Writing Advice: Part II – The Actual Advice

Conor McGregor advises you to be at peace with who you really are. Even (especially) if that involves red skull and crossbone suit linings.

I have a week left in my writing retreat. I’ve already accomplished more than I thought I would. And I finally feel like I have writing advice to share, after only twenty-three years of working on becoming a professional writer.

Be confident in your own process. I have no set pattern. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes at night. Sometimes I don’t write at all, sometimes I write all day. The days I’m not writing are the most important days of all, because those are the days I dig for the story. I’ve learned to trust my instincts. As a pantser, I write everything I know to write. By that I mean, I transcribe the movie I’m watching in my mind. The second the reel falters, the movie flicks off, I stop writing. I resist the temptation to write based off of guesses. I now know what the movie feels like, and I only start writing again once the film is truly ready to roll. I used to push for word counts and things of that nature, but for me, artificial goals are deleterious to my process. Obviously, most people have to write around work, family, and other obligations. But there is no “correct” time to write, and if you don’t like routine, that’s fine, too. I hate routine. Sometimes I write at home, sometimes at a coffee shop, sometimes at a desk, sometimes not. For others, routine is their lifeblood, it’s what allows the magic to flow.

It took me a long time to be at peace with my own process. Thing is, I don’t care about software or tricks to organize ideas or tools of the trade. There are great books on writing, to be sure, books of great value that I treasure, and there are even good blogs out there. There are even more great blogs about the publishing industry and how to navigate it. But anything that could be described as a “life hack for writers” just makes my eyes glaze over. For years, I wondered what was wrong with me that I had zero interest in writers writing about writing. I’d much rather just write about horse racing or comedy or UFC fighters or Islam or a funny thing that happened the other day. Writing, for me, is a means to an end. And that’s okay. It’s equally okay to be super stoked on this new method of tracking changes in your manuscript. Point is, embrace the approach that works for you. Here’s another thing – don’t worry about what others are doing success-wise, too. It’s hard for me to write about this because it’s not a problem I have. I went to college with freaking Josh Schwartz, you guys. James Vanderbilt. Et cetera. Any envy issues I had were forcibly beaten out of me by 2001. And thank God for that. It is liberating to simply be happy for your friends and let the rest of it go. It has nothing to do with you. At all.

If you can avoid writing, you’re not a writer. This is a rather mean thing to say, isn’t it? It’s also hypocritical. During the very dark time in my life when I worked at The Cliffs, I wrote very little. But I did still write. I wrote short pieces for their lifestyle magazine. I wrote weird little essays for nobody’s benefit but my own. I actually managed to write one and a half screenplays, which in retrospect I’m like, “Go me!” (And one of those screenplays I’m now adapting into a novel.) Still, given that it was four years of my life, my output was minimal. Work stress, relationship stress, health stress – all of these things will slow you down. If they completely stop you, it’s a bad sign. Far more importantly, if things are going pretty well and you do have spare energy and you’re still not writing, then maybe you’re more in love with the idea of being a writer than you are with writing itself.

If you are a writer and you’re struggling with an inferiority complex of some sort, I highly recommend embracing the Conor McGregor school of thought. I know it seems sort of an odd fit, looking to a UFC fighter for writing advice, but I am the girl who asked Santa for the complete works of Shakespeare, boxing gloves, and a heavy bag the same year – and received all three! – so to me it makes sense. In one of the first interviews I watched with Conor, done when he was not yet famous, he talked about how his opponent isn’t the other man in the ring, it’s himself. In order to win, you have to defeat your own mind. This advice is as applicable to writing as it is to fighting. As writers, we get in our own way so frequently. Conor’s answer is to say, “I have so much confidence in my ability to master my own mind.” That confidence creates progress.

Know what you want. If you are ambivalent about success, success will be ambivalent about you. Here’s the corollary to that – success always knows what you’re really thinking. You can lie to others, you can even lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to success. It knows your heart. Just as importantly,  be bold in defining what success means to you. “Should” should have no place in your life as a writer. You feel like you “should” be a big time famous writer churning out bestsellers? You “should” be writing great literary works of art? But what if these worlds don’t fit? What if you’re happier writing for a smaller audience? Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe you feel like you “should” be writing little pieces for the local magazine, but secretly you feel like you could be a bestselling author. What if you feel like you “should” be a humble sort of person, but you actually want to be famous? Be at peace with what you really want, with what genuinely fits you best, and make no apologies for it.

Ultimately, if you feel like you’re stuck in your writing, in your relationship, in your career, I can guarantee you there’s one thing holding you back – fear. I’ve written it on this blog before and I’ll write it again – we live in a fear-based emotional economy. Fear is inevitable. To quote Conor quoting Bruce Lee, “To know others, know yourself.” Conor always talks about the fear he sees in the eyes of his opponent. His trash talk is purpose built, so he’s not going to talk about it directly, but I believe the reason Conor is so good is because he’s not afraid of fear. As he has also said, “I am comfortable in the uncomfortable.” This, my friends, this. All of this. This is what keeps us stuck. Fear. Not understanding that fear is inevitable, being afraid of that fear, and in doubling down on that fear we allow it master us. We are all afraid. But we are called to be courageous. Each of us in different ways, but we are all called to courage.

Blind Luck

Head up, tail up - everything's in order for little Blind Luck.

Horse racing is a business. I know this. And yet, I had an upswell of irrational sadness when I saw that one of my all time favorite racemares, Blind Luck, was going through the sales ring again. That sadness turned to anger when I watched the attached video of a potential buyer, unseen on camera, telling the groom to walk Blind Luck down and back. (You have to scroll to the bottom of the article to get to the video.) I didn’t like the woman’s tone of voice, for one thing. And for another thing, in my world order, Blind Luck outranks her. Blind Luck should be telling that woman to walk down and back, not the other way around.

Thing is, everybody in racing knows exactly who and what Blind Luck is. She isn’t pretty. Everybody knows it. She’s bandy-legged and croup high and the more you look the more you can find wrong with her. You know what else everybody should know? It doesn’t freaking matter. She won 3.2 million on the track, including the Kentucky Oaks, and was as dead game as a racehorse can get. Blind Luck wasn’t fancily bred, wasn’t trained by Pletcher or owned by Godolphin, she was a working racehorse – and man, did she work. As a two-year-old, she showed a freaky turn of foot, but myself and many others were just waiting for those bandy legs to give out – they never did. She went from synthetics to dirt without a hitch, and her trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer danced every dance with that mare. Blind Luck traveled the country, criss-crossing back and forth to face the nation’s best horses on their home turf. A small, wiry mare, her weight never changed, nor did her attitude. Blind Luck was a warrior.

This is Blind Luck in the Kentucky Oaks, doing what she always did – dropping back to dead last before making a furious last minute rally. Not even her jockey knew if he’d won the race. Blind Luck like to keep things exciting and unlike the great Zenyatta, she didn’t always win. It’s extremely hard for come from behind horses to keep perfect records. And, let’s be honest, Zenyatta benefitted from a far less taxing schedule. The goal wasn’t to keep Blind Luck’s record perfect, the goal was to pick up checks.

Of all of Blind Luck’s exploits on the track, perhaps most memorable was her rivalry with eventual Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. Here they are dueling down the stretch in the Delaware Oaks. Havre de Grace was the opposite, in many ways, from her scrappy little opponent. Havre de Grace was big, beautiful, correct, a stunning bay mare based in the east and afforded automatic respect from the racing community. Blind Luck didn’t know any of that.

Although Blind Luck compiled an impressive record of wins, her triumph in the Alabama was, in my opinion, her greatest. The slower the pace up front, the harder it is for come from behind horses to win. In the Alabama, they were just about walking, but Blind Luck was, as always, last headed into the final turn. For her to close into that slow pace and still pull of the win is a profoundly difficult task for any racehorse – let alone an undersized, bandylegged croup-high mare.

I have to include one more race. This is Blind Luck closing out her two year old year in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet against a bunch of top fillies. She made them look ordinary that day. A quick maturing filly, in this race you can already see some of the hallmarks that made Blind Luck so special. She ran with her head and tail up, something rare in racehorses. But that mare knew exactly how awesome she was, and what better way to let everybody else know, too? She was born confident. She was born knowing she was great.

She also knew when she was done. After twenty-two races against the toughest competition and thousands upon thousands of miles of travel, one day Blind Lucky retired herself. Entered into the Lady’s Secret Stakes, Blind Luck had other ideas, cantering along, out of touch with the field and staying that way around the track. Extensive tests showed nothing was wrong with Blind Luck. She was just done. It was the first time she’d ever finished worse than third in her career. She was sent to the sales ring and became a broodmare.

I haven’t seen her babies. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were incorrect and it also wouldn’t surprise me if they failed to inherit their mother’s ability. Blind Luck was a freak. All the same, I wish she had an owner who loved her so much she would never be sold. Somebody who would bring her peppermints and tell her how special she is. They are other racehorses who’ve won millions of dollars, have similar race records to Blind Luck’s, but she is unique and deserves to be treated like the rare queen she is.

Which is why that video bothered me. It’s just the horse racing business, I know. But Blind Luck isn’t just another horse.

Can’t Wait

The other day I was driving away from the barn. I’d just ridden Johnny, the big, black thoroughbred I am exceedingly taken with. The sun was shining. I thought to myself, “I can’t wait!” Those were the words that popped into my head. “I can’t wait!” I paused and thought, “Can’t wait for what?” I had no plans that evening, I had no significant plans coming up that week, or even really for the rest of the year. I planned to write and ride and do comedy, but that’s just everyday sort of stuff. All the same, that sunshine-sparkling-on-water feeling of happy expectation rose to the surface anyway.

It’d been a long time since I experienced that sort of feeling.

Today is New Year’s Eve, a day where it’s natural to look back, especially on past New Year’s. For a good long stretch there, my New Year’s were internally sad affairs. Hoping against hope that this year would be better than the last. Sometimes, like at the end of 2012, I was simply glad the year was over. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to 2013 – although I should have been, because that year rocked – I was just relieved to get to the other side of a finish line. 2014 has been, in a lot of ways, sort of an endless slog. It’s been a year of waiting, of preparation. Of trying to get my mind right and deal with all the battle damage I’ve accumulated. If 2013 was like Mardi Gras, one giant Fat Tuesday, then 2014 was Lent. A time of withdrawal and reflection.

Perhaps for the first time in my life, I look forward to the flip of the calendar page with the feeling that Easter morning is almost here at last.

To be sure, Ruthless doesn’t come out until July, and that will function as the natural centerpiece of 2015, but straight out of the gate this is going to be a different sort of year for me. Before things really kick off, though, I am – much like Luke Skywalker – going to head off to the Dagobah System, and by that I mean Charleston, to spend a month in final preparation. I have found a Yoda, and by Yoda I mean a CrossFit instructor named Beth, and it’ll be her job to teach me to move X-Wings with my mind. When I am not moving X-Wings with my mind, I’ll be writing. And then off I’ll go…

This year is going to have a lot of adventures in it. A lot of travel, a lot of things brought to fruition, and hopefully plenty of surprises! (I love surprises the most.) Regardless, it is time to do. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” I’ve been trying for a long time, it feels like, and that won’t cut it anymore. It is time to make good.

I can’t wait.

Records

I’ll take your part/When darkness comes…

When I was little my parents had a Simon & Garfunkel album. I loved it. Listened to it all the time. I loved all the songs, but I especially loved “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I remember interpretive dancing my heart out to the dramatic conclusion of that song, but my favorite lyric then remains my favorite lyric now, almost 30 years later. I’ll take your part. I just liked the idea of it. Loyalty. Someone to have your back. Someone willing to help you fight your battles.

In addition to Simon & Garfunkel, I had my very own Mickey Mouse record, wherein Mickey and friends sang patriotic songs, Peter and The Wolf, as narrated by Sterling Holloway, and then I liked three of my sisters’ records an awful lot – Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Ozzy Osborne. Rounding out my favorite record collection was an odd little 45 from National Geographic that was nothing but the song of humpback whales. So, to recap: humpback whales, Ozzy, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Walt Disney, and Simon & Garfunkel. It still serves as a useful summary of me as a person. (Important addendum: when I went to my friend Amanda’s place, I got to listen to Joan Jett, repeatedly leaping off the arm of their couch whilst playing air guitar. Joan is important part of the mix.)

Not last October but the October before, October 2013, I found myself rather magically in Madison, Wisconsin. I met Ben LeRoy in person, watched Nick Hart and Cody Hughes kill it at Comedy on State (great room – all comics should go there), and crashed at a La Quinta. The next day, Cody and I drove around Madison in my dad’s truck, just sort of taking in the town. My dad didn’t have much music on hand, but one thing he did have was a Simon & Garfunkel CD – the same recording from my childhood. I remember “Bridge Over Troubled Water” came on just as the waterfront came into view. Madison is a pretty town, especially in fall. (I presume especially in fall. It’s the only time I’ve been. But I’m guessing winter is a safe bet for a sucky season up there.) Cody and I were driving around in part to stave off the inevitable return to Chicago. We decided to go to Milwaukee en route, which was a pretty effective time killer. Especially when I took a wrong turn leaving Madison.

Tonight I heard that song again. It’s funny. Normally, I loathe cheesy, melodramatic songs, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is nothing if not melodramatic. The dials hits eleven on the sincerity scale. But I still love it just as much as I did when I was four, coming up with interpretive dance moves in the living room. It wasn’t Joan Jett, but I’m sure there were leaps off the couch arm all the same. Not with air guitar, but with a modern dance expression of ecstatic joy. After all, it ends so happily.

Sail on silver girl, sail on by/Your time has come to shine/All your dreams are on their way


RUTHLESS Book Cover Reveal

So, here’s the deal. Ruth came into the world today, all official-like. She has a book cover now. That means she’s a real girl.

Ruthless will be on book shelves June 2, 2015. It’s crazy exciting, you guys.

The following Saturday, I am throwing a party in the Pendleton town square and everyone is invited. You do have to buy a book to get in, though. Not kidding.

It’s going to be a lot like a wedding, except I am going to be marrying my book. DJ Master A, aka the famous Alrinthea Carter, will be spinning the tunes, there will be dancing, there will be snacks, somebody will give a drunken toast. I will be too busy to really notice anything that’s happening, but you guys will have an amazing time. It’s going to be great, you guys. Super great.

So please mark that down on your calendars! June 6, 2015. Pendleton Town Square. Be there.