Today, I’m going to describe the first of the 7 stages of memoir writing: Wanting to Write. This stage actually lasted a full decade and a half for me.
Yeah. Kind of pathetic, I know.
But I always had a good excuse for not sitting down and writing! You see, I was working, I was raising kids, I was working and raising kids. Too busy. Too tired. Not inspired today.
I’m sure you’re familiar with all the excuses.
But the good news is this stage eventually did come to an end. So, those of you who’ve been thinking about writing for a long time, don’t feel discouraged. Just because you’ve done the same thing every day for seventeen years doesn’t mean you can’t wake up and do something different one day. I’ll share my “inciting incident” later in this series.
And, looking back on it, I think a lot of important mental work got done during those years of “wanting to write,” despite not much of it being written down.
Or maybe I’m just rationalizing. Here’s the story — I’ll let you be the judge.
Stage 1. Wanting to Write
In 1999, my mom started showing me drafts of her memoir about growing up in World War II Philippines, Birthdays in the Cemetery. It was an amazing narrative, rich with sensory details of Filipino food, culture, and history. She told her story of overcoming poverty and deprivation with gentle humor and a generous spirit, turning what could have been depressing into an uplifting and fascinating historical memoir.
She inspired me to start writing my own memoir. I had a story I wanted to tell. Since childhood and on into my early 20s, I’d been incredibly timid and fearful, afraid of driving, getting in elevators, talking to strangers, even of climbing ladders. You name it, I was scared of it.
But by 1992, I’d learned to fly and become an aerobatic champion, representing the United States in international competition, flying loops, spins, and snap rolls.
Yes, I risked my life doing things most people would never dream of. Every day.
How did I overcome my crippling fears to end up winning a medal for the US at the World Aerobatic Championships?
And, maybe more importantly, what impact did choosing to face my fears have on the rest of my life?
I wanted to tell that story.
A Slow Start
So I sat down at my computer and typed out a short piece about my childhood.
Over the next decade and a half, I wrote scattered vignettes from my early years. And I thought about the memoir a lot. I told lots of people I was writing the story of my life.
Every now and then, I’d write a few pages when I felt particularly inspired. By 2014, I’d produced maybe 7000 words taking me up through age 8.
It was going to take me a LONG time to get to age 25, to the day I stepped into a cockpit for the first time.
Clearly, something wasn’t working.
What Rejections Taught Me
I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. I’d written my first story when I was four years old, and had amassed a smattering of short story publications and writing awards while I was still in my teens.
But once in college, I deferred my writing dream. I needed a more “practical” career, a way to earn a living. I loved math just as much as I loved writing (my earliest notebooks were equally divided into “Words” and “Numbers” sections). So I decided on a career in math and computer science. Besides, I’d learned in my elementary school in Indiana that teachers might accuse me of plagiarism if I used advanced vocabulary on an essay, but they couldn’t charge me with copying if I got the best score in the class on a math test.
Still, I kept on writing, though I never showed any of it to anyone. Of course, I assumed my awards proved I was “talented” enough that should I ever decide to write for publication, I wouldn’t even need to take any writing classes.
Writing a novel
In 2014, I took a big step: I shared a novel I’d written with a good friend of mine, a professional writer. (Secretly, I was hoping she’d be dazzled and impressed.)
But she frowned, weighing my manuscript in her hands like a slightly spoiled slab of meat.
“You hate it,” I said.
“Well… it’s not bad for a first draft.”
The version I’d given her represented a couple of years of work, and at least eight complete rewrites.
“And it’s not my favorite genre.” She gave me an encouraging smile. “But you can fix it. First, your characters sigh too much. And they’re always opening their mouths. It’s annoying.”
I was bewildered. “I’m just writing how people actually behave.”
She sighed. (See what I did there?) “You can fix it.”
About ten rewrites and several discouraging critiques later, I finally admitted that my style could use a lot of work. Although it was hard for me to accept, my friend did me a big favor with her honesty. Despite my belief in “talent,” narrative writing didn’t just come naturally, at least to me. I needed to learn more craft. Also, since I seemed to have a hard time finishing projects, some external motivation might be in order. I decided I’d improve most under the discipline of a formal writing program.
Going back to school
Several months and a great deal of research later, I’d narrowed my choices to two writing programs, both less expensive than most, and located near Seattle so I could attend without having to leave my full-time job. But in order to apply, I’d need a writing sample, transcripts, letters of recommendation.
Ugh. It had been a long time since I applied for anything. My college transcript dated from the 80s. I wasn’t even sure how to get one sent.
Also: a writing sample. The whole point was that I wanted to go to the program to learn to write. Nothing I had was good enough. But I pulled up one of my short stories from an old folder. It was terrible. I spent several weeks polishing it and getting it into the best possible shape.
The first rejection arrived on a business trip. I was working out on a stair climber in the hotel exercise room when I saw the email on my phone.
I still remember that moment. Drenched in sweat in that bright, mirrored room, I eagerly pulled up the email, only to have my hopes dashed. The months of work I’d spent crafting an application had been for nothing. I wasn’t good enough.
My eyes stung. (“Your characters cry too much,” my writer friend had said. “It makes them look weak.”)
Rejection always hurts. No matter how many of them I get (and I have gotten literally hundreds of rejections), they always make me feel like someone has sliced open my skin and poured acid on the cut.
But I’ve learned the only thing to do is to keep going. After all, cuts heal with time. Whenever I get rejected, I try to analyze the reasons for my failure, and then I apply again. I rewrite. I try another avenue.
A few weeks later, the other program, the Northwest Institute of the Literary Arts (NILA), accepted me into their MFA program for creative writing.
Of course, if they accepted me, my first thought was they must accept everybody. (Didn’t the other program reject me? Didn’t that mean I wasn’t very talented at writing after all?) And I didn’t really want an MFA. I had enough degrees: a BS, MS, and even a PhD. What did I need with an MFA?
Still, I needed to learn to write better, and the program sounded like a lot of fun. I signed up.
It was my first step into the larger world of the writing community, where I’d make many friends and many wonderful discoveries.