Perfect 10th Painting

Day 18

For the first time since working on this series, I’ve enjoyed the daily progression of this canvas. The underlying beauty of it lie in the precise measurements I made when sketching the angles of the room. I put the protractor directly onto the picture so I’d leave very little to chance or “artistic ability” when creating the inner space.

The outside of the building was intentionally simple: blue sky, tan sand. As a matter of fact, the only purpose of the outside was to define the inside. This was also accomplished by taping off the section that represented the dive shop building.

I painted just enough things in the shop to suggest where the twins were without getting too bogged down with trying to depict everything that is mentioned in that excerpt from The Adventures of Infinity and Negativa.

When I chose the pictures to represent the twins, I especially looked for body movement. More challenging, but definitely the right call. Actually, I’ve attempted to do that in every painting. The body parts are in better proportion this time.

All 10

Now I can paint every day, weather permitting. I expect to have this wall filled with all the chapter storyboards by the end of the year. Hopefully, I will have the WIP completed by then. I’ve been slashing all the fluff lately without adding much. Once I have it streamlined to the essential parts, I’m banking on the fact that the story will be easier to complete. In the meantime, the adventure of bringing the twins to life continues!

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Olive Festival

TX Hill Olive CompanyI enjoy volunteering my time in exchange for getting in free to worthy events such as the olive festival. I’ve never heard of such, but then again, there is always a festival or two in Austin and the surrounding areas. This one took place in Dripping Springs, where I’ve never driven through at night without seeing at least one deer and an occasional stray hare.

me as an olive tree sellerAlthough I originally signed up as a “wine vendor,” all vendor volunteers were warned that we’d be expected to pitch in wherever we were needed. We were also warned that we would stand during our entire 4-hour shift. Mother Nature gave her overcast warning as well. Putting all three of those things together, I secured a spot at the only sit-down, covered vendor spot: selling olive trees.  The three volunteers who I replaced gave me the lowdown on olive tree basics and then split to get their complimentary 6 wine tasting tickets and buy food.

Over the course of 4 hours, I learned more than I ever knew about olive trees. Fortunately, most people asked the same questions:

1. Which types of olive trees were for sale? Two varieties of French; two varieties of Spanish; and a lone Italian. (everyone loved the “Lone Italian” description and thought that should be the title of a movie.)

2. Do they grow in any soil? Yes, but if the soil has a high clay content, then you should mix up to 30% of sand with it and plant the tree high so the water can drain.

3. How often do you water them? While they are “young,” you should give them 2 gallons of water every two days, but be careful not to overwater them. You should pinch the stem. If it is moist, then don’t water it.

4. Do these olive trees grow the green or black olives? All olives start off green and become increasingly purplish-black as they ripen. When green olives are picked, they have to be brined to reduce the bitter taste.

5. How long does it take for the trees to start producing olives? One of the Spanish species, Arbequina, will mature in 2-3 years.  The rest will mature in 3-5 years.

6. How old are the trees in the grove? the ones for sale? 4 1/2 to 8 years; 16 to 18 months

7. Do they do well in the winter? All the trees are cold resistant to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. If worried, you can place a smudge pot beside the tree to keep it warm. All the olive trees in the grove survived a few ice storms without it.

8. Do I need to by two trees for pollination purposes? The two Spanish species are self-pollinating. The other varieties need a “mate.”

9. They all look the same. How can you tell them apart? I read the tags.

10. How often do they need to be pruned? once a year

When potential buyers asked a technical question that I couldn’t answer, I’d laugh and tell them that I only knew the answers to ten questions and theirs just went off the grid. By some miracle, the owner, his daughter or the olive expert who’d given three olive mini-workshops would happen to walk by. I’d flag them down to answer the question.

paellaToward the end of my shift, I was nearly beside myself with hunger. Sometimes, the wind shifted and I’d catch a whiff of   paella. At one point, a potential olive tree buyer took pity on me and offered a sip of her red wine. I thanked her for adding about ten more minutes of my patience while I waited for my replacement to arrive. Once she did, I gave her the lowdown and the list of olive questions and answers (which I’d neatly written out on a piece of paper) and dashed away to get my volunteer bag with a wine glass and 6 drink tickets.

I had about three tastes of wine while waiting for the latest batch of paella to finish. When it was just about done, people gathered around like it was feeding time at the human zoo. With a relaxed red wine smile I asked one of the food vendors, loud enough for everyone in the crowd to hear, “Now, you guys serve the people with dreadlocks first, right?” Yes, that did work. Thank God for the ol’ Jedi trick!wine license plateAs I left, I saw a bigger wine enthusiast in the bluebonnet-laden “parking lot.” The license plate read, “I (heart) WINE.” I figured it must have belonged to one of the twelve Texan wine vendors who were present. Perhaps when I have a lot of disposable income, I can have vanity plates, too. Although I think mine will read: “KISS MBA.”

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Emancipated: How I Quit My Job in 4 1/2 Years

Class Day (722x1024)After teaching math and science for eight years outside the US, I relocated to Austin in July 2009. For the first two months, I didn’t have an outside job. I spent my time in my small apartment, polishing up my first novel, Tribe of One and painting. Yet I was optimistic that I’d find a teaching job with my 13 years of international experience. A week after school had begun, I started teaching at a high school with the Austin Independent School District (AISD). I immediately sensed something “strange” beyond the reverse culture shock that an expat experiences when reintegrating into her home country.

I’d always prided myself for being creative, innovative and well-organized. Of those three qualities, only the last one was remotely appreciated since it best served the god of high-stakes testing. When I first started in 2009, science teachers who taught the same course were expected to have 80% of the exact same cookie cutter lessons. That made me bristle, but I still took small comfort in expressing my individuality in the remaining 20%, my classroom decorations of international cloth and dressing up on spirit days and for Halloween.

Morticia Addams

Three years later, I got in trouble for decorating my classroom with international cloth and dressing up for Halloween. Not for becoming more risqué with the decorations or costumes, but for speaking against the anti-teaching practices that we were being forced to implement.  Here’s an example: in order to make the 5-question science quizzes more “rigorous”, students could only make a 100% or 0%.

When an underdog goes against the grain, she has to be subversive and endure a very short leash. I knew after the first year teaching with AISD I would not be part of the high-stakes testing machine for long. My top exit strategies were to pay off my car as quickly as possible (my only debt) and self-publish my first novel. I published Tribe in December 2010, around the same time  AISD hinted about the money-saving reduction in force (RIF), which was implemented the next school year.

Tribe Logo

A lot of money pours into the city of Austin and Texas in general, but the state government taught me how little they valued public school teachers. Moreover, I learned that the Texas government cared more about making money off public school students than investing money in their education.

In January 2011, I began working on my second novel, The Adventures of Infinity and Negativa. At the same time, I excitedly brainstormed and burned through different ideas to set up readings and peddle Tribe. I’d bought a microphone, a microphone stand, portable speakers, 500 business cards with Tribe‘s cover and information, and ordered an additional 100 copies of my book on top of the 20 copies included in the self-publishing package. I made phone calls, press kits and drove around town with copies of my book in the back of my car ready to read, sell and sign. All that book-selling legwork took place during my spare time outside of being a full-time high school science teacher.

After the RIF, my classroom size doubled. Educational studies have long shown that at risk students and English as a Second Language (ESL) learners benefit from small classroom sizes. Yet, these academically vulnerable populations are precisely the students who get shortchanged. My students crammed 35 to 42 in a class where I was expected to give each a significant amount of individual attention and update their parents on their lack of progress and/or behavioral issues.

My increased workload clashed with my book selling ambitions. Besides, I discovered I didn’t like the whole PR and marketing side of being an author. For all my efforts to promote my book, the returns didn’t justify investing more time in securing venues where I could read and sell. I eventually moved most of my books from the trunk of my car to my closet, which lightened my load both physically and mentally.

During spring break 2012, I filed taxes and used part of my refund to print 72 Tribe of One T-shirts. I also sponsored my capoeira group so my brand, Mathdreads, would be on the back of their batizado T-shirts, which is a celebration ceremony where new capoeiristas receive their first corda and experienced capoeiristas get their next corda. Now, I had both books AND T-shirts in my closet!

books & tshirt table (1024x980)

After this experience, I came up with the radical idea I’d stop wasting my time driving around town, trying to set up readings to promote my work. Instead, I’d organize a monthly theme-based spoken word and poetry show to promote all featured artists. The Austin Writers Roulette was born. 

1st AWR

The first season of the roulette took place in a capoeira studio. The most beautiful space I’ve ever trained capoeira, but the most challenging place to run a monthly spoken word and poetry show. First of all, hardly anyone could find the location. Secondly, once they arrived, no food or drink was available for purchase. Lastly, the room occasionally ran hot since on Sundays from 6 to 8, the automatic AC would cut off. Although I’d originally charged a $5 admission, I essentially paid people to attend. I hired a DJ, rented chairs and occasionally gave my capoeira teacher money for the space. Thankfully, the first season only ran the last six months of 2012.

For the new year, the roulette moved to a new location, which had excellent promotion, location and libations. The night before our first show, I received an email, stating “new and exciting” things were happening at the venue. Cutting to the chase, we lost our monthly slot to make way for bands. Since then, the venue has won numerous awards for bringing such a vast selection of live music to Austin. I’m proud my show had graced their stage once!

Nelson  (1024x870)

I scrambled to find another venue for the upcoming month. The theme for February 2013 was “Cupid’s Naughty Secrets.” I located another place where we could reveal those salacious secrets. We’ve performed there for over a year and counting to a growing audience.

Magic Jack kiss print

In the meantime, the Texas legislature  increased the number of standardized tests students needed to pass in order to graduate to 15. A whopping money-making scheme for those who gleefully profited from testing students that sent the educational community into a tailspin. Adding to that stress, in the spring of 2013 some students took the old test, TAKS, while other students took the new test, STAAR. In the last six weeks of school, some population of students were testing every two weeks. At my school, students who weren’t testing spent time in tutoring camps, going over the most commonly missed objectives in drill and kill format.

Thanks to community protests, the Texas legislature passed HB 5, reducing the number of standardized tests required for graduation from 15 to 5.

STAAR STAAR GO AWAYOver the years, I’d witnessed hordes of my colleagues  leaving, most of whom were disgusted by how they were treated by the school administration. During the summer after my fourth teaching year with AISD, I optimistically joined a collaborative group of union leaders, other teachers and a teaching professor to improve the school climate. We led a day and half professional development to discuss teacher autonomy and professional communication–two big areas that recent surveys revealed were high need areas.

climate in-service

We agreed that teachers should have the autonomy to teach the standards, using a menu of best practices. As the year progressed, best practices were steadily crossed off that menu. Professional communication came in the form of carefully worded emails, such as the one I received after the first day of school stating that Bob Marley, who had been in my classroom the past three years, had to come down since he gave “unsavory ideas” to the students.

Bob Marley

By spring semester 2014, “professional communication” was an oxymoron. Tense-jawed administrators whose tone of voice clearly held the teaching staff in contempt, talked down to us and ordered us to do exactly as they said.

At this time my exit plan was nearly set: I’d paid off my car, saved up six months worth of money, led the roulette into an impressive third season, and embraced my newfound career as a contract technical writer.

I looked at the calendar and chose Friday, March 28, 2014 as my last day of school, which was two weeks after spring break. The Physics curriculum had been ridiculously written so that the last six weeks of school were dedicated to “culminating projects and the final.” I’d covered all topics with my Physics students before I left and provided my long-term substitute with the first of several projects for them.

Most of my colleagues did not know that I was leaving although word had slowly spread, especially when my departure was announced at the science department meeting two days before my last day. On Friday, I told some teachers who I’d known for the five years I’d taught there. They all congratulated me for moving forward, but expressed anger at the school for motivating another good teacher out of the classroom.

matching coworker

I wanted the pleasure of teaching each class, business as usual; so I only said good bye to my last class of the day.  When they asked why I was leaving, I told them I wanted to finish my second novel, which included painting. A true, but incomplete explanation. The dismissal bell rang. My students hugged me as they left.When I publish my third novel, a fictionalized account of teaching in AISD, perhaps they’ll understand.  I scrambled downstairs to turn in my classroom keys and ID badge.

Before I could turn in my things, I spotted the principal. I’d left my “resignation letter” in his mailbox earlier that morning. I retrieved it and handed it to him in person. It featured my favorite Marley quote (Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds) and a copy of The Proclamation of Emancipation.  I’d signed at the bottom, complete with the date of my employment: 8/2009–3/2014. He burst out laughing. I smiled, shook his cool clammy hand and dashed away to finish checking out.

resignation letter

I made it to my bikram yoga class on time and as a free woman. The stress in my muscles that had built up during the week melted away before the class had started. Just being free soothed my soul. Afterwards, I met a friend to celebrate.


As I review the week ahead of me, it’s a wonder I ever got as much done in my “spare” time outside of school. I’ve got many creative avenues to explore, networking contacts to make, pieces to write, paintings to complete, a healthcare  system to enroll into before the looming deadline (tomorrow!) and taxes to file.

I take a deep breath and thank God I’ve finally arrived to a place where my creative energy is no longer limited by a principal, a school district and a state that actively drive out teachers like me to keep their lucrative, for-profit standardized testing machine oiled. Make no mistake, I’m still a teacher. I now teach in a classroom without walls.

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The Return of ThunderSleet?

I’d hoped to get a lot of painting done this weekend. Saturday morning, I sat on my balcony in a sports bra and pajama pants, painting in a balmy 68 degrees. Today, it’s only 61 degrees and the thunder-sounding wind keeps rolling. I’ll bundle up and brave the weather to put a few dabs of paint on the canvas before my thin blood and fingers give up.

The last time the temperature dropped this quickly, we were graced with a two-hour delay due to “thunder sleet,” which sounds as if it should be an anime character. I even mused with one of my Physics classes last week about  such a character being drawn by one of them. The next morning when I checked their assignments, I saw that one of my students, who is has excellent drawing abilities, sketched out a brute-nosed ThunderSleet character.  That class even mused what ThunderSleet’s powers would be. I suggested he could make thunderbolts of ice, but not in form of a hammer like Thor.

Some students made other suggestions about ThunderSleet’s superpowers, but I had to end the off-task conversation and return to reviewing thermodynamics vocabulary. And what inspired the mentioning of thunder sleet to begin with? The benign discussion of the differences among three different temperature scales: Celsius, Fahrenheit, and Kelvin. And out popped a superhero. Perhaps one day, I’ll read about his adventures in a former student’s comic book.

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Chapter Nine’s Done!

Day 21

Chapter 9′s storyboard painting took a little longer than I’d anticipated due to the battle of the icy cold weather, preventing me from going out onto the balcony some weekend days. My favorite weather-related term during that time was “thunder sleet,” which sounds like an anime character.

Another thing that consumed my time was picking up a part-time writing job, which was more challenging than I thought it would be. Fantastic learning curve, yet I could only work on that project during the weekend, which took priority over painting.

Nonetheless, I knew one of my spring break goals, other than recruiting artists for The Austin Writers Roulette, was finishing this painting. I painted nearly every day during vacation. At times, I spent two hours on the balcony during one setting. Although I know I’m becoming a better painter, I cannot help but be disappointed about how certain parts of the canvas looks, especially Infinity’s dreads in the 5th and 6th circles and the unattractiveness of the arms. I’m getting better at painting fingers, but not the overall hand. I’ve simplified how I paint the noses, which is great because I spend even less time agonizing over it.

All 9

Another thing I enjoy is playing with the boundaries of the “storyboard” format. Clearly, each individual painting has a story behind it. The first one has the clearest story, but is the worst painted. The fourth one perhaps has the second clearest narrative, but the rest need the text. I’m certainly not allowing my lack of skills stop me from rendering a scene. Seems with each painting, I’m upping the skill ante. Perhaps that’s why I don’t seem to make much progress with body parts when I spend so much time on the novel things, such as that magnifying glass or green skin.

For the next canvas, I have to draw/paint many inanimate objects found in a diving shop. I can already feel myself getting swamped in the details. Something to look forward to!

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Nine Days of Freedom

This spring break is not just a vacation. It’s a reprieve from an externally structured schedule. As a quintessential Virgo, I’ll always operate on a schedule, but for the next nine days, it’ll be of my own design.  What a tease! Calling my own shots while pursuing happiness. Funny how there’s no problem getting out of bed in the morning when I can look forward to doing things that validate my existence on my own terms.

I find that my most creative breakthroughs occur around midnight. Another writer once told me that his moments of inspiration also came late at night. He chalked it up to his inner critic falling asleep sooner than he. I believe there’s a lot of merit to that. Physically, I can stretch deeper into a yoga posture when I relax. It stands to reason there’s a mental equivalent.

For the second month in a row, I borrowed part of my costume for today’s Austin Writers Roulette from friends.  I also saw they have huge Afro wigs, which I called dibs on for the “Courage” roulette in July. Many creative thoughts for that July show flooded my mind last midnight. Naturally, I wrote it all down in the notebook that’s kept beside my bed.

More than ever, I’m making every day count. I attempt to do that anyway, but with so much of my time structured beyond my control, I cannot drop what I’m doing whenever the spirit moves me. For the next nine days I can. My long term goals will be to extend this freedom beyond scheduled vacations.

I’ve spent enough of my life on some institution’s schedule. Here’s the part where I figure out what I want in life…again.

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Detox to Retox

I’ve often said that Austin is a happening city–both a blessing and a curse. Last weekend, I attended yoga four days in a row, Friday through Monday. I’d never done that before, but it was a luxury for both my body and mind, not to mention my bionic left ankle, which is still recovering from surgery.

As the rest of the week unfolded, I had at least two major things to do after school every single day. I normally don’t like to book my activities back to back like that, but occasionally life demands it. I don’t regret protesting for 3-year teaching contracts the doing yoga on Monday; attending  a “Genetically Unemployable” meeting on Tuesday; attending EdTech on Wednesday before picking up my costume sword then participating in a webinar about my upcoming Peru trip on Wednesday; watching the African American program at my school then shopping for groceries on Thursday; and going to bikram yoga followed by an art exhibit at the Blanton on Friday.

Which one of those informative, life-enriching activities should I have eliminated from my schedule? I couldn’t think of a single one; so I did them all. As I strolled into the Blanton with a mixed drink that I’d bought before entering, I’d come straight from yoga as relaxed and energized as I could have been. I’d detoxed in order to retox. It’s all about balance.

My Saturday morning routine involved cleaning my apartment and changing my bedsheets. It’s the best time of the week to get such a chore done. During the week, the grime slowly builds up. Yet I don’t freak out about that since the healthy cleanliness of my apartment never dips too low. That’s how I feel about other aspects of my life as well.

Certain writing projects help me clean out the clutter. Otherwise, it would build up and rob me of sleep. I caught up on my rest on Saturday, then went to an art opening. I’d never heard of the artist before, but I will never forget him or his work.

Gabe Leonard

What impressed me the most about Gabe’s work (I feel I can write about him, using his first name because he was just that warm and approachable) was the expressiveness in his subjects hands.  Of course, most people are drawn into the Hollywood cinematographic quality of Gabe’s paintings, but I’ve never paid particular attention to an actor’s hands as I did with those paintings. I still struggle with painting hands. Joanne Gabe & me

When I finally got an opportunity to talk to the artist himself, I shared with him that I loved how he rendered the hands in all his paintings. He readily told me that a person’s hands tells you so much about them.  I need to keep that in mind when I’m painting. I believe most of the hands I’ve painted reveal how uncomfortable I am with that body part. If I had the chance to have a longer conversation with Gabe, I would have told him how much I also liked the way his character’s bodies flowed. There is such movement and depth in his two-dimensional still paintings.

He teased me when I told him about my painting series, representing the main character’s work instead of mine. He quickly picked up on the fact I essentially distanced myself from my own shortcomings as a painter. Again, if I had the chance to talk with him further, I would’ve confessed I needed that distance in order to calm down the perfectionist in me and continue working instead of stalling out.

Gabe formally trained as a painter and has a 15 year career. I, on the other hand, am a writer, dabbling in painting. I was surprised when Gabe stated that he was actually a writer who painted as well. After hearing that, I gave him a business card with all the information about The Austin Writers Roulette, telling him if he was ever in Austin on the second Sunday of the month between 4 to 6, then he should stop by.

Even if I don’t have much confidence in my painting ability, I trust my organization and intrinsic motivation to keep my spoken word and poetry show alive long enough to attract other artists to participate. Everyone started from some point.


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Painting Inspiration

The title of this week’s blog is a little misleading. I’ve not received inspiration for a new painting or even improving my latest work in progress. Instead, I’ve been inspired to do something cool with the pictures I’ve taken of my paintings.

The organized teacher in me has been taken pictures at every stage of working on the accompanying paintings that go with The Adventures of Infinity and Negativa. Last night, I attended a gallery opening that had some innovative photography. Yet, the work that mesmerized me was the short video, which incorporated one of the artist’s photographs.

The video played on a loop. I watched several cycles and listened to other audience members debate as to whether it was just one rendition of the video or two different ones on loop. The only thing that I kept thinking was that I could do a far less complicated video for each painting, showing  it from start to finish.

I originally wanted to publish the individual stills, but a video seems so much more interesting, especially if each one takes no longer than about 30 seconds. After all is said and done, I’m going to have about 24 of them. That’s going to be a 12 minute commitment of watching the making of the series.

Of course, I’m not daring to attempt this until I have quit one of my three jobs. I certainly know which one that’ll be!

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Valentina: Cupid’s Younger Sister

Valentina 8

For last week’s Austin Writers Roulette, Valentina hosted the “Love & Passion” show, bringing joy to all who saw her gravity-defying hair full of feathers, a big red bow and a tiny wooden ship.

Valentina 1

She opened the show, dancing to the three songs that best described her love life.

Valentina 4

The first song was “Got My Mojo Workin’” by Muddy Waters. She explained that 80% of the time when she was attracted to a man, he was  immune to her charms.

Valentina 6

The second song was “100 Days/100 Nights” by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Valentina said that 15% of the time, her charms did work on a man only to discover later on, usually in fewer days than the song implies, he had some questionable personality traits.

Valentina 11

Appropriately, the third song was “At Last” by Etta James. Valentina gushed that she reached this blissful state in about 5% of her relationships. And yes, that 5% was totally worth it ’cause she never knew who he would be.
Valentina 13

Happy Valentine’s Day to all who dare to believe in true love.


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Revamping “Adventures”

I’ve been working on my second novel, The Adventures of Infinity and Negativa for going on four years now. When I finished my first novel, Tribe of One, I optimistically thought that this second novel would take less than seven years to complete. Perhaps seven is my magic number. Or, I could have too much on my plate to dedicate the amount of time truly needed to craft a novel.

Although I began painting a series of storyboards to go along with the opening of each chapter last year, that endeavor has slowed down due to the weather and of course, having a full-time day job.  Yet, most warm days on the weekend finds me on the balcony, adding the next layer of oil paint to the latest canvas.

Like most artists, I’m tempted to quit my day job and pursue art full-time. The true dilemma is what else can I do that would bring me joy, along with money and flexible time? The most financially feasible answer for me is technical writing from home.

I’ve been dabbling on a paid writing position since the last week in January. I’ve enjoyed the collaboration process and have managed to stay on track, eking out a couple of modules a week.  The unusual frequency of “snow” days have worked in my favor. I have taken advantage of the additional ten hours. Of course that’s not all writing time, but with the sacred resource of time,  I invest it as wisely as I can.

Sometimes, an extra hour or two of sleep is what my creativity needs…along with a revamping of my efforts. For two weeks, I went through my WIP and outlined it. Finally! After three years and over 200 pages, I’ve outlined the story, saw the blatant gaps and now I have the painful task of cutting all those cute little lines that truly don’t work in the story. The real stopper is that I don’t know what replaces the cut parts.

What a maddening thing the writing process is. And yet I’m drawn to it mainly because of the creative intellectual challenge.  At some point, in a burst of inspiration, I’ll grasp the thread again. Then, I’ll fearlessly slash and type away.

I also feel once I get other things in my life in order, I can stop dividing my attention in so many directions and focus on the matter at hand. I’m still determined to finish this novel in fewer than seven years!

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