When Your Back is Up Against the Wall – Final Step One Post

Step 1 – Admitted we were powerless over our art and our creative lives had become unmanageable.

Previously, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no wait, that’s not right.  Well, last week I talked about all of my wounds. That was last week, in my last 12-Step post, but this week, well, we start the climb out. Still in step one, but inching closer towards step two, where all the hope is. Let’s catch you up.

Last week, me alone, in the basement, gnashing my teeth in the darkness.  I needed a dental dam.

Then, a light shining in the darkness, I realized I needed help. And I found people who were willing to aid a poor wretch like me.

Let’s start at home. If not for my wife, I never would have ended up in Big Sur at that writers’ workshop. She got books from the library on writing, and we went over them. She pointed out that what I was doing wasn’t working and that I needed to change. And it was a bad year, that year. I was willing to pursue this because I was so miserable. Let me tell you, if life were all cotton candy, kitties, and puppies, not much would get done. I had to be willing, and willingness for me generally comes when my back is up against the wall and my ass is suckin’ plaster. That’s also when my mind opens to other possibilities.

You’ll hear such things in 12-Step meetings. It’s colorful. And true.

So, finally, after I realized I had my head up my butt, I started to read books on writing. There are a few around. Did I do it in large chunks? Nope, ten minutes a day. It took me months to go through books, but I learned a ton, and it wasn’t the time suck that I had imagined it to be. The few minutes I spent every day were golden.

The books all said to find other artists, and they also suggested reading books on how to improve, take classes, stuff like that. And as a writer, reading successful books is what you do to improve. As Barry Eisler says, you read like a writer, and write like a reader.

I also found a critique group, I found writers conferences, I found people who could help me, and such things exist for all art forms. We don’t have to suffer alone. Suffering with other people is so much more fun. Which is why 12-step programs work. Because in a group, the suffering can turn into something life-giving.

Working in a community of writers, I got to see a variety of writing, good and bad. Analyzing bad writing is just as important as analyzing good writing. I could see where my own writing needed work. And people gave me critiques and that was crucial. Alone, I couldn’t see the whole picture. With other people, I could be far more objective.

The happy, good news is that every artist can improve, and practice is most likely worth more than natural talent. At a Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I heard a speaker talk about the 10,000 hours idea. Basically, to become an expert at anything takes about 10,000 hours, and those who can discipline themselves to do the 10,000 hours get the talent they want. I can guarantee you, Stephen King did the 10,000 hours before he got rich and famous. Some are luckier than others, but the bottom line is that there is a world of information on how to create better ideas on form, style, aesthetics, and if you only rely on your little brain, you are cheating yourself. The way I cheated myself, for years and years.

But I had to be completely willing to do whatever it took to keep on creating, and this is the magic of Step One.

To be in a position of total surrender.

To do anything to move forward, no matter what.

A lot of these belief systems I found that were holding me back I learned in step 4, 5, 6 and 7, but they all put me in a state of powerlessness and unmanageability. When I started down the path, all I needed for a good Step One was the idea that I couldn’t do it alone, that I was out of ideas, that I was stuck. Once I was there, I was ready to move forward.

I entered into a contest with a friend that the first person to reach fifty rejections would owe the other dinner. And I had another friend who was willing to proofread every query letter.

This worked. I won the contest, found a publisher, and one of my books finally found a home outside of my hard drive. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to really look at how my creative life was unmanageable.

Some questions for you to ponder:

How are you powerless over your creativity?

How is your artistic life unmanageable?

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to move forward? Why or why not?

Next week!  We hit Step Two at last.  I hope you’ll come back!  Step two is where the hope is.

Heavenly Fridays: The Angels of the 2012 Pikes Peak Writers Conference

As many of you know, I wrote a book about angels. Well, not really. I mean, my angels aren’t your typical winged (two syllables, please) creatures that come down from heaven underneath the watchful eye of some deity. Nope. My angels are real, yo. Like street.

So I know a thing or two about angels. At The 2012 Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I got to soar among the angels.

If angels are divine beings who watch over and guide us poor human schmucks, well, then, here is a list of angels who are doing God’s work because ain’t no more schmucky group of humans than writers. Oh, we are a wretched sort and we need as much love, encouragement, and donuts as we can get. Thanks to Laura Hayden, Bonnie Mandeville, Chris Mandeville, Todd Fahnestock, Pam McCutcheon, Bill May, Cathy Dilts, Julia Allen, Jennifer LaPointe, Mandy Houk, Mandy McKenzie, and Jodi Anderson for all the hours they spent, the sorrow, the tears, the joy, thank you so much for giving so many angels a place to roost.

Or can angels roost? My daughter asked the difference between a fairy and an angel. I told her it was generally a question of hypocrisy, theology, and dandelion milk. So what is the difference between a muse and an angel? Ask Bree Ervin because she is both. A muse, an angel, a writer, a publicist, an explosion of a woman. I am so glad to know her.

Let me pitch you real quick. High concept. Vampire Angel. Yeah, you got it. Julia Allen. Vampire Angel. Full manuscript please.

Aaron Ritchey, Julia Allen, phone

Everyone knows that angels are messengers from the gods, er God, er god, er Gods. And fiction writers are messengers as well. Congrats to Chris Devlin, Andrea Stein, and Lawdon for doing so well in the contests. Andrea Stein won in romance! I room with her at Pikes Peak. Yes, that woman knows all about romance. Cue porn music…brown chicken, brown cow. And Chris Devlin! She is my Girl Friday and her book is about Catholic School Alchemy. Didn’t wanna be pitched to? Too late. And yeah, full manuscript please. Props to my girl. And Lawdon? He’s like the Mary Tyler Moore of writers. He’s gonna make it after all.

It’s been said that God takes care of drunks, dogs, and babies. I’d add fiction writers to that list. Eve Morton, awesome. Betsy Dornbusch. Awesome. Terry Banker. Awesome. Angels of the bar! Angels of my heart! I signed their books, and no, Betsy, I wrote books, not boobs. Eve Morton has a fantastic screenplay about clones, Betsy Dornbusch’s first chapter of Archive of Fire rocks, and Terry Banker has a scene that has totally captured my twisted imagination. Angels all.

I opened the gates of heaven to my friend Becky Hodgkins, though I wasn’t there to escort her through. However, Gary Jonas was there, but wait, I don’t wanna get all Gary Jonas on you, but it was great seeing my friend Becky at a writers conference, hawking her wares. Shaking her moneymaker. Dang, I went all Gary Jonas. I’ll stop.

Contrary to some people’s opinion, agents are not demons. They are humans with the souls of demons. Kidding. No, literary agents are the angels of the fiction world, bringing stories out of the rabble and setting them upon the bookshelf of the gods. Unless you e-pub, then you can put your own stories on that lofty shelf. Mark Coker challenged me to really evaluate my life and he followed his vision to the heavens. God bless you, Mark Coker, wherever you are. And for those angelic agents, Kristin Nelson, Taylor Martindale, Weronika Janczuk, may you find the books that move the world. I would imagine that is the best part of your job.

I got to talk to Rob Killam. He’s writing a zombie book. Hmm, high concept, zombie angels. Okay, I’ll stop. Great seeing him again.

And I met John K. Patterson. With a name like that, well, total writer. John was my guardian angel at the conference, always around when I needed a smile. Thank you, John. May angels ride shotgun on your ride through this hard, old world.

After his keynote, who can argue the divinity of Donald Maass? Well, except for Mark Coker, no one. I watched Donald Maass stay up all night talking to writers. He’s a warrior.

I sat next to Jennifer Gottschalk and Jesse Kuiken in the Thursday session. Both writers. Both teachers. Both angels. Judith ‘Judy’ Robbins Rose? Angel with a cool book. Karen Emanuelson? Beowulf angel. J.T. Evans? Guy has angels working a wiki for his books, and those angels are working overtime.

Of course, angels serve God, I mean, like really serve, like sycophants. Angels are the ultimate YES beings. And do you know who I serve? Deb Courtney, Sue Mitchell, and Alicia Howie. I spent a lazy afternoon in the bar with those goddesses, and I’m a better man for it. I expect great things from all three. Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll be Deb Courtney’s pool boy, and Sue Mitchell’s peon, and Alicia Howie’s chauffeur. Next year, I’ll drive her out in the stretch limo from the literary mecca that is Danville, Illinois. Word.

Zack Bertha is possessed by a demon. That demon’s name? Awesomeness.

I watched Carol Berg talk a young author down off the ledge. She’s angelic.

Ian Thomas Healy fluttered down from heaven on wings of hair. We chatted. Hair wings, gotta get me a pair.

DeAnna Knippling moderated me. It was a thankless job. But lord, do I need moderating. My daughter is reading one of your middle grade books.  And loving DeAnna and her stories!

Ron Cree means angel in ancient Honduran Sanskrit. Look it up.

Do you know who is seated at the right hand of the Father? Well, it’s a critique group that meets on Tuesday afternoons and Thursday nights in Colorado Springs. Anita Romero, R. Powl Smith, Court Pearman, and a whole host of other angels hold court, write fiction, and prepare for the apocalypse. If I am anywhere near Colorado Springs on a Thursday night, I am going to that critique group. I can feel their power from here. Raw angelic power. And the dying monkeys, I can smell the dying monkeys. Or is it mind control? PTSD? I’ll stop. But dude, if my name was Court Pearman, I’d believe in God again.

I don’t know if J.A. Kazimer or Kirk Farber believe in God, but I sat with them and we signed books. I am a lucky, lucky man. You don’t have to believe in God to be a writer. But it helps.

At the conference, they put me in the back with all the rabble-rousers, and let me tell you, ain’t no rabble-rousers like librarian rabble-rousers. Kara Seal, Leah Parker, and LaTonya Frank sat with me and we killed it. That hotel is still shaking. Librarians are angels with a penchant for hushing. It’s cliché, but I used the word “penchant” so that excuses everything.

Yes, in the back of the ballroom, I hung out with other angels with dirty faces. I got to sit with Ed Raetz, a guy named Sander, and of course, I got to talk to Jene Jackson about her life and world. And Christina, Joanne, and Morgan Leigh, whom I am so drawn to. You can’t tell me there’s no God.

So yes, I am blessed, and yes, Virginia, there are angels. I know I missed people in this long, rambling list of divinities, but heaven can rage at me next year, Pikes Peak Writers Conference, 2013. Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad, the seas and what fills them resound!