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.
If my memory is correct, I started my first blog back in 2007 or 2008, when blogs were a gateway to social media and recognition. I didn’t know what I wanted it to be at the time, or whom I wanted it to be for. I mostly wrote about writing and rhetoric, but shortly into it even I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow it.
Flash-forward to last week: while revising my author bio, I included a Donald Murray quote “As we read someone else’s story, we write our own” in the draft. It had been a long time since I’d used the quote, and I wanted to make sure I’d gotten it verbatim, so I Googled it.
The first two hits turned out to be from two blog posts I’d written in those early days, back before I’d even had an author website and I was using Blogspot.
I read the posts for the first time in ten years, and thought, Hey, that’s not bad. I scrolled and read a few more. It was like meeting an old friend, seeing where she’d been and where she is now. She’d grown a lot.
Blogging has always been a strange beast for fiction writers. Over the years we’ve been told to “build a platform,” “create epic content,” and “get your writing noticed,” all before you sell your first novel. The pressure increased when it came to social media content. It’s a lot easier to focus when you’re a nonfiction writer specializing in a particular subject. But for fiction writers, content—especially blog content—has always been a head scratcher. What was a fiction writer going to blog about that would make readers want to buy their books? “Write short fiction,” they’d say. “Write in the voice of your characters.” “Write about subjects related to your novels.” “Write about the writing process.” “Write about other books.” “Feature other writers.” “Write autobiographically.” “Make it all about you.” “Don’t make it all about you.”
And so on.
Don’t even get me started on how to make it “epic.”
But that elusive they never seem to talk about making a connection with readers for the sake of…well, making a connection. There’s always something else riding on that connection.
As time went on, I tried to clarify my purpose and audience. It was for writers. No, it was for readers. No, it’s for readers and writers. No, it’s for readers of books like mine. No, it’s just an occasional update for readers of my books. No, it’s just a vehicle for when I have something to say that’s longer and more in-depth than a Facebook post.
I never quite got it. But I always wanted to.
Then, a couple of years ago, I started a new blog on a new site as an extension of my sourcebook The Writer’s Habit. The idea was to start The Writer’s Habit Academy, complete with online courses, specialized coaching, and developmental editing.
I’m going to be completely honest and show my ass here: despite my coming up with a lofty “why” (“to foster a love and passion for writing in others,” or something like that), the home truth was this: I wanted to make money.
I had dollar signs in my eyes, and little else, despite the denial I was in.
In my defense, my own writing career was falling apart. My monthly royalty checks, which had once been in the high four-figures and sometimes even five, were quickly dwindling to a far from sustainable amount. I was in panic mode. And few people see straight when they’re in panic mode, especially when they don’t realize they’re in panic mode.
It’s not that the blog was a bad idea. It’s that it was, in hindsight, inauthentic. I’d taken an online course (one that, to steal a term from Dan Blank, could be described as a “best practices” course) from someone who’d made a lot of money as the result of blogging. To look back and read those posts now, most of them feel contrived, trying too hard to get Likes, Follows, Clicks, Shares, and move up on the Google search chain. Incidentally, the most popular post was the most genuine: a tribute to Judy Blume.
I’d had grand plans for that blog, and the business it would catapult. What I didn’t expect (but what makes perfect sense now) was that I would burn out practically before I even started. My intention of posting once a week quickly turned into once every other week followed by once a month, and I found myself dreading the task every three weeks. Where I’d thought I’d have a trove of topics to choose from, I found myself scrambling to write something of interest, something that would fit into “The Five Best Writing Tips” kind of mold.
And then I discovered an even more harsh truth: I didn’t really want to teach writing anymore. At least, not as a small business.
So then I tried to revive what I call my author blog, the one on my website, and once again did so for the purpose of trying desperately to find something that would catch fire and, more importantly (or so I thought), convert to book sales: A Year of Nora Ephron series (I think that fizzled out after three posts). Cover reveals. Giveaway announcements. I tried to post regularly. I tried to write with purpose. I tried and tried and tried. But nothing stuck.
It had all been a massive letdown. I felt like a complete failure. I felt foolish for having been taken in by this course, and ashamed of the truth of why I’d allowed myself to be taken in. I felt rudderless. Being a writer and a teacher had defined me for the better part of fifteen years, if not longer. But I couldn’t even sustain a damn blog. My livelihood was disappearing right before my eyes, and I couldn’t save it.
And then, at the beginning of this year, I took an indefinite sabbatical from the whole thing—writing, publishing, teaching, promoting, you name it. I suspended my mailing list. I took a social media break. I dropped out.
And I went to pieces.
In short, I fell into depression. I was grieving not only the loss of my career and livelihood and all its successes, but also, and especially, the loss of my joy for it. None of it had been fun for a good two years. I confronted the fear that it had only been fun because it had been successful.
Could I ever love it again if I never made another dime from it? Did I want to be an author if it wasn’t sustainable?
With time, therapy, and a part-time job at an independent movie theater, I began to climb out of my funk. And as I confronted these fears and losses and made peace with them, I found myself reconnecting to something I’d lost in all that panic: connection.
It’s easy, especially when you’re at the peak of success, to forget that there are human beings behind those Likes, Follows, Click Rates, Sales, and Shares. It’s easy to become so blinded and pressured by the analytics that you forget what made them:
One reader at a time.
One reader who read a book I had written and loved it. Was inspired by it. Laughed. Cried. Loaned it to a friend. Recommended it to their book club. Wrote a review. Shared it on social media. Took the time to let me know personally what it meant to them.
That’s what I loved. That’s what had inspired me. That’s what made it fun. That I could do it for as long as I did as a full-time, sustainable job was a dream come true. And I’m not going to lie: I still want to do so. But I’m no longer terrified of not being able to.
Last week, I completed the first draft of a novel. Like all first drafts, it needs a lot of work. It needs focus and direction. It needs pacing. It needs depth. It needs fleshing out of ideas and characters and the story itself. As Andi says to Devin in Faking It, “There’s so much here that’s not yet on the page.” The possibilities that live within the flaws.
What makes this first draft a big deal, however, is because just a few short months ago, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to write another book. I wasn’t sure I’d even have another idea, one that nagged at me until it was born.
Moreover, I liked it.
And that’s the way I’m feeling overall these days. I’m reviving my newsletter. Updating my website and author bio. Posting on Instagram. I’m conversing more. And I’m not doing it for dollars. I’m doing it because it’s fun again. I’m doing it because I want to make connections again.
One reader at a time. Even if it’s only one.
So I guess you could say my sabbatical is over.
And yes, as I write this, I’m having that blogging itch again of wanting to say, This time it’s gonna be different. I’m going to blog every week and it’s going to be great. It’s going to have authentic purpose and audience and, most of all, consistency. I’m going to be committed, dammit. One post per week. It’ll be awesome. And its purpose won’t be lofty, and it won’t be self-serving, and it won’t be for the purposes of platform or conversion or affiliate marketing or anything I’ve ever tried to conform it to. It will be for the sole purpose of connection and conversation. From me to you, and between me and you. And not you, “ideal reader” or “target audience” or “potential book buyer.”
Because I love you. Because I love it. Because it’s fun.
Remember in You’ve Got Mail, when Frank asks Kathleen if there’s someone else in her life and she answers, “No. But there is the dream of someone else”?
I’m not making any promises about a successful, lasting return to blogging. But right now, I’m loving the dream of it. Of everything.
At the time of this writing, we just finished another round of snow and are gearing up for a bit more over the weekend, although it now looks like we’re in for more rain. Unlike other parts of the country (including our former home in Montana), our temperatures in Midcoast Maine have stayed on the plus side, mostly in the 20s and 30s, so you’ll get no complaints from me. In fact, we live in such a quiet area that sitting outside to watch and listen to the silence of the snow, even for just a minute or two, is an unexpected battery charger. That said, I’m looking forward to more sun, more green, and more warmth. Looking forward to hitting the beach, too.
The launch of You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky went well—please keep the photos of you and your personal copies coming!—and Craig and I are delighted by the feedback we’re getting. The overwhelming majority of you have tapped into everything we wanted this story to be, and that alone makes it a success. We are especially excited to be returning to our beloved Billings, Montana, as well as Livingston, which was always like a second hometown to us, next month. We’ll be at Elk River Books and This House of Books for some YMMBS fun and food. (If you’re a subscriber, check out our ad in the Spring issue of the Montana Quarterly magazine! If you’re not, become a subscriber!)
After that, I’ll be taking a bit of a break—or, as I prefer to call it, a sabbatical—from writing and the writing business.
This decision didn’t come easily, but last month, beginning around the time of the YMMBS launch, my husband and I both came down with that icky cold/cough thingie. Except mine turned into acute bronchitis with asthma. The diagnosis surprised me, and it took some time to fully heal. I’ve always been one to look at health matters from an emotional/psychological perspective as well as a physical one, so I asked the question: What is taking your breath away right now (and not in a good way)?
I think I knew the answer even before I asked the question. Didn’t make it easier to accept, however.
For a little over a year, I’ve been struggling with a creative drought. Whatever the cause—writer’s block, the move, too much distraction, loss of self-confidence, burnout, I’ve explored them all—no prescription has taken root. Writers will tell you that the antidote to any writing problem is to keep writing, but I also live by Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame)’s motto: “If it’s not fun, why do it?” The business of writing has not been fun for a long time. And I don’t want something that has been a constant throughout my life, something that has always brought me joy, solace, and aliveness, to become a burden or resentful.
Since 2012, I’ve had the privilege of being a full-time author. This is not the norm. In fact, the overwhelming majority of authors have second and even third jobs. I was one of the lucky ones. It’s incredibly hard to go back into the workforce outside the home after you’ve worked on your own time and in your own space for so long. (And yes, that’s as big a first-world problem as I’ve ever had, and for that I am humbled and grateful.) However, I’ll likely be doing just that, on a part-time basis, leaving room for flexibility to continue doing other things I love, such as workshops at libraries, speaking at book clubs, and some occasional one-on-one coaching. I’ve loved being a part of our new community, and perhaps some new characters and stories will reveal themselves to me along the way.
In addition to a writing sabbatical, I am significantly reducing my time on social media as well, especially from Facebook. If you’d like to keep up with life in Midcoast Maine, then you can follow me on Instagram (spoiler alert: we’re bringing a baby dachshund home next month, so PUPPY PHOTOS!). You can also occasionally talk 80s music and other stuff with me on Twitter.
When my first novel, Faking It, went into the Kindle Store in June of 2009, and the first 50 purchases came in, the mind-blowing revelation wasn’t just oh-my-god-I-published-a-book, but oh-my-god-my-book-is-being-read-by-people-I-don’t-know-and-who-don’t-know-me. Everything that happened after that was beyond anything I had imagined and downright magical. Since then, so much of the pleasure I derived was from knowing my stories weren’t sitting in a drawer, so to speak, but rather reaching readers all over the world. That is still mind-blowing. You made this life possible. You made this roller-coaster ride an adventure. You made it meaningful.
I have never wanted to let you down. I still don’t. I hope this time off will refill the well, give me breathing room, so to speak. I hope it will rekindle (sorry) the joy and fun and passion. I hope my books keep meeting new readers. And I hope other authors’ dreams come true in the same way mine did.
See you soon.
Back in January, I’d had high hopes. Bought a fancy planner, one for each quarter (yeah, I was even badass enough to break my year up into quarters), and set lofty—and, in hindsight, damn near impossible—goals such as Build mailing list by 100 subscribers each week and Create a series of online courses based on The Writer’s Habit.
Seriously—what was I thinking? Because by February, I was paralyzed.
I’d also set a personal goal of leaving my comfort zone as much as possible. And, at the end of the second quarter, I wrote a bit about the ways in which I did that. The move to Maine, of course, was the epitome of that. So was, among other things, joining a pickleball group at our local YMCA, having never played before.
By quarter three, I had changed up my goals completely. And achieved none. Looking at them now, I can see how far adrift I was, and not in the good, leave-my-comfort-zone way. I was lost. Afraid.
I needed to find my way again.
I wish I could tell you that I have. Or rather, to what. But the truth is, I’m not yet sure what the way is. I might already be there. I might not be. But what I am sure of right now is that I don’t need to know. Thus, my final goal for 2018, and entering 2019, is:
Trust the unknown regardless of the outcome.
In the meantime, I’ve set the bar way lower. Instead of aiming for 100 new subscribers each week, I smile and give thanks for just one. Instead of wanting to reach 10,000 readers, I’m overjoyed when just one takes the time to tell me how one of my books has touched her. Instead of creating an online course empire, I connected with one student, face to face, and we talked about way more than writing. Instead of focusing on what I didn’t accomplish this year, I marvel at what I did just in this remaining quarter:
Most of all, I love and appreciate that so many of this year’s achievements start with We. Not because being with someone is so important, but because I love who he is.
I began the year thinking big. And I did achieve my ultimate goal of leaving my comfort zone. I also have goals for 2019. (As always, I’ll keep them close to the vest.) But I’m thinking way smaller this time. What I’ve learned is that setting the bar low can sometimes be a really good thing, in that less-is-more way.
The journey continues. And that, of course, is the greatest gift of all.
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.