being a writer

I was reading The Swivet last Friday and saw this:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)

It was right after a trip to the mailbox where I received my latest fiction story rejection. Per usual, I got a personal note. They liked the premise but didn’t think there was enough conflict or at least not a “big problem for the main character to deal with/solve”.  Apparently, the moral ambiguity  involved in selling terminally ill individuals as though they were shoes doesn’t count as conflict which is, of course, not the point. If I have to explain the conflict, I failed. It’s that simple.

And by the way, I don’t disagree with the quote at all. It’s something I struggled with as a teacher and more recently in writing groups. Which is why I agree with the other quote by writer/director Josh Olson on the importance of being honest rather than breaking your brain to find something positive or encouraging or worst of all – nice – to say.

I think a lot about the idea of focus. What do I write best? I should be putting my energy there. Right?

Found a wonderful discussion via Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books a while back about whether or not authors are morally responsible for their characters. While the morality part is a bit silly, in my opinion, it brings up the fine line of whether or not I, as an author, borrow too much from my real life. 

It would be fair to say that since moving to Alberta, many of my story settings have taken on local and regional themes, and that my characters are different aspects of me. Who I was. Who I am. Who I would like to be. Rob can attest that he is most definitely the inspiration for my male protagonists. He is my muse and, fortunately, he is okay with that.

There is that little disclaimer on works of fiction that says something like “any resembelance to persons living or dead is strictly a coincidence” and I have always felt that they are bullshit. I don’t know how a writer cannot leech from their own lives even when writing fiction. Our imaginations are the sum of us. Or mine is anyway. I guess I shouldn’t speak for all writers.

My current novel is more than a little bit borrowed from life. The setting is where I live. The characters have their genesis in Rob and I and people I know through my daily life. Naturally, I have stretched and redrawn, but the faint outlines remain. 

The memoir is, of course, based on reality but there is an air of creation to it because it filters through my perception and memories have a way of embellishing themselves with no help at all.

So people expect fiction to be completely fresh without taint from the author’s life? Are there writers who can do that?

Last week it was 1976 with side trips to 1992 and 1974. My political awakening, understanding and jading. Politics, though it touches our lives in ways most of us barely acknowledge if we realize it at all, are not what brings music to our soul or dance to our toes.

The summer of ’93 brought me back to writing via a pocket sized notebook I took along to New York City. I was staying with a friend, Lisa J, who was in one of what turned out to be three different internships. I think it was surgery that time because she was doing a lot of needlepoint. I remember being a tad disappointed when she didn’t settle on pathology because I thought it would be cool to have a medical examiner for a friend.

Her apartment was one of those renovated old buildings/warehouses in Brooklyn with a doorman. It was within walking distance of the subway station. She instructed me in its use during a day trip to Manhattan. We went to the Battery and took the ferry out to Ellis and Liberty Islands. Someday I would love to go back to Ellis and just sit and write. There is the start of a story waiting there for me, I think. I have no interest in Liberty. That surf pounding last scene in Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston curses the American goddess has turned the statue into something I will forever identify as creepy and apocalyptic.

I wrote and wrote and then went home and taught writing to 8th graders, who were frankly not much of an outlet. I have never truly enjoyed teaching writing to children when it went beyond the building blocks. Most of them – like most adults – suck when pushed to be creative. Competency can be taught but flair and the ability to tell a story? Not so much.

It was the next year that I wrote my first novella. The same one that I am slowly transforming into a novel right now. The inspiration came from a week long seminar my SisFriend and I took at Grinnell over the summer. I can’t remember the instructor’s name anymore. Morris Something or perhaps that was reversed. He was very – different.

I had taken the seminar before through my school districts AEA. It was a quick way to rack up credits towards re-certification. The first year had been a Thomas Jefferson scholar named Clay Jenkinson. He gave lectures while in character. That was a bit freaky.

He was cute though – that rumpled, long haired professor thing – and all the middle-aged women at the seminar damn near broke each others bones to sit with him at supper in the dining hall every evening.

I was invited to eat with him once after I mentioned that I didn’t care for the characterization of Ophelia in Hamlet. I have always found her “mad” scene after the death of her father to be over the top. I may have also admitted to thinking that Hamlet is one of the most selfish characters I have ever read. An opinion I still hold.

Getting back to Morris then, he had us write a short story based on an illustration taken from the Chris Van Allsburgh book, The Mystery of Harris Burdick. Interestingly I used that same book as story starters for my students.

So I wrote a novella. I had people read it for the purpose of feedback. I revised it many times and it was one of the pieces I submitted to the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.

And I got rejected. The end.

I just didn’t have the self-confidence to write and put it out there. This despite the fact that I took creative writing courses over the summers before and after that where I received quite a bit of praise and admonishments to try and publish.

Jump ahead with me to 2006 and masters seminar. I tossed out my written presentation on a whim as I listened to the presenter ahead of me and, riffing off her, totally winged it. The guy who gave his thesis presentation after me was toast. Poor guy. But one thing came out of that presentation that I should have seen coming and yet it caught me a bit off guard when I heard myself close with “…I had thought that obtaining a masters would renew my interest in education and instead it has shown me that what I am meant to be is a writer.”

Epiphanies. They aren’t angels’ bells on a Capra-esque pine, but they jingle just as sweetly.