Lunch Blues and Rolls

My writer friend Margaret and I meet for lunch about every other month. Inevitably, we sit down and ask “What’s new?” and often a variation of “Not much” comes out of both of us. She writes for children and young adults; I write literary fiction; we both have various pieces in the works. If neither of us is creating anything new here, then a large chunk of the written spectrum is getting short-changed in Denver, Colorado. (One glass of water, Margaret; this lunch is gonna be short).

And yet, nature abhors a vacuum.

So my theory is that there actually isn’t a void of work on our parts. Even if we just think about writing, we’re working. Even if it takes us eight hours to produce one word, that’s enough. We joked about this the other day. Most likely that word is “Shit.”

The point is that writing is fickle stuff. And just like an iceberg, 90% of it happens below the surface, in the furthest recesses of our brains, where the inspiration receptacles live that capture the gossamer threads of new ideas…or old ideas…or solutions to the nagging problem on page 38 we haven’t been able to solve. Those receptacles are wired differently than the rest of us. Our regular neurons might be firing away, allowing us to digest food and watch TV and honk the horn at the person making an illegal turn in front of us, but the inspiration part of our brains sits down on a couch, crosses one leg over the other, folds its hands in its lap, and simply waits. And we wait along with it. Do you know how hard it is to watch waiting?

But that’s what it feels like. We wait to turn up a gossamer thread that advances us a little bit further in the story. It’s totally maddening. And totally humbling.

It’s probably not even our brains at all. Some people theorize that memory is actually contained in every cell of our bodies, so perhaps literary inspiration works that way, too. I’d like to think that Chapter Six can be found in the cells of my left elbow. If I stick it out a little as I walk, maybe I can catch a breeze and the words will float free.

The other thing is that sometimes “not much” becomes “I’m on a roll.” And those are the best kind of lunches. They are unexpected and light-filled. The hair rises up on our arms and we smile. This is when something happens called mudita—a Buddhist term (I’m told) that means “sympathetic joy” (although someone else told me that it’s also an Arab concept, so if that’s the case, respects should be paid there as well)—which is that feeling of unconditional joy in witnessing someone else do well in his or her craft / sport / calling / talent / affinity, and probably life in general. On these days, we go back to our respective desks and bask in the glow of mudita, because surely, in addition to sticking an elbow out, just sitting in close proximity to inspiration works, too.

One day, Margaret and I will sit down and ask “How’s your ninth book going?” and we’ll both say “It’s OK” with lackluster aplomb…because by then Margaret and I will have the oh-so-weary task of living up to expectations (sigh). But it will be fun, nevertheless, just to say those words. We will have befriended the enigma on the couch; we will have made peace with waiting. Until then, the best we can do is meet for lunch and strum our angst-filled chords and greet the occasional roll with a generous amount of butter and jelly.

By the way, if you’re interested in harnessing inspiration and understanding where it comes from, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and his follow-up, Turning Pro. I also rave about Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creative genius. All resonated with me deeply, and may with you as well.

It’s a Mystery

So I’ve been gone for awhile.

I will try for a graceful re-entry, but I’m not exactly sure how to do that, so bear with me.

Maybe I can start by explaining something:

I’ve had a wary relationship with this blog since I started it several years ago. It’s actually more difficult for me to seek the spotlight now than it ever was. But even as our fame-hungry culture makes me cringe, I still give in to moments of self-fascination.

Personal hang-ups and contradictions aside, writing is a lone venture, and unless you want to write only for yourself (by all means a worthy thing), you kind of need people to read your work. Hence, you experiment. You stay open to ideas. You start up a blog because someone told you to. Then you might leave it all behind for awhile until you can re-evaluate (like I did).

About three or four months ago I needed to make a decision. Do I scrap the blog and focus on just writing my books? Or do I consider the writing impulse within me as an indication that it can—indeed should—be shared in more than one way?

After two conversations—a serendipitous one with a kind stranger and an emotional one with an old friend—the answer began to materialize. Then a third conversation happened, with myself, and it went like this:

Me: “I don’t like my blog.”

Other Me: “Why?”

Me: “I didn’t write anything good. It all seemed so pointless.”

Other Me: “Are you sure about that? Go back and look.”

Me: “I really don’t like sharing myself in this way. It feels fake. There are nine million other blogs out there with people doing the same damn thing. This is all so stupid. I just want to write books.”

Other Me: “Stop distracting yourself with drivel. Did you go back and look? Go back and look.”

Me: “OK, fine. Geez.”

I did go back and look. That’s partly how I found out that I’ve changed and grown a bit. The motivations I had back then were inclined toward the superficial (how does this make me look?), but also the tentative (do I have permission to even call myself a writer?). I wasn’t convinced, but I wanted everyone else to be.

And yet, I found that I loved the girl who was writing back then. I loved her words. I loved what was making her tick. I loved what she had discovered and was eager to talk about. I loved that she took a chance despite trepidation. I loved that she set down a few rough, raw stones on the path upon which I still find myself walking.

Ultimately I decided that whatever the vehicle, whatever the outcome, I accept the gift of writing I’ve been given, and therefore I accept its challenges both to my persona and my soul.

So. How will it go from here?

If I may borrow the wise words of Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

Querying Agents II

So my goal over the next month or so is to do another big push to agents with my first novel “Skin.”  I’ve heard about a website where you can post your query, and subscribing agents will receive it and then contact you if interested – a backwards way of doing things, but apparently a way that has worked for some.  I think I’ll give this a try, in addition to the traditional query letter in the mail…or perhaps as a full-on, brazen substitute.

But in the larger sense of things, is it really all that backwards to do it this way?  We constantly put ourselves out there on MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn – all the social networking outlets where we say “This is who I am – now come to me.”  And it works.  Sometimes it works in ways we weren’t even expecting (people accidentally fall in love because of MySpace).  Not to mention my own participation in this thought process:  look at what I’m doing by having this website!

But I will say that I still approach the connected world of the internet with a grain of suspicion.  Did my electronic query even land in the inbox of Ms. Fabulous New York Agent?  Or did it stop dead in its tracks due to some unknown but sinisterly operating bug in the notification system?  Hey, I work with websites every day.  I know what happens.

Hmmm.

The Question of Graduate School

When I was accepted into the MFA program at the University of San Francisco in 2004, I was offered a merit scholarship as further evidence that I should definitely — definitely — be going to graduate school for my writing.

But then there were the kickers. 

For one, I was going to San Francisco (I don’t like San Francisco).  Two, I like the sun and wouldn’t be getting any.  Furthermore, I had to transfer my full-time job to our company’s San Francisco headquarters to make a living (my alarm was set at the cruel hour of 3 a.m. every day to get to work on the city bus system in time for market open back east).  And — in addition to moving in with two strangers and having no friends or family out there to lean on — my best distinction as a Coloradoan coming from a mile above sea level down to the cold slap of the Bay was that I could drink everyone under the table for the first two months I was there.  And I’m not even much of a drinker!

After a week-long panic attack following the realization that I had made an astonishingly bad decision, I quit the program before it even started, settled down to lick my wounds, and then — lo and behold — started to write.  And ended up writing the majority of a novel during my time there.

All my blessings to the faculty and staff of graduate-level writing programs.  Best wishes to the dedicated students who complete them and go on to produce great work.  And yes, not everyone has the same clumsy experience I did.

So the question is really less about getting an MFA in order to advance a career, but more about your intentions around your writing.  Some people need the program as a next step; others find a desk and a chair and do what needs to be done on their own time. 

I was the latter.  All I needed to do was write.

(Dedicated to my eventual SF friends, who made life during those almost-seven months sweetly bearable:  Anne, Carolina, Cheryl, Eliza, Elsie, Geoff, Ingrid and Jason.)

Querying Agents

As with every other Aspiring Author on the planet, querying literary agents is the part of the game that I haven’t figured out yet. 

Twenty-five agents later, with three bites that ultimately ended in “no,” I still have a disk full of letter versions (does the agent seem to like short and sweet or long and detailed?), a short synopsis (for the short and sweet agent), a long synopsis (for the long and detailed agent), and a descriptive paragraph to memorize in case I get a phone call, an email request, or a letter in the mail asking me for the gist of my book in five sentences or less. 

I have sat with my book editor and gone over and over my letters, looking for the misstep, the bad choice of word, or the breezy sentence that sounds like pure arrogance.  I have pored over the Writer’s Market and the many websites with agent listings looking for the secret, the Ace of Spades in the magician’s hat.

And still my book “Skin” sits in the drawer, tidy and waiting for luck to descend.

And still my editor says, “We’ll talk again when you’ve queried one hundred agents.”  And I look at that Writer’s Market, how thick it is. . .

Or course, I have entered the querying game with the requisite roll-up-your-sleeves enthusiasm of the Aspiring Author because we know that this is our work.  This is our brick-laying and our foundation-building.  We also know that we go through the motions to feel as if we’re authors, but that the moment when we truly become a published author is often attributed to some random occurrence or chance encounter — just like every other serendipitous moment in life.

So while the work is necessary, the magic is in charge.

And I’ve got seventy-five more agents to query, kids, before I can rest.