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Monthly Archives: November 2015

Faster Isn’t Always Better in Yoga, Writing, Life

Faster Isn’t Always Better in Yoga, Writing, Life

In my never-ending quest to find good yoga classes in my area, I recently purchased a Groupon for a new studio in Bethesda. The website was a tad confusing, probably because the owner (and sole teacher), a Chinese woman named Jin, has a less-than-perfect grasp of both English and website technology.

There was nothing on yelp about the place, so I clicked through the pictures on the website, which were mostly of Jin in various yoga poses, along with a few shots of an empty studio with mats on the floor but no students. It was unclear to me if anyone actually attended her classes, or if this studio was just a converted office space where Jin hung out by herself, doing yoga all day long. I emailed her about using my Groupon, and she wrote back, saying, “Welcome. 5:45pm class is valuable for you today.

One of the pictures on the website. Where are the yoga students?

One of the pictures on the website.  photo credit.  

So, after work, I drove to the two-story brick building that also housed a Smoothie King, an orthopedic shoe store, and a rare coins shop. I walked up the stairs and opened the door to Suite 201. There was Jin, sitting on a mat at the front of an empty room. The floors were shiny wood paneling, and there were several framed photos of Jin in rigorous yoga poses decorating the walls.

“Am I the only one tonight?” I asked, rolling out my mat.

“Maybe more people,” she said, and sure enough, by the time class started there were two more students.

And so we began an hour of very slow yoga. I’m used to vinyassa flow classes where you move quickly from one pose to another, so I was feeling a bit antsy as we stayed in each pose for ages.  Jin would move around the room, yanking on our various body parts and admonishing us: “deep breathing! You must deep breathing!” I sucked in air and wondered how long we’d have to hold this pose.

I have a hard time moving slowly and standing still. That’s why I tend to get frustrated with how slowly the publishing world moves (see my latest frustration). The other day I was listening to a podcast interview of literary agent Brianne Johnson of Writer’s House on The Narrative Breakdown. She explained that she submits manuscripts to editors who she knows personally, and who she knows will get back to her in a reasonable amount of time – “like eight weeks,” she said. What?! I get antsy if someone doesn’t email me back after two weeks… two months is an unfathomable amount of time.

But that’s the way the publishing world works. I had two agents request my full manuscript eight weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard from either of them. (I just sent follow-up emails, and one agent said to please give her more time.) It can be maddening to wait, holding the pose, and explaining to family and friends that no, you still don’t have a book deal. Deep breathing!

Deep breathing!

Deep breathing!

I’ve just started a new project I’m very excited about. It’s different from anything I’ve ever done before, and it’s going to require a lot of research. In fact, I may need to research for the next year before I’m even ready to start writing in earnest. So it’s not just the publishing world that goes slowly; often the writing itself moves at a snail’s pace. In his book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Creative Nonfiction guru Lee Gutkind says writers often make the mistake of rushing to publish. He emphasizes that slow is okay: it took Rebecca Sloot thirteen years to write The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, he reminds us, and it went on to win numerous accolades and spend more than two years on bestseller lists.

Arm balance. photo credit.

Arm balance. photo credit.

At the end of Jin’s yoga class (aka, after about six poses and a lot of deep breathing), she instructed us to sit in staff pose with our arms along the right side of our body. “Now, lift butt up, lift legs, balance on arms, like this.” She demonstrated, and the three of us stared at her for a moment.

I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I placed my palms on the mat and tried to lift my legs. “Deep breathing!” Jin scolded. “Lift butt up.” I followed her instructions, and for a split second, my legs hovered an inch above the mat. I hadn’t done the pose, not really, but I could tell that with more practice, more patience, more deep breathing, I might be able to.  These things take time.

After class, I asked Jin how long she’d been living in the U.S.  “Since four years,” she said.  She explained that when she first arrived she spoke no English.  She wanted to be a yoga instructor, as she had been in China, but only recently has she begun feeling confident enough with her English to teach classes.  It’s taken her a long time to get to this place:  her own studio, and she seems really happy and proud.

I guess the point is, faster isn’t always better, and patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to yoga and writing… and just about everything else.

How to Get Gumption When You’ve Lost Your Agent, or, Back to the Drawing Board

How to Get Gumption When You’ve Lost Your Agent, or, Back to the Drawing Board

Today I’m going to reveal something that I haven’t wanted to talk about on this blog: I lost my agent. To make a long story short, he quit his job and started working elsewhere – he is no longer a literary agent. He did this for personal reasons, and I certainly can’t fault anyone for quitting a job for personal reasons, having done so myself numerous times.

Except that it sucks. For me, personally.

Because he was about to submit my middle-grade novel to editors. He had the list drawn up; he showed it to me. Random House, Scholastic, Little, Brown, Puffin, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, Macmillion — editors from all the major publishing houses were on there. He was actually going to send my manuscript to New York hotshots!! But he didn’t. Because he quit his job and is no longer a literary agent.

Which means that I’m no longer on the cusp of getting a book deal. Now I’m back to the drawing board. I have to, once again, begin the arduous and soul-crushing process of finding an agent.

Back to the drawing board. (I drew this!)

Back to the drawing board. (I drew this!)

I’ve been trying to look on the bright side of things. Maybe this was meant to happen. Maybe now I’ll find the agent I was truly meant to have. I’ve started querying again. While I wait to hear back from agents, I’ve been trying to let go of my disappointment so I can focus on finishing an adult novel I started a while ago.

But things have not been going well. First of all, because I’ve gotten rejected by a few of the agents I queried, which is depressing. (Others are taking their time getting back to me.) Second of all, because I’ve been hardcore struggling with this adult novel and unable to figure out how to finish it.

The other day, I shared the premise of the novel with my friend Daniel, author of the blog The Incompetent Writer. He pointed out some major flaws to the underlying structure of the story. And the thing is, he’s right. I knew about these problems, but I didn’t want to admit to them to myself because it meant a major revision. It meant scrapping most of what I’ve written so far and starting over, which I didn’t want to do.  But now I can no longer deny it… It’s back to the drawing board with this novel.

So that’s where I am with all of my writing projects: slumped at the drawing board with a stubby pencil and a heavy heart.

Me. (I drew this, too!)

Me. (I drew this, too!)

I kind of hated reading the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (here’s a post I wrote about it), and I’ve forgotten much of it by now, but one part that resonated with me was the chapter about gumption.

Pirsig says that gumption (a spirited resourcefulness) is vital to the success of a task, but “gumption traps” can drain a person of their motivation (and thus their gumption). He suggests two types of traps: external setbacks and internal hang-ups.

Losing my agent was an external setback that drained me of some gumption. But now I’m also suffering from internal hang-ups. Getting rejected by agents and struggling to finish my latest novel… these things have made me worry that my writing is not good enough, that maybe it never will be good enough. Maybe I’m not smart enough or creative enough; maybe I’ve lost some muse or spark I used to have. And I worry that until I have a published book, I’m going to be seen as a fraud. Pirsig might say I’m suffering from the hang-ups of anxiety and impatience. And these hang-ups have zapped me of even more gumption, so that I often feel I’m lacking the necessary motivation and excitement I need to sit down and work on my writing.

*   *  *

Pirsig gives several suggestions for dealing with gumption traps. They can be summarized in the following way: slow down, organize first, take breaks, use the proper tools, be modest, and let go of the pressures of time.

Good advice, though it’s easier said than done, particularly that last one. Plus, Pirsig warns that understanding gumption traps and how to prevent them isn’t enough to guarantee flawless motorcycle maintenance.

But there’s one thing that Pirsig doesn’t mention as a way to refill your cup of gumption: talking to friends and getting advice. Even though Daniel confirmed my suspicions that there was something wrong with my novel, it was also incredibly helpful and motivating to discuss my story with someone else. Hearing his thoughts triggered new ideas, and even though I’m still feeling low, talking to him gave me a  shot of gumption.  I also started thinking about new projects I might work on while I put this novel on the back burner, and it’s been helpful to discuss these ideas with friends as well.

Daniel and Eva.

Daniel and Eva.

I’m also motivated by the following quote from literary agent Claire Wheeler-Anderson, on writing: “If you have a whale of a time doing it, you’re probably not doing it right. It’s supposed to be hard work. Rewarding hard work, but hard work.”

This advice really comforted me. It’s nice to know that perhaps the fact that I’m struggling is not a bad sign.

And so, while I sit at the drawing board, I will do other tricks I know to increase my gumption:  read, take walks, talk to friends, free write, and remember that there’s really nothing else I’d rather be doing.

This is what a lack of gumption looks like.

This is what a lack of gumption looks like.

P.S.  Interested in reading more about gumption?  Here’s a post I wrote about it 3 years ago.

Google Poetry, Predictive Text, and Kids These Days

Google Poetry, Predictive Text, and Kids These Days

Story is…

Story island.

Story is king.

Story is everything.

Story is a state of mind.

Story isn’t over yet.

 

The above is my Google poem, “Story Is.”  In case you’ve never composed a Google poem, it’s pretty easy.  You just type something into the search bar, and the autocomplete suggestions form a poem.  This idea is nothing new, but since Google suggestions are updated constantly, and autocomplete differs depending on the version you’re using, Google poems are always changing.  According to Sampsa Nuotio, who runs the blog Google Poetics, if you find a great poem, you should be sure to capture it right away with a screenshot.  When I type “story is” into the search bar tomorrow, I might get a different poem.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 3.15.49 PM

Autocomplete and predictive text are changing the way people type, write, and perhaps even think.  The other day, I was tutoring a sixth grade student who was writing an essay about The Giver by Lois Lowry. He was typing this on his iPad, using two fingers to hunt and peck on the screen keyboard.  “Do you want to use the computer instead?” I asked.  “So you can use a real keyboard?”

“No.  It’s faster for me this way.”

As I watched him type, I realized why.  He only typed the first few letters of each word before looking at the autocomplete suggestions and picking the word was looking for; then he’d move on to the next word. That’s when it hit me:  kids these days are typing in a totally different way than I do.

I’ll refrain from saying that my way is better, although I do think there is a certain grace to having your fingers poised on home row, and a certain music to the clackety-clack of a typist who can reach each key with only a slight stretch of the proper finger.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 3.17.45 PM

Nietzsche once said, after noticing that switching from paper and pen to a typewriter changed the nature of his writing, that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts” (Carr).  So I wonder how predictive text might affect the writing process.   If kids are used to typing something halfway and then getting suggestions for the rest, might it be hard for them to write something creative and original?  Will they be waiting for suggestions to appear?  Will they not know how to finish their own thoughts?

Every generation worries that, because of newfangled inventions and technology, the younger generation will become bereft of smarts or ability or creativity.  (See that whole part in “Is Google Making Us Stupid” by Nicholas Carr about how the development of writing, and later the printing press, had scholars of the time concerned about the future of brainpower.)

And when it comes to creativity, there are many writers of previous generations who would turn up their noses at the thought of writing stories or novels on a computer, and yet that is how I compose most everything I write, and I think I’m doing okay.  Heck, maybe the next great American novel will be written by someone hunting and pecking on an ipad.

This is pretty much what my brother, Deven Langston, looks like. Just in cartoon form.

This is pretty much what my brother, Deven Langston, looks like. Just in cartoon form.

The other day my younger brother, the extremely creative and talented Deven James Langston, was talking to my mom about his career.  Deven is a Computer person with a capital “C.”  He was a kinetic imagery major in art school and creates artwork through computer animation, moving graphics, electronic music, and digitally-enhanced photography.  (To see some of the amazing monthly photos Deven and his girlfriend have been making, go here.)

Deven was talking to my mom about starting a youtube channel, which, to be honest, I didn’t realize was a viable career choice, but apparently it is.  I was born in 1981 – a bit too young to be considered Generation X and a bit too old to be a Millenial.  I’m at that age where, although I use technology, I’m a bit intimidated of it.  Deven, on the other hand, is definitely a Millenial —  he not only understands new technology, he loves it.

I look at Deven, and at the awesome art he creates in his free time, and I realize that, as usual, we old fogies have nothing to worry about.  Kids are going to be smart and capable and creative, no matter what technology they grow up with.  Finding a creative outlet seems to be part of human nature, and Google won’t take that away.  Another human instinct:  story.  I’m pretty sure that we will be telling them – in some way or another – for a long time to come.

And besides, if people are finding poetry in the Google search bar, and kids are still reading The Giver, I don’t think we have too much too worry about.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 4.29.31 PM

Middle School Trickery, or, Show Up and Wait

Middle School Trickery, or, Show Up and Wait

One of the many part-time jobs I do to support myself before I make millions with my writing career (ha, ha) is tutor middle school students at a local school. I tutor in a room that is allegedly called The Learning Lair, but no one actually calls it that, so I usually tell kids, “I’ll meet you in that room in the basement,” which sounds a lot creepier than it is.

This basement room is where I always meet students, even if we end up going somewhere else because the Learning Lair is occupied. Which is why I was surprised last week when I was waiting for my 4 o’clock student to arrive and got an email from her mother saying, Suzie* is looking for you, but she can’t find you.

books

I wrote back immediately, I’m here! In the basement of the middle school! I’ll stay put. Then I waited. Kids these days have cell phones, and Suzie had been cc’ed on the message, so she should now know where to go. Why she was confused? This was where we always meet. Perhaps I had gone to the bathroom at 3:59 and missed little Suzie stopping by, but you’d think she would have waited for a minute or two instead of leaving to wander about the school grounds in search of me.

When Suzie didn’t appear, I sent another email: Still here. In the place where we normally meet. But Suzie never showed. Apparently she had already been picked up by her nanny and was on her way home.

I have a feeling I know what happened. After all, I was a middle school girl once. And middle school girls are sneaky. Take, for example, when I was in the sixth grade and didn’t like riding the school bus because the other kids were mean to me. I would walk really slowly down to the bus stop, see that the bus wasn’t there at that exact moment, and then walk really slowly back up the hill to my house. “Mom!” I’d yell. “I think I missed the bus!” She would then have to drive me to school, and this happened so frequently that eventually we got my friend Amanda’s mom to start giving me a ride every morning.

My mom never found out about my trickery because middle school girls seem very sweet and innocent. I’m pretty darn sure what happened with sweet little Suzie was that she didn’t want to have a tutoring session that day, so she used the old, “I can’t find my tutor anywhere” trick. I know all about that, and I won’t allow it. Not on my watch.

No more middle school trickery!

No more middle school trickery!

Which was why I was really annoyed on Monday when it happened again, with a different student. I had been tutoring from three to four in another classroom and arrived back at “The Learning Lair” at 4:00 pm, or perhaps 4:01 at the latest. But my 4 o’clock student, little Jane*, was nowhere to be found. Soon I got an email from her mother that Jane had “looked for me” but “couldn’t find me.”

I was outraged. This was starting to make me look bad, as if I was some drifting, invisible tutor who could never be found, when in fact I had been sitting, clearly visible, right smack in the middle of the Learning Lair for the past fifteen minutes. I’m here in our normal meeting spot, I wrote to Jane’s mother. I was in another room from three to four, so it’s possible I wasn’t here at 4pm exactly, but please tell Jane to wait for me next time! If I’m not here when she arrives, I’ll be here soon!

These middle school girls, I tell ya. Poking their heads in the Learning Lair, seeing I’m not there, and immediately assuming/pretending, “well, Eva’s not here today. Guess I should just go home.” Obviously they should have waited for me. Or checked back a few minutes later. Instead they made a big show of “looking for me” and told their parents, “oh, it’s not my fault, the tutor must not have showed up today.”

Trust me. I always show up.

Angry tutor face.

Angry tutor face.

There are a lot of quotes about “showing up” for writing, even when you don’t feel like it or don’t feel inspired. Author Isabel Allende says, “show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”

Too often, we writers act like sneaky middle school girls. We open our laptops, but when the writing doesn’t come immediately we think, “oh well, I guess I should do something else today.” We move on, make a big show of “looking for inspiration,” pretend that the lack of writing isn’t actually our fault.

So I have something to add to Allende’s writing advice: show up, show up, show up, and WAIT. Don’t just poke your head in, see that nothing is there, and go on home. Ideas don’t always arrive on a schedule. Writing doesn’t always flow right away. Don’t just show up to your writing desk for a few minutes to say that you were there. Show up and then give it some time.

Trust me. The muse isn’t as punctual as Eva the Tutor, but it will be there eventually.

*  *  *

Luckily, I was able to reschedule with little Jane. We’re meeting today at the Learning Lair, and she knows that if I’m not there at 4:00 pm exactly, she should wait for me.

Woody Allen once said that eighty-percent of success is showing up. Maybe the other twenty percent is being patient enough to wait.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the (somewhat) innocent