Jaye Wells

On Stereotypes, Empathy, and My “Gypsy” Shame

About fifteen years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book. This was back before I embarked on a serious study of the craft. I just thought writing a book would be fun. I loved romance and thought it would be a good place to start my first story. I also liked historical stories, so that also seemed good. The fact I didn’t have a time period or specific country in mind didn’t matter. I’d figure all that out. What else did I need? Well, I always sort of liked stories about magic. What if I threw a lady who did magic? Wait! I know, I thought, I’ll add a gypsy. In fact, I’ll call the book GYPSY WOMAN!

If I could go back in time and have a chat with my former self, I would. I’d pour us each a glass of wine. I’d pat her on the knee and say, “Listen to me, sweet summer child. You’re an idiot.”

Let’s ignore the fact I believed I could write a historical novel without a lick of research or any clue as to the time period or setting. The problem is that in my ignorance about the craft of writing, I defaulted to trope and stereotypes I’d read for years in novels as crutches. “I’ve seen this everywhere, so it must be right.”

What I didn’t know then, and do now, is that stereotypes are a lazy person’s way of categorizing the world.

See, the term “gypsy” is racist. It’s a derogatory term that originated with the erroneous idea that the Romani people came from Egypt. They are one of the most discriminated against groups in all of Europe. The problem with the word “gypsy” is it implies that the people we call that have chosen a lifestyle that often is associated with thievery and other unsavory characteristics, instead of the more accurate term “Roma” or “Romani” that identifies people as part of a racial minority.

“But, Jaye, I see the term ‘gypsy’ everywhere! There are whole TV shows about them.”
Yes, racism and stereotypes are rampant in our society. The fact a term commonly is used doesn’t make it okay. Nor does the fact that the Roma people are often depicted as magical thieves make it true. Nor does the fact that women are portrayed as needing to be rescued by men make all women helpless. Nor does the fact that black people often are portrayed as criminals make every black person a criminal. Yet the more we see these stereotypes repeated in media, the harder it is to dispel them.

When we talk about racism and lack of diversity in writing, it’s often presumed that the source is antagonism. Privileged white authors must be doing all of this on purpose because they want to remain the dominant voices. They’re racist, sexist, elitist, etc. While I do think this may be the case in too many instances, I have a different theory to share about the majority of examples of stereotyping we see in fiction.

Ready?

People are lazy.

Ignorance is usually a product of lack of opportunity or a very passive or isolationist mode of living. But sometimes it’s just that people lack the motivation to try to expand their consciousness. Yes, I understand privilege plays a major role in this, too. Privileged people lack the motivation to challenge their thinking because their very privilege allows them to be comfortably ignorant of the challenges or unfair biases toward less privileged groups.

But when it comes to writing, I think a lot of the stereotypes we see are the result of authors defaulting to short hand characteristics for characters because they: A) don’t want to think too hard about things and OMG the deadline’s looming and/or B) they lack the life experience to know they’re making ignorant decisions and/or C) they’ve never had their limited scope challenged.

Here’s the thing, as writers our job is to understand people. Good writing results from fostering empathy (the ability to understand or share the feelings of other people) for our characters. To accomplish that, we must first be empathetic. How do we acquire empathy? Travel is a wonderful empathy booster. But not everyone can travel the world.

So…

That’s where books come in.

Through stories, we’re exposed to people different from us. We see how they handle the world and understand the things that motivate them, scare them, satisfy them, etc. We see them overcoming challenges we may never face. We cheer them on. We cry for them.
So if one of the purposes of stories is to foster empathy, doesn’t it then stand to reason that one of the most important jobs of an author is write characters in a way that fosters empathy?

ouroboros-tattoo-meaningIn short, storytelling is an Ouroboros of empathy. It’s circular. The more we read stories that foster empathy, the more empathetic we’ll be as readers, writers, and humans.

The me that tried to write GYPSY WOMAN was not a terrible person. She was an ignorant one. She didn’t understand craft, she lacked insight into what made stories good, and she lacked the experience to understand that she was insulting a race of people. Luckily, that book was never finished so it could never, ever be published. I would be ashamed if it were, and I often tell the story of trying to write it to demonstrate how far I’ve come as a writer (and person) through hard work, exposure to new ideas, and gaining maturity.

Now, after having written more than a million words, I know that my biggest job is to write characters who are not short-hand stereotypes. Characters, even if they are of a certain group or archetype, should always surprise the reader. They should always have unique traits that remind the reader that a person may be categorized by many things, but we must never ignore their individuality or humanity.

I know I have made mistakes. Readers have pointed them out to me, and I have tried to learn from that and do better next time. But I never approach a story now without asking myself if I’m doing the best I can do provide my readers with characters with whom they can empathize.

So how do we tackle fostering empathy and expanding our understanding of people different from us in our writing?
1.    Read diversely. Seek out stories written by authors who are different from you. Read a variety of genders, races, ages, and life experiences. The more you are exposed to diverse ideas the more you will understand the world and the people in it.
2.    Travel. Go to other neighborhoods in your town and observe the different rhythms and habits. Be sure also to note what’s the same as where you live. In other countries, don’t stay in hotels that cater to Americans. Eat where the locals eat. Hang out in non-touristy areas. Listen, pay attention, have an open mind.
3.    Don’t be afraid to have your worldview challenged. It’s scary when things you believe are brought into question, but that’s called growth. Be a student of life and let it teach you new things. Seek out different ideas. Even if the ideas seem wrong, ask yourself why the other person might find value in them.
4.    Be patient. You will make mistakes. People will point out those mistakes, and your first instinct will be defensiveness. Try to sit with that without reacting. Once the feeling passes, ask yourself if there’s anything to learn from the experience. Writing is a constant process of challenge, learning, processing, and growing. If you’re patient with it, the best rewards will be intensely personal and life expanding.
5.    Ignore critics who try to shame you for not playing to stereotypes. Readers can be lazy, too. They will accuse you of writing “unrealistic” characters if those characters don’t conform to the reader’s overexposure of stereotypes. You may even experience pressure from the market to write certain types of characters because they’re hot. Decide where your line in the sand exists. Don’t let anyone push you across it just to earn a few extra bucks.
6.    On the other hand, if your critique group or conscientious reviewer or readers point of problems of derogatory stereotypes in your writing, listen to them. One of the reasons we seek out critique is to help us see things we are blind to in ourselves, including biases and prejudices.

This is a very complex topic with implications far beyond writing. But as I stated before, stories are important because they are often the first (and sometimes only) place where we are exposed to new ideas and people. As writers, we have a responsibility to be honest about people, to do the work of depicting characters that are human and individual, instead of stereotypes, and to always be learning and trying to expand our ability to understand people. Most of all, we must be honest with ourselves when we are not doing our job. Don’t let laziness get in the way of writing great stories.

Happy writing, friends.

Strong Female Characters? Let Me Show You How

I had a great conversation recently with Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about “strong female characters.” We had so much to talk about that she had to break  up the podcast into two episodes.

Here’s Part One:

Strong Female Characters: An Interview with Jaye Wells, Part 1

For any hearing impaired readers, or anyone who prefers to read instead of listen, the transcript should be up soon!

Craft Thursday: Conscious Rebellion

If you spend five minutes in the company of a new writer and you’ll hear the word “rule” at least once. This will especially be the case if you happen to be discussing a best selling author’s book. “They broke the head-hopping rule!” “I don’t know why this person sells so many books, they break the rule about not starting with weather all the time!”

 

4-stages_consciousness

This nifty little graph explains the stages people go through when learning something new. When you start writing, you’re unconsciously incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing because you’re a novice. You start studying–reading craft books, taking workshops, etc–and suddenly you start understanding the rules of the thing. This is the stage where a lot of new writers I run into are stuck, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

When you start learning the rules of writing, you think you’re figuring it out. Aha! As long as I don’t start with weather and don’t head hop and I never use anything but “said” in dialogue tags I’ll be a bestseller!

Sorry, kid. But the way you get from consciously incompetent to consciously competent is to understand the reasons for those rules so you can learn how to break them effectively. It’s not enough to simply have a To Not Do list.

1. You need to understand that writing by the rules leads to formulaic writing. (Hint: This is bad.)

2. You need to understand that the masters are the masters because they learned the ins and outs of the rules and then broke them with conscious intention. There are no happy accidents when it comes to rule breaking. Unconscious incompetent writers break rules because they don’t know them and it shows. Masters break the rules because they know them and it shows.

2. You have to read books with an eye toward learning instead of simple entertainment. Read with a pen in your hand and make notes as you go. Did the author head hop? Why? Was it effective? Why or why not? How did the author handle a tricky POV shift? How do they structure their scenes? Basically, you need to see how professionals make the sausage so you can get to grinding your own meat. (This is the best metaphor [meataphor?] I’ve ever written)

3. You need to write your ass off. Then you need to have a good critique partner tear that shit up. The trick here is finding someone who knows what the hell they’re doing. Someone who understands that a new writer needs different feedback from a pro. Someone who understands that being a comma Nazi ain’t the same as giving helpful feedback. Lots of national writers’ groups have local chapters that offer critique groups. There are lots of great places online, too (if you have favorites, recomend them in comments, please).

4. You need to challenge yourself to truly understand the concepts you’re learning. It’s one thing to read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat to gather tricks for your toolbox. It’s something else to read it and think it’s some sort of storytelling bible. How tired do you think agents and editors are of seeing formulaic crap from new writers who think shallow plot formulas are the key to bestsellerdom?

Look, I liked Saved the Cat. I read it when I was a younger writer. I made the mistake of thinking I could use it as a shortcut to understanding story structure in a real and nuanced way. In short, I thought I could fudge my way toward knowing how to plot. Wrong. Very wrong. Now, I use techniques from that book in specific instances (“Pope in the Pool” is a favorite), but I’d only recomend it as a craft book to read after lecturing the new writer about how it’s not a panacea for your plot issues. Same goes with The Hero’s Journey. If you’re using a list of steps you printed off the internet without having read Hero with a Thousand Faces or Michael’s Hauge’s excellent writing on the hero’s journey, you’re not really learning it. For that matter, you need to read Jung and Edinger to understand the psychology behind why the Hero’s Journey is effective. This is not to say you shouldn’t read Save the Cat or try out the Hero’s Journey steps, but understand that these short cuts don’t equate to craft mastery.

5. You need to understand that most writers go through the stage where they worship rules like a golden calf. Did you know I can always tell when my reviews are written by insecure new writers? They’re always the ones who point out that I broke rules. “She used ‘I’ too much in her first person story!” SMH. Of COURSE I broke the rules. I’m a mutha effin’ professional.

But, listen, it’s part of the process of becoming a pro. When you’re a novice, you’re insecure. Of course you are. As you gain experience and get some chops, you’ll rely less on knowing the rules. You’ll learn to admire people who break the rules well. But for now, when you sneer at a pro writer for breaking a rule, understand that you’re betraying some insecurity. When you say, “How is this idiot a bestseller? They used a prologue!” What you’re saying is, “I need to feel better about my own lack of experience by tearing down those who have more experience.” It’s fine. We’ve all done it. Just understand that the rest of us know the score. And, when you’re done sneering, don’t forget to learn from those idiots who have the success you crave.

6. You need to know that a lot of writing rules are crap. Sometimes they’re influenced by genre trends and sometimes they’re perpetuated by blowhards who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag.

Also? Accept that you will always have more to learn. Yes, even when you reach the pinnacle of unconscious competence. Literature is a fluid art. It’s constantly evolving and writers who think they know everything often get left behind. Plus, there’s no such thing as a perfect book. Isn’t that a relief? Isn’t it nice to know that you are not and never will be a perfect writer? Consider this your permission to experiment and play with the craft. No, you’ll never be perfect, but you can always get better.

Questions?

 

Where I Write

My publisher, Orbit, asked me to take part in a fun thing called Where I Write on Periscope. It was fun to invite viewers into the place where I write all of my books. The original broadcast was live, but now it’s up on the Where I Write web site. You can watch it here.

Here’s a screen shot. If you watch the video you can find out what this is and why it’s super important to me as a writer.

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Craft Thursday: Jaye’s Writing Hacks

It’s been a while since I wrote a new Craft Thursday post, and I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the tools that help me write.

“Life is not a support system for art–it’s the other way around.” -Stephen King

I have that King quote hanging on my monitor as a reminder that it’s not the trappings of being a writer that make me better, it’s the writing itself. I mention it here because when I was a new writer, I believed that if I had to cool office, the right fancy pen, and the best laptop, I would be a “real writer.” Eventually, I learned that those trappings of success only made me feel like an imposter, so I stopped trying to look like a real author and just focused on being myself, who wrote because it made me happy, and I needed it to feel balanced in my life.

My point is, don’t think you have to run out and get all the things I’m about to list to be successful. Mostly, these are just tools that have made my life easier, not things that I require. In fact, many are necessary now only because I’m busy. I didn’t use a lot of this stuff when I first started out. It was just me on an old laptop at my dining room table. Bottom line, all you need to be a writer is a writing instrument of some sort, a vehicle for those words (screen, paper, receipt, napkin), and the discipline to apply ink to page. Still, toys are fun, so I hope you find some stuff here that makes your life easier.

So here we go:

IMG_08761. Computer: I used to have an HP that weighed roughly the same as a baby elephant. Then I got a Macbook–a little less heavy but still fairly unwieldy. Both were great for writing. However, I travel a lot for work now, so I needed something portable. I’ve had my Air for four years and just had the battery replaced in the hopes it’ll last a few more. When I’m at home, I hook the Air up to a larger screen on my desk, so I have two screens going. I also use a wireless Mac keyboard, which, when I leave the Air at home and take my iPad instead, I bring along for writing on planes.

2. Headphones: I spend a lot of time writing in cafes and airplanes, so I make sure always to have a pair of headphones on me. I always keep a spare pair of those white Apple headphones (I promise this entire list won’t be Apple products) on me because they’re light and portable. However, my preference is this pair of Bose headphones. I don’t have the  noise-canceling ones, but even the basic ones do a good job of blocking noise and creating a sort of cave of music around my head so I can focus. When I’m drafting a novel I listen to playlists I create for that specific book, but sometimes I just listen to whatever strikes my mood that day. However, when I’m revising I either listen to no music or one of those new agey tracks of water running and temple chimes. They help me focus on the more delicate work of making the word not suck. They’re expensive, so I asked for them for Christmas one year. They’re also big, so I sometimes leave them at home in favor of the cheapies.

3. Word Processing Software: I draft using Scrivener. Because I write my discovery drafts out of order, it helps me keep everything organized and allows me to move easily scenes around. The notecard feature also lets me transfer the scene goals from my storyboard into the program so I easily can reference what scenes I need to write next. It also has lots of great bells and whistles for tracking progress and knowing what you’ve done and what’s left to do. However, I don’t find Scrivener that great for revisions, so I usually compile the draft into Word for that stage. Scrivener is about $45, but there’s a free trial.

4. Grammarly: Word’s spell check leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s the thing: I’m juggling grad school with my writing career right now. That means I’m zooming through a lot of words very quickly, which results in some pretty sloppy drafts. I can go over something ten times and swear I’ve found every error, but the minute I hit send, like three typos show up. Luckily, I recently was approached by the folks at Grammarly. They gave me a couple week trial of their premium service in the hope that if I liked it I might mention it here. Well, I’m mentioning it. This week alone, I have used Grammarly to scan three papers and thirty pages of revision. Mind you, I uploaded them after I’d already scanned then with Word’s spell check and read through them multiple times. In each case, Grammarly identified no less than 40 errors. What I like about it is it not only catches typos, it also lets you know if you’re using cliched or overused phrases, passive voice, or if you’re getting too wordy (guilty). So in addition to helping me make sure I’m turning in clean work, it’s also making me more aware of my tics. I don’t use Chrome but if you do, they also have an extension that plugs into the browser.

Now, what you’re essentially doing is uploading your copyrighted works to a website, and that information will end up on a server. Even if you delete the works from your account, they may stay on the server or archive systems for a while. That means that if there’s a security breach, someone could gain access to your words. Unfortunately, this is a reality of the internet age, and you have to decide whether the benefits are worth the risks. But this is the case whether you’re using Grammarly, Google Docs or any other online writer’s tools. Also, an annual premium membership is about $140. That might not be in everyone’s budget, but if you have to edit a lot of stuff it may be worth it. Also, also, remember that no automatic editor is going to be perfect. Ultimately, it’s up to you to make sure your work is clean.

IMG_08775. Pens! Even though I prefer typing when I write, I have a pen thing. I suspect most writers do. I’m a weird duck because I like a bold blue line, and sometimes it’s hard to find inexpensive pens that I like. Last year, I decided I wanted to start using fountain pens because they make me feel fancy. However, I’m also pretty cheap, and I lose a lot of pens, so I didn’t want to spend a mint. I put out the call and my colleague and friend, Chloe Neill, suggested the Lamy. I now own two. The black pen is a Lamy Safari, and the purple pen is an AL-Star.  They write like a dream. The only thing I don’t love is that fountain pens don’t travel well. You can take out the cartridge and put a fresh one in at your destination, but you can’t use them on planes. The Lamy models are about $22-$40 plus the cost of cartridges. I’ve had these for about six months and have had to replace the cartridges on each a couple of times. I use them A LOT, but I also use Paper Mates, Bics, or whatever’s handy all the time. But the fountain pens are my favorite for longer forms of writing.

IMG_08786. Storyboard. I’m more of a puzzler than a plotter, but I do map out the scenes of my story on a storyboard. Since I’m a visual person, I find having the plot laid out on a storyboard very helpful. This is my current storyboard. I’m getting ready to redo it because I’m starting rewrites on this book. But as you can see I divide the acts into four horizontal rows (Act 2 gets two rows because it’s twice as long as the other acts). I like the board’s wings because it lets me put additional notes or place extraneous scenes when I’m not sure where they’ll end up. Some of my colleagues use different storyboard methods. For example, Vicki Pettersson thinks I’m a crazy person because her storyboards are oriented vertically. Others color coordinate their boards based on POV character or subplot, but I’m just not that organized. At most I’ll have one color for scenes that are done and another for ones I still need to write.

7. Scapple. This software is made by the same people who did Scrivener. It’s a mind-mapping tool, which appeals to my right-brained self. Because each of my Prospero’s War books is based on a different alchemical process, I do a mind map of all the correspondences for each process to help me come up with story ideas. Here’s the Deadly Spells Scapple (mild spoilers ahoy)

8. Meditation. Okay, this is the most woo-woo thing on the list. I started meditating a couple of years ago to help manage stress. I should probably do a whole separate Craft Thursday post on the benefits of meditation for writers. We spend so much time in their heads always thinking, thinking, thinking, that it’s nice to shut the heck up and be in the moment. Also? Meditation helps with focus. I got started meditating by using the Headspace App. It’s free to begin with and provides 10, 10 minute guided sessions to help you learn how to meditate. Andy has a soothing voice, and he has a British accent, so it all feels very important. Once you get through the ten days, you can buy a subscription for the fifteen and twenty-minute meditations. I did this and liked them, but they’re not required. The best thing about meditation is it can be totally self-guided. There are lots of great free apps, podcasts, albums and stuff online. There are also a million different variations that you can try until you see what works best for you. I like Sarah McLean’s stuff. I did a meditation retreat with her a few years ago, and it was fantastic. I don’t meditate every day, but I try to do it often. Sometimes I’ll just put on 10-minute nature soundtrack and focus on my breathing for a bit before I write. It never fails to help me get in the zone fast.

9. Pinterest. A couple of years ago, I started making Pinterest boards for all of my books. In the olden days, like 2009, I used to make poster collages like a kindergartener, except mine had pictures of vampires and stuff. Now I can use Pinterest, which is much easier and doesn’t leave you with Rubber Cement in your hair. There are a lot of side benefits to doing this. First, when your books come out, you can share your boards with readers to show them what your characters and world look like. Second, when you work with a publisher, you can send the board to your designer. Third, when your book gets optioned for TV, you can send the boards to the show runners so they can pitch your books to network execs. Fourth, you can keep interesting links you want to research later for future books all in one place. I’m sure there are others. If you’re visual at all, I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not, it’s probably worth checking out. Here’s the Pinterest board for DIRTY MAGIC.

10. Printer. Writers and trees are natural nemeses. People are all, do everything electronic to save the trees! That’s nice and all. I mean, I like trees. I really do. But I also know that the best way for me to edit a book is to print the whole thing out and have at it with a red pen. This means I need a good printer. I’ve found a few features to be pretty helpful so I’ll mention them now. 1. Ability to print two-sided. This actually saves paper, so suck it, environmentalists. 2. A high page-per-minute print rate. 3. Wireless capabilities (so I can print things from my couch). I currently use a Brother HL5470DW. They cost less than $200 at the office supply store. I’ve had it a year, which means that it’s probably almost obsolete. I also have one of those scanner/copier/color printer abominations, but I hate it because it sucks through color ink like a vampire on a bender. I hate it for printing, but it’s great for quick photocopies or scanning stuff quickly to send to my agent or whatever.

This post went a lot longer than expected, but I hope you’ve found some stuff that might be useful. Again, I don’t NEED any of this. Sometimes it’s nice just to sit down with a cheap disposable pen and a pad of paper under a tree (a nice one that doesn’t hold grudges about you killing all its relatives) and write. But these things make my life easier. Happy writing!

Prospero’s War on Sale!

Huge news! My publisher has slashed the price of the ebooks for Dirty Magic and Cursed Moon for a limited time. If you’ve already gotten your fix, spread the word to your friends!

About the Prospero’s War series:
The Prospero’s War series combines the gritty action of police procedurals with the speculative elements of urban fantasy. It’s a world where cops and wizards are fighting a war over addictive, dangerous, and illegal dirty magic. Some have described it as The Wire with wizards.

Book Sale Graphic- Dirty Magic & Cursed Moon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buy Dirty Magic on sale for just $2.99 now!

Amazon | Nook | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play

Buy Cursed Moon on sale for just $4.99 now!

Amazon | Nook | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play

Pixel Project

This month, I’ve been participating in the Pixel Project’s Read for Pixels Campaign to help end violence against women. Thirteen bestselling authors have come together to talk about our experiences with VAW and to help raise awareness and funds for the important issue.

Last night, I participated in a Google Hangout with Regina Yau, who is the founder and President of The Pixel Project. Regina and I discussed a writer’s responsibility in fiction and the importance of stories in helping to shape society’s attitudes about violence and women. I also took some fun questions from the audience. Check it out.

Also, all of the authors participating in the campaign have donated special perks for donors. I contributed a cameo in one of my upcoming books along with a handwritten haiku for the winner. There are also wallpapers featuring book covers, critiques, signed books, and lots of other goodies. Of course, the greatest perk of all is knowing you’re helping to make a difference. The campaign is 2/3 towards their goal of raising $6000. Let’s help them surpass that! Please donate here.

MEA site

 

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Exciting news!

My new Magic Enforcement Agency site is live. It’s got lots of information about the Prospero’s War series. Great for fans of the series or people wanting to know what it’s all about. There are even a couple of fun extras, like the music playlist for the series and an Ask the Wizard section. Go check it out!

MagicEnforcementAgency.com

Reddit AMA!

FB Poster - Teaser 03(1)Next month, I’m participating in the Read for Pixels 2015 campaign – International Women’s Day Edition–by the PIxel Project to help end violence against women.   I come from a home that was shattered by domestic violence and have known too many amazing women who are survivors, so this cause is very close to my heart. I’ll also be doing a Read For Pixels Google Hangout  with The Pixel Project at 8.30pm EST, March 29 2015.

To help promote the campaign, I’m doing a Reddit Ask Me Anything today. This is a great chance to ask me questions about my books or writing or anything you’ve been curious about. I’m so excited to be a part of the Read for Pixels campaign. Stopping violence against women is a very personal topic for me, and I’m happy to have a chance to help raise money and awareness for this crucial issue. Stop by and say hi!

 

 

 

 

Craft Thursday: Let Go of Your Story

Warning: I’m about to get Zen on your asses. You’ve been warned.

As writers, we’re hardwired for telling stories. It is the greatest gift as well as the great burden of this writing life.

You already know it’s a gift or you wouldn’t keep doing it. You’ve already experienced the heady rush of writing a really great sentence and the adrenaline high of seeing a rough idea blossom into a gorgeous story. You crave those moments when you get lost in your story–when time loses meaning and suddenly you feel connected to something larger than yourself. Your non-writing friends may smile and nod politely when you wax eloquently about these moments, but they’ll never really understand unless, they too, have discovered their own life’s passion.

We know stories are a gift we give ourselves before we ever share them with the world.

But sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that stories can also hurt us.

An example:

Sometimes, when I’ve been inside my writing cave alone too long and I haven’t heard from my agent or editor, I imagine that they are at lunch cackling over what a hack I am. Or they’re shaking their heads and bemoaning how I once showed such potential but boy did I disappoint them. I mutter to myself and shove chocolate in my face and I hate the book I’m writing because they’re right–I am a hack. I’ve peaked. There’s nothing left for me.

Then the next day I’ll get a really nice email from my agent or my editor and everything is fine. They’ve been busy with other clients. I’m not–shockingly–the center of their world, but that doesn’t mean a damned thing about my worth as a human or a writer. Of course it doesn’t. The rational me knows this. But my imagination isn’t rational.

The lesson? Because we write fiction, we are experts in finding worst case scenarios and embellishing them. This is a problem when we use those powers for evil in our own lives.

But there are other ways stories can hurt us.

For more than a year, I’ve been practicing yoga. I’ve been blessed with a really wonderful teacher who has also become my friend. She teaches yoga teachers, so she knows her stuff. At some point in the past year, she said something about not grasping too tightly to our own stories. I’ve thought about what that meant for a while now. It’s not easy to practice contentment with not being in control, but I’m trying.
In Buddhism, there’s a lot of discussion about grasping versus releasing. Our problem is that we believe we have control, so we grasp tightly to preconceived ideas about how things should be or how we want them to be. Reconciling reality against what we imagine reality should be is the source of a lot of pain in the world.

Okay, look, I understand that invoking Buddhism and yoga might have lost some of you, but stick with me a minute because this is important.

We create stories about how our Writer Story must go. We plot out elaborate sequences and world build and self-myhtologize to the point where our expectations are so out of whack that the only possible outcome is disappointment.

The stories we tell ourselves about how this career should look keep us from loving it, and sometimes those stories even make us hate the thing we love: writing.

The thing I want you to take away from this post is that maybe the reality of your writing life could be even better than the writing life you want. Maybe if you stopped grasping so hard for the outcome you want, you’d find the one you need–the deep need that brought you to the page in the first place.

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You can either be a rock rooted in the creekbed, trying in vain to redirect the flow of water around you and resenting the rocks further downstream. Or you can be the water, flowing over and around the rocks on a glorious adventure toward who knows where.

I’ve seen fame and success destroy people. I’ve seen disappointment chase talented people away from writing altogether. What I’m saying is, writing can be a journey that challenges and changes you for the better or a soul-crushing struggle toward a golden city you may never reach (and even if you did reach it, chances are, you wouldn’t find happiness there). I’m not against success by any means, but I also have been in this business long enough to know that the truest rewards of writing are not tied to outcomes. Instead they are tied to the process of writing and the growth we gain from seeking truth through our stories.

Stop worshiping your own mythology. Let go of your story about who you should be. Start being present on the journey. May it take you someplace amazing.