Potential triggers: mortality, mental health, anxiety; also includes vulgarity
This is the fifth time I’ve tried to write my inaugural blog post. The others made me want to claw my eyes out, so I’m trying something different. I reserve the right to delete this in a rage later.
The acknowledgment of our limits is meant to be not morbid, but invitational. We don’t have the time or capacity to do everything, but we’re here and aware, so what are we going to do?Robyn D. Walser, Ph.D
Dr. Robyn Walser, one of the world’s leading experts in acceptance-based therapy, led me and my colleagues on an exercise the other week. We were to take a piece of paper, turn it landscape, and draw a long, double-headed horizontal arrow through the middle. Then to write “Birth” under the left, “Death” under the right, and mark an X approximately where we believed were in our lifespan based on the available knowledge. I drew a diagram like this one and was filled with terror as Dr. Walser acknowledged that some of us would be closer to “Birth,” others closer to “Death,” and the space between, say, 35 and 65 goes fast.
Mine looked something like this:
I imagine ain’t nobody opened this blog post in hopes of getting philosophical, but like I said, I won’t finish this if I bore myself to tears. Besides, my day job in mental health has led me to believe there’s no practical action without agenda, and no agenda is agnostic of philosophy. This concept is hopefully both tangible and straightforward: finitude. noun. FORMAL. the state of having limits or bounds. The acknowledgment of our limits is meant to be not morbid, but invitational. We don’t have the time or capacity to do everything, but we’re here and aware, so what are we going to do?
Dr. Walser emphasized that choosing to spend that time pursuing only one thing (e.g., what we’re certain will turn out well, what we’re sure we already like) is a formula for regret. In her words: “sample the whole menu.”
So here we are. Writing. One of the industries and occupations with the most uncertainty, the least guarantee, the lowest probability of commercial success, leaning hard into uncertainty and paradoxes of love/hate activity. I’m not joking when I say Dr. Walser’s exercise filled me with terror; my heart quickens with the memory of it; my muscles tensed when I recreated the diagram for this blog post. But I make the choice to write fairly regularly. Behind talking to loved ones, seeing my clients for mental health treatments, sleeping and pooping, writing is a regular draw on my time and energy.
This blog post is about my journey as a writer so far, the equivalent of the space before the X in my writing journey. Disclaimer: this is my experience only! I’ve tried to phrase for subjectivity, but any recommendations I make must be taken with a metric ton of salt.
- Knowing why I write,
- Actually writing,
- Finding my PEOPLE (FROM Meetups to AMM), and
- Setting and resetting boundaries
I. KNOWING WHY I WRITE
This doesn’t seem important to most guides and advice websites, but I found that my ability to get the words down took off after I had clarity on why I write. Most writers who get to the point of publication seem to have such self-knowledge, from the literary themes they choose to explore to the strategies they use to maintain creative output. The answer need not be elaborately philosophical, but it is usually somewhat philosophical. This understanding can be the lighthouse in the storm.
Most writers seem to a) derive a lot of pleasure from the process of writing itself, but also get b) caught up in the pain of goal-orientation– wanting to get an agent, then published, to be commercially successful, etc. “Why not both?” you ask. Yes, and I’m more a fan of dialectics, the idea that opposites can be simultaneously true. For me, it’s easier to cope with the stress and struggle, when I acknowledge the absolute contradiction of process vs outcome. So: I do not care about the destination (getting published) at all, and it’s simultaneously all I care about. I love writing for writing’s sake and would do it forever with no hope of payoff, and also, I hate it and wouldn’t be doing it if I had no process of publication to pursue.
Dialectic. Self-contradictory. It’s ridiculous!
But there are lots of other “reasons” I write. I write for a friend of mine who passed away early. I write to avoid the silly, superficial regret of having a fun idea that I later forget. I write because I like way some words taste, and because I have sometimes received compliments for my prose. I also write because I just want to try something new, different to what I’ve written already.
Not to get all therapisty on you, but I’ve found that identifying values is as helpful as knowing your goals. If goals are “what you want to achieve,” then values are “how you want to be as you work on them.” Self-compassion and diligence are values; getting traditionally published is a goal. Mine include adventure and honesty.
Like everybody else on the Internet, I’ll warn you against choosing “instant-hit commercial pragmatism” as your primary motivator. I am a whole novice, but even I know scribbling fiction is not a statistically probable way to make cash money. But one’s reasons can change!
II. ACTUALLY (FUCKING) WRITING
I would like to say something brilliant about this, but ultimately, writers are either writing or not writing. I spend lots of time in both states of being.
When I look back on times of peak writing productivity, NaNoWriMo was indispensable but stressful. I hauled my ass through the middle 40% of EX STACY in November 2019! I’ve heard 1000 Days Of Summer can serve a similar function (I’ve yet to try it). I recommend giving such things a shot, even if you might need to lower the bar of entry (e.g., 25,000 words a month instead of 50).
But personally, the most energizing resource has always been other people (see III).
III. FINDING MY PEOPLE (MEETUPS TO AMM)
Out there, some man is an island. He’s probably schizoid. But he’s not most of us! Language is connective, books depend on language; community can be both practically and emotionally necessary.
I found “my people” through multiple groups. Personally, one of my biggest needs was accountability. However, I’m not particularly prone to feelings of shame or embarrassment; I believe other people might benefit more from “building habits,” “advice,” and “positive reinforcement” when it comes to socializing with other writers.
In chronological order, the most helpful people resources for me were:
Meetups (more than one): Getting started with writing regularly in ~2017, Shut Up And Write Meetups were a fantastic subculture. In November 2018, I joined Matt Casamassina’s Scifi/Fantasy Writers group, which he’s blogged about extensively. At the SFFW group, I actually had to read my work aloud and receive feedback– an experience that isn’t for everybody (read: MORTAL TERROR at first). I wound up sharing first draft chunks as short as 300 (yep) words, week by week, until I completed my first sci-fi manuscript, EX STACY, two and a half years later. My first MS absolutely would not have happened without this Meetup. The piecemeal nature of this feedback group was far less helpful for vetting story-arcs and overall plot structure, but for me personally, the accountability– and even feedback, at first draft stage— were gold. (It’s worth noting I’ve always been incredibly lucky with critique and beta-readers.) (I love my group members so much! I’d make a “Which of Victoria’s beta/critique readers are you?” personality quiz but no one would get it.)
Writing Retreats: Through Matt’s Meetup, I learned of the NorCal Writer’s Retreat with the inimitable Heather Lazare. I applied. I did not get in! (Unsurprising, when I look back on that first draft sample of EX STACY and cringe.) But I was waitlisted, and got in when a winner withdrew.
In March 2020, the pandemic interrupted the physical venture into the redwoods, but the retreat went virtual. I workshopped my manuscript further and learn about the publication process (including the variety of literary agent styles, and the way that publishing has evolved over the years, including major house mergers, systemic issues). I also made yet more friends and went on to yet more meetings.
Social Media: After I finished my first manuscript, I joined Twitter. YMMV on Twitter. I’ve never gone viral, but I’ve adopted the common policy of simply following back other writers, and using the hashtags (#writingcommunity, #amwritingscifi, #amwritingfantasy) to occasionally vent or remark on the work. These little experiences alone have proved valuable. Not only have I learned about agents, the whisper networks, and discourse (which I prefer to keep peripheral), but I’ve also made met incredibly helpful and impressive people, including authors willing to share their agent experiences and the turmoil of being on sub over private DMs.
Plus, there’s always a chance one of your favorite celebrities/writers will look at you for two seconds on the Internet, your heart falls out of your ass, it’s an amazing way to die, etc.
Twitter aside, the Manuscript Academy offers both free and paid services, as well as having a robust Facebook community. Their archived Q&As and videos are super helpful, even for a chronic lurker. I paid for a consultation with Kiana Nguyen, who provided incredible feedback on how to rewrite EX STACY’s first chapter, which subsequently led to AMM.
Mentorship Contests: Through a combination of Googleable resources (JANE FRIEDMAN) and the damnable bird site, I learned of a variety of contests. Because I write conflict-driven genre fiction, my work condensed well into Twitter pitches and I got a handful of agent “like”s from #PitMad and #DVpit before I’d cold-queried more than five agents. This was by no means a flood of interest, but nonetheless, exciting, and some indication my hook was strong.
Then in September 2020, I took a swing at Pitch Wars, perhaps the first, apparently the most popular “mentorship contest,” in which you submit a sample of a completed manuscript so an agented author will take you on as a “mentee,” and revise your work with you. I didn’t get into PW, but I did get one full request and several pieces of feedback (about everything from my voice to my hook, even my working title), which was heartening. As is often detailed by more capable bloggers elsewhere, publication is a glacial process, and celebrating small events is necessary (even if you do it privately).
In February 2021 came Round 8 (R8) of Author Mentor Match. The atmosphere in #ammwaiting was bright. I received a full request and then the offer. My brain exploded! I phased into a liminal Twilight dimension of reality, reduced to bio-electricity coursing through a skeleton, and simultaneously re-experienced my entire life-’til-then at once. It was a good day! I’ll blog more about AMM soon. I may still never get published, and I don’t say that to be
morbid fatalistic, but to be invitational– to myself, to you. I’d say these things are worth trying at least once. Put in as much passion as you can afford. Which leads me to…
IV. SETTING AND RESETTING BOUNDARIES
“Set boundaries” is excellent and common advice; I’ve learned it’s as important to reset as needed.
Boundaries may involve other people or oneself, and almost always time management. At various points through my brief but tumultuous process, I took breaks from writing and Twitter. Other times, I went hard at writing, [relatively] hard at social media. I checked QueryTracker every day for a month, then slowed down for two. For a while, I gripped my purse strings, feeling I should not pay for any services at that stage; eventually, I threw dollar bills at a query package review, then quite a bit more at a writing retreat. What felt balanced one week did not feel that way the next. What’s healthy for an entire month or year may not be later. As far as I’m concerned, inconsistency is evidence of adaptation, not incompetence. I’ve DMed a lot of variously published writers, and the only constant seems to be the need to reevaluate.
My AMM mentor, Melissa Work, pointed out that: “History isn’t a circle, it’s a spiral — even once you’ve fully rotated back to the same point as yesteryear, you’re still in a slightly different place; the same old issues are oriented a little differently.” This is a metaphor I’ve found myself falling back on, both on my macro- understanding of the densely political, fucked up world we’re trying to get published in, and on a micro-, individual level.
It’s both optimistic and pessimistic, right? While I was querying and pitching, I received more rejections/passes than interest, as is the norm. Yet the ceiling of what I thought to be the “best version” of my proposal seemed to evolve continuously, as did the ratio of acceptance to rejection. Likewise, my newest writing endeavors have actually gone faster (in terms of WPM, words per week), but neither as smoothly or intuitively as EX STACY. That’s both terrifying but good; it shouldn’t go exactly the same. I’m not the same person, I’m not writing the same content.
Ultimately, I appreciate finitude because it reminds me there’s more to life than writing. There’s no “state of having bounds” without the boundaries.
History isn’t a circle, it’s a spiral — even once you’ve fully rotated back to the same point as yesteryear, you’re still in a slightly different place; the same old issues are oriented a little differently.Melissa R. Work
Knowing my limits allowed me to “forgive myself” for not writing on some days; at other times, there’s nothing to forgive, and I sincerely like myself better as a person for choosing to focus on cooking or sleeping instead of scribbling my book(s). Because of finitude, I’ve taken on goals that seemed impossible (on first pass, NaNoWriMo and ADHD don’t mix well). And thanks to experiments with finitude, I can safely say that a little bit (little bit) of mortal terror never killed me; a little proof of resiliency goes a long way.
That’s it for the inaugural post! GOOD-BYE, SWEET INTERNET.
I hope you know and love your limits, and get everything you can out of being at X.
6/15/2021: Edited post to replace “fing” with the full curse word to reduce confusion, and replaced the word “tribe” as it is offensive.