5 Women Who Kept Me Writing During The Down Times

Women-holding-handsSeems to me this week’s topic is really about gratitude, don’t you think? I’m grateful to be here, I’m grateful for my tribe … I’m also grateful that I somehow stuck it out. Maybe I wasn’t as robust and secure in my craft as other aspiring novelists, I don’t know. Point of fact, I can get really down. I’m prone to it, and I can’t tell you how many times I almost set fiction aside in the last decade. In thinking about this week’s topic, I kept remembering the tokens of support and advice that I kept close to my heart during the down times. In chronological order:

  1. Anne Lamott. I don’t know her, but I love her. In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she introduced me to the notion of the shitty first draft, which liberated me over and over again. After all, you can’t perfect your story if you don’t have a story to perfect. (And even then, perfectionism is a trap anyhow – but that’s another topic.)
  2. Anonymous. Many moons ago I attended my first writer’s workshop, which was taught by a guru-like writing teacher, T. Innocent me entered T’s workshop and instead of offering constructive criticism, he shot me down so badly that I cried. Apparently, my writing was no better than the hacks who sell their paperbacks in airports. Why did he say this? Because I’d dared to write in third person rather than first. I kid you not. Sitting next to me, dear Anonymous slid me a note: “I think this is great.” I still have that slip of paper.
  3. Elizabeth Udall, patron of the arts, founder of the Walden Fellowship. I spent six weeks living in a cabin on her ex-cattle farm in southern Oregon after winning the Walden Fellowship. During those six weeks I wrote 300 pages of the pre-first draft for KILMOON. Talk about a confidence booster. Maybe I did have some writing skills despite what horrible T had said. Elizabeth used to say, “Get up early.” I don’t do early well, but I always remembered that. It was her way of saying, Seize the day.
  4. Elizabeth George. Later I registered for a full-on writer’s retreat. This was through the Maui Writers Conference (MWC). Elizabeth George! A New York Times bestseller, and one of my literary heroes! Ack! Nerves! Her teachings had a profound impact on me, and my pre-first draft idea for KILMOON changed dramatically. At the end of the retreat, she wrote me a note: “You’ve got the story and the talent. Put them together now and run with them.” This note still hangs on my bulletin board as a ready reminder.
  5. Elizabeth Engstrom, plus Gail Tsukiyama. I’d met Liz and Gail at MWC. I remember how special I felt when they invited me to hang out with them in the hotel while they were in town for a writer’s conference. And I remember what they said. They said that they’d only met a few aspiring writers of all the 1000s they’d taught who were the real deal. I was one of them. Can you imagine hearing that? Can you imagine returning to that memory when you think your writing is the suckiest of the suck?

I like to think I’d have powered through to this point without these tokens of good advice and support, but who knows? In the end, I’m grateful is all. And, there’s a lesson here: None of us knows what impact we might have on those we acknowledge (or diss).

What tokens of support and positivism do you return to when self-doubt hits? Ever had a teacher that you now wish you’d socked in the mouth?

P.S. About having our books sold in airports … Hello? Who wouldn’t love that?

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Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at www.lisaalber.com.

16 thoughts on “5 Women Who Kept Me Writing During The Down Times

  1. Personally I’d love to have my book sold in airports. lol. This presenter sounds like a real ass–as if third vs. first person matters! I’m sorry you had to go through that, but I’m very glad you stuck it out b/c now we have your book to look forward to!

    • Seriously, right? I’d love to see my books in airports…It would mean peoples are actually reading it! Yeah, he was an ass … What was weird was how many acolytes he had — and of course they all wrote in first person. 🙂

  2. Aww…I love anonymous! What an amazing thing to give someone.

    I once had a writing friend tell me that I wouldn’t get into an MFA program. I ended up getting into 2 but chose not go for financial reasons. It’s much easier for me to shrug off that person’s comments now in hindsight, but at the time they stung quite a bit yet motivated me to prove them wrong. So I guess I have to be grateful for that…though I’m more grateful for so many other people in my life who found kinder ways to push me forward.

    • Kindness counts, definitely. I don’t understand why people have to be negative. I don’t know if your writing friend was like this, but I especially get peeved when someone is unkind under the guise of kindness, maybe as in, Just trying to save you from disappointment.

      In any case, you really didn’t need the MFA anyhow, did you? 🙂 (I toyed with the idea for awhile too….)

    • Hi Amy! It’s all too easy to remember the harsh words, isn’t it? I can do that without trying…but the kind words? Yes, I needed my notes. The good thing is that I need them less nowadays. 🙂

  3. I. Love. This. I love Annie Lamott, I love Anonymous, I HATE T, and I love this post. Also, I want my books sold in airports, and also also I want to know who T is so I can never ever buy his books.

  4. I like third-person narratives best. I get tired of first-person narratives. I think there are too many books like that, especially the Berkley Prime Crime books. And I absolutely can’t stand it when people write in the present tense; it’s just unreadable to me.

    • Thank you for saying that, Michelle. I sometimes wonder whether I’m old-school or something for liking third person. You’re right — first person is everywhere. Not that I dislike it — it just depends on the book. To think like T that first person is superior in a literary sense is ludicrous.

      I know a lot of people who can’t read present tense. It’s a tough one–I have trouble suspending disbelief.

  5. Lisa, I love this post!! God bless every one of those lovelies who boosted you along the way.

    And to stupid Mr. T, I can name a dozen best-sellers off the top of my head in third person, past tense. Why? Because it’s a powerful way to tell a story, one step away so we can observe a person’s story in the details, not in a direct thought with no nuance. Geez, where’s my megaphone and soapbox?! And sold in an airport? I’d pose for a picture at every news stand with my apparently second-rate novel if that’s where it was being sold.

    • Thanks for visiting and commenting, Lori!

      I don’t get snobbery and elitism. It’s so silly. I love seeing books in airports. I imagine my book right in there with them. And, I’d take pictures too!

      I like your description of third person–that’s so right on.

  6. I too love Anne Lamont and go back and read the chapter on shitty first drafts whenever my internal editor gets too strong. I actually heard her speak twice and talked to her for a few minutes afterward. She is funny and gracious in person.
    I had a high school journalism teacher and school paper adviser who gave me a compliment and slap in the face that has always stayed with me. She gave me my first B grade and told me she gave it to me as a wake up because I had talent but had just been coasting to all As on my exceptional memory and ability to BS. She wanted me to do the work that is necessary to become a good writer.

    • Hey Becky, nice to see you here! Wow, I love your h.s. journalism teacher. Even though the B must have been a shock to your system, what a lesson. How did you feel at the time? Were you just pissed, or did you appreciate her words right then? I bet it would have taken me a few years to appreciate what she was saying. 🙂

      Checked out your blog just now. It looks really good! I can’t believe I missed it until now.

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