But when Indy literary pal Sarah Layden offered me her ARC of The Story I Tell Myself About Myself to preview, I was all in. She’s such a peach and her debut novel, Trip Through Your Wires, such a tasty treat, I jumped on the opportunity to lose myself in her ability to concoct mood and character in her honey-chipotle way.
Okay, a confession: I didn’t realize Sarah’s latest book, set to release August 30, was a chapbook of flash fiction—not until the third page. Problem was, by the second I was transfixed. And then page 3 crushed me with the realization that I wouldn’t get to spend the remaining pages with story one’s messed up characters all mangled by modern love. Until her second micro-story, with the stranded single mother who broke my heart. She hooked me with her magical skills, then made me feel what her characters feel, over and over again.
The thing that chaps me about flash—and short stories in general, I suppose—is that they’re just so annoyingly in vogue right now. I’ve tried writing them, and even had a couple published, but they’re just not my thing. It’s probably me. I tend to resist the popular. I never saw Titanic in theaters. I never ate, prayed, or loved. I admit this trait may be a flaw.
But another thing about brief fiction—it’s nearly impossible to write well. I feel for the editors of magazines that publish flash, to think of the mounds of mush they must have to plow through from newbie submitters who think, “Flash fiction? I can do that.” Only, they can’t. It takes discipline, skill, practice, and talent to create worlds, populate them with living beings, build and resolve tension—to fulfill the duties of a fiction writer—often in under 500 words.
Only, Sarah Layden can and does, page after page, with enviable mastery.
The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is, to a writer, maddeningly excellent. To a reader, it’s a twisty, turny, delicious way to spend a few hours. Dammit, Sarah Layden!
I stepped over to my manager’s cube and announced my depression. It occurred to me yesterday morning before heading into work, all slumped against my pillow with TODAY and a mug of coffee, that this persistent weight of sadness even Hoda can’t cheer away is simple, unmistakable, good ole fashioned “feeling depressed.”
And searching for a substitute for that word to avoid repetition I realize how perfectly descriptive that word is, depressed: I’m a tongue and the thin wooden paddle of life is squishing me, causing me to gag and my eyes to water. My spirit, the lever of me, is being pushed into submission. I am dispirited. I’m pressed. Down.
I’ll be fine. I’ve felt worse. It’s just that one of those normal life passages that pass for loss looms. My sweet little bird—my second and final—is about to fly from the nest. I realize that this is not a tragedy, but I am more than sad. “You’ve done this before, with your boy,” you say, and you’re right. But that was different. Due to a host of challenges, poor lad, the weeks and months leading up to his departure knotted me up in worry more than sadness.
He was the first, and I ached for him and still miss him when he’s gone, but this one’s so final. This one marks the empty nest milestone and all that comes with it. (When Mayo Clinic offers coping tips, it’s real.) I feel downright depressed, though mildly enough to have energy to seek ways to fight it, thank goodness.
So since my boss, whose only child has been away at college in another state for two years, seems not to be suicidal, I decided to confide in her. “I’m depressed,” I said beneath the office glare, “because Grace is leaving for college in less than three weeks.” I went to her thirsty for some sage perspective, which she offered freely. She gently reminded me of a well-tested device. “Make a list,” she said, “of what you have to be thankful for. Try to focus on all the good things about the situation.” This experienced mama bird was prescribing gratitude.
A List of Good Things About Now, or My Attempt at Gratitude
I have the luxury of dreading my little girl’s departure purely because I will miss her and not because I am worried. I feel assured that she is in a good place, every indication that she is ready to launch.
She was accepted into the honors program and will be living in a spankin’ new residence hall (with AC!) with other honors students at a well respected institution of higher learning. This is a very good thing.
She likes her assigned roommate.
My girl will “only be an hour away” by car. But here’s the thing: she could be a two-hour plane ride away, and the everyday reality of my house is the same—she will not be in her room cuddling our cat, on the couch beside me watching TCM, playing her guitar on the screened porch. No more impromptu “belly walks” around the block or binge-watching Nashville (poor Deacon). But the point of this list is to practice gratitude—so okay, I can get there or she get can get home within an hour if she needs anything (or if I need her). I am thankful for that.
My daughter and I have a relationship that is sweet enough to miss. She and I have a kinship it never even occurred to me to wish for. I didn’t know this quality of mother-daughter closeness could exist. She’s a dear friend, my most fun pal. Her presence is sunshine and light. I want to be more like her when I grow up. If I say more now, I will cry and not stop.
Sadness impelled me to write this blog post, the first in two years.
Technology. My sage supervisor recently used FaceTime to coach her daughter through cleaning a room fan. With the magic of a video phone, separated by 800 miles they conquered a household task together. When I was three states away in college, I had to rely on handwritten letters and long-distance calls on a wall phone. Grace’s and my smart phones will easily connect us. I will still have access to that sweet face and can hear daily details of her life as often as she allows, and will also be available to her when she needs me.
She seems excited to go. In two months she has gone through her own stages of grief—from bummed about not getting into her top choice, to confusion over the leftovers, to defeatist about where she decided to go, to ambivalence, to acceptance, to enthusiasm enough to design and construct her own tassel-embellished bedspread. This is huge and it all has been a wonder to watch.
I have a daughter at all. God let me be her mom, to live 18 years with this girl. She is a miracle, a dream, and everything good my heart ever longed for. She’s healthy, happy, sweet, kind, smart, and motivated to go forth and fulfill her potential. This is the best case scenario of parenting.
My boss. She is pretty cool, and she is a friend.
I’m still a wee bit depressed, and I probably will be for the next few months at least. But if smiling can fool a brain into thinking it’s happy, then listing the good things about my baby bird leaving the nest may well fool me into acceptance. (Or at least get me to Thanksgiving.)
Last time I posted I was on a toot about the evil, annoying necessity for writers to build platform using inbound marketing, but I think that’s really more essential for a certain type of author.
Authors of fiction, on the other hand, need most to focus on the being of writing. Platform is irrelevant:
“J.K. Rowling didn’t have a blog when she wrote Harry Potter. Does she have a platform? Stephen King doesn’t have a Twitter account. Does he have a platform? Agatha Christie, the bestselling novelist of all time, wasn’t alive when Facebook was invented. Did she have a platform?” –Joe Bunting, “What Fiction Authors Really Need to Know About Their Platform”
I know a guy who’s writing a book. His career goal is to be a speaker at this type of thing. He is already a subject matter expert with an advanced degree that starts with a P and ends with a D, and he has a solid, healthy career with a reliable customer base. The challenge, according to prevailing publishing wisdom in 2015, is to prove all this to his target audience: agents, acquisitions editors, and the people in charge of booking leadership conference speakers.
Got the Goods But Not The Ears
Word of mouth works to a point, but there’s no way to connect the right mouths to the right ears. So he’ll need to cast a wider net.
This extremely capable fellow first came to me wanting help with his book—maybe a little editing, maybe a little help working out the structure—he wasn’t really sure exactly what. The beating heart of his inquiry was a yearning for advice on getting his book published, because in his mind (and probably in real life, to some extent), book = speaking opportunities.
What I told him stunk . . .
I’m not sure what he hoped to hear, maybe a magic formula, a referral to someone who could connect him to what he longed for, maybe. What I told him stunk, that I could help him with his book or refer him to another editor who could, but that he needs to ramp up his inbound marketing efforts and all that jazz.
He has a blog, to which he intermittently posts because who has time? But he needs to leverage his online presence to build that dadburn platform. Ugh! I hate that!
Bookstores and Interwebs
It sounds so crass, doesn’t it? Why can’t a person with stellar ideas just write a book and become widely recognized as an expert? That’s how it used to happen, right? I mean, look at Patrick Lencioni and Posner and Kouzes. They wrote books and their popularity and influence caught fire on a massive scale. But no. That was in the ’80s, before Al Gore invented the Interwebs and killed the bookstores. They got in on the ground floor, those thought leaders/authors.
Now you have to Have A Robust Online Presence [gag]. Writers can’t merely show up with useful ideas and a good book anymore. [By the way, even Pat Lencioni and those leadership challenge guys invest in inbound marketing. I know: I worked on content marketing to help their publisher sell their books.] This author is the inboundmarketingest author I know. If those guys need to do it, how much more does the unknown, yet-to-be-published leadership author?
And one way to build a platform and “create buzz” is to create relevant, helpful searchable online content—blogging being just one of many tools that can be used to achieve this goal of inbound marketing.
So I told this guy: “Mr. Author, you are smart. You know how to write and organize your thoughts. You are credible in your profession and lousy with testimonials from happy customers. You do need an editor for your book (everyone does, and I’m happy to help), but to increase your odds of capturing the attention of potential readers, an agent, and an acquisition editor, you need to ramp up your online activity—starting with posting regularly to your blog and being involved in social media. And for heaven’s sake, open a Twitter account. I mean, how are you or your friends promoting your blog posts?”
TWITTER, RHYMES WITH SH*****
My first encounter with Twitter occurred under duress, and I was not a fan. On the front edge of inbound marketing I decided to open and operate a Twitter account for a previous employer. (I was the first Beth Bates on the then-new social media platform, evidently, hence @bethbates.) I dutifully engaged, tweeted, followed, and RT’d, but I did not enjoy it, AT ALL.*
Most writers I know are introverted and would rather not expend energy connecting on Twitter or IG or Facebook or LinkedIn or Goodreads or She Writes. They want to just do their thing, write their memoirs, novels, essays, or how-to books, and that should be enough. But it isn’t enough. Connecting, for most authors, is an onerous necessarily evil.
BUT: A Silver Lining in the Pacific Northwest
But how exciting is it that I can write a blog post and a woman in Australia or a dude in the UK reads it, feels something, apprehends it as something of value, and becomes an ardent follower? Or through a reciprocal blog following I make meaningful connections with a cadre of writers and readers in the Pacific Northwest likely to be buyers of my own book (someday, maybe, when I have created a stronger platform and find an agent with the editorial vision my MS deserves).
How cool is that?! You couldn’t do THAT in the ’80s.
At least that’s what I tell this author. And myself.
*Now I honestly appreciate and even enjoy Twitter. It’s a marvelous, low-barrier way to connect with fascinating, otherwise inaccessible folks around the globe. I’ve had meaningful exchanges with memoirist Mary Karr and (LOST) composer Michael Giacchino, to name a few. When I was in the dumps a couple weeks ago, Steve Hely gave me recommendations of books that make him laugh. How cool is that?! Fun!
The English language is one of the most complex in existence. With more words than any other language in the world, it is no wonder even native speakers don’t get it quite right all the time. Here’s a quick run down of my top ten most misused words. Some I am guilty of misusing myself, others are absolutely my pet peeve.
A sweet friend from my Montrose halcyon days recently reached out from Vancouver, BC, over Facebook, in search of writing help. I suggested a writing group, workshop, or a Creative Nonfiction online course, but her season of life limits her time and mobility, making those options impractical. So once a week, I’ve been emailing her reading and writing assignments, primarily to coach her into cultivating the habit of writing daily.
They say it takes 30 days to develop a habit, and J worked diligently to develop hers. She and I started our long distance writer/coach relationship around mid-January, and now she’s ready for more focused instruction. Her first two assignments were throat-clearers, and now we’re getting down to business. I turned to Poets & Writers for her next prompt and encountered this arresting poem by Ansel Elkins.
Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.
“Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. / I leapt / to freedom.” The ending of Ansel Elkin’s [sic] poem “Autobiography of Eve” is packed with confidence. Write an essay reflecting on a time when you felt a similar sense of empowerment. Maybe you ended a stifling relationship, or went back to school to train for a new career? Write about the initial fear and the certitude of your actions.
“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'”
This blog post is not my trickle. I fuel my trickle in the margins, when no one is looking or paying attention or reading or critiquing or praising or liking or RTing or sharing. Keep feeding your trickle, sweets.
While recovering from my summer vacation heart attack last July in the small Colorado western slope town where I lived when my children were small, I stumbled upon hidden treasure on the bookshelf of my dear friend’s guest room. Like an IV drip of creativity energy, leafing through the pages of Madeleine L’Engle Herself pinked up my cheeks and kept me going while I was in limbo.
All these months later I bought my own copy. Here’s a 2-cc dose that sets me to writing again now that life’s back to normal and I have the luxury of thinking I’m too busy to create on a daily basis.
An Incarnational Event
Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.
Less blog post than Sunday snapshot of my life, this here message is a note of encouragement to parents covered in applesauce and urine and floating through the bodily fluid era of parenting. It feels like this, too, will not pass, and as aggravating as it can be, it’s a precious time, and you might dread the teen years. Backtalk, hormones, and delinquent behavior you expect, but here is my message in a bottle to you: parenting teenagers can be quite wondrous.
My son, a senior in high school, leaves his homework and hobby detritus scattered all over the dining room table most days, and on top of today’s pile I saw a handout that stopped me cold. Or rather, I guess you could say it stopped me warm.
I have no idea what his notes mean, but his doodles never cease to thrill me with wonder. The jocks at his school probably think he’s a nerd, but his mind and passion for language and linguistics delight this mama. What a joy to watch your children’s strengths and fascinations emerge.
And my darling sophomore-in-high school daughter, who is away this MLK weekend to play guitar on a youth retreat, warmed me Friday morning before she left for school and I left for work. As she came into my room for our morning goodbye hug and smooch, in a mournful voice she said, “Aww, I won’t see you till Monday?” The realization that I have a daughter, almost sixteen, who still adores me and would miss my company makes me feel like the luckiest mom in the world.
So you infant-cradling, Goodnight Moon-reading young moms and dads worried about your little angels growing out of this present, precious phase, take heart: don’t worry about the teen years. You think these are the sweetest days, but just you wait. It only gets better.
On an ice-glazed morning, today’s reading thaws my cockles. Thanks again, Annie L:
When all is said and done, spring is the main reason for Wow. Spring is crazy, being all hope and beauty and glory. She is the resurrection. Spring is Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Buds opening and releasing, mud and cutting winds, bright green grass and blue skies, nests full of baby birds. All of these are deserving of Wow—even though I have said elsewhere that spring is also about deer ticks—and everywhere you look, couples are falling in love, and the air is saturated with the scent of giddiness and doom. Petals are wafting and falling slowly through the air, and there is something so Ravel, languorous, reminding me to revel in the beauty of things wafting.