Thoughts on resilience

desertgrassI’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately. After this Ask Polly post and an interesting exchange on Twitter between an agent and an aspiring writer. The agent had put up a link to an article of hers about the low odds of signing with an agent (the number of queries vs. spots on the client list) and the writer replied with something about how publishing folk should be doing more nurturing and mentoring of writers so there’s not so much fear in writing. The agent replied simply, saying that anyone who is easily discouraged has no business being a writer, an artist. Basically, if I’m interpreting correctly, the difficulty of publishing thins out the weak.

And I thought about my path, which hasn’t been easy. It’s been much harder than it appeared it would be on the outset. I got an agent fairly easily, but the book-in-my-hand has proven elusive. Four manuscripts. One sale, but the publisher closed. A number of very close calls. A maddening cacophony of crickets from editors. Yet, I’m still writing, still working, still dreaming, and somewhere in there, factors resilience. I’m not sure where the line between resilience and stubborn stupidity lies. I’m not sure there is a line, or if it’s a some mushy gray space that shifts around depending on how insane the writer is.

Sometimes, I think the near misses and fatal errors that have marked my publishing career is the universe trying to tell me to give up. “You’re a talentless hack who will NEVER be published,” whisper the stars. “You’ll never be more than what you are. Your words will never touch anyone.” But then my imagination conjures a scene of me telling the tale of this long, difficult journey I took before being published. Of the many nights I went to bed contemplating my failure. Of the countless times I imagined quitting writing to do something else. Something easier. But no, I kept going, kept writing stories that pushed me, challenged me, made me doubt my ability to execute them properly. I kept going, and I published. I made it to that’s-my-book-on-a-shelf and succeeded at the hardest job I’ve had aside from parenting (which is harder). It’s a great story and one I will never be able to tell if I don’t keep at it. So I guess my resilience comes from a story I yearn to tell. One I cannot tell, until it becomes the truth.

An Island Adventure

For a long time now, I’ve been itching to visit Seguin Island (pronounced Sae-gin), a rocky blip off the coast of Bath, Maine, about 3 miles out to sea. Last week, we finally went. A thirty-minute ferry ride from Fort Baldwin will take you to this tiny island. There’s really nothing to the place. It has a lighthouse on it. It’s a nice lighthouse. We didn’t visit it. We walked the trails, which is a quick thing to do, but when you stand on the southern end of this little island, the only thing you see is the Atlantic and the curve of the Earth. You feel like you’re on the edge of the world.
Seguin1
Seguin hasn’t changed since colonists arrived. And those folks didn’t do much to it for the brief time they were there, so when you walk the rocky shoreline, you walk someplace not messed up by people. An overlooked place. An isolated place. Writing is an isolating endeavor. The longer I live this writers life, the more I seek out the overlooked, lost things in this world. They make me feel things out of the everyday set. They make me just a little bit better at what I do when I sit down to write. I looked at the other people on our tiny ferry and couldn’t help but wonder what brought them there. I know what brought me.
Seguin2

Short #2: Vandals

Milkweed

In the gray crease before the night,
the man and I tossed milkweed seeds into the wind.
We sent silent wishes,
for patches of earth, space to grow.
That we may one day see them tall and green.
To know our hands had been a part of their travels.
The child watched us,
watched the seeds pinwheel on the breeze.
Like perfection.

A Sunny Day

On a Saturday morning, this happened:
SunnyDay
I watched my husband start to order the clothes back on, but then he just closed his mouth with a sigh and a smile. We stood there, watching our two-year-old run with gorgeous, giggling abandon through the grass and smothering pangs of longing to do the same thing––to dip back to the days when streaking across the yard would have earned us amused smiles, rather than a visit from the sheriff and a lecture on common decency. Oh, to be free and unselfconscious and joyous. Eventually, the diaper came off too, to be hung amongst the yellow flowers of the forsythia bush (in photo at left) and my daughter transformed into full-fledged wood nymph, complete with trailing flowers and muddy feet and shrieks of pure joy. It was beautiful to observe and a poignant reminder how magical these early days of warmth are. Plants crack through the soil, the ends of branches swell red with tightly curled leaves. It’s all proof that no matter how formidable winter can be, a new season is right around the corner, ready to fill the days with warmth and wake up all the sleeping things.

How to be an author.

The infectious Avery Flynn in action.
The infectious Avery Flynn in action.

This weekend I attended my Maine romance writers’ conference at the Senator Inn in Augusta. Honestly, I wasn’t ramped up to go. My book’s on submission, I’m torn between a few writing projects and was in a generally hibernative (Is that a word? Spell check says no.) state. However, I had to go because I was on the committee and possessed all the name tags. I got into the spirit of it, and I have to admit, our retreat rocked. With workshops from the brilliant Judith Arnold, the spontaneous Sandy Blair and the absolutely lovely Avery Flynn, I was ready to crawl out of my den and eat some berries.

I’m going to talk about Avery (pictured in action, above), because as I sat there crunching on peanut M&Ms and trying to hold my bladder I was thinking to myself, “I want to be like her when I’m an author.” Truly. And here’s why:

At the end of the conference, when all the awards and prizes were dispensed and everyone was filtering out, Avery very quietly called over Terri, the truly stellar hotel event coordinator. Avery pulled out a promo postcard, wrote down her email address and handed it to Terri with the words, “Thank you so much. Email me, and I’ll send you a free book.” I doubt anyone witnessed this––it wasn’t meant to be noticed––or Terry’s surprised gasp of gratitude. I doubt many of us noticed Terri at all––attendees aren’t supposed to notice the event coordinator. But Avery did and her gesture amazed me. We’re sort of conditioned to worry about rights and contracts and royalty percentages and selling––God, yes, the selling––that it’s easy to forget about giving.

So that wound up being my big takeaway from the retreat. It’s not just about how you write, it’s how you act as a writer. Especially when you think no one is looking.

Avery's smexy book.
Avery’s smexy book.

Words and Music

Some people can’t write with music on, but I find the right soundtrack can clear my head and put me deep in the scene I’m writing. It strengthens my point of view, blocks extraneous thoughts and minimizes the chance I’m going to get distracted by something dumb. There’s a link, I think, between music and words, and when that right song is playing, my fingers feel obliged to keep up. A valuable tool when writing is especially difficult; when self doubt crowds the mind with rubbish. If you think about it, our brains can only do so many things at once: We can’t write and listen to music, and lecture ourselves on what hack writers we are. For me, the rubbish is jettisoned and it’s just me and the music and my words.

This song is on loop right now, the only thing making Chapter 11 of my current work in progress happen:

My meat computer is a Mac

The Meat ComputerNot too long ago, I wondered if maybe it was time to give this stupid dream of being a writer and go back to a snug, secure cubicle. I understand cubicles, having spent nine years in one. Rejection letters were coming every day, hot and heavy: “While your writing shows promise, your project isn’t a good fit…”, “Thank you for querying me, but your concept just didn’t grab me…”, etc. Rejection hurts. It just does. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t a human being.

It was during this time of self doubt that I ran across this article on the existence of free will. Neuroscientists claim that our brains are essentially “meat computers,” and any decision we make is simply the result of the wiring of our brains. We can’t make choices. We simply execute commands issued by the synapses in our brains. I have to say, the science guys made a compelling argument. Compelling enough to make me really upset.

By this reasoning, every stupid, cowardly and just plain bad decision I’ve ever made was the output of my meat computer. I stayed in that cubicle for nine years, in a state of static self-loathing, until electrical impulses in my brain lit up and said “now, we go.” That’s just depressing. Nine years of knowing I was doing the absolute wrong thing with my life but too afraid to change anything.

I figured, if I gave up and quit writing for publication, my meat computer truly was defective. I’d come so far. I’d written a book I was very proud of, revised it until I couldn’t stand looking at it and really, the rejections weren’t killing me. When it came down to it, I simply wasn’t going to stand for a substandard brain that said it was okay to quit when things got difficult––I’d done this before. It never got me anywhere.

So, I kept going. I recorded my rejections in my querytracker.com account, tweaked my query letter––again––and sent out another five. And one day, when I least expected it, an agent who I thought was miles and miles out of my league, emailed me. She loved my book. She stayed up ALL NIGHT reading it. She couldn’t stop thinking about it and wanted the chance to convince me that she was the best agent for me. Yes, that was in the email. I nearly peed myself.

So maybe there isn’t free will. And maybe there is. it certainly felt like a choice to push on, slog through all the “no’s” to get to the “yes.” Either way, I have new respect for my meat computer. I wouldn’t be here without it.