Uncategorized, Writers, Writing

Extraordinary Outliers

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“You’re still young!”

I looked skeptically at my friend and colleague today when she said that, but inside, it made me feel better to hear it.

“Thank you. I haven’t felt that way lately…”

“You are,” she repeated.

I do feel very young at heart – young in spirit, young in enthusiasm for possibilities, for all the dreams I want to pursue, all the things I can still do, if I can only find a way.

Thinking outside the box is not always the easiest thing to do, but we outliers – we find a way.

I wrote a post titled, “Thank you Athens Writers Association,” several months ago and one of the things I said was that my life in Athens all came together, but it was too late by the time it happened. I go back and forth between that despair and the hope that it is not too late to realize my dream of being a working writer – meaning doing what I love and being able to pay the bills doing it.

My friend and colleague, who introduced me to another client, a close friend of hers in New York City, has been an excellent cheerleader. Recently, I was given an assignment that is different than anything I have done before – ghostwriting – more or less. Technically it’s a revision, but turning a personal article into an academic research article requires much more writing than editing – compared to the content editing I’ve been doing the past several years.

This has been a brain twister and a welcome challenge for me at a time when the distraction of work is a Godsend.

I am way too hard on myself – in fact, I stated that in answer to the question, “What are your weaknesses?” in a mock interview today. I have a job interview (the first since 2016) on Monday morning for a temporary position coming up in the spring. It is anything but my dream job, but I promised myself I would apply to as many jobs as I can, and that I would accept every interview – even for the jobs I do not want because practicing interviewing is key to landing the job you really want.

I have recently applied for a couple of jobs at University of Georgia which I’m sure I would enjoy, as far as the departments, respectively, but…my dream is, and was, to be a full time editor and writer.

I feel so alive when I am writing…when I complete writing a draft, of anything – a poem, an essay, a short story, a chapter, whatever it is – it’s like I’ve created a work of art. It’s an adrenaline rush – it’s crazy. I can’t describe it other than when you are doing what you love, I think that’s what it’s supposed to feel like.

When I’m editing, I feel similarly, but in a different way – I get totally engrossed in the job and when I find something I need to change, I get excited, seriously, it is so weird. As if to say, “Aha! I solved it!” It’s like putting a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle together, one piece at a time.

Writing and editing. Yes, I’m in my element when I’m doing either one…

…but writers are outliers.

There are not many out there making a living at it.

I remember Barnes and Noble told me that only 15% of the authors on their shelves earn a full time income from writing books.

In my experience, we have all had day jobs, or most of us.

My friend is extraordinary – she is making a living at writing and coaching and she has been a vital mentor and partner. I am so blessed to work with her, alongside her, for her…and so her opinion means a great deal.

She told me today that many of the people who are famous…well let’s see, how did she put it: “There is a publicist, a ghostwriter, an editor behind the genius.”  Meaning –  someone works very hard and makes a great living making the famous person in the spotlight look good.

I told her, “I would love to make a living at ghostwriting. I don’t care if someone else gets the credit as long as I get paid well. As long as the personal pieces I write are mine, I don’t care if someone gets the credit for me writing for them.”

“You could do that,” she said.

Extraordinary outliers…they’re out there.

The question is how? How do I do that now? This is literally the worst time in my entire adult life for me to take an extraordinary risk – I literally cannot afford to take any financial risks right now.

It makes me feel so empty inside, it is like losing a piece of me, to think I have to give up on my dream. But we do what we have to. I am worried about how to pay for my housing, my food, my medical bills… I want another dog, when I am ready, and to take proper care of a dog, takes money, too.

I think back to the time in 1995 when I gave up on writing, for stable income, and now I am faced with that reality again…maybe for good…it scares me.  I enjoyed my brick and mortar jobs in administration and education and took a lot of pride in working hard – it is important to me. But…here in Athens, I’ve also gotten a taste of what it would be like to live my dream, and it is killing my soul and my spirit to give it up.

And then, sometimes, I think about what someone to whom I owe a big debt of gratitude wrote to me on January 6th. I was resistant, because I was angry and grieving and saw everything half-empty that day, but I wanted what he said to be true. I wanted it so badly to not be too late. Even though I knew it would never be the same without him as my head cheerleader. I hope he meant what he said because when my head screwed itself back on straight, I honestly felt it was one of the nicest things he’d ever said, if not the nicest, and it reminded me about those extraordinary outliers who go after the golden ticket that most people never go after. He said that I am a talented and capable writer and that it would be a huge mistake to give up on my dream of editing and writing (I’m leaving out a few phrases but that was the primary theme in the text message).

When I was sitting across the table from my friend today, what he said came to mind for a moment, just for a moment, but now I can’t stop thinking about it.

Even if I do take an ordinary job, for however long – even if it becomes a forever day job (hopefully not forever) – what if – what if I still can be an extraordinary outlier?

I was looking on the Clarke County School District job listing site today and there are tons of job listings for teachers…I felt a lot of nostalgia. I miss teaching so much. I miss being an educator – but for reasons that were not in my control – it was not the right career for my well being. Still, there is always going to be a teacher inside me. It was an experience that shaped me for life and made me a better human being – that won’t ever change.

Teachers are also extraordinary outliers.

I have another goal – I want to get my masters degree in counseling so I will have the license to counsel trauma survivors – and that is a day job I do want.

I had been thinking off and on about counseling as a career since I was about 17 years old. I always came back to something else, until…Parkland.

I watched the town hall forum where people from all over the community came to talk to local elected officials and the one thing I heard over and over was that the kids needed more counselors, that when the cameras left, they still felt the trauma, they still were haunted by what they witnessed that day, by what happened to their friends, by the loss.

I am a trauma survivor myself.  I have survived things, things that happened to me in my childhood and adolescence that no child should ever experience – for years I blocked out the worst of it, and the parts I didn’t block out, haunted me on a conscious level. Post traumatic stress disorder symptoms have interfered in what should have been typical life scenarios that all of a sudden felt terrorizing – on an extraordinary level. Even something as simple as a lockbox on my front door terrified me – I felt that my life was literally in danger, and when I think how I will have no choice later this year, but to do that, I am shaking.

However, this is what we do.

Other pieces of my life now make sense, and the hardest part is being able to look back on the last decade and piece together the why, and to understand – years later – how I could have changed what happened, if only I’d had the answers I needed 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago…the why was a mystery, and the trauma was in control – taking charge of what I thought, what I said, what I did.

We think that because we survived the trauma, it doesn’t follow us, like a shadow.

But it does.

It is extraordinary to overcome it. The part that makes us outliers, as well as extraordinary, is how we seem to learn how to work with it, and around it. And someday, if we’re lucky, to face it head on, and integrate it into who we are without letting it define who we are.

It isn’t linear, and sometimes, it is unconscious. That’s the tricky part.

Surviving trauma makes us better, though, and so many of my fellow writers, are also trauma survivors. The trauma did not define them, or break them, but it did feed into their creativity, and into their stories, and definitely makes them better writers – extraordinary writers and – extraordinary outliers.

“You could make a living working remotely as an editor. Writers, it doesn’t matter what age we are. The older we get, the better we are – as I get older I become better at writing, I’ve honed my craft. We writers get better at what we do with age…it isn’t like it is with other people…”

What a gift she left me with today.

Yes, we are ageless and extraordinary creators – we writers – are among the rare and extraordinary outliers.

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Athens, Georgia, Editors, Uncategorized, Writers, Writing

What in the World is a “Read-In?”

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“What’s a “Read-In?”

Newcomers to our monthly Athens Writers Association social gatherings often ask this question when our president and founder, Katherine Cerulean, mentions that I host monthly “Read-Ins” at Barnes and Noble Cafe in Athens, Georgia.

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Barnes and Noble Bookstore, Athens, GA. Home of the “Read-Ins” Image courtesy of Facebook

Katherine asked me to write a guest blog post for the Athens Writers Association website – feel free to contact me if you live in the NE Georgia area and are interested in experiencing a “Read-In” with us. 

“Read-In” is a term that I coined in October 2015, as a spin-off to the “Write-Ins” that Katherine started with the AWA from the beginning.

(Katherine currently hosts a weekly “Wild Wednesday Write-In at Jittery Joe’s on Epps Bridge Parkway from 2-4 pm every week for those of you who, like me, thrive on writing with other authors. Let’s be honest – there’s power – and inspiration – in working together).

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Jittery Joe’s Epps Bridge Parkway, Image courtesy of Facebook page

Back in the “old days” (circa 2013-2014), the Athens Writers Association held our meetings, events, and most of our public readings at The Coffee Shop of Athens (sadly, they closed for business in November 2014). It was the perfect venue for “write-ins,” our workshops (they had a private meeting room upstairs), critique groups, guest speakers (e.g. Philip Lee Williams, Bobby Nash, Lacey Wolfe, and other local authors), and best of all, performing public readings in front of a live audience.

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Jill Hartmann-Roberts at the AWA public reading, “Writers Read II” at Coffee Shop of Athens on February 1, 2014

(We also performed in a few other Athens venues in 2013-14, including The Globe, UGA and Cine, but The Coffee Shop of Athens was our “home base.” ).

Luckily, we have found a new home for our public readings at the fabulous Normal Books on Prince Avenue. Although we hosted a successful reading for our anthology, Laughin’ in Athens at the Athens-Clarke County Library in September 2016, and we are grateful for the ACC library’s ongoing support of our organization, we are thrilled to have formed a new partnership with this local gem of a bookstore in Athens).

However – there was a void, so to speak, in our programming, after The Coffee Shop of Athens closed.  Throughout 2015, I remember missing reading in front of the live audience – it is important to be able to bring our writing to life by reading it aloud, in voice and character, for there is a difference in hearing the words performed that makes the stories and poems come alive, in a way that reading it on a piece of paper alone cannot compare to. Breathing life into the words we write has its own power – not only to entice people to want to read more of our work, but to teach us how to become the best public speakers and self-promoters we can be. All of us, if we’re lucky, will one day be standing at a podium in front of a large group in a bookstore, at a book fair, on a stage…telling a crowd of strangers about ourselves, as writers, and about our amazing book that we want them to buy (otherwise known as the book tour).

I wanted to bring that back to the Athens Writers Association. I missed it, and many people asked us, “When are you guys going to do another public reading?”

For a while, we didn’t have an answer. Until, I came up with the idea of a “Read-In.”

We had our first “Read-In” at Jittery Joe’s, but it didn’t take long to find a permanent home at Barnes and Noble Cafe. As I’ve always told people, what could be more inspiring than reading our stories and poems in a bookstore?

 

I never expected the “Read-Ins” to become as popular as they have.  (We recently celebrated our 3-year anniversary). Katherine tells me that she frequently hears people rave about the “Read-Ins” – how much fun they are having, how positive of an experience it is, and how good it feels to get support from their peers when they read. I hear some people are even getting over their fears of reading in public. All the things I  hoped for when I came up with the idea. I am so glad that people keep coming back, and for me, personally, I look forward to it every month. We have a handful of regular participants, and we always welcome new people – I keep it light and positive and upbeat and informal (people can come late and leave early), we keep the meetings to 2 hours, we always meet on a Thursday night, and best of all, if people do not bring something to read to the group, we are happy to have them participate by listening and giving feedback (which also is not required, but in 3 years, I’ve only had one author tell us she did not want feedback. Most of our writers come to hear both the accolades and the constructive suggestions from their peers).

We do have a few guidelines to keep the “Read-Ins” running smoothly: 20 minutes per person, for reading and feedback, no cell phones at the meeting (not at the table, that is), treat people with respect – i.e. when you give feedback, be honest, but be encouraging and helpful, not derogatory – which is not a problem. Our writers are the most supportive group of people you could hope to read for – or so I’m told by many of our participants.

Because we read in an open cafe in a bookstore where children are sometimes present, unfortunately, we have to keep our material “PG-13,” but it’s a small sacrifice in order to be able to come to Barnes and Noble every month. They are very accommodating and supportive of our group’s monthly gatherings.

You might ask, what is it specifically about a “Read-In” that makes it so special?

Well, I will tell you that you might hear a different answer depending on whom you ask.

For me, it’s a toss-up between the people who come and their amazing writing – which, let’s face it, go hand in hand.

There have been so many incredible people who have been part of the “Read-Ins” and their writing has never ceased to impress and entertain me, but here are a few of my memories that have made our AWA “Read-Ins” so unique and meaningful:

One of our veterans, Jay, is a “renaissance” writer: he writes in a unique voice that showcases his talent for humor, dialogue, character and creativity.  He writes science fiction, scary stories, memoirs, travel essays, fiction (one of his short stories was published in a literary journal), humorous anecdotes about his personal adventures…he’s done it all. Everyone loves his writing – he always entertains us, and he also is very helpful and encouraging to others – whether they be other veterans or brand new to the group.

An editing client of mine, Eric, works full time, and began writing in his spare time a while back. He has his own website, wrote a book of Christmas stories, and has been working on another science fiction/adventure book that is fantastic. But, he had not read any of his writing in front of other people and was not sure, at first, if he felt comfortable doing so. (Often we writers feel shy about public speaking, that’s one reason we express our thoughts in writing instead). When Eric first came, he waited for everyone else to read first before deciding if he wanted to read his own writing. From what I recall, his impression of the others’ positivity and moral support inspired him to get his feet wet and take a chance on reading his own prose.  He told me afterward that it was such a positive experience for him, that it eliminated his fears of reading aloud, and he was eager to come back again. I was touched that we made his first try at a public reading such a great experience for him – and – that it made him want to come back for more!

Two of our regular participants, Chris and Sharon, often bring their poetry (Sharon also writes prose). Their poems are honest, raw, lyrical and have moved me, deeply, as well as doing so for many others. I appreciate that they trust our group to be a place of safety and appreciation for their very personal and beautiful poems. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, no doubt, but I do not take for granted that they both are open to sharing their poems aloud, with us, publicly, nonetheless.

My colleague and co-founder, Elsa, has shared many excerpts from books she has written, or is writing, and her voice is powerfully unique and strong and creative. She creates complex characters with humor and fire who make you think. My favorite, so far, is “Connie.” Elsa laughs whenever I bug her, “When are you going to read us another chapter about ‘Connie?'”  It’s almost like a private joke between the two of us now (she has read two or three chapters from the book, which may be a series, I’m not sure), but I get a rise out of her every time I bring up “Connie.” It’s fun, but seriously, we all have found “Connie” to be brash and funny, and the story is a shocker at times, but in the best way!

A few months ago, one of our newer members brought her 11-year old granddaughter, Ella, to read (Yes, young writers are always welcome!) and being a former teacher, I took special delight in hearing her read her poem about her horse.  Ella has a gift, and a voice that is pure and authentic, as most young writers do, before the world of publishers and editors, and school, period, for that matter, edits it for them. That experience took me back to my days as a teacher.  I often don’t think about how much I miss teaching, and especially, how much I miss working with the kids – it is a labor of love that is truly worth it.

We host writers that come a few times, and then life happens, and we don’t see them again. They have enriched our “Read-Ins” as much as the regulars and I treasure all the prose and poetry they have graced us with over the years.

One of my favorites was Jamie. She came a couple of times to read from her fan fiction, based on the movie, “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Oh my gosh! Jamie’s dialogue was mind-blowing! I didn’t see the film, but I felt as if I walked right into the middle of it. (Fan fiction is a genre where people take the characters from a favorite book or TV series or movie and create new plots to continue where the original piece left off. It’s very popular with the Twilight and Harry Potter books). We were all struck by the powerful scenes that Jamie wrote, and by her fearless performance. I’ve seen Jamie at the ACC library a couple of times and I hope she will come back someday.

That’s just a taste of what we do at “Read-Ins,” and why they are so important to our writers in the AWA (or so I’m told:) I hope that we continue to welcome new writers, new readers, fresh voices, and their fiction, essays, non-fiction and poetry for years to come. We’ve been going strong so far, and I am so happy that the monthly “Read-Ins” have become such an integral part of the Athens Writers Association’s mission to bring writers together in a circle of mutual support and professional growth through collaboration, cooperation and camaraderie.

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Image courtesy of Athens Writers Association and Katherine Cerulean, founder and president