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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!).
I got to know new people.
You guys, I got to know my people. Which is what I was searching for all along.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
And it’s amazing what you’ll get to see next outside your window.