Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The “Q” Word, part 3

Okay, here we go. At last, the final installment.
(Brings to mind, “Space: the final frontier,” doesn’t it?...)

When we last left our trepid (as opposed to intrepid, as I’ve never been accused of resembling a Dodge) author, she had lifted the lid on a Pandora’s Box of success as an inspirational writer: winning second place in a pretty major contest for a manuscript that was, basically, an experiment. That book ultimately went on to become my first published novel, the story of which could easily take up another three or four blog posts. But the impact of that sale, momentous as it was on the surface, worked some havoc into my previously well-ordered writing life and, I believe—unfortunately—took it off track.

Part of that derailment happened because, as I mentioned, I internalize other people’s expectations to an extraordinary degree for a person who’s normally the “devil’s advocate” in almost any situation. One of the great conflicts of my life, one I thought I was going to deal with in my first marriage, has been a longing to Just Belong Somewhere. To just Be One Of The Girls. I’ve never really been that. I’ve always been the one with the “unique insights” or the “other angle” or the “voice of reason” or even “conscience.” I tried to leave that brand of self behind and become the Perfect (Conventional) Christian Wife in that first marriage. It didn’t work…for many reasons, none the least of which was that the man I picked for a husband wasn’t, in the end, good husband material. But I so wanted to be a good little “Maxwell Housewife” (remember that commercial?) that I swallowed down a lot of who I really was, for a long time, in the desperate attempt to “fit in.” In the end, of course, none of it worked, because anytime we try to “be” something we’re not at the core, the core eventually pushes its way back up to the surface—at which point we have two choices, and only one leads to a mentally healthy existence. :-)

Unfortunately, some of us learn a good lesson in one aspect of our lives but then don’t carry that lesson through to the whole. And that’s what happened to me where my writing was concerned.
It’s hard to explain this without either writing thousands of words or sounding like some kind of wimp, but I’ll try.

Once upon a time, I was a happy secular romance writer. I believed I had found a place to fit in, a genre in which I was going to succeed, and a group of people who would cheer me on every step of the way. Then…things started to change. I began getting repeated rejections and hearing repeated critiques that hinted that maybe I actually didn’t write romance at all. Or at least not contemporary sweet romance…which made me feel a bit unsteady on my writing feet. After all, if what you’ve been telling yourself you do for years and years isn’t what you’re actually doing…is it the fault of your own perception, or is it bad advice? I honestly didn’t know. I was getting advice from people who “ought to know”—writers who wrote for lines I wanted to break into. I figured they were as good as anyone to give me a barometer of where I was going to fit in the genre…only they all said different things. Very different things.

When I read my Golden Heart book first chapter to my RWA group, three Silhouette Romance authors point-blank told me, “This is clearly your voice, and this is a Silhouette Romance.”

When I subjected my romantic suspense to various reads and readers, I got even more confusing feedback. That book has been called everything from a straight romance to a mainstream inspirational romantic suspense to a mainstream novel to women’s fiction to a paranormal to…well, you get the idea.

One writer whose opinion I respect read some of my stuff and told me I ought to think about writing historicals, specifically Regencies, because I have just the hint of “wry” in my writing that would go well in that genre…and a style that tends to the more lyrical and would suit the tone of a historical novel much better than a contemporary.

And then out of nowhere, I came up with a chick-lit voice—with its accompanying comedic tone—that I found myself able to “drop into”—once again, for short periods of time. (Not sure if I could maintain it for a whole book, but then again….)

And then, of course, there was the inspy side to my writing. The spiritual side. The box into which I was getting shoved with ever more (gentle) force simply because I write “clean,” I write characters who go to church, and I had, in fact, published an inspy…and everyone knows that you shouldn’t try to sell too many radically different kinds of stories out of the gate, because if you do that, publishers won’t know what your audience is, or your “brand” is, and…

Along about this time, the romance genre took off in some completely off-the-charts directions, and I told myself, “Well, clearly, I can’t be a part of a genre that’s going to do what this is going to do. So that’s it for romance for me. I obviously don’t write romance. I need to find what I do write.”

Only then the question posed itself: how was I going to decide that?

Some people “can” only write one thing. Their voice is so clearly, so strongly one thing or the other, that you can’t imagine them anywhere else. But apparently I am not that writer; I’ve seen it for myself in the different kinds of writing I do for romantic suspense or “woo-woo” versus the sweet, funny, and innocent tone of my first book. But where was my strongest voice? Where was I most talented? And then, as a Catholic Christian, I started asking what I should commit to writing…and where my voice should be used, and how…

I’m sure you know what’s coming. The moment that “s” word entered into the mental negotiations, I effectively paralyzed myself. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; I had an uneasy feeling about trying to reframe my form of expression and the stories I told, but I increasingly began to feel like that was my “duty” somehow. I increasingly have come, in the last couple of years, to tell myself I “need” to write “godly”…or there’s something off kilter in my Christian commitment. And I sure as heck didn’t want my writing to be a bad witness!


The problem was, and is, that I never came from the place where my writing was ever supposed to be a “witness” in the first place. Yes, I believe I do everything for the glory of God; but previously, I considered secular writing perfectly okay, in that I never glorified anything ungodly. I may have dealt with ghostly voices, or spirits, or otherworldly manifestations—but I never portrayed them as something a character based her faith life on. My writing may have had characters swear or use rough language—but those were situations in which most people I know would have used those words. I wrote what I knew, I didn’t write anything dirty, and I told a good story…and for years, that was enough.

But then…I started wondering. And I started “being convicted” on all kinds of things I’d been writing—not because they were necessarily “wrong,” but because they weren’t reflective of a “spiritual” person’s writing…or so I thought. My characters were ordinary people. But maybe they needed to be much more than that, if I were going to be “true” to my faith in my writing.

Over time, as a result of selling one inspirational novel and being surrounded by loving, talented Christian writers—coupled with going to work in a Catholic publishing house where our entire mission is “what the Church teaches and why”—I came to believe that there were simply story types, storylines, and storytelling styles that I would no longer be able to use if I were to be a consistent Christian witness.
With that, one brick went up in a creative wall.

Then, I vowed I’d never try to sell to Harlequin again, because they came out with an erotica line and I couldn’t “be a part” of a house that would do that.
And another brick went up.

Then, I realized that many of my previous fellow genre writers were writing, in a word, smut—and soon, I found myself having difficulty with more than merely not selling to Harlequin; I in effect couldn’t even participate in a genre that could tolerate that anymore.
And another brick went up.

Then, I thought…well, I’ve sold one inspy, so that means I may have a foot in the door of that market. But that then meant that I needed to make sure the spiritual content of my books was Christian, and made no bones about it. I needed to have characters who viewed the world through a Christian lens…all the time. I needed to show them praying, to have them refuse to believe any “spirit” that wasn’t “tested”…to have them going to church and that be integral to the plot of the book.
And another brick went up.

Then, I began to notice—and bemoan—the lack of contemporary Catholic fiction out there. I was a good Catholic, I was a good writer…that must mean that I was supposed to start focusing my fiction on Catholic themes. I was not an evangelical—so what was I doing watering down the Catholic identity of the books? No, I needed to put in more “Catholic references.” I needed to put together my stories in such a way that people had no doubt where my characters stood.
And another brick went up.

Then, I realized there were really no outlets for publishing Catholic contemporary fiction. So here I was, in a Catholic publishing house, the perfect person to bring fiction into this place…only that wasn’t in their plans, and won’t be for some time to come, if ever. So even if I wrote something good, solid, entertaining, and doctrinally steady—or if I knew someone who had, and desperately thought their book should be out there—my employer wasn’t going to be the place where I could even edit that kind of book, much less publish one of my own.
And another brick went up.

Then, I went to ACFW with the idea that I could reinvent myself.
That I could get an agent, or an editor, to “take me on” with something I already have, or something I could “make fit” if I needed to. And I proceeded to commit to doing so.

And then I woke up that Saturday, with that letter in my hand, and realized I had painted myself into the proverbial corner. Or bricked myself in, actually.

Now, you may wonder how a person can deliberately hem herself in this way. You may wonder how my writerly common sense didn’t take over and say, “Yanno, you’re not that kind of writer, so quit trying to force yourself to be one ‘brand’ or another.” I can tell you why, in a nutshell: the uncertainty of too many rejections and too many conflicting opinions on where my talents lay. I had all the good intentions in the world…to find a place to “fit in” once more.

Not to express myself or tell my stories. To tell stories these people would approve of, would buy, would publish. I felt no other choice available to me, as a Christian. I wouldn’t dare just write secular any more. I couldn’t. Not and be a witness…right?

That’s how it came to be that, wanting so badly to “fit in” somewhere, I sold myself out.

When I found a welcome among Christian fiction writers, I decided I just needed to learn how to work with the inputs restricting me on one side (“Be careful! “shucks” is a euphemism for worse things! And that goes for “drat,” “darn,” “golly,” “gee whiz,” and what kind of Christian are you if your characters even think those words????”) and demanding more of me on the other (“CBA fiction is not Catholic fiction, and you’re gonna have a hard time selling Catholic characters to it, so tone down the Catholic content”).

The problem was…in my heart, I didn’t want to—and in fact, couldn’t—“write to a market” that restrictively. I simply wanted to write plain, old-fashioned, horking good stories…in my own style, with my own voice, my own word usages and my own worldview.

With the Guideposts submission, I thought I had a niche I could fill and be happy with. But point of fact is, I was trying to play fast and loose, even with that. I was taking something that I figured I “could work with” to use as a way to break into what I saw as a heck of a good market; only I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the thought of trying to write those books the way I was proposing them made something in me sink, made something in my stomach knot, and made me worry about whether I’d have it in me to fulfill a contract if I did get one.

But I so wanted to belong, I was willing to try. And that’s what it was about, once again…just as it had been in my first marriage.

I so wanted to find a way to be “let in” to the place where the “big kids” were playing. I wanted to find a place where I could “land,” with my own particular style, my own holiness, my own quirks and crazinesses, and have them be at least tolerated well enough that I could once again have a book cover with my name on it. That was the bottom line. To try anything once, just to see what worked…and then find a way to work with it.

But for me, real, edge-of-the-seat, fire-in-the-belly creativity isn’t about finding a way to work with a piece of fiction. It’s not about finding something serviceable to sell. It’s not about putting together a story that glorifies some publisher’s vision of God…or preaches Jesus in a particular way…or reveals some deep truth I need to learn and want to share with the world. My fiction can do all those things. But starting out to do that from the get-go? That, I can’t do. I thought I could. I was wrong.

For me, it has to be about nothing but story. And story is what I’ve completely lost in all that feedback, all that selling and editing and reworking and experimenting and retelling and revising. Because of all the things I have available that I could work on to sell to the Christian market, the bitter truth is,
I don’t care enough about any of them to finish them now...I might never care enough to finish them…and I have no other ideas that are “suitable” or “godly” enough to get past the gatekeepers in that market.

In other words, boys and girls…I’ve hit the breaking point. Thank God.
Even though it was painful to hit it.
Even though I loved meeting the Guideposts editor.
Even though I would still love to sell them, or another Christian publisher—or even a Catholic fiction publisher—something, someday.

That someday just isn’t going to be soon…because I’m quitting.

That was what I resolved at the sink that Saturday afternoon—that it’s time I stopped doing this to myself. Stopped trying to write what everyone tells me I’m talented at, and go back to writing what I dang well feel like. Stopped worrying about whether my writing is “suitable” and just make it great. Stopped doing what I think I ought to do, or should do, or have a duty to do, and go back to doing
what I love to do.

In short, I quit being a Catholic Christian writer.
I’m going back to just being a writer who is a Catholic Christian.
A writer who can tell a horking good story, one that’ll make the hair on your neck stand on end, make you sob at the page or make you laugh yourself out of your chair…but only if it’s
already worked that magic on me.

So I’m done.
Done with doing anything but what will make me shiver, or jump out of my seat pacing with the emotional turmoil I’m putting myself through, or cut so close to the bone that I cry when I read what I write, even as I’m writing it. Because anything else, boys and girls…is no longer worth doing at all.

Anything less, I have to stop doing.

This moment.
And forever.

Hopefully, the big kids will still let me play.
But even if they don’t, I can’t make myself over into someone they’ll allow in.

Not today.
Not tomorrow.
Not now.
Not ever.






Deb said...

yes, Yes, YES! This is where you belong. Just Tell the STORY! You are a horking good storyteller and always have been. Just because you stubbornly refuse to visualize Lachlan in a Speedo...

You shouldn't have to visualize yourself, or your writing, in anything else than what and who YOU are. After all, that's what we love you for.

If your work doesn't fit in the market as it's perceived today, it doesn't make YOU any less valid or your stories any less good. Heck, tomorrow the market could decide it doesn't want MY stuff...or Brandilyn Collins's, or Colleen Coble's. You can never tell which way this cat will jump, and in the long haul, we just want you to remain YOU.

I suggest you bend every effort to forget and bind everything you've ever been told, and write the next story YOU want to write. Here's one non-mackerel-snapper reader who will want to read it.

Mary Rose said...

Me, too!

I say "Huzzah!" A big, loud, rip-roarin' shout for the courage to step forward from all that muck and be you!

Oh, so many thoughts, Janny...

I struggled with these thoughts when I was an art major and also, when I wrote poetry. The poetry that comes from my soul is joyous, light, and sometimes frothy. Frothy doesn't sit too well with the highbrows, if you catch my drift. They're all about angst and suffering or railing against the indignities of society. Whatever. I'm not a mope and I can't write mopey poems.

I write for myself. My art (which expresses itself through my digital scrapbooking) is my own and must first, please me. If I can't get excited about it, than how could I expect anyone else to do so? Of course, I'm not trying to sell anything. (Yet, at least.) So, I have that luxury.

But isn't that a luxury that we as artists should give ourselves? Of course we need to eat and have a roof over our heads, but my goodness - how I've loathed the gatekeepers. And, not surprisingly, how I've celebrated the freedom of the Internet.

My husband and I are into self-publishing, which is most likely the route I will go when I finally do finish my book. As much as publishing houses appeal to the traditionalist in me, I have become a passionate supporter of the "new media." I like having more control, even if it does mean a more limited readership. Plus (and actually, more importantly), I'm impatient. After wrestling with ideas for months, I truly don't want to wait years before seeing it published. Pfft. I'm going to be a radical.

Regarding your Catholic Christian identity - I never thought a writer had to create little "mini-me's" in their character development in order to be true to their beliefs. I believe that your values will be reflected when it benefits the story. Otherwise, the story becomes constrained and as you've expressed, inauthentic to your vision.

Seriously, you've already fascinated me! Please write what is in your heart - no more, no less. God gave you a beautiful voice to bend to His Spirit, and no one else's. :-)