Friday, October 19, 2012

My Tiny Sunbeam

All of us have things that we`re afraid of.

For some folks it`s clowns, dogs, ghosts, snakes, spiders or thunderstorms. Heck, I`ll confess to being scared silly by bees, as irrational as that fear may be. Most generally our fears don`t hold us back from doing what we desire in life. I still go outside in the summer, despite all the little winged attackers just laying in wait to sink their stingers into me. Granted, I may sneak out the back door to avoid all the wasps that nest behind our shutters, but I still go out.

But what if our fears hold us back from realizing a dream? What if what we`re afraid of places a chair under the doorknob of our aspirations?

Well, I`ve heard that talking about what scares us makes it less scary. That by bringing the frightening thing from under the bed or in the closet out into the daylight and confessing that it frightens us makes it less daunting. Sort of like saying ‘Lord Voldemort’ out loud makes the name less powerful according to Hermione Granger. So, here goes. *Takes deep breath*

As a writer I`ve had to overcome a large fear. Today, I thought I`d talk about that fear and by doing so hopefully it will wither in the light once and for all just like a vampire. Unless it’s a sparkly vampire then it will just stand there, minus its shirt, and get angst all over the carpet.

My fear, the one that nearly kept me from pursuing this craft I love so much was (and still is at times) is the fear of being undereducated in a profession filled with the highly educated. I guess, to make it sound more plain, I was afraid of being called a dummy. Sure, sitting here in the sunbeams at my laptop that worry seems rather silly. But it is a large fear that even now – one book published and a short story recently accepted by a publisher for admission into an anthology – nips at my heels from time to time.

I suppose I never really thought about the lack of a college degree until I fell in love with writing. I worked for many years in the food service industry which is a fine place to make a living. Didn`t need a degree to flip burgers so that was okay. I became a mother. Don`t need a sheepskin for that either although a manual would have been nice! Getting married didn`t require a degree although I did need a license. So I was cruising along down the road of the high school diploma holder without a care about higher education or my lack thereof.

Then I discovered writing. I also discovered that some folks feel they`re a step above those of us who lack that degree in journalism or creative writing. And friends, I learned that lesson by having the flesh ripped off my back for grammar and mechanical mistakes early on. Oh I know, some of those people really did mean well. Some helped me learn quite a bit. Some were just mean-spirited snobs who didn`t dare sully themselves with the uneducated goatherder who sometimes forgot a comma or didn`t know what a reflexive pronoun was. (I still don`t, but my editor does, and that`s good enough for me.)

After being flogged by the well-meaning - and the not-so-well-meaning - my insecurity skyrocketed. I grew so fearful of making mistakes that I found myself frightened of writing something others would see. Now as an author being afraid of letting others read your work is rather like being a chef who is terrified of serving people the food they prepare. It`s defeating your own purpose.

I spent a few years in this state, wanting to write and have others enjoy my work yet being too apprehensive to take the steps needed to publish. Fear was strangling my dream. I fretted over every little mistake, or perceived mistake, until my muse got crushed under the weight of my insecurity. I couldn`t write anymore. The flow was gone. The joy of creation was dead. The elation of putting thoughts to paper was no more. All because of my fear of being called a dummy. Pretty silly for a woman who was nearing fifty, huh?

Well, yes and no. It is silly to let your fears keep you from doing what you love. It is also understandable that sometimes those of us who are writers or artists crumple into balls and hide in the closet, terrified of that monster with the words ‘YOU STINK!’ or ‘YOU DUMMY!’ or ‘YOUR WORK IS TERRIBLE!’ stamped on its hairy green chest.

Our books and paintings, poems and sketches truly are our prides and joys. We put hours or days or weeks or years into our novels or oils or lyrics. All it would take for me to run back under the bed was one person with an elitist attitude or a disparaging tone telling me - in the nicest way possible of course - to ‘Take a few college courses ,dumpling, then we`ll talk’. Paying for me to go back to school full-time isn`t a reality. I have a daughter to put through college first.

Yep, I was a shuddering mess of doubt back then. Then one person pulled me aside one day. He sat me down and asked me what had happened to the passion in my work. I told him. I explained how I didn`t feel that I had any place writing when I was such a dullard. I cited all the degrees he had. All the degrees everyone who ever wrote a book had!

To that he sat back, looked me in the eye (virtually since this was an online friend), and told me this-

“Yes, I may have degrees, and yes I may be smarter than you according to some random IQ test, but there is a difference between you and me that will set you above me as an author. I call myself a writer, and have the degrees to back up my claim, but I struggle to make my stories human and relatable, but you, you`re a storyteller, Vicki. That is something that cannot be taught in any class. It`s something that a person is born with.”

“Big whoop!” I countered. “Show me one undereducated storyteller that ever made it big.”

“Mark Twain comes to mind,” he said, “And I believe he dropped out of school at eleven.”

I was left speechless, and inspired, and so very grateful to that man for shoving away the curtains to let the light shine in. My friend was right. If Mark Twain could write and be somewhat successful, so could I. Did it really matter if I only had my high school diploma? I was a storyteller damn it! I gathered up my gumption, and with a picture of Mr. Clemens taped to my refrigerator so I could see it, dove into trying to fulfill my dream. And I did. I have a book. It might not win a Pulitzer prize or ever be on the New York Times bestseller list. It may contain some errors. It may not change one person`s life but it`s my book and it makes people smile. That`s all I ever wanted.

Does the ghost ever pop up to haunt me? Yep. All the time! And the more I`m in this crazy world of publishing the more I`m exposed to those who cast long looks downward at self-published authors or those who can`t use an apostrophe correctly. Sometimes I eye that closet and wish I could find a spot behind the winter coats. The difference now is I don`t let the unease cripple me. I know my place in the journalistic world and I can accept my spot in the sun, small as it may be.

I figure it`s not about how big that ray of sun is, it`s about how well it warms your heart. So go, find your sunbeam and revel in it`s warmth. We all have one out there just waiting for us to step into it.


SAY - Sian Alexis Young said...

Wow!! Very powerful!! (Loved the Sparkly vampire bit!)
I understand what you mean and feel! I always felt like I was good at NOTHING! Everyone else had this special thing they loved to do and was good at! I didnt. I did, I just didnt see it!
I started going to a Writers Group ashamed if myself for even going!
It was there that I found out MY soecial thing! I WAS A WRITER!!!
I was like you a Natural Born Storyteller!!
Took me sooooo many years to realize this! But, hey better later then never right???
What on Earth is a reflexive pronoun???
I barely know what a noun is....dont feel bad!

Jean said...

I have put myself in enough places where I was over my head to come up with the phrase "I'll figure it out". And I always do. Motivation is the key. No reason not to buy Elements of Style and brush up on grammar and punctuation. BTW, I have a college degree in English and never took a grammar course in college. Grammar is taught mostly in middle school and high school. So the grammar field is a level playing field. There are plenty of writers with degrees whose grammar could use work. I'm so glad you didn't let that fear stop you. Because I do believe, like your friend, storytellers are born, not made.

Pamela Mason said...

I love this and your friend is right - you are a storyteller, and a damn smart one too!

I just have this fear that MY story is just too... out there. I tell people what it's about, and their jaws clamp down in an encouraging grin but I know it's just to be polite.
Oh well... I'll keep at it, but that's the fear that's holding me back.

Sandra Sookoo said...

I completely get where you're coming from. I don't have a college degree either and I'm a writer. And you know what, I can tell a story very well, thank you. Don't need a piece of paper to tell me what I already know :-) While my family looks down on me for lack of schooling, it doesn't affect my enjoyment of what I do. If something is a passion, you'll find a way to make it work. Rock on.

Chris Almeida said...

Alan Langford, a good friend of mine and my mentor, wrote an artist's statement that said that being an artist is a state of mind. It's independent of degrees or certificates. I agree wholeheartedly with his definition.
The fact is that writers are known for a love/hate relationship with their work.
We just have to learn to let go at some point and let readers' feedback become our little ray of sunshine.


Anonymous said...

Everyone who has ever had a dream should read this post! I'm so glad you had someone to help you beat back that doubt.

V.L. Locey said...

It seems so many of us who write have dealt with this sort of fear at one time or another. I love that statement about how being an artist is a state of mind and is independent of certificates and degrees, Chris! How very true that is!

S. J. Qualls said...

Gee Vicki,
That could have been me writing this - only I'm not published at all. I didn't think I would be considered a writer until I was "published". I have since learned that telling stories is a great gift. You are way ahead of the game!
Dance in that sunbeam girl!

Kellie Kamryn said...

Fear held me back too, much in the same way it did for you. I emailed Eloisa James and asked her if she knew how an aspiring writer could get started. Talk about a highly intelligent woman with degrees and books to her name! She told me not to give up and that there was a demand for romance author's. She told me about RWA and encouraged me to join and keep learning. I took her advice, and I'm on my way thanks to her bit of encouragement.

IsobelleGoLightly said...

That was lovely. Truly lovely. I think your writing is fun, educational and inspiring and all the better for no college education.

V.L. Locey said...

Thanks for sharing Kellie and Sherry. And thank you for the kind words Isobelle!