On Rejection

So let’s talk about rejection.  It’s the inevitable and unpleasant companion in the journey of every writer.  The Rejection Beast walks before us and beside us, it eats up our energy and dogs at our heels and bursts into the room to knock you down when you least expect it.  No writing career is free of it.  It’s only a question of how to handle it.

So, how does one handle it?

Well, like so many aspects of the writing life, the answer is, it depends on the writer.  So if you find yourself with this unwelcome house guest, here are some strategies you can try out.

View rejection from a different angle. This is my preferred strategy.  I look at rejections not as signs of failure but signs that I’m actively sending my stories out into the world.  I may not always succeed, but I am making the attempt.  Trying is better than doing nothing.  After all, the presence of the Rejection Beast in my living room is only a reminder that my front door is open for when Acceptance finally arrives.

Make like a mad scientist and take the “I’ll show them!” route.  This is a good strategy for those who need a little bit more fire in their belly to keep them going.  As Neil Gaiman once famously wrote,

“It does help, to be a writer, to have the sort of crazed ego that doesn’t allow for failure. The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering ‘Okay, you bastards. Try rejecting this!’ and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there’s nothing left to write.”

Granted, Mr. Gaiman probably has less to worry about when it comes to rejection these days.  But using rejection as fuel to push your own improvement and perseverance is a win-win.  It’s a hard climb up the mountain, and sometimes you need to hit the red button and fire up the turbo-boosters.

Get yourself a cheerleader. Let’s face it:  writing is a lonely business, and it’s easy to get deep inside our own heads.  That’s why it’s good to have companions on this road:  beta readers, fellow writers, and cheerleaders.  Sometimes people will fill more than one of these roles for you; but when the Rejection Beast squats in your best writing chair and just Will Not Leave, the cheerleader is there for you, giving you a much-needed boost when you’re feeling down or adrift and the words just aren’t coming out right.  And cheerleading can be a reciprocal act, too!  Let’s face it, it’s incredibly fun and uplifting to stan* your friends when they need it.

Remind yourself why you’re doing this. Whenever I hit a slog, when the words aren’t coming and I need a little more motivation, I love reading books where writers talk about their experience living the writing life.  It helps to put me back into a good mental place, reminding me why I want to keep doing this, despite the obstacles.

Those are just a few strategies I know off the top of my head.  Whichever one you try, the important thing is to keep trying, to find the strategy that lights that fire in you.  The Rejection Beast will come, whether we want it to or not.  And we can yell at it, or blend it in with the décor, or call up our friends to vent about it.  But eventually we need to keep doing what we love doing, and refuse to let this Beast stop us.

*Yes, I know ‘stan’ is a trendy new word that All the Kids Are Using These Days, but it fits so neatly into a hole in my vocabulary that I find myself using it a lot!  It’s a great mash-up that encompasses cheering, supporting, and promoting something/someone you love in one easy one-syllable verb.  What’s not to like?

Getting Away From It All

I spent last weekend camping in Linn Run State Park.  The timing was less than stellar:  we just missed peak foliage, and we drove in late Friday evening under a blanket of chilly rain that turned into the season’s first snow overnight.

But the cabins were heated and cozy, and the cold wasn’t that cold once I was out and walking in it.  The next morning, the four of us–myself, my husband, and our friends Bill and Lauren–walked up the Beam Rocks trail through a pristine inch-thick layer of snow on top of fallen leaves.  And we had a nice view of the woods under a mostly blue sky, and a distant smudge of gray where a snowstorm was drifting past.  It was time well spent, unplugged from the world and focusing on good company and long conversations.

Linn Run
A view from Beam Rocks at Linn Run State Park.

You can probably guess where this story goes.  That unplugging for a weekend somehow changed my life, that severing myself from the constant flood of the internet left me open to blessings by the muse.  And maybe it would, if I gave it more time than a day and a half.  I’ve written before about the value of cultivating mental green space, of giving one’s thoughts space to play, about changing up the scenery in order to nurture a sense of wonder.

But I didn’t write a single word while I was away.  I chatted with my friends, I walked in the woods with them, we played board games, cooked, did a little shopping in the local town of Ligonier 20 minutes away.  We just took our moments as they came.  When I woke up two hours before my husband on the chilly, frosted-over Saturday morning, I climbed up to the upper bunk, threw a blanket over my lap, and played games on my Nintendo 3DS with the volume turned off while I waited for the sun to grace us with its presence.  The whole weekend was cozy and pleasant and I had a great time.

And I came home with lovely memories I’m going to toss into the stewpot in my head.  And maybe some time in the future, the crunch of frosted leaves and the musical rush of the creek and the feeling of waking up in a dark cabin on a chilly morning will make its way into a story.  And that’s fine.  Not every weekend spent camping is going to come with a revelation.  Maybe all I learned about myself in the woods is that I had a lot of fun and I’d love to do it again.  And that’s enough.

Banned Books Week – Day 4

In thinking about books that have had an impact on me, I wanted to include at least one book about writing.  I didn’t know any writers in my immediate circle growing up, so I turned instead to tracking down books on the topic.  And not necessarily dry tomes on grammar and composition, or books with shiny, bold-print titles insisting they know the One True Technique to crafting an Instant Bestseller ™.  I’m talking quieter books where one writer shares anecdotes about how they got started writing, what their relationship to the muse is like, the sorts of experiences they had in the industry and what led them to writing certain stories.

I gobbled these books up.  I still do.  Especially when the well of inspiration is running dry and I can’t quite bring myself to put in the necessary butt-in-chair time, reading the creative experiences of others has often helped me get back on track, and inspired me to put hand to keyboard.

I can list off so many of these books that are definitely worth your while (maybe in a future post, I’ll do just that!).  But for now, I want to talk about Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, which was like a bolt of lightning directly to my college-age writer brain.

Wild Mind
Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg

Goldberg’s book is a blend of musings on creativity, writing exercises derived from Zen practice, and deeply personal vignettes into her life.  She advocates a writing practice that is very stream-of-consciousness, letting the words and images flow without editorial judgment.  After reading Wild Mind, I tried my hand at more freestyle journaling, letting the muse take me where she would.  I also tried to notice more sensory details about the world around me.  Goldberg painted her own experiences so vividly that I felt like I was traveling with her.  The summer I read this book, the sunlight seemed brighter, cool fruit smoothies tasted sweeter, and I have never been more in love with the sound and smell of rainy days.

Anne McCaffrey showed me how to build entire worlds out of my own imagination.  Natalie Goldberg showed me the world I already lived in, through a new lens.

The Dragon Lady

I just got back from being a dragonrider this weekend, and boy are my dragon’s wings tired.

Wait, let me back up.

I first discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books in 7th grade.  Our English class was doing units on different genres, and for one of them, I selected Dragonquest, the second book in the Dragonriders of Pern series.  It changed my life.

It was not my first SFF book.  But it was my first adult SFF novel, one that took place in a fully-developed secondary world that was so well fleshed out, so finely detailed, that I felt like I could live there.  It made me see exactly what SFF was capable of, when it came to building entire new worlds of imagination to explore.

It was not the book that made me start writing, or think of being a writer.  But it was the book that made me realize I wanted to write for the rest of my life.  Like most kids, my career aspirations by middle school had wandered all over the map, from botanist to musician, from ballet dancer to ichthyologist (yeah, I wanted to study fish for a while there, and I loved being able to say “ichthyologist”).  But the Dragonriders of Pern series honed my aspirations to a fine point:  I wanted to write, to be an author and create brilliant worlds like Anne McCaffrey.

I’ve been writing ever since.

Not coincidentally, I’ve loved dragons ever since.

I had the privilege of being able to meet Ms. McCaffrey once, at her Dragonhold home in Ireland, over 15 years ago.  I remember her as warm and welcoming, willing without hesitation to spend a morning entertaining a fan and feeding me lunch.  (She made me a BLT!)  Her hospitality, in fact, was a well-known side of her, as so many people will attest.  I will always remember her fondly as the woman whose works changed my life, and who was also kind enough to give me a lift to the train station.

And so, in deepest love for those books and the woman who wrote them, I find myself once a year at Fort Fest, an annual retreat for a Pern role-playing fan club.  I get to enjoy the great outdoors and hang out with fellow McCaffrey fans, the sort of folks who are hospitable and creative and have way too many dragon-themed toys and crafts.  (Although, can anyone truly be said to have too many dragon-themed toys and crafts? asks the woman who has dedicated an entire bookshelf just to her dragon figurines…)  It’s always a good time, full of games and music, feasting and costumes, nature walks and mutual complaining about all these fire lizards getting everywhere.

Fort Fest
The queen dragon watches all…

There’s no moral to this story.  This is just me telling you about a beautiful thing that exists because one woman, somewhere, had a beautiful heart and wrote beautiful stories.  That’s a true joy of art:  the hope that your work will resonate with someone, may move them to create something in their turn, may even change their life for the better.

So, make things.  Put them out there.  Who knows?  The story you’re telling might bring someone joy.  It might encourage someone to create in their turn.  It might be exactly what someone out there needs to hear.

Seasonal Creation

I’m a four-seasons kind of person.  Having lived most of my life in New England before moving to Pittsburgh at the Eastern end of the Rust Belt, I’ve lived in a climate of four very distinct seasons:  damp, gray-and-green springs; hot, incandescent summers; falls marked by shimmering red and gold leaves; and snowy winters meant for fireplaces and hot chocolate.  The one time I lived for an extended period of time in another climate (a semester abroad in England in my junior year of college), the seasons presented themselves differently and it threw me off.  I am not usually a fan of outdoor snowy activity, but I still love snow.  I love the sight of it from behind a window, I love its soft stillness.  I arrived in England in January and discovered, rather quickly, that I missed snow.

We all have our seasonal associations, based on the seasons where we grew up and where we live.  But I’m often surprised by how little things become associated in my mind with certain seasons.  For example, an album I listened to heavily one spring might come back to mind the following spring, and I’ll find myself wanting to listen to it again.  And the next thing I know, it’s become a ‘spring’ album.  Or maybe there’s a mix CD I made for a road trip, and if I make that journey again, probably at the same time of year, that same CD comes out.  I return to stories I’ve written and maybe set aside, unfinished, because I thought about them a great deal on long summer walks or when the brisk autumn winds were starting up, and seeing those things again has reminded me, “Oh yeah!  That story I was working on last summer!  I should do something about that.”

In certain more obvious ways, the seasons creep into my stories:  this one is awash with the brilliant blue skies of summer, so it’s a summer story.  That one opens with the protagonist climbing a snowy mountain, and I started writing it one chilly November and into the holidays, and now it’s a winter story.  That sort of thing.  I have stories for every season, different parts of myself that come out at different times of year.

And now spring is here, which is always a time when my muse becomes antsy and fruitful.  I love getting out and writing outside and taking long walks while I chew on various plot points.  It’s a time of renewal, and I love it.  Flowers are popping up, the days grow milder, and I just can’t wait to jump into something new.  I always start so many stories in the spring.

Now, finishing them . . . that’s a whole other story 🙂

Finding Wonder

Not far from my workplace is a towering Gothic edifice called the Cathedral of Learning.  I may have mentioned it before, on this blog; it’s a rather prominent feature of Pittsburgh’s university corridor, sticking up like the mast of a ship on the University of Pittsburgh campus.  On nice days, I love lounging on its wide, sun-drenched lawns.  But it’s also a great place to go inside, because I am not kidding when I say the whole place is built to look like a Gothic cathedral, stretched upward to 38 stories.  It looks like a building where Batman might brood on the roof.  (Point of fact: scenes from the Nolan trilogy of Batman films were actually shot in Pittsburgh in and around my workplace, only a couple of blocks from the Cathedral of Learning.  But that is a story for another day….)

The Cathedral of Learning is a building of echoing stone corridors, fluted pillars, and fancy wrought iron.  If you like arches and alcoves and heavy wooden furniture that looks like it was lifted from Oxford, have I got a place for you!  The whole building is very Old World, which is rather outside my everyday life here in America, so going in is always an experience.  It’s like stepping through a portal.  It’s a moment of wonder.

Wonder is, IMHO, an important part of a complete and balanced life.  I may have talked about this before on this blog but it bears repeating.  It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut, sometimes you just need to go someplace different.  Someplace that engages you on a new level or from a different angle.  It’s a trick writers use to stimulate fresh ideas.  Not sure where that story is going?  Get up and move.  Go somewhere else.  Go somewhere different.

I’m a visual person, so visual change always helps.  I’m a big fan of offbeat museums and unusual buildings and winding parks.  These are places of wonder for me.  They are places to get lost in, they shake me loose from where I am.

Do you have a place of wonder?  Do you have somewhere you go, just to get lost in?  Or is it a moment you treasure, a moment where you felt caught up in something greater than yourself?

The world is full of potential wonderful-ness.  Sometimes you will stumble upon it like a sudden view or an instant connection with a stranger or a hidden park.  And sometimes, you just need to go out and seek it.

Tap-Dancing in a Bee Costume

One of my favorite music videos of all time is Blind Melon’s “No Rain.”  It stars a girl in thick glasses and a bee costume, joyfully tap-dancing away in a theater, only to be laughed off the stage in tears.  She drifts through a gray cityscape, performing her routine for bemused, head-scratching strangers, until at last she comes to a green field under a blue sky, so perfectly sunny and bright that it looks like a Windows wallpaper.  And there she finds a whole troupe of dancing bee people who welcome her with open arms.  It is a moment of joyful catharsis, a homecoming.  It is the moment where someone who doesn’t feel like they fit quite right finally finds their people.

I have a confession to make.  I was once a weird little girl.

Not rebellious or troubled, but definitely geeky.  As in, cover-my-walls-with-pictures-of-dragons geeky.  As in, proud-member-of-the-school’s-Library-Club geeky.  As in, Straight-A-student-with-no-fashion-sense geeky.  I had a few friends in high school, and we’d get together to play D&D and Magic: The Gathering.

Being a geek, for me, was a lot like being that tap-dancing bee girl.  It meant being enthusiastically, openly joyful about the fantastic stories and worlds that I loved, and wanting to share that joy with the world.  It also meant a lot of blank stares, conversations from well-meaning but concerned relatives, and sometimes even outright hostility from my non-geek peers.

College was a whole new ballgame.  Finding the gaming club there opened up my world immeasurably, because it was there that I discovered the joys of being part of a much larger community.  People who ‘got’ me.  People who were unabashedly enthusiastic, and even joyful, about our shared interests.  It was there that I met some of my best friends, including the man who would one day be my husband.

It’s been a long time since I was a kid, feeling awkward and strange in the world, but I know that finding my community changed my life for the better.

I still get that vibe when I go to conventions and shows.  Suddenly, the world opens up and I’m surrounded by fellow enthusiasts of wonder.  It’s a feeling of opening the iron gate and finding a whole group of people dancing joyfully in bee costumes.  It’s a feeling of coming home.  It’s like that.

They’re out there, waiting for you.  Find your people.  Be weird with them.

Yearly Writing Goals

It’s that time of year again!  Time to sit down and plan out my writing goals for the year.  I tend to be very goal-oriented as a writer; I find it helps me keep my mockingbird brain on track.

Note that these aren’t so much New Years’ resolutions as much as keeping up an ongoing progress.  Being a writer isn’t a singular goal one accomplishes in a year; it’s a series of goalposts you pass while climbing up the side of a mountain.  At least, that’s how I often picture it, so make of that what you will.

First is the obvious goal this year of writing more short stories.  I’ve sold a generous handful, so now I need to write some more so I can have something new to submit!  Overall, a good problem to have.  And I’d also like to make progress on on some novels I have in various states of completion.

Beneath the overall arc of yearly goals, I tend to break things down to weekly goals.  In my experience, life can interfere too much when it comes to daily goals, and a month is too long; when I tried monthly goals, I ended up procrastinating and condensing my efforts into the last week or so.  Weekly goals hit that sweet spot for me:  frequent enough to keep me moving, but with some wiggle room to account for, say, an unusually packed day when I can’t get to the computer, or I get waylaid by a sudden head cold.

(This is the key to good goal-making:  figuring out what works best for you, what makes you most likely to Get It Done.)

So I keep up a spreadsheet and keep track of my weekly progress.  (I should also point out that I’m a very spreadsheet-oriented person. My life is Spreadsheets and Lists!)  And really, weekly progress just comes down to making dedicated Butt-in-Chair time for my writing.  Time spent writing, editing, submitting stories, or even just doing a writing exercise or two if I’m stuck.  All of these are ways to be with my writing, to keep myself in that space.  To keep the writing muscles trained and in shape.

It’s like going to the gym on the regular.  The only way forward is through, the only progress a series of one step after another.

May 2018 be an excellent year for you, and whatever progress you’re making in the journey to the person you want to be.  I hope you continue to share this journey with me.

My Muse & Me

My muse is acting up again.  She has this habit of getting really excited about a new story idea when I have “no time for writing”:  when my non-writing to-do list is juuuust past the point where I start freaking out. Housework to catch up on, errands to run, shindigs to attend, travel to prepare for, people to get in touch with, plans and events to arrange.

That’s when she jumps into the room, ponytail bouncing, clapping her hands excitedly and dropping a fresh new story idea right in my lap, lovely and nearly perfectly formed.  I should get it down on paper, is the unspoken understanding–as soon as possible, before this ripe and juicy fruit withers on the branch.

This is how my muse behaves.  Excitable and contrary, listless when I want her help and helpfully underfoot at times when I’m not in a good position to receive her–like a delivery person who shows up in that 15-minute window when I’ve run down the street to get milk.

Creative folks throughout history have talked about their muses.  We give them different names or forms, or understand them through various frameworks.  For some, it is an object they find helpful to keep around in their writing space, something to keep them on task and inspired.  For others, it can be a spiritual embodiment:  a guardian angel, a daemon, an ancestral spirit.  They are as varied as there are different ways to approach the act of creating.

My muse is the character I’ve given to my inspiration.  She looks like a younger me in a classic toga ripped from any number of sculptures and images of “Greek Muse™” but without the restrained decorum and somber, thoughtful expression.  She wears striped toe-socks and bounces around like a caffeinated jackalope when she’s onto something.  At other times, she’s lounging lazily on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, binge-watching some new Netflix show and stubbornly ignoring my pleas for help.

I find my muse fun to imagine and occasionally helpful.  She is shorthand for an important aspect of my life as a writer.  I talk to my writer friends about how the muse dropped a new story idea in my lap and I am immediately understood.  This is important to me, if only because writers–by nature–spend a lot of time in their heads, and the creative life involves unique challenges that can appear downright alien to people who aren’t living in that world.  Being able to explain this ebb and flow of ideas, its joys and frustrations, my relationship to it all–even by pinning the blame or praise on some imagined hyperactive doppleganger–is perhaps the greatest gift my muse has ever given me.  It is, after all, a story:  and stories are how I speak to the world.

Writing Before Dawn

A question that often comes up for writers, especially those with full-time jobs, is “When do you find time to write?”  More often than you’d think, the answer involves getting up one or two hours early and locking oneself in one’s home office (which is sometimes just a commandeered closet) and tapping away first thing every day.

I am not, as the saying goes, “a morning person.”

As much as I love writing, I need my sleep and I’m terrible at going to bed early.  Give me more time curling up under my blankets and hitting the snooze alarm!  If I’m going to steal extra time in my regular routine for writing, it is not that time.

But what if it were only for a month or two?  Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a try.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks: getting up just a little earlier, and free-writing for exactly 30 minutes.  At this time of year, that means getting up in the dark.  There’s no trace of dawn against the window-blinds yet.  There are no birds singing outside my window, and even the cats aren’t yet begging for their breakfast.

It’s been a strange experience, but so long as I get a decent amount of sleep to off-set my shifted schedule, it’s actually been both relaxing and enjoyable.  Sometimes my little free-writes read more like journal entries, sometimes I note the last fading details of a dream, but other times I find myself typing out half-formed ideas for stories.  I don’t get very far in thirty minutes, but it’s something:  a seed that can become something more, if I turn it over a bit, if I plant it and nurture it patiently.

There’s a weird mystery to writing before dawn:  the darkness, the quiet, and my brain still wrapped up in a sleepy haze.  Digging little nuggets out of the dark earth of my subconscious, which is still loose from being upturned and dug through in my dreams.  Mostly these story-nuggets move like fairy tales.  Mysterious witches make cryptic requests.  Castles and towers rise from mist-bound forests, while shapechangers lurk in deceptively comfortable cottages.  Heroes and heroines are bound by strange rules: you must wear a black coat when you leave, you must travel with a gray dog.

The timer goes off after thirty minutes.  I get up, wash my face, eat breakfast, feed the cats if my husband hasn’t already.  I get ready to face the rest of the day.  The stories slip away like dreams, and I think of other, far more mundane things.  By the time I reach the bus stop, with neither black coat nor gray dog, I will have forgotten most of what I’ve written only an hour beforehand.

But I will have written it.  The seeds are still there, in my pocket.  Ready to be planted.