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 in  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.

INSPIRATION SOMEWHERE BETWEEN ALBANY AND NIRVANA

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.

Jumping in

I have officially reached the state of paralysis. You may have noticed there hasn’t been a blog entry since July. If you’ve seen me in person lately and asked what I’ve been working on, I weakly respond with a shoulder shrug and desperate rush to change the subject. There are a number of reasons for this. Life has a nasty tendency to get in the way of writing — family, job, house, volunteering — they all demand my time, my brain power, my creative energy. Also, guilt plays a pretty huge part of the equation. How do I strike a balance where I’m giving 100% of myself to personal responsibilities and still have something left for my creative pursuits?

Answer: I don’t. Instead of giving 100%, which is totally impossible, I give a lower percentage to each item at a decreasing rate dependent upon immediate need. Some examples: one of my co-workers recently retired at the cusp of our busiest season, which translated into extra hours at work. The kids started school, and I had to make sure they had what they needed. While I managed to keep everyone fed and in clean underwear, the layer of dirt in the house increased exponentially, and my laptop lay buried under piles of scout materials. No writing happened. For weeks.

But it’s not just that. There have been small chunks of time where I could have planted my butt in the chair and typed away at something… anything… but I didn’t. Why? you ask. I’ll tell you why. Doubt. Doubt is an ugly, ugly monster who has firmly planted himself in my brain. What if I never write anything worthwhile ever again? What if all my ideas are stupid? Does anyone really give a crap about what I have to say?

I have an amazing, supportive group of writing friends, who nod sympathetically as I describe the fears that stomp on my confidence like grapes in a barrel. They’ve all been there. They all balance life with writing, quietly shoving it into the corner when things get hectic, patiently searching for moments where they can settle into the salve that soothes us: the words falling onto the page from our fingertips, the release of ideas crowded in our brain. I need to write. When I don’t, I become this moody, unruly creature no one wants to be around.

Too many responsibilities, not enough time, pressure to perform — these are all things that can be overcome. But the longer I stand on the edge of the diving board, the harder it gets to jump. Every morning I promise to change, and every evening I go to bed without writing any words. Talk, talk, talk. No action. How do we push ourselves over the edge and into the pool?

I’ve been meaning to start a food blog, and a few weeks ago, it finally launched. It’s not much — a picture of what we ate for dinner with a short blurb about the daily challenges of being a plant eater in a house full of meat eaters. Follow along if you’d like. But it has helped get me out of my writing funk a little, and now that we are finally settling into the school year, hopefully I’ll get back into a writing routine. Which will at least address the first half of my difficulties.

As for the doubt, well, it may never fully go away. We all, at some point, feel inadequate about our skills and worry we aren’t accomplishing all we set out to accomplish. And you know what? That’s okay. We’re human. And as artists, we will never create the perfect thing everyone loves. So I guess my advice (to myself and anyone else who struggles with doubt) is this: Make time for the things that bring you happiness because they will make you a better person in the end. Focus on the process rather than the product, and stop worrying about what other people think. Easier said than done, I know, but if I can jump back into the water, so can you.

Happy birthday, Caravan of Composition!

Today has been a full day. Youngest graduated from elementary school, and both boys enjoyed the bell-ringing satisfaction indicating the start of summer break. Following the graduation ceremony/last exam, we celebrated at their favorite restaurant, then came home and brainstormed a summer chore chart and screen time limits. I shifted my focus toward Camp NaNoWriMo, which starts on Monday, and checked off a handful of items on my to-do list. I nearly let the milestone pass me by.

Caravan of Composition is officially two years old today. My blogging habits seem to go in waves, but I am pleased to say I’ve kept up with this blog and my previous one for over eleven years. That’s like a million in procrastinator years. It’s challenging sometimes to come up with things to write about as life isn’t always “blog-worthy”, and I struggle with insecurities regarding the merit of what I have to say. A good friend sent me a recent copy of Josh Radnor’s Museletter in which he mentions nearly the exact feeling. We might not always feel that what we have to say is worth saying. Are my words of value to my readers? Does what I say matter?

Let’s get one thing straight: I like to listen to myself talk. My family can attest to this. I love to tell stories, often the same ones over and over (more vigorous nods from the van clan), and the level of exaggeration often increases with each retelling. For dramatic effect, of course. A small stretching of the truth makes things more interesting. There is always a fair amount of accompanying hand gestures, because my heritage demands it and they, too, add to the drama of a good story.

Blogging is different. First of all, I can’t use my hands or facial expressions to drive a point home. Second, the delete button allows me to rethink things that may sound stupid or cause a foot in mouth moment. (I have a lot of those in real life.) But it also sometimes restricts the flow of words. I have several unpublished blog posts that sit in the drafts folder because either I got distracted by life or decided what I had to say wasn’t of any value.

We are our own worst critics, aren’t we? Some of us don’t care and live an unfiltered life – taking the good and the bad as they come. Some of us let our inner critic keep us from pursuing our dreams. Some, like me, fall in the middle. Moments of feeling brilliant coupled with moments of crippling self-doubt. And I can’t write this post telling you how to quiet your inner critic, because if I did, mine would be muzzled in the corner. But I can say this: we rarely give ourselves the credit we deserve. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small they seem.

Today, I celebrate my eleventh year of shouting into the void, and the second birthday of my current blog. I celebrate getting my kiddos through another school year. I celebrate the sun, and summer, and the start of another month of Camp NaNo.

And I celebrate you, dear reader, for allowing me to keep doing what I love.