The Maybe of Muses

On July 28th, I went to the NC Museum of Art. The kids were back at school. We were 21 days post move. I needed to recenter. To come back to my creative self. The months of March through July were so tumultuous and busy and mind numbing that I was afraid I would need an ice pick to chip my way back to my creative core.

Art, the visual, is one of the fastest ways for me to touch that core. Music can be fleeting, at least for me. Each song brings its own emotions but when the last chord sounds, it’s gone, dissolved into the air again, it can be hard for me to pull it back.

But art? Art for me hints at a story. It shows me just enough and nothing more. It leaves me with questions and, on a good day, avenues for answers, the possibilities spinning, weaving, endlessly simple, inextricably complicated. Someone saw something – a bowl of fruit, a blackened barn door, a look between lovers – and captured it in paint, on film, in stone. The subject is nothing without what the artist brings to it. And when it is combined correctly? Pure magic.

I wandered the over air conditioned museum, happy I brought a sweater so I wouldn’t be distracted by my physical feelings. I happened into a temporary exhibit of photography. I was floored. I was immediately sucked into the fifteen to twenty photos on display. I love photography, although admittedly couldn’t name any famous photographers beyond the big A’s: Ansel Adams and Annie Liebowitz. But this photographer intrigued me. Or rather his work did. I moved slowly, staring down each one. Going back. Taking a closer look, then a wider. I think I made the security guard nervous. I was in front of the same two photographs for so long I think he suspected I was planning to make off with one. And if I had a malicious mind and could have figured out how to get away with it, I might have.

The months passed and I can still call to mind his images. There were the famous Woodstock photos and the chilling images of a waxen Martin Luther King laid out in his coffin at his funeral that would certainly stick. But there were also the images of twisted and blackened books with only a few words still visible through the carnage from his “Burned” series. There was the back of a blackened barn from his “Just Add Water” series, the barn’s doors thrown open wide in the front, our perspective making it impossible to see what could be hiding inside, discarded bottles littered the weeds around it, dents and scratches marred the exterior walls, and there is the black. The barn painted in some haphazard fashion of what looks like buckets thrown at it, black drips streaking like tears, blank spaces cloudy like smoke. These images left me wondering, thinking, considering. They left me melancholy, yet full. They sparked. The creative core in me had warmed.

But this was all months ago, remember. A long time. Spark ignited, I was back at the keyboard, working on my own projects, the blackened barn now just an image in my phone.

Then, today, during lunch, I grabbed the Sunday News & Observer I didn’t have time to read yesterday from the counter. There, on the front page of the arts section was a beautiful feature on a North Carolina photographer. He’s embarking on a fascinating portrait series celebrating African American culture. His thought process and care with each subject were fascinating. I found myself curious when they mentioned his bio, his credentials. They seemed so familiar. Could it be? The same man? The one who caught my eye months ago at the art museum?

It is. A quick Google search confirmed it. So why? Why is Burk Uzzle suddenly popping back into my life? Coincidence? Maybe. Sure. Probably. Perhaps it is no more than that. But what if it’s not? What else is it?

I have been scrolling through his web page and staring at images (the black barn is in the Just Add Water gallery on his page). I have subscribed for updates on the documentary currently filming on his life and work (watch the trailer here). I have written this post all without really knowing or understanding why. I just feel I need to. I just know that his work is flat out beauty to me. Beauty in the honesty of it. The heart of it. The ugly truth of it.

Maybe it’s his camera’s insistence on shining a light on things often forgotten or hidden or silenced. Maybe it’s his sense of humor (just check out some of the titles of his work). Maybe it’s simply good photography and I appreciate his art.

Maybe.

Or maybe it’s a muse. Maybe it’s someone trying to tell me something. Show me something.

Maybe it’s all those things. Maybe none.

 

But whatever it is. I feel it. In that creative core. Something has been planted. What it grows into, only time will tell. When it has blossomed, though? That will be the story I tell. Then it will be my turn.

And so the cycle continues.

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Creative Re-Entry

Back in March, my second novel took a turn. Or, more accurately, I set it free to make room for what was a better story. I was digging in on research and finding my way through this new, much more daunting idea, getting to know my new protagonist and trying to fill in her life a little. Then, we were suddenly discussing moving. Upending our lives and starting over. My mind was filled with debate. Once we made our decision to indeed follow this course of action, my hands were filled with tasks to complete it. Staging, repairs, finding movers, it all became my job. Research on new neighborhoods, the end of the school year and trips to see possible new homes of our own took up my time. Packing and moving and living in limbo at my parents for three weeks while parenting our boys through this transition demanded every iota of my attention. The idea languished. The research stalled. The words stopped. My computer has seen many a map search as we learn our new town and plenty of online shopping as we fill our new home, but very few full sentences were typed from left to right across a blank page.

But the boys are in school now. The house is mostly put together. And for the first time in months, I felt the lack of writing in my bones. Kind of like when I get sick. When I’m really sick – laying in bed with the door shut and the covers pulled up and the medicine nearby and the hubby taking on all one hundred percent of the life tasks – I don’t notice the mess. The toys on the floor. The clutter accumulating on the counters. The laundry exploding from the hampers, the pantry’s empty shelves. But one morning, after moving from bed to couch and cruising HGTV, I will suddenly look around from my sick bed haze and finally notice the mess. That’s how I know I’m feeling better. When I start to see all that has fallen by the wayside in my absence and it starts to bug me.

Now, with the book (or at least the idea for the book), I’m starting to see all that hasn’t been done, all that needs to be tidied and filled in. Similar to being sick, however, when I start to see the mess, it doesn’t always mean I’m well enough to do something about it yet.

I don’t know if it’s simply being out of the routine, out of practice or out of excuses, but I’m a little scared to start writing again. Okay, a lot scared. I recognized this week that I need a plan. A plan to squash the doubt and ease myself back into a creative life.  Julia Cameron outlines the importance of the artist date in The Artist’s Way. Doing things for your creative soul can inspire, offer new perspectives and open up new pathways of thinking. This seemed like an easy place to start. So I spent an afternoon this week brainstorming locations – museums, coffee shops, historical spots – in our new town for me to explore. And for now, I will commit to visiting one a week. These field trips may have nothing to do with the topic of the new book or writing, but they will force me to dedicate time to nurturing the part of me that needs strengthening. The part that has been left forgotten and dusty for the last few months. The creative part.

Although I was tired and cranky and really didn’t feel like it, I took myself out on an artist date anyway. My first date was to the NC Museum of Art. Art has always been an easy way for me to unblock. What better exercise than to sit in front of a painting and then write about it? Write about the scene, the people, the emotion. The visual is already there, you just need to capture your imagination’s interpretation. Today, I didn’t write. I let my self simply look. I let my mind settle and my eyes wander. I found myself entranced by a Burk Uzzle photograph, The Black Barn. It was just a barn filling up the frame. But I felt my writer’s eye start to wake. I noticed the beer bottles discarded in the grass by a corner. Did teens find this abandoned barn? Did they sludge through the fallow field burdened down with coolers or six packs to spend an evening drinking and bellowing the laughter of youth? I noticed the impossibility of the paint job on the barn. Did someone try to spray paint it? Why? How was it both cloudy and dripping streaks of black at the same time, as if clouds of paint were raining on its rough hewn wooden canvas?

I wandered through Egyptian artifacts and European still lifes. There were the Monets that always manage to settle my soul a moment with their hazy light and thick layers of paint. There was the Andrew Wyeth that felt so real I nearly expected the curtains to move in the breeze if I stared at it long enough. And there was the Rodin sculpture garden with his impossible ability to capture weightless movement in the heaviest of mediums.

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And I wasn’t breathlessly inspired. I didn’t rush home to write. In fact, I stopped by the grocery store, the most mundane of all tasks, on the way home.

But I did feel something open. A small crack that let the air rush back in to my writer’s soul. And I found myself here. At the keyboard. Wanting to share, to tell you about it, to write about it.

For me, frustration was the first indication that I was neglecting myself. I stewed on that frustration for awhile. Probably too long. But this week, today, I was ready. Ready to turn that frustration into some kind of action. And although it was a small step, it was a step. A step towards re-entry into writing. Re-entry to the novel to be. Re-entry to the creative life. My creative life.

What places inspire you? Will you honor yourself to take an artist’s date this week?

Stretching

I have been diligently working away on my second novel for the last two months. I was feeling good about it until the characters in my real life started demanding some emotional and mental time effectively drowning out the fictional voices. It happens. I wasn’t too worried at first. It was more important to focus on the real people issues first.

I began to feel a little panic as the quiet continued, though. These people I’d been building didn’t seem to have much to say anymore. I thought perhaps once the “real” things died down they would open up again. Or maybe I was simply stuck in the dreaded middle where all rough drafts languish and I needed to just listen harder, push through, keep going. Whatever it was, I was feeling nervous. Something wasn’t right. And I knew it.

I went back to some craft books. I brainstormed. I did some exercises. Still no breakthrough. Then I considered that maybe it was really a story about characters B and C, not A and B like I started out with. Perhaps that’s why everyone was so quiet. I spent some time thinking about B and C and plotting out a story that still encompassed most of the existing material, just mixed up a bit. It was better. Truly. But I still felt it was a bit forced. I thought I just needed some time to sit with it. So I sat.

Something still wasn’t right.

Then, in a bolt of lightning moment, I saw Character D. She was waiting patiently with her hands in her lap. She was only supposed to be a tangential character to Character C  when I started with A and B, but when I looked at her, I realized there was something in her eyes. She needed me to ask her a question. She, apparently, had lots to say. Lots to say about her own story before A and B were even alive. Before she had ever met C.  This was turning the book on its head. If I went with D, well, this is something completely different than the existing 30,000 words I have been working on since January 1. This would mean starting over.

After I banged my head against my desk in frustration…

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…I took a deep breath and went back to some earlier research I had done for what was supposed to be this little bit of backstory. As I did so, I felt character D’s voice coming through. She is an extremely strong woman who has so much more to say and share than the poor woman I was forcing onto center stage in those original 30,000 words.

As I dug deeper, I allowed character A to exit stage left. I felt her relief. She smiled and nearly ran out – I think she’s halfway to a margarita and beach towel by now. As I waved goodbye, I ushered in this new person, invited her to sit and now she’s smiling at me, waiting to answer my questions and tell me her story.

I’m irritated that there is all this work that seems wasted, though I know it’s not. There are at least two short stories in those 30,000 words I could tease out.

Mostly, though, I’m scared. I’m scared that this story will be a much harder one to tell. It’s more real and requires a knowledge of a period of time and events I’m not as familiar with. It represents big ideas and complicated cultural and political issues. It’s not at all like the previous book.

I’m still not sure what happens in this book exactly – she hasn’t told me everything. I just know that she holds the story. One I haven’t heard before. One that speaks more honestly to my core. One I’d rather be writing about. And if I’d rather be writing it, I can guarantee you’d rather be reading it.

No one said it would be easy, right?

I may stretch my skills to the limit to tell this story. And I may fail. But I think if I don’t try, I’ll always regret it. And character D? She may never forgive me.

So yet again on this writer’s journey, I find myself taking a leap of faith. Only this time, I feel like I have a partner in crime. She’s just as invested as I am. Together, we have a story to tell. I hope I can do it justice.

Forcing Creativity

Writing a book is not a unique pursuit. There are many of us writers out there going about day jobs, pounding away on keyboards at night, at dawn or at the kid’s baseball practice. The difference between those that succeed in actually becoming a published writer and those that do not – I have been told and cling to as if these words might keep me afloat in a flood – is simply writing. It’s that easy. One verb: write.

I have an E.L. Doctrow quote pinned over my desk that says:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you are doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.

E.L. Doctrow

Or, as the old Yoda adage goes:

Do or do not. There is no try.

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And yet, for some reason, writers still find this hard. I, for one, now picture myself doing nothing but this job of writing and yet each morning I sit down at my computer and think “Oh, God. Not this again. I suck at this. I should go scrub the shower instead. Or get a “real job.” Or maybe take a nap.”

Instead, I try to start typing. Sometimes it works (yesterday I knocked out 1,300 words in two hours – hooray!). Sometimes it doesn’t (the day I wrote one sentence in two hours- ouch). But even when it isn’t working, I’m working. I’m there, committed, waiting for the muse, the inspiration, the tiny train of thought that will show me where we’re going.

Can you force creativity? Can you demand that inspiration join you on the page? How much of a creative pursuit is in our own control versus the elusive muse? And what happens if she doesn’t show up?

Creating, whether it’s writing or painting or photography or building, takes practice, time and a whole helluva lot of behind the scenes work that you probably don’t want to know about. It takes commitment and stamina. It is not for the feint of heart. It is a soul-wrenching, doubt-whispering, self-flagellating process that leaves the creator empty and beaten until they take a step away. It’s in the step back, when we take a look at that painting or re-read that essay or reconsider a photograph’s lighting, that we realize somewhere in all that work there was magic, muse, inspiration. We then become Michaelangelo and must work to free the sculpture from the morass.

This month, I am working on creating the morass. I have committed to writing 20,000 in the current work in progress for the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association Write-A-Thin. I am no stranger to gimmicks to get me working. Back in 2010, I did NaNoWriMo. I am not the only one. More than 325,000 writers and growing participate in NaNoWriMo each year. Because sometimes you need someone to hold you accountable. Because sometimes you need a kick in the pants. Because most of us don’t have a Yoda whispering in our ears. But mostly because inspiration, magic, muses, whatever you call them, they don’t show up unless you invite them.

I sit at the keyboard again today and wonder will today be the day the words run out (no)? Will I cry (possibly)? Will it work today (maybe)? Will it be worth it (damn straight)? Thankfully, every morning when I drag my feet to the desk and grunt as I open the work in progress, I have a husband who reminds me “it’s not supposed to be easy.” And he’s right. Through all of the struggle, I still love it. I still love seeing that perfect phrase emerge in a string of keystrokes on my screen. I still love when my characters surprise me. I still love when I finally find the answer to what my protagonist does for a living and it fits so absolutely perfectly no matter how small a role it may play in the book. I still love realizing that two hours passed and I had no idea. I still love the potential, the promise, the process. Even when I hate it. Maybe especially when I hate it.

The point? We can’t all wait for inspiration to strike. It’s simply unfeasible. Yes. It happens. And when it does, it’s wonderful and fantastic and pure magic. But more often than not, we have to remember to invite inspiration. And the only way to do that is to start the work and see what happens.

This month, I’m inviting my muse to join me daily as I work towards my 20,000 word goal.

To all of you out there who are struggling with your own creative pursuits, perhaps you need a gimmick, a challenge, a Yoda to keep you accountable. Whatever it is, find it. Promise it. Pin it to your wall. Do it.

Writing is writing.

Do or do not.

I am right here with you.

 

Growing Pains

As a tween (although I don’t think we called it that back in the 80s) and teen, I would often suffer from a painful ache in my legs that my parents would chalk up to growing pains. The discomfort was real. The pain acute. I’d lay in my bed at night or the couch during the day and imagine my bones stretching, straining against the ligaments, muscles and skin holding them in, trying to make me taller while the rest of my body reluctantly made room.

I’m in a similar period of discomfort. This time it’s not in my limbs or my hormones or imagined slights in the lunch room like it was in those days. Now it’s related to my writing.

A second project has creeped up on me. An idea that when I first started following it down the rabbit hole was new, invigorating and burst with excitement like champagne bubbles fizzing to the surface. Now, it feels dark and cramped and stinks of damp earth.

Writing has always been easy for me. Essays and term papers, feature articles, press releases. It all came quickly from my fingers. There wasn’t a lot of discomfort once I understood the rules. Scribbling in journals and filling pages with words has always been a source of comfort for me, not discomfort. Writing the first novel was hard. It wasn’t easy. It felt challenging, but not uncomfortable. Putting it out into the world and allowing others eyes on it made me feel vulnerable and displayed, but not inherently uncomfortable.

But the more distance I have to it, the more my discomfort grows. There is the rejection and, even worse, radio silence, from agent queries. There is the distance to the story that makes me wonder if I rushed it and need to rewrite whole sections. There are the second thoughts about process and talent and choices I’ve made to create this writing life.

All distinctly uncomfortable feelings. All making the act of sitting down to focus on this new idea inherently uncomfortable, too. And so I have hesitated. I have buried myself in research and other tasks. I have avoided pen to paper because it suddenly doesn’t feel right, natural, easy, comfortable.

Just when I was beginning to feel the dark walls of serious doubt close in, I finished reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. She talked about how feeling uncomfortable is what leads to growth. It’s where the discomfort is that the growth happens, like my stretching adolescent legs.

Here, where I sit, at my desk, at this keyboard, this is where the growth happens. The discomfort is simply the recognition that I could be doing better. That I need to do better. That better is possible. That better is not only possible, but possible through me. That doing and learning and continuing will lead to growth. It won’t always feel good, and probably shouldn’t, but it will lead to newness and innovation and better writing on the other side.

So I am letting the discomfort stay. I am getting used to the lump it causes in my throat when I sit at the keyboard. I am taking the research more seriously again instead of simply as an excuse. I am looking back at the notes I took during this new idea’s germination and letting that excitement settle back in.

But the discomfort will need to stay. It is pushing me in new and different directions. It is forcing me to grow as a person and as a writer.

And recognizing that discomfort, acknowledging its purpose, I have to say, is actually pretty comforting.

 

 

 

Gifts that Keep Giving

I manage a small creativity circle – a group on Facebook where other creatives get together and share thoughts, ideas, work, questions, whatever. Each month we have a theme to provide some loose guidance and then we see where we end up. For me, it’s provided an opportunity for new thought. When I’m out running errands or cooking or contemplating what’s next with my writing, it gives me a jumping off point, a new perspective, a sense of presence when my thoughts scatter.

This month, the theme is gifts. I posted a question yesterday about what gift would you give your creative self this holiday season. I was surprised, although I probably shouldn’t have been, that many of the answers were chore related. Folks wanted someone to do their laundry, cook and clean so that they would have time to focus on their creativity.

I am so very guilty of this, too. I allow the mundane chores to impede on my creative time. Often. It’s tempting to straighten the kitchen or fold the laundry or run the errands because at the end these are tasks that are completed, that you can see, that are crossed off a list. There is an immense sense of satisfaction and ease when they are completed. They feel socially acceptable.

When I had a work outside the home job, however, if the dishes weren’t done after breakfast and waited in the sink until I got home from my commute in the evening, nobody suffered. I didn’t think about them while I was away at work. I didn’t worry what those dishes in the sink said about me – other than I was a busy working woman who didn’t have time to finish the dishes before hopping the train to the city.

So why are creative tasks less worthy to wait than for the “day job?” Why do we put off our creative tasks? Is the clean house or the folded laundry worth so much more to us? Can’t they wait a bit longer? Won’t they still be there after?

I think we devalue our creative time. As much as we crave it and need it, we feel selfish about it. Or at least I do. I feel selfish that what feeds my soul and brings me the most joy is this solitary pursuit in front of a keyboard or a notebook. I have to remind myself that being selfish isn’t always a negative. I should be selfish about finding time to nurture myself and my creativity. For one thing, it’s the “job” I’ve given myself right now and for another, it makes me happy. It makes me productive. It makes me better at the rest of it. It is what makes me me.

Doing the dishes, while satisfying to complete, will simply need to be done again after the next meal. Taking a few minutes to sketch, journal, paint, photograph or read will nurture me in a way that no chore list can.

What is holding us back? Chances are its an individual answer, but I don’t think it’s really the dishes. The dishes are the distraction or, more likely, an excuse. (More on that in the next few days).

 

 

So I want to challenge my circle friends, and the rest of us, to think outside the to-do list and really contemplate what you would give to your creative self to nurture that piece of you. Would it be a trip to an exotic location to paint strange flowers? A day in the city to photograph architecture? A morning in the art museum to stand in front of your favorite work and find something new in it? A walk through a garden to awaken your senses of touch and smell? A beautiful journal for scribbling out those random bits of epiphany that come in between your daily moments? Season tickets to the local symphony? Signing up for dance classes or singing lessons? A few hours spent in the airport pick-up area people watching?

Use your imagination. You might not be able to spend the money or take the time for some of these gifts. That’s okay. It’s important to know what those big dreams are so we can recognize the smaller opportunities to feed our creativity on a more daily basis. Can’t get to the Galapagos Islands? No worries – maybe see what your local botanical garden or zoo have to offer. Can’t afford season tickets to the symphony? Check your nearby college’s concert and recital schedules. No time to commit to dance lessons? You probably have five minutes for a living room dance party.

And don’t worry. The dishes will wait.

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

Yesterday was a bad day. I felt it easing in on Wednesday afternoon. Motivation slowly ebbing. The funk descending. By yesterday morning, it had full on settled, weighing down my shoulders, slowing my footsteps. It was going to be one of those days.

We are two weeks into a small kitchen renovation. Although the work is coming along and I can see how beautiful it will be when it’s done and the crew is polite, friendly and super conscientious, it is still wearing on my mental sanity. The entire contents of our kitchen have been relocated with the bulk of the “stuff” perched and propped on every surface in my office. Bookshelves are lined with coffee cups and crystal. A giant box containing our new vent hood is behind my chair. The bench next to my desk boasts a giant basket overflowing with plastic cups and water bottles and random bits shoved in between while underneath are stacks of cookie sheets and pots and lids perched precariously in my giant roasting pan.

I can practically feel the walls closing in. There is not a pleasing spot to look at in here right now and the physical clutter has started to manifest itself mentally. I can’t keep a thought, make a decision, carry through on a task. I spent yesterday running around town in search of a canvas art piece for a specific spot in the new and improved kitchen and then hours (no joke) online (and yes, I’m still looking. You know, when you have something in mind and need a specific size it’s IMPOSSIBLE to find what you need? That’s me.). By the end of the day, I realized I had not really had a fully formed thought run through my brain all day other than – oh, here’s Pier 1, guess I’ll stop in here and check.

Then came a rejection letter. I normally would have let this one go. It was a long shot agent of a very well respected writer I admire, but our books aren’t entirely similar, so I knew it most likely wouldn’t be a great fit (and that’s essentially what she told me in her very nice letter), but it just dug in under my rib cage yesterday and sat with the fog.

When the kids came home from school and I nearly jumped with joy that there was no homework allowing me to do the minimum. I went through the motions. I chopped the vegetables for the soup. I corralled them outside. I chatted with my sister. But through it all, I was just blah. Unmotivated. Empty. Depleted.

And so I didn’t beat myself up. I just let it sit. I wallowed in the nothingness for a bit. I let it ride. Some days are just like that. Some days we’ve given all we can. Some days the busyness of life catches up and our minds and souls need to turn it off and rest for a bit. I think that’s what mine did yesterday because this morning I woke up refreshed. So I swept.

There is only so much cleaning that can be done around this renovation project when so much is in physical disarray, but sweeping I can do. And so I did. I swept the dust bunnies out of the corners, the LEGO’s out from under the couch, the breakfast crumbs from under the table. And as I worked, I swept yesterday up in with the floor detritus and dumped them all into the trash.

I sat down at the desk. The desk that is the only surface in this office I have protected, and have knocked off some tasks, made lists of new ones, felt the tickle of inspiration deep in my brain again.

It seemed like no coincidence when this tiny sparkle of brilliance from Anne Lamott popped up in one of my feeds this morning .

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We all need to be self-aware to our self-care. There have been plenty of “those” days that I have been cruel to myself, pushed and prodded and judged myself for my failures. Luckily, I didn’t do that this time. And today, I am better for it. And yesterday is gone, in the past, done. There is no changing it and no need to. Something in my soul needed quiet yesterday and I’m hoping that it received what it needed.

Today? Today I can control. Today, I swept. Today, I wrote. Today, I opened the windows to let the air in. Later, I will play with my kids and chat with my neighbors and make plans for the weekend. And when the time comes, I will unplug again and let my soul and mind reset so that I can get back to the work at hand.

Permission, Persistence and Partners

I just finished Big Magic over the weekend. Big Magic is Elizabeth Gilbert’s love letter to creativity. Or rather, her soul whispering (and sometimes shouting because the world can get noisy scaring our souls into hiding) to ours that the thing inside us – the thing that burns and tugs and bubbles just under the surface – is an okay thing, perhaps the best of things, and should be let out to play. Whether you want to write a book or weave a basket or collage or paint or invent or photograph the supermoon, we all have a creative being inside us that deserves our acknowledgement and attention. It doesn’t need to pay the bills or fold the laundry or earn its keep. It simply deserves the opportunity to exist. And through its existence, it will more than likely refresh you or change you or simply open up your perspective and empathy to the surrounding world.

The book arrived in my mailbox at the perfect time. I’m currently querying literary agents – a soul sucking process where you boil your creative work into a three paragraph letter that needs to encapsulate the story, its tone and demonstrate your abilities as a writer so hopefully this agent (or, more likely, their overworked assistant) will continue past your signature line in the email to read the first ten sample pages and will then request a partial or full manuscript and then (maybe, perhaps, fingers crossed) love it so much they offer representation so they can begin their own soul sucking cycle of trying to sell the same pages to a publisher. Fun, right? Needless to say, her section titled Persistence particularly resonated.

But as I go through this process of trying to secure third party credibility for my work, the Permission section also spoke to me.

I am currently being bothered by the next idea. Three unique souls, very different from the group in my existing manuscript, are pestering me, talking to me, pointing out things that are bothering them and asking me to help them out a bit. It’s reassuring that the well isn’t dry, but frustrating in that I’m not sure when to start allowing them completely in when my head is still so crowded with my current cast of characters (heaven forbid they start talking to each other). To top it off, we are starting a kitchen renovation in the next few weeks that only further sends that damsel doubt into a whirlwind of activity that typically starts with “Works in progress don’t buy subway tiles, honey. You spent how long writing that first book and not working a real job? What if it never sells? What makes you think it’s okay to just start another book that may only live on your laptop?”

Because it is.

Because it’s what I’m doing.

Because I don’t need anyone’s permission but my own.

What I’ve learned from the last year and a few months of writing this book is that I am a writer. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever hold down another day job. But it does mean that I won’t be able to stuff that part of myself back into Pandora’s box. The lid has been opened and the spirit it released in me is entirely too much fun to lock back up. Even if my words never see more print than what comes out of my very own printer. It won’t matter if it fails to publish, it doesn’t mean that I failed. Because I wrote it. I already did the thing I set out to do. Does that mean I won’t fight like hell to get it published? No. It just means that if my persistent efforts come up short, it isn’t a rejection of my permission slip to continue doing the thing.

Permission and Persistence. In this creative life they are the two things I can control.

As I read the book and sent out my queries and pondered my next steps, there was another theme that resonated with me this weekend that is not a part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, at least not in an outright way.

Partners. (Might as well keep it alliterative, right?)

I recently swallowed my nerves and asked a local writer I very much admire and had met several times before if she’d be willing to get together and share any advice on the business side of writing. It was terrifying to ask and just as terrifying when she said yes! We had a lovely dinner, however, talking about books and publishing and writers and MFA’s and Oprah’s book club and e-books and careers and permission and persistence (although not in those specific terms). I came home invigorated and inspired by our conversation.

The next day, I had lunch with a neighbor friend who, after decades of working with the same company, is now looking for a new job. We both find ourselves in places of reinvention, of soul searching and an attempt to take our life’s work and find the rare matching peg — me the right agent, her the right job.

I felt bolstered by these two women. In their own ways, they both provided support and encouragement of my journey. I hope, in some small way, I was able to do the same for them. These two conversations opened my eyes to the other partners I have on this creative walk. In just the last week, there was the friend who again offered her guest room to me for a visit and a bit of writer’s retreat; another who shared my excitement of the arrival of Big Magic and is my feminist soul sister (as well as birthday twin – coincidence?); another who asked for book recommendations on Facebook that turned into a quick, yet no less fascinating, exchange about books and their impacts; the fellow writer who is also shopping her book and our quick email exchanges sharing our frustrations with the process, rejections and words of support.

I told the universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life not in order to save the world, not as an act of protest, not to become famous, not to gain entrance into the canon, not to challenge the system, not to show the bastards, not to prove to my family that I was worthy, not as a form of deep therapeutic emotional catharsis…but simply because I liked it.Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

I have been very vocal about my creative journey here on the blog, on my Facebook page, and recently in cocktail party conversation (New acquaintance: What do you do? Me: I’m a writer.). I don’t do this for attention or for ego stroking (although, who am I to turn down some ego stroking?). I do this because this is where I am. This is the messy, anxiety-prone, solitary task I am undertaking. I do this because we are all trying to live a creative life somehow. In our jobs, in our hobbies, in our craft projects with the kids, in those new coloring books for adults. We should talk about it more. We should be open to it. We should open ourselves up in a way that allows us to create and to create deeper relationships with each other.

Sure, I like that photo of your cat or your kid or that gastronomic feat you are about to ingest for dinner. But I am also excited by your new studio, your completed art project, your honest and thoughtful response to an event in your life or in the world. When I see these creative moments peek their heads up out of my friends’ and readers’ lives, I find that my soul has found another partner. And when you spend most of your day alone in your home, in front of a blank screen, with only a silent fish making bubble nests in the tank on your desk, it’s incredibly important when your soul recognizes another mate.

With a holy host of others standing around me… — James Taylor, Carolina In My Mind. 

I couldn’t do it without you.

And so it is with Permission, Persistence and Partners that I am on this writing journey. Here’s hoping for more magic.

2:00 pm

2:00 pm.

One hour until the bus returns my tired, sweaty, fidgety, hungry children back to me. In the hours since they have left, I’ve made the bed, done the dishes, walked three miles, showered, eaten two meals and attempted some semblance of work.

With the one hour mark comes the pressure. Did I do enough? What else can I get done? Will a cup of coffee or a 15 minute power nap be more effective to get me through the afternoon? More often than not, however, the last hour is filled with the kind of pressure that nearly feels like regret. I think of everything I didn’t get done. I ponder was my day worth it? Did I do enough to justify this at home existence I have? Is the house clean enough (never)? Did I write enough? Did I move the arrow forward on anything? Did I cross off anything on the list? Could I have done more?

A lot of this pressure is born of the fact that I’m currently in a writer’s purgatory. The manuscript has been in the hands of beta readers for the last month. I’ve been purposefully avoiding the manuscript in the hopes of giving it fresh eyes with the fresh perspectives and comments of these readers. Instead, I’ve focused my efforts and time on the busy work of writing – query letters, synopsis writing, agent research, comp research, endless time reading forums and articles and Q&As to help assuage some amount of the anxiety building up as I near a time when I will eventually have to let this baby go out into the world for judgement.

Unfortunately, that leads me to many two o’clocks filled with am I doing enough? angst. I know in my heart what I’ve been doing is not lost work. It’s not pointless. It’s an investment. It’s necessary, mandatory, even. But it’s not writing. And I miss it. The writing. I have a plan that I need to trust. A plan for editing, for querying, for closing the door on this manuscript in order to move into the research for the next. I need to have faith in the process. Faith in myself for creating it. Faith it’s not all for naught.

But the clock ticks. Another minute gone. Another possibility of productivity drifting into the past. I realize I am not a patient person.

And that today, I’ll go with the cup of coffee.

Doing it Scared

“I just love the way you’ve embraced your fears about doing this…”

These are the words my husband imparted to me during a conversation about where I am in my writing process (editing, mired in the busy work of agent research and query letters, preparing for the inevitable letting go). I laughed. Because embracing my fears? Not at all.

I told him, it’s not so much that I have embraced them or welcomed them or accepted them. It’s more that I have let them sit down next to me like a stranger on a train. I’ve allowed their presence and acknowledge the occasional knee bumping mine. Sometimes they feel small and I can put them in a pocket or a drawer and those times are the best. The rest of the time, they hover like a shadow, over my shoulder, or under the desk. I cross my ankles while sitting in my work chair and half expect to nudge one with my toe. I wonder if I turn around fast enough will I catch one in the act, mimicking me like a bad classroom student imitating their teacher as the rest of the class sniggers and guffaws tacitly siding with the bully’s caricature interpretation while ignoring the sincerity of her words or intent?

Instead, I face front. I keep typing. When the fear starts to breathe against my neck or tap my shoulder more insistently, I focus on my dreamer flower.

Putting myself out there. Doing it scared.

That’s all I can do. All I can ever do. Keep putting myself out there. Keep putting one word after another. Keep compiling lists of agents. Keep finessing that query letter. Keep editing that synopsis. Keep contemplating that manuscript for the next round of edits. Keep putting my butt in the chair every morning. Keep taking it seriously.

The fear is still there. May always be there. But I’ve stopped fighting it. It’s a waste of energy. Let it sit and rest awhile. Maybe it will get bored. Maybe it will leave. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I keep going.

Doing it scared. But doing it.