Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Trunk of Doom

By this point, I realize I have somewhat of a reputation for bursting out with random, emotional blog posts from time to time. In a way, blogging has become a second form of journaling for me. Today, though, we’re going to talk about an issue I haven’t covered in my journal yet, which is atypical, because I usually go to my journal before I go to you. (I know, favoritism is bad. Please forgive me.) 

You know I love writing. (I also hate it, but love and hate are fraternal twins and they like to meet up for coffee sometimes.) If you’ve read many of my older posts, you might know about TIB, the book I began querying agents for two Novembers ago. You might also know about DSS, the book I have been revising for the past two years. (I have worked on it longer, but that’s irrelevant. My serious work on it began 11/1/14.) 

Before I say much more, I think it’s important that we do a run through of my writing history, so you understand the full weight of what I am saying here. 

You may know some of these details from posts like this. I started writing when I was a little seven-year-old living in Africa with a bunch of other missionaries from various countries. My English teacher was a sweet and proper Northern Irish woman who taught me to love writing more than I have loved anything else. During that time, when seven-year-old me felt ripped away from all that was familiar and secure, my teacher showed me an absolute safe-haven, and I made camp there. 

I wrote a trilogy of picture books during my time in Africa, books about a horse named Bessie who escapes her abusive master and finds love and a home and even an adoptive mother. There is mystery and mayhem and even some kidnapping and detective work. I had started on a fourth book, a prequel to the trilogy (that was before I even understood that this was a popular thing to do). I remember those stories so well, but I have not touched them in over twelve years because I left them in Africa when we evacuated. I didn’t mean to. But they were buried under piles of school papers on my messy desk (why did I have to be so messy?), and we had to pack so quickly. I didn’t even remember to dig them up, because I was so focused on trying to choose which beloved stuffed animal I had to leave behind, which beloved blanket I was going to abandon, which beloved books I would never see again. I could only salvage 10 kilograms of my life in that place, so I was busy mourning that I didn’t have room for my horse figurine or my pink, plastic alligator, or my precious, precious music box

I do not delude myself into thinking my writings are still there, waiting for me to come back. In all likeliness, they have been burned or used as toilet paper, because they would have been of little worth to the people cleaning out my old house. My home is not waiting for me, and I will not go back. I loved Africa. Leaving it ripped a hole in my heart that has never closed. Sometimes I get so homesick, it almost knocks me off my feet, and it has been more than half my lifetime since I returned to American soil. But I will never go back (unless God wants me to), because I will never be able to make things the way they were when we left. I will never get back the people and the community that made Africa so special to me. I will never get to tend my snail collection, or push my bike through the blue gate, or let my new puppy nibble on my fingers. The puppy belongs to someone else now, as do the bike and the gate. Africa belongs to someone else now. Almost everything that made Africa special to me is gone, along with my first writings. 

I have a wonderful memory. I can see the pages in my head, the poorly-drawn cartoon horses, the handwriting that I couldn’t keep in a straight line across the paper, the smudgy bits where my hand slid over the pencil marks too many times, and the places where I began to trace everything in with pen so it would last, so I would be able to keep it in readable condition forever. I remember it so well, I could try to recreate everything, if I wanted to. And there is a part of me that desperately wants to replace that lost piece of me, just as there is a part of me that desperately wants to go home. But recreating the story would be like going back to Africa and trying to force myself into an old groove that doesn’t fit me anymore—isn’t meant for me anymore. And I think it would hurt me so much, because I would pretend to myself that everything is the same, that everything is okay. 

You don’t get to go back. Not ever. And I need to not pretend about these things. I need to not lie to myself when the truth is what sets me free. 

As I grew older, I wrote off and on. Writing was always important to me, but it didn’t always take precedence. At the top of my list of struggles was lack of follow-through. I didn’t finish reading books. I didn’t finish writing them. I didn’t finish thinking certain thoughts. Instead, I put a lot of stuff on the shelves in the back of my mind for later, and then a lot of those shelves fell down when I was fifteen, but we’re not going to talk about that. 

We’re going to talk about the day I started pulling myself out from under all the thoughts that had fallen on me when my mind-shelves got knocked over, the day I started putting everything back where it belonged. A task I still have yet to finish. 

We’re going to talk about TIB, which stands for TIME IN A BOTTLE, which was the pride and joy of my writing journey because it was the first rough draft I ever finished, my first hint that I was (maybe, please maybe) going to be okay. It was a trilogy, at first, which I wrote in November (all three books) and then whittled down to one far more solid book over the next few months. I’m really proud of TIME IN A BOTTLE. It is still my favorite story that I have ever told, edited or unedited. Of course I love my current work in progress and my assorted rough drafts, but I do not love them in the way that I love TIB. 

Yes, I realize now that it was silly of me to treat that one manuscript like it was the pinnacle of my success. Looking back, I laugh at my younger self, so certain that TIB was going to be snatched up by agents and publishers and the general populace. (You may laugh too. It is amusing.) In my mind, I was certain that, in spelling all the words correctly, and in using good grammar, and in using proper punctuation, and in having incorporated feedback from other people, I had avoided all the pitfalls of an "unpublishable writer". I had followed the magic formula that would get me from point a (unpublished) to point b (New York Times bestseller). 

I do still think it’s a good book. However, I also now see that it was not perfect. I think it has a lot of potential, and I think that, when I revisit it someday, I will find that I know what to do to make it shine in the ways I couldn’t before. The thought of eventually sharing it with you makes me smile like a little girl, and I am not the kind of person who typically likes to share. 

TIME IN A BOTTLE did manage to get some agent interest. Not much. I got a bunch of nice, personalized rejection letters, as well as some form ones, as well as a rude one. I got two requests for the full manuscript, along with one request for the first fifty pages. Even after two years, I still have not heard back from one of the agents who asked for my full, but that is okay. I promise I’m not upset. 

From November 2014 to November 2015, I hurled myself into the querying trenches. I put myself out there. In the process of researching agents, I even struck up a conversation with Marissa Meyer, who told me she was proud of me for managing to even get agent interest at my age. Obviously this was massively encouraging, and it still gives me hope when I think about it. 

But by the time January 2016 rolled around, I had begun the slow process of erasing the lies I had been telling myself about certain things that I had not wanted to believe. At that point, I finally smartened up and stopped sending query letters. I had received almost forty rejection letters, and I was starting to take the hint. But I also wasn’t smart enough to let go and trunk the novel outright, because to me that felt like giving up on my entire writing career. (We’ll talk more about that in a bit.) So I kept feeding myself little nuggets of hope, just enough to keep me going. I kept checking my email, because there was still that little carrot dangling perpetually in front of me, that knowledge that one agent still had my full, that there was a chance she would read it and love it and want it. *cue confetti* Every time I opened my inbox, it was with a physical pain in my gut, because maybe that was the time I would get The Email. Or, maybe it was the time I would get The Last Rejection of Doom. 

For obvious reasons, I hope you realize how unhealthy this was. 

Then came the bitter pain cherry on top of the bitter pain ice cream sundae. Earlier this year, I got some rather harsh (although still helpful) feedback on DSS, and the last few shreds of my confidence as a writer drifted away. I felt embarrassed, like I had made a fool of myself by failing in every way that I could have possibly failed. There were other factors that contributed to my depression, but those were two of the three major ones. I’ll tell you about the third now, because I can finally laugh at how silly I was. 

As strange as it makes me sound, I legitimately forget that I am not ninety years old. I see myself as having lived so long, I keep half expecting myself to drift off in my sleep. So I carry around this sense of urgency, that I need to get my books published before old age takes me. I’m already elderly, and I’ve never once succeeded. (You may laugh.) I keep needing to remind myself that yes, I am an adult, but I am nineteen. Not ninety. 

Sadness has this way of making you old inside. And I have had so much sadness that I forget to be young. I have had more sadness than I will probably ever talk about on this blog, though I have shared plenty with you already. Please don’t think I’m complaining, merely explaining. I would not trade my life for a different one. 

But here’s the thing. I tried to console myself with something that wasn’t meant to be my source of comfort. I told myself, “All this will be okay, all this pain will have been worth it, if I can just get published this year.” I wanted so badly to be able to justify all the hurt inside me, so badly that I clung to that easy, clear-cut idea that God would do with me what he did with Job and bless me all over the place (which he has done, but not in the way that I asked to be blessed). 

And, you know, maybe that will be the point of all my suffering someday. I don’t know. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I will ever know. As cocky as it may sound, I do think that I will eventually get published, because I know that I will keep trying and trying, keep writing and writing, because I won’t be able to stop. There are stories in my head that need out, out, out. More importantly, there is so much pain in me that needs explaining. But I consoled myself with the false comfort that clearly God meant to get me published in 2015. That I was going to be able to become a paid full-time writer so I wouldn’t ever have to face my anxieties about getting jobs and spending time doing non-writing-related work. I wanted this sense of security as badly as a love-sick young woman wants a spouse. And gradually, almost without realizing it, I began to get angry at God, because couldn’t he see that I was suffering? Didn’t he know just exactly what I needed to get better? Why was he denying me the one thing that could make me happy? 

Make me happy. Give me the magic formula to make me happy. 

Make me happy, God. 

Make me happy, or I won’t love you anymore. 

I am ashamed of that attitude now, ashamed at how angry and unfair and unreasonable I was, ashamed at how ugly it made me on the inside, ashamed at how unhappy I chose to be. 

I don’t know if God was saying no, not ever, or if he was saying no, not now. All I know is that I was trying to tell him what to do, and, as usual, I was wrong about what was best for me. 

At the time, I thought I was ready to be published. I thought I was prepared. Looking back, I am grateful that I did not get TIME IN A BOTTLE published when I began querying. I do not regret writing it. Nor do I regret querying agents. I think it was a marvelous learning experience for me, and I have grown as a writer and as a person. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know that a disappointment that had seemed like it would be the end of the world to me did not turn out to be the end. Neither was it the beginning of something new and wonderful, as the cliche goes, I don’t think. But it certainly wasn’t the end, and that’s the important part. 

In the time that I have had to wait, I have lost confidence and then learned to push through and become confident again. I have suffered more anxiety than all the previous years of my life combined and then learned to fight it with everything I have. I have lost my sense of gratitude and then relearned how to find joy in counting my blessings instead of cursing God for not adding one more to the towering stack he has already given me. 

But I had to let go first. I had to do something I never wanted to do, never thought I could handle doing. I had to decide to put TIME IN A BOTTLE in the metaphorical trunk, lock it away, and switch gears back into the same old holding pattern I had hoped so desperately to escape. I had longed for an easy ride, a smooth path, one where I wouldn’t have to experience obstacles and learn through setbacks, one where life would hold my hand and stop hurting me. Just stop hurting me. 

It was doubly hard to let go and trunk the novel because I was (and still am) so behind schedule on DSS, so behind it’s not even funny. I had blithely told Marissa Meyer that I would be querying a new project in August. That was August 2015. It is August 2016 now, and I am not back in the querying trenches yet. Maybe in a few months, but still. 

That is another thing. I was so afraid to trunk my novel, because I was afraid to start the whole querying process all over again. To me, having to begin querying another book seemed like it would be the end, that I would lose myself and melt away like suds in dirty dish water. That I had one shot at success and happiness, and if I missed it, well then, I would die in my sleep of old age, and that trunking my first novel would be tantamount to throwing in the towel. 

I hold myself to such high standards, and I have to remind myself that I am young, that I am not a failure, that even if I have to work a part-time job to pay the bills for the next few years or decades, even if I don’t get published until I’m 62 or ever, it will still be okay. 

Say it with me, so I can hear it. 

It will be okay. I will be okay. 

Getting published is a wonderful goal, and it means more to me than many other things, but it is not God, and I should not worship it. Whether or not I get published is not the point. In my haste to mean something, I keep forgetting that. And I get so unhappy when I forget. I forget to be delighted for other writers when they succeed. I forget to enjoy the good things in life that aren’t writing-related. And I forget to be the person I am supposed to be. 

Getting published would bring me happiness, yes, but it would not make me happy. 

I don’t know if that distinction makes sense to you. It took me ages to figure out that the difference is between being offered something and choosing to take what is offered. 

So let me tell you something. If you don’t already, you might just come to understand the distinction when you go from crying about your disappointments to crying with joy because someone else has gotten their first big publishing success. And it will probably surprise you, if you are like me and don’t cry easily. 

I hadn’t realized that one of the most rewarding experiences for me would be almost sobbing out of happiness for someone I don’t even know in person, someone who’s book I have yet to read, someone whose life I have never lived. And I had not realized it would take embracing the trunk of doom to get there. 

Well, that was long. I’m sorry, little coffee beans. If you managed to read this whole thing, you are my new hero. What are some things you've learned from disappointment?


  1. This was absolutely beautiful. Thank you for being willing to open up and share. This post made me think. It will probably take me a while to mull over everything you said and process it appropriately.

    On a lighter note, "I also hate it, but love and hate are fraternal twins and they like to meet up for coffee sometimes," is one of my new favorite descriptions of writing.

    Thanks for the wonderful post!

    1. Aww, thank you! And you're welcome! It's good for me to open up this way, even if it isn't the most comfortable thing to do. I'm glad I could give you something to mull over. :)

      :P I had fun with that sentence.

      You're welcome, and thank you for commenting! :)

  2. Wow. I am not even sure what to say. I love how honest you are. I think we all get angry at God sometimes. I know I do. And I always feel so silly later. As if I know everything? Hmmm, no. But I still do it, like the human I am. :/

    It is going to be okay though. THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD! Even if it feels like it.

    Often times I get disappointed most in myself. Sometimes in other people too, usually those closets too me, because their actions and thoughts are the only ones I normally care about. So when they disappoint me, it's really upsetting because I don't put that much stake in other people. And when I disappoint myself, I kick myself forever about it. It's really hard to let go. To learn to let go. I just have to get smarter and move on.

    Good post. :)

    1. Thank you! It's hard, but it's definitely rewarding to talk about these things. But yeah, it does seem to be a pretty common thing to get angry at God. And then, like you, I feel really silly. (Though that doesn't stop me from doing it again, of course.)

      Thank you! It's good to remind myself of that every time I get afraid/upset/whatever negative emotion.

      I get disappointed in myself so often, if getting disappointed in yourself was an olympic sport, I would at least get the bronze. I get disappointed in other people a lot, for the same reasons. I don't trust very many people, and when they let me down, I trust everyone less. And it's difficult to let it go.

      Thank you, and thank you for commenting! :)

  3. Like Voldermort's (by the way, useless and random trivia. "Voldermort" means "flight of death" in French (when my sister figured it out it blew my mind for about a week)) soul, this comment comes to you in seven parts:
    1)Thank you so much for sharing this, it was very brave and awesome of you to do so.
    2) Man, I'm just on an emotional rollercoaster here, reading this.
    3) Like RM, I also love the line, "I also hate it, but love and hate are fraternal twins and they like to meet up for coffee sometimes" because it is brilliant.
    4) [insert previous amazing glow stick analogy by an awesome person here]
    5) I'm kinda laughing/crying here because this is 100% me. Like have you been stalking me or something? Because check, check, check! Anxiety about not getting published, freaking out about having to get a real job that isn't writing, questioning God, loving my first book (even though mine isn't very good), being glad I'm not published right now because I'm not ready even though I really want to be, etc. etc. Seriously, if anyone asks about my writing journey I'm going to point them to this post because 100%. It's kind of weird how accurate this is.
    5) I love how you've explained this whole thing so well so that anyone could understand and follow it and empathise, you've done such a good job with writing this!
    6) Honestly, I cannot not see you getting published at one point. Just so you know. And I will be first in line to buy your book when it comes out. (Just FYI.)AND EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK. I PROMISE.
    7) Once again thank you SO MUCH for writing this.

    1. And woah, Marissa Meyer? As in THE Marissa Meyer? As in the author of the Lunar Chronicles? As in the only author to have ever made me (almost) cheer aloud when two characters (*cough* Cress and Thorne) kissed? HOW HAVE YOU HAD CONVERSATIONS WITH MARISSA MEYER?

    2. Ooh, I like this comment set up. :D
      You're welcome! And thank you!
      Emotional roller coasters are good. :P
      Aww, I'm glad you liked that line. It's my favorite from that post, tbh.
      I'm so glad you like that analogy, and I love that you keep reminding me of it, because I have a tendency to forget.
      Why yes, I have been stalking you. Also, I read minds. But you're wrong about one thing. Your book is really good.

      And yep, THE Marissa Meyer. I debated for a while, and then I just decided to go ahead and bite the bullet and email her, and she answered me, and then answered my reply and asked me if I had any questions about writing. :) She's super nice.

      Thank you for commenting! :)

  4. Wow. There's just so much in here. It's crazy how similar our thought processes are. I'm on a similar journey, because getting published is my dream and I believed getting published would make me happy, but now that's it not happened when I wanted it to, I have to reevaluate myself. You're not alone, Liz.

    1. It's really neat to see how many people think alike--makes me feel less alone. :P I believe in you! Even if it's not for a couple years, for whatever reason, I believe that you will eventually get published, because you have the drive and the talent.

      Thank you for commenting! :)