Sunday, August 30, 2015

Triggers, Critics, and Rosh Hashanah

It is two days before my newest novel, Strength to Stand, is released to the public, and I would have expected myself to be ecstatic. The book and I have both overcome so many odds to get to this point that the very fact some interested reader can hold it in his or her hand is nothing short of a miracle. Emotions swirl around inside me: gratitude, pride, humility, joy.

Yet there are others there, uninvited guests who have taken up residence in the party room, scaring away the fun with their chilly presence: pain, despair, hopelessness, depression. I was certain I hadn't invited them, certain my focus was on the guests I wanted. I had every intention of getting autographs from hope, opportunity, and love. So why the downer?

Because pistol triggers aren't the only kind of triggers that can leave a gaping, bloody hole in one's life.

If you've spent some time on this blog, you know that I've come out about battling depression, among other things. I've also written a little about what life was like in my family, growing up. Over time, I finally learned that I have worth, that my opinion counts, and that the Torah actually commands us to love ourselves (though not in a narcissistic way). These are life lessons that we need to learn experientially, not intellectually. And for those of us who grew up with a lot of criticism or shame or violence, learning these life lessons may well be the thing that keeps us alive.

But what these lessons do not do, unfortunately, is erase the pain or the shame or the scars left on our bodies and souls. And when something similar to those original assaults comes along, it can rip off the scabs, tear open the scars, and leave us hurting and weakened, right back in the center of hell.

There's some interesting psychology around what are now called Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs). There are a total of ten (defined) ACEs, events occurring before a child turns 18, including but not limited to physical and sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, mental illness or addiction in the family, and divorce, violence, or death in the family. The ACE study has linked these adverse childhood events with later (decades later) physical and emotional health issues. The higher you score on the ACE Questionnaire, the greater the likelihood you'll have one or more of the health issues commonly associated with ACEs.

Is it causal or correlational? The brain science behind the study does seem to show that it's causal. Long-term stress caused by these ACEs has a physiological effect on the development of the brain, thus leaving individuals at greater risk for health problems and reduced longevity. But it's not a death sentence. Science also shows that there are things we can do to help heal our brains.

Nowhere on that list, though, is finding ourselves, willingly or not, in the middle of situations that resemble the original assaults we endured.

We call those situations triggers, though that seems like a relatively innocuous word to describe all that scab-ripping, soul-tearing pain. Avoiding triggers is good. Becoming strong enough in ourselves that the triggers lose their power is even better.

I'm not there yet. I will be. But not today.

I got triggered this past week, which is probably what sent out the party invitations to the chilly, downer guests. Here's what happened, in a nutshell.
  • I received a mean-spirited, snarky review of Strength to Stand from a review journal infamous for mean-spirited, snarky reviews. They described my characters in caricatures, wrote in hyperbole, and then accused me of writing stereotypes.
  • Everyone else said that this was one (anonymous) person's opinion, and meant nothing amidst the sea of overwhelmingly positive reviews. One supporter thought my book was "too Jewish" for this reviewer. Another wondered to what extent there might have been an undercurrent of antisemitism. My favorite comment, by far, was from one reader who asked, "Who peed in [their] Wheaties this morning?"
  • My brain didn't—couldn't—go there, as much as I tried. I tried doing the whole I-have-worth, I-am-loved, I-am-not-defined-by-one-review thing and no matter how much I practiced measured breathing and positive thoughts, they could not break through the Door of Shame that locked me inside with all my trigger emotions.
  • Locked behind that door, I was a child again, harshly and undeservedly tongue-lashed by an adult who held my physical and emotional safety, indeed my entire survival, in their hands.
  • My brain processed this criticism as "Not only did you do something bad, but by creating this and putting it out into the world, you have irreparably harmed the universe."
  • My brain, honed by forty years of well-placed, well-timed barbs meant to cut, maim, and destroy, followed this train of thought: I did bad = I am bad = I am not worthy of living.
The negative critic in my head has been busy too. "If you're going to be an author, you're going to need thicker skin than that. Maybe you're not cut out to do this author thing." No judgement there.

Intellectually, I get it. All authors get bad reviews. No author's books are for everyone, and clearly, the snarky reviewer is not the intended demographic for my book. The greatest authors of all time get bad reviews. The book I'm reading right now and love has received bad reviews. It's one person's opinion and nothing more. I get it. I really do.

Emotionally, the child-me has associated that review with a parent's authority, tossed it onto the mountain of evidence that I don't measure up, and tried to convince me to find another career. Or at least stop writing Jewishly-themed books.

In related news, I've finally gotten around to watching the last half of Glee Season 5. The episode in which Rachel reads every negative review ever written about her performance in Funny Girl, of course, hit home. It begged the question, "Am I going to let the bullies, the haters, the trolls keep me from my passion?" Am I really going to give them power over me? Over my life?

Clearly, critics and bullies and haters (or those who comprise all three) are in abundance these days, especially on the Internet. Responses to them have made their way into popular songs, as well as television shows, evidenced by lyrics like, "Done looking for the critics 'cause they're everywhere / They don't like my jeans, they don't get my hair" (P!nk, "Perfect," 2010). 

Taylor Swift, in an interview about the song-you-either-love-or-hate, "Shake It Off," said, "The message [in 'Shake It Off'] is a problem we all deal with on a daily basis. [. . .] We live in a takedown culture. People will find anything about you and twist it to where it’s weird or wrong or annoying or strange or bad. You have to not only live your life in spite of people who don’t understand you — you have to have more fun than they do."

So as we head into the Jewish New year, as I ponder the year ahead and what I want it to look like, what G-d may want it to look like for me, words from the Unetanah Tokef—a thousand-year-old religious poem—come to mind: "Who will be safe and who will be torn? Who will be calm and who will be tormented?"

It is said, during Rosh Hashanah in general and during this poem specifically, that teshuvah (return [also translated as "repentance"]), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (justice [also meaning to act in a just or charitable manner]) can "avert the severity of the decree." While some interpret this to mean they must confess their sins, pray more (or go to shul more), and donate more money to charity, here's my interpretation:

Teshuvah (return): I return from what others think of me to knowing who I really am. I am Sheyna. I am created b'tselem Elokim, in the image of G-d. Through G-d, I am loved and accepted completely and unconditionally. Without need of caveat or disclaimer, I am enough, just as I am.

Tefilah (prayer): I internalize my intention to return, and I ask for G-d's love and support in my process and at all times. I seek out time for prayer and meditation, time to Connect. I seek out people who are loving and supportive, and situations in which I feel safe and supported.

Tzedakah (justice): My actions toward myself and others come from a place of justice. I treat my body, mind, and soul with care, compassion, and love, for I and others are created in the image of G-d, and how I treat myself and others is how I treat G-d. I do not expect perfection, but I do expect myself to show up and do all I can.

I know that this is not an all-done!-check-it-off sort of deal. We do have Rosh Hashanah every year, after all. We have every day to make a change. Every morning when I wake, up I can choose whether I want to keep my power or give it to the critics. In every moment, I can choose whether to see myself as I fear others may see me, or I can be who I am.

I may not be able to avoid the triggers, nor the wounds they leave. Yet. But I may have found the key to get out of that locked room of shame, and the exit door to show to my chilly guests.

Because damn it, I worked really freaking hard to get this book out into the world, and it's time to party!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Being an Author OR Check Your Ego at the Door

Be careful what you ask for, the saying goes, because you might just get it. That can be a problem.

The problem isn't getting what you want. The problem is that once you have what you want, you want something different, something more.

In an author's world, there is no such thing as enough. There's always the next book, the next review, the next reader, the next appearance, the next award, the next book contract. Sure, some few lucky writers have more than they ever could have dreamed of in royalty income. Their award shelf is sagging with the weight of having won every award given in their genre. Some might call that enough. But no true writer I know of has ever finished writing a book and said, "Okay, I'm done now. No more books."

There's always another book. Which means there's always more reviews, sales, signings, award submissions. There's always a new opportunity to succeed. Or fail. Most authors do some of both.

This past May, I was feeling pretty down, coming off the temporary high of seeing interior and cover files for Strength to Stand go off to the printer. This book was a long time in coming. I'd finished most of the book by 2006, with the exception of one scene that my editor wasn't buying. The manuscript languished as I put all my efforts into my day job and my kids. Years passed, and while I felt the pull to return to that manuscript, it wasn't until a good friend prodded me into rewriting that one scene, late in October 2014, that I finally picked up the mantle of author again.

I was a writing machine for two months, the book coming together seamlessly. In January 2015, it was back in my editor's hands. By April, Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) were being prepared, and by May, I was four chapters into writing book 3 (No One to Fear) in the series. And then I did the Bad Thing. The Bad Thing that authors should never do if they want to keep their sanity. (No, not that one. The other Bad Thing.)

I compared myself to other authors.

I was skimming through Facebook and seeing posts from fellow author friends, some struggling with their work in progress (WIP), some also anticipating a new release in the fall, and then others who were awash in good news—every few days a glowing review or the announcement of an award won.

If you've ever compared yourself to someone whose life's work is somehow related to yours, you know the inevitable outcome: when you compare yourself to others, you always, always lose. I am now convinced that authors should only ever compare their current work to their work from at least a year ago. No one else's. Ever.

But the book industry thrives on comparison. "If you like x author, you'll like y author." The various bestsellers lists are all about ranking sales, and if you know anything about the book industry, you know that sales are not a factor of how good the book is. Rather, sales are a measure of how effective and broad the marketing campaign was (hint: $$$). But any author who is deemed a "bestselling author" will claim the title without asking any questions, and they certainly won't ask if they're now a bestselling author because of the quality of their work or because a well-timed publicity campaign followed by a few Goodreads giveaways happened to go viral and it could have happened to anyone.

And then there are awards. The ultimate in comparison. Awards are supposedly an objective ranking of the best books in any given genre. But even this is suspect. Awards judges have biases, including sometimes a bias against Jewish books, no matter how well they're written, or a bias against small presses, no matter how beautiful and professional the book appears.

In the space of one week on Facebook, I watched no fewer than three authors, whom I knew personally, receive highly prestigious awards nominations, win other highly prestigious awards, and receive amazing reviews in some of the most highly regarded media, all for their debut novels.

I felt sure my book, which wouldn't even be out for another five months, was doomed to fail.

I wrote an impassioned note to an authors' group in which I'm active, hoping for some comfort or support: "I'm finding that as I'm seeing all the awards nominations and the photos from conventions, reading about new book deals and bestseller lists, I'm happy for those involved, and it's also kicking into overdrive my tendency to compare myself to others, in which I always lose.

It's hard sometimes to remember that I write the books that are in me, in my soul, not the books in someone else. I don't write for the purpose of winning awards or making a bestseller list, though both would be welcome acknowledgments.

I'm learning to focus on my own writing, on being true to that part of me that MUST put words to paper, reminding myself that I'm me and you're you and there's no need to compare. And yet..."

The responses were as expected: Yep, that's life. Keep on writing. Me too. One author posted a blog article on writer envy. I didn't want to admit this was what I felt.

Another well-published author sent me an email in response, and managed to hit the nail on the head, saying their reaction was twofold: happiness, on the one hand, for these other authors' successes because they deserved them, and a mixture of hurt, despair, and even anger, that after years of writing and being published, they still didn't see the level of acknowledgment these other authors were now enjoying.

That was exactly it. I was thrilled for my author friends, who were finding such success (and with their first novel!), and at the same time, there was a little voice inside asking, "But what about me?"

Ten days later, I learned experientially that I should be careful what I ask for.

Ten days later, Destined to Choose, my first book, the one that was first published back in 2003, which was re-released as a tenth-anniversary edition in 2013, was named a National Indie Excellence Award finalist. Kindle sales of Destined to Choose spiked and it ranked #1 in the Kindle store under Jewish literature. Back on the authors' group, I felt like eating crow.

Sometimes we human beings learn best by experiencing what we need to learn. And often times, especially for the hard lessons, the Universe decides to teach us also through repetition. So it was with me, though whether that's because it was a hard lesson or because I have a hard head remains to be seen.

By the end of May, about 180 ARCs had been sent out to reviewers, bloggers, magazines, newspapers, and journals. I figured by August, I'd start seeing reviews. August 15th came with nary a review, and not knowing where to turn, I emailed my publicist, trusting her experience and trying hard not to whine.

"Oh, who knows?" my publicist said, adding that many reviewers shoot for publishing reviews closer to a book's pub date (in this case, September 1st), so I may see more in September. Some may hold on to reviews until late fall, since the book takes place during Chanukah, and then they could review it as a "Chanukah book." (It isn't, really, but I could see the point.) In any event, she instructed me to keep working on those things I could control, check in with some of the places to which ARCs had been submitted, and let the rest go.

A trusted advisor pointed out to me that, really, I'd already received reviews in the form of blurbs. They were all fantastic. No one said, "Sorry, I can't blurb this; I didn't care for this book." The same advisor asked me what I felt about this book.

"I love it," I said. "I think it's a better book than the first one, though I'm loving book 3 even more than the second one."

"Isn't it a sign of growth as a writer that each successive book is better than the one before it?" she asked.

"Yes. It's when the first one is spectacular and the second one tanks that you have a problem."

"And you love Strength to Stand?"

I had to separate out my own feelings from what I'd taken in from others. "I do," I said.

"Then there you go."

I'd gotten myself to the point where, even if no one else reviewed Strength to Stand, I still believed in it. I still loved it. I was coming to understand that reviews didn't define my book, and they certainly didn't define me. I could live with that.

And then this morning, I received an email with a link to a review of Strength to Stand, which reads in part: "Sheyna Galyan offers a sophisticated blend of insight and entertainment; suitably complex, flawed, and yet commendable characters; well-developed action and suspense; and an authoritative rendering of synagogue-centered Jewish life. This is a very fine book group selection and teaching text." The review will appear in the fall issues of three publications in Florida.

Okay, I get it, Universe. Really. Do I have to eat crow again?