The Long Way Home

I’m listening to a great new podcast called The Stories Between Us. Hosts Shawn Smucker and Maile Silva are writers in different stages of their careers, and they’re married to each other. In today’s episode, Shawn talks about how many writers want shortcuts to publication and/or success. They’re tempted by marketing courses that guarantee a huge audience, or by online classes that promise to help them write the next great American novel. Writers are vulnerable, he says. We want so badly for our work to mean something, to be seen and recognized by others, that we’re willing to ignore when some twenty-step program seems too good to be true.

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The unpopular truth is that most of us need time to improve our craft. We need to work really, really hard, often for years, in order to develop skill and style. When we try to take shortcuts, we miss vital steps in our growth as creatives. We end up rushing things and producing subpar work.

Which is really to say, there are no shortcuts.

This is what I tell myself today when I receive the news that a fourth publisher has passed on my novel. It’s just not time, yet, I say to the mirror. There’s something I need to learn right now that will help me later when a publisher says yes.

Do I believe me? Yes and no, friends. Yes and no.

But I’m choosing to be thankful for no’s, even though they sting.

And now, to continue edits on my current manuscript…

Circumnavigation

It’s been a million years since I’ve written a blog post. I finished the first draft of my most recent novel since the last time I checked in here, and it took all the mental energy I possessed. I wrote ‘The End’ on August 30th, just in time for my teenagers to head back to their co-op and dual enrollment classes, and for my other work responsibilities to heat up. Not a moment too soon. Not a brain cell to spare.

I have spent the time since then trying not to think about my novel. I want to forget what I’ve written so I can approach it with a modicum of surprise when it’s time to edit. But, of course, I’ve thought of little else. My characters people my daytime thoughts and my dreams, particularly if I’ve taken the occasional dose of ZzzQuil. If anything, they’re more real to me now than they were when I was bringing them into being less than a month ago.

Soon I will begin the familiar journey of hating, loving, and modifying what I penned in secret. It will be less taxing, in some ways, to edit my work than it was to create it but not less emotional. When I’ve done what I can do with the manuscript, I will send it to my agent. Again I will try not to think about it–because what’s done is done. I will try to fill my head with other things while I wait.

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But the story will stick in my mind like something I heard once, like something someone else made up a long time ago, until I’m struck by a new image in the fog. Then I will start down another path guided by a different star.

YA by Any Other Name…

I just finished Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I won’t do a proper book review here since you can read my thoughts on Goodreads (sidebar). I will say, however, that it’s striking to me that she’s writing for adults but using a teenager as her main character (and in first person, no less).

Today, publishers would put Castle in the YA category. But it isn’t.

Bear with me as I nerd out for a moment. Jackson wrote in the forties and fifties when there was no special reading category for teenagers. In her day, there were children’s books and books for adults. The age of the main character in a novel did not put the book in a special lane for “young adults”. This meant that any non-kid lit could, and often did, deal with serious themes, regardless of whether its protagonist was 12 or 35.

[Nowadays, publishers would call The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and other classics with young protagonists YA fiction. They aren’t. These novels incorporate adult themes, some of which are easier to absorb because the characters living them out are young. In the end, though, they’re heavy books meant for grownups.]

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Why does it matter?

Okay, it doesn’t unless you’re a novelist like me who’s going the traditional publishing route. In my last novel, my main characters open the story as adult women, but at some point they go back in time. They sound like teenagers and process information like teenagers, but the novel itself is for adults. This can be a bit of a sticky wicket because of the YA category.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminded me that today’s publishing categories didn’t always exist. And, in many ways, they don’t matter unless a book is being marketed to the wrong group.

In that case, it matters a lot.

Still, I have to believe the best writing advice is to write what you love regardless of the name the industry gives it. Then, hopefully, the right readers will find it.

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?

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.

On Shutting Up

I’m a talker, as my family can tell you. As a kid, I forced my younger sisters to be cohosts in my homemade talkshows (full productions, mind you, with commercials and teasers). When I wasn’t hunched in front of a tape recorder, I was cobbling together plays and giving myself the most lines or putting my Barbies between a rock and a hard place and making them talk their way out.

Oh! And I’ve always loved a good argument. I distinctly remember insisting to my mother that one thousand is greater than one million (she closed her eyes before I’d finished).

More words than bangs, even.

This kid has some thoughts to share.

Fast forward to now. While I (mostly) know how to curb my verbal enthusiasm as an adult, I still love a good debate. Or  an impassioned monologue. Or a play. I listen to an ever-increasing line-up of podcasts and dream of hosting my own someday. I explain my teenagers to death. I give my husband the backstory.

Increasingly, though, I’m convinced that the way to be a good human (and storyteller) is to be a good listener.

Of course, listening to other people carries some risk. I might hear something I don’t like, for instance. I might have to give up an opportunity to argue my point or to correct someone’s misunderstanding. I might feel uncomfortable, for crying out loud.

But it’s the only way to grow in empathy. And to become a better listener, one needs to practice. I figure it’s a skill like anything else, and one of the ways I’m developing it is by reading voices different from my own and attempting to understand where they’re coming from. It feels less intimidating than sitting across from someone and staring into her eyes while she pours her heart out (though I’m trying to do that, too). Yes, I think reading is helping me listen better. I think it is. I hope. (You can ask my teenagers).

What about you? Are you a good listener? Do you seek out perspectives different from your own and try to understand them?

The Misery of Writing For Others

I was the last person in America to have never seen the movie version of Stephen King’s Misery. Last week, my sister recommended it to me because, she said, it’s hilarious.

Remembering It and Cujo, I was a little skeptical, but I trust this girl’s judgement implicitly.

“It will not remotely push you over the edge,” she said. “There’s a little gore at the end, but it’s cheesy.”

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Good, because you know I can’t do lifelike horror, I said.

I rented the movie, and she was right. It was darkly hilarious. Also, it was a warning to writers everywhere: Write for yourself or die.

The age-old argument remains alive on the internet, though. You should

  • Write what you want. Anything else is selling out.
  • Write what THEY want and sell books for $$ (but maybe not like it).
  • Write what YOU want but don’t expect anyone to read your endless dream sequences.

Stephen King has managed to write what people like and what he likes, I guess. Above all, though, he seems to be saying, go with your gut when it comes to writing or the whole business may end up killing you (or at least breaking your ankles).

Noted, Stephen. Noted.

 

Art in the Second Half of Life

Some of the pros of pursuing a creative field in my forties are that

  • I feel calmer, braver, and less neurotic than I did when I was younger.
  • I’ve mostly raised my kids, so I don’t have Mom Guilt when I take time away from them to get better at my craft.
  • I’m more disciplined with my time because, honestly, there are fewer things in my life that feel like interesting distractions (with the possible exception of podcasts on unsolved murders).

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But there are cons, too.

  • I feel rushed, like I’m always on the verge of running out of time. It’s hard not to compare myself to twenty or thirty-somethings who are doing all the things I’m doing, but sooner, so the odds of success seem ever in their favor.
  • I get mentally exhausted sooner than I did in my twenties, and I wonder if my ideas are “safer” because of this mellow(er) decade.
  • I’m physically tired.

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In order to keep going, I have to remind myself that

  • I was meant to find this path at this time (I believe God directs our lives more than we realize).
  • My ideas are probably less wild but truer than if I’d written them down earlier. This is because I’ve lived more. I’ve sat in the shadows with people. I’ve traveled the world. This has to count for something.
  • My life is going to pass whether I pursue writing or not. Since there’s no slowing down the passage of time, I might as well spend some of it doing what I love.

Are you thinking of creating art in the second half of your life? If you need a little encouragement, check out these women who got published after the age of 40. 

Writing While Furious

There’s a lot to be angry about these days, and I find myself as susceptible as the next person to the slow burn of muted rage. And that’s just the stuff that has nothing to do with me. Factor in the mundane irritations, the occasional sleepless nights due to I-still-don’t-actually-know-what, the To-Do list that will not resolve itself, and I could stay ticked if I let myself.

Anger is an emotion I hate. I don’t feel energized by it the way some people do. To me, it’s nothing but pure body and soul malaise. It yanks my inner life into slow motion while morphing my external life into a pathetic series of jerkily completed tasks.

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One of the differences between writing for fun and turning pro is that you’ve decided you’ll do it when you feel inspired and calm–and when you feel awful. If I want to turn pro (and I do) it means I need a way to harness my occasional anger into creative energy until it burns away. Otherwise, it will become one more invitation not to move forward in my career.

This blog post isn’t how about to do that, because I haven’t figured it out yet (unless you count typing with ferocity). This is more of a personal memo, an item that needs to move to the top of my To-Do list for the foreseeable future. I have longterm ways of putting my anger into perspective, of giving my Big Scary Feels to God. I just need a short-term way to move forward creatively when the rage is still fresh and hot.

 

The Care and Feeding of Art

I have a full life, like most everyone else. There’s plenty to do in a given hour, stuff that doesn’t feel particularly interesting or thought-provoking but has to get done. Well and good, but I need to feed my mind in order to create my best work, even when I don’t have time to “indulge” in things that aren’t making money or managing my family’s lives.

One way I keep my head full of stories is to listen to podcasts on subjects I’m interested in. I can usually do this while I’m running or unloading the dishwasher, so it feels like multitasking. It’s fertilizer for my thought life and doesn’t cost me extra time (or money).

Another way is to read a few pages of a novel before bed (and when I say a few pages, it’s sometimes two before I sink into oblivion). I’m always working through someone else’s book, even when I’m writing my own. I used to wonder if reading while writing would cause me to plagiarise another author’s ideas. As far as I can tell, that’s a groundless fear. If anything, reading someone else’s work reminds me to use my own voice and stay true to my vision.

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Yet another way to stoke my thought life is to notice the artwork on the walls of a favorite coffee shop. I imagine what an artist was thinking as she sketched half of a face in charcoal. Before I know it, I have the vaguest glimmer of a scene in the back of my mind. Maybe I won’t use it right away, but it’ll be there waiting for me if I need it.

Feeding my mind is something I used to believe would happen in my spare time. Now I know I have to work it into my day in order to stay creative.

What about you? How do you feed your mind and stay inspired?