It all started with that damn table.
We have a table that we use for performances. It’s big. Solid wood. Pretty heavy, but I could shift it myself, which made me proud. “Stronger than I look.” “Wiry muscles.” “I can do it.”
Until suddenly, I couldn’t.
Then I started getting a feeling like standing on the edge of the high dive: pounding heart and shortened breath. Only I’d be reading a book on my couch, Guinness curled at my feet.
“I think you may have a bit of anxiety,” my doctor said.
But that damn table. That damn table kept getting heavier. During shows, my breath control shook like a faulty foundation. I couldn’t switch from sprinting around the stage to strolling on singing. I had a blood test done and got so tired that I crashed a friend’s house to steal a half-hour nap between work and choir.
Most importantly: I couldn’t write. Oh, I’d try. I’d sit down with an outline and a heap of images and an idea of where I wanted the story to go, but the words came out like mud: ugly and thick. I know what it’s like to soar on story, and I was barely crawling.
And so I felt very bad about myself.
I said some not-very-nice things to myself.
I called my mom a lot.
Then the doctor called with entirely unsurprising news. Anaemia. Again. Though my iron stores are not objectively low, apparently I kind of suck at making blood.
But more than that—I think I burnt myself out. Too many late nights. Too little recovery time. Too much weight on my shoulders; too much stress that I’d simply swallowed down until my body said, “F*** you, f*** this, I quit.”
So I made an agreement with myself: a week off. Any previously booked appointments and commitments, I’d do, but nothing else. No writing, no submitting, no worrying about writing. Just reading, music, and early bedtimes. At that point, I was desperate enough to try anything.
We’re nearing the end of that week, and it’s been…hard. In creative and freelance careers, busy-ness is next to godliness. We must always be working. Always eager for more. If we cannot—if we cannot produce, if we buckle under the constant strain—we take it as a sign that our secret fears are true—we are not tough enough for this vocation. We may as well go home.
It’s easy to call shenanigans on that when someone else is going through it. It’s a lot harder when it’s you.
As I’ve said before: in order to have a long, fulfilling creative life, we need to not die in the process. Sometimes that means sharpening the saw. Taking a week off. Getting one’s health in order.
You cannot create if you are dead or dying.
And yes, I’m still working on it. Honestly, the sense of failure is hard to shake. “I did nothing this week! I’m not a real writer! I’m falling behind!” But at the same time, taking time now can save time later on. Along with making the road more pleasant. I hear treks are easier when one has sufficient red blood cells.
So I’m taking care of my creative life by taking care of myself. And pretty soon—
I’ll be moving that damn table, all by myself.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I’ve been listening to this young man for a while: boy sopranos like this don’t come along very often. His voice is doing some really interesting things as it matures. The distinctive treble “ring” may be gone—but it’s getting the unearthly, uncanny quality of a good countertenor (especially in the lower register), and the mezzo notes are exquisite.
In any case, hats off to a very fine musician!
I have a story for you. Last year, the fabulous Bryan Lincoln asked Blythe and I to voice a story for the Drabblecast. Blythe narrated; I had a few lines. It was a very touching story about friendship entitled “All of Our Past Places,” by a writer named Kat Howard. As Bryan can attest, I squee’d through most of the recording. This story hit a very particular nerve of mine, and I filed the author’s name away.
Once I started paying attention, I saw her work popping up other places. So I read more stories. And they also punched my very particular buttons—beautiful stories, different stories, stories I wish I’d written. Intensely curious now (“Who is this writer???”), I checked out her blog.
And way back in the archives, there was this:
“You must learn that you cannot wait around for inspiration to show up, but must find it, whether by being open to ideas or by refusing to get up from your desk until you have 250 new words. You must learn that strange double self, of having an ego large enough to sit down at the notebook and pick up the pen in the first place, yet still able to sublimate itself in pursuit of the best story. You must learn how to have deadlines in lieu of a social life, and how to keep working even on the days the rejections make you weep.
You must learn to pare away everything, until all you have left is that core of what’s most important, and then build your life outward from that. Then, you will be a writer.”
I needed that tonight. Because while I’ve been cranking out words like a madwoman, I’ve also been terrified. Terrified because the rejections keep coming on the short stories. Terrified because this novel is so different from Heartstealer, and while I think I’ve untangled the worst of the plotting issues, I won’t be certain until it’s finished. Terrified of the play I’ve been noodling for over a year, because I need to get this one right, but if I do get it right, I have no idea what to do with it.
Sit down at the notebook.
I’m scared I’m not a real writer.
Pick up the pen.
And I do, but sometimes I want to buckle under the immensity of it all. For two years, I’ve had two very different sets of teachers. I’ve had the writers and faculty at Stonecoast, and I’ve had the examples of my friends and colleagues in the podcasting community. (You know the one I mean. Podcasting has changed; the community has remained.)
And so I find myself at a crossroads. Traditional publishing, gatekeepers, knocking on every SFWA-recognized door. And self-publishing, crowdfunding, throwing stories up on Smashwords and the Kindle Marketplace.
Pare away everything, until all you have left is that core.
And I’ve thought about this before. I even wrote a poem about it. But I don’t—see, here’s the thing. I very much like paying rent, and eating things other than red-beans-on-rice. And yes, I think that hybridization and versatility offer the best chances for survival. But I don’t want to go around the gates. Dammit, I want to break through them.
Keep working, even on the days the rejections make you weep.
I do. And trust me, there are days I look at my words on the page and I look at the form rejection, and I feel very small and cold and I whisper, “What the hell is wrong with my writing? What the hell is wrong with me?”
But I keep going. Sometimes I’m not sure why. Arrogance? Pride? Sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness?
I don’t know, but it’s what I’ve got.
Build your life outward.
Every writer has taught me something. Every experience—good, bad, or ugly—has taught me something. I have learned that I want to make art. I want to write beautiful stories, stories that mean something, stories that will last.
An ego large enough.
It’s embarrassing to look back now, but man, I played the “young writer” card so hard at first. And yes, I was producing podcasts and signing contracts awfully early. While that’s neat, there was always this ticking clock hanging over me. You see, eventually, those precocious young writers grow up. And then what?
I don’t want to be precocious anymore.
I want to be good.
I want to learn.
You must learn.
So really, I’ve talked myself back around to something I already knew. I’m in this for the long haul. I have absolutely no idea when my bubble will finally burst—when I’ll tip over the cusp and actually start becoming a professional at this. But I know that until it happens, I’ll keep trucking along, business as usual.
Then, you will be a writer.
And a final thought: there is something about writing that I find particularly wonderful. You never know where your words will travel. You never know how they’ll find their way to someone, right when they need them most.
So thank you, to my unexpected teacher for tonight.
Once again, you hit a very particular nerve…
What I’m Listening to This Week
Did you know the Downton Abbey theme has lyrics? As it happens, it does! We’re back to Mary-Jess, because why not?