Tuesday, December 11, 2007

All I Ever Wanted

Since I’ve begun blogging, readers often ask how I got into writing. Well, it has been a long road, with lots of stops along the way, but here it is.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t observing people—studying their facial expressions, their mannerisms, body language—and as soon I could hold a pencil in my hand, I was drawing pictures of faces. I was off and running after I learned to read and write. To heck with arithmetic, science, geography, and all those other subjects; I had all the tools I needed.

It wasn’t long before I was sketching the faces of people I knew and jotting down what they were saying: family, friends and neighbors, even the congregation of Mississippi Baptist Church. I was a quiet and solemn child; parishioners paid little attention to me, so it was easy to wander unnoticed among them, picking up slivers of conversation here and there.

This led to my creation of a church bulletin one summer, which I distributed among my brothers and sisters. The bulletin was not your regular church news; it contained the behind-the-scenes stuff. In the form of a comic book, the dialogue hung in bubbles above their heads: Two ladies stand face-to-face after services, cardboard fans poised in the air: “I don’t why you want to get rid of Naomi,” Miss Lizzie says, “She’s a good piano player.” “Your daughter has played it long enough,” says Miss Anna, “It’s Helen Jean’s turn!”What I wasn’t putting on paper, I was filing away in my subconscious mind. Unbeknownst to me, it was settling in, making itself at home. Marinating.

A wealth of new material awaited me when I entered Bardwell Grade School. By the time I was in the early grades, I was writing stories about my classmates’ antics, sometimes adding tidbits to make it more interesting. (Now, they call it creative nonfiction!)

One day in fifth grade, during geography class (which I hated), I was trying to block out Miss Avil Witty’s voice, droning on and on about the Amazon River. I didn’t care about the widest river in the world; what was happening in our neck of the woods was much more interesting to me. So I decided to write a story.

A few days later, as I was scribbling away, Miss Avil caught me. “I've got an idea,” she said, “What do y’all say we have Brenda read one of her stories in fifth period next Wednesday?”

Fifth period, each Wednesday, was fun time; Miss Avil told us about things that had happened way back in her childhood; she had students reading the works of well-known writers and poets, and others giving talks about trips they had taken to Kentucky Lake or Mammoth Cave.

I was petrified the first time I read one of my stories in front of the class, expecting everyone to poke fun at me, especially the boys. But they seemed to enjoy it. And wanted more.

Encouraged by Miss Avil and my classmates, I soon branched out, writing plays and convincing classmates to take parts. Most were comedy, and we ad-libbed a lot, but the “reviews” were great. Everyone, including Miss Avil, clapped and cheered after our performances. (I often think of Miss Avil, and what a progressive and fun-loving teacher she was!)

By the time I was in high school, writing was second nature to me. I loved literature and English, so sentence structure and punctuation came easily. I looked forward to writing book reports, churning them out in nothing flat.

“Good job,” Mrs. Mitchell said, “Think what you could do if you really tried.”

I stiffened, deeply offended, and then I continued doodling and gazing out the window: How did she know I wasn’t trying that hard?
After graduating from high school, I had dreams. Maybe I could go to UCLA, or another well-known college and study writing, maybe go to drama school. Or something like that.

But money was short—there were no grants or college loans back then—so I attended business college in Paducah, earning an associate degree in business, got married, and began my career in Chicago.

Although I still kept journals, sporadically recording bits of our life along the way, I omitted my thoughts, my dreams. Emotions. They were pushed back, buried. All that didn’t matter now; I was a married woman, and it was time for me to get on with the business of living. That’s what adults did.

After my daughter was born, I enjoyed my time with her, determined to be the best mother possible. I played with her, read to her, and worked to instill her with good values, self confidence. Most of my journal entries were about her growth and progress, the cute comments she made, schoolwork, book satchels, new Red Ball Jets.

I must have read thousands of books during those year at home (wish I’d kept a list!), and I took Suzanne with me to the library each week. She sat on a tiny stool, thumbing through Cat in the Hat, Heidi, and The Borrowers, while I was busy checking out all the books Miss Withers, the stern librarian, would allow. And each night, after Suzanne was tucked in bed, story read, prayers said, I settled in my wing chair and got down to my favorite pastime.

One night, after finishing another book that wasn’t really that good, a thought drifted through my mind: I could do that.

As always, although she lived 300 miles away, Mother seemed to know what I was thinking. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from her: I was just thinking, Brenda, you could be a writer. A lot of the letters you write home could be made into stories.

After that, her letters often contained newspaper and magazine clippings about writing and authors, notes scribbled in the margins: Her writing reminds me of yours; Bess Streator Aldrich (or some such author) received 120 rejections before she ever got a story published!

When Suzanne started to school, I went back to work. And a few years later, I bought a secondhand IBM Selectric typewriter and reams of bond paper. I converted our third bedroom into my office, bought a desk, stocking it with plenty of typewriter ribbons, notebooks, paperclips and post-it notes. I bought new maple bookcases, placing my collections of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor stories and Eliot and Frost poetry on the pristine shelves.

After everything was in place, I stood back, admiring it. For the rest of the evening.

The next few evenings were spent in much the same way, strolling around on the green shag carpet, admiring my office and congratulating myself on a job well done.

When I finally sat down at the desk, things weren’t exactly right. So I rearranged the contents of the desk drawers and the book shelves, and then I read a few pages of one book or another, leaning against my new bookcases. I typed up famous writers’ quotes and placed them near the typewriter. I positioned a dictionary and thesaurus between two glass-tiger bookends.

And then I sat down at my desk again.

I couldn’t seem to get started; I kept thinking about things that needed to be done. Right then. And after I got everything done—including cleaning out the refrigerator and scrubbing the cat’s food and water bowls—I sat gazing off into space.

Finally, I got up, walked out of the room, and politely closed the door.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I joined Suzanne and her father in the family room: This was great, doing what normal people do; forgetting about everything else and watching television: “You dingbat!” says Archie Bunker, “I bust my bootocks, working in that rotten world out there, and you give me meatloaf for dinner?”
After a few evenings, I returned to my office, where I sat paralyzed at my typewriter, dreading the task that lay ahead. Although words and ideas were floating around in my head, it was hard as hell to harness them and wrestle them into a decent story. Even thinking about it made me tired.

Finally, after many nights of leaving and going back, starting and stopping, agonizing, and revising, revising, revising, I finished my first short story.

I was disappointed. Something was missing. But I couldn’t figure out what. So I threw it into a drawer and rushed out of the room, vowing to forget about writing altogether.

I took up jogging, rising at the crack of dawn and running two miles each day; Suzanne and I joined a health club. (Not that Suzanne’s firm little 13-year-old body needed it; I just didn’t want to be away from her three nights a week. Since I had begun night classes at Illinois state, I was already away from her one night each week.)

All the time I was running and working out and studying, I was thinking about writing. And the ideas kept coming: What a great idea for a story! A wonderful sentence! That would be an excellent first line!
As time went by, I kept writing. I was unable not to.

Then, somewhere along the way, my writing took a “turn.” I was finding myself delving deeper and deeper, examining things more closely, getting in touch with emotions and feelings. And expressing them.

By the time Suzanne’s father and I divorced, I was pouring out my feelings on page after page of three-ring notebooks, agonizing, reflecting. And when Suzanne and I moved to Kentucky, and I began dating again, remarrying, divorcing, and dating again, I was recording all that. Which kept me pretty darn busy! Brutally honest and painful, it left me feeling raw, exposed. So I placed the notebooks high on a shelf in the closet, where they gathered dust for years.

I have since learned that's something one must be willing to do if they want their work to have real substance. Not necessarily trying to publish every detail of one’s own life, but learning how to burrow in on a subject and haul it out. Writing about something to which readers can relate. And believe.

I was soon studying what well-known authors were saying and doing: why they wrote, how they wrote, when they wrote, what made them tick. Most were driven to write, but they procrastinated, agonized, revised, revised, revised. And, almost without exception, they were seldom satisfied with anything they had written.

Just like me.
It took a long time, but I finally began writing in earnest. And when I did, the dam burst, spewing out characters like crazed fans at a rock concert, all clamoring to be heard. I was no longer procrastinating, agonizing, or dreading writing. I was beating a path to the typewriter every chance I got.

My characters are still clamoring, silenced only after their stories are told. And there is no end in sight; when I’m nearing completion of a story, more appear. I’m now working on two fiction pieces, Aunt Fanny’s Drawers and The Judge and Miss Mercy, and I have just finished Dummy's Field, a nonfiction piece. And, as always, I am still working on my novel.

Other than submitting a few short stories to literary magazines years ago, which were rejected (and rightly so!), I had stopped trying to publish anything. But when I began digging deeper and deeper, it did happen. I have had more than a dozen stories published or accepted for publication, both online and in print, and a literary agent has expressed interest in my novel when it is finished.

Although it's exciting to see my work among the pages of literary magazines, I would keep writing if I knew I would never be published again. Because writing is in my blood. And it has been there from the beginning.

Sometimes it takes almost a lifetime to fulfill your dreams; circumstances, people, and self-doubt often get in the way. But if you are driven to write, persist, and work like a coalminer digging those words out with a pick, your dreams will come true. Maybe not in the way you had hoped, but oftentimes in more rewarding ways.

Other than the early years at home with my daughter, the past few years of my life have been my most rewarding. I am free to do what I love and the time to do it. I may never sell my novel, but I will finish it. I may never sell another short story, but I will keep writing them. Why? Because I love my work, and there are many more stories to be told.

My most ardent supporters are my daughter and my husband; I love and appreciate them beyond words. And when someone I’ve never met devotes a full post to me and my writing? That is just icing on the cake. I have always felt that if someone is touched, or finds a bit of themselves in one of my stories, I will feel I have accomplished my goal with the written word.

Well, it appears I have done that. And that is all I ever wanted in the first place.


Chris said...

This was a fantastic post. I'm always astonished how writers can have no shared experiences beyond writing, and yet that alone is enough to see themselves reflected in one another...

Brenda said...

Thanks so much, Chris! You are so right...those feelings and doubts seem to be universal among writers.

Suz said...

Thanks for this fascinating tour through your writing life.

And for what it's worth, I'm happy to provide a little frosting now and then - as long as you keep on making those cakes.

If that made sense. I'm hiding out at home with a distracting headache and refusing to go lie down.

Mary Thorsby said...

This is beautiful and so inspiring. Thank you for sharing it — it reminds us that writing is a gift we can give ourselves - and others - for the rest of our lives. xxoooxoxmt

Brenda said...

Thanks so much, Suz! So sorry you had a headache; hope you're feeling much better by now...

Brenda said...

Yes, writing IS a gift. Thanks, Mary!

Anonymous said...

Pass this on to her please..I just want to tell you that you are more than the best blogger around(SO much more)Your writing captivates me. It grabs and demands my attention it sinks it's teeth into my very soul and jerks me from side to side as if trying to rip a hole and climb in. Suzanne I start my day off reading your blog and it's the last thing I look at before going to bed, just incase there's an update. I have told my wife how great a writer that I think you are. So I might as well tell you. "You are great" (Willow) Don't let perfectionism get in the way, the raw stuff is sometimes the best stuff. (not as revised and watered down)I am not a writer as you can tell but I wanted you to know that I for 1 am a big fan. I thought leaving this here for you might keep me anonymous, but if you find out who I am , keep it to yourself please. Thank you for sharing and always keep on writing you are very very good at it.

Brenda said...

Thanks for your heartfelt comment, A. I passed it on to Suzanne, and she was very happy to know you enjoy her blog.

Patience-please said...

Brenda, thank you for your kind words and the heapin' helpin' of encouragement and inspiration in this post.
I recorded some of my stories for our local NPR station yesterday, and as I was hearing them played back in my earphones, I was horrified. "Puke!" "Pablum!"
I stand in awe of your writing skills, and your daughter's immense talents. Having read that you both have shared this (sometimes crippling) self criticism somehow helps me.
thanks, and sorry for leaving this drivel on your blog!

Brenda said...

Drivel it is not, Patience; it's just your normal, run-of-the-mill doubt all writers go through from time to time. I'm sure your NPR stories are as wonderful as your blog!

And thanks so much for your kind comments about Suzanne and me!

DFord said...

Reading your accounts of events now past is truly like looking into the halls of yesterday and living those memories firsthand. You’re an amazing writer, ma’am. God gave you quite a gift in this craft; but, more so, He gave the world something great by placing you in it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, and as a young writer myself, I have now have something to strive for.

I hope to one day fulfill the same dream you have accomplished. Thank you for the reminder.

Brenda said...

Thanks so much for your kind words, D. I've checked out your blog, and I am very impressed by what I see. You are a wonderful writer, especially for one so young. I have no doubt there are great things in store for you.

judy said...

Brenda, just such an interesting blog. Love reading your stuff. Have a young writer you might like. Ekiwah Belendez. He writes poetry. He is just a spectacular young man. He was born with (I think) cerebral palsy. His mind and abilities are enormous. He is from Mexico, and is well known there. He is studying in the USA. I tink he published his first book at 12. It is called Soy. There is at least one in English- Coyotes Trace. If you put his name into Google you will find several good listings for him- and the story of his life. It is so inspiring- as are his insightful writings. The best to you and yours, judy-hope to sign in to your blog!

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting kind sound person...your Husband is lucky to have you and your daughter for a family

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley