Jul 31, 2012

Confession


I have a confession.

That book I finished writing during my week-long retreat?  I don't like it.

I've been working on various revisions of this novel for almost a year.  I finished one and sent it off, convinced I'd made the book better.  And really, that would have been okay---if it were not for my sense of better heading off in a different direction than anyone expected.

I know what happened. It's not rocket science.

My mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and I became her primary caregiver.  My thoughts turned serious.  My writing turned serious. My revised draft turned into a manuscript my agent could not sell.

I personally needed to write that version, but my writing, along with my life, had gone off-track.

So I did what my Western upbringing taught me to do.  I wiped those dirt-streaked tears from my cheeks, dusted off my ripped and faded jeans, and got back on the horse.  It's what you do.

I pushed back emotions that threatened to choke the life out of me and I focused.  I outlined. I planned a book I thought my agent wanted me to write.

I started writing.

When the scenes didn't spark, I rewrote them.

I rewrote

and rewrote

and rewrote.

And I wasn't getting it done.

So I gave myself a firm deadline.  I would get the draft finished during my week-long retreat.  I just had to cowgirl-up and get that thing done, right?

Yes, the writing was painful.  Well, fine.  Writing is hard. I simply had to stop whining and suck it up.

Rule #1:  get it done.

So I did.

I followed all the toughest advice I've ever received or given: I didn't wait for the muse.  I accepted that some days writing is work and you show up for the job.

Only after I finished this last version did I realize:  I wasn't being weak or unprofessional when I wanted to quit that book. Nope.  The problem was the book itself.  I'm not submitting it.  I'm not putting my name on it.

And honestly?  I'd be very surprised if that was a book my agent wanted to get.  As much as I thought I was writing it for her, I was really trying to claw my way back into an orderly existence, going through the motions while my heart continued to cry.

Now, not only was I hurting, but I'd failed again.  We all have those moments---those dark nights of the soul---when we feel like we've come to the end of the road.  I'd followed my heart into a draft that couldn't be sold.  I'd followed my willpower into a draft I hated.  What else was there to do but quit?

Telling my mom was so difficult.

She doesn't want this damn illness to hurt me.  She still wants to protect me from everything cruel in the world.  She especially wants to protect me from her pain.

Finally, I could put it off no longer.

I hesitated on each word. "I finished the book."

"Oh, wonderful!"

"No.  It's not good, Mom.  I don't like it.  I put all that time into it and I don't like it."

"Oh."

I tried to break the silence that followed, but there were no words.  There was no way to fix this ruined draft or reclaim that time, no silver lining that I could see.

"That's too bad," Mom finally said.

And then?  With little more than a breath punctuating her acknowledgment of my feelings---my agonizing ache of disappointment and grief and abject failure---she asked:

"So what are you writing next?"

And you know that point in every great Western, when the music swells and the panorama grows so big you can't imagine the expanse of it?


Yes.  That.  That was my life in the eyes of my mother.

I'd been seeing myself as the turtle in the photo at the top of this post---claiming not to be dead when it had to be obvious to everyone around me that I was totally ossified, merely pretending.

But in that moment, I saw myself as my mother saw me.

"What are you writing next?"

My options were wide open as any Western landscape.

Oh  wow.

I'm still hyperventilating a little.

Anything is possible.

I can write anything I want to write.

"Johanna?"

"Hmm? Right. Yeah. The next thing. I'll let you know."

This morning I picked up the pen I'd been using to stab myself and I doodled a rainbow.  After lunch, I think I'll draw a cloud.  And somewhere in my daydreaming, I'll find the first line of this new book---the one I've been ignoring---the one written on my heart.

- - -

Update:  I wrote this blog post a little over a week ago, knowing I'd have time to chicken out and write something less vulnerable.  How honest should a writer be about her foibles and failures?  But you know what?  Filtering is the mindset that disrupted my creative process in the first place.  My heart could certainly lead me to write another dud manuscript or two, but my voice still remains in those pieces.  Writing without my heart muffles my voice, giving me a book full of almost-good, not-quite scenes.  If only---if only I could cut loose and tell it the way it is.  

Oh right.  I can.

That's what I've been doing this week.  This new book?  Same beginning and ending, but the middle will knock your socks off.

Jul 17, 2012

Fishtrap: On Being A Writer



While planning our summer activities, I originally thought maybe my daughter could come with me to the Fishtrap Writing Conference at Wallowa Lake in Oregon. They have youth workshops and scholarships available.  She applied for one.  We waited.

In the meantime?  That same daughter's National History Day essay placed second in the Idaho state contest, giving her a chance to compete at the national competition in Washington, D.C.  The only catch?  Considerable travel expenses.  Our priorities shifted:  we absolutely had to get this kid to D.C.

We assumed Fishtrap wasn't in the cards for us this year.

Then my sweet kiddo received a scholarship to Fishtrap and somehow things flipped.  She was no longer going to Fishtrap with me; I was now going with her.

The funds for my workshop were well-spent on that D.C. trip and I would make the same decision again with no hesitation, so there was no point spending time with my face pressed up against the window.  I was going as a chaperone and, for me, this would be a writing retreat rather than a conference.  And really, as a retreat, it was pretty darn idyllic.

We stayed in a tent, my daughter and I---and it was the first time the two of us had been camping without the rest of our family.

We paid for meals at camp and they fed us very well (something I've learned from other conferences not to take for granted).

Each morning, bird song increased in volume as the dawn approached.  (This original form of tweeting held me accountable to the page, even without an internet connection.)

Each morning I rolled out of my sleeping bag and, with no one to greet or tweet, I fell right into my writing warm-up.

By the time my daughter rose to make her way to early-morning yoga, I was 2,500 words in.

After breakfast, while everyone else disappeared into workshops, I slipped into my writing spot (the top photo was taken from that spot)---and I hit the keyboard.

After 5,000 words, I'd break for a shower---probably talking to myself and appearing utterly-nutty by then.

By lunchtime, I was half-glazed over, lost between a fantastic world of my own making and a surreal world of well-known authors and their kids.

Did I mention the authors?  David James Duncan. Jamie Ford. Luis Alberto Urrea. Hal Cannon. Teresa Jordan. Luci Tapahonso. Marjorie Sandor. Ellen Waterston. Myrlin Hepworth. Kirsten Rian. Listing the names feels less like name-dropping and more like name-lifting,  each spoken with thanks.

In the afternoons, we'd go hiking and exploring. The short hike to Iwetemlaykin was breath-taking.

Red Horse Coffee Traders was another of our favorite destinations---a place where we enjoyed house-roasted beans and a wi-fi connection.  The people there were so welcoming and hospitable.  I can't say enough good about them.

In the evenings we'd return to camp for dinner, readings, performances, campfires. I'm a crazy introvert, I made little effort to put myself out there and talk to people, and I had a wonderful time.

This conference was unlike any other I've attended.  There were no agents invited. There were no hour-long workshops to and from which attendees ran back and forth all day.

Participants chose one well-respected author and learned from that author in a small-group setting every morning for a week.  In the evenings, the entire group (including kids, chaperones, community members)---all met together for presentations, readings, and discussions. The sense of community and belonging--the feeling that we were there as a family of writers---it overwhelmed me.

The self-proclaimed goal of Fishtrap is, "promoting clear thinking and good writing in and about the West."  Our theme for this year was, "Catch and Release: What we hold on to, what we let go, and the one that got away." Cars in the lot had bumper stickers that read, "Keep it Rural."
The fact that we raise sheep on our tiny parcel of land, the fact that we homeschool, the fact that we think independently and respectfully about ours and others' religious and spiritual perspectives, the fact that we help each other without keeping score, even the fact that we willingly (even willfully) chose to stay in a tent---none of these things seemed unusual in this setting.  No one gave us that look---the one that says our eccentricity might be crossing the line into inappropriate rural proclivities. (Yes, we did keep and milk goats for a time. Who hasn't?)

Even my starry eyes, half-focused on another world, seemed more than welcome here.

"I wrote all morning. I'm a little out of it," I'd say.

"Good for you!" would come the answer.

"Keep going," someone else would say.

"You'll get it done," says another. "People with your determination always do."

No one asked me for my prepared novel pitch, although more than one listener smiled at my book's setting: an Idaho of the future where citizens are expected to live in cities and rural life is outlawed.

"Show them why we matter," one woman told me.

It's a tall order.

So what did I learn this week?  I guess I learned things I already knew, but had nearly forgotten.

I learned that being a writer requires staying in the moment---being in the moment.

I learned that, without the internet, I cannot flip to another screen every time the going gets tough.  I can't check just one email or just one tweet.  I can't look up a word to make sure it has the connotation I'm seeking.  I can't do just a spot of research on the internet. I can't check to see if tomorrow's #amwriting blog post is on the schedule.

When I'm in the middle of a tough scene, sometimes the only thing to do is sit with it, in stillness.

Sometimes letting the discomfort wash over me is the only right thing to do.

I learned that I spend too much time running away from myself in one-minute intervals.

I learned that, if I want the tapping of keys again, sometimes I have to be satisfied with too-painful silence.

I learned that being a writer is all you need to be welcome in the presence of other writers.

I learned that I can run to the most remote of writing conferences and still someone will recognize me from #amwriting.

I learned that the kids at Fishtrap are creative and fearless.  While adults are worrying about publishing options and the price of ebooks, those kids are honing their skills.  If we don't pay attention, they're going to pass us by.  It might already be too late.

Ooh---and I learned I like wild salmon---at least the way it's prepared by Joe McCormack.  Not since my father fed me pan-seared trout, fresh from the lake, have I eaten any fish I liked.  One bite from the grill of Joe McCormack becomes a stronger argument for saving salmon than a pound of words---or at least it makes a damn fine introduction.

I learned that sometimes we have to supplement our words with shared experience.  Walking together, camping together, sharing a meal together, clearing each others' plates and dishes---these things build community.  They create a place where even David James Duncan felt moved to trash his polished speech and take some risks on a brand new talk---a place where anything can happen.


Jul 3, 2012

Rejoice



Writing is hard. That's not a whine or a complaint.  It's a statement of fact.  Writing is hard.

My daughter participated in National History Day again this year---writing a paper---and I watched her go through many of the stages I go through while writing a novel.

Research?  Gleeful.  Narrowing the topic? A little more difficult, but still good.  Writing her first draft---yay!  Polishing? Even more difficult, but she made it the best she could for regionals---and this earned the chance to go to state. Staring at the suggestions of the regional judges, she realized she had more work to do. The paper could be better.  So she revised.  Over and over and over, she revised.

For the first time in four years, all this revision earned her a place at the national competition at The University of Maryland.  It also meant listening to the state judges and revising more.

Since we homeschool and I'm her teacher, I saw all those drafts.  I saw her aim for marks she did not hit and then aim again.  I saw her tears and felt her anguish and I patted her back and I told her, "writing is hard."  And then she revised again---not because I made her do it, but because it's what she does.  It's who she is.

For better or worse, I'm the same way.  I write every day not because I'm particularly driven or superstitious or willful, but because it's what I do.  It's in the fabric of who I am. A day without writing is not a vacation; it's a broken day, a muddled day, a day without caffeine, a day without learning anything, a day without <gasp> an internet connection.  Writing is what I do, so I do it.

All the same, as we prepared our trip to Maryland and on into Washington, D.C., I looked forward to scaling back on my writing and enjoying other parts of my identity.  As a teacher and a mom and an explorer of new things, I knew this trip was a Very Big Deal.

Every year more than half a million kids start out in the regional History Day competitions and fewer than 3000 qualify for nationals.  Of those who make it that far, only the top 15% make it to finals.  Kids don't make it to that level of competition without talent and determination.

And yes, my daughter does tell me the same is true for where I am in the writing process---that I didn't end up with an agent and good feedback from a first round of editor subs because I'm a mediocre writer. It's a tough lesson when she pats me on the back and recites my words back to me: "Writing is hard."

We spent nine days in College Park, Maryland and Washington, D.C., including:

  • two full days of travel, just to get there and back

  • five days of history day activities (watching student performances and documentaries, perusing the exhibits, being judged, going to receptions including the big one at the National Museum of American History)

  • sight-seeing with other Idaho students (meeting our senators in their D.C. offices, touring The Capitol, touring The Library of Congress)

  • sight-seeing in every other spare moment (National Gallery of Art, International Spy Museum, Ford Theater, Georgetown Harbor tour, Chinatown, Union Station, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, Embassy Row, Washington National Cathedral, National Museum of Natural History, National Sculpture Garden, National Air and Space Museum).


There were so many things to do and see.  We couldn't possibly get through everything--and yet our appetite to see more and do more kept us going.

And oh our poor little feet.  They hurt.  And then they hurt more.  And we said, you know, this is a little like getting through the horrible rewriting phase.  It hurts like crazy, but getting where you're going is important, so you keep moving forward one step at a time.

The awards ceremony was amazing.  Not only did my sweet girl make it to finals, but her historical essay placed ninth in the nation.  She brought home a medal for the best junior entry from the state of Idaho. My husband watched the webcast from home and we both cried, but my sweet girl held her head high, thrilled with what she'd accomplished, and already thinking about next year.

So, okay.  Fast forward a few days and we're back in Idaho.  I came home exhausted and I kept dreaming about monuments, trying to remember which was which and what I saw at each.

Eventually I lost my tether and fell into Monet's Seine, only to be pulled out by a double agent who handed off a micro-dot containing the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart's final resting place--somewhere near the mummies in the Museum of Natural History.  Oh yeah.  Overload, baby.  My mind was still sorting it out.
But then an interesting thing happened.  The more I worked on my book, the more my characters started cropping up in my D.C. dreams.  As I looked up from the Hope Diamond, one of my shadow characters studied me from the opposite side of the case.  As I examined gowns belonging to the first ladies, I heard a character behind me explaining what each would need for accessories, if they were to fit in at a ball in the world next door.  As I looked down from the sight-seeing bus, there was a whole band of my characters climbing all over the Einstein statue!

I called out to them, but they either couldn't hear me or they wouldn't listen.  I suspected the latter, so I called out again---and, in the calling, I half-woke myself.

And I'm sure the sweet euphoria of that moment had something to do with theta or delta or some kind of sleepy-dreamy brain waves, but it was an awesome moment.  I looked out over the entire D.C. trip with one realization:  I could remember everything perfectly, enjoy the ride, and I no longer had to experience the exhaustion of the trip.

And then my characters were there again, waving from the Einstein statue and below them were young readers, holding my finished book.  And, just like that, the pain of writing evaporated.

Walking miles a day, every day, mostly on marble? That's hard. But owning that experience is painless and wonderful. Writing history is hard, but hearing national judges discuss the value of a suffragette of whom they'd never heard?  Oh wow. That's a profoundly important moment in a young historian's life.  And yes, writing a novel is hard, but creating a story that looks and feels and reads like it was easy, that's an amazing joy.

In John Green's An Abundance of Katherines, Colin asks, "What is the point of being alive if you don't at least try to do something remarkable?"

Yes.  That.  You try, even when it hurts.  You push through and release the best of your work into the world, making way for the creation of the next possibly-remarkable thing. Whether competing in National History Day or writing a novel, or building The Washington Monument, there will be set-backs.  Persevere to the end.  Endure the pain. Celebrate the completion of your work. Be ever thankful if the fates smile on you. And then? Let it go.  Rejoice and do it again.