For all my exterior confidence, I am just the same, little girl I was thirty years ago.
It was then I wrote my first composition that resembled a story.
I wrote. A story.
It was just a small tale woven from a fourth-grade-teacher’s prompt.
But I created magic.
At least that’s what it felt like as I was writing. Characters, plot, tension and conflict.
It was a little suspense story, complete with howling winds and banging screen-doors and unseen growling things bumping around in the dark.
Then, I had to read it. In front of the class.
That’s when the real magic happened. And the strange addiction.
As I read my probably predictable tale about two girls stranded in the dark of night, their only escape from the storm a battered old deserted mansion, I glanced up from my page to see this: everyone listening!
They were hooked, absorbed, watching and waiting for the tale to turn and surprise them.
I had found the thing I could actually do. I strung my words along a crystalline line that connected us–writer to reader. It was a marvelous moment in my yet un-illustrious childhood.
Writing is the only work I’ve ever loved (aside from my children, of course, but they both involve labor, sleep deprivation, moments of unmeasured anxiety and the much afeared “letting go”, so really, the similarities are chilling).
Writing, authoring stories and putting truth and lies and scene and action together, fascinates me. But it’s a little like addiction. This is more difficult to describe. These are the darker aspects of writing that I find both strangely habitual and potentially dangerous:
1. Being left alone in my head.
This is the place the magic begins. In the silence (I can’t write in a coffeehouse or a park–too much distraction!) the words and ideas clatter about until they turn a phrase or spark a connection not previously made. That’s where I’ll be, in my head, when I remember the glass percolator coffee pot gurgling under the blue-gas flame of the tiny stove in the camper. Suddenly I’m awash in scene! The bad-eggy smell of the propane, the creak of the louver windows as we turned the gray, plastic crank, the cold-dust-smell of the glass and falling asleep in the rocking upper bunk as dad drove into the darkness, the low rumble of the ’69 Chevy our lullaby….
I love this place, but as much as I try to use it to connect with others, sometimes I get lost in there.
(The medicine? Share my work with other writers. In real life or in URL, sharing is healthy and helpful.)
2. Traveling blind.
The creative process is a great trip, but I have this terrible habit of not packing along a map! I love the surprise of not knowing where the story is going, but I’ve hit so many dead ends and cat tracks that I’ve got a bundle of beautiful phrases all dressed up and nowhere to go. After a while this feels more frustrating than adventurous–like eating way to much popcorn at the movies.
(The medicine? Make a one page outline before I dive into the creative process. Keep it fluid and functional, but keep it nearby.)
3. Preening Perfectionism.
Learning to turn off my internal editor has gotten better somehow: perhaps it’s those years of raising children and choosing battles that mattered most in each moment, or twenty years of marriage, or tending an independent-minded garden.
I learned early on while raising kids that nothing, absolutely nothing, is perfect. A person will go insane if she must have a spotless kitchen, gourmet meals on the table and well-mannered-freshly-scrubbed, intelligent children adoring their mother who dances around the house in a tailored size-six suit dusting lovely furniture!
I now keep perfectionism at bay… everywhere but in my prose. Pieces I’ve written five years ago are more horrifying to me than that early ’90s acid wash jean skirt I once owned. Thank God I never submitted it for publication, I cry in relief (or am I simply justifying my sense of inadequacy?).
(The medicine? Get over it. So that five year old piece is junk– at least I can recognize it as such. Keep moving along.)
4. Fawning over approval.
This is the addictive aspect. Art is expression, but its value is based on its relationship to the artist and to others. How society responds to art, how viewers, audiences and readers, interpret and interact with a creative offering is crucial to how the artist feels about her endeavor. We are clamorous for approval. When we get it, we thrill inside but attempt to be demure and try not to break into a grandstand dance. When we don’t receive compliments or even intelligent constructive criticism, we’re trapped in an airless coffin of doubt. We berate ourselves, over-rationalize, get a little desperate. Then we quit.
(The medicine? Write for the real audience of One. Keep God at the front of the readership line and let the others decide for themselves, and in the process, learn to write responsibly and authentically.)
These are my places of weakness.
I have given up on projects, on writing entirely for years, because of these beasties in my brain. Is there no antidote for this?
When I quit writing for a time, I’d find myself randomly creating conversation between characters while driving or playing with syntax while scrubbing dishes. So I yelled at God, told him I was nuts or needed to be writing somehow. The answer? Stop yelling and start writing down what’s in that head of yours. Write until your wrung fresh out of words.
So I did.
I quit quitting.
And I wrote, every day, regardless of my isolationistic tendencies, or whether or not I had a goal or made it perfect, and this was the hard part: I wrote whether or not anyone approved or even cared.
I write because I have to, because it’s not what I do. It’s who I am.
And now. Now I actually get to meet and talk with people in the industry…the publishing industry.
And I am witlessly afraid.
I want to pretend I am anything else. A janitor or a clown or a mechanic. I want to decide for them by saying, Oh, Alyssa, you should just keep a journal and get over yourself. You have no real product to pitch, no real story to tell, no platform to launch any kind of marketing.
I am tempted to do worse than quit. I’m tempted to pretend I’m not made this way.
Have you ever been there? Facing the opportunity you’ve wished for a million ways but turning toward the nearest exit?
Yeah, me too. I’m pretty much there right now.
It is the thing I’ve always wanted, and now, now that it’s just around the corner and waiting, for me, I am breathless with fear!
I feel in my stomach a nervous energy that’s formed into a taught and elastic knot. But worse, are the doubts.
And I’ve been telling myself, in order to placate my emotions, that I won’t be the worst agent/writer and editor/writer appointments they’ve had to suffer through….
But that’s not fair, really. I decided to step it up a bit.
Like King George VI in a King’s speech said in that tremendous scene in the Westminster Abbey with “Dr” Lionel Logue , “Because I have a right to be heard! I have a voice.”
“That’s right. You do,” replied Mr. Logue.
I finally admitted that the thing that keeps me trapped and stuttering on the keyboard is fear. It keeps me staring at the flashing curser and declaring a page unfit for the public eye before it’s ever had a chance to stand before a crowd and try.
But maybe, just maybe, the audience of one will be hooked, absorbed and watching and waiting for what comes next.
We’ll just have to see.
Have you had a passion that you wished would go away and leave you alone? Have your passions and talents and work driven you to face fears and challenge the ways you defined yourself?