Whenever someone asks me about writing, my heart flutters. I can’t help but smile. If the person I’m talking to happens to be a fellow writer, I practically throw my arms around him or her and ask, “You get it, don’t you? You understand.” I get giddy when I find another soul who shares my passion. Finding what makes you come alive feels good.
I often get asked how long I’ve been writing. Well, I was a storyteller long before I was a writer. I began keeping a diary in sixth grade. From that time on, I got in the habit of writing down my thoughts, feelings, and wild flights of imagination. Although, I call it a ‘journal’ now instead of using the much more juvenile term ‘diary.’ Somehow that makes it okay.
Eventually, the storyteller and journal-keeper became an amalgamation. I’d written several short stories, but in 2001 I decided to try writing a full-fledged novel. Was it like the movies where the author types THE END and then he/she pops a tall stack of papers into an envelope and sends the manuscript off to a random publisher? Of course, in the next scene, the writer is signing copies at a bookstore where fans are lined-up out the door. That is a common fantasy, but far, far from reality. A successful writing career is much harder to attain than Hollywood would have us believe.
My husband is a remarkable man with a successful career. He has a sign in his office that says: Fail Early. Fail Often. Fail Forward. I love the premise. My first novel (the one I wrote in 2001) might never see the light of day. I was a newbie and didn’t know what I was doing. There are a few plot holes, some character issues, passive voice problems, etc. So, in effect, I failed at writing a publishable book, but I failed forward. I joined writers’ groups and submitted my work to brutally honest critique circles. I took classes, went to seminars and attended writing conferences. Through the years, I continued to grow as a writer. I will never be finished learning because I will always be a student of the craft.
To be honest, I still struggle with the fear of failure. Believe it or not, I can pinpoint my problems with both hating math and fearing failure. It was 1974. Catholic School. Third Grade. The nun teaching us math loved giving timed tests. She wanted us to stop making so many mistakes while being timed. Some of us (I’m sure I was one of these) did fine on the worksheets, but made mistakes on the multiplication tables during timed tests. She came up with a “solution” to stop us from writing answers in order to beat the clock. Her batshit crazy idea? She had us hold up our pencils and then she went down the rows with a giant pair of scissors and snipped off the erasers. When she handed out the quiz, I froze. Any confidence I had in my math ability collapsed. I couldn’t concentrate due to the anxiety of not being able to erase should I make an error. From that point on, I dreaded math class. I also, to this day, refuse to use a pencil without an eraser. When I come across an eraser-less pencil, I throw it in the trash. So, mini-golf is a no-go…unless I bring my own pencil. As an adult, I realize that at a very vulnerable point in my life, I developed an irrational fear making a mistake. I have to work hard to overcome it.
I know I’m kind of odd. For example, one Saturday morning, my husband asked, “What would you like to do today? I’ll take you anywhere, do anything.” Well, it was a cloudy, gloomy, October day. It was perfect! I smiled. “Let’s go to the graveyard!”
I like old graveyards. The older the better. We spent the afternoon and early evening grave-hunting in Montgomery, Alabama. I love to take pictures of interesting and elaborate headstones and monuments. Some people might find that morbid. It probably is strange, but to me, graveyards are full of art—beautiful sculptures. A graveyard is like a museum dedicated to the dead ones. I like to contemplate that every person buried there had a story, a life—whether happy or sad, rich or poor, loved or lonely.
Every once in a while, a headstone will give you just a snippet of that person’s fate or personality. There is an epitaph that reads, “I was somebody. Who is no business of yours.” Wow. I wanted to know more about that person! I immediately started conjuring up a backstory. In Marietta, Georgia, one headstone reads. “Here lies a girl who died. Nobody mourned, nobody cried. How she fared? Nobody knew. Nobody cared.” Heartbreaking, but what was the story there? Who was she? Why didn’t anyone care? Again, I began making up a backstory. I filed it away to possibly use in the future. Graveyards fire up my imagination.
There’s a slightly dark-side to me that sometimes needs to be unleashed. I love ghost tours, after-hours haunted history tours, and I adore sitting around campfires scaring people with ghost stories. Growing up, I was the girl at the slumber party with the flashlight pointed under her chin, making up macabre tales about the people who lived in the house before the present owner. If I could make everyone scream, I deemed it a success. I must admit that moms weren’t always thrilled with ten overly-dramatic preteen girls screaming and yelling at midnight, but I couldn’t help myself. I’m a storyteller. That’s who I am.
I’m quirky and have hidden disabilities just like everyone. I am okay with being a little weird. I gravitate towards unusual people. I have found that the unusual people are often the most creative ones.
Whether you’re still seeking your passion or if you are actively working on it, remember it is imperative to surround yourself with supportive people. Never let the naysayers throw cold water on your dreams. I have no time or energy for mean-spirited or ill-tempered people. I live in the real world, so I can’t get rid of them. They are out there sabotaging someone’s dream right now. However, as soon as I deduce that someone is ultimately negative, I do not allow them more than a passing acknowledgement in my life. AND THEN I KILL THEM OFF IN ONE OF MY BOOKS. No. Just kidding. I haven’t done that to anyone except Ken Homlier–but that was justified. He deserved it. So, don’t worry if I look at you with a strange expression on my face. Although, you might worry if I’m looking at you with a strange expression AND I’m taking notes.
Magic happens when you’ve discovered your purpose.
My purpose is to become a writer–the best writer I can be. I will never stop pursuing my dream. It’s funny that being a writer is rumored to be one of the most isolating careers. There’s a reason when you think of a writer, you might conjure up the image of someone wearing a bathrobe, messy hair, and unkempt appearance, hunched over a typewriter; a lit cigarette balances on the edge of an ashtray full of butts. Perhaps there is a bottle of whiskey and a half full glass on the corner of the desk. I must admit part of that stereotype is true. When I’m in the middle of writing a novel (not editing but writing), I will forego anything that takes me away from my new imaginary friends. The real world falls away. I get lost in a place where much more interesting people than me do fascinating things. During this phase of writing, my life becomes a series of questions. Should I get in the shower now? Maybe tomorrow. Get dressed? Why? I need to be comfortable and what’s more comfortable than yoga pants and an oversized hoodie? Should I eat some real food? No. Not unless a well-balanced meal makes itself, serves itself, and cleans-up the kitchen afterwards.
Now take the visual of the stereotypical writer with cigarettes and a dirty ashtray on his/her desk and swap it for a pile of candy corn and a bowl of M&M’s and you have…me. Two things keep me going when I’m on a roll: Candy and Caffeine. So, replace the whiskey bottle with a can of Diet Coke and I become that stereotypical, mostly unsocial, self-absorbed, obsessed, and neurotic writer. It’s just who we are…or who most of us are. I have plenty of writer friends who would back me up on this one.
It’s interesting to note that the often-described isolating vocation of writing has the goal of communication. I’d be happy in a remote cabin in the woods working on my laptop with only the people who populate my head for company. Yet, I couldn’t stand it if I wrote a story–tried to convey an idea, make an impression, or invoke a certain visual scene, but didn’t have any readers. Communication. That’s why I love to write. (Just don’t ring my doorbell while I’m doing it.)
Something I hear over and over again is: I have an idea for a novel I’ve always wanted to write. According to publishing prospectives.com, 200 million Americans claim they want to write and publish a book before they die. I find myself asking, “Why don’t they write it?” Imagine the undiscovered talent out there, the untold stories, and unknown characters. I’m pretty sure books don’t get written and/or finished because life gets in the way. The war between art and reality is waged every day of my life. A lot of the time reality wins. But, not every day and not all the time. I wouldn’t want to live if I couldn’t write. Don’t let reality triumph over your passion without an epic battle.
Last year, I received a private message from a friend from high school. She sent me a synopsis of a book she wanted to write, but she felt overwhelmed. Writing a whole book? That’s at least 70,000 words! She didn’t know how to start! Remember how everyone used to cringe when the teacher assigned a seven-page paper? There is a reason the class groaned in unison. I believe it’s the ‘abstract task’ that causes people to get stuck in a stranglehold of fear. They feel overwhelmed by the mere thought of filling all those pages with words–rather than feel excited by the ideas they can present using words.
I gave my friend advice. It’s the same advice I’ve given to a lot of people in her situation. I told her writing is a two-step process. No more, no less. Step 1: Put your butt in the chair Step 2. Start writing. HERE IS THE SHOCKING TRUTH: It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be the title, prologue, the first sentence. Just write. Watch the ideas appear on the screen safe in the knowledge that there is a delete key. Chances are (after a while) you’ll hit your stride. You will figure out where you want to begin. Remember, when you are finished you can (and will) go back (several times!) and rearrange, polish, and edit. Or, perhaps you will delete several sections. No one will ever know how horrible that scene was! Whatever you do…keep writing! Your next paragraph may be brilliant. However, if you stop at your first (or second, or third, or fourth) attempt, you will never get to the brilliance.
Get your butt in the chair. Write.
I’m not sure who said this, but it sums up the act of beginning to write a novel. Perfection is the enemy of productivity. Sometimes it’s the first sentence that trips people up. They want it to be perfect. They know they have to hook the reader so they obsess about that first paragraph. DO NOT OBSESS. Move on. Tell the story and come back to it.
Some people want to write ‘The Great American Novel’ on the first try. Sure, it can happen, but maybe you’ll end up writing a cozy mystery or Harlequin romance instead. That’s wonderful! Be proud of it! Writing a novel is something that most people will never accomplish. Just remember there will be critics. Never let them discourage you. Confucius said, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
Writing is a vocation that never takes a break. The story-collector in my head is “on” while I’m driving, waiting at the pharmacy, and even on vacation. I mean, c’mon, is there any better place to sit and collect characters than where people are moving from one place to another like an airport, a subway train, or Grand Central Station. One day, we rode the city bus all over London when people were going to and coming from work. It was AWESOME! Thank God my husband understands my inner voyeur—or in the very least doesn’t judge me about it. He’ll sit next to me as my character-collector mentally takes notes and imagines backstories for everyone she sees.
If you are a writer and you can’t find your story. Forget the story. Go find your character and build from there. As I said, I collect imaginary friends everywhere. But, do I use all of them? No. However, I promise you, if you do this long enough, there will be at least one character who will grab you and refuse to let you go. Happens to me all the time. My mind will continually go back to that person. When this happens to you–create a backstory in your head and then…
Sit down. Write.