Last Saturday, I attended a couple of workshops in Woodstock presented by the Writers Federation of New Brunswick during their annual WordsFall festival. Not that it matters, but I had to venture out from Moncton in the rainy darkness at 6:30 am to get there on time. Details.
I say this because even though I paid my registration beforehand and rented my little car the day before, I almost stayed in bed when the alarm clock buzzed at 5:45. “What can they tell you that you haven’t heard or read before?” said Miss Sleepy Evil, the anti-Muse in my brain.
Often, the things you hear the most are the things that take the longest to sink in.
There was a very good presentation on the state of publishing, especially in the digital sphere by Cynthia Good, former editorial director at Penguin Canada and now director of the Creative Book Publishing program at Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts.
But that wasn’t what I chewed on all the way home. Instead, I thought about a few things the guest authors said, particularly Gerard Collins, winner of the 2012 Newfoundland Book Award and the Percy Janes First Novel Award.
Whenever I go to these things, I feel like an outsider, even though I’ve self-published a novel, I’ve had my first play produced and I’ve sold another, and I offer my copywriting services on a freelance basis. But if you ask me what I do for a living, I have a hard time saying, “I’m a writer,” out loud.
Why? Because I haven’t sold a manuscript to a publisher yet. I’ve come close before, but close doesn’t count.
It begs the question, am I a writer because I believe I am, or am I a writer because the writing community validates my writing by acquiring it and audiences by paying to read it? Perhaps that’s another blog.
Anyway, Cynthia Good moderated a panel discussion with Collins and Joan Clark, both from Newfoundland. She asked them the question that everybody wants to know: “How did you get published the first time?”
I appreciated Collins’ down-to-earth candour. He said “it was a long, long time” before he broke into publishing, gathering up a Masters and a PhD and a few years of teaching along the way. “I piled up several manuscripts and eventually stopped trying to sell them and wrote something new,” he said. “The simple answer was that they weren’t good enough.”
The words struck my heart, because my heart had heard them before—and protested. At times, these protests have been sad and pitiable and have other times been sour, like I just sucked the face off Cinderella’s stepmother.
Regardless, when I hear those words, I’m left with the choice to persevere or not. I wonder, do I really want to write? Or, as James Michener puts it, do I want “to have written”?
I have to tell you, more often than not, the answer for me has been the latter. And yet… I’m still here.
Collins’ subsequent anthology Moonlight Sketches flowed out differently than his previous work, the stories representing himself as a person. It was quickly accepted by a Maritime publisher. “It has to be the right person, the right book, at the right time,” he concluded.
Right person, right book, right time, I pondered. As I drove home in the pouring rain, I wondered, is writing like birthing babies? I had three uncomfortable, painful, sickening pregnancies and three long, difficult labours. I had always been jealous of those women whose bodies seemed designed for spitting kids out like one of those golf ball machines at a driving range.
I love my kids, but I didn’t love having them.
If I just keep writing, will there be a moment of grace where a subject close to my heart flows out of me like an easy birth, fully formed, pink and perfect? Or am I just the kind of girl who has difficult labours?
As my mother told me, “It’s different for everyone, dear.”
Collins was quick to add that though his first book required little editing, he went through an excruciating editing process with the second. What kept him going was his desire for excellence. “You have to make this the best story that it can be or you can’t live with yourself.” I appreciated his honesty, because if I can’t relate to genius, I can at least relate to working very, very hard.
And so I sit here at my little desk with my candle and my “Believe” rock and my favourite C.S. Lewis quote wondering if what I have to say will someday interest the world. When I come up with something good, hopefully somebody will notice.