I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Drawn, Er, I Mean I Just Write That Way.
I’ve written poetry and short stories since I was six years old. I’ve always dreamed of becoming a writer. But it wasn’t until I was thirty years old, pregnant with my fourth child and taking a writing class that I accepted for myself that I could actually do it.
The first reassurance to be had in my revelation was that I wasn’t crazy. This creative writing class was my first interaction with other writers, and I was happy to discover that I wasn’t schizophrenic or otherwise clinically diagnosable. I wasn’t the only one that had voices in my head, and watched stories play out like movies in my imagination. These characters are real people to me. I am privy to their hopes, wants, fears, and dreams.
But my ‘holy sh@t‘ moment came while sitting in my professor’s office the last day of the semester. Our course work and entire grade for the term was based on a portfolio that was comprised of a 30 page short story and a 5 page flash fiction story. He didn’t hand my portfolio back, but asked if I could meet him in his office after class. My stomach dropped because I naturally assumed the worst. He slid my portfolio across his desk, and opened it to reveal a reassuring A.
Professor: Have you ever published anything before?
Prof: Do you know why I asked you to come talk to me?
Me: Aside from the entertaining anecdotes, no.
Prof: I don’t get to genuinely tell people this a lot, despite teaching within the English genre, but you write well enough to be published. Novel on a bookshelf published. You should start submitting things to magazines. Get your stuff out there.
At this point, I don’t think I was breathing, and my eyes were a little heavy with moisture. Hey, I was pregnant, remember.
Prof: Have you ever thought about expounding any of your short story ideas into novels?
Me: I actually have about 5 novel ideas scribbled down.
Prof: Then what are you waiting for?
Me: I guess I thought I had to have a college degree to be good enough or ready to write a novel.
He literally laughed out loud at me at this point.
Prof: There have been scores of published authors that barely finished high school. Talent can’t be taught. It can be honed, but you have to possess the capacity to begin with. You have it.
I left his office that day with my a graded portfolio under my arm, and a reoccurring mantra in my brain: what are you waiting for? Mechanical issues of life complicated things thereafter for a bit. I gave birth to my son, who joined his three sisters at ages four, three, and three. Three years after that, I went through a divorce. Once the dust settled, the writer within was finally unshackled and wide awake, and thus this journey began.
Aside from the fact that he gave me permission to remove the self doubting impediment that had been deterring my writing, one more particular gem of story telling wisdom that my professor bestowed upon me stuck out more than the others: you are not your characters. It was the class in which we had turned in the first ten pages of our portfolio short stories. He came into the classroom, sat on top of his desk, and asked, “Is everyone here from Montgomery, or do some of you drive here from smaller, more rural areas?” It was an equal mix.
He went on to explain why he has asked. “Regardless of whether it’s Montgomery or some place smaller, we live in the Bible Belt. Your grandmother wants to read your stories and show them off to the ladies in her church group. But not everything we write is church lady appropriate. Some characters say and do things that are offensive. And therein lies the dilemma: some of you are editing your stories to be church lady appropriate. Now I’m not advocating excessive uses of foul language, sex, and violence, despite its rather entertaining value(he winked), but if someone robs a gas station, he’s more likely to say, ‘Bitch, give me all your money,’ instead of ‘Hey Lady, give me all your money.’ Be true to your characters. If they would say or do it, you have to write it. They are born of your imagination, it’s not a diary entry. You are not your characters.”
I never held back a syllable after that. So apologies in advance, Grandma and the fine ladies of her church group. Yes, I write about a serial killer that may occasionally sleep with another character that technically qualifies as jailbait, but it’s not a direct reflection of who I am personally. You’ll get that in the autobiography! 😉