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.



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