American Idol as a Metaphor for the Writer’s Pursuit

September 22, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Evyenia Downey

Contestant number eighty-two thousand three hundred and the-market-is-already-oversaturated-with-women-writing-about-their-brains-and-boyfriends, step right up! Stand at the X on the floor — a coincidental representation of all your denied submissions. Make eye contact with the judges, but not long enough to expose the tears welling under the glue-on lashes you didn’t know how to put on but figured if you can inflate a CV you can fake an extended lash. 

Get that voice ready to prove you have what it takes to win. 

I feel like a contestant on American Idol every time I submit a poem or essay for publication. Before I click submit, I stop and ask myself, am I the William Hung to their inbox? She bangs, she bangs, she bangs her head into the keyboard. I try to believe the rejection is worth it. Airtime. Getting my face out there. But like those contestants we laugh about all these years later, am I better off just staying home?

Sure, the 2022 season of American Idol I watched while yet again procrastinating my mental health recovery memoir was a lot kinder than previous years. No insults. No ridicule. Yet there is always someone who stepped up to the judges with the belief they are destined to be a star. They have dedicated years of their life to the pursuit of musical superstardom. They have sacrificed financial stability, a career in a sustainable industry, and have driven their family members to such intolerance that the contestant has arrived at their audition alone.

I’m not that far gone in my pursuit of literary stardom. I have a job in a casino that pays the bills. My husband listens with interest when I tell him about my dreams of being a professional writer and writing teacher. Maybe I’m not currently a gag reel-worthy contestant. Maybe I’m just not there yet. Or maybe I am already there and haven’t realized it yet. I think that’s what pushes me to procrastinate. The fear that I’m no good and don’t know it. The fear that I think I’m good and someone somewhere laughs at their screen upon opening my submission. 

My dream of being a writer and writing teacher developed in my twenties when I was too mentally ill to maintain a full-time job. My undergraduate GPA with the University of Toronto stands at a 2.3 because in 2010, during my third year of university, I experienced my first serious mental health decline. I barely made in out with my life, let alone a degree.

By some blessing by the literary gods, I was accepted into an MFA program in 2017. The only reason I was even considered for the MFA was the creative writing certificate program I completed with U of T in 2016. After two poetry acceptances to online magazines, a toxic romantic relationship triggered another mental health decline and I stopped writing. But the dream of the writer’s life remained. I wanted to live just like my teachers. They wrote books and articles. They taught classes. They were not bound by a concrete schedule — the ultimate appeal to my mentally ill self.

Since 2021 I’ve considered myself recovered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). After a decade of bouncing between unemployment and part-time retail work, I started my full-time job in the casino. To my surprise, I was able to work forty hours a week without experiencing another mental decline. I spent the rest of the year intentionally not writing to figure out if my interest in the written word was genuine or if it was born from 9-5 anxiety.

I was sure I would experience a dwindling interest in writing.

I was wrong. 

So here I am in 2022, mostly recovered from my mental illnesses (the BPD is gone but my OCD is an ongoing issue) and ready to build a career as a writer. I’ve only felt like an American Idol contestant for a few months. Not long enough to be discouraged, but long enough to receive enough rejections to feel tempted to quit. 

I’ve heard motivational speakers say, “You’ve only failed once you quit.” Therefore, keep going because you never know what will happen. Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers. Stranger Things was rejected by twelve studios. Lisa Kudrow was fired from Frasier, which led to her casting in Friends. Rejection doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your road. But is there a point where you have to accept that something just isn’t meant for you? 

How many seasons of American Idol do you audition for before you accept that you are not the next Kelly Clarkson?

I’m not aiming for the grand prize. I would be happy to win fifth runner up. A literary Chris Daughtry or Adam Lambert. Not everyone knows their name. Not everyone knows their work. But some people in some parts of the world are listening. 

I think that would be enough.
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Evyenia Downey is a writer and poet from Toronto, Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of King’s College Halifax and a certificate in poetry from the University of Toronto. She writes about relationships, identity, and mental illness.

Thoughts On the Road Not Taken

September 21, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Sandra Hager Eliason

“Two roads diverged,” I thought, recalling Frost’s poem, The Road not Taken. He describes his decision to take the road less traveled by, and the difference it made. I see the poem as a metaphor for my life. 

Reading and writing consumed my high school years, and I was confident my poetry, short stories, and essays would be published someday. In college, ideas blossomed and flowed easily onto the paper, the sticky keys of my manual typewriter preventing my fingers from keeping up with my brain. 

Yet, as Frost says, “way leads on to way,” and writing left me when, through a circuitous route, the road led to medical school. I saw no future in writing when everyone else was getting MBAs. I trusted hard work and diligent efforts on the medical path to lead to success. I have often asked myself what would have happened had I taken the other road. 

In my medical practice, I was drawn to patient stories. I captured them in the chart, first in cursive on paper, later typed into the computer, striving to record more than “just the facts,” to make my patients real on paper. Instead of “Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man with dementia,” followed by exam and assessment, I wanted anyone reading the chart to know that Mr. Brown is a 78-year-old man who lives alone, and his children are scattered across the world, unable to help him. I strove to make each patient more than the sore throat seen on March 15th, or the appendicitis that went to the hospital. It turned out I was still writing, although in a limited fashion, prescribed by the format of the medical chart.

As retirement approached, I anticipated the void of leaving these stories behind, and wondered who I would become without them. I enrolled in a writing class. Maybe I could return to where I started. Then I came upon a writing contest in a medical magazine, tidied up a piece I had written years ago, and sent it at the last minute. Lo and behold, I won. Maybe I could write creatively for a wider audience, break out of the stilted format that patient charts required, leaving myself and my reflections out, recording colorless facts. 

In a chart, you must back everything you say with data, facts not necessary in a story or essay. When you have practiced leaving out feelings or description (it doesn’t matter in the chart the look on their face, how their hair was styled, the way their blue shirt contrasted with the pale green walls), you become accustomed to writing that neither creates scene nor conjures emotion. Relearning to write creatively, to take the stories stored in my brain and convert them from medical writing to another form, was like trying to re-find the overgrown path. 

Who could teach me to be the kind of writer I wanted to be? I knew plenty of medical people, but found myself in a writerless wasteland. As I groped to decide where to spend my time (and money!), my husband rightly observed, “You couldn’t just hang up a shingle and be a doctor, you had to take classes and learn. This is the same.” 

Bless him! I had to approach this writer thing with the same single-minded determination I used to study medicine. Instead of learning about muscles and cells, I was learning about sentences and paragraphs. Instead of diseases, I was learning themes.

I chose classes, went to conferences, and found places to meet other writers, who generously included me in local writing associations and gave me access to online groups. They provided workshopping and beta readers, things I previously had no idea existed. Each was a tool I needed to hone my brain into a different instrument: no longer a scalpel to cut straight to the facts, rather a scanning electron microscope getting close to the surface of the theme, then penetrating it. 

The sentence is more complicated than a scalpel slice, more nuanced than a surgical knot. Its mastery requires a more subtle training, with no diploma to announce when I’d arrived. But I keep at it. Because it turns out that writing, like medicine, is a practice, one you show up to routinely, striving for continual improvement. 

I will need persistence and determination to keep showing up on the page and to keep submitting—hoping to increase my skill and to find readers, but also reveling in the joy of ideas and words. 

At the start, I tried to look down both roads as far as I could, but as way led onto way, the road took me to places I never expected, and I dealt with the life in front of me. As Frost says, “I kept the first for another day,” and here I am, back at the beginning.

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Sandra Eliason is a retired physician who is now writing full time. She won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine Arts Edition writing contest in 2016 for her piece “The Vacation,” which began her transition to full-time writing. She has had essays published in Bluestem magazine, West Trade Review, the Brevity Blog, and upcoming in The Linden Review. Her work has been anthologized in the e-book Tales from Six Feet Apart, and in Pure Slush: Cow Volume 23. She is a book reviewer for Hippocampus Magazine and is currently querying publishers for her memoir Heal Me: Becoming a Doctor for all the Wrong Reasons (and Finding Myself Anyway). Eliason has had reviews published in the Brevity Blog and pending at Rain Taxi. To find her reviews of books that you won’t likely find on the New York Times best sellers list, but should, check out dreliasonwriter.com. Eliason resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, where she tends a garden in the summer and creates a lap for her cat to warm in the winter.

The Jet Set Life of a Real Writer

February 5, 2018 § 16 Comments

That Pulitzer’s not going to win itself

Oh the glamorous literary life—last week Dubai, yesterday New York, today Shreveport! I’m writing this in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport, after a week of parties and book-signings, retweeting Shonda Rhimes’ compliments and brainstorming article ideas for major national publications, la la la.

Except it’s not for me. Sure, I live in Dubai (husband already worked there when I met him), but the last five days in New York have been focused on a client. A lovely author whose book comes out this week and who yes, was listed in Shondaland. I’m the writing coach. My work is literary-adjacent: support my client at a bookstore event, spelling names correctly on post-its for the signing table. Introduce her at the release party. Talk through ideas for articles. Work next to her at the kitchen table, updating my website while she answers questions for a blog about writers and their dogs.

There’s a persistent myth that “real writers” just write. Over at Lithub, Rosalie Knecht tells us how that got started:

It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.

When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer. And I edit other people’s work.” Yes, I get paid to write, already a huge step, but I wrote a lot for free before I started getting paid, and I still write for free for venues I’m invested in as a literary citizen (hello, Brevity readers!). Even my client with the brand-new book is still writing for free—those blog interviews don’t write themselves, and even authors whose publishers pay for the book tour must write for publicity. Signing books is not “writing” time. Midlist authors—that group a publisher needs for bread and butter, but who don’t get press releases sent to Shondaland—mostly have day jobs, or spouses with day jobs. Small-press authors are often teaching full-time.

Most of my “writing” days look like this:

  • 6AM-7AM: Squint at Twitter in bed
  • 7AM-9AM: Morning routine, commute
  • 9AM-10:30AM: Coffee, breakfast, social media, that thing where I cross a bunch of easy stuff off my list instead of tackling the most important thing first
  • 10:30AM-12PM: Write novel (OK, sometimes it’s only an hour)
  • 12PM-4PM: Editing other people’s work, website updates, planning the India retreat for writers mid-book, the Brevity blog and podcast, punctuated by email and social media
  • 4PM-6:30PM: Commute, cook dinner
  • 6:30PM-10PM: Spend time with husband, email, social media, editing

Notice there’s 90 minutes of actual, writing-the-project-I-love time. Max. On a good day. And on a good day, that’s plenty. I’m writing hard, emotionally involving stuff right now, and there’s only so much time I can spend crying and snotting.

What works for me, what feels “real,” is making it to the chair five days out of seven. Writing on a me-project most of those days. That may not be what works for you—maybe you get 10 minutes a day, or chunks of weekend, or early mornings, or three days a month, or summer vacation. Your schedule reflects your life in an economy where rent is a much larger percentage of income than it was in 1948, and where most health insurance is tied to working full time. Many of us have kids, spouses, even friends we like to spend time with. On the up side, we’re much less likely to drink or cough ourselves to death, or be brutally satirized by Truman Capote.

When I taught theatre, I told a lot of worried parents, “Everyone thinks ‘Hollywood star!’ is every actor’s goal. But most actors I know make a living in regional theatre and summer Shakespeare festivals, teaching, recording audio books and guesting on Law&Order. Fame does not equal success. Success does not equal fame. Your kid can be happy and make a living doing something they love and are good at.”

Famous writers are doing more than writing what they love. Successful writers may never be household names. Art is not somehow purer if we do nothing else. Do what you love and are good at. Do it often enough to get better. Do it when and where you can. That’s real. That’s enough.

Rosalie Knecht’s article at Lithub is well worth a full read.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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