Warning: I'm feeling reflective!
In life, we are always in transit, phasing from who we were to who we are. Just a minute ago you were someone different and in a minute you'll be different still.
Sometimes there is a thing we want to return to-- perhaps because we promised ourselves we wold-- only to discover you cannot go back.
For me this has been the cello. Middle school was hell and my home life was a fast sinking ship that ended in foster care. I found refuge in the school orchestra. I was lucky because the school kept donated instruments for poor kids could borrow. This meant anyone could play. This meant I could play.
Despite having loner instruments, I was a rare bird from a different class of people. The loners were most often used by the kids who had forgotten their violin, viola, bass or cello at home. Many of the kids had been playing since they were four or five. None had picked up an instrument for the first time in middle school.
The music teacher was clear that I was at a deficit with no experience and no money for private instruction. She wasn't not trying to dissuade me, but rather prepare for the reality. I could not expect to up with my peers. I had not met an adult who met the issues head on, did not deny them. These are the facts girl. You need to give up your lunch everyday and practice on the weekends. And even if you practice until your fingers bleed. You can't keep up with the kids and their private instructors.
I was not raised high class, but I came to roost there with books, art, writing, equestrian pursuits and music nonetheless. As with art, music was just something I could do. I was not by any means a savant. I gave up my lunches. I took the cello home on the bus every weekend-- endured the jeers this brought.
Picture a chubby girl with a wondering eye who always wore sweat pants and ugly second hand snake skin glasses because her mother had decided to fight the status quo with bad taste. Picture her on any bus with any group of middle school age children.
I might have well hung a sign around my neck that read: Please tease the shit out of me.
Perhaps it was watching me try so hard, always coming up a little short, but I worked my way into my music teacher's heart. Soon, she too was giving up her lunches to give me the private instruction I could not afford. When at 14, I transitioned from living with my mother to living in the home of strangers, I had the cello. And I would have kept the cello. But high school came there were no instruments to borrow. And then I was at a different high school with no orchestra. (To my foster mother's relief. She knew had to deal with drugs and criminal behavior, but not an okay cellist/aspire equestrian/avid reader/artist. I've never been one to follow the crowd, what can I say.) So, I joined choir.
In orchestra, when one of the kids, but particular this one boy, set about making fun, I pick up my bow and play until my heart danced with music. Because I made my heart dance, the music wasn't bad. But again, no savant. Yet this boy and the others were silenced by not bad because it was so unexpected.
I could not achieve not bad in choir because I was just plain old bad. The old adage, practice makes perfect, isn't always true. Practice only made me a bad singer who had practiced.
Fast forward some fifteen years, and I finally bought myself a cello. It was a rocky start but, to the surprise of my Korean instructor, I was not bad. Over the course of six months I progressed from Suzuki book one to book four and that's where things stalled.
Whenever I listen to classical music I get an itch to play,but this and passion are two different things. I have had my cello for nearly three years and aside from those first few months, I rarely play it. Twice in the last year in fact. So I put it up for sale because it is a cumbersome object for one with no roots and In six months, I'm going to spread my wings.
I'm not coordinated enough to fly so lets say I'll plummet into the next phase of my life. With an international job, and perhaps after some stateside time, more international work, such a large object as a cello presents nothing but obstacles and unnecessary relocating expenses.
For numerous and logical reasons, parting with the large musical instrument I don't play is the right thing to do. Yet our present is inevitably tied to our past by strings. For me the strings are pretty literal. Mostly though, it's breaking the promise I made to the little girl I once was. I promised her that one day I would buy a cello and play until I stopped being little short, that I would play until the bill was paid in full.
Well, I did get a cello, but I don't play and I'm still a little short. I think I just summed up some inexplicable part of life. It's not what I expected, but it's not so bad either.
So far this month I've had three short stories held for further consideration, one of which was rejected yesterday, and six form letters.
Agent wise I've received five: Dr. Uwe Stender of TriadaUS Literary Agency,Bernadette Baker-Baughman of Victoria Sanders & Associates, Jennifer Azantian of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary, Inc. I mention them by name because I wanted to thank them without clogging their in-boxes. These are great agents that any author would be lucky to have.
So agents thank you for rejecting me. I mean this with all sincerity.
Since I started querying in August I've sent out forty or so queries and gotten about 15 rejections. I've made no secrete how I feel about agents whose response is silence. (I don't like it=(
Rejections suck until you experience the alternative: silence= no. Not "maybe," not she/he's seriously considering the story, just "no." Silence was once a place were writers found hope, delusional as it may have been, that their work was a contender.
Now, I treasure each form letter. I appreciate them so much that, if they weren't electronic, I might even be caught petting the paper "No" is written upon. In the meantime, I've settle for stroking the computer screen and saying "This isn't what you think," to the coffee shop staff as I'm escorted out of the cafe`. "I got a form rejection from an agent today and I just wanted to give it some love."
"How does that improve this situation?" the Korean man said in perfect English.
From kindergarten to High School I was mediocre student except for two subjects: art and lunch.
Lunch was my favorite subject despite the social hierarchy of the cafeteria. In all my morning classes I looked forward to lunch and after lunch, I immediately started looking forward to dinner.
Once the cafeteria served this meat and rice balls. They looked disgusting but I thought they were delicious and though I could never say this out loud-- the entire student body called them maggot burgers -- I harbored a secrete hope that they would be served at least twice a week. But the lunch lady must have gotten wind of the meal's nickname because the debuted but twice.
To be fair, my mother could not cook. Dinner at our house made cafeteria food look like cuisine. If you love food and I always have-- my very first words were "Pass the mashed potatoes please"-- you learn to cook.
Cooking in Korea sucks. I have but one burner and a cubby hole called a kitchen. But despite the size of the kitchen and the fact that I am leaving Korea in May of 2013 if not earlier, I bought some new pots to replace the old scarred ones. Having grown up cooking on cast iron, I'm hard on Teflon. What can I say?
Anyway, I could not find a photo of these amazing pots. It is the handle I most wanted to show you. See the handle is removable and this is not a new thing, I think combined with other features, the Go Cook brand is amazing. Proof to the point. Today I browned my chicken on the stove, and then after un-clipping the handle, I tossed the chicken pot and all in the toaster oven to bake while I put the potatoes on to boil.
I thought the way the pots stacked was the best part. And then I thought it was well food cooks in them. And then I thought it was how easy they are to wash without the handle. But I was wrong. Everything is the best part. So if you see a brand called Go Cook-- I believe it hails from Europe-- don't hesitate. Purchase a set.
I started my first fast food job three days before I turned sixteen. When your in high school, fast food's flexible hours are attractive. The work sucks, especially closing the store when all the friers have to be broken down and film of grease scrubbed off the floors with a product called degreaser.
My lot in life kept me in the front of every story I worked out. I was a damned good cashier and I was polite to customers even when it hurt.
As a consequence I've seen people go berserk because their special order burrito or hamburger wasn't perfect. Once customer tried to pull a girl I worked with right through the driver's window. In this case he was rabid over a taco and when she leaned out to take the bag of mistakes back, he grabbed her. She screamed and seven of us dropped what we were doing to come running.
It was late, just before closing and I don't think he realized how many people were working. Seeing it happen taught me a lesson about leaning out of the window too far. Don't do it. I also learned how to avoid quick change artists, free food scams, and that customers would orders that weren't theirs. Some would even return shamelessly to the counter for their order.
When I worked at Pals, a strange but delicious regional joint, we had this one customer who always got the wrong order. Her special hamburger was not rocket science and yet every time she ordered it, we managed to screw it up by epic proportion. More often than not, she got a sandwich she hadn't ordered or paid for. She was never belligerent, because we always apologized and gave her the correct food. But one day, she broke. She cursed up a storm about how we never got her order right.
It's unfortunate, but until she threw her fit, she had been just a face in the crowd. I didn't actually believe her as she screamed at me-- customers have been trained to claim this in hopes of free food. I recoiled from the verbal abuse, hollered what I needed and directed her to pull up indicating we'd bring her the food.
Her order was not complicated. What exactly, I don't know. But I remember being shocked when she came back and it still wasn't right. Three tries, and we got it. I've worked joints with crappy management where repeated mistakes but for a well oiled fast food machine, which Pals is, this many screw ups is not ordinary. And whether you believe it or not, accuracy is point of pride for many fast food workers. This is because even when a job sucks, employees can't divorce themselves from the warm glow of a job well done. Management has to be radioactive to create total apathy in the staff.
At Pals there was true pride extending beyond this. The full time staff had not resigned themselves to the fact that life had not let them be whatever they wanted to be but embraced it. Patty could sling burgers like nobodies business. When she wasn't on shift, it took two people to do what could handle all on her lonesome. There was one full time staffer for each position and during peek hours where cars wrapped around the restaurant and spilled into the main street, Pals functioned like a well oiled machine. No matter how long the line was, customers never hesitated to stop.
We couldn't wallow in our repeated mistakes over the woman's order, but because we had pride, we felt it. We snapped at each other to make sure we each did our part and at last we delivered everything correctly. The next time she came through, I remembered her and issued an order to make sure the food was correct.
It wasn't. These happened a few more times before it dawned on me that this was a thing beyond our control. This woman had a lot in life. Every time she ordered food, it would be wrong. It's such a small thing that God, the great creator, fate, whatever couldn't be bother with such. Well, perhaps the powers that be have a whacked sense of humor, but I think everybody has a thing they can't avoid. For me it's crazy neighbors. The joy of my first apartment was marred by the schizophrenic living next door. Actually, he seemed pretty nice and I tried to keep an open mind when he told me about his issue and said I had nothing to worry about because he was on medication. I could not keep my mind open after he showed up, knife in hand, banging at door one night. Suffice to say, I didn't answer the door.
Well, he had a legitimate mental condition. Most of my neighbors since have been sanely nuts. Despite overwhelming evidence, it wasn't until recently that I realize wherever I move, if my I have sane neighbors to start with, they will promptly leave and the crazy folk move in.
This is just a theory of course. I can't prove it's true, but I think, despite free will, people get a parcel. Life's lot means your friend can do x and nobody will say mum and when you do x you get arrested. There are just certain ways things work and don't work for you. Perhaps it's fate keeping us on our path or perhaps the powers that be have a fucked up sense of humor.
So what's your lot in life? Does it frustrate you? Have you made peace with it?
The minute things start to go as planned, I get both excited and anxious. The excitement comes from progress and right now that involves progress with novels.
Even when a project is finished, I am always editing. I want to be prepared to say an emphatic"Hell yes!" should an agent ask, "Do you have a more recent draft?" Never mind that this has never happened and probably will never happen.
Because I insist on being as prepared for success as for as I am for a zombie apocalypse, I am a self-generating anxiety machine. The anxiety is different than fear. Anxiety is always a result of anticipation of good things.
I rode horses for nearly 15 years and always, in the time it took to leave home and arrive at the stables for my lesson or just a relaxing trail ride, the anticipation of what I would do had me about ready to jump out of my skin.
Then I got on the horse, which was indeed as exciting the first time as it was the last time I rode. But it was also a let down as I was faced with reality.
"Damn-it, I'll never do half the things I had planned to do today, because, now that I'm on this effing thing, I'm scared shitless."
I suspect that landing an agent and/or getting a publishing contract share a lot with my experience as a rider. I think perhaps one of the best times in a writer's life is the time spent imaging how great success is going to be.
Agents have been relatively mum about my Meat Head queries, and I don't mean form rejections. I mean silence but since no response is becoming the agent preferred method of rejection, I can't read too much into that. But of course being a needy writer, thoughts like "Oh, my God it's so bad, they can't even reject me!" Of course, I give that head voice an ultimatum.
"Shut up or I'm going to make you stand in the dark corner over there."
This is a visualization technique I've used to deal with Fear. People who know me now are surprised to learn that I'm terrified of everything, and just a few years ago this was especially true for escalators. I could not even look at one without breaking into an anxiety induced sweat.
As you can imagine, when I announced I was going to live and work abroad, my friends who knew me then were like "Um, there's a lot of escalators in the airport and the world is full of things you're terrified of."
"Well, I've ridden horses for years," I said.
"Yeah, and you're still terrified."
I shrugged. Slightly less than I was fifteen years ago."
Because I'm afraid of everything but I refuse to let it rule my life, I'm well practiced in putting the cowling head-voice, Fear, in the corner, where it can observe but not intefere. I think when writers get the negative head voice barking about this or that, it's not really neediness. It's actually Fear.
Fear isn't useless-- there is a time and place for it-- but of all the emotions, it probably is the least needed emotion for modern humans. There are no monsters, lions, wolves or, and I'm terribly saddened by this, zombies,waiting in dark alleys to eat us. Fear is an overlooked employee, exploited a few times a year at theme parks and regularly by thrill seekers. But it's unimportant in our day to day lives, so it creates crisis and gets revenge by interfering with our dreams.
I can without reservation, that you can throw yourself at escalators regardless of Fear says. Now, go ride an escalator... or write something that you're afraid to write.
I'm not talking about technique, grammar, or plot. I'm talking about habits.Not what you put on paper, but how you put it there?
From me, this is not working on one story until that story is finished, but working on many until they are all finished--staggering completion dates so the rotation doesn't begin to feel stale. I've realized that in five years I might produce zero novels but after five years and two months, I might have seven.
To do this I dedicate one week M-F, to story X. The next week I work on story Y, circling back to story X. Saturday and Sunday are my free days. Every writer needs time out. But if your like me, a writer who tends to get ourselves bent out of shape because things aren't progressing fast enough, you really do need to enforce down time.
Finding the right writing habits increases productivity and quality. Trying to write under the wrong conditions, makes writing itself a chore. So while, I agree that authors should try advice from other others on this, I'd add the caveat that you have to keep trying new things. When you find the right habits, you'll know them by the end result.
How do you like to write? Do you try techniques of other authors? Do you feel inept when your method doesn't match the ideal habits of your favorite author?
When I was in college, I started an internet business. The business did not exist. I did make a website with products such as Lard Lips Lip Balm and personalized straight jackets. Membership cost $13.13 for thirteen months and got you a rubber monkey. The name of the company was Ruber Monkey because I misspelled rubber when I set up the website. I cared not one whit about spelling at the time and so I embraced this error in our slogan. RuberMonkey.com the misspelled website that doesn't exist. I involved a friend in a variety of antics. We produced a few videos, some of which we paid to air on public cable, very late night on channels few people watched when they were sober. Being imaginative souls, we got a kick of the idea that people were scratching their heads, and asking themselves WTF at 1AM. Perhaps we even broke some laws by doing this.
These days, I'm starting to query agents in a spartan fashion. Part of this is my finished novels needed CPR. Writing short stories has given me the novel and plot recitation skills I need. I have decided that I can't write any more short stories. My focus is getting the longer works into circulation.
Writing short stories also taught me that I like to work on multiple projects at the same time and how to do that successfully. Because novels cannot be finished in a week, I'm rotating three projects. This has been My Father's Heart Weak. So in three weeks, I'll work on it again. One of the tricks to doing this is to note everything you do. I used to work in a call center where everyday I summarized about 70 conversations into the computer so the next rep would know what the costumer called about. Every skill, everything you ever do will teaches you something you can use later.
Here is this skill from a job I hated, making it possible for me to pick on large works right were I left off. I use Notezilla, which allows you to stick notes to files or files to notes whichever you prefer, to track my progress and out look to manage my writing schedule.
Right now I have one novel (Meat Head) in circulation. I don't consider this an easy sell for a first novel. But it won't be an easy sell for a second or a tenth novel because it's the only book I have like it. I can't say, "this is the kind of author I am. This is the kind of books I will write."
Because of this, I recently decided to submit a query that deals with this issue (I am less concerned with landing an agent-- I either will or won't, and if it's the latter, I'll go the indie rout-- than how best to deal with my 31 flavors.) I have developed an analogy involving ice cream. I say that I can serve chocolate and vanilla, but that I also serve mocha-tuna-wtf.
I've talked about this before-- should I have pen names for different styles? This analogy triggered a realization about my own reading habits. I pick up Stephen King because I like his flavor. I read Christ Crutcher because I like his flavor. I return to the same authors because they each offer a flavor I like and I read the flavor that suits my mood.
Then, I realized in all of this, if I publish my 31 flavors all under the same name, I'm going to be such an unreliable author that readers won't ever been in the mood M.R. Jordan. Before, I thought it was matter of trust readers to not be confused. Now, I think it's a little more complicated than that.
And it truly does complicate the agent hunt. Should I be up front about my eclectic tastes or surprise them with a humor book that proves selling personalized straight jackets was not profession not so far off the mark. I don't know. I suppose I'll try both ways and go with what works.
Below is the Lard Lips Lip Balm commercial.
(pst, Lard Lips Lip Balm is 100% natural because it's made from lard. The items came from the back of a cake mix and some other random food products. To my knowledge, none of the ingredients are in lip balm. And yes, if anyone had been willing to pay $2.99 for 1/4 oz jar of lard, I would have sold it to them.)
It's funny how at time rejections just roll off and at other times how they sting. When I get the rejection blues, remember a poem by DH Lawrence.
"I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself."
I am not a wild thing. I am human. Sometimes I wast energy feeling bad about inconsequential things. It does not matter that I know they are inconsequential either. Sometimes you just got to feel what you feel. And so at six o'clock on Thursday I have scheduled an half an hour for self-pity session.... which I forgot about and scheduled dinner.
After shouting "come in" my friend entered my apartment and stood arms folding, watching me. I was on the floor, doodling, crying and rocking myself.
"What are you doing?"
"My weekly date with self-pity. I never going to sell another story. My writing sucks. I'll be jettisoned into space for the dribble I put on the page." I moaned. "How about you?"
She gave me the you're-weird look. (I don't get this look as often as you'd expect.) "No thanks, I'm good. "
This never happened. But some psychologists do recommend scheduling time to feel bad so there is an iota of truth here. How do you manage rejection blues?
M.R. Jordan is a writer, editor, sporadic blogger, and lover of beer. Lives in South Korea with her two cats, Bear and Geumbi.
Bear (Gom in Korean) then (above) now (below)
Geumbi (Gold in English)... then (above) and now (below).