Author, Deal with Thyself

I don’t think writers are particularly good at self-care. I don’t mean that in any sort of Oprah, granola-type way; I mean it at a fairly basic level. Adequate sleep. Basic nutrition. Occasional exercise. Returning emails or texts.

Introverts by nature (even if we’re good at faking otherwise), we stay in and up late, getting minimal sleep and maximal stress from day jobs or deadlines or both. There are dependency issues (doomed relationships, Postmates), over-indulgences (of alcohol or ego), tedious addictions (to substances, social media or praise). We subsist on caffeine, carbs, sugar and scotch. Whatever takes the least amount of effort to collect and ingest. This is not because we are lazy, per se; it’s because we are utterly drained from creating people and places and things, all day every day. We don’t have any energy left for ourselves. Even if we did, we’d find something better to do than shop, cook or tidy. We’d force ourselves to be social or binge Netflix. But, if we’re being honest, we’d skip all of that and just go back to whatever draft we’re working on or set off on a new idea. We grow paler and weaker, in more than just a physical sense.

I’ve always been conscious of that work/life/creative balance—the times I’ve been somewhat successful at it, and the times I’ve utterly failed. It’s like that quality triangle given to clients for a reality check: Good/Fast/Cheap—pick two because you can’t have it all. Work (financial stability)/Life (socializing and self-care)/Creative Endeavors: which two do you pick? 

Exactly.

Life falls to the bottom of the list and self-care is the rock it rests upon.

For the past two years, I have utterly sucked at the Life category, so much so that Creative Endeavors suffered as well. The past twelve months have been especially meh. Work is the reason. Financial stability is a nice thing to have, but jobs offering that often come with a fair degree of responsibility and stress. I’ve only recently recognized the level of pressure I was operating under. I know, in this, I am not alone.

At first, you think, “Be patient. It will soon pass, things will get back to normal and so will I.” Then you come to understand it won’t pass; this is the new normal and you’d better figure out how to live in it. The only way to do that is next-level adulting. You can’t bullshit yourself any longer. Hard choices have to be made. Like waking up early and eating your vegetables.

That’s what I’m doing, finally: accepting adulthood. Creative adulthood, that is, which innately has an aspect of Peter Panning. It was time to face the fact that youthful patience needed to shift to mature focus. Whatever we’re waiting for (stress to reduce, life to normalize, dreams to come true) can no longer be the central point(s). Only what we are in direct control of matters. Which actions we take, how we divide our time and energy, the projects we prioritize, the relationships we tend—including the one with ourselves—are the primary concerns. Everything else has to take its place in line.

Knowing this full-on adult thing would be no easy feat, I started plotting back in April. I signed up for a new yoga studio then, though it wouldn’t be open until late June. My diet of LPQ gluten-free tartines and Indian take-out of chicken curry and aloo matar, sans rice or naan, would no longer do (I haven’t had the energy to shop let alone cook). At the tail end of 2017, I’d purchased The Autoimmune Solution (because EBV, asthma, allergies), but wasn’t ready for the culinary commitment/restrictions. (Like I said, this was going to take time.) With my fatigue at an all-time high (or six-feet-under low), I finally opened the book and checked my calendar for a date. August, after travelling and before the holidays, was the perfect time to make that change. Giving up coffee, eggs and chickpeas will be something to mourn (July has been serving as that wake). But, when I look back at when I was my most balanced, it was when I was a six-days-a-week gym rat (easier to do because I worked from home and the economy hadn’t yet crashed) and followed a hybrid diet of low-glycemic and right-for-my-blood-type. I was writing screenplays, started my first novel and was blogging on the reg (back when people did that sort of thing). Granted, financial stability came and went, but there’s something to be said about that level of self-care. I had energy for myself, my loved ones and my creative work. It was a better balance. That whole “put on your own oxygen mask first” way of doing things has something to it. Taking care of yourself takes care of a lot of other stuff, too.

I’m now in my fourth week of 5:30 alarms and 6:30 yoga. Heated practice isn’t my bag and I’ve already dehydrated myself once (because I’m all shades of awesome), so ultra-hydration is also on the list of things to do. Coordinating breakfast afterward without coffee, carbs or eggs is going to be another magic trick to perform before work (but I don’t have to worry about that until August). Getting to bed before midnight (or 1 AM) is something I’m still trying to do. But I am getting a rhythm, making choices, setting priorities, and it’s starting to feel good.

I am still stressed. There are still expectations I’m not meeting, too many projects crying for attention and a third novel giving me the stink eye, but first things first. This summer is about resetting, returning to the person I used to know and the creator I need to be.

 

 

 

Seeing Things

My birthday was this week. One of those major milestone birthdays. So, I decided to take the week off to relax from a busy period at the day job. A grand staycation to focus on Novel 3 (which has been neglected due to a draining work schedule that’s lingered too long). The staycation/celebration started last weekend when a friend arranged for our fearsome foursome to take in some culture at the Marciano Art Foundation.

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The Yayoi Kusama exhibition was delightful. The Glenn Ligon was so powerful, it left the four of us silent. All of the art was evocative and inspirational to the degree that, at one time or another, each of my three friends said, “Heh, I could do that.”

Clenching my BFA, I finally blurted, “Of course you could. But you didn’t. The difficult part is finding the time and courage to actually do it. Then you find out how hard easy is.”

My good friends simply blinked and politely bit their tongues. They know I know how to kill a mood. I also know that kind of comment is the verbal equivalent of someone coughing during an opera. A music teacher explained that phenomena as, “When something is too moving, some need to disturb it without realizing what they are doing or why.”

Art is intense, even when it seems simple. And simplicity can frustrate.

So can writing a damned book.

The irritating thing about this third novel of mine is that I’ve never had something go so slowly, especially when I know the whole story. I see everything that’s going to happen, that needs to happen, from the beginning, through the middle and to the end. All that needs to be done is the doing. Simple, right? But I sit with three chapters completed, another four in fragmented form and an estimated twenty-five to write in total. I’m a far from finished on a book I envisioned more than six years ago. And maybe the problem is that I’m seeing it too clearly.

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Fun fact: I went to film school. That’s what I hold my BFA in. I see my books in a cinematic sense and have to pull myself out of that scriptwriting story style. My process begins with pondering which tales need to be written in novel form, and which want to be screenplays. Or which screenplays are ready to be novels now.

Straddling those two mediums, I see the different ways storytellers are viewed. Authors aren’t considered visionaries — not unless they’re writing fantasy or about other, future worlds. Film directors, however, are often lauded as that, even though they are going off what a writer put down on a page. Rarely is the director the screenwriter as well.

Writers are visionaries, almost by definition, even if we are writing about the mundane. Even if the worlds we create mirror our own. Writers see things in the world (this world, that world or another), people and places and bring them to new life. Yet, if that story or its people are too close to real life, the creativity comes into question.

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I’ve had a friend refer to my first novel as a “memoir.” I’ve had another author make a dismissive dig about the kind of writers who “write themselves.” Both comments make me grin. I’ve admitted that my stories start from something that’s happened to me or a situation I’m introduced to that makes me ask, “How would I handle that?” Which is the reductive way of posing how an unmarried, no-kid woman in Los Angeles would confront those challenges. Would she allow herself to change, or fight it? I write this way because I think there’s a need for that kind of female voice — stories of women who don’t make marriage or children imperatives. That choice does not make my books autobiographical. Not by a longshot.

Taking aspects of oneself or the folks we know to form the amalgam of characters we create is what makes them relatable. Those who strive to write as far away from themselves as possible sometimes end up with characters that are difficult to connect with. A tad less authentic. To some degree, we want to recognize the people we read about, whether we see ourselves in the characters or recognize those we know. It makes me wonder what those writers don’t want to know about themselves. Or what they refrain from sharing.

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As my week off winds to a close and I prepare for the Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books, I must admit that didn’t write one word in my third novel. Not a single word. It continues to run through my head as it waits to be hatched onto the page. It’s not a writer’s block stopping me, but a creative embarrassment of riches. The week before my vacation, a brilliant idea struck and that has been the priority. I’m in a fortunate place where ideas are bountiful. I’m able to see multiple possibilities. And that fragments my focus.

My life has been shifting since I started writing that third novel. I’m becoming a different writer and, perhaps, a different person. Art changes the artist. I went through a similar thing in film school where I cranked out so much work I didn’t have anything else to give and had to pivot. I went into CalArts with aspirations of being an experimental narrative director and came out a traditional narrative screenwriter. I know that I’m shifting out of the chick lit genre, and this book is a bridge to that, but I’m not sure where that will lead me. Aside from writing, I have other creative projects and goals to achieve. Happily, I see a great deal of potential.

That’s a common problem with visionaries.

Get Lucky

ShamrockThey say you have to create your own luck. Things just don’t happen by chance. It takes hard work and planning, honing skills and nurturing creativity. You must study your market, know your audience. Stay true to yourself, but don’t be afraid to pivot. Overnight success takes at least a decade. And not everyone is meant to make it. After all, talent will only take you so far.

The truth is dumb luck plays a big part in success. Sometimes, you simply are in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, and the right people notice.

Who knew we wanted to read a Brit’s diary? Who could have imagined wizard children would be compelling? From sparkling vampires to a set number of Grey, it’s the unexpected (and oft-rejected) in Literature that sparks the next “big thing” that readers and publishers and marketers want.

And then that becomes the only thing they are looking for.

As an artist or businessperson, you have two choices: go with that flow or carve your own path.

People do find success chasing trends. A round of golf claps to them. I think that would end up being an exhausting and passionless pursuit. It’s more technical and less of an art. Paint by numbers, if you will. That’s not to say lovely work can’t happen that way, but how long can one sustain the chase?

There is luck to be found in what I like to call “ravenous genres” such as Romance, Mystery/Suspense, Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Book series do well with readers who can not get enough good stuff and are very open to reading unknown/new authors. If you have those bones in you, write that way. If you want to dabble in more than one genre, pick your pen names so you can market yourself/your work accordingly. Audiences don’t “travel” the way we would hope they would.

Young Adult is another space where authors can create stories and series that just might jump the fence and become popular amongst ol’ adults. If your passion takes you in that direction, follow it.

For those of us in the vast wilderness of Women’s Literature, it can be a long walk in the dark. Chick Lit seems to be a topic again lately, as the pioneers of it have grown up, their writing evolved and new works released, but it seems to remain a muddy puddle. The term is still seen as disparaging. By that, readers are kept away from its newer authors who are also helping the genre evolve. I have been begging the industry to either embrace the term or come up with something better so we can help readers who want that middle ground between “serious” Fiction and bodice-ripping Romance find those books. Because that is the land wherein Chick Lit resides. It’s the Rhode Island of Fiction. A tiny, lovely place that you have to squint to find on a map. 

 

Today, there is a huge amount of content available. Whether it’s television series, movies, music or books, anyone can be a “creator” now, and that is both wonderful and overwhelming. Luck becomes the needed element in one’s success. How does one conjure up something as random as that?

Tenacity is required. The desire to become better at your craft is non-negotiable. Listen to your critics, and develop your inner one. You have to put yourself out there, which is not easy if you are an introvert like most artists. Make yourself known in your community and then grow that community. That whole “power in numbers” thing is valid. It does take a village.

Let’s be honest: Luck is something you step in. But you have to be active in order to stumble upon it. So, get out there and stomp your ground. If you feel you are out there alone, fumbling in the dark, perhaps you are paving the way to the next big thing. Shine that light, darling.