Decision Fatigue

Right about now is when I’m thinking longingly of being traditionally published. Going indie and choosing myself and all that is fine and good, but now I’m down to the final 10% of work, the final 10% of decisions to be made. And anyone who’s ever moved knows that the final 10% is the worst.

Twilight gif: I can't do this anymore

I am generally so decisive that it’s a discipline for me to curb it so the less decisive don’t feel railroaded. But there’s a limit. And I’ve hit it. I didn’t understand half of what I had to fill in to fully register my ISBN with my title. In fact, I may have abandoned it half-way through, which means I have to go back to it.

This is too much

And I haven’t even started trying to upload my novel yet. Asking for help doesn’t always solve things; I accidentally started a ridiculous argument between two fellow indie publishers after I asked a technical question in a Facebook group.

I was going to talk about how good traditionally published authors have it, but they have to deal with constant changes in their publishing house and editors leaving and the new editor not liking your work, not the mention feeling like you should be getting help with marketing but you’re not, which is probably akin to my getting an epidural 28 hours into labor with my son and still being able to feel everything. Not cool.

So all authors have it tough, just in different ways.

The lesson there is a good one: it’s a fiction that that person over there who looks like they have it all together, actually has an easy life. Don’t let yourself believe that lie.

Mona Lisa oh no you didn't

That woman with the sweet voice and temperament had to leave her abusive family at seventeen and figure out how to make it on her own. That man with the great career and adorable family was sexually abused as a child. And cancer eventually hits every family and friend group — talk about decision fatigue. At least I’m not having to decide what treatment to pursue against something in my own body that’s trying to kill me. Or my child’s body.

I started out this post, admittedly, whiny. And now I have that glorious thing: perspective. Which means I have energy to go forth and make ever fussier decisions.

But not yet. I’ll be spending most of the morning thinking about someone I love who is getting a mastectomy today. Which, for all the kidding around we’ve done lately about being one-boobed, is too serious for a gif.

On opening the clenched fist

You know how you can take months (even years) to struggle through an issue, unable to move on or let go or make a decision or whatever the problem is, and then in one moment, the angst is sloughed away? I had that experience recently.

A friend was giving the children’s message at church to illustrate  Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man who wanted to know whether he was doing all he could to get into the kingdom. Jesus loves him — this is an important part of the verse, I think, and one we don’t often focus on, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus loves him and, in a glance, knows him, and knows that he has a problem with the love of money of which he needs to let go.

The children’s message involved a raccoon and a jar.

my great-grandmother's jar

He explained that raccoons love shiny things, and if they spy a shiny object at the bottom of a jar, they’ll stick their paw in and grab it.

sticking my hand in the jar

But then, sometimes, the neck of the jar will be too small and they can’t get their clenched fist out. They don’t want to give up the shiny item, so they don’t unclench their fist — and they’re stuck. All they have to do is let go of the shiny item, and they’re free.

I can't get my hand out!

But they don’t.

This was me. I mean, the photo is of my hand and my jar, but also, in broader areas of my life, I was clenching something tight in my fist and I wouldn’t let go. I was good and stuck. The thing I was holding: the desire to place my novelization of the story of David and Saul with a conventional publisher. Or with an agent who would then find said publisher.

Some of this desire was practical. It’s a novel for young adults, and (as of this writing) they read paper books more than e-books. In addition, being traditionally published can put you in libraries (both school and public), which are a major discovery tool for kids. Besides, lurking around inside me, still, is the girl who wants the gold star: “I’ve done something good — now acknowledge me!” Traditional publication would be a great big gold star.

And then it didn’t happen.

At first, I looked deeper into the story (after whining for a bit), and discovered some holes that needed filling. So I filled them. Still…crickets. While I’m the good student who wants the gold star, I’m also the daughter of an entrepreneur and do-it-yourselfer (long before that term even existed). I read James Altucher‘s blog, who’s such a believer in the idea that he titled a book, Choose Yourself. I’ve been following news about self-publishing for years.

I wasn’t ready. I put off every decision deadline I gave myself, still holding out for that one more chance. Stuck. Unable to get any traction on revising the next book in my stuckness.

Until that children’s message.

I opened my clenched fist and decided to self-publish. Like so many big decisions, there were no fireworks or giant resolutions. Just a quiet, calm, “yes.” Since then, I found an editor who doesn’t know me and sent her the manuscript; as an editor, myself, I know the value of an outside eye. I’ll start talking to cover designers soon (one lives a block away from me). A Calvin Seminary Old Testament professor recently joined my church, so I’ll ask her to look it over (for an honorarium, of course) to make sure I haven’t gotten any of the cultural stuff wrong. I’ve booked a room in Alexandria, VA for 6 days while my daughter is at a youth conference there, to take a writer’s retreat and get cracking on Book 2 — the best advertisement for your first e-book is your second e-book, so I’d like it to come out about 3 months after the first one. That’s my list so far.

Even my fortune cookie agrees. Here’s this evening’s widsom: You create your own stage and your audience is waiting!

Do you have any advice for me? Any areas you’ve come unstuck from recently? Any areas in which you’re stuck?

We Are All Always In Between

The in between.

The already but not yet.

The constantly but not quite.

That’s where I am. I’m there about my writing. I already call myself a writer, which was hard-won and already feels like a victory of sorts — at least a victory over myself. But I’m not yet published in book form. I’ve got a blog that I’m proud of, that I know has started some conversations, that has moved some of the people who’ve read it and even spurred them to action of one kind or another, yet I don’t have the audience I want (and need if I’m to publish). I’m querying agents and submitting to the lone publisher in my genre who takes unsolicited manuscripts, but I haven’t gotten that “yes.” I’m in a constant state of sudden death overtime in hockey: I’m working, working, working, dreaming, praying, learning, striving, striving, striving, but I haven’t scored. Yet.

At the same time, once I get that initial “yes,” the benchmark will change. I will be published in book form (or possibly in app form), but then there’s the platform/networking, there’s the next book, there’s the…. There will always be something else.

I have friends who are in even deeper in the in between / already but not yet / constantly but not quite. Friends who know something physically is wrong, and know how bad it could be, but they don’t yet know for sure, so they’re thinking about it constantly, or they’re coming close to thinking about it constantly, but they can’t stand to go there all the way in their minds so they make glancing passes at thinking and praying about it — a thousand times a day.

My kids are always in an in between / already but not yet / constantly but not quite state. I’ve got one tween and one young teen and they’re always aware of the tension between what they can do and what they can’t yet do. We’re giving them both freedoms and responsibilities they haven’t had before, yet there’s always more freedom to strive for (they’re very average kids in that they’re not exactly striving for additional responsibilities).

We’re all, in some way, in between / already but not yet / constantly but not quite. Always. Sometimes it’ll be dramatic, like waiting for news from the doctor, waiting for chemo to start, waiting for chemo to be done. Sometimes it’ll be chronic, like in the stage of recovery from surgery when you look fine but can’t lift more than 20 pounds, like growing up, like trying to get published, like being a more patient parent, a more faithful servant of God, like running farther than you ever have before but not being ready for that marathon, like striving for change in any part of your life.

In between. Already but not yet. Constantly but not quite.

This is tension.

The characters I write should always hold this tension in themselves, because each of them is in the middle of something that is already but not yet — all the time.

I have no wise words for how to hold this tension in ourselves other than to expect it, to look for it in others so it can become a connecting node, to confess it and not wallow in it in private, to figure out how to be grateful, to praise God even in the middle of it, because we’re all always in between / already but not yet / constantly but not quite.

*This is another of my participations in Five Minute Fridays (even though it’s Saturday).

Go Ahead, Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out

Good riddance to you, 2012.

Not that you were all bad. I started this blog, which (this 3-week break notwithstanding) I’ve really enjoyed. I finished the first manuscript in my David and Saul series. I read a number of really good books. I took many great trips with my family. My children are thriving. I laughed a lot.

But I also cried. A lot. This has been a year of too-soon deaths, cancer diagnoses, scary health issues, church angst, lack of success in my publishing journey, and personal issues I’m despairing of ever turning the corner on. And compared to some of my friends, I had a pretty good year.

This doesn’t sound related, but I think it is: I’m annoyed with the Old Testament. In my goal of reading the entire Bible, I got from Psalm 116 to Isaiah 37 so far this year. Lots of great stuff, but also so many promises to be faithful and all will go well with you. “Trust in the Lord and do good. Then you will live safely in the land and prosper. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him and he will help you” (Ps. 37:3-5).

Which sounds great. But what if you feel you were a pretty faithful servant (given your usual failings), yet things did not all go well? Was I just not faithful enough? Not trusting enough? Not delighting enough? Can I ever be faithful or trusting or delighting enough to earn things going well with me?

Phfft. Of course I wasn’t faithful enough to “earn” no strife and no difficulty and no pain. There is no such thing. I’m a New Testament gal, with New Testament expectations that I will suffer, but that God will be with me in my suffering. Also, I am living safely in the land and I am prospering in many, many ways. There’s nothing like complaining about emptiness for making me realize how full my life is.

That’s what my head tells me. But my heart has been reading the Old Testament for the last three years, and has stored up all those promises. So my head knows that it is very, very, very hard to get traditionally published, but my heart cries out, “I’ve felt God’s hand on me and on this project from the beginning, how can it not be happening yet?”

This is similar to the difference between my 3:30 p.m. brain and my 3:30 a.m. brain. My 3:30 p.m. brain can take an issue and look at all the sides of it rationally, and recognize a good course of action. For example, it can take a loved one’s cancer diagnosis and look at the current research and agree that waiting and seeing is a right thing to do. But my 3:30 a.m. brain is incapable of this, and it swirls round and round in an ever-tightening noose of fear and anxiety. I’ve been waking up at 3:30 a.m. a lot this year.

So the more I argue with myself (OT vs. NT, 3:30 a.m. vs. p.m.), and, by extension, with God, the simpler my prayers are getting. They’re more basic. Not much more than, “I’m sorry,” “Help,” and “Thank you,” with a few “Wows” thrown in for good measure. Which is why Anne LaMott’s latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow, is so timely for me.

I will end this whine with her words (from p.27):

If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.

That feels so hopeful to me, more hopeful than promises of victory over my enemies, or reward for my faithfulness (such as it is). I am so ruined. I am so loved. I am in charge of so little. Help. Thanks. Wow. And (because I cannot shake my Calvinism), I’m sorry.

I’m going to try to start the new year by nestling these terrible truths and those simple prayers in my heart and in my brain — both the 3:30 a.m. and p.m. varieties. Maybe that’ll help me stop arguing with myself and set me free to really go after my heart’s desires.

How about you? How was your year?


High Hopes, Low Expectations

Parenting Edition

Those couple of years when my kids were 3 & 1 and 4 & 2, my biggest parenting epiphany was this: have no or low expectations for how the day would go. When I had no expectations — i.e. we could go to the grocery store or not, go to the park or not, the children would play nicely on their own while I got things done or the things weren’t that necessary so I could drop them if need be — the day went well and we were all happy but tired at the end. I had hope that things could get done and small people would nap when I wanted them to, but low expectations of it actually happening.

This mostly had to do with time pressure: if I let go of the idea that certain things had to happen at certain times, and let the day flow, everything went smoother. But it also had to do with the level of the hopes: the more time I spent daydreaming about how well a certain thing was going to go, the more out of control I’d feel when it didn’t go as I’d imagined. And then that out-of-control feeling would compound itself into a really bad day.

I was mostly unsuccessful at this, but it was my goal.

Publishing Edition

But this post isn’t about parenting; it’s about publishing. Every time I send out a query to a new potential agent, I play the same game of high hopes but low expectations.

I love to imagine the agent requesting a full manuscript and loving it and offering representation and they’re the right agent and we do some revisions (because I’m not crazy enough to think the manuscript is perfect) and the agent sends it to the right publisher who buys it and everything goes awesomely and the book finds lots and lots of readers and I’m able to sell my subsequent books and even get interviewed on Fresh Air or any other NPR show that will have me. I even imagine hostile interviews with people who might be upset that I’m making stuff up about biblical characters. Seriously, this is what I do while I’m driving. And I do a fair bit of driving.

At the same time, I’m a realist. I send each packet off, either by snail- or email, knowing it will most likely garner me another rejection. High hopes, low expectations.

There is no external time pressure: the world doesn’t (yet) know it’s clamoring for my stories. But I create the pressure, the wanting it to happen now. Which sucks. Especially the more I let my imagination go on the “high hopes” side.

High Hopes = Vainglory?

At Breathe, the Christian writer’s conference I attended a couple of weeks ago, the final speaker, Sharon Brown, talked about sins that can be traps for writers. One of them was vainglory, which she defined as the “need to maintain an image with a high approval rating … compulsively desiring recognition.” This is different from pride. Pride is being all impressed with yourself because of what you have done. Vainglory is the need for others to be impressed with you.

It’s particularly brutal for the unpublished writer, because you can know that you’ve written a good and satisfying story, but if you want to publish traditionally, you need that approval of others — agents, publishers, reviewers, readers. Even if you self-publish, you need readers to approve enough to buy your book, and your next one, etc.

These needs and compulsive desires supplant the sense of self we are to receive from God. We’re ambitious for our own glory, not for God’s. Which is where I’m all tangled up, because the David and Saul novel is telling a story from the Bible, it was written with loads of prayer, and I’d love for it to drive people back to the original stories. But I need that external approval to make it happen on the scale I think it could happen.

Oh. Did you catch that? I’m making my own problem again. Not only do I want it to happen SOON, I want it to happen BIG. I can almost taste how big it could get.

Hello, vainglory. I am Natalie.

The antidote?

A friend who is a poet has an admirable goal in the next year: she wants to get 100 rejections. Because putting her work out there often enough to collect that many “no’s” means that she’s working every angle she can, and not letting herself get stuck when all those no’s come, which makes it more likely that some yeses will come her way.

I’ve gotten fewer than a dozen rejections in six months on It Is You. I’m not putting it out there enough.

Is repeated rejection the antidote for vainglory? I don’t think so. I think it can make the need for that approval more desperate: the longer it takes, the worse it gets. Somehow, I need to move from high hopes, low expectations, to some hopes, low expectations.

Because the thing about vainglory is that it’s feeding my Resistance to working on the next book. After all, how can I work on the next thing if I don’t know the status of the first thing? And all that picturing my future glory supplants the imagining I used to do about my works in progress.

So what can I do about it, other than pinching myself when I go into that vainglorious daydream place?

1. In November, instead of doing the normal NaNoWriMo novel, I’m going to write 15 pieces of short biblical fiction and post them here. I’m going to take a scene, a moment from the Bible and imaginatively retell it. That should keep my brain way too busy to have time for vainglory. (Also, I’m looking for suggestions — let me know if there’s a story you want me to delve into.)

2. Try the prayer Sharon Brown recommended: “Deliver me from the impulse to impress and make me ambitious for Your glory.”

Amen. May it be so.