After posting a copy of my writer’s contract yesterday, the moment of reckoning has arrived. And why not? During my decade in the corporate world, I drafted objectives (with strategies for achieving those goals) for the year ahead. I’d also sit down with my manager for an annual performance review. My raise was tied to my success in achieving objectives set the prior year. I dreaded those reviews as much as I embraced them. While it was painful to see where I hadn’t quite hit the mark, I liked receiving feedback. Having once been a grade-driven student, my performance review was my annual report card.
As a freelance writer, external rewards and recognition are hard to come by. I guess this is why, when I publish an essay or article, I long for some of my peeps to read my words and say, “Good work, Heidi.” Because that doesn’t happen often, it’s important for me to recognize myself, to celebrate my own success–even when it amounts to having sat in my chair writing for 15 minutes on a day I commited to writing. And when I’ve spent a day submitting essays? Then, even more of a celebration of this achievement; because as hard as it is to get myself to sit down and write, it’s 100 times harder for me to send my work out into the world (so many essays remain trapped on my computer’s hard drive).
When I woke up this morning, I was hit by the realization that the time period covered by my writer’s contract had expired. This is a contract I entered into last year (prompted by Professor Kate Whouley) as I exited my MFA program. I haven’t often referred back to the terms of the agreement, but I’ve allowed my days (and year) to be governed by its key directive: write, only write.
In a follow-up blog post, I undertake a performance (self) review to evaluate my compliance with the terms of this agreement. To give context to that later blog post, I am copying my writer’s contract here:
Dear Idea Heidi (aka Heidi Parton),
From our past dealings, I know that you like movement and action; you crave progress. I get it and I appreciate the many times this trait has served our joint enterprise. I am, however, asking that you thoughtfully consider my offer of a one-year contract of employment. Your “work,” during this year’s time, will be simply to practice the art of waiting. Indeed, it will be much like a vacation for you; I plan on doing the heavy lifting this year. But I need your full cooperation.
To be in full compliance with the terms of this agreement, you must not seek out additional employment (even if the brightest, shiniest job announcement or offer comes along) during the entire calendar year, commencing on June 1, 2017 and ending on May 31, 2018. Any move toward “outside” employment, will be taken as a violation of the non-compete that I will be asking you to sign, in exchange for the full consideration of the opportunity to explore the job of your choice (be it in teaching, publishing, bookselling or otherwise) at the end of this term without any resistance from me.
As further consideration, if you do find your so-called “dream” job (after the term of this contract), I will no longer whine to you about not getting proper writing time. You will be free to engage with the broader world unhampered by my nagging pleas for more time to write. I promise that I will, at that point, be content to slip my writing into the margins of your employment situation. To gain this career freedom, however, you must sit back, rest, and wait out the entire term of our contract.
Because I know how impatient you are with inaction, I’ve outlined my mission statement and plan for the year below. Please trust that I will be using our time in an efficient and productive manner.
I will encourage and uplift other creative nonfiction writers, of which I am one, on their writing paths. The success of each writer will be celebrated as my own. We all win when we tell our stories and bring our truths into the world. There is not “you and me,” only ever all of us, here together. There are no finite limits on publishing opportunities. These opportunities only grow and expand as the world has more opportunity to be introduced to an ever-increasing supply of compelling, well-written works of creative nonfiction.
I will participate in the world of creative nonfiction on a daily basis. I will find ways to celebrate the wonder of emerging talent and stories, mine and those of other writers.
Plan for Diligent Execution of “Free” Year of a Writing Life
During this year I pledge to:
Spend at least fifteen hours per week on my own writing (strive for a minimum of 2,500 words each week);
Read creative nonfiction books (at least one book per month) and, after reading, take at least one of the following actions:
Reach out to the writer directly about their book
Write a review on Goodreads
Tweet the book, copying author when available
Write blog post/review
Write review to submit to literary journals;
Read at least two essays each week in online literary journals and comment on one;
Continue administrative role in The Fisher Cats—an online writing group of “motherhood” writers—encouraging submissions and celebrating the publishing success of group members;
Submit a minimum of one new essay or poem (to multiple publications) per month;
Attend writer-based events in my own local literary community (at least one per month) AND network at event;
Get together for coffee or a meal with other writer(s) once a month (breaking bread with those of similar interests/backgrounds lowers stress and burnout risk);
Make time for three writer’s retreats (at least one carried out in solitude);
Read four books outside of my genre (for these purposes, graphic memoir will be considered “out of genre”);
Take two relevant writing classes at The Loft Literary Center;
Continue steady work and progress on my memoir (at least 5,000 words/month); and,
Search for an agent or submit directly to indie publishers and/or contests (when or if my memoir feels ready).
In full consideration for signing the below non-compete, the undersigned will be, on June 1, 2018, granted full and unencumbered permission to search for paid employment in the the world of publishing, teaching, or book selling (or, even, to pursue your interest in becoming a death doula).
Very truly yours,
Heidi Fettig Parton
(AKA Writer Heidi)
Your signature below will serve as the full and complete execution of the non-compete agreement set forth in the above letter.
I’m always holding back. I hold back my writing, because maybe I’ll use it somewhere else someday. Maybe there will be a better time or place to put my words out into the world.
I hold back feelings of hope in a futile attempt to tamp down the potential for disappointment.
I hold back feeling joy, in an effort to stave off feeling sadness.
I hold back love. I’m not sure why I hold back love. I sense it has something to do with trying to keep chaos at bay. For me, love and chaos were once intimately linked. At the very least, I know I hold back love when my world is at its most chaotic. For example, whenever my youngest son’s health issues creep into the forefront of our lives, as they have this fall, I fold deeper into myself. My capacity to show love to those in my life declines. My life becomes singularly focused on trying to control the uncontrollable: my son’s health.
I attended Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words writing retreat in northern Wisconsin two weeks ago. It was my fourth time attending this retreat; I always come away with new insight and new words. I’m still shaping some of the essays I started at that retreat and I’m mulling over the direction I received from Kate, other attendees, and my inner guidance: overhaul your entire manuscript. Begin again. Rewrite it a fourth time. This time, actually retype the whole thing. I’m kind of resisting the direction right now. I know this because I started applying for editorial jobs. Wouldn’t it be better to be an editor again, rather than a writer, I ask myself. I ignore the writing contract that I made with myself last May, when I graduated with my MFA, when I agreed to let my “writing self” have a year before my “get-shit-done self” stepped in and told writing self to get a real job.
Even in my resistance, I’m still thinking about the rewrite and how it will be done, how the manuscript will be shaped so differently this time around. I’m reading about five memoirs right now. Reading to observe structure, more than to absorb content. That said, I’m sucking the marrow out of Claire Dederer’s Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses. I’ve come late to the Poser party, but am so glad I came.
Another bit of wisdom I brought back with me from Wisconsin is an idea that another writer shared. This writer shares a first name with me, so it’s only natural that her wisdom would resonate deep within. She told us she was trying to move from “ego writing” to “soul writing.” She described the difference. Ego writing resists going deep and, instead, slips safely along the surface. Soul writing, in contrast, dares to reveal the shadow side, dares to become all it can be. In other words, soul writing doesn’t hold back.
It feels scary to me, but I am going to watch for the places where I am holding back. In those places, once observed, I will ask myself if I can give a little more. I will take small steps until it no longer seems so scary to give myself to my writing, my loves, my life.
Like birds do, I want to enter each day with a feeling of abundance and generosity. I’m tired of living small; I’m tired of holding back.
Normally, by this point in the school week, I would have long since written the requisite blog post for my Immersion in Publishing class. This week, however, I’ve been dragging my heels. When I paused to assess the reason for this uncharacteristic procrastination, I realized it was because I was putting off an ending.
With this post, I am completing my last assignment for this class, which is the last class of my MFA program. The moment I post this on my blog, I will essentially be done with my MFA (aside from a few final responses to classmates and one last class this coming Thursday). As much as I’ve looked forward to (even counted down the weeks) to the ending of my MFA program, now that it is upon me, I feel myself hitting the brakes. Why is that? I think it’s because I know I’m entering the void: the void created by the absence of the MFA program.
The truest thing I’ve learned over the past three years of doing this MFA work is, I am a writer. Submitting pieces and receiving rejections is a part of the game. Having an essay or poem rejected is an ending (of the hope you had). It creates a different sort of void. To fill that void, I’ve learned to do one of three things: revise the piece (again), put it aside to mature (and then revise), or submit it immediately to another publication. This game is always half terror, half hope. But play I must; the act of writing is what I love.
And now, I step into the void. I promise myself, I’ll keep on writing.
I am entering the final phase of my MFA program, with two classes this semester and a publishing internship next spring. My Intro to Publishing class has us writing blog entries this fall. In this first post, we are asked to consider what it means to be an “accomplished” writer.
In writing, I still equate “accomplished” with “published.” Although I’ve been published in a variety of online publications, I probably won’t feel “accomplished” until or unless I have a book sitting on my shelf, with my name on its spine. Until then, I’ll likely continue to feel like a fraud when I tell people I am a writer in response to the question, “What do you do?” Sometimes, I think I should just come out with it and admit, “I’m a fake writer,” before being asked the inevitable follow-up, “What do you write?”
Even as a child, I wanted to be a writer or, “author,” as I called it back then. I also wanted a canopy bed—one with a pink gingham canopy. While I did get a pink gingham bedspread, I didn’t get the canopy. I also wanted a Barbie Dream House, the kind that was three stories high and had a working elevator, which operated on a rudimentary pulley system. One Christmas, my parents gave me a plastic Barbie suitcase fashioned to look like a jetliner (I’m certain my mother found it on clearance). I played with the jetliner regularly but it would never match my Barbie Dream House fantasies.
I may always equate success as a writer with being published and, because I equate publishing with success, I may struggle to believe I am accomplished without a published book that says “Heidi Fettig Parton” on the spine. That elusive book is my adult-sized Barbie Dream House. Still, what I have learned in my MFA program is that a published book doesn’t make a life. The day after one’s book publishes, she still has to do the laundry (maybe Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t), worry about book sales, and continue the search for her corner of happiness in the world.
Somedays, especially those days I receive a rejection letter, writing is really difficult. On those days, I ask myself if I really need a Barbie Dream House to feel complete. Perhaps there’s some writerly version of the plastic Barbie jetliner out there that I’ve yet to find. I have to wonder though; is good enough ever enough?
For my fellow Judy Blume fans, here’s an amazing song about the influence a writer can have (especially one writing for the young adult audience). It captures why I want to write books.