Creating a Bucket List Despite Lockdown

A couple of times a week, my husband and I go for hikes – it’s a time to clear our heads and re-connect. Most of the time, our conversations focus on parenting, managing our lives, and what to eat for dinner. To change things up, he bought a deck of question cards designed to foster a more intimate conversation and break up the monotony. I love it! So, now we hike up the hill to clear our heads, and on the way home, we have substantive conversations.

Recently, one of the questions left me stumped. It was simple: What do you want to accomplish over the next 20 years? I lamely answered, “Get our kiddo to college and maybe become conversational in another language.” Half of my answer wasn’t even about me.

I’m the person who thinks the game Never Have I Ever is best when lost. At 18 years old, I drove across the country alone with my dog because I could. I see something hard or scary, and I run at it at full speed like a cartoon character at a wall.

But just like that, I didn’t have any more big dreams.

Okay, that is a bit of hyperbole. Quarantine has chipped away at my hopes. I went from making plans to travel to Japan to creating an edible plant garden. I published a novel, so that is something. But somehow, I blinked after last summer and my future aspirations had withered on the vine.

We are in a pandemic, and we need to do what’s right for all of us. However, no one said we had to surrender our dreams. Hope is required to survive the soul-wrenching sadness while we shelter in place.

Make a new dream; pick a new guiding star. It’s that easy. But nothing came to me when I was asked what I’d like to accomplish. Maybe become conversational in two languages?

No. I will not have it. Coming up with one half-assed goal and multiplying it by two doesn’t serve, so I added “travel” or “maybe go on a retreat.” Who doesn’t dream of one day being able to “travel”?

At that point, I was ready to unfriend myself. My inability to find something joyful to fantasize about felt like it was draining my life force.

There had to be a person inside me somewhere who still had something she wanted to do more than just watching the rest of her subscription movie service. I started searching the Internet, interviewing loved ones, and scanning social media for anything that might get me to think bigger for myself than making sure my kiddo graduates.

I tried on other people’s dreams. At first, it was lovely. The ideas were varied, and it felt like walking through a giant box store of ideas. Make a snowman, ride airboats in waters that are home to alligators, talk with a stranger…I’ve managed to do all three. Framing it in that context, I remembered how lucky I am and was able to experience the joys of reliving those experiences as I considered what were just the dreams of others. At least my research made me feel better about my life choices (most of them).

There were other experiences that I wasn’t interested in at all. I have never stayed in an ice hotel, and I love the pictures, but I don’t fancy going out of my way to be cold. Animal experiences can be cruel to animals, so I’m going to skip those in the future. It was nice to have something to scratch off the list definitively.

So I was crossing things off that I had done before and things I don’t want to do. There were still loads of possibilities. But I got stuck. What made an excellent bucket list item to inspire me through the rest of quarantine? I started to flip through the lists and sorted out ideas based on five guidelines I developed to push the envelope for quarantine dreaming.

One: No Repeats On the List

When making my rough draft list, I put “travel.” Nope, not going to do it! It’s vague. I’ve done it before, and I know I will do it again. Stating something vague and obvious doesn’t inspire deeper dreaming. First-time activities only; others need not apply.

Additionally, if it is an extension of something I’ve already done, I wouldn’t include that either. I have gone indoor skydiving and tandem skydiving. At some point, I will likely put in the effort to solo skydive because I enjoyed both activities. That is a challenge, but it isn’t a dream anymore.

Two: No FOMO Activities

There are so many memorable experiences to try in life, but I’m only going to get to do a relative handful. I must pick only activities that spark a feeling inside me. I have friends who go to fantastic music festivals and concerts. The photos look unbelievable! But that is my literal definition of hell. I enjoy experiences where I get to talk to a few people deeply, and I get my bubble of space. Add only activities that spark emotions I want to experience.

Three: Each Item Has to be Right-Sized and Attainable

I think bucket list items should allow list-makers to expand their view of their lives, but it might be hard to approach if an item is too big. Of course, each person has different definitions of right-sized and attainable. Elon Musk’s goal to send rockets to Mars seems right-sized for him, but for me, it might be quite a stretch right now. What I like about this rule is it forces me to get specific and measurable. Project managers everywhere rejoice at this type of goal-oriented bucket list planning (seriously, you can hear their silent cheer if you listen hard enough).

Four: Effort and Planning Are Involved

I’m going to hike seven to eight miles this weekend, so I think it would be odd to give myself a bucket list item to walk 13 miles – that’s just a stretch goal of my current reality. I decided things on my list must require that I push myself. Use the dream as a driver for self-growth and imagine a little bigger, brighter, and more challenging world than today. For me, I think a hiking goal with effort and planning would be to hike a section of the Great Wall, or Hadrian’s Wall, or Wall of Ston (there is more to hike than walls, but this is all that is coming to mind at the second).

Five: Bucket Lists Must Be Editable

As I grow and strive, I am going to change, as are my dreams. People have to be able to change and alter their goals. When I was a teenager, I wanted to visit all 50 states. At this point, I think I have seen 33, but there are entire continents I’ve never set foot upon. If I see all 50 states someday, great, but I have circumstances now that allow me to travel more widely, and I want to. It’s okay to change. I might not keep or attain every goal I make for this list, which will be okay.

I used these guidelines to revise and clarify my bucket list items, and now I have 10 reasonably clear ideas about how I want to challenge myself and engage with the world around me over the next decade or two:

  1. Be a guest on a podcast for a topic I have specific knowledge in.
  2. Become conversational in Spanish.
  3. Learn to do a J-turn at a MINI driving school.
  4. Get an open water SCUBA certification.
  5. Do a three-day intermediate hike of southwest England near Penzance.
  6. Work as a bartender.
  7. Learn to play at least three songs on a piano from memory in the genres of classical, jazz, and sing-along.
  8. Drive a Porsche or McLaren.
  9. Spend two to six months on an extended vacation in another country.
  10. Volunteer at a paleontological dig.

I’m excited to start breaking down each of my bucket list items into smaller, more manageable goals to give me direction and focus. I know I won’t book flights this week. But I can continue picking up my hiking speed. I can also begin to pick songs to learn on the piano, and practice Spanish using apps until I can take in-person classes. Now I get to do the work that will prepare me for taking these ten opportunities as they come up.

I hope this exercise gives you something to dream about, or at least a momentary diversion. Even better if you feel inspired to create your list. Feel free to share all or some of it – I think it is entertaining to dream and to celebrate other people’s dreams.

20 Pandemic Boredom Busters

Baby pomegranate

I am so over quarantine and social distancing. Everything in me wants to go out to my car and drive until the sun goes down. I want to see something new, feel the air somewhere else. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one having fantasies of ignoring the quarantine and going back to a version of life as if it were 1999, I mean 2019. The news certainly shows the nation as a whole trying to impose the reality of 2019 life in August, as the national debate focuses on returning “safely” to school while our nation’s infection numbers are higher than they were in April when schools were physically closed. The frustrating truth is that due to how our government has faced this pandemic as a political issue, instead of a health risk, we don’t have control of the problem. 

We are all done with the pandemic, but the pandemic isn’t done with us.

So what are we supposed to do? Ultimately the choice is up to each of us individually based on our level of risk-aversion and our economic realities. Because of my economic situation and health issues I spend most of my time at home. I focus on waiting for a combination of solutions that give me confidence in returning to public life. This means I might be living in quarantine for many more months or years.

Accepting that reality has really brought me down these last few weeks. I see other countries largely back to normal as they use contact tracing, testing, and quarantine strategies effectively. But here we are nowhere near that and it leaves me feeling hopeless. I know if I feel hopeless for too long I will likely take much larger risks because death or chronic additional health issues seem better than putting off the inevitable. That possible logic jump is very concerning given that staying home really is the best for me, my family, and community. 

I’ve decided to fortify myself to keep doing what I think is the right thing and that means I need connection and focus. I have seen the power of people and community in bolstering each other through these last five months in ways that deeply inspire me. I want to be a part of this in every way that I can. In that spirit, I thought I would share twenty things I’m doing at home to fill myself up, create purpose, and keep the tedium at bay. These things reflect the privileges, challenges, and opportunities I have. I hope you will comment and share what you are doing. Sharing solutions can give us more to work with and it’s one way we can lift each other up.

  1. Hosting friends and family game nights over video conferencing
    My experience is that this is technically difficult but better than nothing. I wish there was a way to have side conversations as if we were all in the same room. This is my new sci-fi fantasy, video conferencing that allows for easy side talk and mingling.
  2. Read
    I have been online shopping from local and Black-owned bookstores. I am nowhere near done reading what is already on my shelves. I lie to myself and say I will finish all of these books by the end of quarantine.
  3. Games
    We’ve resumed playing board games and puzzles in our house. We did just sign up for Hunt a Killer because one of my quaran-teammates really likes detective things. That has been a huge hit for a couple of hours here and there of escapism and mental focus.
  4. Gardening
    I have the privilege of a house with some space and I am currently growing plants with a focus on edible and medicinal. However, one of my quaran-teammates lovingly calls it “the bartender’s garden.” He’s not wrong.
  5. Drive or walk to the local county parks
    The drive breaks up seeing the same things. The hiking is a bit of a risk, but so far we have been able to find places without much crowding allowing us to meander with plenty of social distancing and we have our cloth masks.
  6. Movies & Binge watching
    I think most of us have been there and done that. I’m trying to make it more special lately by making a special snack or treating it like a slumber party with blankets and pajamas.
  7. Spa Day
    It’s amazing the household things you can use to make a rather luxurious spa day. Pinterest for homemade masks, foot baths, skincare, and then make it. Bonus, pair treatments with a movie to make both feel a little more special.
  8. Podcasts & Audio books
    While gardening and cleaning, if I’m not in the mood for music, I try one of these to feel like my house is full of new and fascinating people. I really loved the New York Times podcast Rabbit Hole and my go-to is NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.
  9. Make a game out of the mundane
    Pick or have a roommate pick one food item in the kitchen. Then try and make a meal with it. My kid created a family game where you get points if you are the first person to recognize a Michael Jackson or Panic at the Disco song. It makes driving and hanging out listening to music much more exciting especially when you are the first one to shout out “MJ point” or “Panic point”.
  10. Perfect a drink recipe or invent your own
    This summer I am working on developing my favorite sangria recipe. So far I have found multiple ways that I enjoy this drink, which makes settling on my signature recipe very difficult!
  11. Gratitude and appreciation
    I try to find things I am grateful for every day. I’m also working on telling people what they do that I appreciate. There is a lot I am frustrated with right now, and it seems to make the lovely things people do shine even brighter.
  12. Exercise creatively
    I like to walk and I used to go to the gym. Now I am working on re-imagining workouts around my house. This is an adventure.
  13. Clean and organize that thing
    Clean behind the fridge or go through the junk drawer. It’s better than staring out the window for another hour while contemplating how to tactfully respond to that email.
  14. Go through my camera roll or old photo albums
    I do this often. I like to see my kiddo growing over the years and to imagine revisiting the places I have gone to. It’s bittersweet, but overall I like the mental vacation.
  15. Slow down and find pleasure in the small things
    I feel like each day is impossibly long and short at the same time. Leaning into a task with intention and detail can be a balm. My husband pours a cup of coffee and then sits outside to see if any birds or squirrels wander by. I try to single-task. Normally, I would watch a television show and fold laundry, while trying to figure out what to make for dinner. Now I force myself to do one task at a time, like making each drink with intention and the occasional garnish. 
  16. Study something new…give up, and try again
    I keep starting, quitting, and restarting the study of Spanish and Japanese languages. Not having anyone to talk to in my emerging practice seems to slow me down, but I’ll get back to it again soon.
  17. Reach out
    Call, text, and write to everyone. We all feel some amount of loneliness and loss. Imagine what hearing from someone would do for you. Maybe if you take the first step your actions will ripple out. My experience with this so far is a mixed bag, sometimes it feels great and other times it feels overwhelming. But I think it is worth it to keep trying.
  18. Small exchanges
    Do you have food to share or a stash of toys that could brighten somebody’s day? A few months ago in our neighborhood kids were writing encouraging messages in sidewalk chalk. People put teddy bears in their windows to give toddlers something to count on walks with their family. One person provided painted rocks with encouraging statements around #BLM and left them in the park. Neighbors offer help on the Next Door application. A few people have Little Libraries or boxes with books marked free. A friend organized a puzzle exchange. All of these actions make me smile and remind me we aren’t so alone. 
  19. Give back and lift up
    So many people are hurting and need support right now. There are endless opportunities to lift others up through donating money, making and donating masks, signing petitions, attending local virtual or in person city and county meetings, making signs for protests (display in a window or attend), learning about issues including those in the upcoming elections, etc. I do at least one thing everyday to move toward the society I want and to become the person I need to be in that society.
  20. Build yourself up
    I write myself affirmations and put them places where only I will see them. I also talk myself up in the mirror a couple times everyday. I also try to do one thing just for myself everyday, sometimes it is making a special snack or sitting out in the sun for a few minutes to clear my head. I’ve also changed the way I organize my planner. Instead of making weekly and monthly to-do lists, now I write down what I accomplished and spent time on each day. That way I get a visual reminder of what I do contribute instead of what I still have left to do.  

What are you doing to lift yourself up and feel connected while social distancing? Please comment and share what is working, or not, for you.

Do you love to read?

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Last week I wrote about my experience trying to get editorial reviews. This week I am going to tell you about a different type of review because it might benefit you personally as a reader, or as a writer. I’m going to refer to these as consumer reviews, the ones left everywhere nowadays from Amazon to Yelp to Uber. We have come to depend on the community at large to tell us what is worth our time and money. And if you like to read books and are willing to share your opinion, then this article is for you!

Think about when you go to buy anything on Amazon, I imagine one of the first things you do is to check how many stars and reviews an item has received. I do, time and money are precious resources that I am not willing to squander either. Now as an author, I am acutely aware of how I need to get those independent consumer reviews for two reasons. The first being to get the stars and reviews that shoppers depend on to determine if my book is right for them. The second is so I can learn what resonated or didn’t with a larger audience. That feedback is invaluable to developing my skills as a writer and I am so thankful for every review!

Amazon has created a process so as not to betray the customer. Authors cannot have friends, family, or social media contacts write reviews. It makes sense. When looking for a new book you want to know what other readers thought without the bias of a friend. This is another hurdle for the author though. How does one find complete strangers to read their book and give feedback? I start imagining myself leaving copies of my book on people’s doorsteps, under car windshield wipers, and at the dentist’s office. All equally bad ideas. So here is where it gets awesome if you love to read books. There are so many amazing websites and organizations that want you to read new books for indie, published, and famous authors in exchange for your honest opinion. I wish I had known about this in my twenties when I was broke and read all the time!

I’m not one to keep the good news to myself, so I’d like to share with you three services where you, as a reader, can get free or very discounted novels with the hope that you will write a fair and honest account of your opinion. How amazing is that! You as a reader can help novelists get unbiased reviews they need to improve and promote their work. And if you are an author needing help promoting your work, here are three places to consider.


I joined Goodreads in 2009 to keep track of all of the books I was reading. I rarely forget a plot, but I am awful with names: people, books, pets, etc. I digress. The relevant bit is this site has so much more to offer than helping people like me remember what they read and when. It is a great place to find books to read for free and often before the book has even been released. 

Since 2013 Goodreads has been owned by Amazon. I don’t know if that is relevant, but I thought it was interesting. Two things I would recommend looking at for free reading material would be in giveaways and ARCs (advanced reading copies).


On the top navigation bar, there is a tab called “Browse”. Under this heading is the Giveaways section. This is where authors give away a certain number of copies of their book to promote it and hopefully get reviews before the book launches. You aren’t guaranteed a book since it is a giveaway used to generate reviews and buzz. But it is a low-risk way to get a new book, maybe one from your favorite author. Oh, and there are children’s books! I wish I knew about this when I was a mom of a young child. What a gift that would have been!

Book Groups

From the navigation bar go to Community to Groups. In the search bar, you can type just about anything to find the right book group(s) for you. If you are interested in getting free copies of books to help out an author I recommend typing “ARC” into the search bar. It stands for Advanced Reader Copies and it will show you all sorts of groups that help match authors to readers. With a little skimming, it is easy to see if the group caters to the types of books you want to read. Most of the groups I looked at had places for authors to post about their books and a place for readers to post about their interests. So if you prefer to pick books you can message authors, or you can post your interests and let the authors message you. 


This site lets you identify the types of books you want to read and it provides quite a selection. Its search filters for books aren’t finetuned, but it appears that the algorithm is responsive to what you choose to read and review. There are sorting features that include: newly added or recommended for you; review destination, book-length, publication date, publisher, part of a series, and available format. So there are ways to filter, but they seem more author-oriented than reader-focused to me. I haven’t read books through this group yet, so I can’t speak to their recommendations, but I have high hopes that the algorithm is useful. I’m trying to settle on one book to start with and there are so many promising options. If you love to read I think this is a great option for supporting new authors and helping to lift up the next voices in literature.


Bookbub offers highly discounted and free books for readers. It is a great place to discover new books without paying a high price. Let me be clear, there is a price associated with a number of books on this website, but most of the promoted books appear to be under five dollars. Additionally, there is an “African American Interest Book Deals” section which is a great opportunity to read authors who have been historically underrepresented by the book industry. This site seems focused on giving readers an chance to read books from your favorite authors first or to discover the next great novelist. There are so many categories and subcategories it is hard for me to decide what I want to read first. 

I did test out giving reviews on this website. I picked a few of my favorite books and completed quick reviews and I loved how easy it is on this website. When you select a book to review it offers word tags to describe the reading experience and then you can add a written review if you like. It makes the review experience highly visual and quick. Then it adds the author to the ‘authors I follow’ so you can learn about books and book deals from them in the future. 

In conclusion, if you love to read and are willing to take risks then I hope you will consider starting to review new books. It can be risky to take on a new author or book without the reviews of others. But your time and honest feedback can help raise up the voices who are overlooked or marginalized. It is an immeasurable gift to sit and listen to an emerging author. You might risk your time for a free or discounted book, but what you give in return is a chance to grow and shine for a person with an idea and dream on paper. I hope to run into you in the virtual stacks. 

*To be fully transparent, I am writing this article as a reader who is excited to have an opportunity to read more works by other authors. As a writer, currently Boardroom M is listed on Goodreads and BookSirens.

Is it good though?

Once I published my book I began to panic. Chase, my inner critic, came back with vengeance. My family and friends were buying my book, but aside from working with editors, I hadn’t gotten any feedback. I was terrified by the possibility that I had released a really bad book into the world and there was no way to take it back now. 

At first, I decided I could wait out the anxiety. That seemed like the best course of action. Ten minutes later Chase had me on the internet looking for a solution to my sudden fear that I had done something unbelievably stupid—published a bad book. I don’t even know what a bad book is, but Chase assured me that it is a thing and I didn’t want to be responsible for one. 

Chase and I sat imaginary shoulder to shoulder trying to discover some way to assure ourselves that it was going to be alright. We looked at professional book reviews. That seemed like the thing we wanted, people who read books and give feedback. We dug further and discovered it isn’t so easy to get a professional editorial book review for an independently published novel. Most editorial reviews are done for the top five publishing houses and the resources left over are divided among smaller publishing houses and independent publishers. It is a significant amount of work to apply for these reviews with no expectation of feedback.

I saw a way to solve my problem, so I was able to shake off Chase and regain control. Moving back into the driver’s seat I decided that I wasn’t going to spend hours sending out submissions with a hope for a return someday. I saw another option for editorial reviews offered to the self-published—the paid review. For a fee, anywhere between $50-500, an editorial review service will guarantee writing a review within two- and twelve-weeks, depending on the agency. This is what I decided I needed. I was willing to pay for a spot in the queue to get an opinion from a professional reader. Finally, I could find out definitively if I had written a bad book. I paid for two reviews, then impatiently waited.

As I mentioned, I submitted my book for an editorial review after my friends and family began to read my book. My actions, out of order, meant that I wouldn’t have a professional opinion before I started to hear from my loved ones. But I hoped that I would get a mix of both around the same amount of time. Besides, I had heard lots of friends and family never actually read the books of their loved ones. It was going to be fine.

Two weeks later, my mother called. That’s right, the first person who gave me a review of my novel was my mother. Now you might be thinking, that’s great, a nice review. Forget it. My mom prides herself on being candid, honest, and to the point. She doesn’t spend much time gushing and she doesn’t read spy novels. Imagine my relief when she said it was good and she read it in two days. That call was magical for me. I could not believe that I got such high praise from one of the people in my life who I know doesn’t give out compliments easily. I relaxed a bit. 

Then another friend called and shared similar insights as my mom. Two good reviews. Now I could take a deep breath and accept that I had done the thing, and I had done it well. I had published a good first novel and not a bad book.

That’s when I got the review from one of the editorial groups, Self Publishing Review. That review was positively glowing. Who does this happen to? I had three positive data points, including one that had absolutely no vested interest in flattering me. For the whole day, I was ecstatic. I had the information I wanted, the validation that filled me up, and the additional knowledge from all three on how to grow as a novelist. It felt amazing!

So what now? I did the thing I set out to do and it was good. There will be other reviews and opinions and not all of them will be so positive. Will these first few encounters be enough to bolster me through the rough parts? I don’t know. Having spent some time sitting with these emotional ups and downs it occurs to me the reviews aren’t actually the thing I need, though they are great. I am suspicious that my problem was never about writing a bad book but instead fearing rejection through my book.

I wrote Boardroom M about a woman who is not heterosexual and has thoughts and behaviors that go against the norms established by society. Some of the situations, organizations, and characters represent the bizarre norms that I do not understand in media and culture. I put out a book that is my personal response to the conflict I feel regarding what is held up as normal and what I believe should be held up as normal. Writing and publishing a book about that conflict is at the core a deeply defiant act for me. 

I wonder if a part of me expects some sort of social punishment for using my imagination to publicly push back against what I see in my experience of the United States. Getting praise for pushing back in such a public way is an unusual experience for me given I have had so many subtle slap downs over the years when I tried to directly confront what I felt were wrongs against myself or others. Perhaps that is the nature of art, visualizing and confronting the monsters that are too difficult to address in action. Even this experience has shown me that dreaming about change can be rewarded, even as enacting change is stopped, or moves at a snail’s pace.

I’m sure I am over-generalizing, a bit. Rarely is anything cut and dry. But it does have me wondering about the nagging feelings of insecurity. I think it is more than trying something new. I do believe there is an element of confronting the things that scare and concern me in life and in the internalized messages I am fighting against. As I think about this in my own life, I’d like to encourage you to lean into your fears and work where things feel uncomfortable to you. Maybe you will find encouragement when and where you least expected it. If there is energy in it for you, then I hope you are curious about it and I hope you can get to better places in yourself. I know that is what I am attempting to do.

5 Great Books for Writers who want to be Authors

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I have spent most of this week on social media witnessing people’s stories. To me it is a great honor to listen to someone else’s experience. It makes me feel grounded in one of the basic needs of humanity: to be connected. More than that, it helps me learn how to be a better friend, ally, and community member. I like to know that I can listen to others and support them in sharing something vulnerable by meeting it with an open heart and ear.

I’m not sure if my list of favorite writing books fits this moment very well. But the optimist in me hopes that maybe there is someone out there trying to tell their story or any story, and they find help on how to share that with the world. Or maybe you need a minute to think about one thing and you find something you didn’t know existed this morning. Whatever it is, I’m glad you’re here.

Over the last year, my favorite books on writing have changed dramatically. Most of the books I read on writing in the past were grammar, analysis, or guides on how to use text as a tool for personal transformation. This year I started to learn about the process of publishing and script-writing.

1.      Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum

This book has changed my life! I went to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park to look for a book on editing (it is a lifelong struggle). I saw this book and devoured it. I knew I wanted to write novels, and theoretically, I wanted people to read them, but I had no clue what the process of doing that would be. This book helped me see the steps and behaviors needed to get to the finish line. I keep coming back to this book as I think through the business of being an author.

2.      Successful Self-Publishing by Joanna Penn

Penn has helped me out of quite a pickle. I had started submitting to agents at the beginning of a pandemic. I was following agents and publishing houses on social media and saw within a couple of weeks, the situation was not going to be ideal for a first-time novelist. Penn, through her book and user-friendly website,, showed me that I had options. This book reads like a step-by-step manual on publishing, and it is easy to use. If you choose to go to the traditional publishing route, I still recommend this book. It lets you see your range of options and helps explain why it takes so long to get published. The number of steps from a completed text to publishing are many.

3.      The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

This book cuts to the quick. Pressfield doesn’t pull any punches as he discusses the things that get in the way of our dreams and desires. Every chapter felt like having a loving friend call me out on my bullshit and push me to go back and try again. I appreciated every section. It is what got me to sit down every day and advance writing and editing. Often I read a chapter when I don’t feel creative to remind myself that I can’t give up.

4.      Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Years ago, a friend told me that I think in pictures like movies. He wasn’t wrong. This book helped me work with my mind instead of against it. Synder’s book is geared toward screenwriters, but the information makes so much more sense to me for writing visually. I have studied and taught the three-act structure for a significant amount of my life, after this book, I’m not sure why. Snyder explains the components of strong storytelling in a way that connected to me. He also addresses the relationship writers need to create with their audiences. It flipped everything I understood about storytelling on its head and provided me with tools to move forward.

5.      Master Lists for Writers by Bryn Donovan

This is a brainstorming buddy. Donovan’s book doesn’t teach how to write. It helps you get out of your head and think of other ways to tell a story or describe a moment. It’s a book of lists that allows a writer to imagine more options when pinned down to one way of thinking. I also have websites and my own personal records, but this is an excellent book to always have on hand.

Bonus Book

The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird

This is the only book on my list I haven’t finished reading. I have read and skimmed huge chunks, and the writing is clean and engaging. Bird is another filmmaker providing insight into telling stories. This book is really about creating a strong relationship with the consumer of your fiction and how to create a rewarding emotional experience through your work. I’m using this book as one of my guiding texts as I work on writing my second novel. Bird provides checklists of ideas to look for in your work are provided along the way. This text is fantastic for learning new techniques and to review your own work.

That’s it for my writing book recommendations. I hope if you are reading this that you choose (have chosen) to share the story burning in your heart whether it is fiction or nonfiction. We need all of the stories to guide us to a better understanding of our world and how to make it a better place for all humans. Right now there has never been a better time to create and share content. I hope you find the tools and platforms that help you share it your way.

A Few Thoughts on Being a White Ally

I didn’t sleep much last night as I fretted for the welfare of my fellow Americans. They were out in uncertain streets risking their lives and personal safety to fight systemic racism against a tide of armor. Everyone who went out there, that was unbelievably brave and I’m so thankful for your willingness to stand up for yourselves and others. I wish I were with you. Black Lives Matter.

I won’t be going out into crowded areas even with a mask, but that won’t stop me from lending a hand. On Twitter I see Black Americans asking White Americans to educate themselves. It is ridiculous that anyone must remind us to do our own homework, but there is a lot of ridiculous. I have done some work over the years toward being a better ally, and I have more to do. So why don’t we take this opportunity to deepen our understanding of ourselves and perspectives in order to be better allies?

I’ve put together some thoughts based on classes I’ve taken, experiences I’ve had, and a little research. But understand this is a process, not a destination, so please add resources that you think are worth considering.

Let’s get into it:

First, if you have never done this before I recommend taking the Implicit Bias Test(s). I think I learned about them in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. These tests are helpful to see what your current unconscious biases are, which gives you a starting point. I think to be a good ally, I need to know what I am bringing into a situation.

Second, did you see anything in your implicit biases that you might want to change? If so, this is a time to look critically at the content you consume. Pay attention to who writes, directs, and acts in the television shows, movies, and YouTube videos you watch. Does your entertainment mirror your life experience, or does it provide other ways to see and experience the world?

In my experience, White people can become absorbed in the culture of whiteness and believe that their culture is the only right way to share space. They do all of this without being able to identify that this isn’t the right way, but the way they have learned in their cultural experience.  One example of this for me is dealing with the fact that in my cultural group ten-minutes early means on time; and for many of my friends an hour or more after the agreed time is on time. For a long time I thought my friends hated me, and I can only imagine they thought I rather enjoyed setting up for parties. That’s the cute version, but what if I was someone’s boss, or vice versa, how would that difference impact clocking in? That is when different cultural norms can clash. Pacific Lutheran University has a list of resources for anyone wanting to dive deeper into understanding their whiteness. If you haven’t done this before, please give it a go because we can and do make a lot of presumptions based on this identity. Furthermore, this is a great opportunity to learn more about yourself and examining your own identity. If you want a levity moment, I recommend checking out the Stuff White People Like blog.

The next part is rounding out your historical knowledge. Fill in your school history gaps. Some people get a teacher(s) or a school that provides a comprehensive history curriculum and some get military victories. History textbooks are a states opportunity to shape the American story and political identities of students who may become future voters. Perhaps that is why I didn’t learn about internment camps until I had a college professor who lived in one or why I learned that the Civil War was an economic issue. From my heart, I am telling you if you cannot think of great historical contributions in history from anyone that isn’t white you deserve to learn more, and more there is:

A quick reflection point, understanding your whiteness and studying history are two very powerful tools as an ally. First, by understanding your whiteness you can change your expectations and make spaces more welcoming for Black people and talk to other White people about their presumptions. Second, you will have an understanding of the long path Black Americans have taken to get their rights deferred and denied over and over again. By taking it on yourself to become more aware of the privileges you have and what the cost has been for others is huge. It is a level of awareness some White Americans never get because they didn’t have to. Being an ally is choosing to examine your privilege and to expand your own world. An additional consequence is that you can help make the world safer and a more welcoming for Black people by changing your actions and talking with other White people.

I want to say so much more and talk about all the things. However, this is one very basic blog post with links to great work that is out there. I hope you do some of these things and it gives you a desire to do more and be more for yourself and humanity. Maybe you’ll take a class or volunteer or talk to another White person. Below are links to some things I will be doing and reading this year as I increase my ally-ship because I am not sharing my voice enough in pushing for equity and justice for my Black brothers and sisters. Let’s grow together and show up for our neighbors around this country. It’s past time.

Introducing Chase my Inner-Critic

I watched a TikTok* recently where the artist said their therapist recommended naming their anxiety. Supposedly, giving it a personality would make it easier to combat. I liked the video and moved onto the next video, as is the way of TikTok. That was the last I thought about it until this week when I published my first novel. I thought I would feel proud of achieving a lifetime goal. But as I hit submit, I didn’t have a feeling of pride. I felt overwhelmed as I let a piece of me go out into the world. At first, I sat with these unexpected feelings. Then I tried to fight them because they were growing louder. Fortunately, this TikTok advice came back to me in my moment of need.

Without further ado, let me introduce Chase.

Chase has been with me since I was five years old. I met Chase right after the man at church told me it was my Christian duty to stand behind my friend in line because he was a boy. Chase followed me home that day. He was there when my English teacher told me we would read women authors in class when they write something worth reading. He kept track of all the messages strangers, and loved ones gave me about how I had little worth or value, and he has been parroting them to me ever since.

Chase, on his own, is a simple, uncomplicated man. He thinks Dunning-Kruger is where they work in The Office. Chase has a lot of thoughts that he shares widely between sips of Coors. Chase sits in my backyard and says things like, “Smile,” “women are good for one thing,” and quotes the 1955 Good House Wive’s Guide to me often. Chase and I are not friends, but we have been living together for decades. He rarely leaves the house because Chase doesn’t do anything with or for himself. I’ve become good at ignoring him, I’ve had years of practice.

So, this week I was surprised when Chase’s annoying monologues suddenly became louder and more insistent. I had hoped Chase would split now that he realizes I will never quit. I did a considerable feat in completing my lifelong dream! He should be out of criticism by now. That’s not how inner critics and anxieties have ever worked. Chase reminded me that I have never heard anyone say that they don’t have any fears or anxieties after they achieve a goal. There are always new challenges and plenty of stress to feel.

Chase has added a new verse to a familiar song he sings loudly and off-tune, “no one will like you.” It’s not a unique fear; we have all wanted to belong and feel loved at some point. It’s featured in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Chase knows that I have always tried to be approachable, welcoming, and kind. I have tried to find common interests with every person I meet. I’m the person who (until recently) talked to you in the grocery line about anything at all. But Chase points out something that never occurred to me, I can’t be approachable to most people and be an author. Authors can’t hide the way a writer can.

A book isn’t written for everyone or edited in real-time for every taste; it was written for an audience. Over the next few weeks, my friends and family will discover that I wrote a book that has sex, violence, bad language, and jokes that they may not like. I can’t edit my text, like I do myself, for every person I meet, and that is scary. There are so few people in my life who know me.

Chase has controlled me for so long. He positively has reinforced all the gendered stereotypes I grew up with from school, work, media, etc. By publishing, I have created a radical, vulnerable moment where I am putting a part of my brain out in a very public way. It is a terrifying leap of faith in myself. Do I really deserve to have a voice? Do I get to express ideas that might not be popular or welcomed by my loved ones? In my heart, I believe the answer is yes, but I’m still scared.

I’ve written this blog post for Chase. I think in his own way, he has tried to protect me by reminding me of the advice of others. The thing is that we are all fallible, and sometimes we teach children things to protect them instead of helping them thrive. I am thankful that Chase has been here to warn me and to let me know what some obstacles in life might be, but it is time I heal and find a path for myself. That starts with being the person I want to be in life who is brave and willing to put her ideas out into the world.

I hope Chase is overprotective, and I find an audience for my book. The community of readers will be generous with me. With trepidation, I welcome their feedback, so I can become a better writer, and we can grow a great relationship over the years. I have waited so long to meet you. Maybe Chase will still be here, but his messages will change. I’m hoping for lectures about the dangers of the Northwestern Tree Octopus. 

*I could not find the TikTok artist (I’m a serial liker), but I could see lots of examples of this technique online. Here are three if you are interested in this topic:

Why Boardroom M?

Cover of Boardroom M

I have been reflecting on why I felt the need to write this book. The simple answer would be, I decided I needed to write again, so I participated in NANOWRIMO and then went from there. But that doesn’t answer the question of why I decided to spend the better part of the last two years with Misha Campbell or why I’m not done thinking about her yet.

Life is full of choices, and I have made so many big and small decisions that have led me to a life I didn’t know could exist. That’s great, but it also left me feeling unprepared for where I want to go next. When I asked the recesses of my mind for help, it introduced me to Misha. She took me by the hand and told me that our path would be full of intrigue and danger, I was not entirely surprised.

Part I: Enter Bond. James Bond. And Wonder Woman

I love spy stories. James Bond does the craziest things, goes to the most exciting places, all the women love him, and he always gets it right (well mostly, he does take a few hits from time to time). Never mind, that he stands for a cis-gendered brand of masculinity that I can’t quite picture myself in unless I want to be the femme fatale. So, I set out to imagine what Bond would be for me if he were a woman now. Very quickly, Bond’s world was different. I couldn’t have Misha sleep with all the cute guys in the novel, it wouldn’t feel the same. Maybe that was just me, so I started to think through some of my favorite spy movies featuring a lead female. Let me start by saying I have watched most of these films a lot. I love spy movies, but there is something very socially gendered in many of them:

  1. Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) in Salt – Everything Salt does in the film is motivated by her love for two men: her proxy father and her husband. The KGB took Salt as a child and molded her into a spy. She doesn’t have much agency in the film, other than who she is most aligned with: father (fatherland) or husband (adopted country). It’s still a fun movie to watch, but it lacks some of the layers other spies get.
  2. Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) in Mr. & Mrs. Smith – Mrs. Smith, must choose between career and her husband. For some inexplicable reason, she suddenly finds herself in love with her husband and ready to die for him. This is less a spy movie and more a comedy about a broken marriage.
  3. Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) in Red Sparrow – This spy is forced into the business by an evil uncle and a bad situation. She does have sex with many men who are not her cis-gendered heterosexual partner, but she hates it. Then she has sex with an American CIA agent, falls in love, and risks it all.
  4. Charlie’s Angels (varies) – These movies are more comedy than spy movies. However, I think I need to talk about them because of Elizabeth Banks’ reboot. First, Banks is killing it as an actress, director, and producer. Second, this reboot offers stories of talented women who have impossible jobs and navigate internal biases to create a better team. I should also note that this spy movie came out in 2019 and includes nods to nonbinary women, women of different backgrounds and skin colors, and the range of sexual orientations. It was a huge challenge to send a love letter to women like this, and I hope we get to see more.
  5. Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) in Atomic Blonde – There is nuance here. Broughton is clearly a complex and compelling character. The story starts with Broughton getting an assignment to find out who killed an agent that happened to be an ex-lover. Her focus is on her job and investigation. She does have an affair in the story, but it is hard to pinpoint if it was for fun, interest, or for work.

There is a lot to unpack from this sample of five movies. I want to acknowledge that in four out of the five films, the lead female is a white woman, and the directors and screenwriters are white men. There are more diverse voices needed in writing and portraying this type of story. As I say this, I am again reminded of what a powerhouse of will Elizabeth Banks must be, and I hope she brings up as many women as possible.  

Wait, what happened, one second, I was telling a story about writing a novel, and now I’m ranking female spy movies? I am focusing heavily on cinema here, though Red Sparrow is also a book, and Atomic Blonde is from a comic. With that said, I haven’t read many spy novels where women are central characters, and I like movies. Often for books, if I want to see a strong woman role that is spy-like, I need to slide on over to detective stories or historical fiction. I’m not as interested in forensics as I am in high tech gadgets and complicated systems. I figure these five movies were all I was going to get unless I wrote my own.

I noticed something else about the portrayals of female sexuality. In the moments where the women were dominant in sexual situations, they were frequently portrayed as Wonder Woman, BDSM specialists, or at least rope tying enthusiast. I suspect it might have something to do with shifting power dynamics or the role communication would have in these situations. Or maybe that women can be seen as powerful sexually if it is for play. Side note: if seeing Wonder Woman next to BDSM in a sentence is new to you, please consider reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. But I digress. Lead women in spy movies are very devoted to one man and driven into action by their love for him (if they have any agency or depth). And when the director wants them to look in control, there is a suggested BDSM scene in precisely the opposite way of James Bond. He is doing a job and happens to have sex along the way. Women might bring different versions of sexuality to him, but he is always the same, and that is enough.

So who would Misha Campbell be? Was she going to follow a man accidentally into the CIA? Or was she a rope-tying enthusiast who could get people to tell the truth? Maybe a little from column A and a bit from column B, but this story wasn’t there yet.

Part II: Writing about strong women during #metoo

I started reconsidering a piece I was working on back in 2003 when Mr. Brightside by The Killers came out. I was trying to imagine what the man in the song would do when and if he ever confronted his lover about her infidelity. In the song, it seems like the hero follows his lover and is watching her make love to another man. That’s a considerable commitment to confirm infidelity. In the lyrics, the narrator is “choking on your alibi, but it’s just the price I pay.” I always wondered why that price, why not break up? My imagination ended the story with him clinging to the pain of it to justify an act of unfitting revenge. Why would I go there in my imagination, presuming the worst of this jilted lover? I’m so glad you asked: because of revenge porn, domestic violence, and the #metoo movement.

So, what could this story have to do with a spy? Well, I think being a spy as a woman has dangers that exist simply based on gender (and race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, etc.). These are considerations that James Bond never has to make. I could make Misha Campbell an agent doing her job without gender being a factor (if I could imagine it). Still, in the end, I didn’t want to recreate the world so I could have my Bond-esque adventure. In the end, I decided to have Misha walk through fire.

Misha Campbell loses the life she had because an ex-lover wrote a book slandering her in a very public, sex-shaming way. That, however, is the spark that sends her further away from who she saw herself as in society. Misha has to decide who she wants to be, and the identity she chooses could be the difference between life and death.

Part III: There have always been strong women

Here comes the literary dessert. I couldn’t use my love of spy literature to give Misha the tools to come out on the other side. I went for models from nonfiction where women have used their wits and instincts to do amazing and unimaginable things. The strength Misha finds as she grows in this book is based on women who outwitted their foes and created unbelievable networks to save lives, the women of the OSS and SOE. The Office of Strategic Services was the precursor to the CIA, and it was full of women who did daring things, many of them under the title of “secretary.” These are the women I wanted in my movies and books all along. If you haven’t, consider reading Women of the OSS: Sisterhood of Spies by Elizabeth P. McIntosh. Also, if you don’t know who Noor Inayat Khan is change that immediately. She worked for the precursor of MI-6 in the Special Operations Executive, and there are so many people alive today who wouldn’t have been without her immense bravery.

I can’t tell you much about the motivations of these women. I am guessing it wasn’t because they accidentally followed their menfolk to the front line. These are the women I didn’t learn about in school. The ones overlooked as we were learning that women dressed as Rosie the Riveter and couldn’t wait for the men to return so they could go back home. And these are the women I wish to emulate in Misha Campbell, women who find a way to do something extraordinary because something inside them says they have to.

In the end, Misha Campbell benefits and suffers from my experience of spy stories. I have questions about how to be a woman in the public eye when so many women around me have struggled for not being virgin saints. Misha can survive only if she can use her brain and her heart to find a path through for herself and find her strength again. Back to Bond, he was strong, and he saved the world over and over again through his raw will. Misha can save the world too, but it will be different. If she saves the world, it will be through perseverance and finding a new path. That gives me a lot of hope that the world might be shown one story for a long time, but then one might sit down and decide to write a new one.

Last Thought

This post is running long, but I wanted to share one other thing about the book with you. There is a reason the book is named Boardroom M, and it doesn’t solely rest on the plot. During World War II, the British military in charge of handling the German officer POWs decided the best way to get information off them wasn’t to torture them but to play into their egos and make them comfortable. When people feel good, they have a tendency to talk too much, and the British had the POW rooms bugged for just such a case. They called the listening room the “m room.” With Misha, I found myself often wondering about the money we spend in the USA on the military in terms of weapons, lives, and damage. If we pulled people closer instead of pushing them down or away from ourselves, what could we learn, and what could we save?

Check out Boardroom M on Amazon

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