Princess: Rewriting my truth
So yesterday I got to ask a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist about his process.
As soon as I thought about asking the question, my heart started to race, thumping in my chest like fists pounding on a door. Why was I so damn nervous? I was in a room filled with my peers, other aspiring writers who were there for the same reason I was. Plus, this is my home turf. The older guy sitting next to me was jotting notes that read, “Observations of Aspen,” with a list: “Athletic people, modern architecture and incongruous lines,” whatever that means. I know it’s rude to look, but I couldn’t help it. But still, this was my house.
I stood up and walked over to the microphone before I had a chance to change my mind. My voice sounded foreign, all pitchy and shaky. Richard Russo repeated my question, which leads me to believe that it came out in my signature indiscernible mumble, which drives my husband crazy.
“What did you say?” Ryan will bellow every time I try to talk to him in a normal voice.
“You’re so deaf!” I’ll reply, always exasperated.
“You mumble! Do you know what you sound like? This is what you sound like: ‘Msfffhnnn mmnnssfffhhn shmnnsssstnmfn.’”
“You can’t hear! You need to get a hearing aid, just like your father.”
This back-and-forth will continue for some time, so eventually I’ll forget what I was even talking about. I know his problem is worse than mine because he’ll often ask me, “What did you say?” when I haven’t even said anything.
The point is, even though my voice was ringing in my ears like I was practically yelling at the panel, chances are good I was mumbling.
Here’s the thing: I always thought that by this point in my career I’d be on one of those damned panels already, maybe not as a Pulitzer Prize winner but as a best-selling local author whose first novel was adapted into a major motion picture starring Kate Hudson. Is that too much to ask?
I was on a magazine-writing panel for Summer Words back when I first moved here. This mean editor girl from New York kept trying to belittle me for working at Transworld Snowboarding magazine, which she kept referring to as “niche” and “vertical,” but all she did was turn the audience in my favor. A bunch of people came up to me afterward and commented on what a biatch she was and thanked me for my helpful and insightful advice. I remember thinking how strange it was to be talking about writing to a room full of people, but at the same time, I was pretty damn proud of myself.
That was so long ago, I talked about how to send a query letter on nice letterhead with printed-out photocopies of your published work in a nice folder, sent in a colorful envelope to draw an editor’s eye. Let’s just say this was way before Twitter.
So what happened? How did 10 years go by and yet I am somehow further from my dreams than I was when I started, sitting in the audience at a panel discussion like a nervous teenager, as opposed to a seasoned journalist with a completed manuscript on my desktop that is just waiting to be revised into something good enough to be sold?
And therein lies the problem.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” my friend Jim asked when he saw me walk into one of the Aspen Words events Monday. “I thought you’d given up.”
He was of course referring to the column I wrote a few weeks ago, in which I declared I was going to become a social worker.
“It’s kind of like a disease,” I said, and I shrugged.
I have applied to grad school. I wrote the personal essay and requested recommendations from colleagues and paid the $85 fee and sent in all my college transcripts, which are now 20 years old. #WTF.
Sometimes I come up with these ideas and I’ll start talking about them to anyone who will listen, like I want to hear how they sound. But at a certain point, even I stop believing it. It’s more like a story I’m telling, an identity I’m trying on and modeling in the mirror. Does “therapist” look good on me? I can imagine my office and how I’ll decorate it and what I’ll wear to work. I picture myself wearing very hip glasses, even though I don’t need glasses, because it will make me look more thoughtful and smart. People would trust me. I’d make a decent living and feel needed and important and, most of all, fulfilled.
But then I wake up and start thinking about student loans and how little social workers really make, like probably not enough to pay back a student loan for $50,000 within a reasonable amount of time. I think about how I’d have to do fieldwork for an entire year of school, which means paying tuition and working for free. And then I remember that every time I feel like a failure, I decide I want to go to grad school.
But my ability to tell stories so rich and detailed and real is why I became a writer in the first place. Only, I never chose to be a writer — it sort of chose me. I ended up becoming a journalist, but writing about real life suited me just fine. My version of real life lies somewhere between the physical world and my imagination, which is probably how I ended up becoming a columnist.
“You’ve been writing fiction all along — you just didn’t know it,” writer Pam Houston once told me.
So maybe giving up on writing was just a story I’ve been telling myself — one that definitely needs to be rewritten.
The Princess would like to thank Aspen Words for providing the inspiration. Email your love to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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