writing life

Upcoming Writing Retreat: Do You Have an Idea for a Children’s Book?


Do you have an idea for a children’s book? Maybe you’ve thought: I’ll write it someday. Well, make that “someday” today! Join us for Oh, The Places You Can Go!, a retreat with children’s book writing coach Esther Hershenhorn.

Wherever you are with your work, you are welcome.

When: April 21-23, 2017. We’ll open with a meet-and-greet reception at 4pm Friday afternoon and end by noon Sunday.

Where: Haley Farm Inn and Retreat Center, a gorgeous spa and retreat center in the serene region of Western Maryland, just minutes away from Deep Creek Lake (3 hours from Washington, D.C.). Need a carpool from Reagan National Airport? Let us know!

Instructor and Description: Esther Hershenhorn will introduce you to the Children’s Book World and offer rules of the road to make navigating that world doable and easy. She will guide you toward your next steps. More importantly, she’ll connect with retreat writers one-on-one, heart-to-heart, so your story can eventually do the same with readers. A die-hard Cubs fan who knows the value of heart, hope, faith and perseverance, Esther teaches at the Writer’s Studio at the University of Chicago Graham School and at Chicago’s Newberry Library. To learn more about Esther Hershenhorn, her books, and how she works with (and cares for) her writers, go here.

Cost: $375 for the workshop only. $789 for the workshop plus two nights lodging at Haley Farm and all meals. Lodging is single occupancy with a private bath. Meals are organic and homemade. There will be optional meditation and yoga classes. (There is also a FREE housing option available a few miles away from the Inn if you’d rather stay there.)

Cancellation Policy: Fees are nonrefundable; however, you may transfer your spot if you can find someone to take your place or if there is someone on the waiting list.

Questions? Feel free to email me (the organizer) at jenny [dot] rough [at] jennyrough [dot] com. Hope to see you in April!


I Love My Commute


As I sat in gridlock on the George Washington Memorial Parkway during my 45-minute morning commute into Washington, I looked out the window. There was a woman my age running along the Mount Vernon Trail. I longed to be outdoors — and vertical.

That moment last fall, when I was 42, marked the beginning of a change in my life that would give me more energy and better fitness.

To continue reading my article in The Washington Post about being a pedestrian commuter, click here.

The Creative Life


When my book club picked this book I was a tad skeptical. I thought I knew what to expect: an entertaining, inspiring read with a feel-good message. A little too “perfect” for my taste. Or worse, an author who came across as perfectly imperfect. I wasn’t sure I’d like it—well, I loved it. Turns out, the book was funny, it had a fresh take on approaching creative ideas, it addressed how to handle frustration during the creative process, and it was eye-opening (people “murder their creativity by demanding their art pay the bills,” the author says). Take your art seriously, she adds, but don’t take it seriously. By the end, I was able to identify work that I’m ready to send into the world instead of tinkering with it for the millionth time. I was able to let go of stale ideas I’d been clinging to and make space for the ideas that are alive. For more good books and thoughts on nurturing your creative spirit, consider joining Roughly Speaking, my newsletter.

Trail of Memories


Edie Changes Her Mind is one of those library books I checked out every week as a child. The little girl on the cover is a night owl. She refuses to go to sleep. One evening, her parents dismantle her bed and let her stay up. After that, Edie learns to appreciate rest.

I haven’t thought about the book in decades. Edie would have been forever lost to me except for the fact that a few weeks ago, I began to write about nocturnal tendencies and early childhood. The combination of those two topics opened a spring of long-forgotten memories, and out spouted Edie!

Once I remembered the book, I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten.

As I work on my own book, I often call my mom to ask her about family events I don’t remember well. My mom’s recollections are fuzzy. She says, “I wish I had kept a journal.”

I know the feeling. I wish I had kept a journal as a child. I wish I had kept a journal in law school. I especially wish I’d kept a journal as a young associate in a law firm. (What inner turmoil!)

A lot of things from the past might be painful to recall, but I still wish I’d kept a written account. I am afraid the memories of what happened in prior years are lost forever.

But they might not be.

One thing I’ve discovered is that writing now (meaning, today) helps me remember then. Dig around your brain, move around some debris, and you’ll find an old trail to follow. One trail of thought leads to another and before long you’ll bump into Edie. It’s strange how buried memories resurface when you write.

Want to see what you might rediscover if you grab a notebook and scribble away? I’m teaching a private 4-week personal essay workshop this October. One spot left. Contact me for details.

Top 10 Reasons to Join My Newsletter

I’m launching a newsletter. Why join? Here are the top 10 reasons:

  1. You’re a relative and don’t have a choice
  2. You’re a competitor keeping tabs on me
  3. You love books and want to swap good reads with me
  4. You have a story you’d like to write and see in print one day (each newsletter will highlight a magazine or outlet seeking submissions)
  5. Deep conversations don’t scare you: life, death, God, big fears, pondering the meaning of those little yellow Minions–bring it on
  6. You want a sneak peek inside the book I’m writing (I’ll share excerpts, you’ll get the scoop on its progress, and you may even influence what’s in its pages)
  7. You believe in fate and think there is a reason why you’re reading these words right here, right now … or not, but what the heck, you’ll sign up anyway
  8. You want to support a starving artist
  9. You want to nurture your creative spirit
  10. You want to be one of my CEOs (chief encouragement officers). My friend Holly says all writers need ’em … lots of ’em. She’s right. Thank you for your encouragement!

What’s the difference between the blog and newsletter? To paraphrase publishing expert Jane Friedman, the blog offers sips of champagne. The newsletter is the bottle. In other words, I don’t hold back in the newsletter.

Most people who write newsletters give a free gift to new subscribers. Will you? Of course! As a token of my appreciation, you’ll get my favorite books list, artfully created by multimedia designer Ryan Han. (Thank you, Ryan!)

How do I sign up? Click here. Or, scroll straight up to the tippity top of this page. Next to where it says Jenny’s Newsletter, type your email address in the box. Then hit subscribe. It’s that easy.

Shoes, Writing, and Shoe Writing

UntitledWrite about the shoes you wore. 

I was in a writing workshop, and that was our warm-up assignment. A stream of consciousness exercise.

“Shoes are fascinating,” the teacher said.

Shoes? Fascinating? Not to me, I thought. Unlike most women, I’m not crazy about shoes. Why shove my feet (the foundation of my body) into pointy-toed, 4-inch, ciggy-heel stilettos, known to cause bunions, hammertoes, and nerve pain? I feel similarly about platforms and peep toes, which are linked to other painful ailments. I scribbled all this down in my notebook … and kept writing. On second thought, maybe I did have something to say about shoes. My essay “Shoe Love” is running in the back page column of Modern Woman, on newsstands now.

* * *

Speaking of shoes, in her book Still Writing (a wonderful memoir on craft), Dani Shapiro suggests shoes as a possible way to begin a story. Shapiro writes: “Just the way we put one foot in front of the other as we get out of bed, the way we brush our teeth, splash water on our faces, feed our animals if we have animals, and our children if we have them, measure the coffee, put on the kettle, we need to approach our writing one step at a time. It’s impossible to evoke an entire world at the start. But it is possible to describe a crack in the sidewalk, the scuffed heel of a shoe. And that sidewalk crack or scuffed heel can be the point of entry, like a pinhole of light, to a story, a character, a universe.”

Well said. Now go ahead and pull out a pencil and paper and get to work. Write about the shoes you wore.

Hope is a thing with feathers…

Estes Park, Colorado, is stunning. I was just there for a writing conference. I brought with me a notebook, pencils, and pens but no camera. Note to self: always bring camera when travel to gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park. Anyway, one of the first things on my To-Do List when I visit a new town is to look for an independent bookstore. Sure enough, I discovered Macdonald Bookshop on E. Elkhorn Avenue. Look at this gem I found in its poetry section:

The Unauthorized Audubon

A print artist and a poet teamed up to create a book about imaginary feathered friends. One of the poems, “Appalachian Mustard Seed,” will bring to mind the famous parable from Luke 13. Another, The Blessing Birds, will remind you of the Beatitudes. I’ve reprinted “Appalachian Mustard Seed” below with the permission of Michigan State University Press. Or you can watch a short YouTube video of Anita Skeen reading her poem here.

Appalachian Mustard Seed

So tiny it might be thought
to be a bug–an odd beetle–
or a tuft of cottonwood
taken by the wind.

Mountain folk call it
the mustard bird.
They say it appears–
when you need to believe.

In what, it never matters.
The need takes you
to alone space–the dark
barn, the path through the woods,

the room with one window.
Here you might offer the crumb
of a prayer. You might say
if only if only if only

When you grow silent
you will feel a flutter–
if you are lucky. You will feel
claws become your roots.

–Anita Skeen

The Golden Notebook

ComposeIn the spring issue of Compose, a story about the day I met writer Abigail Thomas:

Abigail Thomas wrote about her socks. Of the books of hers I’ve read—all of which I adore—that’s the scene that sticks out most. She sat on the ground in a bookstore and changed out a pair of socks that didn’t match her new shoes. The socks were black with red peppers. Her writing captures ordinary life moments with such beauty and emotion that I’m compelled to keep turning pages.

A couple years ago, I traveled to Thomas’ hometown, Woodstock, New York, for a magazine assignment. I was writing about infertility (and going through it myself), and was attending a fertile heart workshop. Before I left, I typed out an email to Abigail introducing myself. I told her how much I enjoyed her writing style, and asked if she would meet me for coffee Monday morning. Then I agonized over whether to hit “send.”

I’m shy.

I clam up around strangers.

I’m the type that skips parties in favor of staying home to read books.

When I make phone calls, my heart pounds, and I pray for voicemail.

Continue reading>>

A day in the life of …

A doctor, a therapist, a portfolio manager, and a writer walked into a bar.

(This is a true story, not a joke.)

The doctor shared compelling tales about life in the ER. Resuscitations and stomach pumpings. (By the way, it’s best to go to the emergency room at 7:05 a.m. or 7:05 p.m., right after the shift change when doctors are fresh. So next time you have appendicitis or cut off your finger, try to time it right.) The therapist had lots of great advice based on years of working with nutty patients. The portfolio manager had important (if not exactly thrilling) insights on investments. Finally, three heads turned toward the writer. They were dying to know about her day. What was it like to work on a book? On a magazine story?

I gulped.

The writer was me.

Being a writer sounds so romantic. I wanted to tell them my day was as they likely imagined: I went to a hip coffeehouse and pecka-pecka-pecka-pecked on my keyboard; words were flowing; my computer was smoking; I sent the piece off to an editor and it was accepted on the spot; look for it in next month’s issue of The New Yorker!

In reality, being a writer is not so glamorous. It can be infuriating, depressing, agonizing, and very, very slow. Coffeehouses are too loud. I cleared my throat and tried to explain a typical day: “Well, I sat at my desk, wrangled with sentences on the page for two hours, got up, went for a run, sat down, and wrote more pages. Then I ate a sandwich.”

BooksIt’s not unusual to work on something for weeks only to later scrap the material. I go through dozens of wrong drafts before I make my way to a right draft. It takes months, sometimes years, for a piece to make it from my laptop to print — if it makes it at all.

I have stiff hips and a permanent knot in my left shoulder. And my neck — I’m beginning to look like a flamingo. I love what I do (mostly). It’s all part of the messy creative process. To me, it is exciting. Then again, I also find organizing my bookshelf to be a rip-roaring good time. I like to organize books by color.

And there you have it: a day in the life of a writer.

A Writer’s Isolation

Yellowstone Has Teeth

Speaking of national parks, I’m reading Yellowstone Has Teeth. It’s about a couple who lived year-round in Yellowstone for a decade. The winters were brutal and isolating. This January, I got a teeny tiny taste of that kind of life when I spent a few weeks in the wilderness. It was cold and barren. Lonely. No bears or birds to watch. I plowed through Seasons 1, 2, and 3 of Downton Abbey. Ate a lot of soup. Skied (alpine and nordic). But most of the time, I hunkered down and worked on my book. Over the years, I’ve had to learn to write regardless of my schedule — crammed or empty. I do think it helps to separate and concentrate, although writing is hard either way. And no matter whether I’m in a public coffee house, at home, or secluded in the wilderness, it’s solitary work. The other day, I read an article about isolation written by a mother. She has four kids, yet feels removed and cut off. It was a good reminder that isolation isn’t always so obvious. And that it lurks in all sorts of lifestyles and vocations. Classes and workshops are a great way for writers to join together. I plan to take at least one class this spring and teach a couple this summer. After this polar vortex winter, it’ll be nice to emerge and connect.