Monday, November 7, 2011

My Life as a Writer Who Used to be Really Awful

I’ve written all my life, in the since-I-could-hold-a-pencil model of the single-minded writer. I remember being seven and printing “Chip and the Sea” in one of those wonderful, old fashioned notebooks with the marbled black-and-white covers, bound with ribbon along the spine. Almost too good for the climax, which read “You must be my long lost brother!”

I remember a poem that opened “When the misty, balmy, silver-clad dawn…” a time of day I had never actually been awake to experience, and I shudder to tell you what the dawn was doing, but suffice to say it involved a certain amount of scampering.

I remember a staggeringly horrible free-verse story about a rape, expressed entirely through nature metaphors, which was a good thing because I wrote it way before I’d ever actually seen a naked man.

And I remember angsty college poems that expressed my unyielding individuality by railing against houses that scarred mountainsides and plastic and Barbie dolls, except that, oh yeah, Malvina Reynolds and the entire women’s movement had kind of been there first.

I was too cool for school.

Indeed, I left high school before actually learning any math or serious science to attend the College of Creative Studies on the backs of all those scarred mountainsides and bad Barbies, attending poetry seminars I departed with the memory of (someone else’s) poem that read “suck, suck, suck” ad infinitum, filling the entire sheet of paper, except for the white space that spelled “fuck.” I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of this, and transferred, taking my creativity with me. At my next college, I came up with a stunning short story that more or less paraphrased a piece of “La Chute.” Only in English. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was profound.

Indeed, there is hardly a single chapter of my life as a writer that isn’t extremely easy to make fun of. (My first PB manuscript was entitled “Binky, the Very Rude Finger.” Not kidding.) Except that throughout all these misbegotten adventures in dreadful literature, I’ve been completely serious about what I was doing.

Even when I didn’t think that I was any good at it or could make a go of it and tried out a series of other (failed) career possibilities, I kept writing. I didn’t see it as a journey – indeed, I am loath to go into the journey, transcendent power of language, cosmically transformative whatchadinget aspect of it all, possibly because I really love what I’m doing and there’s just so much laughing at myself doing what I’m doing that I can take. I just kind of saw it as what I do.

Only now, doing exactly what I’ve always been doing although, one hopes, somewhat more skillfully, it would appear that I have arrived. Professionally speaking. My fifth picture book is showing up in March, the most explicitly religious folktale I’ve ever done, the plot of which turns on prayer and the value of an optimistic faith, the same month as Where It Began, a steamy YA novel full of sex and drugs and rock and roll.

I am officially a children’s book writer and YA novelist. (To authors who have written 20 prize-winning novels of extraordinary depth and power, I say, yeah, well I have an agent and a business-sized envelope with business receipts in it and a scary deadline.)

And while those who use their optimistic faith for more cosmically transformative ends might look askance at me for saying this, it really did take an optimistic faith to get here. Even when I could tell it was bad. Even when the misty, balmy, silver-clad dawn was breaking over Chip’s long lost brother. Even when my critical and satirical abilities outstripped my writing ability by maybe 27 to 1. I just kept doing it because I more or less had to and, as the hero of The Wooden Sword will tell anyone who reads it four months from now, everything has turned out just as it should.

And thank God for that – how embarrassing would it be if it hadn’t?


  1. I love posts like these! My first story attempts were pretty disastrous as well. I have the typical story where you basically copy one that you love - for me, it was Harry Potter (except with TALKING PENGUINS and SNOW CONES).

    Actually, most of my early stories had talking animals. I remember in the third grade when it seemed like everyone else wrote some sort of crime story (murder mysteries were by far the most popular) and mine was about talking animals.

    I hope one day my efforts will work out the way yours did :)

  2. Given that the protagonist of my first book was a talking Polish cat, I don't see why anyone would look askance at talking penguins with snow cones! (Seriously. Tacky the Penguin is one of my favorite fictional characters.)

    Hang in there. Published writers and unpublished writers spend their days rolling the same rock up the same hill.

    Don't quit and it'll happen.