A Truly Awesome Writer’s Conference

On October 26th, I had yet another opportunity to participate in a writer’s conference here in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Organized by BarrelhouseConversations & Connections was without a doubt my favorite of the three conferences I’ve attended in as many years. It was a fun, informative day, and lived up to the banner on their website proclaiming “practical advice and no jerks.” I’d definitely recommend the conference for first timers or new writers, as well as submitting to their journal if you’re looking for a home for your writing that doesn’t seem too uptight.

Conversations & Connections took place at Chatham University, a campus whose beauty was on full display on this drizzly autumn day. The tall trees and their changing leaves shielded us from the nearby city, creating a relaxing and picturesque environment that would have lulled me to sleep had I not had sessions to attend. Spending a day meandering the halls and staring out the palladium windows made me ache for the opportunity to give college another try, if only momentarily.

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The conference had a variety of sessions to choose from, and we had plenty of time to work and share our writing. It was refreshing to be at a conference that wasn’t super preachy or focused solely on technical junk. Each instructor gave us tools to work with and lots of encouragement about the art of simply writing.

Highlights for me included the sessions about snagging readers with your first line or paragraph, as well as the one facilitated by three local women who discussed the ins and outs of writing for social justice. I was also humbled and inspired by speakers Monica Prince, Heather McNaugher, and Lilly Dancyger, whose readings made me laugh, cry, and feel every emotion in between.

The best part of the day for me, hands down, was the “speed dating” with editors portion. Each attendee was given one ten-minute meeting with an editor included in the price of their admission fee — but you could also purchase as many more sessions as you wanted for only $5. Yes – Five. Dollars.

I met with two editors – one to discuss my borderline novella-length piece of genre-fiction, and a second to go over a personal essay that I’ve been trying to find a home for for the better part of a year. Both editors were kind, patient, complimentary, and insightful. The first guy I sat down with floored me by asking if I had an MFA, and didn’t bat an eyelash when I told him I was a college drop out. He shrugged off the notion that genre fiction was taboo or not desirable and told me it was clear that I knew what I was doing and that he wanted to know what happened at the end of my story. After giving me some helpful pointers to spiff up the piece, he handed me his card and wished me luck. The second editor was just as encouraging and down-to-earth, offering me plenty of positive feedback and tips that will hopefully get my travel essay in print.

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After spending a mere twenty minutes with these editors, I walked away feeling like I was on top of the world, much like I did back in March when my very first pitch to an agent ended with an invitation to send her three chapters of my novel. In less than a half an hour, I had two more forms of validation that I was, in fact, on the right track and that I wasn’t wasting my time. Fellow writers know just how difficult it is to get that validation, especially if you’re yet unpublished. The value of this feeling only increases when you’re new to the scene or understandably intimidated by other writers who have had their work published by huge publications and have one or more degrees under their belt.

But even though many of the speakers and facilitators had impressive resumes and plenty of bragging rights, this was the first conference that I didn’t feel overly intimidated. It felt easygoing, down-to-earth, and incredibly accessible. There was not a single point at any part of the day where I felt like I was out of my league. It was good to feel like a peer, and not just a clueless student.

The value of the conference only added to its appeal and accessibility. Admission was a reasonable $75, and I’d taken advantage of the early bird sale and snagged a ticket for only $65. That price included the aforementioned speed dating session, your choice of books by one of the keynote speakers, as well as a subscription to one of several literary publications. The fact that additional speed dating sessions were only $5 continues to blow my mind, and when I attend next year, I’m definitely going to cram in as many sessions as I can.

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Short of being out of town on some exotic vacation when this conference rolls around in 2020, I can’t think of any reason why I wouldn’t go back. The conference was, from top to bottom, well worth the time and money. The sessions were valuable and helpful, and I got an overwhelming sense of encouragement from every single speaker, editor, and facilitator that day. They laughed, poked fun at themselves, admitted their faults and struggles, and weren’t afraid to show their human side. As a writer who works two “real” jobs and has yet to be paid for her work, I cannot express how incredibly refreshing it is to hear real writers talk about their own 9-5 jobs, their sometimes lack of discipline, and any other forms of confusion or plight that have plagued them along the way.

The human element these writers added to the experience was truly invaluable. Not only did I walk away with new tools to improve my writing, but also plenty of rediscovered confidence to propel me into the next phase of my writing journey.

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Millennial Mental Health

Had to pass this along. I agree 100% with everything here. Millennials are constantly being degraded for being “over sensitive” because of our mental health issues, but the fact of the matter is that this epidemic has been happening for a long time and we’re the first ones to talk about it.
I also completely agree with her stance on celebrities, Meghan Markle being the example here. Just because someone is beautiful and wealthy doesn’t mean she doesn’t have emotions or struggles. We’ll all human.

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I don’t always like talk about it but my mental health is something that I am cognizant of on a daily basis. I want to make sure that I’m taking the necessary steps to look after myself and my well being.

I think that all too often millennials are criticized in the media, and in life, for being so open about mental health struggles. In reality, I don’t think we’re the first generation to have struggles with mental health, I just think that we’re the first generation to be open and honest about it.

I’m 99% positive that my father struggles with severe anxiety and 100% positive that he never has, nor will he ever, admit to that. It’s just not something that his generation does. Nevertheless, I digress.

Some days, I get lucky and there’s not a lot going on. Those are the days when I find the most…

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Did You See That Football Game?

No, I didn’t.

It may come as a shock to most people, especially my fellow Pittsburgers, when I tell them that I almost never watch Steeler games — or football games at all — anymore.

The reasons are varied and complex, and have been brewing in the back of my mind for some time now. And I will be the first to admit, that as someone who has lived in Pittsburgh my whole life, I have mixed feelings about shunning a sport that runs through my veins just like the Three Rivers or Heinz Ketchup.

Despite the fact that I was never interested in watching or playing sports as a child, Steelers football, like Pirates baseball and Penguins hockey, is a part of my identity as a Pittsburgher. For us, they’re not just sports or games. They are part of our history and a huge source of pride for the steel city. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I can’t tell you what a first down in football means and I’m not one hundred percent sure where the short stop’s place is on the field. But I get goosebumps hearing about Roberto Clemente’s legacy and Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception, and I know that Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run in the 1960 World Series to defeat the New York Yankees. I barely watched a minute of high school football during my years in marching band, but I was thrilled and honored to have performed at both Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field. I couldn’t list five players on the current Steelers roster, but I know exactly where I was when we finally got “the one for the thumb.” Watching the glow in my dad’s eyes that night as we listened to the echoes of cheers from our neighbors in all directions is a moment I will never forget.

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But in recent years, the NFL has been tangled up in so many controversies that I’ve found myself too disgusted to give more than a moment’s attention to the games. Quite possibly the longest-running debacle has been the organization’s refusal to admit that playing football causes CTE, a brain disease that is covered in disturbing detail in both Will Smith’s 2015 movie Concussion, and Frontline’s documentary, League of Denial.

My husband and I watched the former a few years ago, and the latter just recently. We were both floored that not only does the NFL continue to dodge questions about CTE, but that they have the gall to insult esteemed doctors and researchers who have made it their mission to find out as much as they can about this epidemic. The blatant sexism, racism, and greed when it comes to other debacles is just icing on the cake.

It didn’t take long for our conversation to evolve from the issue of CTE to other controversies surrounding the game. Naturally we covered the debate over Colin Kaepernick — a man who was shunned by the nation and lost his career over a peaceful protest that prompted people to burn his jersey and treat him as though he had committed treason. Meanwhile, the same people denouncing Kaepernick had no issues cheering on players who had been arrested for domestic violence, sexual assault, drug possession, or dog fighting. Double-standards like these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the NFL — or football in general.

By now, most everyone in the nation knows who Antonio Brown (“AB”) is. Once a revered star receiver of the Steelers, his explosive, self-absorbed antics both on and off the field earned him a dismissal from the the Steel City, which was just the beginning of a parade of disasters. Over the next several months, “AB” was picked up by the Oakland Raiders, only to be released before signing with the New England Patriots — who ended up cutting him too. Brown’s unstable recent history have prompted many people to suspect that his bizarre behavior may actually be a result of too many blows to the head — a symptom of CTE.

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I wouldn’t be surprised if CTE was playing a role in AB’s life. But even if it isn’t, I don’t think we should be surprised by his behavior. Football players are treated as gods as soon as they first show any promising talent in Pee Wee. This preferential treatment follows them into middle school, high school, and college, where they are looked upon as untouchable, perfect celebrities because of what they do on the field. So is it any wonder that they have a skewed sense of reality when they get to the NFL?

I’ll pause for a moment and acknowledge that not every single football player has this attitude. There are a few men I can think of — professionals or students — who are as humble as can be. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here by suggesting that sports stars — primarily football players — are put on a pedestal from the get go.

When I was in high school, our football team was quite good. They made it to the playoffs every year, and the coach was often the talk of every local news station or newspaper in the area. So it’s no wonder that when class was in session, the players walked through the halls as if they were decorated Olympians. While I understand that a sense of pride isn’t something that should be hidden, I often wondered what caused that pride to tip over into arrogance.

As a member of the marching band, I knew that my favorite extracurricular activity was the butt of many jokes, not just in our school district, but everywhere — books, movies, and TV shows always made fun of the band kids, with their poofy hats, their dorky uniforms, and their questionable talent. But our band was good — we won awards, we got invited to perform for President Bush when he visited Pittsburgh, and we always had top-billing when we traveled to Disney World. But we were never congratulated or respected for anything we did. In school, the battle for recognition and fair treatment was a daily battle.

I remember one day in particular during my junior year — the band was getting ready to make its semi-annual trek to Disney World the following week, and my history teacher, who was also the track and field coach, decided to postpone a scheduled test for the week we’d be gone. Considering that Mr. M’s policy for missing a test was to take an essay makeup, us band kids volunteered to take the test early, but Mr. M. refused.

“I don’t have a problem with the band going to Florida,” he said. “I just don’t understand why they have to do it during the school year.”

“Mr M.,” I said diplomatically, “Your track and field members leave school two or three periods early anytime they have a meet at a far away district. And the football players do the same thing. Why is that okay?”

Before he could answer, a football player whirled around in his seat. “Because we win awards and trophies and stuff!” he blurted arrogantly.

“So do we!” I shot back. “But the school doesn’t feel the need to give us trophy cases to display them. We can take a walk to the music department right now if you want,” I went on. “There are trophies down there taller than me.”

The football player didn’t respond, but Mr. M’s eyes grew round and he looked at me as if he’d never really seen me before. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk so loud,” he said, and although he still forced us to take the essay makeup test weeks later, I truly felt that in that moment, he had a newfound respect for me and the band.

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This is just one example of the unjust treatment the band – and many other artsy extracurricular activities endured during my time in high school, and I know our story is no different than anyone else who sang in a chorus, danced on stage, painted sets, or played chess.

Football players have always been treated as the kings of the universe, while the rest of us — students, band nerds, admin assistants, and in the case of CTE, even doctors — are treated like dirt on the bottom of someone’s shoe.

While I understand that any sport is a colossal business, as well as a huge opportunity or outlet for young people, I really think we need to examine how much precedence football has over our lives. As students, a player’s ability to play ball is placed above their grades and their humility. And as professionals, it’s now being placed above their health and safety.

I’m not any kind of authority on brain injuries or the human ego. But I’ve been observing this trend for as long as I can remember, and I know I’m not the only one who has so many questions — why does someone’s ability to play a game take priority over their education, their morals, or their need to understand how to conduct themselves professionally or manage the obscene amount of money they may make?

Why are people denying the research when it comes to CTE? And why are they adding insult to injury by telling past and present players that they’re wimps or cry babies if they worry about it or demand compensation?

Why do we value a business’ bottom line over the health and safety of human beings?

Why will we spend $400 on a ticket to a football game but not $75 to go to the symphony?

Why do students have to take gym class until they graduate but music class stops in elementary or middle school?

Why are you considered cool, tough, and talented for playing football, but told you’re a nerd (or worse) if you play an instrument or sing or dance?

What is it about our society that has morphed something that should be an enjoyable form of recreation into a giant, arrogant monster?

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So Much Time, So Little To Do …

Strike that, reverse it.

When I was little, I never really understood this quote by Gene Wilder as the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Now I find myself using it frequently as I move through my daily life. At first it was funny — I used it during the Christmas rush, or when planning a vacation or party and I was ready to pull my hair out. But now I’ve realized that this phrase seems to describe my life on almost a weekly basis, and it’s not really funny any more.

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If you read my blog regularly (thank you, BTW), you know that 2019 has been simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. I won’t bore you with the details again (if you’re interested you can read more here  and here), but for most of this year I’ve felt like I’ve had two settings — either so busy that I couldn’t see straight, or so bored/stuck that I got in a depressive funk.

So what am I getting at with this rambling?

To be honest, I’m not really sure. Maybe I’m just venting. Maybe I’m hoping that by writing everything out, it’ll help clear my head a bit.

I haven’t had much time to write recently, and anytime I did find myself with a few spare moments, I’ve been too tired, depressed, or anxious to do anything productive.

But I have the remainder of this week off work, and instead of seeing the next three days as an opportunity to relax and get my creative juices flowing again, I’m obsessing over “to do” lists.

Right now, there’s a “writing to do” list sitting next to my lap top with 8 items on it. And there’s also a “non-writing to do” list on my kitchen counter with 9 items on it. I don’t doubt that I can get everything done with three days off, but it does make me re-examine my state of mind.

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Shouldn’t at least some time off be spent doing absolutely nothing? Shouldn’t I have at least one day where I stay in my pajamas all day, reading and watching TV and eating junk? Shouldn’t I just go sit on a patch of grass in a nearby park, watching the clouds and listening to the wind? (that answer to the latter is unequivocally YES because somehow Pittsburgh is going to have three straight days of clear skies and temps in the low 70s. To not take advantage of this extraordinarily rare occurrence would be a sin).

To be clear, I do plan on relaxing this week. I’m going to force myself to just be still and do nothing. Because I need it. I need to clear my head, listen to silence and nature, and not constantly be multi-tasking and running myself ragged. I hope that even a couple days of this will help me re-focus so I can streamline my goals and not feel so overwhelmed all the time.

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It’s a difficult balancing act for someone with mental health issues — if I have too much to do, my anxiety becomes overwhelming and I can’t get anything done. Or if I run myself into the ground in order to cross everything off my “to do” list, I start to neglect my basic needs like healthy eating and sleeping. The flip side is having nothing to do and becoming depressed. I personally struggle with a guilty conscience — feeling like I’m lazy or that I’m wasting my time or opportunities or nice weather. It can also be a slippery slope — if I don’t have big plans, little things will fall by the wayside — cleaning, laundry, paying bills. I get too depressed to do anything beyond reading or watching TV, and this isn’t healthy either.

I’m proud of myself for everything that I’ve accomplished and what I continue to accomplish on a (mostly) daily basis. Having a full-time job, a part-time job, and this writing gig that doesn’t pay (yet) is difficult to wrangle. But I also have a house, a husband, friends, and family that need my time and attention. While things could certainly be worse, they could definitely be better. I’m hoping I can use these days off to take my time deciding what I want to spend time and energy on and what can be placed on the back burner.

While I consider myself relatively disciplined with my schedule when it comes to writing, I think I have to be more specific about what I’m spending time doing, and that may affect this blog.

I still want to post regularly and I don’t ever want to stop talking about mental health. But I also have some new goals I want to focus on and some old ones that I haven’t paid any attention to at all recently.

So if you see me posting a little less regularly, just know that I’m reevaluating some things and working on other projects, both writing and non-writing related. I will, of course, keep you all updated any time I have any news, and hope to always be part of the blogging community that focuses on the importance of talking about mental health.

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Play It Again

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Some things never change.

That seemed to be the theme when I participated in an alumni band festival at my high school last week.

Most of the things that were the same about my alma mater were good, but some were negative. And some things hadn’t changed about me, either, since graduating in 2003.

I was having some anxiety about this event because, why not? It’s what I do. I hadn’t set foot in my high school in several years, and the last time I did so was to see a musical that the students were performing that my classmates had done back in 2002. For this occasion, I simply passed through the lobby and plopped myself in an auditorium seat and somehow managed to get through the night without seeing anyone I knew, save for the orchestra director who my sister and I briefly chatted with. This time, though, I would be spending the majority of my day there interacting with not only other alums and instructors, but traipsing through the familiar music wing where so many of my best high school memories took place.

This particular event had us alums actually marching on the field and playing music with the current high school students, so rehearsals started at noon, a full six hours before the show would begin. I arrived early, armed with my flute and a giant bottle of water to try to combat the eighty-seven degree heat that was scorching our corner of Pennsylvania. I felt like I was heading back to band camp, and this set my nerves on edge. I hadn’t played a note in several years, and I certainly hadn’t marched in sixteen. How the hell was I going to do this?

Once inside, a flood of memories came rushing back. The music wing and band room still looked mostly the same, the familiar whitish-gray floors and walls and bright blue doors leading to the expansive, tiered room where me and two hundred and fifty of my closest friends rehearsed and got dressed for countless performances over the course of four years. The black posture chairs were arranged in the timeless semi-circle, and it was refreshing to see new music stands and better storage units available to the students. I put my flute together, buffed out some of the tarnish, and began to study the music we’d be playing, squinting at the somewhat familiar notes that seemed so much smaller than they had when I was a teenager.

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A total of 20-30 alums showed up to participate in the show, and it was good to see a wide range of ages — from people who had just graduated a few years ago to those who had done so in the early 80s. There were also plenty of current students there early to pass out music and cork grease and flip folders, eager to show off their skills and help us old farts to remember fingerings and key signatures. A junior piccolo player sat next to me, tweeting away on the tiny little instrument, the high-pitched notes coming out in clear, strong tones that left me feeling even more intimidated.

But after the first hour of rehearsal, I found myself becoming more and more comfortable. Slowly but surely, my skills returned. I did remember how to read music, after all, and I even impressed myself by nailing a few high notes. There were plenty of stinkers, of course, and lots more squinting at the music and marking accidentals, but I found that my fingers and my brain still had the knowledge necessary to play an instrument, and I was pleasantly surprised that the ache in my lip wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

As the afternoon wore on, I realized that not only were my skills returning, but I was having fun. The director, who had replaced the teacher I’d had, was an easygoing, complimentary guy who made the most of our short few hours re-teaching us the schools’s fight song and alma mater. I chatted with the tiny piccolo player to my left, amazed by her confidence and ease. She reminded me of those days when I could play dozens of songs with my eyes closed, shrieking impossible high notes from memory and walking around confidently in a pair of super short shorts paired with dorky, plain white marching shoes.

By the time we broke for lunch, I was filled with the familiar knowledge that I was safe here, in this place where I made some of the best memories of my life and met some of my very best friends. Here, everyone was welcoming and accepting, whether you had beginner playing skills or were a professional musician. Here, no one cared if you were thin or fat or tall or short or whether you had purple hair or dreadlocks or worshiped Satan or Jesus or fairies. Here, no questions were asked, no judgments were made. Though I had just met most of these people three hours prior, we all chatted and joked like we’d known each other our entire lives. This was the atmosphere of love and acceptance I’d experienced in high school, and I was overwhelmed to realize that it hadn’t changed.

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When it was time to head to the football field for the marching portion of the rehearsal, the band director gave us some pointers. One, we were not to step into a certain portion of the track, which the athletic department had been painting the previous day, oblivious to the fact that the band was trying to practice. And two, the bathrooms and water fountains at the stadium were closed due to a massive water main break the day before.

“Our superintendent wanted us to cancel the event,” the director said. “But we have so much money and time invested that we decided to carry on. The district wouldn’t cover the cost of Port-a Potties, so we had to spend $3000 of our own money, but we don’t give up as easily as the rest of the school.”

My friend and I eyed each other in disbelief and shook our heads. This, unfortunately, also hadn’t changed — the music programs were overlooked and underfunded, bullied by sports programs, and never fully recognized for their persistence, especially in times of adversity. It didn’t seem to matter how many trophies or competitions were won, the music programs were never given their dues. But like we always had, the band pressed on.

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Once we arrived at the stadium, a huge, state-of-the-art facility atop a giant hill, the not-so-pretty realities of being in marching band came roaring back. The sun was scorching hot and there was no shade. The turf, which had been baking in the heat all day, burned up through the bottoms of your shoes and made your feet tingle and ache. The empty bleachers caused the cadences of the drums and the melody of the music to echo, or “phase,” which meant that you really, really had to concentrate on your music and your steps and the rhythm to make sure you stayed on track.

By the time we marched in formation for the second time,  I was absolutely drenched with sweat and panting like crazy. It took every ounce of my concentration to keep my flute angle parallel to the ground, stay in step, and concentrate on my music. While we stood at parade rest, sweat trickling down my face and my heart pounding in my chest, I was amazed at how effortlessly I seemed to be able to do all of this when I was a teenager. Sure, back then I was in better shape and I had my music memorized, but concentrating on every step, every note, and every breath, all while watching the drum majors and nailing dynamics and making sure you’re in line is incredibly difficult. There is no way to explain how complex and demanding marching band is unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Afterwards, I gave myself a long, overdue pat on the back for what I had accomplished way back then.

When it was our turn to perform, I was pumped — and a little nervous. Was five hours of rehearsal enough? Would I manage to march up the giant hill to the stadium with these kids without needing a breather? Would I remember the simple drill moves I needed to execute the formation on the field?

As always, the performance flew by in a flash. Before I knew it, the audience was clapping and cheering, and I was standing on the sidelines in a sea of blue and gold uniforms, all of our chests heaving and brows sweating, basking in the glow of another well-executed show.

Some things — the best things — truly never change.

You may also like . . . .

Band Geeks

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Let me tell you about this book I read …

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I typically don’t post a lot of book reviews, mainly because I think they’re overdone and they tend to get too detailed and skew the potential reader’s interest.

But I recently read a novel that was so on point with anxiety and other mental health disorders that I absolutely had to tell you about it.

The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves is one of the best books I’ve read this year. You can read the synopsis on her website, and if that description isn’t enough to send you rushing for a copy, let me persuade you further.

The author absolutely NAILS what it’s like living with anxiety and other mental health problems. She addresses sensory issues, depression, and being on the autism spectrum with such a respectful, open-minded voice. The main character, Annika, seems so real it’s like she’s sitting right next to you, waiting to go out for coffee once you’ve finished her chapters. I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about a character like this who has been so beautifully and attentively portrayed.

This raw honesty and simple validation of people with mental health disorders as real people had me tearing up as I devoured the pages of this book. It was touching and eye-opening reading about a character who had some of the same thought patterns and mannerisms as me (finger flicking, constant second-guessing myself over social norms, etc). But it was also funny, sweet, sensitive, sad, and sexy all at the same time. I even found myself developing a literary crush on the MC’s love interest, Jonathan, something I haven’t had the pleasure of doing in years.

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As I got further into the story of this page-turner, I found myself becoming emotional for another reason — realizing that this was the sort of fiction I want to write. Stories that are raw, accessible, and relatable, stories about people with anxiety and people who have experienced loss and trauma and somehow come through stronger on the other side. I want readers to know that there’s someone out there who gets it, who knows what it’s like to feel isolated and lost and defeated but somehow claw your way back.

I don’t know if I can fully express how much  I want this, how much I want to share it with people and let them know they’re not alone in this battle that so many people fight yet so few talk about.

I only wish I had a better handle on how to make it happen. It’s frustrating to know that you have a niche, that there’s an audience and a market for stories and articles and books about mental health, but the fact that you’re qualified to write about it is the same reason you can’t — fear.

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The anxiety I feel over writing and submitting isn’t as fierce as it used to be. Obviously I’m blogging about it on a regular basis and two of the three pieces I’ve had published center on mental health. But I want more. I want to reach more people, I want to write books about it. (technically I have written books about it. Both of my works in progress center on characters in different types of battles with mental health, self-worth, and overcoming trauma). But I’m still so afraid I’m just not good enough. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to be scared anymore.

This book gave me a lot of hope in more ways than one. Not only did it solidify the fact that writing stories like these are marketable and desirable, but when I flipped to the back flap for the author’s bio I discovered — with soaring, excited intensity — that she started as a self-published writer.

It’s truly inspiring to see that amazing things happen to good people and good writers and gave me hope in some moments when I needed it most – not just about my writing, but my anxiety as well.

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