You all know what a dry spell is, don’t you? I sure do. For what seemed like aeons but what measures out as three years, I didn’t sell one story, poem, or novel.Looking back, I can see reasons for that. My first pregnancy ended with a stillborn baby girl named Isadora. I kept on writing, mostly about what had happened, but felt very screwed up. I paused and eventually took baby steps back to creativity: cooking, drawing, writing short stories I didn’t like. When I finally got back to writing novel-length, I aimed for a lighthearted romance. My husband read it and said, “Why is everyone so angry?”I also kept submitting, but the rejections depressed me, and I did not need any more depression. So I still turned stories and novel proposals around, but slowly, and if editors didn’t respond, I forgot about the story. For, like, years.
So here I am, four years later, and I’m having a wet spell. It started slowly: an acceptance to Stitches, a medical humor magazine, for a piece on all the patients who told me I looked too young to be a doctor. The magazine folded before it could publish me, but I accept no responsibility for that. Nature accepted and published a story I originally wrote as an undergrad about infertility, technology, and red hair (I was in love with my redheaded boyfriend who is now my husband, Matt). Dog vs. Sandwich took the story I wrote based on Matt’s dream that he was swimming with an undulating slice of dill pickle.
Last year, I won two writing contests, maybe three. (Two sectors of one contest, judged anonymously.)
1) The Innermoonlit Award for Best First Chapter of a Novel. I admire Brian tremendously for putting up his own time and presumably money to encourage other writers out there. And, of course, I salute his exquisite judgment. No entry fee, no weird rules. He just reads your work and picks out the ones he thinks are the best. In Jane Juska’s book, Unaccompanied Women, one of her men says that rich people are more likely to sponsor a university building than become a patron for artists. I would like to support other artists. I use this as an excuse to shop at Etsy.
2) Cornwall Public Library Writing Contest, Best Fiction. 3000 words aren’t a lot to play with, but I went to talk to a writer’s group at Char-Lan High School. I didn’t get paid for my time, except for a mug and a nice pen, but I came back with a few ideas. One of the students felt bad if she saw a loaf of bread sitting by itself. She thought it looked lonely. So I wrote a story about that.
3) Cornwall Public Library Writing Contest, Best Children’s Literature. When my son Max was born, I took six weeks vacation from writing. “I really enjoyed that sabbatical, but now I want to work again,” I told Matt. He shook his head in disgust. “You weren’t on vacation. You just had a baby!” “Yes. That was a good vacation. Now I want to work again,” I said. I wrote a picture book for Max, inventing a magic hat for him, scribbling rhymes while breastfeeding.
I also had my first mystery story accepted to an upcoming crime anthology based in Indian country. That was lots of fun. I wrote my first story based around Cornwall and I researched Mohawk culture. I put myself in the story as the emergency doctor.
In the last few months, I’ve had so many acceptances, I actually have trouble keeping track of all of them.
Outshine took my werewolf/monster limerick on April 25.
The Medical Post is publishing the young-looking doctor piece June 2nd.
Escape Clause accepted “Metamorphosis,” a poem I wrote in medical school about the transformation of a lonely housewife. Just before this acceptance, Kit St. Germain, the lovely soul funding Escape Clause with her insurance cheque (again, I bow down before these modern day patrons of the arts), wrote the most flattering, funny rejection ever for a short story I’d written at the same time.
Interzone accepted “Iron Monk,” my story about Shaolin monks and other Chinese exiles in space.
A week or two later, Kit accepted that story for an iPod application. It’s called “Dancers with Red Shoes,” a story about the magical red shoes that still won’t stop dancing and the ensuing human havoc.
The Medical Post just accepted another piece called “Why I strive to be type B, or at least A minus,” which I started off a blog.
And today _The Dragon and the Stars_, a 2010 DAW anthology of Chinese sf writers, wants “Dancers with Red Shoes” as well!
So what is this, a brag fest?
Um, not exactly. It’s a wet spell. I’ve had one other writing wet spell before, in 2003, and at least two other aforementioned dry spells.
As I read in Geri Larkin’s funny, honest, and wise book, The Chocolate Cake Sutra, there’s a Chinese saying, “Ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows.” In every life, you get both. North American culture loves perfection, youth, beauty, overnight success and excess. In other words, wet spells. We like to pretend the dry spells don’t exist, or exist only for fat, smelly people on welfare. But guess what? We all get ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows. You’ve got to figure out how to ride the wave, whether you’re soaring or crashing.
Have I learned anything from crashing? Oh, yeah. Compassion. Tenderness. Joy and sadness in small things like seeing my son Max’s chubby buttocks, realizing they aren’t as fat as they used to be and they’ll get thinner still as he grows older every day.
Writing-wise, I’ve learned that it’s easier to be a rat with an island.
I know, that makes no sense unless you’ve read the inimitable Jennifer Crusie’s article. Basically, they conditioned swimming rats to believe they’ll be saved (find an island) or perish (no island) and the ones who believed in an island swam twice as long. And that’s the key to getting published, or succeeding in life in general: keep trying.
When I look at everyone else’s writing–say, my friend Steve Mohan, who wrote a killer thriller called Paper Eagle, or Leslie Walker, whose voice and humor surpise and delight me–I know that they will be successful. Like Michael Chabon prescribed, they have the talent, luck, and discipline they need to succeed.
The problem with this business is all the rejection. Open your e-mail: “not for us.” Open the mailbox: bills and “we appreciate your interest, but…” Day after day, people turn you down.
It wears you down. You think, Boy, I must suck. Plus I’m fat. No one cares if I’m ever published, so why do I bother? I should do the laundry instead. At least then I’m accomplishing something.
You have to rise above this. You have to have faith in your writing. You have to believe in yourself, like that book I read when I was a kid about Louis Pasteur. I truly, honestly believe, like Julia Cameron, that everyone is creative and should be encouraged. I don’t care if you write or sing about penguins or like to krump naked. But if it moves you, do it. And who gives a crap if a publisher or American Idol’s Simon or anyone else agrees with you.
Ah, but the problem is, I’m talking about you. I don’t have a problem believing in you, dear reader. You’re going to make it, you’re going to get all the awards. But me? I’m toiling away in the salt mines.
I’ll admit it. When I read J. Cru’s article, I was confused. Okay, be a rat on an island. But how am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to believe there’s an island there if I don’t see one?
But I kept my eyes open. I got rocked by ten thousand sorrows and I paid attention to my ten thousand joys. And I saw there are other ways of being a rat with an island. Another way of putting it is, have faith. I know faith is a very religious word nowadays, but I just means faith in yourself or at least in your work. Kris Rush calls it being a “hard-bitten optimist” in her freelancer’s guide. How to do that?
Here are my hard core recs:
1. Write down all the good things people say about you so you’ll remember that and not just the @#^@ you get. Put it somewhere you can see it.
I’d made a Word file called “compliments,” another called “reviews,” another called “writing-compliments” (you get my drift), but I never looked at them unless I needed a pull quote. So I went on schtickers.com and made my own laptop sticker literally covered in praise. I still don’t look at it much, but occasionally, my eye falls on “Huzzah! W00t! Kowabunga!” and it feels good. Martha Beck recommends sticking a list like that to your mirror. Whatever works for you.
2. Make friends with people who like you and say so.
I know this sounds odd, but we all have friends who really like to talk about themselves instead. Hell, I am that friend–sometimes. But I love my friends who cherish me enough to listen, even though they are all busy up the wazoo. And even just acquaintances who respond to your Facebook status about natural ant killers (thanks, Brenda) let you know that they care and you matter. That you have an island.
3. Read what calls to you.
I’ve read a lot of Buddhist books lately and they’ve really made me re-think my assumptions (check out my Zen book recs). But I can find lessons anywhere. Elizabeth Gilbert said her goal was to be published while she was alive. So she felt quite serene because she just needed one publication, plus she was young and in good health. That was her island. Malcolm Gladwell’s Ted Talk about, among other things, spaghetti sauce, made me think about how publishers think they know what consumers want, but again and again, they are surprised by the audience’s love of, for example, chunky spaghetti sauce. Find solace in these gems, whatever they are, and then keep on creating your own creme brulee.
4. Pat yourself on the back
Before Max was born, I didn’t know how I’d write while being an active parent. I asked writer parents for advice and got a lot of wisdom back, but the truth was, in the end, I had to live it and figure it out for myself: the mountain of laundry, the fatigue, the awe and inspiration. I used to wake up and think, okay. How am I going to get my writing done? Can I wake up before him? Give up my own nap? Rush off when Matt gets home? Drug Max with TV while I scribble? And the truth is, now, I just figure I’ll get the writing done one way or another and it usually works out, but I don’t freak out if I don’t. I have an island. Yay, me. Back patted.
5. Easier said than done: serenity
As part of my crazy sorrowful-joyful life, I have confronted some of my fears. Like, what if no one ever publishes my novels? And I now think, okay. I can deal with that. I’ve published a fistful of short stories and poems. I’ve won some prizes. I want my novels out there too, so I can feel like a Real Writer, but I can live without it too. At this point in my life, I’m not looking to self-publish or go with a small press. But that could change. In the meantime, I’m just trying to enjoy my life, which is pretty sweet, despite the speed bumps.
Thanks to Buddhism, I realize that for me, worrying is useful maybe 10 perent of the time, when fear motivates me to brainstorm solutions, and I can get pretty creative with solutions. But after that, it just gives me gray hairs and makes me follow my husband around saying, “What do you think? What do you think?” and it just drives us both batsh*t.
So here I am. I’m having a wet spell. I know dry spells, as well as more joys and sorrows, are in store for me. Regardless, I’m building an island.