By: John Lugo-Trebble
To borrow from The Golden Girls, Picture it: The year is 2012, a young olive skinned man finds himself in a complete state of crisis. Everything in his life has collapsed and he has to start finding a way to rebuild himself, his relationship, and a new life. He runs from Berlin to Falmouth, takes a studio flat on the harbour and enters therapy. Through therapy he begins to write again and remembers how words and books soothed him through his childhood. How as a child he would sit and staple together his own magazines, with features and articles written entirely by him. How he would make his own story books. How he filled black and white marble effect composition books with tales of places he never thought he would see one day, or adventures he wished he could have. He remembers the freedom and the solace in words. He remembers for as long as he could that he had wanted to be a writer but he remembers being told that maybe it was better to study journalism even though he didn't want to be a journalist. He remembers being told writers don't make a living, that it wasn't a career choice for a poor kid from The Bronx. He goes on to study Literature and enters the publishing world but not the creative side of it. He writes a novel that is rejected and with that his writing dreams are boxed up until one day they could be contained no more.
Being a writer
Since 2012, I have for lack of a better term officially called myself a writer. Though that is kind of a lie to be honest. As writers we constantly have to justify our existence, our choice and our worth. We are judged by whether we are published or not and then only if we are published in certain places or by certain companies. We are judged by whether we pursue an MFA or not. We are judged by whether we win an award or receive an accolade for our work.
It's all a big farce!
The majority of writers have had other professions before turning to writing and were writers during that time. I was a writer from the moment I put pen to paper as a kid and in retrospect, I really wish I had believed that in the very depths of my soul.
In 2012, I guess I became a “professional writer” when I sold my first freelance piece after I returned to Berlin from Cornwall. The article was about online educational tools used for distance learning. I spent three days at the conference watching presentations and interviewing delegates. I used part of the fee I earned to take a few online fiction writing courses, where I met a group of writers who would become my tribe. With the support of my tribe and most importantly, the support of my husband David (I cannot stress enough how vital it is to have a supportive spouse/ partner/ family when you work creatively); things started to progress from there. In 2014, my story "Rückspiel" was shortlisted for The Reader Berlin Short Story Contest and later published in Jonathan: A Queer Fiction Journal.
Sources of inspirationIf you have ever read Stephen King's On Writing, you'll know his belief that "if you're not reading, you're not writing." I am with him on this. When my productivity has slowed down it has been because I am not reading instead of not having time. Reading motivates me whether it is a book, an article, or a blog. As a teenager, I read and was inspired by James Baldwin, Edmund White, Ethan Mordden, Douglas Coupland, Andrew Holleran, John Rechy, Herman Hesse, Alan Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Rosario Ferre, Dorothy Parker, F Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde and Federico Garcia Lorca. What drew me to these works were observations from the outside, or looking in. Their work gave me insight and helped me develop my own style which is often from a place of "the other." Identity and "carving out a place" are themes I work with within the context of entertaining. I like reading an enjoyable story and I love telling one. This is the reason I take inspiration not just from other writers but from the world at large. I love music; if I could play an instrument or sing, I would have pursued music. I take inspiration from musicians like Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, singers like Nina Simone, Pattis Smith,Luz Casal, La Lupe, Roxette and Robyn.
It's impossible for me to name a singular favourite author but one who's work I enjoy losing myself in is the world of Carlos Ruiz Zafón. His book The Shadow of the Wind is lyrical poetry and combines the love of books with mystery, love, tragedy and intrigue in Franco's Spain. I have recommended his books to friends and family who have fallen for his verbal magic as much as I have. Pick up any of his books, it doesn’t even matter which one. I promise you won't be disappointed.
Current works in progress
The pandemic has left me struggling to finish my third novel, These Are Days. This is the third instalment of The Everywhere Series which chronicles the coming out of Lu and his relationship with Si as well as his friendships and family relationships. It's set in the 90's in NYC. Even though I am 50% done with the book, I am not happy with it and a huge part of it is that I am not feeling it the same way I felt writing the first two books and I need to address that. It's not a writer's block issue. I actually don't subscribe to writer's block. I can always write something, being happy with it, well that's another issue. What I do is just continue to write as if I am running a faucet and waiting for the water to turn clear. It's the only way to persevere. It is also during this time I find myself sidetracked with developing other story/ blog ideas but I think it is the best way to work because it keeps me writing.
John’s advice, tips and tricks
In the last 10 years of "officially writing," I have learned to be wary of two things that can sidetrack my writing and paralyse any productivity. The first is imposter syndrome, which manifests itself as jealousy/envy. I’ll be scrolling through social media and there will be post after post about other writer’s accomplishments. Each individual post poking at me like an annoying sibling sat next to you on a long family car trip. Each poke a reminder of your own lack of accomplishments. Before long, the green eyed monster has reared its ugly head.
This is a sign I am not happy with my own productivity and I need to address it before I find myself in the jaws of envy.
This person is not me. I am the person who cheerleads all his friends’ accomplishments, who loves to hear good news because there is too much negativity in the world; so when envy crops up, I take a step back and look at what's really going on and the answer is always the same: You're not working on your own stuff John. No one else can tell your stories but you. So put down the phone and go work on your stuff!
The second thing is creative burnout. There are times when the well is dry. There are times when you need to replenish yourself. These are the times when I step away from the desk. I’ll do some gardening. I’ll clean the house. I’ll make collages (highly recommend this one). I’ll watch an old favourite film or finally watch that film that I have been putting off. I may read something in a different genre or revisit an old fave. I might even explore new music. Whatever I do, I make sure that its letting my mind rest or feeding it knowledge. I try to remember what a friend of mine, Jenny Alexander told us during a retreat: “If you want to do creative work, you must be able to tolerate uncertainty.” Uncertainty passes and so does creative burnout.
On dealing with rejection
When my first novel was rejected, I didn't write anything substantial for about eight years. I let rejection rob me of eight years so when I began writing again, I promised myself I would never let rejection, or to be honest, anyone or anything rob me of writing.
So how do I make sure this never happens again?
First and foremost, rejection is never personal. No one is attacking your writing. Editors have their own briefs and your work may or may not be suitable. That is it. They are passing on that piece of writing and not you as a writer. When a story of mine is rejected, I have an obligatory twenty four hour mourning period where I treat myself to a favourite film or food. I allow my mind to process the rejection. I am kind to myself because even though rejections are not personal, it does not mean they don't sting a little. The very next day, I submit the piece to another place. If a piece is rejected more than three times, I then have another look at it and see if there is something that's not reading well and make any necessary edits or adjustments.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given many years ago was from the writer Kathy Fish.
"My soul needs to write, my ego needs to be published."
I have this taped up next to my desk because it puts it into perspective.
The last ten years have taught me a lot about myself and my writing and the biggest lesson is the importance of being "John Lugo-Trebble." I remember at a conference an agent saying that she wasn't interested in the next Margaret Atwood or John Grisham, they already exist. She pointed to the audience and said "I'm looking for you. What do you have to offer?" Too often it is easy to think, well if I write like this person, I'll get that contract. Truth is, by the time you read a bestselling author, the market has moved on behind the scenes, the publishing companies and agents are already in the midst of releasing "the next best thing." I have to remind myself this every time I start a new project, every time I finish a first draft and every time I put it all together before releasing it into the world.