Sunday, February 25, 2007

Inspiration from a Writing Retreat

I went to a (New England) Society of Children’s Book Writer’s & Illustrators conference yesterday. My favorite Young Adult literature author, Laurie Halse Anderson, was the speaker.

A word on NESCBWI: These guys are nurturing and warm and open. The NE Chapter is like those distant cousins you don’t know well but when you see them at family reunion, they ask you about your kids and your work. You sit and talk for hours and then don’t see each other for another year.

Now, me, I usually get kind of nervous about any writing retreat or conference. I always feel like the weird one, the Ally Sheedy character in The Breakfast Club. I feel like I am not like everyone else. I’m a freak. There are many reasons but in the last few years it’s specifically because I am a self-published author, which feels like being the kid who wore skippies in fourth grade instead of Treetorns. Now, I was always cool on the outside, I wore Treetorns when they were in and switched to Reeboks when those were in and then later Doc. Marten’s. But inside, I always felt like I was really wearing skippies. To explain why…see previous blogs!

I always ignore the feeling. It’s simply left over from being a teenager. I just pick my freak-ass up and go to the retreat or conference and nine times out of ten have a good time.

This retreat was a nine times out of ten experience. Laurie Halse Anderson was, in a word, invigorating. First of all, being a participant and not a teacher was replenishing. Towards the end of her talk, Anderson said something about how she finished a book once and felt completely drained. In order to replenish her self, she had to do something artistic, but it couldn’t be writing a book. I think she said she painted a bathroom or something. Anyway, I am so used to speaking and teaching, putting energy out, that to be a student and sit and be quiet (which was hard at first and relieving as time went on) was replenishing. There was a balance. I was bringing energy in.

Second of all, everything Anderson said about writing and a writer’s life validated my own philosophy as a writer and teacher of writing. She raised her fist and shouted a Celtic war cry: Abu! Abu! “Our lives need to be filled with more time for joy and celebration…” and that’s what writing does for us. She said if you don’t have the time, then create the time, give yourself the gift of time. Amen.

Funny that, as I type this, my three-year-old Chelsea is next to me, watching the screen, silent, blanky in her mouth. Her pink pjs rumpled. I too am rumpled in my purple heart pjs. We are quite a pair. I feel like Laurie is in my ear whispering what she said yesterday: “Writing is fruitful, healthy, abundant, and important….You have permission to write. Writing permission balances the universe and your soul.” Now my daughter is sitting on my lap as I type, and I realize I am heeding Anderson’s advice as well as my own¬–creating the time! Chelsea asks me to read what I wrote. I do. She proclaims, “That’s good, Mommy! Do some more!” There’s my Celtic battle cry!

The point of this blog entry, however, is not to rave and rave about Laurie. Although, she is the COOLEST author I have met so far. She is REAL and FUNNY. You can see for yourself if you go to

The point of this entry actually is to tell you that yesterday’s retreat made me kind of hover above myself, observe myself as a writer/author. Here’s what I observed: despite the intense self-consciousness and frustration I feel as a writer and author, I will NEVER, EVER, EVER give up. NEVER.

When I taught middle and high school I had a poster that said: NEVER, EVER, EVER GIVE UP. The kids would joke by the end of the year that I must have made the poster myself. I was a little tenacious about getting them to do their work, running them down in the hallway, sending out email reminders about things, some times bribing them with candy. Anyway, oddly enough, yesterday morning when I woke up to get ready for the retreat, I went to the garage to get a bottle of water and BAM on the ground was that old poster.

I didn’t pay much attention to it yesterday morning, but after I came home, I went out to the garage again and looked at it. I know, why didn’t I just go get it and put it in my office or maybe throw it out. Well, because I started to wonder if I was on the verge, before yesterday, of giving up.

I struggle as a writer not to find the time to write or the motivation. Nope. I got that all down. No, I struggle with something else.

I am self-published.

Oooppps…..My daughter just stole me away to do yoga, and fifteen minutes later got bored. So I stole away to type a few more lines….and now she seems more interested in helping her Daddy paint so looks like I have created more time to write…

So, yeah, I struggle with being self-published. (No surprise to hear me say this if you have been reading my blog or if you know me.) But, during this retreat, my struggle looked very different to me. It looked out-of-date. Old. Worn out. Like a pair of old running shoes.

I have to back up a moment though. Laurie spoke second in the day. The first speaker was an editor from Dial Press. I have heard editors from all different publishing companies speak before. But this woman was different.

We started to chat before she began, while people were milling in and getting seats. I didn’t realize that she was the editor right away. She was setting up books and the books looked interesting. Soon enough I was checking out the books, and we were chatting. I realized she was an editor.

Her presentation was great. Not only did she discuss the business end of publishing, but she was really specific about what she and her colleagues wanted from manuscripts. Also, she did something I have never seen an editor at a conference do, she paused and asked us questions and also asked us if we had any questions for her. This wasn’t a rushed q & a at the end of a long presentation.

I felt so comfortable with her that I wanted to ask a question. I had to sit on my hands and clench my lips shut¬– the urge was so HUGE. But I knew that if I asked it, my entire day would be ruined. Even if she answered nicely and even if no one murmured disapprovingly afterward, I didn’t want the attention drawn to me. I didn’t want to feel self-conscious.

I wanted to ask, “What do you think about self-published books? Would you look at one? Would you look at one that’s award winning? Would you look at a series for YA that’s partially self-published and represented by the most fabulous, loving agent in the world?”

Would you?

She is fresh faced and young and nice and smart. When we chatted a bit before, and then again after, I didn’t ask my question mainly because the urge passed. But, I asked her another one: “ I have an agent and I really liked talking with you and what you had to say and could I have her send you my stuff?”

She said yes.

Years ago, I would have I would have felt like the boy I really like just said he would call me. And, I would have waited by the phone (mail box!).

This time, I took a few minutes during a break and I just emailed my agent and crossed my fingers in the back of my mind not really thinking anything deep or profound like “she is the one….”

But I will tell you that, after our brief final chat, I felt like a fraud.

I felt shame, I felt like I was not telling this editor the truth about myself.

There’s a book called The Color of Water. It is a striking book, true story, about a guy who grew up in a family of something like 18 siblings. He is African American, his siblings various shades of color like many African American families. His mother very light….long and short of it is that it turns out she was a kinky haired Jew who disguised herself to fit into the community that she married into and that she quite frankly felt more at home in that her own, so….I think you can see where I am going with this. Was I pretending to be someone I am not? Because as I stood there with her, not asking that dreaded question, I felt wrong.

I smiled at the editor and she back at me, and I felt like my teeth were about to break.

Okay, break from that moment and flash back to last year, when I was on the SCBWI discussion email list and a very well known and established author blasted my self-published status. I mean ripped me several new ones, over and over. What she said doesn’t matter… what really matters for this piece I am writing right now is that the struggle with being self-published really and truly began at the moment I got that email. I felt scarred by her words, which I now know, were well-intended…WRONG but well intended.

She and I– well, I and most of the industry– view self-publishing VERY differently. To me, it was simply like instead of earning a scholarship, I paid for school because I was too impatient to fill out the forms and wait. Or something like that.

See, I feel like I have to justify and explain. F-it. I self-published because I wanted to and it felt right. Like having my daughter or marrying my husband. Decisions made with my gut, intuitively.

While Ms. Regular Author said words that made me feel WRONG and UGLY and AWFUL and SHAMED, I never, ever stopped the process of self-promotion and never stopped touting my work….but I did start to think and rethink and question and doubt. Her words affected me deeply and profoundly, and I felt like my big sister was yelling at me, telling me I stupid and wrong and dumb (My sister would NEVER EVER do that now, but I was pesky kid sister once upon a time). Except I was not this woman’s sister, thank G-d.

But, I also have neglected to tell you all that I received DOZENS of encouraging responses on the list, and to this day, when I go to events and run into people who were part of the discussion, they tell me how very wrong Ms. Regular Author was.

Many people and most applaud and validate and admire what I chose to do self-publish.

But that doesn’t seem to really matter to me deep down.

I struggle with being self-published.

I may feel whatever…fill in the blank: frustrated, shame, pride, courage. Feelings are like the wind; they come and go. So, no, that’s not my struggle today. My struggle now is the reality that in this industry being self-published is like being a part of a minority group in America.

Self-published authors crash into stereotypes and prejudices all the time, and some times they are true. With me, those are not true. Similar to how I am not a stereotypical Jew, woman, wife, mother.

I feel the same way about the reactions I get to revealing I am self-published as I do when revealing I am Jewish. I should whisper it and I should make sure I am in the right and safe setting. Self-published is a loaded label and so is Jew. But while I do not think those labels define me solely, I do embrace them because they are me and I am them and they are part of me. Sometimes I wear them as badges of courage and sometimes I hide them like a horrible birth make.

Sometimes self-published means independent and ass kicking and other times it means fraud and not even close to good enough.

When I stood there with this lovely editor, all I kept thinking is that once she finds out the truth, she will look at the work differently, more critically, and she will ask her self, “Why is she self-published?” And maybe she will form an opinion like Ms. Regular Author did and say, “Hmmm… she is simply not good enough and that’s why she did it. She is a fraud. She doesn’t want to work hard and get better.” She will say all this before she reads a word. That’s what most people do. That’s what Ms. Regular Author did.

So, I struggle with the reality of being part of this minority group in the world of publishing.

See, I pulled myself off that email list, and now, a year later, I only listen in and share any news about my classes. But, I recently asked a question and received great support. Then, I went to this retreat where I have to tell you….I purposely didn’t bring books to sell; I worried about the people on that list. What if some of them showed up? What if SHE showed up? Now, even though all of the authors bring their books to sell and sign, I thought I shouldn’t because I am the only self-published one.

Shame on me because it turns out when I arrived, several people knew me and even said, “Oh, I see you online all the time” or “I get your newsletter” or “I saw you speak at such and such.”

Oddly enough, I live my author-life like a regular author who does gigs and signs books.

And, people wanted to buy my book, and I had only brought a copy of each.

So, I realize now, after this retreat and through writing this piece that my struggle with being self-published is just tired and old and you know, maybe it isn’t even my struggle but the industry’s struggle or the struggle of some mainstream authors who feel we all should pay our dues like they did.

You know, Laurie said in her talk yesterday that we should surround ourselves with things that inspire us when we write.

I think I will put up that poster in my office.



JackassJimmy said...

"See, I feel like I have to justify and explain. F-it. I self-published because I wanted to and it felt right. Like having my daughter or marrying my husband. Decisions made with my gut, intuitively."

Sounds like a good enough reason to me. If anything I would not look at self publishing as something you have to justify, but more like a project you wanted to complete and had the gumption to follow through on.


Unknown said...

This is a GREAT posting and so closely reflects my own feelings and also where I am coming to in my own self-publishing journey. I am pretty sick of having my feelings hurt. I think I must have missed that battle on the SCBWI list because I'd been in a battering and frustrating one in 2005 and have pretty much stopped visiting that board at all.
And you are lucky that NESCBWI would even LET you sell books. The Mid-Atlantic chapter won't let self-pubbed authors sell at any of their events. One of the first times I ran up against the fierce prejudice most published writers have for self-pubbed authors.
I too now want to write and while I still have some juice for marketing, I am definitely running down. I am about to start looking for an agent too.
I have just recently posted on my iUniverse experience and did a podcast on the same topic. Here's the link to the podcast, and here's the link to the blog posting.
Having "met" you through our similar self-publishing paths has been such a comfort. Thanks

Hannah R. Goodman said...

Thanks for the support everyone. Many people emailed me off the post to extend their kudos to me in my self-publishing endeavors. THANKS!

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