Putting nettles to good use

When the world lost Terry Pratchett not so long ago, The Guardian posted an article from Neil Gaiman titled, “Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry.” The gist of the article is summed up in these two paragraphs:

“There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld. It’s also the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny; anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully. . . .

“Anger is the engine that drives him, but it is the greatness of spirit that deploys that anger on the side of the angels, or better yet for all of us, the orangutans.”

The first time I skimmed through this article, I thought the point was that anger fueled Terry Pratchett’s writing. I thought, “That’s interesting,” and almost moved on.

But then I stopped, reread a little closer, and saw a completely different point: that Terry Pratchett chose to use his anger to fuel his writing. Where he could have let his anger grow and chafe and destroy, he instead directed his anger to create.

It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Les Miserables: “With very little trouble, nettles can be put to use; being neglected they become obnoxious and are therefore destroyed. How many men share the fate of the nettle!” (160)

What are we doing with our anger, our nettles, our weaknesses? Are we ashamed of them? Do we feed them hot air and let them fester? Do we use them to destroy?

Or do we harness those things, channel them, focus them, and put them to good use?

One of the most beautiful things I’ve learned as a writer is that you don’t touch your readers with perfect characters. Even the most heroic hero must have flaws to forge a connection with similarly flawed human hearts. Flaws make us human, and overcoming obstacles in spite of those flaws (or even with the help of those flaws) makes us heroic.

Use your weaknesses to create something good in a world that is always looking to destroy. Use your weaknesses to lift and strengthen others. Use your weaknesses to change the world.

You might just find that you’re not as flawed as you once thought.

Shaking the Slump

As a writer, it’s absurdly easy to go from feeling like you’re writing the next bestseller to feeling like you’re writing something not fit even for rats to consume. Here are a few suggestions to shake yourself out of that writer’s slump:

  • Get feedback from your mom. Or your best friend, or your significant other, or anyone who is obligated to love whatever you write. Even if it’s someone you normally trust to give an honest critique, tell them straight out that you need a shameless ego boost. We all do sometimes.
  • Reread your favorite part of your story. It’s a good way to remind yourself that you enjoy what you write and that you can write well.
  • Get away from your work. Ideally, get outside. It is winter, so going outside may not be an attractive option, but just do something that takes your focus away from how terrible of a writer you think you are. Exercise of some sort is a great option: going for a walk, doing a few crunches, jumping jacks, anything to get your blood and endorphins flowing.
  • Write something else that will remind you how much you love writing. Even if it’s just a goofy one-off scene that will never turn into anything, write it to remember the joy of writing.
  • Evaluate your motivation to write. If you’re writing for fame and money, you’re in the wrong business, pal. Nothing but fire and passion can possibly bring you through the torture of dragging a book from inside your mind and wrestling it to the page word by word. Once you realign your motivation and remember that you’re writing this book because it has to come out, not because the rest of the world has to like it, it’s easier to get past that fear of failure.
  • If you’re still worried about whether people are going to like your book, remember that there are people in this world who hate Harry Potter. Insane, I know, but there you go. It doesn’t matter how good a book is, there are always people whose tastes will not align with it, and that’s okay. Just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean that it’s terrible.
  • Remember that you’re still awesome. Bad writing does not a bad writer make. Even if you just wrote the lamest scene ever to appear on paper (or computer), you’re still an awesome writer because YOU ARE WRITING. Plan to fix it later, let it go, and keep on writing, because that’s the kind of awesome writer you are.

So there are my strategies. What do you do to get yourself out of a slump?

For you are young . . .

I got up before the sun yesterday to talk to a group of bright and aspiring young authors. They asked some great, insightful questions, and I loved seeing their enthusiasm for writing!

It got me thinking about when I was back in middle school, constantly writing and composing stories, but always behind closed doors. I was so terrified to let anyone see what I had written. I was certain that it would be smirked at and patronized. Even with the encouragement of my fabulous parents and an incredible teacher, I wasn’t ready to make the leap into letting my words out of my hands.

Fast forward to today. I’m an adult (so they tell me), and I’m getting a book published. I have a lot more connections in the publishing world, and I’ve obviously gotten over my inability to show my work to people, though it’s still a little terrifying.

And you know what? Young authors are some of my favorite people in the world. I love reading blogs from high school and middle school writers. I love talking to these young adults (yes, they are young adults, not just kids) and seeing the world through their eyes. I love their boldness and their timidity and their talent and their eagerness. There is so much to be learned from them.

You young authors out there, can you do me a favor? Don’t be afraid to let your light shine. Get involved. Talk to authors. Go to conferences. Write a blog. Show off your work. Inspire the world. Be amazing! Because I promise you, you are amazing. If you ever doubt it, come talk to me. I’ll set you straight.

How have young authors inspired you?

The Builder

THE BUILDER
(author unknown)

I saw them tearing a building down
A team of men in my hometown.
With a heave and a ho and a yes yes yell,
they swung a beam and a sidewall fell.

And I said to the foreman, “Are these men skilled?”
“Like the ones you’d use if you had to build?”
And he laughed and said, “Oh no, indeed…
the most common labor is all I need…
for I can destroy in a day or two
what takes a builder ten years to do.”

So I thought to myself as I went on my way…
Which one of these roles am I willing to play?
Am I one who is tearing down as I carelessly make my way around?
Or am I one who builds with care, in order to make the world a
little better… because I was there?

Fail with Glory!

Here’s the deal: it’s hard to stay focused in church when you have a squirming six-month-old who just wants to grab your nose or rip pages out of the hymnbook or other such painfully adorable baby activities. So I wasn’t really paying much attention to the closing hymn until the end of the second verse, when I hit the words “If we fail, we fail with glory.”

And the first thing I thought of was all my bloggy and writerly friends, and our constant discussion of how gut-wrenchingly terrifying it is to put our work out for others to read and critique and reject. And how unavoidable failure seems in a profession where you have to plaster a wall with rejection letters before you get that golden letter, the possibility that someone might like your book enough to publish it. And how even once your book is out there, you have to face the inevitable disgruntled readers who didn’t like this or that or the other about your book.

But I, for one, would rather fail while putting myself out there and working for success than fail because I didn’t ever try.

So put away your fear of failure and take on the mindset that if you fail, you’ll fail with glory. After all, failure is only the end if you don’t pick yourself up and try again. Go after your life’s dreams, “Patient, firm, and persevering . . . no event nor danger fearing . . . pains, nor toils, nor trials heeding, and in heav’n’s good time succeeding.” (God Speed the Right)

Campfire Inspiration

When I was a teenager, I would go to camping once a year with a couple hundred other girls. Well, they called it camping—we had two very nice buildings on either end of camp filled with showers, sinks, mirrors, and toilets that flushed. My husband has since informed me that that is not camping. But I digress.

There were a lot of things to love about that experience. I still have in-jokes (that’s one of them) with some of the girls I camped with all those years ago, and that was the first place I learned that you could crochet with your fingers. But my very favorite part was when the air grew cold, the forest grew dark, and the dancing shadows from the fire sparked visions of monsters slipping between the trees, just out of sight. That was when we broke out the marshmallows, huddled close together, and hung on every word of the night’s storyteller.

The best campfire stories, it was commonly agreed, came from one of the Camp Dads. He would lapse into a rolling Irish accent as he told us of white coffins, ruined castles, and his boyhood escapades in Ireland. His most chilling tale was told only after swearing each person to secrecy to avoid the risk of gruesome death.

The thing about campfire stories is that they only happen once. Even if someone tells the same story twice, it’s never quite the same. The words chosen, the rise and fall of the voice, the length of silences, the wind that rustles the leaves—all of it will create a new story every time.

But in spite of having heard these stories only once, they’ve stayed with me through the years. Not just the content, but the chills, the sound of his voice, the images of a country I had never seen. I knew then that I wanted to do that—to create something that would stick, that people would remember and treasure, that would inspire someone to leave behind a comfort zone for a dream.

I’m not there yet. Maybe I never will be. But I won’t be satisfied until I’ve tried.