Some of you know that the last six years have been intensely stressful for me. I’ve always been a busy person, but for a long time I did my writing in the winter and my landscaping in the summer, so the busy-ness was at least manageable. Once I started publishing, I had to write all year long, as well as throw marketing into the mix. There were additional stressful events throughout much of this, and also some volunteer obligations. My many efforts to make this situation better often made it worse.
In July, when my landscaping schedule slowed down, I looked at my calendar, working out how many days I could spend at the river. I wanted to take a little time off, but whenever I tried to schedule it, something came up and I had to delay it. How could I take a vacation when there were all these jobs I had to finish?
Then the volunteer gig began to threaten my precious and limited river time. I realized I’d reached a do-or-die point. I was sick of living in such a state of overwhelm. I was tired of never having the free time everyone else takes for granted. And I could no longer wait for a lull, for the universe to take pity on me. I had to jump in with both feet and force a change. So in the midst of this mindset that there was no way I could bail on the volunteer thing or let down my customers, I decided, pretty much in an instant, that I was quitting the volunteer thing and taking two weeks off. I wrote a letter to the organization. I texted and emailed my customers.
And you know what happened? No one told me I was an evil, selfish person. No one told me I was weak and irresponsible. My customers said, “Good! Enjoy yourself. See you in two weeks.”
I spent every available second of that time at the river (even though Mama Nature decided to be a smartass and set the thermostat for those days between 90 and 105 degrees, half of them smoky and the other half humid). Though I reveled in the pure bliss of this break, the sheer luxury of being able to spend all day writing in my happy place, I was also anxious every moment I wasn’t actually at the river.
At the end of my vacation, I wasn’t rested. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t ready to go back to work. And I felt annoyed with myself. What the hell was wrong with me? Couldn’t I ever be satisfied? Maybe I was just one of those people who liked being miserable and would always find something to complain about.
So I resigned myself to completing the landscaping jobs I had scheduled, feeling anxious almost every moment of them, and fit in every bit of river time I could afterward or on my days off. I kept writing, and talking to my river friends, and feeding cheese to dogs. I kept taking pictures of sunsets, and waiting for the Portland Spirit to cruise by, and keeping my finger on the pulse of the tides. And by the time August rolled into September, I started to figure it out. I hadn’t been happy at the end of the two weeks because I’d spent more than three hundred and twelve weeks building up to that level of stress. I didn’t want to leave the river or go back to my landscaping jobs because everything apart from that haven was a reminder of the never-ending demands, the constant tension, the perpetual feeling of failure to get it all done and do it right. I saw the end of my vacation not as merely going back to work, but as resigning myself to that same unmanageable level of output for the rest of my life.
And something in me rebelled.
So I started to be selfish, to totally and completely indulge my need to be at the river. I started ignoring my feelings of obligation to answer emails, respond to Facebook comments, and always say yes to friends’ requests. I started saying “no,” and even “hell no.” And I started getting really, really mad at anything and anyone that dared cut into my river time.
Then I realized something. The only person I had to be mad at was me. I had chosen everything I was doing, everything I was giving time to. I had brought it all upon myself. But it didn’t feel that way. It felt like all these obligations had been thrust upon me by the world—that I had no choice. That if I didn’t meet them, I’d be a horrible, selfish, irresponsible person. And in a way this feeling was accurate, because I hadn’t been born thinking in this unhealthy, perfectionistic way. I was taught to do it.
At the same time this whole experience was happening, I was working on something else. I’ve signed up for a Master Business Class in late October, taught by authors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, so I was re-reading Kris’s branding blog posts and doing the homework in preparation. That led to reading her Discoverability series, and then Dean’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing posts, and then even more wisdom by both of these accomplished authors. My dream at the beginning of my vacation was to be able to sit by the river and write full time. Dean and Kris were giving me a blueprint to do it. And unlike so many fledgling indie “marketing experts” who hit upon success quickly with their first books and because of it assumed they know the secret to success, Dean and Kris have been making money off their fiction, in traditional and indie markets, since the ’80s. They’ve owned publishing businesses and brick-and-mortar stores. They know marketing as it relates to business in general, not just as it relates to what’s working at this moment in a very young and ever-changing industry.
What’s more, Dean and Kris are very clear on one philosophy: the most important rules in an industry full of taboos and restrictions are, be true to your own distinct voice, tell an engaging story, and have fun doing it. The more I read of their blogs, the more I realized all my gut instincts have been right: the things I’ve felt about marketing my books, the things I’ve sensed about the indie publishing movement, and the things I knew about my own work.
That agent who told me Cody had no voice? WRONG. The one who said Race was too nice and Cody was too troubled? WRONG. The one who said no one would want to read a story about racing? WRONG. The beta reader who harped on all the things I needed to change in the first episode of The McCall Initiative? WRONG. The former friend who thought I should toughen up and meekly accept her snarky, cutting comments? WRONG. The successful indie author who implied that if I wasn’t selling books, it was because I wasn’t working hard enough? WRONG.
The truth is, my writing is not the problem in this equation, my stories are simply not the right fit for those particular readers. Or, in some cases, the critiquers have swallowed the current New York Kool-Aid about The Only Way To Write A Book. I was blessed with a strong sense of self, an innate resistance to being coerced into changing or complying. It’s caused me a lot of problems throughout my life. It got me slammed against lockers in middle school. It branded me a troublemaker and a poor sport. But as I watch writers agonize over fitting their writing into an artificial mold, as I see them struggle to rediscover the unique voice they’ve polished out of their work, I realize how incredibly lucky I am. And I know that my instinct to avoid the naysayers is not a weakness. It’s damned good sense.
To bring this back around and wrap it up, I’ve recently discover that so much of what I’m learning from Dean and Kris parallels my journey to regain control of my life. It’s a lesson of empowerment—of assertiveness. A lesson in not meekly submitting and accepting the slot other people want to force you into.
I don’t think I could have learned this lesson without the river. I feel certain I needed an enduring experience of real contentment, real peace, to understand that something better was possible.
Summer is over, and for now I’ve had to leave my happy place. But unlike last fall, when doing so meant slipping back into an exhausting, out-of-control life, this year I’ve brought the river with me. It’s a strong, silent force I’ve drawn deep into my being. A symbol of empowerment.
The river means fighting for what I’ve chosen for myself. It means standing up to long-ago voices, as well as those that continue to scream for power and control. It means saying “hell no” loud and clear.
It means proudly embracing the self I was born to be.
“A New Beginning,” copyright © 2017 by Lisa Nowak.
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