Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘writer’s life’

Letting Go a Dream

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I began writing The Inlaid Table the last week of April, 2003 and completed it in early 2009 – the first time. It was my first adult novel, and it placed in the top 250 entries for the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – ABNA – competition. Out of 5,000 entries I was thrilled to have done so well. Such heady achievement fortified me to continue to work on it, to seek early readers, and to query. My critique group provided support along with suggestions for improvement and sometimes sharp criticism.

Almost three months ago I suffered a serious injury to my right arm (it’s healing) and used the downtime to undertake an absolute final edit. Nothing could deter me. The final final version satisfied me. Until a few nights ago when I tossed through the early hours of a new day, anxious and battling with my conscience and my intellect, unable to sleep at all. I woke unrested and concluded I will no longer attempt to publish the book. Though I still love the characters and the story, I’ve decided this one will live on my computer and nowhere else. Sometimes you just have to let things go, and for this book, with literally thousands of hours devoted to researching, writing, and editing, it is out of publication contention.

It was a tough decision but one I had to make. The premise of the book is overdone and outdated. Over the last eight years, while I worked on Table and also wrote two other novels, both now complete, the ground for this story turned swampy with politics and emotions. There won’t be the readers I expected, and the book will generate controversy I never intended.

Yes, I cried. Yet other people face more vital, more dire situations than having spent so many years writing a book that will never get ink. I wiped those tears off my cheeks. It was not a complete failure though I probably should have sensed the impending implosion years earlier. I learned a lot from the experience, all the things one should expect from such an undertaking and a few things I never anticipated. The wisdom gained in any endeavor can be applied to trying to write, then concluding it isn’t the right manuscript, it’s not the dream to pursue.

Two of the best attributes of engaging in competitive sports are learning to win honorably and lose graciously. Accepting rules and standards allows games to be played on common ground. Dignity and confidence at trying new challenges are gains measured outside the score board. Persistence regales effort even in the face of failure. Cheering for individual excellence surpasses fawning over athletic super stars. Standing up after you’ve been thrown to the ground reminds you to be grateful you can stand at all.

In the same vein, I’ve grown as a person and as writer. I listen better, think more clearly, share fairly, try harder. I know the value of staying up late to work and getting up early to do the same. My ABNA moment gave me the confidence to go back and do a better job on something I’d thought was finished. I spent my 10,000 hours honing my craft, and my current writing exhibits more mastery than when I started writing Table in 2003.

My biggest regret is that I won’t get to publicly acknowledge the many people who helped me travel the path of writing the first book. Those folks gave me their very best effort with no more expectation than a thanks from me. So here it is: Thank you, dear family, friends, and believers. You made it possible for me to fail with dignity and to stand up again.

While I’ve given up on the dream of publishing The Inlaid Table, I have others to pursue, and I will. I remain determined to see my books to publication, whether via the cachet of the traditional print houses or the more likely, perhaps humbler, independent route.

There is value in letting go this dream. The next one is still viable.

 

 

 

Clip art courtesy: Google public domain mages, (girl with a bubble) Pixabay.com


 

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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

I, Wanderer

The commencement address at your university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least get a decent job and pay the bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the motivating keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into uncertainty and failure. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months (or had already begun,) or had a terrific entry level position in a job that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.

 

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I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the incentive of solid accomplishments that would look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and thin sandwiches, housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a Writer had only been sustained by marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (Yeah, if you’re 40 or under, you don’t know what that is – no worries.)

Over the next decade I fell into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in a few dead end trades paid bills until marriage; then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with my young children, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should also consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with religion, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, Scouts, theater, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.

I raised my sons and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first doing occasional art work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program and as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. [I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings; “lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon; or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separation.]

Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint designs for active wear (bikinis, board shorts, Hawaiian-style shirts) under pressure and with peculiar requirements, like board shorts with no orange hues as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange – damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics in a commercial studio is the norm, that stealing creative proprietary product is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (Art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, with great relief.

At any rate, I took what I’d learned, to paint fast and accurately, and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, why paint colors contrast better with some colors more than others, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, collage or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many kids went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art. I did that!

Art is a primal urge, evident by the 20 – 30,000-year-old treasures deep in European caves on rock walls that could only be reached via precarious scaffolds. Just imagine: wrapped in bearskin, walking on grass sandals, you hide behind boulders or as high in trees as the slender boughs will afford you. When you drop to earth, you tread softly so as not to awaken bad spirits, enemy tribesmen, or stalking predators twice your weight, and trek until you find the tiny hole in the embankment. You push aside the branches that keep its secret, enter the darkness, and plunge through space, uncertain where you will land or if safely. Or at all. Once there, you light a fish oil lamp in a shell, pick up a ragged-edged twig, a dollop of red-brown ochre, and a stub of charcoal. You may be famished and thirsty but nothing, not even desire to calm urges for food, can keep you from the calling of the muse, born before you were conceived. You pay homage to the spirits whom you revere and fear by creating massive images of horses and bison on rock ceilings reached only by standing on a rickety ladder built of broken limbs. You ask for blessings and success. You do what you’d come for: you paint.

I taught children to create art and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

Eventually a roadblock stopped me. They are meant to. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. A kid cheated on a project and her parents demanded that I take the blame for her poor judgment by insisting I not be rehired. They were rich enough to hang a noose woven of dollar bills. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. I lost the art teacher position in the school where I’d built their upper school art program. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Still teaching art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation: it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:

Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that is left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were; stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold family as if your life and theirs depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day. And harbor no regrets.

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H is for Hats Off for Helping Hands

Hat Off Monkey

Mom taught you to be gracious. She reminded you to say thank you and to write notes after birthday parties. Should you be so lucky, getting your book published is not the time to forget all the good habits she pounded into your head. Because let’s face it: your book did not get published without the generous attention of about a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other folks who dedicated their precious time to assisting you with your special project. Perhaps you slaved away in an ivory tower, unaware of the party outside your arched window as you struggled to tame and taunt your writing muse. Other folks traipsed up and down the narrow staircase, checking up on your progress, offering advice, reviewing your work until it was ready to be seen by the rest of the world. You got your book published because you created a masterpiece, but someone else out there in Writerland helped, and you know it. (more…)