Chasing Dreams, Literary Magazines, and Why Not Now?

maybeToday I’m thinking about chasing long-held dreams and finally stopping all the excuses and the, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Or “Next year.” Or the vague but still hopeful “One day.” You see, this is a thing I do to myself, and have been doing for years. I have dreams of writing certain novels. Of moving somewhere new. Of so much more. But I keep putting them off. I keep getting overwhelmed, and making excuses, and lately I’ve felt a shift inside me. There is a sense of urgency that I can’t explain. It began after the election aftermath, and the fearful depression that landed on me (and so many of us) afterward. It broiled under me all these months as it seems like the planet is falling apart, disaster after disaster, all around us. I’m sorry to be so negative, but for me it all starts there.

Recently, I was a part of a group of publishing people—authors, agents, editors—who banded together to create an auction to help raise money for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. It came from a sense of shared helplessness and the desire to do something. We came together in a matter of hours one night, and in days the auction grew and grew. We called ourselves #PubforPR and held the auction earlier this month and ended up raising (as of today) a total of $206,550 that went direct to local charities in Puerto Rico.

Through this experience, I discovered something: We don’t have to be helpless, especially when we work together and put our hearts into it.

I also discovered something more personal. For one, I miss working together with people under the pressure of a deadline (that heated excitement I remember from my production editor days).

And two, I don’t know how much time I have left and I can’t keep saying tomorrow, next year, one day.

So I did three things: I removed my social media from my phone, logged out, and will not have to log in to those accounts until winter except if/when there is news to share.

I started a new novel I can’t talk about yet.

And I reached out to a friend to see if she wanted to do a project with me that I have been wanting to do for years.

What is that long-held dream?

It’s to create a literary magazine. Yes, it’s time.

This is a dream I’ve had since college, when I used to be a work-study student at the Antioch Review. My job was to open the mail—stories were sent snail-mail back then!—and type up the submission details on an index card on an old electric typewriter. I then filed the card in a library card catalog and put the story in the piles to be read. Sometimes, very rarely, I got to read some of the slush. Through this job, I discovered and fell in love with Aimee Bender (one of her early stories, “What You Left in the Ditch,” was published in the Review in the fall of 1997, I read it as a submitted manuscript and about died from awe). That was my first introduction to literary journals, and I’ve worked on and interned for a few more since, including co-editing the one in my MFA program, COLUMBIA: A Journal of Literature & Art, my second year in the program. (When it was my turn to choose the issue’s theme, I chose “fairy tales,” and solicited—and published!—a short story from… Guess who? Aimee Bender.)

So here’s the thing: If you know me and know me well, you know that my first deep and true love as a writer was short stories. Writing them. Reading them. Collecting them.

I’ve considered, as a YA author, pitching and editing a short story anthology, but it seems like so much of that is curating a group of named authors and I knew that you don’t often see the pieces before the anthology is sold. (I’m a contributor to three YA anthologies, with a fourth about to be announced, and never did I have to write the story ahead of time.) Which means the part that I loved the most—the discovery moment of finding a gorgeous short story in slush that we end up publishing—isn’t a part of it. And I want that back again. I remember finding the most amazing short story in the giant slush stacks at Zoetrope: All-Story, when I volunteered as a reader in their New York offices and rated stories for four-hour stretches on the beanbag chairs in the loft. I rated that story the highest score I could—I think it was a five?—the score we were told to rarely, so rarely use unless we were SERIOUS. I was serious. The editors ended up passing on the story, but I remember seeing it published soon after in my favorite litmag Tin House, so I see that it landed on another reader’s desk (or beanbag chair) who must have given it the highest rating, too.

I remember my first short story acceptance. I was in my twenties, still a student. When I was sending out short stories on submission, I would give a PO box as my address, so the rejections wouldn’t come to my house and ruin my day without warning. Whenever I visited the post office to check the box, I steeled myself… and told myself one day I might hear a yes even if today it was a no. That day, I got the envelope out of the box and didn’t even open it right away. I remember I was on the subway platform up at 110th Street, where I lived then, and I opened the envelope while waiting for the train on the way to work. It was a yes. My first-ever yes. The first story I ever published appeared in a litmag called Gulf Coast in Texas. I’d never been to Texas, but I remember thinking, I LOVE YOU, TEXAS! That story was called “Mars, New York.” I’ll never forget the incredible feeling of knowing someone was going to publish it.

As a reader, I loved short stories so much that I collected them. I’ve confessed this before, but I used to photocopy stories I loved from anthologies and magazines and keep them in binders. I have about ten binders stuffed full of stories. I called them my “anthologies.” Sometimes I go back and reread them, and I love seeing what struck me then. One day, I’ll edit a litmag of my own, I told myself. One day. And the years passed, and I did nothing, and here we are.

So you can see, I’ve been carrying this dream around for a long time.

Once I became a YA author, the dream shifted and focused to YA.

I’ve been talking—to friends, in sighing updates on Twitter—about wanting to start some kind of online literary magazine focusing on YA short stories for years. You may have heard me talking. You may have rolled your eyes. You may have been curious. You may have been intrigued.

I last talked about this online a week or two ago, so if you heard that and wondered what came from it…

It’s happening.

For real.

In my opinion, the YA world needs more venues for short stories—we have so few. So guess what? There’s about to be a new one.

I have a wonderful partner, someone who’s wanted to do this for a while too, and who is just as committed to this as I am. (I’m not sure if she’s said anything publicly, so I won’t reveal her name here just yet!) We’re making plans. We’re going to reach out for volunteer staff and content soon. We’ll be announcing more details when we’re ready, so I am not going to say a specific thing about it except… JUST WAIT, IT’S GOING TO BE AWESOME. If you’re a YA writer, I hope you’ll consider sending us a story when we’re ready! If you’ve emailed or messaged me about wanting to help, I have your name on a list and will be in touch.

But as the concept takes shape and the plans get more and more detailed, I almost want to pinch myself.

I dreamed this a long time ago, and I’m tired of telling myself now is not the moment to attempt it. Now can be the time. Why not?

So that’s my little dream gaining traction and becoming more and more solid with each day. What’s yours? And if you haven’t tried to make it happen yet, what’s stopping you?

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Facing The Handmaid’s Tale Today

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-11-18-35-amI first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was 12 years old in the late 1980s. I discovered it on my mother’s bookshelves, and I was fascinated by the story, not scared as much as I should have been but stilled by possibility, intrigued. I surely didn’t understand a lot about the book (much as there were things that went way over my head when I read her copy of Fear of Flying), but I carried it with me as I grew. From this and other books, I decided I was a feminist. I also decided I wanted to write books of my own like Margaret Atwood. In my latest novel, I used an epigraph from The Handmaid’s Tale, and the light flickering in my heart when the author (through her assistant) gave me permission to use the quote was glorious.

After watching the first three episodes of the Hulu series last night, I wonder if this book influenced the kind of woman I decided, young, I wanted to become: independent, ignoring traditional gender roles, not under the thumb of any man. I didn’t want to marry, but falling in love and wanting to give my boyfriend health insurance changed that, so after a quick visit to City Hall married I am today—together going on 23 years; we would have been together no matter a piece of paper. But when I was young, when I didn’t see marriage in my future, my ambition was to be a professional woman as well as a single mother. I decided as a teenager that I didn’t want children after all, and I’ve stuck to that over these decades—it’s always felt to be the right choice. I wonder now how I came to these decisions so young and if the books I read—The Handmaid’s Tale high up among them—led the way. The ambitions I built for myself were men’s ambitions, the dreams giant dreams I was determined to go after even though I was small. Even though I was shy and quiet and if you’d known me then, you may not have realized I had it in me. Oh did I. I’ve since reached a number of those dreams and stared those ambitions in the face. I’m living the life I told myself I could even though there were men in my life who said it wasn’t possible, who laughed at me. I would have died if forced to fit the ideal of a “woman” for someone else.

When I was 12 years old, The Handmaid’s Tale felt far away—it felt like an other reality, impossible to ever find ourselves in now. I didn’t understand so much. Last night, as I watched all three available episodes in a row before bed, the reality on the screen didn’t feel as far away as I expected and remembered. It didn’t feel so impossible and other. When women were dismissed from jobs that male coworkers could keep I bristled. When women’s bank accounts were closed and the funds given to male spouses or male next of kin, I felt alarmed. When women were no longer allowed to own property, to have any control over their own lives in the first of many growing ways, when women were accused of being “gender traitors,” and more and more, I began to see how something totalitarian and terrible could come to pass perhaps here, perhaps one day, and never before did I feel that after the few times I reread this book over the years. Naive? Or, since the election, has the world I know changed that much?

The adaptation is a good one so far, and I usually hate when a novel I loved is brought to the screen.

Did you watch it?

Look

Look, it has been difficult to write much of anything that feels worthy lately, living in this world. This morning the news is a child suicide bomber who killed 50 people at a wedding. The suicide bomber was no older than 14. There is flooding, and people have lost their homes. There are fires, and people have lost their homes. There are so many people in this city right now who don’t even have a home. I walk through the park early every morning to get to this place where I write, private, paid-for, electric key fob for entry, twenty-four hours a day someone guarding the door downstairs, and all around me in the park I cut through, people on the benches sleeping, huddled, sleeping on the grass, backpack protected in their arms or under their heads, sleeping sometimes with their cardboard signs “please help me get home.” In the winter, in the snow, someone made an igloo behind the benches, a fort really, a white belly in which to sleep, but I wonder if the cardboard on the ground kept out the cold. In the morning, it was empty, but I imagine for some hours of the night it was safe inside. In summer, people sleep out in the open. It’s hot. Two girls on a bench in the middle of the park, one lying down with her head in the other’s lap, the other sitting upright, guarding every door, but her eyes had closed. She’d succumbed to sleep. I wanted to stay and watch their bags for them, so nothing would get stolen, but I kept walking, it’s not for me to look. There used to be a woman who danced around a cardboard box in the mornings, a handwritten sign on it saying she wanted to open a dance school, a frightening frenzy in her eyes that kept me from looking her in the face and I feel guilty for it, but she is gone, I haven’t seen her in a few mornings, more, maybe, I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t count. Sometimes I think about how that tree nearby was where people used to be hung. There was a young man with intricate tattoos who slept on a flattened box under the construction awning right outside the building where I write. He slept on his back. He twitched in his sleep. I wonder what he dreamed. One morning his sign said, “I wish I was dead.” He is gone, too. This morning, two men with loaded carts were there in his place, fighting. I walked the curb like a balance beam to avoid them. Sometimes I get yelled at if I come too close, What are you looking at? But I wasn’t looking. The worst thing is we’ve been taught not to look.

Today, they got my order wrong at the café, but I didn’t say anything, pretended I didn’t mind, though I did. I mind so much. But who am I and does it even matter? Today, I don’t think there’s any air-conditioning on at my writing space. I guess because it’s Sunday. I guess because most people are away on vacation. But I’m here and I have nowhere to go on vacation, and I’m trying to write, and I’m hot. I think about the absurdity of my life all the time now. I was flown to a small city in South Carolina two weeks ago to talk about a book I wrote. I stayed in a nice hotel and whenever I was in my room, I wore the hotel’s robe. I never thought I would be the kind of person who would be flown somewhere and stay in a place that had a special robe. So I wore the robe. I got every last second I could out of that robe. I don’t even know if anyone cared that I was there at the book festival, but I did. Who am I, I thought, and why is this happening to me? I stared in the mirror at myself in the hotel’s white robe, just made myself stand there, just made myself look.

I have two weeks left to finish my novel. The deadline is real. There is so much more I want to say that I haven’t yet gotten down in words, and the jumble of them and the stress and the worry of being good enough and the panic of what might happen if I’m not. And yet, think of it, look: You are writing a book. What kind of life is this? I may have dreamed of it when I was young, but in a hazy way, on a cloud, for lucky people, unreachable for someone like me. I’ve always wanted impossible things, things I should not want, things someone should take away out of my hands. That’s my personality. I had an innocent crush on Axl Rose when I was fourteen years old. I only recently learned that he’s a monster. I had posters on the wall of a monster when I was fourteen. There were things I wished for then, I can vividly see them. I wanted someone to love me. I didn’t know if anyone ever would. I am in my room with the door locked and outside my stepfather is making noise in the kitchen, loud, so I can hear it. Back then, he was the monster I knew. My world was so small then, it was bad and small and I was nobody and I was nothing and no matter how many times I wished for all the things, I never thought I would be sitting here decades later, loved, and with my dream come true. My book is due in two weeks. Someone wants to publish a book of mine, and here I am writing it. I looked across the table at the person I love last night, who loves me back, and he has brown eyes, dark, deep, I could never get tired of staring at them, but when I was fourteen I didn’t know for sure if he would even exist. He looks nothing like Axl Rose.

There is a girl who killed her father with a gun. Was that yesterday’s story in the news? Was that last week’s? She was protecting her family, her mother, her siblings. For years they had been abused by this man, terrorized by him, watched him flaunting that gun, and the police didn’t help and no one helped and so what did the girl do? What did she do for her mother, for her siblings, for herself? She got that gun, and she waited for him to be asleep on the couch, and she shot him in the head.

She turned fourteen in jail. This is true.

Her mother called the girl her hero. Also true.

These are only some of the things happening in the world, and here I am, in my private locked space, writing a story I made up in my head? There are no monsters on my wall anymore. This morning, I tell myself, Just get the words down. The words for this story. That’s all you have right now. Your book is due in two weeks, and it’s not going to be what you want it to be, not yet. The world is going on without you. Let it. There will be another terrible thing tomorrow; you will read about it; you may cry. You will take it in, you will carry it, you will worry, you will think of how small you are, but you are here and so many people in the world have nothing and you should never forget that.

Yes, there are bad things everywhere, all around you, but you have been given this gift and you can’t squander it. Look.

Finding My Place

CollegeHall_600

My career has felt like a long series of searches, and nothing is ever illuminated until I am practically standing right on top of it. Trying to get published, to get an agent, in the beginning, was crushing. I slipped back in my archives to see if I should share a post, found something painful, read a few lines, and closed it. You get the picture.

I remember when I found YA—that was a wonderful moment, and it took a long time to get there. I remember when I found an agent, that dream I’d been longing for and it had come true after dozens and dozens of rejections over the years with previous manuscripts. I remember when I discovered that being published wasn’t all balloons and inflatable palm trees on swimming pools, and I felt crushed by that somehow, but I also felt as if I’d known it was coming all along, because I somehow didn’t fully believe I was allowed to be there at all. I remember when I found a new publisher, a smaller publisher, Algonquin Young Readers, and actively chose to make a leap and not be with the “Big Six.” (Haha—it was six big publishers then… now it’s five.) That was right for me. And now, as I work on my new novel, I realize it’s become a solid home for me, and I want to pinch myself.

Earlier this month, I found a new place.

My first teaching residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts went so very well, even I swear while I was living in that tiny dorm room! There was a point when I called E one night and I was trying to explain how I felt about being there and I said that, before this, whenever I was teaching somewhere or doing an author thing I’d be trying to adapt myself into what I thought people wanted me to be. I’d be faking it till I made it, you know? I’d work to fit myself in and I’d try very hard and often I’d succeed and no one knew how hard it was, but then I’d be exhausted. Flattened. Drained. But there at VCFA, I told E, I felt like I was being myself. I was teaching as I would teach. I was talking as I would talk. I was genuinely interested and inspired and fired-up and excited by everything going on around me—and none of it was forced, none of it was me trying to fit in. I’ve never had a job like that where I felt like I could be entirely myself and that was the right person to be. The community welcomed me in, and it was all of them—the faculty, the staff, the students, all the wonderful and talented and dedicated and engaged students—that helped make it such a perfect fit.

(And yes, I will fully admit the residency was exhausting, but in a different manner… I slept, happily, for a few days after I got home, but my mind was buzzing.)

I’m back in New York now and about to embark on all the work that’s coming to me this semester—I have five students I’ll be advising over the course of the semester, and in February their first packets to me are due. So we’ll see how I feel after I make it through this very, very busy winter and spring. (Speaking of busy: I’m also teaching not one but two Djerassi workshops and going to the AWP conference in the middle of this, so wish me luck.)

But right now? I feel like I’ve found yet another new home.

Between Algonquin and VCFA, between the books I’m writing and the students I get to work with, I’m in a strange, bubbly, inflatable-palm-tree-on-a-pool kind of place.

Does this mean I’m happy?

How wild.

I was much better at blogging (and had more readers!) when I was angsty and unpublished and wanting to drown a box of rejection letters in the sea. But this is where I am right now…

Next up in life: Making a new home with E.

But, hey, I’ll stress about that later.

The End of an Extraordinary, Wordless Year; Some New Hopes for 2016

My number (23)
My number (23)

At the end of every year, I have hope for the new year. Every year, I think of all the things I could make happen… all the things I want to try for, all the ways I might do better, do more… I am extremely ambitious, many times blindly and to my detriment, and it’s my ambitions that are always staring me in the face when I reach the last days of December. I get to the end of the year and I look back on all the things I didn’t accomplish and the guilt trip commences.

I have a box in which I wrote down all my goals for 2015 on little slips of folded paper, and I’ll be opening it on New Year’s Eve to see what came true and what didn’t. I can’t remember what they all were… but I am positive there are more than a few in there that I didn’t reach. I happen to know, too, that at least one important wishful goal actually did happen… and I get a lightning-zing of excitement knowing it did.

I’m not in the mood for my usual guilt trip this year, I have to admit. I don’t feel like I failed. In fact, I feel pretty great about what I was able to do this year, considering. I may not have written as much as I planned to in 2015—to be clear: not even close—but I’m seeing that this was a year about something else that was significant in moving my plan for the next chapter of my life forward. This was about other parts of my life, my public life, my teaching life. I may have disappointed myself as a writer, but as an author, and as a teacher, I surprised myself like whoa.

For me, 2015 was a mix of these things:

Publicly…

Walls_YE_fb_v7 (1)Publicly, this has been an extraordinary year for me. I had written a whole other blog post about how strange and shy I felt about seeing The Walls Around Us named to a number of Best of 2015 lists, something that didn’t happen with my previous books, but I ended up feeling too strange and too shy to even publish that post. But that did happen to The Walls Around Us. It happened… to me. I’ve never ever ever had the kind of response to a book I wrote until this year. The words I have said about this (“I am honored” “I am shocked” “I am thrilled”) feel utterly inadequate, so I will go wordless here . . .

The year of 2015 was also extraordinary for another reason: This was the year I did more public appearances and events and author-things than I ever have before—things that would have caused me to panic and want to hide my head in the sand before, things I never would have thought possible, knowing how shy I used to be. But things I had always wanted to be asked to do.

This year was the first time I was sent to a conference by a publisher. (ABA Winter Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, was my first-ever publisher-sponsored conference! I didn’t know how to be an “author” and took the subway home from the airport instead of a cab because I wasn’t sure if taxis were really okay!) After Winter Institute, I was sent to a number of other conferences, culminating with NCTE/ALAN in Minneapolis, and leaving me feeling proud of myself, amazed, and… I’ll admit… exhausted.

This was the year I had my first-ever launch party for a book I wrote—I was too shy to do this before. It was at my favorite local bookstore, with one of my favorite authors, and it went so well that I went away saying I don’t think I’ll ever need to do a launch event ever again.

I am immensely proud of myself for doing these things, and doing them well (I would say; I hope others agree!), and I’m also so grateful and happy that my publisher invested in me and thought I was worthy enough to send to conferences and festivals.

Here are some photo highlights from this whirlwind year of events (click the images for the full caption):

 

columbia id
My faculty ID card

This was also the year my teaching began to really take flight. I taught three private workshops at retreat centers. A dream came true when I taught a class this summer at my alma mater, Columbia University. And I was hired to join the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, something I’d been dreaming about for years!

The Walls Around Us was reviewed (so very well!) in The New York Times. It collected stars. It made those end-of-the-year lists I never found myself on before. It made the Indie Next List, something I have always wanted.

This was also the year that I had a short story published in an anthology, another one of my dreams.

Talk about a pinch-worthy year.

Extraordinary, yes, oh yes, a thousand times yes.

But what about what was going on behind closed doors?

 

Privately…

Privately, I’ve been… distracted, overwhelmed, and having trouble writing something worthy enough to follow The Walls Around Us. There. That’s the honest truth.

Partly it was all the public events I was doing—my first time for so much of this—and the toll that took on me, after. There was a lot of recovery time, I kept getting sick and facing migraine headaches and other issues, and I found myself needing to retreat, needing to tunnel inside myself, needing to isolate, desperately needing to be alone.

For long stretches—and especially as the year comes to a close—I find that the only person I can be near is my love, E, who understands this part of me and knows how I get when I’m overwhelmed. He has a calming vibe I need right now. I feel better just sitting next to him, resting my head on his shoulder, holding his hand.

Looking back now on 2015, I realize with a start that I became much more isolated than ever before, and have pulled away from many people. I’m not sure why I’ve put up this armor and hidden myself inside it, except that I think I needed to get through so much of the public part of my life and this was my best way to cope.

It’s made me melancholy though, at the end of the year during the holiday season, realizing how much I’ve isolated myself and how many people I’ve pushed away.

Then let’s talk about word count. Or better yet, let’s not.

Creatively, this was not a good writing year. The book I thought I had made progress on by the end of 2014 ended up not doing it for me anymore in 2015, and I made the difficult and terrifying decision to put it aside for now and work on something else. That means I’ve lost a year out of my publishing schedule, and I’m still not close to finishing a draft of the new book to turn in. I keep thinking of what some kind people are saying about The Walls Around Us, and I keep asking myself, Is this good enough? Is that the best I can do? Will I ever write anything I’m that proud of again?

I don’t know, but I am trying.

I also had a series of rejections all throughout the year to pretty much everything I applied for, but I have no bad feelings about it, because I know I’ve been lucky in the past. It’s not my turn right now. I’ll try again for some new things in 2016. I’ll keep trying.

 

Hopefully…

What do I see ahead for 2016? A whole lot of hopes.

My first semester teaching for Vermont College of Fine Arts begins in January. I’m hoping my first residency and semester goes well—I’m hoping it’s a good fit, for me and for them. My biggest hope for 2016 is finding a permanent teaching home, and I hope VCFA will be it.

I’m also working on that second book on my contract with my publisher, Algonquin. I will have a draft in my editor’s hands for sure in 2016, even with the little misstep I took this year. I’m hoping I can make it wonderful. I am hoping my editor loves it. I am hoping I love it.

I also hope to continue publishing with Algonquin and sell a new YA novel to them in 2016, but I have to finish this one first, so I’m hoping to be very, very productive so I can make both of these things happen.

And on a personal note, I hope that, in 2016, E and I are able to find ourselves a new home.

I ended last year in Sylvia Plath’s attic studio at an artists colony, thinking I was writing the next book I would publish (the one I ended up shelving), terrified about what the first trade reviews of The Walls Around Us would bring (and then they were shockingly wonderful), hoping I would be able to find a new teaching job that would help me balance my career (I found more than one).

I end this year at home in New York City, just having spent a solitary day alone at my writing space. I just had the most extraordinary year of my career, and I am intensely grateful. I have no new book coming out in 2016, so I have nothing to be so terrified about, do I? I have a lot of teaching to do, and a wildly intense schedule for the first half of the year that includes VCFA and two back-to-back Djerassi workshops. I have a book due. I really, really have a book due. And I have these giant ambitions, these hopes, these wants, these desires, these what-ifs.

To everyone who was a part of making my 2015 so incredible in so many ways: thank you, thank you, thank you.

To anyone I pushed away in 2015 because I was so overwhelmed and needing recovery time on my own: I hope you understand and can be patient with me.

Happy Year’s End. Happy New Year.

 

When to Resurrect the Dead Manuscript Under Your Bed?

first_novel

I’m struggling with something, an ongoing thing I’ve been struggling with for years. It’s about the novels that live under my bed. The two unpublished novels I wrote before I almost gave up writing, and then discovered ghostwriting, and, soon after, YA.

Two novels totaling eight and a half years of my life.

Two novels encompassing almost the entirety of the writing work done in my twenties.

Two novels that, in their own distinct and specific ways, broke my heart.

Every once in a while, I think of them, the way you’d think of an old love, someone who disappointed you deeply, but someone who meant a lot to you way back when. Someone who could’ve been a real and solid someone… if only things had gone another way.

I’ve only ever been in love once—with a human—but with books? I fall in love with each one I’m writing, over and over, again and again.

Lately I’ve been thinking back to my first novel.

I think that’s because an important yet tiny little piece of The Walls Around Us was taken from this novel, and snatching that piece and heading off into the sunset with it got me thinking about it again.

Today, the day after spending Thanksgiving at my mother’s house, I found myself drawn for no conscious reason to the cobwebbed recesses of my hard-drive, where some old drafts of the very first novel I ever wrote can be found. This book was my heart in a shameless, undeniable, mortifying way. It was more autobiographical than a novel should be, and it’s not something I could publish as is now, even if I had the opportunity, because many of the people in this story are still out there, living. It would have to be rewritten if I wanted to do something with it. I know this… and the weight of that has stopped me every time.

Even so, every once in a while, every few years, I take this manuscript out of its dark place, and I consider it.

I think of what could be done and redone.

I think of the possibility.

(I think, too, of the five years I spent writing and rewriting it—who wouldn’t—and I think, I do admit, of how incredibly amazing it would feel if one day, years into the future, I was able to publish a shiny, new version of it and how much I’d celebrate and probably cry.)

I look at this manuscript every so often, with curiosity.

Could I do it?

Would someone publish it?

Is it worthy, after all these years?

I’ve often heard—and I tell this to writers I teach as well—that for many writers, you need to write some practice novels before you reach the one you are meant to publish. The first novel you write may not be the first novel you publish… and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe you are better than that.

In my heart, Imaginary Girls was that novel I was meant to publish first (complicated by Dani Noir, I know, but publishing is nothing if not complicated). So much of what I wrote before Imaginary Girls was what led me to be able to write it. See? See how it was meant to be? If I had to have all that practice time, all those pages, all those years, it’s worth it to me, to have Imaginary Girls.

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I regret nothing. Well, I don’t regret putting it aside then.

But hey, what about now? When I’m a better writer and could make something of this story in a way I couldn’t before?

When I have the distance?

Maybe there is a reason I keep opening this old file and peeking at the scenes I wrote so long ago that there are actually two spaces between sentences… (Aaargh! I was young! I didn’t know!)

My heart hurts today because I read some of it. I didn’t let myself read the whole thing—it’s a tome, overwritten and meandering and clocking in at an even 500 pages. But I read the opening pages, and I went through each of the seven sections, reading the last pages of each. By the end of the sections, by the last scene of the book, where my character finds a kind of closure with the person who’d terrorized her throughout her life, I felt a hard, heavy lump in my throat.

But I also had some ideas.

This novel was written before I knew what YA was. Now that I do, now that I have a career here, might that change some things?

I would have to rewrite so much of it.

I would have to reimagine, rethink, re-plot.

I would have to disguise a great many things.

Barely anyone has read this—the manuscript was only ever read by a single (adult-fiction) agent. I put the manuscript aside mainly because it was too close to me, it was too true, it was too painful, and I was unable to separate myself. I wonder now… has enough time passed? Can I be honest, can I be serious, can I be ruthless?

It could be a YA novel, or a middle-grade novel, if I cut out some things—I’m not yet sure.

It could be something.

And yet, do I want to go back there?

• • •

I wonder, fellow writers: Have you ever returned to a long-buried novel that you relegated to live in your closet, or desk drawer, or deep under your bed?

Have you performed a resurrection?

And if you have, did it fail and did you have to shove the corpse back under your bed, or were you able to breathe new life into something that, it turned out, did ultimately deserve to have a day in the sun?

The Teaching, the Inspiration, the Chupacabra, the Not-Writing

2015-11-14 09.18.43This has been my most public year, ever, in my life. It’s been wonderful… and it’s also been somewhat of an adjustment for a shy person like me.

So much of 2015 has been about teaching. I really made this goal a priority to have better balance in my life—the ultimate goal was to get a lot of experience so I could get a job at a low-residency MFA program, and I had a specific school in mind—and I’m astounded at how much I did this past year, and how, even before the year was over, I made my goal come true.

I’m going to talk about some of the not-so-good stuff, but first, let’s focus on the good…

Last week I was in Texas, at the Writing Barn, Bethany Hegedus’s wonderful retreat center in the heart of Austin, leading what was billed as A Week in Residency with, well, me. This was a weeklong workshop-retreat for YA and middle-grade novelists, and ten wonderful, enthusiastic writers signed up to spend the week with me. We workshopped, we did writing prompts, we talked, we got inspired, we had guest authors visit, we did readings, we had a real whirlwind… I was so thrilled by how well it all went, and I miss the writers now that it’s over. My TA Jess Capelle (one of my former Djerassi workshop writers!) helped me through the whole week and was rewarded one night by a visit from a possible chupacabra making noise on the rooftop of her cabin! I left the week feeling really inspired, really content and excited, and I hope the writers who worked with me did, too.

Here are some photos from the truly fantastic week (I am sorry to tell you there is no photo of the chupacabra):

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The path from my cabin to the barn to lead workshop one morning…
Bethany Hegedus and me at the Writing Barn...
Bethany Hegedus and me at the Writing Barn…
My lecture on Novel Openings at the Writing Barn...
My lecture on Novel Openings at the Writing Barn…
Industry panel at the Writing Barn with local guest authors Cory Putman Oakes, Lynne Kelly, and Varian Johnson
Industry panel at the Writing Barn with local guest authors Cory Putman Oakes, Lynne Kelly, and Varian Johnson
The lights outside the barn at night...
The lights outside the barn at night…
Book event at BookPeople in Austin with my friend and fellow author, Suzanne Young (look at how much fun we had!)...
Book event at BookPeople in Austin with my friend and fellow author, Suzanne Young (look at how much fun we had!)…
At BookPeople with Suzanne Young and my Writing Barn TA, Jess Capelle
At BookPeople with Suzanne Young and my Writing Barn TA, Jess Capelle
The workshop group! Such a fantastic group of writers! Here we are all with my TA Jess Capelle and guest author Lynne Kelly
The workshop group! Such a fantastic group of writers! Here we are all with my TA Jess Capelle and guest author Lynne Kelly
At the end of the week, we painted rocks with a word that symbolized the week for us... Here are our rocks...
At the end of the week, we painted rocks with a word that symbolized the week for us… Here are our rocks…

I may as well take this moment to tell you that if you’re reading this post thinking it might be nice to take a workshop like this with me, I’ll have to calm down with the outside teaching very soon, because I’m now on faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. BUT, I am still committed to teaching this last weeklong workshop in 2016, at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California, quickly approaching in March. Apply now, before the deadline of December 17!

Here’s my latest newsletter with some more info and a FAQ, if you’re interested.

And I should tell you that Bethany has some wonderful programming upcoming at the Writing Barn in 2016, and keep an eye on the website!

WB-featuredbenchNow a breath.

I do need a breath. It’s been a busy year of events, teaching, and coming to a great realization about the book I was writing, which meant shelving one thing and starting fresh on another.

I have one last thing before the year is out. In case you’ll be at this conference in Minneapolis, I’ll tell you:

This weekend I’ll be at NCTE/ALAN (I’ll be signing The Walls Around Us on Saturday, November 21 2-3pm at the Algonquin booth 525–527, and I’ll be on a panel at ALAN first thing Tuesday morning).

But after that I need to go quiet. The teaching and appearances have been important, but know what also is? The writing.

So what about the writing, you may ask? What about the writing…

I know I made the right decision about my next book. I know that in my heart and my gut. But what I don’t know is what’s ahead for me, for my writing career, and the weight of that has been pressing down lately, pressing down hard. Being online and seeing all the news of book deals flashing by makes me happy for the writers… and mad at myself for not being faster, more prolific, more career-minded, more smart. This ugly game of comparison is something that gets a lot of us down.

I’m worried my negativity is seeping out. Not to my students, no, not during my workshops—not when I’m talking one-on-one with another writer about her novel and wishing her all the great and lovely things. I mean when I’m alone with myself, in my writing corner, as I am today, when it’s just me and the page and my whole future is reliant on what I do there, what words come out, and how well they sound and how slow or fast they dribble onto the page.

Sometimes all those doubts and second-guesses and ugly thoughts get animated into a creature that follows you and wants to take you down: a chupacabra on your rooftop, and you’re huddled inside wishing it would go away.

I think what would help is some time off from social media (Twitter especially) and my bad online habits (Googling myself to see if there’s something I should know and seeing snippets of bad reviews of my novels by accident in the search results… Clicking away incessantly on distracting, unnecessary things… Comparing myself again and again to everyone else, when I have always and only been myself in all things and I need to remember that).

I may take off the month of December, apart from sharing the Djerassi deadline and book news, when/if I have things to share.

I may hide from the chupacabra for a while. I know so many of you understand.

I want to make real progress on this novel before 2016 gets here, so I can look at this year and see that I didn’t just make my teaching goal come true… I also moved forward as a writer. That’s what I am first and foremost. (Otherwise, why even bother teaching at all, right?)

For those of you feeling like you let this year slip away from you in some places… it’s not over yet. We still have time.

What if we wrote a ton of words that we felt good about to round out the end of 2015?

What if?