Recently I had the pleasure of reading and signing at two North Carolina independent bookstores–Purple Crow Books and McIntyre’s Books. With fellow author of Skater in a Strange Land, David Frauenfelder, and as part of the writers’ co-operative True North Writers & Publishers, I had a chance to share my YA Manifesto and speak of Doris Betts, our beloved mentor.
Check out the wonderful film made by my stepson, Henry Darr, who not only captured events at these great stores but also captured who I am as an author.
There’s nothing like the intimacy of a place packed with books and readers. You feel your heart accelerate as you try to read with feeling and bring your book to life for an audience. You sweat through your clothes, but happily, because the place is full and friends are smiling and you are finally in community with the larger world, not just in your own mind with your characters’ voices. You take questions, you shake hands, and you try to keep your hand from trembling as you sign, thinking hard once again of the best thing to write. You say to yourself, What a beautiful thing that people are willing to leave their homes to hear me and be together; how wonderful is it that someone gets up day after day and unlocks a shop full of rich, luminous, colorful books!
I’m all for ebooks, but I love print pages in my hand, too. I love seeing books stacked up on my nightstand. The world feels full of possibility when there are too many books to read. And walking into a place full of stacked shelves, with the papery scent of dust and carpet and bindings…it’s a pleasure that hasn’t changed since childhood.
When was the last time you strolled a bookstore, browsed, and bought?
I would have never imagined a year later I’d have already published a collection of short stories and be on my way to launching my debut novel. That after almost a decade of work on the former and three years on the latter, I’d be enjoying an adventurous, never-a-dull-day year of publishing on my own terms.
I might say I’ve found my true north.
The idiom captures the difficulty of knowing one’s right direction in a world of magnetic forces that would have us wander this way or that. I spent two years of my life querying agents, working with one for over a year, and revising the manuscript constantly according to potential market specs. There were some dark moments of staring at a screen in a panic (my words have failed me!); arguing on a phone (you think the point of my novel is to get 16 year-old girls of bland suburban tastes to read it? Who ARE said girls–I don’t know them!); or questioning my own instincts about Wendy’s character (are you clinging unreasonably to her beliefs and obsessions?). I wondered if I’d deluded myself that I ever had a chance in this business.
I had to regroup and let my faith rally, and I had to remind myself that I am a writer, first, last, always. Not a second of that wandering and wondering was a waste. Every moment taught me skills and strengthened muscle for the moments I live now, full of trust my words are beginning to have a reach I’ve dreamed about.
No, my numbers haven’t knocked the Kindle best-sellers out of the park. But slowly, surely, great news trickles in daily, after two months of only a Kindle edition. A friend 3,000 miles away wants a signed copy of the collection, now that my paperback came out last week. A group of high school students will be discussing “Midrift.” Eight wonderful reviews are up on Amazon. Kind, unsolicited emails arrive from readers. An interview will happen next week on a nationally-syndicated radio show.
I’m having a lot of fun, too. I’m sharing my cover design with friends, family, and a support team, seeking people’s gut reactions and design eye. I’m talking sales and marketing with my dad, and getting requests for images and URLs from my web designer. I’m arranging head shots with a former student, Teresa Porter, who is pursuing her dream of photography–now a busy professional winning awards and penning a blog that’s gone viral, because she’s speaking her true north-truth.
“Can you believe we’re here?” she said to me the other day. “You getting published, and me with a photography business?”
My first reaction was to laugh with delight. Those who know the intense type-A worrier that I am can attest this is not my typical first reaction to things. Which tells me I’m true-northing it right now, truly.
I am also very excited about a co-operative venture I and two other devoted students of Doris Betts have recently undertaken: True North Writers and Publishers. Bob Mustin and Dave Frauenfelder, my partners in this venture, are passionate, gifted writers with whom I’m honored to be associated. We encourage one another’s work, promote it, and plan some exciting events for signing and sharing this summer.
Our first precept is Scribere quam videre scribere. To write rather than to seem to write. (If you know the North Carolina state motto–Esse quam videri, To be rather than to seem (to be)–and if you try to write regularly, you know what we mean!) We’re NC writers sharing authentic writing for the New South, and we will keep each other honest in this endeavor.
My ship sees its way clear right now, the waters glassy with calm, the lighthouse straight ahead. My compass doesn’t waver. I know that when the clouds gather, the sky roars, and the swells rise, I’ll have to grab a little bit tighter to that instrument and trust, trust, trust. But for now, I’m loving the peace and the joy of following my true path. So grateful I’m able to be here!
|Image found here|
In high school my friends and I made fun of a girl with a molasses Southern accent and very few thoughts rattling around in her head, or so it seemed. Perhaps we felt superior because she would hold forth in the bathroom with a can of hairspray and a pound of make-up, cooing at her equally air-headed-acting BFF (only we didn’t call ’em BFFs or besties then). “Do you love it?” she’d coo. “You know you loooooove it.”
I never learned the meaning of those words, but I recall feeling a heck of a lot smarter. Never in my nerd history would I speak such fluff. It’s probably no surprise this girl was popular, very popular. She was easy on the eyes and ears. And always nice to me.
Of course none of us should ever feel superior: that’s the kindergarten lesson we all were supposed to get. I find that every lesson unlearned comes back to haunt or at the very least tease me. Because now, wouldn’tcha know, I ask myself this very question every day:
Do you love it, Lyn? You know you love it.
Writing? I love it so very much, and even when it’s not going well, I get kind of crazy when I don’t make time for it.
My husband called me out on my irritability recently. “When you don’t get writing time, you get really grumpy,” he observed. Then he pointed out all the choices I’ve been making that take me away from writing–some of which I don’t have to make, he said.
With age comes wisdom and the confidence to trust your wiser choices. If you love something, give it your best attention and the best part of your day. In a recent blog post, author Hope Clark recommends that we “Eat Dessert First” and note where we give our best energy in our days.
Today I worked somewhere in the vicinity of page 57 of the new version, the overhaul of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT. How much further I thought I’d be by now. But I do every day what Doris Betts recommended–start a few pages back before where I left off, and get back into the rhythm and the flow of my prose. I go over things painstakingly, lovingly, and slowly. That’s the only way this is going to get done–with the TLC you give a growing child.
There’s one other point to this–the why behind me loving it. Sure, writing is my vocation, it’s in my genes, but I love it because I get to choose what I write and how I write. For years, I told my students what, when, and how to write. Some of them still thank me for it, but here’s the rub: the only way our kids are going to looooove it is when they have more choice.
Professional writers get to choose, and they choose often. The journalist racing after that scoop; the marketer choosing the best diction to get the buyer following a call to action; the grant writer culling facts and pitching a mission so funders will come calling with funds: no matter what the writing prompt, most professionals get a big say in the what and how of their writing. If not, they have choice to leave that gig. Even when writing for a client, your talent and expertise always have a say, because you’re the boss of the words.
How can teachers make more room for choice in the English classroom? I believe our opportunities to do so increase with the recent advent of the Common Core Standards. But that’s a post for another day.
And how can writers make more time to do what they love? Find when you’re at your best each day and make that 15, 25, or 50 minutes to give writing your all.
Note I didn’t say a full hour. I’m realistic about this love affair. Time must be snatched when it can. If you love it, really love it, you know you can make something of the very few minutes. There’s as much choice there, making the most of every moment, as anything else.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth, Act V, scene v, Macbeth.
Image found at Reuters, “Hear That Buzzing?“
If you’re a North Carolina resident, you’re making peace with the alien, neurotic, machine-like whirring of 13-year cicadas recently descended in our midst. You may still cock your head as you exit the door–“What the heck is that?” Then your foot crunches on husks left behind, the shells of nymphs just exiting the ground. You see something sluggish and damp crawling through new grass and old leaves–a grasshopper gone worm?–and realize it’s a cicada drying its wings before it flies. You lean closer to peer at the red-eyed critter that’s been growing 13 years underground, one of billions emerging here in the South.
Then if you’re like me, you think, “Wow, all this sound and fury for what, a couple weeks above ground? You got a raw deal, critters.”
What was I doing back in 1998 when these brief little things were born? Besides entering my eighth year of teaching, I was cradling a four year-old novel close–not doing much with it, but still damn proud of the desire that birthed it. Little did I know my life passions of teaching and writing lessons would shelve my fiction till the summer of 2003. The North Carolina Writers’ Network Elizabeth Daniels Squire residency with Doris Betts helped me grow new shoots and seek sunlight in hungry ways I hadn’t felt in years.
Little did I know the novel would once again go underground in 2009 when ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US, AKA HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT was born–hot and fast, furious like these cicadas. The 1994 novel–once called BUT YES–would re-emerge this year as the prequel to my current one: OUR WHITE LADY OF THE GENTLE SINS. Not so dead after all.
Some might call all these years since ’94 wasted time. Dormancy is deadness, certain folk might say. Only it hasn’t been a period of dormancy for my writing. Like the cicadas, my work was actively growing. Nancy Hinkle, a University of Georgia professor of entomology, shares how “The little nymphs are down in the ground, they’ve got their mouth parts attached to tree roots and they’re sucking the juice out of tree roots.” Apt image for us writers who seek out mentors, writers’ groups, books, conferences, and now, agents.
I envy the cicadas in some ways: they grow uninterrupted, the equivalent of an ivory tower gone bunker, and then emerge for one big mating party. They get ‘er done fast and furious. They leave a legacy in the soil. That has to signify something.
The 1994 novel has had a 17-year cycle, looks like. Not a periodical cicada, like the 13-year babies, nor an annual locust. The 2009 novel has been alive two years. But who’s counting? There’s no race here, though cicadas might have us believe their fretful drone says, “Rush!” Maybe they know something we don’t about the private life underground. There, where they can’t blog, Facebook, tweet, or brag, they do the tough work of sucking and growing, staying attached to the goal, eyes on the prize. And maybe their genetic code knows all along the fleeting nature of prizes such as publicity, fame, and other aspects of above-ground life. They stay focused on keeping the species–their stories–alive.
I get it, cicadas. That’s where I’m headed. Back to my stories breeding in the silent, breathless soil.
— What were you doing 13 years ago? 17? Write a scene from one of those times.
— What did you think you would be doing today that you’re not? What did you think that you’d be doing today that you are? What did you fear you would or would not do? What do you rejoice in?
— What is horrible about waiting? What is magical?
— Describe a time when you have been left completely alone and liked it. What happened?
— Describe a time when you were very quiet and experienced peace. What caused that? What was that peace like?
— What have you spent a lot of time, effort, and sweat doing but have not yet seen the results? How do you feel about the time, effort, and sweat? How do you feel about the lack of results?
— Predict where you will be 13 years from now, in 2024–physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Write a scene from your future life when you emerge from the next 13 years.
— Dr. Marcia Mount Shoop shares a blog post called “The Sound of Emerging.” How would you describe your sound of emerging?
— Look at your writing projects and find the one that has needed the most growth. Why? What has that time on task allowed this writing that something shorter and faster did not need? What do you think will soon emerge from this writing?