Monday, September 14, 2015

Dear Insufferable Teen Me,

   I've had so much fun reading the Letters to My Younger Self of my fellow Teaching Authors.  Some TA's I know well, and some I have never met in person.  Every single post has resonated with me in some way, and allowed me to know them a little better.  Go back and check out Jo Ann's, Esther's, Carla's, and April's posts.  You might find a little of you there.

      Now it's time to talk to someone I haven't thought about in a long while, 16-year-old me.  I don't like her because she was cocky, insufferable and over confident as a writer.  She once told a Pulitzer Prize winning author that she never revised anything, "because I get it right the first time."

      See what I mean?

      Hello, Rodman (as you are known, back in the day).

This is Your Future Self speaking, and I have some bad news for you. You do not win the 1976 Pulitzer Prize as you predicted in the class prophecy. As bad as you are in math, I am sure you didn't realize that you would be a college senior in 1976. Saul Bellow wins. He gets interviewed by Johnny Carson instead of you.

Here's even worse news.

There is no Story Fairy.  You know her, first cousin to the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus.

13-year-old me
Right now, you think that Story Fairy waves her Magic Story Wand (sound effect: harp strings) sparkly story dust showers you and ta da! a story, appears, full-blown in your head.  A couple of hours later, you are ready to mail it off to the latest writing contest.

And you always win those contests.   Local, regional, national, you win them all. You are editor of your school paper. You write a weekly school column for the local paper for four years,  without breaking a sweat. Writing is easy. It's the one thing you know you can do. Even though it is not considered a real asset in your teen world (like cheerleading and looking like Christie Brinkley), Writer is a far better label than Nerd or Girl Without Boyfriend.

You eventually become an adult (even though you don't really want to) and something terrible happens.  Story Fairy deserts you.  You write as fluently as ever, sailing along on your little blue typewriter when bang!  You hit a wall. You don't know what happens next. The main character just sits there, staring at you, refusing to move or talk. Hey, Fairy.  Where are you?  There must be something wrong with me.  Maybe I'm not a real writer after all.  And you quit writing.

But you can't stop. You keep journals.  You go on writing and hitting walls.  Sometimes a kind editor will scrawl a sentence on the form rejection letters you receive. You write very well, but this isn't really a story. No one ever explains why it's not a real story. And you keep writing.  For many, many years. All alone.

Then one day, through a set of Magical Circumstances, you find yourself in an MFA Writing Program.  You discover there are lots of other people just like you, who write all the time, never get published and don't know why.  You go to lectures, work with real writers and talk to your new writer friends.  Eventually you learn (you are a very slow learner) that there is no Writer Fairy.

Stories don't just happen.  They come in dribs and drabs.  A character chatters in a corner of your brain.  You remember family stories.  Music will paint a mental setting, like a stage without actors. You go back to the journals you've kept since third grade and discover story treasures there.

In other words, writing takes a long time. Right now, a long time means two days, only because you are a slow and terrible typist. You discover it takes months and years to turn those dribs and drabs into a story. You will stop and start, write and rewrite. A little voice in your head tells you when something is not quite right.  You write some more. (This is different from that other voice that says Who do you think you're kidding?  You're not a writer!  You tell that voice to shut up and go away.)

There is no bibbety bobbety boo to writing. It takes the three P's--patience, persistence and perspiration. It means writing something--even a journal entry--every day you possibly can. (In years to come, you will read that Stephen King writes every day except Christmas.  You learn that most people are not Stephen King.)

Still there, Rodman?  Still awake?  Here comes the good news.  You never give up, you read and write and learn from others and when you are really old (like forty), you start writing real stories that other people (editors) like and publish.  You will still get rejection letters (sometimes they come in something called an e-mail that hasn't been invented yet, so don't worry about it) but you keep on writing.  Because it's a compulsion.

Because you are a real writer. You always were.

Love, Future You, Mary Ann Rodman, published author.

P.S.  No, you don't marry Robert Redford or ever look like Christie Brinkley, but you do OK.

Future you and your mom, at a signing for your first book, My Best Friend
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Damon Dean said...

A delightful post Mary Ann! Loved learning about the intrepid dreams of your teenage you. I was a high school newspaper editor too! Thought I'd change the world with my writing. Dreams cocooned till my later years and I'm emerging, and learning as my wings dry, "Stories don't just happen. They come in dribs and drabs." Thanks for your encouraging story.

Jill said...

Oh, Mary Ann. First you made me laugh out loud (for a long time) with that "because I get it right the first time," and then you take my heart and give it a squeeze. This is wonderful and uplifting. Thanks.

Jill Esbaum

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thank you, Rodman, for not only making my day, but making the day of writers everywhere!
Published or not, no matter your age, I know you've ALWAYS had VOICE. :)
I've so enjoyed my fellow TA's letters to their Teenage SElfs. I've reprinted all to share with my students.
Your Fan Esther

mary ann rodman said...

Thank you all for your comments. Damon, Being newspaper editor meant so much to me, I stayed for a senior year that I didn't really need because I finished all of my credits junior year. Senior year was all about the paper (and chorus and drama and a math class I didn't need and nearly flunked.) I am so happy that I spread a little encouragement your way (and you did the same for me)

Jill, if I told you I said "I get it right the first time" you would be aghast. I am still aghast 45 years later. There is a downside to being a child prodigy...because you eventually become and adult who still writes like a child competing with adults. Took me a long time to transition.

Esther--Thank you...I can always hear your ACTUAL voice when you comment. I never actually heard the word "voice" until I was at Vermont College, and everybody was looking for theirs or stressing over it. Maybe that was a good thing. My struggle was in learning structure and developing character. If not for VC, and later SCBWI (which I never heard of until it seemed that everyone in the MFA program belonged to it.) I would still be Moses, wandering in the writing wilderness for another 40 years.
Love to you all...MA

Carmela Martino said...

>>patience, persistence and perspiration<<
Amen, MA! LOVE this post, and the photos, too. Thanks so much for filling in the gaps of what I already knew about you, my VC buddy!

anny said...


When you get older you'll meet a wonderful colleague who doubles as a cheerleader, Esther. She'll tell all of her fans like me to make sure to read the older and wiser you's post. She'll do this so we don't give up on our stories even if, like me, they've taken 7 years to write and are still not quite ready to submit. (I'm a pre-published author FYI. Not sure when you'll learn that term.)

Thanks for sharing your journey with us!

mary ann rodman said...

Anny-- I've been off line for a few days and just received your comment. Amen, amen! I wish there had been an Esther in my writing life as a younger me, or even a somewhat older me. I certainly had a lot of discouragement. When I do school visits, someone always asks "Who encouraged to write" and the answer, is sadly, no one. I had to keep myself jazzed for years. I am so happy to encourage someone else (as Esther, and my fellow TA's encourage each other.) Knowing someone else has "been there" and has you back, is a great comfort to me, as I hope it is to all you "pre-published" authors. (I refer to my as-yet-unsold books as pre-published.)

Shirin said...

This is the BEST advice for all writers. I can relate to every single stage of your journey- in fact, it’s as if you wrote my story. Thank you for this.