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Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Why I Write
Warning! This is another very personal post, but after a lot of waffling, I decided that it belongs on this blog. I have been a member of the Accentuate Family of Writing Services for a couple of years, but only became active recently. Accentuate is the brain child of Michelle (Michy) L. Devon, and offers lots of support for aspiring writers. It's free to join, and with a five-year history, really can offer more than moral support.
Anyway, Michy posted a blog prompt challenge which began: "Take us back in time to the beginning of your writing passion, career, love, interest, or hobby and show us what it looked like way back then, before queries, before rejections, before you submitted or made a penny - back when you wrote simply because you were a writer...." The questions she poses continue, but the following is my rather long-winded response. Back to nature tomorrow.
Why I Write
Sometimes I have a reason to write, and sometimes I just have to write, without any reason attached to it at all.
As a child I could both read and write at an early age and this allowed me to record ideas that came into my head. The earliest "creative" expression of my writing that has survived seems to be a recipe for "YoYo Treats" that I wrote at age 5. That also seems to be one of the few writing projects I ever finished. In much the same vein as Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, that sentence is pretty much the story of my writing career. Everything you need to know about my writing career is found in my elementary school portfolio. Very few things get finished.
I loved words- the sounds of them and how they fit together. I remember driving the adults in my world crazy with endlessly reeling off lists of rhyming words or singing poems to toothpaste jingles just to see how they either fit or clashed, or how words sounded when the emphases were changed. I would explore words that sounded alike and query anyone who would pay attention about whether the words were really related or just sounded alike. Adults hate it when small children are full of questions to which they don’t know the answers.
My next major work was begun at about age 7. That has survived, and it is entitled The Adventures of Skippy the Field Mouse. Two chapters are done: "His Spring Adventure," and "His Adventure with the Cat." Chapter three has a name: "His Trip," and two sentences. In total, the work is about 800 words (I just counted). Maybe impressive for a seven-year-old, but still... unfinished. However, it is self-illustrated, which was to become important to me as well.
In 5th grade, I wrote a play. I no longer have a clue what it was about. The teacher allowed other students to volunteer for the roles, and we were sent to a small room off the cafeteria to practice, for performance to the class. But I was always a bit of a freak to the other kids. I had no leadership skills at that point, and they would not practice, but only used the play as an excuse to get out of class and fool around. I was too serious of a child to understand their motivations, and ended up in tears, with an unproduced play. Hmmm.... this sounds like the ending of many a grown-up tale.
In 7th grade, I had my first work published. It was a Christmas poem which won a contest and was printed in the local paper. This won me many kudos with the adults in town, but further alienated me from my peers, with whom I had little in common. I continued to write lots of poems throughout high school, but I have no idea where any of them are any more. The next one that I seem to still have was written almost 10 years later.
Throughout high school I continued to write "stuff," but was never focused, always wanting to try out new things rather than finish any one project. I got pretty far with a "slide show" story. It also does not survive, but it was an animated story that I told by drawing pictures on 3x5 cards. I had received a toy projector for Christmas that projected 3x3 images on a wall with a light bulb. The 3x5 cards were perfect. I could draw a picture in the square and have a tab left to feed the pictures in and out of the machine. I was as fascinated with the mechanics of the process as with the story. I think the heroine was a girl named Lulu, but I don’t remember what was happening in the story. I remember pictures with umbrellas, so it must have been a wet story. Enter my interest in multi-media.
Also in high school, I became more fascinated with language itself, and truly angry with English for being so irregular. I created a language of my own that followed very strict rules of tense, grammar, structure, etc. I’m sorry to say that this is also gone. I would be quite interested to observe how my teen-aged brain attacked that project!
I sporadically kept a diary/ journal, which I still have. It’s really boring. Somehow, I never understood that a journal should record thoughts and feelings and not just a description of what I did for the day. All of what I just said about journaling and me is still, sadly, true. Although I have done better, from time to time, I often have to make myself remember to write down how I am feeling.
I’ve shared all of this to demonstrate that there is a part of me that has to write. Children don’t write things like those I’ve described unless they really want to do so.
The periods of my life that have been the most stressful and depressing seem to be the times that I have written the most. At one point, as a young adult, I told someone that my brains just seem to run out the end of a pen. So, most of the personal expressions of my life that are recorded are from the times that are the very worst– and there have been some very bad ones. I’m much less needful of writing down the good things.
For a while in the 1970s and 1980s I worked really hard at submitting articles and poems to magazines. I never had a single one accepted. I do have three articles in two compilation volumes published by Youth For Christ. I was invited to submit these. This was nice for the ego, but I received no compensation for them. During this time period, I began to realize that I am best at writing short essays. Like poems, they require an efficiency of words which I enjoy fashioning.
Why did I want to move from writing for myself to being a published writer? That is a very difficult question to answer. Everyone likes to feel that their talents are appreciated by others, so that is one component, to be sure. I was always hopeful that I could earn some money by writing. I’d been told that I was very good at writing, all my life. So when I kept reading stories and articles that I knew weren’t as good as what I could write, my ego just had to exert itself and try to prove that I could do better than that. Of course, I quickly came face-to-face with one of the permanent realities of my life. What I like, who I am, and how I want to write are not the things that publishers want to buy. One telling rejection letter says, "We do not believe that our readers would appreciate the humor in your story."
I continually write poems, although in fits and jerks as I discovered when I actually collected all the existing ones into one notebook, and organized them chronologically, this year. Some are just garbage or so-so, but a few are quite good. Thanks to a grandmother who raised me on real poetry, I do know the difference, even when I am the one who wrote it. Poetry, however, is almost always written because it just needs to come out. It is what it is, and readers can take it or leave it. Critics can label it poor, sappy, unimportant, or great. Nevertheless, when it was written, those thoughts were critically important to the poet.
Then came the North Country Trail. I began to hike it in 1991, and by 1995 was writing up accounts of the hikes I had taken on it, just for the people who had hiked with me. Timidly, I showed it to a few other people, who quickly said, "Oh, this HAS to be a book," and thus began North Country Cache, a collection of essays about my hikes on the trail. It is my primary success at actually finishing a large writing project. Soon I was writing for the NCT Association’s quarterly magazine, but still for no money. When the NCTA’s 25th anniversary was looming they asked me if I could finish the book in time for that year’s conference. Deadlines actually make me finish things! AND... here was a group of people who sincerely wanted to see something that I wrote in print, and available for others to read!
I had 29 of what became 68 chapters done. In 2004-5, I finished the writing, and self published North Country Cache (knowing that publishers would probably balk at the format and the topic). My husband now grimly calls it "The Year of the Book." It was a frantic race to get it done on time, but I made it!
Being a published author is great, even if it is self-published! I like the credibility it gives me- if nothing else it proves that I CAN finish something. Everyone who reads it seems to like it, even non-hikers. The people who know that I am almost done hiking the trail are clamoring for the sequel. Of course, there is nothing like an eager public to make a writer want to keep writing!
And now, the blogosphere has flowered into a playground for writers. I find that this fits part of my need to write very well. For me, blogging is something of a public journal. I can write about events in an informal way, and add photographs that I have taken. Quite a few people seem to enjoy what I share. This motivates me to keep it up.
So, part of why I write now is the public component. When people like what you do, you have a natural tendency to want to continue that activity.
Several on-line venues exist for writers to make money. A friend encouraged me to write for a couple of those. Once again, all that did was reinforce that knowledge that I don’t fit the common molds. I thought that with a potential world-wide audience that there might be a niche for me. But, as with traditional publishers, sites have to market their material to make money. I make a few cents at these venues, but there is little to motivate me. A typical rejection notice: "This is not a topic readers search for."
Needing money, however, I have discovered several online places where I can do web copywriting for money. This is now the primary way that I pay my bills. However, it’s a killer. Never have I written so much and enjoyed it so little. Cramming words and phrases into formats to meet SEO requirements on topics of marginal interest to me only makes me hate writing. I’m very slow at it, because the words do not flow in natural patterns, and often it takes a great deal of research to crank out 400 words of meaningful content.
Am I still compelled to write for myself? This answer is the same as always: inconsistently. At this point in my life, I’m really bored with listening to myself whine about the same old issues that I’ve struggled with for the past 60+ years. And believe me, I may have matured (I hope), but my inherent weaknesses and strengths are the same ones noted in my kindergarten file. How those traits clashed with the real world, or gave me strength to overcome some very difficult times is all recorded, in fits and starts, across the decades.
I get very mixed messages from my support network about my writing. No one in my family gives a rip [whoops- except SIL- sorry, Loretta]. They have not read my book and do not read any of my blogs. Only one of my real-world friends reads my blog. I tend to run in circles of non-internet people. I’ve made many very good friends through this blog, whom I value very much, and those of you who do follow this blog, or who have read my book, know more about me than most of the people who claim to be my friends. I continually struggle with this dichotomy... if I am the person who needs to write about my experiences, and my "friends" have no interest in reading any of this, does this mean that they are not interested in me, since this is who I am?
Several years ago, I decided that I’m going to leave the whole pile of journals, letters, and poems to my Alma Mater and let some poor library assistant sift through the sludge. I think there is a story in it all, but someone with a less jaundiced eye will have to tell it.
So now I’ve written 2000+ words about why I write, without batting an eye. I guess that makes me a writer