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You might not know my name, but you might understand my struggle. I’ve donated my life to writing, and don’t think I regret it every day. That doesn’t mean I’ll quit.
As a writer, you never forget your first efforts to produce fiction.
My first novel was handwritten in pencil on three yellow foolscap sheets utilising both sides of the page. I completed the manuscript in one sitting on a chilly Sunday afternoon in the winter of 1958 when Sunday afternoon television broadcasts were generally as dismal as the Midwestern weather outside. There was only ever one draft of that story. It did not survive my childhood but, as I recall, it was flawless.
I may or may not have been influenced at the time by my discovery of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her particular niche of pioneer lit. Also, I was an 8-year-old religious zealot, fresh that day from Lutheran Sunday School, and my Roman Catholic aunt was visiting. My mother had let it be known that her sister was destined for a fiery fate in eternity due to her marriage to a Catholic and her resultant conversion over to “the darkness”.
Recently convinced by Billy Graham that she herself had been reborn, Mama had incidentally also married a Catholic boy some ten years earlier, but – whereas my aunt was easily influenced, my mother was a real ball-buster – it was Pop in our household who switched teams. Many nights of my childhood were spent on my knees in tearful supplication believing that, along with all of her progeny (my favourite cousins), my aunt’s immortal soul was in jeopardy. I can see clearly now that I was writing what became diligent and persistent efforts at persuading my beloved auntie back to the Protestant fold. It did not work. Aunt Marvis turns 100 this December, a loyal Catholic who, until a few months ago because of a hip thing, was a daily attendee at mass.
A good tagline for that early work could have been: “Young mother survives fiery train wreck in the Mojave Desert and baptises her newborn with sand.” I wrote a painful and thirsty death for both characters after the baptism, but their souls were saved so who cares about this mortal coil? When it wrapped up, I wrote a hasty “The End” and bypassed any editorial assistance. I also skipped the agent/publishing process, delivering my manuscript directly into my intended readers’ hands as they argued religious theology at the Formica table in our kitchen. I think my recollection is accurate that they laughed at me as they fried the Spam for Spam/Velveeta sandwiches that night. Nevertheless, my dreams of becoming a writer were not entirely extinguished with that very critical first story. Clearly, I was a victim of “Write What You Know.”
Writers, it turns out, are a uniquely sympathetic and generous brotherhood…when you’re a failure.
Later in life, I lucked into a copywriting job in Los Angeles writing 60-second radio tie-in spots for the California avocado industry and in my spare time I did what every other copywriter in LA did, I wrote a screenplay. By then I’d lost my religious fervor, so, I’m pretty certain that it had nothing to do with anyone’s immortal soul, but that script was so forgettable even I can’t remember what it was about.
I got married, had a kid, and got divorced – not exactly that quickly, but kind of – and then I spent a whole summer performing the clichéd ritual of all divorced women in Los Angeles – banging out another screenplay that documented every horrible second of that catastrophic relationship. I wisely gave up writing after that.
I returned to school, moving on to another industry wholly unrelated to any kind of creativity, except for the very creative syllabi I wrote every semester in a sincere effort to entertain and amuse untold numbers of Psychology undergrads. While teaching and counselling, I enjoyed a fallow two decades of no writing and no writing ambition.
Another husband came along and in due time another kid. Who had time to write except for grocery lists and the odd cleverer-than-average absence excuse? My children’s teachers always gave me high marks. And, upon reflection, some of my best reviews.
An early retirement from the Psychology game thrust me into an authentic identity crisis. Who was I if no longer a therapist or professor? I spent a year cultivating a mean compost heap in the backyard with mostly organic kitchen scraps, and then my husband, weary of my sloth, urged me to give writing another whirl. I decided to give it a go and that is how my second piece of full-length fiction came to be. Chuckling at my fantasies of best-selling novels and movie options, wasn’t he surprised when someone actually did call me up one day with an offer? And, not just any someone, either. A feature film producer everyone referred to as “the real deal”.
They aren’t so kind when your star is rising. And, if you get a deal on your first effort while they have six books languishing in the remainders bin, they’ll gleefully stick a shiv in your back. Ask me sometime how I know.
Which is how I matriculated from just a dabbler into a real writer with some real cred. Hollywood beckoned me. Oh, it was a heady experience. I got invited to some fancy eateries for long lunches where the producers discussed casting options. (Brad Pitt! And, I shit you not, Meryl!) And then, as quickly as you can say “your option is lapsing” – my option lapsed. Oh, the ignominy. It’s a hard, hard thing when you’ve spent three years informing every single human being you’ve come in even minimal contact with that your novel was optioned for a feature film only to have to face the brutal cold fact that fewer than 30% of options are ever realised and yours is one of those. My gardener broke down in tears. The mailman still won’t look me in the eye. The kids who work at my local Trader Joe’s (all of whom have secret literary ambitions of their own) pat me on the shoulder and shake their heads sympathetically.
A friend of mine (a successful screenwriter whom I picked up in my brief travels in that realm) had a T-shirt made for me that said on the front: “YES, THESE ARE REAL TEARS.” On the back it read: “MY OPTION LAPSED.” As you might expect, a majority of the populace don’t know what to make of it. The shirt, or my obvious distress. I’m happy to report, however, that I can go into any Starbucks in LA wearing that shirt and I never have to pay for my own coffee. Writers, it turns out, are a uniquely sympathetic and generous brotherhood…when you’re a failure. (They aren’t so kind when your star is rising. And, if you get a deal on your first effort while they have six books languishing in the remainders bin, they’ll gleefully stick a shiv in your back. Ask me sometime how I know.)
So, what now?
It’s an earnest question for anyone in my old shoes. What the fuck now, now that I am facing an age when my brain pan feels empty and everything else I once thought was under my control has begun to sag or fail or simply disappear? What is there to do with the overwhelming sense of failure that has descended?
I’ll tell you what I do, and I do it now every single morning. I do what writer Tom Robbins says to do. I show up in front of my MacBook Air every single goddamn morning so that the muse knows where to find me.
And I whisper these words: “I am a writer.”