Don’t Let Nobody Take Your Joy

1 Sep

After work on Friday, I gave some food to the homeless people who hang out by Civic Center station. With one sandwich and a croissant, I felt bad when I realized I didn’t have enough to feed everyone. But a kind, older man told me that seeing me happy was enough to brighten his day.

As I ran down the stairs, he called after me. I stopped midway and braced myself for the insult I was sure he’d spit out. He’d changed his mind. I was inconsiderate, lazy, privileged–or worse, he’d call me something derogatory, sexual.  But instead he said, “Young lady, don’t let nobody take your joy.”

This comment resonated with me. It’s so simple, and yet profound. Too often in life I play the victim, blaming my job, my commute, and my obligations at home for taking my joy. Why can’t I work on my novel whenever I want to? Why do I have to miss out on social activities with friends on the weekends because that’s the only time I have to write?

Nearly every day, I find a reason I can’t be happy. It’s a long work day, I have to clean the apartment, my husband is still recovering from surgery and his lack of independence has been challenging for both of us. I can’t be happy until life gets easier.

Waiting for my BART train, I thought about the homeless man’s words. I felt lighter. Hell, I was smiling. No one has the power to take away my joy. And it’s better to live in joy each moment, or at least to try, than to feel miserable all the time.

I still haven’t gotten any writing done this weekend, and I’m worried that tomorrow (a holiday) will require getting online and working to make sure nothing has gone wrong with the company website. This is the first year my husband and I haven’t gone camping with friends for Labor Day, because he needs to rest after surgery.

But getting upset about these things is a choice. I can’t pretend I’ve mastered the secret to happiness, but I think I’ve been given some key wisdom.  I am the somebody who can take away my joy, and I need to stop doing it.

Looking at my novel plot planner on the wall, I’m making slow but steady progress. I’ve written 62 pages. Yes, it’s daunting knowing I need to write 238 more, but I will get there. I’ve done it before. Twice.  Come hell or high water, work stress or family drama, writing is my joy. And I’m not letting nobody take it away from me.

Back on the horse

11 Aug

It’s a little bit scary coming back to writing after taking nearly a year hiatus. Planning a wedding, working a full-time job and continuing to chase the dream of traditional publication proved too much for me. I could only handle the wedding planning and the job. It was tough setting aside one personal goal to work towards another, but look how happy I am in this picture! Our beautiful wedding day made the sacrifices worthwhile.

me and bobo

Still, the entire time I spent re-configuring my guest list, or designing my invitations, all I could think about was how I would rather be writing. My wedding colors weren’t that important to me (in fact, I kept the tablecloths white–it was cheaper) and with every customer complaint I answered at work, I wanted so badly to be lost in research, plot planning, and my story world.

Except I didn’t have a story.

After  completing, rewriting and heavily revising two novels, attending my first writer’s conference, and feeling I was thisclose to landing an agent at a successful pitch session, I couldn’t send out one more query letter. It was too heartbreaking. I was exhausted and needed to take a step back from everything. Or twenty…until I had completely walked away from my manuscript.

My second novel, Last Call for Olivia Bailey, is in pretty good shape. I’d considered submitting it to a small press when the wedding was over, or saying, “to hell with it”, and going the self-publishing route. At least I’d have something out there, and finally be able to call myself an author. It’s funny, because with two completed novels, and the time I’ve taken to learn the craft of writing, I am in a sense an author. But I’m missing the final piece of the equation: people need to read my work.

There’s one special person who has read my novels, who is my inspiration to dust myself off and try again.  She’s my critique partner, Sally Hepworth. While I was in Greece on my honeymoon, I got an email from Sally saying she’d signed a 2 book deal with St. Martin’s for her novel, The Secrets of Midwives.

I was in shock. Sally has been working at this for so long and so diligently, with two small children to take care of, and more novels under her belt than I have. When I read The Secrets of Midwives, I knew it was different. It was effortless to read, and just as good as any one of Emily Giffin’s novels. So it makes sense that Sally shares the same publishing house and editor as one of our favorite chick-lit authors.

On my honeymoon, I started writing. I didn’t have to think about work emails, salmon or beef, tuxedo rentals, and which friends should (or shouldn’t) sit next to each other. With the wide blue expanse of Aegean Sea before me, I had just my notebook and my thoughts.

From that leather notebook came the structure of my next novel, The Secret of the Ring . It’s set in both present day and 1876 San Francisco, a dual narrative that I’m pretty excited about.  I know it will be a challenge to write, with my day job going into high-gear for the holiday season, but I finally feel like myself again.

Getting back on the horse, my legs are a little shaky, and I’m taking a firm grip of the reigns. Maybe he’ll throw me again, but that’s not stopping me from the thrill of the ride.

The importance of reading for pleasure

29 Sep

Last night I settled onto the couch, with the cat nestled happily on my chest, and started reading Sarah Jio’s latest novel, Blackberry Winter. I love the structure of Sarah Jio’s novels because of the dual narrative; each book juxtaposing present day with vivid memories of the past. I can’t think of another author with a greater talent for world building. Sarah’s descriptions of Seattle and Bainbridge Island are so engrossing, you can practically smell the saltiness of Puget Sound. But more than anything else, I love reading for pleasure because it reminds me why I write.

Since returning to full-time work, my blog (in addition to my household chores) has seriously suffered. There are takeout boxes littering the floor of my apartment and chopsticks glued to the coffee table in the living room, the remnants of last night’s coconut curry beef udon lingering in the air. I haven’t deep cleaned in over a month (shhh). I can’t even bring myself to look at the stack of bills sitting next to me, some envelopes haphazardly torn open, others glaring at me as if they contain anthrax.

I don’t know how authors hold down jobs, care for their children and still manage to pump out a word count in the quiet hours before dawn, or after everyone else has gone to sleep. In the past three years, the period when I completed my two novels, I never worked more than 30 hours a week. Writing in the afternoon wasn’t my biggest challenge. Getting my novels out there was.

Both of my books are still sitting in folders on my desktop. Each novel has been polished and revised too many times to count (though the second is in a closer state of “readiness” than the first). What’s preventing me from querying another agent? From submitting to a small press? From going on Smashwords, CreateSpace, Lulu, or any other self-publishing site and hitting “upload” ?

Part of me feels that it won’t be possible to simultaneously hold down a job, plan a wedding and publish a book. But another part of me wonders if maybe that’s not the problem. Maybe after two novels, I still haven’t written my best work, and I don’t want anyone to read my writing until I do. After finishing Blackberry Winter this morning, I asked myself if I could do better.

Have I yet reached my personal best? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Now I have ideas swirling around in my mind for a third book. A book with more layers to it than my previous women’s fiction. The wooden floors beneath me can stay covered in cat hair for a few more hours. What I need to do now is to write those ideas down.

So to my friends in the blogosphere: don’t stop reading, don’t stop writing, and don’t forget who you are. Yes, YOU, the only person capable of telling your story.

Love,

Meredith

Remembering the art of expression

31 Aug

Wow, a lot has changed since my last post. Not only is the format of WordPress totally different (where have I been?) but I’ve made a life transition as well. For the first time in 3 years, I am returning to full-time work. I know, I know- I touted the benefits of solopreneurship and letting go of a life that looks good on paper. But the thing is, sometimes it’s necessary to find balance between our work personae and the creative fire we all have inside us.

With so much time on my hands at home, I found my desire to write waning instead of sparking into a flame. Now that I’m at a San Francisco startup with interesting young people, inspiration is all around me. From the gritty urban streets of SOMA with rambling homeless and honking delivery trucks, to the chanting hippie screen printers above the warehouse, my world has expanded with ideas. The only problem? I get home around 7pm to a whining cat, a hungry man, and a sink full of dirty dishes.

But today my coworker sent me an article in Psychology Today on George Carlin’s last interview. Intrigued, I clicked on it, not sure what to expect. What I found were inspiring words of wisdom for anyone who wants to follow their own path, and to express themselves authentically. George says, “A 20-year-old has a limited amount of data they’ve experienced, either seeing or listening to the world. At 70 it’s a much richer storage area, the matrix inside is more textured, and has more contours to it.”

I liked this idea of being 30-years-old and having a richer data set than I had ten years prior (even though I was out exploring more of the world back then.) George explains more in depth:

“Now at this age, I have a network of knowledge and data and observations and feelings and values and evaluations I have in me that do things automatically. And then when I sit down to consciously write, that’s when I bring the craftsmanship. That’s when I pull everything together and say, how I can best express that? And then as you write, you find more, ’cause the mind is looking for further connections. And these things just flow into your head and you write them. And the writing is the really wonderful part. A lot of this is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered and that’s our job is to just notice them and bring them to life.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I too have my observations and feelings and values, which have led me to my life choices. Whether I’m tired from working late or feeling sorry for myself because the universe shit on my gratitude journal it’s not an excuse to ignore my blog or my novel. Instead each experience should feed the part of my brain that stores data to be incorporated into my writing.

It’s going to be harder now to stay focused, I know that much. But I hope every flapping pigeon’s wing, dirty sidewalk and ghostly whistle of the BART train stays hidden somewhere in my subconscious, waiting to be discovered and brought to life.

A message from the universe?

16 Aug

My cat has had diarrhea for the past two days (lovely, I know) and has smeared his ass all over my gratitude journal. I’ve been trying not to read too deeply into this. If it were a message from the universe, a fair interpretation would be: “Dude, I am cosmically shitting on you.”

True, times have been tough. My fiancé is injured right now from training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and we both hope it’s not too serious. I’ve been going a little stir crazy from being at home all day freelancing and I miss the social interaction I used to have. Now my only companion is a cat who ( I know grammatically animals are “that” but he has a personality!) doesn’t appreciate the fact that I’m chasing him around with earth-friendly cat wipes, trying to clean his butt. He doesn’t care that they’re good for the planet–he wants to sit on the couch before I can catch him. Which he already succeeded in doing, by the way. Who wants to watch TV at my house? What? No one?

I think I’ve been wallowing too much recently in all of the things that have gone wrong, or could go wrong in the future. (We writers love to wallow in our misery like Honey Boo Boo splashing around in a giant puddle of mud. You betta redneck-ognize!). I haven’t blogged in a few weeks because I’ve felt so uninspired. Right now this might be one of my lamer blog posts, but at least it’s honest.

Sometimes the universe doesn’t give you what you want when you want it. Sometimes life is frustrating and confusing. Sometimes everything feels overwhelming.

Remember back to high school when every issue ( earlier curfew than your friends, a crush not liking you back) was blown so out of proportion that it felt like the end of the world? My emotions have been like that lately: a teenage drama queen’s roller-coaster ride. But I’m an adult now, and better equipped to deal with difficult situations. Yes the problems are bigger and sometimes everything still feels like it sucks. But I didn’t throw out my shit-stained gratitude journal. That would’ve been too sad and symbolic. Instead I tore off the cover and vowed to keep writing down what I’m grateful for.

Today I’m grateful to my friends, family and very patient fiancé for accepting me as I am: an imperfect human being with all my crazy thoughts. ( True story: on a camping trip last weekend I was voted a 7 on the crazy scale. 7! Obviously this was met with disagreement from me, and also from one lovely girl who works at Planned Parenthood and  has witnessed all kinds of crazy.)

So to my fellow crazies out there,

If you think you’re doing everything wrong and the universe hates you, this just isn’t true. Your cat still loves you because he doesn’t judge. Go clean him up and give him a good cuddle.

Going for Gold: What the Olympics have taught me about writing

1 Aug

For the past few days I’ve been glued to my television, watching in awe as Olympic athletes from around the world perform perfectly synchronized dives, swim like maniacs, and fly from the uneven bars as if their bodies weigh nothing at all. I get choked up easily (one of my overly-sensitive Cancer traits) and it warmed my heart to see the smiles on the faces of the USA women’s gymnastics team when they won gold. They’re so young and cute, and yet they work incredibly  hard, performing amazing feats that I could never be brave enough to try. A lot of these girls sacrifice the chance to be normal teenagers, in order to pursue their goals with 100% focus.

As writers, we’re always reading about ways to improve our craft: take classes, get in a critique group, read more books, write everyday. But are any of us as dedicated to our writing as these Olympic athletes are to their sports? We try. Many writers juggle their passion for fiction or self-help or memoir with full-time jobs and raising children. Unlike Olympians, no one wakes us up at 4am to train (fueling us with pots and pots of coffee!), and pushes us to spend 10 hours a day, every day, in front of our computers, pounding out the best prose we can.

In writing life, who are the coaches? Are they our literary agents, forcing us to do our best? What about those of us writers who don’t have an agent? In that case, friends, family and spouses–anyone who encourages us not to give up–are they our coaches?

And what about the medal system?

For those of us seeking traditional publication, a book deal with a major house is like winning gold. I know it would be for me. That elation, like the expression on Missy Franklin’s face after completing the 100-meter backstroke-I imagine getting published by St. Martin’s or Simon & Schuster would feel like that.

But what of silver then, or bronze? Is it the literary equivalent getting published by a smaller house? A writer friend has been encouraging me to give up the agent search and to consider small presses. Since parting ways with his own agent, he’s signed three book deals and feels like his career is finally taking off. I think he has a very good point, and I’m tempted to submit to some lesser-known independent presses.

But I’m worried that without the fancy book cover and the rounds and rounds of agent and editor supervised revisions, I won’t feel the same sense of satisfaction upon publication. In an age when you can throw anything online and call it a novel, how do you know when your good enough is good enough? And shouldn’t we all strive to be great? Being traditionally published gives you the seal of approval that your writing is fantastic (though many will argue the opinions of gatekeepers mean nothing- hello Twilight!) Plus, traditionally published authors get to stand atop a podium (usually at a book reading) and say to everybody, “Look at what I did!”

Not to say that all successful traditionally published writers are terrible preachy people, bragging of their successes. Many are humble and quite nice. Some will even talk to you on Twitter! (Though I must say, a certain very tan, very blonde, very famous writer on tour right now has been getting on my nerves with her annoying Facebook posts!)

I guess no matter how we publish-traditional, indie, self-pub, small press-what matters is that we feel like we’ve won the gold. Writing, like any skill, requires hard work, patience and lots of practice.  If the effort has been put in, then the reward is seeing readers connect with our stories. The fame, the money and feeling like we’ve finally made it are all good things- but not the main thing.

So just like Jordyn Wieber, I’m going to toughen up. Maybe my victory won’t happen in the original way that I envisioned it, but with a little more teamwork, it will happen.

 

Changing direction: is a dream career worth the sacrifice?

18 Jul

I think one of the hardest parts of turning thirty for me has been letting go of the idea that I should already be established in my career. I read a wedding blog thread about the benefits of getting married in your thirties, and all the comments included the words, “financial stability.”  Thirty-something friends continue telling me that the best part of being in your thirties is knowing who you are, and having money. I have a good head on my shoulders…but money? Not so much. I’m not running around racking up credit card debt because I need a new pair of Jimmy Choos or a Brazilian wax (how did Carrie Bradshaw survive on her writer’s salary, exactly?). But even with frugal spending (Payless Shoe Source! Woot! Woot!), I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed a major milestone.

I’m still working towards the career I want.

And despite what society says, I don’t know if this is unusual. While some of my peers went to law school in their mid-twenties and have successfully worked their way up the corporate ladder, not everyone discovers their chosen path so early. Thankfully I have other close friends who are in the same boat as I am. One is contemplating a career  in the restaurant industry while another is deciding if business school is for her. This is a major departure from our original jobs in administration.

The problem with working in administration is that it’s safe. It might not a pay a lot, but it does pay for groceries, PG&E, gas, and the occasional splurge, like a really nice haircut.  Now that I have a wedding to plan for, the full-time jobs on Craigslist are starting to look mighty tempting. I feel torn. I’m getting some really good opportunities to branch out in a new direction-to gain experience editing in addition to my freelance writing. But piecing together jobs in an effort to become successfully self-employed is scary. Now that I’m faced with the real-life scenario of needing to save money, should I continue chasing a dream career?

I don’t know. I used to be an administrator by day and a writer by night. Now I’m trying to fuse my work with my passion so that my “real” career is a little more related to my dream career of being an author. Except I can’t decide what’s more important: doing the work I love or having the money to buy the things I love? Some lucky (hardworking) people can achieve both. But when I look at women like Marie Forleo and Gala Darling I don’t know if I have what it takes to become my own brand. Do I even want to be a brand? We writers are shy types, and the idea of the whole world watching videos of me talking is a little terrifying. Not to mention, I’d have to do my hair and makeup everyday.

This isn’t to say I won’t ever try a vlog. One of these days I might work up the guts to do it. But that means anyone can view it. Anyone! Ex-boyfriends, stalkers, my mother’s neighbors…and I don’t want to embarrass myself.  But that fear of embarrassment? Yeah, that’s society talking, telling me it’s embarrassing that I’m thirty-years-old and I don’t have a mega-successful website and a book deal, and a career to be jealous of.

While I may not have those things, I have something else: courage. Because whether you see me flourish as an entrepreneur or say “yes” to a traditional 9-5 job (hopefully in publishing) instead, I gave something new a try. My twenties were for traveling and building a career in international education. My thirties are something different. Something I haven’t figured out yet. And that’s okay.

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