Glancing Back and Gazing Ahead

When I was in first grade, my teacher told my mom I was a good writer. I don’t know how she could tell at such a young age but she could see the signs already. We did a class project where we got to make our own books. This was a DREAM project for me, even at seven years old. We got to write our own stories, illustrate them, and write up an author biography. We even went through a mini book-binding process where the teacher took us one-by-one to the art room. There we laminated the pages of the book and put a plastic spiral through the edge to hold it all together. I wrote two books then. One was a dramatic little thing called “The Little People”. It was about a man who was famous for being the smallest person in town, but one day, an even smaller man showed up and became even more famous. The first small man was sad and angry, but in the end he realized they could both be small and both be friends. It didn’t need to be a competition. (Plot! Rising Action! Character Development! I had it all.) The second book was called “The Egg”. Maybe this counts as my first nonfiction piece? It’s the story of the time my cousin, sister, and I found some duck eggs in our back yard. My cousin told me not to touch them because the mom would abandon them if I did. I touched them anyway and later that day I saw the mother duck fly away and wondered if she’d ever come back.

My fascination with writing and reading continued all the way to the present with 29-year-old me. It’s strange to think about how somewhere in the back of my mind I have always wanted to be a writer. It’s the only thing I have ever been sure of. But somewhere along the line I took that confidence and certainty and tucked them behind a wall built of fear and self-doubt. I always wanted to write but I would never do it. I’d think about it. I’d tell everyone how much I wanted to be a writer. But I’d never actually write stories. Instead I stuck to journaling every day about what I hoped I could be doing in the future.

I didn’t notice how much I was hiding from my writing until I graduated high school. A friend asked to read one of my stories and I realized I didn’t have any finished pieces that weren’t assignments for class. All I had was pages of ideas and notes for things I’d like to write one day… but nothing else. This unfortunate rut continued. I kept journaling but avoided writing fiction. I let this drag on, and on, and on, until… This year.

This year I finally started writing my first book. In July I got an idea that stuck with me, and since then it has gone through several changes during the planning phase, but all that matters to me is that I’m doing it. I’m finally writing.

I don’t know what has taken me so long to get to this point… Scratch that. I do know. It’s that I have let my self-doubt and fear paralyze me. I have let those two convince me I’m not good enough to try or I’ll fail if I do. But I’m not listening to them anymore. I’m listening to Leigh Bardugo telling me to shut that voice down and keep going. I’m listening to Georgia Hardstark tell me that it doesn’t have to be perfect as long as you just fucking do it. I’m listening to my dad tell me failure isn’t as scary as I’m making it. I’m listening to all of my friends and the rest of family tell me they know I’m a good writer. They believe in me, so I should too. I’m listening to everything inside of me that’s saying this is what I’m supposed to be doing. And for once in my life I can tell that I’m finally doing the right thing.

This is the biggest and most important accomplishment I have for 2019. I finally started writing my first book. So now I am only looking ahead, gazing into what could happen and what will be with determination.

My goal for next year is to finish this book. Then I’ll write another, and another, and another. I’d like to finish my first draft in January. And I have a lot of plans to write more posts about everything I’ve been learning a long the way. There has been such a huge learning curve for me during all of this. In the past I would’ve been so hard on myself for struggling this much or working too slowly. But this is all new to me! I’m allowed to stumble and figure things out, especially because I’ve never done this before. I don’t have a style or pattern or routine that works for me because I’m just getting started.

Everything feels new and fast and exciting and yet I also feel like I haven’t even done anything yet. I know there is still so much work ahead of me. To be honest, I’ve felt so much fear and anxiety throughout this whole process. I kind of get scared just thinking about it… The new and unknown and all of that. But it’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be nervous. All that matters is that I keep going.

The Day I Met Leigh Bardugo

A couple weeks ago I had one of the best moments of my life: I got to meet Leigh Bardugo! She is on tour for her new book Ninth House, and I was able to make it to her Chicago stop. Now, this feels strange to say, but I’ve never been to a book signing before. Although I’ve been a reader my entire life and I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I still let myself shy away from meeting the people I look up to in person. But I wasn’t going to miss out this time.

I was actually really nervous beforehand. I went to the event by myself, and even though I’m used to doing things alone, I still get nervous about how everything will go. I didn’t know what it would be like inside (it was moved from the bookstore to a local theater), I didn’t know if I’d meet anyone to talk to, and I didn’t know what the process would be like. I always overthink things like that… but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from going.

I arrived at the theater pretty early, and there were already quite a few people there but no line had started yet. Eventually giant boxes full of books arrived, and they shuffled us all outside to line up while they prepared. It was windy and cold, but none of us cared because we were all too excited.

I was 6th in line and a few of us in the front got some Ninth House pins. Because I was alone, I was able to listen to everyone’s conversations around me. There was so much talk about young adult books, Etsy shops, bookstagram, and other signings people had been to. A LOT of talk about Harry Potter, which is sort of amazing to see a series retain its relevancy for so long and stretch across generations. 

Eventually they herded us into the theater and I got a seat in the middle of the second row. I couldn’t believe how close I was. They had a velvet maroon chair set up for her with a microphone. It was all about to happen!

Before I bought my ticket to the event, I read in Leigh’s newsletter that we would get our copy of Ninth House signed and we could also bring any personal item as a second thing to get signed. I really wanted her to sign my writing journal. I thought it would be so motivating for me to see the signature of someone I look up to every time I open it. But when I looked around the event, I saw other people had brought a copy of Six of Crows or something from the Shadow and Bone series. I got really worried that it was going to be rude of me to have her sign such a personal item instead of her other books (what do I know I’ve never been to a book signing before), so I asked the staff there if it was okay, they checked with Leigh’s people, and they said it would be totally fine. Another small thing I worried about for no reason.

Time passed quickly and pretty soon, Leigh Bardugo was out on stage right in front of us. Listen… I’m not even understating it when I say it was amazing. She was so funny and kind and honest and talked to us in a way that felt like she was really listening. She talked about the process of writing Ninth House and how the idea had initially come to her back in college, but it was never meant to be the first book she wrote. She had to work on her other ideas and learn more about her process before getting to this one.

After a few minutes of that, we were able to ask questions. My hand shot up like it was going to fly off my body (bit of a Hermione moment) and I asked her the question I’ve been struggling with for so long: How do you overcome self-doubt when you’re writing? Here’s what she said:

“I think we’ve been taught by culture that when we have those feelings of self-doubt, when we feel like we’re failing at the work we’re doing, that that’s somehow a sign that we’re on the wrong path. ‘Surely if I was doing this right, if I was doing what I was meant to be doing, this would be amazing. I would feel good about it.’

When we’re very young and we write, we do feel amazing. That part of our brain hasn’t engaged yet, and it’s a pleasure and a joy to write. Then there’s this other thing that takes over and says, ‘Everything you’re doing is wrong. Everything you’re doing is crap.’ And it’s very hard to shut down that voice.

But what I would say to you is, the bulk of writing a book is not days where you feel like a genius, and days where you feel like, ‘oh my gosh this is all good. This is all right. This story is exactly where I’m supposed to be.’ It is actually a series of days that feel like failure. And those days are NOT signs that you are on the wrong path. They are actually just signs that you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before. Something bigger and better and more challenging and more exciting than you’ve ever done before.

So the next time you feel that self-doubt kick in, I want you to engage with it and be like, ‘Oh thank you! Thank you for this horrible way you’re making me feel! Because this is a sign that I’m doing this right. Leigh told me I was doing this right. The worse I feel, the better I’m doing, so I’m just gonna keep going!’

You shut that voice down, and you keep going.”

Leigh Bardugo

See? I told you she was honest and real and funny and brilliant (I could go on and on). I kept an audio recording of her answer so I could always remind myself of this advice when I’m struggling because it’s so incredibly helpful to hear someone I respect and admire say that they have the same kinds of days I do. And the only way to climb over that hurdle of self-doubt is to acknowledge it’s there, shut it down, and keep going. Keep going, keep going, keep going. 

She answered other questions about partnering with both Netflix and Amazon, writing characters (she suggested building the character from what they want – side note: I’ve been working on characters in my current project, and I’m understanding this better. What the character wants and desires becomes the foundation for all of their actions), and more general writing advice.

Something else that really resonated with me is when she said there’s no expiration date on talent. There is no rush to get something out faster than the person next to you. It’s okay to take your time. It’s okay to focus on other aspects of your life, especially when you have responsibilities like bills, rent, loans, your family, school, etc. A lot of times, I can feel that hectic urgency inside of me. I want to hurry myself up and get the book done because look at all these other people my age (or YOUNGER) who are already published and established! But it’s never too late. There is no expiration date on writing, and I shouldn’t be so hard on myself about it.

Back at the event, it was time for the book signing to start. I was #162, so I had quite a while to wait. But I suddenly realized I hadn’t thought of anything to actually SAY to her when I got up there. My mind spun around and then just turned off. I couldn’t think of anything. I was still too nervous on top of my normally awkward self.

At last it was my turn. She asked me how to pronounce my name, and when she got to my writing journal, she flipped it open and asked me what it was and where I’d like her to sign. I said, “Anywhere!” probably louder than I intended to. I shrugged and stood there smiling like a dork as she wrote her name. She slid the two items back to me across the table and said, “Good luck with your writing!” I smiled and I think I said thank you? My brain hadn’t turned back on yet, so I’m not sure if I said anything at all. But I don’t care because it was still amazing. I did something I was nervous about, I met someone I truly look up to, and I got some writing advice that I will always carry with me.

Last week I tweeted about meeting her and thanked her for signing my copy of Ninth House and my writing journal. She liked the tweet, which somehow feels like the icing on top of an already exciting start to my own writing journey.

The Difficulty of Sharing

As a writer, the biggest problem I have is sharing my work. I’ve wasted a lot of time not letting anyone see it. In the past, I would never tell anybody what I was working on, let alone post it online or try and get it published. Instead, I would write a rough draft as quickly as possible, then stuff it away in a drawer without ever looking at it again. I got so used to hiding my writing from the world and even from myself… but why?

That’s where my problem with sharing connects to my problem with vulnerability. I’m currently reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. It’s showing me how much I hide in an effort to avoid being vulnerable and letting people really see me. I keep my writing tucked away, I never talk about it, and I never try to publish it because I’m too scared. I’m scared of not being good enough. I’m scared of failing. I’m scared of putting all of my honesty into my writing and letting strangers analyze, critique, and possibly tear me apart.

One of my favorite quotes in Daring Greatly is when Brené talks about how nervous she was to give her TED Talk. As she walked up to the stage to speak, she quietly said to herself, “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

That is the kind of courage I’m working on: to be seen. I never let anyone see anything – not my inner thoughts, my writing process, or even the pieces I’ve finished and am proud of. That’s the number one thing that has stopped me from improving as a writer.

Sharing your art and writing is one of the most difficult things because it’s so personal. Letting someone else see your work feels like you’re splitting yourself open and leaving yourself completely vulnerable to be attacked. But what progress can be made without vulnerability? How can you gain any rewards without taking any risks?

“To put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation – that’s also vulnerability.”

If you know me in person, then you know how much I love the podcast My Favorite Murder. I’ve been going through the catalogue and listening to earlier episodes when I was struck by a conversation in episode 78 “The Freshest Recording” where they talked about perfectionism. While listening, I had this sinking realization that this is another thing stopping me. Often times, the perfectionist in us drives our fear and stops us from not only improving, but connecting with others as well. I’ve been working on pushing myself to share more of my work, but I have stopped myself so many times because the poem or story isn’t “perfect” yet. I don’t want anyone else to see it until it’s completely “perfect.” But what does perfect even mean? How would I ever achieve that? Why am I setting such impossibly high standards for myself when I still have so much I want to learn and explore and try?

In that My Favorite Murder episode, Georgia says, “You don’t have to be perfect, just fucking do things.” And Karen adds on, “Just fucking do what you wanna do. You’ll improve later.” Perfection and fear of failing often stop us from ever finishing things, but actually finishing things is the most important part. The more we finish things and the more we share them, the more we can improve and learn about ourselves. Listening to that conversation felt like a groundbreaking moment for me, and I never expected it to come from a podcast about murder, but everything they said felt completely true and honest.

So I’m grateful I started this blog. Right now it feels like I’m the only person reading this, but it’s still a huge step for me. Sharing my work, improving, and not worrying about being perfect are all things that will make me a better writer.

I’ve also been sharing my poetry on my Instagram. I started doing this a few months ago, but in a moment of self-doubt, I deleted all of my posts and recently started over. This time I’m not going to delete anything. I’m going to share my writing (no matter what stage of development it’s in) and keep on trying to learn. Not everything I post will be my best work or “perfect,” but I need let go and put myself out there.

Perfection doesn’t matter; All that matters is that I’m doing it. Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.

Weekly Reads: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

At the beginning of this year I promised myself I would start reading more – something I always say but easily get distracted from. Unfortunately I am a slow reader. Novels take me longer than they should and they often feel like a chore. But I was committed to my promise of reading more, so I decided to focus on short stories instead. It was an easy way to explore new styles and writers I hadn’t been introduced to yet, and it also felt less daunting than that giant stack of books I keep avoiding.

With the ever-growing list of short stories I’m reading, I’ve decided to regularly share them here with a Weekly Reads post. I’ll talk about some of my favorites and what they’re teaching me about writing.

First up is a story I read in January: “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez. It was the first Marquez story I ever read, and I fell in love with him from the title alone. Three months into 2019 and it is still one of my favorites out of the 60+ stories I’ve read so far.

Marquez, a Colombian writer born in 1927, was a part of the Latin American boom of literature in the 60s and 70s. In 1982 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he has been cited as one of the most significant authors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous short stories and novellas, but he is perhaps most well-known for his novel 100 Years of Solitude (which has been in my To Be Read pile forever).

Marquez has a very exploratory way of writing. In fact, he said that he never tries to stick to one style:

In every book I try to take a different path… One doesn’t choose the style. You can investigate and try to discover what the best style would be for a theme. But the style is determined by the subject, by the mood of the times. If you try to use something that is not suitable, it just won’t work.”

Although I have only read three short stories by Marquez, I’m already inspired by his flexible approach and his willingness to try new techniques. He explores the boundaries of reality and mythology, weaving in the ever-present theme of solitude. He has a unique way of breathing new life into the simplest things and revealing it with the use of magical realism.

Magical realism is a literary movement that uses the supernatural as an ordinary part of reality. The most fantastical elements become a mundane part of everyday life. It’s extremely popular in Latin American writing, and many readers are introduced to it through the works of Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” magical realism flows through the entire story, starting with the very first paragraph. One day during a storm, a family discovers an old man lying in the mud in their backyard:

“He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.”

This man’s wings are mentioned in such a matter-of-fact way that it seems totally normal. Of course he has wings, why wouldn’t he? That’s the power of magical realism; it brings the most magical ideas down to our regular life.

Unfortunately for this old man, his wings are in such terrible condition that he can’t get out of the mud and fly away:

“His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud.”

A neighbor woman who knows “everything about life and death” comes by and plainly tells the family that he is an angel. The family puts him in a chicken coop in their yard, and the entire town comes by to check him out. They prod and stare at him, waiting to be entertained by this caged creature that is completely apathetic to its surroundings. But the town is soon distracted by a different attraction: a traveling show featuring a sad girl who was turned into a spider because she disobeyed her parents.

I was instantly captivated by the way Marquez mixes the natural with the supernatural. There is this sense that we take the most beautiful parts of life for granted; we aren’t impressed by even the most magical things, but in some way we still expect them to happen. It feels similar to reading old fables or mythology, and yet it is so relevant to modern life. To me, these elements make it feel like the classic idea of a story.

I hope I can replicate some of Marquez’s insights and curiosity into my own writing. He has such a unique perspective on life, and I want to share my own through similar fantastic story elements. I have only read three of his short stories so far, and there is still so much of him I want to explore. Just looking at some of his other titles already has me intrigued:

  • Bitterness of Three Sleepwalkers
  • Nabo: The Black Man Who Made the Angels Wait
  • The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World
  • The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother

So I will keep studying the work of Gabriel García Márquez and hopefully pick up on some of his brilliance. I will read more of his short stories and novellas, and I will finally attack my TBR pile with his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude. In the meantime, I highly encourage you to read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” here or in this collection of his stories.