Last night’s concert with Shovels & Rope and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats filled me with joy and admiration. I’m not a musician nor have I ever played one on TV, but I felt a kinship with the people on the Red Rocks Amphitheatre stage.
Why? Because as I watched and listened to all those talented musicians, I understood on a gut level the work they’ve done. They’re creative people who have put in years and years to get where they’re at, and they’ve enjoyed glimpses of triumph and then been dragged down low. They’ve been discouraged yet kept going and when something wasn’t working, they tried something else. Every one of them took chances and eventually triumphed.
I want to be like those musicians when I grow up.
Angst and uncertainty are part of the creative process. You know that. You also know those feelings are best handled by writing and pushing through to the other side. But sometimes those feelings become so huge and unwieldy and the voices are shrieking so loudly in your head that you convince yourself you hate the project and want to quit it forever.
Please don’t give in to those feelings.
Instead, remember this: sometimes you feel stuck and unable to move forward NOT because you’re no-talent and the project is worthless, but because your approach is wrong. Sometimes you can’t make progress because something deep inside your creative self digs in its heels and refuses to budge. Sometimes you just need a little time to find the way.
Your project doesn’t suck. You don’t hate it. And it would be a sad, sad thing if you quit it forever.
Looking at photos on the computer, I came across this:
This picture is in my bedroom. I bought the print when I was pregnant with Wildebeest because of the Kurt Vonnegut quote from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.**
One night while we were reading in bed, I mentioned to Zippy that I needed a new writing project. He pointed across the room and suggested I write the story of those five babies.
I did, and it became Framed: Toby Hart’s Official Police Statement. (In the second draft or so of the middle-grade novel, I had to kill off one of the kids. Well, not bump her off, but delete her storyline. Oddly enough, it was the baby who is front and center.)
The book didn’t sell and I have a bunch of notes on how to rewrite it, but in the meantime, despite the rejection, the babies and I share a kind coexistence. Kurt would want it that way.
** Full quote:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth.
It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded.
At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here.
There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
1) While much of Bob Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED is good music to run to, Ballad of a Thin Man is not a song that will put pep in your step.
2) Zebu is binge-watching all six seasons of LOST (and luring me in from time to time), and what pops into my head at least once per viewing is How are none of these people badly burned and peeling?! Yo, Dharma Initiative, you remembered the lima beans but forgot the sunblock!
3) I want to live in a world in which cookies and beer have no caloric consequences.
5) I recently read T.C. Boyle’s WATER MUSIC and Zadie Smith’s ON BEAUTY (part of this effort), and am trying hard to be inspired by their prowess for description rather than allowing their mad skills to intimidate me so much I take a match to my manuscript.
I’ve been at this writing thing for a while, working toward publication. There have been highs and lows throughout the journey, validation followed by rejection. It’s been tough, but I’ve always been tougher. Something inside wouldn’t let me quit. Something inside knew I did not want to give up.
Several weeks ago, I began to seriously consider quitting.
Seriously, as in, I actually said out loud, “I’m thinking about quitting.” And I spoke those words to a new non-writer acquaintance who’d asked about my writing. That was a huge moment, because during all the years of writing in the bleachers during Zebu’s basketball games and being asked by other parents if I was a teacher grading papers, I always said, “No, I’m a writer.” If they asked more questions, I’d let them know I was writing novels for kids and when the inevitable question came, I’d say, “No, I haven’t been published yet.” And it was okay. There was a core of steel in me that allowed me to have those conversations. I knew I’d keep writing until my stories were published. I knew I’d prevail.
Nothing specific happened in the past month or so to shake my convictions, but somehow I felt I’d reached my limit. As in, maybe it was time to quit putting my work out there to be judged because maybe, just maybe, it was unhealthy to continue making myself vulnerable to others’ opinions. Sending out a manuscript is like offering my heart on a plate so that it can be stabbed, sometimes repeatedly.
So I gave myself a little break. A break from writing and a break from decision-making about writing for publication. I kept reading, though. One of the books I read was a YA from an author who’d written one of the best books I’d read in 2013, an author who sells gazillions of books and seems to be an awesome person. The YA I read was a huge disappointment. Weak, weak, weak. I was flabbergasted. And slightly annoyed. I knew better than to write a protagonist who doesn’t change and secondary characters who serve as placeholders and plot lines that go nowhere, fizzling out into big nothings. Why do I know that? Because I know how to write.
And just like that I knew I wasn’t ready to quit writing for publication. Not because I have any delusions about knocking that author off the best-seller list. And not because I’m angry with the publishing world that has, thus far, excluded me from the club. I’ve gone back to work on my YA because I want to continue doing what I know how to do, and to continue learning how to do that even better.
I am a writer. And no, I haven’t yet been published. Whatever.
So what do you do when you’re more than a year into a project yet
still confused regarding the viability of said project?
Hire Kathleen Duey – Writing Consultant Extraordinaire.
And how does that consultation take place?
Via Skype in which you’re face-to-face across the miles,
looking into Kathleen’s friendly face below those flaming tresses,
as she shares her reaction to your opening pages and synopsis.
Will she automatically like what you’ve written and advise you to
continue in that vein?
Not in my case. But that’s good because the reason
I contacted Kathleen was to jar myself from the space I was in with
that project, and to get me thinking in new and different directions. If she’d
told me I was on the right track I would’ve wanted my money back.
Did she share brilliant insights and suggestions?
Yes and yes! Kathleen offered a plot device I hadn’t considered which
will make the storytelling easier while adding complexity to the plot. She also
had oodles of general insights and if I had to choose a money quote from our
session it would be “I don’t really know this kid yet and I’m thinking you
don’t know him much better.” That was painful to hear but not unexpected;
it was the wake-up I needed. (She then shared techniques for
getting to know him, getting to know all about him…).
Well, it kinda sounds as if your project needs a major overhaul so aren’t
you a little overwhelmed?
Absolutely. But I also finally, finally feel as if I might be able to do this concept
justice (a concept Kathleen very much loved) and so am trying not to look
too far ahead as I begin at the beginning (again). This project is my Grow
and Learn and Mature as a Writer project, and I want to embrace the
If you get the chance to hear Kathleen speak at a conference, do it.
I heard her years ago when my energy and drive were flagging and
she made me not only want to write again, but to write well. She’s smart
and passionate and incredibly supportive of other writers.
Thank you again, Kathleen!
I'm developing new perspectives
regarding running and writing,
perspectives I hope will sustain me.
I am a creature of habit
and while there's no harm in my many years
of ordering aloo gobi at Indian restaurants
or my drawer filled with black shirts,
I'm realizing I do myself a disservice when I,
for example, get so focused on how fast I can run a certain
trail that I get locked into that one workout.
Last summer I ran three or four times a week
on the trails in the open space,
trails that include lots of rocks and inclines.
When it came time for the annual road race 5k to benefit my kids'
high school I was sure I'd kick butt.
Well, I did cut some time but nothing close to what I'd hoped for,
and I didn't know why.
Now I think I do.
Every run was on the same couple loops,
starting from the same place
and ending at the same point.
My muscles got used to those runs and settled in at that level.
Here's what the trail system looks like where I run:
image from BigDaddyMaps.com
While it's true there are many trails,
not all those trails are great for running.
Many are so steep I'd be faster hiking them than "running."
So I gravitated to the trails that had long sections of tolerable inclines,
wanting a decent-length workout.
This summer I'm trying something new:
I go off on tangents, even if those trails are short or quickly turn steep.
I'm keeping my muscles on their proverbial toes as I mix up my workouts.
As a result, I'm not obsessed with my time and allow myself the luxury of
watching coyotes or jumping sideways at the sight of a snake.
Every step I take is a good step.
So what does this lengthy screed have to do with my writing?
I'm back working on the project I set aside in April in order to focus
on other revisions, the project that's different from any other book I've written.
This project intimidates me and I really have no clue whether I'm hitting the mark.
But I'm using new writing muscles and that can only make me a stronger writer
(assuming I don't run screaming into the night).
Something else I've learned?
New perspectives are not only good for the muscles but nourish the soul.
Herman Melville was always using the image of the artist as diver.
He loved that word. Having to dive from some height, meaning, of
course, taking a serious risk. Because if you dive and you're lucky,
you'll come up with gold from the bottom of yourself. You dive deep
into the self. But you can also drown, you can smash your head upon
the rocks — there are terrible risks in diving from a great height. But
if you didn't dive, then you were not an artist in his terms. Without
risk you were just a middle-of-the-road type guy.
~ Maurice Sendak from Writers Dreaming by Naomi Epel
I'm afraid of heights
and sometimes I'm afraid to dive deep into myself.
However, I never want to be a middle-of-the-road type guy.
Inviting all my creative friends to join me in taking the plunge
today and every day.