Wednesday, July 05, 2006

My Career as a Writer

I don’t remember a time that I did not want to be a writer. I know that I was influenced in this ambition by Jo March, and Emily Starr, and Harriet M. Welsch – but long before I met those headstrong, talented, creative little girls, I was an even littler girl who knew that writing stories was what I liked best, and wanted to do for the rest of my life. This dream was never untainted by the desire for glory: I wanted to see my name in print, to see my photograph on the back of the dust jacket. I was besotted with fame and loved reading stories about competitive swimmers and gymnasts, novels with titles like A Try at Tumbling. That was, in fact, the title of a novel I read when I was nine years old, and I remember everything about it: the chintz curtains on the windows in the heroine’s foster home, her skill on the balance beam (derived from afternoons of walking along the railroad tracks at her previous foster home), her reluctance to use up the hot water by taking long soaks in the bath after her practices. This novel is not a children’s classic, but it did inspire my first real story, printed carefully (double spaced) on foolscap: "A Try at Cheerleading." (Suffice it to say that the denouement involved a scout for the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.)

The less said the better, perhaps, about the stories I produced for "creative writing" assignments at school. I know that there was disciplinary action on one occasion when I, aggrieved at the stupidity of the day’s topic ("The Life of a Dime"), sent my protagonist rolling down into the sewers. This was my first and last attempt at scatological humour, and though the class appreciated my references to "big brown smelly things" when I read the story aloud, my teacher Mrs. Davidson did not.

Plot has always been my downfall as a writer of fiction. This was partly because my reading had led me to believe that creation must take place in a trance-like state. No real writer would plan out a story in advance – instead the writer’s responsibility is to wait, pen poised, for inspiration to strike. Using this method, I could create my characters and place them in a situation of conflict, but then I rarely had any idea of how to get them out. In grade six, for instance, I wrote a story about a girl and her two squabbling friends, Miranda and Wendy. My heroine invited her friends for a sleepover, hoping to arrange a truce – and there my invention ran out. After hemming and hawing for awhile, I finally resolved the situation by having all three girls save their community from destruction by throwing some handy kidnappers into the mouth of the local volcano. (You are aware, I assume, that volcanoes require human sacrifice in order to prevent an eruption. I would like to point out that I used this plot well in advance of its circulation in Joe Versus the Volcano.)

By high school, I had figured out that the best way to avoid such volcano-related debacles was to steal my plots from others. In addition to poaching the plot from The Taming of the Shrew for my Harlequin (as mentioned in a recent post), I wrote an updated version of Cinderella, in which the heroine sends Prince Charming packing and lives happily ever after with the cute hired boy who had been a faithful friend through all her afflictions. My other strategy was autobiography. Perhaps the only story I can read without (much) embarrassment today was called "Arena Talk," a snapshot of that Canadian rite of passage, the local hockey game. In that story I set aside a linear plot and focused on atmosphere – the paper cups of scalding hot chocolate, the puck bunnies lined up in the stands, the transformation from clumsiness to grace as the players’ skates hit the ice.

When I was twenty-one, I returned to the Harlequin romance I had started four years earlier. Once again, my nemesis was the plot. The challenge of any Harlequin romance is to (1) create two characters who are meant to be together, (2) make it clear to the reader that these two people are supremely well-suited to one another, and then (3) disguise that fact from the characters themselves for 180 pages. It took 90 pages for my hero, Peter, to crack through Katharine’s defenses (she was habitually hostile and surly due to the failure of boys to ask her to dance in high school) – then I had to rely on a series of increasingly improbable Three’s Company-style misunderstandings to prevent the characters from falling into one another’s arms. I threw in a marriage-of-convenience so that the sex, when it happened, would occur with God’s full approval, and when I finally allowed them to discover that they had loved each other all along, my fund of invention had been so well and truly used up that I haven’t attempted fiction again since.

I’m not sure I realized until I sat down to write this post that it has been fifteen years since I last wrote a story. During that time I have written various essays, a dissertation, some academic and not-so-academic articles, and pages upon pages of my journal, but I have allowed myself to admit that I am not, perhaps, cut out to be a novelist. In many ways that is a relief – there is nothing so truly torturous as the embarrassment of writing bad fiction. I have sometimes felt that I would have done better if I had been born in the nineteenth century and could have produced one of those rambling Victorian three-volume novels with a na├»ve and beautiful heroine and a guaranteed happy ending. The novels I wanted to write always had more in common with Jane Eyre than with Mrs. Dalloway or A Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve never been a big fan of self-consciously experimental fiction (the kind that says "Look at me! I’m so daring and innovative!") – nor do I enjoy novels of the Oprah’s Book Club variety, in which likable characters are introduced for the sole purpose of being shuttled from one trauma to another. If trauma there must be, I prefer it to be of the eighteenth-century gothic variety: if my heroine is captured by a lascivious monk, I’d like to be able to dress her up as a nun so that she can escape through an underground passage. For a long while, it seemed as if the kind of novel I might want to write was too hopelessly old-fashioned to find a market.

Since then, I’ve discovered chick-lit – light, unpretentious, funny – and creative non-fiction: I’m a sucker for any of those books about people who adopt some kind of crazy lifestyle so that they can write about it, such as reading through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, or disguising oneself as a man, or suspending all consumer purchases for a year. This kind of writing appeals to me, intrigues me. All I have to do is come up with my hook. Any suggestions?

16 comments:

Mega Mom said...

In the spirit of Angelina Jolie and the Harlequin book, why not try your hand at a "wife and Mother leaves cheating man and becomes a wildly successful internet entrepreneur" type thing?

Geek Daddy said...

I made it through five whole chapters of one of my attempts at a novel using the exact same "Zen and the Art of Writing" approach that you did (as a sideline, Sci-Fi master Ray Bradburry wrote a book on how to be a writer with that title).

Now, my protagonist and one of the primary supporting characters are stuck in a car in San Francisco, on their way to some clandestine meeting. Don't know where. Don't know why. But they've been there for ten years like the kid in the digital camera commercial :)

The few times I did try to come up with a plot first, I had such a hard time in getting the characters involved in it in such a way that didn't sound contrived.

metro mama said...

Have you tried short stories? Alice Munro also struggled with writing a novel, as well as balancing writing and motherhood. Have you read any Munro biographies? Interesting stuff.

If I ever give this writing thing a real shot, the short story will be my approach.

sunshine scribe said...

I loved reading this. You ARE a writer. And it is only a matter of time before you see your name and beautiful picure in print. Can I get an autograph now before I have to stand in line for it??

Petite Mom Blogger said...

I think you are a great writer no matter what you choose to write about.

kittenpie said...

I say you grab as much as you can from your setting - certainly the academic world is rife with foolishness, pretension, stupid pranks, grand excuses, bad writing, and other sources for hilarity.

mamatulip said...

No suggestions, as I've been trying to figure out what kind of book I want to write for a long time now...but dude, when you do write your book, I'm first in line for an autographed hardback. You WILL write a book and it WILL be amazing.

Kelley said...

You don't need an exotic hook. Write about your life as a wife and mother - or an exaggerated version there of! I've always thought that there is a market for the "married with child Bridget Jones". A more grown up Chick Lit that is not so far-fetched that when the reader reads it, she can relate on one level but at the same time, she feels comforted that maybe things in her life are not so bad.

scarbie doll said...

I knew I liked you! We have so much in common when it comes to this. Email me and we can chat about it further. I have an idea...

Emily said...

I'm with you on this, I do understand. I don't see myself doing fiction per-se. I see myself doing something along the lines of what you mentioned at the end of this post. Have you read David Rakoff? He's a Canadian ex-pat living in NYC. Friends with David Sedaris and writes vignettes that are sort of journalistic but with an autobiographical twist (also like Sedaris). Ooh, bad sentence, too tired to change it.
Oh, and I agree with Sunshine Scribe.

Her Bad Mother said...

I so totally could have written this post. Every word of it.

You'll keep us 'posted,' right, when you come up with your idea?

Ruth Dynamite said...

Truth is stranger than fiction, is it not? Write about what you know, and your "hook" will emerge.

Mayberry said...

Count me in as ready to read whatever you come up with! (And also count me in as one who's looking for a Big Idea too.)

ninepounddictator said...

Being a writer is hard. You hit it with this post. I think you have to plow through it and just do it...and not worry if you're meant to do it or not...You make a goal (500 words a day?) and you get it done.

I think you are a writer, because you realize that writing is work. Hard fucking work....

Nancy said...

I love to write, but I've never entertained the idea of writing fiction (well, except when I was very young and writing stories ad nauseum about horses) because I can never come up with any story lines. Plot is my downfall.

I'm ready to support your writing in any way I can when you hit the big time -- buying books, copies of newspapers or magazines -- whatever it takes.

Beanie Baby said...

I think the trick for those writers was that their "hook" emerged organically from their lives, not to sound too pretentious--dressing as a man appealed to someone interested in gender issues, not buying anything for a year occured to someone concerned about consumer issues, and later on: "Hey! I should write a book about that." And then came the hard part.

Though I have to say I don't think short stories are less work than a novel. I guess it depends on teh genre. I write mostly sci fi and fantasy and, you know, you have to invent the same level of backstory, characterization, plot, world, and history as you do for a novel, you just don't get to use it for as long. So it's shorter, but is it easier? I'm not sure. (And here I speak as if my ONE story credit makes me some kind of expert. Aha! Ha ha ha ha!)

Anyway.

Good luck. I still haven't figured out this writer business either. And thanks for your comment. Always fun to find someone new. :)