Sunday, October 16, 2011

I've Always Been a Writer

I wrote my first novel when I was nine years old and my family was driving cross country from California to Wisconsin, with infrequent stops along I-80. I filled up an entire wide-ruled notebook, using the front and back of each page. When I got to the end of the notebook, I figured the story must be done.

I used to write at night in the top bunk, a flashlight balanced against my pillow.

In high school, I wrote long, tortured poems about the boys I loved who didn't love me back. I finished my school assignments and in my extra time I wrote poems on sheets of binder paper and passed them to friends in the hallway between classes.

I majored in literature and writing in college. I started each assignment early - I really did. I was a nerd's nerd. I wrote for the student newspaper, the yearbook, the alumni quarterly. Sometimes my writing wasn't noticed. Sometimes it earned me praise. Sometimes it got me into trouble.

After college, I freelanced, writing about real estate and bridal showcases and county fairs and yard sales. I wrote press releases for companies I knew were dishonest; I wrote a "Marketing Tip of the Day" column -- marveling that anyone would pay any attention to me, a person who knew not a lick about marketing.

Then I married a writer.

I took a job teaching English, thinking, this is only temporary. Thinking: I'll teach during the week and write on the weekends, on holidays, during the summers. I would write five pages in a spurt and walk away from it, returning never. I started teaching a creative writing class and when my students pretended to write in their journals for ten minutes, I really did write in mine, finding for the first time in years the discipline of writing, the routine that serves as a launching pad for creativity.

I took a leap of faith and the burden of new financial responsiblity when I enrolled in an MFA program. I burned my brains out writing, I sweated every sentence, I grappled with character and plot, I cried and laughed and loved every second of it.

One day I wrote a three-page scene about a wrestler on the mats, with his girlfriend watching from the stands. I owed my mentor twenty-five pages and was three pages short, so I included this scene with my submission, adding, I don't know what this is, exactly, just an idea I had. He wrote back: It feels like there's more to the story. Why don't you keep going?

So I did. I wrote hundreds of pages, keeping maybe one out of every three or four. I spent more time with these characters than I did with my own friends and family. I researched the 1970s, Wisconsin, wrestling, Vietnam, forensics. Will gave me tips on wrestling, even showing me the "arm bar" on our cat, Copper. I shared the story first eagerly with sisters and friends and then cautiously, wondering exactly what I was writing. There was always a chapter, a paragraph, a word that needed revising.

Last January I signed with an agent, someone who read my book in a weekend and fell in love with it. I was teaching again by this time, and writing on weekend mornings. In August my revisions were finished; in September it was submitted to publishers. Somewhere around this time I stopped sleeping and took up full-time worrying. What if my book - my baby - wasn't good, or wasn't good enough? I was glad for the distraction of 175 junior high students, their drama, their pestering questions.

And then I got the offer, from Mira Books. They wanted to publish not just Face of the Earth, but my next book, too -- a book that right now is a collection of vignettes waiting to be linked. I told my family and the friends who had been with me from the beginning, cheering me on from the sidelines. My parents took Will and me out to dinner at a place that doesn't rhyme with "Crapplebees." I hesitated to say anything publicly (and by that I mean here, and on Facebook), because I was still pinching myself. Was this really happening? Was it happening to me? Amidst the emails of congratulations, one friend wrote, "You were always this."

He's right.

I've always been a writer.

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