Lights All Around

I am so, so grateful to be a writer, but I so wish that I were gifted at the visual arts.  I love looking at beautiful images; in fact, I kind of collect them.  For years, I subscribed to ARTNews magazine, and I’d go through each issue with a pair of scissors, cutting out all my favorites.  Quite a lot of them made it into the collages that now grace my apartment walls.  I spend a fair amount of time (more than I probably should) selecting the right image for each of my blog posts.

A few weeks ago, I went a little crazy searching for images of lights (well, mostly lights).  For your viewing pleasure (but mostly for mine), I present them to you here:








Beautiful, yes?  I wish I could take pictures or paint or draw or sculpt.  But I create images with words, and I love that even more!

accidental novelist

I never meant to become a novelist.

While pursuing my creative writing degree, I took the stance of an archer and aimed my arrows at poetry.  Sure, I took a semester-long class in fiction and even one in the writing of young adult literature, but when the time came for me to set my goals for my senior project, it was all poetry and creative non-fiction.

Years later, in the throes of an intense, prolonged obsession, I found myself jotting down tiny thoughts here and there.  Just chicken-scratches really.  I was heartsick and frantic and depressed, and I couldn’t handle much more than a thought here or there.  Perhaps a month or so later, I looked at that collection of lines and thought, What if I collected them into a book?  Thoughts, poems, short stories, all related to OCD.  Someone would want to read that, right?

For six months or so, I collected stories from life: my thoughts and experiences, poems I wrote about my obsessions, little stories from life.  It was more like a journal than a manuscript, but it felt great.  I was writing every day, a regular at the coffee shop near the university where I work, their very own “writer-in-residence,” as the baristas would tease me and ask me to include them in my book.

It was a mess of thoughts, with little order to it.  I printed off the whole shebang, cut all the parts up, and quite literally sorted each into various categories, trying to force some semblance of order onto it.

cutting apart

After it was all re-grouped, I gave it to my friend Anna for her review.

She said, “Yeahhhhh … it doesn’t work.  Why don’t you ever include real dialogue from your life?”

“I might not get it exactly right,” I told her.  “And that would be like lying.”  It could have become an obsession so easily; instead I avoided it completely by not including dialogue.

“It needs dialogue,” she said.  “It needs to be more of a story and less of a collection of random thoughts.”

But I was months away from the therapy that would give me that kind of freedom, and I knew that I couldn’t make it my own story because I wouldn’t get every detail right, and that would be wrong.  So I decided to make it fiction, which would allow me to invent as much as I wanted.

It took years to transform that original journal into a novel.  I had no idea what I was doing.  Anna kept telling me I was still writing like a memoirist instead of a novelist, and I thought, What’s the difference?  I honestly didn’t know.  I plowed through that like someone wading in a foot of water with cement blocks strapped to her feet.  It was really hard.

But somewhere in the midst of those years, something both incredible and strange happened: I became addicted.

Addicted to writing fiction, to the limitless creativity available to novelists, to the act of creating something out of nothing— trying my hardest to in a small way mimic God in those earliest days of earth.

One year ago, and hooked beyond rescue on fiction (and with no desire for such a rescue), I started a young adult novel.  I gave myself six months for the first draft, and when six months was over, I was shocked that it was a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  At the end of six months with the first story, I had a jumbled collection of journalled thoughts.

So I was learning.

Now, a year into this writing, I asked for help from an editor.  Sometimes my life feels like it’s on repeat: he said, “Yeahhhhhh … it doesn’t work.”  Essentially.

It’s okay.  I know that I can massage it into something workable, something publishable, something excellent.  It’s just going to take a lot longer than I first thought.  I want to plead the excuse, “Well, what did you expect?  I’m a poet.”

But not really.  I still love, read, and write poetry, but it’s not the right descriptor anymore.

I am a novelist.

On accident, but a novelist nevertheless.  A clueless one, but learning every day.  Discouraged, but never enough to stop.

I love this identity.




where the music comes from

Early that next week, with my head still spinning, I sat with the Conner family for Ellen’s first jazz concert of the year—her three younger brothers sandwiched between their parents and me next to Mrs. Conner, feeling guilty that I’d been avoiding her daughter.  It was pretty obvious that, between the six of us, only Mrs. Conner and I actually wanted to be there, but Mr. Conner dutifully tried to keep the boys quiet and entertained.

“Ellen looks gorgeous,” I whispered to Mrs. Conner when the jazz band made its way onto the stage.  Ellen wore a knee-length black dress with long sleeves and a scooped neckline.  Her mom had forced her to take off the leather choker for the evening.

“She’s miserable,” Mrs. Conner whispered back.  “We go through concert dress woes every year.”  She rolled her eyes.  I smiled and looked back to the band members, who were tuning their instruments to Ellen, the lead saxophone.  They began with a few big band arrangements, followed by a swing tune, then a ballad.  “Ellen has a solo in this one,” whispered Mrs. Conner.

When the band fell into the background, Ellen stood up and a giant spotlight shone on her.  She played effortlessly, a beautiful, full tone, with perfect rhythm.  The concert band director had begged Ellen to join their group as well, but she just wasn’t interested.  “In jazz,” she’d told me, “you can actually lean into a wrong note and make it sound right.  It’s not like concert band, where you have to be perfect.”

“She’s got this down,” I commented to Mrs. Conner.

“It’s actually improv,” she offered back.

My eyes widened.  I could hardly believe that this picture-perfect sound being pushed along the ceiling by an alto sax was being invented on the fly.  I imagined myself standing in front of tonight’s crowd, looking not at a sheet of music but letting it flow out of me like rays of sunlight.  I shivered in the audience—not from any chill but from the fear conjured up by the brief imagination.

Dr. Foster is right, I thought.  I am definitely uncomfortable with uncertainty.  It upset me a little to see how far-reaching it went.

“Jazz and fantasy both push the limits,” Ellen had said to me once.  I’d had to think about it for awhile before it sat right with me.  Tonight I could see that Ellen was just a teenager who wanted no boundaries.  She needed improvisation, needed those grace notes.

A dark stage, a young girl in a black dress.  The spotlight’s mouth circling her in a perfect O as she gazed straight ahead.  It reminded me of the stormy night that Matt played his keyboard for me, the way his eyes too had found that particular secret spot where the music comes from.



Saturday.  “Mail for you,” his dad would say.  “On the table.”


“Doesn’t say.  Minneapolis.”

Interested, he would pick up the small envelope and see his name written in handwriting he knew.  It’s been a while since he’s talked with her, so he opens the letter quickly, but he does not tear the envelope.  He is a neat man.

He reads her letter and can picture her, sitting in front of him that night at the pub, eyes wide while he talks of Europe and Jesus.  She asks great questions.  In his memory, her eyes are intense, but he does not know what color they are, and it makes him sad.

The letter is very much her, and she is still praying for him.  Not giving up on me.  She misses him, wants to see him.  I should at least give her a call.  But he hasn’t finished processing his thoughts about the Twin Cities and about her, and those eyes of an unnamed color have been in many of his dreams.  It is good to be missed. 

It’s been a crazy time, but her note is like an anchor—or like a magnet.  She makes him feel as if he could tackle life again.  She pours spirit back into him; he can feel his confidence stretching against what he feels are his limits.  “I’ve missed you,” he thinks.  He wants to sit across from her again, hear her stories, regain his energy somehow through their time together, and this time, he will be sure to note the color of her eyes.

A Night to Believe 2012, Part Two

I am writing this post from the Starbucks located in the lobby of the Boston Sheraton Hotel, having had an incredible weekend.  My friend Cindy joined me in Boston, and I was sooooo blessed by her company; together, we explored Boston and Cambridge, including adventures like eating White Trash cheese dip at Bukowski Tavern, incredible treats at Georgetown Cupcake, and my first experience on the subway!

But Saturday night was certainly the highlight.  First of all, the International OCD Foundation has incredible staff members, and they made this whole experience so simple for me– booking my flight and hotel, picking me up from the airport (someone was there with a “J. Sommers” sign!!), and giving me plenty of time to explore the city.  Jeff Bell, spokesperson for the foundation and founder of the Adversity 2 Advocacy Alliance, was the emcee of the event, and he sat down with me on Saturday morning and asked fascinating questions about my OCD and my writing, putting me totally at ease about the on-stage interview that would come that evening.

The event began with a cocktail hour, and then the award ceremony began.  Jeff Bell is an absolute all-star, and he discussed the theme of OCD awareness week, which was “Dare to believe … together we can beat OCD,” hitting hard on the DARE, the BELIEVE, and the TOGETHER.  I cannot tell you how impressed I was with this man– I can’t wait to learn more about his A2A Alliance.  He has also written a book, which I’d like to read and review on this site soon.

After that, I was the first to share.  I read an excerpt of my novel, and people laughed in all the right places.  It was an incredible audience, a vocal one, so you knew when they were totally jiving with you.  Love that.  Then Jeff interviewed me on the stage about my experiences.  The only question he asked me that I didn’t expect was “Do you ever worry that people will think your fictional story is actually your true story?” and I said, “No, I don’t worry about that because I’m not ashamed of my OCD.  Neely has a lot of the same experiences as I’ve had … except she has a much better love life,” which made the audience laugh.  We also talked about cognitive-behavioral therapy and about how it is simultaneously horrible/incredible and how someone will know he/she is ready for it “when the hell you’re in becomes worse than the hell you’ll have to go through.”  It’s true.

Next up was Jenn Cullen from Washington, DC, who wrote a children’s story called Ranger Ben Discovers the Mysterious Mr. OCD, this wonderful story to help children with OCD feel empowered to tackle their disorder.  She wrote it for her son Ben, who was diagnosed with OCD at age 5.  He is 13 now, and he joined her on the stage.  Very, very cool.

Then we watched a film trailer for Englander Claire Watkinson’s in-process documentary called Living with Me and My OCD.  Claire is so talented, and I am so excited to follow the progress of her documentary!

Vincent Christoffersen from New Zealand finished off the evening with his song called “Till I’m Down,” which I completely adored.  Vincent is 21, looks 15, and has the maturity of a 30-year-old.  He had wonderful stage presence and everyone LOVED him!

They also presented an IOCDF Hero Award to Denis Asselin of Walking with Nathaniel.  Denis’s son Nathaniel suffered from intense body dysmorphic disorder, on the OCD spectrum, and took his own life in 2011.  Denis made a 500-mile pilgrimage from Cheyney, PA, to Boston, MA, for BDD awareness and research.  It took everything in me not to weep as he spoke.

Afterward I met him and was very impressed by his humility.  I also met Michael Jenike, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (by the way, I just looked him up, and his CV is 92 pages long!  Intense!), and a slew of people who thanked me for my story.  It was a wonderful, well-planned event, and I enjoyed being in a group of OCs and awareness advocates, and it only made me want to do MORE.  I want to just scream from the rooftops about CBT, and I want to help the general public to understand more about OCD (unfortunately, it still believes primarily that OCs are just “neat freaks”).

This whole Boston trip was an incredible adventure, and I want to thank everyone who voted for me in the creative expression contest.  I loved-loved-LOVED this entire experience, and I am so grateful to you for making it possible for me.

On a sidenote, I really want to go to the IOCDF annual conference in Atlanta when it rolls around next year … anyone want to join me??? 🙂

A Night to Believe 2012, Part One

I am so excited to announce that I will be reading an excerpt from my novel, Lights All Around, at “A Night to Believe” next month, culminating OCD Awareness Week!  I emailed today with Michael from the International OCD Foundation, and they are purchasing my flight to Boston and two nights in the Sheraton.  I am beyond thrilled to attend and SO excited to share part of my story with the OCD community.

Thank you to everyone who voted for my submission!  I will update again after the event … which I am nervous about (a little) … reading the excerpt will be an exposure in and of itself.  Nothing like ERPT right in front of a crowd, eh?  🙂  I think I am up to it.

Is anyone else from the blogosphere going to be at this event?  I’d love to meet you, if so!