74,751

This is my new favorite number, and no, I didn’t win a jackpot. It’s not my salary or the balance in my savings account. It’s the word count for the historical romance novel I finally finished writing! It’s still rough in spots, but I was determined to keep at it, without stopping to nitpick, right until THE END.

Word Count

Hi Cortana, how many words in my recently completed romance novel? 74,751 did you say?!

If necessity is the mother of invention, then burning desire is the father of creation. My burning desire to fulfill my dream of completing and publishing a novel drove me to type like a fiend during a recent vacation. That, and the sudden clarity that if I truly want to achieve this long-held dream , I have to make it happen. It is entirely my responsibility to make this a priority, and to believe in myself, my story, and my ability 100 percent – no apologies, no excuses, no downplaying anything.

If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.  ~Unknown

My novel, my story, my baby, has taken on various forms over the years. I started it about 10 years ago, with nothing but a handful of characters, a loose premise, a seaside setting, and a cache of random scenes that I had to somehow connect. At one point, I learned that Harlequin Romance had an e-line which accepted un-agented novellas. This seemed like a manageable place to start as a novice fiction writer. I fleshed out the story to about 15,000 words and submitted it via email. Two years later, almost to the day, I received an email reply from a Harlequin editor saying how sorry she was, but they’d closed that line two years before and thought the email address closed with it. Only recently did they realize folks were still submitting to it. She encouraged me to submit another story to a different line.

I was inspired by the email. They hadn’t flat out rejected me. I decided to expand the story to 55,000-75,000 words, since the other lines required this range. Now I have to smooth out the rough edges, write a new query letter and synopsis, and attempt to navigate the mysterious world of publishing (I’ve decided not to re-submit to Harlequin). That’s where the real work begins.

So that’s where my beloved novel stands. I am beyond excited that it’s come this far. Whatever the outcome, I know that nothing which hails from the creative spirit is ever a wasted effort.

What’s your burning desire? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to set it in motion?

Behind Closed Doors – A Short Story

Note: This 1800 word short story evolved from a Writer’s Digest prompt. The challenge was to begin and end it with the very first and last sentences of the story, which WD provided. This is the first time I’m sharing it with anyone, which is kind of scary. It’s rough and flawed, but it’s mine.

It was on a bright and starry night that I visited the traveling circus that had rolled into town. Mama and me had moved to Shelby four months ago, after she left Daddy and took me with her. I hated it here, but not as much as I hated the new boyfriend she’d already shacked up with. She’d known Brett back when he was a football star at Shelby High School. Now he was a loser handyman who drank too much and couldn’t stop looking at my chest whenever mama’s back was turned.

Mama waitressed nights at a local diner, where she’d “reconnected” with Brett. In an effort to avoid his creepy glances, I started hanging at the town library after school. The former one-room schoolhouse was home to Shelby’s misfits; homeless people, nerds and geeks who actually liked to study, dregs who lived on the margins of society. Me.

It was a geek named Devin, my only real friend since moving to Shelby, who suggested we go to the circus.

“Don’t you know that circus people mistreat animals?” I said. “They, like, keep them locked up and whip them into submission.”

“Yeah, so?” said Devin.

“So, don’t you think we’re contributing to animal cruelty if we go?”

He shrugged.

“You’re heartless,” I said. “Anyway, I don’t have money for a ticket. It’s impossible to get a job in this God forsaken town.”

He grinned. “Who says we’re gonna pay to get in?”

I was fascinated. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

It was a twenty minute walk to where the circus had set up in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping plaza. The dirty imprint of a former Save A Lot sign towered over the rundown buildings. The tent, bright and white, looked out of place in its sorry surroundings.

Circus Tent Two

Families were lined up near the entrance, waiting to get in. A large sign stated, Workers needed to assist with animals. No experience required. Good pay. Must be willing to travel. I felt a pang of guilt, but tried to ignore the fact that we were aiding and abetting the exploitation of circus animals just by being here.

“This way,” said Devin, taking my hand and guiding me away from the crowd.

I was sixteen years old, but it was the first time a boy had ever held my hand.

We weaved through dozens of trailers and people who could only be part of the circus. A man in a bright colored costume walked by on stilts. In the doorway of a trailer, a morbidly obese women wearing a tutu smoked a cigarette. A boy who didn’t look much older than us led a white horse, adorned with pink plumes and a silver saddle, through a slit in the tent. No one seemed to notice us.

“See that,” said Devin, pulling me behind a trailer and pointing at the slit. “That’s the back entrance. We’ll sneak in.”

“Are you crazy? Someone might see us. We could get arrested. Or worse.”

He laughed. “Don’t be such a chicken.”

I glared at him. “I’m not chicken, but I’m not stupid either. How do you know about this place anyway?”

“I came last night.”

“You did?” I was more than a little amazed. Devin seemed like such a geek. Too geeky to do something so daring.

“Come on,” he said. “We’re wasting time.”

He looked to the left, then to the right, and in an instant I was pulled inside the tent.

“Just act normal. Like you belong here.”

We continued to hold hands as we made our way through the hustle and bustle of animals and entertainers. I followed Devin’s lead, holding my back straight and head high, my gaze directly ahead. In a moment, we reached the entrance to the show.

“This way,” he said.

He led me around the arena and on to the bleachers. We climbed halfway up and sat down. Only when I let out a long sigh did I realize I’d been holding my breath.

“I can’t believe we did it,” I said. “You are so amazing.”

He looked at me and smiled. I noticed his chest puff up a bit.

We stayed for the entire show, and not once did I think of the poor, exploited animals. I was too busy basking in the glory of holding a boy’s hand, of feeling alive and invincible as I never had before. When the show ended, we left through the main entrance. Devin walked me home.

We stopped when we reached the sidewalk in front of my house. The lights were off inside, except for the blue glare of the TV flickering through the windows.

“Going to the library tomorrow?” Devin said.

“Yeah.”

“See you there.”

He hesitated a moment, and I wondered if he might kiss me. He didn’t. Instead, he squeezed my hand before walking away. I went into the house, taking care not to let the screen door slam behind me.

Brett was asleep on the couch. Empty beer cans were piled on the coffee table. A show about Sasquatch sightings played on the TV.

I crept past him as quietly as I could, hoping to make it to my bedroom without being noticed. I’d nearly reached the hallway when I heard him say, “That you, Mae?”

I froze.

“Where you been, girl? Come here and sit down.”

I turned and made my way to the couch, sitting as far from him as possible. He lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and looked at me through glassy eyes, before turning his head away to blow out the smoke.

“Where you been?” he said again.

He leaned back against the couch and stretched his left arm out along its back. His hand was almost touching my shoulder.

“At the circus.”

“That so.”

He took another drag of the cigarette, this time exhaling the smoke toward me. I waved it away, sickened by it, and by the smell of his breath, which reeked of alcohol. Everything in me screamed to get up, now, run to my room, and lock the door. Against my will, I stayed put.

“Who’d you go with? A boy?”

“No, just some friends from school.”

He reached out and tugged on my hair. “Your hair looks pretty down. You should wear it like that more.”

I jerked my head away. “When is mom coming home?”

My words had the impact I’d hoped for. He scowled and moved his hand away, though not before his fingertips lightly brushed my right breast. I shivered with revulsion and something else, shame maybe.

“Soon. You’d best get to bed. She’d be pissed she knew you was out so late.”

He cracked open a beer and turned his attention to the TV.

Safe in my room with the door locked, I sat on the bed and hugged my knees to my chest, fighting back tears. Why had mama brought this scum into our house?  Daddy might be a little rough around the edges, but truckers had to be to survive long hours on the road. At least he had a real job and was decent. I knew with all my heart he’d never look at a sixteen year old girl the way Brett looked at me.

“Where are you, Daddy?” I whispered. “I need you.”

I had to pee, but there was no way I was going back out there until my mama came home. I laid back on the bed and watched the streams of moonlight coming in through the window cast shadows across my bare legs. Images from the circus floated through my mind.

There was the beautiful blonde horsewoman, dressed in a pink sequined leotard, who stood on the back of the white horse as it galloped around the ring. The husband and wife team who made their flying trapeze act look like a lovers’ dance. The sound of the crowd gasping in unison as a tightrope walker started to lose his balance, then the clapping when he regained it. The strong sense of belonging and comradery among the performers and their animals, which I longed to be a part of.

The sound of voices raised in anger roused me. Mama was yelling at Brett, calling him a drunken bum, a loser, a phony ass former football star. He was saying vial things to her, things Daddy would never say to any woman, let alone one he lived and shared a bed with.

A loud crash brought the argument to an abrupt end. I was afraid for my mother’s safety, but fear of what might happen to me if I left my room kept me frozen in place. After a short silence, I heard someone creep past my door. In a moment a door shut, and then I heard mama crying. Brett turned up the volume on the TV.

I wondered if her tears held regret. To this day, I didn’t understand why she’d left Daddy. They hardly ever argued. He almost never drank. He always remembered to bring her flowers on their anniversary. True, his job took him away from us a lot, but that was a sacrifice we all had to make for a decent roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and a two week vacation at the beach every summer.

Once, when I asked why she’d left him, she told me not to judge, that people couldn’t know what happened between a man and wife behind closed doors. Her explanation sounded lame to me. I loved my mother, but she was stupid. She didn’t know how good we’d had it with Daddy, closed doors or not. For no good reason that I could see, she’d ruined her life, and was about to ruin mine if I didn’t do something to stop it.

The solution came to me suddenly, but I knew in an instant that it was the right one. I stood up in the dark, hugging myself and smiling. Tonight was the last I would spend in this crummy little house with that creepy bum. Devin would be surprised when I didn’t show up at the library tomorrow. My parents would be mad at first, but I didn’t care.

I didn’t know what my future held, but I knew one thing for sure. Brett would never lay a creepy eye or hand on me again. First thing tomorrow, I was joining the circus.
______________________________________________________________________________

Want to give your own story a go? Begin it with, It was on a bright and starry night that I visited the traveling circus that had rolled into town., and end it with, First thing tomorrow, I was joining the circus. See where the story takes you, and please feel free to share a link to it in the comments!

What Makes a Writer?

You are a writerOne of the most poignant essays on writing I’ve ever read is Pat Schneider’s “You Are Already A Writer” (read excerpt here). In it she discusses the epiphany she had when her uneducated, homeless, alcoholic brother showed up on her doorstep one day and handed her a crumpled piece of paper. On it he’d written about motorcycles from hell chasing him, a metaphor for his alcoholism. In that moment, she realized that writing, and being an artist in general, is about having the courage to share your truth in your own voice.  There were artists everywhere whose stories and ideas were powerful, but the world would never know it because they lacked the technical skills to present them in a compelling way.  This experience inspired Schneider to found the Amherst Writers and Artists workshops.

Schneider’s essay transformed my notion of what it means to be a writer. It gave me permission to explore creative self-expression without worrying about perfect writing. I started to consciously practice completing short pieces from start to finish exactly as they poured out of me, not as I felt they should be presented to others.  This meant no editing the first draft as I wrote it, no agonizing over every word. If I got stuck on how to articulate something, I closed my eyes and emptied my mind until the right words came. I realized that the soul of writing is the story being told. The technicalities are secondary and can be learned or, in some cases, unlearned.

When an opportunity arose for me to teach a one-credit “passion” course to college freshmen through a First Year Experience program, I decided on Writing Our Stories. I’d taken a creative nonfiction graduate course at Wesleyan University with author Rachel Basch that changed my life. It gave me the confidence and validation I so desperately wanted and needed as a fledgling writer. I wanted to offer my students a similar experience. I wanted to give them an outlet for expressing themselves by sharing their personal stories.

I modeled the course after the one at Wesleyan, scaling it down considerably for undergraduate freshmen. I started it off by having them read short creative nonfiction pieces and discussing them, practicing techniques through writing exercises, and eventually they worked their way up to writing their own short stories and workshopping them. Their first reading assignment was Schneider’s essay. I wanted them to know from the start that this wasn’t going to be anything like freshmen English.

The course went better than I could have hoped or imagined. The students wrote their hearts out. Their valiant attempts at using dialogue, showing through scene versus telling, experimenting with humor, and using imagery to tell their stories made my own heart sing. I wanted to wrap my arms around each and every one of them when they shared excerpts of their personal stories with each other. This was a class that laughed and cried together, encouraged one another, supported each other’s efforts, talents, joys, and sorrows.

The course improved the second year because I had time to reflect and make adjustments. I broke the students into small literature circles. They had to read each other’s stories ahead of time for homework. Each circle had two discussion facilitators, two passage finders, whose role was to select a few passages that resonated with them, two critiquers, whose job was to offer constructive criticism in a kind way, and the person whose story was being workshopped. The roles changed up to give students a chance to experience each one, and to have his or her story shared.

This process gave the students complete ownership of the experience. My role was simply to move from circle to circle and listen, and offer occasional feedback. We’d discussed in detail beforehand what workshopping was, what the ground rules were, what each role entailed, and did a few practice rounds so that the students had a good sense of the type of language to use in each role.

I was geared up to teach a third year when the university faculty curriculum committee decided it was time to review the courses being offered by First Year Programs. Specifically, they wanted to know the credentials of who was teaching them. These specific “passion” courses were supposed to be faculty-led, but few faculty signed up to teach them, and those that did expected to be paid for their trouble. First Year Programs had a tight budget. They’d never make it if they had to pay all of the instructors. This is why mostly professional staff was teaching them on a volunteer basis, myself included. Without a master’s degree at the time, or any publications to my name, save a poem featured in a college literary magazine, I was deemed unqualified to teach. There would be no more Writing Our Stories.

Fucking faculty curriculum committee. They had no understanding that this course wasn’t about me and my credentials. It was about the students, and giving them the opportunity to engage in creative self-expression and personal growth through writing and sharing their stories. It was about helping them gain confidence as writers. It was about introducing them to and giving them practice incorporating elements of fiction writing into their nonfiction works. It was about giving them a voice. I understood that universities needed standards, but not one member of the committee asked to speak to me about the course or view the syllabus. They didn’t bother to ask for the course evaluations, which were overwhelmingly positive. All they did was look at my resume, see its lack of advanced degree and publications, and deem me unworthy.

Feeling bitter and dejected, I responded to an advertisement seeking a freelance correspondent for a community newspaper. I spent the next year writing news stories on everything from stargazing to hiking to the college financial aid process. I loved meeting new people all the time, going to events I wouldn’t normally have attended, and coming up with a story angle. The problem was that by the time I did all this and wrote the story, I was making about $5 an hour for my trouble. I had to give it up. I decided it was time to finally get a master’s degree, so I enrolled in a graduate English program.

Two years later, with a master’s degree in hand, graduate coursework in teaching writing, numerous published news stories under my belt, and a capstone paper that my thesis advisor felt was publishable, I didn’t feel any more qualified to teach Writing Our Stories than I had before. That’s because you don’t learn to teach by studying it in school or getting a degree, you learn to teach by teaching.

It’s the same with writing. You can take courses in the craft, and even earn a degree in it, but ultimately it’s the writing that makes you a writer. It’s the day in and day out practice, the trials and errors, the failures you learn from, the crap you write that you hope no one ever sees, the showing up on the page, never giving up, and those magic moments when the writing flows out of you like a gift from beyond – this is what makes a writer. At the center of it all is the story.

You have a voice. You have a story. You are already a writer. You have every right to express yourself exactly as you please. If your technical skills need improvement, take a course, but don’t let anyone convince you that what you are offering to the world through  your unique brand of creative self-expression is unworthy — especially if that someone is a pontiff at the podium who thinks his shit doesn’t stink.

Eve – A Poem

They told me I was born of Adam’s rib,
bone of his bone,
flesh of his flesh,
but I don’t believe it.

Bones are hard.
I am soft,
yielding,
easy to bend.

I think, instead, I was molded
from soft clay of the earth,
that God’s fingers glided gently over me
when He shaped me in my Mother’s image.