Learning to ride again…

It has been a while, I know. But I’ve never been far away from the written word. Not at all in fact. I was asked for my fiction writing class final to write a personal narrative on my experience through the class. It’s a bit long for this format, I know, but I thought it worth the share:

Call me arrogant, ignorant or perhaps even foolish — I’ve been called worse, today in fact — but I truly thought this whole writing journey would be a cinch. I’d turn in a few words and everyone would be so unimaginably impressed, publishers would beat a path to my door. The college would quilt me with degrees. I’d be the new voice of my generation, the Redneck Laureate. Everybody would want to say they once knew me…

I’d earned my chops, I thought. I’d been writing professionally longer than most of my fellow classmates had been alive. Considering I can date that back to the late 1980s, it was hardly unimaginable, at least that’s how I pictured all those phantom writers in my online classes, anyway. I was pretty good, too. I’d collected walls of awards from regional, state and national press organizations to back that up. I’d even taught writing, in my early 20s as an honest-to-God teacher in my first attempt at grad school, and later as an editor to countless young writers in newsrooms across the state. Plus, I’d lived life, not vicariously through some other man’s words, but through my very own, both written and otherwise. To borrow a few lyrics from one of my favorite Red Dirt singers, Mark McKinney, “I’ve done a lot living/Oh, the stories I could tell.” All had I had to do was get to telling them. There’d be no stopping me.

            I think the job searches were the first to begin whittling away at my delusions of grandeur. Call it a maniacal twist of fate, but the very same day these classes started this semester I was handed my walking papers at the job I worked for the last five years. I wasn’t writing there. I walked away from that years before, partly because I was burned out on all the mundane chores that came with getting to pen the occasional prize winner. But mostly, I walked away in shame. All that living finally caught up with me. Blame it on going through some hard times — my mother died, my father got real sick, my marriage was on the rocks — but I made some really poor choices. I started using an F-word to describe myself, perhaps one of the nastiest words in our language. If you don’t believe it, just try writing the word “felon” on a job application. I have to. It doesn’t bode well. When it came to writing and school, however, the timing of that layoff couldn’t have been more meaningful to me. It was a sign from the heavens, I was certain, time to get back to what I was meant to do. Of course, I gotta eat, too; so I dove into that job hunt headfirst. I applied for several writing jobs. I even sought out a few bleaker options like flipping burgers (“I see you have a degree; I’m not sure you have the skills we’re looking for”). It’s been 110 days since these classes started. I know this because I’ve been turned away from at least as many jobs. I don’t tell you this to launch a pity party. Rather, it’s a means of sharing some perspectives. Let’s just say a steady flow of rejections can really erode away your confidence.

Even before I arrived at that particular lightning bolt of reality, I was struck by something else: All those stories I had to tell, there weren’t a lot of them that were really all that interesting, not by themselves anyway, and certainly not in print. Plus, after walking away from the writing life for as long as I had, I’d gotten rusty. The very thing that I remember doing so simply had become downright difficult. “It’s like riding a bicycle,” my writer friends would tell me. What they failed to mention was the fact that the bike you put in storage all those years back has probably got two flats, a busted chain and the rats have gnawed your seat off. Sufficed to say, I was in for a rough ride, whether I knew it or not.

Something else I noticed, too: Although I’d spent years chasing stories, I was venturing into an entirely new realm when there was no story to chase. As a journalist, you have some event, some issue, that’s worth your words. You go to that event. You research that issue. You talk to people and learn what it’s like to be involved. None of that exists in fiction writing. There’s no place to go; no one to talk to. You start with a blank slate, conjuring events and making up people, handing them issues and imagining how they might react. Sure, those reporter years definitely come in handy — I met tons of people with all sorts of personalities; I saw their reactions in a variety of circumstances — but fiction writing, I soon discovered, could be likened to journalism about as much as that old rat-chewed bicycle might have to do with driving a tugboat. Or flying a plane. Or delivering a eulogy. All may have the capacity to transport someone to another place, but each involves vastly different skill sets.

Even after tossing some air in those tires and lubing up the moving parts, I was hardly racking up mileage on my bike.  I’d already turned in two long writing submissions and started more than a dozen others of my own accord by the time you gave us those Flash Fiction assignments at the end of the semester. Still, they proved for me some of the hardest assignments yet to date. Oddly, the first one wasn’t nearly as hard as the second. In fact, for nearly three full days I stared at a blank screen on that second submission, unable to get beyond more than a sentence or two. “Riding a bike, my ass,” I remember thinking. Even after all the prep work, I was still barely limping along.

I managed to pedal a few feet — I got that story written — but not without second guessing every move I made. It was a truly humbling experience.

About the time my faith had all but faded, there came word of a reading. Here was my chance to showcase all that brilliance I started these classes certain I possessed, and I had more than enough material to choose from. Of course, in my new view of my own writing, my bike was still pretty busted. And no matter how many encouraging words I may have heard in the days leading up to the event, all I could picture was a frog in a dissection pan, all its innards and scrawny sinews exposed as some cruel soul carves out its spleen. I was terrified. For one, crowds of any sort scare the hell out of me. Always have. A public speaker, I am not. I sound like a hick, and don’t look much better, not in my view, anyway. Plus, this was personal. Whatever I chose to read, this was my creation. However received, it was ultimately a reflection of me, personally.  And not only was I not the pillar of writing prestige I once thought I was, everyone in the room was about to know it.

Hands shaking and sweat flowing, I managed to get through it. Truth be told, it was nowhere near the horror show I imagined. In fact, if I say so myself, it went rather well. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my back-to-school experience so far. Maybe, just maybe, that bike of mine wasn’t nearly as broken as I’d feared.

Thanks. I needed that.

So what have I learned? Several things, actually. First and foremost, I still have lots to learn. That realization started for me not long after my reviews came back to me on my first submission. I’d already read a number of my peer’s stories, some admittedly better than others. The ones I liked best were ones that were doing things I wasn’t, like writing dialogue, for example. I’ve worked on that particular aspect a lot this semester, and while I’m sure I still have a long way to go, I feel like I’m light years ahead of where I started. Even for the stories I didn’t particularly like as much, you forced me to examine the hows and whys of them. In so doing, they frequently highlighted some aspect of my own work that I felt I might improve. Writing with a focus on scenes, for instance, is something I became far more conscious of than I was before. I wasn’t half bad at building a scene when I started, I don’t think, but I wasted many a word wandering between them. And I cannot begin to tell you how much I saw the value in letting my writing age a bit before editing/revising. As someone who typically wrote every word he ever published on deadline, I was fairly certain such advice applied to everyone but me. I’ve proven myself way wrong on that aspect.

As to the materials you offered us to read this semester, I found them all useful. Our two required novels, for instance, definitely exposed me to works I likely would not have found on my own. Both proved interesting to me, and after we explored their respective styles and story-telling techniques, I walked away from them, if nothing else, a bit more enlightened than I was before. I commend you, too, on the supplementary articles and notes you shared. They definitely helped focus me as a writer.

One of the best reading materials you offered me in this class, however, came in Stephen King’s On Writing. I believe the words you used when making that suggestion to me was that it would become “my Bible” as a writer. Truer words elude me. But it wasn’t so much his discussions on style or mechanics I found useful. Rather, it came in his presentation of a lifestyle, if you will. I’ll admit, it was hardly earth-shattering stuff, but it found me when I needed it, a reminder that I could benefit greatly from a return to what should have been obvious basics. His advice, put simply: Read and write, religiously (although I’m certain he’d have a complaint or two about my use of an adverb here). Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t just read his words; I put them into practice. I believe I’ve missed a grand total of just three days of devoted writing time since I read that book. I write something every day now, whether I’m “in the mood” or otherwise. In fact, those days when words come hardest, I’ve found, also wind up being the ones I’ve produced some of my better work.

And let me tell you about reading: I hadn’t picked up a book in probably three years or more before I started this class. That’s a shame, I know, for someone who once wore his English major proudly. But even at the pinnacle of my most literary moments in life, I was never what anyone would call a “good” reader. I’d always been kind of slow, in that regard. Sure, I loved stories, but pulling words off a page was a chore, something I never cared for much. I couldn’t begin to guess what, exactly, in me has changed as I’ve gotten older — maybe that hyperactive, squirrel brain of mine has slowed down a bit finally — but I suddenly find myself able to clear a book a day or two. Some, like King’s book for instance, I practically read in a single sitting. I find that utterly remarkable, for me at least. I’ve read more books, in their entirety, since February of this year than I have even held in the last two decades. And that doesn’t begin to touch on all the magazine articles I’ve been through at the same time. I can’t begin to explain it, but I’ve stumbled onto a voracious appetite for the written word that I have honestly never known before. I’m not complaining, mind you, just utterly impressed by it.

And the more I read, the more I wanted to write. It’s like I discovered the whole other world all over again. Even when someone was paying me to fill their pages and I was winning all those awards, I’ve never felt the creative urge that I’ve come to know in these last few months. Inspired, I do believe they call it. I’m sure that sounds rather silly. Even rereading these words on the page as I write them, they seem giddy and trite. But here’s the thing: I may have known a few tricks on that old bike of mine back in the day. My memory of them may have even pushed the boundaries of my skill level. But as I knock the dust off of that old ride in what’s bound to be an arduous journey, I can’t help but imagine the finish line. Not the adoring crowds I once pictured, but the personal satisfaction one knows in having completed the journey itself. Her framework may have held up through the years, but no doubt she needs some polishing. I’m fairly certain parts of her need to be replaced altogether. But I can’t help but feel the wind on my face as that old bike slowly comes together. Were it not for the work I’ve already put into her, my bike would be just as dusty and dilapidated as ever. Were it not for the work already done, I wouldn’t feel compelled to see it through. Call me arrogant, ignorant or perhaps even foolish, but as I learn to ride again, I can’t help but wonder what sights await me.

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