I Gave Away My TV & Made My Stories Free

Last night, I gave my only television to my sister. I am reclaiming the thought-space in my mind, rejecting the ease of stimulus and distraction. I am making time for tasks that are both harder and more meaningful.

Why?

Because I’ve defined what success looks like for me. I stopped buying the one-size-fits-all definition of what it means to succeed as a writer. I know what I want, and I can see how I’ll get there. My passion for writing and for sharing my stories is restored. The act of defining what I want freed me, because I’ve finally (FINALLY!) grasped that you and I can both be “real” writers, even if we want different things out of our writing.

the gift is in the giving.The big screen TV couldn’t show me the way to freedom and inspiration. That took introspection, spirituality, and a good kick in the motivation from Dan Holloway’s SELF PUBLISH WITH INTEGRITY. I did the exercises he suggests, not really expecting them to work, but willing to be teachable. One of the first things I realized is that I would write even if I could never distribute my work. I would write because writing is my joy. It’s the jazz and the bliss. My drive to write, abstracted from pressure of preconceived ideas of success,  has nothing to do with becoming “legitimate” or getting a publisher or a movie deal. I would write even if I could never share my stories. Writing is how I play, and I am a playful being. Of course, I can share my stories. That opens up entire planetary systems of introspection, mostly around the question of whether or not I should charge readers for the stories that are given to me as a gift. This topic is a field full of ancient landmines just waiting for one false step, I know. I read the blog posts about the tsunami of stink and the generalized, bizarre panic that there might be too many stories in the world now that anyone can publish. I’m doing cartwheels through that field. I’m standing in the middle of it and offering my stories for free, forever. I’m releasing balloons one at a time, each of them carrying a story on the internet’s breeze.

The reason I have the courage to do this comes from having done the work to determine what MY success looks like.

FOR ME, SUCCESS IS:

    • Respecting the nature of the story as gift.
    • Making everything I write available in at least one free format, in as many venues as I can find.
    • Producing stories and novels of the best quality I can, including the expense of a qualified editor.
    • Trusting that the readers who are meant to find my work, will find it.
    • Having a core group of enthusiastic, kind supporters, even if that group is small.
    • Having fun with getting the word out about my stories by making friends and being of service.
    • Producing paperback and e-formats for readers willing to pay for physical copies or convenience.
    • Stickers. There will be stickers involved in this, somehow. And possibly balloons.
    • A stranger sharing my stories with their friends.
    • Happiness, a lack of anxiety, deliberate bliss-seeking.

I hope my list inspires you to give the exercise a try. If you feel like sharing, I’d love to hear about your definition of success.

-aniko

 

You Never Know Who Your Words Will Save

I almost quit writing. I was frustrated with the lack of commercial success, stymied by the opaque process of submitting work to publishing houses, and all out of joy. I resented my novel in progress because it represented a burden of thankless effort.

I was tired.

My day job is downtown. Every morning, I ride the train from my chickens-in-the-neighbor’s-backyard suburb to the heart of a city known for launching artistic careers. I stand near the doors, in a small corner where I can lean without getting pummeled by the other people’s bikes and backpacks. I read. Most days, there is another reader making the commute, and for a month he carried the same book with him, intently opening it to read a bit, then looking out the window in thought. His copy was worn, its dog-eared pages scrawled with comments written in multiple colors. I wanted to read that book, I wanted to be absorbed and consumed enough that  the noise and human stimulus of a train would fall away.  Who wouldn’t? NewSeedsCover

Now I have my own scrawled, worn copy of New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. That book was exactly what I needed to read, at exactly the right time. It was a jolt of clarity, and it made me excited about the possibility that I could save my writing spirit. Here is a passage that I’ve bracketed and underlined (pg 111 of the 2007 New Directions edition):

 

If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy.

If you write for men – you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, but only for a little while.

If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.

Clearly, Merton understands what it is to write for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to be dead, but I wanted my writer’s gift leave me alone, which may as well be the same as wishing it dead. Merton’s ‘epistle to writers’ made me aware that I was unhappy with my writing because I was measuring it against goals that weren’t authentic. I’d forgotten that I write and share for the joy of it, not because of what I can gain in popularity, money, or Amazon rankings. I didn’t yet see how to get back to the joy, but at least I understood that I had somewhere to get back to.

This was the first of three books that saved my writing life.

Loving_Imogen_Cover

The second book to save my life is a contemporary collection of fiction, Loving Imogen by Mari Biella.  Biella’s prose is beautiful and evocative, and the stories moving, but it wasn’t beauty alone that saved me. It was the fact that the book exists. Biella shared her gift with the world – with me. She could have written it and stuck it in a drawer. She could have sent it to publishers and maybe I’d still be despairing of finding my joy because Loving Imogen wouldn’t yet be available. Instead, she self-published. She gave her words to the world, not knowing who they would reach or if they would be misunderstood, ignored, or loved. The act of sharing her stories is the act of giving a gift to a largely anonymous recipient, who could be anyone almost anywhere at any time. Such a gift will outlast the author, and is an expression of what art should be: an act of timeless, selfless communication. Loving Imogen reminded me that publication matters because it allows the words to reach an audience who may not even know they need those words. How had I gotten so far away from the fresh-minded faith that stories are meant to be shared, not used as tools of self-aggrandizement?

The answer to that question came in the third book to save my writing life, and Mari Biella was the key to me finding it. She posted a review of a book with a unique premise: instead of examining the technical aspects of publishing, why not examine the spiritual aspect, the cri de coeur that propels the artist? This book is Self-Publish with Integrity: Define Success in your Own Terms and then Achieve It, by Dan Holloway. He had me at “integrity,” but the subtitle promised a way back to joy.

Holloway writes (from the Kindle edition, 2013)

The things you get praised for aren’t always the things you set out to do… The problem comes when we [writers] start to set our compass by them, when our direction finder becomes externalised, is no longer the burning desire to communicate those quirky stories whose audience we longed to find. If we’re lucky, we can reset our compass. It’s something I’ve had to do several times. But disentangling yourself from those wrong turns is a monumental task… leav[ing] behind a trail of damaged creative relationships and disappointments.

self_pub_integrity_coverThat was it! Somewhere I swapped out my personal reasons for writing and publishing with … something else. I’d lost my faith that the readers who are meant to find my works will find them, just as I found Merton, Biella, and Holloway exactly when I needed them. To quote Holloway, “It was as though I suddenly looked outside the blinkers I’d been wearing and saw just how far I’d come from where I wanted to be.Self-Publish with Integrity offers a way to reset the writing compass. All you have to do is give a one-sentence answer to this question:

So what do you want from your writing?

Like a Zen koan, this question appears deceptively simple, but upon examination opens into something deeper, richer, and more mystical. Doing the work to answer this question led me back to joy. I have my one true sentence, my cri de coeur. I have a definition of success that is mine, and only mine. I know what success will look like for me in concrete terms, and it isn’t constrained by how anyone else conceives of success. I feel good again, excited and invigorated about writing and sharing my stories. I know where I want to go, why I want to go there, and how I plan to make the journey.

None of the authors knew their words would help me. They shared freely what had come to them through muse, God, or experience. None of us can know who our words will reach and help, or in what ways they will be life-saving. In Merton’s words (page 269), “…do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.” Even if you don’t believe in God or heaven, isn’t it something to realize that stories and art extend beyond us in ways we can’t calculate, predict, or ultimately know entirely? I think that is beautiful, because it means that even if one person reads my work, it might have an impact. If there is one person, just one, waiting to read the story I’ve been given to write, I must share it with them. Not because I want fame, not because I want money, but because I want to participate in the mystery and beauty of giving.

-aniko

My SASE, an SOS Answered

Mad to write, mad to not write?

 

I never heard back from that publisher. Not a rejection. Not an acceptance. My self-addressed and stamped envelope was not returned to me. My manuscript inspired complete apathy, and somewhere around four months of waiting I felt sorry for myself. At five months I was angry at the publisher and myself for following the rules and not submitting simultaneously. At six months I realized that this is not a process I choose to repeat. Like most major realizations, the sorts that end in divorce, dropping out of graduate school, or fleeing the country, my decision left me without a plan. Should I keep writing? Was it possible for me to stop, to be a “normal” person who manages to be just fine, thanks, without getting up before dawn and making up entire worlds? Should I continue to submit to traditional publishers, and know that I’d be over forty when I finally finish the rude rounds of silence? Should I curse my muse, whom I call Cerridwen, scream into the cold winds that stream from behind her doorway to the North? Was it my fault that the winter was harsh and cold, was it my angst that brought Cerridwen’s icy attentions far South?

I realize I don’t control the weather, well, mostly I admit that I don’t.

Still, there was a symmetry between the harsh winter and my state of mind. I was freezing in the rejection of my call. I stopped writing in the fourth month of my self-pity. I wasn’t happier, although I did enjoy sleeping later. I picked up where I left off with my novel, but it was too difficult, and I spent the fifth month trying to understand what happens next. I dragged out everything I’d ever written. Stacks of short stories, a couple of longer (but not quite novella) pieces, the ream of paper that is the novel the publisher couldn’t be bothered to reject. I was shocked at how prolific I had been, despite having a full time job and only grabbing an hour here or there throughout most of the work week. I started reading those old works.

And something better than a self-addressed, stamped envelope was returned to me: my willingness to live my gift.

I became willing to return to the craft that my God chose for me. I regained acceptance of my role as conduit for the words my terrifying, inspiring Muse sends. I rejected the soul-death of refusing the call.

One of my earlier stories playfully investigated the theme of art as communication, and posited that without an audience (even just one person), that no work of art was truly complete. It was written in 2008, years before I ever thought of publishing. I read it, and fell in love with the faith I’d once had in the power of art. I read it and was surprised at how much my writing has improved in the intervening years and writing workshops, but that’s fodder for a whole other post. I read it and realized I wanted to publish it.

I’m happy to announce that the story is with my editor, Jacinda Little. Over the next three years, I will release everything in my gigantic stack of proliferate scribbling that is worthy of readers. This includes the novels.

I realize that this post is a complete flip-flop on my last one. I changed my mind. I learn and I grow and I’m being honest with you about where I am now, and why.

While I’m admitting my flip-floppery, I’m also not planning to do that writers retreat. I loved the idea of it, but I loved it for the wrong reason; I loved it because it would be a way to make myself feel legitimate as a writer. REAL writers have big publishers and books in stores! REAL writers go on retreats! I wanted to be a REAL writer, just as much as I wanted an excuse to run away and take naps and eat a lot of bread and sit on a porch and watch the sunlight sift through leaves and tap out inspired words when the spirit took me. I’m calling myself on my own BS. The spirit is always with me. I don’t need a rental house to find it. I just need the willingness to accept what is given. I need to stop focusing on comparing myself to other writers who are more successful in ways that are not a part of my path. I need to stop feeling like I’m somehow less REAL as a writer because of who publishes the work or how exotic the locale of the places wherein my words are written. Humility is what I need. Humility, and the help of people who don’t even know they’ve helped me. Thomas MertonMari Biella, and Dan Holloway: these people are you. This, too, is another post, but know that each of you carried a message I needed at exactly the moment I needed it. Thank you for sharing your words and your thoughts, for they are what helped me rehabilitate my warped ideas of what it means to be a REAL writer.

As ever,

-aniko

 

Edit – 04.03.14 Three days after I posted this, I received my SASE. It contained a form rejection, and no comments. The story of the SASE is stronger without this addition, but this post isn’t a story, and I can’t honor your time to read and comment if I don’t also honor the truth. 

I remain very, very happy with the path I’ve chosen, and note that it is actually delightful to get a letter addressed by me in the mail. :) I think my handwriting is friendly. It had to catch me by surprise before I could see it objectively, but I’m glad I did.

My New Math

There are inflection points in life. The variables shift, and the comfortable plateau becomes something else. My graph is no longer a steady line, but a hyperbola, a sine curve, a Lissajous figure expanding and tightening its figure-eight of me-then/me-now.

Life on a wave is different than life on a line. I wake up excited and energized by the changes. I am a more fearless version of myself; my hair is cut short as a warrior queen’s, I wear chunky bracelets that clang as I journey to the living, beating heart of my city, my self. All of my electrons make the jump to the next level. I feel like a bright filament, a reactor of potential. Time runs faster, and there is an intensity to the even the still moments. I wish I could hold your hand, transmit this to you, but my words will have to suffice.

Aurora potentialis.In the onrush of nownownow I stopped blogging, but I kept writing. I put another revision on my second novel, DEAD BREATH, and have just received the last of my beta reader comments for a final pass. I revisited the decisions of my plateau-self and decided that I want to submit this book to traditional publishers. I love the freedom of indie publishing, the ultimate control - but I falter in post-production. I never found my audience with STOLEN CLIMATES, and all those people who are looking for small town horror with a soupçon of  THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL are still looking because I never made it possible for them to find it. If one function of life is to keep each other company, and a function of writing is to extend that company beyond time, space, and even death – isn’t it very sad indeed that books get lost?

I don’t want that to happen with DEAD BREATH, my second novel. DEAD BREATH is dark science fiction driven by the strong-arm elements of a thriller. Traditional sci-fi publishing houses accept unagented, unsolicited manuscripts. I know the arguments against traditional publishing. They remain valid. However, good stories don’t find their way to an audience on their own. They need advocates. What is a publisher, if not a long-standing advocate for stories? I want that big, purple-ape of an advocate. I’ve picked five markets to submit to, and given that the average time for response seems to be three months, it will take me over a year from Day One Submit to get to the end of my list. By then, my third book will be finished. If there are no takers on DEAD BREATH, then I will send the next book. If I get to the end of the series, and no purple apes shout my books’ praise from the towers of advocacy, I’ll go indie – but I’ll do it right, with a plan and with the budget to back it up. No matter what happens, the wait until my next book is published will be measured in years. In the interim, I’m toying with dabbling in Wattpad and Booksie to share out some of my odd little stories. I will keep you company here, too, checking in throughout the submission process, and you can friend me on Facebook, GoodReads and Twitter.

In other writing plans, I want to go on a writer’s residency next year. Nova Ren Suma, whom I’ve never met outside the pages of her books, inspired me with her diary post from her residency at Hambidge. The idea of a space to myself and time dedicated only to my writing titillates. I love it that there are writers residencies. I really love it that they feed you. Looking at MacDowell Colony and the like made me realize that although I love the idea, I don’t have to wait for acceptance to a residency to carve that time and space for my craft. I don’t know if any of you have every visited HomeAway, but beware! – it’s addictive. My ideal “residency” is a week of rural rental via HomeAway. I picture buying my provisions; there’s a blue ice cooler involved, a rented car, and the thrill of being somewhere new. I’ll drink hot black coffee, eat crusty French bread, and spend my days writing. There will be no dogs to walk, no job, no obligations, and no internet. It will be my residency, and I’ll write the first draft of a horror novel that begs to be birthed in a strange, isolated place.  I’m going to take advantage of this surge of creative energy – can you feel it?

Finished!

creative flowering

The novel doesn’t have a name. The series doesn’t have a name. The feelings I have right now don’t all have names, but that doesn’t change the fact that I finished.

Yes, finished.

I’ve completed the first (full) draft of my second novel.

It is one-hundred and thirty-eight thousand words long, which is four-hundred and ninety-two pages. It took me two tries, with one near-complete rewrite. It took courage, because the people in this story are not kind. It took dedication, because this was a very long haul, and nothing about the story came easily or without destabilizing everything I’d already written. It took tenacity to forge through my doubts, and balls of steel to rally the nerve to try again, no matter how often the story unraveled.  It took over a year to get to this moment, the one just after typing “Austin, Texas – April 7, 2013″ at the end of the manuscript. I am hopeful and tired and slightly in awe of whatever it is that compels me to put forth this much effort. I don’t know if I deserve this largess. I don’t know that I would have asked for it. Yet here it is – because of me, because I didn’t give up. No one can ever take this moment from me. The manuscript could be lost, it could be turned down by every publisher, it could get laughed at by everyone who reads it, but none of that changes the fact that I accomplished this. I finished my second novel!

This is worth every pre-dawn writing session, every missed party, every Saturday spent alone with my keyboard. I can’t imagine life without this, I can’t imagine me without this. Thank you to everyone who helped me move through the darkness, doubt, and story paralysis to reach the fullness of this blossoming, this becoming.

-aniko

Silly Candid Video

The office is closed for Good Friday. A crazed dictator has my city on his hit list. I’d say there’s no better time to upload an old video I found in the dust of my camera’s SD card.

It is circa early 2012, and I am wearing my thrift-store find, grandpa style writing sweater. I am in my sun room, by the desk where all of my stories are born. Mr. Aniko is the off-camera voice.

“It’s possible to be emotive without being twitchy!”

Perspective

I’m eating my lunch in the company kitchen. It is a wholesome lunch, nutritious and just enough to satisfy my hunger without leaving me sleepy. I’m  telling you about my lunch because I have no idea how to start this post. A group of co-workers discusses the upcoming Thai New Year, and I set aside the laptop to prepare my salad. The fridge here has the habit of turning my homemade herb-and-lemon flavored olive oil dressing into a congealed, light green mass speckled with lavender buds, snips of marjoram, and piney threads of rosemary. I cross the room to microwave my dressing. Ten seconds on the clock and someone calls out to me.

 “How’s the book going?”

“It’s going well,” I say. “It’s five hundred pages and still going.”

“Wow! I meant the book you have for sale, how’s that going. I didn’t know you were writing another.”

“Writing’s what I do. Selling? Not so much.”

“Is the new one a sequel to STOLEN CLIMATES, part of a series?”

“It is the first in a series, but it is not a direct sequel.”

Another person said, “I’m too scared to read your book; I heard it was scary.”

“I didn’t think it was that scary,” I say, retrieving my salad dressing from the microwave.

“Well, maybe scary isn’t the right word. Just, you know, people are like, “Is that what goes on in her mind?”

“People always think that because I wrote the book, I thought it up, but I’m as surprised as anyone with what happens. The ideas aren’t ‘in’ my head, they sort of come from somewhere out here.” I wave the hand that is not holding my salad dressing somewhere beyond my right ear. “I guess that sounds crazy.”

“No,” a third person says. “It sounds brilliant.”

The one who started the conversation smiles and says, “The most creative things do come from crazy people. Music, art… Have you seen MISERY? Someone might kidnap you and force you to write.”

“If they give me good food and a comfortable bed, that can work for me,” I say.

There is a slight pause in conversation, as there always is at a quarter past the hour.  The woman who is afraid to read my book broke the silence. “Did you write much when you were on vacation in Hawaii?”

“Not at all.”

“Really?”

“I discovered that when it is so beautiful, when everything is so good, I have no drive. Why create something when you are already in a perfect moment? I’m writing now that I’m home, though.”

And the writing has been amazing. The book is far longer and more complex than I could have imagined at the outset, and far more intriguing. I am at the stage where I can see everything, how all the details I didn’t understand are coming together to form the whole. The book is as real to me now as the work that I do during the day, or the people who were talking to me in the lunch room. I catch glimpses of people in the halls or passing me in traffic, and I think for an instant I’ve seen one of my characters. I love this phase of writing a novel. This is why I do it. The knowledge of this feeling – this utter completeness – this is what pulls me through the doubt and confusion that come with writing a book. It is a rush.

My attitude towards writing has reverted to something more pure than it was when I started this book. If you are a long time reader, you know I started out with a specific plan, complete with publication goals and strategic marketing. When I realized I wasn’t going to make the first goal, I dropped out of the internet. I spent two months living my life, not writing, not blogging, not thinking about publication. I made some major lifestyle changes, and as my well-being improved, I gained clarity. I do not have to stick to plans driven by publication. I do not have to blog weekly. I do not have to build a brand, or build my bookshelf, or market what I write. What I need to do is simple: eat healthfully, sleep well, laugh, and write for the joy of it. It is all so very, very simple. It took months of changing one small thing at a time to get to this point. I have finally stopped framing my decisions and goals in ways that inhibit my natural trajectory towards being exactly who I am meant to be.

As a result, I am not planning to self-publish my book when it is finished. I am going to send it to traditional publishing houses, and while it makes the year(s)-long rounds, write the next book(s) in the series. If I get to the end of the series and no one is interested, then I’ll consider self-publishing.

Maybe.

The fact is that I am not good at being an indie. I don’t have any drive towards the post-production/after-writing aspects of being indie. I went that route with STOLEN CLIMATES because the thought of the submission process sounded stifling, and everyone pointed out how I’d make less with a traditional contract. However, that concept only applies if you’re making money. I’ve never even come close to recouping the production costs of  STOLEN CLIMATES. Some days, I consider pulling it out of publication all together, which would really amount to unpublishing on Amazon. After more than a year, I still haven’t made STOLEN CLIMATES available on all platforms (read: B&N, Apple, etc). I never even got around to making a print version. And I have no interest in doing those things on my own.

I will never be a successful indie.

emergenceAnd that’s okay, because I understand now how much the act of labeling myself poisoned my ability to focus on writing. I was so worried with all the things an indie must do to be successful, that I couldn’t see the sheer simplicity of living to write, as opposed to living to write something to sell. I still want to share the stories I create, but now I am willing to see if I can find a partner to help me do that. Maybe I won’t, but I believe in what I’m doing. The best part of all of this is that waiting for responses from publishers won’t matter because while I am waiting, I will still be writing.

That is what I wanted to say. It took a frozen block of olive oil and some random conversation, but I’ve managed to find the words. I am no longer who I thought I was.