Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Writing Makeover (In Three Part Harmony)

Photo courtesy of Ritesh Nayak

Who doesn’t love those makeover shows? All over TV land you see people making over their bodies, their wardrobes, their businesses, their homes, their obstinate children. At the end of the show comes “the big reveal.”

We get to see the once overweight, ramshackle, bankrupt, mousey, insecure, temper prone protagonist, the ninety-pound weakling transformed into a ninety-pound giant as my late beloved brother used to say.

The hero rides off into the sunset and the viewer thinks well, if that bozo can do it, so can I.
And now along comes The Daily Writing Coach jumping on the bandwagon. I’m going to tell you the story of my writing makeover.

Writing is one of the great passions of my life, second only to the love I have for my daughter. I am, however, an unlikely writer, I think. I am of the generation where young girls were taught that their ambitions should center in the home. As a Cancer, domesticity came naturally to me. But after a while, I found it wasn’t enough. Something ate at me, a desire that eventually framed itself as a need to do something significant. That was the phrase that beat upon my psyche. I wanted to do “something significant.”

For a long while, that significant thing was cooking.  I love food and anything related to it, even grocery shopping. But this was a generation before the Food Channel. Other than Julia Child on public television or the Cordon Bleu in Paris, I couldn’t find anyone to give me hands on cooking lessons. I wanted to go beyond Hamburger Helper and The Joy of Cooking. I wanted to know what Julia Child knew. I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, now one of the major hubs of masterful cooking in the world. Yet in the ‘70’s, nobody was giving cooking classes.

So I cooked my way through Julia Child (that movie was the story of my life, minus the blogging), and one day, for the fun of it, offered cooking classes in my kitchen. I had six takers and it changed my life.

Because teaching cooking was so unique, I was featured in a local newspaper, got more students, offered more classes at night, after my day job. I thought I had found my “something significant.” But deep down I knew that, while I loved teaching cooking, it wasn’t it.

My fifteen minutes of fame in the Palo Alto Times caught the attention of a cardiologist friend at Stanford University where I worked as a medical secretary. He asked me if I would write a low cholesterol cookbook with him. I said, “Sure. What’s low cholesterol?” No joke, my exact words. Remember, I worshipped at the altar of butter and cream a la Julia Child. The notion of a low fat, healthy diet was almost as unique as cooking classes.

I thought it was a lark, the idea of writing a cookbook, not really believing we would pull it off. But such is the power of a book proposal on Stanford University letterhead that we got a book contract with some actual money attached to it. Off we went, John Schroeder back to saving lives in the hospital, me to figure out how to write the book.

John had more of a role than merely flaunting his considerable credentials at the publishing world, but the actual writing fell mainly on my shoulders. And that is why I am here today telling my story.

I remember it as though it were yesterday. Sitting in my kitchen in front of a new electric typewriter that I bought with my share of the advance, staring at a blank sheet of paper and finally typing the first sentence.

I think of it as the moment of my rebirth. In my mind, angels sang, trumpets blared and a deep, throaty voice announced, “She found it, folks. This is her significant something.”

The feeling of astonishment, pleasure and discovery I felt as I sat down to write that day has never left me. I did not know the trials that lay ahead, however. I had to learn how to write, an expedition as arduous, soul wrenching but rewarding as any taken by any explorer. My readers who write will understand this.

So there I was, a writer who had to learn how to write. Traveling along this narrative of discovery was another important facet of my life. Though I had no formal training or education in anything, somewhere I have tucked away my single diploma, the one from high school, I have always loved to read and listen to stories. I was raised before television. I spent my childhood with my ear glued to the big console radio in our living room listening to Let’s Pretend and The Lone Ranger.  As I look back on it, radio was excellent training for the imagination, for which I am grateful.  But reader that I was, I lost myself in books starting with Little Red Riding Hood, up through the Russians that I devoured in high school and anything else I could get my hands on after that. Before I began writing my first book, I’d read a novel and think, I don’t like that sentence. It should be this way. I didn’t know it, but that is what writer’s do. We edit everything we read, even our grocery lists. I guess I had the soul of a writer, if not the talent.

Fast forward through the next several decades, during which I discovered I loved writing fiction, took many, many writing classes, imagined myself on the cover of the New York Times Book Review as author of the Great American Novel. I was enthralled with the literary masters, the winners of the big prizes. I was deeply moved by language and words beautifully wrought, complex characters that helped me understand my own life. I practiced, practiced, wrote and wrote. I sold very little, until another cookbook project came along.

By then I knew how to write. I knew that a good cookbook contains good writing as much as a novel does. I was and am enormously proud of that book, but by then my desire to do something significant had shifted from food writing to fiction. I began my life’s work, my great Irish novel.

At this point, some twenty years ago, I had developed a hard won daily writing practice, hence this blog. I taught classes, worked with other writers on their manuscripts, had been accepted in the world’s greatest writing group. We gave public readings and I received praise for my story and my writing. I knew that being a good writer, and I believed by then that I was, did not automatically lead to a publishing contract.

In one hand you had the art and craft of writing and in the other, the business of writing, the publishing world. I had no idea how to crack that code. I knew that for most writers, never the twain shall meet.

I had to satisfy myself with the knowledge that I had transformed myself into a literary writer and hoped the publishing gods would smile upon me when I finished my novel. That I could call myself a writer was not only a great source of pride and satisfaction, I had worked very hard at this craft, but it was my identity as well. I might not be setting world on fire as a 9 to 5’er or as a published author. But by god I could write a ringingly beautiful sentence. I knew that because a writing teacher told me so. I was all about the art of writing. At times, this self- image was accompanied by a great deal of hubris, though I would not admit that to myself. I was too modest! I sneered at romance writers, paranormal writers, mystery writers. Those were genre writers. They didn't produce "art." 

Two years ago I experienced a sea change in my circumstances. I needed to earn money and I was no longer able to work at a day job. I didn’t realize that in a short year, I would also undergo life-threatening health challenges, as well.

I didn’t know it, but, in addition, I was about to be knocked off my literary high horse. It was the beginning of my writing makeover.

To be continued.

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