The Writer’s Road

So you want to be a writer, eh? What are your qualifications? Creative introvert with an active imagination and a flair for the dramatic who lives mostly in her head? Perfect. Wait, what’s that? You struggle with self-esteem? Stand by for crushing rejection. Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it. Plagued by jealous feelings? You should probably steer clear of social media. Hold on — you’ll need a platform, and thousands of followers. Have trouble making friends? There’s a hashtag for that.

You published a book! Great job. Try not to obsess over your reviews and sales ranks, and don’t go overboard with self-promotion — no one likes to hear about your book over and over. Make sure you attend plenty of author fairs and book signings — even though the only people who will buy your book are friends and relatives. It’s okay, JK Rowling lived inĀ  her car. Surely it can’t be that difficult to strike it rich in the publishing industry. You’ll be able to quit your job any day now and focus on your writing.

Oh yeah, writing. That thing you love to do because it keeps you sane. What are you working on these days? I hope your next book is good. No pressure. We loved the first one, so don’t disappoint your fans, okay? Writer’s block? That’s just an excuse for laziness. Didn’t you say you were a creative thinker? So go, think creatively! Come up with amazing plots and dynamic characters. There’s no room for self doubt here. No, ma’am. Lock yourself in your writing space, if you have a space with a door and a lock, or maybe just put some cardboard around you while you sit at the kitchen table and pretend you don’t have a family depending on you for survival. Bonus points if there’s a pet on your lap and/or keyboard.

Most importantly, remember: this is your hobby. You do it because it brings you joy. And when something brings you down (the pile of query rejections, yet another pass on your workshop proposals, other authors finding success where you failed) find something to bring you up. I highly recommend a praise journal, where you save positive and encouraging things other people have said about your work (emails, critiques, reviews, text messages from friends and family). Spread the joy by telling another author what you love about their work.

And visit authors when they are out trying to hock their wares. It will make them smile.

author fair

Happy to have customers at our local author fair

Poems from my past

Recently I unearthed a folder full of old poetry and other bits of brain barf with the intent of sharing it with my teen readers. Look! I wrote [bad] angsty poetry when I was your age and now I occasionally get paid to write stuff! However, while teen me felt perfectly fine sharing these poems with strangers, adult me hesitates. Some, okay most, of what I found was BAD. But I hear there’s power in vulnerability so I decided to occasionally share a few randomly selected (ha ha, right, you know I poured over this folder trying to figure out which poems sucked the least), completely unedited, poems from my past.

But first, a quick story. My freshman year in college I served on the selection committee for our school’s literary magazine. I had submitted a couple of my own poems and waited nervously for them to be read aloud and critiqued by the group. One of my poems was chosen for publication, while another got completely ripped apart. How could they do that with me sitting right there? you ask. Well, back then I used to sign my poems “VB” for Veronica Blackwood, a pen name born out of my obsession for Shirley Jackson (after the Blackwood family in We Have Always Lived in the Castle) and the fact that “Sandi” didn’t feel like a poet’s name. Being anonymous paid off… sort of. Because my real name wasn’t on the poem, it gave my group mates the freedom to expose the faults in my writing. But it also chipped away at my heart a bit. Criticism is never easy to take, but it’s even harder when it arrives entirely unfiltered.

I’m not sure the lesson I learned that day. Always use a pen name just in case people hate your work? Speak out against cruel criticism? Go home and cry into your pillow when someone hates your poetry? (Pretty sure it was option three back then.)

Or: Don’t let the haters bring you down.

One thing I’ve learned about searching through these old folders: I may have been a fledgling writer back then, but I was really prolific. There are pages and pages of poems, journal entries, and random thoughts. I wrote every day. And eventually it got me here. So maybe we need to embrace our pasts a bit more.

On that note, here’s a poem I wrote in August, 1994 while on the train to visit a friend. Unedited.


The man on the train knows of enlightenment
and he speaks to my aura with his lips pursed
and his head cocked to one side
only i can’t listen because my mind is full of clouds
so instead i peer over his shoulder — watching
his red pen run its spiritual tip across the page.

The man on the train is pacing now
he must be dizzying with higher knowledge
or perhaps light-headed from stuffing white rubber into
his ears — in attempt to drown out my
contemplative bubble gum popping.

The man on the train has reached his earth-bound
destination — he exits with a glazed smile
and a cautious step — and i am left to
listen to empty giggles and morbid thoughts
while i wait for mine.

Lessons from the Olympics

Hubs is an Olympics junkie. The past few mornings I’ve found him camped out on the couch watching curling on the Canadian network, and we’ve spent the last two nights cheering on the American snowboarders. The women’s competition was amazing to watch, and we all celebrated Chloe Kim’s incredible run. Although I couldn’t help but notice her teammate, Maddie, who gave it her all but fell on her runs and was left out of medal contention. The camera briefly followed her as she walked away, and I said to my son, “Imagine feeling so completely crushed and disappointed, and then having to face the media and maintain composure when all you want to do is cry.”

Then I started to think about all the times in my life when I’ve been disappointed, passed over, rejected– whether or not I’d faced those moments with grace and composure. Probably not. I’m a crier, and you better believe that if I had worked my butt off to get to the Olympic stage and missed the mark, I would have been a blubbery mess. These two weeks are full of excitement, of winning and medals and dreams come true. But they are also full of disappointments. We watched a replay of a Dutch speed skater who lost the gold by .003 seconds in the last Olympics. And I mentioned the gymnast whose second place off kilter smirk became a viral meme. If there is anything to be learned when in the public eye: be careful with your facial expressions. (And also your fingers. A recent google search turned up a controversy over another speed skater allegedly flipping off his opponent.)

Life is full of ups and downs. Of triumphs and disappointments. I’m from Buffalo, we know that all too well around here. Thankfully, most of us are able to express ourselves in the privacy of our own space, away from prying media eyes and flashing cell phone cameras. And I’m all for getting ragey/crying when your heart is crushed, but there is something to be said about handling it with grace. Especially when it comes to online behavior. I’ve seen posts from agents about how authors respond to rejection with hateful words and disrespect. That, my friends, will get you no where but black listed and openly mocked on Twitter. Keep a private journal instead. Or a diary on your phone where you rant about how unfair a decision feels. Whatever you do, don’t hit send.

The other thing I find remarkable about watching the Olympics is the spirit of persistence. Athletes who fall mid-run but then get up and finish it to the end. Those who have come back from injuries stronger and full of resolve. There’s an overwhelming sense of determination I think us everyday couch-surfing observers can apply to our own lives. Whatever your dream, big or small, don’t give up on it. Put the time in each and every day to make it happen, and believe that it is possible. Don’t let excuses get in your way. Failure happens. Falls happen. Disappointments happen. And I’m here to tell you: it sucks. But at least you don’t have cameras following you around and asking you how it felt to have your dreams squashed to bits.

You will succeed. Chances are it won’t be the gold medal, and maybe not at all what you expected. But success is available to everyone. And it will be all the sweeter because of what you had to do to keep getting back up over and over again.

Turn into the skid

Writing is a lot like driving in the snow.

It takes a fair amount of practice before you are able to confidently keep yourself from careening into a snowbank. You need to stay focused, proceed slowly and with caution. Be mindful of others on the road, but don’t get too close – in other words, pay more attention to your own vehicle rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing. And mostly, be prepared for the skid. That moment when you feel a loss of control, your tires are desperate for traction, and slamming on the brakes will only make it worse. When your instinct tells you to turn the wheel in the opposite direction because that will keep you on the straight and narrow.

But anyone who has ever driven in snow knows: when you start to lose control, take your foot off the gas and turn into the skid. Don’t ask me to explain the physics, just trust me on this one. I learned to drive in Buffalo. We know snow. And I’ve had my fair share of HOLY CRAP moments when the car does the opposite of what you want it to. My first vehicle was a rear-wheel drive that I nicknamed The Boat. That bad boy fishtailed like nobody’s business. And once, in my little Civic, I made a left hand turn that kept going until I faced in the complete opposite direction of where I had intended to go.

Writing has its share of skids. You’re cruising along, slowly and carefully. Then you send your story/novel/query letter to a beta reader, or if you are feeling especially brave – an agent or editor. Then feedback comes and suddenly you feel yourself careening off the road. You want to slam on the brakes. Give in and slide right off the road and into the shoulder. Or try to crank the wheel in the opposite direction, saying forget it – I’ll never make it as a writer.

Don’t. Ride the skid. Turn into it. Let yourself be out of control for a moment or two. Maybe you’ll end up in the snowbank anyway. It happens. That’s why you carry a shovel in your car, extra blankets, and a bottle of water. After the feedback, you may need to dig yourself out. That’s okay. The important thing is to get back on the road. Cry a little first. Eat some chocolate. Pet the cat. Call a friend.

You are the driver on this journey. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control what other idiots are on the road trying to keep you from getting to your destination. But you are the one behind the wheel. You know when to put your foot on the gas, when to apply the brake, and when to let go of everything and turn into the skid.