The Blotted Page

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How I became the writer I am

Every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an ‘injustice collector’ and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.
~Edmund Bergler

I recently heard it said somewhere that all writers are either masochists or the bravest people on the face of the planet. The speaker, whom I just now can’t recall, said that “writers are the only people in the world who actively ask for rejection on a daily basis — which might be the reason they tend to be drinkers and addicts.”

This particular generalization not withstanding, I have to admit, there was a time when I drank to calm the frustrations and stress in my life. I worked long hours at a job that paid low wages, tried to be a good wife and mother, all the while trying desperately to write and get published somewhere in between. I limited myself to two drinks per evening, ostensibly to calm me enough to get to sleep. Those two drinks got taller every year. They seldom helped me get to sleep. I had been a chronic insomnia since early childhood. My parents were asleep in bed long before I ever was.

In any event, the main reason I wanted to get published was not because I wanted to see my name in print, or worldwide praise heaped upon my head and works. Rather, I wanted to get published so I could write what I wanted to write, without having to work at the jobs I had to work at in order to put bread in my children’s mouths.

Eventually, however, I stopped using alcohol as a means to calm my fears and insecurities, because, in reality, it only exacerbated them. But fear has always been a living, breathing thing in my life, and of all the other things my fear tried to control, it most controlled my writing.

I was, as most writers are, my own worst enemy. I was in love with interesting and descriptive prose, which led to me writing lots of extraneous words that probably should have appeared in bright scarlet letters even as I wrote them, so I could see at a glance which ones to get rid of. It was for sure I could not figure it out while I wrote it.  And when I did reread my work, there was no way in hell anybody could make me cut them. They all worked exactly the way I wanted them to.

Unfortunately the world of publishing doesn’t like flowery prose. Adjectives are dead, as far as they’re concerned, and it seemed if you weren’t capable of writing a book with a “See Spot Run” cadence to it, your work wasn’t going to get published.

My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Milam, was not the only one to claim my work was too long. The very few publishers, editors and agents who actually responded to the work I submitted to them all said basically the same thing. “It’s too long!” This became the mantra of my writing life.

By the time I was 40, I’d ended up with a lot of short stories and a few novels, some with no endings, and pages-long poems that were far too mushy. But I was hooked. I had been writing ever since the 5th grade without much to show for all that work, except hundreds of notebooks and binders containing my scribbles.

I was able to finish a few things. Yet, whenever I sent a story or novel off to a publisher, I always received a rejection notice. Most contained just the standard paragraph saying my work did not fit what the publisher wanted at that time. There were times that I thought if I heard that phrase one more time, I was going to hop on a plane to New York and take out that particular person. I’d never allow them to write another one of those stupid letters to any other author. But, of course, I didn’t. I caved, just like every other writer has done. And then I tried again.

Once I actually got a personal comment from an editor who had kind things to say. She gave glowing praise for my style and vivid descriptions. Unfortunately, she also told me the work I’d submitted was not quite what they were looking for. However, she did tell me to keep working and learning, and to be sure to contact her when I had something else to publish.

Even with these few compliments and an offer to read more of my work, I felt like I was beating a dead horse. Not long after this, I received a barrage of rejections that said, once again, “You’re work is too long.”

After one such comment, which was not nearly as nice as the one mentioned above, I finally gave up. My psyche had taken a beating, but the real problem was that I was just too exhausted to continue something that gave so little reward.

Since leaving home to make my way in the world at 18, I had worked on my writing for well over ten years at every available moment, while I worked at entry level clerical and secretarial jobs that trapped me in a 5×4 cubicle for ten to twelve hours a day.

I was torn that I had so few hours to spend with my kids and husband. And I was frustrated that, no matter how hard I worked, I was never promoted or given an opportunity to improve my working situation. Because my husband was still in the military, every time we moved I had to quit a job I hated, then start again from scratch, wherever we happened to land, and set about getting another job I would hate.

I simply no longer had the stamina to endure the rejections, the drudgery and late hours. And I missed my kids. I decided it was time to quit being a dreamer and come back to reality.

I gave up trying to get published. I turned my focus toward trying to achieve something greater in my normal work, which, laughably, had me writing and editing everyone else’s copy, from legal briefs and contracts, to job descriptions, operating procedures, and speeches my bosses had to make at various functions, often in front of the media.

Everyone at work loved my ability to turn a phrase, to cut through the crap and expose the jewel at the center of the work. Did this praise from those I worked for give me fame and appreciation? Within the small world I inhabited daily, yes. Did it provide me with the kind of appreciation that got me ahead, filled my pockets with greenback accolades and boundless opportunities for promotion? Oh, hell no! One thing I learned in my years of working for corporations, law firms and government bureaucracies, is that when you tap into a rich, inexhaustible resource, you do whatever you have to to make sure that resource doesn’t go anywhere. And, boy, I went nowhere!

It took me a long time to get back into writing my own work again. Disabling chronic pain cut a swath through my life, finally making it impossible for me to earn a living as I had before. The condition prevented me from doing much of anything and that sent me into despair and depression.

When I finally got strong enough to try to write something I thought worthy of being read (a hearty thanks to my beta readers, you know who you are!), I finally brushed aside the constant heart pounding terror of trying to write again . . . and I wrote! For me. And strangely enough everyone seemed to like it. I don’t know quite why I would think that they wouldn’t, when everybody at my various jobs love my writing. I suppose that it’s more the fact that this writing comes from deep down inside me, rather than depending on a set of preset rules and an unfailing ability to string words together.

After nearly a lifetime of writing only for work, and crippling pain and depression, I am finally back to writing again with the hopes of being published. I don’t have the stamina I once had, but the stories are back rumbling around in my brain.

Over the years I have learned a lot about writing, whether for business purposes or my own inner need. As I start this phase of my career, I am hoping to provide many people with enjoyment through my stories. Mostly though, I’m writing to please me. Thank heaven for the e-readers that allow people like me to put their work out there without having jump through traditional publishing’s hoops.

The terror of failure is still there, but that beast is firmly locked in a cage for now, still growling at me and sticking its great claws through the bars to catch me unawares. I hope it never gets out again.

I know it probably will. Someday. But not today.
At the cost of having to sound redundant, I currently have two published short stories on Amazon, which are entitled “Riptide” and “The Choice.” I have a novella and a novel currently in the works. I am hopeful they will be published before the end of the year. Feel free to check them out on Amazon.com.

I have included here two articles about the terror that dwells in the breast of authors. For those of you still early in the eternal battle between you and the beast, I hope they will help you. They did me.

Rejection: three methods for coping

Men with Pens: Writing Bravery

Author, Writing

How I became a writer

I have read many writers who have said that they became writers only after learning the craft, i.e. the skills that were needed to impart an idea on the page. Others have said that writers pop out of the womb fully fledged and write every chance they get from day one. I think there is something of value in both these ideas. My own experience, I feel, tends toward the latter first and the first followed it.

I was born with a creative gene, and spent my early life learning how to sing, how to color, and how to act out with my few friends the many stories that rumbled round my brain begging for expression. Many of these I told to my early friends as we sat together at recess, or after school, or around the campfire at scouting camps.

My very first piece of fictional writing was a Nancy Drew fan fiction novella when I was in the fifth grade. I was an early reader and at the time I was a huge Nancy Drew fan. I had about thirty of those novels , all inherited from one of my older cousins. But I was also reading more adult novels as well. When I’d read through every Nancy Drew book I had at least twice, I grew bored.

So I began secretly borrowing the books on my father’s bookshelf. I made sure to only take the ones I knew he’d finished. I squirreled myself away in my room with the book and a dictionary. If I found the words to difficult or the concepts too complicated for my youthful mind to comprehend, I would put the book back and save it for later, knowing that my own understanding would eventually grow and make sense of it all as I grew older. Some things I learned far too young, but I think it opened my mind to a somewhat more complicated adult view of life and what drove people to do the things they did.

If I was drawn into a story, I would read the book through and make a list of all the words I didn’t understand to research later. I kept a heavy dictionary beside my bed. My dad would have skinned me alive had he known, but he either tacitly approved of my actions or had no clue what I was doing. I preferred to believe that latter as it gave a certain piquancy to the read.

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Milam, was determined to open our imaginations to reading and writing and she set aside an hour of the day, during which she read stories to us by authors such as Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis and others. She read the story of Robinson Crusoe, The Wizard of Oz and, my very favorite, The Secret Garden. It was, of course, my favorite hour of the day.

During the spring of my fifth grade year, Mrs. Milam gave our class a writing assignment. We were to write a story of our own. I was somewhat taken aback. It had never dawned on me until that moment that I could write something too.

She spent a lot of time on the details she wanted us to adhere to, but my mind was all ready off and running as I began to write my first mystery story in my head. I stopped listening to much of the other lessons that day. Instead, I wrote. I wrote during the reading lesson and through recess. By the time it was time to go home, I had already written the required six pages!

At home I wrote feverishly as the story seemed to appear in my mind completely formed. It took me the entirety of the time limit she given to us — a very short two weeks — as well as another whole week to finish it. I turned it in late, but I just knew it was “A” work.

A week later I got my story back along with the other students, and she had a few students, the ones whose work had been graded with an A, read theirs to the class. I simply stared at my own story in mute horror.

She’d given me a “B–”!

I was devastated. Red marks slashed through my story like a bleeding trail of wounds made by a broadsword. Words misspelled, incorrect grammar, repetitious sentences I hadn’t needed to put in the story at all. Across the front page she’d written:

“Marvelous story, great organization of the plot, but it needs some work to be readable. Come see me after school today to discuss this. If the story had been completed and turned in on time, I would have given it an A+.” 

Then on the left margin, she’d written in bold red letters:

“THE ASSIGNMENT WAS FOR AT LEAST 6 PAGES, NOT 142!”

Shades of Ralphie’s experience with theme writing in A Christmas Story. Well, I gathered from that movie, when it came out during my own children’s youth, that at least Jean Shepard knew how I’d felt. At the time, though, it crushed me! I went home that afternoon with tears in my eyes, miserable despite the praise with which Mrs. Milam had regaled me after school was out that day. All I could see was the number of red marks on the pages and that hideous B+.

But it didn’t stop me from writing at all.

I had been bitten hard by the writing bug, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I’d be writing on one story when another idea popped into my head. Then I’d stop working on the first to get the second one down on paper. It became a vicious cycle with very few finished pieces. But I couldn’t seem to stop writing. This was the medium my mind had been waiting for all the years prior.

I had become a writer.