All About . . . My Backstory
I always wanted to be a writer. But I was sure everyone else wanted that too. How could they not? Wasn’t telling stories what life was all about? I was five.
My first real assignment was a column in the camp newspaper. Sleep-away camp. All girls. They enjoyed my letters home so much; they reprinted them – complete with crude drawings about camp activities and the occasional melodramatic – if you really loved me, you’d take me home.
This was followed by my minor success as a playwright. I wrote and staged a play in my backyard, invited the neighbors and raised $12.00 for Jerry’s Kids. I was six.
The years between first and third grade are murky. Too much time practicing piano (badly), ballet dancing (badly), tap dancing (not so bad), and dodgeball (very badly). But then in third grade I wrote the all third-grade play, directed it, starred in it and got my picture in the local newspaper.
Success came more slowly after that. Yes, the cover of the 6th grade yearbook featured my poem. The teacher read my essays in English class in 7th grade; my 10th grade teacher said one of my papers was “worthy of publication”; and in my one creative writing class in college, my teacher devoted a whole class to my stories. And then I stopped.
A teacher in my MFA program once said – “It takes 10 years to live down your promise.”
I confess I took a lot longer.
I'd always been a very good reader. I often read more than a book a week. Even though I never really loved Little Women or Jane Eyre or that whole Cherry Ames series – I read widely.
Which I was sure meant the minute I finally got up the courage to write, I’d be able to write a novel. I knew, in the deepest part of me I’d absorbed all these books, so even if I didn’t know it consciously, subconsciously my brain was primed for novel writing.
Only it wasn’t. I didn’t have a clue. Everything I wrote was too cute or too boring or too short. Now what?
I’ve since learned we introverts have our own way of tackling problems, mostly by doing things on our own. So every morning I sat down to write ‘a novel’ (ironic quotes). Then I’d read a book about craft. There weren’t nearly as many books then as there are now, so it was easy to do a whole library shelf of craft books. Then I’d read about psychology. I was the first to admit I was sheltered, naïve, and unable to look too critically at people.
I spent the rest of the day with my family.
Somehow with this clumsy routine I wrote a novel. (In pre-computer days this meant renting time at an office with a Word Processor – if you’re old enough to remember Wang. Spending hours correcting and printing. ) I had it professionally printed and took it over to whatever FedEx was at the time. I’d spent more than $100.00 on computer time, printing, postage. But I knew it had to get out right away.
The agent returned it two days later. Less than one dollar in postage. He was going to pass – I needed an agent who was hungrier.
These days the line is – I didn’t fall in love.
One agent and one former editor were kind enough to read the book. None of their comments were good. I told the editor I tended to over write. She said – Faulkner overwrites. You write sloppy. And the agent said the book would never sell.
Brenda Ueland in her book If You Want to Write – gives two excellent pieces of advice. Avoid boring people. And the best way to fix one story is to write the next.
We held a wake and farewell for the sweet first novel, and I wrote the next. More books on craft. More novels for inspiration.
I gathered my courage and attended a summer writer’s workshop. The teacher said I had very good verbs, but the problem was my structure.
Structure? I had no idea what that was.
I’d gone as far as I could on my own. So I applied to MFA programs.
A year later, I asked if we were going to study structure. The teacher scoffed. That’s not what we’re here for, he said. If you want to learn about structure, pick up a book at the drugstore.
Believe it or not, this was a time when my local drugstore actually carried a book called something like How to Structure Your Novel. (Don’t try looking for it at CVS today.)
Thanks to the teachers in the MFA program and my terrific classmates, I wrote a novel. Got a super-agent and had it published by a respectable NY publisher. My lovely editor even indulged me by meeting at the Algonquin for lunch. Earned a few reviews, not much money, but I had the book party I’d always dreamt of, only it turned out to be way too stressful.
The secret no one tells you is that after dreaming all these years of getting published, even though it’s exciting - it can also be a big letdown in a lot of ways. Half the writers I knew either went into therapy or went on Prozac. Or both.
Stuck on what to write for the second novel, I thought – why not take everything I’ve learned and use it to spare other writers from going through the long, tedious, learning process that had taken me years?
And that’s how I got here – Book Coaching. First teaching – University adjunct track – Freshman Comp; then adult fiction workshops; then college workshops; then individual sessions with writers. A few detours to do what used to be called book doctoring; some professional proofreading; and of lot of editing.
When I found out I could use it all, every messy bit of it, for book coaching, I’ve been smiling ever since. I feel like I’ve found my niche.
One more thing: While I was waiting to find my real calling, I learned about indie publishing and started what’s probably called a micro-press. But I’ll tackle that story somewhere else.
If you’d like to work with me – I promise I’ll share my years of accumulated wisdom.
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash
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