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In the End

On Saturday night, I got a voicemail from a writing contest coordinator. I’d entered a big thing and, it turns out, my novel made it to the semi-finals.

I cried.

The writing life is one in which a person can go a long time without any kind of outside validation. It’s hard to tell whether your writing is “good enough,” hard to find an agent, hard to break into traditional publishing.

Hard to keep going, sometimes.

So the news about the contest came at a good time. It made me feel I’m on to something, that my story resonates and is well-written. Four days later, however, I got my first ‘no’ from a major publisher. They asked if I had any other novels to show them (which, I guess, is a kind of compliment since it means they liked my writing). Still, a rejection.

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It made me feel like I might have been kidding myself, that my story is confusing or weird, that it’s poorly written.

I didn’t cry, but I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

But then two creatives whose careers I’ve followed died this week. They were young. One was a multi-published author with a big following. I felt sick and unsettled.

In my grief and shock, I decided, once again, that I’m not going to allow my life to be consumed with things that don’t matter in the end. I’m not going to be ruled by the ups and downs of the writing/publishing life.

I refuse. (Of course, I’ve refused before, so I’ll need to be reminded when the next big thing happens).

I’m here to say: I have an agent who’s great, a novel that is winning awards and is on submission to big houses, and I have a growing platform. These are the things I would have salivated over last year. Now that they’re my reality, though, I’m no happier than I was. I still worry about the next thing. What if a publisher doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do? What if I get published and no one buys my book? What if they buy my book and hate it? Or worse, don’t care at all?

My life could be over tomorrow. Or today. I refuse to spend it hand wringing about things I cannot control.

In the end, there are more important things than whether I’m published or not. And being published will not end up making me happy.

Bringing Sexy Back (or Possibly Something Much Better)

Our semester is dying. We are not finished with the teacher/student things of this world, but we can feel our minds letting go, anyway.

In times like these, I find myself 1). staring out the window at the ivy we planted to cover our chainlink fence, and 2). looking for shows on Netflix. I’m okay with staring at the ivy. I’m not proud of the Netflix shopping. I realize I may be the last person in the U.S. to feel shame of any kind–especially shame over Netflix, but here we are.

Anyway, I found an Australian show awkwardly titled Bringing Sexy Back. It’s like Biggest Loser only with one or two contestants whose main goal it is to become “healthier” (which everyone knows really means to get thin and look hot). I have binge watched this show for the last two nights, and I hate myself for it.

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It’s supposed to be heartwarming and fun, but it’s actually profoundly depressing. To begin with, the hosts make people who hate their bodies stand in spandex on a stage before a live audience. The contestants are forced to see how fat they are in numbers and percentages, and most of them cry. Then, to address the problem, a trainer makes them work out so hard broken capillaries crop up under their eyes. Since no one can sustain that level of exercise for the rest of her life, this seems like a cruel and non-permanent solution to being fat. Plus, it’s humiliating.

The rest of the show is pretty predictable. When they’ve lost enough weight to be considered okay, the thinner-than-before contestants get their hair and makeup done and wear fashionable clothes (that, honestly, still look ill-fitting half the time). Their loved ones watch them process down a catwalk, and it’s their turn to sob. They gasp and praise, and it feels like our contestants have finally won the right to be accepted.

In the end, though, even after chair squats and chicken cutlets, the contestants stand on the stage, uneven, wobbly human beings with wrinkles and the occasional jacked-up tooth. The “shocking” transformations they’ve undergone are–am I allowed to say it?–sort-of meh. So many burpees for meh.

It makes me sad. Because, also? After the show, these people are going to battle loose skin, swallow endless, well-chewed bites of salad, work out until their knees are shot, and, eventually, get old and die. That’s their future–and mine. And while I’m not saying people shouldn’t care about their health and take charge of it, I am saying our bodies don’t stay the way we want them to.

They get old and fat or too thin or wracked with cancer. We can’t put our hope there.

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Give me conversion stories or aha moments or just about anything that deals with the inner person, the soul that endures. Turns out, I’d take those over watching someone hate-lose 50 lbs and wear bronzer on TV.

This is my life at 41. Even when I’m bored, I want to think about things that will last.

To South Africa with Love

Friends who live in South Africa stayed in our home recently. The last one left last night, and they will head back across the ocean in a short while. It was a sweet, if crowded, time of relearning about the world and discovering, once again, how similar people are no matter where they live. We were reminded that true friends are like canned goods. They keep.

Having others in my home is stretching, though. Even if they don’t mean to, our guests (and we’ve had many) hold a mirror in front of me. They cause me to notice my routines, my “must-haves” and quirks, in new ways. The fact that we have to have music playing during every meal? That’s not normal, turns out. Our multiple-pots-of-coffee mornings where even the teenagers imbibe like addicts? Different. The way I fold underwear. The fact that I fold underwear.

It can be a little uncomfortable to see myself and my habits through someone else’s eyes. This is not necessarily because I’m doing things wrong, but because I thought I knew myself well. Turns out, I’m often on autopilot. I fail to notice things. I can be a little (lot?) blind, sometimes…

Like a good spring cleaning, letting others into my personal space can bring on a life audit. It’s easier to discern which things I want to keep and which I could possibly let go when I’ve lived up close with someone who does things differently. It produces growth, which, yes, can be painful. But the alternative is stagnation and status quo. I’m not interested in those.

So I’m thankful for the last ten days for several reasons, among them the chance to see myself and my loved-ones more clearly.

Thanks, South Africa. Until next time.

Diving into the Darkness

As a creative, I look for windows into the human psyche wherever I can find them. I listen to conversations in the booth behind me at my local coffee shop (I know. Bad). I watch interesting documentaries on Netflix, pay attention to the lyrics in folk songs, read essays and poems, and watch indie films.

Almost more than anything else, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts have an advantage over other forms of media because I can consume them while I’m running or washing dishes. I’ve written before about how well-chosen episodes stay with me for days, even weeks, after I’ve listened to them. They send my mind down new paths and bring fresh insight into old problems. All of this helps me craft better stories.

Recently, though, I’ve had to call it quits on one of my favorite genres–true crime.

The problem is I get into the habit of binge listening to one horrific incident after another. I’m riveted by them, but my spirit sinks with each gory detail. I notice I don’t feel like going for my afternoon run or talking to my kids when I’m on a listening jag. Worse, I dream about crime and often waking up groggy and disoriented. Finally, I start obsessing about how God sees all the wickedness people commit against one other, and how he could stop it but often doesn’t. At least not in this life.

I’m left lethargic and on edge.

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So, yesterday, I went to my playlist and deleted my crime shows. I sort-of hated to do it because, as I’ve (also) mentioned before, I’m waiting to hear back about the status of my novel, and listening keeps my mind off things, at least for 30 minutes at a time. No amount of distraction is worth the emotional darkness, though. I’m simply going to have to find another way to survive, and, hopefully, to stay productive and present.

How about you? What do you do to pass the time when you’re in a season of waiting? How much darkness is too much?

On Choosing the Blue Cord

My family and I just got back from a short vacation in the mountains where we celebrated my in-laws’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Fifty years is longer than I’ve been alive. It’s more than twice as long as my husband and I have been married. My in-laws make marriage look easy, though I know from 19 years’ experience it’s anything but.

I’m lucky. I have a deep friendship with my husband. We met in college and became inseparable in fairly short order, partly because we shared a major and partly because we just “clicked.” According to statistics, we have an advantage in seeing our marriage through to the end. After all, we married without a ton of debt. Our parents have stayed married to their spouses. We share household and childrearing responsibilities. We bend and flex for each other’s careers. Most importantly, we share a common religious faith.

Still, it’s hard to stay married, sometimes. Even for us.

As I stood on the back porch of our mountain cabin, I noticed two saplings tied together by a blue cord. They pressed against it in opposite directions, clearly wanting to grow apart, but someone had made sure they couldn’t. The blue cord holds them together no matter how hard the wind blows or how their own intertwined roots might cramp them.

Me, too, little trees. Me, too.

We choose our own cords, I thought. My in-laws chose theirs, and fifty years later, we are all better for their dogged determination not to untie themselves when things (inevitably) got hard.

I hope my children will say the same about my husband and me someday.

Surviving the Social Life

Am I allowed to say something that’s already been said a million times?

Okay. The internet is mean. Social media, at least. Twitter specifically. I’ve only dipped my toe in the social whirlpool in the last couple of months. Even then, I only did it because you know what “they” say: you have to be searchable to survive.

I can’t even call it a love/hate relationship cuz there’s no love.

Most of my interactions have been pleasant enough, up to this point, because I’ve worked hard to keep them that way. But today I felt the Twitter wind in my face when I least expected it. I’m not cut out for this kind of anonymous conflict (and, to be clear, I didn’t court it with thoughtless or mean words. I asked a follow-up question on someone’s post). I’m not a troll, but I was treated like one. The whole exchange left me confused and sad.

It’s one thing to develop a thick skin because I’m sending my manuscript out to publishers who might not understand it or (worse) ignore it. That kind of toughness makes professional sense, though it’s not easy to cultivate. It’s another thing to try and change my personality.

Today left me wondering if social media toughness is something I need or want to develop. And let’s say I can’t. Then what? Do I avoid the whole scene altogether? Is that publishing suicide?

What I know is this: writing is extremely important to me. But so is emotional wellness. I want to be published. But I also want to feel safe.

I continue to wonder if both things are possible.

On Living This Moment Well (And the One After That)

My agent just sent my manuscript to three big publishers. Now there’s nothing for me to do but to continue my daily life, to not allow my thoughts to burn in a fire of what-if’s since I’m not promised tomorrow–or even 2:30 this afternoon. I want to wait well, though, so far, I am not successful.

My sister brought this beautiful Wendell Berry poem to my attention. For me, it sums up the struggle of being a human ruled by time.

“From the Crest”

I am trying to teach my mind
to bear the long, slow growth
of the fields, and to sing
of its passing while it waits.

The farm must be made a form,
endlessly bringing together
heaven and earth, light
and rain building back again
the shapes and actions of the ground.

Wendell Berry, Collected Poems (San Francisco: North Point, 1985), 190-91.

I would like to cool my mind, to accept the good gifts God gives me in the time He chooses to give them, or, maybe, to accept the withholding of them. I would like to teach my mind to bear long, slow growth, both today and tomorrow (if I’m still here).

Love > Art

My sister blew in to town this week. She’s one of my best friends, and I’m always happy when I get to see her. At the same time, I got my manuscript back from my agent. She had some ideas about things I should tweak to make my story stronger. Also, she wants me to up my mileage on social media (not something that comes naturally to me).

In other words, I have work to do.

But my sister lives hours away, and I don’t get to see her and my nieces and nephew very often. I don’t want to miss a minute with them.

This is how it always is: God gives me little opportunities to choose the most important thing in any given moment. Sometimes I choose the wrong thing. Sometimes I’m selfish or short-sighted. But this week I chose my sister, and I’m not sorry. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about my manuscript the whole time she’s been here because I sure as heck have. It just means I’ve been able to see things more clearly this time. I’ve been able to focus on what’s most valuable right now.

Writing is important, but people are more important. No amount of writing about people can make up for not actually loving them. So I chose the real characters in my life. And I chose to live a story instead of write one. This week, anyway.

The End.

When Everyone Wins

I teach creative writing at an education co-op my teenagers attend. I don’t love teaching. I do it because it means I don’t have to pay my kids’ tuition. But it’s offered more benefits than free classes, it turns out.

I hate colored pencils.

I’ve leveled up in my writing this year. Part of that is likely due to better discipline in my daily writing habits and partly to attending what I call the School of Revision. But I’ve come to believe it’s also due to grading the creative writing assignments I’ve given my students. I’ve had to explain to them how to make their stories better, how to write with more nuance and subtlety, how not to resort to stereotypes and cliches. I’ve had to figure how to say things so they make sense to kids who haven’t read endless craft books like I have. It’s helped me pay better attention to my own writing weaknesses and capitalize on my strengths.

I don’t know why this comes as a surprise–because it’s not like I haven’t heard that teaching is learning. Maybe it’s because I assume things are true for other people but might not be true for me. Whatever. I don’t care. I’m just feeling humbled and thankful that I grew in my craft while I was busy helping others. Win/win.

On Inching Forward

Today I signed with the literary agent I’d been hoping to partner with. She warned me my manuscript would need work, that I’d have to be open-minded and teachable in continuing to shape it. I’m nervous about what I don’t know, but I told her I believe in my story–and I believe in hard work. So here’s to the next stage in the process.

I need this button.