The Grand End-Year, End-Decade Round-Up of Grandness

Dear you,

This post is not my usual. I debated whether or not I should do this grand round-up of good things post because I know the slew of grand good things announcements all across the ether can be taxing for those who feel like they don’t have a grand round-up of good things. I was that person at the start of this past decade who felt like she didn’t have many good things and hearing about other people’s good things made me crazy. But in the spirit of things getting better and troubles, even the worst ones, being temporary, I want to take a moment to appreciate the path this decade took for me, because it was winding, full of bullshit and the best shit, the very lowest lows and the very highest highs.

2010 was the worst goddamn year of my life, preceded by 2009 which was the other worst goddamn year of my life. (Cue my mother’s flashbacks to a two-hour long car ride in which I cried the entire time for seemingly no reason at all other than the fact that I couldn’t not cry.)

2009 was economic collapse, college graduation, moving into a house out in the country with my boyfriend, commuting hours to Dallas to a grown-up job that was everything I feared it would be, in that it was a soul-sucking mess where nothing I did mattered and the people there were awful. Cue my own flashbacks of waking up at 5:45 am so I could throw on clothes, get in my car at 6 to get into Dallas before traffic, clock in at 7:30, take a 10-minute lunch so I could clock out at 3:40 and get back home before traffic hit at 5. That job lasted three months. I quit without anything lined up because I worried that if I didn’t quit, I would die on the highway. Cue the next three months of tears, every-single-day tears, what I didn’t know then was panic attack after panic attack. Cue a memory of chopping tomatoes in an afternoon with nothing else lined up to do and the tears coming on again and me wondering what it is about tomatoes and the time of day that has anything to do with anything and yet here I am, upset to the hilt about it.

2019 is a new house, one that I own. 2019 is a new library that I got to open. 2019 is The Porch, the year of my first stage reading, more journal acceptances than I ever expected. 2019 is some of the best friends I’ve ever had. 2019 is anxiety medication. 2019 is so much fulfillment it almost seems to be too much and yet I still want to eat it, gobble it up like there’s no tomorrow.

The decade of the ’10s was the decade of my 20s and holy fuck were they 20s. A rotating door of friends that would get close and then move out to yet another city, job promotions in a career I wasn’t sure about, a masters degree I was so unsure of I dropped out three times before I finally finished the goddamn thing, a marriage that I had been sure about since day one, a husband that has taken me to Holland, Wales, Germany, and New Orleans for the greatest experiences of my life, and now finally has brought me to Nashville where I end this decade feeling like I’m finally home again. This decade was the one where we gained a hateful cat, loved her, lost her, and grieved her, and gained another much less hateful cat (but not nearly as smart and cunning… she has much to learn.) I began this decade grieving a grandparent and I will very well end this decade grieving grandparents again.

And this was a decade of trying to figure out what it means to write. I blogged myself into oblivion, kept a written journal when anxiety wouldn’t let me put words to a computer screen. I vowed I wouldn’t write when I decided to get my library degree and wrote poetry instead because I couldn’t not. I wrote my way through my grandmother’s death because I couldn’t not. I turned that grief into a novel because I couldn’t not. I learned that I write simply because I will always write. The publications and successes are just perks. The real prize is every morning spent with my fingers to the keyboard, every page that is honest, every lesson learned through time spent with the words.

Fuck, the 20s are going to be grand.

And because I am goal-oriented and I like to honor the path, here were my writing goals for 2019, here’s how I did, and here’s what I’ve got on my roster for 2020.

2019 Goals

I had a lot of big goals for 2019, mostly having to do with production. I had spent the majority of 2018 on an R&R for my book and a huge project at the library which left me with a busy year of writing but not a lot of finished work to show for it. So 2019 was all about producing more pieces for submission and getting on with book 2. Best laid plans hardly ever make the cut of reality but this year truly went above and beyond my expectations for writing. Here’s how I did with each goal:

1. Finish a first full draft of book 2, AKA “Wheelchair Cowboy.”

kinda finished this one. I got 60k words out for the beginning and part of the middle, and then a basic outline to the end. It’s absolutely a Draft 0 and I’m counting it… Kinda. My excuse for this one is that I followed a whim to drop everything and re-work book 1, AKA SAY, WOLF. In September, I sent the book to a wonderful editor (K.K. Fox) for a developmental edit after letting it sit for a year not quite in a trunk but just about. With KK’s guidance, I re-structured the book, queried it mid-October, and had three offers of rep by November. I signed with Kerry D’Agostino, sent her a wolf-themed thank you card, and now we’re off to the races on line edits, hoping to go on sub with the manuscript in the new year. So there. Sorry Wheelchair Cowboy—I’m coming back to you in 2020!

2. Finish and submit 5 new pieces.

Great success! My five pieces of 2019 were “The Coma” (story forthcoming from Natural Bridge winter 2020), “Probationary Girlfriend” (story currently on sub and racking up close calls and personalized rejections), “Taming Wild Animals” (essay to be re-worked in 2020), “Kitten” (published and available now on Pidgeonholes!), and “Save St. Mark’s” (essay dear to my heart that I will be subbing hard in 2020.)

3. Receive more than 100 rejections.

Yeah, I blew past this goal a little harder than I wanted to. I won’t tell you how many rejections I received this year… just know that it was well above 100. That’s why I’m going to work on lowering my rejection ratio in 2020 by learning some goddamn patience and waiting longer between “finishing” and submitting.

4. Submit to 3 contests or grants.

Lol at grants. Not sure what I meant with that. But I did submit to five contests this year and my story “Woman Hollering” made it to the top ten round of Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction. Ten out of 1,400 stories! That was huge and really gave me a boost when I needed it mid-year. That story has since been accepted for publication and will be forthcoming from Puerto del Sol in August 2020.

5. Submit 3 guest blogs or craft essays on writing.

This was a new one for me that I just wanted to try out. And it was great! I had two pieces accepted (1—“Three Secrets to Create the Writing Life You Want,” published with Cleaver Magazine, and 2—“Knowing When to Fly: Leaving a Critique Group,” published on Jane Friedman’s blog which was a dream come true for me) and I pitched three other ideas that have not yet been picked up. Maybe I’ll try them again for giggles in 2020.

6. Complete a year of Lit Mag League and Draft Chat leadership with The Porch.

I have LOVED working with the Porch. Katie and Susannah are two wonderful people that have done SO MUCH for Nashville’s writing community. I am honored that I get to be a part of it with them. I will be stepping back from LML and Draft Chats this next year to make more room in my life for new opportunities but I’ll still be hot n’ heavy with The Porch in 2020 and loving every minute.

So what’s in store for 2020?

Short, simple, and easy. Production, mindfulness, and going easy on myself as I move into this decade much older, much wiser, and ever ready to rock.

What will your 2020 look like?

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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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.