What Makes A Writer Write

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 5.22.15 PMLast evening I watched the film documentary ‘Salinger’, which is the biographical story of the very reclusive writer J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher In The Rye.  Although the film was somewhat lengthy, I found it to be an interesting account of a very complicated life.  A graduate of Valley Forge Military Academy (his parents sent him there when he floundered around in local schools), Salinger went on to take some college classes in New York where he began to focus seriously on writing.   But WWII changed the trajectory of his life, as it did for most young American men at that time.  Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was shipped off to France where he fought in the Normandy Invasion, and then in the Battle of the Bulge. Surrounded by the atrocities of war, he began to write and carried complete chapters around with him into battle. A troubled young man named Holden Caulfield was at the center of his story.

The film is worth watching, if for no other reason than to get a more complete picture of what makes a writer write.  In Salinger’s case, he was considered to be a literary genius, but only after he received rejection after rejection after rejection from the publishing industry.  He’d had a few things published prior to serving in the military, but he didn’t feel successful because what he really wanted was to become published in The New Yorker magazine.  For Salinger, THAT was success.  In all, J.D. Salinger spent ten long years writing Catcher In The Rye.  When he submitted the completed manuscript for publication,  his work was rejected again and again.  Finally, he found a willing publisher but the offer came with a mandatory re-write, and he refused to do it.  Salinger refused to allow any changes whatsoever, not even for punctuation.  So he walked away.  Until Little, Brown and Company came along.  They agreed to publish the book EXACTLY as Salinger wrote it.  The year was 1951. Over 65 MILLION copies have been sold, and over 250,000 copies continue to be purchased each year, according to the film.

I’ve begun my 2014 writing challenge, which is to complete my memoir in six months…by end of June.   I have writing deadlines and accountability to a writing mentor, a woman who has taught memoir for fifteen years now, has published memoir herself. By day, she is a psychologist.

So far, I’m right on schedule with the deadlines and word count goals (actually I’ve surpassed the word count goals). Part of the requirement (class structure) is to submit 2500 words every two weeks for her review and commentary. I’ve sent in my opening chapter, with a scene that shows a tapestry of raw drama amidst family dynamics that took decades to unfurl.  Now, having twice received feedback from my mentor, I’ve drawn a few conclusions…which were strengthened after watching ‘Salinger’.

I am writing my personal story.  I lived it.  I experienced it. My emotions as I navigated that journey are my emotions. Although feedback from a reader perspective is highly valuable and I am grateful for the guidance on outlining, scene and narrative delineation, and a host of other things, I am most intrigued by the comments from my mentor over the ‘situation’ of the story.  Comments such as ‘I don’t understand how this could have happened,’ and ‘Maybe that’s just the family therapist talking here, but so far, how this came to be isn’t clear to me.’

These are comments that lead me to believe I’ve already done my job as a writer…In just the first 5000 words or so, I’ve left the reader wanting to understand how a situation like this one possibly could have happened.  She is asking me, the writer, to help her understand.

If I could do that, I wouldn’t be writing a memoir.  There’d be nothing really to write about.  “Oh, this happened, but it makes complete sense.  End of story.” 

Salinger had stopped submitting for publication in 1964, becoming famously reclusive. The film quoted a phone interview that Salinger gave to a San Francisco journalist in 1974.   “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

I am writing my memoir.  Whether or not the reader can neatly fit round pegs into square holes isn’t for me to instruct.  Every reader has to come to their own conclusions and whether or not they approve of the ‘situation’ is irrelevant to me as a writer.  I’m not writing for their approval and I’m not writing for publication.  I’m writing to record the experiences that molded me into the woman I am today.

Each one of us got launched into adulthood via our own custom built springboard.  My board may have had a few unexpected bounces, but that’s what memoir is. Holden Caulfield was revolutionary for a reason.  He was the writer.  And when it came time to submit that finished manuscript, J.D. Salinger knew that story was his, and his alone.

Leaning In…at my own table

Sit at the tableI love Sheryl Sandberg for helping today’s professional women pursue their goals.  Her book ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead‘ has been inspirational to so many, including my own daughter.  ‘Lean In’ is the phrase she’s coined to suggest that all women have a valuable contribution to offer…our ideas and our experiences are equally as important as those offered by our male counterparts. With encouragement to ‘sit at the table’, she encourages women to ‘seek challenges, to take risks and pursue goals with gusto.’  I’ve long been out of the corporate world, but her message is one that certainly resonates with me. I’d often found myself as the only woman sitting at a conference table surrounded by men.  It was intimidating, I won’t lie.

As this last holiday season approached and 2013 was seriously winding down, I’d already made the decision to lean in at my own table.  After attending a meeting of the  California Writers Club as a non-member (because I don’t consider myself a real writer) I listened to several panelists, all published authors, speak about their personal writing experiences over the years and the importance of perseverance when it comes to the journey that all writers embark upon.

After attending that meeting, I became excited about THE END.  In the weeks that followed, I began to give serious consideration to the commitment of completing my big writing project within SIX MONTHS.  That’s a huge undertaking for me, because this project has been going on now for… well, for way too long.  It’s not because I want to be dragging my feet, but it’s because the emotional pain of writing it has been such a burden that it’s weighed me down for months and months at a time. And, I’ve allowed that personal pain to intimidate me…because why else would it be taking me this long?

I know that it must be the same for everyone who struggles to write about difficult times in their lives.  I’m not unique, and I know I’m not alone.

And, I’m not at all interested in publication.  Which is why I know it’s time… to simply get on with it.  It’s my history, the fabric from which I’m made, not perfectly ironed, but solidly formed.  I can’t wait to type the words THE END.  The personal sense of accomplishment will be incredibly gratifying, and finally, I’ll be able to put that part of my life back inside the emotional vault where it was securely contained for so many decades, until something unexpected happened that simply blew the lid off.

I’ve signed the contract, I’ve made the official commitment to complete this manuscript in SIX MONTHS.  June 2014.

That’s my table…and I am LEANING IN.  Who’s with me?

Perseverance, Thick Skin and Debbie Macomber

This is NOT my mom, but this is how she looks when she's reading!

This is NOT my mom, but this is how she looks when she’s reading!

My mom just FLEW through Debbie Macomber’s new book, called ‘Rose Harbor in Bloom’. Mom tends to power through any book if she finds it engaging.  She can read cover to cover in a matter of hours, or days, as she did the hefty book about Steve Jobs.  She’s been reading book after book on her iPad, which I purchased for her about two years ago.  I loaded the Kindle app on there and then set it up using my own Kindle account, so anything I read she can read too. (I didn’t set up her own Kindle account because she watches her pennies and feels indulgent purchasing a book).  Now, using Amazon, I can purchase and download  any book she’d like to read, whether it appeals to me or not, and it appears on her iPad within minutes. Which is how the book by Debbie Macomber materialized.

At almost 91, she has been managing the world of the iPad quite well over all.  Every now and then, she calls asking me for some Genius Bar assistance.  Even though I myself don’t own an iPad, as a rule I am able to help her out by phone, but occasionally it has to wait until I can hop a plane for the 4.5 hour flight that will take me to her place of residence.

As she was telling me this morning about the plot line on this book (and how quickly she got pulled in), I decided to Google the author, thinking I may have read one or two of her books over the years.  None of the titles on her list of published books rang a bell, but I then decided to read up on her career as a writer.  According to Wikipedia, here is how she got started:

Although Debbie Macomber is dyslexic and has only a high school education, she was determined to be a writer. A stay-at-home mother raising four small children, Macomber nonetheless found the time to sit in her kitchen in front of a rented typewriter and work on developing her first few manuscripts. For five years she continued to write despite many rejections from publishers, finally turning to freelance magazine work to help her family make ends meet.

With money that she saved from her freelance articles, Macomber attended a romance writer’s conference, where one of her manuscripts was selected to be publicly critiqued by an editor from Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. The editor tore apart her novel and recommended that she throw it away. Undaunted, Macomber scraped together $10 to mail the same novel, Heartsong, to Harlequin’s rival, Silhouette Books. Silhouette bought the book, which became the first romance novel to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly.

I’m not a reader of the romance genre, so although her name sounded very familiar to me when Mom mentioned it, now I realize it was only because I’ve seen her paperbacks in every book store, grocery store and airport hub for decades. Turns out, there’s over 170 million copies of her books in print, and her titles have spawned four made-for-tv movies.

What really caught my eye in her bio was the determination to persevere EVEN in light of the fact that an editor from a highly respected publishing house trashed her work at the very early stages of her writing journey.  Now let me tell you…romance novels are the LAST thing my mother would be reading now (or EVER).  ‘Rose Harbor In Bloom’ has been categorized to the ‘contemporary women’s fiction’ genre, and if my mom says it’s a great read, I’ll be reading it next (just as soon as I finish the lengthy book about Steve Jobs).

The Wikipedia bio goes on to report:

Macomber is a three-time winner of the B. Dalton Award, and the inaugural winner of the fan-voted Quill Award for romance (2005, for 44 Cranberry Point). She has been awarded the Romantic Times Magazine Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award and has won a Romance Writers of America RITA Award, the romance novelist’s equivalent of an Academy Award, for The Christmas Basket. Her novels have regularly appeared on the Waldenbooks and USAToday bestseller lists and have also earned spots on the New York Times Bestseller List. On September 6, 2007 she made Harlequin Enterprises history, by pulling off the rarest of triple plays—having her new novel, 74 Seaside Avenue, appear at the #1 position for paperback fiction on the New York Times, USAToday and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists. These three highly respected bestseller lists are considered the bellwethers for a book’s performance in the United States.

Isn’t it nice to know that the success of a writer doesn’t lie within the opinion of an editor…even one from a highly regarded publishing house?  It seems to me that the success lies within the effort put into the journey.  Perseverance, thick skin, and having the determination to NOT look back unless you’re going that way. Those are the surely the cornerstones of success, don’t you think?

Where you can just get into your own head…

tahoe garage

I’ve been driving my Chevy Tahoe for 12 years now.  With 108, 098 miles on the odometer, it still runs like a top.  I take it for service every 3,000 miles like clockwork. While having it serviced yesterday,  I expected to be spending my time in the waiting room of the service department by catching up on emails.  I’d brought my laptop specifically for this purpose, but turns out the internet service in the building wasn’t working.  After initial irritation, I decided to plug in my headphones and hunker down with my writing.  Not my blog writing, but my writing…the memoir project that has been looming over me like a cloud.  It hovers above me, a shadowed reminder that it’s ready to be unleashed.

The problem is, the emotion of getting it pounded out into words creates sudden halts in my progress. As my vision clouds with tears, I find myself jumping up and walking away in an effort to get an emotional grip.   But, surprisingly enough, sitting in the Chevy service department yesterday with folks coming and going, mechanics clanking away just on the other side of the large window that looks into their service  garage,  I got so sucked in that I missed calls on my cell phone, stopped just briefly to respond to text messages, and only finally snapped out of it when the service agent tapped me on the shoulder to tell me my vehicle was ready.  I glanced at my watch…several hours had elapsed.

Who knew that a busy service department smelling like, well.. like a GARAGE, would be the place I could finally push beyond my emotionally gated entry into the next segment of the story? Although I’m sure this hurdle was just one of many more yet to come, I feel like I have crossed that big threshold at last, allowing me to finally just get on to the heart of it.

Maybe by the time my car has 200,000 miles on it, I’ll be coming down the home stretch.  I just hope the writing journey smooths out and carries me along dependably,  just like my Chevy Tahoe, no matter how many miles accumulate.

I guess the best writing places are those where you can just get into your own head.  I challenge you to find a list anywhere in this world that suggests an auto service department might be the environment to consider when looking for that special spot all writers actively seek out.

Who knew?