My Writing Journey: Taking my Kids Along for the Ride

For the past couple of years, my husband, the kids, and I answer a few specific questions to formulate our goals going into the new year. For example:

  • In 2018, I want to learn…
  • In 2018, with my family, I want to…
  • In 2018, I want to help others by…

While we sat around in a sugar cookie coma, pine needles still littering the floor, 2017 barely behind us, we each contemplated our own goals. At some point, my eleven-year-old piped up:

“Hey, mom. Are you ever gonna finish that book?”

Ah, out of the mouths of babes. Thanks for being the outside voice to my internal self-doubt there, kid.

The fact of the matter is it felt like that. That I might never finish. Granted, there was a false start, tons of necessary research, a major move for our family, and the fact that I was/am still learning. I have to work really hard at this thing. I was coming up on two years on this project. It felt like forever to all of us.

“I will, honey,” I told him. “When it’s right. And this is the story I need to get right.”

I have been super honest about my writing journey with my kids. For one thing, it’s important to me, so of course I would share it with the people who are the most important to me. Despite my own insecurities of having a “job” that doesn’t pay, my husband has always made a point of asking how the writing is going in front of the kids, putting my work on the same level as his. They have helped me brainstorm titles and have come along on research trips. They love to read and write stories of their own, so sharing what I’m learning helps them, too. We are learning together.

But perhaps most importantly, I want to show them their mother following her dreams. I want them to see me trying, failing, succeeding. All of it.

I had that example growing up. My mom went back to school to forge a new path. My dad started his own business. Things were tough for both of them during those times. But they forged ahead. They didn’t give up.

Yet, somewhere along the way, the practical part of me showed up and talked the dreamer part of me into picking a college major and career that would pay the bills. And it did. And I liked it. Even loved it. But I wasn’t in love with it. Not like I am with writing. Even when the writing is bad or a struggle or the rejections drop into my inbox with a (friendly or was that an ominous?) ding, I can’t imagine doing anything else. (This might come as news to my husband since there have been many days I’ve threatened to pack up shop and go bag groceries at the local supermarket. Although, seriously, this seems like a satisfying job to me – like Tetris, but with a dozen eggs, a box of cereal, a half gallon of orange juice, a loaf of bread, a bag of grapes, and four cans of beans. Oh, the possibilities!).

I have learned, however, that practicality is just fear in disguise. Recognizing where I need to be – writing – has changed my outlook. I am no longer defensive about what I don’t know but curious. I am seeking ways to improve my craft, searching for new inspirations, challenging myself with new genres (essays, flash fiction, poetry), looking for opportunities to get paid for my work (beyond (hopefully, one day) selling the novel). And I’m continuing to be honest with my kids about that day’s struggles, victories, or detours. Because it’s my turn to be the example.

When I have a particularly hard time figuring something out or realize I need to study something a bit more before trying again or have to write twelve drafts of the same query letter, it shows them that effort gets results. When I get rejected and they see me keep going, it shows them perseverance. When I receive good feedback, they see me celebrating accomplishments. When I meet new writers or go to author events, it teaches them how to support others, network, and take risks.

Fast forward from January resolution making to this past weekend. While driving home from a family outing, I clicked on an email notification (don’t worry, the hubby was driving). It was a rejection on my full manuscript from an agent. A nice rejection. An ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ rejection. A keep querying rejection. But a rejection nonetheless. And no matter what, it still stings in the moment.

As I read the agent’s comments out loud to my husband, the same eleven-year-old reached his hand from the back seat and patted my shoulder.

“It’s okay mom. Maybe the next one.”

It can be a long journey as a writer. I’m glad I picked the perfect travel mates.

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Listening for the Muse’s Whisper

I recently finished the novel that has taken me two years to write (two years, two houses, two states, endless revisions). It’s done. Or as done as I can make it right now. I sent it out to a few interested agents and am waiting. Ugh. The waiting. Waiting for the feedback. Waiting for the rejections. Waiting to send it out to the next group. Waiting for the one yes.

The finishing was entirely anti-climatic. There was no celebration. There was no champagne. There was simply real life crowding out the fictional one and fast. And the real life mess I found (and continue to find) myself surrounded by has completely thrown me out of my creative routine.

In the weeks since real life’s descent, my fictional lives took a back seat. More accurately, they took a separate car and their GPS and mine apparently did not match up – I haven’t seen their car for days. I have spun out in several different directions about what to do next, how to accomplish my creative writing goals, how to get my freelance writing off the ground. All roads feel like dead ends, my brain unable to take any single route to its destination.

For a little while, I couldn’t write anything. The whiplash of switching from full-on, months-long revision mode in my fictional world to real life problems with no easy solutions for me to conjure up out of the ether left me dazed, confused, empty. I admit, I was scared. I have never had my mind feel so empty, so quiet. It was disconcerting and disorienting.

But I kept reading: books, articles, interviews with authors. I went to lunch with fellow WFWA writers. I added books and blogs to my growing to read piles. I wrote a new blog post. I kept putting in an effort, even when it felt wasted.

I walked. I listened to music and to podcasts. I watched a movie or two. I gave up some days and ran errands.

I kept showing up – butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard. Determined. Aware. Ready or not.

This week, while perusing a spreadsheet of upcoming deadlines for possible contests to enter, a line of dialogue popped into my head.

“Open the door.”

Boom.

I quickly opened a doc and typed it. A response followed like a gift. Lines poured out. Not many, but enough. A short scene appeared on the page. What was happening? Who were these people? Who were they to each other? Why was she so scared? Why was he so angry? Is that actually fear? Is that really anger? It’s not a novel. It’s not the next big story. But it’s a story. A short piece that may be strong enough to stand on its own two feet or, at the very least, get me back on my own.

It was a whisper. A drip. A start.

Real life, writer’s block, busyness, it’s all going to happen, to me, to you, to Stephen King and Ann Patchett and probably happened to Shakespeare, too. There is so much noise in our lives ready to drown out the muse. But if we keep showing up, keep putting in the effort, keep feeling, exploring, seeing, trying, we may be able to still ourselves long enough that a single whisper will make it’s way through the cacophony and the emptiness won’t be empty anymore. The whisper will grow into a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter… The words will start to fill the page again.

I am learning to live in the quiet, to seek out the peace, to listen to the whispers.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
 -Emily Dickinson
The muse doesn’t leave. It’s waiting. Are you listening?

The Story of the Shells

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On the left hand corner of my desk in a small, glossy, eggshell-colored bowl, rest a pile of shells. These shells are remnants, pieces of larger shells, worn down fragments that tumbled and swirled along the ocean floor for months, years, decades maybe. They are flattened like Play-Doh, smooth like stones. They are striped in layers, like sedimentary rocks. I picked them up where other shell seekers had left them in the sand while they searched for the pretty, the unique, the whole.

But I love these pieces. The smooth remains of something beautiful and broken.

I hold them, rub their grooves, warm them in my palm while I puzzle over a problem in my writing. They jingle in the bowl as I search for the right one. The one that might unlock the solution. The cat sometimes paws them, enjoying the sound they make against the bowl. Occasionally he succeeds in sneaking one out and over the side of the desk skittering it down the hall with Pelé like precision until I rescue it once again.

I work my stories, scenes, characters over like these shells. I smooth them, reduce them, expose their layers, until the stories, the scenes, the characters are beautiful and broken for the reader. Or at least I hope I do. That is the goal. To take what was once a whole and living thing and whittle away until I find the one truth of it that can fit in your hands and rattle in your pocket.

The whole shells are beautiful. They are treasures and worth our admiration, awe, display. The whole shells are our whole lives. Complete, perfect in their living.

But the truth of our lives lives in the details. In the nicks, the chips, the strange colors, and occasional barnacle attached.

I’m in search of those fragments, those bits of shells we shed or hide or try to forget that hold the lessons the oceans teach: rest and let go. Let the ocean carry it to a safe place, polish its edges, expose its layers, deliver it to the shore. Then wait for someone to pick it up, admire the flaw, and tell the story.