Amal El-Mohtar stops by the Shimmer blog to share “something inspirational-ish” with us, and you. No ish about it, your writing journey will be better for having read it.
So, I’m sprawled out on my couch, laptop on my lap’s top, staring at the reality of needing to answer not one, not two, but three sets of interviews for tomorrow, and shaking my head in bewilderment at the fact that anyone anywhere wants to know what I think about anything. I am about to log on to Twitter to whine about how Interviews Are Hard and I Feel Like a Fraud, when I remember that I am supposed to be writing a guest blog for Beth.
“Something inspirational-ish,” she’d said. “Something about how you went from ‘The Crow’s Caw’ to a story in a Year’s Best anthology.” And just as my brain starts to put Beth’s request into the same box as the interviews, consigning it to fuel for further intarwebby whinging, I think, hang on a minute. Beth Wodzinski is a woman of extremely discerning taste. She and her team made Shimmer into a ‘zine I adored and devoured long before I was ever published there. Beth Wodzinski knows what she’s talking about, and I will not disparage Beth Wodzinski’s opinions just because they happen to apply to me.
It’s so easy to focus on the things we haven’t done. It’s so easy to forget that a few months ago, perhaps a year ago, the list of things we haven’t done was much, much longer, because it is a flaw in the nature of lists that we don’t enshrine the items we’ve struck off, but narrow our eyes against what still needs to be done.
Often this is admirable. Just as often, I think it’s damaging and limiting.
I dwell on the fact that I haven’t written that novel, haven’t broken into that market, haven’t won that award, haven’t even been nominated for that award, haven’t written more short fiction, haven’t sold more short fiction. I dwell on the things I need to work on, the things I need to improve – but here, by Beth, I’ve been asked to dwell on the things I’ve achieved, the things of which I should be justly proud. And it’s hard. But hard things need doing, so here goes.
I used to dwell on how I wasn’t selling any poetry. In March of 2005, I made my first poetry sale to Marge Simon at Star*Line, and have since sold over twenty poems to individual markets, not counting a collection which I’ll get to later.
I used to dwell on how I wasn’t selling any short fiction. I was writing loads of it, as my dear friend Jess and I would encourage each other with weekly prompts, but nothing was going anywhere (with good reason, I now see, wincing as I peruse early efforts). In April of 2006 – over a year after my first poetry sale, and the same month I launched Goblin Fruit with that same friend – I made my first ever fiction sale. Shimmer bought my story about storytellers discussing how the crow got its caw.
I used to dwell on how no one outside my family and friends read or liked my poetry. In 2009, three years after joining the Science Fiction Poetry Association, two poems of mine were nominated for the Rhysling award: one of them won first place in the Short category, and the other took third in the Long category.
I used to dwell on how I couldn’t write every day even though I thought I should, and if I did it wasn’t any good. For every day in February of 2009, I wrote a complete piece of fiction or poetry inspired by the colour, scent, and taste of a different kind of honey. A year later those pieces were published as a collection, called The Honey Month, by Papaveria Press. A few months after that one of my author-heroes said beautiful things about it on the internet and invited me to contribute to one of his anthologies purely on the strength of what I’d produced there. A few weeks ago another one of my author-heroes asked me to sign a copy of The Honey Month for a friend of his, who happens to be the wife of an artist-hero of mine. Both of these heroes are people whose autographs I have asked for in the past.
I’m not even going to say I dwelt on the absence of this next thing, because I didn’t, because I don’t think I ever seriously thought it could happen: I have received letters, hand-written and electronic, from people I do not know, telling me they love my work, and asking me what I will write next.
And in spite of all these things, these beautiful, magical things – in spite of the fact that I’ve got a story forthcoming in a Year’s Best collection, in spite of the fact that people of whom I’ve been a fan I now count among my dearest friends, in spite of the fact that editors I was too shy to query now solicit material from me, in spite of the fact that I’m sharing Tables of Contents with the cherished names I’ve had on my bookshelves for years and years – I can’t bring myself to believe that someone might be interested enough in what I have to say to ask me some questions, because I haven’t written a novel.
More bizarre than that? Those people who have written novels, whose work I’ve loved my whole life? They feel this way too, or close enough for folk music. The goal post is always moving, and those tantalizing grapes are always just out of a reach that always exceeds one’s grasp, else what’s a heaven for, the whole bit. But I’m here to tell you – even as I remind myself – that so long as you work, you’re always getting better, whether you feel it or not. So long as you work, even as you sigh, and frown, and count your rejections, and despair of ever doing any one of a list of a dozen things that would mean you’d Made It – you’re getting better, and you’re Making It.
I’m not telling you to rest on your laurels, or to lack ambition, or to be content with what you’ve achieved. I’m telling you to have a passing acquaintance with what you’ve achieved, because chances are it’s more than you thought you would at some point, before you got good enough to expect more from yourself. Just acknowledge it. Be kinda proud of it. And every now and then, when you’re feeling smothered and stymied by all the things you’ve yet to do? Make a list of the things you have done, no matter how small they may seem in hindsight, and let them stand, un-struck-through, as a testament to all the things you will do. Because they’re the proof that you can.
Amal El-Mohtar is a Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, currently pursuing a PhD at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of 28 different honeys, and co-editor of Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, along with Jessica P. Wick. Her work has appeared in several venues online and in print, including Apex, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Shimmer, and Cabinet des Fées, and is forthcoming in Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Ellen Kushner and Holly Black, and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. A complete bibliography is available at her Writertopia page. She also keeps a blog somewhat tidy at Voices on the Midnight Air.