The Corona Virus: The Second Bookend of My Second Saturn Return

I’ll be 62 the end of June this year. That means I’ve been eaten, chewed up, swallowed, digested, and pushed out the other side of my second Saturn return. I know… not a pleasant visual. Why didn’t she use the metaphor of the cocoon to chrysalis to butterfly? all the self-helpers and chronic, oppressive positive-ists are wondering.

Because I don’t feel all that beautiful.

Calm down. I’m not talking about my physical packaging. (I still look pretty damn good—and not just “for my age.”) Nor do I hate myself or have self-worth issues. I like to shoot from the hip, call it like I see it, as the cliché’s go. Read: I prefer to not live my life in denial. (Did you know that not acknowledging ALL of our states of being is actually BAD for us? Face it, embrace it, and let it run its course… That’s what I live by.)

I’m talking about my sense of vitality. I’m not feeling all shiny and new and ready to kick the ass of the world. Because that isn’t how transformation works.

Transformation comes in slow—usually painful—stages.

I talk about “magic” a lot in relation to writing, but I also quickly follow that up with the word “alchemy,” the “rough magic” of writing. The process of turning lead into to gold. It’s difficult, it’s long, and it’s messy.

And so is the Saturn return.

Saturn, the planet of structure, responsibility, and ambition (to name but a few)—aka The Great Teacher—returns to the position it held at the moment of our birth every 29.5 years. So, around 58–59, we get to experience the dismantling and rebuilding of the Self. Yet again.

Fun.

Not really.

The thing about the Saturn return is that it isn’t a once and done, drive-through, one-stop-shop, kind of deal. There’s the ramp up (at least a year+ before it) and there’s the ramp down (at least a year+ after it).

So, this means that the last five to six years for me have been trying, to say the least. I truly do feel like I’ve been eaten, digested, and pushed out in a different form. And I feel more like my chosen metaphor than a beautiful butterfly.

I’m not ready to flap my lovely wings to flit around the garden or lilt on subtle stirs of air. I don’t even have wings… Instead, I’m lying somewhere on a hot sidewalk or chilling under a bush, waiting for this process to finish itself, enduring and observing the decomposition, the death of my old self, waiting to see where the re-morphing of me takes me.

While the last six years have been hard (and I’m more than ready for a change of pace), my second Saturn return wasn’t as disorienting as my first one when I went through the alchemical process of a dark night of the soul, brought on by the unearthing of repressed memories of abuse, brought on by writing the first draft of my novel, Miranda’s Garden (yay for the rough magic of writing!).

The first one took me down to such dark places, I honestly didn’t know whether or not I was going to survive. Fortunately, I had three little people who needed me, so I persisted and found a way… And oh yeah… I had them all just prior to and during the onslaught of my first Saturn return (27, 30, 32), which means while I’ve been going through my second Saturn return, they’ve all been going through their first.

Fun.

I don’t mind saying that these last six years have been a special kind of hell. Sure, there’ve been bright spots – I always look for those (See? Calm down.) But damn. What the hell?

This may sound whacky, but it could be that the rough ride of my second Saturn return started clear back in early 2012 (the year I turned 55) when I had a falling out with my mom that resulted in an estrangement that remains to this day, all while I had a horribly bad and scary chest/throat thing that went on way longer than it ought to have. And then half-way through my 56th year, at the end of 2013, I lost the teaching I had and was provided the opportunity (Hah, again, see?) to finally think about how I might be able to create an entrepreneurial life. It’s taken this long for me to get where I am.

And where is that?

Honestly, I’m still not fully supporting myself with my business, and in fact, I’m in a bit of a revenue slump due to a much-needed redirect – a pivot, as they say – and then COVID. But it’s all good and well. I discovered I don’t LOVE coaching. At least not the way I’d been doing it, the way I’d been taught to do it, the way other people do it.

I’ve learned a lot, though, and I’m clear about my direction. At least for now. And my vision for my future hasn’t changed. I haven’t given up on the dream.

My second Saturn return has, once again, kicked my ass up around my ears (as my late grandma would have said) and left me, at times, questioning the purpose of life more than I like, wondering how the hell long this part of my story might last, thinking, at times, that maybe living to be at least 100 (a goal of mine) isn’t such a hot idea, after all.

But… I’m here, and I’ve made it this far. Because I’m like a Goddamn magical sorcerer cat (think Pluto, Cheshire Cat, Maurice, Demeter), and with all my lives and my ability to land on my tired feet over and over and over again and keep on believing even though I’ve been beyond exhausted deep down in my soul, thinking about what lies around the corner of 62 is the bright, sparkly thing that keeps my chin up for now.

As I look back over the past several years, some highlights come to mind.

  • Sold most of my belongings, left Portland, and hit the road to house sit for an indeterminate amount of time.
  • Got hired to teach online for PSU just before I left town. (Still doing this…)
  • Lived in Bonney Lake, WA for six months, took care of a big house and lawn/garden and a cool black kitty named Chai. Started creating content for my business and understanding my Writing Through the Body™ concept.
  • Went down to Truckee, CA, to house sit another big house and FIVE rescue kitties. Loved it so much, I decided to “stay.” Lived in a cabin on Donner Lake, basked in my ability to hike and snowshoe right outside my door. Had a very short, confusing, tumultuous relationship. In addition to teaching online, cleaned vacation homes for a living. Continued to figure what on earth I was doing with my business.
  • Fled Truckee (after the tumultuous relationship ended and couldn’t take working for the people I was working for any longer) and came back to Portland believing it would be a better place to grow my business before I retreat to the woods again to live out the rest of my days.
  • Lived with my daughter in her studio apartment (Fun), fled to an artists’ community (quadruple Fun), got a copywriting job.
  • To get the eff out of the artists’ community, fled to a downtown apartment attached to a property manager job (Funnest of all the Funs and damn near finished off my soul all together).
  • Undertook the “entrepreneurial” life. Hired coaches, attended networking events, joined networking groups. Tried things, fumbled, failed, redirected, and kept going (I’m still doing this… but less so). Started making money from the biz. Yay. Got laid off from the copywriting job.
  • Racked up a bunch of debt. (If coaching were an item on a menu it would have $$$$.)
  • Was “forced” into retirement due a clerical error at PSU but am able to still teach four classes each year. And so, I am…
  • Got a rescue kitten. Named her Iris after the flower and the goddess. I’m obsessed with her and love her immensely. She is one of the biggest and brightest highlights of these past many years.
  • Got a call after being on a four-year wait list for an apartment in the Pearl District in downtown Portland where I currently reside. For now.
  • Made and unmade friends, found the fakes, reveled in my introverted isolation and my ability to be a content and totally self-contained entity.
  • All the while… managing a chronic illness that I only started to wrap my brain around and understand, guess when… when my Saturn return began.

To say it’s been a wild, soul-tiring ride is putting it mildly. When I think about The Great Teacher’s (Saturn’s) mission—to turn lead to gold—and to think about the process that needs to happen to make that a reality, it makes sense that the dismantling and rebuilding of my identity has been so exhausting.

But here I am on the other side now.

This tired, worn out human is not done with the transformation just yet. I’ll be serving as my own fertilizer and growing a garden, of sorts. That house in the woods, the thriving business. And writing. Regularly, consistently, and well.

It’s all close. I can tell. And I couldn’t be more ready.

Which brings us back to the title of this unedited and ramble-y interior monologue…

That the corona virus pandemic made it appearance as the second bookend of my second Saturn Return journey is not lost on me. While I am regaining my balance after these rough six+ years so I can create the life I want for this last leg of my journey, the rest of the world is being reshuffled and restructured.

It gives me an all-bets-are-off feeling, like the playing field has been leveled, and I’m left with an uncompromising belief that the future I see for myself will happen.

A thriving business, which includes a consistent writing practice, and the house in the woods where I and my animals can live and thrive in nature. (There’s a cat buddy in Iris’s future, along with a hedgehog, a teacup pig, and a bird of some sort). Goals.

I have work to do, so I need to sign off. I just had to write this. Thanks for reading, and wherever you are in your cosmic journey of life, I hope you’re able to go with the flow, embrace and honor all the feelings, and be willing to hold on to your dreams or make new ones.

Stay safe and well. And as always, sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing,

Johnnie
XOXOX

Getting to Know Your People’s Histories: Using Backstory to Inform Character Development

In my last post, I wrote about the importance—necessity, even—of knowing your people… that is, your characters (for fiction and memoir) and your Ideal Reader, and yourself, (for non-fiction how-to self-help books).

Backstories

After we delve into who our characters and Ideal Readers are, we can get to know them even more deeply through their backstories—or histories. These histories are what shaped their beliefs and identities. (This is true also for those wanting to write the self-help or how-to non-fiction book and will apply to you, personally, as well because your personal story—the life events that brought you to write your book in the first place—will likely be woven throughout your book.) Through these beliefs and identities shaped from our characters’ backstories come their desires.

When we understand, on a deep level, our people’s heart-felt desires, we can develop compassion for those desires, and embrace the motivations behind them and the behaviors that prevent our people from attaining them. This will not only inform our story trajectories in fiction, it will also inform a deeper understanding of ourselves in memoir and the true pain points of our clients and potential customers and readers in non-fiction books.

Another facet of a character’s backstory we want to think about is setting. Setting is both temporal and spatial.

Temporal Setting

The temporal setting of a book or story is the era in which it takes place. The temporal setting of your characters’ backstories is important because it will inform much about your characters’ beliefs, social mores, and behaviors. Think about a teenage girl born in the 1950s and one born in the 2000s. They will be two very different people simply because of the time in which they were born. Now, place one of those girls in the U.S. and one in the UK or Africa or Asia during each of those times periods. You’ll have five distinctly different people.

When we can get clear on the temporal setting of our characters’ backstories, we can start to think more deeply about the WHYs behind their desires, motivations, and behaviors, and we can not only have a deeper understanding of them as people, but we can also represent them with more integrity and compassion on the page.

Spatial Setting

Spatial setting includes spaces and locations that figured into the shaping of the character’s identity because spaces shape who we are. Think about your own significant spaces and locations: your childhood home, your bedroom, your family’s kitchen, your school, your backyard, your school bus, your family’s car(s)… Now, think about how those spaces shaped your identity, what you care about, what you want, and what you don’t want. The same is true of our characters.

A young man raised on a farm will come to his college experience with a far different set of beliefs and desires than one raised in Manhattan. Think about how each of these characters might show up to an accounting class or a writing class and what their expectations, intentions, and fears might be. When we put together our characters’ pasts with their present-day fears, we’re writing from a place that will generate stories of universal appeal because we can get to the emotional experience of life. And no matter where we were raised or when, we all experience emotions the same. This is the bridge between us and our readers.

Characters’ backstories may not show up in the stories we write about them, but knowing and understanding them will inform us and influence the stories we write about them.

***

Write 2-3 pages for one of your characters, your Ideal Reader, or yourself giving deep thought to their backstories and settings, and leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about what you discover.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!

Best,

Johnnie
XXXX

Picking the perfect moniker: How to name your characters and more

People often ask me, “But what’s your real name?” Sometimes, the question comes from seeing my name in print, then meeting me in person and discovering I’m female. And sometimes, the question comes when they’ve gotten to know me a little and discover I legally changed my name in 2000. So for the record…

My real name Johnnie J. Mazzocco.

It’s the realest name I’ve ever had.
And I’ve had SEVERAL.

There’s the name I was born with, which consisted of the first and middle names my parents settled on and my dad’s surname. Then, there’s the name that consisted of the first and middle names my parents settled on and the surname of my first husband – Martin. And then, there’s the name that consisted of the first and middle name my parents settled on, my dad’s surname, and the surname of my second husband – Owen.

Johnnie J. Mazzocco isn’t the name I was born with, but it WAS the name my mom wanted me to have – at least the first name. She wanted to name me after her dad, John, but my dad nixed that. He thought I’d think I wasn’t wanted. He thought I’d think they wanted a boy instead. So, they gave me a “girl’s” name.

I spent my life knowing that Johnnie was supposed to be my name, and after many significant life changes, the Fall before I turned 40, I changed my name. I had been toying with the idea, and my close friends were helping me out by trying it on for size. When I talked with the person who would eventually be the head of my graduate committee for my first Master’s degree, I introduced myself as Johnnie. When it came time to apply, I had to make it legal to fill out the paperwork.

I decided I might as well go all in. I didn’t want my maiden name. Nor did I want either of my married names. None of them felt like me. In fact, whenever I introduced myself with the old name, it felt cardboard-dry in my throat.

I opted to use the first letter of my old middle name and forego a full middle name and to take on my mom’s maiden name because I’ve always strongly identified with my Italian lineage. It wasn’t until the day I was signing the papers to make it legal that I realized I have my grandpa’s full name: Johnnie Mazzocco. (His legal name was John, but my grandma called him Johnny.)

Changing my name has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I don’t share my “old” name with people, even though they ask.

I changed my name for a reason. It wasn’t a hideous name.

It just wasn’t me.


Whether you’re a parent or a pet owner, you know the task of naming another being is not an easy one. Many of us consult baby name books or get inspiration from our favorite pop culture icons or fictional characters. Some of us explore the latin roots of names, or we opt for the name of someone we know and respect. Whichever route we take, most of us know it’s an identity creator, so we take it seriously.

What about when we name our fictional characters? Finding the perfect moniker can be daunting and time-consuming, but giving it the time and attention it deserves, a memorable name can become a lasting icons in the worlds of literature and pop culture. Scarlett O’Hara. Atticus and Scout Finch. Dorothy Gale. Harry Potter. Holly Golightly. Lolita. Clarissa Dalloway. Lennie Small. Sherlock Holmes. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Mary Poppins. Nancy Drew. And on and on and on…

Here are a few articles with ideas about how to find just the right names for all your characters.

The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters
6 Creative Ways to Name Your Fictional Characters
How to Name Your Characters
How to Choose Character Names

Whether we’re name our kids, our pets, our characters, or ourselves, picking the perfect name is an important proposition. When this weighty task is in your hands, how do you handle it?

How do you name your characters? 

And if you were to re-name yourself, who would you be?

Writer as Shaman: 7 Ways Stories Will Change Your Life and Heal the World

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro from Pexels

Twenty-five years ago, I started writing a novel, and the process of developing the main character and her story world created a crack in my psyche and changed my life forever. I was taken through my own dark night of the soul, which led – gratefully – to my spiritual transformation. Since then, I have been on a spiritual path, have viewed my creative writing practice as a spiritual practice, and have devoted myself and my life to embracing the power of story.

While writers have probably always had an innate sense that stories heal, science has proven the benefits of story in our lives – in both the writing and reading of fiction and non-fiction. Stories are a human need. We crave them. We tell them. Every day. Stories are not only healing to the writer. They carry the power to heal readers and the world at large, as well.

For the Writer

1 – Evoking your imagination while writing a story can lead to improved brain capacity and ease of being in the world.

  • Using your imagination can improve your problem-solving skills. By troubleshooting a character’s obstacles as she attempts to attain her primary desire, you can become more creative in troubleshooting and solving your own.
  • Using your imagination can improve your memory. Engaging your imagination creates more neurons in your brain, which leads to better brain function and retaining information.
  • Using your imagination can improve your relationships and social interactions. By empathizing with your characters’ problems, you’ll become more aware of the day-to-day struggles of your fellow humans, thus allowing you to be more empathetic in general.

2 – Using the process of amalgamation, which is the act of consciously or unconsciously blending real-life people and events with imaginary people and events for the sake of storytelling, allows us to resolve events from the past.

  • Recounting stories from our personal past can help us make meaning of what was. By remembering a past event from an older, more experienced – or simply different – perspective can give us a sense of personal power.
  • Creating a re-telling of a past event and imagining what could have been can also give us a sense of personal power. This is not about denying reality or naively wishing a situation had been different, but more about reframing the story to achieve a sense of redemption or inner harmony.
  • Using creative license to write about anything from a past personal event to a current cultural phenomenon and creating a fictional story with a positive outcome can give us hope. There is something immensely powerful in being able to imagine a world where change and growth are possible. Believing in a better world and doing what we can to create it helps us find peace in the moment while continuing to put one foot in front of the other with a sense of personal agency toward the project of human evolution.

3 – Through the process of deep character development, we come to understand ourselves on a much deeper level. By creating characters who come off the page and behave like real people rather than flat, cardboard caricatures or stereotypes and getting beneath their skins to examine their true motivations, pains, and fears, we can’t help but do this better for ourselves. Thus, writing stories leads to greater self-awareness and advances us along our paths of personal evolution.

For the Reader

4 – Reading stories gives us a healthy escape from everyday life. Whether we read a memoir about someone’s experience growing up in a small rural community or a fantasy novel about a young woman with superpowers, the descriptions that build the story world evoke our imaginations and bring us the same benefits realized by the writer mentioned above. As Stephen King once wrote, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Reading stories quiets our minds, much the same way meditation does.

5 – Reading stories – in particular, literature – leads to greater levels of empathy. By riding along beside a character through the ups and downs of his quest to achieve his goal and through the mistakes he makes along the way, we become softened to the struggle of what it means to be human, which allows us to more readily accept and embrace struggle and imperfection in others.

6 – Reading stories can lead to greater human connection. When a reader witnesses an experience like their own, they know they’re not alone in the world, that their life isn’t as taboo as they may think or feel, and through this, they can experience validation, and ultimately, a feeling of connection.

For the World

7 – When writers and readers experience the benefits of story, it up-levels their positive presence in the world. Writing and reading both bring numerous benefits, probably the most far-reaching of which is a greater understanding of the human condition. This understanding can elicit more compassion, more empathy, and ultimately, more peace in the world.

English writer, Alan Moore, known for Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among many others, believes writers are modern day shamans. He describes the magic they work as the alchemical process of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to create story worlds into which readers can enter and experience changes in consciousness.

This journey into story worlds – ours and others’ – allow us to clear our minds. It serves as a salve to our hearts and an elixir to our spirits and souls. If you’re looking for creative ways to further your evolution as a human on earth in this lifetime, embrace the power of story. Write your stories. Share them. And read the stories of others.

We all have stories to tell. What’s yours?

Perspective + POV: How you look at things changes how you look at things

This past weekend, I headed out to the Oregon Coast for a business retreat with a group of phenomenal visionary business builders. We stayed together in a house right across the road from the beach; we savored sumptuous food prepared by our uber-talented, in-house chef, Zach; we cavorted (for real… we danced around); we shared our brilliance with each other through short presentations; we set goals.

When I hit the road to make the two-plus-hour trip with my friend, Krista, I was prepared to hunker down and work (the transition from summer to fall does that to me), and I went with the idea that I’d make the best of sharing a house with 11 other people (we introverts loooove our alone time).

My perspective took a turn after the first day, partially due to witnessing the genius of my fellow council members (and getting to know them better as people) and partially due to the skill with which Michael, our fearless leader, was able to go with the flow and adapt to what transpired. And part of it was also me simply deciding to change my perspective, dive in, and be present.

This came in the literal sense when we did an impromptu group polar plunge into the cold ocean waves right at the moment summer shifted to fall. Symbolic and exhilarating, for sure. This act woke up my adventurous spirit, which led me to do something I’ve dreamed of for a long, long time… I did stand-up comedy. It was short, and I had the best crowd possible… The set up with bright lights and a live mic made me feel legit. And I know I’ll do it again… with a longer bit and to a larger crowd of people I don’t know at all. And I woke up even more.

The point of all this is that perspective is malleable like clay. It can shift without warning, spurred by some external force or situation, or we can make a conscious choice to shift our perspective on our own. Our view of ourselves, other people, situations within and out of our control, and life in general, shapes our days and our lives.

Perspective also shapes the lives of our characters and their stories; and it applies to the angle from which we approach a scene, to the Point of View we use to tell a story, and to the way we think about our writing.

Here’s a POV writing tip

 Think about how scenes in movies are shot –
long shots (LS), medium shots (MS), close-ups (CU), extreme close-ups (XCU).

Each one creates a different emotional experience for the viewer and determines the distance between the viewer and the character.

The same is true when writing for the page.

Try these exercises

First, write and rewrite a few scenes using the LS, MS, CU, and XCU approach.
Notice how the tone and mood change.

Next, if you aren’t sure which POV to use in your story, play around with giving everyone a shot at having the stage or being the focus of the “lens” and see what happens.

So often people don’t want to “waste time” doing exercises, but sometimes those exercises lead to the jewel your story’s been missing. Give it a try and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…