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 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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Writing a Novel Is

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Writing a novel is a mess right now. I’m close, but I’m not done yet. I’m not done yet, I’m not done.

I don’t know what I’m trying to say, is the truth of it. I don’t know what I should say. I don’t know what my words mean. I haven’t found the meaning yet, though I’m digging in the dirt still and I’ve pulled out some stones and I’ve got a good hole going, I’ve gone deep in places even though so much is still so shallow.

Writing a novel is the most difficult thing and also the easiest thing in the world, because what else can I do? I said it was a gift to be allowed and able to do this, didn’t I? I told myself to not forget that the last I wrote here, didn’t I?

The worst of it is wanting to say something important, something memorable, especially when you’re surrounded by a fog and your mouth is full of jelly and everything itches with possibility but you can’t scratch every spot, you only have two hands.

Writing a novel is a messy pursuit. This close to deadline I’ve taken to wearing the mess on my sleeve—hair a jumble, roots screaming, T-shirt occasionally on inside out and I don’t realize until hours later. Makeup? I laugh. Bumping into signposts on the street? Yes, that was me, I’ll try to pay better attention.

I used to tell myself I could not do something. I would set limits. I would say, “I am a slow writer. A good day is five hundred words.” Then I blast through that number with barely a glance over my shoulder and I realize I can do things I thought I couldn’t. And also, I put myself in a small box. And also, I don’t do well when there are rules. And also, every book is different and if you sit in the audience at an author panel you’ll hear that a thousand times and you’ll be like yeah, yeah, yeah, but in fact it’s true.

Writing a novel is an exercise in hope. You hope you can finish it, first off. If you have an agent or an editor, what you are hoping is that your agent or your editor will see a spark in there somewhere and help you finesse and dig it out. If you don’t have those people yet, you are hoping this novel will be the way to lasso them to you. If you are not yet published, you hope this will be the one. If you have been published before, you hope you won’t get kicked off the boat. You hope to not disappoint anyone. You hope to not disappoint yourself. You hope you will make it to your pub date and an actual book will come out. You hope, too, that you make it through the gauntlet of reviews. That people will read it. Yes, that actual living people will read it. Will anyone? Will anyone? Three years between books—is that too long, is that too late?

These are not things you should think about when you’re writing.

Instead think of how it will feel when it’s all over. Think of how you can print out the novel then, and allow it to take up physical space in the real world. Only the space of it. The weight of it in your hands. The weight of all your work. Lie down on a bed, set it on your stomach, feel it hold you steady. You did this. You wrote a novel.

Yes, that moment will come if you keep working.

You just need to finish it first.

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.

The Unstuck Story of THE WALLS AROUND US

Paperback Release Day! The Walls Around Us available in paperback March 22!


THE WALLS AROUND US is now available in paperback! Here we are in the woods of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California.
THE WALLS AROUND US is now available in paperback! Here we are in the woods of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California, where I’m away leading writing workshops the day this post goes up!

Once upon a time, there was a writer who was filled with doubt and questioning her every move. She was stuck. She had published three books, but now that she was facing what would be the fourth she didn’t know what to write or how to write it. She thought for sure she should try to be more commercial and relevant and give people what they wanted from her, if only she could figure out what that might be (???!!!???). She worried about all of these things until she worried herself into a stupor. And before her, staring back with ugly intensity, was a blank white page.

That writer was me. That blank page was my next novel.

I got out of this slump because The Walls Around Us pulled me up by the throat.

But how did I get from the death glare of the blank white page to the beautiful book object that is The Walls Around Us with its gorgeous and sinister vine-covered jacket?

I think we’re all hoping for a formula or a trick of the trade that will unglue us from that awful stupor. I don’t have a formula. I don’t have a good trick. Being stuck is not usually something that you can wave away with a nice nap and a walk around the block to clear your head. (I tried.)

There are those who say that writer’s block does not truly exist and that you must simply do the work and stop making excuses—you must sit yourself down in a chair every day and write, and that’s how you get unblocked. But forcing yourself to write when you’re not feeling it can be a waste of time and energy… and heart. The answer to being blocked isn’t flooding the room with random words and trying to choke your way through making them worthy.

Sometimes the answer is putting your novel aside for a while and writing something else. Yes, a whole new novel, even if you want to smack me for saying it. Sometimes the answer is some other creative pursuit that has nothing to do with books or writing.

Sometimes the answer is not thinking so hard about what everyone else wants of me.. That’s what happened when I was facing my fourth book. I was thinking of reviews I’d read of my previous books. I was thinking about how my books often confuse readers, because the explanations are left open to interpretation, and I was thinking that I needed to be more plain and clear. I was thinking about how my language and style don’t grab everyone. I was thinking that I really should add a romance. I was thinking of what a YA book is—what the most popular YA books are—and I was thinking to myself: OKAY, DO THAT.

And as I thought all these things, the blank page gazed back at me and sneered.

I was trying to be someone I’m not. And I did that for years, when I was writing under different names and mimicking voices for a paycheck, before I ever published under my own name. I didn’t want to do that anymore.

So this is how I got unstuck. I’ll warn you—it’s kind of ugly: I reached a breaking point. I banged my head against my desk and maybe I cried and maybe I had a series of really bad days as I warred with myself, stomping around my apartment and my life. Then something in me snapped. I realized I’d come to a place where I cared way too much about what everyone else thought of my books (lines from reviews swimming in my head, questions buzzing in my ears) and I’d hit a wall. All that caring flipped over and turned into CARING NOT AT ALL. I stopped reading reviews, of course, but there’s more to it. I stopped weighing myself against those reviews.

I would never be able to write a book for everyone, so the best I could do was write a book solely and completely for myself. And maybe someone else would see themselves in it, the way I have in books, again and again.

If I wrote a book for myself, what would it include?

Surreal, strange happenings that aren’t fully explained? Check.

“Unlikable” girl characters careening through the pages free and as alive as they’ll ever be? Check and check and check.

Voicey writing flooding my paragraphs. Oh my yes, check.

No romantic subplot. No easy commercial handle. No fear of being weird. In fact, I was embracing all the weirdness and rolling around in it and streaking through the forest with a crown of weirdness on my head.

paperback_800This is The Walls Around Us: my weird and wild book about killer ballerinas and a ghostly prison. It’s everything I wanted to write and then some. And, because of that, I had no idea if anyone else on the planet would even like it.

Anyone who attended the New York launch event for The Walls Around Us will remember I was interviewed by a writer I love and admire, Libba Bray, whose books are daring and true and wonderfully strange and completely her. She called The Walls Around Us my “middle fingers book.” Let me explain.

This comes with a possibly offensive visual. I was writing with Libba in a café here in New York and I was somewhere deep in the wilds of The Walls Around Us, and I said that I had stopped caring what anyone might think of me or what I was writing. I told her I was writing this book for myself and putting in every single thing I wanted and reactions be damned.

Then, to illustrate how I felt about the publishing world and my own place in it at that defiant moment, I lifted my arms and raised my middle fingers in the air and waved them around like a maniac. Sorry. But there it is.

That came to illustrate this book for me: not so much my two middle fingers and acting ridiculous in a public café, but being defiant. Being myself no matter what. Not caring one iota about what was presentable and serviceable and… commercial.

So it was that The Walls Around Us came to be.

In a (weird? wild?) turn of events, this book that was my strangest… this book that didn’t even try to be likable or easy… this book that didn’t care what anyone thought of it… this book has found its readers. In fact, it has become the most well-received book I’ve ever published. If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll see some of the amazing things that have happened to this book and, thanks to the book, to me.

What’s the lesson in this? I’m a better writer when I’m not trying so hard to make everyone else happy. I’m more free on the page. More daring. I go deeper. And all that shows. And maybe, just maybe, readers respond all the more to a book that feels unique and specific to the writer in all its strange glory. Maybe they recognize the honesty in there, and that honesty is compelling. I think they do.

When I work with other writers on their novels, privately and in workshops and classes, I like to push the writers to go deeper. To not just do the easy thing. Even if it means tearing up what you have and starting over… Even if it means getting stuck first until you unstick yourself and break through that wall.

Because the writing on the other side of the wall is so very worth it.

I look back at my career and all the pages I’ve written over the years—pages that include unpublished novels and unfinished scraps of novels and of course the novels I have published. I look at all I’ve written and I know that the best writing came out when I was not trying to fit a mold or write toward a trend or appease an audience.

It came when I was alone in a dark room with only my book and me. When I was scared. When I had no worldly idea what might happen. When I took the biggest risk of my life and made a leap.

It wasn’t just the writing of The Walls Around Us that changed me—it ended up changing the trajectory of my career. I decided to leave the Big Five publisher I was with and I took this book proposal elsewhere, finding a home at a smaller, more boutique house. I landed happily at Algonquin Young Readers, a fledgling imprint at that time just about to launch its own first season of YA and children’s titles when I signed with them. This was the best decision I could have made for myself, for the book, for my career. But at the time, it was scary to go somewhere new and start over.

Once upon a time, in the future, I’m sure I’ll be facing new struggles. Writing is never a snap of the fingers and a word count from the gods. But I found something during my time with The Walls Around Us and I’ve been carrying it with me ever since: Confidence.

Simply put, I trust myself more now. I know I’ll find it. I know how.

If you’re struggling with what you’re writing—if you’re afraid to be your true self on the page—I dare you to stop listening to the outside voices and try listening only to yourself this one time. Write the book you most want to write. Write as if your fingers will fall off tomorrow. Write as if a ship of aliens is about to land on Earth and ask for one manuscript out of all the piles of pages on our planet that would communicate who you are to them, and this is that book.

Write the book that is the most unapologetically YOU, no matter how long it takes.

And know this: I want to read it. Let me know when it’s time and I’ll be there beaming at you from the front row, lifting my middle fingers if it comes to that, clapping my hands if it comes to that, or just simply grabbing your book off the shelf and drinking in every word.


Suma_WallsAroundUs_jkt_pbk_72dpiThe paperback edition of The Walls Around Us is available March 22. In the past year since the hardcover released, The Walls Around Us became a #1 New York Times Best Seller and garnered seven starred reviews from trade journals including Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It was named the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick for Spring 2015, a 2015 Edgar Award Nominee for Best Young Adult, a 2016 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, the winner of the 2016 Cybils Award in Speculative YA Fiction, and a Best Book of 2015 by The Boston Globe, NPR, School Library Journal, the Chicago Public Library, The Horn Book, and Book Riot.

Its author is shocked and very grateful. Now she’s hard at work on her next novel with Algonquin Young Readers, and whenever she feels stuck, she recalls her own advice to be daring and true, and she pushes that much harder.

Finding My Place

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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.

To Write, to Do, to Be

This year was an external year. I was more public than ever before. I did so many things in front of people. I talked about my book in front of strangers more times than I can count. I spoke on stages, from podiums, in front of classrooms and bookstores and libraries, in circles of chairs. I met many readers, many librarians, many teachers, many bloggers, many people who were kind and welcoming to me. I met many fellow writers. I worked with dozens of writers on their novels. I taught three writing workshops and two writing classes at universities. I mentored multiple talented novelists. I spent most of my time reading other people’s books, to the detriment of my own. I kept thinking about my career as a whole, my path, my plan and how to be a teacher and a writer, but teaching took precedence. I worked on ways to build my c.v. and gain experience and I learned so much and I’m surprised, even still, at all I was able to do. Most of all, I published a book I’m immensely proud of, a book wholly and deeply me, and I survived it.

Now I’m hoping for something different for next year, for 2016.

This year was all about the external. I want 2016 to be more internal.

My schedule may be packed the first few months of this year, but I also don’t want to forget that other significant part of my life, the whole point of all of this, the reason I am here at all:

the writing.

Tomorrow I’ll be coming up with my goals and writing wishes for 2016 and I’m thinking about the novel I’m writing now, and the novel I put aside, and the novels I haven’t yet written, and all the short stories I wish I could just write…

…and I want to find a no-pressure, positive way of shining a light on those things, too.

What if it’s a simple, small thing?

In 2016, I want to write something that feels true.

In 2016, I want to write a short story again.

In 2016, I want to try writing in third-person.

In 2016, I want to take on something surprising.

In 2016, I want to write about the deep past.

In 2016, I want to start something new.

ifyoucouldwrite

I’m trying to think of what mine might be—perhaps one of those possibilities above.

All we can control for the year ahead is what we can do with our own two hands, and it doesn’t have to be outlandish, it doesn’t have to be everything. It can be one small thing… for you.

What might you write in 2016?

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.