I am an insecure author. I find this is a condition shared by many of my compatriots in this writing business. I’m sharing this story because it won’t leave me alone!
The other night, I dreamed I was “good enough.” What a wonderful revelation; I spend an awful lot of energy stressing about whether I am good enough. Good enough for what, you ask? Good enough to submit my writing to agents, editors, contests, magazines and anthologies for publication. Being good enough is exciting news to me and I felt compelled to share.
The Twenty-Four Year Novel
For many years I wanted to write a novel. One night, in 1993, after a long day in my retail custom clothing store, I drove home in a rainstorm. That wasn’t unusual. I lived in Portland, OR—if it hadn’t been raining it would have been unusual. The unusual thing: a bolt out of the blue struck me with intimate knowledge of my paternal grandmother’s elopement at age fourteen. Some say the muse visited. Others tell me my grandmother herself was responsible. For me, well, let’s just say whatever it was I couldn’t not write it down. I hurried home, bailed out of the car and headed straight for my Sanyo Computer (I know, no one else has ever heard of that brand either, but trust me, I was an early adopter). I opened my ancient word processor and started to type.
I continued writing whatever the voice in my head told me to write. I didn’t stop to spell- check or see if I used ‘had’ or ‘that’ to excess; didn’t stop to think about what I was writing. I just wrote. Five chapters into a story set in a place I’d never been, seen, or even had described to me, I started to question my muse. How do I know they had Cypress Trees growing in the river? How can I be sure this town looks like you described it to me? And what about the house? Did it really have a window low enough to the ground for her to climb out and run off? The questions went on endlessly. My father, now seventy-eight and well along in his descent into Alzheimer’s, couldn’t remember much of anything and was no help.
Eventually I stalled. The muse said ‘you are on your own now’ and she went away. I decided the only solution was to visit Utopia, TX and see for myself whether she was telling me the truth or not. I took my father, his seventy-two-year-old sister, my mother and traveled to Utopia to see what I could find.
A Coincidental Journey Back In Time
A series of incredible coincidences left me reeling with the impact. Everywhere I turned someone else with insider information about the story materialized. I video recorded every conversation. I audio recorded every conversation. I took hand written notes and pictures of every person I interviewed. I lived through some deeply emotional scenes between my father and his childhood caregiver. I watched as my father and his sister relived the murder of their mother recalling suppressed memory for the first time in their lives. It was a highly charged visit and I came away with enough information for three books.
At that point it felt like the book needed to be a biography but I couldn’t take it down that path because too much of the information conflicted with other accounts and recollections. Too many holes remained in the story that needed to be filled with no source for the missing information. I reverted to historic fiction and sat down to write.
Nothing happened. I couldn’t write a word. I struggled off and on over the next few years but couldn’t get past my stuck place. I gave up and decided the story didn’t really need to be told. After all, my father and his sister had achieved closure on a terrible and traumatic time in their young lives. Other siblings were still living who might take umbrage at a fictionalized version of their mother’s life. I revisited the emotional scenes from the trip to Utopia over and over in my mind. They interfered with my creative non-fiction telling of the story. The “real” parts were too real; using fiction to fill in the holes scared me. Doubt crept in. I put the book away and went on with my life.
In 2010 I saw a notice in the local newspaper that an artist in residence was available through the local writers group to critique the first ten pages of a work in progress. I went to the meeting armed with my first ten pages. I got it back bleeding to death! Red marks abounded. Comments were abundant. It intimidated the heck out of me and I put it away. Again. But, I joined the writers group and continued going to meetings. Eventually I gathered enough courage to read a couple of essays. The group was very helpful, very encouraging and very positive. Maybe I could write.
A first person non-fiction essay of a single incident from my 1997 visit to Utopia with my father seemed to appeal to them. I listened to their suggestions, incorporated some and ignored others, refined and rewrote until I was pretty happy with the result. Then the leader of the group announced a juried writing contest and encouraged everyone in the group to commit to submit something. The cost to enter was $15.00. With a big gulp of courage, I decided to take the plunge. I sent the essay to a good friend with editing skills. She kindly reviewed the piece and made a few suggestions, asked a few questions for clarification, corrected my point of view and first person issues and sent it back to me. Next I asked the group leader to read the finished product. She noted a few more minor conflicts with tense and pronounced it ready to submit.
I sent the completed piece off with my self-addressed, stamped envelope per the instructions for submission. One day an envelope appeared in my mailbox from the contest. I was afraid to open it, certain it would just be the return of my original as requested. I went into my office and closed the door. My letter opener stood ready and I slit the envelope along the top margin, pinched it open, and lifted out the contents.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear? No, not a jolly fat man in a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer, although that wouldn’t have been any more surprising than what greeted me. “Congratulations,” the letter began, “you are the first place winner in the Non-Fiction Personal Essay category of the Writers of the Purple Sage Writing Contest.” I won $100, publication on their web page, and had achieved a perfect score of 100 in the ten categories judged. I was also invited to an awards ceremony to receive my check and read my essay aloud to a public audience.
I was over the moon! The judges score sheet was enclosed and the comment, “this was so beautifully written I just had to give it a perfect score.” Of course I framed the score sheet. Wouldn’t you? I was expecting a rejection slip to begin papering my office wall and instead I got a confidence boost that sustains me to this day. When the nagging doubts creep in, I read that score sheet. When I get a tough critique at my new writing group, I read that score sheet. When I ask myself if I’m good enough, I read that score sheet.
The Courage to Try
Best of all, it gave me the courage to get the book out and take another swing at it. I didn’t have much luck but made some progress on refining and rewriting those first five chapters. Then in February of 2016 I joined the Henderson Writer’s Group. Talk about tough love! This was an experience I wasn’t prepared for, but I decided to develop a thick skin and keep plugging away. The officer’s bios on the web site intimidated me. I didn’t think anyone liked my story or me when I read in front of the group. I took the criticism personally and literally, trying to incorporate every single piece of it into my rewrites. It took many months of discouragement and doubt to learn to filter the critiques, choose what made sense, trust certain people and discard the rest. I learned that some members of the group would never like my story, but over time they grew to admire my courage and my tenacity; some even grew to like me. I learned that the opinions expressed were as helpful as I chose to make them. I quit trying to incorporate every suggestion, opinion and thought. I just wrote.
I improved my craft. I learned a lot about technique. I even learned to appreciate the dissident comments because they gave me perspective. I accepted that people may not care for my story but still care about me. I accepted that all criticism is valid and useful in some way. I learned that some members of the group absolutely loved my story and couldn’t wait to hear what happens. Some brave souls even told me they think I am a wonderful writer! How nice is that?
So Why Still Doubt?
So why do I still wonder if I’m good enough? Because that’s the eternal question every author asks. And I believe that is the reason so many don’t submit what they have written to contests, anthologies and publishers. No one can make you believe in yourself. No one can make you believe you are good enough. But, winning a contest can go a long way toward tamping down the doubt gene. And, like the lottery, somebody is going to win, and you can’t win if you don’t enter. No one needs to know you entered and no one needs to know if you don’t win. The joy will come when you open the envelope and it says “congratulations!” That is the time to share it with your colleagues.
On August 23rd, 2016, I typed “The End” on my 359-page manuscript. I knew I wasn’t finished but I had written the story. I spent the last year rewriting and editing. A publisher is interested in the book. They have asked for certain things to be done and I spent the summer reorganizing the book to suit their request. It was harder than I imagined, but I am almost ready to return it to them for another look. And if they decline this time it won’t be the end of the world because they gave me the same kind of boost that score sheet gave me in 2010. They liked the story enough to ask me to change some things and resubmit it. They said they liked my “voice.” That wasn’t a rejection. That was encouragement! Now I know I am good enough. All that remains is to take advice and find the right home for the book. But to find the right home I have to submit my work. Some will like it, others will reject it, and others may ask me to revise it. The choice about whether or not to do so is mine.
Now, as President of the Henderson Writer’s Group I would like to challenge every member to submit something to a contest this year. We won’t all win, but perhaps some will. And who knows what kind words of encouragement may come from the effort?