‘The writing will teach you...’
In high school, I wanted to be a lawyer and perhaps go into politics. Of course, as a teenager, I also intended to be rich and slender.
I didn’t go to law school and now shudder at the idea of a life in politics. The odds are also pretty slim that I’ll ever make any “wealthy” or “best body” lists.
Regrets? Not a one. Well, only if I could somehow have the rich/thin option while still being a writer who adores every dessert known to womankind.
I switched from Political Science to Journalism during my freshman year at Northwestern University, shortly after my boyfriend’s best friend complimented my writing and suggested the possibility. The truth is I’d never considered writing as a career option, even though I’d always loved writing—well, at least, making up stories. (Thank you for the nudge, Bob.)
I guess the storytelling/drama gene ran in our family. Whenever my Aunt Kate tucked my sister and me in at night, she recited Macbeth as our bedtime story complete with plunging dagger scenes. I loved it. I also have a vague grade-school recollection of how much fun it was to dream up a fairytale that explained how a Frenchman, Dan de Leon, wound up as a weed (dandelion). Throughout elementary school, one of my favorite activities was to join neighborhood kids in our spooky basement where we conducted make-believe séances and tried to scare the pants off each other. And I always, always loved to read.
Shortly after switching to journalism major, I landed an intern gig at Medallist Publications and started earning money as a writer. I’ve made my living as a writer ever since. Mostly I’ve penned nonfiction. (I’m taking the liberty here of describing ad copy as nonfiction.) My anything-for-a-buck assignments have run the gamut—speeches for executives, newsletters and brochures, feature magazine articles for business, trade and travel magazines, website pages, billboard slogans, ad campaigns, Help documentation, etc. For the most part, I really enjoyed my assignments and never paused to consider authoring a book.
One day I was approached about writing an “as-told” book by some folks who had an intriguing story but lacked any notion of how to share their experiences. So I interviewed and researched, outlined their book, and wrote the opening chapters. We landed a well-known New York agent. Then, boom, my “clients” accepted a large settlement to keep mum on the material at the heart of the work-in-progress. They canceled the project. My efforts didn’t earn me a penny. But I’m oh-so-glad I accepted the challenge. It gave me confidence. Yes, I really could write a novel. It also convinced me that any future book-length project would be pure fiction, and a solo effort. Going forward, I would be the only one to pull the plug on a novel in progress.
At this point, I felt pretty smug. I took a fiction-writing course through the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, and I assumed I’d be the class star. After all, I’d been writing for years. As I recall my classmates included a lawyer and a veterinarian, a librarian and a retired FBI agent. The opening chapters of their books blew me away. I was humbled. They weren’t just GOOD. They were very, very good. That’s when I realized that people in all occupations have compelling stories to tell and active imaginations. Journalism training or even an MFA degree (which I don’t have) aren’t publishing guarantees. I learned that many of my contemporaries were quite capable of creating beautiful imagery and writing vivid passages.
If I wanted to publish, I realized I had to expect stiff competition and I’d better do all I could to master the craft.
Years have passed since I took that introduction to fiction-writing course. Did any of my classmates ever finish the novels they started? Most don’t. Or they shove their manuscripts under the bed after a few rejections. Life goes on.
Brewster Milton Robertson taught that fiction course, and the first thing he wrote on the blackboard was “the writing will teach you.” Now I think I fully understand what he was trying to communicate. If you want to be a writer, you must be driven to keep writing. With each passage you write, you learn something new about the process...about what fails and what works...what captures attention...which words are essential and which are excess baggage.
Being a writer means you keep writing through harsh critiques and rejections through spells where your muse takes a hike. You keep writing because you love it and you love what it teaches you about your craft and yourself.