Sunday, March 1, 2009

On the Writing Life

The first time I wrote a fictional paragraph, I was in the fourth grade. Mrs. P____ was my English teacher. The first or second week of school, she gave us a standing assignment that involved writing a story (fact or fiction) using our spelling words for that week. 

The first week I was required to do that assignment, I completely froze. I had no idea how to go about it it. My dad actually wrote the story for me, and he explained how he did it as he went along. That was the one and only time he ever actually helped me do my homework. For every other homework assignment I ever had, he waited until I had struggled through it, and then he reviewed it and make me correct the errors he found. That one and only time, he actually did the assignment for me because was so freaked out by the fact that I had no idea how to go about doing it myself.

The next week, I asked for help again and he turned me down. He said he'd shown me the process. It was up to me to do my own homework. I wrote the story. He ripped it apart and corrected all my mistakes. I don't remember if it was that week or some week shortly thereafter when Mrs. P______ wrote on my assignment the encouraging words that she thought I had a flair for writing. She suggested I might consider becoming a writer.

That comment, in red pencil, written with her totally perfect school-teacher handwriting, has lived in my soul ever since. I can't say for sure if it inspires me or taunts me. I guess that depends on whether I am writing regularly or not.

I'd love to say it caused me to embark on a career as a serious writer. As a matter of fact, it had almost the opposite effect. While I dabbled in "scribbling" and talked a good game about wanting to be a writer "someday", I never made any effort to develop my writing skills nor did I try to develop the discipline required of a writer. I spent several decades avoiding serious writing opportunities at all costs. Why? Because I was afraid. Writing is very demanding: it demands time, honesty and (sometimes) courage to look into places we would rather not see. I didn't think I had it in me.

There were a few periods, however, when the creative urge was so strong, I was compelled to respond to it. Before I turned fifty, I had penned (literally with a pen!) four novels. I haven't looked at them in ages. I honestly don't know where they are or if I even still have them. I doubt they would be redeemable if I could unearth them. Doesn't matter. I cherish the joy I felt writing them. 

I wrote most of the first one during my lunch hours at work. I worked for a law firm in a building that had a huge cafeteria in the basement. I went to the cafeteria every day at lunch and write furiously for fifty minutes. The manuscript that resulted was written on note pads, notebooks, loose leaf paper, and a variety of other whatever-I-could-grab-to-write-on material, including a few napkins, probably. I've never even tried to type it up because I would not know where to look for the beginning. Writing that story took months, but I loved every minute of the process, even if the ultimate result was an unholy mess.

I wrote the other stories when my daughter was very small. I wrote one when my daughter was a baby and I was not working. The others I wrote after I went back to work part time. The only time I ever called in sick when I wasn't actually ill was the day I finished the first draft of my fourth novel. I had so many ideas bubbling up and I was so excited about the ending I had envisioned, I called in sick, took my daughter to day care, and spent the entire day furiously writing and sobbing joyfully (because the story had an absolutely marvelous ending).

After that, I quit writing fiction for years. It was too intense, too demanding, too scary. Instead, I kept a journal. I wrote all kinds of first person essays that I kept in folder on my computer (I was blogging before there was such a thing). I carefully steered clear of fiction because I was not willing to surrender to the process of writing to the degree fiction demands. I even stopped reading fiction for the most part, focusing almost exclusively on reading  theology for years. 

During that period, we moved from Ohio to Florida. The emotional aftermath of that took years to process. Shortly thereafter, my father died. I wrote furiously in my Journal. Fiction writing was totally out of the question at that point in my life. I wasn't strong enough to risk it.

In 2006, I discovered blogging. I wrote two different blogs, one that involved serious reflections and the other my lame attempts at writing humorous observation. I'm very proud of some of the stuff I wrote during that period. In early 2008, I switched identities and combined all my writing on one blog.  This blog is kind of all over the place, and it probably violates all the "rules" for what a good blog might be, but I like some of the stuff I have written here.  The crap in between the gems is merely there as a testament to my commitment to write regularly. When I'm not blogging, I'm writing fiction. When I hit a dry spell writing fiction, I blog. Either way, I'm writing nearly every single day.

In September 2005, Always Faithful was born. I was lying in the pool, half asleep and feeling really awful about our country, what with the wars, Hurricane Katrina, George Bush, etc.  I started contemplating what was good and decent about America.  I started thinking about growing up in the midwest, with people who believed in the real American values and were living the American Dream.  Two characters suddenly appeared to me. They insisted I get out of the pool, go inside and write down their story. 

I finished the first draft in something like six weeks. Since then, I have written nine complete novel manuscripts. [I type a lot faster than I could write longhand, and I can type for hours without getting writers cramp!] I have two more in progress right now. I wrote all that in about three and a half years, while blogging quite a lot and working full time at a job that involves a LOT of writing. Holy cow! I must be nuts, or I had stored up a lot of stuff over the years. 

The key that opened the flood-gates was making the commitment to write something every day. Sometime in early 2005 I ran across the quote that said: "Would-be writers write when they are inspired. Real writers write every day." I made the commitment to write every day. Immediately, the quality of my writing began to improve. I found stories popping up from everywhere, demanding to be written.

I obeyed my characters' bidding to write their story, and I've written a bunch of other stories as well. I have barely taken a break. Lately it has started feeling a bit more like a chore than my greatest passion. I am committed to taking a break from fiction for a few weeks in the belief that it will allow me to fall in love with it again, and (maybe) allow some new ideas for future projects to bubble to the surface.

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