Wordy Wednesday: Reasons to Write Today

It’s been a busy week and the busyness isn’t going to let up after this. It’s gotten to the point where my planner looks like a pen threw up on it and I’m lucky if I get one day off a week from leaving my apartment.

Which is fine. It’s not like I’m doing anything I don’t want to. But I am also really tired.

Which means means that writing keeps threatening to fall by the wayside.

So, for this week’s Wordy Wednesday, here’s a list of reasons to take the time and effort to write today.

Because You Want To

If you’re feeling the inclination to write, don’t waste it. Write that feeling into the ground. Write it to pieces. That feeling is a gift. There will be a lot of times in your life when you need to write but you don’t want to. Write when you do want to in order to balance those out.

Because You Don’t Want To

Sometimes the last thing you want to do is pour words onto a page, but those can be important times to write too. Think about why you don’t want to write. Figure out if it’s a legitimate reason not to. (And even then, see if you can find a way to get around that reason.)

Because You Have Better Things to Do

Right now, in addition to writing this post, I’m running a Ch1Con Twitter chat and figuring out which classes to take fall semester. After this I’m making a Powerpoint presentation for one of the events I’m volunteering at over the weekend, inputting revisions on a manuscript, editing a paper for my fantasy lit class, looking over some Ch1Con documents, and writing a film review. Sometime in the next couple days I also need to send out more internship applications, reply to the slew of emails I’ve been neglecting, and write more papers and some posts for the other sites I blog for.

You will always have “better” things to do. Things that seem more pressing or important. But you have the choice to make writing an important thing in your life. If you want to be a writer, choose to make writing important.

Because You Said You Would

Even if the only person who knows you promised to write is yourself, make that be good enough. Hold yourself accountable. It’s the only way to get anything done.

Because You Can’t Sleep

Sometimes when the thoughts are whirring too loud in my head, it helps to write them out. Bleed them out on paper or your computer or whatever. If you’re not going to be able to sleep, at least be productive about it.

Because The Words Are Beating Your Skull

Sometimes most of you doesn’t want to write but that part of you that is A Writer needs you to. You’ll drown in the words if you don’t. Don’t let this happen, even if you’re busy. Take the time to write.

Because You’ll Fall Apart If You Don’t

Words can stitch you back together. They can keep the monsters at bay. They can pull you away from the edge and dust you off and pick you up and fix you help you fix yourself in so many ways.

Writing can have magical powers, if you let it. Don’t forget to call on it when you need help.

Because You’re a Writer

Don’t let yourself make excuses. Don’t let other things crowd writing out of your life. If you’re a writer, write.

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Off to do all the things (including write a little). Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Lessons from the Weekend

This weekend my university played host to two really awesome conferences: TEDxUofM and the Voices of the Middle West literary festival. I spent all day Friday listening to TED talks and part of Saturday at Voices of the Middle West, hearing about writing and literature from some of the premier authors from my part of the country.

What all this means is that my brain is basically exploding with inspirational advice now.

So, I figured I’d share some of my favorite lessons from the two conferences with you.

1. Put yourself out there.

One of the TEDxUofM speakers graduated from the university only a few years ago, but already she has a job at the White House. How? She asked for it.

She talked to us about Impostor Syndrome and how even if something seems like a long shot, it’s better to go for it and fail than to not go for it at all. She’d been working on Obama’s re-election campaign in 2008 when a job she was not at all qualified for opened up in her division and she decided to ask her boss for it. Her boss of course said no, but a few months later he did give her a huge promotion–because she’d proven herself determined and courageous by asking for the other job. And now she’s working in the White House only a few years out of college.

2. What makes you say “I can’t”? Do it.

Another TEDxUofM speaker talked about how we pass up far too many opportunities due not even to fear or pessimism, but because of the genuine disbelief that we cannot accomplish those things.

Really look into why you’re saying no to something. Think about Impostor Syndrome again. There’s a good chance you could do it, if you’re willing to believe and work hard enough.

3. Connect what you’re doing to what’s important to you.

A U of M math professor spoke about how her Calc II students started scoring wayyy better when she taught them to connect what they were learning in class to the real world. I think this is important when working on anything. I know I do better in all my courses when I can connect what we’re learning to writing, because that helps me process things, and I do better on writing projects if I can connect them to my life.

Basically: Anything can make sense and feel important to you as long as you put it in a context that makes sense and is important to you.

4. Don’t forget where you’re from.

This one came from the keynote address at Voices of the Middle West by Stuart Dybek. While I didn’t make it to a lot of the festival yesterday (yay homework), it seems like a general theme was the way the Midwest has influenced the writings of those authors from it. Dybek talked about how this is important, because your background influences your writing (and who you are as a person) in a ton of ways and being aware of that influence allows you to understand both it and yourself.

5. Don’t give up on your dreams.

One of the TEDxUofM speakers founded a nonprofit in another country with which she built and ran a nursery school for underprivileged children. Then a woman found a legal loophole that allowed her to steal the land and everything on it.

The speaker’s nonprofit hasn’t been able to get the school back, nor is she sure if they’ll ever be able to. But, despite this and a ton of other struggles, she hasn’t given up on helping the people in that village. The amount she cares about them was so, so obvious as she spoke first about building the school, then losing it, and while in many ways her speech was heartbreaking, it was also inspiring.

Caring that much about something is a horrible, beautiful thing. We should all aim to care that much. And we should all persevere for our dreams as much as that girl has and continues to.

She told us how her goal when she was younger was to change the world, but now she realizes how naive that is. Instead, she simply wants to make the world better in some way.

We all can do that. It’s almost impossible for a single person to change the world, but everyone can make it just a little better, and together we can make it great.

In conclusion:

Take risks. Care as much as you can. Look to your past to help you understand your present and figure out where you want to go in the future.

And more than anything else, don’t forget to dream big.

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Change of Plans

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

My plan for last night involved me, my bed, and a good book.

It’s been a long week. We’ve long reached that point in the semester when both midterms and spring break have passed and the only thing worth looking forward to is a summer break that’s still over a month away. So yesterday I was ready for a night off from homework/revising/Ch1Con stuff/internship applications/job applications/blog post writing/etc. I was ready for tea and pajamas and snuggling under a pile of blankets.

Then around three PM my phone started blowing up with text messages.

One of my friends, who’s super into astronomy-related stuff, had found out the Northern Lights were supposed to be visible only a few hours north of us that night, and would I like to come along to see them? No promises how far we’d have to drive or if we’d get back in time to sleep before morning classes or if we’d see the Northern Lights at all. But there was the promise of adventure. And the potential of seeing something incredible.

So at ten PM I ditched the book, threw on my warmest coat and hat, and off a group of us went to traverse the state and chase something we’d only ever seen in photographs.

I didn’t know everyone in the car going into the trip, but we couldn’t get the radio to work so we ended up spending the entire ride north sharing stories about ourselves and our friends. We got lost on back roads and in sleepy silences.

The Northern Lights are easiest to see if you’re in a clear, dark place, so we dodged around lakes, searching for one large and secluded enough to give an unobstructed view of the sky.

Around twelve thirty, we finally found the perfect place: a massive lake in a state park in the middle of nowhere. We pulled down a teeny, tiny road leading to a boat launch on park grounds, ignoring the signs warning us that visitors weren’t allowed in after ten PM, and found ourselves in a parking lot that brushed right up against the lake with only a single orange street light glowing against the sky.

We bundled out of the car and walked as far from the light as we dared. We took in the absolute silence–the kind you only get at night in winter when there’s no wind and you and your friends are the only people for miles. We looked up.

No Northern Lights. But the stars were dazzling.

Hundreds and hundreds of pinpricks of light interrupted the inky blackness. The sky curved away from us, a dome for once not obstructed by buildings. We spun in circles, huddled close, pointed out constellations and planets. We took in our universe. We let ourselves feel small. We remembered we were parts of something so, so huge and amazing.

We went chasing the Northern Lights and instead we found the stars.

I’m telling you this story not because I had a really great adventure last night (even though I did and definitely suggest getting out of civilization to look at the stars once in a while). I’m telling you this because when I woke up yesterday morning, I had no plans whatsoever to go on a road trip in the middle of the night to the middle of nowhere. I wanted to sit home and get caught up on the books I’ve been neglecting. I wanted to go to bed early.

Essentially, the opposite of what happened.

And the fact that last night did happen, and I now have this story to tell you, proves that sometimes the best things not only are those you didn’t plan for, but are things contrary to the plans you did make.

So, how does this pertain to writing?

Don’t be afraid to change directions with a story. Don’t be afraid to make a bad guy good, or completely rewrite your opening on a whim, or start a new project. Don’t be afraid to enter a contest, or try out a new style, or totally destroy your protagonist’s world.

Make plans. Plans are wonderful. But don’t let them restrict you from writing the best story you possibly can.

And don’t be afraid to put aside working on your writing (whether it be actually writing, or just getting caught up on your TBR pile) every once in a while to have an adventure.

Who knows. Maybe you’ll end up with a new story to tell.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Link Roundup

I’m going to be honest: I’ve been trying all week to come up with a topic for this post and haven’t been able to. But hey, now I have an excuse to deluge you with links! Always a good time.

First up: J.R. Blackwell wrote this really awesome thing on tumblr about why you should be friends with other aspiring authors. Read it here.

Next: Incredibly talented Ch1Con and TCWT team member Ariel posted on her blog about performing at a slam poetry night at her university, and it’s about as cool as you’d expect. Check it out here.

My writing friend Hannah is home from college for spring break and wrote a beautiful post about what the idea of home is to her. Read it here.

Not sure if I’ve recommended this web series before, but Submissions Only is this adorable show about Broadway and New York City and I freaking love it. And the third season’s going to start soon, so catch up on the first two seasons on its Youtue channel here.

I have a new post on Teens Can Write, Too! I wrote about what makes favorite books, you know, favorites. Check it out here.

And last but not least: The March Ch1Con video chat will take place this Thursday at 8 PM Eastern! We’ll be discussing how to critique writing. Find more information here.

Aaand that is it for now. Check back tomorrow for a real post! Love you!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Best Critique Partner Traits

IT’S SO WARM OUT.

It was thirty five out yesterday and already it’s forty today and I’ve just been wearing a light utility jacket to class the past couple days and I never want it to be cold again.

Also I forgot to mention in Monday’s post, because I’ve already talked about it everywhere else (but I should probably share it here too): I got hired to write for The Huffington Post last week! I’m going to be a blogger for their College section and I am SO FREAKING EXCITED. Watch out on Twitter and Facebook for me to obsessively share the links to my posts.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. And since I’m currently in the midst of sending a novel back and forth with critique partners, I figured I’d talk a little about that.

Critique partners (and/or beta readers) are so, so vital to writing. I’ve been working on this particular novel for three and a half years now–this particular draft for over a year–and every time I think I’ve finally fixed everything, I send it off to a round of CPs, only for them to find even more issues.

On the downside, this has started feeling like an endless process. On the upside, these issues have been growing smaller and smaller with each subsequent round of notes (so I’ve got to reach the end eventually).

Because I’ve been working on this novel for so long and it’s gone through so many rounds of critique, I’ve worked with quite a few CPs at this point. All of them have brought something different to their critiques and all have been crucial to getting the novel to where it is now and I’m so grateful for each and every one of them.

I’ve noticed, though, that there are certain traits my CPs’ critiques share that make them particularly effective. Some of the critiques have all these traits; others have only a couple, but do those things really well. So I figured I’d share them as kind of a checklist for how to effectively critique someone else’s writing.

Question Everything

First and foremost, a great critique partner reads actively and is constantly on the lookout for things you could improve. This doesn’t mean, like, questioning your every choice as a writer. But also not accepting everything you say as fact. (For example, I had some issues with character motivation a couple rounds of critique ago and one of my CPs basically said, “I could go along with this, because the text has told me to, or you could show me why I should and actually make me want to.”)

Let You Know What They’re Thinking

If a CP has any qualms about something, big or small, it’s his/her job to tell you. Sometimes something might not seem like that big of an issue to a critique partner, but in mentioning it to the writer s/he uncovers a larger issue that really does need to be fixed.

It’s also nice if, say, you’re working on a whodunit and the CP keeps you updated on who she thinks, you know, done it throughout the manuscript. (The novel I’m revising involves a kind of tricky red herring situation and it took a couple rounds of critique to make it work right. I never would have known there was a problem with it in the first place if one of my critique partners hadn’t kept me updated on who she thought was the bad guy, because it didn’t look like an issue from the outside, but definitely was one.)

Editorial Letter + In-Line Notes

This might be more of a Me Thing than anything else, but my favorite way to receive critique is to have both a letter detailing the overall state of the novel in the CP’s opinion (big issues, overall reactions, etc.), along with notes right in the text (usually as comments on Track Changes) for the smaller stuff. This helps you sort through the feedback so you can quickly figure out what’s going to be a big, time-consuming, difficult fix versus an easy, quick one. (And if you’re having trouble deciding whether or not to change something based on a critique partner’s reaction, the fact that s/he thinks it’s significant enough to mention in the letter means it’s probably something you really should change.)

For example, one of my CPs had mentioned in a comment in the text that she was having trouble with a character’s motivation in one scene, but none of the others had mentioned anything there. I probably would have written the comment off as an individual issue (brought on by being tired or having to take a long break between chapters or something), except that the CP then went on to talk in more detail in her letter about why she was having an issue with the motivation there, and it turned out she was completely right and the other critique partners in that round had just simply missed it.

Compliment the Parts They Like

This is such a vital part of critique, because while it’s important to know what’s bad so you can fix it, it’s also important to know what’s good so you can:

A) Aim for bringing the rest of the manuscript up to that level.

B) Not accidentally ruin something that’s working well.

C) Remember that you don’t entirely suck at writing.

I like to think of reading critique partners’ compliments as the reward for slogging through the rest of their comments. If a critique partner compliments a certain sentence or plot twist or scene, it makes fixing all the issues s/he’s also pointed out seem so much more doable (and worth it).

Additionally, this is really useful when juggling several CPs’ comments. A couple rounds of critique ago, one CP absolutely hated the way I’d ended a chapter and another loved it. I hadn’t been sure if I should change it per the first CP’s advice or not, because I really liked that chapter ending myself. The fact that the second CP complimented it reminded me that while my CPs’ opinions are important, they are just that: opinions.

Not everyone is going to like the way you phrase every sentence or end every chapter, but as long as someone likes it, you’re doing something right. And I wouldn’t have known that that chapter ending was okay if all I’d seen was the criticism.

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What are some of your favorite traits of your critique partners? Share them in the comments so we can fangirl over these wonderful people who put up with the worst of our writing. :)

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Spring Break 2015

So, as mentioned in last week’s Wordy Wednesday, I spent my spring break in the Chicago area putting up flyers for Ch1Con 2015 and doing research for a novel.

It wasn’t exactly the most relaxing spring break ever, but it was awesome getting to meet so many librarians and bookshop owners, and Chicago’s always gorgeous.

We put up flyers for the conference in over fifty locations over the course of three days. Which was basically insane.

IMG_8031One of the days, I spotted Oscar Mayer’s Wiener Mobile in a mall parking lot and made my mom drive over so I could get pictures. It was completely surrounded by people taking selfies.

IMG_8048Thursday we took a break from flyering for a few hours to visit the John Hancock Observatory, which is currently under renovations to become 360 Chicago. The John Hancock Center’s my favorite building in Chicago and I know a weird amount of stuff about it, so it was cool to get to go in and see the updates they’re making to the observation deck.

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Here’s the shadow of the John Hancock Center over North Avenue Beach and Lake Michigan.

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Sears Tower on the horizon.

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The updated observatory includes mirrors coating the ceiling, which leads to fun optical illusions.

The biggest update to the observation deck is the new attraction “Tilt,” in which participants lean against the windows in the picture below and they slowly tilt outward until the participants are facing the street below, ninety-four stories up.

IMG_8096And of course I had to take an awkward observation deck selfie as documentation of my visit.

IMG_8113Friday we had the special treat of Ch1Con team member Emma going around with us to put up flyers. I don’t get to see the rest of the team in person very often and I absolutely freaking adore Emma, so getting to spend the afternoon with her wasn’t just a highlight of the trip, but the year.

Also: while my mom was awesome and drove us around to all of our various drop points, Emma and I wrote a joint post for the March Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain and posted it on the Chapter One Young Writers Conference Tumblr, which you can check out here. The prompt for the month asks about your thoughts on reading and writing in non-novel formats, so since we’re both huge theatre nerds we wrote about how theatre has affected our writing.

IMG_8144 And finally, after a few long, long days away, there’s nothing like coming home to the worst best selfie partner in the world.

IMG_8153Have you had your spring break? Did you do anything fun? Let me know in the comments!

(Especially if you went somewhere warm, because dude, please let me live vicariously through your not-freezing adventures.)

(On the upside: It hit forty degrees today, which means at least for now* we’re past coat weather! Yay!)

~Julia

*It’s totally going to snow again tomorrow, just because I said that.

Wordy Wednesday: Cliche, Cliche

I’m writing/scheduling this post ahead of time, because Wednesday I’ll be in Chicago on a spring break work trip (Ch1Con 2015 flyer campaign and researching for a novel).

So far this week I’ve been buried under preparations for going out to Chicago, plus doctor’s appointments, plus internship applications–so it’s nice to have midterms behind me and this week off from classes, even if I am using it to work. (Although also, let’s be honest, talking to librarians/bookshop owners/teachers about the conference and being a tourist downtown are probably the best job descriptions ever.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

The one other thing I’ve been doing a lot of since spring break began is ingesting stories*. I’ve been watching a ton of movies, catching up on TV shows, and, of course, reading.

And, of course, taking in all these stories in such rapid succession means that the similarities they (and a ton of other stories) share are extra obvious.

Welcome to the sweet torture of reading/watching a really good story only for a love triangle/Chosen One/green-eyed romantic interest to pop out. (One of the books I read this weekend actually had all three of those cliches. Amongst others.)

Cliches drive me insane. They’re lazy writing, they make the story boring because they take away from its originality, and they take me out of the story because I’m noticing these things caused by them.

Different cliches annoy me at different levels, though. Like: A love triangle can ruin the book for me. A green-eyed romantic interest, on the other hand? I honestly couldn’t care less, beyond the fact that I do notice it. (2% of the world’s population has green eyes vs. 185% of YA boyfriends.) (But also, green eyes are really freaking awesome for symbolism. And pretty. And there are lots of fun ways of describing them. So I’m good with them.) (Okay, you caught me. I’ve totally done the green-eyed romantic interest thing, too. Shhh.)

Considering the book with all the cliches from this weekend, I realized that the reason some cliches are more annoying than others is because they affect the plot more. There’s a good chance it doesn’t matter in the long run that Mr. McSwoony Pants has green eyes, but love triangles are rarely things that get brushed aside in favor of a larger plot. Instead, they get woven into every fiber of the story, so that you end up with things like Katniss fretting over whether to choose Peeta or Gale in the middle of a FREAKING REVOLUTION. (Or, you know, the entirety of Twilight.)

So here I am. Rattling on about how terrible cliches are. Which, in itself, is kind of cliche at this point.

–But I don’t believe in a black and white nature to cliches.

I think even the worst of the worst cliches can be awesome if done right. I’ve seen so many good boy vs. bad boy or childhood BFF vs. new kid love triangles that it’s really hard for one to seem original now. But I still have hope for wonderful, new, unique love triangles. Because the thing that annoys me about love triangles isn’t love triangles themselves, but the way they’re handled, and this is true for all cliches.

Everything has been done before. EVERYTHING. I can’t tell you how many times a friend or I have wallowed in self-pity over the fact that we just had a shiny new idea, or have been working on a project for several years, only to see something that looks exactly like it come on in a TV spot for a new movie.

Heck, a professor is saying every story ever written can be summarized in one of six plot types. Even Romeo & Juliet wasn’t an original story. (Hello, rip off of Pyramus and Thisbe.)

There’s no such thing as a completely original story.

So it isn’t about what you write, but how you write it.

That book I read this weekend with all the cliches annoyed me (a lot). But there were also a lot of good points to it and I’ll definitely keep reading the series.

So don’t worry about writing cliches. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Write what you want to, do your best at it, and everything else will fall into place.

It’s nearly impossible to write a 100% not-cliche story. Embrace where you do fall into the cliches and make them your own.

You never know. Maybe you’ll be the one to come up with a new twist on the classic love triangle. (#TeamEdward? #TeamJacob? No. #TeamAuthor.)

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

*I apologize for this. I’m starving right now so the only form my brain can function in is food-related verbs.

Story Time: Going Home

Warning ahead of time: This is going to be a long and sappy one.

Yesterday was my first day of spring break and after a funky chain of events involving yet another dermatologist appointment and my mom needing to get back to work, I ended up with her minivan and the task of getting myself home in one piece.

Although I learned to drive a billion years ago, I didn’t get around to getting my license until the very end of 2014, and since then I haven’t been home enough to really use it. Until yesterday, I’d only driven by myself once before and that was entirely on surface streets that I knew like the back of my hand, making the trip to a friend’s house New Year’s Day in a compact, easy-to-maneuver Jeep.

So there I was, in Mom’s massive, headstrong minivan, driving for the first time in a month and for the first time by myself in two. On only my second solo trip.

Mom had rattled off a series of directions for getting home as we pulled up at her office, but I didn’t trust myself to remember anything (I was a little more focused on, you know, not killing anyone), so I opened Google Maps on my phone and told it to guide me home.

The first bit went all right. I turned where I was supposed to, merged onto the highway without too much trouble, and was even feeling so good about my prospects of surviving that I turned on the radio.

Then I realized which way home Google Maps was taking me.

There’s this terrible stretch of highway I’ve taken a thousand times as a passenger, but had never driven before, where a bridge breaks up the monotony of patched pavement. On one side of the bridge is an entrance ramp, always clogged with road rage-y drivers trying to force you out of their way, and on the other side is an exit ramp that sometimes gets so backed up, the line blocks the entrance ramp.

Here’s a problem with Google Maps: It told me what I needed to do. I even recognized what I was speeding towards. But it didn’t click until I was like twenty feet from the exit ramp, the entrance ramp people crowding me out of the far right lane and trying to force me even further to the left, that it really clicked that Google Maps was instructing me to take the exit that has made my mild-mannered mother mutter expletives on more than one occasion.

I can’t remember ever once going past that exit—I don’t even know where that highway leads past that exit—but as I tried to merge into the right lane, the car in that one pulled up beside me and tried to merge into mine. We were barreling towards the exit I needed and he clearly didn’t want. And somehow magically, magically, I managed to slow down without the pickup truck on my tail rear-ending me, giving the car to my right just enough time to pull ahead and into my lane while I swerved into his and straight down the exit ramp. A ballet of sorts.

Heart pounding, palms sweating, I made it down the exit ramp (which is actually an entrance ramp) and onto the connecting highway.

Slowly my heartbeat slowed. I recognized the backs of strip malls as I passed. And I stopped needing Google Maps because I was back in home territory, on streets I had driven before although never alone, and I made it home.

It was a beautiful day out, all clear blue sky and sparkling snow. Heat pulsed through the vents and I yanked off my hat and scarf. Unzipped my heavy down coat.

I pulled up outside my house and realized I didn’t want to go in.

So, after sending a quick text to my mom to let her know I was still alive, I pulled away from the curb and made my way to a nearby nature trail. I had to use a traffic circle and turn left into the parking lot—both things that terrified me just a couple months ago—but I made it fine. I sat in there in the warm minivan for a little while, letting “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers wash over me. Then I headed out on the trail.

The snow was about a thousand inches deeper than the last time I’d gone hiking there, a few days before Christmas with my family, and I wasn’t dressed for it, with only a light sweater on under my coat and heeled, knee-high faux leather boots. But I made it a decent way along the path, stopping to watch a churning river flow under shiny, clear ice and following deer tracks along a side path. After a while, I found what I was looking for: a pair of benches out in the sun, their snow melted so long ago they were dry.

I sat down on one, pulled the book I’d brought from my purse, and read.

hiking and reading 2-27-15

I don’t know if you’ve ever just sat out in the middle of nature without another creature in sight for an afternoon, but it’s one of my favorite ways to detox, especially on days like yesterday when it was cold but not too cold. (No bugs, no other people, but also no hypothermia.)

At one point an old man walked by and we exchanged hellos, but otherwise I didn’t see a single other person the entire time I sat there.

Growing restless after a while, I got up and hiked a couple more of the side paths, then came back to my bench and lay down with the sky so blue, blue, blue above me and the sun warm on my cheeks and birds calling to each other somewhere high in the branches, and read for a while longer.

At which point I realized I had no idea how much time had passed (it could have been two o’clock or five) and my phone was dead, so I pulled myself up and made the trek back to the minivan.

It wasn’t TOO late (only like three thirty), so I drove from there to Barnes and Noble to pick up a few more books, relishing in the fact that I’d managed to turn left out of the nature trail’s parking lot despite heavy traffic and I parked between two cars at B & N without straying outside my spot’s lines. (Also the fact that I drove past the pet store without stopping, despite my realization that I was an adult with a credit card, a car, and no one to stop me from going in there and adopting a hundred kittens.)

Perfect. The afternoon had been perfect.

Then I tried merging into the right lane to turn towards home and the car beside me wouldn’t let me over.

This was no complicated, lucky dance like had occurred on the highway. This was someone who clearly didn’t want to let me ahead of her, with another car right behind her.

This time, I missed my turn.

It wasn’t devastating or anything. It was only another mile to the next turn towards my house, so I’d barely lost any time or gas. But it was disappointing for an entire afternoon of doing well behind the wheel to end in this.

Except, wait—I saw a street sign coming up that I recognized and had forgotten about. My old street, the one my family lived on until I was around six, that also connected to where I needed to go. A shortcut.

I turned onto it.

I’ve been on my old street plenty of times since we moved. We still know people in the neighborhood and, as mentioned, it made a nice shortcut. But I’d never driven it before, not even with an ever watchful parent in the passenger seat, so it was strange to guide the minivan up the road, drawing closer and closer to the house where I’d learned to ride a bike and had countless playdates and first fallen in love with make believe and stories and symbolism.

The backyard’s full of fruit trees—cherry and a whole row of apple. There’s a maple tree that my brother and the neighbors and I climbed constantly and bled all over almost as constantly from scraped palms and knees. We had a sandbox shaped like a tugboat that my brother used to grow maple saplings from seeds and a play gym my dad built himself.

This was the house where my brother and I built forts in the living room with cardboard bricks and couch cushions to keep the monsters away while watching Scooby Doo. This was the house where I had “tea parties” with countless babysitters with my pink plastic tea set full of hot water from the bathroom sink, and made up complicated, endless stories about my collection of toy horses.

This was the house where I terrorized our cats by zipping them into suitcases and yanking them out from beneath furniture. This was the house where my brother once shattered the bathroom window by hitting it at just the right spot with a toothbrush while trying to kill a fly. This was the house where my parents left a TV on in my bedroom all night long for weeks on end in kindergarten because I was afraid of the dark and sleep and everything in between.

I have so many wonderful and terrible memories of that house, all so lodged in the past, buried under more recent things, more relevant ones, I hardly ever think about them anymore.

As I pulled near, I spotted movement up the driveway and I realized there were three little kids racing toward the garage with backpacks that were far too big for them bouncing, two boys and a teeny, tiny girl, dressed in head-to-toe pink.

It’s funny how life goes on. How one day you’re five years old, living in one house, and the next you’re twenty, just driving past it on your way to another. It’s funny how hard I cried when my parents made us move, how we panicked when we thought the movers had let my cat out and he was lost forever, but we found him and everything was okay and he made it all the way to my senior year of high school instead.

It’s funny how now I’m a junior in college, contemplating where to go, what to do after I graduate, and how those kids were still so many years away from existence the last time I was inside the house that is now theirs—and it’s funny how then, by chance; thanks to a jerk not letting me turn when I wanted to—there we were in the same place at the same time for a moment, a flash as I drove by and they hurried up the driveway, these kids who will never know who I am or what they have in common with me and probably didn’t even notice the minivan as it passed.

It’s funny how there I was, enjoying an afternoon of freedom on my first day of spring break—feeling it settle into my bones, this Being An Adult thing—and completely on accident, I drove past the house where my life took shape and didn’t see the place where I tore up my knees on the climbing tree or made up my very first stories in a cozy pink bedroom cluttered with toys, but three shiny new lives also just starting to take shape, another little girl in pink trying to keep up, life going on, on, on.

And it’s funny because symbolism. I’m in love with symbolism, and here was a whole bunch of it handed to me on a platter. A moment that would feel “too constructed,” not real, in fiction, but happened in real life.

I didn’t slow down or anything. Just kept driving. The kids disappeared behind trees and mailboxes.

But I pressed a little on the gas pedal and smiled.

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: This Is a Love Story

Okay, so I’m writing this Tuesday night because over the course of the next two days I have a short story, film review, and midterm paper all due and I haven’t begun any of them yet. And, you know, who doesn’t love to procrastinate.

The reason I haven’t begun anything yet is because I spent my entire weekend sleeping and reading and watching movies/the Oscars, because I am SO FREAKING TIRED and it needs to be spring break. But here we go: Survive these next two days, and I get a whole week off from school.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a short story I wrote for class, fall semester 2013. It was one of the weaker stories of the semester, but I still think it’s cute, so figured it was worth the share.

**********

We were stumped. The entire 100-level Classic Literature class just stared at Professor Robinson while the question hung in the dry classroom air: Had she really just asked us to rewrite Romeo and Juliet minus the dying part? Or Pride and Prejudice without Mr. Darcy being a total d-bag for ninety percent of the book? Or The Notebook sans shirtless Ryan Gosling?
“Come on, people,” Professor Robinson said. “It’s not that hard. Which part of the love story is the most important? How do you know which is which? How can you tell what part is the most significant until long after the entire thing is over, the lovers dead and gone and no longer important to anyone at all? Which parts aren’t necessary to weave a good tale? A writer can’t talk about literally every moment in a relationship, so how do they decide which ones to catalogue and describe? How do you tell a love story?”
I leaned forward with my chin propped on my fist and watched the girl in front of me take duck-face pictures on her webcam. The boy beside me had fallen asleep about five minutes before, and was snoring to the tune of what I assume was Star Wars. The girl on the other side of him was in an intense staring contest with the clock above the white board.
“Renee?” Professor Robinson’s tone was hopeful.
I jumped and shook my head. “Sorry, Professor. This time I’ve got nothing.”
She sighed. “Fine. Anyone else?” She glanced at the clock. We still had another twenty minutes, but the loudest noise in the room was the Star Wars theme a la Nose Whistle, so she closed her eyes and took a deep breath and said the two words every college student lives to hear: “Class dismissed.”

That was three days ago. Since then it has rained twice, and the sun has set and risen three times, and I have sat just as quietly as I did in that classroom, only in the front passenger seat of my mom’s minivan as we battled traffic all the way back to the little town of Miller, Wisconsin, because I promised Trish before I left for Northwestern that I would come home for the Homecoming game no matter what, even though coming home for Homecoming means coming home to all the problems I left behind.
And all this time I’ve thought about Professor Robinson’s question of what makes a good love story, but I haven’t been able to come up with a single idea. Until this very instant. The instant that I’m thinking all of this.
Because in this instant, someone is tapping me on the shoulder while I wait in the concession line at the Miller High School Homecoming game, and I’m turning around with my heart already in my throat, and Max Barton is standing behind me with one arm outstretched, the other tucked in the pocket of his faded Miller High Matterhorns hoodie, and a smile stretched across his lips. His brown eyes light up like I don’t have dog hair on my skirt or mascara smudged above my left cheek. He is exactly as tall as I remember—five foot eleven, the perfect height for me to tilt my head up to meet his gaze.
Professor Robinson, I promise I will write this down when I get home, because I can answer your question: A love story is a touch.
“Renee.”
A love story is a name.
“Hey.” I can’t get enough of the crisp September air in my lungs, and my sweater is both too heavy and not warm enough, and I haven’t seen Max Barton in months, but suddenly he is standing right behind me. “Long time no see.”
His smile broadens and he runs a hand back through his straight chocolate brown hair. “How are you? How’s Northwestern?” He has the voice of an old-time movie star, deep and lilting. The stadium lights make the freckles spread across his nose and cheeks stand out from the rest of his skin like one of the constellations just popping into existence above us as the sun sets over the parking lot.
“I’m good. It’s good.” I force a shrug. “How are you, Max? How’s the University of Wisconsin?”
He copies my movement. “It’s nice. It’s also nice to be home for the weekend, though. I missed everybody.” He takes in my rumpled sweater and frizzy chestnut ponytail; the scuffs across the toe of my right combat boot.
When I’m nervous, I dig my right foot into the ground. I’m doing it right now.
“You look beautiful, Renee.”
The temperature in my cheeks rises by a hundred degrees. I cross my arms and stare down at the trampled yellow grass, then swing my toe into the mangled strands again and watch as some of them break free. I close my eyes.
The truth about love stories is that you aren’t telling the reader about the relationship in general. You’re telling them about a specific moment that defines not just the relationship, but the characters themselves. Like a children’s book, a love story teaches a lesson. And maybe that lesson is Kissing Is Great rather than Stealing Is Wrong, but it’s still a lesson well-learned.
So I could tell you about the day I met Max Barton, when we were in the ninth grade and I was new to Miller and he said I could eat lunch at his table even though I’d just met him five minutes before at the end of fourth period geometry; I could tell you about a hundred dates, and all the times his fingers curled around mine on the walk home from track practice, and how I was never cold as long as his arm was around my shoulders. I could tell you about our first kiss, and our last, and all the jokes and fights and stories in between.
But instead I will tell you about right now. This moment. When my cheeks are burning up while my sweater is too cold, and Max tells me I look beautiful even though I don’t, and he smiles down at me with his freckles and hair and eyes all exactly as I remember. And I simply step away, say, “Thank you,” and turn to the concession stand to place my order.
Because if all love stories have one thing in common, it’s this: They end. And the love story of Max Barton and Renee Smith is already long gone.
I slide a five dollar bill across the counter to the booster parent scooping my popcorn, and accept the overstuffed bag she hands me with a grin. I slip the wallet back into my purse and tell her to keep the change.
“Have a nice evening, sweetie.”
I nod. “Thanks. You too.”
I wave at Max as I walk back to my seat beside Trish in the stands, but I don’t let my eyes linger on the way his hands are shoved haphazardly into his hoodie pocket or the breeze makes his hair dance across his forehead like a modern day Clark Kent’s. I don’t pay attention to the sound of his deep, lilting goodbye or the half a second his stare catches on my figure or the way his eyes slide so easily away from my retreating form as he approaches the concession stand himself.
I don’t pay attention to the fact that this moment is not a love story, but just an echo of one already told, no longer important to anything but my memories.
I squeeze onto the bench beside Trish and offer her my popcorn.
She raises her eyebrows, but takes a handful anyway. “Was that Max?”
“Yeah, but it’s okay.” I shrug and turn to watch the game. “We’re okay.”
“Good.” She nudges me with her shoulder, and I nudge her back. Out the corner of my eye, I see her grin. She grabs another handful of popcorn. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Me too.”
A love story is a lesson, and the lesson of my story is this: Not all love stories are between two people. Sometimes they’re between your past and your future, trying to figure out the present. Sometimes a love story is about yourself.
It’s deciding whether or not to move on—whether or not it’s okay to be happy again after something crappy has happened; after someone has broken your heart.
A love story is told through the moments that matter. And in mine, this is the one that does: Seeing Max Barton again, and wanting nothing more than to ride off into the sunset without him. Seeing Max Barton again, and loving myself enough not to love him.

**********

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Liebster Award Tag (3rd Time’s the Charm!)

Aaand Kira has nominated me back for the Liebster Award! I’m assuming as revenge for how often I nominate her for these tags.

You can find Kira’s wondrous post (responding to my nomination) here.

Rules of the tag:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Answer 11 questions from the person who nominated you.
  3. Nominate other bloggers.
  4. Give those bloggers 11 questions to answer and let them know they’ve been nominated.

**Since I’ve done this tag twice now, the most recent being last week (oops), I’m skipping nominating other people. But if you’d like to complete the tag yourself using Kira’s questions, go for it!**

Kira’s Questions:
1) If your life was a book, what would it be titled? [from Janna]
At the moment: How Did I Eat So Much Pizza for Lunch and Why Do I Still Want More: The Julia Byers Story
2) Who was your first ever fictional crush? [from Janna]
As I said last time, it was probably James from the Animal Ark series, back in elementary school.
3) What’s your career goal and how many people know about it? Are you super secretive about it the way some writers are?
My career goal is to work in editing for a children’s/YA lit imprint of a publishing house. If I get to be an author too, that’ll be amazing, but really just being part of the publishing industry at all is The Dream. As for the second part of this question: No, I’m not secretive about it. However, I do think a lot of people assume my chief goal in life is to be a writer since I do spend so much time writing and talking about writing.
4) What’s your favorite musical instrument?
At the moment: violin. I can’t play it whatsoever, but I adore the sound. So desperate and beautiful.
5) Have you ever met a traditionally published author? Who and where and how?
I’ve been really lucky on the Meeting Authors front the past few years. I don’t think you want to sit through all the stories.
6) What is the last book you checked out from the library?
So this is sort of embarrassing but I kind of… don’t… use the library. Like, I spend time at the library. I go to events and study there. But I haven’t checked out a book since high school and the last one I remember checking out was one of the Harry Potters, from my high school’s library sophomore year. Probably Order of the Phoenix?
7) Tell us a bit about your family.
I come from a pretty traditional, upper middle class suburban background. Both my parents are engineers and work their butts off for what we have. My brother is three years older than me and works in advertising. We have a dog named Sammy who I miss like crazy when I’m not home (which is 99% of the time, these days).
8) Do you have any experiences with mental illness you could share? (Re: you or people you love.)
I mean, I think we all know and love people who suffer from mental illness. But their stories are not mine to share.
9) What’s a favorite blog post you posted recently?
I’m actually going to grab a post I wrote for another blog, because it was my first time using GIFs and I had way too much fun with it: “Critique Partners = Superheroes” for Teens Can Write, Too!
10) We’re back on the desert island, and this time, you get to have three authors with you. Who do you choose?
Suzanne Collins, because she probably knows tons of survival stuff from The Hunger Games. Libba Bray, because she looked at Lord of the Flies and gave us Beauty Queens instead. And JK Rowling, because, I mean. Why give up an opportunity to get to hang out with JK Rowling.
11) Is there a particular dream (like, the sleepy time kind) that keeps recurring for you?
Not really. However, last night I did dream that a dog bit Hugh Jackman, then they both grew wings. So there’s that.
Aaand that about wraps it up for the Liebster Award tag. Thanks for nominating me, Kira! Again, if you’d like to complete the tag yourself, feel free to using Kira’s questions.
Hope you have a good weekend!
~Julia