“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.”
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.