How I Got My Writing Groove Back

I was always supposed to be a writer, at least that’s what my teachers said.  I was pretty good at it.  Report, essay, poem?  No problem.  Character sketch?  Boy, do I know some characters.  But college was out of the question for me.  It wasn’t just the money; I needed to get away from home.  Things there were difficult.  So, I joined the Army instead (bad idea-I made a lousy soldier), married John six weeks after our first date (great idea for more than thirty years now), and had two boys.  Over the years, I helped write or edit reports for the military, a couple of private investigators (arson, mostly), and have spent the last ten years transcribing and editing medical reports.  Dry, boring, soul-crushing work.  If you’re looking to scrape the creativity off a storyteller’s tongue, technical writing is the tool to use.  The rules can be a little crazy.  One commanding general felt that the words a, an, and the were a waste of time and insisted they be purged from all reports submitted to him.  Some doctors will insist on using an incorrect or outmoded medical term.  I had one neurologist who consistently misspelled a common drug.  I kept correcting him and he continued to misspell it in every report.   But when there are bills to be paid and children to feed, you do what you’re told.  I did the whole “supermom” routine (which, by the way, is a crock), working full time and trying to care for a family.  Writing was put on hold, though I would occasionally pull the old notebook out from under my bed and try to write something.  Since you’ve never heard of me, it’s a pretty safe assumption that I never did get anything done.

This went on for about twenty-six years.  I homeschooled two boys who had learning disabilities and I worked full time from home, working around my teaching schedule.  I worked nights, weekends, and holidays.  Once the boys were finished with school and working full time, I hoped to scale back my work schedule to five days a week; but we were barely getting by and it just wasn’t possible.

A few years ago, exhausted and battling what had become dangerous depression, I decided to tell John just how unhappy I was.  He was sitting on the couch.  I sat on his lap, facing him, and I started to cry.  I’m not a crier by nature so he was a little shocked.  I told him what the years had been like for me and how tired I was of doing what everybody else needed me to do.

“Before I die,” I told him, “I want to do what I want to do.”

He looked a little puzzled.  It wasn’t that he was clueless or didn’t notice how unhappy I was.  That he had known for years.  I had just never bothered to tell him I wanted to be a writer; that I needed to be a writer.

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to write children’s books; but I need some time to sit and think.  If I can just cut my hours and have one day free to think and write, I know I can do it.”

Now, like I said, we were living paycheck to paycheck, both of us busting our asses at full-time jobs, and all of it going for the basics.  Frills are a rarity around here.  But John didn’t hesitate.

“If you want to write, you go for it.  We’ll get by.”

So at the age of forty-six, I set out to pursue my dream; but with my tongue scraped raw, I found it tough to get started.  I had to relearn creative writing.  I had to find out all over again what it felt like to be inspired, to imagine, for anything to be possible.  I read books and articles about writing and started to feel the creativity stir—like the first time you feel your baby move and it feels like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings.  Stories started to form.  I wrote drafts, edited, and wandered back and forth between the land of I’m-A-Genius to the land of I’m-A-Fraud, dragging my briefcase back and forth across the border every few hours or so.

So far, I’ve only received three actual rejections—the rest just never responded (not very Emily Post, if you ask me).  The rejections arrived via e-mail.  They were very polite.  The first one hit me pretty hard.  I closed the door of my office and cried myself blind (looks like this writing thing strikes an emotional chord with me).  I think I even quoted Job.   But I’m good now and took the other rejection in stride.  No tears.  No Job.  Reread the manuscript, looked again for places to improve, and submitted it to someone else.  Still waiting for a response.  You know who you are.

I’ve read several articles about platform.  Platform?  I write children’s books.  I was a kid.  I like stories.  How do you get a platform out of that?  I just started a Facebook page a few months ago and this blog is only days old. The prevailing opinion seems to be that without these things I can’t really be considered a writer, at least not a marketable one.  I’m a rule-questioner from way back, and I’d like an explanation from the shadow puppet who came up with that idea.  Can you imagine telling Mark Twain he had to have a blog in order to be considered a real writer and be published?  I imagine he’d puff on that cigar for a moment or two and give you directions to the nearest cliff.

And let’s not forget the “you’ll find time to write if you really want to” crowd.  I know this sounds like heresy, but I can’t write in five-minute spurts.  I need time to think, to mull things over.  I don’t need quiet, I just need time.  I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with five siblings, so silence is an alien and unsettling thing for me.  As long as nobody speaks to me directly, I can write in the middle of chaos.  I like to write while sitting on my front porch.  One day, I was stuck on a line and just couldn’t work it out.  The neighbor across the street, meantime, was talking on the phone to his ex-wife.  Well, shrieking really.  Called her all sorts of nasty, vile things.  Suddenly, a really terrific line came to me and my problem was solved.  Yes, chaos is my buddy.  You find what works for you and tweak the plan as you go.  Screw the experts.

So, I keep going, trying to find my way around a genre that is largely ignored by the writing magazines.  No website or any sign of that nebulous concept of a platform.  No MFA, creative writing courses, or conferences.  I sit and stare into space and make things up.  Sometimes I use rhyme, talking animals, or even add a little moral to the tale, things that apparently violate every “thou shalt not” in publishing.  I don’t seem to fit the writing mold du jour, and I realize that may hurt my chances of ever being published; but I am, finally, a writer.

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Welcome!

I’m a writer.

There, I said it out loud.

As a kid growing up with five siblings in a two bedroom Brooklyn apartment, escape was impossible. No privacy. No quiet. No space of my own (I was seven years old before I got my own bed.). The neighborhood wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t Mayberry, either. The only consistently safe place to go was inside a good story.

We did without a lot, but not without books. Even as an adult, I search out used copies of my favorite picture books and often reread them. They haven’t lost their magic. It’s because of those great books that I decided to write picture books of my own.

Like the rest of you, I discovered that writing and being published is much more difficult than I ever realized. To add to that difficulty, I learned that many publishers and agents won’t touch a picture book story that rhymes, involves talking animals, or (gasp!) has a moral. Makes me wonder if they’ve ever met a child or been one themselves.

Being a rule breaker of the first water, I write stories that contain rhyme, animals talk to one another, and in the end, the bad guy gets what’s coming to him. All of this means my chances of ever seeing my work on a library shelf are pretty much nil.

I won’t say being published doesn’t matter to me, or that it’s all about the art. Nonsense. Of course I want to be published, but I can’t write something I don’t love. Unable to find a market for my work, I’ve decided I will post some of it here. I’ll also tell you about my writing process, my ups, and my downs. I hope you’ll share your experiences as well.

For all the little ones out there who need a trip to the forest, who want to eavesdrop on animals, or find a hero to admire, these stories are for you.