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1. Finish Every Day

Yesterday on Facebook, I included the phrase, "Life is beautiful" in an update.

As soon as I posted it, I thought about the people who might be hurting that day and see it, and disagree. Who might see it, and resent me. Or just feel sad.

So I almost deleted it. But then I didn't. Because life _is_ beautiful, thank god or spirit of life, or whoever it is that made it so. Without some hope for beauty, without a glimpse now and then, or a reminder to be on the lookout for it, what would be the point?

I am aware that life can be as ugly as it is beautiful.

On the ugly days, you might not want to hear about the joys of a baby's smile. Or the precious off-kilter wag of a puppy's tail.

Every cute photo on Facebook may feel like a dagger to your heart.

On the ugly days, when your world has come to a screeching halt, it may seem impossible to you that it's still spinning perfectly for everyone else. That everyone else just goes on living, sharing recycled jokes, unaware (but you are convinced it's because they don't care), that you are hurting inside.

The unfairness of it makes you want to scream. Look at me! I need you.

When life is beautiful, you might not want to hear about the stomach flu your friend's son has, or about the dying twenty-year-old cat of some acquaintance on Facebook you're not even sure how you know.

You care, but not in the way you should. Because the world is spinning perfectly that day, and you do not want to be pulled off the ride one more time.

Other times, you have a life is beautiful moment, and you say so. Like I did. But then you are filled with guilt, because you know someone is going to read that phrase, someone who is having an ugly day, and feel that dagger. And you worry this time you are the one who pressed it into someone's undeserving heart.

I am aware that _you_ is me.

And what I'm learning over and over again is that life, whether ugly or beautiful, is a gift. What we do with it is a choice.

Yesterday at church our minster read from a letter Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to his daughter while she was away at school. It's called "Finish Every Day." I'll share part of it here:

To-morrow is a new day;
you shall begin it well and serenely,
and with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.
It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.

I like this very much. To think that, cliché as it is, tomorrow _is_ a new day. What an easy promise that is. Maybe it will be beautiful. Maybe it will be a little ugly. But I will try to begin it well.

I will try to remember my New Year's theme to live a beautiful life. To love that cat I don't know. The smiling baby. The puppy's tail. The puking child. The suffering friend. Even the one who drives me crazy.

It is all too dear to waste on my own rotten yesterdays.

Today, I am writing with my long-time writing partners _in person_ for the first time in maybe a year. Today, is a gift day and I'm so grateful to begin it well.



Monday Morning Warm-Up:

What can you do to begin the day well?

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2. Trusting the process... and your friends

Last week I finally "finished" the rough draft of a middle grade/tween novel I was supposed to finish last November. I mentioned last week how much I've been struggling with this one, mainly due to constant interruptions as well as, admittedly, using those as an excuse not to work on it. But now there is a draft. There is a beginning (of sorts), a very murky middle that goes on and on and on, and there is an end (of sorts). There is conflict and there is resolution. But... and it is so hard to admit this... there isn't enough heart. There isn't enough life. There isn't enough structure. And there isn't enough plot. There are some funny moments and some sad moments but overall, what I have is a massive collection of scenes all loosely tied together that tell a weak story at best.

I know what this means.

I'm afraid of what this means.

I have to start over on a blank page.

When I admitted this to my husband and writing partners, they were like, "Well, yeah. You've done that with all your books."

And I was like? "Wait, what?" And then I remembered that was true. I seem to be good at blocking the memory of this step out.

"This is your process."

That's what they tell me, reassuringly. And then they say, "You can do it."

Sometimes I think one of the most valuable aspects of this life is to have friends who believe in me when I don't. I can't imagine what I would do without them telling me I can do something I've stopped believing I can do.

Thank you Cindy, Debbi and Peter for believing in me, especially on the days when it seems too hard. It reminds me of how silly that is, really, to say about writing.

Writing is only as hard as you make it.

It might seem hard because I'm afraid. Or feeling tired. Or overwhelmed. Or not sure which way to go. It might seem hard because I'm unsure of myself. Or like it's a waste of time. Or even because I'm just plan lazy. But it's never too hard. That's me saying that because I don't want to do it. And there are certainly plenty of legitimate reasons for that. But those reasons are about me, not about the writing.

Writing is a choice. It's also a privilege. And when I remember that, the mountain seems a little less steep.

I can do it.

And so can you.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Think about the power of the phrase, "You can do it." How can you use that in your own life, in encouraging yourself and others, and how could you use it in your fiction? Is it something you might need to whisper in your main character's ear? Something he or she needs to convince someone else of? Start a scene with dialogue beginning "You can do it" and see what happens...

And speaking of "you can do it", here's my progress so far :-)


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3. Maybe You Could Do More

Some of you know, the past few years I have been trying to be "a runner." Or jogger. Or, probably most accurately a plodder. Each year, I add a mile to my yearly goal and attempt it on my birthday in September.

My challenge: I live on a twisty, hilly dirt, and once winter sets in, it can be very difficult to run on, especially when we get a very snowy winter like the one we've had this year. The road narrows, it's icy, and it's really just not safe to walk on, much less run. In fact the last time I went for a walk I had a very graceless wipe-out.

But we've had a few warm days and the snow banks have receded and it looks like the ice is mostly gone. So today, it's time to get back out there. Last September, I was able to run 6 (very slow) miles. But I'm afraid after a few months of not running at all, I'm back to square one. This happened last year, too. It's a bummer.

But last week, in a moment of inspiration (and perhaps delusion), I downloaded the training schedule for the Couch to Half Marathon plan. I meant to do the Couch to 10K plan, but for "some reason" I clicked on the half marathon link instead. My goal is only to run 7 miles. But there's this little dreamer inside me that says, Maybe you could do more...

So it is 6:52 a.m. as I write this and the training schedule is staring at me with a photo of this very fit lady at the top running like the wind and even though I know I will never look like her, with my frumpy body and my slow shuffle, somehow I'm still inspired to try. Today is the day.

On a parallel line here, I have been in a bit of a writing slump. Specifically, with a book that was technically or maybe just theoretically due back in November. That was the date we chose for the contract but I have been silently hoping no one else will remember.

Because I still haven't managed to finish the very rough first draft.

Last year I took on a teaching position and I also began doing more speaking engagements and traveling to more conferences and I had revisions come in for another novel and... all this meant I kept getting interrupted. Every time I tried to get back into my work-in-progress I felt I'd slipped more and more behind.

Like my running, the days I could finally get out there I felt I'd lost so much I could barely make progress. It was getting more and more frustrating and stressful. Eventually it began to feel hopeless. Eventually I more or less stopped.

But that's not really an option, is it? To give up your goal, your dream, just because it seems too hard?

No way.

On Friday, I had finished my school visit duties for the week. I finished an essay I'd committed to. I was done with all my student packets. I had a full day to write. It was like looking at a flat, ice-free road on a perfect-weather day and just standing there thinking, This is probably going to hurt, but you've gotta start somewhere.

Sometimes, opening my file, or putting on my sneakers, is actually the hardest part of getting back to the task at hand. It's the final commitment to starting again. Starting from what feels like the bottom of a very steep hill. So I told myself:

Just write one sentence. It can be terrible.

So I wrote one terrible sentence.

And then I told myself:

Maybe you could do more.

So I tried.

And soon I'd written 500 words. And maybe not all of them were so terrible. I felt myself finally stepping back into the story.

Today, I will write 1,000 words.

I'm also going to find my running shoes, buried under piles of winter boots and mismatched winter clothes at the bottom of the closet. My instructions say to jog 30 seconds, then walk 60 seconds. Repeat until you've gone 2 miles. It doesn't sound so hard, when you break it up like that.

One sentence. 30 seconds. It's possible.

I know a lot of you struggle too, so I wanted to put this little phrase in your head this morning, just like it lodged itself in mine.

Maybe you could do more.

I'm pretty sure you can.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Write to the prompt: "Maybe I could do more..."

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4. What else can you do?

Yesterday I heard a piece of an interview with Kathleen Turner on NPR. She was on to promote her new musical and when I turned on the radio, she was specifically talking to the interviewer about how she had done a lot of film acting, but now she was doing stage. And the interviewer said something along the lines of what a successful film career Turner had had, and why would she leave it all? Wasn't it risky? And Turner said something like, of course doing something different is risky. But the biggest risk of not trying something new is that you'll never know what else you can do.

I've been mulling that over a lot. Thinking about my own comfort zone and how much I dislike stepping out of it. How scary it is, and certainly how risky it feels. And yet time after time when I force myself to try something new, I learn something really important about myself and the world. Sometimes, it's true, I learn that I'm not very good at something. But I've also learned something more important than that. I've learned that people are lenient. That kids don't mind if you stumble on a few words when you're trying out a new presentation, or in a recent case, speaking off the cuff for the first time. I've learned that falling doesn't hurt as much as I think it will, and I don't have to look graceful getting back up. I just... have to get back up. I've also learned that I can do a lot of things I didn't think I ever could. And that has been well worth the risk.

Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Think about something you've wanted to do or try but haven't because you've been afraid you'd fail at it. Write a scene about a character attempting this thing and what happens when they fail at it. Now rewrite the scene and what happens when they succeed. Be sure to really get inside your character's head. Harness your own fear. Use your imagination to come up with realistic emotions for your worst-case and best-case scenarios. What happens? Does the worst-case turn into humor? Did it really turn out not to be so bad after all? How about the best-case? I hope this exercise will encourage you to try for real. :-)

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5. The Bond Writers Have

This year I started teaching in the MFA program at SNHU. It's a low-residency program that meets twice a year in person for several days of critiques, workshops, readings and community building. Between the residencies, I work as a mentor to five students. This month was my first winter residency at the fancy Mountain View Grand in New Hampshire. It's beautiful. Also cold. And I think because of the weather, a lot of people stayed inside. What happened this winter that I didn't see happening over the summer was this "coming together," even when nothing was scheduled. Students pulled up chairs and couches making circles to talk, share challenges in their work, and then impromptu readings. I was "caught" in one of those.

Photo by Franella Smith, a student in the program

Now normally I do not like to read in public. At the faculty reading, when faculty read to the student body, I get so nervous I make myself sick. But sitting around with students in this casual circle, I felt a part of something special. First, I was honored to be allowed in. Second, I felt that since the students were being brave and reading raw work to one another, I wanted to be a part of it. So when Kip, shown, said, "How about you, Jo?" I said yes. Because I wanted to. I really wanted to be a part of this special thing I was witnessing. This bonding of writers. This circle of trust they had created.

I think we writers are bonded by our deep longing to be heard. To tell our stories. I can sit at a table with writers and instantly know that if nothing else, we share that one thing. That one giant thing that makes us look at the world a little differently. Sometimes a little more tenderly than it deserves. And sometimes a little more cruelly. But we are always looking, interpreting, seeing the story there, or _a_ story anyway, whether it's true or not.

I feel I have been given a huge gift by being accepted into this community of storytellers. And I guess I just needed to thank the universe, and in particular a certain friend who suggested I apply for the job (thank you, Robin!!) and the generous person who hired me (thank you, Diane!!), for helping me find my way here.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Share a story about a time you bonded with another writer(s) or shared a special "we are writers" moment.

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6. Finding Beauty: A Theme and a Challenge for 2014

As some of you know, every year I choose a theme in January to help me keep on track (sane) the coming year. You may notice today is January 6 and that I haven't posted on this blog in a very long time. My theme should probably be something along the lines of Slow down. Be less busy. Take time to reflect here.


I don't actually know if that's the reason I haven't posted yet. I think the reason I haven't posted yet is that I have been happily (or at least determinedly) living my life--a theme I still hold dear to my heart which I chose for 2013. (You can read that entry here: http://jbknowles.livejournal.com/468705.html)

Confession: As I just wrote that, I literally had to ask myself: Wait. Is it 2014 now? Or is it 2013? I really don't know what year it is? How is this possible??? And then, dear reader, I actually just clicked on my calendar to be sure. I don't know what this says about my frazzled brain. It has been a very busy year I guess. I've been doing a lot of living.

The deeper truth though, is I have been waiting for true, fresh inspiration. And that hasn't happened.

I have been patiently waiting for a theme that can inspire me and carry me through a year of living a better life for myself, for others, and our ever-increasingly fragile planet. How do I put that into a short and meaningful phrase? Nothing felt quite right.

Two nights ago, at the SNHU graduation, I was sitting among the faculty in the front row, feeling kind of out of place and proud at the same time. Dressed in my robe, holding a speech for my student in my hand, sandwiched between two remarkable writers, I kept thinking, How can I be here? Should I be here? Do I really belong among all of these incredibly smart and talented people? And then I told myself, well, you ARE. So enjoy it. Someone thinks you belong here, why can't you? Live your life! Remember?

Then Mark Sundeen, the author of The Man Who Quit Money and other brilliant things (http://marksundeen.com/) took the stage. Mark is a brilliantly funny and poignant writer. When you talk to him, the beauty and kindness of his soul dances out of every pore. He grins in a wicked way, and yet it's a kind wickedness, if you know what I mean. Mark is the kind of person who looks back at you, not through.

Mark's commencement speech began with a lot of humor about how little money we all make doing this thing we love, but in the end, he delivered 4 pieces of advice. It all resonated strongly, but it was the last that truly spoke to my heart.

With Mark's permission, I share a bit of it here:

Live a beautiful life, and design it with your full heart.

Of equal importance to my dream of being a writer is my dream of living a life of intention and autonomy... Ultimately, I am a writer because I'm in search of the truth, of some sort of enlightenment, and I realized early in life that for me, there was no truth to be found sitting in a cubicle juggling numbers or entering data or selling useless products to gullible people, where I felt my efforts were creating the exact same crummy world I wanted to condemn and transcend through my writing. I couldn't do that because then everything I wrote about truth and nobility and the wonder of the human spirit would be a fraud. So for me living simply isn't just about slumming it, it's about living nobly, about the self-determination allowing myself to spend my life pursuing what I love—maybe one day this is writing for 6 hours, another day it's skiing in the middle of the afternoon, another day it's reading manuscripts from students, another it's harvesting vegetables and cooking them. To me that is freedom. I want my life to be a thing of beauty. And I encourage you to invest the same vision, intention, craft, imagination, poetry, and form that you put into your book—put it into the living of your life every day.

While his entire speech was inspiring, the big moment for me was this sentence:

I want my life to be a thing of beauty.

What a goal. What a dream. And yet… does it really have to be so hard? What is beauty? Where is beauty?

The gift is being able to answer the first question honestly and the second willfully and with brave determination, even in the darkest times.

Beauty is everywhere. It can be found in the harshest corners of a broken heart. There is beauty in life as well as death. In a love remembered. In a struggle survived. Searching for beauty in the ugly, in the seemingly hopeless, in sadness, that's what hope is. That's what living is. That's how you live a beautiful life.

Yesterday, I ventured out for a walk in the cold. I'm at the SNHU MFA Winter Residency in Northern New Hampshire and the temperature with the wind kicking up was bitter. But Mark's words were bouncing around in my chest and the hotel we're all staying in, while beautiful, felt as though it were shrinking around me and I needed the air and the sky, their beauty, no matter how biting they might be.

The first thing I came across as I stepped out was a somewhat tacky ice-sculpture of a train. It just seemed so out of place up here in the mountains. I would have preferred something more reflective of the quiet beautiful space we're in. But as I stepped closer, I saw that the train had windows. And the frames had this beautiful detail. And when I stepped even closer, I saw that through those windows was this view:



Beauty in the ugly.

I moved on. I knew there was a farm nearby but wasn't quite sure where. The wind picked up and I heard some children yelling in delight. I followed the sound and discovered two children flying down a tiny hill on tubes. There was a man who works at the hotel giving them big pushes with a pole and it struck me as so funny that here at this fancy resort, even sledding you get some assistance. "You can't do this where you live in California!" he called to them. And they said, "In California, we don't own snow pants!" There was so much delight in their voices. So much joy. So much beauty. Even if the privilege of it all felt a tad phony to me. Their joy was real. And it was beautiful.

I followed the path and saw a sign for the farm. The road was snow-covered and still so new that it was that pure kind of walk where your footprints alone are the only signs of someone having stepped there before.

I came across a pair of donkeys who let me scratch their foreheads. They seemed contentedly bored. Bored and beautiful.


Next was the hotel's barn full of a nice sampling of sheep and goats and lamas and all the cute farmyard stage animals you'd expect to see, but it was more of a petting zoon than anything else and there was something so strange about being there by myself, no staff people around because what crazy resort person would be visiting the farm in such sub-zero weather? Well, I was. And it was the absence of anyone else that made that moment so absurdly beautiful. The animals just looked at me and then ignored me. I didn't have food. I was of no use. So they let me watch as they meandered around one another. Seemingly confused about what their purpose really was on a day like that.


Honestly their indifference to me made me laugh. And then I saw this other pair, set apart from the rest. Facing each other as if it say, I only have eyes for you.


And that was beautiful, too.

Next I decided to follow a trail freshly groomed for cross-country skiers. But again, no one was skiing on a day like that. So I had the path to myself. It was eerily quiet. But something told me to keep walking. So I did. And found this tree. And I wondered, what stories could it tell?


In the summer, this tree is in the center of a golf course. Perfectly mowed and groomed in it's artificial beauty. But now, winter, nature, had covered up all the falseness with an honest blanket of white. And that was beautiful all by itself.

Last night, I went to a faculty reading and each reading was painful and hard and told of grief and despair. But underneath that, almost as if it couldn't be helped, was hope. My heart was at once rung out and then filled up. The words were both ugly and beautiful. Crushing and uplifting. They were ultimately about survival. About figuring out how to keep living even in the darkest times. That these women, these mentors, shared their stories so wholly and raw and honestly, was beautiful too. (Thank you Katie Towler, Amy Irvine McHarg, Leslie Jamison--you are beautiful inside and out)

This is how I want to live my life. To see the beautiful and how it can trump the ugly almost every time. It's believing in that, it's the constant searching for it, that I want to remember to do every day.

Yes. I want to live a beautiful life and, as Mark puts it, design it with a full heart. This is how I want to share my life.

Keep finding the beauty. It's so easy most of the time. And even when it's hard, to know that it's possible makes all the difference.

I want to find beauty in all the people I know and meet. I want to find it in objects. I want to find it on the dirty streets. In seemingly impossible situations. In moments of frustration and doubt.

Can I do it? Maybe not always. But I think it's a goal worth aiming for. I challenge you to do the same.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Write about something beautiful.

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7. Have you been to the fourth dimension?

Last week was a special one for me.

First, Vermont Public Radio aired the book group meeting I had with the wonderful kids at the Burnham Memorial Library in Colchester, VT. It was part of a series called Dorothy's List. This is the state book award list which students read from and then vote for their favorite at the end of the year.

You can see photos and listen to the event here:


One of my favorites (shared with me by a parent):


Second, my local paper ran a story about me! It was so kind and thoughtfully written, though everyone goofed on me about the photo. :-) The intern they assigned the photo to got a little excited about having my computer cast a glow on me, which was sweet. But in the end, I couldn't help making the comparison...

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 4.25.20 PM

:-) Anyway, it was a real treat to hear from local friends who'd read the article, especially those who didn't know a lot about me or my writing or my story.

You can read the article, called "A Writers Path to Understanding," here:


I'm not one to get paid a lot of attention to, and I'm not one to feel very comfortable when it happens, but these two events were so special and I am very, very grateful. Talking to kids about stories and writing and life has turned out to be the most rewarding and meaningful aspect of my writing life. To get the opportunity is a true honor.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

A colleague of mine wrote a thought-provoking post about writing at the SNHU page: "What is Literary Writing, and Why it Matters in the Matrix," by Amy Irvine McHarg. You can read the full entry here:


I love this excerpt:

"It may sound like Star Trek stuff, but the fourth dimension is the place we want to access in poetry and prose. When we write deeply enough, there is an opening, that takes us below the horizontal plane, the surface of the ego, into the creative unconscious. It is here, where the rich textures and nuances happen, the place where writing becomes not just a craft but an act of grace."

Do you know what she's talking about? Have you been there? My challenge for you today is to explore your own interpretation of this fourth dimension Amy describes. Where is that place for you? For your story? Take a minute to close your eyes, slow your breathing, and open your mind to the core place of your story. Then open your mind's eye and look around. Feel. Breathe again. What do you discover?

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8. Apparently, I love a challenge

Recently I made an important discovery: I LOVE a group challenge!

For years I hosted JoNoWriMo+1.5, in which we all set goals and checked in to keep accountable. Do you know how many books I finished/revised thanks to this challenge? A lot. And I know many of you did, too. :-)

Then I signed up for the Couch to 5K challenge, and managed to get my sedentary butt moving and moving and moving! It was a miracle. And the great thing was, a bunch of my friends joined me and many of us ran farther than we have our whole lives. What an amazing feeling!

It seems I stick to my goals when I join something like this, which requires me to share my progress in public, but also to cheer on people who are going through the same thing with me! I guess I don't like doing this stuff alone. I love to encourage my friends to reach their goals as much as I love to meet them myself. There's something so special about doing something good for you TOGETHER. Know what I mean?

Recently, I did the 30-Day Plank Challenge. I printed out the schedule and put it on my refrigerator. Every day when I completed the task, I got to scribble it out and it felt SO GOOD to do that. :-) I also checked in with friends both on Facebook and Twitter and several of us managed to complete it. Yay!

My writing partners and I check in with each other every day and share our word-count or revision goals and cheer each on until we reach them. I know if it weren't for checking in with my friends on many of these days, I would accomplish nothing. Instead, we work together and make a ton of progress.

Do I rely too much on others to help me stick to my goals? Maybe. But I love not being alone. I love feeling like my success feeds their success, just as much as theirs feeds mine.

Now that I know how well this all works for me, I've made my own challenge for December. I've posted it below in case you'd like to join me. If this seems too easy or too challenging, you can tweak it to fit your own needs. In fact, this is your Monday-Morning Warm-Up! I've added my writing goals as well, and I encourage you to do the same. :)

I hope you'll join me!!


1. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
2. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
3. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups; write 500 words
4. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
5. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups; write 500 words
6. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
7. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
8. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
9. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
10. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups; write 1,000 words
11. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
12. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups; write 1,000 words
13. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
14. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups
15. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups
16. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
17. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,; write 1,000 words
18. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
19. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,; write 1,000 words
20. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
21. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,
22. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,
23. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles; write 1,000 words
24. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups; write 1,000 words
25. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles
26. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups; write 500 words
27. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles; write 500 words
28. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups
29. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups
30. 3 min plank, 30 sit-ups, 15 pushups, run at least 3 miles; write 500 words
31. 3 min plank, 30 sit-ups, 15 pushups; write 500 words

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9. Why you write back :-)

"Dear Mrs. Knowles,
I cannot believe it at all, you actually wrote back! Oh my gosh! As soon as I saw the notification I ran all over my house with adrenaline running through my body screaming Oh my GOSH!"

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10. Underneath, it's really about...

Hi everyone!

Your Monday Morning Warm-Up can be found at Inside A Dog, where I'm still the author in residence. :-) I really love this one!



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11. A chat with Sara Zarr :)

Sara Zarr invited me to be her guest at This Creative Life! Here is her teaser:

"In this episode, the lovely and talented Jo Knowles talks with me about emotional truth vs. “what really happened,” The Chocolate War, when we will start to feel like real authors, and the tragic decline and fall of roller discos. Jo is the author of five novels, her most recent being Living with Jackie Chan, a companion novel to her YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick, Jumping Off Swings."

If you'd like to listen to our chat, or check out more chats Sara has done, you can start here:


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12. "Teachers Change Lives"

Hi everyone!

I'm still over at Inside A Dog, where you can find today's Monday Morning Warm-Up! :-)


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13. "Your Ideas are Important"

Hi everyone,

Your Monday-Morning Writing Prompt is over here today:

"Your Ideas are Important” http://insideadog.com.au/blog/your-ideas-are-important


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14. jbknowles @ 2013-11-04T12:07:00

Today's post is at Inside A Dog:

Overcoming Writer's Block: On Grief, Love, Fear and Being in the Moment

Link: http://insideadog.com.au/blog/overcoming-writers-block-grief-love-fear-and-being-moment

With thanks to Kristin for the topic suggestion. :-)


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Take a moment to sit quietly and listen. What do you hear? Make a list. It can be boring things, like the dishwasher running. Or annoying things, like the incessant barking of a neighbor's dog. Or interesting things, like a conversation you overhear in a cafe. Listen. Just listen really carefully. List EVERYTHING. Even your own breath. And then pick one thing on your list to write about more closely. Share if you'd like!

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15. The Doctor Is In...

Hi Everyone!

I know this fall I have been pretty bad about posting Monday Morning Warm-Ups, or posting at all for that matter.

But starting on November 1, I'll be posting 3 times a week as the Writer in Residence at Inside A Dog!

I will be talking about writing and life and books and whatever YOU would like me to talk about. Got a burning question? Something you'd like to discuss? Leave a comment here and I will add it to my list and try to get to it. I'll put a link here to all my posts there.

I hope this will get me back into the habit of writing blog posts more regularly. I really miss that exercise, and talking about writing with all of you.

I hope you'll join me so we can have fun conversations!


Monday Morning Warm-Up(s):

1. What would you like to discuss/read posts about?

2. Write to the prompt, "It was a cold, fall day, and..."

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16. What revision looks like: A very long story

I cannot believe the last time I updated was more than a month ago! Yeesh. I've got a lot of excuses. Travel. Book promo. Adding an in-law apartment to our house. Moving in-laws into our house. Unpacking in-laws' things. Teaching. Travel travel travel. And mostly.... REVISING. And because today I handed in this revision, I thought I'd share a little about how the book came to be, since I've heard from a lot of people about how LONG it's taking them to finish their own drafts and I wanted to offer some hope.


A little story about my next book, READ BETWEEN THE LINES. :-)

I got the story spark for this book 10 years ago this month. That's right. I said 10.

I played with ideas. I wrote chapter headings. I had fun writing bits of it here and there. But that's about it.

It was a project I feared.

It was a project I loved.

Many of you know, one of the things I find most rewarding about writing is exploring things from different points of view.

In this book, I do it with 10. That's right. I said 10. (I sense a theme!)

I felt strongly that 10 was the right number, but I also wanted the story to take place in one day. And I wanted the stories to overlap. And I wanted all the characters to overlap in interesting and unexpected ways.

Well, that seemed great but also hard. Really hard. I wasn't ready and didn't know how to do it. So, I just tucked the idea away, and sometimes took notes about it in a file. I played with a few stories, but didn't take it seriously.

Then a year or two later, I was on a retreat with several other authors. We were sitting around a table and someone asked, "What is your dream project? The one you would love to work on without worrying about audience or whether you'd sell it, but just something you'd love to do?"

And my answer was this project. Everyone at the table encouraged me to tell my agent about it. They loved the concept and thought it was worth pursuing.

I shared some parts of it with my friend, the brilliant writer Robin Wasserman.

She also encouraged me to tell my agent about it.

So, I told my agent about it.

He said, "Sure. Write it."

This is what he always says. He already wants me to write what I want to write. So it was kind of silly for me to ask. But I guess I just needed to hear those words: "Sure. Write it."

Over the next few years, I wrote more between projects. It was like my "I need a break" project that I would tinker with. It was fun.

But every time I saw Robin, she would say, "How's that special project going?" And I'd kind of hem and haw, until she'd convince me to share more with her. And in this way, I slowly wrote the book.

It took a lot of years.

But with Robin's encouragement, I finally finished and shared a draft with my editor. To my shock, she said she wanted to publish it!

And then she gave me lots of comments. Lots. Of comments.

And because this project is so complicated, and I had so many comments both from my editor, and Robin (who read it AGAIN) and my writing partners Cindy and Debbi, I bought my first book journal:


In it, I started to make a map of the chapters and characters, and how they would overlap:


That seemed kind of unhelpful. So then I began to create a Bible of sorts. First with a list of characters and which chapters they appeared in (the stars are the main characters who had their own chapters):


Then I needed to study each chapter. I had to know what time it was when the chapter started. What grade the character was in. Which characters show up in the chapter. And of course, what needed to be "Fixed" (according to my readers and my editor):


You might also be able to see the letters W.O.W. This was a tip I learned from Cindy Lord. I needed to identify what the character Wanted; what the Obstacle was getting in his or her way; and what the Way was to finally get it.

This was a new character I created (my editor suggested I kill off two and add two new ones-gasp!), and therefore didn't have notes from my editor or readers. Ah, a clean(ish) page:


I handed in the revision to my editor. Then, she called me and I tried to take notes:



These were not exactly detailed. I have trouble writing quickly by hand and I couldn't keep up. But luckily, she sent me written notes after our call.

Notes in hand, it was time to start the process all over again. I followed the same method, using one page for each character instead of two (that felt like progress!):



I filled this in as I revised, knowing I'd have to go back AGAIN once I'd incorporated the new changes. Here's what a typical page looked like as I did so, and even the backs of pages:


And even on the LAST two pages I was still making tons of changes:


These are pages from my editor's letter. I crossed off each issue as I addressed it, which was VERY satisfying:



And then I was finally able to go back and key in all the changes from my mark-up, and make one final outline of the characters, which fit on ONE page. Yay:


About twenty minutes ago, I got to send the revision to Robin. Wonderful Robin. If it weren't for her, I am pretty sure I never would have finished it.


THANK YOU ROBIN, and Joan, and my writing partners Cindy and Debbi, who kept me sane while I tried to balance this crazy project with everything else going on in my life this past year.

Also, thanks to my friends on Twitter and Facebook, who joined my many "Revision Day Celebrations" which I used as a trick to help me remember to have FUN with this project, daunting as it was.

I love you all.

I hope this helped those of you feeling overwhelmed and impatient with your own progress. You can do it. If I can, YOU can!! Find the tools that help you get control of the situation. Don't lose hope. Keep clicking away. You will get there. And I will celebrate with you when you do.


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17. Fun stuff coming up! :)

Here's where I'll be in the next few weeks/months. Hope you'll be at one of these places too! If you are, please say hey!

September 21
The Boston Teen Author Festival
Cambridge Public Library
Boston, MA
Panel: 12:15-1:00pm
Signing: 2:30-4:00

September 28
The Austin Teen Book Festival
Austin Convention Center
Austin, TX
Panel: 10:15-11; 2:30-3:05
Signing: 4:50-5:30

October 5
The Brattleboro Literary Festival
New England Youth Theater
Brattleboro, VT
Co-Presentation with Michelle Knudsen: 11:00-12:00

October 8
New England Independent Booksellers Association"
Rhode Island Convention Center
Providence, RI
Deets to come

November 15
American Association of School Librarians Conference
Connecticut Convention Center
Hartford, CT
Presentation: 3:15-4:30; Rm Marriot B

November 23-24
NCTE Annual Convention
Hynes Convention Center
Boston, MA
Signing: Saturday, 3-4pm in the Candlewick Booth
Presentation: Sunday, 8:30-9:45

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18. No one person makes a book. Thank you to everyone who helped make mine <3

It started with a question from a fan, after reading Jumping Off Swings:


"What happens to Josh?"

And another:

"Is Josh going to be OK?"

And some more:

"Did Josh really move away to live with his uncle? Did everything turn out all right for him?"

And then, some inspiration...


The first time I met Chip, one of my husband and son's karate instructors, I was inspired by his positive energy and the love and encouragement he gave to my son.

At around this time, I was asking my own questions about Josh, and Larry, and that year, thanks to persistent readers.

What was Uncle Larry like?

I imagined a version of Chip.

And then I imagined the day Josh arrived at Larry's home.

And then...

I started writing.

I didn't tell my editor I was writing this companion book. I had no idea if there would be any interest in publishing it. But I knew I had to write the story either way. So I did.

Thankfully, my editor bought the book. (I love you, Joan Powers and Candlewick!!!!)

This past weekend, I got to celebrate its publication with wonderful friends and family.

My friend Sara Morin designed a logo for me.


I sent iron-ons to any guests who were interested. These are just some of the ones who wore t-shirts to the party:


No one person makes a book.

The ideas come from questions asked by strangers.

From people who inspire through their kindness and enthusiasm.

From every day observations.

And from the love we see and receive and give and crave and miss and long for and share throughout our lives.

Thank you, to everyone who contributed these things and more. Because of you, I can finally answer (and you can find out, because the book comes out TODAY!)...

Here's what happens to Josh:


With lots of love and gratiude,


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19. That thing you are writing...

Hi Teachers!!!

I can't believe we're wrapping up another wonderful summer of Teachers Write! I hope you had fun and put many words on paper. I hope there are hundreds of stories--characters, memories, adventures, loves--now out in the universe that didn't exist just two and a half months ago.

At the beginning of the summer, I gave you this task:

In one sentence, tell me why this story is important to you.

Many of you weren't ready yet, to answer this question. Instead, you wrote why writing is important to you (and your answers were beautiful and inspiring). I hope you can do both now. And I hope you keep your answers in your heart as you head back to your classrooms and most likely a busy schedule. Remember why writing is important to you, remember why you need to tell your story.

Remember how important it is when you ask your own students to write, and treat their stories with as much love as you have for your own.

I want to tell you something.

I was one of the shy kids. The quiet kids. One of the kids who wasn't great at spelling. Who never raised her hand. Who hated to read out loud because it was so hard. And scary.

But I had things to say.

And if it wasn't for the teachers in my life who somehow knew to encourage but not push. To praise and not ignore. To leave the simplest yet most important notes on my papers...


Nice job.

Very creative.

This was sad!

Funny story!

You're a great writer.

Keep going.

...I would not be here now, writing to you as a published author.

Your encouraging words, small as they may be, go straight to your students' hearts. They settle there. They throb there. They live there. And they can change a child's life.

What may seem like the smallest bit of praise can mean the world to a child. I know.

Many years ago, a dear friend gave me this postcard. Whenever I feel despair about my work, I think of it, and smile.


This is what your students need to believe. And it's what you need to believe, too.

The funny thing is, no matter what they--or you, or I--are writing, it's true.

That thing we are all writing IS awesome. All stories are.

I believe this.

Now YOU need to believe it.

So, for your final Teachers Write! Monday Morning Warm-Up, tell me: Why is that thing you are writing awesome?

And hold that answer dear.

Thanks again, for joining me every Monday this summer. I'll still be here every Monday, sharing prompts and encouragement. Hope to see you around. Have a WONDERFUL year, everyone!


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20. Winners on Fred! :-)

Thanks to everyone who entered the SEE YOU AT HARRY'S giveway, and most importantly for all of the amazingly kind notes you left in doing so. You all made me feel so loved. Thank you!!!

This morning I put all of your names in a bowl and had my son choose 5 winners.


Then, as we do, we put them on Fred. If you aren't familiar with this practice, I suggest you visit: http://thingsweputonfred.tumblr.com/ for some fun. :)


A little closer so we can see those names...




Laura Wynkoop

Linda McCann Jeffers


Janes 1

Congratulations and thanks for participating!! Please e-mail me at jo @ joknowles dot com with your address and who you'd like me to sign the book for.


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21. Thank you for crying... and a See You At Harry's give-away!!!!

Today is an exciting day! See You At Harry's is now available in paperback!!


I have been extremely lucky to have many good things happen for Harry's.

Screen shot 2013-08-06 at 6.52.42 AM

I am so grateful to the teachers, librarians, authors and others responsible for this wonderful list. Honestly looking at it now I'm just completely overwhelmed.

But the most rewarding moments of all have come from young readers. Their letters, their hugs, their smiles, (and yes, I admit, their tears), have given me tremendous hope.

Every time someone tells me the book made them cry, my instinct is to say, "I'm sorry."

But you know I'm not.

I'm grateful. I'm grateful for their compassion. For their love of a character who represents what we all hold dear. For being human.

What I really want to say is, "Thank you for crying."

When we share tears, we share a special part of ourselves. And I'm honored to share that part with you.



And now, for the give-away!

Simply leave a comment below with your name and you'll be entered to win one of 5 signed copies! If you share the link to the contest with others, let me know that too, and I'll enter your name twice! The contest will close Thursday 8/8 at 11 pm and I will announce the winner on Friday morning. This contest is for within the U.S. only (sorry). Hope you'll join the fun and spread the word!

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22. On Living Your Life: A Check-In

Last January, I wrote a post called Live Your Life: A Theme and a Challenge for 2013

Here is an excerpt that highlighted my goal for the year:

This is how I want to live my life. Awake and aware and in love.

Sendak notes sadly, "I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because I can't stop them. They leave me. And I love them more."

I have done my fair share of crying for friends who have left me recently. They have left me, and, like Sendak, I have loved them more.

I don’t want that to happen any more. I want to love my friends more now. I want to be aware of who and what they are now, not when I'm missing them.

And I want to be in love with the world now, not when I'm facing leaving it.

Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.

It means something different to all of us. And yet if all of us try harder to do it with purpose, the world will be even more loveable.

I hope you'll join me in trying.

Yesterday, I received the very sad news that a dear friend has stage four terminal cancer. As I wept over this news, scrolling through his facebook page and blog, admiring the life he lives, realizing how out of touch we've become, I also realized I had failed some in this mission I set to love my friends more now.

Life happens.

Commitments to work and family push us one way and pull us another.

We forget to check in. We forget to reach out. We forget to look beyond the front porch of our daily lives, somehow feeling it's safer to stay inside ourselves than to venture out any farther than we already are, despite knowing that's where the adventure lies. That's where love grows.

That's where friends are waiting, living beyond and without you.

That's where living your life happens.

It may feel safer, always staying within the boundaries of what feels safe and secure and familiar, but it isn't really living in the way you're meant to.

And I'm sorry for forgetting that.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Reflect on the Sendak video (shown at the link above) and how you can live your life better, and make the world more loveable.

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23. How objects tell stories

Happy Monday Teachers!!!!

I am sorry I missed giving you a warm-up last week! I was out of town to give a workshop and completely forgot what day it was! Please forgive me. :-)

This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend and speak at the Children's Literature Summer Institute at Simmons College. I have been to a number of these and they are always inspiring, always motivating, always FUN.

On Saturday morning, Susan Rich and Maira Kalman spoke about the creation of the book WHY WE BROKE UP. Susan read from the text which was gorgeous and Maira talked about the inspiration for the objects she illustrated for the book.

While they talked, Susan used the phrase, "We were thinking about how objects tell stories." I quickly wrote that down because I just loved it. In the past, I've posted exercises here about objects they keep and the stories they hold and asked people to choose one and tell it. The entries have been beautiful. I'm sure if you look around the room, at the objects you've kept, each one holds a memory, a story, that fills your heart. We keep these on bookcase shelves, in drawers, memory boxes, etc., taking up space because they remind us of something significant. One of the things I love when visiting a friend's home for the first time is looking at their special objects and wondering what significance they have.

Your assignment today is to pick a special object for a main character in your work-in-progress. Describe the object carefully. If it has a crack or is marred in some way, how did it happen? Why does your character keep this object? Why is it special? What memory does it hold? And how does this memory and this object tell us more about your character? What does it tell us that your text, so far, had not?

Have fun!

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24. All the feels without all the obvious words

Happy Monday, Everyone!

I hope you all had great weekends. I finally had a weekend at home and we spent both days gardening, mowing, weeding and sitting on the deck at the end of the day, RELAXING--something, it seems, we don't have a lot of time for these days.

Speaking of time, Linda Urban has a great post for you today about time and how you can use it to your advantage in writing. It's pretty fantastic. You should go read it now if you haven't already, and then come back.

I think what I love best about Linda's post is the scene she provided as an example. One of the things I notice a lot in workshops and classes I teach, and in students' work I read, is that big challenge of conveying EMOTION. Linda's excerpt is a beautiful example of getting it right. Showing. Not telling. Linda doesn't use any of the usual emotional words in that scene, and yet we know Ruby is crying. We know she is overwhelmed. We know she is confused.

For today's warm-up, choose a scene (or write a new one) in which your character is experiencing a strong emotion and take out all the usual descriptors (sad, frustrated, angry, tears streaming down the face, eyes watering, face burning, hard to swallow, etc.). And rewrite it. Show what's happening around your character, through your character's eyes, to convey his or her emotion. How we see the world changes dramatically depending on our emotional state. Show us how things change for your character. Is there something in the room that triggers a memory to heighten his or her sadness or fear? A smell? A sound? Use sensory details to help spice up the scene.

Have fun!

p.s. Thanks to everyone who has shared their work here, and I apologize when I can't comment on every one. I do read them and and enjoy them very much! But I'm on a deadline and have teaching obligations and don't have a lot of time for lengthy feedback. I'm so sorry. But keep sharing! It's a big step to share your work with others, and it also forces you to kick it up a notch, so to speak. :-)

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25. You can't take it with you

My son has decided to watch all of the Best Picture Academy-Award winning movies, starting at the beginning. We are up to 1938, which was Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You.

I love the title. I love the reason for the title (but you'll have to watch the movie to learn what it is). I even (not to be morbid) don't mind thinking about what I will and won't take with me when... well, in the future.

Anyway, it's a very thought-provoking phrase, and I kept thinking about it as I watched the movie, and even after, and then again when I woke up this morning. And I thought it would make a great prompt this morning to get you thinking about your main character and some of the things he or she cares deeply about. Or, in contrast, some of the things another character cares deeply about but that your character doesn't.

So, for your Monday Morning Warm-up today, begin a scene with the line "You can't take it with you." This can be in dialog (as if someone is saying it to your main character, or something your character is saying to someone else), or a thought your character is having.

Remember to let go and have fun!

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