Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Last Word on Humility and Truth

Our August holiday on PEI, 2019  

Honestly, the morning flung some serious words at me, so thank goodness it was the day for washing windows. That offered me the time doing mindless physical activity to process the words and their meanings, and how they make me feel.

I follow a writer and painter -- a creator -- named Morgan Harper Nichols. Her words of inspiration and encouragement (in her newly published book) got me through my "season of angst" last fall.  But she posts every day on social media and this morning, I read this: 

Let this be a season of slowing down and revisiting.
What beautiful things can come to life in the waiting. 
Sometimes it's the gritty in-between that helps you focus and see:
Now is the time to eliminate distractions and concentrate 
on what you actually need.
There is no shame if you're not further along. 
You don't have to pretend you have it all together. 
You have been waiting for so long...
You are also learning to be strong -
you are gathering wisdom and you are learning
the lessons you need for the rest of the journey. 

Now, those are words that went straight to my heart.
Then came straight out of my pen. 
I immediately copied those words down to re-read whenever I think I'm not doing enough or accomplishing enough, or even good enough. I mean, "You have been waiting for so long... you are gathering wisdom and you are learning..."

THAT'S how I fell. 

Then I read a blog post by Canadian writer Deryn Collier; she lives and writes in British Columbia. I found her mystery novels a few years ago -- only to discover, as I waited for book three, that her publisher had dropped her. What? So that's what publishing is like. All about the market, not the book or the writer. 
I receive her email newsletter so I've followed her struggles to figure out what to do next, her determination to recreate her work, and be true to herself. 

Her blog post is entitled, "Five Reasons Why I Hate Giving Publishing Advice". 
Two of the five points really stood out for me: 
1) (her #2) Publishing is like musical chairs, and when the music stops, not everyone gets a chair. 
2) (her #5) Traditional publishing may not be the only way. 

Collier wrote, "What makes a book great is the author’s vision, imagination, creativity and willingness to do the work. What makes a book sell is a whole other matter."
That's what I keep running up against. I can do the work; no one wants what I've written. 
I can't help myself -- I have to add, Not yet, anyway. (Ever hopeful. Can't give up.)
Her blog post is one I'll read over and over, and find something new -- encouraging, discouraging, inspiring -- each time, depending on the kind of day I'm having 
But as Collier says, being creative, honouring one's own creative vision, pursuing that vision every day, is what matters most. 

So I've been thinking about the musical chairs idea, and hoping that you don't get just one shot at that game. I'm hoping that musical chairs is played over and over, and one of these times, I'll be the last one sitting when the music stops. 

Best-selling author Cheryl Strayed shared this quote from James Baldwin on her Facebook page this week, and it now sits beneath my monitor so I can see it the whole time I'm working: 

"Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: disciples, love, luck, but above all, endurance." 

Or as my friend, Sarah, always tells me, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming." 
Even Dory has words of wisdom for me. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Persistence and Pep Talks

My father with "Bob the Bull", Pugwash Point, August 1991
It took a few minutes to land on the right title for this post, but each one I chose made me laugh, because the photo put a whole different spin on them. The photo really has nothing to do with what I'm writing, but I didn't see the point in another sunset over the field. Instead, here's a nice memory from our summer holidays in Nova Scotia. 

I had a lovely, long catch-up phone conversation with my friend Jennifer, who lives in Toronto. (She's mentioned in Field Notes in  my essay about the chickens, because she's the friend who was with me when I bought my fancy red boots in the Bloor West Village.)

We both turned 50 this year, and have been friends since university. Jennifer's life is different from mine -- she's a mother of two, lives in the city, has a good job -- but like me, she's feeling like she's still searching for what she really wants to do. In her case, it's feeling stagnant in a job she's done, and done well and enjoyed, for 20 years. For me, it's trying to get around the obstacles that are keeping me from publishing more books. 

I told her about the branding/platform/ten-thousand followers that risk-adverse publishers are looking for. She told me the story of a Toronto novelist whose first book was rejected not because it wasn't a good story, but because "no one wants to read a story set in Edwardian times", the publisher said. Then the TV show, "Downtown Abbey" hit -- and suddenly, the publishers were panting for her novel! Jennifer said so much of publishing about timing, and I agree; there's a lot of "right place, right time, right story" -- pure luck -- involved, and that's what I'm up against. 

Afterwards, as I thought about our 2-hour conversation and all the things we discussed, I realized I'm a columnist and an essayist; it's my job to be interested in a lot of different things. And now so much of my writing is interconnected; even if I'm not doing the city girl-country girl persona as much, my rural life in Nova Scotia is always a through line, whether I'm writing about food, death, or faith. 

(Ha! Right there -- three of the major themes of life!) 

As I progressed through my chores after supper -- washing dishes, watering plants, cleaning kitty litter, having a bath -- all those quiet, physical activities that promote contemplation -- I realized I'm okay. My work is okay. If I'm truly committed to this work, and I am because I love it, as discouraging and disheartening as it can be, then I must persist

After all, 2020 is the year when some of my persistence paid off. Two articles that I've been pitching for several years are finally being published. Both come out in October issues (one was bumped from the June issue because of the impact of the pandemic). It seems like whenever I think it's time to give up -- and I started out this year believing that and planning for that -- something happens that tells me to hang in there. 

Jennifer really believes that my memoir, The Funeral Director's Daughter, will get picked up because "everyone's talking about funerals now" and that's all the encouragement I need to keep doing what I'm doing, and doing it my way. 

I'm still out standing in my field -- and not letting other people's bullshit chase me over the fence. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

A Lesson In Humility

Sunset over the field

I'm on another three-week vacation from church work, which allows me to focus on other writing projects. The "secret" summer book project is coming along nicely, and I might be able to reveal what it is in September. A friend wants to give it as Christmas gifts so it's good to have a deadline. 

My other not-a-secret book project is getting The Alphabet of Faith (TAOF) -- as a collection of 26 essays -- ready to pitch to a publisher. I decided to spend Friday working on the book proposal and expected to have a lot to show for the effort.

I hit a wall almost immediately, and it flattened me. Even the emergency ice cream cone at two in the afternoon couldn't pull me out the downward spiral. The kind of spiral that has me almost frantic about what I'm going to do if I can't be a writer. 

For some reason, I starting working on the book proposal for TAOF ass-backwards. Perhaps because the book feels ready to go -- there's a title and the essays only need to be edited -- I thought I could just skip the whole "What is the book about?" and start in with "Who is the target audience/market for this book?"

Thinking it would give me good guidance, I looked up the guru of non-fiction book proposals. Her suggestions for statistics about my intended audience and analysis of what the market is looking for made me feel overwhelmed and discouraged, to the point of despair. 

I'm not the kind of writer who things like a business person. Book proposals are hard enough -- self-promotion is hard enough! -- without adding in market analysis and statistical representation. I don't know -- I just want to write books. Now, however, writers have to bee all things, and do all things, even the things they aren't good at, like market analysis and statistical representation.

Part of the problem is something that has dogged me for years: The demand a writer have a brand, a platform, and now, since social media, tens of thousands of followers. 

This is not me, never has been, never will be. I'm a writer, not a YouTuber; when I post on social media, I'm posting prose, not videos. It's my instincts, to write, not to pick up my phone and record myself talking. 

I don't have a brand; I'm not one thing, and I don't have only one interest. Sure, the whole city girl/country girl is one angle I write from, but I also write about faith, and dying/death (funeral service). Here's the thing: when I pitched a second Field Notes book and the Field Notes cookbook, I mentioned my "Field Notes brand" and was told, "You don't have a brand." 

It could be my great life flaw that I've never landed on one interest, one topic and made that my entire life's work; a lot of people do it, but it's not me. That's just the way I'm wired, unfortunately

It's not unfortunate. It's just who I am. I'm trying to accept that instead of letting it discourage me and make me feel like a failure. A failure because I don't have a brand or a platform or ten thousand followers.

Be true to yourself. That phrase is a life raft I cling to. Sure, everybody needs a bit of tweaking, but if sharing my thoughts via video is not my instinctive activity, then doing it will look and sound awkward and fake. 

What pulled me out of my funk was humility.

Rick Warren says, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It's thinking of yourself less." 

I sat in the gazebo and thought about the publishers I was thinking of pitching, and the faith-based writers I read, and realized 1) I don't have the chops to play with those big girls of Christian publishing, and 2) there's nothing wrong with a small publisher who probably will recognize my name and snap this book right up. I won't gain ten thousand followers with this publisher, but I'll reach a lot of people, and a lot of people who know me and like my writing will support this book. 

Humility. It took hitting that wall to make me put aside my ego and truly look at the situation I created. It's not wrong to aim high, but I was not being realistic, or sensible. I don't have a brand or a platform or a specific angle. That's not who I am. I've always believed the right book at the right time would open up a path for me. Field Notes was not that book; perhaps The Alphabet of Faith will be, perhaps The Funeral Director's Daughter will be. 

Who knows? The point is to to pick myself up off the ground, put a Bandaid on that big scrape on my nose (and ego), and find a way around that wall. And find a way to live through the uncertainty.

Best-selling author Cheryl Strayed posted this quote by author James Baldwin on her Facebook page: "Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but above all, endurance."

Humility AND persistence. I can do both.

So how do I get around the wall? Simple: Start with editing the essays for a wider audience than my congregation/Facebook friends, and figure out what the book is about. It really is simple; why didn't I do that in the first place? 

Ah, yes: Ego.  

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Introducing Ethel's Echinacea


This is Ethel's Echinacea. It's not an official name, but they're in my garden so I get to call them what I want.

These flowers are a gift from the garden of my friend Ethel, and they are thriving in this garden by the back deck, with the rudbekia transplanted last year, and the phlox transplanted this year -- saved, in fact, from being crushed by the effort to move the greenhouse. There's also honeysuckle clumping up in there.

On the right in the photo are the Stella daylilies planted in memory of my dog, Stella. I can't remember which Stella's they are but they are a darker red than I expected. That's how it goes with gardens; you never know what is going to pop up, what is going to thrive, what is going to bloom one year and never show up again. 

Audrey Hepburn said, "To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow."

Here's a little announcement related to this two-level back deck: next year, Ethel's Echinacea will be overlooking my kitchen garden. This fall - or even as soon as the heat wave ends - we are going to tear off the lower deck and start the work to transform it into a space that will grow herbs and other kitchen gardeny things. My winter project will be figuring that out. 

We're also going to create the space for a salsa garden where we will grow the tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and green & yellow peppers that go into Rose's Salsa (recipe from my friend Rose). 

What would I do without my gardening friends?? 

"Friends are flowers in the garden of life."

A word about the lighting of that photo of Ethel's Echinacea. I was watering at sunset last night, the sun going down as it does over the far trees at the edge of the field. But the opposite sky was full of grey clouds -- teasing me about the possibility of rain -- and this combination turned the light pinky and orangey, depending on the moment. 

When I saw the light on Ethel's Echinacea, I wanted to capture it. Every blossom coming out, thriving, offering its healing and its hope. Keeping me in the pink. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Rain Before Seven

The 60 per cent chance of showers came through! 
This wasn't enough water for the roots but I swear you could hear the leaves gulping down the drops. 
As well as a huge sigh of momentary relief from all the plants: "Ah, moisture!" 

Yes, you can hear these things. Nature speaks. 

But so does the Nova Scotia country boy: "Rain before seven, fine by eleven," and it is supposed to clear off by noon, leaving us with sunshine and gusty winds, courtesy of what's left of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isaias. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Heat Wave

This is crazy.
I really hoped we'd get a day of rain from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isaias but it's heading west of us. 
The chickens get four buckets of cold water a day; I'm been a bit lax on the frozen treats but it looks like they're going to get them for the next few days. 

This is not good. 
We're lucky -- we draw water from a spring along another country road, and fill four or five water barrels in order to keep our gardens watered, but anyone who relies on a well... by the beginning of next week, we might be hearing stories of people in trouble with water. 

People love to complain about precipitation, whether it's snow in winter or rain in summer, but the ground needs the water. Snow fills our wells and rain grows our vegetables and flowers. It's a country thing -- we need water.

And on a personal note, I was hoping for a break from watering just to give my right arm a break. I've developed a case of "bucket elbow"!