Portrait of a Pilgrim (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

The Plan

We are on our way back to North America after having spent about five weeks in Spain, most of that walking the last 120 kilometres or so of the Camino de Santiago. What was the point of all that, you might ask? Why did we feel the need to drag ourselves, and in the end, a wheelchair, across a chunk of northern Spain? It would be great if I could say something glib like, “Because it was there” or “Because we like to go on vacations with a bit of a twist” but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

For one thing, we can’t really afford to just jet off and wander around the Spanish countryside for weeks on end. Usually, we either need to find a way to keep working on the road (Internet access makes this possible, though it can also create huge logistical challenges when connectivity is not quite as good as we need it to be). Even better is when we can find a way to tie a project to a travel destination. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a destination travel article about a place we want to go (or, happen to be going anyway). Sometimes it’s using a destination or activity that takes place in a distant place (climbing, for example) in a book. Taking copious notes, reference photos, or conducting interviews to gather information is a way to write some of the travel costs off as long as the material is used somewhere down the road.

Digital nomad at work in a small cafe in the middle of nowhere.

In the case of this trip along the Camino Frances, though, the intention all along was to write a book about the trip and to find a way to integrate art (Dad’a art in particular). Not only is Dad’s work integrated into the written project, he is also beavering away on a series of works exploring the idea of creating a portrait of a pilgrim to be presented in an exhibition of work.

At the end of a long day of walking, Dad works on a drawing of the Castillo de Pambre

One of the the good things about being a writer or an artist is that all of life becomes a potential source of inspiration. That’s also one of the tough aspects of this type of job. There isn’t really a way to shut life off, close the office door and go home. Everything is raw material and holds the potential of the next great bit of writing or amazing painting. For someone in the arts, each day could be the one where our desire to create something worthwhile is realized. Just the act of living life becomes a pilgrimage of sorts, full of challenges and roadblocks to overcome on the way to coming up with something decent.

When we set off on the road to Santiago we knew we wanted to create something (visual art on Dad’s part, written work from me and Dani), but beyond that we weren’t exactly sure what our story would be. After all, we had plans, but plans never exactly correspond with reality.

The good news is that post trip we have plenty of raw material for a book and Dad is well on his way to creating some very cool pieces unlike anything he has ever done before. The walking together, the conversations in the evenings, the time spent looking at art, watching Dad create art, listening to conversations among other pilgrims, reading about the act of pilgrimage, visiting museums – all that input, that raw material provided a massive amount of information, stimulation, and inspiration. The creative wheels aren’t just turning, they are spinning fast.

We knew that part of the challenge after a trip is coming back and being thrown into real life distractions, so we decided to spend a couple of weeks together after we finished walking to Santiago in order to focus on the project. The process has been as challenging as anything we faced on the journey.

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Some of our conversations have been predictable – like comparing notes about various high (and low) points of the trip, but we’ve also talked about mortality, what inspires us, surprises like how much we all liked the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s ode to nature and God in Barcelona, and what makes a great portrait. We’ve asked ourselves a lot of questions about the nature of pilgrimage and what a real pilgrim looks like. We sought out images of pilgrims in art and now, as we begin to write (and Dad continues to work with pen and ink and wax crayon and tempera paint sticks and watercolours) what is emerging is a story about our pilgrimage, but also a meditation on what it means to be a pilgrim – in words and images.

We collected dozens of pilgrim-related images on our trip… this one from the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago.

Dad is also exploring juxtapositions of self portraits with ancient depictions of pilgrims. He’s playing with stylistic twists and bold colour, taking fresh inspiration from time spent in the presence of Gaudi’s work, Picasso’s ever-evolving approaches to art and portraiture, and the many, many pilgrims we have seen in carvings, sculptures, murals, painted, drawn, and etched into stone.

We have been privy to Dad’s creative process in ways that have never been possible before now – living in close quarters for so long there is no way to avoid seeing how he comes up with ideas, starts sketching, restarts, scribbles, and polishes. At the same time, Dani and I have been clicking away on our keyboards.

The artist goes shopping – finding art supplies was easy in Barcelona.

I’ve been working on recreating our journey, integrating notes about art and history found along the way. I’m also trying to figure out the best way to share the conversations Dad and I have had over the past six weeks or so that we’ve been travelling together. Dani is digging deeper into the many moments that make up a pilgrim’s journey, writing a series of reflections and information essays that take the reader behind the scenes on subjects as varied as bedbugs and courier systems. The more we write and draw and talk and question, the more we discover to explore, describe, question and discuss.

Leaving Sarria…

“Is that where we are going?” Dad asks, pointing up.

“Unfortunately,” I answer.

“Oh my God. I haven’t trained for this.”

At one point we all worried that we wouldn’t have anything to say about our trip, that our three creative wells would simultaneously run dry. In fact, the opposite is happening. We all have found so much to explore I’m thinking our bigger task will not be thinking of what to include but what we will need to eventually trim out.

No fears about not having enough reference material!

The Kindness of Strangers (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

Albergue Camino Das Orcas

The common cold. A few days of feeling crummy, a runny nose, being irritated with the inconvenience of a cough. But really, it’s not that big a deal. Until you are past 80 and a cold is no longer a small thing to shrug off. A few days ago Dad started sniffling. Then the cough started. And now, several days in, this bug is hitting him hard. The past couple of days have been really tough going, so we had several conversations about what to do next. Send Dad ahead in a cab? Take an extra rest day and try to make time up later? Some combination of cab and walking where Dad went as far as he could and then we called a cab? That sounds reasonable, except a lot of the route is not on a road and given our limited Spanish, it could be tricky to describe which cow field near which hill we had chosen as a potential pickup point in the event Dad needed to be rescued en route.

Yesterday we visited a local hospital – nothing to do with the cold, but rather to get Dad a blood test. He takes blood thinners (post heart valve, he needs to keep things flowing smoothly) and he was due. While we were waiting to be seen, I noticed a couple of wheelchairs standing around in the waiting room and that made me think that perhaps we might be able to find one somewhere we could use to complete the journey.

We decided to see how last night was going to go and then make a decision this morning. At three in the morning I woke up to Dad’s coughing. Awful – persistent and grim-sounding. It didn’t sound like any walking was going to be on the cards. That’s when I really began to fret about where we were possibly going to find a wheelchair. It’s the weekend and Azura is not exactly a metropolis, though it is definitely bigger than many of the teeny one-farm villages we’ve stayed in. I wondered about the hospital and if, with my limited Spanish and Google translate I might be able to convince the to lend us a wheelchair. Then again, given how hard it had been to explain that we needed a common blood test, that seemed unlikely.

We had seen a couple of physiotherapy offices and I thought perhaps they might be able to help. Dani, too, tossed and turned all night and by morning, she was also formulating plans. Over breakfast we hatched a plot… Or first stop was to visit the helpful tourist info centre. The lovely woman on duty there did, indeed, offer suggestions – but because it was Saturday, they involved taking a bus to Santiago about 42 kms away. And, we were told, it was going to be tricky to find anyone open before Monday.

Back at the coffee shop where we had left Dad nursing a cafe con leche, we had a go at Google. We found a website called Accessible Spain Travel accessiblespaintravel.com with a phone number. I called and explained our situation and the very helpful guy at the other end said that he would see what he could find out for us.

Not long after, he texted that everything was closed that might be useful in Arzúa but that he had managed to reach Jose Manuel in Santiago who could meet us at his shop as long as we could get there before 11 am. Though the shop was shut, he was willing to come and meet us and fix us up with a wheelchair. Alas, there was no way to get to Santiago by bus in time, so we sprinted back to the Info Center to find out where we might be able to get a taxi.

Once we figured out where the cabs were, we grabbed Dad and all leaped into the taxi with Pepin, our driver, who not only took us to Santiago, but then waited patiently in the street with Dad while Dani and I waited for Jose Manuel to arrive, let us in in and give us a wheelchair. That process was crazy – no forms to fill out, Jose didn’t even ask for my name – would only take 30 Euros for ten days rental, and wished us well.

Meanwhile, the taxi driver then drove us all the way back to Arzua but then took less than half of what should have been the metered fare.

We were ravenous by the time we got back, so we had lunch and then set off. We experimented with all sorts of travelling variations – Dad pushing the wheelchair for a bit (which was ok on flat terrain and as long as the distances were short), Dani pushing, me pushing. Hills were an adventure. The going in places was steep and not exactly smooth. It took both of us pushing (Dani pushing the wheelchair and me pushing Dani) to get up some of the rough spots. Likewise, going down, it took two of us to slow things down – one of us leaning back against the handles and one pulling back on one of the walking poles we had attached to the back of the wheelchair.

By the time we finished our not-quite 5 kms, we were all bagged! A whole new set of muscles hurts! However, we made it!!! And it looks like we will get all the way to Santiago in one piece, as long as we keep going, don’t rush, and no further afflictions decide to sneak up on us.

One of the delights of the day was the contact we had with locals all along the way. A farmer (83) who walked with us for a bit after turning his cows out to pasture, a number of pilgrims who stopped to cheer us on (and take photos), the hostel-keeper who provided a great ground-floor, fully wheelchair accessible room for us, and a full-time pilgrim travelling with his donkey (worthy of a blog post all his own…)

Despite the physical challenges today (and, earlier, the stress of not knowing how on earth we were going to magically produce a wheelchair), today turned out to be a good day, in large part because of all the small kindnesses shown to us along the way.

We are finally on the Camino in Spain!

Oh my… while we were away I had terrible trouble posting to this blog for some reason…

Here, then, is a copy (I hope) of a post from October… If this works, I’ll add the few others I managed to post from on the road (over on my other blog… darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

The Chinese proverb sums up how we feel today after finally, finally setting off on our Camino adventure.

After several days of brilliant sun and hot temperatures, we were all relieved when it was cool and a bit foggy as we left the Albergue in Sarria. We were also pretty excited to spot our first yellow arrow and stylized shell indicating we were heading off in the correct direction. I have no idea how many arrows and other way markers we passed today – a lot – but each one is a small message of hope that we were a step closer to our destination.

The cooler temperatures helped mitigate the horror we all felt as we stood at the bottom of the daunting set of stairs that lead up and out of Sarria.

Dad has been training for months, but always on more or less level terrain and never with his daypack.

 

Thank goodness Dani planned today to be a shortish day. The total distance travelled was only about 4km, but it was tough going in places.

The old part of Sarria felt like the perfect place to start our journey, steeped in history and full of albergues and small

restaurants and bars it was also full of pilgrims.

We stopped often so Dad could catch his breath but by the time we started up the final hill leading to the village of Barbadelo Dad was pretty bagged. Dani and I redistributed everything he was carrying between the two of us and insisted on a refuelling break along the way.

At one point as Dad was puffing on his inhaler and looking pained, I thought we had perhaps made a terrible mistake. Much of today’s path was through the woods (yay – shade!!) but that did mean it would have been pretty well impossible to have hailed an ambulance should we have needed one. Various passing pilgrims stopped to ask if all was well or if we needed assistance. Dad waved them off, but I wondered several times if perhaps we needed to reassess and perhaps procure a donkey for Dad to ride for the rest of our journey.

Eventually, the grade lessened and our wooded path opened out into an area of fields and small farms and the going was much easier. By the time we reached Barbadelo, Dad was full of smiles and shocked both Dani and me when he declared the day to have been a lot of fun!

We are not going to set any speed records, that’s for sure, but if we just concentrate on one step at a time, eventually we will make it to our final destination.

S is for Shut Up and Write (in Paris)

 

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Glen – one of the writers at the Shut Up and Write Meet-up in Paris. His humourous book about all things academia is coming out later this year. Check out Glen’s blog.

 

I was trolling the internet in search of good cafés in which to write while in Paris (you would think there would be a lot of them around, but it seems that not all cafés appreciate broke writers hanging out for hours, sipping their café au laits veeeeeery slowly) when I stumbled across a MeetUp called ‘Shut Up and Write’ which takes place every Saturday at the Anticafé.

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The cozy seating area downstairs… photo brazenly stolen from the Anticafé website, but I’m thinking they won’t mind because I’m saying nice things about them…

I tossed my laptop in my backpack and, determined to battle my way through the latest round of revisions on the new Footprints title, I plotted my Metro route and set off. Three trains and a short walk later (I think I made the trip a bit harder than it needed to be), there I was, pulling up a chair. A dozen other writers had already gathered and were chatting away.

The Anticafé provides workspace (we were at tables and chairs rather than couch and coffee table shown in the photo), lots of plugs, and good wi-fi (pronounced ‘wiffy’). For the hourly rate of 5 Euros you also get as much coffee or tea as you can drink as well as assorted snacks. Attending as part of the writing group I received a discount – anyone who signs up for a loyalty card also gets a break on the hourly rate. You can also sign up for a monthly plan which might work out to be a great deal if you spent many hours and ate a lot while beavering away at your new novel.

The writing group plan was to write for about 40 minutes and then take a short break for snacking and chatting before doing another 40-minute writing session. Between 10 am and 1 pm, that’s pretty much how it went. Regulars confessed that things don’t always go quite according to plan – some days it’s hard to tear fingers from keys, apparently. Other days, the chatting overwhelms the working and things devolve into an orgy of good conversation.

Co-working spaces like this make a lot of sense for those of us who are part of the digital nomad community. (For more about digital nomads, check out rethink9to5 or the Digital Nomads Facebook page). When you’re traveling (and, face it, even when you are closer to home), writing can be a lonely endeavor. It’s marvelous to be able to walk into a coffee shop half way around the world (or halfway around the block) and find members of your tribe scribbling away in notebooks and tapping away at their keyboards.

I must say I had a great time, which is a bit unusual for someone who really doesn’t like the idea of walking into a room full of people I don’t know. That said, such a venue is the perfect place to try out this conversation starter: What are you working on?  Thanks to the organizers for putting the word out and helping us introverted writer types to connect! I’ll be baaaaaaack! (Though… I will be keeping a close eye on my belongings… particularly my camera… And, before anyone panics and thinks my camera was the victim of a snatching, it was an honest mistake… I mean, if I saw a cute camera lying about on a table, I might just pick it up and start taking photos. Stranger things have happened… right, André?)

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This post is part of the AtoZ Blogging Challenge. Visit the Facebook page and follow the links to participating blogs all over the world.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

 

 

R is for Reading – in Paris

 

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Mecca for readers and writers alike – Shakespeare and Company in Paris

 

It always surprises me when students say they don’t like to read in a genre similar to their current work in progress. I’m the opposite. Writing a memoir about walking the Camino? Step one is to read every memoir I can get my hands on written by other people who have walked the Camino. Want to write a fantasy novel for kids? Now there’s an excellent excuse to immediately run out and procure an armload of fantasy novels for kids.

I don’t worry about accidentally stealing ideas – I have plenty of my own. I don’t worry about imitating someone else’s style – I try to find the widest possible range of voices and approaches when I’m reading. That pretty much eliminates any worry that I’ll find myself adopting another author’s writing style. Besides, by now I sure hope I have a style or voice I can call my own!

Nikki reading apartment 3

When I read books and articles by other people I analyze them to death. It’s the only way I can think of to see what works and what doesn’t. Do I find myself completely engaged in one account of a Camino trip and utterly bored by another? Why? What makes some writing so compelling and other writing so meh? I enjoy it when an author’s personality shines through, especially if the writer has a sense of humour. I like lots of anecdotes mixed in with my doses of hard facts. But, I do like those facts to be there as well. Does the author use sidebars to pull out the factual bits or roll everything into some kind of overarching narrative? As I read, I hold my observations up against what I’m trying in my own writing. Then, when I’m writing, I try different techniques, modifying to suit my own story and what I’m trying to accomplish. In recent years, I’ve found I’ve started reading almost exclusively non-fiction, but the range of approaches to non-fiction is almost as broad as the range of subjects covered. On one hand, that’s very liberating – there is no ‘right’ way to come at a project. On the other hand, all those choices mean it can be pretty overwhelming to figure out what the best approach might be.

What about you? When you start a new writing project do you shy away from reading related material? Or do you seek it out and immerse yourself in the works of others who have explored similar paths before?

Q is for Query Letters

It’s been a while since I wrote a good old-fashioned query letter. But here I am in Paris and it seems a bit silly not to take advantage of my time here. I’ve been wanting to write a few more travel articles (it’s been a while since I last published any travel pieces) and what better place to find some inspiration than right here?

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I love graffiti and have seen quite a selection since our arrival. Plenty of people have been having fun with the zillions of political posters that are plastered everywhere… I like travel articles with unusual visual elements (so, for example, no Eiffel Tower shots, my last post notwithstanding…) so perhaps an article featuring some of the finest graffiti in Paris might be cool.

I’ve also seen some beautiful crumbling things…

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Maybe I should shoot a photo essay about Paris and her quiet corners, the places where her beauty is fading (aging gracefully, depending on one’s perspective).

Nikki Paris window

I’ve been doing a lot of people-watching from our apartment window… that’s a long and venerable tradition here. Perhaps a personal essay about why watching people is so utterly fascinating? I’ve started a list of ideas for articles. Query letters are on my to-do list for later this week. Stay tuned. I can only hope that the acceptance-to-rejection-ratio is a bit better than when I first began as a freelancer all those decades ago.

I’ve started a list of ideas for articles. Query letters are on my to-do list for later this week. Stay tuned. I can only hope that the acceptance-to-rejection-ratio is a bit better than when I first began as a freelancer all those decades ago. Earlier this year when I was going through all my papers as I prepared for my move to the mountains, I came across stacks of carefully saved query letters for publications all over the world. I was enthusiastic and optimistic as a youngster, that’s for sure! Right alongside my lists of potential markets for a gazillion stories, articles, and poems were stacks of rejection letters. Some were generic photocopied ‘thanks, but no thanks’ replies. Others had personal notes scribbled alongside the generic message (those were very encouraging, even when the editors were also saying, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’) In the mix were the occasional acceptance letters or requests for subjects slightly different to those I had suggested. Occasionally, there were even cheque stubs! Oh, how well I remember the sheer delight I felt when I first started receiving payment for my efforts! There are also clippings of early articles, but those are outnumbered perhaps 20:1 by the rejections. The odds were even worse for poetry but a bit better when it came to articles. Travel writing was somewhere in the middle.

 

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The staircase up to our flat in Paris. No elevator in this old building.

 

Things have changed, of course. One doesn’t need SASEs any more (many submissions are done online) and, of course, the creation of images has changed dramatically since the days when film (and film processing) was expensive and one thought long and hard about every shot one took. And then, of course, you had no idea whether the exposure was decent or the image sharp or, heaven forbid, something happened in the film processing and your entire set of precious photos were ruined. Not that things can’t go wrong in the digital age, but there are ways to mitigate loss through compulsively backing stuff up. And, of course, you can have a peek and immediately see whether or not you have captured something useable, which is all the more likely because for better or for worse, there really isn’t an upper limit on how many photos you can take.

 

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The railing outside my bedroom window.

 

The sun is coming out after a rainy morning here in Paris, so off I go to see what stories I might unearth!

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B is for the Beauty of Barf (AtoZChallenge)

With apologies to anyone emetophobic who may be reading
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There are some writers who agonize over their first drafts. As I understand it, their process goes something like this:
1. Write an opening clause
2. Reconsider
3. Rework the opening clause, add a comma and consider how to continue. For half an hour. Tentatively write the second part of the first sentence and realize that there was a much better way to write the first half.
4. Rework the first half of the sentence. Fiddle about with word choice for another 20 minutes. The chosen words seem ok, but the order isn’t quite right. Rearrange.
5. The first part of the sentence is sounding pretty good but now it doesn’t flow well into the second half.
6. Rewrite the second half.
7. Read both halves together and realize perhaps the opening would be stronger with two sentences.
8. Remove comma, period and capital letter.
9. Both sentences are now too short. The opening is definitely choppy.
10. Enhance both sentences. This takes up the better part of an hour.
11. At the end of all that (and a bit of final tweaking) the opening sounds pretty damned fine. It’s lunchtime but half a paragraph is better than none.
I imagine this meticulous ‘edit-as-you-go’ strategy is why some writers take a decade to get to the end of their first draft. For those who manage to stay the course and actually get to the end of anything by writing this way, wow. Hats off to you! (And please, if you are a writer who works this way, please leave a comment and share how on earth you motivate yourself to keep going and also, how do you cope when an editor makes a suggestion? Or, does this method work so well for you that no further rewriting is necessary?)

Farting Around As I Go is Not For Me

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out I don’t work this way.  I am firmly camped in the school of barf. Now there’s a sentence that might not get past a writer who insists on perfection at every step of the way. Mixed metaphors, images that make little sense, a spare adverb. A certain ‘huh? I think I get what she’s trying to say’ response quite likely to be elicited in the reader. Nevertheless, for the sake of this example, I will press on with this messy first draft and try to describe what my puking on the page process looks like.
1. Even though I’m not exactly sure what I want to say I start writing anyway. No outline. No list of key points. Today, there’s not much more than a vague idea that I want to a) use a keyword that starts with B and, b) write about something to do with writing.
B AtoZ
2. I write the letter b. Book comes to mind. Yep. That’s how bland things looked when I started out. Boring.
3. Stare out the window.
4. Make tea.
5. Stare at the word book on the screen.
6. Delete all but the b.
7. Realize this is so bad it’s making me want to puke. I don’t have forever to write this. Too bad puke doesn’t start with B. But Barf does! Beautiful!
8. I have a title! And from there, I just begin to spew – everything I can think of to do with heaving stuff onto the page with little regard for how it will all hang together.
9. One thought leads to another. I can’t write fast enough to keep up.
10. Stray words slip into the margin to remind me to come back and explore related thoughts later
11. I write without stopping for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and the basic content of the post is there.
12. I take a moment to reread. Divide the post into two sections. Expand the bit where I imagine how a more meticulous first drafter might handle this challenge.
13. I take out the terrible vomit joke.
14. And that’s it. A sloppy, kinda stinky not quite right draft.
It’s only then that I sit back and reconsider. Sitting back and reconsidering is immediately part of the revise, rewrite, edit, chew over, regurgitate (to stay with my theme) part of the writing process. At this point, the barfing slows down unless I need to add a fresh chunk to the mix.
What’s the advantage to this method? I always have something to work with. I don’t tend to get stuck. I don’t limit my ideas. I allow my writing to be terrible. I don’t worry that the phrasing isn’t quite right or even if I’ve made my point. That all takes place after I have finished with my initial projectile blathering.
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I know that there will be lots and lots of time between spewing out that first draft and the day anyone (even my editor) will get to have a look. I’ll talk about the revision, rewriting process elsewhere (perhaps for the letter R), but what I do know about puking my ideas all over the page is that at least then I have a starting place.
It may be messy and inadequate and confused and incomplete, but it’s somewhere to begin. It’s like having a glorious damp lump of clay sitting on the table in front of me, all bulgy and misshapen. Somewhere inside that lump may be an elegant sculpture waiting for my tools to reveal its hidden form. That’s how the messy first draft feels. Like a voluminous blob of potential
What about you? Are you a spewer like me? Or someone who likes to coax each word, each phrase, each image into being in its most perfect form as you move from sentence to paragraph to chapter to book? Hey – waddya know? Book found its way into this blog post all on its own!
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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.