The Process

“I don’t ask writers about their work habits.  I really don’t care.  Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out, “Is he as crazy as I am?” I don’t need that question answered.

— Philip Roth

 

            The most common question I’m asked as a writer:  “What’s your process?”

The most common question I’m asked as a teacher: “Am I doing this right?”

Am I being asked the same thing both times, just using different words?  You bet.  Writers work in all sorts of ways.  I know morning writers, afternoon writers, night writers (I’m an afternoon writer).  I know writers that work standing up, I know writers that work sitting down, I know writers that work at desks, in recliners, on their beds, even in the bathroom.  Some like to work outside, others like to be inside, some go to cafes or coffee shops, others work in total isolation, all the way down to silence.  Some writers have talismans that they have to touch before they start to work. Others have to play a certain number of games of Solitaire first. Some have to win; they don’t get much done.

I even know a writer who has to write naked.  He doesn’t use a leather chair, let me tell you.

But overall, the one common thing about all of these writers: They get the work done.  In the end, there is a story or a novel or a poem or a memoir.  They WRITE.  The most important part of the process:  the outcome.  You can’t have a process without a result.

My process? First, my creative environment.  My dedicated writing space is in my home, and those particular walls are all mine.  I am surrounded by bright colors and artwork that says something to me.  My desk is a British teacher’s table from the 1800’s, and I always have a betta fish swimming in his bowl to my left.  There is a comfy chair within sight, supposedly for when I read, but it usually supports a sleeping dog or cat.

When I’m working on a novel or a collection, I always assign a song to it which I listen to every day as I sit down to write (I’m a sitting writer, not a standing one – however, I’m dressed and my chair is leather).  “The Home For Wayward Clocks” was written to “Clocks” by Cold Play.  “Enlarged Hearts” was written to “Robot Boy” by Linkin Park (figure that connection out!).  “Learning To Tell (A Life)Time” was written to “But Sweetness Follows” by REM.

In an unusual shift, my novel-in-progress, “Rise From The River,” has been written to three songs (so far).  “Night-Swimming” and “Find The River” by REM, and the latest drafts to “The Scientist” by Cold Play. I don’t know why this change occurred, and I don’t question it.  What works, works.  This particular novel has shifted under me several times during the writing, and it could shift again when I start Draft 5 (and 6 and 7 and 8…), and that might be what sparked the change.  All I know is one day, when “The Scientist” suddenly came out of my car’s speakers, I nearly drove off the road because I was thrown so deeply into the book.

Characters and storylines kidnap you.  One minute, you’re knee-deep in your own life, and the next, you’re neck-deep in someone else’s.

It’s what I love most about writing fiction.

Back to the process.  As my chosen music plays, I use my right index finger to “walk” a finger labyrinth.  This is a large wooden labyrinth, laptop-sized, based on the Chartres Labyrinth, with a groove just wide enough to slide my finger along.  The finger labyrinth is fairly new to my process, employed for the first time while I was writing Lifetime.  I am a skitter-thinker, my thoughts bound all over the place, and it’s very hard (impossible) for me to meditate.  The only way I’ve ever found to calm my thoughts is by physically walking a real labyrinth.  The finger labyrinth, a gift from my husband, the writer Michael Giorgio, a few years ago, has been a great tool to help me shove away all the detritus of day to day life and focus down on the story at hand.  Even when I’m working on a single story, with no music attached, I “walk” the labyrinth every day before writing.

As I mentioned in my post last time, I finished Draft 4 on the novel-in-progress a few weeks ago.  I always take a break in between drafts, to allow me some distance and a fresh eye when I return. During that break, I typically write a new short story, which is the case this time.  I’m considering, when I start Draft 5, which will be as soon as I get this new short story done, trying to walk the finger labyrinth with  my left hand, instead of my dominant right.

I wonder where that will take me. Will the novel shift again? Will I get kidnapped and end up neck-deep? Will another song be required?  I won’t know, will I, until I start digging into it.

And there’s the joy.

When I teach and I am asked that inevitable, “Am I doing this right?”, I guide the writer through several questions.  When do you most find your mind drifting to your story?  Where do you feel the most comfortable in your home, where is there a place that you can breathe deep, hunker down, and stay awhile?  Do you feel most accomplished when you write for a long period of time, or are you okay with several shorter bursts, as long as the outcome is the same (a piece of work)?  Do you like to write a first draft in longhand, or do you compose directly on the computer? Do you pray? Do you meditate?  Do you exercise? Do you play? Do you breathe?

The most important thing to take away from this post is what’s not important: what other writers do. What’s important is what YOU do, what makes you comfortable, what gets you in the groove.  Writers often have routines or rituals that we follow as we get ready to write.  Because we’re crazy?  Because we’re obsessed?  Could be.  But also because we know what works.  We’re right down there with Pavlov’s dogs.  The bell rang, they drooled.  In our case, we do certain things in a certain way and our imaginations drool…the words come forth.

So am I crazy for assigning music, for finger-walking a labyrinth, for surrounding myself with things I love, for taking a break between drafts by not taking a break at all, but writing something else, am I crazy as brought up in the Roth quote?  Maybe.  Am I doing it right?  For me, I am. Do I get the job done?  You bet. Stories and poems in over 100 literary magazines, three books out, fourth on the way (release date February 2015!), yes, I think that all counts toward a job well done.

Trust me.  Sanity, or being normal, is overrated. We have so much more fun this way.  And we get the job, the job we most love and we most want to do in this world, done.

The Definition of Break

Ocean View

“Maybe I have Attention Surplus Disorder. The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.”

–          Susan Sontag

 

From March 28th until April 6th, I was on a break.  My publisher, God love’im, flew me to Charlotte, NC to be a featured reader in his Final Friday Reading Series, and the next day, I taught a workshop on point of view. Then on Sunday, oh, Sunday, I drove to Myrtle Beach, SC.

I drove to Paradise, actually.

Every year, I try to take myself on a two-week retreat.  The purpose of the retreat is to back away from my teaching responsibilities, and from all the other willy nilly responsibilities that come with running a small business.  I also back away from being a wife and a mother. For those two weeks, I am just me, and the purest form of me is being a writer.  It’s what I’ve always wanted to be; it’s what I’ve always been.  I took my retreat a few months ago, in October, in South Thomaston, Maine. In that two weeks, I made it through an entire draft of my new novel (at that point, about 350 pages), and wrote a short story and seven poems.

Good grief. Even on retreat, I’m a workaholic.

So this trip, to the Atlantic Ocean and Myrtle Beach, wasn’t supposed to be a retreat.  I challenged myself, the most addicted workaholic I know, to take a vacation.  I was going to sleep.  I was going to sit in the sun and read.  I was going to walk the ocean.  I was going to visit a garden that housed a labyrinth.  I was going to eat well and have a nice cocktail every night.

My typical work week?  Busy.  Not Monday through Friday, but Sunday to Sunday.  I teach about 85 hours.  I read 150 – 200 manuscript pages a day.  I maintain the studio’s ledger and correspondence and general upkeep.  I make appearances at readings and book clubs.  I have a thirteen-year old daughter, and I take her to and from school and interact with her whenever she emerges from her bedroom.  I try to be a good wife.  I deal with two dogs and two cats.  There are three adult kids and a grandchild.  Oh, and of course, I write.  Monday, Tuesday and Friday, I write from 1:00 to 5:00 or 6:00, depending on when the evening clients and classes start.  Wednesdays, I teach in the afternoon, so I don’t write.  Thursdays, I market anything that has been rejected during the week. If nothing has been rejected, hallelujah!  Then I write some more.

So this week in Myrtle Beach?  A break.  I coached myself on what that meant.  Sleep, read, rest, walk, eat.  Sleep, read, rest, walk, eat.  And drink. Mustn’t forget drink.

The Tuesday before I left, I finished the fourth draft of my new novel. This was perfect – I always take a couple weeks off in between drafts, in order to gain some distance and a clear-eyed perspective.  Typically, I fill those two weeks with writing a story or poetry or both. But this time, a break was in order.  A real honest-to-goodness vacation.  Whatever that was.

I took a peek on dictionary.com to find the actual definition of “break.”  There were a number of them, because break is a noun as well as a verb.  But I think the definition I was trying to apply was:

 

Break (n): a brief respite or interval between two actions: a break from one’s toil

a sudden rush, esp to escape: to make a break for freedom

 

Yes, I was taking a break from my toil, though I was certainly leaving behind more than two actions.  And was I making a break for freedom?  In a sense.  For one week, I wasn’t going to do anything for anyone but myself.  I guess that’s freedom.

Though please understand…I like my busy life.  I choose to be a workaholic.  But in general, yes, a week where I was only responsible for myself would be considered by most to be freedom.

And toil…well, part of my “toil” is writing.  Would I really not write for an entire week?

Hm.

When I arrived at Myrtle Beach, I was given a room on the ocean side of the hotel, way up high on the fourteenth floor.  As I walked down the hallway, I could hear the ocean, but not yet see it.  But then I opened the door.  Ohmygosh.  I dropped my suitcase and ran to the balcony.  I threw open the slider, and oh, there it was.  Ocean, ocean, everywhere. The sound, the smell, the color, the LIFE!  I typically don’t like heights, but right then, I didn’t care.  I grabbed the railing, leaned over as far as I could, and promptly burst into tears. Salty tears for the sight of salt water.

I guess you could say I connect with the ocean.  I have no idea why I was born in the midwest.  When I’m by the Pacific or the Atlantic, I am at peace.  But that day, seeing the Atlantic right there, in Myrtle Beach, I’ve never felt so completely at home.  As big as the ocean was, she settled around me like a massive mama-blanket and gave me comfort.  I was exactly where I needed to be.

And so the break began.

I slept in. When I finally got up, I made my breakfast in the teeny kitchenette and I carried it to the balcony.  I read while I ate, and the ocean kept me company.  And the sun. Oh, the sun.  After a long hard winter in Wisconsin, the sun just brought every sense out of hibernation. My skin inhaled heat.  I was infused with it. Lit up from the outside in.

After breakfast came a shower, then I tugged on my swimsuit and I went down to the beach and a lounge chair. Where I read and read some more.  I took a break to walk in the ocean and down the long stretch of sand.  I walked next door to Starbucks, a Starbucks you could go in barefoot (!), got my grande cinnamon dolce latte, sat back in the lounge chair…and read.

Another shower (had to get the sun screen off – ick), and then out to dinner to a different place every night. But a place that was oceanfront.  And where I could either eat outside – in the sun before it disappeared – or had large open windows.

But see, things happen, even when I’m reading and lounging and walking.  I couldn’t shut down my hearing or my vision or my sense of smell.  And there were sensory conversations everywhere. Dialogues.  Accents.  People wearing next to nothing – those of us who understood that the 70’s were really warm temperatures – and some wearing sweatshirts and even one parka – maybe visiting from the equator?  Children shrieked, college boys and girls swore and drank and played volleyball and frisbee, dogs trotted by, seagulls begged, and a busybody pigeon kept landing on my balcony and mooing at me. Yes, mooing, that is not a typo. There just wasn’t any way to keep from paying attention, from taking it all in, and from hearing sentences and syllables and consonants and vowels…Everything in this world is a word.  And words just…well, words just make me  jive.

I lasted until the end of day 2.  At midnight, I threw a poem onto my screen.  Day 3, I worked on that poem, and at midnight, I threw down another one.  Days 4, 5, 6, I abandoned the first poem, but not for good, it’s still there, safe in a file, and I hunkered down over poem 2 and then lit on fire with a short story.  A short story set in South Carolina. In Myrtle Beach. On the fourteenth floor of a hotel, in a room where a belligerent pigeon mooed on a balcony.  And the opening line?

 

Cheryl wondered about the different definitions of the word “break.” 

 

And I was off.  Into another life. Is Cheryl me?  Of course not.  Yes, it’s Myrtle Beach, it’s the fourteenth floor, there’s a stupid pigeon, but everything else is the sheer CHARACTER, the sheer FEEL of that place.  The college boys.  The drinks. The ocean, the ocean, the ocean. The sun.  And Cheryl is a fifty-something woman who has never been married, never been caught up in the fight between passion and responsibility, duty and dreams…But she still needs to find her own respite.  When she checks into that hotel room on the fourteenth floor, she too runs and flings open the balcony door and bursts into tears.  But in my mind, she was in the room next door, separated from me by a concrete wall, and her life was not my own.  I dove into her like I dove into the ocean.  And like the ocean, she talked to me and I paid attention and I drew in all my senses and that place came home with me, alive and well in my computer.

The story is still underway.  My last two days in Myrtle Beach, I didn’t write.  I let myself settle back down into my break. Because I knew I’d work on this at home.

So did I truly have a vacation?  Did I truly take a break and leave my workaholic ways behind me?

Well, another definition of break is this:

 

Break (n): a fortunate opportunity, esp to prove oneself

 

Oh, yes.  I took a break.

I Remember John Boy

“At night across the mountain, when the darkness falls and the winds sweep down out of the hollows, the wild things with their shiny eyes come to the edge of the clearing. At such an hour, the house seems safe and warm, an island of light and love in a sea of darkness. At such an hour, the word home must have come into being, dreamed up by some creature that never knew a home. In his yearning, there must have come to mind the vision of a mother’s face, a father’s deep voice, the aroma of fresh baked bread, sunshine in a window, the muted sounds of rain on a roof, the sigh of death, the cry of a newborn babe and voices calling goodnight. Home- an island, a refuge, a haven of love.”

–          Earl Hamner Jr., from the script of “The Actress,” an episode of the Waltons.

 

I am happy to admit it.  Despite being the author of stories and books about abuse, rape, horrible mothers, worse fathers, damaged clock collectors, extra-extra-extra large women, women who pretend to be widows, women who have lizards as husbands, men in jails, in bars, in bed, despite all of that, I am the #1 fan of the television show, The Waltons.

Proof that I am the #1 fan:

*I used to own every season of the show on VHS.  I now own every season of the show

on DVD. Despite that, I still watch it on television when I have the time.

 

*I can recite the lines of every episode along with the actors and actresses, including the

narration by Earl Hamner Junior.

 

*I own the Waltons lunchbox, with thermos.  I own the Waltons board game.  I own the

action figures, which are Grandpa and Grandma, Mama and Daddy, John Boy and Mary

Ellen.  I own the Waltons Viewmaster reels (and a Viewmaster).  I own the Waltons

Little Golden Books and Chapter Books and Coloring Books.  I own the Waltons

Collector Cards, the sticker sheets, and the Christmas at the Waltons LP.

 

*About the only thing I don’t own is the Waltons cardboard dollhouse, which I covet.

 

*Oh, and I own a collection of poetry by Richard Thomas, written while he was playing

John Boy. Horrible poetry.  But I love the book.

 

*I visited the real Waltons Mountain, which is Schuyler, Virginia.  I gazed at the

porch of the real Waltons home, still lived in by the real Jim Bob.  I met Earl Hamner’s

aunt and she showed me a trailing arbutus. I wanted to make a cutting and bring it home

to grow, but it was covered in bees. At the Waltons Mountain Museum, I corrected the

tour guide when she claimed that the quilt on the recreated bed was used to cover Olivia

(Mama) when she was struck with polio and needed to go to the hospital. “No,” I said.

“Doc Vance decided that Olivia was too sick to handle the long trip. She stayed home.

That quilt is what they wrapped her in to carry her downstairs, so Jason could sing his

award-winning song from the talent show.”  I don’t think the tour guide was too happy

with me.

 

*My youngest daughter is named Olivia, after…Olivia Walton.  And Olivia calls me

Mama.

 

So the other day, when I was walking home from a book festival meeting, I was about knocked off my Waltons feet when I passed an antique store and saw a typewriter in the window.  No, not “a” typewriter. THE typewriter.  An Oliver typewriter, an odd machine, a cat-eared contraption.

An Oliver typewriter that John Boy Walton used.  In the episode, “The Typewriter,” John Boy is encouraged by his high school teacher to submit a story to Collier’s magazine.  The story is rejected because it’s handwritten. And the only typewriter in the county is owned by the Baldwin Sisters, eccentric and rich old ladies who make bootleg whiskey.  Their father, the esteemed Judge Baldwin, wrote his memoirs on an Oliver cat-eared typewriter.  John Boy borrows it, and hides it in the tool shed in a box, as Mama would not be happy to have her son involved with the Baldwins.  Sister Mary Ellen, wanting to make money to purchase a makeup kit, sells the box to the junk man.  And thus ensues a county-wide search for an Oliver typewriter.  It’s found, of course.  You can watch the 30-Second Waltons version of this episode on Youtube: 30-Second Waltons

Among other things, I collect typewriters.  And this one, the cat-eared Oliver, eluded me for years.  Why did I want it?  Because of its John Boy-ness, of course.

That typewriter now sits in the AllWriters’ classroom. I don’t know how it works and I don’t care.  John Boy is in the house.

John Boy is who brought me to The Waltons even before I watched The Waltons.  When the television show first came out, I was twelve years old, and watching The Waltons was just not cool.  But on Thursday nights at 7:00, I sat at my desk in my room, writing in my journal, and listening to my family downstairs in the living room, who were watching The Waltons, while on The Waltons, John Boy sat at the desk in his room, writing in his journal, and listening to his family downstairs in the living room as they listened to the radio.

Even then, I was looking for community.  For someone who wrote with the same passion and care and religious attention that I did.  I found it, when I was twelve years old, with John Boy Walton. I listened and wrote in my journal beside John Boy until I graduated from high school in 1978.  The show was canceled after nine seasons in 1981.  From 1978 to 1981, The Waltons television show was far from my mind as I attended college.  To become a writer, of course.

But oh, I remembered John Boy. I remembered him every time I sat down to write. I still do.

I came back to, and fully absorbed, The Waltons in 1983, when I was pregnant with my first son.  The show was on the Family Channel then, at 2:00 every weekday afternoon.  I was working part time as a secretary/receptionist from 8:00 in the morning to noon. Every day, I came home, had lunch, wrote for a bit, then took a break to watch The Waltons. With my overheated pregnancy hormones, I cried over every single episode. But again, I found community with John Boy. I found someone who not only wanted to write, but actually wrote and loved what he was doing. When the show was over for the day, I returned to my typewriter – at that time, a Royal Selectric, an electric typewriter that was my pride and joy. It meant as much to me as the Oliver typewriter meant to John Boy.  He and I wrote together, on what today would be considered two dinosaurs.

My writing was affected by The Waltons, without a doubt, even though my work is totally different from Earl Hamner’s.  My favorite episode of The Waltons is “The Literary Man”.  For the first time, John Boy meets a “real writer.”  John Boy is full to the gills with the idea that a writer has to search for “the big story,” the one story that he or she was meant to write.  A.J. Covington, the “real writer,” is someone who has spent his life trying to find that one big story, and not getting very much written in the meantime. He encourages John Boy to write “the little stories.”  The first time I saw this episode, I also believed I had to find that one big story, the story that was going to give me my name in the literary world.  After watching it, and watching it again and again, I no longer felt like a failure when a story didn’t end up being the big one.   Watching that episode triggered something in me…the faith to follow the creative process, to write what came to mind, even if it seemed ridiculous or meaningless.  Or little.  That has led me to teach students now to “follow the stupid,” meaning that when they hear their inner editor saying, “Oh, stop that.  That’s just stupid,” they especially have to buckle down and write it. A lot of my work comes from following the stupid, what I was tempted to edit out of my mind and ignore.  I have John Boy Walton and A. J. Covington to thank for that.  You can get the gist of this episode by watching the 30-second Waltons version on Youtube:  30-Second Waltons

But for me, the attraction was always about community. Family.  I watched as John Boy’s family crowded around him and showered him with support.  I watched as the community, the Baldwin Sisters, store-owner Ike Godsey, Reverend Fordwick, the schoolteacher Miss Hunter, the ne’er do well Yantze Tucker, the rooming house owner Flossie Brimmer, everyone, supported a boy whose dream was to write.  I craved that community, that family, and that support.

And now…I have it.  I am surrounded by people who believe in me, in my ability, and in what I strive to do through writing.  And further…I provide it.  AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop is my very own Waltons Mountain.

In the movie, The Homecoming, which launched the idea for the television show, Daddy says to John Boy, “I don’t know much about the writing trade, son.  But you’ve got to give it your best.”  Unlike Daddy, I do know a lot about the writing trade. But like him, I tell my students they have to give it their very best, their very hardest work. And I provide them with the supportive environment they need to do just that.

When I brought the Oliver cat-eared typewriter home, I set it on a shelf in the AllWriters’ classroom.  And I looked from it to another recent purchase – a ten-foot long glorious wooden table, the centerpiece of the room, and the place where AllWriters’ magic – community – happens.  And I realized what I’ve done.  I brought The Waltons kitchen table home.  In the show, the family sits often around a long wooden table.  I sit at the head of the table in my classroom; that’s where John Walton Sr., aka Daddy, sat in The Waltons kitchen.  He was the head of the family. And I am the head of AllWriters’ – my family.

All from listening to John Boy listen to his family as we both wrote in our journals. And the shock and pleasure of community that rolled through me that day.

By the way…a lot of fun is often poked at The Waltons for the goodnights they called out to each other, supposedly at the end of every show.  But actually, the goodnights bouncing from family member to family member only happened twice.  The first time, it wasn’t even in the series, but at the end of the movie, The Homecoming.  The second time, it was during the first season of The Waltons, and only in one episode.  The most chilling goodbye occurred when Mama and Daddy received a telegram stating that John Boy, now an Army reporter for Stars & Stripes during WWII, was covering a story that required him to be in a plane that was going into battle. His plane was shot down and he was MIA. The end of that episode: stark silence as the house sat in darkness, the only light coming from John Boy’s bedroom window. And then…the light went out.  Oh, chills.

And yes, there is the absolute worst episode:  “The Changeling,” aired in 1978. Youngest child Elizabeth crosses over into teenagerhood and is infected with…a poltergeist.  Really. Oh my god horrible.

Take that, Waltons Museum Tour Guide.

Goodnight, John Boy. Goodnight, everybody.

Hard, Hard Work

“My idea of hell is a blank sheet of paper. Or a blank screen. And me, staring at it, unable to think of a single thing worth saying, a single character that people could believe in, a single story that hasn’t been told before. Staring at a blank sheet of paper. Forever.”

-Neil Gaiman

This week, a student called and asked if she could bring in a young friend she’d just met.  “She told me she really loves to write,” this student said.  “But her grandmother insists that writing is for later. She has to earn a living first. So she’s majoring in social work in college.”

Boy, that rolled back the years for me.

In 1978, my high school creative writing teacher, Duane Stein, wrote to Ron Wallace, then head of the creative writing department at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where I’d been accepted.  “You can’t put Kathie in a beginning class,” he said.  “You have to put her in an intermediate workshop at the very least, or an advanced. But not a beginning.”  Wallace, after reading a sample, agreed, and thus I was put at the age of 18 into a workshop for upperclassmen and graduate students.

Despite this, my parents said I couldn’t declare English as my major, with a creative writing emphasis.  They said that writing could only be a hobby, and that I had to major in something that would pay my bills.  This felt odd to me, given that they wanted my brother to major in music, but they were the ones paying for my tuition and books, so I agreed.  I’d worked for several years at that time, banking all of my paychecks from my job at the local humane society, and had enough to cover my housing.  Not enough to cover my entire college experience. And I so wanted to go.

First, I majored in special education.  I nearly flunked out.  I remember going to check my final grade on the door of my professor’s office (no internet back then) and seeing that I was one notch above an F.  In tears, I went with my boyfriend, who was to become my first husband, to check his grade in an engineering class.

“Oh, no!” he cried.

“What?  What?” I said, wondering if he was in the same boat I was.

He wasn’t. He was one tenth below a perfect 4.0. And yet he cried.  I should have known not to marry him.

I struggled a bit longer, then decided to change my major to…social work. Just like my student’s young friend. I also decided to try a semester without any writing or literature courses at all.  Nothing.  Let’s see, I thought, what a hobby writing life would be like.

I nearly flunked out of social work too.  And the lack of writing and reading just about wiped me off the face of the earth.  Quietly, I made a huge decision.  I went to the appropriate office and dropped my social work classes for the rest of the semester. And then I went to the next appropriate office and changed my major. To English. With a creative writing emphasis.

My mother was coming to stay with me while I had my wisdom teeth pulled.  I told her about my new major on the day she arrived.  “It’s what I’m going to do,” I said. “If you and Dad choose to no longer support me, then I’ll drop out of school and work until I have the money to come back.” I was twenty years old. By that point, I’d taken two of the intermediate fiction workshops and two advanced.  I was embarking on my first independent study, and before I would graduate, I’d go through another.  I would also take the advanced workshop two more times.  The semester I graduated, I was reading 300 pages a day in literature classes and writing a paper a week.

It was hard, hard work. And I loved it.

My parents didn’t stop supporting me. Financially.  But from the day of my announcement on, whenever my father was asked what his daughter was majoring in, he said, “She’s getting married.” I was, but that wasn’t what I was majoring in. My mother basically just wrung her hands and bemoaned my worthlessness.  After graduation, when my parents were asked about what I did, they talked about my husband, and eventually, my children.

A few years before he died, my father told me he considered my college education to be the biggest waste of his money that he’d ever spent.

Through the rest of college and the years following, I worked hard.  Before children, I held full-time jobs, and after children, part-time jobs, all while writing.  I’m not exactly sure what my family thought I was doing.  They often asked me if I was still “writing the Great American Novel.”  Or they asked if I sat in front of the television and ate bon-bons while imagining what I wanted to write.  Bon-bons?  When I landed my first NYC agent, they asked me, “Why would she want you?”  When I began to teach for Writers’ Digest, they asked, “Why would they want you?”

Really.  It wasn’t exactly an environment for creating a great sense of confidence.  Luckily, I always had writing mentors to pick me up, dust me off, and tell me I was doing the right thing.  Those writing mentors mean the world to me.  I work hard (again) on creating that same sense of confidence for my students.

I don’t know that the general public understands how hard writing can be.  The blank page, and the blank screen, as Neil Gaiman says, are the greatest nightmares on earth.  Writers don’t tend to look at these blanks with glee, singing, and happily picking and choosing between the many buckets of ideas stored beneath our desks.  I think the fear is always there that one day, the blank page/screen is going to be permanent.  The well is going to run dry.  The imagination is going to say, “Nope. Nothing today.”

Even when the next idea is off and running, the writer has to run after it.  I’ve been known to break a sweat while writing.  And I’ve also been known to be limp as roadkill when I’m done.   The energy expended is enormous.  The exhaustion, all-encompassing.

The satisfaction?  Ohmygod, incredible.  It’s hard, hard work, and I love it.

I honestly don’t remember a time when hard work hasn’t been a big part of my life.  I can’t imagine being lazy.  In a few week’s time, I’m heading to Charlotte, North Carolina, to be a featured reader in my publisher’s reading series, and to teach a workshop.  I’m spending a week in Myrtle Beach after that, and I’m trying to convince myself that it’s okay to actually have a vacation.  But secretly, even as I tell myself and others that I will spend the time either on the beach or in the pool or asleep, I know my laptop will be close by, and I will be working on my next book.  I hope the laptop survives through sand, salt water and chlorine.  Hard work is in my  make-up.  It’s what I do.

How ironic that while my family thought I was watching television and eating bon-bons, I was actually spending at least four hours a day writing, along with holding down part-time and full-time jobs.  When my children were small, I put them to bed at eight o’clock, went into my office, and wrote until at least midnight. Years later, when I started AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop, I added a teaching schedule that is never less than 65 hours a week, and is more often 85 hours a week.  All while still writing every afternoon (I now teach at night, and meet with clients in the morning – I am, happily, an afternoon writer).  All while raising three children to adulthood, and now raising my fourth child, currently 13 years old.

Oh, and yes, I did write the Great American Novel.  Two of them, in fact, and I’m working on a third.  And I’ve written a short story collection too. Not to mention the short stories that have appeared in over 100 literary magazines, with more to come.

My father died in 1996, long before the birth of my studio, or the publication of my first book.  My mother died in 2006, one year after I started the studio, and again, before the publication of my first book.  I often wonder if they knew me today, if they would still consider writing as only hobby-worthy. And I wonder if they would still consider their investment in my college education a waste of their money.  I wonder if they would introduce me as me, and not as an extension of my husband (not the same one who cried over a 3.9) or an extension of my kids.  I wonder if they would still consider me incredibly lazy.  Or worthless.

I certainly don’t.  Not on any of those points.  I know how hard writing is, and I embrace it. I also know how hard it is to teach, and how hard it is to start a business and raise it from barely a blip on the radar to an international studio with students in over 20 countries. Hard work has never scared me.  I am also eternally grateful for my education, and for the master’s degree that came after it.

When this new young woman walks into my classroom, she’s going to be given more support than she ever knew existed.  No student walks out of my doors feeling worthless, or that the passion in their lives is only a hobby.  I work hard to make sure of that.

The Right Words

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”

― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

Whenever I want a good laugh, I read this quote.  It never fails me.  I think we all hope that at some point, the writing process will become simple. We will sit at our desks in the morning, turn on our computers, crack our knuckles, let the words pour forth in an undammed stream, stop for a coffee break, return, and at the end of the day, have a lovely piece, whether it be a poem, a short story, a novel, an essay, a memoir…whatever we sat down that day to write. Effortless. Easy.  Off to bed for a good night’s sleep!

Except anyone who is a serious writer knows this isn’t the case.  It doesn’t get easier.  While practice can indeed make perfect in writing, you never get to the point where you can stop practicing.

I’ve been hard at work on the fourth draft of my new novel.  Every day, as I write, these calendar pages keep flipping over my shoulder.

 

2011: The Home For Wayward Clocks

2012: Enlarged Hearts

2013: Learning To Tell (A Life)Time

 

So will there be a book in 2014?

Dunno.

I mean, there IS a book.  The first draft was done quite a while ago, beginning to end, so it’s here, intact, in my computer and in my mind.  I am in draft four, and I like it and I hate it and I like it and I hate it.  One minute, I’m shoving my way to the front of the Writer Hall of Fame, the next, I’m plunking a dunce cap on my head and crawling into my dog’s time-out crate.

This is called the writing life.

The new book is called Rise From The River, and it’s a book I’ve wanted to write for twenty years, but I had to wait until I had the courage and the ability to make it say what I want to say. To make it sing.  Today, at my desk, the damn thing belted out the National Anthem without a single quaver.  Yesterday, it sounded more like a duck.  A drunk duck.

So it’s there.  It exists.  It more than exists.  It’s living and breathing and I tend to it every day. But I just don’t know if I’ll have it done in time to come out in 2014.

And the calendar pages go flap, flap, flap.

When I saw my publisher this past September, he said to me, “As long as you keep writing the books, I’ll keep publishing them.”  This, as you can imagine, was wonderful to hear.  It’s a load off my shoulders.  I am writing more freely than I have in years, if not in my whole life.  I am able to concentrate solely on the flow of words, and not on the always-there question of, “Will it fly?  Will someone like it enough to publish it?”  I no longer have to worry about that.  The book will have a home as soon as it’s out of my head.

My publisher has not put me under any pressure. I’m not expected to have a new book done by any particular time.  My readers pop in every now and then and say, “Hey, how’s the book coming?”  But they don’t pressure me either.  The other day, though, after I brought my 13-year old daughter home from school, I told her I was going upstairs to keep writing.

She said, “What are you working on?”

I said, “The new book.”

With her hands on her hips, she huffed and said, “Aren’t you done with that book YET?”  And she actually tapped her foot!

Since babyhood, that child has managed to blurt what I’m thinking.  And yes, it is my own impatience that makes those calendar pages snap at me.  It’s pressure that I’m putting on myself.  I’ve had three books out in three years.  Ohmygod, will the world end if I don’t have a fourth out in the fourth year?

A part of me thinks so.  Remember, writers have to have ego to get through the rejections.  My ego is very, very healthy.

But good writing takes time.  I tell my students this constantly.  It took me three years to write “The Home For Wayward Clocks,” six months of that under an editor’s guidance when I thought the book was already done.  It took two years to write “Enlarged Hearts.”  Another two years to write “Learning To Tell (A Life)Time”.  I began seriously writing “Rise From The River” a year ago today.

I have time. I have time. I have time. I have fifty bazillion clocks in this house; you would think I would have listened to them by now.

Good writing takes work. Lovely writing takes hard, hard work.  If it looks effortless, it’s not.  So much effort goes on behind the scenes. Practice makes perfect, and practice is never done.  There’s always the next day to do it again.  And the day after too.  I am a perfectionist with a capital P, and this book won’t be called done until I am willing to put my name on the cover.

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”

The right words will never be simple, Jack.  Never ever.

Will I have a book out in 2014?

We’ll see.