Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Rowing in that canoe

Just a week ago, I was visiting my sister up near the top of our country, in Cairns, Far North Queensland. It's a tropical rainforest up there, with far more sunshine and tourists than I get in my little part of Australia. While I was enjoying my stay, which included visits to tropical islands and the Great Barrier Reef, I also had time to reflect on my lifestyle. I wrote about it on my own blog as soon as I got home, and I was touched and surprised to receive an unusual amount of feedback from other authors who said they can relate to being in this canoe. I was particularly touched by those who thanked me for sharing what we sometimes all feel. For that reason, I felt to share it here too, hoping to touch more readers. This is not something I do often, but I trust many readers will not have read both. Just knowing that we're in it together, and that it's for a reason, is sometimes enough encouragement to help us go on.

I've just returned home from visiting Cairns with my daughter and younger son. It was so great and relaxing up there. Even though we were physically doing lots of active stuff every day, I had plenty of time to reflect on the direction my life seems to be heading. The quietness and idyllic rainforest surroundings were perfect for that, especially when I was sitting on the fourth floor balcony of my sister's apartment in the mornings and evenings. I realised there's a deep current of sadness and frustration associated with my life back home that has me trapped in its tendrils like some deep river plant, sucking the life blood out of me, making me loath to return. I had to examine it to figure out where it was coming from, since many aspects of my life are good. It didn't take me long to work it out.

All writers, especially of fiction, are told repetitively that unlike the old-timer authors of the classics we admire, our job in the twenty-first century is far more complex. We can't sit back and expect our publishers to do it all for us. Nor can we expect publicists and promoters to help, unless we pay them a hefty fee. We have to tackle the business of P.R., promotion and business skills, all in the name of making our names prominent and getting sales for our books.

Yes, it's this that makes me feel as if I'm sitting in a canoe, using all of my strength to paddle against the current, lucky if I stay in one spot let alone make any progress. I know that if I stop to catch my breath, I'll be swept toward a steep precipice with a great waterfall, like
Barron Falls, the one Emma, Blake and I just saw in Queensland from the Sky Rail and Kuranda train. Then I'll be swept over to disappear from sight and be wrecked at the bottom.

God knows I've been facing that current all my life. I'm not as good at paddling these particular rapids as other rowers are, but I've been trying with all my might. I've been taking the advice of books I've read, trying to set up book signings, talks, appearances with many people who aren't really all that interested in what fiction authors are doing. "We'll call you if we're interested," they say, and many never do. I've set up stalls at various events, trying to catch people's eyes with a broad smile and sell them on my books, which they had no idea existed five minutes earlier. I've contacted media to organise fleeting little newspaper articles. I've painstakingly tried to work out the best words for catchy press releases, titles, blurbs and announcements. I've made frequent little announcements on social media, just trying to remind people that my books are good, which involves being careful to work out whether I'm coming on too strong. I've tried to do all this with the intention to make buyers want to purchase my books for their sakes rather than to help me out, which involves salesmanship. I've been vigilant to search for other avenues such as guest blog posts and free giveaways. I've examined other promotional websites which have been drawn to my attention. With the help of my husband, I've tried to set up an interesting website of my own. All these things are my way of taking large strokes with my oars.

I've had to listen to plenty of well-meaning advice from spectators, lots of it edged with reproach. "You're not staying in the race properly. Look at all those authors who are far out ahead of you." Yeah, well, there are more quality athletes at this game. Some of them even thrive on all this. It doesn't mean I'm not still doing my very best. "You don't have the right sort of equipment to be rowing on this river. Your personality is that of an introvert." I know that, but if I stop paddling, who's going to do it for me? "You're losing ground. Back in 2000, Christian bookstores helped you sell 2000 copies of Picking up the Pieces. Now you'll be lucky if Koorong are willing to take 10 copies of your books. The falls used to be way further back and now they're just behind you." I know, I know, but with the emergence of eBooks, you never know what might happen. I have to keep paddling. "You're staying in the same spot. Your number of reviews on Amazon haven't changed for months now." That's why I have to keep paddling hard to keep ground. But boy, my muscles are getting tired.

Over the years, the scenery along the river bank has changed a bit, but the main topography is pretty much the same. Instead of the massive cliff of Christian bookstores to row past, there is now the challenge of getting Amazon sales among millions of other eBooks. That involves figuring out the perfect key words in categories and keeping track of sales. Equally daunting terrain and treacherous mountains.

So that's the sort of course I've been rowing. It took twelve days of lying on the bank for a short rest to make it obvious that it's really getting me down. During that time, whenever I logged on Face Book, I noticed my friends all still doing the rowing game as hard as they can. I feel very loath to get back in my canoe and pick up my paddles. My fingers cramp up and my hands have got blisters of RSI and strain. My bottom is sore from the narrow little seat. My spirit is broken, crying out, "Please don't make me climb in there again."

I have to consider its pleas as I step back into my old life at home. I have files of pictures and words urging me to never, never, never give up, and that rewards come to those who press on. I've kept my focus firmly fixed on them for all these years, but my holiday forced me to wonder if setting my face to get back on with it all is really the right thing to do on all occasions. Is it worth climbing back on board the canoe, at the expense of my happiness?

Say this life ends when we're somewhere between the ages of 80 and 100. I'm already approaching the middle, having devoted the best of 40+ years to this dream and this rowing course. Way back in school I declared that a writer was all I wanted to be. Can I really go on though, when it means keeping this deep sadness and anxiety rooted? I have nowhere to go when I do scramble up on the bank, but pull myself out I must. I can't stay in that water any longer. I'm weary. I don't have the Olympic quality which I see in others. At least it won't be much of financial setback to take a break, when all I've ever earned has been virtually nothing.

I'll still be sticking my feet in to paddle, of course. I love writing too much not to. If you want to, you can still keep track of me. I love writing and blogging. I'll still dabble with promotional opportunities without getting all intense and burned-out about it. For example, we want to get my Quenarden fantasy series ready for Amazon kindle.

The thought of settling to be a spectator instead of wanting to shoot for the moon terrifies me. I'm well aware that a funny paradox has happened. In a way, continuing to paddle against that strong current in my canoe feels more like 'going with the flow' than climbing out will be. I really need a fresh change in my life. If something is wrong, you have to fix it. Is it a cop-out to want to climb out of that canoe? It feels more like a brave, blind step of faith than a wimpy move at this stage. But I don't know what will be on the bank.

Paula Vince is an award-winning South Australian author of Christian contemporary fiction. She lives with her family in a beautiful spot with four distinct seasons, which she likes to use as the setting for her novels. She believes a well-written story has power few other mediums share.


  1. Evening Paula, how's the canoe been behaving today. I appreciated your honesty. I guess as with anything writing doesn't get easier as we get older and even have any number of titles in the canoe.

    It seems to me as christians we are always rowing, paddling, swimming against the tide of either a godless or apathetic society. Why do you/we keep going? I would imagine part of the reason is what you have given to others from out of the canoe has prevented them from drifting over a moral or spiritual waterfall. Instead, whether you realise it or not, they are being taken by your canoe up river to a better 'camping ground.'

    The fresh change you talked about might simply be a brief time on God's camping ground to be refreshed for a more leisurely paddle upstream.

    1. Hi Ray,
      I believe you are right, it's all one long row, often against the tide. I appreciate your reminder that it's not just a one-man canoe, and that's why we do keep going.
      Yes, I think that after a bit of rest, I'll be ready to climb back in and get going again.

  2. Enjoy your break from the prattling classes, Paula. I too find the constant harangue to sell, post, sell, advertise, sell . . . very wearing. And if we don't write first, we've nothing to sell. Good for you for knowing your own path and following it.

    1. Hi Alice,
      It's been refreshing to get my away from all of that, even for just a short time. I think it's a good lesson to learn, and sometimes it takes a total change of scenery like that to learn it.

  3. Paula, you already know my thoughts and feelings on what you have expressed, but I want to say again that there will be something wonderful on that bank for you! It might simply be a refreshing sabbatical--or it might be a whole new change in direction. But whatever it is, it will be right and good for you as you listen to God who knows you through and through and who loves you unreservedly.

    1. Hi Jo-Anne,
      Thanks again, for your encouragement. I've progressed even further into your book, Soul Friend, and I'm finding it a real blessing. I love your reflections and thoughts. It's the perfect book for times like this, out of the canoe and on the bank.

  4. I found this very moving. You painted such a vivid picture of how you've been feeling - this was so honest and real. Thanks for opening your heart and being vulnerable with us. I think there are many, many, authors who feel the same way.

    You said, "If something is wrong, you have to fix it. Is it a cop-out to want to climb out of that canoe? It feels more like a brave, blind step of faith..." I think you're exactly right. God doesn't desire for your life to be a miserable struggle. He wants you to have life in all it's fullness - whatever that looks like for you, in this season. God bless you as you step into the next chapter of your life story.


    1. Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your comment. I think sometimes we can be in those rapids for some time before we realise we need some time out on the bank. I found it refreshing that several other authors told me they've been on the same canoe and know how I feel.

  5. Paula, thanks for your honesty as you reflect on your writing journey. I hope your break from the rapids will give you peace, direction and focus for your future writing ventures.

    1. Hi Narelle,
      I think I was a bit burned out and it took a different lifestyle for a few weeks to figure that out. Yes, a bit more of a break will be just the thing, I think.

  6. Here I am - late as usual. Thanks for this eye-opener, Paula. In fact, in the past I was feeling guilty I hadn't been doing enough! But I realized I cannot do what many authors do in self promotion, simply because my priority is to write weekly radio scripts. Like our books, I don't know who reads/listens, yet it's like casting your bread on the God's time it will return. In what form? Only God knows and I rest in that.

  7. Hi Rita,
    You're a very hard worker and I'm glad this post was eye-opening about those feelings of guilt. I like your point about casting our bread on the waters too. We never know what may be ahead.