The Pilgramage (or why I really went to Atlantic City last week)

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

Last Friday I made the 60 mile pilgrimage from Philadelphia to the Atlantic City, New Jersey to present my writing workshop “Learn to Write like No One is Reading” at New Jersey Educators Convention.

The workshop, a culmination of strategies and experiences I’ve accumulated over the last 15 years of teaching, explores how teachers can use storytelling as an instructional practice to deepen student learning while helping students further embrace the writing process.

The workshop was well received by the audience. They actively participate, smiled, laughed at my jokes and from what I could tell, left with at least one new strategy to use in their classrooms.

For the last few months I’ve been making presentations at various professional learning seminars. And I’ve come to really enjoy talking literacy and helping educators facilitate classrooms that promote writing and storytelling so to inspire their students to become better writers.

But if I’m being purely honest — the real reason I went to Atlantic City last week to present a writing workshop was a purely selfish one.

The Real Reason

In September of 2013 an MRI revealed that I had suffered significant brain damage.

However there was no clear catalyst — a car crash or a fall — to warrant such loss of brain matter so quickly.

In October of 2013, after the Director of Neurology at Jefferson University Hospital examined my MRI he acknowledged majority of my cerebellum had died, suggested I start testing for every known debilitating and fatal disease and then asked if I had long-term disability insurance.

“No.”

“I can’t predict what will happen to your brain,” he paused and looked over at the MRI still displayed on his computer screen, “but if you can somehow acquire long-term disability insurance I think you should.”

The Silver Lining

During its annual Convention, the New Jersey Educators Association has a no-physical-required, no-questions-asked open enrollment period for its long term disability insurance.

The only caveat was you have to enroll in person at the Convention in Atlantic City.

So in November of 2013, as mom drove the 60 some miles to Atlantic City, we outlined my plan —  enroll in long-term disability insurance and brave on long enough for the paper work to process so that when I when inevitability lose the ability to speak or see or lose muscle function and can no longer work, my family would’t be so financially burdened.

When mom dropped me off outside the Convention Center, I told her to circle around the block because I wasn’t going to be long. I guess because when your life is undergoing a massive reconstruction sometimes you have no choice but to work as fast as you can.

I mazed through the Convention floor until I found the Prudential Insurance booth where I asked a few questions, looked at a few charts, enrolled in the long-term disability program, hustled back the way I came, walked out of the Convention Center, into the cold November sunlight and waited for mom to pick me up and take me home.

The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is to be the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. Those who choose to go on pilgrimage have already ventured away from themselves; and now set out in a longing to journey back to who they are.” 

L.M. Browning, Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Last Friday I selfishly trekked 60 miles from the Philadelphia suburbans to the Atlantic City Convention Center.

In a way, I found something redemptive in those hard-earned miles. And though skirting pot holes and grinding through traffic can not repair the damage in my brain, it did remind me that somehow I’m still very much alive and that I still have a story to tell.

Be well,

Jay

The Scary Work of Redefining Yourself

It was this week, last year that I published The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or learning to fly). It was one of the greatest leaps I ever took.

Here’s why.

Any writer who tells you they’re not worried about how their work will be perceived is lying.

Look dear reader, I want you to like my work. Scratch that — I want you to love my work.

I want you to read each post twice and share it three times.

I want you to think about me as you’re buttering your morning bagel or waiting for the elevator doors to open.

I want to make you laugh and cry. Give you chills and rock your soul and make you turn over the wonder and magic and mystery of your own life.

But in order to accomplish those Herculean things I need to be honest, authentic and share my story. I need to tell you things I’ve yet to tell my wife. That’s our agreement. And that’s why, sometimes, writing is incredibly hard.

In the quiet hours of life, I often think about my twelve weeks at the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. About the new truths I learned. About how I learned I could no longer jump. About how quickly years of the personal definitions of me being a man strong and athletic crumbled to the cold linoleum floor on a gray December afternoon when an unassuming physical therapist asked me to jump.

What I tried to capture in The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump was the raw embarrassment and shame and sadness I felt in those rehab sessions.

What I didn’t tell you in that story was how scared I was.

The fall and winter of 2013 was the most terrifying stretch in my life. It wasn’t the thought of dying, which did hang heavy in those days, it was a fear of redefining myself. My brain was damaged and the doctors didn’t know why. But the scariest part was digesting the news that parts of me could only now be found in photo albums and in flickering reels of memory.

Take your parents or grandparents. Great people I’m sure. But they’re set in their ways. They detest change. They’ve got their favorite chair, their eternal pair of slippers. They’ve been buying the same toothpaste for 30 years. They’re comfortable. They resist to change. And it drives you crazy but they’re too advanced to redefine themselves. So you smile and accept it.

I knew that my season of physical rehabilitation was crucial. I knew I had to let go of who I was — an athlete, coach and begin the painful and confusing task of redefining myself as a writer — before it was too late.

Redefining yourself is not easy. It’s scary. You’re not a kid but you fear judgement and criticism the way you did in high school. And sometimes redefining yourself becomes dangerous work. Drugs, alcohol and other destructive habits become your new definitions.

But I’ve learned that if you redefine yourself positively and purposefully you can tap new potentials.

When you write your new definitions you find new ways to in be strong and empowered and your life is suddenly swirling with exciting possibilities. You discover new energies. New angles. You begin to realize your potential.

Aside from William Faulker, any writer will claim that editing while writing is a literary sin. You write and write and write then edit. They are separate adventures. But this is life. You can’t write, enjoy a cup of coffee, take a breath then edit your past. We must write and edit at the same time. You must redefine yourself as you go. And it’s unnatural. It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard.

But dear reader, it might just be the most important thing you ever do.

Be well,

Jay

The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or learning to fly)

Six months after being diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration, six months after a neurologist examined an MRI of my brain, leveled his eyes, cleared his throat and said to me, “you should be dead or in a hospital bed” I’m staring at my physical therapist, Denise, and she’s daring me to jump...

 

A Moment with Tom Petty

When Tom Petty died I was suddenly 19 again, wearing headphones and slumped in the backseat of a rented minivan.

Dad is driving, Mom is riding shotgun and my two younger brothers are tucked in the middle bench watching Home Alone on a TV/VCR combo dad had strapped to a milk crate to entertain the kids on our first family road trip — a traverse through New York state and into Canada.

To pass the time, I brought a pen and notebook, a discman and a binder with stuffed CDs.

 I’ve forgotten large chucks of my teen years but I remember, with absolute clarity, the songs that soundtracked the most confusing, polarizing, contradictory, painful and fun years of my life.

On that trip, I listened the contemplative “Time to Move on”, the third track on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” album over and over and over again, convinced it was written for me.

“It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing”

I remember, as the New York tree line flicked by, writing out scenes for what I thought was going to my first novel. A fictional yarn about a rich 19 year old kid who declined a scholarship to Princeton so he could make a year long transcontinental hike from New Jersey to California. Of course, his hard-boiled father disapproved and his mother was too busy stroking the pool boy to care. It was a massive idea. Too massive for me then. Maybe too massive for me now.

When you’re 19, life gets complicated.

Choices become harder, they have more gravity and greater consequence. Time is suddenly finite. Reality is tangible. You realize you need to do something with your life. And as sad as it is, you realize your on the verge of comprising your dreams to appease the status quo.

At the end of my freshman year of college, I was 19 and had a growing awareness of how hard it was going to be to become a writer. It was a life of discipline and sacrifice and deep examination only to be rewarded with self-doubt and rejection.

When it was convenient, like in the back of a minivan in upstate New York, I would scratch down stories but I wasn’t committed. I grew frustrated by the amount of work being a writer took and I remember being 19 and concluding that writing was a cute dream, but ultimately a dream for other people to entertain.

“Broken skyline, which way to love land?
Which way to something better?
Which way to forgiveness?
Which way do I go?”

At 19 you’re wedged between the adulthood and childhood. You’re letting go of romantic ideas of adulthood and submitting to reality —  the one with time clocks and car insurance and parties that end at 9 pm. At 19, I didn’t want that adult life. And, in a way, I still don’t want.

“It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going”

When Tom Petty died, like when all great musicians die, the alchemy of music twists time and somehow the past becomes present.

And suddenly you’re 19 again, slumped in the backseat of a minivan, rolling through the mountains of New York. You’ve got your headphones on and a scruffy guitarist from Gainesville, Florida is singing out your secrets. There’s a fear swirling in your chest. A fear that will settle, take its shoes off and rest heavy in your chest for years to come.

Because you’re afraid to move on.

You’re afraid to get going.

Be well,

Jay

12 Things I Learned This Summer

As a teacher, my relationship with summer is complicated.

I love being lazy at 10 am. I love long afternoons on the beach, watching my children build sand castles and dig for shells. I love impromptu BBQs and staying up past 11 pm on a Tuesday to watch reruns of The King of Queens.

Yet, after a few weeks of freedom, I miss the routine and discipline it takes to survive each school day.

Sure, I love spending time with my children especially when they’re smiling and sharing…not so much when they’re being loud, selfish jerks.

Summer’s complications provide good reflecting material. Here are 12 things I learned or came to better understand this summer:

1. The movies are (still) outrageous

As a kid, when mom would take me to the movies, she would stuff her pockets with contraband– homemade popcorn packed Zip-lock baggies, juice boxes and shoe string licorice from Woolworth’s– and tell me that concession prices are simply too outrageous to buy anything. That was 30 years ago.

Embarrassed and annoyed, I’d tell her that when I’m a father I’m going to buy my kids food at the theater.

On a rainy summer day, I left the wife home and took the kids to see Despicable Me 3. Yet after 4 tickets and 4 sodas (yes, I bought each kid a soda because I’m dad and I’m awesome) and the the 5 gallon tub of popcorn totaled $72 I firmly announced to my children that the movies are outrageous and they’ll never be dining at the theater again.

I think I owe mom an apology.

2. Your credit card company may have a “pay down program”

On a recent statement I noticed how much I was paying in interest a month. Embarrassed and annoyed, as if my credit card company had courted me to the movies with its deep pockets filled with pre-bought snacks, I called and talked to a representative and learned that my credit card, Discover, has a “pay down program”. After you enroll (which is free) simply pay any amount over the minimum monthly payment and Discover will apply a 5% credit to your minimum payment.

Which means, if your monthly minimum is $100 and you pay $100.01, Discover will apply a 5% credit to your statement, subtracting your balance by $5.

If your looking to pay down your credit card it’s worth finding out if your credit card company has a similar program.

3. Surprise your children

When I recently asked my daughter what the best thing about this summer, she replied, “The surprise trip to Tennessee.”

In July, Cindy and I surprised the kids with a trip to visit family in Tennessee. We rolled the tikes out of bed, assembled them on the couch and announced we were boarding a plane to Tennessee in 4 hours. They had no choice but to brush their teeth and be excited.

A family trip is great. A surprise family trip makes it that much more memorable.

4. Your marriage requires you to be proactive

This summer I read a lot about living a proactive life. It’s apparent that addressing your problems before they gain mass and weight is critical to living a healthy, happy life.

After 12 years of marriage ( I’m not an expert by any means) but a proactive marriage–one where you address feelings and choices as they arise– is the healthiest thing a married couple can do. Passiveness and inactivity in a marriage creates tension, frustration and division which only further compound the relationship.

5. You control your destiny

I found one of my new favorite books this summer–The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s a simple, parabolic read. A boy journeys through the desert searching for wealth yet along the way he learns about the realities of life.

The Alchemist stakes this truth– no matter the circumstance, we hold ownership over our actions. By victimizing ourselves, by blaming others, by skirting responsibility we stunt our growth, we immobilize ourselves.

I’m so glad I found this book and, if it hasn’t already, I hope it finds you.

6. Vitamins are good

After a friend’s suggestion, I ordered and tried a vitamin package from The Melaluca Company called Peak Performance Total Health.

I take two vitamin packets a day, one in the morning and one at night. The packets are filled with 12 supplements and vitamins.

After two months, I’m happy with the results. I have more energy, better focus and my joint and muscle pain have noticeably decreased.

Also, I began taking Vertisil, which is an all-natural supplement to help relieve symptoms including balance, vertigo and motion sickness. You can order it on Amazon but it’s a little pricey at $40 for 60 tablets. However, I would highly recommend it for anyone struggling with balance issues.

7. Trust your change

I kicked-off summer by delivering the commencement speech at my high school’s graduation. Trust Your Change was the speech’s title.

Trusting your change is hard. But what helps to better accept change is having a set of cemented principals like honesty, discipline and patience that stand as everlasting personal pillars, that weather uncertainty and provide us the courage to trust our change.

Having such principals lessens the stress of change.

If you work on establishing principals, trusting your change becomes more natural.

8. It doesn’t hurt to ask

This summer I interviewed authors, teachers, entrepreneurs and professional storytellers because I wanted to learn more about their craft.

At first it was a little intimidating cold-emailing strangers and slightly disappointing when a few didn’t respond. However, in the end, more people responded than those who didn’t.

I talked to some great people this summer, like award-winning storyteller Hillary Rea, and learned that if you’re genuinely looking for help most people are willing to field your questions and offer such help.

9. Sometimes no one shows up

In consecutive years, August has proven to be my toughest blogging month. As summer concludes the traffic on writefighton.org is at its thinnest.

Sure it’s a little frustrating, but it’s the serving of humble pie I occasionally need.

August is a reminder that writing is about honing a skill and putting in unseen work, like shooting foul shots in an empty gym.

Writing requires practice even when no one is reading.

10. Medium.com is a great place to spend time

If you’re looking for something interesting to read or thinking about blogging but don’t want the hassle of building your own blog I recommend medium.com.

Medium.com is free site where you can write, share and read articles on essentially any topic. (I’m a big fan of the life lessons and writing articles).

I joined medium.com last summer but didn’t get serious until this summer. If you want to read more or publish your own work then you should definitely check out medium.com.

11. It’s ok to let your children go

Just as I pulled into the parking lot for her soccer practice, Haley said, “Dad just drop me off here. I will walk up to practice.”

“It’s ok sweetie, I’ll park and we’ll walk up together.”

“No, I can do it myself.”

When she turned 9 in April, Haley’s feet began growing roots in the soil of stubborn independence. Seeing her everyday this summer made me realize how she’s distancing herself from childish things and stretching into adolescence.

12. It’s only nature that summer passes by

There’s a tendency at the end of the summer to lament how fast the summer has passed. But that’s life. The brevity amplifies the beauty of it all. Watching the seasons, watching people you love transition from one phase of life to the next is what gives brilliance to the human experience.

I hope your summer season was filled with a lifetime of warm moments that ride with you deep into the future days of your life.

Be well,

Jay

A Life-Long Reader and Writer: An Interview with Award-Winning Author Danielle Ackley-McPhail

Award-winning author and editor Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for longer than she cares to admit. In 2014 she joined forces with husband Mike McPhail and friend Greg Schauer to form her own publishing house, eSpec Books (www.especbooks.com). Anthologies she is in have won or finaled for The Dream Realm Award, The Indy Book Award, and the EPIC Award.

 Her published works include six novels, Yesterday’s DreamsTomorrow’s MemoriesToday’s Promise,The Halfling’s Court, The Redcaps’ Queen, and Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, written with Day Al-Mohamed. She is also the author of the solo collections A Legacy of StarsConsigned to the Sea,Flash in the Can, and Transcendence, the non-fiction writers’ guide, The Literary Handyman, and is the senior editor of the Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series, Gaslight & GrimmDragon’s Lure, and In an Iron Cage. Her short stories are included in over fifty anthologies and collections.

I would like to thank Danielle for sharing her thoughts and time with Write on Fight on.


How long have you been writing?

I have been writing forever. As a young girl I used to continue my favorite books in my head as I fell asleep and often distracted my teachers with my poetry. I have been published for over fifteen years.

What book made you realize you wanted to be a writer?

All of them. Once I knew how to read my mother took me to the library and got me my first card. Then she said,”You can get as many as you can carry.” I have been reading and imagining ever since.

Do you have any quirky writing rituals or odd sources of writing inspiration?

I have been known to write in a completely dark room, with Irish instrumentals playing non-stop in the background. Also, when I am nearing the end of a book I give up sleep, just taking cat naps when I can’t keep my eyes open anymore, but with my mind still working on the story so that ten or fifteen minutes later I get up and keep on writing.

What is the most famous book you’ve never read?

War and Peace.

How is the writer’s life you’re living different than the one you imagined?

Well, two years ago I became a publisher and that was something I had never foreseen. Also, writing used to be effortless, but as I have grown and taken on more responsibilities, being creative takes a bit more effort depending on how much stress I have in my daily life.

If you could build a super-author consisting of three, living or deceased, authors who would you pick and why?

Jonathan Maberry, because he is a marketing mogul who writes real well and is a master of the business, James Chambers who isn’t well known yet, but can write anything and write it well, and Mercedes Lackey because I love here descriptions and characterization on matter what material she is writing.

Of your invented characters, who would you like to meet for lunch? Why?

Beag Scath. He is a pixie with mad magical ability. He started out as comic relief in my first novel, but grew into one of my fans most beloved characters, with unexpected depth and strength, as well as being absolutely adorable.

What are you currently working on that’s got you excited?

A short story called The Windows of the Soul for a short story collection called After-Punk: Steampowered Tales of the Afterlife. It will be based on the Mexican celebration of The Day of the Dead, and the myths and legends the traditions are based on.

Where can we find your books?  Where can we find you?

My books can all be found on Amazon or other major on-line book sites, or in person at science fiction conventions up and down the east coast.

Websites: www.sidhenadaire.comwww.badassfaeries.comwww.especbooks.com

Twitter: @DMcPhail, @eSpecBooks

Facebook: www.facebook.com/#!/danielle.ackleymcphail

www.facebook.com/E-Spec-Books

Goodreads 

Blog: https://especbooks.wordpress.com/


Thanks for reading and since you’re here…

… I have two small favors to ask…

  1. Please check out the author’s social media accounts and help promote the their work.
  2. If you know a published author, I would love to promote their work and feature them on Write on Fight on. Please be awesome and share this post with them. If interested, I can be reached at…writeonfighton@gmail.com.

Be well,

Jay

Teaching Children Character Building Concepts: An Interview with Author Gretchen Burman

Who is Gretchen Burman?

My name is Gretchen Burman, mother of two amazing girls and wife to a fabulous and supportive husband.  When I was pregnant ten years ago, I was freaking out thinking how I would raise capably, caring and happy children.  What did I need to proactively and reactively teach them so they could be their best self?

I created a list of guiding principles called, The 12 Cs, to be my parenting checklist and provide my family with a common language to help us navigate life’s ups and downs.  Through the years, I expanded The 12 Cs to include positive self-talk and mindset skills.  Science supports the benefits of this powerful life skill and I use the characters Green Glory and Red Rant from my book, The Adventures of Ooga and Zeeta, to help children understand the power of their inner voice so they can be mentally strong and self-compassionate.  

After years of witnessing the positive effects and extensive research, I am now sharing my passion and learnings with other adults and children through my book, assemblies and workshops. 

What inspired you to write The Adventures of Ooga and Zeeta?

My now 10-year-old daughter, Payton, inspired me to write the book about 5 years ago.  Her imaginary friends are Ooga and Zeeta and I thought it would be so special to bring them to life through stories for each of The 12 Cs.  She is my muse.  For each story, Ooga or Zeeta start by thinking with their Red Rant inner voice.  Then they decide to change their self-talk/mindset to think with their Green Glory inner voice.  It shows children how they, too can navigate through real life situations, think for themselves and be prepared to handle whatever life throws at them.  

The book is a teaching tool designed to be read by children and adults together, offering a communication tool to open up dialogue and foster conversations.

What book made you realize you wanted to be a writer?

It wasn’t a specific book that made me realize I wanted to be a writer.  It was more that I wanted to share the consistent vocabulary of The 12 Cs, Green Glory and Red Rant with other children and families who were looking for a kid-friendly way to teach these character concepts and positive self-talk/mindset skills.

Do you have any quirky writing rituals or odd sources of writing inspiration?

The source for my stories are from my daughters.  I write down situations where we use The 12 Cs, Green Glory and Red Rant to help us navigate through obstacles.  I keep a notebook handy for these opportunities and then I type them in the computer so they are secure for when I write my blogs and next book.

What is the most famous book you’ve never read?

Harry Potter

How is the writer’s life you’re living different than the one you imagined?

I never imagined I would be a writer.  Writing was never a strength of mine so it didn’t occurred to me to write a book until a teacher friend of mine loved The 12 Cs and thought it would be great to share the concepts with other adults.  

After publishing the book, I wanted to get the book to as many kids and adults as possible.  I now go around to schools and teach thousands of kids about The 12 Cs, Green Glory and Red Rant through assemblies and workshops.  It has been incredibly rewarding to do something that I am so passionate about.  I truly believe in what I’m teaching and think children will benefit today and in their future.  It’s also super cool when you meet someone who has read your book and shares success stories of how the book has positively impacted them and their family.  When readers give you examples of how their kids changed from Red Rant to Green Glory.  So empowering and meaningful that my characters are helping others.

If you could build a super-author consisting of three, living or deceased, authors who would you pick and why?

Carol Dweck – her research has opened the door for new thinking and giving people power over their own lives.

Dan Brown – I love his stories and can never put his books down.  

James S. Hirsch – Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter – I love the strength of the characters and how they brought out so many emotions for me.  I love how a few amazing people helped and positively changed a man’s life with their actions.

Of your invented characters, who would you like to meet for lunch? Why?

Definitely Green Glory!  I would love to hear how it pushes away Red Rant when it’s bullying it.  What works and what doesn’t work to keep Red Rant quiet.

What are you currently working on that’s got you excited?

I am presenting at elementary school assemblies introducing The 12 Cs, Green Glory and Red Rant to students and faculty.  The assembly uses role plays to act out the characters in my book, Green Glory and Red Rant via The 12 Cs.  The goal is for students to leave empowered with new communication tools to help them successfully navigate life’s ups and downs.

Where can we find your books?

The Adventures of Ooga and Zeeta is available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and many other on-line distributors.

Connect with Gretchen on the following social media links:

I would like to thank Gretchen for sharing her thoughts and time with Write on Fight on.


Thanks for reading and since you’re here…

… I have two small favors to ask…

  1. Please check out the author’s social media accounts and help promote the their work.
  2. If you know a published author, I would love to promote their work and feature them on Write on Fight on. Please be awesome and share this post with them. If interested, I can be reached at…writeonfighton@gmail.com.

Be well,

Jay

Another Successful College Essay Writing Camp!

 

During the week of July 17th, I facilitated the Write on Fight on College Essay Camp for a great group of rising 12th grade students.

Throughout the week we learned:

  • Why writers should brainstorm like Vin Diesel… Fast &Furious
  • Why, as writers, should always create more content then we actually need
  • How to destroy writer’s block
  • Why writers should always consider the reader’s feelings
  • How to write a scene of conflict
  • How to be a self-aware writer
  • How to captivate your reader with effective verbs
  • How to properly and effectively break the rules of grammar
  • How to become a ruthless editor of your own work
  • How to effectively organize our writing
  • How to write like a storyteller

The next camp is August 7-11. Limited spaces are available.

If you live in or around the central New Jersey area and would like help crafting an effective college essay as well as learning important writing and editing strategies before another school year begins…contact me at writeonfighton@gmail.com