Thursday, March 5, 2015

A short history of my writing life

When Poets & Writers began their column “Why We Write” I felt the topic was made for me. I understood the myriad reasons why I put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard. I hurried off an essay noting my early life as a painfully shy and compliant child. Through writing I found my voice and myself. When my essay was rejected, I was surprised. That is, until I went back to work, rewriting, going deeper, and not stopping until I cried. It was then I discovered that it is only through the laying down of word after word after word that I can get into the center of anything, whether it’s a personal essay, a book I’m teaching to my Freshman Comp class, or an uncomfortable feeling that begs for relief. 

As a freelance writer, I’m guaranteed nothing in the public arena. Not publication. Not a reader. Not a dime for my efforts. And so being aware of the gifts writing bestows upon me is vital; it keeps me returning to the page, aiming to produce my best work.

I didn’t always feel this way. 

I began my writing career late in life; I had early stirrings of knowing I was a writer and dreams of literary success. But it wasn’t until I was 44 that I settled solidly into my chair to begin the work. It was the 50th anniversary of the Jews’ liberation from concentration camps; my parents were survivors, and I needed to be part of the conversation that emerged around the world. I loved every second (even the tearful ones) of working on my first fully-realized essay, “A Daughter’s Legacy.” 

My essay landed in four publications with a Jewish readership. The thrill of fulfilling my goal and discovering the joy of writing set me on fire. That following year, I wrote four essays that found a home: Na’amat Woman, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. When the Times called to tell me they were publishing my essay, I felt, I can’t believe this is happening.

I was certain I was headed for the big time. I met with agents and an editor to discuss projects. An essayist by nature, my idea for a collection made the most sense. A memoir was valid as well. But each person I spoke with was interested in a novel; they assumed I’d been writing one for years and had it ready for this moment. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes had not yet turned publishing into a memoir Mecca. My period of fame ended with no agent, no book deal, and a bit of  insecurity about where to focus.

I continued to write and have success publishing essays. I branched out into writing service articles and hoped I’d make a living as a freelancer. In those days you could call up editors and run ideas by them. But the few times I did, my voice trembled. I felt as if I was putting my life on the line. I loved writing for its own sake, but each time I looked over my shoulder at peers who wrote for glossy magazines or whose books were in Barnes & Noble, that pure love shifted. I became competitive and jealous. 

I sent a self-help article to a magazine editor who had loved my Times piece. She left me a long voice mail. Sandra, you don’t have the skills for journalism. You should stick to essays. I’m passing on this article.  I sent it to a rival magazine, and six months later, six very long months later, it was accepted. But by then I had placed it with a poor-woman’s (aka trashy) version of Cosmopolitan. My disappointment was blinding. I couldn’t see my own success.

One day, I told my mother, “I don’t want to write anymore.” She said, “That makes me very sad.” I don’t know what I expected her to say, but that wasn’t it. She said, “I hear my voice in your words.” In that moment, I knew I could never achieve anything greater. I settled back into my chair and thought a lot about why I write.  

Since that time, I went back to school for an MFA; I’m now an adjunct English professor teaching four classes a semester. I write all the time, laboring over class agendas. It sounds dull. But the first time I prepped to teach Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I spent hours on the page, exploring how a scientist’s brilliance led to his demise. I was on fire with the process of learning and from the gift I was able to give myself (and my audience of students).

I discovered I could labor over essays, and if they didn’t find a home it was okay. When they did, I was gratified especially when I heard from readers. As for the most organic book project I had inside of me—the essay collection—I self-published On My Way to Someplace Else, a compilation of my published work. My goal was to contribute a boy of work on the Holocaust to museums and college libraries. I exceeded that by garnering excellent reviews. 

My second book, The Ambivalent Memoirist, has a quirky style of short, digressive chapters. I didn’t look for an agent. Again, I surpassed my goal: I found closure in writing memoir and have closed that book.  Reviews were exceptional, especially Publisher’s Weekly’s take on the book: “Writing as art and psychological salvation is at the heart of this book.” It took a reviewer to show me even more about what writing means to me.  

Being published in newspapers and magazines is important; the reach into other people’s minds and hearts is significant. I still want that. But I no longer feel competitive or even aware of what others are doing. I’m wedded to my process that allows me to grow and develop in ways I could not have, had I not become a writer.