234: Shawn Smucker & Maile Silva on creative legacy, rejections, and being faithful to the work
On this episode of the podcast, I hosted two novelists: Shawn Smucker and his wife, Maile Silva, for a literary discussion. Imagine you’re at a writing conference and we’re on stage to discuss the challenges they face as two writers at different points in the writing journey, living and working and raising a family together.
How do they offer support and input? How do they find time to write? What are they proudest of?
Shawn and Maile touch on topics like creative legacy, writing rejections, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, and being faithful to the work.
Shawn is an award-winning novelist by night anda collaborator and co-writer by day. He has an honors degree in English, and has been making a living as a writer for eleven years.
Maile has an honors degree in English, has written three novels, and is currently in the querying process, so if that’s where you’re at, she knows your pain. She has raised six children in the last 17 years and is beginning to have more time to dedicate to her first love…no, not Shawn. Writing. She has taught writing in different settings, including as a table leader for the Black Barn Online.
You might know them from their podcast, The Stories Between Us.
At the end of our chat, they’ll be filling you in on their program The Nine Month Novel. It’s currently closed to enrollment. In the meantime, learn from all the wonderful things they shared. Here’s a sample:
Shawn, on the writing journey:
One thing that I’m always trying to get across to other writers is that it doesn’t matter where you’re at in the process, there’s always something else that you want. If you don’t have an agent, you want an agent, and then when you have an agent, you want to get a book deal.
Or if you’re self publishing, you want to sell more books than you’re currently selling. And then once you have books published, you wish you could sell more copies, or what’s the next series going to be about, or what’s the next book.
I think it’s good to have goals and it’s good to have things that you’re shooting for, definitely, but I think one of the most important parts of the writing life is to somehow also enjoy where you’re at and to enjoy the writing that you’re doing—and for that to be the thing that gets you by. Because if the thing that gets you by is getting to the next level, there are going to be certain levels that you don’t hit or certain levels that are really challenging to get to or take a really long time. And those can burn you out if that’s your only motivation.
So even though Maile and I are at different places in the journey, we’re always encouraging each other: Stay focused on the writing. Enjoy the writing. The writing is never going to let you down.
There are so many parts of the writing journey that will be disappointing, but the writing is always there for you. It’s always there for you to work on. It’s always there for you to dig into.
Maile, on what she’s proudest of:
I think what I would be most proud of is the creative legacy that we’re leaving for our kids. And by prioritizing creativity in my own life, I see our kids starting to do that. And that just fills me with so much joy to know that they see the value of doing these things not because they’re making money, not because they’re getting notoriety from it, but because it’s a good thing to do—because it’s part of who we are.
I love that a creative inheritance is being passed down and they’re chasing after their creative dreams…And I love that more beauty and art is entering into the world just through our little clan of kids. And I think it’s because they see us pursuing it.
Maile, on criticism:
Because I don’t have any published work yet, I don’t necessarily get the one stars on Amazon that I have to work through, but you get your fair amount with the responses from agents and the rejection in it, and the criticism that comes in a rejection, even if it’s a form letter.
That’s been hard for me, if I’m honest. It has been a road, and I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress in that area with what Sean was saying, for me to acknowledge that you know what? This piece of work that I’ve created, it’s the best that I can do at that point. But I’m still writing and I’m still getting better.
And so I’m only growing as a writer, and if people want to point out what I’m not doing well, well, there’s something to be gained from that. Like, maybe there’s something that I need to attend to that they’ve pointed to, but also, that’s their opinion and everybody’s going to have their own opinion.
And it just goes back to the writing: Am I being faithful to the writing? Am I showing up each day and doing my part? If I’m doing that, that’s the best I can do. And I can’t ask more than my best from myself and people can have their opinion about that.
It’s still hard, though. It’s still hard.
Shawn, on finishing
There’s a problem that I recognize in a lot of writers, especially novelists, but I think all writers experience this, where early in your writing journey it’s really easy to start, and it’s really difficult to get through that middle…and to finish.
When I committed to finishing things, my entire writing career totally blew up in a good way. It totally changed. The first novel that I ever completely finished was The Day the Angels Fell. And I self-published that initially, and then it was picked up by a publishing house and that led to book contracts for my first five novels, which I don’t think I would’ve ever gotten if I hadn’t actually finished that novel.
So that’s what I always tell people: write every day, and finish what you start.
Maile, on finding a rhythm
I would piggyback on “Write every day.” I think you have to find a rhythm. You have to find something that works for you. And going back to the expectations, goals, and dreams: you have to create an expectation for yourself and then work at it every single day.
For me, in the midst of we’ve talked about with kids, it’s hard to find the time to write. And I remember I was in the midst of my second novel and just really struggling to find that time and I’d finished one of Kate DiCamillo’s books. In the back flap, where it has her biography, it said at the end of her biography that she lives in Minnesota, “where she faithfully writes 200 words a day.”
And it hit me almost like a smack in the face, like, “Two hundred words a day? I can do 200 words a day!” And suddenly I had an achievable expectation for myself. Okay! Every single day I’m going to write 200 words.
And often I write way beyond that, but it gets me to the page every single day. And then the magic happens after that, you know? Then we see what comes from that.
But we have to create. If we’re going to be writers, we have to write—you have to be writing on a regular basis. If you want to see growth in your writing—if you want to finish things, like Shawn was talking about—you have to find a rhythm.
- Shawn Smucker’s website
- Shawn’s newest book (release date July 2021): The Weight of Memory
- Shawn’s other books
- Building Your Writing Support Triangle, by Jessica Conoley writing for Jane Friedman
- The Stories Between Us, Shawn & Maile’s podcast
- The Day the Angels Fell, Shawn’s book mentioned in the podcast as the first book he finished that opened up his writing life opportunities (affiliate link with Bookshop.org)
- Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, mentioned in the conversation (affiliate link with Bookshop)
- On Writing, by Stephen King, mentioned in the conversation (affiliate link with Bookshop)