Now I Have the Space, I Guess I Have to Use It; OR: How Writing a Book is Like a Yoga Class

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Summer!

Summer.

I love summer; I always have.

In fact, one of the greatest challenges of living in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area for me is that, though the weather is quite frequently amazing here, we don’t really, truly, get a summer that’s hot, hot, hot—and I miss it. But somehow, this past week, we’ve had something pretty close. It’s been unseasonably warm and dry (well, duh—it’s always dry) and the fog belt has been belted in, like so many unsuspecting children in the back seat of the car on a summer road trip (uh….). The garden is bursting at the seams. L is doing a fun summer camp and we’ve been biking there in our shorts. Then he has swimming class in a town beyond any mention of fog so I sit on the sidelines baking. Online classes make my time a little more my own, too. I went to yoga the other day for the first time in months.

And I do not. Feel. Like. Doing. Any. Work.

Suffice it to say that my huge enthusiasm for my new writing studio has waned some, simply because, while I love being in here, it also feels like an imperative to get off my butt and actually produce some writing. I’d love to! I really would! But man, it feels challenging.

This is not just because summer is so very, very tempting. It’s also because B and I are making some Big Life Decisions that are occupying a lot of brain space. And along with that, I’m in that very weird, somewhat-exciting, somewhat-terrifying place of starting a new project. A novel. It’s the same novel I started months ago, during NaNoWriMo, which I promptly relegated to the back burner once the book proposal and revisions entered in. But now that all of that is done, I have no excuse but to write the damn thing.

When I was a kid, my mom used to remind me, every time I started something new, that change was hard for me. Man, that was an understatement! The first day of Kindergarten wasn’t pretty. Starting high school sent me into a ten-day long depression that I still shudder to remember. Going away to college was awful. I’m not at all good with transitions. And so here I am, with one project to bed, sort of, and another on my desk. I know what needs to happen in the book, mostly. I have the premise all tied up. But I have a major problem to solve—I’m trying to write a character who’s a stand-up comedian, and frankly, I’m not that funny (actually, I’m hysterically funny, but only in person, and only to a small handful of other human beings). This is making me completely overwhelmed. In my more productive moments this week I’ve Googled “how to write humor” and done a few exercises that have been marginally entertaining. Then I kind of stare at the paper and freak out. I think what I really need to do is just jump in with both feet, get messy, and attempt to be funny along the way.

But I’d much rather be sitting in the sunshine with a good book and completely avoid it, because it feels really hard. 

So, as I said, I went to yoga the other day. During class, I had a bit of a facile realization but one that’s nonetheless reminding me something about the artistic process. The class was an hour long, and about halfway through, I got to that point that every yogi gets to in a yoga class: the moment when you really and truly hate it and wish you could go home. Your body hurts, you’re sick of mindfully breathing, the teacher is so annoying, and your thoughts have taken over and are running you ragged. Then, five minutes later, you calm down and remind yourself that the only way to get to the other side is to breathe and press on. Next thing you know, you’re done.

This is kind of like writing a book, I thought to myself. Not very much like writing a book, but enough like writing a book that I should remember it.

Here I go: breathing, pressing on, and attempting to wow you with my comedic prowess. Wish me luck.

 

This Overworked Mom Felt Burned by Amazon’s Fire Tablet Commercials

A great new piece by Aya de Leon about Katrina Alcorn’s Maxed Out…and other things.

Aya de Leon

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 2.31.24 PMLately, I’ve been reading a lot about overworked moms (Actually, I listen on audiobooks as I do overworked mom things like emptying the compost and schlepping my kid to and from preschool). In Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn and Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte, the authors catalogue how moms are drowning in the demands to be perfect workers and perfect mothers—all while they do a much greater percentage of the domestic work than male partners.

So no wonder I loved the first commercial for Amazon’s Fire tablet. It begins with the tablet undergoing laboratory stress tests that allegedly certify it to be twice as durable as an iPad. Then comes the real-life stress test: A harassed suburban mom in her 30s hustles out the door with her son in soccer gear. In one hand, she holds…

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Mastering the Book Proposal

Recently I had the good (ahem) fortune of writing a book proposal, a document I’d avoided for years because it simply didn’t seem necessary. My book was done; I’d been sending it around without one, so why the need? But when I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, an agent I’m interested in working with—along with a former book editor-cum-entrepreneur whose advice I trust—said in no uncertain terms that every memoirist needs a robust (read: 100-page) book proposal. I realized that if only for the very practical reason that if I wanted to query this agent I’d need a book proposal, that I had to write one, daunting as it was.

Daunting.

Daunting.

The tricky thing about a book proposal is that it calls on a completely different part of your brain than the one you use to write your book. You hope the book-writing part uses the creative, spontaneous, brilliantly fresh part of your brain; the book proposal requires something more like an MBA. Here is the book market, you need to say. Here is how I fit into it. Here is how my book improves upon and contributes to the many voices already writing memoir, anxiety, romance. And here is why I’m the best person to write this very book. You also need to learn to talk about your book and why you’ve written it in a way that suggests confidence, poise, and drive, plus no small measure of self-aggrandizement.

My first draft was a disaster. I followed a template to the letter of the law, in the process confounding an editor I’d hired. In my chapter summaries (oh yes: you need a roughly 1-page summary of every chapter in your book, which in my case is 20+ chapters long) she couldn’t find the theme of the book; she didn’t understand what the climax of the story was or how anxiety even fit in. Since anxiety is supposed to be the very bottom building block, the most important thing, I knew this was a major problem. And while the editor didn’t have much negative to say about my 12-page Marketing and Publicity section, it was killing me: I spent hours coming up with a list of blogs and publications and connections and opportunities, but somehow this all felt folksy, redundant; that it didn’t really describe how I plan to market and promote my own book. Did I really need to state that I planned to Tweet about it? I mean, duh, right?

Luckily, a writer friend to the rescue. She let me look at her book proposal. And then I found a few others, remembered that an old college buddy had, years ago, sent me his. Reading these through, I realized that the most salient point of a book proposal is that, while in an actual book you have pages upon pages to allow themes to marinate, in a book proposal you have mere sentences to make yourself understood. You have to hammer home your points in a way that a busy agent or book publisher, skimming your proposal, can easily grasp. So I rewrote and rewrote those chapter summaries, emphasizing the two main threads of the book—making peace with fear, and love as acceptance, if you’re wondering—in every single one. And in the Overview section, I strove for an almost-painful clarity: the theme of the book is this, I said. The most important takeaway is this. Finally, instead of concentrating all my industry-speak into that one Marketing & Publicity section, it occurred to me to sprinkle it throughout, and to use the “About the Author” section to tout my accomplishments (man, that’s an uncomfortable phrase to write) and emphasize the ways this book fits into a larger scheme of me as a writer.

The surprising thing about writing this book proposal was not facing the discomfort of shamefully selling myself, though that did give me pause, but rather how damn useful it was. Being forced to write a sentence like “the themes of the book are X, Y, and Z” helped me to reflect on, well, the themes of the book. It allowed me to go back and look at the book and ask myself whether those themes were in fact clear (and if not, to take one last moment to make them clear). Similarly, writing the “Comp Titles” section—where you compare and contrast your book to others in the same genre—allowed me to really envision where my book sits on the shelf at the library. It allowed me to come up with catch-phrases to describe the genre and what I’m trying to do. It gave me the opportunity to think of ten books that I really, really like and describe how my book complements them. Finally, the book proposal was a great opportunity to talk a little about anxiety, to throw some statistics around, to say what I know and very much believe to be true: that Americans are more anxious than ever, that anxiety has become a huge part of our national identity, that more people need to be reading and writing about it. Because I truly believe that.

Last week, with very little fanfare but a nice oomph of satisfaction, I sent out that book proposal. I’m now in that awful period where you wait and wait and wait. But it actually doesn’t feel so awful, I think because I’m really happy that I finished that book proposal and feel good about it. If nothing else, writing it helped me to really put the cap on the pen that has been this long, long writing project. If nothing else, I gave it a very good shot.

Resources That May be Helpful if You Are Writing a Book Proposal:

Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal

The 8 Essential Elements of a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

How to Sell Your Memoir by Brooke Warner

A Room of One’s Own: My Very Own Writing Studio

First there was this.

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Before.

Just this junky old room with moldy brown carpet and three flavors of paint (one puke green, one puke pink, one puke indeterminate). This was the studio adjacent to our apartment, which had sat empty for years and years on end, except as a dumping ground for various items of hardware that had been used in the renovation of our place. When we moved in next door, the landlord told us he was planning to renovate the studio for Maya, the eccentric and kind older woman who gardens here every Tuesday. Of course neither B nor I particularly wanted anyone to move in next door, but what could we do? Maya is very nice. Our landlord said he would begin fixing it up in January. Then it was February. Then March. As May arrived, we realized he had no intention of ever getting to it—or at least, not any time soon.

And then one day Maya announced to B that she had found a different place to live, and it occurred to me that without the incentive of fixing it up for Maya, George really might not get to it for a while. In other words, right next to my house was a small sunny room with its own bathroom that was….

Empty.

Available.

Unoccupied.

And perfect to become a writing studio. 

I emailed George and asked whether he would consider letting me rent it. I can’t pay you much, I said, but it’s more than you’re getting now, and I’ll do all the work. And after an agonizing two weeks, he wrote to say he thought that would be fine. (!!!) Then he agreed to let me paint, pull out the carpet, and generally make it mine. And so, a few weekends ago, I got up early and went to work. I sanded the walls and painted them a soft, soft gray. We hauled the nasty carpet out to the driveway. I scrubbed the floors, cleaned the bathroom, put up a shelf, washed the cover on the dusty old futon that lives here. I moved in a lamp, a chair, some throw pillows, a rug, and finally, a desk.

And here I sit, writing this blog post.

And after.

And after.

I have wanted my own writing space for—well, forever. In grad school, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I had a pretty great two-room apartment with large windows and high ceilings and lots of space, and I had an office there, though it was one half of the room I used as my bedroom, so not totally ideal. Since then, though, we’ve never had the extra space, and I’ve worked in coffee shops and at the library or, occasionally, at the kitchen table. The trouble with any of these places, of course, is that they’re noisy and you can’t pace around reading things out loud or debating the finer points of a sentence or shouting “why is this so f%^&*#g hard?!” You can’t hang up on the wall all the bits and baubles of paper and notes and whatnots that have come to you in brilliant moments or procrastinating moments. You can’t casually leave your laptop and go make a cup of tea, because someone might steal your last five years of work.

And at the kitchen table, it’s far too easy to feel guilty about the dirty dishes or the bills that just came shooting through the mail slot and get distracted.

In short, none of those places are yours and yours alone, your place to write, to think, to procrastinate, to mess up, to be. 

But this place is. Mine.

You’ll see, on the wall to the left of the desk, a series of pieces of paper. To christen my new writing studio, I hosted the Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour here last week, and we did an exercise: we used a couple of one-word prompts and responded to them using paper and pens and crayons and markers, scissors and collage and glue.

The Lion Prompt

The Lion Prompt

The first prompt, given to me by a certain five-year-old, was “lion.” I loved the way these all looked next to each other when we hung them up, like they all spoke to each other somehow. I could feel the space warming up with color and words and intention.

We went on to do more; we riffed on “illness,” on “middle.” We worked independently but all together, and eventually, we filled the whole space with paper.

It reminds me of a poem from a mentor I miss, the terrific late poet Agha Shahid Ali: 

Stationery

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.

The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

© Agha Shahid Ali

 

Yes, the world is full of paper.