The Development of Time Zones in the Nineteenth Century

One of my challenges in writing about the 19th century has been trying to determine how to account for time of day. In my descriptions of travel along the Oregon Trail, I mostly refer to time in generalities—midmorning, noon, sunset, and the like. I rarely give a precise hour.

My grandfather’s pocket watch

The captain of my fictional wagon train has a pocket watch, and he occasionally refers to it. But, of course, as the emigrants travel west across the continent, the captain and others with watches would have to adjust their timepieces so they continue to read 12:00 pm when the sun is directly overhead. That’s how time was kept in the 19th century—each community set its clocks so noon coincided with when the sun was at its highest point.

In my novels, I don’t depict the captain or any other character changing a watch, and as I write this post, I wonder how often the emigrants bothered. They moved an average of about fifteen miles per day, so it probably took them a few weeks of travel for the discrepancy between a watch and the sun to be noticeable.

Clock in Union Station, Kansas City (clock is 6 feet in diameter)

But as railroads developed and the pace of travel speeded up, the need for a uniform system of setting the time became more important. Railroads needed to develop a uniform schedule. Before they did, their timetables were a nightmare to maintain—each station abided by its local time, and therefore each station needed its own printed version of the railroad timetable. But many railroads published their schedules based on where their main office was.

Great Britain set a standard time across that nation in December 1847. (Note that this was two months after my fictional wagon train arrived in Oregon City.) But although the clocks were mostly standardized, England did not legally adopt Greenwich Mean Time until 1880.

Great Britain was relatively easy—one time zone sufficed. The problem was more acute across vast spaces, such as the continent of North America.

Time zones in the United States and Canada were not standardized until 1883. The major railroads of North America facilitated the process of setting those standard zones. Having a common time across a latitude of several hundred miles was not as precise as setting noon at the sun’s apex at every locality, but the time zones were a compromise that allowed wider regions to follow a common schedule.

And so the railroads established four time zones for the contiguous United States and Canada. Those time zones survive today—Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific—though there have been some changes at the edges over the years.

Once the zones were communicated, on November 18, 1883, telegraph lines transmitted time signals to all major cities across the nation. And from that point on, the continent has had standardized time settings, even if they were not universally or legally recognized.

A year later in October 1884, Greenwich Mean Time was set as the world’s time standard. GMT lasted until 1960, when it was superseded by the more precise (but almost identical) Coordinated Universal Time (or UTC).

Congress did not legally adopt the time zones until 1918. (The 1918 Calder Act that established legal time in the United States also established Daylight Savings Time, but the debate over Daylight Savings Time is a topic for another post.) Other nations took even longer to legally set their time zones.

I have always set my watch a few minutes fast so that I can avoid being late. Now that I rely primarily on a cell phone and other web-based clocks for the time, I don’t have that crutch. I must get myself ready with a few minutes to spare.

Are you someone who is regularly early or late? Why?

Our Fortieth Anniversary: Memories and Treasures Through Generations

This year I’ve posted several times about my husband’s and my courtship forty years ago. (See here and here and here.) Yesterday, November 26, 2017, was our fortieth wedding anniversary. As we did the year we were married, we celebrated throughout the Thanksgiving weekend.

This Thursday we hosted my husband’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a smaller, older crowd than our holiday dinner forty years ago. Then, my parents hosted the entire wedding party and three generations of family members at two tables. My husband-to-be-in-two-days, at age 28, was the oldest person at the kids’ table in the basement. My parents, at age 44, were the youngest people at the grown-ups’ table in the dining room.

This Friday, we rested after our meal preparation for Thanksgiving. Forty years ago on Friday of the holiday weekend, we had the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner.

This past Saturday evening, my husband and I went to a Christmas music show at the Quality Hill Playhouse in Kansas City. On Saturday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend forty years ago, we were married, followed by a low-key reception at a local hotel in my hometown. Late that Saturday, my husband and I flew to San Francisco, where we stayed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

On Sunday—our actual fortieth anniversary—my husband worked and I dealt with a temporary crown that popped off. But in the evening we celebrated with dinner at Piropos, a premier restaurant near our home (though to accommodate my tooth, I ordered soup and seafood ravioli instead of salad and steak, as I had planned). On Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend forty years ago, we had brunch at the Top of the Mark, then headed back to Stanford to prepare for our Monday law school classes.

On June 25, 1955, almost twenty-two years before my husband and I were married, my parents also stayed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, driving there from Klamath Falls, Oregon, after their wedding. My mother wrote her parents a lovely thank-you note on June 27, 1955, while on their two-week honeymoon in Carmel. My grandmother saved the note, and I have it now.

I was a less grateful daughter and didn’t write my parents while on my brief one-night honeymoon. Nor did I contact them anytime in the week after the wedding. When I did first call my parents the following weekend, there were some hints that they should have heard from me earlier. My only excuse is that I had classes on Monday and a law review note to rewrite in three weeks. That, and I am less thoughtful than my parents were.

As I was going through our good china and silver (most of which we received as our wedding presents) to set the table for Thanksgiving dinner last week, I came across a box with a silver tray in it. The tray falls into the category of “things I forgot I had.”

In the box with the tray was a note from my mother to my husband and me:

“Dear Theresa and Al,
Happy 25th Anniversary! As a silver keepsake-memento for this occasion in your life, this silver tray Nanny Winnie and Papa Gene [my mother’s parents] received from a group of their friends in Klamath Falls on their 25th anniversary at a surprise party (I believe) in 1954.
With our love and prayers, Mother and Dad.
November 26, 2002 — Have a wonderful trip to Aruba.”

My parents were as thoughtful in their choice of gift for our twenty-fifth anniversary as they were after their own wedding, by then almost fifty years in the past. I’m sure I wrote them a thank-you note after receiving the tray, though there is no evidence to prove it. And I’ve never used the silver tray from my grandparents, which is why it became a “thing I forgot I had.” It seems too nice to leave out, plus it would then need polishing on occasion.

This post rambles from events commemorating our fortieth anniversary this year, our twenty-fifth anniversary in 2002, our wedding in 1977, my parents’ wedding in 1955, and my grandparents’ twenty-fifth anniversary in 1954—which happened before I was born. Some of these events are part of my memory. Some were not my memories, but those of my parents and grandparents, and they survive now only as recorded in letters. Or in my blog posts.

Family memories live on through the ages, as long as we keep them alive. By writing them down, I do what I can to keep my family’s memories alive.

Perhaps I will pull out that silver tray from my grandparents this year to hold the Christmas cards we will receive over the next few weeks. That, too, will help me keep alive the memories that are mine, my parents, and my grandparents. And maybe I’ll even build some new memories, so that the silver tray becomes mine as much it was as my grandparents.’

What treasures are part of your family’s memories?

The Power & Limits of Scrivener (for me)

As I try to polish and publish my third historical novel over the next couple of months, I thought it would be worthwhile to step back and take a look at the tools I’ve used in writing this draft, particularly Scrivener. I’m surprised that I haven’t written about Scrivener in almost a year.

For nonwriters and nonusers of Scrivener, this post will sound like Greek. My apologies.

And for Scrivener users, let me be clear that I’m using the Windows 1.9 version. I’m told the current Mac version has better features than the Windows version. (More on Scrivener updates at the end of this post.)

My history with Scrivener:

This current work-in-progress, Forever Mine, was the first novel I drafted in Scrivener. In the past, I drafted my novels in Word. I started using Scrivener in the summer of 2014 to write and organize my blog posts (I’m in Scrivener as I draft this post). Writing short documents (mostly 500-1000 word posts) turned out to be a really good way to get comfortable in Scrivener.

When I completed Lead Me Home in 2105 and Now I’m Found in 2016, I dumped the Word documents I’d used to create the print-on-demand (POD) versions for CreateSpace into Scrivener. I broke up the documents into chapters in Scrivener, and then compiled the resulting Scrivener files into ebook formats for Amazon (MOBI format) and Barnes & Noble (EPUB format). I learned a lot about the compile function in Scrivener doing the ebooks.

Drafting my current book:

When I started my current work-in-progress, I had two goals: First, I wanted to outline the book in more detail than I’d managed when writing my earlier novels. Scrivener, I knew, had better outlining tools than Word. Second, I wanted to see how far I could get drafting in Scrivener—would it prove an acceptable substitute for Word?

I found several advantages to outlining and drafting in Scrivener:

  • I could in fact outline, starting with a list of key scenes and turning points in the book, then building more scenes around these crucial points
  • I could move not only chapters around, but also scenes
  • I could label each scene by which character had the point of view
  • I could check the word count of each scene (and, if I worked at it, by chapter and total manuscript also)
  • I could import an 1847 calendar and other research tools, including character sketches, into Scrivener’s “Research” folder, for immediate reference
  • I could outline the novel using a three-act structure and various plot points, as described in a variety of novel-writing resources (this would be the first novel I tried to plot in advance, rather than shaping after a draft was done)
  • I could add a date field, so I could keep a running timeline going
  • I even imported the entire text of Lead Me Home into my Forever Mine Research folder, because the plots of the two novels are so intricately woven (same people on the same journey, but focused on different points of view)

But there were some disadvantages to using Scrivener:

Each week I had to spit out about ten pages to send to my critique partners, most of whom do not use Scrivener. At first, those pages were pretty ugly (Courier font), but over time, I learned to “compile” the chapters I wanted from Scrivener into a decent-looking Word document using settings that I saved to use week after week.

I don’t like Scrivener’s formatting features, which aren’t nearly as sophisticated as Word’s. However, the formatting was adequate for a rough draft, and I developed some “preset” formats that worked for me. I couldn’t divide the scenes with an image as I do in the published books, so that was another ugly aspect of what my critique partners had to see each week. But they’re patient.

As I worked, however, I decided that at some point I would have to dump the whole manuscript into Word and reformat it into the CreateSpace template for the POD. The compile feature in Scrivener simply wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go with the formatting.

I periodically did dump the manuscript into a PDF, so I could read through it on my Android tablet, but then I took the comments I’d made on the PDF and had to enter them into the Scrivener file. (Scrivener has an iOS version for Mac tablets, but not for Android.) I learned how to take the manuscript from Scrivener into the CreateSpace template with minimal fuss—as long as I complied using Header 1 and Normal styles, Word could interpret those and give me something I could work with.

Screenshot of my novel in Scrivener

Revising the novel:

I wrote the whole first draft if this novel in Scrivener, then started revising. I went through all the comments from my two critique groups and edited the manuscript, based on what they told me. I also did a lot of my own rewriting and correcting, and filled in what I’d left blank or sketchy on the first draft. All this, I did in Scrivener.

I also looked at the novel through each character’s scenes separately. This was a real advantage of Scrivener. Forever Mine uses six points of view, so I got to see how each character developed through the book. Scrivener lets the user create “collections” of scenes, which I did for each point-of-view character. I could have done more with this tool, and I might use it more on future books.

Converting to Word to polish:

Each run-through in Scrivener got easier, but I still thought Scrivener’s usefulness would end at some point. Many expert users of Scrivener stay in the program all the way through creating the POD and ebook versions. But I’m not that good at compiling, and I prefer the precision I can get in Word.

So about a month ago I “compiled” the entire manuscript as a Word document and switched from editing in Scrivener to editing in Word.

From this point forward, I’ll follow the process I used with my earlier novels—polishing and formatting in Word, then I’ll take it back into a new Scrivener file to convert to ebook format.

As a final note, Scrivener is about to launch a big update for its Mac version any day now. And users are told that the new Windows version will launch in a few months. I will likely update my Scrivener software when the new Windows version is available, but not until after the ebook versions of Forever Mine are published! Managing a software update and publication of a novel at the same time is probably more stress than I need.

For my earlier posts on Scrivener, see here and here and here.

Writers, what has your experience been with Scrivener?

Houses in Oregon in the 1840s and 1850s

I keep finding new topics that I need to research as I write my historical novels. While I am finishing my current work-in-progress, I am also starting to think about my next book. That next book will begin in 1850, but I don’t yet know how long its timeline will continue. So far, I have only researched Oregon and California history between 1847 and 1850, so I will soon be spending more time in research.

In Lead Me Home, I wrote about 1847 emigrants traveling to Oregon in 1847. In Now I’m Found, I showed many of these emigrants settling into lives on land claims near Oregon City between early 1848 and late 1850. To write Now I’m Found, I had to speculate on what types of houses the emigrants built. I did some research, visited some pioneer reconstructions sites (mostly in the Midwest near my home), and found some pictures of log cabins that I used as models for my characters’ homes in Oregon.

On my main character Jenny’s farm in Now I’m Found, there were two residences. The cabin she lived in and a smaller cabin that the Tanner family lived in.

Here is a picture of what I imagined Jenny’s home to look like:

Here is an image of the smaller Tanner cabin on Jenny’s property, though the Tanners would have had a chimney and fireplace also:

(There was a barn on Jenny’s property also, but I never fully described it in Now I’m Found.)

Now I’m Found also mentions several other residences. For example,

  • Esther and Daniel Abercrombie and their children lived in a cabin similar to Jenny’s. They added on a room as their family expanded.
  • Zeke Pershing built a house on his claim also, though I never described it.

But when I start to write my next book, which I think will take place mostly or entirely in Oregon, I am going to have to have a better sense of what these structures look like. So I recently went back to the internet to do more research on housing in Oregon in the 1840s.

I found an article by Liz Carter entitled “Pioneer Houses and Homesteads of the Willamette Valley, Oregon: 1841-1865,” prepared for the Historic Preservation League of Oregon, dated May 2013. This article, plus earlier research I’d done, confirms how I pictured the homes in Now I’m Found. It also gives me some direction on how my characters will construct future dwellings and other buildings in my next books.

Quoting University of Oregon Professor Philip Dole, Ms. Carter says:

“On a typical claim three successive homes would be built, each an improvement over the preceding one. The last was, of course, the lumber house, but for almost every farm that ‘real’ house was at least six years into the future. A home of the first type…is characterized by: the speed of its erection; the use of rails or poles (round logs); the small size (the term ‘pen’ implies a single room); and what it was called, as ‘shelter,’ ‘rail pen’ or ‘log cabin.’ Partly on the basis of the quality of its construction, this pen or cabin might be used only a month or it might be used for years. Following it and preceding the lumber house was the second type –‐ substantial, carefully built, emphatically distinguished from the first ‘log cabin’ by its designation as ‘hewn log house.’ The logs are squared to give a flat inner and a flat outer wall. Of one or two rooms, with a sleeping loft above, the house would have glazed sash windows, doors, a fireplace, a staircase and one or two porches. The building process would require at least a month’s time and a ‘raising’ crew.”

So the Tanners’ cabin as depicted above was a one-room “rail pen,” while Jenny’s cabin was a “hewn log house” (though I call it a “log cabin”)—one large room, with a loft above, and a couple of windows. Daniel and Esther lived in a house similar to Jenny’s, but with another room added on.

Lumber house built in 1841, as depicted in Carter article

In my next book, some of the emigrants will build their “lumber houses” which will be larger and grander. But you’ll have to wait to see which characters come up in society far enough to build new houses.

It is nice to have my early speculations confirmed. It is even nicer to have a firm foundation for what I intend to write next.

What pioneer homes or reconstructed towns have you visited? What did you learn from them?

Impact of Shorter Attention Spans on Readers and Writers

Twice in one day last week, I encountered references to people’s reduced ability to focus these days. Our shorter attention spans are due largely to the ever-present distractions from technology—and I know this is true, based on my own behavior.

The first time this issue surfaced was during the Association of Missouri Mediators conference I attended, in which the keynote speaker, Professor Noam Ebner of Creighton University, cited the following statistics:

  • Today we spend on average three minutes on a task before we are distracted.
  • Once we are distracted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task.

Moreover, he said, humans are not good multitaskers. Contrary to what we think, every distraction detracts from and delays our ability to perform the task we were doing. The ubiquity of smartphones is the primary reason for our distraction, though other forms of technology are factors also. Think of when email first entered the workplace and dinged at us every few minutes. Now those dings follow us whenever our smartphone is within hearing range.

This photo isn’t of me. In reality, as I listened to the webinar, I played the video on my desktop, listened to the audio on my phone, took notes on my laptop, and kept my tablet nearby. No wonder I was distracted.

Later that day, while I was listening to another presentation during the AMM conference, I read an article (yes, I was distracted by technology) on The Passive Voice blog entitled “Shorter Attention Spans.” The article quoted Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, during the Frankfurt Book Fair:

“You have whole generations being trained for shorter attention spans than books require.”

As a writer, I had to stop and think about that statement.

I remember my childhood years when I spent whole days immersed in a book, from after breakfast until dinner, with only a short break for lunch. During summer months, I often consumed two books a day for a week.

Even into high school, when I had the time, I could read for hours on end. I read my favorite Phyllis Whitney young-adult mysteries and the like in a day. I read many classic novels (such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre) over the course of a few days, or no more than a week.

Even as an adult, despite working 50 to 60 hours a week and raising two kids, I escaped into books when I could. I’d take a weekend afternoon, or stay up late into the night, to read. It might only happen once every month or two, but it was a favorite respite.

But now? I still read a lot. I probably average a couple of novels a week. But  I find myself reading for a few pages, then switching my tablet to email, then checking Facebook, then back to the novel. My attention span is definitely shorter.

What does this mean for society?

Professor Epner talked about how it is harder for parties in a mediation to focus on problem-solving when their attention spans are shorter. This leads to the need to have shorter mediation sessions, and to let the parties break to seek out information and do other “homework” in between sessions.

The ubiquity of screens and digital interruptions have impacted the quality of our communications also. According to Professor Epner, we don’t interpret body language or word inflection in the same way we used to. Our intuition and empathy have changed as a result.

All this isn’t necessarily bad, because technology has added new ways of communicating as it has changed face-to-face opportunities. But technology makes communication different. And if we don’t recognize the changes and consider them in our communications, we will not resolve problems and differences as well as we used to.

Now, think about what this means for readers and writers.

I described my own experience as a reader above. I do not read without distractions as I used to. I do not think I’m unique in this regard.

If other readers have changed as I have, then writers need to consider how to grab readers in shorter bursts and how to retain them as long as possible, or re-grab them after a distraction. Shorter chapters. More reminders of setting and situation in novels. More headlines and breaks and sidebars in nonfiction. More uses of metaphors that relate to today’s readers.

Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster said we need to be sure books remain “central to the discussion of what’s going on in the culture,” while at the same time using social media to reach consumers more directly. I agree with both points. The challenge is to handle both book-length writing and social media snippets equally well, for the functions that each does best.

Writers, what do you do to attract and retain today’s readers that you didn’t do ten years ago?

Haunting Books: Three Historical Novels About the West

Each October I’ve devoted one or more posts to the “haunting books” I’ve read during the past year—books that stay with me long after I’ve read them. This year, I’ve been diligent about keeping a list, so I have more than enough books to discuss. In this post, I’ve decided to focus on three historical novels that take place during the Civil War and its aftermath.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

The first novel is Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry, which is probably the most haunting of the three featured in this post. I hadn’t heard of the book until one of the members of my book club suggested we read it. On one level, it is a typical Western, featuring the settling of the West and battles between whites and Native Americans. On another level, it is a love story between two men who save each other from loneliness and poverty. On yet another level, it is about how far parents will go to save a beloved child.

The story is told in the first person by protagonist Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who becomes a female impersonator in a saloon, then with his friend and lover John Cole joins the Army to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. The two men adopt a Sioux girl named Winona when the Army leaves her orphaned. After the Civil War, Thomas and John seek a peaceful life, but rejoin the Army to find Winona, who is being returned to the Sioux in exchange for white captives.

Barry is true to most of the tropes in Western novels—gunfights, war scenes, and chases on horseback (both slow and fast). Barry tells a rollicking tale, but unfortunately some of his plot twists seem forced, such as when friends and witnesses show up suddenly when Thomas is trapped.

What makes this novel is Barry’s prose. The language in Days Without End is gorgeous, if sometimes inaccessible. Barry doesn’t use quotation marks to denote dialogue, which I dislike, and which makes it difficult to interpret sometimes. Thomas’s grammar is uneducated, but his words are lyrical, and the character makes surprisingly insightful comments. I often wanted Barry to be more straight-forward in recounting the story and helping his readers along, even while I appreciated his mastery of language.

This novel “haunts” me because of its gruesome descriptions of war, and also because of the uniqueness of the narrator’s voice. I recommend the novel, if you are prepared for a violent depiction of 19th century battles ranging from Indian skirmishes to the relentlessness of the Civil War. But of the three books I’m featuring today, this was my least favorite.

Enemy Women, by Paulette Jiles is another violent story of the Civil War, though not quite as gruesome as Days Without End.  The Colley family in the Missouri Ozarks has tried to avoid involvement with either side in the Civil War. Nevertheless, after their mother dies, a band of Union militia (not the regular Army) attacks their home and arrests the father (a judge) and hauls him off to prison. When the only son leaves home, the three daughters are left alone. They head for St. Louis to try to locate their father. The oldest girl, Adair Colley, is imprisoned in a Union women’s prison in St. Louis, after she is falsely accused of being a Southern sympathizer, and her younger sisters seek relatives in Tennessee.

Through most of the first half of book, Adair is in prison and is mistreated by the matron and other prisoners. Major Neumann, the Union officer in charge of the prison orders her to write a confession so he can release her. She writes truth and fantasy (which together create a compelling explanation of how she got where she is), but she refuses to confess. Adair and Major Neumann fall in love through their discussions over her “confessions.” He helps her to escape, and although their plans go awry, she does get away and sets off for home. The second half of book describes Adair’s adventures on her way back home. Meanwhile, Major Neumann has problems of his own, but is finally discharged from the Army and tries to find Adair.

I live in Missouri and know something of the Ozark country where most of the novel takes place. But I knew nothing of the women’s prisons during the Civil War, nor very much about the violent and undisciplined militia units that supported the Union Army. The novel makes clear that there were atrocities committed by both Northern and Southern participants of that era.

Although some of what happens to the Adair family and Major Neumann was not very believable, it was a good story. Also, it was generally true to the history of the region, based on primary source material Jiles included for her readers.

What haunts me about this book is the realization of what war does to civilians caught in regions where battles rage. (I’m seeing the same theme in the Vietnam War series now available on PBS.) In addition, Enemy Women depicts the savagery of men (and women) caught up war, particularly when they are not subject to any kind of military order or discipline.

And I’ve loved the Paulette Jiles’s prose in every book of hers I’ve read.

Which brings me to News of the World, another book by Paulette Jiles that also has haunted me this year. In this novel, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an aging Civil War veteran, makes his living by reading newspapers to residents of small towns across Texas. He is dragooned into taking Johanna, an orphaned white girl who was kidnapped by Kiowas at age six (she is now ten), back to her white aunt and uncle. She has lived with the Kiowa since she was a small child and has been so acculturated to their way of life that she believes she is Kiowa. She objects strongly to being returned to white society and fights the Captain at every step.

But along their trek across Texas in the Reconstruction Era, which is full of typical Western adventures and perils, the Captain and Johanna develop a respect and affection that is both sweet and sad. It is sweet, because it is very real, and because they are two very sympathetic characters. It is sad, because it seems there is no way their bond can continue past the current journey.

Finally, the Captain delivers Johanna to her relatives, which does not go well. It would spoil too much to reveal what the good captain does next. I will only say that the book shows the power of love, even when love is not quite enough to rid the world of its troubles. I loved the novel for its spare prose and for the wonderful characters Jiles created. I wish we all had people like Captain Kidd and Johanna in our lives.

* * *

There are parallels in these three novels. They all have Western themes. They all have beautiful prose that is the envy of any writer. They all depict love found in unexpected places and families built from circumstances rather than from genetics. Days Without End may haunt me the most, because of its gory battles. But of the three, News of the World was my favorite, followed by Enemy Women.

What is your favorite historical novel?

On THE ARTIST’S WAY and the Truth in Fiction

I’ve kept the Post-It from September 2005

I’ve mentioned before that I attended a diversity program called “Women Supporting Women” in late September 2005. When I declared to the other participants in that program, “I will write a book before I die,” one of the women in the group handed me a Post-It note. On that Post-It, she wrote a quote from Julia Cameron, “Sudden problems in my life usually indicate a need to work on my art.” She also jotted down the titles of two of Cameron’s books, The Artist’s Way, and Walking in the World, and recommended I read them.

I wasn’t sure I had “sudden problems” in my life, though I did feel I was at a crossroads. So, as a good student, when I returned home, I went to the library and checked out The Artist’s Way. It appeared to be a book that might be helpful to me as I flailed at how to become the writer I wanted to be. Its exercises were as much about self-awareness as they were about artistic endeavors.

I quickly realized I would need my own copy of the book to highlight and mark up. I bought myself a copy and worked through it in some detail. Over the next year, I also bought Walking in the World and Vein of Gold, both by Julia Cameron, and a few years later when she published Finding Water, I bought it.

In the twelve years since I attended that diversity program, I have read all four of these books at least twice (as well as a couple of Cameron’s other books). Most of them I’ve read three or four times. I’ve highlighted my copies until there is as much yellow as white on the page, and their paperback spines are all broken.

While it would be an overstatement to say the books changed my life, they certainly have contributed to my growth as a writer. First, they encouraged me to proclaim I am a writer—which is very difficult for beginning writers to do. Second, they told me to do a little bit every day—write three pages, take one small step toward my goal, do something physical or repetitive with my hands or legs when I’m stuck creatively. Third, they provided tools for me to use in examining my life, in determining where I’m on track and where I need to change.

I was already journaling before I read The Artist’s Way, but Cameron’s encouragement of daily “morning pages” made me a more faithful scrivener. When I retired from my job at the end of 2006, I made a commitment to write in my journal every day, and I haven’t missed more than three or four days a year for the last eleven years—I don’t always write in the morning and I don’t always write as much as she recommends, but I write. The exercises in Cameron’s books have provided topics to write about when I’ve felt empty. As she says in her books, when the same subjects come up over and over in morning pages, it’s a signal that area of my life needs to change. (And there are always a few areas of my life I need to change.)

I’ve been less diligent about incorporating her concept of “artist dates” into my life. These are weekly times of play, where one goes on a small, solitary expedition to fill one’s creative well—anything from a concert at the Philharmonic to browsing through a fabric store (I’ve done both on my artist dates). Even though I don’t go on artist dates regularly, I’m more aware now of when I could use a shot in the arm, when I need exposure to something different and playful in my life.

Earlier this year I read through The Artist’s Way and did many of its exercises for at least the fourth time. What amazed me was how much I’d grown since the first time in late 2005 or early 2006. The first time I worked my way through the book, I was not at all certain that I could be a writer, nor did I know how to go about making myself into one. I needed Camerons encouragement. During the years, I have become a writer, and I’m proud of myself.

This time, I focused on the spiritual aspect of the artist’s journey. I wrote the following affirmations to myself:

1. God intends me to have a writing life, to be a writer, at least at this stage of my life.
2. My stories speak of human frailty and fallibility, of people trying to do their best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing—as such, they speak the truth.

Those statements are far too wordy to be memorable affirmations that I can use when I need to give myself a pep talk. So I shortened them:

1. I am a writer.
2. My stories speak the truth.

It may seem strange that I write fiction, yet tell myself “my stories speak the truth.” But fiction is only good if it faithfully portrays the human condition within the confines of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As such, fiction often clarifies the truth in ways that real life cannot. After all, everyone reading this has not yet experienced the end of life’s story.

I’m not done with my journey along the Artist’s Way. As Cameron says in the epilogue to that book, “Growth is a spiral path, doubling back on itself, reassessing and regrouping.” I will probably reassess my life and my work using her exercises in the future, and I hope twelve years from now I can see that I have grown even more.

What affirmations do you tell yourself? And when have you found that fiction speaks the truth?