Are You a Success? By Whose Standards?

November 4, 2013

I’m still a little bleary-eyed and disjointed from odd train schedules and driving throughout the night — I just got back from the annual Call To Action conference, where I came up with ideas for at least two blog posts for Young Adult Catholics, so overall, I think it was a fruitful trip. Between audiobooks on the drive and traditional books on the train (not to mention a 7-hour wait at the station), I also finished three books–one of my favorite parts about traveling–including APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, which I’ll review here by next week.

Source: Flickr: Jim Henson’s Fantastic World

On the drive home this morning, I was listening to the new biography on Jim Henson. I’m always a bit nervous when I pick up biographies of creative geniuses, afraid that I’ll feel woefully inadequate by the time I’m done. I thought that would be the case with this one; Jim was already well on his way to the legacy that would become The Muppets by the time that he was in college. But as I follow the story more deeply, I realize that success to the rest of the world and success to Jim weren’t necessarily the same thing. Jim’s characters are recognized and beloved around the world, yet he spent years trying to break beyond being “a puppet guy”–even before he worked on Sesame Street, launched The Muppet Show, or created any of his feature-length films. He wanted to expand into doing “arty” films, including experimental videography, live action, and ambiguous messaging. He only attained moderate success in that arena, with many of the projects he wrote and devoted himself to during this time failing to find an audience. Those that did find an audience met with mixed reviews, and have faded into obscurity today.

It reminded me of the article I found most intriguing in Write Good or Die, “Success” by Kristine Kathryn Rush. In it, she talked about how many writers who are outwardly successful didn’t consider themselves successes because they hadn’t achieved what they really wanted to do. I can relate to this. I used to think being published in something besides a student journal would designate me “successful.” When I hit that milestone at age 21, I wanted to have something published in a book, then write for a wider audience, then publish fiction. Around this time last year, I even ended up with my name on the cover of a book (although I didn’t write it), and I felt as though I were a “real” writer for about a week.

There are other external measures of success, too. While I’ve never made a ton of money, I’ve been privileged to find work I enjoy ever since college, not to mention work that is in my field. My current combination of working part-time as an employee for a news organization and freelancing to round out my time and my income is my “sweet spot” as far as work-life balance is concerned. By my own standards, I consider myself pretty lucky. I know others who are as smart, talented, and educated as I am who have not been so lucky in their work lives, and I remind myself often that I’ve got nothing to complaint about.

Except. I don’t really consider myself a success. My dream of publishing a novel, which I’ve cherished since I was about 10, is still out of reach. And it’s hard to feel successful after spending over half my life writing books and still feeling like I don’t have the right answer to the question, “Have you been published?” or “What have you written?” I feel that the answer to what I’ve published and what I’ve written are not really the same, although there’s the tiniest bit of overlap.

I believe that writing is its own reward; in fact, it’s so rewarding that I have a lot of trouble getting myself to devote as much time to submitting my work as I devote to writing it. The E in APE totally freaks me out. But I know that if I go through life without publishing a novel, I will feel like I’ve failed at my own measure of success, regardless of what else I might accomplish. And if I do publish one? I have a feeling I’ll be plagued by wishes that more people had read it, that it got better reviews, that it sold more copies.

This all might seem like a rather discouraging thread, but its effect on me is the opposite. It helps me keep things in perspective. Even Jim Henson received three years’ worth of rejections on a project he loved that never did get produced. I hope that at the end of his too-short life, he was able to appreciate everything he had done, and not dwell too much on what he hadn’t. I hope I’ll be able to as well.

Because ultimately, the next dream will always be out of reach. That’s the definition of dreaming. And maybe that’s why so many people who were “success stories” by the world’s standards felt like they fell short of their own. And maybe that’s not as depressing as it seems.


Catholic Women – Shut Out but Not Shut Up

March 12, 2013

You didn’t think I’d let the Papal Conclave pass by without bringing up women’s ordination, did you? Head over to Young Adult Catholics to read my post Fox News, Women Priests, Black Smoke, and the Whole Self.

Also, US Catholic gave a nice mention to Hungering and Thirsting for Justice here.

On Letting Your Writing Leave the House

January 21, 2013

Back in 2007, I made a decision that is continuing to pay dividends. I decided to let my writing leave the house.

For years I’d been journaling and writing novels and had even submitted a couple times. I’d sent a few letters to the editor and had begun to feel both that it was part of my calling to start writing for social justice, and that it was important to my development as a writer to start writing for a real audience. So, a little worried about what I might find to say twice a month, I volunteered to become a writer for the Young Adult Catholics blog.

I’ve already written about how my involvement with the blog led to the book deal for Hungering and Thirsting for Justice. It also led to me writing an article for Dignity USA about being bisexual and Catholic. And that’s what led Marie from the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing to me.

A few weeks ago, Marie was referred to me via Dignity USA to discuss her work on creating resources for religious institutions that specifically addressed the needs of ministering to bisexual persons. She wondered whether I knew of resources or of out bisexual clergy who would be willing to serve on the project’s board. I told her that I, unfortunately, didn’t know of any clergy that fit the bill and that I felt my plate was too full to serve on a board right now even if I did fit the description. I did pass some resources along and asked that she keep me in the loop as the project developed.

Last week, she contacted me again because she said my name continued to come up in regards to the intersection of a bisexual and Catholic identity. She wanted to talk to me about a way I could be involved that was “time-limited.” We set up a phone call. I expected her to ask me to share my experiences, perhaps to use as pull quotes in the guide, or to write something, both of which I was totally willing to do. But I didn’t expect her to offer to fly me to New York City so I could attend a one-day meeting with other people of faith to create a theological statement that will be the basis of the faith and bisexuality work they continue to do.

But that’s what happened. And I couldn’t be more thrilled.

When she told me that I kept coming so “highly recommended,” I joked that I was probably just the only out bisexual Catholic in the world. She chuckled and said that might be true. But I know it’s not just that. I know I’m not the only one.

But I might be the only one who is writing about it. And by writing about it, I say to the world, I exist. And what’s more, others like me probably exist, too. And by telling people that I exist, I make myself vulnerable, and in some ways I’ve paid the price for that. But it’s also allowed people to find me who care deeply about the same things that I care about. And by finding each other, we can hopefully make the world better for others.

When I put the phone down, I kept marveling at how none of this would have happened if I’d kept my writing and my thoughts to myself. How none of this would have happened if I’d refused to write “for free.” More than ever, I believe that true writers must love writing enough to write for free, whether it’s in a journal or a novel that nobody sees or a blog that thousands of people see. That writing will pay dividends — whether in benefits to mental health, your checkbook — or even in helping to create the world you want to live in.

New Year’s Resolution off to a Shaky (?) Start

January 7, 2013

Last week I wrote about how I want to submit once a week in 2013. I attempted this in 2009, and it lasted a few weeks. Last year, I did okay committing to one submission a month, but even that was a bit of a challenge. Because, like many writers, I really dislike the submission process. My introverted nature makes me uncomfortable with “selling myself,” even though I really do believe in the stories I have to tell, and even though it’s clearer than ever to me now that what I truly want to be is a writer.

But there’s a certain despair from knowing something will never be perfect, that there are in fact hundreds of ways to tell the same story, and you could go crazy uncovering which one is “right.” I began submitting Ever This Day after I had put it through enough rounds that it felt “done” to me. All the writing advice urges you to revise, revise, and revise some more. But revision can be a black hole; if you’re so paralyzed about whether the story is the best it can possibly be, it’s still just as unpublished as something you’ve created as a one-off first draft. At some point, you need to “abandon” revisions and see how the world responds. (Orson Scott Card is a little notorious for wanting to revise his books after they’ve already been published, proof that that urge never really goes away.)

So the question weighing on my mind is: at what point do you stop revising? I told myself I would submit Ever This Day for a year; after that, I would re-evaluate it, possibly considering whether I wanted to put it through another round or two of revisions before submitting it again. That year is up now, and the book has earned about 10 rejections — which, in the big scheme of things, isn’t actually that many. I read once that you shouldn’t make major changes or assume something isn’t ready for publication until you get at least 30 rejections; up to that point, you can assume rejections are just a matter of personal taste. So I’m tempted to make 30 rejections, rather than a year, my new “benchmark.”

Here’s what it comes down to: my intent to re-evaluate Ever This Day after a year of sending it out and my intent to submit once a week in 2013 are at odds with one another. And the truth is, I balk at the thought of revising ETD again without professional guidance (meaning, I’d be more than happy to give it a major rework on the advice of an agent or editor). I’m not ready to be done with the story; it still hooks into me in a way that keeps me believing in it. But I don’t want to revise it right now. I’d rather start a reworking of my Rapunzel story from NaNoWriMo, which has managed to get me more excited than any fiction has in a long, long time. I don’t want to lose that momentum. And, on a more short-term note, I really want to have a bit of it ready to show my writers group when I meet with them in person at the end of the month.

So I’m going to keep submitting Ever This Day this year, while revising the Rapunzel and Rumplestiltskin stories, blogging, engaging in various promotions for Hungering and Thirsting for Justice (which recently got a good review here and a mention in the National Catholic Reporter), and continuing to study the craft and the industry. Already, my writing energy is divided in so many directions — but at the same time, I feel like I’ve never loved or wanted to do this more.

I’ve debated posting my query here before, and I’ve ultimately decided to reserve it for agents’ and editors’ eyes, especially since each submission is tailored to the recipient. But I am going to post the synopsis below (which is revised from the one I used last year), in case anyone is curious about what this story is actually about. Feedback is welcome.

All Maddy wants is for life to go back to how it was.

Before her dad lost his job. Before her mom was working all the time. Before the bullying. And before an experimental kiss with her best friend that cost her their friendship.

When she falls into the stream behind her house after her thirteenth birthday, she decides not to come up for air.

But then the angel appears.

Maddy is convinced the angel is Katherine, her mother’s sister who died as a baby. After their brief encounter, Maddy becomes obsessed with bringing Katherine back. When she finally returns, it comes at a high price: she’s now trapped on earth.

But Maddy promises to be at the angel’s side throughout her exile. Soon, Katherine fills every empty space in Maddy’s life. She’s as loyal as a best friend, as nurturing as a parent, and as exciting as a new crush. Maddy learns to ignore the bullying and distance herself from her family’s hardships. She shares Katherine with only one person: her two-year-old sister, Kiana.

When Kiana develops a life-threatening illness, Maddy turns to Katherine for help. Katherine refuses, and Maddy sees a dark side of the angel that may be worse than the reality Maddy sought to escape. Maddy focuses on saving Kiana first. Then, she must find a way to face life on her own—and set the angel free.

New Year’s Writing Resolutions 2013

December 31, 2012

Well, I hope I’m not jumping the gun too much when I say that the world didn’t end in 2012 — which is great, because it means I have more time to write (and even to write about the world ending!). So without further ado, these are my writing resolutions for 2013:

  1. To up the ante on submissions from once a month to once a week.
  2. To bring Rumpled through one more round of revisions, and hopefully have it “submission-ready” at some point this year.
  3. To begin revising my Rapunzel retelling.

My New Year’s Resolution last year was to submit once a month, which I mostly pulled off with eleven submissions for the year. I missed April. Weddings are not good for writing (but marriage is!) Although it’s not an official resolution, I’ve found myself recommitted to journaling after my Writing Our Way Toward Wholeness workshop, so I’m hoping to journal more often in 2013 as well.

All this time off for the holidays has been nice, but it’s been a plague for my writing, which thrives in routine. I’m looking forward to establishing my routine again after the New Year begins. For Christmas, though, I did get this nice article from the National Catholic Reporter, which mentions Hungering and Thirsting for Justice.

I hope you’ve all had lovely holidays, and I wish you a happy New Year. Feel free to share your writing resolutions if you have them!

NaNoWriMo: Week Two

November 12, 2012

I’m finally crawling out from beneath a pile of laundry and trying not to be too dismayed by the fact that only half my to-do list is accomplished and that I haven’t earned a single penny today (except for some residual income from Demand Studios — thanks, Demand!). I’m trying to go easy on myself and remember that it’s always like this when I take a trip and am out of contact with my “real life” for a few days. The good news is, airplanes are a great place for finishing books, and airports with three-hour layovers are a great place for writing them!

I got back last night from the Call To Action conference in Louisville, Kentucky, where I helped organize a panel about Young Adult Catholics and social justice based around Hungering and Thirsting for Justice. The panel went very well, the room was full, and the hour flew by. A few of my “Church Justice Heroes” attended. We sold some books and even signed some autographs. And I took home six more copies of the book for gifts and promotional purposes. I sense a Goodreads giveaway coming on

Of course, it’s still November, so my primary writing commitment remains to NaNoWriMo. I missed two days for the conference, but three-hour layovers on both my travel days helped my word count stay healthy. The experience is not as ecstatic as it was during the first week, however. Rather than making long lists of scene ideas the way I was last week (which I’ve burned through already), I end each writing session hoping I can come up with one more scene to start the next day off with. I told myself that November 15th was the Prince’s deadline for coming on the scene, but I had to bring him on the scene while in an airport on November 8 because plot development ideas were becoming scarce. Hopefully he’ll breathe a bit of new life into that lonely ol’ tower!

Still, there are a few things that have contributed to this year going more smoothly, so far, than my last few years.

  1. I’m doing a retelling of Rapunzel, which means the basic story arc is already there. So that takes the pressure off plot a bit, and makes even a first draft feel a little bit like revision.
  2. Rapunzel seems particularly suited to telling her own story, considering that she probably had a lot of time on her hands being locked in a tower and all. So the story is structured a bit like a journal, and being a veteran journal-keeper myself, I know how messy and tangential they can be. This format works perfectly for NaNoWriMo, since creating a linear story can be eschewed for a more “stream-of-consciousness” one.
  3. I held off on writing anything for a month beforehand, and I’ve had this book percolating for over three years. When November 1 hit, it was ready to start spilling out.

I’ve also found this handy online timer which I’ve been using for my writing sessions (I set it for 45 minutes first, and if I don’t meet my word count by then, for another 15). I have an egg timer, but I can save maybe a whole minute (and bust out about 50 words!) by not walking to the kitchen to get it.

Also, I learned that Chris Baty has these awesome writing posters that my new office will surely want on its walls. Christmas list, anyone?

Countdown to NaNoWriMo!

October 29, 2012

By this time next week, I should have written at least 8,000 words on this year’s NaNoWriMo novel. Like every year that I’ve decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month, I find myself savoring these last few days of freedom from word-count tyranny even as I feel delightful anticipation in getting started.

This is not going to be easy. I work every weekend in November and will be at the CTA conference for four days promoting Hungering and Thirsting for Justice and recharging my spiritual batteries. If I don’t write during those four days, I’ll be 8,000 words behind.

Most weeks, I give myself a “pass” on writing on Thursdays because I spend so much time on the road and working those days. But I can’t afford to grant myself such passes in November. I’ve also typically shirked a lot of my other writing responsibilities for the sake of NaNoWriMo in the past — blogging, researching, submitting, etc. This year, I’d really like to keep all of that up. And with our basement renovations almost finished and getting an office in my new house on the horizon, I’ll be spending a lot of time painting, cleaning, moving, and “setting up shop.” But if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll be able to finish my novel from my new office. I should be writing it on a new laptop by this weekend.

At least I’m not planning a wedding.

But despite all of this, despite the stress I will bring upon myself to do NaNoWriMo this year, I’m still excited. While there’s something to be said about not spreading yourself too thin, there’s also no shortage of excuses not to write. And I’ve always prided myself on not depending upon those excuses too much. I’ll do the dishes and make the bed less. I’ll wake up earlier. I’ll hunker down for a few write-ins. I’ll drink coffee. And somehow in the midst of everything November will throw at me this year, I’ll find the time to write. And if I can’t find it, I’ll MAKE it. That’s what November is all about.