Thursday, August 11, 2011

Women and sangria: or, how not to be a writer

A friend and colleague of mine,  Matt Paust, recently passed along a link to a post on Open Salon by Ann Nichols. It recounted the ordeal she faced as a little girl, already deeply devoted to the written word, who was forced by a shallow substitute teacher to write an inane assignment called "I am a Lost Penny". When it came time to read outstanding pieces to the class, hers wasn't included: the teacher didn't get it, so she concluded there was nothing to get. Unfortunately, this is the kind of reception writers face throughout their lives. Agents don't get it. Publishers don't get it. Editors especially don't get it. But like fools, we carry on.

I emailed Matt today as per usual, and this piece (below) evolved into another writer's story. In no other field are there so many wanna-be's, so many people who talk about writing but don't really do it, who read how-to's but don't really follow them, who attend endless classes but don't ever risk their work to someone else's eyes/mind.

If and when you do, you're in for it. Unless you're one of these rare instant phenomenal successes (and I know a few of those who have flamed out after one novel), you struggle and toil and chop your way through the underbrush, occasionally finding yourself in a howling wilderness of loneliness and despair. Welcome to the wonderful world of being a "real" writer.

The reward? Occasionally being able to dump it all out in words that are meaningful. That post about "someone's" sister was a huge catharsis for me. Since then I've thought of other details. But just being able to sit down and pour it out was reward enough, at least for the time being.

This is already longer than my email to Matt (and I've tinkered with it since), so here it is:

This whole penny thing has got me going on the only time I joined a "writer's group" called Women and Words.  I lasted two sessions. I was the only one who had written a novel or, in fact, had anything published (mostly newspaper columns and book reviews, with the odd poem in a lit. mag.) Someone came up to me and said, "Are you Margaret Gunn?" Not sure what happened to the "ing".

Anyway, we all had to go around the circle telling everyone what we had written and what were working on. When I mentioned my novel (which by the way never did see print), there was a sort of muted, fireworks "ohhhhhhhhhhh," tinged with "who the hell does she think she is?". It was weird. Were they impressed, or merely embarrassed?

There was a nice little old lady in a print dress, introduced to me as "our poetry expert", whose appreciation of poetry went back to the late 1800s. A few people read their poems out loud, almost all written in rhyme and meter.


The eagle flies
so high in the sky
In power and might
and not showing any fright
If God could fly, the bird
Would carry a holy word
And I'd fly on his wings
As my soul there would sing.

The universal response was "ohhhh, how LOVE-LYYY!". Then a young black woman, dressed rather edgily with spiky earrings, read a very strange but raw, edgy poem in a Jamaican accent. There was a silence. "Oh, that's different," said the old lady.

It surely was.

When I talked about the novel, a woman asked me instantly, "What's the conflict?" I felt ill. I didn't know what she was talking about. "The" conflict. She had been to too many writing courses, read too many how-to books. And the books. They were touted, one after the other, as the one we had to have to learn such-and-such a technique.

I remember wondering, why not just pick one and do what it says? But commitment to your craft was measured by how many shelves you had filled with these things.

But then came an actual project, a book they were self-publishing as a fundraiser. Great! I thought, a book of the group's short stories or excerpts from novels or memoirs. But it wasn't that at all. It was a COOKBOOK, and they wanted a recipe from me by next week. I don't know why I came back. The next week was almost all socializing. We had been assigned something to write (one lady seemed to be in charge, practically holding a wooden ruler to rap our knuckles if we stepped out of line), but no one mentioned it because no one had done it except me.

We were told to choose a character we wanted to develop in our fiction, then list absolutely everything about that person. "You have to know where he lives, what he does, how he dresses, what he likes to eat, where he grew up, everything." There must have been something wrong with me, because when I start writing fiction it's a process of finding out about my characters, and knowing everything from the get-go would bore me to pieces.

But never mind, no one had done it anyway. It had been forgotten. People talked about their kids, and something called "sangria". It seems the group got together between sessions to have a sangria party and get drunk.

Oh, and one more thing. A timid young woman pressed a few poems into my hands and begged me to comment on them and be brutally honest. I should have just said, "Oh, these are LOVE-LYYY!" without even looking at them, but I made the mistake of reading them and commenting as kindly as I could, making sure I pointed out some strong points. These were written in rhyme and meter and seemed to be about some sort of illness, and God and angels. When I gave her my comments, her eyes were brimming with hurt. "Oh, it's OK," she said. "I'm manic-depressive. It's one hundred per cent genetic, I got it from my mother, I didn't have a bad childhood or anything. My psychiatrist encouraged me to write these while I was in the hospital." 

I felt like I'd stomped on a bunch of baby chicks. Now I think writing can't be taught. The native lust for wordsmithing is in you from birth, but then you have to do an awful lot of flexing and honing.

It's like being an athlete. If you're born with poor reflexes and a caved-in chest, you won't make it, but if you never work out or train, you won't either. And you have to WANT this and want it and want it and want it and want it and want it. And not have sangria parties behind other people's backs.


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look