Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Path Paved By Doing

By Caitlin O'Connell


I woke up this morning with Carol King’s lyrics in my head: “I feel the earth move under my feet”, before learning that there had been a strong enough earthquake at 1 a.m. to shake the bed, causing my dog’s sudden outburst of barking. It wasn’t the moon shadows cast in an unfamiliar back yard this time. Poor little Frodo spooks easily—but this time with good reason. There was indeed a quake caused by a shifting of plates out here in the middle of the pacific where I am ensconced on the most isolated island chain in the world for another month, partly for paid work as a scientist and partly fishing for a new perspective for a creative idea that I hope will bear fruit eventually. Perhaps the margarita or two that I had to celebrate my first royalty check from the UK (barely enough to finance the first round, but for me, still worth the celebration) dampened my senses to the quake because I had no memory of it. But clearly I was shaken enough to allow King to enter my psyche.
As a writer, I often place myself in unfamiliar surroundings to facilitate what I view as a “lens” effect to help focus my writing and energize my senses with a new environment. This physical and psychological novelty helps to breathe new life into an idea that has become tired or has languished in writer’s block for too long—or in some cases gives birth to a whole new and fresh idea much better than the one that I couldn’t seem to let go of until the new one appeared. Of course dropping everything and going on a trip this isn’t always a convenient thing to do, but sometimes there’s only so much rearranging of one’s desk, or massaging of talismans, headstands, hyperventilation, or whatever it is that a writer finds helpful to elicit inspiration, before picking up and experimenting with an entirely new place as a path to inspired writing.
The road to success as a writer for me started out with a six-figure offer and a deal with one of the top six houses (the Simon & Schuster imprint Free Press). I was flying high at the time (as depicted by my horribly naïve enthusiasm captured in this photo taken on top of Haleakela, Maui when I heard the news) but it didn’t take long to realize that sustained success was only going to come with incredibly hard work (and ditching the optimistic photographs). Fortunately, I didn’t quit my day job as a scientist as the honeymoon quickly turned into the same mountain that I thought I’d never have to climb again. My agent at the time told me that it wasn’t enough to write a first book. A second book was not going to be guaranteed. In fact, a first book that didn’t sell well was almost worse than not having written a book at all. Really? A tried and true author was not as valuable as the new new untested thing? That’s what I was told.




Three books later and a new contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for a fourth and another one pending, I’ve learned that my path is my own to make and maintain, but not always the desired one. I’ve had to make sacrifices and write what others have wanted me to write in order to position myself closer to my vision of where I want to be. I have written creative nonfiction as a way of developing a writing portfolio, but the stories I really want to tell require fiction to convey the truth. And although the nonfiction path is not what I would have chosen, it was a necessary one, one from which I’ve learned a great deal about how to become a better storyteller—a tool that I hope will allow me to carve my way into fiction more easily. My first adult fiction manuscript (based on my first nonfiction book) is currently being considered and the road hasn’t been smooth but I’m hoping for a new beginning.
Over the course of my career as a writer, I’ve had to create my own little earthquakes to shake up my perspective and help envision the road ahead. I’ve had to be light on my feet, make my own opportunities and shape my own destiny as a writer because it became abundantly clear over time that no agent or editor was going to do that for me. I’m the only one that’s going to move the earth under my feet. In a previous writing trip to Paris, I latched on to an expression that I read in a Soulages exhibit at the Pompidou. He said: “It is in doing that we realize what it is that we are looking for.” These words have become an important mantra for my writing. For the times that I’ve had the confidence to allow myself to write myself into a new world with uncharted territory, the story has been much better for it. And that’s how I hope to continue my writing journey: as a slow but steady path paved by doing.

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