Thank you Margaret Atwood

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When I was pregnant with my daughter, a friend warned me not to read The Handmaiden’s Tale. Feeling emotionally tender at the time, I heeded her advice and shelved Margaret Atwood’s iconic work for the future. A few years later, the urge came again. I just needed to read it, even though I was pregnant again with another little girl.

I had a long TBR pile on my bedside table, but The Handmaiden’s Tale demanded to jump the line. So, I dove in. And I enjoyed it. The protagonist’s voice felt both intimate and prophetic as she whispered her story to me.

Then halfway through, on August 1st, I got a phone call. A phone call that changed everything. A massive aneurysm ruptured in my mom’s brain. My mom, my first best friend. I was on the west coast while she was on the east coast. All I could do was wait. Well, wait, panic, meditate, obsessively call for information, attempt to pack a bag, and tell my mom through the ether than I love her completely.

Thanks to good weather, helicopter airlifts, and surgeons willing to take a chance on a severe case, my mom’s brain stopped bleeding late into the night. Now we just needed to wait some more. Would she survive? Would she open her eyes? Would she speak or move again?

Flights booked and bags packed, I laid down that night and tried to get the rest I would need for the coming day. But my mind whipped around trying to understand what had happened and find a way through an unfathomable new reality. I reached over to my bedside table and picked up Atwood’s book. With my friend’s warning echoing in my mind, I second-guessed my impulse. Should I read this now?

But I wanted to be with the woman they called Offred.

Offred’s situation and my own were worlds apart, but this story understood the loss, the fear, the unknown, the confusion, the pain, the crushing aloneness, and even the splinter of hope in my heart. The book held me long enough that I could close my eyes, and then at some point in the early morning hours I found a bit of sleep.

I woke into my unimaginable existence again – but I felt a little stronger.

Against all odds, my mom survived the night, and I finished The Handmaiden’s Tale at her bedside in the ICU. I haven’t picked up another book since. Once my mom opened her eyes and said my name, I wanted to be in every moment. Week after week, my mom continued to endure risk after risk, surgery after surgery, on her journey to recovery.

When I came home, I had a hard time returning to my work. How can I write? What difference does it make? And then I remembered how Margaret Atwood held me in a way that no other could in those desperate moments. So I picked up a pen.

The Public Voice of Women

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Are you among the first women in your family to have a public voice?

I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast, Magic Lessons. In season two, we meet Hope Hill, a poet who wants to take her work into the world, but fear holds her back. Elizabeth Gilbert asks her to make a list of women in her family’s history who never had a public voice and describe the lives of women that brought her into the world at this moment of history.

Hope describes her mother and grandmother as having many children while working full time and being in unhappy marriages to intense, controlling men. Further back, her ancestors were slaves. She is indeed the first woman in her family to have a public voice.

Some of our mothers may have had opportunities to speak—if their race and class allowed and they worked incredibly hard and they survived the harassment. But with a few noteworthy exceptions, our mother’s mothers and beyond hardly stood a chance.

While the waves of feminism in the twentieth century launched many women into the public arena, the effects weren’t broadly inclusive or immediate. We got to vote, but additional rights and cultural change took decades to trickle through society and still don’t reach everyone, but women kept raising their voices louder and louder.

Then, the internet arrived. Blogs, social media, audio and video sharing, and self-publishing gave us reasonable access to a public voice. Gatekeepers, mostly white men, lost their stranglehold. This, along with the continued fight for gender, racial, and LGBTQ equality, birthed a generation finally capable of speaking to the world without excessive barriers.

Feeling the full weight of our place in women’s history knocked me back. So many of us are the first generation of women with a public voice—no pressure or anything.

In this context, Hope Hill’s fear makes a lot of sense. It makes sense that following centuries of belittlement, abuse, and repression, it takes courage to speak our truth. In addition, having a public voice still does not mean we are safe, for speaking out can earn women death threats. Needless to say, Hope Hill is not alone in her apprehension. I feel nervous simply sharing this post. The question, Who am I to make such claims?, repeats in my head as I write, and I brace for rebukes after each paragraph. Did I get everything absolutely correct? Will this offend? Do I sound stupid? I just won’t post this.

Our fear makes sense, but it’s not leading us in the best direction. I am so grateful for Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown, Chimamanda Adichie, Sheryl Sandberg, and other women for broadcasting the unconditional need for our creative voices in the world. They talk about courage, vulnerability, creativity, and feminism in a way that countless women, including myself, crave to hear. They invite us to find our courage to speak to a public audience, for without believing in our own voices, we won’t use them. And the world needs to hear what we have to say.

Just as valuable as sharing our voice is the ability to listen. Now more than ever, we can hear each other without filters. We can hear the strength, the wisdom, the humor, the beauty, and the compassion of women beyond our neighborhood, school, or social circle. By listening, we can see ourselves in countless lives, especially the lives of women of color whose truth has been ignored longer and silenced harder than any other.

As all of this collides—our right to speak, our means to speak, our courage to speak, and our wisdom to listen—power erupts. I believe that the #MeToo movement happened at this time in history because all these things co-occurred (along with a tipping point of misogyny). Women found the courage to speak and listen. The moment was perfectly ripe, the results amazing.

Not everything will be as monumental as #MeToo. Some movements are small. Some creations are purely for the joy of it. Having been silenced for so long, it might feel like we can only speak about the most imperative issues or that there is too much to say, but we have enough breath for all of it. Share your poems, your jokes, your fashion tips, your life’s purpose, your trauma, your vision. What stories will bubble up now that so many voices are free? What tale does your heart want to tell?

As exciting as this is, our chorus is not yet complete. There are still many women in our society that do not have a public voice. Look around to see who is silent in your community. Women in our country without the correct documentation cannot speak up without great risk to their lives, and women around the world still struggle to gain fundamental rights. We can definitely share some of our breath about this.

We have our voice now—what a privilege, an opportunity, a responsibility to share our truth. In addition to #MeToo, what else do we need to claim? What else can we hear from our fellow mothers, sisters, and daughters? Let us garner our courage and make ourselves proud.

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Daily Creative Meditation: Awareness and Intention

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I love my creative time. Yet when I sit down, I often open the New York Times and then my email and maybe even Instagram (and then back to the New York Times).

When I asked myself, why don’t I just sit down and start the work I love? I found that I have some thoughts and feelings in need of recognition. Sometimes I feel tired. Sometimes I feel scared. Sometimes I want a hit of validation.

What I really want is an intentional beginning to my creative time, which for me means becoming aware of these feelings, allowing them, and then refocusing on my intention.

Meditation came to mind as a possible solution. I have meditated for years, but I never thought to combine my mindful and creative worlds…until now.

In meditation, we practice noticing thoughts. We accept them and then redirect the mind, rather than allowing it to be dragged away by distractions. It isn’t about denying our desires and thoughts, instead the practice allows us to choose where we focus our attention.

I searched for a guided meditation for writers. I really wanted something simple without music or sound effects. Since nothing answered my needs, I paired up with my soul sister, Leah Pearlman, and we created our own meditation to help begin creative time.

It’s short and sweet (four minutes), so it doesn’t take much time away from our work, but helps us start in a centered place. The mediation begins, asking us for awareness and allowance of our body, our feelings, and our thoughts in the moment. Then it addresses the big challenges that often make starting hard for us– handling distractions, feeling blocked, and questioning our own creative worth. Wrapping up, it reconnects us with our personal intentions—to create—from our core motivations.

I’ve been using this meditation for the past month and found some surprising outcomes. It didn’t magically focus me on the task at hand each and every day, but, more importantly, it helped me see and honor my emotional needs and creative energy.

During the month I used the meditation, I had set the goal of finishing a draft of my novel. So when I did my very first meditation, I was surprised by my inner response to the question: can you open to the universe of creativity? While my novel topped my to-do list, when I paid attention to my creative energy it was surging in a different direction. The meditation gave me the courage to follow it. A beautiful blog post flowed out in under an hour. I love it when that happens. It feels like magic, but maybe it’s just paying attention and aligning with my creative force.

For the first few weeks, I listened to the meditation everyday at the start of my writing time. Initially, I felt rushed by the brevity of the recording, but as a daily practice I came to really appreciate the swift check-in. Different parts of meditation spoke to me on different days, and it helped me identify what needed my attention. Soon the practice of touching in became a pattern without listening everyday. My mindfulness was primed as I sat down in my writing spot. I would listen to the meditation when I felt scattered as a way to reconnect rather than having a daily requirement.

On a few days, I found that my emotional needs for another activity spoke louder than my intention to create. I needed to rest or connect with a friend. Before this reflective practice, I might have taken these breaks, but not without a heaping dose of self-judgment. By really knowing and honoring my needs, I allowed and enjoyed being “off task” and returned naturally to my creative projects when I was ready. This meditation is not a productivity tool, but a support for self-awareness and connection with the creative force inside us.

Leah and I made our mediation available on YouTube, for those that might want to try it out. If starting your creative time on the internet doesn’t sound supportive, I am also happy to send you an mp3 file as a thank you for signing up to my newsletter. We hope you enjoy it.

For the Love of Reading: Classic vs. Contemporary

I always thought I was a slow reader.

In school, I learned to comprehend and analyze great literature. I also learned that reading was tedious. It took me all summer to make it through the assigned lists and hours upon hours after school during the year.

My ‘slow reader’ identity stuck with me all through grad school and into my professional life. It wasn’t until I took a real vacation and went to the beach that I discovered the amazing pleasure of reading. Apparently, I read quite fast—when I love the book.

I realized that The Babysitters Club was the last piece of fiction I chose for myself until adulthood. I missed out on so much joy. I wish I had graduated middle school or high school with the love of reading in addition to my literary analysis skills. I wish I had found books that held my heart and kept me company as I grew up.

Profound works that stand the test of time are critical for a solid education. I don’t want kids to lose Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. And I wonder if helping kids learn to love reading might be more foundational, since if they love reading they might pick up even more great novels on their own.

Looking into the history of young adult literature, I discovered that there was a bit of a dip in the genre around the 90s, right when I would have been looking for this content. Since then, YA lit experienced a golden age and blossomed across categories. There are books about basketball playing poets, cancer patients falling in love, best friend spies and pilots in World War Two. I can’t thank all of the YA authors enough for writing and writing and writing.

Unlike the classics, these books are contemporary, and, maybe more importantly, they center on characters much closer to the age of a YA reader. They still embody the great themes—death, betrayal, atrocity, love—but they might be more relatable to the reader. In addition, the authors of exemplar texts are predominantly old white men. While there is still an aching need for diversity in YA, kids have a much better shot of finding a character or an author that looks like them. And when the book lines up with the reader just right, it might spark that magical, mystical, incredible spark that sets her or him up for a lifetime of reading.

I am making up for lost time now. I devour a book a week. I proudly read all the coming of age stories and high school romances that I missed out on. And I don’t think I’m alone. I know so many adults who fell back in love with the written word after reading Harry Potter or Twilight or The Hunger Games.

Teachers, librarians, administrators, and parents—keep making space for your kids to discover a book that might light them up. Thank you for pointing the way. YA authors—keep filling the bookshelves with words that reach deep into our hearts. Contributing a book to the world that may help people come to love reading is an invaluable gift. Young Adults—let me know if you need a good book to rip through.

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How I Became a Writer

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Some people came into this world knowing what they want to do or be.

We hate these people.

No, not really. (Maybe a little).

The rest of us haven’t always known our purpose. Maybe we have a guiding idea but don’t know how to translate it into an action, or maybe we have so many ideas we don’t know how to pick, or maybe we have no idea at all.

I spent the first decade of my adult life training as a nurse and scientist. This felt as right as it could until I looked up and saw that even if I was as successful as I could be, it wasn’t the life I wanted. That was very hard to accept after years of intensive training and heavy expectations. I didn’t know until I knew. And once I knew, I had to leave. So if I wasn’t a scientist then what was I?

Using our savings, my partner and I moved across country. We landed in the Bay area, and I tried everything. I farmed, I protested, I coded, I cooked, I designed, I organized, but I still didn’t know. And I desperately wanted to know. Oh how I envied the people that knew their calling to their core, but there was no clear signal in my heart. After a summer of exploring, I started to panic.

I took a break and went to the beach. I used to read journal articles with my feet in the sand, but I heard that normal people read novels. I couldn’t quite remember the last time I let myself read for pleasure. But once I started, I could not stop. I wanted to live inside the fictional worlds I found. Now some people say that, but I really meant it. I felt like I belonged in books. I read. All. Day. Long. Some books I just looped through, over and over again, refusing to leave.

The only thing that finally brought me out of my reading frenzy was the idea to write my own book. I opened up my laptop and started chapter one of my first novel.

But I couldn’t make it as easy as that. Even as I continued to write, I refused it as a vocation. Writing fiction, don’t be ridiculous. Writing is not a real career. Making up stories doesn’t add value to the world. So I continued my search. I craved a sense of identity. What should I do? I tried more things. I foraged, I researched, I volunteered, I knit. I even considered going back to science.

I finally reached a breaking point. I wanted to commit to something, and I just needed to pick a horse and ride it. I leaned on my analytic skills (maybe that’s the reason I got a PhD, ha!). I opened up Excel and made a matrix. I listed my values along the top row: justice, beauty, kindness, family, things like that. Along the side, I listed out all the potential jobs I’d consider. At the very last moment, I threw “writer” on the list.  Then I assigned a number from 1 to 5, indicating how much each potential career fulfilled each value. I totaled the rows. Writing received the highest score. Wait, really? Writing? And because I’m a nerd and really needed to be sure I also ranked the values and produced a ranked score. Writing won again.

I felt a little scared. This is not how I conceptualized myself.

My partner offered a solution. Try it. Write. Commit for three months and stop asking the question “what should I do?” and just do it. This was powerful for me. Trying something new and edgy is hard when you question the whole enterprise every other day. With the financial support of my partner, I committed (just for three months). I let myself write all day long. And when I questioned myself, I looked at the date circled on the calendar and said I can consider all my doubts then.

Eventually I doubted less and wrote more. I didn’t even realize when the three months had ended. I didn’t need to return to the spreadsheet. I still had no idea why writing resonated with me. I still wondered where this vocation came from, but I knew that I didn’t want to do anything else.

People ask me, “How did I choose writing?” It’s strange to say, but I think that writing choose me. Looking back, I see that three things had an important impact on my discovery: the ability to walk away from a career and identity that didn’t bring me joy, giving myself the chance to try all the things, and committing to something I loved in the face of doubt.

Doubt has returned countless times in my writing journey. Apparently doubt is a defining characteristic of a writer. But I just can’t stop. I tried, but I returned over and over again to writing.

I wish I knew, “Why writing?” I still ask myself that. It’s not something I imagined choosing. It’s not something I designed. Even without understanding it fully, I commit because I can’t hardly help it.

Some people came into this world knowing what they want to do or be. Others have the creative adventure of discovering it along the way.

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Who am I?

Who am I? As a writer for young adults, this is a core question in my work. My protagonists strive page after page for the answer. So I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that I keep asking the same thing of myself.

It’s a ginormous question. Even after several drafts, I still can’t put my finger on the solution for some characters. They don’t want to be plopped into a trope: “Nice to meet you. I am the brooding loner with a heart of gold.” But I also need to succinctly move them along a story arc towards greater understanding of themselves and their world.

I’ve been around for over three decades, and I am still asking, Who am I? After each life milestone, I thought I would have the answer. And then when I thought I finally had it, I got it wrong. I’m a nurse! I’m a scientist! I’m an activist! I’m a fiction writer? All these shifts got to be embarrassing. When people asked what I do at a party, I would give a respectably vague answer (aka a lie), “I’m a consultant.” After writing fiction for five years now, I give the courageous answer, “I am a writer.” But the question, Who am I?, still niggles me.

This is the third blog that I’ve started. I resisted writing directly about myself because I didn’t know how to pull all the pieces of me under one idea and what if the answer changes again. I kept waiting for a sense of stability. And in some ways dedicating half a decade to an endeavor is stability, but I still feel so full of possibility.

I am starting to understand why this question is so wiggly. Because people grow. I grow. Identity is something that evolves and evolves. Maybe that’s why so many adults enjoy YA. It’s a chance to revisit the question with vitality and optimism that gets wrung out of us over the years. The evolution of my identity isn’t a result of flippancy or indecision, as many damaging tropes of young women might suggest, but conscious reflection. Each identity, each blog that came before this informed these words. Instead of shame over an evolving identity, I am choosing to celebrate it as a sign of my growth.

But there is something deeply comforting about having a global understanding of who you are and what you stand for in the world. And then sharing that idea in few words. I imagine it’s like having a developmental itch scratched. So I made a list of my passions: writing, books, creativity, feminism, love, spirituality. But I couldn’t pick just one to blog about so I began searching for my unifying theme. A theme is an idea that a writer repeats in her literary work. I know how to write theme, so I could find the theme I’m living.

The answer is me. I am what all these concepts have in common. This is who I am. The word authenticity bubbled up. Authenticity, the degree to which one is true to one’s spirit or character despite external pressure. Or the quality of being who I am. Standing as me.

And again, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that this theme encapsulates my protagonist’s journey too (but it still surprised me). This journey of finding and being one’s true self is what I am focusing on right now. In writing, the way to rise above tropes and create an authentic character is to embrace all her flaws, her quirks, her fears, her desires (even the edgy ones, strike that, especially the edgy ones). So I will embrace all of myself here in my writing under the theme of authenticity.

I hope you enjoy it, but it’s okay if you don’t.

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