Work that Matters

Today’s blogpost may be more in the nature of a vent (oh dear!), but I’ll try to keep it concise…

If you’ve followed the blog over the past couple of months, you know that my second novel, Fourteen Stones, is currently on submission with agents. A few agents have been checking out the full manuscript. From what I know about their timelines, it’s likely I’ll get news this week or next.

In the rollercoaster that is the writing/submitting/publishing life, it’s so very easy to wrap your whole self around the outcome of a submission. If this doesn’t work out, it’s the end of the world! I’ve been down that twisty, destructive road many times. I’ve had things not work out that I believed absolutely had to…and I’ve reacted accordingly. (Which wasn’t good for myself, or the walls that took a pounding, or that one saucepan lid that hasn’t been the same since I spiked it on the floor.) And I’ve found out, again and again, that things can go in ways other than what I want, or expect, or firmly believe must happen. And when they do, that’s okay.

Things didn’t go the way I expected with my first novel, To Love A Stranger, but the book is out in the world and my publisher did a beautiful job. Fourteen Stones is only another step along this road that I plan to stay on for life. I want to write many more books, and I want to do many more things as a writer and teacher, so I have to remind myself – daily, hourly – that while yes, I care very much what happens to Fourteen Stones, and yes, its future does matter, other things matter too.

Alafair portrait
Today is a day for cat pictures. This is Alafair, who rules the roost.

The past couple of months have been a see-saw between obsessing about submissions and getting on with the rest of life and the work that needs to be done. Looking back, I’m afraid the balance tipped too often in the direction of obsessing. It’s so easy to pour tons of emotional energy into the waiting and hoping, those things over which we have zero control. Other projects I maybe should have spent more time on have sat on the back burner. I’m disappointed about that, but the daily exercise is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and doing the best I can.

Thinking (and obsessing) about submissions has also gotten me thinking about ambition, and what it means in the writing life. Ambition is a tough thing. It’s sure easy to dream about that lottery-winning book, the one that gives a huge payoff for all the hours you spent working and sweating, the one that means security for good or at least for a while. It’s easy to imagine your name and your agent’s name in a Publisher’s Marketplace listing of recent notable sales, and then the reviews and book tours and signings. Wouldn’t it be amazing if…

And then, especially if you’re like me and you have regular go-arounds with the twin wraiths Depression and Anxiety, it’s easy to tell yourself you’re an idiot to let your imagination run wild like that. It won’t happen for you. Your work could never deserve that. You’re a nobody and always will be…

The key, which I’m daily and hourly trying to learn, is that in the end, the work itself matters more than anything else. An agent or editor has to evaluate my words and decide their worth according to a particular scale: will the book sell, is it worth the vast outlay of time and resources needed to publish it? I don’t have any control over those decisions. What I can control is whether the work satisfied me, whether I feel I told the story to the best of my ability and created something I’m proud of. And more: I can control what I choose to do with my time, what new words I decide to put on the page, what projects of editing and teaching I take on. I can decide how I use these abilities I’ve been given and have worked hard to develop.

Templeton cubbyhole
This is Templeton, demonstrating an excellent cat storage option.

Writers can do important work in the world. Whether we publish a lot or not, whether our words reach a handful of people, or hundreds, or thousands, our words do change the people they reach. A lot of us have that go-to book, or story, or poem, or essay, that helps us through the difficult times. A lot of us can look back on something we read that took hold of us in some way and never let go. Maybe it opened our eyes to a new idea. Maybe it was a shaft of light in a dark place, or an anchor in spinning chaos. Maybe it called out to us and made us think, How can I make something like this?

Those of us who teach writing do an important job too. Over the past couple of years, as I’ve had the chance to work in different classrooms with different groups of writers, I’ve been repeatedly amazed and impressed with the communities that form in those places. People come in as strangers, share their work with each other, and trust one another with their stories. Once they do that, they aren’t strangers anymore. Whether or not they’re the kind of people who would naturally become friends “out in the world,” in the world of the writer’s workshop they are now colleagues and allies. They see each other in a way that the world doesn’t always give us the chance to do.

That work matters. Writers, writing, can bring people together and help them see one another. The work can help us remember that each of us has a story, and those stories deserve respect.

I don’t know what might happen with Fourteen Stones, or whether the outcome might keep up with some of the ambitions I’ve had, but I do know I have work to do that matters. Every day, I need to do my best to let go of the things I can’t control, and do the things I can.

Fergus not on the table (2)
And this is Fergus, who is definitely not on the table.

Photos by Kris Faatz



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