Monday, August 3, 2009

Guest Blogger Debra Borden on Thinking, Writing, the Long Haul, and Being a Little Bit Happy

I met Debra Borden at the BooksNJ 2009 Festival, when she asked a question during a seminar on writing with a co-author. It was one of those questions I suspect many in the tent that afternoon may have wanted to ask, but which might make them appear to be less than perfect at managing the business end of their writing careers. Debra asked anyway, and I immediately admired her for that. When the session broke up, we had an interesting conversation, and later that day I sat in on the panel Debra co-presented, on contemporary women's fiction. In the talk she gave and in the way she answered audience questions, I sensed this was someone who not only knew how hard it is to be a published author, but who would still be enjoying her writing experiences even if she were not yet published. And I knew I wanted to ask her to write something for the blog.

Debra is the author of two novels, Lucky Me and A Little Bit Married (both published by Random House) and her humorous essays have appeared in The New York Times and Women’s Health Magazine. She is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, providing therapy to clients in their home or office.

Please welcome Debra Borden.

Hello my name is Debra Borden and I am…….an author. Sounds a little like a twelve step program, right?

Well writing, for me, is more like a compulsion than a vocation, so that’s not so far off. In fact, it occurs to me that the steps for a journey such as this, a journey to the writing life, are less about a skill set than a mindset. Of course, you’ll have to have some talent eventually, but as we all know, so many talented writers remain unpublished and so much, shall we say, questionable literature, is in the store. Perhaps because I am also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, just as my clinical background informs my fiction, it also influences my perception of the steps that contributed to my success.

For those interested in only the brass tacks, the "who’d you call, what’d they say, how’d you do it and I’m taking names" reduction, there’s a catch and here it is: The concrete steps are the easy part. Five years ago I was an aspiring writer with a manuscript, no formal training and a dream. Today I am a published author of two novels and a new nonfiction book proposal making the rounds. Certainly a good part of the process involved educating myself about the industry, networking like crazy for contacts, craft and critique, and engaging in all sorts of dues-paying.

But it was the more holistic elements of the journey, the softer, subtle moves that more or less prepared me to be prepared, that mattered just as much; so that when those brass tacks and concrete efforts paid off, I knew how to take advantage of them.

Don’t underestimate the soft steps, I wouldn’t have become published without them. I think of it like insulation, that big fluffy pink stuff in the walls of your house. Your house would stand just fine without it, but that extra layer makes all the difference when it comes to maintenance and longevity. Just like houses, writers need emotional insulation to begin, support, temper and prolong their careers. Here’s what I mean.

Start to think of yourself as a writer.

By this I mean, you just decide. If you have a day job, then writing is what you do in your spare time, but you do it, with purpose. You may have many roles: parent, adult child, sibling, customer service rep, soccer coach, but now you have one more -- you are a writer. Tell yourself and tell other people that you are writing a book. Go to book stores. Read about the writing life. Start with How-To’s or industry manuals or you can start with famous authors. Everyone from Stephen King to Annie Dillard has written a book about writing. Look at writers' magazines. Maybe subscribe to one. Or subscribe to an online writers' site.

Do not discount this process. Self talk is very powerful. You are probably already using it to your disadvantage with plenty of “I can’t, I don’t, I never” and it’s the single easiest turnaround tool in your arsenal. When you start to think of yourself as a writer you’ll be surprised at how much easier everything gets.

Be happy.

Okay, I know that sounds silly. What I mean is, don’t be bitter and defeatist. We all know it’s insanely difficult to get published, but hey, you have a dream, enjoy it. Some people don’t. I call this the ‘Sense’ trilogy. Have a Sense of humor, a Sense of self, and the Sense not to take it all too seriously. If you don’t make up your mind that there will be huge setbacks, you will not persevere. The key to getting published is resiliency. And happy people are just generally more resilient, less likely to embrace the negatives and throw in the towel.

I will tell you something else about being happy, a specific bonus of being happy. One day you will get that two minutes with an agent or a chance meeting at a party with an editor and you will be the kind of person who is delightful and engaging. (You will also be dying inside, nervous and desperate, there’s just no way around that because you want this so much.) But your positive attitude will serve you. And when you do sell your book and more, you will be the kind of author and client that people want to include, promote and hold onto—agents, editors, and publicists dread the temperamental and unreasonable writers they are sometimes forced to deal with, so don’t be one.

Be prepared for a long haul.

Now I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too. Maybe, just maybe, it won’t be like that for me. Maybe I am the next John Grisham or Joan Didion or Nabokov, and you know what, maybe you are, I hope so, I really do, because it’s good for all of us if you are. Do you know that every time JK Rowling brought out another Harry Potter book, all book sales skyrocketed in all genres? It brought out the customers. So maybe, just maybe, you’re the next big thing.

But in case you fall into the other category, here’s what you need to do. Pretend you’re going on a car trip. If you think the trip will only be two hours long and it goes for ten, how cranky and irritated are you? But if you plan for ten, you settle in a little differently, right? You are more patient, tolerant, and cheerful. You can take almost anything if you’re prepared. Well, consider yourself prepared. It’s a long haul, and like a car trip, there will be unexpected delays, traffic jams, all sorts of frustrations, but also beautiful scenery and unexpected company and you just need to ride it out.


Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

Thank you Lisa, and Debra - for those insightful words! They are much appreciated!

Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

Oh, and I just had to add a couple more things -

1) The line Debra opened this article with is the line I ended "the blog" I posted when I finally got up the nerve to tell everyone I had started writing. (weird!)

2) The title of Debra's first book was one of my possible titles for the novel I am writing right now! (I have since changed it, about 5 times, which I am sure is absolutely normal..right?) *Note to self- scratch off "Lucky Me"*

3) Debra's personality is so much like me - which is refreshing because-
a) I finally have an author whom I can identify with throughout this journey when I need a little inspiration, and
b) Now I can use her 2 books as "homework" and entertainment at the same time!
( I have already gone to and added her books to my cart!)

herding tapeworms said...

The long haul paragraph was especially helpful. Expectations have such an impact on how we perceive and react to things. I plan to keep that last sentence handy because it really captures the struggle and necessary optimism of The Process.