Stepping Away from the Blog

The good writer seems to be writing{A photo I took on one of our hikes on Mt. Rainer.}
 

I read a piece in The New Yorker online recently by an author I deeply admire. In it, she spoke of how social media – with its ease of sharing, the way it encourages us to gloss over and digest large quantities of information, its impersonal nature – is threatening a writer’s ability to think through and reflect upon his or her life. Will we ever really connect with our readers if we’re so wired to spit out episodes of our life in 140-characters?

We’re all so busy lately. Constantly plugged in. The week before we went on our summer vacation I found myself noticing that it’s been so long since I was last able to sit down and do nothing. Other than the three minutes it takes me to fall asleep after I crawl into bed, hours after everyone else in my house has. And even then I have a to-do list of things still waiting for me running through my head before I nod off. Life is so damn non-stop these days. Dani Shapiro is right – most times these little bits of our life are dashed off on social media to efficiently inform our entire networks. What ever happened to picking up the phone? And why does the entire world need to need to know what we ate for lunch?

We’re such a distracted society. I often find myself thinking back to when my son was a baby (he turns 6 next month) and how people in my life barely used Facebook, Instagram wasn’t born yet, and Twitter was just a toddler. I spent more time on the living room carpet playing with my child than I did on my phone and laptop combined. The ipad wasn’t even an element in the equation in our household yet. Sadly, I can’t say the same today. I know I only have myself to blame.

My blog turned 3 this month. Three years of my life written out in blog posts, shared on the vast interwebs by clicking “publish.” I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in three solid, fairly consistent years of blogging. And I’m in awe of the incredible connections I’ve made in this virtual world, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person, who I’ve built lasting friendships with.

The time just feels right to take a step back from this space. I’m not calling it a break because I may get the burning desire to hop back on here and share my perspective on one thing or another. But at this moment my heart is telling me if I put more energy and time into reflecting on the story I want to tell – this memoir living inside me – I’ll become a stronger writer during the process.

One of my idols in the literary world, Cheryl Strayed, wrote a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. When she signed my copy at the Wild Mountain Memoir Writers’ Retreat, she wrote this:

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The red-cover collection of letters, her advice on life, love, loss and humanity will blow you away. Cheryl’s inscription refers to her response as the advice columnist Dear Sugar, to the final letter captured in her book. A twenty-two year old had written Sugar to ask one simple question: What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?

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Cheryl may have inscribed all the copies of Tiny Beautiful Things the other writers in line handed her with the same note, because it’s rock solid advice from a writer who’s been there. The essay she wrote when she replied to “Seeking Wisdom” included the following paragraph:

“Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.”

I know my book has a birthday. It’s coursing through my veins. It permeates my thoughts countless times a day. It’s a part of me and I need to nurture it and develop it and give it wings by first doing the work of practicing to fly. I need to practice my writing with pen and paper and my thoughts and crickets chirping when everyone has gone to sleep and the house is quiet. Staying focused is something I’ve never been that great at. I’m recognizing this now and in recognizing this I’m also realizing that surfing Facebook does not contribute to a page count of my memoir. I want to find discipline in my writing practice to reach my dreams and I know I can do it.

I’ll be posting here less and will be writing more by hand with my flowy, fast pen and my favorite notebooks anxiously awaiting words to fill them up. If anything happens to be born from this more focused writing, I promise to share it with you here. I’ll still be tweeting and Instagramming and taking Facebook breaks only once I’ve put in my writing time for the day offline. I hope to continue to write for What to Expect.com, PostpartumProgress.com, and the International Bipolar Foundation, in addition to running our non-profit, This Is My Brave, Inc., with my creative partner Anne Marie Ames.

I’ve been thinking of doing something like this for a few months, and am thankful I finally listened to my gut and the wise advice of two brilliant writers I look up to. This isn’t goodbye, it’s only so long for now. I hope by shifting my priorities from blogging to practicing the discipline of writing, that I’ll be able to wait, as Dani Shapiro describes, “for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself in time.”

 

Ten Reasons I’m Thankful I Went to Wild Mountain

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Back on November 15th of last year, I took a deep breath as I clicked the “Complete Transaction” button to send in my initial deposit on the last day of early bird pricing for the first ever Wild Mountain Memoir Writer’s Retreat in Leavenworth, Washington. I told myself it would be okay as I exhaled slowly. I didn’t exactly know how I’d pay for the entire trip, but I did have a part-time job that provided a steady stream of additional income, so I figured we would make it work. Somehow. Besides, I had asked for my husband’s blessing before going ahead to book my ticket. He was 100% supportive, as always.

Little did I know just how much of an impact this writer’s retreat would have on my work, let alone on who I am as a person in general. It’s a little unreal how much a beautiful resort, jaw-dropping scenery, incredibly brilliant and inspiring published authors as instructors and presenters, fresh organic gourmet food, and vivacious, supportive, funny and highly social attendee writers can impact one’s sense of purpose in the world. But, man, I can honestly say that I came home a more empowered writer and person in general.

In January I booked my flight using frequent flier miles we had been saving up for a rainy day. (The retreat was in Seattle, I take that as a sign from up above for many reasons, rain being one.) I decided to take an early flight out on Thursday before the retreat, in order to give myself an entire day and a half to settle in and adjust somewhat to the 3-hour time change before the retreat officially started on Friday evening. That proved to be one of the best decisions I made in booking the trip. I had a great flight out to Seattle from DC, and enjoyed the next 24 hours relaxing, exploring the resort, and writing while listening to Ed Sheeran’s new album on repeat before the rest of the retreat-goers arrived on Friday night at 5:30pm.

 

Then it got wild.

 

Here are my Ten Reason’s I’m Thankful I Went to Wild Mountain:

10. A mountain resort set withing the picturesque and uber-relaxing Cascades Mountains. I seriously was in complete awe of the beauty that surrounded us the entire weekend. From the snow-capped mountains to the bubbling waterfall with it’s soothing melody. It was the perfect setting for writing, reading, and learning.

9. The food was simply incredible. Top-of-the-line gourmet, organic, fresh and delicious. I fed my body just as well as I fed my writer’s soul last weekend.

8. A break from the reality and stress of everyday life. I packed for an adventure, and it was one heck of a ride from start to finish. I’m still glowing from the whole of it all.

7. Community. From the moment I met my roommate, Natalie, to the last hug goodbye at the airport, for forty-eight hours I was wrapped in a sense of comfort knowing that I was surrounded by my people. My tribe, as I like to call them. Writers who write and who truthfully share their stories for the greater good of people who read them.

6. Hands-on instruction from rock-star authors who so generously and passionately offered up their best knowledge on the craft of memoir writing. Techniques, tips, and tidbits of advice were wrapped with gorgeous bows for us. I am so very grateful to Ariel Gore, Candace Walsh, Suzanne Finnamore, and Theo Pauline Nestor (and Scott, for encouraging her to just go for it and host the retreat) for making the magic happen. Sitting next to Cheryl Strayed after her keynote address (written specifically for us) was a dream come true. She took her time in signing my three books and gave me a hug at the end. She is so amazing. My favorite piece of wisdom from her talk was to write until you find the bigger picture. I learned that I need to find a universal thread for my memoir in order to make it a book which many people will want to read. I’m happy to report that I think I found that universal thread during Theo’s two classes and I can’t wait to start sewing my story together with it.

5. Meeting a blogger who I deeply admire and respect. The witty and beautiful Ann Imig won the Writer.ly 6-word memoir contest and received a scholarship to attend the conference. Ann is the brainchild behind Listen To Your Mother, “a national of live readings by local writers in celebration of Mother’s Day,” which was born in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and has grown to 24 cities this year. I was so honored to have met and gotten to know her over the weekend and am now privileged to call her a friend.

4. Feeling like I was back in college again. The resort had a cabin set-up, and each cabin had between one to four beds, so we were grouped based on the package we selected. I chose a room with one roommate and was so perfectly matched with Nat, who ended up becoming my best friend at the retreat solely based on the fact that she and I just “clicked“. On Saturday afternoon, she wrote in our free time, and ended up reading me what she wrote, to which I promptly replied, “Nat, that’s your first blog post right there.” We spent the rest of the break before dinner creating her very own blog, It Will Never Happen 2 Me, and then went to the bar for a celebratory drink. So fun to be a blog instructor for a few hours.

3. Cheaper than an MFA. I think I heard this phrase mentioned more than once during the retreat. I’m pretty happy about that right there, given my love of a good deal and my admitted regret to having wished I studied Creative Writing as an undergrad.

2. I left the retreat emotionally and physically exhausted, and yet, I was more energized and inspired than ever before. I couldn’t wait to get home to start writing again, to apply all of the incredible things I learned. I even wrote on the red-eye home because I was so uncomfortable in that damn window seat. Some of it is actually usable material, which is surprisingly fantastic.

1. New friends. I gained an unbelievable community of like-minded, highly intelligent, encouraging, fun-loving people. We’re blowing up Facebook these days, if you haven’t noticed. And I’m sure it’ll continue. We’re serious writers and we’re keeping in touch. I can’t wait until we all get published and get to have a Wild Mountain reunion to celebrate all of our accomplishments.

What a weekend. I changed. My book changed.

And this is only the beginning, folks.

Mini book review: Perfect Chaos by Linea Johnson & Cinda Johnson

Book description from Amazon.com:
 
A dual memoir of a mother’s and daughter’s triumph over mental illness.
 
The Johnsons were a close and loving family living in the Seattle area – two parents, two incomes, two bright and accomplished daughters. They led busy lives filled with music lessons, college preparation, career demands, and laughter around the dinner table. Then the younger daughter, Linea, started experiencing crippling bouts of suicidal depression. Multiple trips to the psych ward resulted in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it took many trial runs of drugs and ultimately electroshock therapy to bring Linea back. But her family never gave up on her. And Linea never stopped trying to find her way back to them.
 
Perfect Chaos is the story of a mother and daughter’s journey through mental illness towards hope. From initial worrying symptoms to long sleepless nights to cross-country flights and the slow understanding and rebuilding of trust, Perfect Chaos tells Linea and Cinda’s harrowing and inspiring story, of an illness that they conquer together every day. It is the story of a daughter’s courage, a mother’s faith, and the love that carried them through the darkest times.

 

My mother-in-law recently heard Linea and Cinda Johnson’s interview on NPR. She was captivated by the story of a young woman (Linea) who, not unlike her daughter-in-law, had fought a brutal fight with bipolar disorder. (And is winning the battle, I might add.) The book is told by the teenager who rapidly cycles between major depression and extreme mania and her mother who is torn apart by the crippling feeling of being so many miles away from her daughter when she needs her most.

Being so moved by the interview, my sweet mother-in-law immediately ran out and bought the book. I received it this past Friday and devoured it in two days. (I would have read it faster, but you know, with two little ones running around demanding food and water at times, I had to take breaks.)

 

Was it tough to read at times? Yes. Did it remind me of my manic episodes and hospitalizations? Yes. Did it make me cringe when I read Cinda’s accounts of what she and her husband went through to figure out what was going on with their incredibly talented younger daughter because those are some of the same emotions that I’m sure ran through my parent’s minds as they struggled for understanding when I first got sick? YES.

 

But I loved it so much. It made me want to tell all my friends and family to go buy it right now and read it. Read it so you’ll understand what I went through. Read it so you will understand what my family was dealing with when I was sick. Read it so you’ll know what an incredible husband I was lucky enough to marry. Read it so that you’ll have a better understanding of mental illness. Please. Read it.

 

There were so many parts of the book that made me whisper, “it was that way for me, too,” and “her time in the hospital sounds just like how my time in the nuthouse went.”

 

Here is the review I wrote on Barns & Noble and GoodReads.com:

This book is an amazing recollection of the trauma and stress a family
goes through when their daughter is suffering from and is ultimately
diagnosed with a mental illness. It takes you day by day through their
raw emotions and fragile feelings, so much so, that you feel as though
you are right there with them, fighting as hard as they were to keep
Linea alive and stable. Their story hits home hard for me, as it is
strikingly similar to my own. Reading Cinda’s words was difficult for
me, as I couldn’t help but think that those were the same emotions and
fears that my own parents experienced when I was first hospitalized. I
related so strongly to Linea’s descriptions of what her mind was
thinking during her darkest times. I would recommend this book to
anyone, not just a family dealing with a family member who has a mental
illness. It provides an insightful education to a normal person on what
someone who lives with a mental illness goes through and how support
from friends and family can mean the difference between life and death.

 

I am so proud of them for standing up and telling their stories. It is a goal of mine to someday share my story too. Reading their book made me even more excited to finish mine. Linea’s story is so incredible to me because she is so brave.

 

I want to be brave like Linea. I want to bare my soul to the world someday because I want people to know that mental illness is real and sometimes scary, but that it is possible to be a successful, loving, fun, caring, and healthy person even when you have a diagnosis like bipolar disorder. A great mom, even. I am.

So. I signed up to attend a writer’s conference in November. I am thrilled. It’s going to be just the kick-in-the-ass I need to finally finish my manuscript so that I can query literary agents.

I’ll get there someday. I’ll attain my dream of becoming a published author. One step at a time.

My manuscript

Sometimes when I think about it, I get all excited to sit down at my computer and start writing again. Especially after receiving feedback from the few individuals who I’ve asked to read it. When they say it’s good, that it’s really good, it motivates me so much.

Then life gets in the way.

Diapers need changed, meals need to be served, baths need to be given, stories need read, little ones need to be tucked in.

And after all that, I’m usually too exhausted to open up my manuscript and write. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, it seems.

 

Do I at least get points for thinking about it? Because I think about it a lot. Usually more than once a day.

Sometimes I think I should sit down and at least outline the major points I hope to cover in this story of living my life as a parent with bipolar disorder. You know, an intro, middle and ending. Tie it up with a neat little bow.

The last person who read it and sent me feedback {incredible, detailed, awesome feedback, let me just say} had a good point: it’s hard to outline the book because it’s not finished yet. I’m still living this life that I am writing about.

Speaking of not being finished. My husband and I are so incredibly grateful to have two precious little ones, a girl and a boy, nonetheless. Sometimes I think we hit the jackpot. Especially since I took medication during my second pregnancy. But I had a surprising feeling emerge after the birth of our daughter.

I don’t think I’m done yet.

Surprising because I had intense morning sickness during her pregnancy. So much so, that I took Zofran for six weeks. I had early contractions that sent me to the hospital for monitoring overnight, not once, but twice before she was born. I had awful heartburn almost daily, a bladder that constantly felt as if it were going to explode, and a good night’s sleep was distant, distant memory.

But the day after she was born, I knew I could do it again. My husband used to say that he always wanted to have three kids. He and I were both the product of 2-kid families, and I could see his interest in maybe adding another to the mix, but I thought I only wanted two myself. After we found out she was a girl I proclaimed we were done. Then she arrived and I instantly forgot about all the discomfort that the pregnancy caused.

I think you just have that feeling as a woman. You know when you are done and when you’re not. And I don’t think I’m done yet, plain and simple.

Know it or not, we’re not planning on crossing that bridge yet. And so the story isn’t truly finished yet. If we do go on to have another child, one thing is for sure: I will continue on Lithium during the entire pregnancy. There is an increased risk of a heart defect, but the benefit of my staying on medication – the medication that works so well for me – vastly outweighs the risk of taking the medication during a pregnancy, for me. For me, and the experience I’ve had thus far, it’s a no-brainer.

So for now, I will go to the manuscript from time to time to tweak and write, but my focus at the moment will be this blog and reaching people through this medium. There are so many ways to reach people, and I hope one day to be in print, but right now I think that one of the best ways is through blogging about my journey.

I will blog on.