I like stories where women save themselves.
~ Neil Gaimen
I remember the first time I learned fiction writers research. A surprise though I was writing a book set in mid-century Appalachia, a time and place very different from my experience. 2006. I was at the Taos Writing Salon, far from my home. There from an ad in a local magazine. I’d turned the page, but went back, gazed a long time at the ad before folding the page open to mark it. I’d written to prompts every week with a core group of eight women for four years. Attended three weeklong retreats with the same facilitator-teacher, members of the circle at all of them. New writers came and went, but I always sat safely in familiarity. In New Mexico I was on my own.
Once through the door, the excitement of a test and insecurity of new wings took over. Sharing raw work in response to exercises not my fear, but stepping out of the shadow of affirmation from people who knew me. Into a group that included men (so different!), and published authors. Three things occurred in Taos that changed my life forever.
Allegra Huston critiqued a short story of mine, the seed for my novel. An author from England asked if I wrote professionally, responded ‘why not, you oughta be’ when I said no. And an author I respect, whose style and skill I admire, said yes when I asked if she’d edit my book. I became a writer in my mind.
If you read blogs or articles on writing, listen to interviews, you hear writing is a small part of being an author. What surprised me is how being an author shores me through the rough patches in life. Not in the work-thru-it sense as in journaling, but in the ‘this is true’ guideposts sense. My guess, it’ll surprise you, too.
1. First draft is never the final draft.
I trained two years on systems therapy with the Satir Institute of the Southeast. The one thing I knew for sure at the end of that training is life’s not about how often we fall down, it’s about how fast we get up. But I’d also grown up a perfectionist. Writing and rewriting, editing and revising finally taught me to let go. Forgive mistakes. Move on. Practice and do it better next time.
2) Rejection happens. Cheer the triumphs.
The level of rejection authors experience would astonish most people. Sometimes (often) hundreds of rejections, sometimes year after year. Stephen King spiked his rejections on a nail over his desk for years until Carrie launched his career. You read about the big winners. Rarely do you read they are less than 1% of published authors. That the average sales for self-published books are 150-250 copies. That good writers are not immune to rejection. And the reasons for rejection often have nothing to do with the work. Publishing is a subjective business. Perseverance and adopting an attitude of inspiration from the triumphs of others, learning and moving on all key to success as a writer and in life.
3) You define success.
The word ‘success’ is everywhere. Media. Descriptors for individuals. Books are written about it. Blogs discuss the attributes of successful people. A writing teacher once described me as successful. She viewed my publications, my completed novel, my literary agent, my teaching, my long list of professional retreats and workshops attended as setting me apart. Her assessment was a shock, because I didn’t see myself as a successful author. Because my goals and intentions hadn’t been fully realized, yet. And the quality of my life didn’t spell success to me. In that moment I understood only we can define success for ourselves.
4) What you do can be great even if no one sees.
Thousands of fine sentences no one will read. Hundreds of kindnesses and actions no one knows. It all matters. Another’s eyes do not make it more or less than it is.
5) Connection is alchemical.
For a writer, it’s that space between the written words and reader. When words turn into something new in a reader’s mind. Same as between people, when relationship and impact grow from the place they meet. It starts with me, ends with us.
6) Comparison is deadly.
It can stunt a life. You’ll always find someone or something better or worse than where you are now. Use comparisons as benchmarks for where you stand today, and where you aspire to be or go. The present is the only place where you can start to move forward.
7) No new stories, only new ways of telling them.
Pay attention to the people in the stories and the ones telling the tales. They show us what it is to be human. Can teach, open our mind, broaden our perspectives.
8) Every person has a story we don’t know.
Thirty years ago I read a story by Stephen Covey. A man enters the subway with his out-of-control children bouncing off walls, bothering passengers, including Stephen. The man sits next to Stephen, apologizes for his kids. “We just left the hospital. Their mother just died,” he says. I never forgot that story. In moments when I’m irritated or hurt, it helps me gain perspective, not internalize what’s happening as only about me. I may not forgive or forget, but I can be more objective. As an author developing characters and story lines, I’m thrown back into this again and again.
9) Let go of dead-end distractions.
In writing it’s the sidebars, distracting ‘smoking gun’ exposition in a scene. It’s the subplots that don’t tie-in, the rambling. It’s the backstory that slogs down a story, what leaves a reader asking ‘so what?’ In life, it’s the things that take us away from what we believe we want. And the things we ignore that help us feel whole. So, if a neat clean home is important, find a way to have it without costing you time on your goal. If time with friends is important, schedule it. There are threads that guide our lives same as threads that guide a book.
10) Do what answers Yes.
I’ve shared I believe each of us has an abiding question at the heart of everything we do. Mine is Am I Okay? Not ‘safe’ okay, but the okay meaning acceptance as I am. Nothing puts me against my abiding question more than my writing does. It forces me to answer ‘Yes’ for myself so I can continue my craft, reach toward that immaculate creation of work and my best self I’ll never achieve. It’s the Yes that moves me forward.
11) You are the author.
Others can give feedback, state their opinion, give you educated advice. In the end, the author writes the story.
Author (from Merrium-Webster dictionary)
1. a : one that originates or creates
b : capitalized : GOD
2. the writer of a literary work (as a book)
What story are you writing? Tell me in the comments.
Another small journey. Getting to Wise.
A Writer’s Life.
A favorite: All things writerly, which I didn’t know until I started writing.
A secret: All this dumped into my head in the kitchen the other day.
Photo: Free share by Joanna Kosinska
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