Splinters and scars

I was re-reading Wonderbook yesterday and it got me thinking a lot about myself, and why I write. Specifically, it talks about something called the Scar or the Splinter, some nagging experience or relationship or hole in your life, something that has fed the writer part of you, one way or another.

In fourth grade, my teacher did a unit on poetry, and asked us to write our own poems for homework. I don’t know what my first poem was about–storms? vampires?–but I remember being incredibly excited about it. I busted it out in no time flat in after-school care, ran back upstairs to the classroom and showed it to poor, beleaguered Ms. Daquino, who was grading papers or possibly sneaking pulls of gin. I begged her for another topic, and she told me to write about her dog. I knew nothing about it, but this did not trouble nine-year-old me.

For the rest of the year, I would sit at the computer in my grandfather’s office, pouring my words into whatever word processing program came with Ye Olde Windows 3.0. Notepad, probably. I wrote by hand on lined paper in my Trapper Keeper. I entered poetry into our local youth fair and got blue ribbons–stickers, but still, first place!

This was important to me because I was in a new school, and I’d struggled to acclimate. The program was designed for smart kids, which I supposedly was, but things had never been a challenge for me before. I didn’t know how to cope, and my mom didn’t understand why I was getting such awful grades all of a sudden. There’s more to it than that, but suffice it to say that suddenly I’d found a thing I could do, and show to people, and get positive reinforcement. It made me feel awesome.

So for years, I wrote because people would tell me I was good at it, whether or not that was true. I loved reading, so the two things dovetailed nicely. No matter how crappy my grades were, I could bust out a poem and feel like a million bucks. But all good things must come to an end.

I can’t remember exactly when the midden hit the windmill, but I was a teenager, I’m sure. I think I’d found a forum for workshopping and posted something, flushed with excitement, ready for the accolades to pour in. I was Batman, and that workshop was Bane, and the sound of my ego’s back being broken probably registered on a seismometer somewhere.

I’ve had ups and downs in self esteem since then, but the scar remains. The splinter is still there, underneath. Every poem, every story, is me trying to get back to the place where I had a thing I was good at and felt good about doing. But that place burned down years ago, so really, all I can do is try to build a new one in the same spot. Or somewhere else, maybe with a better view and a more stable foundation.

So, I invite everyone to consider their own splinter or scar. The thing that makes you write, no matter what, that itches or causes phantom pains even if you don’t know what it is. Give it some thought and see if you can figure it out. It might lead your writing to new places.

And because a little introspection is never enough, today, Chuck Wendig sent out a call for writer evaluations. His questions, and my answers, are below.

a) What’s your greatest strength / skill in terms of writing/storytelling?

I think I have a decent ear for dialogue, but I’ve been told my imagery is what really stands out.

b) What’s your greatest weakness in writing/storytelling? What gives you the most trouble?

Writing a sufficiently complex story. Mine tend to be too linear: not enough variation in tempo, too few setbacks, no reversals or just the single twist at the end.

c) How many books or other projects have you actually finished? What did you do with them?

I’ve finished 140 stories (mostly microfics) and 120 poems in the last five years, give or take. Most of them went up on my blog, because at the time I craved attention and feedback. I’ve finished one novel and started another eight, with the most recent one still chugging along slowly. I started to revise the finished novel, but put it aside because it feels like a trunk novel, which is fine. Sometimes a thing is so broken, it’s not worth gluing back together. Lately, I’ve been collecting rejections for the stories and poems I wrote within the last year or two. I’m aiming high, but it’s still discouraging at times.

d) Best writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. really helped you)

Worry about writing better, first and foremost. If you don’t manage that, you’re spinning your wheels with all the other trappings of the lifestyle. I wish I’d learned this sooner.

e) Worst writing advice you’ve ever been given? (i.e. didn’t help at all, may have hurt)

Build a platform/audience as early as you can. This led to a lot of wasted time that I could have used to practice my craft. It’s totally cool for people who love to write about writing or particular topics they’re researching, and flit around being sociable, but that takes a lot of energy for me. It wasn’t worth the investment.

f) One piece of advice you’d give other writers?

Don’t rest on your laurels, or lack thereof. Keep pushing. Be like the athlete who works to beat her own personal best. Plateaus happen, but there will always be a bigger mountain to climb somewhere, and it’s your job to find it and plant your flag on the peak.

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