“The Learning Curve”

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Last week I picked apart Picka Pocketoni. So this week I’d like to pick apart—in a more positive way—another Sedaris essay: The Learning Curve (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 83-96).

This essay hit home for me (and I assume for many of you) in many ways, particularly as a writer, writing student and someone who would someday love to teach writing workshops. But also, I’m currently writing a novel and one of the main themes is how we all find ourselves faking it (or feeling as though we’re faking it) at one point or another. We don’t start out being experienced. It takes time but we all have to start somewhere. That’s simply how life works.

Thematically, this story speaks to anyone who has ever felt like a faker. When Sedaris gets his first teaching gig, he feels like an imposter. And in a way he is one. But I bet anyone who’s ever been in his shoes has felt the same way. Of course, while most of us might not admit it or write a whole essay shouting it to the world, personally, I love how honest he is about it.

Sedaris exposes so many parts of himself to us, including: Sedaris as writer, Sedaris as teacher, Sedaris as the child who just wants to be loved and, perhaps most notably in this essay Sedaris as self-proclaimed, self-deprecating, low self-esteem fraud. All of these elements somehow add up to expose Sedaris as a charming, humorous, honest and relatable human.

“Like branding steers or embalming the dead, teaching was a profession I had never seriously considered.” Ha! Me either! Until recently anyway. Workshops have turned me on to a whole new side of myself. I’ve always loved writing and my initial goal coming into the MFA program here was to get my writing to the next level, where I will hopefully get my novels published. My writing has certainly improved but another side of me, one I didn’t know existed, has been nurtured, too. I love reading my peers’ work and offering my feedback. That critiquing part of workshops that so many of us dislike? Yeah, I love that part. In eight grade I was voted “Most Likely to Become a Teacher” and I’ve always scoffed at the notion but now I’m looking at it and thinking maybe my classmates back in 1989 knew something I wasn’t yet able to see or willing to admit. I flashed back to that moment while reading The Learning Curve and as I read about Sedaris’s experiences, I thought about all of these things I’m learning about myself.

I could picture myself standing before a classroom frantically trying to say and do all the right things, trying to make an impact on these students who expect to learn something. Just like any other experience in life, Sedaris started out self-conscious and self-absorbed and once those things fell away, along with all the butterflies, that’s when everything came together for him.

All of this adds to the tone of the piece. I found the tone of this story as well as Sedaris himself as the story’s main character to be honest and sincere. While he, at times, borders on self-deprecation he does so humorously and that adds to the gritty, realistic feel of the piece. Plus, there’s just something sweet about it, too. While each of his essays affects me in different ways and while I don’t find all of them as relatable as this one, I could follow his tone anywhere.

Structurally speaking, this essay hits all the right notes. He grounds the setting for us in the classroom and allows us to picture everything from his perspective. He starts by showing and telling us about himself physically and even adds insight into his mind through sharing his thoughts and fears as well as comparing himself to his father. Then he introduces the rest of the cast of characters and simultaneously presents the main conflicts which will affect all of them. He lets us see the floor fall from beneath his feet as he stands clueless before this classroom for the very first time. We get to see him squirm and then watch as he tries and fails multiple times, continuously adding tension along the way, giving us the opportunity to root for him and care about what happens to him and his students so we feel satisfied when he figures it all out in the end. The work he does with characterization in general but also in particular with his set up and descriptions, are awesome, too, because if we as the reader cannot relate to him or even find him likeable in some way, then surely we can relate to one of his students instead. That’s brilliant!

There was a point when I felt bad for him and for his students, too. Sedaris somehow became the protagonist and the antagonist and his students played villains and victims. He gives us just the right amount of detail to picture him (right down to his briefcase) and enough detail, physically and emotionally, on each of his students to picture each of them staring back at him. In one way or another, through his characters, this story becomes relatable to just about everyone. Additionally, he pays close attention to his own arc in the story. He starts out a little cocky and then falls from grace. We see all of his insecurities and we can see and judge his mistakes and along the way he himself does the same. Eventually he figures it out and succeeds.

The only thing this was missing for me from his experience in the workshop was the actual critique portion and how that transpired in his classroom. He tells us his thoughts on critiquing (he says whoever designed the workshops “struck the perfect balance between sadism and masochism.”) but he never gets overly detailed about the process. But I can’t help but think that may simply be because Sedaris was more concerned with being critiqued and letting us know how he felt than in critiquing his students and/or in watching them critique each other. In a way, it was like he was saying that he only really knows and can speak honestly about how he feels about the situation and if we want to know how they felt, then we’d have to ask them.

In The Learning Curve, Sedaris invites us into a personal side of himself and he shows and tells us more than what “normal” people would dare show and tell. He sets aside any sort of pretense or shield one might have when discussing our views of ourselves, specifically our skills and abilities, and he puts all of his insecurities out on the table for everyone to see and judge.

I absolutely loved this story. I felt connected to it and to all of its characters, including Sedaris and his students. I felt like I was learning along with them and experiencing their trials and tribulations, as if I was actually one of the characters in the story. I felt invested in what happened. The story kept my attention and kept me laughing from start to finish, too.

Sedaris doesn’t seem to care what others might think or say about him; he just puts it all out there, blurting at times, and then lets the experience speak for itself. He lets us decide what’s weird, embarrassing and/or shameful. The fact that he’s not embarrassed to reveal such things makes him charming, I think, and his point of view personable and it’s what makes me feel connected to him and really love reading his essays. I want to know what else he’ll reveal and even more than the content I want to know how he’ll reveal it. It’s safe to say it’ll always be with some level of humor, but there are varying degrees of emotion and sentimentality there, too.

After reading The Learning Curve, I wonder how many new teachers feel like children playing teacher on that first day of school. Sedaris struck a chord here and it’s one that goes beyond the classroom. In truth, don’t we all feel like we’re faking it at one point or another?

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Works in Progress

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When I quit my job as an event planner to pursue my literary dream, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t realize my life was changing forever.

I banged out a novel in three months. I was proud of it though I knew it needed work. But I’d reached the finish line on something that had been a goal of mine for a very long time. It felt good. The feeling was so good that I decided to submit it to agencies and publishing houses. I received feedback from several, rejections from most. All of this inspired my second draft.

Joyce Carol Oates says: “Any artist who is impatient with revision is probably doomed to be forever an amateur: “promising” through a lifetime.”

How fitting. Each of us shows promise as writers. Whether it’s through talent or drive or a combination of the two, there is a promise for something more.

I’ve now written two whole novels, though neither is finished. Now I’m writing a third and a fourth while revising the first two. Friends say funny things, like “You’ll never be happy. Just self publish already” or “You’re just afraid to be finished.”

No, that’s not it at all. I’m afraid to say something is finished when it’s not. I’m afraid of putting my name on something that hasn’t reached its potential. I’m afraid that finishing it now would be the equivalent of throwing in the towel long before the game is over. I have so much to learn and my writing continues to improve with each new lesson. Self-publishing certainly has its merits but I’m not ready for that either. If I knew my work was “perfect” or even close, maybe I’d consider it. But though I‘ve come so far I know I’m not even close to where I need to be.   

Oates says: “Writing can be revised, living cannot.”

What a great Facebook status! Also, what a fun way to look at this process we have chosen! Writing gives us the opportunity to strive for perfection or at least our idea of perfection. As writers we can continue to improve through our writing and we never have to stop improving—even after we say something is final. I’ve heard of many professional writers who continue to tweak their manuscripts even after they’ve been published. Perhaps that’s the perfectionist spirit or maybe it’s hard to break the habit of consistent improvement? Maybe it’s the promise to be the best we can be or to see the writing reach its purpose. Are we ever really done? 

Oates says: “We don’t know what we’ve written until we read it through as a reader, expelled from the process of the work, and no longer as a writer enthralled by its creation.”

This seems true and yet I wonder if I’ll ever be able to separate myself enough from my work to be able to be a reader and not also the writer? How is it possible to make that distinction? As a mother, I know it’s impossible to see my daughter as a child without also being her mother. I gave birth to her. Whether it’s a child or a creative work being born from another, how can the person giving birth be expected to be objective? Is it possible?

Oates says: “Lady Chatterly’s Lover exists in three quite unique manuscript versions of which the last was the one to be published, and become infamous.” In her lecture this week, my writing professor says: “Those who have been writing for a long time will usually tell you that what they start out with only bears a partial resemblance to what they reach at the end.”

Being on my fourth complete overhaul of my first novel, this gives me hope. This draft will be nothing like the first. Versions two and three were already dramatically different. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever “finish” this novel. I don’t know. But I know I’ll never stop trying.

My (Other) First Born

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In addition to several other projects I’m simultaneously working on at the moment, I’ve also been overhauling my first novel… again.

Let’s just say the third time wasn’t so charming but it’s getting there.

It’s a work in progress and while the progress keeps progressing, it also somehow keeps starting over at page one. I’m getting dizzy.

Still, I tell myself that every edit, revision, chopped sentence and tossed page brings me and my manuscript(s) closer to the ultimate goal but the process is challenging. I’m learning and growing so much and I know that that’s evident in my writing. It’s also evident that I’ve been working my ass off.

In the past month alone, I’ve cut over 30,000 words in this particular novel. Gone but not forgotten but buh-bye. I’ve replaced those words with 30,000 different words (there may have been a few repeats). Compared to the first draft (the one I finished writing, or thought I’d finished writing, four years ago), it’s a totally different story. My other novels have been changing, too, as have I.

I’ve killed characters, created new ones, changed the plot, the themes, the pace and the point. The term chop-chop means something entirely different to me these days. A close friend of mine who is also a writer recently asked me if all the chopping hurts. “Isn’t it painful?” she said. Nope, not any more. If it’s not right, then it’s not right. Every change brings me  another step closer. If I truly believe that, then time spent wallowing over chopped words is wasted time.

I’m so close… I can taste it.

And, yet, I’m only about halfway there… give or take a few thousand words.

At times, it has seemed like I’m in a foreign country, climbing a huge mountain without a guide. Will I ever get to appreciate the view from the top? I hope so but I won’t know for sure until I get there… if/when I get there. But one thing that I know for sure is that I can’t stop now. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I can feel it in every aspect of my being. This is my mountain to climb.

While I’ve never considered giving up, I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been moments when I’ve found myself procrastinating and making excuses to do anything else…

I’m a full time mom and writer. Believe me; I have plenty of other things to do and other projects to work on. But everything else leads me back.

I eat, sleep, breathe my writing and this one project in particular owns me… for now. It’s an all-consuming, mind altering, life changing, soul destroying beast that I love with all my heart. I have other manuscripts, both completed and in progress, but this one was/is my first. You know how that goes.

Sometimes I wonder if this is what drug addicts feel like.

People often compare writing a novel to giving birth. Having done both, I can certainly feel the correlation. So, going with the same analogy, the process of overhauling a novel must be like raising that child… over and over again…

Like I said, this is my fourth overhaul of my first manuscript. This time around has been the hardest but also the most rewarding.

Even though I’m in the heart of it now, I’m certain it’s my best writing thus far. The beginning and the end changed organically. All of it just flowed out of me, no epidural needed. But now I’m writing the middle and the middle has been like a toddler having a never-ending tantrum in a supermarket… the spine chilling, stomach curdling kind that tends to get passively blamed on the terrible twos when the culprit is far more likely three sixes and a pound of sugar.

I’m trying to juggle ideas and character nuances while keeping the story and timeline straight. I’m fighting the confusion, even though I’m easily on my fourth (or is it my fifth?) beginning and ending and the middle, well, this must be at least my tenth middle my now.

The word count goes up and down while my manuscript continues to transform and my brain vomits sentences into a pile of paragraphs which somehow manifest themselves into consecutive pages.

There are times when this feels like it’s taking forever and other times when I lament that my (other) first born is growing so fast. Where has the time gone?

I promise to hang in there and keep giving it my all but God help me if this one takes 18 years to move out of the house.

Check that. God help my husband.

Loser!

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This blog goes out to all the non-winners and the people who’ve judged them…

I recently entered a writing contest and lost. No big deal. That happens… a lot. I don’t feel bad about it, considering the majority of people who enter contests lose and I’m sure I’m in good, if not great, company.

The thing is I wasn’t expecting to win. Although winning would have been awesome, that’s actually not why I entered. I entered because contests are a great way to share work and get nonbiased feedback, constructive criticism and helpful comments. For the most part, I’ve found contests to be a useful tool in improving my writing. That is my primary goal.

But recently I entered a contest and one judge in particular was pretty nasty.

It was a simple 3-page contest. How nasty can someone be judging just three pages? Well, this judge’s comments read like a lecture, were written in red and all caps and were longer than my submission. I won’t bore you with all the gory details but it included comments like, “Your main character is an idiot” and, my personal favorite, “Reading this ruined my day.”

Rejection is one thing. Believe me when I tell you that I can take it. I have 4 years into this journey toward getting my novels traditionally published. The path hasn’t been paved with fairy dust or lined with daisies and giggling teddy bears. No. It may be hard to believe but there have been zero unicorns along this uphill battle either. I keep going, despite that because I’m not in this for the fairy dust or the unicorns. I’m in it because I know I have it in me to do it.

I try to take rejection and negativity with a grain of salt. Even when it seems impossible, I try to extract something positive from it, whenever and however I can. I usually pay no mind to the haters, grumpy naysayers and know-it-alls.

I submitted my three pages and asked to be judged, not because I’m particularly masochistic. I wasn’t looking for empty accolades but I certainly wasn’t hoping or expecting to be insulted or mocked either. While I didn’t expect to win, I also didn’t expect to be spoken down to or treated like a loser. That’s far from constructive. And whether it was intentional or not, this one anonymous judge used this contest as a venue to do just that.

I doubt I was the only one scorned. Perhaps she was having a bad day or was simply PMSing. Or maybe it’s part of some strange anger management course. Or perhaps that’s simply her style and she, somehow, thinks she’s being helpful. Or maybe she’s one of those folks who haze because she was hazed. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know much about her at all, not even a name. The only credential she listed was that she was a published author. But for someone who claims to have walked a mile or more in my shoes, she was particularly harsh.

If my skin hadn’t already been toughened by this uphill battle, I would have been hurt. I might’ve even shed a tear (or 200). If I was just starting out and less confident in my creative craft, I might have been weakened by this judge’s poor choice of words, even enough to consider giving up. Probably not though since I want this so badly. Maybe this judge somehow forgot what that feels like.

I’d like to think this judge didn’t start out this way. I want to believe she signed up to judge contests with the intention of helping other writers but somehow strayed from that mission and got carried away with the red pen. She must’ve forgotten what it feels like to be vulnerable. Or maybe she hasn’t figured out that it’s possible to be constructively critical without being a complete asshole.

Whatever you’re passionate about, don’t let anyone’s opinion kill that passion. Do whatever it takes to get better. And when people are mean to you, use that energy to grow and get stronger. For me that means writing every spare second of every day. It includes work shopping and researching and getting feedback and keeping an open mind. It means being rejected time and time again while continuing to believe in myself. And, yes, it includes entering contests, while knowing my chances of winning are slim to none.

As writers, we know the power of words. Hell! As people, we know that words can sometimes hurt. It’s OK to be critical, even to err on the side of “tough love.” But negativity breeds more negativity and an epidemic of negativity is the last thing anyone needs.

Above all else, please remember that you are dealing with real people with real emotions and real dreams.

The next time you find yourself judging someone’s work, remember that you are also judging his or her soul. Please don’t destroy it.

Social Brainstorming

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Writing is typically a very solitary activity. In general, creative types can tend at times to be almost hermit-like especially during our most creative journeys of self-discovery and expression.

Nobody comes to mind, other than maybe the Dalai Lama in all his meditative glory, who can get further inside his or her own head and stay there longer than a writer.

I am guilty of this.

I seek out solitude to write. I need my own space, time, peace. That used to be easy. But these days, being a mom and wife, my time is filled with all sorts of activity and distractions. And achieving solitude is no longer a simple task. I’ve considered taking desperate measures such as locking myself in a closet to find a minute to write. It’s not exactly something I’m proud of but I’ve been known to mentally leave the room mid-conversation or physically go off and hide in the bathroom to quickly jot down notes in moments when inspiration strikes.

Of course I love spending time with my family and friends but, still, I try to make or find the time and peace and quiet to write whenever and however I can. It’s important to me since I need it to achieve my dreams.

But as creative as I can be when I’m alone and as tempting as it might be to stay hidden away in that quiet, creative place, I know that I can’t stay there forever. It’s obviously not healthy to be alone all the time or even most of the time. While we all need some semblance of peace and quiet to catch our breath, we also need direct (and indirect) contact with other people. Finding a healthy, happy balance can be a struggle for some of us.

It is for me.

While I love making new friends and being around people, I also long to be alone so that I can think and create and write. Until the words flow from my brain and onto the page, it can often feel like I am at war with myself. I need to crawl deep down into an almost meditative state to accomplish my goals, but I also need to stay healthy and that requires a level of human contact.

I hate to admit it but sometimes I have to force myself out of my head and out of my house in order to be physically around other people. In addition, I urge myself to occasionally pick up the phone and have real time conversations.

But when all else fails, I turn to my social network of choice: Facebook.

And, in addition to its obvious “social” benefits, I’ve discovered a whole new reason to love Facebook. When I’m stuck on an element of creativity or when my mind has come to a fork in the road or even a dead end, I can simply update my status to ask for help. Until recently, I had no idea it could be such an amazing brainstorming tool!

Earlier this year, I was struggling naming a new character so I posted a description. Within minutes, my Facebook friends were in a frenzy bouncing names back and forth. Some took it seriously while others were more playful, but all were helpful and inspiring in their own ways. Later, I posted that I needed a name for a fictional company. I got great responses for that, too.

When I worked in corporate events, I loved (most) meetings and, more specifically, brainstorming sessions. For one, they helped break up the day. But more importantly, I found that the act of getting people together around a great big table in a conference room was the best way to get and then expand upon some really awesome ideas. Sure, we’d all sometimes bitch and moan about being too busy for yet another meeting but those meetings were productive from a creative point of view. Even the conference calls had their high points, although those were much more challenging for me to pay attention.

These days, conference rooms and boardroom tables are practically obsolete. At least they are in my life. I’m sure companies still use them, but now social networking sites allow us the freedom to brainstorm with our friends, family and even folks we don’t know. It’s an easy, far more efficient and convenient way to get opinions and answers from a multitude of people, near and far, and way more than could possibly fit in an actual conference room or, for that matter, in my living room. Facebook makes it easy to gather my family, friends, acquaintances, work contacts, associates, former classmates and even my dentist all in the same “room” to simultaneously ask a question.

I like that.

And, with no boss looking over my shoulder, I can post any topic or question that strikes my fancy (and I can be pretty darn fancy), then go off and spend time with my daughter, take a walk, make a phone call, workout, bake, go shopping, have lunch or even take a nap while I wait for feedback. And it’s all-but guaranteed to eventually come. Even if half of my Facebook friends are busy elsewhere, there’s a good chance that the other half is itching to be involved. So now instead of getting reprimanded or risk being fired, the answers are simply waiting for me when I return. It’s brilliant!

I also like that I can sit in my PJs and call a meeting of the minds (as well as the wise asses) whenever I want. Morning, noon or even in the middle of the night, there are bound to be people ready and willing to join in and post their ideas or give me a swift kick in the tuchus with an inspirational quote or two when I need it most.

As the song goes, “That’s what (Facebook) friends are for!”

And, not to brag, but my Facebook friends are pretty amazing. Individually, they are some of the smartest, funniest, most creative, inspirational, talented, sincere, thoughtful, charismatic and just plain helpful people out there. Together, they are a brainstorming force to be reckoned with. And perhaps the coolest part is that they come from all aspects of my life: past and present.

Because of Facebook, I have received their combined assistance on many occasions. And for that, I am eternally grateful. In fact, I hope to someday include a special thank you message to all of my Facebook friends on a future acknowledgment page when I finally reach my goal and publish my first novel. Wouldn’t that be a great way to show them how much they’ve meant to me?

Of course, I’ll probably need more of their help to get there!

Take the Poem’s Advice

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Sorry I haven’t posted in a while.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time inside my head. I’m currently revising two novels and writing a third, while trying to simultaneously work through some real life stuff. There are days when I write and write and other days when I can’t seem to assemble a sentence or write a single word. I know I can do it but there are times when I question even the most obvious things.

Don’t worry. I’m still my optimistic self. But I’m only human.

A friend of mine posted this poem on Facebook. I have no idea who wrote it but I can certainly relate. And today I needed to read it.

I’m reposting it because I thought some of you might need it too.

Don’t Quit:

When things go wrong, as  they sometimes will, When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill, When the funds are low and the debts are high, And you want to smile,  but you have to sigh, When care is pressing you down a bit, Rest, if you  must, but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its  twists and turns, As every one of us sometimes learns, And many a  failure turns about, When he might have won had he stuck it out; Don’t  give up though the pace seems slow– You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer  than, It seems to a faint and faltering man, Often the struggler has  given up, When he might have captured the victor’s cup, And he learned  too late when the night slipped down, How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned  inside out– The silver tint of the clouds of doubt, And you never can  tell how close you are, It may be near when it seems so far, So stick to  the fight when you’re hardest hit– It’s when things seem worst that you  must not quit.

– Author  unknown

(Thank you to Shelley Anderson for posting this today!)