First, for those of you who read and commented on one or both of Tiffany Lawson Inman’s Emotional Barrier posts last week, Tiffany left a comment announcing the winner of a free slot in the Madness to Method class: JUDY HUDSON. Congratulations, Judy.
Writers in the Storm is pleased to welcome Kathryn Craft as a monthly contributing guest. She’ll be sharing inspiration, writing tips, and much more. Thank you for joining us, Kathryn.
If you book a trip and everything goes perfectly, you’ve had a vacation.
If everything goes wrong, you have a story.
This observation is from Janine Latus, author of the non-fiction memoir, If I am Missing or Dead. Do you see the truth in it?
Of course you do, you’re a storyteller. You know a good yarn isn’t worth a damn to your readers if your characters don’t confront obstacles.
Only extreme pressures can force a human to change. It’s why we are so addicted to story—we need reminding, again and again, that we humans are not alone in the ways we are challenged. And then when all seems lost, we want to be inspired by our hero’s courage as he throws his back to the wall to fight for change. This give us great hope.
So why is it we keep resisting the story of our own lives?
To understand we must confront the great paradox successful authors must embrace.
- Authors must be capable of complete control and complete surrender.
The tug-of-war between these dueling notions will occasionally drag us off-center. We must expect this, and cultivate the resources needed to help us regain balance. These resources must feed a deep spiritual reserve from which we can pull when the going gets rough.
- If we are cognizant of the challenge, and accept it, we can come closer and closer to holding both control and surrender at the very same time.
I use the word “authors” advisedly, because I’m talking here about writers seeking publication and some measure of critical success. Writers who privately press pen to page can exert complete control, allowing their imaginations to manipulate the lives of their characters until they feel like minor gods. But at some point, those who seek publication—traditionally or self-published, and no matter how far down the path—must surrender control of their work.
That’s a tall order for someone who has devoted years to the full command of her craft. But you can’t control what is no longer yours. Once published, a story exists somewhere between you and the reader.
Let’s look at all the typical obstacles in the path of the growing traditionally published writer with this new lens. You know, the things that make us whine. An author can control none of these:
• number of years until completing the learning curve for the type of book she seeks to write
• number of submissions until she finds an agent that connects with her work
• number of agented submissions until a publisher decides the project meets his business needs
• fluctuations in market demand
• the national economy, news events, etc.
• similar releases by other authors
• publishers going out of business
• your editor getting a new job
• a health crisis while writing your next book
…and I’m sure you could list a bunch more.
I was moved this past month by the self-written obituary of Seattle-based writer Jane Lotter. Yes, you read that right: dying slowly of endometrial cancer, Lotter had the time, courage, and presence of mind to summarize her own life. She wrote to her daughters:
“May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.”
Let me leave you with a story.
A writer works for a year, lucks into an agent on her first submission, then gets a six-figure deal at auction for her debut novel.
Hmm…leave you flat? Give me one more chance:
A single mother toils on a novel for a decade, writing by night while her children sleep and slogging through work by day to support them. She soldiers on, believing in her story. Never willing to relinquish hope, she has submitted all those years, racking up more than a hundred rejections. Yes, she’s disappointed at times, but she takes what advice is given, seeks support from other writers, soaks up new techniques from favorite library books, and continues to write. The story takes on such brilliance that one day an agent offers representation. Two years later, after another developmental edit and numerous rounds of submissions, things look bleak, and the author settles for publication with a small press who offers no advance. But something happens over the following year. Sales steadily increase—the book catches fire by word-of-mouth and lands on the New York Times best-seller list.
Go live your obstacles. Make of your life a good story.
Anyone care to share some of the obstacles they’ve had to surmount on their road to publication?
Wonderful post, Kathryn. I love the idea of “living your obstacles.” God knows we all have them! Congratulations on your upcoming debut. Can’t wait to read it!
I’m happy to help spread Lotter’s message. And thanks for the congrats, Lori! Hope all is going well for The Life List, a novel that also makes us think about our time here on the planet.
Complete control AND complete surrender. Brilliant. I’ve never thought of it like that, but it’s perfectly true.
Not that it helps me deal with it any better….but just being aware now, will move me toward it.
Thank you SO much for this, Kathryn!
It will help you deal with it, Laura. The memory of trauma and disappointment can be powerful, but so is awareness. Once found, it can’t be lost.
This post is another well-timed one for me. It’s like you guys can read my mind! LOL I’m definitely in the middle of the publishing journey…agent but no publisher…still facing rejections, although they are much nicer and more detailed. It is very difficult to internalize that feedback when you love the characters and story you created, but I’m learning to try to separate my feelings about the story from feedback that is related to its ‘saleability.’ *insert sigh*
I love the author’s comment about the obstacles being the path. It reminds me of the opening of The Road Less Traveled, which read: Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
I think we all know this, but still dream of that shortcut or windfall that will magically swoop us up off the path and plop us to the destination we desire. I think we do need to hold on to those dreams to some degree…otherwise we might not even try to scale the “path”…
Thanks for the encouraging/inspiring post. This will help keep me in my chair working on revisions this week!
Thanks for this insightful comment, Jamie. M. Scott Peck’s work has resonated deeply with me. I’d go him one better, though, and state that “Life is difficult; and for writers, even more so.” Every single decision in a writer’s life must be coughed forth from some internal compass. There’s no one to tell you when to work or how to tell if you’re getting better or how much social media is enough. We must motivate ourselves to work, often for years, with no promise of reward.
Yet you are so right—once you accept this premise, it no longer overwhelms—it simply is. The mountain of endeavor before you is steep, yes, but not dangerous—you are simply on it, taking one step at a time.
I confess I use my obstacles as an excuse.
And I accept your confession, Bernadette, as do we all—right, folks? We’ve all been there, done that. Thank goodness we are creative animals. Sometimes, surmounting the obstacles is where we must apply that creativity. And you don’t have to do it alone! There is a huge community of writers in the world to support you. 🙂
Great post Kathryn. I never thought of it the journey or our own stories quite this way but you right. It also gives more meaning to the fact how we overcome the obstcales determines how our stories will end. Thanks.
Kathryn, wow … just wow! I love all your posts but this one is going in the Keeper file. And while there were a few lines in the post itself that made me reach for a highlighter, this – from your response to Jamie, sums up what I’ve been struggling with lately: “We must motivate ourselves to work, often for years, with no promise of reward.”
Thanks, Orly. Motivating ourselves is a trick, and will be a topic in a future post of its own. Sometimes we forget to give ourselves compassion for the task we’ve taken on.
Thanks for your comment, Sharla. Yes—we write stories with our keyboards and our actions.
Wonderful essay and message. We do need this kind of inspiration.
Loving the road despite its obstacles—a tough pill to swallow for you right now, Maryann. Thanks for stopping by to read.
Thanks for the lovely truth, Kathryn! “The obstacles are the path.” I’ll take that to heart and start enjoying the journey.
You know what, Zan? I believe loving the journey may just be a prerequisite for success. It sure feels a lot more like success than does angst.
Wonderful inspirational post, Kathryn. And the Jane Lotter quote? Wow. That explains everything.
I’m glad you connect with it as I did, Lorrie. I agree!
Kathy, I am so glad to see you back. Loved this post. I am still on the “aspiring” side of the learning curve. Perhaps it’s like the yellow brick road and each time we come to a crossroad, we need to make a decision. Letting go of control might be like allowing someone to help us along the road 🙂
What—allow someone to help you? Preposterous! (lol)
Five years ago, I never would have guessed that the list of obstacles would be so long! The more I understand this business, the more challenges I see. And yet, I don’t think there’s ever been a better era in which to embark on this path. The technology alone (typewriter or pen vs. computer?!) makes the task easier, and the resources for learning are phenomenal. Very thought-provoking post. Thanks!
Alina I love your optimism— and I have no doubt it will take you far.
I come from a long line of storytellers who turned every life event into the stories for the next get-together. Second nature to use my obstacles as fodder for fiction.
It’s funny, though, what people see as obstacles (or not) sometimes. A couple years ago, Best Beloved and I realized that it’d be a whole lot cheaper to house-sit professionally all over the US and Canada than keep renting a house in California (and paying $500 a month in utilities.)
The single most common question we were asked by people who *knew we paid no rent and didn’t have a house payment* was “How can you afford to travel?”
I’d say “We use the $2,000 a month we’re not spending on housing to buy $400 worth of gas.”
As a math problem, it’s not so hard to figure out. What they would never admit was that the real question is, how can you dare to live without a great big house (and 3-car garage, of course) to store all your stuff in?
For us, that’s like asking “How will you ever get along without that anvil on your foot?”
Very good point, Joel, and worthy of its own discussion in a future post.
I have a friend who paid for her daughter to go on a class trip to Spain, and because the flight was overbooked, half the class was rerouted to Miami for a one-night layover—without their luggage. My friend flipped out. But I was thinking, “Cool—they get a day at the beach,a new swimsuit, learn to roll with the punches, AND go to Spain—what could be better?
It helps if we see life as a grand adventure, doesn’t it? Sounds like we’re kindred spirits, although I’d never considered house-sitting. I’ll mention it to my husband…
House sitting is an adventure apart, I promise. A big reason we stopped is that most people don’t really want a pet-sitter, not a house-sitter. Not the best match for our life.
We still keep feelers out to the few folks who really just needed someone to stay in their house while they’re gone. Vacations in Phoenix, Vancouver, and just outside Atlantic City are always an adventure.
Fact is, I am in my third year of trying to get a damned story written. Luckily for me my values and experiences are such that each of my life’s journeys has been a hoot, even given various degrees of success. Here’s something else: I love to write so damned much that every phrase, sentence, paragraph, adjective, simile, etc. that I have created I have loved, loved writing it whether it works in the story or not, and whether I have to delete it or not. It is gratifying to feel that I am coming around the story-telling craft curve, yet if I published tomorrown and earned a million, my real fulfillment will have been that I wrote.
Love that attitude, Lanny! Each story has its own challenges, and the good writer keeps on working at it till he solves them. That’s what writing is. You are fortunate to see this. Thanks for stopping by!
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Another wonderful post, Kathryn. Oh the things we can’t control that push us so close to giving up on the dream … Such a great reminder to LIVE the obstacle. Will be tweeting this far and wide. You’re a gem!
Melissa, you’re super. Thanks!
My mom used to say “Les gens heureux n’ont pas d’histoire”, which means “happy people have nothing to tell”. So wrong. Those who do not encounter obstacles may not have much to tell but as we all do, we can all tell rich, rewarding stories even if we’re happy. It takes trust in oneself and dedication to the muse. I’m not a fiction writer but I can tell you that my main obstacle has been myself and my lack of surrender to the process.
so glad I found your post. Thank you.
Maryse, thanks for your comment, and your mom’s—and the translation! I truly did not mean to imply that only people who have been through the ringer can tell a good story. Since this blog is for fiction writers, though, my series aims to help them recognize, accept, and embrace what can seem to be—and often are—monumental obstacles between them and the achievement of their dreams.
Because let’s face it—happy childhood or not, by the time a fiction writer gets published, she will have been through the ringer.
Nonfiction writers who know how to put sentences together in a logical fashion can often get a paying gig straight out of the gate, but fiction writers are chasing a holy grail. Seeing that the chase itself is making of their lives a good story—that they are living the very story they yearn to tell—can help. Hope that makes sense.