Monday, July 20, 2015

So, I Wrote a Book

I printed my completed manuscript today. Wa-effing-hoo.
I found a line in my old journal that reads, “What I really want to do is get an MFA in creative writing.” I wrote this on April 25, 2000. Fifteen years ago. At the time I had spent two exhausting years getting a single subject credential to teach high school English, and I had finished student teaching and was waiting tables again, killing time before a school district hired me the next fall—the Friday before school started.

Teaching K-12 had never been on my radar, except people had always told me, “You’d make a great teacher,” but they’d always suggested teaching elementary school. I didn’t want to teach elementary school; I’m not crafty, and math isn’t my favorite subject. I had always loved books and writing, had a degree in English I didn’t know what to do with, thought I could share my love of literature with America’s youth, and had the propensity to listen to outside voices.

I jumped in head first with all my gusto. It wasn’t what I expected. I worked very hard. I was too nice. It was hell. I quit teaching after two years.

When I recently found a declaration of my real passion in my journal, I was surprised. I didn’t remember I’d wanted an MFA that far back. I thought I’d only seriously considered it in my 30s.

Why didn’t I get an MFA back then? I thought when I reread my journal.

Hindsight. 20/20. You know the drill.

I was almost 27 when I wrote that, and my only experience writing creatively was one semester in high school and a few opportunities here and there during my credential program when I wrote mediocre poetry and bad fiction.

How does anyone write fiction?

The truth is I wasn’t ready then for an MFA program. It would take me seven more years to focus on writing creative nonfiction with any measure of consistency. I’ve since come to accept I will always be a late bloomer, and there’s no deadline for success.

I first took a UCI Extension class online in 2007. Then I took two online courses through Gotham Writers Workshop in 2008 (memoir and advanced memoir), a two-day workshop at UCLA on finding your unique voice that same year, and another online memoir class in 2011 through a program I will not name that is now defunct. (Oh yeah, and one “Fuck Fear” writing seminar while I lived in Georgia.)

In between all those classes, I swore to myself I would write on my own, and I never did. That’s what I wanted to do. Why was it so hard to do it? Perfectionism. It kills any opportunity to make real progress. I was paralyzed by the fear of failure. I let it engulf me whenever I didn’t have external deadlines.

On top of that, my last online class was such a negative experience that I swore off writing completely for the next two years. I didn’t think I could get any better than I already was, and I wasn’t good enough, I thought.

With a mended ego after a two-year hiatus, I decided an in-person workshop was what I needed, so I found Shawna Kenney’s UCLA Extension personal essay class that would change everything. That’s when it clicked. That’s when I realized whatever I wrote was “just a draft” that could be fixed later, as she told us. It was freeing. I learned to move through the fear, a fear that won’t ever really go away.

I’ve since participated in four other eight-week in-person workshops and a two-week daily writing prompt class, as well as one-on-one editing with Kenney. I could not have begun to understand how much I would accomplish in the last two-and-a-half years when I showed up to that first class at UCLA.

I wrote my essay collection in six months starting in January 2014, and I’ve been editing it for the past year. And now my manuscript is done. Done. You guys, I wrote a fucking book (80,000+ words, with another 13,425 words I cut)!  A whole book! Me! The person who quit writing for two years because she didn’t think she had it in her to finish editing one essay, let alone edit 18 of them and write a couple others that didn’t make the cut.

My work did get better, and it will continue to do so. If I can do it, anyone can if he or she wants it badly enough. It really is about perseverance and finding a mentor who will prop you up and push you forward.

I’ve never been one of those people who believes everyone should pursue her dreams at all costs. When actors say, “Never give up on your dreams!” during Oscar speeches, I cringe. Not everyone is talented enough to win an Oscar; very, very few will get one. Don’t give kids false hope, I say.

However, I’ve learned dreams don’t have to require a podium and an acceptance speech; they can be smaller and they can change as you get older. You shouldn’t give up on whatever it is at the moment that excites you. Realistic expectations are part of this. Sure, it’s nice to aim high, but goals need to be reachable too. I never did get an MFA, but now I realize I don’t really need one for what I set out to do. Writing a halfway decent book was my goal; I’ve now accomplished that. Publishing it someday will be a secondary bonus.

When I printed my finished manuscript today, I was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment, the urge to vomit, and the intense feeling I was about to break down and cry. (I got a little teary and sucked it up.) I’m still terrified, but I’m forcing myself to move forward despite the dread of people judging me.

Here’s how I realize I’m a “writer”: Writing a book was the most difficult, emotionally draining feat I’ve ever accomplished, and I can’t wait to start writing a second one. I must be insane. Or a writer. It took me a long time to say that.

But first, there’s the matter of finishing a book proposal, finding an agent, and so on. The work doesn’t stop. And I don’t want it to. I’m in.

Note: The essay that made me quit writing for two years—that is now in my collection—was accepted for publication in Black Fox Literary Magazine, out July 27, 2015. Check it out, but don’t let your kids read it.

Recently reading an essay from my collection in Pasadena.


6 comments:

  1. "I must be insane. Or a writer." LOVE this and so happy you didn't quit!

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