“Life can’t ever really defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death – fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant.” — Edna Ferber
For three years, I wrote a column called The Care and Feeding of the Girls in the Basement. It was a chronicle of my day to day struggles and rewards with the writing life. Much of it was written during an enormous transition in my life. The column was written for a group of professional, commercial fiction writers. (NINK, for those who might know it.) To my surprise, the columns were quite popular, and I really enjoyed writing it, but after three years, I’d written plenty and gave it up.
The story might have ended there. Except that people kept telling me that they had kept the columns to re-read. They gave them to friends who were feeling discouraged. And because the newsletters are private to the organization, they did not have a wide circulation. Aspiring writers never saw them.
So I decided to collect them for writers–aspiring and published alike–who might find a laugh or inspiration or encouragement in them. There are two volumes of columns, but my ebook genius and I are collecting three books of the most popular class materials for release in the fall. (First, the contemporaries to which I’ve regained the rights–stay tuned).
Without further ado, an excerpt from Book #1
Beginner’s Mind: Keeping the Faith
from The Girls in the Basement
Talk on one of my email loops has been exploring the changes and ups and downs we all experience after five or ten or thirty years in this business. Several writers are discouraged by crushing career news and financial setbacks and the challenges of living as a writer.
The discussion led to questions of faith. How do we keep going? How do we recover that fire? Where did it come from in the first place? And how did it get lost?
Writer Raphael Cushnir says the dark night of the soul comes to all of us in different ways, but the emotions we experience during that dark night are all the same. A long-time writer who is struggling with reinvention or renewal is struggling with a disturbing set of questions. Was she wrong, all this time, about her vision? Is he, after all, a fool for loving this work, just as cousin Harry and his mother and Aunt Jane have said? Should any of us try to make this our life?
While this discussion was going on, I was also talking with a friend who is beginning to sell to non-fiction markets. He’s been in the music business a long time and wants to write for a living so he can stay home with his wife and daughter. He’s a pretty talented guy. He’ll probably make it, and the writing life can’t be any worse than the music life. We had lost touch years ago, long before he actually made it into the music world and I made it into the writing world, and through the delights of the Internet, we have been spending many happy hours talking about old times and new.
And writing. He always understood creativity. Writing now burns in him the way songs once did.
He sent an email (from Ireland. I love writing that: my friend in Ireland. Very nice of him to end up there) that poured out his desires, his path thus far, what he thinks he might be understanding, what he has yet to figure out.
His longing filled me with a bitter-sweetness, a swift wish to return to the beginning, to the magic. I find myself feeling cautious in my replies, as if he’s just fallen in love and I’m an old married hag, reluctant to douse his fever.
“So, tell me,” he emailed. “How did it happen? How did you sell your first book?”
My flood of memories may be not unlike yours. I was twenty-nine. It was November 22 (never mind the year), just before Thanksgiving. It was a category romance I had called The Phantoms of Autumn, about a classical guitarist and a writer who met on a train journey. My advance was four thousand dollars, which was almost precisely double my annual income as a bowling alley cook and attendant—a job I’d taken to help make sure I stayed focused on writing work—and more than enough to get my phone turned back on.
Beyond the simple facts, of course, are a host of emotions and memories. The late nights with my headphones on while my very young sons and husband slept in their beds. The jumble of undone housework that meant I never, ever allowed anyone to “drop by”. The cloistered life I led during that passionate period when I had no time for anything but the books, the boys, the family.
I remembered, too, how I’d stood in my kitchen a few weeks before that magic phone call, weeping bitterly over a rejection that dashed a very real hope I’d had of making a sale to a literary magazine where the editor liked me. I didn’t know how much longer I could stand to see yet another SASE with my handwriting on the outside, knowing it meant a rejection. My fire, my belief in myself, was dwindling, and I didn’t know how I could keep going on like that, believing when no one else did. When I look back, I’m not sure how I discovered the chutzpah to believe so absolutely that I would sell a book eventually. But I did believe, with a depth of faith that—
Well, more of that in a minute.
The facts of that first sale don’t reveal how many pages I wrote trying to get there. Thousands. Many thousands, probably. As you did, I’m sure. I wrote poems and short stories and aborted novels, and finished novels that were not particularly good, and journals and papers and articles that were published, first in the college newspaper (where I also had my first column), then in the local newspaper. The facts don’t reveal how many pages I read, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, considering how fast and voraciously I put books away in my teens.
Telling Tom about that first sale, I found myself nostalgic for the time when I was yet dreaming. The time of magic in the pages of every writer magazine, every tale of every writer’s first sale, every breath of lemon-scented hope that came on rejections scribbled by editors. When I spent endless hours reading, dreaming, plotting out books, scribbling new ideas. There was nothing I didn’t want to know, no stone I could leave unturned. I thought of nothing much but writing for a living.
I’m sure you were much the same.
When I wanted to try to sell romances, I read them with a serious eye, taking them apart, highlighting the passages that illustrated the techniques the writers had used to increase curiosity or sexual tension, describe something, or create a mood. I kept my favorites at hand when I needed to know how to do almost anything, so I could refer to the masters’ techniques. I still remember the books I studied so intently: Rebecca Flanders had an entire section in my notebook, as did Sandra Brown.
I remembered, too, walking my five-year-old son to school in the mornings that fall. I would say to him, with a sort of Julie Andrews, Sound of Music lilt to my voice, “One of these days, there will be a note in that mail box that says, ‘Yes, Barbara Samuel, we would like to buy your book.’” He, small and blond and beautiful, would say, “I know!”
And he was the one, the day the call came in, who said, “Mommy, they said yes!”
(He is also the one who later said, “I will never be a writer. Give me a cubicle, a regular paycheck and health insurance.”)
I didn’t write all those things to my friend. I wrote just a few of them, to entertain, to inspire—he’s yearning so hard for book publication that his desire is a living being. After I wrote these things, I found myself tasting something in memory that I couldn’t quite capture. Not quite hope. Not quite dreams. Something else.
And as will happen when I’m being Instructed to Pay Attention, I experienced a most unhappy writing week. For one thing, the words themselves were being very, very stubborn. I’d sit for a day and write a total of three or four pages. It was agonizingly slow work in that beginning stretch where every detail is world building, and each new fact requires some thought.
I also had a business problem or two, and I felt sorry for myself for not getting exactly what I wanted exactly when I wanted it. I couldn’t seem to settle in and work, no matter how I chained myself to the monitor. I grumpily wondered what the whole point of it all was. Why bother? It would be much easier to open a restaurant or go lead adventure tours.
Oh, and let’s not forget that it was spring. I’m an outdoor girl with a passion for gardens. Who wants to sit inside and write books when there are flower beds to be weeded, roses to be pruned, trails to be hiked? Not I. Not when the grass is greening under a brilliant blue Colorado sky and the cats are coming in from the backyard with their fur mussed and scattered with seeds from rolls in the warm dirt.
Things felt stirred up in me, too. I was thinking of the discussion of long careers, and how to keep them going for even longer—the flexibility and lightness of attachment required, the terror of seeing how capricious the whole thing is. And I was having this discussion with my friend (in Ireland, remember).
I was also teaching an on-line voice class to a small group of very talented aspiring writers who are struggling to understand their vision and song. Their hunger to publish reminded me, too, of how important to me it once was to cross that line.
Where is our faith? How do we tend it during a dark night of the soul?
We need to try to hold on to a beginner’s mind, a beginner’s passion. When it becomes difficult to remember why we’re writing books,we should go back to the beginning. What did we dream about? What did we hope to accomplish?
In the beginning, we’re open to a dozen answers to whatever question might come up. We’re willing to fly, reinvent, start over, try again, always burning to have our words read. As we become experts, however, we can become entangled in the desire to be read a certain way, to receive certain rewards.
I don’t discount the difficulty of this business. It’s brutal, and only the most resilient survive. But those people do, and it’s worth considering how it happens if you want to be one of them.
As I type this, Julie Andrews is singing in my head: “Let’s start at the very beginning…” Which makes me think I should go watch The Sound of Music again. It’s one of my favorites, hopeful, uplifting, happy. It’s all about perseverance under difficult circumstances. Another one I like is Fame.
What are some of your favorites?
Are they favorites for the same reason? Has your faith faltered? What can you do to bolster it? What can you do to go back to a beginner’s mind? Become reborn? Believe?
22 thoughts on “The Girls in the Basement ….now available!”
I was in Pikes Peak Romance Writers years ago, but I remember you well. I’m going to get copies of your book, The Girls in the Basement, for my critique group partner and myself. We, too, are “girls in the basement.” I’ve finally made some sales, but it’s never easy. I’m excited to read this inspiring book, and I’m sure my friend will love it too.
Cindy, of course I remember you, too. I hope you will enjoy the GITB!
Wonderful story, love your 5 year old son’s enthusiasm. I’m struggling to get back to writing after health issues hiatus. Your words are encouraging. Publishing these lessons will help many of us find the energy, courage, inspiration to keep writing.
Sherry, I hope you find your way back in a gentle and loving way.
Oh, just ordered! Thank you for putting this book together, Barbara. I love your Girls In The Basement but missed your original column because I didn’t have time to read blogs back then. Thank goodness for Kindle. I’ll be able to start reading today. 🙂
Love, love, love this!
Oh, just realized there are two books. Lovely … now they’re both on my Kindle. I may not get to writing today. May spend the day in the sun reading. 🙂
Reading in the sunshine is something the Girls would approve. And you didn’t actually miss these as blogs–they were written for a private newsletter for published authors. This gives me a chance to offer them to a much wider audience. I hope you enjoy!
Purchased! As a former student of your voice class I’m thrilled to have a chance to be on the receiving end of more of your inspiring words!
Also thoroughly enjoyed HEART OF A KNIGHT. So exciting to discover these works of yours — for so long BED OF SPICES was the only historical of yours I was able to find.
Good luck with your e-publishing ventures, Barbara!
Sheri–how nice to see you here! And I am really thrilled to be able to offer these books to my students in particular. Time has been so limited I have had a very hard time offering the classes (and have to keep them SO SMALL!) that this is a way to keep trying to offer something back.
Working on the voice class materials, but I want to be sure and offer ways to create the small group experience. Still juggling possibilities.
Fabulous! As a former student in both Voice and GITB, I can’t wait to read these columns, too!
Barbara, I met you this year at WRA-WF and I have been following your bits of encouragement since! Wow!! Now to get two books of encouragement at once.
I am also a passionate gardener and I hear the earth beat every spring. Lovely to know there are others that dwell…in the dirt and love it!
Thanks for this post, Barbara. I just got back from vacation and took ONE book to read – Lady Luck’s Map of Las Vegas and really enjoyed it. I couldn’t put it down because I just HAD to find out what happened next.
I loved your suggestion to go back to the beginning and try to remember what kept us enthusiastic about our work. I needed that today.
Lovely. Now, if I could just get this jealousy under control…
Thank you so much for publishing this book! As a former student, I can’t tell you how much you have helped me learn to understand and honor my writing. I’ve taped the e-mail you wrote me at the end of the class to my writing space – I look at it every day.
I’ve just ordered this book and will send it to my friend for her birthday next month. I’m going to Facebook and Tweet about this right now and I don’t do either very well – but aside from yesterday’s earthquake, this is important stuff!
Again, thank you!
I want to correct the previous e-mail – I’ve ordered the book for ME and will also order for my friend! And then, Book #2 and when it’s pubbed, Book #3….thank you so very much!
If anyone is so inclined, it really helps the rankings at Amazon and B&N to have reviews (pro and con, doesn’t matter though of course I personally prefer the positive), so please don’t be shy to post.
Ive just discovered your newest book, How to Bake a Perfect Life,
right after a surgery and being sentenced to rest.
Then, I just had to get another and another
(the lost recipe and secret of everything).
You have become my new Tom Robbins (aka favorite author).
I love the way you create settings and how you juxtapose the inner character (thoughts and feelings) with the outer character (dialogue and action)this really brings the characters to life! I also love the way you use poetic devices (EX. in lost recipe — “crisp as a Cossack, ” couple of conditions,”
“splash of surprise,” and “five favorite foods”
As a poet and an aspiring children’s book writer this use of alliteration tickles my fancy. I haven’t been with my writers group in about a year but when I return,
I will suggest your GITB book!
Ill also do a review at Amazon for you.
Cant wait until your next book comes out!
Aileen in CNY
I do plan to review the books on Amazon and when I figure out B&N will do it there as well. I thought they were great. A gift to me that helps me keep on writing. Will also make a point to tweet about them.
Good post, really gives me something to consider working with our social media.
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