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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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.

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

Aragorn in the Living Room

arwen

I am currently working on a really hard chapter of The Saltwater Twin – hard because it kicks up all kinds of not very pleasant emotional turmoil. Also, my wonderful, wonderful pooch is getting old and facing illness. Also, it’s winter. In order to face these difficulties, I have been shoring myself up with hot chocolate, carrot cake and The Lord of the Rings.

I read Tolkien’s trilogy for the first time in fifth grade – I had to take breaks because the Ringwraiths gave me nightmares. Last week I looked for my copies of the books; I felt that hot chocolate/carrot cake/LOTR breaks at regular intervals would be very beneficial in navigating the difficult emotional terrain of writing this chapter and taking Levi to vet appointments. But I must have given away my yellowed paperback copies in a book purge at some point, because they were nowhere to be found. So, I ordered them on Amazon, and rented the movies to tide me over until they arrive. And I have to say, they hit the spot. It is so satisfying to spend time in a world where good is gloriously good and evil irredeemably evil, and they’re so comfortingly and clearly delineated. Good is Liv Tyler on a white horse with a gleaming silver sword, and evil looks like an orc. Continue reading Aragorn in the Living Room

grace

Cat Stretching

When I was in college I tried to wean myself off sleep. I’ve never functioned very well on less than eight hours of zzzs, and I’ve always been profoundly jealous at those who can. Sophomore year I came up with a plan to gradually reduce the amount I slept each night until I made it to – I’m not sure what my goal was – six hours? four? Turns out I’m not the only one who has had this brilliant idea. When I typed “can you train yourself to need…” into the search bar, Google right away suggested “less sleep.” This was followed by the even more ambitious, “Can you train yourself to not need sleep?” Wow. At all? Most researchers say that although individuals differ in the amount of sleep they need, a person can’t deprive herself of sleep without suffering things like fatigue, sadness, stress, anger and diminished performance. My own sleep experiment did not meet with success: I caught colds, suffered migraines and continually dozed off in the library until, bitterly disappointed, I went back to sleeping eight-ish hours a night.

This is how I’ve tended to approach most things in life. I value self-discipline, hard work, endurance. I set monster goals. If I’m not pushing myself to the limit – running faster on the treadmill, soaring across writing deadlines, checking off every last to do – I feel lazy. This leads to a lot of anxiety. It’s never – I’m never – enough. Recently, I was struggling through an intermediate level yoga class – though I’m new to yoga, I skipped the beginner classes, wanting to instantly master the fancy poses, the handstands, to get the most intense workout. We were working on some insane pose – flying pigeon, perhaps – and the instructor told us to find the place in between pushing really hard – like working really hard for it and trying to be a tough customer – and the place of sinking into the pose and sort of surrendering to it. I think she said a word to describe what this place is, but I can’t remember it. Nevertheless, the idea that there was such a place and that one might choose to rest in it, breathe into it without ferocious effort or sitting back on one’s laurels, that was a revelation.

I’ve been Googling phrases trying to find the term – the Sanskrit word for that yoga place between. No luck so far. But I did find “Playing the Edge,” an interesting reflection by a yogi named Erich Schiffman who writes that,

“Edges are marked by pain and define your limits. How far you can fold forward, for example, is limited by your flexibility edge; to go any further hurts and is actually counterproductive. The length of your stay in a pose is determined by your endurance edge. Your interest in a pose is a function of your attention edge.”

Schiffman suggests that you pay attention to these edges as they arise, that you notice them, breathe there, wait until your body tells you to deepen the pose.

I want to learn how to do this in life. I am always trying hard, working hard, getting very breathless. Schiffman asserts that if you have to steel yourself to get through your yoga practice, you’re pushing too hard; you’re fighting yourself. “Keep tabs on whether you are enjoying yourself or not,” he writes. “If not, why not? Find a way of doing the pose that is enjoyable.” It reminded me again of that day that I got nowhere close to flying pigeon – the yoga instructor told us to try to keep the beginnings of a smile on our face. Just the feeling of being about to smile.

Here’s the thing: I like my life. I like writing and teaching. I like spending time with my friends and boyfriend. I like my pets. I like taking care of them. I like taking care of my home and cooking good meals. I like exercising. But way too often, all of these good things add up to ohmygodhowamigoingtogetallofthisdonei’mfailingatlife?

So I’m going to work at finding that space between pushing and surrender. To keep tabs on whether I’m enjoying myself or not, and if not, to see what I can shift. To be interested in myself, in the moment and in what’s happening in it. And since I still don’t know what it’s called in Sanskrit – that in between place, that balancing of effort with ease – I’m going to call it grace.moon trees 2

Thank You, Virginia

As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world. Virginia Woolf

Last week I rode my bike up to the post office on Main in Evanston. I like that branch because it generally only has lines at Christmastime and because I like the idea of a post office on Main Street. I was there to send in a grant I’ve been working on for two months – the reason there were no October posts at The Saltwater Twin. This is the first time I’ve applied for a big grant. The $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award is offered by A Room of Her Own (after Virginia Woolf’s famous essay), a foundation that supports women writers and artists, and according to their website, it’s the largest grant of its kind to women in the United States. So, yeah, $50,000? I had to give it a try. The application was massive – five meaty essays plus a writing sample plus tax returns and all kinds of paperwork. It took many, many hours to write and assemble. And a few days ago I was finally finished. It’s mailed in. Now I just have to wait five months to find out the results.

The day I sent it in, I thought I’d be riding high – relieved and hopeful and feeling like crowing over a job well done. Instead I felt tentative, sad and anxious. Go figure. It was hard to let go of the application. I’d put so much into it, it was hard to stop and accept I’d done all I could and that was that. I’ve been thinking back to my letting go posts of late summer/early fall. Here’s another opportunity to practice. While I was working on the application, I fantasized about winning that fifty grand. That’s how I faced the seemingly endless essays and rationalized the many, many hours it took away from working on my book. I pictured sitting down for a celebratory meal, drinking a fancy cocktail, quitting my part time restaurant job and settling in to write like crazy. But once that package left my hands, all I could think was, no way am I ever going to get that award. I just spent eight weeks working on the longest shot ever. But my last post here was “Everything Is Medicine.” Writing a massive grant application? Medicine. Yes, $50K would be awesome, but I’m going to see this accomplishment as a good thing, no matter the outcome. Maybe I’ll even drink a fancy cocktail regardless.

AROHO, the foundation that gives the Gift of Freedom award, goes out of their way to support women writers. They set up a Facebook page where applicants could commiserate with and encourage one another.

(I resisted the urge to Facebook trash talk, Muhammad Ali style: “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”)

They also offered an option to sign up to receive daily, personalized “Countdown to Freedom” emails to cheer you on in the process. The emails usually consisted of an inspirational quote like this one from Diane Ackerman: “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.” I love that they did that. When I was working on “We Got Spirit!,” a monologue I performed in the Live Bait Filet of Solo Fest some years back, I had an idea for a traveling cheerleader service. It would be akin to a singing telegram – a nice cheerleader would arrive at your home or office and cheer you on in whatever challenge you were facing – whether you were a student heading into a scary test, a lonely homebody who needed to get out there and make some friends or an unpublished writer working on a book – whatever your hurdle, the cheerleader would address that in a special cheer for you. So, although I will not be stopping by in a cheerleading ensemble (even though I have one), in gratitude for Virginia Woolf, the AROHO foundation and the wonderful friends who offered feedback on my application (Thank you Ann, Harry, Jordan, Lindsay, Nick, Rick and Ruiyan), I would like to send out some cheer. If anyone out there needs support and encouragement, tell me in the comments what goal you’re trying to reach or send me an email through my website maiamorgan.com and I will cheer you on.

And now, back to business as usual: working on The Saltwater Twin, submitting essays thither and yon and perhaps occasionally sipping something fancy.

Everything Is Medicine

So, the nice literary agent in New York who continues to be very encouraging about The Saltwater Twin recommends that I stop working on it for a while and focus on submitting work for publication. She thinks two or three more publications under my belt will put us in a better position to sell the manuscript when that time comes. Consequently, while I haven’t stopped writing altogether, I’ve begun to devote half my time to researching literary magazines and websites, polishing excerpts of chapters and sending them out via email and manila envelopes…and the rejections have begun to trickle in.

I’ll be honest. I enjoy praise. I like As. It’s pleasant to have people tell me I’m wonderful, especially at something I’ve worked hard at. It feels good. But, despite the fact that praise is more fun, rejection is part of any artistic practice (not to mention part of life), and it’s helpful to learn how to take it in stride. There are thousands of blogs and websites and articles that offer advice on how to deal with getting rejected by love interests and job interests and even a whole bunch of sites talking specifically about how to deal with rejection as a writer. I like the advice of an irreverent fellow called Chuck Wendig who blogs at terribleminds:

“Every book, movie, or story you love? It’s been rejected. Probably not once. But dozens, maybe even hundreds of times. It’s part of the writer’s career tapestry, part of our blood and genetic memory. Rejection is part of who we are as creative beings. Might as well commiserate.”

So how do you deal with it? How do you keep from getting the wind knocked out of you every time? Mr. Wendig goes on to advise,

“Step to it. Suck it up. Lean into the punch. We all get knocked down. This is your chance to get back up again with your rolled-up manuscript in your hand and start swinging like a ninja…You need to see rejection as bad-ass Viking Warrior battle scars, as a roadmap of pain that makes you stronger, faster, smarter, and stranger. Rejections are proof of your efforts. Be proud to have ‘em.”

I think about learning to ride a bike. How many times I fell off, the weeks I spent with chronically bloodied knees. But I kept getting back on.

This past Saturday I went to a very interesting event called a gong bath. Maybe I’ll tell you more about that sometime. One of my favorite things – actually probably my favorite thing – about the evening happened during the introduction when the leader said, “Everything is medicine.” I like that thought. I love that thought. Everything is medicine. I am medicine. Penne with tomato cream is medicine. Rejection is medicine, too. It’s a tonic for toughening up, being persistent, weaning yourself off a need for extrinsic praise, finding satisfaction in doing the work as best you can. Getting back on the bike. Wobbling down the street until the whole balancing and pedaling and steering act is second nature. Until it feels like flying.

the courage of your lungs

It’s June already. Summer is breathing down our necks. How did this happen? I’ve been working hard all spring, but teaching a full load of classes and workshops (oh, and trying not to be a hermit because that never ends well) has meant that I’ve only completed one 7,000 word chapter, “Law of the Jungle” over the past several weeks. But summer’s nearly here, and that makes me feel energized and alive and ready to run. I know just a few weeks ago I wrote a post “In Praise of Slowness,” but now I’m kind of in the mood to go fast. Not a teeth-gritted-when-is-this-hell-going-to-be-over kind of fast, but the kind when your body just begs you to run.

One afternoon this spring I asked the students in my after school program to write images that showed relationships. They wrote of grandmothers dancing at family reunions, a woman chasing a man and throwing her high heels at him, a father marveling over his infant son’s feet. One student wrote: Two girls running, the wind blowing their hair back.”

(If you want to, you can pretend you’re listening to the “Chariots of Fire” theme as you read the rest of this post.)

That’s the kind of running I mean – when your lungs ache and your legs get a mind of their own, running like a kid, running toward nothing. The goal is not the goal, you just open up and run like a smiling dog on the beach. So that is my summer plan. I have a goal in mind. It’s a big goal, a lot of chapters. But I’m going to set my mind on running for the joy of running and see how that works out.  And when my lungs ache I will remember running in my college town through fields of corn you could practically hear growing, wisps of clouds in the sky, worn pavement rising to meet my feet.  I’ll revel in my fleet feet, my capacity to move and breathe and feel the sun and wind on my skin.

This summer I’m running. Who’s in?

You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

                                                                                                        – Jesse Owens

Gonna Fly Now…or 72 Steps

Image

I have a picture of Rocky as my desktop image — a still from when he’s just run through Philadelphia in his gray sweatsuit and black wool cap, sprinted up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and triumphantly raised his hands in the air.  This is to make me believe I can do this.  I am working on a book, and I’m maybe about halfway through.  It came about as a result of winning a national non-fiction writing contest held by Glamour magazine.  Along with a 5K prize came a very fancy lunch (including a carrot marshmallow amuse bouche) with Glamour editors and some interest in my work from agents in NYC.  So I decided to keep writing essays, enough to put together a collection.  It’s going to be called The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures.  (More on that later.) So here I am, about a year in and halfway through and it is sometimes hard to keep believing that I will make it up the steps. (And that’s just the writing the book part; then comes the publishing journey.)  So I have Rocky on my desktop.  Also my friend Lindsay who believes this will happen.  Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone believe something for you when you’re finding it a bit impossible.  And, I suppose, to be a little bit thrilled about the small achievements along the way…every step.