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

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.