For me one of the hardest parts of writing is putting the first word on the page (or at least getting down the first decent sentence). I’ve heard you shouldn’t edit while writing, but I find it hard not to. I can’t see going forward if what I started with isn’t right. My method probably does slow down progress, but at least I’m still “in” whatever I’m writing instead of standing outside looking at it and turning up my face.
Even with editing sometimes what you set out to write isn’t always what you get. I wrote a piece during this last residency that had a good storyline, but I felt my characters were stale and there were other issues. After the second day of hearing him read my stuff and then listening to the stuff the other people in my workshop wrote I was sincerely hoping he wouldn’t waste good class time reading anymore of mine. Looking at it now I realize that what I was writing about was competing for attention with what was actually going on. It was about this mother who kept losing things (possibly entering the early stages of dementia) and a daughter who was battling depression. The overarching depression kept butting heads with the mother’s strong, controlling personality. I think it just seemed to go nowhere. My characters didn’t go anywhere either so it probably wasn’t a joy to read.
Soon I began to feel the same about everything else I’d written. I was embarrassed and began to wonder what on earth the committee who approved my writing for admission to the program was on at the time they read my piece. Maybe they had several bottles of wine. I wanted to meet with them and discover what on earth they’d ever thought I’d done right. I became so depressed several mornings driving in I found myself crying while driving. That’s a new one! One morning I really hit bottom when R. Kelley’s “I Believe I Can Fly” came on the radio and I started to sing along. I began to think about my journey into this writing program: packing up everything and leaving my friends and family in Houston,Texas which was huge, and moving to tiny Jackson which has absolutely nothing and where I know no one, and the misery of CASHIERDOM all for something it turns out I wasn’t even good at. Then I started bawling. Really bawling. It was a sight to see. Just picture a woman in a Taurus with make-up running down her face who wants to fly the way Pinocchio wants to be a real boy. You could say it was a low point during the residency.
After residency I came home to find out CASHIERDOM cut everyone’s hours so I had no miserable position to return to which meant financially we were screwed. Then while frantically searching for another position I took a moment to look at everything I tried to absorb while at residency. I realized that some aspiring writers are denied admission to graduate school so maybe I wasn’t a complete loser. I re-read my hastily jotted down notes from residency and then decided to jump head first into my first craft book. It was amazing! I chose Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley who is the Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, which is coincidentally my mentor’s alma mater. I loved this book. It really helped me pull away from simply stating facts and delve into the fiction I was all the while trying to create. The first book of short stories I studied this time around was a collection by Shirley Jackson. Since I’m out of the loop on short story writers I’d never heard of her, but really enjoyed her style. She’s not afraid to “go there” and I found that encouraging.
I took in all of this and sat out to write a set of short stories similar to the method used by Crystal E. Wilkinson in Water Street where the characters all knew each other but the stories were different. The first story I submitted to my mentor had the main character dealing with a conflict and it introduced all the other characters that will be in the other stories because they’re family. This time around when writing I kept asking myself “What is this particular story about?” Doing this helped me stay focused on the person’s story I was trying to tell and made it a bit easier when I was trying on the skins of different characters. I could see and hear them. Apparently my mentor could too which is always a good thing.
Speaking of mentors I’m clicking with this one which makes 2 out of 3. It’s strange when you meet someone in person and the vibe seems tense, but when you talk to them on the phone it’s more comfortable. I’ve said before that my mentor is someone I think who was meant to teach. He has the skill, the patience and truly seems to want to help others learn as well. It’s like he does invisible “are you getting this” checks while teaching. I think that’s special and rare. I was worried the phone conversation would be tense and I was afraid of speaking at the wrong time, but it went fine.
It’s so funny that before we talked I had been preparing for the worst. I’ve got to stop doing that. Stop bracing for the next disaster. Anyway, it wasn’t as long as I’d wanted and I wasn’t sure I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. I’d anticipated him saying something that really meant “this is crap” and I was going to thank him and say that I’d figured out maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a writer (during my final year in the program) and that after this semester I was going to withdraw from the program and focus on something that required a learning skill (like a human resources degree) instead of talent which I clearly didn’t have. I’m so glad I didn’t say any of that. His comments were extremely positive and not fluffy “Oh great job” positive, but “I wanted to turn the page and read more” positive which in my opinion is the best compliment you can give to someone wanting to become a writer. In fact after we talked I felt more encouraged than I’ve ever felt about my writing (not “toot my own horn” encouraged, but “maybe I can do this after all” encouraged).
In my quest to write short stories it seems I’m still churning out stuff that reads like novel chapters. But only this time they’re good novel chapters or at least the start of something good. This bodes well if I’m going to write novels which is what I originally intended to do, but my MFA program needs short stories for my thesis so that complicates matters a bit. It worries me that I’m still unable to write a short story when I’m really trying to, but my mentor says not to worry (we can always scale down) if need be, but for now this is worthy of completing. So for now I’m going to keep attempting to write short stories using the same methods as before in hopes that they continue to appear as novel chapters. Who knows what I’ll have when I’m finished, but if this twisted mentality works for me I might just one day become a writer after all.