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.

Finding Your Path to Resilience

I’m worried that I may never sell another book. No, it’s stronger than that. I’m terrified. More than anything else in the world, I want to write and publish books. At times it becomes such an overwhelming distraction that it bleeds into all other facets of my life. Whatever small successes I might experience here and there, I still feel like a failure.

It’s been the source of too many unhealthy emotions for too long: bitterness, anger, cynicism, envy, defeat, self-doubt. But no matter how many times I decide to leave it behind, I always fall back into the same old routine, for better or worse.

They say it’s the persistent ones who ultimately succeed. The ones who don’t give up, who keep trying in the face of terrible odds, who pick themselves up after a defeat and try again. There’s a word for that (a word other than obstinate or naïve or just plain foolhardy).

Resilient.

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I saw a news segment recently about a new book called Type R: Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World, by Ama Marston and Stephanie Marston. The authors propose that the most resilient people are those who will be most successful in life. I’ve added the book to my reading pile, because the idea makes perfect sense.

So does being resilient—trying and trying, bouncing back after every setback—guarantee that I’ll ever publish again?

No.

But it does guarantee that even if I never reach my goal, at least I can say I did everything in my power to make it happen. It means I have no intention of giving up. But it also means that I need a reliable, alternate source of success in my life. I realized a long time ago that focusing on writing to the exclusion of all else is not healthy for me. So I’ve tried spending time on other pursuits, though it’s been a struggle to find the right fit. Every time, I end up viewing the new job or hobby or project as a distraction; as time that could be better spent writing. It’s a vicious circle.

And then, this past week, I finally found it. I did something I didn’t want to do, didn’t think I could ever, ever do without making a complete fool of myself.

I went to a weight training class. Twice! And I’m going back again this week. Now, I have to clarify that a good friend is in the class. She played a huge role in getting me there, assuring me that it was low pressure, that everyone was nice and non-judgy, that I could go at my own pace. Still I was braced to discard it as another failed distraction.

Instead, I felt proud of myself. In control of my own success. And I felt…strong. Also really sore.

Writing is a beast. I can’t claim that I’m in it purely for the joy of creation. I crave professional success. I’d love to make a decent living at it. Mostly I want to reach young readers with my stories. So, since it seems that writing and I are stuck with each other for the long haul, I’m over the moon that I’ve found my path to resilience, and hopeful it will carry me through the inevitable ups and downs.

Maybe I’ll even end up healthier along the way.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

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.

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.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of {too much} Solitude

I work at a university, which is another way of saying that I never had to leave school. At least I’m on the other side of the red pen, now. And I still get to have that school year mentality—the one where Christmas break, spring break, and summer vacation are the most wonderful times of the year.

Ah, summer vacation! I start looking forward to it in March (pretty much the day after spring break ends), because I am going to get SO MUCH done. When May rolls around, I think with awe about the months spanning uninterrupted before me. I make elaborate lists: write, work out, write, read, write, yard work, write, home improvement… I wake up early, excited to get started. Why can’t the entire year be like this?

And then, about mid-June, the novelty wears off. I start to get…bored. I sleep in later. Seven a.m. turns into seven-thirty turns into me barely cracking an eye when everyone leaves the house. The sad truth is, as much as I love my writing time, my mind starts to unravel when left to itself for too long.

As I’ve been doing this summer thing for awhile, I’ve developed some coping techniques. When the kids were younger, I was still at my wits’ end by August, but at least it was never dull. Then they started getting drivers’ licenses. The house got too quiet. My low spot was the summer a few years ago when pretty much my sole hobbies were playing Candy Crush and crying (yeah, I know—so many warning signs). After that, I took a good hard look at myself.

Writers, of necessity, spend a lot of time in their heads. We long for those quiet hours when it’s just us and the keyboard. But this isn’t a healthy place to stay for too long. These are some of the things I’ve learned that keep me functioning.

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  1. Take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. After my rock bottom summer, I started seeing a wonderful endocrinologist, who did some blood work and prescribed a medication for hypothyroidism that changed my life. It turns out that was what I needed to combat depression, but everyone is different. Don’t neglect yourself, and don’t downplay symptoms.
  2. Stay in touch with other writers. And not just through text on a computer screen. I have a writer friend I don’t see often, but we message each other every now and then and meet up for lunch. It’s incredibly invigorating to have even just that little bit of contact. Critique groups are wonderful for that, too. Also writing conferences.
  3. Join or start a critique group. I know I mentioned this already, but it’s important enough to repeat. A thriving critique group is hard work, but a go-to support group is a lifesaver. It’s also a source of accountability. I find it a lot easier to sit down at that keyboard when I know three other people are waiting for 5,000 words by Tuesday.
  4. Get some exercise. I am the world’s most reluctant athlete. I don’t get runner’s high—I get runner’s I-hate-this-I’m-so-miserable-and-why-is-it-so-damn-hot-(or-cold-or-windy)? Some might say I don’t run far enough (I’m looking at you, my marathon-running critique partners). My answer to that is…well, I won’t say it here. But even with as little as one yoga session and a couple of walk/jogs with the dogs every week, I find my body refreshed and my brain churning with new ideas.
  5. Hide the snacks. Getting rid of them is best, of course, but that’s too hardcore for me. I’m guilty of leaving treats in plain sight—right at this moment I’ve got a family pack of Reese’s Pieces, some strawberry peanut M&M’s, a bowl of tortilla chips, a box of candy left over from Christmas, and half a bag of chocolate Chex Mix on my kitchen counter. And that’s only what I can remember without going to look. Welcome to my sugar-addicted life. It’s only a few steps from my laptop to Chocolate Heaven—not nearly enough to count as exercise, more’s the pity. But out of sight, out of mind, and putting all that stuff away in a cupboard helps. And right after I finish this, I’m going to do just that.
  6. Train your family to be supportive. This one doesn’t always work. But if you’re fortunate, you may have someone in your life who will not only respect your writing time, but help pull you out of any writerly funks you may fall into.
  7. Learn something new. For awhile, I made a game of developing a new skill every summer. One year, I learned how to knit. Another, I took piano lessons. Last summer, I canned 36 jars of peaches from our tree. (For someone who hates to cook, that’s a huge accomplishment.) New hobbies keep me busy when the words don’t come, and hey, now my characters can talk semi-intelligently about knitting, pianos, and canning fruit. This summer’s goal? Dog agility training. Really.
  8. Or volunteer. Or otherwise become involved with something external and different. My family is usually supportive (see above), but my husband is occasionally guilty of uttering the words, “Since you’re not doing anything this summer, why don’t you…” But you know what? One day a week of working at his business has actually been good for me. For one thing, it resets my mind. After applying it to new and challenging problems, I return to my writing refreshed. Also, new skills: if your characters need intimate knowledge of state and private vehicle impounds in the state of Utah, I’m your guy. And it keeps me on a reasonable getting-out-of-bed schedule.
  9. Finally, have something to look forward to. For me, it’s road trips, days at the lake, and returning to my fulltime job in August. Ah, fall semester! I can’t wait.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Focus

I have a slight (okay, huge) problem with staying focused on tasks that I don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s because I find a task boring–like housework. Or it’s repetitive, or I don’t see the point, or . . . I love it, and I find it interesting, and I want to do it, buuuuuuuut it’s hard.

Writing, you guys. Writing is hard. I love writing, but it’s hard. So hard. It is, I might even  go so far as to say, quite difficult.

Whenever I get stuck for words, or I’m not quite sure how I want to go about writing the next scene, that’s it, my brain’s like “this is HARD,” and I’m off clicking on social media, checking my texts, getting up to grab a snack I don’t need, etc. But I’ve been trying a few things to help with this problem, and I thought I’d share them with you in case you have a similar issue.

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1. Meditation

Meditation is basically just training your brain to focus, and you don’t have to do it for very long each day. I’ve been using an app called Headspace to help me out. It does require a subscription to be able to use all of it, but the Take-Ten (10 minute) beginner/training sessions are free. There are also other apps out there–a quick search in your app store will bring up many. But you don’t even need an app for the basics. Just find a quiet, comfortable spot (sitting, preferably, so you don’t get too relaxed and fall asleep) and focus on your breathing. Count your breaths in your head, if that helps. And whenever you notice that your mind is wandering (and it will), just gently acknowledge that and bring it back to focus on your breaths again. I try to do this before I sit down to write, and it really helps a lot.

2. Physical Activity

Again, it doesn’t take much. A brisk walk or some yoga, or even just dropping to the floor and doing a few pushups can help get the blood flowing to your brain and increase your ability to concentrate. I will often do some stretches or pushups between writing sprints.

3. Less Caffeine

Wait . . . WHAT?!

Yes, I know. I’m a writer. Don’t writer’s practically bleed caffeine? I used to, but I just can’t do it anymore. Too much caffeine sends my brain into hyper drive, and makes it more difficult for me to reign it in. I do need some in the morning, however, to jumpstart my day. so I’ve started making my morning cup with one scoop of caffeinated grounds, and one scoop of decaf. That combo is perfect for me. You might need to do some adjusting to figure out the right balance for you.

4. Set up a Permanent Writing Space

. . . and be consistent about writing there. I’ve had a writing desk set up for quite a while, actually, but the couch is so comfy, you know? And so, until recently, I rarely ever wrote at my desk, preferring my laptop, a cozy blanket, and my sofa. It’s no wonder writing often made me sleepy. As soon as I lost focus, I’d often opt for a nap (and no, this has nothing to do with the reduction in caffeine–couches just make me want to nap no matter what, so don’t even go there.) Not only that, but the living room is where we watch TV and play games, and mine’s connected to an open kitchen where I can see all the dishes that are piling up, not to mention mail and papers and . . . you see what I’m getting at? It’s distracting because it’s associated with many different things, and they’re all competing for my attention.  My writing desk, however, is tucked away in this weird little nook in the hallway that the builders thought needed to be there for some reason, and it’s away from the chaos of the rest of the house. Everything on and around my desk reminds me either of my writing, or the things that have inspired my writing (like my T.A.R.D.I.S. and my Mulder and Scully Pop figurines.) If I consistently choose to write at my desk, my brain will associate that spot with writing only. And so far, it’s working really well.

So those are the main things that have helped me focus and stay on task as a writer. I hope you find them helpful too, and if you happen to have any other tips, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.

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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.

You Matter

“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to­morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”
— Sylvia Plath

This post doesn’t bring me pleasure, but it’s one I should have written a while ago. There’s many reports that link creativity to mental health issues. Writers take the brunt of it with nearly 40% being linked to depression and bipolar disorder. With these numbers it’s easy to romanticize the craft and mental health disorders.

“If I don’t write to empty my mind , I go mad.” ­Lord Byron

Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe are but a handful of writers who suffered mental illness only to pay the ultimate price of suicide. It’s tragic and sudden. It’s something I struggle with, and may have passed down to my kids. As I’m writing this I’m about to go to a psychiatric hospital to see one of my kids.

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You don’t have to struggle with mental illness for your craft. It’s not worth it. Take care of yourself because you deserve it. Here are a few things that can help.

Don’t romanticize it.

I’ve had the thought a few times of ‘if I get help I’ll lose what makes me me.’ Your passion means nothing if you’re not here. You are more important than the ink in the pages.

There’s no shame in mental illness.

Nearly one in five American adults (18.2% of the population) have some sort of mental health problem. There are medications and treatments to help. You are not alone in your struggle.

Don’t believe that no one cares.

I do. We do. Plenty of people do.

Don’t keep it to yourself.

I’m guilty of this myself. It’s easy to create a mask you allow others to see. One that says everything is fine when you know that is not. Share what you are struggling with. Be open. Let someone help.

You are not a burden. You matter.

Don’t let a treatable illness win.

Call 1­-800-­273-­8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-­800-­273­TALK(8255) | suicidepreventionlifeline.org

 

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Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.