Hello there, friends!
I experienced something strange the other morning. After I prepared myself a cup of coffee and sat down to do some writing, I instinctively guided my mouse over to my Haywood Micaye file and opened it up. I realized what I had done and kind of stared at my screen for a moment. I indulged in a somewhat cinematic moment as I closed the word document and took a meditative sip of my coffee. This was my first real pang of “empty nest syndrome”.
There’s a constant problem, not only in writing, but in all forms of art, really, be it painting, music, film, or anything beyond that. And that’s the issue of determining when you’ve “finished” a project. When it comes to Haywood Micaye, I feel that I have reached a finish line.
Micaye’s world is one I have lived in for four years. The majority of my writing time had been spent writing this novel, editing it, tweaking words. I think of not only the hard work but the money I also invested in the novel, the late nights, angry tears, pages upon pages in overfilling notebooks…
Of course, I didn’t entirely put my blinders up and focus single-mindedly on the novel. I wrote other short stories and things beyond it. But most of my time was dedicated to Haywood. I let this novel consume my waking thoughts willingly. It gave me purpose. It gave me something to look forward to, an end goal for myself.
And now I’ve done everything I can. I’ve clicked “publish”, and set it free into the world. Now it’s a book no longer dependent on me alone. Now it can go find audiences, impact other lives. It’s somewhat out of my hands.
I took an introductory creative writing course at my college last semester. The class was designed, in essence, to give both the Creative Writing majors and the non-majors a somewhat even playing field for us to work and write in. The class advocated the development of a love for writing in all forms, from short stories to simple day-to-day journaling, but at the end of the day, it was up to us, the students, to make something of the class. It became our duty to carry on with the habits we had made as a result of the class and to take our individual works to the next level.
One of the last projects we did was to write a personal essay with the prompt of “risk-taking and writing”. It was fairly open to interpretation. Most students wrote about what it feels like to take risks in their own work. One of my friends wrote about how her risk in writing was to apply to Stephens College alone and to choose to study Creative Writing.
My “risk” when it comes to writing doesn’t manifest in the sense of a question of identity. Sure, I struggle with labeling myself as much as anyone else, but I’ve always been fairly confident in my title as a writer and my belief that it is my purpose to become an author when it comes time for me hone a career. I determined my true risk was the process of publishing Haywood Micaye.
As you all are aware, my journey took longer than I had originally ever planned it would. There was a lot of starting and stopping, backtracking on the road and taking a different route. Most of this is because of the nature of the work. The road to publication isn’t always linear, and as I decided to take on different avenues of publication I had to change my ideas on success and run with the new plan. But a lot of my procrastination on achieving anything with the book was because I was simply scared.
Over the course of my four years working on the novel, I had managed to dig myself a very comfortable rut. I knew that moving forward could just as easily render horrid failure as it could great success. I kept fine-tuning my words over and over, blaming the editing process, but truthfully afraid of a world in which I wasn’t editing, wasn’t spending all my time thinking about the novel. I chose to let neither the good nor the bad “what-ifs” manifest.
So, I didn’t move. For a very long time.
This stagnation only grew stronger with every rejection letter I received from agents, every time doubt came creeping into my mind. I couldn’t do anything if I didn’t publish the book, sure, but I also couldn’t get hurt. It was immunity, in a way. I was safe.
Back when I was a junior in high school, I had a trusted English teacher, Mr. Baker, look over an early draft of Haywood Micaye for me. It was nearing the end of the school year, and I was planning on working with an independent editor over the summer and wanted some advice on any final changes to make before I sent it off. The copy he returned to me after he finished reading was sparsely marked—an error, I knew, because I was well aware that the book was less than perfect. We met up a week or so after he finished his read through to discuss the then-novella and troubleshoot its issues in person rather than via notes scribbled on a stack of paper.
We started the conversation with the basics: why I liked my story, why I related to my characters. Mr. Baker, in turn, told me what he liked and didn’t like, and suggested things to fix with world-building and characters (Back then, “the woman” in Haywood Micaye went by a somewhat precious, Bond girlish nickname instead. He hated it. At one point in the conversation, he said, “I think I’ll call her… Leslie.” , because he felt that was better than her then-name. I must admit now that it took several more drafts for me to finally “kill my darlings” on that one. That being said, I had a somewhat difficult personal relationship with names of some of the other characters as well. “The Director” didn’t get a “real name” until some of the final drafts. Dorian only found his first name in the final drafts as well. Barlow never has and never will have a first name, both in the story and in my head. And then there’s the issue of simply the wrong names. The original name of Devin Johnson, for example, was a little too satirical in the context of the story. But, I digress). We also discussed the end of the story in length (another point of contention from the second draft onward. It’s not an ending that will make me any friends).
As the conversation went onward, we moved into deeper territory as I expressed my hesitations on publication. I mentioned my fear of messing up, how I wanted it to be the best it could be.
“Well, ” Mr. Baker said, “dream about stars… but understand that it’s a 99% chance that this isn’t going to turn into anything right now.” We talked about the rarity of debuts that became instant successes, the slim likelihood of immediate stardom. “But, who knows what it’s going to be soon?” he said.
I agreed. And then he said something that has stuck with me since.
“You gotta put your work out there if you ever want it to get out there.”
I have pondered that statement over and over again. I took my mother’s label maker and printed the words out onto a sticker and slapped it above my keyboard on my laptop.
It took a few years, but I have made good on my word and published my first novel. And looking back on the journey, I know there are a lot of things I should have done differently. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: I made mistakes. I broke promises. But I learned so much from this experience, and these are lessons I can carry through the rest of my career.
We all get comfortably stagnant at one point or another in our lives. Be it in work, in our relationships, or in our art, however that manifests itself. But, eventually, if we ever want to get to that next level, achieve that next big thing, we have to take a risk. We have to move forward.
I’m aware that it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Believe me. I’m also aware of the very real risk of things blowing up in our faces. There’s that saying, “one step forward, two steps back”, rattling around in our mind, and sometimes coming true.
However, at the risk of sounding pretentious (see what I did there? :P), isn’t life supposed to be a little risky every now and then?
I’m proud of the work I have done. I realize that the sun has metaphorically set on my time tinkering in the world of Haywood Micaye. But saying goodbye now has only opened me up for a lifetime of new hellos as I write my second novel, and then my third, over and over again. I wasn’t ready for that risk and that lifestyle before, but now, I feel equipped to face it head-on.
So, my advice to all of you: get out of your rut, whatever it is. Go take that next step. Ask for a raise. Finish that painting. Heck, write a book. I’ll be rooting for you, even if no one else is.
You gotta put your work out there if you ever want it to get out there.
Until next time,