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S.H.A.M.E. vs. S.M.A.R.T

Me as GandolfHey, fellow writerly women! We have added JENNIFER, NATASHA, COLLEEN and EMII -- at least they're our newest commenters. We are officially a creative body, so it seems appropriate to start today's post with a story. It's non-fiction, autobiographical, and I'll try really hard not to embroider or self deprecate. Too much.

Okay, so last September I participated in a week-long Break Out Novel Intensive (BONI) with Donald Maass and his teaching staff. If you ever have the opportunity to attend one, or even one of his weekend gigs, do it. When I did this back in 2006, it changed the way I wrote forever. Because my retirement from one-on-one mentoring was on the horizon last fall and I was chomping (or is it "champing," horse people?) to get back to full-time writing, I thought it would be a good idea to take a refresher course.

Who am I kidding? I wanted to see if I have the chops for the general market, having had all of my books published in the Christian world. I know what I'm doing, right? If I'm honest (and I'm really trying to be), I was looking for strokes.

I got some --  "some" being the operative word. Each of us had the opportunity to submit a synopsis of our work in progress as well as a number of pages for critique by each of the four staff people. I valued all of their opinions, yet I was most anxious to have my one-on-one with Don because he has been my mentor (unbeknownst to him!) for 13 years. Our meeting wasn't scheduled until Day 5, and by that time, I had a ton of ideas for revisions to what was then a 400-page manuscript that wasn't even close to being finished. But I decided not to go in there babbling about all of that. I only had 25 minutes, and I wanted to hear everything he had to say.

What was I thinking?

It started off great, actually. He said my 50 pages reminded him of a play by Neil Simon (one of my favorite playwrights). He said it was reminiscent of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," a t.v. show he loves. And then he looked me straight in the eye and said, "And I was completely confused."    I actually laughed right out loud. The man's comic timing is impeccable. Seriously, all week during our lectures I kept thinking that if the New York literary agent thing ever dried up on him, he could totally make it doing stand-up.

Then he got serious. My protagonist, he told me, starts off too weak -- not the way she's written but the way she is. I did that intentionally, but he thought that was a bad choice. In case you haven't picked up on it, Donald Maass is not warm and fuzzy when it comes to giving feedback. Just sayin'. Then he went on to say that the story needs to be bigger. "I want you to think Jodi Piccoult big," he said. "Keep asking yourself, 'so what?' Because right now, that's what I'm asking myself as I read your synopsis."


Truly, I was still laughing. Not that many people can keep you in stitches at the same time they're tearing you apart. It's a gift.

Mind you, that wasn't all he gave me. He told me the writing was GOOD. He said I had a strong commercial fiction voice, that the reader is in good hands with me. He liked the humor and the surprises and the fact that my protagonist's writing critique group helps her investigate a murder. But do you think THAT is what I took back to my hotel room with me?

If you've answered "yes," I have been fooling you for years. If you answered "no,"  you are right on. I didn't cry. (That might have made me feel better). I didn't throw things around the room and curse him for being an unfeeling cad. (He isn't.) I actually sat down, looked at my stuff and went, "Well du-uh! I KNEW that! Dang it, I KNEW ALL of that. What have I been thinking for 400 freakin' pages?!"

I set everything aside because clearly I was in no shape to start making revisions at that moment, and it was too early for a glass of wine. So I turned to the literature I'm using in recovery from workaholism -- and there it was. Exactly what I needed. The writer said she was constantly being challenged by S.H.A.M.E. Here's the best part:


If I laughed out loud in my interview with Don Maass, I absolutely guffawed when I read that. Since no one that I know of has been reading my journals or my mind, this person was voicing what many if not MOST of us believe at some point in our careers: we should have already mastered everything. 

And you know the deeper level of that for me? There are people who think I actually HAVE. That marvelous drawing at the top of the post (by our own GLORIA) is her rendition of me as Gandalf. You know -- the wise one? The one everybody turns to for answers and guidance and uncanny insights? I've always genuinely dismissed that, but when I was sitting there reeling from my mentor's feedback, I realized I had  believed I SHOULD be that person when it came to writing fiction. With Gloria

And I'm so not.

None of us is.

But that's only part of the story. Not long after I got home I was journaling about that rendition of the concept of shame, and I decided I needed to come up with its opposite, its antidote. Here's what came to me:


It's the -ing that makes all the difference. Still learnING. Still experimentING.  Still stretchING. Still growING as a novelist. And as a person.

Also, do you see the word "should" in there? Yeah, there are no "shoulds" in creativity. Otherwise, we might as well all just bag it right now. And I don't want any of us to give it up. You wouldn't be here if you didn't have talent, a gift, a calling. Nor would you be reading this if you had it all figured out.  You'd be signing your multi-million dollar contract. Although not even the best selling authors have mastered it all, and they would be the first to tell you that.

Now, let me be clear: Don Maass was not trying to shame me. I took care of that all by my sweet self. In fact, his last words to me on Sunday at the end of the intensive were "Think big." So thinking big is that right thing I'm working on mastering.

What about you, writerly women? Will you tell us what you (mistakenly) think you should already have mastered as a writer? And will you also tell us what next right thing you're mastering as we speak? We will help you toss out the "shoulds" and celebrate your "ings" with you. Can't wait to hear.


Nancy Rue