The Publishing Journey Perspective #4: Melanie Fishbane

When the Never Happens

It’s February 2017 and I’m standing in front of a class of professional writing and communications students who have invited me to chat about my upcoming YA novel, MAUD, and path to publication. As part of their assignment, they’ve been told to come prepared with a list of questions. Being budding writers, they’re very curious as to how I somehow made the dream happen. When I tell them my story, their professor said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Remember, everyone, Melanie’s situation is very unique. It NEVER happens.” My colleague and friend said it as a way to dampen expectations in a field that is a lot about disappointment and waiting. But the other thing I could hear is that “NEVER” – in ALL CAPS. IT NEVER HAPPENS.

It has stuck with me ever since.

Because, in my case it did. Which means—every once in a while—the NEVER does happen. So, here is my story of NEVER that will hopefully inspire you, so we can believe in the “NEVER” happening all the time.

Long ago I had wanted to write historical fiction for kids and did my first masters’ degree on the construction of Joan of Arc in contemporary children’s lit. The idea was that I would have the credentials to somehow, one day, write the kind of historical fiction that I had loved as a kid, but also enhance it by writing about previously ignored women in history.

There are many reasons that it took me another 10 years to work up the courage to write any historical fiction again. But, by the fall of 2012 I was finishing up my Master of Fine Arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had been sending some of my writing to a certain editor for years and being told that it wasn’t quite ready yet—and it wasn’t. I joke that I was sending her my bad writing, which made me wonder what she ever saw in it. At the same time, I had just given a paper at the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s biennial conference. This was the third conference I had attended in Charlottetown and, over the years, I had come to know the community in Ontario and the Island.

I was also working for Indigo doing their online merchandising for kids and teen books, which gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people, including editors and other writers. I’m very grateful for all that it taught me about the industry, retail and bookselling. It afforded me the opportunity to send my bad writing to an editor who mentored me during this early stage of my career.

And, then the NEVER happened.

The editor invited me out one afternoon. I had assumed it had to do with Indigo business, but it wasn’t. She explained that L.M. Montgomery’s heirs were looking for someone to write a YA novel about Montgomery as a teenager and because of my interest in the author, my connection to the community and the fact I was studying YA, my name was floated.

My first thought was: Why aren’t they asking someone more established?

My second thought was: I cannot do this.

But what came out of my mouth was: “Uhm…yes!”

I was told that I needed to come up with sample pages and a proposal, so they could decide if it was a right fit. I agreed. I had to finish my MFA but promised to submit something for March 2013 –which (after having shown it to a few people and wondering what the heck I was doing) I did.

And then I waited. I emailed friends constantly. My goodness was I annoying. I somehow expected that the editor would get back to me within a few weeks. You know, because she had nothing else going on her life… But in May (yes, I know not that long in publishing time, see what a newbie I was) I got an email saying that there were some notes.

I met up with the editor who gave me her thoughts and we talked about the book for a long time. I was sent back to my writing desk to revise the pages. After a few weeks, I sent the revision.

And waited. Once again annoying my friends with my neurosis and ponderings. I pretty well was sure the editor would figure out that this was a huge mistake.

In July, I heard back from the editor telling me they wanted the book!

I remember I was in one of the Indigo offices (on break of course), talking to her and could feel how the earth was moving. Things were about to change. Everything that I had dreamed about was coming true.

Four and a half years later, there was a bouncing baby book. And, I’m proud of my first book. Of course, I wish I could go back and rewrite a lot of it. It taught me a lot about my creative process, how I’m the most impatient person when it comes to my creative process, how I have expectations about my books and am sad when things don’t quite turn out the way I had expected, but that sometimes things are even better than we expect and that is cool, too.

I’m grateful to that editor for taking a chance on a less established writer (I still don’t know why).

For making the never possible.

Publishing is a lot about timing, it is about patience…the waiting! It is about getting the butt in the chair, submitting even when you aren’t sure it will ever turn out into anything. It is about making true and good connections, hoping you present your best self to the world. It is about mentoring new authors and making opportunities happen.

It is in these opportunities that the NEVER happens. Now…go…make that NEVER happen.

MELANIE J. FISHBANE holds an M.F.A. from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. from Concordia University and teaches English at Humber College. Her YA novel, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for the best in Canadian Jewish Literature. Melanie lives in Toronto with her partner and their very entertaining cat, Merlin. You can follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane on Instagram, melanie_fishbane and like her on Facebook

Dry Spells Perspective #5 by Melanie J. Fishbane

Dry Spells: On Replenishing the Self and Radical Self Care

photo credit: Claudia Osmond

Last summer, I returned from traveling the East Coast with grand plans. I was finally going to finish the draft of a new novel, and hopefully finish another round of revisions one what I affectionally call my “10-year-novel” (even though it is probably more like 7). I had successfully launched the new book and finished an essay that kicked my academic-writing butt and was looking forward to a month of writing before I went back to teaching in the fall.

Spoiler: It didn’t happen.

My mind was muddled. I could not focus. I felt like a failure for not having another publishing contract, wondering if the whole first novel thing was a fluke and I would never be published again. I was grateful, tired, and had received multiple rejections. I had no words. I was done.

I couldn’t seem to get excited about my ideas, either. Even though the topics initially drew me in, I hadn’t been at the beginning of something in a very long time and I was confused, sad, and distracted.

I was not creating. What’s more, I felt guilty for not creating. I had one month before going back to school, I had to make the best of it.

But then a voice of reason emerged. My naturopath, Dr. Shawna Darou had sent out her weekly newsletter with an article on“The Definitive Burnout Checklist” where she discusses three things that keep one exhausted and then how to restore energy. Reading through this list, I knew what was going on. I was burned out.

So, I did something radical—I gave myself permission to not write fiction for a month. I continued to write in my journal, which is something I’ve been doing since I was fourteen and it is one of the ways I cope with, well, life.

Here’s some of what I did:

I slept.

I took long walks and listened to books and podcasts.

I meditated and practiced yin yoga, journal writing my reflections on a daily basis. I bought multi-coloured markers, so I could write in different colours—just for the fun of it!

I saw my therapist.

I reconnected with my love of essential oils.

I read books.

I watched British costume dramas.

I saw friends and went to the movies, you know…fun and play.

I realize not everyone has a month to do nothing and I am grateful for the opportunity of having that month of retreating and regrouping. And I honestly thought that would be enough.

Spoiler: It wasn’t.

In her book, Standing at Water’s Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion, Anna Paris provides a multi-stage process for creative recovery, exploring the blocks and fears that keeps us from connecting with our creative selves. One of the concepts that I found incredibly helpful was the idea that there comes a time in the process when you might become ‘disengaged.’ Paris asks us to consider that this is a “worthwhile phase of creativity in which we stand back from our work” it is a time where “we can rest, feel enhanced by our productivity and be proud of our work-in-progress.” One of the possible causes of this can be “Running Out of Energy.” Paris suggests that the creative process is emotionally and physically tiring. We may not even recognize it while it is happening because we are so engaged in things, that it is only when we feel depleted—burned out—that we are forced to “disengage to sleep and eat” (165-167).

In retrospect, this is what had happened. I was forced to move from a place I had lived in for 10 years—which meant setting a new creative space. I had finished a project that took me essentially five years to create, and then the last six months or so promoting it. It was the experience of a lifetime that I’m incredibly grateful for—that is an important component to this, too, because I felt guilty for feeling burned out.

But, when I went to the page, it was still scattered and all over the place. I couldn’t focus on the particular projects I had planned.

It was time to change the plan.

The first thing I did was find a way to have a deadline by submitting applications to all of the arts council grants I qualified for. This meant that I had deadlines in both October and (I think) November. The great thing about grants is that I had to write about my manuscript, which helped me learn more about the story I was trying to write and what I was trying to say. In a lot of ways, the questions—however confounding some of them might be—are like really good writing exercises that help you get to the heart of your characters and story. By the end of the fall, I had fifty really good pages of the novel, plus a working schedule and outline on how I was going to approach it. Even if I didn’t get the grant, at least I had an idea of where I was going next.

Now, don’t get the impression I jumped in with two feet and was writing pages every day. I wasn’t. In fact, this was a slow process, where I might have only worked on these pages a few hours every few days. By this time, I was also back teaching and in October the college teachers went on strike, so that meant picketing 20 hours a week. For five weeks.

In fact, the strike threw me into another phase of burn out later on. The mental, emotional and physical toll probably took me a few steps back, and I didn’t truly feel like myself until probably this past May.

I had to shift the way I approached writing and carried a new notebook with me. I gave myself permission to write badly and write whatever came up. I wrote out of order and did interviews between characters, writing pages and pages of dialogue of them telling me things about themselves. By January there was the beginning of three things. I haven’t gone back to them, but I was surprised by how much I filled that little notebook.

In all of this process, I continued to practice radical self-care. If I felt like sleeping in, I slept in. I kept up with yoga (during the strike months I walked four hours or more a day so that was covered) and meditated. I developed a writing course to help other people who were struggling with their inner critic.

In January, I recommitted myself to my meditation practice when my friend, Heather Demetrios (who is developing an excellent program on mindfulness and writing), recommended this one-month free meditation course with a number of teachers online. I signed up and kept up the commitment, helping myself get grounded.

I followed this up in March when Heather offered a one-month Mindfulness for Writers workshop, complete with weekly meditations, a workbook and check-ins. This was transformative, and I highly recommend this for anyone struggling with dry spells and creative blocks. This workshop focused on finding the connection between meditation and the flow in ones writing. It also asked us to dig deep into the stories we told ourselves about our creativity, about ourselves.

It isn’t like the feelings of abandonment; imposters syndrome and invisibility went away. It doesn’t mean I still don’t get discouraged, impatient and angry at myself for not being further along in my career than I think I should be. It also doesn’t mean that I’m perfect everyday (far from it), or that I don’t get distracted by the news, or start the never a good idea of comparison with other writers. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t shitty writing days, but I am a little nicer to myself about it.

Perhaps, instead of feeling guilty or angry at ourselves for feeling disengaged or blocked or tired with a project, we can recognize that this is part of the process and find the tools we need to help support us when it happens. These are the tools I found and use. What are yours?

MELANIE J. FISHBANEwrites essays about children’s literature, explores creativity and hopes to unlock the secrets of the universe—or at least find the perfect cup of tea. Her YA novel, Maud: A NovelInspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017. You can follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane on Instagram, melanie_fishbane and like her on Facebook.