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.

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?

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.