In college, I studied English. This probably made sense to all the people around me, as I’d spent most of every day in High School reading and writing. I suspect that I was probably called by people who didn’t know my name, “That girl in the mom jeans who writes all the time”. I’d dreamed of publishing a book of my very own for years.
But honestly, I’d fallen into my major more by accident than any kind of plan. I thought about going pre-vet, but I signed up for classes so late in the spring before my Freshman year that none of the critical classes were open, and I would have no choice but to spend an extra semester on it. I took classes in Forestry, but the focus seemed to be mostly on cutting trees down rather than protecting them. I spent a lot of time taking Geology (so much that I almost snagged a minor in it) but eventually wandered away from it, terrified of all the math classes I’d have to take to earn a degree there.
I had taken AP English in High School, and had so many credit hours in English already completed when I started college, that I figured I might as well major in it. And so I graduated, a little bewildered, with an English degree that included a concentration in Creative Nonfiction – nonfiction being another area I’d stumbled into entirely by accident, because the Creative Fiction class was never, ever open by the time I signed up for classes.
I spent no time asking my creative writing professors how I might establish myself as a writer. This wasn’t, after all, my plan. I was just letting the currents swish me to whatever end they might. I regret that I didn’t do a little bit more, because it would have been so very, very simple, but I just didn’t have a plan.
So, I left college with my BA in English (with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction) and managed to snag a job at a company that claimed not to be a call center, and was mostly not a call center, but I also spent an enormous amount of time on the phone, calling people. It was at this point that I discovered that calling people who I don’t know on the phone gives me horrible anxiety.
I retreated, and at about the same time my husband commissioned as an Officer in the US Army. He received orders to go to Washington State, and I went along with him. A little piece of detritus swirling along in the stream.
It was time, I decided, to write a novel. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So, I got to work.
That first draft was a really strange collision of the principles I’d learned in Creative Nonfiction classes, and the sci-fi action that I loved the most. I figured that I could apply my freshly formalized literary sensibilities with the science fiction genre, and boom. I’d be crazy successful.
I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood yet, much to my detriment
I crawled through that first draft, and by the time I finished it I knew it was utterly awful. Demoralized, I put it away. Not only had my English degree failed to get me a decent job, it had also let me down in the writing of novels.
Eventually, I came back to it, shook out the dust and the spiders, and tore half the novel out. The other half, I rewrote. I edited everything. And feeling I could do no more, I submitted it to some literary agents.
The rejection letters poured in, and rightfully so. Passive voice and adverbs riddled my sentences. I disobeyed the law of “show, don’t tell.” And in my query letters, I couldn’t state the central conflict of the story. The package I sent out wasn’t my best work, and I hadn’t learned the industry nearly well enough. I retreated, and evaluated how to fix the problems that had resulted in so many firm “no”s.
At first, I didn’t make much progress. I felt like I’d been cheated in a million different ways. No one ever told me it would be this hard. My education had failed me. My skills had failed me. After years of work, I’d taken my chance, and I’d fallen flat on my face. I was bruised, and the idea of writing for fun, some days of writing at all, seemed like something that would only happen to other people.
But of course, I kept going forward, and very slowly I realized that all the failures I’d encountered belonged to me. Not to my bachelor’s degree, or my instructors, or agents, or the industry.
I’d placed too much of my identity on getting published – not on being a writer, not on telling stories, but rather on getting a book on the shelves of bookstores. I hadn’t had fun writing anything in years. I’d stopped crafting scenes that I liked, and started crafting scenes that I thought others would see as intelligent, as skillful. I’d lost my perspective on why I had started writing in the first place.
I realized that I had to start all over again. That I had to approach my writing in a new way, like I was coming at it for the first time. I had to learn to find what it was about writing that had made me start, and that had made me commit so much time to it.
So, I pushed out of my head all my ideas of getting published. I established some time to write during my days, at the same time every day, and didn’t worry so much about writing outside of that time. I took the pressure off, and I started writing for my own enjoyment again.
It took a long time, I’ll admit, to get out of that “must-get-published” mindset. It’s a strange tight-rope to walk, to strive for enjoyment in what I write, knowing that if I don’t enjoy the process no one will enjoy the reading, while simultaneously striving for improvement in my craft. Some days I still lean too far one way or the other. Some days I grow anxious and annoyed if I don’t get enough work done. Some days I obsess a little too much over my e-mail, waiting to see if my next word from an agent will be a rejection letter, a request for manuscript, or that dreamed-of offer. And some days, I don’t work hard enough to make sure that the writing time happens.
And gradually, I started enjoying my writing time again. It wasn’t just something I did because I had to do it. It was something I did because I enjoyed it. I stopped feeling stress every minute of the day, and I started to feel like I had a life again.
My writing became a place where I explored my thoughts about the world around me, where I took off on the impossible adventures that I love experiencing in the books that I read. I’m still not quite where I used to be, but I’m getting closer all the time.
What helps is knowing that if I keep working, and I keep writing what I enjoy writing, then someday what I’ve written will speak to someone. Even if it’s just a tiny group of people, then that will be valuable. It’s for them, this imaginary, tiny following, for whom I keep to my schedule as much as possible. That I keep sending queries, that I keep working to improve.
It’s for myself that I keep writing. Because getting words on paper, telling stories, taking journeys with my characters, is what I love to do above almost anything else.
Hopefully, when I get back into my regular rhythm of writing and blogging, it will be full of new and helpful knowledge. In the meantime, thanks so much for reading.