Tag Archives: writing

A Reason to Wake Up in the Morning

“Man, I really hate it when I visit an author’s web page and they haven’t updated in months, or even years,” a friend said last week at a writer’s retreat in Maine. The others with us agreed.

I didn’t say anything. Because, well, because I was one of those people, and I’m not proud of it. But I’m here to make it right.

What took me so long? Well, I wasn’t sure I had anything worthwhile to say about being a working writer with one published book, three that are not, and two in progress.

But come to think of it, I have plenty to say.

Five years ago, I wrote a young adult book, got a magnificent agent who found me a wonderful editor, and it was published. Published! My dream come true! Even better, it was well received, making its way onto a bunch of “must read” lists, getting a Kirkus starred review, and winning a few awards. I was invited to speak at conferences and libraries and bookstores, and sit on panels and lead writing workshops. I visited a bunch of schools and met scores of bright-eyed middle school and high school kids (and teachers and librarians) who sparked in me joy and hope for the future.

Also, I signed an offer for a two-book deal.

A two-book deal! I was, to put it mildly, crazy excited. And then it fell through. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that authors are not always treated with respect in the publishing business, indignities were suffered, and my agent pulled the deal. And even though we tried, we did not find another editor in another house who wanted to publish my work.

Yeah, it sucked. And yes, I have cried and raged and railed over this a lot. I pondered—for about a nanosecond—ditching this whole writing thing and finding a job in retail. Something I could do where I didn’t have to think, or agonize, or feel stripped naked (in a literary way) and rejected on a regular basis.

But I got over it. Why? Because I had to. I had no choice.

Because writing is my ikigai.

A young friend shared that word with me recently (thank you, J), and it is perfect. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being,” “the thing you live for,” or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”

Even though I have three completed novels without a publishing home (yet), the thing I live for is the project I’m working on right now.

When I wake up in the morning, it is with an exciting new world in mind, peopled with characters I’ve come to love who speak to me in idle moments sitting in traffic, waiting on line at the bank, and when I’m drifting off to sleep at night and have to switch on the light one more time to jot down a new idea before it darts away.

Every book I work on is, in my heart, a best seller, and whether that ever proves to be true or not, I adore believing it. Exploring and attempting to harness ideas and stories and imagination is exciting. It is magic.

To quote Stephen King, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

For the record, I feel in my bones that I’ll be published again. Maybe soon. (Book #4 is pretty awesome, just so you know.) But even if another publishing contract never comes across my desk again, I’ll be okay. Because writing is water to my soul, it gives me a reason to wake up in the morning. And even on days when the words aren’t flowing and I only get a sip, I am still drinking magic.

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While I Wait: Contemplating My Dog (and Existential Angst)

Remember that song Mr. Rogers sang on his old TV show, the one that goes something like, “let’s think of something to do while we’re waiting, while we’re waiting for something to do?”

No? Anyway, it’s a song, and I’m thinking of it, because I am waiting (and hoping) to have a new book out in the world. Soonish? Maybe. But in the meantime, I wait.

So what is something I can do while I’m waiting, while I’m waiting, for something to do?

Ah, I know. I shall write a blog about Stuff I’m Thinking About While Waiting.

Let’s see. At the moment, I am thinking about chocolate. And cheese popcorn. And sweet potato fries. (Geez, I must be hungry.) But I’m also pondering deep stuff these days, way deeper. Like life, death, and the meaning of life. In fact, I think I’ll write about the night my dog Layla rescued me from a vortex of existential angst. Dogs and existentialism—how’s that for deep?

Here’s how it started, (although I’m not proud of it): with a glass of wine. I do not recommend this right before bed when one is already sad. It only makes you sadder and more susceptible to the vortex. But I’d been dealing with my mom and dad, who are both failing in big and small ways. They are old folks now, with a whole lot of sand in the bottom of the hourglass, and only a handful of grains left on top. It is a long, sad goodbye, and sometimes it can rip the heart out of my chest on a regular basis.

So anyway, back to the wine and the vortex. I was sitting on my bed with my hubby and Layla, my sweet 5-year-old miniature Australian shepherd. She is a sweet, smart girl with intelligent brown eyes that look into your soul, I tell you. This dog (despite the “miniature” thing—she’s a medium sized dog, about 30 pounds) has personality. She communicates. And she and I, we know each other. So there I was, sloshing wine on the bedspread and talking about my parents, feeling overwhelmed, and I started to cry. I couldn’t bear for one more moment, the knowledge that my parents are going to die, and that I will be witness to this enormous loss. How will I survive that unavoidable reality, I wondered? My husband tried to comfort me—something he is usually stellar at doing—but this time, I was inconsolable. I was dealing with death, with oblivion, with what the heck is this all about? How can we be expected to endure an existence where we lose everyone and everything precious to us?

By this point, I was weeping and heartbroken over loss I hadn’t even been clobbered with yet, but know is coming. So as I wept and railed and felt there was nothing, nothing in this world that could comfort me or distract me from the agony of life and loss, Layla came up from her spot at the foot of the bed, planted herself in front of me, and stared at me. She forced her wet nose into my face and made me look at her, made me see her. This made me cry harder. Layla is my first dog ever you see, the only dog of my lifetime.

“Someday you will die too, Layla,” I sobbed with renewed fervor. “My God, some day this beautiful little dog buddy of mine will die, and I will have to witness it. How will I ever, ever bear that?”

Layla’s response was to lick my face and look deeper yet into my eyes. Those bright brown eyes seemed to say, “I know, Cal, I know. It’s sad and it hurts and it’s so very hard. It doesn’t seem fair, but hey, guess what, we’re here now. You’re here. I’m here. We are in this together and we have now. Now.”

Then Layla licked me all over my face, licked up my tears and stuck her tongue up my nose until I had to laugh at this dog all up in my face, getting me slobbery with dog love and dog comfort. My sobbing morphed into laughter. And crazy, wild, unexpected joy. I hugged my sweet puppy girl, nestled my nose in her soft fur, felt her presence, her warmth, the vibrant life of her. And I felt better. Layla made it clear to me that we are here now, and this is no small thing. We have this. This.

So yeah, I get it. In this context, the waiting is not so bad. The something to do while I’m waiting, while I’m waiting for something to do, is to live, and love, and celebrate every second of “now” that I can get my hands on, with my husband, with my parents, with my exceptional daughters, with my amazing, sweet, extraordinary, empathic dog.

Here’s to NOW. Thank you, Layla. ❤

layla

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How Do You Write a Book? First, You Start with a Lump of Clay…

Writing a book is not an easy task. Sometimes the process smacks me around, throws me into despair, wounds my pride, and yet, I keep coming back. Why? Because I simply cannot help myself. Because sometimes it goes right, and when it does, it feels like the best high ever. It feels like being madly in love and finding out the object of your desire loves you madly right back.

Right now, my latest book and I are temporarily at odds, but this is my fault. I was so excited, I wanted to rush the process. But it doesn’t work like that. Sure, cake batter takes about a half hour at 350 degrees to become a cake. A baby takes nine months to become a little human. But a book is done….when it’s done. You can’t set a timer or circle a date on the calendar.

Today, I’m thinking of an analogy I use a lot when I talk to high school kids (or anyone, for that matter) about the writing process. I find the best way to start writing a book is to pound out a rough first draft. I turn off my inner editor, and just let it out, in all its messy, creative, unformed beauty. Then, I have my lump of clay.

lump of clay

Sure, it’s just a blob, and it’s kind of ugly, but at least I have my blob! Hooray! It’s a start! Then little by little, I begin to smooth it into something with a little more form. Editing, brainstorming and re-writing give it more shape and structure.

Sierra Exif JPEG

Then, more editing. MUCH more editing…so that something hidden within the blob begins to emerge.
Sierra Exif JPEG

With time and dedication, little by little, that lump of clay starts to LOOK like something. Hey, this looks like a story! Maybe even a good story! I start thinking to myself…you know what, I know how to do this! I can love and smooth and craft this thing into something wonderful, I know I can.

Sierra Exif JPEG

And so, a few weeks ago, I typed “THE END,” and full of excitement and joy and pride and anticipation–“Look what I made!”–I sent my manuscript out to my agent and others for honest, give-it-to-me-straight critiques. The more excited I got about it as I waited for the responses, the more I imagined in my head that it might just be something good, something beautiful. Something, perhaps, like this:

bowl2

Uh. But no. This is not how my manuscript was received. It was reality check time. Although the critiques were extremely encouraging overall, it was clear I had not sent out a finished, beautifully crafted work of art. Instead, I worried that I’d actually sent my cherished one out into the world looking something like this:

clay6

Okay. Cue the insecurities. (I suck at this! I’m delusional! Gaaaaahhhhh!) Yes, I railed for a little while. (In truth, it was only a few hours, but still…) Once I calmed down, I was able to embrace the kinder truth. No, my manuscript is NOT ugly. It will not make children run away on the streets crying, “dear God, what is that THING??” The truth is much easier to take. My manuscript is still a thing of beauty. It’s just not READY. It needs more editing, more polishing, more shaping. And so, within my process, I’m probably more realistically somewhere around here:

paintpot

There is still work to be done, and I’m ready, willing, excited, (and yes, obsessed) enough to do it. Writing a book is not an easy task, and even though I have one published novel out there in the world, I am still learning. In fact, I doubt I’ll ever stop learning. There is more work ahead, more time to focus on this manuscript, much more love to give it. And it will be ready when it’s ready.

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