The Finite Well of Shits

Last year I gave a luncheon speech at the New England RWA’s annual conference, which I concluded by advising my fellow writers to respect the fact that one has only so many shits available to give, and to be mindful to save enough shits for what really matters.

I was talking about finding an energy balance between actual writing and the various other demands of being an author—promo, social media and so forth. But lately this concept of the Finite Well of Shits has moved into a larger context, for me.

As most folks in my social orbit are aware, I am thoroughly knocked up at the moment—precisely thirty-seven weeks, and due to burst around July 23. I’ve been lucky, thus far. It’s been a very kind pregnancy, with no puking, minimal queaze, only moderate aches and pains, and, though I’ve slowed down a lot since entering the third trimester, I still walk two or three miles every morning and feel generally hearty. Don’t get me wrong—I’m ready to be done with gestating, especially given this PNW heat wave. But I’ll miss my gigantic, spherical gut when it’s gone. It’s great fun to ram it into my husband, and I’ve never felt so unapologetic about my body ever before in my adult life. Plus this is the closest I’ll ever come to achieving the figure of a rotundly fat, stick-legged songbird.

But there have been a few developments during my preggening that have thrown me for the unexpected loop, and that loop seems to be affecting only one aspect of my life aversely—my writing.

It’s a perfect storm of factors. Hormones don’t help any—I’m not having one of those wildly frisky pregnancies I’ve heard tell about, and considering that my current work-in-progress is a ménage story that’s roughly 70% sex, I’m coming to realize what a hindrance a lack of perversion is, in this line of work. It’s been a struggle to empathetically muster the preoccupation with boning that my characters are all feeling, which makes the process of writing kinky sex scenes feel disconnected and robotic, sort of soulless.

Add to that a sharp dip in energy, both physical and mental, a long to-do list regarding preparing myself for childbirth and the transition into parenthood, and greatly impaired concentration, and I’m struggling.

Only a couple months ago I had little trouble writing for a few hours in the morning then switching to edits on a different book in the afternoon, but now that kind of gear-shifting sounds all but impossible. I’m so deeply in my own head right now—what with so-called real life suddenly feeling more dynamic than the fictional worlds I play in—it takes a major effort to get inside my characters’ brains and up to speed with what they’re dealing with or, indeed, caring much what they’re up to.

This is a new experience for me. I’ve constructed my everyday life to be pretty chill and minimally demanding, and I’m usually only too excited to go and play around in Fortuity or Darren or wherever my characters are busy messing stuff up and falling in love. Except in two, three, four weeks, something’s going to happen that’ll likely change my life more drastically and more suddenly and more permanently than any other event has or will. And that’s making it a little tough to care about a made-up three-way that needs to go down in Pittsburgh.

I don’t know why I was surprised by any of this. For whatever cosmic reason, it feels like everyone I know, both in and outside of the writing sphere, has gone through a dramatic life change in the past eighteen months. Marriages, divorces, new babies, losses and grieving, illnesses, major relocations and job changes, mental health struggles—you name it, somebody’s been dealing with it. I knew that my writer friends navigating these transitions were finding the day job really challenging, yet also really trivial, set against the dynamism and demands of “real life.” Nevertheless, I hadn’t thought to bank on pregnancy curbing my creativity. My energy, yes, but not my productivity and drive, surely! I would power through.


All of this came to a head three weeks ago, when I found myself crying uncontrollably all morning, while chipping away at my 2,000-word daily writing goal. This wasn’t the first time during my third trimester that I’d cried while writing. It seemed like every other day was like this, and at first I brushed it off as mood swings. But there was no denying that writing now felt like work in a way it rarely had before. The words felt flat, the characters felt wooden, the sex felt dimensionless and mechanical. On good days, I could bank my 2,000 words in a couple hours’ time, and feel relieved that it was over. On bad days, every letter was torture.

I was filled with a self-doubt I hadn’t experienced before, not even back in the summer and fall of last year, when a cross-country move saddled me with a few months of situational depression and I’d burst into tears every time I opened up revisions for Give It All. Back then, once I’d admitted to myself that something wasn’t right, I’d had to do something I hadn’t before—I’d had to ask for an extension.

I think I asked for, like, four days or something ridiculous like that, and my editor gave me three weeks. I was a) super stressed out and despairing and b) an overachieving teacher’s pet, so as a result I felt both deeply relieved and somewhat ashamed, but the pub date didn’t have to shift, so I got over it. And I found the revisions far less painful after that, just having admitted to my “boss” that I was struggling. The isolation had made it all much harder.

This time around, however, the deadline is more complicated. I pretty much needed to finish drafting this book before the baby arrives or bust. Even if somebody handed me an extra three weeks, it wouldn’t help—a person would be falling out of my vagina by the end of July whether I finished the book or not. And while I can be a bit of a workaholic, even I wasn’t naive enough to think I’ll be doing any writing in that first month of new motherhood. I’ll probably be lucky if I bathe myself, most days. But I was more miserable than I’d felt in ages, and when my husband pointed out that this really wasn’t the state to be spending the final weeks of what’s likely to be my only pregnancy in, I saw his point. Physically, it probably wasn’t the best for the baby and, moreover, I really would like to be able to look back on this time fondly, and remember being excited but also calm—not psychotic and frustrated and freaked out over a deadline, and crying so hard I have to keep throwing out my ruined contact lenses.

So I broke down and called my agent, and sobbed snottily into her ear for forty minutes or so. I didn’t mind doing this. I’m not apologetic about my emotions, plus I was sure she’s seen and heard it all from her clients. I told her I wasn’t sure which route was best—to finish this book by the skin of my tear-salted teeth so at least I wouldn’t have it looming over me post-birth, or to ask for an extension so I’d be less stressed now, but then have to deal with the book later this summer. She agreed that neither option was ideal, but we formulated a plan: check in with my editors and see if an extension was even an option, and also ask them to read the half of the book I had drafted so far, as I really had zero clue if it was even worth finishing. My objectivity was nil.

In the end, my editors (who’ve also seen and heard it all) were highly sympathetic. They read the manuscript-in-progress over the weekend and assured me it was perfectly salvageable, if lacking a certain spark—nothing revisions can’t fix, once my brain returns to some semblance of normal. They voted that I take a four-month extension. I was a little terrified, as this not only bumped up the pub date on this particular book, but also two others, and created this big hole in my release schedule and sent me into a panic about fading into obscurity in readers’ eyes. I mean, publishing is tough and it’s tight, and it took years of work and proving myself reliable to inch my way as deeply into this field as I have; I was scared of undermining all that effort by falling down now.

My editors also ordered me to take a couple weeks off the work-in-progress, as I was clearly coming to dread and resent it. Maybe with some time away, I could come back and see the good bits and get excited about the story and characters once more. I grudgingly agreed, and spent those weeks weathering a release day, taking my time with two other books’ edits, tackling some promo, and otherwise doing the part-time-author thing in between midwife appointments and birth classes and general frenzied nesting. And watching three seasons of Law & Order in as many weeks.

In time, I forgave myself for what felt at first like a failure. I admitted that I couldn’t white-knuckle my way through the final six weeks of pregnancy, trying to finish the book. I couldn’t do it physically, and I didn’t want to do it, besides. I mean, did I really want to make myself miserable, and cast that shitty pall over the end of my pregnancy, just to avoid a six-month gap in book releases? Like there’s any chance that in ten years I’m going to look back at this coming winter and spring and think, “Oh right, that was when I let my readers down,” as opposed to, “The bumbles was so tiny back then! Jesus, time flies.”

And so this was my ultimate lesson in how truly finite the Well of Shits is, when we’re dealing with major life changes—adjusting to new relationships, jobs, or homes; leaving old ones behind. Saying hello to new humans and goodbye to dying ones. It’s not just your brain that’s budgeting and spending those shits, I’ve realized—my body has clearly decided that it is needing the bulk of my shits right now, and soon a tiny human will be claiming its share. I guess writing will have to settle for whatever shits are leftover on a given morning for the time being, and that’s just going to have to be good enough.

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Secrets and Light

I was very young when I became interested, so interested in stories of people doing something in secret.

Secret drinking, secret gambling, secret boyfriends, secret girlfriends, secret/second families, secret lives.

I didn’t go to church very often, but I remember nearly eidetically a sermon I listened to when I was fourteen, at a school friend’s church. The sermon was about secrets, and after Ephesians 5:12 — for it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.

The idea, said the pastor, is that if your deeds are in darkness, they are dark, and would be a source of shame for those who are in the light to even speak of. I’m not a theologian, so I’m not sure of that pastor’s take, but this idea seemed at once titillating and awful. What I was compelled to do secretly was a compulsion born of the inherent shame of that thing. That anything I did secretly was proofed by the secret-keeping as a sin.

When you are fourteen, you can think of a lot of examples that support this idea.

This was also a time when it seemed like everyone I was growing up with was getting out their maps and finding their direction. My best friend announced she would be a doctor (she is, dear reader, today), a couple of my orchestra-mates started serious studio study, advanced math tracks were taken up by those citing engineering as the future.

I didn’t want to choose, the choices had come to bear too quickly. I wanted college to stay a daydream, and my future to remain nebulous and changeable. As soon as a chose, I felt I was choosing fear.  Fear that if I wanted to be a doctor I would flunk AP biology, or if I wanted to be a musician, I would choke auditions, or if I wanted to be a physicist, everyone else smarter would outpace me, and if I wanted to be a writer, or an artist –

Then maybe I wasn’t good enough for anything else, and how could I even know I was good enough to write books or make art, anyway? No test, no admissions could tell me.

Of course, this is how secrets are born. They are born of fear. The landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States this last week revealed generations of secrets forged in legitimate fear. So many loved, but loved in secret. When their secret was brought to life, so many came to die, or be terribly hurt. When we moved to our house, we were told that the house across the street used to be the home of a couple who maintained they were roommates for fifty years. In their life, they never walked down our leafy street holding hands.

The decision removes the institution’s power to force people into secret, but our government isn’t the only source of fear. The scripture I cited gives us the source of shame – it is us. We force shame and secrets whenever we hate, or dampen, or tell the world or yourself, someone else – you can’t.

My family was lousy with secret artists and writers, on my dad’s side. The aunt who was told by her community college professors to go to art school, but she wouldn’t, because she had a baby, because how would she make money, because how would a community college know if she was good at art, because moms don’t go to art school, because she’s not that good. The grandmother who tatted award-winning lace, and made ceramics, and designed and sewed dance costumes for her girls, and doodled funny cartoons, couldn’t be an artist because she was an immigrant, and had to work for a living, and did stuff anyone could do, and had five children. Another aunt whose house was full of shelves and shelves of books and bought me a Mont Blanc when I admitted, graduating from high school, I might want to be a writer who admitted to me, then, that she fooled around with writing.

I was a smart girl who grew up without money, and every semester, when I signed up for classes, the kind guidance office, when I asked if I could take an art class, take the creative writing class, reminded me that I could always write on the side/take a community art class/join a group if I wanted to do those things, but that it was most important, in my situation, to take the classes that would get me into a good teaching college. After all, then I would have summers off.

If I had been Kyle, who was a boy, and from a nice family, and drew beautifully on his math worksheets, right where everyone could see, right in the light, maybe I would have been encouraged, like him, to take all the art classes in school, to apply to art school. Maybe, like him, I would have had a world-famous art studio and have things that I made in contemporary art museums.

But maybe, also, I was never good enough.

In college, I focused on the study of English and music, and I was strong enough to fence off a few places where I could be an artist. Professors were artistic, and if I couldn’t make it in music, I could profess English. I wrote novels in secret. I wrote poems in secret. I graduated and got two things – a job offer at an elite private high school to teach English, and admittance into a creative writing program based on my written-in-secret portfolio. Summers off, or full-time exposure of my secret self.

Except, it wasn’t that easy. I went to the creative writing program, and then another. I wrote. I published. Everyone saw what I trying to do, all the secret manuscripts that I wrote as a girl weren’t shameful or a waste of time, after all, but practice. However, the bookmaking classes, the hanging around a friend’s letterpress work, the sewing, the needlework, the constant inspiration from museums and films – that was just on the side. It wasn’t real work, wasn’t authorized by an education or talent. Music, too, on the side. In the margins of a poetry manuscript I had finally given myself permission to write.

Then there were other years that meant everything was on the side, and then there were secret manuscripts, secret books, secret poems, secret music, secret etsy shops with things I made with color and string and imagination but were hobbies, their success a fluke.

Proverbs tells us that bread eaten in secret is pleasant, and I think this is true, but only for a few servings.  Eventually, secret bread is going to get stale if just for lack of company. When I came back to writing, it was in secret, and at first, it was delicious, and a retreat – a place to go that was familiar and novel at the same time. It wasn’t long before I started to feel afraid, though, and the fear came in once I realized that what I was writing wasn’t just for me, but that I intended it for the world, and so now it would be brought to light, looked at, and I would have to know if it was good enough.

When it is in secret, it can’t be spoken of, but when it’s brought to light, it doesn’t just belong to you. At what point is the shame, discomfort, and oppression of a secret endeavor a greater pain than the fear of failure?

Well, it’s not just one point, it turns out. Or one year, or one day. Or one event. Or one conversation. Or one person. Fear is overcome by the persistent realization that where you are is not where you want to be. One day you tell one person your secret, and they meet it with joy and it encourages you, or they meet it with their own fear and you are discouraged. In both cases, you’re in a different place. Another day you’ll do something with your work that isn’t a secret, and something else will happen.

My secret-artist aunt becomes a hairstylist, an extraordinarily talented one, but her body can’t do it anymore after thirty years, and she decides to try working the office of a glass arts studio. There’s the day she starts talking to the artists. The day she tries blowing glass.

Things come to light.

Secrets can be good plot devices because they won’t stay in the dark, and the more life your character lives, the more chances the secret will be exposed. When the character’s life has stayed small, the character can guard the secret and nurture its safety. But then, the character meets someone, goes on a journey, experiences tragedy, or love, or terror. Every experience, every change undermines the character’s ability to protect the safety of their secret. The character’s world gets big, the secret seems so much smaller. They bring it to light and the new world that they have created out of change and experience is able to accept and absorb it.

Which is why, to keep their secret, the couple that once lived across the street from us could never walk down this street holding hands. Except, for their secret to come to light, for it to be accepted and met with joy, the entire world had to change.

I’ve been a secret writer, and a published one. Secretly unhappy, and at the center of change. I’ve nurtured the safety of my dreams because I wanted them to stay dreams, and my future to be free of the fear that comes with declaration, hope, and goal-making. Then the dreams aren’t sweet and pleasurable anymore, after so long dreaming them, and too many things are happening in my life to pretend I can keep a secret.

One verse later, Ephesians says everything exposed by the light becomes visible – and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.

At first, I can tell myself that it’s an experiment. I’ll do this needlework again, but in a new way, without rules. I’ll show it to someone I love. They’ll tell me what I did was art. Then I won’t do it for a while and remember all my other art dreams that have soured, except this time, I tell them. I tell all the secrets, expose all of them. I read books, I visit museums, I buy the kind of art I can’t ever imagine being able to make. I talk to people, one at a time. I talk to one person about it, all the time. My new pleasurable dreams aren’t if but what if. My new dreams are a litany of specifics – letterpress manufacturers and serial numbers, guilds, ink, and paper. Type. My new dreams buoy the dreams that have never stopped resurfacing, and so I write and dream and learn.

And I’ve encountered you can’t. The older I get, the more there is an attempt to force me to shame and secrets. From myself, from others, from communities, from the world.

Except, the point of the sermon is the same as mine — light precludes shame. Telling, showing, dreaming out loud, permitting process, permitting failure. If I had anything to say to the girl I was, it would be you don’t have to. You don’t have to choose, you don’t have to be validated, you don’t have to be ashamed.

We have to be safe, but only as long as we actually are, and a secret is time-limited in its protection. So many times, I’ve been safe until I’ve been miserable. Secret drinking, as an illustrative example, isn’t evocative of safety and fun.  Don’t ask, don’t tell was very good at shame, terror, misery, and harm but very bad at happiness, self-actualization on the job, and genuine safety.

Secretly making is very good at producing beautiful things, but won’t do a good job making a place for you in the world, or making room for yourself, inside of yourself.

You can’t probably comes from someone else’s fear and shame.

This week, I started a chapter in a new novel. I had the pleasure of reading work from another author who has been secretly writing for years, knowing that I would publish her book and make it beautiful. I told a man who volunteers at a museum that I would drive south and load metal type cabinets into our car, and when he asked are you? Are you a printer? An artist? An expert?

I told him – I’m only just getting started.

Only – as if it were easy. As if starting hadn’t taken years.

But I told.

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Running Your Own Startup: Author Version

We are all entrepreneurs! Although romance novel covers are prettier...

We are all entrepreneurs! Although romance novel covers are prettier…

My husband and I have both worked in tech startups in the past and our experiences have ranged from oh-my-God-make-the-pain-stop to woo-hoo-this-rules! Startups are an interesting ride, because as early employees, we’re often required to wear a lot of hats. Like, Bartholomew Cubbins level of hats.

Being an author requires multiple-hat-wearing, too. So it’s probably not a surprise that, a couple months in to my life as a writer, my husband made the observation that becoming a successful (read: making a living wage) author is a lot like running one’s own startup. We started making a list of the similarities, and it’s pretty amazing how many of the points from startup advice/business books also apply to the publishing world. Here’s the initial list we came up with.

  1. Be prepared to invest a ton of your own resources into your product up front. Before you can get outside investors (agents, publishers) interested, you have to show that you’re committed to your product and believe in its importance.
  2. You will earn next to nothing for a long time, although your title might be C-level executive and everyone will think you’re a wealthy rock star.
  3. You might not ever earn anything “reasonable.” That’s the risk you take.
  4. Start with a minimum viable product (a book) and send it out to a test market (beta readers). If it does horribly, start over, but listen to your feedback and adjust early and often, when it’s not as expensive as overhauling a finished product.
  5. Put your product through QA testing (editing) to make sure it’s free of critical bugs before you launch it (release day!).
  6. Invest in high-quality marketing and sales if you want your product to do well.
  7. When you finally do get investment (a contract), remember that it’s only the beginning, and that the next five years are going to be a grind. Do it for the love…and for the hope of a successful IPO.

This is just a starting list, but I’d love to hear any more that you guys can come up with! And if you’re interested in reading more startup books that I think are very applicable to the world of writing, as well, here are some suggestions of works that I really enjoyed and learned a lot from:

The Founder’s Dilemmas by Noam Wasserman: Amazon | iBooks
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries: Amazon | iBooks
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: Amazon | iBooks
The Art of the Start 2.0 by Guy Kawasaki: Amazon | iBooks

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