Going Back to School When The Nest Empties

PoolWhen I anticipated the empty nest, I half-joked that I was going to spend a couple of weeks at the Grand Wailea on Maui after taking my youngest to college. I’d single mom’d my three kids for a decade. The two oldest were in college, my youngest was doing well in high school. I could imagine standing in that magical surf, not driving anyone anywhere (what a dream), not making food for anyone… I’d swim and sleep.

But life had other plans for me. As my youngest progressed through high school, I signed up for a full semester of college courses to re-engage my brain. I took Political Science, Pre-Law, Philosophy, History and Ethics and, because I studied A LOT, I got a 4.0. Professor Marge Haskell asked my Pre-Law class, ‘who wants to be a lawyer?’ and my hand shot up. I was in a classroom with mostly early 20-somethings, but something in me got a little excited when she asked.

I took an LSAT Prep course, took the LSAT twice, applied to a variety of law schools and as my daughter was getting her college offers, I got my law school offers. I chose a local powerhouse, University of San Francisco School of Law because of their strong alumni connections in the judiciary and corporate world in Silicon Valley. My classes started a few weeks before the college drop-off trip, and it was instant immersion in 24-7 studying.

Two months have passed and I was driving home over the Golden Gate Bridge when I had my moment: wait a minute… WHAT HAPPENED TO HAWAII???

I’d forgotten to swim and dine and sleep… I’d gone from 24/7 mothering to 24/7 studying. I’ll go to the Grand Wailea some year, not this year.  1144152067_b2ae7827d1_b

I know lots of lawyers and a few judges and they are nearing retirement, while I’m tapping home plate, happy to be at bat…

I’m a finalist for Literary Death Match’s bookmark competition…

A 250-word piece I wrote was judged by Lemony Snicket as a finalist for Literary Death Match’s bookmark competition. It was from the view of a nameless mother refugee on a boat in the Mediterranean trying to get her baby and young son to safety in a new country. Crossing my fingers to win but delighted to be a finalist!


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Great Podcast for writers – Story Makers Show

I’ve been in a Craft class in Berkeley with ‘laser edit’ queen, Elizabeth Stark of Book Writing World.  On my drive to and from, I listen to a great podcast she does with her partner Angie Powers.

Story Makers Podcast

My favorite episodes are

Episode 17: Janet Harvey

Janet Harvey brings together savvy from advertising and invests it in indie filmmaking and comic books–and she told us the key to a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Episode 19: Sylvia Linsteadt

What do animal tracking and writing have in common? More than you think, as we learn in conversation with Sylvia Lindsteadt, a prolific young author of fiction and non-fiction and a certified animal tracker.

Episode 20: Jacqueline Luckett

What do you get when you cross a novelist and a screenplay writer? An 80 page outline of a movie! Author Jacqueline Luckett always dreamed of her book being turned into a movie, and now a known actress has bought the screenplay.

and of course, Elizabeth herself…

Episode 23. Writing: Ambition, Habit or Addiction? A talk with Elizabeth Stark

This week Angie interviewed Elizabeth, just to get really meta or, you know, narcissistic. Actually, we thought this would be a good way to introduce us to our listeners: Who are these people asking these questions? Why are they so hungry to know everything about story?

What skills are needed in the future?

Another meaningful short film by Tiffany Shlain: “Your human skills are just as important as your knowledge.  What can you offer?”

Hands up if you’re ready…  My hand is UP.

Ghost stories that we tell ourselves…

At age 54, I feel a pull towards my childhood home. When I drive the mountain freeways near Silicon Valley to visit my sister in her house, in the rosy gray of twilight, I feel that instead, I’m supposed to head home. I feel that my parents are there, that I’ll park and bound up the brick steps to the massive front door in Atherton. I feel that the old man there, my dad, will have aged since he died at 61 when I was 25. I sense that he’ll come out into the warm glow of the porch lanterns to give me a deep hug by the picture window, as he always did when I came home from college.  He’ll put his head on my shoulder as I put mine on his. His voice will crack and he’ll say what he always said, “I’m so proud of you, Mary.”

My mother will stand up from the bench at her shiny black grand piano in the softly lit living room where she was playing nocturnes for their late evening relaxation. The same age that she left me, 80, she’ll offer me a bowl of ice cream, butter pecan, her favorite.

They’re not ghosts in this fantasy of mine. They want me to pull off the freeway every time I drive by, if I drive in that other-worldly space at the end of the day.  The gift that they hold dear for me is one that they alone gave me: an abiding sense that all is right with the world.

Like a phantom limb reached for by a semi-conscious wounded soldier, I reached out for my parents during my acrimonious 3-year divorce and in my sole-custody single parenting since then. My mother lived 23 years beyond my father, but I lost her just as my divorce settled 6 years ago.

I’ve invoked them, especially in places where I have deep memories. They’d held hands at daily mass for much of my life, so though I don’t have faith in the hierarchy of the church, I do sometimes sit in pews in chapels I come across, conjuring them to sit with me. They sit on either side of me and their quiet support refills my depleted faith that I’ll get through these years alone.

Always on the verge of tears in churches, I sit and imagine the softness of their hands, the gentleness with which they shepherded me through childhood, my teens and my early 20s. When I am recharged, I bid them goodbye. I genuflect and walk out of the mighty church doors that mean so much more to others than they do to me. Churches are a place that my parents reside, as are forests. I hike in the mountains near my home and I feel my parents in the redwoods. Their wisdom was as ancient and steadfast as the tall trees that I meander through. Sometimes I sit on benches by the watershed lakes and I close my eyes, calling my father to sit next to me so I can run things by him, share my burdens. My father and I go through all the things I’m doing right in my life, all the good stories about my children who have risen above childhoods overshadowed by their father’s alcoholism. My father once told me, in my reveries on such a bench, with ducks and river otters playing amongst the cattails in the swampy water in front of me, that he would watch over my ex-husband. They’d never met, but I always knew my father would have loved my ex before he went behind the veil of alcoholism. I felt a deep sense, in the tree dappled sunlight on that bench, that I no longer had to worry about my ex, who has been sober since the divorce. I felt that my father would provide needed support so that I could begin a new life of my own.

Before she died, my very Catholic mother told me I was right to divorce. I confided to her that the reason I’d held on to a dead marriage for 3 years was that I felt conscripted by the vow I’d made within my religion, the one she honored every day by going to mass. While she was alive, she loosed me from that vow, told me I had a right to be loved and cared for, to not drown in the poison of someone else’s addiction.

When I am in a car, heading south on 280 to visit my sister, and I pass the freeway off-ramps that were part of my youth, I feel an undercurrent pulling me to the old mansion, to the acre of treed land around the Edwardian beauty that had been my safe place for so many years, where I lay on the carpet by huge windows, reading fantasy books of myths and fables.  I have had to move my own children four times since my divorce.  They did not have the one solid family home that I grew up within.

I feel a ghostly door opening to an alternate universe, where if I turn the car around and take the exit, I will be able to drive peacefully back into our driveway, to be safely ensconced in the love that I no longer can access in my real life. When I’m in a car, heading north on 280, heading home towards the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County where I’ve raised my own kids, as I pass the old off-ramps again later in the dark of night, it is ALL I can do not to pull the car to the right, to head into the arms of my parents in the gloaming, into the shadows away from the loneliness and hardships I work to rise above day to day.

Can I take the exit, can I drive home? Would I find my parents? The house has changed ownership many times since we sold it after my dad died. When the ghostly pull happens, I’m not sure whether or not I’ve been thru too much… am I going crazy? If I pull over, will I have a heart attack and lope up the brick steps into their arms after my death? Where is that place that they wait, anticipating my return, eager to hug me and to invite me in to my warm family home?

When I’m on the freeway, they are at my childhood home. The lights are on, a fire is in the fireplace, the house is inviting.  They are waiting for me, to tell me all will be well, that they see my challenges and are proud of how I rise to them.

Melancholy overtakes me as I stay on the freeway, driving past the old off-ramps. Am I missing a chance to see them again?

Oh, Go Take a Walk

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

I LOVE to walk and usually do 40 minutes hike in a forest nearby. If I can walk first thing in the morning, then my writing flows forth effortlessly. If I don’t walk, I can’t seem to get in the rhythm of writing. I love to walk in San Francisco, in New York City (for hours on end) and in my own town.

How about you?

Sting finds his way through writers block by ‘going home’

“…by writing about other people, you reveal things about yourself.”


Book Passage Path to Publishing Conference

I felt like an adopted kid who found her true family!

Path to Publishing pass

Book Passage’s Sam Barry – one of the driest senses of humor you will ever come across (his brother Dave Barry is known for that too…) organized the best indie publishing conference I’ve attended.

Here was the schedule:

9:00 – 9:30
Welcome & Introduction: “Seven questions writers need to ask themselves”
Bill Petrocelli

9:30 – 10:30
Introduction to the Mentoring Program. The Book Passage Mentoring Program is one of the popular aspects of our Path to Publishing program. A group of our mentors will describe the services that they offer to authors.
Sam Barry, Phil Cousineau, Molly Giles, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Andrea  Alban


10:45 – 11:45
Book Business 101 A panel of agents and book business professionals give an overview of how traditional publishing and the book business operate. This is the starting point for understanding other, alternate forms of publishing. This will be a chance to ask questions of agents.
Bill Petrocelli, Alice Acheson, Andy Ross, Kimberley Cameron

11:45 – 12:30
The Editing Process Editors play a key role in developing the manuscript and getting it ready for publication. A panel of editors talks about how the editorial process works.
Sam Barry, Mark Burstein, Pamela Feinsilber, Molly Giles

12:30 – 1:30
Lunch with the faculty and announcements about author organizations.

1:45 – 2:30
The Basics of Book Design  A group of skilled book designers talk about the elements of good design and the importance of each design element in the bookselling process.
Sam Barry, Jim Shubin, Joel Friedlander, Lisa Abellera


2:45 – 4:00
Alternative Publishing & Distribution The session looks at a key issue in alternative publishing: how does the method of publishing interplay with the distribution of books. How do books that are co-published or self-published reach readers? What is the role of e-books?
Bill Petrocelli, Mary Moore, Brooke Warner, Margery Buchanan, Phil Cousineau, Linda Watanabe McFerrin

4:00 – 5:00
The Crucial Issue of Book Promotion What is a a good promotion plan, and when does it begin. How do promotion plans differ with the method of publication?
Sam Barry, Alice Acheson, Kaye McKinzie

I’m looking forward to working with mentors Molly Giles, David Corbett, Phil Cousineau and Linda Watanabe McFerrin.  I have specific questions for each writer and look forward to hearing their advice.

If you are interested in the Book Passage Path to Publishing Program, contact Sam Barry at (415) 927-0960!

Every voice has value, share yours…

The arts are a human way of making life more bearable.

The arts are a human way of making life more bearable.

Pat Conroy’s ‘My Reading Life’, the depth of compassion for his Mother

gorgeous southern sunset

a perfect image for his lifelong love of reading

My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy

ISBN:  978-0-385-53357-7

Chapter One: The Lily

Pat Conroy is the writer who led me to southern writing, to the gorgeous prose and humid, stoic, gut wrenching, truth revealing, emotional storytelling of the South.  I just picked up ‘My Reading Life’ at local indie bookseller Book Passage and it’s cover, rich sunset colors with the stark white of pages morphing into seagulls, gave me a good inkling this would be a fantastic book by a writer about reading.

One chapter in and I’m enraptured unexpectedly because he humbly honors HIS MOTHER.  She took him to libraries in every town his military father’s career path placed them.  She helped him research every single offshoot of things he encountered in his reading, always making him feel as though books opened the door to parts of his future self.

But there’s something even more devastatingly compassionate in his telling in this chapter.

She, who had given up her education to get married, have and raise kids, lived not vicariously through his learning but symbiotically with him.  He wandered the wilderness around their home, found small critters and she got him books about wild animals in Africa.  He needed to read Shakespeare, they read it together and talked through unknown words.  She did his homework, not for him, for herself on the side, sometimes eliciting pity from him, but also admiration for her ‘indefatigable trek towards self improvement.’  She educated herself through her shepherding of his interests.

This has to be the most loving acknowledgement I’ve ever read of gratitude from child to parent.  It moved me so deeply.

And it’s only Chapter 1.  Onward to Chapter 2!