Writer’s Life

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How to Fail at Being a Writer

fail_at_being_a_writerWould you like to know how to fail at being a writer? Follow these steps exactly and failure may be yours!

First, begin with doubt. Doubt your talent, your brain, your skills, your spelling. Doubt the quality of your ideas and the worth of your stories. Doubt that you even like writing. Doubt your sincerity, doubt your ability.

Once you have a thick, sticky baseline of doubt spread wide over your mind, you are ready to begin failing at being a writer.

Next, sit at your computer and check your social media sites. Click through to Jezebel and Daily Beast. Sign an online petition about health care access for sick kids. Feel a little outrage. Think, I should write about this.

Open your preferred writing software. Sigh deeply. Go refill your coffee cup. Return to your desk. Recheck all your social media sites for new posts and interactions.

Open a file of old writing. Even through you have edited this piece at least ten times, edit it again. Tell yourself editing is writing. Sigh deeply.

Check your social media sites for new posts and interactions. Spend a minimum of thirty minutes reading celebrity gossip. Shudder with self-disgust.

Go pet the dog. Take a walk around the block to clear your mind. Notice how it’s almost noon already and panic that you are wasting your chance to get writing done. Doubt that you even like writing. Doubt your sincerity, doubt your ability.

Sit in front of the computer. Decide to blog instead of working on your novel. Scan through your post ideas and reject all those you deem frivolous, likely not to appeal to a wide audience, too personal, too impersonal, too overdone, too hard to match with a catchy title. Draft a list of the top ten websites where authors can post pictures of their cats. Sigh deeply. Go refill your coffee cup.

Sit in front of the computer. Tell yourself, butt in chair. Read inspirational quotes about how writing is really all hard work. Nod in agreement. Recheck all your social media sites for new posts and interactions.

Jump when the phone rings. Realize you were so absorbed in that online article about trends in book cover designs from the seventies that you missed your daughter’s pick-up time. Run out of the house, late, no real work accomplished.

Congratulations! If you made it this far, you have succeeded at failing to be a writer.

However, take this warning, this failure is not permanent. Tomorrow you wake up again. You must not give into temptation or inspiration to open that file with your novel. Failure requires commitment. You can not become complacent. Stay vigilant. Once again, you’ll wake up tomorrow with every chance of success.

Eleven Secrets to Building a Better Writing Group

11_secrets_better_writing_groupWhat do Chuck Palahniuk, Ursula Le Guin and Louisa May Alcott have in common? They all belong (or belonged) to writing groups.

Writing may be a solitary pursuit, but the solidarity of writing in the company of other writers may drive and focus your effort. A reliable, anticipatory audience makes for a great motivator. It may be that the only people who read your recent words are the five with which you meet weekly, but those eyes may be all the reward you need.

Once you’ve refined your craft and gotten that book deal or independently published, these will be the same people who make sure your first book signing isn’t a ghost town. These are the folks that can tell you that selling 500 books really is quite an accomplishment. They’ll be the ones to tell you how you really sounded when you start your NPR interviews. At the very least, they will write beside you and walk with you on your author journey.

A great many writing groups exist. I guarantee writers regularly meet somewhere close to you. Check meetup.com, look at the flyers in your local libraries and writerly cafes. If you can’t find one that’s right for you, start one yourself! That’s what I did with my group, the Seattle Daylight Writers. Five years later, we’re still going strong!

Here are my eleven secrets to building a better writing group.

1.)  Pick a day, time and frequency that works for you.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is actually very easy to acquiesce to scheduling times that don’t really work with your schedule in order to please the vocal folks that aim for their own convenience. You are the leader and organizer. If the time is difficult for you, you may be able to make it at first, then will struggle, then will skip. Without a consistent leader, the group will falter, weaken and disband. This time won’t work for some people. That’s okay. They can start another group at a time that works for them.

2.)  Be consistent.

Once you find a time to meet that works for you, stick to it. The more regular and reliable you are, the more likely your group will go the distance. There will always be weeks some writers will miss. Or there will be the first timer and will take a couple months of canceling before getting the courage to make their first appearance. If you are always there, Fridays at eleven at Caffe Vita on Pike, writers will find their way to you, or back to you, eventually.

3.)  Respect every writer.

All writers are equal. Every moment of a writer’s journey is valid and worthy, from those just starting and struggling with basic clarity, to those churning out best-selling literary prose on a daily basis. We were all beginners once.

4.)  Decide what you really want out of your group.

Not every writing group is the same. My group gathers to communally ignore each other for 45-minutes of feverous writing. If so moved, we follow this writing period by reading out loud what we just wrote. Perhaps you’re looking for deep critique and your group will share pages beforehand and exchange comments when you meet. Still other groups meet to share prompts, exercises and writing games. Make it whatever you want. There will be other writers seeking the same thing.

5.)  Create an online page.

Your group’s webpage will allow you to schedule sessions, provide information and manage and attract members. I love using meetup.com for my writing group. I never advertised. I simply put it up on Meetup and the writers found me. You could also use a Facebook page, a Google+ group, or a custom site.

6.)  Personally welcome every person that comes.

With as little as a nod and a “hello”, you can make each writer feel welcomed and at ease in your group. It’s amazing how many people feel great trepidation and insecurity to say they are a “Writer” or to do anything that may bring their writing to light or fear of being rejected by “real” writers. A simple, “Hello. I’m glad you came,” can go a long way to transforming a nervous newbie to an impassioned participant.

7.)  Location. Location. Location.

Setting has a tremendous impact on the tone of your writing group. Busy, loud coffee shops may be excellent for inspired writing sessions, but terrible for structured conversations. Quiet libraries work well for editing sessions and one-on-one critiques. Private homes are great for groups of people that already know each other, but uncomfortable for strangers.

8.)  Consider parking and transportation ease.

Things like free parking and bus accessibility can be the deciding factor people for many people if they want to make the trek out to writing group today or not. Groups meeting in urban areas may want to share the best parking strategies, or post which bus routes run close by.

9.) Enlist as many co-organizers as possible.

Your instincts may tell you to protect your precious group by keeping control close and limited to your own whims. However, this is the quickest way to kill a group. Imagine that your writing group will last years and years. One day, eventually, you will go on vacation, or suffer an illness, or perhaps even fall out of your writing groove for a bit. With co-organizers, you don’t need to worry about the group dying off during your absence. Plus, the more ownership members have, the better the quality of the group.

I should note here that for my own group I retain sole control over finances and the ability to charge dues. I have not passed that on to any one else. However, I have many co-organizers that host more events. Our group meets three times a week, but I only can make it to one.

10.) Set the tone, diffuse, feel free to boot.

You have the power to set the tone of your group. Whether you would like a group heavy on criticism or instead focused on positive encouragement, your words and actions provide the model for other members. Feel free to speak to any writer who damages the experiences of others. (Preferably in private.) It’s very rare, but I have even banished a few people from our group. I welcome all kind of crazy, warmly. Our group is the people’s group and open to all, regardless of writing ability, psychosis or quirks. The only time I booted people has been when their crazy interferes with other member’s ability to have a positive experience.

11.) Show up.

Remember what I said about consistency? I mean it. You are the heart beat of the group you start. If you skip too many times, it will die.

I love all the people that come to my writing group, whether I know them or not. The camaraderie can’t be beat. You’re all invited to try out my group if you’re in Seattle. If you are in another city, perhaps leave a comment letting us know if you are looking for a group, or if you have one to recommend.

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Bookshelf Porn: Three Books That Ruined My Ability to Hold A “Real” Job

bookshelf_pornYou may read thousands of books in your lifetime, but there will always be those few special ones that impact your mortal trajectory in major ways. Books inspire us, show us glimpses of the kind of lives we want to live, of the kind of people we want to be. For those of us who discover the nature of our souls vary greatly from the people that surround us in real life, books can show us understanding, give us a familiar home.

Three books in particular influenced my awareness of myself as an artist and thinker in the world. Without these books, I may possibly have believed the story I was told as a child. The story about how a life of purpose means a life of work at a desk, preferably on computers, 8-5, government-based all the better.

photo 1Enter Frederick by Leo Lionni. The particular copy you see in the picture hiding behind my Royal I picked up in Japan. However, I first read this book when I was very young.

This slim children’s book tells the story of a little mouse with an artistic soul. While the other mice labor for winter stores, they deride Frederick for sitting and daydreaming. Frederick does not budge. He states his purpose, he is collecting colors, sensations. When winter comes, he freely eats of the food the other mice collected. What a lout!

But then the food runs out, and winter’s coldest nights fall over the mice. Now Frederick’s work may be appreciated. He tells the suffering mice stories of summer, of plenty, of warmth and sunshine. The little mice feel comforted. They gain peace, joy even, and the strength and perseverance to survive to springtime.

Collecting food is valuable work. Building computer programs is valuable work, so is teaching and business and labor. So also is art, and writing. The way that I work may look very different from the way much of the modern world works, but it is still work.

You know, I did find a life of purpose at a desk, on a computer. My mom was right about that.

photo 3Next is Irving Stone’s imagined biography of Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life. Van Gogh was one of my early obsessions. The Starry Night, Irises, Cafe  Terrace at Night, The Yellow House… I can go on and on. I studied these paintings for hours, captivated by the color, by the audacity of the thick strokes of paint.

Many people have told me this biography is far from fact, and there are better ones about Van Gogh out there, but this is the one that I read when I was thirteen. This book revealed to me that an artist I considered a master actually toiled his entire life to build his craft. It wasn’t as if he picked up a brush and BAMN a masterpiece happened.

Van Gogh lived unapologetically off the support for his brother, doing the work that made him happy. Ultimately, his work impacted millions of people, but he never knew that. He just knew that painting called to him, so paint he did. Van Gogh was poor. He received almost no external validation. My own art is certainly no better than Van Gogh’s, so how may I be discouraged if money and recognition do not come easy to me?

photo 2And finally I offer you Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Despite the great teachings of the books above, I often find myself caught in corporate clutches, or confused about the importance of things like money and titles. When I find myself stressed to the point of nightly glasses of wine, or when the greatest anxiety I have in my day revolves around A-Thing-That-I-Want-Really-Bad-But-Can’t-Actually-Afford, it’s time to reread Siddhartha.

I discovered Siddhartha in my twenties, when I was living in Japan. The sweeping view of a life spent began in anxious unease, but ended in sublime peace pours a calm into my spirit that lasts for weeks. Of course, it also entirely kills my productivity for a few weeks, so I must be careful of when I choose to read it. I’m the girl who gets things done. A little anxiety helps me along.

These books have properly ruined my ability to hold a “regular” job or find satisfaction in a daily grind. For that, I am eternally grateful.

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The Problem with Poetry

Problem_with_poetryPoets gets me in trouble.

First, it was all because of Poe. At thirteen, I obsessed over his gorgeous, grand lines. Safely ensconced in my playhouse with the door firmly closed against eavesdropping sisters, I recited his poems aloud over and over again. The imprint of some of these remain forever etched on my soul,trapped behind my teeth for instant recital.

I dwelt alone in a world of moan and my soul was a stagnant tide.

How deep! How dark! How profound!

Determined to be as great a writer as Poe, I labored to add such depth to my adolescent writings. When my language arts teacher projected an image of a girl looking out her bedroom window at a crow and told us to write about the picture, I felt the gods had smiled upon me. I knew exactly what to do. I was prepared. I was going to deliver the most profound piece that would win my teacher’s adoring awe.

Instead, I won myself a trip to the school counselor’s office. I remember I wrote something about how the crow was all there was, and all else in the universe was dingy, depressed death. (Oh, alliteration, how I love thee!)

My trouble deepened in college, when we would sit in seminar dissecting some famed poet’s piece on gender identity, or privilege, or patriarchal pandering. Twenty students in the circle, twenty interpretations, yet one professor with the “truth” of the meaning. I read too many bad poems. I heard too much theorizing complex meaning out of trite sentiment. I didn’t understand.

I scribbled a trite poem capitalizing on all the clichés I’d heard all quarter and received highest praise for my work. Screw that. Poetry is a sham. I’m done.

How grateful I am for the poets that brought me back to the light, or the darkness, depending on the piece. How grateful I am for Kay Kinghammer.

Kay Kinghammer writes with me every Friday morning at my Daylight Writers group. She started showing up a year ago, a friendly grandmother type with tight white curls and appliqué sweaters. Sweet enough, but easily dismissed, like so many poems of my past.

Oh, but Kay could write! When she chose to read her work at group, I would snap to attention. Here were lines that purred, that prowled, that crept up my spine, that occasionally rhymed! Here were lines I wanted to say again, with my own voice.

Down by the river in the dark,

I drifted with the water’s soft splashes,

I quivered with the rustling of bushes.

Hidden in the warm summer night

All the uncles, kids, and cousins,

Like so many peas in a pod.

Kay began her writer’s journey late in life, the part where she put the words down on paper anyway. She was busy, go-go dancing, falling in love with questionable men, attempting a Gypsy life of travel, raising a son. Years pass so quickly. Now she lives in Seattle with her Grandson. She takes the bus wherever she wants to go. She doesn’t own a laptop. She wears silly sweaters and comes to writing groups in coffee shops where she reads lines pulled from her past and captivates a room of caffeinated strangers.

Kay needs our help.

She was invited to debut her book of poetry (The Wenatchee River Anthology) at the Fermoy International Poetry Festival in Ireland. You may imagine, this is a very big deal for an emerging poet from Wenatchee. Living on a fixed income, there is no possible way Kay can afford a plane ticket to Ireland. This is where we come in.

Writers are wonderful people. I have received a great deal of support from my community. Now I ask that we direct some of that support in monetary fashion towards Kay. I’ve helped her launch a Kickstarter to raise the funds she needs to publish her book and get to Ireland. Please become a backer now.

I think of the dreams I have, how deep inside me some creature calls out her aching desires, how I would fly if that creature were freed. I think of your dreams. I think how incredible it is that we can have so much impact on one another’s lives.

We can make this happen for Kay. Please join me as a backer of The Wenatchee River Anthology.

Become a backer now.

 

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My June Promise

june_promiseYou will see one new post from me everyday for the month of June.

For the last two years, founding and running a tech startup consumed my life. With tremendous expectation and no boundary between work and personal life, I lost evenings and weekends. My friendships faded from lack of attention. My slender body became something of a memory as a softer form took its place, better suited for greater base stability to support endless hours at a keyboard. I gave up a high-paying career path and trained myself not to hyperventilate every time boot season came around and I had to abstain from adding to my coveted collection. My company gobbled up all my best hours, save for the few scraps of time and focus I managed to salvage for my daughter, my love life, and small bits actual paying work.

The joy of running my own company, getting funding, and helping other writers publish and promote their books made all these hardships more than bearable. The challenge sparked a great adventure.

However, one sacrifice hit my soul like the business end of long-haul semi. My writing.

My friday morning writing group often functioned as the only time I would have to write within a week. When I had to skip a month’s worth of sessions in a row, I knew my life was seriously out of balance.

As both the bible and John Lennon will tell, there is a season to everything. These last two years were my season for push, for stretch, for sprint, for learn. Now a new season approaches. A season of reflection, of words, of quiet and space.

Why make a promise?

External expectations trump personal desires. If I am the only one waiting for my writing, I am the only one that knows when I let something else step ahead. If you are expecting my words, than how much easier it is for me to say no to other greedy time chompers and give my writing the priority my peace of mind requires.

I’m not a masochist. Nor do I plan to set myself up for failure. You may see a post here or there that I typed in days past, published in some other place. Those little life saver cheats will aid in the preservation of my sanity while meeting a daily post requirement. I’ll keep them to a minimum.

Let’s see how this goes. Any writers out there want to play along on your own blog?

Event: Publishing Advice


I’d like to invite you all to a special presentation I giving next week in Seattle. The Seattle Free Lances association is hosting my talk, Ten Things to Do Before You Publish.

Tip: If you enter the promo code friend, the price drops from $40 to $22, plus you’ll still get the free wine and cheese. Excellent! Get tickets here.

From the event page…

Just as a field of tulips is the fruition of plans, labor and materials, so is successful book publishing. Kelsye Nelson’s workshop covers ten things to do before you publish — ten things to propel you to success through your entire writing career.

 

Agents and publishers now take a good look at a writer’s online presence, website, social media, network and community when deciding to take a chance on a new author. And if you publish independently, you absolutely need a strong author platform.

 

Luckily, with the free tools and resources Kelsye covers, it isn’t hard to give your books their best chance for success by building a respectable author platform with minimal investment of money and time.

 

Starting from scratch? No problem! Let Kelsye illuminate your path.

 

Already have an author platform established? You’re ahead of the game! Come pick up some new tips on how to optimize your online presence and get the most help from your real-life community. Kelsye’s a wiz at this.

 

BONUS: Kelsye also shares insights on how she raised $9,800 on KickStarter last month to fund her non-fiction book project — and attracted an agent at the same time!

Get tickets here.

Hope to see you there!

 

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When Things Go Wrong in the Best Possible Way: Motherhood

My plan was simple. I was going to become a photographer for National Geographic, travel the world, have great affairs. Finally, at 40-years-old, I would have a daughter with my most clever lover.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, I married my high school sweetheart and had my daughter when I just 22. We moved back to a suburb outside of Olympia, Washington where I took a job as a secretary and grew increasingly depressed with my unremarkable trajectory with each inch of expanded belly.

Then my daughter was born. Instant alchemy.

Just a single week of holding her in my arms and the understanding that I am the most powerful force in her life sunk into my consciousness. All kinds of glorious revelations flowed forth.

What kind of life do I want for my daughter? I want her to live her dreams, to bravely pursue her passions and interests freely.

If I am the most powerful force in her life, and the best example she has of a life a woman can lead, I must live to my fullest capacity.

I started doing the things that I would want my daughter to do. I admitted my greatest dream. (To, gulp, be a writer!) I re-enrolled in a four-year college and majored in writing, career opportunities be damned. The very month I graduated, I moved my little family overseas to live in Japan. If travel was what I wanted, then no excuse should keep me from packing my bags and boarding the plane.

I don’t expect her to do exactly as I have done. I expect her to do exactly as she wants to do.

When I was pregnant, pitifully employed and ghosting the same strip malls of my youth, despair oozed my from very being. How lucky that her arrival gave my life the driving meaning I required to kick-start my own adventure-filled life.

She’s twelve now, and the most amazing person I’ve ever met. We’re in Mexico where I spend my mornings completing the revisions of my novel, and our afternoons exploring together. When I think back to that simple plan I constructed when I was 16, I laugh. How little it was. How much bigger and better this life has become.

The Best First Line Ever

I need your help choosing the style and direction the beginning of my novel will take.

I’m currently on retreat to revise my novel draft. To help guide me, I’ve been reading Les Edgerton’s book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. This book has illuminated many way I may make my novel opening much stronger. Here’s where I need you help.

Below are two opening snippets. Please read them both and then let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page which one you find most compelling. I don’t care for corrections at this point. The main function of the opening is to make the reader want to read more. Between these, which prompts you to want to keep going?

Opening #1

 

How many men do you need to sleep with to kill love? Basic tootsie-pop question with a twist. I could tell you about each one, but that would make this merely a story about sex. I don’t want the book of my life to sit on that shelf. Not enough traffic. Readings would be awkward.

I could easily make this a book about what the other writers call “the long dark wilderness of the soul.” Frankly, I never cared much for tragedies. Even the queens of my generation grow tired of brooding and dramatizing now and then.

This is simply a love story. A true story. My story.

For 25 years, the story of my life played out like a sitcom. I was the girl who fell in love at 16, married her sweetheart, earned a college degree and had a beautiful daughter—though not necessarily in that order. I built a successful life in a foreign country where I worked as an English teacher. Happy endings forever and ever.

Unfortunately, that plot was unsustainable. Every arc has an upward stroke, but also a twin descent.

Let me show you where it begins.

Opening #2

 

Let me show you where it begins.

Japan. Christmas Eve. Cold rain, but no snow. The apartment provided to me by the university where I teach has a wall of glass, sliding doors that lead out to a balcony and show me all of Osaka’s twinkling orange lights. Strings of tiny white bulbs wrap my scrawny fica tree. Brightly colored packages circle round the pot. My two-year-old daughter has finally succumbed to the inevitability of sleep and snoozes safe and warm in her pink Hello Kitty room. My husband has stepped out. Just for a minute. He’s probably halfway down the hill by now, hurrying to buy milk and Christmas cake topped with giant red strawberries before the grocery closes.

I’m sitting at my desk by the balcony, my face bathed in the deathly grey glow of my husband’s computer screen, scrolling through an accidentally discovered folder named 98taxclassifications filled with pictures of my best friend. Laughing. Smiling. Half-naked. Naked. In some her naturally blond hair is long and full of curls as it was years ago, in others her hair is chopped short and dyed red as it has been just last year after her divorce. In some photos, I see my husband’s feet, or a bare shoulder, or his shadow painting a swath of her skin a darker shade of pale. In a rare few, I see his face, pressed close next to hers, beaming up into a camera held at arm’s length.

I click, click, click through sub-folders with names like Christmas 99, Rainier Cabin or simply favs. The last set of photos seem to be dated the very month we left America for Japan.

My mouth gaps open and closed like a carp.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you for your help!

 

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The Great Writing Retreat Debacle

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I have come to Mexico on retreat, with the sincere intention of finalizing the edits on my novel. I am failing miserably.

An author friend of mine, Judith Gille, has allowed me use of her house in San Miguel de Allende for two weeks. I have brought my 12-year-old daughter with me, thinking I could combine our yearly trip together with a personal writing retreat. I take my daughter somewhere each year, just the two of us. This trip forms a cornerstone of our relationship. In my usual life, I lead a tech startup, consult on marketing projects for authors, run Kickstarter campaigns and organize multiple writing groups and organizations. I’m very busy. I spend days and evening on my computer and often rush off to meetings or events. It’s hard to get my attention. I sequester myself with my daughter for an extended amount of time each year so that she knows that her sole company and the adventures we create together are of utmost importance to me.

So why did I think I could bring a novel – the greatest attention hog of all – along for our trip?

The extraordinary doings my daughter and I embark on are but one obstacle in my writing progress. In Mexico, they say you must “live in your body.” I read about this in books before I came, but didn’t know what it meant until I had spent a few days in country.

The afternoon heat, the close proximity of private lives to public spaces, the altitude, the hill we must walk to get home, the constant cacophony of dogs and roosters and bells and singing and kids and cars, smells alternating savory and putrid — all these things draw my consciousness into my flesh. My shoulders and chest throb with sunburn. My thighs ache from holding tight to my mustang on the steep canyon trail. My ankles complain at the fast disregard I have for foot placement on cobblestone streets. My eyes burn from sand and sun block and sweat.

Evening entertainment in San Miguel de Allende.When we retire to our cool house in the evening (the very same featured in this book), a deep fatigue washes over me. Think? Turn thoughts into words into sentences into plot lines? How is this possible? The grand event of our evening is drinking water on our rooftop veranda, watching the sun slice the city into vertical bands of pink and gold.

I read a collection of Mexican literature I found on Judith’s bookshelf. All the stories presented tightly-drawn characters and memorable narratives, but not a single one conformed to classic story structure. Sure, things happened. They all had beginnings, some had middles, and few even offered endings. But these were mere illustrations of moments, events, characters. That all-important character change never occurred. Not in one. The authors would write right up to the moment of transition or change, and there the story would end. It’s as though all the authors collectively agreed, eh, that’s good enough. You get the idea. And then wandered off from their pages for a siesta, or to perhaps discover the source of the noise in the square.

My novel has been drafted. It’s been through a deep edit. All that is left for me is to implement the structural improvements my wise editor Tammy suggested. Maybe I should have retreated somewhere cold, somewhere my body pulls in close and tight. A temperate zone where my thoughts must rally, must act act as commander to spur my timid flesh into action. In San Miguel, my body propels me. My thoughts follow two-steps behind.

My writing office for two weeks.There’s still time.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will command my conscience. I will wake up in cool hours, plant myself on our rooftop veranda, and fix one more chapter. But then… I hear there is a must-see religion procession tomorrow morning featuring donkeys and twelve apostles just one block away from our house. And one of the gauchos from our trail ride gave us a tip on lovely hot spring a mere eleven dollar taxi ride away….

I need a character change of a personal sort if I am to make any progress.