jeanne-blasberg-writing-publishing-tips

Five Publishing Tips from a Sophomore Novelist

This post was originally published on diymfa.com 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.

morning-ritual-coffee-writing-book-stack-plant-window

Writing Rituals: Staying Grounded During Busy Times

This post originally appeared on BooksByWomen.org 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: Reflections on my Journey to 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…

Omotenashi

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.

Jeanne with She Writes Press authors at the Brooklyn Book Festival

Women Writers over a Certain Age

The following article was originally published on BooksByWomen.org.

A friend suggested recently I write an essay about how one went about being taken seriously as a female writer over fifty. My first reaction to this suggestion was actually surprise, and my second was wonder …. maybe she didn’t take me seriously? I sat back in my chair and regarded her more closely.

No, the suggestion was definitely intended as a compliment, and I got the feeling as we sat there that she hoped I had some special secret. The truth was, I hadn’t stopped to think about it.

Her suggestion reminded me of the time a father on the sidelines of a girls lacrosse game asked my husband what we’d done to make our daughter so hungry for the net. My husband just shrugged, “That’s how she came out.” Likewise, my ability to pursue a writing career at fifty, with no real credentials to speak of, might also be a matter of good instincts or good fortune (neither of which do I take for granted). After some consideration, I’ve come up with some pointers that might be useful for anyone embarking on a similar “under-dog” journey.

If you want others to take you seriously, take yourself seriously.

Let me rephrase that, don’t take yourself seriously, that’s unattractive. Take your writing seriously. I sit at my desk every morning, I decline invitations. I write whether I feel like it or not. I call myself a writer. I introduce myself as a writer. I talk about my books. I am not shy.

I accept invitations and view every opportunity to discuss my book as a blessing. I have fully immersed myself in the literary community in Boston. I attend readings. I take classes. I am workshopped, and I accept feedback. I blog and submit essays for publication. If I am writing I tell other people not to bother me. My business cards read “author.” I attend conferences. I approach people. I watch what the authors I admire do and I try to emulate them. When I am not writing, I am reading. I review books.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

While a traditional book deal with one of the big five is very prestigious and the gold standard in publishing, there are many other ways to connect with the reading public if that is your goal. Starting later in life, I made the decision that chasing prestige and prizes couldn’t be my priority. From day one connecting with readers was my singular focus, through my books, my blog, and through social media. I might not have an MFA, but I’ve had a relatively eventful life that provides plenty of material and emotional knowledge to infuse into my writing. I don’t think there is a writing program in the world that can teach what it feels like to love, to give birth, to lose, to bounce back, or to choose compassion.

Reject those who are rejecting you.

I decided to stop banging my head against the wall called the New York publishing world. After many years of rejection from New York agents and editors, I decided it was a party I wasn’t likely to be invited to. Luckily, in this digital age, in this age of disrupters, I was able to find an alternate path to publication and have never looked back. I found a hybrid publishing company called She Writes Press founded for women who have life trajectories and aspiration similar to mine. We help and inspire each other and through our collective success, motivate each other. My sisterhood has provided me with strength and more drive than I had when I thought this struggle was mine alone. When EDEN finally made it out in the world, it was embraced by many readers. That was all I ever wanted.

Accept the fact that creating art requires vulnerability.

Vulnerability and authenticity are necessary not only in creating art, but in creating a life with connections (and that includes connections with readers). Readers have a very accurate bullshit meter and will dismiss work that doesn’t feel real very quickly. Brené Brown, renowned social worker and author, teaches in her book Daring Greatly that putting yourself out there is essential. Being vulnerable, she writes, is the key to making connections. When you embrace vulnerability, you are also expressing your sense of self-worthiness. Don’t confuse this with ego, it is the opposite.

When you put yourself out there, when you allow yourself to be truly seen, others stop and take notice. They admire the honesty. They equate vulnerability with courage. They say “Wow.” The hardest thing about putting yourself out there is letting go of the worry you aren’t good enough and the fear of being judged.

In the weeks before EDEN was released I could barely get out of bed in the morning, I was so overcome by nerves. But if you are putting the work in (see pointer #1) you needn’t worry. Whether your writing career started in your twenties or your fifties, strive to tell your authentic story with your authentic voice. You will make connections. People will respond positively. I struggled whether to list this as pointer number one or pointer number four because it’s a necessary concept from the start, but it is also an evolving realization. I also have to think this is that secret something my friend was searching for when she suggested I write this article.

A natural arc of red stone in front of a sprawling vista.

Passover Reflections on Moab

I’ve been back to BostoA vista of the red rocks of Moab.n for a couple weeks but there are images from Utah that I’m carrying close through this cold and grey New England spring.  Not really images, more like colors: white snow, blue sky, and green trees…. And then there’s the red.

We took a couple of days while two of our children visited Park City and made the drive to Southeastern Utah to visit Moab and its famous geologic wonders and national parks. Its red earth reflected the sun, mesmerizing us as canyon walls turned orange at times and at others,  maroon under a passing shower. We drove past geology that twisted into spires, spun arches, and bore canyons. We hiked and scampered and climbed like little children,  the silty red dust rising on our calves and sneaking into our shoes, caking even, under my fingernails.  We shed layers of clothing in the warm sun and when it set we luxuriated under the full moon. Moab was magnificent and if we could have stayed longer, we would have.  There was so much to see, to do. And even as I felt the pull to stay, there was satisfaction in just having made the trip.  It had been a crazy idea thrown out during dinner early in the week, heralding the type of enthusiasm on a Monday I expected to fizzle very easily by Thursday.

We drove back to Park City and then Salt Lake where people boarded planes, returning to school or on business trips. When my month in Utah was complete, I returned to Boston for a writing conference and getting back in the swing of real life.  Looking forward to Passover and in preparation for our Seder, I considered the significance of Moab in the Exodus story.  I should mention giving sites biblical names is common in Utah, as Mormons see themselves akin to Jews.  Not just because they believe themselves to be descendants of Ephraim (a son of Joseph), but in that their history of persecution and long search for a promised land mirrored the Jews’ wandering in the desert for forty years. And not only is there a Great Salt Lake in Utah similar to the Dead Sea, there’s an Eden and Zion National Park, a Jordan River and a Mt Carmel, …. So what was it about Moab that was nagging at me?

Interestingly, the word “Moab” is defined as either “of the father” or a “beautiful place.” BeFamily walking through the red rocks of Moab.sides being the birthplace of Ruth (one of my biblical heroines), it is also the last bit of wilderness where the Israelites stayed before entering the Promised Land. It is where Moses’ Exodus story ended, where he died and was buried, never able to enter Canaan himself.

Our touring party of four hadn’t recalled much of Moab, Utah’s namesake before making the trip from Park City. Thinking about it in light of our Passover tradition, however, I can’t help search for meaning.  Moab was the last place we would be together before going in four separate directions. It was a place we would observe a yarzheit, a place we would experience the super moon on the vernal equinox.  We all felt the pull to drive down there, I won’t go as far as calling it magnetic, but we were certainly on a mission. And I can’t forget that red, primitive earth, harkening the name Edom, evoking the birthplace of man.

For us, it was a moment when we united and regrouped before moving on. It was a place where we were allowed to act like children before entering the adult world again. It was a place to wonder and dream and remember, and also to recognize how small we are and how short life is.  It was a place of awe.

Student's bikes on a snowy campus day.

The Price of a College Admission Scandal

I had to pull my  jaw off the floor reading the recent reports of parents and college admissions consultants gaming the system. Even though the college admissions process has never been ‘fair,’ the hacks these people created stooped to a whole new level. I should qualify this post with the fact that as a fourth generation applicant to Smith College, I was a beneficiary of the uneven playing field myself.  Even though I was admitted to equally fine institutions, I attended Smith as a legacy. What’s more, all three of my children were recruited athletes to Ivy League institutions, competing in squash, and leading and captaining their respective college teams.  Although they were qualified candidates, the ability to bypass the general application pool was an enormous boon. These schools admit about 220 recruited athletes per year across all sports whereas the general application pool is flooded with upwards of 30,000 people. Tough odds for even the best of the best.

As in life, systemic privilege has always existed with college admissions, although typically more subtly, reserved for those in the know, those tipped off early as to how the game works. (I’ll go ahead and throw myself in that group.)  The parents who worked with “The Key,” however,  were made aware of a “side door,” and did whatever it took to gain entrance at the eleventh hour.  It was like a big, bad case of cutting in the carpool line. The transcripts included in the indictment depict parents who had no problem with the six-digit price tag for an admissible test score, on the condition their children were none the wiser, as if betraying a child’s trust was fine as long as it went undiscovered. One father even laughed at his child innocently assuming he’d achieved a good ACT score on his own.

In my forthcoming novel, The Nine, Hannah Webber is a middle class mother who prescribes to the slow and steady approach (much like mine): nightly dinners, homework sessions, attendance at sports practice, healthy breakfasts, school pick-ups and drop-offs or at least a best effort.  There is mundanity to the routine, a year-in-year-out scheduling of parent-teacher conferences, supporting kids through ups and downs, but always emphasizing hard work and doing one’s best above all else.  Consistency. Trust. Listening.  It isn’t always easy. And again, probably speaks to the privilege of a childhood where a parent is at home to provide the steady support. But just like many parents today, Hannah Webber will realize even her best efforts aren’t enough when pitted against parents with money.

Privilege is pervasive in reality as well as fiction, but the recent revelation of cheating has provided our culture with a moment – not only to gawk at the defendants’ insane behavior, but to evaluate the status quo and the spectrum of admissions abuses: how donations to schools are treated, why athletics and athletes should matter so much, how unlimited test taking time and bogus doctor diagnoses has become a thing.  It’s an important conversation, but I hope the point that hits home the hardest for parents (including Hannah Webber) is that integrity, honesty, and a relationship with their children built on trust will always be worth more than any diploma!!

 

Jeanne M. Blasberg, author of "Eden", and friends at book club

Book Club- It’s Okay if You Don’t Discuss the Book

The following article was originally published on NovelNetwork.com.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the disparaging comment that book clubs drink more wine than talk about that book. I’ve visited many book clubs since the release of EDEN, and people who think it is just an excuse to drink wine don’t get it. Book clubs are for readers but the meetings aren’t just to talk about the book. In my own book club, we spend a higher percentage of our meeting time talking about other things.

And that’s okay.

When a group of friends make book selections and read simultaneously, it’s like traveling to the same place, meeting the same people, entering a common consciousness no less. When they meet later “to discuss,” enjoying food and drink, the contents of the book are almost reminisced about as opposed to critically analyzed. Some people have fond memories and some thought something was missing, some have foggy memories, and some got stuck on a particular issue, but we’ve taken the same trip and that’s pretty cool.

The common experience is what matters, setting the groundwork for a deeper dive into the themes of the book. Bonds of friendship are formed when we share experiences and ideas, when we discuss hypotheticals. A book that stimulates great discussion (tangential or not) is a good book club pick.

Better to tear apart a fictional character than to gossip, and better to discuss a place you’ve read about than to sit in envy of one person’s exotic travels. The conversation at your book club may not always stay on the one thing you have in common that month (the book) but it is a starting point to many important conversations.

It is fun to imagine friends lying in bed reading or driving in their cars listening to the same books. If you’re like me details about the book will come up in snippets of conversation when we bump into each other on the sidewalk or at the gym. I might even text a friend “loving it” or “hating it” mid-month. Often, by the time the book club meets, the temperature of the group has been determined, influencing how much time we spend on the book or how quickly we go there.

Picking a good cross section of genre, our group has found, is important. Traveling to a variety of lands offers an opportunity to compare and contrast stories as well as authors’ styles. So no, we aren’t always talking about the book, we are already a few steps beyond, on to the next step, talking about where the book took us.

Competitive Parenting

No One Wins at the Game of Competitive Parenting (Trust Me, I Know)

The following article was originally published on GrownandFlown.com.

It’s not like a gymnastics competition where the judges hold up scores at the end of a floor routine. It’s not like you can “stick the landing” either. It’s not like the announcement comes over the PA system: “A perfect 10! She’s achieved the perfect 10!”  No, a mother doesn’t stand on a podium, beaming at the end of the day, while the grand maternal order of the universe hangs a gold medal from her neck, declaring her the best of all time.

Hey, I’ll admit I played. Big time. This is a confessional and I was all in. I remember one year-end Prize Day when my kids all won the highest academic honors for their respective grades (I think my youngest was in Kindergarten, but hey) and a rival mother with four brilliant children passed me filing out of the assembly and whispered, “Three for three, I’m impressed.”

It’s embarrassing, and shameful but I’m just warning you once it starts, it’s hard to stop.

I’ve spent time reflecting on this (written a novel in fact) and am going to open the kimono a little further here to share some of why I fell prey. And since everything gets blamed on mothers, I’ll blame this one on mine. But really, as the only child of an alcoholic, dysfunctional marriage, my role in that happy little threesome was to put on a good face, achieve plenty and show the world everything was really okay. Not just okay, super! It took a long time to let the role of chief marketing officer go.

What was less unique to me and more of a universal experience, I believe, was choosing to be a stay at home mom in an era when many of my female friends were remaining in the workforce. After ten years of holding interesting and upwardly mobile positions in finance and retail, I decided to stay home after the birth of my youngest. Three babies in 60 months, just like clockwork, back then I was still trying to win points for Harvard Business School honed efficiency. I tried to do it all and be it all for a while, but that was a recipe for disaster. (See previous paragraph referring to alcoholic family). But in the recesses of my personality I still needed to prove that staying home was the right decision. Of course, I knew in my heart it was the right decision for me, but still, I needed to manifest that sentiment to the world. In the absence of semi-annual performance reviews, my children’s report cards were my tangible affirmation.

No matter how you ended up playing this insane version of Monopoly, when you find yourself tsk-tsking the foibles of other children, most likely children of parents who are not as committed/dedicated/present as you are, just stop. No matter how well you follow the rules, all children stumble, they all fall, they all feel pain, and from time to time, they all lose their way. When mine (now young adults) eventually had their moments, large and small, I felt shame over the superior air I’d taken. I’d been an asshole, not just strutting out of year end assemblies, but at the bus stop. Daily.  (And yes, I promise that I’m working on an epic article about the Beacon Hill bus stop!)

Don’t become the mother I recently spoke to who hired a consultant to help her college junior get a better internship. Get it under control now or you’ll be competing over who’s child makes more money, who marries better, who produces more grandchildren. JUST STOP.

Your child’s mental health and happiness is the most important thing. Turn your hovering energy inward, discover your own passion and invest time in whatever friendships you still have. If I could do it, so can you.

my mother's old leather mittens

Skiing With My Mother’s Mittens

My mother’s mittens are soft and worn, of black leather and insulated with red nylon and down fill. I wore these fifty-year-old mittens every day this past March and wondered what she would have thought of my extravagances: an EPIC pass in my pocket and accommodations just a short walk to the mountain. She was a frugal Yankee who insisted we be first on the lift and not stop until at least 3:30 pm to get our money’s worth. I’d never even set foot in a lodge before spending a ski weekend with a friend’s family because my mom laced up (yes I’m dating us) in the parking lot to save precious time and she carried our lunch in her pockets.

It was the early 1970’s when my mother introduced me to the rope tow at West Mountain in Queensbury, NY. A short distance from her hometown, she’d always make sure we got in plenty of runs during weekend visits to her family. Growing up I’d heard plenty of stories about her love for speed, how she donned a motorcycle helmet and challenged all comers in races to the bottom from the top of the single chair at Mad River Glen.

By the time she skied with me, her knees were done, but she had the prettiest form I’d ever see. She’d offer commentary on the skiers below as we ate smashed tuna fish sandwiches on the chairlift at Gore Mountain, or, if I was lucky, out of the wind on the gondola. When we lived in California during my teen years, ski trips were less frequent but more majestic. It was with my mother I first discovered the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas, the Sangre de Cristo, and the Rockies. And it was during that turbulent time, our rides on the chairlift were some of our only moments of quiet, patient communication.

Unlike me, my three children were introduced to the sport during times of prosperity. My husband was a hockey player and didn’t grow up skiing, and I made him jump through hoops, proving some proficiency on the slopes before I was willing to get serious. To his credit, he went all on the skiing lifestyle, although he refused to schlep through parking lots and demanded a hot lunch. He even invented something called the ’10am chocolate break.’

But he also devised the best-ever family skiing tradition: collecting lapel pins from every mountain we “conquered.” It’s almost turned into a challenge, resulting in several spontaneous exits from the highway to hit small mountains, squeezing in the requisite number of runs to merit a pin (at one point I remember that number being seven or your age whichever was lower). Spurred on by the spirit of wanting to ski more terrain, we skied the east, indulged in trips out west, and reached heights I’d never dreamed of during a three-year stint for his job in Zurich, Switzerland.

Almost fifty years and ninety pins after my first turns on West Mountain, I returned to the beautiful Wasatch this past March to ski and finish revisions on my novel.

Utah was one of our first western destinations with the kids due to the proximity and plentitude of resorts (and pins!). I remember traversing from Alta to Snowbird in a whiteout for the sake of a pin when our youngest was six and acknowledging that we were irresponsible parents and had probably taken it all a bit too far.

Another early destination for our young family was Whistler Mountain, BC. It was toward the top of 7,000 vertical feet, and after a warm lunch in the lodge, that I learned of my mother’s passing. Stepping out into the cold, the clouds were within arms reach and I thought I might try to climb through them to be with her. If not that, maybe she would reach down and place her hand on my back. Blinded by tears, I traversed to the bottom behind our kids before sitting them down and breaking the devastating news.

This March, as the calendar crept toward the anniversary of my mother’s death, I debated how I might spend the day. Ski Utah Interconnect offered the perfect homage: a full day up and over backcountry, getting in runs at six resorts with like-minded souls. (Bonus: there’s a special pin awarded upon completion.) We had spring conditions and my hands were plenty warm inside her mittens. I even enjoyed a fun and festive lunch at Collins Grill in her honor.