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#IWSG : Have you always been a writer, or did you make a decision to become one ? #amwriting

By 02/09/2015April 4th, 2019guest post, Interview, writing
Insecure Writer's Support Group

Insecure Writers!

As part of my ongoing guest post series  on the New Asia Now edition of the renowned Griffith Review magazine,  Michele Lee, an Australian-Asian playright and author, recently appeared on Daily (w)rite. Today, I welcome the talented  Jenn Chan Lyman whose work has also been featured in New Asia Now. I’ve highlighted some of her responses in blue, because they made an impression on me.

This is my IWSG post as well. Thanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh for organizing and hosting the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG) every month! Go to the site to see the other participants.

In this group we share tips, self-doubt, insecurities, and of course, discuss the act of writing. Today’s guest, Jenn Chan Lyman, makes a point of choice in writing fiction: specifically those of us who haven’t written fiction all our lives, making the choice to go into it much later. This is interesting to me, because I started writing fiction in my early 30s, and it was definitely a choice in the beginning– only in recent years has it become a necessity (can’t live without writing!). What about you: are you a writer by choice, or necessity?

Please check out Jenn’s excellent tips on writing, her reading and writing interests, and if you have any questions for her, please leave them in the comments!

As part of my ongoing guest post series in this blog, Jane Camens, who co-edited the recently released New Asia Now edition of Griffith Review, Australia's leading literary magazine, recently appeared on Daily (w)rite. Today, it is my pleasure to welcome the talented and versatile Michele Lee, an Australian-Asian playright and author whose work has also appeared in the Griffith Magazine.

The Griffith Review

1. Could you tell us something about your writing journey? 

Unless you’re one of those people who have been scribbling stories since their crayon-holding days, where writing is a necessity rather than a choice, the decision to write is rather fraught. I gave myself the permission to write only when I turned 30: took myself out of the corporate rat race and decided to write a novel based on a traumatic life experience in my twenties.

I finished all 130,000 words of that groundbreaking debut novel. When I read it with fresh eyes, from page one to page 437, I realized if I really wanted to be a writer, I’d better figure out how to write better. Around the same time, I met a mentor who changed my life, Ms. Xu Xi, who was setting up a low residency MFA program in Hong Kong. I ended up joining as one of the guinea pigs in the first cohort, which improved my writing and put me in touch with wonderful faculty and peers. If I hadn’t joined that particular MFA program, I’m not sure I would have been able to sustain my writer’s journey.

2. What are your preoccupations as a writer? What themes do you find yourself writing on?

I seem to be preoccupied with seeing beyond the surface of things and discovering hidden truths, secret motivations, alternate angles, unexpected backstories. I also find myself circling around themes of homelessness, belonging, or rather, not belonging, and being in-between. I think this has a lot to do with being a third culture kid myself, born in Hong Kong, raised in California, adulthood back in Asia, always feeling like I don’t quite fit in anywhere.

3. Which authors have been your biggest influencers? Could you name a few works that you think all writers should read?

To name a few…Ishiguro’s various first person narratives, in which he deftly puts the reader in the mind of his characters, Coetzee’s Disgrace and his use of psychic distance, Alice Munro’s mastery of the long short story form and her quiet and powerful illumination of the lives of others, Junot Diaz’s bold use of voice and specificity, David Sedaris’s easy sense of humor, Edward P. Jones’ sense of place, Xu Xi’s contemplation of being an individual in between worlds, and Madeleine Thien, for her poignant narratives and lucid prose.

4. What tips would you give a writer who hasn’t been published before?

The first tip would be to not worry about publishing, and to try to be the best writer that you can be. When you honestly feel that you’re turning out quality work, then think about publishing, and be persistent. Stephen King has a great anecdote in On Writing about how he collected each rejection in a stack nailed to the wall and eventually the nail became a stake. For me, regardless of publishing success, my goal is still the same: write better.

5. Talk to us about your piece at Griffith Review: New Asia Now. What inspired it?

“Vigil” was inspired by two simultaneous events last winter, one, the protests in Hong Kong, and the other, a good friend of mine struggling with an ailing mother. There was a certain hopelessness and helplessness in both situations that resonated with me. Witnessing the death of someone/something you love and not being able to do anything about it.

6. What’s your take on challenges facing Asians writing in English today? 

This is an exciting time for Asians writing in English. Now is the time to write about this side of the world in a way that doesn’t rely on stereotypes and “dumbing down” cultural references for mainstream consumption. However, I do think that there’s a limited market for publishing literary fiction, so if you’re writing literary fiction with Asian roots, it’s possible the market is even narrower. Then again, I must believe that if the work is truly spectacular, the publishing world will recognize it. The alternative would be too depressing.


Jenn Chan Lyman

Jenn Chan Lyman

Jenn Chan Lyman is a fiction and non-fiction writer based in Shanghai, with roots in Hong Kong and California. Jenn has a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University (1999) and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from City University of Hong Kong (2012). Selected publishing credits and accolades include: publication in the anthology The Queen of Statue Square (Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2014), finalist for Glimmer Train’s May 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers, publication in Salamander Magazine’s Winter 2012/2013 issue, and a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2013.


I’ve loved the editions of Griffith Review I’ve read before, and would encourage you to pick up a copy. The New Asia Now edition carries insightful features, essays, poetry and fiction that give an insight to emerging Asia.

I’m stunned by the amazing diversity of voices in this issue. Volume 2 of this edition is available exclusively as an eBook: Download it here!


What do you look for in a book you’re reading? Are you curious about the writer, about when he or she started writing? If you’re a writer, what spurred you to pick up the pen that first time? Have you checked out the Insecure Writer’s Support Group?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • Clement Chow says:

    I also studied from Xu Xi, but just for a short fiction writing course. Good to know you’re writing well in Beijing.

  • clanton1934 says:

    Dear Damyanti, (the autocorrect is fighting me),
    I came to thank you for the Like. I was please to find your writing as a material. Your “insecure writers” is a classic. It has a cousin: “The Imposter Syndrome”. I would like invite you to discuss this on ” Blogger’s GPS” . Write me at [email protected] or [email protected]. Thank you. c

  • macjam47 says:

    Enjoyed your questions for Jenn. You always come up with thought provoking questions for your guests. Jenn is, indeed, an author I will be checking out.

  • Great interview! I have always been a writer since I was about 12, and maybe a bit before then. However, I did have to make a choice to take myself seriously, and I started doing that off an on in my twenties, finally making a decision to own up to it publicly at the age of 37. It’s still scary to tell some people, but I actually finish projects now and send them out into the world.

    • That’s awesome, Tyrean. It’s really amazing what a difference it makes when we start declaring our writer self publicly. I’m thinking we should make name tags and just wear them out and about (“Hello, my name is: Writer.”) and let ourselves be convinced once and for all. 🙂 Glad that you are sending your words out into the world.

  • Writing has always resonated strong with me. Partly because I love reading and always have an active imagination. I can relate with Jenn so much because I too was born in a third culture (Philippines), raised in California and now living back in my home country in my adulthood. You never really feel like you belong anywhere but we adjust and it’s too our advantage we got to experience multiple cultures as well as people.

    This post has really got me thinking on how I want to proceed into my writing career. Thank you for this inteview.

  • PESidaway says:

    I’m wondering if there’s anything other than an insecure writer? I think that feeling is what actually made me start writing in the first place (just recently; mid-life crisis).

    • Hahaha! I would tend to agree…insecurity seems to be fairly inherent in writer selves. Perhaps putting words down in black and white allow us to pin ourselves down for a moment despite the shifting identities, obsessions and concerns that make our heads fuzzy.

  • AmyRose? says:

    I found your post beautifully expressed and I really see beautyl in you both as a writer and as a person who will snub her nose at the boxes the world wants to stuff all us into. Assuming we of the West write from a certain slant (“Now is the time to write about this side of the world in a way that doesn’t rely on stereotypes and “dumbing down” cultural references for mainstream consumption.”) would be unwise, for you see, I am one of those who live in the west, and have never ever fit in, even as a wee child. I refuse to allow this world to dictate to me, or for other humans to tell me how to live life or even worse, how I should think. I’ve always been drawn to the Asian cultures and from what I have learned of them, know myself that I would have fit in much better in your world then in mine. It is so challenging to keep myself from being drawn into the deceptions here in the society I live in, the lure of “power and money”, and the concept we ourselves do not have our own power to know ourselves best. I look forward in reading more from you. I encourage you greatly to keep being your own person. Love, Amy <3

    • AmyRose? says:

      BEAUTY not beautyl (smile)

    • Dear Amy,

      Thanks so much for reading and the kind, kind words. It seems that each society has its fair share of deceptions, lures and power dynamics. 🙂 As writers, we have the wonderful and daunting task of discovering and illuminating what we can of the societies and cultures that we are curious about (not only the ones we live in!). It is amazing how much sameness underlies the differences, and how much we can relate to other societies/cultures/peoples/circumstances if we only allow ourselves the space and heart to do so. 🙂


      • AmyRose? says:

        Jenn, this is what is so amazing about this WP “family” I have come to know and Love. I have met so many people from around this world whose minds question, whose spirits refuse to be labeled and put in a box, whose art defies the societies formed on smallness and law. Here we are free to express ourselves boldly (if we dare) and uniquely in ways that we can proudly claim as to be our very own.
        I also noticed that under your name in the notifications where I am now readying your reply to my comment, there is no link to get to your blog. If I am not mistaken you add your link on your gravatar information so that when you comment on other blogs, people you are communicating with can easily get to your blog. It is convenient and also helps others to follow you when they are interested. In order to follow you, I had to click on my original comment to check the follow box on your blog. I wish you every success, so I highly encourage you to add your link to your wonderful blog on your gravatar information. I look forward in reading your forthcoming creations. It’s been a pleasure sharing thoughts with you. Love, Amy <3

  • I’ve always been a writer but never considered myself so until I received a few pats on the back from the universe. If I dont write for a period my life becomes dreary. I tend to think now that we are either consumers or creators

  • ccyager says:

    I’ve always been a writer. I began writing in elementary school and continued through middle and high school. Don’t remember what prompted me to start — I just love storytelling. Then I also began keeping a journal when I was 11 and writing a penpal. No one in my family took my writing seriously, so I didn’t either. It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I made a conscious decision to be serious about my writing. I’d published in school publications, but in my late 20’s I decided to write for wider publication. That began a true apprenticeship as I began to take classes, workshops, etc. Cinda

    • Dear Cinda,

      It’s incredible how other people’s views of your writing tend to shape your own, isn’t it? I love your use of the word apprenticeship…I feel like I will forever be an apprentice in this writing business, forever learning from the masters. 🙂


  • I love the interview, Damyanti. I will particularly take to heart Jenn Chan Lyman’s thoughts on being persistent in the face of tough (at best) odds with regard to getting one’s writing noticed.
    I guess I’d have to say that I look at a book/short story/play/poem differently depending on whether I’m reading it as a reader, as an editor, or as a writer-as-reader. The writer and editor are more attuned to language and stylistics. The reader-me is more interested in character and plot, generally speaking.
    As for myself, I started doing creative writing (outside of school) when I was a young teenager and hooked on the horror genre. I have writers like Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz (in particular) to thank (or, from their perspectives, perhaps–to vex and disgust!) for my first taking up the writing pencil. In those days, it was pencil. However, I lacked the discipline and ambition and creative writing took a backseat to academic writing for a substantial chunk of my teenaged and adult life. I, too, (re-)took up writing in my thirties and really only began to get serious and methodical about my creative writing in the last 5 years.
    Anyway, great reminders here for why I do what I do. I think, for me, I just have to be a writer; it’s in a weird conjunction of choice and necessity. (I mean, it’s certainly not earning me millions, so it isn’t a breadwinner per se, but language is one of the few things at which I excel that is even remotely monetizing.)

    • Dear Leigh,

      Much of what you have said resonates with me, too, especially with regard to reading things from different perspectives. Your note about writer-as-reader reminds me of a course I had in my MFA called Reading Like A Writer, where we delved into the craft of each piece of writing to understand how the writer has effectively (or in some cases, not effectively) created a certain impact to the reader and how they went about doing so. This course was extremely helpful to me as a writer, but sometimes I found it affecting how I read when just reading for pleasure, actively deconstructing the piece as I read it. So glad to hear that you have reached a point in your writing life where you can immerse yourself in your calling. 🙂


  • i’ve always dreamed of being writer but im living in a place where such career wouldn’t be easily productive. since childhood, ive wanted to become a journalist and write about our local politicians’ wrongdoings. i was driven by the passion to divulge them and make everyone see their true colors.

    i write to express – because i couldn’t and i dont know how to talk about my rebellious ideas without fearing for my and my family’s safety.

    from then on, i wrote everytime i couldn’t sleep, to get my mind off things. i then knew writing would become a part of me.

    writing has become an outlet of my mind to the outside world.

    the urge to write about our local politicians is still there but i got to discover reasons why i should still write despite written materials being proven to be of little use in this side of the world. and that is writing will always be a significant instrument for communication for me to and for other people.

    • So sorry to hear that you live in a place where there are such restrictions. It must be very difficult to be forced to give up your passion for seeking truth. So glad that you are still finding ways to express yourself though! Wishing you the best of luck on your writing journey.

      • I still need a lot of improvements as english is not my first language and i didnt have serious writing courses other than those minor subjects in uni but i know writing will always be there even as i reach old age

  • bsylent says:

    I guess I was more the kid writing with crayons out of the box. I used to make these little books for my parents and teachers by folding pages together, I think starting around 8 years old. By the time I was in high school I had written a bunch of silly little short stories that I shared with no one. Around 16 or 17 I made the decision to write a full length fantasy novel that, by the age of 22, had grown to nine books. So fiction has also never been a choice. I find though that I do have to choose to write in the everyday sense. As much as I need to write, as much as it fills something inside of me, if I don’t force myself to sit down and write consistently, projects get forgotten beneath the cacophony of the everyday.

    • 9 books by 22, that’s amazing! You’re right about that everyday choice. Time just slips on by if we let it. Here’s to drowning out the everyday cacophony with that internal voice. 🙂

  • M.R.R. says:

    I starting writing because I have so many ideas crawling around in my head. I’ve also found that writing in general (fiction or non-fiction) helps me to deal with stress.

  • Ananya Kiran says:

    I am a story teller sometimes choose words to do so… Am I a Writer ?? Still figuring out that question !

    • Dear Ananya,

      When I was starting my journey into writing, my best friend (who is a graphic designer), did the most wonderful thing for me. She designed a business card for me that said “Jenn Chan Lyman, Writer.” There was something definitive about that that made me take my writer self more seriously. Best of luck on your journey!


  • Birgit says:

    Very wise words and I love the way you talked about writing for you. If one thinks about publishing the most I think you will lose yourself in that worry.

    • Thanks, Birgit! It’s hard not to think about publishing as we all (typically) want our words to be read, but it does tend to strap us down when we obsess about it. 🙂

  • amarshekhar says:

    being a writer I loved and could relate myself to your post… thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Andreina says:

    I loved this. I’m 38 and this year decided I wanted to “write”. I don’t know the first thing about writing….but I *want* to write. Not with any particular goal in mind, just write, every day and see where it takes me. Thanks for this post!!! Following 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Andreina, and so glad to hear that you’re writing. Best way to learn to write better is to keep on writing! At least that’s what I tell myself, anyway. 😀

      Jenn 🙂

  • Peter says:

    Hi, you’re nominated for the Encouraging Thunder award by me!
    Thanks for your blog.

  • oshrivastava says:

    Reblogged this on oshriradhekrishnabole.

  • Great interview! I’m one of those people who started writing very young. I don’t know that there was much choice in it; I decided at 12 that I wanted to be a writer and I studied writing in college. I don’t think I was necessarily serious about it all that time, so the deliberate decision comes in when you consciously start to really put in the work toward becoming a professional writer.

  • Maremma Gee says:

    Great interviews, I always learn something new, thanks!

  • Great interview! 🙂

    For me, it’s a bit of both. Back at the Death of Superman, I was collecting comic books. This sparked my interest in drawing and writing comics. I mostly focused on drawing, but I also wrote a tiny bit, mostly story outlines. When I had to stop collecting comics because the only store in my area closed, I stopped drawing and writing.

    Fast forward about 15 years to when I took a creative writing class in college because I felt like I had nothing else to do and figured it would be an okay way to pass the time. Long story short, I not only loved my instructor, to the point that I also took her other creative writing classes over two years, but I ended up writing a novel, not because I wanted to, but because I felt like I had an idea for a story that I wanted to get out of my head. It was a simple idea that kept growing until it became a full novel. Do I enjoy writing? Let’s just say that I’d rather do something else. But for now, this is what I do. Oh, and I’m about two-thirds of the way through my second novel. And somehow I ended up with pages and pages and pages of notes for the third book in the trilogy.

    I usually tell people that I stumbled onto writing, but I think it’s more like writing stumbled onto me.

    • Thanks for reading, Gabriel. Our mentors make such a big difference when we’re lucky enough to have them. Your remark about writing stumbling upon you reminds me of one of my favorite Neruda lines: “And it was at that age…Poetry arrived in search of me.” Best of luck on your trilogy!

  • AlekAlcalá says:

    When I read, I just look for interesting stuff. I am not a complicated person. Also I am kind of interested in the author of the book because I think “I could have never thought about that! How did he write this?!”

    Also, as a writer, the first time I took the pen was when I was 10 y/old. A teacher of literature saw I never payed attention in class and used to draw lots of doodles in my notes. He then said: “Hey, quite ingenious! Why don’t you write something about anything? I see you’re quite creative and imaginative too.” Then, I wrote a short story. It was not much but at least I started to write.

    After that I wrote another two stories and left it until I took again the pen in College, three years ago. Then, I just started a blog this year.

    I am not a pro but I’d like to become one, still, I love writing to the extent that I can’t spend a day without writing (or at least drawing something).

  • G.B. Miller says:

    I started writing in the winter of 2005 when I was going through some marital problems. At the time, it was cheapest form of therapy to go through (aka, free!). Haven’t looked back since.

  • My academic training was in business administration and I’ve held management positions since late teens, so when looking forward to retirement I knew when the pressure came off I’d need something to wind me down. lol. I wanted something far removed from management so decided on studies in creative writing to make that transition. I loved it from the beginning, and having a wealth of diary entries going back into history began the process of expressing myself in true encounters over the years and trying my hand at mini novels. I loved it from the beginning. Writing is the expression of the soul.

  • Toi Thomas says:

    I find this author intriguing and wise. I write because it’s part of who I am. I publish because I want to share that part of me with other, but I’m not looking to make a buck though I’ll definitely take some.

  • dweezer19 says:

    Oh yes Damyanti! I have always read the bios on any book I’ve read for as long as I can remember. I read the book summary first then the author’s bio. Somehow it lets me know more about the nature of the work.

  • lexacain says:

    Jenn has certainly led an interesting life. I totally agree that “writing better” should be the goal of any writer. I don’t think it’s the goal of very many. I have a friend who’s an agent intern. She reads the queries and rejects those that aren’t suitable. She recently wrote: “I’d say about 70% of the queries that come through any of the literary agents I’ve interned for’s inbox are just that—words and an email address. They haven’t polished their prose, they sometimes barely have a concept, and they rarely have an actual query letter.” That’s pretty damning, huh?

    • Wow, that does sound quite damning! Thanks for sharing this, and here’s to achieving that common, and often elusive, goal of “writing better.” 🙂

  • Olga Godim says:

    Great interview. For me, writing was a choice, but story making – that’s been with me since early childhood. I just didn’t know that I could write down my stories and become a writer. When I realized such a possibility existed, I was 48. I have been a writer ever since.

  • jburns58 says:

    Writing came to me by choice, I am still learning, and I enjoy it. Maybe I will write that novel one day!

  • The writer makes some excellent point here – about giving oneself permission to write, about being the best we can be, irrespective of publication. Great questions, too. So many interviews seem to go though the seem rigamarole, so it’s nice to see something different.
    I can relate to writing out of necessity, the necessity of having to put pen to paper and shed the thoughts that seem to burn the skull.
    Great post. Thank you for introducing the author.

    • Thanks for reading, Silvia! It took me a long time to get around to that “permission,” and even now, with a day job and busy family life, I have to remind myself of that permission daily. Best of luck to you!

  • Dharmesh says:

    As children we think of different things… I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a superhero… I decide in a way to be a writer in 2010.

  • Lidy says:

    Great interview. When I was younger, writing was a necessity. From when I was a wee bonnie lass until now, I’ve always internalized my feelings. I was always an introverted person. It was only through writing where I found and expressed my voice, saying all the things my mouth couldn’t say. Now, I’d say writing is a choice as it has always been my childhood dream to be a writer. But I went off track, took a detour from my writing aspirations. Not anymore. There’s a reason Jo March inspired me to write, and the spark that the character ignited in me, deserves not to be put out.

  • Interesting interview! I’m one of those who has been making up stories since the crayon-holding days. I continue to write because I love it. I can’t imagine life without writing.

  • Ashish kumar says:

    great interview… Writing is always a pleasure for me. I write because I love to do so… Getting a chance to know more about writers by such kind of interview inspires me a lot which also gives a chance to know about their journey, their thoughts etc…

  • Great interview! I’m a ‘crayon-holding days writer’. It’s hard to imagine making a conscious choice to write. And so true about ‘don’t worry about publishing’. I’ve talked with so many people who are mapping out their publishing route before they have even started their MS.

  • Wonderful interview! I’m a writer by nature. I’ve always been making up stories even before I could hold a pencil.

  • Wonderful interview, and I’ve never really thought about it until now. I write because it gives me joy, and did so long before I ever thought of publication. I’m still in the learning phase for all of it, writing, publishing, marketing – it’s a journey that’s never ending, even if I gave up on all but the writing – I still have a lot left to learn!
    Thanks Damyanti and Jenn Chan Lyman life and writing are all about choices.

  • Peter Nena says:

    I don’t know when I started. I’ve always just wrote something. Ugly, bad, good- – just wrote. I had a brother who filled my head with crazy stories when I was very little. We were 9yrs apart. He was my caretaker when our parents were away. He never wanted me to bother him when he hung out with his buddies. So the stories were his way of shutting me up. He told them at night. One story was about a drunkard who had lost his way home at night and met with a python. But the python wanted only to teach him a lesson. So it swallowed his leg. Only one leg.

  • Stephanie Scott says:

    I have always been interested in the person behind the book, but even more so now as a writer. I always read the About the Author in the back of a book, but now I might do a little more poking around on social media to find them, especially if I like the author.

    As for choosing to be a writer, yes. I’ve always had stories running through my head, but I think sitting down to get it down and to do it well is a conscious choice. It’s deliberate to learn to write better, to move beyond telling people you have an idea or that you have a book in you. Doing the work of the writing is the choice.

    Here is my IWSG post. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Arlee Bird says:

    When I read I look for clear expressive writing that delivers interesting ideas that cause me to think. Sometimes though I just want pure escapism that is entertaining.

    I write because I think.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  • Worry about publishing and you’ll never get the writing done.
    Awesome she had such a good mentor in the beginning.
    I guess I started as an author by choice and then it went more to necessity. Not because of the money but because people wanted to read more.

  • Susan Scott says:

    Loved reading about her writing process thank you Damyanti & Jenn Chan.

  • rxena77 says:

    The surface is merely an extension of what lies beneath — and roots are never as pretty as the tree which is supported by them, right? 🙂

    Having lost my only home to a fire and being forcibly evacuated out of my town by a category 5 hurricane, I, too, am keenly interested in the feelings of homelessness and helplessness.

    It was enlightening to get to know Jenn Chan Lyman and a delight, too. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, rxena77. So sorry to hear about what must have been a terrible ordeal for you and your family. Here’s to making a home for ourselves wherever we may land. Best of luck, Jenn 🙂

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