Three storytelling take-aways from Selma

Let’s ignore the fact that I saw the movie Selma with 60 6th graders who giggled inappropriately and got up incessantly and tossed a gummy bear into my lap. Let’s just talk about the phenomenal storytelling of the movie.

Because whatever else people might be saying about it, the storytelling was amazing.

still from the movie Selma

Here are three things I’m taking away for my own writing.

1. Every single person behaved like he or she was the star of his or her own drama.

It’s common writing advice to make sure that each character thinks he or she is the star, especially villains, who shouldn’t behave as if they are in the hero’s story. But it’s hard to do. And Ava DuVernay is a master at layering points of view.

Three specifics:

I loved how President Johnson was clearly respectful of Dr. King and of his purposes, and sympathetic, but he had his own list of priorities, and, if he had his way, civil rights was not high on it. His line late in the movie (paraphrased here) rang so true to what I imagine is an issue for every president: You’ve got one huge issue, I’ve got a hundred and one. It made me imagine being the president and having all these people with one big issue coming into your office all the time and having to negotiate and juggle and placate — all day long. It made the result of his conversation with the slimy George Wallace feel like such a hard-fought personal victory, and not just a victory for the movement and for the nation.

And it wasn’t like life within the Civil Rights movement was less complicated. There were so many layers of conflict in every interaction between “the adults” of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and “the kids” of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and between the two leaders of “the kids.” I confess that I fell a little in love with John Lewis as he was portrayed. SNCC was unhappy that, after two years of living among and working with the people of Selma, the SCLC was going to waltz in and take over and then leave all the people hanging when they decamped. King has a great little speech about how what SCLC does is very specific, and while it builds on SNCC’s work, it isn’t meant to be the same. The two leaders of SNCC, John Lewis and James Forman, argue repeatedly throughout the movie about tactics, about how they should involved themselves in the SCLC purpose, about John’s hero-worship of MLK. It costs Lewis his position with SNCC, and he gets brutally beaten by the state police, but he does get to deliver MLK’s own words back to him when he needs encouragement.

Even Coretta Scott King gets her own point of view. We see her struggle with being married to someone who’s gone so much. There’s a telling little moment when King takes the garbage out and doesn’t know where the roll of replacement garbage bags are kept. Scott King hands him the roll with only a little smirk. It was so subtle; it happens in the midst of a conversation. But it was a deep moment of showing that showed her isolation. We see her get nasty phone calls, at least some of which would’ve been planted by Hoover’s FBI in an attempt to weaken their marriage and thereby discredit King. We see a number of conversations between them, both tender and tough. She was her own person with her own take, and I was glad for it.

2. Showing vs. Telling.

This is an oft-repeated nugget of writing advice: don’t just tell the reader your character is happy/sad/frustrated/angry/etc. Show the reader.

This movie masters showing. I already mentioned one moment: the not knowing where the garbage bags are. Later, a ways into the movie, one of the SCLC leaders jokes about the jail cell being bugged, and other characters talk about their phones being bugged. But the audience knew that long before the character says it, because DuVernay superimposes lines from logged FBI reports that demonstrate how closely the FBI kept tabs on King — down to logging the fact that he’d called Mahalia Jackson late at night so she could sing “Precious Lord” to him to encourage him. The result is haunting and heavy for the viewer, much more so than merely hearing the characters talk about it would be.

3. Portrait of a Leader

This one will help my characterization of David as reluctant rebel on the run and then as king: the leader is almost never alone, and when he does manage to steal away, his thoughts are not pleasant (I use “he” because both King and David were male, not because I think all leaders must be male). While the movie isn’t about King, he’s often the focus. And he’s almost always in a group, if not a crowd, either of supporters or of opponents. The few times he’s alone, his thoughts are heavy. He thinks of the cost of his work, both in terms of his marriage and family life, and in terms of those who have lost their lives and those who will, because of what he’s leading them to do. He knows how difficult things are and also how much more difficult they will likely become.

I have to remember to portray the weight of being a leader — trying to escape it, to share it, to grapple with it, to express it, and trying not to give in to it.

Can you tell that I really loved this movie? I hope so.

If you’ve seen Selma, what did you think?

 

Drilling down to the 3rd thing

Last week I complained that I couldn’t go to a writer’s conference I really wanted to go to. And then my husband insisted that I go. So I went. This is my attempt to articulate how monumental a gift the Writer Unboxed UnConference was.

The Don, Donald Maass, would not let us take the easy way. He insisted, over and over, that we not use the first metaphor, the first emotion. He would say, “Write down the dominant emotion your character is feeling in a particular moment. Now write down another feeling. And now another. Use this third thing.”

So I’m going to apply this technique to what was, without exaggerating, one of the best weeks of my life.

Yes, it was like summer camp, with its intense emotional connections, its sessions, its bonfires (aka Bedtime Stories). But without the mean girls, the peer pressure (although I *did* have my once-in-a-decade after-dinner cigarette), or the inflexibility of scheduling (nobody got in trouble for skipping a session).

Was it a mountain top experience? That gets at the transcendent feel of the week, but we spent time in the valley, too, grieving for writer friends who’d died and getting real about the struggles of being a writer.

It was a quest.

A heroic one, even.

It was not a quest to be published, or to find the right agent, or meet the right editor, or to practice our elevator pitch, or to learn about marketing and social media (although those were active concerns for many).

There was one overarching purpose: to learn how to become the best damn storytellers we can be. So even the well-published authors leaned towards the same goal as the unpublished. For this week, we were all learners and supporters of other learners. We focused on our path as writers. The presenters came to Bedtime Stories (when anyone could read from their work). They went to sessions. They didn’t stick to their own vaulted company, but sat at the bar with anyone, played poker with anyone who wanted to sit at the table. The published went to lunch with the unpublished and were genuinely interested in what the unpublished were writing — I know this because they asked follow-up questions and made comments that showed that they had listened to the answers. I’ve been to enough writer’s conferences to know that this was truly an UnConference.

There were trials, of course.

There were 5 sessions slots every day from Tuesday through Thursday (from 9 a.m. – 10ish p.m.), with 30 possible sessions (oh, the choices we were forced to make!) with one long workshop all day Friday. I took 51 pages of notes. And I have teeny writing.

21st Century Fiction epiphanies

Every day, I learned at least a dozen things to apply to my works in progress or to my life. I pretended to be one of my characters while I chatted with other writers who were pretending to be one of their characters, and I had to order garlicky hummus because that’s the only menu item my character would be comfortable with (and then I had garlic breath all day). This method acting/eating/writing session gave me some insights into my character that I would never have gotten otherwise. I thought about beginnings and middles and character arcs and secondary characters and emotional impact and throughness and metaphor and woundedness and voice and a thousand other things, getting all wound up. And then a session reminded me to set appropriate goals, to reframe, to tell myself useful fictions, to not externalize my validation, and to practice patience and impatience simultaneously. And to “write fucking more.” I needed all of it.

Right before lunch on Friday, I was on the verge of tears, just because I was so exhausted. But then The Don asked a question about me and what I learned at the conference that launched something in my brain and one of my works in progress became clear to me in a way that would never otherwise had happened. It will be a deeper and tighter book because of that one moment of almost losing it.

 And then there’s the making of a symbol.

Since entering the chaos of parenting, I’ve become a very neat person (clean is another story). After being perfectly happy to live in a tornado of books and clothes spread so thickly on my teenage bedroom floor that mice would take up residence every autumn, I now need a peaceful environment — my home must combat the tumult of my life. Even my kitchen cabinets are visions of order. Like is always with like, lined up or stacked in the same positions. Heck, I even arrange the plastic kid snack plates into rainbow color order. As a result, I do not like one-offs in the kitchen. They mess up the organization and the visual calm. I do not like dishes with logos and words. If I receive one as a gift, it goes to Goodwill pretty quickly.

But the first morning I was in my own home since the conference, I cradled in my palms the generous curves of my one-off mug with the conference logo, and cried.

Cried, not because I was happy, or missing people, or tired (although I was all those things), but because I was full. Am full.

Because I loved the people, because I liked how I was while I was with them, because my brain was a puddle on the floor from all the work it was doing, because we listened to each other’s stories (both the fictional and the personal), because we grieved and we laughed, because we quested together — because of all these things, this one-off logo mug is now a symbol of all the deep and silly things that happened. I will use it every day and it will be full of glorious meaning.

On opening the clenched fist

You know how you can take months (even years) to struggle through an issue, unable to move on or let go or make a decision or whatever the problem is, and then in one moment, the angst is sloughed away? I had that experience recently.

A friend was giving the children’s message at church to illustrate  Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man who wanted to know whether he was doing all he could to get into the kingdom. Jesus loves him — this is an important part of the verse, I think, and one we don’t often focus on, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus loves him and, in a glance, knows him, and knows that he has a problem with the love of money of which he needs to let go.

The children’s message involved a raccoon and a jar.

my great-grandmother's jar

He explained that raccoons love shiny things, and if they spy a shiny object at the bottom of a jar, they’ll stick their paw in and grab it.

sticking my hand in the jar

But then, sometimes, the neck of the jar will be too small and they can’t get their clenched fist out. They don’t want to give up the shiny item, so they don’t unclench their fist — and they’re stuck. All they have to do is let go of the shiny item, and they’re free.

I can't get my hand out!

But they don’t.

This was me. I mean, the photo is of my hand and my jar, but also, in broader areas of my life, I was clenching something tight in my fist and I wouldn’t let go. I was good and stuck. The thing I was holding: the desire to place my novelization of the story of David and Saul with a conventional publisher. Or with an agent who would then find said publisher.

Some of this desire was practical. It’s a novel for young adults, and (as of this writing) they read paper books more than e-books. In addition, being traditionally published can put you in libraries (both school and public), which are a major discovery tool for kids. Besides, lurking around inside me, still, is the girl who wants the gold star: “I’ve done something good — now acknowledge me!” Traditional publication would be a great big gold star.

And then it didn’t happen.

At first, I looked deeper into the story (after whining for a bit), and discovered some holes that needed filling. So I filled them. Still…crickets. While I’m the good student who wants the gold star, I’m also the daughter of an entrepreneur and do-it-yourselfer (long before that term even existed). I read James Altucher‘s blog, who’s such a believer in the idea that he titled a book, Choose Yourself. I’ve been following news about self-publishing for years.

I wasn’t ready. I put off every decision deadline I gave myself, still holding out for that one more chance. Stuck. Unable to get any traction on revising the next book in my stuckness.

Until that children’s message.

I opened my clenched fist and decided to self-publish. Like so many big decisions, there were no fireworks or giant resolutions. Just a quiet, calm, “yes.” Since then, I found an editor who doesn’t know me and sent her the manuscript; as an editor, myself, I know the value of an outside eye. I’ll start talking to cover designers soon (one lives a block away from me). A Calvin Seminary Old Testament professor recently joined my church, so I’ll ask her to look it over (for an honorarium, of course) to make sure I haven’t gotten any of the cultural stuff wrong. I’ve booked a room in Alexandria, VA for 6 days while my daughter is at a youth conference there, to take a writer’s retreat and get cracking on Book 2 — the best advertisement for your first e-book is your second e-book, so I’d like it to come out about 3 months after the first one. That’s my list so far.

Even my fortune cookie agrees. Here’s this evening’s widsom: You create your own stage and your audience is waiting!

Do you have any advice for me? Any areas you’ve come unstuck from recently? Any areas in which you’re stuck?

Sometimes Fields Need To Be Fallow

image courtesy of Darryl Smith via rgbstock.com

 

I messed up.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been “writing” (in my head) a post on being fallow. Because that’s how I’ve been feeling: like a field with tapped-out soil that’s being rested in order to be more productive later.

You see, I did what I said I’d do a few months ago and sought help for my depression. It has been a beautiful, beautiful thing. I’m sleeping (mostly). I’m not having random anxiety attacks. I’m present for my family. I haven’t visited TMZ.com even once. I have enough energy to make my kids do their chores.

But no writing. My drive and discipline seemed to vanish with my desperation.

I wasn’t stuck, just … still. Which made sense. I’d twisted myself into such a tight, unyielding corkscrew of disappointment and frustration over my writing that there wasn’t going to be a SHAZZAM when all was made okay in an instant. It would take time. And I’d have to decide — over and over — not to follow the comfy brain paths I’d worn in during my depressed period. I’d have to choose to put good nutrients back in my tired soil.

So I started reading again: romance, history, mystery, speculative fiction, science, memoir. While I painted and redid my kids’ rooms, I listened to audiobooks of two Harry Potter and three Rick Riordan novels.

I let myself be fallow, and didn’t pressure myself to write much more than Facebook posts and Goodreads reviews (including for The Good News of Revelation, a longer and more reflective review of which will be forthcoming in this space).

And I took some risks. The Japanese student who lived with us for 9 days was a good risk. Joining the adult “beginner” soccer league (that was not so beginner) was less so. Then there was signing up for the Festival of Faith and Writing.

Which was where I messed up.

Does anyone out there remember phones with cords? Do you remember winding the cord around itself until the only remedy was to unplug the knotted cord from the body of the phone and hold it so the receiver dangled? And when you did that, it’d slowly untwist at first, but then it’d get faster and faster? (If this is not in your memory banks, visualize a figure skater doing a tight spin that speeds up until he or she is just a blur.) Well, if all my earlier soil restoration strategies were the slow untangling of the cord of my frustration (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), then the Festival was a giant pile of soil conditioner followed by a glorious rain that spun my phone receiver around like crazy. So that I no longer feel fallow.

I’d been so wanting to write a non-triumphalist narrative, to write about being fallow while in the midst of it. But, being fallow, I waited too long. And seeds were sown and fertilized this past weekend. Good seeds. Good fertilizer.

Because it’s how God rolls, this even fits with my theme for the year — softheartedness. The phrase that the New Living Translation renders as “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts,” appears as “Break up your fallow ground” in the New Revised Standard Version (Jeremiah 4:3).

That isn’t to say that I’ve already got a healthy crop growing. It’s not like I’ve forsaken online Boggle, or severely limited my time on Facebook, or even reduced the number of blogs I read (if anything, after the Festival, I have more). But I’ve written this, and actually have ideas and plans for more. I’m moving forward with submitting It Is You and revising its sequel again.

Resistance is already dialing up to meet my challenge. After months of waking up at 5:30 a.m., last night I decided to take inspiration from Anne Lamott and do some writing before the craziness of the day started. Resistance got me up at least 8 times over the course of the night so I’d be too tired and already too harried to write. Did it work? No. But I’ve got to give props to a good attempt. Now I have to keep at it until I wear new habit grooves in my brain.

Although I’m sorry I didn’t get you my in-the-midst post, I’m grateful for my four fallow months and for the Festival of Faith and Writing. I needed them both.

How is your field? Fallow? Fertilized? Highly productive?

an odd both/and: gratitude/grief

It started Thanksgiving 2012. My parents-in-law’s best friend was dying; he died, too soon, shortly thereafter. My father was diagnosed with cancer on my birthday. My daughter had a mysterious hand infection that puffed her hand way out no matter what medication we gave her, and we wound up in the E.R. for overnight antibiotics, while one of my dear friends was in the hospital next door struggling for breath. She died a month later, way, way, way too soon. And that was only early January.

There were 3 more E.R. visits for my daughter. Two back surgeries and resulting recovery times before my father could get treatment for his cancer. Both are doing well now, but there was persistent worry in a corner of my mind all year.

There was complete lack of movement in getting my David and Saul novel closer to being published: no requests for a full manuscript from any agent I queried. None. No professional interest in the picture book project I’m working on with a friend. I was turned down for a job I would’ve been really good at. I didn’t get enough volunteers for a church thing, so had to scrap some plans that would’ve been good for the kids. I’ve never been rejected so many times for so many things in my life.

My children each had struggles where they haven’t before, some of which are ongoing. My husband’s heavy work schedule continues to wear us down. I’ve read maybe half the number of books I normally do; after my friend died, I just didn’t have the urge. Insomnia. Anxiety. As the year went on, my hermit tendencies have become even more entrenched.

But this has also been a great year.

When you’ve cried with people, and you’ve shared grief, you’re closer to them, so I’m closer to a lot more people than I was a year ago, even some I’ve known for a long time. We made some real friends at the new church. I’ve given some good encouragement to dear friends. I got through the Old Testament in my devotional reading (finally!) and done some good struggling with and resting in God’s promises. My faith is deeper than it was a year ago.

My children have had also triumphed, and I’ve gotten to stand up and cheer for them. My husband is doing really good work, both for pay and for fun — and he’s writing songs again! I’m taking a dance class again. A class for which I will get to perform in a recital (a phrase that makes me giggle).

The fine folks at One Faith Many Faces gave me paid work and thought enough of my writing here to want to rerun it on their site. I went to a small writer’s retreat, where I met some fine writers, reconnected with an old friend, and got some much-needed encouragement. There has been some other paid work, some guest posts on other blogs (on prayer and dance), and some wonderful conversations here. I am grateful for every person who’s read my writing — that means you. Thank you.

I’m grateful, but also deeply frustrated and sad, often about the same things. So I wrote something about Thanksgiving for my friends at One Faith Many Faces (they’re the ones who gave the post it’s awesome title) that I needed to hear — something all of us who are feeling both gratitude and grief this year.

Some years, you’re so full of gratitude that it seeps out of your pores and suffuses everything you do.

Other years, the idea of spouting words of gratitude seems so wrong as to almost feel offensive.

Sometimes, those are the same year.

A tough year can bring out your gratitude to God for being with you through it all – but lurking behind every item of thanksgiving is a great big but. The Psalmist knows what that’s like:

Please continue here to read the rest of Thanksgiving is a great big but.

 

 

On Writing My Prayers

I’m thrilled to be doing my first guest post today, for my Renew and Refine Retreat for Writers friend, Emily Miller, over at emmillerwrites.com. I’m talking about the one spiritual practice I’ve managed to be consistent about: writing out my prayers. Regular readers of mine, I invite you to start here and click through to the rest of the post at Emily’s site. Readers who’ve come here from Emily’s site, I invite you to read this post (When Fear and Avoidance Mean You’re On the Right Track) with more details about how praying for compassion for my husband affected our marriage.

Whoever you are and however you got here — thank you for reading.

 

Thank you, Emily, not only for inviting me to talk about writing my prayers, but also for calling the series Spiritual Practices and not Spiritual Disciplines. I like the attitude of practice. As a spiritual director friend of mine likes to say, “That’s why we call them practices, because we’re not very good at them yet.”
I’m really not very good at being disciplined.

Ten or so years ago, I prayed through the Psalms. And then several years later, when God let me know I was acting like a child, he led me to read through the Jesus Storybook Bible. Both inspired sweet and holy times of prayer and reflection, but when each was finished, that was it; they were projects, not practices.

I’ve decided numerous times to pray every night before bed, but either the prayer would get me so charged up that I’d lose sleep or I’d fall asleep and lose prayer. Or my mind would follow one loosely connected path to another until I was in an imaginary interview with Terry Gross about the fabulous book I’d written, and prayer time lost to my daydreams of personal glory.

Determination to pray first thing in the morning was no better. It either cured the insomnia that woke me long before the alarm, or, if I managed to follow through, the children would get up earlier than I expected, and the amount of discipline it took not to snarl at them would sap my ability to stick with the prayer.

I prayed often, particularly when driving or doing laundry or awake in the middle of the night. But I resisted all attempts to be disciplined or intentional about my spiritual practices.

And then, in December 2010, a pastor friend suggested that I write my prayers down. You know, because I’m a writer. So maybe writing was meaningful to me and helped me process my world. D’oh.     keep reading

 

What Is And Is Not A Tool

Does this happen to you? You’re going along, just living your life, and then, BLAM, a cluster of seemingly unrelated things come to your attention that each address something you really need to hear. I call that God, others might call it the universe, or synchronicity, or coincidence. Whatever you call it, it just happened to me in less than 24 hours.

1. The Artist’s Way by Julia Campbell: Week 6, Recovering a Sense of Abundance

“All too often, we become blocked and blame it on our lack of money. This is never an authentic block. The actual block is our feeling of constriction, our sense of powerlessness. Art requires us to empower ourselves with choice.”

2. Seth Godin’s blog: Thinking About Money

“If money is an emotional issue for you, you’ve just put your finger on a big part of the problem. No one who is good at building houses has an emotional problem with hammers. Place your emotional problems where they belong, and focus on seeing money as a tool.”

3. Brain Pickings: How to Worry Less About Money, about a book by John Armstrong:

“The crucial developmental step in the economic lives of individuals and societies is their ability to cross from the pursuit of middle-order goods to higher-order goods. Sometimes we need to lessen our attachment to the middle needs like status and glamor in order to concentrate on higher things. This doesn’t take more money; it takes more independence of mind.”

4. Brain Pickings again, an article about Milton Glaser (graphic artist):

“Do you perceive you live your life through love or fear? They are very different manifestations. My favorite quote is by the English novelist Iris Murdoch. She said, ‘Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.’ I like the idea that all that love is, is acknowledging another’s reality.

Acknowledging that the world exists, and that you are not the only participant in it, is a profound step. The impulse towards narcissism or self-interest is so profound, particularly when you have a worry of injury or fear. It’s very hard to move beyond the idea that there is not enough to go around, to move beyond that sense of “I better get mine before anybody else takes it away from me.”

5. Writer Unboxed post by Jeanne Kisacky: What Not to Think About When You’re Writing, in particular the advice not to “indulge in endless fantasies” about how a piece of writing is going to change your way of life:

“A good story is like a dream brought into momentary focus. It is ephemeral, fleeting, perhaps even surreal, but whole and perfect unto itself. During its crystallization (the process of writing) prosaic thoughts that take the writer outside of that coherent whole turn the writing from a story into a tool. This makes the work simply a step towards something mundane (a better life for the author) not an otherworldly destination of its own (a shining jewel of believable characters, delightful interactions, and gripping tensions).”

6. Sermon on how we often come to God with a list of things we’d like him to make happen for us, and, in return, we will praise him, thereby making God a tool for making our dreams come true.

Some themes I pull out of these quotes:

  • making the wrong things into tools
  • making tools into things to get emotionally twisted about
  • living out of fear rather than love

The idea from the sermon that stuck with me was, “A tool is at its best when it’s being used for what it was designed for”;  God is not the tool, I am the tool, designed for love and worship and service. A story is not a tool to make my fabulous life happen; I am the tool for bringing a transportive story into the world.

Money is not a tool for happiness, but it is a tool for food, clothes, housing, transportation, entertainment, doing good (aka, giving), but also for facilitating creative expression, even mine; I need to stop feeling guilty when I spend money on my creative expression and stop finding excuses not to spend on my creative expression.

Twitter and blogs are tools for exploration and connection. Are they also marketing/networking tools that will be important to my writing career? Yes. But I need to stop getting myself emotionally twisted up and discouraged because they are netting me limited marketing/networking opportunities (not to mention the puniness of my numbers) now. I need to stop projecting the scarcity of now into the future, because that makes me anxious and doesn’t help me use Twitter and my blog for their proper uses. I have enough Twitter followers and blog readers for now, and there are enough in the world that there will be more in the future (aka the time in which I will actually have something to trumpet via marketing and networking). In fact, using Twitter and my blog as tools for exploration and connection will be the thing that will get my numbers higher and make future networking/marketing possible.

But the thing all of those articles above spoke to me most about wasn’t writing, storytelling, publishing, money, or God. It was dance.

I want to dance on stage again, in a group, doing choreography that is not my own. I want to be in class again. Which costs money, and means that I will have a schedule that other family members will have to work around. I’ve been making every excuse for why it wouldn’t work for years. But I can’t do that much longer. I’ve still got a reasonable amount of flexibility and strength, so I think now might be the time. This might be the year it will not denied. That I will not deny myself.

Gratitude and Momentum

These are my two guiding principle words for 2013, for writing, for life, for anything I can think of to apply it to.

Gratitude for what I have

It’s been many years since a friend asked the question, “What seeds are you planting in your life?” and I stopped holding onto catalogues and reading them over and over, daydreaming about what I’d love to buy, thereby planting seeds of dissatisfaction with what I did have. And I’ve kept that one up. If a company is so foolish as to send me a catalog, I might flip through it once before sending it immediately to the recycling bin. That one simple habit made a huge difference in my satisfaction in my home.

All is not rosy, of course. There are areas that drive me nuts. For example, I’ve let my organization go to pieces, and the stress that induces is getting in the way of my creativity, so I’m taking time this month to get my house in order. There is a chair that bugs me and I have dropped the daydream that I will reupholster it. It’s a lovely dream, but if I attempted it, I’d come close, but it would never make me happy. So I’m trolling sales. Also, I hate my cool, modern living room rug that sheds worse than an animal without giving me the affection a pet would. I’ve given it a year and no change; the rug’s days are numbered. I’m grateful for what I have and prepared to take action on what needs it.

So now I have to continue to apply this method to my writing life/publishing journey. I’ve been carping on about this for a few months, but I think that means I’m at the tail end of my transition: the daydreaming about my fabulous success, while fun, made it more difficult to handle my lack of actual publishing success. That disconnect planted giant seeds of discontent.

Think of the body language of discontent: shoulders hunched, brow furrowed, eyes downcast. Then think of the body language of gratitude: arms open wide, or embracing something/one, face open, lips smiling. I’ll choose number two.

I have time, a supportive family, talent, drive, discipline, inspiration, resources for further education, finished and drafted manuscripts, ideas. Because I’m a religious lady, this all comes back to God and what he has given me and made possible for me. I vow to be grateful for all of it — even while working every angle I can to make my work better and stronger.

I was in just such a state of gratitude when I was writing the first draft of It Is You and it was glorious. I’ve always love big-hearted fiction, and I don’t think I can write it if I’m suffused with bitterness. So I’m going to focus on gratitude. It’ll be a discipline, for sure. But it’s got to be more fruitful than the discontent was.

 

Momentum

According to a variety of sources, Jerry Seinfeld writes every day. He credits his calendar. Any day he works on his material, he marks off that day with a big X. His goal is to keep the streak of X’s going. In fact, the visual of the line of X’s is itself motivation for him sometimes — seeing that and knowing that he might break the line gets his butt in the chair.

If it’s good enough for Jerry Seinfeld, then it’s good enough for me. It’s simple. It’s achievable. Especially if I make it any writing-related activity: novel, blog post, potential article. Writing my prayers don’t count for this, but I can use the momentum idea for that, too: any day I do my Bible reading and prayer thing, I get to X off a day on the calendar. So today, while I’m out buying a few organizational products, I’m going to get a little desk calendar to track this momentum project.

Dat’s it

Our landlady in Astoria, Queens, was a widow who still hung on to her Greek accent. She’d end most conversations by brushing her palms together twice as if washing her hands of something, and say, “Dat’s it.” I’m going to wash my hands of bitterness and stuckness. Gratitude and momentum: that’s it. I can do that.

How about you? Do you have a word or idea you’re focusing on for 2013? Or are you more of a concrete resolution person?

 

 

High Hopes, Low Expectations

Parenting Edition

Those couple of years when my kids were 3 & 1 and 4 & 2, my biggest parenting epiphany was this: have no or low expectations for how the day would go. When I had no expectations — i.e. we could go to the grocery store or not, go to the park or not, the children would play nicely on their own while I got things done or the things weren’t that necessary so I could drop them if need be — the day went well and we were all happy but tired at the end. I had hope that things could get done and small people would nap when I wanted them to, but low expectations of it actually happening.

This mostly had to do with time pressure: if I let go of the idea that certain things had to happen at certain times, and let the day flow, everything went smoother. But it also had to do with the level of the hopes: the more time I spent daydreaming about how well a certain thing was going to go, the more out of control I’d feel when it didn’t go as I’d imagined. And then that out-of-control feeling would compound itself into a really bad day.

I was mostly unsuccessful at this, but it was my goal.

Publishing Edition

But this post isn’t about parenting; it’s about publishing. Every time I send out a query to a new potential agent, I play the same game of high hopes but low expectations.

I love to imagine the agent requesting a full manuscript and loving it and offering representation and they’re the right agent and we do some revisions (because I’m not crazy enough to think the manuscript is perfect) and the agent sends it to the right publisher who buys it and everything goes awesomely and the book finds lots and lots of readers and I’m able to sell my subsequent books and even get interviewed on Fresh Air or any other NPR show that will have me. I even imagine hostile interviews with people who might be upset that I’m making stuff up about biblical characters. Seriously, this is what I do while I’m driving. And I do a fair bit of driving.

At the same time, I’m a realist. I send each packet off, either by snail- or email, knowing it will most likely garner me another rejection. High hopes, low expectations.

There is no external time pressure: the world doesn’t (yet) know it’s clamoring for my stories. But I create the pressure, the wanting it to happen now. Which sucks. Especially the more I let my imagination go on the “high hopes” side.

High Hopes = Vainglory?

At Breathe, the Christian writer’s conference I attended a couple of weeks ago, the final speaker, Sharon Brown, talked about sins that can be traps for writers. One of them was vainglory, which she defined as the “need to maintain an image with a high approval rating … compulsively desiring recognition.” This is different from pride. Pride is being all impressed with yourself because of what you have done. Vainglory is the need for others to be impressed with you.

It’s particularly brutal for the unpublished writer, because you can know that you’ve written a good and satisfying story, but if you want to publish traditionally, you need that approval of others — agents, publishers, reviewers, readers. Even if you self-publish, you need readers to approve enough to buy your book, and your next one, etc.

These needs and compulsive desires supplant the sense of self we are to receive from God. We’re ambitious for our own glory, not for God’s. Which is where I’m all tangled up, because the David and Saul novel is telling a story from the Bible, it was written with loads of prayer, and I’d love for it to drive people back to the original stories. But I need that external approval to make it happen on the scale I think it could happen.

Oh. Did you catch that? I’m making my own problem again. Not only do I want it to happen SOON, I want it to happen BIG. I can almost taste how big it could get.

Hello, vainglory. I am Natalie.

The antidote?

A friend who is a poet has an admirable goal in the next year: she wants to get 100 rejections. Because putting her work out there often enough to collect that many “no’s” means that she’s working every angle she can, and not letting herself get stuck when all those no’s come, which makes it more likely that some yeses will come her way.

I’ve gotten fewer than a dozen rejections in six months on It Is You. I’m not putting it out there enough.

Is repeated rejection the antidote for vainglory? I don’t think so. I think it can make the need for that approval more desperate: the longer it takes, the worse it gets. Somehow, I need to move from high hopes, low expectations, to some hopes, low expectations.

Because the thing about vainglory is that it’s feeding my Resistance to working on the next book. After all, how can I work on the next thing if I don’t know the status of the first thing? And all that picturing my future glory supplants the imagining I used to do about my works in progress.

So what can I do about it, other than pinching myself when I go into that vainglorious daydream place?

1. In November, instead of doing the normal NaNoWriMo novel, I’m going to write 15 pieces of short biblical fiction and post them here. I’m going to take a scene, a moment from the Bible and imaginatively retell it. That should keep my brain way too busy to have time for vainglory. (Also, I’m looking for suggestions — let me know if there’s a story you want me to delve into.)

2. Try the prayer Sharon Brown recommended: “Deliver me from the impulse to impress and make me ambitious for Your glory.”

Amen. May it be so.

 

Rubber, Meet Road

Today, I did something I’ve never done before: I gave my writing to a kid to read. Not just a kid, but one of my own kids and a bunch of others, all of whom I know. These are some opinionated kids who read a lot, so I’m thinking that they won’t be shy about telling me they were bored (fingers crossed that they won’t be).

Now is when I discover whether what I’ve worked on so hard for the last 14 months does what I set out to do: novelize the story of David and Saul so a kid can experience it with a level of excitement that approaches Percy Jackson or Harry Potter. Note that I said “approaches.” I may be confident in my writing, but I’m not delusional.

This is where the rubber meets the road, the s#*! hits the fan, and any other cliche you can think of. I’ll put my plastic shield up and wait for their responses.