On Being Gentle

Last week, while tidying up my house, I came across an artifact that looks pretty ordinary, but reminds me of an important idea. It’s one that we hear all the time, and one that all too often falls by the wayside. We’re in a hurry, we’re distracted, we’re frustrated, we aren’t thinking of being gentle.

The artifact is this: a small lidded vessel made of clay. It’s a lovely blue-green glazed piece, only a few inches tall. It has a pattern that reminds me a little of fish scales. I remember the day that I got it, and why, and why I very nearly gave it away.

A few years ago, I taught an eight-week letterpress printing class at the incredible Penland School of Crafts. I was so excited to be there, teaching a skill that I love to students so eager and delightful. My students came from all different skill levels—some had been printing for years, and some had never carved a block or set a single line of type. They were creative, energetic, and determined to make the most of their experience at the school. They created ambitious projects, learned how to make books from the prints they made from these behemoth printing presses, and in short, crushed it every day.

Near the end of sessions at Penland, it’s tradition to have a “show and tell” day, where lots of artists swap their wares. For seven weeks, over a hundred students had been experimenting in metal, clay, painting, and print, and had made new friends, collaborated on projects, and worked out trades for pieces their new friends had made.

On the day of the show and tell, I made my rounds, and a few artists asked to trade their work for mine. When this happens, I always accept. One, because I like collecting art, and two, because if someone likes my work enough to trade me something that they have made with love, then I want to trade, too. I traded my work for earrings, prints, and a small ceramic bowl.

After the show and tell was over, I went back to my classroom to find one of my students, C., in tears. She was one of my most talented, energetic students. She’d always been excited to be in the studio, had a contagious laugh—and always had a huge grin on her face, like her heart was overflowing.

And y’all, this young woman was sobbing while another student whispered to her, her hand on C.’s shoulder. When I walked over and asked C. what had happened, was she all right, she told me.

“I asked R. to trade something,” she said. “And R. said no, because my piece wasn’t an equal value to hers.”

My heart broke for her. C., just out of college, so excited to have found a craft that she loved, had just had another artist tell her that her work wasn’t enough. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t valuable enough. And isn’t this the fear that so many artists have? Deep down, we worry that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t creative enough, we aren’t valuable enough.

And this woman, R., maybe not intentionally (I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt for a moment) made that fear realized.

Here’s the thing: that lidded bowl that I’d liked so much and traded a print for? It was made by R. After C. told me her story, and after we’d talked for a while, and her smile had come back, I didn’t want that bowl anymore. It would just remind me of R. and how she had chosen her words so carelessly in that moment, when a young student, in awe of her work, asked to trade only to be hurt. I didn’t want to have something of R.’s anymore, regardless of how much I liked her work.

I finished out my class, and we all traded prints and books. And I kept that bowl, instead of giving it away. For a while, every time I looked at it, I thought of R. and her hurtful words, but then I thought this: I’ll keep that bowl for one reason.

It will help me to remember, first and foremost, always to be kind.

***

P.S. In case you were wondering, C. went on to become an even more inspiring artist. She went to grad school, and did some exhibitions, and continues to be brave and beautiful and amazing.

My Big Reveal: The Next Bayou Sabine Book is Here!

I’m super excited today because the fifth book in the Bayou Sabine series is almost officially out in the world. It took a long, twisting road to get to this point, but it has been an amazing experience. I never expected my first novel to grow into a series, but here we are, five books later.

I was in graduate school when I wrote the earliest draft of my first novel Trouble in Bayou Sabine. My master’s thesis was a “literary” novel (I say that because, was it? Really? It was supposed to be, but you know how these things go), and I started writing another book on the side—one just for fun that felt an awful lot like a romance novel. In fact, I really thought it was a romance novel. I thought this for a lot of reasons, but mainly because the love story was the central part of the book. (I’d later learn that the romance genre has certain expectations that I didn’t always meet in that book—but that’s a different conversation.) This was about 2005.

Anyway, I graduated with two finished manuscripts—one of them I shopped around, and it was named a finalist for a contest, and the other sat collecting dust. For about eight years.

During those years, I sent out the “literary” novel, and then I started teaching, and then I went back to school for an art degree, and then I moved to the Midwest, and every now and then, I’d think about that couple in the “romance” that was stored somewhere on my old Mac. (Remember the Macs that looked like some helmeted alien head with see-through neon backs? And the clamshell laptops they made to match? That’s how far back in time we’re going here.)

One day, I opened that old file, and I read that manuscript. And sweet baby Jesus, it was terrible. But there was a spark in there. As I read, I thought: This is salvageable. There is something here.

I rewrote it. And then I set it aside.

I did some other things. I read a pile of other books. I took another job. I wrote some short stories. And I kept thinking about that couple, Enza and Jack, and this funny romantic story that wasn’t quite a romance, and wasn’t quite literary, but kept creeping back into my mind. I didn’t know what to do with it, but I couldn’t forget it.

I got serious about rewriting it. I added threads to make it more complex. I created a love triangle, some misunderstandings (because who doesn’t have those in spades?). I deepened the plot, and gave the characters some real-life problems. I added some mystery, some heartache, some comedy, some redemption. And pretty soon, it felt like a real book with a beating heart, and not something I should shove aside anymore.

I got my good friend and writing partner Katie to help me edit and tell me it wasn’t stupid. We found a press that was actively looking for new writers, and that spurred me on to finish. I revised until I felt like I was on my hundredth draft. I knew Enza and Jack like they were my own family. And then I had this book, and I didn’t know if it was romance, or women’s fiction, or something in between, and I wrote a query and crossed my fingers.

That was 2015.

It was published under a different title, and then I wrote a novella to go alongside it and share more of Enza’s history. And then Katie said, “When’s the next Bayou book coming? What happens now?”

And I thought OMIGOD WHAT HAPPENS NOW.

So I wrote the second novel, Bayou Whispers, and kept the threads going. Relationships can always get more complicated, right? We can never know EVERYTHING about a person—our parents, our lovers, our friends—those stories can go on forever. I wrote a second novella to be included in an anthology, and then I suddenly had a spin-off—the two secondary characters from Bayou Whispers had a good love story unfold between Kate and Andre in the novella (Just the Trouble I Needed), and I felt an urge to keep writing about them. I wondered what happened to them, and how their story would continue.

And that what if? led me to Trouble Will Follow. Kate’s story got even more complex, and no matter how hard I tried to keep the tone light (I wanted Hallmark and rom-com, dammit!), that book took a hard right turn and went to the dark place. I’d been going through some difficult things myself, and those feelings kept creeping into this book. It’s the hardest book I’ve ever written because, in a lot of ways, it was the most true. Certainly the book is not autobiographical in the strictest sense, but a lot of my own turmoil found its way into the story. My heroine was dealing with some the hardships I was facing, but dialed up to 11. (I wrote more about that in a previous post, back when I was dialed up to 11, too.)

I fought that for a long time, through a couple of drafts—I tried to tamp down the hard, bitter parts of that story and play up the lighthearted love story. But after a while, it felt like a facade that kept crumbling. The book needed to go to the dark place, and I had to let it take me there, and then write myself out of it. And in the end, writing my heroine into a moment of grace helped me to find a little, too.

Certain parts of our lives are really hard to write about. I mean REALLY hard, like “would anyone ever believe this happened?” hard, or “will my family disown me when they read it” hard. I didn’t start writing that book to work through a trying part of my own life, but by the time I got to the final draft, I realized that it had actually helped me solve some problems of my own and make peace with a few demons that weren’t as fictional as I’d presumed. In other words, I didn’t realize that I needed quite so much healing until I got to the end. I had to take that hard right turn to get there.

When I finished this book, I thought it was the end of the series. I’d written my characters into the dark places and then into redemption, and they’d made their peace and it felt like the end. Not every loose end gets tied up with a bow (because really, when does that happen?), but there’s a “happy for now” finish, and I’d already started thinking about new characters and a new book. And then Katie said, “What happens in the next Bayou book?” And I thought: Well, hell. What, indeed?

***

Trouble Will Follow releases in ebook and paperback on October 1, 2019. You can pre-order it for Kindle today. If you’d like to get the first four books in the Bayou Sabine series, you can get the box set for Kindle.

Suggested reading order:
Trouble in Bayou Sabine (read it for free!)
Back to Bayou Sabine
Bayou Whispers
Just the Trouble I Needed
Trouble Will Follow

Writing Tip #17: Sometimes You Have to Walk Away

A plate from Audubon’s Birds of America. Not my mystery bird, but he’s awfully cute.

Last week I had the good fortune to have a week alone in cabin at a writers’ retreat. Every year I try to carve out a week to spend at a place like this that cuts me out of my day-to-day life and forces me to focus on a creative projects. It’s great because the workaholic in me goes into hyper-creative mode, thinking “Hey, I took this week off of work, which means it’s costing me (hours x hourly wage) to BE HERE. So I’d damn well better BE HERE NOW and do what I came to do” (e.g. the thing I can’t do in the evenings at home).

A caveat: yes, I am a writer. Yes, I can write at home on my laptop. IF I stop doing all of the other daily tasks like doing laundry, cooking dinner, answering emails, taking a shower. Most days, that’s a big IF. I find it extremely difficult to tune out all of the mundane tasks that are competing for my attention and devote time just for myself, to focus on creative work.

So last week, I spent 6 days in a cabin with no internet, no cell service, and no other people.

It was glorious.

A book I’d been thinking about for a long time came pouring out, and I wrote over 25,000 words. And the best part? It was FUN. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like what I was supposed to be doing with my day. But that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stumbled onto an old book and walked away from my project one day.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the most of my time in a place like this: once I settle in and start working, I don’t want to stop for acts like eating and socializing. I had to make myself stop sometimes, and go do something else just so my fingers wouldn’t fall off from all the typing. I went to dinner in the lodge and met some other artists. I took walks in the woods. I went to the old library on site and happened upon a 1942 volume of Audubon’s Birds of America.

This was exciting for two reasons: (1) I love Audubon’s paintings and I geek out over birds like you wouldn’t believe. So this book is basically catnip. (2) My new book in part centers on an unusual bird that’s been sighted—one that was believed to have been extinct. When I went to the library that day, I needed to know what this bird was. I was starting this book, but I had no idea what the bird was, and it was a central character in itself. All along, I’d been thinking it would be something like the ivory-billed woodpecker. Maybe a Carolina parakeet. It needed to be a bird that had a unique call, and one that had been seen in South Carolina.

A quick internet search gave me my answer: a warbler. Just for fun, I flipped through the Audubon book, and there was my mystery bird. A warbler named for Audubon’s best friend, and one that had nested in the southeastern US. It was easily confused with hooded warblers and magnolia warblers, and there were unconfirmed sightings in the 1980s, but it’s thought to be extinct. It was perfect.

That discovery energized me. I went back to my outline, and filled in the gaps. Suddenly the story took more shape, and I felt less worried about how it just felt like a hot mess. The important pieces fell into place—enough to get started on that zero draft—and that’s when the book started pouring out. This bird was a touchstone, much like it is for the heroine in my book, and all I could think was, “Hey, it’s a good thing I wandered into the library today.” It’s a good thing I walked away and took a breath.

The point of all this is that I needed a reminder. I needed to remember that even when we’ve carved out time for ourselves, and we’ve sat down to make this next creative thing, we still have to give ourselves a time-out. We still have to take time to relax, to explore, and to discover. Those moments outside of work time, when we let ourselves daydream, and let our minds wander—those are the moments that let the magic seep in. Those are the moments that happen when we walk away.

Slowing Down Means Time to Grow

Sometimes the hardest thing about writing is just finishing the dang book.

I recently read an article where the author argued “If it takes you more than a year to write a book, then you’re doing it wrong.”  

My boyfriend said, “You should be wary of any article that tells you if you’re not doing things a certain way, then you’re doing them wrong.” He has a solid point. We have to find the way that works for us. And slow isn’t always a bad thing. 

I envy authors who can sit down and bang out a book in a month or two—or even six. But there are plenty of us who struggle with finding the right words, crafting the story the way we envision it will be best, and making sure every piece of it fits together snugly. I’m a perfectionist with certain things, and books are one of them. I want my books to be as close to their perfect as I can get them before I unleash them into the world.  

Before I wrote novels, I made artist books. I’m a letterpress printer, and a printmaker. I carve wood blocks to print, and I make books by hand when I’m not writing novels. (You remember Audrey Niffeneger and The Time Traveler’s Wife? She made some killer artist books before she wrote novels, and she completely inspired me to keep doing both, because in my world, you can never have enough creative projects happening. Fun fact: Audrey made handmade paper, too, just like the main character in her novel. I met her at an artist’s retreat once, and she is an amazing lady.) 

When I first started making books, I hand-set metal type, one little upside down letter at a time. The process is anything but fast. I printed broadsides for poems (and looked for short ones from visiting poets because DANG hand-setting metal type takes a long time). But as I wrote my own texts to print, setting that type by hand forced me to think hard about my word choice, and say things with precision. (I’m not saying that everything I wrote was elegant, because I was in grad school, for heaven’s sake. But it made me think hard about my word choice, and that made me get serious about killing the darlings as I revised every book after that.) 

Fast-forward to now, when I’m trying desperately to finish the next book in the Bayou Sabine series, Trouble Will Follow. I wanted this series of books to all be standalones–you get a fuller picture of these people I write about if you read the series in order, but you don’t have to. Each book stands on its own, too. It was important for me to write them that way. My new book, Trouble Will Follow, has taken me over a year to write. There’s a lot of my own life tangled up in this book, and it was hard to write about some of those pieces—but I felt like I had to. And I had to get it just right.

I had to just slow down, and be patient, and cut myself some slack. And give myself some time.

Life feels like it moves super fast most days, and I feel like I have a ticking clock on every project. But sometimes we need to relax, and let our minds wander a little, and give the creativity a moment to take root and grow. For me, rushing through a project defeats the whole purpose of doing something creative: it strips away that time where we meander, and wander, and discover. It’s just like this time when I went hiking with an acquaintance—we were both at a retreat, and wanted to hike a nearby trail. To my horror, this woman took off like a rocket, speed-walking along this rocky uphill trail in the Appalachians. It was my first time at that retreat, and I was looking to take a leisurely stroll and soak up the wildlife. Instead, I spent the whole hour keeping up with this woman and trying not to break my ankle or be left behind. When we were finished, I couldn’t remember a single detail about that trail—the kinds of trees or flowers we’d seen, the kinds of birds we’d heard. All I remembered was watching the ground so I didn’t trip and fall. (I should have just let her go ahead and taken my time—never again did I go on a hike where I didn’t take the time to enjoy it.)

For me, writing is just like that hike. Speeding through it strips all the joy away. Giving myself permission to slow down gives me space to seek out the wonder.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com.