A New Definition

I spent part of last week at a writer’s retreat in New Mexico–a sentence I just typed with slight disbelief, because when did I become a person who goes to writer’s retreats in New Mexico? Let me just say: whoever tells you that life doesn’t hand you happy surprises once in a while is a person who’s never stepped out of her comfort zone.

10.2.15. Retreat. Church Street Cafe

But back to this this retreat (my first ever writer-ly one, and definitely my first since popping three babies out of a tiny, tiny incision in my belly): I cried on the way to the airport before I left. Like, cried as if this trip were something that was happening to me, rather than a respite for me. Keep in mind that I was one of the first people to sign up for it when it was announced, that it was the exact type of conference I needed (less schmoozing, more writing. Less pressure, more laughter), and that I was SO FREAKING EXCITED to meet all of these people I’d only had the chance to talk with online, and hang out with others I’ve only met once or twice before.

10.2.15. Retreat. Lunch

All of a sudden, I didn’t want to go, and actually told David I wasn’t going to–that I was going to suck up the cost of the retreat (?!) and the airfare (?!) and just stay home. I wanted to turn around and go back. I wanted to not get out of the car at the airport. I did. not. want to get on the plane, and that was only partly because I’ve developed some bizarre fear of flying since I had kids. That wasn’t it.

10.2.15. Retreat. Writers writing

It was shame: straight-up, embarrassing-to-admit, incapacitating shame. I didn’t want to go because I felt ashamed to be leaving my stay-at-home duties for something for me. This was money I could spend on my family, it was time I was taking away from my normal responsibilities. I felt self-absorbed. Selfish. Add that in with a good dose of fear-of-flying nerves, and I was a hot–ridiculous–mess.

But I got on the plane. And aside from the minor anxiety attack during take-off (just the shakes, hyperventilating, and sweats. NO BIGGIE), I survived to see the Sandia Mountains rising above Albuquerque, and walked into the retreat ready to see what happened next.

10.2.15. Retreat. Patio 1

I should probably see somebody about that flying thing, though.

But back again to this retreat: it was the first annual meeting of members of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, which is the genre of my novel-writing endeavors (my subgenre: upmarket, which is what they call books that straddle the literary/commercial line. Because art must be labeled in order to sell, of course).

10.2.15. Retreat. Lunch 2

And, as it turned out–which is what David knew when he steered me toward the doors to Southwest baggage check, which is what I knew when I happily booked my reservation months ago–this retreat gave me everything retreats are supposed to give a person: time to reflect. A chance to talk with new people. I got to know survivors (disease, war, terrorism), meet people from other nationalities (Brazil, Israel, England, Canada, that strange placed called L.A.). I met romance writers, bloggers, lawyers, accountants, farmers, a bookkeeper for a pretty famous jam band. I met a beautiful, smart young woman, only to discover we graduated from the same high school, years apart from each other (go Herd!).

10.2.15. Retrat. Leah and Jessica

I got to know new people.

10.2.15. Retreat. Dinner Saturday

You guys, I got to know my people. Which is what I was searching for all along.

10.2.15. Retreat. Writers on Pation 2

But back to the selfish thing. We were in the middle of a workshop Friday morning, led by this funny, real, kind author named Kimberly Brock (if you think I want her to be my friend, yes). It was more of an inspirational workshop than craft-related, and once again, it’s what I needed. But I couldn’t shake that feeling of self-absorption. I was sitting there laughing with my tablemates while David missed an important meeting at work. I was journaling in my little notebook while my mom watched the kids so he could clean up pee from the new dog we adopted the day before (more on that later. When it rains, it pours. Or rather, when it poops, it pees). And so I raised my hand–because I’m still the nerdy first-born goody-goody who must be involved in the conversation, God help me–and I asked the women (and one man, God help him) assembled around me: what if you feel that the writing is a purely selfish act? What if you struggle with the fact that you have a role in life: either being that attorney, or working two jobs, or staying at home with the kids, and that the writing is something that interferes with your life, rather than enhancing it? What if you feel that–because you do it for you, because you enjoy it, because you aren’t undertaking the task to be altruistic and kind and helpful to other people–writing is a detriment rather than an asset?

There was some nodding of heads after I asked the question, from people who could empathize (woot!). There were a few comments about chasing your dream and being an example to your kids.

10.2.15. Retreat. Board

But then a woman stood up–a woman I’d never seen before, online or in person, I’m now embarrassed to admit–and she was fired up.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I need to say something here: this is BULLSHIT.

The woman–who turned out to be Darynda Jones, bestselling author, employer of two full-time assistants, and all-around lovely person–went on to say that there’s no such thing as being selfish when you’e pursuing something like writing. She said that so few people believed in her when she started out–family members mocked her, others didn’t take her seriously. But she kept at it, she said, and 12 books later, she’s now–at #13 on the New York Times bestseller list–in a place financially where she can easily afford to buy her husband, say, a $2 million dollar home on her fiction writing income alone.

“Is a kid going to college selfish?” she asked. “No. They’re preparing for the future.” And then she continued: “You are preparing for your future,” Darynda said. “You are preparing to be the writer that you can be. There is nothing selfish about that.” And then she sat down.

Her comment changed everything for me. Between that and a weekend with an unofficial theme of how to get to the other side of fear and work from that, I’ve come back home feeling different. I’m a little unlike Darynda in that I’m lucky enough that my immediate family supports me–I came home to a clean bathrooms, empty hampers, bathed-and-brushed children. I have a mom who’s constantly offering to watch those children to free up time to work. It’s me that has the issue. It’s me who feels like I’m failing if I do this–all because I have the sheer joy of being able to do what I actually want to be doing.

I should probably talk to somebody about that, too.

10.2.15. Retreat. Hotel gorunds

Darynda flipped a switch in my brain this weekend, as did Kimberly, as did all of the 60 other writers who were there typing away on the back patio of the hotel, or drinking margaritas together in a courtyard in Old Town, or asking each other about their personal stories and their writing stories, and every single time being the most supportive, encouraging, positive group of people I’ve encountered in a long, long time. We were all at different stages of publication, but you wouldn’t know that from our conversations. We were there to learn, to refocus, to inspire each other to get back out there and keep buggering on (that one was from our British-born author friend Barbara Claypole White).

10.2.15. Retreat. Discussion group

I’ve been stalled on my work with Book #2, circling around it, diving in to it and retreating. But I love my story. I’m afraid of failing, yes. I’m afraid of not improving. I’m afraid of trying this–something I so desperately want to do but am so afraid of not succeeding because if I don’t succeed at this, what’s left?–but now?

10.2.15. Retreat. Leah Amy Kristin Kathryn

Now I’m ready to get back to work. I was working before, of course. But now I’m ready to be working. I’m ready to say yes, I want to be improving. Let’s see what I can do.

10.2.15. Retreat. Leah writing

Because Darynda’s right: I am preparing. I am working to secure my future. I–dear Barbara and her Churchill references–am going to bugger on. As we all should do, I suppose.

10.2.15. Retreat. Leah Kimberly Orly Travis Amy

So let this be a lesson to anyone, yes? I roll my eyes when somebody mentions the term “self-care.” I am a person who thinks that if I’m not baking the muffins (sugar-free! Whole wheat flour! Organic ingredients!) for snacks or cleaning out the fridge or volunteering for every role that’s offered I am not doing a worthy enough job (of what, anyway: being a mom? A human?). Is this a first-born, Type-A, goody-goody mentality that’s clung to me since childhood? Probably. Is it healthy? Oh, hell no.

10.2.15. Retreat. Jessica Mary Chris Leah Kristin

I feel calm(er) as I type this today. I sit here, writing, knowing that my tribe is out there. I write with a sense of peace. The pressure is on if I want to sell another book, yes, but at the same time, I don’t feel as pressured. I’m slowing down. The house won’t fall apart if I write. And now the writing won’t fall apart because I’ll keep returning to it. It’s a strange combination, and I don’t understand how I’m handling the paradox, but there it is: I’m going to be working hard, because this writing thing has already shown me that it can be used to earn income (I mean, I’m not buying my husband another home in the near future. But it would be nice to go on another retreat again, you know?). But I’m also approaching it from a place of joy. I get to be a writer. I get to be all these things.. How could I not see the joy in that before this?

10.2.15. Retreat. Group photo

Keep returning to what you want to do, you guys. Keep buggering on. It’s okay to get on that plane and climb into the air. The anxiety always passes, anyway.

10.2.15. Retreat. Flight

And it’s amazing what you’ll get to see next outside your window.

23 thoughts on “A New Definition

  1. What a great post, Leah! I loved what Darynda said, so I’m really glad you voiced your fear. I think a number of us felt a shift–from anxiety to calm, from fear to courage, from paralyzed to moving, from loneliness to camaraderie. I cannot wait for the next retreat. And I’ll plan to see you there!

    1. Thanks for saying something, Erin! You were one of the inspirations that came out of the retreat, too: seeing you in your corner (hee), head down, fingers typing–it was a lovely kick in the ol’ pants that said that we have to actually DO the work instead of just thinking/worrying/talking about it. So thanks for that. 🙂 I’m glad to have met you–and yes, already hoping to make plans for retreat #2! See you there! – Leah

  2. This is so spot-on, Leah! But I’ll let you in on a little secret: when you walked out onto the back patio, I saw the confident, radiant, genuine writer I’d recently started conversing with online.

    You owned it, and you 100% deserved to be at such a retreat, celebrating your accomplishments and establishing fertile ground for your next creation. But I am not surprised by all the doubt and fears you share above, because I have felt them throughout my writing journey, too.

    Another writer friend often reminds me: “You are only one person. You are doing the best you can.” And I think we need breaks away from the norm, the mental boost, and the gentle nudges life gives us at times to become even better.

    I am so happy you got on that plane and shared your radiance, your humor, and – yes, even those fears of selfishness – with us!

  3. I needed to read this post, especially your perception and Darynda’s response. I know this guilt. I’ve worn that hair shirt.

    I’ve only “popped a single child out of the tiny opening on my belly” (love that!) but I know how the care and keeping of them absorbs you. I know how it can suck the salf-care right out of your life.

    I’m so glad you went on this retreat. I hope to meet you at a future one.

  4. Yes! This post is fabulous. I think I have the opposite problem as the last-born child: I’m inherently selfish and ALL about the self-care 🙂 I’m so glad you asked the question that resonated with so many and gave us all permission to take ourselves and our work more seriously. And yes, GO HERD!

    1. And you have no idea how grateful I am that my embarrassment about that whole discussion was for something good over all. 🙂 Thanks for saying something, Jessica! Can’t wait to see what’s in store for your career. – Leah

  5. What would we do without the inspiration of Sir Winston Churchill? His favorite phrase “keep buggering on” got a nation through the war, and it has long been my family’s motto. And by the way, Sir Winston knew a thing or two about fear and doubt. He called his dark moods his black dog. What a guy. And to echo what others have said, I’m so very glad you came. KBO, Mama writer. xox

  6. This is a terrific blog post. I’m so glad you asked your question during Kimberly Brock’s workshop. So many of us have struggled with this sort of thing. To hear that someone who is already published can still feel this way was an eye opener. I LOVED Darynda Jones’ reply and I think her words had a deep affect on many of us. I too needed not only the respite from my other life, even though it’s a good one, to spend some time recharging with people who really understand the writerly side of living. Those of us who gathered are all so different but our common passion bonded us instantly. It’s hard to believe so many of us who had never met before could connect so deeply in such a short amount of time but from all the posts, it’s clear we did. BTW-I never had a fear of anything before I had children. The first time I left them and traveled by air I almost had an anxiety attack too. It seems it’s not an unusual reaction. I’m envious you came home to cleanliness. Things were in slight disarray when I arrived back but it was completely worth it!

    1. I’m so glad you said this, Cerrissa. I really did think–at first–that I was one of the few struggling a bit with that, and it’s so nice to read a comment like yours. (So glad for once I opened my big mouth!) I feel fortunate to have gotten to know you over lunch, and can’t WAIT to see what happens with your story–I think it could be huge. And as for the tidy house, I left out the fact that my kindergartner’s homework hadn’t been done since I left (my husband didn’t realize he was supposed to look in her backpack). 🙂 Figured that I would just be (very!) content to focus on the awesome when I got home (for instance: the kids didn’t fight FOR AN ENTIRE DAY after I got back! It was like a retreat in itself! Ha.). You know how it is, I’m sure! – Leah

  7. This is great, Leah. It seems that in one weekend you got the benefit of years of therapy, but with a social component as well! As Darynda was speaking a visual came to me: “selfish” as in running a boundary around self. A fence with which you can protect self, and inside which you can retreat to recharge, and that you will do so for the betterment of all. For some reason this only struck me once I pursued creative writing in my early 40s. Women are often expected to be all things to all people but a writer clearly has needs. I have been much happier since fusing my woman and writer selves. Wishing you the same!

    1. Thanks so much for saying that, Kathryn–love that visual, and completely agree with it. You’ve got a kind heart–I love that you’re not content, too, unless you’re pushing yourself. Keep at it, Craft! Can’t wait to see what’s next. – Leah

  8. This post is inspirational! You’re inspirational! So glad you got on the plane. (I don’t travel like I used to. Hell, I don’t get out of the house like I used too. I get your anxiety. Perhaps all writers have it.) Meeting you in person was a highlight of my retreat experience.

    1. Your comment makes me laugh on SO many levels, Kerry! Thank you. I’m glad too–not quite sure how motherhood turned me into such a wimp, but I like that whatever magic happened in NM has been a big step me in getting over myself, already. Ha. I loved meeting you in person–you’re as beautiful and cool and funny as I thought’d you be, and am glad to know you. – Leah

  9. Life gets in the way and tries to rob of us just this sort of experience, doesn’t it, Leah? Life and our own need to please, of course. But I’m with you–the weekend revived me, empowered me, and gave me such a sense of family and friends. It was the best!

    1. I know what you mean, Normandie. I expected to have a nice time, but I didn’t expect it to stick with me this way. My whole outlook has shifted. Definitely makes me want to find my own little writers’ crew around here, though. I don’t have that yet and see how necessary it really is. Thanks for your note–so nice to stay in touch! – Leah

  10. {{{{hugs}}}} Leah! I can only add, that you said it perfectly. This Georgia girl is going to “bugger on”, do self-care, allow words to flow, grow, and flower. Go, Retreat, Go! And I hope to see you next year…if the cards fall right. 😉

    1. Maggie, thank you! Something shifted this weekend–gotta hang on to that feeling tight, I think. I was so happy to meet you, too–you are an absolute blast and I wish you so much luck in your adventures this year! xo back atcha–Leah

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