Managing Stress as a Writer

Do you feel guilty because you haven’t written anything this week? You’re tired, you’re burnt out, you can’t work and write at the same time, and your husband/lover takes precedence over your writing. And instead of writing, you’re working out or playing games, or shopping, cooking and cleaning out your closets. Anything but writing.

I’ve written 12 stories and one micro-fiction (a short story under 50 words) since I’ve retired, but I suddenly stopped writing. I stopped writing because I stopped reading. Reading is inspirational. But I haven’t found a book I like or can even recommend, causing me stress. How to deal with this? See a therapist? A therapist isn’t going to cure my writer’s block – if such a thing even exists.

We all like to think we’re super-human, but we can’t do everything. So sit down and write out what you want in your life. Think about what suits your personality. Think about the rhythms of your life. You need to allow for seasonal shifts in your energy (creative or otherwise) and how much your projects mean to you. Writing these things out will keep your mind active. And who knows? These writings may become a short story, an essay or a piece of creative non-fiction. ‘Guilty Pleasures.’ ‘Anxiety For All.’ ‘Creative Jumps.’ Well, not great titles, but you get the idea.

So…. what is stressing you right now?
• Do you recognize any physical or mental symptoms of anxiety or even burnout? Write them all down even if they are not specifically related to your writing life. It’s often the cumulative effect of everything that results in stress.
• What action can you take right now to reduce some of your stress or anxiety? Will listening to music help? Playing word games? Reading a good book? Traveling?
• Are you allowing for the seasonal shifts of the day, week, time of year? How can you factor that in effectively so that it will enhance your creative mind?

I suggest you keep reading (I assume you do) and take a vacation from writing. New surroundings may open up your creative juices. Walk through a forest. Go to the beach. Visit friends. Listen to music. Go somewhere locally, go out of the country. But go. Your writer’s mind needs fresh inspiration that a new local might provide.

Sue Powers has won some awards, and has published 18 stories. She’s now working on her book of linked stories, entitled A Surprising Measure of Subliminal Sadness. She will also be teaching Writing the Short Story, September 5 – October 17th from 7-9 p.m. at Hershey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Shopping the Book

woman_man_thruhoopsBeen jumping through hoops and knocking my head against the wall since the day I finished my book of stories and began the publisher hunt. They call this phase “shopping” your book. And frankly, it sucks. Here’s why:

Saturday, Day 1: Finish Book

9 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Finish going through manuscript proofed with track changes by my very good writing friend, Kevin, who is an awesome editor.

11:00 a.m. to Noon Figure how to save manuscript so track changes don’t appear anymore. Which involved a Google search, a couple of head knockings, etc.

Rest of the day/night: Go about having a life outside of the book, pretending not to think about it.

Sunday, Day 2:  Find Publishers

8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Search through Poets & Writers extensive online database of small press publishers, stopping only for the necessities. Like bathroom breaks.

Why small press publishers, you may ask. Well, many are well-respected universities and presses, plus they’re best-suited for literary manuscripts. In fact, some of the best writers have been published by small press publishers. So, the reasoning goes, If they’re good enough for them, they’re good enough for me.

Monday – Friday, Days 3 – 7: Continue to find Publishers

8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Think about self-publishing while working the day job. Think about the cost, the self-marketing, the decision on which self-publisher to choose. Think maybe…..

6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. Home. Continue search through Poets & Writers extensive online database of small press publishers for appropriate publishers for my book.

My Criteria for Appropriate Book Publishers:

  • Publishers who publish short story collections.
  • Publishers with current submission reading dates.
  • Publishers whose submission guidelines you can meet.

Which brings more head-banging and hoop-jumping.

For one thing, finding an appropriate publisher is more challenging than you’d think.There’s a whole lot of small press publishers out there, but finding ones that don’t publish only poetry, or only novels, or only memoirs, or sci-fi, or mystery, or romance, or only want historical fiction.. well, as you can see, this subject deserves a whole other blog post.

For another, not all submission guidelines are alike. Each publisher has its own, very specific guidelines. Still, I’ve been through the submission process hundreds of times getting individual stories published, how hard could following a few book submission guidelines be? I soon found out.

Sample Book Submission Guidelines  (underlining mine)

Publisher X:

1.IN “SUBJECT” LINE please type: LAST NAME / FIRST NAME / FIRST 2 WORDS OF MANUSCRIPT TITLE {What if your book title is only one word?}

2. COVER LETTER should include your bio.  {Ok I have one of these.}

3. AESTHETICS STATEMENT must be attached to your email. This is NOT a synopsis or a summary of your plot, although you may include that. It’s a statement discussing your creative process and/or conceptual intent. It’s a description of why your manuscript is innovative, why you made the choices you made, how you expect the project to be read or viewed, what you were exploring, etc. REMEMBER: We’re interested in your creative process as much as (perhaps more than) the consumer product that results from it.   {Really? So your book can suck, but if your process doesn’t….}

4. CONVERT manuscript to PDF. If the PDF is larger than 8MG, please send email requesting submission instructions {Why not just say, DropBox?}

5.IMPORTANT: Our Publishing Contract requires that you have read, understood and agree with our Business Model. Please read it before submitting your manuscript. {They have a Business Model?}

Publisher Y:

Steps to Publishing With Us   
1. Prospective author is interviewed by publishing representative regarding his or her work, interview typically runs 30-45 minutes, and during the interview we ask a series of questions to ensure that your work is a good fit for our publishing model.  {Yikes, I thought my job hunting days were over.}

2. After the phone interview prospective author receives an e-mail to submit the work for review. {How nice of them not to say, “Or not.”}

Publisher Z:

1. We prefer to receive hard copies of submissions via snail mail. {Wait – you mean actual PAPER?} 

Well that’s just a sampling. I could give dozens upon dozens more, but will spare you.

If only I could spare myself. Writing is hard enough. Finishing your book takes months, even years, of rewriting, finding and getting feedback you can trust, more rewriting, lots of re-imagining, removing stories from your book, adding others you were saving for your next book. Lot of decisions, lots of second guessing yourself, lots and lots of hours spent on the book. Still, it’s your writing, and it’s something you love and don’t really consider work.

But this book shopping stuff? There are at least a thousand small press publishers in this database and I spent one week searching through a couple of hundred of them. Result? I found 3 that might consider my book.

So next week, it’s back to the database where, if I’m lucky, I might find 3 more.

Who’s Minding Your Wild Mind?

Who's Minding Your Wild Mind

George Takei says: “It is in those moments when our minds are clutter-free that true inspiration awakens.”

True inspiration:  If you create… if you’re an artist, a poet, a photographer, a programmer, a composer, a musician, etc… you know true inspiration is instinctual, intuitive, primeval; it’s what Freud called the unconscious, what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, and what writers and others call Wild Mind.

I sometimes think of Wild Mind as sort of an un-state of mind. I know I’ve reached this state when my first drafts basically write themselves. And there’s the rub: the story ideas roaming around inside my cluttered conscious mind usually go nowhere.

Good Story Ideas I’ll (probably) never write:

Shaky Road – An unhappy couple take a long road trip.

Idea Guy – Sort of ironic, eh?

Scenes From an Apartment – Can’t remember (:

Below are some of the stories that came from – or at some point were taken over by – my cluttered conscious mind where my idea of the story took the reins, making sure the story followed what I thought/wanted it to be.

I’ve already written and rewritten these stories many times, and they still don’t work.

Stories from Good Ideas That Still Don’t Work:

Madison’s Absence – A man’s out of body experience.

We’re Not Them – A pregnant woman’s paranoia her baby will be born mentally ill.

How She Will Live – A cautious woman who finds herself single and suddenly in lust.

Bottom line, I’ve learned it’s okay to get your conscious mind (where you inner editor lives) involved when you’re critiquing your creation and when you’re re-working it. And let’s face it, we could all use a good editor!

But hard knocks have taught me that your first draft/sketch/form should come from your instinctive, intuitive Wild Mind, the seat of your originality.

Your inner editor might not like it, but your creations definitely will. But enough about me. How do you get to your Wild Mind? Music? A photo? Meditation? Doodling?

My Guilty Pleasure

Yes, I have one. A guilty pleasure, that is.

It’s mysteries. Now, I don’t write them, but I read them more often than not. I love ‘em, okay? I love their simple complexity. For one thing, a good mystery has engaging characters, and for another, it has built-in conflict. Character and conflict – the basis of all of good writing. What’s not to like?

Speaking of good writing….I know a wannabe writer or two who is very curious about how famous writers write. They wonder, should they lie bed with their computer on their stomachs while they write (like Woody Allen) ? Stand up and write, use only parchment paper…. You get the idea.

Of course it doesn’t matter how you write or where you write, as long as you do. Moreover, as Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, says you should set a schedule to write, even if it’s just 15 minutes twice a week. Good or bad writing, just sit down and write something. Which I’m sorry to say, Natalie, I’ve tried, but I just can’t do. I need a bit of inspiration, which many writers scorn.

Well scorn away, it’s what works for me. In fact, if I try to sit down and do some “free writing” I’m apt do this instead:

First, clean the bathroom using a Green cleaning solution, and then wonder if I’m really disinfecting anything.

Second, do laundry. All of it.

Third, watch Chopped, Hardcore Pawn, the mystery DVDs from the library….

Fourth, the most important thing I do, I eventually put down the mystery, and read a book of short stories. Without reading stories, I might never write one. After all, where would I get my inspiration? Plus, I’ve learned how to write stories from reading stories.

My problem is I can read fifty stories and not one of them inspires a word. Then suddenly, the fifty-first story clicks: it’s tone, characters, its narrative voice, who knows what does it, I simply can’t explain the inner rush I feel. It’s not that I’m not curious why it works, but when the “click” happens, when the rush feels ready to implode, I don’t delay. I just say, ‘thank you’ and head to the nearest writing instrument…..

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Everyone has their favorite authors. These are some of mine: Anything by Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom, Raymond Carver, Molly Giles, Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, Ellen Gilchrist, Leonard Michaels, Mary Gaitskill, Jennifer Haigh, Marian Thurm, Miranda July (notice all the M names! – what’s up with that?), among many others. With the resurgence of the short story, there are so many from which to choose.