Tallying the Tailwinds

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I come from a family of runners and writers. Both pursuits can be difficult and, at times, discouraging. My brother and I were talking about running recently and laughing about the fact that he’d run the same route every morning for months, always thinking, “I have the worst luck. The wind always picks up when I turn back for home.”

We were laughing because of course, this wasn’t true. The wind was there all along. But he wasn’t aware of it when it was pushing him gently along, helping him toward his goal. As runners, we’re aware of our tailwinds for a minute or two, and then we simply don’t notice them. Headwinds, however, are nearly always in our thoughts because they’re quite literally in our faces.

As it turns out, this isn’t an experience unique to running, and certainly not to my brother. In all aspects of life, we are more likely to notice the forces working against us than those working for us. Not because we are negative or pessimists, but because the obstacles are the very things we’re trying to overcome, and therefore they have our attention. The things that are helping us along don’t require our attention and therefore don’t receive it to nearly the same degree.

In psychology, this is known as the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry. Tom Gilovich of Cornell University has studied this phenomenon for years, sharing his results in scholarly articles as well as this highly accessible podcast interview. It’s a phenomenon that shows up across the human experience, in areas from sports to politics to family matters.

In conjunction with this research, Gilovich also references the fact that who actively practice gratitude—which is, in essence, the act of acknowledging and appreciating your tailwinds—are happier and healthier. Those who don’t are more likely to not only focus on their headwinds—the obstacles in their way—but to succumb to greed and envy, two feelings that are essentially the opposites of gratitude. As you might guess, this does not result in happier, healthier outcomes.

Let’s return, then, to writing. It’s easy to focus on the (valid) writing is difficult for you and on the obstacles you’ve faced and are facing.

But have you tallied your tailwinds lately? Ever? Your list might include some of these:

  • Your education and literacy (For so much of the world, this is not a given.)
  • Access to libraries, and perhaps even a personal library
  • Access to the materials you need to write, whether that’s a brand-new laptop or a notebook and a sharp pencil
  • Writing software (Search and replace! Track changes! What incredible tools we have.)
  • A supportive family
  • Wise critique partners
  • A writing community, including mentors who pay it forward
  • Access to information (Google Earth! Google Translate! Straight-up Google! YouTube! Blogs like this one!)
  • Emotional health, including a heart capable of empathizing with the characters you create
  • Physical health, including healthy hands capable of typing
  • Mental health, including a mind capable of creating
  • A supportive and knowledgeable agent
  • An editor or publisher who champions your book
  • Readers who love your work (whether they number in the millions or we’re just talking about your mom)

My own list includes many of these, and I’m sure there are things I’m missing—advantages I’ve enjoyed for so long that I simply don’t see them. But the very act of writing this list has helped me appreciate all the forces working in my favor. The very act of listing your tailwinds, or even stopping to think about it, can make all the difference in outlook and, as a result, outcome. It’s certainly something I plan to practice on a much more regular basis.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of Like Magic and Paper Chains (HarperCollins). She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

Writing (or not) After Loss

This post is going to be difficult for me to write. Difficult, because that’s what all writing has been for me lately–difficult. And for a very good reason. . . .

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For many people, writing comes as a solace during difficult times. When someone experiences the loss of a loved one, for instance—like I did this summer—writing can be a way to either escape or process emotions. I actually felt like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t even journal. The thoughts and feelings running through me were stuck inside my body and refused to exit onto the page. Fortunately, I had friends who were there to tell me this was okay, and not at all abnormal. They told me to take a break, take all the time I needed, and when I was ready to write again, I’d know it. And now I’m here to tell this to you, along with some other things that surprised me about writing after loss.

When I did eventually get back to writing (sporadically) about a month ago, I found I had a completely new perspective on my story and my characters. Interestingly, my main character’s father has died a month or two before the story begins, and oddly, it’s in a similar(ish) way to how my own dad died. This was not something that I added to the story after my own loss. Nope, it’s been that way since I first started writing it almost a year ago. Complete coincidence. However, I’ve been in my character’s shoes now, and I’ve realized the way my main character felt and acted in that first draft no longer resonates with me. It isn’t realistic anymore. So in the rewrite, I’ve been fixing that. And it’s (I hope) making my character so much richer. I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled about having this new perspective. If I could have gained it any other way, I would have preferred that. But I am grateful that I’m able to take this horrible experience and use it in a positive way. Silver linings and all that, I guess.

You may also find you’ve gained a new perspective toward your characters. You may find yourself adjusting things in ways you never would have thought to before. You may even find the story you’re currently working on doesn’t fit you at all anymore. That’s okay. Run with it. Fix it. Set it aside, if that’s what you need to do. My last finished novel—one I’ve queried and debated going Indie with, no longer fits me. At least, not right now. I’ve outgrown it, I guess you could say. As I see things now, I’m not likely to ever publish it. Or maybe someday, if I’m up to it, I’ll go back over it and make some major changes. And either way, that’s perfectly fine.

One more thing that has surprised me is how much less I’m censoring myself as I write. And by that, I mean I worry less about how my writing will be received by agents and publishers, and just write what I want to write. I write more for me now than I ever have before, and though I’m not completely oblivious to my future plans for this story, I’m pushing those concerns aside for dealing with when I actually get there. And what’s funny is, I thought I’d been doing this all along, but now I can clearly see that I hadn’t been. I’d been far too occupied with the dream of being published when I wrote my previous stories, that I’d become an anxious drafter, which made writing less fun and less satisfying. Now, the anxiety is gone. I’m not going to get into the psychology behind this, because I don’t completely understand why this has changed. But it has, and I’m good with that.

I’m telling you all of these things, not to give you any kind of road map or template for “when you experience loss, this is exactly how your writing will change,” because everyone experiences loss differently, and everyone writes differently. I’m telling you these things because they surprised me, and you may have some surprising experiences too. But whatever your experiences are, they are normal for you. And you may need to adjust some things, and that is perfectly okay.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Protecting Your Heart For Writing

If you’ve been writing for a certain amount of time and told people about it, chances are you’ve heard something along the lines of, “How do you find time for that?” Or, “I’d write if I could find the time.”

Finding the time to write can indeed be a trick. But it’s probably not as hard as most people make it out to be. Bottom line: If writing is important to you, you find time to do it. You MAKE time for it. I’ve heard countless stories of people waking up earlier to write, or squeezing in a couple hundred words while they wait in the pick up line at school, or type on their phones while they breastfeed, or work during their lunch breaks. And most people seem to have plenty of time for social media and Netflix.

Really, when it comes down to it, I think it’s less about being able to find the time (because we can all find 15-30 minutes in our day if we give up one episode or one Facebook session) and more about having the EMOTIONAL ENERGY to write.

If you’ve been writing for a certain amount of time and told people about it, chances are you’ve heard something along the lines of, “How do you find time for that-” Or, “I’d write if I could find the time.” Finding .png

And let’s face it, writing requires a ton of emotional energy. The energy to imagine and create, to feel empathy for fictional characters, to step inside the shoes of someone else and walk in their story. Writing is an exercise in radical empathy. Add on top of that the emotional energy required to fend off imposter syndrome, self-doubts, and then the pain of rejection and writing can suck you dry. And if you’re trying to do it on top of being an emotionally available parent, a wholehearted employee, a loving spouse, forget about it!

In that light, I want to talk about what finding the time to write is really about…protecting your heart for writing. If you are not in a place where you can experience radical empathy, an expansive imagination, and dust yourself off after copious amounts of rejection week after week, then you are never going to feel like you’re able to write.

That’s not to say that in order to write you must live a stress-free life. Far from it. Just that you have to find a way to protect a piece of your heart for this journey. A way to refresh your soul just the tiniest bit before you sit down at your keyboard. And some nights you can’t do it and you write through the slog and stress. But isn’t it so much better when you’re writing with an open heart? So let’s talk about way to do that.

  • Rest! You need rest to create. Our society isn’t very good at resting, but it is a vital part of the creative process. We let our manuscripts rest between drafting and revisions. We need to make sure we are getting enough rest to write. If you consistently feel too tired to write, is there any way you can sneak in an extra hour of sleep somewhere during the day? Can you turn off the late night Netflix and go to bed earlier? Close the book instead of bingeing all night? Can you get a power nap in during your lunch break? Or maybe if you find an hour to write but are exhausted, take a 20-30 minute snooze for the first half and then write the second half. Maybe that seems counter-productive, but if resting makes you write more consistently then it’s worth it!
  • Back away from social media. No, you don’t need to give it up completely. But have you ever felt when you are on it too much that you are so connected to everyone else’s thoughts that you haven’t been connected to your own thoughts? You can articulate everyone else’s position and nod along and everything else. But have you sat in the quiet and really pondered your own thoughts? Some creativity thrives with collaboration. And some needs to bloom in the garden of our own minds. Your originality will flourish with a little less time spent in other people’s minds and a little more time spent in your own.
  • Find some time to sit outside and just be still. It’s amazing what just a little bit of fresh air and listening to the birds and watching the sunset will do for your psyche. Can you write outside? Perhaps you can begin every session with a few deep breaths at your window. Really try to ground yourself in these moments. I like to imagine my feet as roots sinking into the ground. Literally, grounding myself. Centering my soul in the moment.
  • Find the good. It’s been a tough year or two politically. And it can be so easy to get so caught up in the political merry-go-round and go from one outrage to the next and the next. And that’s EXHAUSTING! Now some people write books that maybe thrive with a little bit of anger spurring them on. I do not. While I don’t think you need to pull out of politics entirely (and indeed it is privileged to be able to do so) I do think it’s important to find a balance so it doesn’t consume you. I think it’s important to try and balance out the stories of fear and hate and injustice with good things. There ARE good things. Creativity is an embodiment of hope. You don’t write books for doomed world. You write them with HOPE. You have to feel that and have that in your heart before you can get it on the page. Where can you find hope in your life? Where can you see the good things that are also happening, even when the world feels like it’s falling apart?
  • Ask for help. Sadly, this is mostly for female writers. Ladies, you do NOT have to do it all. Your partner should be in the business of supporting your dreams, too. They love you, right? Those kids are their kids too, right? Figure out what you need help with in order to make writing possible and then gently ask for help. Tell them how important this writing thing is to you. Let them know that you’d like to do it for just an hour a day (or whatever time you find) and then let them know you need their help. Maybe you need them to take over the dinner dishes. Maybe you need them to take the kids on Saturday mornings. Maybe you just need them to understand that you’re not ignoring them if your nightly hang out sessions after the kids go to bed decrease from two hours to one. Of course, this conversation should be a two way street. Maybe it’s a good time for you to ask about your partner’s dreams and how you can help support them, too.
  • Stay away from the things that make it harder. These will change with the seasons. There was a time when I knew I couldn’t get on Twitter on Tuesdays and Thursdays because seeing the deal announcements hurt my heart so much. If that’s you, that’s okay. Maybe reading one more “How I Got My Agent Post” will break you. Then don’t read it. Have romance books lost their luster for you because all you can do is compare your book and it keeps coming up short? Switch genres for a few months for Heaven’s sake! Listen to those feelings and don’t be ashamed of them. Protect your heart.

Writing and publishing are hard. And so much of the work is subconscious, emotional, and unseen. Give yourself the space and grace to be able to pursue it in a healthy way.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

 

I Open at the Close: On Harry Potter and the Universal Experience of Death

It’s been a little over a month since my sister’s husband died. It feels like longer and not that long all at once.

He was diagnosed with bone cancer almost exactly two years ago and all our lives were turned upside down. It has been a roller coaster that steadily got worse and worse ever since. But what I want to talk to you about, and the part that has to do with writing, is what happened June 30.

That was the day we got the news that his bone cancer had metastasized to his lungs and there wasn’t much time left. We knew this was coming but it was still a shock, and I had to take my pain outside to walk around my neighborhood over and over and process it all.

And do you want to know what’s interesting? I’m a religious person. I find great comfort in scripture and prayer. But as I circled my block in the dark, the words that kept coming to me were not from scripture, but from the final Harry Potter book. “I open at the close.”

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Those are the words written on the golden snitch that Harry carries with him to face Voldemort and sacrifice himself.

I open at the close.

And those are the words I couldn’t get out of my brain.

Because as much as my brother-in-law’s death was a too painful and too soon ending, it was also a beginning. A beginning for him of an existence free of pain. A beginning of a new (if unwanted) chapter for my sister where she and my niece would face the world without him. The beginning of a new family for all of us, where we hold tight my sister and niece, lift them up, protect them.

I didn’t want the close. But it was not the end. Life would go on. There would be new beginnings.

I open at the close.

I raced home and pulled my copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS off the shelf. I flipped to the back and found the scene I was looking for. I walked with Harry away from Hogwarts. Away from life and friends who were family. I cried when he whispered, “I am going to die.”

Do you know how hard it is to say that? To admit it and face it? It takes an inordinate amount of bravery. I don’t think people actually understand this until they see someone have to do it.

I continued to weep as one by one, Harry’s family came with him, to walk him home. I thought of my brother-in-law’s mother and sister who had already passed. The ones who seemed to be visiting him in his dreams those last few days.

And then Harry asks, “Does it hurt?”

I don’t know J.K. Rowling’s life story. I don’t know if she has watched someone die. But this is word for word the question that plagued my brother-in-law. That plagued my sister and all of us. And when Harry spoke the words that were slowly choking all of us, I couldn’t contain my emotion.

How did she know? How did she know all the feelings and thoughts I was facing in that moment? The feelings and thoughts my brother in law was facing?

Over the next few days, we said goodbye to him. We stood in his room and watched and waited as he took his last few breaths. And when his chest stopped rising once and for all, I thought of Sirius falling through that veiled archway. Passing from one plane to the next. Just gone.

And again the words came.

I open at the close.

When the pain felt too much to handle. When the world seemed so incredibly unfair. When I was facing unspeakable emotional pain. It wasn’t scripture where I found that first initial comfort. It was books. It was characters who felt real to me. It was the insight of an author I’d never met. The humanity of a universal experience. One we will all have eventually.

And I’m not sure I realized how important books were until then. I’m not sure I fully understood what it is that we, as authors, are doing. How divine the work of creation truly is.

You are not just creating stories and made up worlds. You are forming a mirror and a rope that binds us, as humans, together. One that says, “You are seen and you are not alone.”

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

When Writing Makes You Realize You May Need Therapy

This post gets pretty real. And it probably won’t teach you any writing technique, but perhaps it will help you with writing in some way. Mostly it’s a bit of self-care.

I have a bit of a dark past. Those childhood experiences have woven into the fabric of my entire life (without me realizing it until more recently) and it tends to come out in my writing—which is good and bad. But also eye opening.

For many (if not all) writers, writing is therapeutic. It’s a healthy way to get out thoughts and feelings or help sort out events or circumstances you’re trying to make sense of—maybe through a personal essay, or perhaps torturing a fictional character with situations you’ve personally suffered through.

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But even with the benefits of writing out all the messed up or hard times (or deep, dark caverns) from your life, it can also take a toll emotionally, mentally, and even physically.

For example, I wrote a nonfiction book about healing from sexual abuse which also includes my personal stories. Every time I’d sit down to write, my anxiety would skyrocket and I could feel my heartbeat intensify. A panicky feeling would permeate my whole body. It took a lot longer than I thought it should to write because of the effects on me. It’s the same when I work on posts for my website on the same subject.

And every fiction idea I have seems to be on this same heavy topic. Clearly, I’m using writing to work through my trauma. And I’m mostly fine with that, but it does make intense scenes and situations difficult to write.

Do certain scenes or subjects you write (or read) amp up your emotions? Do you disassociate while writing, losing track of what’s real and what’s not, perhaps thinking you’re a victim all over again? Does it take time to recover from writing intense scenes? If so, are you cognitively aware of something in your past that may be the cause of the trigger? Or have you suspected something buried in your subconscious?

I’m not suggesting that every time something affects you that it means something dark and disturbing. Writers also often have the gift of empathy and can feel emotions from an experience they haven’t personally gone through. But it could also hint at something you may not be fully, consciously aware of.

Your body and soul remember traumatic times that you may have blocked out.

Granted, when I started my aforementioned WIP, I was already in the midst of therapy (oh, the crazy horror/thriller story ideas I get from my brain during therapy!), so I knew some of what was going on. But the intense emotions and memories that would creep in were still surprising. Like, “Hey, I’m working through this and this shouldn’t be bothering me.” And then I would feel like I was losing my mind, but really I am just still working through the healing process.

My point is, take care of yourself. Be mindful of what you experience as you pour your heart onto the pages of your masterpiece. If something you’re writing is triggering for you, pay attention to it. Take a step back and pull yourself into the present. If you know what it is, acknowledge it and thank your mind and body for trying to protect you. Remind yourself that you’re safe now.

Also, if you think you may need the help of a professional, there is no shame in therapy. It’s actually a very healthy and adult thing to do. If not a professional, perhaps you just need to chat it out with a friend or spouse (who may also suggest therapy depending on the situation or severity of what’s going on).

Writing is therapeutic, but it also may dig up some skeletons from your past. Listen to your inner-self. If you need to take a break, do it. Be kind to yourself and do what you need to be mentally, physically, and emotionally safe.

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Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 500 articles—family-oriented articles on familyshare.com and book reviews. She recently started a website for something she is passionate about–helping victims of sexual abuse find hope and healing. Wendy is the mother of 6 spirited children ranging in age from 5 to 15. In the throes of writing a few books (fiction and nonfiction), she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading, loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.

Trudging Through Sludge

It creeps under doorways, rises through vents, incorporating everything and everyone in its path, zapping them of energy, physical and mental. It’s a destroyer of focus and productivity, causing its victims to write at a snail’s pace, stare at blank screens, and abandon projects. I call it the Sludge, and I’ve been trying to wade through it for ages now.

Sludge

I briefly escaped it when I traveled across the country to write in a cabin with a bunch of other writers (several of whom were also traveling to escape the Sludge.) I hoped that maybe while I was away, the Sludge would get bored and move somewhere else. But no, it had waited patiently back at home, and was there to greet me again when I returned.

I tried to convince it to go with threats of Camp NaNoWriMo word counts, but it laughed in my face and gave me the flu. It knows I can’t write when I have the flu. Then the dreaded Spring Break arrived and the two teamed up. There’s no wading through a combo of Sludge and Spring Break—what was originally the thickness of molasses hardened into clay. I’ve written very, very little during the last three weeks.

There’s a trick to fighting the Sludge though, if you’re patient. You know how in old movies, the protagonist would fall into quick sand, and the more they struggled, the deeper they would sink? Eventually they would realize that if they stopped struggling, they’d float back up to the top where they could reach a vine or outstretched hand that would bring them back to safety. The Sludge is kind of like that. The more you stress about how little you’re writing, the harder it becomes to write, until eventually, you’re not writing at all.

I’ve found that I do better if I stop thinking about it much. If I just ride along on the surface of the Sludge and let it carry me to wherever it’s trying to go, it will eventually float me to a branch that I can use to pull myself out. I stop worrying about word counts, and just ask myself if I’ve written at all that day. Or heck, if I’ve even opened up my document and looked at it, if I’ve thought about it at all while showering or doing the dishes—if I haven’t abandoned it completely, that’s good enough for now. And eventually, if I keep at it in just such a way, the Sludge will slink away for a while and let me get back to work.

Have you ever been taken over by the Sludge? How did you handle it? Or, if you’re currently trudging through it, I hope this has helped you to know you’re not alone, and eventually, you’ll find your way back out.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The World is Wide Enough: Rethinking the “-er” and the “-est”

 

April TTOF

We are all storytellers here, and today’s post is about my most recent experiences with one specific form of storytelling: live theater.

Due to ridiculous good fortune and a particularly skilled friend, I found myself in possession of a (reasonably priced!) ticket to see one of the very first performances of Hamilton in San Francisco. It’s still hard for me to put into words how perfect it was–the staging, the acting, the music, the story itself. I found myself thinking, “That may be the best performance I’ve seen. Of anything. Ever.”

What could possibly follow an experience like that? Would everything pale in comparison? Perhaps I should give up on theater, because what could ever hope to compete?

Luckily, my kids had already been cast in a children’s production of Once On This Island, and there was more theater in my immediate future. As I write this, we’re twenty-four hours from closing night, and I still haven’t made it through the final number without tearing up. It’s a beautiful show.

As I reflect on these two very different productions, I’ve also been thinking of a conversation I had recently with a wise grandmother. She told me of how she’s seeking to eliminate “the ‘-er’ and ‘-est'” from her conversations with her grandkids and even from her own thoughts. Rather than asking them, “What was the best part of the trip?” she asks, “What did you love about the trip?” Rather than evaluating her staff in terms of who is better at their job, she considers what strengths each of her employees brings to the workplace.

There is certainly a place for comparison and even ranking in certain facets of life, but ever since that conversation, I’ve been increasingly aware of how limited the need actually is. When anything is placed as superior, in terms of relationships or experiences or works of art, by necessity, something also becomes inferior.

Here’s what I propose:

What if we eliminate the comparison and ranking from our lives as much as we possibly can? Easier said than done, of course, but how powerful would it be to look at our experiences–and our work–in terms of what we love and what we learn? To approach our storytelling with a respect for and awareness of all the stories that have come before and all that will follow–but without worrying how ours will rank among them? To recognize that the world is truly wide enough for us all? Would we then tell our stories for more pure reasons, rather than for purposes of a bigger advance, a potential award that designates our work as “better”, a secret (or not-so-secret) desire to earn the rank of “bestsesller”?

Tomorrow night, I will watch from the wings as forty bright, beautiful children sing these words with strong voices and hopeful hearts:

Life is why
We tell the story
Pain is why
We tell the story
Love is why
We tell the story
Grief is why
We tell the story
Hope is why
We tell the story
Faith is why
We tell the story
You are why
We tell the story

~ “Why We Tell The Story”, Once On This Island

Nourish yourself and your story, then, my friends, without any worry of whether it is best or better in comparison to everything else out there or even than what you’ve written before. Put your whole self into your story, and when you’ve done that, again and again, let it be enough.

And it will be.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.