May 25, 2017

Upstate 8 Literary Festival: Keynote (Part 2)

In Part 1 of my keynote address, I related my personal history with the Upstate 8 and how my writing life began by entering my elementary school's Young Authors Contest. I learned at an early age that rejection is part of the process, but also that the more I tried, the more I improved. The key was to KEEP WRITING. Yet on that note... 

I wish I had kept writing creatively, but I’d let it lapse awhile during and after college, when I studied finance and became a consultant. In the years to follow, I wrote mainly emails and financial analysis. As all the while, my mother lamented, “Where are my writers? Where is my poet?” since all four of us kids had gone into either accounting or finance.
My brothers are still CPAs, but both my sister and I are now authors—so, Mom? You’re welcome. My sister and I both started out in finance, too, and maybe we weren’t writing fiction then, but we continued to read it as our escape from an everyday existence that paid the bills but didn’t quite make us tick. I don’t regret pursuing a business career—it’s challenging and rewarding in its own way—but during those daily commutes to downtown Chicago, when I was reading a novel when I probably should’ve been keeping up to date with the Wall Street Journal or something, I just knew. I knew I wasn’t long for the business world.
One day, I left the office to visit a bookshop. I was picking out a gift for a niece or nephew, looking through the children’s section when I came across my all-time favorite picture book as a kid: The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it’s basically about a peaceful bull who loves smelling flowers more than anything. He chooses not to romp around with the other young bulls and won’t fight inside the bullring in Madrid. He simply wants to sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers.

Believe it or not, finding this book in that bookstore on that day was an epiphany for me. Standing between the shelves, flipping through this story that I hadn’t read since childhood, I realized that I didn’t want to fight the corporate bullfight anymore either. It went against my grain, and all I wanted was to find my way of smelling the flowers, too.

Which is when I realized: books. Books are my flowers. They always have been. Reading them, teaching them, now writing and editing them. My life’s been a virtual greenhouse ever since I decided to pull a 180 and leave consulting to study English language and literature instead. I earned my masters in education and became an English teacher, first as a student teacher and long-term substitute at Geneva High School (go, Vikings!) and then as a full-time teacher here at St. Charles North (go, North Stars!). Teaching was by far the toughest job I’ve ever had, but I loved my work here. I loved my students and colleagues and the communities of the Upstate Eight. In my heart, this area will always be my home.
But life does happen. Nearly ten years ago, I got married and moved to London for my husband’s career. I won’t pretend the transition wasn’t difficult, but now I’m a dual American and British citizen, and the UK has become another home, and another inspiration for writing. 

And I’m talking crazy inspirational—I can’t walk a block without stumbling on something of historical or literary significance. I live right down the street from where Beatrix Potter wrote her Peter Rabbit tales. I often stroll through Kensington Gardens, where Peter Pan was inspired, and I’ve explored Shakespeare’s hometown. I’ve seen Charlotte Brontë’s original manuscript for Jane Eyre and stood in Jane Austen’s house (which is pictured here). I’ve hung out at Charles Dickens’ old haunts and met his great-great-great-granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley. I’ve even had one of my manuscript chapters critiqued in person by a descendant of Charles Darwin, the author Emma Darwin.
So, for close to a decade, I’ve been OMG-ing my fool head off over walking in the footsteps of my literary heroes, feeling ever humbled by their talent but ever aspiring to it.  

Yet the fact of the matter is, moving to London did take me away from family, friends, and my teaching career here. That was heartbreaking. And though I started out teaching across the pond as a substitute, until I could find satisfactory full-time work, I blogged for a London relocation agency, writing about life in the UK from my expat perspective. Professional blogging was my first foray into writing at length every day, and I found the process of sharing my written experience very therapeutic. And since I only worked part-time, I finally had the opportunity to try what I’d always wanted to do: write a novel.
Oh, yeah, suuure. Write a novel. Simple.
Right. I had no clue how to come up with an idea that I could run with for the entire length of a book! But what I always consider first as a writer is: What do I enjoy as a reader? Probably the best advice I’ve ever received and could impart to you today is this: Write what you want to read.
Write what you want to read.
For me, that’s fiction with elements of mystery, history, and a touch of the supernatural. Something modern but with a Gothic edge. Having lived in historic buildings in both Chicago and London, I can’t help but think of all the lives that occupy the same spaces over the decades if not centuries. Living and dying there. I look around and imagine what might’ve happened in the rooms where I stand, where I sleep. So, the nature of time and the soul just fascinates me and can be explored through so many dimensions; I don’t think I could ever exhaust all the ways to approach it.
But sometimes even all that possibility is overwhelming—almost scarier than having no clue what to write about. I might feel like my ambition exceeds my talent, and I psyche myself out. Which blocks me from writing.
To overcome a really bad bout of writer’s block that I had on my first book, I turned to short fiction. I cracked open a journal and did freewriting like I used to in high school. I started a personal blog and posted my responses to writing prompts. I also took some of these entries and revised them to submit to flash-fiction sites and short-story contests. And I simultaneously began editing for a small publishing company, which helped me hone my craft by helping others.  
And within a few years of trying, really trying to make space for writing in my life, I got two short stories and two novels published, mostly under the pen name Rumer Haven. 
Both novels are ghost stories of sorts that switch between past and present, and I’m currently wrapping up a 1920s murder mystery. After that, I’m tackling a paranormal book series, if all goes to plan, along with an anthology of supernatural stories. So, for as much as I’ve done, I’ve still got my work cut out for me. 
Because let’s not kid ourselves: Writing is a joy, but writing is also a lot of work.
To be continued in Part 3 of this keynote series...

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