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The Truth About My Creative Life “Balance”

monkey tightropeI was driving home from my riding lesson with the slavering hounds of duty nipping at my back tires. Fly, fly they bayed at me, back to your desk and your deadlines. I knew that was the responsible thing to do. There were clients waiting on deliverables that were in various stages of almost done. But, despite the dogged insistence of my Type-A conscience, I took a left instead of a right and parked outside my favorite local coffee shop.

One chai, I thought, it won’t take long. The work will still be there – waiting – after I’ve taken a few minutes to clear my head and stretch my imagination. I found that the book I’d been reading was sitting on the passenger seat beside me. Some part of me must have premeditated this brief escape. Some quietly rebellious instinct was looking out for my creative self, creating an opportunity to step outside the day’s To Do list and indulge in a few minutes of play inside my head.

The only available seats were two table-less chairs tucked in a corner by the always-closed emergency exit. I sat and sighed into the luxury of a little time alone with my thoughts, but (as is often the case with these impromptu getaways) the Universe had something more in store for me – a serendipitous meeting with a friend. She was on her way somewhere and I only had a few minutes, but we stood at the end of the counter next to the homeless chairs and talked. And talked. She is a deeply empathetic and artistically talented photographer, and – like me – a single mom. We are both self-employed. We don’t see each other often enough. Perhaps that’s why we always skip the small talk.

Our conversation seemed less something that developed in that moment than something that had been hovering in that spot waiting for us to arrive. Hardly pausing after a quick embrace, we were soon finishing each other’s sentences as we grappled with the challenges of pursuing our art and taking risks while still upholding our very real responsibilities. Our exchange was peppered with words like shackled and fear and frustration, words that gnaw at you, taking bites so small you almost don’t notice. We circled around the tired truths that live large in our daily rounds: life is short, kids grow up fast, you only live once.

My friend and I have each faced tough times. We’ve each had moments when giving up the creative life seemed to be the most sensible, selfless thing to do. We talked, standing there in the overcrowded cafe, about the constant balancing act – what I envision as a small, defenseless animal walking a tightrope strung over a pit of hungry crocodiles. The crocodiles are always there. Sometimes – when things are good – they are almost invisible, gliding darkly beneath the surface of the water, and sometimes – when things are bad – they reach their long snouts up out of the water to leer with dripping, toothy smiles. And sometimes you wonder if maybe you’re supposed to step off the tightrope and plunge willingly into their writhing midst. Because, that’s the story you always hear – the story of the artist who had to hit rock bottom before she emerged, like a phoenix, to soar to new heights of success.

In the pause between spoken thoughts, we wondered silently about the possibility of crisis-as-catalyst.

But then, one of us noticed the time, and the other said she really had to get going. We embraced again and agreed that we really needed to do this more often. We promised.

What I’m Writing:

pen notebookIn the last meeting of our Fiction I class, we covered a smorgasbord of topics including the magic of modifiers, the importance of sentence rhythm, the wide range of productivity solutions, and the amorphous nature of endings. We also talked a bit about what comes next, how do we continue this journey? I’m already considering another class and am eager to continue work on my short story. I intend to start being more proactive about researching publications that might be a good fit for my work so that, once I have something ready, I’ll know where to submit it.

But, as glad as I am that this class has reminded be about these important, “big” steps, I’m even more grateful for my new sense of “micro capability.” Though I realize that, because of time constraints, this eight-week class only grazed the surface of the writing craft, I feel like I have been given some small superpowers. Through a series of mini epiphanies, I find that I’m suddenly able to “see” my writing more clearly. The bits and pieces of knowledge that I’ve gained make me a more critical reader, of my own work and of others’ work. It’s kind of like I’ve been given X-ray vision. I am better able to perceive the inner workings of a piece of writing. This helps me appreciate the work of others more deeply; and it certainly helps me to improve my own writing.

The key, I think, to keeping and building upon this new ability, is practice. I must keep what I’ve learned fresh in my mind and continue to exercise these new muscles each day – through writing and through reading. I’m already thinking about using “story breakdowns” to study how other writers have built their characters, settings, plots, and themes. Like an engineer who must take something apart before she understands how it works, I want to take other people’s stories apart so that I understand better how to put my own together.

I hope to share some of these explorations and studies with you in future posts, and I’d love to hear if any of you have come across or performed similar “dissections.”

What I’m Reading:

book watermelon kingI mentioned last week that I’d been to the library looking for Daniel Wallace’s novel, Big Fish. It wasn’t in, but I did find another of his books – The Watermelon King.  This novel, set in the small, southern town of Ashland, creates an atmosphere of fable and tall-tale that’s very similar to the one that imbues Big Fish with a sense of magic.

Though the beginning was something of a slow burner, I enjoyed the second half of the book very much and found myself shirking other duties in order to read the last few chapters. The cast of characters is both charming and unnerving. The ideas that Wallace plays with are ones that run deep – identify, family, tradition, sexuality. Despite the thematic gravity and sometimes very dark turns in the story, he handles the narrative with a light hand that keeps you, the reader, from feeling weighted down by the pain and grief that runs through the story.

Despite the many fanciful turns in the events of the novel, the characters seemed very real. Wallace’s characterization is subtle and stretched out over a series of brief encounters that make up the first half of the book as the protagonist, Thomas Rider, interviews citizens of Ashland, the place of his birth, about his mother. Though certainly not “normal” by most standards, you can almost believe that a place like Ashland might exist … and the Watermelon King, too.

Hal Jacobs of the Atlanta Journal, Constitution said it well.

“In The Watermelon King, Wallace hits all the right notes of magical realism, creating a world where the supernatural fits alongside the ordinary, where storytellers stretch the plausible, and terror, fear and violence lurk below the surface.”

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

Instead of a quote, this week I’d like to share this video of Ursula K Le Guin giving her acceptance speech at the recent National Book Awards. Le Guin was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Her speech is wonderful for so many reasons, but mostly – I think – for its fighting spirit and unabashed respect for story and writers and the power of the worlds that spring from our imaginations.

Thanks, as always, for being here – balancing alongside me on the tightrope and grinning down at the crocodiles. Happy reading, happy writing, and I’ll see you on the other side. 

.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Monkey on a Tightrope Photo Credit: The hills are alive* via Compfight cc
Pen & Notebook Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: This week we could no longer deny it. Winter is on its way. Today, let us know what your favorite hot drink is. Let’s crowd source ways to keep warm!

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: I have three hot drinks that get me through this season. First, coffee. But that’s seasonless for me. But during the holidays, I have three words to add to coffee: Egg. Nog. Latte. The second is hot apple cider. I mull it for special ocassions. And throw it in the microwave for every day. And third, Chai Tea Latte. That is an indulgence that I save for special days. I may add a fourth, a decaf London Fog. Earl Grey, steamed milk, vanilla syrup.

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson: Uh oh. I’m actually not much for hot drinks; I drink iced coffee year round. But now that I’m thinking about it, I really do enjoy hot apple cider, and I have a soft spot for hot chocolate with marshmallows, oh, and I actually enjoy hot herbal teas – always with honey.

I’ve never had egg nog, but I think I might give it a whirl this year.

 

 

 

M. Shafer, Photo

M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: Coffee in the morning; black tea in the afternoon; and a hot rum toddy whenever I need to chase the cold from my bones.

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headshot_jw_thumbnailJamie Wallace: For quantity consumed, hot tea (both herbal and not-so-caffeine-free) is definitely at the top of my list, always served with a healthy dollop of local honey. I never acquired a taste for coffee (though I love its aroma), but after a year or so of watching me – a grown woman – order hot chocolate, the baristas at my favorite local coffee shop upgraded me to a cinnamon chai latte. Keeping up my habit may eventually send me to the poorhouse, but – damn! – chai lattes are a tasty treat! I’ll also second Deborah’s thumbs up for the hot toddy, though I usually make mine with whiskey. And, last but not least, a hot whiskey & cider with a cinnamon stick ain’t so bad either … even when you’re not sick. ;)

Quick check-in with the NaNoWriMo-ers. Continuing to plug away? There’s still time to hunker down and create your masterpiece, you just have to want it bad enough to set aside the time to “just do it” (and besides, wasn’t that what nights were invented for?)

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Zelda as a hen (Version 1.0)

I have been pecking away at my project and currently have around 23,000 words, but not to worry. I’ve been known to add up to 10,000 at one (crazy) sitting. And, I’m the type of person who thrives on a deadline – so it’s all good.

But today I want to talk to the article writers out there. You know the ones who write for magazines, newspapers, and even blogs (or those that hope to someday.)

As many of you know, I have a flock of chickens and I write about my chickens for several publications and on my blog.

We recently (over the last year) had a situation in our flock where a grey hen turned into a golden brown and grey rooster (she didn’t exactly turn into a male but she did start showing classic male features.) This is not *that* unusual among chickens – you talk to any old-time farmer and they can usually come up with a story of a hen turning into a rooster. It could happen as the result of injury, illness, or even hen-o-pause. Whatever – we had a transgender chicken in our flock, we still loved her.

But then slowly over the last summer and then sometime in the last 3 months, our chicken changed again. This time she changed from being a multicolored rooster into a white hen.

I know crazy, right?

I put the information up on my blog, Twitter, Facebook,and even on Reddit.

And then I saw my blog numbers go up, they went way up – almost 5 times the traffic I normally got. It turns out that NO ONE had ever seen this in a chicken. Hmmm, said the writer and storyteller in me, this is a story that is not only drawing attention but is creating conversation.

I am not telling you this to teach you about chickens (although, if you have a free moment, I’ll gladly talk your ear off about our flock) I’m telling you this because as a writer, you always have to have your finger on the pulse of your readers.

The pulse was pounding on this one. If a story on my blog was creating that much buzz, then it is a story worthy of a publication (magazine.) Yesterday I started pitching magazine editors on this story. Depending on the angle, I can probably get this story into a few different publications. I can use a New Hampshire/local angle, a “WTF” angle, a chicken angle, and I could even turn it into a lesson about accepting things (people) for who they are.

As a writer, that makes me happy.

Moral of this story:

Pay attention to your audience’s response to your work and in particular watch the statistics. When you see increased activity, pounce on it. Ride that tide, turn the story on its head to figure out different angles, and then get those article pitches out.

It’s what writers do.

Update: Just heard back from a magazine editor and an article on this story has been placed in a poultry magazine.

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

Two weeks ago I was on the verge of co-chairing the New England Crime Bake. My other co-chair was Steve Ulfelder, a wonderful writer and an even better guy. I thought I would report back. Here are my random thoughts on how it went, what I learned, and why this all volunteer run conference works.

Picture by Marian Lanouette

Picture by Marian Lanouette

First, if you are going to have a conference, make sure the Guest of Honor rocks. S/he should have time for everyone, a big smile, and a great personality. An excellent bonus is if they are are good writer. Let me give you a suggestion–choose Craig Johnson. He couldn’t be nicer, is a wonderful writer, tells great stories, and was nice to everyone he met. Boy Howdy, did that make it all a lot easier.

Second, you can never be too prepared for an interview. On Saturday during lunch I did an author interview with him in front of the entire conference. It went well. I’d read his books, perused articles about him, and thought through my questions with my friend (and fellow committee member) Rhonda Lane. I talked about them with Craig beforehand, so he sort of knew what to expect. I also listened to his answers, and tried to have a conversation. Now part of this goes back to my first point, pick a good guest of honor. But the Crime Bake committee values preparation, and it shows.

Third, surround yourself with great people. Steve and I had public faces over the weekend, but there are over a dozen people who spend months working on this conference. It is an honor to work with them all. PS, our own Lisa J. Jackson (who wrote about conference burnout earlier this week) is the registrar.

SinCNE boardFourth, use the time. We had a Sisters in Crime New England board meeting early Saturday morning. We have several board meetings every year, but we are rarely in the same room together. Not only did we get work done, but we got to have a meal together.

And fifth, smile all the time. Even when you are so tired you can barely stand up, keep smiling.

Believe it or not, I’m already looking forward to next year.

P.S., over at the Wicked Cozy Authors, we have some more Crime Bake fun to report.

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J.A. Hennrikus is a short story writer, Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery Series (debuts in 2015), and Julie Hennrikus is an arts administrator. They all look alike.

NHWP writers week - logo 2Hard on the Heals of NaNoWriMo comes New Hampshire Writer’s Week, an initiative spearheaded by the New Hampshire Writer’s Project (NHWP). NWHP is a non-profit organization that supports the development of individual writers and encourages an audience for literature in New Hampshire. On November 12th, Governor Maggie Hassan made it official declaring November 30th to December 6th 2014 New Hampshire Writer’s week.

According to the NHWP web site the goal of Writer’s Week 2014 is to

“celebrate our rich literary heritage while also putting a spotlight on the diverse writers living and working in our state.”

Events are scheduled statewide in bookstores, libraries, and cafes. There will also be special announcements scheduled for that week, such as the opening of nominations for the upcoming NH Literary Hall of Fame and the release of a list of NH authors available to appear at book clubs in 2015. A detailed listing of all the events associated with Writer’s Week can be found on the NHWP web site.  One of the events will be a special Writer’s Night Out on Monday December 1st. Writer’s Night Out is a casual networking event for writers. To find a WNO event near you visit the event list.

Are you an author living in New Hampshire? It’s not too late to participate in the festivities, but you have to act fast. Visit the Writer’s Week page at NHWP for details on how to participate.
Not a published author, but still interested in supporting the New Hampshire writing community?  You can help!

Are you going to participate in New Hampshire Writer’s week activities?

 

Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. She is currently a member of the Concord Monitor Board of Contributors. Her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe.

Last week I shared tips about managing the excitement of attending conferences and that I had four conferences to attend in an 8-day period.

One conference was 3 days, the other 3 conferences were single days, but back-to-back. I wouldn’t recommend doing it and I knew I shouldn’t have attempted to for several reasons:

  • It’s too much time to be “on” – mixing and mingling with people, trying to forge new relationships, trying to absorb all the information.
  • It’s too much time away from the office – the work doesn’t stop coming in, nor do I ever want it to, and even with an assistant there is always going to be the game of “catch up” once back in the office.
  • It’s physically exhausting – with a multi-day conference there’s a good chance of finding quiet space (preferably a room for a nap), but with a single-day conference there isn’t any downtime. If you aren’t in a session, you have a break and breaks are where the networking happens. There is the travel to and from the conference and depending on distance, this could mean getting up early and driving more than an hour. It all contributes to ‘too much.’

NetworkingBubblesThese were 4 conferences I wanted to attend, and had attended in the past — it just happened this year that they were scheduled within the same week of November.

Two had the livestream “digital pass” availability and next year I’ll use those options.

I’ve found it’s just as time consuming to attend a conference virtually and just as, or even more engaging, since social media is usually involved (networking is done through Tweets and Chats), but at least there are the benefits of no commute, attending in comfy clothes, and taking bathroom breaks without waiting in line, and no line for lunch either!

Have you ever attended multiple conferences in the same week?

Have you experienced attending a conference virtually, yet?

I ended up attending the full 3-day conference; I left the 1st 1-day conference early; I stayed for the entire second 1-day conference; I didn’t attend the third 1-day conference at all – I started to attend virtually, but my brain had had too much 15 minutes into the first speaker. I’ll be able to watch all of that last conference at any point in the future, though.

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with Lisa on TwitterFacebookGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

Yes, your writing matters.

Image by Ryan McGuire of Bells Design

Image by Ryan McGuire of Bells Design

I find comfort in unexpected patterns of discovery. When I am wrestling with a question, serendipity never fails to serve up a chain of touchstones that offer, if not an answer, perspective and guidance, or – at the very least – the knowledge that I am not alone in asking my question. This week I experienced just such Universal benevolence around the question, “Why bother writing?”

It’s a harsh question. I know.

But, I think it’s one many writers struggle with. In my case, I looked around at all the injustice and pain and suffering in the world and my desire to write seemed petty and insignificant in comparison. It felt frivolous and self-indulgent. Other people are out there doing Important Work – saving lives, inventing things, righting wrongs. And here I sit – hacking away at the keyboard, making stuff up, and sharing my inner thoughts with a certain amount of artistic hubris.

I have written before about navel-gazing and other writerly fears. But, this is a conversation I return to again and again in my head. It’s not an argument that is simply “won and done.” I may beat the feelings back for a while, but they always return to test my mettle.

When these well-worn doubts came a-calling this week, I was glad to stumble across allies who helped me stand my ground more firmly. This morning, in case you are battling similar demons, I want to share them with you.

headshot jen loudenThe first voice I heard was a friendly and familiar one. Jen Louden is a tireless champion of the creative and authentic life. She is a kind and nurturing teacher who shares her own vulnerabilities openly. In her post, Why You Creating Stuff Matters, Jen asks, “Why are you doing this when the world is dying?!” (By dying I mean climate change.) “People are starving. Girls are being turned into sex slaves. Do something!” Jen answers her own question beautifully (and, I recommend you read her full response in her post), but here are a few lines that jumped out at me:

Here is what I believe – it makes all the difference. I believe women who create are women who will not allow our planet to burn.

… working toward creating work that has more meaning, creating books that will help others – has everything in the world to do with their happiness and shaping a fairer world.

The point of life is to make something good and beautiful in the face of meaninglessness and horror. To not give away your voice to false gods of cool shoes, Facebook likes, fat bank statements or to cynicism, resignation and anger. Rather to keep feeling, keep creating, keep enchanting yourself and others with the power of creation.

Her words are inspiring, aren’t they?

headshot ali gresikI shared Jen’s post with a group of writer friends and the lovely Ali Gresik, a talented author and creativity coach, offered her own heartening perspective,

“My conclusion is that the best way for me to serve the world is to be myself and use the resources I’ve been given. I was made to be a writer, and given the desire to write, therefore that’s the way I need to serve the world. Not writing just makes me depressed and useless to the world. So part of my job as a writer is not to let that tension between the perceived ‘frivolity’ of writing and the gravity of the world’s problems stop me from writing.”

Also inspiring, no?

headshot leanne regallaFinally, just this morning, my inbox served up a post from Leanne Regalla’s blog, Make Creativity Pay. In 12 Truths Successful Creatives Know About Making A Living, Regalla makes believing in the value of your art her #2 truth, opening with a quote from Pablo Picasso, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

“Creative expression is part of who we are as human beings. It’s one of our most basic drives. We can’t separate ourselves from it for long even if we try – and if we did succeed, life would be pretty dull, if not downright unhealthy.

Music, writing, and photography can all be ethereal, spiritual experiences, but they affect us and the world around us in very concrete ways as well.”

Each of these women, these writers and artists, answered my question in her own way. Each of them stood beside me in my moment of doubt and gently reminded me that art – including my own art – is important, and even Important. I know the question will never be fully vanquished, but I’m glad to know I have allies who will help me keep these false fears at bay so that I can keep hacking away at my keyboard. And, I hope you will make them your allies, too.

What I’m Writing:

Image by Bethan via Albumarium

Image by Bethan via Albumarium

This coming Tuesday is the last meeting of the Fiction I class I’ve been attending via the Grub Street writing center. I am sad to see our time coming to an end. It was only eight Tuesdays, but I have learned so much and been inspired to dig back into the hard but very fulfilling work of studying and writing fiction.

During this week’s class, my second submission was workshopped and I was delighted to the point of grinning with the class’s feedback. As I put it to them, they were totally “picking up what I was putting down.” There are, I think, few things more satisfying to a writer than knowing that her readers “get it.” Though the piece I submitted was only at the first draft stage, the class was engaged in the beginning of the story, my characters, and the possibilities they saw for what might happen next. It was so encouraging. I am now itching to finish the story, especially since they generously offered to read the rest once I’ve finished it.

Even if you are not participating in a formal class or writing group, I encourage you to find a few readers who will be willing to give you constructive feedback on your work. I realize that sharing is scary, and that finding the right reader is hard, but I believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. Even if you only ask your readers to identify places in your story where they had questions or got confused, that one piece of information can be invaluable in reshaping your narrative.

In a previous weekend edition, I shared Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist, but his more recent book, Show Your Work, may be an even more inspiring read. I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t actually read it yet; BUT my dad (who hardly ever reads anything) read it and loved it.

I hope you’ll think about sharing what you’re writing. It might be scary, but you never know how it might help you move your creative endeavors forward. There is magic in putting yourself out there.

What I’m Reading:

book vampires groveOh boy, oh boy, oh boy!

I love all the strange and serendipitous ways that books land in my lap. I love being in the right place at the right time when a bookseller is purging ARCs (advance reader copies).  I love adopting books that have been abandoned on the sidewalk. And I especially love when a book seems to stalk me – showing up in magazines, conversations, and – finally – on the staff picks table of a favorite indie bookstore.

The book I’m reading at the moment came at me sort of sideways – a pseudo stalker. Karen Russell’s work has been hovering on the periphery of my reader’s mind for some time now. I’ve seen her debut collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a number of times as I loitered in the aisles of my favorite Newburyport bookstore. I’d even cracked open and considered buying her first novel, Swamplandia!, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. But until this week, I hadn’t read her work. I’d only thought about it.

But then, I went to the library in search of the novel Big Fish. (I’ve been thinking about watching the movie again, but first wanted to read the novel.) Fortunately for me, the librarian (a dear friend) sent me to the wrong section because there is, apparently, another book called Big Fish by a different author. ANYway … long story, short … after realizing the mistake, I turned around and there, practically jumping off the shelf at eye level, were two of Russell’s books, Swamplandia! and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I snatched them both up.

I decided to read Vampires in the Lemon Grove first and am utterly enchanted. I am only a few stories in, but – wow. I kind of hate Russell, but I’m also kind of falling in love. I feel a writer’s obsession coming on. Her stories are so original and so beautifully written. I am swept away immediately, taken in by the characters, and intrigued by her ideas. The language is envy-inducing. And how she manages to pack so much into each short story is almost miraculous. I can “feel” the weight and depth of her worlds far beyond the few pages that hold the story.

I can’t wait to read more.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin_creativity_heart

Wishing you courage, confidence, and creative joy. I hope you also find wonderful reads in surprising ways and maybe wonderful friends to read your writing.

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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