Looking Back on 2019 & Ahead to 2020

I wrapped up finals last week and, surprisingly to anyone who knows me and even to myself, I’m doing better at finding time to breathe amidst the chaotic holiday rush. And with the end of the calendar year comes a retrospective wrap-up at the rollercoaster ride that was my personal 2019.

In all honesty, it was probably one of the most important years of my life. I cried a lot. I also loved a lot. I learned about myself in ways that were sometimes painful, but always profound.

I graduated college, presented at a national conference (and I’m working towards a reappearance at the 2020 event), and got my first publication that wasn’t through a lit mag at my school. Thanks to amazing organizations like The Lit Exhibit and She Will Speak, I got my poetry in front of new audiences I never would’ve found on my own. I joined One Love as a writer and survived my first semester of graduate school (which also involved a lot of writing, but also a lot of staring at SPSS).

(Head on over to Boston Hassle to read about my Top 5 DIY Moments of 2019 that inspired me to keep creating even when life doesn’t make it easy or profitable).

In the gap between my graduation and starting grad school this fall, I took my identity as a writer more seriously. I worked at building my social media presence, including this blog, my Twitter, and Instagram, to connect with the writing community. I took more creative risks and let it transform my relationships with friends, family, and other writers.

In book news, a totally new idea took over during the second half of this year. I started drafting it in October and I’m hoping to have a vaguely book-shaped thing by midnight on January 1.

I’m also excited to share that my personal essay, heavily based on a talk I gave at a retreat back in April, will be printed in this book, available now. If you’re looking for a book full of Christian witness for the holidays, this is it!

Thanks for being a part of my journey this year. I’m going to take a break from this blog over the next few weeks to really be present with my friends and family, so enjoy your holidays and I’ll see you in 2020!

What We Learn About Relationships From Pop Culture

For the past couple of months, I’ve been writing for the One Love Foundation, which seeks to empower young people to recognize the signs of unhealthy dating relationships. I love contributing to their mission with each short post.

I’m super interested in the messages we (everyone, but especially teens) get from movies, TV shows, music, and books about what is acceptable and healthy in relationships, especially when they might just be first starting to date.

Next week, I’ll be presenting to my fellow One Love writers about this same topic, so I’m researching some of our favorite or most prominent fictional couples who may not be as romantic as we think. Think of Edward watching Bella as she sleeps. Noah dangling off the Ferris wheel until Allie agrees to go out with him. The Beast trapping Belle in the castle. Ariel giving up her voice for a man.

And I love “Paper Rings” as much as the next girl, but was anyone else creeped out by Taylor Swift’s lyric “now I wake up in the night and watch you breathe”?

So, after I reflected on these as well as the relationships in my own stories, I thought: if these depictions are so bad, why is our culture still celebrating them? Does recognizing that a given behavior is unhealthy automatically deem the show/movie/book containing it #canceled?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Right up there with the idea that everyone deserves to be loved and respected, I believe that we’re all imperfect, fallen people. In any relationship at any given time, someone has done something unhealthy. That’s just how life is. We all make mistakes, but the real measure of who we are is how we learn from them.

So on the one hand, although these shows contain characters (usually males, I might add) doing problematic things, they might also be an honest reflection of human nature. Guys, I’m not saying to go out and watch your girlfriend while she sleeps. That’s weird, and if you don’t live with her I would call the police.

I think there’s a crucial difference between the creators of a show or book or other piece of media having the characters do something and promoting that behavior. Just because two characters who might not be good for each other end up together or married, the creator could be trying to point out how this happens in real life when people feel pressured to stay in unhealthy relationships because they don’t want to be alone.

What’s crucial in my opinion isn’t the specific behavior the show portrays, but rather the conversation it can spark. Giving these negative behaviors a place in our media gives us a massive opportunity to talk about why they’re unhealthy.

And I don’t believe that filmmakers/writers/musicians have a place to come out and say “this is about X/so-and-so does this bad thing, but this is BAD”. Media isn’t the place for moralizing.

It’s on the audience to decide what’s romantic and what’s potentially abusive.

Photo by Philip Goldsberry via Unsplash.

Why Everyone Should Learn to Query

Even indie authors.

If you want to be traditionally published, pouring your heart and soul into a book is only the first step.

If you want the validation that comes with an agent and editor and marketing team behind you, the writing process doesn’t end with folding the feedback of helpful critique partners into a new draft. You wrote the book of your heart, you fawned over how much it reflects your heart, and now it’s time to break it. Both the book, and your little writer’s heart.

How do you do that? By writing a query letter.

Or, as Delilah S. Dawson put it in what is still my favorite trad-publishing blog post of all time, (the self-publishing version is here) you go insane in only one day. You take your precious 80,000-100,000 words and distill their essence into an enticing one-page business letter, perhaps with a bit about yourself, that has a very high chance of sitting in an agent’s inbox, possibly never earning a thanks but no thanks, no matter how objectively good it is.

Many writers, myself included, wonder why the industry is set up this way, why their chance at success and recognition as an author comes down to the whims/schedules/caffeine habits of a few professionals (mainly) in New York. But as subjective as it is, it’s a necessary evil to ensure that publishers take on projects they can passionately and confidently sell to readers. Some authors, frustrated with the layers of gatekeeping that bar them from a place on bookshelves, turn to indie publishing for higher royalty rates, quicker production, and generally more creative control.

But even self-published authors can’t escape the judgments of others. Even if you’re not looking for agents or editors, you still need readers.

I won’t try to prove that one path to publication is ultimately better than the other. That comes down to your personal goals. What I’m going to say is that even if you choose not to query agents and editors, you should still learn how to query.

Selling a book directly to readers operates on much the same principles as attracting an agent. The synopsis paragraphs that go into a query letter are basically the back-cover copy of your book. They introduce your main character and his or her world, set the stakes, and should leave the reader wanting more. That feeling of I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS is what drives agents to request more pages and hopefully offer representation, and it’s the difference between a reader purchasing your book in the store (or, more realistically, smashing that “buy now” button on Amazon), or walking away empty-handed (-carted?). Your agent becomes your biggest cheerleader because of your pages, and your readers can become your fans.

I know, querying is scary. You’re putting yourself out there. It’s the digital, literary equivalent of wiping your sweaty hands on your jeans, walking up to that handsome stranger, and going hey would you want to get dinner sometime? I sent my first-ever query to an agent who never responded, but over a year later, I still haven’t given up. My book simply wasn’t ready, my query wasn’t doing its job, and I had to take that step and feel the sting of a failure in the form of weeks passing without a response in order to accept the many rounds of revisions that would follow.

All querying looks like is sending an email, but it’s an email that could launch your career as an author. Without the support that comes from a publishing team (how much support you get depends on too many factors to cover here and could be a whole other post), I would argue that self-published books have to be even more polished than traditionally-pubbed ones. Unless you hire a freelance editor, you and your critique partners are the only people standing between your book and the world.

No pressure, right?

Perhaps most importantly and most universally, querying also showed me that rejection wasn’t the end of the world. For every request I received, I probably got five rejections. It hurt, of course, but it thickened my skin. Not everyone is going to love or even like your book, just like not everyone is going to like you. But someone out there will, and it’s those people you need to find.

So take a chance. Put yourself out there. It’s the only way you’ll get noticed by the people who are waiting to find you and listen to what you have to say.

But also improve your chances by doing the most you can to attract those people.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash.

Break Before You Burn

You’d think the girl who wrote a guest post on banishing burnout would practice what she preaches. Alas, I’m an imperfect human being prone to contradictions.

Does this post qualify as a Tuesday Tip? I’ll let you decide at the end.

So yes, I still struggle with giving myself breaks. I’ve previously written about how I constantly feel “on”, both as a writer building my publication experience and in all other areas of my life.

In terms of writing, it’s even harder because your online presence becomes part of your brand. Am I posting enough on social media? Am I relevant? Shouldn’t I have a lot more followers by now? I even question what I’m doing with this blog. Why haven’t I written a whole new draft yet (this one hurts even more when I see folks doing Camp NaNoWriMo or working on their sixth book while I’m struggling to find momentum for my second)?

Personally, it’s more like, am I reaching out to my friends enough? What if they move on from me? Where will that leave me? Am I doing enough for my family?

Maybe what I should be asking is, why am I always pressuring myself to be better, when simply being where I am is enough?

For many reasons, on both the individual and societal levels, I’m not alone. Many people my age feel pressured to always perform or improve. It’s the belief that if you don’t push yourself to learn something new or get better at something every minute of every day, you’ll plateau and regress into some useless blob (or maybe a Boohbah). It’s the idea that if you’re not physically and mentally drained at the end of every day, you haven’t done enough.

And that’s simply not true. I’ve known this for a while, but I think this week marks a new beginning in terms of actually practicing going easier on myself.

Last night, instead of forcing myself to tweak my query or work on a new scene in my WIP until my eyes burned and the clock struck midnight, I gave myself time to work on a craft, chat with a friend, take a relaxing shower, and watch a show all while gentle, calming rain drummed on my windowsill. It was kind of perfect.

I didn’t beat myself up this morning (well, not as much as I did before) when I slept in.

Here’s a newsflash: if you’re burnt out, the answer isn’t producing more. It’s taking time to recharge so you do have the energy to tackle your goals.

My friend recommended the book Brave Not Perfect, and I think it’s exactly what I need right now.

Thanks for being authentic with me. Have a lovely rainy Tuesday (if it’s raining where you are), and be kind to yourself.

On Writing vs. Living

As you may recall from my last post (which feels like so long ago), I’ve been trying to be easier on myself. One thing I’ve noticed over the past week or so is that being a Pretentious Writer Artist has really messed with my being a Person.

I’ve been so encouraged to think about how the landscape where I grew up affects my physiology and so pushed to write about my home and my identity that it’s been turning me critical towards the people and places that create that everyday life I’m supposed to be analyzing.

Even I’m sick of writing about the highway that rolls by my house like I’m some angsty female Jack Kerouac or that girl in that Tom Petty song.

Anyway, this revelation got me thinking. I’ve only been flexing my creative nonfiction-writing muscles for about a year. In that time, I’ve definitely felt as though I’ve had to distance myself from myself. I’ve had to pull back and see how various experiences fit into the narrative I want to tell. And this has been insightful and revelatory in many small ways. But there’s a catch, a sacrifice.

I’ve tried so hard to turn my life into a story that I’ve almost forgotten to live it.

It’s like recording an entire concert, watching the real, live, breathing artists in front of you through your little phone screen, and not even returning to watch them later on. Except the concert is time with your family and friends, and in your head you’re constantly shaping it, critiquing it. You’re never off.

It’s a fast way to suck the fun out of your days.

I don’t think all writers have to pay this price. I don’t think it’s necessary for the sake of this creative activity we all love.

Maybe there’s just an extra step I haven’t learned. Maybe I have to digest what I’m living before I’m able to write about it in a way that’s truly honest.

And maybe if I start writing about the positive things and people that characterize my life, reflecting on them won’t feel so burdensome.

What do you think? Have you ever had to write about or think about something that just drained you? What did you do?

Writing, I Love You, But I Think We Need to See Other People

This week is my spring break, and while I’m enjoying the week off from classes, I struggle with letting my brain take breaks.

Writing looks like work in so many ways. It’s fun work, yes, but still a form of expending brainpower. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m always on.

*cue this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdIBxhONpC0

Or it’s like the IFC slogan: always on, slightly off.

A few weeks ago (I don’t know why it took me years to realize this, but alas) I was wondering why I felt so frazzled all the time. For many of my friends, downtime looks like binging a new series on Netflix, napping, or going shopping. For me, it’s been attempting to meet self-imposed writing goals, and then flogging myself mentally for not reaching those goals, or for simply needing a break.

I talk a lot about how our productivity doesn’t define us, but I’ve been finding it hard to put that principle into practice.

Maybe writing itself has become a bit of an obstacle for me. If it starts draining me rather than sustaining, I say it has to go.

Today is the first day of Lent, so I think it’s perfect timing for me to re-frame how I look at things. I might benefit from giving myself structured times to write, say an hour max, instead of composing a list of tasks that balloon to fill my entire day and make me an unsmiling, sour pretentious “artist”.

I’ve also been thinking that I need to have new experiences and go on adventures with new people in order to refill my creative well, and that’s why I want to make this summer before grad school as fun as possible.

So in summary, I’m just trying to cultivate downtime and not get mad at myself if I don’t, like, write a whole new book in an afternoon. Sounds reasonable!

Have you had any major life revelations lately? Feel free to share in the comments!

2018: A Year in Words

Some people I know keep a record of the number of pages or words they’ve written over the course of a semester. I’ve never been good at keeping track of that. I think it would stress me out – how do I count the pages of my novel I’ve revised for the tenth time? Do I include strongly-worded emails, risky texts, handwritten notes from retreats, patchwork journal entries, comments on other writers’ stories? What about the many rounds of the everyone-writes-a-sentence game? 

But I enjoy the sentiment behind such an effort – looking back on what I’ve accomplished. As this calendar year draws to a close, I don’t think I’m alone when I say I can look back and say that I’ve learned a lot. It was an emotionally taxing year for many reasons.

Early on, I dubbed 2018 the year of honesty, of saying yes to things that scared me, of taking good risks (I still have much progress to make, but it was a start) and coming out transformed. 

And I like to think it all started with writing. Yes, I have my (many) journals in which I try to ground my scattered thoughts. But more than that, last February, I sent out my very first query for my book (another thing I wouldn’t know how to include in my Official Word Count: queries and synopses). I didn’t get the results I wanted, but I took a step to put my writing out into the world. I’ve revised my query so much since, I barely recognize that draft. 

March brought me my first #PitMad event, and a full request from a real agent. This was one of the first signs that, HEY, someone outside of my small circle of friends, professors, and family was interested in reading my writing. You can guess how it ended, since I’m still planning on querying in the New Year. But that rejection provided me with valuable feedback. Through the realization my book wasn’t ready, I resolved to make it better. I could write a whole lot more about how I’ve come to view rejection as a redirection, but that would be a whole other post. 

At the same time I was condensing my 300-page novel into a few paragraphs, I was taking a creative nonfiction class. Here I was challenged to unpack the significance of my real-life experiences. I found ways to write about topics I never thought I’d be strong enough to touch, much less share with my peers. I found my voice, on the page and off. 

May and June challenged me particularly, mostly off the page. They still showed me how to use my voice and walk away from messy situations empowered. And perhaps some of those “real-life” challenges made my writing an escape again. I finally wrote out a prequel to my novel that I’d been sitting on for years. I submitted a piece to a psychology blog. For the first time, I got paid for my writing (sadly, the website I contributed to has since shut down). 

The fall brought a new semester. Amidst adjusting to being a senior, I had to isolate my own voice from other opinions of who I was. I questioned if the goals that were once so clear to me were even worth the struggle. But I kept refining. I worked on my personal statements to articulate my multifaceted interests to potential graduate school programs. As mentioned before, I sent (more than) several strongly-worded emails. I fell in love with poetry, wrote a 12-page capstone paper, delivered a 30-minute presentation, and compiled a 56-page portfolio of short fiction. 

I read two of my poems at an open mic night. I’m still actively submitting my work for publication and I’m always on the lookout for appropriate magazines, journals, blogs, or other places to give my reflections a home. 

All these things I would’ve thought impossible at the beginning of 2018. 

For all the uncertainty it holds, I can’t wait to turn the page into 2019. 

Ten Things I’ve Learned in 2018, in (mostly) Chronological Order

And oh boy, it’s only May.

This post was originally going to focus on an interesting, if ironic, set of circumstances that ended with my newfound appreciation for Fleetwood Mac’s classic “Go Your Own Way”. But I condensed that into point #10.

  1. No one else is responsible for your happiness or mental health. Don’t give them that burden.
    • 1A: You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond.
  2. Keep your life full and good things will happen. Even if they’re not what you expect.
  3. “No” is powerful. Set boundaries.
  4. People and things come into your life on God’s time, and so too do they leave. Be grateful.
  5. Treasure the people with whom you can talk about anything.
  6. Tea can cure almost anything.
  7. Discipline gets dreams done.
  8. Your mom totally knows when something’s bothering you. And it takes more effort to keep things bottled up inside.
  9. It’s nice to have an open heart, but if you’re not a priority for them, they shouldn’t be for you.
  10. If someone doesn’t see your beauty, that’s on them.