On Writing, On Travel, On Life
“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex and work.”
(Stephen King, On Writing, Scribner 2000)
Last week, I enjoyed one of those rare treats in life when twin passions, writing and travel, blended in poetic harmony with my greatest passion, my husband and biggest fan, Jim.
In early May, #Independent_Publishers, the folks who sponsor the #IPPY awards, notified me that they chose my second novel, #Jell-OandJackieO as a bronze medal winner for Best Regional Fiction, Great Lakes. I was thrilled. An earlier draft of the book was a 2013 semi-finalist in the prestigious, #Faulkner_Wisdom literary competition. This latest recognition validated my pursuit of continuous improvement.
The IPPY was a win, a bona fide medal complete with bragging rights and marketing possibilities, two vital lifelines for self-published authors. Still, I wasn’t inclined to pack a bag and head across the Atlantic; the trip would cost time and money. Our goal while living in Brussels is to explore Europe, not to schlep back to the USA. Jim, however, insisted we go! One of the many blessings of having Jim in my life—to kick me in the ass because I can’t do it myself.
Before I take us to New York, let me digress to talk about my work. As any author knows, writing is a lonely profession. We sketch in notebooks or pound keyboards in nooks, crannies, caves or kitchen tables, alone. Even some like me who draw energy from writing in cafes and coffee shops, work in isolation, minds focused on the blank page rather than the real-life soap operas playing out over lattes and caramel macchiatos at the next table. (although the Starbucks located next to a court house did provide some tidbits too juicy to ignore)
“You must not come lightly to the blank page”
Writing is hard work. For novelists, the horizon is far. Sometimes the finish line is years in the future; many give up before they cross. Friends know the discipline I bring to the writing table. Jell-O and Jackie O began as an idea in the summer of 2009. The final book, published five years later, was the result of four major drafts and many minor rewrites. I don’t surrender.
Like all writers, I want to succeed. But how do we measure success? Where do we fall on the competence scale? In his book, #On_Writing, Stephen King separates writers into four camps: Bad, Competent, Good, Great. According to King, badness and greatness are part of one’s DNA. Bad writers can never escape their fate and Good writers can never ascend to greatness, the lofty pedestal on which you find Shakespeare, Faulkner and Hemingway. Wriggle room exists only in the middle. While he doesn’t explicitly say so, I’m guessing King fancies himself as a Good writer, a Very Good writer. Four decades of relevance, unsurpassed commercial success, and an entire bookcase at Barnes & Noble support such a claim.
“It is possible with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
(Teaser Alert—at the end of this post, I’ve listed three highly successful books that King points out as examples of bad writing)
I like to think that I’m at least a competent writer. If I thought otherwise, I may as well toss out my pen and apply for a job with Cable News. King offers hope that I can be a good writer, a bit like theological heaven I know, but a carrot nonetheless.
But how do I know if I’m making progress? How does any writer? If one is lucky, he or she has a spouse like my Jim. He reads every word I produce no matter how many times I offer up a draft. Thankfully for him, he has a leaky memory—fourth and even fifth drafts are spring fresh. Jim offers objective feedback, only slightly tempered by the spousal lens. I also have a circle of test readers composed of close friends as well as writers groups in Chicago and Brussels to vet my work.
Still, each of these feedback sources has the potential for bias. While robust and valuable, this critique wouldn’t hold up in clinical trials. Then how? Literary competitions offer avenues for a new author to gain affirmation, unbiased validation, and just maybe, new readers.
Don’t misunderstand me, one contest does not a good author anoint, but it’s a data point. Winning an Ippy is a confidence booster. Most authors are insecure. Will I stop learning or trying to improve? Not a chance. Only a fool takes one, two or even three contests as the final word of his or her writing ability. But recognition by objective professionals and peers is a good, no great, feeling. It’s a chance to take a victory lap, head held high, before returning to the lonely lair with insecurities and pen as lance to face, not lightly, the blank page.
The award ceremony gave us an excuse to spend a few days in New York, one of the world’s most amazing cities, a vast colony of artists of every ilk and stripe.
The skyscrapers and tree-lined streets of edgier neighborhoods like SOHO, NOHO, NOLITA and the Bowery exude an energy unmatched in all but a few of the world’s great cities.
My brother, Scott flew in from Chicago to celebrate the moment with us. Living as we do in Europe, we don’t get a chance to see him as often as we like. Spending two days with him and sharing my award with my older brother was a treat.
Our trip also gave us the opportunity to spend time with some special people.
We enjoyed a delightful lunch in Bryant Park with Scott’s friend, Bobbi Piccoli, a Chicago transplant to New York.
In addition, recent repatriates from Brussels, Bob and Pat, ferried into Manhattan from their native New Jersey. We picked up our friendship right where we left off.
Sharing ideas, laughter, food and drinks, not to mention posing for the obligatory selfie, soothed this lonely writer’s soul. I returned to Brussels reenergized by my awesome experience not to mention three days of sun and heat, two commodities doled out sparingly by the stingy Belgian climate.
Yep, Jim was right again. Our NYC detour was another of life’s adventures that involved friendship, relationships, work, sex and more…. all the stuff with which Stephen King implores us writers to imbue our writing. I’ll be imbuing away….
Bad Writing Examples from On Writing by Stephen King:
Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann; The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller; Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews