Ep 54 Get the most out of writers’ conferences, win a hotel by writing 200 words, mistakes writers make on Twitter, and Writer in Residence Patti Miller

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In Episode 54 of So you want to be a writer: The Readings Children’s Book Prize 2015 shortlist, top authors give their advice on blogging, how to prepare for a writers’ conference, use your writing skills to win an inn, The Hoopla shuts down, bloggers moved from the front row at Melbourne Fashion Week, Writer in Residence Patti Miller, the four mistakes writers make on twitter, and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

The Readings Children’s Book Prize 2015 shortlist

Top authors give their advice about blogging

Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare

Can You Write a Great Essay? Apply to Win This Maine Inn

The Hoopla… Last Drinks

Catfight brewing at the catwalk show: Bloggers allegedly ‘moved from the front row after fashion editors complain’ at Melbourne Fashion Festival

Writer in Residence

pattimillerPatti Miller is an established writer and Australia’s most experienced life-writing teacher. Her books have been published by Allen & Unwin, Random House and UQP. Her passionate and supportive approach to life writing has grown out of her love and knowledge of the art of writing and literature and her fascination with the stories of our lives. She has taught writing workshops for more than twenty years, specialising in life writing since 1991 and is the author of the best selling Writing Your Life and The Memoir Book.

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Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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Transcript

Valerie
Thanks for joining me today, Patti.

Patti
It’s great to be here, Valerie.

Valerie
Tell us about your latest book, it’s so exciting to have this book in my hands, I have the proof in my hands, but Ransacking Paris, tell our listeners about your latest book.

Patti
Ransacking Paris just arrived in my hands yesterday, so it’s all very new and exciting for me as well. It’s the story of the year that I lived in Paris, reading and writing. It’s wandering around in Paris, experiencing being there, but also thinking about the life that I had lived and the changes in my life, the transitions in my life and reading the French memoirs, they illuminate my experience of being in Paris. In a sense it’s a reading book and a writing book at the same time.

Valerie
Did you go to Paris with the intention of writing a memoir about that year in Paris?

Patti
Not at all, in fact I remember swearing that I would never do such a thing as that. Actually I went there for the reasons that I explain in the book, that it was dream of mine to go there and write and live there, and that’s exactly why I went. I did and I finished a book, which was Whatever the Gods Do, which was published by Random House. I didn’t ever think I would write about it. It was just one of those things that happened after ten years really. It wasn’t a conscious choice to do that at all, it was just to experience being there.

Valerie
If it wasn’t your intention, at what point did you start thinking, “You know what? I think I might write about that year in Paris?” Why did that start forming in your brain?

Patti
It was ten years later, something like that is very much a turning point in a life. That’s one of the things that I like writing about are the things that change your life or are turning points in your life, whether anything dramatic happens or not it’s still a point of change.

I was thinking about that, I didn’t really understand what that year in Paris had been about and I suddenly realized that if I didn’t write about it, I never would, because writing about things is my way of understanding them. Other people might talk them out, but, for me, it’s writing about things. I thought, “I’ll write about it and see what happens and see if I come to any kind of understanding about what that year was about.

Valerie
I often meet people who say to me, “Oh, I couldn’t write a memoir because I’ve never had a car accident, or I’ve never survived cancer,” or some really major dramatic thing. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it needs to be a major dramatic thing like a death in the family or whatever?

Patti
Not at all, not all. In fact, I said to writers many times that it’s not what’s happened to you it’s how you see it that makes a good memoir, because people could have had all sorts of incredible adventures and still write terrible memoirs about it.

People can have just experienced their backyard or wandering the bush, I always think of Annie Dillard who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek. She didn’t do anything. She just hung out by the creek. It’s one of the most beautiful memoirs. It’s really about how you see your life, it’s your awareness, your consciousness of being. It’s not about the drama of sensation of life. It’s about the experience of being in a life.

Valerie
I know you’ve just said that writing about your life helps you understand it. I also know that writing about some of your own life can be a really healing process, I know that you’ve seen that in some of your own students. Why do you think the act of writing either heals you or helps you understand what’s going on? Why can that not be processed just in your head?

Patti
That’s a really, really good question. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. I think it’s to do with language itself. I think that making sentences is an act of making meaning, and it’s an act of integration. If you’ve had some kind of disintegrating experience, something dreadful has happened to you in your childhood or you’ve experienced terrible divorce or a horrible accident, then making sentences about it by its very nature is an act of integration and it’s an act of making meaning. You have to choose consciously the words to say it.

When you’re speaking and thinking about it you don’t actually have to make those conscious artistic choices about the language. Making those choices is actually empowering. It means that you are the one who’s powerful because you are constructing the reality of the experience on the page. I think it’s both freeing, putting in on the page and it’s empowering, so I think that’s why it’s healing.

Valerie
You’re well-known for your work in memoirs. You’ve written the best selling text Writing Your Life and The Memoir Book, when did you first start becoming interested in memoir, and why?

Patti
It was a long time ago. I think it would have been more than 25 years ago, I suppose. Really it was actually when I was teaching at the university. I noticed that a number of the students were wanting to write about their own life. I thought that I would construct a course especially for them and that’s what I did. It was very popular from the very beginning. I became interested in it at first from that perspective, from teaching others about it.

But, of course, the more that I read the more that I started enjoying and appreciating it. I started to see that I really enjoyed writing memoir myself, that it was actually that act of examining a life on the page, like Montaigne who I think was the father of memoir. People say that it was Rousseau was the father of memoir, but I actually think that it’s Montane, and that’s because he devoted himself to examining what it was like to be a human being in the world. I think he really claimed it as a fit topic for literature.

But, the battle still goes on because there are people in the literary world who look down their noses a little bit at memoir. I think if the human being isn’t a fit topic for literature then I don’t what is.

Valerie
What separates then a good memoir from a not so good one?

Patti
I think there’s several things, but the first one, obviously, is the quality of the writing. If the writing is beautiful then it really doesn’t matter what you’re writing about, because the writing gives you a beautiful experience anyway.

I think what lifts a memoir up into another realm I think is where you feel that you’re not just reading about this individual person’s life, but you’re reading about the human condition if you like, what it’s like to be a human being. For example, like the memoir that won the Premier’s Award last year in New South Wales, Boy, Lost. It was quite a dramatic and sensational story about a little baby boy snatched from his mother’s arm and didn’t see him again for another 34 or 35 years. So, it’s a dramatic story, and beautifully written, but it becomes a mediation on the nature of memory and the construction of the self and what to do with grieve and all of those kinds of things, which apply to all of us. So it means that although it’s a very individual and dramatic experience, which most of thankfully haven’t had, we still can relate to it because it’s about dealing with all of the things that we all have to deal with in universal terms.

Valerie
How does a memoir differ, if at all, from a auto-biography?

Patti
My definition is an auto-biography is a story or account of a whole life, from when you were born and including everything that you think is important that has happened to you, whereas as a memoir is an aspect of a life. You can write about your year in Argentina, or you could write about bringing up your deaf son, or you could write about the breakdown of a relationship. It means that you can write any number of memoirs because they’re limited by time, or place, or theme, or story, whereas an autobiography will cover a whole life. Really one autobiography should do you.

Valerie
Yes. That’s a great point. I’ve often been in conversations with young people and older people and the subject of memoir has come up and sometimes a younger person will say, “I think it might be interesting to write a memoir.” I’ve seen this several times, an older person will kind of snort and say, “You haven’t lived…”

Patti
That’s absolutely not true to me. I was interviewed about this for an article in The Herald, I think it was last year. It was a young writer and people were doing that sort of scoffing at a young writer writing a memoir, but to me a memoir is about your experience of being in the world and that’s valuable whether you’re 17, or 35, or 83. It doesn’t make any difference what age you are, it’s your experience of being.

I’ve worked on a couple of memoirs of young people in their early 20s writing about things like anorexia or drug addiction, they’re lovely young voice writing about their experience of being is just the most enlightening and extraordinary thing. If they had waited 40, or 50, or 60 years to write that it would have changed entirely in their minds.

A young person writing is wonderful for all of us, but particularly wonderful for young people, because they can then relate to that youthful point of view, that youthful energy. So write, young people. It’s the best thing that you can do. You’ve got an audience of other young people.

Valerie
Yeah, great.

You touch on something, it’s a very good point, if you wait 30 years or 50 years or whatever it’s entirely different. Sometimes when people write memoir, though they are writing about stuff that happened 30 years ago, or a very long time ago, how do you think those people can make those memories accurate? Or does it matter? Our memories definitely get fuzzy over a long time.

Patti
Yes. That’s a very large question, I think.

Valerie
Yes.

Patti
And a very important question because it goes right to the heart of memory and what memory does. Of course David Mcree the Melbourne academic, says everything that goes through memory is a fiction. I understand that, because we do construct them, we leave little bits out, not consciously we leave bits out. Each time we take them out we apparently polish them a little bit and we change them a little bit, according to who we are now.

I have found through the writing exercises that I do people can access those very early memories very clearly, in fact, those memories, those childhood memories are much more clear than they drawn on, because I think that your consciousness when they first go in is very clear as a seven, or eight, or nine or ten year old. You’re very clearly feeling and experiencing without many concepts what was going on. I think those exercises that I do help people access those memories.

But, I think you always have to accept the fact that is a construction and that is your version of events and other people who were there will remember it differently than the way that you remembered it. But, your job is just to write it as it is constructed in your mind, and that’s your experience, and that’s all we have to go on, really. All we have to go on is the construction that’s inside us, about who we are and what’s happened to us.

Valerie
When someone writes memoir they do write about characters, the people in their lives, really. These are not fictional characters they’re real people, so how do you think writers can balance their perception of someone? It kind of flows on from that last question, how do they balance their perception of someone, which may be greatly skewed, for whatever reason, depending on what was going on at the time, to the reality of that person. What responsibility do you think the writer might have to portray whoever that is in a more objective light, or even accurately?

Patti
It’s also a really, really important question. While part of me feels like that the writer is a scavenger and has a right to everything that they find, I also accept the fact that writers are under the same ethical responsibilities as everyone else. We’re all apart of the world and we all have relationships and family and friends. I think for me the question is to examine your motivation, why you are putting it in there. Are you putting in there because it’s a necessary part of revealing the truth, or are you putting it in there for vengeance?

And I agree again with Annie Dillard who said, “Writing is an art, not a martial art.” To be clear about why are you doing what you’re doing, still people will be hurt and offended anyway, because people can be sensitive and your version of them will very possibly not correspond to with their version of themselves. If you want to maintain a relationship with them it would be a really good idea to talk about it with them beforehand and try to come to some sort understanding about it.

Very often the people are going to be most angry and upset are people that you probably don’t have a relationship or it’s a fractured relationship anyway. They might send you nasty emails and put nasty things on your Facebook or whatever. I speak from experience about this. You have to be very clear about why you are writing it and your motivation for writing it and be aware of who can be hurt and upset and whether you can find another way of saying it that won’t be as distressing, if necessary. But, in the end claim it as just your truth and that other people’s truths might be different.

Valerie
When that has happened to you, you mentioned that you’ve had Facebook messages and that sort of thing, obviously that must have been after the book came out. So you don’t have an opportunity necessarily to revise it, because there’s heaps of books in print, how did you deal with that?

Patti
Yes. Well, I blocked her off Facebook, obviously, and email as well. I first tried apologizing, but that didn’t work, that just made her more angry. So I blocked her, but I did still find it emotionally distressing that had happened, because from my perspective there wasn’t any need to be angry in that way. In the end you have to decide that it’s their choice to react like that, because of who they are.

But, in one case, In The Mind of Thief, the last memoir, there were two mistakes which the people contacted me about, they were upset, they weren’t angry, they were upset about it and I did promise them that I would change them in the first reprint, change the details in the first reprint, and I did. I made sure that those errors, which were upsetting to them, were changed and I sent them the copies of the new reprint, which was correct. Sometimes you can, if you’ve made a mistake and it’s distressing to somebody else, then sometimes you get the chance to correct it, so I did that.

Valerie
Sure. Let’s go back to the year of Ransacking Paris, it was ten years ago. You didn’t think that you were going to write a memoir about it. At that time did you make notes, how did you reconstruct that year all of these years later. They’re not from childhood, those writing exercises that you use to unlock what happens in childhood don’t apply.

Patti
No.

Valerie
How did you do that?

Patti
I did have a diary, but it wasn’t a journal type of diary where I wrote my thoughts and feelings or anything like that. It became one of those diaries that was just ‘buy gloves,’ ‘ring mom tonight,’ ‘go to choir,’ that kind of thing. I did have that kind of record there, which I could look at, but of course I had thought about it a lot as well, and talked about it. I go back there every year as well, so I am reminded of the places I went and the things that I did and the people that I met. Some of whom are still my friends. There as a lot of layering of memory in there.

I started by just writing down, as I often say to students as a first step, writing down everything that I could think of to get going, just doing a kind of brainstorm really on page of everything that I could think of. So that’s how I got started with it.

Valerie
During that year you said that you wrote your novel, is that right? You wrote a book, which book did you write?

Patti
No, I was writing another memoir, Whatever the Gods Do, which was published by Random House.

Valerie
You have also written fiction?

Patti
Yes.

Valerie
Writing fiction is obviously very different to writing memoir.

Patti
Yes.

Valerie
Do you go through a different writing process? With memoir your life has been lived, but with fiction there’s a blank piece of paper. What is the difference in that approach for you? How does it feel different, or does it?

Patti
It does feel different. I think in many ways it’s the same because you’re trying to construct a convincing world on the page. To me, whether that world has actually existed or it’s on planet Zogg, it’s still has to be a convincing world. All of the skills of writing always apply. So, in that sense, in the sense of the skills of writing and all of the things that you need to be able to do to convince the reader that this is a emotionally interesting and convincing world still apply.

But, in terms of how you make I think Mandy Sayer’s distinction is very good. She says that memoir, you have the life and it’s about subtracting until you get a shape. With fiction or novel you don’t have anything and it’s about addition until you get a shape. I think that’s quite a different process in that way.

I still start with the novel that I have written, Child, which was published Allen & Unwin, it was very much about writing down everything that I could think of that I wanted to include in terms of my experience of having a child, so it was based on those kinds of experiences of what it was like to be a mother. But, I wanted to have a completely fictional story, because I didn’t want to expose my children in that way. So, I started by constructing a story, which was about a boy who goes to Asia when he’s about 19 and he doesn’t come back. It was quite a dramatic kind of story.

The process was very different in that I was inventing as I went really, as I was writing it I didn’t ever really know if the boy would come back until the end. That was really interesting. One of the things that I did discover was that I couldn’t kill him. It was really interesting. Writers often talk about the first time they kill their character and I realized with him I just found it impossible to kill him. That kind of determined the narrative, in a sense, once I realized that I couldn’t kill him. It would have been a completely and utterly different book if I had the — whatever it takes to kill him.

Valerie
It’s interesting that you say that you didn’t really know until the end of writing that book what was going to happen to him. My question then is when it comes to memoir, because you said that you write about your life in order to understand it, do you not actually understand whatever it is that you’re meant to learn from that period until the end of writing your memoir?

Patti
I’d say, yes. That’s why I say to writers when I’m teaching a class, I always ask them, “What do you think you’re writing?” Because inevitably they will find after a few months that’s really not what they’re writing about. There’s a conscious idea which we construct, this is what has happened to us, but very often there’s another agenda going on underneath that we haven’t really looked at.

I think a lot of the impulse to write memoir actually comes from the fact of wanting to understand. If you already know about it already it actually becomes very plotting to write, because it’s something you know. For me, that’s why that subtitle Writing Your Life is ‘A Journey,’ because it is. You don’t know. I know people think it’s an overused term, but it actually is. You don’t know where you’re going to get to, I don’t think, until maybe three-quarters of the way through. I found that to be the case every time for me and for many other writers that I know.

I think if you already know and understand everything about the period that you want to write about there’s probably not much energy or impetuses to write it.

Valerie
Interesting. Tell us, when you are in your writing phase — first of all you have writing phases, as in periods were you block out that you are writing as opposed to doing the other stuff that you do? If and when you are in that phase do you have a set routine? Like you have a cup of tea in the morning and you go walk the dog, whatever it is?

Patti
Yes.

Valerie
Tell us about that.

Patti
The process for me has changed over the years because I had two children when I was quite young, I was in my 20s. My writing then was arranged around times of childcare and school and those sorts of things. It was very much part of a life that was doing lots of other things. I think this is useful to know, because people often think, a lot of women in particular, if they do have children it can be difficult, but it can be done. It really can be done. It’s about organizing time when you have time, and organizing regular time. And that’s what I did.

Later on I actually found that the blocks of time worked really well for me. I started doing that because I could, because I could go away for a month and write, because my children were grown I could do things like that. I actually found it much more fruitful because I could spend all day and all night doing it. Even if it wasn’t writing it was still going through my head and I wasn’t having to relate to anyone or look after anyone or anything like that.

Now I do a mixture of both now. I go away for blocks of time, I might go to the mountains or down the coast or go to Paris and write, a couple of periods of writing
Ransacking Paris was actually spent in Paris, working there.

But, I also work in a daily way when I’m working on a book. I get up and have breakfast and I go into my study and I don’t do my emails, I start writing and I write for about 9:00 until 2:00 and that’s what I usually do.

Valerie
Wow, you don’t stop?

Patti
No, I have a coffee. I do have a coffee. Of course you have a coffee. Sometimes I might have a break to have something to eat and keep writing, but often I will work through.

I give myself just 1,000 words to do. I make it doable. I think that’s really important because I think a lot of people set themselves up to fail. They make it kind of unrealistic by getting up at 4:00 AM and writing or something like that. They think, “Oh, I tried, but I couldn’t do it.” No, look at what your life is like and what you’re like, and if you’re not a night person or a morning person, or whatever it is, and other responsibilities you have and actually map it out. So that’s what I do.

I actually write it in my diary each day that I’m writing Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday morning. I normally have a class Friday morning, so that’s how I do it. Then when I’ve finished a draft I will have six weeks or maybe more off sometimes while I get someone else to look at it and tell me what’s going on with it, what’s wrong with it, before I start reworking it. So, that’s my usual writing practice, but sometimes I might find I’ve been writing and made a mistake after 20,000 words or something and I might have to start again.

Valerie
Yes. A horrendous feeling.

Patti
Yes.

Valerie
With Ransacking Paris when did you start writing it and how long did the first draft of the manuscript take?

Patti
I started writing it at the beginning of 2013, right at the beginning of the year. It was the New Year Resolution to start in January, but in May, after five months I actually realized I had been up the wrong track.

Valerie
Oh no.

Patti
I had 27,000 words and I threw them all out. It was a painful couple of weeks leading up to it, but once I had realized it clearly I just threw it all out and I started again. Counting from May it would have taken me from then probably only about 10 months, which is quick for me to write a first draft. That was the beginning of 2014, near the beginning of 2014 anyway. Maybe March or February I had a first draft, but I already had a contract from the first five or six chapters, first five chapters, I think. I was working towards a deadline by then.

Valerie
That first 27,000 that just… you had to hit the delete button, what path were you going down? What made you realize that you were going down the wrong path?

Patti
I stopped to read it, and I often tell students to do that at about 25,000 words, just stop and have a good read of it, and I realized that I had written it in a completely different way, I had written it based on the memoirist. So one chapter was on one person, one chapter was on another one chapter was on another et cetera. And I realized that it had come out, of course, essay-like, because I was writing it from the sort of intellectual side of my brain.

I’m always telling students that you’ve got to find ways of accessing your creative, because otherwise your intellectual self will start writing it all and it will all be very well organized and sensible, but it will lack that kind of creative flair. I hadn’t done what I had told my students to do.

And I know why, I didn’t realize why for about a year when a student asked, because I told them, to encourage them that everyone makes mistakes and that I had made a mistake. They said, “Why did you do it?” I suddenly realized in class what it was, then I was bit embarrassed about writing a book about Paris, because so many people write books about Paris. I thought I would be very intellectual about it. I wasn’t conscious about that, but I realized that’s where it came from.

Once I relaxed and realized that I just wanted to accept that writing the story of being in Paris and just bumping into the memoirists when I felt like it then it would find its own nature organic shape. So, that’s what I did. Really the turning point came when I went an event called the Memoir Club and Ann Davidson was speaking and she was writing about some intellectual issues in her own life, and I realized she would have the same structure problem. I said to her, “How did you solve your structure problem?” And she said, “Well, it took me ten years.” I thought, “Oh no! I don’t want to take ten years.” Then she said, “But, the most important thing is the story.” So, I went home and started again.

Valerie
Oh my god.

Patti
The very next day.

Valerie
Oh my god. You’re obviously in love with Paris.

Patti
Yes.

Valerie
And you take a group of students from the Australian Writers’ Centre each year to Paris. Why do you do this? What’s your goal in doing that?

Patti
Well, I think it goes back to what we were saying before about how you work and me realizing that taking a block of time, a writing retreat, was actually a very fruitful thing to do, and it actually expanded you, especially when you’re outside of your ordinary normal life, because your ordinary normal life means that you actually have to act in normal ordinary ways and your brain stays on its track.

If you lift a person out of that there is suddenly a whole world opening up to them. They think and feel in much more vulnerable ways because they haven’t got their support system around them, haven’t got their family or friends, haven’t their own house and they haven’t even, mostly, got their own language, even knowing their way around. In a way they’re kind of vulnerable five or six year olds, in a sense, not knowing the language or how to find things or anything like that. But that’s really good for your writing, to have that kind of vulnerability and openness.

I think to do it in Paris, which is at the same time so supportive of writers and so rich with a writing history, is the perfect place for that to happen.

Valerie
If somebody is interested in writing about their own life, of course my advice to them would be do the Life Writing course with Patti at the Australian Writers’ Centre, if they aren’t ready to that or they’re not ready to come into Paris with you, what can they do just in their own home? How can they start? What should they do?

Patti
Well, I suppose I would have to say they’d have to get a hold of a copy of
Writing Your Life, or The Memoir Book, and start doing the exercises. Really that is, apart from promoting my own books, it really is a practical and useful thing to do, because it can be very difficult to know where to start.

Just start doing exercises, start doing writing exercises like the ‘Map of House’ exercise, where you just draw for a start, you just draw up a map of the house and then have a wander in. Memories start pouring out. You can apply that to any time of your life. You can draw the flat that you lived in London, or whatever. So that is a way of getting going.

But, the thing I would say not to do is to start planning the whole thing out, because for most people they get overwhelmed with that, with the hugeness of the task and how to incorporate that 360 degrees of life that is all around them, it becomes absolutely overwhelming.

I always recommend what I call the patchwork quilt method where you just make one small piece and another small piece, you do that for a while. You don’t even think about where to go or how to put it together or what the overall thing is for a start. That’s the way to get started, otherwise you will be stopped before you even begin.

Valerie
What was the most rewarding thing for you about writing Ransacking Paris?

Patti
I think it was reliving the experience was the most rewarding thing, it was just so wonderful. I often think —

Valerie
The experience of writing it or the experience of —

Patti
The experience of writing it gave me the reliving of the experience of being in Paris. I’ve often thought that, for me anyway, that life somehow is richer in the writing of it. I think it’s an extraordinary thing to me that the act of recreating it on the page brought it all back to me. For me, the most powerful experience was reliving what had happened there, there weren’t dramatic things that were happening there, but it was a transition time for me and it was a letting go of various things in my life.

I think that was the most wonderful part of it, and I think that was the most wonderful part of memoir writing altogether is actually reliving the life. Memoir writers live twice when you’re experiencing it and when you’re writing about it. To me, it’s a great gift of being a memoir writer, that chance to live your life again.

Valerie
Finally, what do you hope readers get out of it?

Patti
I hope they really enjoy the experience of being in Paris. I also hope that they enjoy being introduced, perhaps, to these memoirs. If there was a sudden spike in sales of Montane after my book comes out I would be thrilled with that because I think that the way that really good memoirs enrich the experience of being is the most valuable thing. So if people come away enriched from reading Ransacking Paris I would feel thrilled.

Valerie
Absolutely. I certainly come away enriched after reading it. Wonderful book. Anyway, thank you so much for your time today, Patti.

Patti
Thanks, Val. It’s been great to talk about it.


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