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Happy

3 Jan

 

img_3936I’ve spent much of my life waiting for something to make me happy. If only ________ (fill in the blank) would happen, I’d be happy. If only I had________, everything would be all right. If only I could do _________I’d be fulfilled forever.

IF ONLY, IF ONLY, IF ONLY!

If and when the IF ONLY finally comes to pass (and it does happen occasionally) I’m content for a nanosecond. Then I’m right back to where I was before, hoping and wishing and dreaming of something better.

The other day my husband, René and I were driving somewhere together I must have let out a sigh. He turned to me and said, “You know, Jess—trying to be happy all the time is unrealistic. We may strive to find happiness—we may even have joyful moments here and there, but most of the time, every single one of us is struggling. And it’s okay to be sad. It’s human nature.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what he said, particularly because it’s frequently an internal battle for me to find constant happiness. Because I have so much to be grateful for, I feel guilty if I’m not blissful.

Of course I blame my parents. During my loosey-goosey 1970’s childhood, their philosophy was to promote an unrealistic idea of constant sweetness and light—no negativity allowed whatsoever. Happiness was a must—even if we had to fake it. All the while my poor, depressed father drank himself into oblivion every night.

Looking back on his short life (he died at 53) I understand now that he was faking it as well. While struggling daily with his ADHD and severe depression, he tamped down his creative side, trading it in for familial responsibility. I’m sure I’ve inherited some of my melancholy from him, although I’ve been lucky enough to also inherit some of his creativity. Even with all of the childhood angst I experienced, I’m grateful to him and my mother for giving me a life of privilege. I’m thankful I’ve been able to pass that good life down to my own children.

My goal for the coming year is to let go of this unrealistic idea that I must be happy all of the time. I’m going to allow myself to feel sad sometimes. Perhaps this will allow me to truly enjoy those moments of happiness that do come my way. And when they appear, I won’t have to fake it. I’ll allow the happiness fill my soul to the brim.

And when it’s full, I’ll let it spill out into the world.

Happy New Year, my dear readers. You indeed make me happy.

I thank you for that.

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This is me, not faking it.


 

 

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Fierce

10 Dec
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photo credit: Kay Bess


Forty-four years ago, an insecure twelve-year old named Jessie stepped foot onto the campus of her junior high school and instantly realized the outfit her mother had bought for her at Sears was all wrong. She nervously tucked a strand of frizzy hair behind one ear before scratching at a group of pimples threatening to erupt on her chin. She felt like crying.

Her previous elementary school friendships had faded away over the summer and Jessie’s main concern that day was that she would end up eating lunch by herself. As noontime approached, her fear intensified. Then something wonderful happened. A pretty, brown-haired angel named Julie sat down next to her in English class and struck up a conversation. She invited Jessie to each lunch with her group.

It was the beginning of a miracle. A miracle that has continued to this day.

After graduation from high school, our friendships ebbed and flowed. Back then we had no social media, making it more difficult to stay in touch. We attended each other’s weddings and baby showers, but as a complete group we didn’t really bind to each other until my mother threw me a surprise 35th birthday party and secretly invited my nine best girlfriends. I don’t think we’ve ever laughed as hard as we did at that party, pouring over old yearbooks and reminiscing about our high school days. I believe it was then that we decided to make it a priority to meet up at least once a year near the holidays. What began as a dinner out eventually turned into an annual three day vacation trip.

Today we are closer than ever, mostly because of our shared history. More importantly, as we age, we find we need each other more. As our marriages end, as our children grow up and leave us; as our bodies begin to fail, we know that we can rely each other for love and support. No one knows me as well as these nine women do. We are free to reveal our true selves without fear of judgement or recrimination. Our secrets, once spilled to the group, are tucked away into the “vault” for all time.

This December, we traveled to Avila Beach and stayed in a lovely house. We had massages and facials. We cooked incredible meals together. We went on walks and bike rides together. We sang, some of us off key, some of us forgetting the words. We laughed so hard we cried.

I still find myself in awe of this unbreakable bond of friendship. When that nervous and insecure twelve year-old Jessie rears up inside my head I sometimes feel lost and afraid. But as soon as I’m with my girls, my strength returns. Because of them, I feel anchored. Because of them, I feel loved.

Because of them I feel fierce.

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Lunch together at Avila Beach, California

Middle Aged Bliss

29 Aug

img_3203These days, my head is in the clouds. I’ve completely lost my motivation to get anything done. I’ll sit down at the computer to write, and the next thing I know, I’m on Facebook, sobbing over clips of returning soldiers reunited with their dogs, or the smiling faces of babies fitted with hearing aids for the first time. I’ll put on my tennis shoes to go for a walk but before I even get out of the yard, I’m busy picking a bouquet of flowers for the dining room table. If I glance at my phone to check the time, I may lose thirty minutes scrolling through Instagram or Facebook. Don’t even ask about watching CNN at the top of each hour. I mean seriously, the day will be gone in an instant.

Some days, I lie on the couch listening to James Taylor snuggling with my two dogs. Other days, I’ll spend three hours binge watching a British detective series. I crave sweet and salty snacks. I get cranky and pick fights with my husband. I press my thirteen year-old daughter for stories of junior high drama, but damn her, she’s above all that teenage gossip stuff. I long for weekends away with my girlfriends. Nothing pleases me more than having the house all to myself.

Oh, Lord. I’m heading toward sixty and I’m turning back into a teenage girl again.

Perhaps my behavior is in response to getting older. In my head I count how many more years I have left on this earth. Thirty, forty? However many, I’m afraid it’s never going to be enough. I’m having so much fun being an adult. Even though my knees ache as I climb the stairs, even though white hairs snake up out of my head like Medusa, and even though I have actual jowls, I truly love my life.

Here’s the thing: I’m so much happier now than when I was as a teenager. My body may have been perfect back then, but I was an insecure wreck, always caring about what others thought of me. Today I have the luxury of not worrying about what I’m going to do with my life because I’ve already done it! I have an awesome career. My husband adores me, my kids love me, and I have so many wonderful friends who like to go out to lunch with me.

Middle age rocks.

So I’ll take an Advil or two and plop my butt down on the couch. I’ll text a girlfriend and arrange a lunch date. Maybe I’ll daydream about my future grandchildren. And then there’s that new Netflix original movie based on one of my favorite novels (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society, if you must know.)

It’s time to watch it for a third time.

Enough

11 Jul

Every time I turn on the television, I think it can’t get worse. Then it does. I’m scared for our country. I’m scared for our democracy.

I’m scared for human kind.

I’m tired of watching clips of people treating others unkindly. I’m tired of folks calling the police on people because of the color of their skin. I’m horrified about what’s happening at the border. I’m exhausted from the anger I feel very time the president opens his mouth.

My head is about to explode. I’ve had enough.

Today, I’m taking a break.

For the rest of the day, I will try my best to focus on all the good things around me. Because right now, it’s all I got.

Here are a few photos of the things that bring me joy.

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She’s going to kill me for posting this, but I will anyway. This face makes me happy, even when it’s looking down at an iPhone screen. Oh, to be thirteen again!

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Pink, cotton candy smoke coming out of our chimney. 

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The view out my upstairs window. My neighbor probably won’t appreciate me taking photos of her house, but the color of this Bougainvillea is just so beautiful.

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My younger brother recently gave me this adorable handmade birdhouse for the garden.               I love it.

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Leo pretending he doesn’t care who wins the World Cup.

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My husband’s family at his sister’s recent memorial. No matter what you think about immigration, this is America. 

Good always conquers evil. And there is so much good to see if we just look for it. Tomorrow is another day and when I turn on the television, I’ll probably find myself angry again.

But not today. Today, it’s all about finding the good.

Maybe take a moment and find yours.

Worry

7 May

“When I look back on all these worries, img_2382I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”

–Winston Churchill

You’d think that I would have learned my lesson after all these years. But I haven’t. I still wake up in the middle of the night, riddled with worry about the things that I have little control over. My go-to worry is usually about money—that’s there never enough of it—though compared to the rest of the world, my standard of living is in the top one percent. I worry about our house being eaten by termites. I worry about my weight and my health. I worry about politics (who doesn’t?) I worry about my kids, my husband and my aging mother. I worry that I’ll never find an agent for my book—that people are sick to death hearing about me and my dumb novel and how I can’t find an agent who loves it enough to sign me.

I worry that I’m not a good enough writer.

I lived with some form of worry my entire life, most of it pointless. Almost eleven years ago, my worry turned to terror when our daughter, Isa was diagnosed with cancer. Now, that was truly something to worry about. And boy, did I ever get good at it. For almost three years, I carried a tight ball of fear in my gut that never went away, not even for a moment. And when it was all over and Isa was cured, the worry slowly began to dissipate. I was left with this incredible sense of relief. Everything was sweeter and brighter and more joyful. I began to practice feeling grateful.

I stopped worrying and I found my passion.

I began to write.

And I’ve kept at it. Over the past six years, I’ve written 135 blog posts, published two essays (in actual magazines) and even earned $75 for one of them. I’ve managed to send out my annual Holiday newsletter. Every. Single. Frickin. Year. I’ve become friends with many amazing writers (virtually and in person.) And I wrote an entire novel, which most of the time I think is pretty good if I’m feeling generous toward myself.

But in the process of following my literary bliss (and the subsequent rejection I’ve faced with my efforts of trying to get published) I’ve allowed the worry to come back. I began practicing self-doubt instead of self-appreciation. I’d forgotten that what’s important is the path, not the destination (trite, but true.) I’ve been so focused on getting to the end of my journey that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy all the beautiful things in my periphery along the way.

The worry attached herself again. She’s kept me up at night with her tortuous ways.

Eleven years ago, she held onto me so tightly that I could barely breathe. I learned to beat her back. And I’ll do it again. She’s a tough one, but I’m tougher.

Bring it on, Bitch.

Engagement

28 Mar

img_2367As I grow older, I find myself becoming more reclusive. When many of my close friends are excitedly planning their next big trip to Asia or Europe, I prefer to stay home, puttering in my flower garden or lying on the couch reading a good book. The thought of planning a travel itinerary and lugging suitcases through busy airports exhausts me. Introverted as I am though, I can occasionally be talked into taking a short road trip. Especially when my teenage daughter, Isa uses her formidable powers of persuasion to convince me to get out of the house.

Isa chose San Francisco. Before long, the entire family had decided to go along for the three day trip. Then, a few weeks ago my daughter’s boyfriend pulled me aside during a weekend visit.

“Just so you know,” he said, “I’m planning to ask Leah to marry me. I know she would want you all there and I think this trip to San Francisco is the perfect time to do it.” He did add a caveat that he wasn’t asking us if he could marry her. After all, Leah is her own person and not our property. He knew if would go against her principles if he asked our “permission.” This guy knows my daughter well. All in all, a very good sign.

An elaborate plan was set in motion. Although we were as secretive as we could be, Leah had to have known something was up because she happily agreed to go along with every suggestion we made. We somehow managed to get her to the beautiful San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts where Jeff was nervously waiting with the ring, their two dogs, and a professional photographer. After weeks of heavy rain, the day, though a bit chilly, was gloriously sunny. We got to hang back and watch the entire event unfold. Pure magic.

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Our trip was a blast. Other than a slight snafu which included not realizing that the Airbnb we had reserved was “owner occupied” and that our hosts would not be leaving, everything went smoothly. Did I mention that our hosts decided to cook garlic and cabbage at 10 p.m. on Sunday night? And that the smell was so strong we had to sleep with the windows open? It was the one and only time I actually welcomed the frigid San Francisco air.

We took the ferry to Alcatraz, walked over the Golden Gate Bridge, and spent too much money at the renowned City Lights Bookstore. We visited the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. We had an unbelievably delicious lunch at Nicks, a vegan Filipino restaurant in Daly City. We drove down the coast to Big Sur’s The River Inn for another lovely dinner by the water. With the recent rains the scenery was popping with vibrant color.

 

I continuously count my blessings that my children are my friends. There are no other people I’d rather spend time with. And now we are beyond fortunate to add another son to the mix. Luckily, Jeff possesses the exact amount of crazy to fit right in. And he loves my daughter, which makes him a crazy genius.

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                                Love, in all forms, is what allows us to breathe.

Congratulations, Leah and Jeff. Now, let’s plan a wedding!

One of the Lucky Ones

11 Feb

a5473b30-fd36-4183-9492-e434f9c87dc3-3513-000001ddc6b3956dThe roads are finally open again and my daughter, Isa and I took a drive through Montecito this afternoon. It was so much worse than I could have ever imagined. News stories on television don’t really show the full extent of the destruction.

Santa Barbara was hit hard at beginning of December when the Thomas Fire burned the mountains above Montecito. Then on January 9, we had a 200-year rain event where half an inch of rain came down in five minutes. This triggered a devastating mud flow. Twenty-three people were killed and many of the homes saved during the fire were damaged or destroyed by the mud flow.

While there have been numerous stories of tragedy and loss, I’ve also heard stories of the incredible generosity and kindness of people in our community. It’s inevitable that we initially focus on all the bad things that have occurred–we cry. We grieve. We get angry. Then we try to find the good.

I wasn’t personally affected the tragic events of the past two months, but lately I have felt so lost watching the suffering of others. After Isa and I returned home from our drive, I looked around my own neighborhood and felt so grateful. My home is safe and not full of mud. I suddenly felt the need to document the beauty around me.

For now, I’m one of the lucky ones. And I’m so thankful.

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One of my favorite flowers: Stock. Such a lovely, spicy scent!

 

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A caterpillar chomping on my milkweed plant.

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First tulips of the season

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Love this magenta!

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The spring garden is planted!

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Lake Los Carneros

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Happy little pansies.

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The color of Iceland poppies are so vibrant!

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Isa and the dogs on a walk around the lake.

Messages from the Universe

5 Jan
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Smoke over the Pacific from the Thomas Fire.

The universe often sends me messages. Most of the time, I’m too wrapped up in my day to day drama to pay much attention to them. Especially when those nudges seem rightfully insignificant: a slice to my finger while cooking (stop thinking negative thoughts about people, Jess—especially when you’re chopping vegetables with a sharp knife.) Or a flat tire while hurrying to get as many errands done before starting work (time to slow down, Jess—you don’t have to do everything for everyone all the time.)

Recently, I got a very loud message from the universe that had to do with my mother. A little background first: I’ve lived with my mother for pretty much my entire life. After college, when I married my husband, Rene, we moved in with her so she could help us financially while he finished his education. Eventually, we were able to buy the house from her and she stayed on with us. I won’t speak for my husband, as it can’t possibly be easy living with your mother-in-law for thirty years, but overall, it’s been okay. Our house is configured with a granny flat for her with a separate entrance and yard, so we have some privacy.

Recently, my mom had been driving me a bit crazy. Maybe it’s because as she gets older, I find her to be more hardheaded and stubborn. Maybe it’s because I realize she won’t be here forever and it scares me. Maybe it’s just hard having someone greet me every single day with a cheery, “Good Morning, Darling! How are you, today?” before I’ve had my coffee. Whatever it was, I was becoming extremely irritated with her. And if I’m honest, I’d have to say I was occasionally mean to her. In fact, I was downright nasty sometimes.

Then, at the beginning of December, while Santa Barbara was experiencing the largest wildfire in California history, my mom tripped and fell in front of the neighbor’s house while walking her dog. Now, she couldn’t just break her arm or something—she had to go and land on her eyeball. We didn’t know it then, but she had actually spilt open the back of her eye and hemorrhaged so severely that her left eye was literally being pushed out of its socket.

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My poor mother, two days after her accident and still managing to smile.

Luckily, the planets aligned for us that day. After a CAT scan it was determined there was no damage to her brain but the ER doctor was worried that she might lose the sight in that eye. We were able to reach her ophthalmologist and he agreed to see her during a break between his scheduled surgeries. I rushed her down to the surgery center where it was determined she needed an immediate operation to get all that blood out from behind the eye. Somehow, the doctors and nurses made it happen (a big shout out to the Santa Barbara Surgery Center) and they were able to save her eye.

Although she’s doing much better, my mom is still blind in her left eye. As I write this, she’s having her third surgery (a corneal transplant) and hopefully this will give her some vision back. We won’t know for a very long time what the outcome will be.

After the accident, I suddenly became my mother’s caregiver. I had to dole out medication, dress her facial wounds and make sure she ate three meals a day. I had to drive her to her doctors’ appointments. I had to hold her hand and tell her how sorry I was that this happened. I had to convince her everything was going to work out in the end.

The strange thing is that although I was spending much more time with my mother than before, I didn’t feel the least bit irritated with her. I felt only love and concern. I was so thankful it was just her eye and not her brain that was injured. I learned how much she means to me—that although we are different in so many ways, we share an unbreakable mother-daughter bond.

I guess it took a really scary, knock-down, whopping nightmare message to wake me up. Most likely this is because I inherited my mother’s stubbornness.

I think from now on, I’ll pay attention to those quiet, little messages from the universe.

Maybe if I do that, I can avoid getting anymore of those loud ones.

**Update: Mom’s surgery went fine, but the news wasn’t good. Her retina was permanently damaged and it was determined that she will not regain the sight in her left eye. I’m devastated for her, yet she’s handling it with grace and a positive attitude. Much to learn from that woman!img_1984

Different Cups of Coffee

10 Aug

 

c2a98633-8524-45d7-9844-0aedd3daff88Today I found myself falling back in love with my husband. This is no small feat considering we’ve been together since 1985, married over thirty years with four children, during which time I’ve learned many things, one being that I’m absolutely capable of murder.

As most married couples, we have our certain routines. Please don’t tell anyone, but we eat breakfast at McDonald’s. Often. And there is an exact procedure that we follow with our breakfast ritual: Before leaving the house, I order my Venti Decaf Skinny Mocha from Starbucks using the app on my phone so I don’t have to wait in line (one of the greatest inventions ever created.) Then I drop Rene off at McDonald’s and head over to Anna’s Bakery where I order him a sesame bagel (double toasted), a muffin for me (pumpkin or blueberry oatmeal) and a crème-filled chocolate donut for Isa if she’s with us. We then meet up at McDonald’s where Rene has ordered scrambled eggs and his beloved McDonald’s coffee. We grab a window table and after greeting the locals, we eat our breakfast and talk.

Most times we talk about our work, our students—our family and friends. We often run into people we know (it’s astounding how many people my husband knows in our community) and have a quick chat with them. Sometimes, during our conversations we get angry with each other, usually when the topic is our children; he wants to push them and I want to defend them. Mostly, we talk and laugh. Throughout the years we’ve had some deep, philosophical discussions under the glare of those fluorescent lights.

Today was really no different than usual, except that as René spoke about his latest trip back home to Oaxaca, and how much he appreciates his life there and well as the life we’ve created together here, I realized how deep my love is for my husband. I’m so very lucky to be married to a man who is so different than I—in language, culture and background. Over the years, he’s exposed me to a world I never would have known or appreciated if I had married someone like me. And I guess I’ve done the same for him. The reality is that although we sip our coffee from two different cups, we’re drinking the same thing.

The other night, René pulled out some love letters I’d written to him when he’d gone back to Oaxaca after we first began dating in 1985. The words written by that young girl were so full of love and promise. At twenty-three, she didn’t know if he was coming back to her, but it didn’t matter. She loved him and she wasn’t afraid to tell him.

She must’ve been a pretty persuasive writer because he ended up coming back. And it’s been a pretty good life so far. We’ll see how it goes over the next thirty years.

You can find us having coffee at McDonald’s.

Rejection

2 May

Voting and protest concept

I had no idea how hard this was going to be. Don’t get me wrong—I knew there would be rejection. I just didn’t realize how much rejection.

It’s been a year since I began searching to find representation for my novel, Lost in Oaxaca. The very first week I began the process of querying agents, I got a response from a well-known literary house in New York City. The woman who owned the agency emailed me back within a day. “I like this,” she wrote after reading the first chapter. “Send me the full manuscript as soon as possible.”

Well, that was easy, I gloated, expecting her to call me within a few weeks with an offer of representation. LOL. Or TTJTRWJ which means Time to join the real world, Jess. Eight months later, she finally emailed me back.

Dear Jessica,

I have had this for so long that it’s time for me to face up to the reality, which is that I like this but I don’t love it, and that’s why I keep putting it down and picking it up again.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t represent something for which I have only moderate enthusiasm, and that is not something you should want either.

I feel it’s a little too romancey for my taste. The writing is good, but not spectacular. It’s a near miss, but one that I have to take seriously.

Good luck with this. Someone else might be interested, but I have concluded that I am not the right person for this.

Good, but not spectacular. A near miss. Ouch. Okay, so she didn’t love it. We all have different tastes. That’s to be expected. Someone else out there is bound to love it.

I keep a yellow legal notebook pad where I write down whom I’ve queried and the date I sent the email. When I receive a rejection, I write a big “NO” across the name. I have written “NO” forty-eight times. Really. Forty-eight times. I just counted.

I can tell that most of the rejections are form letters. I get it—sincerely, I do. Every day, these people are inundated with thousands of emails from hopeful authors like me—how can they possibly take time to respond with a personal note?

This is not to say I haven’t had some positive response. In the course of one year, I’ve had five agents request the full manuscript. After reading my novel they all graciously declined, but at least they asked to read it. I guess that’s something. Recently, I received the one and only rejection email where the agent (from another well-known New York literary agency) actually took the time to offer suggestions.

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for the opportunity to read Lost in Oaxaca. I enjoyed the detailed portraits of musical subcultures, family life, and travel experiences, and found your imagery quite engaging. I also appreciated the story’s diverse cast of characters and emphasis on inter-cultural engagement. However, this aspect of the story often felt forced and didactic. Characters like Camille’s mother felt too much like caricatures of xenophobia to be convincing, and Camille was often frustratingly naïve, in spite of her intelligence. In order to challenge readers, the story’s political aspects must be more challenging and complex. This manuscript was well-crafted, and I wish you the best of luck with it in the future.

Now, that’s concrete advice I can use. I took her suggestions to heart and have already re-worked parts of my manuscript. What I really appreciate is that she actually took the time to offer her expertise to someone she doesn’t know. That’s true professional courtesy. I think that when I do publish this damn book, I’m going to acknowledge this particular agent for being so thoughtful.

I have many good qualities but my best one is patience. Therefore, I AM NOT GIVING UP. I have sent out eighty-six queries and more than half have said NO. Some never responded. But I AM NOT GIVING UP. Some agent out there is bound to read my query and be intrigued enough to ask for the manuscript. Hopefully, that person will fall in love with my characters just as I have—and then I’ll get the phone call I’ve been waiting for.

And the rest will be herstory.

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