Revisiting: When Book Tour Becomes Time Travel

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A stunning walk in Laguna Beach

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Beyond Admissions: The Campus Novel

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I sat on a panel last weekend at the Boston Book Festival with three incredible authors of recent releases to discuss “The Campus Novel.” Long-held favorites in American literature, campus novels are set in academia with protagonists coming of age among a variety of pressures. Schools, after all, have long provided ripe settings in literature — think THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE by Patrick Conroy. They are convenient microcosms, mysterious islands unto themselves with specific codes of conduct and traditions. If a writer’s primary objective is to ‘world-build,’ then campuses provide a great head start.

the-nine-campus-novel-by-jeanne-blasbergIn addition to my novel, THE NINE, the Boston Book Festival panel included CJ Farley with his novel AROUND HARVARD SQUARE, Mona Awad and BUNNY, and Elizabeth Ames who wrote THE OTHER’S GOLD. While THE NINE is set on a fictional boarding school campus, AROUND HARVARD SQUARE and THE OTHER’S GOLD are set on college campuses, and BUNNY portrays one young woman’s experience in an MFA program. Our moderator, Lisa Borders, kicked off the discussion with the ways we had each spun this recognizable genre, however, CJ Farley was quick to point out that the four novels, with regard to subject matter at least, were more similar than different.

the-others-gold-campus-novel-by-elizabeth-amesThere was head nodding on the stage. We were, he continued, all dwelling on the theme of exclusivity and groups — whether cliques of friends, societies (secret and otherwise). Our protagonists are disheartened as they meet continuous tests of acceptance inside their respective academic settings. And while our young heroes and heroines may have been conflicted about these groups at first, they ultimately wanted in. Whereas one (a parent for instance) may have assumed gaining admission to the likes of Harvard was success in itself, our characters are disheartened with the continuous tests of acceptance that are set out before them. BUNNY and THE OTHER’S GOLD are interesting in their deep dive into the world of female friendship and the intense bonds (for better or worse) that are created on campuses during early adulthood. After touching on the theme of acceptance, loyalty and betrayal were obvious follow-ups in all of our novels.


Confessions of a Boarding School Mom: Let Someone Else Play Bad Cop

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teen-boy-and-girl-by-bonfire-confessions-of-boarding-school-momThe school year may have just begun, but many families are already in the process of thinking about “the next school.” If that consideration includes boarding school, read on. Even though my recent novel, The Nine, portrays a mother’s harrowing experience as her son navigates boarding school, I still believe boarding is worth considering. While scheduling interviews, touring campuses, and filling out applications, there’s an additional data point I’d like to offer.

First, I should say that although we had three children attend three different boarding schools, I wasn’t always keen on letting my children leave home. When my future husband first told me he had attended boarding school, I was surprised. “So what’d you do wrong?” I asked. You see, I attended a large public high school in Southern California and assumed anyone who’d been “sent away” had been a problem child. He explained that a rigorous boarding school outside Boston had been his choice. Twenty years later, boarding would be our children’s choice as well (although none of them would choose my husband’s alma mater.) It was new territory for me, and I had to come to grips with the separation, the distance, and the changes to our relationship.

I’d also have to come to grips with rule books, signing pledges that I would support the policies which could fill up inch-thick tomes.

We’d drop our kids off freshman year, preaching a strict adherence to the various rules. Administrations were notoriously inflexible, and did not accommodate rule bending or extenuating circumstances. And even though our kids heeded our warnings for the most part, there came a time, somewhere toward the end of junior year or the beginning of senior year when my husband and I would suck in our breath each time the phone rang, wondering if our luck had run out.

What had once represented independence as a fourteen year old felt confining once they were eighteen, like cartoon characters with smoke exploding from their ears, I could sense they were also ready to blow. Besides, we’d seen a lot by then — one of our children’s disciplinary hearing, as well as seemingly minor offenses by schoolmates that came with serious consequences. Then there were kids who committed similar offenses but received drastically different punishments. We’d seen administrators with a range of temperaments, and rules broken due to misunderstanding rather any intent to do something wrong. It could feel, often times, inconsistent and confusing.woman-checking-phone-call-from-kids

My stomach would drop, speaking to our sons or daughter on the phone each week as they reported a new crop of disciplinary cases announced at all-school assemblies. So, our mantra became, “If you need to misbehave, come home.” This was an obvious departure from the rules-enforcing parents we’d started out as, but boarding school brought about a shift — a desire to avoid what seemed like the inevitable.

Boarding school turned us into our kid’s cover, creating a sort of good cop, bad cop dynamic. The schools could play the heavy so we didn’t have to, and as such, we found ourselves on the same side of the law as our children. While this required walking a fine line, there were definite upsides to our relationships with our kids. They would confide in us more because we weren’t the ones coming down with the blanket rules. Of course we were busy setting other expectations, but when it came to curfews, parties, or spending time with the opposite sex, we were now viewed as reasonable. Imagine that!

parenting-teen-boy-boarding-schoolThere are certain times in a child’s life when you want to lock them in a padded room for about six months– sort of like when they are learning to walk and every sharp-edged piece of furniture is an opportunity to take an eye out. The end of high school years felt like that for me. Why do the stakes have to feel so high!?!

This parenting dynamic isn’t one that’s often talked about openly — who wants to admit to being permissive, to being lenient? Then again, who wants to be the enforcer for four straight years? I can’t say being their ally was optimal; and it was hard to shift gears into disciplinarian during the summer months, but boarding school may have improved our relationships with our children. Their schools were more strict than we could ever be, and we were glad not to be in the position of policing their every move. Relieved of that duty, we could talk to them like the adults they were blossoming into, about making choices, accepting consequences, and the benefits of healthy behavior. It might seem like a slim silver lining, but as my kids have grown into young adults they know they can always confide in us and we will respond with reason.


The Kids, The Parents, and The Campus

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backpackWhen parents of teens gather, the conversation offer turns to what’s going on with the kids, which schools they attend or have attended. I’m not bringing this up to bash parents for being “too involved” or pile on more evidence that an admissions-driven obsession is dragging our culture into cheating scandals and worse. Rather, I believe the majority of parental chatter is in the vein of seeking solace, a sympathetic ear, the relief of sharing war stories, maybe finding humor.

Because my husband and I have three adult children who survived the college process and attended three different high schools, we’re often asked for advice. We’ve been through it: from a child dealing with the disciplinary committee at boarding school to one who inadvertently filled out all the wrong bubbles on the SAT answer sheet. From athletic recruiting myths to failing driving tests, to searching for tutors, we commiserate over the roller coaster ride and the gray hairs it’s given us. We are asked how we handled a host of things, but most of the questions revolve around the schools. Which schools were we most impressed with and, if we had it to do over again, which schools would we be drawn to?

teen-boy-student-studying-aloneI’ve learned that many of the things we aspire to for our children, ourselves even, never quite live up to all the allure. Even with the “best” schools, it’s wise to approach them with a ‘roses and thorns” attitude. Over time, beautiful campuses lose their luster, weak links in the faculty are exposed, and the leadership proves less than perfect.

Campuses are, after all, microcosms, concentrates of society set apart from the real world. Unfortunately, the characters in charge have been guilty of covering up scandal over the years in an effort to keep up the mystique and prestige. The result has been damaged young lives. Although most of the sexual misconduct that’s recently been exposed happened decades ago, it’s naïve to assume such behavior has ceased altogether. What’s more, attention to these revelations has been blurred among the many discredited institutions in the news. Our nation is experiencing record disillusionment with regard to big business, the military, the federal government, the church, local police forces, health care. The question isn’t so much how we stomach the scandals at our nation’s illustrious schools, but how are we stomaching all of it?

teen-boys-skateboard-outside-schoolThe exposure and re-hashing of wrong-doing is painful but necessary. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team shining a light on pedophiles and their victims at New England private schools was the beginning of a recovery, just as it was for the Catholic Church reeling from the crimes committed by priests. The #MeToo movement that is shaking business and government is disappointing to witness, but is the only way to usher in a new standard. We’ve been living through a void in leadership on many fronts, but I have confidence in the next generation. Upcoming leaders have been raised with intolerance for bad behavior and insistence on transparency and accountability. In the digital age there will be no more secrets and no more ivory towers. The reckoning has come and I’m optimistic that once the shake out is over, the schools, along with the rest of our integral institutions, will be better for it.

So, my advice to younger parents is to approach educational choices with a good dose of realism. A school and its reputation are not going to provide your child with the golden ticket to anything. That’s the marketing we’ve swallowed for many years. Hannah Webber, the mother and main character in my recently released novel, The Nine (She Writes Press, August 2019), gushes over her only son’s acceptance to a prestigious academy. The novel is a commentary on her parenting “tragedy”, her shattered dreams, her ivy-league plans dashed. Hannah puts so much faith in a brand name education being the answer, readers can’t help but sense the disappointment lurking on the horizon.

girl-student-studying-aloneWhen our eldest child was an adolescent, I may have resembled Hannah Webber (just a little). The advice I now give, however, the entire message behind the The Nine in fact, is tempered with perspective and a touch of heartache. It’s not the choices you make as a parent that are most important, but the reasons you make them. Practice acceptance, forgiveness, and love with your children (and yourself as well). Schools won’t be perfect and neither will our children. And as you must be aware if you’ve been at this a while, as parents, we are the most imperfect of all.


Let Them Make Mistakes: Parenting Teens in the 21st Century


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The best medicine I found for easing the anxiety of parenting boundary-pushing teenagers was remembering my own risky behavior at their age.…

“One of you has got to call your parents,” said the officer at the Palm Springs police department. We’d been rounded up and taken in when the party we were hoping to attend spilled out into the street. We were all underage but the other kids we knew had parents or grandparents in town, or at least adults who would vouch for them. Jessie, Tina, Sarah, and I, however, had driven to the desert on a lark. FOMO wasn’t an acronym in 1982, but we had a bad case of it. Everyone who was anyone at Newport Harbor High was spending spring break in Palm Springs, a place I had never been before, having recently transplanted from suburban New York.

A totally unstructured April vacation was the culprit. Four girls left alone with nothing to do. The week stretched out in front of us and after way too much daytime TV, we spent Thursday at Disneyland, going not for the typical reasons, but to make mischief. We’d jump off the Snow White ride inside the dark tunnel and try to dislodge as many poisoned apples as possible. We’d scare little kids and their parents in the process, sometimes hopping onto unsuspecting laps in order to dodge security guards. Eventually bored with Snow White, we took over a table at the snack bar and started flinging ketchup-laden French fries at each other, concocting a new plan.

“We can take my car,” Jessie said.

“We can sleep on a golf course,” said Sarah.

teen-girls-laughing-on-car-road-tripSo, I told my parents I’d be spending the night at Tina’s, and the others told similar lies. We packed bathing suits, hairbrushes and makeup and set off on the two-hour drive to Palm Springs. Despite the care we took making up our faces and curling our hair, five hours later, after a brief thirty minutes at the party, we were loaded into a paddy wagon.

I drew the short straw, and picked up the receiver to call my parents at the officer’s request. My father answered, fuming when I told him that I was with three friends at the Palm Springs police department and asked if he could come get us. After a few moments of stunned disbelief, he let me have it. I held the receiver a distance from my ear, shaking my head in my friends’ direction. “Not happening anytime soon.” I announced, hanging up.

Jessie called her mom next. Instead of grimacing like I had, she continued in a soft voice. After a little bit of explanation, she actually started giving her mother directions to the station. She even hung up with a smile. Maybe it was bad luck that my father answered the phone, but I couldn’t imagine my mother taking the news any better.

Jessie’s mom, Jane, however, arrived several hours later, announcing that since it was Friday and we already in Palm Springs, we might as well make a weekend of it. Hoots of delight erupted from the back seat as she pulled away from the curb. I went along with the enthusiasm, all the while anticipating the fallout when I next called my father, “Good news! I’m out of jail, but I’ll be hanging out at the Desert Marriott for a few more days.” He was going to have lots of time to stew over my punishment.

At the hotel, we put on our bikinis then found chaises poolside, aiming to recover from our missed night’s sleep. Jane took time primping in the room before appearing on the pool deck in high heels, a cover-up, and movie-star sunglasses. She distanced herself from us a bit, finding a chaise by the poolside bar.

teen-girl-alone-looking-for-friends-in-desertWhen I woke up, I had a blistering sunburn on my back and Jane had scored a dinner date with a guy named Bill. She’d end up spending all of Sunday with him as well. The romance continued and not long after, back in our beach town, Bill would become Jessie’s stepfather.

A few months later, as the sting of being permanently grounded was fading, I mentioned the pending nuptials to my father over dinner. I chuckled that the “weekend in Palm Springs” had a silver lining after all. He shook his head and muttered something between bites about getting me out of there, about the type of friends I was making.

He should have given me more credit. He should have known that I understood sneaking off to Palm Springs was a bad idea. New to the school and desperate for friends, I remember weighing the pros and cons and deciding to go anyway. I hadn’t enjoyed the weekend at the Marriott, knowing how upset my parents were at home. I learned that I never wanted to go to jail again or suffer my father’s disappointment. I would think for a long time about his response to my phone call as well as Jane’s, and even as a sixteen- year-old, was determined to land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum if I had kids someday.

teen-boys-laughing-on-mountainI’ve never caught my kids in that type of lie, but we’ve had our moments. As parents, we can make ourselves crazy trying to prevent bad behavior entirely. The important thing to impart on our children is that while dumb choices are inevitable, so are the consequences. I miss the days when kids had space to make their own choices, good and bad, to learn what it feels like to make a mistake. Unfortunately, unlike in 1982, today’s parents operate under the assumption their kids can’t afford to make any mistakes at all. I don’t know how our culture adopted this zero-tolerance policy, but I don’t agree with it. It might be one of the scarier tests of parenting faith, but humans on the verge of adulthood need to test limits. My parents may have gotten mad as hell, but at least they let me screw up, and in its own weird way, that was a meaningful demonstration of love too.

‘Sacred Sto­ries as Metaphor’: Retelling of Bib­li­cal Tales

This post was originally published by the Jewish Book Council.


jeanne-blasberg-writing-the-nine-with-dog-brady-based-on-sacred-story-of-hannah-and-samuelMy nov­el, The Nine, will be pub­lished on August 20, and as with my debut, Eden, I took inspi­ra­tion from the Torah in writ­ing it — not in lit­er­al terms, but using our sacred sto­ries as metaphor. I don’t write in an ancient set­ting, but in a mod­ern one. I am a believ­er that the themes in our ancient text con­tin­ue to repeat them­selves to this day, and in that I find some com­fort, as well as res­ig­na­tion, toward what it means to be human.

Judaism pro­vides a beau­ti­ful struc­ture for con­tin­ued learn­ing and study of text. I’ve par­tic­i­pat­ed in many class­es at Tem­ple Israel Boston, includ­ing Mod­ern Midrash with Rab­bi Elaine Zech­er. Not only do the stu­dents around the table dis­cuss the many sacred sto­ries, we point out what’s miss­ing; often times the gaps and voids relate to the woman’s point of view.

One ques­tion that real­ly reared its head for me was regard­ing the sto­ry of Han­nah. She was bar­ren and want­ed a child ter­ri­bly. When she went to the tem­ple, she prayed with such fer­vor that the priest assumed she was drunk. She even­tu­al­ly bore a son and named him Samuel, mean­ing I asked the Lord for him.” When she was pray­ing to God, how­ev­er, she vowed that once her son was weaned she would turn him over to the priest at the temple.

We point out what’s miss­ing; often times the gaps and voids relate to the woman’s point of view.

I was con­sumed by what Hannah’s emo­tions must have been dur­ing this peri­od, hav­ing want­ed a child so bad­ly and only to hold him for such a short peri­od of time. As she had promised God she turned her son over, to the very priest who rebuked her — to me it seemed like the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice. Per­haps this sto­ry struck me so because I stud­ied it at a time when I was also turn­ing my own son over to the world. He was four­teen, but still, in a mod­ern con­text four­teen is just bare­ly weaned! I was turn­ing this son over not to a tem­ple, but to an acad­e­my; not to a priest, but to a head­mas­ter. The insti­tu­tion might’ve been dif­fer­ent, but I was putting my trust in a per­son, a man, an author­i­ty fig­ure, and I had to take a lot on faith.

family-is-sacred-jeanne-blasberg-son-jackI also thought about Han­nah in rela­tion to all women, who are ulti­mate­ly val­ued in terms of fer­til­i­ty, their abil­i­ty to bear chil­dren, and even­tu­al­ly by how right­eous their chil­dren turn out to be. I thought about Han­nah as an ear­ly por­tray­al of a moth­er who had to say good­bye to her son after what is inevitably too short a peri­od of time and is nev­er­the­less judged by her son’s actions.

I took it one step fur­ther out­side the Midrash class. I turned her into a con­tem­po­rary fic­tion­al char­ac­ter who was a well-mean­ing, hard-work­ing woman, from a mod­est back­ground, who over­came infer­til­i­ty and gave birth to a son. She makes him her career. She has great plans, intend­ing to launch him toward even greater endeav­ors. You might call her a heli­copter mom, but she’s not a bad per­son — as that con­no­ta­tion often invokes. She is just very deter­mined that things will go a cer­tain way. She is a believ­er in hard work, study, and earnest­ness and con­se­quent­ly being reward­ed for those traits.

You might call her a heli­copter mom, but she’s not a bad per­son — as that con­no­ta­tion often invokes. She is just very deter­mined that things will go a cer­tain way.

When her son arrives at the revered insti­tu­tion, he gets caught up in a whole new world. She is under the impres­sion he’s going to live out her Ivy League hopes and dreams, but he gets wrapped up in a secret soci­ety and a fast mov­ing crowd. He uncov­ers a crime, and is more con­cerned with doing the right thing and solv­ing the mys­tery than ful­fill­ing his mother’s col­le­giate aspirations.

jeanne-blasberg-family-young-childrenI real­ly enjoyed writ­ing this com­ing of age, cam­pus nov­el, with a strong mater­nal point of view. It can be frus­trat­ing to read Hannah’s char­ac­ter, but in the end many read­ers have com­pas­sion for her and under­stand she only wants what’s best.

I want read­ers to learn Hannah’s les­son with­out hav­ing to make the same mis­takes she did. I can think of nowhere better to look for inspiration in this pursuit than our sacred sto­ries. It is said one can sum­ma­rize the Torah while stand­ing on one foot with the sim­ple phrase, Love thy Neigh­bor.” What Han­nah learns at the end of The Nine is that all the par­ent­ing gospels that once lined her book­shelves could be sum­ma­rized sim­i­lar­ly — it all comes down to love. Love your child, but also love your­self. Don’t use a son or any child to fill your own empti­ness. Par­ent­ing is over in a minute; just appre­ci­ate the mir­a­cle of their being.


Five Publishing Tips from a Sophomore Novelist

This post was originally published on as a part of the #5onFri series.

five-publishing-tips-sophomore-novelist-jeanne-blasberg-diy-mfaAs I home in on the publication date for my second novel (The Nine, She Writes Press, August 20), there is excitement whirring in my mind as well as the anxiety that comes with keeping track of a to-do list. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some underlying trepidation, as well. Having launched Eden (She Writes Press, May 2017), I am aware of the stamina and tough skin it requires to be a novelist. Regardless of whether you are publishing your first piece or your tenth, the following list includes five reminders intended to calm you down and boost you up in equal measure.

1) Remember, a life that includes creating art is a privilege

Expressing ideas with the written word is a noble pursuit. If you carry that mindset on this journey, all else will fall into perspective. Whenever doubt or fear creeps into the process, breathe deeply and come back to a place of gratitude. Really, what you are offering is a gift. I know this sounds very crunchy, but the vulnerability that comes with publication is an opportunity to attract  and connect with all sorts of good things.

Despite your attention being focused on your now published work, keep writing. It always feels good to have work-in-process to turn to, and even if you write a modest amount every day, your word count will still accumulate. Writing something fresh every day keeps a positive spirit alive. Go to bed each night secure in the knowledge that, if nothing else, you are making forward progress and that you are one of the creators.

2) Make the Ask

Now that you’ve accepted the fact what you are creating is your offering, your gift….  don’t be shy. The world is not going to know about the insight you’ve poured onto the page unless you share it, and share it proudly. Ask for feedback and ask for help. When your work is accepted for publication there will be much more asking in store: for blurbs, for pre-orders, for reviews. The asking never stops.

My publisher, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, always says the creative world operates on a currency of generosity. So ask with humility and be the type of artist who looks forward to being generous when it is her turn. When Eden was published, I worried a lot about asking. But once I swallowed my fear and did it, a deep well of support was there for me. I have to say, stepping into it was life-changing and one of the greatest byproducts of this writing endeavor. Sometimes I even think it is the reason I was meant to take this on.

3) Be a Good Literary Citizen

That’s right, the writing community is waiting to embrace you, but first you must become a good literary citizen. Go to readings and review recent publications. Cultivate relationships with fellow authors and attend their events. Support local bookstores, listen to and share podcasts, and attend book festivals.

Again, humility is important. When people sense sincerity, they are more apt to help.  This can mean blurbing your book or inviting you to participate in a festival. This can mean inviting you to book clubs and library readings. I tried to say yes to everything humanly possible. For the introvert writer in me, this was a newfound skill, and again it was life changing because there is a lot that can be done from home, behind the safety of your lap-top screen….  but there really isn’t anything that equals the connections you will make with real life human beings. So, do as much as possible in person, and when that is not an option use social media….

4) Embrace Social Media

When I published my debut, I didn’t quite understand the role social media and blogging would play in my writing career. Twitter? What are you talking about? Now I stay in touch with readers through my blog and I find myself buoyed by robust communities on Instagram and Facebook. As an indie author, the digital world has opened up a world of readers to me, and specifically a niche of readers who like the type of books I write. So figure out how this works and if you become overwhelmed or if this gets in the way of your writing practice, ask for help!

jeanne-blasberg-writing-publishing-tips5) Celebrate every small victory along the way

Know there will be ups and downs, and not everyone will like your work. But just one door-opening opportunity, one great publicity hit, one influencer’s endorsement can make all the difference. And if you dare, celebrate the defeats too because it all adds up to experience and the learning curve is steep. You aren’t really a writer unless you’ve experienced rejection and bad reviews! Just embrace the fact that you are climbing. There is something blissful about not knowing much during that first go round at getting published, but subsequent times be grateful for your expanded vantage point. You’ve earned an amazing view and can see what truly matters: how far you’ve come.


Writing Rituals: Staying Grounded During Busy Times

This post originally appeared on as “Five Weeks To Book Launch And How My Writing Practice Keeps Me Grounded.”

I am a woman with many morning practices, from skin care to yoga and meditation to blending a perfected breakfast smoothie, from walking my dog to writing long hand in my journal.  Needless to say, I need to rise and shine pretty early in order to squeeze in these beloved rituals. Very often, I laugh at myself, sleep still in my eyes, clinging to this crazy booting up process, but it’s a proven source of comfort and a very peaceful way to start the day.  

In addition, I endeavor to maintain a habitual writing practice, ideally beginning not long after the journal writing.  Oh, but there’s coffee to be made, and the email inbox, and social media posting to be done. Five weeks away from the launch of my second novel, The Nine,  I am more apt than ever to be consumed with checking reviews, scheduling appearances, and crafting newsletters for my mailing list. Many people tell me they don’t even attempt working on a new project during this intense phase of pre-publication book promotion. For me, however, it’s become a safe haven. 

This summer, in an effort to focus just as much on the generative side of my nature as I knew I would on the promotional side (remembering my experience with my debut novel, Eden)  I did three things: 1) I resuscitated my writing group, 2) I registered for a 6 week online course through GrubStreet called plotting your novel and 3) I joined a cabin in Camp Nanowrimo with seven other writers who are constantly checking in!  All of this is in the name of accountability – sort of like setting three alarm clocks when you have an early morning flight… but given my propensity to be the good student, this strategy has worked! I’m not checking preorder trends on AuthorCentral twenty times a day or obsessing with how I might use social media better. This plan has kept me from bugging my publicist as well which I’m sure makes her happy. Basically it’s ensured I keep the part of the writer’s life I love most– the writing.

Promoting a new book (and yourself really) engages the ego and sets the mind whirring.  Writing or revising early drafts of a work-in-process, however, comes from a place of humility.  I find that spending a part of the day in each place makes for a healthy internal balance. In addition, working on something new reduces the stakes around the book launch.  When that pesky internal critic starts worrying about The Nine’s reception, I fend it off in the knowledge that my writing career is just beginning and based on my daily, accumulating word count, there will be more books in my future.

Jeanne-Blasberg-morning-writing-practice-ritualI’m sure many authors read the above like it’s obvious – of course you keep up a writing practice come hell or high water.  That’s what you do. But I bet there are others reading this who like the reminder, indie authors like me who manage much of their own promotion, schedule their own book appearances, and do a ton of footwork – authors like me who are relatively new to this and might lose sleep wondering if there is something else that should be done to give a book the best chance at being noticed.   I don’t want to live the next several months with that chatter in my head and the consequential lack of focus. 

This summer I’ve promised to keep my phone at bay and to stay offline for that first hour or so at my desk.  Even if emails from Oprah or Reese are waiting to be answered. My goal is to bang out 500-1000 new words first thing and report to my cabin-mates. It might be a modest amount, but the fact that new characters with a story to tell are coming alive for me provides a more authentic excitement.  As these characters are developing in their own right, they are also reminding me, “You are a writer! You have more in you! It’s all going to be okay!”

beautiful green Japanese water lilies

A Song of Gratitude: Reflecting on Japan

This article originally appeared on Indagare under the title “A Song of Gratitude: Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg Reflects on her Journey to Japan.”

Our trip to Japan followed a week in Hong Kong where my husband had business and I spent mornings working and writing before doing my best to take in the city amidst unrelenting rain. Our introduction to Japan was eye-opening, and sightseeing in Tokyo felt both educational and sensual: the Imperial Palace, the fish market, the samurai tradition, the infrastructure being built for the upcoming Olympic Games, a new Emperor literally ushering in a new era…it was a lot to take in, and I was still struggling with the tragic news of a friend’s unexpected death, as well as missing my children on Mother’s Day and dealing with an overflowing inbox each morning. But, despite this unease, my husband and I immersed ourselves in Tokyo’s complexities, tackling the sprawling subway system, crisscrossing neighborhoods for shopping, visiting museums, attending sumo wrestling contests, taking cooking lessons and more.

We left Tokyo to spend 24 simple, meditative hours at a traditional ryokan outside the city, where I felt myself finally begin to relax into my surroundings. We enjoyed massages and delicious meals. We listened from our crisp white futons atop tatami mats as the rain fell and the birds chirped. I began to appreciate the culture’s continuum of generosity and hospitality behind everything we encountered: the insistence on cleanliness, the way food was selected and served, the calligraphy, the tea ceremony, even the slicing of sushi.

Our first full day in Kyoto, toward the end of our trip, was designed to be the climax, and I had high expectations for a very special day. After breakfast, we met our guide, who escorted us to a tea ceremony and on a stroll through a lovely, ancient neighborhood. The weather was perfect, and we were off to a great start. The next stops on the itinerary were the bamboo forest and the Golden Temple on the outskirts of the city. Perfect, I thought, we would avoid Kyoto’s throngs of tourists and have a walking meditation through nature. We were met, instead, by tour busses and selfie stick-wielding masses. In addition to the usual population of international tourists, this was “school trip week,” and large clusters of students in uniform had been dispatched to Kyoto, the country’s cultural capital. The peaceful, contemplative ambience we’d been grasping for was quickly evaporating.

When our guide explained that the Golden Temple would be just as crowded, I expressed my desire for a new plan. I didn’t need to check major attractions off a list. I yearned for more mystery, more beauty. Although an abrupt change of course isn’t exactly common in Japan, our guide, like any great hostess, proved adept at “calling an audible.” We hailed a cab and escaped to a quiet lunch over noodles where we could discuss adjustments.

Courtesy Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg

We decided to visit the Daitokuji Temple complex, comprised of 25 Zen Buddhist temples and monasteries, of which three were open to the public that day. Our guide taught us about the symbolism within each garden. We meditated where monks have meditated for centuries. We strolled the pine tree-lined paths through the complex. There were hardly any other people in sight. It was perfect.

“Should we go in one more?” our guide asked, almost as an afterthought, keeping her eye on the time.

“Sure,” we answered.

After removing our shoes and making a small donation, we proceeded to the garden, passing an elderly man in black robes sitting at a table. I remarked to my husband that he resembled my grandfather (who was not Japanese and who had died 23 years ago). But he had the same glasses, same eyebrows, same large forehead.

The building was similar to the previous Zen Buddhist temples in terms of its layout, but hanging on the wall of the inner sanctuary garden, we spotted the English translation of a poem that stopped us in our tracks.

A Song of Gratitude

The whole family, harmonious and devout.
Aware of debts to our parents and ancestors.
Revering nature, grateful for society.
Always humble, learning from others.
Able to give, demonstrating kindness.
Making one’s motto: “A bright life.”
Overlooking other’s faults, correcting one’s own.
Moderate in speech, not getting angry.
Gentle, kind, honest.
Let’s appreciate the joy of life.
Patient. Peaceful.
Not getting angry.
Careful in speech.
This leads to long life.

Courtesy Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg

It turned out that the elderly man we passed upon entering was the Senior Monk and the poem’s author, Soen Ozeki. He had not only penned that poem, but also several others on racks beside the table—all written in beautiful Japanese calligraphy. Six of his books were on display, as well, including one with an English translation blurbed by Steve Jobs. How ironic that as an author angsting over her new book, I would stumble upon a signing by a cheerful celebrity monk—the Dr. Ruth of Zen Buddhism, a man who spoke wisdom and helped people solve their problems on a weekly TV program. He spoke English well and had a sense of humor. He had a presence that defied age and emanated positivity, embodying the sentiments he professed. We took pictures together, although when he took his glasses off for the camera, he didn’t look as much like my grandfather.

Several of his writings resonated with us, and our purchases would likely put him over his daily sales quota, allowing him, as he joked, to take an afternoon nap. As we sat together, discussing his work, he smiled and laughed. Before we left, he looked into my eyes and, as if noticing something was a little off, said to me, “Be happy.” It was a moment that took my breath away: such a simple message after a happenstance meeting, but likely what I’d traveled ten thousand miles to receive.

Japanese house and lush garden

How the Japanese Tea Ceremony Mirrors the Author/Reader Relationship

On our recent trip to Asia I barely scratched the surface of omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality, but I did have the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony which gave me a glimpse. As I lay awake that night combatting jet lag, I began to see parallels between the author/reader relationship and the tea ceremony. This might be the type of idea that only seems brilliant at 3am… but here goes…


The concept of service or hospitality runs very deep in Japan, the core being that each human encounter is unique and that every moment is once-in-a-lifetime. Each meeting, therefore, is entered into with great planning and intention. The height of the practice of omotenashi is a traditional tea ceremony. I must thank my dear friend Andy Goldfarb for introducing me to this concept before our departure.

The Tea Ceremony

The interaction begins before the guest arrives – with the host’s planning. She takes great care with the aesthetics: selecting the tea service, arranging the flowers, hanging a scroll. The details may consume the host’s thoughts before the meeting, but they are invisible to the guest, done without any expectation for appreciation.

When the guest arrives, the host kneels in front of a shrine to prepare the matcha with prescribed movements. She takes the tea vessel in her left hand and ladles the perfect amount of water over the green tea powder with fluidity and grace. She then rapidly whisks the mixture back and forth (approximately fifty times) until it is topped with a froth just so. She bows before passing the cup to the first guest who also shows great humility and appreciation for the final product. The guest is even expected to enjoy the last sip of tea with an audible slurp.

foamy green matcha teaThe Ritual of Writing

As is the case with creating any art, there is a moment when the artist (or novelist in my case) begins to consider her audience. Revisions and edits to early drafts serve the piece, making language more clear, and conveying ideas with nuance and subtlety. Achieving refinement and simplicity requires the writer do more work. It’s not always what the host or writer does, but sometimes what she decides not to do that makes all the difference. Just like spending time selecting the correct tea set, the writer does not expect nor necessarily desire the reader to know everything that went into the preparation. It’s an unspoken contract between us that  immense intention was involved.

One of the most satisfying things about writing fiction is using my imagination as an instrument. I picture a cloud of energy forming then percolating in my brain, finding its way out through my fingers typing on my keyboard – sort of like whisking green tea into a froth? I work to perfect my craft, ladling just enough action to mix with character detail. When the final product is ready, it is my offering to readers.A house and garden in Japan

Readers take the vessel in hand and turn it, appreciating the cover art. If they are willing,they consume it, and voila: my imagination and stream of energy finds a path to theirs. If they really enjoy the book – and hopefully they do – they might finish with a big healthy slurp that sounds something like a five star review.

So like the master of the tea ceremony, working to tend the aesthetic of her tea garden, I sit down to write each day, aware that each sentence I craft is unique to this moment, and attuned to my experiences. I bow in humility to each reader who, like the guest at the ceremony, is willing to accept this version of omotenashi and drink from my cup.