JACK SONNI — ROCKER, WRITER, GENTLEMAN CHEF!

Trudging through standing water in the midst of a rainstorm, I felt a bit like the mariner who had once lived in the residence at Edgartown on Marthas Vineyard, Massachusetts. Beneath an arch, I pushed through a garden gate, past a long wooden table and chairs, pots of flowers taking a beating from the downpour, up a ramp, and into the French door as I had been instructed.

He must have noticed my arrival before my fingers ever touched the door handle. I had no sooner stepped inside of the houseinn reallythan a smiling face approached, welcoming me to Noepe. Introductions commenced, the delicious aroma of something from the kitchen wafting through the warm interior calling him back to tend to dinner.

Jack Sonni Picture taken by Craig Clement

Jack Sonni
Picture taken by Craig Clement

That was how I met Jack Sonni.

That is generally how all of the residents taking part in the Writing Residency at Marthas Vineyard meet Jack. He is the on-site writer in residence, official greeter, and house manager at Noepe Center for Literary Arts. Jack was, is, and will be a whole lot more.

You may recognize his name from his time with the band, Dire Straits. Here’s a clip–Jack is the one in the red coat!

So, what is a rocknroll guitarist and vocal stylist doing as writer-in-residence at Noepe? Thats what youre about to find out.

Picture by Craig Clement

Picture by Craig Clement

RJ: Jack, thank you for joining us today. You already know that when I do an interview I dig around in the archives of my subject. The first thing I found about you was that you were born John Thomas Sonni, which is a lovely name. How did you become Jack?

JS:  I was named after my Italian grandfather, Giovanni Tommaso, which translates in English to John Thomas.  It was my own search for who I was that led to my adopting ‘Jack’ as my given name when I started college.  All of my ‘rock idols’ had these catchy names: David Bowie, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger.  Going by Johnny Sonni wasn’t rock’n’roll enough for me!

RJ: Are those the musicians influencing you most?

JS:  Bowie, definitely.  I think he’s amazing.  The Stones, for sure. Also Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Pete Townsend.  And my dad passive-aggressively pushed the idea of my becoming a musician.  Although he wasn’t a fan of rock’n’roll, he bought me a guitar when I was thirteen years old, and supported my lessons, perhaps as a vehicle of his own fantasies.

RJ: Was that your main interest during your formative years?

JS:  You know, I really loved reading—the escape it offered.  I wasn’t interested in sports and we moved around a lot because my dad was in the military.  During high school I actually attended three different schools in three different states.  Reading always grounded me.  The Sword and the Stone was my favorite book.  I’d read it again and again.  At some point I just knew I was going to pull the sword from the stone and I was going to become King of whatever it was I was doing.  That was the fantasy anyway!

RJ: At what age did you discover writing in addition to reading?

JS:  I was in third grade and our class was going to put on a play of Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, a story I loved, so I volunteered to write the script.  I’m not sure why I thought I could do it other than I just wanted to be the one to tell the story.  That was validating for me, but it didn’t make my mom all that happy! She was the one who had to transcribe my writing, type it all out and format it for the mimeograph machine! Then make all the copies and collate sets of the play for everyone. Wasn’t all that easy making copies back then and I can remember her frowning at the extra work and stress.

Picture of Jack Sonni by Craig Clement

Picture of Jack Sonni by Craig Clement

All I wanted to do was sit under palm trees and write books. ̶ Jack Sonni

RJ: And you did become king of sorts as you performed with Dire Straits on stage in 23 countries and with Live Aid alongside other artists such as Sting. What was that like?

JS:  “What was it like being a rock star,” is actually the first line of my memoir!  It’s the first question most people ask when they hear about my past.  You know Renee, I’d been in New York City for almost ten years chasing the rock star dream and it nearly killed me — literally. So I quit. In my head, it was done. I was working behind the counter in a guitar shop and had decided to go back to school for my main passion—writing.  Fordham had accepted me already.  Then just a couple days after I received my acceptance letter,  I got a call from Mark Knopfler with Dire Straits to come and join him on the road.  I was literally in the store one day, on the road the next. Caught up in the whirlwind, the heady seduction of performing on stage with my idols was a powerful thing.

But to answer the question—being a rock star is everything you imagine it to be and more.  I got to live out every last one of my rock’n’roll fantasies.  It’s when you are no longer being a rock star—once you’ve been one—that can mess your head up! Like flying first class for a while and suddenly being kicked down to coach…or the Greyhound bus!

RJ: So what happened that brought that to an end?

JS:  Mark changed his mind about his course, which inevitably altered mine.  I remained in Australia after the tour was over and the band all went back to England. I was enjoying the lifestyle of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth.  I met my future ex-wife there.  Surfing, playing music, getting my own band together, kept me busy.  Then I got a call from record label executive friend of mine who convinced me to move to Los Angeles to pursue a solo deal. That didn’t happen for a multitude of reasons and I really lost my taste for the business. By the time the girls were born, I knew I didn’t want to put them through the roller-coaster life of being a working musician because the struggle never really ends unless you’re on of the very lucky few.  I found I was good at ‘working up ads’—another form of writing I suppose—and became a marketing manager for a company that made guitar gear which led to an eighteen year career.

RJ: When did you leave marketing?

JS:  I wasn’t happy and hated going to work every day. Then the girls graduated high school, dad got ill, a close friend died from cancer.  I decided to go after my best life—NOW!  It had that kind of urgency.  One of the last conversations with my dad was with me telling him I intended to quit my job, sell my house, and go write.  And he said, “Do what makes you happy!”

Jack's daughters

Left to Right: Silas, Hendrix, and Merrick in front. Caitlin and Nadine in back

RJ: And your daughterstwinsare twenty-six now. Can you share some insight on what it was like raising twin daughters?

JS:  Let’s see…what was it like? It was the best of times. It was the worst of times! As a single dad raising two girls I certainly acquired a great appreciation for what single mothers go through. My girls, Caitlin and Nadine, weighed less than 3 pounds when they were born. They spent six weeks in Neonatal ICU until they were about double that weight and could come home. BUT they were still incapable of going much longer than 3 hours without feeding for almost six months! So they were waking up several times throughout the night keeping their mother and I in a perpetual state of sleep deprivation for six months.

I was completely out of my mind! I’m fairly certain it’s what led to the end of the marriage and my-ex leaving the girls to my primary care a short time later. Naturally, there were other complications in it but not going to get into that here. Suffice to say, it wasn’t easy on anyone involved.

But watching my babies grow into beautiful, intelligent caring women both incredible mothers of their own now – the greatest reward in my life. We have a relationship that I cherish deeply. Girls are so sweet and easy when they’re little. Playing quietly with each other and generally a joy. Girls are fantastic because dad is a god in their eyes! That is until about 12 or 13 when suddenly seemingly overnight things went from “Oh Daddy, you’re the best!” and getting endless cuddles and hugs to well, let’s say this – all I saw for about four years was eye rolling and that head thing where it looks like they’ve lost any muscle control and sways on their necks in a figure eight. Along with a tongue click and that exasperated huff. But we survived and they came back from whatever dimension the aliens who took my little girls away to and we’ve been fab ever since! We talk – well, text because god forbid they actually use the phone as a phone and call – pretty much every day.

Without exaggeration my girls are the reason I’m still on this planet. In my darkest hours and there have been some very very dark ones, what stayed my hand and kept me from taking my own life was the realization that it was not my life to take. It belonged to them. I was responsible not only for them, but to them.

RJ: Is that why you chose the stones for the skull ring you wear in the colors of your daughters eyes? Jack's ring

JS: The one I wear was made by silversmith known for his “outlaw” jewelry and has done work for Keith Richards, although not the exact skull ring he wears that was fashioned by an artist in London.  He has his reason for wearing it – this quote from an interview in 1988.

And this {points to his skull ring} is to remind me that were all the same under the skin. The skull it has nothing to do with bravado and surface bullshit.”—Keith Richards 

I took to wearing a skull ring in my corporate working days to remind me that, regardless of how buried it felt at the time, there was another me under the surface. When designing it, I wanted to have elements that represented my daughters – to always remind me of my obligation to them should the darkness return – so the eyes are stones the color of my daughters’ eyes.  On the sides – in gold – there are stars, encircled by trailing flames – two comets representing my girls – the lights that travel through my darkest hours.

Picture by Craig Clement

Picture by Craig Clement

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”—Carl Jung

RJ: How did you wind up at Noepe?

JS:  I was in New York, working on a memoir.  A friend suggested Martha’s Vineyard Writing Residency, I applied, and was accepted.  I had gotten an agent quickly and then nothing happened.  The agency had one idea for the memoir, the publisher had an idea of what it should look like, and I had another.  It was never my intention to write the typical, ‘sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll,’ memoir, and initially they seemed excited that it was something different.  For me, the fantasy I lived with Dire Straits was an intermission in my ‘real’ life.  It was only a chapter.  I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have experienced it, but it was a painful ending and my heart was broken for a long time.  It was brutal reliving it.

In the end, all they really wanted was the same old story, which wasn’t and isn’t mine. But having the time to focus on it at Noepe, unburdened with the shackles of everyday life, just cruising through memories and cranking out pages, was priceless.  I still have it, and will likely do something with it at another point in my life.  But it became clear that in order to remain authentic about my life, it just wasn’t the right time to release it, and maybe not the right team.

RJ: Would you have rather not have had the experience at all?

JS:  Good question.  I have asked myself that many times.  I went through a major identity crisis, asking:  Who am I?  It was like becoming suddenly invisible, failing to exist at all.  And part of the anger and disappointment was in myself for not following my creative writing dreams.

RJ: But it isnt too late to do that. You read for us from a post on your blog titled: This is Why I Write. Where did that inspiration come from?

Because what is remembered is less important than the why these moments return. ̶ Jack Sonni

JS:  I had lost interest in finishing the memoir, but the lack of completing it made me question everything.  What is the point?  Why did I turn my back on John Thomas and became Jack?  What made me change my name?   What was behind the need to become something – or someone – other than who I am? Why can’t I finish this book?  So, I took Justen’s Monastic Writing workshop on the vineyard—the same one you took in Italy.  And I knew then I had to write; to make new stuff.  Why do I write?  I scribbled that question on my white board and the piece came together.

RJ: You are around writers all of the time. They come to Noepe for workshops during the summer, or for residencies during the spring and fall. What is your favorite part of watching their process as they acclimate to the environment at Marthas Vineyard and the influence of other writers?

JS:  I love watching the first twenty minutes after people arrive; wide-eyed amazement at the physical beauty of the inn.  For the first two or three days they walk around, making coffee, transitioning into permission to write.  It’s a fantasy, an unencumbered time and space to write.  I watch as they find their space and sit for hours, just cranking away.  And then, about three days before the end, the pressure kicks in.  They realize it is about to be over.

RJ: (Laughing) I dont think I had any trouble transitioning.

JS:  I don’t know.  I recall you hunting for that perfect space in the house that felt right to you, and the settling in of the realization that writing was all you had to do once you found it.

Jack at Ag Fair

RJ: You are right about that! And you were great about offering maps, bus schedules, carpooling. Is that part of your description as House Manager?

JS:  Yes, of course.  I’m incredibly fortunate to have a place to come and write.  In exchange, I can take a load off of Justen Ahren so that he can focus on Noepe.  Because of my experience, I can help with some of the marketing to help grow awareness of what he’s created here, which continues to grow.  We share a common vision, and I love giving tours, creating a sociable environment, engendering a community spirit.  I’m the on-premises face, and I do some cooking, which is lots of fun, especially the nights I cook with Justen for the welcome dinner.

Jack and nan's pizza         Jack Sonni demonstrating pizza toss

RJ: Ours was wonderful, by the way. And you even taught my group to make pizzas, including the dough, using a pizza peel and a stone. So much fun! And it was such a great way to end our session at Noepe. Did your cookbook, Gatherings, spring from this passion?

 gatherings cookbook

JS:  I cook for the same reasons I play music or write. It’s an artistic expression and an excuse to gather people. Well, that and the fact that I like to eat really good food and realized at an early age if I didn’t learn to make it myself I was doomed to a lifetime of bad food! For years, it was a way for me to relax after working my corporate. Come home, crack a bottle of wine, and start making dinner for me and the girls. I also discovered when they were little – as early as 5 or 6 – that they would eat anything they were involved in cooking. And I mean anything!! I was determined not to raise picky eaters.  So I had two small step stools and they were my prep and sous chefs!

Jack's pizza

Jack Sonni in the kitchen

I’ve been spoiled by having a circle of friends for which eating well is a priority and includes the chefs and winemakers I profiled in Gatherings.   But our group includes some truly talented “kitchen hackers” who can hold their own alongside the pros! I thought I was a decent chef but after years of living in Healdsburg CA (in the middle of Sonoma wine country) the bar is pretty damn high. But it taught me a lot – most importantly to relax and have fun in the kitchen. It’s like music in so many ways – you learn some basic rules and techniques then improvise and turn you creativity loose. Some stuff works…some can be spectacular failures but it’s still better than take out from fast food joints!!

My pizza making started because I moved to LA and couldn’t find any decent pizza so started out to learn how to make pizza the way I liked it – which is in a fairly classic Neapolitan style. I love good pizza – it is definitely one of the courses in my final meal. So is fried chicken. Something I am determined to get down before I die!! I’m a big fan of southern cuisine – cajun as well – and my travels to Mississippi and Tennessee have been driven largely by food!

Gathering for holiday meals was a big part of my growing up. I have huge extended families on both of my parents’ sides–one Italian, and the other, Swedish and Polish.  At Christmas and Thanksgiving there were so many people gathered, the dinners were held in the local fire hall! So cooking up a meal and gathering folks is in my bones. I love the process of cooking and then sitting around a table, drinking and chatting. My goal was to have my home be a salon for artists and smart, interesting people. Falling into Noepe feeds that part of my soul in a big way!

RJ: You know Jack, I bestowed you with a title after that meal; Gentleman Chef. I saw you at the printer early in the morning, printing off recipes for us to take away. You brought down scales for measuring flour, your own stone. I thought your investment of time and energy was generous and gracious. That aside, can you tell us what you are working on now? Are you playing music still? What are you writing?

JS:  I play music for fun and as an excuse to gather friends. The idea of being serious about any kind of music career is a tiny speck in my review mirror. I still love playing as much as I always have and truly enjoy getting musicians together to play the odd gig now and then. But I’m MUCH looser about it now and have been for a while. I have absolutely zero to prove to anyone when it comes to playing rock n roll. There was a period where I felt I had to protect my reputation or live up to some expectations, but that’s long gone as well Outside of the gigs I did in Italy with other musicians who’d toured with the band at different periods which was a very strange, wonderfully weird experience, I’ve gone in a different direction from the ‘Straits Zone’.

My new writing project is a novel. Working in fiction is what I’d wanted to do from the beginning and the memoir was a sidetrack. I learned a ton by working on it and maybe it’s what I needed to do to get to the book I’m working on now. The story is inspired by some things I discovered about my family background and learned on my travels cross country – especially my time in Mississippi. I’ve taken to describing it as “The Godfather” meets “Justified” – the cast of characters include immigrant coal miners, bootleggers, mafiosi, juke joint blues musicians and a beautiful Italian woman with a mysterious past! Set in 1927 it follows a pair of half-brothers running from a crime one committed in Western Pennsylvania as they travel south through the Mississippi Delta trying to get to New Orleans but run straight into the Great Flood of 1927. There’s a robbery plot complete with double and maybe even triple crosses and a few surprises that should make it a fun read and a great movie!! That is if I can get it out of my head and onto the page!!

Jack Sonni picture by Craig Clement

Jack Sonni picture by Craig Clement

RJ: I am afraid you probably know what is coming next. I’m going to ask for an excerpt, fully aware that this is still a work-in-progress. So how about it Jack? Will you share something from your mystery/suspense novel?

JS:   It’s very much a work in progress! I’m just now starting to write after taking about 4 months to research, gather notes and put the storyline together – which I know will change as I let the characters speak and guide me while writing. And I’m not sure if it can be placed in the mystery/suspense category. I see it more in line with crime fiction and I aspire to write something in the vein of American Noir writers like Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Dennis Woodrell, Don Winslow and Denis Johnson – not that I’d dare compare or place myself in their company! But I certainly wouldn’t refuse a spot on the same shelf as any one of those guys!

RJ:  Dear readers, you get to be the first people to peek at Jack’s fabulous novel-in-progress.  After much pleading, he agreed to offer up a couple of paragraphs.  I’m so excited for him, but even more so at being able to share this tidbit with you:

photo by Craig Clement

photo by Craig Clement

Excerpt:

Corky watched in stunned silence as Sal wiped the bloody blade on a bar rag. He hadn’t seen the stiletto in his hand when his half-brother stepped towards the sheriff who now lay on the juke joint kitchen floor, blood bubbling from the hole in his throat. The man coughed a shower of red and died.

“Jesus, Sal,” Corky said, his voice a rasped whisper. He knew but he never expected to witness the type of work Sal did for his mafiosi bosses.

Serafina stood frozen, braced against the closed kitchen door, eyes bouncing from Corky to the dead sheriff to Sal and back again. The music, and the noise of the crowd dancing, thumped against the walls.

Sal dropped the bloodied rag on the sheriff’s chest and then, stepping across the body, bent to pick up two of the canvas bags of money from the distillery robbery. He tossed one each to Sal and Serafina, grabbed the last one and walked to the back door.

He opened the door, bowed and sweeping his arm across his waist, directed the others outside.

Corky nodded to Serafina who rushed through the doorway. The teenager followed, passing Sal without meeting the assassin’s eyes. Closing the door, Sal stepped to stand under the tin porch roof with the waiting pair. He pulled the collar of his coat to his ears, and without a word between them, the trio of Italians walked into the pouring rain of the Mississippi night.

RJ:  Wow!  Jack, I’m hooked already.  As soon as this is published, I want to feature it again right here!  But for today, I have one last question. If you could spend one hour with anyone, from anywhereliving or deceasedwho would it be and why?

JS:  I’m going to cheat and pick one of each!

Living — I’d love to hang out with Bob Dylan. I’m a big fan of his writing and fascinated by how he’s dealt with his fame by creating a persona in his music and writing voice that exists out of time, really. He’s become this larger than life legendary character – quintessentially American – someone like Jesse James where the legend has completely overshadowed the real person.

As far as someone from the past — Carl Jung. I am so impressed by his writings. His openness to the spiritual and magical amazes me.  And I know I could just sit and listen to him expound on anything.  Actually – I’d like to have them both over for dinner! But if I had to choose one. Mr Jung. He had an incredible mind.

RJ: As do you, John Thomas (Jack) Sonni! Thank you for sharing your story. It is truly like no other! 

Check out his website!  Facebook!  Twitter!

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My Monastic Writing Experience in Orvieto, Italy

Writers attend workshops and retreats for various reasons.  Some wish to hone their skills of description or dialogue, others are seeking inspiration or direction, and then there are those of us who have something to explore within ourselves—something too difficult to sort through with our morning coffee while retaining a smiling face and carefree demeanor.

When I accepted Justen Ahren’s invitation to join his Monastic Writing group studying in Italy, we both knew I was part of the latter category.  My inward journey would be much more difficult than the procession of planes, trains, and taxi cabs I would need to arrive at the base of the cliff which had long protected the residents of Orvieto.

Orvieto - cliff “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”Nelson Mandela

A week in a medieval Italian hillside village of artisans, wine makers, divine architecture, Cathedrals, Italian food, all to be enjoyed during the spaces between writing class and reflection.  Delightful!

Boarding the funicular—a tram of sorts crawling up the steep sheer cliff-face to the ancient town—I sat at an angle trying to see over the edge across the vineyards and groves of olive trees before we ascended into the tunnel.  For a minute, I thought I saw him—my father—sitting at the base of the turnstile waving goodbye.  I had felt his presence with me nearly every day since his death when I was eleven.

Orvieto - villa in mist 2               Orvieto - landscape and monastery

Talking to the other passengers—especially the one I had just discovered was another member of our retreat—I tried to ignore the feeling of separation from him.  He seemed to be saying, “You have to do this alone kiddo.  I’ll be right here when you get back.”

A bus picked us up at the end of the funicular’s jaunt and completed the climb to the very top of the hill, squeezing through tight corners scraped by the previous mirrors and sides of trucks too large to fit through the narrow alleys.

Orvieto - Approaching Duomo “When you reach the top, that’s when the climb begins.”Michael Caine

When we exited, there was no doubt as to our being at the right place.  The famous glittering, golden-faced Duomo commanded the piazza, and every eye within its visibility.  Soaring skyward in the front, its sides in long rungs of greenish-black basalt and white travertine, it held a thousand stories within the sculpture-topped crevices of mosaics.

Orvieto - Duomo from side                       Orvieto - Hotel Duomo

The Hotel Duomo had to be nearby.  Slipping around to the striped-side of the cathedral, we spied the awning announcing its presence, and strolled into an adventure which began with a welcome reception of charcuterie at a local trattoria.  Sitting around wine-barrel tables, we got acquainted with each other and the famous Orvieto Classico, a white wine made from grapes grown in the soft tufa, limestone, and volcanic soil!  Then we moved on to some serious dining at a restaurant nearby.

Orvieto - salami                    Orvieto - restaurant 4

Being in Umbria in early November, truffles—tartufo in Italian—were abundant.  I could barely wait to dig into that first meal of gnocchi with spinach, bacon, and of course, truffles!  (As the week progressed, my dining would include pizza with prosciutto and truffles, pork ragout over polenta, stuffed zucchini blossoms, sausage with artichokes, steak and salad, and even a wonderful sandwich of brie and prosciutto on freshly baked bread, and a chocolate pyramid with ground hazelnuts.  There wasn’t a bad meal to be had in Orvieto, especially the night we convinced Chef Lorenzo Polegri at the Zeppelin Restaurant to give us a dining experience we wouldn’t forget.  Read about it here if you haven’t already.)

Orvieto - view from window                    Orvieto - vespa

My room at Hotel Duomo—206—also had a name: Simone Mosca!  And it was surprisingly quiet to be just around the side of the church.  I feared the bells would keep me awake, but they didn’t bother me at all.  And the huge windows could be tilted in or rolled open so that the view would be unfettered.  I adored it, the tile roof lines sloping toward me, and the cobblestone street below which was often the setting for nuns walking past, or a Vespa chugging along.

Orvieto - wood carving 1                 Orvieto - wood carving 2

Forget everything you have ever heard about European breakfast options of bread and coffee.  Breakfast at Hotel Duomo was wonderful.  Every cup of cappuccino was made fresh, capped with a serious head of steamed, frothy milk.  Anything I could possibly want was on the bar; boiled eggs, salami, ham, cheeses, croissants, toast, cakes, cereals, yogurt, and fruits—namely tiny clementine oranges so fresh the leaves were still attached.

Coffee!  Chocolate!  I was thinking I could handle this kind of suffering.  Not too painful so far.

Orvieto - Enoteca and Wine bar                  Orvieto - Wine bar

Even the first day of writing prompts wasn’t especially emotional.  We set our intentions for the week.  What did we want to achieve?  Here’s what I wrote:  “My intention for the week is to release the fear resulting from the exposure of my work to the written obvious page.”

Initially, sharing was easy.  Justen gave great prompts and our group was very productive, needing little incentive to delve into our responses.  He was also quite clever, easing us gently into harmony with one another and it worked.  Tiptoeing into the shallow end of the writing pool, I didn’t realize how deep the water was getting until it was over my head.

Orvieto - mist                 Orvieto - Duomo crown

It happened on the second full day.  Mist hung like snow clouds, obliterating the view from the top of the cliff.  Even the heavens seemed to be saying, ‘Don’t look, Renee.’

Justen took us into the Duomo to write.  Ancient and adorned with paintings, sculptures, mosaics, relics, stained glass, it existed so fully I could almost hear its breath.  Centuries of exaltation, grief, spirituality, life, death, art, undulated in the sacred atmosphere of the church.

I felt a symbiotic sense of unity with the Cathedral, as if I was writing in its womb, birthing a creation I had been gestating for many years.  Was it the beautiful, soft music?  The altar I was sitting in front of?  The sparse ribbons of light cascading through stone shaved so thinly it looked like stained glass?  The sculpture of Christ lying in his mother’s arms after the Crucifixion, his limp hand pointing toward me?

There are some things even a writer can’t find the words for.  There are some things that we become writers in order to make sense of.  I knew internally that somewhere between these two statements, a place existed where I would one day release a grenade of emotions onto paper and let it absorb the resulting shrapnel from the exploding shards of my memories. That place was the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy.

orvieto-cropped-duomo-from-clock-tower3.jpg

As we gathered back together in a circle of chairs which the church officials had agreed to let us assemble, Justen saw the tears in my eyes and patted me on the shoulder.  Looking away quickly, I didn’t want him to know I was crying.  I didn’t want anyone to know. When something has been locked away in the dark for a long time, there is a lot of fear and resistance to shining a light on it.  The eleven-year-old inside of me couldn’t bear it.  I couldn’t let myself become that vulnerable. It was about to get worse.

Orvieto - Justen and me cropped

Renee Johnson and Justen Ahren in Orvieto, Italy

Back at the hotel, sitting in what would become our usual spot, it was time to share.  There had been two prompts.  Both had brought up images and emotions so well-hidden and disguised I barely knew what to do with them when they surfaced.  Freshly wounded, the thought of speaking the words was too traumatic.

First round, I passed.  Second, I passed.

“Again?” Justen asked.

I knew he only wanted to encourage me, but I couldn’t do it.  The group rallied around me.

The next day, painful memories from other participants were shared and with their tears, my cowardice became evident.  I started to break.  Slowly, I peeled away one layer at a time, giving small vignettes to Justen—one very painful one about what I was experiencing.  He gently reminded me that I had achieved my intention; to release my fear about seeing the words on the written, obvious page.  I had confronted them and they had not destroyed me.

Orvieto - Duomo Square 1                       Orvieto - Justen in action

Time passed quickly.  Days of writing all over Orvieto—in bustling piazzas,

cliff-side overlooks

Orvieto - cliff scene                        Orvieto - church 3 san giovanni

with villas and vineyards below us, an outdoor garden space, inside dining room, staring across the moss-laden Etruscan tombs,                Orvieto - Etruscan tombs

as well as inside the Duomo—eating, walking in the rain,

Orvieto - steeple                 Orvieto - church 5

           in and out of old Cathedrals,

Orvieto - Church 2                             Orvieto - church 1

glancing over foggy vistas,            Orvieto - villa in mist

shopping for small things I could bring back in my carry-on luggage, tasting wines and

freshly-pressed olive oils,                     Orvieto - olive oil tasting Renee at olive oil tasting in Orvieto  Orvieto - wine bar kir

lighting candles for loved ones beneath fading frescoes, Orvieto - church 5 niche painting touring ancient grottos, peering into wells,Orvieto - street scene

walking backward through time in archeological digs with unearthed shards of the relics in one place and a reproduction of what it would have looked like beside of it,

Orvieto - archeological museum          Orvieto - Street scene 2

getting to know my new friends, climbing to the top of the Clock Tower,

Orvieto - bells of bell tower best                      Orvieto - church 4

meeting Geppetto at the Magic Shop, shown here with Jarita Davis**,

Orvieto - magic shop                         Orvieto - Geppeto and Jarita

waiting out a rainstorm after a mad dash beneath a portico,

Orvieto - Suit of armor Orvieto - Pinocchio

sitting on a bench in the piazza outside of the Duomo staring at the glittering face of her beauty.

Orvieto - Pottery                           Orvieto - Pottery 2

We wrote every day for three hours, had afternoons free to explore, and would come back together around 7:00 pm for dinner.  Sometimes we would share a piece we had written before we set off for another dining experience.  It was during one of these times I announced what I intended to read—the piece about the day of writing in the Duomo—the piece about the darkness following my father’s suicide.  I can still see Justen’s enormous, surprised eyes in my memory.  Would I be able to do it?  Would I cry?

Courage is grace under pressure.”Ernest Hemingway

I wouldn’t say it was easy.  It wasn’t.  But it didn’t annihilate me.  I didn’t cry, though I thought I was going to.  Suddenly, I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed by my emotions, even the dark ones.  Another of the participants had chosen to read a letter she had written on healing.  Quietly, she passed it to me after sharing her very thoughtful advice.

There are no coincidences.” –Jarita Davis

Orvieto - hotelier                     Orvieto - hotelier's wife

Near the end of the trip, our wonderfully expressive hotelier, Mr. Massaccesi, graciously agreed to give us a tour of his private cantina in the grotto beneath the hotel.  One of the highlights of the entire trip for me was watching Jarita as she translated for him.  He became so animated in his story his speech became quicker and faster and Jarita was no longer thinking about the words or even their meanings, just doing a side-by-side translation standing on a ledge beside of him.  It was brilliant.

“Il mondo é nato qui,” he said.

“The world was born here,” Jarita translated. I believed him.

Orvieto - view from window 2           IMG_2045

At the end of the journey, we all wrote a little note to each other, predominantly about what we appreciated most in the writing shared with the group.  And I kept a journal of the entire experience, including my favorite thoughts from the participants. Justen said this to me the morning after I revealed my heartrending piece

“Yesterday, you began to make a sound and a language for the unspeakable.” 

Thank you, Justen, for helping me to claim my voice.

Zeppelin entrance                Orvieto - restaurant 2

Zeppelin Restaurant on left, Antica Cantina on Right

We were quiet on the last evening—a bit tired, reflective, and still overwhelmed from the dining adventure at Zeppelin Restaurant the previous evening.  Packing for the return journey commenced.  I awoke early the next morning.  There had been some scheduled demonstrations in Rome with the Italian labor union which I wrote about at Writingfeemail.

Two trains were going into Termini Station from Orvieto, one at 7:30 a.m. and another at 11:30 a.m.  The bus for the funicular didn’t start running until 7:20.  I made the decision to leave before the sun came up; assuring myself the Corso Cavour had street lamps. Orvieto - sunset  There was little happening so early in the morning.  Besides stopping in at a tobacco shop to get the ticket for the funicular, I ploughed ahead, hearing my luggage wheels bump against the cobblestone as I hiked down the hill. Soft rain had begun to fall, mist collected in every cavity.  

Pay attention, I scolded myself.  Notice the pools of light reflected on the wet surfaces.  Listen for the bells, the thump of the newspaper cart headed to the various stores for stocking.  See the agile cat maneuvering the treacherous ledge of the cliff wall.

Orvieto - leather artisan Maria                   Orvieto - art reminder

I passed stores I remembered shopping in.  Smiling, I recalled Maria from the leather shop, the kind wine purveyor who remarked to me that he remembered seeing Jarita and me coming into town,

Orvieto - wine purveyor           Orvieto - Shields

the store where I had purchased a scarf from a lady proudly remarking it was reversible and hand sewn, the market whose baskets of fruits and vegetables were now locked down.  My hand slipped into my pocket, fingers caressing the chestnut given to me by the vendor, a token she could never know held a world of meaning.

Orvieto - market with oranges                Orvieto - market with chestnuts

“Dad,” I whispered.  “I did it.”

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”Sir Edmund Hillary

Later in the morning I slipped into Santa Maria Sopra Minerva,

Rome - SMSM exterior                  Rome - Santa Maria Sopra Minerva entrance

my favorite church in Rome, and the only Gothic one still in existence there.  With my journal and ink pen in hand, I found a pew facing Michelangelo’s statue of Christ and repeated the exercises Justen had taught us in Orvieto.

Write whatever comes up,” he had instructed.

Rome - SMSM Christ     Rome - SMSM ceiling

Alone in Rome, I was slightly fearful of what may surface.  I needn’t have worried.  What came up was joy, gladness, a happy heart.  I wrote for two hours, uninterrupted.  Then I laid it all to rest, my intention fulfilled.

If you read the previous post about Justen Ahren and his Approach to Monastic Writing, then you are familiar with his intentions as well.  His desire to open us up to the possibilities of receiving what the universe would have us write, devote ourselves to it, and use the tools we learned from him as a method of engaging in conversation within ourselves, had come to fruition.

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.”Kahlil Gibran, from On Joy and Sorrow  

**Jarita Davis granted permission for the use of her name and image here. 

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Justen Ahren Demystifies his Monastic Approach to Writing

As I researched writing residencies and fell upon the Martha’s Vineyard Writing Residency at Noepe Center for Literary Arts, there was an additional page on an Italy Retreat.  Clicking on it, a single sentence snagged my attention.

“Where will your writing take you?” — Justen Ahren Tweet this tweet-graphic-1

Applying this simple question to the Monastic Writing Retreat held by Justen Ahren in Orvieto, Italy, images of the Italian landscape, great food and wine, and ancient architecture immediately began to flood my imagination.

Orvieto - brightened monastery

Curious, I sent an email to Justen Ahren requesting information, and an exchange began to happen where I learned about an approach to writing that was different from any I had experienced before.  Yet, it was nothing new.

On the contrary.  It can be traced to many of the earliest writings, especially those of anchorites — people so dedicated to devotional practices they withdrew from society at large to live inside monasteries in prayer and conversation with God.

“The nature of a monastic pursuit is one that involves ora et labora, ‘prayer and work’ — a submission of every aspect of one’s life to a particular purpose.  Literally, when we work with attention and intention our work is our prayer.”  — Justen Ahren

And there was no discrimination between men and women.  In fact, the first published book in the English language known to have been written by a woman was by Julian of Norwich about her ‘mystical visions and contemplations‘ in 1395.  As it turned out, I already had the translated work of another mystic on my kindle, that of Hildegard of Bingen (1098 — 1179) as translated by Sabina Flanagan.  Saint Hildegard was Canonized by Pope Benedict on May 10, 2012.

“Trust shows the way.” — Hildegard of Bingen

The coincidences began to add up.  Justen has been leading this workshop for several years, but this is his first interview dedicated solely to the retreat.  I am honored to be able to present this to you.  It will, no doubt, inspire you to take your writing to a whole new level.

RJ:  Justen, thank you for allowing me to delve a little deeper into the opportunities you are offering.  We covered the Writing Residency on Martha’s Vineyard in October.  Today, I’d like to ‘demystify’ Monastic Writing.

JA:  I’ll do my best.

RJ:  Where and when did you learn about the Monastic Approach to writing?

JA:  I had a bet with a friend, I would write every day for two hours or pay him $100. I was feeling incredibly frustrated in my life at the time—work and family obligations left little time for writing, and writing is what I really wanted to do. This friend challenged me to make writing the priority, devote myself to it.

I’ve always been attracted to mendicants, ascetics, monks, saints, artists, anyone who has devoted their life to their work.  Whether that work was praising god or making sculptures I wanted to know how they managed to give themselves daily to the task.

Devotion is really the centerpiece of a Monastic Approach.  It is a giving over to something outside of ourselves which transforms us.

I remember a friend of mine went to India for a year to write a novel. When he returned, novel completed, I met him for coffee. As I approached the café, I saw him sitting at an outdoor table.   He was changed: his demeanor, his look, his entire being. The work had changed him, in a good way.

Devotion is a magical thing. It has a life of its own. I found joy, gratitude, surprise, in my writing for the first time.  It didn’t feel like work.  Yet, the continuous, consistent workman-like manner opened up my writing, so more ideas, more images, more opportunities flew out. Within a couple of weeks, I was in a flow that has not abated. I want to share this with others who are struggling to write, or simply want to write more, write deeper.

RJ:  What do you find most intriguing about the concepts of Monastic practices in advancing writers’ skills?

JA:  This approach doesn’t have a tasty tease like 10 surefire ways to write the next great novel, or 5 steps to embracing your inner poet.

Monastic Writing is a slow approach that begins the practitioner on a life-long relationship to the act of writing. — Justen Ahren

For me the approach is this: how can I devote myself to my writing? How can I find joy, gratitude and surrender in my work? How do I write through doubt? These are the questions that follow us our entire writing lives. Yet we must continue to work.

Writing is my life. It is how I live. So, how can I live the writing life more fully?

99% of writing is showing up to write. — Justen Ahren  Tweet this tweet-graphic-1

This approach helps you get to the page. Once there, it helps you cultivate a practice by stripping away some of the assumptions and pressures we place on our writing. I think of this approach as making a begging bowl of our bodies, of ourselves, so we may receive, daily, the manna the world offers us. It readies us to receive the gifts that are constantly coming.  Writing it, making of this gift, is our way, as artists of giving back—increasing the abundance, the gratitude, the connection. Writing, creativity, is a transaction with the divine, the mystery, the ineffable.

Orvieto - Masks and postcards

RJ:  Why did you choose Italy?

JA:  Well, I love Italy.  I love the food, culture, history, literature, the pace of life.  And Italy has a rich monastic tradition, the iconography of devotion is everywhere.

I’ve been there many times over the years.  When I started looking for a place to hold a workshop I found, quite serendipitously, a group in Labro, Italy calling themselves Art Monks.   These were several artists, working together in a former monastery to create public theater pieces.  I read on their website, “the monastic routine is intended to refresh the soul, to build discipline, to act as a vehicle for deepening personal spiritual experience.”  I flew to Italy after an email exchange to experience first hand what this was all about.  After meeting them, they agreed to host me at the monastery and the workshop was born. The monastery has since closed, so last year I moved to Orvieto.

The idea of artists as monks was the final piece of a puzzle I’d been working on for years.  In our world, the pressure is always there to make money, to demonstrate success through earning or celebrity, to scale the mythical ladder to greater heights.  What about making art as a way of living?  Art as a way of coexisting with the world.

If you were told that nothing you wrote would ever be published, would you still write?  I would.  I have to. — Justen Ahren  

 

Orvieto - close up duomo tiles

“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

— Teresa of Avila

RJ:  Why Orvieto?

JA:  Orvieto is the quintessential Italian hill town.  It has an ancient history that extends to Etruscan times.  When the monastery in Labro closed, I visited several towns looking for an ideal place to hold the workshop.  When I visited Orvieto, I knew this was the place.

I’m very sensitive to environment, the genius loci, or spirit of a place if you will.  The spirit of Orvieto was friendly and creative.  I felt I would be able to write here.  If I didn’t feel this, I would have kept looking.  I want to be inspired by where I’m working, as well.  Orvieto also has lots to offer participants when we are not in workshop.  There are churches, art galleries, wine tastings, hiking, and too many fabulous restaurants to try them all.  Orvieto is the heart of Umbrian culture and cuisine, and is easily accessible by train from Rome and Florence.  I feel at home there.

RJ:  What should participants expect as a typical day and what should they be prepared to bring—mentally as well as physically?

JA:  Be prepared to write.  We write a lot. My goal is that participants leave with momentum in their writing, that they feel propelled in their practice when they return home.  Mentally, I hope writers come with an openness to explore their rich interior lives, and words with courage, and daring playfulness.

RJ:  For people who have an aversion to flying or are unable to travel abroad for whatever reasons, do you offer something similar in the United States?

JA:  Yes, minus cathedrals and Orvieto white wines, the workshop will be held at Noepe Center for the Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, July 19th-25th, 2015.

RJ:  Can you work with people wherever they are instead of having them come to you?  

JA:  Yes.  I do work with individuals remotely.   I give weekly prompts and assignments, and we dialogue weekly.  It helps to have someone asking you, how is the writing?  Are you writing?

RJ:  There is a spiritual connotation to the idea of ‘monastic’ writing.  Is it important for participants to practice a particular religion or is this a more universal skill set that works equally as well in the absence of any sect of faith-based tenants?    

JA:  There is not a belief requirement other than the belief that one needs to write. The word ‘monasticism’ is derived from the Greek word, alone.  We are alone when we write.  It is a contemplative exercise.  I think of writing as a form of prayer, a conversation, a praising.  This is one of the prompts I use to keep me writing when I think I have nothing to say.

Writing for me is spiritual.  The work is the prayer.  It is where I can ask The Questions and where I can explore doubt.

The word monastic, while it has religious connotations, is not restricted to any one religion.  The word merely refers to monks, nuns, monasteries, and to the submission of every aspect of one’s life to a particular purpose. Writing is the purpose.  Practice with intention and attention and you get results.

When I began to write daily I asked myself, what if I approached writing with the same purpose, discipline, ritual, and awe a monk has when approaching the divine?  What if I gave my life to writing, joyously, gratefully?  Where would my writing take me?  Where would I take my writing?

Orvieto - duomo RJ:  How often are workshops available?

JA:  Twice a year. Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in July, and Orvieto, Italy in November.

RJ:  How many people can participate?

JA:  4-15

RJ:  One of my favorite quotes is by Saint Hildegard of Bingen:

“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others.  An interpreted world is not a hope.  Part of the terror is to take back our own listening.  To use our own voice.  To see our own light.” 

How do you encourage participants to get past the fear of writing their own stories?  

JA:   I only ask people to write what they can.  But fear is different than pain.  Our fear in writing often is our own judgments—is my writing good enough?  Do I sound smart or stupid?  Will this be embarrassing to read? Do I have anything to say?—these are normal reactions to what is tender in us, namely, our nascent creative impulses and ideas.  We are protective, and many of us have good reason to be.  We were criticized when we first showed our writing.  We were told it was ‘nice’. We weren’t taken seriously.

Writing from a place of fear, we write what we ‘think’ others want to hear, and what we think is acceptable.  There is no critique in this workshop.  I create a safe, nurturing space where anything can be written and read without fear of judgment, where you can yearn, sing, and find new registers for your voice.

Pain is different than fear.  Pain is something very personal.  I don’t ask anyone to write about things they aren’t comfortable writing, and I certainly don’t require people to share what they deem too painful.  However, I’ve seen when people are able to share their painful experiences, that pain is dismantled, broken up a bit.  The sharing may also encourage others who are reluctant to voice their own painful story.

Orvieto - first duomo

RJ:  Have you ever had a participant who couldn’t share—couldn’t speak their words?  

JA:  Yes.  Sharing what is ‘too personal’ with the group is not a requirement.  Sharing is always optional.  I do hope participants feel safe enough and comfortable enough with one another for their words to emerge, even if they don’t want to share every word with the group.  The power of writing our secrets, our pain, is the realization that it won’t destroy us as we feared.

“We will talk about fear in Italy.  It is a pillar of devotion.  Julian of Norwich, a 15th century anchorite, says in her writings, there are 4 forms of fear or dread, the fourth being ‘born of reverence.’  The holy dread with which we face that which we love most and that which loves us most.  I call this the beauty that sees us.  When we allow ourselves to be seen by this beauty, that is terror.  And then to try to speak to this…well this is a life’s work.  Share what you can, if you can.  It is optional and everyone will understand.”  — Justen Ahren from an earlier email  

RJ:  What is/are your favorite moment(s) during the workshops you’ve taught in the past.  

JA:  I love the moment, usually the third or fourth day, when everyone ‘drops in’.  The writing becomes fearless, it soars, uncensored.  This happens in every workshop.  Once people settle in with one another, and relax in their temporary environment, the magic begins.  The energy is always palpable, and the writing, unstoppable.  Everyone feeds off this energy.

Personally, it is gratifying to hear the voices reach this crescendo, go big.  Aside from this, I love the evening meals.  After the workshops we can gather, talk casually, and make a community over food.  This is when I feel I am doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.

RJ:  Similarly, do you have any regrets from previous workshops?  

JA:  No.  I only regret when I’ve eaten too much, or had too much wine.  This happens in Italy.  Otherwise, I view each workshop as its own work of art.  Every workshop is its own making, a process of becoming what it needs to be.  As a group, an instant community, we create the experience together.  I’m always conscious of how this happens.  And every workshop is different.

I ask everyone to come with a spirit of openness, and generosity; and for the most part people do.  I tell participants, this week, we are building a writing community.  Be generous, be gracious, and receive.

We are part of creating one another’s dreams.  – Justen Ahren  Tweet this tweet-graphic-1

Zeppelin empty glasses  Zeppelin 2nd Course - Frittata

Zeppelin Steak Course  Zeppelin Dessert

RJ:  Do participants need a background in writing or can people attend who are just getting ready to take the plunge into a writing project, even if it is for personal reasons only—such as writing a memoir?  

JA:  Anyone can attend.  I do ask for a writing sample so I can get a sense, before we meet, of their interests, their style, how they articulate experience, their voice.  My reason for leading these workshops is to help people write more freely, abundantly, joyously, playfully, honestly.  Why?  In my own development as a writer and as an artist, I did not have this support until recently.  Creating for me was wracked with doubt, self-loathing, frustration, and loneliness.  Why was I doing these things?  I’d ask. Why didn’t the things that satisfied my friends and my parents satisfy me?  Finally, I stumbled upon an approach–because of a bet–which freed me to write, to express as I’d always dreamed I could.  Now when I am writing, I have the sense I am both giving and receiving a gift.  Every day.  Honestly, this workshop is my service.  It is my way to repay the gift that has been given to me.

Orvieto - Justen with backdrop of cliff

RJ:  When the class is over, what do you hope the participants take away? 

JA:  A deeper connection to their writing, and to themselves as writers.  A sense of the abundance that is theirs to create with and through.  A sense of being supported by the creative universe.

We are the creators of our world, fashioners of a language that literally shapes our lives. — Justen Ahren Tweet this tweet-graphic-1

The world, the future, is potential.  It simply is waiting for us to call it into being through our thoughts and our words.  It is waiting to assist us.  You see, we are not just writing, we are continually dreaming.  Our words are intentions, prayers, that go before us and begin arranging the condition of our future.

In our present we can lament, or give thanks and participate.  — Justen Ahren 

RJ:  When is the next session, and where can the readers go to learn more about your retreat and Orvieto, Italy? 

JA:  The next retreat is July 19th-25th on Martha’s Vineyard.  The next Italy retreat is November 8-14th 2015.  For more information or to register for either workshop, visit noepecenter.org.  For info about the town of Orvieto, visit orvieto-info.com.

Thank you for your time and very thoughtful answers, Justen Ahren!

He inspired me to take the leap and I attended the November 2014 session in Italy.  So, my follow-up post will be on my own personal experience with Monastic Writing and the village of Orvieto.  

Did he achieve his intentions?  Did I?  What was it like?

What would you like to know about this writing style or section of Italy that wasn’t included here, or what would you ask Justen Ahren before joining the next session? 

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Good News!

I’ve been absent on the blog for a few days — weeks actually.  But there is a good reason.  My second novel, contracted by The Wild Rose Press — the publisher of ‘Acquisition’ — has been keeping me busy!

Yes, my friends.  Novel number two will be coming out this year!

With taglines to write, blurbs to approve, cover art to look through, and my first round of edits, it has been an exciting start to the new year.  And I am not complaining.  On the contrary!  I couldn’t be happier.

“Content is King. Promotion is Queen.” — Bob Mayer Tweet this

Receiving the offer for the second novel has been supremely validating.  I suppose there is a part of the psyche ready to accept that publishing one novel could be a fluke.  The second offer has settled me into my role as a novelist, and yet, it has made me hungrier than ever to learn more about the craft and grow as a writer.

And while the editing process for this second novel — (I’ll release the title in another post.  Isn’t that just like an author — leave you in suspense so you’ll come back for more!) — continues, I am proceeding to write the next new novel and working on the young adult which has been an ongoing project.

“Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.” — Benjamin Franklin

While this is wonderful, it is time consuming.  So there may be gaps when I am missing from the blog.  I apologize for this in advance.  Just know it is in the effort to make even more art from my imagination and/or personal experiences.

There are a few terrific posts coming up — mostly interviews with some exciting writers and teachers you will not want to miss.  The Monastic Writing workshop I attended in Italy will be featured soon, preceded by an interview with its founder and instructor.

“Where will your writing take you?” Justen Ahren  Tweet this

A musician-turned-writer — someone most of you will recognize — is in the works.  I hope to have some guest posts for you as well.

So even when I am not blogging or visiting with you, I am working to obtain inspirational pieces worthy of your time, or honing my professional skills.  In the meantime, stay warm and safe.  I’ll be making my rounds to visit with you soon!

“Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things – thoughts, ideas, opinions.”  Paulo Coelho tweet-graphic-1

As per the advice of Paulo Coelho, please share your thoughts about writing — or anything else — in the comments section.

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How to Hold Successful Readings and Book Signings

Writers are frequently cautioned that becoming published is only a beginning step and to cherish the time we have before demands for publicity become paramount.

We don’t listen. Somehow the elusive publishing contract seems the finale, the main goal, the winning touchdown during overtime — game over!

If you enjoy speaking in public, think fast on your feet, and have good friends who will show up just in case nobody else does, then you are in the right business!

I have always adored going to readings held by authors whose work I admire. Knowing they are delivering each word with the exact inflection they intended when the scene was written, gives me chills, and enhances the enjoyment of the work.

Acquisition reading with poster

But when one of my friends who attended the reading of ‘Acquisition’ at the Wilkes County Public Library last night said that of me, it was truly meaningful. She even mentioned becoming so engrossed in the book, she forgot it was me who had written it! Yay. Thank you Laurie Austen!

With good friends Paula Eller and Laurie Austen.

With good friends Paula Eller and Laurie Austen.

Another mentioned the secondary characters and asked if I would read some of the beginning dialog with Vernella, a sassy redhead who holds her own against the main characters of Reece and Amanda. I was happy to do so.

Signing a copy for Jayne Bauguess

Signing a copy for Jayne Bauguess

Those who attended the reading either had books already, or purchased one before leaving. That’s another good sign that the reading went well. One lady who brought her book — received as a Christmas gift — for me to sign, said she was drawn into the story from the first chapter.

Knowing how to present yourself when you are alone behind a podium is an important aspect of being an author.

During Reading of Acquisition at The Wilkes County Public Library

During Reading of Acquisition at The Wilkes County Public Library

Luckily for me, I had the opportunity to attend Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts last October. Thank you Justen Ahren, director and founder of Noepe Center for Literary Art. I am certain last night’s reading would not have gone as smoothly had it not been for the practice and advice I received while there, and even afterwards from those more seasoned authors who befriended me and have so generously shared tips from their own experience.

My First Official Reading

My First Official Reading

For those of you who may be new at this too, I am going to share with you some of what they have shared with me.

— Do whatever you can to help get the word out. Don’t depend solely on the library or book store to take care of all of the advertising for you.

— Arrange to have a friend with you. Any announcements, pictures, things that need attention, can be handled by them and not take you away from your reading and the other guests in attendance.

— Have something prepared to say about yourself as a way of introduction for those who don’t know you.

— Practice what you will read in advance so the words flow effortlessly.

— Use varying tones of voice to indicate when you are changing characters and to avoid the monotone sleep-inducing drone.

— Dress conservatively. Let the words be the star of the show, not your ‘costume.’

— Be prepared for questions.

— Promote your next book if you have one in the works.

— And always have a bottle of water close by, and an extra ink pen!

— Most importantly, have fun — smile, engage with the audience, and be friendly!

Thank you to the Wilkes County Public Library, Jane Seskin, Mark Wiederanders, Margot Douaihy, Nan Elliott, Karen Hunt, Jack Sonni, Jarita Davis, Paula Eller, Wendy Barber, Debbie Smith, family, friends, and everyone who showed up for the reading last night.

What tips would you add to this list?  Share your best ones or even the silliest ones which have helped you get through a reading or presentation.

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Ten Reasons Why Writers Love France

Writers have always found solace and inspiration within the French culture and among its people.  Americans, especially, have a rich history of flocking to Paris to exercise their creativity.  In the days following the attacks on free speech, I have been thinking about this and have reached a few conclusions.Essoyes - Rue Voltaire Sign

We love France because of its open-minded people.  Ideas, affairs of the heart, race, religion, sex, are embraced freely.Essoyes - Micheline, Lena, Maurice, Karin, Ann, and me

Street performers are full of personality.Paris - street performer

The light in France is dreamy; soft, glimmering, often filtered through grey clouds or reflected off of golden facades of limestone, bounced back from colorful stained glass, (Troyes has a museum dedicated solely to stained glass.)

Troyes - St. Peter's light through stained glass Troyes - St. Peter's golden sunlight on side of bldg Troyes - St. Peter's stained glass  Troyes - St. Peter's lit by the golden light of setting sun

Courtyards, like rabbit runs, embrace us while giving just enough room to exercise our bodies and our minds.  Ancient roots heave upward from the ground.  Ivy creeps along the stone walls, threatening to take over.  Troyes - Champ des Oiseaux - courtyard garden from the garden

Architecture is brilliant, whether castellated towers, medieval houses, Gothic churches, or stone farm sheds.  We can run backward through time as easily as taking a walk in any village.Troyes - Architectural quarter with famous houses Church of Saint Remy Essoyes - School Troyes - Half-timbered buildings

Paris - Renee with Napoleon's tomb Paris - Sacre Coeur Paris - Eiffel Tower from Montmartre   Notre Dame 5

Details — downspouts, doorknobs, metal work, studded heavy wooden doors, window boxes full of flowers, wares fabulously displayed in store windows — all seen by the French as opportunities to be decorous.

Troyes - iron studded door Troyes - Catholic School Building with colored roof tiles and iron gates Troyes - Buildings with Timbers, shutters and iron Troyes - St. Nizier - Gargoyle kept company by pigeonsTroyes - Flowering pots Essoyes - Yellow flowers and lavender against dark wood and stucco with rounded door - gorgeous!

Reflections through a glass window in Troyes Essoyes - Window Display of the Wine Shop

Art is ubiquitous and displayed not only in museums and churches but often on sides of houses or reproduced and placed on easels where the original was created.

Essoyes - Gabrielle's House Essoyes - Drunk Frenchman bottom right with his 'box' of wine Essoyes - Pierre Auguste Renoir's place of burial Essoyes - Renoir Reproduction of Gabrielle on the entire side of her house

Paris - Rodin sculpture  Paris - Sculpture with Eiffel Tower

Even the metro walls are painted.metro art 1 metro art 3

And sometimes sculptures pop out of walls.Paris - art

It is easy to travel around France.  Trains are fairly dependable.  I say ‘fairly’ only because of the propensity of the French to strike and shut down or seriously reduce schedules.  Buses are available, as are private shuttles, rentals, taxi cabs.

Le Metro cafe ruc metro entrance

The markets in France are opportunities to give all of the senses a workout.  I can’t imagine anyone experiencing writer’s block when there is a market nearby.  Such an orgy of colors, textures, sounds, smells, tastes would seem to defy a writer to pass by without jotting notes on slips of paper.

Troyes - Las Halles - market fruit basket  flea market3

Paris - chickens  Paris - market

Food, food, food! Eating well is perceived by the French as a basic human right.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Paris - dessert Paris - chocolates Essoyes - cheese cart Essoyes - dinner Essoyes - tart Essoyes - dessert

Champagne!  (Needs no further explanation.)

Champage in a glass Champagne Tasting

Sensations of the past ride a continuous loop with the present.  Stone steps are worn concave in the center where generations of feet have left a cavity.  Bakeries and vineyards have existed in their foundations for centuries.  Craftsmen and artisans use old world techniques and are proud of it.

MSM facade Morrison Paula Renee catacombs9 Essoyes - Old tuileries structure Essoyes - Street scene with Boulangerie Champagne Press Essoyes - Village Road MSM group

Essoyes - grape vines Troyes - cobblestone street scene

French philosopher Rene Descartes penned the idea: Je pense, donc je suis; I think, therefore I am.  Today, I believe he would amend this statement to say:  Je pense, donc je suis Charlie.

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The Fascinating Karen Hunt

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Karen Hunt is another brilliant writer I had the privilege to meet at Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard.  Due to unfortunate circumstances, she arrived later than the rest of our group, but stayed on after we departed.  Although our time together was short, I feel like we truly connected as writers and friends.

And let me tell you, she is fascinating! 

You will know it for yourself after reading her biography and this interview.  Her experiences will amaze you and I can hardly wait for her memoir about her youth titled Into the World.  She’s giving us a taste of it right here, but be prepared.  You’ll be itching to get your hands on the story, too. 

Karen Hunt is a native of Los Angeles who has lived in England, Switzerland, France and Slovenia. She has written and/or illustrated nineteen children’s books, among them the best-selling The Rumpoles & The Barleys series, which has been translated into numerous languages. In 1995 Karen went into Central Juvenile Hall with a vision to teach creative writing to incarcerated youth. Out of that experience grew InsideOUT Writers, a nationally acclaimed nonprofit. Karen received many awards for her work including the Child Welfare League of America’s Award for Community Service to Children, Youth and Families. She is a Fellow at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Hambidge Center for Creative Arts & Sciences and Martha’s Vineyard and has used her time in these locales to work on her book Letters from Purgatory. Karen’s short stories and essays, such as FROM LA to BELFAST (The Adirondack Review) and THE DAY I LOST MY SKIN (short-listed in the Fish International Writing Competition) reflect her commitment to give a voice to the poor and disenfranchised youth within the juvenile justice system. She is especially proud to have had excerpts from her childhood memoir INTO THE WORLD published in Damazine in Syria, a magazine that has since been shut down due to the violence and oppression there. Her essays DRUGGING OUR CHILDREN TO DEATH and TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Burnside Writers Collective) draw extensively on her experiences with at-risk youth. A 2nd degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, a 1st degree brown belt in Filipino stick and knife fighting and a boxer and kick boxer, Karen is a trainer at a boxing gym called Tarzana Boxing. Always and forever her main inspirations are her three children, Katya, Harrison and Max.

The Rumpoles and The Barleys

The Rumpoles and The Barleys

RJ:  Karen, you write and illustrate – such an artist. Which comes first – the words or the images?

KH:  The story comes first. As I write the story I see images in my mind and once the story is finished I start on the illustrations. For picture books, I do a layout of the entire book, with the words and sketches.

Orgle the Terrible

Orgle the Terrible

RJ:  How old were you when you began writing and drawing?

KH:  As soon as I could pick up a pencil I started drawing. Art was my first love. Throughout my childhood I spent hours upon hours on my bedroom floor drawing. I was somewhat shy so I loved to go inside the worlds of my imagination and make them live on paper. My older sister was the writer. I learned a lot about story-telling from her. She could make me believe anything! It took until I was in my late twenties for me to believe I could also, just maybe, be a writer.

17th Century Castle Karen lived in as a child.

17th Century Castle Karen lived in as a child.

RJ:  You lived all over the world as a child, including in a castle. Wow. Can you tell the readers a bit about these early adventures?

KH:  I’ve actually been writing that story, called Into the World. Two excerpts from it have been published in a journal in Syria, which I’m very proud of since much of the purpose of this project is to build bridges between people of different faiths and cultures. When I was ten my dad heard the voice of God calling him to become a Christian writer. We got on a plane and began traveling the world for him to gain inspiration for his books. It was the turbulent 60s and not many people, especially not a family of six, was doing what we were doing. We had some wild adventures, such as escaping out of Egypt right before the 6 Day War, smuggling Bibles into communist countries and yes, living in a 17th century castle in Switzerland. It was a different world, no security when visiting the pyramids, just walked right up to them and inside, our guide was the all-time world champion fastest pyramid climber; staring up at the Sphinx, riding camels across the desert. I remember drinking mint tea with rug merchants in Fez and at night seeing the lights on the hills surrounding the city of the bonfires of the story-tellers and the people walking up to listen to them; watching the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow; my dad running out of a hospital in Kiev where they had tried to apply leeches to his infected toe (which is actually a good remedy!); and my dad praying before each border crossing in the communist block that God would blind the eyes of the guards so they wouldn’t find the Bibles we were carrying and every inch of our car being searched but the suitcase with the Bibles never being opened; a stormy night in the castle when we heard a scream and ran out to find the castle owner lying at the bottom of the winding tower in a pool of blood. So many magical and scary moments. What I got out of the experience was a realization that maybe, just maybe, not everybody who believed differently from my Christian family was wrong and going to hell and maybe, just maybe, the “American” way wasn’t perfect and God wasn’t actually “on our side.” So, I’m writing about all these adventures and some of the incredible people I met who influenced me to start asking questions about the meaning of faith.

Karen's parents on a camel in Egypt.

Karen’s parents on a camel in Egypt.

RJ:  In what way(s) do you suspect these experiences have inspired your writing?

KH:  Although I ended up not agreeing with many of my dad’s views, I always respected him for having the courage to follow his heart and turn his back on a successful business career in order to follow his dream to be a writer. Although it was difficult, he never gave up and eventually he became a highly renowned writer and public speaker. His dedication inspired me to follow my dream to be a writer. Traveling inspired my already over-active imagination and influenced the subject matter of many of my books, for example, my children’s book All the Children of the World, published with Thomas Nelson, and my Katie’s World series, published with Harvest House. I received countless letters from children in countries as diverse as Nairobi, Thailand, Australia, Norway, asking if they could be pen pals with Katie. Those books are out of print, but I still occasionally receive letters about them. While living in London, I illustrated four of the first multi-cultural books to be published in Great Britain, with a small East Indian publishing house called Mantra. That was a wonderful experience.

RJ:  “Letters from Purgatory” was the project you were working on at Noepe on Martha’s Vineyard in October. Can you discuss it?

KH:  It is a complex, 500-plus page work about the intersection between myself, private investigator Casey Cohen, and a series of fantastical letters that were sent to death row inmate Maureen McDermott. Casey was the foremost authority on the death penalty phase and worked for the defense on many of the most notorious cases. He was also my dearest friend. Shortly before his death, Casey gave me the letters and asked me to solve the mystery of who wrote them and why. This led me on a journey from death row to Istanbul, opening my eyes to how the powerful manipulate the masses through fear and how we all create stories to give meaning and justification to our lives.

RJ:  Is there another project currently in the works?

KH:  Well, I am working on a YA urban fantasy series called Night Angels, which is pretty intense and dark and vicious—and a lot of fun. And to balance that, I’m working on the illustrations to a picture book called Night Racer, which is about an inner city kid who has no interest in technological devices but rather, at night, flies out of his bedroom window in his amazing race car to compete against the greatest drivers in the universe in the Night Race.

Karen in Istanbul

Karen in Istanbul

RJ:  When we met, you had just returned from Istanbul, Turkey. What led to this visit and what was your favorite part of the trip?

KH:  I went there to finish my book, Letters from Purgatory. It was a very emotional journey because I had worked for five years towards this goal and I was finally accomplishing it. It would spoil the ending of the book if I told you what I had to accomplish while I was there, but I can say I did it! I loved everything about Istanbul and would go back tomorrow! My daughter and my niece were there for most of the time and we stayed near the Galata Tower and just immersed ourselves in the city. We had a penthouse apartment with a terrace overlooking the Bosporus. Writing in that apartment or in a nearby café was a dream come true for me. The Middle East is my favorite part of the world. I am enthralled by the culture, the history, the exotic richness and mystical beauty of the architecture, the towers and temples, the winding stone streets, the smells, the food, the art, I embrace all of it.

RJ:  Would you tell the readers about the writing project you started with youth in trouble?

KH:  Back in 1995 I had a desire to go into Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and start a writing program for incarcerated youth. I had been conducting a writing program in public schools and I was curious to see what kids in more challenging circumstances had to say. Somehow, I got an interview with the principal of the school and he kindly let me do a few sessions at the girls’ school. I was deeply moved by how quickly their tough facades fell away and the honesty in their hearts came out. I certainly hadn’t found that in the public schools. I started going in as a volunteer on a regular basis and working with High Risk Offenders, those facing life sentences for serious offenses. I was appalled at the injustices that I saw. Other incredible writers followed and the program grew organically. We became a nonprofit and I was its President until 2006 when I stepped away to go back to my writing. It is an amazing organization and has helped thousands of youth over the years. I met Casey Cohen during that time and Letters from Purgatory touches on what happened during those years.

RJ:  This wasn’t your first residency at Noepe on Martha’s Vineyard. What is it about the island that brings you back and feeds your creativity?

KH:  I came to Noepe when I first started Letters from Purgatory and it seemed fitting that I should return at its completion. And I am working with an editor in New York, Angela Leroux-Lindsey, who has encouraged me all these years and published excerpts in The Adirondack Review. We had never met so this trip allowed me to also go to New York and finally meet her for the first time. I am completely in love with Martha’s Vineyard. It is a special place of beauty and atmosphere and no fast food, not even a Starbucks! From the first moment I saw the island from the ferry it felt right to me. And Noepe has been a haven; a place where Justen Ahren has created a wonderfully relaxed and inspiring working space.

Karen teaching a kickboxing class.

Karen teaching a kickboxing class.

RJ:  A personal trainer and kickboxing instructor, you are amazingly fit. How do you keep your energy so high when spending so much time drawing and writing?

KH:  I’ve always had a lot of energy! I probably have ADHD or something because it is hard for me to stay still for any length of time. I have trained in martial arts for almost 30 years, as well as Eskrima, boxing and kick-boxing and it is an integral part of my life. So I train every day and I teach and the teaching allows me to share my knowledge with others, especially to empower women and children to stand up to abuse.

RJ:  If you could spend one hour with someone – living or deceased – who would it be and why?

KH:  This is such a difficult question!!! How do I pick just one person? But I would say, from the perspective of a writer, I would love to meet Agatha Christie. I read all of her books multiple times. A mystery writer with her own mystery, I am so curious to find out what happened when she disappeared for those few days and showed up in a hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress. There is a lot that remains unsaid in her autobiography and I would love to have a few drinks with her and find out what really went on beneath the surface. Besides that, I think her books are brilliant and filled with such fascinating characters. It is said that her books rank third in best-sellers of all time, just behind the Bible, for one. Runners up would be C. S. Lewis because his Narnia series had such a huge impact on me as a child and Orhan Pamuk.

RJ:  Your website is both beautiful and fun. Is it your own design and artwork?

KH:  My friend Adam Weston helped me with the design. It’s all my own artwork, from a few of the nineteen children’s books that I have had published and some of the projects that I would like to pursue. It needs updating, though!

Karen writing in a café in Kranj, Slovenia

Karen writing in a café in Kranj, Slovenia

RJ:  Where can the readers go to learn more about you and your work?

KH:  They can follow me at https://www.facebook.com/karen.hunt.355, at http://karenalainehunt.wordpress.com , although I don’t write on it enough, and my website, www.karenalainehunt.com. My latest published work, an excerpt from Letters from Purgatory titled Death Row Dance, can be found in the Fall issue of www.theadirondackreview.com.

Wow!  Thank you Karen for your generosity with both your words about your journey, and your fantastic pictures and artwork.  (For the record, the only picture I took of Karen was the first one.  All of the others are hers and supplied here for the purpose of this interview so that you may enjoy them!)

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The Time Has Come.

In this quiet, sated space between the discarded wrappings of Christmas and the bright, fresh promise of a brand new year, I would normally become introspective.  With leather-bound journal against my knee, my favorite ink pen poised in hand, I would dedicate myself anew to those qualities, desires, and pursuits I wished for.

Better known as RESOLUTIONS, they were rarely effective, mostly because I wasn’t being specific enough — i.e. the vagueness of ‘be more organized’ — or it was something I already was — i.e. ‘become a writer’.  In truth, I already was a writer, there was nothing to become.

I suppose there was an image in my head of what writers looked like, how they moved about in the world, the length of their publishing credits.  Perhaps a more correct version of my Resolutions should have read as follows:

1.  I will wear scarves every day.

2.  My desk will be in a room lined with bookshelves and have bookends of Romulus and Remus — the founders of Rome.

3.  Coffee will be chugged all day.

4.  Cursing will only be permitted when spoken in French.

5.  The gardener will speak French so he can understand when I yell obscenities out of the window as the sound of his electric shears and leaf blower interferes with my creativity.

6.  I will stay up until 3:00 a.m. and not arise before noon.

7.  I will publish a piece every other day, even if it is just how to find French-speaking gardeners.

Perhaps such a specific list would have helped me achieve something which I perceived as being ‘writer-ish’.  But I doubt it would have made much difference.

And it isn’t just writers who are plagued with this malady of failing to recognize the seed of their inner voice.  I’ve heard similar comments from photographers, dancers, nurses, cooks.

“I’d love to be a chef,” she says, while pulling a perfectly risen soufflé from the oven.

“I wish I could become a photographer,” he gushes, snapping away at the wild birds feasting at the feeder.

“I regret not becoming a nurse,” she sighs, helping her aging mother back to bed after checking her blood pressure with a store bought cuff.

“My dream was to be an ice skater,” he whispers as though ashamed, then takes off noiselessly across the indoor rink.

We all see it in them.  We understand the woman taking care of her mother is practicing a form of nursing; the one desiring to be a chef is doing exactly that for her friends and family, the photographer, dancer, skater are all practicing their  loves.  The singer in the church choir may not be in an Operatic performance, but she is invaluable to  those in attendance on Sunday morning.

Somehow we have come to believe payment received for a thing is its only measure of validation.  The higher the salary, the better the work.

I challenge you to think differently this year.  If you haven’t already found your heart’s desire — and I’m not talking about a significant other — then see if you can figure it out and then set about doing it, regardless of payment or acknowledgement. The joy in the act will bring you so much happiness, and who knows what might happen down the road.

Instead of resolutions, think about wishes and desires. As for me, I am starting a Pinterest Board for my 2015 Goals and Aspirations. And then I’m simply going to sit with myself and write.

Writing makes me a writer.

There is a poem I have loved for years which I believe expresses this quite well.  I wasn’t sure why it spoke to me at first, only that it settled over me like a soothing cup of tea every time I read it.  Now I finally understand it.

It is titled Love After Love and the author is Derek Walcott.

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

–Derek Walcott

Are you making resolutions this year, or are you peeling yourself from the mirror, hiking the El Camino, reading the literary greats, taking a class in kickboxing?

Tell us all in comments what you are thinking about as we approach this New Year and a brand new chance to be what we’ve always wanted to become.

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How was it?

It was the first public outing for Acquisition and me — a scheduled reading and book signing at Simply Serendipity on Tenth Street in North Wilkesboro, NC.  And it began with grey, overcast skies and snow!

Author Renee Johnson with poster of her novel

Thankfully, it didn’t stick.  It was the kind of snow which looked beautiful falling but melted as soon as it hit the ground.

The poster of Acquisition filled one of the front windows — striking to say the least.  Thank you Rae Monet!  She designed the cover for my publisher, The Wild Rose Press, and I am totally happy with  it.

Author Renee Canter Johnson, on right, with Julie Baird in center, and Paula Eller on left

As it was a store, there was less reading and more shopping, signing, and buying. And the shop owner, Julie Baird, had brewed a lovely Pumpkin Spice Coffee from the Owens Family Coffee Company in Wilmington, NC. The aroma was homey and celebratory — welcoming the visitors.

Author Renee Johnson signing copies of her novel Acquisition

There were questions for me, mostly about my journey, how I became published, and my recent trips to Massachusetts and Orvieto, Italy — both of which were directly related to writing projects.

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Family and friends stopped in, some strangers, a shop owner from a neighboring store. It was delightful!

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Thank you to everyone who came out to support me and Acquisition, Julie Baird and Simply Serendipity, and local authors and artisans. Signed copies of my novel are still available at Simply Serendipity and the drawing for the gift basket will be held on Christmas Eve. So stop in, chat with Julie and Tori, check out the wares, and drop your name in the box for a chance to win!

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Simply Serendipity and Me!

I have been invited by Julie Baird and her daughter Tori, owners and operators of Simply Serendipity at 304 Tenth Street in downtown North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to give a reading from my novel Acquisition.

Simply Serendipity

And we’ve scheduled it for this Saturday, December 20, 2014 at 3:00 p.m.  If you have a chance, please stop by and support this shop.  They are featuring arts and crafts, authors, and other products made in North Carolina.

Give unique

There is sure to be someone on your shopping list whose perfect gift is just waiting there.  And they do beautiful wrapping as well.

If there is a reader on your list, copies of my novel will be available.

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Hope to see you there!

Simply Serendipity

304 Tenth Street

North Wilkesboro, NC  28659

Saturday, December 20, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

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