Honouring Our Creative Selves

I found myself at a dinner party last night talking to two very creative men. One who has followed his artistic passion and developed an outstanding career in exterior car design. The other is a physician, whose personal passion lies in music and has submitted several of his songs to Melodifestivalen over the years. The conversation drew me back to my earliest passion and made me question, Where did that little girl go?

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From as early as I can remember, I was drawing floor plans. Not just a handful of floor plans, but reams and reams of floor plans. They were stuffed in draws and under the bed. I sat in front of the television drawing floor plans. I drew floor plans on rainy days at the cottage. Floor plans were part of my every day life at a ripe old age of eight or younger. I simply cannot remember. Paper was always needed and well used. I was building floor plans with books for my Barbies to live in, filling the basement floor, always changing the design. At eleven years old, I submitted my first project at school on architecture and started designing corporate building floor plans. In high school, I took drafting, a year-long project that culminated in my first completed house design, model and all and ready for building.

So what happened? I know that rowing dominated my time through my teens and early twenties and satisfied all of those worldly dreams that crept into my life the more I competed. I was hooked. I loved crossing the finish line first. Rowing was an addiction and I couldn’t get enough of it. Yet a little further past the finish line, beyond the stands and well into the forgotten banks down river, if I squinted just so, I could still see my little creative self cheering me on.

She’s still there, a little weathered perhaps from popping out of the reeds for visits over the years, but she’s there.

Through my career in teaching, I’ve always done my best to tap into my creative side in the hope of bringing out those unique nuances that make each student special. Despite the intrinsic rewards of helping to develop others’ creativity, a part of me yearned for more, to be true to that side of me that was born creative. I wanted no boundaries, or at least as few as possible. I wanted the vision that I’d dreamed of as a little architect in the making. I was a designer then. Looking back over the years, I realize I’ve always been one. I just wanted to be fully creative again. But did it have to be in designing buildings?

Our creative selves might manifest in unexpected ways throughout our careers and personal lives, but they need to be honoured and given a chance. It is creating something from nothing that can give us some of the greatest joy in life. Where would this world be without music and art after all? Whatever steers us in another direction, I believe a part of us will always want to find that forgotten or neglected path again. It will nag us until we do something about it. For those who wait until it is too late, I am certain regret is painful. I believe we need to listen to that little person we were once, tugging at our sleeve.

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At university, I wrote a children’s book on the side and showed one of my professors. Her words have never escaped me. “You should do something with this one day,” she said. It was her earnest expression that triggered something inside me. She was the first person to validate my writing apart from my high school German teacher who was apparently taken aback when I translated and illustrated The Night Before Christmas for fun. But alas, this story was my design, my creation and there was something remarkable in that realization—that I could write.

I had always enjoyed talking. Anyone who knows me knows this well. Then something grew in the sweet storytelling after I tucked my children in bed at night. I reveled in the stories. They would choose the characters and setting and I would create a story, every night for years, a different story for each of our two children. Soon that rolled into writing down stories on my own then reading those stories to them. Stories were coming out of the woodwork and the kids couldn’t get enough of them. I adore those memories. Now they’ve grown up, young adults in the making.

The designer in me is adjusting to those life changes as I write novels now, creating something again from nothing. Only that nothing is far from empty. I am one of the lucky ones to have grown creatively, even though I couldn’t see it fully at the time. It is through all of these life experiences that I have built a foundation on which to generate new stories. A close-knit family, friends, travel and education have all played a role in keeping that little creative me cheering from the riverbank.

I may not design houses for a living, but I’m finally giving my creative me a voice. I am a writer. I am a storyteller. It took me many years to believe that was true, many, many stories to believe in myself as a writer. I’m thrilled to be nearing the final leg of a new novel, at least the first draft. Honouring the commitment I made to writing this novel is precisely the reason I haven’t posted recently on my blog.  At first I felt guilty about that, until I not only saw how much more productive I had become, I felt better about myself and my work.

It’s not the end of the world if we acknowledge our creative selves later in life, having built a career in another field altogether. Once we do, though, once we let it out the gates, free to run as it will, be prepared for a never-ending journey, but one that feels right. If we don’t honour our creative selves, our lives become a series of short breaths. And don’t most of us really want to breathe deeply, and take in life to its fullest?

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Embracing a New Year as a Writer & On Again-off Again Expat

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Typically, a new year brings new resolutions to mind, good intentions but often with little follow-through. The way I approached the New Year, was to reflect on how 2015 unfolded. It was an exciting year of change with a recent move back to Sweden and my debut novel being released in the spring. There is always a honeymoon stage with any change I suspect, and certainly in my case this has proven true. No matter how many moves I make over the years, and there have been a few having lived in six countries, one might think I’d be used to it—the curiosity, the thrill of meeting new people, seeing places you never knew existed or maybe reacquainting yourself with old ties, friends, family. Perhaps the ironic joy in any change is not being used to it whatsoever and maybe that’s why we crave it. Why ironic? Because of the uphill battle to get there.

For the first time, I discovered how moving back to Sweden was very much like the process of releasing my first novel. All the legwork had to be done; applying to schools for my children, selling the house in the U.S., returning to our house in Sweden and finalizing everything with our tenants, banks, taxes, moving company, purchasing new cars, selling the old ones, reconnecting with my school, colleagues, friends and family. All of this while I was in the middle of the publication process with my publisher in the U.S.

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It wasn’t chaotic in any way, mind you, busy, but not chaotic. Each task was handled with care. In the case of my book, several months of editing back and forth with my editor then the production of the book and releasing the ARC (advanced reading/review copy) was thrilling, a tremendous amount of work, but thrilling.

So 2016 arrived. My book was released and we have settled into Swedish life once again. But have we? Or rather have I? Asking myself what worked and what did not, what has been challenging and rewarding and what has not, is important if I am to make 2016 a success, both personally and professionally.

It reminds me of the film, Finding Nemo, when the fish finally escape the dental office in a plastic bag filled with water. After the bag plunges into the sea then bobs on its surface, one fish says, “Now what?”

That’s me in a nutshell. The kids are settled into their schools, the house has been arranged, my husband is busy with work life and back in his familiar, the familiar ring of his own culture and language. Despite the familiarity I have with Sweden, having lived here for many years before our three-year stay in the U.S., it is not really my culture or my language. There is an empty crevice somewhere in all the pandemonium that I sometimes think only people who have lived abroad can understand. No matter how full your life is, it is always there.

My book having been released into the world garners a similar feeling. The hard work, the excitement, the recognition, but now I’m Finding Nemo, “Now what?” It’s been a fantastic learning experience without any doubt, but what worked and what didn’t? That is what I’ve needed to address.

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First and foremost, living in a foreign country that is not English has proven to be tremendously challenging as a debut author. Unless you are well known in the English market, it is very difficult to get exposure in Scandinavia. I had to learn this the hard way by spending countless hours writing emails, making phone calls, meeting bookshop owners and distributors, all in the hope of introducing my English book to a Scandinavian audience. In the process, my writing suffered because I dedicated too much energy and too much time to running up a very slippery slope, one with no end in sight. When I could have spent precious time writing, I spent it marketing. Of course, the latter is important but a book on the horizon is essential. Had I been in an English speaking country, I am as certain as I can be, that I would have garnered different results.

In any case, it was an important lesson learned. I had to ask myself what I wanted most. It was an easy answer. I wanted to write. As a result, I have chosen to arrange my day differently this year. Writing must be my top priority. Emails and social media come only after I’ve written my word quota for the day. As a writer, I need to wake up with my story filling all those wonderful crevices of my imagination. The moment I open an email or check to see how my book might be fairing on Amazon or Goodreads, my story loses a part of me. That’s something I am no longer willing to jeopardize. My story deserves my full attention. So if I have posted fewer blog posts lately, that is precisely the reason.

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Instead, I am spending time wisely, getting to know my new characters and developing a plot that keeps surprising me. I am new to social media and I am still learning how to write—how to write well, how to write creatively, how to write intelligently and with heart. I hope I never stop learning. I am reading more. I’m reading novels by authors who inspire me, like Kate Morton and Susan Meissner. I want to sink into a story and fall in love with the writing, and one day, I hope someone will feel that same way about something I’ve written.

If my reviews are any indication, I know my novel The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley has touched some readers in a way that I will always treasure. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for these changes in my life. Travel with my family remains a priority to me and I will likely jump at the opportunity to move house and home once again, somewhere sunny where my writing can flourish. 2016 is about setting goals, one of which is to complete my current writing project. Having made a plan for that to happen is key. It’s well under way and it feels great.

A new year brings new challenges to everyone. Embrace change in your life, make a plan and follow it through—writers are no exception, expats are no exception. As tough as it might be, it’s all a grand adventure. Is it not?

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A Writer’s Fleeting Moment? Maybe or Maybe Not. – believe in yourself and be happy for others

As I watch the writing career of a childhood/high school friend fall beautifully into place – her books gracing shelves in bookshops around the world and translated into multiple languages – I thought I might feel envious. Strangely, I don’t. I think as writers, we know and understand the grueling, painstaking work behind what we do. Yes, there are those perhaps who are in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, I believe we make our own luck by being prepared, hence “when preparation meets opportunity.” What we see (the readers looking in) is that silver lining, the joy of those authors in the public eye, representing their work and their publishers. My friend, Susin Nielsen (author of We Are All Made of Molecules), who is currently at Festivaletteratura in Mantua, Italy, is living that life. She was invited there and even had two representatives meet her at the airport. What writer wouldn’t enjoy that? But she has worked hard to get where she is. For most of us in this business, nothing is given on a silver platter.

It’s true, good fortune can come more readily to some people but persistence is something in which I strongly believe. I have only recently stepped into the publishing industry officially, but unofficially, I’ve been at it for years. Rarely does it happen overnight. I know what it’s like to watch that mountain of rejection letters grow into something that looks an awful lot like humble pie. You go in feeling high, and so you should. You’ve finished writing a book! How many people can say that? Slowly reality surfaces when you realize what you’re up against – the ever-growing number of daily submissions. There’s a staggering amount of competition out there. So we, as writers, need to revel in our moments of success.

I am thrilled for Susin Nielsen. She deserves this success. I am equally as thrilled that I’ve managed to climb to the top of my rejection pile and see a glimpse of what’s out there for me. Writing is the most creatively challenging pursuit I have ever taken on, but it remains a very natural part of me. I like telling stories. I always have. I like making up names and places and characters and describing them so all my reader or listener has to do is close her eyes and see for herself.

I wanted someone to believe in my writing as much as I believed in it. When the time was right, when my right place and my right moment came, as prepared as any top-selling author, that’s when I was offered a contract. Ever since, I have reveled in those lovely moments of success.  Success perhaps on a different scale.  But isn’t it simply a question of how we measure success?  On the other hand, our goals are ever-changing! I first wanted to complete a book – I did. Then I wanted it to be published – it was. Then I wanted someone whom I didn’t know to buy the book and genuinely enjoy it – they did. And now, yes it’s true, I hope to sell it many times over.

I was invited to speak at a book club in New Delhi, India two nights ago via Skype. One member even joined us online from home since she was ill. What a joy it was to see women in another part of the world reading my book and sharing their thoughts and feelings about it! They were expats from various parts of the world, all of whom could relate easily to the characters and places in The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley.  All of them have experienced the feelings of adventure, isolation, thrill,   India Book Clubcamaraderie and a sense of homelessness about living abroad – a rather sacred and oddly lovely confusion that rests with expats. These feelings are no stranger to my main character, which resulted in this book club bonding with Gilly on an intimate level. How marvelous was that? Yes, it was one of those moments in which to revel.

I have been invited to speak at The American Women’s Club in Gothenburg, Sweden next week. I am honoured and very excited about it. I am a local author yet will likely understand these women before I even meet them. They, too, are experiencing living abroad, just as I have done for many years.

IMG_0412 KoboWhen we work hard at our craft, we feel validated when someone sits up and notices. Recently, I was bowled over to learn that my book was in the top ten bestsellers in historical fiction on Kobo Books and was running alongside Kate Morton’s, The Distant Hours. I couldn’t believe my eyes, KATE MORTON! Okay, so my ranking wasn’t quite as sustainable as hers but I’ll take what I can get.

These may all be fleeting moments in any writer’s life. Do we shout from the rooftops or quietly soak in these moments? I rather like the idea of a bit of both. After all, we writers have to claw our way through the slush pile and make ourselves noticed. Trumpet to the world if that’s what it takes. We need to believe in ourselves and stand by our writing, even when the odds are against us.

I am over the moon for my friend and her success. It’s inspirational at the very least. Yet, I am grateful beyond words to have even a taste of it myself. All the fluff is wonderful—cotton candy at its best. But what matters in the end is that we write. And if someone reads our books and is touched by them, I don’t know a purer form of success. I may not have representatives greeting me at airports to take me to this event and that, but a writer can dream. After all, that’s where it all started—this thing we call writing—it started with a dream.

18 Reasons to Follow Your Dreams

  1. Your day job is seriously getting in the way.

When your dream becomes so important to you and you are frustrated that you cannot devote more time to it, you need to ask yourself what place that dream has in your life. If your day job drains you of all energy that you have nothing left to give at the end of the day, then there is something wrong. If what you love to do most is suffering at the hands of that job and you feel forced to make a choice, doesn’t your dream have an equal right on the scales?

  1. You begin to realize, why not me?

It’s easy to believe we are not worthy of the kind of success that others may have. It seems surreal. Yet when you put it all into perspective and view your dream as a series of steps and challenges, then formulate a plan, you realize that it is attainable. At least the possibility is there. The key is to change the word from “dream” to “goal”. It’s hard work. You just have to decide if you are willing to do what it takes. In my case, that has meant years of writing, many rejections, but picking myself up and doing it again and again. What’s the expression? “Success is when preparation meets opportunity”.

  1. You realize that making the decision is the hardest part.

Oh, the joy in finally making a decision! Once you’ve made it, you will see that the hurdles lined up in front of you are simply challenges that need to be addressed one at a time. This was exactly the case before my family left for a three-year expat experience in the United States. The “what if’s” were strangling. Once we made the decision, we took each task as it came and got through it. In the end, it was an amazing family adventure that we will never regret.

  1. You’ll find courage inside that you didn’t know existed.

Fear can be a powerful emotion, but ask yourself if you want to get to the end of your life not knowing if you could have done it. Failure after trying your best is never failure to me. It is gratefully a learning experience, a stumbling block at most. If you want something badly enough, you will make it happen.

  1. You will finally be doing what makes you happy, not what others expect of you.

It’s your life. You have one opportunity to live on this Earth. Why shouldn’t you make it the best experience possible? Why shouldn’t you do what makes you happy?

  1. You’ll prove to yourself that it’s okay for dreams to change.

Who said that we are programmed to have only one career our entire adult life? We are constantly evolving as individuals. Think of that first boyfriend/girlfriend you had all those years ago. You are a different person today. You probably wouldn’t even glance their way now. Why should we not change professionally? Being a writer is one of my three professional dreams that I have had in my life. Would anyone out there know for a second that I desperately wanted to become an architect at one time? I spent half my childhood drawing floor plans for houses and office buildings. I had a need to use my creativity then and channeled that energy into story writing in my twenties. A stable career in teaching won over, but the drive to write has never been stronger than it is now. It’s more than okay for dreams to change – it makes us richer as individuals.

  1. You will find that you are capable of things you never thought possible.

When you follow your dream and hone your skills, you will surprise yourself time and time again. The more I read and write, the stronger I become as a writer. After I had written a number of children’s books, my dream was to write a novel. Did I think it was possible? Not when I was younger. When I realized that I could not only complete a novel, it meant that it was possible to write a second and a third. Was it then possible to get published? With each dream, you can build on it a little bit more making it grow into something truly beautiful.

  1. You will wake up eager to work.

Need I say more?

  1. A smile will creep into your face, surprising you every time.

I’ve had many moments since the offer of publication of my book where I am driving my car and that one song comes through the speakers that makes me gush with tears of joy. I left a meeting recently for my book launch securing a venue that I didn’t think was possible. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face as I walked down the street. You will also feel that joy because you won’t believe you are really doing it. You are not only following your dream but you have made someone sit up and notice your passion.

  1. Even if your decision disappoints someone, there will be many more who will be inspired by your choice.

Sometimes the easy route to take is the one expected of us. It is hard knowing that you may disappoint someone close to you, but it is far worse not honouring your dreams and what you love to do most. You will be surprised how time will allow those whom you have disappointed or perhaps stunned, adjust to this new you. They will grow to appreciate and admire your strength. Meanwhile, you have a following of others who have been inspired by your decision, some of whom will take action and follow their dreams.

  1. Not a businesswoman-bone in your body? Think again. You will be surprised at what you will learn in supporting and promoting your dream.

When you are passionate about your dream, lack of knowledge about the industry will not stand in your way. You do what is necessary to make it happen. You research. You meet people who do know about the industry. You learn whatever you can from them. You research more. You attend conferences. You put your shy or uncomfortable side away for the time being and take the bull by the horns. Some idioms are a pleasure to use! You walk straight up to that famous author or that well-known agent and ask what they can do for you. You’ll be surprised what fabulous advice you can get. I’ve done it and I take every single word and learn from it.

  1. Everything you do will feel better.

The food you eat will taste better, the sun will shine brighter, colours will take on a whole new meaning – even your stride will feel lighter.

  1. You will feel greater joy in the little things.

When you are comforted in knowing that your dream is not just alive, but is working hard for you as much as you are working hard for it, you feel a sense of relief and freedom to appreciate things you may have overlooked in the past. When I used to go for walks, my mind would be churning with the stress of all my responsibilities, but now I’m much more able to let it all go and find the small moments during my walks that bring big inspiration. I’ll never forget watching a single droplet of water on a twig that hung for dear life, and conjuring up one of the most beautiful sentences I had ever written.

  1. You will begin to look at things with a different perspective.

People will begin to look different, more interesting. You will likely judge less and accept more at face value. Yet on the same token, there will be a curiosity, perhaps even more so for writers, to look deeper, wonder what’s behind that face. You will realize that everyone has a story to tell.

  1. People will enjoy your company more.

Who doesn’t like to be around a positive, relaxed person? I’ve been known to get myself all wired up – no denial there – but there’s a colossal difference between being with someone who is negatively wired than being with someone who is excited and exuberant about his or her work. It just feels good.

  1. It will feel great to be with yourself.

Most of us know the weight of unhappiness and stress, but when you make your dreams attainable goals and follow through consistently, you begin to look at yourself differently. You feel positive and accomplished in reaching even the tiniest goal. For me, that might be conquering the toughest sentence to construct in my writing or finding that perfect word to describe a feeling. That can be enough to make me walk away on a high for the rest of the day, while patting myself on the back.

  1. Your happiness will be contagious.

Just like the feeling of walking past someone on the street – those who smile at you make you feel good, those who ignore your existence make you grumble inside. Your attitude and fulfillment will show in your expression. It will lessen the aging lines on your face and make your eyes brighter. Don’t you love that feeling when you cannot stop laughing, so much so that others begin to laugh and they don’t even know why?

  1. Despite the million reasons you may have not to follow your dream, there is always one monumental reason to do it – it’s what you love.

What is stopping you from following your dream?