Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The fifteen minutes that changed my writing life

Many years ago, I went to sleep as depressed as I had ever been in my life. A publisher had cancelled a big contract for a book I had worked on for a long time that had gotten widespread attention. How was I going to face my family and friends, and the large circle who knew and were counting on this book? How was I going to live with this failure, to say nothing of figure out a way to return the large advance? Don't take it personally, my non-writer friends said. It's just business. They didn't understand. This was my life. And it was over as I knew it, because I would never submit myself to this kind of disappointment again. I would never write another word again. Never! Why would I? Clearly I wasn't a writer or the editor wouldn't have cancelled the book. The confessional is not my style, however, if I were writing about a character instead of myself, I could do justice to the agony of that time, the gut-churning humiliation and sense of defeat I had been living with for months as I faced the world with a business-as usual face, while privately I indulged my blackest, most self-loathing thoughts. With my bedroom in darkness, I vowed never to put myself in the path of such public embarrassment again. I didn't know what would replace my passion for writing, but that life was over for me.

Perhaps it is true that we must hit rock bottom before any ray of enlightenment reaches us, or perhaps I had reached my own tolerance for misery and self-pity. At any rate, I woke up and said, no. They (I have names but a confidentiality agreement prevents me from leaking them here) could take the book away from me, but they would not take my writing away from me. Filled with a new determination that was more bravado and fear of any further dives into depression than true confidence, I resolved that I would continue to write. But, I promised myself, I will never show a word to anyone. My writing will be for me alone. I knew I wasn't punishing the world for rejecting me by withholding my golden prose. I was simply saving my shattered ego from any further damage. I had to return to the corporate world to support myself, so I made a plan. I would write fifteen minutes a day before work, and I would carry a page of my writing in my purse at all times so that when I rummaged in it for bus fare or lunch money, I would see my words, my real work, and remind myself that, despite what the world thought, I was a writer. And I did that every day for thirteen years. Well, I missed about seven days a year, including the four years when I had five surgeries. I would write before I went to the hospital (nothing dramatic, bad knees, a shoulder), and then give myself the day off after surgery to wallow in pain pills. Then I was back at it the following day. Two of those surgeries were to correct arthritis in my hands and I even wrote left-handed when my dominant right was in a cast. That was not heroics, but fear of losing the discipline I had fought so hard to find. If I let go of it, I didn’t think I would ever have the whatever to get it back.

Since that commitment to myself, I have written a novel, an on-line food column for a year, several magazine articles to promote the failed book that ultimately found a new publisher and rave reviews, which is another lesson entirely. I have become a writing teacher and coach, editor and now a blogger. And I show my writing to anyone who will read it. The only thing I have to teach people, is what I have learned by writing every day. And the first thing, is write. Every day. Start with fifteen minutes and keep a page of your writing in your purse, briefcase, wallet, wherever you will see it at least once a day and say to yourself, there. See? I’m a writer.

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