By R. B. STUART
While attending The Marymount Manhattan Writers Conference in June 2001, 16 months after resigning from my clients to pursue a long held dream of being a writer. I never thought I was intelligent enough to write, never mind a book. Since I didn’t have the formal training; whether creative writing, English-Lit or journalism, nor read the works of the greats…the classics. Although, I was an avid reader, had written poetry since I was a child, horded pens and paper, wrote letters, journals and collected books. I had a couple of book ideas tumbling around my head, and attempted to write a few chapters and outlines in my 20’s. But when I set out to write a 400-page memoir, I didn’t know how to use a computer.
But all those limiting thoughts couldn’t stand up against my determination and will to do it now or never. The desire to live my passions and the age of 40 was the catalyst, as the milestone was only months away. So in 2000 my sister Dawn, sent me her 1993 Toshiba laptop, with its black and white screen, parallel port, floppy drive and printer. Ignorant to the depreciated value of electronics, in return I gave her $1,000. And for the next year she would become my telephone technical support advisor…. teaching me long distance, how to manipulate the robot sitting between my legs.
I studied the trades on writing and publishing, and one suggestion resonated with me, that ‘when you write, each time, you must hit a vein.’ As a novice to writing and publishing, I did it all backwards; first I wrote a book, then essays for magazines, then a column for a newspaper. It’s usually done in the reverse order, now the manuscript sits on a shelf cushioned by 100 rejection letters. I went from newspaper columnist to a fluke feature in a national woman’s magazine, back to newspapers, onto E-zine columnist, blogs and magazines. The training has been the work itself, the assignments I blundered my way through, learning what the AP style was, and how word count and clean copy is imperative. The latter an easy task, since I’m bi-anal and OCD…numbers and perfection are counterparts to my breathing.
I had been shopping my manuscript [What Is Your Soul Worth? The Challenges of A Woman Trying to Save Her Spirit and Ultimately Her Soul] around Manhattan when I discovered Marymount was having their annual writers conference, so I asked to volunteer. Marymount’s director of creative writing, Lewis Burke Frumkes said after taking a look at my work, “You can teach writing, but you can’t teach talent…and kid you have talent. You put this manuscript together all on your own…you’re one smart cookie.” It was just the stroking I needed as a young writer, and he allowed me to assist them at the conference.
In the auditorium, before a panel of professional writers, literary agents and authors, a young woman stood after the lecture to ask a question: “I'm 24, work two jobs and don't have the time to write. So how do I go about writing, if I can't find the time?” The panel of authors replied, “If you want to write you have to sit down and make time everyday.”
During the last twenty years when I only dreamed about writing a book. I became desperate to write and be heard, so I wrote complaint letters to CEO”s and Editor’s In Chief. At certain moments in my life, great inspirations would mount bringing forth an outline to several books. Each time they were propelled by unusual and meaningful life experiences. I must say, that as the young girl asking the question about finding the time. I not only didn't have the time and dedication, but most importantly, the time wasn't right. I hadn't ripened yet as a writer. When I did, dedicating myself to the totally consuming and solitary craft of writing was effortless. I found the time after twenty years, because the timing was right.
Miraculously, all the experiences and words I absorbed until that point imploded onto the page. Words that never linger in my mind during conversations---peeled from my fingertips as if flipping through a deck of playing cards. Without thought or knowing the exact meaning of the word, it somehow fit. As if it knew where it was suppose to go in each page and chapter. In the interim, I trusted the flow of consciousness and wrote what was triggered by a memory reel or emotion. Having never been able to communicate emotionally, the words, sentences and paragraphs brought prose to my hidden suffering and antiquated pain, that I'd been unable to articulate. Applying written words to the emotions gave me the courage and verbal intelligence to communicate--- accurately expressing my thoughts, ideas and emotions.
I could feel the words and sentences gathering in my mind, fermenting. Too premature to write, I sensed them being suspended until the opportune time---then unleashing them into my vessel. I searched lifetimes for the vessel to hold my repressed love, sorrow and pain. I always thought it was in the form of a man. Much to my surprise while hovering over the laptop rewriting my past, it was the book I was searching for, the pages of my life, my memoirs.
The paper was my vessel. I poured all the love, sorrow, regrets and heartache into it. It was strong enough to handle the abundance of painful words. In its silence it effortlessly absorbed the overflow of what I could no longer contain. Unconditionally accepting everything I offered. The paper remained unfettered by the stream of consciousness no matter how light or dark. Bending backwards and sideways for me as my body contorted with memories. All the while maintaining an un-bias stance of my prose. Watching my pen tickle across the lines of the page. Never changing its form or color. The vessel is the holder of my passions. And what I poured out, in its own way pours back into the Self in the form of self-expression, self-awareness, acceptance, understanding, accomplishment and unconditional love for who I am, the writer; a vessel for my Soul.
So after the conference, I ran into eight time author, Malachy McCourt [A Monk Swimming & Singing My Him Song], he was teaching a workshop. When I saddled up to him in the corridor I told him my inferior thoughts on writing. I was elated when he affirmed, “All writers have those fears. I too felt I wasn’t intelligent enough to write a book. Since I didn’t have the proper education.” He then invited me to sit in on his memoir writing class.
Norman Mailer, whom I met Labor Day weekend of 1986 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and became pen pals. Corresponding for 14 years, I looked at him in an endearingly paternal way, since my own father had died when I was six. I longed for a wise, strong, male elder to comfort and guide me through my reckless life. I grabbed the crumbs I could from him, by sifting through his brief letters of encouragement.
When I turned onto another fork of the road at 40 to become a writer, I solicited Norman as a mentor for advice, he wrote back, “If you’re starting to write don’t think of agents or editors for the first five years. Think about learning how to write, read good writers, take classes in writing. Darling, learning to write well is as difficult as learning to play the piano well. But it can be done.”
I ignored his words of wisdom for I couldn’t abate the storm of memories, words, and chapters rushing into my mind. And wrote the 120,000 word manuscript, “What Is Your Soul Worth?” The Challenges Of A Woman Trying to Save Her Spirit and Ultimately Her Soul, in 15 months.
In 2005 at my five-year mark, I realized in an unconventional way, I had spent that time studying and learning how to write. After the book I began writing essay’s and pitching them to NY editors. My first, “Rescuing My Mother---Myself,” I used here as my first post. Was sent to Harper’s Magazine legendary EIC, Lewis Lapham, and was returned to me with a personal rejection letter from him, “As much as I enjoyed reading “Rescuing My Mother---Myself,” I can’t find a place for the text in Harper’s Magazine. I wish I could send more welcome news…and I send this with reluctance, admiration and regret.” His words welled my eyes….as I sensed I had hit the vein.
Now seven years later, I have over 200 clips in my portfolio; cover features, columns, articles, the NYT, GLAMOUR Magazine….and no longer need to call my sister for tech advice. Last year Norman wrote, “RB, Now that you’re a published author---that’s what I’m going to call you, I think it’s terrific. I know how hard you’ve worked and the disadvantages at which you started and you never gave up, which is the mark of somebody who’s going to become a writer and a good one.”
He continued, “If I have one bit of advice for you it’s not to level off. Now that you’ve moved on and gotten into print, enjoy it for a while. Do a few more stories, but don’t level off. The worse thing about leveling off in writing is when it begins to sink after a while. It could end up being tougher than anything you’ve done, even with your life, it could be tougher. But also, it could be the most enjoyable thing you’ve ever done. My best to you, and I mean it.”
In 2005 I relocated to the Hampton’s area to freelance full-time. The toughest aspect thus far is with the newspapers and some start-up magazines in local markets with circulations under 20,000. As ten – twenty cents a word doesn’t pay the rent. Some offer you columns for no pay. Or offer pay at five cents a word. Others will pay a flat fee as a weekly contributing writer, which is equivalent to ten cents a word, but then dance around the check book when it’s time to pay for the work. The publisher, editor, comptroller, bookkeeper play hot potato with the invoice when it’s time to ante up.
As I see it freelance writers aren’t much respected unless it’s a National publication and over 150,000 circulation. Magazines pay more than newspapers, from one – four dollars per word and pay you on time…but you have to sign your rights away with a Work for Hire contract. Publishing appears to be a flaky business, as many editors make promises with doubletalk. Without writers they’d have no pages for adverstisers to run ads on. And the Mast Heads at the top need to remember that. I think the only way to help them treat freelance writers fairly is to form a union…with nominal dues, that will institute our own guidelines that include fair treatment and fair pay.
So my fermentation has froth at the top, I’ve boiled out all the words and have come up with Passion has a price, I’m now $30,000 in credit card debt. And as I’ve lost money, I’ve gained 40 pounds. I may be healthier psychologically, more attuned communicatively…but suffer physically. And still, I haven’t found a vehicle which my “voice” searches for.
So you want to be a writer…..
Originally written July 2001, updated June 10, 2007
Copyright 2001, R. B. STUART, All rights reserved. No reproduction of this blog in any form.