Last summer I walked barefoot down the gravel driveway, letter in hand. This was my golden ticket to a fiction career at age fifteen, I was sure. I wore a barefoot trail between the big house and the white mailbox that summer.
This summer was the summer of half-finished short stories bouncing from brain to paper, the year when Writer's Market 2007 was the Bible. I had a little graph worked out on my laptop: article info, publisher, response time and the infamous response itself. The first columns for several rows were filled -- the last one agonizingly empty. (My email procrastination, which is bad, does not hold a candle to publishers' procrastination, which is terrible.) From the dozens of bouncing ideas, only about three or four made it through the brutal whittling down to ridiculous word limits only to face the test through fire (a.k.a. mother and siblings) and then onto the Graph, where I tracked and checked off its progress like a crazy woman. Survivors went into an envelope, addressed with most painstaking accuracy (I wished with all my heart that I'd payed attention to second grade handwriting lessons, because my fifteen-year-old handwriting looked like -- fifteen-year-old handwriting). I weighed it, stamped it by the ounce and made the barefoot trek to the mailbox. By the time I was halfway back I already had another story idea -- usually about letters or long lost love, or both. I never planned on marketing these half-baked plots; I just wanted inspiration to carry me.
Even though I earned a spot in the Young Authors' Hall of Fame and several fat paychecks from a children's magazine for three short stories (all about dogs, strangely), and even though I placed second in a literary contest with an even bigger prize (and more importantly, judged by one of my most respected literature and culture commentators), I hated writing short stories. I never could get past the word limits, which were always shorter than the inspiration itself. And frankly, I never felt comfortable: always like a pregnant brain in a size two and a half. I never believed in my short stories -- they were the most vulnerable part of my talent. My mom would love it and my best friend would hate it; half my siblings would praise, the other criticize; I'd love it and my mom would say everything but get that manuscript off the computer. I remember ripping into a million tiny pieces an offending piece. (It really was, to tell the honest-to-goodness truth, perfectly horrible.)
To me, my stories were incomplete -- sacrificed for word limits or a theme or a certain slant. I wrote with pen dipped in self-doubt. And it seeped through, apparently. Nobody believed in me, either. I think one magazine in particular got sick of sending me rejection letters. This scene played in my head:
Secretary: Lord have mercy, that lady with the two-year-old's handwriting's sent another piece of trash for the shredder.
Editor: Oh, please, no. Say you're kidding.
Secretary [devilishly]: I'm opening it--
Editor: Is there a written rule that editors have to read all repeat offenders' manuscripts?
Secretary: Not that I can think of.
Editor: We've got a business to run here. Feed it to the shredder.
I hated writing for children and I hated writing for Christians and I hated writing for anybody -- I just wanted to write. Period. And maybe get adulations for it, too. But mainly just be left alone.
It's interesting how my path branched off: I'd wanted to be a novelist at age twelve, the youngest author to hit the New York Times bestsellers list for two years running. My fiction career bombed that summer; even my beloved novel in all its thirty-something Word documents trickled to oblivion between the dog days of summer and the last leaves of fall.
But when that door slammed shut, others opened -- in quick order. I wrote a Christmas play relying heavily on wordplay and loved it. (Currently I'm writing old west VBS skits for this summer -- life shouldn't be this much fun.) I went on a worldwide (if perception could be reality) patriotic tour, entering and placing third at state for veterans' groups' speech contests. The day after I'm writing this I'll be giving a homeschool presentation. I've written for the newspaper; I write for a website; I type out my heart on this blog. Nonfiction never was my passion, but people listened when I put down my words in that arena.
Funny how that works.
I'll admit, though: when I pick up a book and flip to the title page, the title in big, black print and the author's name printed just below it, I get chills. I feel stirred to get out my pink notebook and stay up past midnight, writing out my observations of the world through the lens of another person in this life.
So far, my inspiration's just come in little whispers and snatches, little inklings and impressions. Who knows if I'll end up on the bestsellers list or not, or if my fiction writing will remain a footnote in my childhood. This I do know: My voice is not my own; it's captive to a greater Cause and a deeper Purpose, and until that inkling becomes a story, I must be content to write what words are given to me.