Just Ask!

I gave a talk for the "Contemporary Environmental Writers" class at Paul Smith's College yesterday; everyone, myself included, had a great time. 

Photo Credit: Deb Naybor
I love doing this sort of thing, and wish I did them more, so it occurred to me to make the point that might not already be clear:

Ask me ... I'd love to come and give a talk at your school or library or bookclub!

I love talking about my books. I love talking about writing. I love talking about the Adirondacks. I love talking with people who love books and writing and reading. 

I've literally never had a bad time at any of the talks I've given, or wished I'd done something else instead ... just ask me and I bet we can work something out.

I've talked with people in events hosted by libraries and bookclubs and classroom teachers and bookstores, and everyone is always left smiling and ready for more. Sometimes I get paid, sometimes I sell a bunch of books, and sometimes I get fed and watered; once in a while it's all three, but I'll let you in on a secret ... I have a good time, and am doing my job as a writer no matter what.

In this instance, I was able to drop off some books with local bookstores in need of a resupply, exchange my son's rental skis from last season, get in a night of camping with our new dog Olive, and do this talk at Paul Smith's College ... it was a win from any angle or viewpoint.

If you're a reader or writer or librarian or teacher or bookstore owner and would like me to come talk with your group, please ask and I'm sure we can work something out.

If you're in the area, please join me for my next talk at the Keene Public Library this coming Saturday (10/28) at 1pm, for a discussion of NaNoWriMo.




A Lifetime Later ....

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working as a Special Education teacher in Lake Placid, NY. It was the beginning of the school year, and I accompanied the 7th grade, and one student with ASD in particular, to a nearby low-ropes course for a bonding experience to help the kids and teachers get to know each other. The morning began as these things do: awkward sharing activities, jocks excelling at physical challenges while the rest struggle, thrown pinecones, wondering about where the bathroom is. The student I was working most closely with was doing better than expected, participating in most activities to some extent, and otherwise enjoying the woods. I saw my role primarily as that of social-lubricant and relief valve, working mostly at being a non-entity that gave him and his peers gentle nudges to keep the experience fun and functional for everyone, taking short walks with him as needed when it seemed stress was building beyond a useful level. We were just getting back from one of these walks when one of the owners of the ropes-course came by and told me that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. I initially assumed that he was briefing me on the scenario that the kids were involved with on the platforms in front of me, but it quickly became apparent that was not the case. We teachers huddled for a moment while the kids stood waiting, a bit nervous at the unexpected interruption, in the woods around us. We decided to continue with the activities on the assumption that it was a horrible accident, but nothing more. When the owner returned a short while later to inform us that a second plane had followed the first, the decision was made to return to school. Much of the next hours were, for me, thankfully, focussed on the young man I was working with; his needs eclipsed mine, and unintentionally helped me be more the person the children needed, and less the selfish person I desperately wanted to be. My whole family, everyone I care about in the world, live in ‘The City’, and it was long hours before I heard from any of them that they were alive, much less all right. My student, and the other students in the bus, then later, in my classroom, had needs, were scared and upset; that gave me something to think about, and do, in the first hours as everyone in the world found out what was happening in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. I went home that day a different man than the one I’d been on leaving, in much the same way the world was different from morning to night. My son Ben was born a year later, perhaps in some measure a hopeful middle finger raised and waved against those who would hurt my loved ones and the city of my birth; but now we’ve been at war his whole life. We seem to be at war with all those who hate us, but the war-machine generates hatred faster than it can be stamped out; the fire is spreading, getting away from us, more every day. I remember the world before 9/11. My son has never known that world; will never know that world. The best I can do is remember that world, remember what led us to 9/11, and try to wring a lesson from the endless killing and hate simmering, occasionally boiling over, around the world since that morning; I don’t know how to make the world into the place I want to give Ben. I wish that knowing I want a better world for him was enough.

JS, 9/11/17


2 Nootropics That Can Improve Your Writing

I'm a big fan of coffee from way back, long before I started writing books. I drink a fair amount of coffee every day while I'm writing, and believe it's a useful part of my process.

The downside of coffee is that too much can lead to jitters and being hyper, and once you're into that territory, you are (or at least I am) beyond useful writing for a while. It's important to balance coffee/caffeine intake with water (to stay hydrated) and food (so that caffeine is not the only fuel you are running on) while writing.

A few years ago, a movie (and then a spinoff TV-show) by the name of Limitless  came out. The shows focused on the use of a miracle drug that enhanced a down-and-out writer's abilities to focus and work and produce, not just in his writing, but in every facet of his life. The remarkable effects of the drug were offset by the cruel addiction and withdrawal cycle that users faced; including insanity and death if the supply was cut off.

I'm down with increasing focus and productivity, but like to keep my dangerous addictions entirely fictional, so I did some online reading and research, and found that there is an extensive body of knowledge to be found on the subject of nootropics (drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals).

That research includes some powerful drugs and supplements designed to meet the needs of people with significant learning and function issues, and many of them have side-effects, contra-indications, and other significant drawbacks. Those did not appeal to me, so I kept looking.

I found two that did not have any notable drawbacks, are supported by scientific research as being effective for their stated goals, and wouldn't place me in harm's way through:
  • dangerous or horrible interactions with meds I'm already taking
  • drawing the attention of shadowy multi-national drug cartel assassins

The good news is that the first nootropic found by numerous studies to support focus and productivity is caffeine, which I am familiar with, and choose to administer in the form of coffee.

My preferred vehicle is a SmartPig, which consists of 10 ounces of French Roast, 2 ounces of espresso, 2 teaspoons of sugar in the raw, about an ounce of light cream, and a pinch of sea-salt.

The second nootropic of interest (to me) is L-Theanine, a compound found in green tea. It improves focus and calm and can reduce/smooth the jitters common to high levels of coffee consumption. The only problem with it (from my point of view) is that green tea tastes like hot grass-water. My solution to that problem is that I've added tablets containing a supplement of L-Theanine to my morning meds on the days that I'm writing.

The studies I found supported the use of caffeine and L-Theanine individually, but more importantly together ... when administered together, they have a synergistic effect. They work together to improve cognitive function, attention, motivation, and task efficiency.

Besides the support available for this online, I can tell you anecdotally that it's true. Since adding L-Theanine to my routine, I find that my writing goes better, and that the coffee isn't as likely to get away from me if my hydration and food/fuel balance isn't perfect.

Some of the research that I found online in support of caffeine & L-Theanine taken together:
At the end of the day, you have to decide what works, and what doesn't, in your writing routine.

For years, I used coffee by itself to help me get "waked and wired" for my writing, and was able to write hundreds of thousands of words that way. Since finding L-Theanine, and adding it to my writing regimen, I feel as though my focus and creativity and motivation and productivity have increased.

There seems to be scientific research backing up my anecdotal evidence, and not much in terms of a downside to your at least trying it out.

Good luck in however, and whatever, you write!



Writing and Reading Short Fiction

I got back from my first residency in the MFA Program at Goddard ten days ago, and feel as though my involvement in the program is already contributing to my growth as a writer.

I've been writing and reading daily, and approaching both with a more critical eye. The things I learned working with my fellow students and the teachers at Goddard have already been helpful in pushing me to stretch beyond my comfort-zone.

My focus this semester is in short fiction, so I'm spending time each morning writing stories; followed by reading a mix of books, both collections of short fiction and books on writing short fiction (and other books on craft).

I've written eight short stories so far, and have a line-up of twenty-three books I'm excited to read and prepare annotations for (I've finished one so far, and am halfway through the second).

I'm lucky to have the support of my family and friends and fans ... Puck and Miles, our dogs, help me get started and stay on task everyday. 

My wife Gail is, as always, my first pair of outside eyes on everything I write. All these years I've been writing, telling stories, she's been the angel on my shoulder reining me in, pushing me on, helping me polish and tweak my writing with her clear and constant and measured voice.

It's an exciting and scary new world I'm exploring; I'm thankful for my team.



MFAW at Goddard College

I've started my first residency at Goddard College, in Plainfield, Vermont, in their MFA-Writing program.

My cohort of twenty students will get together, along with other cohorts and the faculty members to read and write, and to share what we read and write; also to attend workshops and lectures, and to design our individual courses of study for the coming semester, once the residency is at an end.

It's a creativity-rich environment, and after days spent talking about books and writing, and sharing books and writing with everyone in the college, I fall into bed exhausted but feeling my brain stretched and strained in new and exciting ways.

One of the things that most drew me to Goddard is the lack of boxiness of their program. Creative writing is by its nature a highly variable beast, and we're allowed, encouraged even, to pursue our writing, and educational growth, in the way that best suits us. It's a rigorous program, with lots of reading and writing for each student during every semester and residency, but we only use the material that will help further our craft, and our writing.

I've been fascinated by the diversity of teachers and students here, not in terms of race, sex, orientation, beliefs, etc. (although that is certainly rich as well), but in their, our, thinking and production of creative writing. It's amazing to see and hear how broad and deep the oceans of writing creatively can be ... I've spent my whole life looking at a smaller bay, and am only now exploring the vastness.

I spend my days choosing between multiple workshops and lectures: which ones can I afford to miss, which ones must I see? I'm filling my notebook with thoughts and ideas and tips gleaned from these wonderful people; a page in the back of my notebook is filling with ideas for stories and scenes and characters in my own writing.

It's an exciting program, and I truly feel the only limitations are those I set through perceptual or intellectual shuttering ... I cannot wait to explore this new world, and my place in it.



What a difference a year makes ....

I'm a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend, a writer, and, as always ... I'm a 

It's been a year since my wife Gail accepted a position at Landmark College, and we kicked around the idea of me writing full-time. Since that miraculous set of life-changing talks for all of us our life has been busy and filled with change and adjustments and joy and love and smiles, and some stress.

I've written somewhere around a quarter of a million words, working on various projects. I'm working on a collection of shorts and novellas, a fantasy novel, and a cookbook, while keeping the rest of the plates in a busy life spinning atop their various poles.

The idea for the collection, "A Long Line of Doors" came to me almost exactly a year ago, when we'd decided to make the move away from the ADKs and towards our new life ... I knew that life would be too busy for contiguous blocks of writing days (or even times), so I started making a list of story ideas I'd had; once I got started, they just kept coming.

A number of the stories are standalones, but some of them are a glimpse into the world of a new potential series ... all of them were fun to write.

The project I'm perhaps most excited about is "Oasis", the first book in a fantasy trilogy that's been kicking around in my head for a couple of years. It's filled with magic and magical places, monsters and old secrets, powerful wizards, dark intrigue, and a strong princess unjustly banished to a penal colony filled with the worst criminals in the whole world.

One of the things that attracted to the house we ended up buying was the fact that because it had at one point been subdivided, with an apartment downstairs, there's a spare kitchen down by my office. I spend a part of every day cooking (it also keeps me close to the coffee). I've had fun experimenting with some esoteric forms of food and drink, and can't wait to share my love for food and cooking with readers through the cookbook that's in the works.

Besides Gail, perhaps my biggest supporter on a daily basis is Miles, a rescue Labrador who's lived with us for most of a decade. He loves coming to work in the SmartPig office, and his unflagging moral support gives me strength when the words are hard to find.

Even with all that's going on, I've managed to keep the romance fresh with the love of my life, Gail (as can be seen in the Valentine's Day card I made for her this year). We're excited to be taking a trip to Amsterdam and Iceland later this month to celebrate the coming of our 20th anniversary of being married. 

None of the stories would ever have escaped the confines of my brain without the support and love of my partner in crime and life and love.

Thanks for reading! - Jamie


Spring's Blood Pumping



Ting, ting


The dogs and I watched the old farmer drill holes, tap spiles, then hang buckets this afternoon.

I was eager to go and ask: wasn't it early, how long to fill up, does he have to move them around on the tree.

Puck and Miles were eager to rush out stiff-legged, all barks and sniffing and peeing on stuff.

We didn't.

Later, after the old farmer had disappeared, we checked out the couple-dozen buckets he'd hung on ancient maples guarding the ancient dirt road.

I stopped squelching through meltwater and rim-ice on puddles, the boys stopped huffing and bounding through snow that's been through a dozen freeze/thaw cycles ... and we heard it.



Tunk, tunk


The centuries old sugar maple surrendering her sap to yet another assault from yet another farmer.

Empty buckets make the best noise, like a Connecticut steel-drum band, a rhythmic and tonal system all its own. I stand as still as I'm able, shushing the boys when they get impatient to find the next smell, next stick, next thing to pee on ... listening.

Now that I'm focused, I can hear tings and tunks and plonks up and down the line of tree, like neighbors talking back and forth after going away or hunkering down for the winter.

They're saying spring has come, bleeding to change the season, singing a tympanic song to the darkening day about lightness and warmth to come.

I look both ways for witnesses, crunch into the snow a few feet, lift the bucket lid, then dip a finger in and taste Spring.


Island Dreaming, and Words

My parents have fled the cold and winter storms of the Northeast for a week or two each year for the last dozen or so, and landed somewhere in Florida each time ... this year they invited me, knowing that I had the time and would probably enjoy writing outside in air that doesn't hurt my face.

I flew down the morning after a huge storm in New Hampshire, abandoning Gail and Puck and Miles to the elements, and JetBlued my way down to Fort Myers. The above shows me driving over a lovely causeway/bridge into the Sanibel and Captiva Islands Archipelago.

Yesterday was lovely from sun-up to sun-down, and I spent most of it hiding from the sun like it wanted to kill me (which it does) in a gazebo, typing and telling myself a new story, about a new world. I'm working on a Fantasy Novel titled (at the moment) "Oasis", and having fun exploring the world and characters and the trouble they get themselves into, and hopefully out of ... you can see two maps of the primary contininent of the world bracketing my Chromebook.

I drank lots of coffee, stopped for brief swims every hour or two, and kept my eyes and ears open for the promised alligators (no joy, they were in hiding apparently).

This guy sunning himself on a palm tree next to my gazebo worked hard to convince me that he was an alligator, just little (or far away ... he tried it both ways).

After my final chunk of writing for the day I took a long swim and stretch in the pool and then walked the pretty beach for a bit, finding this little shell on my way back, in a pile of discards, which for some reason made me feel badly for it.

It was a wonderful first day, I got some good writing done (although not putting up the numbers I would have liked, in a perfect world), and I'm looking forward to the next couple of days of writing and swimming and possible alligator-baiting down here in paradise, before returning to my other paradise ... home with Gail and Puck and Miles.



Sitting down to write a first draft

I'm about ready to start typing.

I've been prepping for writing my next novel, "Oasis" for a while, and it's working. My head is full of story and characters and conflict and the world in which the story will take place.

There's a map of the world (more than one, actually), and some geo-biographies about all of the major and minor provinces. I know the twenty first and second tier characters pretty well. The arc of the story is planned out in some detail (I like to signpost major points, and then let the path from point to point write itself with the help of my fingers and the lunatics living in the back of my skull). I have enough coffee on-deck and ready to go to get the Mormon Tabernacle Choir jittery until the end of winter.

Now, it's time to begin ... it's as simple, and as difficult, as that.

Stephen King was right. I've done it before, but it's still scary ... every time.

I just need to acknowledge that the planning is done, and that the time has come to start flinging words at the wall, in the hope that something worthwhile will stick.

The first draft of any story is rough and ugly and messy, but it allows you to move on to the following steps, in which you hopefully prune and graft and polish your ideas into a book that you can be proud of ... and that people enjoy reading.

I have to remind myself every time that I'm just letting the story out of my head to play for the first time: that it doesn't need to be perfect, that I can fix it in later iterations, that the worst draft on paper is better than the best story living in my head.

I don't necessarily agree with this sentiment (although who am I to disagree with Ernest?), but I like to think I understand where he was coming from, what he meant, when he said it.

Nobody writes a polished story in one draft.       Nobody.

The best you can hope for is to give a fair approximation of the story, and by exposing it to the light of day, give yourself a chance to keep working on it over time to get it over the finish line.

My job over the next several weeks, maybe months (hard to say, I've never written a fantasy novel before), is to relax into the daily chaos of writing, exploring, transcribing, inventing, documenting the adventures of a group of characters I'm still getting to know in a world that nobody has ever visited before.

I'm excited and scared and eager and ready.

Wish me luck,