Freedom From and Freedom To: On Quitting, Showing Up, and Getting Ready

I was lying in bed the other night unable to sleep. My right leg was aching so intently I couldn’t seem to pull my attention from it. I had injured a muscle, hadn’t realized it was much of anything, but gradually discovered it was something. My leg seemed to want to move, yet any attempt at movement increased the pain. After two hours of trying to fall back to sleep, I decided to get up. Supporting my troubled leg, I hoisted it out of bed, placed it gently on the floor and hobbled from the bedroom, giving into to both the insomnia and the discomfort. The next day, I whined and limped, angry I’d somehow done this to myself, and angry at the condition for getting in my way. 

After a couple days spent shaking my fists at the gods as both my mobility and frame of mind became increasingly compromised, I realized I had to give up. Not give up on getting better – give up on fighting. I was mentally flailing, unwilling to give myself a moment’s peace. I needed to stop. In order to allow my body to restore itself, I had to stop interfering; and I came to understand that my mental resistance was the interference.

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Debut Authors: They Want You!

Do agents really want new authors? Fresh talent? Or are they focused on those who are established money makers? The short answer? Hell, yes, they want you! After doing some basic research and taking a gander at what agents (and editors) are seeking for their lists, you will notice that there are myriad agents who are looking for innovative voices to represent. Agents and editors want to sign a career author – one they can work with for years, decades even, helping those writers grow and flourish under their guidance. Discovering a new writer is the goal of most people in the publishing industry because it’s a chance to launch a groundbreaking talent, to make a splash with an exciting author never seen before; an exhilarating opportunity to stoke great interest within not only the agent, but others in publishing: agents, publicists, marketing and sales teams. When an original voice creates a splash and a buzz, it fuels a fire within everyone involved, reminding them why they got into publishing in the first place. Why? Basic human nature: the thrill – of sparking a new, creative career, of bringing a unique voice to the marketplace, and honestly, of the promise of success for those involved in finding this needle in the haystack.

 And how can you discover which agents and editors are open to and actively seeking new voices and talent? Handy-dandy Google. There are numerous articles and sites that provide updated information on which agents and editors are interested in debut authors and which specific genres intrigue them. These articles and sites then lead you to agency websites and even to up-to-the-minute Twitter accounts that give further details on what these agents and editors are on the hunt for currently and how to submit to them. There’s really no excuse in this day and age to send out your query to agents that you haven’t specifically targeted or to those that are not explicitly looking for your exact genre and a debut author. Just do your research!

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Erin BrownComment
You Want to Write, Why Don’t You Just Write? 

What – in you – causes you to screech to a halt, and what if anything can you do to fix it?  

Do you ever think it is just you? Everyone else seems fine – they write, they publish. They gush over their writing residency, and then ask if you could be their beta reader. Meanwhile, you seem to struggle.

They call it Writer’s Block, and it has lots of ways of presenting itself.

1.     There’s the jillions-of-ideas-and-never-picking-one problem.

2.     There’s the classic blank page – no ideas. Period.

3.     There’s the “soggy middle,” where innumerable writers get lost.

4.     And then there’s the novel-in-the-drawer syndrome – people who finish their work except ONE THING – and then never do anything with it.

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Hope: Why Letting Go is Our True Super Power

When I was twenty-one, after graduating college I found a studio apartment and intended to find a job, but soon became increasingly frightened of looking for work. I doubted myself and was afraid to make a move. One day while bleakly constructing troubled poetry from letters I had cut out of magazines (ransom note style), I realized I was pretty far gone. The me that was not busy decoupaging an homage to my depression could see I was in trouble. My apartment was on the first floor and, at that moment, I looked out the window at the nearby shrubbery and saw a flower in full bloom. It struck me what a short distance I was from such a beautiful, thriving thing.

This observation interrupted my sinking thoughts and I started to bargain with myself. All I had to do was go and get a newspaper from the machine in front of the apartment building. That’s it – then I could come right back. This seemed manageable. Upon returning I couldn’t resist opening to the jobs section and saw that a daycare was looking for help. I called, went for an interview, walked into a large room filled with children all interested in stories and play – interested in everything really, and I was engaged, soon employed, and ultimately freed.  

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Jennifer ParosComment
Surviving and Thriving: Maneuvering through the Submission Process

Last month, I tackled the many reasons why you, as a smart and prolific author, would want to seek out representation from a literary agent before approaching publishing houses. I hope that I’ve convinced you that an agent can be your best friend (in the literary world, at least – let’s not get weird about it), your essential representation (negotiating a contract not your forte?), and your official bridge to the publishing world.

But how to find that agent, you ask? For many, the submission process can be very intimidating. I have one client who finished revising his book a year ago and has yet to send out a query. Why? Because the entire undertaking scares the hell out of him! It can be very intimidating to dive into the world of submissions, because that also means you’re entering the world of rejections (more on that later). So how do you overcome the fear and jump in with excitement and positivity? I have no idea. However, I do have some tips for finding those agents and submitting; if you follow some basic steps, the entire “ordeal” won’t be hard work so much as it will be an exciting new journey into the unknown. Who knows what will happen once you start sending out queries to agents? Your next email response could be an offer for representation!

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Erin BrownComment
Using Dreams for Inspiration to Write

Many writers have been inspired by their dreams and nightmares, including Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Mary Shelley, and Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, Stevenson said he had little people in his dreams that told him stories he wrote down every morning. If he did not like the ending, he could ask for another and would get it!

If you are not as lucky as Stevenson – and most of us are not – there are things you can do to make your dreams a more reliable inspirational resource. First, write your dreams down. A scientific study showed that creativity increased when people kept track of their dreams. The participants were divided into three groups. Only one group was instructed about how to keep a dream journal. After twenty-seven days, all the participants were given the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. The group that was taught how to keep a dream journal scored the highest (Sierra-Siegert, Jay, Florez, & Garcia, 2016).

You can learn to remember more dreams, too. First, make sure you are sleeping well because if you are not sleeping well, you will not dream well either. Do not drink alcohol or anything that has caffeine in it before you go to sleep. That includes coffee, green tea, and chocolate. Finally, and most importantly, repeat in your mind, as you are falling asleep, that you want to remember your dreams.

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William KenowerComment
It’s Got to Please You: Ideas that Go “Bing” and Finding Your Way

In an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld asks filmmaker, writer, and comedian Mel Brooks about the scene in Blazing Saddles in which a posse of cowboys on horses bursts through a wall and into an all gay, top hats and tails musical number. Seinfeld admires Brooks’ bold and seemingly risky choice and asks if he’d been sure it was going to work. Brooks says he hadn’t been – he only knew the idea “tickled” him. He said, “It’s got to please you; if you don’t laugh, they’re not going to laugh.”

The business of creating is easier when we stay focused on what pleases us. In the beginning, we can’t know exactly how something will come together, but that’s part of the process of discovery. We can see what’s in front of us, and the tail of what’s ahead. The unfolding is our job, and only requires our attention and allowance in the moment. We can discover only what we allow ourselves to explore, so permission must be granted to not know and go forward. And the navigational device best suited for these travels is what pleases us, whatever that may be.

Joseph Campbell’s advice was: Follow your bliss. But bliss seems like such a big ideal. It’s easy to forget it grows from small pleasures, appreciation, fun, and things that move us. Follow your bliss suggests using joy as a compass. In order to do that, we have to avoid too much scrutinization of what lights up for us and where it might lead. Leave the seed of joy alone and let it grow. If we do that often enough, confidence comes because confidence is a by-product of being willing to allow our own way to be the path forward.

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Jennifer ParosComment
To Agent or Not to Agent? That Is the Question.

Man, is it tough out there. I know, I’ve been on both sides of it – as an editor at major publishing houses, buying books (“I’ll take it!”), and as an author, trying to sell novels (“Please take it!”). In this age of self-publishing, it’s also tempting to give it a go yourself, and hey, it’s a viable option, as long as you’ve got some money to invest and some serious drive (and crank out those books, one after the other, pronto). But what if you go the traditional route? Surely, there are publishing houses out there that still accept unagented submissions, right? Why should you give your hard-earned money to some agent? What exactly do you they do all day anyway? Why not go directly to the publishing house, keep that 15 percent, and roll on a bed with some cash all day.

Well, I’ll tell you how these agents earn their 15 percent. First, a good one will make sure that your manuscript is in perfect shape before you send it out to editors. Of course, you should have already honed your manuscript in order to get representation (agents don’t have time to spot your diamond in the rough and spend months working with you to make it into something saleable). But an agent worth his or her salt will give it a final read-through and look for any remaining errors or areas that need improvements.

Secondly, something you can’t do: an agent can draw on their relationships with editors. This is why it’s a good idea to choose your agent wisely. Those three-martini lunches with editors will pay off when your submission gets placed on top of an editor’s submission pile – and a teetering pile it is! Agents’ relationships with editors are key; they can get you in the door. You don’t need a high-powered agent either . . . just one who is apt at building connections. That’s why it’s important to interview your potential agent. If they’re congenial with you, they probably also have amiable affiliations with editors that they can draw upon when it comes time to send out your manuscript.

Agents stay abreast of what individual editors are currently looking for, which allows an agent to know who will want to take a gander at your work. Targeting queries is key and good agents have insight into an editor’s tastes. Your agent will draw upon years of (hopefully) impactful meetings and interactions with various editors in the industry. Or if they’re a new, young agent, they might have a strong agency name to back them, or their excitement and enthusiasm will be appealing and memorable.

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Erin BrownComment
Revisions as Stalling

Once we get over the panic of the blank page or screen and actually squeeze out a few sentences, in our elation we may yield to the temptation to go back and revise. We baby those hard-won sentences into perfection and then sit back and bask in our satisfaction.

But what do we have? Admittedly, a start, but actually just a few sentences. What happened to the excitement that engendered the piece? It’s gone, like steam out the open window. We sit there, staring, or even sigh and get up and walk away to do something that betrays our writing time.  We know we should have gone forward with the fearsome task of traversing the blankness, but we stall. And if we stay at the desk, instead we revise.

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Noelle SternComment
The Old “What’s the point?” Thing: Caring, Pain, Baking Shows, and Cats

The other morning, I was surprised to find myself overtaken by a strong flash of “What’s the point?” It seemed like a sudden existential plummet, but if I’d been paying attention, I would have seen it coming.  I’d gotten on a jag of thinking about unwanted things over which I had no influence – a sort of accidental meditation on powerlessness.  I was in the middle of exercising and decided to put on an episode of The Great British Bake Off (a baking competition show with great heart) while I finished my workout. My despondency gradually began to subside – seemingly a byproduct of simply observing people striving to create stuff.  Some cakes, pastries, and breads worked, some didn’t, but everyone was engaged, wanting to participate, and caring, both about what they were doing and each other.   

The old “What’s the point?” thing is misleading; it implies both that an answer can satisfy us while simultaneously demanding that there isn’t one. “What’s the point?” is an abdication of responsibility. It is only our engagement with life that can provide a sense of purpose. There are always satisfying experiences available when we’re not judging, scrutinizing, or taking stock. Our job is to be open to those experiences. 

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Jennifer Paros Comments
Brainstorming: The Ultimate Weapon

I’m in the middle of packing up my car to head out on an eight-hour, solo road trip into the West Texas desert. Am I escaping the impending apocalypse? Losing my mind? Well, the last one is probably true. I’m actually putting my brainstorming plans into action. I’m starting a new novel and one of my favorite brainstorming activities is visiting my novel’s setting to get inspired (and get details, of course).  

Brainstorming is one of my favorite parts of writing because it can be so liberating. As long as you give yourself the freedom to write anything that comes to your crazy ole mind (even if—especially if—the writing isn’t top notch), that’s when the good stuff happens. Brainstorming is a technique to get the noggin working, to challenge yourself, to discover the path less taken. It’s an incredibly exciting process, and your imagination will surprise you once you take the brainstorming leap.  

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Erin BrownComment
Dumped

He’s a certifiable asshole, and you kind of hate him, but you want him to succeed despite all of his endless fuckery. That’s how I talk about Ollie when people ask what my book is about. It was just how I described him to my old roommate, Bean, who’d lived with me while Ollie was still about eighty-seven words and a pipe dream. I thought it was obvious where Ollie had come from, for Bean and I had spent countless hours dredging out our troubled backgrounds. She had an alcoholic for a mother and a twin sister that was apparently homicidal. I told her how my dad kicked the can, about the breakdown I’d had on some sidewalk near Union Square after being dumped by the biggest narcissist you ever saw. It sent me tearing madly onto the subway platform near my apartment; I was going to fling myself in front of the train and then everyone would know how much it hurt to live in this meat puppet of mine. Divine intervention got me to the hospital instead. Medication has sedated the wailing. My body grows less numb with the hormones I take.

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William Kenower Comment
Be It Hereby Resolved

Now that you are firmly in the habit of sticking to your New Year’s resolutions (note the apostrophe), you can easily adapt that behavior to getting these commonly said or written disasters out of your writing (and speaking).  Resolve never to be guilty of using any of these incorrectly:

A LOT:  Two words.  Always.  If you make them into one word, you have misspelled allot, which means to parcel out.

ALL RIGHT:  Two words.  Always.  Two Ls; two words.

EXACT:  Compared things that are exact are precisely the same, so you don’t need to add the word “same” to exact.  It’s redundant and costs you more when sending a telegram:    That’s the exact  ring I was telling you about.

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Cherie Tucker
Let Things Be Small: Learning How to Stop Trying to Control Stuff

My youngest son was diagnosed as autistic when he was six.  He often walked the line between atypical and typical; he was communicative in his way, relatable, bright and loving, though his interest in his internal world far outweighed his interest in the external world. Mainly he was striving to block out the external world.  Over time, I fell to trying to control conditions so life might be easier for him and for me.  I didn’t want those phone calls from his school; I didn’t want him to melt down or to hear about the “inappropriateness” of what he’d done or said again.  I yearned for the day he would be engaged enough that I could step back and be free from what felt like an overwhelming responsibility. But trying to control things is completely inharmonious with freedom. 

My internal narrative was powerful: I had to keep things from going off the rails.  And this story was more overwhelming than any reality I was actually living. I was compelled to try to control the small stuff, so it all became big.  And the bigger it seemed, the more I believed I had to manage it so everything would be okay. 

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Jennifer Paros Comments
Unblocking Writer’s Block

“I don’t know what to wriiiiiiiiiite!” Isaac picked up the piece of paper scribbled with his nine-year-old penmanship and held it high in the air, his hands poised to rip it clean apart. 

“Wait,” I said in an even tone. “Take a breath.” 

The boy looked at me with feverish eyes, ones I had seen in the mirror many times before, as I’d struggled with my own writing assignments. He lowered the paper, inhaled deeply, and stared at me. “Okay. Now what?” 

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Erin BrownComment
I Cook the Way I Choreograph

When I start a page, I know the hills, I know the landing. Do I plan the trip? I never plan the trip.

Stupid? Perhaps.

Stubborn? Quite.                                                                                  

Not the stubborn, though, that’s guy stubborn – “Don’t ever ask for directions” – but the stubborn wonder of the curious, the want to see it happen from within me onto the page.

This stubborn wonder is the same curiosity that makes me watch my hair turn grey. I could color it and look perky, but I would never know how it had turned – with a white stripe down the left side like a tilted skunk. I am with the curious who want to see the nurse’s hand as she administers the shot, who want to know exactly how the body ages, who want to watch the writing fall through all that is disorganized in nature to the beauty of a tufted landing. I am the child under the blanket, making farts and smelling them.

This is how I choreograph.

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William KenowerComment
Put Yourself in the Middle of it All: There is Nothing to Lose

For a few years when I was little my family took summer trips to Martha’s Vineyard.  We rented a tiny cabin and walked to the beach every day.  I loved all of it, but was intimidated by the waves, which could get pretty big sometimes.  Going under them or turning to ride them required me to be in the middle of the action – which was not my habit.  And my reticence to participate positioned me perfectly for being knocked down.  Reckless or risky behavior is usually considered the cause of trouble, but in this case, caution caused my troubles. I was trying to avoid danger and often ended up underwater, overwhelmed, and out of control. 

 

We teach each other to be careful, to have forethought and to assess, but the application of that advice can become distorted and leave us perceiving more risk in life than is real.  The belief that we are at risk naturally creates resistance, and then we feel stuck and overwhelmed. But most of the time, there is no danger, nothing to lose, just fear of possibly feeling bad.  Focusing on potential loss logically makes us insecure. Measuring what we could lose rather than purposefully engaging in what we want to create generates more problems than it prevents.

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Jennifer ParosComment
Seriously, It’s Subjective!

I remember clearly the moment I first saw it. I was sitting in my office – not a corner one, mind you – in the famous Flatiron building in New York City. The submission was a thick stack of pages, without an agent letter attached. Direct from the author, it had made it into my assistant’s slush pile (unagented submissions), and she had read the manuscript with great interest. She ran in one morning, a huge smile on her face, clutching the pages to her chest.

“I found one!”

Giddiness ensued.

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Erin BrownComment
The Story of an Unlikely Writer

Perhaps we are all unlikely writers. Who can say with any certainty how, where, or why they have been visited by the creative impulse? What we know is that when it arrived, largely unbidden; having infiltrated our psyche, we were transformed. This was my experience, although unlike most of the writers I know who were busy making up stories when they were old enough to pick up a crayon, my creative life did not begin until my 45th year. And that beginning was as surprising and profound as what was to follow.

The year was 1993, and the country and the psychiatric field had fallen in love with a new little pill by the name of Prozac. I had been practicing psychotherapy for 15 years and was as curious as the next person about this new wonder drug and the dramatic stories circulating about its effectiveness in treating chronic depression. Being the descendant of a long line of depressive men, I decided to experiment, allegedly to find out for myself what my patients were experiencing, but secretly hoping for a miracle that would remove the lingering cloud of melancholy shadowing my life. My primary care doc complied and handed me a few samples like he was handing out candy.

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William Kenower Comments
Everything is Not All Right

I was reading a novel last night that was quite enjoyable.  It was published in England, which may or may not be significant, and the author spelled “all right” as “alright.”  It appeared on every page, it seemed, breaking into my enjoyment of what was otherwise a good read.  Every time it intruded, the editor in me rose up. 

Some people have argued with me that the language is changing, so I have to get used to it.  I can’t buy that.  There are rules that bear retaining. 

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Cherie Tucker