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Name in Print

Last year, I synthesized four books on the health care systems of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales into one book on the health care system of the United Kingdom, for a series put out by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, part of the World Health Organization. I’m by no means an expert on the health care system of any country–real experts did a lot of work on the manuscript I put together, to ensure it was accurate and comprehensive. But I put together the basic body of the work, and it took a lot of time and effort, and I’m very proud of the result. This series is put together mainly to help policy-makers in different countries see how health care policies work in other countries, so they can decide what policies to incorporate into their own countries. So you’re not going to find this in Barnes & Noble, but you can check it out on the website if you want to see my name on there as a contributor. I also got a hard copy in the post last week–look!

WHO book cover

Pretty cool

Days of Gratitude

I’ve seen a lot of “Days of Gratitude” posts on Facebook this month. People post about something they’re grateful for every day up to Thanksgiving, usually with an accompanying photo. I think it’s a great idea, but I haven’t taken part, mostly because I feel like every blog post I’ve written this year has been a gratitude post.

Every day I get to write, which I’m grateful for in the way that most writers are grateful for the chance to write—it’s an aggravation, sometimes nearly impossible, but occasionally totally satisfying. Every day I write about this amazing trip I’ve been on, so every day I’m grateful anew for the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met.

I’ve spent seven months of this year on a trip around the world, gone to the weddings of some of my most beloved people, celebrated my grandmother’s 80th birthday with the whole clan, and published a piece on a major website. It really has been a terrific year, and I’m grateful for every day of it. Can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

Thankful for the laughs from this year

Thankful for the laughs from this year

Back in the States Update

I’ve been back in the States for 8 weeks now, which sounds like a long time, but I’ve spent a lot of that time at weddings and catching up with friends, so it’s felt shorter. I’m settled in to my parents’ house, and I’ll be here ’til the end of the year. So what am I up to these days?

Today I took a look at my short-term goals from July, and I’m doing pretty well! 1) I bought catastrophic health insurance through Priority Health. It costs $72 a month, and that includes emergency room visits and not much else. Pre-existing conditions aren’t allowed (I cannot wait for the Affordable Care Act to be fully implemented so that kind BS is no longer permitted), and I pay full price for prescriptions and most doctor visits. But it’s one of the better plans I found, with a fairly low premium ($1,000), and I might not need it for very long, because… 2) I got a job! I start the day after I return from my sibling’s wedding in New York. I signed up with a local staffing agency, and they got me an interview at an auxiliary health care-type office. I’ll be doing data entry and a little proofreading, full-time, and the bosses seem very nice. It doesn’t pay a lot, but I’ve done the math and it should be enough to get me back on the road sometime next year. Also, I can walk there from my parents’ house, so I don’t need to buy a car.

I’m hoping that having taken care of #1 and #2 from the original list, I’ll be able to really dig into #3. Now that I’ve removed the stress of job hunting and hiding inside lest I injure myself and have no way to pay for recovery, I should be able to use my free time writing. The changing season will make that even easier, as the nights come faster and the days grow colder, and I stay inside and focus on writing. Fingers crossed.

Next week I’ll be in New York, helping set up for the wedding and then dancing the night away at said wedding. After that, I’ll be in an office for the first time in over a year. Wish me luck!

Now What? The Short-Term Goals After Nearly a Year Around the World

I’ve been back in the States for a week, and I’m just now starting to settle in. It’s been a whirlwind of cleaning and organizing the stuff I carried around in a backpack for the better part of a year, meeting up with friends I haven’t seen in as long, going to one of my favorite weddings ever, and dragging my family along to my most-missed eating spots in town. But now it’s the second week here, the jet lag is behind me, and it’s time to think about what’s next.

Lots of this in my future

Lots of this in my future

As I’ve mentioned before, my long-term goals involve more travel and finding the money to make that happen. I will definitely be in the States through the end of September, and possibly through Christmas, depending on what kind of employment I find. But I’d like to skip winter again this year if I can, so in the new year (if not sooner) I’ll be heading off to Africa or Latin America.

In the short term, I’m readjusting to suburban America, which takes some doing–the politics, the modes of transportation, the distances from place to place, the foods, they’re all different. I’m also living with my parents again for the first time since I graduated college 8 years ago. That takes adjustment on both sides! We’re figuring out how to make it work for everyone; they’re quite content with their lives and I don’t want to get in the way of that, and they want me to be happy but also productive. Which sounds about right.

Here are my goals for the next few months:

1) Get short-term health insurance. This is easily the biggest difference between where I’ve been and where I am now. I’ve had health insurance through my various employers ever since I graduated college, and before that I was covered under my parents’ plan. If I were in the UK, I’d show the National Health Service (NHS) proof of residency and they’d assign me a doctor (who I could change if I wanted), and that would be that, no fuss. But as we know, it’s a very big fuss in the States. It’s scary to be without insurance here, so I’m shopping around to find a short-term plan that won’t charge a huge deductible or monthly fee. If you have any leads, let me know!

2) Find employment. If I stay through the end of the year, I’d like something stable, but I also don’t want to feel bad ditching after just a few months. I’ll be signing up with temp agencies, which will hopefully provide me with admin or data entry work, or something that will put some money in my pocket. Of course, I’m always on the lookout for freelance editing work, so I’ll keep that search up, and I might try pitching some pieces of my own to online magazines and such as well. Be sure to tell your friends and neighbors they can hire me for odd jobs, housesitting, babysitting–just about anything!

3) Focus on the writing. I’ve been cranking out blog posts for y’all Monday through Friday for all of 2013, as promised, and I’m happy I challenged myself to do that. I’ll continue to make that a goal, but I’m also going to try my hand at more in-depth essays and pieces that someone other than me might want to publish.

4) Keep within a budget. It’s easy to simultaneously feel like I’m still traveling about and should experience everything at least once and the extra dollar or two isn’t that much, AND to feel like I’m back on familiar ground so all the old spending habits can come back. But I do not have the steady job I used to, and the whole point of this interlude is to save up for the next adventure. I have to keep that in mind.

Of course, there are other things I want to do, too: visit my friends in Chicago, make the playlist for my sibling’s wedding, learn new songs to sing with my dad, take walks with my mom, enjoy the beauty of a Michigan summer, read new books, and finally watch the new season of Arrested Development.

It’s going to be a good few months.  

Celebrating 500 Posts on Stowaway!

Welcome to the 500th post on Stowaway! I’ve been writing this blog for 3.5 years, and in that time it’s gone through one name change, 1508 comments, and, almost unbelievably, 500 posts.

catlins waterfall supremely happyI started Stowaway as a way to get back into writing, which is something I’d enjoyed doing in college but neglected in the years since. I also wanted to record my plans for this big RTW trip, partly as a way to encourage myself to actually go on the trip. I wanted to try my hand at travel writing, but not limit myself to that. Five hundred posts later, I’m writing on an almost daily basis, and I’m on my RTW trip, so I’d say I’m doing well on those fronts.

me and Sydney Opera HouseI’d enjoy writing Stowaway even if I were the only one reading it, but it’s even more fun knowing that other people like reading it too. I like the challenge of making my travel updates entertaining and the photos nice to look at. I have a small audience made up mostly of people I know personally, and in some ways that makes it easier to write, to guess who might like what joke or who might appreciate which detail.

Joy on Fox Glacier, New ZealandBut I’m still refining my style; as every writer has ever said, I want to write the kind of thing I like to read. For travel writing, I like a chatty but not chummy tone, thoughtful reflections on the implications of why and how we travel, and a few wry asides. I don’t know that I’ve ever spelled it out before, but there it is: that’s what I’m going for with Stowaway, but whatever actually turns up on the blog every Monday through Friday, I hope it resonates with you.

annika-1

I don’t know what Stowaway will become once I return to the States. I might try harder to write pieces that can be published on other sites. I might put the blog to the side for awhile and focus on getting a job. I might take another year just to get the posts caught up to where I am in real time (yeesh).

bankok wat phoStowaway has already changed somewhat since I started it, as recurring features came and went, and I made the inevitable switch from planning the trip to doing it. It will naturally change again, and even after 3.5 years and 500 posts, I’m still excited to see how it does. I hope you’ll stay with me as I continue to explore the world with my faithful travel companion–Stowaway.

Onward

Where to next?

Aesthetically Speaking: C.S.E. Cooney

Today’s Aesthetically Speaking interviewee is a published author and writer of many things, from novels to poems, plays to blog posts. I especially appreciate the honesty of how tough it is to find good readers of your writing, who you can trust and whose advice you can take. Thanks for sharing, C.S.E.!

What is your name and city of residence?
C.S.E. Cooney, almost-formerly-of-Chicago. Soon to be “Somewhere, Rhode Island.” I’m moving in a few weeks, east. 

What medium do you work in?
Words! Stories, novels, poetry, plays, reviews, blogs, whatever!

Jack o the Hills book cover CSE Cooney

Jack o' the Hills

How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?
It’s like a second job that wants to be my first job. Nights and weekends sort of thing. These days, writing is not so much an escape from the day-job, as it is that the day-job (and everything else) serves the writing. 

How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?
It’s the sort of thing that creeps into almost every conversation. The sort of thing where you’re babbling at someone about whatever book you’re reading, story you’re writing, writing convention you’ve just gone to, this new writer you’re corresponding with, this play of yours that you’ve just seen produced, and thinking, “Is this all I ever talk about? Am I more boring than any bore that ever lived? Talk about something else. Talk about that Wampug you just saw on YouTube…” 

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ey2L_ExKWuI)

But there’s this: whatever else I talk about — movies, science, that creep on the train, the etymology of the word “yawn” — there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, “Remember this. Use it in a story.”

When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?
I write short stories with the idea of submitting them as soon as possible. They have to accumulate a number of both drafts and rejection slips before they’re either trunked for good or finally accepted somewhere. 

Sometimes an idea starts out a poem, morphs into a play, and then it turns out it’d make a better story. I rarely know this starting out. Some ideas require many structures before its ultimate shape is refined.

Plays I either write for fun, or competitions, or festivals. I usually write them only if someone out there’s interested in something from me specifically. But there have been a few cases of me waking up in the morning and saying, “I’m gonna write a play today.” No one wants them necessarily, but at least I had fun pulling them out of the ether for their own sakes and no one else’s.

Poetry is usually a visceral reaction I have to something. Either that, or I stumbled onto a moment I want frozen in all its glorious hyperbole. Those times I’m feeling something strongly I may never feel again, something effervescent in its novelty, I’ll try and capture to examine more closely later. And also to show it off… My wild menagerie of past experiences.

With novels, I don’t know — I’ve not had one published yet. With the one I’m working on now, a fantasy called Shadowstalkers, the end in sight is, “Finish the danged thing, go on a Great Agent Quest, and then from there we’ll see.” I’m fewer than 100 pages away from writing The End on this present draft.

What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?
I certainly want to make money with my writing. The times I already have are kind of addictive. The trick is getting the production and quality up to a level where my earnings from the writing are at least as consistent at whatever day-job I’m working in order to eat and pay rent while writing. I may never get there. It’s a goal, anyway.

I hate the term “sell-out.” What does that even mean? Producing something you hate for loads of cash? If that’s what a “sell-out” does, then I couldn’t do it. Just judging from past day jobs: if I’m in a position I consider toxic, I quit — for my own health’s sake, which I value. I want to wake up and like myself. It’d be great to wake up, like myself, and make money too. I don’t mind compromise or flexibility. I often don’t even know my own boundaries until I come smack up against them. I try to keep an open mind until confronted with an ethical crisis, and make my decision then.

Also, just because I create something, recognize that it’s well-constructed, and even publish it — that doesn’t mean it’s good art.  I have failed at making the kind of art I want to make — failed spectacularly. Sometimes it’s not possible to recognize that something is a splattering huge mess when you’re right in the middle of it, looking out. Someone might come along and point out this huge, raw flaw you’d never intended, never in a million years, and you wish you could take it all back and put it down somewhere in the dark, but it’s out in the world now. You suck it up. Learn something about yourself and the world you live in. What it makes you. What you make of it.You just learn from it, try not to do it again, and hopefully do something better with the next project.

Every story I write seems to require something utterly different from me than the last.  I have to learn a whole new skill set with each thing I write. It’s completely fascinating, but I hardly ever feel like I know what I’m doing. I’m trying to become more conscious of my process, without stymying the process. That gets tricky. But it’s never boring.

The Big Bah-Ha by C.S.E. Cooney book cover

The Big Bah-Ha

What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any?
Well, you can’t have theatre without collaboration. That’s a given. So, with a play — collaboration’s built in. Actors might give a script a read, directors will piece it apart, everybody’s input informs the next draft. The script often morphs during the rehearsal process. So far, that’s been my experience. My experience is pretty limited. 

But stories, at least in the initial stages, are more personal. For myself, I have a handful of friends, who are all writers or editors at varying levels of their career — from award-winning, published novelists to people like me who’ve only just traded their apprenticeship for journeyman’s rank — and I often send them early drafts of things for their critique.

There’s much trial and error involved in this. Trust must be built up over time. Few people come through the crucible of this process, but those who do I value highly. I have to be careful to whom I send a story, because a certain kind of criticism too early, or given tactlessly, can ruin my enthusiasm for months. Some friends I can take a pummeling from and bounce up grinning. Some friends, even at their gentlest, slay my desire to create. It’s not their fault, or mine. It’s simply a matter of personalities.

After a draft is done, of course, and a story is submitted, it takes a small army of slush readers, associate editors, editors, designers, and artists to put together a magazine. Without them, I’m just a writer with a few thousand words in a Microsoft Document.

How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?
Pretty conscious, I’d say. Stephen Sondheim, Caryl Churchill, Shakespeare, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Dunnett, Gene Wolfe (probably him above all, as he’s been my mentor since I was 18 years old), Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, the Brontës, Jane Austen, Lois McMaster Bujold, Neil Gaiman, Stephanie Shaw, Alexandre Dumas, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien and Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, Georgette Heyer, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Peters, Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia E. Butler, Shirley Jackson, James Enge, Pablo Neruda, Peter S. Beagle, Stephen King… Can you tell I’m mainly a Fantasy writer? 

Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)
Much of the traveling I’ve done in the last nine years has been to writing conventions. That’s where you meet folks in your field. That’s where you meet your influences, hear them read out loud and answer interview questions and shake their hands. It’s where they become human. And suddenly you think, “If they can do it, I can do it.” 

Road trips — especially with other writer friends — to these sorts of things are where character, plot and story are all born.

There’s something about movement, the freedom of the road, really late nights in highway darkness, that get all the good weird stuff of the soul stirred up. There’s also a great deal of history moving outside your window. The good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly all buried in that landscape with the bones. Horizons you’ve never seen. Roads you’ve never traveled. Music on your friend’s iPod you’d never listen to on your own. Really vulgar jokes. Weird roadside pranks. All of it full of story.

There’s a reason there’s a whole genre of novels called “picaresque.”

And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?
You know those ragged, half-scorched parts of ancient maps that say “Here Be Monsters”? Everything beyond that. 

If you’d like, share your website/Facebook page and any upcoming gigs/plans you’d like readers to know about.
I keep a blog at csecooney.livejournal.com. On my profile page is everything I’ve done writing-wise and where to find it. 

If you want to buy my book “Jack o’ the Hills,” being two stories in one of a very twisted fairy tale, check out Papaveria Press.

Aesthetically Speaking: Branden Johnson

Please welcome Branden Johsnon to Aesthetically Speaking. He’s a renaissance man of the arts, playing music and writing many things. I’ve seen These Guys These Guys perform, and they do a great live show of moody, Peter-Gabriel-era-Genesis-type instrumental music. They have a show on Friday, October 14 so check them out. Thanks for sharing, Branden!

What is your name and city of residence?
Branden Johnson – Resident of Oak Forest, IL, a suburb of Chicago

What medium do you work in?
I’m primarily a writer and a musician. It really does fall about 50/50. I write novels and short stories, as well as screenplays (specifically for a web series called Kole’s Law), and I play piano and guitar in post-rock band These Guys These Guys.

How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?
As much as I would love to be creative full-time, I’m a wage slave like most everyone else. My passion for working on my art comes and goes in waves. When I’m not working on music to prepare for a gig, I’m writing alone at my desk or collaborating on a screenplay.

How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?
My creative work is incredibly important to me. Sometimes I forget that. Those are the times I find myself the most down. When I remember the joy I get from creating, it’s like getting a second wind in a big race, and I can’t wait to get off work so I can get home and create some more.

Branden Johnson

on keys

When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?
It varies, really. I’ve had a few short stories published in some journals, which felt great at the time. And when the band plays a gig, we get the satisfaction of interacting with the crowd, which is immediate feedback.

What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?
The term “sell-out” to me is far from a bad word. It really depends on the artist’s intention. If my goal is to write a novel and get it published, then certainly I’d like it to sell. If it’s not selling, why did I work to get it published? But if I create an intensely personal piece, I may only want to share it with some close friends or family. In the long term, I want to create for a living. And I’m at a place where the term “create” has a bit of flexibility. If my band scored a big recording contract — great! If a novel I write is published — awesome! If one of my web series is discovered and appreciated by a Hollywood big-wig — terrific! I so enjoy the various projects I’m involved in that any one of them could become a career for me and I would be perfectly happy.

What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any?
Our collaboration in the band is incredibly important. We write together. We make all our decisions together. If a compromise has to be reached, we reach it. My solo writing, of course, is primarily just me — but even then, writers’ groups (like online group Zoetrope.com) have provided me with valuable feedback that has helped me grow as a writer.

How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?
I’ve been influenced by a number of writers. One of the major writers would be Neil Gaiman. I never read his comics, but his novels, and particularly his short fiction, have really spoken to me. Musically, I grew up listening to video game scores (being then, as now, a huge nerd), and have taken a great deal of inspiration from Japanese composers such as Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu.

Branden Johnson

the glasses mean "writer"

Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)
I don’t want to only write what I know. I want to learn more, grow more. Staying put doesn’t do much to help with that. My experiences in other places have helped me extend my perspective, which can only benefit my writing. As far as my music goes, well… We haven’t really toured yet. But that could happen soon!

And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?
It would be a map of the Midwest as drawn by a maniacal 4th grader.

If you’d like, share your website/Facebook page and any upcoming gigs/plans you’d like readers to know about.
Twitter: @brandenjohnson
Facebook: www.facebook.com/brandenjohnson
These Guys These Guys: www.theseguystheseguys.com
TGTG on Facebook: www.facebook.com/theseguystheseguys

Kole’s Law: www.koleslawshow.com
Kole’s Law on Facebook: www.facebook.com/koleslawshow

Upcoming Show Details:
El Mamey
Friday, October 14
2645 W. North Ave, Chicago, IL
21+/8:00pm/$7
With: Mountains For Clouds & I Know Everything

Photo 1 credit Keith Kosmal. Photo 2 credit Jenny Schuler.

Aesthetically Speaking: Catherine Adel West

This week’s interview was conducted with Catherine West, a colleague of mine at work. We found out we actually grew up blocks from each other in Evergreen Park, and now years later we’re working as editors in a small office in downtown Chicago. Small world. Catherine’s blog makes me laugh every time I read it, and I’m looking forward to reading more as the inspiration strikes her. Thanks for sharing, Catherine!

What is your name and city of residence?
My name is Catherine Adel West and I live in Chicago, IL.

What medium do you work in?
I am a writer. Whether or not I am a legendary writer remains to be seen.

Catherine West

Catherine West, legendary writer

How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?
I write in my spare time. Mostly I write after work or during breaks. It’s for the most part when inspiration hits me, which is more and more often these days.

How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?
As I have to edit other people’s words, I think about my work and my words all the time, every time. It actually helps to know what techniques work in writing and which ones do not.

When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?
When I begin a story, it is very fluid. I never know where I’m going to end up which is most of the fun. My result varies with each story I create; I want to make you laugh; I want to make you cry. My overall goal is always the same and that’s to make the reader feel something powerful. I will publish my work on a blog. I am, however, experimenting with the idea of being more aggressive and entering short story competitions.

What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?
My ultimate dream or goal has always been two-fold. Become a successful writer both literary and screenwriting (maybe an Oscar or two in my future). To me, sell-out is not a dirty word as I have never been the “starving artist” type. We do have to make a living and we all, as artists, want to reach as many people as we can with our words, music, images, etc.

I think the lines that one is willing to cross determine the extent to whether they will be able to ultimately live with their decisions or not. I think in the end, I will be able to live with my decisions and do so happily.

What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any?
Collaboration, if any, for me comes mostly in the editing process. I give my stories to a few trusted people and they give me their honest feedback. We will go back and forth about things that can be edited or changed. However, writing is mostly a very single and lonely process.

How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?
I think anyone who performs music, paints, writes, or whatever is constantly trying to live up to an ideal person. With every note played, word written, or brush stroke comes a constant questioning of how would this person handle it or how can I put my own unique spin on my art form. I am no different.

 I read and re-read every line and compare myself. How I write, every word used has little bits of Zora Neale Hurston or Dean Koontz or Anne Rice or Chuck Palahniuk. I try to write to combine love of ethnicity and mystery and description and dark humor. I want my writing to be all of these things in a unique shell.

Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)
Travel mainly affects the way I describe a place in my writings. A lot of it I pull from different places I’ve visited. A hotel room in Paris; a casino in Vegas; the way the Pacific Ocean beats the sand in Santa Monica — all this helps me give a place or setting as much depth and feeling as the characters themselves.

And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?
As much as I dislike the wilderness, I would actually compare my art to the forest. There is a lot of beauty, dense and raw, and it can be hard to get through, but once you hit that beautiful meadow, and the sun is shining off the picturesque lake, the trek was totally worth it!

If you’d like, share your website/Facebook page and any upcoming gigs/plans you’d like readers to know about.
I have a wonderful blog titled “Ghetto Yuppies.” It’s funny and crazy and a good read so I invite all people to check it out! http://catherineadelwest.blogspot.com/

Aesthetically Speaking: Jeannie Miernik

This week’s artist interview was conducted with Jeannie, a writer living in mid-Michigan. Jeannie and I met at Kalamazoo College and studied abroad together in Rome junior year. Jeannie and her husband are raising a gorgeous baby daughter in Lansing, and she’s also writing a novel. I’m definitely impressed with her devotion to the craft, and her blog is a great source of writing tips and ruminations. Thanks for sharing, Jeannie!

What is your name and city of residence?
I’m Jeannie Miernik from Lansing, Michigan.

What medium do you work in?
I am writing a fantasy novel based on European folklore. The working title is Briars and Black Hellebore. On one level, it’s a retelling of fairy tales like many writers have done before, but on another level it’s a story about storytelling itself, about oral and literary traditions and the transmission of culture. It’s about the power of words and narratives to shape our realities. As I work on this novel, I am exploring what I call “metamyth,” the stories behind stories.

How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?
Right now, I am a total guerilla writer. I have a six-month-old baby and two jobs, so I steal minutes here and there to write, only up to a few hours a week. It depends on how long my daughter naps!

Jeannie's workspace

Jeannie's workspace

How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?
Writing is solitary work, but I think about my plot, characters, and word choices every day—in the car, in the shower, during lulls at work, and even in dreams. Films, paintings, architecture, plays, nature, and all kinds of unlikely experiences give me ideas. Although I don’t have much time to sit down and write, I do read about European history and myth at every opportunity. I keep books and articles packed in my breast pump bag and my nightstand. I talk about concepts and interesting stories and history facts all the time with my family and friends. They will probably be bored with everything I’ve learned before I’ve finished my book!

When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?
I would like to see my book published one day. I hope to craft a novel of high enough quality and broad enough appeal to land a contract that could lead to an ongoing fiction writing career. I realize that such publishing deals are going the way of tenured professorships, but they still do exist, and that is my dream.

What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?
In the short term, while I’m caring for a baby, family is my top priority and takes most of my energy. So my goal for the next year or two is just to keep the writing momentum going, adding something to my manuscript every few days.

In the long term, I hope to reach many readers through publication of many novels. I hope to make enough money to support myself in continuing to write fiction—without having to maintain two “day jobs” in the meantime. It would be a great pleasure to reach a large readership who might enjoy my stories and interpret them in different ways.

Selling a work of art is not the same as selling out. I have always understood the term “selling out” to mean compromising a work’s integrity for a profit. But the difference between selling and selling out is complex and subjective. Not all changes or amendments to a work to prepare it for sale compromise its integrity. For example, an editor’s suggestions to fix errors within a manuscript to improve its quality for sale would likely improve the work from an artistic standpoint and not subvert its purpose. On the other hand, product placement within a novel that has nothing to do with the story would be a sell-out. But there is plenty of gray area between those obvious examples. I think it’s a distinction made in the gut of the artist in relation to each individual work.

The art/commerce relationship is not always necessary; many people express themselves creatively without selling their works. But the creation of any piece of art does take time and money, so if the artist cannot independently support her or his own work, it must be made possible through sales or grants or patronage, which are not entirely different arrangements. For me, selling my novel could give me the freedom to spend time writing more and better novels and improving my craft in a way that would be difficult or impossible if writing time were always forced into the periphery of my daily life.

What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any?
The text of my novel itself I write completely on my own. But indirectly, many others have assisted me. My writing has benefited from a good critique partner who is encouraging, honest, and skilled at close reading and reviewing. Every time she says, “I don’t like this,” she points out a way to make the scene or chapter a hundred times better. Other help has been even more indirect, but no less important. My husband has been supportive in providing me some time and space to write, and I have learned a lot from networking online with authors and readers.

How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?
I couldn’t possibly be conscious of all of them—in some way, I am influenced by every word I’ve ever heard or read—but I can name many that I intentionally draw upon.

A major influence of my current manuscript is Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and other creative retellings of fairy tales.

I try to read classic stories, old and new, in the hope that I can learn even a tiny bit from the literary masters. I like to read Shakespeare, the ultimate master of witty dialogue, and novelists like Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolfe, Tolstoy, and Jane Austen.

I also admire J.K. Rowling for her world-building, her whimsical names and made-up words, and her fun and accessible storytelling.

My favorite modern storytellers, famous but still underrated, are American Indian authors Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, who paint such vivid, inscrutable, and true faces of humanity. My own life experience is limited, and I feel that reading poignant stories of other people’s experiences, real or fictional, broadens my understanding of what it means to be human and helps me write better characters.

To keep my use of language fresh and interesting, I like to study prose and poetry in other languages as much as I can. Although I don’t read or understand Japanese, I enjoy the elegance of the haiku poetry form, and I like to read English translations of medieval Japanese love and Zen poetry. In Spanish, I have read some prose by Paolo Cuelho (translated from Portuguese) and Laura Esquivel and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. I love listening to Italian, French, and German opera and playing with different ways of translating the libretti into English to capture—or modify—meaning, tone, and lyrical rhythm in different ways. My husband and I practically worship the band Rammstein for Till Lindemann’s lyrics with their subversive and brilliant triple-entendres and wonderful turns of phrase. Some of the songs echo concepts and themes from medieval and ancient German folklore, which is perfect for my current project. Listening to Rammstein while writing has inspired a few of the scenes in my book.

With Briars and Black Hellebore in particular, I am drawing from extensive readings of Western European folklore, which is connected to the folk traditions and fairy tales of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and the Far East. As a child, I loved the Grimm brothers’ iterations of German fairy tales and also modern Disney movies based on fairy tales.

As an adult, I am having a great time tracing those storylines further and further back into pre-Christian epic poetry and cross-cultural traditions. I read Homer and Ovid in college, and just now I am delving into Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied, the great Germanic epic that splintered into many of the fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. I am amazed at how downright entertaining and fascinating the Nibelungenlied is and how few Americans have even heard of it. I feel the same way about the story of Camaralzaman and Badoura in the Arabian Nights tales.

Old stories rooted in oral tradition have made me think deeply about the ways stories and cultural ideas evolve through time and across geo-political space, sometimes organically and sometimes intentionally by a single author. The stories within the Nibelungenlied and the Arabian Nights are influenced by true events and people, the stories of other cultures, bizarre misconceptions of other cultures, and editorial opinions and interpretations of the people who finally wrote them down. German fairy tales, often told by the lower classes and probably mostly by women, were edited, censored, and modified by the Grimm brothers in order to sell them in book form to a wealthy, male readership. (See “selling out,” above!) It is so exciting to plunge down the rabbit holes of revisionist history, cultural misappropriation, political and moral censorship, mistranslation, and divergent narratives following migrations and culture shifts.

I also have a fascination with sacred texts, Christian and otherwise. The “metamyth” of sacred texts is as interesting as the writings themselves. It is amazing how controversial and loaded the line between “myth” and “religion” is drawn in modern Western society, but the difference is impossible to define coherently or justify.


Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)

I love to create rich, purposeful settings for my stories. Traveling anywhere, to a nearby city or a distant country, to somewhere beautiful or ugly, for business or pleasure, stimulates my senses, layers and deepens my store of memories, and opens my mind and spirit to fresh insights and observations. Like a painter who builds up the “negative space” around the subject of a picture, I try to use setting to reflect and influence characters’ internal motivations, set moods, foreshadow, and become part of the action. As a novel reader, I like to be “taken away” on a journey outside myself, so I try to offer that experience in my own writing.


And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?

It would be a map of Western culture. Ultimately, that is what I am exploring as I work on Briars and Black Hellebore.

If you’d like, share your website/Facebook page and any upcoming gigs/plans you’d like readers to know about.
http://magicnutshell.blogspot.com/