How I Got My Agent

I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M WRITING THIS POST.

Seriously, cannot.

I’ve been walking like in a dream world for the last week, not even able to process this is real but I’m told it is so I guess I’ll try to tell you how I got here.

I recommend getting snacks. This is a long story.

In the spring of 2014, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin finishing grad school and I was utterly miserable. I lived in a terrible place, I had an internship I felt lost in, had a job I didn’t enjoy, and was sick with a mysterious neurological illness that left me weak and unable to rely on my body in any way, shape, or form.

I had been writing seriously for about 1.5 years by then, with an eye toward maybe someday possibly trying to get a book published, and I’d written six full length novels in that time- 2 MG, 3 YA, and 1 adult. There might have been a few others in here too, at the time I whipped out drafts and then spun right on to the next one so it’s impossible to say. All but two of them were terrible. The MG I’d entered in a contest and won a place in it, and even took through an R & R with a wonderfully kind agent who ultimately ended up rejecting it. For incomprehensible reasons, I never queried that book much- maybe 10 queries total, five then and one here and there whenever I got discouraged about other projects.

Hey, I said this was my story about getting an agent, not about making good life choices.

But I digress.

Pen and Muse, a writing website, ran a showcase that year on their blog and I decided to enter it. I wrote a short story called Strings and Shadows about a girl who played the violin and a boy who might have been a ghost. You can actually still find it there if you look hard enough.

That story blossomed into a book.

It shouldn’t have worked, because I am notorious for dropping projects in the face of major life transitions, and over the course of writing that book I graduated with my master’s degree, quit my job, moved back in with my parents, went to Florida, got a new job, attended the Midwest Writers Conference, and bought a house. I couldn’t stop writing or talking about the story though, and by the time it was done it was a full fledged book, almost 90k long, and it was a retelling of Phantom of the Opera set in a modern day Southern youth orchestra.

It was not good.

But it had good bones.

In Fall 2014 I entered Pitch Wars and was chosen by the lovely Brianna Shrum as an alternate. She helped me polish up the query and first chapter, and Margarita Montimore, my PW mentee teammate, helped me write some amazing pitches I used in multitude of contests to come.

I had a few bites in PW, but ultimately they came back as rejections. I had a finished book though, so I dove deep into the querying trenches. Again – this is all about what I did, not what I should have done. Don’t try this at home.
Along the way, I wrote a book about a girl who ran a radio station and a boy taking a cross country road trip to meet his dying grandfather.

Y’all, I tried to piece together that stretch of time from late 2014- mid 2015 and I can’t even. All I can say for sure is I sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 queries and had an even mix of rejections, partials, and full requests. Every single one eventually was rejected, but I was fortunate enough to receive some fairly specific feedback along the way and decided to tear the whole book apart and start over.

I mean, why revise when you can just write a new book?

On my birthday in summer 2015, I received a request for a partial from an agent I was wild over. She loved musicals and even played the violin so I knew immediately I wanted to query her, plus from her Twitter and interviews she seemed really fun and like someone I’d be comfortable with.

An aside- as a cantankerous medium-anxious introvert, finding someone I think I’ll be comfortable with is a MASSIVE cause for celebration.

The trouble with this birthday request was that I had just ripped my book all to shreds and was doing my best to paste them all back together. Having stalked, um, done my research, I knew this agent had specifically mentioned not always enjoying when people said they had a new version of a book as that was often an indication of not being prepared when they queried in the first place. Side note: I probably wasn’t ready. This will inevitably happen to you, because unfortunately, querying is the kind of thing you only get good at as you go, so you won’t know how bad you are until you do it for awhile. Anyways I sent the amazing agent a nervous email saying since I had so much feedback from so many agents, all indicating the same thing, I was revising, but I’d be happy to send it to her when it was done.

Waiting was agony.

She sent me an email just a couple days later saying she’d be happy to wait and see what I came up with. Two weeks after that I sent her an email with my revisions and settled in.

Y’ALL. I had no idea what the next year would bring.

I sent that email in August and continued querying, with the same kind of success- partials and fulls in fairly steady rates with my rejections, but never an offer. There was always, always a but: liked but not loved, enjoyed but didn’t connect, liked prose but not character, couldn’t get into it, didn’t love enough. I went through really rough periods of wanting to give up completely- on that book, on writing in general, on everything everywhere.

I read all the blogs I could find – call stories, posts about the Almost But Not Quite stage, quotes about the gap between knowing how you want your writing to be and how it is when you’re first starting out. Some days I successfully managed all my feelings, and some days I ate a LOT of cookies.

Earlier that spring I’d written an alternate history about a girl who led a revolution, so to take my mind off my troubles I polished it up and tried to enter PW 2015. I didn’t get in.

I spent the fall racking up all the rejections, both on my Phantom book and on another pair of projects I queried haphazardly, desperate to feel all the work was worth it. I literally. cannot. Tell you. how many rejections I got. It is a number well over 100 but after that they all blur together.

I told you this was not a story about making good choices. Don’t do this, kids.

For NaNo 2015, for a change of pace, I wrote 50k of a beautiful, complicated adult fantasy full of politics and intrigue and beautiful dresses. I took all of December off and decided to start new in 2016.

2016 was not a good writing year.

I started fresh with an amazing idea I loved, about a magical garden and an angry boy and a Spanish-speaking girl with a terrible addiction to knives. The first draft fizzled out slowly, painfully, at 40ishk. I shook myself off, racked up a bunch more rejections on various projects, and tackled the knife book again. The second draft failed miserably at 30k. Remember, in the past I’d written 3-7 books per year. Granted I never revised a word and they were all terrible, but I was a finisher. And now I couldn’t finish anything.

I took a break. I wrote a short story for spring showcase again. I wrote a short story for an anthology, about a pizza shop in space. I did anything and everything to try to feels single shred of hope but mostly I was in despair.

By then I was running out of agents to query with PHANTOM. I had promised myself I’d shelve it, but it kept sneaking back out, a query here, a query there. I kept dragging it back out for every pitch contest. Everyone I’d been friends with in the beginning had agents now. Some had book deals. Some were mentors in contests I couldn’t even get into. I was certain I was done. I was wasting my time and when the infinitely patient and long suffering Rena Olsen told me I wasn’t, that the work would pay off and the ability was there, I politely informed her that she was insane and I was done.

SO DONE.

But PHANTOM was still there, lurking. I joked that this book about ghosts and obsession was my ghost, haunting me all the time.

Finally I threw up my hands and said FINE ONE LAST TIME YOU STUPID BOOK LET’S TRY IT ONE MORE TIME.

I was fresh off of a second R & R getting rejected and just as I was starting to revise, a third R & R didn’t pan out. I was absolutely positively certainly convinced I was the worst writer in the entire universe. WHO LOSES THREE OPPORTUNITIES LIKE THAT?? I was so close, always so close, but never quite there. I finished the revision and felt like it might be stronger but was so disillusioned and sick of the book and sad of spirit I couldn’t even tell anymore if it was good at all.

I set it aside for what I swore would be the last time. It was time to accept this book, that I had poured two years of my life into, wasn’t my book.

I tried knife book again, full of despair and certain I would fail.

I also traveled a bajillion miles down to Tennessee to stay in a cabin clinging to the side of a mountain surrounded by perfect strangers – I went to the 2016 Madcap Aspiring Writers retreat.

It changed my life.

It was the most terrifying, horrifying, what have I done experience ever. I’ve mentioned I’m an anxious and cantankerous introvert, and I was at the lowest point of my entire writing career. When I arrived, I thought I was going to pass out of sheer terror and What Am I Even Doing Here I Can’t Write I Need To Lay Down And Eat Cookies. It’s a real condition I promise.

However, there was one thing that made walking through that door easier. The day before I left for Tennessee I got an email.

Remember that agent? The one I’d sent my partial to 13 months before, the one who was so utterly perfect?

She wanted to know if I’d do an R & R.

I took a few days to answer, distracted by sheer terror and by huge questions. Did I really want to dig into PHANTOM again? This book was RUINING MY LIFE. I COULDN’T WRITE ANYWAYS! Not to mention it had been so long that I’d already been through two more drafts in those 13 months.

Madcap was absolutely amazing. It made writing feel real, and the community that grew up in that cabin happened so fast and so well that even I was at ease and felt like I belonged. Most importantly, every writer there talked about failure. They told real, humble stories of their struggles and their failures and all the sweat and tears and hurt it took for them to achieve their dreams.

I emailed the agent and said yes. I went out on a limb and shared with her all my hopes and dreams for the book, everything I wanted it to be and knew it wasn’t yet. I was terrified I was being presumptuous or needy or way too bold. I almost fainted when I hit send.

But a few days later she told me she was excited and she’d get me a letter, and a week or two after that I had my R & R letter from her.

By that point I was up to my neck in knife book and desperate to finish *something* in the hell of 2016. I read her letter almost every day, meshing it with changes I’d already made, digging deep into things I needed to make better and big questions I needed to ask, letting the back of my brain work away on that project as I labored through and finally at long last finished the third draft of the knife book. The agent’s letter for PHANTOM was perfect, hitting on things I knew I needed to fix and approaching issues in brand new ways that somehow, impossibly, got me excited about this ghostly albatross of a book again.

Then I went to work.

October 2016 came and I’d made all the changes I could think of. The pacing, always a huge problem for me, was much tighter, the relationships were more real, and the main character was her fullest self. Instead of making her easier to relate to, more likeable, or less intense as so many past rejections has suggested, I made her 1000% herself. I felt good, or at least as good as I knew how to feel then, but I hadn’t quite solved all the issues in the letter and I was stalled out.

Oh, and by the way, I also threw an MS in the ring for PW 2016. I didn’t get in.

Y’all. 2016 was not a good year. Can we all just agree on that?

Then I got an email.

This amazing agent who I so loved ASKED ME HOW THE REVISION WAS GOING. She liked me and my book ENOUGH TO CHECK IN. After all the leaping and flailing, I set about the heart-in-throat task of telling her I had a new and much more powerful draft, but was struggling with a few aspects.

I thought for sure she wouldn’t want to help me anymore. I couldn’t expect her to, just the R & R alone was such a great opportunity. I was in despair, certain I’d let a fourth R & R slip through my hands and hating myself for all my faults, as a writer and as a human, real and imagined.

Then I got an email.

THE AMAZING AGENT OFFERED TO READ WHAT I’D WRITTEN EVEN THOUGH IT WASN’T TOTALLY RIGHT.

I sent a number of joyous and awed texts to friends, ate a bunch of cookies, then with my heart in my throat (all my vital organs kind of rearranged themselves around that time) I sent her my draft.

And then there was silence.

For NaNo 2016 I channeled all my angst and failure into 50k of an adult thriller about a woman who returns to her small town after years away only to find she must work to cover up a crime she committed a decade ago.

I took December off, as is now my routine, and when 2017 arrived I started with the audacious goal of writing every single day. I had an idea, a flash of a scene involving a valley of bones coming alive, and a woman driving a cart of bones through a wild, fierce land, and a book that took place in war but wasn’t necessarily about war. For the first time ever I outlined the book before writing it, and then I set to work. After a horrible year of failures and anger and grief and every word being agony, this new book slipped into the world like actual magic. It was everything I wanted it to be, a true book of my heart, and while it has definite issues and needs work, I finished it in less than two months.

At last, writing and I weren’t enemies anymore. I was at peace with having shelved PHANTOM, and yet, not quite ready to query again. I knew the agent might have forgotten about me, after all, it had been four months and wouldn’t she have responded right away if she’d actually liked it? Wasn’t it stupid to put all my eggs in one basket? I knew I should query and try things, but I just wanted to work with her so much. And besides, I couldn’t be any less agented than I was…

While I tried to decide what to do, I threw my hat into the Pitch Madness ring with a different ms. I started a chapterbook about a girl named Peach who has ADHD and lives in a trailer park and tries to figure out life, an updated Junie B Jones basically.

Then on March 2 I got an email.

It was from the dream agent saying she’d read about half of Phantom so far and she loved it. SHE. LOVED. IT. She was still reading but wanted me to know she was pleased with the revisions and she’d talk to me soon.

Cue all the panicking and flailing and excitement and befuddlement.

I finished the first chapterbook and started a sequel. I played with some words about a girl who controls the weather with her moods and the hapless boy who loves her. I checked my email 187 times per day. I reread all her interviews I could find, checked her Twitter for any sign.

In many ways I was waiting for the let down. The almost but not quite. The thanks but no thanks.

After all, this agent had never read the end before and WHAT IF SHE HATED IT SO MUCH I JUST NEVER HEARD FROM HER AGAIN?

Then came St. Patrick’s Day.

I see about 100 kids per week at my day job, and Friday was an epically difficult day in an epically difficult week. I was exhausted and stressed and dizzy with trying to keep track of deadlines and meetings and behavior approaches and curriculum writing.

As I was wearily packing up to finally go home, my phone – ever at odds with the thick cement walls – registered a 2 hour old voicemail from a number I didn’t recognize.

Immediately my hands started shaking. I don’t answer numbers I don’t recognize even when I do have service, but why would this one leave me a voicemail? I opened my computer back up and googled the number.

The area code was the agent’s area code.

I immediately grabbed all my stuff and galloped out to my car- last one in the lot on a late Friday afternoon.

My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking so hard I dropped the phone twice. I decided to take it slow.

I went on the agent’s Twitter and saw a tweet about a sub making her buy a new violin case.

My book is very very violiny. But still. It could have been anyone’s.

Then I opened my email.

There was a message from her saying she’d left me a voicemail and would like to talk as soon as I was available.

By this point I legitimately thought I was going to have a heart attack. My pulse was about to explode out of my wrists and the SHAKING like FULL BODY TREMBLES. My head was clinging to a last shred of logic but my body was full on emotion.

Finally I listened to her voicemail. She was looking forward to talking to me at my earliest convenience.

GOOD LORD ALMIGHTY I WAS GOING TO DIE IN THE PARKING LOT AT WORK.

My brain was spinning. I told myself it could still be a rejection because we’d worked together quite a bit and maybe she wanted to explain “in person” why she couldn’t take it on.

It could be anther R & R. More fixing, more polishing and tightening, maybe adding the things I hadn’t figured out how to add from the letter.

I knew if I didn’t call her right then I was just going to never ever ever find the courage and also that I might actually truly have a heart attack.

So I hit call.

And waited, holding one hand up with the other because of the shaking.

And then when she picked up, it wasn’t to reject, and it wasn’t to talk about the work it still needs, though it does need more work.

It was to offer representation.

1.5 years after my original query, I am absolutely dizzyingly overjoyed to say I am now represented by Moe Ferrara of BookEnds Literary. And she signed me for a ghostly albatross of a book I thought nobody but me would ever love.

It all still feels like a dream, like it’s happening to someone else. I can’t BELIEVE that I’ve been given the incredible privilege and honor of achieving the huge first step in reaching my dream of holding my own book in my hands someday. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to way more people than I can ever name. Moe gets my book, and she makes me feel comfortable, and I can’t WAIT to see what we’re going to accomplish together.

If you’re out there and you feel like a failure, like it’s just a series of hurts and mistakes and like this weird, wonderful dream you have is something you have no right to, no hope of achieving, I hope this story- all it’s craziness, all its unexpectedness, all its anxieties and sadness and thrills and twists, gives you hope. Every road has a bend in it. You have NO IDEA what might be just around the very next one.

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Seeing Shadows

I’m a nomad by circumstance, if not by nature. Throughout my life, for whatever reason, circumstances have conspired so I haven’t spent longer than two years in any one setting, academic or professional, since seventh grade. It has never been my intention, but whether because of a career change, graduate school, or pursuit of the bigger and better, I have been in a perpetual state of change that has come with a consistent timeline. And now, my brain and heart, well-tuned to the seasons and the routines of my life, are noticing it’s almost time to pick up stakes again.

Only, I’m not sure it is. See, I am both nomad and settler. I long to feel I belong, and live in terror of sameness. I search out the unique, the unusual, and the fresh, and yet some place inside hungers for a true sense of home. These parts of me seem to be at war with each other. I haven’t found the right balance, the right place and time and circumstance where I feel safe and at rest, and yet not bored. It’s a boundary cloaked in confusion, even for me.

What I’ve noticed, in my years of nomading, is that the shadows become easier to see with time. I’m a social worker by trade, and most of my professional career has been spent in small towns. Here’s the thing about social work, which is also a Thing about writing: it deals with the deepest and darkest. The work I have chosen for myself, both with the person and on the page, is about diving into the secret places, the hidden things, the private and personal and often ugly. And what I’ve realized is that the longer I stay in a place, or with a project, the easier it becomes to see that darkness, and to have that darkness slowly cover everything else.

You’re probably a writer, if you’re here. Maybe you’re a social worker. STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED. But I’m wondering if it’s possible that you, too, have begun to see the shadows more clearly than the light. That’s thing about any profession that confronts truth. Truth is often cloaked in shadows, and reluctant to give up it’s cover. Spend enough time in the shadows, and you begin to forget what it is you’re pursuing there. The shadows become heavy. They crowd out other images – other experiences, the balance of the good, the joy you usually use as armor – and they wrap themselves around you with conviction.

The longer I spend in a town who’s secrets have become familiar to me, the more I see the cracked foundations, the sidewalk that lists to the left, the burned out streetlight near the park. I see the sagging front porches, the darkened windows, the plastic bags tossing in the breeze across yards of browned grass and abandoned toys.

The longer I spend in a writing project, the more I see it’s flaws. I see the listless plot points, the characters who either lack fullness or perhaps are full and yet are despicable somehow, because aren’t we all in some way? I get mired in a draft, loss in the restlessness of the middle or an unresolved end; I find myself stagnating in revisions, when I’ve torn a book apart and start to wonder if there’s any life left in it. It’s nothing but ugly truths and shifting shadows.

Here’s a truth I’ve learned in all my nomading, through books and lives and towns, through relationships and places and versions of myself, too: The ability to see beyond the shadows is a skill to be developed and maintained. How difficult it is to obtain in the first place depends on a myriad of factors, not least of which is your unique brain chemistry, your genetics, your temperament, your personal history, and your general inclination to see either darkness or light. How difficult it is to maintain depends on all those things, and one more – your awareness of the shadows themselves.

You can’t fight something you’re not aware of. You can’t push shadows back if you believe they’re fact. Immoveable. You can’t chase the shadows away if you believe the world to be comprised of nothing else.

The shadows are real. Small towns harbor plenty of sorrows, stories are broken, the world can be a dark and sad place. But shadows are neither reality nor truth. Somewhere beneath them, under a slithering mass of slippery darkness, hidden in the depths of the smooth midnight mists and all the broken things, is a truth far bigger than the shadows hiding it. Even a cracked and barren earth can bring forth flowers in the unlikeliest of places. Even a town with rough edges holds a hundred beautiful souls. Even a slashed up, shredded apart story will become something lovely and true.

Don’t forget about the shadows, my friends. If you, like me, have been feeling a little lost, a little broken, a little lonely, a little confused, lift up your hands and press the night away. Enlist help. Take your time. Truth will be there on the other side, no matter how long it takes you to find it.

 

 

 

About the Losing of Ways and the Possibility of Finding Them Again

Here is a list of reasons I didn’t want to write this post:

1) I thought I might look like a failure – until I realized I am the one who defines failure for myself, and regardless, I am more interested in being of some help to somebody than anyone’s concerns about my failure or lack thereof.
2) I thought an agent might read it and think I wasn’t up to the task of building a career – until I realized, if I may be blunt, that I only want to work with agents who are, themselves, human, and susceptible to struggles and faults, as well as understanding of those things in their probably mostly human authors.
3) I wanted to be able to end it with a bang – I struggled but TADA THEN I GOT AN AGENT AND A SEVENTEEN BOOK DEAL AND ALSO I WAS ELECTED QUEEN OF THE MOON HOORAY!. Until I realized that bang of excitement at the end is really what this post is all about.

Here’s the thing – I don’t feel very much like a writer today. I haven’t felt like a writer for quite some time, at least two months, but maybe more. I haven’t felt like a writer because I got lost in other people’s voices, through that beautiful demon social media, and couldn’t remember what I liked or didn’t like in a story anymore. I haven’t felt like a writer because I celebrated so many people’s successes with real joy but also with a continually stronger feeling of being left behind and inadequate. I haven’t felt like a writer because story became stilted, words were hard to access, and I began to feel I was spending far, far too long in this Almost But Not Quite world (where people love my stories but just need a little something more, a bit more polish, a slightly more likable character, less words, more words, just a spark, something to overcome the like but not love) and I was starting to feel like I was fundamentally flawed somewhere in the deepest down part of me so that my writing would never climb above where it was.

So I stopped writing. And since, for the better part of two years, I have largely defined myself as a writer, and since the term “writer” has been the single solid element of an identity that has shifted numerous times over the past several years, I felt entirely lost.

But to my surprise, the world didn’t end. I thought it might, since words weren’t my thing anymore and I really didn’t have a different thing. I thought it might, since writing wasn’t my morning and evening and I really hadn’t considered doing anything different with my time. I thought it might, since I wanted it so badly it colored my dreams and my walks and my conversations, and without it I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything left.

Here’s what was left: pancake breakfasts. Second hand books. The crunch of ruby and gold leaves under my feet, the first slash of October wind against my cheeks, the comfort of falling into bed exhausted from the emotional and mental toll of a day job I love but also give everything to some days. Movies with my sister. Long drives through countrysides ripe with wheat and corn, bathed in long sunbeams and watched over by long stretches of brilliant blue skies. Small children saying red is a “cemetary” color, or beaming as they inform me they might have been “thinking” for the first time, or inchworming across a classroom to get out of nap time. Long chats with my coworkers. Flashes of ideas, drops of inspiration, the constant sense that the world remained, as it has always been, just slightly larger than everything I’m able to capture with my senses; infused with magic and possibilities and deep veins of mysteries that remain unsolved.

Here are some more things that were left: children in crisis, with hurting hearts that need my help to stay unlocked and unbroken. Family tragedies. My own health fluctuations. The sense of being completely overwhelmed by the vast range of terrible, hurtful moments and the impossibly joyful ones – by the distance between them, by how close it could be sometimes, by the heavy aching weight in my chest when both these things were too much for me and the emotions were too many and since I wasn’t fleeing into words I had to stay and confront, accept, come to terms with, everything the world was offering me.

Here is what I know: I stopped writing, and it hasn’t broken me. I stopped writing, and I didn’t become blind. I stopped writing, but I didn’t stop creating, because creating is a thing that’s in your blood, in your bones, in your spirit. When your heart is creation you simply can’t see the world any other way. Your burden is to be exquisitely awake, in tune with your feelings, with the painful hope beating in your chest, with the breathlessness of a beautiful moment gone before you can be quite filled up by the sensation, with the misery of things that are so, so close and yet can’t quite be completely absorbed. This will not vanish on you. You will not suddenly become unaware of the world. You will not be closed off.
You might wish for it sometimes.
Maybe you will be equal parts afraid of it and desperate for it.
But your heart will not grow quiet, except in a peaceful, observant sort of way.

I haven’t been writing in the same way. I don’t necessarily feel like the same person I was a few months ago. I’m still waiting to see how it’s all going to shake out.

For a long time writing meant late nights at an old, borrowed laptop in my bedroom after homework was done. Then it meant snatches over summers, without any real aim. Then it was an act of quiet desperation because everything in my world kept changing from month to month, and for a while I didn’t know if I had another month or not, and words helped me through it. Now, it seems, writing means being alive. In tune. It looks like a few mornings a week, without too much worry over total wordcount or anything much except how those words feel and if they are true. It looks like an evening, here and there, at the kitchen table with a list of revisions to make and ear for the heart of the story I always meant to tell, underneath all the noise around it. It looks like taking the time required to really notice and appreciate the exact angle sun through October leaves makes, and the time involved in deciphering what that feeling that clenches my lungs and aches in my chest is in it’s purest form, and the necessary time to be not just a writer, but a daughter, and a sister, and a friend, and a person. Without agendas or schedules or career expectations. Without fear, and with plenty of questions.

Am I a writer? I don’t know. It probably depends on your definition, and your reason for asking, and the baggage you assign to the term. What I know is that I am, in my bones and my blood, a lover of stories. I am the kind of person who can say to the world, I see the story in you, and it matters to me. I will give it it’s due. I will listen, and I will see, and I will experience with every bit of me I can offer. Fully awake. Fully aware.

And maybe, as it has in small pieces for now, this being alive will translate to words on a page.

I wish I had more to offer you, but this is the thing – your hope is not found in an agent, a book deal, a career path, even a finished manuscript. Your hope is found in your unwavering determination to live not in a day to day sort of way but in the moment to moment, through open eyes and hands, through a willing heart. Your hope is the belief that stories shape us, and give meaning to our experiences in the world, and that perhaps at any moment you may be called upon to give voice to one such story. Writer. Not writer. We are fluid, nebulous, difficult to define beings as people, and this is our birthright – the only thing that matters is story.

An Assemblage of Memories

I’ve been cleaning my house all summer, which isn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that I really don’t clean if I can help it. But my housekeeping habits are not, thankfully, the subject of this post.

In the process of cleaning, I gave away a shirt my sister gave me. It was peach, light and cottony, drawstringed at the bottom. It had a hole, and it didn’t fit me anymore. I’m only now realizing how much I regret having given it away- and not just because my sister happened to see it and even though she has said a hundred times she doesn’t mind, I still feel bad about it.

I regret letting go of the visual memory in that shirt. I was living in a rented basement full of spiders that was never ever warmer than fifty degrees, I had a job and an internship, both of which I hated, and I was finishing graduate school on the weekends. Looking back, I’m relatively certain I was depressed because the three things I remember most are angry tears, trying to drag myself out of bed in the morning, and a sense of grief and isolation. My sister overnighted a package to me in the midst of all this darkness. It had a bottle of lavendar nail polish, a package of gummi worms, and the shirt. I cried for hours over how much hope those three things gave me when I thought I couldn’t find any.

It was a horrendous time in my life and to this day I cope with it by alternately joking and pretending it never happened. The shirt served it’s purpose- it gave me hope, uplifted me, reminded me that people loved me and would no matter how bad things got for me. It didn’t fit. It had a hole. It was right to give it away, and yet I regret it because in just a glance from the shadows of my closet or a touch of the soft fabric, I could remember all of these things.

There are other things in my life heavy with memories. The t-shirt I wore on the worst date of my life. The song I listened to on my drives home from overnight CNA shifts on a dementia unit. The orangey cinnamon perfume I wore my first year of college. The smell of spaghetti cooking on a cold winter evening. Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, which transports me home to the living room of age ten while my sister played piano and my dad sang as he did the dishes and I didn’t worry about anything of consequence. The strong sharp chai I drank doing homework at my childhood friend’s kitchen table. The lumpy stuffed lamb I’ve had all my life, part puppet and part stuffed animal. The coarse flannel of the blanket I was given after finishing my final performance in high school theatre. The feel of cold winter wind in my hair and thumping bass as I drove home from community theatre rehearsals my first year in a small town after college. The taste of a banana shake the day the neurologist confirmed I wasn’t dying. The smell of fresh hay and cut grass through the windows as I drove home ahead of a moving trailer when I finally left that terrible basement and horrible year behind.

The things that hold our memories aren’t always obvious until something happens. You turn on the radio and suddenly you’re fifteen and falling in love again. You sit down to dinner and suddenly you’re caught in a moment of pride and joy and celebration from ten years ago even though in this time it’s just another Tuesday night. You send a shirt out the door and realize it was holding a tiny piece of your heart. It’s like meeting yourself coming and going- encountering the ghosts of all the selves you’ve been, and maybe a few you aren’t just yet. Seeing yourself as a stranger, just for a moment.

This is good. The only way to know who you are is to see who you’ve been- all the good and all the bad, all the broken and all the whole- and acknowledge that pieces of all those past selves are still in you. But they’re also not you anymore. You are more than the sum of your experiences and moments. You are more than your triumphs, mistakes, broken hearts, angry words, shed tears, greatest achievements. You are a future in which all of those pieces have impact but not power. You are the accumulation of every one of those things plus something more. The person you’re becoming. Give your moments and memories their due. Look around you, touch, smell, listen. Then make it all mean something.

Everything Is Not Enough

Am I the only person who gets these two mixed up with each other pretty much always?

I’m an everything person. When I start a project I want to do All Of It Every Single Thing Immediately. Unfinished things irk me. They nag at me, pulling me back to them over and over. I’ll be in the middle of a meal and get up to add or change or adjust something, I’ll stare at the ceiling for hours trying to sleep and constantly being lured back to the project. It’s not just writing that does this to me, though it is the main culprit. I can’t clean my house unless I’m ready to clean every nook and cranny top to bottom (which is why I never clean). I’m terrible with gifts because I want to buy every gift for every holiday for every person NOW but then I just want to give it NOW too and not just any gift will do it has to be the most amazing and wonderful gift ever given. I set my Goodreads challenge sky high but then think if I’m not ahead and over it, I’m behind. I make a weekly to do list and then feel like a huge slacker if I don’t finish it all within a few hours. If I’m invested or interested or excited enough about something, I’ll forget to eat or lose track of time for hours. You might say I’m very thorough in my passions.

The thing is, none of my obsessions are laborious. I’m not miserable, in fact, getting super excited and enthusiastic about everything makes my life really very enjoyable. Most of the time. But in all honesty, it’s also EXHAUSTING. At times, being somewhat incapable of moderations and halfways has prevented me from starting things I know will be difficult to manage long term (waking up early, exercising, saving money, anyone?) Being so determined to Accomplish Everything With Perfection Now can make me scatterbrained and distracted, and sometimes makes it really hard not to feel like I’m failing when I don’t accomplish one thousand things at Quality One Thousand every single day. I get restless, have trouble sitting still, and despise red tape or progress that takes time. I hate not yet/not now almost more than no. And while I’ve grown pretty good at accepting these things in the world (publishing moves slowly, people in general have lives, traffic happens, people have to be allowed to think and respond on their own timeframe, change happens slowly) I’m terrible at giving myself the same permissions. I expect this high level of performance from myself almost all the time and most of the time its wonderful and exciting and invigorating and something I’m totally capable of. It’s not until I’ve crossed that fine invisible line from thrilled to stressed that I realize it.

Goals don’t have to be as high as we can possibly make them to matter. Just because we don’t do it now today this exact moment doesn’t mean we won’t do it, eventually. In good time. Passion and excitement are excellent and wonderful, but they can so easily become stress and shame. It’s good to want to rule the world. It’s not so good to kill yourself doing it.  This is probably something I’ll be working on my whole life (bless the people in it for loving me anyways) but I’m not going to give up on it. Our lives are important, nuanced, unfolding things. They happen over time for a reason. I’m going to try to get better at granting myself grace, and knowing that doing enough doesn’t mean doing everything. I hope you will too ❤

How my sister reminded me that creativity is a good thing

First of all, thanks so much for your support regarding my last post! I was super nervous about putting it out there, but y’all were so kind, and I received so many notes from people going through similar things and needing the encouragement, that it was absolutely worth it.

Anyways, on to today’s post – I used to live really far from my family, but now that I live closer, my baby sister has spent a week or two at a time with me over this summer so far. Sometimes it shrinks the amount of time I can work, but it’s totally worth it: a) because I love my sister, and b) because she wants to write books, and has started working on one already. And the thing is, watching her both at work and at play reminded me about some things I forgot, things that I used to know when I first started writing and that seem to have escaped me more recently. Maybe you’ve forgotten too.

First: Creativity is a good thing! I remember in middle and high school, staying up as late as I possibly could tapping away on an ancient Gateway laptop that creaked noisily at all times and occasionally went white screened for a few minutes for no particular reason. It had no Internet capabilities, and the Internet was slow back then. I didn’t have a cell phone, and then even when I did it was just a prepaid one with limited minutes and zero other functions. So when I wrote, I wrote. For hours, alone in the lamplight, lost in the story. I lived for those chunks of writing time, and at a time when so much of my identity was still under development and tangled up in the messy confusion of those years, I knew for a fact that I was a writer. I was a creative person, and my creativity exhilarated me with it’s potential.
I forget that now. Writing is a part of my life I generally take for granted. Sometimes it’s more burden than anything else. I still love the words, but fitting it into an extremely busy schedule does feel like work more than not, and as I dive deeper into the bloodletting of revision, the science and study and art of carving up a story from my fingers and turning it into a Book, there are times when it’s really not all that fun. I get distracted by Twitter and texting and staring into space. I carve out huge chunks of time but really only focus for maybe 40 or 50%. When I watched my baby sister write, it was sheer joy. Her face would light up and her pen would go so fast it seemed like she could hardly keep up with herself. When she did get stuck or lose track of her way, she tucked her notebook back in it’s spot and went on with her life, content and able to wait until she found her way again. No stress. And more importantly, no fear.
Creativity is joy and passion. It is often work, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be because I firmly believe that if you abandon everything that doesn’t bring you immediate joy or requires effort from you, you’ll never really complete anything. But it doesn’t have to be drudgery or based in fear.

Second: My sister made writing part of her life, but not in this dreary, proscribed, dutiful fashion. Her heart was in it, intensely, for brief periods of time, and then when she wasn’t writing she flung herself into other activities. She still plays with Barbies, and she’d have the floor of my living room covered in various families and clothing and shoes and whatever little paper-based structures and things she made for them. She engaged in play unselfconsciously, sometimes related to her book but usually not, and she was entirely focused on that. She colored, she helped me cook, she did lots of things that had nothing at all to do with her book, and she had no guilt for that.
I’m an achiever. I can’t help it, I’ve always thrown my whole self into everything, but it can become problematic at times. I have workaholic tendencies, and sometimes I get tunnel vision so I can’t see beyond the immediacy of what I’m doing in the moment. I have to remind myself that other hobbies, things that have nothing whatsoever to do with words, are okay. Healthy, even. I could take up playing the piano again, or do more with my growing cooking hobby, or play a videogame or even color a picture myself, and I don’t have to feel guilty that that time’s not going to writing. Writing will always be there, words aren’t going to leave, but time is going to pass and my life will be what I construct it to be. I want it to be a whole, healthy, flourishing thing – and that, in turn, will feed my writing much more than some kind of forced and dutiful routine. That’s not to say routine isn’t important. My sister wrote every single day she was here. But routine and obligation don’t have to be synonyms.

Third: My sister’s heart is in her story. It is uniquely hers in every possible way, and she’s proud of it. She loves it. She’s very aware of it’s faults (both real and imagined, like any good writer) and she’s the first to spot mistakes, but she loves it. She talks about it with everyone. It comes up in casual conversation. She doesn’t criticize it as compared to other writers, and she’s not so focused on how it’ll fit in the market, whether it’s conventional or edgy or YA or adult, she doesn’t have the first clue about pacing. But she loves the story, and it shows in her work.
This last lesson is a tricky one to transmit. As a more developed writer, it’s natural for me to have a strong awareness of the market, people’s expectations, expected reader reactions, categories and style, and all the other structural pieces of writing a good book. But sometimes, because of our intimacy with the nuts and bolts, we can’t stand back and see the creation as a whole. We notice the slight tilt of the flooring, that corner where the paint already chipped, how the front door window is just barely not quite in the center, but we miss the comfortable grace of the story home we’ve built. This kind of intense focus on our story faults can make us shyer and quieter, hesitant to discuss our stories for fear someone will ask how it’s going and we’ll have to answer honestly. It can make us afraid, which in turn can crush the very creativity we so need to foster. If we can find that illusive balance between knowing our markets and our publishing business, and still loving the little seeds of stories we carry in our hearts, and more importantly find a way to transplant that seed from our hearts to the page without judging the sapling for not being so sturdy, I think we’d all be more joyful, and more creative, writers. Don’t let fear, or your own judgement, crush your heart and your individual voice.

Grow and learn. Read, research, develop, make yourself the best you can be and always push yourself to do bigger things. But don’t forget to enjoy the work you do and the life you live.

A Letter That Says A Thing Or Two

Okay, you guys.

This is the scariest thing I’ve ever written in my life. I cried buckets while I wrote it and at first I thought I wouldn’t post because it’s so incredibly personal, and it’s also WILDLY long, like over 2500 words and I feel like no one wants to read that many personal words.

But I can’t stop thinking about how maybe one person somewhere out there needs to hear a story like this and feel less alone or like there’s some kind of hope.

So. This is an a letter I wrote to myself about getting sick and coming through that whole experience. If you’re the one person who needs to read this – I hope it helps. And I’m always around to tell you things get better and it’s going to be okay.

It happened right about this time, three years ago.

It’s still a little early – would you have used these last three weeks differently if you’d known what was coming?

It started with the hiccups.

At least that’s what you thought.

You sat at your desk almost one full year into your first real grownup job after college, your first apartment. Things were infinitely perfect and you didn’t realize how much so. You were accepted to grad school, you were respected in your job, you had taken the leap and auditioned for community theatre and you starred, you got your wish, you took the last bow and you were successful there too, the show did so well it got extended, the entire office came to your opening night and you had never been so happy and found the world so full of incredible things. You knew who you were and what you wanted to do, and every dream was huge but possible.

And then it was the day before your 22nd birthday. And you got the hiccups. They were weird though, your stomach moved more than your chest. The muscles along your ribcage pulsed, in and out, no rhythm to the movement and you told someone later you thought it was weird but you didn’t think much about it and oh, you, if only you’d known would you have done something different, would you have gone done said watched worked climbed
Adventured
Differently
On that one
Last
Night?

The next day you had those same not-quite-hiccups again, and by the next day after that there was this tightness in your muscles, an ache in your joints. The not-hiccups were big now, noticeable, pulsing uncontrollably through your body in waves.

They thought it was Lyme’s.

That’s what she said, the fresh out of college doctor on call. Mom came that weekend and she saw it and you watched black and white tv with your head in her lap and she stroked your hair and made a song out of your name as wave after wave of cramping twisting pulling pain started across the top of your stomach and eventually all through your torso up into your shoulders and head. After that weekend
At Grandma’s, when you kept having to duck out of the room and hide in Grandpa’s room to let it tear through you
(you were already learning you had no control but you could hide)
And Mom made excuses for you
And it seemed like everything was too loud, too bright
And your aunt lay on the bed next to you and held your hand and asked what it was like and you didn’t have words
(the first time, no last in sight)
After all that, Mom said you had to go in so
You sat in the doctor’s office
And she said it was Lyme’s.
You believed her because
Back then doctors knew things
They could help
But most importantly you needed it to be true.

If you knew then, would you have embraced those last minutes, hours, days before the breaking?

You took the pills and you waited but it spread. Now when it happened, your toes curled, your calves turned to rock, your body twisted, it hurt, you were afraid
You started cursing
You didn’t cry.

Back then you had the privilege of keeping some things sacred.

The second Lyme’s test came back negative and there were more doctors, 3-4-5, white coats and waiting rooms and you had to tell HR so they could put you on Family Leave, so someone, anyone, could tell you what was wrong
No one did.
You knew you should be thankful for a job with benefits like FMLA and you were but oh, God, you were 22 and were you dying? And all the doctors did was stare and say “never seen that before” and give you pills for stress, things that made you dizzy, gave you hallucinations of people in your apartment, made you stupid, made you sad, filled you with doubt about who you were and who you were becoming.

They said it was living away from your family – five hours away
They said it was grad school
They said it was your job
They said it was all in your head.

They said and they said and they said but meanwhile you sat at church through the October memorial service watching the slideshow of people who’d died that year and you were gripped by the deepest darkest fear that it’d be your face up there the next year

And they still said, but
It was November and you had to sit in a staff meeting and lose those shreds of privacy you were clinging to and tell them all that you were sick
Sick with something
No one knew what or why

They were all sympathetic but you couldn’t drive anymore; your whole job was home visits and teams and a few weeks later you heard someone you thought you could trust asking sharply why you couldn’t just deal and the SHAME
(you got so accustomed to the shame but you weren’t then and it was so heavy)
Weighed heavy on you.

The doctors said and said but it was December and you dozed off midsentence in front of your computer at work from the drugs
You lay on the conference room floor jerking and flailing and twisting
You had to be helped out of a client’s – a client’s – home
You scraped by with B’s in the first semester of Saturday grad school and you were still working forty hours a week on top of that so no one understood how much it hurt
-you’d always been at the top of the class and now when you read textbooks, heard a lecture, wrote a paper, it was all through gray fog that ate up the words and the meanings
-you’d always worked harder than most but now you were tired, so tired, and you couldn’t connect to your clients, you were behind on case notes, your teammates were picking up so much slack and you knew it
You knew they knew it
It tore you apart.

You’re 22. You can’t drive. You call your parents every night so they know you’re alive.
Someone else shops for you. Cooks for you. Does the laundry, the cleaning, helps you study
Holds you together.

Your coworker drives you to and from work every day, covers for you when you’re on the floor in the conference room every hour, takes your pulse and blood pressure. She makes you food, introduces you to The Big Bang Theory, helps you feel like you can still laugh. She doesn’t run away from the grotesque twisting cramping breaking of your body. She knows to put pillows under your head, clear away breakable things; she massages your hands when the muscles cramp and make them into claws.
She’s your best friend.

You can’t wear heels anymore. Sometimes books are too heavy and you can’t read. Sometimes your eyes won’t focus.

Often you’re alone.

You’d lost twenty pounds when you did theatre, you were fit and thrilled and felt beautiful –
-Forty pounds came with all the pills and when you watch videos of yourself to catalogue symptoms, though your body is writhing contorting shaking so violently, all you see is your fat
It only adds to your burden of shame.

You go home for Christmas. One sister won’t speak to you and you’re pretty sure it’s because for months now your parents have driven down every weekend, five hours there, five hours back, to take you to classes, pick up groceries, go to appointments, make sure you’re alive and they don’t miss any last moments

She might hate you because everyone’s lives revolve around you now

And the craziest thing is that you feel like you have no life at all

Your baby sister, who you love nurture protect finds you on the floor on Christmas Day and cries.
She asks if you’re going to die.
You don’t know.

Three days later a woman with short dark hair
Wire rim glasses
Thin lips
The specialist you were made to wait three months to see
Says
I can’t help you, maybe it’s trauma or stress , see a therapist, come back in

Six

Months.

You’ve already been diagnosed by a therapist back when the first doctor sent you there – “Not mental health related, send to a specialist.”
She was the last hope.
You and your mom drive home together
Through cornfields heavy with snow
She asks if there’s anything you’ve never told her
Pain-grief-fear
There wasn’t (there might be now but it’s grown out of this thing)
Neither of you can speak anymore and you cry
So
Many
Tears.

You go back to your doctor, a poor family physician who’s kind – who hears you – who’s stuck with you, believed you – been a safe place
Her righteous indignation makes you feel you might be alive after all

She has one last idea. One breath of hope. Another pill.

You’re 22 and you don’t even know (broken up fears, terrors, sorrows, losses) who you are anymore.

You say yes.

It’s gradual. This thing that’s dominated your life doesn’t recede into it’s black pit so easily.

A digression: you’ve been awake every second.
Every cramp. Every pulse. Every twist. Every yank. The way you describe it now is like a seizure, but more violent and you’re awake
For the throbbing, the pulling, the twisting and turning
The smell of electricity, the feeling
Of being Awake
(like the warning your body sends when you have the flu and you know when you’ll vomit)
You’ve been Awake every single horrific second.

In March, you sit behind the wheel of a car for the first time in six months.
You drive up the hill to Walmart.
You buy something.
You drive home.
It feels like the whole world is singing.

You ask the doctor for more of this stuff and less of all that garbage that’s made you so slow and stupid and helped not at all.
You’re still on the floor, but five times a day now, not eleven.

You feel reborn.

There are ups and downs
You’re not dying
But if it’s what they think it is
You’ll never get better
They can’t say for sure because the insurance won’t test you when
There’s no hope of a cure.

You almost don’t care because
Now you’re only on the floor two or three times a day and you drive, you get accepted for an internship, you’re much braver than you were but also
More solemn, more isolated.
Quietly grieving.

Your life is becoming yours again but you don’t recognize it.

Time passes. Your birthday makes you cry. People say how did you do it how do you now you always smile you’re so kind you’re so brave and you
Talk about your faith, because it’s been the single slim line keeping your from drowning
Talk about small blessings because you’ve truly found them to be abundant
Talk about family, one or two incredibly loyal friends, coworkers and an office like family

But you try not to mention
Not now
Not ever

How the weight you gained sticks with you
How you’re prisoner to the night because the flash of headlights in the dark gives you symptoms
How you have to measure activities by the strength you have left
No bright or flashing lights
No startling
No loud noises
Avoid crowds stress strain busyness exertion (life)
How you’re afraid you’ll never get married because how will anyone love you?
How you’ll always need more help than you like, be reliant on strangers sometimes
How it’ll never be the same and you’re
Always
Waiting
For it all to crumble again.

You see the short haired thin lipped doctor again.
She’s pregnant now. Her life went on.
She can’t believe her eyes.
You’ve never hated someone before now
But if she’d just looked
Past herself
At you
Maybe so much wouldn’t have been lost.

You do an internship. You change jobs, you move, you increase meds now and then.
You’re careful but busy again.
Sometimes you’re still on the floor.

You get your master’s degree (graduation is all bright lights and noise, you don’t go, you don’t grieve)
You get a job
Buy a house

Sometimes it catches you unawares
That this is who you are now
Can’t separate yourself from your disease.

You still can’t imagine anyone will ever love you “that way” (the lifetime kind of way)

You miss theatre, driving long distances or after dark, not planning pills and energy levels ahead, trusting doctors, steady hands, close friends who fell away, believing in your body and yourself, not being such close friends with shame.

You insist on trying everything at least once just to see if maybe somehow you can handle it okay.

You find joy the way you always have – somehow you’ve always been gifted with eyes to see. Sometimes you take that for granted but not as much anymore. You build a life again.

Time passes.

Now it’s time to let go. It’s going to be your birthday again and it’s hitting hard somehow because you’re officially in your midtwenties and you feel like you lost
So much time
So many dreams
Innocence and belief.

And you grieve it, grieve with silent wailing, calm smiles, a constant sense of bittersweet
But you can’t change it.

You’ll probably not star in a show again. You won’t be able to mow your own lawn, travel will be unpredictable at best and not real safe, you’ll always have to decide when (not if) to disclose, your hands will always shake, you’ll be weak, people will sometimes think you rude, standoffish, selfish, strange, gross, broken, hard, because sometimes you
Just
Can’t.

But maybe there’s something you
Can.
Things you didn’t ever think you could even Before
New dreams
Brighter stars.

Oh, you. You can’t reach for those stars with both hands holding so tightly to the past.

Stand on faith. Exchange your shame for humility. Accept that your fear doesn’t make liars of people who call you brave.

Something happened to you. It tore you up, carved scars in your heart, left the print of something heavy on your soul.
It does not define you. Only you do.

Soon, it’s your birthday. The Anniversary of something much bigger than a disease.

Today is the beginning of everything you make it to be. All of this is not your story.
It’s still unfolding.