on writing, publications

Start Bending Over Backwards for Yourself!

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Today my article “Start Bending Over Backwards for Yourself” appears in The Indie Chicks. I’m excited to be part of a magazine with a mission to inspire women to become “self-empowered, driven, independent, and confident.”

This topic–how to find your voice, believe in your own convictions, and realize you don’t owe anyone anything–is something I’ve struggled with throughout my life. I’m finally making progress but it’s something I have to remind myself every day. To celebrate the publication of this article, here is a story about the dangers of bending over backwards to please others with your writing.

By the time I went off to earn my MFA in Creative Writing, I had written a first draft of a novel. I had big dreams for this novel, not least of all that I would work on it during my two years in the program, turn in a brilliant final draft as my thesis project, and field offers from agents before the ink was dry on my diploma.

I wasted no time in submitting the first chapter when my turn in workshop came. The following week I received twelve written critiques of my manuscript, including the professor’s. It was a little overwhelming to absorb twelve different takes on one chapter, as well as twelve different sets of suggestions on how it should be changed, but I was eager to get to work and eager to please. I rewrote the chapter to incorporate all of my classmates’ opinions as best I could. Then I submitted the revised chapter to workshop. But the problem with trying to please my readers in a class where critiquing was not optional but homework, was that they were never pleased. Each new revision yielded me twelve new sets of comments.

I’m sure you can imagine what happened to that chapter. It was like a quilt, once thick and purposely patterned, that suffered too many changes until it grew threadbare and asymetrical. In short, I let the workshop run away with my novel. By the time I stopped submitting chapters, I hardly recognized the story I held in my hands.

Having learned this lesson in my first semester, I put my novel away until the following year, when I began a one-on-one “tutorial” with one of my professors. This, I thought, was my golden opportunity. Twelve readers had been too many but one smart and supportive reader would be just what I needed to finish my book. As the fall approached, visions of book contracts once again danced in my head.

Can you guess what happened next? There was no book contract. There wasn’t even a finished novel. After much debate over what kind of people the characters should be and what they should be trying to do with their lives (i.e. the plot), after lots of frantic re-writing as I tried to please my professor, whose suggestions and expectations began to feel like a moving target, he said, “This isn’t my book. I’m not writing it or trying to get it published. I don’t care what happens.” His point, I eventually realized, was that it was my book. I needed to have a vision for it, a vision I was committed to. The ability to receive constructive criticism, to be open to suggestions, isn’t valuable unless it’s accompanied by discernment.

Four years later, I am much more confident in my writing voice and my vision for my stories. Workshops are more useful now that I can take the comments that help me realize the story I intended to write and leave the rest in the recycling bin. “It’s my story” was one of the best lessons I learned in graduate school.

on writing

How to Handle Rejection

Accepting Rejection

After being lucky enough to have a great freelance writing project fall into my lap last spring, I’ve started to look for more work. The most fun part of this process is brainstorming ideas. I get a lot of ideas while I’m driving, and there’s nothing like cruising along the highway, basking in one’s sure-to-be-genius stories and blog posts. The hardest part is, of course, actually writing those stories and blog posts. And the worst part of the process? That’s right, it’s everyone’s least favorite friend, rejection.

Rejection happens to everyone

Long before I submitted my first story to a literary journal, I was well-versed in rejection. From losing a friend to a cooler crowd, to not being selected as the 5th grade choral soloist for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and experiencing plenty of romantic rejection in high school and college, you might say I was a pro. But when it came to dealing with rejection, I was very much an amateur. I wallowed, I internalized, I held on way too long to what I wanted and didn’t see the many other possibilities in front of me. When I lived in the world as I wanted it to be, instead of as it actually was, I denied myself the opportunity to learn, grow, and work toward achieving my dreams.

Handling rejection gracefully is about knowing yourself

When I was younger, I didn’t know myself at all. That’s why I was trying out for chorus solos instead of writing stories. I wanted to fit in and be loved, so I tried to present myself in the image of the people I wanted as friends and dates. Finally, after three years of college I majored in English, but even then I didn’t have strong convictions about being a writer. My head was easily turned by different career ideas. I didn’t believe I could succeed or make a living as a writer, so I tried to do lots of other things. Fear guided my actions. I went to graduate school for creative writing, but let the criticism of classmates and professors unravel my novel-in-progress.

Only now, at 31, am I ready to say with conviction: “I’m a writer.” Whether I succeed or fail isn’t the most important thing. Satisfaction comes from knowing that I’m pursuing my dream. I’m putting myself out there and I’m going to give it my best effort.

Shake it off and move on

Now that I know myself, I’m not dependent on external praise or criticism to form my self-image. Whether others like what I’m doing, hate it, or are indifferent, my belief in myself doesn’t waver. That isn’t to say that rejection doesn’t still sting–of course it does. Everyone would rather hear “you’re awesome” than “you’re not what we’re looking for.” But I don’t take it personally. After all, do I like every book I read, every song I hear, or every person I meet? Of course not. Taste is subjective. So I recover from one rejection by moving on to another submission. What one editor doesn’t care for, another will want to publish. And any response from an editor, good or bad, is a sign that I’m out there, participating in the world I want to be part of. That’s definitely something to be excited about!

on writing

Writing with a Relaxed Mind

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Last week I updated my Mac’s operating system only to discover that my computer was now acting like a phone, sending me pop-up notifications of nearly everything: e-mail, text messages, and social media feeds. The new software made my computer run faster, but my stressed out brain ran slower. Constantly interrupted and distracted by the pop-ups, I couldn’t concentrate on a task, much less finish it, until I figured out how to disable this “convenient” feature.

When I was 24, I quit my full-time office job a few months ahead of my scheduled departure to teach English in Prague. Untethered from the strict routines of office life, I found myself with days so long and wide open they were scary. I wanted to write a novel but had no idea how. Long morning walks were helpful. I had nowhere to be and very little to worry about, so I observed my surroundings, studied the other people who were not sitting in a cubicle at 10 am, and daydreamed about my characters.

Now I am a mother, a teacher, and I’m still trying to write (a different) novel. My time is more limited, but as this tea bag reminded me, I still need a relaxed mind in order to dream up stories. I do my creative writing at night after my daughter goes to bed; it’s the last activity of my day. To prepare, I shun gadgets and multi-tasking. I relax my mind by writing in my journal, taking a bath, or talking to my husband. When I finally sit down to write, I’m holding a notebook and pen instead of a laptop. I may be physically tired, but my mind is open and ready to create.

on writing

Literary Expectations

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Recently I’ve been working on two personal essays, which is new terrain for me. For help and inspiration, I’m reading Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. This post is in response to one of the writing prompts in the book: “What do you expect of others as you read, and what do you expect of yourself as a writer?” (19).

Over the years I’ve expected different things from the books I read. When I was a child I wanted to be transported to other worlds. Curled up next to the heating vent in my bedroom, I travelled across time and geography. To the 19th century American frontier in the Little House on the Prairie books. To Quaker life in old Philadelphia in Thee, Hannah. To the Swiss Alps in Heidi. And to all the periods of American history covered by the American Girl series. I was fascinated by the past and I loved to imagine living the lives of my favorite heroines.

As I reached puberty, I looked for female characters I could identify with or aspire to be like. The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High series provided glimpses of teen life and romance. I idolized the author of the former, Ann M. Martin, once waiting in line all day at the mall to get her autograph. All I knew about her was that she was a writer who lived in New York City–exactly the life I wanted to have when I grew up.

In high school I didn’t read much outside of the required reading for school. I did discover Sylvia Plath in the tenth grade, after a friend wrote a book report on The Bell Jar. Like the book’s heroine Esther, I was depressed. Thus my appetite for female writers and characters who articulated my feelings continued. I also found solace in the teen alienation and rebellion depicted in novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 

In college I read to find out how to be in the world. The friends I made through Livejournal, who were mostly other literary-inclined young women, introduced me to classic feminist texts as well as writers like Anais Nin and Anne Sexton. In my college English classes I devoured plenty of fiction and some of it–Mrs. Dalloway in particular comes to mind–saved me during periods of major depression. Outside of school I dug into nonfiction and memoir, hungry for women’s voices and lives.

When, at age twenty-four, I moved to Prague to teach English, I rediscovered fiction as a source of escape, comfort, and companionship. Just before I left I met the man who is now my husband, and he gave me his well-used paperback copy of Middlemarch. Lying on my narrow, hard bed, I sank with relief into this great huge novel. It warded off the loneliness I felt, having come to this foreign country by myself, without knowing anyone.

Today, my reading expectations have realigned themselves with my childhood. I read to learn about the world, past and present; to experience countries I haven’t yet visited and cultures I know nothing of. I could get this information from nonfiction books, too, but literature–by which I mean fiction, poetry, and memoir/creative-nonfiction–provides something different. It places me in the life of another person and makes me empathize with that life, all of its experiences and choices. Literature reminds me of how small the world really is, a discovery I first made when I visited Israel at age twenty to meet one of my Livejournal friends and saw that the life of a girl living on the other side of the world was still very much like mine. I revisit that discovery when I read, which right now means Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. And sometimes I still read for the comfort of finding women like me, who have felt what I feel, and whose lives I can learn something from and emulate. But my focus has shifted from the internal to the external.

My writing has been moving in the same direction. It’s become less directly autobiographical and, when I do base stories on real people and/or events, I’m better able to spin them into fiction–up, up and away from the original facts. I may not be able to convincingly transport my reader to Nigeria, but I can take a Nigerian reader to Philadelphia and the lower-middle-class suburban landscape I grew up in.

As a writer, I want to provide a strong sense of place as well as the political/economic/social setting. I want to write realistic, complicated characters, especially women and their many choices and conflicts. And I want to draw my characters from all races/classes/walks of life. From my prose I expect clarity, beauty, and original imagery. Physical descriptions of people, weather, and landscapes can be a challenge.

In the personal essays I’ve been working on, I expect my writing to resonate beyond my own life, to illuminate a broader truth or truths. And I hope it comforts someone out there, maybe one of the questioning young women I used to be.

These are admittedly lofty expectations to hold myself to. How will I achieve them? By following my writing motto: “Never never never, ever ever ever, give up” (from the Center City Philadelphia Bikram Yoga studio).