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So I have spent my first week at Ucross, an artist colony in Wyoming. I’ve only been here two days, but already I feel my spirits lifting. I credit it to the overwhelming spirit of abundance that infuses everything here.
It starts with the landscape. This is big sky country. When I look out of the window of my studio early in the morning, I witness the miracle of a purple sunrise over a meadow that stretches as far as I can see. (If you looks closely at the photo you can see it peeking in the window.) This morning, I put on my puffy and sat out on my deck, sipped coffee and just tripped on the splendor.
The rest of the feeling of abundance comes from the colony itself. In the past I have visited retreats that come with a long list of rules telling you what all you can’t do– more like a boarding school than a true retreat. But when we arrived here at Ucross, the terrific staff first showed us around making sure we knew where to find the tea station that featured so many varieties that I was tempted to give up coffee and join the #teamtea. And then we were told that we could take tea with us to our studio. Take the whole box you want. Same for coffee which was in it’s own cabinet, stuffed to the brim. The even found an 1970s IBM typewriter for me to use! The vibe here is like this: tell us what you need to create. My needs are modest, really. A sunny room, a big desk, coffee, and cookies if you have them. But what I see I also need is the feeling that there is enough of everything. No need to ration. That feeling of abundance has already influenced my work.
My challenge when I get home to learn to recreate the feeling of abundance. How to feel that there is plenty and not worry about scraping the bottom. I think the answer is going to have to be spiritual rather than material. Because in the material world, there seldom is quite enough. The in the spiritual realm, there is infinity.
Simply put, I haven’t been writing for the last couple of months. I’m not ready to call it a writers BLOCK, mainly because I am not convinced that such a condition really exists. It’s more like I am out of balance, so the creativity just isn’t sending me to the page. I’ve had a lot of my mind lately. I traveled a lot this summer– Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. It was a wonderful experience, but I mostly just scribbled in my journal. Then, my favorite aunt passed away after a lengthy illness, and this broke my heart. So I haven’t been much interested in playing with my imaginary friends. That’s what I call my novel-writing because I engage with the characters as though they are in the room with me.
I’m telling myself not to worry. That the writing will come back. It always does. I have to just have faith in it.
Though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been reading. Mostly books that haven’t yet been published. When the reviews come out, I’ll let you know. I’ve also read some really exciting manuscripts that I have been honored to blurb. (Get ready; 2014 is going to be tremendous for black women writers. I’ll post about the books individually as soon as they are available for pre-order. Seriously.) I know there are writers who don’t like to read while they work, but I am just the opposite. Reading inspires me and reminds me how much I love everything about literature. It makes me eager to join in the conversation. I don’t worry about being influenced by another author– I hope for it. To be influenced is to grow. And it’s a connection between one artist and another.
I’ve got a really exciting retreat coming up and I hope that my characters are packing their imaginary suitcases because I’m spending three weeks in southern France at the La Muse Inn. I promise to post photos once I get there. This isn’t Paris– it’s more like a sleepy little village with a population in the low three digits. And my French is limited to ordering breakfast, so I will be forced to listen to my own mind instead of social butterflying. It’s good, it’s what I need.
I’ve had to turn down a number of really sparkly invitations in order to take this time, but it’s the right thing to do. In a busy world, it’s hard to settle down enough for the kind of deep contemplation required to create a world with nothing but paper and ink.
Wish me luck.
It’s March and that means all those applications I sent off in January will be sending out YAYS and NAYS pretty soon. Nothing feels as good as an acceptance. A couple of years ago, I received a call saying I had been awarded a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship and my friend Rigoberto and I danced in the street. We celebrated with martinis and sent zany selfies to the dean. I mean, let’s face it. Good news is always good news. But we all know that nobody gets everything she applies for.
I have a couple of applications pending and I really really hope that I get at least one of them. I usually apply to three things, hoping to get at least one. This time, I have only two apps out there, so I am worried that I didn’t cover all my bases, but these things happen.
The point of this post is to give you my secret to dealing with rejection. Here it is– get rejected all the time. Seriously. You will grow a thicker skin. Take a lesson from middle school boys.
When I was in eighth grade, I asked a boy to dance. I spent about twenty minutes working up my nerve and another five minutes fretting about lip gloss. Short version is that he said no, and I was crushed. Crushed! Why? Because I had never asked a boy to dance before and I had so much riding on it. On the other hand, look at the boys in the room. They were asking lots of girls to dance. Some said no, some said yes. (And let me tell you, when someone finally asked me, I said YES.) But the boys didn’t have to run to the bathroom to cry after being rejected. I’m not saying they liked it, but they regarded the rejections and just part of the process of finally getting someone to slow dance with them. And they knew this– asking ten girls to dance greatly increases your chances getting a little smooch by the end of the night.
When I tell people that I received 22 rejections for my first novel, they sometimes gasp and ask me how I was able to take it. But truthfully, out of those 22, I only remember three or four of them. But the acceptance– I’ll never forget it.
“…the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well. The writer must trust the reader to be at least as intelligent as he is. Only in such well wishing and trust, only when the writer feels he is writing a letter to a good friend, only then will the magic happen.
I have done the other thing. I have written bitter and cruel things and even published some them and I regret every one.”
Yesterday, I sat down to write. It’s the new year and I have big plans and I have made a big committment to those plans. I am taking an entire year’s leave from my teaching job in order to fully dedicate myself to writing a new novel. It’s a big deal, a big blessing, all of that– so why did I sit down to my desk on New Year’s morning and feel like of… nervous? Am I not the person who whines that I don’t have enough time to write? Well here’s time, a lot of it, and I was acting like I was afraid of my typewriter.
It’s hard to do what it is you want to do. Wanting is the easy part. Trying your hardest, well that’s when it gets tricky. Every great effort runs the risk of great failure. With every new book, I have the fear that maybe I won’t be able to pull it together. Maybe this project is too ambitious. My novel in progress features the voices of three characters– two of them are men. This is new territory for me and I had somehow managed to freak myself out.
So instead of spending the day working on my manuscript, I spent the day working on me. I typed myself little love note you see here. I wrote all my fears and worries in my journal. But I also wrote down all my goals and hopes. I also took stock of every good thing that happened in the last year. I wrote down the names of my friends and my family. I wrote the names of my mentors. I wrote the names of my earlier books and the characters.
In short, I reminded myself that I am not alone and I can do this.
And I will.
And you will.
Happy New Year. Happy You Year.
Blocked? Here’s a fun excercise to help you #WRITELIKECRAZY.
The slender moleskine journals come in two-packs. Last time I bought one, I decided to use one for my musings, and on a whim, I decided to give the other one to my new character, Bessie. I don’t want to give too much away because a new book is like a new romance. You start telling everyone about it and then you ruin it. What I can say is her name is Bessie she 21 and she lives in Chicago in 1930. (And fear not ATLiens… she is born and raised in Atlanta, but she moved to Chicago a couple years ago.)
So, the light blue journal is for me, and the deep blue one is for Bessie.
I really love this exercise. I write the journal by hand– like a real journal. In doing it this way I get the benefit of handwriting. (You don’t get frustrated and delete a days work.) And also, I am getting to know Bessie without the pressure of developing plot or knowing the themes of the work. With the journaling format, I can just wander and let her free-associate the way I do in my real journal.
I have tried this before, but this is the first time that I actually bought a notebook for the character to have all to herself. When I have attempted this in the past, I did it on the computer. I think that I had been thinking of it as “just” an exercise. If you have ever been in my class will know that for me “just” is a dirty word. If you do it as “just” anything, you will not do it right.
This time, I took it seriously and the results have been wonderful. I think about Bessie all the time. At the risk of sounding too crazy or woo-woo, my handwriting is even a little different when I write for her. The penmanship is more formal. She has more pride in her journal than I have in mine. I just scribble and scrawl, but Bessie is the first person in her family to finish ninth grade, so she is very pleased to be telling her story. She is also very aware that this story is being written. She says things like “Talking about something and writing it down is two different things. Pen and paper is forever.”
At the same time, I am not completely possessed by the character. The author-me, the one who is obsessed with Toni Morrison in general and Beloved, specifically has a hand in the project. When remembering her mother’s funeral, Bessie lets us know that she had money enough to get her mother’s full name– first, middle, maiden, and married name engraved on the tombstone. “And I didn’t have to pay with nothing but cash money.”
This is a repost of a entry that I wrote last year. I’m still on vaycay– I don’t know how much access I will have to internet, but I promise I am still #WRITINGLIKECRAZY. Full report when I get home.
Like many people, the biggest impediment to my writing is a failure to sit myself in the chair and try. I recently whined to someone that my writing hasn’t been “going well” for the last week or so. I know the person thought that I have been sitting at my typewriter, staring sadly at the glass keys, waiting for the words to come. But no. My writing didn’t go well last week precisely because I hadn’t been staring at those keys.
The remedy is obbvious– I need to sit myself in that chair and have at it.
And as all of you know, whether we are talking about writing or exercising, or cleaning house, or whatever. Starting is the hard part. (Sidebar: Have you ever watched this awesome video? It’s the mother of all peptalks.)
But on a less touchy feely plane, here is a simple tangible suggestion: Prepare your writing area the night before. Clean off the desk. I don’t mean just organize the clutter. I mean CLEAN IT. Wipe it down. Then arrange all your tools just so. Sharpen those pencils. Do you drink coffee when you write? Load the pot, so you only have to press “ON” when you get up. If you have a special writing outfit, set it out, too. (For me, that would be my fluffy robe.) Then go to bed.
I find that is I get the process going at night, I wake up already in the mode to write. And with everything set out before hand, I won’t get distracted and start cleaning up or something and them lose the mood to write. And besides, a clean and lovely writing space is so inviting. You will entice yourself as you entice your mood.
The picture you see here is my writing space in my place in New Jersey. Looking at the photo makes me realise how much I miss it. My lucky lamp! And the envelope you see is a letter from a reader, encouraging me to finish up Silver Sparrow. The desk is has a glass top and I windex it down at night so it gleams in the morning. Just seeing this picture makes me want to write. Seriously.
What I am suggesting is a simple fix. Try it. And while you’re at it, buy yourself a couple of flowers. Set them on your desk. You deserve it. And then, go write that book.
Oops, I was so caught up with the philosophical implications of my vacation that I forgot to post a couple of updates. (This awesome picture that I am posting is hopefully what I am doing by the time you read this. This is an auto post written in the airport on my way out.)
#WRITELIKECRAZY will go on. I have my work in progress with me. I didn’t want to leave it behind. This is kind of why I don’t say writing is my job. I would never take my job with my on vacation. Writing is my heart and I will get some words on the page in the mornings. After which I will indulge in regular like beach reading, dancing, mojitos, and maybe jet skiing. (I’m on the fence about that one.)
There will be #WRITELIKECRAZY blog posts appearing here, magically in my absence! There are a couple of cool guest posts in the hopper and some posts written by yours truly.
I am trying to think of a cool way to celebrate LEAVING ATLANTA’S tenth birthday. That book is my baby-boo. I am thinking to give away ten books for ten years. If you have cool contest ideas, let me know.
Alright. That’s it. I gotta a plane to catch. Actually, a lot of planes to catch. But by the time you read this, let’s hope I am on a beach, sipping a mojito and #writinglikecrazy. I hope you’ll keep the hashtag alive til I get home.
The original title for this blog post was: Happy 10th Birthday LEAVING ATLANTA! #WriteLikeCrazy On Holiday. To celebrate the decade since I became a published author, I booked myself a fancy island vacation. First class all the way. For ten years in the biz, I felt that I deserved it. So that was going to be my post, all about taking care of yourself and learning to give yourself a round of applause. But you know– that’s not what ten years have taught me and a hurricane named Isaac made sure I didnt get it twisted.
Here’s what happened. About 48 hours ago, a tropical storm gathered in the Atlantic. I looked at the weather channel and it was nothing nice. My dream vacation– the one that was supposed to be my reward for a decade in the trenches– was being washed away. I know it’s insanse to take a weather event personally, but I was crushed. In my head, I call could hear all the naysayers. I don’t only mean the ones who warned me against travelling alone to Antigua (you’re going to get killed!) but all the naysayers along the way. I remembered everyone who failed to encourage me in my writing. (You would not believe the things people said. I was told everything from “you’ll starve!” to “all the guys are going to be scared to date a Published Writer.”) I remembered the people who told me to take the safe path and “write on the weekends.” I watched the Weather Channel, hung my head and worried about the process of canceling my trip.
I won’t lie. I cried about it and gave myself a headache. I hadn’t bought travel insurance, so I was going to lose all the money I had put down on the trip and I would start school without having had a few days to myself. I tried to figure out how to do a staycation here in Jersey, but it wasn’t just the same.
The the part of me that is stubborn, unreasonable, and optimistic refused to let me cancel. I decided to wait to see if the storm would “turn.”. After all, how many metaphorical storms have I weathered these last ten years? Since when did I start giving up so easily? I decided that if the planes were flying, I was going.
The storm did turn, not completely, but I am going to Antigua anyway. It’s going to be a Frankie Beverly vacation– sunshine and rain. The airline called and they are re-routing me halfway around the world and half of the trip will be in coach class. I was upset about this for a big chunk of yesterday. I had paid for a first class seat and I wanted to sit in first class. The nice woman on the phone explained to me (slowly like she was talking to a child) that there were no more seats in first class because this was a last minute ticket. I shot back, angry (like a child) that I had booked my original ticket back in April! She was calm. I would have to fly coach or not go. I whimpered and accepted seat 25C. She then suggested that I extend my trip an extra day since all day Thursday would be eaten up with travel drama. No charge, she said. I eagerly seized upon it, but there was a catch. Miami to JFK– coach again. So I had to weigh the options– an extra resort day, or a first class ticket home.
And here’s the lesson. You don’t always get what you deserve, but you will receive many blessings. Ten years ago, who would thought I would be taking an island vacation financed by the returns from my writing? Even five years ago, this type of getaway would still be just another unreachable item on my bucket list. For a minute, I almost spoiled it for myself because of my seat.
You see, I had assigned a sort of emotional premuim to that first class seat. I needed seat 3A because I had worked hard for it; if I didn’t have it, then it meant that I somehow had fallen short of my bucket list ideal. This fantasy of a first class vacation was something I dreamed up for myself when I was just starting out. It was probably based on something I had seen on television, or maybe even from overhearing friends and relatives who had “made it” talk about their vacations. And look how quickly I went from crying because I thought the trip was cancelled to being funky because it wouldn’t be first class all the way. Shamefully, I didn’t even take a second to be thankful that travel would be permitted at all.
In the ten years since Leaving Atlanta, I have worked to curb this kind of thinking. I’ve struggled to learn to put away petty markers of success and remember what the real indicators are of a life and career well lived. I sigh to think of how much time I wasted when I was just starting, fretting over The New York Times? And it’s not just baby-writers that do this. I have seen extremely successful people melt into tears because of some small disappointment. When I received a crappy review last year, Nichelle Tramble read it, agreed that it was viscious, but she said, “Let it have your breakfast, but don’t let it eat your dinner.” It’s so easy to disregard all the bounty that you have been given and that you have earned because of some insult heaped at your feet or some shiny thing that is just out of your reach. Ten years in, and I finally get it.
So– seat 2A or seat 25C, the point is that I am going, and that I wrote my way there.
Here is another guest post by a writer whom I admire very much. Even though we may seem to be living in the era of boy- and girl-wonders, In this wonderful post Marie Matsuki Mockett reminds us that where you are is the best time to write the story you are meant to write.
A Perfect Time To Be Published
By Marie Mutsuki Mockett
I wrote the first draft of my novel when I was thirty-one. My husband, who is Scottish and warm and funny but schooled in that British way, read the early manuscript and murmured: “Hmm. I like this one paragraph.” So I put the novel aside, then wrote and published short stories for a while. At thirty-five, I dragged the manuscript back out again. The one paragraph is the only thing from the original draft that is still in my book.
I had always wanted to be a writer, and I sometimes wonder if I might have succeeded earlier in life if I’d attended an MFA program in my youth. We’ll never know. Instead, I worked a variety of jobs—test prep question writer, online store manager, non-profit administrator, failed antique picker—while writing in the corporate toilet stall, on the weekends and during company meetings. When I was disappointed or hurt by rejection, I would try to remind myself to take the long view; it takes time to become a writer, and many of the people I admire have had long careers.
In the beginning, I was often told what many female writers hear: I was talented, but my writing was “too quiet.” I revised. An editor rejected me because she “already had a half-Asian writer.” I was devastated. Much as I loved this other writer’s work, I knew that our material was different. Would anyone else notice? Another editor rejected my book because: “I have just had a child and I cannot accept what the mother in your book has done.”
I tried to tell myself that another editor would not confuse her personal experience with an unmarketable product. These rejections were often paired with variations of this one line: “I know someone else will publish this work with the enthusiasm it deserves,” which I dismissed as an empty compliment. As I got to know other writers who had been through the same grueling process, I learned they too had heard the same semi-praise.
When I finally met my editor Fiona McCrae, from Graywolf, I was absolutely positive I wanted to work with her. She understood what I was writing, and saw ways to strengthen the novel that meshed completely with my vision. I was relieved. And then I was grateful for all the other rejections that had kept me from working with someone who might not have been a good fit for my book.
My wonderful agent said to me earlier this year, “Sweetheart, you are the perfect age to get started.” I think I know what she means. As writers and artists, it’s our job to develop a vision of the world—to see what others are missing. This is the kind of thing that takes time, and that you cannot learn in school. It’s wonderful to see a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, turning out even more probing material as he matures. I do not mean that younger writers don’t manage complexity, because of course I can think of plenty of examples where they do. It’s just to say that writing generally takes time and can be painfully slow. About the only thing you can really control is the quality and uniqueness of your work. Make this your focus, and I really and truly believe that you too will find someone who will publish your book with the “enthusiasm it deserves.”