How to Do What You Love

Edouard_Manet,_A_Bar_at_the_Folies-Bergère
Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.                                                                                                           Henry David Thoreau

In a box somewhere I have a list I wrote at age thirteen of ways to make money. If memory serves, it included crafts I could make and sell, chores for which I could possibly get paid and babysitting for my neighbors. Babysitting’s the only one that provided any significant stream of income. In high school and beyond, I worked as a lifeguard, caterer, house painter and substitute teacher. But most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with some combination of teaching and waiting tables.

In the ‘90s I discovered the profession of teaching artist—someone who implements long-term residencies and short-term workshops in their art form in schools, jails, community centers and hospitals—and I’ve been doing it ever since. Last year I did residencies in Chicago, Evanston and Independence, Kansas, designed and led a handful of professional development workshops for teachers, directed the Chicago Public Schools All-City Theatre Ensemble and wrote educational materials for Lyric Opera Chicago’s student and general audiences. I also waited tables at two different restaurants. I got fired from the first by a sketchy owner, which led to an anxiety-ridden, touch-and-go September: no teaching work and no restaurant to fall back on. I’m still feeling the effects of a month of no income, though I did find another job—at a place where I work longer hours for less money. The whole thing left me demoralized and a teensy bit frantic—and wondering for the millionth time why I’m still waiting tables. Continue reading How to Do What You Love

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Birthdays

photo: Wikimedia Commons
photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?                                                                                                     ― Mary Oliver

I like having a February birthday. February needs something—it’s a rough month at this latitude—and Valentine’s Day just does not cut the mustard. Mardi Gras often falls in February which helps mitigate winter malaise. (In 2021 it falls on my birthday, which might be solid justification for a New Orleans trip in six years. Laissez les bon temps rouler, ya’ll.) But, anyway, I’m a fan of birthdays, in general, as opportunities for both merrymaking and taking stock.

As it happens, February is this blog’s birthday month as well. I didn’t plan it that way. It must just feel natural to me to start things in February. I came in just under the wire with my first post on February 28, 2012. It featured one Mr. Rocky Balboa, and it was basically a pep talk to myself. Continue reading Birthdays

On Rejection: Keep Looking for the Right Address

stack-letters
photo credit: pixabay

I’m querying agents. This involves carefully crafting letters tailored to each individual agent on my list, which means researching what kind of work and which authors each one represents. My plan was to send out sixty queries before I let myself get too discouraged. I’m not sure why sixty. Somehow that number presented itself. Five dozen. I’m not even close to that yet, so it’s definitely too soon to despair. But the rejections have started to trickle in. They’re not rolling in—merely trickling. But the water is very cold.

I was feeling low last week. It was probably some holiday blues. Also I was immersed in researching Auschwitz for a study guide for The Passenger for the Lyric Opera. Also I had a behemoth of a migraine—which may have been in part a result of researching Auschwitz. And in the midst of all of that I got a very nice rejection from a fancy New York agent. My friend Lindsay pointed out that I should look on the bright side, which was that this agent used some lovely, glowing words to describe my manuscript—but I mostly felt bad that she said it wasn’t for her.

So Lindsay sent me a pep talk in the form of a link to a list of big time writers who got rejected before making it big, which of course led to further investigation on my part.

It seems Gertrude Stein submitted poems for over twenty years before one got published.

photo credit: Wikipedia
photo credit: Wikipedia

Louisa May Alcott was told to stick to teaching by the editor of The Atlantic who had to eat his words when she ended up outselling Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Henry James.

Rudyard Kipling received this note from The San Francisco Examiner in 1889: “I am sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just do not know how to use the English language.”

photo credit: Friends of the San Francisco Public Library on flickr
photo credit: Friends of the San Francisco Public Library on flickr

F. Scott Fitzgerald was advised by a shortsighted publisher, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 publishers. It went on to win the Newbery Medal.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was famously rejected a dozen times.

photo credit: Laura on flickr
photo credit: Laura on flickr

One publisher recommended that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (probably my favorite novel when I was twenty-two) be “buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

Not that I’m as brilliant as any of these authors, but it helps to think others have survived this particular roller-coaster.

In the words of Sylvia Plath, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

And Barbara Kingsolver:

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”

Just keep looking.

Away We Go!

bookI can write about years in a paragraph, but the years took years to pass.                                                                                            –Dorothy Allison

Gentle readers—

You may have noticed I’ve been absent a minute. That’s because I really wanted the next time I posted to be able to say—

Pop the bubbly, kids, I’ve finished my manuscript!

The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures is ready for the next stage in its journey to a bookshelves, beach bags and bedside tables. Next steps are to hear back from a small cadre of readers who’ve generously offered to give me their impressions and then letters letters letters to agents. Though I haven’t printed the manuscript in its entirety, I’ve been doing the screen equivalent of picking it up and hefting it in my hands by opening the document and scrolling through. It’s clocking in at seventeen chapters, three hundred eighty four pages.

I just read Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. She describes standing on her first novel the day she finished the manuscript to see how much taller it made her. I do feel taller. Very important allies and friends Jordan “Pittsburgh Road Trip” LaSalle and Lindsay “Self-appointed Biggest Fan” Porter helped me celebrate with an enormous pasta dinner.

And away we go! Stay tuned…

Late Bloomers

Paul Cézanne, Bouquet in a Delft Vase

Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.                                             —Saint Francis de Sales

I’ve often felt like a late bloomer. Not as a kid—I learned to read at age three, and that saw me through for a while, impressing grownups and whatnot. But now I’m grown up myself, I sometimes feel like it’s taking an impossibly long time to get there. I’m not 100% certain I know what there even is. Not fame and fortune. Weeell, maybe a teensy bit of fortune. Maybe a laurel or two. At a minimum, I really, really hope I can quit waiting tables before I’m half a century old. I don’t know if it’s because academic achievement came so easily when I was young or if it’s because our culture is infatuated with youth and early success, but for some time now I’ve had to ignore this refrain that ticks through my head like a very nasty white rabbit: too late, too late, too late. I’m much happier when I forget about time altogether and just settle in to the work at hand.

I subscribe to a “weekly interestingness digest” from a really cool site called brain pickings. This weekend it included a letter from Charles Bukowski to the editor of Black Sparrow Press who offered him $100 a month to quit his post office job and write full time. Bukowski was 49. Seventeen years later, he wrote a thank you: Continue reading Late Bloomers

Some Advice on Writing and Life

photo by Victoria Ristenbatt
photo by Victoria Ristenbatt

So right about now, this book I’m writing is feeling a little bit like that mean kid who holds something like your notebook or your hat just out of reach while you jump at it over and over, thinking this time you’re going to grab hold and not let go. I’m feeling kind of blue about the fact that I’m not done. (Side note: If you are feeling kind of blue, listening to Kind of Blue may actually help, especially “Blue in Green.”) My self-imposed deadline of the end of March has come and gone, but I’m still not done. Every essay I plan to include has at least been started, but I’m still not done. Since beginning this journey, I’ve written fifty posts for this blog, I’ve published excerpts from my manuscript in Creative Nonfiction and The Chattahoochee Review and have one forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, I’ve read selections from it at several story nights in Chicago and I have one more slightly thrilling book-related announcement I’m not at liberty to make yet. I’ve learned a lot, I’m a better writer than I was when I started—

But. I’m. Still. Not. Done.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a writing conference in Poets and Writers that sounded kind of dreamy. It takes place at the Algonquin Hotel (among other spots) in Manhattan, surrounded by the ghosts of writers past; they only accept a handful of writers—and they hook you up with literary agents cherry picked to be a good fit for your particular manuscript. And though it costs beaucoup dollars, which I don’t currently have on hand, I applied anyway in case they had financial aid or scholarships or something like that. Continue reading Some Advice on Writing and Life

Twinkly Lights

photo by giveawayboy
photo by giveawayboy

One of my favorite things about this time of year is the twinkly lights. I love the light imagery abundant in the midwinter holidays—the strands woven through bushes and strung along eaves, the Hanukah and Advent and Saint Lucy candles, the Yule logs. For those of us who sometimes feel keenly the dark and the cold, the shadow parts of ourselves, those holiday lights are a tonic and reminder to stoke our own fires. Continue reading Twinkly Lights

Meeting Resistance: On Writing, Workouts and Endurance

worn-out-shoes

I’m out of shape. I’ve fallen out of my not-exactly-Olympian but relatively consistent get-up-and-move exercise habit. I need to get back into it because 1. it’s good for my health, 2. it’s an indispensable mood elevator during long, dark Chicago winters and 3. it builds endurance. That third thing, I’ve found, has much farther-reaching benefits than just logging mileage on the treadmill.

As a kid, I lived very much in my head. I built forts and sandcastles, I swung on swings and climbed jungle gyms—but really taxing, sweaty, whole-body-limbs-and-heart engaged movement, not so much. Team sports sent me into a spiral of panic. I didn’t really come home to my body until I signed up for jazz dance in high school at Feet First! (The exclamation point was part of the name.) Our teacher was pixie-sized; we danced to Prince and Duran Duran in black and electric blue spandex. In college I picked up my roommate’s running habit, bundling up on winter afternoons and running past fields of rasping cornstalks. Continue reading Meeting Resistance: On Writing, Workouts and Endurance

Goals, Faith and Magic

photo by ShanaCathEileen
photo by ShanaCathEileen

Near the end of Harry Potter book three, Harry saves himself along with his friend Hermione and his godfather Sirius by managing a complicated and difficult bit of magic. Harry has travelled back in time, where he stumbles upon his past self and loved ones in harm’s way – about to be destroyed by the ghastly dementors. Transfixed by the terrible scene, time-travelling-Harry recalls having seen a shadowy, strangely familiar figure cast the spell that repelled the dementors and saved himself and his friends. Suddenly it dawns on Harry that the familiar figure he’d seen was actually himself. So he does something he’s never been able to do before – conjures a Patronus spell strong enough to drive away over a hundred hungry dementors. When she hears of it, Hermione is stunned:

“‘I can’t believe it…You conjured up a Patronus that drove away all those dementors! That’s very, very advanced magic….’

‘I knew I could do it this time,’ said Harry, ‘because I’d already done it.’”

Harry manages it because he’d seen himself do it before.

I wish I could catch a glimpse of the future me, right now, holding the published Saltwater Twin in my hands. Then I would know I can do it. Nevertheless, despite my inability to see the future, I’m trying to believe unwaveringly that this thing I want will come to be. Continue reading Goals, Faith and Magic

Start Now

dorothy writing

10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer
Write.
Write more.
Write even more.
Write even more than that.
Write when you don’t want to.
Write when you do.
Write when you have something to say.
Write when you don’t.
Write every day.
Keep writing.
 ― Brian Clark

 

I started this blog last February, a couple weeks after my birthday, to document the experience of writing my first book. As I approach these anniversaries — birthday and blog — I can’t help but take stock of where I am (writing, writing, writing), how I got here (see here) and where I’m headed next (I want to sell The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures before 2013 draws to a close). Last week I wrote about pep talks. I kind of feel like this blog has been a yearlong pep talk to myself and anyone else who’s working hard at a creative project — or maybe just working hard at, like, life. These posts have been my inquiry into how to balance plugging away on something that’s going to take a while to finish and manage at the same time to feel some measure of contentment with life as it unwinds. Continue reading Start Now