Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Trigger Warnings: Body Dysphoria, Eating Disorders, Abuse, Every Other Damn Thing

Last night I had a series of repetitive dreams where I was on a snowy college campus (possibly University of Michigan [N.B.–It was, because I remembered when I was making an omelet just now that I was trying to get my old job at the Half-Ass back]) walking from place to place. There was some unspecified Bad Thing going on at the college. I came into the dream knowing this, the way you do. And I couldn’t speak. I’m not sure I even intended to speak, in the beginning. I just knew about this Bad Thing. But everywhere I went, random strangers approached me to whisper in my ear: “Don’t tell. You’d better not tell.” No one voiced a specific threat or consequence of telling what I knew, but it hung there in the air, tangible. And as the dreams went on, and I was told over and over again not to speak, speaking became the most important thing to me. Even though I’d had no intent to speak to begin with. Yet every time I thought, “Now. Now I will open my mouth,” someone new whispered in my ear. “You’d better not. You’d better not tell.”

This is the form my nightmares take. People sometimes dispute my PTSD diagnosis because I don’t have the classic kind of nightmare: a reliving of the trauma, from which you wake screaming. I’ve had screaming nightmares, but not often. As a rule, my nightmares are more nebulous, more symbolic, full of this kind of hanging threat. Just like my abuse.

Today, my heart is racing. My whole body is tense, and I feel as if I’m being strangled. I want to make it stop. I want to run and hide in a dark place, pull the blankets over my head and never come out. I want not to be–not only because of my intense desire not to experience what I’m experiencing, but because erasing myself is the the coping mechanism I learned, over the years, to make the abuse stop. Become small. Become invisible. If they can’t see you, they can’t hurt you. Don’t be.

If I had access to narcotics, I would take them right now. Not to feel this terror, this helplessness. This sense that I take up space that I have no right to, that something awful is coming to put me in my place, force me to become smaller and smaller until I disappear. I do have a bottle of Scotch, and I will no doubt drink some later, after I finish writing. Right now, I need access to these feelings, so I endure them.

I’m not sure what brought this on. Yes, the dream. But the dream is a manifestation of a deeper mental distress, something that’s been coming for a while now. Something that’s been poking at my calm exterior, making ripples like a huge, dark creature under the smooth surface of a lake. It’s possible some of it is the result of the holiday season, which is always a difficult time for me, always has been, and this year has been worse than ever for various reasons I won’t go into here. I think a large part of it stems from my recent hyper-awareness of my body. I think this because when I try to explore it–my relationship with my body, the way it feels to me, the things I like or don’t–my heart beats faster and faster and I feel as if I’m going to vomit.

Body and voice: these are difficult things to have when you’re not supposed to exist. I was blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an abundance of both. Voice is the easier one to dispense with. Don’t speak. Don’t question. Don’t put words to your experience. I get around this through writing, obviously. I translate trauma into stories. Or I journal, or I blog. My blog is a way I trick myself into “talking” about important things without opening my mouth, while preserving the illusion that I am anonymous and this is all fiction. The same way, as a child, I told myself stories about my experience and always referred to myself in the third person.

Writing comes easily to me; spoken word is harder. In a group, especially with new people, if I talk at all I stutter, I perseverate, I say words that aren’t the ones in my head. I think this may be part of the reason talking therapies have never worked well for me. While it was nice to have a place to go to vent, I always ended with the feeling that the true things hadn’t been addressed. When you couple this with a therapist’s agenda to look at certain things and not others, well.

If talking is difficult, singing, with music’s ability to connect directly to emotional reality, is impossible. I used to dream of being a singer. Even before I knew I wanted to write, I knew I wanted to sing. I’ve tried it on and off, over the years. And there were always…the messages I got, that it wasn’t permitted. I guess. It’s hard to grasp these things. What I know is, these days when I try to sing, I feel more like screaming. So I don’t sing too much. I envy those who can. I envy their voices and the freedom with which they use them. I think, “I will never be good enough to sound like that.” Probably this is a story I tell myself to obscure the truth.

I feel like I am being strangled all the time.

So that’s voice. You can shut it off. You can’t shut off having a body, not really. At least, I can’t. I’ve always had a peculiarly strong mental and emotional connection with my body. I get stressed or unhappy and I get sick. My body manifests my mood. It’s nothing I can control; it just happens. And when you grow up understanding that you’re not supposed to exist, this is problematic, to say the least. For a while, at times, you can isolate yourself, stay in your room, stay quiet. But then you have to go out. You have to go to school, to work, go shopping, pick up the mail. You have to be seen. And it’s a violation of your internal code. The programming that tells you not to be.

This is extremely hard to put into words. I am sitting at my computer shaking, having palpitations, unable to breathe, feeling like I have to vomit. Tears coming up in my eyes while terror squeezes my heart.

From what I understand from Internet articles and blogs I’ve read, from looking at the body positivity movement and hearing other people’s stories about being fat-shamed and all, most–if not all–fat people struggle with a societal message that they’re bad and wrong for having the bodies they do, for living in fat bodies, for having the gall to exist while being fat. I’ve experienced this as well, almost as far back as I can remember. Certainly when I reached school age, the bullies who targeted me latched onto my body size as the main place to direct their bile. Even at the time this confused me, because in third grade, when it got really bad, I wasn’t particularly large. I was much smaller than several others of the popular girls. Looking at old yearbook pictures confirms this. I bought into it anyway, of course. FAT became the word for everything wrong with me (with UGLY a close second). And if you’ve read this blog at all, you’re already aware of where this led: to the idea that everything would be better if I weren’t FAT, to years of hating my body, to anorexia and bulimia and multiple hospitalizations, to an inability to associate my “self” with the person I saw in the mirror, to various fad diets, food plans, and exercise programs. All the stuff that was supposed to make me acceptable. All the stuff that never did. Being reasonably intelligent and self-aware, I got early that FAT wasn’t the real problem. When your weight falls to 100 lbs, to 85 lbs, to 67 lbs and no miraculous changes occur in your life, you get pretty quickly that weight isn’t the issue. It’s a convenient issue. It’s something you can attach to because it’s something you can control when you can’t do anything at all about the truth. (Until you can’t, because you’ve messed up your body being focused on weight.)

I developed anorexia at the very beginning of it coming into the public consciousness, and I’ve heard all the psychiatric interpretations of violently disordered eating: you’re rejecting adulthood; you’re rejecting developing a woman’s body; you’re rejecting nurturing; you’re exhibiting a need for control; you’re reacting to social programming. Etcetera ad nauseam. But the one thing I never heard, which seems the obvious thing to me–and granted, I’ve been out of treatment for eating disorders for years, so someone may have come around to this by now–is that you’re trying to disappear. To cease being. Because you’re stuck with this body and as long as you’re alive, there’s no way around it. No way around this blatant evidence of your existence. As long as you cart your physical form around, you’re slapping the faces of everyone who wishes you’d never been born. Every time they lay eyes on you.

I’m sure people get this programming in different ways, at different stages of their lives. You can get it because you’re black, or a woman, or gay, or trans, or fat, or anything that doesn’t fit somebody’s idea of WHAT SHOULD BE NORMAL. After half a century on this planet, more than two thirds of it spent in trying to figure out what the fuck is up with me, I’m pretty certain I started getting it because I was born.

If any of my family reads this, no doubt they’ll argue, as they’ve argued with my perceptions about my experience since I can remember.

Before I continue, I’m just going to mention that at this point I paused for nearly twenty minutes, trying to decide if I should repeat some of the arguments I’ve heard from my family, to give my experience more weight. I have decided not to, and this was a difficult decision to make. These are the voices I hear in my head every day of my life, the gaslighting I have absorbed and unconsciously transformed into mantras over the years. The things that make me doubt. The things that make me afraid. The things that make me want to throw up when I take a stand by refusing to give them space, as I have chosen to do. I don’t know whether or not my choice is a healthy one. Is choosing not to speak something, when I am programmed not to speak, liberating? Or is is simply bowing to a code of silence? I don’t know. In the same way, I don’t know whether living in a fat body, taking up the maximum space, when I’m not supposed to exist at all, is a kind of freedom or whether it’s bowing down to the message that I can never be an acceptable person.

This is me between a rock and a hard place. This is where I live.

I have learned so many fucked up things about being, and I don’t know how to unlearn them. There’s always a question. I want to be loud. I want to be seen. I want to dance. I want to shape my body into the person I see in my head. How do I reclaim these things, when all of them defy the most basic program of all? Don’t Be. How do I learn to love myself? How do I learn to love my body, this giant declaration that I AM? Self-nurturing, being gentle with myself and practicing acceptance, looks like giving in to fear. Eating healthy and getting appropriate exercise looks like punishment. Speaking my truth invites comment I have no way to address. Remaining silent is giving in. All my roads lead to pain and trauma that I can’t escape. I’m not saying this as a way of fishing for sympathy; it’s a conclusion I’ve come to after years and years of going in every direction I can think of. I have done ALL THE THINGS, and none of them bring me to a brighter self. None of them enable me to push through and come out the other side. Most times it seems the best I can do is not be in pain temporarily. And yet, that brings a pain of its own. I practice positivity that always seems superficial and hollow because it never sticks. I resist falling back into bad patterns, bad thinking, by not doing. And then nothing is done and nothing changes.

When I was in therapy, something I heard over and over again was, “You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself.” But I have changed and changed and changed. Not one bit of it addresses the essential message, and I don’t know where to go any more. What am I missing? Every time someone trots out that old saw, what I hear is, “the people who are supposed to love and care for you can treat you like shit, and there’s NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.” You can’t expect anyone to be considerate. You can’t call anyone on their behaviour. You can only change yourself.

This actually isn’t the blog I intended to write. I intended to write something much shorter about how difficult it is for me to relate to my body and how I really wish I could shape my body, drop some of the excess pounds I’ve gained over the past three years–even just a few–and how this isn’t from social programming but it’s because I want it, and how hard this becomes when I am afraid all the time and being seen terrifies me on the best of days and exercise doesn’t feel positive; it feels like a punishment. I guess I kind of addressed all that, in passing.

I wish I could find a way to end this ceaseless war with myself.

I spend every day screaming inside.


I Love “Love Actually”–Truly, Deeply, and Without Apology

This is without a doubt the closest thing to a seasonal post I’m going to write this year. I originally meant to post it in a series of tweets. But as I thought about it in the shower–where I do most of my best thinking–I realized that while it may make a short blog, it’s far too long for Twitter. So here.

I get really sad this time of year when I see people dissing Love, Actually. I remember watching it when it came out and loving it. Last year, we re-watched it for the first time since its release. And you know what? I still loved it. In fact, it may have made its way into the position of my number one favourite holiday movie, edging out White Christmas for the honour.

Most of the flak I see about it calls it unrealistic, privileged, and sexist. And if I try really hard, I see elements of all those things, sure. It deals with rather well-off British people and presents most of its stories from the male point of view. Does this make me love it any less? No, and here’s why:

Love, Actually is a movie about a commodity that is all too thin on the ground these days: Love. Love that comes unexpected. Unrequited love. Weird love. Bad love. The love that sustains two people over years, as in the case of Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) and his manager. The love that fails. The love Emma Thompson’s character finds for herself when her marriage falls apart. The love of a father for his son and the first crush that dazzles with its intensity. The love that makes you do crazy things you never would have tried before.

I don’t care that the relationship between Liam Neeson’s character and Emma Thompson’s is never defined. Do we really need a platonic friendship between a man and a woman spelled out for us? I’d rather simply accept that it exists. I don’t care that the uniting metaphor of the airport indicates class privilege or creeps you out. I don’t find it at all hard to believe that the guests at the wedding didn’t remark on the saxophones sitting next to them, or that Billy Mack is recording a Christmas single five weeks before the holiday. I’ve been a recording musician, see. And I’ve played weddings. Guests will pretend not to notice all kinds of stuff to keep a secret from the bride and groom, and sometimes you throw together a recording at the last minute to see if it flies. What the fuck is wrong with people that they have to grasp these picayune details as a way to support their dislike of the film?

I love Love, Actually because it’s a character-driven fantasy in the best tradition of the white telephone movies of the 30s. It shows us life as we’d like it to be. It shows us things working out–or not, but even when they don’t work out as the characters might hope, there are always reasons to go on. Yes, it plays on tropes that maybe some people don’t like. And it does it in a light-hearted fashion you can take or leave. It’s uplifting and put together so well that I can’t help cheering at the end. And in a world where I am seeing more and more violence and less and less tolerance every day, I need that. I need the reminder that we can be more. And I am more than willing to overlook certain flaws for two hours to experience the joy.

As a Tarot reader I am experienced in the ways symbols and imagery can strike a person differently every time they appear. Sometimes, when The Lovers comes up, you see the couple. Sometimes you see the Angel with the bow. And sometimes you see the snake in the garden. In the same way, your focus can shift when you watch a movie multiple times. Today it’s a fun romp, and tomorrow it’s a travesty. So I do get it. Not everyone is going to like what I like, and those who do like what I like may not like it every time. Still, I do think it’s sad that there seems to be a trend of focusing on the things this movie doesn’t do–many of which, in my opinion, it was never meant to do–and ignoring the things it does so spectacularly well.

If you don’t like it, fine. You don’t have to. But I’ll keep watching it, and I’ll keep enjoying it.

Happy Holidays.

I Consider Gender

I’m an inveterate taker of Internet quizzes, and have been pretty much ever since the Internet became a thing. Doesn’t matter what the topic is. If someone offers to reveal my inner Disney Princess, or the colour of my aura, or my ideal toenail length, I’m there. So when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on this quiz to reveal my gender identity, of course I had to take it.

I didn’t expect it to shake me.

Going into it, I thought, “Like anyone really needs a quiz for that!” I was sure that people figured out their gender at an early age, whether they identify as Cis, Trans, or none. Or some combination. And I fully expected the quiz to confirm what I’ve always believed about myself–or believed since I started thinking about these things: that I’m a Cisgendered woman.

I haven’t always thought about gender. Not my gender, not other people’s. Sexuality, sure. I remember when David Bowie came out as Bi and was on the cover of some national news magazine my parents subscribed to. I think I was in grade school, maybe middle school. I thought, “Oh, okay. Boys can like boys. I guess that means girls can like girls.” And it didn’t matter so much to me. It just made sense. As I got older, I met some people who didn’t feel much connection with sexuality at all. And that was okay, too.

But I never thought about gender as distinct from sexual identity. I knew some Trans people, mostly Trans women, and I knew they were distinct from the drag queens I knew. And that was about it, until last May after the Eliot Rogers business in Santa Barbara and the wash of related hashtags that came out on Twitter. One of them was #CisGaze, and I started following it to…well, because I thought a responsible person who’s concerned with issues of social justice should listen to different kinds of people talking about their experiences. So I connected with some people who identify as Trans, and some who identify as Genderqueer, and some who don’t identify with gender at all. I started looking at my simplistic notions about gender: that it’s part and parcel with the genitalia you’re issued at birth and you’re Trans if you don’t agree with them. Or something like that.

I always identified as Cis because I agreed with my genitalia. At least, I never had a problem with them. I never thought, “I should have a penis!” or anything like that. Which was pretty much the entirety of my concept of a Trans person’s thought process: not feeling at home in the body they were born with and trying to reshape their personal reality. Trans people who didn’t transition through surgery, or at least intend to transition some day, weren’t a part of my reality. So hearing about that, trying to absorb the reality of it, men who are fine having vaginas and even being pregnant, and women who’ve never had boobs or even wanted them…It was uncomfortable and challenging to process, and it still is. In fact, I’m still working on simply accepting these things as so, without delving into the wider implications of what it does to my world view.

Anyway. So, this gender identity quiz popped up on some feed of mine, and I took it. And this is what I got.

What the hell??
What the hell??

I took it again and got the same result. And a third time. And more. And I got the same result every time. The thing about these quizzes, when I take them, I always try my best to choose the answers truest to my reality. Sometimes there aren’t any that come even close, of course. And I most often think, because of this, that Internet quizzes have more to do with the internal reality of those who make them than that of those who take them. (I have to pause here to say I really like that last sentence. It has a good rhythm.) But this one–I couldn’t stop thinking about it, because I gave honest answers, and the result was SO NOT WHAT I EXPECTED. Because I’ve never had a problem with my genitalia.

The more I thought about it, the more I had to consider the idea that this stupid Internet quiz was right. That I’m not exactly the Cisgendered woman I have always supposed myself to be. I’ve never gone out of my way to present as “a combination of the two” (which I realize is missing the mark, because gender isn’t binary). But there are definitely things about me–many things about me–that clash with the strictly “feminine” identity.

(Side note: Right now I’m feeling as if I need to put any and every gender identifier into quotation marks.)

I’m big. I’m loud. I take up space. I’m proud of my intellect. I’m outspoken in my opinions. I drink straight Scotch, by preference. I get impatient with typically “female” clothes and styles; I’d rather have freedom of movement than look pretty (although I enjoy looking pretty). I joke that I don’t “Girl” well. I wear make-up on special occasions, or when I’m getting a picture taken, but I’d rather sleep than mess with all that shit. When I was in school, I was always the one whose socks were falling down and whose hair looked ragged, whose shirt came untucked. I’m interested in Math and Science.

I never considered these things “masculine.” They’re just me. But as I think more and more about gender being a social construct, and maleness and femaleness existing on a…on a behavioral spectrum, I guess, where Male people are supposed to be one way and Female people are supposed to be another way, I have to wonder. It’s disturbing. I feel it in my stomach, which is interesting to me because that’s the area of the third chakra. The third chakra rules matters of identity, self-worth, and personal power. And it’s my weakest chakra, the one that’s blocked.

When I was growing up, my parents never paid a lot of attention to my gender. In fact, in a good many ways they actively disengaged from matters of gender. I got girl clothes because I was born with a girl’s body, but that was about it. I certainly was never indoctrinated into the female rituals of presentation and grooming. No one ever told me “Girls don’t do X, Y, or Z; that’s for boys.” I played with dolls, and I also played with a chemistry set. In my world of Let’s Pretend, I was as likely to be an intrepid scout as I was to be a princess–and more likely to be a mountain lion than either. I’ve remarked in recent years, with people talking more and more about diversity in books, that I never felt under-represented because I was a girl. I identified much more strongly with Aragorn than I did with Galadriel, and I was perfectly happy being Tarzan to my friend’s Jane.

All this stuff looks different in the light of those quiz results. A piece of me wonders why it matters. Why does anyone have any gender at all? I relate to people as people, not as their gender. At least, I try to.

All the same, I think about how I feel looking at pictures of masculine men and feminine women. Invariably, I feel a stronger personal connection to the men. I tend to feel attraction toward very masculine men, and it’s not only that I want to tap that. I want to be that. Does that say something about my gender? It’s the same way I feel about anything I find moving or beautiful. I don’t want to own it. I want to be it.

I think about all the body dysmorphia I’ve suffered, and still suffer. Looking in the mirror and being confused because that’s not who I am in my head. Not this aging, fat woman, with saggy boobs and big belly. But something sleeker and more streamlined. Something I’ve never been able to attain.

I wonder if my not presenting a clear gender is the ultimate reason I’ve had so little success in sexual relationships. I’m heterosexual, no doubt about it. I’ve tried being with women, and it doesn’t do it for me, despite Donnie from U of M assuming that my best friend and I were “Lesbo Lovers.” (And no, this didn’t offend either of us. Donnie was a goof, but he didn’t mean any harm.) But though I’ve been with a fair number of guys, I’ve only had two serious boyfriends. one of whom is my current husband. I always thought it was because I wasn’t the right kind of girl, and I usually put it down to my weight or my lack of conventional beauty. Not being the kind of girl guys want. But what if it’s always been that I’m not really a girl at all?

Family picture from 1985. I'm second from the right.
Family picture from 1985. I’m second from the right.

I’ve never wanted to be a guy, not like a friend of mine who used to moan about having big breasts because they wouldn’t let her “pass” as male. I never aspired to androgyny. I’m always just the way I am. But the person I am is far more comfortable in clothes anyone could wear than in anything obviously masculine or feminine. I remember liking the New Wave movement because there was a lot of flexibility in the ankle boots and tunics. Frills for the men, straight cuts for the women. A guy I slept with on and off at U of M wore the same leg warmers and sweatshirts with the collars ripped out that I did.

Last night at dinner, I asked my husband, “Would you mind if I decided I’m Genderqueer?” He said, “Big shock there. Have you ever had the fish at this place?”

Am I coming out as Queer with this post? I don’t really know. I have some qualms about making a declaration. Mostly, I’m afraid of people who really ARE Queer saying things like, “You can’t just decide you’re gender fluid when you’re fifty!” or “You’re showing your Cis privilege by co-opting the Queer experience!” or “If it’s not a political issue to you, you have no right!” Things like that. It’s not a political issue, and I haven’t suffered for my gender (not so much, anyway). I’m in a safe relationship. If I come out as Queer, don’t I have to experience pain and oppression? I’m okay with the “She” pronoun. Does that make a difference?

Mostly, as with all of these blog posts, I’m just turning things over in my mind. Considering.

That’s okay.

 Addendum, 5 January 2015

A Trans acquaintance/friend read this today and had the following to say: “FWIW, what you said in that post said ‘Gender Nonconforming’ to me rather than trans* spectrum. Two different things that are often confused.” He went on to tell me that “Queer” refers only to trans* spectrum, and if I were Queer I’d probably know it, just like I know I’m straight. I didn’t know that Queer had that strict an interpretation, so now I do. And it makes sense, because I have never felt Queer, although I’m not sure I feel strictly female, either. Thanks, J. for setting me straight…uh, so to speak.


The Challenges of Being a Self-Published Author

Having a down day today–didn’t sleep well last night because my brain refused to shut off, “woke up” rather late to discover that with daylight all those great ideas had vanished into the fog of dealing with a disturbed sleep cycle. I get judgmental of myself when this happens. In some part of me, I don’t care how my personal schedule fits in with societal expectations or doesn’t. In the part that becomes more conscious at these times, the fact that I didn’t get out of bed until ten o’clock this morning, and that it is now one in the afternoon and I have just managed to get dressed and think about doing something productive really bothers me. Especially in winter. I think, “Shit, it’s going to be DARK in four hours! How can you WASTE DAYLIGHT this way?” Even though my work doesn’t depend on the presence of daylight, as long as we have functioning electricity.

Look at all that sun you're wasting and the beautiful woods you could be tramping through!
Look at all that sun you’re wasting and the beautiful woods you could be tramping through!

So what does this have to do with the challenges of being a self-published author? Well, I get judgmental about my work, too. Which is kind of funny, because just the other day one of my writer friends, who was having some doubts about the direction her work wanted to go, asked me, “Don’t you ever go through this?” And I answered, “Oh, no, not me! Of course not! I always trust my work!” or something like that. I see now, of course, that this is bullshit, because all morning I have been thinking things like, “This new book is so stupid, the premise is ludicrous, no one is going to buy it, and I can’t believe I ever thought it was a good idea.”

I should probably do this right now and get it over with.
I should probably do this right now and get it over with.

I have to remind myself I chose this. I didn’t choose to be a writer; that’s something I HAD to do. But I chose to go with self-publishing. I chose it for a lot of reasons, some good, some maybe not so good. I chose it because I believe in my work (most of the time), and I believe there’s an audience for it out there, somewhere. I also chose it because I’m impatient, and the traditional publishing path takes A LOT OF TIME, and requires jumping through hoops I don’t like jumping through. And yes, I chose it because I have trust and control issues–especially around my current series–and I had a hard time even imagining giving up control to an outsider who might not share my vision (although my traditionally published friends do, for the most part, seem to support the idea that part of the process is finding a “match,” i.e., an editor or agent who shares your vision and helps shape it, rather than turns it into something else altogether). I chose it because I have some real health issues that would inevitably pose a problem to my ability to meet imposed deadlines, and that is stress I just don’t want to deal with. I chose it because I write in a genre that’s a “tough sell” these days, and because by the time I figure out how to write an effective query letter I had already published three books in the series. Some day, when Caitlin Ross and Timber MacDuff give me a break, I intend to explore some of the other ideas I have on the back burner and shop them out in the traditional way. Some day.

As the man said.
As the man said.

I see my decision to go with self-publishing as a good one, for the most part. But every positive, as they say, has a negative. A lot of people may not notice this about me, because I tend to be more vocal when I’m in a negative mood, but I do try very hard to be positive. Unfortunately, on days like today, the positives about my life choices get swamped by an overwhelming gut sensation of bitter failure. I feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock uphill. (Side note: how awesome is it that my spell-check recognized “Sisyphus” just now?). Some days I believe I’ll get that damn boulder to the top and coast down the other side. But some days I lose my grip, and I spend all my energy running after it as it careens back down to the bottom. And I wonder if it’s really worth the struggle to get my shoulder under it again.

In self-publishing, I get to keep control and work at my own pace. But self-publishing is lonely. Several of my traditionally-published friends have released books recently, and I am so envious of the support systems their publishers provide. A good editor and/or agent can be a cheering section and a source of encouragement on those days when you wonder why the hell you ever thought you could write in the first place. A publisher can send out Advance Reader Copies of your book to reviewers, schedule Blog Tours, and get your work into the public eye in a way that it’s very difficult for a self-published author to match. They handle the interior formatting and cover design and all those details of production that a self-published author has to look after for herself. (Some self-published authors do have budgets for hiring those things out, but I don’t.) You have a basic guarantee of getting a professional product that people will take (mostly) seriously.

I had to learn how to do almost all this stuff. I don’t regret it. But I always have questions. Does the interior flow properly? Should I change the header font? Do my covers work? I started with still life photographs, a couple of which I liked and most of which I didn’t. I always knew they were a temporary measure, and earlier this year I contracted an artist to redo them. But the questions didn’t go away! I love my artist and I love her covers. All the same, I can’t help noticing that they don’t look like most covers in my genre. And I wonder if that matters. How can I tell? Since the cover redesign started, a couple of people have told me they prefer the original ones. One magazine editor with whom I investigated advertising looked at my IAN page (which at the time showed a couple of the new covers and four or five of the old ones) and told me point blank not to put money into a display ad because my covers wouldn’t sell. Do I believe her? Do I not? I’ve seen all kinds of covers, and all kinds of warnings about bad cover art. Am I wrong to like the ones I paid for? Should I be more concerned with my books “fitting in?” I don’t think the contents “fit in;” why should the covers?

I question my writing process. Without a publishing house handing out deadlines, I can keep a schedule that suits me and allow myself to function “at the level I’m at,” as my dance teachers used to say. Do what I can, but not force myself to push the energy where it doesn’t want to go. Except, a lot of the time I wonder if this is a good thing. There are many days I don’t write at all because I’m not in the headspace I need to be in to sit at the computer and put words on a page. Maybe, instead of practicing self-care, I’m just lazy and lack dedication. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to make this work. Maybe I’m a dilettante. Maybe I chose to self-publish because on a deep inner level I realize I’m not willing to do what’s necessary to succeed.

Maybe I’m not a real author at all.

This is the kind of thing that runs through my head day after day.

What my process feels like.

I wish I had a team. I wish I had “people” designated to look after some of these things, so I didn’t have to think about them. I wish some kind soul would take it upon themselves to send out my books and make sure they got reviews and attention. I sure don’t seem to be able to manage it with any success. I promote to the best of my ability, but most of the time I don’t see any result. I have my small knot of fans, and that’s nice. I have a few people I can count on for reviews, and that’s nice, too. But I can’t manage the kind of reach that gets books into the charts anywhere. I’m not talking about the New York Times Book Review, here. I’d just like to create a buzz on Goodreads or Riffle. How do self-published authors do that? I haven’t a clue.

Don’t get me wrong: My “Tribe” on Twitter is a huge support system and I’m grateful for them. But they have their own struggles with their own books. It’s not their job to promote me, nor should it be. It’s not their job to prop me up and give me pep talks. Many of them do anyway, and still, sometimes it’s not enough. I wish for a cheering section I could keep in in a bottle and summon on the days I’m feeling low. I wish for a genie to magically navigate all the book promotion sites on the Internet, sort the worthwhile ones from the less worthwhile, and pin a neat list of the ones I need to investigate on my cork board.

I am thankful for advances in POD and e book publishing that have made it possible for me to make my books available. I am thankful that these same advances give others the same opportunity and contribute to creating a publishing industry where small presses and flourish and we’re enabled to address some of the issues with the Big 6 publishing machine. I’m thankful that advances in technology make it possible to ignore the Big 6 publishing machine, if we so choose.

But sometimes, sometimes like today, I wish I had chosen the other way.

The life of a writer can be lonely, especially if, like me, you don’t “play well with others” in real life and find writing groups more irritating than helpful. The life of a self-published author can be doubly lonely (I’m sure this is why so many writers hang out on Twitter all hours of the day instead of getting down to work.). I encourage you, if you’re making the choice between the independent path and the traditional, to take all the time you can to examine your options. Remember, self-publishing is NOT a path to a traditional contract (not for most people, anyway). It’s a publishing method of its own. One that supplies its own benefits, true, but also one that requires dedication, knowledge, and strength in many disparate fields. One where, in many ways, you’re on your own and must continue through force of will when the going gets tough. You have no obligation to make your book available as soon as it’s finished. The words will still be there. In fact, you might pull them out in a couple years and see ways of making them better. Take all the time you need to examine your options.