Why Should Anybody Want…

[Note: the illustrations in this post are the sketches I drew when building the fictional world of my second novel. Disclaimer: I’m not and never will be a visual artist. 😉 ]

Recently I read a short article about Neil Gaiman, legendary author of American Gods. In the article, his agent, Merilee Heifetz, reminisced about having met Mr. Gaiman when he was young and first getting started. He told her that he knew he could write bestselling books. Looking back on that, she said something to the effect of, “I’m glad I believed him.”

The bravura in his statement takes my breath away. I can write bestselling books. Really, who says that? Who has the guts to believe it? If it was anybody but Neil Gaiman, a bona-fide artist and one of my heroes, I’d write him off as an unbelievably arrogant jerk…or at the very least, as someone who doesn’t mind selling out his art in favor of pandering to some common denominator. But you can’t say that about Gaiman. His books take risks, break new ground, challenge readers – American Gods might be one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read – and offer uncompromising and startling beauty and darkness, as well as incredible twists of imagination. And yes, they’re bestsellers.

Where am I going with this? If you’ve been following the blog, you know that lately and often, I’ve been tangling with the question of what my work is for, what it’s about. Why do we do this? And for many writers, especially fiction writers, I think there’s a constant, maybe unspoken but always present, question in our minds. That question is: why should anybody want my words?

Fiction writers, you know what I’m talking about. All artists tangle with this question – why should anybody want my work, the product of my thoughts and imagination? – but I suspect that fiction writers wrestle with it maybe longer and harder than many. After all, the words we put on the page come out of the created worlds in our minds, where we wander and experiment and dream. Some, maybe a lot, of what we write does derive in some way from our real-life experiences, but it’s couched as not-real. I’m not telling you a true story about my life, or someone else’s life, or some real problem happening right now in the real world. I’m making up a story, weaving a thread that comes only out of my own mind, and I’m asking you to catch hold of it and follow it.

Circle House layout
Creating a fictional world: schematic of a building used in Fourteen Stones

What arrogance! Right? How could my imaginary worlds and people be so important? Why should anybody pay attention to them, or care that I’m creating them? One of the writers in my library workshop recently summed it up very well. Explaining why she hadn’t had time lately to work on her novel-in-progress, she told us about her various family obligations – she’s the oldest of a large group of siblings, with a core role in the family’s ability to get through the day-to-day – and said that she couldn’t ask her family to give her more time to herself to work, because she knew that her writing time was only “playing with my imaginary friends.” She’s an incredibly talented writer, and she herself knows that her talent is worth taking seriously. Even so, she described the act of writing as something barely relevant, maybe even childish, and around the table, every one of us knew exactly what she meant.

So how do you get from a mindset that questions the validity of sitting at the computer, “playing with my imaginary friends,” to a confidence and certainty that says I can write bestsellers? And, for a moment, let’s step away from the specificity of that word bestsellers, which suggests that the value of a given book depends on how many copies its publisher can shift. I’d make the case that Mr. Gaiman, as a gifted artist, wasn’t just talking about an ability to write a strong hook and fill a book up with whatever “stuff” would keep people turning the pages, like making a meal that tastes good but doesn’t really offer nourishment. Instead, I believe he was saying, My words matter. I can write books that will make a difference.

All art is an act of courage. All writing is an act of courage: and here I’m looking at you, my fellow fiction writers. How do we hang onto the idea that our words can make a difference, that the time we put into crafting our imagined worlds and characters is time well-spent?

Lassar Namora map
More time spent in the imagined world: rough map of the major countries in Fourteen Stones

If you’re a fiction writer, or any kind of artist, take a minute right now to think about a project you worked on that gave you satisfaction. Maybe it was a project that turned out beautifully well, that impressed you and others who saw it, that helped you see what a strong artist you really are. Or maybe it was a project you struggled with, stepped away from, came back to and wrestled with again, maybe over and over, and when you finally got to a stopping point you weren’t really sure it was done, but you had done the best you could and the process had taught you a lot. Maybe the process itself was full of joy, or maybe it was threaded with frustration and many moments where you just wanted to abandon the whole thing. But whatever project it was, whatever experience you had with it, when you look back on it, you know how much it mattered to you.

Here’s the thing. Maybe you had the chance to share that project with a lot of people, or a handful, or maybe you’re the only one who’s seen it. But remember how working on it made you feel, through joy and struggle, through the days when the words or music or images came easily, and through the days when you had to fight for the smallest milestone. No matter how it went, that project was your motive power. It got you out of bed in the morning and it filled your thoughts last thing at night. The energy you put into it suffused everything else you did: your other work, the time you spent with your family, the meals you made and shared, the errands you ran. Your life was forever different because of that project.

And because your life was different, so were the lives you touched. If you’re like me, your work can give you joy even on the worst days. That joy isn’t only confined to you. The sense of direction and purpose your work gives you can reach out far beyond the constraints of your own mind and body. Even if no one else ever sees that project, yes, it matters. Yes, it makes a difference, because it matters and makes a difference to you.

So artists, be proud of your work. Fiction writers, be proud of your imagined worlds and people. Weave your words with confidence. Every step we take along this complicated and challenging path makes us stronger and happier people, and that matters. Every piece of art we share with others gives them something new to think about, some new place to inhabit for a while, and every piece of art shares a piece of our energy and love for our work too. All of it adds up. All of it makes a difference.

Namora map
Rough map of Namora, Fourteen Stones’s main setting and my favorite fictional place
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Honor the Path

Thinking about paths today. Where have I come from? Where am I going? What has the path looked like so far, and when I look back on it, what do I think?

Artists have an unusual challenge. Because what we do is essentially original, and comes from us in a way that isn’t true of every type of work, we often have to make our own decisions about where we want to end up and how we want to get there. The “career path” of an artist isn’t as clearly defined as in other professions. In some ways, building an artistic career can feel wide open, as if there are infinite possible paths: overwhelming, in fact, in their possibility. In other ways, it can feel like there’s exactly one “right” path, and a great big roadblock in the middle of it.

For instance, writing. This road has plenty of destinations on it to want. What type of writing do we do? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, some combination? If we’re fiction writers, do we write genre work or are we strictly literary? Short fiction or long? Who’s our audience? If we’re short-story writers, do we have some bucket-list journals we’re determined to see our work in before we die, so we submit and get rejected by them over and over? (Spoiler: I’m guilty of this.) If we’re novelists, are we looking for a Big Five publisher, or an indie press, or do we want to go it on our own and keep the royalty money? How do things like publisher reputation and clout weigh against the challenges inherent in the system, and against the seemingly-infinite possible reach of the Internet? And if we get right down to it, is publishing our biggest goal at all, or are we teachers, editors, consultants, or some other type of wordcraft specialists?

All of these possibilities can feel impossible to sort out. Too many options, too many side paths that shoot off in all directions. But on the other hand, it can feel like you finally settle on a direction, you think you can see that path running straight and clear all the way to the horizon…and then a chasm opens up in the middle of it. Maybe you can’t get that book published after all. Maybe it’s too long/too short/too genre/too literary/too slow/too jumpy/too not-quite-appealing-enough. And if you can’t do that, after all the work you’ve put in, what are you going to do instead?

Ice pic 3

Roadblocks can take many forms: job we thought was going to work out, the conference we felt sure we were eligible for, the grant that really seemed like a good chance. The chasm opens up in the path, and maybe we start wondering if we were right to take this road at all. Maybe it’s led us exactly nowhere.

Especially at these times, I think, we need to take a minute to turn around and look back at the path behind us. How have we gotten to this point? What have we struggled with and triumphed over, what obstacles have we dug out or climbed around, and what beautiful moments have we taken in along the way? They’ve been there. But maybe we’ve been so focused on that ultimate goal – whatever form it took – that we forgot about the rest of it.

Lately, I’ve been taking time to think about this. If you’ve followed the blog, you know I’m often extremely goal-oriented. I don’t like mistakes and I don’t like not being able to point to a list of achievements…so writing is an interesting profession for me, to say the least. ( 😉 ) But lately, I’ve been looking back on my own unusual path, and realizing I’m pretty proud of it.

Because I didn’t start writing seriously in high school or college, I had maybe an even less prescribed career path than other writers. I didn’t have a map of the next right steps: what degrees to get and where to get them, which conferences or residencies to go to, which journals would possibly take my first short stories. Along the way, I pretty much figured out what I wanted to learn and do, and what resources might best help with that. I’m anything but self-taught, but it was pretty neat to look at the pastiche of education I cobbled together. It’s turned out to be pretty much exactly right for the kind of writer I want to be.

waterfall pic

There has been any amount of rejection and disappointment. But last week I had the pleasure of teaching two brilliant short stories (Lee K. Abbott’s “The Valley of Sin” and “The View of Me from Mars”) at my library writers’ workshop, and it was exciting and wonderful to see how those pieces inspired the group. Last week also, I checked in again with the agent who seems most serious about my novel Fourteen Stones, and learned it’ll probably be a couple of weeks longer before we have an answer. I’m not at all sure the answer will be what I’d like, but I realized that no matter what happens, Fourteen Stones is a good book that I’m proud to have written. I was even able to promise myself – and mean it – that I’ll do whatever it takes to see it published sometime. And finally, I got to thinking about how much my writing style has changed over the years and how I’m settling into this literary/fantasy/magical realism crossover stuff that I love both to write and to read. I used to think I couldn’t write that kind of thing, but I’m starting to think I might be pretty good at it.

All of which is to say: it can be hard to remember to stop and look back on the path you’ve been on. Especially in those moments when you feel like a roadblock has sprung up to keep you from the one thing you want most, and you start thinking that maybe everything you’ve done so far has just been a waste of time and trouble. But those are the moments when you most need to turn around and look back. Let yourself appreciate, all over again, everything you’ve done and accomplished and taken in along the way.

Right now, take a moment to honor the path that’s brought you to where you are. It’s worth it. You are worth it.

alta lakes colorado

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

The Work We Leave Behind

In my post last week, I looked at what it’s meant for me to come into writing “sideways,” and find my own path in the profession. This week’s post will continue and hopefully expand on that subject, while also picking up some thoughts I’d originally wanted to write about last week.

Recently, a writer passed away who was – in addition to being a master of the short-story form – a teacher and mentor to countless students, including me. Lee K. Abbott taught for many years at Ohio State University and at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops, where I worked with him during two summers. During his last illness, students and colleagues posted tributes to him on Facebook. It was amazing and powerful to see how many lives he had touched, and how profoundly. Many of his students are now professional writers themselves, but one tribute in particular stood out for me. A former student of his wrote that she didn’t know if she would ever publish anything else, she wasn’t writing much anymore, but she was still teaching high-school students. She wrote that she had learned a lot about how to be a teacher from him and she hoped he’d be proud. Other people quickly replied that they knew he would be.

Reading those posts, and thinking about them, got me thinking about the question of the work we leave behind. Some fellow-writers and colleagues of Lee’s commented that his own writing hadn’t gotten the broader attention it deserved, though he was always well-respected and admired within the profession. Certainly he leaves behind a great body of work, short stories that can inspire and educate in themselves, even if they aren’t as widely read as they might be. But it seemed to me that even for a master writer, a legacy might involve more than the words on the page. And maybe the rest of the legacy can be even more important.

Brevard dawn pic

I’m used to thinking about publication as the highest goal. Every short story that makes it into a journal is a win. Getting a book out is a serious win. It’s what writers do, right? It’s what we’re for. All those hours we put in at our solitary desks, spinning worlds out of imagination and experience and love and grief and everything else: we don’t do that just for ourselves. We put the stories out in the hope – often an aching and scared hope – that they will reach out and connect with someone else.

And I’m used to thinking that the writers who really did the job, who made it work and got things right, are the ones who can point to the long list of bylines. Hopefully there are stellar reviews too, and strong sales, and maybe some grants and residencies and so forth in there for good measure. But the biggest legacy, the most important achievement, is the writing. Right?

Lee’s legacy has made me think about that again. He was a master of the craft, and he wrote in a strong and compelling voice that is uniquely his own. He knew how to take the small moments in a character’s life and turn them into immersive experiences of startling significance. He did a lot of what I’ve always thought of as “getting it right.” But he did a lot besides that, too.

When it’s time to go, what do you really want to leave behind? Sometimes we ask ourselves that in a kind of hypothetical way, not wanting to think about an “ending” as real. Endings are hard and scary. But maybe sometimes it’s worth looking that question in the face, not as something to fear, but as a challenge and a friend.

river 1

Lee’s former student who didn’t know if she would ever publish again, but who works with and, I bet, inspires kids every day, will leave something beautiful behind. Words can last a long time: after all, we’re still reading Shakespeare. But let’s say you give someone a piece of knowledge they never had before, and it fascinates them. Or let’s say you help someone accomplish something they hadn’t thought they could. Moments like that can feel small at the time, easy to forget, but in some way they’ve changed the life they entered. For the person to whom you gave that gift, things will always be different.

This past weekend, I had my last session of the school year with a group of high school students who have had creative writing workshops with me once a month. I asked them each to write down what they’d thought of the class, what they liked or would change, or anything else they wanted to share about their experience. One of them wrote, “I thought I wouldn’t like creative writing. But it’s been really fun making myself think of wild, funny stories and having other people’s stories to piggy back on…Thank you for helping me wake my brain up.” That young woman is a talented writer who has written some excellent “wild, funny stories” in class. I don’t know if she’ll keep going with writing, or do what we might call “something serious” with it, but I’m glad she had the experience and found joy in it.

Publication is and always will be a major goal for me, but I can see that a legacy can be broader than that. Whether we’re professional teachers or not, we as artists can share our experiences and our joy in our work with others. Those things can change lives as powerfully as the work itself.

The tributes to Lee’s life left me feeling great gratitude for a life so well lived. They left me thinking, gladly, about what I want to leave behind.

mississippi river

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

Sideways Writer

Apologies for the slightly later blogpost this week. I had something I especially wanted to write about, so I took some extra time to think it over…and it still ended up being too hard for now. Today’s post is the easier option. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to take on the bigger challenge.

Today’s post comes out of some thinking I did while driving home last night from a rehearsal. I don’t know if you find the same thing, but driving can be wonderfully meditative and very helpful in untangling mental knots. Especially night driving over peaceful back roads; I make a point these days to take the long route home from my Wednesday evening rehearsal, because I love the rhythm of these particular roads and how the yards and side streets slip past in the dark. It creates a good space to let the mind open up.

I was thinking about what it has meant to me to come to writing relatively late, and in a way I think of as “sideways.” Specifically, I was thinking about the experience of learning what sometimes feels like the invisible rules of the writing world, the things we’re “supposed” to want and achieve. And what it’s like to realize that not all of those things on a perhaps more typical writing path make sense to me.

Why that word “sideways”? Mostly because I didn’t start out to be a writer. It was my earliest ambition when I was a kid, but it’s easy to get away from those first ambitions. I came back to writing after finishing grad school, starting to work professionally as a musician, and getting married. Life was on a particular track and I thought I understood the whole shape and direction of it. And then I decided to get back into my old childhood interest…and, like you find in a good story, there was a plot twist.

Brevard clouds
photo by Kris Faatz

While learning about the writing craft, I’ve pretty much only done things because I wanted to. I started working on a Master of Arts in fiction writing because the coursework looked so interesting. Then, partway into that program, I decided to try a summer writing workshop because that seemed like exactly the kind of intense immersion that I needed…and afterwards, I decided to leave the MA program and save money instead for more of those summer workshops. I went to my first conference because it felt like the kind of growth that needed to happen at the time. I never had any particular strategy with any of the things I did, other than to learn as much as possible, in the ways that made the most sense on a gut level.

It hasn’t been a traditional path at all: thus, sideways. I didn’t train as a writer in college or grad school; I don’t have – and never will have – those three coveted letters “MFA.” I was a strictly-literary writer for a while, because I liked telling real-world stories and, let’s be honest, those are the kinds of stories the big-name literary journals like best. Literary writing has a certain legitimacy that genres – crime, mystery, fantasy, etc. – don’t always equal. It’s never been my favorite kind of work to read, though, and eventually it made less sense to write only that. As I’ve gotten deeper into this world, I’ve run into more invisible rules about the kinds of things we’re supposed to want and do. More often than not, they don’t mesh with the sideways writer I am.

I like to follow rules. Rules are safe and make the world look orderly and predictable. Funnily enough, though, I can be very quick to rebel against them if they seem to push me into a shape that doesn’t feel right. Rebelling is uncomfortable and scary. Sometimes I feel like I’m just being stupidly stubborn, but some piece of my internal wiring demands it anyway.

ocean view 3
photo by Paul Faatz

As I’m figuring out who I am as a writer, it feels more important to me all the time to stay on my own sideways path, doing things my own way. I don’t necessarily want to go to a conference or a workshop because it’ll look good on my resume; I want to do it because it can make me better at the craft. I don’t necessarily want to write only real-world stories: my writer-voice is settling into a blend of literary and speculative, where my characters are real people but the worlds they move in are somehow infused with magic, and I love that. I don’t necessarily want to try to create what other people might expect or want from me. As daunting as it feels, I want to find those readers who are eager for what I have to give, and on a good day, I believe those readers are out there.

It’s scary. Often, I can’t help but wonder if being so boneheadedly stubborn means I’ll never really get where I’d like to go. Sometimes, though – like last night on the quiet dark roads – I look back over how things have gone so far, and feel better. I have a long way to go, but this path is meant to be a journey for life. I have a lot to do, and some of it feels very big and far away, but I’ve learned a lot already and had some fun and done some things I’m proud of. That counts.

It’s easy to get caught up in what the world tells us to do, especially if we like to follow rules. But Bill Watterson said it very well:

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Sideways people, let’s celebrate our unique paths and know there is nobody else just like us. The world needs us the way we are. It’s challenging to make our own rules, but I do think we’ll be happier for it.

5.2.19 post pic 3

photo by Paul Faatz

Work as Service

The waiting game has started up again this week. It was good to take a break from it, and it was also good to have an enforced break from worrying. Having a cold meant not having the energy to fret (or do much of anything else!). It’s funny how sometimes you don’t realize how chronically stressed you’ve become until the stress lifts for a while. I’m hoping that having a fuller awareness of the feelings can also help me get beyond them, even as life goes back to more familiar patterns.

It’s also interesting to notice the effects of the daily news cycles on mood, energy levels, and overall attitude. Yesterday, Easter Sunday, I had a bit of a break from all of that. Looping back into it today definitely made me notice – again – how much chronic stress I was carrying, which no doubt all of us are carrying in one way or another. It’s impossible to justify living in a bubble and not keeping up with what’s going on in the world, but at the same time, overload happens so easily. There are so many conflicts and problems, so many things to feel concerned, anxious, and angry about. The world is simply too big. How much can any one of us do to help with all the need that exists?

A brief sidebar: for the past five years, I’ve worked as a church choir director. I started the job pretty much because I was in the right place at the right time. At first it definitely was “just a job,” which I did because I had the necessary skills and needed the money, but things started to change a couple of years ago. I continue to have many questions about religion, and many concerns about the way Christianity presents in the world. I’ve had the chance, though, to work with people for whom faith leads to action and a commitment to working for social justice and the betterment of the world, especially the lives of the most vulnerable. The work has become more than “just work,” and has gotten me thinking more, all the time, about the other kinds of work I do and how they might make a difference.

ocean view 2

Last night, I went back to my increasingly-usual brainstorming about writers’ workshops and the idea of writing, and storytelling, as a type of ministry. The various rounds of thinking I’ve done about it have started to feel like going in circles, but a couple of newer ideas did join the mix.

I know how to teach craft, and I love teaching it. I love helping people to tell their own stories, fictional or real life, and make those stories as strong and compelling as possible. I love the fact that writing can help us to know, accept, and embrace our own truths. Then there’s the kind of community that evolves in workshop: the fact that people of very different backgrounds can come together to cheer, help, and encourage each other in the telling of their stories. And the fact that, in doing so, they connect with and see one another in new ways.

My biggest question is how to use all of that and do more with it. As hard as it can be for me to admit, I’m good at what I do. I want to make a living doing it; my husband and I need that, and there are things I’d like us to be able to have and do. In thinking through these things yet again last night, it struck me that the most useful way for me to approach my work is to see it as a form of service. It’s so easy to get caught up in anxiety about self-marketing, hustling, and whether you’re desirable enough and unique enough to “make it.” My brain doesn’t work that way. It does work when I ask myself how to use the skills and tools I have as instruments of healing, in a world that needs it.

ocean view 1

If anything were possible, I’d love to create some huge workshop where people from all over the world could come together, share stories, support each other, and form the kind of community that, up until now, I’ve only seen in microcosm. It’s delightful to imagine, though I can’t quite picture how anyone could create something like that. But I’m going to keep puzzling at the question.

Stories, written and shared, can make a difference in and of themselves. They can be instruments of healing in various ways: helping people to see and think about things they haven’t before, helping people to get through tough times, helping them get out of their own heads when they’re trapped in unhealthy thought patterns. Communities of storytellers take the singular power of one story and multiply it. There’s so much work to be done, and words can do a lot to create positive change in a fractured world. I’m going to figure out which piece of that work is mine to do.

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

 

Very Small Post

Today’s blogpost will be a little different. I’m still catching up after a week-long cold, which in some ways was a welcome break: it was hard to worry about things like work and publication when I pretty much just wanted to read and sleep all day. A lot of reading got done, especially several books by my hero Terry Pratchett, and I’d like to think it still counts as “writing work” when I was studying his craft with a close eye. 🙂 But a lot of other things got shelved for later, and this week is also pretty busy for us church musicians. So today I offer three very short stories which I wrote in response to photo prompts, in an exercise inspired by the wonderful journal 100 Word Story. (My short piece “Winter Birds” appears on that journal’s site as well.)

The exercise for each of the stories was to write a piece of exactly 100 words, inspired by and in some way relating to a photo prompt. I cheated slightly by not including my titles as part of the 100-word limit.

It was a fascinating exercise because flash fiction is an unfamiliar form for me. William Faulkner is credited with saying that novelists are failed short-story writers, and short-story writers are failed poets; I’d have to put flash fiction in about the same category as poetry, so as a novelist I definitely go into it with a handicap. It’s hard for me to decide what really makes a piece of flash a story as opposed to a vignette. Plus, I love verbosity, so it’s very hard for me to operate within any limit. Especially 100 words!

The photo for the first piece was a prompt provided by 100 Word Story, and as it was their photo, I haven’t included it here. It was an x-ray of ankle bones. I’ve included the other two pictures with their respective stories.

If you’d like, please use the two photos to prompt your own stories, of one hundred words or otherwise. And if you’d like to share them with me at kfaatz925@gmail.com, I’d love to read what the photos inspire for you.

Next week the blog will go back to more “regular” content. As always, thank you for reading.

 

Story #1: Cost of Light

Six weeks, the doctor says, before I’ll start to walk again. The bulk of the cast drags on my hips; the crutches set my shoulders on fire. Hiking, I looked where you pointed, at a sunlit sapling, and missed the stump hole in the trail at my feet.

I told you, once, that “always” wasn’t me. Sometime I would have walked away, someplace where you couldn’t follow. Now you call my cast your fault, but I think of light glowing through new leaves and the line of your hand, pointing.

Six weeks in exchange for light. It’s a fair price.

 

Story #2: Beautiful Aliens

In the coffeehouse, a great gray beast, shackled. Proboscis lashing, bullwhip-dangerous. Ears flapping like sails in high wind. Gawkers hand their shillings to Tom Garway at the door. The beast screams rage; they cover their ears and cower.

Overton the printer, my white master, told me Go and draw the creature. My best work. His name on the prints.

In the dim room, lost in the stink of men, the beast dreams of open sky and clean air. I dream of owning my work, my time, my name.

Great beast. We are lost together, you and I: beautiful aliens both.

elephant photo prompt
Original caption: “The great Elephant brought into England and landed August ye third 1675”

 

Story #3: Flight

A breath out of time: your husband and your daughter, who is not his daughter but has always called him Daddy, climbing into the roadster to fly.

You are mired to the ground. The Crash, they called it. Banks failing, money gone: you are poor and lost on a bright day of windswept leaves.

Your husband fights with you. You two could be poor together, he says, if you hadn’t forgotten the feeling of flight.

They get into the roadster, he and your girl, who calls him Daddy. You will see him one last time, when he brings her home.

old car photo

Music, Words, and Community

A slightly later blogpost this week… I’ve been down with a cold for a few days, and my brain has been pretty scrambled. Working on getting back into gear.

cat trio sickbed
Feline nurses on duty

This week I thought I would explore the “ministry” aspect of writing again; it’s something I’m thinking about a lot. One of the fascinating, and challenging, things about this profession is that there are so many possible paths to take in it. You can want so many things: different things, sometimes conflicting things. It can be hard to organize priorities, which makes it hard in turn to focus on and reach for particular goals.

A lot of my focus over the past few months has been on publication, and figuring out how to get my second novel out into the world. The process continues to move along, slowly. Meanwhile, I keep trying to maintain a balance between the drive and desire on that side, and the fact that writing has other aspects I also want to immerse myself in. Especially on the teaching side.

I’ve written before about how fascinating the writing craft is for me, and how much I like working with other writers. Helping people tell and develop their stories feels like a type of ministry to me. Sharing stories allows us to see each other as people: I always come back to that as one of the most valuable functions of writing, and teaching writing.

Sometimes, though, it takes a little extra effort to start a story rolling and get words on the page, and sometimes it takes a little extra effort to help someone share his or her words. I ran into both of those situations recently at a particular workshop I teach, and the outcomes were exciting and encouraging. The experience got me thinking more about how music, my “other side,” could open up new and creative possibilities when it comes to helping people tell their stories.

The workshop was with Baltimore Bridges, a program for kids in Baltimore city schools. Kids start the program in junior high and continue through high school. They’re paired with adult mentors who help them think about future career options and prepare for college applications and job interviews. Once a month, the high schoolers have a day-long immersion program that focuses on college prep. As part of the day, they can choose electives to take. Creative writing is one of those.

The kids are smart and energized. They’ve impressed me again and again with their creativity and willingness to experiment. A few weeks ago, though, I was especially impressed with the way they responded to a storytelling prompt using music. It brought out a new kind of creativity and built a sense of community in the classroom that I hadn’t experienced before.

I played them a recording I’d made at home of one of my favorite pieces: a movement from the suite Estampes, by Claude Debussy. Debussy was a French composer from the Impressionist era, late 19th century into early 20th century. His music explores all the colors and tone-combinations the piano can create, and plays with dissonance in startling and lovely ways. Estampes isn’t a piece most people would be familiar with, and I was interested to hear what the kids thought of it. I asked them to listen to it and write whatever it made them think about. After we did that, I asked them to share what they’d written.

It was a group of five girls: high school freshmen, sophomores, and one junior. At first, it took a little bit of work to get them to share. They were more worried than usual that they hadn’t done the exercise “right,” even though we have a workshop policy that there’s no “wrong” way to do anything. Finally one of them jumped in, and talked about how she’d heard music like the Debussy when she was visiting an arts-focused school in Baltimore that she was thinking about applying to. Another said that the music made her imagine being outside in the woods. A third had written a beautiful, improvisatory poem about trees and sunlight and flowing water. She was especially hesitant to share hers because it was different from what the other girls had written, but when she read it, everyone was wowed.

The exercise got the students’ imaginations going, and I loved seeing what the music tapped into for them. The rest of the session felt especially inspired. The girls worked collaboratively on other prompts, weaving one another’s fictional characters into their own stories, joking around and cheering for each other, making the kind of community that I think is the best kind of writers’ workshop. At the end, I felt like we’d done something valuable and lasting.

In a time when, in the wider world, we run so often into argument and division and boundaries between people, I love the fact that storytelling does have that power to let us see one another. If collaboration and reconciliation can start with that seeing, I think writers, teachers, and writing communities can play some role in bringing people together. A small role, maybe, but a potentially powerful one. This is something I think about all the time: how can I best use the tools and abilities I have to do some good in my corner of the world?

I have some ideas, and I’m brainstorming all the time. For today, I’ll close this post with the Debussy recording I shared with my workshop. If you have a chance, give it a listen and see what it sparks in your imagination.  

[P.S. If you’d like, please share your response to the Debussy in the comments, or with me by email at kfaatz925@gmail.com.]

Good and Not-So-Good

It’s been another quiet week on the querying-and-waiting front. Part of me understands that this process simply takes a while; another part of me protests things like I didn’t think it would be this long! Waiting can be exhausting: riding the daily rollercoaster of bracing yourself for the worst, relaxing for a while, trying to plan for possible scenarios, trying to convince yourself you can deal with anything, bracing yourself again, over and over. One way or another, though, I think it does teach you patience. You don’t have a choice except to recognize – again and again, usually under protest – that you don’t have control over this process. Fighting it or arguing with it will make it no easier.

It certainly gives you a chance to learn about yourself. The past three months have made me look at some things about myself that I might not have come to grips with before. One very big thing I’ve started to see is that I don’t think I’ve ever managed to look at myself as a whole person, strengths and flaws and all. I’ve certainly never managed to be okay with that person.

I’ve written before about growing up in an environment where mistakes weren’t allowed, and where when it came to my artistic side, pretty much the best I could hope for was to be left alone to do my thing. Many of us dealt with those kinds of circumstances, growing up. (I’m not a parent and can’t imagine how hard it must be to do your best, every day, to take care of another human being who counts on you for everything. You’d have millions of opportunities to make mistakes. That kind of fear would chew me up and spit me out.) For me, one result of the way I grew up has been – as I’ve also written about before – that I have a very hard time looking my shortcomings in the face. They just can’t be there, because if they are, I’m not okay.

waterfall pic

So now, as I’m waiting and worrying, I’m tasking myself as much as possible with the job of getting on with life. That means doing the work I need to do, and that in turn means giving myself a foundation to stand on, a place where I can plant myself no matter what happens with the things I’m waiting for. I can’t do that if I’m also gearing up to attack myself for failures and shortcomings, so I have to find a way to accept both the things I am, and the things I’m not.

For instance, in the “nots” column, I’m not a housekeeper. I’m the kind of person who has to gear up for days (if not weeks) for one “big clean,” and it usually only happens under duress because someone is coming over and it would be nice if the house didn’t look like an actual biohazard. When it comes to bookkeeping, I’m not much better. Theoretically I’m good with numbers, but the idea of, for instance, maintaining spreadsheets and tables of my self-employment income makes my brain congeal into a lump of ice, so tax season means about two solid weeks of panic every year as I scramble to pull all the numbers together. And, speaking of practical skills that can be important when you’re self-employed, I’ve never learned the art of networking and, to be honest, don’t want to. Small talk stresses me out and I’ve never been good at putting the right face on and “pitching” myself as a product. I saw a shirt once with the slogan Introverts Unite! Separately, in your own homes. This is me in a nutshell.

With varying levels of seriousness, I’ve criticized myself for those shortcomings and plenty of others. Sometimes I feel like I’m not good at the things that really are important – bookkeeping, networking, general practicality – and meanwhile, the things I am good at don’t especially matter. Sometimes I’ve been so angry at myself for the failures that everything seems hopeless. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time running away from myself, or at least from those aspects of myself that I don’t want to think about. That’s exhausting too.

river 1

So I’m working, bit by bit, on accepting the parts of myself I don’t like as much. It’s very hard to wrap my head around the idea that shortcomings and limitations are okay, part of my makeup, and maybe I don’t need to fight them, hide them, pretend they don’t exist, or try to run away from them. And maybe it’s also worthwhile to think about things I can do well.

For instance:

After many years of work, I’m starting to think I’m a pretty decent writer. A few days ago, I pulled out a book project I started last year, as a study for Fourteen Stones, and then put aside. It has rough patches and problems, but it also has a spark that makes it worth digging into again. I was impressed, which when it comes to my own work, is rare indeed.

And: having with pretty much the same group of writers in workshop for about a year and a half now,  I’m starting to see the real changes and progress in their writing. They’ve also become a tight-knit, supportive community, challenging one another to grow. That makes me proud in a way I’ve never really experienced before.

Also: the craft itself is a constant delight and fascination. I love figuring out what makes “good” writing so compelling and powerful, and I love problem-solving in writing that needs work. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that kind of fascination about any other subject. While you can definitely argue – as I have, to myself, many times – that it’s not the most practical subject to love, I’m glad to taste that kind of excitement.

For better or worse, this is how I am. Every day, as the waiting-rollercoaster carries me along on its ups and downs, I’m trying to hold onto this more candid, more honest view of myself, and decide that it’s all right. That it’s enough of a foundation to get me through whatever is coming.

I know I’m not the only one. So many of us struggle with the question of being “good enough,” forgiving ourselves for our mistakes and all the things we are or aren’t. It’s especially hard for those of us who are artists, who put ourselves on the line every day with the work that means the most to us, that carries a part of ourselves with it as we send it off into the world.

Maybe it isn’t worth trying to hide, or ignore, or run away from the things about ourselves that we don’t like as much. If we can forgive ourselves, take ourselves as the people we are, we’ll be all the stronger for it. And maybe in some small way, we can make the rest of the world stronger too.

waterfall

Photos by Paul Faatz

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

 

Success?

Lately I’ve been thinking – and posting – a lot about forgiving mistakes, recognizing when I don’t know how to do things, and accepting my imperfections. All of these are important and challenging things for me to contend with, because of that “need to be perfect” and “need to know” I’ve written about before. This week, though, I find myself thinking more about a different kind of challenge: recognizing what I can do.

It’s a funny contradiction. On the one hand, I feel like I have to do everything right. On the other, I’m used to thinking of myself as the kind of person who fails a lot. Perfectionists are probably often like this: getting things “right” matters so much that we focus on every mistake and don’t see the things that do go well. It used to be that whenever I was learning how to do something, I had to feel like I knew exactly how to do it, right out of the gate.

Writing has given me many tough lessons about failure. When I first started writing seriously, I had the same contradiction always running in my head. My gut felt like my work was crap, but at the same time, I couldn’t stand to get helpful feedback. My work had to be perfect, even though I had no idea what I was doing. It took one particular workshop, with two brilliant and mercilessly thorough teachers, to get through my not-listening barrier. They showed me all the things I had stubbornly refused to see about my own work, and showed me what I would have to be able to do if I wanted to be a decent writer. They took apart my then-novel-in-progress, five hundred pages of crap at the time, and showed me how to rebuild it from the ground up. Somewhere in the course of that four-day session, I realized I could either hang onto my pride and my five hundred pages, or I could let them go, have a good cry, and start learning how to write. After the workshop, I went home and started my novel over again. It eventually became To Love A Stranger.

ocean view 1

Looking back, I think I can say that in spite of all my stubborn wiring, I did learn how to fail. It was a crucial lesson. Interestingly, now I can see how far the pendulum has swung back the other way, and how in any given situation, I usually expect myself to screw up one way or another.

We all know how much failure can hurt. The funny thing is, it can also feel safe. If you know – or at least think – you’re going to screw up, maybe you don’t expect much from yourself. Maybe it doesn’t hurt quite as much if you fall down. Maybe you don’t ask yourself to reach for things that feel too big, or too daring, because why should you? You probably can’t have them anyway. And above everything else, maybe it feels safer not to think that other people believe in or count on you. If you can succeed, you can also disappoint.

The more we care about something, the scarier it might be to succeed at it. If we love something but we’re not good at it, it stays small and private. If it turns out we are good at it, if maybe we have something to share that other people would like to have, and if those people start counting on us for that thing, then we had better stay good at it or else.

I’m starting to feel that success-fear in my writing life. My second novel has gotten some terrific feedback that makes me proud to share it, but also more than a little scared. When I was writing it, I felt like after all these years of trying, maybe I’d finally learned how to tell a good story. But I’m used to thinking my work is fair-to-middling. What if I thought I actually could tell a good story? Higher stakes. Farther to fall if I find myself struggling.

And as a writing teacher, I’m starting to hear that I do have gifts that help other people. A couple of weeks ago, I was a presenter at a writers’ conference: a big new scary challenge I’d never faced before. I went into it frankly expecting to stumble through the hour-long presentation somehow, and then maybe go crawl into a hole. Instead, I found the audience listening eagerly, asking questions, telling me afterward how much they’d appreciated the session…and I realized, maybe more clearly than I ever have before, that I can do this. I can teach this craft I love so much, and I can make a difference for people who want to learn.

These are tough truths for me to absorb. They mean so much that my reflex is to push them aside. Dangerous. Scary. My head tells me to keep myself small. Keep expecting myself to screw up, because who knows what big awful explosion could happen if I started actually trusting what I can do?

I’m still trying to organize all these things in my head, but maybe, when we share our gifts – even if we don’t always do it as well as we’d like – we can do some good. Maybe we make a difference, and it matters.

I always want to remember how to fail well. Maybe, though, I can also learn how to succeed.

rainbow

Photos by Paul Faatz