One of my life intentions is to relish the joy of self-expression. But lately I’ve been reluctant to say what I think, especially on social media and in my blog posts. This is partly because posting anything other than politics these days has felt trivial, and political conversations can easily erupt into flames. Putting out wildfires makes me anxious, and I don’t want to live in hatred and fear. I know from experience that crashes are inevitable when anger and fear take over the steering wheel of my life. Another reason I haven’t been relishing the joy of self-expression lately is that when the shit hits the fan, like it has these past few weeks in our country, I tend to think that the problems of the world are so much bigger than I am that nothing I have to say could possibly matter. Of course this isn’t true. It’s a lie fear tells me. I know there’s plenty all of us can do. Especially writers.
And yet, we each have to navigate our own path. We must decide for ourselves what types of advocacy are best suited to our temperaments, personalities, and resources. I’ve been asking myself, How can I serve? How can I do something positive? How can I love myself and others—especially people with whom I disagree? This last question is the hardest. I won’t pretend I have it answered. I just keep asking the question. Every day. And sometimes I’m surprised by what happens.
A few days before my daughter returned to college after winter break, we went to a wholesale florist and bought four dozen white roses. At home, I wrapped each one individually in cellophane and ribbon while my daughter attached handwritten notes that said, “Wishing you a wonderful day. Spread the love.” We handed the roses out to people on the street. Some folks were reluctant to receive; they couldn’t believe the roses were free. “Why are you doing this?” they asked. “We just want to spread some love,” we said, “and bring a little beauty into your life.” Giving really is receiving. We went home with empty buckets and full hearts because of connections and conversations we’d forged with strangers.
Another thing I’ve been practicing a lot lately is my light meditation. I sit for my regular mediation, but position myself in front of a window blindfolded. After twenty minutes, I remove the blindfold and keep my eyes closed. The darkness on the insides of my eyelids is replaced by golden light. I imagine this light inside me; that it’s the real me. In other words, I identify not with my pain, but with this light. I then try to “locate” my elusive spirit. I sit and listen, poised to receive guidance. I bask in the light until I feel that I am this light, which exists in every person on the planet, not just the people I like or agree with, but everyone. I envision the light radiating from every living thing, consider how we are connected, and I pray for us all.
To some this might seem like a waste of time. But for me it’s an essential practice. While anger and fear have their place, they can also be knee-jerk reactions. They are like smog in Southern California in that it’s everywhere. You’re so surrounded by it that often you don’t even notice it anymore. In our culture love is the radical choice, and during these crazy times, I intend to remain sane. The best way I know how to do this is to up my self-care practices: to back away from the ledge when I become dizzy and feel like I’m about to careen into a pit; to turn inward; to appreciate the larger picture of our humanity; to notice the blessings and light; to connect with my heart; to reach out to friends; and to have faith that things unfold the way they do for a reason.
How are you and your writing faring during these turbulent times? I’d love to hear how you’re coping, as well as ideas for random acts of kindness. How do you spread love?
Sometimes inner guidance sounds more like a whisper than a growl. It might stalk you from behind a flowering Camellia bush and distract you with red blossoms. It might tap you on the shoulder and then run away. It may wonder how many times or in what ways it needs to tell you the same thing before you’ll take its advice. But if your inner guidance is anything like mine, it will be patient—and it won’t give up until you receive its message. It will attract a variety of experiences designed to help you, though you may interpret them as obstacles instead of opportunities.
Even before reading Brooke Warner’s Green-Light Your Book, part of me—the part I consider my Wise Self—wanted to publish my memoir with She Writes Press. As I read Brooke’s book, my conviction only deepened. The problem was, another part of me, the one I’ve come to know as my Insatiable Ego, threw a temper tantrum and demanded external validation in the form of a traditional publishing deal.
Meanwhile, I devoured Brooke’s book, which I read twice, all the while nodding my head in assent, my gut resonating with empowering messages about creative partnership, sisterhood, and more.
I listed the pros and cons of publishing with She Writes Press in my journal. My enumeration of pros was long—a download from my Wise Self. The cons consisted of two demands and perceived needs: conventional compensation (payment) for my writing in the form of an advance and royalties, and a yearning for legitimacy as an author. “Legitimacy is an inside job,” my Wise Self said. It also reminded me that the financial picture under the traditional model isn’t so clear-cut anymore, especially with traditional publishers cutting secret hybrid deals and authors in both camps having to pay for publicity. “Besides, this isn’t about money for you,” my Wise Self said.
That was June. I completed my memoir a couple months later, but wasn’t ready to sign with SWP or to shop it elsewhere. I was in limbo.
In October, my memoir serendipitously fell into the hands of an agent who read my manuscript twice and seemed eager to discuss my book with me. Our conversation left me frustrated and confused, however. The gist of her feedback was that my book was fantastic but not right for traditional publishing. She had a whole host of reasons why, and over the course of the conversation told me that my book was too good for traditional publishing. What did that even mean? The upshot of this interaction was that I sent my book to two readers. The first said, “I’m sorry to say I am not the right reader for you.” The second, Gayle Brandeis, a writing professor and award-winning author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and other books said, “I love this book, and as a writer/dancer/seeker who has struggled with the swing between self-doubt and grand dreams—resonated with so much of it.” She told me that I wrote with honesty and heart and offered a couple constructive suggestions for improvement. Gayle’s comment about self-doubt and grand dreams struck a chord. When I followed up and asked her if the central problem in the story was clear, Gayle said, “The problem felt very clear to me: anxiety and your desire to heal it (even before you knew what it was) seemed to be at the heart of everything in the book.”
I was grateful Gayle “got it” and also for her succinct articulation of my memoir’s spine. But I was confused to receive such different responses to my work. Months earlier Brooke had said the book was done. We had discussed beta readers. “Won’t everyone have their own opinion?” I asked. “Couldn’t that be confusing?” Her response was “yes” to both questions.
My next step—publishing—nagged me. I know many authors who take the time to get feedback from multiple beta readers. And most of the SWP authors I’d spoken to had shopped their books to agents and publishers before choosing partnership publishing. Others, like SheWrites.com co-founder, Kamy Wicoff, turned down a traditional publishing offer from one of the Big Five after she ran numbers and believed she’d make out better financially publishing with SWP. But even she’d made the effort to shop—and she was a co-founder in the press with Brooke. Aside from Brooke, a publishing expert, none of the authors I’d spoken to had gone directly to SWP without shopping elsewhere. Was I crazy for wanting this? Did this mean I was giving up on myself or on my writing? Or, could my resistance to signing with SWP be an opportunity to heal old, destructive thought patterns? Maybe. Probably.
In November, I learned that the SWP author retreat was opening its doors to five members of the She Writes.com community. I jumped at the chance to go, and the experience didn’t disappoint. Brilliant women authors, a gorgeous desert setting, a lovely resort, and stellar author education provided a delicious experience filled with camaraderie, learning, and fun. How many publishers do this? None that I’d heard of! It was wonderful, but my prickly ego still wasn’t ready to sign with SWP. It was holding out for an old fantasy of traditional publishing, dangling a carrot beneath my nose. The problem was, I didn’t want to shop my book.
I told myself to be patient. The answers would come. I’d figure it out after the holidays. Maybe then I’d rally around the idea of shopping my manuscript. SWP was an excellent backup plan. I knew if I shopped my book, I’d have to crank out a new proposal. I’d already written a hundred-page proposal prior to writing my memoir. Agents complimented the writing, but tried to pigeonhole me in a way that felt off. At the time, I stopped shopping my proposal and wrote my book instead—with Brooke’s help.
The holidays came and went. I enjoyed a much-needed family vacation in Cancun. I am rested. I’ve had time off, yet I still don’t want to shop my book! I thought this might change with time. It hasn’t. “How long should I shop my book?” This is a question Brooke often gets. Her answer to me was, “How much rejection can you take?” To be honest, I don’t want any right now. I’ve had my fair share. Perhaps I seem like a wuss for not wanting to deal with the rejection shopping entails, but it also takes strength and courage to green-light your book. To say yes to yourself. To ignore the illusion that there’s one right way to publish. Or that one way is the way. Or that our value stems from what we do or achieve rather than being inherent to who we are. We are all worthy. We are all valuable. What I want from publishing is a positive, rich experience. I want to share my work with those who might find it helpful. And move on.
The root of the word author is “authority.” Authors have to be authors of their lives and careers as well as their stories. It is not enough to know what we want. Receiving clear inner guidance, as precious as that is, is one thing, but acting on it is something else. For months everything in my life had been pointing toward SWP, and yet, I hesitated. I lacked the courage, faith, and conviction to trust my inner guidance. I’d been digging up the same pile of bones only to bury them elsewhere in the back yard of my psyche. Well, I’m tired and I’m done with that. It’s time to go with my gut. The stomach has more nerve endings than the spinal cord; it’s known as the second brain. The heart too is an excellent guide. And mine has been murmuring “She Writes Press” for months.
As I write this, I realize my New Year’s resolution is to continue extracting myself from my ego’s gnarly claw and live in the subtle, yet radiant inner guidance provided by my Wise Self. Have you heard the expression “Let go or be dragged”? It’s 2017 and I’m letting go of old, outdated fantasies and moving forward with real-world opportunities. I’m saying “yes” to the dream of bringing my book into the world and ignoring old “shoulds” about how this is supposed to look. I’m going to sign with She Writes Press, and as I write this, I realize this is a victory for me on multiple levels. Many trails have led me to these people and this press, and I am grateful to have found fellow hikers—literary soul mates.
A few months ago, soon after I’d finished writing my memoir, Raw: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness, I had the opportunity to share five minutes of my work at a reading. While combing through my manuscript for excerpts, I found myself thinking, Hmm, maybe this writing isn’t as strong as I thought. The writing felt flabby and slow. I found myself tinkering with passages so they’d read better in a shorter timeframe, and wondered if that was okay. In past readings, I’ve mostly read my poems, complete works, each one featuring a beginning, middle, and end.
But my memoir is different. It took time to develop stories in that longer format—time I wouldn’t have in a five-minute reading. I wanted to give my audience the best bang for their buck, to make my reading worth their while. I wanted them with me from the first word to the last. I have been to too many readings where restless audience members pick cuticles, scrimmage inside purses, check iPhones, or stare out windows, all overt cues that they’re desperate for the reader to just finish already. This sucks for writers, but it also means it’s our responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Every time you stand up and read your work, you’re pitching it. If you don’t grab your audience, and keep them with you, they will not buy your book. I’ve given several readings from my memoir since that first one and here’s what I’ve learned: presenting an edited excerpt of your novel or memoir is a gift for your audience as well as your book! In order to most effectively share part of a long-form story in a short-form (time) venue, you will need to compress, collapse, or cut. You may also need to compose transitions, connections, or endings to create a satisfying, standalone experience.
The key is to view a time “constraint” as a container. Make it work for you in the same way specific poetry forms, such as the villanelle, shape a poem. If you honor the requirements of your reading venue and deliver a complete experience, if you craft your work with a particular reading in mind, you have a much better shot of connecting with and entertaining your audience. If you leave them laughing, crying, or nodding their head, they are with you.
I have a three-ring binder with ten edited excerpts from my memoir, along with a list of others I want to develop. At the top of each page I’ve jotted down how long the excerpt takes to read. Please note: read slower than you think you should. Take your time. Plant your feet on the floor. Let your voice rise from your belly.
Edited excerpts will serve you well even if you’re giving a featured reading and have thirty or forty minutes. Remember to consider your audience when choosing passages. Your excerpt filled with sex and “colorful” language, however well edited, might not go over so well at a conservative ladies’ luncheon. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen authors fall into this trap. You may want to share several edited excerpts that feature different flavors of your story, rather than one or two longer selections. Sadly, attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been, and while a passage might be perfectly paced in your book, it might not hold a listener’s attention. Consider crafting ten or twenty excerpts of different lengths before it’s time to promote your book. You will be surprised what you can do with five minutes, or less. Being ready to go with as many great, edited clips as possible will make the reading part of your job successful and fun!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Have you grappled with the problem of reading a passage intended to unfold more slowly in your novel or memoir? Were you resistant, as I was in the beginning, to edit your excerpts? Did you do it anyway? If so, what was the result?