Prices to Pay

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I’ve been reading with interest several posts from women who have been honest and brave about sharing some of the major sacrifices that often come with choosing to write. Ann Bauer and Laura Bogart opened up about their experiences with depending on someone else for financial security, or eschewing that “sponsored” security and pursuing the pride of independent accomplishment, even when that means time, money, and relationship sacrifices.

I’m more in Bauer’s position right now. After we returned from 6 months of travel, Andrew and I agreed the best career choice for me would be to pursue freelance writing full-time. I’d hustle to establish myself in a line of work that offers me flexibility and fulfillment, and Andrew’s salary would give us the stability we need. He is, arguably, my sponsor.

It does chafe, knowing that I am still struggling to contribute more than a sporadic check to our finances. I’m at least covering my start-up and training expenses, with a little left over. I don’t need to feel that Andrew is financially indulging a hobby, but the problem of not making “enough” money is that it’s all too easy to start thinking of the work as a pastime. On slow days, I wonder if people see me as a 21st-century version of an Austen-esque lady of leisure, taking up sending pitches and writing blog posts instead of doing needlepoint as a way of being properly industrious. It’s so tempting to hide the fact that I need my husband’s paycheck, because to admit that feels tantamount to identifying as a “kept” woman.

Except it’s not. I could get a job and moonlight freelance assignments, as I did when I lived on my own. I can work 50 hours a week, cut back on sleep, write until the moment I turn out the light, and sacrifice leisure time to make ends meet. I’ve done it before. There have been times where a Target and grocery run represented the bulk of my “fun” outings for the week. I was stressed and close to broke and so proud of the fact that I could make it. My bills got sent on time, I read poetry on the couch because I couldn’t afford cable, and in the midst of working as hard as I ever have, I was still writing. I can live like Bogart, who cares about the integrity of her “brass knuckles” life too much to really envy Bauer’s “golden handcuffs.”

Except I can’t. Because what jumped out at me in Bogart’s essay was her admission that she “has given up time with friends and any semblance of a love life” to secure precious time at the keyboard. Before I took on that 50-hour workweek (plus grad school, plus writing), I ran it by Andrew. Not to get his permission, as such, but because it mattered to me that he would support me emotionally, that he would stay. My scraps of free time at dinner or on those weekend errand runs were spent in his company. I needed my independence and that sense of pride and accomplishment, but I also needed a sense of intimacy and partnership. I love writing, but I will not sacrifice a committed relationship for it. It’s too high a price to pay.

So here I am, still craving financial self-sufficiency as a way to prove my writing matters, still unwilling to budge on having a marriage and family. It’s not a mutually exclusive set of desires, even if sometimes it feel like it might as well be. Bauer and Bogart’s essays scare me because they represent extremes of how “real” writers make it work, and they key into my self-doubt. I don’t have Bogart’s fierce resolution to commit to writing above all else. I don’t have Bauer’s sense of ease with setting her own standards for what counts as successful. I’m still somewhere in between, wanting to have it all, hoping that being in between sides doesn’t disqualify me.

It really is good, though, that writers like Bauer and Bogart are sharing themselves so frankly. Writing isn’t an easy gig. It’s often undervalued and over-romanticized. Sacrifice is part of any writer’s life, in time or money or freedom or love. Talking about it publicly is one of the ways that we can help each other understand the real prices behind a writing life, and learn to discern for ourselves what we are able to pay.

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Why You Should Do NaNoWriMo This Year

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It’s Halloween, which for most people means spooky thrills and candy. Maybe a night out dancing, maybe a night in watching scary movies…or maybe, if you’re planning on writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month, reviewing your notes and wiggling your fingers over the keyboard, itching for the stroke of midnight that will kick off 30 insane days of writing.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo four times (every odd year since 2007), and to be honest, it’s been life-changing. I don’t always play by the rules. Two times, I’ve cranked out short stories by the dozen during November instead of a novel to hit the magic 50,000 word threshold. I don’t always like what I write. My first novel, the one I wrote in 2007, was so horrifically bad that I try to pretend it never existed (and it doesn’t, anymore–I trashed it years ago). Out of the 40 or 50 stories I’ve written between my two short-story themed NaNoWriMo years, maybe 10 were good enough for me to go back to and revise. Maybe.

But I’m actively working on the novel I wrote in 30 days last year, and half my graduate thesis stories began during a November writing frenzy. Good things come out of participating in the wild writing, late nights, and encouraging community that is NaNoWriMo. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

I can make a lot more time for writing than I often do. It’s easy for me to blame my mood or my schedule, but there’s more downtime (or even wasted time) in my typical day than I notice. When I’m committed to getting 1,667 words out per day, those pockets become magic productivity slots. Now, I am also fortunate enough to have a husband who’s willing to cook (a lot) more and give up some relaxation time to let me meet my goal. Without his enthusiastic support, my NaNoWriMo experience would be a lot different. I also want to point out that I’m not suggesting I could write like I do during NaNoWriMo year-round. It’s too intense. But with that said, discovering how much I can accomplish inspires me to devote more time to writing, even when I don’t feel like it.

The words do come. Writer’s block sucks. It’s a kick in the gut to have bad ideas, or no ideas at all. It rattles your whole sense of self as a creative person. During NaNoWriMo, though, writer’s block isn’t an option. Forums are bursting with challenges, word sprints, and other techniques people share to help each other make the words come even when it feels impossible. Lately, I’ve been sitting down in the mornings with a timer and no distractions allowed. If I don’t write, I tell myself that’s fine, but I can’t do anything else. (I’m borrowing this practice from Ann Patchett, as well as many other writers, doubtless.) You know what? The words have come every single time. Turns out an hour of silence beats my writer’s block every time.

Giving yourself permission to be bad can help you write better. I found the emphasis on quantity over quality during NaNoWriMo (and several forum discussions on silencing the inner editor) helped me loosen up and just go for it. Sure, 80-90% of what comes out is dreck. But some isn’t, and considering the sheer amount I had to write, I end up with more good writing at the end of November than in two or three months of writing when I feel like it.

Now, I’ll admit this is a little strange for me to talk about given that I won’t *technically* be doing NaNoWriMo this year. It’s an even year–I take those off :-P. Between editing my novel and hustling for freelance clients, my writing life is full enough without adding another 50,000-word project into the mix. But I had to write this for anyone who might be on the fence even now: NaNoWriMo, over the years, has changed my writing habits and my writing for the better. If you’re thinking about doing it, if you have a plan or don’t, please try it. And finish it. Push through the slumps and the headaches and the worry that this heap of words is useless, and tilt at the 50K windmill anyway. You’d be surprised by what can happen.

Back in the US!

I’m back! It’s been a whirlwind 7 months, full of many good changes. Now that I’m settled in again in the States, I’m jumping back in to a new kind of writing life, and I couldn’t be more excited.

So many things to tell, I hardly know where to begin!

First off, the trip was AMAZING. Andrew and I dipped our feet in the Ganges, improvised a bowling alley with plastic water bottles and a soccer ball, stuffed ourselves in Italy, and saw my family in the Netherlands. Easter in Spain brought the kind of theatricality, art, and mystery that only the Spanish can truly pull off. We semi-hitchhiked over the Albanian/Montenegrin border, planted over 3,000 onions, and watched fireworks burst over the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day.

Through all of this, you can imagine, I was writing. Our trip blog, www.jatrip.wordpress.com, was a great way for family and friends to keep up with us, but I was also working on the novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo last year. It turns out trains are a wonderful writing environment for me: no Internet, a sense of physical motion to coax out the creative spirit, and gorgeous scenery to create a sense of simultaneous stimulation and peace, which I find helps my productivity tremendously. Over the course of the trip, I added nearly 10,000 words to the original 50,000 and revised over 90 pages of the novel, putting me around the halfway mark.

For anyone out there interested, I’m using The 90-Day Rewrite by Alan Watt to guide my novel revision. Such a great book. Watt (or “Al,” as he calls himself in the book) structures each day’s assignment in the form of a letter that talks about an element of craft or a thematic/dramatic principle of novels. At the end of each letter is an angle from which to approach that day’s revision (he suggests 2-3 pages of work per day). I’ve found the tone to be encouraging and wise. I mean, obviously the ultimate test is whether my novel springs to the NYT Bestseller list immediately ;-), but in terms of the day-to-day experience of novel revision, this is a great resource.

It took us a little while to get our feet back under us in the US and find our new momentum, although I think we didn’t waste any time. In the first two weeks after we landed, we toured, leased, and moved into our new apartment in North Bethesda, Maryland. Our move gives us much easier access to a major city than we had before. One of the things I learned about myself on the trip is how much I love the atmosphere of a big city. The visible markers of history and culture energize me and make me feel connected to generations of people who have done amazing things. I’m loving being close enough to DC to pop down and explore on a whim.

I’m also starting a new career! I’ve done the occasional freelance assignment before, but full-time work and grad school made it difficult to get any traction. Now, I am proud to announce that I am writing full-time! I’m doing a mix of magazine and business writing. There’s so many exciting projects to get involved in. I can hardly believe how lucky I am to be able to dedicate so much of my time to writing.

If you need a writer, know someone who needs writing help, or just want to check out my professional site, head over to www.dcfreelancewriter.com.

I will be keeping this site as well, mostly because I really enjoy writing here. This writer’s site is a place for me to be a bit more vulnerable and work more openly through the various ups and downs of making writing a thriving part of my life. I’ve also decided to continue to publish fiction and other purely creative work under my maiden name, while using my married name for professional writing. I need to get into a different headspace for the different kinds of work, so why not use distinct names for these different roles?

Ideally, I’ll post here once a week with updates on the fiction writing life, where to find my work, and thoughts on the books I’m reading (I finally wrote out my full reading list and it is out of control–I have so many wonderful stories ahead of me!). More likely, expect to see me about twice a month, more if time permits.

Oh, and if any of you are reading this who were here before the hiatus, thank you so much for coming back! The readers I’ve had here mean a lot to me, even if I haven’t done a great job in the past of showing it. I’m delighted that you’re back, and I look forward to meeting more cool people through this site.

Hiatus

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Happy 2014! I spent the last five months unintentionally dark on this blog, but busy in the other parts of my life. I am happy to find that grad school has served me well in cultivating a writing habit. Without the eye of a classroom, I still made time for a NaNoWriMo novel and several short stories. I’m hoping to finish drafting my first piece of the new year in the next few days. 

My world is about to turn over. I left my job three weeks ago, and Andrew and I are packing up our belongings to put into storage when our lease is up at the end of the month. We are T-minus 19 days until we embark on a 6-month tour of India, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Germany, and France. I am so excited for what this trip will do to change our perspectives, deepen our marriage, and seriously energize my writing!

Of course, this trip means giving up a lot as well. Our jobs and our townhouse are the first to go. We’re traveling carry-on only, so we’ll be limited in terms of wardrobe and the luxuries we’re used to at home. Also, I want to take advantage of the time to explore, so this time I’m not simply going dark on this blog. I am taking an official hiatus until August, when we return. The plan is that I will post pictures and some trip updates at our shared blog, http://www.jatrip.wordpress.com, when I have the Internet, time, and energy lined up to do so.

The Briefest of Check-Ins and Some Words About a Bride

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I spent a beautiful day watching my good friend (and good writer) Megan marry the man of her dreams, and also got to see a larger crowd of MFA co-alums than I have since graduation. Once the bride had departed, we stood outside the church and chatted about what we were up to. It turns out I am writing more than I thought I was. I’ve got three things I’m puttering with at the moment (a “proper” story, the kind of thing I’d submit for workshop; a exploratory finger into zombie fic; and a just-for-me Doctor Who thing based on a dream I had that is meant purely for fun). It was good to hear myself listing them aloud. I’m not sure I would have realized I actually do put in semi-consistent writing time without the experience of sharing that news.

I do want to say a quick word about Megan: She is one of the more dedicated writers in my graduating year, regularly submitting and polishing her work. It’s both inspiring and guilt-inducing, in the best way. Megan also has a knack for hope in her work that I sometimes have a hard time with. It’s easier, in some ways, to write stories where everything goes wrong. It can turn into the perfect negative of the Mary Sue: flawed people never achieving a true resolution at all. Megan’s characters have real problems and real interactions, but she can find ways to happy endings through them as well, which is harder and braver than it first appears.

It’s probably this attitude that has also led to the group of friends she has. I was invited to the pre-wedding festivities, and quickly realized friends from grad school, college, high school, middle school, and even earlier were represented. I was also happily surprised by how welcoming and generous all of these friends turned out to be. I can’t help but feel that Megan’s own generous spirit and eye for hope and happiness is what helps her keep these friendships so strong. It’s a good quality for love as well as fiction.

Aside

A Light Bulb Going Out: The Weird Way I Cured My Writer’s Block

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On Friday, I had a bit of a meltdown. It had been a hectic week, I was jealous about the successes my writer friends were posting on their Facebook pages, and when someone honked at me for no reason on the ride home, it was the last small indignity to push me over the edge.

I had been sitting in the downstairs bathroom for about 10 minutes with the lights out, feeling sorry for myself, when my husband poked his head in the doorway and astutely said that this did not seem like normal behavior, and that he had deduced that probably something was bothering me.

Obviously there was more than one problem on my mind that evening, but one of the things that came out in my tearful rant in the bathroom was that I was in the worst stretch of writing my current story: unsure of the ending, doubtful of the characters, hearing the disdainful voice in my head that pops up to suggest I scrap the whole thing. I knew taking time to get productive writing done would make me feel better, but all my inner negativity made it harder than usual to get my butt in the chair and do it.

So I wrote in the bathroom while Andrew made dinner. Silence is good. Privacy is good. Even darkness was good that night (that’s right, I sat in my powder room for 25 minutes typing by the glow of the laptop only!). I realized that in the depths of my self-conscious stretch, what I needed in order to function creatively was to feel like no one would be able to tell if what I was writing was bad. Being in a quiet space where no one could ask me how it was going (or know not to ask by my expression) helped ease my nerves. In the dark, I could even, oddly, pretend the room was truly empty–that I wasn’t even there–and use that to confuse my inner critic into silence. I felt a little silly, but by dinnertime, I had almost 400 words written.

Tonight I’ll be back in my usual spot for writing, but I’m filing away the weird trick of literally shutting myself away and turning off any other distractions–even the lights.

Let me know if you try a dark writing session, or if you have other weird rituals that help you shake off a block!

What I’m…Publishing!

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My schedule says you’re due a book review, and I’ve got a juicy one I’m excited to talk about, but we’re going to have to interrupt the posting schedule for some fun news. I’m proud to announce you can now check out “Doll Baby,” the first story from Room Full of Strangers, at Monologging, a “Local-Global Collaborative Magazine” founded by another writer in my graduating year.

Doll Baby” tells the story of two sisters: Sarah, a nurse who has indefinitely postponed her independence to care for her ailing mother, and Amy, fragile but free, who brings a lifelike doll to dinner with disastrous results.

Jeff Barken and I worked closely together in the last year of the program, critiquing each other’s work, disagreeing on several aspects of writing and the writing process, but always engaged in the discussion and interested in hearing a different perspective. You’ll find information on his book at Monologging as well, along with stories and essays from writers in Baltimore or across oceans.

So go check out “Doll Baby,” the wonderfully eerie photo that illustrates it, and the rest of the mag!

The Art of Storytelling

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I’m a fan of museums as creative inspiration. I’ve been enchanted by statues in the Louvre, photography, and lavishly embellished pen cases, and I even spent the last summer session of grad school trying to find the voices of a room full of beautiful women at the Walter’s.

This year, I am spending some time wandering through the American Visionary Art Museum’s featured exhibition, The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor & Truth. It’s like they knew I was coming.

As you walk up the stairs, you’re greeted by Beatrice Coron’s intricate cutout images. The tableaux look to me something like a Day of the Dead celebration reimagining Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Skeletal black-and-white figures work, eat, dance, and climb over branches or through tunnels, depending on whether the world holding them is a web, globe, or tree.

Picture from the Baltimore Sun review

Picture from the Baltimore Sun review

One of my favorite pieces is Mars Tokyo’s Theaters of the 13th Dimension: You walk around a podium, opening doors to see a tiny scene. It’s fun to write a prompt based on one that speaks particularly to you, or imagine a novel that could capture each moment in turn.

My other favorite art “story” is Debbie and Mike Schramer’s amazingly detailed fairy houses. As big as the Barbie Dream House I played with as a kid and oh-so-much cooler, the house is made of wood, glass, moss, dandelion fluff, flower heads, wire, lichens, stone, and other found things, coming together in a house that looks more like it grew than was built. This piece fascinated me especially because I felt the artists’ presence as characters in the story so strongly. Why had they built fairy houses? Who exactly were they hoping to invite? Was it his or her idea to include a music stand? An outdoor reading nook? Whose favorite books are those on the shelf?

Picture found at cauldroncraftminiatures.blogspot.com

Picture found at cauldroncraftminiatures.blogspot.com

The exhibit is open until September 1, so there’s plenty of time to catch it if you happen to find yourself in the Baltimore area. If you do, be sure to check in and let me know which pieces caught your imagination!

I’d also love to know: which museum exhibits (current or past) have inspired you?

Self-Publishing: The Problem of In-Between

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I’ve reached a stage I’m sure is common to many self-published authors: the decision of whether to invest in a second print run. I had a great first response to Room Full of Strangers. Between book sales and trades with the other writers I graduated with, my initial supply of 100 copies has dwindled to fewer than 20, which I am thrilled about. However, 20-odd is still a stack of copies, and I’ve reached out to the obvious circles of friends, co-workers, church family, and so on. I do have a few ideas up my sleeve to put my book out there, but the question, “Is it enough?” is a tough one to face.

Arguments for: shows greater faith in book, eliminates ‘limited copies’ as an excuse to avoid readings

Arguments against: it would cost about 3/4 of the money I made from book sales so far, I don’t have a concrete plan for how to sell an additional 100 copies

I haven’t made a decision yet, so I’ll put it out there: what would you do in my place? (Or, if you’ve published and marketed your work, what did you do?)

What I’m Reading: Mr. Palomar

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An easy mistake readers and writers make is confounding serious literature with serious subject matter. Death, devastation, relationships torn apart–these are the meat of literature, right? A man overwhelmed by the selection in a cheese shop, or trying to figure out where to look when passing a woman tanning topless? Fluff.

Until, that is, you see how Italo Calvino does it. Mr. Palomar is a series of essays, stories, and meditations featuring the eponymous protagonist, a man with a deep internal life and a certain level of, shall we say, nervous intensity in his day-to-day habits. The book is divided into three sections, progressing from internal meditations to more narrative pieces featuring some interpersonal interaction and ending in a section that considers its subjects on a wider historical/metaphysical/sociological plane.

I thought all of the stories were lovely, although don’t expect even the narrative stories to stray too far from Mr. Palomar’s head. In any particular piece, Mr. Palomar doesn’t do all that much: he takes an evening swim, watches a gecko in his living room, runs an errand to the butcher. The beauty is in the way his interpretation of the grander meaning of an act or place transforms the ordinary, and in Calvino’s lightness.

When I say lightness, I do mean humor, but almost tangentially. The real “lightness” is more that Calvino has a way of saying things that may be profound or perfectly silly without working too hard to define how the reader should take it. It’s a “maybe this is so” approach–you’re not pressured into accepting its gravity, but you also don’t get the impression that nothing matters. Mr. Palomar approaches life with an open mind as far as that goes, ready to appreciate meaning anywhere. When he passes the topless woman over and over again, trying to determine which way is the most polite to look (staring at her may be intrusive, but perhaps not looking is an insult to feminism via a rejection of the worth of female physicality?), it’s hilarious. When he considers the other swimmers in the water, all of them reaching toward the reflection the setting sun casts and seeing it as directed at them alone, it’s more contemplative.

I’d love to try some of the techniques out for myself. My stories are typically dark, even when they’re funny in places, and I love dialogue as a way of moving a story forward. I’m trying to capture more lightness in the story I’m working on now, and to see potential to show beauty or meaning through characters’ thoughts and actions, or even the surrounding environment, rather than concentrating on dialogue.