Can You Be Shaken Off?

We have covered patio behind our office building known as the Smoking Deck, so named because it is frequently inhabited by the tobacco addicts who work in our non-smoking building. It’s a simple structure; metal lap roofing on a framework of steel “C” channels, supported by posts at one end and the building on the other. Not fancy, but functional—and even non-smokers appreciate it as a staging area perfect for gathering one’s nerve before bolting across the parking lot to your car on rainy days.

About five years ago, we  acquired some new tenants on the Smoking Deck. A tribe of Barn Swallows moved in and set up housekeeping, having found the inside of those steel “C” channels to be a perfectly wonderful place to nest. We didn’t mind at first. Most of our folks, both smoking and non-smoking, found the little family a charming addition—until the day someone mentioned the possible health ramifications of all those bird droppings collecting on the concrete deck. After enough people complained to outweigh the bird-lover vote, we decided to encourage our little friends to nest elsewhere the following spring by removing their little mud nests after they had been vacated.

bird2The following spring, the nests reappeared one day, in exactly the same locations, occupied by egg-sitting mama birds and guarded by a team of highly protective attack swallows. Over the protests of the anti-bird-poop coalition, I allowed the nests to remain until their purpose had been fulfilled and they were once again vacant. On that round of bird-bomb prevention, we installed heavy-gauge 1/4″ wire mesh over the open channels to prevent the birds from entering their nesting zone. Problem solved—or so I thought.

A year later, the Barn Swallows returned in force. One of the several resulting nests is pictured on the left. In exactly the same spots where they were born, the returnees built new mud nests using the 1/4″ wire mesh for support the way a plasterer uses wire lath. Birds three, humans zero.

No matter what we do, we can’t get rid of these blasted birds. After years of trying, I’ve officially surrendered. Those threatened by bird by-products are using either denial or a different door during bird season, and after the Barn Swallows complete their task and move on, we break out the pressure washer and thoroughly sanitize the concrete deck. It needs a little tar-and-nicotine scrub once in a while, anyway.

Shake, Rattle and Write.

The Barn Swallows remind me of the story of Elisha and Elijah in the Old Testament book of Second Kings.  The Prophet Elijah is about to be taken up into heaven, and Elisha is determined to be his successor. Elijah tried to shake him off three times, but each time Elisha stubbornly refused to be shaken. Three different groups of prophets tried to tell Elisha to give up, but he paid them no attention.

Moments away from being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah asked Elisha if he had any last-minute requests. Elisha upped the stakes by asking for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit, to which Elijah replied, “Kid, do you have any idea what you’re asking for? You’re going to need a mighty big vision to get that.” (My paraphrase.)

Elisha still wouldn’t be shaken off, in spite of his mentor’s repeated attempts, his peer’s discouragement, and a goal grown larger than his wildest dreams. When his vision test came, he passed—and because he wouldn’t be shaken off, he became what he new God intended him to be all along: Elijah’s successor.

How does this apply to us as novelists? If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the road to publication, it’s that there are plenty of opportunities to be shaken off. Rejections. Critics. Discouragement. The interminable wait for what could be the world’s slowest moving industry at times.  We think we’ve had a breakthrough, take a giant step forward, then stand there for months unable to move a single inch further.  I used to think that selling my first novel would end the shaking. I’ve spoken with enough published novelists—even best-selling authors—to know better now. For most authors, the shaking never ends.

If that’s the case, why do we keep on writing?

We’re Barn Swallows. We’re Elishas. We’re Novelists. We write because we have to, because we need to get these stories out of our heads and onto the page. Try all ytou want, we won’t be shaken off. This isn’t just what we choose to do, it’s what we must do.

Published or unpublished, old pro or neophyte, here is a simple test you can take once and for all to determine if you’re a true novelist: Try to stop. Go ahead, I dare you. Take a month off. Try to live one full month of your life without seeing a situation and thinking, “Hey, I can use that in a story.” See if you can live for one month without hearing a unique name and envisioning a character with that name. See if you can go for a month without waking up at night with a storyline in your head. See if you can watch a movie or TV program without brainstorming story ideas, or commenting on a character’s development, or seeing flaws in the plot that make it implausible. See if you can go a whole month without writing one single word of fiction, whether in your head on on a page.

If you can really quit—if you can be shaken off—then by all means quit. You’re not a Novelist. If you can do something else, then do it with all your might.

If, however, you can’t quit no matter how hard you try, then welcome to the family. You’re a Novelist, a victim of the writing disease called Novelism. There’s only one known treatment: Write, Rewrite, Repeat.

For the record: I tried to quit, and I didn’t last a full day. How about you?

Idol Lessons: The FLAP Principle

Allison Iraheta

Allison Iraheta sings Janis Joplin

The blogosphere is abuzz this morning, processing the elimination of seventeen-year old rock-star-to-be Allison Iraheta on last night’s American Idol. The competition is at a point where whomever is eliminated is an outstanding performer and will—if they want it and don’t mind the hard work—have a solid career in the music industry. I think many Idol fans are now voting for their favorite personality, even if their musical performances are marginal. Based on musical performance alone, Danny Gokey’s butchering of Aerosmith’s Dream On should have sent him packing.

Winning American Idol isn’t a golden guarantee of a successful music career.  Anyone who doubts that ought to take another look at Idol’s fifth season. Taylor Hicks took first place, and his flopped first album turned him into “Taylor who?” faster than Simon Cowell can sneer. Like Allison, Chris Daughtry finished the competition in fourth place. After performing live on last night’s program, Daughtry was presented with a little modest wall trinket acknowledging his debut album hitting a phenomenal FIVE MILLION copies sold worldwide. For those in the top ten, Idol opens doors. Once the door is open, they still have to deliver.

Being voted out is an emotional experience, but last night Allison turned all that emotion and heartache inward and delivered a stunning  performance that, if given Tuesday night, could have put her in the top three.

Allison Iraheta's Farewell Performance on American Idol

Watching Allison’s stirring farewell performance last night brought back memories of one of my mentors teaching me The FLAP Principle. Whether it’s losing a job, getting the boot from Idol, or a rejection letter from a publisher, the principle is the same: It’s not the rejection, but how you react to it that counts. Always Finish Like A Pro. In Allison’s case, the emotion and heartache of the moment could have been a disaster, but instead she turned them into the one thing she lacks: the soulfulness that comes with life experience. Instead of a blubbering Tatiana-esque scene, she cut loose and belted out  a rendition of Cry Baby that came from a place far deeper than I’ve ever seen her sing. Who could watch that performance and doubt for a second that Allison will be another Idol success story?

As a writer, rejection is a way of life. It hurts. Sometimes it hurts like fire. Sometimes it hurts so much that I want to quit. In those moments, I recall the sage who taught me the FLAP Principal, and I begin looking for ways to turn the rejection into a growth opportunity. If all else fails, I grab hold of all that angst and grief, tell my dead father he was wrong, and after stuffing all that back into my gut I let it pour out on the page, infusing my characters with newer, deeper levels of reality.

Like Allison, we all have to choose how we handle rejection. How do you handle yours?