Finding a Path

It’s hard being a writer who isn’t writing. That’s probably the most obvious statement in the world beyond water being wet, but it’s where I’ve been for months now, and when most of your social circle online is made up of writers, the guilt and fear and shame and anger and resentment and everything else pile up quickly.

About 95% of this is due to the day job, which has required extra hours/mandatory overtime for months on end, a situation that’s likely to continue at least through the end of the year. I’ve never had much success trying to write on the weekends, so the hour on weekday mornings that I spent writing was the majority of my writing time, and for week after week that’s been absorbed into work time. As easy as it sounds (especially to myself) to say, well, write in the evening instead, or some other time, it hasn’t been that simple. I can’t get up any earlier or go to bed any later (I’ve learned I can’t sacrifice sleep and still be a functional human being), so for a long time I’ve felt… stuck. Trapped.

It hasn’t all been process issues, though. There’s also the feeling of having a dozen different directions I could go in, project-wise, and yet not being sure what I really want to work on. And since I haven’t had time to go into anything deeply, when I have had twenty or thirty minutes to work on something, the time has mostly gone into trying to figure out what I should work on, or trying to brainstorm ideas for whatever anthology had the closest deadline, and then not feeling like I made any progress when I couldn’t come up with anything viable. (And there’s always that feeling hanging over me of “you’ve only completed one short story THIS WHOLE ENTIRE YEAR,” which then brings on that anxiety of, I need to get going, I need to finish something else NOW, I need to catch up on this blog and Three From Waynesboro isn’t getting updated nearly often enough, and probably everyone’s forgotten about it, and see, that’s yet another thing I’m behind on…” Et cetera. And then the brain stays in anxiety mode, which is lousy for making anything, especially when you only have fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.)

I know that, at least for right now, the way I think about my work needs to be different from how writers are usually told (directly or implicitly) to think about it. For one thing, I find myself wanting to think more like an artist, to approach creative work as an experiment, as play. As much as I might well need (or even want) one someday, right now my entire soul recoils at the words “business plan.” And yet I know what I want, as soon as possible, is another book, whether that’s a novel or novella or a short story collection. I want that feeling of completeness, of the finished thing with a cover, of hey, look, people (self), I have been doing something after all.

It’s just a long road to get there, especially when you feel like you’re not making any progress beyond pages of random notes or odd phrases that pop into your head.

I try to tell myself, though, that at least I’m remaining open. Those notes and phrases are still me being receptive, listening, gathering. It’s a difficult mindset, because it goes against that grain of “ONLY word count matters, ONLY the writing counts as real — research, listening, brainstorming, listening to podcasts, reading blogs about writing — none of that really counts” that writers hear so much of. I understand the advice — sure, you have to actually write sometime — but I’m reminding myself that I haven’t totally shut down. My writing isn’t all in some room gathering dust with the door closed and locked. I haven’t shut myself away from all aspects of it. In some ways, I’m thinking about it more than I ever have before, and that’s not a terrible thing.

(And I’ve signed on for the Notebook Project again, which was fun last year, and is a great alternative to NaNoWriMo, and which I hope will loosen things up even more, being as low-pressure and potentially playful a challenge as it is.)

All that said, it’s surprised me to realize that what bothers me about not writing isn’t so much the not-writing part; it’s the not-publishing (or at least sending things out) part. I’ve always felt that submitting and publishing work is that last part of the creative process — things don’t feel finished until they have a home somewhere, even if it’s just being shared here or on my website — and it’s bothered me more than I expected, to not have new things to put out there. But I print out guidelines of magazines that I’d like to submit to, sometime, when I have something again, and I put them in a folder, and they’re safe, and right now that has to be enough.

So. I’m still trying, and I’m trying to go easy on myself in the meantime. I’m reading blogs like The Fluent Self and Bane of Your Resistance and Tiny Buddha and Chris Oatley’s blog, and Austin Kleon’s newsletter, and Keri Smith’s blog. I’m reading Natalie Goldberg and Elizabeth Gilbert (and listening to Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons). And I’m seeking out new sources of input for art and poems and essays (like The Sun). I’ve kept having this feeling, for months, that if I can just explore enough creative work that’s different, unusual, thought-provoking — enough randomness, enough novelty — I can somehow find more depth and variety in what I create myself.

I’m trying to reframe this, instead of a dry spell, as something of a hibernation, if not the tiny hope of a metamorphosis. If conditions become favorable again to write the way I used to, I want to be ready; if they don’t, I want to adapt enough to be able to keep going.

And now… well, now it’s time to work. As usual. But at least I won’t have “update my blog” hanging over me for a while. 🙂

Advertisements

Knowing What Doesn’t Work

Camp NaNoWriMo has come and gone for another year, and I made a halfhearted attempt at the July session, joining up with a cabin of middle grade writers in the hopes of completing my MG manuscript-that-is-mostly-just-many-pages-of-notes, Tinker’s Gap. I say “halfhearted” because Camp was very nonproductive for me this time — I never felt fully committed to it or really excited about it, so I never got an outline together, and what I quickly learned once writing time started was that this particular book doesn’t want to be written in an on-the-fly rush. What words I did wind up writing during July were mostly unrelated blog posts for Three From Waynesboro, a couple freewrites, and an opening scene for Tinker’s Gap that may or may not stay.

They say to view your writing as an experiment, in the sense that every experiment is valuable because it either ends in success or you learn something to help for next time. In this case, I learned that 1) above all else right now, I hate having to count how many words I’ve written in a day, and 2) the NaNo setup overall just isn’t my thing anymore. This time around, what struck me was that not only was I not anywhere close to meeting my word count goal, I didn’t even care that I wasn’t meeting it. (My only concern was that maybe I was making a lousy first impression on my cabinmates, although thankfully I wasn’t the only one to not make my goal for the month.)

I still have fond memories of my first NaNoWriMo and of my first Camp NaNoWriMo, but ever since then, any further attempts at either one have never been able to recapture that first sense of excitement and play and fun, and I wind up just forcing myself to try to get through it and regretting that I signed up.

So. Duly noted, universe, even if it did take a few tries to finally sink in.

I’ve also been trying to find some kind of emotional balance with social media — which, for me, mostly means Twitter these days. On the one hand, since I work from home, Twitter is kind of my water cooler, my hangout, and makes up a big portion of my online social interaction (and my social interaction in general, to be honest).

On the other hand, it can also be incredibly toxic for me. In this case I’m not talking about harassment or issues like that; instead, it’s the experience of having a feed made up of lots of writers (and a fair amount of them pro-level writers or pro-level indie writers), so there are days when I feel like I’m reading a constant feed made up of, hey I’m going to this con, or I’m GoH at this other con, or here I am at this workshop, or I’m nominated for this award, or here’s my latest blog tour or my tweets from this awesome book festival or the cover reveal for my next series book, yay!… and my comparison monster wakes up and stretches and gets to work, and the next thing I know I’m sitting there feeling sorry for myself because I don’t have tons of best writing pals talking up my stuff, or a bunch of fans to banter with, or a cutesy group-nickname for my newsletter subscribers*, and why doesn’t anybody ever ask me questions on Goodreads, and why don’t I have more reviews, and I’ve barely written anything this year and nobody reads my stuff anyway so why bother, and I hate my day job and I hate myself and oh also I hate the entire freaking world and everyone in it.

You can see where this might become something of an issue.

I know it seems simple to say, okay, just stay off Twitter then — but despite what I’ve said above, I really like a lot of things about Twitter. I like keeping up with and meeting and interacting with people there. I follow a lot of cool feeds of really interesting stuff that I’d miss out on otherwise. I do enjoy being there… except when I don’t.

So part of figuring out other stuff that doesn’t work for me lately has been trying to take more control of what I’m consuming. Right now that means muting various people on Twitter when I need to (and not feeling bad about it), and I switched to Tweetdeck so I can also have the ability to mute keywords and hashtags. I know full well that I’m never going to be able to avoid everything that can trigger envy, frustration, burnout, depression, or just general despair about the state of humanity (read: the 2016 presidential election), but I’m going to try to walk away and/or mute more often, to make those times shorter and easier for me to deal with, rather than getting stuck in that downward spiral of “I should be able to deal with this and I’m a terrible person because I can’t.”

By the same token, I’ve also been cleaning house in terms of unsubscribing from blogs and mailing lists that just get deleted from my inbox anyway, or give me one more thing I feel like I have to keep up with. I’m running everything past the test of is this really worth my time?, in the sense of (to use the words of Marie Kondo), does this spark joy? Does it feed my curiosity or give me information I really need at the place I’m at right now? I don’t need to read more articles with publishing or marketing advice when right now my biggest challenge is to bring joy back into the process of creating. (And yes, I’m taking breaks from Twitter and the Internet in general when the political scene or the cynicism or the general vitriol and idiocy just gets to be too much.)

Recent days, then, have been about admitting, and clearing out, what doesn’t work. Now I’m left trying to figure out what still does — but I’ll save that rambling for another post.

 

*suggestions welcome

Interview! + something for your Kindle

I love being interviewed – I mean, media-type interviews, not job stuff. (I don’t know who really likes job interviews in and of themselves, but I’m sure there’s somebody out there. If so, awesome. You do you.)

Anyway, this is the cool talk-about-your-writing kind of interview. It’s a Member Spotlight from the Furry Writers’ Guild, and it was still fun to answer the set of questions even though I was the one who wrote them back when I started the Member Spotlight feature almost two years ago. A bit like hiding your own Easter eggs, but it’s still a good set of questions, I think:

https://furrywritersguild.com/2016/05/25/member-spotlight-renee-carter-hall/

I also wanted to note that if you haven’t picked up a copy of my mini short story collection Six Impossible Things, it’s finally being price-matched again at Amazon, so you can get it free for your Kindle right here. (And it’s always free at Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords, if you’d rather.)

sixcoversmallThe ebook features six of my odd little fantasy stories, and let’s face it, where else are you going to find stories with casts made up of humans, imaginary friends, a talking raccoon named after junk food, a cartoon tiger, a werewolf, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? For free?

(Nowhere. I’ve looked. That’s why I had to write these things myself.)

On the writing front, last night I sent out my first non-reprint short story submission of the year, which makes me feel more like a “real” writer again and less like somebody who just sort of used to be one. Obviously the first half of the year has been a little sparse for me, but I’m starting to get myself back on track now, so I’m hoping the second half of 2016 will be a lot more productive. I’m also going to be doing a big overhaul/redesign of my website soon, which I’m actually kinda looking forward to, even though I know it’s going to be a lot of work. (And I haven’t forgotten about Three From Waynesboro, either; look for a new post there later this week.) As always, sign up for my mailing list so you won’t miss anything important!

 

Leave and Courage

From L. M. Montgomery’s Emily’s Quest, and the title character’s journal:

This has been a lyric spring day — and a miracle has happened. It happened at dawn — when I was leaning out of my window, listening to a little, whispering, tricksy wind o’ morning blowing out of Lofty John’s bush. Suddenly — the flash came — again — after these long months of absence — my old, inexpressible glimpse of eternity. And all at once I knew I could write. I rushed to my desk and seized my pen. All the hours of early morning I wrote; and when I heard Cousin Jimmy going downstairs I flung down my pen and bowed my head over my desk in utter thankfulness that I could work again.

“Get leave to work–
In this world ’tis the best you get at all,
For God in cursing gives us better gifts
Than men in benediction.”

So wrote Elizabeth Barret Browning — and truly. It is hard to understand why work should be called a curse — until one remembers what bitterness force or uncongenial labour is. But the work for which we are fitted — which we feel we are sent into the world to do — what a blessing it is and what fulness of joy it holds. I felt this to-day as the old fever burned in my finger-tips and my pen once more seemed a friend. . .

Oh, God, as long as I live give me “leave to work.” Thus pray I. Leave and courage.

It was not the wind this morning, it was the rain and the mist in the woods and the music in my headphones. It was only a few paragraphs, and I have no idea where they fit in the larger work, yet. But characters were speaking to me again, and it was time, at last, at my desk, writing, and the hope of more in the days to come — and after months of almost nothing, I understood exactly what Emily feels above.

 

A separate space

One of the things I loved about moving to this house was that it had enough bedrooms that I could finally have a space for all my books — not on shelves surrounding the computer desk or out in the living room, not with half my books packed in boxes because there wasn’t enough shelf space for them. So one bedroom here became the library, and lots of shelves went up along two walls, and I finally unpacked everything.

The center of the library, though, I could never quite figure out what to do with. While it occasionally served as useful floor space when we needed room for an air mattress, otherwise it stayed empty. The library was a place I went into to get things — books, art supplies — and go back out again, but I never spent much time in the room itself. It needed a piece of furniture, but I never really settled on what it should be. A reading chair? A futon? Giant beanbag? Maybe a drafting table for art?

Then, last month, I found out that my work schedule was changing, and I realized that, with the new schedule, I could potentially have two hours every weekday morning to dedicate to writing — before starting in on the day job, instead of after, as it is now. Still, the thought of sitting at this computer desk and writing, then opening up the transcription programs and logging in to work, wasn’t all that appealing. Like it or not, this desk has come to signal my brain for Work (as in Day Job), and also Internet Distractions and other Stuff I Have To Do, none of which is conducive to the mindset I need for writing.

And then I knew what the library had been waiting for.

So, here’s my awesome new cheapo desk with its inexplicable teal-colored drawer, a tiny bit wobbly but also feeling delightfully casual.

library

My Writing Desk.

And I realize that, even though I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years now (“this” meaning “writing stuff and sending it out and hoping it gets accepted for publication”), this is the first time in all those years that I’ve had a space completely dedicated to writing. Just mine. Just for that. Not a computer desk (though I’m sure I’ll be using the laptop there, when that time comes in my drafts). Not the coffee table or the couch or some other open space where I always have the TV or the Internet beckoning.

A private space. Somehow, a safe space. Maybe even a tiny bit of a sacred space.

All in all, not bad for 63 bucks at Walmart.

 

(As a footnote, since I’m sharing pics and don’t think I ever mentioned this, here’s one of my Cóyotl Award for By Sword and Star, sitting on my shelf of author/contributor copies. Yep, they use little coyote plushies as statuettes, which is completely and utterly adorable. I’ve named her Lucky, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that maybe she’ll get a friend some year.)

coyotl 2012

Looking ahead: 2015

I didn’t bother to do a “looking back” type post for 2014, because frankly I’d rather forget most of what happened in 2014. While there were still some publications of previously sold stories, overall it wasn’t a very productive year for me writing-wise because my personal life wound up being so stressful. After my husband’s three outpatient surgeries, two more attempts at refinancing our mortgage that failed for reasons only underwriters could understand, and finally having to face our last resort of filing for bankruptcy because of all the medical and credit card bills, there wasn’t much time, energy, or headspace left for anything creative.

There were a few bright spots early on in the year — like seeing the publication of “Huntress” in Five Fortunes, and winning the Spark contest in the spring* —  but summer and fall were particularly tough times for me, and for quite a while I didn’t want much of anything to do with writing. I didn’t want to write, I didn’t want to think about writing, and I certainly didn’t want to be around other writers. I’d had dry spells before, but nothing ever this bad or reaching so widely or deeply. I felt completely unappreciated, writing anything felt pointless, and honestly I more or less hated the entire world — a world I felt like I was viewing through a thick pane of glass while, beyond it, everyone else went about their business being happy and noticed and fulfilled.

That was pretty much the mindset I was in one morning when I checked my email… and found an invitation to be the writing guest of honor at Rainfurrest this year.

And I felt the glass break.

rainfurrest flyerTo be honest, I never thought I’d even be able to attend Rainfurrest, let alone as one of their guests of honor. Our budget doesn’t allow for many conventions of any sort, especially not ones that require cross-country flights — and I hated not being able to go because RF is considered one of the best (if not the best) furry conventions for writers.** So I’m excited, flattered, and occasionally terrified by this honor, and I’m looking forward to finally meeting plenty of people I’ve known only as screennames. Beyond anything else, I’m determined to enjoy this experience as much as I can, knowing this sort of thing may never happen again, and I’m also determined to do everything in my power as a GoH to make the con a great experience for everyone else.

As part of being the “writers’ con,” RF also likes to help authors launch their new books, so to take advantage of that opportunity, my main writing goal for the first half of the year is to finish my next novel, The Second Life of Bartholomew T. Lion, in time to debut it at the con. Bartholomew has been waiting since the summer of 2011, when the first half to two-thirds was written during a Camp NaNoWriMo session that year. Now it’s time to dig out the draft, figure out an outline for what needs to be revised and added, and get to work.

It’s shaping up to be a very busy year…

 

*That winning story is slated for publication very soon; watch this space.
**If you need a quick primer on the furry fandom, try the one I wrote for the Furry Writers’ Guild website and the links included there.

It’s a major award!

Or at least it feels like it, even though there are no aesthetically questionable lighting fixtures involved…

Near the end of March, I had hit something of a creative low. I’d finally completed a new story for an anthology’s deadline, was pretty happy with how it turned out, felt confident about it getting in — and, of course, it didn’t. As much as I’ve learned to bounce back from rejection (at least after a day or so), it’s always a letdown to feel like your work is perfect for something, and have such good feelings about it, and then find out you were completely wrong. I knew I had to send it back out again (always the best balm for any rejection letter), but because of a lot of other things going on at the time, I felt too tired and disheartened to figure out where.

And then I ran across a link on Twitter to a writing contest.

Whose theme just happened to suit the story perfectly.

With only two days left to submit.

So I shrugged, and sent the story in, and waited, and hoped, while at the same time trying desperately not to get my hopes up (because it’s been that kind of year), all the time thinking, “wouldn’t it be funny if…”

And now I can say that my story “The Frog Who Swallowed the Moon” won the fiction grand prize in the latest Spark contest:

http://sparkanthology.org/contests/five/

It’s my first writing contest win — for fiction, anyway, not counting things like essay contests in high school, so it’s pretty exciting.

This sort of thing has happened before — story gets rejected only to wind up getting published someplace that’s somehow better in the end — but not quite this dramatically, so in addition to being a nice ego and confidence boost, it’s also a nice boost to the kind of faith you have to have to keep writing and revising and sending stuff out time after time.

Although I have to admit, I always feel weird about writing these sorts of announcements. There’s such a fine line, to me, between announcing one’s accomplishments and sounding like you’re bragging about them. I’m taken back to that feeling of elementary school, sitting at my desk with a completed test, waiting for somebody else to finish and hand theirs in before I get up, so everyone won’t know I’m the first one to finish. And on the flip side, I know what it’s like to feel that everybody else’s success always happens during your own driest spells, and to write congratulatory comments with your teeth gritted.

In the end, though, I come back to this, a passage that’s been quoted so much it should feel like a threadbare cliché, but one that still rings true to me:

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

-Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

And besides, I got a particularly snarky rejection letter a couple days later. So the universe is still in balance. 🙂