When I was in sixth grade, I wrote short stories, which I read to my sixth-grade bestie, Camilla.This was around that summer that we spent traipsing to the public pool with our silver-pin season passes, when the high dive was scarier than world affairs (which we—or at least I—was blissfully unaware of), and before boys became big deals. Love was abstract, something we could imagine because of Judy Blume books, and pop songs on the radio. One day, we set up my audio cassette recorder, and we taped ourselves each singing Diana Ross’s part to “Endless Love” in a duet with Lionel Richie. One of us got the A side, the other B. Diana could be heard in the recording, but we sang over her voice as best we could, thinking we not only sounded superb but that we knew what we were singing about. The future seemed as easy as lyrics. I kept that cassette until college, when that little rectangle of plastic with its magnetic tape of our hoped-for selves got lost in the shuffle of moves and growing up and learning that love was more than whatever I thought Diana Ross had meant, or Olivia Newton-John when she sang, “You’re the one that I want” in leather pants.
I tell you all that so that you understand that sixth grade was a time when the world and my place in it seemed utterly possible. When I read those stories to Camilla, she listened to every word. She told me how great they were, and I think, back then, she believed that as much as I did, which was very much. In junior high, I wrote story after story on my father’s blue Selectric typewriter, which he kept on a yellow metal table next to his desk. I remember the font element, which looked like a silver egg with the alphabet wrapped around it. The element would jerk the letters onto the page every time I tapped a key. I could whip out words so fast that I made the element clankety-clank across the paper I took from my father’s stash, paper I rolled again and again into the typewriter. I thought I would never run out of words, or stories.
Back then, I decided I wanted to be a writer. What kind? A novelist.
But the best of stories take unexpected turns, and mine took many, most of which have made me a better person, and a few of which just made me mad.
As for being a novelist, I somehow let go of that dream without realizing I had. I turned to poetry in high school, and in college, I returned to story writing only briefly by taking a fiction class. It was my worst grade in all my English college courses. Dr. Dixon kept telling me over and over, “You have no conflict,” and he would write in his comments on my stories, with ink I could not erase, “You need conflict.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought my stories were full of conflict, just, well, understated. Unspoken.
At any rate, I decided I was no good at writing stories, and I didn’t try again. I stuck to poetry, and poems coaxed me through the kind of soul searching you don’t do in sixth grade but you do a lot of later, at least in my case, when life takes those unexpected turns. What I mean is, when life is turning into story.
I didn’t think I had short stories or novels in me anymore. I’d lost that sixth-grade moxie, not about everything, but about some things, and maybe more things than I realized back in college.
Here is another story from my undergraduate days, or rather here is another college professor story. This one’s about Dr. Reynolds, who taught me theater classes in directing and acting. He was set to retire a couple of years ago, and I reached out to congratulate him, and we exchanged emails. He wrote, “I have such fond memories of you as an excellent acting student.” What I remembered was having to play a drunk but cool, confident character, the kind of woman who could wear stilettos and actually know how to walk in them—no hunching forward, no trying to balance herself—all while more than tipsy. I was not very good at pretending, but I wobbled around on stage and hoped I wasn’t turning red the entire time.
I wrote Dr. Reynolds back, “I know I was NOT a good actress (although I did try very hard, so I guess technically I could be called a good acting STUDENT).”
And you know what he said? “No, you were a good actress,” he wrote, “when you trusted yourself. You just needed to believe you were good. When you did that you soared.”
And this is why I wish everyone could be blessed with good teachers. It’s been two and a half years since I read those words, and even now, they hit me like it’s the first time.
So. This summer, I decided to try writing fiction again. A flash story here, a tiny story there. Then I applied for the fiction program at my school. Maybe I had some moxie in me after all. I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter whether I got in, but it kinda did. To apply, I had to turn in a manuscript. Twenty-five pages. Which I had to write the weekend before because it’s not like I had 25 pages of fiction lying around waiting to hit the town. I tried to prepare myself for no, but instead the director of my program shocked me with a yes. And though he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic in his evaluation of my 25 pages, I tried to focus on the important thing: I was in.
Now I’m taking another leap. I've decided to write a novel in November. November is, officially, novel writing month—has been for years, except no one seems to know that except my writer friends. Which makes sense: We’re the ones obsessed with words. The goal is to write, by end of November, a 50,000-word story/novel. That kind of word count is likely in the realm of novella, but it's still way more than I thought I could ever do. The goal is not to have a polished final draft but to have a first messy draft.
Can I do this? Well, if someone else can, then I might as well, too.
I don’t really know what I am going to write about, but I figure I’ll eventually come up with something if I just pound out the words.
My dad’s blue Selectric would come in handy right about now. So would the yellow metal table. And, for that matter, so would Camilla.
I’ll try to do her proud.