The self-made MFA

There’s always that loud space of emptiness and silence when you start to write…There’s no way to guarantee a safe, easy journey into words on the page. –Barbara Abercrombie

Sometimes my own writing bores me. I’m writing along on some novel or another and I get tired of my sentence structure, my word choice, my thinking. This is not a good sign. Surely if I’m bored, my readers will be, too.

I wish my life were capable of supporting dropping out of the workforce and going back to school for an MFA. It’s not.

Short of that, I have concluded I must make my own MFA in Creative Writing. For years now I have told myself I’m doing a good job just to continue writing novel after novel–that my writing would organically improve in that fashion. It has, but not enough. I seem to have reached a plateau. My new resolution is to expand the time I write.

Not only must I continue working on my novels, I must also exercise my writing muscle in new and exciting ways.
I have been fighting doing this. “I don’t have time. I don’t know what to write. I don’t enjoy short stories…” It all comes down to the above quote. I’m afraid of the blank page.

Today I am going to take a paragraph or two each from three novels which are written in a way that knocks me back and makes me say, “I wish I could write like that,” and superimpose my plot and characters on the sentence structure of these admired writers. Here goes into the deep end.

For your enjoyment, my first attempt is below.

My Original
I stopped and looked at him more closely. It was an Earther, speaking Anglish, and he looked familiar. Just then he turned his head a little and his profile brought it all back. For a second I lay in my own vomit on a rocky ridge with women holding me down as I watched him shoot my father. I went cold and the men holding me clenched my arms when they felt my muscles constrict against the memory. I would kill him. I would. They shook me and I was grateful. I couldn’t kill this man now, as badly as I wanted to. It would mess up the ambush. Killing this man would have to wait.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
After a minute his camouflaged face resolved into recognizability, shredding the tatters of my sanity. A vat baby, cursed from the moment of his test tube conception, stood before me. The memory of my father’s death slammed home, vividly as maggots on a rotting corpse. Too much emotion in this horrid scene. Still. I felt the resolution of a plan begun, and I let my arms go limp. A holosculpt I once viewed, The Agony of a Modern Life, portrays a woman carried…

Clearly, Mitchell’s winding, self-reflective style is not well-suited to an action scene. But it does add depth to the situation and characterization which I didn’t have. Also, his sentence structure is richer than mine.


Fifteen years later…

I wrote my first short story at eight years old. We had a small flock of Muscovy ducks– remarkably ugly and graceless animals. The drakes engaged in an odd behavior where they gathered in a circle, heads facing in, and hissed and bobbed their heads at each other. In my short story, these drakes were members of a secret cabal which absorbed all the news of the world every morning and ruled the world with their combined knowledge.

Enchanted with my idea but disappointed with its poor execution, I laid writing aside until thirteen years old. At that point, I realized no profession drew me like becoming an author. I drafted novel plots galore but could not figure out, again, how to satisfyingly execute my visions. Through my twenties I continued to dream of being an author. Life kept intervening–distracting me with incidentals like college, marriage, children, drama, poverty…

On the occasion of my twenty-eighth birthday, two things happened to change my perspective on writing. The first was that I turned twenty-eight. “Two years until I’m thirty,” I thought, “and I haven’t written a thing.” In concert with that realization, my brother gave me a birthday present. Stephen King’s book On Writing inspired me as no other writing guide before or since has. His gentle, wise, direct advice showed me the way into producing a novel.

Two of the things he said stay with me to this day. “Writers write,” he wrote. “If you write, you’re a writer.” And to paraphrase his corollary: Don’t set out to write the Great American Novel. Set out to write a certain number of bad words every day.

At twenty-eight years old, armed with the knowledge of my impending thirties and Stephen King’s kind advice, I wrote my first novel.

Fifteen years later, I’ve published Sage Courage, available on Amazon as we speak. Give it a browse and let me know what you think.

Marketing for the terrified

Last month I wrote a post about my paralyzing fear of marketing. Since that post, two things have happened. First, my novel Sage Courage was published and second, I began spending up to an hour a day on marketing.

Confronting a dire fear of marketing proved invaluable and liberating. But how did I do it? This meditation (blog) is an attempt to share what I’ve learned in the last few weeks about overcoming unreasonable fear as I suspect I’m not the only person who is faced with it.

A lot of fear is focused on the future. We imagine a negative outcome and then we obsess about it until it feels real. It isn’t real.

When I recognized this, I decided to employ my creativity in a playful way in the present and to avoid thinking about or hoping for a particular outcome. After all, this is something writers excel at. Writing a novel is an extended exercise in being creative without any promise of all that work/play paying off.

Love has also become an important tool for fighting off my fear of marketing. What wouldn’t we do for what we love? And, as a famous quote in the New Testament tells us, “Perfect love casts out fear.” I have chosen to dwell in my love of life, my love of writing, my love of my subject matter. Selling this novel is not a commercial enterprise but rather a labor of love–a gift intended for the world of readers.

Just now I am sitting in a coffee shop with a stack of novels and a sign announcing their availability. It is still a little nerve-wracking, but I’m out here in a spirit of playful love with a gift for the world.

A tale of true terror

So it’s Monday and I’ve promised myself to post a blog once a week and Sunday is The Day and it came and went (I have excuses, I promise!) and now it is Monday and after an extended period of navel gazing I have come up with a whole lot of Not Much on my mind.

Good. That’s over with. I had this insane urge to write a really good run-on sentence so now we can get down to it. I’m afraid of marketing. Well, that’s not strictly true. Let’s try it again. I am terrified of marketing. Closer. One more go. If given a choice between marketing and, say, a stint at Guantanamo Bay… You get the idea.

I read an article that really hit home a few years ago. Following an intensive Google search just now, I cannot find the article (frustrating!) but I’ll summarize. The commentator said one of the biggest differences between the iPad and Kindle Fire was that when the iPad was launched Steve Jobs did this huge, glitzy unveiling to a wowed audience while the Kindle guy (no idea of his name) muttered, “Here, take this,” and threw a couple Kindles at the crowd while failing to make eye contact.

I identify with Kindle Guy. Every cell in my body is urging me to secretly publish my novel “Sage Courage” and then run and hide. My body cells may not be as wise, however, as the synergistic output of my brain which tells me I should look into telling people about my novel and explaining to them why they would like to buy it.

My fingers have frozen. I find myself looking out into space and picking at some dead skin on my arm. And all because this was the paragraph where I was going to tell you, Dear Reader, about what I wrote.

Deep breaths. You can do this, Heather.

I wrote this nifty horror novel called “Sage Courage.” My faithful pre-readers have dubbed it a page turner, enjoyable, loved it, etc. Seriously. I had one reader tear through it in one sitting and come up for air (and food) only after the last page.

This paragon of entertainment will be available in Amazon in ebook and print formats August 16, 2016. Like, next week. 

Now I’m going to go throw up a little.

On lists: Resizing the ego

Every morning excepting Shabbat I write a list. The lists are, without exception, ridiculous. Take for instance this morning:

Water spider
Curate library
Walk dogs
Pay bills/budget
Format novel for publication
Critique story
Free write
Write on current novel
Job ap
Paint trim
Solicit reviews
Work on marketing

As can be seen at a glance, this is not all going to get done today. My tradition is to work all day after writing my list and then castigate myself at the end of the day for not getting the whole thing done.

I am going to propose a theorem: Self-castigation for failing to do the impossible is not a recipe for success.

And a corollary: Assigning oneself impossible goals is a failure of the ego.

I am not a literary Evil Knievel, jumping my motorcycle of concepts over the Grand Canyon. I am not a Hercules of lifestyle, able to clean out the Augean Stables of my life in one day. So why do I write lists which assume I can or should?

Yesterday I was reading my Siddur and came across a blessing for “releasing the bound.” Immediately I wondered what binds me. The question invited the answer. My ego binds me. My assumption that I either can or should accomplish the impossible every day is egoic.

What is the effect of trying to accomplish the impossible every day, the threat of self-castigation hanging over me at every turn? It is a diminishing of my energy. I spend valuable resources on setting impossible goals and then hating on myself when I fail.

What if I spent all that energy on being happily productive, I wonder. With the thought, my spirits lift and I feel renewed purpose.

We have circled back to Buddhism, the spiritual tool for ego-reduction. I’m off to meditate. But first, I believe I will water the spider.

Self hatred and pursuing dreams

Part A

So occasionally this happens to me: I start reading something and begin to hate myself and the author with equal fervor. The process is identical across authors and genres. I begin reading. I’m struck by the brilliance of the writing. I realize there is no way I could ever touch that level. The hatred flows.

How dare they be so damn good?

How dare I consider myself a writer?

Logic much? Not noticeably.

The current object of enjoyment/hatred is Russell Brand’s “Revolution.” Argh! How could he have so much articulate smartass between the covers of one book?

Irrational self-hatred is a theme in my life much like yellow in “The Great Gatsby.” (One of the first literary bits which awakened self-hatred.)

For years I wrote off the manic intensity of jealousy as an annoying quirk. Recent events have caused me to reconsider. As I mentioned in A Declaration of War, I decided to take an unfortunate event and leverage it to the advantage of my dream of being a full-time writer.

Ten days into the experiment I can confidently report that the opportunity to pursue my dreams has left me standing frozen, terrified, and twitching. I feel a bit sick all the time. Going to bed looks good. Opening bills looks good. Taking the weed whacker to the back forty looks positively delightful.

I’m not going to say that self-hatred is causing my inertia. I’m not going to attribute my inertia to something else and then say that’s causing self-hatred. The chicken and the egg conundrum is one more way to avoid the issue.

Part B

Yesterday–Shabbat–I sat and read Ashrei during Mincha. Those of you who are familiar with the siddur know that reading Psalm 145 (Ashrei) is not exactly an unusual occurrence. Even those of us who pray sporadically know Ashrei really well because it is right there in two out of three of the daily prayers.

Yesterday, though, something struck me about. I decided the psalm comes in two sections. The first section basically goes to great length and employs extensive synonyms and parallelism to say that we should always be talking about how wonderful The Ineffable is and was.

Then there is a bridge. Malchutcha malchut olamim…Your kingdom is a kingdom of all eternities…

Following the bridge, the psalm talks about Divine assistance in the present and future tenses. My favorite: You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with its desire.

I realized one interpretation of the psalm is that the whole thing is talking about need and desire. The most effective approach to having needs and desires is to concentrate on the miraculous preservation of my existence to date. My job is to focus on that. The Universe’s job is to provide for me “in the proper time.”


I’m going to posit that my ability to pursue my dreams is dependent on an attitude of praise and wonder and let my actions flow from that space. Let’s see where this gets us.

Oh yeah–the picture accompanying this post: It is talking to me right now about how holes in a perfect object may simply reveal more depth. It’s all about perspective.

No, you may not sit on the iPad

Today’s entry might be a tad puny because I am adored by a cat. I generally write sitting on my bed with my iPad in my lap. From time to time the cat–Albacore–decides this is an invitation to love on him. He purrs, he sheds, he continually repositions himself on top of my work.
The challenge is to appreciate the life gift which is Albacore while still finding a way to fulfill other life goals. I could choose to be annoyed. I could choose to put the work away and enjoy the cat. I could find a middle way.

This morning I felt balanced enough to put aside the iPad, pet the adoring, buzzing cat, and admire the way his eyes close in delight when I scratch under his chin. Five or ten minutes later I called it good, firmly repositioned him next to me, and began writing. Everyone was happy.

Mostly I fail the balance test. I find there are too many good things calling to me and I become frustrated and judgmental. Instead of having gratitude for the enormity of goodness in my life, I tell myself I’m failing because I haven’t tasted it all every day.

“I didn’t meditate twice today. I didn’t take time to clean the house I adore living in. I didn’t spend more time with the kids. I didn’t pray three times. I didn’t take a walk, or do yoga, or practice my martial arts forms. I didn’t get anything written on the novel. I didn’t call anyone I love. I didn’t…”

Rarely do I focus on what did fill my day. And rarely during the day do I notice that, yes, I’m doing what I love–one thing at a time.

I wish for all of us a life filled with goodness. I wish for all of us that we take the time to revel in the good which is currently happening, not rueing everything else which isn’t happening. I wish for all of us the ability to achieve balance.

Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven. A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted. A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break and a time to build. A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing.