Dumpster Diving

Dumpster DivingDecades ago I took a university writing class with a respected and much lauded professor who rattled off a list of rules that all good writers must absorb as the writer’s bible, and then declared why none of us undergrads would meet his requirements even if we conformed. My penned notes on his first lecture filled many lined pages with not a single doodle enhancing the margins. The papers were creased with the sweat of my hands as I’d written, the ink smudged by the nervous energy of trying to listen attentively and commit every significant comment to the notebook. For posterity, for future reference, for guidance in my lame efforts to become a writer. His final words, actually even his very first words, were that he’d like to see far fewer faces at the next lecture because we were not the students he wanted to teach.

At the end of his class, I walked out of the room with my head reeling, a sense of illness brought on by the knowledge that the previous four years of college pursuit were a total waste of time. As he’d accused, though he’d addressed the entire room of 40 or so upper level students, I was unqualified to ever attempt to write a story, so ignorant that I couldn’t function within the narrow corridor of competence as he’d described. I couldn’t live by his rules because I was already a total failure. He spoke to all of us but I took it personally. He spoke to me.

The dizzying buzz in my brain assured me that I was as incompetent as he’d expected me to be, that his initial evaluation after calling my name from the attendance record confirmed his suspicion that I would never live up to anyone’s expectations of successful writer – or successful anything. Perhaps dumpster diving might suit me. At least then I had the potential of dredging up something useful from the bottom of the bin, something practical for the life of a loser. That’s what he expected of me, of all of us. It was that class, so late in my long years of attending college, and a few rejection letters (that I’d been warned I should expect for the few stories I’d submitted for publication consideration, rejections being the norm for new writers) that convinced me I didn’t have the right stuff. That I didn’t have the write stuff to be a writer. With only this final semester of college before I could graduate, my credits hovering on the maybe-not-enough-units line, and a bank account that couldn’t support one more semester to make up a failed attempt, I dropped his class. Frantic rearrangement of department allocations for a few of my classes, and I did manage to graduate “on time,” but my wobbly confidence fell over the cliff. After college I did little to pursue writing as an actual career and eventually created a measure of success in another field.

How many of us who wanted to become someone – a ballerina, a rocket scientist, an inventor, an ambassador on behalf of our country – found ourselves waylaid by the doubt of stepping outside the hallowed halls of university and encountering the real world of looming bills, demanding employers, and sewers to be cleaned? I wasn’t the first, the only, the last. It took me decades to understand that the famous professor’s clever manipulation of an apprehensive young woman produced exactly what he wanted me to become: someone whose papers he didn’t have to read or grade. I was what he’d nurtured: a drop out and a failure. I was also what I’d nurtured: a fool cowering at the bottom of a dumpster.

But what the famous professor didn’t count on was that I would scrabble from the dumpster and gather myself as a person of merit. He didn’t consider that I’d have something more than his rigid rules or qualifications to measure success. I have passion about what I do, what I write. Passion carried me through a whole crapload of insecurity. I survived a latent start to surface from the dregs of the bin to make a person out of the nervous aura of the student. I’d never been a brilliant prodigy but I’ve always been resilient. And I’d always been passionate about who I was, what I might become.

Nearly 12 years ago I resurrected my dormant desire to write. I wrote with a frenzy, stimulated by then-current needs to change who I was, and an aged longing to do what I felt I should have done with my life. Late at night the computer glowed and hummed, helping me craft and hoard my novels. When I wasn’t near the boxy beast, I thought writing and kept penned notes about what to revise, what to write next. The excitement of my childhood, of my early college years when I envisioned becoming the next great Dickens (Charlotte, of course,) enervated me. I’m encumbered by practical needs and responsibilities, all the everyday necessities that get in the way of a creative life – like most of us –  but nothing can stop me writing now.

I finally learned what a smarter student would have learned in that first class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that. Likewise, only I can make myself a good writer. The rules may assist or impede but if I write with passion, ain’t nothing gonna get in my way, baby. Put that in your cup and stir it up, drink it down, and get outta my way. I am a writer. That took a very long breath and a voice from deep in my diaphragm, but, there, I’ve said it: I am a writer.

And here’s the coup de grace: I can no longer remember the name of that luminous college professor.

Be well, friends.

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Light My Fire

lightmyfireIt would be nice to know that creative people, whether working in the fields of art, film, dance, or even medical or technical research, wake each morning with a new inspiration bursting from their heads, propelling them to their métier. I’d like to believe that. A good night’s sleep, a hearty breakfast, and off to paint, direct, twirl, or find the wonder cure to ills and ailments.

No one past the age of six believes that absurdity. Even little kids know how tough it is to come up with a marketable, er, gradable project. All the skills-building lessons struggled with in first grade, and by the time that six-year-old is promoted to second grade, he knows that it’s going to be another long year of practicing the same exercises over and over, trying to get it right. Whatever was mastered in first grade is just not good enough for second, and the kids know it when the first homework assignment in early September is posted the board. Practice addition facts. Practice for the spelling test. Read for 15 minutes. Bring lunch money. In other words, the lesson we all learned: it doesn’t come easy – pay your dues.

When I tell people I write, a few standard comments follow. “What have you written?” Nothing you would have read because I’m not yet published. “I always wanted to write a book.” So did I and then I did – three of them so far. “Where do you get your ideas?” From the supermarket, just like you. Maybe my thoughts are a bit smart-aleck, but my verbal remarks are polite because I love to talk about my books as much as I love to write them. On lucky days my fan club becomes a friend with common interests, and questions become a conversation.

I write because I always thought I would. It seemed a part of my personal constellation by the time I was six, a splatter of stars cast into my brain, earning me endless support from my teachers. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” I wasn’t daydreaming – I was writing in my head. I could read better than most of the other kids, and my school stories were rich with adjectives and heroic characters. The little girls were prettier than me and bore names I envied – Tammy, Edwina. The little boys behaved more politely than the ones on our playground, even if they didn’t have as much fun. Their antics were resolved in a few paragraphs without adult intervention. (Who needed grownups? I always loved that unsupervised scenario.) Boring and pedantic as those early stories were, the books I read transported me to wild places and dangerous adventures. Eventually it registered that risk, temptation, suspense, and dicey events made for much more exciting escapades and were more likely to compel a reader to finish a story – or for my teacher to give me a better grade. Add a main character who didn’t act like an everyday super hero and a bad guy who did – even better.

That was good strategy for elementary through high school, but college courses proved I didn’t quite have what it took to be a real writer. The spark flickered more than burned, and I realized some writers had great story to tell but no gift for putting it to pen. Others made words flow like the Mississippi all the way to the delta but nothing happened along the way. Only a few had the chops to write a damn good story in a damn impressive style. I just wasn’t one of them – yet.

The little spark that keeps me up at night (and sleepy during the day) where do I find that wick? Lots of events trigger my creative impulses but the ones that incite my writing are problems that irritate me for months. They are “what if” questions that bug the hell out of me until I finally begin to think about how I might resolve their suggested conundrums. Other activities (revealing the perfect word, rewriting till my hands swell) will advance my efforts at continuing the writing process, but the initial work springs from something that niggles me to death.

Years ago I worked with an absolutely gorgeous, talented, and thoughtful woman. She’d just married a hunk, and seemed off to have a great life. She left the job, we lost contact, the last I’d heard she’d divorced the hunk because of his infidelity (What was he looking for?!) and she and the baby were struggling to survive. I wondered, why is it that a woman with so much talent and the kind of looks that pickled men, ends up with a cartload of sorrow? And if she can’t make it with all of her advantages, what the heck are the chances of an ordinary schlub like me?

I’d also chewed cud for many years on the idea of writing about a family during subsequent Passover seders. Every four or eight or 16 years, (four is a significant number at Passover) I would check in on them, see how the kids grew up, follow the old folks as they coped with dimming dreams, note how the new world affected everyone’s pursuits and beliefs. I also studied the Holocaust, a subject that harrowed me.

Eventually I faced a devastating employment situation that forced a major change in my life. Deeply distraught over circumstances I could not have foreseen nor changed had I known, I realized the only way out of my personal morass was to create something. My usual go-to creative process was to paint, but I’d been an artist and art teacher more than 25 years by then. It wasn’t going to bring me the relief or new direction I needed. So I turned to my childhood dream of writing Something Important. I combined the girl with everything and nothing, Passover, and the Holocaust into a book. Over two weeks I wrote 60 pages, most of which have remained intact. The result is a book called The Inlaid Table, and it worked its way to the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, General Fiction Quarterfinalists. I was thrilled, and I had a new enterprise to give my life purpose.

The book is not published though I haven’t given up. I’ve written two other books since then, also not yet published, and at least two more scribbled ideas are on computer queue. I slow sometimes, but the spark remains. I pay my dues. I keep writing. What lights your writing muse?

Be well, friends.

On Success

Dictionary.com has the following to say about the word “success”:

suc·cess [suhk-ses]
noun

  1. the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals.
  2. the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.
  3. a performance or achievement that is marked by success, as by the attainment of honors: The play was an instant success.
  4. a person or thing that has had success, as measured by attainment of goals, wealth, etc.: She was a great success on the talk show.
  5. Obsolete , outcome.

As writers, we have many goals and desires for our writing. Perhaps a goal is to write and publish a novel.  Perhaps it is to write a popular web serial.  Maybe it is to make a career out of writing for television or radio.  Success in these cases may be measured by whether or not a novel, or serial or radio script is completed or in-progress.

For some writers — and by “some writers”, I actually mean “me” — there are times where “success” is as simple as getting a few words onto the page at all.

By any measure, I have had many successes as a writer. I’ve had short stories and poems published. I’ve had several scripts produced. I’ve written a lot of stories, poems and other things which perhaps may never see the light of day outside of my own home, yet they are successes because they are written.  But my biggest success is probably seeing my children’s smiles as they read a story I wrote or laughed at a joke in a script I wrote.

As much as I’d like to envision a future where I can make a living by writing fiction, the reality is that writing computer software is what will continue to pay my bills for a long time to come.  So success for me will continue to be defined by completed stories or manuscripts, perhaps an occasional publication and absolutely by the smiles of my friends and family when they read a piece.

How about you? How do you define success with regard to your writing and where do you want to see it go in the future?

Hitting the Wall, Rounding the Bend, Writing the Whole Way

Shari-booksEleven years ago, I began writing a book I’d wanted to pen for decades. The premise of the book changed significantly so the one I finally wrote is less stodgy, more imaginative, and well researched. I finished it after four years, sent notice to friends and family via email, and kvelled at the sweet comments returned to me. Then I revised it again and again, trying to get closer to the heartbeat of my own story, making improvements at each iteration.

Not surprisingly, reviewers noted that the beginning was weak, slow and meandering. Over and over, I wrote the beginning – first line, first paragraph, first chapter. I swapped a chapter for another, improved an earlier version, eliminated one “first chapter” attempt, and finally settled on what seemed to be perfect.

Slogging through the traditional agent querying process, getting no-thank-you’s or no response at all tainted my belief in my book. Everything I read, even unpublished, amateur work, seemed better than mine. Doubts about my ability kept me awake more often than passages I couldn’t wait to get typed onto the computer. Maybe I couldn’t write after all. I stopped talking about it with every stranger stuck in lines behind me at the bank and grocery store, and began work on my second book. Less flag waving here, I’d learned that telling the world I was writing a book elicited questions about what section they could find it in at the bookstore. But I also kept at the first book, rewriting, evaluating, deleting, working through early morning hours to make it better.

The Amazon Breakthrough American Novel Award announced the rules for the 2012 contest. Every year, ABNA accepts up to 5000 entries and gives each an opportunity for consideration for the single grand prize: traditional publication with a renowned publisher. I took a chance, plowed through a rather user-unfriendly application process (if you can’t figure it out, maybe you shouldn’t be writing anything other than grocery lists?) and submitted my story. The month long wait for the first round of acceptances made everything I ate curdle in my stomach. OK, maybe too many milk products for me, but anxiety was a persistent calendar marker. Every day checked off was another day my gut cramped as I opened my computer to check for news.

The day ABNA published the first round, those entries that made the 1000 submissions cut, I prepped for disappointment before opening the web page. With five thousand submissions, what was the chance that mine would stand out for anything other than also-ran? Accepted entries were listed in alphabetical order by first name. And there, down the list for adult historical fiction, my name was posted.  I’d made it. A miracle, beginner’s luck, true talent, I’d take any and all accolades. I held my breath for another month, expelling when my book made the quarter-finals round, one of 250 successes at that level.

That was it. Don’t bother looking up who won the Grand Prize that year expecting to see my name because it wasn’t me. It was someone whose story was better than mine.

The let down of being an also ran made it hard to answer friends who called to ask, “So how did your book do? Did you win?” Couldn’t they just look it up themselves? Of course not, so I had to tell people over and over that my book was no longer in the competition, swallowing the bile of defeat.

Bad as I felt, I didn’t rip up my book or excise it from my computer. I’d done all that dramatic hair ripping, brow beating, temper tantrum crap when I was a kid. Ten, 12, 17-years-old, I’d screamed and yelled, even cursed at the injustices of life. Well into middle age, nothing of that self-indulgent anger was left. At this point in my life, I needed to save all the dramatics for the events that really rip one to pieces: the death of a parent, the acknowledgement that the other parent has Alzheimer’s disease, the loss of job after job as the economy savaged the private schools where I’d taught art.

Here is where the true mark of delineation was drawn. I gathered the thin shreds of my two months of glory and tucked them into my journal, savoring the kind comments of my two Expert Reviewers. On my computer is a file labeled “ABNA,” and there rests the proof of my 15 minutes of fame. I stand on this wobbly also-ran fulcrum, balancing my passion to write, my longing to be published, my doggedness to take care of the things I must, and my ABNA failure. There’s no purpose to moping around in my undies, I haven’t enough disposable income to gamble it away, and I dislike alcohol too much to become a lush. Instead, I write.

I revised my book again and pulled out thousands of unnecessary words, passages, even chapters. I read the entire new version out loud, with regional accents and dramatic inflections, sometimes befuddling my husband, and groaned at sections that sounded terrible. Then I slashed them, tiny bits of virtual ink floating in the computer trash bin. I looked at that first line again and fixed it again, though maybe not for the last time. I identified the weak and slow parts of the story, making them stronger and more crucial.

I continued to work on the second and third books as well. I’m considering self-publication as my most likely avenue and hoping people will read my stories, tell their friends about them, and demand, or at least consider reading, more from me. I didn’t win the 2012 ABNA but I didn’t lose either. My writing is better, my insight more mature, and I am determined to get my books out there, one way or another. How have you turned around your disappointments?

Be well, friend.