Keep Trusting the Process

A few weeks ago I printed the first 30 pages of my forth-coming novel, (tentatively titled) The Confessions of Adam, grabbed a pencil, and began reading and marking the manuscript. It has been two years since I’ve read it and I know that in January I will be getting an edited copy from my press. Adam and I need to reacquaint ourselves.

Well, I am now 180 pages in and my writerly, drafting instincts are in full gear. I’m ready to do what I’ve always done with this manuscript – write another draft!

Then I remember – er, my wife reminds me – 

This time it’s different. Joelle Delbourgo, and my publisher, Karen Porter, have both said that this manuscript is wonderful. So have my early readers. I must now trust a new editing process. And at this stage, the process has moved beyond my desk to the editing process of my editor. Sure, I can go through it, read it, and mark it up, but a rewrite before January would be foolish. What is happening is all part of the process. It’s just part of the process that I’ve not seen before. Our experience is rarely the first measure of reality. This is a process that’s produced millions of novels – the author/editor relationship. My team has grown. The process is now collaborative.

Let the process continue.

Cover Art

On October 3rd I had no publisher in sight. My agent, Joelle Delbourgo and I had been searching for a publisher for a year and a half. I was beginning to think that I’d written a good and unpublishable manuscript. I had begun work on another novel. I had not read the novel we were trying to sell in two years.
Then it happened.
On October 4th two presses came forward to publish.
On October 20th I signed a book contract.
On October 30th I was asked for my ideas on cover art.
Wait, what? Cover art?
Given my nonexistent novel, on October 3rd I would have laughed at myself for thinking about what I might imagine for cover art. I would have thought it somehow presumptuous. My job was to write. What a waste of time to imagine some detail as vain as a book cover for a book that may or, more likely, may not ever exist.
So…
On October 30th I was wholly unprepared. I had no idea. I am grateful that Joelle made a suggestion – the suggestion that I might have made had I been ready to do so.
The lesson learned is an old one – prepare for success. I’m not saying you should put hours into devising the perfect cover art or that you should commission artwork. But, give it a little thought. Be ready to respond with something.
Then get back to the work that no one else can do – writing.

Thursday Morning, October 4th 2018

Delta 2660 landed in Baltimore a few minutes after 11AM. This was the first time I’d ever landed in Baltimore. I took my cell phone out of my pocket and off of airplane mode. I had a voicemail from my agent, Joelle Delbourgo. There was only one reason Joelle would call instead of send an email. I texted my wife and told her I had a voicemail from Joelle. I pulled up the beta voicemail transcription. It was far from perfect, but it was enough. Apprentice House Press of Loyola University, Maryland – right here in Baltimore – wanted to publish my debut novel. I was stunned. Hunched over in the aisle waiting to exit I flipped over to my email. Joelle had emailed, too.
Once inside the terminal I forwarded Joelle’s email to my wife and called her. I told her to open her email. It was happening. That thing that I’d thought so much about, too much about, was no longer pent up in my imagination.
I called Joelle. She told me to email Bold Vision Books, another publisher that we knew was planning to take the manuscript to committee. The response was back in under 30 minutes. They had taken the manuscript to committee that very morning. They too wanted to publish the manuscript.
Two presses and it was not yet 1PM. The following morning, Joelle and I made the decision that the second press, Bold Vision Books, would be the best press for this work – and future planned projects.
After a year and a half of proposals sent from Joelle and myself, when it seemed most unlikely that any press would show interest in The Confessions of Adam, two presses came forward – while I looked down on the clouds.
Nothing happens until something does.

What Is Writerly Success?

What is the measure of a writer’s success? Is it placement of a short story in a lit mag? Obtaining an agreement with an agent? A book deal? Is it less than these? Is it finishing a draft? Starting a draft? Developing a character or finding a plot turn? Is it simply finding the right word or sentence or voice in a snippet of dialogue?
I suppose it is all of these things – depending on the day and the ebb and flow of our work.
But for me these days, with all of life crashing in, success in writing seems to be simply sitting down each day and doing the work. Actually spending time writing each and every day. This is success.
So, let us not put undue pressure on ourselves. We are successful simply by producing sentences each day. And in this way we are successful should we never get a piece placed or a book contract. And let’s be clear, should those things come, we are not more successful. For our grandest arrivals don’t come independent of the steps taken along the way.
The crafting of sentences is our writerly success.

India

We just spent a week in India visiting orphans in such places as Bangalore and Puliangudi. During the trip I wrote in my travel journal about what we were doing and seeing. I attempted to process the place and the people. And language fell short.

It still falls short.

How do you describe orphan boys squeezing your arm and pushing on your skin in fascination with your color?

Creamy brown fingers tickle my pale underarm. Giggles erupt.

How do you describe the traffic patterns?

It’s not driving, it’s dance.

How do you describe the Indian hospitality of a home-cooked meal in the kitchen of an orphanage?

We sit at her table as she brings roasted chicken and rice and ice cream. And she waits till we’re done to eat.

How do you describe driving through your hometown when you return?

All the buildings are laid out as if planned. The grass is green and without litter.

How do you describe a place like India?

It must be seen to be believed.

When Under Duress, Write

I wrote the first pages of the first draft of The Confessions of Adam after a stressful evening at a church leadership meeting. I recall very clearly how those paragraphs and that story I’d been thinking so much about fell onto the page, how my anxiety and stress fueled the creation of those initial bits of prose – how my frustration found release late that September evening.

Again I remember after a particularly difficult visit with my Alzheimer’s-addled mother I came home and dumped my bitterness and rage into a prose poem that boiled and popped like a pot of sour stew abandoned on the stove.

There is both solace in, as well as a fuel for, creativity when personal circumstances are most adverse. I know the quality of my work seems to benefit.

It is a well known phenomena that we do our best work when we’re under duress – or when tapping those vats of deep emotion stored up from the past. Put the other way, it seems that  satisfaction with one’s station in life brings a lack of urgency that translates to subpar creative work. The creative edge is dulled when there is relative ease. There is some motor that is revved by adversity, a sobriety that generates higher craft.

But you don’t need to go looking for angst. There’s no role to play here – that of some uni-dimensional Angry or Troubled Artist. You’re human. That is enough. Your creative work is a place to park, to constructively respond to the challenges that come your way – that come our way as humans. It is a strange side benefit that with real conflict comes story. Mere mortals must bottle up their angst. We writers get to load up our sentences with this ammo and fire at will.

The Writing Degree

Disclaimer: Like starting a writing group, or attending a writers’ conference, earning a writing degree can be a terrific way to procrastinate and avoid the hard, solitary work of writing. However, assuming you’ve nailed this prerequisite and your writing discipline is in place, the writing degree – what we’ll call the MFA (Masters of Fine Art in Creative Writing) – can be a time of true growth and development in the craft.

Here is what an MFA can do for you, or did for me:
1. Exposure to writers. It is easy, as a writer without a creative community, to have few if any conversations about writing with other writers. Yet, as in any other craft, this is a key element in development. The MFA afforded me many formal and informal conversations and lectures with and by writers. I heard from peers (poets, journalists, screen-writers, essayists, and fiction writers), faculty (Dan Barden, Ben H. Winters, Hilene Flanzbaum, Micah Ling, Michael Dahlie, Allison Lynn, Greg Schwipps), and visiting writers (Natasha Trethewey, Richard Price, Benjamin Percy). The instruction you gain from these interactions is an important ingredient in the invention of yourself as a writer.
2. Forced production. In the MFA program you are given assignments. Not like high school or college. Large, open-ended assignments. “Write some fiction. Submit it by Tuesday.” You are in a position where you must write, you must do battle with your work. You can procrastinate if you wish, but you’ll let yourself and a bunch of other people down in a new and different way. You’ve made space in your life by going to grad school and you’re spending money. It’s time to turn pro.
3. A structure of critique. You and your wife are not your key readers anymore. You take your work into the world of the creative writing workshop. Surgery is performed on your work while you stand by, your arms behind your back, no anesthesia. You are faced with the strengths and weaknesses of your skill. And you develop the muscle of providing practical, creative feedback in return – not as a reader, but as a writer.

Before you run off and apply to a program, have a reason for earning your MFA. Mine was instruction. I wanted an education in the craft. Some of my peers were writers who wanted to teach. Take your reason into the program, and in accomplishing that you’ll get much more as well.

The Writers’ Workshop*

Disclaimer: Like earning a writing degree, or attending a writers’ conference, joining or starting a writers’ workshop can be a terrific way to procrastinate and avoid the hard, solitary work of writing. However, assuming you’ve nailed this prerequisite and your writing discipline is in place, the writers’ workshop can be an irreplaceable addition to your writerly life.
In February 2017 I founded the Westside Writers’ Workshop. This workshop was started because a fellow writer, Andrea, wanted it. I was open to the idea because I was post-MFA and without a place to take my writing. Any workshop is an experiment, an unknown, a lark. It can disintegrate in any number of ways.
This one didn’t. The reasons for that are for another post. Let’s stay focused on you.
Here is what a writers’ workshop can do for you:
Distinguish the difference between solitary and alone. If you look up these two words you’ll find no profound difference. So I’ll create one. Writing is solitary work; however, it is not work that we should do alone – in confinement, without interaction with others. Humans are designed to do nothing alone. We are designed for relationship, for communal purpose. A writers’ workshop ensures we’re not alone in our solitude.
Offer reading writers. You need a group of readers to take your work to as you’re creating it. You need the reader’s feedback in order to finish a story. You also need writers to take your work to. You need people who are neck deep in the process as well, preferably who have gone further into the wild than you have, and who can act as honest judges and caring guides.
Provide essential deadlines. A writers’ workshop provides deadlines/submission periods/expectations. It is easy to drift in our solitude. We can work endlessly, never finishing anything, never achieving a pre-arranged milestone with our work. The workshop brings structure. It creates room for finishing work. Every creator needs a designed and tended place in which to work.
So be a writer. But don’t be a loner. Help other writers as you go. And they will help you.

*Note it’s not a Writers’ Group. It is not a place for loitering. Work must get done. Production is the goal. It is a workshop.

The Writers’ Conference

Like earning a writing degree, or joining a writers’ group, attending a writers’ conference can be a terrific way to procrastinate and avoid the hard, solitary work of writing. However, assuming you’ve nailed this prerequisite and your writing discipline is in place, the writers’ conference can be a very valuable addition to your writerly life.
I attended my first two writers’ conferences this year. The first was AWP 2018 (https://www.awpwriter.org/awp_conference/) and the second was Taylor University’s Professional Writers’ Conference (https://taylorprofessionalwritersconference.weebly.com/).
Here is what I found:
Exposure. I’m not talking about exposure for my work (although the open-mic was a great opportunity), I mean exposure to the writerly universe. Differing perspectives on craft. How writers, presses, editors, and agents promote their work and interact. A demystification of the industry and a knocking of the gatekeepers from our imagined pedestals.
Challenging Ideas. Talks on craft. Navigating the publishing world. Teaching. Building and maintaining a writing career. You are poked and prodded by lectures and panel discussions that push you to question your work, your approach, and your writerly priorities. The result? You have the opportunity to gauge where you really are in your development as a writer and to build or refresh a vision for where you hope to go, or not go.
Budding Relationships. It is possible, I suppose, to attend a conference and hold a conversation with no one, to float through like a leaf riding a river and drift from opening keynote to closing keynote having avoided speaking with a stranger. But this would take some real effort. Nearly without trying, you find yourself in conversations with people who share your passion, who can and want to help you succeed. Where else can you sign-up for a one-on-one with an editor/agent/publisher, walk up to the table of your favorite press, or chat with representatives from a university writing program?
So register and go. You’ll have a list like this one.

Literary Dream #1 07.20.2018

I am attending a writer’s conference, a small gathering of ~200 writers. I enter the room and find a seat. As I’m waiting for the event to start I scan the room to see who is there. I am shocked to see none other than Ernest Hemingway. I turn to a colleague. “He isn’t signing, is he?” She replies flatly, as if I’m just catching up. “Sure. He’ll sign after his talk.”
I jump from my seat and run to my study (in an adjacent room) to grab a few volumes for Hemingway to sign. To my horror, all my Hemingways seem to be misplaced. My library is in utter disarray. I can hear strains of Hemingway’s talk going on in the next room as I scramble to try to find his novels, short stories, anything! Frantically I jump from the fiction shelf to the poetry shelf – but he didn’t write poetry, I hear myself think.
In despair I give up and reenter the conference hall. Hemingway has just finished his remarks. I’ve missed his talk. All I can see are the backs of the heads of the mob at the side of the podium. I watch as I realize I’m not even going to be able to get close enough to shake his hand. The literary event of a lifetime is evaporating before me.
Maybe I could get him to just sign my notebook, I think to myself. How lame, I reply.