Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Book You Should Have Written

I had a minor crisis as I approached college graduation. I was just months from leaving school – possibly forever – when it hit me that I had virtually no marketable skills. My Bachelors in Creative Writing essentially qualified me to be a starving artist, or to pursue more schooling so that I could teach others to be starving artists.

I took an administrative position with a consulting firm that specialized in increasing profits for quasi-public electric utilities. I answered phones and created spreadsheets. I took out my nose ring. I stopped writing.

Since I was a child, I’d dreamed of being a writer when I grew up. And I wrote A LOT. To this day, my father likes to tease me about my teen years, when he’d hear me tapping away at my typewriter at 2 am if he got up to use the bathroom. I was dedicated. I was determined.

For four years after college, I didn’t write a single scene or story. I still read plenty, spent hours walking the creaky floorboards of my favorite used bookstore, Green Apple in San Francisco, lovingly fingering the dusty dust jackets. While I loved going to the bookstore, the come down was often hard: my stomach contents turned to sour jello and my skin ached with a million tiny pinpricks of envy. I had fooled myself for nearly my whole life, thinking I could be a writer. That I was equal to – or perhaps even better than – many of the authors whose books I admired simply for the fact that I could hold them in my hands, flip through their printed pages.

I heart this book.

I heart this book.

And then I read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. At the risk of being overdramatic, this book changed my life. It’s a great book, yes, but more than that, it inspired in me a moment of profound realization. I was on the bus on my way to another administrative position at another consulting firm, nose buried in my book, when an odd feeling – one part awe and two parts envy – crept its way up from my belly and into my esophagus, lodging in my throat. I flipped to the back of the book and scanned Wally Lamb’s headshot, read his bio. Somehow a forty-something year old man had crafted a compelling coming of age story about a teenage girl growing into adulthood without any adults to guide her through her journey. I thought, I should have written this book. 

But I wasn’t writing anything anymore. And that was the problem.

Of course, Wally Lamb was a teacher for many years before the success of She’s Come Undone allowed him to write full time. Long before he was a published author, he was sneaking ten minutes here, an hour there in which to write. In retrospect, it seems embarrassingly naïve but I finally understood that I didn’t have to choose between a day job or being a writer. That writers write because we are compelled to do so, despite how we pay our rent.

Within a month of that pivotal bus ride, I’d formed a small writers’ group with a few friends. I started writing again. And I haven’t stopped since.

I will end with two questions for anyone reading this post: What are the books that changed your life for the better? What are the books that you should have written?

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I recently decided to join a writers’ group, with a goal to meet more of my fellow writers and get early feedback on my novel. As with most everything these days, there’s a Meetup group for that.

literarymatch (trademark pending)

Over the years, I’ve participated in a string of writers’ groups; some were structured and monogamous, while others were casual drop-in affairs, more like a literary booty call. In some groups, I was consistently impressed by the quality of the writing and the critique, while in others I struggled to come up with positive feedback and then never called again.

Whilst perusing Meetup, I came upon an established writers’ group – I will call it the RR Group – who were looking to expand their circle. The core group of four members had met regularly for several years; to me, this spoke volumes about the maturity and commitment of the individuals, who clearly trusted each another enough to share one of their deepest vulnerabilities – their writing. I was further heartened by the RR Group’s request for a writing sample from interested parties. After all, as with any relationship, it was important to ensure that new prospects had complimentary styles and interests.

I composed a masterful email expressing my lifelong love of writing, touting my four-for-four record with National Novel Writing Month, and boasting about the second draft of my novel, a short excerpt of which I provided. I sold it, Baby! There was no chance they wouldn’t want me.

But when I hadn’t heard back by the following morning, I started to worry. What if the RR Group didn’t like my writing sample? What if, instead of dedicated and creative, my email came across as arrogant and desperate? Barely two months out of the epicenter of a difficult breakup, my fragile ego couldn’t take much more rejection.

As I obsessively clicked the refresh button on my email, I thought of the early days of online dating, back when you simply posted a paragraph or two about yourself, and refrained from exchanging photos until you felt reasonably confident that your correspondent wasn’t a) a serial killer, b) your ex, or c) your boss. Exchanging photos with a potential suitor was like engaging in a round of Hot or Not, and it was unclear which was worse, being the Rejecter or the Rejectee.

Twenty-fours hours after I submitted my writing sample, I got the email: “We enjoyed your writing and would like to invite you to join the group.” I was in. I was HOT!

As a new member, I was encouraged to submit a piece for discussion at our first meeting, so I sent along the first chapter of my novel. Everyone was expected to read the submissions prior to meeting, and be prepared to give feedback, so I settled onto my couch with a cup of tea and the other two submissions. The first was a hard read; each sentence was so long and effusive that I wondered if the writer had a personal vendetta against the period (I lost my breath somewhere around the third clause). The second submission, however, was well paced and quick-witted, and I liked it at once. I was relieved. I was in good company.

"I just love the way you use semicolons."

“I love the way you use semicolons.”

There were four of us at my first meeting. Anne, a plump, 60ish woman with a thin blond ponytail, was a fellow newbie. The two existing members, Jay, balding and mustached, and CeeCee, thin and pale with penny red hair, were genial if not a tad brusque. I thought we’d start off with a little get-to-know-you conversation, the usual “when did you start writing?” and “who are your favorite authors?” exchange. But there was no candlelight, no romance. No foreplay. We got right down to business.

As we critiqued each submission, I was surprised (and a little impressed) by how forthright everybody was in his or her feedback. While I was still trying to think up a kind way to tell Anne she should consider punctuation as a writing tool, Jay cut right to the quick: “You should cut out about a third of the words in every sentence.” I was even more surprised when, far from being offended, Anne nodded her head in agreement. “Yes, I wondered if it was too much,” she said.

I prepared myself for similarly frank feedback on my submission, however the critique was overwhelmingly positive: humorous, engaging, with a good prose style and voice. Then CeeCee said: “The only problem is that your novel reads more like a memoir than fiction, and this will confuse your readers.” Jay and Anne agreed, and almost at once, I realized that they were right. This was just as obvious to the rest of the group as Anne’s run-on sentences had been to me. How had I never noticed it before?!

I left the meeting that night feeling exhilarated. While the RR Group wasn’t exactly the friendly community of writing pals I’d envisioned, I was confident that my writing would benefit immensely from their input. The takeaway: Sometimes it’s worth forgoing the romance and the candlelight to get a damn good climax.

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