Growing Up Poor

Whenever I start to get professional jealousy about some writer who is younger than I am but writes better than I do, or who is younger than I am but has books published (these are sometimes different things), I have to remind myself of one of the realities of my life:

I grew up poor.

It’s a struggle for me to acknowledge it, even as an adult, because I didn’t have a bad childhood.  I had a pretty good childhood when it comes right down to it, and I benefited a lot from loving parents and good public schools.  That doesn’t change that I grew up in a trailer park, that my father was a maintenance man for the trailer park we lived in, and my mother wasn’t employed outside the home, even if I justify it to myself by telling myself things like, well, maybe we didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a wealth of experiences, or maybe we didn’t have a lot of money but we had mom at home growing up.

This has had a direct bearing on why it took me until I was in my mid-twenties to start writing.  Poor kids are told “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up” just like other kids are, but there are undertones that anything doesn’t really mean anything.  There is an attached condition: you can be anything you want to be, but it had better be practical.

Creative pursuits aren’t a viable career option because they aren’t practical.  I was subtly shunted toward practical careers and away from creative pursuits simply by virtue of what my parents nurtured.  I could be anything I wanted, but mom would be proud if I became a teacher or a mechanic.  I could be anything I wanted, but dad was proud that I wanted to join the Army just out of high school (even if in the end they wouldn’t take me because I have asthma).  I was told that maybe if I worked very hard in school and got good scholarships, I could be a doctor or a lawyer (which I did, and still graduated with massive amounts of student loan debt).  That’s more than a lot of kids growing up poor are told, and I really credit my parents for supporting me as I tore up one side of studious and down the other, even if they didn’t understand it.

But like most poor kids, I was never told “if you work hard enough, you can be a writer.”  I’ve always loved reading and writing.  And yet one looked at me and said you could do that, you can learn how, you can make a living at it.  It simply isn’t part of poor culture.

So by the time I decided that not only could I be a writer and not starve, but that I was going to be a writer, it was in some senses too late.  I’d already had my college education, I already have massive amounts of student loan debt.  I certainly can’t afford to go back and get a Bachelor’s in English or an MFA.  I started out in my mid-twenties where some people start in their teens.

I have to remind myself of this when I look at an author picture and think they’re younger than my little sister.  I grew up poor, I started out ten years behind, and smart as I am it’s still going to take me time and work to catch up.  Meanwhile, I’ll keep buying the books of “these kids,” as I think of the younger writers, because I’m glad to support them in making a living at what they love.

Perseverance

In a recurring theme, I’m going to blog a little bit about writing and perseverance.  It’s my blog and I’ll blog about something I’ve already blogged about if I want to.

Any writer you talk to is going to tell you that making it as a writer is a marathon, not a sprint.  That every writer has a whole stack or email box full of rejections.  That writing careers can fail at any point along the path, including after being published.  I know that and I don’t care.

I’ve gritted my teeth through “you’re never going to get paid doing that” and “you’re not a real writer if you’re not getting paid.”

I’ve gritted my teeth through short story rejections since 2012.

My most recent one was last week, and it still hurts every single time.

I’m gritting my teeth through submissions on my first novel right now.  Do I expect it to succeed?  No, because I’m a pessimist by inclination—I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than get my hopes up and have them dashed.
And yet I can’t help but hope that it’ll succeed.  Even as I’m working on my third novel before I edit my second because I fully expect that no agent will pick this first novel up, I’m hoping someone will want the first novel and I’ll have an excuse to go back to that world and finish that story.  I still dream about Robbie and Sam, even if I’ll never get to them again.  Because I expect failure.

But every now and then it really gets to me.  I take a long look at what I’m doing with my free time and think, couldn’t I do something more productive?  I could be gardening.  I could be playing video games.  I could be reading—you know, that thing I used to do for fun.  I could pick up a bassoon again (as though they aren’t prohibitively expensive, which is why I don’t still play in the first place).  I could start reading again, just reading for the sheer joy of it instead of picking books apart as I go.  I start thinking that I’m never going to make it, that I should just give up.  It would be so easy to just let it all go and stop trying to be something I’m not.  I have a good job, I like my job, I have people who love me.  I’m already among the lucky ones.

Invariably, this “just give up” train of thought is depression-related.  It’s my brain telling me that I need to take a break or it’s going to break me in half.  I have to stop writing two hours a night and tell myself that I’m taking the week off, that it’s okay to relax and play some video games and recharge.

As long as I set a time limit on it and get back on the horse.  Because writing is something I have to do to be happy.  Because I’d be doing it anyway.  Because I really, really want this to work when the depression isn’t eating at me.  Because I can do it if I try long enough and hard enough.  Because I will do it as long as it takes, because there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

 

More on Sexual Orientation Diversity

I’ve previously written about sexual orientation diversity in fiction, but my recent exposure to this graphic (from Lee & Low Books) has it on my mind again:

Diversity in Publishing 2015 E

As someone who falls on the asexual end of the sexuality spectrum (demisexuals unite!), I found this graphic to be jaw-dropping. Are there really so few asexuals in the publishing world?

If so, is it just that no one wants to admit it, if they even know that there is something to admit? Because I didn’t realize that I’m demisexual until I was in my mid-twenties.

One of the reasons that I struggled for so long with my own sexual orientation is that I knew I was different, I just didn’t have the language to describe it. For a long time I thought I was a lesbian (my closest friend was a woman), then I thought I was bisexual (turns out I can be attracted to men, too), but never asexual. I have a sex drive, after all, and everyone knows you can’t have a sex drive and be asexual, right? I pretended to have crushes because everyone else had them and I desperately didn’t want to be different, but deep down I thought I was broken in some way.

One of the ways that a child learns is by finding people that they like and saying, that person is like me. For 12-year-old me, that “person” was Elizabeth Moon’s character Paksenarrion. Spoiler alert: her stories have no crushes, no love triangle, almost no love angle at all. She’s a bad ass who does cool deeds and just doesn’t care about all that other stuff. In the first book, she falls in love and wonders whether she should have given her love sex because he wanted it, even if she didn’t. And while I’m not quite that asexual, her story resonated with me. It was like being in my own brain.

This is why queer characters are important to me. This is why I have a burning desire to write LGBTQ characters. Not because it’s a platform, but because somewhere out there, there’s a kid who likes fantasy/sci-fi/horror who might pick up a book and feel a little less different. She might not even know why she felt different before because she might not have the language to describe herself yet, but she’ll have someone to identify with, and that fact will be as comforting to her as it was to me.

Writing Conference, Part 2

As I talked about last week, I recently attended a writing conference.  This was my first writing conference, and it literally blew my mind.  I had to retreat to my room to weather the subsequent crash in which my mind basically melted.

My agent appointment with Eric Smith went well.  I was a lot less nervous for having talked to him the night before.  He’s very laid-back and approachable.  After I blew through my deliberately short pitch, I discovered that we have a shared interest in queer YA, and he requested that I email him.  On the one hand, I love his energy and excitement.  On the other hand, I’m a little concerned because my research didn’t really reveal who he represents, and it turns out that he’s pretty new.  On the third hand, he’s with a very reputable agency, and the authors he does represent have books coming out.

My editor appointment with Diana Stout also went relatively well.  My synopsis was a train wreck and my Scrivener export had some really annoying artifacts in it.  I didn’t feel too badly about that, since I only had a couple of days between when I was told I could sign up for an editor appointment and when the materials deadline was, (oh, and I’d never written a synopsis before) but I wasn’t about to make excuses.  We had a very limited time and I was more interested in hearing what her overall impressions were.  She really liked the characters’ voices, but think I picked the wrong character as the main character.  After some reflection, I agree.  The character that I wrote the test chapter around isn’t as active as the second character.  I’m going to need to move some things around as I’m revising that draft.

The best part is that I’m extremely energized to get back to work.  As I’ve been slogging away through the business side of writing, the query letters and synopses and spreadsheets of agents I’ve researched, I’ve been getting more discouraged about whether my desire to do this is realistic or even sane.  The business side doesn’t spark my passion the way the writing side does.

But I’ve put a lot of time and energy into learning this craft.  I want to take it to the next level and elevate it to an art.  I want to get paid for my art.  And then I want to walk through a train station and see someone reading something I wrote.  I’ve been persevering since 2013, and not only can I keep on going, I owe it to myself to see this through.

Writing Conference, Part 1

I attended Write On The Red Cedar, a local writing conference, last weekend.  I’ve never been to a writing conference before, so I had no idea what to expect.  I’m still processing the experience.  After two days of constant social “on” time, my inner introvert is screaming that I need a break.  I’ve retreated to my writing cave to process my experience in the best way I know how–writing about it.

I loved the people.  I loved networking, I loved meeting other writers and authors, I loved talking to other people about the things that excited them.  Much like any other convention, it’s energizing to be among people who share the same passion (some might say obsession), to the extent where I basically had a social crash on my way home.

It was also very validating to be around people who don’t just treat writing as a hobby.  I love to write and I want to sell my writing.  The Capital City Writers Association bills itself as an organization for “career-focused writers,” and it really is populated by people who take writing seriously.

The programming was also good.  It seemed targeted both toward new and not-so-new writers who would like to be published.  A lot of the content of the “nothing to novel” workshop was nothing spectacularly new to me, since I like to read writing blogs, listen religiously to Writing Excuses, and have five or six books on writing.  But listening to Bob Maher’s little anecdotes, particularly about his experiences in traditional and indie publishing, made the whole thing worthwhile.  And the Saturday panels were somewhat limited in selection, but very good.  I’m glad they didn’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

That said, the preconference cocktail party was my favorite part.  It was a mingling event, and in my early conference boldness, I decided that I was going to try to talk to everyone in the room that I didn’t already know.  I talked to several agents, editors, and panelists, in an informal setting, about the things that excited them.  It was great.  It really reduced my anxiety about my appointments the next day.

I’ll continue this post next week, since it’s getting long.

Why I Write Short Stories

Someone recently asked me why I still write short stories, even though I’ve finished a couple of novel-length manuscripts.

Uh, because I like to write them?

What a mind-boggling question. I’m not really sure what kind of answer he was expecting.

But there does seem to be this cultural expectation that short stories are training wheels to novels. I suppose in some ways it can be true. It’s a lot easier to focus on learning one aspect of something in a shorter format, like how to structure a scene or how to get the character’s voice into dialogue or how to stick and ending. But that isn’t the only thing short stories are good for. And they are in a lot of ways completely different from writing novels. Not all of the skills seem to translate.

I like to write short fiction because I like to read it, and I like to read short fiction for a variety of reasons. To be dropped into a story when I don’t want to invest time, or when I want to read something in a different genre or from a new author and I don’t know if I’ll like it, or to read a story that just wouldn’t work in long form, like the last scene of a dying woman or the single event that shakes up the placid life of an elderly man. They tend to pack a lot more emotional punch for my investment.

I also like to write short-stories as test-chapters for longer works. They help my figure out if a setting calls to me, or if I want to keep exploring a certain character. Short stories are also where my discovery writer comes out to play, because I rarely outline them in advance. There is no point–I can hold everything in my head all at once, and I usually do the first draft in a single sitting. Sometimes I just want to sit down and free-write.

Writing Under Peer Pressure

One of the things I learned this NaNoWriMo season was how much easier it is to write when other people around you are writing.  For instance, when I wrote 22k words on a Saturday during Go Green, Go Write (I still have trouble believing I actually did this), it was in no small part because I was sitting next to a complete writing machine.  Every time I looked over, this woman was typing.

Not only did it remind me that I needed to be typing, too, but it also became kind of a game.  Could I write longer than she did?  Could I type faster, take less breaks?  Sometimes I glanced over and saw her glancing back.  That woman from my NaNo group later told me that she wrote more words that day than in the whole first two weeks combined, in no small part because she was sitting next to me, and every time she looked over, I was writing.

It was the same way at the rest of the NaNo events.  I turned my phone off, I unhooked my laptop from the WiFi, and I just wrote.  Every time I looked around, other people were staring seriously at their computers.  Some of them were surfing the web, but the vast majority of people were actually writing.  My 4k+ word days were all on days that I spent around 3 hours at a write-in event.

In short, I’m extremely glad that I went to my local NaNo write-in events this year.  And I’m grateful that the group was so welcoming and supportive.  I hadn’t finished NaNo the year before, but in part because of the peer pressure, I not only finished NaNo this year, but I wrote an entire book.  I’m so glad and grateful that I’m going to continue going to the once-monthly events for the rest of the year.  Peer pressure is definitely a tool that I can use to motivate myself to keep writing.

Impromptu Inspiration

So, this totally happened:

MeAndSanderson

I’m extremely grateful to a friend who mentioned that Brandon Sanderson was doing a signing in town tonight.  Sometimes I swear I live under a rock.

I’ve been in a very positive writing mood lately, and I found the talk and experience very inspirational.  I’ve not gone to many book signings, but since Writing Excuses is one of my favorite podcasts, I just had to go to this one.  I had a good time!  Tomorrow, I return to being out of excuses…

Writing Fail

I was going to write another post about short stories, but I’ve decided to write about my recent failures at writing instead, since that is more pertinent to my current life.

I’m dealing with a lot of drama (both good and bad) in both my extended and immediate families, which has really been affecting my motivation to write. There is an illness in the family and several relationship changes. That is coupled with the fact that there are just too many people that need me right now. I’m not the kind of person that does well with changes. And I’m not one of those writers that uses writing as a method for dealing with emotional turmoil. Instead, in order to write I need to be in a calm emotional place.

I haven’t been able to find my calm place recently. Sometimes I don’t have the time to write, but even when I do, I struggle to find the place that I can write from. Sit down and write is a good mantra,” but I just can’t make myself do it. And the more I try, the more upset I become, and the more distant my calm place gets.

It doesn’t help that I received two short story rejections in the same week. I always have emotional difficulty when that happens. When thinking about rejections in advance, I’m confident that I will be OK because I don’t actually expect things to get accepted. In reality, rejection always hurts. It doesn’t seem to matter that I have been getting rejected consistently for three years.

So my writing lately has really suffered. The only thing I’ve been able to do with brainstorm my story for NaNoWriMo. I’ve committed to trying to do NaNoWriMo to completion this year, but it’s very daunting. I wasn’t able to complete it last year, when I had a lot more time and motivation. How will I do it this year, with everything going on?

This isn’t the first time this is happened to me, and it won’t be the last. Even though in my depression I sometimes think I should give up writing, I recognize that that is a destructive thought, and I’m not going to do anything as drastic as deleting my writing folder or burning my manuscript. I’ll find that calm emotional place again soon. But I know from experience that trying to force it will just make the feeling last longer.

So that’s the state of my writing affairs right now. I’ll keep you all posted when or if things change.