If money, time, responsibilities, age, and health were no object, what would you do right now? If there were no barriers in your way, what dreams would you pursue? What goals would you try to achieve?
I think about this quite a bit. As I’ve said, I have a very long bucket list. I dream big. Even so, my “one thing” seems to be different depending on which month or year you ask me.
Today, at this moment, what I’d love to do more than anything else is pursue a Master of Fine Arts at my alma mater, Warren Wilson College. Many very talented writers have gone through that MFA program, and have gone on to win National Endowments for the Arts; Guggenheim, Radcliffe, Stegner and Hodder fellowships; the Rome Prize from the Academy of American Letters; Whiting Awards; the NAACP Image award; The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award; the Kate Tufts Discovery Award; the Juniper Prize for Fiction; the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry; the Kenyon Review Fellowship; the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy; The Howard Frank Moser Short Fiction Prize; and on and on. Even more have gone on to be published through highly acclaimed publishing houses. I genuinely think this program would push my writing to the next level.
It is a low residency program, which means I could remain in my beloved Seattle most of the time. But twice a year I would experience the delight of Western North Carolina and its Blue Ridge Mountains. And there’s something magical about the WWC campus. It is one of the most environmental and liberal campuses in the country, and it influences you. It gets into your bloodstream. You can’t go there without leaving as a more amazing you. I’ve tried to get many people to attend this fine institution. One day I hope someone will actually listen to me, because this place is a gift.
So what is holding me back? Money, first and foremost. That always seems to be my biggest hurdle. The bills won’t stop coming simply because I would prefer that my focus be elsewhere. And then of course there’s the question of time. An MFA is not a trivial pursuit. It’s not something I could squeeze in between my bridge openings at work. And unfortunately, that work is what keeps the dogs in kibble.
So unless I happen to stub my toe on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I’ll simply have to keep dreaming of a path in life that I most likely will never have a chance to take. Somewhere in an alternate universe, another me is sitting under a tree in the heart of an alternate Appalachia, learning how to be the most incredible writer she can be.
Oh, and she’s younger, thinner, in a loving relationship, and impervious to cold. Why not? Given my active imagination, I can almost content myself with that. Almost.
So now it’s your turn. What would you do, if you could do anything?
There comes a time in the creative process when you have to place your art in the hands of someone else. This happens with writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, and anyone else who forms something in his or her imagination and goes on to give it life. If you can conceive of something and make it real for others, and yet not become emotionally invested in it, you have no heart. I have yet to meet a heartless artist.
One of the best ways to feel immortal is to create something that will exist long after you’re gone. In that way, art is like procreation. In essence, your art is your baby.
Unfortunately, as a general rule, artists don’t get to spend years with their work before having to experience empty nest syndrome. I’m not simply talking about that moment when you sell your work and assume you’ll never see it again. I mean that point in the process where you have to rely on others. Editors, producers, managers, publicists, gallery owners. They all have a profound impact on the “life” of your “child.”
You are forced to loosen your grip. You have to accept the fact that you are no longer in complete control. Personally, I find this to be scary.
Once I had finished deciding what I wanted to have included in my first anthology, it then was handed over to the photographer, the editor, the cover designer… a whole host of people with their own unique visions of the final product. Yes, I still had influence. My opinions were sought out. And of course I had veto power. But relinquishing total control is extremely unsettling.
It took me quite some time to realize that that part of the process had plunged me into a low-grade depression. I wasn’t my best self at that point. And the irony is that I had total faith in my collaborators. I chose them because I respected their work. But it was still my baby that I was handing over. That is bound to have an emotional impact.
But like most parents, I’ve come to look upon my baby, now all grown up, and feel pride. I may not have any real control over the impact, or lack thereof, that my book has in the world anymore, but I really do feel that I built it on solid foundations. I gave it the best possible start. I watch it from a distance and I marvel.
If you have somehow managed to escape all my shameless self-promotion in recent months, here’s what you need to know: I wrote a book! A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude is available on Amazon.com in paperback form, and soon it will also be available as an e-book for Kindle, and Amy Sassenberg’s photos will be in color in that version! This is all very exciting for me. If you had asked me a year ago if this was to be in my future, I’d have laughed.
I have learned a lot from this experience. The biggest lesson is that it’s the readers who create the magic. I used to think authors were conjuring up amazing reading experiences, and because of that, I was in awe. But I was so incredibly wrong.
Yes, the writers do the writing, and the publishers do the publishing, but their work is lifeless and inanimate if there is no one out there to read it. A book without a reader may as well be a brick that one uses to prop open a door. An unread book gathers dust.
I am lucky in that I came to this avocation at a time in our history when reader’s feedback is easy and instantaneous. People e-mail me. They contact me on this blog. They comment in my Facebook group. They also leave much needed (and strongly encouraged) reviews on my Amazon page.
What this means is that I get to share in the magic that you, dear reader, make. I get to experience your reactions. I learn how you feel when you read the book. I discover that each reader has a different encounter with it, quite often one that I hadn’t anticipated. That’s because you are bringing your unique insights to the reading experience. That’s the ingredient that only you can provide.
I can never seem to adequately express just what that means to me. I read your reviews and your comments and I get all choked up. I get tears in my eyes. My heart feels like it swells. What a gift you have given me! Thank you so much!
This first book was about gratitude, but I had no idea just how grateful I would be for you. Thank you for giving my book life. Thank you for making my words have meaning.
Without further ado, I’ll leave you with some excerpts from my Amazon reviews, so you can see why this whole process has made me so emotional. Imagine getting compliments like these! I hope you’ll consider adding your review to their number!
“Barb is ALWAYS entertaining, and whether you agree with her or not, you will likely learn something every time you read her. She will inform, annoy, and inspire you. As a dedicated reader of her blog from the beginning, I have seen many sides of her, and watched her through grief and growth. This is her best, will make you a fan, lift your spirits, cause you to recognize things in yourself you could not articulate. She is real, she is smart, she is funny. You WILL laugh out loud at some point. You will learn SEVERAL interesting things that you did not know. And you will PONDER more than one entry for longer than you expected.” –Amazon Customer
“What a wonderful book. I keep it by my bedside so I can read a chapter before I go to bed. Since the focus of this volume is on gratitude, it’s the perfect way to get your head in the right space to go to sleep focusing on the good there is in this world. Barb is a gifted writer with keen insight into the world around her. This is a book you will keep for years. Timeless thoughts about things that matter – sometimes in big ways, sometimes subtly. It’s crazy. She makes me want to be a better person just by what she shares in her posts. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll marvel at her candor. And you’ll be really glad you bought this book.” – K. Reviews
“A wonderful read. I feel like I’m looking over Barb’s shoulder as her journey through life unfolds. Her take on situations we all encounter, often unconsciously, every day, took me from laughing to reflecting on how I might deal with the same situation. How hard it must have been to pull up roots and move 3100 miles to a place where you know no one? I’m not sure I could. I grew up on the wit and humor of Erma Bombeck and some of the posts in the book remind me of reading Erma’s wonderful writings.” –Firewalker
“This is just an introduction to the refreshingly honest world of a brave woman. As she takes you along on her journey of introspection, observation and acceptance, she challenges and inspires you to open your heart and mind. Whether you agree and identify with her insights and beliefs, or not, you can’t help but be uplifted by her commitment to them. She’s an open book worth reading and based on her prolific blog entries she has a lot more to gift us. Looking forward to see where else her journey will take us.” – Lyn
When I wrote my book and created the website for it, I had to rent a post office box. I didn’t want to put my home address out there for the whole world to see. Granted, the odds of my acquiring a stalker based on a book about gratitude are probably pretty slim. (It’s hardly a controversial subject. Delightful, yes. Divisive, no.) But hey, you never know what is going to stir someone up.
But now I have this post office box, and the subsequent guilt that comes along with it. I chronically forget to check it. (I don’t like to neglect things, even if they are inanimate.) When I do get around to paying it a visit and peeking inside, it’s generally full of junk mail. I almost find this to be a relief. I’m not being rude to anyone except advertisers, and they don’t count, right?
But the other day, nestled among the discounts for the roof repairs on a home that I don’t own and the pleas that I bundle my television services when I haven’t had a TV in years, was an important looking envelope. It had probably been sitting there for weeks. It turned out to be my very first royalty check for my book. I have no idea why, but I wasn’t expecting it.
My first paid writing gig. I’ve been published many times before, in newspapers and magazines, and I have even been included in an anthology, but there was never any compensation involved. And now here was this check.
It felt like vindication; like the thing I love to do finally has value. But that’s kind of silly, because I’ve gotten so much value from the feedback of readers, and from the pride I feel when I publish a particularly well written post. The ability to express myself is also priceless. But these things are intangible. Here was this check. In my hand. Right here.
I took it home. I sat with it for a long time. I crowed a tiny bit on Facebook. Then I set about giving a fair share to those who had collaborated with me, and donated a dollar for every book sold to StoryCorps, since they’re the ones who sent me on this amazing journey in the first place. And what a wonderful journey it has been!
What was left of the check won’t even cover the rental of that aforementioned guilt-laden post office box. But just holding that check in my hand… that was an amazing feeling.
As anyone who regularly reads my blog knows, I spend a great deal of time on my drawbridge, watching the world in minute detail. I know the routines of hundreds of people. I know who owns what dog. I know the cycles of the seasons, the migration patterns, and the angles of the sun at different times of the year. These things inspire this blog and my book.
Until today it never occurred to me that there are other people who do this—watch the world closely and quietly. I came across this article about a guy who just got a job at Target, and he writes about the things he observed on his first few days. He looks at his customers and describes them with humor and delight. I suspect that most people don’t even realize he’s observing them as he rings up their purchases.
Come to think of it, I bet there are a lot of watchers in this world besides bridgetenders. Bus drivers, security guards, waiters, cashiers, taxi drivers… Watching the world and thinking deeply about it is the best way on earth to avoid going insane with boredom. It’s also a wonderful way to learn and grow.
It makes me wonder how often I’m being scrutinized without my even being aware of it. No doubt it happens frequently. I don’t mind being studied in this benevolent fashion. How could I, when I do it all the time myself? But it makes me wonder what these observers are thinking, and what stories they write about me in their heads. It kind of makes me sad that I’m oblivious (mostly due to time constraints and shyness), because I suspect these people have some fascinating stories to tell.
I never really thought about the length of my blog entries until I put 120 of them into my first book, A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude. Then suddenly it became an issue because I noticed that some entries would fill a page and then continue on to the next page for merely one or two lines. That’s not very aesthetically pleasing.
So, should I “pad” those particular entries to make them longer, or shorten them by a few lines? When I considered either option I had an almost visceral reaction. It felt wrong to me in the same way it feels wrong when people pierce their infants’ ears. It felt like a violation.
I’ve always had a strong sense of when I’m saying too much or not enough. When I’ve made my point, I stop. Because of this, I’ve always chafed at writing assignments that have to be a minimum of, for example, 1,000 words. What if I’ve produced writing perfection at word 978? What then? Does it have less value for lack of 22 words? I absolutely hate stuffing fluff in between what I consider to be valid points just so I can satisfy some teacher’s sense of equity.
It also annoys me when a writer underestimates the intelligence of his or her readers. You don’t have to beat people over the head with your message. Just put it out there, clearly and concisely. They’ll either get it or they won’t.
Just as a good cook can sense the temperature of a steak without having to slice it open, I’ve always been able to rely on my instincts regarding getting my message across. So yeah, some of my blog entries will be a lot shorter than others. State your case and then move on. That’s my philosophy.
Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d utter. I’ve never considered myself to be particularly hot, and I’m definitely not new. But I am, indeed, a Hot New Release, and I’ve got the screen shot to prove it. I’m thinking of having this tattooed on my behind.
Once my very first book, A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude became available on Amazon.com, a friend of mine suggested that I scroll down to the product details section and click on the ranking information, and ta-da! There my book was, number one in the hot new releases for its category. It even became number one in best sellers for its category for a hot minute, there. So I can now officially call myself an Amazon Best Seller. It’s ridiculous how proud this makes me feel.
And then, finally, I got to hold a copy of my book (My book. My book!) in my hands for the very first time. My first impression was that it felt heavy to me. Solid. Substantial. Are books usually this heavy? I’ve never noticed. Or maybe I’ve been reading my kindle for too long. Regardless. It’s 318 pages. Thicker than I anticipated. A lot of that has to do with the wonderful photography of Amy Sassenberg that was included. But still. It’s… real.
I’ve got to say that seeing my book for the first time brought tears to my eyes. Is this what it’s like to gaze upon your newborn baby? It kind of feels that way. I want to hold it close and keep it safe and at the same time show it off.
I feel like shouting, “See what I made?” Actually, I’m not going to lie. I’ve done that. A couple of times. And it feels great.