On Creativity in the Writing Life

When I spent my days languishing in cube-land impersonating Tina the Tech Writer, I often dreamed of what it would be like to sit down at my computer every day to write creatively. Five years ago, when an international move gave me just that kind of opportunity, I envisioned everything cast in gold-tinged light, with bird song, and possibly unicorns.

My life as Tina…

The reality was much different. Most of the first year and a half was spent shepherding my family through culture shock. Then, when I finally sat down to write, I realized that an international move and spawning two tiny children meant I was quite literally a decade behind on my reading. So I read, and read, and read, and blogged, and slowly eased in to a creative lifestyle. I still expected the unicorns to show up any minute, though, because it was sort of cold and dark in Finland and I was kind of lonely.

When I finally started writing, I tried, and failed, to participate in National Novel Writing Month in 2012. I say failed because the story I started utterly sucked. Utterly. Almost as much as the trunk novel I wrote in my 20s.  Yeah, that bad. But then a few months later, I sat in the passenger seat of a rental car as we navigated the desolate backroads of Andalusia, Spain, and an idea that did not suck popped into my head. I pondered it for four months and then sat down in November 2013 and wrote Finding Gib.

I edited, tinkered, sent it off for review, even queried it (too early, one of many newbie mistakes I’ve made since I entered the query trenches). Then I stumbled upon a group of fellow writers I met at various conferences over the summer of 2014. Their friendship and support over the last year has more than made up for the lack of unicorns 😉

And in September of 2014, I started writing another book that does not suck, Quest for the Kalevala. I drafted it over twelve weeks instead of four, and leveraged everything I’d learned from writing Finding Gib. The funny thing about writing, though, is that the more you learn, the more fixes/changes/tweaks you find on your way to getting something ready for agent/editor eyes. So I spent the next six months revising, sending it to my new amazing beta-reading critique partners for feedback, and revising again.

So now I’m in my third year of fully embracing the writing life, and although I swear I catch a glimpse of a flowing mane or the shiny tip of a unicorn horn when I’m in the midst of writerly flow, most of the magic that I’m going to experience is of my own making, on the pages of my stories.

I still don’t have an answer to the question I’m most often asked when I say I’m an author: “When is your book coming out?” But I do know that even with all the hard work, the rejection, and uncertainties, I’d choose creative writing over technical writing every single time.

Notes From a Pitch Wars Hopeful

A photo of Julie Artz

Photo (c) Gail Werner

I spent my young life sneaking into wardrobes hoping to make it to Narnia. Now that I’m a bit older, people think that’s sort of creepy, so I became a middle-grade author instead.

In all seriousness, every job I’ve had from my first work-study job as an editor in DePauw’s Writing Center, to working the children’s section of a small independent bookstore, to writing instructions for computer software, involved writing. And I’ve been an obsessive reader since I fell in love with The Fantastic Mr. Fox in first grade (My titilating review of said book still exists on wide-ruled paper. Just ask my mama).

So when our relocation to Helsinki, Finland in 2010 meant that staying at home with our two young children made more sense than me trying to work, I picked up the proverbial pen. This time, instead of blog posts, overly-emo poems, and half-baked attempts at short stories, I wrote Finding Gib, a novel about a twelve-year-old boy and his struggle to survive in post-apocalyptic Spain, as part of NaNoWriMo 2013.

A year later, I wrote another one, this one set in Finland and based on Kalevala, the country’s obscure, if magical, epic poem. Now I’m back in the United States and hoping to find an agent for my work. Although the limited agent/contest feedback I’ve received over the past couple of months on Quest for the Kalevala has been positive, I know the story’s missing something. Something that I truly believe a Pitch Wars mentor could help me identify and correct.

That doesn’t mean I’m looking for a magic bullet. I’m prepared to do the hard work necessary to get my writing to the next level of awesomesauce. But I would love a mentor to guide me.

I’m involved in this amazing writing community, which teaches me something new every single day. I blog for From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. I founded and help run a critique group for MG/YA authors (shout out to Fellowship of the Pen!). I’m an active SCBWI member. I just put Finding Gib through its paces in the intense and amazing Speculative Fiction summer critique marathon over on Agent-Query-Connect. I attend several conferences and workshops every year to hone my craft and read countless books, articles, and blog posts on writing.

As you can probably tell from the above, I work at a frenetic pace. I can get a lot done in Pitch Wars’ two-month window (caffeine helps, as does a supportive family and insomniac work habits).

I am motivated, dedicated to craft, and in love with all things middle-grade. If you pick me, I promise to work my tail off to revise Quest for the Kalevala and to do so with a positive attitude, a sense of humility, and tremendous appreciation for all the hours that go into being a mentor. A special shout-out to Brenda Drake, who puts in countless hours to make this amazing event possible. Thank you!

Now for the fun stuff: I’m a Ravenclaw with Gryffindor aspirations. I’m one of the fangirls squeeing over the Firefly reboot. I cry when Thorin Oakenshield dies every time I read The Hobbit. I have read the Silmarillion more than once. I will write a novel-in-verse version of The Hobbit told from Smaug’s perspective before I die, even if copyright law prevents it from ever being published. I consume every Sherlock Holmes-related book, movie, or show I can get my hands on. I hugged my daughter’s signed copy of Flora & Ulysses when I finished reading it.

When I’m not geeking out over stories, I like to travel, go wine-tasting, garden, cook, cycle, run, play soccer, and hike. I’ve lived in England, France, Finland, and the United States, and suspect I’ll add to that list before I’m through. In another life, I was a Native Plant Master and Master Gardener in Colorado and wrote gardening-related articles for The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News (may it RIP), and the Boulder Daily Camera. I’m loud, often inappropriate, and am prone to gesticulating wildly or breaking into song when excited.

My kids think I’m utterly weird and are constantly annoyed with me for beating them at Just Dance 2015, playing with their toys, stealing their books, answering their questions in song, and making up nutty stories about how eating their broccoli will give them superpowers, among other tragically-unhip parental flaws.

Don’t forget to read about the other amazing writers participating in Pitch Wars on the #pimpmybio blog hop.

Confessions From the Query Trenches

Last month marked the one-year anniversary of my stay in what many writers like to call the query trenches. As the name implies, it can be a dark, dirty, scary place, and I often like to use the word “languishing” when I describe my time there.

But it doesn’t have to be utter torture. Here are my tips for surviving the query trenches.

Don’t Query Too Soon

Everyone says this (because it’s TRUE) and yet almost every writer I’ve talked to has queried before their manuscript was ready. I know how the thought process goes. It’s almost ready. I might be able to finish it before a mentor/agent/contest judge requests more. I don’t want to miss out on this opportunity. Nope. Nope. Nope. DO NOT DO THIS.

Remember that first pitch I mentioned? All I hoped to get was a little feedback on my ideas. I walked away with two requests for something that I’m actually still revising a year later. Yeah, it was that rough.  I was halfway through rewriting my story from 3rd person past to 1st person present, a change that ultimately led to that glorious moment when I finally felt like I’d found my voice. I was excited. The unexpected requests at the conference filled me with confidence. I entered Pitch Wars. I was almost done with the revision.

I got a full request from a Pitch Wars mentor for a manuscript that wasn’t ready. I wasted his time (mea culpa), I wasted my own time doing all the research that went into selecting mentors. And that time should have been spent on finishing the revision.

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Thankfully, no one reached through my computer to affix a cone of shame around my neck. But they should have. And you can bet my Pitch Wars entry this year (a different manuscript) is polished to a high shine.

Get Critique Partner Eyes on Your Manuscript

One of the amazing things about writing conferences & contests is the opportunity to make writing friends and find potential critique partners. When I walked in to my first-ever conference in June last year, I didn’t have a single writing buddy. When I walked out of that conference five days later, I had two amazing critique partners and a wonderful mentor whose help and guidance has been worth ten times the cost of the conference.

If no one but you, your mother, and your spouse has read your work, do not query it. Do not enter it into something like Pitch Wars. Just wait. Put yourself out there on the Twitter feed for #PitchWars or #amwriting or one of the many genre-specific hashtags that are out there. You’ll make writing friends that can help you get to the next level and who will keep your spirits up when it truly is time to enter the query trenches.

If you can’t find a group, create one. At this time last year, I was living in Finland and struggling to find any English-speaking writers to swap manuscripts. So I attended WriteOnCon and started begging inviting folks to a group that is now 24 amazing writers strong and has become my writing life-line.

Moderate Social Media

The writing community is amazing both on social media and off. Twitter is full of writing support and resources. And I love chatting with my writing pals, especially when I’m burned out, depressed by a rejection letter, or stuck on a tricky scene. But social media can be a real time suck, and two hours on Twitter does not translate to two hours spent honing your craft. So moderate your social media usage and focus that energy into writing the words. Check in daily. Even four times daily if you must. But also have social-media free hours where your focus can be on your manuscript. Oh yeah, and on your family/friends and, you know, life.

Do Your Homework

This is true whether you’re picking a Pitch Wars mentor, choosing a writing group or class, or selecting an agent to query. I love Janet Reid with all my heart (even more so after meeting her in person this summer at Midwest Writers Workshop), but she doesn’t rep middle grade. And that’s OK because I’ve already learned everything I know about query writing from her amazing blog, Query Shark. Knowing your genre, reading in your age group, paying attention to which agents are selling which type of books–all of these things will help you find the best home for your work.

Don’t You Dare Give Up

If writing is what is in your heart and you’re willing to put in the hard work, you can do this. You can survive the query trenches and emerge with an agent, a book deal, or a path toward self-publishing that fits your needs, personality, and skills. Giving up is not an option. So you’ve sent 152 queries on your first manuscript. Write another one (I’m on my third manuscript and have two more in the planning stages!). So your dream agent rejected the manuscript. Revise and send it to someone else. That itch to write isn’t going to go away, no matter how many rejections you get. So wear them like a badge of honor and write on, my friends.

Model Undercover: New York, A Middle Grade Book Giveaway

modelundercoverI know it’s been ages since I’ve blogged, but, you know, international move, holidays, new school for the kids. I’ve had my reasons. Life is slowly returning to normal and one sign of that is that I’m back at the writing desk (or actually I don’t have a desk yet, so it’s the writing couch at the moment). Check out my post over at From the Mixed-Up Files before Friday for a chance to win a copy of Model Undercover: New York, a middle grade detective story with a very fashion forward protagonist.

Best Gluten-Free Muffin Recipe

(301-365) Muffin (6100678703)My kids love a good muffin. That means that muffins are my go-to when I need to bring a snack to school, or friends come over for a play date, or really just about any time I need food for any reason. But several of my son’s friends are either gluten or dairy intolerant (or both), so I wanted to find the best gluten-free muffin recipe.

Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I made things that were so nasty that even loads of chocolate chips or cream-cheese frosting couldn’t make them palatable. I made ones that were just OK warm, but turned to rocks when they cooled. I made some that tasted too much like the almond or coconut or whatever they were made with in place of the gluten. I despaired. I gave up for a while and just went back to my old stand-by muffin recipe and made something else if his GF friends were here.

Then I tried to make up my own recipe. And…success! I had to use a Wikimedia Commons picture of a muffin because by the time I figured out that this recipe was a success, a plague of hungry locusts my kids and their friends had eaten every last one of these delicious, moist, perfect gluten-free muffins.

So here it is, my Best Gluten-Free Muffin recipe:

Best Gluten-Free Muffin Recipe

makes 24 muffins

Ingredients:
1/3 c coconut oil (olive oil would also work)
1 t vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 cup almond milk or other milk alternative
1/3 c sweetener (date sugar, honey, brown sugar, whatever you fancy. Note that some sweeteners are sweeter than others and adjust as necessary)
2 c grated or mashed fruits/veggies (carrots, zucchini, pumpkin, apple, banana, dates)
1 1/2 c gluten-free pastry flour (the one I use is a fine-ground corn-based flour)
1 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 T cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t ginger
1/2 c slivered almonds
1/2 c chocolate chips (make sure the ones you have are dairy-free–many aren’t)

  1. Preheat oven to 180C or 350F.
  2. Mix the first six ingredients in a large bowl. If using something chunky like bananas or dates, I use an immersion blender until the mixture is smooth.
  3. Add flour, baking soda & powder, spices, and slivered almonds and mix just until combined.
  4. Fold in chocolate chips.
  5. Fill muffin cups 2/3 full and bake for 16 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  6. Cool just enough to prevent injury and devour at will.

This go-round, I made these with coconut oil, date syrup, almond milk, and a mix of 1 c pumpkin, 3/4 c banana and 1/4 c dates. But apples, zucchinis, and carrots would also be delicious, coconut milk would absolutely work, and I often use olive oil in baking when I don’t have coconut oil on hand. And raisins can be substituted for the chocolate chips, although I definitely prefer the chocolate!

Easy and delicious. What’s your favorite gluten-free recipe?

Moving-Induced Paralysis

AnxietyThis week, we slipped under the six-month mark. We move 20 December and I have a zillion things to do. Really. I have furniture to sell or get rid of, loads of appliances to offload (but not until after I cook Thanksgiving Dinner of course!), a cupboard full of spices and other food items to use up, and basically a whole house to declutter. Oh yeah, and you know, my real life, where I’m writing a book and trying to sell it.

So yeah, I’m paralyzed and anxious and feeling sorta like the guy in the animation. A million things to do and I’m spending an inordinate amount of time trawling Redfin and Zillow for houses (which just makes me more paralyzed because oh my god, sticker shock!). And blogging, apparently. Oh yeah, and watching junk TV (but I’m finally caught up on Scandal!). The nutty thing is that I’m feeling really positive about living in Washington. Just not so good about the moving part.

It’s not like I haven’t done this before. The first time I moved, I was twenty and flew by myself to France with nothing more than a backpack and a suitcase. That felt exhilarating and rebellious and all kinds of things. Yeah, there was some stress in there too and saying goodbye, even if only for six months, was tough. But it was nothing like this.

This feels like I am going to run out of time, but that all the balls that need to be set in motion are completely out of my control. Like I’m an anchor in a relay, watching her teammates get farther and farther behind and not being able to do anything but sit there screaming, reaching for that baton, and knowing that even super-human speed won’t be enough. Wow, where did that running simile come from? Can I use that in my fiction?

OK, my sense of humor is at least somewhat intact, so I’m probably going to survive this. But I’ll probably need to grumble about it again between now and 20 December…

Liebster Award – 10 Questions

My writing buddy, Jessica the Maniac Marmoset, tagged me in this fun 10 questions-style Liebster Award and I decided to play along!

What first inspired your current WIP?

When I first got to Finland in 2010, a friend gave my children a copy of the Canine Kalevala, a hilarious illustrated version of Finland’s epic poem The Kalevala, with the main characters all depicted as dogs. After reading it, I bought a translation of the full version (which is hundreds of pages long) and read it cover-to-cover. I’ll admit it, I’m obsessed with the mythology and the subtle ways it influences modern-day life, from names of companies to street and product names, to people who have named their children after mythological heroes, perhaps even without realizing it. So it seemed natural to write a story about a couple of expat children who discover that some of the mythology from The Kalevala is real.

Are your characters based in any way or did they spring, Athena style, from your cranium fully formed.

The sibling dynamic between Lauren and Henry is very much inspired by my little brother and I. But their personalities are quite a bit different. Henry in particular popped fully-formed (name and all) into my mind about six months ago. Lauren didn’t start talking to me until I’d started writing Henry’s story, so now it’s told from dual POV.

What genre are you writing in?

Contemporary fantasy. My first time writing about magic and I love it! It feels like going back to my roots because I love reading fantasy.

What’s your favorite part of your current WIP?

Now that we’re leaving Finland, this work is, in many respects, a love letter to our host country. I have woven so many little details about the country from the smooth glide of the emerald green trams that run through Helsinki to charming Christmas market to the importance of reindeer and snow to the national image here. I want people who read my book to take an interest in this place and its mythology.

Do you cast your characters? Figuring out which actors would play your characters in the movie of your book. Who would play your MC? Your antagonist?

It’s a dangerous thing for me to even think about this. By the time I get this thing published and sell the movie rights, any middle-grade aged actors I could picture will be too old to play the parts!

Where is your novel set?

Mostly in Helsinki, Finland. But the children take a few side-trips during their adventure, visiting other locales in Finland and even making the trek north to Tromso, Norway.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What brought you this decision?

Pantser. I’ve even blogged about my five-line outline, which is basically outlining for pantsers. I’m a planning by nature in normal life, but changing plans causes all kinds of pain and anxiety for me, which I learned after a few failed attempts at writing to a detailed outline really impinges my creative work. So I spend a lot of time getting to know the setting and the characters before I start to write (sometimes even for 3-6 months), thinking about them, visualizing them, maybe even jotting some notes down. But mainly, I just let them percolate in my subconscious. Then, when I’m ready to write, I let them tell me where the story’s going. So far, through two novels and numerous short stories, I haven’t run out of steam or gotten stuck using this method, so I’m sticking with it.

How many drafts have you written for this WIP?

I’ve been calling this my first draft because I’m not done with it yet (about 10-15k words left to write). But I have to admit that it’s already in much better shape than my tenth draft of last year’s NaNo project, Finding Gib. Not only because I’ve learned SO much, but because I’ve been submitting it in 10k word chunks to a Writer’s Digest University Advanced Novel Writing class. Getting the incremental feedback has helped me ward off problems as I worked on the story, and having regular deliverables has really helped me keep on schedule (I should finish the whole thing start to finish in 12 weeks!). Such a different revision history than Finding Gib, which was written in 30 days, but has been completely rewritten twice, and significantly polished over the course of about four major rounds of editing.

Do you set up some sort of reward system to keep you motivated through the long, arduous process of writing a novel length work?

This may sound cheesey, but I love the writing so much that it hasn’t felt arduous. The slower pace of a 12-week first draft is a lot less frantic than NaNoWriMo and feels a lot more comfortable to me. Even my husband has commented on how stress-free this drafting process has been compared to past efforts. Querying is another situation entirely. I’m using this fall’s crazy contesting schedule as a motivation/reward system to keep me distracted during the endless waiting. And honestly, the WIP is a welcomed distraction as well.

Do your characters talk to you?

Although I’ve been writing fiction for the past twelve years or so (with a pretty huge break to have children), I always thought it was a little weird when other writers claimed their characters talked to them. I think I was expecting some sort of hallucination or out of body experience, and that just wasn’t happening for me. But this past spring, a full six months after I finished Finding Gib, I sat down one day and, instead of the third person, past-tense I’d been writing all along, this first person present voice bubbled up in my mind and told me a whole different version of the story. As soon as I showed this new stuff to my critique partners, they agreed that it captured Elias’s voice so much better than the other version. So I guess I had to find my voice as a writer before I could hear my characters. It’s still not an out of body experience for me, and it’s not like they address me “Hey, Julie, don’t forget to tell them I did XYZ…” but when I write now, I hear them in my head in a way I never did before. And when I revise, I can see pretty clearly when something out of character has happened. No matter what happens with my querying, I feel good about this shift in my work.

Play Along!

I nominate Sara Eastler, Kimberly VanderHorst, Jilly Gagnon, and Olivia Bright to play along and answer the following ten questions about your work on your blog.

  1. Can you share one example of how you came up with the idea for a story?
  2. What’s your biggest challenge as a writer?
  3. What genre do you write? What age category?
  4. Do you think you’ll ever vary from that?
  5. What’s the best book you’ve read in your genre recently?
  6. What inspires you as a writer?
  7. Do you use visuals (photos, paintings) or audios (voice recordings, music) to help form the characters in your stories?
  8. What does a typical writing day look like for you?
  9. What do you do when you’re not writing?
  10. Tell us about your current work-in-progress!

Talking to Kids About Sex

SMirC-embarassedEvery parent I know dreads having “the talk” with their child. It’s tough to decide when to have the talk, what to say, and how to broach such an important subject in a way that won’t be embarrassing or uncomfortable. But talking to kids about sex needs to happen, and probably sooner than you think.

Before this was even on my radar, a friend of my son’s (who had very informative older brothers) told him about the mechanics of sex. He was seven and I was horrified when an adult made a joke about sex in front of him and he replied “I know what that means.” As much as I wanted to freak out, I remained calm enough to talk with him about what he’d learned so that I could figure out what to do next. For better or for worse, the little boy’s brothers had given him a fairly anatomically-correct description of sex, which he’d helpfully passed on to my son and his first grade classmates.

So that’s my first tip: If you want to be the first one to talk to your children about sex, you’re probably going to need to start talking about this earlier than you thought.

My second tip: Do your homework. And make sure you know what your own views are on this topic as you read up. After that first surprising conversation with my son, my best friend directed me to Planned Parenthood’s website, which is full of excellent age-appropriate resources for talking about sex and sexuality with preschoolers, elementary schoolers, and teenagers about sex.

The most comprehensive article I found on talking with kids about sex is this one from US News and World Report. For a slightly less dry first-hand account, this one written by a doctor sharing her own ongoing conversation about sexuality with her daughter, provides a helpful perspective. The University of Washington also did an excellent Ask the Experts on this topic this summer, interviewing two experts in human sexuality. The interview contains not only good tips, but some great books that parents can use to facilitate these difficult conversations.

Third tip: Bring a book or two to “the talk.” Not only does it give you and your child a focal point (especially helpful if one or both of you is embarrassed), but it also gives the child a text they can walk away with and mull over in privacy. These types of issues are hard to take in for the first time and especially if your child needs some time to process, it may take an hour, a few days, or even a few weeks for your child to come up with the questions he or she wants to ask on this topic. It took my son several months to admit to me that his friend had told him about sex, and the conversations that revelation started continue today (he’s now ten, and on the verge of beginning sex education at school).

Narrated by the proverbial bird and bee, this popular series starts with a book for preschoolers called It’s Not the Stork and continues on to It’s So Amazing and It’s Perfectly Normal for older children.

I wish I had discovered this series when my children were preschool aged so that my son would have had a little more preparation for his enlightening conversation with his classmate. The same author wrote Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From, which is the book I ultimately selected to fill in the gaps in my son’s knowledge and to present to his younger sister when the time came this fall for her to have the talk as well.

There’s some great fiction on this topic too. Judy Blume’s classic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret isn’t the only choice any more. Stephanie Greene‘s Sophie Hartley and the Facts of Life also handles this issue in a more contemporary setting.

We’re just getting in to puberty discussions with our children now (*gulp*), so a follow-up post will be in order when the time comes. What resources did you use when talking with your kids about sex? Have an embarrassingly-hilarious story of your own to share? The more we talk about this as parents, the easier it will be to talk to our kids.

Repatriating Expats

Seattle world fair stamp
Expat life is full of Big Questions. When do you go? When do the kids & I follow? Where will we live? How do we enroll the kids in school? Who is going to pay for/schedule/plan which pieces of this craziness? Am I going to go nuts in the process?

From these questions, you can probably tell that another move is on our horizon. Next month, we’re moving to the Redmond, Washington (Greater Seattle) area so that my husband can continue his job with Microsoft. Despite being asked regularly if we’re excited to “go home,” this is new territory for us. Sure, we’re American, and we are lucky enough to have both friends and (for the first time in the kids’ lives!) family in the area. But I’ve never even been to Redmond. Or Bellevue. Or Sammamish. Which, according to our very helpful realtor, are the best housing options if we want to avoid giving Matt a hellish commute in a traffic-laden urban area.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not ready to leave Finland after four years. Did I mention how dark and dreary it is at this time of year, a time of year that I have now experienced FIVE times? But saying goodbye to friends is hard for the children and for us. In typical expat fashion, Matt needs to be in the US now to do his job, so that means much of the next six weeks of insanity will be navigated as a solo parent. Whee!

The kids don’t really remember living in the US before, so most of their memories come from this past summer. Considering that I packed in as many activities (summer camp! theme parks! mountain climbing! boat rides! beach time!) and as much cousin/grandma time as I could, they’ve got a fairly positive attitude about the move. Oh, and I might have promised them kittens too, just to keep them out of therapy sweeten the deal.

Despite the bribery carefully-managed expectations, the kids are still nervous. Gabriel asked me about first impressions on the way to school yesterday, spurring a long conversation about how first impressions when you start a new school are totally different than first impressions that you make at a one-time event like a job interview or performance. Yes, my heart squeezed big time as we had that conversation. My mellow little man may not be saying much, but he’s definitely processing.

Even as I madly declutter, organize, stalk real-estate web sites, book a 10-hour time difference house-hunting trip, and research schools, we’ll spend as much of the next six weeks as we can just hanging with friends and making just a few more memories before we go. In the meantime, if it’s a little quiet around here, you’ll know why.