Petrozavodsk, 1990

Zina was Anya’s mother. When I came down with a cold, she fed me spoonfuls of honey at the small round table by the kitchen windows, morning light streaming in through the thin glass. It was early spring, but still cold in those northern parts, and when we went walking you could see the steam hovering over Lake Onega. The snow melted in April, and by the time I was feeling better, tiny crocuses were pushing their way through the cold ground and children were skipping in the courtyard.

Zina’s hair was a shock of that red-orange dye distinct to Russian women of a certain age. I didn’t  understand why she loved me like a second daughter; maybe because I was inquisitive whereas Anya was sullen.

My questions ran the gamut; I wanted to hear about her childhood, the dacha where her grandmother taught her to grow carrots and berries, the goat she nearly lost during a particularly bad spring flood when she twelve, how she’d met her husband (their families knew each other), and whether she ever dreamed of traveling beyond the city where she’d lived her whole life.

Zhanna, she’d say, I am content. Why should I want to go anywhere else when I have everything I need right here? She’d gesture around the small room, as if her teapot and slippers belonged to royalty. It made it hard to argue, even though as a young woman lusting for life experience, I knew my love of that provincial place hinged on the train that would take me away from it before long.

The forests nearby — miles and miles of birch trees straddling the Finnish border, dense with memory and darkness — and the low-hanging sky that seemed like an inverted bowl holding in the world below, all of this created a kind of vortex effect. At night, I’d lie in my small bed covered with so many blankets, the cold air seeping in from the crack Zina insisted was healthy for sleeping, and imagine I could hear the whispers of those who’d lived in that high-ceilinged room  before Anya’s family moved in. My dreams were a mish-mash of Russian and English and lines of poetry I couldn’t remember come morning, and I felt at once old and young and ageless as the weeks passed.

I also felt Jewish in ways that were beginning to grow more pronounced. The few times I brought this up, an unmistakably displeased expression crept over Zina’s face, and Anya’s lips turned downward even more than usual. Mother and daughter alike would glance in the direction of Anya’s father, who wouldn’t look up from his newspaper. Case closed; religion was not to be discussed.

But I couldn’t help myself. My love of Russia began to bang up against something else: The undeniable truth that Jews had left this place in droves, in search of the religious and cultural freedom of expression. Sure, some small communities had cropped up, particularly in the bigger cities, but here in the north, Jews were an anomaly — suspicious, strange, other.

More and more, I realized I was like those Russian Jews. My grandmother with her Yiddishisms and stories paired with my own lack of knowledge seemed too great of a parallel to ignore. I knew I was Jewish, but had not idea in practice what that meant. I didn’t know where to begin, but knew that begin I must. Zina and Anya indulged me, but the line was clear that this was not a welcome subject. Better to pour another cup of tea and talk about school or the weather. History, identity — why would you open those troublesome topics?

The next time I was there was four years later. Late July, the outer edge of the White Nights that held twilight suspended in a liminal state of waiting until dawn. We pulled the heavy shades at night to induce darkness, then woke to the sound of the kettle screaming in the kitchen. I was very sick; I spent days on or bending over the toilet, and Zina was as attentive as ever even as Anya receded further from sight. The moment had come and gone, the one where I belonged.

When I left, they waved at the train. I could see that Anya was tearful. Was it because she’d miss me, or because I was leaving and she wasn’t? From there, I’d travel to Prague, where the Jewish quarter and Terezín brought me ever closer to the inescapable truth of my heritage. It didn’t matter what I knew or didn’t know of my family’s history; as my grandfather had said while he lay dying, “Once a Jew, always a Jew.”

When Denial Is No Longer an Option

1. In the beginning.

Innocent. Exciting. Naive. Pulsing with possibility. In the beginning, the promise and potential, the envisioning, as if it were up to us how things would unfold. In the beginning, sheer determination, make it happen, new and novel. in the beginning, hope.

In the beginning, disbelief. This can’t be happening. What’s happening? In the beginning, confusion, chaos, upended, uncertain. In the beginning, a hint of the ending, a knowing. In the beginning, denial, burial, eyes forward. In the beginning, if we talk enough it won’t be happening.

In the beginning, sincerity. So earnest. In the beginning, youth that doesn’t know it’s young. In the beginning, leaning hard on old models and seeking out new ones, wide-eyed if not quite bushy-tailed. In the beginning, follow the rules, do the things, sleep without cold sweats or questions. Sweep away the questions.

In the beginning, discomfort tendriled around intrigue. No name for it yet. A woman in a room. A leather cuff. A nuthatch in a pine tree. In the beginning, distance. Othering. I’m not like you. In the beginning, something else was unraveling. The ability to contain myself any longer.

In the beginning, everyone had my all. In the beginning, there was no stopping me. In the beginning, angels braided little flowers into my hair. In the beginning, I finally knew I was here.

2. I finally knew I was here.

It was a homecoming, the kind of religious experience you hear about but don’t often, or ever, experience firsthand. Finally knowing I was here felt like birth and death in the same moment, a shattering of self that was at once devastating and liberating. If I told you it was pouring rain, and there was thunder and lightning all around, you’d think I was being dramatic. But it’s true.

What’s also true is that life sometimes tears us wide open. And this is not pretty but painful, the kind of pain you don’t know if you’ll be able to endure. I didn’t know. I was crazy with energy, as if someone had plugged me into a light socket. That electrified, that bright, and that dangerous.

This morning — nearly eight years later — my child was looking at pictures from his early childhood. A few years before the moment I’m describing, we were, by all appearances and even our own accounts, a happy family of four. That was before, before, before.

But the truth is, even the before is a kind of middle, because nothing happens overnight, not even the things that seem sudden and shocking that change everything instantaneously. Like anything that grows or dies, there is a process made up of an uncountable number of micro-moments. The truth is, I was listening for this. I listened for it my whole life.

Sometimes the listening made me feel lost, disconnected, frightened, and depressed. Other times, it was like a call at a frequency I couldn’t yet decipher. One thing is for sure: It kept getting louder.

3. It kept getting louder.

I look back now, on things I wrote during the years leading up to that week, that day, night, that instant, and it’s so clear. I was digging for the landmine.

I was sitting.
I was running.
I was making dinner and doing bath time with kids.
I was making lunches.
I was doing dishes.
I was coaching clients.
I was writing blog posts.
I was mapping out the book I couldn’t quite write.

The book was my life. The book was me.

The book was my sexuality and my being burning an exit route through the middle of my body.

My fear was so big. My fear of losing what we had. I held on for dear life. So dramatic. I also loved. Blah blah blah blah.

OK, so what really? What kept getting louder? Not a sound, so much as a knowing. A knowing that had lived in a bubble way off to the right or left of my consciousness, above and over a bit — if you were here I would show you.

The container thinning over time like a cervix until there was no choice — the truth would not leak like amniotic fluid; it would burst forth, like labor that comes on hard and fast and shakes the foundations of your house of cards.

And then I was there, holding my newborn self, weeping for what could no longer be, and observing the rubble.

God has a way. God has a way of insisting. You can fight it but in the end, not really. And also, fighting it will leave you exhausted, injured, soul-sick.

Mary Oliver knew, when she wrote: “Listen. Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?”

I gulped the night air, texting frantically. “What do we do now?” She asked. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” I replied. But I knew. I was just terrified to say it out loud.

4. I was terrified to say it out loud.

It had been one thing to tell her how I felt, another to tell my husband, “I am gay,” and ultimately, the hardest thing I’d ever faced for us to make the decision to separate. Finally, though, after a summer of tension, lies and truths and tears and hours of talking and impossible distance, it was clear. I was already gone. Staying together was not an option. Once I came out, there was no putting me back in.

I’ve written this story so many times in different ways. Sometimes I think, why am I still writing it? It was so seminal. The fault line between one life and another. And like a gaping wound, fault lines close and heal but they leave scars and memories.

Will I close the door once and for all and forever on those days, or will I keep writing these snippets behind closed doors, even as I look out at the life I have now — my beloved napping in the bedroom, my brand new puppy snoring in the kitchen, my daughter who turns 16 this year sitting here in the living room with me, my son entering middle school next year.

These kids were four and seven then, when we said the thing to them out loud that changed their worlds irrevocably: “We’re no longer going to live together.”

I know more than half of American children grow up with divorced parents. It’s not that unusual. But I was raised to think divorce was one of the Most Terrible Things Ever. (Along with debt. God forbid.)

In this moment, my house is peaceful. I am learning, layer after layer, to let my insides be peaceful, too. The kids are alright.

5. The kids are alright.

In this moment, my house is peaceful. I am learning, layer after layer, to let my insides be peaceful, too.

In the end, that’s so much of what this life is. Returning, again and again, to what it feels like to be fully myself. It’s so easy to drift, to forget, to get hyper-focused on that which causes anxiety or simply on the revolving needs of keeping a household humming.

In the end, it’s a quality of being honest that is liberating. For so long, I wasn’t fully honest. I lied outright about some things, like smoking, and in a more subconscious way about deeper things, things that I didn’t have names for, things that were so big I was afraid to expose them.

In the end, coming out was freeing, but it wasn’t the end. It was really the beginning of a whole new book, so many chapters of learning and unlearning how to be myself without slipping back into the shadows. I slip up — I remind myself everyone slips up and that I am not exempt from this being human thing. But I come back. I come back to the courage to sit down and say: I’m scared. I’m angry. I’m tired. I’m not sure. I’m sorry.

In the end, there is this: Sitting here in the living room with the windows open, glancing up every minute or two at the newly budding trees along the side of the driveway. The smell of summer rain and a wind picking up in the pines. A family changing and growing, and not in the ways we tried to cling to when the old family came apart.

I had tried to keep it together even after the ending, and what I’ve learned is that sometimes, you have to let a thing go all the way. Not just partway, just newly configured, but just… done. This has been hard for me, a keeper, a holder-on. But it also delivered me here. And here is beautiful. Here is real. Nothing buried, nothing burning a hole in me.­­

I am so grateful.

I Was a Memoir Class Dropout

Photo: Daniel Hjalmarsson

The fall of 1999. I’ve just begun my 2nd year of grad school, after taking a year off to live in Tucson, where my soon-to-be husband was completing his MFA in short fiction. I’m studying and writing only poetry, though the pull to memoir and nonfiction is there, an undercurrent that threatens to pull me out into unknown waters.

I finalize my course list for the semester and my work schedule on campus, where I am an academic advisor to international students. We live in a small one-bedroom apartment on Summer Street in Somerville, about 20 minutes on the red line from downtown Boston. I’ve made the decision to stretch myself by registering for a memoir class. It’s taught by a young woman whose name I don’t remember.

What do I have to write about? I’m 25. I am engaged. I have recovered from bulimia. I am the youngest of three sisters. I grew up in socioeconomic comfort as my parents climbed the academic ladders. I have one student loan but no other debt. I’m fluent in three languages. I want babies. I’ve started smoking again, after quitting, but don’t want my fiance to know. I work out at the gym before class, then smoke in the alley adjacent to 180 Tremont Street, where I take the stairs to my three-and-a-half hour night class with Bill Knott.

I have a love-hate relationship with workshops; I love the conversation that occurs around my classmate’s poems, and hate sitting quietly while they talk about mine. I hate writing poems on a deadline. I love the classes where we read Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. Where we talk about whether poetry has to be hard. I don’t think so. I think that’s a crock of shit and say so. We have lively discussions and I’m in my element in a small classroom with a passionate teacher.

But the memoir class? I go once. I drop out.

I am not in my element. It’s not time yet.

And instead of exploring this, instead of seeing what happens when I try writing in a new genre, I run. I run to the gym. I run to the alley with my Marlboros. I run to my wedding planning and the dreams we have for starting our life together, all starry-eyed and excitedly talking about what cities or towns we might like to live in after I graduate in the spring.

But I do not write memoir.

My fear of not having anything to write wins this round. I stick to poetry, which feels safer, like I know the landscape, the terrain, the things to avoid and the parts to dive into. My advisor and I meet for beers and I wonder if he has a crush on me, even as I know how inappropriate this wondering is. He is an accomplished but relatively unknown poet himself, whose loneliness and broken heart seem to fuel his existence.

* * *

What I don’t know now is that in ten years, I will begin writing what I think is going to be a memoir. It will feel urgent, not unlike when I knew it was time to try to conceive each of our future children — a drive I can explain only as biological. I have a story inside of my body that needs to be born. I don’t know what its gestation period is, how long it will take. All I know is that I have to nourish it. I start writing as if every word is a prenatal vitamin for this embryonic someday story. I make lists of names. I use giant pieces of sticky paper on the walls as charts and maps and timelines, circles and topics. I print out every blog post I’ve ever written, scouring my own words for themes.

Bulimia, closet smoking, motherhood, marriage, mindfulness, discovering my Jewish identity — these all show up. And yet something is missing and I can’t put my finger on it. I write for several hours a day. I write chronologically, from the very beginning of my life. I’ve never done anything like this and it’s all-consuming, exhilarating, and also frustrating and confusing. Why can’t I figure out what the book is about?

* * *

Eventually, I take everything I’ve drafted and put it in a 3-ring binder. I roll up the charts and put the sharpies in a drawer. I go back to therapy and tell her I’m sitting on a landmine. Everything in me has been activated by the writing.

A few months later, I come out. I come out with so much force that my own body transforms within weeks into a barely recognizable version of myself. It’s as if I literally shed all the padding I’ve worn, of who I’ve tried so hard to be. In an instant, I understand. I understand why I dropped out of that memoir class. I understand why I couldn’t finish my book.

It still wasn’t time. Because I was still living it.

I couldn’t know what the book was about because it was buried too deeply in me.

And it was only then that I could finally begin again. Only after I’d given up on the whole thing. Let the writing go that had brought me as far as it could. It wasn’t a book; it was myself. And yet without the whole journey — the avoiding writing and later the deep dive into it — I would not have found my way to myself.

* * *

I am 25. I am too scared to try my hand at writing true stories. I stick to poetry, where I can swallow my voice and see it move through body or a poem, like an egg through a snake, whole. I can tell it slant, paying homage to Emily Dickinson, with whom I identify so closely that the first stanza of her poem #640 becomes an anthem of sorts:

I cannot live with You — 
It would be Life — 
And Life is over there — 
Behind the Shelf 

I fail to see the writing on the wall, the writing inside of my self-reflexive mind and hungry heart, that might have seen this anthem as something of a red flag for a woman about to be married. All I know is that some things don’t feel safe even though I can’t say why. What I am unable to see for another 11 years is that I am the unsafe thing.

* * *

There are many ways into writing memoir and some stories can’t be discovered without writing in big, looping circles. Once you open one door, there’s no telling what you’ll find — and this can feel like scary ground. At 25, I wasn’t ready. And with nearly 20 years between me now and that time, I can look back with great compassion for my younger self. I also feel that same compassion now every time I begin to write something new.

When you sign up for the Mini Memoirs group (March 5-26), you might feel nervous.  Maybe you’re not sure what memory or moment in time you want to write about — or maybe you know exactly which one and yikes, this is a first. Maybe you worry you won’t be a good enough writer. (This fear was undoubtedly another reason why I dropped out of that class back in 1999.)

Here’s what I will tell you about this group:

It’s limited to 12 participants. Prompts are three days a week, to give you some breathing room on either side of each. And each prompt asks that you sit and write for just 10 minutes without stopping. It might not sound like much, and on the one hand, it isn’t. It’s manageable, no matter how busy you are. On the other hand, it is so much more than you think, in terms of just how much we can access and write in so short a time. I’ve seen the power of this over and over now for the past three years, and it never ceases to me how much beautiful and true writing can emerge with such seemingly simple and short assignments. I’ve moved through this series of prompts several times, learning more about myself at ages 9, 16, and 38 along the way.

You do not have to know in advance what you want to write.

Last but not least: This is safe and brave space, confidential and contained. What happens in the group stays in the group. Whether you’re writing to heal, explore your past, or generate new material for an essay or book, you will be welcomed, witnessed, and cheered on — by me and your fellow mini memoirists.

Is it time to plant and water those seedlings?

If you have questions about this (or any other) group, or if you want to set up a payment plan, just contact me and we can chat. Learn more about the group here, or register for your spot below. I can’t wait to write with you.

Choose one:
Group only $198.00 USD
Group + 60-minute coaching session $289.00 USD

6X6: Just Write… Coming in January 2018!


A couple of months ago, I announced a new group called Shitty First Drafts.

Soon thereafter, I realized I didn’t have a clear enough vision yet for how it would be different from my other groups, so I decided to give it some time to gestate. I pulled it from my website, not knowing whether I’d resurrect, transform, or scrap it.

Soon, it became clear what the problem was. The problem was what the problem so often is: I was trying too hard.

Something similar happened two years ago, when an idea that began as exciting grew increasingly unwieldy the more I worked on it. I reached out to a trusted writer and teacher for some perspective. Our conversation circled around one of my favorite questions: Where is there ease? 

A 12-week group called “Creative Ease” emerged from that shift, which eventually morphed into Jewels on the Path, one of my cornerstone groups.

Some ideas come fast and furious, sprung like Athena whole and complete, and I often take what one of my sisters affectionately calls a “shoot, ready, aim” approach to putting things out there. I trust the idea and then dive into the details, rather than the other way around. I love the playfulness and trust this entails.

But it doesn’t always work.

Shitty First Drafts, in its original inception, didn’t quite work. The format of the group was too close to other things I already offer, and I couldn’t for the life of me articulate who it was for or what would make it special.

Until it hit me: The name of this program won’t be Shitty First Drafts, a phrase made famous by Anne Lamott. It will be something even simpler. Ready for it?

JUST WRITE.

That’s right. Just that. Six weeks of just writing. Showing up once a week to put your pen to paper, to start and keep going, to let your words show up on the page and your voice take up room in space. To connect with others in an intimate setting, where we are all in it together.

How will it work?

  1. We’ll gather via Zoom (download here) and spend 30 minutes writing. There may be a reading or prompt to start us off, but the purpose of this time is to sit down and get words on the page.
  2. Following the writing period, each participant will have 15 minutes to read their words out loud and receive comments and feedback from the group.
  3. Each participant will be assigned a week to be the Featured Writer. She’ll send out a piece in advance for the rest of us to read, and have our undivided attention for 20 minutes of workshop-style discussion about her work, including addressing any specific feedback requests.
  4. Our time will conclude with each writers stating an intention or writing goal for the coming week. Writers may choose to continue with one piece of writing or to generate new material — the choice is yours, the time is yours.
  5. Two  40-minute coaching calls . We can use these to talk about specific pieces of writing, to brainstorm and bounce around ideas, and to address any challenges your faces and ways forward.

Why so simple?

Because sometimes all we need is the loosest of containers, the gentlest accountability, the fewest bells and the quietest whistles. At the end of the day — which is when this group will occur — it’s ultimately about showing up, sitting down, and just writing. Shitty first drafts and perhaps more polished drafts will follow, or not. The words you discover might be seeds of longer pieces, fragments of dreams, freewrites you’ll discard completely, or something else altogether. One of the only things I know for sure about the writing process is this: Writing begets writing. And having a small, supportive community of listeners and witnesses creates some mighty magic.

What else is included in the cost?

In addition to 2.5 hours per week together as a group, of both silent writing time and group sharing and discussion, you’ll schedule two 40-minute calls with me. We can use this time to focus on specific pieces of writing, to tease out where you get blocked, and to play with ways to continue to go deeper into your own work. There’s no specific agenda for our calls; this is your time, and a chance to talk about whatever’s going on for you in writing + life.

Will the calls be recorded?

The calls will be recorded. We will have a secret Facebook group for the express purpose of sharing these, in case you miss one and/or simply want to go back to listen to comments on your work again. The Facebook group will also be a place to share encouragement and support throughout the week.

Who should join:

Anyone who wants to produce more pages but finds that perfectionism and procrastination interfere with progress. This group is open to all gender identities and expressions as well as to all genres, though creative nonfiction and personal essay will likely comprise most of the writing. No previous experience in writing groups necessary. This group is also totally compatible with any of Jena’s other writing groups.

Do I need a particular project?

No, though it’s also fine if you do.

Risks and possible side-effects:

Heightened self-awareness, greater curiosity and sense of inquiry, deepening sense of trust in your own quirky and wondrous creative process, and increased willingness to keep going in the face of not knowing may all arise as secondary byproducts of this group.

Can I sign up for the calls and not the coaching?

Not for this group. In order to ensure a high level of participation and commitment, everyone in the Just Write groups will be working with me privately in addition to meeting with the group. If you’re interested in a super supportive, long-term (12 week) accountability group, check out Jewels on the Path. Or drop me a line and we can discuss what would be a good fit.

Dates + Times:

Two sections will kick off the new year:

Tuesdays, 1:00-3:30PM EST: January 16, 23, 30, February 6 , 13, 27 (3 remaining spots)
OR
Thursdays: , 5:30-8:00PM EST: January 18, 25, February 8, 15, March 1 (6 spots)

please note there will be no groups on 2/20 and 2/22 

Cost:

$419

Register + Payment:

Registration deadline is Friday, January 5, 2018.

Reserve your spot today with a non-refundable $99 deposit. You will be automatically billed for two additional installments of $160, two and four weeks after registering. Or use the “Buy Now” button below to pay in full.

Don’t forget to send me a note telling me which group you’d like to join (Tuesdays or Thursdays).

Payment Plan
Number of payments 3
No. Due* Amount
1 At checkout $99.00 USD
2 after 2 weeks $160.00 USD
3 after 4 weeks $160.00 USD
Total $419.00 USD
* We calculate payments from the date of checkout.
Sign up for

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First Sentence Interview Series: Nancy Stearns Bercaw, Author of “Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety”

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is Nancy Stearns Bercaw, who has written for publications around the world including the New York Times, Huffington Post, Korea Herald, Atlanta Journal Constitution, MariaShriver.com, U.S. News & World Report, and Abu Dhabi’s Tempo Magazine. She is the author of Brain in a Jar: A Daughter’s Journey through Her Father’s Memory. In 2009, Nancy was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at the University of South Florida where she swam on scholarship from 1982-1986 and was a 17-time All-American, National Champion and Olympic Trials qualifier. She has coached swimming at James Madison University, New York University, Stevens Tech, and the University of Vermont. Nancy was an invited speaker at The Examined Life Conference at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She is on the Board of the Vermont Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

You say your forthcoming memoir, Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety, took a lifetime to write. When did you realize it was time to write this book?

I should probably say, instead, that it took a lifetime to live. Over the course of my 51 years on Earth, I went from champion swimmer to world traveler to raging alcoholic. I’ve covered a lot of territory in five decades! I’d tried to write my story, including the horrific murder of a friend in Seoul, many times when I was still drinking. Getting sober a few months before I turned 50 gave me a new way to see my life. With that clarity, I was able to dig deeper and more honestly into all that has transpired and my own role in some of the chaos. Turns out that being an alcoholic was the real story, and everything else was a sidebar to the toll of addiction. I had it backwards.

There’s the myth — an over-romanticized one, in my opinion — of the struggling artist. It ties right in with addiction and writing going hand in hand. How did getting sober affect your writing life?

I once feared that I wouldn’t be able to – or want to – write if I weren’t drinking. I used to love drinking wine in bed with my computer on my legs. In fact, the thought of it used to get me through my days – the proverbial carrot on a stick. For the first six months after I quit, I was really scared that all of me was gone: the swimmer evaporated; the traveler lost; the writer dried up. But slowly as came into myself again, the writer emerged as the strongest of all my identities. And, I found that I was writing better, more clearly, and I am now writing about the things that really, really scare me in the world – like living in it without booze. I’ve come to appreciate fear for all the courage that came with it. As a drinker, I held back. Sober, I burst forth. The difference is astonishing.

You’ve lived all over the world. What role does place play in your new book?

Identity and landscape are the key themes in my life and in my writing. How does a place create a people? Who are you when you are elsewhere? As a swimmer in my youth and through college, I always imagined that I was a mermaid and would, therefore, be unable to thrive on land. My fairy tale fantasy came true in many ways. On land – from Kenya to Korea – I poured liquid into my body instead of swimming through water. I used booze as a way to connect with people in foreign ports of call, and to hide from myself. Still I managed to learn a lot about the world in those days and how other people survive their circumstances and/or prevail in their settings. But it wasn’t until I landed in the Arabian Desert that I went dry for good. I know for certain that the Muslim non-drinking culture and the arid setting both played a huge role in that transformation. Thus, the essence of my memoir DRYLAND.

Many unpublished writers get overwhelmed by the business aspects of the writing life — online platforms, publishing, etc. Do you have any advice to navigating this world?

It can be overwhelming that’s for sure. The flip side is that there are a lot more opportunities to publish than ever before. I used to spend so much time sending manuscripts to “big name” magazines and waiting months for a response – usually a rejection letter! These days, I can blog my own stories, and publish on Medium.com, without anyone’s approval or any wait time. And I can do all my own publicity! I still look for new writing opportunities with newspapers, as I am a journalist as well. When I was in the Middle East, working at a university, I read that U.S. News and World Report needed someone to write about Arab campuses. I queried the editor and got an article out of it. The lesson, I think, is find YOUR thing and then find a publication that connects with you. Match your writing identity to the media landscape. Don’t jump into the middle of nowhere.

What’s your take on balancing writing with work and motherhood?

I work full time for the University of Vermont, and have a 12-year-old son with my husband of 20 years. Yet, I was still able to find the time to write a 250-page memoir of my darkest secrets and greatest victory. How? I got up at 4 a.m. every day for six months to write. Those sacred hours before my family awoke, and before the day was underway, were the secret to my success and to my recovery in some ways too. Women still need a room of their own – or a time of their own. But you have to carve it out because no one is going to hand it to you. I fiercely protect my writing schedule, and I say no to a lot of socializing in the evenings. I go to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. to take care of myself and to be ready for my new “happy hour” in the wee hours of the morning.

Who and/or what inspires you on a daily basis?

Existence inspires me. How do people make it through the day when there’s so much with which to contend? How do they escape their suffering? How do they rise above challenges? How am I helped by what I see? How can I help someone? Why are we here, wherever we happen to be on a map or in time? I’ve witnessed so many responses to these questions – whether in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. The answers, in each place, are profound. Therefore, stories abound.

How does the current political climate inform your writing life?

I’m glad you asked this question! One byproduct of the current state of affairs is that people are talking more about the President and politics than art or books. Social media, once a great place to share stories, is now overrun with political commentary and reactions. (And rightly so!) The President is considering cutting funding for the arts but he’s already cut interest in the arts by his mere existence. Sigh. Clearly, though, there’s a lot to write about now. We need writers to deconstruct the status quo AND to give us other things to think about. We need stories – and emotional truth – to inspire, rally, comfort and even distract us. I’m still committed to writing about the global community and how we can rise up in the face of all our troubles whether political or personal. The two are, of course, conjoined in many places – including the United States of America. Compassion – reflected in art – is what makes a country truly great, in my humble opinion.

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