saturday night I was up very late (for me) watching my alma mater’s teamSpartan logo white on green win the Big Ten Championship game and a Rose Bowl bid. And they did it in convincing fashion, by soundly beating the #2 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. I haven’t been that worked up about a sporting event… well, since the last time MSU won the Big Ten and a Rose Bowl bid… In 1987 (in a game against Indiana that I attended).

The play of these kids (let’s face it—I’m fast-approaching being old enough to be the players’ grandfather) has really captured my imagination and enthusiasm. As we did in January of ’88, my wife and I are even considering making the trip to Pasadena to watch “our kids play ball” on the big stage of the 100th edition of the Grand-daddy of All Bowl Games.

Just an Arcadian: Although I am excited by my Spartans, I am not a player or a coach. I don’t have any kin playing. I have rarely attended games in the past ten years (as I age I’ve become increasingly less fond of crowds and traffic). These Spartans are merely kids playing a game for a school I attended over twenty-five years ago.

If Spartan King Leonidas had asked after my vocation, I would’ve dropped my gaze to my sandals and murmured, “I’m but a scribe, sire.” But that doesn’t mean my heart wouldn’t swell in hearing the reply when Leonidas asked the same of his 300 men. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t feel inspired by the bravery and determination of  those who share an institutional alliance and a common sense of place with me here in The Mighty Mitten.Spartans. what is your profession

Sleepless in Sparta: I went to bed after the game, but it left me tossing and turning, unable to settle to slumber after the exhilaration of witnessing sporting history. So rather than counting invading Persians (or blitzing Buckeyes), or reciting memorized lines from 300, I contemplated how these Spartans have captured my imagination. And I actually concluded that it has much to do with the current state of my writing journey. In the spirit of citizenship with my fellow scribes, I thought I’d share the ways:

*Quiet Competence: As sporting teams go, in this age of swag and brag, this Spartan team has stayed relatively quiet. There’s little talk and much devotion to a work ethic. They seem to understand that results are what matter. Even though they are amateurs (kids, as I mentioned), they’ve maintained a workmanlike professionalism about the game.

The same goes for writing. Impressive word counts, blog stats, even pretty pages of prose—none of it matters in the face of a successful manuscript. For each work-in-progress, I need to focus on the result of a finished story arc that satisfies. A pro seeks success and doesn’t bother himself with distractions or peripherals. If I choose to be a novelist, only successful novels count. I’m in this for the long haul. I want to write many more books. I want to be a pro. I should act like one.

*Adapt and Grow/Play all four quarters: The Spartans have come a long way since their only loss in mid-September (yes, Domers, we remember—to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish). The Spartans have learned from their mistakes. Even within the context of a game, the Spartans—particularly on defense—are constantly adjusting and adapting. Even when they were down this season, they continued to endeavor to find a winning formula. Their game-plan is fluid, and includes discarding what isn’t working and finding success through a willingness to change. They continued to adapt and grow—each drive, each defensive stop, each quarter, each game… All season.

My original game-plan for my trilogy included a prologue and opening with an examination of the childhoods of five primary characters. Even after six major rewrites, and an opening quite different from that of the first game-plan, I’m still not sure I’ve found the formula for success. But I know the season is far from over.

*Momentum is All About Attitude: There was a point in the Big Ten championship, late in the first half and early second, that the Buckeyes scored twenty-four unanswered points. They had clearly gained the momentum. The Spartans were on their heels and behind. But there was no quit in their eyes. They kept at it. You could see the ongoing effort, the upright postures. They worked down the field, grinding out an ugly drive that netted them a mere field-goal. They still trailed. Then the defense held the Buckeyes to a three-and-out. They gutted out the most unlikely of momentum shifts late in the game… Against a team that everyone expected to win—not only this game, but a national championship.

We’ve all had rejections. I know I have. And I am subject to bouts of writerly sulk. No matter how many people have read my work and said they’ve enjoyed it, there are days when I am utterly focused on the lesser number of readers who never finished, said they weren’t drawn in, or simply didn’t care for it.

Let’s face it—there are always going to be others who are picked to win. Sometimes it seems like others get all the breaks. If we allow ourselves to get down about it, we’ve already lost. Every game has momentum shifts. There will always be difficult periods. We must keep fighting, with our backs straight and our heads up. Even gutting out a long-shot, low-points score—such as a personalized critique in a rejection or a positive review for a short piece—can change the momentum in our favor.

*Don’t Listen to the Experts/Play Your Own Game: At the season’s onset you would’ve been hard-pressed to find many who would’ve picked the Spartans to win-out their Big Ten schedule, let alone defeat OSU in the championship game. They started the season unranked, and even as late as the kickoff Saturday night, few reckoned them more than a footnote to the collegiate football season. All season long, sports media analysts said they were: too reliant on defense, too reliant on an average running game, had an inexperienced quarterback, etcetera. Today they are calling the Spartans Rose Bowl-bound champions.

I’ve always heard things from “the publishing experts” that boded ill for me. Over the years I’ve heard: I must keep manuscripts under 120K, that women warriors are insulting to women, that fantasy must include a well-ordered system of magic, and that the quest of a protagonist to leadership was the kiss of death. I suppose I’ve decided to play my own game. But then again, when I started ten years ago, I often heard that epic fantasy was passé, that it didn’t sell. Things change.

Spartans Never Retreat, Never Surrender: I know that not every try will result in a win. Finding my way to my own vision of a satisfying story—seen in my mind and felt in my heart—and then finding it again and again, is the only thing that will make my writing journey a success. I’ve been at this quite a while, but I feel like the end of a long but successful first season is in sight. And, with the right inspiration and attitude, I could have a long career ahead.

So yes, Leonidas, I know what my profession is.    Leonidas

Have you ever been inspired by an athlete or a sports team? Are you ready to answer Leonidas with pride?