Chapter 2: The Early Years My parents were strict and big on making my brother and me go to bed early when I was young, way before I was tired. So I remember using the flashlight they gave me to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night to read under the covers. It had been my secret, until the batteries quickly ran out and I had to fess up to how that had happened.
Chapter 3: My Academic [First] Career With these early foundations for reading and learning, it’s no surprise that I opted for an academic career that required vast amounts of reading all the time. That of course was nonfiction, books and academic journal articles on topics related to my field. But it was essential that I read fiction as well. I doubt there has been a day in my almost 69 years that I have not read fiction. It’s been a mainstay of my life since childhood. Novels to begin with and then short stories once I started reading The New Yorker when I moved to upstate New York to take a job as an assistant professor of social work.
I don’t remember writing stories as a child, but during my years as an assistant professor, after I started reading The New Yorker, I decided to try writing a couple short stories. One of them, which I remember composing in my head as I was walking, after several revisions, turned into “Ice Cream at the Tollgate.”
Chapter 4: Dabbling in Writing Fiction Toward the end of my academic career, after three and a half decades of publishing mostly journal articles, I began to think I’d like to try a novel. It began with reading a slim little book about a biracial woman in Europe that had been well reviewed (can’t remember the name now). I thought it was okay, but not as good as the reviews suggested. And I thought, audaciously, I think I could do at least that well. That was the first seed.
Being a recovering alcoholic is an important dimension of my identity, and I have sponsored a variety of women over my years of recovery, service being one of the hallmarks of 12-step programs. And for a while I sponsored a woman, a chronic relapser, who had just come out of the hospital after very nearly drinking herself to death. She shared her amazing story with me, and it looked like this time she was going to get it and stay sober long term. She inspired the novel I’ve been working on for the past six years or so.
The story had been floating around in my head for some time about six months before I was scheduled to retire. Then one night I just couldn’t get it out of my head, I couldn’t sleep. So at about 3 a.m., after tossing and turning for four hours, I got up and headed into my study to get the first words on paper.
Chapter 5: Getting Serious I started writing without knowing a thing about writing fiction, other than what I might have picked up indirectly by reading thousands of books and stories over the decades. It was pure hubris to think I could just start doing it without knowing anything about how to do it. At that point, I just knew I had to get the beginnings of that story out of my head and onto paper or I’d never sleep!
But I quickly realized I needed to read something about how to write fiction. I started with James N. Frey’s slim volume, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, published back in 1987, in December of 2011. At less than 200 pages, it was a pretty superficial overview of how to write a novel. But it got me started.
As I began to get words down on paper, I realized I needed to know more about how to write. Although little from my academic career was transferable to writing fiction, I did know a lot about how to learn. And I knew I needed to read books on writing and find a teacher.
The first thing that I found was Writer’s Digest, a fortuitous finding, because it opened the door to a vast number of resources for writers. So I started reading books on how to write. The first four were:
Description and Setting, by Ron Roselle
Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell
Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, by Nancy Kress
Dialogue, by Gloria Kempton
As I was reading those books, I found a course on writing offered through the Virginia G. Piper Writing Center at Arizona State University, my former employer. It was only four sessions, at night, but it introduced me to other new writers and a teacher and mentor, Marylee MacDonald, and got me moving in a more serious direction. She's got a great website chockfull of useful information for new writers: maryleemacdonaldauthor.com.
Chapter 6: Perfectionism vs. Persistence & Patience I am a self-taught writer. By that I mean I haven’t taken a single college or university course on creative writing. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had teachers.
My writing really kicked into gear a year and a half ago when I took a month-long seminar with fiction writer Marylee MacDonald https://www.maryleemacdonaldauthor.com. And my critique partners have also been teachers. But my primary writing teachers have been the authors of the many books I’ve read on how to write fiction. At the top of that list these days is K. M. Weiland www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com. Despite the fact that her fiction is not my cup of tea (e. g., fantasy, steampunk), I have found her books on plot (Outlining Your Novel) and character development (Creating Character Arcs) to be extremely helpful.
I’ve read over and over again that what differentiates successful, published writers from those who don’t get published is not so much talent as it is persistence. And, I would add, patience. I’m getting a taste of why these days. In May of 2017, fourteen months ago, I started submitting short stories to literary magazines. Who would have imagined how many there are, especially with so many new online ones? Certainly not me. And yet, as I’ve found, getting a story published in one of those journals is very competitive, with the odds of getting published in some in the low single digits. Wow.
All told, I have completed and submitted eighteen stories that vary in length from 250 words to 7600. Three have been published (all flash) and another will appear in mid-August (the 250-word one, written on lark in response to a critique partner’s challenge—thanks, Carolyn). I’ve been told that’s a pretty good success rate, but instead I find myself focusing on the 270 rejections. What’s wrong with the rest of them? Why can’t I get the longer, more serious ones published?
I consider perfectionism to be a character defect, in the parlance of 12-step programs, a trait I developed early on to cope with aspects of life that I couldn’t control and to gain approval from my relentlessly demanding parents. It requires almost constant work.
Perfectionism worked well for me for a very long time, especially in academic pursuits like test-taking and writing. And completing a Ph.D.
Until it didn’t. What did that look like? Beating myself up when I made mistakes or failed to succeed at challenging endeavors. Imposing my perfectionistic standards on other people, which made them think I was impossible to please.Just like my parents?
Creative writing has brought out my worst perfectionistic tendencies. And yet, as any struggling writer—is there any other kind?—knows, there is no such thing as achieving perfection in writing. There will always be someone out there—agents, editors, critique partners, even readers— to tell you what’s wrong with your writing. Why it isn’t perfect. And, it’s so hard not to take criticism of our work as a judgment of who we are as a person.
I hope I’m getting better at it, because to succeed, to survive as a writer, I have to make the transition from perfectionism to persistence and patience. Working on it.