Monday, August 22, 2011

"We have met the enemy and he is us:" Writing Fears

     When another member of Teaching Authors suggested the topic "greatest writing fears," I responded enthusiastically. Perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, since I was chosen to introduce this topic.

    My title is from the late, great Walt Kelly comic strip Pogo.  A devoted reader of the daily comics, I didn't always catch Kelly's political allusions, but that one quote sums up my life as a writer. I am my own worst enemy.

    I have no inner monitor that tells me whether or not my writing stinks.  For instance, My Best Friend was written in two hours to cheer up my four-year-old daughter. At the time I was writing Yankee Girl, a middle grade semi-autobiographical book, which was much more in my comfort zone. The mere thought of writing something as sparse as a picture book, scared the stuffing out of me. I consider picture book writers geniuses. I feel the same way about poets.

    I never intended anyone but my daughter to ever hear My Best Friend . . .and her reaction was "Can you read Thunder Cake (by Patricia Polacco, her current favorite book) again?" I probably would have erased the whole file if I hadn't ruptured a couple of discs that same week. Since I couldn't sit or stand for longer than five minutes without collapsing, Yankee Girl went on hiatus.

   I was in the Vermont College MFA program at the time, and I had less than a month to submit a new piece of work for the next residency. I knew between surgery and keeping my daughter in check while flat on my back, there was no way I would be able to write anything else. Feeling like a huge fraud, I sent Vermont My Best Friend as my workshop piece.

   My workshop wasn't all that choked up over Friend either, except for the facilitator, Eric Kimmel.  The consensus of the group was that I was a novelist and I should stay a novelist. Eric was the dissenting opinion.  He liked it. A lot. Enough to tell me I should submit it somewhere. Since at that point I had been in the program a year and no one had so much as hinted that anything I had written worth sending anywhere, I jumped right on Eric's suggestion.

   Seventeen rejections later, I was beginning to think that my workshop knew more than the award-winning Eric Kimmel.   I worked my way alphabetically through Children's Writers and Illustrators Marketplace as my submission bible. I got to Viking, before I was offered a contract. (Side bar:  A year later, two more publishers that I had forgotten about, also rejected MBF.)  

    Still, I had no illusions of becoming the next Kevin Henkes, and went back to work on Yankee Girl. My Best Friend was a one-time fluke. Even after it won both the Ezra Jack Keats and Zolotow Awards (for most promising new picture book writer and best picture book text), I still thought it was a fluke. Not that I didn't keep writing picture books, usually when I was sick and tired of Yankee Girl which took five years.  (Elephants have shorter gestation periods than my novels.) Then Yankee Girl was rejected. Obviously, I only thought I was a writer.

    Luckily, Yankee Girl was picked up by the next publisher that read it. It was nominated for nine state book awards, was on the ALA Notables nomination list, named a best book by NCSS, and a VOYA "Top Shelf" middle grade fiction. Maybe I was a writer.

    I blitzed through a second novel. I took it to an SCBWI retreat for an editor's critique. I had an icky feeling that it was a piece of junk. The editor, who used much nicer words, basically said the same thing. Back to square one. Those two published books were just flukey luck.

   Still, writing is a compulsion, even when I think I am writing birdcage liner material. So I wrote on. Then I remembered the first book I finished....twenty five years ago. It was equally awful, but I had done so much research that I kept my hard copy (written with a daisy wheel printer on tractor feedpaper...that's how old it was). Who knew when I might want to write a book about World War II? I cringed as I re-read it all those years later, (still terrible) but as I read, the characters and story rearranged themselves, like a word scramble puzzle. The very raw components of a different book were there. The research was already done, and I ripped out Jimmy's Stars in less than 18 months. My editor set a new record for accepting a book....three weeks, and right before Christmas at that.

   At this moment my publishing stats are two novels, one anthology short story, four picture books (plus two more under contract).

  What am I writing?  A book that I have worked on since 2002. That's right. Nine years. While I wrote and sold all those other books, I was researching, and noodling around with this one. Earlier in this post I said I thought poets were geniuses because they say so much with so little (like picture book writers). Remember that second novel that racked up a rotten critique? That one was written in three different voices. It really didn't work, but I learned a lot by writing it.

   So again, what is my current project? A verse novel in three voices. Am I pushing the envelope or just kidding myself?  I always say you can't force a size seven foot in a size six shoe, and you can't force a book to be something it isn't. (One incarnation of Jimmy's Stars was a picture book where the main character was a dying Christmas tree. Really!) This current book couldn't be written in just didn't work. I bored myself writing it. It couldn't be told from just one POV...the scope of the story required a minimum of three voices (and that's what I'm sticking with--three characters who are siblings).

  I am working with the world's most encouraging critique group. On their confidence (not mine!) I have been able to almost finish a first draft this summer. I am developing a gut feeling about which poems work and which don't. (I still don't have a gut feeling as to whether the book works as a whole.)

   But then there are always editors to tell me that.

   So what's my greatest writing fear? That I rely too much about what others say or don't say about my writing. That I can only sporadically tell when I am writing myself into a cul-de-sac. Maybe the "gut feeling" thing is something you have to develop over time, like going to the gym to get those six-pack abs. On the other hand, I have been writing my entire life, so just when, if ever, is this going to happen?
Maybe never. Big fear.

   Don't forget our latest autographed book giveaway, Donna Gephart's How to Survive Middle School. Click here for details. (This title alone makes me want to wail "Where was this when I was in middle school?")

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Elizabeth O Dulemba said...

I happen to think you are a BRILLIANT writer m'dear!!! :) e

Carmela Martino said...

Hurrah for Eric Kimmel for encouraging you, MA! And thanks for sharing your fears with us.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

My heart resounds to your journey!
I have been writing and rewriting Tasha for longer than I care to tell. (but I've got you beat, Mary Ann.) I just got back my SCBWI critiques from Cynthia Liu and while she loves the characters and dialogue, it's still not there. I tool Julie Strauss Gabel's intensive. She handed 30 first pages. I wouldn't have picked mine.
In the meantime I have a contract for my great American novel from Allyn Johnston and I have two more picture books to send her, which I am terrified she will hate. I'm also querying my adult novel, Second Chances. With this one I waver between "It's awful Waht am I thinking?" and It's good. Readers will like it."

I think, for today, I'll just enjoy the contract moment.

mary ann rodman said...

Contract moments beat useless fears any day. Congratulations! Enjoy that contract moment.

Thank you, Elizabeth for the compliments...your check is in the mail (kidding!)