You are a very good writer.
These words are always nice to hear, but they were especially meaningful considering the source: Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy, who wrote Ironweed. I had managed to talk him into letting me interview him after he initially declined.
“I’ve talked about all of these things before,” he said. “What are you going to ask me that is unique?”
I was flush with idealism and absolutely convinced that I would conduct the definitive interview with Kennedy, that I would pull something new from him and illuminate the hidden motivations for his writing, find out what haunted him and spurred him on, what was underlying his obsession with the city of Albany and its history, how he came to write about its ghosts, what made him great.
So I spent hours reading every interview I could get my hands on about him, and then wrote him a two-page letter describing why he needed to let me, specifically, interview him and why I would do such a good job. Then I called him.
That’s when he said those magic words and agreed to be interviewed. I never forgot it!
Words of Encouragement On The Path
I have received so much encouragement from other writers along the way. While in college, I attended a summer writing workshop at UMass Boston. Tim O’Brien was one of the visiting authors that summer.
I wasn’t officially signed up for his class, but I sneaked in one day just to sit in, cornered him afterward, and asked if he would consider reading something I wrote. I have always had chutzpah, that’s for sure.
We went to a nearby bar, where I ate vegetable soup. Perched on a stool in the dimly lit dark-wood bar, peering from under the brim of his baseball cap, he read excerpts from stories in my journals.
“You write excellent prose,” he said. He went on to add that not everyone does.
He made some suggestions about how I could string some of the different story ideas together into a book. I never pursued writing that particular book, but I always remembered the time he spent with me and his encouragement.
Thanks for The Encouragement…
Other writers have always encouraged me. I have taken countless writing workshops over the years, studied fiction and poetry and journalism, and have been writing since I was a little girl.
I once joined a writing group in which we all had to read the work of the other writers aloud. One woman read a few of my poems out loud, and a hush came over the group. They gushed about how phenomenal I was.
One of the women said, “I have a feeling your book will be the next book on my nightstand. I feel like I’m in the presence of greatness.”
I promptly quit the group. It was nice of course to hear that they believed that I had talent, and also a little overwhelming to hear my name attached to “greatness.” Honestly, I think I’ve always been a little afraid of my own gifts, because talent alone isn’t worth much.
You have to do the work. You have to actualize it.
Remembering Those Who Have Believed In Me
I really needed the reminder that others believe in my writing this past week. I’ve been steadily writing my book since last October, page by page, scene by scene.
Yet I hadn’t up to this point sat down to read through the whole manuscript, all 150 pages in draft form.
Sunday, in between Mother’s Day brunch and dinner with Mom, I camped out at Haymarket CafÃ© in Northampton, MA. I ordered a chai and a banana oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.
I took a deep breath.
And I read through the first draft of my book.
I will not lie to you. It was a mess. There are some good bits of course, good sentences and scenes, but the book as a whole hasn’t come together yet, doesn’t have an underlying sense of structure that works yet. It lacks the flow I want it to have to make it irresistibly readable.
Reading it all at once definitely was a big reminder that I have a lot of work yet to do.
Luckily, other writers remind me that writing is a process, and that it is really okay to write what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.”
As Lamott writes in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.
“A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately.
“And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”
I am still in the middle of the “down draft” — just getting the story down. I will be able to fix it up after this. Shape it, craft it, polish it.
I believe that someday I’ll be proud of it, I’m just not there yet.
Have I Mentioned How Much I Love Anne Lamott?
I think that when I finish my book, I will buy Anne Lamott flowers.
She reminds me that I’m not the only one who feels these way:
“People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
“But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.
“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.
“We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”
Luckily you can all still like me and be my friend, knowing that this process is also challenging for me. Books apparently do not just pour out of me in final form, words tumbling onto the pages like gems, dazzling page after page of cleverly crafted sentences that are all polished jewels, ready for the best-sellers shelf in the bookstore. Nope, my first drafts suck too.
Keeping the Faith
Yet I do maintain the total blind faith that I can write a book that will touch, move and inspire others. I really believe that.
I also know it will take a lot of work, and that still I have a long way to go. I called upon my “dream angels” this past week, those who have lifted me up along the way, to remind me that I can do this, that I will do this, that this is all just part of the path.
I believe that any dream requires vision, and action, and the willingness to stumble blindly along sometimes, taking steps forward without always knowing exactly where we’re going, being willing to make mistakes and learn from them along the way.
And it requires keeping the faith.
This week, can you remember words of encouragement along your path that spurred you on? Who has believed in you? Can you use their words to help you keep the faith and keep going?
Who are your dream angels?