June 9, 2017
My 15th book released a few weeks ago. It's called Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, and it walks readers through the lucrative and life-changing process of transforming life experiences into powerful fiction. I stumbled across this fact-to-fiction process by accident. The year was 2001. I had a three-year-old daughter and another on the way. I was teaching full-time and loving life.
Unexpectedly, inexplicably, I lost my husband.
I go into more detail in my TEDx Talk, but in general, here's what happened after his death: I had to write to survive. I needed to transform my fear and pain into something coherent. I wrote one book, then another. I'd written three whole novels and received 423 rejections before I landed my first agent.
Fifteen books later, I'd give up wine, bread, cheese, and my left foot before I'd quit writing.
But even after all that passion and practice, if I'm honest with myself (and you), it's not exactly ancient history that the idea of drafting a novel felt like being dropped into central Africa's Congo Basin with a compass and a paperclip.
Rolled in honey.
With everyone whom I've ever wanted to impress watching via a live feed, gathered together in a room, eating popcorn and laughing so hard that they spewed schadenfreude all over the television. In fact, after I began my first novel I spent much of my writing time feeling overwhelmed at the scope of what I'd taken on and like a ridiculous fraud for even pretending I could write a book. I grew up in rural Minnesota, for crying in the night. Not only did I not know any writers, I hardly knew anyone who liked to read.
But there was personal treasure to be mined in the writing of a novel, I sensed it even then, rubies of resilience and emeralds of hope, and so I read what I could on the art of writing, sought out mentors, and read fiction like a chef trying to puzzle out the recipe by tasting the meal. After five years of trial and error, I finally arrived at a method to reduce the time and stress of writing an experience-based novel while increasing the joy in the writing and the quality of the story. More importantly, I discovered that writing fiction allows me to process much of my personal garbage so I can live healthier and happier.
You'll find that most if not all your best novel ideas are already growing, ready to be plucked, in the compost pile of your mind. (Your compost pile is that fertile, loamy, shit-filled place where you tossed your baggage in the hopes that it would decompose on its own. It doesn't. You have to stir it up and spread it out. It's just the way it works.)
All writers end up with a unifying theme across the books that they write, and that theme is the most indigestible nugget in their mental compost pile, the personal challenge they were put on this earth to overcome. For example, I write about the poison and power of secrets. In every. Single. Book. (It took me eight novels to realize my recurring theme.)
I come by this meta theme honestly. I grew up in a house built on fear and secrets, liberally sprinkled with alcoholism, psychedelic drugs, swingers, and naked volleyball parties. I packed my first bong before I was ten and mixed a mean whiskey water by age twelve. To this day, I think my parents' worst fear was that I'd rebel and grow up to be a right-winger. (My parents would be mortified if they knew I was writing about them or my childhood. This, along with an instilled allegiance to secrets, has kept me from writing nonfiction up until this moment. How am I finally breaking free of this, you ask? The advice to write as if your parents are dead seems too harsh. I'm instead writing as if they're illiterate.)
My experience of working through and spreading my mental compost pile via novel writing is not unique. At a recent writing conference, a successful noir author confessed to me that all her books are about that pivotal, cathartic moment when a person tests his/her limits. John Irving's recurring theme seems to be younger men who are seduced or abused by older women. Parental abandonment appears in every one of Charles Dickens' books. Amy Tan tackles mother/daughter relationships in her writing.
You will find some version of your own experience-based theme in all the novels you write. Don't worry if you don't know your life theme right now; discovering it is one of the many gifts of novel writing. Just know that wherever you are at in the writing process, you are doing the right thing. The good work.
Write on, with love,
April 17, 2017
Something bizarre happened to me yesterday. It was so strange that I haven't been able to fully process it even 24 hours later. It involved an impossible feat of physics, coincidence, and a brutal exercise in perspective. See this picture of my car's grill, noting the 2" x 4" openings in it? Hang onto that image because it is pivotal to this story.
But first, I need to tell you that it's been a difficult few weeks. The end of March, my sister announced that she and her partner of 17+ years are divorcing. He's a good guy. We love him, and of course we love her. My nieces are grown, but this still affects them. These sorts of lifequakes stir up unresolved family issues and arguments, too, at least they do in mine.
On top of that, my writing retreat business folded before it even got started. After five months of working like mad dogs with only a handful of sign-ups, in early April my partner Allison and I decided this is not the business for us. It was good to step away, but the whole experience is failure-scented.
Finally, my first and probably only nonfiction book releases in two short weeks. In it, I step out from behind the cloak of fiction to share how I turn my life into stories. I LIKE THE CLOAK OF FICTION. That's why I write novels and not memoirs, for the love of Pete. But the fact-to-fiction process has been so transformative for me, so healing and so much the seeds of great writing, that I can't keep it to myself. Sharing it is the right thing to do, just like the TEDx Talk was the right thing to do, but I've still felt like a naked freeway turtle for weeks now, that sensation growing stronger as my May 1 release date approaches.
So yeah. I've been on edge lately, pessimistic, overwhelmed, looking forward to something just around the corner that'll make me happy, promising myself life'll get better soon. (That's what's referred to as Minnesota optimism. You can put up with really cold winters if you spend your time thinking about summer.)
That's a recap of my recent life up until yesterday, which is where the weirdness begins. I was traveling the 3.5 hours south from my in-laws to my parents. I was driving fast, but not too fast. My mind wandered as I drove. I unraveled the guilt I felt for not spending the previous day with my kids, with Z only home from college for three days and X stressed from all the family changes. I worked through plot holes in Mercy's Chase, the next thriller in my Witch Hunt series. I daydreamed about the honeymoon Tony and I would finally take when we saved enough money and carved out enough time.
I was mostly feeling relaxed when I crested that hill and discovered...a flock of pheasants sitting on the road, in my path. I gasped. A car was coming toward me and the ditch to my right was steep. I had to stay in my lane. I slammed on my brakes, but it was too late.
Have you ever hit an animal with your car? It's one of the top five worst sounds in the world. It's visceral. It's hollow and solid and feathers and bone. It's pain and you created it. I sucked in my breath and my eyes shot to my rearview mirror. I grew up in the country and knew the rules: you didn't leave an animal to suffer. Please be dead please be dead please be dead. Except...I didn't see a carcass in the rearview mirror. My stomach dropped. The pheasant must be hung up somewhere on my vehicle. I drove a few hundred feet and parked on the shoulder, scanning the ditch for sticks. I was almost in tears because if I had to remove that poor creature from my car and then put it out of its misery with my bare hands...well, I couldn't think about that.
And for one sweet minute, I didn't have to. When I stepped out of my car and walked on trembly legs around to the front, I saw no bird. No feathers. No sign of an accident. I dropped to all fours. The pheasant wasn't under my car, either. I stood, glancing all around. I felt a little dizzy. No way way had I imagined this. I leaned against my car to catch my balance.
That's when the flapping began. The pheasant was trapped behind my grill.
Like some rural David Copperfield, that bird had squeezed his chicken-sized body through one of my grill's 4" x 2" openings while the car was traveling at 60 mph. Not possible. (Let me share the photo again here so you can see how impossible this was.) There was no way a pheasant was trapped inside of my car looking at me through my grill like my own personal zoo creature. Except that it was happening. I popped my hood, felt the seams along every inch of that grill, scoured the tire wheels and underbody, looked for any other possible explanation, but there wasn't one. The speed and angle must have been freakishly perfect.
Here's something they don't cover in driver's ed: what do you do when you find yourself on a lonely country road with a huge wild bird magically trapped in an inaccessible part of your vehicle? You get in the car and start driving, that's what. And then you call your husband who is 40 miles behind and to the east of you and has no suggestions off the top of his head but to be fair this was new territory for both of us. We agreed to meet 25 miles south where his road and mine converged. It seemed like a solid plan until I'd driven all of two miles and started crying. That poor bird. It must be terrified. I couldn't drive slower because then he'd be there longer, but I couldn't drive faster because the radiator would heat up faster. I was torturing this creature.
When I smelled burning feathers, I thought, That is the unluckiest bird in the world.
I couldn't keep driving for another 23 miles, not with that poor animal suffering. There was a closer town straight east. Going there meant I'd miss Easter dinner for sure, but I couldn't keep this up. Ten minutes later, I found myself pulling into a gas station, wondering if I should park with my pheasant facing or away from the store. I decided on facing. He flapped when I walked by.
Inside the gas station, I spotted a couple farmers talking. "Hey," I said, "I've got an odd situation and I'm hoping you can help?"
They gamely followed me outside, and in true Midwestern fashion, did not lose one ounce of their cool. "Well I'll be damned. That's a full-grown rooster you've got in there." They chuckled. They told me maybe I'd have pheasant for dinner. They looked every which on my car and came to the same conclusion as me: the only way in was through the grill, and the only way out was by dismantling the front bumper. I didn't have the tools. They didn't either. They pointed me toward the police department. The situation could've only grown more surreal if one of them took to the air himself.
At the police station, Officer Jeff didn't bat an eye when I told him I had something weird to show him--you guys, you really do need to visit Minnesota--and as soon as he laid eyes on the pheasant, he jogged back inside to grab a pair of gloves, some tools, and spent the next 20 minutes wordlessly removing my bumper. The longest sentence he strung together came after I asked him what we'd do when we got that poor bird out. I was not looking forward to seeing the shape he's in. He was surely broken every which way but Wednesday.
I wanted the officer to tell me that he'd take care of the bird. Instead he said, "Hopefully, it'll fly away."
Officer Jeff, for all of his quiet capability, was clearly a dreamer.
The top seal of the bumper was finally off. Jeff directed me to pull the lip of it forward and down, keeping out of sight because if that pheasant had one ounce of sanity left, he was going to hide from humans. I was still 99% sure that bird was never coming out and that I'd have to sell my car when a big pile of pheasant poop dropped near my feet, I heard a glorious mad fluttering, and that bird took off. Like, IT FLEW, low and wide, that graceful path that only a male pheasant can fly, most of his gorgeous tail feathers still intact. He disappeared over a hill into the nearby woods. I let the bumper slam back, ignoring the deep indents its left in my fingers. Jeff and I were standing side by side, watching the pheasant fly.
"It's an Easter miracle," I finally said. We both laughed.
He reassembled my bumper. Just another day at work for him. I thanked him profusely. Tony pulled up four minutes later and hugged me. There were a couple of those soft poofy underfeathers up by my engine, but no other evidence. We slid into our cars and drpve to my mom and dad's, where everyone had waited to eat until we arrived. The food was cold, the company good, and I couldn't stop thinking about that bird. He'd survived a collision with a car at 60 mph, had broken no bones as he slid through the tiniest of holes, and avoided being cooked alive on the radiator as we'd driven another 13 miles.
He was the luckiest bird in the world.
I'd thought the exact opposite when I'd hit him. I know life is about perspective, but it's a hard truth to remember. Thanks to the pheasant, though, there was no missing it yesterday, and I began to realign my own perspectives accordingly. My family shake-up sucks right now. It really does, but it's an opportunity for my family to clean out some calcified garbage. I lost $5000 and hundreds of hours trying to start that retreat business, but in the process, I remembered that I'm on this earth to be writing, not travel-agenting and marketing. More importantly? I realized that I've been living my life in the future for years now, waiting for the money and the time to finally enjoy myself. The time is now, always, and it was worth $5000 and hundreds of hours to learn that (I hope it's cheaper next time I have to re-learn that, which'll probably be in a few weeks). Also, thanks to that damn pheasant, I booked two trips yesterday, one of them my honeymoon, a year after my wedding. Yay! And finally, my book, Rewrite Your Life, my super-personal how-to guide that comes out May 1? Well, as my friend Aimee wisely said, for good or bad it's no longer my book. It now belongs to whoever reads it. I hope it brings them what they're looking for.
I'm smiling as I type this. I'm the luckiest bird in the world.
p.s. If you ever have a ridiculously weird crisis that need judgment-free help with, I can't recommend the Pelican Rapids police station highly enough. Ask for Officer Jeff.
March 20, 2017
I woke to two emails from a woman I have not met. I’d submitted a guest post for her blog. Her first email was a thank you and a lockdown on the posting date. Her second was a pile of mean wrapped in hair. She said she’d just read the article I’d submitted, didn’t know who had written it (surely it couldn’t have been me because she’d tracked down the one salvageable sentence to my blog so knew I could write and wanted more of that), said the rest had clearly been written by a “failed academic,” and declared that the last paragraph of the piece (which was my bio) read like an “infomercial,” so I needed to delete that but also, could I send her a bio?
She left me with two options, either to 1) write the article myself, or 2) have someone else write an article about me, because, “Mixing those two modes won't work. After all, I want your work and book to shine, Jess!”
I'm chuckling as I type this. The levels of absurdity (for the record, she actually had a good point about the tone; the rest was crazy cakes). But if you think I was anything but locked in Rage Tower, shooting death rays at my dog, husband, and child (price of admission, folks) after I read that second email, well, thank you for thinking so highly of me.
The Firestarter fury burned itself out within the hour, but it left behind a worm of doubt. Maybe this isn't the right time to write that book I've been dancing around for months…Now here is where it gets interesting for me. I’m 15 books into my career. I know the games I play, how I’ll scuttle into the nearest excuse and hide there, a hermit crab of a human being, comforting myself with the fact that of course I’d work on that book if not for this lovely, formfitting excuse.
But We Get to Play? The book I’m “working on” now? I’ve never gotten so personal in my fiction, and not coincidentally, desperate in my reasons not to write it. The book is Lovely Bones meets Stranger Things, a time travel to Paynesville, Minnesota, 1983, when boys were being abducted and returned but the adults never told us why. It’s an examination of the monsters we all grow up with. It’s mystery and magical realism, nostalgia and freedom. I’ve outlined it every which way but Wednesday, and now, I circle it. Looking for reasons not to write it.
Maybe I should self-publish a Murder-by-the-Month novella and make some quick cash so I can pay for the trip I want to take with my family, and then I’ll write this next book. And I’m going out of country in a couple days. I should wait until I return to dig in. And I have articles to write for my book that’s coming out May 1. That’s time sensitive. I should do that first. And I work too much. I need more time for fun, less time writing. I already have a full-time teaching job, I shouldn’t make writing another job. And maybe I’m not good enough of a writer to…
It’s that last weasel worry that finally woke me up to what I'd been doing, and I have this morning’s email to thank for it (you might want to take a gift-wrapping class, blog lady, but gratitude for the present just the same): Maybe I’m not a good enough writer to…I recognize that old friend. His name is Shame. He masquerades as a fear of failure, or a fear of success, a need to get this one page just right before I can even think about going on to the next one, a million reasons not to begin or not to continue, worry that I’ll waste hundreds of precious hours writing, that people won’t like the book, that they’ll see my imperfection laid bare in my words, or the order of my words, or that they just won't want to see my words.
I imagine that I'll wrestle with Shame at the beginning of every new book I write (he loses his seat at the table around page 100, dunno why), and I'll have to fight myself back to this place each time. Steven Pressfield does a great job naming this crisis of confidence in The War of Art. Anne Lamott offers an antidote in “Shitty First Drafts”--that whole book is a must-read. But here’s what I know, and what I forget with each book: there is only one cure for the shame, and it is this: word count.
The writing is the reward. The writing is the reward. The writing is the reward.p.s. If you feel like donating to my cause, it'd be totally gnarly if you'd post your favorite early-80s memory below--slang, song, TV show, etc. Suggestions on how you overcome the War of Art are also welcome.