"The final sense (if the plot has been a fine one) will not be of clues or chains, but of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become beautiful."
So, people are complex. You just never know how they will respond. When I published Austenland in 2007, I was caught totally off guard by the first “you should be ashamed of this smut” email I received. I honestly didn’t consider Austenland a trashy book. But many did. Here’s my favorite of the angry emails:
I just read Austenland and was so disappointed. I loved your other books and had come to trust you to keep things clean. I bought Austenland on Amazon for my teenaged daughter for Christmas because she is a huge Pride & Prejudice fan. I’m glad I decided to read it first, because it would have totally traumatized her. I buried it [in] my kitchen trash can under a pile of wilted celery, where it should feel right at home.
I don’t want to mock the writer of that email. Everyone has the right to their own reaction (though I do wonder sometimes what motivates the need to email the author your negative reaction). Still, I didn’t see this coming.
The most surprising response I received for Austenland (and really any of my books) was:
"The way she mocks Austen fans is just insulting."
Not just one such response but many. I never anticipated that fellow Austen fans would think that I was insulting them. After all, I am one. It’s one thing to love Austen’s novels (which I do) but at the point I became obsessed with the DVDs of Pride & Prejudice, I thought, this is getting funny. Isn’t it okay to laugh at this? At my weird obsession? And how I have the tendency to fall in love with fictional characters? Can we still be amused by a thing and love it at the same time?
Once the movie came out, that reaction only magnified. Many people thought we were mocking Jane Austen readers in an ugly and mean-spirited way. I felt like I’d had the wind knocked out of me.
Of course not everyone responded that way, and it was lovely and reassuring that many people (Austen fans and non-readers) let us know how much they loved what we did. I read one simply gorgeous review of the movie from a major online magazine, and was so relieved that at least someone got it! After the writer and I corresponded a bit. She wrote:
"I’m so grateful for writers who are doing work that’s full of love and warmth and isn’t cynical. I get enough of that."
Yay! Not everyone misunderstood! I forwarded the note on to the director, Jerusha Hess, and she responded, “Yes! It was full of love.”
If we made it in love, full of warmth and fondness and well-intentioned humor, how did it come across to many as just the opposite?
I don’t know, but I’ve observed some things about the Hesses’ movies. Some people who saw Napoleon Dynamite thought that the movie was mocking a rural west culture, and yet I’ve never met anyone from Utah or Idaho that felt mocked by the movie. I read reviews of Nacho Libre (reviews written by white US guys) who thought the movie was mocking Mexicans, and yet the movie did great in Mexico and was largely received with love and laughter. I have no doubt that there was a loving and celebratory spirit in the Hesses making of these movies.
In those cases, it was outsiders who feared the mockery, while those supposedly being mocked got the humor and laughed with the movie. Yet with Austenland, many of the insiders—the Janeites—felt unkindly mocked. I don’t know why this happened.
Christopher Guest movies also come to mind. I don’t know if certain musicians felt mocked by Spinal Tap. I heard that some dog showers did by Best In Show, which surprised me, because as an outsider it seemed clear to me that the movie wasn’t trying to make fun of all dog owners and dog shows, nor to definitively define what such people must all be like. I grew up doing community theater, and everyone I know in theater absolutely loves Waiting for Guffman. We didn’t feel mocked by it. We felt lovingly tributed and enjoyed the inside jokes only we would get, laughing at the absurdities we saw in ourselves and in our theater world as well as laughing at the parts the movie exaggerated for humor. I came away from it not thinking, “Yeah, community theater is lame,” but “That was hysterical! I love theater!”
And I guess that’s how I assumed my fellow Jane Austen lovers would react too. If anyone might misunderstand and think we were mocking Janeites, it would be the outsiders, certainly not the insiders, certainly not those who loved Austen—her humor, her snark, her insight.
I do know we were walking that fine and wonderful line: to be the thing and make light of the thing at the same time. That’s the only way to do a loving comedy. And there is a chance it can be misunderstood. I just didn’t think it would, not by my own peeps.
Some people couldn’t go there with us, and that’s okay. Art is personal. But the accusations of mean-spiritedness or malicious intent are totally, completely wrong. Every actor, every producer and writer and all involved had a fondness for the characters and the story and wanted to make something that made us laugh, made us swoon, made us smile, in the very best spirit possible.
I don’t know why it failed some people, but it is a potent reminder that nothing is more perilous than comedy.
There’s going to be a panel at AASL (School Librarian conference) this weekend called “Boys Reading: A focus on fantasy.” There are six well-respected, very cool middle grade fantasy authors on this panel. And they are all men.
And I have to ask: Why? Why can’t female authors discuss their…
When The Husband was a young teen, my mother-in-law tells the story, he came home from school one day and asked, “Why do some girls pretend to be dumb when they’re not?”
His mother explained that some boys are intimidated by smart girls, and so some girls pretend to be dumber so as to make the boys more comfortable or to be more attractive to them.
"That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard," he said.
And he grew up to marry me. BAM.
The very best people will like you even more when you’re just as smart (or athletic, or geeky, or spiritual, or talented, or quiet, or funny) as you actually are. You don’t have to be anything less than your own awesomeness.
"When you reach out to someone under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone [oxytocin], your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing that your stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resistance, and that mechanism is human connection."
On results of a stress study: “For every major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties or family crisis, that increased the risk of dying by 30%; but…that wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Caring created resilience.” Kelly McGonigal, TED talk, speaking about making stress your friend.
Seems incredible but true. When stressed, we heal better if we reach out and help others rather than just hunker down and tend to ourselves.
How a non-disclosure agreement and codename changed my year
Once upon a time I, Shannon Hale, your faithful narrator, was free. I’d just turned in the final draft of Dangerous, and for the first time in ten years I didn’t have a book under contract. With four small children at home, I’d decided not to go under contract for any new books for the time being. “Maybe I’ll take a break for a bit,” I told my husband. “Until things calm down.”
Famous last words.
Three days later, I got a call. Little, Brown (fabulous book publisher) had an offer for me. Hm, I really didn’t think I’d be interested, because of taking a break and all, but I was curious. “They won’t tell me what it is,” my agent told me. “First we have to sign a non-disclosure agreement.” Wow, now I was really curious. I signed the document and got on a call with Andrew, Connie, and Erin at Little, Brown.
They told me about a project codename “Lightning.” Yes, it was so super secret it even had a code name! And so I first heard about Ever After High, a boarding school for the children of famous fairy tales. For a few moments, I decided wasn’t interested. I’m known for retelling fairy tales, and I love fairy tales, but I didn’t think I’d want to write in someone else’s fairy tale land. I’d rather do my own stories.
But this was more than just retold fairy tales. The idea is that children of fairy tale characters grow up to relive the stories their parents made famous. Our main characters are Raven Queen, daughter of the Evil Queen, and Apple White, daughter of Snow White. And they’re roommates. That struck me as so delightfully awkward. We talked more. They sent me a 200 page story bible detailing a couple dozen characters and world details. It was all so fun. But I couldn’t make myself commit. I was free! I was going to take a break!
Mattel flew me out to their headquarters in California. I got to see the workshops where designers created new Barbie dolls and superhero action figures and Matchbox cars. I got a sneak peak of the first eight Ever After High dolls (kept in windowless rooms under shrouds—so secret!). I saw the first animated short and heard more good stuff about the world. I saw their absolute commitment to story and how excited they were to have a novel to kick off the storytelling of this huge new property. And I couldn’t resist. In fact, even though I’d been telling myself I might not do it, I’d already written 15 pages of the novel because scenes between these characters just flew into my brain.
So I slapped the conference table and said, “That’s it. I’m in.”
Then the whirlwind began. I read everything Mattel had already written in this world—scripts for upcoming animated shorts and stories that would come included with each doll—over and over again and educated myself on the world and characters. I couldn’t contradict anything already established, but besides that, they gave me free reign to make up my own story. And since I was coming in at the beginning, I helped create this world and form the characters. The Mattel creative team was wonderful and totally open to my input. The few times I found established elements I thought world work better a different way, they changed them. It was collaborative, supportive, and a lot of fun.
I wrote a mini-outline. I got notes from my editors and wrote a robust outline. I got notes from my editors and the Mattel team. I wrote a first draft. I got more notes and revised several times. And then we had a book. A book I’m really proud of.
It was so fun, we decided to do it again. And again. I’ve signed up to write books 2 & 3 in Ever After. Because of other time commitments, my husband Dean Hale is co-writing books 2 & 3 with me, even more collaboration and support and fun.
I’m not sure when I’m going to take that theoretical break. But I’m glad I didn’t. Yet.
It’s the late 1990s, and everyone I know is obsessed with the Pride & Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth. I don’t use that word lightly. Obsessed. We hum the songs from the ball. The words creep into our everyday dialogue—we say things like, “Make haste!” and, “Now that’s a fair prospect!” We have daydreams about a fictional character and sigh out loud.
We are completely and utterly ridiculous. But it’s so much fun.
I just wish that there were a way to actually step into Austen’s story, try it on and see how it would fit. Would living in the Regency era, being loved by Mr. Darcy, really be as ideal as it seems? I start to write a book about a character like me and my friends, who goes on vacation to an English resort where tourists can put on the corset and empire-waist gowns, live in a manor house, and interact with actors playing gentlemen who woo them in their own custom storylines.
(By the way, no such place actually exists—but it should, shouldn’t it?)
I spend seven years, off and on, composing Austenland, trying out different characters, writing and rewriting different endings, before I come to the story of Jane Hayes and her jaunt in an immersive Austen resort. It is completely and utterly ridiculous, and also so much fun.
Jumping ahead a few years, I meet screenwriter Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. She reads Austenland and wants me to collaborate with her on the screenplay. Jerusha responds not just to the Austen obsession but more generally to Jane Hayes’ geekiness. Everyone has their own geekdom—Star Wars, Twilight, superheroes, science, Dr. Who, classic Greek literature—whatever it might be. She’s sure most anyone could relate to Jane’s trip down the rabbit hole, even the un-Austen-ed.
We spend a year and a half on the screenplay (and laughing, usually while eating milk shakes). Jump ahead again.
I’m in England, sitting on one of those camp chairs with members of the film crew. It’s our first day
filming on the grounds of the English estate that will be our Austenland. And across the lawn walks the actor JJ Feild in full costume. Boots. Breeches. Cravat. Riding jacket. Top hat. I’m amazed at how much he looks like the character of my imagination. The resemblance is uncanny.
But then the most extraordinary thing happens. This figment, this character I dreamed up in my brain, turns, sees me, looks right at me, and smiles.
I no longer feel the camping chair beneath me. I seem to be falling into my own story. I watch the scene play out on camera—Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, speaking lines I wrote, just the way I’d imagined and yet adding so much more. It is almost real. Surreal.
Later, I find out the costume coat and hat JJ Feild is wearing are the same ones Colin Firth wore in Pride & Prejudice. Somehow, I’ve managed to enter Austenland. It’s ridiculous. And it’s so much fun.
The photo is of me and Jane Seymour on set, dressed for the ball scene. The film is in limited release now in US, UK, and Canada. The book is available online and from fine booksellers everywhere.
Book tour for EVER AFTER HIGH: The Storybook of Legends. Come see me!
Tuesday, October 8 6 pm Tattered Cover 2526 East Colfax Avenue Denver, CO
Wednesday, October 9 7pm St. Louis County Library 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd St. Louis, MO Booksales by Barnes & Noble
Thursday, October 10 5pm Mrs. Nelson’s Toys & Books 1030 Bonita Ave La Verne, CA
Saturday, October 12 1pm Children’s Book World 17 Haverford Station Rd Haverford, PA
Sunday, October 13 10:45am New York Comic Con Panel The Magic of Storytelling panel with Lemony Snicket (When Did You See Her Last?), David Lubar (Weenies series), Matthew Cody (Will in Scarlet), Shannon Hale (Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends), George O’Connor (Olympians), and Scott Campell (If Dogs Run Free)
New York Comic Con Authographing: 12PM - Table 21
Tuesday, October 15 7pm Provo City Library Library Ballroom 550 North University Ave. Provo, UT 84601 Booksales by Kings English
October 17, 2013 7pm Talk and signing with Lisi Harrison, Megan McCafferty, and Diana Lopez Book People Austin, TX
October 19, 2013 Tween Reads Book Fest Houston, TX
November 9, 2013 YALLFEST Charleston, SC
Check with the stores for further information. Remember, it costs stores money to advertise and staff an author event. If you want to get books signed at bookstore-hosted events, please support their continued existence by purchasing a book from them (doesn’t have to be one of mine—but hey, that’d be nice!).
When I was thirteen and in junior high, my friend and I went to the Festival of Trees. Our school glee class sang there and we got to hang around after, largely unsupervised. After all, it wasn’t a scary place. Just lots of decorated trees, all well lit and Christmassy. There was a Santa Claus. My friend and I thought it would be funny to wait in line and sit on his lap, as if we were still little kids. Which we weren’t anymore, just barely. I didn’t quite yet feel a teenager—that mystical age I had been looking up to my whole childhood. And I certainly wasn’t an adult. I was in-between and trying to figure out what that meant.
So we sat on Santa’s lap, laughing, one of us on each knee. And he played along and asked us silly questions, and we answered. When we stood up to leave he said, “Oh I forgot to ask you what you wanted for Christmas.”
And I said, “I want you, Santa.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I was trying to be funny. But I was thirteen, inexperienced, and naive without knowing it. Not only did I not fully comprehend what the phrase “I want you” could imply, but even if I had, I didn’t have the life experience to put it into a context. I didn’t have the brain maturity to anticipate a reaction. Certainly not the one that followed.
This man who was wearing a Santa beard and suit said, softly, “You don’t know how much I want you,” and he grabbed my butt.
There was an initial moment of shock, we ran off, and went into the bathroom and laughed and laughed. That was so weird! Some old dude in a Santa outfit said he wanted me and touched my bootie! It was a little alarming and a lot gross, but mostly funny.
I didn’t yet know the word “pedophile.” I didn’t understand what I had just uncovered. I wasn’t traumatized. It was this thing that happened with my friend, something we could bring up later and laugh about. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone—not from shame or fear or anything but because it was just a joke thing that happened. Not till years later I looked back and though, whoa. That guy was having kids sit on his lap all day. I wish I’d understood. And told someone. And gotten him out of there and away from kids.
But that’s the key—I didn’t understand. I was a smart girl, but I didn’t have the years, the age, the perspective yet. There’s a reason why we label minors as minors and try to protect them. There’s a lot of stuff in this world that only with time and experience can we start to figure out.
Sometimes a girl is thirteen or fourteen or fifteen and she starts to look like a woman, and she starts to say things she hears other women say, and some adults assume she is a woman. But she’s a child. I was a child.
There are reasons we have statutory rape laws. A child cannot consent to sex with an adult. A child has not matured enough to understand. A child needs to be protected, even if they don’t think they do. Thankfully I never saw the Santa dude again, was in no position to be assaulted by him. But this BS in Montana is really frightening, not because of this single instance, but because this crap happens all the time. (notice in the judge’s “apology” he says his victim-blaming comments were “offensive to women” because, you know, rape is a women’s issue and is nothing that men should worry about or has to do with them whatsoever.) Just look at how many people in power and with strong adult voices have become rape apologists in the Steubenville case, blaming the girl, crying over the “innocent” rapists, declaring (contrary to actual laws as well as common sense) what is “real” rape and what isn’t. If judges, police officers, journalists, parents, communities don’t understand, then the rape culture thickens. Children aren’t safe.
There are men out there who put on a Santa Claus suits—of one kind or another—in order to meet, groom, and exploit children. It’s more than just weird or gross. It’s a crime. And it should be.
Is there a reason why you have not included same gender relationships in your novels? I really love your books but am disappointed that I am not able to find representation of myself in them.
Several years ago, someone asked JK Rowling about Dumbledore’s love life and she revealed that he was gay. I was with a group of teachers the next day who talked about it and they were confused why she would have made him gay, not reveal it in the book, and then do so later. But I totally got that. Writers always know more about the characters than they reveal. It’s all about what the story needs. In several books I’ve had characters who I knew were gay and initially intended to reveal that but ultimately the story didn’t need it. I hope as an artist I’m able to always follow the story first. Hopefully I have years more to write, many more books to discover, and I’ll see what those years and books bring.
It’s so important for readers to find representation of ourselves in art, and I’m glad that now more than ever there are so many varieties in books (far, far more so than in movies). We learn more about ourselves by seeing ourselves reflected back. But reading about those different from us also strengthens our ability to empathize with other human beings. I read books to find people like me, and I read to find people who aren’t like me. I think there’s tremendous value in both.
I hope this finds you well. Austenland is perhaps one of the best novels I have read, being an enormous Darcy fan myself (who isn't?). And while I'd rather have seen Goose Girl become a movie first, I'm ecstatic about this film. So I just wanted to ask you, why is it only in NY/LA? I cannot say confidently that it would do better in Georgia than those prime locations, but I know I would go see it three times at least.
Thank you! Austenland is an indie movie. Generally indie movies are given a limited release (in this case opening in LA and NY) and the hopefully moving up to a platform release, with new cities announced each weekend. How well the movie does in the initial cities determines how wide the release will be. Believe me, I would love it to go everywhere! It looks like it will be in Atlanta on Sept 6. Here’s the list of current and upcoming cities.
I loved Shannon Hale’s Austenland as a book. And I know, it seems weird for an author to say she liked the movie better, but there are a few cases where a movie that is done very, very well (and usually with a lot of involvement from the author—take note, Hollywood) that the movie does things that…
And like Jane Austen herself, “Austenland” scoffs at the hypocrites and celebrates the sweet social misfits. It says weirdos deserve romance too, and that Austenland isn’t so much a page in a book or a place on a map, but a corner of your heart.
Thanks for stopping by. You look great. How’s the family? Also, I really need you to go see Austenland.
I know that sounds self-interested, but it’s not as much as you might think. Yes I wrote the book (and co-wrote the screenplay) but no writer can claim ownership of any product. Even though I write every word of my books, there are still a team of people involved who have a rightly earned piece of its success: editor, copy editor, publisher, agent, publicist, distributor, bookseller, etc. A movie likewise is not an author’s but is a huge team effort, and in movies, the team is much, much larger. So many people are involved in making a movie. Austenland is not mine.
Did you know most writers are paid a flat fee for their book option or screenplay and won’t make more money regardless if the movie is a great success? But sure, I still have some interest in it. For one thing, if the movie does well, the book Austenland will probably sell more copies. Also it’ll be more likely that my other books might be made into movies.
Still there’s a larger question here that’s really important to me. Stay with me, I’m about to lay down a little Derrida.
French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke about binary opposites (good & evil, up & down, light & dark) and whenever we have binary opposites, we tend to put them into a hierarchy, one dominating the other.
Between comedy and tragedy, tragedy is considered more important. Between romance and realism, realism is considered more important. (btw Romance in its truest form includes fantasy.) Between men and women, men are considered more important.
(If you’re skeptical about this, look at lists of awards for movies and books. Realistic, tragic movies and books that are by and about men will greatly outnumber everything else, except in children’s novels, where realistic/historical/drama will still dominate though there are more females involved.)
So we made a comedic, romantic movie by/about women. Three strikes against it. I anticipate: it will earn little respect; many reviewers will dismiss it; probably all awards will ignore it. Most who like it—even love it— will likely add a caveat, because our society mocks anyone who claims to be an intellectual and/or a feminist and still admits to enjoying an estrogen-drenched romantic comedic movie.
Additionally, this is a movie written, directed, produced by, and starring women. This is extremely rare in Hollywood. Like four-leaf-clover rare. Big Foot sighting rare. Prime rib rare. Me-in-a-bikini rare.
In general, Hollywood is reactionary. Hollywood follows the money. When deciding which movies to back, Hollywood looks at how like-movies have performed (or what it considers like-movies). Hollywood is built by investors who naturally want to put money behind what is least risky with the highest profit potential—and that means backing what has proven successful in the past. And Hollywood doesn’t have enough data on female-made-and-led movies. There just aren’t enough of them. There are some obvious blockbusters, but Hollywood is wary of those.
Twilight: a fluke (yes, after five films people are still saying this) Harry Potter: yeah it was written by a woman but it stars a boy so it doesn’t count Hunger Games: Katniss is a masculine girl and the story is action/violence driven so counts as a guy movie (yes, people really say this too)
There are so many movies written by and starring men that have succeeded that if a few flop, it doesn’t worry the Hollywood numbers. But there are so few movies written by and starring women that if even one underperforms, suddenly you will see all other female-written-and-featuring projects pulled before they get a chance to be filmed. (this has happened many times and is currently happening this year.)
Please, go see Austenland. Vote with your wallet. Please, go see The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Encourage those skeptics in Hollywood. Convince them that backing something with a few women in it and written by women isn’t such a huge risk. People do want variety. They do want to hear women’s voices. They do want to see actual real women on the screen doing things besides just getting saved in the end and kissing the male star.
Ladies, go have a girls’ night. Or take your men along. It’s good for them. Men, be not afraid of girl cooties. The more voices the better. When women get the chance to make movies too, more voices are heard. Hollywood hears money louder than any other voice. We need your ticket. New York and Los Angeles, if you go see a movie this weekend, please make it Austenland. Next week City of Bones opens nationally and Austenland opens in select cities. Sony Pictures Classics has released a preliminary schedule of theaters and dates, hopefully with more announced soon. So go, if you must, out of a sense of equality and charity and goodwill. But stay for an outrageously funny and sweet natured and heart-poundingly romantic flick.
We are a bunch of chicks. And we made a really fun movie.
Well my dear fellow Austenland fans, tonight I was lucky enough to be able to see an advanced screening of Austenland. I was pretty sure I would love it but there is always a chance especially when you build something up in your mind that you could be disappointed. This was not one of those…
I have to be very sneaky when I try to transcribe conversations between my two-year-old twin girls. The moment they notice me, they want me. And worse if they see me writing on my laptop. That is not allowed.
don’t talk to me. I’m on the phone…(talks into toy phone) Oh hi, Dinah
(Sony Classics) Opens: Aug. 16 in theaters "Napoleon Dynamite" writer Jerusha Hess switches gears with a comedy/romance starring Keri Russell as a woman obsessed with the novelist who travels to a British Austen-themed amusement park in search of her perfect Mr. Darcy. “Twilight" author Stephenie Meyer produces.
One of the most common questions I get: How do you find time to write and be a mother? I’ve written twice about this, when I had one kid and again when I had two. I reread what I wrote there and find everything is still relevant. But I want to add, because now I have four small children, ages 2 1/2 - 9, and life is very tricky. Even if I wasn’t a writer and didn’t work outside the home, having two school-aged kids and two toddlers makes for a tricky, tricky day. So how do I manage to do both?
I need help. Before, I could manage to find sporadic writing time here and there. When I had one child who napped, nap time was writing time, without fail. By the time I had 5 published books and two non-napping children, I realized this writing thing was technically a career and I didn’t have to be a martyr and I could give myself permission to get help. Originally I had a sitter that came over 9 house/week. This past year, it’s up to 17 hours/week. And it’s not enough to do all I could/should do. But it has to be. Because I don’t want to have a full-time nanny even if that was feasible. I want to be a stay-at-home mom. And I don’t want writing to take over my evening-husband time or my weekend-family time. So my sitter has saved me. And for the most part, I seem to be writing as much as my non-parent full-time-writer friends even though I have a part time schedule. I think I’ve learned how to make the minutes count.
The balance is insane. I constantly have to check myself, make sure I’m making enough time for my kids and making that time count, make sure I’m not letting unnecessary things encroach on my writing time. I constantly have to remind myself that I have to say no, no, and no, again and again, to the many requests and pleas and invites I get. I feel guilty constantly. I get angry emails. I disappoint friends and extended family. I’m accused of not giving back enough. Sometimes I think only other writers understand how hard you have to fight to keep your writing time.
I can write. I can mother. And that’s it. As a writer and a mother of two children, I thought I didn’t have any spare time. And then we added twins to our family, and I wondered what I used to do with all that spare time. I cannot give up my writing. I would go insane. I would be the woman staring at the yellow wallpaper. So we’ve figured it out. I’m lucky that my husband has always been the primary wage earner, so I haven’t had that stress. Still, there’s a lot I’ve given up to keep writing and keep being a stay-at-home mom. Like social anything. Lots of book publicity. Networking opportunities. Hobbies. Yard work. Housework. Driving my kids to lots of classes and activities. Sports and interests and some friends and loads of potential friends and just about anything you can name. I’ve had to sacrifice it in order to keep writing and yet still have heaps of time for my family. I am not capable of doing it all, whatever it is. Not everyone can or is willing to live the kind of life being a writer mom demands, and I respect that absolutely. But those two things mean everything to me, and that’s how I keep going.
I take a day of rest. I usually don’t write on Saturdays and I never write on Sundays. I need a day of rest. I go to church, spend computer-free time with my family, visit relatives, read, cook, relax (as much as one can relax with four small children), try to do good works. I think this day is an important day. The demands of my story are always there, nipping at my ankles whenever I leave my computer to do my mom stuff. It’s a little exhausting. So having a day where I tell myself, “No writing today” is good for me, a way to turn off. ‘Cause the rest of the week I’m obsessive.
Writing is not a hobby. I’ve talked about this before. Writing is not safe, comforting, something you can pick up now and again like that pretty cross-stitch pattern you’ve always wanted to finish. It’s demanding. Writing a book is like adopting a child. She can’t be neglected. You can’t leave her home like a pet when you go out—the story goes with you everywhere. She needs lots of attention. Attention you want to give. But treating novel writing like any other hobby would leave me unfulfilled, frustrated, and novel-less.
I just can’t stress enough: to make something as demanding as writing work while also immersed in something as demanding as full-time parenting, I have to be so committed. Ruthlessly committed. Willing to sacrifice all other distractions. Since adding our twins, I eat less. I shower less, do my hair less, rarely wear makeup. I read less. I don’t go to plays like I used to or keep up with penpals or take care of chores and errands in a timely manner. I weed less and cook less and do all those other things that used to feel like non-negotiables a lot less, because these two little cuties demand more of my time, and I have to find other things to cut out of my life in order to save my writing. I’m brutal about it. And I’m hardcore.
I know it’s the right thing for me. I would be so unhappy if I didn’t get to write. Being the primary care giver to four small children takes a lot of focus and energy and is exquisitely rewarding in its own way, but it doesn’t always use my mind or creativity the way I need. As well, I’m addicted to progress and completion. Motherhood never ends. Books do. I need those page and draft and book completion milestones to help me measure my productivity and feel like a useful human being. Writing helps me be a better mother, helps me relax and enjoy the mothering moments more. When mama’s happy, everyone’s happy. I know some judge me for my choices, and by no means do I think my choices are right for everyone. But I couldn’t do what I do if I wasn’t absolutely sure it was the right choice for me.
Writing is one thing; publishing another. The more books I have published, the more business and publicity demands on my time, and the less time I have for writing. That’s one reason when I meet writers who are asking me about how to get published before they’ve even completed one book, I tell them, please, slow down, concentrate on your craft. Do not hurry this. You won’t be able to depend on publishing as a primary income for a long time (I still don’t), so there’s no reason to hurry it. Do not worry more about that other stuff than about how to tell the best story you can. And all of that is a lot a lot a lot harder as a mom. Writer dads I know who aren’t the primary care giver have a different situation. They can go off when they have a deadline to a hotel for a few weeks and write, or they work from morning to night for weeks on end and their wife picks up the slack. But I’m the primary care giver, and I don’t have that luxury. I don’t want it. But figuring out how to do both is stressful. Meeting deadlines, keeping up with daily word counts, juggling one draft at the same time as the copy edits come in for another book and they need it back in a week and there are publicity requests and emails and a sick baby and homework and a school recital and no one but me can do it all. Certain mother tasks cannot be hired out. And none of my writing tasks can be. So it’s stressful. And I would say, if you’d be just as happy knitting and mothering or scrapbooking and mothering as writing and mothering, then by all means, do those instead.
But if you can’t, then you know who you are and what you need to do.
I don’t think anyone should feel like they need to write. But if you are one of the unfortunates haunted by the need, and if you haven’t found a good writing routine yet, let me recommend an experiment. And this goes for whatever your passion is, not just writing. Art, music, gardening, cooking, sewing, crafting, getting that degree, starting an animal shelter, whatever. Starting tomorrow, for one week turn off your internet and TV. All week. Scary? No smart phone except for phone calls. No watching movies or shows or clips. No internet at all except—time yourself—10 minutes/day for email and then cut yourself off. Without those time fillers, reexamine your week. How much free time do you have that you didn’t think you did? How can you use it? Be brutal. Be hardcore. Start taking your passion seriously. Do it today.
“In the 101 top-grossing family films…from 1990 to 2004, of the over 4,000 characters in these films, 75% overall were male, 83% of characters in crowds were male, 83% of narrators were male, and 72% of speaking were male. When the American Psychological Association commented on this research, they said, ‘This gross under-representation of women or girls in films with family-friendly content reflects a missed opportunity to present a broad spectrum of girls and women in roles that are non-sexualised.’”—Natasha Walter, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, pages 69-70, 2010. (via bitemebeautiful)
In a recent email, a friend was telling me about how surprised she was about something and she used the phrase, “My starch dropped.” I told her, “I’ve never heard that phrase before but I love the sound of it.” She responded, embarrassed, that she’d meant to write “my stomach dropped,” but her email program must have auto-corrected. It made me realize we’ve entered a linguistic age where computers, mistakes, and faulty AI might change the human language. If my friend was famous with 2 million followers and had accidentally written “my starch dropped” on twitter, that phrase could be gaining widespread acceptance by now. Perhaps, in other circumstances, it’s already happened.
“when your little girl
asks you if she’s pretty
your heart will drop like a wineglass
on the hardwood floor
part of you will want to say
of course you are, don’t ever question it
and the other part
the part that is clawing at
will want to grab her by her shoulders
look straight into the wells of
her eyes until they echo back to you
you do not have to be if you don’t want to
it is not your job
both will feel right
one will feel better
she will only understand the first
when she wants to cut her hair off
or wear her brother’s clothes
you will feel the words in your
mouth like marbles
you do not have to be pretty if you don’t want to
it is not your job”— Caitlyn Siehl (via ellenkushner)
There is a stairway at work that I used to frequent that has been blocked from access by “repair crews” for about two weeks now, a poorly scrawled sign posted to the door to the stairs saying “No access at this level.”
I have replaced the sign with a printed one of better quality, still saying “No access at this level,” but with an added “*” referencing the following small print footer:
“*We cannot legally bar this door, so access is technically still available, but would request that you not attempt entry as the stairwell is full of potentially fatal hazards, including but not limited to: short scaffolding, tall scaffolding, buckets, mops, uncomfortable holes in the ceiling, disquieting holes in the wall, things that may or may not be pipes, knives, tripwires, caution tape, regular tape, dust, moisture, unfamiliar people in overalls, lava, troubling odors, recognizable tools, unrecognizable tools, square pegs, existential emptiness, mud, paint, and despair.”
At a workshop not too many years ago a newer writer began to condemn a best selling novel, pointing out all its flaws and jagged edges. I listened for a long time, nodding.
“All those things are true,” I said. And gave him the C.C. Finlay quote. “But until you learn what the good parts were that excited the reader, you’re always going to be bitterly upset about what is wrong with that bestseller. Learn to spot what worked in that book, and you’ll be able to move forward. And you’ll be a lot less upset all the time as well.”