Writing is an activity that, if one harbors aspirations of publishing, is fraught with rejection and disappointment. To be a writer is to cultivate and maintain a tough skin. Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home. So why do we keep trying? We keep writing, of course, because we love it or we are compelled to do it or both. But how do we maintain our enthusiasm about publishing anything, with the competition so stiff and the chances so low? The answer is simple: faith.
Behind every poem, essay, or article I’ve had published, stand several dozen orphaned pieces of writing still searching for their publishing home.
Recently, I had three different faith-full experiences that I can draw on during my moments of self-doubt.
The first occurred at a friend’s house over the summer. One of my friends mentioned in passing that I was writing a novel, and her mother, who was visiting from out-of-state, looked at me wide-eyed. “You’re writing a novel?” she said in awe.
Before I could answer, my other friend chimed in. “It’s gonna be so good,” he said, nodding and smiling where he sat on the couch.
That was all I needed–a vote of confidence from friends, even just in passing. Just writing about the memory, the experience of which lasted maybe fifteen seconds, produces a lasting sense of optimism.
“It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.”
Several weeks before the incident at my friend’s house, I shared the first few chapters of my novel with my grandparents, both avid readers. When they called me with their critique, full of constructive criticism, my grandpa said he thought the book could inspire a cult following. Of course, grandparents should always have encouraging words for their grandchildren, but his praise was so specific, and his criticisms so insightful, that I believed in his belief in me–and my writing.
Finally, several instances that have occurred over the last year in my writing class at VisArts have also buoyed my spirits and summoned my muse.
One evening, as the instructor provided feedback on my week’s submission, I noticed he was using phrases like “When you get an agent”–“when,” not “if.” I tend to quantify my aspirations about publishing with “if,” implying I know it might never happen. But to hear someone else–someone who teaches creative writing at the university level–talk about “when” my novel gets published, was extremely reaffirming.
If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you?
Another week, my instructor said, “If I’m an agent, this is the chapter that makes me want your book.” In an even more recent class, our instructor gave the entire class this advice about finishing the first draft of our novels: “It’s all self-belief. That’s all it is. That’s all it takes.” He’s right. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect others to believe in you? Still, it helps when others believe in you, too. Their belief buoys yours, whenever you start to have your doubts.
About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story.
About two weeks ago, my writing instructor told me I could finish the first draft of my novel before the end of our class next month if I committed to writing 500 words a day from here on out. I told him I could do that, and I told myself the same story. September 27 was Day One of that promise to myself. I wrote 940 words that night. I haven’t missed a day yet, and today will mark Day Twelve.
The Christmas season is upon us, and while I recommend checking out my gift guide for the writerly types (and dog lovers) in your life, I want to take a moment to acknowledge one of the most meaningful gifts we writers can give to each other: the gift of community. I think we can all agree that a certain amount of solitude is necessary to craft an effective, satisfying piece of writing, but just as important as the gift of quiet time to write, is the gift of time spent with our fellow writers.
Gifts from Fellow Writers
I owe a lot to some of my fellow writers. Below is a list of just a few of the many gifts they have given me.
Mind the Dog Writing Blog
Believe it or not, this blog would not exist at all if it weren’t for Charlene Jimenez, a fellow blogger, writer, and writing instructor. Several years ago, Charlene and I were enrolled in a few graduate level writing courses together, and after we finished our degree programs, kept in touch. If she hadn’t suggested the idea of a blogging network, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. My gift to her: I invite you to pay her (excellent!) blog a visit.
Life in 10 Minutes Workshops and 9 Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology
Without my friend Lauren Brown, who you’ve read about in this blog before, I wouldn’t have participated in the three or four Life in 10 Minutes Workshops I have loved. These workshops are not only therapeutic and encouraging, but also productive, supportive, enjoyable, and inspiring.
Participation in this workshop has resulted not only in a sense of accomplishment and an exercise of creativity for me, but has also fostered a sense of community and resulted in a few of my works being published.
Vitality Float Spa
Like Life in 10 Minutes, Lauren told me about the Writing Program at Vitality Float Spa in Richmond. In addition to a program for writers, the spa offers programs for chefs and artists. I don’t know much about the programs for chefs and artists, but the program for writers entails two free, 90-minute float sessions in exchange for one original piece of writing. The idea is that the float is so inspiring and freeing, the experience enables you to create a brand new piece of writing, work of art, or recipe (respectively). In my case, the gift of the spa experience resulted in another gift: the satisfaction of composing a poem inspired by the experience. Ultimately, Vitality plans to compile all the writing they receive into a book.
My sister, Anne, a freelance writer and blogger, has provided me with numerous opportunities to turn my talent and passion into lucrative projects. Without her, much of my published work would not exist at all, much less be published.
As with freelance work, it was my younger sister who introduced me to Contently, a platform that allows writers to create and maintain an online portfolio, as well as to look for freelance opportunities.
Many kindhearted writers have invited me to be part of their critique groups, which have provided me with helpful feedback and the ability to better accept constructive criticism. In fact, the idea to restructure my novel-in-the-works was the result of a critique group discussion.
Gifts for Fellow Writers
While getting the gift of community is rewarding, giving it to others is just as heart-warming. I love the feeling I experience when I know I have helped another writer succeed.
Publication in The Richmond Times-Dispatch
Lauren has given me much in the way of both friendship and writing, but I have also returned the gift, telling her about the My Life and In My Shoes columns of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and encouraging her to submit work. She did, and her work often appears in the newspaper. Similarly, I encouraged a man with whom I attend church, Frank Wentzel, to submit work. He met with similar success, his work having appeared at least twice already.
Shortly after I began regularly writing articles for ScoutKnows.com, a website tailored to pet parents (like me!), the then-editor asked me if I knew anyone else who might be a good fit for the site. I immediately sent her the names of three or four of my best writer friends, some of whom now also write for the site.
An Outlet for Stories
Recently, my sister sent me information about an anthology looking for stories about women’s ability to rise above challenges and obstacles in their lives. Her initial thought was that I might want to submit; instead, I passed the information along to three of my friends, two of whom told me it was perfect timing; they had been looking for either a reason to tell their story, or an audience for it. The latter two, I know, were accepted for publication in the anthology.
James River Writers Annual Conference
For the last several years, I have enjoyed attending the James River Writers Annual Conference. When I learned a colleague new to my school also loved writing, I encouraged him to attend. He attended every year until moving out of state, and each year, we both looked forward to the event.
While writing can sometimes feel a solitary activity, we writers are our greatest resources. This holiday season, make a point to give the gift of community to the writers you know.
“Oh! Look at this!” I said upon receiving an unexpected e-mail from Turtle Island Quarterly this evening. “One of my pieces is going to be published–again!”
“Are you gonna be famous or something someday?” my husband responded. His question probably sounds a little extreme–delusional even, and I’m sure my response sounds equally so:
“Well, it would be kind of lovely, wouldn’t it?”
For a moment, I let myself bask in a little limelight at the kitchen table while I ate my ice cream sundae, imaging all my literary dreams coming true someday.
“I mean, it’s kind of insane,” my husband continued. “It’s never been like this before.”
I don’t really advertise the rejections–not because I am ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed (though I am always disappointed)–but because they are so frequent that telling you–or anyone else–about them would get old. Fast.
By “it’s” he meant my writing. By “like this,” he meant the sudden and recent success of my writing. Over the course of the spring and early summer, I’ve experienced:
a sudden influx of freelance writing assignments (hoping for more!)
several accolades from one of my freelance clients
“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t really trying before.” Which is basically true. I was writing. Or not. I was submitting my writing. Or not. Whatevs. There was no concerted effort on my part. I was sporadic, unfocused. It’s only been in the last year or so, inspired by a desire to ultimately see my novel (and novel-in-progress) published and for sale (and selling!), that I really began to put myself and my writing “out there.” I haven’t met with all the success I would have liked, at least not yet–my novel remains unrepresented, my novel-in-progress is still in progress, my submissions spreadsheet was near-decimated when the file somehow got corrupted–but I’m making strides, and that feels really, really good.
Rejections are part of the writer’s life. They just are.
What I haven’t told you yet? I get far more rejection e-mails than acceptance e-mails. But I don’t really advertise the rejections–not because I am ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed (though I am always disappointed)–but because they are so frequent that telling you–or anyone else–about them would get old. Fast. Saying, “Oh, such-and-such agent doesn’t want my manuscript” or “Oh, such-and-such magazine isn’t interested in my poetry” would be kind of like walking around every Monday saying, “Hey, it’s Monday again.” You already know and it’s not fun to hear about. It’s just a fact of life. Like Monday is a fact of the 9-5, five-day workweek life, rejections are part of the writer’s life. They just are. I quickly reached a point at which I read them, and disappointed but unsurprised and more or less unfazed, file them away.
One insult could knock someone’s self-esteem down so far, that that person would need seven different compliments to build her confidence back up. The same is not true of rejection e-mails and acceptance e-mails. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I’ve gotten–it only takes one acceptance letter to pick me back up again.
When I was a sixth grader going through the D.A.R.E program at school, the police officer who visited our classroom each week told us it took seven (or some number I can’t exactly recall) compliments to outweigh one insult–that one insult could knock someone’s self-esteem down so far, that that person would need seven different compliments to build her confidence back up. The same is not true of rejection e-mails and acceptance e-mails. It doesn’t matter how many rejection letters I’ve gotten–it only takes one acceptance letter to pick me back up again.
I hope one day to hold in my hands books I have written with them.
So, am I gonna be famous one day? Who knows. It would be kind of lovely, wouldn’t it? In the meantime, I plan to enjoy writing–and seeing my writing published, whenever and wherever it is. And even if I’m never famous, I hope one day at least, writing will provide my main source of income, and I will hold in my hand books I have written with them. Because that would be truly lovely (even lovelier than fame).
As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”
This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.
On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.
And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.
Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.
Among the quotes displayed on posters on my classroom walls, one of the most relevant to my students, particularly when they begin (or try to begin) writing their research papers or college essays is this:
“Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. Begin anywhere.”
It sounds so simple. Sit down. Pick up a pen or set your fingers to the keyboard, and go. Begin. Let the words flow. And truly, it can be that simple–but we writers all know the feeling of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a glowing, white computer screen, the urge to write almost unbearable, only to fall victim to this sort of constipation of our creativity. No matter how hard we try, the right words–or any words at all–simply will. Not. Come. We are paralyzed in the face of our immense ideas, or by the sense that despite our need to write, we have no ideas.
Below are five writing prompts to help alleviate the uncomfortable sensation of writer’s block.
1. Unlived Lives
Throughout our lives, we are presented with choices, from the seemingly mundane, such as what to eat for breakfast or what to wear on a given day, to the more obviously life-altering, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. For this prompt, imagine your life had you made “the other” decision. What might have happened if you had taken that months-long road trip with your best friend instead of attending your first semester of college–what would your life be like now? Imagine the life you would be living had you married the first boy you ever loved (never mind that he never asked, like you thought he would). Imagine the life you would be living if you had not aborted the child who would’ve been your first born. What other lives, good or bad, have you had–but forgone in favor of another–the chance to live?
2. Dear Future Self
For this prompt, write a letter to your future self, as far or as near in the future as you like. What kinds of things will you hope for your future self? What kinds of questions will you ask? What will you hope you remember? What will you hope to have forgiven, accomplished, forgotten, experienced?
3. To-Do List
Take an objective look at your to-do list today. Write about what someone would think of you based solely upon that list. If all someone had to imagine the kind of person you are was today’s to-do list, what would he think? Consider the hobbies, obligations, jobs, activities, interests he might imagine you have or are involved with.
4. Another’s View of You
Imagine yourself from the perspective of someone else. Perhaps take on the view of the checkout girl who rang you up at the local grocery store, the man in the car beside you at the traffic light, the neighbor who passes you on his bike as you walk your dog. What do these people notice about you, think about you, infer about you, wonder about you? Take on the perspective of someone else, and write about yourself in third-person from this new perspective.
Start the prompt with “My name should have been…” and let your ideas flow. What should your name have been? Why?
The next time you experience the painful paralysis of writer’s block, I invite you to employ one (or all!) of these prompts. If you’re feeling really inspired, I invite you to post your written response to one (or more!) of these prompts in a comment on this post.
Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!
After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.
“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye ForNow last year.”
Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.
“I’m listening,” I tell her.
“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.
“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.
But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.
“And there’s more,” she breathes.
What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?
It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.
(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)
Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.
And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.
Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.
My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.
“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.
The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.
“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.
“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.
A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.
“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.
“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”
“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”
“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”
“It was made into a movie and everything.”
“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”
My great grandnephew smiles.
“Okay,” he says.
As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.
There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.
2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg
I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.
3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.
4. 642 Things to Write About
As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.
5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.
6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)
This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter. The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:
Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject
The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.
7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer
This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.
8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman
This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.
9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway
This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.
Maybe you’ve heard you can do anything you put your mind to. Maybe you’ve heard you can be anything you want to be. Maybe you’ve heard you can grow a pineapple by planting the crown of a store-bought fruit in soil. Maybe you’ve believed these things. Maybe you haven’t.
They’re all true.
Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.
Let’s start with the pineapple. When my dad handed me the crown of a fruit he’d just chopped into chunks and told me to plant it–it’d grown, I didn’t believe him. But, to humor him, I went ahead and plunked the “plant” in a pot of dirt. Imagine my surprise when days, weeks, months later, it wasn’t dead. Imagine my further surprise when years later, I had re-potted it several times, until it grew almost too heavy to move, and spread itself out almost four feet in diameter. But I got my biggest surprise from Mr. Pineapple, as
my husband and I had taken to calling the plant (that’s right–the plant had seen me graduate from college, get married, buy a house, and start my career), when, upon watering him one day, I noticed what looked like a miniature pineapple sprouting from the center of his crown. Mr. Pineapple was pregnant! Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.
Since then, I’ve grown nearly a dozen pineapple plants, and enjoyed the homegrown sweetness of their plant-ripened fruit. But the reward is not without its pains. Through growing pineapples, I have learned a lot of things–about pineapples, and about life.
Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.
First, a newly-planted crown will often look sickly for weeks after it has been planted. But don’t give up on it. If even the slightest hint of green remains, it is alive, and silently biding its time, building its resources. Just when you start to believe it is really dead, a miracle occurs and the plant comes alive, growing so quickly it will require multiple pots before it reaches maturity.
Second, a plant will not produce fruit until it is at least two years old. Often, it takes longer. Even when the flower appears, the time from first flower to edible fruit is about six to seven months. But at the end, you will savor the absolute sweetest, juiciest fruit you have ever tasted. It’s better than candy.
Third, the creative cycle never ends. After you harvest its fruit, the plant lives on, and while it will not flower or fruit again, it will produce an offshoot capable of producing fruit. In addition, the crown from the harvested fruit contains its own potential to produce fruit. It needs only to be planted, water, and tended to a bit.
Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.
Perhaps you have already guessed where I am going with this: Goals and dreams are like pineapples.
First, you must never give up on them, even when the outlook seems bleak. Remember, the darkest hour precedes the dawn–and the pineapple bursts into life just when it looks like it might die instead. Along those lines: Today, I received a rejection letter from a literary magazine to which I had submitted a short story. That was, to say the least, disappointing. But–today, an article I wrote appeared in the September issue of writeHackr, and an article by a friend of mine appeared in the local paper. Though I will for the course of my literary career assuredly receive more rejections than acceptances, I hold to my acceptances. Those are my “slightest hint of green,” and they mean my writing career is still alive. In addition, no agents have shown even the slightest bit of interest in my novel (yet), but I have not given up. I don’t even feel all that discouraged, actually. Instead, I have decide to revamp my query letter and restructure my novel–a complete overhaul. Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.
Second, be patient with the process. Progress might be slow. It might be invisible. Never wearying, you must patiently persevere, nurturing, cherishing, and waiting on success, quietly working in the background. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.
What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them.
Third, reach your goal, reap the benefits, savor the fruit of your labor. And then don’t stop. What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them. Much like the crown of a pineapple, so easily discarded and forgotten, can be the start of another succulent fruit, a chapter you had to cut from your novel might prove the jumping-off point for your next big idea.
Just as I didn’t recognize the potential of that first pineapple crown years ago–had no idea what it was capable of–you might not know what stories, poems, novels, or screenplays you have stored up inside of you. Not, at least, until you cultivate them, nourish them, take the necessary steps to bring them to life. No matter what.
Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.
My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.
They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.
They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.
And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.
It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.
A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.
At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.
But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.
An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.
Last Friday morning, my friend Lauren and I set out with my two dogs for a day trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia. We anticipated a day of sunshine and salty breezes, scouring the sand for sea glass and cooling our skin in the brackish water on the quiet beach, where the fresh waters of the Potomac River begin to mix with the saltier waves of the Chesapeake Bay. Our plan was to leave Richmond by 8 o’clock, landing ourselves on the warm sand by ten. We’d spend about four hours in a state of summer solitude, just two friends and two dogs soaking up the sunshine, catching up on each others’ lives, and strolling the strip of sand that is the beach. By 2 o’clock, we’d enjoy cruising the country roads home.
Last June, I equally optimistically started a different kind of journey: writing my first (and so far only) novel. I was convinced I could accomplish this goal before the end of the summer. I wrote almost every single day, anywhere from 500-3500 words a day. I spent hours outside on my back deck, typing away, bringing my characters and their circumstances to life, my whippet and beagle by my side. My plan was to have a near-perfect draft finished before another school year began in the fall.
After a pit stop or two, Lauren, the dogs, and I found ourselves finally on the road leading to the beach. This road is the absolute only way to reach the beach. As we rounded the last curve before the straightway to the water, we were greeted by three or four standing vehicles, a fire truck, a utility truck, and a few people pacing the street or leaning nonchalantly against their cars. The orange lights perched atop the utility truck were silently flashing, as were the lights atop the fire truck. Directly in front of the two emergency vehicles, a large, downed tree draped in power lines like tinsel on a Christmas tree blocked the road.
I slowed to a stop.
“Well,” I said. “This is probably the most exciting thing to happen here since forever.”
A man dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt approached and, hoping for an explanation, I rolled down my window and learned that though the fire department was on-scene, the power lines were still live, and the firefighters could do nothing about the downed tree or blocked road until the power company shut off power. No one knew when that might be.
“What do we do?” I said. “Do we just turn around and go home?” It seemed such a sad solution after driving so far, with such high hopes.
Lauren and I deliberated for a few minutes as to our other options, and adjusted our plans. At my parents’ recommendation, we drove to a small, public beach about 15 minutes away, hoping to let the dogs stretch their legs in the sand, and sit on the beach to eat the sack lunches we had packed. Then, perhaps we would revisit the scene of the fallen tree in hopes that everything had been cleared up, and the road reopened.
When the end of August arrived, my novel was closer to finished–but not actually so. That was okay, I told myself. The James River Writers Annual Conference was in October, and I could pitch to an agent then. I simply adjusted myself to the idea of a new deadline: October. As long as I was finished by October, and ready to pitch to an agent, I would be satisfied. And so, whenever I could find time between grading research papers and essays, I kept writing. The goal seemed achievable.
As we pulled into the little gravel parking lot at the end of the country road to Vir Mar Beach, the skies darkened slightly and the breeze picked up, the day feeling more like late October than late July.
“Watch. Now that we’ve finally found a beach, it’s gonna rain,” Lauren joked. No sooner had she spoken than a few stray drops landed with quiet taps on the windshield. Despite the spitting skies, I harnessed up the dogs and led them up the wooden steps, over the dune, and onto the beach.
Or at least what was left of it.
The tide must have been in, and it was so windy that the waves were rolling up almost to the sea grasses at the base of the dune, leaving only a small strip of damp sand, at its widest point perhaps a foot thick. In addition, the beach itself ran only about thirty to fifty feet in either direction before we were abruptly met with “Private Beach” signs, warning us back onto public sands. I walked the dogs to one end of the beach and back in less than three minutes, and Lauren and I ate our lunches in my parked car.
I wasn’t done with my novel by October, though I did make my first (albeit sorry) attempt at a pitch to a kind agent at the James River Writers Annual Conference, who told me she couldn’t really do anything without a manuscript, but generously offered to read sample pages if I sent them her way when I had a completed draft. I left the conference feeling both discouraged and inspired. I had not met my second deadline: my novel was still incomplete. I had not met my goal: I did not have an agent. But I did have reason to keep writing. So I did.
As Lauren and I finished our lunches, the same breeze blowing water across the beach to effectively obscure it, became more helpful, and began blowing away the low, dark clouds to allow the sun to make an appearance.
“Should we go back and see if the tree and power lines are all taken care of?” I asked.
Lauren agreed, and we were pleased to round the curve and find a clear route to the beach.
Just two days before Christmas, I finally completed the first draft of my novel. Few accomplishments in my life have been so satisfying, and though I knew my work was not done, I could finally say it: I wrote a book.
Although we had a mere hour before we needed to head home in time to be ready for our separate evening obligations, Lauren and I were rewarded for our determination to reach the beach. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed the sand. The water was clear and not as roiling as it had been earlier in the day, when we had seen it spilling onto the sands of little Vir Mar Beach. We found handfuls of colorful sea glass, and the dogs gleefully sniffed and wandered and waded.
By this June, I had completed three drafts of my novel, and felt ready to start the querying process. In July, I was thrilled to see an e-mail in my inbox from one of the agents to whom I had sent a query and some sample pages. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly when I opened the message, a polite and warmhearted thanks-but-no-thanks. I was not surprised, really, but I was somewhat disappointed. Still, I press on, more or less undaunted, and am currently working on the fourth draft, which I hope will fare better in its quest to find an agent, when the time comes.
While it was hard to go home so soon after finally reaching our destination, I found inspiration in the ultimate result of the day. Lauren, the dogs, and I had had to go through several obstacles to reach a goal we originally took for granted as easy to attain. We had had to be flexible. We had had to be persistent. We had had to remain steadfast in our goal despite many reasons to give in: a blocked road and seemingly inclement weather, with no clear end in sight for either. And because we had succeeded in all these, we had gotten an hour more on the beach than we would have gotten otherwise.
The connection between that Friday adventure and my writing is clear to me: We could have turned around, abandoning our goal altogether, at the first sign of trouble. But we didn’t. Many times in my writing process, I could have done the same. But I haven’t.
My dedication and determination to not only finish my book, but also to find an agent and publisher for it, once it is more polished, and Lauren’s and my dedication and determination to just make it to the beach are one in the same. I am confident that if, like Lauren and I last Friday, I can remain optimistic, perseverant, and dedicated, I will ultimately hold my book in my hand–and maybe someday, see it in the hands of others. And when that day comes, I will finally be able to sit back, turn my face to the sun, and bask on my own beach.
Just for a few minutes–before I start writing again.