Essays, Misc

Red Wine and a Side Order of Confidence, Please

There’s nothing quite like setting foot in a social function for triggering every insecurity I have in a span of 2 seconds flat. Last night, I got a taste of how far I had come in regards to self-confidence as well as a view of how far I still have to go.

Let me explain.

Last week, Deanna Radford from my writing group (a wonderful poet who’s into some really interesting edgy music) mentioned a cocktail party that was taking place on Feb. 16 at a local hotel. It was part of an event where sales reps from book publishers meet with local bookstores to do business, but a new feature—the cocktail—was added to allow writers the chance to mingle with these publishing superpowers. Though I’m not a fan of social gatherings of this kind, I am trying to figure out the Montreal writing scene and thought this would be a great chance to get a lay of the land, so to speak, and agreed to go. Honestly, I had no idea what I was walking into. I figured the event would be held conference-style in a hall where I could sip wine in a dark corner and recon the room. If things got too crazy, then I could slip out ninja-style and no one would be the wiser. But right from the start, I was confounded. The event was held in a penthouse and it was a small group, maybe 30-40 people. This meant I would be in close proximity to people. And OMG, people would see me and I would have to talk.

And then it happened: a very nice, talkative sales rep entered my bubble and asked the question I was not prepared for: ‘So what’s your book about?’

Now, I write all the time about characters sweating bullets when under stress, but this was the first time in a while that I can remember actually feeling sweat ‘trickling down my back’ and ‘pricking at my brow’. Note that it is a horrible, horrible…horrible…feeling. I literally stood there thinking: Do I give her a log line? Tag line? Short or long pitch? Or talk from the heart? The traffic jam in my brain led to nonsensical stuttering until something—I have no idea what–came out. Luckily, she was very understanding, and seeing that I was a genre writer and independent, she very kindly hooked me up with the manager of a popular local bookstore.

From www.beyondanxietyanddepression.com
From http://www.beyondanxietyanddepression.com

By then, I was more than thankful for the counter stocked with wine. Lots and lots of wonderful, red, nerve-soothing, brain-numbing wine. I made sure my cup was full. The fuller it was, the less I had to talk. Oh, and the food table also came in handy for that.

The evening trucked on. The wine kicked in. My brain settled down. I met some lovely writers, two of which I gave my business card to once they showed interest in what I was doing (writing and this blog). I chatted with reps from some of the big publishing companies, sat across an ottoman from the Harper Collins rep, and chatted with the rep from Penguin-Random House from across the dinning room table about the power of social media and how it has become an essential too to writers and publishers. I smiled and nodded, happy to learn that, in this regard, I seem to be on the right track. I walked away going, ‘I just talked to the rep from one of the biggest publishing houses in the country. Say what?!’

Talking about myself is the hardest thing to do, as I can’t imagine anything more boring to a listener than hearing about me. And being introduced as ‘a writer’ with ‘one published book and another on the way’ was hard to get used to, especially being independent amidst people working under the traditional model. I mean, I write and have published, but I don’t have a label backing me. Who can vouch for my legitimacy as a ‘writer’? But, I was lucky. I had two wonderful friends flanking me (Cora Siré, a fantastic writer and poet and one of the most intelligent women I know, and Deanna already mentioned above). They introduced me to publishers and other people deeply involved in the Montreal writing scene that they already knew, and their lead-ins made for smooth introductions. Not only that, they talked me up. Listening to them made me realize that I had done some interesting things–stuff I was proud of–that were worth talking about. This realization enabled me to smile wider, shake hands with more gusto, and greet people with greater ease (dare I say confidence?).

I left the evening with my head swirling. What did I really get out of the experience? How can I apply it to what’s happening in my writing life now? Here are two thoughts:

1) As in independent author, the evening itself wasn’t that useful. None of my books are published by any of the companies present nor will they appear in bookstores because of it (I’ve learned that many bookstores don’t accept independently published books unless they are backed by a label of some sort). However, Deanna noted that it’s important to put faces to names. One day, if I manage to successfully publish with a traditional company, or try to set up a reading or a book-launch or other event, these contacts just might come in handy.  

2) I learned that independent/self-published authors are making strides and are earning respect. Most of the time, when I stated that I had self-published, I detected what I thought were looks bordering on respect and interest. One seemed to appreciate that ‘going it alone’ gave me the chance to learn the ropes. Another rep admitted that indie publishing has its place and that it was a good thing that writers have more options than before. I hadn’t expected these responses but they were definitely welcome.

I think my point is this: being a lone writer and staying behind the desk might be comfortable, but we’ve known for a long time that the market is changing. Writers are expected to ‘get out there’ more than ever before. We are being called to understand and to participate in the business side of things, including marketing, promotion, and networking, things that don’t have anything to do with writing itself. It’s not comfortable, but it seems to be becoming a must. Did everything go smoothly last night? Nope. But I survived. It was scary and challenging, but the experience was invaluable. My suggestion? Try to get out there, see what you can learn from other writers, about the relationships between the movers and the shakers. Start with small events and go with good friends who have experience with this sort of thing who can help you out when you need it. And then feel good about stepping out of your comfort zone.

What are your thoughts? Do you find it hard to talk about yourself and your work? What do you do to get over it? Do you like these kinds of social functions? What do you think about writers being called to step into the forefront more and more often?

Essays

A Writing Retreat Is More Than A Creative Writing Tune-Up

A few weeks ago, you might remember that I had the equivalent of a writer’s meltdown until I made two conclusions, one of which involved meeting a certain person by the name Lise Weil. (You can read about it here).  After talking to her and learning about the writing retreat that she runs a few times a year, I decided I would attend the next one. It took place yesterday.

Now, what’s the difference between a workshop and a retreat? After attending both kinds of events, I can say this: a workshop is where you go to tune-up your writing skills while a retreat is where you go to tune-up your creative core (i.e. your Self).

From sopl.psychology.uoguelph.ca
From sopl.psychology.uoguelph.ca

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I arrived at the apartment at 11AM, and not long after four other women arrived. With the exception of one (who is a member of my writing group), I didn’t know any of them. However, they were all warm and welcoming.

After some opening chit-chat, we began the day with dream work. We had all been asked to write down our dreams leading up to the event. Each person then shared their dream and then the others had a chance to comment. I am a big believer in the power and messages of dreams, so I was very interested to see where this led. As expected, the activity gave way to some interesting insights and revelations. I had analyzed mine before attending the meeting, but it wasn’t until I listened to the others that I began to see the connection to writing. As my thoughts broke through the little box of interpretations I had built, I was now able to discern issues like, concerns about being a ‘legitimate’ writer and the validity of having a writing blog when I haven’t sold tons of books or ‘made it’. Basically, this dream opened the door to my darkest, deepest insecurities.

Another example: one woman shared her belief that her words and ideas had no value because they were fragments and not part of a whole, realized piece.  In my opinion, her words were magic. Each phrase carried so much weight and beauty, and her expression was so pure and raw. And, when read together, the lines did read like a poem (a whole piece). But my real point was this: Why weren’t the words themselves, or her visceral, honest expression, enough? (On the way home that night when I reflected on this conversation, I realized that this is a question that I should be asking myself). As you can see, things were already getting interesting.

The next activity was to write something inspired by a poem. Lise passed around a bag and we each blindly choose one. The underlying expectation was that each person would somehow choose the poem that was ‘right’ for them. I think, for the most part, we all did. Mine was a wonderful poem by Cynthia Rich called Buddahdarma. Lines like, ‘You are not the person that you knew before’, ‘Your being opens like an unseen door’ amongst others connected to my pit of insecurity. In the writing exercise that followed, the poem inspired the creation of a complete, introspective narrative of 1000 words called A Mirror Tells No Lies. Writing on the fly like that, carried by the power of a few choice words, was revelatory. The resulting story was rife with concepts and metaphors that I must unpack, and Lise suggested I analyse the sections of the poem that triggered that creative burst as a means of better understanding why it connected. This was homework I actually looked forward to.

After that, we took a walk. It’s a deep freeze in Montreal right now, so going outside for an hour was no joke. But, after sitting for so long, I admit it was time to be active. So, I bundled up, grabbed my notebook (yes, we had an assignment to) and got walking. The assignment involved ‘being in the moment’, connecting with what’s happening around us and paying attention to ourselves. Once I got used to the cold, I realized how wonderful it was to connect with my body in motion. One of the women attends an African dance school and she spoke of the importance of the body connecting with the mind. I was reminded that we interact with the world through our bodies which affects our mind and soul. In essence, it impacts our creativity. So I walked, and I sensed, and I experienced. Then I found a little café, enjoyed my unctuous peanut butter and chocolate chip cookie and double latte, and completed my assignment. It’s a free-writing piece, no editing, a journal entry of sorts discussing what the day meant to me. Here is a sample:

‘…I’ve been waiting for this retreat. I wasn’t sure what I would get from it or even what I wanted—I just knew I wanted the experience. It’s nice to be around others who don’t have it all together either—I feel normal. Rather than feeling ‘less than’ because one person has done this, or won this, or talks the good talk. I’m not competing—I’m being. I write and I feel excited. I listen and I feel moved. I share and I feel listened to. This is a unique and precious moment.

‘ I am trying to find my voice and my identity within myself and my writing. In the mess that is my life at the moment, it feels wonderful to be focused on 1 thing. There is no contingency planning, nor worrying; the stress of real life is ‘out there’ and I can concentrate on me. I can delve into understanding this thing I like to do, and that makes me feel grounded. Or it could, if only I could bring this ‘quiet’ back with me into the real world. And, I guess, that is the question for me: How to not lose this focus? How to quiet myself and listen to me when the winds around blow so hard and so fast? The winds of children, and husband, and work, and finding time to have a life outside—it’s a whirlwind spinning at breathtaking speed. Either way, however it ends, I’ve had today. And I am grateful for it.’

I now know that I went to the retreat to find my voice. Not only to find it, but to find value and purpose in that voice. And to learn to love it. Our voices are a reflection of our soul, who we are in the deep and shadowy places as much in the bright and sunny ones. That is the mystery behind the Mirror story that I was to analyse and the reason that poem struck a chord so hard that my fingers could do nothing but write a story to illustrate that awakening. I am my writing, and my writing is me. The good, the bad. The beauty, and the horror. And with that acceptance comes a measure of peace.

Picture by Amanda Staley
Picture by Amanda Staley

How about you? Can you relate to this experience? Have you attended a writing retreat and what did you get from the experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂

Essays, Misc

When You Are Discouraged

I haven’t posted many articles about my ‘writer’s experience’ lately, mostly because I figured a series of depressing posts featuring my rants and raves wouldn’t be very interesting. Okay, maybe interesting but not very useful.  We all face moments of frustration and disappointment when we strive to succeed at something we are passionate about. The challenge becomes how to get out of that black hole and what to do with ourselves once we do. 

Months ago, when the first phase of this downward spiral hit, I was coming to grips with reality: finding success as a writer is extremely hard. Not to mention that no matter how good our writing might be, that is no guarantee that an agent or publisher will want to work with us.   

Reality check number two: wanting to reclaim control of my book, I cancelled the contract with the company that published it, but now I had the monumental job of doing everything myself: republishing the book, marketing and promoting it, figuring out the numbers and following stats and purchases, if there were any. I felt like I had made a huge mistake. The burden is massive. Fact is, I just don’t have the financial or time resources necessary to sell my books the way the experts say I should. And, I’m not an island. I have kids, a household to maintain and a fulltime job. No matter how much I wish otherwise, I can’t just dump my job to write fulltime. In order to maintain balance in my life, I had to sacrifice writing time to be present elsewhere. It was that, or burn out. 

Still, this current phase was different. I wasn’t feeling good about my writing. I’d produce something I thought was good, but the comments I got back all seemed negative to me. Then the doubts set in. Had I lost my touch? Were people just not into what I was writing? Did they not get it? And so on. And on…and on.

image from youthvoices.net
image from youthvoices.net

Part of this comes from the writing group I joined. The group itself is great. I love the social aspect. And chatting about the art-form we are passionate about while working together to improve our pieces is wonderful. However, we each have our individual styles, most often skewing towards literary fiction. I have often felt a little like a fish out of water. Sometimes I wondered if I would be better off in a genre-oriented group. But a big part of the reason I joined was to benefit from the lit-oriented environment. 

Anyway, I finally broke. And it was this breaking that led to getting out of that black hole. Below are two of the main things I learned: 

  1. Talk to the right people. I have a small circle of internet writing friends I trust, and they gave me a place to vent. I’m sure I tried their patience, but I appreciate their concern and the time they gave me. Then someone in the writing group mentioned an upcoming writing retreat, so I took a chance and contacted the host. Her name is Lise Weil, professor, founder of literary magazines, and award-winning writer, though I didn’t know this when we spoke. (Thank goodness because I would felt intimidated otherwise). Mrs. Weil ‘got’ my problem right away. When she voiced my own suspicion that my writing world had been ‘shaken up’, I immediately relaxed. The tension seeped out of me, like someone had just sucked the poison from a snake bite. Just having someone name your problem and empathize with you can get you back on track. Needless to say, I will be attending the retreat and I will be blogging about that. 🙂
  2. Always come back to your centre. Exploring new writing styles led me away from my own Voice. This insecurity caused me to seek approval and validation from others and to concluding my work was bad when things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped. I forgot that failure doesn’t mean the work itself is bad, or that I suck. It just means I need to work harder. And I must be patient. Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how I was feeling and inspiration led me to bang out a flash fiction piece to accompany it. It was raw and fuelled by angst, but it felt great to put my feelings in prose. The piece even won a flash fiction contest I was encouraged to participate in. Last weekend, I went for breakfast with Sharon from my group again, and we wrote short pieces based on paintings hanging in the restaurant. I had no idea what to write, but I shut out my doubts and let my fingers do the work. I was thrilled with the result.  The point is, these experiences reminded me that writing from the heart is what makes me happy, and that I most enjoy writing when I don’t always know where the story is going to go.  I feel alive when I’m not trying to be this or that kind of writer. When the most important critic of anything I write is me because what is on paper is my truth. 

And that is what I learned. I’m going back to basics, back to what makes me love writing in the first place—pure self-expression. Some will get on board and some won’t. I may never become famous, and people might not ‘get’ or like my work. But at least every piece will be me.

Picture by Amanda Staley
Picture by Amanda Staley
Essays, Misc

Finding Your Way Through the Writer’s Black Hole

Welcome back! It’s been ages since I’ve posted but that doesn’t mean I’ve been idle. A lot has happened these last few months but whether or not they’re worth writing about…eh, I’ll let you decide.

So, for a while I wrote about the writer’s life, noting its ups and downs and the lessons learned along the way. You can read about them in the Essays menu but some of the most popular are: My Real Writing Life and The Real, REAL Writer’s Life and Final Thoughts on a Writer’s Life. During my time away from blogging I continued to learn writing’s tough lessons, ultimately surviving what I now refer to as the Writer’s Black Hole.

image from youthvoices.net
image from youthvoices.net

In the posts mentioned above, I was very honest about my struggles. I had thrown myself into writing, trying to learn the craft and the business aspect at the same time. Like most, I sacrificed a lot–money, family time, energy and sanity to move the mountains necessary to succeed at this thing. The more I pushed to ‘make it’, running around like a possessed chicken without its head, two things were happening: 1) I was burning out, and 2) I was beginning to accept that success doesn’t happen overnight, no matter how hard I wished it to. Notice I said accept. See, I’d already realized that truth on a brain level but not at an emotional one, and the latter is where the magic happened this time around. Both points were excruciating to swallow.

But that’s the great thing about life experience. You can learn from it and grow stronger…if you allow it. I hated being in that Black Hole. It happened during a rough personal time (I was recovering from surgery which kept me off work for 3 months) and when I felt I needed support and encouragement the most, nothing happened. My blog seemed to lose steam, some good writer friends had gone in different directions, and I just didn’t have the energy to actively pursue promoting my book and maintaining social media, are some examples. After going so hard for so long, it felt like I’d been cruising along in a manual transmission car that had suddenly broken down and was now stuck in idle.

image from stylebizz.com
image from stylebizz.com

It sucked. I hated every minute of it. But as the walk through the Black Hole continued, I started to see the benefits. With the frenetic pace slowed to a crawl, I had time to think. I had time to assess my journey. I was able to make choices about what was really important to me and what wasn’t. And best of all, I finally felt free of social media’s yoke. Don’t get me wrong. I love using it to stay in touch and it’s a great resource, but for a long time I felt like it was mastering me rather than the other way around. I almost did a happy dance once its reign of terror was over.

So, how did I spend those quiet months? I got busy in other, more effective ways. I revised Wolf’s Bane, the sequel to The Purple Morrow, twice—once before sending it to beta-readers and then again afterwards; I beta-read my friend’s manuscript; worked on the final book in the Papilion trilogy and finally named it (Berserker); launched my writer’s website, and a whole lot more. I did all that on my time and because I wanted to.

image from www.saiadolugar.com.br
image from http://www.saiadolugar.com.br

Last thing: when I used to watch Dr. Phil, something he often said stood out in my mind and it relates to how we define success. Before I descended into the Black Hole, I thought the only way to feel I’d ‘made it’ was to have sold tons of books, to be featured here and there, or to have the words, “best-selling” after my name. The Black Hole experience caused me to confront the biggest demon of all, answering the one question I’d been trying to avoid: “What happens if I fail?” After all the work I’d put in over the years failure simply wasn’t an option.

The beauty is that facing that question is what led to making it out of the Black Hole. Once I was able to say, “So what if I fail?” the anxiety drained away and I was able to see and appreciate the things that were working. Like, there are certain online friends who just seem to know when I need a boost because that’s when I’ll get an encouraging email, or a Like on FB or a Share on Google or a surprise mention on some other social media platform. Or, I’d remember the people who told me how much they were moved by one of my stories. Last night, my aunt left me a FB message thanking me for pursuing my dreams. It’s not the first time someone has said that to me, which reminded me how privileged I am to do what I love to do. Last week, I posted an interview featuring local writer Su Sokol, and later that same week we met for coffee and talked for two hours about writing.

And last Friday, I visited my daughter’s class to talk about writing. It was fantastic! For the activity, they broke into groups and wrote a story based on writing prompts they came up with (I will be blogging about this soon). I’ve written it before and I’ll do it again: something magical happens when we take writing out of cyberspace and into the real world. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.

Success? We define it for ourselves, not the world. And if we keep looking ‘out there’ for it, we’ll miss the ways we are successful close to home, which, in most cases, are the most important. My daughter was proud that I came to her class. How do I know? Because she confirmed that I hadn’t embarrassed her. For anyone who has an 8 year old, you know how much that speaks!

Anyway, more on this line of thought to come as it has totally changed my outlook on what I write and why, as well as what I hope to achieve. But in the end, I just hope that anyone who is wandering through their own Black Hole will take heart and see that it’s not all bad. In fact, in can launch you to places you never could have gotten to otherwise.

How about you? Have you walked through a similar journey through the Black Hole? Share your story below!