Ask: How Do You Know When It’s Time to Move On?

From Jessica:

How do you know when it’s time to give up on a manuscript? When you’ve spent so much time with a piece and it’s not getting picked up… How do I know it’s time to shelve it?

Dear Jessica,

A timely question for me right now, which is funny because you asked this of me last summer. Both of us sitting at a fancy tiki bar with our fancy tiki drinks with a bunch of other fancy writers, one of whom had a birthday, and all of us talking about our work. You asked this question. At the time, my manuscript was in a lonely purgatory and I didn’t have the heart to answer.

At the time, I had spent over four years with that book manuscript we spoke of. Four years and four major revisions and a year of querying and a year of full requests from agents and a year of requests for revisions from those agents, one of which came through an exciting and debilitating phone call, all of which resulted in painful passes. When you asked your question, I had gone a year without looking at that manuscript, without thinking about it, not because I just didn’t want to but because it was depressing and I needed to be in a state of not depressing for just a little bit.

The year off from the manuscript had been a good one—stories picked up for publication, invitations to read my work on stage under actual spotlights, essays on writing published to sites that ten years ago I would scour for clues on how to become a writer. This was the year I began teaching classes on how to become a writer (also simply known as how to take yourself seriously and trust yourself and your work enough to stand behind it.)

All this good stuff and still the nagging feeling of something unfinished. I had started book two. Book two was a flagging mess of ideas that reminded me of how lonely and confused I was during the first year of book one. All made furthermore depressing because I had left off book one with the distinct feeling that it was broken and would remain broken and I had finally reached the point where maybe, truly, I simply wouldn’t go back to fix it.

I remember saying this to so many people: It’s got a fatal flaw. No matter how many times I re-arranged the pieces, added more pieces, attempted to square the story over and over and over again, it never felt correct. It’s got a fatal flaw, I would shrug. Nothing I can do.

That’s the state of mind I was in about it when you asked that question that night. And at the time, I can’t remember if I answered or didn’t answer—I’m sure if I answered, I answered with some kind of joke because that’s what I do when something makes me a little sad. I might have shrugged, insisted I had washed my hands of the story. Its time was done, on to the new one. And yet, I opted to leave the question unanswered.

I left the question unanswered for months after that night but I thought about it often. The truth was I didn’t know when a person knew it was time to give up on a manuscript. Giving up seemed like such a weak option, quitting. A black and white answer to what was so not a black and white problem. Calling it moving on didn’t help—it just felt like abandonment. Allow it to die or pretend it never existed? Terrible options. I put it out of my mind. I hate leaving questions unanswered but this one in particular was too terrible to contemplate too closely.

Fast forward some months. I am at critique group. A friend comes in sharing excerpts of a book I’d seen before. The voice is so clear. I knew how hard she’d worked on it and was working on it still. My own book knocked lightly. I went home with my heart pounding.

So I pulled it back out. The idea of it shimmered in my mind; I still loved this story, still believed in it. I sent it to an editor to read out of sheer curiosity, just to see, just to make sure. After she read it, I re-read the book myself. It was all there, clear as day. How to square the story.

You have a book. You have a book! the editor said, over and over. I did have a book—finally, after years of arguing with the manuscript, it decided I had suffered enough and made itself clear. The answer showed itself, the puzzle piece that connects all the others. It didn’t even hardly require any rewriting. I worked at break-neck speed to edit and rework the book because to do anything else seemed wrong.

So here now, months later, I have the answer to the question: The work will tell you when it’s done.

When it’s done, it is done in a dead way. If it’s not a story that is to be, it won’t last long. That shimmer will go dormant and you’ll look at it wondering why you ever thought any of it was a good idea. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this as ideas floating in the ether, waiting to land on a person. When the idea no longer wants to be realized, it will leave you and it look as dead to you as the inanimate stack of papers it is.

But if it’s not done, it will remain silent and wait until you are ready. Or better yet, it will wait until it is ready, at which point it will insist on being resumed.

So when you asked me that question, I didn’t know how to answer. Because the book wasn’t dead—it was dormant. It was waiting for me. And having been writing long enough to trust the process but not long enough to trust myself, I couldn’t give a straight answer to the question.

I sent that book on its final pass of submissions just last month. Within one week, I had seven requests. One more week and I had a call. One more week, I had more calls. One more week and I signed a contract. It all happened so quickly it may have re-constituted my entire thoughts on the supernatural.

I am now represented by Kerry D’Agostino of Curtis Brown, Ltd., who loves the story and believes in it as much as I do, who asked over and over again How did you do it? How did you write this? The short answer is that it’s a long answer, one of those funny stories that have no ending.

If you would like to submit a question for a “Dear You” post, please email me at lisa.k.bubert(at)gmail.com. 

Photos: The Writing Attic

Dear you,

This is morning. Every morning, if the sun is not yet up. The room is painted in sunrise pink and when I’m up there working, the windows glow for the neighborhood.

 Mornings in the attic are a ritual. Coffee first, of course, but then straight upstairs to get to work. The kitten comes too, every morning. Her level of helpfulness waxes and wanes; some mornings she’s right there with me, watching me type. Most other mornings she’s playing with everything but the immense lot of toys I bought her.

I love this attic. It is my pride and joy, my own little slice of heaven. To have this space to stretch, toss papers around, be as maniacal as I want, is something that I still marvel at, even a year later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course, the kitten has her own desk, where she does all her important work.

I love this attic because it is filled with gifts and creations from my friends and family. The stained glass books are a gift from my mother-in-law. The antlers were a joint effort from my niece and my brother; she shot the deer and he created the mount. The picture of the lady is a gift I gave myself; my grandmother has a figurine of a lady in a similar dress. But this lady’s hair is tied back and proper, her hands are gloved and holding a bouquet. She is prim and small. The lady in the picture above (titled Vivacious) has her hair down. She is smiling and dancing. The picture is part of a calendar created by the local electric company, year 1950. 

The walls upon entering are decorated with an intentional purpose. Artwork from Texas, gifts from new friends, a photograph taken by my best friend from home during her first college photography class (her grown self now an accomplished photographer.)

Ahead are more reminders of how loved I am. There are photographs taken by my father-in-law when he was young paired with photographs taken by my husband when he too was a teenager. Macrame art from a friend named Lisa. A mobile of seashells, sand dollars, and petrified wood created by a friend on a whim and given to me because I happened to be there when he finished it. There is a canvas art print thrifted and created by my mother-in-law for my husband to outfit his first college apartment, something I vividly remember hanging on his wall when I went to this same apartment for the first time. We were sitting on the couch watching Commando. He laid his head near my lap. This was the night of our first kiss.

When I was four years-old, my mother used to dress me in my sleep at four am and take me to my grandparent’s house so she could work her shift at the hospital and still go to nursing school at the same time. My dad drove truck and was long gone by time the four am wake-up call rolled around. My grandfather waited for me in this chair every single morning. We would sit in it together and watch the weather news until my grandmother woke up and made breakfast. When we moved my grandmother into assisted living, she sat in this chair every day with an oxygen tank hooked to the back. After she died, my mom used it as her sewing chair but once I had room for it, she drove it to Nashville so I could use it in the attic, which tells you everything you need to know about our relationship and what kind of mother she is. Now, it’s the chair where I read my drafts.

There are mementos and memories strewn about this room that breathe life into every word I write. Here, my brother’s glass horse forever memorialized in the broken-hearted essay I wrote when we left Texas. Here, a stolen cup from Olive Garden pilfered for me by a boy with a crush on our high school band trip now used to store idea notes. Real good ones like “widowmakers” and “Do the lord’s work” and “artifacts” and “JUST DEAD INSIDE.”

old attic

And here it was before, the week after we were lucky enough to buy it, just a little dead inside but filled to the brim with potential.

Ask: How Many Pieces Do You Produce in a Year?

From Laura:

How many short stories do you write a year?

Dear Laura (and you),

This question is ultimately about production but I also wonder if maybe, just maybe, lying underneath that question is also the one of how much production is enough? Also known more famously as: Am I enough? 

The question of what is enough underlies everything we do, as writers, as humans, and especially as women. If you’re a Type A person like me, then you can just go ahead and double that pressure. 

The short answer to the question is: it depends. And honestly, while I have been writing for years, I haven’t been writing on a “professional” scale (read: hitting the submission trenches) long enough to really have an average number. Last year, I wrote two stories (barely.) That’s because I spent the majority of the year completing requested revisions on a novel that ultimately got rejected. The year before that I wrote three pieces (two that had been started the year prior) because, again, I spent the majority of the year finishing my novel and preparing for query submission. And the year before that when I moved to Nashville, I wrote only two pieces because we were relocating our lives to Nashville. I would say then that my average is looking like two to three pieces a year, except this year I’ve already written six pieces and it’s not even summer yet.

Some years are just more productive than others. Some years you’re not relocating your life. Some years you’re not writing a novel. Some years you’re feeling pretty good. Other years, you’re low in the lowest lows of rejection. Just last November, I was wallowing and complaining to my husband about how I’d had nothing published that year. That was less than six months ago. I’ve had two stories and two essays published since.  I am in the middle of a very good year and I am going to take this year and run with it. I am going to celebrate as much as I can because next year, or even next month, may not be nearly as good as right now. 

The thing about writing is that writing is meant to be read by someone else. At the heart of all acts of writing, no matter how private, is that one day we’ll want someone else to read it so we can say, “See? You see now?” And in order to have other people read our writing, we have to share it. Sharing usually means submitting. And when we start submitting, that’s when things start to get wonky and we forget what it was we liked about writing in the first place. It starts to become more about numbers—how many pieces are out on submission, how many rejections have come in, how many acceptances, if any—and less about the whole point of writing: the communication. 

And yet, the answer still isn’t to just sit down and write and be happy you wrote. Writing is hard. Writing is even harder when there’s no one on the other end to read your work. It’s a rare occurrence to go bounding to the computer with such enthusiasm because the words are just spilling out. Just last night, I told a group of fellow writers that one of the stories I’d recently published had been written in two days with just two drafts and that it was one of the pieces I’m most proud of. The moment that story came to life was almost otherworldly, that channeling thing that some artists talk about. It happened to me. It happened. But of course, ever since it happened, now I go to the page every morning with extra trepidation—will the magic happen again? Will it ever come back? So far, no other pieces have tumbled out quite like that one and the blank page has only become more terrifying when I know there’s no other force to fill it up except for me. 

And that’s just it—there’s no one else here but you. You, with your words and all your other obligations. Your day jobs, your children, your bills, your pets, your lawns to mow, toilets to clean, teeth to brush, and on and on and on. The answer isn’t to sit down and be happy you wrote, but to be happy you sat down and wrote with everything else you have going on. You got up early or stayed up late. You turned down appealing outings. You watched a little less TV, listened to a few less podcasts. The dishes stayed dirty. And for that, you have a story, or maybe just the start of a story. Submit, sure. It must be done. Goals are never a bad thing to have. But we shouldn’t cling to anything we can’t control (which, ultimately, is everything.)

Some days you write the story. Some days the story writes you. Whatever. If you do write anything, you now have something you didn’t have before that came solely from your heart. A little piece of yourself made immortal. Words that will last long after you do no matter where they are. That is what makes it enough. 

 

If you would like to submit a question for a “Dear You” post, please email me at lisa.k.bubert(at)gmail.com. 

 

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How to Build a Public Library

Dear you,

My day begins and ends with some form of writing. I wake up while it’s still dark, make the coffee, and go upstairs. The attic is only partially insulated so in the winter there are blankets included on my chair. The kitten does her own duty—she jumps to my lap as soon as I’m settled and settles herself in her rightful place: space heater, mascot, teeny monster for now asleep. I organize the various slips of post-its carrying seeds of ideas littered across my desk; I choose which document to open on my computer that particular day. I block the internet. And for an hour and a half, I work.

And then, session over, it’s done. I close everything down. Rouse the kitten and carry her and my empty coffee mug downstairs. It’s 7:30 am—time for the other work.

My other work is the library. What to wear today—what will we be doing. Approachable but professional casual for those long days on the desk. My attempt at business professional for the days with meetings. Lately, it’s been jeans and a t-shirt because we are in the process of building a library.

When I got a library job here in Nashville, I was lucky enough to get the librarian spot at the branch that sorely needed a makeover. It’s one of our larger branch locations with some of the highest foot traffic and, to be honest, it was a very sad building. Carpets stained, furniture cracked and beat up from years of abuse. The whole place a dim reminder of the nineties and not in a good way. I loved it, despite its sadness.

I loved it, because for the first time in my library career, I felt a real duty to this community. In all libraries, we are doing the Lord’s work. But in this library, with these patrons who needed help opening email accounts so they could apply for jobs online, for housing, for food assistance, these patrons who just wanted a quiet, safe place, and those children who needed safe people—in this library, the Lord’s work was always close at hand.

It was in the way we sat with them at the computers and assured them that it would be okay, we would get this frustrating thing figured out. It was in the way we talked aimlessly with people who just needed to talk. It was the kids who wanted daily hugs. (In Texas, I had a no hugging policy because I didn’t want it to be misconstrued. That has now changed. When a child screams your name upon seeing you and runs at you with a hug, you have no choice but to comply and mean it.) And all the while, we did this holy work in an old building with bad lighting, with a layout that was outdated, with an aura of dimness. Not for lack of trying by the staff obviously, but it’s hard to fight the environment, something these patrons knew very well.

I had been told when I got the job that they would be shuttering the branch soon to renovate it. After a year there, they finally did. The designer asked us what we wanted to see in the new building. I made my requests—natural light, earth tones, a calming atmosphere, long sight lines, a children’s area that looked like it belonged to children. And then we went our separate ways for the year.

The year away from the branch has been a big one for me—I got to know the system very well, got to know everyone in it. I worked downtown and loved every minute of it. I re-wrote a novel, got addicted to checking email throughout the day to see if it’s a yes or a no (and it was always a no, up until last week.) I bought a house with an attic just for me; I grew my literary life. And now, the year almost done, it’s time to go back to the branch. It’s time to build the library.

I had checked in on the branch during renovation, nodded at the wood framing as the designer walked us through and told us what would be where. I couldn’t picture any of it. It wasn’t until the first day back, everything painted, the furniture in place, and all of us back to put books on the shelves and settle our work stations that I could finally feel it.

The building had been painted in soft greens and oranges. The floor was wood vinyl, with the appearance of hardwood but the noise reduction of carpet. The desks were all dark wood-paneled, the furniture very mid-century/70s modern. I could see from one end of the building to the other where the reading room ended in large, open windows of soft sunlight. The children’s area—my children’s area—was bright, playful, with a well-lit story room and stained glass windows featuring Aslan, the protective lion king of Narnia.

Reader, I cried. And then I set to unpacking the books.

I learned that there is nothing more satisfying than arranging a book display in anticipation of all the patrons who will come searching. I hand picked items that reflected the community, stories I knew they would want to read, covers with black and brown and white faces all smiling, all deserving of their spot in the light. I sat at the desk and envisioned it—the ways the community had changed in the past year, the ways it had stayed the same. The regulars sure to return and those that maybe moved on by now. And I thought again of them all and how deserving they each were of this light, this beauty, this perfect space.

They will come in again tired and bedraggled, some carrying too many bags, some in need of a shower. There will still be children who need hugs, patrons who just want to talk to someone, anyone. But they will do it now in a clean, well-lighted place. They will do it in a place of dignity and beauty, a library deserving of them.

I will start my mornings with writing. I will go to work and put books in the hands of people who need them. I will come home and pick up my own book, one that I need to round out that day and help me write for tomorrow. And then I will go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.

And that is how we build a public library.

 

To the writers at this write-in

Dear you,

When I arrived here at this coffeeshop early in anticipation of all of you, I feared for a moment that no one would arrive. But like the writers you are, you arrived late.

I am sitting at a table of fourteen other people, none of whom I know, and we are writing. I am at the head of the table because I am supposed to be the head of this thing but you all know what you’re doing. You would all prefer for me to quiet down so we can get to the writing and we have.

I have managed to infiltrate the Porch here in Nashville. They are a fantastic, non-profit writing institute that offers classes, readings, author events, and small things that make my heart go pitter-patter like this write-in. I show up enough that I have been put in charge. That’s how it goes sometimes. I’m not complaining. I’ll show up every time I can and if you know me at all. you know I love to boss.

But right now, I would just like to admire my own dumb luck. I have stumbled into a write-in on a night that promises tornados at a table full of people I don’t know. But I do know them — I recognize the furrow of their brow as they squint at their computers, the hover of their pens and concentrated stares. This coffeeshop just turned the lights down for a mood that no one wants. We are here to work.

Nail-biters. Slight shakes of your head as you hit the backspace. Long, languid sighs. Blank stares that aren’t blank at all. I watch your mouth as you silently read your words, shake your head, and erase them. This is how we do the work.

I was told to offer a prompt before we started. I personally hate prompts. No, I don’t hate them. I just never use them. But we are writers of different stripes — some are here for novels, short stories, a blog — and some are here to extend wings. For those of you, I offered this prompt:

Write a piece in which a celebrity is doing something utterly mundane.

Not being a prompt person, I had to change it for my own purposes. I wrote about all of you doing the most mundane thing you could all be doing. Chewing your lips as you work through a plot. Shifting in your seat as you type faster and faster. Showing up on a rainy night when it is cold and the lights are too low and the kids are out of school tomorrow. Utterly mundane and utterly important. After all, it is the mundane things that matter, the simple act of tearing off a new sheet of paper, of opening a new document on your computer. Nothing about it is slight.

Every morning we sit down to work we are trying again. It’s always the same. There’s the scroll through news feeds, the myriad of ways we can avoid the page. But we get there, eventually. And out of all that — all the typing, the nail-biting, the scribbles, the torn pages — we have our souls. So mundane. And yet, so sacred.

So I am glad to be here, with all of you that I barely know. I am happy to watch your quirks as you type. God knows, I have many.

And now there, I think. I have fulfilled the prompt.