Saturday, January 26, 2013

What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up? Part 2

As we learned in Part 1 of this post was that I have always wanted to write, but not necessarily as a career - just as a way to communicate.  And communicate I do.  Even my closest friends may not be THIS interested in my trek.  But if for some reason Part 1 was not enough about this journey, I present to you, Part 2!

Flash forward to college, freshman year.  I used to torment my first semester writing professor with stories about my walk with God for every assignment.  She had been raised Christian and had turned atheist and obviously it was my purpose in life to sit in her class, writing stories that would remind her how much she was missing out on by walking away from God.  I meant well, but it was pretty misguided.  Somehow I twisted nearly every assignment to fit this mold and thinking back on it now, it’s a little embarrassing!  That aside, I loved her class because for the first time I learned how to do peer proofing - writing something then handing it to several other students to help me fix it, while I fixed theirs.  I didn’t realize at the time that it was the professor’s way of having to grade less papers herself, but I thoroughly enjoyed this process.  I still have some of those essays in a box in my shed.   

I got married and had children and all the while was involved in my church, teaching the youth group, instructing children, leading the college-aged class.  I wrote messages and Bible studies, silly songs and skits.  I even wrote a song for the praise team on a dare once.  The leader of a local ministry approached me about writing his ministry newsletters for him, but we moved away before that could materialize.  But I took his offer as a compliment, because it made me realize that knowing how to spell, compose sentences and edit well could be used as an offering to God and to organizations I wanted to help support.

A friend told me a story that happened to her one day when she came to pick up her children, whom I watched when my boys were little.  I toyed with it, trying to turn it into a short comedic submission to Reader’s Digest.  I was very proud of the completed story of the ugly shoes she just had to buy at a garage sale because they would go so very well with everything she owned, but it was not chosen for publication.  The pay would have been only $30, but I would have been so much prouder had they found it fit for their magazine.

I spent a lot of years homeschooling my boys, and as often as the opportunity presented itself to make a little money on the side, I would help college students proof-read and improve the papers they wrote.  It cracked me up to no end that graduate students in very good schools could not compose an interesting and informative page without my help.  Perhaps I failed to mention that I never finished my college degree?  But I knew more than enough to turn several basically illiterate and incompetent grad school students into thinkers and communicators (at least on paper, while I was in their employ). 

A few years later, I was mostly just being a wife and mom at home.  My favorite time of day was when I tucked my kids into bed.  We revisited many of my favorite childhood books, me reading aloud to the boys for hours every night.  I acted out all the voices in Winnie the Pooh and the Uncle Remus stories, perhaps enjoying storytime even more than my children did!  Occasionally a new series for kids got mixed into the perennial favorites those nights.  I was especially enjoying reading the Lemony Snicket books to my kids at bedtime, but not because there were exaggerated voices to perform.  These books were strange, dark, and unlike anything for children I’d ever read.  I found online a contest for kids to write their own Series of Unfortunate Events chapter.  I helped my boys each write a chapter to submit to the contest.  Actually, my boys consulted with me a bit and I wrote two chapters and submitted them in the boys’ names.  Neither placed, and I suspect my parental involvement was too obvious.  But I was pretty proud at how they turned out at the time.  For once I can look back at something I wrote BEFORE I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up and be justifiably proud.  I imitated the author’s distinctive writing style, employed identical devices, and used the same tone as the books.  Perhaps one day I’ll share them here, but not today. 

As my boys grew up, we read many of their contemporary series together, among them Harry Potter and the Twilight books.  In my home, reading had always been a big part of daily life, but in the general population, it seemed reading was cool again.  Like no other authors I could remember in my lifetime, JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer were treated like rock stars.  They made fortunes, not only writing beloved books for young people, but also in selling the movie and merchandising rights.  Authors were no longer just recognizable names with faces no one knew.  By this point I was in my late 30s and was still teaching my children at home.  I had no career to speak of, but thought that writing for a living would be anything but boring.  Let’s be clear, though.  I wasn’t interested in the possible fame.  It was the creative outlet and the boundless success that was possible that drew me - plus the chance to earn a living from home.  I didn’t yearn for adoring fans - I just wanted someone to tell stories to who would be eager to hear them.  My children were teenagers now, capable of reading their own books at bedtime.  I needed to craft a new audience. 

At about that same time, I started watching an intriguing new tv show called Lost.  From the first episode I was drawn in and an active participant in the weekly online discussions of, “What did YOU see?”  As the years passed during Lost’s broadcast, I found many amateur and freelance writers who spent their spare time online hashing out the mysteries and the meaning of it all.  As we parsed every minute detail together, I got an education in literary terms that I hadn’t even gone looking for.  A new appreciation grew in me for the expert storytelling that had so many viewers enthralled.  Lost was the perfect laboratory to teach me many of the things I would need to know to tell stories of my own: characterization, symbolism, foreshadowing, pacing, and the like.  I saw many of the online recappers begin to get ‘real’ writing jobs because of the way they faithfully blogged about each week’s episode and built their own followings.  In effect, being an avid fan of Lost was like taking an intensive course in writing, and writing about writing, then marketing one’s writing. 

One day at my local library I saw a flyer for a writer’s group.  With no idea what to expect, I put the date on my calendar and went.  Here I found them - people like me.  People who were interested in telling the best stories they could.  Fellow writers who didn’t think I was crazy when my imaginary friends told me things about themselves.  I also rediscovered my old friend, peer editing.  We collaborated with each other, consulted when one of us was stuck in a project, compared notes on our favorite books, tv shows and movies.  I spent a few years deciding what kinds of stories I’d enjoy creating, then opening my writer’s ears and eyes to the world around me.  What did I want to write?  What audience did I want to appeal to?  What were those people most interested in?  

As ongoing exercises, I assigned myself various tasks to improve facets of my writing, like brevity or humor in a short facebook status.  I enjoyed writing letters to the editors of metropolitan newspapers and international magazines, some of which did get published.  The key was not just in having something interesting and relevant to say - how could I set my letter apart from others?  I studied what did get published and polished my own submissions, short paragraphs, attempting to appeal to the readers and the editors alike.  I practiced writing movie and book reviews online, each time I finished one, which was pretty much daily.  I read books on writing techniques, watched video seminars, attended conferences, and soaked it all up.  

While this story stops just short of actually becoming an author, it is a pretty complete story of my journey as a storyteller and writer.  I believe it answers the questions most often asked of successful authors:
When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
What have you done to improve your skills?
What books and movies have most influenced your progression as a writer?
Where did you learn to write?

If you have more questions, feel free to ask them!  Trust me, I know this is a very long diatribe all about me, me, me but the point was to show how it took half a lifetime to get to where I am today, which is basically nowhere yet.  With any luck, future writers will learn to spot the signs that maybe writing is indeed what they want to spend their lives doing, before their lives are half gone!

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