A Conversation with Julianna Baggott

I just finished Julianna Baggott‘s new book, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. I can’t say enough about how 9780316375108much I adore this book. Baggott weaves a story about an author, Harriet Wolf, who died with six popular novels out in the world and everyone waiting for number seven. The book explores not only whatever happened to number seven, but also, what really happened in Wolf’s life and those of her daughter, Eleanor and Eleanor’s daughters Ruth and Tilton. Harriet, Eleanor, Ruth and Tilton each voice their stories throughout the book – exploring mother/daughter relationships and love stories. The writing is fabulous — each character’s voice is distinctive and over time, we understand how things that happened from one character’s perspective created consequences, often unbeknownst to that character, to someone else. I don’t mean to be oblique, but I don’t want to give things away. I simply want to strongly encourage you to give this one a go! And, if you prefer your information from more official reviews, check this one out from the New York Times.

Regular followers of Pamwrites know that recently I’ve been exploring names here. We had a marvelous guest post from Terry White about taking her mother’s given name. In Names & Stories, I wrote about my experience with my given name, Pam Parker, and how awful I found my initials to be when I was young. Today, I give you some questions I gave Julianna Baggott regarding names, especially in Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders which has a few more Wolfs in it than just Harriet.

Pamwrites:  I noticed on your website juliannabaggott.com that you’ve published under two other names as well, Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. Are there any stories behind choosing those particular names?
Baggott: N.E. Bode can be pronounced anybody and the first books under that name were The Anybodies Trilogy — for younger readers. Bridget Asher is a name I chose to publish under. The next novel under that pseudonym is a comedic novel about three odd grown sisters, set in Ocean City, New Jersey. It’s called ALL OF US & EVERYTHING and will be published by Random House in November.
Pamwrites:  What came first for you? The name Harriet Wolf or the title of one of her six books preceding the 7th Book of Wonders?        Any Harriets in your background that you thought of when the character Harriet was embryonic for you?
Baggott: Harriet Wolf came first and then I sat down and titled all of her novels in one shot. But she was fully formed before I titled the books. I’ve always loved the name Harriet, but have no (known) ancestors by it.
Pamwrites:  Harriet’s first love is named Eppitt. That’s a new name to  me and I love it, especially given Eppitt’s condition, which I won’t reveal. Did you create Eppitt from other words, or, is it a name you knew from somewhere?
Baggott: In an early draft, Eppitt was the main character and his name was new to me. Names are so strange. They sometimes present themselves. But I love names. I miss phone books for this reason and adore reading credits at the ends of movies.

Names are so strange. They sometimes present themselves. But I love names.

Pamwrites:  Eleanor, Harriet’s daughter, names her daughters Ruth and Tilton. I’ve wondered a lot about those names. I don’t think she would have chosen Ruth for the biblical Ruth, but maybe I’m wrong? Why Ruth? And Tilton?? Great name!!! Perfect name in fact — how did you, or rather Eleanor :-), decide on that one?
Baggott: Ruth is a family name. My older sister’s middle name and the photo at the front of the book — one supposedly Harriet herself — is my Aunt Ruth. Tilton just fit. It’s not a name I’ve ever heard and yet she is tilted — that’s her gaze on the world.
Pamwrites:  Assuming Julianna Baggott has been your name since birth (do correct me if I’m wrong :-) ), did you like your name as a kid? Why or why not?
Baggott: I went by Julie, and well, of course, Baggott has some unfortunately rhyming options for children who are prone to that kind of thing. So, I didn’t really love my last name but grew attached to it, defensive of it, and I’d already started publishing by the time I got married and, even without that start, I’d have never considered changing my name to my husband’s. My mother regretted changing her name and missed her own though it wasn’t spoken of when she married.
 Many thanks to Julianna Baggott for dropping in with us today and sharing some more thoughts on names. And, to the rest of you, please, please do yourself a favor and read Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. You deserve it!


sxjTyT6-Julianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books. Her most recent, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, was just published this month. Her other novels include Pure, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, and its sequel, Fuse. She writes under her own name and under pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, National Bestseller Girl Talk, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies Trilogy and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now.


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Names and Stories

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
― William ShakespeareRomeo and Juliet

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”
― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of Green Gables


Names. Chosen or given, names carry stories. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Nolan, had us write our initials in large capital letters on a sheet of white paper with a black crayon. Then, we turned the page and wrote them again. And turned the page and wrote them again. You get the idea. We ended up with a sheet of paper that looked like a black and white abstract wanna-be puzzle. Then, we were to color in all the little spaces we’d created. It was a fun thing to do at age six — and it was a special blast for certain boys sitting near me who decided that my initials, PP, were the funniest thing they had ever seen in their lives.


Me, in first grade, back when my initials were a serious problem in my world. (I know, I know, every six year old should have such problems.)

It may be hard to believe, but in first grade, I was extremely shy and lacking the spine and many of the survival skills I have since acquired. (Now I could care less what anyone would say about my name, but at age six, flipping those boys the bird, even in my mind, just wasn’t in my repertoire.) I blinked back tears as I colored in all my little spaces, neatly and within the lines and with awareness of how colors looked next to each other, because, yes, I was that kid. The coloring calmed me and the threatening tears vanished. But when I got home – well, when I got home, my mother got a talking to from a six year old who wasn’t shy in her own house.

“Why did you and Dad name me Pam Parker? Didn’t you think about what my initials would be?”

She probably stifled a giggle, but I don’t recall. What I do remember is learning thatvintage-jane-parker-bread-1958-erjkprunczyk-flickr she had wanted to name me Jane. In the late 1960s, there was a popular bread company in New England called Jane Parker. “Your father said he would NOT have his daughter named for a loaf of bread.”

So, crappy initials or be called a loaf of bread. I guess I won.

Over time, I’ve had occasion to think about my name, to decide to keep it or not. When my husband and I married in 1982,  I had just turned 22 and I couldn’t make up my mind about whether to take his name or keep mine. (I didn’t want to hyphenate, even though Pam Parker-Donaldson does have a lovely, albeit uber-Waspy ring to it.) After all, Pamela Donaldson would mean losing those God-awful initials, but still, Pam Parker had always been my name. What to do? What to do? As I pondered and stewed, my mother, the town clerk in Southampton where we would be married, said, “Oh forget it. You’re taking his name, that’s it.” And, I said, “Okay, fine.” I was still working on that spine development. It took a long time.

And, my name was Pamela Donaldson. But, as we settled into our apartment in Middletown, CT, I began to realize I wanted my Parker back. Bill and I talked about it, he was cool about it, so off I went to court to get my name back. Except for that brief stint as Pamela Donaldson — and those rare occasions when I would call the elementary school when my boys were little and say, “This is Mrs. Donaldson,” I have always been Pamela Jean Parker, more often known as Pam.

An adoption in my family tree layers my name with more than the usual information. Was it my father’s name? Yes. His adopted parents, my Grandma and Grandpa Parker (Myrtle Frances Carroll Parker and James Henry Parker), gave him their name and all their values. He was a Parker through and through.

But…his birth mother’s last name was Gasteyer. So there was certainly Gasteyer blood flowing in his veins. And, in mine. Her story – what I am learning of it – was tragic and sad. Is that why I would never consider taking her last name as mine? No, of course not. My name is the name I have been called since before I have memory. It is the name I will be called when I no longer have life.

Recently, Terry White, soon to be McGuire, shared a guest post here which has received strong positive feedback. For her mother’s ninety-first birthday, Terry is taking her mother’s given name back. That piece continued me pondering names – an interest I have long held.

Soon, I’ll have a post for you with Julianna Baggott, author of my new favorite book, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders. Stay tuned.

#happywriting #happyreading #whatsinaname

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Procrastination or Perfectionism?

Today I’m thrilled to bring you a guest post from a writer friend I met at the conference in Chamonix, France. Her thoughts apply to all of us, not just writers!

Procrastination or Perfectionism?

Either Way, beat ’em down or you’ll get nothing done!!

By Carmen Siegers

I once took a book out of the library about procrastination and why we do it (or don’t do it as it were). I know it seems like an obvious joke but I did, in fact, return the book late and without having really read it. However, I managed to skim a chapter or two and from that gleaned a theory that stuck with me: procrastination is a form of perfectionism, a built-in excuse in case you fail. It bears repeating:

Procrastination is a form of perfectionism, a built-in excuse in case you fail.

For example, if I had only studied more than an hour for that test I’m sure I would have got an ‘A’ instead of a ‘B’ but I’ll never know because I didn’t study long enough for it. Currently that version is: I’m sure if I just sat down and wrote every day for at least three hours, I would finish my book, my short story, that rewrite of my screenplay.   Certainly I’m not alone in this. As an author of a book on screenwriting once wrote “my house is never cleaner than when I start working on a new screenplay”.

Procrastination can look like many things. It is more than just binge watching the latest season of “Archer” or “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (merely examples of course, not like I’m writing from experience or anything) or scrolling through a social media feed on your phone or just lying on the couch staring at the ceiling. It can be a trip to a favorite shoe store to try on a coveted pair of sandals that are perfectly comfortable and well-crafted, a jam-making and scones, muffins, and pie baking spree after buying ten pounds of fresh BC blueberries (stellar season), or, as I currently type away, a pot of quinoa vegetable soup simmering on the stovetop during a rainy night. Most of these activities are productive and useful but if they replace the one thing you really ought to be doing because it’s your main goal then they are merely distractions.

I’m examining my own procrastinating tendencies because my new friend, Pam Parker, whom I met during the Mont Blanc Writing Workshop in Chamonix, France this past June asked if I would like to write a guest blog about the workshop. I replied I did and then spent so long not writing it that it seemed like I let the moment pass me by and it felt like it was too late to attempt it. Because of that I had to ask myself some tough questions about why I chose to keep putting this off, even when it was rattling around my brain for over a month. Certainly it would be simple and straightforward to write about the wonderful people I met and the guidance and instruction we received from the incredibly talented and notable authors who led each of our groups; in my case, Pam Houston, who instilled in me the mantra “concrete, physical details”. It would be easy to reflect on the majestic mountain peaks that encircled us and inspired us as we took part in these intensive workshops over a two-week period.   Scenery that was truly awesome in the very real definition of that word. The hikes, the train rides to the nearby towns, the spectacular view from the top of Aiguille du Midi followed by the cable car ride down where, after every dramatic bounce of the car the chorus of “whoa” in a half dozen or more different languages became one of my favorite travel memories. Certainly if I couldn’t compile at least a few sentences on how all of this informed me and helped me evolve my own work I would have no business being a writer myself and that thought is the very “aha” moment for me, the illumination of the nagging doubts that could keep me from writing this and from finishing my stories. The fear of exposure, of putting it out there and coming up short, the nagging worry of being mediocre. Another writer friend of mind voiced it out loud once as “derivative, derivative, derivative”. That was the refrain that made up her fear and it dances around my head too.

Up high in the French Alps, which are far from mediocre!

Up high in the French Alps, which are far from mediocre!


Not a writer but certainly a driven achiever, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, once said, “I miss a hundred percent of the shots I don’t take”. Gretzky’s mantra has been resonating with me these past few weeks as I grappled with my psyche. At some point the fear of failure and/or the fear of success that lines the low-hanging cloud of procrastination needs to give way to the bigger fear of not achieving one’s goals or dreams, not knowing how far we could reach simply because we hung back. For all of us who wonder why we don’t just go for it we have to ask ourselves if the worst thing that could happen isn’t if we fail, it’s if we didn’t try enough. We can only know how much we can achieve, how many of our goals and dreams can be realized if we simply take the shot and then keep taking the shot every day.

I just looked up some of the notes I highlighted from the Chamonix sessions and posted on my phone for easy reference. The last one was a reminder I crafted for myself: ass in seat. Every. Day. It’s discipline and consistency, writing and patiently rewriting. No shortcuts. No magic solutions. The truth is too I enjoy it. It may not always be easy but when I get a good flow happening on the page or even just come up with exactly the right word that rush that I feel is joy. That joy is also what I had in Chamonix so what a waste it would be to not use all the tools I learned and all the inspiration I gathered there from the other writers. It’s time to finish what I start, time to defy my procrastinating tendencies, one word at a time. Sentence by sentence, one paragraph followed by another, page by page. Ass in seat every day.

Thank you Pam Parker for giving me a forum to express this. Now I can have a bowl of that vegetable quinoa soup that is simmering on the stove.

ps – I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Michael Dahlie for organizing the Mont Blanc workshop, our instructors from the second session: Alan Heathcock, Pam Houston, and Cheryl Strayed, the writers in my group who provided me with invaluable feedback and inspiration from their own remarkable works, as well as the participants in the other groups whom I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know over glasses of wine, tastings of French cheese and the delicious tartiflette.

PPS – from Pam – Carmen sent this to me on August 5th, and it wasn’t procrastination that kept me from it — mostly. It was deadlines and other work for a forthcoming anthology, but…. Sincerely sorry for the delay and many, many thanks, Carmen!



Carmen Siegers started her working life in television news as a producer at a local station in Calgary. It was a way to tell stories on a daily basis but her first love, the film and television industry, still called so one September instead of going back to school, she packed up her things and headed to the west coast to start over with a new job working in the playback department on a short-lived television show called “Broadcast News”.  When that was over she stayed in Vancouver until last year when the call of family and friends led her back to the other side of the Rockies. She currently is at work on several short stories, a book, and an idea for a television pilot.

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Her Name was Bertha, but……

Note from Pam: Today I’m happy to bring you a guest post from Terry (White), soon to be something else, as you shall read. Her post has me contemplating a blog series about names — I’m brainstorming and we shall see if it comes to be. Names are intriguing to me — our own, names we give others, names we choose and names we change. This is an issue for everyone, writers or not. I love Terry’s story and hope you enjoy it too.


Her Name was Bertha, but…..   by Terry (Bertha White) 

In 1924, my mother was born and baptized Mary Kathryn McGuire. The classic Irish name fit the classic Irish beauty like a tweed cap. Her own mother had grown up Mary Brennan, so rich ethnic names flowed like mead for them.

And then she married my father, whose last name was Bertha. Yes, like the woman’s first name, the WWI howitzer and, my personal favorite, “Bertha Butt.” (Who’s she? One of the Butt Sisters, of course.) And instantly, because that was the only option in the 40’s, her name and heritage faded, and she became a Bertha, as did the seven children they had together.

As the sixth in that litter, I never much cared for the moniker Bertha. I mean who really wants to grow up hearing “No dear, I asked for your last name?” But so it was, and for 24 years I wrote it on the top of all my school papers and the bottom of all my checks. Until I traded it for another man’s name, (a strange, but commonly-accepted practice to be addressed another time.)

But Mom still has it of course, even 14 years after my father’s passing. And it bothers her. Not in a big, feminist, gotta-change-it way. Just in an occasional-comment way; requesting I include it on the next batch of calling cards I print for her, saying how “friendly” it sounds when we hear it, or pointing out the family crest when we find it at Irish Fest.

Until about a year ago. We were talking about age and death, (front-of-mind topics when all your lifelong friends have predeceased you, and your new friends in senior housing are vanishing before your eyes) when she mentioned over a Bloody Mary that it makes her sad to think that her name will die when she does. I guess it took a while for that thought to germinate (see above reference to alcohol,) but when I recently struggled to come up with a good gift for her 91st birthday, the choice was obvious: I will take her name. So on September 21st, after all the preliminary legal work (public notices, criminal and driving record checks and a lot of seemingly-redundant paperwork,) my mother and I will walk into the courthouse together, and I’ll walk out the proud sponsor of her maiden name. I told her I’d take her to County Clare afterwards where we’ll drink Guinness until we can’t see. (If any officers of the law are reading this, I am kidding. So please do not make note of the date, time and location I have unguardedly provided.)

I’m not a young son who can pass her legacy on to my children. I’m a middle-aged daughter. But I can commit to honoring, carrying and enjoying it for the rest of my lifetime. And starting in a few, short weeks, every time I introduce myself or sign a form as Terry McGuire, I will think of her. And I will remember everything she’s given me over the years, including life itself. But I won’t delude myself into thinking I took her name as a gift to her, even if that’s how the idea first presented itself. It is clearly the reverse. Her name will be like a light blanket over my shoulders, comforting and occasionally-annoying me, like only a mother can.

Terry (soon-to-be McGuire) is a former reporter/anchor from WITI-TV6 in Milwaukee. She left news 25 years ago to raise her two children, who were blessed with a nice Scottish surname. She is a full-time freelance on-camera and voiceover narrator.  (Note from Pam, and here she is with her lovely mother. Thanks so much, Terry!)



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Reverse Culture Shock

Students who study abroad are often taught to expect reverse culture shock when they return. The Office of International Education at Marquette University writes:

Reverse culture shock, or re-entry, is simply a common reaction to returning home from studying abroad. It is an emotional and psychological stage of re-adjustment, similar to your initial adjustment to living abroad…. Your reactions to re-entry may vary, but common signs are:

  • Restlessness 
  • Rootlessness
  • Boredom 
  • Depression
  • Uncertainty
  • Confusion
  • Isolation
  • Wanting to be alone
  • “Reverse homesickness”

The same holds true for those of us who weren’t studying abroad, but were living abroad for a semester. My husband and I landed in Chicago on Sunday afternoon. We forgot to get American money at O’Hare before our friend picked us up. We arrived home with some leftover pounds, Euros and a few other currencies. Oh, and five large suitcases and duffels full of (mostly clean) clothes and souvenirs from six months across the pond.

We have a comfortable, but not spacious (by American standards) home in suburban Milwaukee. After six months in a one bedroom flat in Glasgow, our comfortable home feels HUGE. Our bathroom – by no means one of those over-the-top could fit a family of four inside it bathrooms – feels ENORMOUS. We have too much room and too much stuff – we managed fine in our little flat. Someday, hopefully just a few years down the road, we’d like to find a smaller place for us in a location that doesn’t require the constant use of a car to take care of our needs. In Glasgow, we were car-less. Everything we needed was either in walking distance, or bus or subway distance. Even when my knee got wonky, there was a grocery store, a cafe and a library all a short distance from our flat.

We are adjusting, re-adjusting, re-acclimating. Our wake-up time is becoming more normal. My husband fell asleep on the couch last night and when I went to wake him to come to bed, he opened his eyes and I could almost see the question marks flashing there. “Where the hell are we?” he asked. I know the feeling. I’ve looked the wrong way to cross the street. Reached for a light switch where it would have been in Glasgow. Tentatively put my hand under running water (lest it burn me because for some reason the water heaters must be set to scorch in Glasgow).

It’s cool in Milwaukee this week and we’re very grateful for that. It could have been hot and stifling and that would have been far harder to adjust to after Glasgow.

I haven’t experienced every emotion listed above as a warning to students, but I am wrestling at times with “reverse homesickness”. I miss being able to walk everywhere. I miss my Glasgow Writers Group friends. I miss one thing I hadn’t expected to — the fact that my phone almost never rang. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being able to talk to family and friends so much more easily, but the carpet cleaning company has already left a message. There were robocalls in my voice mail from some political action groups. I am not delighted to be returning to that level of accessibility. I miss Glasgow Green, milk chocolate digestives, the ever-changing action in George Square, the fish and chips place down the road from us, the fish market a few blocks away, the double-decker red bus full of tourists, the sea gulls soaring down the streets just above those tourists, the sounds of bagpipes or Alice Cooper imitators from Buchanan Street…. I miss so many things from Glasgow already.

But, aye, it’s true, there are things I am happy to leave behind, and that’s a post for another day.

I thank all of you who have so graciously welcomed me back to the U.S. and who have shared my journey here and on Facebook. I am especially grateful for the great numbers of you who have expressed your appreciation for the pictures I’ve shared on Facebook. I was quite anxious about over-doing it and thank you all again. May any re-entries you face be as smooth as possible — just don’t regret the bumps. They can be good teachers.

And, for a final image, I have to add one that takes me back to high school and watching this show with my mother in the den of our second house:


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Your Writing Tenets

*****I know bloggers are “supposed” to end posts with a call for response. I don’t do that often because it bugs me and feels so contrived. But, this post is specifically for writers (the rest of you may click out now :-) ), and does end with a call for response. I’d really love to hear your thoughts! Merci.****


L to R, Pam Parker, Christine Kathleen McMahon, Alan Heathcock, Amory Casto, Halliday Reynolds, Maggie Wheeler and Marc Allan


Our workshops at the Mont Blanc Writing Workshops often began with a discussion of a particular craft-point by Alan Heathcock. Toward the end of our first week, he talked about a letter he had written to his students after he completed writing his short story collection, VOLT. (FYI – VOLT won multiple awards — NY Times Editors’ Choice, Publishers Weekly Best Book, Whiting Award Winner and twelve more! If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for??) We discussed the tenets and you can learn more about them in two ways. There’s a pdf of the letter and 27 tenets here or, listen to a podcast of Alan discussing the tenets here.

Here are a few of my faves from Alan’s 27 personal tenets on writing:

5. FEEL your character’s struggle. Make yourself weep and angry and tired. Make yourself swoon. Find out what it means to be someone who is not you.

14. Reveal something in your endings, creating a convergence of plot and story. Write the ending in a way it doesn’t feel tidy. Be French with your endings.

24. You must give yourself up to the story. Eliminate yourself. It’s not about you.

We spent time discussing the tenets by which we each try to live and work, defining them and then, the importance of “abiding with them” (Alan’s phrase – I love it.). I think for me, I fall down most often at the “abiding with them,” idea. I am going to continue to work on that!

Alan challenged each of us to come up with one tenet of our own to keep in mind and here they are. A few folks did more than one idea/tenet:

Marc Allan – Write something you would read. If you think what you’ve written is bad or
boring, imagine how bad or boring the reader will think it is

Amory Casto – Treat everything you write like a new foreign language that only you understand.  Translate it all until the reader is fluent.

Christine Kathleen McMahon – Familiarize the unfamiliar so completely that your reader – regardless of whether they like the story or characters – cannot claim to have misunderstood what you are communicating.

Pam Parker – Seek to be the best writer you can be, not the best writer.

Halliday Reynolds – Go all the way to the end of the idea. Take everything you write and make it stranger, the language slightly unfamiliar.

Maggie Wheeler – Outlining is not the practice of the amateur; it is a creative a process.

So, writer friends, perhaps one of these tenets is what you need to post in your workspace or on your computer??

But, a far better exercise is to set a timer for five minutes (if you need the whole timer thing – some do, some don’t :-) ) and come up with a writing tenet or two that you need to abide with in your writing right now. Then, won’t you share it here in the comments?



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When the Wind is Wispy….

In the almost six years I’ve been blogging here at Pamwrites, my topics and audience have both broadened. Initially, my posts were almost all for emerging writers. In the last few years, I’ve become less anxious about writing about life in general – the people, things and places that move me and why. But there are two topics I still approach with anxiety — religion and politics.

In the U.S., religion has become a word layered with meanings that don’t always apply — things like religious people are pushy, arrogant, ignorant, self-absorbed and let’s not forget, they’re also know-it-alls who are always right. Generally, these labels are tacked onto the fundamentalist Christian right in the States, but the media condemnation of them has unfortunately lead to a broader painting of all Christians with those labels. I’m not here to try to convert any one. I’m writing now because I need to understand where I am with my faith and perhaps, in my doing that, I might help someone else in their struggle. I believe my writing is a gift that blesses me, and sometimes, blesses others.

I often think of my faith like the wind – it can be still and hard to find and follow. It can be strong and fierce and clear. Lately, it is wispy. So, for me, that means, I need to get my butt in a pew. I need to put myself in the presence of others who at that moment are likely stronger in their faith. I need to be open to whatever may be waiting that I need to receive.

But, the Queen of Excuses was voicing her opinions. Putting this butt in a pew, while I’m in the French Alps, seemed unnecessary. Mountains sing to my soul. Mountains fill me with a gratitude for this life, for these moments, for something that I can not understand that created all this beauty and allowed me to experience it.


Being in Chamonix is so close to a prayerful existence, did I really need to go to church when I wouldn’t understand two-thirds of what happened due to language? And, did the nearest service I could find have to be Catholic? This is what the lovely little Eglise Saint-Michel de Chamonix-Mont Blanc looked like this morning:

st michels


Long before I was born, my paternal grandfather treated my mother and her brothers in an evil, misguided way. Unfortunately, even though I had plenty of lovely Catholic folks in my extended family and friends, he became the embodiment of all that was wrong with Catholicism for me — he was a through and through hypocrite whose actions have echoed down through the generations. One of his sons treated his own children as badly, though he didn’t think so because at least he paid the legally-mandated child support. Because of Grandfather (who never earned Grandpa from me), I’ve had to remind myself over and over again, he alone does not represent that faith.

The odds were stacking up against going. Catholic mass? En francais? While living in the Alps? I really didn’t want to go; and that’s exactly when I knew I had to. Something much bigger than me wanted me there. Okay, fine, I’ll go.

About ten minutes before the service, I slid into a pew toward the back of Eglise Saint-Michel. I stood, baguette in hand, almost ready to sit, debating if I should move in or stay toward the outside. A thin woman in front of me turned awkwardly, her body bobbing and weaving with signs of an aggressive neurologic disorder, reminding me of a friend with MS. She reached for my arm, twice before she met her mark, and pulled me toward her. I understood her French enough to know that she was trying to save the place I had taken for someone coming late with a baby. Probably her daughter who would give her a ride home, I thought. In French, I explained that I’d be happy to move as I doubted I’d stay for the whole service since my French wasn’t so good anyway. She corrected me, saying my French was “superbe” and asked where I was from.

“Des Etats-Unis. Et vous? Vous habitez a Chamonix? (The U.S. You live in Chamonix?)

“Oui, toujours.”  (Yes, always.)

“C’est une ville très, très jolie.”  (It’s a very beautiful town.)

She wished me a good vacation and I moved back a row. When I set my baguette and purse on the seat she was trying to save, she jerked and turned, flashing me two wobbly thumbs up and a smile.

I sat for a few more minutes before the service, fighting tears.

Okay, I get it. I know. I was supposed to be here.

You see, for me, in the loud windy times or the wispy quiet times, this thing I call “God” – goodness and love – is a force that shows me, over and over again, we are here to strive — over and over again — to be goodness and love wherever and whenever we can. When a disabled woman, who can barely control her physical movements, can manage to sit and worship and say, “Rendez grace au Seigneur qui, seul, fait des merveilles,” and mean it, well, I guess I can sit and worship, waiting and watching for when I am asked to be goodness and love.

Goodness and love have been given to us and they’re gifts we need to share, over and over again. And, that’s what I have to say about my faith aujourd’hui.



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Literature as a Bridge

Reading has always touched me deeply. I can’t remember my life before reading. I can remember my life before writing, but words and reading have always been in my world. Since I’ve joined the often lonely world of writing, I’ve come to appreciate – time and again – how powerful the written word can be. I remember reading a book to my baby brother and simply loving the play of words. It was Know What? No, What? and I adored it. I’d guess I was around seven or so and that book was a blast! As I grew up, of course different styles and different authors moved me. Mark Twain blew me away with Huck Finn. Hemingway was a kick in the pants. I couldn’t understand why other kids in school hated Nathaniel Hawthorne. Over the years my reading explorations grew so that now, I would be hard put to have to choose just one favorite author, but, at the moment, I’d still have to say that person for me is Marilynne Robinson.

Naturally, as I became more serious about writing, I sought out authors. Just over four years ago, I interviewed Alan Heathcock, author of an incredible short story collection, VOLT, here on Pamwrites. We had met briefly at the Tin House Summer Writers conference in 2010 and I’d been following his work via social media. My favorite part of that interview still resonates with me and is worth repeating:

What words of wisdom, hope or encouragement can you offer to the emerging authors out there in the blogosphere?

 I am a fervent proponent of the nurture side in the nature v. nurture debate.  I take this stance because my very first stories were awful.  They were.  In every possible way they were bad.  Over time, they got better.  I made a simple deal with myself: make progress.  No matter how little progress I was making at times, I simply decided to forge on, pushing, always trying to learn, to get better.  And so I did get better.  This book took me twelve years to write.  I just kept working on it until I felt it was the book I wanted to write, that everything was in its place.  Be patient, be persistent, be humble.  This is not a race.  And be brave enough to take yourself seriously.  The moment you decide to take yourself seriously, to look inward, you will stop imitating others and will become original.

“Be patient, be persistent, be humble. This is not a race. And be brave enough to take yourself seriously.” Words to live by in all pursuits, I think. (You can read that whole interview here.)

When I saw the opportunity to study with Alan in Chamonix, France at the Mont Blanc Writing Workshops, I jumped at the chance. Some regular readers of Pamwrites know that I’ve been a serial writer’s conference attendee. I had begun the blog and begun to appreciate that my words connected and resonated with some people. I began to feel a responsibility to get braver and to try to share more. But, I knew I needed to learn more – I wanted to study with not just established authors, but with authors whose work I respected. When I made that decision, I could not justify the time or expense of an MFA program (nor did I want to teach at the college level, so why get an MFA?), I did the math and determined that with careful planning, I could attend serious (i.e. juried) writer’s conferences for a number of years (I think ten had been the tipping point) and still not spend what I would have on an MFA. I’ve studied with some incredible writers and teachers and owe much gratitude to all of them:

Iowa Writer’s FestivalAmber Dermont

Tin House Writers WorkshopRobert Boswell (group) and Antonya Nelson (one-on-one)

NY State Summer WritersMarilynne Robinson and Siri Hustvedt

Aspen Summer WordsLuis Alberto Urrea

Bread Loaf SicilyLynne Freed

I had not intended to go to another international conference, but since I was already across the pond, my travel expenses to and from Chamonix were going to be considerably less than they would have been from Milwaukee. So, I applied and thankfully, was accepted.

Yesterday was our first session – getting to know each other and discussing the craft. Again, I have words for you to ponder from Alan Heathcock:

“The great grief of the human experience is that we are all separate….. there’s no amount of hope and no amount of love that can get us past that.”

“One of the best purposes of art is to act as a bridge between all of us who are separate.”

“The most empathetic of arts is literature.”

And, for now, I will leave you with that idea of the arts as a bridge between all of us who are separate. If you’ve put work out there, maybe you too know the unexpected joy of a reader (or viewer or audience member) contacting you to let you know what your work meant to them, what it did for them. That reaction is not usually (for me anyway) why I create, but it is a gift that touches me so deeply when it happens. It becomes the reason why I continue to write, that feeling that I can somehow reach across the great divide of time and space and maybe, just maybe, touch someone else’s heart. Maybe, just maybe, my words can be a bridge.

And, lest I leave you without a visual image, here’s a view from Chamonix. Sorry, no bridge pix here yet.:



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Glads and Sads

Our time in Glasgow is slipping away and it makes me alternately sad and glad. When I was helping back at Wauwatosa  Presbyterian Church with a confirmation group (mostly eighth and ninth graders), we would often begin sharing our “glads and sads.” It was refreshing in the course of our time together to watch them grow from bragging glads – “I got a 96 on the Biology test!” to more caring, thoughtful glads – “My aunt is feeling better after her surgery.” Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s bad for any of them to have been happy about the test score. But when they could shift their glads to be about others, that’s when I really saw their growth. (NOT saying we shouldn’t rejoice about our own personal glads!)

Their sads were always more poignant – a gravely ill grandparent, a tragedy in a friend’s family, a death in our church family — I guess our hurts touch us, from a young age, in a deep, deep way. But, the results of that sharing was something that an adult leader of youth groups always hopes will happen – the creation of meaningful friendships. It made me think of this quote by Henri Nouwen:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.

I can say, truthfully and gratefully, that I’ve been blessed with close friends and family who have filled that role for me when I needed someone to share my pain and touch my wounds with a warm and tender hand. I can also say, truthfully, that I try to be that person for others when I can, and that I have to often fight the desire to give advice, solutions or cures. This seems to be especially difficult for me as a mother, but I’m working on it!
But, time to close with a few glads and sads because that’s all I have today.

clipart-smiley-face-yellow-happy-face-md        Glads

     ♦ My piece, “Purple Asteroid,” is up at Halfway Down the Stairs in the June issue. The theme is Strangers. My thanks to Alison Stedman, Senior Fiction Editor.
♦My younger son has gotten a part in a musical back in Wisconsin that I will be able to go to when I’m back!
♦My older son and his fiancé are moving along with wedding plans for next year.
♦My husband and I will be in Chamonix, France soon – he will do some climbing and I will be attending a writing conference!
♦I will be back in Wauwatosa, WI by the end of the month (a shower with good water pressure; a bed with some support; the Americans with Disabilities Act in full force so I don’t always have to climb or descend stairs to use a bathroom when I’m out) and will be happy to see my friends – and a little later in the summer, the rest of my family too.
♦Done Darkness, the anthology I’m working on with Kathy Lanzarotti, is moving forward and we hope to be able to announce a publication date in the next couple of weeks.

sad-smiley-face-clipart-rid-frown-lines-800X800       Sads

♠A friend I made in Glasgow has returned to the U.S.
♠I will attend my last Glasgow Writer’s Group this week and I’m very sad about that. I will miss the stories, the laughter and the thoughtful critiques.
♦My knees have been bothering me – a lot. Hoping I will be able to manage a little hiking at least in Chamonix….
As you can see, my glads far outweigh my sads. I hope that’s the case for you too.


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Soulful Travel (or, No Eeyores Allowed)


“Soulful travel is the art of finding beauty even in ruins, even in inclement weather, even in foul moods.”

…..Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

Last week, I was exploring the Scottish Highlands with my husband. The weather wasn’t completely kind to us, as they like to say here. We both had things in mind that we hoped for from this trip — my husband is an avid hiker and climber. He was looking forward to a good trek on the Isle of Skye and way up north in Ullapool. I was looking forward to visiting the spiritual, quiet Isle of Iona and hoping for a glimpse of the Northern Lights. We missed seeing the Aurora Borealis by one day. They saw them on Iona the night before we got there. So close, and yet… Sometimes that’s how it goes.

We had spent several hours on the bus up from Glasgow to Inverness where we changed bus. Then, we went to Eileen Donan, a beautiful castle that we happened to hit on a spring day when the sun shone and the gorse glowed and the Scottish flag flew proudly.




We ate cullen skink – a soup made with smoked haddock – in the cafe at the castle. Delicious. We marvelled at our luck, and hoped, hoped, hoped that somehow our luck would last onto Skye and intially, it did.


Portree, the Isle of Skye, May, 2015

But the weather reports continued to be poor for the following day (our only full day), so we decided to book a tour and got the last two spots on a seven hour van tour of the island. We joined three traveling students and a family of three. Countries represented in the van were Switzerland, Hong Kong, India, the United States and Scotland. Donald Nicholson, our fearless, hilarious driver/guide with Skye Scenic Tours tried SO hard to show us his beautiful island. The rain got worse and worse and showed no signs of letting up. We saw the Kilt Rock through pouring rain and blustery wind, waterfalls and Donald assured us there were lovely mountains behind the clouds. Fortunately, everyone in the van kept their senses of humor. We had no Eeyores among us and for that, I was very grateful! We agreed to go to Eileen Donan again because no one else had been yet and it seemed like a better wet day option. We enjoyed another fine bowl of cullen skink there and hoped, along with Donald, for a break in the rain, but it wasn’t meant to be. The traveling students were at a hostel far outside of Portree, so they requested a stop at a grocery store, for beer. We picked up one or two ourselves, along with some croissants for the morning. After resupplying, with still no break in the rain, we all agreed to call it quits on the tour. From the reviews I’ve read, and friends I’ve spoken to, I am sure this is a rare occurence on the tours in Skye — rain is not so rare, but steady, day-long, pounding rain accompanied by cold, cold winds is not so common. What’s more common are sporadic showers which makes outside touring much more possible — and outside is where you want to be on Skye. Try it if you can, but maybe allow a little more time there than we did to increase your chances for a good tour. And, don’t allow rain to lead to a foul mood – be open to what might come. If you’re not open, you might miss it.

That evening we had dinner at Sea Breezes, a fabulous small restaurant a friend recommended to us along the harbor in Portree. (Get a reservation.) During dinner, the rain stopped for a while, the sun came out, and yes, a rainbow graced our meal.

11233381_10202856947624663_2041414389_o (1)

So we ended our day on Skye, not tired out from hiking, but enjoying a beautiful moment in a beautiful spot together. And my friends, I think that is what Phil Cousineau would call “soulful travel.”

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