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Butt in chair, fingers on keys.
I can’t even guess how many times I’ve heard those words or something like them, all meaning the same thing – my job as a writer is to show up for work, no matter what. No waiting around for inspiration, dilatory muses, or “being in the mood.”
Knowing, of course, is not the same thing as doing. Since finishing Swimming North and sending it out into the big wide world to seek its fortune, I’ve found an alarming number of reasons not to fully engage with another WIP. I’ve been sick, I’ve been busy, I’ve been working on author promotional materials, I’ve been brainstorming, I’ve been planning, I’ve been reading comparative titles just in case an agent falls in love with Swimming North and asks for such things.
But I have not been writing.
And last night I finally admitted to myself that this is largely out of fear. Yep – my name is Kerry Schafer, and I am a cowardly writer. Swimming North, much as I love it, was an ordeal at times. Some of the revisions left scars on my own psyche, I swear. I don’t want to go through that again – spending the hours creating, polishing, refining – only to realize in the end that these words, these characters that seem so beautiful, are actually harmful to the book itself and must be excised.
I’d like a little magic writing dust that would allow the perfect draft the first time through. And so, I am afraid to create anything because it may never see the light of day. I am afraid to commit to a new project because it is so much like being married, and you just never know when you dive in what the outcome will be.
Seriously. The old fashioned marriage vows might just as well be recited by every writer sitting down to write a novel. “For richer for poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.” That’s what it’s all about. None of this dabbling while the writing is easy and then setting it aside for a newer, sparkly idea. If I’m not prepared to commit to another project, I’ve got no business calling myself a writer.
Once I realized that my problem was fear, there was only one course of action – start writing. I have a personal mandate that involves tackling whatever scares me. Which is how I found myself last night, butt in chair, fingers on keys, wrapped in a blanket to calm the fever chills generated by this ungodly bug I’ve picked up from somewhere.
I didn’t expect much. My brain was foggy, I couldn’t see where the plot was going. Still. I promised myself five hundred words, any caliber of words, for better or worse. And I discovered all over again that when I sit in the chair and move my fingers over the keyboard, writing happens. Maybe not awe-inspiring prose, but progress still. And by this morning I find myself committed, the structure of this novel finally coming clear in my mind.
“What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”
I have drained the well.
I know better. And yet, when I stop to measure the charge left in my physical, emotional, and spiritual batteries there’s not much more than a flicker. Just enough to drag through another day, so long as nothing big comes along, so long as I am not called upon for any acts of will and discernment.
Life isn’t going to stop for me. My job isn’t going to stop presenting me with difficult challenges and decisions. The kid still needs to get ready for college and I have a house to run and a family to love. The cat is sick. Second Son lost his glasses. The newsletter I edit for the DMHP association is coming up due again.
Meanwhile, I have new writing goals and plans. So much to do. So little time.
It’s not my fault, this time, but it is still my responsibility to seek the cure.
I know perfectly well what I need. Daily yoga. Long walks in the woods. Good books. Naps. Journal writing. Art. Time away from people. A whole day home alone in my jammies. I figure a month ought to do it.
This is where the daydream breaks up in hysterical laughter. A month? Not gonna happen. Maybe a day, if I’m lucky.
And so, I look for healing and refilling in the little things, in the odd moments scattered throughout the day. A picture that I love, hung where I see it every time I walk by. A hummingbird watching me hang out the laundry. A purring cat. A hug. Reading a great book. Talking to friends. Even just taking a moment to stand on my front porch barefoot, eyes closed, soaking in the energy from the world around me with every pore.
Not surprising that it’s been difficult to get words down on the page. There’s temptation to just hammer away, and although sometimes this is the right approach – butt in chair, hands on keys, right? – I know it’s the wrong one now. There is a time for everything under the sun, and sometimes that means just being kind to yourself and giving the creativity well a chance to refill.
In her lovely book The Right to Write, Julia Cameron likens the writing life to the life of an athlete. For every fast mile, nine slow ones, she says. As a maintenance solution to the problem of draining the well she suggests weekly adventures, alone – dates with your creativity. This is a great idea, but it’s too late for that. For now I don’t need new adventures, I need time to process the old.
And so, I’m cutting myself some slack, setting aside the writing deadlines I’d set for myself to explore, gently, the writing that is talking to me. If I am kind to myself, I know that soon I will recharge and be ready once again to take on the world. And more importantly, to listen to the story that wants to manifest through me, and write it down.
I am sitting in a coffee shop, staring out at the ocean and reflecting on life and writing and the nature of things. The reason I am so far from my natural habitat is the life changing event of launching my eldest child into independence. He is hanging out on a college campus getting initiated and registered, while I am face to face with reality once again.
Once upon a time this young man did not exist. Even after he made his appearance in this world he was, for a space of time, still an extension of me: under my control, subject to my rules, knowing only the things I allowed him to be exposed to. Now, he is a fully autonomous being, about to go his own way in the big wide world. He is a creator of songs, stories, and original ideas. The world will be different because he is in it.
At fifteen, his younger brother is also an autonomous being who thinks his own thoughts and creates his own chain of events. But, like a work in progress, he is still subject to revision and polish.
In the synchronous way of things, my writing is at the same stage of life as my kids. Once upon a time, none of my books had existence.
If you write, you know how it is. A moment of chemistry, the meeting of ideas on the right day at the right moment, and a story is born. In the beginning of a new novel things are under my control – to write, or not to write. To allow this character to live and breathe, or to shut her up. And then, somewhere in the writing, the book takes on a life of its own. It insists on certain things, refuses others. My job becomes one of listening and shaping. Sure, I could insist on full control, but this stunts the writing just as it stunts a growing child.
Swimming North is complete, and has somehow taken on a life of its own, much like my eldest child going off to college. I can sign him up and help him pay his way, but what happens from this point is entirely up to him. The book is crafted, shaped, completed. Queries have launched it out into a larger world, to succeed or not to succeed, while I look on and try to catch my breath.
The current WIP, like my second son, still at home, has a personality and a will of its own and is no longer fully under my control. It is my responsibility to work with it – to see its strengths and weaknesses, to shape and polish and redirect and prevent it from going down paths I know lead to disaster. And when it is complete, to let it go out into the world as well.
I have no intentions of creating any more children. Books are a different story, so I guess I’d better get used to this.
So. It’s been a week since the last day of PNWA Conference. I’ve had time to let things settle, to think a little more about what I learned and what it means to my life as a writer.
I think the single most important concept that I carried away with me is the reality of writing as a business, not just something I do in a corner of my house because I like to play with words and characters and stories. It’s not like this is a sudden bolt of lightning from out of the blue – I’ve understood for a long time that publishing requires marketing efforts on the part of the author. But I had sort of compartmentalized the two things in my mind. First, write a good book. Second, find a good agent. And then – something, something, something. The All Knowing Agent would surely help and guide me.
Life doesn’t work that way. If something is important to you, if you want something done, nobody is going to figure it out for you. You can get help, but in the end you have to do it for yourself.
Maybe you are all more grown up than me, and learned this lesson years ago. Me? It’s not that I haven’t learned it, it’s that somehow it doesn’t stay learned. I should know better.
The first time it really sank in was after my husband died suddenly, leaving me with two kids, a job, an unfinished master’s degree and absolutely no understanding of our financial situation. I’m hopeless at numbers, he was good at them, and he had always taken care of the bills. It was an equitable arrangement. It worked. At least it worked until he was suddenly and dramatically NOT THERE. My beloved big brother and a friend stepped in, went through everything, and explained it all to me. They explained it clearly and concisely. And then they went back to their lives and I ran into one of those brick walls reality likes to set in our paths every now and then: I Am Responsible. I’m the one who needs to take care of this, I’m the one who needs to understand it. The way I live must now change not just once a month when the bills are paid, but daily. And, as it turns out, numbers aren’t my thing but I can manage just fine.
And now I am learning that lesson all over again with publishing. Planning my writing career is my responsibility. It’s part of everything – part of the writing, part of my social networking, part of who I am as a writer.
Change strikes again.
I’ve already taken steps. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll notice that I no longer identify myself as Uppington. This is sad for me. I’ve had a great deal of fun being Uppington. I hide behind her, let her be my public face. But, if I truly want my name known and recognized in the publishing industry, if I’m striving toward getting a book on the shelves with my name on it, I need to be known – as me.
Yesterday I registered a domain name and began planning an author website. That is going to take awhile, and in the meantime I’ll be here. But when the day comes to make that change, you’ll find me not as Uppington, but as Kerry Schafer. Writer. And business woman.