It’s May, the month for celebrating moms, and I am thrilled to have a coffee loving mom with me for this special coffee chat! Rachel Cabalse and I met through social media when we teamed up for a fun coffee-themed book giveaway. Since then, Rachel and I have been cheering each other on from across the country as we spread the word about our debut books. Grab your favorite mug; fill it with something delicious, and join Rachel and me as we talk about coffee, motherhood, and enjoying the writing journey.
Me: Describe your relationship with coffee. What is your go-to beverage? What about if you are relaxing? (haha!)
Rachel: My relationship with coffee is an ongoing love affair. We have grown together over the years – from being a child who just enjoyed the aroma as her parents brewed a pot every morning, to a young adult who used it solely for the caffeine element, to a budding entrepreneur who opened a kid-friendly coffee shop (Java Mama) back in 2013, and now full- circle as the parent whose children learned to pull a perfect double shot of espresso during the distance learning days of 2020 lockdown. My go-to coffee is usually black, unsweetened cold brew – or if I’m feeling frisky a cafe au lait. I don’t comprehend the last question. 😉
Me: When do you feel like a good mom?
Rachel: Very rarely. I am always worrying if I’m not enough, or at other times too much. But maybe if I have to pinpoint those moments, it’s probably when I hear my kids giggle. Or, when I see them help each other out. Those moments where I am fully present, away from my phone or work, and could just focus on them are probably when I feel good enough.
Me: What has been most surprising to you about motherhood?
Rachel: How much I learn from them. My kids have taught me to be patient and compassionate. Above all, they have made me a better listener which doesn’t come naturally to me. They see the world so pure; and, as they discover and ask questions, I gain new insight to things I would have never even wondered about before.
Me: Ask your kids to describe you. What did they say?
Rachel: 9- yr- old – “Kind, hard-worker, a never give up kind of person…yah like that.”
5 -yr -old – “She is so much fun and likes to play with me. I love her because she’s the best mom ever.”
Awww…thank you for making me do that exercise. I’m feeling a little teary-eyed now – let’s go back to question 2. My new answer is right now.
Me: When did you first feel like a writer? When did you first refer to yourself publicly as a writer?
Rachel: I didn’t actually refer to myself publicly as a writer until my book was published and available for purchase. That was November 3rd, 2020. Honestly, I’m not certain I even feel like a writer now!
Me: What was the first thing you ever wrote/published? How did you feel?
Rachel: The first thing I ever wrote was probably my Senior Honors Thesis on a study I did back in 2004. It was titled, “IM Online: Instant Messaging Use Among College Students.” Looking back now, especially knowing how much computer-mediated communication and social media has taken over our livelihood, it feels exciting to know I wrote about it nearly 20 years ago. My mentor actually utilized my findings and got published in the Communication Research Reports shortly after I graduated. It makes me feel accomplished, but not quite finished.
Me: How did your current project move from idea to actual, tangible book?
Rachel: Lockdown 2020. With all of the extra time on my hands, and with the kids getting older, I wanted to complete the book while they could still relate and appreciate the story. I had been sitting on the manuscript for nearly 4 years (after Java Mama closed) – so if there was a time for this to become tangible, it was now.
Me: Who is your book for?
Rachel: My family and all the Java Mamas.
Me: What do you want to work on next?
Rachel: My book, This Mommy Needs Some Coffee, was such a heart story for my love of coffee and my kids (who I love a little more as Melissa Face puts it!) that it’s hard to even think about another project. If anything, it’d have to be something as enjoyable for the parents AND kiddos like this one was. Until then, I’m just going to enjoy this next stage of life with my “babies!”
Trisha Faye and I have never met in person, but we connected years ago when she was editing an anthology, and I sent her a submission. Since then, we have floated in and out of the same writing circles, and this month we both have stories in the same Chicken Soup for the Soul collection! Grab a delicious drink, make yourself comfortable, and join us as we chat about story inspiration, justifying purchases, and much more!
Me: What are your earliest memories of being a writer?
Trisha: Let’s not talk about my earliest memories of being a writer. It wasn’t pretty. I remember an early college creative writing class. I don’t recall what I wrote about, but I entered class with my first story, and it got ripped to shreds! Young college students are not always the kindest with their critiques – at least these weren’t. And I was very bashful and had very thin skin. I never returned to that class.
It was probably about twenty years later before story nuggets began pestering my brain. But I still didn’t feel confident. So, I settled. I started a little newsletter about herbs – growing them, using them in the kitchen, and crafting with them. I think the nonfiction element of the topic made it safer for me. I didn’t feel like I was venturing out into dangerous waters.
About 12 years ago, I moved to Texas. And the stories kept prodding me. Since they wouldn’t leave me alone, I decided that I’d better start following that writing muse and see where the journey took me. I ended up submitting some articles to our small local newspaper. As each one was accepted, my confidence slowly grew. I joined a local writer’s group. And with the practice, and the monthly feedback and critique (in a much friendlier manner than the early class experience) my skin gradually thickened and I kept writing and growing.
Me: Tell us a little about your writing routine and your workspace. What is essential for you?
Trisha: I don’t have a regular routine because I also have a part- time job, with hours that vary from week to week. So, I juggle writing around that. Early morning, before I head to work, I use some of that time to interact on Facebook or work on planning. I find that I write better in the morning – but not too early. I need that first hour or so to clear the cobwebs, so it works best to use that for tasks that I don’t need all the circuits working in unison.
Since I don’t work on the weekends, I try to use those two days to accomplish a lot. Sometimes I’m successful; sometimes I’m not. I think one thing I’ve learned over the past few years (with a lot of reminders about it from a dear friend!) is to be easier on myself and not beat myself up if I don’t accomplish everything I set forth to do. Sometimes we are harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else.
One thing that is essential for me is semi-quiet and peace. It doesn’t need to be absolutely silent, but when others in the household are blaring a TV all day long (I’m not mentioning any names!), it disrupts my thoughts. Once we cleared out a room for my ‘office’, so I wasn’t working in the main part of the house, my writing focus improved, and I became better at chipping away at all the projects I wanted to work on.
Me: What is the most unusual topic you’ve written about?
Trisha: I have a collection of journals that I’ve created. Three journals have been out for a while: My Historic Home Journal, My Museum Journal and My Family Heirloom Journal. Two others just became available last week: My Gratitude Journal and My Blessings Journal. But probably the most unusual topic I’ve written about will be in two others scheduled for this fall – My Cemetery Journal and Cemetery I Spy.
Yes, I’m the oddball in the family – the one that loves to spend time in old cemeteries, whether I have family members there or not. Luckily, here in Texas I fell in with a group of friends who also love to explore these remnants of our past. I’ve had an idea for a few cemetery books in relation to this, but I have a feeling that they may find themselves on the ‘B List’ of books that I don’t ever seem to find the time to work on. We’ll see. Time will tell on that topic.
Me: What is it like to publish an anthology? Any unusual experiences working with other writers?
Trisha: I’ve published four anthologies: In Celebration of Mothers, In Celebration of Sisters, Mothers of Angels and Mothers of Angels 2. That experience has been most interesting. What I’ve enjoyed most about it is meeting so many other phenomenal authors. I’ve been blessed and many have become treasured friends. You and I met through the Sisters anthology, with your story, A Sibling Thing, about your sister that you lost due to a car accident.
The Mothers of Angels anthologies are stories about losing children, in honor of my stepson that we lost to cancer at 23 years old. Those two books hold my heart, as it goes out to all the people who shared their pain and heartache with us in their stories.
Me: You have a story in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book that will be out later this month. Can you give us some hints about your story?
Trisha: Yes, I’m in the Be You volume that is releasing April 6. My story is ‘Seventeen Words’. It’s about how a phrase entered my life and ended up shaping many of my actions.
“Let go of anything inauthentic and all activities that do not mirror your brightest intentions for yourself.”
In my story, I talk about how this phrase entered my life and how it came to mean so much to me. I started using these seventeen words as a magnifying glass for what I wanted. Those words changed so much in my life. It ended the five virtual farms I had going at the time – Farmville, Farmtown, and I don’t recall all the names. But I sat on the computer so many hours of the day, farming, farming, farming – while a whole yard in back sat dormant and ignored. These words forced me to look at my life and examine so many aspects, measuring them against this yardstick of authenticity.
Me: What do you like about Chicken Soup and other story collections?
Trisha: As a reader I enjoy the Chicken Soup collections because they have such a variety of stories in each volume. Plus, they’re short enough that you can sit and read a few stories, and then sit the book down and continue on with other tasks, not needing large segments of time to read.
As a writer, I like the topics that they have. In my venture to get more acceptances (I’m still far, far, far behind how many stories you’ve had accepted by them!), it keeps my mind spinning to think of ideas to write about, and it keeps me striving to improve my writing.
Me: What are your biggest sources of inspiration?
Trisha: What I’ve been having a lot of fun with is writing historical fiction short stories based on items from the past. I’ve gathered items from different antique stores, such as books with the flyleaf inscribed by the owner of one hundred years ago. Or I have a collection of letters written by a soldier in World War 2 to his then girlfriend, who he ended up marrying until their deaths many years later. Sometimes it’s a photograph, or an embroidered dish towel and I simply think of who might have owned this, or who might have sat and lovingly stitched the dish towel or quilt square. And then I spin a tale about who I think might have been connected to this piece from the past, and what might have happened. And the story grows from there.
Or, am I simply trying to justify all the wondrous items that I purchase in antique stores and flea markets? Possibly.
Me: What do you enjoy outside of writing?
Trisha: Oh – so many ways to spend the days. I never get bored. There are grandchildren to visit (that I haven’t seen since Covid entered our lives). At home there’s the yard and the masses of flowers to tend to. I’ve given up on vegetables since moving to Texas. They just haven’t cooperated with me here. There’s crafting – stitchery, weaving, glass fusing, papermaking, soapmaking, so many things I enjoy creating. Although the past few years I think I’ve crafted more with words than fibers.
Me: Tell us about some upcoming projects or a piece you are currently writing.
Trisha: I’m excited about a Christmas book I’m planning for 2021. I’m still researching and developing the characters I want to use to tell the story. I should begin writing it by the end of the month. It’s a story that I ran across while researching a short story that was set in Iowa. In Algona, Iowa, during World War 2, there was a POW camp there that housed several thousand German soldiers.
Several of the German POW’s created a nativity scene their first Christmas there and held a special Christmas Eve service, singing to God in their native tongue. The camp commander asked them to make a larger nativity scene for the next year. Four POWs worked all year on it. The war ended before they were quite done with it, so they stayed several months longer to finish it up. When it was completed, Christmas 1945, there was a special service, and they left the nativity scene to the town of Algona. All these years later, the nativity scene is still there and still viewed every year. Last year, 2020, was the first year that the display wasn’t open to the public because of Covid.
Me: What else would you like readers to know about you? What is the best way for them to find your work?
Trisha: I often joke that I was born on the cusp of Gemini/Cancer. My heart loves and nurtures with a true Cancer spirit. But my writing – my writing is pure flighty Gemini. Sometimes I wish I had one interest and passion and all my writing efforts went into that. But, alas, I don’t. There are so many things I like to dabble in with my writing. A little inspirational, a little bit for children, a lot about pieces from the past, a dab of this, and a smattering of that.
While I do provide some grammar instruction in my English 10 courses, Kris Spisak wrote the book on it. Literally. Her first book, Get a Grip on Your Grammar, was published in 2017, and it is a handy and clever reference book for those who want more information or would like to double-check commonly confused words and phrases. It’s excellent, and I often use it for grammar icebreakers in my classes.
Earlier this year, Kris published The Novel EditingWorkbook (Feb. 2020), and this month, she is releasing her newest project. It’s such an exciting time for her, and I’m so happy to have Kris here for my November Coffee Chat. Fill up your mug, and join us as we talk about unusual jobs, grammar pet peeves, and claiming the title “writer” once and for all.
Me: I may have assumed you were a coffee drinker. Are you? If so, how do you take it?
Kris: I absolutely am. Coffee is my #5amwritersclub fuel. A natural vanilla creamer is my usual go-to.
Me: What is a job that you’ve had in the past that people might not know about? Any interesting stories from it you can share?
Kris: I’ve had way too many strange jobs, but it helps in the writer’s life, I suppose. I was a “security guard” in college. I worked the front desk of the kinesiology department building, ensuring no one unauthorized went into the labs where dissections took place—and, you know, making sure cadaver parts never left the building. That’s a bit strange when I look back on it, but it was a great place to catch up on my homework!
Me: Oh, wow! That was an interesting job! In your newest book, you mention that many people are afraid to claim the title “writer.” When did you first consider yourself a writer? Was there a defining moment when you realized this is what you were meant to do?
Kris: Why is it that so many people are afraid to call themselves a “writer”? If you write, you simply are one. No publication credits are required.
My ownership of the “writer” title came through my membership and participation with James River Writers, an amazing writing community that has bolstered my personal and professional life for the past fifteen plus years. I remember sitting in the audience at one of their events years ago and hearing someone make this point. Prior to that evening, I had said that I “liked to write” or that “I wanted to be a writer,” but something in the air that night shifted my perspective. I stopped “wanting to be a writer” and simply owned the fact that I was one. And I haven’t looked back since.
Me: What are some writing routines, quirks, or habits you have? What are some items you must have in your writing space?
Kris: As I mentioned in your first question, I try my best to make it to the #5amwritersclub on Twitter as frequently as I can. It used to be daily, and I’m working on getting back into that routine, though everything that is strange about 2020 has disrupted that regularity for me. Sneaking my writing time in first thing in the morning, when my house is quiet and my coffee is in hand, always improves the rest of my day. Plus, starting early in the morning when my coffee hasn’t yet kicked in lets me play a bit in my not-quite-awake, not-quite-dreaming state, where my creativity often flourishes.
What do I need in my writing space? Coffee just keeps coming up here, doesn’t it? And perhaps my cats. My family calls them my “gargoyles” since they’ve been known to perch on opposite sides of my desk while I work.
Me: What is your biggest grammatical pet peeve? Care to comment on “irregardless?”
Kris: “Irregardess” is simply not a word. I don’t care that they’ve added it to the dictionary. They’ve also added “literally” to the dictionary, meaning “figuratively,” as in the opposite of “literally.” There’s casual use, sure, but we all have our lines. “Irregardless” is absolutely past that line for me.
That being said, I’m not sure I have grammatical pet peeves, per se, anymore. There are so many details that writers and speakers just simply don’t seem to understand. An editor’s work is never done! But I’m of the school that we all need to support each other where we can. If people ask me for help, oh, I’m all in. But I’m never going to call out or correct someone’s mistake. That’s unnecessary.
Me: What is your favorite word?
Kris: My favorite word is “posh,” but not for the reason you might think. The meaning of “posh” is fine and all—and who wouldn’t want to own that one?—however, for me, it’s my favorite because it’s the first word I remember learning the etymology story for. I remember the story hitting me, feeling startled yet wanting to learn more. When history meets language meets sociology, I’m fascinated every single time. I might have been around ten years old. I never would have guessed that my life would be shaped upon such language stories, but here we are—and I love my work so much.
Me: What are some of the pitfalls of knowing the rules of proper grammar?
Kris: Wait, there are pitfalls? Just kidding. Well, you could argue that I pay attention to language far more than I need to. For example, in this question, you used the word “pitfalls,” which has its origin connected with literally falling into a pit. I’m suddenly happy that I live in a world where I don’t truly have to be concerned with “pit falls” of that nature, only the simpler kind that might be referenced in a question like this.
Knowing how to actually use a semicolon feels like a super-power sometimes, but knowing doesn’t mean we should criticize or judge others. That’s the biggest pitfall I see in the grammar conscious. We all need to try harder (at so many things!) but the world would be better without the grammatical anger that’s out there. I try to avoid that at all costs.
Me: What was the inspiration for your new book?
Kris: When my last book, The Novel Editing Workbook, came out, we had the idea about the next one in line. The original plan was going to be “The Memoir Editing Workbook.” Everything I focus on is about empowering our words and our storytelling, and this seemed to be the best next step. Yet as I created writing prompts in the spring of 2020, urging writers (whether they claimed the “writer” title or not) to write down their stories, because we were living through history, I was shocked by the response. People had so many tales that began pouring out of them—stories of 2020 but also stories of hard times in years past, both their own and their family’s.
Thus, my next project shifted, and The Family Story Workbook was conceived in its new form, designed for anyone who’s ever wanted to write their life story, anyone who’s wanted to connect with their family members in a new and profound way, or anyone who’s wanted to capture their family stories before they’re lost.
So many people want to write these stories, yet they never do. The Family Story Workbook is the tool to preserve these histories.
Me: What is a family story you have that you want to make sure is never forgotten?
Kris: I think I’ve been trying to write one of my family stories since elementary school but never really found the right way to tell it. I’ve played with it in poetry, in short stories, in first-person narrative nonfiction, and in novel form. Hopefully, I’ll have updates on my most recent attempts at it soon, where I’ve pulled my family’s Ukrainian World War II stories into fiction. Stories of bravery, heroics, and survival can take so many forms. These are the family stories that impacted me young and still ring out so powerfully for me. Some stories are too meaningful not to share, but more on that soon
For readers interested in English language news and trivia, my monthly newsletter is packed, including the most recent updates on my writing tips blog and language-focused podcast, “Words You Should Know.” You can sign up and learn more about my books (Get a Grip on Your Grammar, The Novel Editing Workbook, and now The Family Story Workbook) at Kris-Spisak.com. The Family Story Workbook will be released November 12, 2020, and is available for preorder here.