Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Who Knew I Was a Commitment-Phobe?

Twelve posts in September, five in October, three in November and ONE in December, if I hurry and post this.

This dismal blogging record is just a symptom of a larger problem that thankfully I addressed in therapy this week! (Thank you, Joanie T., for being so wise.)

My writing inertia is actually the topic of most of my sessions but Tuesday’s session was pivotal in that I finally *got* why I’m so blocked.

First, my working life to this point has been defined by the external. Almost all of my self-confidence came from the recognition I got for my work and for being such a “hard worker.” A writing life does not afford this type of recognition. Writers go for long periods without feedback, except for those nasty little rejection slips.

Second, I haven’t made a commitment to a writing life. I’ve been all talk and no action. Joanie used the word “random” to describe my writing habits. She’s brilliant because that’s exactly what the past three months have been like. I’ve let work (my day job) encroach on my Monday and Friday writing days. I’ve procrastinated by doing laundry, cleaning the cat box and other chores that could and should wait for the weekend when my spouse can help me.

My analysis: on a subconscious level, I’ve not committed to a writing life so that when/if I fail, I haven’t invested so much of myself in the effort. FEAR has stopped me from living the life I’m meant to lead.

My square, Type A personality is not responding well to the lack of structure, either. I have an office that I rent for my day job. I have a space to go to -- but I haven’t made it a writer’s space. My goal is to equip it with a comfy chair, a rug, a bookshelf for my lovely books, my intention board, fresh flowers, candles and personal items.

The greatest gift I can give myself this holiday season is to own the mantle of writer.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Gift of Spirit and a Kick in the Pants

On Saturday, my friend LaVonne (75 years young) and I decided to drive to the neighboring town of Bayfield to visit the woo-woo store there, Pathways. I figured it was a nice way to spend a morning with a dear friend – it ended up being something so much more.

We were browsing the section with tarot and oracle cards. One set caught my eye: the Ascended Masters Oracle Cards. I was happy to see a “demo” or store copy open so I could see the beautiful illustrations of the deck. I lifted the deck mid-way and the card I saw first said:

Creative WritingArchangel Gabriel: "Make time to write down your thoughts in a journal, or pen an article or book."


I laughed out loud and told LaVonne that spirit must want me to get serious about my book writing (which I haven’t been lately).

The clerk asked what I was laughing about and I told her. She asked if I’d share the storylines of the three books I’ve started. I gave a very brief synopsis and noticed her eyes teared.

The book I’m working on the most is about a Cissy, a 16-year-old in 1960s Mississippi who shoots her father, who’s abused her for the past 10 years. The clerk told me of a relative who has a daughter in Mississippi named Cissy who is 16 years old and tyring to be emancipated from her parents because of her father’s sexual abuse.

I still can’t believe what I heard. I took it as a gift from spirit that I’m on the right track and to keep writing!

That evening, I searched the Internet for information on Archangel Gabriel. Here’s a paragraph I found that hit me like a ton of bricks:

Gabriel loves to coach and help you with writing. He can open doors for publication and will help you in the enjoyment of your writing. He will push you into action. He will reassure you that it is safe to be powerful.

If that wasn’t enough, the web site said the crystal associated with Gabriel is citrine – the crystal I bought at the store earlier that day.

So, today, I feel renewed and energized to continue Cissy’s story. I have the crystal next to my computer and a steaming mug of decaf.

Thank you, spirit, for an early Christmas present! Readers and writers, have you experienced these types of synchronicities in your life? Please share!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reading, Writing and Guilt

After the AROHO writers’ retreat I attended in August, I was gung-ho about signing up for writer’s blogs and subscribing to writing magazines. I bought works by short story writers I hoped to emulate.

I work at a national nonprofit as a marketing/communications specialist three days a week (Tuesday-Thursday). I envisioned Mondays and Fridays as days to devote to reading and writing. Instead, I’ve been in a quagmire of guilt because I haven’t done much of either lately. The stack of books and magazines sits on my nightstand and mocks me. “Look at the money you spent on us!” “Stop being such a cry baby and get to work!”

I’ve always been such a motivated ‘employee.’ Yet, I’ve found it difficult to stay energized about my craft when I’m only accountable to me, myself and I. I suppose self doubt fuels apathy, which then translates to procrastination.

Yikes. What a pity party I’m having today. Writers – how much do you read and how do you make time for it?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It's the Plot, Stupid

Oh my, it’s been a while since I last wrote. Life has been busy but in a very good way. I just got back from 10 days in the British Virgin Islands on the lovely island of Tortola, which my husband and I have visited three times. It’s not an island for those craving night life. The slow, plodding way of life lends itself to rum punches, long naps in the sun and plenty of time for reading.

I foolishly brought my laptop thinking I’d either make enormous progress on the novel or start a new one for National Novel Writing Month. Well, I did neither. It was my vacation and writing seemed like work. This realization makes me a little sad but I’m giving myself a break. I NEEDED REST!

I do have something writing-related to report. The resort had a library of bestsellers with suntan lotion grease marks, dog-eared pages and airline ticket stubs as bookmarkers.
While on vacation, I read five paperbacks (almost six). The authors were biggies: Picoult, Baldacci, Higgins Clark, Grisham, Cornwell.

The bestsellers were plot- not character-driven, although the books had extremely well-developed characters (including the long-standing medical examiner Kaye Scarpetta). The authors hit you over the head with the issue or conflict right off the bat and continued to remind you of it. Characterization was secondary and flowed from the storyline.

This may seem like ABCs to veteran writers but for those of us who also drift toward literary fiction, characters can take over our works. We become so closely associated with them that we don’t stop to put ourselves in our readers’ shoes. They might just be asking “Who cares?” unless we give them a reason to read more. That involves putting our characters up against personal or physical challenges.

Have you tried to balance plot and character in your works? I’d love to hear about it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Novel in a Month -- Ready, Set, Go!

November is National Novel Writing Month. Seriously. A whole month dedicated to writing 50,000 words.

My local paper featured an article on this because 14 people in my area actually did this last year. Durango’s pretty darn small. What’s up with those 14 people?

The NaNoWriMo web site (I’m not making this up) explains the effort this way: Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

NaNoWriMo started in 1999 with 21 writers. In 2008, there were 119,301 writers and 21,683 reached the 50,000-word minimum by November 30. (You have to register and then upload your work by that date to qualify as a winner.)

Many of these writers went on to successfully publish their books (after some editing and rewriting, of course).

I’m intrigued by the idea yet don’t want to stop writing on my current novel for an entire month. (Rules say you can’t jump in with a work in progress because you’re already too attached to it.)

Yet, what a great way to throw caution to the wind and write without emotional investment. I’ll let you know if I decide to try this. What about you? Interested?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Attack of the Query Shark!

No excuses for the long break between posts except that my injured knee and I have been throwing a pity party. The darn joint won’t cooperate and will likely keep me out of the half marathon in Moab, UT on Sunday. Oh well, I got tons of writing done in bed, knee propped up, ice pack in place, listening to tiny violins play in the background.

I also had some quality Internet time and found two great sites I’d like to share:
http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/
http://queryshark.blogspot.com

Both blogs are written by Janet Reid, a literary agent. She’s smart, funny and snarky as hell. The best part is reading her comments on poorly written query letters as well as those that made her want to sign the author.

Believe me, you’ll be entertained for hours and you’ll start to think you’re one of the greatest writers of all time after reading some of the crap that’s submitted. There’s also lots of great advice – so poke around and read posts like “7 Ways to Drive Your Agent Crazy” and “How to Make Sure Your Query is Instantly Rejected.”

I know, I know. You may not have finished your book or memoir yet. Write a query letter anyway. It’s great practice – you can always revise it later.

And before you send your query out into the big, scary world, send it to the Query Shark first. She'll toughen your skin and possibly help you turn a mediocre query into one that sings.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Conjure the Dream

I've written several times about my intention board -- it has my calls to the universe for things I want to manifest in my life. Well, until today, they've only been words on Post-It notes; nothing visual.

I recently ran across a powerful exercise for first-time novelists. You're supposed to seek out an image you think represents your future book cover -- and then cut out words and paste up a mock cover to remind you of the dream of publishing that manuscript one day.

Can I just say HOW MUCH FUN it was to do this? I have some graphic design expertise so I did a pretty involved mock-up (see photo). Then, I did one for the two women in my writers' group. (We had breakfast today to pump each other for a Friday full of writing.)

The Artist's Way also encourages writers to imagine all the juicy details of their dreams. Not just stating "Publish book." The author suggests writing specifics about what it would mean to achieve that dream. My image is walking in downtown Durango past Maria's, our independent bookstore, and seeing copies of my book in the window with a sign, "Latest Novel from Local Author Mandy Mikulencak."

A former co-worker of mine would write her dreams/wants/desires on pieces of paper, fold them up and hide them in different places in her house. Another would write out her intentions and then burn them, sending the smoke up as her request to the universe.
Do you take time to conjure your dream, in all its glorious details? I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The POV Smorgasbord

I’m reading a fascinating book called "Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular" by Rust Hills.

There’s a lot of great stuff in the book but the chapter on point of view is especially compelling. He goes into the whole list of types (omniscient, first person, third person, scenic, central intelligence) but then goes on to say “It seems to me that the proper attitude for the writer is to leave the systematizing to someone else and just rejoice that there are so many methods.”

I liked that he outlined some of the limitations of certain POVs but encouraged writers to not be bound by certain rules and conventions. BUT BE SMART ABOUT IT. He describes the work of some authors who intentionally and thoughtfully break POV rules which can be mesmerizing and brilliant. But when beginning writers “break the rules unwittingly, with nothing accomplished by it, it harms the story foolishly.”

Part of the chapter discusses how authors ‘choose’ which POV to use. He proposes that most times, this decision is unconscious. The technique is second to the story that’s within you aching to be told.

The characters in my novels have pretty strong first-person voices and I wouldn’t go against their wishes to try out third-person limited or omniscient. But I think it’s worthwhile to practice other POVs. I’m considering writing a short story based on the true story of an elderly woman who was eaten by a bear because she refused warnings not to feed dog food to the bears in her neighborhood. Does her husband tell the story? Does the kid living next door? Or do I serve as a omniscient narrative of this tragic tale?

So many juicy choices. Hills is right -- let’s rejoice that we have so many methods at our disposable.

Which POV are you most comfortable using? Have you stretched outside that POV yet?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Inspiration as Writing Partner

Some people, when they learn I write fiction, say they’d love to do the same thing but they just don’t have a great imagination.

Until October 2008, I said the very same thing. I had been a non-fiction writer for more than 20 years; it felt comfortable and it paid the bills. Truthfully, I didn’t think I had a story in me so fiction held no allure.

When I started the first book almost exactly a year ago, I had NO CHOICE in the matter. I’m not going to get too woo-woo here but the inspiration and many times the words themselves came from somewhere outside of me. Pressed into service, I dutifully took dictation, sometime hours at a time.

Where the hell did THAT come from, I’d ask in disbelief. My characters would do and say the most extraordinary things, all of their own accord.

I’m not saying I don’t bring talent to the table. I just know I’m not writing alone and I’m more than okay with that. I don’t call my inspiration a muse. I believe I have a team of guides with me, especially for the writing. (Woo-woo Alert!) Sometimes, I welcome them with burning sage. I definitely say thank-you after a productive day of writing.

From time to time, I feel an intense pressure and burning sensation at the back of my head during fervent writing sessions – maybe just a friendly nudge from the team.

I’m fully connected to the characters in my books but I don’t try to force the story on them. Sometimes, they’ll say, “Mandy, I really wouldn’t say that. Try again.” I sigh and rewrite. When I get it right, I feel it in my gut.

The Artist’s Way says that creativity is an expression of the divine at work. I think it’s connectivity with our universe and all the creative energy we share, past and present.

Do you feel inspiration from outside yourself? How would you describe it?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wonderful, Frustrating Google

ARGH! Google fatigue! Information overload!

I wasted about 2 hours today trying to research how the juvenile courts worked in 1970s Mississippi. I need information on how my novel’s protagonist, Cissy, will make her way through the criminal justice system and into a state mental hospital.

I’m starting to believe I’d have better luck with a card catalogue system at a university library.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Google. I use it EVERY SINGLE DAY for something. Looking up phone numbers, checking spelling of corporate names, finding restaurants or hotels, etc.

I’m just frustrated by the inability of the World Wide Web to serve me what I want on a silver platter, straight to my computer. Did I think research for a novel would be that easy? Well, not really. But I was hoping that Google would narrow down my options.

I’m wondering how other authors go about research, especially those who write on complicated subjects including law, medicine, espionage.

Let me know if you’ve faced similar challenges. What subjects have you had to research for your fiction?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Natura Naturans

I first heard the phrase “Natura Naturans” from my nephew who plans to have the words tattooed on his back. It’s a Latin term for “nature naturing,” or more loosely “nature doing what nature does,” and it was top of mind today when I took a two-hour hike on the Lower Hermosa Creek trail near my home. In Durango, we’re experiencing an Indian summer with temperatures near 80 today so it would have been a crime to stay indoors.

Never before have the oaks been so vibrant in their fall color. My vocabulary was stunted for most of the walk and I rarely managed more than “Wow,” “Look!” and “Oh, those!”

Once again, a writer at a loss for words. The irony is that nothing inspires me as much as being in the woods. The colors, the scents, the sounds, the textures all call out for someone to catalog them but being so incredibly awe-inspiring, they defy description. They require participation.

I ran across an out of print book called Nature Writing: The Tradition in English. Writers like Muir, Dillard and Thoreau join many others in writing essays on their natural world.
I like to imagine them soaking in every detail of their experiences, passing those details through the filter of a writer’s mind, capturing at least the essence of natura naturans for others to experience from the page.

Today, I breathed in the mix of sun and dust and pine needles on the trail. I heard the lowing of the cattle herd still roaming the hills and the frantic scurrying and chattering of chipmunks and squirrels beneath fallen leaves and brush. I scratched the bark of an elder pine tree to smell the faintest hints of vanilla and burnt caramel. I allowed the wind and the sun to kiss my face, to embrace me, to wash away the worries of the metal and concrete world.

Has nature been an important part of your writing or creative life? In what way?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Real Writers Kill Dogs

I want to recommend a book for anyone who is serious about fiction writing. It’s called “What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” (Bernays/Painter).

One of the authors, Pam Painter, taught the weeklong fiction workshop I attended at Ghost Ranch in August. I’ve been a writer for 30 years and the exercises gave me completely different insight into writing techniques and revitalized all aspects of my writing.

There are too many brilliant exercises to mention but the one that’s on my mind is called Kill the Dog.

The authors write: “If you want to write serious fiction, you have to kill the neighbor’s dog. In fiction there is no avoiding the malevolent. In fact, there are very few states of mind or motivation that lie beyond your reach. You should be able to describe a tree, cooking a gourmet meal or slaughtering an animal, for one reason or another, you want to get rid of. Just as an actor assumes the role of a killer and makes him plausible, dispatch the animal convincingly and without flinching.”

YIKES! The emotional and physical reactions I had to reading that chapter were many: revulsion, horror, fear, anxiety, anger.

I still haven’t attempted this exercise. But I completely understand the need to stretch beyond the limits of what is comfortable.

In my novel, God Doesn’t Like Sweet Cornbread, the protagonist has been sexually assaulted by her father for 10 years. It’s not a pretty subject. In fact, some days I’m emotionally spent after spending time in Cissy’s head.

What do you think of this exercise? Have you written on difficult subjects, even put yourself in the shoes of a killer, villain or sleaze ball?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Word Count: The Evil Enemy

I’m in week 8 of The Artist’s Way. Once again, I’m struck by the messages that were surely written specifically for me.

Here’s a passage:
Instead of allowing ourselves a creative journey, we focus on the length of the trip. Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can seem foolish or barren. Creativity lies not in the done, but in doing.

I’ve learned that when you tell someone you’re writing a book, the first question you’re asked is “What’s it about?” The second question is “When will you be finished?”

The “word count” feature in Microsoft Word is an evil enemy because it keeps your eye on the product (a finished work of at least 80,000 words).

On my intention board was a Post-It note that read “Finish novel by Dec. 31, 2009.” I’ve replaced it with “Write each day. Show up.”

How can the story unfold naturally if I give myself a word limit and a deadline? I’m not a journalist any more. I’m a conduit for a story that aches to be told, that’s still being formed, that needs time and space to expand and contract.

Granted, a map on this journey would do a lot to ease my anxiety. But what if I decided to see that anxiety as anticipation of what’s to unfold?

In five or 10 years, when I look back at my path, I’m certain it won’t be one that I could’ve predicted.

What's the “product” that stands in the way of your creative process?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Best Revenge is Massive Success

I walk along the river trail in Durango two to three times a week. I say hello to everyone I pass but only one out of several will reply or smile. I came home in a snit the other day because this trend really started to bother me. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked my husband.

The next day, I heard a bit on the radio about a study that revealed a person’s self-esteem is boosted when others smile or say hello to them. Aha! Each time someone failed to respond (smile, nod, speak), I felt rejected!

Rejection…a walker’s AND a writer’s constant companion.

My friend, Liz, from Austin, sent me a cool link about famous authors who were rejected repeatedly and often rudely by publishers and agents. I’ve never felt more hopeful about my novels’ prospects!

Here’s just a sample of the comments. Are you as blown away as I am?

  • Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, was rejected dozens of times. One publisher said: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell."
  • William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by 20 publishers. One denounced the future classic with these words: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
  • Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times.
  • John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by a dozen publishers and 16 agents before breaking into print and launching his best-selling career.
  • After John le CarrĂ© submitted his first novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, one of the publishers sent it along to a colleague, with this message: “You’re welcome to le CarrĂ© – he hasn’t got any future.”

As Frank Sinatra once said, “The best revenge is massive success.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Scrabble and the Sh**ty First Draft

So, I skipped my blog on Thursday and played Scrabble instead. My husband’s sister (Camm) and brother (Garth) are in town and she’s a Scrabble fiend.

Here’s the irony. I’m a professional writer and editor and I can only come up with words like aim, key, box, top, get. But because we play gals against guys, she’s the reason we win.

Sometimes I’ll look at my tray of letters and my mind draws a complete blank. I could have a seven-letter word worth an extra 50 points but my brain locks up and I fail to see what’s right there in front of me.

Occasionally, it’s like that when I work on my novel or other fiction. I’m staring, staring, staring at a paragraph. There’s got to be a better work for X, I think. I stare some more. Surely, it will come to me. BRAIN LOCK!

I tend to obsess over a sentence or a paragraph instead of getting that sh***y first draft on paper. In fact, I’ve gotten into the nasty habit of starting up my computer, opening the file and reading FROM THE BEGINNING before I start writing. Now, I start each new chapter in a different file so I’m not so tempted to obsess about what’s already been written.

Self-doubt, perfectionism, ego… all enemies of the sh***ty first draft. Come on! Let’s toughen up! Put those random thoughts down; don’t fret about complete sentences, perfect punctuation, stilted dialogue, purple prose and the occasional POV shift.

Author Natalie Goldberg writes about the editor/censor being stronger than the writer at times. Maybe a bit of compassion for ourselves could unlock the creative force that’s resisting the constraints we so often put on our writing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Voices in Your Head Besides Your Own

Wally Lamb, author of “She’s Come Undone,” writes from the perspective of Dolores, an obese, isolated young woman who attempts suicide during her first semester in college and spends seven years in a mental institution.

There’s a lot more to the book but my point is that Wally is a man, writing from a woman’s perspective about rape, eating disorders, a ticking biological clock and more. Not once when I was reading the book did I think, “This is a guy trying to sound like a woman.” Dolores’ voice rang true throughout.

This brings me to the assumption that writers write what they know. Many beginning writers do because it’s easier to draw from personal experiences when first trying to craft a story. Many start with memoirs because they’ve been comfortable journaling for a large part of their lives – and let’s face it, our childhoods provide a lot of material.

But writers also step into the lives of people completely unlike themselves and tell rich, complex stories from the viewpoint of another sex, race, sexual orientation, age, or species!

One of my novels is about Cissy, a 16-year-old girl in South Mississippi in the late 1960s who shoots her father five times in the back for sexually abusing her for 10 years. I’ve never been to Biloxi. My father didn’t sexually assault me. I’ve never been institutionalized in a state mental hospital.

I hear Cissy’s voice in my head, clearer than most of the voices in my head (kidding). Seriously though, my goal is that Cissy will speak to my readers, that her story will stand on its own and that my contribution is providing a vehicle for her voice.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Eat Bon-Bons for a Living

I’m a big believer of sending out intentions to the universe and being very specific about what you want. I wanted more time to write, I asked for more time to write, and before I knew it, there was a flurry of gifts from the universe that allowed me to do just that.

“The universe is giving me what I asked for!” I wanted to shout to everyone I knew.

I wasn’t prepared for the lukewarm and sometimes negative responses to my news of going part-time so I could concentrate at least 20-24 hours a week on the novels and other writing. And these responses were from friends!

“In this economy? What are you thinking?!”
“I wish I had that luxury!”
“I wish I didn’t have to work.”

To that last comment, I wrote my friend and said, “I’m not going to be eating bon-bons on my days off. I’m treating this as a real job. I’m going to get up and sit at my desk and write.”

I recently saw a talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) on TED. If you haven’t seen it, WATCH IT NOW! She speaks to the fear-based reactions that writers often get from friends and family:
Aren’t you afraid you won’t make any money?
Aren’t you afraid you won’t be successful?
Aren’t you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you?

Gilbert asks “Is it logical to be afraid of doing the work you were put on this earth to do?”

She’s often asked what she will do if her next book isn’t as successful as Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert admitted it will likely not be as successful as her “freakish first success.” But she was going to keep getting up each and every day to write because that’s her job.

And that’s what you’ll find me doing on Mondays and Fridays – writing, doing my job, showing up. Although bon-bons do sound pretty good right about now...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Forcing Inspiration

Since I haven't stated it in earlier blogs, I do marketing and communications work as a remote employee for Goodwill Industries International, which is located in Maryland. I didn’t mention it because work was going to stay separate from my writing life. Yeah, right.

Friday was my first full day off under the new part-time work schedule and I blew it. Thought I’d be up and writing by 7:30 a.m. My mistake was checking my work email ON MY DAY OFF. There were two urgent messages. If I responded I’d be setting a precedent that work could encroach on my writing days. If I didn’t, we’d miss a deadline to submit comments on a joint communications project with a federal government agency.

I caved and did about an hour’s worth of work. Then I got angry. At myself mostly. I convinced myself I was too riled up to work on one of my novels, so I decided to clean the cat box, then vacuum, then clean the kitchen countertops, then pay the bills.

My husband, Andy, said it will take some time to develop a structure for my writing schedule and not to force it.

This afternoon, as Andy watched college football, I curled up in bed with my cat and my laptop. When I finally took a bathroom break, I realized I had been writing for more than two hours.

I guess inspiration can’t be forced into an 8-5 schedule and I didn’t blow it on Friday after all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Smother the Inner Critic and Listen to the Smart Ones

I’m my own worst critic. I know that. I’ve always known that. But I’ve devoted a good deal of time nurturing a voice that stifles the critic or at least drowns it out. They really go at it some days:

  • Critic: You’re not that great a writer.
  • Champion: You’re a GREAT writer.
  • Critic: You’ll never make a living at it.
  • Champion: You can achieve anything you want.
  • Critic: Get a sensible job.
  • Champion: Do what you love.

You can see why I feel a bit schizophrenic at times. My goal is to completely smother the critic voice one day but I’m realistic. That voice will always be there. However, I choose to surround myself with people who support me and my dreams without judgment, but who can offer positive criticism on my writing.

During the writer’s retreat I attended in August, I signed up for 30 minutes with a literary agent. She read 10 pages of my novel-in-progress and gave me her first impressions…which weren’t very positive. I didn’t cry, or panic and throw out the novel. I gave myself some time to process the comments and then I emailed my friends for support.

My dear friend Katrina in Mississippi (who regularly reads and critiques my work) wrote back: “F*** her! She’s wrong! Your writing makes me weep! It will find a home somewhere!” Then she calmed down and wrote: "Sometimes critics who have 99% of it wrong have the 1% right that can be pivotal." She’s so smart.

The writing life entails rejection. The trick is to be open to the criticism and not shut down. Let’s ferret out the nuggets of truth that will help us become better at our craft. More importantly, let’s not allow our own fears and judgments to sabotage our efforts.

P.S. Irene, a writer I met at the retreat, said she places her rejection letters in a file titled “Not Yet.” What a great outlook to have.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Shine a Light on the Shadow Artist

About 15 years ago, my brother gave me a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I browsed through it and thought, "Eh, not for me. Too woo-woo." I gave that copy away only to buy another one 10 years later. Flipped through the table of contents again, and thought, "Nah, too busy for those damn morning pages." Gave away that copy, too.

Then, about six weeks ago, my friend Mindy emailed and asked if I'd like to read The Artist's Way and meet weekly to discuss our challenges or insights. I was moved that she trusted me with this kind of process and I jumped at the chance for self-exploration. After all, I had taken other steps to get in touch with the creativity I thought I had lost (or misplaced). It seemed a natural fit.

I bought the book for a THIRD time. When I opened it up, I screamed, "She wrote this just for me!" I kept underlining and circling parts that resonated. After marking up the book considerably, I admitted that it ALL resonated.

Today, though, I want to share the powerful concept of the shadow artist because it can be applied to almost anyone. Shadow artists often choose shadow careers, those close to the art but not the art itself. Someone might open a gallery instead of painting, or become an agent instead of an actor. In my case, I chose to be a journalist and nonprofit writer/editor instead of a fiction writer. It's easier to sit on the periphery than to follow a dream. We stifle an inner voice that tries to remind us of those activities that make us most happy, most fulfilled.

Am I encouraging you to quit your job as a pharmacist, lawyer, teacher or retail clerk? Absolutely not. Why not start with shining a light on your shadow artist and making small but meaningful steps toward reclaiming your creativity. Sign up for a photography class or art lessons. Make your own greeting cards. Perfect the chocolate souffle. Stencil a border in your bathroom.

Committing to being a fiction writer was the most powerful gift I ever gave myself. I've learned those inner voices have a lot to say.

A Thrilling, Frightening New Path

Some time ago, I ran across a quote by Lao-tzu that hit me like a ton of bricks. "At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want." I immediately e-mailed it to several friends. My wise friend Wendy wrote back and asked, "What's the answer?" Without hesitation, I responded, "I must write."

This statement needs clarification. I've been a writer my entire life, starting as a journalist and then serving as a writer/editor for national and international nonprofits for 20 years. In October 2008, something shifted. I have enjoyed most of my career, but it has left me exhausted and burned out. I rarely had time for personal (non work-related) writing — and most attempts were prompted by profound life experiences such as a family member’s death or some insight gained in therapy.

In October 2008, that changed. One morning, I woke up and began creative writing again, words spilling out almost beyond my control. I couldn’t type fast enough. It was almost as if I were taking dictation from a belligerent muse.

Having never attempted a novel-length work, I started two pieces of fiction at the same time. I also began writing personal essays and pitching magazine articles to editors again. What the heck was going on?

Next, I started putting "intentions" out to the universe (in the form of Post-It notes on my bulletin board): Attend a writer's retreat. Finish the novel by Dec. 31, 2009. Start or join a local writers' group. Get accepted to Hedgebrook 2010. Write for fun. Writing is a calling, not a hobby.

A year later, I've made some serious steps toward living a writer's life.
  • I negotiated a part-time job with my employer so I can write more.
  • I attended a writers' retreat for women sponsored by A Room of Her Own Foundation. (Check this out -- it will change your life!)
  • I applied for a one-month writer's residency in 2010 at Hedgebrook (selections take place in December).
  • I formed a local writers' group where four amazing women meet twice monthly to critique each other's novels in progress.
  • I write for fun!
  • I was so inspired by short story writer Pamela Painter that I am writing some flash fiction and LOVE IT.
  • I just had my first piece of fiction accepted by a literary journal (Wilderness House Literary Review).
  • I am completing The Artist's Way (by Julia Cameron) with a good friend (we keep each other honest about morning pages and artist's dates).
This new path is thrilling and frightening. I spent 22 years at full-time jobs with deadlines from co-workers, clients or bosses. My work was externally driven. I was a hard worker! I produced results! I punched a time clock!

Now, I am faced with a blank slate the days I'm not working at my "day job." I am accountable only to myself. I must find a way to structure my days with writing, revising, researching, blogging, reading good writing, sending out my work. I must find a way to ignore the calls of dirty laundry, unmade beds or unwashed dishes.

Thanks, La0-tzu, for helping me clarify my path. I'll stumble along the way, and make a few wrong turns (or detours), but it's bound to be more fun that way. Hope you'll join me for part of the journey.