Revision Letter

I have been eagerly awaiting my revision letter from Lisa Cheng ever since we agreed to the book deal (can you tell I’m a newb?). I’ve looked forward to the feedback and the opportunity to make my work better. All the revisions Kate McKean has suggested have made Tap Out so much stronger, so I’ve wanted another expert opinion to assist me in taking my writing to the next level.

The letter hit my inbox on Saturday. I cringed. I felt sick. I worried that it would be 25 pages of instances where I thought I was all that, but really, wasn’t. I was afraid that it would point out more faults than I could ever overcome.

Not the case.

I read four pages of thoughtful questions and musings over the way my writing works and what it still has to achieve. The suggestions and questions were so pointed and precise that I felt an instant resonance and a level of comfort I did not expect. I was anticipating crapping myself, but, instead, walked away from my computer, made my daughters dinner, and felt happy.

My wife came home from running errands and I told her the letter had come. She braced herself as if expecting bad news. “And?” she said.

“And I’m going to be all right.”

She un-zippered her coat and sighed. “Thank God. You’re always so worried about perfection.”

I had to laugh because she’s right. If I weren’t so busy with teaching and CrossFit coaching I’d obsess over my writing incessantly. Previously, I’ve achieved such myopia with my work that I’ve made it worse and not better. Writing, like people, needs space, room to breathe, and time to grow.

I have trepidation going into this process, but I also have no doubt that I have grown as a writer since I last read this manuscript. I have faith in Kate and Lisa who have helped me get this far, and who believe that I can go another round. It’s frightening, these expectations, and how they make you question your abilities.

But they’re a blessing. I expect more of myself every day. Why shouldn’t I? Isn’t each day one revision after another, chuck full of novel situations that keep us intrigued?

Now, I’m off to see how I can make my fiction reflect that element of life.

Just go for it

Last week one of my students shared some good news: he’s been invited to send in an audition set to Tanglewood. He plays the Cello and is by all accounts amazing. I marveled at the invitation and congratulated him, as did the rest of the class. He blushed though and said, “I’m not sending it in. I’m not ready.”

It was as if his words detonated a bomb. The class exploded. Not in laughter. Not in derision. In support. They demanded that he send in the audition. That he is ready. That he is talented enough.

I was taken aback. Many of these students know of his skill and have witnessed him play, but I can readily attest after reading his memoir piece and journal entries (it’s a writing class) that none of them understand how much he has worked on his craft, nor how significant, exhilarating and daunting such an invite is.

However, I do.

Anyone who has been asked by an agent to send in a partial and then the entire manuscript knows exactly the feeling: Am I good enough?

I know little about the musical world, but I can assume there exists a fair level of criteria for what is “talent” mixed with a dose of subjectivity on its delivery. Much as there is in writing. From what I have witnessed, my student has both the talent and the presence. Once I calmed down the class, I appealed to him.

I told him that he had no choice. That we as the class believe in him and that regardless of the outcome he had to at go for it. I told him that even if he didn’t get invited, the potential for constructive criticism was too important to pass up. He replied, “They don’t give a response.”

How many times have agents, who are not supposed to respond beyond the form letter, provide critique? How many suggest a revision and then a resubmission? I couldn’t help but draw the parallel.

I told him that it didn’t matter if others didn’t get feedback, he might, and that there was absolutely nothing to lose in the proposition. If he wasn’t ready, then so be it. He loves music. He is music. He will always be a musician. When the time is right, he will do amazing things, because he has the talent, because he strives to do better, and because he is humble in his devotion to his muse.

There is an invaluable lesson in his plight. It’s emblematic of the struggle that emerges for all of us. I’ve received hundreds of rejections, but have persevered. What else was there to do? I write. It’s a part of me that is as natural as thinking or speech. In fact, it is the combination. I love to communicate my perspective. It may be the one and only way I am ever truly heard.

I believe the same is true for my student, and I have a feeling he will send in the audition. He may succeed this time, or he may not. It doesn’t matter, because at least he is going for it. We must push, even when it might not be our time, because at one point it will.

Reading, Writing and being an Author

When did you first know that you wanted to be an author?

I’ve read countless interviews of authors answering this question with stories about being a child and filling notebooks or reading books and just knowing that this was it. I’m envious of those authors, because they always knew. That’s not my story at all.

I spent more time playing sports than I did writing, but I was the most detached, introspective and inquisitive athlete on any team. At a young age I often found myself trying to understand the game from another teammate’s perspective. I did not succumb to the tunnel-vision quest for perfection, spending hours practicing. Sports were fun. No more than that. I couldn’t understand how anyone saw these events as more than just games. Therefore, sports brought me friends and fitness, but nothing deeper.

Fortunately, I loved reading. I read everything as a child and can say with confidence that Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls changed me. I can still picture my childhood living room, the orange rocker in which I sat night after night falling deeper into the story. I remember when it was over and the dogs had died and how much that hurt. But there was more—the closure and then the explanation of the title in the symbolic ending. That did it for me. That simple structure changed it all. Here, I found meaning.

From there on I sought books with turmoil and tragedy and lessons to be learned. I came to understand the truth of fiction and saw in the people around me the character traits I’d read. My analytical mind turned on, taking the perceptions of youth and testing them against the depictions within narratives. I learned the criteria for “good” book: resonance. And at some point, I knew I wanted to be able to communicate that well.

I made fits and starts in high school, but sports and girls and partying were far more powerful than writing. I still read, but as so many adolescents, I turned very cynical. I looked for dark material that matched my emotions and stumbled upon a canon of books that resonated far more deeply than anything before. Then I began to write poetry.

I still have that notebook filled with awful verse. Some rhymed, most did not, but the voice I’ve now spent years cultivating was planted. I had found a way to express what I had up to that point only read, as immature as it was.

It wasn’t until college that I wrote my first short story. I had no idea how to navigate fiction, in spite of having read it forever. The workshop professor offered suggestions, as did my classmates, and that was it, the full extent of my formal education on fiction writing. The rest has come from my own tinkering, the advice of a couple of writing groups, and for a brief period, James Lasdun.

In no way does this make me superior, or inferior. It just is. I’ve employed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule and have come out the other side with a sense of how to move words effectively across the page. I’m still learning.

And that’s the trick. I wonder about those children who knew so long ago. Are they still writing, still learning? Chances are yes, for some; no, for the rest. Because there comes a point where writing isn’t solely about the enjoyment, it’s about the challenge: Can I do this? I now understand that element of sport, but am still glad I missed its essence, before.

For every author the “this” is unique. And I imagine it is informed by the point at which he or she could answer the initial question. I’m not fully sure when it happened for me, but it did, and like the best decisions in life, it was messy and founded on nothing more than hope.

Waiting…

I am incredibly impatient, and that doesn’t bode well for my life. I teach and I write. I have a wife, two young daughters and type 1 diabetes. All of these elements demand great attention, and of course, patience. At times, I fail at both. More often, I’m awful at the latter.

I’ve always been this way, constantly wanting to move onto the next thing. It’s irritating, especially since I am self-aware, often within the moment, that I’m being a complete pain in the ass. Which I am, because impatience is a universally annoying trait. I cannot stand it in others, nor myself. So why can’t I stop?

I don’t know. Right now I’m waiting on my revision letter from my editor. It’s not even remotely late, but I’m ready and in my mind that’s all that matters. Ridiculous. My editor should withhold it another week just to teach me a lesson.

All this impatience is not good for my health, either. I recently injured myself. Nothing serious, a minor abdominal tear, but something that needs the classic R.I.C.E. protocol. Two weeks of being patient and listening to my body and dialing down my training. I might lose my mind, even though I know it’s the right thing.

Maybe I should chalk it up to being creative and my mind demanding constant stimulus? That’s a bit of a cop out, though. Because I can force myself to chill. I know how. It just boils down to whether or not I make the choice.

And as clichéd as it is, that’s what my entire problem is, what life is all about, choice. I don’t want to miss out on anything, so I try to get through everything, now. That way I’ll have enough time for other things. But then I deplete all my options and I’m left to stew. I, instead, need to enjoy the moment.

 

I did manage that a few times this weekend, while icing, lying in bed and watching Dora the Explorer with my youngest; taking the time to affix the stylus to my eldest’s Leap Pad Explorer (insanely difficult); not working out, but researching best practices for returning after my injury.

So I did slow it down. I can. And I’ll remind myself to do so, again, when the revision letter comes, when my injury heals, when whatever comes next. I will be better for it, as will everyone else who is affected by me. Tom Petty was so right.

Potential = Sacrifice

Right now the Internet is rife with discussions of how to be successful in this New Year. I do not have any platform to discuss strategies toward success. This is not a Top Ten list of how to succeed. Rather, it’s a discussion about potential.

There is no success without first having potential, and I believe the key to obtaining potential lies in sacrifice. We can put ourselves in a position to be great at anything if we simply sacrifice for it. The thorny matter, however, is the degree to which we are willing to give up aspects of our lives, or to take on more within our days. Sacrifice isn’t all about omission; it’s commission as well.

The Omission:

I am at the beginning of a writing career. I have the potential to write books for years and years. Will I? The answer comes in the response to the question: How much am I willing to sacrifice? I have a busy life–wife, children, a full-time and a part-time job. And writing. What will be put on the altar to serve the needs of that last element?

That’s a disquieting question, and one I’m not comfortable answering. I’d like to keep everything intact but I know that cannot occur. Change is the only constant.

The Commission:

We must do more. Writing, alone, is not enough. We must be visible and accessible. These are our mantras, and I am heeding them, as so many of us are, with facebook and Twitter and all the other social media packages available. But how much more time am I willing to spend in front of a computer screen serving this end? What will I be missing due to this act of commission?

Again, questions I am not comfortable with, but must learn to be.

Seth Godin, in an interview with Subvert Magazine, discussed failure and sacrifice after a slew of rejections: “That’s when I realized I had no real options and this was the real deal, the course of my life. Stay in or get out, and I really had no choice. I was in.”

 

Godin’s words are this premise boiled down to stark reality. We have to be willing to sacrifice it all, whether we want to or not, because there will come a point when we’re in it, and life will decide for us.

 

I’d rather have the reigns, even if the ride is treacherous. The potential for greatness is too enticing. And the sacrifice…hopefully worth it.