Sunday, May 19, 2019

Work, Relax, Believe: A Confessional Keynote Address

Today's post is a keynote address I gave two years ago at a writing conference in Arizona. (ANWA, Gilbert AZ, 9/15/17.) It's long, but I post it here in hopes that it will offer some encouragement, or at least, companionship, for writers.

If my remarks are at all worthy of a title, and you can be the judge, it would be something like this:
You Want to Write? What’s the Matter With You?
– or – Ye Shall Do the Work, and the Work Shall Set You Free*
*From writer’s block, self-doubt, self-loathing, and Candy Crush

That’s a lot of titles. Long ones. But don’t worry. I’ll add a few more titles before I’m through.
            Not to be a big complainy-pants, but since I do have the microphone at the moment, what the heck, I’ll go ahead and be a complainy-pants. Let me tell you about the last couple of months. They’ve been hectic. Over-the-top hectic, actually. Absolute bonkers. After a year of a bicoastal marriage, practically single parenting, a health issue in the family, paying for two homes, getting one home sold, trying to raise the two kids who still belong at home, if they would for-the-love-of-Mike-stop-fighting, and trying to get the two kids who ought to be moving on somewhat more ready to do so, as in A) educated and B) employable – scarcely the same thing – moving across America, from Boston to LA, making my third cross-country move in three years – it’s complicated -- I am pooped. I am wiped. My cup doth not run over. It shattereth into smithereens when I drop it on the brand new
slate tile floor in my newly renovated bathroom that the people who bought my house get to enjoy, instead of me. Renovating the bathroom – the only full bathroom in my Victorian home --  has been another of my projects of the last few months, because who doesn’t love being showerless for days on end while grout dries? Body odor is my favorite!
So. For most of the last year, my writing was going precisely nowhere.
And that is a great place to be when you’re asked to share inspiring and encouraging words with a roomful of talented, committed, serious writers who really hope you can offer them something that will make a difference in their journey. And you want to, because you really do care. But you are brought face to face and nose to armpit with the putrid truth.
YOU ARE A FRAUD.
You’ve known this all along, of course. But this time you really mean it. You’re extra fraudy. You’re a super-fraud. Mega-fraud. You’re fraud-tastic.
You’ve written a few things, and by a miracle, some people said some very nice things about them. Seven people, to be precise, and three of them were related to you.
If anything you wrote in the past was any good, you were probably having an out-of-body experience, because when you try now to write anything good, your bloaty, perspiring hollowness bulges out like a muffin-top over too-tight jeans.
So you try to return to the basics. Butt in chair. Can’t hardly get my butt out of this chair, so check. Write a poopy first draft. Calling these pages a poopy first draft is an insult to poop. Doing brainstormy stuff. Oh, who are you kidding, you’re playing Candy Crush. Cut it out. Check the news. Go cry. Return to your manuscript. Maybe get on a little bit of a groove where some words are coming and energy is happening and you try a new trick, only to see on your editor’s blog the next day that she loathes and despises that trick whenever it crosses her desk.
No. Tell the truth. Not her blog.
…when you see it in a rejection letter from your editor on the new thingy you sent her this month. You love her, and she loves you, but she can’t love this thing. It’s kinda like you’re married to your dream guy, true-love-forever-amen, and you present him with the baby you just bore him out of great love and sacrifice, and he says, “Ew. Not that baby. I prefer other kinds of babies.” Where, exactly, does one go from there?
To the fridge, of course!
The fridge has become your familiar friend of late. Because no matter how beastly your kids are, nor how terrifying the finances, nor how inert your creativity, nor how crushing the rejection, starch and glucose are always there with their loving hydroxyl arms outstretched. “Come here, Baby,” they tell you. “We know. We know.”
So you wallow in your inbox, or your Twitter or Facebook feed. And because you’re connected to twelve billion authors online, plus also your entire third grade class, your news stream is nothing but a string of bestseller announcements, new deal announcements, award announcements, and movie deals, with the occasional divorce thrown in. And even if you’re genuinely happy for them all – which is Extreme Sainthood if you ask me – except for the divorcees, that’s case-by-case – these happy news-grams are still daggers in your heart. Whatever you’ve accomplished so far is hollow, feeble, false, but everyone else’s good news is epic, real, true, and forever. Plus they’re gorgeous. Rich. Popular. They always know what to say, and what to do with scarves. Because their ideas are likeable, and THEY are likeable, and you are not. Neither you, nor your ideas, nor your armpits. You all just stink.
How do I know all this? Not from experience, surely?
No, my experience is sunshine, roses, and brilliance all the time. But I have been sent here as an ambassador by a special delegation of your collected insecurities. I am the voice of your deepest fears. “We’re right. You’re really do stink. Your work doesn’t even deserve an “E” for Effort. Because your effort stinks. We see right through your phony fa├žade. We see you playing Candy Crush on the toilet. You will never reach your goals. And we are all talking about you behind your back.”
I’ve been there. I am there. Rejections? Still getting them. Self-doubts? They’re my long-time friends at this point. Scarce and sorry ideas? Yep. Feels that way. That’s me. I remember a time in my life when, on a day that was extraordinarily busy and fraught with disappointments and stress, when I was dancing on my very last nerve, I returned home to three rejections for my writing on two different projects. I crawled into bed and cried. I called my husband and sobbed into his ear about what a sorry loser I was, whom no one would ever want to read. I remember this moment. I remember it well, because it was a few weeks ago.
I am at war with myself. Because I know better. I’ve written 20 books in the last 12 or so years (many of them were short, so don’t be too impressed), and I’ve learned a few lessons along the way about believing in my ideas, about celebrating the dream of making up my own stories, about trusting my instincts, about writing boldly, blocking out competition and insecurity and anxiety, and just getting the darn work done.
I know that on a fundamental level, if you’re going to pursue the life of an artist, along with the life of an artist/businessperson who makes their living arting, that you’ve got to choose to believe, to place faith in yourself, to take the chance on creation, regardless of what others think. You’ve got to believe before anyone else does, and you’ve got to continue to believe even if nobody else cares, or if they all think it must just be easy for you by now, with all those books.
So – here’s another title -- let’s agree to title this talk “Physician, Heal Thyself.” I hope you will allow me to share with you what my better self has learned through experience and deeply believes to be sacred and true, even as I confess throughout that I make all these mistakes too, and that I need these reminders as much as anyone.
Today I’m going to hone in on three words: Work, Relax, Believe.
But first I have to ask you some questions.
So. You want to be a writer. Are you sure I can’t talk you out of that?
In earnest: Why do you want to write? Why do you want to write?
What does this actually mean to you?
What place do you go to in your mind to draw inspiration from when I ask you that question? Is it a memory involving reading? Or sharing what you’ve read?
Now, here’s what’s important:
In the innermost sanctum of your mind, where nobody can see you or tease you or scold you, I want you to picture this: You are successful as a writer. You have achieved your goals.
Now, the question is, “What goals?”
What does “successful as a writer” look like to you?
In the quiet of your mind, tell the truth to yourself about that. What would you love to have happen?
No two writing lives or careers are the same. What can you envision about what you’d like yours to look like? Tell the truth. Don’t be timid, don’t be modest. Don’t apologize.
Lots of people come to me for advice because they want to be a writer and they don’t know how to start, or break into print, or whatever. So they sit down with me and say, “What advice do you have for me?” To which I answer, “That depends entirely on what your goal is.” To which they say, quite awkwardly, “Well, I dunno, I just have some stuff I’ve written, and I wonder if maybe I could do something with it.” Sure – frame it on your wall. That’s not a goal.
When I started writing, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to write many books. I wanted to be in libraries and bookstores forever. I wanted to win the Newbery Medal and hit the New York Times bestseller list. I wanted my books to outlive me. I wanted to be a beloved figure in the children’s book world.
I have a really long way to go to accomplish my goals. But I know what they are. That has made an enormous difference. Having a firm sense of what real success would look like in your mind saves you heaps and barrels of frittered time and wasted effort. Knowing where you want to go creates the power to get you there.
Take a minute to close your eyes and picture your dream of success.
Now, write something about it, in code if you must, in your notebook. Commit it to paper.
So, goal in mind, let’s proceed.
Let’s talk about work. Actually, let’s talk about what isn’t work.
When you say you’re a writer, what do you mean? Do you mean that you go to writing conferences and read agent blogs and hobnob with writers and tweet New Yorker articles about writing?
These are potentially fine and useful things. But they aren’t writing.
Do you spend lots of time thinking about writing? Fretting about writing? Wallowing, as I so aptly demonstrated – call me Exhibit A – in anxious navel-gazing, useless comparisons, and narcissistic tracking of one’s Amazon sales rank?
That’s not writing. That’s not work. It’s a preferred time wasting ritual for many writers, my sorry self included, so let’s get honest. Are we writing? Or are we playing pretend?
Writers write. They put some words down on paper on a regular basis until they’ve accumulated lots of sheets of paper with their words on them. Whether those words are good words or bad words or “the best words” is entirely beside the point for the moment. If there’s one thing I have learned, to my chagrin, is that there’s room in the world for fifty shades of awful writing, and a market for it, too. So let’s not be too precious, and let’s factor quality out of the equation, temporarily.
Writers are people who write things. They fill many sheets of paper, real or digital, with words of their own concoction. To be considered writers in any serious sense of the word, they have to be persons who engage in this putting-words-on-paper activity on a more or less regular basis, producing, over time, lots and lots of those pages. The hack writer who churns out pages of dreck day after day earns my respect over the would-be writer who produces little to nothing because they are doing the work. They are doing something. You can only steer a car if it’s moving.
Worrying about writing isn’t writing. It’s the opposite of writing.
Writing, and engaging thoughtfully and critically with your work to make it better, IS writing. But that’s not usually so fraught with self-loathing. It’s more grounded in the work, in the pages, in the words, in story problem-solving, in questions of craft as opposed to questions about YOU.
The self is the enemy of the work, I think. The self is the sticky, immature baby, sitting in soggy diapers, slobbering on a lollipop and demanding that everything be about him or her.
The work itself is the most liberating thing. It sets you free from your sticky self.
I have come to suspect that writers are all insane, and the act of writing is our medication. No, I’ll say it this way: writers are all starving, and the act of writing is our food. At least, this has been true for me. The work itself, the task, the story, and its needs, get me out of my own way. When I really go into my story, that’s a happy place to be, even if the story’s sad. Incidentally, when I really get into the writing, I also visit My Friend the Fridge a lot less often. My hungry soul is fed by writing so it’s less inclined to go foraging for Scooby Snacks.
Writing isn’t hard. Life is hard. Writing is the antidote. Writing isn’t hard because you can give yourself permission to write badly anytime you want. And I hope you do. Just keep on lowering that bar, baby. I couldn’t do anything if I didn’t give myself permission, over and over and over again, to write things badly. You can always fix it later.
Knowing that revision exists should free the creative mind to experiment and play. You don’t have to fix it now. You’re not supposed to. Let the story burble out. Let it be flawed. Let it have glaring problems. Just let it out. Revision comes later. Revising a story to death before it’s had a chance to be written is like trying to teach the multiplication tables to a baby still passing through the birth canal. It’s well-intentioned, but this is not the time.
What is with all these birth and baby metaphors?
Allow yourself to write a bad novel. I would rather you wrote a bad novel than no novel. Feeling you must write well constipates your creativity.
Are we happy that I’ve switched metaphors? Hm.
You’re busy, I know. You only have so much time you can devote to writing. Even full-time authors are swamped, running their author businesses and their travels and their messy lives. For each of us, there’s only a sliver of the day or the week that we can devote to the work of writing. So how are you spending your time? Are you doing the work, or are you wallowing / slash procrastinating in a writer-ish way? Be honest with yourself. Be brutal. If your art or your career isn’t where you want it to be, ask yourself, are you doing the work? If you can honestly say that you really are, and you’re giving it all you can, you will move toward your goal.

Here is the work of a writer:
  • Reading the books that will help you write better.
  • Conducting relevant research.
  • Writing words on paper.
  • Thoughtfully revising those words.
  • Learning how to do all these things better and smarter through study, mentorship, practice.

That’s it, and that’s all.
I’m going to share that list one more time, with just a little bit of unpacking.
A writer’s work is, #1:
Reading the books that will help you write better. Don’t skip this one. Read a lot, and read critically. Force yourself to write something down about each book you read. Keep a little journal or list. Force yourself to articulate, in writing, what did and didn’t work for you, and why. Make comparisons to other works. Provide a succinct synopsis. Take note of the publisher, and, if you can figure it out, the editor and agent. Write it all down in an organized way. Trust me. You love to read anyway, or you wouldn’t be here, but turn it into a teaching tool that works for you. All it requires is a little diligence. Don’t just read haphazardly. Read to learn something. Good book or bad. I believe that the books you despise have as much to teach you as the books you love. Why do you despise it? What rubs you the wrong way? What does it have to teach you about what you value in good writing? What are its sins? Are you committing them, too? If it’s a book you love, force yourself to reach past fangirling to a thoughtful analysis of why you love it, why it speaks to your soul. Read the books that will help you write better.
A writer’s work is:
Conducting relevant research. Whatever time you take to locate information you need in order to write your work better is time well spent, is work time, is writing time, just like putting words down on the page is, IF you discipline yourself to be purposeful about your use of this time. Research can be a rabbit hole, and a rabbit’s nest of snaky tunnels and useless distractions. But if you are searching for the information you need, and you know what you’re looking for, you are working. Good books need a good, smart, factual foundation, even if they’re wild fantasies, so do your homework. Just make sure that you also write while doing this, so that the project doesn’t get lost in the research, and so the research doesn’t lose sight of why it’s happening.  Take good notes. Whenever you learn something through research that can affect your story, write down how and why. You think you’ll remember, but if you’re like me, you won’t. Conduct relevant research.

Number 3, a writer’s work is:
Writing words on paper. There are lots of great books out there about how to get words down on paper. I don’t have any magic to add here except this: look at where your piece left off, and add something there. It can be good, and it can be bad. It. Does. Not. Matter. If you don’t know what should happen next in your story, guess. If you’re not sure what method to use to move forward, to outline or not to outline, to storyboard or not to storyboard, to character sketch or not to character sketch, I say, think about what makes the most sense to you, and then do it, provided that sooner or later it gets you back to the stage of putting more words down on paper. I’m going to say that one more time: when you’re stalled by a story problem, or there’s something holding you up – a problem with character, with plot, with logic, with worldbuilding, with something-but-you’re-not-sure-what – consider all the things you might do to solve the problem, and do the thing that makes the most sense to you. This will usually not be the easiest fix. Go with the one that’s most right, no matter how hard it will be. If you have to start over, start over. Make a list of your options and choose the one with the most sizzle. Follow your instincts. I say this whether you’ve published a thousand books or whether you’re working on your very first one. Why? Because it’s your book, and your creative brain is in charge of it. No one else’s. So trust it. It knows what it needs, and it knows what it’s doing. More than you think. Go with the first solution that presents itself to you and feels right. If it fails, you can always try another. Go with the ideas that present themselves. Take a chance on the bizarre ones that pop up where they weren’t planned. I don’t write entirely blind – mostly blind, but not entirely – but I can say that my best work, and the places within my work that readers tend to respond to the most strongly, are those where an unplanned twist presented itself to me as I plodded along, and I went with it. I trusted me. I listened. And I wrote it down. Why not? There’s no harm in that. Words can always be changed or deleted. Write your words on paper.

Next, #4, a writer’s work is:
Thoughtfully revising those words. This is where the magic comes in, and it can be really fun. Find another committed and skilled writer to have as a manuscript-swapping buddy. Make sure you like and admire their work. Hopefully they will like and admire yours as well. Practice providing encouraging, constructive, but thorough critiques of each other’s work to each other. You will see in their manuscripts the flaws you can’t yet see in your own. Spot those flaws enough times and you will wax eloquent on the problems of that flaw. Don’t tell them how to fix their problems, but do let them know where you feel problems exist. Then, when you return to your own manuscript, you’ll see that flaw where it’s been hiding in plain sight, but this time, you’ll know how to fix it. Revise a lot. Revise on the micro and the macro level. If you haven’t made an outline by this point, make one now. Cut a lot out. Before you even get down to the serious business of revision, just go chapter by chapter and cut out a third or more of your words. This is what I do. I am not exaggerating. Maybe some writers write lovely, lean prose the first time around, and if so this advice might not work for them, but for me, the first and most powerful pass of revision comes simply by going chapter by chapter through my piece and saying, “Do I need this chapter? Do I need this scene? Do I need this conversation? Do I need this line of dialogue? Do I need this description? Do I need this speech tag? Do I need this adverb?” It’s amazing how much you don’t need. And just by cutting, you’ve made things so much better.  Not only that, but the deeper, more structural or character-based concerns bubble to the surface when you’re thinking about trimming. I’m not sure why this is so, but it is. I guess that when you trim the fat, it’s easier to see the bones. I almost always end up cutting out at least one entire chapter. Usually many. It makes my husband gasp in horror. Be willing to write words and willing to cut words. Thoughtfully revise your words.

I want to say a bit more here about critique groups and critique partners. They’ve vital to your growth and progress, especially as you develop your critical skills, but they can also do a lot of harm. These are intimate relationships, and like other close friendships, they should be chosen with some care. Don’t just join a group with anybody. Date a critique group before you marry it. I too often hear of dominant personalities in critique groups who try to impose their literary tastes onto everyone else, who squawk about rules, who denigrate others’ writing to bolster their own egos, who dictate what you need to do to fix your story instead of just pointing out possible areas needing attention, and, heaven forbid, even get in there and rewrite it for you. Don’t subject your work, and your fragile artistic consciousness, to this kind of usurpation and abuse. Don’t surrender your sovereignty over your own work. Also, your critiquing obligations to others will of necessity take some of your time, but they shouldn’t devour it all. If you’re in a group that’s sucking all your writing time away, something needs to change. And if you’re in a group where you can’t learn anything, where nobody has instincts that you admire, where nobody’s input is actually useful to you, politely get out of it.

            Last, number 5. A writer’s work is:
Learning how to do all these things better and smarter through study, mentorship, practice.
That’s why you’re here today. Writing is not a job you can just show up to. It has no punch-card. It doesn’t have a “go through the motions” track. You can’t leave it at the office; it will always come home with you. Complacency isn’t an option, and coasting isn’t an option. If you’re not spending serious time thinking about how to get better at doing this, you never will. Literary craft is a prize kept locked in a tower and guarded by a dragon. You won’t arrive at narrative art by accident or without getting sweaty and bloody trying. So don’t be passive about your growth as a writer. Make a study of what excellent literature is. Know what’s at the top of its game in your genre or style of choice. Take courses, take classes, buy an expert critique at a charity auction. Get an M.F.A.. Attend craft-intensive writing retreats and conferences.
I said I would talk about WORK, RELAX, BELIEVE. We’re still on work. But work is the lion’s share of the writing life. 
Once more, to recap:
Here is the work of a writer:

  • Reading the books that will help you write better.
  • Conducting relevant research.
  • Writing words on paper.
  • Thoughtfully revising those words.
  • Learning how to do all these things better and smarter through study, mentorship, practice.

There are other things that might be worth doing, which might fall into the category of promoting your works or your writing business, or organizing your writer desk, or paying your writing-related taxes, but let’s be very clear: they aren’t writing. Sometimes they’re fun (not the taxes), but they aren’t the food your writer soul requires.
So my question for you is, ARE YOU WRITING?
If you are, good work. Keep it up. Keep on writing.
If you’re not, start writing.
If you haven’t been writing, forgive yourself. Release the guilt. Let it go. Stuff happened that made it hard, and that’s okay; life happens. Or we got in our own way because we’re bums, kind of, but that’s okay, too, because we forgive and embrace ourselves with peace. Writer’s block, which I believe should more accurately be called writer’s fear and writer’s shame, scared us off for a while. But we’re better now; we know there’s nothing to fear because we can always write badly, anytime we don’t feel up to writing well, and, if worse comes to worst, we can always adopt a pen-name. So we know there’s nothing to fear.  We are empowered now to write where before we felt we weren’t so there’s no need to punish ourselves anymore.  
What if you’re not writing because you don’t know what to write? Write something. What if you owe a publisher a book and you’re paralyzed by how poorly, or how well, your last book did, and whether or not your publisher hates your guts or expects the moon now? Write something. Write a bad, blundering, meandering story. I challenge you. Try this: Don’t sit down to write THE Book. Just write A Book. It’s so much easier.
Here’s why I challenge you to do this: as soon as your creativity can relax from the tourniquet of anxiety squeezed around it by guilt, inadequacy, shame, and Googling yourself – all the time-sucking, soul-sucking work of the sticky baby Self – your creativity will sabotage your efforts to write a bad story, and before you know it you’ll be writing a not-so-bad story. Creativity is a rebellious imp. Tell it to do one thing, and it does another. That’s all right. Let it out to play, and watch what happens.
I said I would talk about WORK, RELAX, BELIEVE.
By allowing yourself to work, you will allow yourself to relax. That sounds paradoxical. But work is a great soother. Have you ever found yourself on a stressed-out day just getting happily lost in a monotonous task, like weeding the garden, or painting the garage, or stapling the pages of a
thousand packets? Ever found that if you stop worrying about how long it will take, and just get into the zone, it flies by quickly? If you surrender to the work, it carries you on its surface, like a swimmer backfloating in a peaceful lake. I’ve said that the work of writing is our food. It’s also our peace.
Maybe none of us are sane, but I’ll argue that those of us who are doing the work of writing are saner than those writers who aren’t. We’re saner because our inner and outer selves are in harmony. The inner self wants to write, the outer self does it, and both can sleep well tonight. We’re at least less of a fraud, because we tell the world we’re writers, and whaddya know, we are. When days and weeks go by without writing – trust me, I wrote the book on this one – our tension mounts. Our inner and outer selves aren’t on speaking terms. Our Fraud-o-Meter goes through the roof.  Guilt gnaws at us. Deadlines terrify us. The problem escalates into a total shutdown of work. Stay there too long, and you might give up writing altogether. There are valid reasons for giving up writing altogether – such as, maybe, birthing quintuplets, or becoming a monk – but Facebook and procrastination aren’t among them.
Work frees you. Focusing on the work allows you to focus on the story and its needs, and that’s so much more fun than focusing on you and your social media popularity. Write your book like you’re painting the fence, Daniel-san. Up, down. Up, down. It’s all in the wrist. Wax-on, wax-off. One word after another.
Work allows you to relax. So relax.
Relax. Relax! You don’t have to write well. So what if you’re a mediocre writer? Welcome to the club. Most days I aspire to be a mediocre writer. The world is full of mediocre readers, eager to see what you’ve got. Relax about who’s making how much money as an author. Relax about who’s selling what to whom and who gets invited to whose parties. Who cares? You get to work in your pajamas. What more could you want? Fancier pajamas? Some poor souls have to work in skanky
lingerie. Imagine if you had to write that way. Just please don’t imagine if *I* had to write that way.  
I mean, look, of course you care. We all need more moolah, and it would be really swell if this writing gig could pay us more the way it seems to pay others more. And we all want to matter, to be known by name, to be remembered after we die, to never go out of print, to be invited to sit at the Cool Kids’ Table at Author Festivals and whatever. Of course we want those things. But they have nothing to do with the work. And you can’t make any of them happen by gritting your teeth and bearing down harder. (Birth metaphor? Excretory? Take your pick.)
The work is the only thing you can even remotely control.
So relax, and do the work. Write stuff. Read stuff. Revise stuff. Learn stuff. Write more stuff.
And here’s a plug: write something new. Start a piece, finish a piece, set it aside, start a new piece. Finish the new piece. Come back to the first piece and revise. Start a third piece. Keep revising the first. Complete a revision pass on the first, and start revising the second. Finish a draft of the third. Set it aside. Start a fourth. Carry on until you’re in a coffin. You learn more from finishing things and starting new things than you’ll ever learn by stroking and caressing the one thing you wrote once for years and years and years. (That’s not writing.) You also learn more about what’s wrong with your pieces by setting them aside and forgetting about them for a while. When you return to them, you’re a fresh reader. 
            I know you might think, but, Julie, I can’t wait that long to be published!!!
Yes, you can. And whether or not you want to, you will wait that long, and even longer, if you don’t take it slowly, and learn to be a methodical reviser. Wax on, wax off. Breathe. Relax.
If you’re doing your reading, that’s good relaxation time. It’s hard to read a great book and still keep churning through all your worries. A good read transports you elsewhere. That’s its job. Reading is great for your mental health,
Let’s talk about BELIEVE.
If I tell you to believe in yourself, those might be the words you need to hear, or they might seem so trite as to make you reach for your phone to text your in-laws for fun. Maybe those words are too glib.
Try this, then: can you believe in the power of your desire to do this successfully? Can you believe in how badly you want it? Can you believe in the possibility of your name on a book jacket?
When I began doing this, I didn’t believe in myself. Writing was my Second Chance Saloon. I’d given up almost every other dream I’d ever had by being a complete flake and a wet noodle. Quit piano. Quit violin. Quit volleyball. Quit voice lessons. Was a lousy quilter and seamstress and an unimpressive gardener. Graduated with an undergrad degree in a field that sorta bored me. Held a few jobs until I became a full-time breeder. The only thing I could really point to was good grades, a loving marriage, four cute and crazy little boys and some mad skillz at making pie crust. That was my resume.
So, could I believe in the possibility of my name on a book jacket? Heck, no!
Can you?
Maybe the honest answer to that question is, “No, not really!”
So, again, dial it back. Maybe you can’t see your name on a jacket yet. But you know you want to. Believe in how badly you want it.
Believe that you have a unique voice. You do; it’s a scientific fact. Just as a trained ear or sound equipment could distinguish your voice from anyone else’s, you have a unique literary voice, in embryo, currently gestating, but ready to become full-throated, confident, distinct, and expressive.
And when I say you have one unique literary voice, what I really mean is, you’ve got one life, one brain, one bundle of experiences and inspirations and ideas. That’s more than enough. Here is what I tell schoolchildren: The one thing I am paid to do is listen to the crazy ideas that pop into my head, and write them down. The difference between me and others who want to write, but don’t, is that they usually reject or ignore their crazy ideas. I don’t. I listen to ‘em, and write ‘em down and sell ‘em. I don’t know what’s popping into someone else’s head. Only my own. My brain’s the only one I’ve got. The more years and books I write, the more I have come to trust that brain and that voice. I can’t be anyone else and I can’t write like anyone else. This is the only mind available to me. I only have my own voice.
I believe in it.
Didn’t I just say earlier that I call my husband and sob into the phone about what a loser I am and how nobody wants to read my books except those seven people?
Yes. But here’s what I’ve learned. When I’m writing, I believe. When I’m not writing, but fretting, and reading online reviews, and waiting for my literary ship to come in, and getting sucked down into Other Life Matters, such as kids, or moving, or money, or whatever, then the inner and outer self lose touch, the belief is buried, the progress lags, and I’m left with that bloaty baby Self to deal with. Life’s so much better when I’m writing. So much so that my husband has at times said to me, “Um, have you been writing lately? Maybe it’s time to start.” Not because he wants advance checks to come in, but because Julie’s a happier, saner housemate when she’s writing. Go figure. 
It's easy to forget this now that writing has been my job for more than ten years, but back when I started, writing saved my life. I don’t mean that I was standing on the edge of a bridge staring down into the dark water, but I was dying inside. When a little voice inside me suggested that I start writing stories, and I did it, there was a big bang, an explosion, a bursting forth of color and music where before everything had been dull and gray. It was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to Munchkinland. Nothing would ever be the same again. Every day that I wrote brought me so much happiness and excitement. I would cry sometimes at how happy it made me. I couldn’t believe that something so simple as writing was what I’d been missing. And at any point in time, I could’ve started to write, and allowed this joy to flow in, if only I’ve known. Also like The Wizard of Oz. Writing was the ruby slippers that could’ve taken me home to Kansas at any point if I’d just had the sense to click my heels together. “There’s no place like a story. There’s no place like a story. There’s no place like home.”
Sometimes we all need to go back to where we were when we started, when the dream was shiny and new, and we didn’t know better; when it was all about our love of books, and we hadn’t been beaten down yet. But we can go back if we just do the work.
Doing the work helps you relax and it fosters belief. It’s a cycle that feeds itself. You know it, and I know it. We’re all just happier when we’re consistently doing the work, enjoying our ideas, believing in their potential, and seeing ourselves make progress. Nothing boosts belief like knowing you’re growing as an artist. Nothing helps you relax from gnawing worries and insecurities like progress and a thicker stack of pages. Work and progress help you relax and help you enjoy and believe, which fuels better work and faster progress. We know this. 
So why do we neglect that cycle?
            I think there are two reasons:
1. Serious stuff, and 2. Fear.
Serious stuff – crises happen. Tragedies strike. Babies are born. Illness rears its head. Jobs are lost. Loved ones are lost. We’re forced to move. Houses burn. Mental and physical ailments come out of nowhere. It happens. Sometimes writing has to take a pause.
Writing is really, really important, but it’s not as important as life, and it’s not as important as the people you love most. So if some serious stuff has held you back, you’re not alone. These last three years have presented the Berry Family with a Super Spectacular Parade of Crises, punctuated by a few that were truly life-threatening and utterly terrifying, the kinds of challenges that brought us to our knees and brought the normal flow of life to a screeching halt. Did I write during those times? Heck no! Certainly not during the acute phases. When things settled down into a place where we could cope, I returned to the work. But when I couldn’t, I didn’t. Do I punish myself for that? No! I give myself major kudos for surviving.
Do these pauses break your momentum? Yes. Do they make it harder to return to the work? Yes. Do they make it impossible to relax? Yup. Do they shake your belief in yourself and set you back in your path toward progress? They sure can.
But this is life. We only get one life, and if it’s going to be derailed sometimes, that’s the reality we have to work with. All of these experiences deepen your humanity, expand your empathy, cause you to know and to feel and to fear and to hope in profound ways that perhaps you’ve never faced before. In time, they can be the foundation of new ideas, new material, new insights that will enrich your work.
Now, just to be very, very clear: I’m not saying there’s anything good about crises and tragedies. They stink. They’re a nightmare, and if I could shield us all from them, I would. Sometimes you hear people talking about how they seek suffering or addiction or whatever to become a better artist. That is bonkers.
But problems will find you. Maybe they’re the last thing you’ll ever want to write about. That’s fine. But they will leave their mark on you, make you wiser, make your insight more mature. A story is one part the stuff that happens in it, and two parts the narrative consciousness’s capacity for insight into how the stuff that happens makes a statement about life, the universe, and everything. I’ll say that one more time. A story is one part the stuff that happens in it, and two parts the narrative consciousness’s capacity for insight into how the stuff that happens makes a statement about life, the universe, and everything. At the very least. That ratio shifts somewhat, to be sure. Let’s take Pride and Prejudice. The stuff that happens in that story is gobs of fun. But without the brilliant, biting, lampooning-with-surgical-precision wit of Jane Austen’s writerly voice, what I’m calling her “narrative consciousness” or, in other words, the mind in charge of the story, it would be nothing more than gobs of fun. The clever, sly, dramatic, hilarious, restless insight of Jane Austen’s story-mind (“narrative consciousness”) is why the book’s a classic. We reread it and reread it, not to find out what happens, because we already know, but because we love spending time hanging out with that story mind, relishing its delicious insights.
Writers are insightful. They’ve spent a long time thinking about life, and why it goes the way it does, and how that feels. Life, if you’re paying attention, will make you more insightful than you are today. That’s not a bad thing. 
I said we neglect the cycle of doing the work which helps us relax and fuels our belief because of 1. Serious stuff, and 2. Fear.
Serious stuff will happen, or not, as fate allows. We can’t control it. But by all means, wear seatbelts and see your dentist regularly.
What we can control, at least up to a point, is our response to fear.
The antidote to fear is doing the work, and doing it badly if you must.
Fear drives us to fold laundry instead of write. To organize the fridge instead of write. To balance the checkbook instead of write.
I’m not saying you can never do those things. But you know when laundry’s supposed to happen, and when writing is supposed to happen. You know when Netflix bingeing is allowed, and you know when writing is expected. Don’t kid yourself.
You have other jobs you do, right? Paycheck or no paycheck. When you’re supposed to show up at the office, the store, the restaurant, the school, the hospital, etc., you show up. More or less. Maybe there’s flexibility, but you get it done. You know what it requires of you and you make it happen. Maybe you have the job of being a parent. Or some other volunteer role in the community. These are flexible, too, but these unmistakably place demands upon you, and you find ways to meet those demands. So maybe you haven’t done everything on your parental to-do list and maybe you’re behind in your PTA budget work. Get in line. But you know how to get jobs done – by making a plan, and showing up for the work when it’s expected. At least when it’s absolutely required.
So, in your writing life, make a plan, and show up to work when it’s expected. If you don’t absolutely require it of yourself, it won’t happen.
I don’t think fear will ever go away, but work puts it in its proper place. Every day that you do the work instead of diddling the time away, your confidence grows in your ability to face the fear again tomorrow, face the procrastination, face your inadequacy, and put some words down on paper anyway.
There’s one thing I haven’t talked about at all today, and that’s publication. That’s the goal, right? That’s the dream? We all want to publish, to publish more, to publish better, to expand our readership, to be known in the book world, to make a name for ourselves, to have our books outlive us. To make enough to help put the kids through college. I want it, and so do you. That’s all right.
Publication isn’t something we can control. Not exactly. Not if you want to be traditionally published with a trade publisher. No matter how hardworking you are, and how brilliant and insightful and lovingly revised your manuscript is, you still need to send your work to an editor and have them choose to publish it. Walking through that door once doesn’t guarantee that the door will be flung open to you next time. It might help. Even awards and past sales do not guarantee outcomes. Editors can love you and still reject your work. It happens.
The work is what you can control, and the diligence with which you apply yourself to improving your craft is what you can control. In the process of doing the work and insisting on improvement, here’s what happens: 1. You build up a body of work. 2. You get better and better at discovering ideas and shaping them into finished works. 3. You grow more aware of yourself, your style, your voice, your instincts, your preferences, so, 4. You write more confidently, growing both the size and the quality of that body of work.
If you do that, do you really think there’s any danger that you won’t also figure out how to submit for publication or look for an agent? Of course you’ll do those things. You’re not going to invest that much time and effort just to let it all rot on your hard drive.
Will you publish?
I can’t make promises, but if you said your goal was to live to be 80, and you planned to eat right, exercise, take vitamins, get your checkups, maintain loving friendships, perform community service, and adopt a shelter dog, I’d say you were working the right kind of plan. Maximizing your odds. And hedging your bets toward finding joy and peace in the journey.
So, likewise, if you want to be published, and you plan to keep on writing book after book, giving it your diligent best, all the while reading, revising, critiquing, and seeing the best teachers and mentors you can find access to – you’re doing all the right things. Doing the work, reading, learning, growing, and adding to your pile of pages -- if there’s another path to publication, I don’t know what it is. This path maximizes your odds. Hedges your bets. Puts in place an approach that fosters more joy and more peace along the way.
Writing is our peace, our relaxation, our outlet, our medicine, our food for our hungry writer souls. 
This weekend you will be taught so much. Your brains will ache with all that’s been crammed in. Your revision to-do list will be a mile long, and you’ll worry that you won’t be able to remember it all once you get home. Your hopes will flutter with encouragement, and then they’ll be dashed. All during the same workshop. You’ve stepped outside of your normal lives for a little while, and now the question is, can you take the magic home with you? Can you carry this momentum and hope and inspiration forward into your regular writing life? Will this go the way of New Year’s Resolutions and other forgotten goals?
Relax!
I believe you can.
Make a sober commitment to do the work. Identify a block of your day that you will dedicate to the work. Keep that promise to yourself. Spend that time reading, researching, writing, revising, and learning how to do it all better. Grow your pile of pages and watch your progress unfold. Nothing proves the naysayers wrong better than work and progress. Too often we’re our own biggest naysayers.
Work, relax, and believe. Trust your voice and listen to your goofy brain. Write boldly, but be willing to toss chunks in the trash. Slash your first drafts by a third. When you know you can always produce more words tomorrow, you never need to be wedded too tightly to yesterday’s words.
When you get home, there will be laundry piles and dishes piles and mail piles and guilt trips and phone messages and email messages and cat barf, and it will be so tempting to be engulfed by your normal life and slide back into the groove you were in before you came here. But you’re not the person you were Monday morning. You’ve taken a giant step forward.
You live once, and time is short. Writing time is precious, so don’t waste it on anything that isn’t a writer’s work. Lose yourself in the work. Let the needs of your story drown out the neighbors and coworkers asking you if you’re as rich as J.K. Rowling yet. Let your wonderful characters console
you when your relatives make you cuckoo. Let the problem-solving of your thorny plot get your mind off of current events. At the end of the journey, you won’t believe what your commitment to work has produced. And neither will the editors and agents you’ll meet this weekend.
Your conference faculty believe in you. The people who know what this job really entails believe in you. Go home and prove them right.
Thank you.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Gods, Mortals, and Immortal Passion: Presenting "Lovely War"


My newest novel, Lovely War, is finally here. I’m so excited to share it with the world.

Hades, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, & Apollo.
All illustrations by Laura Molnar.
Lovely War tells the story of two pairs of young lovers who fall in love during the final year of World War I. In an unusual twist, their stories are told by Greek gods. Hephaestus, god of forges and fire, catches his wife, Aphrodite, goddess of love, in the arms of her lover (and Hephaestus’s brother), Ares, god of war, in a swanky Manhattan hotel in 1942. He ensnares the pair in a special net he’s forged, and threatens to humiliate them in court on Mount Olympus. Aphrodite bargains for a private trial and pleads her cause in the mock court case that ensues, explaining to Hephaestus and Ares what real love is, and why her work is so important, especially in times of war. To do so, she tells the love stories of Hazel and James, and Aubrey and Colette, summoning other gods as witnesses to supply their accounts. Ares brings us into the trenches, while Apollo, god of music, adds ragtime to the story, and Hades, lord of the Underworld, walks us through death's valley. A Greek chorus of Greek gods accompany this journey back to 1917 at every stop. 
James
Hazel

At a London parish dance, Hazel Windicott, an aspiring pianist, meets James Alderidge, who hopes to be an architect, if he survives the war. After a whirlwind few days together, he departs for France. Their romance continues through letters until Hazel makes the bold decision to leave her respectable life and her piano lessons behind, and volunteers as an entertainment secretary with the YMCA in France. She’s stationed at an American Army base, where she befriends a Belgian refugee, Colette Fournier, a singer who lost her entire family in the massacre at Dinant, Belgium, in the early weeks of the war. Hazel also meets Aubrey Edwards, an American soldier and ragtime pianist from the fabled Harlem Hellfighters regiment in the segregated army. Music brings these three together, and soon sparks fly between Colette and Aubrey, despite US Army rules prohibiting any contact between black servicemen and white women, and the animosity of white supremacist doughboys willing to lynch black soldiers to keep them in their place. 
Aubrey
Colette

The war that brought these four together also tears them apart, as carnage, trauma, and hatred rage around James in the British trenches and Aubrey with the US Army, and as Hazel and Colette endure privations, hard labor, sexism, and the agony of waiting for news of their beloveds, long past hope and reason.

Attempting to understand the geopolitical and social currents that shaped World War I has been a privilege and a joy, if also a hard slog through mountains of information, much of it harrowing to the soul. I love these characters, just as I’ve come to love and honor, as best I can, the actual people who lived and died and endured the Great War, both in its gruesome battlefields and on its grim and, at times, violent “Home Fronts.”

Now Lovely War is out, and reviewers have been extraordinarily kind. The book has earned five starred journal reviews from Kirkus, The Horn Book, Booklist, Publisher’sWeekly, and School Library Journal, as well as stars from other industry publications including BookPage and Shelf Awareness. Amazon editors have named it a Best Book of the Month for March. The New York Times called it a “virtuoso” work; the Wall Street Journal called it “phenomenal;” The Washington Post calls it “sweeping, epic, brilliant,” Cosmopolitan called it one of the “11 best books you’ll be obsessed with in 2019.” Entertainment Weekly writes, “Whatever muse is singing in Berry to produce her lyrical writing, we’d like to lobby for their services.” You can find interviews with me at Kirkus Reviews and Publishers’ Weekly.  

I’ve got a busy travel schedule this spring, promoting Lovely War all around the country. Chances are good that I’ll be making my way to a bookstore or festival near you! For a full roster of readings and signings, visit www.julieberrybooks.com/events.

Audiobook lovers: the audio performance of Lovely War is delicious, featuring a star-studded cast of performers including the inimitable Jayne Entwistle, Allan Corduner, Nathaniel Parker, Dion Graham, Fiona Hardingham, Steve West, and John Lee, as well as lots of original ragtime musical compositions and arrangements, written and performed by my friend Benjamin Salisbury. Don’t miss this one!

I hope you have as much fun reading Lovely War as I had writing it. It’s a bit of a door-stopper, but you’ll read in in a day or two or six, which always feels a bit unfair to me, after the year-plus toil it took to write it. But such is the fate of a writer. Chime in and let me know what you think. (Unless you hate it, in which case, you can let me know by certified mail.) J