Writing Questions from Blog Readers!

Here a few questions blog readers asked me about writing:

What writing resource books you recommend?

emotional craft

Oh man, I have read so many great books about writing, both about the craft and the writing life. Here are some of my FAVORITES:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott *
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass *
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
The Art of Slow Writing by Louise deSalvo
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

* my favorites of my favorites

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? How did you develop your skills during your earlier years (such as during high school)?

I’m not sure I made a conscious decision about being a writer; writing (like wands) feels like something that chooses you. That said, I have always loved telling stories. I first decided I wanted to write a book when I was in 2nd grade. I tried my hand at fiction in 3rd grade (oh man, it is sooooo funny and dramatic!). In junior high, I wrote a soap opera in a notebook that I passed around to my friends, and in high school and college, I focused on poetry.

There are two things that writers have to do to develop their skills, no matter what age or writing-level they are at:

  1. Read. Fiction, non-fiction, in your genre and outside of it, with a healthy dose of poetry. Read like it’s your job. No, read like it’s your air.
  2. Write. It sounds silly, but just like with anything, practice is how we improve. This is true in sports and art and public speaking, in how to be a good listener, how to perform illusions, and how to train for a marathon. You have to write, write, write– and you will likely have to write a lot of crappy stuff first. But do it. Expel it. Get that time in on your training-wheels first.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to develop one’s writing! Advice/critique/feedback/workshopping (whatever you want to call it) is critical. And you can learn about techniques like metaphor and what sounds are most satisfying to the human ear and how to manipulate your readers’ emotions (manipulate is such a harsh-sounding word, but most fiction readers go into a book hoping for this!). Two of the books I listed above– The Emotional Craft of Fiction and The Anatomy of Story– are craft books that get into the nitty-gritty details.

But at any (and every) stage? Read and write.

What do you do (or tell yourself) when you are unmotivated to write? Are you ever overwhelmed with how much work it takes to write a book?

First of all, YES, I often get overwhelmed with how much time and energy goes into writing a full-length work of fiction. In fact, in college, I focused on poetry partly because a poem can be so short, whereas fiction is such a big undertaking. But that’s why I have to take a novel one word at a time, one day at a time, and why I have to split it up into about one trillion smaller tasks or, as Anne Lamott would call them, “short assignments.” (I actually do call them short assignments on my to-do list!)

When I am unmotivated to write, I go back to my lists. I either choose one small assignment I am excited about or, sometimes, I might not even be excited about it, but I tell myself, “Just 20 minutes. See what happens in 20 minutes.” In both of these cases, my wheels usually get spinning and three hours later I am sad to put the manuscript away for the evening.

How much of writing is intuitive?

10000 hoursGosh, I don’t know. Sometimes the things that feel so intuitive to me are the things my writing group and editor hate the most. Sometimes, though, those things are a stroke of brilliance– and not even a brilliance I can attribute to myself. When ideas like that come from nowhere, it truly does not feel like I deserve credit. For someone like me, whose spiritual life encompasses all other parts of my life, I can see God at work in my writing. I think, if one has read a lot of great literature and one has put in hours upon hours of writing practice (Malcolm Gladwell says you need to practice 10,000 hours to gain expertise in any field), that intuition is going to be built in you. And if you add an outside influence into that? Mmm.

What’s the most important part(s) of preparing a book for querying?

Every part.

If we are talking fiction here, the manuscript must be as polished and perfect as it can be prior to querying. Along with that, you have to write a query letter that is intriguing, plays by the rules of the agent, and ends up in the right agent’s inbox.

Have any inspiration for young writers or those just getting started?

Yes! I love this:

iraglass-sawyerhollenshead

Have other writing-related questions for me? Click here to ask me anything! 🙂

My Slow Journey to Woke

Note: I wrote this in the days after the horrid events in Charlottesville, and I didn’t post it before because I wanted some friends to read over it first and give me the green light. So … here I go. Please know that I share my story with a humble heart. If I offend, or if you need clarification, I invite you to please contact me. Here’s my story.

wokeI grew up very conservative in a small town where I can recall nine students of color in our local schools. I was born in 1982, so I lived my teen years smack-dab in the nineties evangelical subculture (think: Joshua Harris and cheesy t-shirts and conferences meant to generate intense spiritual experiences). Oh, and I had undiagnosed OCD with the flavor of religious scrupulosity, which magnified everything times a thousand.

I went to college. I met Christians who truly, deeply loved Jesus and yet had different theological beliefs than I did. I had friends from other cultures, friends with skin that doesn’t glow in the dark like my own pasty self. I read Transformed into Firewhich sowed seeds in my heart that would grow into a full-blown embrace of my truest self. I was finally diagnosed with OCD and underwent exposure therapy, which broke my chains of perfectionism. I watched friends get married, sometimes separate, sometimes divorce, sometimes lose their faith. I learned about all the myriad shades of gray in between the black and white ideas I’d grown up with.

I started this blog, which helped keep me vulnerable and transparent in an Instagram world that usually only shows the smiles and laughter. And as I did so, I found that it created a safe space for other people to share too– and my friends actually liked me more for showing my imperfections. And I liked myself more too.

It was as if all of that was preparing me to become Who I Really Am. I had to get out of my small town and out from under the thumb of OCD and out of my own way first.

After that, God ushered people into my life– people who did life with me, who sat with me, talked with me, cried with me; people who– yet again– loved Jesus so deeply and yet approached things from a different angle than I ever had. And those people would passionately share their thoughts with me over and over again until one day–

something clicked.

I read this article. All of my experiences, and most especially the friends who had spoken into my life, were like one trillion pounds on me, a girl built to “withstand” one trillion pounds, and then this article was a bird that landed on my shoulder, and bam: my whole LIFE changed.

It was like having my eyes opened for the first time ever. I guess that’s why people say “woke.”

These simple truths suddenly made sense to me, suddenly seemed simple, seemed obvious.

  • Just because something is not my experience doesn’t mean it’s not someone else’s.
  • White people are uncomfortable talking about racism, so they dismiss it. This is part of what we call privilege. Victims of racism don’t have the option to dismiss it.
  • My first steps toward becoming an ally are/were to admit that, as a white person, I have some sort of internalized racism. To realize that, to acknowledge that, did not destroy my awakening. It propelled my awakening.

Every meaningful change in my life has been accompanied by humility. 

I am trying to listen, to ask good questions, to come alongside (and not to speak over) my sisters and brothers. I am not even close to doing this perfectly, but I will spend my life in pursuit of these goals, and maybe over the years, I’ll inch a tiny bit closer.

On Saturday morning after the horrid events in Charlottesville, I woke up to news of what happened, and all those old hypotheticals we white kids would ask ourselves when reading books about the Underground Railroad, the Holocaust, etc. — what would I have done if I was there? — they were not hypothetical anymore.

Listen, I will not be found on the wrong side of history.

So, in case it wasn’t clear: I denounce racism and hate speech and hate crimes. I denounce white supremacy. I am proud to stand alongside my sisters and brothers of color. I humbly admit that there is almost certainly institutionalized racism in my heart, and I pledge to spend my life eliminating it. I declare these things in the name of Jesus, the Middle-Eastern Jewish man who saved my soul.  

Should You Trust Your Therapist? Depends.

Got this excellent question from a blog reader:

I think I have HOCD but I’m not sure. My therapist is doing CBT but I don’t think it’s ERP and it’s making me anxious. Like what if this therapy goes know where and just becomes me talking about my problems.(what happened with my last therapist). Should I trust that she knows what she is doing? Her Website says she does CBT so by saying she does CBT does that mean she is also an expert on ERP?

It’s sad, but so many mental health professionals are not very educated on OCD or how to treat it. CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) is a pretty vague, blanket term, whereas ERP (exposure and response prevention) is a specific type of CBT.

Two things I’d suggest:

  1. Read up about ERP. As much as you can. It will help you recognize if it is being done correctly. Start with this article on the IOCDF website. Also read any/all of the CBT/ERP posts at www.jackieleasommers.com/OCD.
  2. Ask your therapist the following questions. These questions– and the answers you should listen for— are pulled from this page on the IOCDF website.
  • “What techniques do you use to treat OCD?”If the therapist is vague or does not mention cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) or Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) use caution.
  • “Do you use Exposure and Response Prevention to treat OCD?”
    Be cautious of therapists who say they use CBT but won’t be more specific.
  • “What is your training and background in treating OCD?”
    If they say they went to a CBT psychology graduate program or did a post-doctoral fellowship in CBT, it is a good sign. Another positive is if a therapist says they are a member of the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) or the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapists (ABCT). Also look for therapists who say they have attended specialized workshops or trainings offered by the IOCDF like the Behavior Therapy Training Institute (BTTI) or Annual OCD Conference.
  • “How much of your practice currently involves anxiety disorders?”
    A good answer would be over 25%.
  • “Do you feel that you have been effective in your treatment of OCD?”
    This should be an unqualified “Yes.”
  • “What is your attitude towards medication in the treatment of OCD?”
    If they are negative about medication this is a bad sign. While not for everyone, medication can be a very effective treatment for OCD.
  • “Are you willing to leave your office if needed to do behavior therapy?”It is sometimes necessary to go out of the office to do effective ERP.

 

Hogwarts Yule Ball Couture

Even though the next Tri-Wizard Tournament is not scheduled till 2019, word has it that the Hogwarts students have since insisted that the Yule Ball be an annual event. And who can blame them, since most days they have to wear robes and there’s nowhere really to take a date besides Hogsmeade?

Here’s what’s trending this year in the wizarding world.

In Ravenclaw Tower, the catchphrase is “Make Bronze Great Again.” Let’s be honest, the movies perpetuated a false idea that Ravenclaw’s colors were blue and silver, when every student at Hogwarts knows they are really blue and bronze. The trendiest witches this year are doing all they can to reclaim their roots.

Ravenclaw 2017

Marcella earrings, $180 (here)

Gryffindor has long been known for its daring and nerve, which is why this year’s Yule Ball fashions are saying “All eyes on me!” But the lion pride of witches wants everyone to know they have a softer side too, so watch for frilly details like bows and ruffles this season. The ROAR a la Lily Evans Potter plus the AWW a la Lily Luna Potter equals a hearty Gryffindor RAWR.

Gryffindor 2017

Lion ring, $30 (here) | Valentino bow pumps, retail $825, on sale (here) for $199 | Toriska clutch (here)

Those patient little badgers have been waiting all year to say, “Look, this sweet skirt may represent fair play, but this lacy crop top is not playing fair!” Some say this attitude was inspired by last year’s Head Boy Teddy Lupin, but regardless, Hufflepuff’s coming out so you’d better get this party started, Hogwarts.

Hufflepuff 2017

Amelia Full yellow maxi skirt, $75 (here) | Linda Flora bracelet, $29 (here) | Betsy Johnson flats, $99 (here)

The latest trend in Slytherin House is the vampy pantsuit, noting that it suits them, as Albus Dumbledore once said, to have “a certain disregard for the rules.” But if some unwritten rule said not wearing a dress to the Yule Ball was wrong, we don’t want to be right! These serpents are turning the rules on their heads … and turning all heads on their new rules.

Slytherin 2017

Jumpsuit #1, $67 (here) | Jumpsuit #3, $33 (here) | Jumpsuit #4, retail $240, on sale (here) for $97 | Snake on vine necklace, $75 (here) | Antique snake necklace (here)

Your turn to weigh in: Which was your favorite look? Is it from the Hogwarts House you’re in? Would you wear any of these outfits in the muggle world?

Holidays are Hard for Some of Us

Thinking of everyone who struggles through this time of year. Hugs!

JACKIE LEA SOMMERS

This time of year– i.e., “the hap-happiest season of all”– is difficult for many people, including me. It has been since I was about fifteen or sixteen years old. That’s over half of my life spent wishing that Thanksgiving and Christmas and even New Years would just hurry up and be over already.

It’s not that I don’t love family. I do.

It’s not that I don’t love what the holidays represent. I do.

It’s not that I’m some bah-humbug Scrooge who is annoyed with it all. I’m not.

I think it mostly has to do with the dark. It’s so much, so suffocating. It’s waking up in blackness and having it already be dark when you leave work.

But it also has to do with the light– that is, the cheer, the general good tidings, the comfortable coziness that seems to accompany the holidays for most people. For some…

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Stop telling me I’m fine.

screenshot_20171128-204604665190849.pngThis was not a normal exhaustion.

I know what it’s like to be tired: I’m a college grad. I’m a writer. Heck, I’m a writer with a day job.

But about once a week, I couldn’t get out of bed. I don’t use that phrase lightly. This was like a full system shut-down. Productivity is my favorite high. Hard work is a badge of honor I wear. And yet, I could not get out of bed. 

It wasn’t a battle of wills. It wasn’t just that I’m not a morning person. It wasn’t playing hooky from work to stay home to write. (As I told my co-workers, I wish it was!) It wasn’t simply depression; I know what depression feels like too.

At its worst, I was spending 18 hours in bed.

And I was in pain too. Long-time blog readers know that I’ve battled with my wrists for over a decade. But in spite of all the extra care I was taking– ergonomics, chiropractics, occupational therapy, oils, stretching, prayers– they were getting worse, not better. My whole body would feel achy, the way you feel the day after you’ve helped a friend move. Headaches, which have never really been an issue for me, were coming more frequently and blooming into migraines. And my mind– which is the best tool I own– would sometimes feel so foggy I’d have to give up on things like how to send a text in the morning or how to make a phone call. And I was so hot— I’d be melting away on days that really shouldn’t have melted me.

But the doctors said I was fine.

I started to feel like a complainer. I wondered if maybe I was just a whiny brat who was indulging a lazy streak, even though I’ve never had a lazy streak in my life. (Before all my former roommates pipe up: yes, yes, you’re right. When it comes to cleaning, I’m the laziest.) When you hear again and again that you’re fine, you start to wonder if maybe you really are fine.

Then, three articles fell into my lap in succession, all in the course of one week. All three were stories about women whose doctors told them they were fine until they half-believed it themselves. One of these women was diagnosed years later with a disorder that medication remedied easily. Another of the women later discovered she had a very serious illness, one the doctor had never tested her for, just sending her away with a “friendly reminder” to lose weight and she’d feel better. Another of the women ended up dying from from an aggressive endometrial cancer

These women made me take a deep breath, steel myself, and set up yet another appointment where I insisted I was not fine. 

Fast forward to now. I’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Blood tests and an MRI on my wrist has revealed inflammation and joint effusion. A sleep study showed that I have 45 “sleep disturbances” an hour, which is well into the severe range of sleep apnea.

I sort of get a kick out of this chart. This shows eight hours of sleep, from left to right. The yellow part is where I had the deepest type of sleep– delta sleep– during which the body heals and repairs itself.

Yup, look again. That little yellow part. I got about 5-7 minutes of the deepest sleep the whole night.

Everything is starting to make sense.

I am not fine. But I will be.

 

nOCD, an ERP App/Hero

Reminder! Reminder! Reminder!
Resources at your fingertips — and FREE.

JACKIE LEA SOMMERS

If you’ve spent time around this blog, you know that I wrestled my life and freedom back from the clutches of obsessive-compulsive disorder in 2008. (Read more about my story at jackieleasommers.com/OCD).

From the onset of my symptoms to my diagnosis: 15 years.
From my diagnosis to appropriate treatment (ERP): 5 years.
From treatment to freedom: 12 weeks. (<–Read that again please.)

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is powerful, friends.

On average, it takes OCD sufferers 14-17 years to get the correct diagnosis and treatment. This is not okay. 

So many OCD sufferers cannot afford treatment. In some countries, ERP therapy is simply not available. In fact, in some countries, the stigma associated with having a brain disorder like OCD is so strong that sufferers would not dare admit to needing help. This is not okay. 

The creators of the nOCD app felt the same way. One…

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Advocacy & Boundaries

advocacyTwo recent, semi-related questions I received:

  1. Can you give any recommendations for getting involved in the OCD community and doing advocacy work? 🙂
  2. I am getting very drained and upset by certain advocacy interactions. Do you have any advice on how to handle this? 

First,
Getting Involved in OCD Awareness Advocacy

I don’t think I can answer this any better than by directing you to the IOCDF website, specifically this page, which talks about support groups, research studies, OCD Awareness Week, and getting plugged into your local affiliate!

Next,
Proper Boundaries in OCD Awareness Advocacy

I am so happy and eager to help people, but sometimes it’s as if they want different answers, so they keep asking things hoping I’ll suggest something easier than exposure therapy. Or something that alleviates their anxiety immediately. Sometimes asking the questions themselves is the compulsion.

Sometimes it gets to the point where it is damaging to MY OWN mental health or the freedom I worked so hard to achieve via treatment.

In these cases, I have to cut it off.

I can’t be a personal, free, on-call therapist. I can’t be a therapist at all. I can provide resources, and then it is up to individuals to act.

So, set your own standards and stick to them. Be kind but firm. Gently point out when someone appears to be compulsively asking the same questions again and again. Sometimes you might have to say, “I can’t reply anymore.”

One thing that has been especially difficult for me is hearing from people who are in crisis-mode. My own therapist pointed out to me that even she– with her master’s in counseling– is not trained as a crisis counselor. Certainly I– with no formal therapy training at all– am not equipped to handle folks in crisis. It is better to recommend the suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) or suicide hotline chat (here).

Review: All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

crooked saintsI’ll admit that when I first read the description of Maggie Stiefvater’s latest book, it didn’t sound like something that would be up my alley. Then again, I thought the same thing about Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, and that one immediately become one of my top ten favorite books (review here).

Of course I purchased it. Of course I read it. It’s Maggie Stiefvater.

And it was great. But in a different way from her other books, which I’ll try to explain in a minute.

First, what’s it about? All the Crooked Saints is about three cousins in Bicho Raro, Colorado, in the 60’s: Beatriz, “the girl without feelings”; Daniel, the Saint (who performs miracles for pilgrims who travel to their ranch); and Joaquin, who DJs a pirated radio station from a truck in the desert. There is a wide cast of characters between the residents of Bicho Raro and the pilgrims who must remain there until their darkness is vanquished.

You see, Daniel performs the first miracle for the pilgrims, which makes their darkness manifest itself in some way, but the pilgrims must perform their second miracle, which makes the darkness go away. Until then, they remain at the ranch, where the resident Soria family is not able to help them.

This is magical realism, which I suppose one could argue is what all of Maggie’s books are, though I would probably be more likely to file them under “fantasy.” This book reads more like a fairy tale– and even as I write that, I’m not sure that captures it. Think Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers (review) vs. Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn (here). More The Last Unicorn (here), less Finnikin of the Rock (here). Just south of Bone Gap (here). (What? “Just south of Bone Gap” is not a clear description of a book? Pshhh!)

(And, to be clear, I love all the books I just mentioned … but for different reasons.)

The reasons I loved All the Crooked Saints:

  • the imagery
  • the magic
  • the miracles
  • the stories
  • the way everything fits into place.

As I put it on Instagram …

crooked insta

thirty-three

Happy Thanksgiving and all that. 🙂

What I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving is my baby sister being born 33 years ago!

kristin baby

What a joy she is and what a stinker she has been! Ha!

kristin and jackie2

Although a three-year gap now seems like nothing, and we have become the dearest of friends, I remember when that three-year gap meant that I felt like the too-cool (HA!) senior in high school who didn’t want the freshman hanging around. Although we did need to join forces to fight against the violent being that dwelt in our home. (Um, that’d be our baby brother.)

Deetie, you make me so happy and so proud. You are my biggest fan, are the most dedicated person I know, and so funny (or so I’ve heard from Mom: “She’s funny!). 😉

kristin2I love all our memories from sharing a room– Princess Pat, Janet Jackson, decorating our walls and ceiling (your half Backstreet Boys and Hanson; my half Beatles and Hanson), reading by the amber light (not to mention the “shut the light off!!!!” from Kevin or the “I’m still here” from Dad). And I love that we continue to make memories, now as dear friends instead of just closet prisoners (no, literally: our brother would trap us in our closet).

Thank you for all the support, the prayers, and for truly understanding our introvert ways. I love you, I love you, I love you. Happy 33rd, Kristin Ann!