Very early in my teaching career, when I was still learning my craft, I’d had a disastrous first essay assignment with my students. I’d mistakenly believed one of my jobs as a teacher was to edit their papers, and the result was, as a student bluntly referred to it, “a bloodbath.” (I’d even used red pen. I’d thought teachers were supposed to use red pens.) I hadn’t taught them as much as I’d corrected them. I hadn’t guided them as much as I’d crushed them. They were deflated, as was I. I had thought I was doing it right, only to discover I’d not only done it wrong, but also that I’d probably done damage.
When I confided in the professor who became my mentor, he didn’t chastise me, but politely showed me the errors of my ways, and offered suggestions on how to improve. And by doing so, he’d freed me to become the kind of teacher I aspired to be.
For the second essay assignment, due right around Halloween, I was now inspired and even confident. Dubbing the assignment “The Monster is Out of the Cage” (and following it with an excessive amount of exclamation points; like I said, I was young and had a lot to learn about my craft), I offered a completely new approach to the learning objectives. I had derived the title from the manager of the New York Mets referring to catcher Mike Piazza, who finally had the batting performance the fans and team had been waiting for during the 2000 Subway World Series with the New York Yankees.
Drawing on Stephen King’s essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” I offered my students to write their own “Why We Crave…” essay, filling in the blank.
The students loved it. And the topics were varied. Why We Crave Love. Why We Crave Football. Why We Crave Music.
Their writing came alive, as did they. Moreover, they came to understand the objective of the assignment: what we in the field described as a causal analysis.
“The Monster is Out of the Cage” had been an apt title for the assignment in many ways, and it set the course for the remainder of the semester, which ended way better than it had started.
Dare I say, this is how I’m feeling these days.
It started last month, when I devoured Glennon Doyle’s memoir Untamed. Yes, I nodded as I read, putting the book down every few minutes to record the moment in my journal next to me. Yes, yes, yes. Somehow, in the last two or three years, I’d given too much of myself away, forfeited too much, sacrificed in order to compromise. I was hardly aware that I had, and then when I was aware, I was angry at myself for having done it so willingly, consciously or subconsciously or unconsciously, against my nature. I’d thought I was beyond all that, especially at this point in life. I thought I had more wisdom.
I didn’t want to be caged anymore, however that metaphor applied. I wanted to let my free spirit be free again.
Or perhaps it started even earlier than that, when I made the decision to leave social media (which is at forty days and counting). Because since leaving, I have, indeed, felt freer. I’m writing again. Heck, I’m reading again. I think I read ten books all year. I’ve read ten books in the last 30 days. Closer to fourteen in the last two months.
I’m learning how to be a writer again. Heck, in some ways I feel as if I’m even learning how to write again. Moreover, I’m learning how to be an author again.
And, despite being so sheltered these days, I feel like I’m finally learning how to live again.
After at least two years of not knowing if I would ever write a book again, if I would ever even want to write a book again, the desire is back, and (at the risk of jinxing myself), the doing is back.
October 22nd’s Why I Love Singlehood’s Zoom event with my co-author Sarah Girrell and This House of Books (SEE BELOW) was when I really ran wild. Sarah and I had so much fun reliving our writing process, revisiting The Grounds and those characters we knew and loved so intimately. Just as I had done with The Second First Time the week before, I reread Why I Love Singlehood and reconnected to all the things I (we) loved about it, all the things that still made it good, and all the things where I could say in hindsight, without judgment, “I was young. I still had a lot to learn.”
Best of all, the event stirred the creative pot for Sarah and me, made us start asking the what-if questions. Sifting around for a story.
I was back in my element, back in my joy. It showed in my smile and my raucous laughter. It showed in the way I vigorously talked with my hands. It showed in my enthusiasm for the subject and for my friend, and all those who participated.
My husband and I always laugh at the scene in the movie Wonder Boys, when the late Rip Torn’s character (referred to only as “Q”) kicks off the academic literary festival with this booming declaration:
“I. Am. A. Writer.”
We know that guy. I, having been in academia for so long, have met that guy several times over. But in the wake of the Zoom event, I feel myself wanting to roar those very words from my natural habitat.
So yeah, the monster is out of the cage. Like Grover and Cookie and Herry, she’s a friendly monster. But she’s walking around, unleashed. I don’t really know where she’s going or where she’ll end up. But with each step, she feels a little more free to write her own story as she goes. She’s a writer, after all.
I was delighted to discover that fellow Long Islander and author Marci Brockmann devoted her most recent “Book Talk Sunday” show to my novel, The Second First Time. (See video below.) As part of her review, Ms. Brockmann surmised that Sage and Jonathan’s story mirrored my own love story with my husband, Craig.
So now it can be told: Yes. And no.
“Paralleled” might be a better word choice than “mirrored,” for one thing. And there were definitely… er, similarities.
Imagination picked up from there.
I was, indeed, heartbroken at the time. I also had been contracted to write Pasta Wars (late 2014-early 2015). One of my story goals was to cheer myself up. Yet in the middle of writing it, I came across the New York Times article and intimacy questionnaire Ms. Brockmann mentioned, and inspiration struck: I decided to give Craig’s and my failed romance a different outcome. If I couldn’t have a second chance in real life, then I’d give it one on the page.
Thus, The Do-Over was conceived.
In fact, the idea was so powerful that I put down Pasta Wars smack in the middle of a fast approaching deadline and wrote approximately 35,000 words of The Do-Over in two weeks
And then something else happened.
Just a few weeks after those 35,000 words, Craig and I got back in touch, cleaned the slate, and re-established our friendship. Two months later he flew to New York; we spent the week together, and by the end we knew we’d be spending much more than that.
And yes, we did the questionnaire, but we were already in love by then.
That same year, I was contracted to write The Do-Over as part of a two-book deal with my then-publisher, Lake Union. By then those 35,000 words had morphed somewhat and the story had lost a little of its original spark. Having gotten my own real life do-over (and waaaaaay different from what I’d envisioned in the fictionalized version), I had lost the emotional intent and thread, and thus Sage’s intention and obstacles became muddied as well.
With the assistance of Tiffany Yates Martin, the fab developmental editor who had worked with me on Adulation, She Has Your Eyes, and Love, Wylie, we found the thread, and Sage and Jon embarked on their road trip.
One more change was made: The Do-Over became The Second First Time.
In its delivery, The Second First Time was something quite different from its conception. And in a way, that disappointed me. But shortly after its publication, when I read it to Craig (something we like to do with our books, and with each other), I found myself proud of it, with deep affection.
A review from a reader named Joe Miller particularly touched me:
“A compelling treatise, tenderly and engagingly written with life-changing realities. Had this book been available during my 52 years as a military chaplain and pastor, I would have bought multiple copies to have on hand as required reading with follow-on discussion for individuals and couples who came to my office for guidance in relationships and personal growth. I look forward to reading more of Elisa Lorello’s books!”
Likewise, I truly appreciated Ms. Brockmann’s video review because she received what I strive to achieve in every novel I write:
Moreover, she connected to her love story as a result of reading Sage’s and Jon’s. That, too, was confirmation that I achieved what I especially strive for when I craft those characters and dialogue and scenes:
What’s really important and special and profound is ultimately not what the book means to me, but what it means to you.
Because once I’m finished writing it, once it’s been edited and proofread and designed and produced and published, it’s no longer mine.
And thus, your connection, your experience, and your interpretation surpass mine. As it should. Because you carry its light, and share it, and sustain it.
When Duran Duran wrote and recorded “Ordinary World,” it was just a song. When they released it into the world, it became more than a song. For me, it became a lighthouse. For others, a lifeline. For others still, an embrace.
Its whole became far greater than the sum of all of us.
Books have this same magical power of transformation. But the magic can only happen when you wield the wand in the act of reading them.
You are the magician. You are the magic.
I joined Facebook about eleven or twelve years ago, right around the time I self-published my first novel, Faking It. I joined Twitter not long after that. Instagram way more recently. Thanks to these platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter, I connected with people that I never would have had the chance of knowing, several of whom have become close friends. I even met one of them in person for the first time at my wedding. Furthermore, when I’d launched Faking It, I was hoping to reach a few reader networks based on the places I’d lived. Social media changed that for me, and I was able to reach readers in places I’d never imagined.
Moreover, Facebook helped me connect—and reconnect—with family and friends, and even healed a few old wounds. It meant so much to me especially to be able to see how my cousins were doing and get to know them a little better.
Heck, it’s likely that my husband and I wouldn’t have gotten together had it not been for Facebook. Not that we’d met there, but the daily interaction helped build a long distance friendship, and we did the rest.
Those were the good ol’ days.
Facebook was much more benevolent back then, although you would still see some clashes break out from time to time. I had seen that previously in blog comment sections and chat forums. But there’s been an increasingly dramatic shift over the years with all social media platforms. While the illusion is to be connected—to readers, fellow authors, favorite bands, family and friends—the reality is that were disconnected. Estranged. In the world of social media platforms, we are not the consumer, but the product. We are a commodity to be traded and manipulated. And the manipulation is so subtle we hardly notice it.
I don’t wish to be preachy here, or even doomsday—social media already does too much of that—but I’ve known for a while now that my time on social media has been making me increasingly depressed, overwhelmed, angry, powerless, and even ill. Every time I have thought about leaving, I hear voices over my shoulder: If you leave, you’ll never get your readers back. What little you have left in sales of your books will be gone. You’ll never be able to attract new ones.”
And not just readers. In the last few months I’ve begun new endeavors that I’ve been hesitant to talk about here because a) I’ve not wanted to cross-pollinate them, and b) I didn’t want to come off as self-promoting (which could eventually be another blog post altogether). But with each business I started new Instagram and Facebook pages, and I figured that pouring my attention into them in positive ways would be a way of balancing out the bad stuff. Plus, I needed new clients, and I was getting some as a result.
However, I can’t shake the knowledge and the feeling that I’m feeding a beast that is out of control and doing damage to our planet and our people day by day, minute by minute, eroding both.
I am also convinced that social media is the reason why I’ve spent the last couple of years floating and flailing from one thing to the next. I’ve lost the ability to sustain focus and momentum. I’ve lost energy. I’ve lost hope.
And so I’m taking a massive leap into the unknown: I’m leaving social media.
In a lot of ways, this feels like a divorce. Loved ones are going to get caught in the crossfire. I’m going to miss people. I’m going to miss birthdays. I’m going to miss events and updates. I’m going to potentially lose business.
It’s a scary thing to do, to give up all these connections especially during a time when our physical communities have been taken away from us. I feel as if I’m severing a lifeline.
However, I also feel like I’m breaking a chain.
I am not becoming a Luddite and relinquishing my smartphone and Internet connection (although I am removing some apps). And I won’t be completely unreachable. I still have a mailing list that will be playing a more prominent role in my intention to inform and connect and sell my products. I hope many of you will subscribe if you haven’t already. And if you have, I hope you’ll check your Spam boxes and make sure the emails aren’t getting sent there. I still have my website that I will be updating and looking into ways to maximize its potential. You can always email me via the Contact Me page on my website. Also, I’ve already got at least one Zoom event planned for early November (more on that to come—this is one incentive to get on the mailing list, so you’ll hear about it), and I hope to have more in the months to come.
And in the meantime, I will be, as my husband would say, uncoiling the tightly wound spring of these last few years. And, if all goes well, performing a little alchemy.
Many people in my tarot/oracle card-reading circle of friends and mentors have been on a quest for meaning and purpose during this pandemic, and throughout the turmoil of 2020. Speaking only for myself, I thought, among other things, that there was an opportunity to be of service in ways other than writing, and to jump-start new businesses and ideas. Plus, I needed to make money for the same reasons we all do. The work has been fulfilling in many ways, and I have been and will continue to be of service.
However, there’s a message I’ve been ignoring, and I think it’s something we as humans are often afraid of:
Withdraw. Go within.
This weekend, I could no longer ignore the call, even despite my objections of having just started to gain momentum in this business, and needing to ease the burden my husband has shouldered (not to mention the guilt I’ve shouldered as a result of my repeated failed attempts to do so). Social media has not been the tool, but rather the weapon. It’s not been the outlet, but the prison. It’s not been the focus, but the distraction. It’s not been the connection, but the diversion. It’s not been the means to wealth, but the source of poverty, especially emotional and spiritual. I am speaking only for myself here.
It has been the addiction.
I fear I will not be successful. I fear I will get sucked back in at some point. I fear I will crave connection. Engagement. Validation. I fear I will miss out. I fear I will lose more than I will gain.
And yet, I also feel as if this is the only way to save my soul. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but that’s the weight I’ve felt. In fact, it feels a little like what the computer says the end of the 80s movie War Games (SPOILER ALERT): “The only way to win is not to play.”
Prior to my writing this, I called in to Denise Linn’s radio show, Mystic Café. For those who don’t know, Denise Linn is a renowned expert on feng shui, clutter clearing, energy clearing, and more. I’ve been following her work since 1996, and I own and use several of her oracle card decks. I told her what I was about to do, that I was scared to do it, and I asked her to pull a card from one of those decks. She chose the Sacred Traveler oracle deck, which just so happens to be one of my favorite decks, and one that I’ve used quite a bit in my recent work as a tarot and oracle card reader. She squealed with delight when she pulled my card and revealed it to me:
MIRACLES. “Expect the wondrous to emerge.”
“You are absolutely doing the right thing,” she affirmed with conviction and excitement, “and it’s going to open up so many things for you.”
I’ve decided to remain on all platforms until September 30, the day before my wedding anniversary. And although I won’t be deleting my accounts, they will go dormant indefinitely.
Will I ever return? I really don’t know.
But I will be here. More importantly, by making myself absent from social media, I believe I will finally be present.
If there is such a thing as a soul lesson, meaning a lesson that a soul takes a human lifetime to learn, then mine is loss and letting go.
I’ve always had immense difficulty letting go of my attachment to whatever I’ve lost, be it a job, a relationship, even a favorite spatula. I’m serious about that last one. Around 2010, after I misplaced a green, plastic spatula that I had bought at a WalMart some fifteen years prior when I went away to college, I lamented for at least a year that it was gone forever. Then I found it one day while packing to move in 2012, rejoiced, and kept it until it broke some six years later. I was ready to let it go by then. Maybe because by then I had a new favorite utensil.
The big stuff is harder. It took me a long time, for instance, to come to terms with my parents splitting up, to accept that their marriage hadn’t failed, but ended. I’ve struggled in that same capacity with the loss of my novel-writing career—that it ended as opposed to failed. Not only that, but also, like my parents’ divorce, it was an ending I hadn’t asked for and had little say in. I spent two years trying to reverse it. Then I spent the next two years admitting it was gone and grieving it. Even as I came to terms with the loss, the question What do I do with my life now continued to be a challenge.
One thing I have attempted to do, especially this past year, is re-frame how I see writing as a career or a vocation or even a pastime, or how I might approach it differently should I choose to make a go of it again. I’ve drawn inspiration from everyone ranging from Simon LeBon to my friend David O’s podcast, The D Side, to my friend and fellow author Heather Grace Stewart’s tenacity when it comes to her own career.
Even after my husband and I moved back to Montana three months ago, I picked up a manuscript I had started late last summer, and was reveling yet again in word counts and exuberance that This might be good.
But the momentum didn’t last.
Neither did momentum for the new space-clearing business I’d started, nor the website that was supposed to include a podcast, webinars, and more.
Throughout most of April and May, I kept asking the question: What am I supposed to be doing with my life now? Should I go full steam ahead on this new business and step up my Instagram game and actively recruit clients (which poses a challenge during a pandemic), or should I adopt a Novel-Writing or Bust attitude, and climb my way back up that career ladder, rung by rung, no matter how high it goes into the clouds? Was it possible to pursue both simultaneously since they both fed my passions, even though I suck at multitasking?
Plus there was that pesky little issue of needing some income, the sooner the better.
During this time I took a tarot card-reading course for beginners with Radleigh Valentine, who just so happens to be one of those human beings I want to bear-hug should I ever meet him in person. In daily practice readings, I kept drawing the same card from Radleigh’s Archangel Power Tarot deck: Two of Michael. (If you’re a traditional Rider-Waite-Coleman tarot reader, this would be known as the Two of Swords.) The image on the card shows two unicorns on a beach, their horns clashing. Radleigh includes the possible interpretations on the cards themselves (which just so happens to be one of the reasons I love his decks and learning tarot from him; I also suck at memorization), and the first one was “It will all be if you just make a decision!” I tried one of Radleigh’s other decks: Two of Air. Same card.
During the class I asked Radleigh about it and he showed me how to do a reading to help me choose between the two possibilities (writing or space-clearing). Either my skills as a card reader were too amateur or my ego was still too tied to the outcome (my money is on the latter than the former)—I was terrified not only of making a decision, but also of making the wrong decision—but the readings seemed to be telling me I couldn’t go wrong either way, that they were equally good choices.
Which still left me paralyzed in terms of making a choice.
Besides, there was a part of me that really wanted the cards, or Radleigh, or some divine sign to tell me definitively that the choice was writing.
Then I remembered something that happened a little over twenty years ago. Following a breakup with a boyfriend—one of those losses that had truly devastated me—I had started to see an aromatherapy massage therapist who was also a registered nurse and clairvoyant. A couple of years later (way longer than my ex and I had actually been together), I was still having trouble getting over this guy, and I confessed this during my session.
“Is he your soul mate?” she’d asked.
Instead of responding yes or no, I paused and said quietly, cravingly, “I want him to be.”
That should have been a moment of revelation, but it took even longer for me to realize the full truth of that statement. Mark Manson describes it succinctly and bluntly: “If it’s not a Fuck, yes, then it’s a no.”
So in present time, I asked myself pretty much the same question: Is writing your soul mate? Is being a novelist what you’re meant to be doing for the rest of your life, regardless of whether it makes you another cent?
And my answer was the same as it had been for that guy all those years ago, said with the same longing: “I want it to be.”
There was my decision.
I had to come to terms with it. I had to detach once and for all.
But here’s the other thing: the other business also wasn’t a Fuck, yes.
Which left me back at square one. I so did not want to be back at square one. Especially not at 50 years old.
It’s possible that the message was there in plain sight, but I was still too attached to the question, and to that “I want it to be” to see it. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly frustrated and impatient and pressured to find work that was safe and sustainable during a pandemic.
Finally during a guided meditation, I practically demanded an answer. And I got one:
Your life purpose is to be Elisa.
Well, great. And who’s going to pay me for that?
But here’s what I’m finally understanding: When I was a first-year writing instructor in the university, my mentor told me that I had a special quality as a teacher that couldn’t be taught in a graduate class on how to teach. As a novelist, what set my novels apart from others wasn’t necessarily genre or characters or stories, but something you can’t teach in a class on how to write. Even while I worked concessions at our little movie theater in Boothbay Harbor, what made me enjoy my job—and others enjoy me—had little to do with how well I performed my tasks. In every case, the X-factor was me. I’m not saying that in a boastful or conceited way, but I believe that’s what the message is about.
What I do for a living doesn’t define who I am. Rather, what I do for a living is defined by who I am. In other words, what I authentically bring to any job, profession, vocation, and/or career makes it special. Meaningful. Impressionable. Valuable. Successful.
Whatever is next for me will appeal to my strengths and skills and talents and senses, and I will bring my authentic self to it. And because I will bring my authentic self to it, it will be “right” for me. Not my soul mate, not who I am, not something I have to fear losing. Because here’s the soul lesson in all of this. What I have lost in life, however painful, tragic, traumatic, etc. has never diminished who I am.
And who knows: maybe novel writing will be a Fuck, yes again someday. After all, I’ve still got that manuscript. And it still might be good.
If you're a fan of Aaron Sorkin's work, then that title will ring familiar to you. In some ways, it's a catch-all for "what's been going on lately." However, Sorkin tends to use it not sarcastically, but more like an understatement.
I'm drafting this blogpost on April 18, exactly two months since my last blogpost. I didn't realize I'd gone the entire month of March without one. It's not hard to understand why. My husband Craig and I kicked off the month with bad colds. (We were concerned they were more than colds, and although the doctor ruled out coronavirus, we were never officially tested, so who knows? It's possible we had extremely mild cases.) Then, like you, we watched the panic of the pandemic unfold: the death. The spread. The hoarding. The systematic shutting down of states.
Meanwhile, we were packing the house for a cross-country move, one in which we'd have to drive through twelve states, several of which were virus hotspots, and take my husband's very high-risk father with us. Our previous plans of execution had all fallen through thanks to the new normal. And believe it or not, the bigger fear was that the sale of the house wouldn't go through.
It did, however. (We signed the documents from our car.) And on March 30, after the moving truck arrived and loaded the contents of two households (try social distancing in that situation), we set out for the six-day drive from Boothbay, Maine, to Billings, Montana. (I tweeted about it after we arrived.)
By the time this blogpost goes live, our 14-day quarantine will be over (ordered by Governor Bullock, but we had planned to do it regardless), but we'll still be adhering the shelter-in-place rules (see previous parenthetical phrase). In the meantime, we're living in temporary housing: a 1-bedroom, 1-bathroom condo--a bit downsized from the 3-bed-3-bath house we just left, with less than half the square footage yet remarkably efficient when it comes to storage. In this time of uncertainty, we're not sure how temporary. But rather than stress or complain about what we can't control, we're opting for gratitude and acceptance--there's no clock running on our time in the condo, and it's a decent roof over our heads. We're very trusting that the housing situation overall is going to work out for the best.
After unpacking and settling in as much as we could for the time being, Craig and I immediately went back to work. I know many writers are struggling with focus right now--and who can blame them. However, the reverse is surprisingly true for me. I'm more focused than I have been in a long time. Perhaps it's because we're finally and safely on the other side of this move. Or perhaps it's because we've returned to a community of friends and neighbors that have our backs. We don't feel quite so on our own anymore. Perhaps it's both.
Regardless, I'm writing again. I'm not at the levels of productivity I was when being an author was a full-time career--it's not, and I'm finally at full peace and acceptance with that--but I contribute to a word count each week. I've also launched a new business, something that has energized me in a way I haven't been in years.
There's an accompanying guilt that things could be going so well during a pandemic, that I could feel this good, and that opportunities are opening up rather than shutting down. A good friend had posted on Facebook: "Our daughter was born a month ago and honestly she's bringing me so much joy that I feel like I'm cheating at this whole pandemic thing." My reply was: "More like you're winning at it." Others aren't, however, and that's a heartbreaking juxtaposition.
So how to reconcile the two? By thinking about who and what I'm writing for.
This is no time to hoard joy or good fortune. We're going to have plenty to pay forward thanks to the friends and neighbors that stocked our and my father-in-law's fridges and pantries, and went to the drugstore to pick up some needed supplies. As a certified Reiki Master, I feel called not only to send Reiki to individuals afflicted with the virus, but also to the entire planet Earth (yes, you can do that). I don't think I've ever been so cognizant of our world as home, or its inhabitants--be they in this country or others--as our neighbors. And as a writer, I'm feeling called not to commerce, but to service. Thematically speaking, I don't think what I'm writing is any different from my previous books, but I do think there is something powerful present; if not in the words, then in the intention. What I do may not save lives or stimulate the economy. But I do hope it's a pebble in a pond--regardless of its size, it ripples outward.
I have a confession to make, and it's a little embarrassing.
I haven't worked on my novel-in-progress at all this year.
It's not that I've not been writing. I've been doing blog posts (here and at my new site, The Stronger Pull). I sent a "postcard" for my birthday via my mailing list. (Not a subscriber? Sign up here!) I write in my journal almost every day. And, about two weeks ago, I started writing something, nonfiction, that got me excited. What's more, I've been writing it longhand. Sometimes it's important to listen when an idea screams for your attention, even if it's at the expense of temporarily ignoring others.
But that novel manuscript, the one I started over the summer? Nope, not this year. Not yet, anyway.
I can tell you a bunch of reasons--excuses, perhaps--that explain why. One is that after three-plus years, I'm still learning how to manage my time as a married person. Another is that I haven't practiced what I preach: make writing time non-negotiable.
Another still is preoccupation. Last fall, my husband and I made the difficult decision to sell our house in Maine and move back to Billings. We were disappointed that things didn't work out in Maine as we'd hoped, especially since we love our home and surroundings so much. We put our house on the market and, after the holidays and many showings, finally connected with a buyer. Now, with an official move date (end of March/beginning of April), packing the house and making preparations has become a priority. This is the second time in two years we've been through this.
But perhaps the most significant reason/excuse is psychological, and it's the most difficult one to overcome: fear.
It's become hard, this writing thing. Like picking up the guitar after you haven't played it in years, or getting back on the basketball court after you've been out with an injury all season. You're out of practice. Out of shape. You've lost your groove. You've lost your confidence. You start to have doubts: what if I don't or can't get my mojo back? What if I've already been forgotten? What if I had my one chance, and now it's over? What if I'm just plain not good at it anymore, and never will be again?
Any athlete or musician will tell you to just do it, like the slogan says. Get back on the court. Back on stage. Back into the arena. Back on the page. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again. As Jen Sincero, author of the Badass books says: "If you run from your fears, they will follow you. If you run straight at your fears, they will get the hell out of your way. Fears hate it when you do that."
It's time to make a beeline at them. Stop making excuses and start making a plan. Make time. Make progress.
After all, I've done this before. I know the way.
I'm gonna be 50 years old next week.
Like, I still remember when my dad turned 50.
And besides, didn't I just turn 40 last year?
Turning 40 was such a milestone. I absolutely loved it. My debut novel, Faking It, had just catapulted up the Kindle charts, selling an asinine 22,000 units in three days. I had also just become a certified Reiki Master-Teacher, something I'd been wanting to do for at least ten years prior. I was living in North Carolina, teaching full time, and working on my third novel. I had good friends, good colleagues, and a good coffeeshop to hang out in.
And it was only going to get better. By the end of 2010, I'd gotten a publishing contract, met Aaron Sorkin (one of my writing heroes), and bought the car I'd wanted since I was a kid: a Volkswagen Beetle. It was the kickoff to a decade that was going to bring even more surprises, successes, and dreams come true.
In short, 40 was fabulous.
When the main character of my novel Adulation, Sunny Smith, turned 40, her friends goaded her into making a "40 for 40" list--forty things she wanted to accomplish the year she turned 40. no doubt I'd made a list of my own--it's a very me thing to do--and I likely ticked many of the items off if not that year, then in subsequent years.
So here we are, ten years later, and the decade ended very differently and unexpectedly from where it began. Had you told me then that I'd be living in midcoast Maine, married, and in the throes of midlife transition, my jaw would've dropped. The transition part has especially flummoxed me. I have to keep reminding myself that it's normal, that we're hardwired at this age to feel these feelings and question who we are now and what we want to be when we grow up.
But just because it's normal doesn't mean it's comfortable. And yet, that's one of the lesson's I'm learning--or rather, re-learning. This transition is about allowing myself to be vulnerable again, especially while I'm feeling like I'm in the tall grass and not sure where it's going to take me.
Maybe a 50 for 50 list can be a roadmap. Or maybe it can just be a fun thing to do. Although coming up with 50 things is a bit of a challenge, I admit.
Some of the things on my list are too personal to share. (I'm not willing to be that vulnerable.) But here's a little tease, in no particular order, of a few, even if they are so ridiculously typical of me:
Also on the list is to have a celebration with my twin brother. Sadly, we won't be able to celebrate the day together. And I checked another item off early, two weeks ago, when I went to Atlanta to finally meet a very special friend in person (a mere technicality) and some fellow Duranies for some fun.
Here's the thing, though. While drafting this blog, a package arrived for me. It was a present from my best friend (who is also turning 50 this year): the Fab Five in Funko Pop form. She also included a bad of Lindor milk chocolate truffles, and a glittery gold card that beautifully captured the sentiment and set the tone for what I want 50 to be all about. This is a year of re-purposing. Taking one familiar form and making it into something kind of different, but still playful and fun and adventurous and authentic. Taking joy and using it to light the way out of the tall grass. And taking your friends and loved ones with you, because they've always been a part of the journey.
I think maybe, just maybe, 50 will turn out to be pretty fab too.
On December 27, one month before my 50th birthday, Showtime aired a documentary called There’s Something You Should Know about the life and career of Duran Duran spanning 40 years. Of course, as a fan for 36 of those 40 years, naturally I watched with nostalgia and enthusiasm as it brought back happy memories and made me psyched for my friend David O’s party celebrating the one-year anniversary of his podcast (and, in some ways, a new movement) called “The D Side,” which I’m attending in Atlanta on January 10, 2020. And although it’s a given that Duran Duran is going to inspire me in one form or another every time I listen to or watch something involving them, I didn’t expect the impact of this bit of reflection and advice from front-man Simon Le Bon that seemed directed specifically to and for me:
“The first time it [commercial failure] happens, it’s really scary because you thought you would carry on forever. ... And the next time it happens, it’s not so bad, and the *next* time it happens, it’s not so bad. And then you get to a point where you just relax and think, ‘You know what? Let’s just do what we do. Do we believe in the music we make? Yes, we do. Can we go in and write new stuff? Have you still got stuff inside of you that you want to say? Yes, I have. Yes, we can.’ Then you do it.”
When he spoke that first truth, I sat and nodded with recognition and validation, flashing back to two years ago when the cloud of success I’d been floating on turned into a brick and plummeted to the ground. In fact, I’d spent the better part of 2019 finally dealing with the pain and the grief of the crash. And since then, subsequent bricks have dropped. But as Simon continued, I felt as if he was putting an arm around me, assuring me it was going to get better. And by the time he said “Then you do it,” a wave of calm crested over me, and I knew exactly what and how I wanted to live for 2020 in terms of being a writer and a published author: Let’s just do what we do.
Do I believe in the books that I make? Yes, I do.
Can I go in and write new stuff? Have I still got stuff inside of me that I want to say?
Yes, I have. Yes, I can.
One thing about Duran Duran that has always impressed and inspired and motivated me was their singular, directed vision. They had a definite chief aim. They didn’t just aspire to become a successful pop band; rather, they intended it. They made plans. They believed in themselves and their music and their style and their look. They wanted to be “the band to dance to when the bomb drops,” and they played (while we danced) as if they were, as if there was no other choice. And in the span of 40 years and fourteen (soon to be fifteen) albums, they refused to play it safe; they set the trends rather than chase them; they continued to believe in themselves, even when their clouds turned into bricks. They never wavered from their vision. They never looked for fallback jobs, never cowered from their critics, and never got stuck pining for their glory days. They moved forward, one foot in the other, even when it seemed as if no one was dancing anymore. As if the bomb had already dropped.
In late 2010, and by age 50, Duran Duran had made and released All You Need is Now, an album that pretty much defined the first half of my forties. Heck, if they could do that at 50, then what could I do at age 50 with a singular, directed vision? What could I do if I believed in myself and the stuff inside me? What could I do if I just relaxed and said “You know what? Let’s just do what we do”?
I could make something really special. I could make something that dances rather than chases. I could make magic.
This is the note I needed to end 2019 and begin 2020 on. This was something I needed to know.
This is where I am and where I’m going. Because here’s the thing about bricks: when they drop to the ground, they can become roads. You can even dance on them.
Well, here I am again. Wanting to write a blog post, wanting to keep a blog going with some degree of consistency, and still not knowing what to write about, or how to “tie it all together” with being a novelist and an author.
I let procrastination get in the way. Again. I let inertia get in the way. Again. I let indecision get in the way. Again.
So why do I keep coming back? Why do I keep trying? Why do I keep wanting to “get it right” this time?
Well, quite frankly, because I love to write.
I love to write, and I want to keep doing it any way I can. And this time, instead of wanting to reach the masses, I want to connect with one reader at a time.
My husband and I went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood over Thanksgiving weekend, the film based on journalist Tom Junod’s Esquire feature on the late Fred Rogers, or, as many of us knew him, Mr. Rogers. I remember reading that piece years ago, when I was still teaching college freshman writing, and assigning it to my students. I remember tearing up when I read it, and tearing up even when discussing it with my students. One thing that has always stuck with me was learning that when Mr. Rogers faced the camera and began talking, he never imagined talking to lots of children, but rather just one child. And even now, as a forty-nine-year-old, when I watch those episodes, I still feel as if he is talking to me. Not the child in me, but me. It was about connection. It was about communion. It was about the space between him and me. Still is, right now, every time I see him on the screen. He is as alive to me in that moment as he once was.
The older I get, the more I want to have this same relationship with a reader. Many times I’ll come across advice for writers along the lines of this: figure out who your ideal reader is. Read the analytics of your Facebook page or your website, look at who most replies to your tweets and read their profiles and news feed. Figure out where they live and shop and what other books they read besides yours. And then make up a sort of avatar. Give that ideal reader a name and an age and a job and a marital status, etc. And then write for that avatar.
It’s not necessarily bad advice. It’s just never worked for me.
What has worked for me, especially when I’m not even trying, is writing for someone I already know. Sometimes he’s male. Sometimes female. Some are closer to me than others. Some I’m no longer in touch with. Just about every book is different. But my favorite letters from readers are the ones who somehow innately sensed this connection and responded with “I felt as if you wrote this book just for me.”
And, I don’t mind telling you, there’s another reader I write for: me.
Because one of the first and perhaps best pieces of writing I ever received was this: Write the book you want to read.
Or the blog post. Or the letter. Or the Facebook post. Or tweet. Or perhaps, coming soon, the podcast I want to listen to (hint hint?).
Because it turns out that is a very intimate relationship as well. And it seems every time I stray from that and try to post things on Instagram that will generate a lot of “likes” (or, as it’s known in the best practices circle, “epic content,” whatever the hell that is) or come up with a bestselling idea as opposed to an idea that I really love, I seem to get results counter to what I aimed for.
Which is something else I’ve been thinking about that Mr. Rogers taught me. After seeing the movie (and please, give yourself that gift this season if you haven’t yet, and watch last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, while you’re at it), I dove into YouTube and found all kinds of interviews and commencement speeches he gave. During a conversation with Charlie Rose, he talked about the importance of parents doing what they love and are passionate about with or in front of their children. He spoke about how many parents wrote to tell him that their children wanted to play the cello after seeing Yo-Yo Ma on the Neighborhood because they responded to the energy of Yo-Yo Ma’s passion. And how, when a guest sculptor visited a nursery school and worked with clay in front of the children for a semester (didn’t teach them how, just did it), the kids’ own clay creations were more inventive and imaginative than any other semester.
No doubt there are times when writing is a labor. It can be arduous, even stressful at times, especially when there’s a deadline or a grade or royalties on the line. But I have never, ever wanted writing to be something to dread. I have never connected with writers who talk about the dread, the work, the slog. This year, when I took a sabbatical from writing, one of the reasons I did so was because it had stopped being fun. And that was one reason why I had become so sad. Because I’d never wanted writing to be anything less than joyful. Even during the labor.
Day by day, I’ve been reconnecting to the joy. And it feels very much like a Mr. Rogers moment, when he looks at the camera—at me—and sings “It’s You I Like.” We’re singing it to each other, writing and me.
So yes, I’ll keep trying to do this thing. Consistently. Engagingly. Joyfully. Because it’s writing I like. And because it’s you I like.
While reading Be the Gateway: A Practical guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience, Dan Blank reminded me of something I often told my students in the college classroom:
People don’t buy things; they buy experiences.
Put another way, “they buy the feeling that things give them.”
For example, if you’re a Gen-Xer, think about the experience of a Sony Walkman when you were a teenager. Or what the slogan “I want my MTV” was really about—certainly not only having access to a cable channel. In more modern times, what makes someone buy a Toyota Prius as opposed to another car? What makes someone prefer an iPhone to a Galaxy? Or a Kindle e-reader to another device?
We can apply this to fandom as well. What makes some people Star Wars fans and others Star Trek fans? Or fans of classic rock as opposed to new wave? What experience does any particular film, or television series, or band, give them? How does it make them feel to follow a particular sports team?
I often talked with students about this in the context of writing and persuasion. When applying the rhetorical appeals—to credibility of character, to emotion, to reason—how does one sell an experience as opposed to a product or an idea? What narrative can you create that the consumer/fan will then adopt?
Books are boundless experiences. What is the reading experience you want to have with any particular book or author? How do their stories make you feel? What personal stories do you bring to your reading experience? What how has it changed after you’ve read a particular book, be it fiction or non?
Dan Blank posits this: “When you understand the narratives your ideal audience seeks, you know how to engage those people.”
I’ve been thinking about this in regards to my novels and the connections and engagement I want my writing to make with my readers moving forward, and I’ve been challenged by that statement. Do I understand their narratives?
In other words, what is the experience of an Elisa Lorello book? What do I want it to be? What are readers bringing to the purchase and the reading of an Elisa Lorello book? What do they want to feel? What is their story?
I’ve often struggled to pinpoint the “ideal reader.” My approach to audience has always been self-centered in nature: I write the books I want to read. So often what I write comes from whatever emotional place I am in at the time. For example, when I was contracted to write Pasta Wars, I had just gone through a sort of breakup, and it had brought up some deep-seated rejections. I needed to heal, but I also needed to laugh. Thus, I’d set out to emphasize the comedy in “romantic comedy.” I also love stories like Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate, in which connections between food and emotion are explored. I’m a picky eater, but I want the foodie experience! Thus, I created the experience of food and eating as a love affair.
Recently I wrote in my revised author bio that all of my books, in one form or another, explore the idea of living authentically. I further wrote to a friend that “I’ve set a new intention: for my novels, writing, etc. to be a gateway for readers to experience their own aliveness and authenticity.” More superficially, I would add that I want them to laugh, and even to become verklempt. I want them to fall in love, be it with the characters, the story, or something featured in the story, like a Junior’s cheesecake or a New England town. Or perhaps even with the writing itself. But I wonder: is that what my readers want?
I don’t have the answer to that question at this time. But I want to spend the next few months finding out. In the meantime, I can tell you what the experience of writing my latest first draft has been—it’s been a challenge at times, like getting back on the horse, so to speak. It’s been emotionally therapeutic at other times. Most of all, it’s been fun. I look forward to the next phase: revision.
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.