5 books set in Sonoma County

Crissi vineyard
Me, standing in a Kenwood vineyard near Jack London’s ranch.

As a Sonoma County resident, I love reading books that are based around here. Some of the world’s best authors have called Sonoma County their home, including Jack London and Jack Kerouac, who have both written about Sonoma County in their novels.

That one time my kid thought I was one of the most famous *people* in the world. I’m writing about families again for the Press Democrat! Tune into my stories and other topics at the family blog, The Village. 

Road2HopeFontFinalWith its gorgeous landscape, towering redwoods, and close proximity to the ocean, Sonoma County serves as a wonderful backdrop for any story, including several of mine that I’ve written. The town of Petaluma plays a large part in the Hope series. Locals will recognize a few landmark restaurants mentioned in all three of the novels. Bodega Bay is the backdrop to my magical realism romance, Come Here, Cupcake (a book that will one day have a sequel!). And the book I’m the dystopian romance I’m currently working on, Numbered, mentions several Sonoma County and Northern California locations, though it’s set in the future.

Here are a few other books worth checking out that are set in Sonoma County.
Note:  I use affiliate links at no cost to you, but that offer me a small kickback with every purchase to help fund my book projects.

undersideofjoyThe Underside of Joy, Sere Prince Halverson
Halverson’s debut novel takes place in the fictional town of Elbow, but with familiar landmarks anyone in Sonoma County would recognize. The story is about Ella Beene, a widow caught in a custody battle for her stepdaughter with the girl’s natural mother, despite the fact that Ella has been the a steady mother figure in the young girl’s life. Following her husband’s drowning death, Ella is not only facing this battle, but also fighting her own internal battle as her husband’s financial secrets come to light. Halverson’s writing is exquisite, detailing the gorgeous landscape in delicate prose and telling a heartbreaking story with tenderness and heart.

afirestoryA Fire Story, Brian Fies
Anyone who lives in Sonoma County has their own personal story of what happened to them in October 2017 when Santa Rosa and surrounding areas burned in a devastating firestorm. Graphic novelist Brian Fies had his own story to tell, sharing the horrible details of fleeing his home in the dead of night, and coming back to a pile of ash where his house once stood. Through illustrations and intimate details, Fies not only shares what it was like to lose his home, but also the stories of other people who lost their homes, along with what the recovery process has been like. I’ve met Fies on several occasions, and he is just the nicest, most humble man in person. But you should also know that his story won a Grammy when it was retold as a video on PBS. Fies gave a voice to many of us who will never forget October, 2017.

The following books I have not read, but they are on my To Be Read list. The descriptions are from Amazon.

intotheforestInto the Forest, Jean Hegland
Now a major motion picture. Set in the near-future, Into the Forest is a powerfully imagined novel that focuses on the relationship between two teenage sisters living alone in their Northern California forest home. Over 30 miles from the nearest town, and several miles away from their nearest neighbor, Nell and Eva struggle to survive as society begins to decay and collapse around them. No single event precedes society’s fall. There is talk of a war overseas and upheaval in Congress, but it still comes as a shock when the electricity runs out and gas is nowhere to be found. The sisters consume the resources left in the house, waiting for the power to return. Their arrival into adulthood, however, forces them to reexamine their place in the world and their relationship to the land and each other.
P.S. I feel privileged to be in the same writing club as Jean Hegland, who is truly a gifted author.

divisaderoDivisadero, Michael Ondaatje
From the celebrated author of The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost comes a remarkable, intimate novel of intersecting lives that ranges across continents and time. In the 1970s in Northern California a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is shattered by an incident of violence that sets fire to the rest of their lives. Divisadero takes us from San Francisco to the raucous backrooms of Nevada’s casinos and eventually to the landscape of southern France. As the narrative moves back and forth through time and place, we find each of the characters trying to find some foothold in a present shadowed by the past.

the life she wantsThe Life She Wants, Robyn Carr
In the aftermath of her financier husband’s suicide, Emma Shay Compton’s dream life is shattered. Richard Compton stole his clients’ life savings to fund a lavish life in New York City and, although she was never involved in the business, Emma bears the burden of her husband’s crimes. She is left with nothing. Only one friend stands by her, a friend she’s known since high school, who encourages her to come home to Sonoma County. But starting over isn’t easy, and Sonoma is full of unhappy memories, too. And people she’d rather not face, especially Riley Kerrigan.
Riley and Emma were like sisters—until Riley betrayed Emma, ending their friendship. Emma left town, planning to never look back. Now, trying to stand on her own two feet, Emma can’t escape her husband’s reputation and is forced to turn to the last person she thought she’d ever ask for help—her former best friend. It’s an uneasy reunion as both women face the mistakes they’ve made over the years. Only if they find a way to forgive each other—and themselves—can each of them find the life she wants.
P.S. Carr also wrote A Summer in Sonoma, a sweet romance story.

Do you have any favorite books that are set in your hometown?

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3 ways to combat writer’s block

typeriter writers blockRecently, a writer friend asked me how I combat writer’s block. Before I share what I told her, let me just tell you that writer’s block doesn’t discriminate. I don’t care if you’re JK frickin Rowling, every author is afflicted with this curse. Case in point, I gave this friend my answer for battling writer’s block. But later that week, I found myself daunted by a blinking cursor, the only thing moving on the blank page before me. It’s absolutely ridiculous how inspiration bleeds from my pores when I’m in the middle of something, but then vanishes once I am in the position to write. I’ll have the plot of a story coursing through me in anticipation for my scheduled alone time, only to have forgotten every bit of it when I open my laptop. Or worse, my brilliant idea transforms into something completely stupid.

So while I can’t tell you the absolute cure for curbing writer’s block, I can share some of the things that have helped me to climb over this albatross.

  1. Write every day.

This is probably the #1 advice any author will give you. I liken the practice of writing every day to the practice of training for a marathon. You wouldn’t wake up one day and run 26.2 miles without months of training beforehand, would you? The same goes for writing. You have to strengthen your writing muscle before you can take part in regular word sprints and inspirational prose. Set aside a certain time every day when it’s just you and your writing. It can be as short as 30 minutes, if you want, but it’s best if you can plan for this at the same time every day. Then write what you want. Write a poem. Write a journal entry. Write a description of the room where you’re sitting. Write anything. At first, it will feel daunting. That blinking cursor might plague you just as it plagues me. However, if you keep showing up every day ready to write, there will come a day when your muse will arrive at the same time.

If you’re stumped on what to write, here are 365 writing prompts, one for every day of the year.

  1. Turn off all distractions.

My phone is my nemesis. It’s what I reach for whenever I can’t figure out what to write, or how to perfectly word what I’m trying to say. If I’m frustrated with my writing, I’ll reach for my phone and scroll through social media or my email, waiting for inspiration to hit. Thing is, digital distractions are creativity killers. I will never find the right words or feel the pull of inspiration while scrolling through perfectly filtered photos on Instagram. To be honest, I’m actually going to feel much worse, much less inspired, and way more frustrated. This is my current issue. Is this your issue, too? The best way to free yourself from these distractions is to get them away from you completely. I know it can feel uncomfortable freeing yourself from busyness, but creativity craves the quiet. If it’s your scheduled writing time, keep your phone out of the room, or at least on airplane mode. Turn the internet off your phone. Close the door and lock it. It might even help to set a timer, mandating distraction free time, and then permitting that distraction when the timer runs out.

Hey, you can even write about that distraction during your writing time. 🙂

  1. Do something else.

Sometimes the well is dry. The words are gone. The ideas have scattered. The muse has left the building. It happens, and fighting it won’t make reality any different. If you find yourself completely sapped of creativity, it’s time to take a break (and no, not a scroll through social media break). Go do something that will refill your writing well. What recharges you? What fills you with inspiration? Is it a walk in the woods? Is it a day to just watch the waves roll in at the ocean, the clouds drift by overhead, or the grass blow in the wind?

Give yourself permission to go slow. My favorite poem by Mary Oliver perfectly encapsulates what an escape like this might look like:

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver

I mean, to sit and contemplate a grasshopper for an afternoon? To distance yourself from the rapid pace of this world? To spend a moment being slow and deliberate with your focus? Pure bliss.

I cover the issue of blocked creativity quite a bit in my book, Reclaim Your Creative Soul. The book is split into sections that cover calming techniques, soul exercises,  organization (uncluttering your life so you can focus), boundaries (protecting your writing time and self-esteem), and how to apply all this to your life. In the final chapter, I wrote this:

Our jobs as artists is to capture pieces of what we perceive, transform it into something new, then offer it back to the people of this world so that they can see it in a different light.

Our tools are our imagination, our experiences, and our emotions. We also draw from our community and beyond. This is why it’s so important for us to not only pay attention to our surroundings, but we should also be with people and in environments that inspire us to go further with our art.

Inspiration won’t always meet you at your desk. There are times when it’s necessary to leave your chair and search for it. You’ll find it in nature, in art galleries, in interesting people…and even in spending the afternoon with a curious grasshopper.

What do you do to combat writer’s block?

4 of my favorite books I’ve read this year (so far)

4 books to read

This year, I set out to read 100 books. We are now almost 1/4 of the way through the year, and I’ve just reached the quarter mark of my reading goal with 25 books. To celebrate, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite books I’ve read this year. At the end, I’ll share some of my secrets for reading fast. Also, I’d love if you commented with some of your favorite books you’ve read because I’m always looking for recommendations!

Note: These are affiliate links, which means I get a small kickback at no extra cost to you when you purchase through them. The recommendations are purely my own, based on my own reading experience.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison

midwifeBecause I’m currently working on a dystopian novel, I’ve been adding more of this genre to my reading list. This book surprised me at how much I loved it, and it tops my list for a reason. Meg Ellison is a San Francisco Bay Area writer, which is exciting to me since I live in the North Bay (hey neighbor!). This was also her first book, a fact that’s almost unbelievable when you begin reading this book. Elison’s way of rounding out her characters is incredible, and her description places you right there in the story.

The premise of the book is that a disease has swept over the earth, killing almost anyone, especially women. The women who do survive find they’re unable to get have children, as they and/or their infant dies during childbirth. Women are also such a rarity that those who have survived death are in danger of enslavement by predator men.

The main character is a female in this world, but she takes on the persona of a man to keep herself safe. The way Elison changes this character’s identity is seamless and artful. With an inexperienced author, it could have come off as confusing, but not so with Elison. The author addresses gender roles, sexuality, morality, and the different ways people cope in the fall of society in this story, and does so with grace and utter believability.

This was one of the first books I read this year, and it’s still stuck with me. It’s the first of a trilogy, and I enjoyed the second book (The Book of Etta) just as much. The third book is due to publish in April.

Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson

jacobThis is an oldie from my childhood that I sat down with one day when I wasn’t feeling well and needed a book that felt kind of like a blanket. This was absolutely my book blanket. In fact, my husband walked in on me when I was almost to the end and caught me with a tear-streaked face and a sob in my throat. I pretty much cried the whole last half of the book, but it was that really good kind of cry that only a great book can produce.

The story follows Louise, a tomboy girl growing up in 1940s Chesapeake Bay, and the twin sister of beautiful Caroline, a girl as fair and delicate as much as Louise is dark and strong. As time goes on, we see Louise struggle with her identity, feeling held back because of the person she is compared to her sister. The story will resonate with anyone who struggles with jealousy or frustration, especially those who grew up with these feelings. It’s a middle grade to young adult book, but don’t let that fool you. The writing is beautiful, and it still stands strong almost 40 years after it was published.

5,331 Miles, by Willow Aster

5331milesI discovered Willow Aster because she teamed up with Tarryn Fisher (one of my favorite authors and human beings) to write the End of Men series, a steamy dystopian romance that will have you fanning yourself as you turn the pages.

5,331 Miles is much more innocent then the End of Men series, but no less incredible. It’s the endearing love story of Jaxson and Mirabelle, two English kids who grew up together and move to the US at separate times, and who also keep missing their chance at love. The characters are flawed and completely human, making mistake after mistake, and still remaining likeable. And the love scenes? Touching and beautiful. This one left me with a smile on my face.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon, by Sarah Addison Allen

moonSarah Addison Allen is tiptoeing her way into my favorite author slot. Her books have a hint of magic wrapped up in sweet character-driven stories, and her writing is beautifully descriptive, and just as magic as the storyline. This latest book was one I never wanted to end, and yet I couldn’t stop reading until it was done. It’s the story of Emily, a girl who goes to live with her grandfather after her mother dies, and discovers this quirky little town where her mother grew up….and that the noble, altruistic mother she grew up knowing was not the same girl the town knew. Emily finds herself living under the shadow of her mother’s mean girl persona as a teen, and she pays socially for her mother’s mistakes as the town turns their noses up at her. However, Emily also meets a few people who are willing to look past her mother’s mistakes and see the true person this girl really is.

As for the magic, it’s honestly just a sprinkling—which is what I love about Allen’s writing. She doesn’t try to overexplain it or even make it a huge part of the story, but offers just a taste of something mystical that enhances the sweet flavor of the story. I just finished the book last night, and it still lingering with me.

HOW I READ FAST

To read 25 books in three months, it takes a bit of strategy. First off, I read every day, mostly at night before I go to bed. This works because I don’t watch a ton of TV (though I do watch American Idol, and was seriously getting irritated that there were TWO two-hour episodes every week. So. Much. TV.). But the kind of books I read matters, too. First off, I do not pad my numbers with novellas, though I’m not opposed to the occasional short read. So far, all of the books I’ve read have been full-length novels. However, length does matter. There’s one book I’m reading that proved to be much longer than I anticipated, and I had to put it down because it was clogging up my progress. Now that I’m ahead of schedule, I plan to pick it up again.

I also pay attention to those genres I read faster than others. My favorite genres are dystopian or end-of-the-world books, magical realism, and romance. That last genre I read the fastest for several reasons. First, I really, really love a good falling in love story, and even better when paired with a bit of steaminess. Second, the writing in standard romance novels isn’t that dense, allowing the reader to breeze through the story without chewing on the words. Yes, I really love reading books with exquisite descriptions and incredible world building (Barbara Kingsolver is my queen). But sometimes I just want a book that serves as an escape. So when my book number is lagging, I reach for chick lit, romance, or any other kind of book that I know I can read in a day or two.

Finally, I make sure I read at least 8 books a month, and strive to read more (since 8×12=96). Once I reach that magic 8 number, I pick up any book I want, even the long ones, and keep on reading.

All right, your turn. What are some of your favorite books you’ve read? Go!

Inconvenient inspiration, and how to seize it before it slips away

writingA few years ago, I was shopping at Trader Joe’s when I saw every parent’s nightmare unfold in front of me. A woman was gathering fruit from the bin while her toddler stood in the large part of the grocery cart. Without warning, the cart tipped and the toddler fell to the ground. The mother immediately swooped up her screaming child, consoling him while shoppers moved around them. Some people stared, and some were completely oblivious to what happened. I placed myself in her shoes, feeling her shame from any judgment over letting her son be in that part of the cart in the first place, and her worry over her son who could have been hurt much worse from the fall. Then the questions began forming in my mind. What if it was much worse? What if her son didn’t survive? As a mother, what would her identity be if her only child passed away?

That scene inspired my book, The Road to Hope, a story about Jill, a mother who loses her son to this very accident. This story also introduced an accidental character—Maddie, a pregnant teen who crosses paths with Jill. I continued the series telling Maddie’s story, infusing pieces of my life into hers, a process that allowed me to grieve and heal from experiences I’d been stuffing.

I pull inspiration for my stories from many different places. Sometimes it’s from something I witness—like the grocery store scene—that leads me to scenarios and characters that grow by just asking myself questions. Sometimes it’s from overhearing a conversation, which prompts me to fill in the gaps. Sometimes it’s inspired by moments from my life that I need to work out in fiction. And sometimes the story comes from a dream.

My first published book, A Symphony of Cicadas, was based on a dream I had while I was planning my wedding. My greatest fear at that time was that something would happen to me before I got to marry the love of my life. Because of this, I had a dream where I died in a car crash. But instead of waking up as soon as I died, the dream continued, showing how all the people I loved were moving on after my death, including my fiancé. I watched as my fiancé met and fell in love with another woman. As I witnessed this, I experienced a small bit of wistfulness. But mostly, I felt this immense rush of peace because he was happy and I knew he was going to be okay. I woke up crying, and the whole book began flowing through me. I couldn’t outline it fast enough.

This kind of dream inspiration happened again with Numbered, the book I’m currently writing. At the time, I was at a crossroads in my writing life, wondering if I had any more books in me. But then I had this dream. All I saw was a man’s face, but I knew his whole story. He was dying from cancer, despite looking completely healthy, and he knew the exact date of his death. I woke up with a question—what if everyone actually knew the date they would die? How would that affect the way they live? The story began flowing through me and I ran downstairs to get it down before I lost it, spending two hours outlining the novel, and describing the characters and their backgrounds.

Inspiration can some from anywhere, you just have to pay attention and be ready to receive it when it comes calling. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares how she carries index cards everywhere, ready to write down conversations, moments, anything that comes to her while she’s out and about because inspiration rarely comes when it’s convenient. Nowadays, you don’t even need index cards if you have a smartphone, because it’s just as easy to jot it down in your phone’s notes or even record it as a voice memo. Inspiration likes to hit me while I’m driving, which is an awful time for it to arrive. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve lost because I didn’t pull over immediately and get it down. By the time I reach a convenient moment, all or most of the story has already gone.

One of my favorite stories about the way inspiration works is how Liz Gilbert shared in her Ted talk about the late American poet, Ruth Stone, and how a poem would come barreling at her over the landscape. Ruth Stone’s job at that point was to drop everything and race for a pencil because if she didn’t, the poem would flow in and then out of her, searching for another poet who was ready to receive it. Watch it below (it’s less than 2 minutes long).

Have you ever had a moment when inspiration struck you when you least expected it? What did you do to make sure you didn’t lose it?

How to silence your inner writing critic

frustrated writerA friend of mine was telling me about a young writer she knows who was having some serious doubts about her writing. Man, do I know how that feels! I think any of us who have discovered the joy of writing have also discovered the weight of it, too.

A few years back I wrote Reclaim Your Creative Soul, a book that offers tips on how to organize your inner and outer life so you can make room for writing or other creative projects. One chapter specifically deals with conquering that inner voice of doubt, so I decided to share it in its entirety.

Reclaim Your Creative Soul
Chapter 5  ~ Treat Yourself

Our worst enemy can often be ourselves. We’re the first person to find fault in our appearance, doubt our abilities, and assume everyone is better than us. When I look back at some of the things I’ve said about myself— you’re fat, other authors are so much better at this than you, no one wants to hear what you have to say, you’re not as smart as your coworkers, your book sucks, you could never pull off that look, no one likes you…. I would never say anything like that to other people. So, why do I think it’s okay to say those things to myself?

We, as artists, are probably the hardest on ourselves. It’s so easy to bash what we’ve created, even when other people recognize the magnificence of our creation. But with art comes a sort of madness, and many of us are on the verge of throwing in the towel, certain that someone is going to discover that we’re just a hack who’s pretending to get by. Anytime we think we have something figured out, our inner critic (let’s call it “Marge,” and give her a smoker’s voice, just for kicks) comes breezing in, pointing out every flaw and imperfection. If we dare to make our art public, it gets worse. We build our worth on the feedback from others, and believe we are only as good as the reviews we receive. As soon as a bad review comes in, even one that’s only slightly negative, “Marge” repeats that criticism so we’re sure to take notice. Soon, all we hear is that bad review. It’s almost like every other good thing that was said about our art was never said at all.

There’s something I need to tell you. You are a brilliant human being with a soul too big to be contained. This is why you are an artist. Your art is your way of sharing your expanding soul with the world. If art brings you fulfillment, it’s because you were meant to be an artist. People find joy in your creations, and this world would be bland without them.

But even saying that, I recognize that the only way you will ever be able to let go of “Marge” (or to at least learn to contain that saucy wench) is if you learn to fall in love with yourself.

You guys, things are about to get mushy in here. You’ve been warned.

The first step is to stop slamming yourself. Right this very moment, I want you to promise me that you’ll make a valiant effort to stop negativity in its tracks, especially if it’s not helpful. The moment that “Marge” pipes in with unsolicited feedback, I want you to kindly tell her that you don’t need her help right now, and you’re doing just fine on your own. You need to be stronger than feisty old “Marge,” and let her know who the boss is.

Of course, dominating your inner critic is near impossible, unless you have the right tools in your belt. In this case, the right tools would be solid proof that you are perfectly capable as an artist—the things you are good at doing, the characteristics you possess that draw people in, the training or life experiences you’ve had that contribute to your expertise, the products of your creativity…. This list is as long as the talents, experiences, products and values you can claim as your own.

So, what are those things for you? The only way you can know is if you list out each of these items, adding them to a list of brag-worthy things about you. Don’t be shy, it’s not like you need to show this list to anyone. In this moment, give yourself permission to be proud of yourself. Are you nice? Are you funny? Put those on there. How about if you’re organized? Or maybe you’re like me and rock an ironclad budget. Add those skills to your list. If you run out of things, consider asking other people like your spouse or your best friend. There’s no shame in it. After all, you’d do the same for them, wouldn’t you?

Once you’ve finalized your list, study it. Memorize it. Own it. This is YOUR list. You are good at these things. This list contains the very reasons why you are wonderful, talented, unique, and completely capable. And when “Marge” comes back from her smoke break to give you an earful, kindly hold up your list and remind her that you’ve got this. Then tell her to go home.

So now that you love yourself, it’s time to take yourself out on date (I warned you about the mushiness). Yes. I am seriously telling you to date yourself. This might feel a little uncomfortable, but bear with me.

I first learned the power of taking myself on a date in the early months of my divorce. I was new at being single, and discovering that I wasn’t very good at it. Ever since I had started dating in my teen years, I had always been coupled up with someone. So being single was entirely new to me. And being single with kids? I was definitely not good at this.

As I told you in the beginning of this book, I lived with my parents in those early months, and spent a good portion of that time recovering from my failed marriage in a fetal position on the couch. But sometimes my parents would give me a night off from my depression by urging me to leave the house and do something for myself. Therefore, I’d go out.

Problem is, I was not very much fun to hang out with in my state of melancholy. I didn’t want to burden any of my friends with my Eeyore attitude. I also didn’t know what to do with myself. So I did the only thing I could think of.

I went to the bookstore.

The first several times I got a night to myself, this was where I always ended up. Here, I was surrounded by good friends. Anne Lamott, Alice Sebold, Maya Angelou, Liz Gilbert, Ernest Hemingway, Tim Farrington…. I loved the smell of the bookstore, the feel of books in my hands, the colorful covers, and the even more colorful stories. I’d grab a hot chocolate from the café, and then I’d spend the evening perusing the aisles until the store was ready to close.

Eventually, these dates with myself went to the next level. That’s right folks, it was time for dinner and a movie.

On this special evening, I took myself out to an ethnic restaurant on the other side of town. I didn’t even flinch when I told the waitress, “One, please.” Inside, I was sure every eye was on me. But outwardly, I acted as if going out to eat by myself was no big thing.

Admittedly, it was a little awkward to sit at the table with no one in front of me. There was no one to talk to, or even to look at. I ate my dinner in silence, trying not to look around too much. I think I even brought a book to bide my time. Couples and families surrounded me, and it was apparent that I was the only single dining that night.

But you know what? As I ate, things started feeling a little less awkward. I realized I had somewhat of an advantage. I didn’t have to make conversation if I didn’t want to. I could fully enjoy my meal, focusing on each bite one at a time. No one was watching me. No one even cared that I was eating alone. I could order what I wanted, eat at my own pace, and just enjoy my own company.

After dinner, I walked next door to the movie theater and chose the movie I wanted to watch. Going by myself, I knew which movies it would not be—no action movies, no government schemes, no horror, no car chases. Without a date, I didn’t have to worry about coordinating tastes at all in my movie choice.

“One for ‘Garden State,’ please,” I told the person at the ticket counter.

Once inside and seated, couples surrounded me once again. But when the lights dimmed, it didn’t matter. Even more, I realized just how awesome it is to go to the movies alone. I laughed aloud at the funny parts. And when things got sad, I cried without shame. There was no one there who would see my tears, so I had a really great therapy session right there in the middle of the movie theater. It was cathartic. It was liberating. And it was the best date I’d been on in my life.

Isn’t it time you got some quality time with yourself? How about just straight-up pampering yourself, whether alone or not? There are so many things you can do. You could take yourself out for a healthy meal. You can go get a massage. You can play mini golf. You can…. Well, you can do one of these fifteen things, all under $20.

  • Take a bubble bath with bath salts and scented candles.
  • Enjoy a night in with a good book. Bonus if it includes a cozy drink and fuzzy socks.
  • Take yourself out to lunch and a matinee.
  • Buy yourself flowers. Throw in a small box of chocolates if you want to feel extra special.
  • Purchase a new magazine and read it in the park.
  • Get all Zen at a yoga class.
  • Go for a bike ride in the country. Don’t have a bike? Bike rentals are cheaper than you think.
  • Check out the animals at the zoo.
  • Learn something new at the museum.
  • Be inspired at an art gallery.
  • Visit with a friend you haven’t seen in a while.
  • Host a friend’s night in.
  • Be a tourist in your own town and check out the sights.
  • Get more sleep. Sleep in, take a nap, or go to bed early.
  • Make time for your significant other.

Now that you’re feeling all gushy about yourself, it’s time to commit. What I mean is to take a whole entire day off for yourself. If you can swing it, take a whole entire weekend.

My friend, Molly Kurland, is a successful massage therapist in the area we live, and the author of Successful Strokes: A Realistic Guide to Creating a Lucrative Massage Business. Her job as a masseuse demands a lot of her time and energy. Home life is no less energetic. Her family recently adopted two new puppies that have now reached the high-energy stage of teenagerhood. On top of that, Molly is working on writing and other creative endeavors. There just isn’t much down time. So once a month, Molly kisses her family goodbye and heads for a weekend getaway in the nearby seaside town of Gualala. Here, there is no Internet, no TV, no phone calls, nothing. There’s just her, a private room, a hot tub, and time to spend any way she wants. Sometimes she uses this free time just to read a good book. Sometimes it’s when she gets her best writing in. Sometimes it’s just a chance to breathe in silence. Molly has told me that this solo getaway is her key to happiness, and the way she ensures she can be fully present for her job and family when she’s home. She’s made it a priority to do this at least once a month.

We should all make it a priority to get away from it all on a regular basis. Just as I spelled out in chapters 1 and 4, it’s so important to take a break from the busy part of life and just be still for a moment. It’s especially important for our art so that we can unclutter our minds and create with an unencumbered soul. While taking a weekend away isn’t possible for everyone, most of us are able to take a day off, maybe even a few hours.

After all, YOU are important. Now treat yourself that way.

CHALLENGE YOURSELF

Baby Step: It’s time to write that list! Get out a pen and paper and write down all the things you’re good at, the things about you that make you wonderful, and anything else that’s positive about you. Enlist the help of your family and friends to make sure you have a complete list. Once you’re done, hold on to that list. Then refer to it any time you feel doubt or criticism start to creep in.

Level Up: Take yourself out on a date—just you. Note how it feels to spend time by yourself in a crowd of people. Does it feel weird? Are there any benefits? Could you see yourself doing this more than just this once? Write about the experience when you’re done.

Be Hardcore: Go away for the weekend. If that’s too difficult, strive for just a day. But leave town by yourself so that you can spend some time getting to know YOU.

If you’d like to purchase the whole book, you can find it here.

Quit or continue: What to do if you don’t like the book you’re reading

so many books

At the beginning of this month, I joined thousands of readers to read Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick of the month. From what I could tell, Reese chooses a lot of fun novels that her reader fans love reading together. I thought it would be fun to turn my passion for reading into one that includes community, so I bought the February pick and started reading. It started out well enough, introducing all the characters and presenting a few issues that would become the theme of the book. But when I reached the middle of the book, I realized it wasn’t going to get any better. The conversations were too cute. The issues all felt fabricated. And it seemed like the author was just throwing things in to give the story diversity, but still lacked originality or depth. I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, since a glance at the comments on Reese’s Instagram revealed a lot of the same issues I was having with this book.

I felt cheated. I really wanted to read a book I could discuss with others who felt the same kind of passion I did. But more than that, I’m on a mission to read 100 books this year. This book had already taken 4 days of my reading time, and I was only 50% of the way through. To read 100 books in a year, my average reading time needs to be 3 days per book (I said “average.” Some books I breeze through—*hello, romance*—so that I have time to savor deeper stories). I was in a conundrum. If I finished this book, I would use up more of my precious reading time on a book I didn’t love. If I put it down and started over, that was 4 reading days wasted on a book I couldn’t count toward my goal.

Side note: I’m not naming the book, even though a quick search will tell you what book it is. My feelings are my own, and I don’t want to include my thoughts on this book to an internet search of the book. I recognize the hard work of any author who writes a book, regardless of whether I liked it or not. Her traditional publisher thought this book was good enough to be published and promoted. I am just the voice of one reader, and there are plenty of readers who felt differently and love the book.

I put this dilemma out there to those who follow me on Facebook and Instagram, and here’s what some people said:

  • I used to always finish every book I started, but there are so many books I want to read and so little time to do it in.
  • Stop reading it for a while, go back, read a chapter. If I can get that far, it is very difficult to stop. Each circumstance or book is unique.
  • Sad to say I quit. It’s tough to continue something that isn’t grasping your attention.
  • I used to keep going. These days I am just too busy to spend my life on something that I don’t find beneficial. I mean, if I don’t have another book at hand, I keep going though, because reading.
  • Life is too short and there are too many books to waste another minute!
  • I very rarely quit. Sometimes it pays off at the end and sometimes I’m just glad it’s over.
  • Far too many GREAT books to struggle through weak ones.
  • I actually POSTPONE. Sometimes, a really great book just needs a particular mindset and I may not have it when I first read it. I’ve had a number of books that I just couldn’t get into when I first attempted and weeks/months/years later have picked up and thoroughly enjoyed. There are, of course, others that I just couldn’t stand so I simply stopped.
  • In the same boat and still I keep going even though I am not remembering or even caring about what I’m reading. It’s all about powering thru.
  • I started skimming it, reading a sentence here and there to get the flavor of the story or topic.

As you can see, most of these commenters think you should quit if a book isn’t grasping you the way you should. In the end, I powered through the book to reach the end. My feelings over my reading investment overruled my desire to give up on the book. I felt slightly better having reached the conclusion, though no less frustrated with the lacking depth of the story.

However, I have come to the realization that if I truly don’t like a book, the best thing I can do is put it down and start another. Like one person wrote, I can always pick it up later when I’m in the space to read it. Like another person wrote, there are too many great books out there to struggle with one I don’t find that great.

My friend Becky, who blogs for The Page Sage and The Bookworm, advises readers to give books to page 100 to decide whether a book is good or not. If it’s not, put it down and start another. “If you’re not enjoying it, don’t force yourself to finish it,” she says. “Reading is a time to unwind in another world for a while, not a time to suffer through something.”

How about you? What do you do if you don’t enjoy the book you’re reading? And what book would you absolutely recommend everyone read?

2019: My year of focus

Instead of New Year’s resolutions, I always dedicate the new year to a word. Last year’s word was confidence, and it was a life changing year that included clarity, a job change, expanding my comfort zone, and the birth of a novel after a devastating drought of inspiration.

If you’d like to read the details of my past 4 word journeys, including the game changing details from my year of confidence, here they are:

Part 1: The words that led me to my year of confidence

Part 2: A look back at 2018, my year of confidence

I’ve been considering my word for 2019, praying and meditating for the past few days on the one that will further my journey. My word for 2019 is FOCUS, and I’m so excited to take my life path to a whole new level.

But it goes further than that. The truth is, my word for the year is actually FIVE words: Pray ~ Plan ~ Focus ~ Execute ~ Persist. These words take the past 4 word journeys of intention, perseverance, faith, and confidence, and bring them all together to my 2019 year of focus—the year I stop getting in my own way. Over the past several years, I mistakenly believed my own worth was tied to how many plates I could keep spinning at the same time. It turns out I can keep a lot of them spinning, but I lost myself at the same time. Suddenly, the process became more important than the outcome. My dreams died a slow death as tasks became my bloodstream. I realized I was letting my family down, I was losing my dreams, and I had lost myself.

I don’t care what it is, anything that steals your zest for life needs to be stopped. I had lost my zest for life.

And then, I regained it.

Here we are, just about to enter 2019, and I have the promise of an almost finished novel in my grasp, one that gives me the same excited feelings I had when I prepared to publish my very first novel. That’s huge!

I have end goals in mind on this journey of focus. I expect this year will see strides made in my writing and publishing career, and in my overall health. But my attention is on the journey itself. What can I do now that will get me closer to my desired result? Which small goals can I make that will bring me further down this road? Instead of focusing on the big things I want, my focus is better served by looking at the steps just in front of me and continuously moving forward. And if I slip up, my focus needs to not be on the mistake, but on brushing myself off and moving forward once again.

A look back at 2018, my year of confidence

breaking free

If you haven’t already, go back and read my last post on the words that led me to my 2018 word of the year. Those words were:

2015: Intention

2016: Perseverance

2017: Faith

At the end of 2017, I was reeling from three months that included a massive fire that devastated my hometown, a failed book release, a writing project that took my failure to a whole new level, plus the realization that I couldn’t handle the busy life I had created for myself. I was still in school, working full time at a job that was eating me alive, volunteering as a mentor at my church, and completely failing my family since I had nothing left to give.

I was broken. I questioned everything about my life. I felt like a massive failure, adding up all the years I’d dedicated to writing books and the lack of success that had come from it. I forgot about all the accomplishments I’d experienced in past years because 2017 was just so bad.

My word for 2018 became confidence, because my confidence was utterly shaken. I needed a year to get a grip and realize my worth. It wasn’t just about confidence in who I was, it was also confidence in WHOSE I was. Despite every flaw I owned as my identity, I needed to remember that I was God’s daughter, completely loved and cherished. My mistakes, my flaws, my carefully laid out plans, my intelligence or lack thereof, my job, my successes, my failures, my extra 20+ pounds, my bank account, my ideas for how I wanted my life to be, and my disappointments in how I hadn’t yet reached that bar….none of these things defined me. What defines me is that I am God’s creation and He delights in every single thing I do. He knows what I’m capable of, and is excited to see me accomplish it.

But before I could accomplish anything, before I could understand my worth, before I could get even close to feeling confident in who I am and whose I am…I needed a break.

I knew this deep down, but I didn’t know how to make this happen. So God made it happen for me. At the beginning of the year, my mother-in-law required full-time care in her home. She was returning from a care facility following surgery after a bad fall, and was confined to a wheelchair. Much of her available funds were used up, and we were running out of options.

It’s you, I heard God tell me. You’re the one who is supposed to do this.

20 years ago, I was a stay-at-home mom to my firstborn, and was getting ready to start working again. After a brief stint at as a hotel worker, I decided to take courses to become a certified nursing assistant. Over the next few years, I was able to juggle motherhood while also working at a convalescent hospital, and working as an in-home aide to the elderly.

Two decades later, God was telling me to take those skills and apply them to caring for my convalescing mother-in-law. Here’s the thing—I had a rocky relationship with my MIL. A few years ago, we got into a blowup over something, and it ended poorly. The situation was never resolved, and both of us swept it under the carpet. However, I’m deeply affected by conflict. Every single time we visited after that, I’d end the evening in a full-blown panic attack that felt something like excruciating, doubled over stomach pain, triggered by anything that started to look like an argument. And I was supposed to care for her full time, 24/7?

“I’ll do it,” I told my husband.

The result was more than I could have imagined. Yes, there were some rocky moments in the time I cared for her. We had a few arguments. There were some frustrations. But more than that, we developed a better understanding of each other. I became fond of her, and protective of her well-being.

But there’s a deeper reason why God instructed me to take this on—I needed a break.

Caring for my MIL is a funny way to take a break, but that’s exactly what happened. After two weeks of trying to juggle my job and being a full time caretaker, plus hyperventilating about the college classes I’d signed up for that were just about to start, I took family leave from work. I got 6 glorious weeks away from the newspaper so that I could focus on my MIL’s care. I was also able to devote more energy to my classes, which included creative writing and literature, two classes that transformed my writing endeavors.

And I started scaling back and learning to say no. I let go of a few obligations that were sapping my energy. I slowed down. I gave myself permission to stop writing books, and wrote only for me instead. I learned how to do one thing at a time. I’m not going to pretend it was all wine and roses—I was still caretaking, and I struggled with never having a moment just to myself. But life became simpler, my brain less foggy, and the weight began to lift from my shoulders. I started recognizing myself in the mirror, no longer seeing the unrested, emotional girl weighed down by that day’s top headlines.

As the layers of my trodden newspaper self began to peel away, my confidence began to increase. Remember my word for the year? Confidence. I was still in the infancy of this word when I began looking for other work, hoping to score something before my family leave was up. I had sought out work before, but I never actually believed I’d get hired anywhere else, even with a pay cut, because I didn’t have a college degree. This time was different. I knew I’d reached the point where I could no longer go back to the newspaper, even if it meant I had to take a pay cut….even if it meant I didn’t have another job. In my time away, I realized I was dying a slow death in my job, that this wasn’t the place for me. I’d been lucky to have this job, it opened a lot of doors for me and taught me so many things. But I was not meant to do this job. It belonged to someone who was passionate about this line of work, not me. I applied to a few interesting jobs, including a real estate marketing job that involved every single thing I loved about my current job, and left out all the stuff I hated. I applied, and wrote a killer cover letter that shared every single reason why I belonged with their company.

Long story long (you can read the full story here), I got the job! I worked at the newspaper for only two or so more months before I left. I’d been there a total of 11 years. In that time, we were owned by three corporations (including the New York Times), I met my husband there, I got my own column, we won the Pulitzer Prize (for our coverage of the fires), and I met a lot of wonderful people, some of which I know I’ll remain in touch with.

I know this is going long, and I apologize. Thank you for sticking with me this far. It’s just that this year has been one of transformation, all because I decided to focus on growing my confidence and letting go of a lot of things that were weighing me down. As I mentioned before, writing was one of those heavy things, which is crazy. But as I mentioned earlier and in my last post, my last few writing projects had failed. I was reeling from my horrible attempt at writing a book right after the Santa Rosa fire tragedy. I had released a book at the end of 2017 and another at the beginning of 2018 (the final installments of the Hope series), all to a lukewarm audience because my heart just wasn’t in it. All that work felt like it was for nothing, and I stopped seeing writing as something I loved to do, and started seeing it as something that was letting me down. It wasn’t making me any money. No one was reading my work. It was all a huge waste of time. Giving myself permission to stop writing felt like a huge weight off my shoulder. I also stopped blaming myself for these failures, offering grace to myself, instead. Somewhere I’d taken a wrong turn, believing MORE was the best option until my plate was so full, even tiny droplets were tipping the scale. The fire sent me over the edge, but if it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else. I’d lost my margins, to the point that writing—my one escape—no longer filled my soul. The idea that I might never write another book was both terrifying and relieving. I actually accepted that this was the end.

And then…

I woke up from a dream, a man’s face in my mind. I knew his fate. It was followed by a story that began flowing through me. The muse was back! I raced out of bed to my computer where I typed out the layout to my next book as fast as it was coming to me. I stayed there for hours, getting every detail down. Before I knew it, I had the plan for my next book, the characters, the setting…everything! This was a week into my summer vacation. I had planned on spending the summer reading everything I could get my hands on (thanks to my awesome literature class), and this novel was completely unexpected. Well, I did both. I read as much as I could, soaking up words from authors I loved, learning how they did it through each story. I read across genres, from classic literature to sensual romance to spiritual inspiration to contemporary fiction…and everything in between. And I wrote. The story snowballed as I wrote it, the characters becoming three-dimensional as they surprised me, told me their backstories, revealed their weaknesses, and took me on twists and turns in an adventure I’m not exactly writing, but transmitting. The story is flowing through me in ways I can’t describe. I’m just the scribe.

This brings me to today. The story isn’t done yet. I had to put it down while I finished my fall finals. Those ended last week, this week is Christmas, and after the holiday, I’m back to the story. My goal is to finish the rough draft by the middle of January, and have the rough draft done a few months after that. Once again, I’m excited about writing, and that’s the best feeling in the world.

To cap it all off, here are some of the accomplishments of this past year of confidence:

– I mended my relationship with my MIL

– I quit my newspaper job and found a new job (that I love!) in marketing

– I relearned how to slow down

– I started writing my next novel

– I read 53 books (and counting! The year isn’t over yet!)

– I became more sure of who I am, WHOSE I am, and what I actually want out of life

This last one is a work in progress, and probably always will be. Confidence will always be a work in progress. Any word I’ve worked on over the years is a work in progress.

I am a work in progress.

However, each word has taught me a little more about myself, and has paved the way for each new year’s adventure. Which leads me to my NEXT adventure—2019, and how I tied all of these words together for this next leg of my journey…

To be continued…

The words that led me to my year of confidence

Every new year, I dedicate that year to a specific word that will shape the next 365 days and hopefully take me further in my improvement journey. I always pray and meditate on this word, waiting on God to reveal the things in my life that need my attention and the theme that will guide me throughout the next year. At the end of each year, I’m amazed at how perfect that word really was, and how much it’s transformed my life.

Here’s a recap of the words I’ve chosen since I started recording them here:

2015: Intention

2016: Perseverance

2017: Faith

And then there was my 2018 word of the year: Confidence

To say this year has been transformational is an understatement. The goal of 2018 was to not only be confident in who I am, but WHOSE I am. It was to build myself up, because at the end of 2017, I was a complete shell of who I was supposed to be.

However, it’s hard to talk about my 2018 word without recapping the past year’s words. So let’s take a look back.

In 2015, my word intention was meant to ensure every action I made was intentional. What ended up happening was a mini crisis of the soul, leading me to a soul retreat in August of that year, which then led me to writing Reclaim Your Creative Soul—a book I published the following year that not only described ways to make creativity a priority in your life, but also explained the ways we block our own creativity and how to break through those blocks. Not only that, but the month before I wrote Reclaim Your Creative Soul, I live-wrote my Peter Pan prequel book, Loving the Wind, releasing chapters after writing each one. This was one of my favorite books I ever wrote, as it practically wrote itself. I ended 2015 with one published book (Come Here, Cupcake), two more books written (Loving the Wind and Creative Soul), and a feeling that my year of intention was a success.

In 2016, my word of the year was perseverance. I was riding high off of my 2015 accomplishments and was ready to continue the momentum. I mapped out each month of the year with lofty goals, and then tacked it to my wall so I could stay the course. What was supposed to be motivational ended up being incredibly stressful. By that summer, the list was gone, and I chose to go at a slower rate. Ha. My slower rate meant that I added college to my already packed life, and I ended the year with two more books written back to back—the 2nd and 3rd books of my Hope series. At the time, I reached a breaking point at my job where I knew I’d have another nervous breakdown (related to my 2015 crisis of the soul) if I didn’t find a new place to work. I’d always felt like I was stuck where I was, lucky to even have a job, because I didn’t have a college degree. I figured I had a handle on my life structure—I mean, I laid it all out in Creative Soul. I was an expert on this! And so, adding college courses was a piece of cake. I could totally succeed as a student while also juggling family life, a full time job, volunteer work, and writing books.

Right.

I ended 2016 with two more published books (the ones I wrote in 2015), two more books written (Hope at the Crossroads and Hope for the Broken Girl), an A in the two classes I took, and the worst flu of my life, possibly brought on by sheer exhaustion. Yeah, I persevered, but I ran myself ragged doing it.

In 2017, my word of the year was faith. While 2016 had been a success, I also realized I was trying to do everything on my own. I was also reeling from the 2016 election and was just feeling completely dejected over the direction our country was taking. And so I started the year with a 7 day fast. I was already super sick and my appetite wasn’t there. Still, surviving on just juiced vegetables was an incredible experience. Once I got past the hunger, I felt surreal. My body buzzed with a different kind of energy, and my mind was clearer than it had ever been. I spent those 7 days in deep prayer and meditation, and ended it with excited anticipation over the faith journey I was embarking on. It went fairly well until the last quarter of the year, when Santa Rosa was struck by the devastating Tubbs fire, and I watched my hometown burn. I still worked at the newspaper (remember that job I’d been trying to leave?), and I poured myself into my work. For two weeks, my job made sense. College classes were cancelled during this time, and I dedicated all of my energy into my job, working overtime and focusing on all fire-related aspects. I was all in, along with my colleagues. And when those two weeks, I crashed. The reality of the devastation was all around those of us who lived there. Everyone knew someone who lost their home. A whole portion of our town was missing. Dozens of people had died, and their stories were devastating. The adrenaline that had fueled me was gone, and I was left with a sense of survivor’s guilt and an overwhelming feeling that I hadn’t done nearly anything to help those who had lost so much. I still had my home. So many people didn’t.

To make things worse, I’d been planning on launching the 2nd and 3rd books in my Hope series around this same time. I held off a few weeks, releasing Hope for the Broken Girl at the end of October, but didn’t celebrate its release one bit. It was largely ignored because I just couldn’t bring myself to market it when my whole town was in charred ruins. I chose to wait until 2017 to publish the 3rd book, and I felt miserable that a book I’d been so excited about in 2016 was released in such a pathetic manner. Honestly, I should have waited much longer to publish.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I chose to write another book right after the fires. I thought it would be therapeutic to write after so much letdown. I was wrong. I’d chosen to write the sequel to Come Here, Cupcake, an adorable book that was different from every genre I’d ever written, and one I had been struggling with for years in coming up with a decent sequel. This was NOT the book to write at this time. The end result was a horrible rough draft and an intensified feeling of failure. I was coming apart at the seams. With this added pressure I’d placed on myself, along with college courses, a job I hated, and a tanking author career, I finally reached my breaking point.

Which brings me to my 2018 word of the year, CONFIDENCE.

To be continued….

This is 41

This is 41.

This is lots of laughter, so much love, life done well, dreams coming true, and a peaceful soul, combined with moments of negativity, tears, impatience, discomfort, and fatigue. This is being human for 4 decades and feeling more myself with every year that passes.

There’s so much more I want out of life, and yet I love my life. Every year gets better and better, and I feel so lucky to be this rich in love and life.

Today has been a very happy birthday, this past year has been one of my best, and I’m excited to see what this new year brings.