Judy Lee Dunn on words, maps, and inspiration












I had three key goals when I started blogging. I wanted a forum for creative risk-taking, writing experiments, pushing myself.  I wanted to gather more readers, build an audience. And, I wanted a “platform,” a place to connect the dots between the various strands of my writing life. There was just one big problem.

I had no idea what I was doing.

I was dipping my toes in the water, making random splashes that never coalesced into concentric rings. It was messy.

At first, that was okay. But if I really wanted to achieve my goals as a blogging writer, I had to make some changes. That’s when I found my fairy godmother, the talented, inspiring, and motivational Judy Lee Dunn.

Judy’s blog is a treasure trove of tips and advice, “For writers who blog and bloggers who write.” She helps bloggers — from newbies to veterans — define who they are, what they want, and how to get there. For me, Judy has been a pivotal influence, both in blogging and in my creative writing more generally.

When I stepped into the blogging pond, I wrote a little of this and a little of that. I had no focus. I had no sense of audience or purpose. I was improvising. Lots of little splashes, no big waves. In posts like Stephen King, Seth Godin and Content Marketing: Who Is Defining You? and The Hollywood Guide to a Better Blog Tagline, Judy gives her readers practical solutions for attending to audience and focusing content. She uses real-world examples, often injected with a healthy dose of humor to bridge the gap between fear and accomplishment.

Judy’s examples and insights often take the form of stories. In a page called “Things I Believe,” she writes, “Story is how we make sense of our world.” Judy enacts this faith in her own writing and inspires her readers to do the same. I love the lessons on creativity she garners from John Cleese. Take your time. Let ideas brew. Don’t be afraid to laugh along the way. Yes, and yes, and yes.

I’m guessing that at least part of Judy’s faith in storytelling comes from her experience working as a first-grade teacher. (I suspect her toughness has roots there too. I have a first-grader. She exhausts me.) In Why Successful Bloggers Always Win The M&M Game, Judy demonstrates how bloggers can find greater success through cooperative learning and teamwork. In Show And Tell: What I Learned About Blogging from First Graders, she explores the benefits of curiosity and innovation. Building a Bloggers’ Community: What I Learned at Recess, shows bloggers how to build a real community through positive feedback and mutual support.

I owe much to Judy Dunn. In the last two years, I’ve changed this space from a large echoing chamber with uneasy resonance to a cozy corner decorated with purple throw pillows, steaming mugs of cocoa, and an orange lava lamp. I’m closer to meeting my goals. But, even if all of that weren’t true, I’d still be in writer’s-debt to Judy. I met my talented, amazing fable partner, Brenda Gottsabend, on Judy’s website — because Judy doesn’t just talk about making connections between writers. She does it. And, for that, I am truly grateful, every day. Welcome, Judy. And, thank you.

Judy Dunn post

Words and Maps: Reflections on Inspiration, by Judy Dunn

Words and maps. 

For as long as I can remember, I have been enchanted by the power of words to transport readers to a world they don’t yet know. To make them laugh. Or cry. 26 letters, put together in ways that can persuade, teach, entertain, even enrage.

And when I was a child, maps were a metaphor for a world I had not yet seen: all the places that existed far away from Harbor City, beyond the Kress’s Five and Ten on Market Street and the sawmill across the Southside Bridge.

Inspiration is a slippery thing to define. Are we inspired to do our life’s work simply because we are good at it? Or are we good at it precisely because it has inspired us so?

I am a writer come lately. For a long while, other things got in the way: like raising a child by myself. Getting a teaching degree so I could make the rent and put dinner on the table, though the meals were sometimes meager. (My daughter fondly remembers Cowboy Macaroni, but didn’t know until after she was grown the origin of—and reason for— that particular dish.)

But my side trips in life didn’t mean that I had stopped caring about my passions. They were just that: little detours.

I always came back to my two passions: words and maps.


I learned early on that words used in the right way, could make people pay attention.

When I was 5, my parents would haul me out to perform for company. Being a name freak, I could recite, in syncopated rhythm and alphabetical order, the first and last name of every child in my kindergarten class. From Georgia Bushnell to Andy Zimmerman.

My parents’ friends thought it was hilarious. Though I would have preferred their solemn attention to laughter, still, it left me drunk on the power of words.

I began memorizing the dictionary when I was in third grade, after winning my school district spelling bee and advancing to the competition at the Grays Harbor County Fair. I held the Webster’s Dictionary in my hands in the back seat of the car on the way, getting in some last-minute studying. I lost miserably in that spelling bee, fouling out in the third round. But the dictionary became my friend.

I didn’t think about being a writer. Though I was in Honors English, Mrs. Finn, my high school counselor, never suggested I could do that. A goal of writer as a profession for a girl would have been as delusional  as, say, expecting to become a brain surgeon or an airline pilot.

I resisted options open to girls at the time: secretary, nurse, teacher. I signed up for all the French and Spanish classes I could take, setting my sights on a career in New York City as an interpreter at the United Nations.

One day, I snagged a copy of Seventeen Magazine, reeled in by the cover headline: “You Can Work at the U.N.!” I flipped through to the article and was stunned to read that girls like me could work at the United Nations—in the secretarial pool.

Years later, after my marriage ended, I was teaching English to southeast Asian refugees.  By day, I made hallway bulletin boards with a map of Laos, showing other kids in the school the stories my students had written,  complete  with pictures of their beautiful BAH-nah-nah trees.

At night, to make ends meet, I spoon-fed tender English phrases—“does this bus go downtown?”, “where is the rice noodle aisle?”—to their parents in night school.

All the time, in the back of my mind, I sensed that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. I began writing in journals and placing a few magazine articles. But I was left with little time for my own creative work.


My fascination with maps started in fourth grade at Robert Gray Elementary School, with the globe, the pull-down maps and the encyclopedias in my classroom. In my mind, if I could point to a city or a country, I figured it was possible to go there someday.

The summer I was nine, the encyclopedia man showed up on our doorstep with his suitcase of shiny red Encyclopedia Britannicas, just like the ones at school.  I loved to read about the places with exotic-sounding names, like Senegal. Turkey. Mo-ROC-co. Minneapolis.

And there were enough maps to fuel my explorer self for months. Years even.

But when the encyclopedia man’s best offer turned out to be the $9.99 monthly plan, Mama shooed him away with her hand, like he was a bothersome fly. And just like that, it was over. I watched out the front room window as his station wagon peeled out, the gravel on the driveway spitting. I was crushed.

Next, I asked my mom if we could get the National Geographic. I had seen my friend’s father read them and I knew that there was a full-color, foldout map in every issue. Mama said we couldn’t afford it, that it was an expensive magazine more suited for grownups.  But she got me a small globe that Christmas.

Maps continue to inspire me. Now, as a gift to my nine-year-old self, I have one of those big National Geographic maps on my office wall, with colored push pins stuck onto all the countries where I have new friends—from Twitter, from Facebook, from my blog. Someday I will visit them.

Words and Maps Together

Whenever my two passions intersected, I was truly inspired.

As manager of Writing Resources for World Vision, words and maps perfectly converged to send me to West Africa as part of a documentary team to tell the stories of projects helping third world families become self-sufficient.

Later, I was a grant writing consultant, creating proposals to convince bankers and CEOs to give money so kids in third world countries would not die from drinking dirty water.

Now, I’ve finally reached the point where I am putting together the pieces of my life, word by word, shining a light on one of the recurring themes of my life.  Finding just the right words to express a life map of sorts: to understand where I started and where I am going.

I am writing a memoir.

I believe that we never really lose our passions. Jobs can come and go, but, in the end, we never forget what inspires us.

Do you have a thread weaving through and around your life? A passion that inspires your work, whatever that might be at the moment?


Judy Lee Dunn has lived on the west coast of the U.S all her life, but considers herself a citizen of the world. She speaks four languages: English, French, Spanish and Swahili. (Okay, she can only say “Four knives will be sufficient” in Swahili, but she is sure that will come in handy someday.) Judy is currently writing Out Tonight, her debut memoir. She  lives on Anderson Island in South Puget Sound, Washington with her husband and their two adopted cats, Mr. Puffers and Booda. Follow her on Twitter, @JudyLeeDunn, and  on Facebook at her Judy Lee Dunn author page. Judy’s blog is a past winner of a Top 10 Blogs for Writers award.

17 thoughts on “Judy Lee Dunn on words, maps, and inspiration

  1. Nature and wildlife remain my biggest inspiration. Great interview, I loved reading how words and maps combined to form the inspiration for Judy and remain a part of her journey today.

    • Kathyrn,

      That is very cool. Nature and wildlife are awe-inspiring, really. If I had a second (or third) life, I would have wanted to be a wildlife photographer. Hey, there we go with National Geographic again, right? Thanks for sharing your passions here.

  2. You made me realize something, Judy. We had a set of encyclopedias (just Colliers, not Britannicas, but still). It was getting pretty old by the time I came to use it (I’m the youngest), but I read every issue, letter by letter, cover to cover. And we also received National Geographic, and my parents kept the back issues, going back into the 50s. Dug though most of those, too. When my dad remodeled the basement to add a rec room, my parents decorated the walls with big maps, of the US, and the world. My sister and I would stand on the couch and point out places we wanted to go on the big world map.

    What you made me realize is just how dearly my parents must’ve paid for those things. For us. I know they scrimped and saved, just to pay the bills and keep us in groceries. I’m going to call my mom and thank her. Great post! Thanks for having her, Lisa–your guests always inspire me!

    • Vaughn,

      You were indeed raised by a very special set of parents. Thanking your mom is probably a good idea. What crushed my about the Britannicas is that the family across the street, with six rambunctious, boys who weren’t particularly fond of books, purchased an entire set. The boys tore the pages out and made paper airplanes from them. Killed me. Absolutely killed me.

      And decorating the basement walls with maps? Now you are REALLY making me jealous. : ) You were encouraged to dream at an early age. How inspiring is that?

  3. Judy, I love this. My mom did buy the encyclopedia for me and I spent hours reading through each book, living every moment in far off places through words.

  4. As the other half of Wing-Feather Fables, I am also amazingly grateful for the connections that Judy’s blog fostered. My creative life has been unbelievably enhanced because of my collaboration with Lisa.

    And in what seems to be a common thread – I also read our family encyclopedia on a regular basis, in between trips to the library with my dad. I still recall random facts from that time.

    Judy – thank you so much for the community you foster. And for putting your heart and soul out there.

  5. Brenda,

    It was definitely my pleasure. I got a chance to check out Lisa’s blog more and am now a subscriber. Great stuff going on here. I love to see the collaboration and am absolutely fascinated with the stories that your stunning images inspire in Lisa.

    The encyclopedia WAS the authority of the day, wasn’t it? Nowadays, the stuff that’s printed is out-of-date almost instantaneously. Great memories, though. : )

  6. Lisa, what a beautiful and personal intro–I feel like Judy was sitting in our living room as you described her and her inspiring work!


    1. Thank you for inspiring and helping Lisa in this blogosphere of a world and introducing her and Brenda–what a team!
    2. I, too,loved maps as a kid and loved to travel!
    3. Words–not my forte
    4. I love to cook so I had to find out what Cowboy Macaroni was and clicked on the link. I have to tell you that our Rainbow Girl would probably love it too (w/o the chili powder)–she loves everything ketchup!

    Thanks for sharing your inspiration on Lisa’s wonderful blog!

  7. Pat,

    Making those connections between and among people is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Don’t know who “Rainbow Girl” is (she sounds interesting), but those spur-of-the-moment meals, though basic, seem to be what kids remember. Glad the Cowboy Macaroni spoke to you. : )

    • Yes, those connections are priceless, Judy! “Rainbow Girl” is our 9-yr old daughter (I’m Lisa’s husband).

  8. Oops. Now there is egg on my face. So you are the other half of the delightful Lisa?

    If you are an accomplished cook, you certainly must have cringed when you read the recipe for Cowboy Macaroni. The funny thing was that my six-year-old began asking for it, even when we have other food in the house. Kids are funny.

    And I am sure there is a story behind “Rainbow Girl.” You are going to have to share that with me sometime. : )

  9. What an incredible intro, Lisa. I’m so excited to go poke around Judy’s blog, which sounds very much up my alley.

    Judy- your description of words and maps and their intersection makes complete sense to me. There are worlds available to us with both words AND maps!

  10. Josh! Thanks for following the link to Lisa’s blog. She is quite the creative storyteller and I have been enjoying my time here as a reader since I became a subscriber.

    And thanks for the kind words. So glad we have become “writerly” friends. : )

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