(Ephemera from my year of writing)
Today I celebrate the one year anniversary of openly identifying as a writer, which is what I told my writer’s group at our meeting yesterday, just before I invited them to slice my story up and give it to me in pieces. They smiled and politely congratulated me. Maybe they weren’t as convinced as I was that I am a writer, or maybe they found celebrating it to be brazenly inviting attention, which is something us writers don’t generally seek or else we’d be actors. But that’s okay, because approval and attention were not my end goal by announcing my anniversary. Reflection and embracing identity was. Before I proclaimed that I would be a writer I was already a writer, but one who rarely wrote. I wrote secretly in my journal, told stories in my mind and submitted work on the down-low, all while telling myself I couldn’t possibly cut it as a writer. In any other strata of society, this would not fly. A cook who doesn’t cook, but dreams of cooking? It can’t happen. That’s what I told myself and where I got the nerve to tell my boss that I was resigning “to pursue writing”.
I finished my last day at the office, hung around a bit to soak in the congratulations as well as the gluten-free wine and cheese party they were tossing for me (they were a swell bunch) and then I actually strapped on my backpack and took the El downtown to the Amtrak where I kicked off the writer life with a fortuitous trip to New Orleans. That is, in my opinion, the classy way to begin an adventurous lifestyle change. It was a fairy tale trip. Since then, shit has gotten real. A year of smallish triumphs and entertaining fails has tripped by in a wink.
This past year I have undertaken 39 writing projects (that’s 3.3 a month), started one novel, written 2 short stories (kind of only finished one), 4 memoir pieces, penned a dozen or so reviews, participated in one live literature event without puking, shakily opened two USPS delivered rejection letters, blithely opened 5 or 6 emailed rejection letters (why they are so much less scary, I don’t know) printed at least 200 pieces of paper slathered with my run-on sentences, blown through 4 journals, wrote a few blog posts, attended 7 performances as a critic, completed one modern adaptation of an old text, been part of 2 writers groups-one faded ,the other stuck, facilitated 3 writing classes for youngsters, and had at least 20 inspiring conversations for my work with people who embrace their passions every day. I was told by a director that I really ‘got’ him and his movie as if I were there with him when he edited it. I threw myself in to the world of writing-all writing, not with a plan but with the recklessness of a 4-year-old set loose on their first skateboard in a hilly region. I have come away with all the bruises and gaping wounds you’d expect as a result and maybe even a concussion that is causing some lasting effects of amnesia.
Only when I dig deeper in to these triumphs do I see the things I would like to forget. I wrote 3 articles without having a place to publish them yet, then spent months shopping them around to no avail. I spent half a year going back and forth with an editor who cleaned up my piece until it no longer resembled anything I’d recognize. I wrote terrible pitch letters with awful hooks and I still can’t tell the difference between a pitch and a query. I sauntered confidently in to arenas I had no business being in and asked dumb questions. In other arenas, I sat terrified of asking a dumb question and missed the opportunity to get a good story. I arrived at a press conference sans cameraman with the tiniest camera in the mix and had to muscle it on to a tiny tripod jammed in amongst the Titan cameras of the news industry, ignoring their scoffs of disdain. I have a special inbox with a labyrinth of emails so complex that I am filled with dread when I need to locate one simple message. I was told by an editor that I was not high profile enough in their world to warrant publishing, even though they liked my ideas. I’ve sent final copies riddled with factual errors and have had to double back and patch things up. I’ve interviewed 3 heroes of mine for whom I have not yet had the courage to write their stories. I have sat at a computer during precious work time and thrown it away for a good dog video. I have gained no more insight in to the riddles of punctuation or grammar. I have neglected family members to write, and I’ve neglected writing deadlines for family members. I am more proud of those blunders and fails than I am of the dozen things I’ve had published this year, because each mistake taught me twice as much in half the time victory took to teach me anything.
Query first, write slower, research deeper, pitch simpler, edit more, ask dumb questions anyway, bring a small camera when a small camera is all you got, but try to bring a cameraman instead to deal with that bullshit. Get on top of the inbox while there’s time, at 2 AM preferably. If you can’t figure out how to do your heroes justice-write about them anyway, even if no one would publish it. Waste time with dog videos because your mind needs rest to rebound with fresher stuff and dogs lower the blood pressure. Novel writing requires a writer’s group to keep you motivated and honest. Get up really early in the morning to write, and every single living creature in the home will wake up then too and expect your assistance. If you have the chance to speak, teach, publish, perform, or collaborate, say yes, even if your stomach lurches. Even if you screw it up, you did it and you are free to get back to working on the novel.
So thanks circus, food, athletes, artists, old sages, heroes, directors, teachers, movies, robots, zombies, humans, actors, travel, time travel, pets and universe for giving me my topics this year. But also, thanks editors, publishers, time, intimidating cameramen, live venues, blank screens, responsibilities, bills, family obligations, my own doubts and the internet for giving me challenges that forced me to learn stuff this year about the craft.