“Why in the world?” you might ask. “You’re not exactly in a relationship… in fact, you’re probably the single most single person on the planet… so much that we gave up inquiring about your relationship status in, like, 2015…”
Well then, let me tell you a little story:
A few years ago, I was living in Paris for the first time, alone, when I first went to the top of the Eiffel Tower—also alone. It was a Saturday night at 8 pm, the only time slot available for weeks, the type of time slot that flashes DATE NIGHT in big bold red letters across the solo traveler’s eyes, so I booked my ticket with a little apprehension and found myself squeezing into an elevator packed with snuggling couples. “Just one?” the ticket man repeated the phrase I hear everywhere when I’m traveling alone, “just one? just one? just one?” He checked around my shoulder for my companion. There was no one there.
But when the doors opened, and I stepped out into blue sky with all of Paris at my feet, something shifted. The kissing couples fell away. For the next three hours, I drank champagne and watched the sun turn the gray roofs red, until those too faded to glittering lights. The couples came and went. But I’d long forgotten them, because I was so filled up with something else—not what I lacked but everything I already had. A feeling as infinite as the skyline stretching before me. I was having the time of my life, all alone and standing on top of the greatest stage of romance in the world. It’s a feeling I’ve carried with me, long after I descended back into the world. A feeling I celebrate come February 14.
One is a whole number. No matter your relationship status.
Sometimes we forget. Often, society forgets. Me? Not a chance.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written here, but I can explain: traveling turned my brain into a mushy kaleidoscope, and I’m waiting for the fairy dust to settle. More particularly, that kaleidoscope-hued fairy dust is shifting and settling into a completely reinvented novel, the novel, the one I can’t get out of my head, no matter how many times I write it.
The truth is, it’s never come out right. I’ve talked a lot about revising here before, about the figurative belly-flop where you just throw it all out there and see what kind of splash you can make. And sometimes, it works. Other times (read: what used to be most of the time) I’d worry too much about the invisible critic perched on my shoulder, which swallowed me whole. (Or made me swallow a bunch of water, if we’re still thinking in terms of belly-flops.) In short, it was scary. And hard to breathe. And nothing resembling the story in my head, the one that’s always been there, the one that’s finally taking shape, now that I’m allowing it.
All my life, I’ve had a hard time sitting still. When I was only a few weeks old, my mom says I started banging my head on the mattress inside my crib, over and over again, and it only escalated from there. I was always moving, dancing, playing, writing, creating…nonstop. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.)
So when I started writing my novel, the novel, my last year of college, my first thought was, “GO! Run as fast as you can across the page, Writing Hand! Scribble away until the pages begin to smoke, until your eyes begin to sting and your brain begins to melt, and then keep writing some more!” For several years this was how I wrote, caring more about other people’s opinions (including imaginary ones) than listening to my instincts, until I finally LOOKED at the brick of paper in front of me and didn’t recognize it as my own.
*Disclaimer: listening to writerly advice from others is important. The trick is finding the right balance of advice/instinct.
It wasn’t until I got off the writing treadmill that I could finally SEE my novel. (Forcibly, when I went abroad last summer.) And it was a revelation. I’d gone abroad to reinvent my novel, but I ended up spending those four months experiencing, not inventing. Soaking it all in, not pouring it out. Letting the kaleidoscope of my novel take shape in my head, and waiting to see how the dust settles. It’s settling.
So, step one of reinventing a novel is: do nothing. Or better yet, do something else, even if it’s just a day or two. Or a breath or two, just to remind yourself of what you’re writing and why it’s important.
I’m off to SCBWI’s Winter Conference in New York next week (with my dad!) and I can’t wait to meet other writers and friends, learn new advice and insights.
I’ve been thinking a lot about risk lately, in writing and in life. These are two very different types of risk, of course, and some might question how dangerous it is to sit at a desk and pound out letters into a Word doc. (“Carpal tunnel, you say? Shoulder fatigue? Neck cramps?”)
Of course, most writers will tell you there are bigger risks at hand: of time, of sanity, and, probably the biggest unknown of all: the constant wonder of whether these words amount to anything to anyone. All writers desire an audience of some kind, whether it’s the public at large, our family, even our cat, and all have discriminating taste. We can’t control what they’ll say and think of our creative leaps. There is a great deal at risk.
It’s interesting, then, that the other type of risk I tend to take in life—traveling abroad alone for extended periods of time—feels far less risky than staring into a computer all day. In two weeks, I’m leaving for Italy, France, Spain, Scotland, and Ireland, and won’t be home for four months. And like every time I’ve been abroad before, I’m already getting comments about how BRAVE I am. “Oh, you’re a single female traveling abroad for four months to places you’ve never been without knowing anyone there? YOU’RE BRAVE!” And yet to me, the life of a solo tourist is quite…comfortable. Exhilarating, yes, but not quite as scary as it can be staring at the blinking cursor on a blank Word doc.
We’ve all heard some variation of the phrase “risk equals reward”—in our lives, our careers, our relationships. I couldn’t agree more. But I wonder how much more effective I’d be—and maybe others might be—if we stopped inching along the edge of the abyss, repeatedly telling ourselves THIS IS RISKY. If we forgot, like I so often do while traveling alone, that we are inches from plunging headfirst into a moat full of churning lava, or seconds from missing the last train in the seediest part of Dodge. Or writing something that could be exhilarating and beautiful that could remake the world into something new and magical. If we forgot ourselves and all of our expectations and belly-flopped straight into molten lava. (okay, that would be painful.) If we took a chance on our hopes and dreams without getting the magnitude all out of whack, because, yes, pursuing our dreams takes a great deal of work and risk, but I’m pretty sure there won’t be any lava to swim through. And something even greater is waiting on the other side, whether it’s Rome or that finished manuscript. And anyway, isn’t the struggle optional? Not the work or risk, of course, but the struggle?
So sail away from the safe harbor, as Mark Twain would say, whether that harbor is literal or figurative. Forget the graceful swan dive; take the plunge. (or belly-flop.) Ready? One, Two……
FEARLESS CREATORS celebrates the idea that by jumping into creativity as amateurs, daring to fail, we can achieve more than we ever imagined.
And now I give you…...terrible dance moves.
(I can get away with this on my birthday, right?)
Last winter, I wrote a feature for Columbia College’s Affinity magazine called FEARLESS CREATORS, where CC alumni shared their experiences and struggles with their creative pursuits. (Link here.) The idea stemmed from my lifelong fascination with creativity (anyone who’s read my manuscript can attest to that), and I was interested in exploring how people push past often crushing fears and create something new.
Let’s admit it: creativity is scary. We shed our proverbial skins to the world, a very subjective world, and hope people like what they see. This last bit, the audience bit, is sometimes impossible to forget. This last bit can CRUSH creativity. Because it’s hard, sometimes, to not care what other people will think of your crazy ideas. (or dance moves, in this case). It can feel like walking naked down the street and trying our best to pretend no one is watching. (not that I’ve ever tried this, FYI.) Therefore, in the spirit of bravery, daring to fail, I give you my terrible dance moves.
Let me add one very, very important caveat: making this video was SO MUCH FUN. I’d never made a “music video” before, much less ever opened iMovie on my Mac to download movies and splice them together. (or, for that matter, made movie stands out of a big stack of books. Yes, we are high tech around these parts, let me tell you). And even though I tend to overuse the dramatic conductor-like fist pump in the video (credit to my drum major days in high school), and maybe I can’t really sing like Beyoncé in real life (just trust me on this one), this video is a testament to creativity, jumping in as an amateur, having fun and trying something new.
So find your version of your own “music video,” whatever that might be. Be willing to try something new, even if we dare to fail as we go. Dare away. Because if that’s not success, I don’t know what is.
(A little context: if you’re wondering who the face in the angel is, that’s my then-boyfriend a few years back, when I made him this video for Valentine’s Day. Under the halo, like in the song. Enjoy, if you like!)
As I dive head-first into a sea of notes and outlines about B2 I’ve amassed over the last several years, I’m reminded of a familiar piece of advice: be messy.
B1 (currently titled WHEN THERE WAS MAGIC) had plenty of false starts. Plenty. I started the thing in 2007 as a thesis for my undergraduate degree, fueled by Peet’s Coffee and Boulder flatirons and a hefty dose of pixie dust and magic. I loved the idea. I’d get chills just thinking about it. But as I’ve discovered over the years, the idea I adored in my head wasn’t making it to the page. (Case in point: when your thesis advisors wrinkle their foreheads as you describe what your novel is really about, you need to go back and revise. And revise again. And again, and again…you get the idea.)
It took me a long time to accept that while this manuscript is technically my first book, I’ve rewritten it at least five times. Not just small tweaks here and there, but total, ruthless rewrites. And I say ruthless very deliberately. It hurts to kill off your favorite scenes (sometimes, even, your favorite characters), it hurts to press delete in the span of one breathless second and remove work that took hundreds of hours to complete. But before you go and think I’m a vicious, unfeeling person, know this: it was the only way to make it better.
As a self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist,” it took me a long time to see it this way. I’d always thought a novel had to be perfect the first time around. (Newsflash: there is no such thing as a perfect novel!) Starting over would be admitting defeat. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Oh, how I was wrong!
Creativity is born from mistakes. The false starts I made in earlier versions needed to happen so that the breakthroughs could come later. I suppose it would have been easier (saner?) to say, “To heck with this! I’ll start a new novel!” and while that’s a very worthwhile (and still very challenging) endeavor, I just couldn’t do it. I had to write this novel. Call me stubborn, call me crazy, but I just couldn’t get this novel out of my heart. And here’s my advice for other writers feeling the same way: that’s okay! Write what’s in your heart. It’s okay if it doesn’t come out squeaky clean the first time; hardly anything does. Whip clunky scenes into shape, change them a million times. Challenge yourself to see your novel with fresh eyes, and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Let other trusted people read it and give feedback. It might sound daunting, but I promise, promise, promise seeing your beloved idea make it to the page will be totally worth it.
Because when you give yourself the freedom to mess it up, great things can happen.
Be ruthless. As I start writing B2, I know I will be.