This week I’ve been listening to Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong in the little red Ford Escape to and from work. Risking criticism for excessive use of alliteration, Brene Brown is a brave beautiful brilliant writer. And her book is bringing me to my knees. I am face down in the arena Brene. Get the book and you’ll understand the reference.
The book is making me think. And more importantly it is making me feel. Lots of feels. More feels than I can process in the twenty-minute drive to work. So I’m doing it here, in my safe space, and I’m sharing it with you, which doesn’t feel safe at all. Wearing my vulnerability on my sleeve, risking emotional exposure and shame is scary. I’m feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
One of the biggest feelings that Rising Strong has brought me face-to-face with this week is that of disappointment. Raw, unvarnished, unrestrained and intense, really fucking big disappointment. It sucks. I’ve been rumbling with this feeling all week but in truth, it’s been lurking in every single landscape of my life for years. I just couldn’t properly identify it until now. The hardest part is how personal it is. I can’t blame or point the finger at any other person, place or thing. It’s pointing directly at me. I am the bullseye. Me. Me. Me.
At the top of the list of disappointments – Summer in a Red Mustang with Cookies, a novel by boo king.
This is particularly grim because it was a story I was born to tell. The first draft was written back in the Toronto days when my oldest daughter was a wee one. For three or four years during her afternoon naps, I cranked out the first draft to three novels. Back then, naively, I thought writing a novel was just in the telling, which is what draft one is all about. I was not interested in going back in and doing the really hard work of editing and re-writing and re-writing and re-writing until I got it right. I just wanted to tell the stories and express myself creatively. And then move on. Kind of like my feelings. Move on from any of them that make me the least bit uncomfortable. True story.
Those three novels didn’t get past draft one. Eventually after twelve years, a modest career in Advertising as a copywriter, and one life-altering separation, I moved away from Toronto. I left with my two older kids, three cats, about a thousand bucks in cash that I made at a garage sale, overdrawn on my overdraft, no husband, no partner in crime, no job prospects, no security, no nothing, and headed west to Victoria looking for a brighter future and my happily ever after.
I got that. Well, sort of. I got a job in a small boutique design firm, found an apartment in the top floor of a house owned by a newlywed couple, met a man who didn’t fit, met another man who I fell in love with, got pregnant, declared bankruptcy, moved a few times, changed jobs, but kept working and working and working. Not as a writer but as a Production Manager/Producer. The writing stopped when I left Toronto. And it was killing me.
Since childhood, writing has always been my thing. The painfully shy girl’s voice, the saving grace, the outlet, means of expression, the avenue and channel for all my feelings, thoughts and emotions. I learned to read and then I started to write. Not doing it, felt wrong. I was ill at ease for years. Not right in my skin. I didn’t feel like me.
At the direction, and wise counsel of my best friend, who simply would not tolerate my whining about not writing, I began as she advised: one word at a time. Best advice ever and just one of the many reasons why I love her and why we’re lifelong friends.
Of the three first drafts I had written in Toronto, one of the stories haunted me, demanding that I pay attention and do something with it. I blushed with secret embarrassment reading the earnest and unbridled words of a much younger me, and then I immediately went to work flushing out the story. New characters emerged, old ones fell away but the main character, Jo survived and then magic happened. A completely new story was born around Jo. The “Summer” novel bore very little resemblance to the original first draft but that first draft was the impetus that lit the fire.
Because I was working full time, had three kids and little free time, I mapped out my daily writing time before the rest of the family got up. For almost four years I got up at 4:00 am and wrote before I did anything else. It was that important to me. At first, one word at a time, then one sentence and then one paragraph, page, chapter, entire novel. This time, I wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote again and again and again. I was a ruthless, unsentimental and detached editor of my own work, a skill I had learned as a copywriter in Toronto. Then in February and March of 2001, within five weeks of each other, both my parents died. The novel was getting close to completion but not nearly ready for anyone other than me to read it.
I worked through my grief by writing. I became obsessed with completing the novel, with creating something that Ma and The Old Man would have been proud of. I stepped up my writing to include evenings and weekends. It was my passion, my magnificent obsession, my channel for dealing with sorrow and loss, and a tribute to my parents. It was a fictionalized version of our story. And in that frame of mind, I was determined to publish it. No one was going to stand in my way. No one.
By then, wrongly or rightly, I believed I wouldn’t be able to cope with, nor bear, any form of rejection or further loss. I also believed I didn’t have the strength, courage or wherewithal to jump through the hoops necessary to acquire a traditional publisher. The mere thought of receiving rejection letters was beyond endurable. I just could not do it. At least the story I told myself.
I decided to publish the novel myself. By this time I was a seasoned Production Manager and I knew how to pull a creative team together to get it done. To put it in perspective, in Canada self-publishing was in its infancy, so was blogging and social media, and there were very few Indie producers and artists. Nothing like it is today.
Fragile complicated emotions aside, the thought of undertaking a project of this scope intrigued and excited me. I hooked up with Trafford Publishing who handled all the publishing and legal stuff, hired my own talented crew of design and production professionals, proofreaders and beta readers, and solicited the feedback and candor of my best friend and editorial sounding board. Shortly before Christmas 2001, the book was published. With the exception of my children, it was my greatest accomplishment.
Seventeen years later, it is my greatest disappointment. It is at the very top of a long list of huge commercial failures – the novel, the book for girl warriors, the speaking engagements, the storytelling, the website, the girl warrior productions, the interviews, the t-shirts, the blogging, the poetry writing, the songwriting, the social media, the recordings and the guided meditations. Personal and professional flops each and every one. It’s exhausting just thinking about it. But Summer in a Red Mustang with Cookies hurts the most. The palpable pain of that disappointment is the worst, the fucking worst.
I didn’t have the courage and I wasn’t brave. Worse yet, I didn’t even try. And because I was unwilling to risk rejection by a traditional publisher, this funny heartbreaking little story, this homage to my parents, siblings, friends, neighbors and the redneck northwestern Ontario town where I grew up never took flight, never found its wings, and worst of all, never found its readers. And that’s all on me.
But it’s also on me that I acknowledge and accept that I feel this disappointment. It’s real and it’s okay, or it will be. It’s also on me that I am completely vulnerable, curious and have my heart wide open to all ‘the feels’ that will come. It’s also on me to keep rumbling with these feelings and to Rise Strong. And most importantly, it’s also on me to continue writing and storytelling no matter what.
Get Rising Strong here:
Learn more about Brene Brown here: