The other day, I was doing a quick skim of the September/October Poets and Writers, the subscription I never have time to truly savor because I am too busy (as most of us are) with the more insistent facets of my life: family, part-time teaching job, part-time curriculum writing job, part-time fiction writing job, full-time adventures with my mental health challenges, always-dirty toilets and dishes and clothes, kids’ carpools and music lessons.
But one article caught my eye, partly because it was short and partly because it had the word Perversity in the title. On my best days, I am 20-30% perverse.
In this article, Perversity of Spirit, Rufi Thorpe describes a young student and the question he asks her, with palpable desperation, over a cup of coffee: Do I have what it takes to be a writer?
As I read his earnest question, I recalled the intensity with which I, a newer writer, sought the answer to that same question. I wonder if you, too, have hoped someone would answer that question for you. I bet you have. I think most of us have.
But after sixteen years of practicing fiction, I now understand that no one can determine whether we have what it takes because most of us start out as really lousy writers. If we’re lucky enough to be gifted with a bit of natural talent, then we’re only semi-lousy. Every new writer resembles a yet-to-be inflated balloon, a stubby brown acorn, an unsharpened pencil. No “expert” can know, just by looking at our early writing, whether we have what it takes. No one can know and quantify our potential.
Still, back in the day, I was desperate for someone who would tell me to keep going, to keep writing. Someone who would assure me that I wasn’t like that weird and talentless magician or roller skater or yoga poet juggler who put himself on America’s Got Talent.
Except that I was like that weird yoga poet juggler. I cannot bear to even glance at my Early Work because it would make me armadillo myself into a tight little ball of shame and embarrassment. But I didn’t realize how bad I was because when I shared my first fiction-ish “story” with my dear friend, Dana, she didn’t tell me that my attempt was ridiculous. She didn’t point out my story’s storylessness. Instead, not knowing whether I had what it took, she urged me to keep going. What a gift.
Eight years later, with a complete manuscript under my belt, I forced myself to meet with a developmental editor at a writer’s conference. He read the first pages of my manuscript and said he was willing to work with me. While he lived in California and I in Seattle, I mentioned I would be visiting my parents who lived ten minutes from him. Would he care to review his editorial feedback in person? He was delighted.
A few bits of information: 1) I believed the manuscript needed only a few touch-ups before I could start querying agents. (You see where this is going.) 2) This fellow had worked with Toni Morrison. He wore an ascot. He had four+ decades of experience in the publishing industry. 3) Though I had nothing so impressive on my own resume, I thought, No matter! My manuscript is polished. 4) Did I mention I thought my manuscript was polished?
A few of his written comments via email:
- To me your story isn’t like true life. It’s far too predictable and formulaic.
- Another major problem is Lucy herself [the narrator]. She is so radically clueless, self-deluded, self-absorbed, over eager, and obsessive that readers may become for her to get going with her journey – and it never happens. She doesn’t change, basically.
- At this point I’m not sure whether or not to keep Billie [the narrator’s sister, present in the entire novel]. I’m leaning toward encouraging you to consider, at least as a creative exercise, how the story would be without her entirely.
- In this draft of your book there really is no ending. The characters drift on, still basically unresolved, trying to find acceptance and forgiveness but not in a convincing or climactic manner. Lucy can’t basically be at pretty much the same point she was after 122,000 words or 375 or so pages.
When we met at his sun-filled, art-adorned home in California, his spoken words were only slightly less painful than his written comments. Yet as our meeting was wrapping up, I took a breath and forced myself to speak. “I know this manuscript needs a ton of work, and I know I am missing the fundamentals of story, but . . .” Here I hesitated. “Do you think I should keep going?”
He studied me. I tried not to cry. He frowned.
“I am too busy,” he said, “to take on projects I don’t believe in.”
Oh. OK. Dana’s encouragement was the first invaluable gift. This editor’s time and attention was the second.
I still struggle with story structure. I still have characters who drift. But for sixteen years, I have sat my tush in my writing chair, even when I didn’t feel like it. I have weathered much rejection as my agent shops my two novels around. I have fostered relationships with other writers and writing partners who are equal parts wise, encouraging and tough-lovey. I study others’ fiction. I call myself as “a writer” when I meet new people. I no longer need to ask if I have what it takes because I am doing what it takes, even when what I am doing looks (and feels!) awkward, inefficient or unsuccessful.
When a writer can see a trail of desire in her wake: the desire to grow, the desire to create stories from words, the desire to persevere in spite of rejection, the desire to write even when writing feels like torture, she can stop asking whether she has what it takes.
Your turn! Was there a point you realized you had what it took? What were the hurdles (people-hurdles or logistical hurdles) that tried to thwart you? Whose gifts have encouraged you to keep at it? Please share with the WU community!
Photo compliments of Flickr’s Alan Alfaro.