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 Writer in the Changing Room

December 17, 2021 § 24 Comments

By Margaret Moon

Trying to become a writer is like trying on lots of new outfits to see what suits you. You start with what’s fashionable but quickly realise that the skirt is too short for your knobbly old knees and the colour is all wrong for your complexion. No matter how much you squint or look sideways at yourself in the mirror, you can’t take off the forty pounds you gained sitting at a computer writing business reports for the last thirty years and you can’t fool yourself that you look great.

One by one the dresses you’ve taken into the changing room end up on the ‘not for me’ rack outside the cubicle, hanging limply with their necklines askew and their sleeves inside out. Clothes that look appealing on the mannequin feel scratchy and uncomfortable. You begin to despair of ever finding a garment that makes you feel nice and perhaps a little bit special.

Finding your new writing persona is equally hard. “Memoirist” looks like a good fit until you realise that your life hasn’t been very eventful and perhaps there’s no real story to be told. You start writing an essay called “Not Enough Trauma” and realise that you’re still carrying around the remnants of a hurt and confused teenager. Poor girl. You feel sorry for her, but you also know that if she hasn’t transformed into a butterfly or gone to Oxford, then there’s probably no market for her story.

You try on an outfit called “children’s author.” It looks delightful on the rack. The sundress is bright yellow and comes with a floppy sunhat, a blowsy artificial rose pinned to the band. You write a story about some old veggies stuck in the bottom of the fridge who start a band called the ‘Has Beans” and it makes you laugh so you send it to your sister. She agrees that it’s hilarious and tells you that you should try to get it published. Although your sister was a teacher librarian for her whole career, she also loves you, so you send it to a published children’s author for a second opinion. She tells you that the language is too complex for a six-year-old and that the subject matter is inappropriate. It goes in the bottom drawer in case fashions change, and there’s suddenly a market for a book about a zucchini who can’t sing in tune.

You don’t bother trying on the “fiction writer” trousers because you have no imagination. You didn’t spend your childhood scribbling stories because you were too busy reading, reading, reading. You were never seen without a book. Even when you were washing the dishes there’d be a hardcover propped open across the taps.

You contemplate becoming an editor. You look longingly at the outfit, which is elegant in its simplicity, with just the right amount of flair. But is it too sophisticated for you? Will people laugh and think you’ve got tickets on yourself? Does it cost too much?

The material is soft against your skin, but the label is scratchy. You decide to take it home for a while to see if it suits you. You order every book on drafting and revision that you can find, and you start reading. Maybe one day that outfit will fit you perfectly.

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Margaret Moon is a blogger and lifetime learner. She lives an hour north of Sydney, Australia. During her career, she has edited web copy, learning material, slide decks, evaluation reports and television documentaries, and is now honing her skills as a book editor. You can find more of her writing here.

Every Ordinary Moment

November 25, 2016 § 7 Comments

zz price.jpgBy Calihan Price:

“What are you studying?”

“English!  With a concentration in Creative Nonfiction.”

“Oh.  So you want to teach English then?”

“No.  I want to write.”

*

After this exchange, I spend the next five minutes trying to justify my major to someone who probably doesn’t care in the first place.  But why?  Why do I, as a writer, feel so compelled to prove my passion to be something worthwhile?

Do nursing majors have to explain why they chose to go to nursing school?  No.  Do education majors have to defend reasons for wanting to teach?  Nope.  Do Veterinary Science majors have to validate their decision to save animals?  Absolutely not.

I shouldn’t have to, either. Instead, I want to tell people what a privilege it is to turn my own personal experiences into a universal piece of literature that other people can connect with on an intimate level.

I want to tell them about the four-cheese penne pasta I had for dinner and how it was dripping with fresh tomato sauce and that the basil speckled my plate with bursts of forest green that reminded me of the changing leaves that line the streets in Autumn. I want to tell them about the time my best friend broke my heart and how I had to spend an entire year piecing it back together. I want to show them my childhood, narrated by my grandmother’s sweet voice and strung together with pictures of thunderstorms and aging dogs and matching Easter dresses.

Every ordinary moment can be made colorful with words. They have the power to change a rainy day into a gray storm of frustrated clouds and rainbow dusted pavement. They can turn a dying flower into a wilting poppy whose color has since returned to paint the sunset. They transform a hand into an aged piece of art, lined with years of wisdom and scarred from memories long forgotten.

I sometimes find myself thinking in beautiful words. Before I ever realize what I’m doing, sentences of imagery float about my consciousness, stringing themselves together in abstract forms until they find their proper place, aligning with one another to “show and not tell.”

Choosing a possible career path is something to be proud of; it takes some people years to decide what they want to do. It’s important to never feel ashamed or belittled by your ambitions, but instead embrace them and feel confident and respectable when relaying them to someone else.

As someone who is still learning and growing in my abilities as a writer, I hope to carry that confidence with me wherever I go.  No matter the judgments of practicality I may or may not endure, I can always rest assured in knowing that my ordinary moments will be made extraordinary when replayed years later on paper.

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Calihan Price is a full-time student, part-time nanny, and all-of-the-time dreamer. She grew up in a small town outside of Omaha, NE, and is currently studying creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Stop The Presses: Writing Careers are Difficult

February 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro has an interesting take on aspiring writers (and how the younger among us may hold false expectations) in an LA Times essay, A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale.

Her argument is linked to the idea that large publishers have no time for or interest in mid-list writers any more, though frankly we think that argument is getting fairly old. Great new presses like Dzanc and Rose Metal are picking up the slack  and newer presses seem to pop up every week (albeit, with limited money for advances.)

So, is it harder now?  We’ll let Shapiro have her say:

The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn’t reward persistence, that doesn’t see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn’t trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: “So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?”

The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry — always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media — has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.

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