Life in a Dry Lakebed

The U.S. Deep South is known for heat, humidity, and the occasional hurricane. But two years ago, we were in the midst of a drought. If we weren’t exactly hoping for a hurricane, we would have welcomed a tropical storm.

It was early fall, and after weeks of little to no rain, the oak trees wilted. The leaves faded to a greenish-beige, like day-old avocado flesh.

The soil turned sandy in some places and hard as terra cotta in others. The pastures were parched, and what grass was left was brown and crunchy underfoot.

After several more weeks of dry weather, our lake receded. The water retreated from the maple trees lining the shore, revealing more and more of the lake floor. Bream, bass and mud turtles crammed into an ever-shrinking stagnant pool. The ground cracked into muddy puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit together.

dry lake bed

It was about this time that our twenty-odd Katahdin sheep broke through the fence, wandered into the yard, and ate my potted red geraniums — retaliation for confining them to their pasture.

Over the next few days, we got into a pattern: they would escape through the fence, my husband and I would lure them back with a bucket of sweet corn. Again and again.

Giving In

Eventually, they wore us down; we knew we were beat. They needed more vegetation than their small pasture could provide, so we closed our front gate and let them roam over the whole fifty acres. And though I resented the loss of my flowers and the pebble-size droppings sprinkled over the yard (walking was tricky), the sheep were quite happy with this arrangement.

They ranged far into the woods during the day, and at night, they’d camp in the front yard close to the house. We’d peer out our bedroom window and watch them, frozen in place, sleeping on their feet. Or more eerie still, the ghostly figures would drift across the lawn in the darkness, their emerald eyes glowing.

The Wasteland

As the drought persisted, I’d walk past the dying lake on my way to the mailbox and bemoan the water loss.

I missed the reflection of the trees and clouds on the mirrored surface. I missed the gray heron and the snowy egrets fishing in the shallows. The not-so-attractive Muscovy ducks and loons. They’d all left for deeper waters.

The lake bottom was an ugly wasteland that smelled of rot.

But sometimes the death of one thing gives life to another. And just when you’ve filled your empty cup with cynicism, a dry lakebed surprises you.

Hope Springs

At first, the dirt took on a mossy hue. Then vegetation sprouted from the mud which, over the next few days, grew tall and thick.

Glossy, lush grass. The flock feasted on it, spending long days in the lakebed, until their bellies grew big and round and they were satisfied.

sheep eating in dry lake bed

When winter came, the rains returned and replenished the lake. The drought ended, but so did our days as sheep farmers. After years of battling predators, especially coyotes, we were losing the war.

Quite unexpectedly but providentially, an elderly man in overalls knocked on our door one afternoon. He’d seen the sheep from the highway and wondered if we would sell them.

Yes, we said reluctantly.

This Baptist preacher said he knew a lot about raising sheep. I suspect he knew something about shepherding humans, too. In the end, no money changed hands. We gave them away.

He called not too long ago. “I didn’t want you to worry,” he said. “The sheep are thriving.”

As sad as I was to give them up, his call reassured me. They’re in a better place now. A safer place, with a good shepherd, lots of fresh grass and, hopefully, a lake of their own.

cropped-single-white-bird-on-lake.jpg

 

 

Why You Should Compare Yourself to Others

When Comparison Hurts

This morning I read a post from a fellow blogger. It was succinct, engrossing, fairly long, and beautiful. I thought about it while struggling to write this post.

My thoughts don’t flow like this other author. His sentences are pithier, his images more vivid. He writes from the heart and pulls the reader in with emotional impact. And he does it quickly. He couldn’t have labored over the piece for days because it contains recent information. I picture him at his laptop, fingers flying, never looking up until the entire post is finished and published ten minutes later. And it’s brilliant.

This hurts a little. Why can’t I do that? I am exceedingly, excruciatingly, agonizingly slow.

Some will say, Don’t compare yourself to others. I know they mean well. And I get it: it’s hard to be grateful for your ’96 Dodge when your colleague drives a new Jaguar. And that two-bedroom apartment doesn’t seem as spiffy after you visit your relative’s mountainside mansion with the dolphin-shaped pool, guest house, and scenic view.

It’s hard to be proud of your own accomplishments when they seem

small

compared to others’.

But comparison isn’t the problem. Coveting is. And that’s a response I can choose to indulge or not.

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Only it’s not. COVETING is the thief of joy.

 

Comparison is Not a Thief — It’s a Teacher

Ira Glass, producer and host of “This American Life,” expressed the struggles of creative people in a video a few years ago, and an excerpt of his talk shows up periodically on writing sites. He offers encouragement to writers whose work doesn’t live up to their aspirations. (He was speaking off the cuff, if this transcription seems jerky. Listen to it in his voice here.)

“Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me…we get into it because we have good taste. But…THERE’S A GAP, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…It’s trying to be good, but it’s not quit that good. But your TASTE, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is still good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you…A lot of people never get past that phase. And a lot of people at that point, they QUIT. And the thing I would like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of YEARS where they had really good taste, and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short

The most important possible thing you could do is DO A LOT OF WORK. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline, so that every week or every month, you know you’re going to finish the story. BECAUSE IT’S ONLY BY ACTUALLY GOING THROUGH A VOLUME OF WORK THAT YOU ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO CATCH UP AND CLOSE THAT GAP. AND THE WORK YOU’RE MAKING WILL BE AS GOOD AS YOUR AMBITIONS.”

And this is why comparison is a good thing, because it forms our taste. When I read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, it raises my standard. It improves my taste. And if I will analyze his exquisite writing, I may see the mechanism behind his lyrical prose and learn how to lift my own writing to new heights.

If I can humble myself and shun covetous self-pity when I read better authors, I will make progress. 

Maybe sometimes what we need is MORE comparison, not less.

 

 

 

When an Editor Is a Bad Fit

I wrote a novel. It was technically my second — I completed my first novel for NaNoWriMo in 2013. But I hid it away, and I have no regrets on that score. It was truly terrible.

I spent three months on the first draft of my second story. This was THE story I wanted to tell, the one that came from deep down. It gushed out of me like a geyser in the space of three months. Then I rewrote

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Image by Mitchell Joyce via Flickr

it three times over the next five years.

During those years, I read a million writing books and took a course on novel structure. I submitted chapters to Critique Circle – a great place to learn from other writers and readers.

I polished the story as much as I could, but I needed expert advice to mold it into a masterpiece worthy of the greats: Austen, Bronte, Dickens. Well, at least to make it good enough to self-publish.

To reach my goal, I hired a highly recommended editor (who shall remain nameless) and sent her the first five chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t expect coddling. I expected criticism. How else could I improve the story? I wanted criticism.

I got it. Plenty of it. On every page. As I read through her sometimes blunt comments on the first couple of chapters, I saw many errors I had missed. She pointed out other elements I had failed to develop. But she was spot-on, and I knew I was getting my money’s worth. I was enthusiastic about revising…

Until I got to her comments on the fifth chapter in which I introduced another prominent character, the Love Interest.

In a nutshell, the editor told me not to “waste my time” on the novel because this character was fatally flawed.

I am, admittedly, sensitive. If, like me, you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve – or if you insert your heart into your story — BEWARE. Less-than-gentle (yes, harsh) criticism can cause acute myocardial infarction.

I have also been known for taking things too personally. But in this case, it felt personal. You see, anxiety and I are old friends, and the character in question suffered with an anxiety disorder. The editor couldn’t believe that someone with severe anxiety could also be high-functioning and rational in other respects. Ouch!

I asked many questions about her conclusion and explained the character arc — her growth from fear and solitude to strength and victory.

The editor stood her ground.

It’s been a year, and I haven’t had the fortitude to delve back into my novel since I received feedback. At the same time, I can’t get the story out of my system. It haunts me. Family and friends have encouraged me to send the chapters to a different editor. Maybe I will.

Over the past few years I’ve submitted short stories to four other editors. Each offered words of instruction and encouragement while not sparing the red marks in my manuscripts. They made my stories better without crushing my spirit. They were worth every penny.

Hopefully, my experience will help someone else. So here are a few lessons I’ve learned:

1) Don’t wait FIVE YEARS before you get professional advice on your story. A good editor will catch developmental weaknesses that will save you time in the long run. And everyone needs an editor because everyone has blind spots. Even editors need editors. You may not agree with everything they recommend, but they will catch mistakes you missed.

2) If you don’t gel with one editor, hire another. You are paying them to HELP you, not tear you down. Some people will say it’s their job to tell you the cold hard truth, but the WAY they tell it can encourage or discourage, inspire or demoralize. Find a professional who gives it to you straight in a constructive way.

3) If you feel strongly about a story, don’t allow ONE person’s opinion to hold you back. I’m still learning this lesson.

Perhaps this should be number four: if you can’t work with one editor, don’t wait a whole year before you find another. Maybe it’s time to dig through the box by my easy chair and pull out that manuscript…

 

 

The Myth of Perfection

I read a wonderful little book by Kristine Kathryn Rusch titled The Pursuit of Perfection and How It Harms Writers.

She says, “I spend most of my time in the craft workshops that I teach repairing damage done years, sometimes decades, earlier. That damage isn’t deliberately malicious. It comes from the assumption that perfect stories not only exist, but can be revised into existence.”

Hmm. I’m guilty of this faulty thinking — that if I revise a short story one more time, I’ll remove any weak dialogue or plot elements. My characters will shine with authenticity. My grammar and punctuation will be stellar without a comma out of place. The story will be practically perfect in every way.

I’m guilty of not showing anyone my manuscript (or blog post) because it might contain errors, those little gremlins that lurk unseen until you click “Publish.”

I’m guilty of not finishing a piece (or worse, not starting at all) because I’m afraid I can’t get it “right.” I become paralyzed by the fear of failure.

Of course my writing is far from perfect. It will always contain errors. It could always be better.

Here’s Rusch again:

When you strive for perfection in your writing, you’re dooming yourself to perpetual failure.”

Producing an error-free story isn’t the goal.

Voltaire quote perfect

I should aim to write a story that touches the reader and says something meaningful rather than one that follows all the rules at the expense of art. Like the pianist who plays Chopin with precision, every note spot-on, but his music lacks feeling. It is lifeless.

If I wait until a piece is flawless, I won’t put it out there at all. In fact, I’m tempted to spend more time on this post. If I worked on it for a few weeks, it might be almost perfect. I could make it funnier, clearer, deeper…

“Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit…Then release your book on an unsuspecting public. The book will never be perfect.”

But it can be good. And that’s enough.