Zen for Ten 22: The bend in the road

(Thoughts on a novel launch: how we got here, what it’s all about, and what happens next…)

We have liftoff! To Love A Stranger launched on May 23 and is now available in Kindle and paperback form on Amazon. You can also get it in paperback at Barnes and Noble.

Yesterday, the day after “book birthday,” my husband asked me if I feel different now than I did, say, a week ago. Yes: that part of the answer was easy. It’s harder, though, to define where exactly that difference comes from.

We writers are tough on ourselves. For a lot of us, it’s hard to own the title of “writer.” Over the past seven years or so, ever since I started taking writing seriously, I’ve set a series of hurdles for myself. “If I achieve x, I can call myself a writer.” x comes along, but it’s still not enough: now I need to achieve y. And then z. And then go back to the beginning of the alphabet and start over. There’s always another hill to climb.

It would be easy to say that, yes, publishing a book lets me call myself a writer. I have something substantial out in the world, something that I hope will make a difference to readers. Something that could be a legacy.

To be a writer, though, and own the title, you don’t have to publish a book. You don’t have to publish anything. What matters is that you write. That you care about the craft, and sit down in front of the blank page or blank screen, and hunt for the words that are hard to find. What matters is that you take joy in finding those words, and even when the work leaves you feeling like a wrung-out sponge, you have a deep soul satisfaction in having done it. If you do those things, you are a writer, whether outsiders acknowledge your work or not.

So, for me, having a book out makes a big difference, but it’s not so much about what I call myself. It has more to do with remembering what it took to get to this point, and what this moment means in the light of everything that led up to it.

I gave up on To Love A Stranger many times. It got dozens of rejections, and I kept trying to see the manuscript with fresh eyes and figure out how to “fix” it, and I couldn’t do that. Plenty of times, I wished I could just walk away from it and let it go. The story, though, had its claws in me. Somewhere deep down, I felt sure that it mattered, and that I had to tell it and share it. That fire in the gut – a very uncomfortable and uneasy day-in-and-day-out companion – made me go back to the manuscript again and again. I was never allowed to give up for good.

I remember how hard it was. I remember, very clearly, how devastating those rejections were. Sometimes they felt like the end of the world: if so-and-so didn’t like the book, didn’t want it, then I had no other options. This project meant the world to me, and I couldn’t see it through. I remember times when the hurt, and especially the ugly sense of failure, felt like more than I could live with. Everyone who’s gone through rejection knows what that’s like. How sometimes you can’t stand to be in your own skin, because those feelings could boil you alive.

Seeing Stranger out into the world, then, isn’t just about seeing this one project through. It’s also about recognizing that, for all those times when it would have been so much easier to give up, I was right not to. It often felt like some outside force compelled me to keep working, but to whatever extent I did have the choice to quit, I was right not to take it. That’s a powerful thing, especially for someone like me, who has never had much confidence in her decisions or her right to stick to her guns.

That’s where the idea of the turning point, or the bend in the road, comes in. Publishing Stranger does – at least in my mind – give me a place at the table of writers who have made their mark in the world. I’m way down at the foot, while my heroes are up at the head (and it’s a very long table), but I love the idea that maybe I’ll make a mark of my own. More importantly, though, getting to this point suggests to me that, at least sometimes, I’m right to bank on myself. When something feels that urgent to me, I’m right to stand by it and do whatever it takes to make it work. That’s another big change in the way I think. And it opens up doors for more changes giving me something to hold onto as I look at the road ahead.

What that road looks like now: I’m not sure. (We never know what’s around the next corner. 🙂 ) I know what I hope for: that there will be a next book after Stranger, not quite a sequel but connected (I’ve started working on it, and hope to get down to it in real earnest this summer). And that there will be more books to follow. And that, generally, I will make a writing life from now on, but most of all, that in heading down the next stretch of road, I’ll leave behind some of the baggage I’ve hauled with me for a long time. The you can’ts and the you’re not good enoughs. I hope I can go on along this road with a new, secure sense of who I am: the writer I’ve already been, for a long time.

To celebrate Stranger‘s launch, I’d like to share a brief reading, and an excerpt of one of the pieces featured in the book. Please check out the videos below.

Thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time!

To Love A Stranger excerpt, intro:

This is an excerpt from Chapter 7. The main character, Sam, is about to conduct his first concert with the Richmond Symphonic Artists (RSA), a small orchestra that’s fighting for its survival. The RSA’s board of directors has brought Sam in as a last-ditch attempt to turn things around for the group. If he can’t make that happen, this will be the RSA’s last season.

At the beginning of this excerpt, Sam is standing backstage, waiting to go on for the start of the concert. His orchestra manager, Lydia Holland, is waiting with him. Sam is thinking about people in the audience:  Bayard Keating, the chairman of the RSA’s board of directors, who expects Sam to work a miracle; Jeannette Reilly, Sam’s choral accompanist, with whom he’s in a tangled relationship. He’s also thinking about people who aren’t there: his father, Walter, from whom Sam is estranged; and a dear friend, Gil, who has a terminal illness and is in a hospital in Philadelphia. Above all, Sam is wondering if he’s going to be able to do anything for the RSA, before it’s too late.

The excerpt continues into the first piece Sam conducts in the concert, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.


Featured music: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, second movement (Allegretto)

This is one of my favorite orchestral pieces of all time. This performance of it is given by the Vienna Philharmonic, with Leonard Bernstein conducting.



What Do You Want To Be Known For?

“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me: Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” – Shel Silverstein

This will be my last post before Novel Launch Day, May 23 (and I’m running a little early this week). This past year, leading up to launch, in some ways has been a long transition. For years before that, the idea of getting To Love A Stranger out into the world was one huge “impossible” to me, or even a “mustn’t” and “shouldn’t.” I hadn’t done my work well enough. The book didn’t deserve to be out there…but then, somewhere, things changed. Anything can be.

Blogging, of course, is a public thing, but like many writers, I’m much more comfortable thinking aloud to the safety of a blank page, in a quiet room. It’s funny how writers are always putting their souls out in the world, through their work, when so often we’re very private people. Maybe we need to spend a lot of time quiet and still, in order to be able to share the things we write about.

In the leadup to launch, I’ve been tangling with marketing and publicity. Those are tough for me, as for a lot of writers. It feels unnatural to go after attention, even though we know we have to do it if our work is going to succeed. But it means thinking about how we present ourselves, who and what our prospective audience will see when they look at us, and whether or not we’re saying/doing/writing things they’ll find interesting. Many stories start in some deep, private place in a writer’s heart. We decide, in our solitude, that something is important enough to write about, and we work and refine, and scrap and try new things, again and again until the piece is as finished as we can make it. And when it’s finally ready, we face the whole new game of sharing it. That’s where we find out if what matters to us also matters to those people out there.

Marketing and publicity can be a maelstrom, and can be especially tough for those of us with anxiety, depression, and insecurities of different kinds (or some combination of all of the above). It’s awfully easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. It’s awfully easy to compare your Twitter following with someone else’s, and suddenly a number you were proud of seems tiny. It’s easy to feel like one insignificant voice that’s going to be drowned in the sea of much bigger, much louder voices coming from everywhere, all the time. Above all, it’s easy to lose track of why you started doing this thing in the first place, and what you hope will happen because you did it.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a speaker ask an audience, “What do you want to be known for?” I’ve carried her question in my head since then, as an anchor. What do I want to be known for? What do I want to do through my work and my words? What do I want to do through the stories – To Love A Stranger and others – that have mattered and will matter to me?

For instance, would I like to be famous? Would I like to be known for selling gazillions of books? The easy answer is, of course! Funnily enough, though, that isn’t totally true.

If a writer is famous, lots of people, in lots of places, must be reading that writer’s work. Sure, at first that sounds fantastic. But if you take it a little farther, that’s also a pretty serious responsibility. What is that writer putting out? How are his or her words affecting other people? Are those words making the world brighter, or darker? Are they deadening people’s senses, or are they waking people up?

Lately, I’ve kept running into the idea that “we get what we ask for.” If we’re holding out one hand, asking for something – yes, please, let people notice my work! – but at the same time, pushing that thing away with the other hand – actually, it’s nice and safe here in my burrow, I’d rather stay hidden – it’s hard to get anything at all. And when you’re hustling, trying to get people to notice you, and that hustling meanwhile feels pretty uncomfortable and (sometimes) unpleasant, it’s easy to get lost.

Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling are two of my writing heroes. The Harry Potter books are one of the best short-term depression cures I know. When I’m going through a down period, they never fail to wake me up and make me believe, again, in the power of courage, determination, and authenticity. They also never fail to make me laugh. Pratchett’s Discworld books, too, always make me laugh, but I also admire Pratchett’s work because he tells terrific stories that take us into a totally different world, and at the same time, make us think about our own world and see something new about it.

In some ways, that’s exactly the kind of work I’d like to do. And in some ways, I’d like to reach as many people, and minds, as writers like Rowling and Pratchett. If that kind of fame ever happens for me, though, it’ll be a very long time from now. Meanwhile, there’s this first book. One step on a lifelong journey.

What do I want to be known for?

Sometimes I’ve thought that if I were a different kind of person, more confident, not so shy and withdrawn, I’d be better at hustling. I’d be able to build a bigger audience, faster. Sometimes that has seemed extremely important, and I’ve been frustrated with myself for being the way I am.

On the other hand…

Introverts aren’t usually fond of small talk, and we’re often very uncomfortable in crowds, but we love to have in-depth conversations with people we feel connected to. I like to connect with one person at a time. That’s more my speed.

Recently, I shared the trailer video for To Love A Stranger, which I’ve also included in this post, with a friend and fellow piano teacher. She in turn shared it with one of her students. The student told my friend how excited she was to know about a book that reflected her own experience. She’d been looking for books like that, but had never found any. Just knowing that Stranger existed made a difference to her.

That’s what I want my work to do. I want it to give people something that will help them in some way. Something that will make them smile, or think, or something that will tell them it’s okay to be who they are, or something that will help them look at things through new eyes. If that happens for one person at a time, maybe, eventually, it can spread pretty far. But it needs to happen for one person at a time.

It’s easy to get lost in appearances and the idea that we have to make lots of noise if we want to make a difference in the world. At the same time, though, maybe the best way to make any kind of impact is to stay true to ourselves, and do our own thing, our own way. Maybe, if we do that, it’s absolutely true that anything can be.

In closing, I’d like to ask you the same questions I’ve been asking myself: What do you want to be known for? And how will you make that happen?

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. See you on Launch Day.

To Love A Stranger‘s trailer video: