Childhood Freedom

A few weeks ago I went to a festival at Alameda Park. I was hanging out on the grass with a few friends, watching the band, when a little girl and her father sat in front of us. The girl was two or three years old, wearing pink shoes with sparkly flowers on them, a floral top, purple skirt and leggings, and pigtails. She was loving the music. Dancing, spinning, twirling, just totally into it, completely unabashed. The kind of freedom you only have at that age, when you are not afraid of anything. She spun, fell, rolled on her back, kicked her legs in the air. She twisted sideways and lifted a single leg up, then held that awkward pose for a moment before diving back into jerky movements all her own. Her dancing was the kind that you are not supposed to do after a certain age, because the movements are no longer socially acceptable. The look on her face was pure enjoyment. She grinned at us and her expression said, “Look how much fun I’m having!” But it wouldn’t have mattered if we were there or not. She wasn’t dancing for us. She was dancing for herself.

I told my mother about the girl later, describing how free she was. My mother’s comment mirrored my thoughts: “That won’t last.” Her cynical remark was offhand, a reflex. She was right. There was also an old man on the lawn, having the best time with a hula-hoop. My mother’s comment about him was that he has done everything. What is there to care about? By then no one else’s opinions matter.
What is this space between the unabashed freedom of the young and the experienced carelessness of the old? Why is it that we spend the majority of our lives concerned about how we will appear to others?
I don’t think I really remember what it was like not to care. I find I struggle to write only for myself. I think about what my writing will make people feel, think, do, and say. Where is that place that I must draw from, to continue on, to believe in myself, when there are no assurances – in fact evidence, in the form of rejections, people telling me that there are a lot of better writers out there? I am looking for this place in myself. I want to tap that careless creativity, that freedom.

Building My Bookshelf

When you want to be a writer, there are two things the wise tell you to do. One, first and foremost, is write. According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, it takes 10,000 hours to become a master. The second thing to do, of course, is read. But not just anything – it makes quite a difference what you read.
The New Yorker is a given. Poets & Writers Magazine is a popular one. Certain literary journals, which can be found in the magazine section at Borders for easy research. Of course, the Writer’s Market.

The classics are always a good place to begin – learn from the greats. Thanks to my English major education, I have a head start: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, not to mention various required Spenserian and Elizabethan lit courses. I also took a Greek mythology course, so I’m up on my Homer and Euripides too. My reading list is peppered with all the things I managed to skip. I, like many fellow English majors, became accomplished in the art of BS – taking exams and acing them, on books I hadn’t actually read. I admit there is some Joyce I have yet to tackle.
When my writers’ group asked me to put together a brief book list, I came up with the following. My mentor suggested most of these books, which have been – and surely will continue to be – instrumental in my journey:

1. The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Commonly known as “Strunk and White.” Possibly the simplest, most straightforward grammar guide ever. I “borrowed” my sister’s gorgeous, red fabric, hardcover copy, which was given to her by one of our aunts. The illustrations make the grammar much easier to take in.
2. The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
On Becoming A Novelist,
John Gardner
This stuff is dense. And brilliant. When I first tried to read him, I couldn’t connect. I went back to it as I began to pursue writing and encounter the struggles involved. Everything made so much sense. It was amazing to discover something that so perfectly described what I was dealing with.
3. On Writing, Stephen King

A much easier read than the Gardner. Having read only two short stories of his, I won’t weigh in on whether or not King’s work is “literature,” but the guy is undeniably prolific. And he sells. My favorite pieces of advice: no adverbs, and don’t give up (I love the nail of rejection slips that turned into a stake!).
4. Story, Robert McKee
This is technically a film bible, but it holds true for fiction – plot techniques, character voice, etc. The examples are more helpful when you’ve seen the movies discussed, but overall they make the book much easier to understand.
5. Writing Fiction, Gotham Writers’ Workshop
If I’m ever stuck, this is a great place to go for prompts. It also includes fundamentals of writing. It is definitely worth going through the whole thing, and then starting over again.
6. The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris
I love this guide because it takes you step-by-step. So far the way I write stories has been to just jump in, which makes editing both cathartic and excruciating. I can see that it makes a lot of sense to plan my novels before writing.

Beyond these, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is, read things that are similar to what you wish to write. Discovering my genre is… under exploration.

Writing Breeds Writing

            I always feel better after writing. When journaling for myself, writing is a release. What started as venting about my annoying little sister when I was ten has morphed into something that, no matter when or for how long, always makes me come away more relaxed. When writing fiction, I have that overwhelming and powerful sense of creation. This is bigger than me.
After writing something for the magazine, I feel accomplished. Even little blurbs, even ones that will go to press without my name on them. Of course, the ones that have my name on them, and the longer the articles are, the more accomplished I feel. I have a sense of relief. A momentary reprieve from the constant nagging need to Do Something. And then, in the wake of accomplishment, I feel drive. I am motivated to do more. What can be next, what more could I write, what longer piece?
            The week before last at the internship was fabulous. On a Wednesday afternoon, my editor comes over to me and asks me if I want to write a blurb. (I love how she asks me – as if I’d say no!) Then she says, I’m sorry to throw this at you, but the woman for you to interview is on the phone Right Now! No time to prepare – this was new. I’ve worked under deadline, felt like I had no time to write, but I’ve always had time to prepare. Luckily my editor is wonderful and always gives me a head start – what direction to go in, a few questions to ask – and the woman I interviewed was lovely and loquacious. I had a good draft done by the end of the day – just needed to put in some pricing – and I had it e-mailed to my editor that night, so it was “on her desk” by the next working day.
The following afternoon, I had an in-person interview. With a tape recorder and everything. It was brief, and there will be no byline, but I will know that my work went into a feature article. It is also incredibly thrilling to be given these assignments, because it serves as validation. It means that somebody has noticed how hard I’m working, how much I want this, and it means that the work I’ve been turning out has been good enough to warrant more. Certainly it was a hyperbolic introduction, as the editor must have wanted my interviewee to feel comfortable and not foisted off onto an intern, but her praise made me want to dance. “Taylor is one of our star interns,” she said. A star intern! Really, it just makes me hungry for more.
            Today, I got assigned a 500-word article. The longest yet, in a whole new section! I battle worry that for one reason or another, it won’t actually happen. But mostly my excitement is pervasive.

Grad School: Rejection

Having lived in southern California my whole life, and feeling frustrated with seeming to encounter the same types of people (read: actors, screenwriters, directors in Los Angeles; retirees and hippies in Santa Barbara), I decided I wanted to go the East Coast for grad school. I applied to 11 programs: eight in New York and three in Massachusetts.
            The deadlines spread out over December, January, February, and even one at the beginning of March. The waiting began with the submission of my first application on December 15.
            As the prospect of moving to the East Coast became an actual possibility, I started freaking out. The cold, the extreme humidity, being so far away from friends and family, having to deal with being in big cities with so much going on, not knowing my way around… was I really ready for this? I’d be walking to class on the beach or hiking with my dog and I’d think: Am I really giving this up?
Then the rejection letters started coming in. I questioned myself. Why? Why not me? What did I do wrong in my application? How else should I have done the personal statement? And then, the worst – Perhaps I am not really meant to be a writer after all. Perhaps I should just give up now. The same form in the same few sentences in the same slim envelopes: “We have not been able to recommend you for admission” and “admissions were exceptionally competitive this year.” Which, of course, never makes you feel any better. I did appreciate the note of encouragement from Syracuse: “Their consensus not to recommend admission to the program should in no way be interpreted as a discouragement of your writing.” After dealing with the usual emotions associated with rejection, I started to feel an intense relief. I could stay in SoCal, be near friends and family I didn’t want to leave.
A couple of people in my writers’ group in Los Angeles introduced me to Driftless House, a blog dedicated to providing info about application responses from graduate writing programs across the U.S. The idea is that you’re not chewing your fingernails through February and March when the decisions aren’t even made until April. For me, it functioned as added stress. But ultimately, I was gladder to know. Rather than waiting, having the rejection letters come one by one to the mailbox, I was prepared. I still have not received all my letters, but I’ve reached a point where I am happier finally just to know.