State Your Purpose

NervousLess than two weeks ago, I landed in my semi-hometown of San Antonio, Texas, to attend the 2014 RWA National conference. Though I’ve attended big trade show events in my non-writing past, it was the first time I’d been to a huge national writing conference. Therefore, I purposely didn’t set any goals for the conference because I didn’t know what to expect.

Holy crap, that was a mistake. By Friday morning, I was practically frozen in the fetal position on that impossibly comfortable Marriott bed. I’ve been trying to make sense of what happened ever since I came back, but I think it boils down to this: I went in with desire, but no purpose, and being the strongly expressed INFJ that I am, everything just sort of folded in on me.

Purposeless desire. I should have known it never works. A classic romance hero mistake…Yeah, baby, whatever. You want me? That’s cool. You don’t? Also fine. No big deal.

Things usually don’t go well for heroes like that. Like, extra not-well. Have you noticed? Those heroes that think they don’t need to put a stake in the ground, don’t need to invest, they suffer more than the heroes who are in it to win it. In the end, the I don’t have any real feelings about you one way or the other, chillaxed approach only results in an extra helping of angst when the hero finally does realize that he feels strongly about his love. Don’t get me wrong, I lurv those stories, where the hero is all crazy with nerves by the end, and he gets all tortured and frozen in the fetal position on a proverbial Marriott bed (which, thankfully, is supremely comfortable and jammed full of perfect-firmness pillows). But in real life, when I’m that hero, and haven’t declared myself to…well, myself…it’s a problem. It hurts extra bad toward the end.

The conference was overwhelmingly awesome. I’ll say that first. But it was also awesomely overwhelming, and I got to thinking about how, for me or someone like me, walking in to a situation like that, shrugging, and being all, No problem, honey buns, let’s just roll with this, is basically like saying, I want to be extra tortured later on.

So this was my lesson learned from my very first major writer’s conference. I need purpose to be sane. And I need to declare that purpose to myself from the very start and work toward it like a honey badger. Because for me, purpose is as much about getting shit done as it is about declaring myself in love with my physical and mental well-being…in the future, I’ll save all that angst for my fictional characters.


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Ten Things I Will Never Learn

I participated in a great conversation at the airport on the way home from RWA last year about how learning to be an author is not just about achieving 10,000 hours of craft mastery. I believe it was Del Dryden who posited that there were more like 50,000 hours involved — 10,000 to learn to write, 10,000 to learn to tell a story, 10,000 to learn to sell yourself to the gatekeepers — agents and editors —10,000 to learn how to market and promote yourself to readers, and 10,000 to learn how to be exposed to the world and its vagaries without losing your mind.

This is a lot of hours, which means a very, very long time spent in what Ira Glass calls the gap. If you’ve never seen this video, it’s totally worth watching:

Part of what makes it so hard to become an author is that it’s so easy to give up when you’re stuck in the 50,000-hour gap. And it lasts so much longer than you’d ever guess. To all appearances, you seem to have “arrived” but you’re still trying to figure out how to survive this crazy challenge you’ve set for yourself.

The thing is, there are certain aspects of The Gap that persist. Even when you’re pretty far along in the 50,000 hours, even when you start to feel like you’ve mostly closed the gap craft-wise, that there are certain lessons that no matter how many times you’re taught them, you fail to learn. Here, in no particular order, are the top ten things I don’t seem to be able to permanently internalize, no matter how hard I try:

1) The first day of writing after a long hiatus sucks, no matter how inspired and fresh I feel.

2) It’s really hard to write the beginning of a book. There are just so many moving pieces.

3) It takes between ten minutes and twenty-four hours after I receive criticism to go from “WTF?” to “I wish I’d thought of that myself.”

4) It’s not true that it would be easier to write the book perfectly the first time around so I don’t have to revise it. The harder I try, the less I can write.

5) When the book is torn apart for revision, its guts laid out on the floor, it will go back together again, despite appearances.

6) There is a weird contradiction that goes like this: Trying to write when when I have no idea what to write next will never solve the problem. On the other hand, a lot of the time the only way I can figure out what comes next is to write it. Maybe this boils down to: If I’m sitting at the computer, I should be writing; otherwise I should get up and take a long walk.

7) Being almost finished (which involves writing and anticipation) is way more fun than being finished (which involves not writing and the realization that I don’t know what to do next).

8) When I unlock a level of author achievement (Agented! Published! 100 sales! 1,000 sales! 10,000 sales! Amazon list!) I will immediately crave the next level of achievement.

9) It is impossible to write a sex scene with someone else in the room, even if they’re not looking

10) The book is way better than I fear in moments of despair and way worse than I believe in moments of elation.

From past experience, I know that writing these things down is helpful. It doesn’t mean I’ve learned them, and it definitely doesn’t mean I’ll remember them when I need to, but at least I can come back to them and remind myself that a previous version of me has wrestled these demons before and lived to tell the tale.

Do you find any of these things unlearnable? Is there anything else that you keep not learning over and over again? If you’re a reader rather than a writer, do you have similar “unlearnable” principles in your day job/art/craft?

Posted in Life & Wonk, Writing Wonkomance | 17 Comments

Because I Didn’t Do Enough – #RWA14

I learned something about myself at RWA this year.

Ok, I learned many things about myself. I learned that I cannot hang with Texas salsa—my Midwesterner taste buds are pepper-challenged. I learned that, yes, it’s still just as easy as ever to make me cry at a keynote speech about the hope and succor and comfort that books in this genre offer to readers. I learned that I don’t just have a second wind, but a third and even sometimes a fourth wind.

And I learned, or was reminded, of how well trained I am to shrug off harassment, to ignore being mistreated by someone, to declare that “it’s no big deal” when a man is inappropriate.

I also learned, or was reminded, of how much easier it is to access my ability to act when I am doing so on another woman’s behalf.

On Friday morning, I got on the elevator with two other women to head down to the lobby. A man was standing in the back corner of the elevator and after a moment he interrupted our conference chat.

“Do you want to go on a sex date with me?”

My brain doesn’t always process speech quickly, especially when it’s completely out of context to the situation. So I just looked at him for a moment while the other two women said, “No” and looked away. I think that if I had understood what he was saying and felt like it was directed to me, I might have done much the same.

But by the time I figured out what he’d said, aided by his helpfully repeating himself, I was furious on their behalf.

“You don’t talk like that to women. EVER. That is not okay. Do not say that to any woman. EVER.”

I was in lecture mode immediately, feeling protective and outraged on behalf of these women who were so clearly uncomfortable (as anyone would be while being sexually harassed in a tiny, enclosed space) and just hoping the elevator would hit the lobby as quickly as possible.

We all got off the elevator on the same floor and the man walked away. I didn’t realize that he’d walked in the direction I was headed until I sat down on a bench next to the friends I was meeting and saw that he was already sitting two benches away.

“See that guy over there?” I said in my not-at-all lowered voice. “He just asked me and two other women in the elevator if we wanted to go on sex dates with him. Yes. THAT guy.” I told the group what had just happened, but I was also ready to break out my laptop and get to work on my edits.

My friend Shelley Ann Clark was the first person to ask, “Did you report him to security?”

It honestly hadn’t even occurred to me to do so.

I have been harassed so many times in my life, that it’s just become a part of my background noise. Stranger in the elevator asks for a sex date? Quelle surprise. That was far less shocking that the guy ahead of me in line at the 7-Eleven once who stared at my breasts until I told him to stop and then told me, “Why don’t you grow some tits?” That time, the cashier grimaced and shrugged and tried to get the guy to check out and pay as quickly as possible, but no one other than me said anything. It was certainly less shocking than the time my boss’s friend whistled me over for a drink while I was tending bar and when I jokingly (not-so-jokingly) scolded him, “I know you didn’t just whistle for me like I’m a dog, right?”, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Well, I’m sure my dog is smarter than you are, so how about you just get me a drink?”

Elevator Sex Date man?

Not even on my radar.

He was on Shelley’s though. She, and my other friends, told me that I really ought to report it to security. After asking my permission, Shelley actually left and walked to the front desk to alert them to this guy. She left and I sat there with my phone in my hand, and I was still uncertain about what I should do. It is so deeply ingrained in me that harassment isn’t a big deal. That no one is going to do anything about it. That I just need to suck it up and move past it.

Finally, the voices in my head united in agreeing that Shelley was right. I called Security and had just gotten them on the phone when the man in question moved to another bench near us and sat next to a woman who was reading. I was in the middle of telling them that I thought he was probably harassing another woman right now when I heard my friends gasp and say, “He just grabbed her.”

The man had his hand on the back of her neck. The woman very loudly told him to stop touching her and attempted to get up and move away from him. He didn’t let go. It honestly looked to me as if he were attempting to pull her out the hotel doors right next to us and into the mall.

Social conditioning is a powerful thing. But it works in more than one way and sometimes it comes into conflict with itself. I felt no urge whatsoever to do something about the harasser for myself, but once he escalated to assaulting another woman? I was on my feet in an instant, chasing him out the door, shouting and putting myself in between him and the woman he’d grabbed, because I am also conditioned to be protective and that instinct was more powerful than the one that minimized his harassment of me.

The elasticity of time is always a marvel to experience in an adrenalin-filled moment. During the two minutes that lasted a half hour as we yelled at him (because my friends and even a random man nearby in the mall all jumped in), I had so much time to think about what was happening. We were protecting her. We were chasing him off. But also not trying to chase him too far, because I knew hotel security was on their way. We were bracing ourselves for him to turn violent (or at least I was, as I realized when he took a step towards me once and I immediately retreated back through the glass door of the hotel), which he never did.

And all of it felt so good. It feels powerful to stand up and shout and threaten someone when they are aggressively hurting others. It feels powerful to know that standing right behind you are women who have your back and are ready to step in. As support, as witnesses, to take the lead if you get tired or scared or just overwhelmed. And afterwards, my friends offered to get the woman who had been grabbed anything she needed. They walked her to meet her lunch date (her mom, which must have felt like safety personified.) They exchanged cards with her and offered her company at any hour of the day or night so that she would never have to sit alone at the conference anywhere, if she wanted to feel safe. They followed up with emails and tweets to make sure she was doing okay.

I follow a lot of SFF and comic book community members online. For the past several years, there has been an ongoing and escalating conversation about harassment at conventions, the need for explicit policies and plans to handle it, and the regular and disappointing failure of even the savviest of cons to get it right.

There’s a little part of me that wants to brag about how awesome the romance writing community is after everyone’s response to this incident at RWA.

There’s a bigger part of me that needs to apologize with sincere regret both to the woman who was assaulted by this man and to the rest of my conference attendees. (I am not mentioning her name in case she would rather not relive the moment online.) I didn’t act fast enough. I didn’t take our right to exist in the world with freedom and safety seriously enough. I know better. I will do better. I promise you that.

And that man?

A security guard from the San Antonio Mariott Rivercenter came running up as we were still yelling at the harasser outside the hotel/mall entrance. When the guy took off with the guard chasing after him, I thought, “Well, he’s never going to catch him in that crowd at the mall. We’re going to have to alert the entire conference to be on the lookout for this guy.” But Mr. Charles Rodriguez of the Marriott team is committed to protecting his hotel guests. He chased the man through the mall and into the parking garage, before running him down and calling the police. The San Antonio bicycle police officers on the scene said that he would be charged with assault, trespassing, and possession. I can’t thank the hotel, and Mr. Rodriguez in particular, enough for acting swiftly and without hesitation in support of our safety.

I will attempt to learn from their example.

ETA: I wrote a follow-up post, Don’t Judge – Further Thoughts on Harassment, here.

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