Do You Know Who I Am: On Writing and Identity

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I had a job interview once for a job I sort of wanted. It was going to be a long commute and we needed the money. I interviewed with some peers and potential boss and then one of the founders of the company was going to meet with me. He walked into the room and the first thing he said to me was, “Do you know who I am?”

My impression at the time was that he didn’t say it in a gentle, awkward way that one would hope such a thing would be said. Instead, he said it in a cocky way.

My first thought was, why, yes, you’re the person I don’t want to work for, but instead I dutifully said, you are so and so, blah blah blah.

They offered me the job for which I was overqualified but when our negotiations broke down over vacation time, I was happy to walk away from the offer. He would not budge over a few days. And neither would I.

I knew who I was.

It’s rare that I know who I am. I consider my face blank and unrecognizable. This is how I see myself from within my skin, looking out. Tabula Rasa.

Who will know me? Who am I?

I have a published a literary thriller novel, a collection of short literary fiction, and a young adult novel. I am being gently encouraged to focus, write another thriller. Focus. Focus. Keep reaching. Become this.

Become what? Write what?

Here is something I have been reluctant to talk about. I try to be as professional as possible in this business of writing but maybe saying this here will help someone, too, because this is about something that jolted my sense of identity as a writer.

So here goes: In January, I learned that my beloved agent was leaving publishing. This was a tough blow for me. She and I had been working together for nearly ten years. I have come to count on her as a key part of my writing process. You might be thinking now, who cares? Who are you anyway? Who even wants to read any more of your stupid books?

These were all things I asked myself. Who are you? Who cares?

I care. This vacuum I am in lacks air and light and sometimes we need others to bring us that air and that light.

But all is not lost.

The good news is that her boss, the owner of the agency, kept me on as a client and for that I am most grateful. Having met and exchanged emails and phone calls with this woman I know I am in great hands. So that is good.

But who am I? Which writer? Which person? And what will become of my process?

Last week, I was at the AWP conference in Minneapolis. This was my fourth (or fifth?) time at one of these conferences. They are overwhelming and exhilarating. So much to see and do and experience. So many people to meet and so many people to reconnect with.

I will admit, though, that I spent much of the conference in despair. I was missing the huge part of me that is my family. I was anxious that people would not like me or that they would not notice me or, worse, ignore me.

Of course, it was all great. My one-on-one conversations with friends were the best part of it, but also the readings and panels were exhilarating and I left there feeling completely ready to write again.

And yet, still I am wanting. I want so much. I want my new book to be read and reviewed. I want it to get into the hands of people it might help. I want. I want. I want my novel manuscript that is lingering out there in the world to not be ignored. I want someone to read it and recognize what I am trying to say. I want that connection.

I want you to hear me.

Do you know how I am?

Maybe that man wasn’t being arrogant. Maybe he was legitimately experiencing a moment of crisis or maybe he was awkward about the weird dynamic that is the job interview. I can give him this now.

When I was pregnant, I worried that my child would not recognize me when he was born. I was worried that he would not love me. Of course, I was wrong. He was born with his heart attached to mine, knowing me in the way that no one else can.

Like a newborn, I push myself out into the world constantly with my words and always I am asking you this: Do you know who I am?

self-promotion, bookselling, blah blah blah

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As you probably know, I am in the middle of launching my new book, THE BOOK OF LANEY. It is a young adult novel and so a bit of a departure for me. I am extremely proud of this book and I hope those of you who have read it will believe me and know this to be true when I say it: I have a mission for this book. My mission is that if reading this book can lift one young person (or person of any age!) out of darkness and offer them hope, then I will feel I have done my work well.

Since I am my own publicist, I have been working hard, as I always do, to get the word out about THE BOOK OF LANEY. I have sent out many pitches and for all that have been responded to favorably, 10-20 or more have either been denied or ignored entirely.

For all the booksellers, libraries, people in the media, reviewers, who have responded favorably or reached out so far: THANK YOU! I am truly grateful to you (which I hope you know already but I want to say it again here). I know what it takes for you to do the work you do and I appreciate that you continue to fight for literacy and literature and the future and young people and hope.

I read a few blog posts recently that were making the circuit. Two different writers talking about what to do and what not to do when one promotes one’s book. There was some decent advice (though a bit snarky in tone) from the perspective of these writers. However, I come at promoting my work not just as the writer, but as someone who knows what it is like to promote the work of others. Someone who knows what it feels like to be pitched day in and day out.

I have been on the receiving end of the pitch and I know what worked for me and what didn’t. I try to remember my past experience with each pitch I make myself. Honestly, to call what I do a pitch is not accurate. What I do is get in touch and give some information and try to be as pleasant as possible and never, ever, ever demand anything.

So here’s my story: Twenty years ago, I was living and working in Boston. I was a writer in my heart and trying to find ways to sustain myself, but I wasn’t doing much writing. What I was doing then was making a living. What else I was doing was learning. For a time, I was the Regional Promotions Director for Tower Records New England. What this meant was that I was responsible for in-store/off-site events and off-site sales for the three New England stores (Boston, Cambridge, Burlington). All day, every day, I had people pitch me: indie record labels, big record labels, radio stations, distributors, artists themselves (musicians, writers), publishers, book distributors, etc. I, in turn, pitched events to these same people when they had work coming out we thought would be a big draw or when we thought they were hosting an event we might want in on. My team (all two or sometimes three of us) and I were responsible for promoting, publicizing, and managing these events.

During my time, we hosted Marilyn Manson, Nancy Sinatra (when she was in Playboy… THAT was an interesting in store), Marianne Faithful (for her book. She was allowed to smoke in the store because she was Marianne Faithful), etc. etc. No end of famous people.

I remember and have fondness for all of the people who were pleasant to us. I worked with those people many times because they were pleasant, polite, and nice to work with. There were assholes, too. The assholes were rude, demanding, and had the expectation that something should be done for them. The assholes… we didn’t work together much. I avoided the assholes. I lost their messages. I didn’t return the calls.

Remember, this was before social media. This was before Amazon. If you wanted your stuff to be sold, you pretty much needed it to be in a brick and mortar store. And you pretty much interacted face-to-face.

I learned so much from this job (and subsequent jobs in which I promoted and publicized other things) but the key lessons I learned are this:

1) No one likes a pushy sales pitch. NO ONE. Pushy sales pitches are not normal human interactions. They are not love. The people who spoke to me with love and honesty and who got to the point quickly about the artist they were representing were the ones who opened my heart. Even if I didn’t respond to that particular artist the fact that they so believed in that artist and their potential, moved me and brought me to action. So if you are your own publicist (as I am mine), try your best to get to the point and to do it in a way that is open and be honest about yourself. You don’t need to pitch yourself so hard that you come off sounding false.

2) Be a human being and treat others as though they are human beings. I was on a panel once and I responded to a question (don’t even remember the question) that writers should treat agents and editors like human beings. The follow up question was: “What do you mean like human beings?” Not even kidding. Basically, you know how you like to be treated. If you are like me, you like to be treated as though you have thoughts and feelings that matter and as though you are not just on this planet to serve others. Well, that’s the way we all want to be treated. We want kindness and respect and honesty and generosity of spirit. I know I responded best to those people who approached me as if I were a living, breathing creature. The people who took the time to learn my name and know some things about me.

3) As for social media: do it if you like and it feels right to you. Don’t do it if you don’t. Back in the 90s we had to hit the streets with paper fliers and hand them out to people. NOTHING is more humiliating and humbling than having people ignore you when you stand before them with a flier in your hand. Your outstretched hand. Social media can be like that. You might just be tweeting about your book and you think that’s cool but you don’t realize how many people are averting their eyes from you and your outstretched hand. It’s okay, though. It’s cool. Do what works for you and don’t let people make you feel ashamed for doing whatever you feel like you need to to get yourself out there.

So I’m here in these trenches with you. I am trying  to get this book into as many hands as I can–not just because I want to do a good job for my publisher and my editor (because I do) but also because I want it to be read. I want it to make a difference in the world. We all want that, right?

the bluff

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This picture is of the bluff where Laney lived with her grandmother. Of course, the one in the book is made up but this is the one I based it upon. This bluff exists in the lake where I grew, a place where I felt most free and also most trapped. As a child, I lived in the woods, the water, the mountains. As a young adult, I lived in my mind, in my books, in my anger.

The woods, the water, the mountains, the mind, and the books are still here but that anger has died. It has been replaced with determination and desire. And right now, that anger is also replaced with fear.

I’ve been having dreams this past week. Anxiety-fueled dreams that wake me up filled with belief that they are real.

No one shows up to my readings or just a few people show up or people show up but don’t care. All of this is wrapped up in my anxiety, of course, because this weekend I will be presenting THE BOOK OF LANEY for the first time. On Saturday night (3/28)  at 7PM, I’ll be at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport and then on Sunday at 2PM, I’ll be at Newtonville Books in Newton Center.

I’ve had my share of readings and reading in front of an audience is something I enjoy doing. So why the fear and worry?

Maybe it is because I feel a great deal of responsibility with this book. It’s not like I haven’t felt responsibility with my other books but with this one I am hoping to reach a specific audience of young people and maybe make a difference for them. I feel responsible that this book speaks authentically from the voice of a fifteen-year-old. I feel responsible that the material be treated with the seriousness and respect it is due. I feel responsible to victims and also to those who feel an urge to victimize. I want this book to help heal those who need healing and to reach those who are nearly out of reach.

Of course, I have no control over any of this but being given the opportunity and the honor to speak and read in front of an audience is one way in which I can reach out and with that comes the pressure to make it count.

I will make it count. I promise you I will. If you will meet me there, I will be there for you. Thank you to those who have already read this book and let it speak to them. Thank you to those who have let me know what it meant to them. You have given me such hope.

Thank you for coming to the bluff with me and remembering how we can come back to ourselves. Even in our darkest moments we have that possibility.

Thank you for listening. Thank you for hearing me.

 

 

pub day: today is my butter

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Last weekend, I made a double batch of zucchini bread because we have a busy week ahead. My son is in his second play and has seven performances between tomorrow and Sunday. I wanted him to be able to have something homemade in his snack and lunch so that even though he was busy, he would know he was loved and that I was thinking of him.

Unfortunately, I messed something up in the mixing and baking and the zucchini bread is, frankly, sort of gross. However, I have found that if you cover it with a lot of butter, it’s not half bad.

As I was choking down my butter-covered zucchini bread this morning, I realized that this is pretty much how I’ve made it through my life: examining my mistakes and failings and then trying to find a way to fix them, even if that means covering them with butter to make them more palatable.

Yesterday became a weird day and at some point I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I went to bed feeling horrible. I had a fever and my whole body was sore. Before I fell asleep I kept saying to my husband, “I feel like I am doing everything wrong.”

Even though it is raining out today and our big, ugly brown snow banks are melting all over the place, today is a much brighter day. Some sleep and perspective taking have been just the butter I needed.

Also, I have so much to celebrate: my third book–THE BOOK OF LANEY–is officially published today. I am extremely grateful to Lacewing Books for bringing it into the world and I am grateful to anyone and everyone who reads this book. For all of the work and the disappointment and the rejection and the self-doubt that goes into the making of a book, this day, when it is officially placed into the hands of readers, is the day that makes it all worth it.

I am taking this day. I am claiming it even though maybe I screwed something up in the mix yesterday, making that day come out a bit crumbly. Today I am going to say that I am doing things right. I’m taking this day and I’m covering yesterday with as much butter as possible and I’m saying thank you to you for sharing today with me. Thank you.

TODAY IS MY BUTTER.*

 

 

 

 

 

* in case you are wondering… all of that butter in the photo came from my freezer. I am a butter hoarder. Not proud of it. I just don’t want to run out. I also hoard toilet paper and canned beans. Make of that what you will.

 

 

 

 

 

I Wrote This Book Because…

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I wrote this book because we live in a sometimes horrible and often beautiful world.

I wrote this book because I did not want you to feel so alone.

I wrote this book because four boys in the town where I used to live used their collective rage, boredom, and feelings of worthlessness to turn the lives of another family into the thing of nightmares.

I wrote this book because I am raising a son.

I wrote this book because when I was a young person I used to feel very alone.

I wrote this book because of all of the strong women who raised me up.

I wrote this book because I felt like I was the only one who was not normal when I was a kid.

I wrote this book because when I was younger there were times when I wished I would die.

I wrote this book because once I learned how to live inside someone else’s skin, I saw the world more clearly.

I wrote this book because I felt powerless.

I wrote this book because I felt powerful.

I wrote this book because I wanted you to read it and know that it’s not just you who feels the way you do.

I wrote this book because I love my family.

I wrote this book because I want a better future.

I wrote this book because that is what I do.

I wrote this book because we are all in this together.

I wrote this book because people let me know they believed in me.

I wrote this book because I believe in you.

Reader, though it is still a few months away from being published THE BOOK OF LANEY  is now available for pre-order just about everywhere in the english-speaking world. I know you have many choices for your time and money but I want you to know that when a book is pre-ordered it helps ease its entry into the world by relieving some of the stress on the publisher.

If you cannot pre-order it at this time, I fully understand. But maybe you would consider adding it to your wishlist for later or bookmarking it on Goodreads. Also, if you would be so kind as to bring it to the attention of your local library or bookstore, I would greatly appreciate it.

Reader, I also want you to know that while this book was written for a young adult audience that it would not be appropriate for readers under, say, the age of 14 or 15 (the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl) as some of the themes might be difficult for younger readers, no matter how advanced their reading skills.

Here’s what two of my favorite writers have to say about this book:

“Myfanwy Collins writes with big-time empathy and fierce courage.” Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

“In The Book of Laney, an unsettling and redemptive novel, Myfanwy Collins fuses heartbreak and empathy to explore uncomfortable truths about teenagers, violence, and survival. An unforgettable book.” —Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist

 

Thank you.

The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick

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As I read The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick I couldn’t help but think about how part of the message behind the book relates to how I met a dear friend of mine.We met because I stumbled across a wonderful essay he had written. I loved the essay and chose to write about it on my blog. The writer then found my post and chose to reach out to me. From those two choices, we became friends and remain friends to this day. I certainly feel richer for this friendship and I’m grateful we–misfit writers–made these choices. This experience is much like the experience of the characters in The Good Luck of Right now, who learn about being open to experiences and possibilities, making choices, and understanding the importance of human connection.

At the core of this wonderfully wacky book are a group of misfits desperate to find something to believe in. It is only when the world around them seems bleakest that they create their own miracle and that miracle is about opening ourselves and our hearts up to those around us. That miracle is about being open to family and friendship when we are feeling most vulnerable and alone. Bartholomew Neil could have likely spent the rest of his days alone after his mother died, but instead he allowed himself to be vulnerable. He finally heard and understood what his mother had been telling him all those years:

“We don’t know anything. But we can choose how we respond to whatever comes our way. We have a choice always. Remember that!”

Life is not all roses but it is not all thorns either. Especially if you choose to believe Bartholomew’s mother’s overarching message:

“Whenever something bad happens to us… something good happens–often to someone else. And that’s The Good Luck of Right Now.”

Of course, like most of us, it takes Bartholomew a while to fully buy into his mother’s message and to open himself up to life’s possibilities, but when he does, he becomes his own savior.

I loved this book. I think you will, too.

THE BOOK OF LANEY — Now Available for Pre-Order!

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NOW available for preorder from Lacewing Books.

Here and now I am in this place far away from my home. Here, with the cold wind blowing down from the north and the stars piercing through the cloudless sky. Here I am.

But my story does not start here.

My story starts months ago and hundreds of miles south of where I am now. My story starts in the place I used to call home. My story starts with violence and heartbreak.

After her brother is involved in a grisly murder-suicide, fifteen-year-old Laney is sent to live with her grandmother in the Adirondack Mountains. Laney gradually warms to her new home—especially her relationship with a mysterious neighbor—but before she can appreciate her new life, she must uncover the secrets that have haunted her family for decades.

 

book of laney

Available March 2015 from Lacewing Books.