Saturday, March 19, 2011
March 19, 2011 ~ Day 100!
Wow. Post 100.
Since I was about seven years old (eek! nearly three decades ago!) I have wanted to be a writer. It is one of the few things about me that never changed in all of the years that have raced by.
I took this goal seriously and nurtured it tenderly until my sophomore year of college, when I took my first (and last) "real" fiction writing course led by an actual writer who had been published nationally and won a prestigious "Stegner Fellowship" at my university.
On campus this writer was known as a serious undergrad skirt-chaser who had slept with more than one girl I knew. As eighteen year-olds go I was still fairly naive and I recall thinking of him with a mix of disgust and awe; here was a man in his thirties sleeping with girls nearly half his age. He was an easy cliche - yet handsome and successful enough to escape the realm of the ridiculous.
His quarterly fiction writing class was adored by all and coeds actually slept out overnight to garner one of the handful of coveted spots by his side around the boardroom-style table. It was considered by students to be one of the truly "fun" courses offered by the university; as though creative writing were so much simpler than any other endeavor.
Looking back I can see clearly that I was an idealistic, optimistic writer ~ but not an exceptionally ambitious or committed one. I grew up reading voraciously and held onto the secret hope was that one day, I would write a novel worthy of sitting on my own bookshelf next to the likes of my then-favorite authors.
Before arriving at college I believed in my own talent and potential, but a sampling of my first ten or so university courses showed me pretty quickly that my gifts and intellect were a little sub-par when compared with truly smart people. During my freshman year I struggled to keep up with the boy down the hall who I kissed late at night now and then - who routinely smoked a ton of marijuana and then cranked out A+ grades in all of the classes we shared. "How does he do it?" I would wonder in dismay. "He doesn't study at all and he aces everything he touches."
After a year of failing to earn even a single "A" mark in any of my classes, my confidence was shaken. Still, deep down I really believed that I had something worth saying and a voice worth reading.
"What do I *love* to do?" I asked myself, and there was only one obvious answer: "I love to read. I love to write. I've been focusing on the wrong thing." I enrolled in an English class on Gothic-era novels. Something must have clicked, I worked my tail off and finally earned my very first "A-" at college. My confidence slowly increased. I took another English course, then another and finally (excitedly) I decided I would do whatever it took to enroll in the famous fiction writing workshop.
I was sure that this was it! The moment when I would really learn how to transition from a dreamer into a "real" writer.
Hindsight is always 20/20 and I can say very definitively to my own children (who will be reading this someday) that when you REALLY want something, you can't let a few bumps in the road slow you down.
I must not have really wanted to be a writer, because it took only one moderate bump at the age of eighteen to permanently derail my aspiration to be a novelist.
The famous fiction writing class was held in a small second-story room in the English Corner of the University. It consisted of around fifteen undergrads and The Writer, who was not actually a professor but rather a 'resident genius'. The Writer sat down at the head of the table flanked by his adoring crowd, mainly women and two or three guys who probably signed up just to watch him in action as he skimmed the cream of the crop of nubile females.
Never having taken a writing course before, I arrived early on the first day with a notebook filled with hundreds of blank looseleaf pages, excited to learn about the craft of writing. It was a real shock to discover that the other students in class came equipped with their own typed chapters... poignant, intensely felt stories that many of them had been working on for years. "Why didn't the course synopsis tell me to bring a story?" I wondered furtively and sunk a little lower in my seat. "How am I already so far behind?"
I soon learned how the class functioned: Each week a few (three?) students would bring in sixteen copies of their original short story. The class would then take these stories home and spend a few days reading and critiquing them, to bring back and discuss together as a group.
The Writer would not be teaching us how to write; at least, not standing up at a blackboard or doling out assignments. Instead he would be just one of the crowd, another voice to critique each story ~ clearly though, a more powerful voice. In practice it turned out that The Writer functioned like a demi-god ready to bestow words of praise or condemnation upon work as it was presented to him; his students the fawning minions raising up their cherished creations for his approval (or not).
I'm sure at the time this came across as very 'cool' to me - The Writer was just one of us. He was just like me. "Who am I to tell you how to write?" he riffed, and at the time I admired his groundedness and Bohemian spirit. (Seventeen years later as a former teacher I think the guy was just plain lazy. But brilliant. He didn't have to create a single lesson plan - ever! He just had to sit there, read our stories and give his feedback. As a side benefit, he met a bunch of girls who thought he was the John Lennon of writing. Not too shabby, I've got to admit. The Writer was a smart guy.)
Weeks passed and nervously I watched the calendar spin toward the date when I would need to present my own work of fiction. I wrote and re-wrote it, over and over and over. My high school English teacher had told me always to write based on things I knew, so I'd chosen to write about the dysfunctional mental dalliance I was engaged in with a senior collegiate athlete and NCAA champion at that time (who was totally and completely in love with himself). He had a longterm girlfriend off campus for whom he professed fidelity. "My heart is with Samantha* and Jesus", he'd say and yet he flirted mercilessly with me in the most provocatively sexual way I had ever experienced.
I realized that this guy was jerking me around and suspected that he mocked me privately with his friends. I knew it wasn't a healthy situation but I couldn't seem to break away from the attraction. Every time I went out of my way to avoid him or go on a date with someone else, he would leave me a telephone message, a note, a flower; sing me a song; ask me to go somewhere alone - anything just to hook me back in. The guy liked my adulation, it was a great daily ego-boost to be viewed through doe eyes by a chick that he described to his roommates as a 'hot piece of ass'. (Forgive me kids, when you read this someday, but that is the way it was.)
Trying to process the complexity of this "friendship" was way above my head at the time, so I decided to tackle it through fiction and turn it into something potent for my writing class. I spent well over a hundred hours crafting a loosely veiled version of my own messed up life - gritty, ugly, and totally embarrassing to me. I figured that I'd better tell it as it actually was, humiliation and all.
I didn't sleep much the night before my story was at last to be workshopped. I re-read the final draft over and over, lost in a sea of girlish emotion about my hopes for a writing career and anguish over how to extract myself from the obsessive crush I had developed on such a clearly smarmy character. (It was tough to convince myself of his smarminess ~ the guy was training for the Olympics and interviewing for a Rhodes scholarship ~ but smarmy nonetheless.) By the time the Sun began to infuse pink and gold into the pale blue morning, I sat waiting in front of the English Corner building with a steaming cup of coffee and my heart in my teeth.
As it turned out, I probably should have stayed in bed.
"I didn't really connect with this story," said Girl One. "I found the characters to be quite unsympathetic."
"Yeah, I totally know what you mean," agreed Girl Two. "Like, who cares? Why does the protagonist want to be with such a jerk? I felt like her character wasn't developed at all; I couldn't understand why she had such low self-esteem. Why would she continue returning his calls? Frankly," she added with a smirk, "Both characters seemed really flat."
"The part that really bugged me," added Guy One, "Was the use of song lyrics in the story. I didn't understand that at all. Who puts lyrics in a work of fiction? I think that's sort of breaking the genre! In any event, it really didn't work for me."
"Oh yeah!" three others chorused. "We didn't like that either."
"It was so schmaltzy," mused Girl One. "If I want a juvenile love story I can pick up a copy of Sweet Valley High. I didn't feel like there was any substance to their relationship."
"Honestly, and I don't mean to offend you - " Girl Three chimed in, "I felt like your visual descriptions were really over-the-top."
...it went on. And on. And on. For the better part of twenty minutes. Which (for me, the person on the hot seat) felt more like twenty hours. Tears welled in my eyes as I nodded with agreement at all of their comments and dutifully wrote them down in my notebook. "Thank you," I quietly replied. "Thank you."
I looked to The Writer, hoping he might put an end to the cheerful mutilation of my ineloquent tale, but he seemed fairly preoccupied with his fountain pen ~ sometimes stealing small glances at the cleavage of the girl to his left.
At last he checked his watch, looked up and cleared his throat - flipping through my story with tanned, manicured fingers. "I think," he pronounced, "That the author here cares so much about her characters that there is simply no room left for the rest of us to care about them at all."
There was a general murmur of agreement. "You are sooo right," sighed Girl Two. I didn't hear a word after that.
The Writer had allowed fourteen of my peers to trash my story, without so much as a single positive comment or even a "Better luck next time."
It was clear to me that I had no future in fiction writing.
What? No future?
Because a single published author and fourteen college co-eds didn't like one story?
What kind of ridiculousness is that?
I wish I could confide now that I burned that story and wrote a better one; that I kept writing and writing and writing until I finally produced something worthy of my childhood dreams. I wish I could tell my children that I had such a fire in my heart for writing that I laughed off one single day of intense criticism and held onto my confidence.
I wish I could say a lot of things; but here is the truth:
After that class I decided that I wasn't much good at writing stories. (I also decided that I must be pretty pathetic to adore such a louse; and tried a lot harder to avoid him with some success.)
I tried to give up writing altogether but loved it too much so fell into a series of jobs that revolved around writing. I worked as a technical writer for two Engineering departments; taught creative writing to hundreds of elementary school students; taught the craft of non-fiction, poetry and script-writing to hundreds of middle school students. I wrote poetry in my private journal and scripted hundreds of articles for my husband's business website.
From the time I graduated from college until my 35th birthday, I never wrote more than six pages strung together for any purpose. "I'm not a writer," I responded to people who sometimes asked me about it over the years. "I'm a teacher. You know what they say..." I joked, "those that can't DO, teach."
I was good at the teaching of writing. I loved it, and in working so intimately with the art form I cherished, I found my professional calling. I found salve for a wounded ego. I found genuine bliss.
Yet it has nagged at my subconscious, over the last seventeen years, to have given up on a precious dream. I have had regret ~ fleeting, but real ~ over my childish response to failure.
Perhaps this explains why tonight, when I click "Publish Post" and share this 100th blog entry with my children and friends, I will be dancing the happiest dance ever. I am so proud of having finally put something down on paper again... finally gotten up the courage to share my own voice with the world. I will never be a Stegner Fellow, but I am finally coming into my own ~ nearly two decades later.
At last, I am a writer.
More importantly, I have actively set my children the example every day for 100 days that it is never too late to follow your dreams; never too late to believe in yourself... never too late to begin again.
My sons both know that I am writing this daily blog for them and to some degree they do understand what I am doing. The other day my five year old brought home a blank notebook from school that he had been given by his teacher and told me that he was going to write a "blog" of his own. He labored over his letters for the better part of two hours that night, then proudly presented me with two full pages of his own writing about why he loved his family and how "speshul" we are to him.
"Look mommy," he beamed. "I'm a writer just like you."
*Name changed to protect the privacy of the party in question.