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September 18, 2008

The other night my 10-year-old, Sam, was standing at the kitchen table painting a skull on the back of a worn out skateboard. He had removed the wheels and was desirous of affixing this work of art to his bedroom wall when it dried. Sam is partial to skull-emblazoned objects. He’s constantly asking me to buy him hats, shirts, and shorts (which fills the boys’ racks at Rich’s these days, for some reason) and shoes decorated with skulls.“Why in Heaven’s name are you fixated on all these dark, ugly images of death?” I fuss from stove where I’m stirring taco seasoning mix and a half cup water into a pound of ground beef. “It’s horrible!”

“It’s just a skull, Mama.”

Well, I think, I guess it is a part of the human body. But still. “Don’t you want to get involved in 4-H?” I ask, thinking of a nice wholesome activity. He looks at me like I’ve sprouted horns and keeps painting. Then I tell myself that if I protest too loudly it might make him pursue skull fashion all the more. Hopefully this is just a phase he’ll zoom right through.

Part of the phase includes him sitting down at the computer and googling skate-board tricks and techniques, performed by other skull-emblazoned kids who look like they love defying parental authority and listening to heavy metal music with raunchy lyrics. I’ve been trying to look at the silver lining while I wait for my child to move on to other things. Sam’s a little on the husky side and I like the fact that he’s constantly practicing all these wheel-stands, drop-ins, kick-flips and other maneuvers that get him breathing hard and his heart rate up. He’s begun requesting only half a sandwich in his lunch after reading the biography of Tony Hawk, master skateboarder, who is apparently all sinew and bone and claims this fact makes performing skateboard tricks easier.

“I wish I had the natural inborn talent!” I’ve heard Sam cry out many times, slapping the computer desk as he’s watching some kid “ollie” along a Florida sidewalk or “grind” down a metal bannister somewhere in California.

“I can’t do it! I can’t!” he said to me as I stood on the driveway watching him skateboard off a ramp for the hundredth time, attempting some kind of a jump that lands in a wheelie.

“Practice makes perfect,” I quipped, looking at his slumped posture. “You can do it, sweetie. Don’t have that defeatist attitude. You need to think positive and just work at it. You can do it as good as they can.”

“No, I can’t. I really can’t.” He shook his head. “Some people are born better at it.”

I was about to argue with him, but I knew I’d be lying. He’s right. I feel the same way with my writing. I finished a book several nights ago and when I closed it, reluctantly, thinking I’d like to read it all over again, savor it, I also said to myself, “Just give up, Julie. Get a real job. You’ll never write like that.” (Okay, I’ll tell you… it was Water For Elephants).

What makes it worse is the fact that I’m currently in that awful, disheartening period of waiting for a manuscript to sell. Anyway, this waiting, this uncertainty, has spawned much soul-searching, of pacing and saying to myself, “Why DO I write, anyway?”

It didn’t help that I’d just read an on-line interview with author Vicki Hinze, which she finished by saying, “If you can quit writing, quit. There are far easier ways to earn a living. If you can’t quit, then gird up your loins, jump into the fray, and go for your dream – no matter what. It’s always been risky. For authors, for publishers.”

You’re absolutely right, Vicki! Anybody who thinks writing a novel might be an easy way to make some money is kidding herself. It would be a whole lot easier to be something cut-and-dried, measurable, like a carpenter who makes picnic tables, or even, if I needed some creativity in my vocation, a cake decorator, or maybe, say, an administrative professional (modern way to say secretary). They at least get a regular paycheck, insurance benefits, and have fellow employees to chat with.

This obsession I have with writing novels sometimes feels like a disabling affliction. It can be a torturous way to earn a living because it takes massive doses of perseverance and determination to trudge one long, lonely road after another, through first, second drafts, editing, polishing. It’s fraught with rejections, self-doubt, and loneliness. But, I have to confess I do adore the actual act of writing, of creating and getting lost in these fictional worlds. It’s fulfilling to me in a way that words (isn’t that ironic?) can’t convey. When I’m in doubt like this I try to feel better by telling myself I was born to write, that it’s my destiny, what I have to offer this world. I sit and make myself recall all my teacher’s comments from grade-school on, stuff like, “Julie’s such a good writer. She’s very gifted!” I pull up an image of my mother’s glowing face as she stands over her trunk of treasured keepsakes, lifting a stack of crude handmade books that I wrote and illustrated over the course of my childhood.

But then I wonder if I’m only a victim of delusion. I ask myself, doesn’t desire follow attention, not vice versa? and that if I devote myself to some other pursuit, say teaching English, or basket weaving, wouldn’t I then have a passion for that? And as far as destiny, does God have this “perfect will” for each one of us? Or is there just a selection of things, a menu of permissible things that He lets us have a hand in selecting what we are and become?

There’s a side to being an author that I know is the exact opposite of that wonderful creative aspect. These days an author has to not only write a wonderful story. It’s a competitive market and now they must assume tons of responsibility for the marketing and promotion side of their book. You write the book, happily, but then you have to put on a whole other hat and come up with this tight, compelling synopsis (which is a necessary selling tool), some type of an elevator pitch, names of folks who might blurb your book, etc…. And then, when the book is released, you’ve got to GO OUT THERE and be a super salesperson. You’ve got to be a hawker who stops at nothing. I can’t say I’ve learned to love contacting magazines or radio stations, begging for reviews and interviews, but I do enjoy going to book clubs and small groups to discuss my books. There is beauty in these people’s praise and I have to confess I love it when I get a fan letter or someone says how much my writing entertained or enlightened them. It’s only human to want this type of “love”, and this is when it’s easy to think that writing novels is the right career for me. My destiny.

I could pat myself on the back, live on this praise by rehearsing it in my head, but lest I get to feeling too self-important, I have to remember a humbling experience I had just a few days ago. Someone gave me a truly heartfelt response to something I wrote, well, that I copied (it wasn’t plagiarism), and I have to say it was the most intense enthusiasm, the most glowing gratefulness I’ve seen. I’ll tell y’all the story:

I guess it was about a month ago when I felt this nudge inside to send this woman I vaguely know a card. She’s relatively young, (early fifties, I’d guess) and her husband had recently suffered a severe heart attack. I guess I wanted to get it done and get this insistent feeling off my chest, you know, scratch it off my “to-do” list? So, I picked this blank card with an etching of Tallulah Falls on the front, sat down and wrote maybe three sentences, licked it, sealed it, looked up her address and stuck it in the mail. None of my usual flowery writerly phrases, nothing that said, “Hey, look at this genius turn of words!” Sunday afternoon I was sitting outside with my two boys and this car went zipping along past us, then pulled over and came to a halt at the curb. She climbed out, made her way over to me, sat down and said, “I just have to thank you for sending that card! Of the whole pile of cards folks sent, yours was the one with a Bible verse in it. That verse is just what I needed (okay, it was Romans 8:11)!” The intensity of her voice, the piercing sincerity in her eyes, I wish you could have seen it. Again, something beyond what words can convey.

Well, that is enough rambling. With the help of writing this blog right here I have gotten some encouragement. In fact, now I recall something I heard years and years ago, from another author who is also an instructor of creative writing. It was words to the effect of not comparing ourselves as writers. She said we don’t write worse, nor better, we write DIFFERENTLY from one another, and we’ve each got something to offer. Maybe I’ll never write like Sara Gruen, but I’ve still got something unique to give, am still enthused about writing. I’ll do like Vicki Hinze admonished and I’ll gird up my loins, jump back into the fray, and continue laboring to pursue this passion.

Truly, Julie

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