Golden Reveries

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I just watched Michael Phelps accept his 20th gold medal. The “Star-Spangled Banner” advanced through the Olympic stadium the way a summer breeze folds through a field of gilded corn.

The Olympics are an unparalleled advertisement for determination and dreams.

My dreams are not of circular necklaces, of being the best in the world. I dream of characters created, of known volumes filled with my words.

My father, the WWII history writer, just got his first rejection letter. The military publisher judged his life’s work economically unviable, which, in their defense, it is. I told my father I was sorry, but also said, he’d undergone a rite of passage and now had the email-proven bragging rights.

My message today is a simple one. A human one. We must never give up. Dream. Unabashedly. Without thought of future failure.

How, you ask? If I knew, I’d tell you. But, as I watch these Olympians, American swimmers, teenage gymnast-powerhouses, I simply know it’s possible. It can be.

My father will try again, with other publishers, a little more determined, blood pumping an altogether different mettle.

In the time it took me to type this post, Phelps won his 21st gold medal. Further solidifying his claim as the most decorated Olympian of all time.

Keep dreamin’. That gold may yet be yours.

Publishing Woes

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It took my father 30 years to write a book. Thirty.

Even more if you count the year he spent planning. His book, an all-encompassing look at the British maritime campaign during World War II, is older than I am. It has 29 (ish) chapters, an introduction, footnotes, scores of research, and multiple trips to the United Kingdom’s National Archives in Kew to review original war documents.

This past Friday, he told me he submitted his book to two military publishers and received a letter from each. Both stated his book was under review by their editorial staff and they would get back to him in the next few months.

And so, he waits from afar as a stranger evaluates the value of his thirty-year pet-project.

I’m encouraged by my father. I, too, am taking the long route writing my book. My book spent eight years in pre-productions, and after nearly two years of writing, I have 100+ pages to show for it. What’s that they say about the tortoise and the hare? Cause I’m praying it’s true. For both our sakes.

Yet, I know my journey to publication will be much more challenging than my father’s. Sure, he still faces uncertainty. But his market is much smaller and the competition is effectively nonexistent.

This is not the case for us fiction writers.

Full disclosure: I have to actively stop my brain from going down the yellow-brick-road to publication because I am afraid of the arduous journey and the undetermined ending. I become discouraged at the odds. I begin to believe that my book is horrendous and no one will ever want it.

And I know I’m not on this island alone.

So many writers I admire had enough rejection letters to redecorate their apartments. Even J.K. Rowling received rejections on Harry Potter! And yet, Ms. Rowling persevered. She kept going.

By day, I’m actually a grant writer. And in the philanthropic world, there’s this fundraising philosophy built on the idea of getting a “no.” While the end game is raise funds for your respective program, the “no” is still an indicator that you’re doing your job as it means you asked, you took a risk, you received an answer. After all, you can’t make someone’s decision for him or her. You can ask. And if necessary, you can reform your question, strengthen your case, and learn from the experience. Then, you try again with someone else. You ask. You ask. And then you ask some more.

I think this is our job as writers. We ask. We take a leap of faith. We edit our novels. We seek advice of peers and professionals. We improve our characters’ voices and hone our themes. We remove paragraphs that no longer work (even if they have that one line in them that we LOVE), cut scenes without purpose (even if we think they’re hilarious), and we become stronger because of it. Our work becomes stronger because of it.

We learn even when we’re tired. We grow even when we’re frustrated. We dream even when it seems impossible.

I don’t know what will happen with my book. I don’t know what will happen with my father’s book. I have already invested ten years and hundreds of hours into this thing, this dream that I love. And as much as that yellow-brick-road scares me, I have to believe it can be something. That I will try and try and try until it becomes something.

So, I write, I believe, and one day I will start to ask.

As for my father, what will he do while he waits for the phone to ring? Why start his sequels, of course. (You read that right. Sequels. There are two.) So, Godspeed, Dad. We’re with you.

Tell Me A Story

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When I was a little girl, my dad used to tell me stories. He’d make up lavish tales (that, later in life, I realized were all based off of Star Trek and Star Wars) about my sister and I saving the world, thwarting evil and destruction, and all before bedtime. They were brilliant stories. Stories of imagination and a life lived that was not my own.

Whether it was these stories or my primal love of all things books, I’ve grown into an adult with a secret fascination: I’m obsessed with stories. Books. Movies. Plays. Heck, even a good commercial. If it has a good story in it, then I’m in love. In fact, I have a very difficult time reading a book unless it has a good story in it (ask my friends—they get very tired of recapping awesome nonfiction books for me because, even though I think they sound brilliant, I just won’t read them). I need a beginning, middle, and end; I need a character I can root for, cry with, and relate to.

In fact, it’s stories that have taught me some major life lessons: I want to be strong like Furiosa and confident like Willowdean; I want to lead like Darrow, blaze trails like Puck, and love like Westley and Buttercup.

Stories are not only a fundamental part of our human history, but they’re, essentially, the only way we can understand someone else’s life. The only way we can learn about others’ experiences. To see from another’s perspective, to swap footwear.

I recently watched Still Alice, the beautiful film in which Julienne Moore won Best Actress in 2015 playing a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s. I avoided watching this movie for a year because it hit a little too close to home, and I knew watching the film would be a very emotional experience for me. But, when I was ready, I sat down and watched. And the story was unlike one I’d ever seen before. It gave me a tether, a sliver of understanding, of what it may be like for those diagnosed and—to the best of my ability—for those in my life affected by such a disease.

I recently listened to a podcast by The Liturgists that talks about just this. The hosts of the show spend a week at the Sundance Film Festival interviewing creators, artists, directors, and producers all exploring the same topic: why we tell stories. And while their topics of conversation varied over the course of the week, the same conclusion rang true: we tell to understand. Understand the world, understand ourselves, understand others.

If you’re here, then you’re likely a creator or producer of stories. You mold and guide and share stories. To understand. To proclaim a truth. To collectively be or experience something new, something wonderful, or something necessary. For justice, for love, for belief, for humanity. For oneness. For good.

So what is the purpose of this blog post? Why have I droned on about stories—besides the fact that I clearly have a problem? Sometimes I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that we have the power and the heart to make a difference in the world. To live in that which has the means to move and change.

Words build worlds.

So, go. Build.

What’s in a Muse: Retelling Stories

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This is no secret: Writers reuse.

In a world built on creativity, this may seem like a big faux pas. But writers old and new alike agree: Everything worth telling has (probably) already been told. In fact, a writer I admire recently talked about borrowing material when stuck (point number 7).

While this may sound discouraging, I find I freeing. I’ve let go of this idea of “finding the perfect story” or the “untold story.” Instead, I focus on a story that I love to tell, hoping that my personal passion for the characters and the world will blur over the page and charm the reader.

In fact, I recently read a popular book that claimed to be well-known fairytale retelling. I, personally, love fairytale retellings and this particular fairytale just happened to be my favorite. So, I gravitated toward this book like Newton and, well, gravity. Yet, I found myself…bored. The problem, for me, was that it too closely resembled its namesake. Until—wham!—the author pulled out a stunning and unpredictable third act, setting up her story for a future series, making the whole thing entirely her own.

So, what am I saying? Two things:

  1. It’s okay to borrow for inspiration. We all do it. My own novel—as original as I thought it was in its conception—I’ve come to realize is structured a lot like Peter Pan. And guess what? That’s okay! Because…
  2. It’s still my own story. It has similarities with Peter Pan, but it’s completely my own idea, my own twist on what the world may know of as Peter Pan.

If you’re borrowing from a story—good for you! Take pride in your inspiration. Just ensure your muse is just that—only a muse and not a lens through which your entire story is told. And if you’re facing the dreaded writer’s block and need some inspiration, take a look at the picture above; maybe one of those stories can spark a wildfire.

Happy writing!