Monday’s Saturday

It was a long weekend, but a nice one. Our teensy little book club read A Room With A View, and I stole a day from the round of work-reading to swallow it whole. I’d seen the Merchant-Ivory movie, of course, and to me Julian Sands will always be George Emerson. (Daniel Day-Lewis will always be Cecil Vyse, until he moves to America and gets all sweaty as an adopted Mohican.) And of course, there’s That Kiss. It was a good palate cleanser. There is a suggestion afloat to read Maurice next, for compare/contrast.

*time passes*

Let’s see, so far today I’ve run six miles, finished the Christmas shopping and wrapped presents, cleaned the kitchen, done my personal best on the blue 5.9 (otherwise known as the Blue Devil) at the climbing wall, given an interview and a pronunciation guide to the people doing a very awesome audio enactment of the Valentine books, and searched for a copy of Forster’s Maurice. (No luck. Yet.) No wonder I’m tired. That’s the thing about Mondays–I usually work through the weekends, so Monday is my catch-up day for errands and all sorts of things. It’s my Saturday, if you will, only without the parties. And it’s not over yet.

Anyway. The year is winding to a close. It seems like just a few weeks ago 2010 was just starting, and I was struggling to keep my head above water and close the door on one of the worst twelve months of my life. I’ve rebuilt a lot, and thankfully 2010′s beat the pants right off 2009.

One of the most profound things is learning (again) that the pain of missing someone does eventually fade a little with time. (Especially when that someone is well, not very nice.) Getting to the point where I can say, “I used to miss you very much…but now, not so much. And tomorrow, even less,” is very healing. Accepting that you can’t save someone unless they want to be saved is terribly difficult. It hurts each time. I should learn to pick my battles better.

Ah well. Next year.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Grace That Saves

It was one of those moments when one is forcibly reminded of the subjectivity of human experience.

“Jeez, I never thought you’d say that,” I told him, the line crackling briefly with static. “You were always in such a black mood. It was like I couldn’t say anything right, it would just piss you off more. I wondered why you kept meeting me; it didn’t seem like you enjoyed it. It seemed like immunizations for you–something painful and annoying, but necessary.”

“Nope.” Slight shift of fabric as he moved. “No, everything you said was perfect. It was at the exact right time.”

We talked about other things, and after we hung up, I found myself reappraising those conversations a decade ago. All this time I’d felt bad, because I could never seem to say anything to calm, to soothe, or to help with his pain. But now, ten years later, I find out that those words, even though they didn’t seem to matter much at the time, were kept and cherished as a line thrown to the drowning. I find out that the kindness that cost me nothing helped far, far more than I ever would have dreamed.

We never know, as we go about our daily lives, the moments when we are the grace that saves, or when ours is the smile that gives hope. Our actions have effects we can never fully understand. This humbles me. Paradoxically, it also makes me proud to be human, and glad to be muddling along with everyone else.

Why?

Because we are all alone, but sometimes we can help each other be less lonely. And when we do, we are all saved by just a tiny increment. It might be less than an inch, less than a centimeter.

But I’ll take it.

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How Far We’ve Come

It’s eminently frustrating when you can feel the story vibrating like a jet engine, just aching to go somewhere, but a measly trickle of words is all that comes out. Part of this is that the story isn’t finished “cooking” yet, and that jet-engine sound is the rumble before everything is unleashed and I start frantically trying to keep up with the download. But for right now, everything’s sort of in abeyance.

If there’s a part I like least about writing, it’s the frustration of knowing that the process is in a certain stage, one can’t rush it, but one does need to keep knocking away, disciplined and irritated, so that when the magic happens you’re Ready and Waiting. I have to say, this stage is only about 20% of my writing days…but it feels like a much higher percentage. I don’t have the luxury of not writing, so I spend these days fine-tuning and poking at different scenes like jigsaw puzzles, a little here, a little there. It all adds up to wordcount in the end.

In other news, last night at dinner the Princess asked me what Labor Day was all about. I explained the ideals behind organized labor as well as I could. The thing that made the biggest impression on her was the child labor laws. “You mean they would make [the Little Prince] work in a factory?”

“Yes,” I said. “Look, every advance in working conditions hasn’t come about because companies or corporations are magnanimous.” (Yes, she knows what “magnanimous” means. It was a word of the day not too long ago.) “They came about because people protested and fought. Nowadays a lot of people are saying we don’t need organized labor…but I don’t agree. You’ll learn more about that later. For right now, we celebrate people who work and look back at how far we’ve come.”

“Oh.” She thought about it for a while. “They would have made me work in a factory too?”

Or worse, I think. “Possibly. We’re not rich. For a long time, we weren’t even middle class. It’s very likely you would’ve had to work hard in a factory so we could survive.”

She digested this. “How would I go to school?”

“You wouldn’t.” I didn’t even want to tell her about how recent an invention compulsory schooling for all social classes is, even in the First World.

It was a good thing too, because she looked at me with undiluted horror. “No school? At all?”

“Yep.” I took another bite. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to school either, not for very long. We might not even know how to read.”

Well, that did it. She let out a gasp. “I had no idea this was so important! I just thought it was a day off school!”

“Well, you can go look up the labor movement. We can get some books, if you like. Be warned, though–some parts of the story aren’t very pretty.” I was thinking, in particular, of the story of Wesley Everett, as sung on Washington Notebook.

“I’m glad I get to go to school,” my good little Princess says. And from there we were on to other things. I figure consciousness had been raised enough for one day. Hers–and mine, because saying these things out loud to her made me think about them a little bit more. It reminded me of how lucky and privileged I am.

A lot of people moan about unions and the like, even as they reap the benefits of coffee breaks, lunch hours, the eight-hour day, overtime, or vacations. A lot of people will badmouth unions in one breath and move onto bitching about how their rights are violated in the workplace in the next. Unions aren’t perfect–no group of human beings is going to be perfect. But, again, no advance in human or worker’s rights has come about from the noblesse oblige of those in power. The advances are fought for, sometimes tooth and nail, sometimes shamed and driven into the social fabric. Stumbles and all, those advances are worth celebrating, remembering, and endorsing. The effects and fruits of those advances, those fights, are something plenty of Americans feel the benefit of every day.

Things are deadly rough right now. People are frightened, hungry, and angry. Paul Krugman is making comparisons to 1938. (Unemployment benefits came about in the US in about 1932. Just something I found out today.) For a long time jobs have been exported to places where the workers don’t expect–indeed, don’t even know they can insist on, or may not even be able to insist on–decent treatment. But a lot of people in the US don’t give a damn about that, because they’re suffering, hungry, and scared right now. Tea-party xenophobia is on the rise, fanned by demagogues who peddle hatred and fear while reaping obscene profits.

This is when things get dangerous.

So, this Labor Day, I’m hoping we can all be a little more Mother Jones. I’m hoping we’ll take the long view, and I’m celebrating just how far we’ve come. I’m damn grateful that I’m in a position where I can be reasonably well-educated and send my kids to school. With those benefits comes the responsibility not to forget those who raised hell, fought, and shamed society into taking those stumbles forward.

Happy Labor Day.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

When The Gallop Takes Over

For the past couple weeks the Deadline Dames have been blogging about How We Got Published. We’ve had:

* Dame Devon: How I Got To Where I Am
* Dame Jackie: My Path To Publication
* Dame Rachel: The Echo Of My Own Voice
* Dame Keri: The Long Road To Publication
* Yours truly: The Rocky Road
* Dame Jenna: An Overnight Success
* Dame Kaz: Dark Nights and Brighter Days
* Dame Toni: A Business Analyst Becomes A Novelist

There’s a lot of good stuff there, and frankly I don’t have much to add. Earning a living through writing is a chancy proposition, and certainly not one I’d recommend unless one has near-pathological persistence and a taste for punishment, as well as tolerance for manic-depressive career swings. (I’m only exaggerating slightly here, if at all.)

So why do it? Why on earth would anyone pick this way to make a living?

I can’t speak for anyone else. Why do I do this, then?

I’ve always loved writing. No, that’s not quite accurate. I have always written, ever since I can remember, and sometimes I love it. More often, I write because I am in the habit of writing and I am unable to stop. I compare my urge to write to a socially-acceptable mental disease, and I am only half joking. I am compelled to write, and extraordinarily uncomfortable when I do not write.

Writing is how I’ve chosen to make sense of the world for years now. Writing was my sanity during my childhood and difficult adolescence, my most trusted friend in young adulthood and my faithful ally now. Writing was and is my constant companion, the way I chose to sharpen my skills of observation and expression, the thing that made me feel sane when the world was falling apart. (Or if not sane, then, at least, marginally more able to cope. I’ll take what I can get.)

I write because it feels good. I write because it helps me make sense of the world. I write because there is a pressure inside me, and the writing bleeds that pressure off. I get paid for writing, true–but that’s merely a recent development. My writing life has spanned a good twenty-five years, and it’s only in the last four or so that it’s paid enough to be considered a decent living.

Don’t get me wrong. I love making a living from writing. To be able to make a living from the thing that makes me feel most alive is a gift I will always be grateful for, and one I intend to hang onto for as long as people will read the stories I spin. As Louisa May Alcott once said, I have taken Fate by the throat and I intend to shake a living out of the bitch. I am determined that if my career goes south, it will not be because I’ve given up. It will not be because I’ve stopped trying.

But.

I am going to be writing as long as my body and mind permit such an activity, whether I am paid or not. I cannot not write. I literally don’t feel right if a day happens along that I don’t write. I can only think of a handful of days in the past decade when I haven’t been able to write, and most of that handful have diary entries to mark them, so I’m not sure they count. Writing is just what I do, and if it is an addiction I don’t particularly mind. I don’t know what might happen anymore when I don’t write, simply because any attempt I make not to write during a day results in extremely uncomfortable tension. I wouldn’t hesitate to call it anguish, even.

So, I write because I must. I have grown accustomed to it, it seems, much as I’ve grown accustomed to caffeine.

Yet I also write to please myself. I listen to editors who help me make a book better and I listen to Readers and reviewers, of course. But when it comes right down to it, you have to get something out of the hours a day you sit, day after day, and pour out the words to make a novel. If you’re not getting some pleasure or enjoyment out of the process, it’s not going to end well. When all is said and done, I revise to please my readers, of whatever stripe they be.

I write, I create, solely for my own pleasure. And what a marvelous pleasure it is.

When I was about twelve, I got a set of Mary O’Hara books–the Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming novels. (Curiously, though, I have never read My Friend Flicka.) Thunderhead was a magnificently ugly white horse, and he could run. He didn’t care if it was on a racetrack or with the herd. When he decided to, something would go off inside him, and he would shift into a curious, floating gallop and leave everyone else in the dust.

This made quite an impression on me. Because every day, when I am writing, I feel like I’m doing the thing I was made for. I feel like Thunderhead probably felt when the explosion happened inside him and the gallop took over. Making a living from writing is damn fine, and I don’t ever intend to stop. I’ll do it as long as the Readers let me. Still, like Thunderhead, I don’t care if I’m at the racetrack or a city street, a meadow or a canyon or the surface of the moon. Every day, that explosion goes off inside me…

…and I write. I really can’t see doing anything else.

For what it’s worth, that’s the clearest explanation I can give of why I do what I do. Your mileage may vary. The world is an odd place, and we are forced to make sense of it in whatever way we can. Mine is with words.

What’s yours?

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Events! And Cold Comfort.

It’s Monday, and another scorcher. I spent my Sunday putting together an Ikea dresser. I triumphed, but just barely. Between the dresser and rock climbing, my knees look like hamburger. I could, i suppose, stop using my knees to brace myself as I clamber up the wall…but I doubt that’s going to happen.

Anyway. There’s an interview with me over at the Book Mogul. And this Thursday at 7pm I will be signing at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s! Come on by, if you like. I will be reading from Defiance, the Strange Angels book that won’t be released until spring 2011. So now’s your chance to hear a little of What Happens Next with Dru and her (occasionally) merry crew.

Things have calmed down immensely. There’s a sense of the storm being past. When you decide to no longer deal with someone who creates drama like a thunderstorm creates lightning, there’s a certain relief. I can deal with the guilt of not being able to help –I did literally all I could, and not only am I at a loss to figure out what more I could do, so is everyone else involved in the situation. In other words, things didn’t go belly-up for any lack of work on my part.

Cold comfort, maybe, but you take it where you find it.

And with that, I’m out. See you later, alligators.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

That Dreaded Syllable: Saying No

Recently I’ve been asked about writing advice that isn’t geared specifically toward new writers or those looking to “break into” print. It’s not often I write about those further along–because careers, like people, are pretty unique, mostly, and any advice I’d be able to give might backfire terribly in someone else’s arena. But I figure what I’m about to say is Reasonable Life Advice as well as Publishing Advice.

My Friday the 13th started about 24 hours early. The 12th was one of the more bizarre days I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying something. I’ve found myself today having to say no, in both personal and professional (albeit completely unrelated) situations.

This is not easy.

In the first place, I was raised not to say no when someone pressed an emotional hot button–something like “I need you now.” My only value was how compliant I was, and I was trained well and thoroughly that compliant was what I needed to be to survive. For years it has been extraordinarily easy for anyone I cared about to get pretty much anything they wanted out of me, just by appearing needy or in-crisis enough. Now, taking care of your friends isn’t a bad thing–but you need to be cautious who you call “friend” if that’s a commitment you want to make.

If it’s very distressing for you to say no, you can bet a certain type of person will sense that. And a series of painful games may begin, with you trying to make this type of person happy and avoid saying no. And it can’t be done. You will be sucked dry like an orange slice, and they, flush with stolen vitality, will find another victim. It’s wreckage waiting to happen, and it happens every day.

As a female, too, it’s presumed that I don’t say no. It’s difficult for me to outright refuse someone, especially in high-stress situations. There’s a huge weight of cultural disapprobation involved in a woman saying “No.” Over and over, in many implicit and explicit ways, women are told that it’s necessary to play along, be gentle, be nice, spare everyone’s feelings. And God forbid you should say “No!” and stick to it, or listen to the inner voice that warns you of danger. Then you’re a bitch.

When it comes to working in publishing, another layer of uncertainty and pressure is added. If you say no, there’s always a chance you won’t be invited back. To be a writer is to be a freelancer, and to be a freelancer is profoundly unstable. Every “no” must be weighed against the damage it could do down the road.

You’re beginning to see why a “No!”, whether diplomatic or not, is an act sometimes fraught with danger.

Most often, my “no”s are part of a long process that involves me taking several barometric readings. In the case of a personal no, I usually discuss things with a friend I can trust. I tend to “chew it until the flavor’s gone” and agonize over how hurt someone will be if I say that dreaded single syllable. It takes a lot to make me close up and stop giving.

When it comes to saying no in the writing world, I have to balance the prospect of possibly not getting paid against the trouble the job will take, and how I interact with the editor, and a whole host of other issues before I even get close to saying no. I also often run a prospective “no” past my agent, partly to check in with the longer-term plan for my career and also to get her opinion on the best and most diplomatic way to refuse. It takes a while.

A great deal of my life lately has been saying no in small ways with people I trust. Just to check out what happens when I do so.

And you know, I’m discovering the damndest thing: most of the time, a no given in those situations isn’t really a big deal. The person you say that dreaded single syllable to shrugs and goes on to star in their own life movie. It doesn’t make the sun go out or the world end.

But in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve had to say no in a personal situation where I’ve felt unsafe to refuse, and yet compelled to do so. All my emotional hot buttons have been pushed, and the fact that I was also agonizing over saying no in a professional situation just made it worse. (I should stress again, the two events were in no way related. Except temporally. Bad luck, that.)

It’s been incredibly difficult. I’m fighting against my conditioning, my upbringing, and fighting in the face of a very real fear to say “no” and stick with it. My friends–those I can trust, those who I’ve practiced the little tiny “no”s with–have closed around me like a protective wall, each in their own warm way. I am told over and over again that it’s OK for me to draw my boundaries, that I am not, in fact, crazy, that I have a right to protect myself, and that they love me just as much as ever.

But it’s still tremendously difficult. And the fact that I care for and want to protect the person I’m having to refuse is extraordinarily painful.

Saying no professionally has consequently been more upsetting than usual. It may mean I don’t work with a particular editor again, but it’s a chance I have to take. I pride myself on giving my editors what they need, and I try very hard to be reasonable to work with. Having to refuse, especially when it’s really nobody’s fault and just a mess-up, is utterly crazymaking, and contributes to a round of professional second-guessing and doubt that makes a hurricane look like a teapot tempest.

Which leads me, in a roundabout way, to my advice. If you want to make a career of writing, sooner or later you will have to say “no” to something. Spend some time thinking about saying no. What it means to you to refuse, if you can do so with little angst or if it’s a hot-button issue with you. Figure out how to do it gracefully, figure out if you need backstops and people to talk to before you actually utter the dreaded syllable. Cultivate those habits and the comfort with that one little word now. Being unprepared when the time comes to say it is very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I can only imagine how badly I’d feel if I hadn’t been working on this very issue for months.

Now I’m going to go do some deep breathing. And, my dear Readers, if you can, help me out here. What helps you say no? Have you found a trick to it? Do you agonize over it, or is it no big deal to you?

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

By Yourself

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. Check out Readers On Deadline and Dame Toni’s excellent post this past week!

Writing is a lonely job.

Yes, you have to deal with people. You have to be personable and professional. You do have to know how to deal with editors, agents, fellow writers, and fans. You go to conventions, you go to signings, you use social-networking because marketing means you must. But that’s only a small (albeit significant) part of a writer’s career. The icing on the cupcake, as it were.

The rest of that cupcake is you and the words. You, sitting in front of your typewriter or keyboard, you with the pen in your hand and the blank paper in front of you. You, you, you.

Nobody else.

This is why I say writing is a lonely job. Even while collaborating, YOU have to do YOUR part of the work. It doesn’t get done by itself. YOU need to carve out time to get YOUR work done. You need to make sure you have the emotional and physical resources to spend on the writing–because writing, like any other activity, takes energy. You must fill the well you’re drawing on, or you’re courting burnout. Which is no fun.

Writing, like any creative endeavor, requires a certain amount of solitude.

We all know about the lone, creative artist. Solitude is an important route to creativity; indeed, research on creative and talented teenagers suggests that the most talented youngsters are those who treasure their solitude. However, the artist in all of us must risk disconnection, for forging a happy and worthwhile life—and navigating through that life fully and gracefully—is itself a creative act. –Ester Buchholz, Psychology Today

Yes, I have a point. I am edging my way toward it, because you’ve all heard me say this before. Here it is:

If you want to have a long-term sustainable career as a writer, a critical component is prioritizing the time you need not only to write, but to be alone with your thoughts, alone with yourself. Solitude is not a luxury, it is a necessity and prerequisite. The responsibility for getting it is yours.

Writers, especially women writers, are used to mortgaging bits of themselves. There’s the day job, and the kids, and the Significant Other, and the bills, and the minutiae of daily life. It’s easy for writing to get lost in the shuffle, to fall through the cracks, for you to say “I’ll get around to it when…” When the dog gets better, when the kids grow up and don’t need me, when the grass doesn’t need mowing, when the groceries don’t need to be picked up, in a little bit, tomorrow, not today, some other time.

These are the little nibbles that eventually end up killing our souls. Or less dramatically, killing the strength and time we need to write.

Did I feel guilty when I ignored the laundry so I could finish a book? You bet. Did I feel terrible each time I was interrupted during a crucial scene by a diaper emergency or some other damn thing and I felt a flash of resentment? Yes. Do I even now sometimes feel like a bad mother/person because I do things purely to keep myself awake and alive (in Peter Gabriel’s words), when I should be sacrificing every moment and every waking thought to someone else’s needs? Sure. Do I feel bad that I’m apparently such a selfish bitch that I sometimes need ten minutes to myself? Oh, hell yes.

I’d feel even guiltier if I let the writing slide. I don’t have the luxury of stopping now, because I’m a single mother and this is how I support my kids. In order to work effectively and turn out books some people (apparently, so far, knock on wood) want to buy, I need certain things. One of those things is a certain measure of solitude. I have skirted the edge of burnout and found out it’s not a place I like to be; it interferes with my ability to meet deadlines. So, even if it takes barricading the bathroom door (and since I’ve had toddlers and I still have neurotic cats, actual barricading is sometimes necessary) I’ve learned that taking some solitude is a necessary evil.

Bukowski once remarked that he needed solitude the way other men needed bread. I am not nearly the misanthrope he had the reputation of being, but I understand the principle. I have had to fight not only against the needs of people I’ve lived with, friends and companions, but against my own feeling of selfishness when I say, “No. I need time for myself.” I engage in the battle because writing matters to me, and having the time and energy to write matters to me. (Not least because it’s how I pay the rent.)

No day is so busy you can’t set aside ten minutes to write. Ten minutes of effort every day is better than saying “I’ll write for hours tomorrow, or the day after, or when this crisis is over, or when I have time…” Don’t weekend-warrior it. Little chunks of daily effort will help send the signal to yourself that you are serious about this writing thing, and that you have a right to be serious about it. That you have a right to do something you love for a small amount of time each day. This can be a stepping stone to larger chunks of time, or you may find out that you’d rather weave baskets or something during those ten minutes.

I should probably warn you about this, too. Treating writing as a priority (and getting in the habit of not getting derailed) has a funny way of helping you enforce healthy boundaries in other areas of your life. In sick systems, including some relationships, you’re not supposed to set boundaries. You are supposed to be ever available, a resource to be thoughtlessly used and discarded. Setting boundaries and enforcing them may have unexpected consequences. Someone who has depended on you to be available and self-sacrificing 24-7 may see this tiny slice of time for yourself as a direct threat. It happens, and it’s not pretty.

Not every writer’s situation is so dire. Your true friends will understand when you occasionally say, “Not now,” or “Not today.” They will feel a momentary disappointment, but then they’ll go on to star in their own lives for the rest of the day. Most of the time, pretty much everyone you say “no” to on a daily basis will get over it. Your own feelings of “I should, I should” are much more insidious, much harder to deal with, and much more dangerous.

In the end, you are the only person who can decide how much solitude you need, how important it is, how to get it, and what the consequences are likely to be. You are the only person who can decide if it’s worth the price, the work, and the effort. This is a lonely job, but at bottom it’s not really any lonelier than the choice you make to keep getting up in the morning and going into an office or to any other job. It’s just that the independent-contractor aspect of writing lays that choice a little more starkly bare.

This is all up to you.

It is indeed a lonely job. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Even if it is–slowly, grudgingly, fighting through my stubbornness–teaching me how to live.

But that’s (say it with me) another blog post.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.