My Serendipitous Love Affair with Virginia Woolf

I’m currently working on an independent study at ULL that will extend into the summer, and one of the two classes I will concentrate on during the summer months is called Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Bloomsbury Group. In preparation for a heavy reading load, I have been on Amazon finding the required books at cheap prices and ordering them one and two at a time. Little did I know that serendipity would play a hand.

At first, I searched for a biography of Woolf, but there were several to choose from. Mostly, I just wanted a readable text that would give me an overview of her life. I was torn between three different texts when I noticed that one of three (Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris) was published on October 1st, 2011. Being that this was same day of the same year that Matt and I were married, I ordered a used copy of this text, taking the date coincidence as a small but useful sign.

When the biography came in the mail, I was very pleased by the book itself. Being a sucker for book art and bookbinding, I felt drawn to the book’s tight frame and the way that the heavy pages fell open with such ease. I had not intended to start this book for a few weeks, but I couldn’t help myself. I sat down on the armchair in my office and began reading the book just moments after receiving it in the mail.

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

Within a few paragraphs, I was struck by yet another coincidence. The book reported that Virginia Woolf was born on January 25th, 1882. Nothing of note there, except that I had received this book (a book I had only ordered because of a small “sign”) and began reading the book on January 25th, 2014, Woolf’s 132nd birthday.

At this point, I told Matt about this fun coincidence and went on reading the biography. I was very interested in Woolf’s life, and I felt happy to be the kind of person who finds meaning in the smallest details.

If the story ended here, there wouldn’t be a story – at least not one of note. Upon completing my reading list with my professor, Dr. Wilson, at ULL, I ordered yet another biography of Woolf from Amazon. This time, I ordered Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy by Jane Dunn. This biography focuses specifically on Woolf and her relationship with her sister Vanessa Bell, who was a famous painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group. Choosing which of the 50 used copies of this text on Amazon I wanted to order was harder than usual. I wanted a hardback, but many of them were ranked “new,” and so despite the fact that they were in the “used” category, they still cost more than I wanted to spend. Even in the paperback section, many of the books were overpriced, or if they were cheap it seemed to be because the book was badly damaged. I took probably an hour picking out which copy to order from Amazon and chose one that was medium priced and seemed to be in good enough shape. It would ship from a thrift store in Washington state.

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa  Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy by Jane Dunn

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy
by Jane Dunn

I received the book within just a few days. It arrived via USPS on an ordinary, magic-less day. I brought the package inside to our mail desk at the corner of our kitchen. Upon opening the package, I found the correct text I had ordered. I noted that it was even in better shape than I anticipated, so I prided myself on a good selection. Then, in thumbing through the book, I found a most surprising discovery. There, on the title page of the text was someone’s address sticker, one of the address stickers you often get in the mail for free, but this wasn’t just a random US address. In fact, I recognized the address immediately: 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, London, England.

Inside cover of Jane Dunn book

Inside cover of Jane Dunn book

For those of you who may not know, 22 Hyde Park Gate is the address of Woolf and Bell’s childhood home in London. It now serves as a museum/historical site, commemorating the famous writers and artists who lived there. The address itself was unmistakable, but I didn’t recognize the name: Jasmyne E. King-Leeder. Google wasn’t much help either but then the thought occurred to me that if there were still tenants in 22 Hyde Park Gate, surely there was something about this on the location’s website. I was correct. In fact, according to, Ms. King-Leeder is the only current tenant who resides in the six flat historical home.

Effectually, the copy of this book I received (a copy I basically choose at random from several options on Amazon) was formerly the personal copy of the woman who now lives at 22 Hyde Park Gate, the home where Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell lived during their childhood.

How did this book end up in a thrift store in Washington? Why did Ms. King-Leeder choose to get rid of her copy in the first place, a copy with her personal address inside? I have many questions about this experience, though I’m sure that for many I’ll never get an answer.

There is one thing I know for sure, and that is that life is too ephemeral and meaningful to not indulge this kind of serendipity. I do not have a choice. I must write a letter to Ms. King-Leeder and try not to sound too crazy. I want to tell her about this experience and hope that she writes me back. I want to jump down this rabbit hole and fall as far as I can because… well, this could be just another story I share at cocktail parties, or it could, if I’m lucky, be the beginning of an adventure.

The Power of Twitter for Writers Looking to Publish

If you’re anything like me, you set up a Twitter account when it was just reaching popularity in 2008-2009. You followed the short list of your friends who had a Twitter account. Then, for funsies you followed a few starlets just to add to your following list and to be trendy (I’ve followed Ellen DeGeneres since day one).  If any of this rings true for you, then you (bored and let down) may also have left your Twitter account stagnant for the next four years. This was certainly my Twitter story.

Just last year, I realized what millions of Americans already knew about this social medium.  For some people, 3,000 of your closest friends are on Twitter, and for you, this is why Twitter matters. For the rest of us, finding a niche for your account is vital to its usefulness. For years, I already had a niche – writing. And when it dawned on me to devote my Twitter to all things (and people) writing and publishing, I realized something: Twitter is an indispensable medium for writers looking to get published.

Primary Account or Secondary Account: When it comes to devoting your Twitter to writing and publishing, you may not want to fill up your primary/personal account with all things writing. In which case, you may want to set up a secondary account. For me, my primary account had become sad, thin, and depressed. It was quite happy to be re-appropriated as a personal/professional account.

Deleting the Extraneous Crowd: The first step I took was to delete the organizations I had followed that posted ALL. THE. TIME. and did not matter to me in any way. I had only followed maybe 40 people and organizations originally, but that number included all branches of the Huffington Post. If you follow all branches of the Huffington Post, then that takes up your timeline by itself.  My first step then was to delete all the obvious clutter.

Following Literary Magazines: I was shocked to find hundreds of Twitter accounts devoted to various literary magazines, both university sponsored journals and independent magazines. I began following all the journals I knew accepted poetry, particularly journals I admired and/or hoped to one day submit to / be published in. I made a decision very early on – a decision I’ve stuck with – to ONLY follow journals relevant to me as a writer: journals, magazines, online zines and publications that I either found stimulating to read or specifically that I hoped to submit to for publication.  Let’s be real: there are thousands of magazines and journals out there. I want to be able to scroll through and actually see almost all of the timeline daily. If you follow thousands of nameless journals, it won’t have the same effect.

Why follow journals / magazines? Journals and magazines tweet when they are opening for submissions and when they are looking for a specific genre / specific themes. For example, the poetry magazine RATTLE publishes one themed issue a year. Sometimes, these themes are very broad themes like “love poems,” but sometimes a journal is looking for a very specific theme like “ghost poems written by Florida poets.” It just may happen that you have a ghost poem in your repertoire and that you are a Florida poet. As such, learning about a niche call for submissions like this one that applies to your work will exponentially increase your odds of getting published.

Following Book Publishers: Many of the reasons for following literary magazines and journals also hold true for following book publishers. When I began searching my favorite presses, I found all of them … and then hundreds more.  As I write mostly poetry, I followed all poetry publishers whose names I already knew, including university presses with strong poetry divisions. Again, I made a conscious choice to stick with publishers who were (and still are) most relevant to me as a writer (though I also followed a few big names just to stay up-to-date with the big-daddy moneymakers: Random House, Harper Collins, etc.). Monthly, I’ll follow some new press that I just recently learned about, but overall, I’d rather keep my list manageable. Here again, book publishers tweet calls for submissions, book contests, new and recently published titles and a lot more.

Following Submittable & Duotrope: If you’re knee-deep in the publishing industry like me, then you know about Submittable and Duotrope. Both are very useful to follow on Twitter because they tweet when various literary magazines and publishers are opening/calling for submissions. However, they also tweet about publishers and magazines who currently do not have a twitter, so following both of these sites gives you an insider’s perspective on a wider range of publications. Also, Duotrope is a useful “writer’s resource,” but it costs money to join. Many writers find it useful for publishing, but by following Duotrope on Twitter, you receive some of its updates and useful information… for free.

Following Writers You Admire: I feel as though I don’t need to mention following fellow writers you personally know. I have several peers that I follow on Twitter and greatly enjoy reading their updates, successes, breakthroughs. But along with following writer friends, there is much joy in following your writing idols. As I was searching magazines and publishers, I received notifications like “do you want to follow Sherman Alexie, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth Gilbert?” Why, yes I do. I clicked follow on all major writers whose names I came across (making a few exceptions for those whose work is just not my thing). Here in lies one of Twitters most cherished attributes: you can actually follow the big names, the celebrities you admire, and occasionally you can tweet them and have them tweet you back. There literally may be no better way (as of now) to keep up with people who inspire you. It was awesome to follow a writer like Major Jackson and have him follow me back.

The same is true of Facebook. I recently discovered one of my earliest writing idols on Facebook – the poet Merrit Malloy. I requested her Facebook friendship, and she kindly accepted. So now, I receive updates about her new work and see posts on her daily musings.  What a small, intimate world social media has the power to create.

Creating Your Own Brand: All in all, I followed some 345 magazines, publishers, and writers and had a handful follow me back. So, then I had to confront my own media identity. When writers and writing organizations looked at my profile, what did they see? I wanted to have the opportunity to develop name recognition and have the chance to make contacts, so I checked the handle @christiecollins to see if it was available. Unfortunately, it was not, and I didn’t want to be @chriscoll181. This is a lesson in early name choices. In 2008, @christiecollins may have been available, but I didn’t understand then how important it was/is to claim your own name. Try to create a handle as close to your name as possible. (Also, even if you don’t want an author website right now, if “” is available, BUY IT NOW and save it for later because it may not be available in a year. Chances are if “” is available then it probably costs less than $10.00 a year to own. BUY IT NOW). I decided to stick with my original @prettyredshoes handle, which has since lead me back to my PrettyRedShoes blog, newly updated as a blog about creative writing. Develop a niche for your Twitter. Be professional and specific with your profile. Be consistent with your brand. And let Twitter work for you.

PrettyRedShoes: Off With A Bang

This, the first entry of a blog about creative writing, is a long time coming for me.  I’ve decided to use the first entry to answer two basic questions: 1) what’s the purpose of this site and 2) why is it called PrettyRedShoes?


Upon deciding to create this blog, I knew that discussing writing alone was not nearly enough to cover my personal interests nor would that topic alone cover ideas and concerns dealing with the publishing of creative work or the teaching of writing, so I decided to expand my scope, and the purpose has developed into as follows: PrettyRedShoes is a website / blog that seeks to promote helpful & meaningful discussions about navigating the vast topic of creative writing: the writing itself, the teaching of writing, and the various avenues of publishing. PrettyRedShoes also seeks to feature current writers & their creative or critical work.

W H Y  P R E T T Y R E D S H O E S?

In 1948,  Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger released The Red Shoes, a major motion picture starring the beautiful Moira Shearer. Adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Red Shoes follows Victoria Page (Shearer), an aspiring and driven young ballerina whose passion for her art (intensified by a pair of red shoes) gives way to lunacy and eventually leads to her demise.

The scene in which the dancers perform The Red Shoes ballet is one of the most moving and well-crafted moments of cinematography of all time. This scene is set up as though the performance is taking place on a stage in an opera house, but because this is part of a movie, the ballet takes place on a movie set. Therefore, the dancers have set designs to dance in and out of. The camera and the dancers weave through the 120 hand-painted scenes (painted by Hein Heckroth. Winner of 1949 Oscar for Art Direction-Set Decoration), creating a far more dynamic and moving ballet performance than what can be traditionally accomplished on a stage alone. The same can also be said of the special effects (namely when Shearer jumps into the red shoes at the beginning of the performance).

For lovers of movies, ballet, or art in general, this sequence (and really the whole movie) is a must see.  I’ve included an excerpt below.

Shearer’s red pointe shoes (both as she dances point in the performance and later as she dies on the train track below the theatre) are some of my earliest memories. Why was I watching such a long and mature movie at such a young age, I do not know. Though I do know that my love for ballet and art has been lifelong and certainly was a part of me years before I wrote my first poem or story. And over the years, the blood red shoes have wielded their way into a kind of metaphor that I both admire and fear. A metaphor for art, for the artist, and for the tight rope we walk between sanity and lunacy. A metaphor for the art of creative expression and how that creative energy has the power to break us or make us whole, strangely sometimes both in the same sitting. For me, the red shoes are a symbol and living mascot for this art, this strange, pertinent blood red art.

Humble Beginnings


PrettyRedShoes is a website / blog that seeks to promote helpful & meaningful discussions about navigating the vast world of creative writing: the writing itself, the teaching of writing, and the various avenues of publishing. PrettyRedShoes also seeks to feature current writers & their creative work.