Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘success’

Dumpster Diving

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Decades ago I took a university writing class with a respected and much lauded professor who rattled off a list of rules all good writers must absorb as the writer’s bible, and then expounded about why none of us undergrads would meet his requirements even if we adhered to his rules. My penned notes on his first lecture filled many lined pages with not a single doodle enhancing the margins, my go-to I’m bored activity. 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, to commit every significant comment to the notebook. For future reference, for guidance in my efforts to become a writer. His final words, actually 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. Without reading a single sentence from any of us, he declared we were dull, uninspired, unworthy to write.

At the end of his first class, I walked out with my head reeling, a sense of nausea brought on by the knowledge that the previous four years of college were a total waste of time. As he’d accused, though he’d addressed the entire room of forty 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 I was as incompetent as he’d expected. 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 becoming a successful writer – or a 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 all of us, of me. Dumpster divers, nothing more.

It was that class, so late in my long years of attending college, and rejection letters (I’d been warned I should expect them for the few stories I’d submitted for publication consideration, rejection 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. I couldn’t risk a failing grade. I couldn’t risk trying to pass a class the professor had already warned I wouldn’t. After frantic rearrangement of department allocations for a few of my classes, I did manage to graduate “on time,” but my wobbly confidence fell over the cliff. Post college I did little to pursue writing as a career but eventually constructed 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? Detoured  by a threatening professor? 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 I’d have something more than his rigid rules to measure success. I’m passionate about what I do, what I write. Passion carried me through a whole crap load of insecurity. I survived a latent start to surface from the dregs of the bin to make myself a person out of the aura of the insecure 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.

Fifteen years ago I resurrected my desire to write. I wrote with frenzy, stimulated by current needs to change who I was and dormant 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 or Virginia Woolf invigorated me. Like most of us I’m encumbered by practical needs and responsibilities, all the everyday necessities that get in the way of a creative life, but nothing can stop me writing now.

I finally learned what a wiser student would have learned in that ominous writing class: an indifferent teacher cannot make me a bad writer. Only I can do that. Likewise, only I can make myself a good writer. 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 within my psyche, 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 famous college professor.

Dumpster photo courtesy of Edward, wikimedia.org

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Light My Fire

It 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 core, 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.

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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. After all the skills-building lessons struggled with in first grade, by the time that six-year-old is promoted to second grade, he understands 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 kid knows it when the first homework assignment in early September is posted on 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 don’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 completed so far. “Where do you get your ideas?” From the supermarket, just like you. Maybe my internal thoughts are a bit smart-alecky, 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 imagination, emerging as new worlds (for a six-year-old,) earning me endless reproval 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 childhood stories were rich with adjectives and heroic characters. The little girls were prettier than I and bore envious names  – 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 an unsupervised scenario.) Boring and pedantic as my early stories were, the books I read transported me to wild places and dangerous adventures – Heidi, Swiss Family Robinson, Black Beauty. 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 tinder? 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) advance my efforts at continuing the writing process, but the initial work springs from something that niggles me to death.

I’d chewed cud for many years on the idea of writing about a family during subsequent Passover seders. Every four or eight or sixteen 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 couldn’t 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 a woman 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 novel called The Inlaid Table, and it worked its way to the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest and made the General Fiction Quarter-finalist level. 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, also not yet published, and at least three more ideas are scribbled on computer queue. I slow sometimes, stumble often, but the spark remains. I pay my dues. I keep writing.

What lights your writing muse?

 

Match Photo courtesy Clip Art