Monday, August 20, 2007

Taking It All Off: Part One

This is an essay I wrote several years ago, before I published (or even wrote) my first book. It chronicles a turning point in my life as a writer, and I dug it out recently because it talks about being seventeen and unsure of your role in life, things that were on my mind as I drove my daughter to college a few days ago. Also, because some of you have asked about the letters I'm lying on in the picture to the right. Here's part one:

Taking It All Off in Knoxville,Tennessee

When I was seventeen, I longed for the day when the clouds would part, the thunder roll, and the voice of Revelation boom: "Hear ye, hear ye! This is thy purpose in life: I have created thee to be a doctor. Go forth and cheat death.” Or: “I have created thee to be a scientist. Go forth and seek truth.” Or even: “I have created thee to be an exotic dancer. Go forth and dance naked on the tabletops of Knoxville, Tennessee."

It didn't matter what the voice commanded. I was desperate to know what I was meant to do in life. The choices were endless and staggering, from Stanford mathematician to Broadway ticket seller. From French pastry chef to Graceland grave guard. I could waste years finding my destined path. Or waste no time at all veering down the road to career hell. At seventeen, every path was a confusing gamble, and only Revelation's booming voice would do as a guide.

Years later, I find myself still awaiting a revelation. No, not a voice announcing what I am to do with my life–somehow I stumbled down the path of a writer and it seems too late to turn back–but I long for a revelation of what I am meant to write. I think I am here to write for children. But am I meant to write easy-to-read primers or lyrical picture books? Fantasy tales of dandies and dragons or biting real life stories of drugs and despair? A novel of teenage sex or a counting book called Ten Aged Socks?

It would be so much easier if Revelation would speak up. A simple "Go forth and ease aching teenage hearts" would be welcome. "Go forth and make fifth-graders giggle" might be fun. I could even tolerate "Go forth scare the pants off pre-teens with hackneyed plots and free-flowing gore" if Revelation were adamant enough.

Until that moment, though, I am in the dark. I do what I used to do in the dark as a kid: read under the covers. I study books about dialogue, books about character development, books about marketing technique. I read in search of answers. Of revelations.

Recently, the book under the covers was The Courage to Write, by Ralph Keyes. What I learned there first shocked, and then shamed me. The shock came on page twenty-eight when I read that some writers hide finished manuscripts in desk drawers. They are terrified of sending them to an editor. Are these writers mad? What use is slaving over the perfect mix of words without a reader to savor the final result? Get it to the starving customers, already!

Yet, the stories of these fearful writers spawned an annoying idea. “Why aren't you afraid to drop an envelope in the mailbox?” it buzzed. "Why don't your stories try to wriggle from your hands and burrow deep into a desk drawer?” Maybe it was because my work was shallow and easily fashioned, instead of deep and fearfully wrought. Maybe I lacked courage. I felt shamed that the only words I’d written that I trembled to send were personal letters.

There was the letter I wrote my first boyfriend, telling him it was over. In it, I swore I loved him (as a friend, of course), but we weren't meant to be. It caused his mother and sister, to whom he showed it, to hate me. We didn't speak again.

There was the letter I sent my parents from college, trumpeting my determination to get married, and detailing the injustice of their opposition. It was about six pages long, passionate, and full of as much confusion as truth. It was written in pain, and induced more pain when it was read.

There were the letters I wrote my husband during our four years of long-distance courtship before we married. Hundreds of letters on such gut-wrenching topics as whether I loved him or not, what I feared most about marriage, and what attracted me to other men. Many of these letters caused major earthquakes when they arrived, and I shook in my shoes as I wrote them and cried after I'd mailed them. At least he didn't show them to his mother. She's a creative seamstress, a generous woman, who might have sewn me into a pillow and donated me to a homeless shelter.

I compared these letters to my more recent work: short stories for children, an occasional nonfiction article, a stab at science fiction for adults, a few word puzzles written out of boredom. My most ambitious project was a one-act play I had begun that month. Of course, I worried about this work: that an embarrassing spelling error would creep in. Or that a story would not meet the needs of the magazine's audience. Or that an article would feature obvious misinformation. But had I trembled to send my words out to editors? No. I was ashamed to admit I had not.

The Courage to Write implied that fear was a natural outcome of writing, like sweat pouring out of skin during ditch digging. Where was my sweat of fear? Maybe I could find it in those early letters. Digging furiously, I unearthed the first letter I had written to my husband and studied it. Lovestruck after just two weeks of dating, and just seventeen, I had composed the following: (continued tomorrow)


  1. Ahhhh a cliffhanger. Sara you're killing me! I was really into it! I will have to check out "The Courage to Write". It sounds monumental for anyone with thin skin (like myself) - so easily bruised.


  2. Sorry about the cliffhanger, but the whole thing was too long for one post. At least, I thought so.

    And yes, you should definitely find The Courage to Write. It's a wonderful book. I'm not sure you ever get over being easily bruised; it's more that you don't blame yourself for just that. It's part of who you are, and being sensitive is a good thing, if you use it right.

  3. You're such a tease!

    Seriously, this is good stuff so far. I'm anxious for tomorrow.

  4. All right, woman.

    I'm already seeing a future for you as a writer of YA mysteries. I might have to poke you with something. How could you LEAVE me at this point!?

    Waiting hopefully for tomorrow!

  5. Cruel cliffhanger. But, okay, I'll forgive you.

    Waiting 'til tomorrow . . .

  6. Oooo. Eisha, you took the words right out of my mouth. Sara,
    I'll be back tomorrow!

  7. Okay, I'm checking in tomorrow! Better be good! Cheers!


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