It Takes a Village to Raise a Writer

Cottage Office

Last fall, I thought I should quit being a writer. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write anymore, it was that I thought I couldn’t write well enough. I worried I was like the American Idol contestant who thought they were the next Celine only to be told they were delusional and shouldn’t quit their day job.

Trouble was, I had quit my day job.

This past June 30th I began my ‘break’ from a pay cheque and on July 1st arrived at my mom’s cottage with my laptop, thesaurus (I’ll use the internet version, but nothing beats my dog-eared Gage Canadian Thesaurus), a bullet point goals, strategies and writing schedule and, dare I say it—okay I’ll say it—a suitcase of dreams. As luck would have it, the cottage was empty for one glorious week. I set myself up in the screened in gazebo, dialed in CBC Classical and I wrote, most of it pretty good, I thought. When the week was over, I returned home to my home office. As the summer weeks fell away, I continued to write and by the end of the summer, I’d edited 45,166 words—150 pages, of my original 70,000 word first draft. Not bad, I thought again. To keep myself on schedule, I’d arranged to submit twenty pages to my first reader, and either over peppermint tea at one of our houses, or via Skype we worked through the fruits of our labours. (Off for most of the summer, she worked as hard to submit her own twenty pages to me.)

In September, my bi-weekly writing circle resumed and I began another U of T creative writing course, Novel Writing Master Class. Confidently, I emailed out the first instalments of my new and improved chapters. Between both groups, fifteen fellow writers, the word came down—it sucked.

No hyperbole, I was DEVASTATED, CRUSHED, a snivelling, whimpering puddle of pathetic, worthless doggie dodo.

Never before had I worked so hard and never before had my writing received such harsh critiques. How could this be? How could I have gotten it so wrong? I’d quit my job for GD sake. You know what they say; when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. But like the Tin Man, my joints had rusted with all the ugly-cry tears I’d split. I needed help getting up.

Lucky for me, my village rallied around—more than one carrying a sharp stick happily used to poke me with. Some of the very people who were (politely) telling me they weren’t feeling a connection to my characters and didn’t care to turn the page, in other words that my novel sucked, were the very people who sent me private emails, called me on the phone, offered to look at my re-writes before scheduled submission and took me out for tea.

Who were these good Samaritans? They were my tribe, my peeps and most of them, the really good ones, had all been where I now found myself, in the pit of despair. Without fully realizing what I’d managed to do, I discovered that over my early writing years I’d built a strong foundation of tribe members who genuinely cared about me and about my work. Equally important, I’d also managed to leave behind a trail of wet blankets, those naysayers who didn’t value my artist view of life.

Wow, I began to think. I really am clever. If all these wonderful writers (and close, supportive non-writing family and friends) thought I could fix my work, then I owed it to them to pull myself together.

This was fixable. It was doable. I’m woman writer, hear me roar.

Not so fast Sparky.

The hard work was yet to come. Since my breakdown, I’ve spent vast amounts of time, sitting at this chair (most of it writing, although I’m pretty wicked at spider solitaire). Some days I’ve had to have harsh conversations with myself and other days recognized I needed to pull out my gentle grandma voice (okay, I’m a young grandma, by Grammy I am). As we speak, I’m now preparing seventy-five pages to submit to my one-on-one instructor and ultimately to the Continuing Studies panel who will deem whether my work, whether I am, certificate worthy. I now feel confident that I am.

To those of you who are at the early stages of your writing careers, I strongly urge you to join a writing circle, go to conferences, take courses, network and build your own tribe. Step out of your writing space and introduce yourself to your village. Because if you are serious about becoming a writer, you will eventually have a dark-night-of-soul somewhere along your journey and you’re going to need your village.

A special thanks to my tribe, but please don’t shut off your phones. I’m up for submission soon and I might be calling!

If you live within driving distance of Durham region, have a look at what the WCDR has to offer new and not so new writers.


Filed under Writer's blog, Writer's journey, Writing

11 responses to “It Takes a Village to Raise a Writer

  1. I think “sucked” might be too strong a word. In need of some tweaking, but then that’s true for everybody. Geez, if you’re lacking in confidence, what the hell am I doing??

    • Thanks Lisa. Of course, sucked was my demented interpretation. I clearly put too much pressure on myself over the summer and fall. Now that I have taken a few thousand deep breathes, I’m back to my old fighting spirit. I think because art is such a personal expression, artist do tend to take bad reviews hard. That being said, even as I was going through it, I knew what people were saying was accurate and that no one in my tribe wanted anything but the very best for me and my writing. Hopefully, when both our lives return to normal (whatever that may be) we can resume our bi-weekly exchanges. You have everything it takes to succeed; skill, a compelling story and most importantly, the will. See you on the book signing circuit.

  2. Cryssa Bazos

    I am very proud to be in your Tribe. Glad the Rooibos worked. I can’t agree with you more about the value of writerly support either through an organization like the WCDR and/or the support of a writing group. They’re there for a ready shoulder or a sharp, pointy stick to help you prod your characters on.
    BTW, I love what you are doing with these characters and where they’re going.

  3. Way to go, Sharon. For being brave enough to quit the day job to focus on what you love. For not just writing, but also turning over your work to critique, the only way we ever get better. For the guts to pull yourself together and make something from it. And especially, for the heart-wrenching honesty to put the tale of the struggle on the page.

    You hearten us all. Butt in chair and pen to paper, baby. You’ve got dreams to work on.

    • Thank you so much, Heather. It has been through watching people like you, people who have stacked their claim to the world of words, that I’ve resolved to honour my art, and to (finally) declare myself a writer. I would never have found the courage (or as my mother suspects – lost my brain) to leave my day job, without living, breathing examples of people who are doing it, or without the support of my family. (I should probably not have watched so much of the Oscar’s last night.)

      I’m grateful to be able to count you as one of my tribe. Thanks for fanning the flames.

  4. Funny you should use the American Idol comparison as I have felt that way myself.
    It is a subjective world and too often critiquing is filled with people that live on tearing other writers down a notch. This may or may not have been the case for you, but either way, good for you for rising above it. For taking what you needed to take and above all, for learning and being open to change.
    But it is hard. We writers are actually very delicate and for us, the word is mightier than the sword. We walk the tightrope and I’m not ashamed to say that there is a rather fat raven sitting on the end of my balance pole, making me second guess every step I take.
    Write on.

    • I’m pretty astute at recognizing wet blankets who are only interested in knocking me down. Fortunately, I haven’t run across many. I agree we as artists do tend to have fragile egos, but appreciate it is only in allowing people (carefully selected people) to read my writing, and being open to accept their critiques, that I learn and grow as an artist. If I simply want someone to tell me I’m brilliant, I’ll ask my mother (ummm, maybe not the right person, okay ask my sister or best friend) to read my work, but if I want someone to find problems with my pacing, or staging, or plot, before I send it out, I’ll continue to ask my writer friends and promise not to cry too loud if they point out issues.

      Knock that bird off! He knows how to fly.

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