A short while ago I was invited to a virtual writing workshop with Amherst Artists and Writers (AWA) Executive Director, Maureen Buchanan Jones. It was a wonderful experience writing with people from Paris, Seattle, Toronto, Amherst, Victoria all in the same virtual room. These were all AWA trained facilitators, so there was a sweet common bond and a natural ease with the process despite there having been few prior connections. The writing was superb and the feedback insightful.
Immediately afterward there was a flood of emails full of gratitude from each of the nine participants.
Recently, I moved from South Central Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia, and although I’ve joined the Federation of BC Writers, Victoria Creative Writers, been to a few workshops and two author festivals, and host weekly AWA writing workshops in my home, I’ve missed writing in community with my Ontario peers.
The online virtual experience was so inspiring that I wanted to expand my new writing world by staying connected through my own online workshops. I contacted some of my favourite writing friends who are also AWA facilitators and asked them if they’d like to help me out with a Beta test. Everyone thought it was a great idea, and after sending out a calendar survey on Doodle, we were able to settle on a time and day. Then I just had to wrangle the Google Hangouts and figure out how to streamline registering and payment. After several hours of trying every which way to set it up with screenshots of a picture and a poem as prompts, my partner, Brian and I got it running. It was actually quite simple, which made me liken the process to running around the house six times before finding the door.
Six writers participated and it was marvellous. I may have lost a bit of sleep beforehand through crazy nervousness, but my friends were so game and supportive that I needn’t have worried at all. A few technical glitches were pointed out in the feedback, so not only was the two and half hours spent writing and reading thoroughly enjoyable, the Beta test yielded exactly what I’d hoped in terms of ironing out the bumps before opening up to the writing public.
Here’s some backstory to another personal benefit of writing together: I’ve been struggling with my writing for a while now. I promised myself a long time ago that I would never succumb to writers’ block; it being simply a result of fear and ego getting in the way. I’ve trained with Barbara Turner-Vesselago and Sue Reynolds, I’m an AWA facilitator, I’ve read and devoured all of Natalie Goldberg’s writing books. I know that the only way through is to keep writing; that all I need to do is lower the bar and keep writing; I know all that. And yet. Despite all that knowing, I got stopped dead in my tracks.
And here’s why: After querying myriad agents with my first novel, I was over the moon when I was signed by a New York agent. It was thrilling. She loved my book, What the Living Do, and had very few editing recommendations. But a year went by and she hadn’t been able to sell it. There were a couple of very positive responses from publishers, but no takers. When I completed my next novel, What Love Cannot Do, I was certain this was a stronger, more powerful and socially relevant book. I told my agent that and we decided to hold back any more submissions of the first book and submit instead this second one.
BUT. THEN. She read the second one and thought it was too depressing. Said it was Y/A and she doesn’t deal with Y/A. I hadn’t written it as Young Adult literature—instead, I see it more as a Lullabies for Little Criminals kind of adult novel with young characters.
Both of these novels are set in Canada; the second one being VERY Canadian, dealing as it does in part with First Nations’ issues. She suggested I find a Canadian agent.
She broke up with me. I was disconsolate. I’m not a crybaby and I can take rejection—hell, in my Submittable folder alone I have about 50 rejections, Duotrope another dozen. But this was different. I’d made it through the first gateway only to be turned back. I cried so much the water in the inlet rose at least an inch.
But the next day, I got back on my horse, so to speak, and began combing through agents’ wish lists. I came upon an interview Brian Henry did with an agent who seemed to be looking for exactly my second novel. So I queried the agency. Within half an hour I received an email requesting the full manuscript.
It’s been six weeks. Six weeks where I haven’t been able to write anything that isn’t so depressing even I want to jump in the ocean.
But last night with my writing buddies, I wrote a short piece that isn’t depressing at all, and it’s actually kinda good. When confidence has flagged, it’s just about impossible to sit down and write. Who cares? Why bother? The world is going to hell anyway. Who wants to read my crap? But when you sit down to write with other writers, you have to write. So I write and I keep writing just to keep the pen moving, hoping that something of value will eventually come, but knowing there’s a good chance it won’t. Which is how it’s been—in my workshops I write with the participants, but none of what I’ve written in weeks has been anything I want to work on or keep, let alone submit. Last evening was different. Out of four pieces, one is worth working on.
So, I don’t know if this agency will pick me up. Getting published isn’t the reason I write, after all. (I have to keep reminding myself.) I write because I love it. Well, most of the time, anyway. I love the surprise that comes when I realize that I’ve nailed it. Because the truth is, those truly perfect phrases, images, metaphors, are more a result of a kind of grace than talent or even hard work.
It’s sort of like I heard my guru once say, that enlightenment will not come through effort, but without effort, enlightenment will not happen. You have to practice—write to learn writing—but writing on its own will not make the perfect story, or the perfect ending. You have to allow yourself to be open, flexible, soft, and available for what you don’t know you know to emerge on the page. For the magic to happen one can’t be fixed on one idea or goal.
So I get back to the page and write as if I’m not holding my breath for that agent’s response. And get ready to launch my online workshops for those of us, including me, who want to write but stall before the blank page when they’re alone.