Friday, October 14, 2011

Writing is a messy business...

Being a writer doesn't feel like you think it will...

When I was ten years old, writing my first poetry and submitting them to contests, I'm not sure what I thought the life of a "real" writer would be like. All I knew was that I loved to write, and wanted to do a lot of it. I don't really remember a lot more of how I felt back then.

But as I got older, perhaps a starry-eyed teenager, I guess I formed a picture in my mind of what it would be like when I finally became published, became well-known, or at least, well-read by intellectual types. Maybe I would sit at a wonderful old oak roll top desk, with a little lamp on the corner sporting a cheerful green glass shade (it had to be green). I thought I'd be sitting at that desk all day with an old typewriter clacking out page after page of wonderful Stuff. Or I'd be sitting by a crackling fire, sipping cognac, pondering Great Thoughts.  Honestly, where did THAT come from?  Masterpiece Theatre?  LOL.

When it came time to go to college, I decided to major in art. To this day I wish ONE person had said “You have talent. You should write.” It took years of frustration trying to sell my artwork before I started writing about it instead and stumbled onto a whole new path.

Well, you know what? I finally got published. And it was NOT the way I thought it would be. My first desk was a fold-up, rickety card table in the corner of my bedroom in a low-rent apartment. I had an electric typewriter by then, but produced a manuscript using plain white paper and a lot of White-Out.  (Ironically enough, I'm writing on a rickety card-table again.  This time it's temporary, and is in the utility room of an old 1930 house we're remodeling, and I'm writing on an old laptop, and not a typewriter.)

My first advance for a 250-page book was $500. In those days, that paid about one month’s rent and a few bills. Over the next few years, the royalties weren't much more than that. But I didn't care; I was published!

My first books were resource guides that took hours and hours of research and correspondence. After twenty plus years,  that got old, and my old dream started nibbling at the corners of my mind.  I wanted to write STORIES, maybe even see people act them out.

You think you’ll sit down, and begin at the beginning, and write a story or a play from beginning to end. You think that if you have your little stack of color-coded index cards, that you’ll have your plot all worked out, nice and neat. Little do you know that once you put two characters in a room alone, they’ll start a conversation and pass you by so fast your head will spin. You’ll have no control over them, what they say or do. You’ll be freaked out about this, but go with it.  And they will wear the most atrocious clothing, like Mina Harker does in my new vampire comedy spoof inspired by Stoker's DRACULA.

You won’t have set hours to work. You’ll feel like crap all day because you stayed up too late the night before, have a cup of tea (caffeine!) at 5pm, then the next thing you know it’s 4am, you’re freezing, and you have produced some pages. You have no idea what you wrote, or where it came from.

You feel Out of Control. You are a writer.  Writing is a messy business.

You think that you’ll “dream up” the beginning of a story, and if you keep working on it, you’ll work straight through from beginning to end. Nope. Doesn’t work that way. The first inkling you have of a story might be a snippet of conversation you hear over breakfast in the neighborhood diner.  Like the one I overheard recently.  "…after my first son was born, I had a flap of skin that hung down to the floor, honey…” Take that and run with it. Turn it into a character. Write about that poor woman, then see what she wants to do. Or it might be a news story you hear in passing about a mutant rodent. Go with it.

Here’s the Big Secret that it took me years to learn. You don’t always start at the first sentence---you hardly ever start at the first sentence. Writing is not a linear activity, it’s more of a spiral thing. A story is organic, it grows, a little this way, a little out that way. You don’t have to know the ending until you get there.  You don't even have to know the beginning until later, either. Wow, what a mind-boggling idea that is!

I sure wish I’d known this long ago. I think it would have helped me be a little freer with my writing and get to the authentic stuff before now. I would have written more without stressing over having to know the first sentence, or trying to write a perfect book straight through. I would have paid better attention to the folks in the back corners of old diners.

Here’s the other Big Secret…you are not in control. Not really. You are a writer.

Bobbi A. Chukran
Copyright 2010

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