Monday, June 3, 2013

Who's a Writer?

     I knew a guy who said he was a writer. He was just a little younger than I was and very cheerful and even enthusiastic about writing. This was 14 years ago during the last stage show I ever did. Life was turbulent at the time. We were in the last months of our lives before Naomi was diagnosed with cancer. I still thought of myself as a writer then, but I don’t think I was writing anything.
     So this kid I knew had a great attitude about his writing. He was confident and hopeful of publication. I felt proud of him and thought it was an honor to know someone who would publish someday. I am trying to remember if I was jealous at all. I don’t think I was.
     Then one evening he brought some of his work to show me. I read it over. There’s a scene in the movie Finding Nemo when Marlon the Clownfish reluctantly begins to tell a joke to an excited audience of sharks. Almost right away, it’s obvious the joke is not going to be funny and Marlon isn’t funny either. And the grins on the sharks just melt away. I didn’t see Finding Nemo for a few more years, but as I started to read this kid’s writing, I felt like those sharks.
Like Marlon the fish, this kid was not funny. The writing was not fiction, but a confused narrative that must have been funny to him. I don’t remember what it was about. The only honest feedback I gave him was that babies actually loved puréed sweet-potato. I tried to be encouraging otherwise. And he took my advice with his trademark cheerfulness. Perhaps in the 14 years he has improved. I hope so. Maybe what I admired the most was his optimism.
And here is the very honest truth: 14 years ago I wasn’t so good either. I had good ideas back then, but little talent for putting them into a decent story. But between then and now, I have read a lot of materials and books about writing, I listen to author interviews and most of all, I aim to write every day. (I usually write 3-4 times a week though.) I can look at my work from many years ago and cringe. I think that means I’m better now.
But the question still haunts me. “What if I’m just fooling myself? What if I’m really no good?” Please, if you’re reading this, don’t answer. I think that some of my blog posts absolutely shine. Some others are best swept out the door with the cobwebs and dust. But am I like that kid just fooling myself?
The reason I’m thinking about this now is that I have been trying to steadily write for about 2 years or so now. Some weeks all I’ve done is blog. While last November I wrote 77 thousand words in 30 days. That is one of my proudest accomplishments. I felt like a real writer, not when I won National Novel Writing Month, but when I would sit down to write. I knew what I was doing. I knew where the story was going and I was having a ball at it. That was what it took to make me feel like a writer.
At this very moment, it’s ten after two on a Sunday afternoon and I’m in Starbucks with a coffee at my left and an iPod on my right. The words are flowing out of me, for the most part (had to think of the verb for how the words came out). And right now, I feel like a real writer.
But I’ve taken on a new project, one I’ve fretted over, but promised myself. I started my memoir last week. I have blogged about this before. If I ever really wanted to publish, this would be it. Everything else I write is fun. It would be cool to publish, but unrealistic. Lots of good writers don’t publish. But I have one story, just one, that I want to make the effort to go all the way. That means multiple drafts, editing, perhaps finding an agent, and writing query letters. It is big league stuff.
So far, I’ve written on a few mornings. And it’s not easy. The words come out, but they don’t feel good. This isn’t fiction anymore with cloaked strangers on desert roads, spaceships whirling around a distant star or rivers turning to fire underneath a castle. This is real stuff that happened to me. Does anyone really want to hear this?
I have an opening for the story that I wrote. It was a true incident where I walked away from the cash register only to be yelled at by the cashier for leaving one year-old Jamie behind. I went and fetched Jamie and didn’t bother to explain to the indignant onlookers that of course I felt like I was missing someone, my daughter had just died a week ago. I walked around all day with the feeling that something was missing. I just was trying to ignore it when I left Jamie behind.
It’s an intriguing story and it’s completely true. I think that written well, it’s a perfect opening. The real question is can I keep it up? And can I keep writing this? It’s not real fun so far. There’s no smoke-swept battlefield with wolves and marauders. There’s only me narrating the story of my life, the time before Naomi, during, and after.  
A writer’s best friend is a crumby first draft. I can feel liberated by knowing that this doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. But there is still anxiety here. I have taken the first steps on a perilous writing venture. I don’t know if I’m good enough to complete it. One of my favorite authors said in an interview “Write the story for yourself and let the people who need to find it, find it.” That, in addition to the crumby first draft should have me writing freely. But it’s too different. But it’s early. I’m barely out of the starting gate. I hope I can find my voice for this, which will be the tailwind. We’ll see.

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