How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer, Part Three

How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer

How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer

In Part One, I wrote about some quick strategies on how to get started that are basically remixed from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing (which were repeated in Stephen King’s On Writing–another one of my favorite writing books) which boiled down: to read as much as you can so you develop a curator’s eye (and while you’re at it, use Pinterest to exercise that curation skill while mining images for inspiration) and then write as fast as you possibly can to get that shitty first draft out of your body.

Part Two was more about self-sabotage and forms of writing resistance as way to understand why you aren’t writing as fast as you possibly can. I shared some of my personal forms of self-sabotage that keep me from being as productive a writer as I can be–specifically, for me, worrying about money prevents me from writing most often. Thinking about writing as a long-term investment is my preferred method to distract myself away from the money issue. (I wish I could take ownership of the idea, but I was first exposed to this strategy at Readercon back in 2013.)

Hopefully, sharing some of these weaknesses encourages you to look inward and figure out what’s holding you back (if you find yourself stuck on similar issues).

Which leads to me to the final installment in this series: the gendered advice. Which, coming from me, means feminist strategies for being a female sci-fi writer. These are pieces of advice I wish I had known sooner, as well as issues that I have personally struggled with or issues I have seen my primarily female writer friends struggle with. Oh! And issues that members of The Brainery Workshop suggested be included.

1. Go to conventions.

Speaking as an introvert, meeting new people, specifically with the intention to make friends, is an expensive cost of energy. (This comic/poster does an excellent job of communicating what it’s like to be, and interact with, an introvert; thinking about energy as a form of currency does wonders for my Ferengi-like tendencies.)

As I have gotten more serious about committing to my geeky writing life, smaller conventions are where it’s at. The panels have been excellent. It’s a far more costly energy expenditure (as opposed to getting lost in the SDCC crowd), especially because I have had to attend by myself since, as a recovering academic, all of my friends have scattered across the country–plus, I have a small child and don’t live near any family who can babysit, so my husband cannot be my wingman.

Smaller conventions like Wiscon, Readercon, and Loscon provide more opportunities to meet and interact with your currently living writing heroes, plus there are lots of resources being shared amongst the attendees, and questions are generally encouraged (especially if you’re starting out). If you don’t live within driving distance of Madison, Wisconsin, Boston, or Los Angeles (or can’t afford to travel to one of these), then I urge you to find a smaller convention in your area.

Going to smaller conventions as a lone woman can be intimidating, but usually there are policies in place to help in case there is harassment (and, the latest Wiscon controversy notwithstanding, it seems as though rampant unchecked harassment is less of a problem at smaller conventions). Plus, these conventions can be a good way to connect with other women who are also fellow fan/creative types such as yourself.

I like to think of conventions as a fun way to continue my education–kind of like the way Tabatha is always making sure that the stylists at the hair salons she takes over get the continuing education they need.

2. Find a group to join: online, in person, through social media, or take a class.

As a writer, you need people to read your stuff. Inconvenient, but true.

Being part of a writing group can also remind you that publishing is not an elusive Old One cloaked in the unknowable unnameable secret language of the universe; plus, if your group is especially motivated and active with publishing, their successes will invigorate and embolden you to submit your work when maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Plus, you’ll build up your critical eye by critiquing your peer’s work, which only makes your own writing stronger.

There are lots of great classes or programs you can join, too. These include the super famous Clarion and Odyssey. Those are six weeks long, but there are others that are only a week long as well.

I suggest finding a class or program that specializes in speculative fiction, though. Now that I’m teaching The Brainery Workshops online, I am seeing that the peer feedback is far more interesting and relevant to the submissions because everyone is writing speculative fiction. It’s far more helpful than most of the feedback I got from peers during my grad school creative writing PhD experience (the professors always provided stellar feedback, but my fellow students hardly ever “got” my writing).

If you’re looking for a MFA or PhD program where you’ll be surrounded by writers interested in the same genres as you, the only one I know of is a low-residency program called Stone Coast. I have heard absolutely great things about that program.

But other than that particular program (which I have no affiliation with whatsoever), I do not really endorse going to grad school as a path for speculative fiction writers unless:

A) you can afford it; most MFAs provide no funding whatsoever, so that usually means loans.

B) you can afford it; no seriously, this is not a typo: you have to think about the amount of earnings you’ll be giving up to attend grad school in addition to the loans you’ll likely have to take on, not to mention having to chuck it all to move across the country to go to grad school (probably).

C) you want to work in higher education; just to let you know: you don’t get to choose where you live (you’re at the mercy of the job market that year), and typically there are 400-800 applications for a single creative writing assistant professor position; as a newly minted graduate: you will be pitted against assistant professors of creative writing who have five years of doing that job already–so you better be a rock star in order to be competitive.

D) you’re a rock star: grad school is not a place to find your voice as a writer, and treating it like a second round of undergraduate school to figure out what kind of writer you are is the wrong approach; calling yourself a grad student is a misnomer, you have to think of grad school as a form of professional training.

3. Don’t be afraid of including diversity in your writing.

MariNaomi wrote this amazing comic/article about ways for writers to write about the experiences of a wide range of characters that don’t necessarily mirror the writer’s own experience in terms of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or (dis)abilities. But the general takeaway is: Don’t be afraid to write about characters who don’t look like you. One of the helpful bits of advice that should never be underestimated: get people who are part of the cultures you’re writing about to read your stuff and give you feedback!

Sidenote: I think another conversation needs to start taking place about writers of color whose work is rejected for not being “ethnic” enough because this has been a complaint of several of my friends whose names do not “pass” for white when they submit. The feedback they get on their manuscript is that their work is amazing, but the editors were really looking for culturally related themes.

Not because my friends submitted to a writing contest that was looking for that kind of thing. Not because my friends submitted to a journal that primarily publishes that kind of thing.

Based solely on the writer’s name.

That’s fucked up.

So I’m changing this one to be “Don’t be afraid of including diversity in writing.” This goes for EVERYONE. Readers and writers. Editors and publishers. People should feel free to write the stories they want to tell. (Hopefully those stories are NOT full of casual misogyny disguised as feminism, or cultural appropriation disguised as representation.)

4. Don’t diminish your own worth or value.

Especially when you’re starting out and you don’t have any publications. Or very few publications. Or maybe not a

A tiger doesn't lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.

A tiger doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.

publication in a famous magazine. Or maybe you don’t have a book. Or just one book. Or your book is short stories instead of a novel. Or you only have a novel instead of series–everybody has their insecurities.

And regardless of your publication record, you have value.

There are varying opinions of query letters and writer’s bios. For instance, the Editor-In-Charge at NonBinary Review doesn’t really care. But I do. (I’m just an assistant editor, though.)

Did you see what I just did there?

I almost erased it and just rewrote it, but I think it’s an important illustration that it’s a daily struggle to not diminish my value (because I almost didn’t realize I did it!).

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman, or if it’s because I was in academia in the United States, or because I grew up in abject poverty, all of which indoctrinates people to not believe in their own value. It goes beyond that, though, because all three obscure one’s value to the point where people do not even realize that they have value outside of very rigid categories or structures.

(This is why feminism still needs to be a thing.)

But anyway: don’t do what I did. Remind yourself that you are a tiger and don’t put “just” in front of your accomplishments.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you’re part of a community, it will be less scary to ask for help (and hopefully all ya’ll are taking turns giving each other help with feedback). But even if you’re not, ask a friend, or post it as a status on Facebook.

This shouldn’t be relegated to only writing. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes we just need to be pointed in the right direction for resources so we can help ourselves. And sometimes we don’t know where to get started.

Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know. Just ask. And know that asking can make other people brave enough to ask, too.

6. If you have a social life, don’t feel guilty for reserving time for writing.

This is important regardless of whether you’re married or not, have children or not. When my friends and I all still lived in Los Angeles, before anyone had any kids, it was really difficult to say no to hanging out because I loved them all so much. But I was working on my dissertation and fellowship applications and I had to say no. And it felt like I had to say no a lot–but maybe it just felt amplified because of being an introvert to begin with.

Now that I live 600 miles from the closest friends or family, I admit, in my dark moments, I regret ever saying no. But it’s important to carve out time for yourself for reading and writing–because reading is an important aspect of writing, too.

This is, perhaps, one of the good aspects of pursuing a MFA or PhD: you have to train yourself to protect your writing time in order to graduate. If you haven’t had to do this for school, you have to teach yourself, and it can be difficult.

Especially if you have kids. Especially if you LIKE your kids. Because my son is awesome and I love being around him. But if I wait to write until he goes to bed, I will not write. I just won’t. I will be way too tired and all I’ll want to do is watch Real Housewives.

7. It’s okay to say no.

Seriously. And not just about hanging out. Or carving time out for writing. It’s okay to turn down projects. For example, if a friend wants you to submit for an anthology that you don’t feel is the right fit. Or if a university wants you to be a writer-in-residence and you don’t want to move. Or if another friend wants you to co-edit an edited collection and you just don’t want to. Or if you’re not getting paid for your labor.

"If you're good at something, never do it for free." --The Joker

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” –The Joker

8. You deserve to get paid.

This is somewhat related to not diminishing your value and knowing it’s okay to say no. There are lots of places that will publish your work. But you know what? There are also a lot of publications that will pay you for your writing. Sure, some of those publications may not pay professional rates, but they. Will. Pay. You.

I know I’ve posted this graphic before, but I seriously love The Joker, Harley Quinn, and Batman. So I’m not ashamed.

This isn’t necessarily relegated to only getting paid for your writing, either, but should be extended to any of your skills that you offer up for free deserves some kind of compensation. It’s been my experience that I have a harder time breaking free of this cultural indoctrination–again, I think it’s combo of being a former academic, poor, and also a woman.

Even if you’re helping out friends. If you’re doing something for free for your friends, at least barter with one another! (Maybe they can read/critique one of your stories!)

And likewise, your friends deserve to get paid. For example, I paid MANDEM for the right to use their painting, Cthulu Lies, as the main header image for my site. It wasn’t A LOT. Like maybe enough for four burritos with guacamole at Chipotle. But it was SOMETHING. Also, I paid a whole dollar for this cool image from Canva I associated with this blog post back at the top. There were free ones I could’ve used, but I loved that image so much and it felt perfect for the series that I wanted to support the artist in some small way.

This list is in no way exhaustive, and I’m always open to amendments. Are there any others that should be added to the list?

On Being Alt-Ac, or, Pulling a Dr. Karen: Going Into Business For Myself As a Creative Writing PhD, Part One

On Being Alt-Ac, or #PullingADrKaren: Going into Business for Myself As a Creative Writing PhD

On Being Alt-Ac, or #PullingADrKaren: Going into Business for Myself As a Creative Writing PhD

So I have mentioned that I am on the alternate-academic track (alt-ac) or the post-academic track (post-ac), and, if things keep going my way (i.e. my business continues in the upward direction it’s going), I plan on never returning to the broken system of higher education. If you’re not entrenched in academia, or close to someone who is entrenched, you might not be aware of how broken the system actually is, or what being alt-ac means.

This post is going to be a little longer than I intended–it might end up another three part-er. But  I feel the need to explain, in a somewhat truncated fashion, what I perceive to be broken about academia, and why I’m the happiest now than I’ve ever been being alt-ac.

Being alt-ac or post-ac means I managed to graduate with a Ph.D. and had grand designs on being a creative writing professor, but now I am finding a gainful, alternate form of employment outside of academia by starting my own business, The Brainery: Online Speculative Fiction Writing Workshops & Resources. Other alt-ac people in the humanities that I know have become freelance editors and consultants, or started their own businesses.

It will make more sense if I explain how I got to the point of starting The Brainery.

It doesn’t necessarily begin with the archaic, but necessary, job hiring process–but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since tenure lasts longer than most marriages, it makes sense why the hiring process is so involved, but knowing that doesn’t make the process any more tolerable.

The job application process for creative writing professor jobs is about nine months long (so, an academic year long) and typically follows this pattern–if you’re an academic, feel free to skip this part because you’re all too familiar with it anyway, but for newbies to academia, you might it find it interesting in an abject sorta way to peer at the man behind the curtain:

  1. Applications are mostly submitted in September-October (and will trickle out until December).
    • The application package includes a tailored job letter for each dept, which means researching the school and dept intensely so you can write about how you fit with the dept’s mission in a Shakespearean way–by that I wish to evoke the image of Cleopatra writing a love letter for the Antony of academia, and how the things she chooses to include highlight the mission of the school as well as one’s perfectly matching skillset. Additionally the application includes an updated CV, three letters of recommendation, and a writing sample usually 25 pages long. Most schools have stopped paying to send dossiers out for their graduates, putting the financial burden on job seekers, who typically are making poverty-level wages either as grad students going on the market their dissertation year, or as jobless recent graduates, or as adjuncts as an interim gig while they look for a permanent job.
    • The cost to apply to a job is usually $16 through Interfolio, because each letter of recommendation is a separate cost.
    • Most jobs in English literature get 400 applications on average. Jobs in creative writing typically receive 400-800 applications. 400-800 applications for a single job. And, it is important to note: as a job applicant, you are not only competing against other recent graduates, you are completing against people who have already been hired as Assistant Professors, and have been doing the job for the last 5 years; these current Assistant Professors are going on the market during their tenure review year to either “trade-up,” “move to a better location,” or negotiate a better deal with their current school.
    • Let me say this again: recent graduates are pitted against current professors who have been already doing the job for the last 5 years–who would you hire?
  2. Next are requests for additional materials in November, which includes two sample syllabi (at minimum), evidence of teaching excellence (the interpretation of which varies wildly), grad school transcripts, and another writing sample. From what I understand, the initial applicant pool is narrowed to 30-60 people. Also, any of these documents could be part of the initial application request as seen in #1.
  3. First round interviews take place in December-January.  Anywhere from 15-30 people are interviewed at this stage. If the school is awesome, they’ll use video chat software; if they’re cruel, they’ll insist you interview at the MLA, transportation to which is at your own expense.
    • MLA is the largest conference for literature-based academics, the location of which changes every year, and typically costs about $1000 to attend in you fly, get a hotel room, and pay the registration fee.
  4. Lastly, campus visits in February-March. These are 36 hour long interviews, but sometimes they can be as long as 3 days. The dept will pay to have you travel to their location. Sometimes, you will have to pay out of pocket to travel and they will reimburse you, which if you’re jobless, sucks. If you are a creative writer, you will probably give a presentation on your writing and teaching approach, and then give a reading of your work–so two presentations in total, and sometimes you’ll have to do a teaching demonstration as well. Usually only 3 or 4 people are invited to campus visits. (I have only been on the 36 hour long interview types, I haven’t had to endure 3 whirlwind marathon days of meeting and memorizing names and research disciplines. 36 hours was painful enough.)
  5. Decisions are announced in April, the 1 job applicant out of potentially 800 applicants is offered a contract which is negotiated at that time.
    • If you made it all the way to campus visits and get rejected at this point and the dept is cool, you’ll get a really nice, cathartic phone call. If the dept is cruel, you’ll get a bullshit form email that was sent to you and the other campus visit people, which I think is fucking unacceptable at this stage in the process. (Having experienced both forms of rejection–the phone call is much more humane.)

So, after having gone through an expensive year of the job application process, the costs of which included:

  • $333 on Interfolio fees
  • $180 for the first hair cut I’d had in 2 years + hair color to cover greys (despite only being 32 at the time!), this included a 20% tip
  • $209 on two new suits (blazer & pants) + two new blouses from a Banana Republic outlet store, which were already on sale coupled my with a 40% off coupon
  • $70 on 2 pairs of interview shoes, both of which I used at MLA so I couldn’t return one pair like I had planned
  • $100 on a pair of interview appropriate snow boots that I could wear with my suit without looking like an idiot on campus visits since all campuses I visited had experienced a snowpocalypse–these had already been discounted $200, it is really hard to find affordable dressy snow boots for women
  • $200 to attend MLA: I was super lucky because MLA was in a city where I had a close friend who let me stay there for free, and I was able to take a train from my in-law’s house, so I just had to buy my own food, and paid the unemployed registration fee

At this time, I can’t really afford to keep going on the job market–although, I suppose, the costs would be somewhat less seeing as how I already have the clothes and shoes, but I’d still need to pay Interfolio fees and potentially a haircut + transportation costs.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching a lot of Real Housewives lately, but $1092 for all of those things doesn’t sound like a lot when a Housewife on Bravo spends $20,000 on a purse. But when your family makes less than the cost of that single purse, it feels like a lot. And it’s an especially crazy mindfuck to go through an academic year dedicating my life to job applications to ultimately come away with nothing.

I learned a lot about job application materials for creative writing, but the most important thing I learned was that it was a giant squid sized waste of my time because:

Every school hired someone who was already an assistant professor elsewhere.

Read Part Two for the rest of this post.

How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer, Part Two

How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer, Part Two

How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer, Part Two — I made this in Canva in you case you want to share this article on Pinterest or something.

In my previous post, I basically broke down what I found to be the most helpful bits of advice from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. (Once again, I highly recommend this book; it is an exceptionally slim volume, but it contains multitudes, and, highest praise: it always makes me want to write–added bonus, you can find it libraries or you can pick up a used copy for less than $10.)

To sum up those helpful starting tips again:

  • Consume as much as you can (and don’t worry about stealing).
  • Write fast enough so you don’t have a chance to get in your own way.

So far, my advice on ways to get started hasn’t really been gendered. I probably won’t get too gender specific advice in this post either, but I will most definitely get to the gender specific advice in Part Three. You might be skeptical and think that writing advice should be universal. Well, you’re right. Writing advice should be universal, but we lived in a flawed culture and my writing advice, unfortunately, is going to be gendered. At least in Part Three. It is most likely going to be classed as well, since I was raised in poverty and find myself there again–although the poverty level in which I currently find myself is a far cry from the poverty I experienced as a child. And I’m white. As well as a survivor of abuse. So all of these things, whether I want them to or not, create my own personal “terministic screen” through which I see and experience the world, and these filters inform my approach to writing. Which is really just to say that it’s an invisible Instagram applied to my personality. (Would Kenneth Burke roll his eyes at that analogy? Fuck it, I don’t care.)

So, like all things in life, use the sluice box of your personal experience and glean what nuggets of advice you can, and know that these frameworks are part of my own personal narrative drive. They are not necessarily frameworks you’re working from (hopefully not!–I have some terrible self-sabotaging habits that I wish on no one).

For now, though, I want to write about writing resistance and self-sabotage.

There’s a book that I really love called The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt (not to be confused with Alan Watts). In that book, he maintains that a first draft of a novel should take no more than 90 days. And, having read the book, and having made it through 45 of the 90 days, and having written a dissertation before that, I wholeheartedly agree.

But a strong caveat here: the FIRST DRAFT of a novel doesn’t necessarily need to take more than 90 days. A first draft is shit–back when I taught introduction to argumentative writing, I made “Shitty Rough Drafts” by Anne Lamont mandatory reading at the beginning of the semester (it’s a really short essay, I highly suggest reading it if you haven’t read it already).

And the first draft should be shitty. Because getting the words on a page/screen is the. Hardest. Thing. And I kind of want to start a society of (re)writers–people who hold no delusions that they’re brilliant writers, but firmly believe in their preternatural ability to rewrite the hell out of a shitty first draft.

Okay, so I might have lied: getting words on a screen is not the hardest thing to do. At least not for me. And this is where my own personal Instagram filter of life, that I’ll call it “Mt. Aukum,” comes to tint (taint?) a perfectly fine photograph with it’s fucking warped sense of contrast and sharpness. You know this filter, you’re always drawn to this filter, but never end up using it, and you kind of wish you weren’t attracted to the distorted coloration. But, for you, it’s named something different from “Mt. Aukum,” although feel free to adopt my filter’s name if it helps.

The hardest thing for me to do as a writer is not worry about money while I’m writing.

After talking with lots of other writers, this seems to be a universal phenomenon, regardless of economic status, because worrying about money is really a fear about selling your work, which is directly related to publishing your work. And, speaking from my own personal experience, if I don’t have an end goal in mind for a piece, it is hard to find the motivation, energy, and time to finish it. Especially if you’re writing something that you’re not sure will ever find a home.

I kid you not, a way to combat this is to be part of an active writing community. Because if you’re part of a supportive and cooperative environment you can feel safe asking: I have a story about dinosaurs and monster trucks, is there even a publication that will publish a story like this?

It makes me incredibly happy to say: yes, yes there is.

I want to be really clear here: being part of a community is so helpful as a writer. And it’s even more helpful as a female writer. And it’s the best resource I’ve found so far as a speculative fiction writer: because on the whole SpecFic writers are wonderful geeky people who love the same things I love, and they’re incredibly generous to boot: jumping in when I need feedback in a timely fashion, when I’m not sure where to send a story, with upcoming publishing opportunities, and cheerleading me on with ideas I have. I originally floated the idea for The Brainery Workshop in my writing community and asked if it was a good idea and the resounding  answer was, “Yes!”–if I hadn’t felt safe to ask, if they hadn’t been supportive, I may not have gone through with it. (Whether that is a construct of me being a woman or poor or just wavering self-confidence, I don’t know, but I suspect is connected to all three. And dammit, we all deserve a little cheerleading now and then.)

I think writers as a group are generally lone wolf types: we’re usually outsiders and prone to observation of others. We like being alone, we’re not intimidated by silence, and we can entertain ourselves. All of these things are generally what makes us good writers.

But. If you’re not part of a writing community, you can start to feel isolated in the non-productive kind of way. Especially if you’re not reading what makes you happy, you can start to wonder if there really is a market for your dinosaur monster truck story. Being part of a community can help you stay connected to places where you’ll find things to read that will give you faith in the literary world again, and where your writing might one day find a home–which is a really helpful way to stay productive.

And sometimes you’ll get tapped for other people’s projects–my writing community is how I became an Assistant Editor at NonBinary Review–which is another really wonderful way to feel like you’re contributing and participating in the literary community.

I don’t know about you, but knowing where I want to send a story helps me finish work. It is a motivating factor for me because I want to join the club of writers who get published in the publications I’m excited about. It connects me to the literary community I like the best: the speculative fiction writing community. (I assume this is how literary fiction writers feel, too, but I never felt excited about most literary fiction, so I don’t know for sure.)

So I was always a speculative fiction writer, although in grad school I never submitted my work to the “right places.” And “right places” is individually or culturally defined. For me, at the time, it was more culturally defined because, being a Ph.D. candidate and considering a career as a creative writing professor, I submitted to places that I thought I “should” be submitting to. (Here’s another piece of advice: stop “should-ing” all over yourself.) My work was hardly ever accepted, because even if they say they’re open to “forms of genre fiction, or all fiction” I suspect you might have to be a rock star to get the weirder work sold to publications that don’t traditional publish SpecFic.

Now, the “right places” for me to publish are individually defined as opposed to “culturally defined,” and I’m way happier. Lots of writing advice about publishing usually can be distilled down to, “You have to read everything, you have to be familiar with the style of magazine you’re submitting to, blah blah blah.”

But if you ever find this aspect of researching publications terribly boring, if you find yourself resenting the fact that you’re reading The Missouri Review or Harpers or The New Yorker, and wishing there were way more aliens or serial killers or psychics in the story, then maybe you’re not a literary fiction writer. You might be a SpecFic writer, and, for the most part, those literary fiction people are not your people.

I suspect we’re your people. Welcome to the community of speculative fiction. Read what makes you happy! Write what makes you happier! Even if it’s about dinosaurs and monster trucks.

The odds are that your work will find a home in the speculative fiction community way easier than in a literary fiction community. You may not make $600 from publishing it, but the odds are also good that you will make something for the story. (My cursory research thus far has found many more publications, both large and small, paying writers with for reals money than in simply contributor’s copies–like in literary fiction.)

Plus, there is great power in selling a story, even if it’s for $10 or $25. Speaking from my own experience, it has started to challenge me to be a faster writer–and to “kill your darlings,” so to speak. Because do I really want to spend 6 years on one short story just to sell it for $50?

The answer should be no.

I wish I had figured this out during grad school–or before grad school. I think I would’ve been way happier. But I was still figuring out who I was and what kind of writing I had the most fun doing. (I highly recommend not going to grad school until you know who you are as a writer–grad school is not the place to find your voice, it is the place to perfect it and the place to practice being a professional–I did grad school all wrong, even though I made it out with a Ph.D. I will write a post one day about how to do grad school right and list all of the mistakes I made, in hopes that other people looking to do a MFA or PhD in creative writing do not replicate mine.)

But back to that hardest thing for me to do as a writer: not worrying about money whilst writing.

Dharma Initiative Groceries: I swear these are what the county issue groceries looked like.

Dharma Initiative Groceries from Lost: I swear these are what the county issue groceries looked like, except we didn’t have soda or potato crisps, and anything that wasn’t canned had weevils living in it.

Although having a place to ultimately submit my work to helps me finish it these days, up until fairly recently I was obsessed with just trying to make enough money to keep us afloat. My husband doesn’t worry about this nearly as much as I do, even though he sees us go into $400 of debt every month I don’t have a job because 1) he didn’t grow up poor and 2) even if he had, his parents probably wouldn’t have burdened him with that information.

I worry about this because I grew up in what I would call abject poverty; the kind of poverty where we had to wait two hours in line at the County fairgrounds each month to be handed a brown paper sack of what looked like Dharma Initiative groceries that included weevil-ridden flour, cereal, and macaroni and cheese–seriously, all of these were sealed but still had weevils inside. And since I was much older than my brothers, I was treated differently, in that, my mom used me as a sounding board for a lot of troubles our family had to overcome financially; I was constantly aware of the fact that we were living on seventy-three cents for the next two weeks. And it wasn’t like my mom was lazy. She was so busy that she literally had to schedule time to sleep in her car in parking lots at her jobs.

So, finding myself in poverty at the moment really gets in the way of my productivity: I am constantly worried that any time I am spending on writing that isn’t actively making money feels like a precious waste of time. Especially because I grew up watching my mom work two jobs and take on three unpaid internships while taking two college classes at the same time. So I feel weird when I’m not doing everything that I can to get us out of our current situation–because even though I actually am doing everything I can, it never feels like enough because my mom had to schedule time to sleep in her car, for chrissakes. I have to remember that my mom also had the benefit of having me around so she could be free to be that busy. My brothers actually started calling me “Mommy Number Two.” It started out as a joke, until my mom was home for dinner one night and got offended.

This is why writing contests are so damn sinister: for a mere $10-$25 dollars, I can gamble and submit my work for a shot at $500-$2500. This is also why writing contests that cost money to enter are the devil: they are tempting, but ultimately really bad for your bank account unless you’re not poor.

Conduct an experiment: don't publish for free anymore, try to sell your SpecFic, even if it's for $10.

Conduct an experiment: don’t publish for free anymore, try to sell your SpecFic, even if it’s for $10.

I would rather sell a piece of writing for $10-$25 than submit to another contest.

Also, I think places like Narrative Magazine (where you have to pay to submit when their editors make in excess of $100,000 a year) are nefarious enterprises. However, even though I understand why places like Wyvern Lit have optional expedition response fees, it’s hard to get on board with those kinds of fees, even though I highly doubt they make $143,000 a year from the magazine. (Edited to add: thank you to Sara Zaske who found the link!)

This is why any other form of employment tends to distract me from actually completing writing projects. Because I feel like I need to try to keep us afloat because my husband makes grad student money (which is always below poverty-level, regardless of your discipline, regardless of your institution, and especially if you made the choice of going to grad school in your 30s and also simultaneously have a child).

Worrying about money while writing, though totally legit, is also a form of self-sabotage.

Readercon, which is an excellent speculative fiction convention held in Waltham, Massachusetts, had a panel about this two years ago (which was the only year I could afford to attend). They said it helped writers to think about their writing as a “long term investment.” I love thinking about writing in this way so much. And some days it helps quiet the noise in my brain.

But, if you’re like me on most days, and you can’t quiet the noise because you’re scraping by money-wise, the most helpful thing you can do to try to be productive is to make money. It will free up your brain to write. Do something even if it’s small. If you can somehow trick your brain into thinking about your writing as a long-term investment, especially if you’re able to sell your short fiction, then that’s probably the best approach (and also the most awesome and productive one). Otherwise, you’ll find or invent some other form of employment. I went into business for myself with The Brainery–and that’s another post I plan to write. Especially since I’m alt-ac and post-ac (alternate academic and post-academic track respectively).

Another form of self-sabotage that is helpful to be aware of is the kind Alan Watt writes about in The 90-Day Novel: creativity overflow. He recommends that writers do not start any other stories while they’re working on the novel–he suggests conserving all of that writing energy for the novel. And that you will be tempted to start other stories along the way because you’re opening up the well of creativity and it inevitably gives you lots of ideas. He cautions that all of these other ideas are ways to possibly distract and detract you from finishing the novel.

I only got through 45 of the 90 days this summer because a confrontation with my brother sent me into a spiral of depression that was difficult to come out of.

It takes an incredible amount of self-discipline and focus to not let outside forces detract you, regardless of the creative wellspring that starts to overflow once you start working on your novel. And I hope one day to have the kind of focus where I won’t get distracted by family drama or having bills to pay.

So identifying your particular forms of self-sabotage are incredibly important and also kind of difficult. Because there is a reason you aren’t writing. There is a reason you haven’t finished your novel. You have to figure out what those reasons are. Mine are usually tied up with money in the various ways I’ve shared above.

But for writers who grew up in similar circumstances as me, getting distracted by money issues haunts at a deeper level. Because for us being writers (or artists of any kind) isn’t really “allowed.” My mom always wanted me to be a real estate agent and write on the side. I could write as long as I was a car mechanic or a teacher first and a writer second. I could always “write on the side.” That was my mom’s motto for me. It’s hard programming to rebel against, I have to say.

Like a lot of poor people I know, growing up poor in my family meant we didn’t dream about being astronauts or artists. As poor people, we grew up dreaming of not living paycheck-to-paycheck, so we dream about realistic jobs. The common ones where I grew up were being telephone line technicians or construction of some kind. My brothers pursued things like being a HVAC technician or maintenance worker at a theme park, despite one being a brilliant artist and the other being just plain brilliant (we have always believed he was the smartest of the three of us: my youngest brother was annoyingly good at everything he tried; my younger brother and I had to really work to be good at just one thing).

Seriously. I am so sick of competition. I am much more interested in cooperation, and so far I have found the SpecFic community to share the same values.

Seriously. I am so sick of competition. I am much more interested in cooperation, and so far I have found the SpecFic community to share the same values.

So for me, I honestly think there’s more at stake psychologically about finishing a book. I feel like I’m not allowed to write unless I’m “writing on the side.” At least not at this time when our finances are so unstable. I think this is why academia in general used to be so appealing to me: because I genuinely love teaching and I’m good at it, plus it subsidizes a writing life.

“Writing on the side.”

It’s both a blessing and a curse.

But it’s only a form of self-sabotage if you let it derail your productivity.

Don’t do what I did for the previous two years and let it derail your productivity if you can help it. And if you can’t help it, write in the comments and maybe we can crowdsource more ideas on how to combat it. Or feel free to message me and we can strategize together or I can just be a sympathetic shoulder.

In the meantime, I have a Pinterest board that I curate with a bunch of helpful writing advice I’ve found online or beautiful quotes that can help you power through on the self-sabotage-y days. You can follow it here.

And if you’re suspect of Pinterest or people promoting their own Pinterest boards or what not, might I suggest this lovely piece of writing by Debbie Millman. Reading it always reminds me of what I’m trying to combat on a daily basis while being a writer. Here’s a preview:

Read the rest of this at Brain Pickings. It is wonderful.

Read the rest of this at Brain Pickings. It is wonderful.

Click here to read Part Three.

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