Writerly Roundup – October 2019
Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
Writers often times reach a point that necessitates taking stock of feelings and priorities. These authors shed light on how unknown processes led them to a new, more fulfilling outcome.
Taking That Big Leap of Faith–In Yourself, Hillary Davidson, Writer Unboxed
Writers are often reminded of how grateful we should be for being published at all. But I wasn’t feeling grateful; I was stressed-out.
Who can relate? There can come a point in the process where you’re living the dream. You have gained a following, you’ve published something great, you visit great places… Whatever that dream is, your past self would look at this present self in awe. Stars and hearts in their eyes at how far they came. What no one tells you is that in a capitalist economy we are expected to be profitable at all times, which leaves little budget for celebrating success and resting in between.
To be clear, there are no villains in this story, and no one was doing me wrong. But there were signs that I wasn’t on the right track. One of them was that my agent didn’t like Blood Always Tells; specifically, my agent didn’t like Dominique, the point-of-view character at the start of the novel. “Who wants to read about a woman who’s having an affair with a married man?” my agent asked while we were talking about the book. A few days later, my agent emailed me some suggestions about things to do to boost my profile, such as blogging about vintage clothing. To be fair, vintage clothes are an obsession for my series character in my first three novels, but those dark-edged books didn’t feel like they would be served by cozy posts.
“You know what you want to do,” my husband told me. “But you’re afraid to give up what you have, in case you don’t get anything else.”
That was absolutely true.
Asking ourselves if we trust that we’re capable of closing some kind of chapter, or ending a negative pattern is a step towards releasing fears. Based on where you’ve landed as a writer, would you give yourself an opportunity to switch gears and find rewards if you were hiring yourself to do so? If not, why? What would need to happen first?
I realized that I needed to believe in my own work and my own worth. I needed to trust that if I moved forward, it would open up new opportunities to me. My horizons would broaden, not diminish.
Making the jump to a new agent and a new publisher was both easier and harder than launching my freelance career. Easier, because I was married to someone who believed in me, and having two incomes lessened the financial stress. But it was also harder, because I was already—in some ways—living my dream. That actually made it tougher to deal with self-doubt. What if this was as good as it would ever get? What if I moved on, only to find myself in another good-enough situation? Nothing was ever going to be perfect, right?
But I would never know if I didn’t try.
In hindsite, Davidson explains:
…the toughest part was making the decision to leave. Once I chose my path, I could focus on my next steps. There were no recriminations; I really do think people respect your decisions when you keep everything above-board. Be direct but also be thoughtful. Breaking up involves negotiation: for example, my agent asked for a grace period to sell foreign rights, and I agreed. Some people don’t want to leave a relationship unless they’re sure that someone else will have them, but I think that’s a bad way to go. I’m all for networking, but you never have a conversation with an agent about changing representation when you’re still with another agent.
Obviously, I’m writing this with the benefit of hindsight, and if you know me, you know how this story turned out: I am now represented by an agent who is truly simpatico with me and the darkness in my work, and I’m published by a company that gave my first book with them the enthusiastic push it needed to become a bestseller.
In the end, this process of change proved to be a valuable, if not forgotten part of the writer’s creative process.
On the Darkness, Strangeness, and Unbridled Joy of Children’s Books, Cara Hoffman, Literary Hub
Writing mirrors life, and like life it is fluid and changeable. When Cara Hoffman was writing novels with dark, difficult themes, she was reeling from a traumatic experience she had once documented as a journalist.
Each book required a kind of emotional stamina that occasionally faltered, leaving me sick, depressed, and grateful to have a brother who checked in on me, and friends who were equally off the grid in their art making who understood, especially my partner.
As she went through the steps towards healing from that shock, she took a sharp left and discovered a healthy place for herself as a children’s book author.
And so this September, when my fourth novel, Bernard Pepperlin, was published, many of my readers, and friends, and colleagues were surprised. One friend told me, “When you said you were writing a kids book, I thought, ‘Oh god, she’s hit bottom.’” The people who weren’t surprised took it as the natural end point to my decades immersed in existential stories and research about crime, disease, and environmental collapse. In other words, they thought I’d cracked.
What her friends found out is that in fact, Hoffman was simply following the natural ebb and flow of her creative process, and rediscovering her own enchantment with life.
Writing the book had broken me open, filling me with a giddy joy. I dreamed about underground libraries, and the flower district, and cats talking to queens in Chelsea. I wandered around the Lower East Side singing songs about how beautiful New York City was; as soon as I finished Bernard, I started writing a novel about a frog who played the harmonica and his cousin who studied at the Sorbonne. And while I felt a happier writing these books, while I loved getting lost in their worlds, none of this was a departure for me. On the contrary, the happiness I felt was one of returning.
Fearlessly allowing oneself to process emotions can be the pulse that ends up fueling a page-turning story. Rather than run from our experiences, explore how they can create interest for the reader.
A Poets Case for Wasting Time, Kayo Chingonyi, Literary Hub
Success is often confused with over-scheduling. Kayo Chingonyi explains how his misperception of success set a difficult standard, and how he discovered that it was holding him back:
I was encouraged to draw inspiration from a capitalist ideal of the writer: someone who works themselves into the ground, neglecting their health and wellbeing in the service of creative success. Those, I was told, are the truest artists, the ones most committed to their art. For years I took this sentiment to heart, said yes to everything, and found myself vacillating between a busyness that allowed little time for anything outside work and a paralyzing fear of not working only cured by more work.
In 2016, having worked myself to burnout one time too many, I snapped and forced myself to take time off. That summer I went to Los Angeles and New York to visit family, eat, buy vinyl, and walk around. The following January, I traveled back to Zambia for the first time in almost 25 years. I put a month aside for the trip to Zed, cancelling all work and really trying to be present there. For the first time, I was choosing to fly in order to interact with a different community, thinking of it as a living thing. The flights had a purpose beyond getting me somewhere so that I could fulfill a contractual obligation and leave again before looking up at the sky in daylight. Waking up in these new environments without the usual pressures, I found that I started to take pleasure in what I might previously have considered wasted time. I committed myself to the practice of exploring new places for no other reason than that doing so might be its own joy.
Rediscovering simple things like taking time to recharge helped Kayo to find himself in his writing. Allowing time for reflection without worrying about cost is a valuable part of the creative process.
In Trinidad and Tobago, they call this kind of unstructured social time “liming.” It is not so rarefied a thing, and is an important aspect of the wider culture rather than being connected to any particular social group. The idea is that there is no specific purpose to the gathering, and it is this part of liming that appeals to me. In a lifestyle that is focused on maximizing economic capital it is refreshing and revolutionary to gather socially. Putting aside the capitalist imperative leaves space for staring into space, an act which stands in for the kind of elusive freedom we have been taught that money can buy.
Adjusting the creative process by letting go of old thought patterns and introducing methods such a “liming” can make space for fresh ideas in writing. Sometimes simply observing the world around us is all it takes to recharge the creative drive.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!