Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Learning Curve

Although I have been writing for decades (it throws me into a panic to tack an exact number on!) I have found that writing is a lifelong learning process.

When I first started writing in the late 1960's, let's say, when I was a child it was a simple process of using my limited vocabulary and spelling ability to make a story that sounded good to my ears. I still think it was a good story, although I don't have a copy of it. I can still envision it in my still mostly untidy grade school printing on wide lined elementary school paper with pale turquoise lines. I was so proud of that story, no matter how improbable a lion escaping from a zoo and going off to have adventures ina jungle may have been. In my imagination it worked for me.

In my pre-adolescent years I wrote a lot of poetry. There had been a number of things going on in my young life that troubled and worried me. My mother had been in and out of the hospital since before I was in kindergarten. She'd lost several babies, almost died, and then had gallbladder surgery. My great-grandmother had moved in with us to help take care of us while this was going on. She had a bed-sitter apartment attached to our house and her own bathroom. One day while on a picnic at Laurel Lake with the family she feel to the ground. My Dad carried her to the back of the station wagon, my brother and I climbed in and sat with her- she was lying down. We went home, but then the ambulance came to take her away. She later died due to a heart attack. And then when I was not quite seven years old I was walking around the block to mail a letter with my sister. It was near Valentine's Day. There had been snow and ice, but now the ice was melting and a little stream of water was running along the side of the road beneath the melting ice. My big sister, who was four years older than me, had a conversation heart candy in her coat pocket from a party at school. She put the large, flat candy heart in the water and we were following it as it rode on the stream of water like a pastel colored heart-shaped raft. And then we continued walking after we lost it under a snowbank.
Suddenly my sister said her head hurt and the next thing I knew she had collapsed in a snow bank and could not get up. I bolted for home, terrified and told my mother, who ran out the door. My 11-year old sister had had a blood vessel burst in her brain, similar to a stroke. A neighbor took her and my mother to the hospital but then she was transferred to the children's hospital in Boston where she spent quite a long time. It was a traumatic event for me and it disrupted family life once again. All these medical emergencies made school erratic for me from first grade to third grade. I spent a lot of time living at my grandparent's house and being home-schooled with materials my Dad picked up from our teachers and delivered to my grandparent's house sixty-five miles away in Franklin County.

My poetry reveals pre-teen angst and worry about death. My short prose also touches on these topics at that time in my life. But at 13 I was able to produce some beautiful images with words.

My family moved from Easthampton to Westfield in 1973. I was fifteen-years old and had just begun to grow comfortable with a small group of peers after the early disruptive years of my education when kids make those first friend connections. I wasn't there much to make friends. That didn't happen for me until fourth and fifth grade. It threw me off balance to leave behind my still new group of friends and have to start high school as a sophomore in a brand new school among teenagers I did not know at all.

I continued writing because writing was my escape from the world. I wrote short prose and short stories and poetry still. I was a loner, shy. It was difficult for me to make friends. I developed anorexia, had fainting spells. I did well in school, except for math and chemistry which were not my subjects. I excelled in English classes and earned some recognition from my teachers as having an ability the majority of my peers did not have. I was producing better stories. My writing had matured. At home, in my bedroom, I would lie on my bed and write in longhand for hours on end developing story ideas and characters. I was prone to run on sentences, and still can ramble on. I've trained myself to stop connecting sentences with "and" but it still happens when my brain is in lightning speed mode.

I stopped writing poetry for the most part in the early 80's. I wrote short prose and short stories, and continued to develop plots and create characters by writing story after story with the same characters, changing the plot and settings. By the time I got married in 1984 I had to trash cartons full of handwritten stories involving the same chaarcters. None of it was worth saving, in my opinion, because nothing was ever completely written. I would get bored and start over.I heard trees screaming in my head because I wasted so much paper in those days!

In the 90's I wrote a lot of stories for Kelly who had been born in 1991. As she grew the stories grew. I always wrote a little above her age level because we had plowed through a massive library of picture and story books and read the entire Boxcar Children's series and other series by the time she hit elementary school. I read to her every night practically from the day she was born. At two years old she could use words like 'catastrophe' and 'procession' correctly in a sentence when speaking.

My stories and writing had evolved once again. Looking back on my earlier writing I could see signs of growth- better descriptive writing, a smoother flow to the words. I like alliteration- how words sound together and was getting better with that. Everything worked together as a whole, so I very seldom had to go back and change anything, just correct spelling and punctuation errors.

My main writing tools have always been a dictionary and a thesaurus. I didn't start using the computer to write until the late 1990's. I used my Mom's electric typewriter. Kelly knew how to use a computer before I did. I was just terrified to trust a computer to not lose my work. However, once I got over that fear, primarily de to my husband who is an IT guy and assured me he backed up the computer onto a hard drive and disks periodically, and then the invention of the zip drive, I learned to trust computers and now almost exclusively write on my laptop. I can now Google search words I can't spell and to double check facts and word meanings.

I did not write a complete novel until 2012. I wrote short stories, novelettes, and novellas, plus random bits of short prose until then. After 30 plus years of writing the same stories with the same characters over and over again I'd pretty much concluded that I could never finish a novel- I just didn't know how to end one!

But Kelly, who was in college at the time, had done the NaNoWriMo writing challenge in November 2011 and persuaded me to give it a try in 2012.  I buckled down and practiced in March and surprised myself by writing a novel.

From 2012 to the present I have written more novels then I ever imagined I had in me. I have self published 11 to date and have at least five more sitting on the dining room table just needing cleaning up. I still write dense prose, definitely not the "cozy" style of mostly dialogue which drives me crazy. I like to immerse myself in a story. I want the entire experience, not just the bare bones. I call my style of writing full immersion writing. I create a setting, a place, a home, and characters who are fully drawn out and filled in. They aren't one or two dimensional people. They have flaws. They're worlds are not perfect. They are struggling, interacting with other characters and finding their way in their world I have created for them. I like it when they triumph and feel sad when they don't., but not everyone makes it through life easily.

I have grown as a writer through the years, my style changing, developing to what it is now. I expect to keep growing, keep changing through the years left to me to work at my craft, my passion. I still haven't mastered the use of the comma, but I'm getting better at it. I am now trying to pare down some of my excessive prose where it becomes repetitive. Writing contest judges have liked my snappy dialogue between characters but I know for a fact I could end up writing way too much dialogue if I don't stop myself! My characters get too chatty at times.

Sitting down and reviewing my writing through the decades I can see the emerging butterfly from the chrysalis. I don't ever feel that my wings are yet fully unfurled, but I am getting closer to the day when my writing will take flight and soar. That one of my novels written in June of 2016, submitted to a writing contest in October 2016, and just announced as a finalist in January 2017 tells me that I am closer to being able to fly, to reaching my dream than I have ever been before.

Writing, as with living, is all about growing, adapting, finding the right path, struggling, failing, picking up the pieces and moving on, moving forward, striving, growing some more, finding what lies within yourself, pursuing dreams, small victories, tremendous losses, rising to the challenges...and never giving up. It's a learning curve.

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