Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers

MY BLOG POSTS COMMENT ON SOME ASPECT OF WRITING & READING.

The Ripening
The Ripening:
A Canadian Girl Grows Up

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" Tillie’s grit and ability to face life’s challenges are inspiring, the seeds for later discovering her artist self. Tillie takes readers on a wild ride. Join her if you dare! "

Lily Iona MacKenzie Books
Curva Peligrosa
Curva Peligrosa

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

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FLING!
Fling!

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

"Fling! is both hilarious and touching. Every page is a surprise, and the characters! I especially loved Bubbles, one of the most endearing mothers in recent fiction. A scintillating read."

Lily Iona MacKenzie Books
Freefall
Freefall :
A Divine Comedy

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" These fascinating characters will fill your imagination, defying expectations about aging, art, and what truly matters in life. "

Lily Iona MacKenzie Books
All This
All This

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" Indicative of the title, the poems in All This range from the conventional lyric/narrative that captures an intense moment of emotion, an epiphany glimpsed briefly out of the corner of the eye, to the more experimental. "

Lily Iona MacKenzie Books
No More Kings
No More Kings

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

" A wildly inventive, consistently engaging, and amusing comic novel, but under its bright exterior lurk darker undertones and truths.... "

Each finely crafted poem in this powerful collection comes alive on the page while she traces the days’ journeys with a painter’s eye, a musician’s ear, and the deft pen of a poet.

Lily Iona MacKenzie Books
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Tag: fiction Page 1 of 2

Meet guest author Cliff Garstang and learn about his prize-winning fiction!

After Regal House Publishing recently released Cliff Garstang ‘s new novel Oliver’s Travels,  I asked him to be a guest author on my blog and sent him some questions about his writing process, including how he comes up with titles, the origins of his characters, literary inspirations, what feeds his writing, how he researches his books, and more.

Here are his great responses:

Thanks to the writing gods!

cat-1045782_1920Someone asked me the other day why I chose creative writing as a career. The truth is, I didn’t choose it. Writing chose me. If I wanted to continue living, I really didn’t have a choice. Okay, I know, this sounds esoteric, and it is! In most careers, we feel a calling: doctors, lawyers, athletes. If we’re tuned into ourselves at all, the need to follow a certain path starts early in our lives.

Meet author Terra Ziporyn in this fabulous interview: “We should stop worrying about genres, reality, and imagination, and think instead about telling good stories.”

Terra Snider_WhatsUp Headshop_No SSL Button_April 2019Meet my guest author Terra Ziporyn, fiction and non-fiction writer.

  • When did you write your first book and how did it come about?

It’s hard to answer this question because I’ve been writing “books” since I was a kid, and the trajectory of my fiction and non-fiction is very different. I guess I completed my first novel during college, but it’s still in a drawer, along with various other novels I’ve written since then that may never go anywhere else. That first novel was inspired by the life of a troubled friend who life story needed telling. Whether or not it’s worth publishing remains to be seen—I’m a bit afraid to unearth it from my file cabinet. My first published book was an adaptation of my PhD dissertation, a historical study of the way medical research gets communicated in the popular media (Disease in the Popular American Press). That was back in the late 1980s. The first novel I published was Time’s Fool (2001), a historical novel that drew on my academic work in the history of science, centered on a 19th century utopian community.

Writing into Life!

notepad-3297994_1920Writing is such an important part of my day that if I don’t get to it, I’m constantly distracted, as if I have a lover I’m thinking about. It’s like a siren’s call, pulling me away. My husband notices it. He comments on me seeming drifty. He’s right. I’m just not there. As happened today.

Why Do You Read Novels?

colorful-fireworks-4th-of-july-picjumbo-com copyAs a fiction writer, I often ask myself why people read novels and how can I convince them to read mine? That question occurred to me again recently when I finished a novel that had me questioning why read fiction. The book was engaging enough. The writer was competent and had created characters that seemed believable (though that isn’t necessarily a criterion for me). There was enough tension to keep me reading in order to discover more about these lives I had immersed myself in. But the experience felt flat, and I wondered why I had spent several precious hours on something that wasn’t more satisfying.

What is the REAL story?

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Lily Iona MacKenzie

“The artist must be deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and harken to its words alone.”  —Kandinsky.

Several years ago I entered a Masters in Creative Writing program as a poet, but I was equally interested in writing fiction and signed up for several short story

The Tyranny of Show vs Tell

If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve heard many times the bromide “show, don’t tell,” but often the showing part dominates the telling and becomes tyrannical. As a writer friend once pointed out, when we’re writing fiction, we are storytelling and not storyshowing, and there are many ways to tell an engaging story.

Of course, some beginning writers do tend to summarize more than dramatize. They haven’t learned yet how to traverse between generalities and specifics. And in our early drafts, even more experienced writers often are just trying to capture their characters before they can disappear. Showing, then, tends to happen later in the drafting process.

However, it is important to know when one or the other is required, and that’s the advantage of using this shorthand workshop comment. When we show, we try to embellish scenes and important moments through using descriptive details that create images. Dialogue also helps to nail down character traits and interaction. When we tell, we are usually summarizing background information or periods that don’t need to be in the spotlight. We don’t want to call too much attention to some aspects of the tale we’re conveying.

I’m all for using whatever tools are at our disposal, and I don’t reject the idea that knowing how to show and tell effectively are important elements in writing narrative. However, they aren’t the only “show” in town. There are other ways to create drama and develop character that often get overlooked by the overused workshop mantra.

I’ve been rereading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and I’m absorbed by her characters’ inner lives. Not only does Woolf violate many of the strictures we hear in writing workshops about the dangers of switching points of view within a chapter, but she also rarely resorts to showing or dramatizing a scene. Instead, she seems to inhabit her settings and characters’ interiors, taking the reader with her inside their inner worlds, portraying how complex they are. I feel as if I’m watching a movie of their internal processes.

Of course, Woolf isn’t the only writer who takes a different approach to creating compelling narratives by not depending on show versus tell. W. G. Sebald’s hybrid “novels” have their own narrative logic that also disrupt the usual notion of what constitutes a story. And there are many others in this category: Samuel Beckett, David Foster Wallace, Proust, and other likeminded authors who aren’t afraid of a character’s introspection. In fact, I’m often bored by passages in some naturalistic works that race along, fueled by external action, forgetting to linger and let their creations sink down into the unconscious from which we have emerged.

What’s your take on this topic?

 

PDS versus PDF

 

I sent an email message to family and friends recently that the publisher of Fling! had offered me a three-book contract. It will include my novel Freefall: A Divine Comedy (to be published in 2017), Tillie: Portrait of a Canadian Girl in Training, and a third that also will feature the Tillie character (she appears in Freefall as well).

One long-time friend responded, “You have worked harder as a writer than anyone I know and I’m proud of you!”

I replied, “I’ve learned that perseverance and determination and self-belief are essential to succeeding as a writer.”

But what does this mean?

writer copyLet’s start with perseverance. We persevere when we continue doing something even if we have no assurance of success. If writers want to be published, they must endure self-doubt, rejections, and blocks to eventually be published. Writing a novel takes a long time. I started working on Fling! in 1999 and it wasn’t published until 2015! Of course, I wasn’t focused on Fling! all those years. I wrote other novels in the meantime. Yet if I hadn’t persisted, the book would not be out in the world, seeking its readers.

And determination? Clearly, it takes considerable resolve in order to follow this torturous path. Writers have to get up each day, sit down in front of the computer screen, and face the blank page, intent on moving the narrative forward (or even sideways if that’s the direction it wants to take) in order to complete the work. It requires considerable grit, doggedness, and courage to pick up the metaphorical pen and keep writing, no matter what.

By now you can see why self-belief is so essential. If you don’t have basic confidence in yourself as a writer, and that only comes from proving to yourself you have the right stuff by writing regularly, it will be more difficult for you to press on. The more we do something, the more our skills at that task improve. If I want to become a good tennis player, I can’t just go out a few times and swing at some balls. I’ll never develop belief in myself as a tennis player with that approach. But if I take some lessons and pursue the game consistently, I’m bound to improve. The same is true of writing, so that these three words—perseverance, determination, and self-belief—create a circle. Inside that ring is the writer who one day will find publishing success because s/he’s pursued his/her dream.

Hence, Perseverance, determination, and self-belief (PDS) versus Passivity, Doubt, and Fear (PDF).

 

 

Timing: Giving Birth To a Novel

I’ve completed another novel. It didn’t come fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. I’ve been working on parts of it for years, but in the past few months it has solidified and taken its final shape. As is often the case for me, it took awhile for the main character’s voice to fully emerge. It’s a little like a partial birth, if there is such a thing. Legs and arms came first. Eventually the rest followed.

The central character Tillie is the younger version of the main actor in Freefall, a work that I hope to see published soon. Freefall’s Tillie is 60 with the heart of someone much younger. Like her older self, the young Tillie is quirky and precocious and loves to wander. The working title for the new novel is Tillie: Portrait of a Canadian Girl in Training. For those who don’t know about the organization, Canadian Girls in Training actually exists, and I joined it for a while when I was young.

Of course, attending meetings was an excuse to get out of the house at night. But the real training happened on my way to and from the church where we gathered. We smoked all the way there and back. We played white rabbit, a “game” that involved ringing doorbells over and over and then disappearing. We raided gardens. And we also visited the local park where the boys were hanging out. I learned many useful things during those excursions.

And I’ve learned a lot from writing this novel. It can take years for a character and a story to emerge. It’s not unlike raising a child: there are developmental stages, and each one is important. So though at times I despaired that the work would ever cohere, it did. And it was worth waiting for.

Trusting Ourselves as Writers

“I write to make sense of my life.” John Cheever

I’ve been reading Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life, and it’s been extremely illuminating in many ways. John Cheever, considered one of the best 20th Century short story writers, struggled at times, as most writers do, to trust his impulses in creating short stories and novels. Many of his works first appeared in the New Yorker, and for much of that time, William Maxwell, long-time editor at that magazine, was both his good friend and editor. This relationship eventually became a problem for them both.

Maxwell, a fine writer himself, wore blinders when his writers attempted to move beyond the traditional realist fiction that he favored. At a critical time in Cheever’s life and career, Maxwell refused to publish any Cheever stories that didn’t fit into this narrow groove, causing Cheever to doubt his craft. He somehow managed to regain his equilibrium and found publishers who were interested in his deviations from the naturalistic mode. But because Maxwell had so much power to influence his friend, it was difficult for the latter to break away.

He eventually did, but Cheever’s evolution reminds me of problems I also faced while enrolled in San Francisco State’s Creative Writing Program. Like him, I ran into teachers/authorities who didn’t encourage my fabulist tendencies, urging me to focus on the mainstream story. I wrote about this experience in the following blog: “What Is the Real Story?” http://www.nowwhatmfa.com/guest-articles/

As I mention there, “As writers and teachers, we need to be more aware of the range we have available to us so we don’t limit our own or others’ imaginations.” I also quote Eudora Welty who wisely has pointed out that “Writing is such an internal, interior thing that it can hardly be reached by you, much less by another person. I can’t tell you how to write, no more than you can tell me. We’re all different from one another even in the way we breathe. Writers must learn to trust themselves.”

I’m grateful that Cheever fought back and eventually did trust his own voice, a distinctive one that still inspires short story writers from all traditions. Making sense of one’s life requires us to explore new modes and find alternative ways to express our discoveries.

I would love to hear from others who have had similar experiences. Even better, I would like to hear from writers who ran into those rare teachers who could help the writer find his/her unique direction.

 

 

 

 

 

Timing and Perseverance: the Keys To Success as a Writer

I’m thinking today of timing—how important it is to success. Timing and perseverance: the two go together. If I hadn’t persisted as a writer, writing daily and sending out queries to potential publishers for my various novels and poetry collections, I would not have a poetry collection in print (All This) or be anticipating the publication of Fling, one of my novels in July 2015.

I’m also noticing the seasonal aspect of creativity, how cyclic it is. That too is hard to grasp. I want it all the time. I’m afraid if it isn’t there, it won’t return. But I need to remember that if I pursue my creative impulses, and if they’re in accordance with my abilities, then there will be success. Maybe not financially, though that would be nice. But I’ll experience the satisfaction of achieving what I’m capable of.

I must keep in mind that the cup will empty, fullness will recede, as happens each night with the waxing and waning energies of the moon. I can’t help but hear “moo” when I write moon, those old nursery rhymes of the cow jumping over the moon still playing in my imagination. Of course, cows are very much moon creatures, with their emptying and filling, the various stomachs they have for digesting food that turns into nourishing milk. They’re a wonderful symbol for the creative person.

But perseverance is the key word. I need to keep this in mind to combat the bombardment of negative things I’m reading about being a writer. Not only is publishing like finding a needle in a haystack—especially publishing fiction—but also only five percent of novelists support themselves on their writing.

 

 

 

Writing’s dialogue with myself and my life

I’m interested in an interview I read in Border Crossings with Canadian artist Betty Goodwin: She says, “A work is a deeply personal mixture of your earlier experiences and also your life at the present in this world. But I can’t shred it and say it’s absolutely this or that. It’s based in something you don’t even realize yourself until it gives you back information. It’s like you’re pulling and pulling and trying to get something. And then there’s that magic time when it begins to pull you. If that doesn’t happen, you can’t push it any more and it dies.”

This quote captures my feelings about how my writing connects with my on-going life, that somehow it’s shaping me as I shape it, just as dreams do. What do I mean here? Dreams speak to us from the depths of the unconscious. There is not past, present, or future in the psyche. Often, then, they not only dredge up moments from our past but also reach their tentacles into the future. Poetry and fiction seem to have a similar dynamic. The poems that interest me the most are ones that don’t follow a traditional narrative movement. They seem to take elements from multiple places, including memories as well as outer and inner experiences. In fiction, I feel I’m expressing aspects of myself as well that I become familiar with as I write. Emotions, ideas, images surface that enlarge my understanding of myself and the world.

It’s essential for my well being to have this dialogue with the work and my life.

 

 

 

Dear Fellow Readers (and Writers): Why do you read fiction?

I recently finished a novel that had me questioning why I read fiction. The book was engaging enough. The writer was competent and had created characters that seemed believable (though that isn’t necessarily a criterion for me). There was enough tension to keep me reading in order to discover more about these lives I had immersed myself in. But the experience felt flat, and I wondered why I had spent several precious hours on something that wasn’t more satisfying.

So why do I read? For me, reading isn’t necessarily to escape my daily life. I read to deepen it. If a book doesn’t take me somewhere new emotionally and intellectually, I feel cheated. Why would I go on this literary journey if I remain the same person at the end?

I also want my knowledge of the world broadened and intensified. I love many naturalistic novels—ones that recreate everyday life and give me new glimpses (novel=make it new) of familiar settings and things. Often that happens through the writer’s expert use of metaphor and symbol, devices that automatically expand our perceptions. Or s/he has a masterful way with manipulating sentences and images.

But I also love works that employ magical realism, as many of my fictions do, because they point to something other, something not quite articulable. They lift the lid on ordinary experience and suggest other possibilities.

I hope I’ll hear from others on why they read. That too will expand my horizons!

Dear Fellow Writers/Readers

It amazes me that after all of these years spent writing in a variety of genres (novels, short stories, poetry, memoir, essays), I’m still learning about process and other writing-related things. Recently, I’ve been working on what I expect will become another novel. It draws on some of my childhood experiences growing up on the Canadian prairies. Of course, it’s no surprise to anyone that writers use such events in their fiction (and non-fiction), but I find that I get bogged down if I stay too close to the actual material.

When I’m recreating something I’ve already lived through, especially in fiction, it loses its appeal and I don’t feel any excitement in writing it. I write to make discoveries, not just to reinhabit the past. I realize that sometimes we need to revisit past events in order to make sense of them, especially in writing memoir. But in fiction, for the work to take on life for me, I must only use it as a seed that I plant and embellish through invention. If my imagination doesn’t get stimulated and involved, it’s a trudge each day to try and press forward.

In the material I’m currently developing, the main character has similar experiences to mine in acquiring a stepfather at an early age and moving to his farm. However, to recreate certain occurrences from that time bores me, especially when writing fiction. It doesn’t interest me to recreate myself in a character—though all writers do this to a certain degree, parts of ourselves inhabiting all of our creations. I need to step into a new identity and discover what makes this other personality unique.

Once I realized what was happening in my current work, I was able to let go and fly. Now I can’t wait to return each day to the manuscript and discover where it wants to go. The characters and setting are taking on their own life, very different from what I originally envisioned.

For me, that’s the main pleasure of writing in any genre: if I don’t learn something new, then it’s tedious and not worth my time or my reader’s. Writing needs to be about these voyages into the unknown where we make visible what has been hidden. It’s like fishing, lowering our line into the waters of the unconscious and snagging who knows what.

 

 

The Pros & Cons of Writing Groups

Being part of an on-line writing group for several years has provided many benefits. But with the positives come a few negatives.

The Positives:

Over a period of time, one learns to recognize each reader’s style of critiquing and approach to writing fiction/non-fiction. I’ve discovered that, usually, all of our critiques collectively add up to one excellent response. Each person brings a different angle, a new take on the material. Some focus on character development more than story arc. Others seek deeper meanings in the piece and how they are revealed by imagery, metaphor, etc. And there’s usually someone who is good with punctuation or grammar or style. Rarely are comments duplicated, and, if they are, then they add weight to whatever is being discussed. So while responses can be predictable at times, they also are dependable.

I’m always astonished by the ways in which these multiple readings push me into deepening my revision process. I don’t submit anything that hasn’t gone through multiple (and I mean MULTIPLE) revisions. By the time the piece reaches my readers, it has been examined from every angle and I can’t find anything more to change. It’s a surprise, then, when the comments start dribbling in, and I learn all of the things I’ve missed or overlooked in my own editing process. Without those extra eyes and minds, my work would remain incomplete rather than being enriched by the perspectives these readers bring.

Okay, the Negatives:

Some readers are not sophisticated in their literary knowledge. Therefore, they often don’t get it if the writer is experimenting, trying out new approaches to the genre. I’ve learned to recognize who these individuals are in my group and to read their comments discriminately, recognizing their limitations.

In a similar vein, most of the critiquers have been through a writing program and bring some of the problematic, standardized workshop advice that can limit rather than liberate a story. Show and don’t tell is one approach. In certain instances, it’s valid and helpful counsel. But at its worst, it becomes a blanket response to all writing, the reader not taking into account when the narrative is more attuned to the character’s inner state than what is happening externally. Creating “scenes” also can fall into this trap. Sometimes a scene can vitalize a fading passage and dramatize what’s happening, bringing conflict and tension into the piece. Other times, it’s not appropriate.

The greatest negative for me is when a writer sends off a really early draft that he/she hasn’t taken the time to hone him/herself. It’s essentially a freewrite containing all of the original grammar and punctuation errors, the assumption being that the messier the better—the more “emotional” or “authentic.” It’s not. It’s simply a very early draft that is difficult to read because of all the surface errors. Then I feel the writer is putting the responsibility on me to rescue this effort and do the actual writing. I don’t want to deal with early drafts because they are usually in the exploratory stage and haven’t really congealed yet. The writer hasn’t discovered the heart of the story and is relying on his/her readers to do this hard work for him/her. I resent being used in this way. But I also feel that responding too soon to an exploratory draft inhibits the writing itself, shutting down rather than opening up possibilities.

The positives clearly outweigh the negatives. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have remained with this group for so long. Not only do I learn from the responses to my own submissions, but I also get insight by reading comments on other members’ work.

 

 

Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.


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