Friday, January 15, 2021

Dragons Are My Patronus


I’ve written about classes and seminars that I’ve taken this past year. Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson’s Revision Workshops are some of the best. Other workshops I’ve taken include Emma D. Dryden’s excellent workshops in finding an agent. Other seminars, hosted by Lorin Oberweger and Free Expressions, include the wonderfully inspirational Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Character Masterclass as well as Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel.

Probably the most inspiring seminar was hosted by the award-winning science fiction and screenwriter David Gerrold* . Not because of what I learned about the writing process, but rather what I learned about myself.

David began by asking, why do you write? I suspect the intent – to reflect some degree of self-awareness—is to echo some level of Truth itself. That is to say, if story is the oldest invitation to the human experience, than the heart of that story – and why we (or I) write – is because we want a glimpse of some larger Truth, on what it means to be human. On what it means to be ourselves. So, what is that truth?

But the truth is, I have no idea. Not anymore. I don’t know if I have The Write Stuff.

I can tell you how I started. As a (very!) young child, I was ill with osteomyelitis. Recovery took a long while. While in the hospital, someone read to me. These stories freed me from confines of a hospital bed. It was more than just escaping a painful reality. These stories created a new reality in which I could do what otherwise I could not. Didn’t take long for me to make the jump into reading. I learned to read, even as I learned how to walk again. I was well ahead of everyone by the time I entered elementary school.

By fourth grade, I was reading Charles Dickens, and developed quite a crush on the Artful Dodger. I wrote my first story, in which he and I became friends. I also discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. I read that her brother also suffered from osteomyelitis, and it inspired her to create a character (I forget which character. But, I tend to like dragons more than people anyway). 

 And suddenly dragons became by patronus. 

Certainly the act of writing is a construct of putting feelings into words, and I created a reality and a community in which I finally found belonging. I went to school, earned my MFA (among other degrees), and wrote. I have had short stories, articles and seven books published.

Then something happened. It wasn’t sudden, like a great big bang bazinga. It was more like a slow burn, years in the making. I had prepared, and fully devoted, for a career in writing. I was unprepared for the business of writing.

The business of writing is harsh, dispiriting in its rejection, and – good great glory – it comes complete with all the reigning -isms. For every Gandalf and Dumbledore, there is a Sauron and Lord Voldemort. We have heard of prominent agents – and a few writers – who have conducted themselves inappropriately as the MeToo movement swept through the publishing field. A few writers – including a hero of mine – twittered one too many times to reveal their own humany limitations. Then there’s the major literary agency rocked by – and eventually dissolved by --intimations of racist behavior. Turns out a few significant agents were nothing more than scammers. Writers Beware is full of warnings of publishers and agents acting in bad faith.

In other words, publishing is not some magic place over the rainbow. Rather it’s like every other business, complete with its own dark side and deatheaters.

I’ve had three agents during my ‘career’, all of whom promised to be the champion that would help me build a writing career. Long story short, none worked out. And, in many ways, the impact on my career has been negative. Each time I’ve had to start over.

I’ve had seven books published, a million (or so it seems) articles, and have won a fair share of awards, and still it seems I have spend more time trying to prove (to myself as much as anyone else) that I am relevant. In this quest to start anew, I worked with an agent on three rounds of revisions, with the assumption (never a promise) for representation. And the end of the year-long process, she loved (loved!) the manuscript, but historical fiction would be a hard sale (translation: she wants a quick sale). I had another agent schedule The Call three times, and each time she had to reschedule. And then she ghosted me, despite my nudges. Another agent asked to see more manuscripts, and then she ghosted me, despite my nudges. I even sent another historical fiction to my old editor, who once said she’s a big fan and to send her historical fiction. And then she ghosted me.

We know it’s not personal, but it certainly feels it. And now, even my dragon patronus has fizzled. I had taken classes. I have done research for potential stories and revised old stories, but I have not written anything new for over a year. My hope is this ebb and flow is normal, and what ebbs soon flows. My fear, however, is that I’ve lost my dragon. And what’s worse, I’m not sure she wants to be found. As I recall, her last words were, ‘### this ###.’

But, before you think its all woe and gloom, something else happened. Something unexpected. It occurred to me, while pondering this question, that my affiliation with story has always been to find a place of belonging. We are all stories in the end, says The Doctor. I have had a career – as a teacher, a bookseller, an editor, a reporter. It wasn’t the one I expected, but perhaps it was the one I needed. 

For so long, I thought that to belong meant I had to be published, but that’s not true, is it?

If the point of story is to find community, it turns out I have built up quite the community. A very special, extraordinary community, complete with Gandolf and Dumbledore, and Clara and The Wandering Monk, Authors Who Teach, Smacking Dabbers, and Master Guru. It includes The Librarians, and Poodle Lady, and Freckles, Lady Squabbit of the North, and Ella Bella’s Nana. And there’s Nyxie, Queen of the Universe (and her Royal Regent Grandpa). Mrs. and Mr. Shiny Serenity (complete with their pretty floral bonnet). The Professor, and Wordswimmer, the Geek, and the Nerd, and The Dog Whisperer, Pearl’s Mum and so many more unexpected friends. Steadfast and firm in their stance, reminding me to never give up. 

Why do I write? The answer was always at once simple and complex: To belong, of course.

Perhaps my patronus, my dragon, just needed a rest. You'll be glad (or at least, I was!) I started a new project. I have seven sloppy, somewhat begrimed chapters. But the characters are certainly dancing about.

Who wills, Can. Who tries, Does. Who loves, Lives. – Anne McCaffrey

Photo: Princess and Dragon by Nikita Volobuev, 2020.

David Gerrold  wrote the script for my favorite original Star Trek, The Trouble with Tribbles. He’s currently on Patreon, conducting weekly seminars and fireside chats about life and grandchildren. Do check it out!

Thank you for spending time with me!

--Bobbi Miller


Carmela Martino said...

Thank you for sharing your journey so honestly, Bobbi. I'm a great Anne McCaffrey fan, too! I hope your new characters keep dancing, and singing, too!

jan godown annino said...

Hello dear Bobbi! I'm so hopeful for your new chapters. I feel I & Other have walked similar avenues. How exciting that you've helped people as a reporter (like me) & working as a librarian (always wanted to but didnt) & bookseller( ditto) & etc. About a decade back in my writing life, I observed over & over how a visual painting/drawing & 3D in pottery artist I love creates her art for the joy of it & then makes something new, again, not seeking agency or a gallery when she well-could. Since them, although I send works along the traditional paths, her approach has helped to feel the creation of the character, the story, the poem, is thrilling - an entire person or village or world where none existed! & an AfterLife for them of wider readership is unexpected, tho it would sweet. I am so appreciative of you opening your heart & sharing. And I will look into all these links. It sounds as if you've created a rich & nourishing community of fellow travelers who are fortunate to learn from you.

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Bobbi--Wow, I can so identify with so much of what you said. What really struct me is that you have "married and divorced" three agents. I have yet...after twenty years of have even one. When I first started out, you could still be published in the children's world without one...and now I am "grandfathered" in with four different publishers. Still, there is this sense of very much being a B list author...doing my own hustling...winning and being nominated for any number of awards...without a lot (or any) notice from my publishers. (Some are better than others). And in the current climate, my old hand selling -in-person methods are just not available. My first school visit in YEARS was COVID cancelled last spring (the books had already been sold, at least) and who knows what the future holds. Sorry to wind up whining on your post. It just feels good to know that even people with agents haven't exactly found the end of the rainbow.

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, everyone, for stopping by and sharing your experiences and kind words. I am grateful that we are of the same tribe! We just keep swimming, as the wise Dora once said.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Bobbi ~ There's nothing like honesty. Thank you for fearlessly sharing what is hard to share. It only makes me respect you (and your fabulous writing) more.