Saturday, January 21, 2012

Non-attachment - What does it mean for a writer?

Hi all.  I haven't posted in ages, it seems.  I did "finish" Windfall and three of my beta readers are now done with it and I seem to have significantly improved the thing on this rewrite.  Whew.  I just reread chapter 1 today and I guess it is okay.  I still think I have so much to learn.

I remember when I first started the project.  I'd wanted to create a fantasy universe since I was in 5th grade or so, so it had been a long standing dream of mine.  When I started staying home with my kids I decided to go for it.  I figured I'd have enough free time to make it into something for the first time in my life. Since I wasn't working. Ha!  Now I'm working, divorced, watching my kids, AND writing. Boy was I wrong about how much time you can squeeze out of a day to write.

The point of all this is to tell you that my first draft of Windfall - and by first I mean really second.   Hmm. Well anyway, my earlier drafts of Windfall really sucked.  And they sucked for a lot of reasons.

The first was my writing. It was tangly.  It didn't flow and it was confusing.  Like the way I think, honestly. I have to work hard to fix that in everything I write. I tend to be very... let's say non-linear.

The second was me.  Yeah, it was.  I think that's why it hurt so much knowing it wasn't good.  Sure part of it was a sense of desperation that this was my shot and I had to do it, do it right away, make it fabulous the first time or give up.  And part of it was how much time I'd already invested.  I mean a serious amount of hours went into this thing and I'm still not sure it's ready.  But the truth is that I feared deep down inside it was me - as in my personality - getting in the way of the work.  And today I think I was right.  I'm not saying I'm not a likable person or anything.  But what I've learned from yoga is that my energy can sometimes get overwhelming for others.  I can just get so strung out and invested in something, so pushy and intense, that others just run for cover because they don't want to be around that.  It's just a tendency I have.

Yoga helps me with this.  It helps me to stay calm and to have what's called non-attachment.  Not detachment but the ability to accept what comes with a tranquil mindset.  In yoga we learn that some things are seen by us as good and others as bad but the truth is there are really just things that happen and it is only us that puts the judgement on them.  And since we aren't all-knowing, our judgement of good and bad is often simply wrong; we don't know our future.  Also, we can stay more calm in the face of change when we try to judge the change less.  I don't mean to say that we shouldn't or won't feel things but just that we can distance ourselves enough from those emotions that we don't let them rule us or take us over.  It's hard.  Often I fail at it.  But that's okay too.  When I fail, I still love myself anyway.

I hope that my energy is more attractive to others this way.  That I'm not so overwhelming and intense.  But I imagine it is a process that will take time to master.  But I assure you that the energy of my writing is directly related to the energy of me.

And so that brings me to writing.  How is it possible to put so much of yourself into your work knowing that it may never be read by more than a handful of your friends?  I'm not sure.  But one thing I know is this. When my life is good - meaning I have a safe place to live, yummy food to eat, my health, family and friends and interesting projects to work on - there is no reason for me to feel desperate for some sort of riches or fame that might come if I was a best-selling author.  I've no idea if I'd even like that.  So the trick for me to find more peace in my writing was to find more peace in myself and how I deal with my life.  It's been really tough to do that while moving and getting divorced.  But today I feel a peace.  I'm working hard, doing chores and such, and yet it feels really peaceful and good.  There is contentment to what I have in this moment.  

My perfect moment might be hugging my boys while we watch a movie or even shoveling my driveway or gardening.  Mindfulness (like is found in yoga) makes simple little tasks suddenly feel more interesting than they ever did before.  So I can be less invested in the outcome of this project and hopefully keep my sanity.  Course it would be cool if people wanted to talk about my characters or if I didn't have to worry about how I was going to pay next month's bills but I'm somehow okay if writing never pays a single bill and if nobody but my dad talks to me about my characters.  I'm definitely going to keep trying - and I still haven't sent Windfall off to one single agent - but this year I will.  And if it gets picked up - cool - and if it doesn't, I will know that I loved it and it was fun to do.  And maybe - just maybe - that means I'm okay now to send it out.  Now I can almost say - I don't care what happens - it isn't true, I do still care very much, but finally that caring isn't making me insane.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Loud Mistakes

My friend Kate sent me this encouraging article yesterday:

For those of you who are only going to pretend to read it, I'll paraphrase. Basically it tells the story of how Joshua Bell, the world's reigning King of the Violin, effed up the beginning a concerto royally at his first competition. But then he stopped, collected himself, and tried again. He ended up playing better than he ever had in his life, but moreover, this:

For me it was a major revelation, and it taught me that when you take your mind off worrying about being perfect all the time, sometimes amazing things can happen. So much of performing is a mind game. You’re memorizing thousands of notes, and if you start thinking about it in the wrong way, everything can blow up in your face. When I’m onstage and make a mistake, I remember back to that moment. I learned from that experience how to get into that zone. The competition ended up launching my career and my confidence in a lot of ways. It was a turning point and a lesson I use to this day.

As both a writer and a musician, this really made my heart feel all warm and snuggly.

I'm no Joshua Bell, but I know exactly what he's talking about.

My sophomore year of college was the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach. Maybe it wasn't the 300th but please don't make me do the math. At any rate, the College of Music had this HUGE concert and basically performed as many of Bach's works as they could fit in.

I was chosen to play a fugue. Anyone who's ever played a piano fugue knows that it's not just one melody you're playing but up to 8 at a time. So I worked hard. I practiced umpteen hours and lost sleep over it. And when the day came, I got up in front of my professors and fellow students and... totally choked. The first measure was perfect. Then I couldn't remember the second measure. Or any of the others after that.

That whole expression about wanting to crawl in a hole and die? That was me. At my next piano studio meeting, I couldn't make eye contact with my professor. I wanted to hide under the piano and cry. But then he said to me, "Laura, I want you to play the fugue for your quarter jury. You have to show them you can."

When the quarter ended and it was time for my jury, I ended up playing it perfectly for the keyboard faculty. I was in this beautiful concert hall and I remember that moment so well. It felt like it was just me, a Steinway, and Bach. And I felt SO FREE.

Why was it so easy this time? Because it was no secret that I could mess it up. I knew; the professors knew.  And the thing was, even if I messed it up again, I'd already felt that sting. This time it wouldn't be as sharp. Also, on the flip side, giving yourself permission to make mistakes also acknowledges that you can do better. It not only makes it easier to try again, it pushes you to. The pressure from the outside was off: I wanted to do better for ME, because I knew I could.

My piano teacher when I was little used to tell me, "If you make a mistake, make it loud so I can hear it. I can't help you if I can't hear your mistakes." It's something I tell my own music students now. Mistakes let you off the hook, they push you to grow, and they in some ways measure your progress.

As I'm writing this today, there's a particularly painful rejection in my inbox. The details don't matter except to say I felt more invested than ever in this particular situation. It stings. I'm embarrassed. I kind of want to hide and cry for a while.

But so what? I'm going to make this loud, that's why I'm telling you this. Yeah, I didn't get the agent I was hoping for, but now I can look for other fabulous agents, beef up my query, tighten my writing. I feel that push to prove to myself that I can. Also, I wrote today like I haven't written in a long time - like a person free of any sort of pressure. And it was WONDERFUL. I was writing for me again, not writing to impress, or towards publication, or any of that. Amazing and interesting combination, isn't it?

But more than anything, that rejection was a big step for me, a huge measure of progress. There was a time I didn't think I'd ever ever be brave enough to let anyone read something I wrote, and now I'm facing the sting of rejection and... faring well. I worked up the courage to send out my writing. That's progress. I sent something GOOD out to be read, good enough that this is only one of many agents who have my work, and that's really great progress. And I don't feel broken, and that's a much more personal thing yes, but a big step in the right direction for me.

So I'll just leave you with this final thought, a part of the New Years blog from the amazing Neil Gaiman:

"I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.

So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dear Santa - Erin and Laura's Christmas Wishes

We don't want to bother you with any selfish requests for ourselves.  And besides, we know you are really busy and it's a bit late in the season for you to build us something.  So we won't make either one of those "naughty kid" sort of mistakes.  There's really only one thing we each want for Christmas, Santa, and we'll have to ask for it separately (for obvious karmic reasons, see the Upanishads for details) so here goes...  

Dear Santa,

Would you please get Laura a literary agent?  It doesn't have to be a magical literary agent, although that would be fine, but just one who can make sure her awesome books get published. As for me, I'm all set.  I don't need a thing.  

Love and Merry Christmas,  

PS - Thanks for eating all the cookies, cause it really helps me stick to my New Year's diet if they are out of the house.

Hey Santa, 

I just want you to know that Erin's been a really good girl this year. She's been working hard at revising her novel and teaching classes and building a client list for her yoga studio. In fact, she's been working too hard. Do you think you could somehow, with all of your Christmas miracle ways, find some time for Erin to have to herself? Yeah, I know, it's kind of selfish because I want to read her novel so bad and I'm getting impatient but still. Just a little time, Santa. I know you've got the magic to make it happen. *wink wink nudge nudge* 

Thanks, and good luck on the big night!

PS - Can you settle a bet for me? Are the elves from the North Pole cousins to Rowling's house elves, or are they a different breed altogether? I've got $50 riding on this...

And because no letter to Santa would be complete without it, you must hear DUMBLECLAUS. But also, Erin's brilliant Scribbulus essay exposing the truth: Dumbledore IS Santa Claus

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jesus Potter Harry Christ

Just taking a moment to post a blog entry because I made Laura promise to smote me if I did not.  I don't have it in me to continue the story of my teacup body at this time but I will eventually.  Right now I'm busy with life and writing.  Primarily I'm trying to figure out how to pay my bills doing things I like while not having to work so much that I don't have time to write.  Yep, that's all.  Anyhow, I am rewriting my novel Windfall (for the nth time) and I'm about halfway now so it's coming along but I have set myself goal after goal that I keep missing.  The next one is December.  That is why I am not around blogging or tweeting or whatever things I ought to be doing.  Once I finish my rewrite I'll feel more bloggish.

I am currently reading an interesting book - as is Laura - called Jesus Potter Harry Christ by Derek Murphy. This book isn't about Harry Potter or even about Harry Potter being a Christ allegory.  No.  It's about the symbolism that underlies all mythic stories.  Murphy proposes a source for these symbols.  He suggests that the common symbols that show up throughout all human civilizations for thousands of years and their equally similar stories all stem from astrological features and the pattern of the sun, moon and the planets.  I am not an atheist, as this author seems to be, but I love what he's put together in this book.  It's so interesting. The information he presents is a really concise way to get a lot of mythical and symbolical information and I do recommend it.  I mention it here because I think other authors could use the symbols and structure of world myth in their work and this book with its silly, trendy title is a good source of basic mythic structure, the roots of mysticism and symbolism.  While I find it almost humorous that he would suggest that it's just a giant coincidence that man looked up at the stars and found the same constellations and stories written up there, I will say that the overview of the stories and their link to the procession of the stars and planets is utterly awesome info.

It's interesting to note that Laura and I approach this issue of symbolism and plot in two different ways. I am always looking for ways to structure my plots and morals around symbolism and myth.  She is not.  However, I am confident that both methods will bring similar results.  Try or not, we both connect with the collective unconscious in our writing.  I have seen too many pieces of evidence for it to be a coincidence. I enjoy finding evidence of Laura's connection with the collective.  And I surprise myself with things I develop seemingly on my own, only to find interesting ancient stories that parallel my thinking in some curious way.

Sometimes I hear people complain, "Now days the stories aren't anything new." They might even say, "It's a sign the end of the world is coming."  I also love the phrase, "There's nothing new under the sun."  I suspect it is probably all true.  And I don't think we should feel jaded about it.  I don't think it's a symptom of 2011 but of 40ish.  What I mean is that once a human reaches a certain age, whether it be 40 or 50 or so, he or she starts to notice that the stories sound just like the ones they loved 20 or 30 years ago.  And it feels like the stories they heard 30 years ago were new and the ones they are hearing now are lacking in originality.  I propose that it isn't a symptom of 30 years of history but of 7,000 or 70,000 even.  The human story is just the human story and all its variables lead to the same thing in the end.  I won't bring you down by mentioning it by name... cough  *grim reaper* cough.  This does not mean, however, that the process of creating new stories is worthless, just tricky and tricky in a good sort of delicious, wonderful way.  As authors our challenge is to keep the same stories seeming fresh.  It's easy to write something new for a 16 year old, but can we do it for a 45 year old?  And odds are, one jaded 45 year old is our agent and another is our editor... so we better figure it out.

I like to give blessings at the end of my blogs. I'm not really sure why but it always seems like the right thing to do.

So for you, authors extraordinaire,
may each story you write
feel fresh to the core
even to the most jaded
of super agents. 


Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Brave Little Mushroom

I went for a nice hike the other day in a nearby state park and came across this little guy: 

Now, you can't really tell from that picture because I was too chicken to get close to the edge, but this mushroom is in a very precarious position. It's growing on a small outcropping of tree roots and moss, hovering over a drop of probably 100 feet or more. As a matter of fact, here's what a view of the mushroom's home looks like from within the cave it grows on:

That should give you an idea of why I was so uncomfortable trying to get a good picture of the mushroom. I'm terrified of heights to begin with, but add to that its questionable perch and the slippery leaves surrounding it and there's a snowball's chance in hell.

Regardless, I kept thinking about that little mushroom all through the rest of my hike. I guess, in a way, I somehow felt like this fungus was my kindred (says a lot about me, huh?) But I also found it downright inspiring. Here was a living thing, taking a risk, trusting its small tubular body to keep it from falling over as it strained to see over the edge.

We take a lot of chances as writers. We take a chance on an idea, or maybe a character. We take a chance in starting something that will be incredibly hard to finish. We take a chance in putting a metric ton of ourselves into something that consumes us. We take a chance in sending this piece of ourselves out into the world to be judged, critiqued, rejected, and - hopefully - accepted.

Right now I am in the process of submitting to agents. My little mushroom friend and I are both sticking our necks out, taking a risk, hoping that the risk will pay off and we'll get a little slice of sunlight.

But you know, it's not so dangerous to lean over the side of a mountain if you know you have strong roots. If you've worked hard, studied the craft, revised until it's the best it can be, you've got a great foundation that will let you stick your neck out just a little bit more, and maybe, just maybe, you'll feel that sunshine on your face.

I'm a little in love with this metaphor, and I'd love to hear from you about your own mushroom risks and roots. Where are you in the writing process? What's giving you the foundation to take a risk?

(This song by Josh Groban is totally appropriate for this discussion even though it examines it from the angle of letting yourself go and taking the risk of falling in love. So maybe the falling aspect is a bit of a mixed message but whatevs. It's beautiful. Just listen. And if you'd rather go with this metaphor, run with it. I'm listening.)


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Swami Laura and the Tan Hand Band

Now that Erin had a better teacup pattern, with eyes and a face for one thing, it was time to really fix her teacup situation.  Or try.  Both she and Laura knew it.  But still, it was hard to know where to go from here.  The two women just looked at each other.

"Okay.  I'll take your kids over to your mom's place, Erin.  You can't take care of them in this state. It's too much to ask of a teacup.  And you...   you...  gather up those papers on the floor.  Put them back in order and when I get back we'll figure out what needs to be done."   

It might have made more sense to reprint the entire 300 page document but it did give her something to do so Erin started to organize the pages.  1... 234... 37...  5...  95...

"Well, well.  Aren't you looking the worse for wear."

It was a baritone voice.  Oh great, now I'm hearing things, thought Erin.  She ignored it and bent forward to pick up another stack of papers.  54... 55...  3...  27... 28... 29...  264... 

"Don't insult her, Randolph.  She's doing the best she can.  It just takes time."  Again it was a baritone voice from behind her. 

As if I need another thing to deal with.  Erin straightened up.

"Well, if she didn't write me like some stiff cliche.  I mean...  the evil twin... give me a freakin' break."

"What, Randolph, you don't like sharing a face with me?"

"Actually, Raymond, I consider your blue black, shoulder length hair stunning, darling.  Just stunning."  And with that Erin could wait no longer and turned around.

There they were. Two men.  Two men without shirts on.  Two identical men.  In her bedroom. Handsome. Without shirts on.  She fell on her ass and stared up idiotically from her teacup cat eyes.  Two men without shirts on should not be in her bedroom.

"Yep, the maker is an idiot."  Said the one on the right.

The one on her left came  over and helped her back onto her feet.  "It's okay, Erin, you are going to figure this all out.  It's not that you can't, honey. It's not.  You will work hard and it will come with time.  Don't give it up.  This is what you want, so make it happen!"

"Always such a damn optimist. Don't lie to her, Raymond. Most people don't ever make it in publishing.  Heck, most of them don't even finish a book."

"Don't listen to him, Erin.  You've learned so much already.  Your writing... well the style is starting to come together, still it might need some work, but it's coming.  And you've fixed a lot of things.  Those tricky little author intruding words that distance the reader.   The talking heads thing.  How about your tendency to overuse suddenly, quickly and instantly?  Right?  It's progress.  Progress."

"Yeah, but who really cares about any of it, Erin?  Who really cares..." Randolph looked at her with disdain.

"Hiyaaaah!"  Erin fell back down again. "Shut Up!"  It was Laura.  She'd returned and she'd smacked Randolph across the face.

Erin put her hand on the rim of her cup and rubbed it like she had a headache.  "Honestly, Laura, this is all too much for one teacup to handle."

"Excellent, girlfirend!"

"What?" Erin asked.

"Well for one thing you are talking now!  It's a sign maybe you are starting to find your writer's voice after all.  Look, I brought you a present. Read it and we'll talk."  She plopped Finding Your Writer's Voice down in Erin's lap. 

"Okay...  I know you've been after me to read this all year."  Erin nodded at the book, knowing she was going to have to do it. 

"And as for you two, well Raymond, you can stay, but Randolph, put a muzzle on it or I'm kicking you right out the window!" 

"You know them?"  Erin asked.

"Well, sure, Erin. They're in my band.  Let's show her guys."  And Laura started to sing in her disney princess voice as Raymond played guitar and Randolph beat the drums.  "We're Swami Laura and the Tan Hand Band.  Haven't you been wondering what I've been up to on Friday and Saturday nights?  We're playing the club circuit!"

Well, that made sense.  After all, the two men did have awfully tan hands...

Friday, July 29, 2011

Waiting - Laura's 10th Circle of Hell

I finished PERFECT 10 in June, just a few precious days after summer vacation started.

Finishing a book always kind of sneaks up on me. I type the last line and think, "Oh my god. That was it. That was the end." (Yes, I type the last line last. I have Methods. I do not stray from those Methods. But more on that shortly.)

Then I sit there in shock for about an hour and message Erin or my friend and beta, Ann, on Skype and say, "I think I'm finished. Will you read it and tell me if I'm finished?"

(And I have to ask because even though I know when the book should end, there's always so much more in my head that I want to say.)

It takes a few days for the shock of finishing to wear off, and then I'm ready to work. I comb the manuscript once myself for spelling and grammar, and Ann does a round for me too. Then the hard part begins. Massive revisions. Tightening the writing, strengthening the characters, heightening the emotions. Sometimes it's as simple as removing all those pesky adverbs. Sometimes it's as difficult as merging scenes or completely rewriting. With PERFECT 10 I actually wrote out a giant chart, labeling each scene in each chapter. Then I defended it. If the scene wasn't necessary or it had the same purpose as another scene in the book, I dealt with it.

I moved quickly on this one because LeakyCon was coming up in July. Not that I didn't do a thorough job, I just worked my ass off. I didn't want to have something unpolished if I made connections with the agents there.

And I feel I did. So I'm sending queries out and waiting. You know, there are so many difficult things about writing. The actual writing itself, the sting of criticism, the fear of rejection.

But I think probably the most immediate thing for me is the waiting. It's all too easy to sink into that cliched pit of despair. (Cliches exist for a reason, and I defend my right to use them, albeit sparingly.) Every day you don't hear a response becomes another reason to suspect that the manuscript, the idea, the writing, etc etc etc just isn't good enough.

I'm at a point with my writing where I feel genuinely confident with it. I trust my voice, I trust my pacing, I trust that the characters in my head and the plots they've given me are rich and complete. I take criticism in stride now. But criticism is concrete. Unanswered responses are not concrete, and they tend to bring out your worst fears.

One of my dream agents, Sarah LaPolla, tweeted a link the other day, and just in the nick of time for me, so I thought I'd share. It's a blog by one of her clients, Michelle, and it gives you a few reminders to take to heart during this limbo period. It's a most excellent blog, and I can't wait to see Michelle's work on the shelves. (I'm especially looking forward to her book about Vincent Van Gogh, which she hasn't even started yet!) Do yourself a favor and read this post, and stick around for a while. She's got lovely thoughts on writing:

The Patience of Writing