Tag Archives: publishing

Writing, Yoga and Doing What You Love

1 Oct

When you first start writing, chances are you’re not doing it for anyone other than yourself. You might begin by keeping a journal, or producing badly illustrated, yarn-bound books about anthropomorphic cats named Stubby, or else writing raw, angst-written teenage poetry by moonlight while the rest of your family (who, by the way, don’t understand you) are asleep. I mean, maybe. It’s not like I’m drawing examples from my personal life here or anything.

It might be that writing for yourself is all you want to do, and that’s great. That means that you can write whatever you want, edit as much (or as little) as you want, and basically be able to not give a fuck about, well, anything. JD Salinger (the king of giving no fucks) said,

There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. … It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure. … I don’t necessarily intend to publish posthumously, but I do like to write for myself. … I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man. But all I’m doing is trying to protect myself and my work.

If you want any kind of commercial success, though, you need to start thinking about other people. In a best case scenario, you could write exactly what you want to write, and, due to some crazy alignment of the stars or a perfect moment of cultural zeitgeist, it would make the New York Times bestseller list. For example, you could write smutty Twilight fan fiction, change a few names, and have it become a wildly successful work of erotica. However, if that business model isn’t working for you (and don’t worry, you’re not alone), you need to figure out who your audience is and what the hell they want to read.

I feel like this is kind of where I am right now, not just with writing but also with yoga.

When I first started practicing yoga, it was (obviously) something I only did for myself. I remember my first class vividly; I struggled through it, but afterwards I was so relaxed that I felt high. It was love at first downward dog.

In the beginning it was just a physical practice, but later it became something more. I’m hesitant to describe it as “spiritual”, but the way I practice now certainly goes deeper than just my body. There have been times when yoga has triggered unexpected emotions in me; I laughed the first time I went into urdhva dhanurasana (full wheel), and kicking up into handstand still makes me insanely happy. There have been poses that have made me feel irrationally angry, and, much to my embarrassment, I’ve cried in class once or twice. Luckily, the lights were dim, and I was able to slink out the door without anyone noticing that something was amiss.

The feeling that I associate the most with yoga, though, is what I like to refer to as the “bell jar” feeling. I call it that because of the way Sylvia Plath describes feeling after her first shock treatment:

All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air.

The bell jar, of course, is the metaphor she uses to describe her depression:

If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

I mean, let’s face it, we all have bell jars of one sort or another, though some may be lighter and clearer than others. For me, yoga, both the physical practice and the philosophy, was the best way of lifting mine for a little while.

Then I started teaching yoga, and it went from being this beautiful, deeply personal thing to being, well, a business. When you’re teaching, you can’t just do whatever you want. You can’t just teach your favourite poses over and over, or have a 20 minute savasana. I mean, sure, if you’re some kind of yoga superstar and you’re having to turn people away from your overcrowded classes, then maybe. But I’m still working my way up the ladder, and for now I have to figure out what the people want and how to give it to them.

It’s been a tough lesson to learn, especially since people in the yoga world aren’t always exactly, well, yogic. They can get angry if a class isn’t exactly what they wanted, or if they think you’ve made a mistake, or if you go five minutes too long or too short. You, the teacher, are providing a service, and the student, your customer, is always right. Or, rather, they are if you want them to ever come back to your class. Which, by the way, you probably do.

And then there’s the fact that you, as a teacher, should maintain a personal practice. It’s hard, though, to convince myself to roll out my mat when I get home from a day that’s been nothing but yoga: teaching yoga, doing yoga studio admin, writing emails about yoga. By the time I make it back to my apartment, all I want to do is snuggle Theo, hang out with Matt, and write.

So yeah, I’m feeling a little burned out on yoga these days. And then I feel guilty for feeling burned out, because it seems unfair to my students that their teacher is kind of tired of yoga. And then I think about how everyone always tells you to try to find work doing what you love, and I wonder if the natural consequence of doing what you love is that instead of loving your job, you end up feeling resentful about something that used to bring you so much joy.

Today, though, I cracked Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for the first time in months. Reading through the second sutra, I caught myself thinking, oh yes, I do love this. Later, when I went to teach my class, I ended by talking a little bit about what I’d read in the sutras that day, and that felt good. Afterwards one of my students came up to me and told me how much she’d enjoyed the class, especially the bit at the end. And that felt really good.

I guess that what I’ve realized is that there has to be balance between what you love and what you give out to other people. Yes, you need to offer something that people want, at least if you want to make any money doing whatever it is you’re doing, but you need to inject some of yourself into your work as well. Being yourself when you teach or when you write is what makes your work authentic, and people can sense that. Have you ever read a book that was written specifically to appeal to a certain demographic? Usually they’re pretty terrible. By the same token, a book that’s just the author nattering on and on about whatever their pet subject is can often be just as bad.

So if you can find that perfect sweet spot of sharing what you love and giving what people need, then you’re probably golden. If you can find a way of separating thing-that-I-love-doing from thing-that-I-get-paid-for while at the same time acknowledging that, to a certain degree, they are the same thing, then you’re probably way ahead of the curve. And if you can find a way to admit that it’s okay to feel burned out on the places, people and leisure activities in your life, and that you can come back to them when you feel ready, then you get a thousand high fives.

And that, my friend, is a lot of high fives.

Check out all the fucks I’m giving. Oh wait, there are none.

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That Time I Wrote A Book And Couldn’t Get It Published (or, you’re all silently judging me right now, aren’t you?)

29 Sep

Did you know that I wrote a book? A novel, even?

Probably not. I haven’t told many people. I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

I wrote it back in 2008. One night, Matt and I went to see a Toronto Consort performance of medieval labyrinth music (I guess this is a thing) at Trinity St. Paul’s. It was February, or maybe March, and there was still snow on the ground. Inside the church was warm, cozy even, and the lighting and music were both conducive to drowsy daydreams. By the end of the concert I had the whole plot mapped out in my head, and spent the walk home explaining it to Matt, expanding and solidifying my ideas as I said them out loud.

It took about six months to write, and when I finished, I thought, Phew, the hard part is over.

I’d met a literary agent the year before who had read one of my short stories and liked it so much that she asked me to contact her if I ever wrote a novel. I foolishly thought I was totally set. I finished my first draft in August of 2008, and I was supposed to be going back to school that September, so I gave my little book a quick once over (too quick, I realize now) and sent her off the day before my classes started.

Of course, I ended up having a cycling accident a few days into classes, which effectively ended my educational plans for the next several months.

I decided to devote my suddenly copious amounts of spare time to getting my book published. I started contacting agents and publishers, and actually heard back from a few. A woman at a major Canadian literary agency asked me to send in the first few pages, and then wrote back and asked me to send the rest. A small publisher asked me to send the full manuscript. A few other agents asked for the first chapter, or writing samples.

In early 2009, I heard back from the small publisher. Unbelievably, they were interested in my book. I was so happy. So ecstatically, incredibly, terrified-of-the-other-shoe-dropping happy. Matt and I went out for dinner. I started telling people about my book. Matt’s parents sent him money to buy me flowers. When I met new people, I started introducing myself as a writer.

The publisher asked me to do a second, and then a third draft. They didn’t provide much direction, beyond some vague show-instead-of-tell type of instructions. I felt like I wasn’t doing a great job at editing, but figured if I just pushed through, everything would be fine.

I sent the publisher my third draft, and then in May emailed to follow up with them. They wrote back to say that they weren’t sure if they wanted to publish my book, but that they would let me know for sure in two weeks’ time. In the meantime, they said, I should continue to do rewrites and focus on showing instead of telling.

Three months later, in mid-September, the day after I returned from my honeymoon, I received the following email:

Hi Annabelle,

Sorry for the long stretch between emails. Your manuscript is being sent back to you with a bunch of edits. We can not accept it at this time but we hope that you will read over what we have done and try a new draft. I will be sending you a list of comments made by our editors and hopefully you will be able to put them to use. Thank you for your patience and hopefully we will hear from you again in the future.

The week after that, I received an email back from the original agent I’d contacted, the one who’d liked my short story so much, saying,

[This manuscript] has many of the elements needed for a successful piece of commercial fiction: an authentic-feeling setting—due here, in part, to the author’s attention to period dress and historic cooking; an intriguing premise; and a likeable heroine. However, what [this manuscript] lacks is strong, forward momentum in its narrative.  

Another rejection.

I felt like I was at a total loss. I didn’t know what to do. The hardest part was realizing that this whole thing was my own damn fault – I’d rushed to get it out before it was properly edited, because I just couldn’t be bothered to do it properly. Surely, I told myself, if it shows so much promise, if the characters are likeable and the setting feels authentic, there must be some way to fix momentum of the narrative?

Not only did I have to live with the fact that I’d sabotaged my own success, but I also had to deal with everyone that I’d told about my book. How’s the novel? they asked. When will it be published? Who’s the publisher? 

Embarrassed, I would stutter out that there was a delay, that I wouldn’t be going with the original publisher, that I was still shopping around.

Oh, they said, in a way that was totally loaded with meaning.

Even my mother, who knew the whole story, kept asking and asking about my book. Finally, I had to make her promise to never mention the damn book again until I was the one who brought it up.

It wasn’t just about the book itself; this novel was supposed to Show People. It was supposed to be a giant fuck you to all of the people who had looked down on me, or made fun of me, or just plain wouldn’t give me the time of day. I’d convinced myself that once my book was published, all of the people who didn’t invite me to their high school parties would be kicking themselves for not realizing earlier how awesome I was.

Now, it seemed I’d proven them right. I wasn’t awesome enough to come to their parties, and I definitely wasn’t awesome enough to publish a book. Double whammy!

I stopped writing after that. I felt weirdly guilty devoting my energy to new writing, when here was my poor old book, still waiting to be published. Starting something new seemed tantamount to cheating on her, even though I knew I should put her aside for a while and focus on something else.

I sent out a few more query letters, and a small publisher in Brooklyn asked me to send in my manuscript. So I sent her off again, and waited and waited and waited to hear back. I wasn’t worried, because waiting a billion years is basically standard in the publishing industry. Then, sometime last year, my book, in the same wrapping I’d sent her out in, came back to me.

They hadn’t even bothered to pick her up from the post office.

I often think of the writing process as being like pregnancy, except that you’re gestating a book instead of a baby. But what happens when you’re unable to give birth? What happens to all the time, thought and energy you’ve devoted to making your novel live? What is it that you’ve created, exactly? I mean, other than a stack of paper in a battered brown package that sits on your bookshelf and serves as a reminder of what a failure you are.

I don’t know what to do now. I’m not even sure if my book is any good. I avoid those files on my computer like the plague, and every time I accidentally catch site of one of them, I feel sad and ashamed.

I miss her, though. I think about her a lot. On good days, I tell myself that with a bit of effort, a bit of good old-fashioned elbow grease and some stick-to-itiveness on my part, I could get her out there. On bad days, seeing the name of one of my characters in a newspaper or hearing it in a movie makes me want to cry.

I’m sorry, little book. It’s my fault you’re languishing in my apartment instead of sitting pretty on a shelf at Indigo.

Starting this blog has been an attempt to get myself writing again. By and large it’s been a really positive experience. One of the things that I hated about writing my novel was that it was such a solitary activity – I sat in my dark bedroom and wrote, and the only one who ever read it was Matt. I was dying for feedback, but I felt bad about asking my friends to proofread for me. On top of that, I was terrified that they would hate it.

With blogging, on the other hand, I get instant feedback, most of it insanely great. People read what I write, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. But sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here; I wonder what good it does to write these posts.

And then I wonder if everything I do has to do something or be worth something, and then I wonder why I write at all, and then I kind of get caught up in this endless cycle of self-deprecating wondering.

I guess what I really want to say is:

I failed at something, and I’m not ashamed (much).

I wrote a novel, I poured my heart and soul into it, and it wasn’t good enough (but maybe it could be, someday).

I don’t know what to do now, but maybe someday I will figure it out (I hope).

And maybe someday my little book will find her spot on the shelf at a bookstore, or, even better, the shelf of someone I don’t even know.

Oh and by the way, in case you were wondering, this is what a manuscript looks like after it’s spent a year gathering dust in a Brooklyn post office: