When I was sixteen, I had a filing cabinet. It was a squat, two-drawer model in an ugly greying-chocolate color. I spray painted it with something meant to make it look like granite, but it actually made it look more like driveway gravel. No matter. The drawers worked. I had files of mementos and poems I’d written, brochures and pictures from trips. Unlike today’s files of “2011 Taxes” and “Kelly-Medical”, my files were named things like “Far Behind – A play about AIDS” or “Sophomore Year Poems.” I’d been writing forever, but high school was when I made it a job.
I’ve been this way – the kind of person who organizes everything, the kind of person who makes lists and tics the boxes – for almost two decades. It’s what I know. Often times, it serves me well. In my teaching life, I’ve managed to figure out the system that works for me in terms of grading and preparation. I’m able to create meaningful lessons and I’m able to keep up with a fairly accelerated pace of grading, all the while not taking home work on the weekends more than once or twice a semester.
It’s also a method that I use more loosely in my home life by following recipes and making grocery lists or lists of chores to get done. With these lists, though, I’m much more lax than I am in my professional life. If I find something at the grocery store that isn’t on the list, I might buy it just because I want it. If I don’t get all my chores done in one day, or even all my grading done in one afternoon, then it rolls on over to the next day – or even longer.
I’m also a list-maker in terms of my writing, both in terms of the act of creation and composition as well as the mile-markers I see as evidence of my success. I work better with a deadline. I like having an end in sight. And, for the most part, this has worked for me. When I was writing my first book, I wanted to be done in a month. I was. I then moved on to working on finding an agent. Within six months, I had representation. But, after that – well, my goal setting hasn’t really served me well. I mean, I still do it – it’s so ingrained in my psyche that it’s just who I am and how I function.
However, I’ve had to come to a few conclusions about the way I work and write and how to negotiate that with publishing:
1. Publishing’s timeline and my timeline are very, very different.
2. Unlike me, publishing doesn’t get impatient.
3. Unlike me, publishing isn’t holding its breath until it gets an email from my agent, editor, or anyone remotely related to my writing career.
4. Publishing doesn’t really care about me.
Which is not to say that my agent or editor or publishing house do not care about me – I have concrete proof to the contrary, in fact. My agent, Hannah, and editor at Walker, Mary Kate, are my biggest cheerleaders, next to my mom, my husband, and my four year old son. But none of those people, no matter how much they love me or how much they want me to succeed, can change the way publishing works. It works how it works, which is to say SLOWLY.
I’ve always felt in control of my own destiny and I’ve never understood people who don’t subscribe to that theory. Only you can change your life. Only you can make things happen. And that is true – to an extent. But when it comes to being a writer, sometimes it’s just out of your hands. In fact, anything that isn’t the actual writing itself is mostly likely controlled by another source or person. Which makes goal setting in the publishing world – at least in terms of time frame – a lot like setting up a unicorn farm: possible, exciting, but not necessarily gratifying or real.
Many people would consider my timeline in terms of publishing fairly short. I wrote my first MS in October/November of 2008 and my first book (a different MS) is being published this spring. That’s about 4 ½ years from concept to actualization and, in publishing, that’s not a long time at all. I should be grateful. I AM grateful. But there are days when I’m waiting for word on something or times when I just want to write all day long (i.e. wish I could quit my job and sit in a cabin, subsidized by my lucrative and fictional writing career.)
Those times make me frustrated. I still have goals in terms of writing. My one, ultimate goal, is to get to a point over the next five years where I can teach part time (half the year) and spend the other half writing. Putting a five year timeline on that feels like an eternity, but I know better than I did four years ago. I know that my goals can’t be self-actualized when it comes to actual money, and unfortunately, my family needs that to live. I don’t want to be rich – I just want to make enough money that splitting my salary in half wouldn’t force us to foreclose on our house.
So, now what? What do I do instead? What goals do I set?
I was reading one of my favorite Barbara Kingsolver books, Animal , Vegetable, Miracle, the other day and she mentioned the time she found a shortcut driving home. She was so impressed with her own accomplishment and the fact that she saved 37 minutes of driving, but her grandfather was less than thrilled. “Congratulations,” he said, “you’ve just spent 15 minutes telling the story of your amazing shortcut. What are you going to do with the other 22?”
The idea of this stopped me up short. The time I have now, the time I’m theoretically twiddling my thumbs and banging my head against the wall waiting for the world to make my dreams come true, is best spent in two ways – loving more and writing more. I’m spending the time with my family to make up for the future weekends and evenings when they won’t get more than a “hello” from me. I’m canning and cooking like mad so that the homemade meals I’m making now will be remembered on the days of Chinese takeout. I’m hiking with my son. I’m eating on the deck with my husband. I’m spending lots of afternoons in my parents’ backyard. I can do this right now. I need to appreciate that. I’ll be able to do it later, too, but right now I don’t have to feel guilty about shirking any kind of responsibility.
As for writing more – well, I’m doing that, too. But, I’m actually doing more of what I like to call research, which is reading. I’m reading so much – YA, of course, but lots of cooking books and nonfiction. I’m learning more about things that interest me. I’m spending quiet moments thinking about my process before I actually move forward with hands to the keyboard. I’m taking my time. It’s something I’ve never done before, a skill I had to teach myself.
Kelly Fiore's debut, Taste Test, about a teen cooking competition and the drama that ensues, is forthcoming in Spring 2013 from Walker Books for Young Readers/Bloomsbury USA. You can catch up with Kelly at www.kellyfiorewrites.com or on Twitter at @kellyannfiore.