I lowered myself to the mat and felt every joint complaining.
“Honor your intentions,” the instructor was saying. “What intention are you bringing to the mat today?”
“Just to be able to get up off the mat again,” I muttered.
I never intended to be here, on this yoga mat. Yoga, I always thought, is for sissies. Or maybe for Californians. I’m a runner, a hiker and a backpacker. Or, in bad weather, a gym rat. I lift and climb. I don’t bend and stretch.
That’s for sure. My downward dog looked like it was dying, compared to that showoff next to me in her spandex and braids, her butt in the air. My Happy Baby pose was a dead opossum.
Meanwhile, the instructor looks like she’s floating. “If you can’t hold the bottom of your foot, hold your thigh or your calf,” she croons. “Make this accessible. Have a conversation with your body.”
My body wasn’t interested in conversation. It was too busy yelling.
“We are chest breathers,” the yoga instructor said. “Make this moment, this time on the mat, about filling your body with the oxygen it needs. Focus on your breath.”
Oh! She was right, I realized the next day, as I was charging through my grocery store and Christmas shopping lists. I was practically panting from stress. I made myself stop and have a cup of tea.
Gradually, I am discovering that yoga isn’t only about breathing and posture, but, like everything important in life, it is about intention. About embracing everything this moment has to offer. And that’s having an enormous impact on my writing.
In my work life, I’m a novelist on deadline. A tight deadline. I’ve been trying to wrestle my characters into submission, warning them that they’d better behave or we won’t make the editor’s deadline. They were fighting with me until I began asking them the same simple question my yoga instructor was asking: “What is your intention?”
In this way, I discovered that one of my characters had been unfaithful to her husband. She was trying to understand why she’d stayed with him despite having fallen in love with another man. Another character needed the time and space to understand why she’d abandoned her daughter.
“Make this accessible,” I begged the women who lived in my head, the characters I wanted to see come alive on the pages of my book. “Breathe.”
Sure enough, as I stopped trying to force them, they did. Instead of sitting at my laptop for hours at a time, feeling frustrated because everything I put on the page was crap, I took deep breaths and let the words flow without worrying about what they looked like on the page. That could come later. Right now, I just want the plot and characters to be accessible to me.
I also started taking more breaks. Instead of hunching over the laptop all morning and then through lunch, too, I got up, stretched and walked the dog. Yesterday I was outside, wandering aimlessly around the neighborhood at my Pekingese’s pace, when I saw my way through to the end of the book. It was as if doors had opened to show me a whole new room. Or maybe a new world.
That’s exactly it, with yoga: it opens doors and windows to let in the fresh air. To remind you that you are not important or extraordinary or even necessary. You are just you, living in the world for a short time, honoring your body and mind so that you can love and do good work while you’re here.
One of the best things about social media is that it lets us connect to people we wouldn’t ordinarily meet. One of my favorite new online pen pals is Author Yona Zeldis McDonough, a fellow author at New American Library. Here, Yona spills some surprising secrets as she describes what inspired her to write her newest novel, You Were Meant for Me. Enjoy!
For me, writing a novel usually begins with a character tapping me on the shoulder, urging me to get the story down, and to get it right. In the best of times, I feel more like the conduit than the creator—pretty heady stuff. But the inspiration for my most recent novel, You Were Meant for Me, came to me in a different way: an actual news event in which a man found a newborn infant on a subway platform and eventually ended up adopting him.
I found myself returning to the story again and again. What had driven that baby’s mother to leave him not in a hospital, police or fire station—safe havens, all—but on a subway platform? And what random stroke of luck or divine intervention averted all the horrific ends to this tale—and there could have been so many—and instead turned it into one of salvation and grace?
As I mulled over these questions, it occurred to me that the story was working on another level as well, one that was both mythic and archetypal. The foundling, the infant abandoned and rescued, is a motif that occurs over and over in literature and can trace its roots as far back as the Bible. Wasn’t Moses himself a foundling, set in the ark and concealed in the bulrushes by his mother, whose fear for his life was so great that she was willing to give him up to save him? And wasn’t Moses rescued by the most unlikely of saviors, an Egyptian princess who found and then raised him as her own?
It was the Moses connection the clinched it for me; this story was too good, too juicy, to leave alone: I had to write it. But because I am a novelist and not a journalist, I made several major changes along the way. I turned the man of the real story into Miranda Berenzweig, a single woman who has not thought of having a child but whose biological clock is nonetheless ticking loudly. I changed the baby boy to a girl. And unlike the real story, in which no one came forth to claim the child, I introduced the birth father, a successful black real estate broker who did not know he had a daughter. Once his paternity is established, he steps up to claim her.
This plot turn raised issues about what makes a good or fit parent and once again, brought the novel into Biblical territory, more specifically, that of King Solomon who adjudicated between the two women who came to him with an infant each swore was her own. Each of my characters has a claim to the baby as well but which claim should prevail? That was what I attempted to work out on the page.
Novels can come from surprising sources and lead to equally surprising destinations. I did not know that by reconfiguring a contemporary news story I would find my way to two of the ancient stories that help form the backbone of Western civilization, and that those stories in turn would offer a surprisingly modern lens through which to view the world.
Every month, I join Nevertheless Writers, a cross-genre group of five writers, to discuss writing and publishing at local libraries and schools. My favorite part of the evening is always the question-and-answer session, where everyone from teenaged writers of fantasy novels to aging hipster poets chime in with questions and information.
Last night, one question provoked so much discussion that I thought I’d share it here: “What were your biggest mistakes along the way to publication?”
I made so many mistakes along the way that I thought I’d offer a roundup of them to help aspiring writers avoid stumbling into the same muddy potholes that nearly swallowed me whole:
Don’t Pass Up Opportunities. One of the writers on our panel, middle grade author Elizabeth Atkinson, tells a great story about a contest she entered to give herself a deadline for finishing a manuscript. That contest didn’t lead to publication, but it helped her find an agent because one of the judges happened to be an editor at a publishing house, and she wrote a note saying she’d like to see the book again if Elizabeth revised it. Another member of Nevertheless Writers, mystery writer Edith Maxwell, also found an agent through a contest. I entered an essay writing contest and, although I only earned honorable mention, that gave me the confidence to start submitting essays to national magazines. Eventually an editor bought one of them, and that opened the door to my career as a magazine writer. Now I wonder what would have happened if I’d been entering different contests—maybe, say, contests for first novels? Would I have been publishing my fiction sooner? My point is this: opportunities are everywhere. Check out Poets & Writers and other magazines for contest announcements. Even some publishing companies sponsor them. You might think, “Oh, I’ll never win that,” or, “That deadline is too tight for me.” But how do you really know you won’t win? What would happen if you did? I’ll tell you what would happen: you’d start building a solid portfolio that could eventually lead to an agent and bigger publications. The message: If you see an opportunity, grab it.
If An Editor Shows Interest, Follow Up. When I sent my first novel around, I received several editorial letters from editors who thought my work showed promise. All said basically the same thing to my agent: “If she decides to revise this novel, please send it to me again.” Now, did I revise that novel and resend it? Unlike my wiser friend Elizabeth, I did not. I was too inexperienced back then to know that, when you’re writing, the real magic happens during the revision process. That particular novel is still sitting in a file cabinet in my office. Looking back, I wish I’d had the chops to dig back into it and resend it to the same editors to prove that I had the staying power to work on a manuscript until it was ready for publication.
Don’t Listen to People Who Make You Cry. I majored in biology and was headed to medical school until I took a creative writing class senior year and decided to become a writer instead of a doctor. (Oh yeah, baby. My parents were thrilled.) I had no foundation in literature, so I went to graduate school for a Master’s in Fine Arts in creative writing to get one. One of my teachers there—a revered, award-winning fiction writer—made me cry when he told me my writing “has the depth of a television commercial.” What he was seeing in me was something I only realized later: I love writing commercial fiction, specifically, emotional family mysteries. That particular literary lion didn’t think much of that kind of writing, and it took me years of wrestling my way through writing literary novels (that still remain unsold) before I realized, hey, I don’t like to read this stuff, really. Why would I write it? I needed to be true to my own voice.
Avoid Nesting. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me at these events and talk about the novels or memoirs they’ve been working on for years. Or even decades. Yes, the magic happens in the revision, but at a certain point, you have to let your work go out in the world and be judged. For one thing, that’s the only way you’ll get real feedback. For another, if you do land an editor at a publishing house, that editor will probably have you revise the book anyway. Or, if you’re self-publishing, your readers will probably be reading for the story more than anything, and if they like your story, they will forgive small imperfections.
Don’t Hide in Your Hermit Crab Shell. Yes, writing is a solitary act and requires hours of alone time. You can’t really write a good book while you’re having conversation with someone else. In fact, I find it difficult to live the writerly cafe life simply because I get too distracted by all of the people and start eavesdropping. At the same time, it’s a mistake to think that writers work completely alone. If you can find a good writing workshop—either through a library, a bookstore, or by taking a class—that will give you deadlines for you work (very important, if you’re going to avoid nesting), and, even more importantly, a community where you can share everything from rejections to information about agents or book marketing. Besides, if you don’t get out and live life a little, what will you have to write about?
Recently I saw Birdman, the brilliantly, darkly comic movie starring Micheal Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who formerly made it big as the superhero Birdman in an action movie franchise. The plot revolves around him writing, producing, and starring in a Broadway play adapted from a popular Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and every aspiring writer should see this movie.
That’s especially true if you’re desperately hammering away at that novel you’re trying to finish for National Novel Writing Month.
As it happens, I’m not taking part in NaNoWriMo, but I might as well be. I have a book contract with Penguin for a new novel that I’m supposed to finish by January, and I’m only halfway done. Yikes.
This past weekend I took a mini-retreat to a cheap condo in Maine and knocked out 34 pages.
“Good for you!” one of my friends cheered when I told her I’d typed so many words that my hands were lame.
Despite this progress, I was glum, because I had let Birdman into my brain.
What do I mean by that? In Birdman, Michael Keaton is haunted by his former glorious self as a muscled, half-bird, half-man hero. (One of the many inside jokes in the movie is that Birdman is masked and looks remarkably like Keaton did as Batman.)
Throughout the movie, Birdman—sometimes in the form of a movie poster, and other times as an actual character in shots with Keaton/Riggan, once even standing up to pee in the same bathroom, wings and all—basically tells Riggan that he’s worthless. Birdman bashes his confidence on a regular basis, trying to convince Riggan to abandon his effort to produce a play.
For example, Birdman says, “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” And “Now you’re about to destroy what’s left of your career.”
Every time Birdman did that confidence-bashing thing, I cringed, because a voice in my head has been saying I can’t write this new novel. My Birdman says things like this:
“Jeez, where did you get those tired metaphors? Talk about off-the-shelf, overused imagery! You should be ashamed to stoop to this.”
“Only a crazy person would write a chapter like that last one you cranked out. Or maybe a drunk.”
“Good thing your editor liked the last novel. Too bad she has to see this smelly disaster. Oh, wait. You don’t have a contract for another book after this one, do you? Too bad.”
Watching Riggan battle his inner Birdman made me come home from the movie theater and march over to my laptop. I will keep going. This novel might not be great art yet, but it’s not done yet, either. Here’s the truth: You have to write a book before you can revise it, and you have to wade through lots of junk to get to the good stuff.
So that’s what I’m doing. Every day, I’m just sorting through more junk. It doesn’t have to be original or brilliant. That’s for later, when I start cleaning and polishing. Right now I’m just telling a story. My novel will take shape. All I have to do is keep breathing life into it.
Happy writing, everyone!