I'm most recently a writer. In the six plus decades of my life, I've been a wife, mother, grandmother, Jill of all trades though mistress of but a few, and most of the time pretty content with my lot. As a much younger person, I believed I was called to write, but life and living distracted me for most of those decades. An unwilling transplant from the South, twenty years ago I unintentionally landed in the geographical center of the US. Writing came about in part due to the unwillingness, I expect. When caring for family, gardening, and renovating a century-old house failed to provide sufficient creative outlets, I turned to the one thing I always intended to do. Eight titles later, I'm grateful I found myself while Lost in the Plains!
Thursday, September 18, 2014
In a Perfect World--Rambles on Writing
Or, in a perfect writer's world, they would become stories. Short or long, rhyming or prose, set in the present, past or future, a writer's fantasies spin into characters and settings, mystery and romance, capturing the imagination of perfect strangers through the skillful assembly of word and phrase. Everyone has an imagination, whether writer or reader. When the fantasy of the writer meets that of the reader through the simple, everyday act of opening a book, the magic transcends both.
I was a reader from the time I can remember. Run, Jane, run. See Jane run. I felt the wind in my face and heard the cheers at the finish line. I lived with the Boxcar Children, solved mysteries with my heart racing alongside Nancy Drew, went into mourning with Jo March at the death of her beloved Beth. As an only child, the characters in my books were my closest friends. We spent countless quiet hours curled in a chair or huddled under the covers. Without ever leaving my remote little village, I traveled back and forward in time, met kings and beggars, and learned my way around the capitals of the world as well as other remote villages thousands of miles and centuries away. I learned about romance and sex, food and music, fashion and finance as much from reading as from any class or textbook. I got so involved with whatever I was reading at the moment, I was often only half-aware of what was going on around me.
Then came the time when the words began to leave the page and spin themselves into my own stories. I must have been around ten years old, a year when my real-life world changed radically, when the first of the spiral notebooks started to fill with disjointed bits of writing. It was awful stuff, but it was mine. One clever turn of phrase, one clearly drawn image, and I was thrilled with my accomplishment. No one saw what I was doing. I wasn't bold enough to tell anyone. For several years my stories were just mine, until I discovered that my cousin, a few months younger and the closest thing I have to a sister, was also scribbling in spiral notebooks.
That was the beginning of the best critique partnership I can imagine. When we were apart, we mailed stories back and forth--"snail mail," envelopes bulging with folded sheets of lined paper. During the times we spent together, often weeks at a time, we sat in the same room, pencils flying, periodically breaking the heavy silence to share something particularly brilliant, and finally handing off our work for the other to read. Our styles and genres (not sure we knew that word at the time) were very distinctive. Our subjects were much the same, girlish interpretations of our budding romantic fantasies, but her plot twists tended to toward the dramatic and sometimes violent, heroes in fist fights, or heroines run down by city buses. Mine, indicative of things to come I suppose, were gentler, more idyllic, a bit sappy some would say. It was heavenly sharing that experience, giggling at two in the morning over an unintentional innuendo, or oohing at a truly fine turn of phrase.
When, forty plus years later, I actually finished my first novel, my cousin agreed to read it. I was scared to death to send the file to her. I knew how brutally honest her critiques could be. Plus, she knows me as well as any other living soul. A few catchy phrases weren't going to convince her I was finally a writer. What she had to say after she read the book I won't share here. It's frankly too precious, a gift I treasure. Let it suffice to say her "getting" my story, the light she shed on my work, opening my eyes to things I didn't realize I'd done, led me to believe in myself enough to publish.
When a reader reveals in a message or a review that they really "got" it, I feel as though I've found that perfect world, that magical place where storyteller and reader live the story together. When I started writing, I promised I'd write the kind of stories I wanted to read. It's close to impossible for a writer to follow the "trends," to intentionally write what sells, and maintain any sort of integrity in their work. For me, as much as I enjoy many of the edgy, contemporary voices at the top of the bestseller lists, I know I don't have that kind of voice. And I don't want to. I've lived with the voice in my head for fifty years, if you count those awful scribblings in the spiral notebooks. I can recognize when a story begins to spin, or when I'm trying too hard to force one to take off. I know the honest from the contrived well enough to walk away from a story that will never feel like mine.
In a perfect world, there's room for every kind of voice, a readership ready to "get" every author. None of us should feel more or less successful as long as we're true to ourselves and our stories. This isn't a competition to see who dies with the most five-star reviews or the most sales. In a perfect world, those who die with the satisfaction of living their dreams win hands down.