Support and Inspiration
I’ll admit I had no idea what to write about today. Between trying to finish up one novel, get another two ready for print and adulting, the last thing on my mind was the blog. Then I realized it was Tuesday and, oops!, my day here. Fortunately, a couple of fellow writers and I were on chat earlier and, during our discussion, inspiration hit. Let’s hope it survives to the end of this post, especially considering this is now my second try as my internet is being wonky this morning on top of everything else.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t telling stories, even if only to myself. Part of it might be because, back in the days of caves and stone tablets when I was growing up, we had to make up stories when we played. I know, it isn’t politically correct, but we played cowboys and indians. We also played out our favorite TV shows, movies, books, etc., all in the exciting confines of our backyards. In other words, we used our imaginations and made up stories to keep ourselves entertained.
Once I could write, I started putting stories down on paper. It was my escape in the evenings, just like reading. Those early flights of fancy were private. I didn’t share them with anyone. What I didn’t expect was for writing to become a part of me, a very necessary part. It became my outlet, especially when life tossed curve balls I wasn’t sure how to deal with.
In 7th grade, my English teacher caught me writing in class. I’d finished the assignment and, rather than sit there twiddling my thumbs, I pulled out a spiral notebook and started writing a story. I don’t remember what it was, other than it was something I’d been working on for a bit. When I realized Mrs. Winslow was looking over my shoulder, I was mortified. No, I was terrified. Mrs. Winslow was a great English teacher but she also didn’t put up with folks breaking the rules. I couldn’t think of any rule I was breaking but I was suddenly afraid she would take my notebook and read what I’d been writing aloud.
Instead, she placed a hand on my shoulder and gave me a nod. Then she moved on, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Still, I think you can guess my reaction when she dismissed the class a few minutes later but asked me to stay behind. I was scared, not only because she wanted to talk to me but because I might miss my bus. Fortunately, her talk didn’t take long and I didn’t have to find another way home.
But that talk. Oh, that talk.
It was the first time someone had realized I was interested in writing fiction. She asked if she could read what I’d written, promising without being asked, not to pull out her red pen to mark all the grammar and punctuation mistakes. I really didn’t want to agree. After all, no one had read my work before. But I also didn’t want to do anything that might make her tell me I couldn’t write in class during my free time. So I dug out my notebook and gave it to her.
She returned it the next day with a smile and a word of encouragement. From then until the end of the school year, she took time at least once a week to ask how my writing was coming along. She would read it and offer suggestions on structure and content. Not once did she criticize what I was doing. I know now it was because she realized how fragile the writer part of my ego was. But she gave me the permission I needed to stretch my writing wings a little more and let others see my work.
Except, like so many writers, I was too scared to. So I kept writing and shoving my work in a drawer or under the bed.
The next time someone stepped up to encourage me happened when I was in high school or shortly after graduation. I was visiting relatives in Wichita and had gotten up before everyone. Sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for the coffee to brew, I pulled out my notebook and started writing. I was deep into the story when my cousin Clarice entered the room. She didn’t say a word. Instead, much like Mrs. Winslow, she patted my shoulder, poured us each a cup of coffee and sat across from me.
Then she told me a story. It was a story about her father, my great-uncle. Uncle Herb had owned a store and had been active in politics. I knew all that. Uncle Herb had been the head of the family for his generation. Level-headed, family-oriented and very German when it came to living up to your obligations. What I didn’t know was that he always wanted to be a writer. In his case, he wanted to write plays. Unfortunately for him, the system back then was not the sort where he could do it in his spare time and make money from it. So, he wrote a couple of plays, sent them off and then went to work to support his family. She still had a couple of his plays, carefully bound, the copyright filing firmly attached. That day, she gave me one of those plays, making me promise not to give up on writing. Even if all I did was write for myself, I needed to do so. She had watched her father regret not continuing to write until the day he died. She didn’t want me to do the same.
Then she reminded me of others in our family. Uncle Jack — Herb’s brother — had been the youngest linotype operator in the country at one time. Their father, TJ, had owned and wrote for/edited for a newspaper in Colorado. There were others in the family, going back further, who had been writers as well. Only none had ever pushed through to make it a career except for the reporters.
Clarice was the first to see a completed novel — and I cringe now when I think about what I gave her. But she kept it. Years later, not long before her death, she returned it to me. She wanted me to know not only that it had been something she treasured, not only because I had written it but because I had trusted her enough to let her see it. Once again, she told me not to let the dream die. I was a writer. I just had to believe it myself.
After that, I gathered the courage to join a critique group and to start showing my work to a neighbor who had come across me at a local coffee shop where I would sometimes go to work. When I finally screwed up my courage, I started sending off queries to agents and publishers. I wasn’t ready. The work was too rough. I know that now. But that was a very big step for me to take. One that could have backfired when the rejections started coming in.
Except I’m a contrary bitch and those rejections just told me I needed to learn more about the craft. Oh, I wasn’t sure I wanted to send anything else out but I had not forgotten what Clarice had told me. I wasn’t going to quit writing. I couldn’t. To quit writing would be like cutting off a limb. Nope, not gonna happen.
Then, one day, I found my way onto Baen’s Bar. There was a new author conference and I wandered into it. That new conference was Sarah’s Diner. Somehow, and I’m still not quite sure how, Sarah and I started talking, first in the conference and later through PMs and emails. Somehow, witch that she is, she weaseled out of me that I did “a little” writing. Look, it’s one thing to let a neighbor know I write and let her read some of my stuff. It was a totally different thing to let Sarah know. She was a “real” author. Nope, no way was I going to let her know.
Except I did. The Portuguese witch — what other explanation is there for it — got it out of me.
But that’s okay. I wouldn’t ever let her see what I wrote. It would be too embarrassing.
And then, somehow, I find myself sending her the opening chapter to something I had been working on. Something that is deep under my bed today, never to see the light of day. I knew, once she read it, she would tell me to never darken her digital doorstep again.
Wrong. Like Mrs. Winslow and my cousin Clarice, she understood. Oh, she had more than a few suggestions on what I needed to work on but they were given gently and with the understanding that it wouldn’t take much to send me running for the hills. Somehow, over the course of the next few months, she became more than a friend. She became my mentor, giving me writing exercises to do and conning, er convincing, me to send her more of my work.
When Amazon opened up to indie publishing, she dragged me kicking and screaming into the unknown. Of course, I think she did it because she has a terrible sense of direction and she wanted to make sure she didn’t get lost on the way herself. But she let the genie, so to speak, out of the bottle. She gave me the little — okay, the big — shove I needed and I haven’t looked back.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying we, as writers, need a support system and encouragement. Part of that comes from reviews for our work. Part of it comes from interacting with our fans. Friends and family are great but too many of us have families who just don’t get the writer thing and wonder when we will get a “real” job. But it also means that we, as writers, need to give back. We need to remember how we felt when we were first getting started. We need to figure out ways to help others the way we have been helped.
No longer is publishing a case where there are only a limited number of slots each month that writers are fighting for. Indie and small press publishing has proven the fallacy of that. So, as we work to improve our own craft and network with our fans, we need to reach out to others and help them do the same. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now without Sarah and those before her. (Now you guys know who to blame. VBEG) Hopefully, one day, I can be of help to someone the way Mrs. Winslow, Clarice and Sarah have been to me.