Pay No Attention to the Teenagers behind the Curtain


Huge thanks to Mrs. Markham and her students at Accelerated Learning Center for reading my novel, All Different Kinds of Free.

Teenagers have always been a mystery to me (even when I was a teenager and especially when I was a parent of teenagers). So when a local high school English teacher contacted me to say she was teaching my historical novel in her class and would love to have me speak to her students, I was both massively thrilled and a tiny bit terrified. The visit was last week, and I’m happy to report I had nothing to fear.

The students and faculty at Accelerated Learning Center in Phoenix are amazing. Mrs. Markham created a unique lesson plan and assignments to go along with the group reading of All Different Kinds of Free. As just one example, she had students write a personal essay from the point of view of one of the characters in the book. The papers were posted on the wall, and it was interesting for me to see whose minds the students chose to explore. Some chose main characters (Margaret, Jim, Edward Prigg), while others chose secondary characters (such as Mill Green Justice of the Peace Thomas Henderson). The perspectives portrayed in the papers were insightful and creative (and sometimes hilarious, as Justice Henderson declared in one, “The nerve of some people. God, I need a drink.” I loved it.).

I’m relieved to say no one nodded off while I shared my writing background and inspiration for the novel. The students were attentive and engaged, and they asked a lot of unique questions about writing, researching, publishing and freelancing. The hour we spent together flew by too quickly. While teenagers will probably always be a mystery to me, they are no longer so intimidating thanks to the remarkable students at ALC.  I can’t wait to go back next year, if they’ll have me again.

Book Recommendation – All That is Solid Melts Into Air

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

One of the first books I read this year was All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon. It immediately landed on my list of all-time favorite reads. As 2017 comes to a close, I still miss the people in the book terribly. Yes, I know they are fictional characters; that is the magic that fuels this novel. McKeon has created full-bodied, living, breathing, feeling characters – mistreated, yet resilient; impassive, yet loyal; flawed, yet perfect. Add to that the author’s beautiful prose and his amazing talent for descriptive storytelling, and this is a book that will linger in my mind for years. 

Here is a summary from the publisher:

All That Is Solid Melts into Air is a gripping end-of-empire novel, charting the collapse of the Soviet Union through the focalpoint of the Chernobyl disaster.

In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbors. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past. In the hospital, a leading surgeon buries himself deep in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage. And in a rural village in the Ukraine, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. In the fields, the ears of the cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened.

Now their lives will change forever.

If you’re looking for a thrilling page-tuner or a happily-ever-after story, this is not the book for you. It explores the impact not only of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986, but also the horrible repercussions of an oppressive Soviet regime on its people. In the paperback edition, the author also includes a closing essay that details the continued and tragic health and quality-of-life consequences suffered by the people of the region more than 25 years later.

This is a book that will make you cringe, and weep, and think, and worry. It is sad. It is terrifying. And yet, it is exquisite in so many ways. As a reader, I was blown away by its beauty and depth. As an author, I was envious as hell. McKeon raised the bar for all my reading and writing.

* If you decide to purchase McKeon’s novel, check out at the link below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.

In Praise of the Handwritten Thank You

Handwriting - fantasistaEven though many people feel awkward or embarrassed accepting thanks face to face, everyone likes to be appreciated. In addition, a great deal of research shows that expressing gratitude has both physical and psychological benefits (see links below). That’s why I love mailing handwritten thank you notes. I feel good sending them, and those being thanked feel good receiving them.

Handwritten notes take a bit of time and thought to create. That’s a good exercise in gratitude for me. It helps me slow down and focus on the positive things in my life, if only for a few minutes. When a note arrives unexpectedly in your mailbox, you get a pleasant little endorphin boost and you can bask in the appreciation without feeling self-conscious about your response.

Oh sure, Jessica, you may be thinking. That’s easy for you to say. You’re a writer.

It’s true, I have a fondness for putting words to paper, but that is not a requirement for writing a thank-you note. In fact, a thank-you note from someone who hates writing is likely to be valued even higher by the recipient, for the extra effort it required to create.

Give it a try. Send a thank you for that birthday gift. Express your gratitude to the doctor who squeezed you into her busy day when your baby had a fever. Thank the co-worker who stepped in to assist with a difficult client or customer. Write a note to the person who cleans your house, or delivers your mail, or mows your lawn.

Here are a few tips that will help make the task easy and rewarding:

  • Don’t stress over your handwriting. Many people worry about this, and they send an email or online message to say thanks. Electronic thank yous are fine for many situations; but, when it really matters, handwritten notes show you made an extra effort to express your gratitude. That effort trumps less-than-perfect penmanship. Always.
  • Keep it short. You don’t need to write a novel. Three or four sentences are plenty, and keeping it short will help you fend of procrastination of the task.
  • Be specific. For example, if writing a note to your child’s teacher at the end of the school year, say thanks for something unique the teacher did. Rather than writing, “Thank you for making third grade a great year for Sally,” write, “Thank you for the allowing Sally extra time in the library to pick out books. Your patience this year enabled her interest in reading to blossom.”
  • Close with an opening. End your note with an invitation. “Let’s make an effort to meet for coffee or lunch sometime soon. I’ll give you a call next week.” Or, close with a sentence that addresses the future. “Best wishes to you and Jane for a fun-filled summer.” “I’m looking forward to seeing you at church Sunday.”


Additional reading:

University of California – Davis professor Robert Emmons has conducted multiple studies and done extensive writing on the link between gratitude and well-being.

A George Mason University study found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In this Entrepreneur article, Jacqueline Whitmore highlights several tangible benefits of the handwritten letter. 

Photo courtesy of Fantasista and

Learn from Great Memoirists

Memoirs photo 3Memoirs have always been in my reading repertoire, and Mary Karr’s The Liar's Club is among my favorites. She grew up in a small, poor Texas town in a family rife with alcoholism, violence and mental illness; through it all, despite it all, she maintained a fierce love for and gained a keen understanding of her family. Karrs’ latest book, The Art of Memoir, is technically a how-to writing book, though it also feels part-memoir. She shares many insights about how she wrote and revised her other work — the internal struggles she faced in realizing the truth, coming to terms with it and sharing it with the world. There is much we can learn from great memoirists.

Karr explains many elements of memoir writing – what works, what does not, and why.  As a reader, it explained a lot to me about why I have been deeply touched by some memoirs and have been turned off by others. As a writer, it confirmed my notions that many elements of strong writing cross all genres.

This author has a sassy, smartass writing style, which I love. Karr pulls no punches with the reader, nor with herself. She is honest and real, flawed and relatable. It takes great courage to bare your life and soul in a public way, with the hope for personal healing and the belief that it may help others heal as well. Karr not only rises to this challenge personally, she also highlights and applauds many other writers who’ve done the same in this risky and demanding genre that she loves. Her analysis of their works is enlightening.

I have no desire to write a memoir (pause for collective sigh of relief from family and friends), but this is a book I will keep and reread. If you are a writer and/or enjoy reading memoirs, I highly recommend this insightful tome. I added several titles to my to-read pile, thanks to her recommendations. Her insights also got me thinking about some of the memoirs that have moved me. Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):

Writing Podcast: On freelancing, novel writing and life

It was so much fun recording this interview for the Writer’s Market podcast. We chatted about maintaining a successful freelance writing career while pursuing the goal of becoming a published novelist. I also shared some personal stories about my writing journey, as well as general freelance writing and business tips.

The podcast is about 60 minutes, perfect for your daily commute or workout on the treadmill. Click below to listen.

Big thanks to Writer’s Digest Editors Robert Lee Brewer and Brian Klems for inviting me to share my story and insights.

This is Not about Politics

Brace yourself for a strikingly-simple, yet brilliant idea. It’s super easy, and it’s something each of us can do, today. It will make us happier people, and it will make the United States an even better place to live than it is now. Ready? 

Troop 30Here it is: For every minute (or hour, or day) you spend online reading about, fretting over and commenting on political or cultural issues, spend an equal amount of time offline doing something productive for your community (and, by extension, for yourself).

This is not about politics. This is about your health. This is about humanity.

Spending excessive amounts of time doing things online is not only unproductive; it is counter-productive to living a happy, balanced life. It always seems to start with sharing one interesting article, liking one short video or making one quick comment. Yet, somehow, it often spirals downward into a frustrating, angst-inducing abyss.

Don’t take my word for it. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recently conducted a study on how social media habits affect the moods of users. The research revealed that the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. A similar study by the University of Illinois also found that extensive engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression. Taking a different approach, researchers in China examined thousands of social media posts to see which emotions go viral the fastest. Happiness, disgust, pride, sadness? Nope. They found it is anger that spreads faster and more broadly than any other emotion, like online wildfire, consuming everything in its path.

ACA NJHS service dayAnger, anxiety and depression. That’s fun stuff, right?

Knowing this, doesn’t it make sense to step away from the online world for a while? Do it not simply to add more physical action to your life, but to add more physical interaction. It can help ground you in the here and now, distance you from the anger spreading online, reduce your anxiety about tomorrow, and maybe even inspire positive changes in the people and world around you.

Before you argue this isn’t as simple as it sounds, I guarantee you it is. I also guarantee it works wonders. I do this. I know other people who do this. It may not always be easy, but it is simple. It is also much more satisfying than staring bleary-eyed at a Smartphone or other screen, more productive than blocking traffic and shouting angry words, more fruitful than sitting around wondering why other people don’t change their ways.

Sherry Turkle’s New York Times best-seller, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, focuses on the importance of conversation in digital cultures. She directs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Initiative on Technology and Self, and has spent the past 30 years researching the psychology of technology. Her research raises critical questions about people’s relationships with technology, as well as technology’s role in productivity, including whether our always-connected state affects our ability to think, be creative and innovate.

FMSC mobile pack PhxHer book description states: “The case for conversation begins with the necessary conversations of solitude and self-reflection. They are endangered: these days, always connected, we see loneliness as a problem that technology should solve. Afraid of being alone, we rely on other people to give us a sense of ourselves, and our capacity for empathy and relationship suffers. We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere: conversation is the cornerstone for democracy and in business it is good for the bottom line. In the private sphere, it builds empathy, friendship, love, learning, and productivity.”

“My argument is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation,” said Turkle, who has been described as a skeptic who was once a believer. “We miss out on necessary conversations when we divide our attention between the people we’re with and the world on our screens.”

Thankfully, there is also good news according to Turkle: we are resilient, and conversation cures.

PVUMC missionSo here are some ideas to help you get offline and get into a conversation (and maybe even get some fresh air and exercise while you’re at it):

  • Play a game of cards with folks at a senior center.
  • Mow a neighbor’s overgrown lawn.
  • Teach someone to read and write.
  • Babysit for young parents who rarely get a break.
  • Organize a weekly soccer game (or basketball, or tag football, or cricket, or volleyball, or… you get the idea) for friends/neighbors at your local park.
  • Volunteer at the USO; chat with the people who defend and protect freedom.
  • Mentor a child through Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Scouting, 4-H or the foster care program.
  • Share your skill or trade with someone who is eager to learn.
  • Walk or ride your bike on short errands, instead of driving.
  • Pick up trash from the street or a public park.
  • Wash dogs and clean kennels or litter boxes at an animal shelter.
  • Read a book to someone undergoing chemotherapy or to a child in the hospital.
  • Petsmart adoption 2Cook a meal and deliver it to someone who could use the help but would never ask for it.
  • Join a volunteer work crew to help clean up a wilderness area.
  • [insert action word here] for [insert name of someone else here]. [repeat]

If you have other ideas, or would like to share some things you have done to improve your community and your own mental well-being, please sound off in the comments.

(Photos provided by Petsmart Charities, Boy Scout Troop 30 – Phoenix, Paradise Valley United Methodist Church, and Feed My Starving Children)

Book Reincarnation

Cropped book wallWhat do you do with an old book that has special meaning to you but otherwise has no real purpose or value? Its paperback binding is shot. Its yellowed pages are falling out. Toss it in the recycle bin? Never. Keep it on your bookshelf gathering dust forever, knowing you’ll never read it again? Perhaps. Reincarnate the book to give it a new purpose and a new life? Yes, this.

These photos are of my latest DIY project, using two old books that hold a special place in my heart: my high school humanities text book (one of the few classes I actually loved) and The House at Pooh Corner book from my childhood that I read and read, again and again.

IMG_6264My bedroom was in desperate need of fresh paint and a new look. So I chose a bookish theme and wall papered part of one wall with book pages. So. Much. Fun. I also found a cute book box at Hobby Lobby and decoupaged a book cover to it. Even when I move some day, The House at Pooh Corner can still come with me.

Another perk to the new book-themed décor is that my husband and I now have the perfect place to display books that had belonged to his mom when she was a little girl. We found them on the floor in the back of her closet when helping his dad my pack up her clothes after she passed away. These books were published nearly a century ago and include dated, personal inscriptions. Special treasures, indeed.


Find Your Next Page in Frisco

No vacation is complete (for me, at least) without a visit to the local bookstore. A few weeks ago, during an escape to the cool, clear air of the Colorado mountains, I wandered past Next Page Books & Nosh on Main Street in Frisco. It was love at first sight.

Window signage beckons with “books, cards, beer, wine, tea, coffee, food, friends.” The door is propped wide open. What more invitation does a person need? How about a friendly dog to greet you at the door? Yes, a person needs that, and Next Page delivers.

The store has a wide selection of books, a bright and welcoming children’s section, a sparkling well-stocked café, merchandise from local artisans, and a friendly, helpful staff. All that is lovely. Yet, what impressed me most about Next Page is how completely it embraces its community. The establishment hosts events nearly every day in the shop’s inviting “living room,” from monthly book club get-togethers and weekly crafts/stories for the kids, to happy hours with live music and author signings with New York Times best-sellers like Eleanor Brown (who I missed meeting by one day – curses!). 

Meet the Next Page bookstore pups.

Next Page has set a high bar for indie and chain bookstores alike. Since I had already purchased a (ridiculous) number of books before my vacation, I bought a Next Page t-shirt and a stack of note cards featuring gorgeous images of Frisco by local photographer Carrie Michalowski. I hope to visit Next Page again in the future.  In the meantime, I will stay connected to them online and encourage all bookstore enthusiasts to do the same.