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 Do You Muddle Through the Middle?

From Alex:

How do you make sure the middle of your book isn’t a slog, spinning its wheels before the good stuff comes along?

Dear Alex (and you),

It was four years ago (almost to the day) when I first started writing the book that I am still rewriting today. I remember the exact moment I started it; I was in my car driving home from work. I had just gotten married the week before, I finished my library degree and for all intents and purposes, had nothing on my plate for the first time in three years. I had stopped writing three years ago too.

I shouldn’t say I stopped writing. I didn’t really. I wasn’t writing a blog anymore or working on a novel that suffered a fate of perpetual false start, a story with the same problem. I had no plans to submit anything—at the time, I thought I would never write professionally again. One too many burns and a whole lot of anxiety. Plus, I had no money and it was 2011 and we were occupying wall street after it had already occupied us. I needed a real job, full-time, benefits. Stopping and starting the same novel/story for eight months proved to not be a real money maker after all. So I closed up shop and applied for my library degree.

But I was still writing. I kept a blog I wrote on for six months until I transitioned into poetry. I wrote so many poems between 2011 and 2014. They were perfect for the not-writer I considered myself to be. They would bubble up, a line here, an image there, and I would sit down and hurl the words out of my fingers faster than my mind could keep up. At first they were random documents on my computer. Then I collected them in a binder so I could look at them. Then I took them to readings. And eventually, I started to submit them. And once I started submitting them, it was as if the flood gates broke and everything I had been trying to ignore about myself (that I did want to write, that I would always write, that I wanted writing in my life more than anything else) washed away. The first day back to work after my wedding, (literally a Monday), I drove home with the thought of what now and of course. I got home, opened a new document on my computer, and started my novel.

At the time, I thought all I had to go on for the story was a single image and a flickering idea. I wrote around that image, dictated from the voice I heard talking about it. Just pages, no chapters. People but no story. I kept writing some poems but they got swallowed up by the other things I was doing—the stories, the essays, the book. I let them lie and took up the task at hand that I thought was far more important than the small things that had no bearing on anything else.

There was one point, a year after I started writing, that I thought I would give up on the book. I was doing the same thing I did before—starting, stopping, rewriting, starting, stopping, rewriting. I got a little mad at myself. I tried to make an outline, some kind of plan, but that only made me madder. I’m a super planner in life but when it comes to writing, I can’t plan a thing, not even this piece I’m writing right now to you. I went back to the poems. They’re easier, you see. They don’t have to work a certain way, call up anything for anyone except for me. They could be whatever style I wanted and it would still be right, at least to me.

But upon reading the poems, I noticed something. I was already telling the story I meant to write with each one. All the characters I was trying to sketch, all the setting, the theme, the trails. They were all already there, just a little buried. I thought I was writing something different and it turns out I was writing the same thing all along. It was clear, reading those poems, what mattered to me, what path I needed to follow, cause I couldn’t get myself off of it, even in my subconscious. I went to bed. I woke up the next morning. I opened the doc and added another 500 words like I did every other morning. Four years later and I’m still doing the same thing, still not tired of it, still ecstatically delighted with every new thing I learn.

All this to say that if we are writing, we are always in the middle of the book. And it’s always a slog. The wheels always spin but the point is they spin. Good stuff becomes shit stuff becomes good stuff again and you just have to show up and trust the process. Everything looks different from day to day because you are different from day to day. You are evolving with your story. (That’s all writing is—evolution via words.) You’ll write it and re-write it and write it again, uncovering each new discovery like a delicious, infinitely-layered cake. You’ll never finish. You’ll realize you began way before you thought you did. And one day, it will click and feel right and you will know that it is as close to true as you can get it. Not done, but true. And then you’ll give it to someone else to read and you’ll start on the new slog, already buried in the muddled middle.

Now We Start Again

Dear you,

After three years of writing a book I had already tried to write three years earlier, I finally finished that book (as finished as I alone can get it), offered it up, and settled in to wait.

Waiting in the form of books read by sunrise, morning meditations, walks. Full, long, self-satisfied breaths. A clean(ish) kitchen. The garden pulled, tomatoes dried.

But waiting is hard, even if the tomatoes taste so good you consume them before you can save them, and waiting is especially hard when you realize how much of your day was consumed by that book, how much it crowded out any brain space for anything else. The mind abhors a vacuum and the space between creative projects is just that—empty. So I put my mind on search, and lo and behold, the next thing was right there waiting for me to finish waiting and notice it.

But of course it’s never that easy, and although the thing grew impatient as I hemmed and hawed over how to start it, my mind couldn’t get over the fact that it has been three years since we’ve been in this position. A large-scale project, mornings as blank as the pages, an image or two to go on but no sense of who or what or why. Like a jigsaw puzzle once all the border pieces are put together—where do I begin?

I have been here before. The start of every project, large or small, comes with this same feeling of walking through a dark corridor, groping for doorknobs, wondering what waits behind the door you’ve managed to find. I vacillate between whether or not this process is harder now than it was the first time around. The first time around, there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no way of knowing what the end would look like it when I got there, if the path I was on was the right one (or not even just the right one but not the completely wrong one.) None of it mattered because no one knew I was trying to do any of it. I had no critique group, no published stories, no friends that knew I was actively writing. I even kept it a secret from my husband. Easier that way, should I choose to throw in the towel.

But I eventually told my husband that I was writing a book, all shy and quiet like he would be alarmed by this news. I went back to the critique group I abandoned years earlier the first time I abandoned the book, slinking into the room, embarrassed for having been gone so long, long enough that only two of them even remembered who I was. I started submitting stories and poems, sharing the acceptances when they came. I made this website, started this blog, little by little identified myself until the title of writer became synonymous with the title of librarian.

And now, here I am—back in the brain space of the genesis of a long project but no longer in the genesis of my identity as a writer. Needless to say, it is difficult to rectify the two.

So how strange that just as it is time for me to start a new book, it is also time to start a new garden. And not just any new garden, a fall garden, something I have never had the opportunity to grow before.

One by one, I had pulled up my plants from the summer, too distracted to think about what should go in their place for the fall. Distracted by the queries I was submitting, the manuscripts I sent in response, stories I was proofing, the interminable waiting for anyone to answer me regarding anything. Much easier to refresh the inbox than to plant vegetables I had only eaten a handful of times before, much less seen in the ground, much less grown myself. But staring at the inbox never made an email appear, just as staring at a blank page never made words appear, just as staring at a seedless ground never made food.

So I went to the farmer’s market. Having procrastinated long enough, I found that everything was already gone, of course, with the exception of swiss chard, collards, brussel sprouts, and some kale all of which I took to plant (exception: kale, because just no.) Not to be deterred, I pulled out my seed collection, my starter pods, and the grow light, and planted everything I wanted—broccoli, carrots, spinach, beets—even if it is too late, even if it comes to nothing. It is a rebellion of sorts to plant when you know it is too late, just as it is a rebellion to start a project before you feel ready. You do it anyway, giving the finger to expected results and celebrating when you are pleasantly surprised.

I nestled these babies next to my desk, the glow of the grow light warm on my arm, same place they were when I re-wrote my book for the third time last winter. The metaphor here obvious and cliche but I swear—there is magic in growing seeds next to your desk when you are growing the seeds of a book on the page.

Every morning comes. Better now because it comes still dark, before the sun rises. I turn on the lamp, say hello to the seeds and give ourselves one halo of light in which to do our work. We are in it together, me and these seeds. I breathe like a tentative footstep and start again.