Writing is a solitary endeavor. That makes the decision to publish all the more daunting. Suddenly, that solo act of mediation is going to be public.
I’m still early in my journey, but I’ve already learned a lot. I was under the disillusion that all I would have to do was sell my book to an agent or publisher. Daunting, but simple enough.
First, I realized, I had to sell myself. First, I had to prove that I could write.
What exactly did that mean? For me, it meant swallowing my insecurities and exposing myself to writing communities so I could begin the process of networking. I had to jump.
This was my first step forward after my failure to publish Shadow Rider decimated my confidence. I admittedly have a mixed opinion about college writing classes. Perhaps it was my resentment of subjective subject matter being graded objectively, or perhaps it was simply that I disagreed with the professors / TAs on multiple fronts, especially clashing in poetry. My poetry class was an endless source of frustration for me, largely due to the fact that we studied only a certain faction of contemporary. We were not permitted to use rhyme in our poems. That was too “old-fashioned.”
I wanted to write about seasons and stars; those were too abstract. When I wrote about galloping horseback in the countryside and I said, “the ground is gone,” the TA wrote, “Can you make this a specific ground? Make it a location.” When I wrote, “we are shadows uncatchable to all mortals and complications,” the TA circled mortals and scrawled, “Can you make these specific people?” Try as I might, I could not sync with his style. The contemporary pieces we read in class had no rhythm in my mind, just random images of prose cut into broken lines and labeled as poetry. The semester wore on with, in my eyes and the TA’s, failure after failure. My next poem began with a beautiful image of smog-choked cities melting crystalline stars, but as I wrote, I knew my efforts were going to be wasted again, and my piece shifted to sarcasm. Based on the TA’s procession of comments, I think he made it about halfway through before the deliquesce into a cascade of pop culture references clued him in to the satiric nature of the poem, prompting him to write, “Rebel, Rebel” at the top of my paper. Despite our ongoing feud, I somehow passed.
I fared better in the creative writing classes, but I was still hopelessly frustrated that the subject matter was again heavily dictated. All realism. Fantasy or science fiction was forbidden. I tried to tell myself that this would be a good exercise, a deviation from the norm, but my heart complained that it was plagued with real world problems every day; writing should be a journey to a realm that can be reached only through the imagination, a place that can’t be visited any other way. I found ways to cheat the system. One of my pieces featured a young author who would slip out of reality to daydream about exploring her fantasy world. And, once I proved my worth as a writer, a professor even granted me special permission to write a fantasy piece for my final story.
Looking past the differences of opinion with the professors and TAs, the classes forced me far outside my comfort zone. I was exposed to student writing of all calibers, which gave me the opportunity to be inspired by great writing but also to notice and learn from critical issues in poorer writing. Reading my work aloud in front of the class and sitting silent while my peers provided feedback was a brutal but necessary lesson in accepting criticism and thickening my shell. I had to learn that a criticism of the writing was not a criticism of the author. It hurt, but it strengthened me.
Let me just start off by saying how amazing workshops are. After college, I had no intention of joining a workshop. A close friend pushed me to join the Sandcastle Writers, a local workshop group affiliated with Amherst. I politely declined at first, insisting that I wanted to focus on my novels, but I soon realized that I missed being in the comforting presence of other writers.
Sandcastle has been a lifesaver. I dread the stretches between sessions when I have nothing to look forward to but my days off from work, but I still remember how terrifying it was to walk into the room for the first time and read my first prompt aloud. This is an excerpt from my journal:
October 08, 2015
On Monday, I had my first writing class with the Sandcastle Writers at the Lubeznik Center. I’ll start off by saying it’s quite different from the college workshops I took at Purdue. While I did find those incredibly beneficial, one of the hard lessons was learning how to take criticism. The class would spend about five or ten minutes reviewing what they liked about your story, then they would make suggestions about how to improve it… which was basically ripping your story to pieces in a polite, constructive way. In the Sandcastle workshop, there is no negativity. After an author has read his/her piece aloud, we discuss what we liked and what we would remember about it.
I am, by far, the youngest member…. What was especially intimidating for me was realizing that everyone already knew each other and had taken this workshop multiple times in the past. I was going to have to prove myself.
The age gap caught me off guard. I was used to being in the presence of college students. Suddenly, I was sitting among writers I assumed must have been writing for decades, well before I was even old enough to form sentences, and they had an entire arsenal of life experiences from which to draw. This was made especially apparent when the prompts were focused on childhood. I wrote flash fiction pieces about my memories of the ‘90s. Others wrote about times I’d experienced only from my parents’ and grandparents’ reminiscence, typewriters and glass milk bottles on stoops.
As I wrote in my journal, I felt like I had to prove myself. I think I did.
It is important to remember that your fellow writers in workshop never actually read a single word that you write. For me, that made workshop all that more intimidating. A weak reader presenting a strong piece will weaken the writing, and I never considered myself to be a strong reader. But workshop forced me to practice. I listened to how others read, and as my nerves started to relax, I was able to focus on the words instead of blasting through so quickly that I may very well have read the entire piece in one breath. Practice. That is an invaluable lesson from workshop. Practice reading aloud, practice exploring different subject matter, practice forcing yourself to write even if your reservoir seems to be empty.
Workshop is phenomenal for first impressions, because that’s all you get. One reading. One initial impression. The instructor always asks, “What did you like? What was strong? What will you remember?” The answers to those three questions can tell you a lot about your writing. As I applied my study of the Iceberg Theory, I also learned to read between the lines of those answers. An absence of a response can tell you what was not strong without ever enunciating the problem or actively wounding your ego, as was the case sometimes in college.
I regret how long I dismissed this community. I did not actively engage in social media, at least not for my writing, because I believed it was a tool for authors who were already published. Marketing and connecting with fans, nothing more.
I was so wrong.
It started with Twitter. I created an account simply for the sake of improving my platform while I queried literary agents. What I stumbled upon was an amazing community of writers sharing pieces of works-in-progress, advice, inspirational quotes, and experiences. I connected with successful, published authors (both indie and traditional) as well as writers in the same stage as me, still early in the journey to publication.
From there, I targeted Facebook. My author page struggled in comparison to Twitter, but it slowly gained more momentum. Facebook’s success came to me in the form of groups. I joined groups like Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors, Fantasy & Science Fiction Writers in America, and Writers Unite! There, I started connecting with people. I encountered friendly authors willing to provide advice, and even a few who offered to review my query letter and first few chapters.
Where am I going with all of this?
When I was hired to work at a casino a year and a half ago, I had to attend orientation, and that included a team-building exercise. The instructor had us stand in a circle. She handed one person a ball and said, “Here are the rules. The ball has to be in contact with only one person at a time. It cannot be airborne; it has to be touching someone at any given time. I’ll time you to see how long it takes the ball to get from the first person to the last.” Every time we completed the rotation, she asked us to do it faster. Faster. Faster, until her expectations were impossible: ten seconds. We failed again, and again, and again. The only clue she would give us was, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
We tweaked our methods. We tightened the circle so there was less space between each person. When we finally made it under ten seconds, she said, “Now do it in five.”
I felt stupid and frustrated. It couldn’t be done. She repeated the rules to us and said once more, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Finally, we realized that standing in a circle was not one of the rules. We aligned into a straight line, but we still weren’t fast enough until someone suggested we hold out our palms at a downward angle and roll the ball instead of passing it. We beat her five-second time limit. Our next goal: under one second.
I don’t remember how long it took us to realize the solution — put our index fingers together so the ball rolled across our fingers, touching each person, completing the journey in less than a second, complying with every rule we were given. A year and a half later, I’m still frustrating myself by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results with my attempts to query literary agents. I was too afraid to ask for help, so I kept plugging away, tweaking the same query letter, convincing myself that my method was fine and I could succeed by myself. I guess the definition of insanity didn’t stick with me. Asking established writers for help felt like plunging head-first into black water so deep I couldn’t see the bottom.
Writing is a private endeavor. It is mediation. It is exploring the confines of my own imagination in a way no one else can traverse. I didn’t think I needed to find writing communities.
But those communities have helped me grow in so many ways. From beta readers, to college courses, to workshops, to conferences, to social media, the writing community is strong and supportive. I was afraid to approach them. Part of me feared criticism. Part of me feared being rejected again if I opened myself up to trust a mentor once more. A stubborn part of me was convinced that I didn’t need any help if I focused on my craft with enough focus. Part of me was secretly afraid that I couldn’t compete with other writers, that I was good but not good enough. And part of me simply didn’t know how to find and approach the writing communities.
If I could go back in time, I would have told my past self to stop doubting. We have to accept criticism, learn from our mistakes, and ask for advice if we want to succeed. Take a deep breath.
“Until you cross the bridge of your insecurities, you can’t begin to explore your possibilities.”
— Tim Fargo