On writing

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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

 

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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.

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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. 

 

Write, revise, repeat

There's something about writing the first draft of a book that is exciting for me. The idea is simply that - an idea, a figment of my imagination, a hazy thought. And then slowly, minute by minute, day by day, pages appear. Putting weight and substance to the shadowy thought. 

It's one of the my favorite times in the process. Not that it comes easy, or that it goes as planned. But because the accomplishment is clear. I am creating where there was nothing before. As I mark off the words - 1,000... 10,000... 50,000 - it's as though I am passing mile markers in a months-long marathon.

Writing 2,000 words is an achievable goal, and when I fall asleep at the end of a long day, I know for certain whether I have met my goal.

Then, once the first draft is out, messy and convoluted and unclear as it is, the next bit of work begins. Revision.

I know revision is hugely important. I know it's where the magic happens, where the book really gets written. And yet, for my Type-A achievement-focused personality, it can be a challenging phase to muddle through. 

I move around entire sections, cut out paragraphs and pages of hardwork, add in sentences, changes words.  Little by little.  The word count might go up slightly, and then back down.  And day in, day out, it's hard to see whether I'm accomplishing anything.

Recently, I got halfway through a big revision only to feel stalled out. The mountain of words still ahead of me seemed insurmountable. And I was not ready to put my hiking boots back on and pick my way through the rubble.

So I did what any self-respecting adult should do in a time like this: I created a sticker chart.

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I actually got the idea for another author friend, who shared recently how she bought fancy stickers and rewarded herself with them for a work well done. The idea immediately appealed to me. I've always loved stickers - I remember a large folder of stickers I collected as a child, and how I would slip through the glossy (and sometimes fuzzy or glittery) sheets and look over my finds. So I searched through Amazon and ordered up a few interesting stickers, then divided a small square of paper in two - half to hold stickers for every 10 pages that was revised, and another half to hold stickers for every 2,000 words that had to be newly written.

The sticker chart, simplistic though it was, gave me a newfound devotion to the work of revising. Who cared if it didn't seem that I had accomplished much, just pushing my way around another 2,000 words? At the end of the day, I had a sticker to show for it! 

And slowly, as the stickers lined themselves up on the sheet, I got closer and closer to the end of the first revision. Finally, I hit those peace-evoking words - THE END - and set the newly revised book and the sticker chart aside.

After a bit of a break, I'm beginning to think about the next round of revisions. I have to admit, I'm not looking forward to it.  Thank goodness some new stickers are coming in the mail.

 

The power of collage

Sometimes ideas just come. But there's one fail-proof way of helping them along: make a collage.

I was introduced to the idea of collaging during a summer class on Julia Cameron's The Artist's WayAt first, I was skeptical. And a bit nervous. To be honest, the idea of flipping through magazines to collect images, then gluing them to a piece of poster board, felt more like grade school work than "writerly" work. Not very productive. Better to actually write, right?

But I stuck with that first collaging session, surprised at how enjoyable it was to think of a word or idea, then stumble into images that captured whatever I was looking for perfectly. Colors and textures and feelings, all right there before me. Images of soaring mountaintops and leaping dogs and summer flowers bursting out of an arrangement. I'd flip through, faster and faster, pausing to collect only the images that called to me, tugged at my heart. It was a subconscious reaction, and was so fulfilling to pull the image out and save it.

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And then, putting them together. Taking a pile of images that seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Cutting or ripping. Arranging. Gluing. And suddenly, meaning would appear. Something bigger, something more, something that resonated completely with me, but that I hadn't even known to look for.

Not only that, but I could repurpose images: an ad for a beauty cream became a statement on true beauty; tips for time management became a call to slow down and manage less. It was empowering. And beautiful. And fun.

I collage regularly now. For big life changes and questions that I need to work through. To explore goals for a coming season or year. And for my writing.

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For every book that I write, I'll make several collages along the way. At the very least, it's a nice way to spend an hour or two feeling productive when the ideas stall. And invariably, these collages point to deeper themes and meanings that are bubbling up in my work. 

It's become a part of my artistic process. I grab used magazines from doctor's offices and the library whenever they're available. I subscribe to several magazines just because of the quality of the images inside. I always try to have glue sticks and poster board on hand. 

And somewhere in the process, as those bits of photographs come together in a new and orderly way, I find myself ready to dive back into the writing process again.

To share or not to share

When I first started writing, one of the most common pieces of advice I received was to join a writing group. Share your work, read it aloud, take input and make it better.

It's straightforward, good advice. And for many people, it works really well. Joining a writing group can be motivating, encouraging and an excellent way to improve.

But for me, all that sharing stalled me out. After reading the first chapter of my yet-to-be-written book, I'd listen intently to the feedback and questions that other writers had.

What's the main character's critical flaw?

What if the story had higher stakes, like maybe... death?

What would this sound like if you wrote it in first person? Or started it five years earlier? Or put it in another setting - like, Nebraska, or the moon...

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Okay, that last one is an exaggeration. But the lists were often long. All (usually) great feedback, all great things to consider. And yet, for me, the endless options sent me into a flurry of self-doubt and questioning. Maybe the story should take place in an entirely different place or time. Maybe the main character wasn't the right person for the job. Maybe the whole thing should be scrapped and begun again.

But there's an alternative. I first heard about this method from author Jennifer Haigh, who said when she writes a novel, she does not share it until she's far along in the process. She doesn't talk about the idea, doesn't give her agent a blurb on what she's writing - nothing. Talking about a work in progress, she said, was like popping the cork on a bottle of champagne: it can let out all the energy and excitement, and make it difficult to continue.

In an interview with GrubStreet, Haigh gave an emphatic "No," to the question of whether she lets her mother read her work in process.

"I don’t even tell anybody what I’m writing.  And my editor doesn’t know what I’m writing about until it’s too late. I’m super protective about my work. I think that work in progress is very porous and very fragile. … It’s the coward’s way out. I don’t want feedback. That’s just a chilling idea to me that I would show somebody a chapter out of context and ask for feedback. It’s really unimaginable to me."

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Now don't get me wrong - my work definitely needs to be edited. But I've found a gentler process that involves a full reading by a trusted editor, and I'm lucky to have an agent who is hands-on with editing as well.

So the bottom line? Use and enjoy writers groups if they help you. Who knows, maybe I'll plug back into one in the future. But don't be afraid to find another editing process that works for you. Different processes work for each of us, and the main thing, at the end of the day, is simply (or not so simply) to write.

 

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Magical tidying and writing books

I came a bit late to the Marie Kondo phenomenon. But as soon as I started reading her book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, I knew I could never go back.

I've always loved organizing. Getting rid of things, decluttering. But often the process was tedious. I'd stare at my closet, unable to let go of that scratchy yet fashionable gray sweater I'd never worn, or the striped skirt that wasn't exactly my style but still very practical. 

 Does all of this spark joy? Probably not...

Does all of this spark joy? Probably not...

Reading Kondo's work felt revolutionary. Instead of focusing on what to toss, Kondo teaches you to focus on what to keep. And to determine what to keep, you physically hold each object and determine whether it "sparks joy."

Kondo has a whole method, which I (more or less) followed. The process was exhausting, but did result in a tidier house. (Though it still gets untidy, and requires periodic analysis of the joy-sparking ability of new things that have pushed their way in.)

One surprising benefit: I learned to trust my gut and determine what I truly loved. Not just what I might need, or what I thought I should have - but what I loved.

As Kondo writes (both in her original book and her new graphic novel, The Life-Changing Magna of Tidying Up), each of us knows immediately what "sparks joy." You can just feel it. No analysis, no pro/con list needed. It's a gut-level reaction. For me, I may smile or feel a fondness or a lightness when holding something I love.

 Not my office, but I wouldn't mind if it was.

Not my office, but I wouldn't mind if it was.

Learning to listen to that little voice, to give weight to that which I love, has been helpful in my writing process. I'm not writing just to create a good, marketable story, but rather, to follow a fancy or to dip my toe in something that interests me

Writing, painting, acting - all art depends on millions of choices, one made after another. Do I dip a brush into navy or aqua? Elevate my voice or lower it for emphasis? Start a scene here or there?

It's impossible to make every choice like a master analyst. You must often go with your instinct. And amidst my piles of clothing and old papers and pots and pans, I feel I have improved my skill at doing just that.

So thank you, Marie Kondo. Not just for a tidier house. But a happier, more creative life.

 

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Feed that monster

Sometimes it’s hard to write. Things come up – work, family, vacation, illness, life – and writing isn’t the easiest thing to slip into the spaces.

That’s why each of us needs our own, personal, “art monster.”

I first heard this idea from Lauren Groff, award-winning author of the novels Arcadia, Fates and Furies and more. When speaking last year, she talked about sticking with the artist’s life, even through times of crummy jobs and uncertainty.

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“It’s hard, it’s so hard to be a creative person,” Groff said.

But what gets you through the bad times, she said, is waking every day with a commitment to your art, then practicing that commitment. Even if it’s not good in the beginning (because, as Groff said and as we all know, it’s never good at the beginning). You have to keep going and know that you are good. Have faith in yourself.

And that’s where your personal art monster comes in.

“Have an art monster inside of you, and feed it and let it live. Let that art monster stomp around the house,” Groff said.

And while it’s stomping and taking up space, rearranging your life for a bit, sprawling out over your chores, shoving your “real” work to the side for a moment, it’s telling you that you are good. Saying that you’re worth it, that you can do it.

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“It’s about knowing how good you are on the inside and having that faith,” Groff said.

I collaged the idea of an art monster soon after hearing Groff, and ended up with images that reflected a sneaky, creative force, one that slips in through the night and early morning, working without being loud about, though it's still insistent and real and hungry. And while I feel those images still hold true, I’m ready for a louder monster. One that wants to do some stomping. To yell and shout. To say it’s hungry. To jump up and down, and push things around.

It’ll be hard, especially with summer and its strange schedule and extra trips and other fun stuff. But today, at least, I’ll sit for a minute and listen to that monster. And make some space for writing. Because all of us – me included – are worth it.

 

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Accomplishment No. 1: Not Giving Up

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to hear author Ron Rash speak. With his easy Southern drawl and self-effacing humor, he described how he came to be a writer. I don't remember all the details, just this idea of him sitting in his house - maybe even the bathroom? - and writing and writing away, one story after another, all of it junk, none of it good. Here he was, trying to make a career out of something he, in his own words, couldn't even do well. And yet for the life of him, he couldn't quit.

Obviously, Rash, who has since written the New York Times bestselling novel Serena, along with other award winning novels and collections of stories and poems, stuck with it.  Kept going. And slowly, slowly, his writing became something better than good - it became something great.

It was exactly what I needed to hear. My own writing felt cumbersome and sloppy, unlikely to get me anywhere, and yet impossible to stop. But it was all too easy to entertain the idea of quitting. Who was I to chain myself to this thing that might never produce anything of worth, anything even good?

Every time I hear another author's story, it helps me remember that we all start somewhere, with the hint of an idea and a laptop or pad of paper, trying to scribble down a story, no idea of whether we'll actually succeed.

That idea is driven home in Rash's answer to the question of what was his proudest achievement to date in an interview with Tinge Magazine

"That I didn't give up, that I had enough faith in myself to keep writing when I was getting rejection slip after rejection slip. That's part of the deal. Too many writers who are good give up too quickly."

  See that tree? A bristlecone pine. The oldest living single organism known. And a good image of persistence.

See that tree? A bristlecone pine. The oldest living single organism known. And a good image of persistence.

And for those of us who have been working away for years, still no luck finding an agent or publishing a book or selling a story, his reminder in that same interview that immediate success isn't always ideal might be just as helpful:

  And see this path? This is what writing often feels like to me. A curvy trail through thick woods. Uncertainty at every step. And yet, you keep moving forward.

And see this path? This is what writing often feels like to me. A curvy trail through thick woods. Uncertainty at every step. And yet, you keep moving forward.

"I feel very lucky that what attention has come to me has come after thirty years of writing. It's often unhealthy for young writers to get a lot of attention. Too many distractions, and they may become too easily satisfied with the level of their work."

And finally, my favorite might just be his advice to writers: 

"Learn your craft, be patient, and - I believe this, although there are a few exceptions - if your work is good, somebody's going to notice. It may take a while. This is easy for me to say since, obviously, I have a New York publisher and my work is getting attention now, but often young writers worry too much about that. It's only human to want to break in and get the acclaim, but the main energy has to go into becoming a better writer."

Ahhh. Good words from a wise, writerly soul. Thanks, Ron Rash, for sharing your encouraging advice. And for sticking with writing yourself.

 

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Bristlecone pine photo: www.loc.gov

All quotes from Ron Rash, Tinge Magazine, Spring 2012

Ancient Art

I stood at the base of the red rock wall and stared at the 2,000-year-old artwork. And prompted by a question on an informational sign, I couldn't help wonder - Who were these artists?

The art I was looking at is thought to be from the Barrier Canyon Culture, and was painted on or etched into the rock at least two thousand years ago. These people were hunters and gatherers, who used stone and bone tools. They didn't have pottery, but they did have art.

Their pictures are breathtaking - strange shapes partway up the rock wall that look like people, true-to-size, with broad shoulders and tapered midsections. Some have dots or "crowns" above their heads. There are animals, too, and rows of lines, as though something was being counted or figured.

The pictures might represent a death or transformation into a supernatural or animal form; the animals might be spirit helpers to aid a shaman's journey into the beyond or the underworld. There's a lot we don't know.

But looking at this art, I couldn't help thinking about these artists, who may have had to travel long distances through the harsh canyon environment, all to make their pictures. What drove them to paint or etch? Were they were chosen or mentored or just couldn't help creating? Were they supported by the rest of the people, with food and other supplies? 

We'll probably never know. But there at the base of the canyon wall, with blue sky overhead and red rock to all sides, I felt grateful for these ancient artists. For they helped me to remember one thing that's still true: art is central to the human experience, to the human soul.