Calendar Contest Winners (yes, that word is plural)

I specifically chose NOT to select one word as a theme for this year. I’m terrible at following through with things. And yet one message keeps sticking with me regarding my writing and ministry (if you want to call it that)—generosity. I cannot only promote myself. I can’t do things that are simply to further my own brand. So ...

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I specifically chose NOT to select one word as a theme for this year. I’m terrible at following through with things. And yet one message keeps sticking with me regarding my writing and ministry (if you want to call it that)—generosity. I cannot only promote myself. I can’t do things that are simply to further my own brand. So much of the writing business is about tooting your own horn and staying in front of your readers. I feel uncomfortable every time I do that, and yet I keep trying because I feel like that’s what I’m “supposed” to do.

However, in a Bible study a few months ago, I was introduced to the concept that we don’t need to keep coming up with new plans, asking God to bless them. We need to watch and see where God is already working—and then get on board.

So that is what I’m doing.

Do you realize how many amazing ministries there are out there? Some causes are close to my heart; others are new to me. Some people have far-reaching audiences and some have no more than a handful of friends. And yet the love behind each of their efforts is genuine and enthusiastic and passionate. I’d be honored to work with these women (not meaning to generalize, but all of the entries came from women) to reach new people—to help people focus their thoughts and pray, whatever the particular circumstances. To give them hope to hold onto, no matter what is going on.

Almost immediately after I announced this contest, I felt such regret. Not because I had second thoughts about designing a calendar for someone else, but because HOW ON EARTH CAN I DECIDE?! I received SO MANY amazing ideas. Well over 30 of them, most well thought out and intriguing. I’ve read them again and again, printed them out, thought and planned and made spread sheets and prayed.

But I couldn’t make a decision.

Until I realized that the only person limiting me to just one winner was me. This is my blog… this is my contest… and I can do what I want :-).

So this is what I’m doing:

The winner of the prayer calendar for March is, well, two people. It’s sort of a combination of the ideas entered by Michelle Nietert and Dr. Michelle Bengtson.

Michelle Nietert sent me this:

I’m a professional counselor and March is our busiest season especially for children and adolescents as well as their families. It begins the first month of the season of the highest suicide attempt rates in the country for adolescents. Also increased teen pregnancy and psych hospital admissions occur in the spring. I would love to see a calendar about praying through emotions and themes that combat these struggles. Prayer prompts for things like experiencing joy instead of depression, hope to combat discouragement, replacing fear with courage, confidence to combat doubt, energy to replace exhaustion, etc.

Dr. Michelle Bengtson, author of Hope Prevails: Insights from a Doctor’s Personal Journey through Depression, wrote this:

I’d love to have a prayer prompt calendar centered around some of the themes in my book, Hope Prevails: Insights From a Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression. Prompts could include (but not limited to) praying for those who are currently struggling in the valley of depression, as well as prompts that coincide with the chapters in the book: recovering our joy, reclaiming our peace, re-establishing our identity, knowing our worth in Him, remembering our secure destiny, being confident that nothing separates us from His love, being thankful that God uses our pain, etc.

Michelle Nietert brought my attention to the appropriateness of the timing, but I’ve been wanting to read Michelle Bengtson’s Hope Prevails, so I’m kind of merging the two entries into one calendar. I plan to pull many of the prompts from ideas in the book. I’m excited to bring this to you next month, particularly because in this part of the country, March can be pretty blah. And we can all, always, use some hope.

But then again, why stop there?!

In May, I’m teaming up with Sarah Philpott for a topic I feel passionate about—a movement to honor all women on Mother’s Day. I haven’t miscarried or lost a child or had fertility issues, but I have lost my mom, and it made me realize how many people experience mixed emotions while the rest of the world is celebrating mothers during that whole month.

In October or November, I’m planning to do a calendar based around the themes of a new novel—historical fiction about the Oklahoma Land Rush—being released by Jayme Mansfield. I think it will be a fun challenge to create a calendar around ideas in a novel. I picked this simply because I thought it would be fun.

And all those other months? Well, you just never know. So if you aren’t mentioned here, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t hear from me later! Honestly, the only thing keeping me from promising to pick one a month for the next year is the fact that, while I love to plan, I’m terrible at follow-through. I don’t want to overcommit and then disappoint people (and myself). Not to mention the fact that I need to leave some room for creativity—whatever floats my boat at that particular time. I like to leave some room for inspiration and whimsy. While writing this post, in fact, I came up with yet another idea I am dying to do for April!

Please know that if I move forward with any of your ideas, I will give you credit, link to your blog (if you have one), and seek your input as I create the calendar.

So, to all of you who entered, I want to say thank you. Besides inspiring me in general, your suggestions also inspired me to branch out.

Many of the ideas submitted were important but not necessarily universal needs—things like pregnancy loss, being in the sandwich generation, facing cancer, dealing with grief, and so on. A few months ago I created a calendar for Laura Polk, who writes for Christian single moms. (If you’d like to know how to pray for a single mom (or if you’re one), click on over here to sign up for her newsletter and get your copy of it for free.) As I read the contest entries, I decided to expand on that idea and develop a series of undated “30 days of prayer for ___” calendars to make available for people whenever they’re facing a specific situation.  I plan to slowly add to my downloads page with more of these as I can find the time.

In a few weeks, I’ll send the new hope-themed calendar to my newsletter subscribers, so if you’re not already signed up, now would be a good time. (Click here and then subscribe in the purple box in the upper right part of the page. The teal colored “never miss a post” box on the blog page subscribes you to blog posts but not my monthly newsletter.) When you sign up, you’ll have access to the February calendar right away.

Thank you all for the excitement surrounding these calendars, for your passion for the people you’re connected with, and for your belief that prayer matters!

Fred Perry

My fourth interview, Fred Perry won the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition for Television/Movie Script. He has a whole list of awards to his credit and (I sound like a broken record) I loved reading his answers. I love that this venture has allowed me to meet such different writers with such great responses. Enjoy! Tell ...

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17ce08dMy fourth interview, Fred Perry won the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition for Television/Movie Script. He has a whole list of awards to his credit and (I sound like a broken record) I loved reading his answers. I love that this venture has allowed me to meet such different writers with such great responses. Enjoy!

Tell me about your winning story. Where did you get the idea? What do YOU like about it? Do you currently have plans to produce this?

FIVE DAYS IN CALCUTTA is a dark comedy about a ridiculously botched suicide attempt that reunites two brothers who are polar opposites.

A few years ago, a friend who had hit bottom, decided to end it all by hanging himself.  But the rope broke, resulting in two broken ankles.  I thought that was funny as hell.  He did, too.  So I used the event to open the story.

Although I love dry, cynical humor based on absurd, but believable situations, I am also a sucker for happy endings that seem to come out of left field.  I think the script offers both elements.

How did you get into script writing? What do you love about it? Is there a common thread or theme to what you write?

I never aspired to be a writer.  I just wanted to act.  But when I was in the Army, I suffered nerve damage to my face.  There went my fabulous close-ups.  Since I still wanted to be a part of the biz, I thought screenwriting might be another route. So, while working as a parking attendant at Universal Studios in Hollywood, I used to sneak onto the lot and scrounge through the dumpsters behind the production offices for discarded scripts.  This was how I learned basic screenplay format.

I can’t honestly say I love anything about the actual writing process; it’s more of a compulsion, frequently, an exhausting one.  There is, however, one thing I do love.  That’s when an unformed story idea suddenly takes seed, creating a snapshot of the entire story in my mind’s eye.  Everything else is hard work.

Most of my scripts do seem to revolve around a number of common themes: rebirth, second chances, ascending to higher levels of consciousness, the metaphysical.

What are your current projects?

I am currently working on metaphysical drama about a traumatized war vet, radical, top secret PTSD experiments gone wrong, and states of existence beyond our physical world.

Who we are and what we    believe often comes through in our writing since it influences our world view. Does your faith (whatever it might be, or even a lack of faith) play any part in what you write?

For me, God exists beyond religious doctrine or intellectual comprehension.  I have experienced his presence on too many occasions to believe otherwise.  So yes, most of my spec scripts do tend to touch on the metaphysical aspects of our existence.

My blog and book are about prayer, but focused more on creativity and about new ways of looking at things. Do you have any interesting or unusual approaches to writing and/or your writing process? Or anything to say about the connection between any other form of art and writing? Or any advice for someone who has the desire to pursue this passion? Or would you like to share the best writing advice anyone gave you? (Or any other semi-related topic?)

Though it shattered my ego at the time, the best and most graphic writing advice I ever got was from a producer at Paramount, who had called me in for a meeting about a spec script I had submitted.  When I entered his office, the first thing he did, even before we introduced ourselves, was to unceremoniously toss my script into a wastebasket.  As I stood there, utterly confused, he looked up at me from his desk and said, “It’s crap.  What the hell is the ending supposed to mean?”  Turned out, that was just his unique way of giving notes.  Yikes!  But today, I am grateful for that brutal assessment.  Because from that moment on, my third-act endings became tight, unambiguous and consistent with every plot point introduced in the first two acts.

Incidentally, I ended up writing a number of assignments for this producer.

Don’t stop and think about it — can you name five books you’ve read fairly recently that you loved and would recommend to others?

IMPERIUM by Robert Harris, LUSTRUM by Robert Harris, REDEMPTION by Leon Uris, SERUM by Edward Rutherfurd, PROOF OF HEAVEN by Eben Alexander, M.D.

Where can people find you online? 

Linked in is fine, I suppose.  I’m not a real networking junky.  In fact, I’m a techno-primitive, so I don’t know all the protocols, etc., et al.  Hope the info I sent is useful.

Thanks for thinking of me.  And good luck with the book!

Elaine Howley

Third installment in my series of interviews with first place category winners in the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. I’m so glad I decided to do this because there is such variety among these writers, and all of them are really interesting and articulate (imagine that). Enjoy! Tell me about your winning story. Where ...

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2012HeadshotThird installment in my series of interviews with first place category winners in the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. I’m so glad I decided to do this because there is such variety among these writers, and all of them are really interesting and articulate (imagine that). Enjoy!

Tell me about your winning story. Where did you get the idea? Is it part of a longer piece? What is your favorite thing about it? (And is there a link to it somewhere, or is it only available in the competition collection when it comes out in November?)  

My winning story was a magazine feature profile of sportscaster and former NFL sideline reporter Andrea Kremer. The idea actually came as an assignment for SWIMMER magazine, for which I was freelancing at the time. (I have since been hired as their Associate Editor, which has been a wonderful rescue from an awful and stressful day job that I had for three years while trying to build up my freelance business.) For the Kremer profile (Tiny Titan), the magazine actually flew me to Orlando to attend a swim meet where she was swimming. I spent two days hanging out with Andrea — interviewing her, swimming with her, and just generally getting to know her, which I think really helped to inform the story. I always feel like I get so much more from people when I get to interview them in person. It’s hard to do it, but when it works out, I then have a lot of really rich material to draw from when I sit down to write.

I’ve put a link to the story as it was published in SWIMMER on my blog, Tales of the Beer Baby. The piece I submitted to the WD contest was a slightly edited version. Their strict 2,000 word limit for the category meant I had to lose about 200 words on the piece. It also gave me an opportunity to revise a few things that actually made the piece stronger. That final version will be what’s published in the compilation, but you can check out the original piece as it looked in the magazine online here.

When did you decide you wanted to write, or that you were serious enough or good enough to call yourself a writer? What do you love about your genre/type of writing? How did you know what to write?

I feel like I’ve always been a writer. I can remember being about 7 or 8 and trying to write down every word I could think of that began with a certain letter of the alphabet. I won first place two years running in a short story contest sponsored by the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English when I was in 5th and 6th grade, which was some early positive feedback about my skills. When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher always paired me with another student who was not as facile with the language so I could help bring him up a little, and I got a lot of practice with editing and workshopping his work. On the last day of 8th grade, she made me promise that I’d send her a copy of my first book, since she knew I would become a writer someday. Funny how certain teachers just know stuff like that.

I majored in German and Studio Art as an undergrad, which was really interesting but didn’t prepare me well for the job market, so after a stint teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer, I came home and was amounting to little more than a receptionist. That didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to go back to grad school. But for what? I thought seriously about doing a physical therapy course, but I discovered Emerson College’s MA in Publishing and Writing and it just made a lot of sense to me to get back to my love of words and see where it would take me. Not long after I got into grad school (which I completed at night while working full time) I landed a new job writing and editing for a niche publishing and consulting firm. I learned so much on the job there about how to crank out good newsletter articles and book projects on demand. I also learned how to interview people and how to be fearless in following up, all good skills to have as a freelance writer.

I think once I’d graduated from Emerson, I began to think of myself as a writer, but it was only after I had my first magazine article published (in SWIMMER) that I started introducing myself to other people as a writer. That was a big mental leap for me, a shift in my very identity.

I have really dug into the magazine feature writing area in the last 4 years, and have been surprised at how much I love it. The format just works for me– getting to dive into a topic for 1,800 to 2,000 words, learn as much as I can, distill it down, and then wrap it all up with a nice bow is just great fun and exciting work. Particularly profiles. I find other people fascinating, and I like to listen to their stories and try to figure out what makes them tick. I also know that everyone has something unique and truly interesting about them and it’s my job to find out what that one central, vital thing is and then express it to readers. It’s a challenge and a bit like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. And when they all click into place, it’s a really great feeling.

I can’t say that I ever really knew what to write, I just sort of drifted into it, led there by my passion for swimming and my interest in learning more about the various aspects of the sport and other swimmers. Way leads on to way, and here I am now a working journalist and editor. I write a lot about swimming, but I’ve written about other sports, too, and some other topics here and there. It’s a really interesting journey. I never would have guessed that I’d be doing this today when I first entered the Emerson program in 2003. But, I love what I do; being creative every day, especially about subjects I’m interested in and passionate about, is just such a treat.

What are your goals or current projects? Where are you on your path to being a published writer? (Are you working on a book? Focusing on short stories? I see the list of clips on your website.)

There’s so much I’d like to do with my writing, but I find that time is a real problem, as I am constantly working. My long distance swimming requires a lot of training time, too, but that’s when I think up new ideas and do a lot of that mental pre-writing that’s so important. I’ve been published extensively in various magazines, newsletters, and websites. I’ve written several business management manuals and completed several book-length market intelligence reports, but I haven’t gotten a ‘real’ book published yet, which is a major goal for me. I’ve been shopping around a few swimming-related non-fiction concepts. I’m hopeful I can find an agent to help me with that. In the meanwhile, my tactic is to just keep pitching and collecting clips and bylines and continue to develop relationships with other editors in the magazine world. I feel like it will happen, I just need to keep working really hard at it!

Who we are and what we believe often comes through in our writing since it influences our world view. Does your faith (whatever it might be, or even a lack of faith) play any part in what you write?

I’m not a religious person, but I would call myself a spiritual person, and I am in touch with that part of my life when I am in the midst of a very long swim. That’s when I get to commune with nature and think deeply about things. It’s a zen-like meditation practice when I get into that zone. A friend once described it as a shamanic experience. Whatever you call it, it’s wonderful when it happens and it’s a big draw to the sport. Part of the beauty of long distance swimming is that mental space to think or not, as the water moves me. That does greatly influence what and how I write. I can’t tell you how many articles and stories I drafted in my head during my 18-hour Lake Memphremagog swim. I couldn’t remember them all when I got back to my computer a couple days later, but I know their fingerprints are there and echoes of them seep out when I write. It’s all in there, and having the peace and space during a swim to just be is an important part of the creative process for me.

My blog and book are about prayer, but focused more on creativity and about new ways of looking at things. Do you have any interesting or unusual approaches to writing and/or your writing process? Or anything to say about the connection between your swimming or other activities you do and writing? Or any advice for someone who has the desire to pursue this passion? Or would you like to share the best writing advice anyone gave you? (Or any other semi-related topic?)

I guess I sort of already covered this in the preceding answer. More on the swimming and writing connection: It’s not only that I often write about swimming, but also that being active helps with all forms of intellectual thought. Getting the blood moving and being physical is very important to sparking creativity and being a productive writer. I find that I’m more articulate on days I swim and I’m less productive on the days I skip the workout.

The best piece of writing advice I ever got was to stop asking adjectives to do all the heavy lifting. Rely on your verbs; they’re strong, they can take the weight. Once I realized that I was overusing adjectives, my writing style settled into something approximating a voice and that’s when I started gaining a lot of traction with my writing.

The other best writing advice is to just do it. Stop over thinking it and just get it out on paper. You can always go back and revise. Don’t overthink the first draft.

Quick — don’t stop and think about it — can you name five books you’ve read fairly recently that you loved and would recommend that others read?

Oh boy. My book reading has really suffered lately because of my work schedule and all the swimming. I read a lot of magazines and web articles for work, research, and just for fun, but books, not so much lately even though I was that kid who always had her nose in a book growing up. These days, I’m so tired at night, I get about 2 pages in before zonking out. So instead, I’m going to list some of the most influential books I’ve ever read and why they make my list.

1) A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond– My mom brought this book home from the library when I was 10. It’s about an American family that moves to Wales after the mother’s death. The son finds a magic harp key and his experiences with the key change him and his family. It’s a beautifully constructed young adult historical fiction book that really spoke to me then and still does now. I played the harp as a kid and could really relate to the protagonist’s struggles. This book sparked a life-long love affair with Wales and with words.

2) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov– This is just a wild ride across time and space, that alternates between Soviet Moscow and biblical Jerusalem. I first found Bulgakov while I was living in Ukraine and this book helped me make sense of the sometimes bizarre culture I was living in. The imagery is so vividly painted, many of the scenes have stuck with me for years and underscore the “show don’t tell” advice we’ve all gotten ad nauseum.

3) Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal– I read this book in grad school during a fabulously interesting Czech literature course I took, and wow, it just blew me away. It’s about a hermit who saves books from being burned. He’s amassed an absurd number of books and though he’s a recluse, he lives a very vibrant inner life. This book sparked my imagination and solidified my love of Czech literature. I’m also a big fan of another of Hrabal’s books, I Served the King of England. Fabulously imaginative stuff in both books.

4) The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas– Speaking of imagination and beauty, I read this book during an East meets West literature course as an undergrad at Georgetown and I was taken with the sweeping beauty of the imagery and the way characters dealt with difficult topics. I re-read the book a few years ago, and was struck by some of the parallels with my own life, with the characters traversing many places I’ve lived: Massachusetts, Vienna, and Ukraine. This is a breathtakingly beautiful and haunting book.

5) A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole– I read this book the summer before entering college and loved it for the entertainment value, but also for the deeper message that we should question. Not taking authority at face value is a good thing to be reminded of as one prepares to enter college. And I just loved the author’s rolling style of writing; grabbed right from the start and never let go.

Where can people find you online?

blog.talesofthebeerbaby.com and www.athleta.net
Twitter: @emkhowley

Stephanie Cassatly

Second installment in my series of interviews with first place category winners in the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. (First interview, with Julia Byers, can be found here.) Finding Stephanie seems like a beautiful bit of serendipity. She’s a gorgeous writer, and she writes of her search for herself after she lost her mom, ...

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IMG_9726_crop_Second installment in my series of interviews with first place category winners in the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. (First interview, with Julia Byers, can be found here.) Finding Stephanie seems like a beautiful bit of serendipity. She’s a gorgeous writer, and she writes of her search for herself after she lost her mom, as well as her search for spirituality and the way her writing helps her with those discoveries. And she worked in advertising for years, so despite all evidence to the contrary, she must be as crazy as I am. So grateful for the wonderful connections and community I’ve found among writers all over the country. Please check out Stephanie’s blog after you read her interview.

1. Tell me about your winning story. Where did you get the idea? Is it part of a longer piece? What is your favorite thing about it? 

My story, “Camera Obscura,” derives from a chapter in my memoir (currently under construction), which tells the story of my mother’s death when I was eighteen years old and how I lost my sense of “home,” until years later when I became a mother myself. I got hooked on the idea of the old fashioned camera obscura, largely because it accurately symbolized and described my memory of the time around her murder; I felt like I was in a dark box looking through an artificial eye. Everything surrounding that time seemed like a series of fragmented and disconnected photographs. My favorite thing about this piece, and most of my writing, is that it acknowledges that, despite the sadness of her death, I have been gifted so many blessings in my life, including my family and my writing. Some of my writing can be found on my website below. I have not yet loaded this piece, but anyone interested in reading it can contact me and I will be honored to send it to them.

2. When did you decide you wanted to write, or that you were serious enough or good enough to call yourself a writer? What do you love about memoir (or essays) and how did you know that’s what you wanted to write?

My impetus to become a writer was another blessing and a story unto itself.  In a nutshell, twenty years after my mother’s death, I found her killer and forgave him, just before he died in prison. It was a transformative experience for me, a complete shift from victim to survivor. Following that, I decided I needed to document the story for my two young daughters. My career at that time was in advertising, but my personal story sparked my desire to become a better writer, so I started taking some local writing classes and began writing part-time for the local newspaper. Then, I learned about a low-residency MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and applied.  It took me three years to complete the degree, but it was one of the richest gifts I have ever given myself.  When I entered the program, I did not immediately begin with the story of my mother’s death, but everything seemed to circle around it.  Finally, one of my brilliant author/advisors made me address my central life story. It was through my MFA that I began to call myself a writer. I love memoir because it can elevate life to art, which is both healing and creative at the same time.

3. What are your goals or current projects? Where are you on your path to being a published writer?

Truthfully, I cannot gauge where I am on my path as a writer. It sometimes feels like a blind spot. I know I am on “a” path, though.  I teach writing part-time at a local university (which I also love) and try to write in between. I am finally an empty nester, so I do have more time to devote to my writing.  I have been working on my memoir since I received my MFA and it is my goal to publish it. I am, however, struggling to complete it. I would say I am about 80% of the way there, but the sheer size, structure and intimacy of finishing a memoir seems overwhelming. Essays are so much easier for me to write. I have a great deal of support to try and publish my memoir, but I think I am looking for the right editor to lead me through to completion.  In the meantime, I just keep publishing essays.

4. Who we are and what we believe often comes through in our writing since it influences our world view. Does your faith play any part in what you write?

Most definitely. In my essays and memoir, I share that I was a passenger, not a driver, on my path to forgiving my mother’s killer. I am fascinated by the mystical and deeply trust in a power higher than myself. I was raised a Catholic, remain a Christian, but mostly consider myself to be a spiritual person. I love and subscribe heavily to the Latin term and plot device, “Deus ex Machina,” God in [my] machine.

5. My blog and book are about prayer, but focused more on creativity and about new ways of looking at things. Do you have any interesting or unusual approaches to writing and/or your writing process? Or anything to say about the connection between art or any of your other activities and writing? Or any advice for someone who has the desire to pursue this passion? Or would you like to share the best writing advice anyone gave you? (Or any other semi-related topic?)

The two best pearls I have discovered for my own writing are to write first thing in the morning and to show up everyday.  Even though I do not succeed in doing these all the time, I know these approaches work for me.  I am a clean slate in the morning.  Because I am middle-aged, I sometimes rise in the middle of the night or very early in the morning.  At these times I am almost in a dream state or at least very open, and my writing seems almost guided, fluid and pure. The second of the two pearls, showing up every day, is much harder, as life gets busy and I am a master procrastinator.

6. Quick — don’t stop and think about it — can you name five books you’ve read fairly recently that you loved and would recommend that others read?

Not all recent, but The Dovekeepers, The Red Tent, Motherless Daughters, The Confessions of St. Augustine and The Language of Flowers.  It’s funny that these are mostly all fiction. I love a good story.

7. Where can people find you online?
Website: www.stephaniecassatly.com
Facebook: Stephanie Marban Cassatly

Julia Byers

When I heard about the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition awards, on the advice of a friend who’s known for having brilliant ideas about social media, I decided to contact all the first place winners in the other categories and try to find out more about them — the story behind the winning story, what else ...

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Julia ByersWhen I heard about the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition awards, on the advice of a friend who’s known for having brilliant ideas about social media, I decided to contact all the first place winners in the other categories and try to find out more about them — the story behind the winning story, what else they’re writing, and where they are on this path. I’ll be posting these interviews periodically. Please check out each of these writers’ blogs and writing. Some truly amazing people. Including — especially — Julia Byers. I can’t believe how good and how accomplished she is — period — and it’s even more remarkable when you consider that she’s 19 and is squeezing this stuff in around college life. I cannot wait to read her winning story (in the category of children’s/young adult fiction). I’ll post a link to the WD competition collection once it’s available for purchase — maybe you can join me in reading the work of all these really interesting, talented people. In the meantime, check out their blogs and FB and Twitter, and join me in learning more about them.

1. Tell me about your winning story. 

I wrote my story “The Things I Leave Behind” this past spring, during my freshman year of college, for an introduction to short story writing course. It was the first story I turned in for class, back before I’d really had any official instruction in creative writing, so I was extremely nervous about whether or not my professor would like it. (What if he told me I was a terrible writer and should go study accounting or something instead, right?) I spent a good week and a half freaking out about what to write about when—while trying to distract myself from the assignment by searching for a location to hold a future writing retreat at—I stumbled upon the image of a backyard in Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs is an absolutely gorgeous area, but it also suffers from frequent wildfires, so that created an interesting juxtaposition. I began writing right away, with a peaceful home in the mountains about to be ravaged by a fire as my backdrop, and the rest of the story sort of just flowed from there.

“The Things I Leave Behind” is a standalone short story.

The narrator—a teenage girl who recently moved from New Jersey to Colorado—spends the majority of the story packing up her things to evacuate from a forest fire. In her bedroom, she has a rocking chair that her grandparents passed down to her when they died, and it’s something she has a very strong emotional attachment to, but she knows her family doesn’t have the space to take with them as they leave. The moment she finds the strength to leave the rocking chair behind—to accept the situation at hand, even though it’s a terrible one, and make the best of it—is one that I think a lot of people can connect to, and it’s my favorite for that reason.

The story will only be available when the competition collection comes out in November.

2. When did you decide you wanted to write, or that you were serious enough or good enough to call yourself a writer? What do you love about YA/ how did you choose a genre/ how did you know what to write?

Honestly, writing has never been a decision for me—it’s just something I’ve always done. My mom can tell you how I used to follow her around, badgering her to write down my stories, back when I was three years old. I think it was second grade when I began trying to write novels. Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths—I was born with words.

YA has always been the genre I’ve tended towards (yes, even back in second grade); I find that period really interesting, since so much of the identity and values you carry with you for the rest of your life develop when you’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old. I like exploring the challenges in finding and defining those values, so YA is the natural category for me to write in. (Plus, at nineteen, teenagers are the age group I understand best.)

3. What are your goals or current projects? Where are you on your path to being a published writer? 

I’m currently in a creative writing class, which means turning in or revising short stories every week, so that keeps me pretty busy. Outside of that, I’m also querying a YA spy-thriller with literary agents and preparing to write my next novel (either a YA contemporary or scifi) for NaNoWriMo. My ultimate goal is to publish a novel.

4. Tell me a little about the writing conference you founded — and how that came about.

I founded and run the Chapter One Young Writers Conference, which is a writing conference by and for teenagers who are passionate about writing, especially novels. As someone who grew up in the writing community, it was important for me to find other young writers who understood what I was going through—writing under my desk during algebra; revising on Friday nights; figuring out how to participate in a world meant for adults between orthodontist appointments and theatre rehearsals. I did find those young writers online, through the Scholastic’s Write It online forums for kids, but the moment I began looking for in-person opportunities to bond with them—through conferences and retreats—it became apparent that the opportunities were scarce. Everything was meant for adults. And as someone who attended her first writing conference at sixteen, I can tell you firsthand that being a kid amongst a sea of grownups is about as daunting as it gets.

In 2012 (with a lot of help from my unreasonably but wonderfully supportive parents), I put on a small conference in Chicago for a group of my friends from Write It—an event that taught the sorts of things we had all learned at events meant for adults, this time targeted to teenagers. It was a great experience and a ton of fun. So, in summer 2014, we’re opening the conference to other young writers as well, middle school through undergraduate, who would like to come together to learn more about writing, publishing, and supporting one another in the industry.

It’ll take place just outside of downtown Chicago on Saturday, June 14th and Sunday, June 15th. More details are available at: www.chapteroneconference.com

5. Who we are and what we believe often comes through in our writing since it influences our world view. Does your faith (whatever it might be, or even a lack of faith) play any part in what you write?

I’m Presbyterian, with a sort of weird mixture of values from other religions and influences that I’ve picked up, and it definitely comes through in my writing. I don’t drink, so my protagonists generally don’t drink; I try not to swear in my day-to-day life, so my characters only swear when the situation calls for it. At the same time, I’m big on not judging people for believing different things than I do, so I try to remain open-minded about other values and ideas, both in my writing and life in general. When it comes down to it, I’m not a big fan of the institution of religion, but I am a big fan of God, so I try to honor Him with my writing.

6. My blog and book are about prayer, but focused more on creativity and about new ways of looking at things. Do you have any interesting or unusual approaches to writing and/or your writing process? Or anything to say about the connection between your music and writing? Or any advice for someone who has the desire to pursue this passion? Or would you like to share the best writing advice anyone gave you? (Or any other semi-related topic?)

My writing process is pretty simple—I just do whatever works (which generally involves being a hardcore pantser rather than plotter).

I generally write songs when I’m at the height of an emotion, so a lot of the time lyrics will come first, and then once I’ve calmed down more and can rationally view my situation again, a short story or novel will follow, in which I try to better understand and handle what’s happening in my life emotionally. For example, while I’ve never had to evacuate from a forest fire the way the protagonist in “The Things I Leave Behind” does, I did have to pick and choose what to bring with me when I moved to college—making the decision of what to allow to continue to be important in my life, and what to stop caring as much about—so I understand the feeling.

The best advice anyone has ever given me comes from Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. William G.T. Shedd said it originally, but Chris Baty is the one I heard it from and who first applied it to writing, so: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” Basically: It’s easy to be scared of sharing your work with the world—of rejections and bad reviews and poor sales—but when it comes down to it, writers write to share their words. So even when I’m worn down, doubting myself, and terrified of what might happen next, I continue to share my work, because I’m a writer and that’s what writers do. It’s what we have to do to keep going.

7. Quick — don’t stop and think about it — can you name five books you’ve read fairly recently that you loved and would recommend that others read?

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Divergent by Veronica Roth, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.

8. Where can people find you online?
Blog/website: www.juliathewritergirl.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/JuliaByersAuthor
Twitter: @Julia_Byers

It truly is grace

I’ve known about this for a couple months, but the official issue of Writer’s Digest came out last week with my name listed: First Place Winner in Inspirational Writing Category! When I decided to attend the Elizabeth Berg Writers Workshop in Positano, Italy, last October, it was a huge leap of faith — telling the ...

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I’ve known about this for a couple months, but the official issue of Writer’s Digest came out last week with my name listed: First Place Winner in Inspirational Writing Category! When I decided to attend the Elizabeth Berg Writers Workshop in Positano, Italy, last October, it was a huge leap of faith — telling the world I was serious about this writing thing. Elizabeth was at least as kind, generous, talented and intuitive as I imagined. Positano was more beautiful than any place has the right to be. The women who attended with me are fun, talented, interesting, and became friends. And if that was all I got out of it, well, I’d be the most fortunate person alive. But all of that beauty pales in relation to the wonder of the ways God led me to face my grief and anger and helped me find Him again. The ways He showed me grace.

If you have a little time on your hands, read on. I’ve published the complete essay below. I hope you enjoy!


Amazing grace

Lost, I wander down Positano’s serpentine winding roads, pulling in my toes and elbows as maniacal men on motorbikes speed past, honking their horns and weaving between two cars passing in opposite directions on a road barely wide enough for one. I am drawn to the crates of limone, peaches and braided onions taking their afternoon siesta, lazily awaiting transformation into culinary delights. A girl, whose long bronze legs aren’t obscured at all by her tiny miniskirt, kisses the cheeks of the brothers who run the fish shop, then climbs on her moped, leaving as quickly as she came. Now, though, she holds a white plastic bag sagging low with dense, moist meat.

Minutes later, I slow, stop, then sit on a sun-warmed, salmon-colored bench, transfixed by a woman across the piazza. In between bodies of darting boys, scrambling for the orange ball — a kick here, a header there, triumphant shouts, men in white shirts smoking on benches as they watch — she sits, massive bosoms spread as wide as her legs. These aren’t boobs, mind you; there’s nothing sexual about them. Lounging against her stomach, they’ve nurtured babies and gotten in the way of her kneading bread. Sighing, she takes up residence in her doorway, watching everything and yet nothing. Her knee-high pantyhose fight the urge to roll down her calves into her orthotic shoes. The elastic waist of her black polyester slacks cuts into her flesh beneath the embroidered pink flowers burgeoning across her chest. Forearm resting on her knees, still spread widely, her weariness echoes my own. She’s maybe 65, with coal black hair, the places where her face would be wrinkled made smooth by years of eating good food, made with oils and butters and fats. Nothing self-conscious in her manner, she is stolidly unaware that anyone would notice her. She is heavily present, loudly quiet, taking up all the space in her little corner of the world.

I want that, I think. To be solid again. Real. For months, measuring now more than a year, I’ve been lost. Oh, I can find my location on a map, but since my mom quit fighting the cancer that consumed not just her body but also my understanding of who I am, I’ve wandered, free of her anchor, devoid of direction. I wander quickly, mind you — racing from cheering on my daughter in backstroke to perching on aluminum bleachers as my son dribbles down the basketball court. I careen into the driveway, leaving the car running long enough to revise a client’s ad and answer three more e-mails, then head to the grocery for Pizza Rolls for dinner. I fill up squares on my calendar as quickly as the lifeblood drains from my soul. I replay over and over a conversation we had right after my mom’s diagnosis. “It is not tragic,” she insisted, “for a 70-year-old woman to die of cancer.”

“You are so wrong,” I muttered, as daughters have since time began.

The orange ball bounces my way and I jump out of its path. I turn away, beckoned by the sound of the sea drifting over the wall that surrounds the plaza. Roosters crow, birds call, and motorboats circle the deep blue, teal at the edges, that gently fades to the clear blue of sky, anchoring the majestic cliffs adorned with sorbet-colored buildings, clinging, climbing up the hills. The light here surrounds you, seeming to come from all sides. The life here surrounds you, seeming to come from all sides. Like the embrace of a mother. The softness of bosoms that nurtured babies and got in the way of kneading bread. A mother nothing like my own, yet completely mine.

How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me

Hidden from view by the twists and turns of the stone stairway, cooler here in the shadows, I stop to peer through a rusted red gate, topped with a starburst of metal points, and I notice the jewel-colored tile cemented into the wall next to it. Number 11, it reads, crossed out with ochre paint, the numero 13 roughly stenciled below. A thing of beauty now marked and ugly. Redefined. What happened?

A very good question, my God whispers into my soul. Why have you changed, baby girl?

I picture my mom’s face, her bald-baby-bird head tilted up but no longer in need of sustenance, lips crusty, the whites of her eyes yellowing as the plastic bag beside her ceases to fill. My sister and father and two family friends sit in the kitchen, methodically lifting bites of meatloaf and buttering the rolls left behind by Mom’s friends, glancing occasionally into the next room, where she lies. My sister’s fork stops moving. “I think she stopped breathing.”

It’s just like my mom to do it this way. Two days earlier, as I sat beside her, she awoke, her brain poisoned by her body’s toxins, eyes crazed: “What are we gonna say?”

“What do you mean, Mom? About what?”

Dad rushed in, and looking from him to me to him to me, she insisted, “We can’t say ‘surrounded by family and friends.’ Promise me. Promise me!”

Her biggest fear was underlined by the standard obituary boilerplate: that we would have to watch her go. That that moment would be tattooed onto our psyches, indelibly scarring even the deepest layers. That her last act on earth would harm us rather than help.

My sister’s face traced by silky tears, she clutches Mom’s hands. “You did it, Mom. You did it well! I’m so proud of you. You did it!”

All I can do is gulp in sobs of air. I feel the nudge of my God, offering comfort. As he whispers, Oh, my sweet child, I shrug away his embrace, turning instead toward the relentless, stinging pain of the needles tattooing the image of her still form in pure, vivid color deep inside my mind.

I once was lost…

Another day in Positano, I walk down hundreds of stone steps toward the beach, peeking in doorways, looking behind the public façades for what is hidden. Green gates reveal empty crates jumbled in the corner, broken bottles, smelly trash. Water settles in the grout between misshapen stone blocks and I step around the puddles, pausing to give my aching knees a rest, letting the breeze dry my sweat. A man exits a courtyard (“Ciao, ciao-grazie”), and I consider sliding through the gate before it latches, stepping through the rooms to finger the softness of the worn towels and aprons fluttering on the balconies. Instead, I turn and let my eyes rove over his white shirt unbuttoned halfway down, sleeves rolled up, torso long and lean and trim and lovely, before he folds himself into a miniature military-looking truck and lurches down the crowded street, clutch popping and brakes squealing in protest.

I round another bend — they’re all bends here, no straight or level paths — and a shockwave of beauty presses me back to the wall. The tableau before me is spread with orange tiled terraces with curvy iron tables. Fuchsia bougainvillea climb and preen on this stage, gaudy showgirls begging for attention. The peach and pink and salmon and butter and gold and cream buildings with striped awnings beckon from their perches, while, inside, tourists sip bellinis. Lemons ripen in the sun and olives fall from their gnarled trees onto stretched, waiting nets. Relaxing my shoulders, I turn my face toward the sky, stretch my tight neck from side to side. Envisioning myself open, stretched open waiting to receive, I am able to breathe again.

I duck into a church, where street sounds are hushed and air stifles and Italian women genuflect, loudly kissing their fingertips and offering the gesture up to God. I automatically look up, to the tops of the beams and jewel-colored glass, knowing that the builders of these churches hid tiny details up high, where they could be seen only by the eyes of God. I see nothing, but I know He does. I can’t hide from Him forever. Closing my eyes, suddenly filled, I drop my chin and pray. Lord, I cry. That’s all — one word — Lord. In a rush of emotions lacking coherence, I quietly offer it up to Him, what little I have to give.

…but now am found

The shops here beckon through tiny doorways. As white linen shirts flutter from hangers, silken scarves dance across baskets of fragrant lemon soaps. Shop owners greet me, so obviously a tourist, in my own language. Around me, couples discuss purchases in French, German, English and Italian. Behind glass cases, cheeses lie down with salamis. Mouthwatering smells of spicy paninis and buttery pastries filled with chocolate or peach further crowd the narrow pathways. Trinkets hang from placards as foreigners grab up postcards and wine stoppers with shaky “Positano” lettered around the pastel scenes. At the top of a hill, I find colorful tiles and bowls and olive oil containers, painted by hand with lemons and vines and intricate patterns. The women in the back stop chattering in their expressive, fluid ways long enough to nod hello, then go back to their tales of men and children and love and loss, voices swelling and expanding to fill the space.

Mom would love these tiles, I think. She was always the first person I bought for, her gifts the easiest and most obvious choices. She knew me the same way. I ask a shopkeeper, “Quanta costa?” What’s the cost? Will this loss simply change me or completely define me? Help me, Lord, to find value again — not just outside but within.

So very tired of navigating alone, I buy a ticket for the orange bus that will take me back. I hope. The driver doesn’t understand my question, but on impulse I climb on anyway, believing the bus to be pointed in the right direction. As we climb up and up, curving around cliffs with stunning buildings stretching toward the heavens, I feel lighter. We pick up speed as we near my stop and fly right on by. My stomach lurches, dropping down the sheer mountain faces into the sea. No, I decide. This is an adventure. I can do this. I take a deep breath to slow my rapid heartbeat and sit back. Minutes later we reach the turnaround which positions the bus the right way to follow the one-way (down) road, and within moments, the bus stops just feet from the entrance to my hotel.

Va bene. “See, it’s all good,” I hear Positano remind me. You just have to be willing to take chances now and again. Let the vibrant colors thrill you. Stop trying to make out words; listen instead for nuances. Kiss noisily, grasp shoulders and stand close to those you love. Savor delicate flavors, letting them thrill your tongue. Hurry all you want; get where you need to go. But once you’re there, once you finally arrive, linger. Open yourself, even to the pain. Because although the streets are busy and crowded, they run in both directions. And when you open to let out the pain, good things come rushing in. The outside world hushes and you find yourself behind that façade, in that secret place where not everyone can go, head nestled on that ample bosom, a beloved child once more.

Was blind, but now I see.

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