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.

 

Djerassi Deadline One Week Away!

Fellow writers… This is your reminder that the deadline to apply for my 2016 YA Novel Workshop-Retreat at the gorgeous Djerassi Resident Artists Program in the mountains of Northern California is December 17, exactly one week away!

[APPLY RIGHT HERE]

Yield to Whim

Here are some things that past workshop attendees have said:

“Nova Ren Suma often focuses on turning points in one’s writing career. The five days spent at her Djerassi YA novel workshop was mine. Insightful, kind, and inspiring, Nova sets the tone for an incredible retreat—and Djerassi provides the space and muse that every artist craves.”
—Anna Waggener

“Nova is the kind of workshop leader who sees straight to the heart of your novel. Whatever you’ve envisioned, she’s there with you. She puts so much of herself into helping you move closer to the truth of your story.”
—Courtney Leigh

“Nova is an absolute gem! She was wise, generous, and perceptive—in workshops, in one-on-one sessions—and set up a safe, inspiring space for us to share and grow our stories. I traveled many miles and crossed a time zone to work at Djerassi and it exceeded my expectations—it’s heaven on earth for artists and dreamers.”
—Pip Harry

“So many writers, especially women or older people with families or jobs or both, cannot get away for a month. This doesn’t make us less dedicated to our craft, our art, our passions; it’s just a reality. These week-long workshops also give us the ‘gift of time’ and community that some of us may not have access to. This period of quiet has been nothing short of bliss.”
—Asale Angel-Ajani

~

I’m not sure if there will be a workshop in 2017, so I hope you’ll consider joining me this coming March!

 

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.

2015-09-14 16.21.27

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):

WB-mypath
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?

Joining the Faculty at VCFA

vcfabuildingAs some of you may know—or might have guessed—I’ve been thinking a lot about “success,” purpose, and happiness. I’ve been shifting the focus of my career to have my time not just be focused on me-me-me and promoting my books and writing as fast as I can just to have another book out in the world. I’ve realized I don’t want to be a full-time author. I don’t want to race to write as many books as I can to keep myself afloat—I want to choose carefully what I publish, and write only what speaks to me deeply in my heart. I want balance. To do something that feels more rewarding… My move to Algonquin was the first step. And in addition to that, through all my searching and attempts at reinvention, I discovered a real love for teaching. I realized this could be the answer. I’ve written about my shifting vision for career and success before here and here and here.

My active goal for quite some time has been to build up my c.v. and take on as many teaching opportunities as I could to gain experience and become a better teacher. So I taught courses online. I taught workshops and retreats in person. I joined the Your Novel Year program as a mentor and an online instructor. I taught a course at Columbia University this summer. I just co-taught a workshop at Highlights. And in November I’ll be teaching a workshop at the Writing Barn. I did all this with a solid goal in mind: to find a regular, more stable teaching position at a university.

I had my sights set on teaching in a low-residency MFA program.

I had my sights set on one particular program, in fact: the MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA).

For years, I’ve been watching VCFA from afar, admiring the program, its faculty, its graduates, and asking many questions about how the low-residency model works and specifics about the program. I got my own MFA years and years ago, in a full-time program, and have since found myself envying VCFA’s hold on its alumni. Writers clearly love this program. They go back for post-graduate semesters and to be graduate assistants. They talk about it with such passion. I went to a VCFA gathering at the Boston AWP conference (a friend of mine is a graduate and I tagged along) and was struck by the community that night, impressed by how the program bonds everyone together and seems to live on far from Vermont, even after graduation. I found myself wishing I’d been part of a community like that, but my own MFA had nothing of the sort. I’ve read books from graduates of VCFA and admired the range, and the skill, and the voices.

VCFA is doing something right, I’ve been thinking. Lucky students. Lucky faculty. 

So when I had more experience teaching and wanted to pursue a position at an MFA program, of course VCFA was the first to come to mind.

Well, my goal turned real sooner than I expected, and I am beyond thrilled to say:

logoI am joining the faculty of the low-res MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults at VCFA starting with the January residency!

For those wondering, just to get this out of the way since I’ve been asked: No, this does not mean I’m moving to Vermont! (Too bad, right?) VCFA’s program involves two ten-day residencies per year, in January and July; for the rest of the time, as usual, unless something happens, I will be as usual in New York City.

If you find yourself interested in this wonderful program, and are seeking a flexible but rigorous MFA, apply! It looks like there are two deadlines per year: September 30 and March 15, depending on when you’d prefer to have your first residency.

I’m feeling like this is a new chapter for me. I’ve been wanting more solid ground and a place to teach more regularly, a way to balance my writing career that feels right, and I am very hopeful that VCFA will be that place for me long-term.

As for my other teaching, this means a few things: I won’t be able to continue on with the Your Novel Year program at the Piper Center in 2016, and I’m working with my last mentee there now. It’s been a wonderful experience, and I’ve been honored to be a part of it. I also expect to be teaching fewer private workshops in 2016 while I get my bearings…

…though my YA Novel Workshop-Retreat at the Djerassi Program in March 2016 is still going strong, and you can apply to join me! Now accepting applications and getting a jump on reviewing them while I have time.

In 2016 I also will be stopping the private manuscript critiques and private mentoring I’ve enjoyed so much, at least for my first semester so I can focus my time on my VCFA students. However, if you are a former student of mine and we’ve already discussed something for 2016, you are welcome to contact me to see if we can make our schedules meld.

I don’t know all of what January will hold. I’m excited. Nervous. Thrilled. We’ll see how the first semester goes!

If you’re a VCFA student in the WCYA program, please feel free to say hello! I’ll see you on campus in January!

For the Girl Who Needs to Hide Her Diary, For the Girl Who Doesn’t Think She’s Worth So Much

A truly amazing thing happened to me this year. The Walls Around Us was chosen as the first-year read at Salem College, a women’s college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which meant that all incoming first-year students read my book over the summer (and wrote an essay on it!). So many young women, at the start of their college lives, reading my novel! And this week, I visited the campus and met with two classes of honors students and then, one evening, gave a lecture to the whole first-year class on campus, here, in this room:

salem_auditorium

When I was thinking of what I might say before a large group of young women, I was brought back to why this book was written, and why all my books are written… Why I write proudly and exclusively about girls, and why these stories are universal and just as worthy as the stories I remember reading all through school about men and more men and boys. I spoke about something that happened to me as a teenager that told me girls’ stories—that women writers—weren’t thought of as worthy… and why everything about my reading life and writing life is to prove that wrong.

I won’t recap the talk here, since in fact so much of it is infusing an essay I’m currently writing at the moment, and I look forward to sharing that with you in the future.

But I looked out at that room of young women, and I saw myself there. I remembered who I was (I’m still that girl—aren’t we always?).

I couldn’t fit the whole room in this photograph, but here is my first sight of the audience when I walked out onto the stage:

salem_audience

My talk touched on a lot of things—within the book, and within my life. I made a small mention of the book’s dedication, which was all connected.

This is the dedication of The Walls Around Us:

For the girl who needs to hide her diary

For the girl who doesn’t think she’s worth so much

Astute readers and/or those who know me very well might realize who this book is dedicated to… Someone specific, whose diary was found and exposed when she was a teenager, making her ashamed of her giant ambitions because who was she to have them? Someone so specific, who was told by multiple men in her life that she wasn’t worthy… That same girl stood on a stage on a college campus this week, giving a talk about her fourth published book. And the men who told her she wouldn’t, couldn’t, would never accomplish much? Look how small they are now.

Who dares to dedicate a book to herself? Someone who was told she’d never be able to publish a book at all.

me on stage

After my talk, there were questions (some of which I am shocked I even answered, as I don’t usually reveal the secrets in my books! don’t ever expect that to happen again!) and a book signing, and it was a wonderful thing to meet some of the students and sign the book to them and get the chance to chat with them.

A few of the students confessed to me that they wanted to be writers, too.

If any happen to have found my blog and are reading this post—specifically one aspiring writer in particular who didn’t know how she would ever be able to pursue her dream, I hope what I said was encouraging, and I am always here if you want to reach out. I mean it. You can email me.

A few of the students asked me to sign the book for them on the dedication page instead of the title page, as if they saw themselves in the dedication as I did.

As if the book was for them as much as it was for me—and I believe it is.

If you see yourself there, it’s yours, too.

Thank you so very much to Salem College for having me! What an incredible experience.

shoes

As I was traveling home, I was thinking of all the ways my life has shifted and surprised me this year. I never expected to have these opportunities or to even be this person—even though, yes, it’s what I dreamed of and it’s what I wanted. These were pipe dreams. And now, standing in the shoes shown here (gifted from a dear friend and now, clearly, my new lucky shoes!), it has somehow become my reality.

When I reached New York City, on the way home from the airport and stuck in traffic in Queens, I had a moment. I know I’ve turned onto a new path this year—one more focused on teaching; one more true to myself—but I also know I have a lot more to do, to say, to learn, to write, to become. There is more I want, there will always be more I want… that ambition I carried as a girl has only grown.

But it’s not daunting or debilitating, even if the new road I’m on is long.

I haven’t written in a true diary in years… not since I started this blog, so I guess this became my diary, my public record. I’m not hiding anymore. Look, no hands! Here I am, I’m here.

The Surprises, the Failures, the New Chapters in This Author Life

bluelacesWhen I entered the YA world in 2010, with the impending publication of Imaginary Girls (before that I didn’t feel a welcome part of it because my debut was middle-grade), I looked around at all the authors and thought there was one single kind of career to aspire to, the Best Kind, and of course I should be aspiring to it: The full-time writer who publishes a book a year and reaches out with savvy, fun marketing to her fans (ahem, she has fans) and goes to all the cool conferences and festivals.

This was what I had to try to be, and if I couldn’t, then I would fail at this, just like I’d failed already at trying to publish novels for adults.

I gave it a good go. At one point I was trying to propose a middle-grade trilogy along with a new YA novel, saying I could write both in one year, and then of course both proposals failed before we even showed them to editors because I lost my steam and I began to have this little tickling laugh at myself: You can’t do this. You can’t write this fast. My agent knew it, too, and never pushed me. I was the one pushing myself.

I guess I pushed until I sputtered and fell over.

Time passed. Attempts. Failures. More attempts.

Everything involving The Walls Around Us came to be, and that was good.

And through it all, and in the aftermath of Walls, I’ve been thinking this: But wait. What kind of author do I really want to become?

If I’m going to be honest with myself, what feels right?

It’s funny, but I think at heart you often want to emulate the people who were there to influence you in those eye-opening moments when you first get serious about being a writer. For me, that’s when I was 22. I keep going back to my time in grad school at Columbia University, when I was 22 and starting my MFA in Fiction and writing my short stories. The authors I admired then weren’t publishing a book a year. The authors I admired were so far from commercial, most people outside my circle had never heard of them. The authors I admired—basically, every single one of them—were teaching writing in programs like mine.

So why didn’t I try to teach way back when?

I was too shy. I had no confidence. I was well aware I knew nothing. So instead of trying for any teaching assistantships, I found my way into publishing and chose the most quiet and out-of-the-spotlight position a person could take in book publishing, the copy editor aka production editor. The person no one thinks about until she misses a mistake.

I sat quietly in this job, or another job like it, for about five, six, seven years. Sometimes I walked the hallways of the publishing company I was working at—whichever one—wanting to disappear off the face of the earth with a red pencil stabbed through my neck because no one wanted to publish me. But I needed to live this experience. I needed those years of rejection to make me a better writer, and to want it all the more.

When I found YA and Imaginary Girls got me a good book deal, I waited until the day my advance check was deposited in my bank account, and then I quit my job. I knew I didn’t want to be a production editor anymore, but I would soon find out I wasn’t so good at being a prolific full-time author either.

So what was left?

* * *

It is eighteen years after that fateful August I moved to Morningside Heights to start my MFA, all the light and starry hope in my eyes, and a batch of IKEA furniture on the way to furnish my side of the apartment (I could afford one table and three chairs, one black fabric couch chair, and one bookshelf, all the cheapest models available). Eighteen years later, and I’m about to finish teaching my last week of my YA Novel Writing course at Columbia, the same university where this all began, and went into debt for, and regret sometimes even while knowing those were the happiest years of my life. My Columbia class ends next week, and I absolutely loved teaching it. I’m sad it’s over. I want to do it again.

All along was I supposed to pursue teaching?

Maybe so. Funny not to realize, but now that I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to see how much I do love it—this June I led my third workshop at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program; it was so wonderful, I’m doing it again in March, twice (applications just opened this week). And I have two workshops this fall, coming up at the Highlights Foundation and the Writing Barn (spaces still open in each workshop), and I’m working privately with some writers, and I’m pursuing other things to teach regularly if I can, and I’m doing all of this because I am hoping it will lead me to be like the authors I admired all those years ago, to build the kind of career that feels right after some trial and error at other ways. The goal: Teaching at a college one day, taking the time I need to write my next novel, helping new writers be the best they can be, the way I was helped and have not forgotten.

Working with other writers feels right—it feels good. Not having to be so self-centered and solely focused on my own stuff, my own books, my own marketing chatter, my own author career and where it’s going or where it’s not going… what a fucking relief.

I am frustrated, sure, that it took me this long to realize this kind of career would be a better fit for me—imagine how far along I’d be if I’d known, imagine how much angsting I would have saved myself—and yet, it is what it is.

I think of a writer from one of my workshops who recently sent out queries for her beautiful work and I am hoping she finds an agent who believes in her writing the way I do. I think of all the writers I’ve worked with over these brief few years I’ve been teaching, and the struggles some have had in this industry, and I wish and hope I can be a helpful light when the doors keep closing in their faces, the way hundreds of doors did on mine. I think of the writer whose unpublished novel I was reading last night and how stunned I was by the last page I read, and how I know it needs to be published and I wish I could snap my fingers and make it happen, but I know that’s not possible and maybe the feedback I’ll give her to work to make it the best book it can be will help in another way. I think of the writer just at the beginning of a novel and all the potential and spark I see in there, and how I said, please email me when you’re ready, even if it takes years, I won’t forget you, and if I can do something to help when the time comes, I will. I think of all the writers who work hard through all the madness of writing a novel, even when that novel won’t get published in the end, a fate many novels have, and I want to tell them it’s not wasted work and it doesn’t mean they won’t make it, and to keep trying, keep writing, keep reinventing yourself. I did.

This is the thing: The kind of author we want to be can change, as we grow as writers, as we realize who we are meant to be. It can expand. And maybe it can shock and surprise you.

It does not have to be what everyone else sees as successful.

You do not need to covet a seat at the popular lunch table.

You can carve out a new path for yourself. Start your own table. Pull up a few more chairs. Change the dream.

One day in the far future when I let myself go gray (I started going gray at 20 and I’m still dyeing, thank you very much), I want to know I gave back as much as I put out in the world, in my own small way.