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.