Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Itch that scratch

My son writes really well, and I'm not saying that just because I am his mother. His college professors have also commented on his writing ability. I have urged him to write, to chronicle the small town he grew up in or to write a sports blog.

"But I hate writing," he responds.

"So, you don't have that itch to write, huh?" I asked. "I have the itch but apparently, I have nothing to say."


When I was a child, the classified ads were divided into employment for men, employment for women, and sales. I grew up thinking I could be a nurse or a teacher or a secretary, but not much else. I'm not sure why I thought I would have a job of any kind - my mother was a stay-at-home mom just like most of my friends' moms - but I guess I read enough Sue Barton to at least contemplate what I might do to earn a living as an adult.

Now that I think about it, because of my love of animals, I did try out the idea of becoming a veterinarian, but my dad said, "Over my dead body" - I think he thought only lesbians became animal doctors. Ditto my idea about being an Olympic miler. My brother killed my interest in being a vet by pointing out that part of my job would be to euthanize animals. Thanks a lot.

Somehow I knew being a secretary would not suit me. So that left teacher or nurse. Having been a student and seeing first hand what teachers have to put up with, even in our white collar middleclass town where we were all relatively well-behaved students, I did not think that teaching was my calling (although I would still like to have my summers free). That left nursing, and if I was to be a nurse, I'd better pay attention in science class. And I tried, but snore. My dad was a chemist and my mother later became a nurse herself, but again, I was not called.

Then it occurred to me that I could be a writer! Even as young as seven, I had received complements from teachers on my writing abilities. And there was certainly a plethora of role models, as I spent an inordinate amount of time reading. This was back in the dark ages - no home computers, no cable, no video games, and daytime TV consisted of game shows, soap operas, and talk shows, intellectual and otherwise. Reading was all there was.

And I did a lot of writing as a kid, mostly imitating the Hardy Boys series. At that time, it did not occur to me to write non-fiction. In high school, my writing tended to be a means of expressing wishful thinking, as the main character took the form of an idealized me. Oh, and I wrote a lot of bad poetry. Again, teachers praised my writing, but the craft of storytelling somehow eluded me.

Even in college, professors were after me to major in English. I toyed with the idea, but wasn't sure I could slog through Shakespeare and the classics. And what would I do with an English major besides teach? Garrison Keillor had not yet broadcast his first episode of "A Prairie Home Companion".

In my twenties, I tried to get serious about writing. My husband showed his support by buying me an electric typewriter (oooh). I wrote short stories and sent them to magazines like Redbook. I subscribed to Writer's Digest. I even took a correspondence course on creative writing. During that time, I think I sold a couple of one-paragraph items to Organic Gardening, and that was about it.

A few years and two babies later, I managed to land a writing job of sorts, reporting "social news" for a free advertiser that needed some filler. (I was so professional at my interview that I brought my infant daughter along, who cried. The secretary had to hold her while the editor talked to me.) My "column" took the form of "The gathered on at and was attended by ." Apparently, everyone likes to see their name in the paper, even if all they did was attend a baby shower. For my efforts, I was paid something like fifteen cents a column inch. I asked if I could supply the paper (which was called The Paper but not ironically) with a feature, and they said sure. I was pretty proud of that piece, but the resulting payment did not seem to match the amount of effort put forth.

But then the editor of our local newspaper asked me to write a weekly article. These articles were about local individuals who had done something noteworthy, like win a contest or work somewhere unusual or develop a hobby. The base pay was more like $25 per article PLUS $.75 a column inch. Astronomical! Since I considered myself a freelancer, I agreed, but when my first article came out, I was promptly fired by The Paper.

I saved the clippings of the articles I wrote over the next couple of years, but I'm not brave enough to reread them. I'm sure they weren't very good - I didn't understand the concept of hooking the reader with a great opening line (by the looks of this post, I still don't). All I did was try to fit all my notes into the article to increase its size. I took a photography course, so I was able to supply equally bad photos to go with my articles. And I died a little each time an article was published. It was a small town and appearing on the front page once a week felt like I was parading down Main Street stark naked.

That editor gave me some good advice: Never give your work away. And he made it clear I was free to write for other publications. And so I did. During that time, I became master of the query letter. I managed to publish an article in Soybean Digest and one in Organic Gardening. I also worked for The Farmer's Exchange as a stringer. The most exciting thing, however, was when the editor of Acres, USA called. Wow, an editor had contacted me about doing a story! I felt I was on my way.

Life being what it is - full of surprises - my circumstances changed around then. Faced with the prospect of having to support myself all by myself, I returned to school so I could get a "real" job. My writing ability still served me well, as it helped me get my foot in the door with several employers who valued the contribution I could make toward their technical writing needs.

And so it went for many years. Always, in the back of my mind was the idea that someday I would write again, maybe after I retired. Meanwhile, once the kids were out of the house, I returned to a hobby I had enjoyed in a previous life, knitting. And eventually, knitting led me to knitting blogs. And knitting blogs led me to blogging about my own knitting. And about gardening/home improvement. And eventually, a little bit about me.

Initially, blogging made me feel really nervous, naked and exposed, hence my screen identity of "Abby". And I struggle to find my voice. There are several "cursing mommy" blogs I enjoy, but that is not my style. There are funny and witty blogs, but I'm not all that entertaining. I started and abandoned several blogs along the way, trying this or that, to see if I could ignite a spark. The knitting blog survives, primarily as a record of what I knit, although Ravelry serves the same purpose. The home and garden blog also survives, again as a diary of sorts. But this personal blog mostly languishes.

It doesn't help that blogging has revealed that my writing ability is not so special. A lot of people write, many better than I do, and some even manage to get paid for blogging and/or have published books as a result of their blogging. In fact, everyone and their brother is writing a novel this month. I can't compete.

(Actually, I do have an idea for a novel, but whenever I write fiction, I feel that naked-on-Main-Street thing again, only worse.)

Over the past several years, my dad has been slowly cleaning out his basement. As a result, I have a ton of family letters (mostly from me - again, not brave enough to read those). Many, however, are from relatives I have never met, some even in Danish. It used to be that the mail was the only means of communication that was affordable. Now we have long distance calling plans, texting, tweeting, FBing, all kinds of communication methods that leave nary a trace. But blogs seem to last "forever". Even the ones I've abandoned are still out there, silently awaiting my unlikely return.

And so I keep slogging away at this blog, leaving my own slimy trail in the ether, in case some future descendant wonders about the nuts on their family tree. Blogging satisfies that itch to write, but I can keep my clothes on, figuratively speaking. Lucky you.

1 comment:

BaileyGirl5 said...

I followed you here from your comment on the Getting Stitched blog. I just love gray days too and I totally got your uneasiness from too many sunny days. I love to find a kindred spirit out there in the big wide world! My favorite days are ones where I can stay all cozy in the house and make soup and sew.