At the recent Women Writing the West Conference in Albuquerque, writer and poet Laurie Jameson, and our literary agent and dear friend, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli, presented a session titled, “Will This Book EVER be Published? What To Do in the Meantime.” This is the first time we’ve presented these ideas – new work for a not-at-all new experience.
Throughout the literature about writing and authors, stories abound of writers experiences with rejection. Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time and a library-full of other books, wrote in A Circle of Quiet about receiving yet another rejection on her 40th birthday, “This seemed an obvious sign from heaven. I should stop trying to write…So the rejection on my fortieth birthday seemed an unmistakeable command: Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie. I covered the typewriter in a great renunciation. Then I walked around and around the room, bawling my head off. I was totally, unutterably miserable. Suddenly I stopped, because I realized what my subconscious mind was busy doing while I was sobbing: my subconscious mind was busy working out a novel about failure. I uncovered the typewriter. In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that’s what it was. I had to write.”
And this is what it comes down to – “I have to write.” This is why we write. Give up writing? It would be like giving up breathing.
Laurie, Liz, and I have years of experience with multiple versions of, “Will this book ever be published?” Here are some experiences and understanding we’ve discovered essential along the way.
“You need to decide what kind of writer you want to be—a best-selling writer or a fine writer,” Laurie began. “Those two things aren’t necessarily the same thing. Sometimes they are, but not always. Which writing path is more important to you? That decision will impact your writing life. I knew early on that I wanted to be a fine writer, a literary writer. Chasing the bestseller market was not something in which I was interested. My books have won many awards and that literary recognition is what is important to me.”
“At some point, your book is no longer belongs to you. The characters in your novels, or the narrative voice is your poem, or the flow of the memories in creative non-fiction begin to take on lives of their own. If you try to hold them back, or rein them in, or control them in some way to make them what you thought they were supposed to do, the story will never become what it’s intended to be. Trust the story to be its own true self.”
Then, I dove in with some of the rhythms that have sustained me in my own writing life. Appropriately, I sketched out the first draft of this presentation while sitting in my car for an hour during my son’s soccer practice, waiting for him to finish. In my own writing journey, I’ve learned to use unromantic bits of open time to stitch together a body of written work. People envision writers with huge swaths of time to write. There are writers like this. Someday, actually, I hope to be one. My own experience, though, and that of many writers I know, is that one must write in the tiny bits of time that open throughout busy days full of family and work demands.
Friends with Covers Those books you reach for again and again to inspire, soothe, comfort, strengthen, and let one know that you are not alone. This is a small stack of some of my favorite friends with covers here. Many of the bindings are held together with tape. I’ve read them so often, they are literally falling apart. I’ve read them in the tub and they’ve been water soaked, shoved them in my backpack to travel with me, and they all live on the shelf above my writing desk where I can reach for them at any moment. I have two copies of “High Tide in Tucson,” because one apparently isn’t enough.
Community—Personal Writers crave time alone. Our creative work depends on this. Because of this, combined with the very busy commitments of family and work, I’ve learned to be extraordinarily intentional about how and with whom I spend time and energy. So much of our lives we have no choice about how we spend our time. I teach college full-time, attend every sport and school event for our three teenagers that I can, try to be a present mom, wife, daughter, and friend, and there is that grocery shopping and cleaning that somehow never seem to end… I don’t have enough time in my life to spend with those I really love and doing what I really love. So, when I do have a choice, I’m either writing or with the nest.
Professional Staying connected with professional communities informs, enlightens, teaches, and keeps us aware of what we need to be aware of in our careers. Plus, they’re usually a time of friendship, laughter, and new understandings. Whether it’s conferences or professional journals, these communities help keep our work vital, relevant, and reaching people. My own professional communities include writing, languages, and education, as do the journals and magazines I receive, and these continually inform and expand my own ideas and work.
Plan This has been a life- and soul-saver for me. Every morning, before my family awakes, I get up with my journal and write alone. The coffee is ground and ready to go, so all I have to do is push the button in the morning. Red chile lights hang around the kitchen and living room windows, so I don’t have to turn on any lights. Often what this time turns into is my own planning for what’s next in my writing. Along with whatever may be happening in my or my family’s lives, my journals are full of the initial clusters for essays and books and lists and lists I need to do for the next project. This has been particularly effective the morning after receiving a rejection or on those days that the weight of life has me pinned to the bed. Somehow starting with the next small thing to create what I hope to bring into my life seems to lighten the load. Without this time, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to find the bread crumbs along my writing path.
Let Go of Preconceived Ideas About the Writing Life Once upon a time, there was a young mom who started writing when her youngest child was 6 months old. In this fairy tale, the woman was sure that within a few short years, she would have open swaths of time to dedicate to yet another of her many published books. BAH! Why do think I love the story of Madeleine L’Engle’s experience 40th birthday? These cherubic little tykes to the right are now teenagers. Two of them tower above me. What I’ve learned to to let go of any preconceived ideas I had about the writing journey. Forget it. Heartbreak happens. Beauty happens. Just write. Live it all and just write.
Beauty Bring beauty into your life wherever and whenever possible. Whatever makes you happy. Whether it’s jellybeans or wildflowers. Sunsets or science fiction or painting your toes. Rivers or trees. Beauty ultimately sustains us and enriches our work and spirits.
Laying Fallow Sometimes, work needs to lay fallow for a while.Writing pieces have their own seasons. I used to fight this and feel guilty about it. Through the years, I’ve experienced the pieces that lay fallow on my shelves needed to do just that to become the pieces they were meant to be.
Trust in the Process Oh, this is my very LEAST favorite thing I’ve learned through the years, even though I’ve learned it again and again and again. I still fight and grouse about this one. And yet, it’s true. As Isabel Allende says, “You write a book and it’s like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it in the ocean. You don’t know if it will ever reach any shores. And there, you see, sometimes it falls in the hands of the right person.” My novel Meadowlark has been six years in the writing and editing. It’s been sent out all over to publishers and still has yet to find a home. This summer, thanks to Laurie’s developmental and fine-tooth comb editing suggestions, I feel Meadowlark is at last ready to come out into the world. Much as I’d hoped, the story wasn’t ready before. It has taken until now. Trust in the process.
Get Physical As writers, we’re in our heads far too much. Just ask anyone who lives with us. Get outside – walk, run, whatever feels right – and sweat! This is also where I’ve done my best writing over the years. It’s amazing how a piece or idea will come together on the running trail. I’ve also pulled out the quilt that I started three years ago and haven’t touched since. One day this will be an embroidered, beaded, textured desert sunset. I’ve been craving working with fabric and colors. Something creative, yet physical and tactile. My dear friend and prolific writer, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, in addition to publishing books on linguistic human rights more prolifically than I can keep track of is always knitting, sewing, gardening, creating beautiful bouquets, and assisting ewes as they lamb!
Breathing Moonlight A few years ago I heard Sandra Cisneros speak. She was as wonderful and earthy and powerful and woman as I’d imagined. She talked about how she breathes moonlight. Close your eyes and visualize the moon and moonlight. Breathe in. Hold it and take it in. Now breathe out. Breathe in more moonlight. And out. And in. I’ve found this tremendously helpful. There are times in life when I breathe in galaxies of moonlight.
Altar of Tenacity As I thought about what else sustains me in the writing life, what came through was that one has to be tenacious as hell. And resilient. It is that simple. There is no magic elixir. It is a matter of writing because you just can’t imagine not writing. Whether anything is ever published, whatever comes of anything that’s written, you write, because it feels as essential as breathing. I have an altar on my ledge of the window above the kitchen sink (since that’s where I spend most of my time at home). It has a tattered, water-stained card with, “Never, never, never give up. ~Winston Churchill”, and a few other treasures that remind me of the journey.
After the presentation, when I was touching base with Laurie about what to include here, she wrote me the following email. It gives even more insight into the writing life: “I think the thing that struck me the most about our presentation is the juxtaposition between active (you) and passive (me), the passion of interaction (you) and the calm introspective of connection (me). I have no idea what I said, in retrospect, except describing the writer on one hand and the publishing business on the other. I do recall, vividly, that once I found my “mark” or place to stand to speak, I could not move. This is very unusual for me, as I used to be very active while speaking, as you were–so vibrant and alive and always in motion. But in acknowledging that standing still and speaking I discovered a newer (maybe deeper?) part of myself that I didn’t know existed. As if I had come into my own acceptance of my writing life, whether or not I publish anything ever again. That was a huge insight…I think what I loved best about our being together, Liz included, was the way we showed the audience that women can work together, write together and be supportive, and be on different paths with both writing and life. For example: you have three children/ I have none; I have plenty of writing time now / you do not; you teach/ I used to teach; I have published a first novel/ you are on the verge of publishing, etc…and then with Liz there as our champion, knowing as she does the heart of the business of publishing and always encouraging us to keep doing whatever it is that our creative spirits are telling us to do! I love that about her. And I love that about you. And I’m so pleased and grateful that you are my friend and fellow author!“
I hope our three journeys have provided something to glean toward your own writing, life, goals, or artistic work. We are cheering you on!
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