On writing

For struggling artists: other tales of woe

Here’s the good thing about struggling as an artist, whether a painter or musician, writer or dancer: you are completely, totally not alone.

I picked up a book about art history recently (title below). A children’s book, because often, this is how I start to learn about something - the simple explanations and plentiful photos and drawings are a much easier entry point than thousands of pages of dense, detailed facts. And I was rather delighted to be reminded of the fact that many “famous” painters were not famous in their own time.

Just for fun, here are a few examples:

Paul Cézanne: He was expected to be a banker, but chose to be an artist against the wishes of his father. So he moved to Paris, devoted himself to his work and… nothing. No one would exhibit his paintings. He kept at it his entire life, painting dramatic landscapes, portraits and still lifes (for which he often used things he found in his own house), but his work was mostly unknown. Most of his life, he thought he was a failure.

Stilleben, Draperie, Krug und Obstschale 1893-1894, Paul Cézanne

Stilleben, Draperie, Krug und Obstschale 1893-1894, Paul Cézanne

Henri Rousseau: Terrible in school, Rousseau eventually worked as a toll collector and taught himself to be an artist in his free time. Today, his paintings are famous - but during his lifetime, his work was rejected. People even joked about his paintings, calling them simple and unreal. He had one solo exhibition during his lifetime without much success.

Surprise!, Henri Rousseau

Surprise!, Henri Rousseau

Vincent Van Gogh: We all know Van Gogh today, but during his lifetime, his artwork was not revered. Or even liked. He painted nearly 2,000 paintings over the course of a decade, but only sold one while he was alive.

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh

So, if you find yourself in the same boat, working and working on your art, only to feel it goes by unnoticed (or possibly even disliked), take heart. Many others have trod that path ahead of you. And really, it isn’t a bad place to be. After all, you’re still making art - and that’s always a success.

Secret bonus: more than the fame and money, the glowing reviews and fan mail, we all know that the process of creating is always the best part.


Source: A Child’s Introduction to Art: The World’s Greatest Paintings and Sculptures. By Heather Alexander, illustrated by Meredith Hamilton.

All images of paintings from Wikipedia Commons.

Loooow expectations (in writing and life)

We recently took a little family ski trip. And we did it on the cheap.

We chose a resort we could easily drive to (that was always covered by our ski passes) and booked the least expensive motel we could find. Then we packed our bags and set off.

I started to question our decision when we pulled into the motel parking lot, only to be greeted with a “Housekeeper Wanted” sign and a beat-up van with a flat tire.

No, this wasn’t our motel. But you get the idea.

No, this wasn’t our motel. But you get the idea.

But since we went into the trip with very low expectations, we were freed from disappointment, annoyance and frustration. And we were open to something different: gratitude.

We didn’t expect our hotel room to be great, so when we walked into a spacious and clean room with a mountain view (just beyond the highway, that is), we were ecstatic. Even better: there was fantastic Mexican restaurant on one side, and a well-reviewed Chinese restaurant on the other.

Our day on the slopes was cold and windy, but it wasn’t very crowded and we soaked in the views. And when we found our motel’s simple breakfast was actually quite filling, we were even more pleased.

So what’s this have to do with writing? Well, if I sit down at a blank page and expect my words to come out brilliantly (ie, have HIGH expectations), I’m always disappointed. Because for me, that isn’t realistic. My books are born through the slog of writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting some more. They’re horribly bad when their in first-draft form. But they can always be made better.

Wait for everything to be perfect and I end up with a grand total of ZERO words written…

Wait for everything to be perfect and I end up with a grand total of ZERO words written…

At the beginning of the process, I have to keep expectations very low. Otherwise, I may stop after the first few pages.

That’s not to say that expectations are bad. But I find in my own life, they can get me off track very easily.

So here’s to opening the door to low expectations, bad writing, and the joy that comes along in the process.

A little skate ski up into the mountains was one of the very real treats of our trip. To keep it real: there were lots of candy bribes and a number of tears involved… but hey, that’s life, right?

A little skate ski up into the mountains was one of the very real treats of our trip. To keep it real: there were lots of candy bribes and a number of tears involved… but hey, that’s life, right?

Skiing the trees (and book writing)

For awhile now, I’ve wanted to hone my tree-skiing skills. But it’s daunting.

Standing at the edge of a stand of the woods, it can feel impossible to find a way in. The trees seem to stack up against each other, no room for a route through.

But it’s pretty in there, among the smooth, slender aspens and wide bushy evergreens. Quiet and still, with pockets of powder that last much longer than on the groomed slopes.

snowy trees - skiing.jpg

So this year, I’ve started to point my skis into the woods and see where they take me.

And I’ve discovered something amazing. Often, as soon as I’m in the woods, the trees open up, spreading out. Letting me find my way through.

It reminds me of book writing.

From the outside - the moment before you’ve actually begun the work - the project can feel impossible. Too big, too unwieldy. A thick woods that you’ll never be able to traverse.

But then, after I spend hours and days, or sometimes weeks and months, whining and distracting myself and otherwise procrastinating (am I the only one who does this?), after the thought of putting the work off feels much worse than sitting down at the desk and staring at a blank page, I finally begin.

And just like slipping into the woods, a path opens up. The words may be halting at first, but eventually they begin to flow. Ideas build and grow. Paragraphs stack up, one after another, until there are pages, chapters… and eventually, a book.

Starting is always the hardest part. And yet, as any artist knows, creative work is full of starts. Over and over, we begin again. Anew. And pray that once we’re inside, we’ll find a way through.

Which somehow, amazingly, we do.

tree skiing.jpg

Resolutions: The Good, the Bad, and Mine

I’m not a fan of resolutions.

Over the years, I’ve made some of the typical resolutions: eat more healthfully, exercise regularly, get better sleep, put down the iPhone/iPad, etc, etc. And they never stick. Ever.

The fireworks go off, the resolutions are written and then the resolutions are promptly ignored.

The fireworks go off, the resolutions are written and then the resolutions are promptly ignored.

My determination lasts long enough to motivate me to make the list. And then, list happily made, I go back to my regular life.

That’s not to say I’m not a pretty motivated person. It’s just that resolutions never help me get there.

But this year, in the spirit of author Claudia Mills (for the record, I LOVE her blog), I’m going to resolve to do something that seems both good for me AND fun.

I’m going to resolve to do a regular Artist Date.

A photo from my last artist date… in November.

A photo from my last artist date… in November.

The Artist Date idea comes from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, one of my favorite books about creativity. I credit it - and the Artist’s Way class I took with other artists, who ranged from opera singers and painters, to writers and photographers - with helping me stick with writing books long enough (um, about 10 years) to finally publish one.

An Artist Date is something you do by yourself for fun. It can be short (a ten-minute stop at a clock shop or pet store) or long (an all-day drive into the countryside). It can involve anything, from painting an old wooden table to smelling perfumes at the mall, and from trying out a new restaurant to cross-stitching. It’s playful. You don’t do it for a purpose.

Which is probably why these are so darn hard for me. I like productivity and efficiency… to a fault. And guess what? That doesn’t always (or ever) work when it comes to art.


Getting myself to do an artist’s date is like pulling a tooth. I delay, I hem and haw, I find other more useful things to do.

But when I finally do one, it’s magical. It helps me see the world in a new way. And it’s sneakily useful.

Making any sort of art requires you to dip out of your well of experiences, emotions and images, over and over. To continue making art, you need to fill your well back up again. Which is exactly what Artist Dates do.

So, the Artist Date is not only fun, but very important. And I want to do more this year.

Which leads me to the ‘regular’ part.

Technically, you’re supposed to do an Artist Date every week. But I already know this is too much for me. So, I’m going to try for TWENTY this year. And I’m going to keep a list. (It will probably involve pretty markers and stickers for extra motivation.)

We’ve already plunged well into the new year and, not surprisingly, I haven’t done a single artist date yet.

But that’s okay. There’s still plenty of time. And I’m hopeful that once I start and remember how fun Artist Dates are, this will be one resolution I’m happy to complete.

I’ll let you know. And if it doesn’t stick, there’s always next year.


The BEST Christmas (and book launch)

It’s here! The time of year when my expectations go into overdrive. It’s the holidays, after all. And I suddenly want it ALL.

There are going to be waaaay more presents than that. At least in my perfect Christmas scene.

There are going to be waaaay more presents than that. At least in my perfect Christmas scene.

I want my kids to have an amazing Christmas, the sort that childhood dreams are made of, with presents piled under the tree and a magical Christmas morning complete with fresh baked cinnamon buns and steaming hot cocoa and the sound of sleigh bells.

I want said Christmas to not break the bank.

I want someone else (not me) to don our house with twinkly lights that are pretty and warm and always turned on at the appropriate times.

When I drink hot cocoa, this is what it’s going to look like. Pine cone, powdered sugar and all.

When I drink hot cocoa, this is what it’s going to look like. Pine cone, powdered sugar and all.

I want cozy family evenings filled with snuggles and movies. And ideally a fireplace (it wouldn’t be too late to find a contractor, right?).

I want perfection.

And then I remember. There’s nothing about me that’s perfect. There’s nothing about our lives, our bank accounts, our schedules that is perfect. This little niggly “goal” in my mind, one that’s likely fueled by advertisements and holiday movies, is totally, completely unreachable. In fact, it has its own sinister side.

Because The more I strive for perfection, the less I enjoy it all.

And on this eve of launching my first book (Crow Flight is officially out tomorrow!! Thank you, thank you to all of you incredible launch team members and friends for cheering me on through the process!), I need to apply this lesson to my book launch.

Because of course, my wild imagination can get the best of me, and lead me straight to… Best Seller Lists! Morning Show Interviews! Book Sales by the Truckload!

And if that’s what I expect, most likely, I’ll be disappointed.

But do you know what? Right here, right now, I’m going to reframe my expectations. This launch has been (and will continue to be) a great learning experience - it is my first one. I’m proud of the book and the work that went into writing and rewriting and rewriting some more.

And after all… it is a BOOK! There are many, many amazing books out there that don’t make it to this point.

So tomorrow morning, when that “Buy Now” button turns orange on Amazon, I’m not going to be frantically watching sales numbers. I’m going to crack open my very own FINAL copy of Crow Flight and skim through its pages. I might just walk around town, carrying the book in my shoulder bag (because it’s just fun to do that). And you know I’ll be at our local bookstore, buying the very first copy they sell.

I can make popcorn. And Swiss Miss. And that fire in the background may just be on TV.

I can make popcorn. And Swiss Miss. And that fire in the background may just be on TV.

The same goes for our Christmas. Less striving, more enjoying. And I’m going to remind myself to feel grateful through all of it. Because if I plan on perfection, I end up feeling not enough. But if I practice gratitude, I feel full to the brim.

The bad haircut

I got a haircut for the first time in a while last week. And as soon as it was done, I regretted it.

I wasn’t the only one. “Why did you cut your hair?” my husband asked. “I thought you were letting it grow long.”

I spent that first day looking at it in the mirror from different directions, and admiring friends who had the patience to let their hair grow and grow… as though that would glue the chopped pieces of hair back on. I woke early the next morning and felt my stomach sink as I studied it again - had it turned orange? Why oh why was it so short?

Spoiler alert: the hair cut wasn’t terrible. It was what I asked for. And I realize there are WAY worse things that could happen. But I still regretted it.

Here’s where I went wrong… and how (of course) it applies to writing.

1) I asked for the stylist’s opinion… and valued it above my own. When I go in a salon, the hair dresser becomes the expert because, well, she is. Her hair and makeup are flawless. Her sense of fashion superb. And so I default to whatever she recommends.


I love getting opinions. And I take them all seriously. Which is sometimes good. And sometimes not so good. Because often, I know what I really want in my heart. I’m just afraid to trust it.

And this is so important when writing, especially in the very early phases of writing a book about a maybe-sort of idea. If I share too much, too soon, it is easily squashed. If I ask for too many opinions, my own ideas get smaller and smaller, and feel less and less compelling. This is one of the reasons I’ve learned to protect my work in its early stages and don’t share in writers’ groups right away.

2) I changed my decision at the last minute. I was impulsive. As soon as the hair stylist gave her opinion (at my request, I must add), I decided to go for it.


With writing, I have to be careful about being impulsive. When I finally type “The End” on a first draft, the last thing I need to do is start rewriting. I need space. Time to let the work settle in me. Time to freshen my perspective. Otherwise, I may dive into changes that take the story in the wrong direction or didn’t need to be made in the first place.

3) I focused on efficiency. Cut another inch or two off? Sure! That way, I won’t have to come right back. We’ve been frugalizing for the past few months, and this hair cut was definitely a splurge. The last thing I wanted was to have my new hairstyle look worn-down and unruly in a week or two. But efficiency doesn’t always get you where you want to be.

I love the messy first draft phase of writing because often, I can crank out thousands of words at a time. Until I can’t. If exhaustion sets in, or inspiration fades, those words don’t come easily. And most of the time, that means I need a break. A totally inefficient, unproductive break. A break that involves going for long drives or looking out the window or ducking into little shops downtown.

Efficiency is sometimes good. And sometimes not. And, when it comes to writing (and hairstyles), I just have to learn to trust when being efficient becomes inefficient.

4) I forgot that it’s not as bad as it seems. That first day with my new haircut, I was kind of mortified. I pulled my hair up, then loosed it back down, wondering what I had done.

But I had forgotten that sometimes, you need a few days or weeks to settle into a new haircut. When I finally washed my hair and dried it properly, I was surprised to see it wasn’t that terrible. It had some good points, really. And some room to grow. And it rather looked like me.

Same thing applies to a writing... especially when it comes to feedback on my writing. I have to take it in, give it some space and time, and then filter it through who I am and what I know to be true. Once I do that, I usually find the big changes that seemed impossible actually aren’t that hard.

So there you have it. Today is a new day, and I don’t mind my hair cut much at all. I suppose you could say it’s growing on me. After all, hair always does.


Woot woot! We're building a launch team...

So much of writing a book is quiet, solitary work. You sit back in your office (or bedroom if you’re me) and type out words about imaginary people for weeks, months, years… But now that I have a book that’s actually going to be out in the world, there’s some exciting work to be done to get the word out.

And as much as my writerly self would choose to hide in the closet rather than talk about, well, me, this bit of work is actually cool. Because it means that me and a bunch of YOU get to have some fun.

Right now, I’m pulling together a launch team. Aka, a group of people who want to get a free, early copy of CROW FLIGHT, and help it fly into the world.


And there are more perks than just a free book - I’ll have other fun giveaways to share, and we’ll stay connected as a group, which will be plain ol’ fun.

What’s a launch team?

A launch team is a group of volunteers who are willing to help announce the release of CROW FLIGHT. Basically, you’ll read the book, write a review on Amazon and (if you want!) spread the word through your circles - whether that’s on social medial, on a blog, or simply to your friends.

See, everyone’s doing it. Come join us!

See, everyone’s doing it. Come join us!

Who can apply for the launch team?

Anyone! I realize it’s a big ask, but if it interests you or if you’d like to get a behind-the-scenes look at what a book launch is like, definitely give it a shot. I promise this will be easy and fun.

What DO I do?

1. Read the book. Hooray!

2. Tell people about the book (on social media, in your circles of influence) for a few weeks surrounding the launch (12/11/18).

3. Post a review on Amazon or your favorite bookseller’s website.

What Do I get?

A free advanced digital copy of the book and an insider’s look at what’s involved with marketing a book. Did I mention I’ll also be sharing some fun giveaways? And I will be FOREVER GRATEFUL for your help!

How Do I Join?

CLICK HERE to join. You’ll be asked a few simple questions, just so I can contact you and get to know you.

Thanks so much for your consideration. It means so much!!!

Cunningham Susan Crow Flight cover 20180831.jpg

Frugalize me

It all started at Walmart.

I was in the check-out line, watching the woman ahead of me buy household cleaners, cereal, a few kids' outfits, and several pots of flowers. As each item beeped along the scanner, she shook her head. Then she held up a bottle of ketchup and waved it at the cashier.

"You know what I came here to buy? Ketchup," she said. "And now I've spent $180. It happens every time."

I know the feeling. It's happened to me, too. All too often I float through the grocery store, tossing a few odds and ends into my cart, and suddenly face a too-high bill at the end. It's easy to spend, much harder to... not spend.


I promise there's a writing connection here, but first, let's talk about budgets. Because budgets don't work for me. They're kind of like diets. Something about the word 'diet' makes me go into a ravenous, haven't-eaten-in-months mode. I must eat three pieces of cake because I may not get any more every again. I must polish off an entire bacon cheeseburger because a diet means I'm supposed to stay away. You get the idea.

Budgeting is similar. Cutting back on expenses? Then I better buy that new pair of shoes or that extra bottle of shampoo NOW.

So I was more than pleased when a friend shared the Frugalwoods method with me. These guys have a popular blog that outlines a perspective on money that feels completely counter-cultural and absolutely good. Check it out for yourself, but my quick overview is that they're all about financial independence and simple living. What has been neat for me to learn is how they've experienced LOTS of benefits from this lifestyle besides the extra dollar bills. A few include: simpler, more joyful lives; being true to who they are; more deeply experiencing gratitude.

I've been trying out their method for a few months and get what they're talking about. For instance, if I resolve to try not to buy any clothes for a year, I'm suddenly very grateful for the clothes I do have. A white t-shirt and worn jeans combo that looks cute nearly brings me to tears of gratitude.

And I'm also seeing, as Mrs. Frugalwoods writes about, a new ability to embrace imperfection. If I can't buy any clothes for a year, then there will be times when the clothes I do have feel imperfect, and I'm just going to have to deal. But instead of feeling like I'm just 'dealing,' I actually feel a bit of lightness, of relief - my purpose in life isn't to spend hours online scouring sites for the perfect new white t-shirt. I have other things I want to do. (Now some of you might enjoy shopping, and so that example may not work for you. But for me, it works since I've never enjoyed shopping. At all. Even for a minute.)

And that leads me to writing. As I've already mentioned, I'm in this exciting stage of having a book that is actually going to be published. Before the year is out, in fact. And while I'm enjoying every step of the process (like seeing the cover, and actual sample pages - EEK!), there's a bit of me that worries. What if it's not good enough? What if I could've made it better? What if it isn't perfect?


Cue the lesson on imperfection. Because of course it's not perfect. Nothing ever is. Famous authors, like Ann Patchett, talk about this, too. How it's impossible to get the beautiful story that's bouncing around your head down onto the page.

But that's okay. It can still be really good. And I can still learn and work and write and move along this path.

So there you have it. How saving money helped me embrace imperfection, which is helping me keep going along this writing path. To be honest, I wasn't even sure what the connection was before I started writing this. And even though this post is far from perfect, it had a purpose for me... and I have to think that's good enough.




My real name

If you've been reading this blog at all over the past year (Hi, Mom, and sis), then you know I've been writing under something of a pseudonym. S.N. Bacon.

It's actually my maiden name (Susan Nicole Bacon, though I was nearly Eve Nicole Bacon according to my parents). But, since I go by my married name, it provided a bit of 'anonymity.' And I've liked having that separation between my real life and writing life. It's given me a chance to dip my toes in the social media circus, and figure out what I'd actually like to present about myself to the real world. After all, one photo or quirky line never seems to capture the complexities of everyday life. For instance, if I post a pretty picture of the mountains, you may think my entire life is spent out in the woods, enjoying the views, when really it's spent slogging children around and digging through mounds of laundry and shifting between projects for a few different jobs.

But my reticence in the social realm is changing. Because my publisher (yes, I have a publisher! Woo-hoo! Full story later) moved up the publication date of my book and we have to make final decisions about my author name NOW and guess what? S.N. Bacon wasn't their favorite.


Part of it is because of the initials. And also the fact that the last name is a breakfast food. I get that breakfast food last names trip people up, even though Bacon has been a wonderful name throughout history, considering Sir Francis, Henry, Kevin and all.

So thus began the search for a new name. Replacing the "S.N." with "Susan" still has the iron skillet-sizzling issue. Nicole Cunningham could work, though I'd probably never answer to 'Nicole' if someone called me that at a book signing (and please, please come to book signings if I have one near you - I'll bring fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, I promise). And Susan Cunning is just weird.

That left me with Susan Cunningham. And after a bit more thought, that's what I've decided to go with. 


Because as much as I'd like to tuck my personal life away in a drawer and keep it separate from my new 'authorly' life, that's just not an option in this day and age. (Don't you love using 'in this day and age' - it makes me feel very mature.) It doesn't mean that I'm going to share everything about myself (though I will admit I had a mango smoothie, peanut butter toast and fudge icing for breakfast; also, that I love rain). But, I want to be authentic. And using my real name seems like the best way to start.

I hope I don't regret it. I am rather partial to the Bacon last name, and I thought S.N. Bacon looked pretty cool. But, Susan Cunningham I am. And thus, Susan Cunningham I shall write under.

At the end of the day, you probably don't even care. But for me, using my real name means the wall I was trying to build between my private and public self crumbles a bit. And the door is open to letting you see who I am. So here it goes. I hope you enjoy.





How I got my agent (aka, goal of 40 rejections)

Exciting news: my first book is scheduled to be published this December. A fitting time, as it has been a decade since I began to write books.

I have a number of books (cough, six) hidden away in the drawers of my computer's memory. Most will probably never see the light of day. But all helped me learn to write.


But... more on that later. Because today, I want to answer the question of how I got an agent.

Before I had an agent, it seemed like a necessary but IMPOSSIBLE goal. I knew the statistics: that agents received thousands of queries each month, sometimes each day. And I had built up my own share of rejections. For previous books, I would query a half-dozen agents. Each time I pressed send, I felt a rush of hope. That hope would last anywhere from a few hours to months, until said agent responded and I learned that he or she was not "the one." 

It made me wonder whether my writing was even agent-worthy. For all I knew, my writing should stay hidden on my computer/in my closet.

But then two things happened. First, a writer friend sat me down and told me the truth of the matter, that finding an agent would take an immense amount of hard work. A full six months of focused time. "Treat it as a job," she said. I grimaced, not excited to take on yet another job, but I took her words to heart and made finding an agent a top priority.

And then, I read an article somewhere - an SCBWI magazine, I think - that suggested a totally new approach. Instead of making it my goal to find an agent, the article suggested making a goal of getting rejected by agents 40 times.

It seemed almost laughable at first. But it was a powerful way to turn the agent hunt on its head. Each time a rejection came in, I could give a small fist-pump - after all, I was getting closer to my goal of 40 rejections. So what if they didn't want my book? I had a goal to meet, and they were helping me along the way.

Slowly but surely, the rejections piled up. A few times, I considered giving up. After all, the book really might be terrible. But I remembered my goal and kept my eyes on the prize: a grand 40 rejections in one year! Bragging rights for sure.

Me e-signing my first book deal. Hooray!

Me e-signing my first book deal. Hooray!

And then, something incredible happened. Somewhere around rejection number 35, an agent called. Actually called. I had long since given up on hoping that out-of-town numbers were agents calling, and since I was at my day job, I let it go to voicemail. When I finally listened to the message, I felt the disbelief rise through my chest. An actual agent wanted to represent my book.

It felt like a miracle. And in a way, it was. Something that happened against the odds. Though that year-long goal of being rejected had made my odds just a little bit better.

So to all of the aspiring writers out there: keep writing, keep working, and set some totally achievable goals. You never know when your goal might get sidetracked in a really good way.