The American Writers Museum Opens in Chicago

The American Writers Museum, which opened yesterday in downtown Chicago, is decidedly not a library. While there is a Readers Hall filled with comfy couches and a selection of popular works to browse, this first and only museum dedicated to celebrating American writers and their influence on American history and culture is chock full of content that appeals to four of the five senses (sorry, nothing to taste here).

Read the full post on Literary Hub.

It’s all in the details

don note
When I was in elementary school, my parents would check my homework each night. Math problems, language arts, all of it. They’d point out errors (before there was a thing called typos) and make me go back and fix it, until I had a clean assignment to turn in. While it would sometimes frustrate me, it taught me early on the importance of attention to detail. At that time, I was rushing through things quickly because it wasn’t much of a challenge, and I just wanted to be done with my homework so I could read. My dad impressed upon me as early as age six that sloppy work doesn’t cut it, whether it was in my homework assignment, while completing a chore, or playing sports. It definitely made an impact – I am a self-acknowledged neat freak, I once organized my CDs and books by genre and artist/author, and I have a solid membership in the grammar snob squad.

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Finding my way back to writing

old writing

In January, I had the privilege of meeting an author of a historical fiction series about the Civil War. I read her first four books when I was about 12 years old, when she used a pen name and the series had a different name. A year or so ago, I discovered she had started the series again, under her original name, but with a new title. I saw that she engaged with her readers directly on Facebook, which is quite uncommon. She responds to people via email or social media more frequently and promptly than some of my friends or family. Anyway, as luck would have it, she was traveling to San Diego for a few days, and on a whim, I asked if she would be “around,” thinking we could meet. She suggested breakfast, and a few days later we spent two hours talking about reading, writing, growing up in the South, faith, and family. I left the breakfast knowing I had a new friend and mentor. She completely believed I had stories to tell, and that I needed to write them down. I was inspired, and I was going to write.

But I didn’t. Twice, she has asked me via email, “Are you writing, Jenna??” And I, embarrassingly, have not responded, because the truth is, I haven’t. Until now.

Since at least the third grade, if not before, I said I wanted to be an author when I grew up. In the early years, I wrote in spiral-bound notebooks, trying to come up with my own version of The Baby-Sitters Club, writing about best friends with luscious brown or blonde hair, one curly and one straight, of course. I wrote silly poems about boys that would never like me back – “he’s just not that into you” isn’t a new concept. I thought I could be like my first female author crush, Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing about my own family and our adventures (pioneering or not). I aspired to be at the level of Jane Austen, my second female author crush (LIW and Austen still top my list; you never forget your first loves), who wrote about the everyday stories of family, friends, love, and marriage with such eloquence and humor.

Some of you have read this story before. I went to college for journalism, writing feature and news stories, and adjusting my dream to become a star reporter for The Washington Post, only to shift gears and jump into digital communications and advocacy for nonprofits in DC, right at the time that blogging and social media really began to take off in a big way.

And nearly two years ago, I left DC after several successful and happy years, thinking I would try to “be a writer” again. But today, I find myself questioning what it really means to be something. Am I still a writer even though I haven’t blogged in more than two months until now? Am I still a writer even though I haven’t written anything that isn’t for a client in two months? Am I still a writer even though I don’t actively send out pitches to publications?

I’ve read enough books and blog posts, some by famous writers, and others who just would like to think they are famous, that sternly remind those of us “wannabes” that we need to write every day if we want to become better at our craft. That we need to “shut up and write” instead of talking about it. I’ve read Pressfield’s The War of Art, and know the demon of Resistance very well, and know I have to beat him at his own game.

In some sense, they’re right. Just like any other skill or hobby, you become better at it, or perhaps even master it, by practicing frequently, maybe every day. And there are days when you may like it, or days when you hate it, and you are counting down the minutes until you are done. I see this a lot when I read about running. As a kid, I hated running. I never thought I would become a runner. And even after my first couple of races, post-college, I still didn’t consider myself a runner. I didn’t have all the gear yet. I wasn’t fast. I didn’t run every day. I didn’t know all the runner jargon. But somewhere along the way, as I practiced and learned and even began to enjoy running, I finally called myself a runner. I get Runner’s World, I have the gear and clothes, and I use the jargon. I am faster, I am stronger, and I run more frequently. I’ll never become an elite, and I’ll probably never win a race. I don’t want to run every day. But I’m a runner because I run.

So why do I struggle so much with this concept when it comes to writing? Perhaps part of it is because there is a stigma around writing, all these expectations. You tell people you are a runner, and they don’t usually ask you if you’ve won any races. They may ask how many miles you typically run. But tell people that you’re a writer, and they want to know where you’ve been published, or if you’re writing the “next great American novel.” Not all runners are expected to be fast. But writers are expected to be good. And if I’m really honest with myself, I expect to be good.

A few weeks ago, I was one of two final candidates for an editor position at an alumni magazine. I wanted it so badly – it was the first job I’d seen in essentially all the time since I left DC that I thought I’d be perfect for, and that was in the direction I want to go. It came down to some very specific feedback about my writing – the headlines being part of it. I was pretty upset, as you might imagine. To be that close to something, and then have to start over, because my headlines weren’t up to snuff? Ouch.

Although I ultimately look at it as a lesson learned and a great experience, I also recognize that it was a blow to my ego, and perhaps has been a factor in extending my writing drought. I have quickly pushed aside ideas for stories and blog posts because I don’t think they’re interesting enough. I avoid sitting down in the morning or night to write because I don’t think what will come out will be good enough, even for me, much less for anyone else to read. So I knit. Or watch Netflix. Or do more crosswords. Anything but write. Because the nagging question deep inside me is quite possibly, “Am I a writer? Will I ever really be a writer?”

As I’m sitting here in a coffee shop with my laptop, I’m realizing that part of my challenge may be that I’ve taken to looking at writing as a chore, rather than something that I once so enjoyed. If I think about my evolution as a runner, it meant changing up my route, trying different running clothes and apps and shoes, and working on specific goals, like improving my time or besting a killer hill. I learned to stop looking at it as a thing I had to do, and instead something I wanted to do – it was fun, it was motivating, and I quickly learned all the little things that played a role in my growing passion for it.

So I think the same thing applies to my writing. It’s been a long time since I tried writing a poem, or wrote real fiction, or something that wasn’t within the themes of this blog. And clearly, I needed to get out of the house for the words to start pouring of me, so now I know that for me, I get inspiration and motivation from changing my location. When I began to see changes in my running, and ultimately, changes in my body and in my frame of mine, running became more enjoyable, and more…flowing. It’s time to get back into that spirit with writing again. It’s time to be a writer, not to be a best-selling author or to win any awards or to make other people proud. It’s time to be a writer because I like to write. And that’s who I want to be.

Send more #snailmail: National Letter Writing Month

lots of letters

Readers of my blog know all about how much I adore writing and receiving letters. I love it so much that I’ve had two mini campaigns (here and here) to promote snail mail with fellow letter lover Leslie. I love it so much that I have a box overflowing with stationary and notecards, pens and postage, and of course, my letters from others over the years. I think I need a bigger box — collecting letter paraphernalia has become a bit like my book buying habit — I get more before I’ve finished what I have. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. One can’t have too much stationary, right?

It’s National Letter Writing Month, so I wanted to share a bit more about why I love the special art of snail mail so much. Just in the past week, I’ve received a handful of thoughtful postcards and notes from dear friends back in DC, and after a few weeks off because of my move, I’ve written a handful myself to be delivered to friends across the country. Just the very fact that I have friends who send me mail ( some quite regularly) all because they know I love it, makes me smile  and makes me cherish our friendship even more. And the postcards I get from friends on their travels means even more to me (do you know how much international postage costs?!), coming from Australia and Hawaii and Italy and Mexico, and elsewhere.

I asked people what they love about letters so much, and here’s what a few had to say:

snail mail tweets

fb letters

Pretty straightforward if you ask me. I think a handwritten letter is one of the most sincere and genuine forms of communication, and of respect. It takes time, it takes thought, and it takes feeling. And the memories of both writing it and receiving it are surely to last a lot longer.

So if you’re ready to send out some snail mail, check out my Pinterest board for some inspiration and options to start your own big box o’ letters. Then share in the comments whom you’re writing letters to this month, and why you love snail mail so much. And of course, let me know if you’d like to exchange letters with me!

Some of what's in my letters box
Some of what’s in my letters box

 

Snail Mail Story Time

typewriterBack in February, I lamented the possibility that the USPS was going to cancel Saturday mail delivery. A long-time letter lover, it was another let-down for an institution millions of Americans have relied on since the late 1700s, and another reminder of how technology, with all of its good intentions, is also changing time-honored tradition.

So another blogger and I decided to rally for snail mail, and offered to write postcards or letters to anyone who wanted one. Writing back was optional. We hoped that our love of letters would spread a little and at least remind people of the joys of receiving mail – the good kind. We were pleased at the results: I think we each sent out a dozen or more notes, to friends, family, and people we’d never met. We loved the letters we got in return, and seeing others inspired to do their own mini snail mail campaigns. Leslie and I have even begun regularly writing each other now – we both wanted a new pen pal! But most importantly, we like to tell ourselves that our little project is what prompted the USPS to withdraw their proposal to cancel Saturday mail. Victory!

Nearly 10 months later, Leslie and I are ready for round two, and this time, we’re kicking it up a notch. We think that writing letters is a perfect medium for storytelling, and that’s why we’re ready to share some of our most personal experiences with our recipients, and we hope we get to learn yours, too. Here’s how it will work:

We’ll take up to the first 10 participants in this first round, 5 for each of us. (don’t worry, there will be more rounds!). Sign up here if you want in.

For each person, we’ll write on a different topic. And to mix it up a little, Leslie and I will randomly select who writes to whom. You won’t know the topic or the sender until you open your letter! Here is the first round of topics:

  • First heartbreak
  • A difficult decision
  • Favorite recipe
  • Offbeat or unusual hobby or interest
  • A vivid childhood memory

We’d love a letter back, too, so start thinking about what you’d share!

So here we go! Let’s get some #snailmailstories going…who will sign up first?