Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Expectations Just Can’t Catch a Break

So after writing my expectations post last week, I had the opportunity to talk to two different young women, both of whom I’ve known since my teaching days. In talking to both of them, I saw shades of my former battles, which directed me to another attack I need to make on expectations. Both of these young women inspire me. They are driven to challenge themselves to always be more, think more, do more, and affect the world in positive ways. Both of them are beautiful, inside and out. Talented. Courageous. Intelligent. Quirky. They are exactly the kinds of people I feel fortunate to know. And both them, these wonderful human beings, are struggling with making their ways under the weights of other people’s expectations. I hate this for them, but certainly remember it for myself.

I was almost incapacitated at their ages by the struggle of living up to everyone’s expectations for me, or worse, my assumptions of other people’s expectations. That dark fiction robs the inner self of its ability to go after what it wants, because that desire might run counter to all the “theys” and what “they” want.

I’ve seen this struggle by young people before. Middle school, which I adored teaching, is the very beginning of self expression, of testing out different friends and looks, wearing a bunch of different hats in order to see which one fits. It also is a very challenging time for parents, which I understand, but since I don’t have kids of my own, I still see the experience more through the eyes of the young people. And I see just how necessary it is for them. People who are denied the chance to find their own right path can end up living lives that will never make them happy, because they are not the lives the young people would have ever chosen.

I’m certainly not saying that young people should be given free rein, because that would be reckless, but I am saying it is important to allow every person the chance to find out who they are, separate from their families, religions, cultures, etc. And I’m sure it is a difficult thing for parents to give: love without demanding the surrender of control. But I do believe it is something that should be considered.

I guess the same may be said for relationships. I’ve been in them and been out of them, sometimes only to discover that the “me” I was in the relationship was a stranger, the amalgamation of my expectation of who I should be and their assumed expectations of who I should be. They never had the chance to know the real me. And that is kind of sad, but makes me grateful that through my writing, I’ve finally met the authentic me... and really like her.

Now as far as expectations go, living up to anyone else’s is a recipe for losing grasp of what is personally important. Losing faith in one’s self because no time has been invested in self, as opposed to the mystery of living up to what everyone else wants. When are young people taught that it is okay to listen to their own voices, follow their own paths, and live their authentic lives? Even when parents try to impart these lessons, we are programmed to fit into our herd and not step too far out of well-worn ground.

The trouble comes, as in my two young friends, when people are simply too amazing to fit within the narrow parameters of well-worn anything. They are daring, and they are doers. And to get to their best lives, they are going to have to find the confidence in themselves, the belief that they are worthy and right just the way they are, and they are going to have to allow themselves to shine, regardless of the forces that attempt to dull their spark.

I don’t have a magic pill for them (nor would I give it if I did) to get them to see their own limitless worths, but I hope I give them the things I do have to share: my complete belief in them and my never-ending support of anything they set out to do.

Ladies, thank you for inspiring me.

Quote for the Day from Anais Nin

“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Expectation: In Life and Writing

“When I grow up I’m going to be a...”

What? Astronaut? Ballerina? Rock Star? I had so many answers to that one statement. Of course, writer was the most common answer, but as a linear person, it was always easier to chart other courses. Do this, then this, equals success. Recently, I had a conversation with a lovely friend of mine who is doing her residency to become an orthopedic surgeon. I marvel at her dedication and ability to work insane amounts of hours, but, when we were talking, we realized that in some ways she is lucky to be on her linear path. I work almost as many hours as she does (between the day job and my writing), and she has the certainty that if she keeps working hard, she’ll get to her goal. For me, there are no guarantees that all that work and effort will get me to my goal. That has been one of the biggest struggles for me, being linear with a fictional goal, but like so many things in life, I think I needed something to put me off the expected.

I’ve always been a little too enamored with expectations, blueprints, timelines, and everything seemingly controllable. But the truth is, nothing about life is controllable and even those who seem to have it all together can watch it fall apart through no fault of their own. Best laid plans get rocked by life. It’s impossible to look at the world and not see this, and yet, I’ve held onto expectations of what life is supposed to be like. And I can tell you, from my own experience, that that is the quickest way to suck the joy out of life and is a recipe for a future of murky wallowing.

Some of the things I always thought would happen in my life haven’t. And these are the hardest things for me to share publicly, but for whatever reason, I think I should. Ever since I was a teenager, I expected to find that perfect person and get married (for a while there, I even expected to marry John Taylor of Duran Duran... funny how that didn’t work out). But that expectation hasn’t happened and the expectation itself poisoned a great many moments of my life. I felt for a long time that I had been denied something, left out, left behind, not picked in the great dodgeball game of life.

Now, I see something different. The expectation itself is the problem, the thinking that things are supposed to work a certain way and if they don’t, life is deemed cruel and whining ensues. And instead of taking the time to be grateful for the life we have, we throw out our gifts because they simply can’t measure up to our expectations.

It is true that I have never found the love I dreamed of, but I am so happy to be alive every day. This is what renouncing expectations and ending the feeling of entitlement have done for me. I am healthy, energetic, a dreamer, a writer, and have had the good fortune to be surrounded by an excellent family and absolutely wonderful friends. Life isn’t about what we don’t have, but what we do have and how we share the gifts we have been given.

I believe that expectation and entitlement in publishing goals can be just as toxic as in relationship goals. The ultimate question is: why we write? Is it for the glory and the fame or is it because we can’t imagine not letting loose the words lining up in our minds and hearts?

If expectations aren’t reined in, where do they end? It’s not like the relationship expectations end after finding someone? How do we expect to be treated? Do we communicate our expectations or simply judge the other person for failing to meet them? Do we have entirely unrealistic expectations about what marriage means? Do we expect marriages to be like the movies and when they aren’t, do we walk away from the people we promised to love all our lives? Do we expect for another human being to be responsible for all of our happiness in life? And while we’re busy expecting in our direction, do we do and give enough to our partner, who might be filled with as many unrealistic expectations as we have?

And in publishing, what is the expectation for success? How much do we expect from agents and editors? And our future readers? And our next books? Do we expect to be the next Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling, and if we don’t reach that goal, are we failing? Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind. Can you imagine if she felt like a failure for not publishing another book? Are we going to allow expectations (mostly unrealized... because they are impossible) to taint all the steps of our journeys?

I’m here to say that it is possible, because I know how many moments I spent feeling let down by a life that has given me so much. I don’t want to be that person anymore, and I certainly don’t want to be that kind of writer.

Quote for the Day from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Rhett:

“There's one thing I do know... and that is that I love you, Scarlett. In spite of you and me and the whole silly world going to pieces around us, I love you. Because we're alike. Bad lots, both of us. Selfish and shrewd. But able to look things in the eyes as we call them by their right names.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Friendships Born of Shared Dreams

Blogging isn’t an activity I ever imagined for myself, but there are many things about my life I never imagined. Not all of them have been pleasant, but each has provided the opportunity to become the person I am. In the past couple years of writing, I’ve come to terms with myself, accepted the things I’ve done, the mistakes that guided me, and quit (for the most part) beating up on myself for opportunities missed and for not achieving the summit of every mountain I yearned to climb.

When I look at the past year (and I have no idea other than a recent birthday why I am wandering through history), the growth (radical in some ways) that I have experienced has led me to redefine my own personal mission statement. This change has been fueled by new friendships with strangers I met online, from blogs. I talked to one of my writer/blogger friends yesterday, and in our very goofy conversation, I was struck by the power of these friendships born of shared dreams. My friend and I even talked about that, how even our nearest and dearest friends of old can’t quite grasp our writing journeys in the way that fellow writers can. My friend now has more long-distance friendships, just as I do (now, as I’ve mentioned before, I live far from old friends and family, so thank goodness for unlimited long-distance plans).

Writers share something... or maybe, better yet, dreamers share something. I remember hearing once a disparaging thing about dreamers... that all they are is dreamers, not doers (or something like that). But my rebuttal against this nameless foe is that “doers” can’t even get up without something to dream. And writers or anyone who seeks a goal must at their heart be a dreamer, a believer, and ultimately a doer in order to get things done.

I’ve been working this month to ease back, bring the joy back into my writing, and what that really means is allowing the dreamer back in. So much of querying and rejections sends the dreamer into a hollowed out cave inside our hearts. And I think the further we get on the path, the harder it is for that dreamer to endure. Think of that feeling, finishing that first story or novel with your dreamer still completely intact, knowing with certainty that anyone would be a fool to pass up your work. And then the rejection comes, baffling the dreamer.

My dreamer has become a bit of a wizened hunchback, cowering and preparing for the next blow. I reached the point where I didn’t allow myself to imagine what success looked like, becoming the dreamer-free doer. Sure, I kept right on writing because I’ve got the doer part locked down, but without the dreamer, the one who could see clearly what success looks like, who can imagine my titles in pretty covers sitting on my shelf, the fun and the joy evaporated. Not terribly surprising when you think about it.

So, August became this chance to reconnect with the dreamer, to allow the storyteller within to get free rein again. My progress report: August is the best month ever. I’m writing with zest again, racing to see what happens next, allowing my characters to completely have their ways with me, and delighting in the process again. It didn’t take much to reconnect and yet the source of my renewed connection is profound. In a word: it is Acceptance. Acceptance of myself and my life. Acceptance of the stories that are mine to tell. Acceptance that my path doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s and that this journey, the one I am lucky enough to be on, is mine alone. And yet, I am not alone. I am blessed to have two wonderful writer friends. One who makes me laugh, who shares the ups and downs, and critiques my writing with a zany fervor. And the other, who hones query letters like a phenom, has challenged all the walls I built around myself, challenged all the dark beliefs that kept me from happiness, and is the very reason I have a blog in the first place.

Thank you both for sharing your lives with me. And thank you to those who read my blog who may end up being new friends in waiting.

Quote for the Day from Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. "Pooh," he whispered.

"Yes, Piglet?"

"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw, "I just wanted to be sure of you."”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Dark Power of Prologues

I’ve wondered for a long time whether I like prologues, endure them, or hate them. And I’ve finally made up my mind. They are a force of darkness and must be stopped.

Case in point: a brand spanking new book by one of my favorite authors.

I followed all the usual steps when reading a sequel to a beloved book (i.e., rereading the original to be able to accurately remember the perfect bouquet created by the mixture of words, plot, and characters). Then I picked up the new book, feeling its weight, the smoothness of the paper, and the possibility it represented. I opened the book, with excitement filling my soul, and read the prologue.

What followed was not what I expected. I set the book down, looking at it as though it had bitten my puppies. Paced near it, worried it might jump up and swallow me like some creature in the Aliens movies. And, as a lifeline, I called a friend who had recently started the same book, begging her to read it quickly and tell me whether it ended well.

I am against reading the ends of books, or even the back covers if I can help it. They give too much away for me to be interested in taking the journey. I especially don’t like when a friend says, “You’ve got to read this book” and then precedes to tell me the entire plot. I might be finicky, but if I don’t have the chance to discover the story’s journey on my own, it’s unlikely I’ll ever pick it up.

And that’s what the evil prologue did: it told me the end of the book and I didn’t like it. I didn’t have the context or the chance to go there with the characters, because I already knew what was going to happen. And I hated what was going to happen.

So, I took some time reading other things while my friend read the book (I even enlisted another friend to read the book, too, so that I would have two perspectives on the ending).

On Saturday, my friend called and said, “Now, you’ve got to ask me very specifically what you want to know.” (Hey, good friends know us well, wonkiness and all.)

So, I asked very specific questions about the ending (not everything, just the one thing I felt I knew from the prologue). And I was right. And I lost it. Actual tears about fictional characters and an ending I didn’t want happening to them... or me.

(Now, in my defense, it is one of my favorite books with my favorite characters and I’d just come in from mowing my lawn in 80 degree heat and 90 percent humidity. Depleted might best describe me at that moment... or I’m a crazy person. Special thanks to the friend for not pointing that out.)

I ranted to my friend. She wanted to tell me more, because she said there was absolutely a reason for the ending. But I wouldn’t be appeased by that, declaring that it was a terrible ending regardless of anything else in the few hundred pages. My friend allowed the rant (and very wisely/kindly didn’t bring up the fact that in one of my own books, I killed one of her favorite characters... which I have not been forgiven for by any of my readers. I still get texts every once in a while protesting that action, in the hopes that I will bring the character back).

Finally, after my personal storm (maybe breakdown) subsided, I asked, “Do you feel hopeful about the ending?”

Her answer: “Yes.”

And that made my decision. Without taking the journey, the ending made me feel hopeless. It couldn’t get much worse than that, so I sat down and read the book.

And I loved it. Completely and totally. The writing was so beautiful I had to pause, as though every line was poetry to be savored, not devoured. And I did cry, but the ending was hopeful, well reasoned, and the temporary loss is offset by the new possibility of something much bigger. Yeah, I did cry, but in some ways, that is the mark of a tremendous author, who can get us to connect with fictional characters so much that we are personally invested in their lives, hopes, and dreams.

Now, back to the prologue. It wasn’t necessary. I would rather have taken the journey not knowing the end. I wouldn’t have gotten myself all in a fluster over the ending of the book if the prologue hadn’t existed. They are intended, in most cases, to be a teaser, but the teaser shouldn’t cause the reader to set the book down and walk away in horror.

I am certain each of us has different feelings about prologues, but I have resolved to never read another one... or write another one if I can help it.

In this case, the prologue did nothing but potentially keep a reader from a book. If I would have read the prologue in the bookstore, I would not have bought the book and would have been denied an amazingly beautiful story.

I’m curious what you think about prologues. Friend or foe?

Quote for the Day from Douglas Adams

“I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Writers Rehab

First, let me say this isn’t that kind of rehab. I have not been consuming vast quantities of mind-altering substances—no wait... I have, if you consider creativity as a mind-altering experience, which it certainly is. But other than creativity, I don’t really indulge in all that other stuff (heck, I don’t even drink caffeine), so this is a different kind of rehab.

This is the Joys of Writing Rehabilitation.

I mentioned recently that I’ve been taking my writing journey too seriously and that was cramping the fun and my ability to just let stories come into being without harshly judging every single word that met paper (or the computer screen). Since I’ve learned I’m not alone in this experience, I thought I’d write a blog about my rehab and the things I’ve learned so far.

Easing back isn’t really as easy as it seems or should be. After pushing hard for so long, it is very difficult to not push, to not query bunches, to not force another draft through the gears so that I can get more opportunities for success out onto the market.

I know every writer’s journey is unique, but with several agented friends, I must say that easing back comes with the uncomfortable feeling of being left behind. I am thrilled for my agented writer friends and look forward to seeing their novels (especially the ones I’ve read) in print, but the feeling of being left behind is something I struggle with as I try to take it easy. And the truth is, I didn’t even see this pressure affecting me until I started to slow down. Perhaps it has been an unseen driving force for a long time. If so, that’s a pattern I have to break. It’s unhealthy and certainly doesn’t foster the kind of writing sensibility I yearn to have. Everyone else’s successes/challenges in publishing have very little to do with me, other than my feelings of support, earnestly shared. My path is unique, just as everyone else’s is. That’s an important mantra to consider, because in the comparison of journeys lies ugly roots of envy and entitlement, instead of celebration of the uniqueness of each writer’s voice.

This makes me think of one of my favorite quotes from THE MOUNTAIN IS YOUNG.

"Is it not sufficient that to you something is given, not to be buried in the ground, but to use? Use it well, with no thought of success or failure..."

No thought of success or failure... that’s not an easy mark to reach, and yet, through just playing with words, imagining stories, and bringing the fun back into the writing process, I think the goal is a reachable one.

Since easing back has its own set of challenges, I’m just taking baby steps. Cleaning out my office to eliminate some clutter, playing around with beginnings to my work in progress, and trying not to take myself or anything too seriously. And I’m reading THE TAO OF POOH.

(I might have also made some of my favorite cookies and some homemade cinnamon rolls to help with the fun quotient, which was very successful I might add.)

Quote for the Day from THE TAO OF POOH by Benjamin Hoff

“When you know and respect your Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don't belong.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Something Wondrous

Sunday night, I was privileged to host a house concert for my favorite singer, Susan Enan. Earlier this year, she decided to tour the country singing in people’s houses. When she put out the call for houses to play in, I signed up even though I was terrified to have people in my house (I’m a lone writer most of the time for a reason). But I simply couldn’t let this unique experience pass me by because I knew I would regret it. You see, Susan Enan is more than just a singer I love; her music has provided the backdrop for many thousands of words. Almost every playlist I’ve created for my novels has included a song or two from Ms. Enan. The chance to have her play her beloved songs in my living room was truly like a bunch of birthdays put together. And the concert was truly a celebration.

I gathered up just about the most wonderful group of people for the audience (and they, knowing I am gathering-challenged, provided snacks, beverages, and moral support). In truth, after getting the house ready, the rest was really easy. What I was initially afraid of melted away because of the joy of introducing people to a singer/songwriter I love.

And then she sang. It was miraculous: her talent, her sensitivity to the performance, the way she captivated everyone in the room. I knew this would be a powerful event for me, but watching everyone else's reactions to the music was so humbling. Everyone was moved, some to tears. Music, I’ve always believed, allows us to connect with emotions we usually seek to control. Susan Enan’s music allowed us to connect with her and with each other in a way that only live music can. The moments we shared in my living room are special and will never be exactly duplicated. I’m so very grateful to have heard the music that facilitates my connection to my stories, stories I hope will one day connect with others.

Artists of all varieties are a kind of family. I felt that talking with Susan about her adventures in the music industry, and she easily understood the trials of the publishing industry.

And then, I took her to the State Fair and showed her a life-sized cow made entirely of butter.

We’ll be friends for life now. :)

Please check out Susan Enan's music, you won’t be sorry. And maybe her music will take you on journeys I will discover when I read your published novels. And think about hosting a house concert; there is simply nothing like it.

Quote for the Day from Susan Enan’s “Monoplain”

“We need to make some water but we’re all too tired to cry
So roll down your river ‘til your river runs dry”

Photographs were taken by my dear friend, Allison. Check out her talent here.