Monday, January 09, 2012

The Pursuit of Publication

"A Writer?"

I've wanted to be a writer for most of my life.

When my 2nd grade teacher entered something I had written into a regional writing contest, I won. So when a friend of my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I admitted for the first time, "A writer!"

He laughed at me. Like I had said something as unlikely and as impractical as declaring I wanted to be a movie star. After that, I forgot such dreams, though I continued to worship at the altar of Madeleine L'Engle, reading every one of her numerous novels I could get my hands on. On top of that, my three siblings were 15 to 7 years older than me. Their libraries became my feeding ground. In fourth grade, I read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and proceeded to read about a book a night. Over the years, the fact that I filled journal after journal with my own scribbles meant little to me, just as I took for granted the wallpaper in the background or the armchair in the corner.

When I was 17, I had the opportunity to work privately with a successful novelist, the writer-in-residence at my high school. During our weekly meetings, he would encourage me: "Perhaps this is what you should do with your life - write professionally." Just as I thought nothing of the books I consumed or notebooks I filled, I ignored what he said. He might as well have been speaking another language. I thought authors had to have two initials for a first name, or at least have a sophisticated British accent like his and that every other sentence an author spoke would unconsciously be sprinkled with metaphors to the sun setting or the moon rising. I did not think writing had anything to do with a mere mortal and a name like "Grace Uriarte."

Nonetheless, all his words - though they were riddles to me - continued to echo through my mind. "A writer has nothing to do with whether or not you choose to make the door red or blue," (imagine in an eloquent, British accent), "it has to do with the processes of the mind." I had no idea what he was talking about. How were my processes any different than any one else's? Still, all his words from my apprenticeship with him pursued me. Over the years, I found myself watching each person, trying to understand their "processes," trying to understand what a "processes" was, and what made me different than them - why had he decided that I was "a writer?" I began to see some differences - for one, the very fact that I was watching them. I realized he had been trying to tell me that a writer is born an observer, a watcher of people, settings, details, culture - that's what provides the content, the words that overflow onto paper.

My fiction teacher had said his mind was like a double-screen. One on which he saw what was happening before him, and the other on which he saw all of that translated into scenes for a novel. I realized a double-screen was happening for me as well. One on which I saw what was before my eyes and the other on which I translated it into the different parts of the narrative. Only, it wasn't fiction. Real people seemed like the most intriguing characters. I found literary things happened every day. It was just a matter of highlighting the significant, editing out the insignificant that would distract from the true meaning of the event, and knowing where it landed on the timeline of the narrative, whether it was foreshadowing, the story's complication, or the climax. Sometimes, even the real-life setting and the weather seemed to conveniently reflect the event's meaning. If something terribly sad was happening, it was raining outside, and the storm would escalate according to the sorrow. I didn't need to change the setting or weather for the sake of the story. It really happened that way in real life.

Finally, Christmas break my sophomore year in college, when I was 19, I read a novel by Elizabeth Prentiss, author of the 19th century hymn "More Love to Thee." The book was called Stepping Heavenward, a fictional journal of a young woman. As a teenager, she is self-absorbed, shallow, and you are not convinced she is a Christian. Many readers at this point stop reading, as she is kind of annoying. Yet as her entries progress through the years, you see God continuing to grow her more and more into His image. The godly people she describes that are in her life, such as her mother and pastor, disciple you through their example and their letters she copies into her journal. Wow! I thought. One can glorify God through fiction! I could not put the book down until I finished it, barely sleeping those three days. That book changed my life. And after that, when another one of my fiction teacher's lines echoed through my mind, I cried out, "All right already! I'll be a writer!" And then, all of a sudden, his words stopped echoing.

In college, call it idealistic, but rather than a stepping stone to a high-paying job, I saw my education as an end in itself. I loved learning. I saw my education as a gift from God. A limited period in my life when not only was it allowed to be my top priority, but my parents expected it to be my top priority. More than that, my calling at the time was to be a student. And if I wanted to glorify God, I needed to work at it with all my heart. I fell in love with my history and political theory classes. Exhilarated by seeing God's sovereign hand as He wrote His Story of the world. My old fiction teacher had always said that one did not have to major in English in order to be a writer. So I majored in history and minored in political theory.

After I graduated from UCLA, I was accepted into a graduate writing program at the University of Southern California (USC), but I deferred a year. During that year, so much changed - most of all, I began dating Andrew. And so when I finally did start the writing program, two weeks into my first semester at USC, Andrew asked me to marry him. At the end of my first semester in graduate school, Andrew completed his last semester at UCLA, we got married, and Motorola moved us to Washington.

How Will I Ever Write Again?

We spent the first three months of our marriage travelling and living out of a suitcase - I loved it! And instead of writing, Andrew's ear became my notebook. Then, two weeks after we settled into Washington, I found out I was pregnant. I was so sick during that pregnancy, I could barely walk down the hall. For the first time in my life, I could not write a thing in my notebooks. For the first time in my life, I had writer's block. I wondered at that time what the Lord had in store with writing. Andrew and I hoped to have many children. Yet, even if the writer's block ever ended, how would I write if I was constantly sick with pregnancy and caring for children?

During that pregnancy, I volunteered at an art gallery in town. One day, I was assigned to watch the desk with a local artist. As we sat, she showed me beautiful black and white childhood photographs of the six children she had just finished raising. She told me she was a Christian and told me about her 21 year old son that had died in a car accident the year before. I don't remember the details of what she said, but I remembered how she smiled through tears and the peace that emanated from her when she spoke of him. She told me that while she homeschooled and raised her children, she did not have the time to work on her art, but that how important children were to Jesus. So she trusted Him and prioritized her children above her career.

She said maybe once a year, when she could not take not doing art anymore, she might work through the middle of the night and complete a painting then. Then she said, "But you know what? At the end of 20 years, I had 20 paintings. And my friend who left her family to do art, never completed anything, because her circumstances were never 'ideal' enough to do her art. And now that my children are grown, I can paint all day long. As much as I want to."

As I observed her art in the gallery and displayed at various local businesses and homes, I saw how she had used many of those beautiful photographs she had taken of her children growing up and enjoying each other as the inspiration for much of her art. Though she painted timeless pictures of children in 19th century settings and clothing, she had copied her children's faces and expressions from their photographs as she painted.

I was too sick to volunteer many more times at the art gallery. And that was the only time I ever saw that woman. I don't remember her name, and I probably would not even recognize her if I saw her again. But, as my children were born, and I was exhausted with two little ones in diapers and no minutes to write for months at a time, I thought often of how that woman trusted the Lord throughout those many years of raising her children. I thought of how her one painting a year accumulated into 20 paintings. And some months, I did write 45 minutes a day three times a week. And when Andrew did radiation 30 minutes a day his first time through cancer, while I sat in the waiting room, I wrote fiction during those 30 minute periods. I believe the Lord used those little moments as one of the means to sustain me at that time.

During my marriage to Andrew, I never completed the novel I began my first and only semester in graduate school. Even while we were dating, Andrew would often talk to me about my writing. And I would always say, "Well, what if it's not the Lord's will that I ever publish a book?" I knew at the back of my mind, though, that unless I committed to finishing and publishing a book, I never would. All the writing books that caught my eye at the library or book stores that I skimmed always said the difference between someone published and someone not published is merely persistence. Throughout the years, I always read how various classics had been rejected by 45 or 60 or 90 publishers before they were ever published. And that is why I always responded with doubt when Andrew talked to me about publishing. I knew that even if I accumulated pages while raising my children, I could not commit to pursuing literary agents or publishing companies, especially not through countless rejections. I knew that committing to the goal of completing a book and publishing it meant committing to rejection with never the promise of publication. When I see actors on TV who played bit roles for 20 years and only now have a regular paying job as an actor, I wonder how they knew to persevere.

My high school fiction teacher, as well as all those books on writing, told me that self-doubt is a reality of a writer's life. A writer cannot help but write, and thus cannot help but persist through the self-doubt. Even though I often doubted I would ever get around to finishing writing a book, Andrew kept insisting I one day would have to publish. After he died, I read throughout his journals again of this insistence. And a few months after that, I discovered a letter in our file cabinet that I've shared on this blog before, where he mentioned one last time to "publish our book." When he wrote that letter, "our book" wasn't written yet. "Our book" was up to me to define. But those words that he wrote - typed in black on that crisp, white paper - give me the resolve to one day publish. He's not here for me to say, "What if I can't?" That black type stands immovable on that white paper. I cannot argue with it. And so, I simply say, "I must."

The Process of Writing "Our Book"

This summer, the children and I spent in New Jersey. We stayed with Andrew's parents, because his mom does not work outside the home and she could help me with the kids. Because of that, for the first time in my life, I wrote full-time. I was desperate to write and finish "our book," knowing it would be the only opportunity I would have this much help with the kids. I was desperate to take all my memories out of my purse and put them into a book, so that it could rest on a shelf. So that I wouldn't have to carry all those memories everywhere, weighing heavily on my shoulder, but could still access them anytime I wanted. I felt I needed to do this in order to be freed from the burden of my past, to move on with my life, and to give myself more fully to my children.

So this summer, I wrote up to seven days a week, 10-12 hours most days. I had never written an entire book before. If I wasn't actually writing, then I was trying to learn, trying to figure out how one even crafts a book in the first place. Some days I was trying to learn, Where does one go when one hits a brick wall? I read an extremely helpful book, Your Book Starts Here, by Mary Carol Moore. I read other memoirs and novels, looking for examples of how they handled certain techniques.

I didn't care about the number of words - except that it was tight enough to be less than 250 pages. Obviously I can write endless words (as evidenced by the seven years of verbosity on this blog), but crafting a narrative, making all the big picture decisions was a whole new level. It was irrelevant if I hit 250 pages, but had not created the experience that I envisioned. Regardless of how many pages I did or didn't write, I only cared that I accomplished a particular journey.

This book was completely new. It was not the blog. It was our love story and the untold details of our cancer trial.

There were many times I wanted to give up. But committing to writing a book is like committing to marriage. Some days aren't good, but a marriage won't work without full commitment. What if I'm wasting my time? What if I never finish the book? Yet the Lord continued to lead me through it. He continued to allow me to persevere. And by my deadline, after seven weeks of summer full-time writing, I finished the first draft!

With the first draft out of my mind and onto paper, when I awoke the next morning, I felt as if I had emerged from a fog, even though I had been in this fog for so many years - ever since the endless days of losing Andrew little by little during the endless months and years of cancer - that I didn't even know I had been in a fog until I emerged from it. My memories no longer weighed on my shoulders. They were crafted into a narrative on paper.