Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How I Came to Write

It's 2:42 a.m. as I sit down to type. I've been awake for nearly an hour, and sleep does not seem to be settling back over me. Writing is my natural go-to in moments like this. I have a few things to say.

In the eighth grade, my sister and I spent a week with our grandparents. A huge pecan tree shaded their backyard. It had a curious, black-ish brown, gooey ring around it. I asked my grandparents what it was and they explained it was a chemical treatment to protect the tree from certain insects. With this explanation, a story took shape in my head. What formed was an earnest study of how this human act of protecting the tree (very noble) would have affected the insects that lived in and on the tree. Think Berlin Wall. It was 1988.

Some words made their way to a spiral notebook. I never finished the story. I had that notebook for years, and stumbled over the story, but it remained incomplete. Thirty odd years later, my sister is still asking for its completion. Oh how I wish I HAD finished then. I would love to read it now as an adult and get a glimpse of what that eighth grader thought and cared about. I suspect they are the same things as this 40-year-old who writes now.

My pursuit of the writing life happened in fits and starts. As I was making the big move from Kansas to Michigan at age 15, my beloved English teacher, Ms. Lynch gave me a journal and demanded that I write in it and not discard it as she had hers. I still have it and the 20 journals that followed.

I have handwritten letters from my kindred paternal grandmother that again and again encourage my writing and my love of words. I wrote a few poetry-esque pieces as Christmas gifts in college.

Recently, my dear friend T reconstructed where my writing life began from her vantage point. Three months later, I am still thinking about this revelation. I keep asking myself, how was it so clear to her?

I bumbled along for years being a journaler. I called myself an aspiring writer to a former colleague. She said at the time with her lovely British accent, "If you write, you're a writer." Those words absorbed into my psyche and hung out for a few more years. I sat in a patient exam room seven months pregnant writing in my journal capturing the details of the pregnant life and anticipating my life with this soon-to-be-born baby. My doctor was out of the office, so this check-up was with his partner. The doctor, a stranger, walked in the room and saw that I was writing. He asked me about it, and I'm pretty sure I said, "I'm a writer."

More time passed. More journals filled.

What cracks me up now is that during these years, I wrote professionally. I developed content for a trade magazine, ghost-wrote for a handful of association leaders, and performed other writing duties as directed. During all of this, I never described myself as a writer. My titles were PR Specialist, PR Manager, Communications Manager. Somehow in my mind it didn't count as writing. (I shake my head as I type this. Damn late blooming.)

Now I'm a mom, and I can see how much time I had that could have been spent writing pre-motherhood. I commit to starting a journal that I will capture the small moments, funny sayings and other minutia of my baby's life.

I began writing letters to the authors whose work moved me in some way. I knew that as a published author I would like to hear from readers who had an experience with my work, so I set my nerves aside and wrote handwritten notes. The habit was encouraged by the number of authors who wrote back. This practice landed me on a phone call with Laura Munson, a writer who facilitates writing retreats in Montana. I didn't go to her retreat at that time, but the conversation helped boost my confidence to enroll in the Washington University Summer Writers Institute. For two intensive weeks, I attended class three days a week and two weekend afternoons. In this class I discovered that I write as a way to metabolize the world-externally and internally. It was a revelation to uncover the truth that I will write regardless of whether I am published. There was liberation in that discovery. A few months later I started this blog. I wrote sporadically.

And then.

In the past year, the pull toward living a writer's life has grown stronger. I wrote an essay and submitted it to a New York blogger as a guest post. She posted it. My words garnered really powerful responses. (More on this later.)

I've found myself surrounded by friends who recognize my ability and my draw toward the written word. One friend read a few things I wrote and said, "Julie, there's a best-selling novel in there somewhere." At first I considered these words a bit of flattery and didn't take them seriously. And then other people said the same thing. I reconnected with another friend who said, "If I'm not mistaken, writers write. Are you writing every day?" No I wasn't. He challenged me to write a page a day. And so I did.

How do I squeeze this with mothering, full-time employment, and checking off the 4040 list? I watch virtually no television. My house isn't quite as tidy as I'd like it, but every morning my alarm nudges me out of sleep and to glow of my laptop before sunrise. I started this habit on December 30 and haven't missed a single day.

At my birthday lunch, I read a piece of nonfiction to my friends. When I came to the end, I said, "What do I do with this?" The same friend who insists there's a novel in me answered, "It's a character sketch for a novel." There was the damn word again.

A few days later, in exasperation with a work situation, I texted a storyline to page-a-day friend. He liked it and encouraged me to take a stab at a short story. As I sat at my desk, a character named Astrid introduced herself to me and took residence in my head.

Twenty-one days into my page-a-day habit, my friend said, "There's a revamp to this daily habit. Now you can only write Astrid's story." You should have seen the perma-grin on my face. It was an expression of terror mixed with exhilaration. That was three months ago. I have written 48,000 words toward my goal of 80,000.

Last week, I checked my messages and found a note from Laura Munson. She was responding to a message I had sent her about her book landing on my top 40 list. She had a slot just open up for her June retreat and invited me to come. We spoke on the phone yesterday, and I have committed to it this time. I know attending this retreat now will catapult me into new writing space. It's scary. It's out of my comfort zone. It's exactly what I need right now.

I have learned that while I alone write these words, I am not alone as I write. My writing life has been inspired and encouraged by so many thoughtful people.

I have created a Go Fund Me campaign to help offset the cost of the retreat. If you choose to support me, you will not regret it!

Thank you for reading my words. You will never know how much your readership and support mean to me.

P.S. It's now 3:59, and I'm still not sleepy. I'm going to get my page-a-day knocked out ahead of schedule.

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