TFW your whole life changes-- AKA The Writing Excuses Retreat 2017

Aug 9, 2017

So a big thing happened back in April. I knew it was a big thing, but I don't think I ever fully comprehended exactly how life-changing it would be. That thing was: I won a scholarship to the Writing Excuses Retreat. On a cruise ship. On the Baltic Sea in Europe. When I got the call, I was shaking and giggling and trying to sound professional and excited and coherent and grateful all at the same time. Which is hard, by the way. I'd never been to Europe-- I didn't think I'd ever be able to get to Europe--and the opportunity to spend a week on a cruise ship with fellow writers and mind-blowing instructors was beyond my wildest dreams. But as of this past Sunday, I'm officially home from the 10-day retreat, and it was so much more than even those wildest dreams promised. I'm feeling so much gratitude for the scholarship that gave me this life-changing and writing-changing experience. I was only able to do this through the extreme generosity of others, and the love and support of my family. I'm pretty sure it's not just the exhaustion making me emotional. I'm finally on the up-side of jet lag recovery, so I went for my morning walk today. Two miles felt paltry compared to the mileage I've been racking up in Europe. I spent most of the walk reliving parts of the entire retreat and trying to pull together coherent thoughts on how it changed my life. It's rather difficult to sum up the entirety of such an experience. But I came up with these. With the help of the generous and loving instructor Emma Newman, I was finally able to name the main underlying fear holding me back in my writing. And with a wonderful one-on-one talk with her, not only is it named, but I have the tools to face it. Thanks to the inspiring and electrifying instructor Jasper Fforde, I am opening my eyes to the world, and am more acutely aware of the things that inspire me-- and learning to be brave enough to express those things in my writing. From down-to-earth and optimistic instructor Thomas Olde Heuvolt, I gained the tools I need to organize my writing goals to achieve what I want, so I don't feel like I'm flailing around life, just trying to squeeze the writing time in. I had the relief of feeling free to express myself to my fellow retreat-goers, and to bond with new friends more quickly than I'd have expected. We all shared so many similarities, and at the same time, were all respectful of each other's differences. It was a safe, encouraging, open space. After over-doing it the first shore day in Copenhagen and having to rely on my cane for support every day thereafter, I was able to overcome the resentment and embarrassment I didn't even realize I held whenever I used it. Instead, I was grateful to have a tool that enabled me to keep enjoying my experience. I had the pleasure and eye-opening experience of exploring parts of the world I honestly never thought I'd be able to get to. I enjoyed new foods, stood in awe of ancient and not-quite-ancient architecture, experienced the values of another group of human beings, and felt the deepest artistic euphoria of my life in the face of original masterpieces of many kinds. After all this and so much more I'm still trying to process, I feel...freed. I feel open-- to the world, to myself, and to letting my words spill onto the page without reserve again. I am encouraged, eager, and determined. I have new tools at my disposal for writing thanks to instructors like Aliette de Bodard, Wes Chu, and Ken Liu. As I left the cruise, I fancy I heard the triumphant "Ding!" I get when one of my World of Warcraft characters levels up. As the instructors told us, that means writing is likely going to be a bit harder for a while. And I relish the thought.

Part of the main atrium area on the cruise ship

I got to tour Rosenborg Castle in Denmark-- my first European castle

Fan-girling Hans Christian Anderson. His response? "Girl, please."

The royal crown of Denmark

The original Thorvaldsen statue of Christ in Copenhagen cathedral-- something familiar to me, as there are copies in LDS vistor's centers around the world. 

The red house in Nyhavn district of Copenhagen is where Hans Christian Anderson wrote many of his fairy tales.

In Stockholm, I visited the outdoor museum of Skansen. Chock-full of history and beauty.

A farmstead shipped in from Mora-- the village where my Swedish ancestors lived. 

Sweden was awe-inspiring with her beauty.

The ceiling mirror reflecting my writerly genius during a guided writing exercise on the ship.

The ancient Town Hall in Tallinn, Estonia, which I got to tour. It also has a lovely tavern restaurant in it, where I had lunch.

Tallinn was absolutely charming.

The view from the oldest working apothecary in Europe-- since the 1400s-- in Tallinn.

The MSC Fantasia, where writing fantasies come true.

Ceiling of the Church on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia

Exterior of the Church on Spilled Blood.

Grand staircase inside the Winter Palace, which houses the astounding Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

That is a Da Vinci. The gorgeous Litta Madonna. It was so astounding in the original that it brought tears to my eyes. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Michaelangelo's unfinished Crouching Boy. I both cried and giggled in hysteria at this one. You can still see CHISEL MARKS on him, made by the hand of the artist himself. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

The passionate and evocative Kiss of Cupid and Psyche by Antonio Canova. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Detail of Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son. You can see BRUSHSTROKES. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Jasper Fforde sharing his brilliance with us.

I never tired of sitting on my balcony and watching the Baltic Sea.

The Geistkampfer-- Ghost Fighter-- outside the Church of St. Nikolai, Kiel, Germany.

We found a geek store around the corner from the hotel in Kiel, and descended on it en masse.

The Truth of the Matter: The Give and Take of Writing as a Job

Jan 5, 2017

Here's the truth of the matter: I have not written consistently for well over a year.

This doesn't mean I haven't written. I've written whenever I darn well pleased. Which was sometimes every day for weeks. And sometimes once every other month. At first, I felt guilty. Real writers write every day, they say. They write when they don't feel like it. They don't wait for the muse, they just put the butt in the chair and go, every day, because it's a job.

I call bull****.

Because here's another truth. Yes, if you want to be published-- if you are published-- treating writing like a job is necessary. I'm not going to say you shouldn't follow this advice. I'm saying I shouldn't have followed this advice, at least not to the letter of the law.

While writing my last book, I was dealing with some pretty heavy stuff-- some very serious anxiety and depression. I was still learning to live a new life with an auto-immune disorder diagnosis. I had two kids and a husband in school and working, who was also struggling with depression. I was doing school visits and library visits and conferences to promote my first book.

But I had to get that book written. I HAD TO. It was required of me, I was a professional now, I had to put my butt in the chair. You may have heard me talk about writing that book-- honestly, it was torture. I truly hated writing that book (though I did love the story in the end).

Which may be, in the end, at least one reason why that book didn't sell. (There are many reasons, the same as why thousands of books don't sell to publishers.) It was missing something, and my agent and I both agreed after a year or so on sub that it was time to retire it. I realized later the most important thing missing from that book: heart. Passion. Me.

I was fine that that book didn't sell. Truly. But it also broke me. Not the lack of a sale, but that book itself. I was so burned out on words that I couldn't even read, let alone write, for months. Then I tinkered with a few stories again, starting with a new direction in my writing. I didn't stick with anything. I just tinkered. I played if I wanted to with one story or another, and very, very often I wanted to do everything and anything else. Even when I picked my "next book" and started focusing on it, it couldn't really be called "focus." But I have a desperate need to be creative, and my creative energy got redirected.

I bought a sewing machine and started making my own clothes-- and I loved it. Probably half of what I wear now is made by me. I made a funky dress with planets and stars on it. I made leggings with elephants on them. I made some flowery shirts. I made a purse with a dragon on it. I can express myself in a new way, and it fills me.

I took a calligraphy class. I learned to write letters in different ways, pretty ways. I started mailing handwritten letters to people, telling them what they mean to mean in simple words I can make beautiful by their form. I wrote my children poems on beautiful paper and hung them in their rooms. I can be artistic with a pen in a very visual way, and it fills me.

I had a baby. I had her with no pain medication, because I wanted to be fully present in the final moments of bringing her into the world. It was a moving experience that truly brought home to me the awe and power of creating that most incredible of things-- a human being. She is joyful and into everything and shrieks with delight if her siblings so much as make farting noises at her, and after ten months is finally starting to nap with semi-certainty. I watch her working to create herself in this world I brought her into, and it fills me.

After many, many, many months of this, I woke up one morning, sat down at my computer, and poured out 2,000 words on that "next book." And I was excited about them. I loved writing them. I couldn't wait to write more. Suddenly, I was back, I was writer-Shallee again, eager to pour out words, anxious to tell a story, dreaming up scenes while doing the dishes.

Because here's the truth of the matter: I had let writing drain me, rather than fill me. And it drained me so thoroughly, I had to find other ways to fill me back up and make me human again. Now that I'm full, writing is giving back to me again, and so I'm overflowing.

Whether you're an old pro, a new pro, wanting to be a pro, or anything else, don't let the writing drain you. (I'm talking about the writing, here-- publishing is a whoooooole 'nother story that doesn't give back nearly as much as you'd think it does.) There are times when you have to write every day, maybe even all day, no matter what, for the business end of things. Maybe that's now. There are people who thrive on treating writing like a 9 to 5 job every day for the rest of their life. Maybe that's you. That's great. But if your way of treating it like a job is to write once a week for six hours, once a day for half an hour, or anything else, that's great too. Plan it out. Know what you need and how you function as a writer, know what the job requires of you, and make a plan that fits you and still gets the work done.

The great thing about writing as a job is that it's flexible-- whatever works for you, however you get your words on paper consistently, that's how you treat it like a job. So some days I'm writing 2k+ words. Some days I'm squeezing in 600 because it's all I can manage while the baby screams and tugs my pants because she's a napless demon that day. I am actually writing every day (or almost) right now, because I'm so excited about this story. But I've decided I will never let writing take so much from me again. That's not the kind of career I want, and it's not the kind of stories I want to share.

Writing isn't a typical day job, even if you make it your day job. That's what makes it wonderful and frustrating. It's a completely individual thing, and you will find your completely individual way of doing it. As you figure that out-- or maybe you're far ahead of me and had this figured out long ago--don't lose yourself to it. Whether it be entertainment, peace, questions, challenges, or any number of other things, stories should always give something to people.

Including you.

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