Julianna Baggott’s Pep Talk
Dear NaNoWriMo Author,
You’re hearty stock. This is obvious. You don’t have prissy notions about the muse as some airy thing that sometimes does and sometimes does not alight on your shoulder. And I like this about you. It is, in fact, one of your most endearing qualities.
If you look at the world one way, it takes from you—it’s a thief of time, energy, creative mojo. But if you look at the world another way, it gives you an endless supply of motivation. Here are a few things that the world offers (in furious fistfuls) that get my butt into the chair: petty jealousy, the chip on my shoulder (a slight deformity I was born with), my kids’ pending orthodontia bills, guilt of the Catholic variety, rejection, and, on a Freudian level: my parents’ love.
And now my tips:
Polish your jealousy to a high shine—like the chrome of a well-loved Mustang.
My jealousy took the form of the phrase “two-book deal with Dutton.” My student, Sharon Mitchell, who went on to become #2 on the African American Bestseller’s list for her first novel Nothin’ But the Rent, had just gotten a two-book deal with Dutton. I hadn’t. I was her teacher. I’d been at this, seemingly forever. She was a psychologist, dabbling in the novel. This phrase haunted me: “two-book deal with Dutton, two-book deal with Dutton.” Luckily, I couldn’t shake it. At that point we were running a boarding house out of our home, and my desk was in the living room. Every night I went to bed, after turning off my computer, late at night, and it had a light that, even when the computer was off, blinked at me across the room. Each time it blinked it said, “Two-book deal with Dutton, two-book deal with Dutton.”
Ditto the chip on your shoulder. Treat it well. Feed it crackers, and maybe it’ll turn into a parakeet—one of those blue ones who knows how to cuss.
Luckily I was born a scrawny fourth child after a suspiciously long gap. I was forever trying to prove that I could hang with the conversation, that I was a good enough athlete to be chosen for Kick-the-Can-Dodge-Ball (a virulent strain of Kick the Can that entailed hurling a ball at someone when you snuck up on them in a hiding spot). I eventually grew into a vicious field hockey player in high school, known for shoving in the box. I liked the tall itchy socks, the pleated skirts, the wooden sticks, even the mouth guards, but most of all I liked that I was shorter and scrawnier than everyone else on the field—because they expected nothing from me. If you lavish the chip on your shoulder, you will always be the underdog, and I’ve found this—for me—is the best place to write from. Every insult, every slight, every underestimation—I take comfort in these days, because I know they’re rocket fuel.
Stare at your children’s crooked teeth or imagine the crooked teeth of your imaginary children. If this doesn’t work, jump straight to college tuition. This writing could pay off at some point.
Nowadays, I write because it’s my job. I go to work, just as any fishmonger would, and at the dinner table, we often end up talking about the business as a fishmonger would talk about the discount prices he’s got going on salmon. I write because I have four kids, and although kids start out pretty cheap—especially the breastfed variety—they do add up. Frankly, almost anything times four is pricey—-like jimmies on ice cream. (Do they all need jimmies on their ice creams? Turns out, they do.) Piano lessons times four. Orthodontia times four. College education times four. It gets ugly quickly. And although I’d write if I made no money whatsoever, I do use money as a motivation. And, who knows? You could sell this novel you’re working on … It’s been done … Regardless, if money motivates you, use it.
Remember Vocation Day at your grade school. If you’ve got a nun rattling around in there, remember how she told you not to ignore a gift from God. Try to think of writing as a gift—more complexly put: it is the curse and the cure.
For me, writing has become like breathing—a necessary exchange with my environment. If I get too much air, hold my breath, I’ll pass out. If I take too many breaths, I hyperventilate. Writing is how I sort the world. I allow it its mess. I don’t make sense of it. I witness and rummage until I feel better. The more I write, the more I need to write? Maybe. Maybe so.
As for my nun, yes, I had a good one. Sister John Marie. Faith is involved in this writing curse and cure—but I’d rather not go into all of that here. (You’ve got a novel to write. I won’t dawdle.)
Invite rejection in. Offer it a drink. Become pals-y-wals-y. Don’t fight it even when it goads you with inflammatory politics and ribald jokes.
This business offers endless opportunities for rejection—even in the most successful careers. (At a certain point, you just have the opportunity to fail bigger, no?) In any case, rejection is guaranteed. And if you haven’t been rejected as a writer yet, look forward to it. And when it happens, cherish it. It’s a sign of authorial authenticity. Also, rejection is a spur, if you see it the right way. A beautifully sharp spur.
When all else fails, call your parents just to talk about the weather and termites and hip replacements.
We all want our parents’ love. We might hide it – most of all from ourselves. But it’s there so you may as well use it, too, on top of all else.
Plus, a reminder of your own mortality can do wonders to drive you to the page.
That’s a sampling of what gets my butt in the chair.
What keeps it there? (This is the most important part. In fact, if you get this part, you can forget all of the above.)
A love of this mad work, the thrumming in the chest, this pure desire to tell it.
You can learn more about Julianna Baggott’s writing here.