I’m pleased to share with you my latest guest post for my friend and writing coach, Lauren Sapala.
Happy Monday to you!
I’m pleased to share with you my latest guest post for my friend and writing coach, Lauren Sapala.
Happy Monday to you!
My whole life, I’ve tried to adapt myself to what was expected of me, and to be honest, like many people who deal with perfectionism, I struggled for many years with my own expectations of myself. Holding on to these patterns kept me stuck for many years – stuck not writing my story, stuck in linear thinking and in bad habits that kept circling back to bite me.
Somewhere along the way as I was writing this book, I started thinking in spirals. Like DNA spirals, moving forward in time, evolving. And with the nature of writing a memoir, I think the spiral is a perfect metaphor. You revisit old patterns and places, but you move forward into your future. Once I opened up and started thinking of my life in terms of spirals, everything changed with my writing.
My circular thinking stretched out a bit. My self doubts turned into a hopeful “what if?”. I stopped beating myself up for my shortcomings and kept coming back to my inspirations, my purpose for this story. Not to say that I won’t fall back into bad habits or periods of self doubt along the way in my writing life, but once I started replacing my fears with hopes, my tight circles of self-doubt got flabby and I made good progress.
My linear thinking eased up, too, got curvy. I made an outline and did all kinds of plotwork, points A-to-B-to-C, but I haven’t looked at any of it in a good long while. I suspect, though, that my story will cleave pretty close to the outline I created years ago. I felt better doing that work, it seemed necessary and perhaps it was. But, I didn’t use it. I let go of my expectations, let go of deadlines, and gave myself the luxury of creating a story. I gave myself permission to do some of the internal work that writing a memoir requires.
Also, coming to terms with my own truths as a writer: I am not a five-hundred-word-a-day kind of person. I work in fits and spurts. Binge and purge. I require space and solitude and chunks of time. As much as I want to be a machine about my writing, I am not. I think it’s awesome that people can write books in a bunch of 10-minute sessions. I am not one of those people. Not yet, at least. Maybe someday I’ll find that focus and efficiency. I’m a working mom with two school-age kids and a household. There are seasons to life.
As I let go of my own perfectionism, I also eased up and asked for some help and hired a writing coach. As she says, writing is a messy, dirty, outrageous thing. Turns out, I am not an anomoly, I am not doing it wrong, and there are ways for me to make the most of my strengths. With her gentle support, I made amazing progress with the book. Here is what she has to say on the topic: Writing is Messy. That’s Just the Way It Is.
And so, now I think of my creative life as a spiral, moving forward. It will have ups and downs and I’ll have to revisit and examine my old habits from time to time, and moving forward is guided more by intuition than plan – but I am making progress. I have a complete book. Ready for professional eyes and opinions and editing. I have my next book knocking at the back door, ready to enter the kitchen. In real life, I have a hard time following recipes, and I’ve learned to cook intuitively. This is how I write, as well.
Actually, it’s how I do everything. Logical intuition.
And as I face my fears of querying and submitting, I come back to the thought that it’s all just the next phase forward. I’m scared, I’m resisting – but I’ve been here before. I know what work I need to do, even if I don’t have a clear plan. The path will reveal itself. It has every step of the way so far, and then you start to trust it.
You start to build up a muscle memory, too, and you become familiar with the shape of your creative life.
Mine is in the shape of a spiral.
When I started writing my rock n’ roll memoir, I searched for answers as to why I was having such a hard time with it. I had the story neatly laid out in my mind, but when it came time to write, it was a jumbled mess.
I’ve been an intuitive, sensitive person my whole life, but I was just coming off a solid 15 year stretch that included two college degrees, moving around a lot, a big management job, having two babies in two years, buying a first house – and all of the other stresses and realities (and blessings) that come with adulthood. To survive, I had trained myself to think in a linear fashion. Goal oriented, deadline driven. I grew up fairly poor with a single mom, and I guess I was motivated to break the cycle of dead-end jobs and apartment rentals. I wanted a great career, a happy marriage, children, a house. My intuition was still there, but I often ignored it in pursuit of my life goals. No matter how stressful, I was going to achieve these things and tick them off my list.
But the reality of it is that I was exhausted and burnt out. The thought of writing a book seemed ridiculous, indulgent, and absolutely impossible. It was the one thing that I couldn’t check off the list.
Finally, after years of living in almost-despair, in an act of great mercy upon myself and with support from a loving husband, I quit my management job and went to a part-time schedule. We adjusted our budget, took the kids out of daycare, stopped paying for the bigger lifestyle, kept the 15 year old car running. My kids were still small, and it was the best decision I ever made. It took me many, many months to adjust and detox and just settle down. And finally, I started writing.
In some ways, even then, I still kept the old mental habits, holding myself to stressful goals and standards. And let me tell you: facing a memoir project with this mindset is not good. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what it required of me. I didn’t know this when I started, of course. But here I am, five years later. I am a different writer than I was then, I’ve learned a few things.
When I first started writing on the memoir, it was a simple retelling of persons, places, things, and events. It was linear. I wrote my whole childhood story. I recited dates and events as if it were an instruction manual, step A, to B, to C. I wrote a lot of shitty stuff about things that didn’t matter, and I blew past deadlines and made myself feel bad for a while. I had no idea how I was supposed to connect it together or make it coherent.
So, I learned.
I started to study story structure, story telling, and scene writing. I read books about writing books. I followed writing blogs. I read a few other memoirs, and started to understand. I started to understand MY story better, and what the actual purpose of a memoir was. I found a writing coach, another writer who worked with intuitive types and introverts, and I started to find my voice, literally, by talking to someone who had gone through the same thing. I started seeing scenes. I started thinking about the reader. And, I started getting more sleep.
My intuition roared to life again like an old trusty engine, properly primed.
Once I had the space for it, my dreams became vivid and colorful again. I dreamed about the writing, seeing the next scenes I needed to write, and the order they needed to be in. Daydreaming is my friend, too. I’d see or hear or smell things during the day that would remind me of something in my story. My streaming Pandora account pulled songs that seemed to connect directly to the piece I was writing at that moment. My social media feeds seemed to burst with relevant information or helpful articles or connections to sources. Everywhere, inspiration. I’d dream about old friends from far away, and then have them show up as a friend request on Facebook. The path revealed itself, every step of the way.
None of it surprises me, however. This is how it has always worked for me when I’m aligned with my purpose. The Magic. Signs, symbols, dreams, synchronicity. The more I let go of my expectations about this book and just let things flow, the more progress I make.
I’ve got a good solid first draft, and I’m getting feedback from beta readers. As much as I wanted to rush into a grand rewrite, I’m holding back a bit, giving it a few more weeks to percolate. Information keeps showing up. Maybe it needs some space to breathe.
Maybe it needs just a bit more magic.
And in the spirit of the season, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you! Thank you for reading, and may your next year be filled with good art, good love, and good magic. –AMO
December. I love this time of year, when darkness lingers a bit longer, and cooling clouds visit our blue Arizona skies more often. It’s perfect writing weather.
I’m going to hold off on starting a big new writing project, though. I didn’t do NaNoWriMo this year, but I did reach a milestone with my writing, and actually finished my book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and it’s a readable story. It’s really not bad at all, and I’m still a little giddy over it.
But, there is this gap. I wasn’t prepared for the gap, but I’m sure more experienced writers understand: Just because I am finished, doesn’t mean I’m done. There is more editing to do, even yet. Surely more writing to do. Plus, the book plan, the query letters, all that. I’ve still got more work to do to get this book out into the world.
So this month, I’m working in the gap. Finishing up this project. Thinking about what is next.
What I’ve noticed while focused on this project, is that the farther along I got, the more my other writing really suffered. I haven’t really kept a journal all year, and my idea notebooks have gathered dust. It makes me feel disconnected from myself, like waking up from a good dream a little confused. Where am I? Who am I? What is it I need to do? Well, here it is, December 1st. It’s a perfect month for this gap work.
I’m reviewing this past year, and making plans for the new one. I’m pulling all my old notebooks and scraps of paper to mine them for ideas, inspiration, texture. My Evernote account needs attention, too. As a writer, I always think of myself as lost in the forest, leaving myself breadcrumbs and clues for later ideas. So, it’s time to find some of those breadcrumbs and digest them. I left them for direction and for nourishment, after all.
I’ll look at the calendar and think about next year. When are the kids out of school? When can I get the writing done? What stories are in queue and need to be told? Should I try to write a few short stories before starting on my next book? What do I really want, as a person, and as a writer, for 2018? What new habits should I start? What old habits can I give away?
This is gap work.
It’s December, now. Time for rest, for family, for celebration. There are rhythms and seasons to life and to writing. If you’ve had a busy writing year, or are coming off of NaNoWriMo or any other big project – find yourself some gap time. Finish up the project, reflect, rest, recalibrate. We need the gap for good mental hygiene. To let our minds air out and breathe, to get our writer brains excited about a story again. Sometimes we don’t realize the mental stress we place on ourselves as writers, or how the book or story consumes our entire internal landscape.
Let it go for a while and focus on the gap work. Breathe. The New Year approaches.
Let’s be ready.
I’ve had the idea for writing this memoir for a long damn time – it’s been germinating since 1992. 11 years later, after hearing part of my story, a professor of mine expressed interest in the material. I was just starting my career as a librarian – writing a book seemed insurmountable. But it kept tickling my brain, bugging me. I wrote down ideas and snippets and tucked them away.
Then came the job promotion, lots of hours, two beautiful babies in three years, and stress, stress, stress. It was all sweet madness. In 2011, I demoted myself and cut my hours to part-time. I had some room to breathe, I could enjoy my children, and I could finally think straight for the first time in many years. I’ve always wanted to write. Not just in journals, or for school – but to write books for people. I’ve never been confident about any of it. Crippling self doubt. Anxiety. I don’t want to flaunt myself. But – I think I’ve got a few good stories in me. I’ve spent my life surrounded by books. Now I wanted to write one. Maybe even a few.
So, I said screw it. No regrets. I know I would regret not trying to write this memoir.
So, in 2012, I started. I jotted down ideas, a timeline. I found articles, did research to clarify things. I opened an Evernote account and started tagging and stashing everything there. I could work on it anywhere with an internet connection.
In 2013, I contacted and reached out to a few people and ran the idea of the book past them. All were supportive and answered questions. I kept writing down bits and pieces. I flailed around trying to find a narrative, a point to the story. It is a story about transformation, but it’s cloaked in a rock n’ roll memoir. I couldn’t get past the retelling of facts to find the deeper theme – so this was a year filled with really awful writing. A lot of it was “and then…and then…” I felt like I was writing with a stutter, my brain could not find flow between the pieces.
In 2014, I continued the same way. I started to despair a bit. That summer, I went on a family vacation to a beautiful lake house, and I finally had time to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. That book gutted me wide open. I understood my story in a way that hadn’t been evident before. I began to feel desperate. How am I going to write my book? I needed help, and I HATE ASKING FOR HELP. But, In October, I searched around and found a writing coach.
A writing coach You say? Yes. Here is why: I am introverted, and I am intuitive. I am not the type of person to spend my time driving all over the city to find a writing group to share my work with. I’m not looking for validation or encouragement from a group of strangers. And, honestly, I didn’t want to reciprocate. I didn’t want to spend my brain on their work. I wanted my brain for MY work. I just needed ONE PERSON to talk to, and I found her. She’s a writer, a fellow intuitive introvert. All my anxiety came pouring out. I talked to her every few months. She read my work. She gave feedback, advice, permission to write in a way that didn’t make me feel guilty for not following all the traditional writing “rules.”
In 2015, I had skeleton for the book. I found a graphic of a traditional story arc, and I plotted out the rough progression of my book. I sketched a beginning, a middle and an end. I had a framework. I started to think about theme. What did each of these events mean? What was I there to learn? My coach helped me flesh some of this out. She saw things in my writing that I hadn’t even considered.
In 2016, I started to understand how I needed to turn my sketches into actual scenes. Scenes with dialog, scenes that moved the reader forward. I studied storytelling, story structure, screenwriting, and read a couple of other memoirs. By now I had a long list of writing “gurus” who I followed.
In 2016, I was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Once I realized that the next year of my life would be spent on disability and away from work – I vowed to keep going on the book. Dealing with chemo and radiation and all the side effects from treatment – some days the only thing I could do was prop myself up in bed and poke away at the book. I kept poking. Every. Single. Day. I kept talking to my writing coach, kept stitching the book together, and I learned how to write transitions.
So – despite all that or maybe because of it, in late 2017, I have a solid first draft. Three years after hiring a writing coach. Five years after starting the book. It still needs a lot of editing, but I submitted to a memoir contest, and having that deadline really helped. While I wait to hear about the contest, the draft is out to beta-readers for feedback. I’ve also shared with people who appear in the book. I want to make sure those folks are aware of what I’ve written.
I’ll give it one good edit based on what I’m hearing, and I’ll start a book plan so I can find an agent. I suspect that there will be even more tweaking to come. I’m OK with that. It’s part of the process. I want to serve the story.
Writing books takes time, and I have a feeling the first one is always the hardest. Especially memoir, which requires a deep dive into yourself and your emotions. But once you put enough time into it – you realize you can’t avoid it. You can’t abandon it. So you do the work. To some writers, five years is pretty quick. Many of my favorite writers have been on a three- or five-year cycle. Honestly, it seems about average. I’m totally OK with that. I’m happy to be an average writer. I’m writing!
And don’t forget, you teach yourself how to write a book. Take as many classes and seminars and workshops as you want, but when it comes down to it, you have to teach yourself. You might go fast, you might go slow. Success may be incremental or not at all. But the only way to fail at writing a book is to quit.
So that is how I have a good first draft after five short years. With a bit more polish and some good editing, it will be publishable soon. And there! I’ve written a book. OMG. Something I’ve thought about for more than TWO DECADES! It’s finally off my bucket list. Only because I didn’t quit, and I asked for help. I kept showing up to the book, and she has finally manifested.
Five years. I’m almost done with her. Almost. Can’t wait to start the next one.
I don’t even know where to begin. The last time I posted to this blog was June. JUNE! It’s easy to beat myself up for it, because according to every writing rule I’ve read, I should be doing a bunch of stuff to further my writing career. Blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, e-mail lists, etc.
That’s all good and well, and they are probably right. In an ideal world, I would be the kind of person who wakes up each day and and dutifully executes all of the tasks outlined with precision, marking off my tasks joyfully, with coordinating color markers in my perfectly-decorated bullet journal. I would happily engage in all these activities and I would know. I would magically know what to do with every minute of my day. I’d have plans and next steps and mission statements and focus.
But that is not me, and I am living a real hot and messy life. I tried to be that person, and I about lost my mind with the stress of it. I am an intuitive introvert. I walk the line between worlds, between logic and gut. I can only do what I can do. The older I get, the more I go with the flow – I have to intuit the next steps and do what is right for me, for my family, and for this particular book. The only thing that felt right was to hyper-focus and actually finish my book. I needed to let go of the guilt of not building my platform fast enough. I had to let go of my own expectations about the process and double down on just getting the book done. Blogging was a distraction to the primary goal: A finished, complete book.
So, I let go, and focused. I finished writing my memoir at the end of September. I edited through October, and got it done in time to get it ready for submission to a contest. My first contest! I still think there is a lot more editing to do, but it was good enough to submit. It’s also good enough to start engaging with my beta-readers. Last week, I started sharing it. Three of my beta readers are people I know only through social media. Because it’s a memoir, I also want to give the people who appear in the book a chance to read their parts, including a few well-known artists.
Needless to say, I’ve been experiencing waves of terror in my belly, and then waves of deep, juicy satisfaction. I don’t know if I believe in the writing, I’m not sure it’s great, or even really good. But, I absolutely believe in my story. The writing might be choppy, but the story is good.
So there will be more editing and tweaking to come, I’m sure. Just because I was done, does not mean I am done. I want it to be the best book possible, and that comes from getting feedback. From the contest, from my beta’s, and from people I know.
I’m starting my book plan this week, and hope to include some of that feedback in it. I’m realizing that a book plan is almost like another book, itself. It needs to be researched and drafted, and well-written. It is a marketing document, and it is important. I want to find an agent that believes in my story as much as I do.
So, while going through the last stages of finishing this book, I couldn’t even think about blogging. My whole mind was consumed by the book. It felt absolutely counter-intuitive to focus on something else. I consider Instagram my primary blog, and I post, @metalheadlibrarian a few times a week. I also created a Facebook page: Adventures of a Metalhead Librarian. And while promoting this book is a fine use of these tools, more than anything, I want to connect with other writers.
If you find your way to me and want to say hello – drop a line or connect with me on social media. I’d love to connect with you, especially before I start my next book.
I’m supposed to start rewriting, today.
I gave myself a couple of weeks to read through my draft and make notes and edits and sit with the work, convinced that I’d have a clear map and a new understanding of where this book was going. I’ve had moments and flashes of terrific inspiration and insight, there is no doubt. Moments of excitement and stubborn fortitude, almost convinced that I can do it.
I CAN do it.
I don’t know where to start.
I don’t get a nifty little instruction guide when I Google: “How to start rewriting your book.”
I wrote this blog post, to get me warmed up. Maybe it’ll help.
I also have two kids in the house on summer break driving me a little nuts, a veterinarian appointment for the dog, a skimpy fridge, two loads of laundry to fold still, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner to think about for all of us. And my floors are dirty.
I hate dirty floors.
But not as much as I hate having an unfinished story. That bugs me to no end.
Wouldn’t it be terrible if someday this was said about me: she couldn’t finish her book, but damn it, her floors were clean?
I’d die of regret. I really would.
This isn’t rocket science, for sure. It’s not as simple as just “hiring someone” to clean floors. That might help in the short term, but becoming a writer isn’t about quick fixes. It’s about establishing habits and routines that get the books written.
I’m still tweaking. There is no instruction manual on how to do this, so I’ll have to write my own. I want a clean house, a happy and healthy family, and a finished book. I want it all.
I may not be a rocket scientist, but I am a fine juggler, keeping all of the balls in the air. Most days I do pretty good. Some days, the book project falls just out of my grasp.
Then again, some days, my kids eat crap and the floors stay dirty and the words get written.
I guess it’s about priorities, and choices.
June 1st. Today is the day. Time to call the cleaning lady. Time to call Grandma for an overnight for the kids.
Time to start my rewrite.
Chris Cornell died yesterday and it’s had me all kinds of thinking. It’s rare that I am ambivalent about an artists death. Especially an artist like Chris Cornell, who helped define a whole generation of music. I think about all the creative work he had yet to do, and what his music meant to me.
It hurts me to my core that he was walking around in such pain. I really can’t even imagine it. I’ve walked down dark, dangerous paths before, but I’ve never stayed there for long. I found may way back.
I wish he had found his way, too.
It makes me feel a little guilty, actually. From his places of pain came so much damn great music. Maybe I appreciate it a little more if I know the artist had suffered to create it. I read an interview with him not long ago where he talked about his deep introversion and his fears of performing. I could totally relate to that. It made me appreciate him even more, that despite these things, he created anyways.
It seems that the same spark that ignites a creative life can also burn the artist. We are the “feelers” in the world. We feel deeply, struggle, create, share, and try to connect with others. It is both a gift, and a burden at times, no?
His death also spotlights what I already know: We are getting old, my generation. Generation X. Children of the 60’s and 70’s – we are getting our first AARP cards and dealing with all the realities of middle age: raising small children, teenagers, grandchildren, helping our aging parents, dealing with our health issues, our career demands. I think our creativity has suffered.
We think we are still young and that we’ll have the energy someday. But crazy hormones and creaky joints and gallbladder issues are upon us right now. Heck, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44. It made me even more determined to tell my story and write this book.
Generation X. We are the last generation born into an analog world. We had the last good childhoods, I believe. We were free-range and rebellious and we had experiences we need to talk about. We are adults now. We can handle the painful truths. It’s OK to share these things.
We haven’t much time, my friends. The years are accelerating, and we are dying out. We are a small generation to begin with, sandwiched between the Boomers and the Millennials.
I implore you: Start writing, start that art project, start the band, start talking and sharing. Start your dreams RIGHT NOW. It is imperative that we leave our legacy, our culture, our stories for the future.
There is no someday. There are no guarantees of tomorrow. If you have a burning desire to create, you must start right now.
There is no more time.
I am a loner. I like being alone. The lonely road is curvy and hilly and very bumpy. There are days I feel like I have on no shoes, and the map is completely wonky. I look around and see no one.
We all toil alone. Ultimately, it is just the writer and the draft. The writer putting in the time while the story reveals itself, both in the writers’ mind, and on the page.
Right now for me, the draft on the page is not meshing with the story in my mind. As I read through the work so far, I find that something isn’t quite right. When things aren’t right, I freeze up. Why write more words when the whole draft needs torn apart and rewritten?
Also, I made a mistake this week, I think. I shared my work with someone whose work I respect and admire. When they offered to read and help – I jumped. Probably too soon. WAY TOO SOON. After a lovely exchange of messages and despite my best instincts, I sent a chapter. It’s been a week now, and I haven’t heard anything. I’m in agony, thinking I’ve blown this opportunity. Was my writing so hideously sophomoric? Did I offend in some way? Have I made a complete fool of myself? How did I not see that big typo before I sent it off?
Those questions sit heavy upon me as I look at this mess of a draft. It all kind of makes me want to cry. It’s a despair of the soul, realizing how much fucking work I have left to do before I can call this a book. And realizing: asking for help is hard. Sharing work is scary at first.
I have a strong spine, but thin skin. We are our own worst critics. I just need to be patient. With myself and everyone I meet along the way.
While I don’t mind being alone on the road, this section of the road is absolutely desolate. The offer of help was a mirage. There is no relief. No water. No shady spot to sit and rest.
So, I have to keep walking. This road will lead me to somewhere.
What is funny is that last week, I was pretty sure I was 80% done and close to being finished. This week – it’s the exact opposite. I’m 20% done. Nowhere close to being finished.
This is the lonely road. I can’t talk about it with ‘normal’ people. My husband just looks at me like – how hard can it be? Write the stupid book! (At least I have a spouse that supports the general idea of me being a writer and understands my need for solitude. But nitty-gritty details and general bitching? His eyes glaze over.)
My book needs a complete structural edit. After staring at it for a couple of days, I opened a new document and started cutting and pasting, just for fun. I moved Chapter 5 to the beginning. The first four chapters will now be used as narrative and flashback. I’ve got to learn to write all the transitions. Everything is tied together in my mind, but now I need to tie it together for the reader.
I could be three weeks away from being finished, or three years. Who the hell knows? I’m not sure I’m built for that kind of stamina, and I’m tired.
I’ll keep walking. Slowly, carefully, with purpose. It doesn’t matter if I ever hear from that other writer. It doesn’t matter one bit.
It hurts, but it doesn’t matter.
All I know is that I’m not at liberty to stop writing this book.
And if I see you on the road, wobbling and tired, I will offer you my hand in friendship and tell you:
How to Avoid Your Book
(or…how to deal with paralyzing fear and get your writing done anyways)
All right, so I’ve felt a little stalled this week. The book is coming along, but the writing is slow.
And I wrote about 2k words total this week. Not much. Not enough. But it was some.
I’m calling it progress.