November 20, 2018 § 18 Comments
I could give a five hour talk on how I’m not a Real Writer.
When I was 18 and headed to college for journalism I believed the Real Writers all lived in New York and had their shit together. They smoked long cigarettes, and had voices like gravel mixed with honey.
I did not make it to college. Because I didn’t have my shit together. I got knocked up to a Meatloaf song instead.
I almost forgot the writing dream in the ensuing years.
Newborn babies that kept coming. Two AM feedings. Colic. Stretch marks. Mastitis and ice in my bra.
Then I took the writing dream and I hid it deep. Because the boy I married was made out of mean. He wanted to own every part of me. And the things he couldn’t own, he destroyed. So I buried my writing dream.
Then I got divorced and I dug that sucker up.
And I wrote. Blog posts at first mostly. I wrote and I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
At first I thought: Well, I’ll be a Real Writer when more than 3 people read my blog. Or when someone outside of my family says: Hey, Janine, your writing doesn’t suck.
I got 30 followers. I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
I got 40 followers. People outside of my family began saying: Hey, Janine, your writing doesn’t suck.
I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
Still didn’t feel it.
Then I began playing the “I’ll Be A Real Writer When” game.
I’ll be a Real Writer when I have an MFA.
When I have my picture on a dust jacket.
When I have my shit together.
When I learn to type.
When I get paid.
When I understand my writing process.
When I have an actual writing process.
On and on.
When I am actually published. Not self published.
Then I was actually published.
I screamed. I stepped on a cat. I had a toilet brush in my hand.
I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
Maybe that one essay was a fluke?
So I wrote a second essay. It, too, was published. It won the Freshly Pressed award from WordPress.
It went viral.
And I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
I was invited to go to Vermont to a writing retreat. With actual Real Writers.
My inner voice screamed: Janine, what the actual fuck are you doing??
I went to Vermont and I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
I kept submitting to different online sites while I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
I’ll be a Real Writer when I have an essay published in print. When I can hold my words literally in my hands.
When I can touch my name on a paper byline, I’ll be a Real Writer.
I got published in print.
I held my essay literally in my hands.
I touched my name on a paper byline.
And I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
I sat in an Italian restaurant across from a Real Writer. She was every bit as luminous as her words. She took my breath away.
She looked at me and she said: Janine, your writing doesn’t suck. Or maybe she just said: Janine, pass the parmesan cheese. I was awestruck and leaving my body.
I sucked harder on my Long Island Iced Tea.
And I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
How about this?
I wrote constantly during that summer.
I felt nothing like a Real Writer.
Because surely a Real Writer would know what works and what doesn’t?
That essay got published on a site I’d coveted. Dreamed of. It was the brass ring of online publications.
I pinched myself to make that feel real.
And I waited to feel like a Real Writer.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
The real writers don’t necessarily have their shit together.
Some will have an MFA.
They will all have different voices.
They will all have a different writing process.
Or maybe they won’t have a writing process at all.
I think the thing that makes a writer real. Is the words.
The words they are willing to lose sleep and maybe a little bit of sanity for.
The words they will do anything for.
It’s not about the money for the real writers.
It’s about the words.
It’s always about the words.
And not giving up on the words.
Janine Canty is a human trying to pose as a writer. She doesn’t believe she makes words happen. Words make her happen. Her online work has appeared on The Manifest-Station, Literary Orphans, The Rumpus, The Weeklings, and Sweatpants & Coffee. She has an in-print essay featured in the literary journal The Dandelion Review. She lives in Northern Maine and can be found on Facebook.
November 13, 2018 § 18 Comments
Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—
Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”
Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—
Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure, using The Hunger Games.
Oh, you’re an engineer so you think differently. You don’t understand the “theory” of writing. Well, I wouldn’t really call this a “theory,” it’s more that certain dramatic structures show up in most stories, based on human archetypes. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you might look for events that tie into a traditional dramatic structure, and if you’re writing a novel, you get to make those events up, and the structure is a guide and can help with ideas.
Well I guess I could explain it differently—what’s that?
You want to write a bestseller.
You need to know how to write a bestseller because if you’re going to put your time in, you want it to be worthwhile.
Hang on while I take a couple of very deep breaths with my eyes closed.
You’re still here?
No, following this structure won’t guarantee you a bestseller. It’s a tool. Like when you write code, you can’t guarantee the end-users will love the product, but you can use your knowledge of how users have interacted with previous apps to build the next one.
There’s no magic button. If there was a formula for bestsellers, publishers would only accept books that would be big hits and writers would write them every time.
Oh goodness, that coffee just went right in your lap! I hope I haven’t boiled anything. Just keep writing, everyone!
Yes, that management book was a bestseller, and he did write it quickly. Did you know he’s a public speaker who does events for thousands of people, and has been writing a very popular blog for years? Some authors have what we call a “platform,” but that’s only for nonfiction. Well, and Fifty Shades of Grey. That had a huge internet following that grew over several years. But that book hit a very specific niche. No, E. L. James didn’t think “I’m going to write a bestseller.” She wrote what she loved.
Oops, was that your ankle bone? Sorry, just a reflex.
Yes, I’m sure you could choose to love something that would be popular, but there’s no guarantee you’d pick the right thing. Books you see on shelves were started at least two years ago. It takes a long time to finish a book, get an agent, and get a publisher.
Sure, you can publish it yourself, but marketing and building platform is a full-time job.
Good work moving your hand, sir, you’re fast! Just keep writing, everyone, while I pry this fork out of the table.
We’re here because we love to write. Some hope to sell our books, some of us write for our own pleasure. I’m sure we’d all love to write a bestseller, but that’s not why we’re writing. I mean, fame and money are great goals, but writing a book is probably one of the hardest ways to get there. By the time you count up all the hours, it’s not even that much money.
Yes, a “How to Write a Bestseller” workshop would be very popular. I’m sure I could charge lots of money for it. But I’d rather spend that time writing, and teaching something a little more realistic. Maybe “How to Write What You Love and Share It.”
I guess that wouldn’t be very exciting for someone who wants to write a bestseller. You want a workshop with a breakdown of a specific bestselling book’s dramatic structure. That would help you. Something exactly like that website I recommended 45 minutes ago.
OK everyone, I’ll just pick up my table and sweep up the broken glass, and let’s check in on how that hour went!
Allison K Williams enjoys writing, teaching, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is. She’s Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and will be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica in May 2019.
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.
August 30, 2018 § 54 Comments
For many writers of a certain age, myself included, Allison K Williams’ recent Brevity blog, about the tremendous response to her tweet listing beloved authors whose first book was published post-40, struck a nerve.
…the overall response was one of relief.
Thank you, I needed that.
There’s still hope.
I needed to hear that today.
A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.
I appreciated the post as another voice in the lively conversation about ageism, sexism, racism and other biases in the publishing world. I earned an MFA in creative writing at 60 and published my first book at 61. By most any barometer, I am a late-blooming author. I have mixed emotions about the label. On the one hand, I’m proud I’m beginning to realize long-held dreams. Other times I’m defensive, apologetic, even ashamed. Why did it take me so long? Is it too little, too late? What was I doing that was so damned important all those years I wasn’t writing?
“Late bloomer” implies a judgment. We use it for children who reach developmental milestones—walking, talking, tying their shoes—later than their peers. In adolescence and adulthood, “late bloomer,” often with a sigh or a philosophic shrug, describes those who are floundering, who haven’t yet found themselves, their passion or their path. The late bloomer is failing to meet someone’s expectations, be they parents, teachers, a spouse or employer, or the standards within their field.
Is it the same with writers?
Why not drop the “late” and just use “bloomer” to describe writers who publish post-forty? Yet that stresses the absence of a word, rather than the word itself. Oh, I get it, they dropped the “late.” If a plant-related reference is called for, I prefer perennial, as in enduring. Continually occurring. Better still, how about just “author”?
I’m betting many, if not most, authors labeled late bloomers have always written. We scribbled in journals or diaries, jotted poems in the margins of memos and reports. Sometimes there were long stretches when we only managed to write in our heads while commuting, pacing the floor with a colicky baby, or grocery shopping on the way home from work. We found little ways, palliatives, to keep the writing dream alive, fertilize our ideas while life took over and the urgent left little time for the important.
I’ve done no survey, scientific or otherwise, but it does seem that “late-blooming author” and “woman” often go together. Attend any writing conference or workshop and chances are a majority of the seats will be filled with women of a certain age, there to resuscitate dormant dreams and dusty manuscripts. A panel at the Hippocamp 2018 creative nonfiction conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “Breaking Into Writing After Forty,” was comprised of five women writers (myself among them). Scanning the offerings at next year’s AWP Conference in Portland, five women are slated to present “Better Later? Success and the Late Blooming Woman Author.”
What is it with all these late-blooming women writers? I imagine many, like me, spent their young adulthood and middle age juggling careers, kids, relationships, housekeeping and the rest. Not that there aren’t many men who do the same, and thank goodness for that. But we are still nowhere near gender equality in sharing all family and household responsibilities. Hats off to my younger writing colleagues who manage to keep at their craft while their children are still young and their careers on the rise. I wasn’t able to find the bandwidth.
Is the male attorney or doctor publishing a first book post-forty considered a late-blooming author, or a professional who parlayed his accomplishments in one field into another? I challenge myself to see my own life’s trajectory in a similar light.
The time I’m now able to devote to writing is relatively new—post-retirement, post-parenting, past caring how my house looks and whether supper is on the table—but it’s not as if I wasn’t taking care of business all these years. Let’s give ourselves credit for all the lives we’ve led and the myriad ways they have informed and inspired us as writers.
It’s not as if we weren’t blooming all those years. We were flowering, nurturing and gathering memory seeds. With a lifetime of experience to tap into, it’s time to plant and feed those seeds, to write the life stories we’ve lived.
Dorothy Rice is the author of The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015), an art book/memoir about her dad, Joe Rice. She has placed two dozen personal essays in various journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her WIP is To Dye Or Not To Dye: a memoir of Ageism, Shame and Acceptance. Dorothy blogs at Gray is the New Black and tweets @dorothyrowena.