Thursday, March 24, 2011

I Still Scratch My Head and Wonder

When I was growing up, a longhaired, mangy white Tomcat terrorized many an innocent housecat in our neighborhood; consequently, it had a price on its head. We called him the Ten-Buck Cat. Whenever our pure white mama cat went into heat, she and the Ten-Buck Cat produced a litter of pure white, long-haired balls of fluff. Around the time that I turned fourteen, two of these kittens found a home with a gracious neighbor lady who taught ballet in a nearby town. Out of gratitude, Mrs. Fink offered to give one of us kids free ballet lessons. None of my three sisters volunteered, but I thought, Well, why not?

At the first class, I stood in front of large mirrors and a handrail in my borrowed slippers, tights that crept down my thigh with each attempted move, and my polyester blouse because I had no leotard. I liked the idea of learning ballet, especially since I had been tagged the family spaz, and understandably so—I have always had poor large motor skills and even poorer sense of rhythm (I can scarcely make it to the top of the staircase without tripping, and I can’t tell you how many line dances I have been banned from).

Shy as I was, I had great ambitions of improving myself. I braved the gawking stares of advanced students, with all their grace and poise, in leotards that fit and flaunted their feminine curves while I wore a Triple-A bra that caved in on itself beneath my loose-fitting blouse. With encouragement from Mrs. Fink, I tried to improve my moves every week, but in all honesty, I was pretty awful. I couldn’t seem to control one, let alone coordinate all, of my body parts.

Then, Mrs. Fink announced The Recital. I had not bargained for that! And then I found out I had to dance the ‘Icicle’ with the ‘little’ girls. I assumed it was because I hadn’t progressed enough to perform with the more advanced students. But no, it was a matter of costuming. Because of my flat chest, I had to wear a stretchy, ‘little girl’ leotard, rather than the satin, princess-seamed outfit of the developed girls.

I wonder now why I didn’t simply quit. Did I feel some sense of group responsibility? I knew I didn’t have the drive to be a real ballerina, and I knew my instructor could see that. So why put myself through such humiliation? Did I simply lack the courage to tell her, ‘No, I don’t want to participate?” Why not admit to her and myself that I was much happier on my own, writing and drawing? Perhaps, if I simply didn’t think about the outcome, I could go out on center stage and prance about like a gangly winter icicle, and no one would notice that I was a good two feet taller than the other little breastless icicles.

Even now, I often wonder at the forces that have driven me, that allow me to take on challenges that I don’t feel equal to. As a little girl, I never had aspirations of being a ballerina, but when I saw an opportunity, I was eager to embrace the possibility. I suppose I still like the ‘idea’ of an endeavor, and I might set out on a journey simply because I want to know and understand the process and possibilities. Often, it leads me to places I had not calculated—hadn’t even thought to calculate. Sometimes, I stumble upon wonderful experiences, and sometimes, I feel utterly paralyzed at the prospect of public humiliation, but I can’t seem to bring myself to the point of backing down. I also wonder at other writers’ and artists’ journeys, and what drives them to forge ahead. Did you start out with a specific goal? or has the journey been your focal point?

By the way, after weeks of making myself ill in anticipation of The Recital, Mrs. Fink called and informed me it had been canceled. Apparently, the recital building burned to the ground. I can honestly say I had never been so relieved...I went back to my drawing and writing, and never looked back.


  1. I have goals of both sorts, and I try hard to keep them separate. While writing I only worry about process and journey goals. The rest can wait til after.

  2. Poor Mrs. Fink. She must have been crushed she couldn't show off her ballerinas.

    I always wanted to write, just never gave it the attention it deserved. I dabbled for decades. Three years ago I started with a specific goal to publication but not for the reasons anyone might think. After three books in three years, and learning the craft, I think the journey has brought me closer to the goal.

    We shall see in a few months, won't we?

  3. Thanks for sharing that story, JB. I think it says a lot about your ability to persevere. I think that's a strength, not a weakness.

    As for goals, yes, I've always wanted to be published. When I first started writing fiction three or four years ago, I assumed it would be via the traditional route. Now, I've embraced self-publishing, which has its own sets of strong and weak points.

    The bottom line? I think you're always better to follow your heart, to go for it instead of sitting on the sidelines wondering 'what if.'

  4. Bryan, keeping them separate can be a real trick. Shortly after I started out, I had naive notions of publication, and had no idea what an uphill journey that would require. Now, I simply want to enjoy the process of writing again, and forget about the long-term goal.

    One thing is clear to me when I read your bits of flash fiction--you are indeed enjoying the journey. You inspire me, every time!

    Anne, looking back, I can only imagine Mrs. Fink's disappointment, and that of the other girls who took ballet seriously. Alas, in typical 14 year-old fashion, my only concern was how it affected me.

    Since you state that it's "not for the reasons anyone might think," I'd be curious to know your reasons for pursuing publication.

    It sounds as if we undertook our serious writing around the same time--I'd say, from what I've read of your work, that you are very close to your goal. Once you start querying, you know you have my best wishes for your novel .

    PJ, I like to think it's perseverance, but sometimes I think it's an overwhelming fear of "sitting on the sidelines wondering 'what if.'"

    I too thought I would go the traditional route with publication. I didn't know there was any other path--aside from vanity publishing. Oh what an education we have received, eh? Yes, there are strong and weak points to both routes, and I suppose that's why I'm scratching my head so much these days. Like never before, I need to be clear on exactly why I'm even on this journey, if you know what I mean...

  5. I am by nature a wanderer and a dabbler and a sampler. I have learned enough of various arts and skills to appreciate what real artists must do to master their art.

    I am not a seller and am not fond of jumping through hoops. The conventional path to publication is fraught with hoop jumping. I am delighted that an alternative path is available, and I am currently on that path.

    I can tell a story, and over time have learned something of writing. Now I am on the cusp of publication, via electronic media. It will be interesting getting the stuff out there and seeing if I can do anything with the selling and sharing.

    Writing proves to be good for me. It is a big part of who I am. It is easy now with my laptop and infinite storage and expanding options for sharing. It is an ongoing adventure.

  6. Michael, I think we share a similar viewpoint. I lean strongly toward the unconventional, as you do, and yet I have set out on the path of traditional publishing, not realizing all the options open to me. Like you I am not a seller, and I'm not fond of jumping through hoops, though for sure, I have done my share of jumping and learned a great deal about myself and the publishing industry as a result. I regret none of that. It's only helped me to clarify my motives and desires.

    Yet there is a strong part of me that feels the need to follow through on one path before I pursue a different course--that is, traditional publishing vs. independent publishing. One way or the other, I will publish, and time is on my side.

    I'm excited for you and your prospects! I shall watch your journey with interest. I hope you will blog about all your experince so I can learn from you! Best wishes to you--you seem to me a very determined individual...

  7. I find it funny that you wrote about this today. My daughter has been dancing since she was six. Two years ago she broke and tore ligaments in her knee requiring surgury and missed her recital. Last year she had a conflict with a school band trip and missed her recital. This year, with any luck, we'll get to attend her last recital...but just in case, I watched her 2008 recital on the videos I'd taken last night.

    In my head, I was always a writer...and any business writing I had to do brought me joy. Then I got the unexpected change to try the real thing. For me, it's pretty much been the journey...figuring out if I can write and how to write while carrying along the rest of my changing life. I think now I have a goal...but it's a long way away, and I need to figure out how to push myself to get there.

    Perhaps you stuck with dance simply to prove to yourself that you could...

  8. Liza, it sounds as if your daughter likes dance and was quite likely disappointed to not participate in the recitals--I think I would have liked the whole gig a whole lot more if there had been no recital involved. I'd like to think that I stuck with dance simply to prove to myself that you could, but I think it had more to do with not knowing how to say NO, and it didn't hurt that it was a way to stand out as just a little unique in a family of 6 siblings. It's amazing what a person will do just for a little personal distinction!

    I like the sounds of your more 'laid back' journey. I know you have a lot of drive and motivation, but it's apparent that those qualities haven't sucked the joy out of the process. I have a hunch you'll reach your goals. It's actually been kinda cool watching you progress for--what is it? close to 2 years now...:)

  9. Oh, wow, I love this post. Thank you for putting it up. I think it's important that we know why we're heading toward specific goals. Otherwise, yeah, we're left scratching our heads. For me it's the journey all the way. That's why I'm at where I'm at. Every little step, every post I put up, every book I finish, is all part of that beautiful journey. It's giving me a rich life, and I would keep doing it no matter how I end up publishing my stories. Already it has been diverse and interesting and unique. I have big goals, yes, but they aren't the reason I keep walking.

  10. Michelle, I glad it struck a cord with you. I’ve watched you along your journey ever since I started blogging (almost 2 years now) and have benefitted so much from your honest (sometimes gritty) discussions, not only on the writing process, but why you write and what you want out of it. You are an inspiration to me in many ways…

    When I started out, I just had a blast writing. I never gave a thought to industry standards until it occurred to be to try and get published. I think that changed things for me, in a good way (my writing certainly has improved), but also in a stifling sort of way, fearful that I’m breaking some rule that would bar me from traditional publishing. I still intend to follow through on my ‘August Submission Plan’ for Story for a Shipwright (or whatever I end up calling it), but I have other novels I’m working on, and I’m having a hard time just writing the story as I want to tell it, without worrying about word counts and marketability. I know I’m under no ‘obligation’ to meet a subjective standard or follow through on some self-imposed plan, so I wonder...
    ...I just want to write and have a blast with it again...

  11. Your comment makes me think about what Scott Bailey said to me one day - he was happier before he ever sent a query. It's true. Something about publishing takes away from the magic of writing. It's sad, but I see it happen to almost every published or querying writer I interact with. That was one of the reasons I self-published, but then 50 billion other factors about that took away from the magic, too. It's just part of writing and wanting to share, I think, and like childhood, that 100% innocent magic just can't last if you keep writing. It seems to be only for newbies. Sorry, that all came out really depressing. The truth is, I love writing with all my heart in every stage.

  12. Michelle, I completely understand and agree with what you’re saying. It’s not depressing, it’s just realistic. I suppose it’s part of maturing, and a big part of that is finally getting a sense of what you personally want and what you are willing to sacrifice, because that’s what the ‘grown up’ world is all about. It’s sort of what you were talking about on your blog today. Each of us is entitled to make a choice about what we want—maturity implies that it be an informed decision, and sometimes that doesn't happen until we have experienced an outcome, and truly understand consequences. Live and learn, eh?

    Meanwhile, I am more determined than ever to enjoy the journey! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as always :)

  13. LOL! I guess burning the building to the ground is a good reprieve!

    I'm a hyper-planner: my plans have plans to be come more ambitious with every step. But I also say "yes" to the call of adventure way too readily, which often throws all the plans into disarray. Which is fine. Although I think every writer should ask themselves why they do this, it's not imperative to know, just to write.

  14. Susan I swear I didn't have anything to do with that serendipitous (for me) burning!

    I love the structure of a plan, but sometimes I get that confused with control over an outcome. 'Even the best laid plans...' right?
    I'm thinking there is a lot to be said for taking time to just write willy-nilly for the sake of it and not worry about the outcome...

  15. I took ballet lessons for 2 years when I was little. I always wanted to be a ballerina. I loved how graceful they were. My first recital I was center stage as a little bird helping Cinderella make her dress. I think being a little freckled redhead carried me far in ballet as it certainly was not my dancing abilities. By the time I hit 5th grade I just knew I'd never have a "dancer's body" and became discouraged by the whole process.

    I think at a young age it was delusion or not knowing enough about something to know that I should feel discouraged to even try. I'd love to not know what I know now. Maybe I'd take more leaps of faith. Now the problem is that I doubt myself for no apparent reason as most things I attempt to try I am successful at, of course none of these things involve dancing or coordination, but are usually of the professional or culinary variety. Or climbing a mountain here and there.

    I just started a new job that I am most likely obviously qualified for (well obvious to everyone but me) but am so scared and paranoid. I come to work every day feeling like a flat chested girl in the wrong Ballet get-up. Good thing I am not surrounded by mirrors.

    I enjoyed this little blurb of a Bridget I never got to meet.

  16. Errika, if we could have combined my svelte little made-for-ballet body with your freckles, red hair and desire, we’d have made the perfect ballerina!

    There is such a naïvety and innocence to any new undertaking, whether it’s in childhood or as an adult—that perfect period of time when all we see is possibility. I know some people will argue that limitations are self-imposed, and all we have to do is believe, and I suppose if a person wanted to throw every resource they have into making a dream come true, well, we’d all achieve a much more than we do—but at what cost?

    For sure, leaps of faith—metaphorical and literal—can feel very dicey. It’s a shame, when capable persons like you—like me, too—doubt ourselves, when we fail to see the capabilities that others see in us. I can tell you that you are a very capable person, who every time I see you, I am amazed at your depth, tenacity and growth. Even if you feel under-qualified at your new job, we both know you’ll rise to the challenge! If we could just get rid of those danged mirrors!

    Miss you guys. So glad you stop in here occasionally! :)

  17. What a great post!
    I think my goal has always been publication, but along the way I realized that I cared about the quality of what I wanted published. (may seem silly to people, but this was how I decided to really concentrate on the craft).

    Now my goal is to publish something I'm really proud of, instead of publishing for the sake of saying I did it.

  18. Lydia, I think for a lot of writers, there is always the notion of getting published, whether it's right there in the front of our mind or some latent idea that falls in the 'that would be nice someday...'

    I had always assumed that if someone was published, it automatically meant that they wrote really, really well. I have since learned otherwise. Like you, once I decided I wanted to publish, that's when I really started concentrating on the craft.

    With all the work you've been putting into your writing (and blogging/networking) I'm certain you will end up with something to be proud of. And then I can say, 'I knew Lydia back when...' and I'll be proud of you too! :)

  19. I've always written short stories. something would strike me to write about, I'd complete it, laugh at my efforts and agree with my family nothing would ever come of it so I should just quit.

    A few years ago I started another short story, then found myself wanting to write the novel (I never thought I could do that). Now its a trilogy; a specific concept I believe in.

    It still may never go anywhere but my works processor, but I liked the dedication it took, so I continue to write with purpose.

    Sometimes JB you gotta try something to find out if you like it or not. Ballet was probably like that for you. Stretching yourself outside your limits. It could have turned out differently, you could have eventually picked up the desire.

    I believe the old cliche that its better to try and fail than not try at all. The spirit needs adventures.


  20. I have always jumped into a new venture with little thought of where it might lead. I think it is adventure...the very newness of it that beckons me. I'm sure that I have regretted having even started with 50% of them. But I think in all cases I probably learned something. I figure that is valuable.

  21. It takes a certain kind of confidence to plunge into unfamiliar waters with the optimistic hope that things will be okay. I admire that quality very much, and would like to cultivate more of it in myself. (From one breastless icicle to another...)

  22. Donna, Thank you for sharing you thoughts and experience here!
    I think ‘short’ stories are a good way to start. I think it’s also pretty typical to laugh at our first efforts (after a period of time when we can look at them with a little objectivity). I wrote lots of little stories too, when I was a kid. I think I started my first novel in 9th grade, but never finished it—then started another and another. But as you have found out, once we experience the joy of putting our thoughts into words, it’s hard to let go—add some maturity to that (and the wisdom to know when to ignore your family’s opinion), and look at what you’ve accomplished! A Trilogy? Wow! And, something you believe in—that is so worth wading through all the insecurities of it.

    You are so right about trying something to find out if you like it or not. I’ve tried many things, some I still dabble in, but the two endeavors I always seem to return to are writing and painting.

    Jerry, I kinda figured you were the adventurous type—a lover of ideas! It would be an interesting post, to list briefly (I know that part would be hard for you) every project or endeavor you have started and then set aside, and state the reason. Oh my goodness, I think I’d blush to list all mine. Unfortunately, so many of mine have required my husband’s assistance (setting up jigs, workspaces, hunting down accouterments, actual participation), and so he is always leery when I say, “I was thinking…” He’s glad I tend to stick with painting and writing—I already have all the raw materials I need for those. But then, he has also dabbled in MANY things, so he understands the temperament and drive.

    So, Jerry, when are you going to take up painting? :)

    Lisa, I may have tried ballet for all sorts of crazy, not-nearly-so-self-determined-as-they-might-appear reasons, but I think I honestly did have that ‘optimistic hope that things would be okay.’ Over the years, I think disappointments (perhaps simply the reality of life), has snuck in and leached away some of that feeling, because, as we know, sometimes they do turn out okay, and sometimes, well, they just don’t …So, yeah, I’d like to cultivate (re-cultivate) that in myself…and not worry so much about the worst-case scenario

  23. Really cool story! My writing goals have always been large and vague. Namely, I want to be a published author and write stories for money, and hopefully, a living.

    That's it. I enjoy writing for teen audiences, but I'm not limiting myself to that thinking. I guess I'll know when it happens? :-)

  24. E.J., Your goals may be large and vague, but (from reading your blog) you sound pretty motivated! I'm really looking forward to reading some samples of your writing.

    Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you like my little story :)

  25. Well, as you know, for me it starts out with wanting. I must be passionate about something. I must want it. Then I will set sail, step out of the boat, swim the ocean and scale the mountains on the other side :)

  26. Ah, yes, Tabitha...the wanting...I suppose none of us would step out if not for the wanting--even if we don't always know what exactly it is...though I have the feeling you're pretty clear on a lot of what you want! :)

  27. Wonderful post! I think "the recital" terrifies a lot of writers--well, artists of all sorts. I think we should give ourselves lots of time to learn and practice before we push our little artist-selves out there on the stage. Most of us start out thinking an audience is what we crave, but once we start getting good, we realize we can be better, and then we pull back. I know I have.

    Thanks for this wonderful story. I relate completely. I left the theater when I realized after many years, I adored rehearsals but dreaded the performances more and more.

  28. Anne, you make a great point about giving ourselves lots of time to learn and practice before we push our little artist-selves out there. We’d all like a little recognition—an audience to validate us—but when we’re starting out, we really haven’t any idea what all that entails. I think if I had been allowed a little more time to ‘grow,’ I might have kept up with dancing (until my lack of rhythm caught up to me, that is). At the very least, I wouldn’t have found the whole experience so traumatizing.

    I know there are many writers out there who love the ‘rehearsals’ and the actual motions of perfecting the art, but dread the idea of putting their work out there for the public to see.

  29. I think some people just have natural drive, even when it doesn't make sense. I know I wouldn't be writing after all these years if it weren't for drive.

    Thanks for the sweet story!

  30. Elle, thanks for stopping by!

    I think most of us would have quit writing long ago if it weren't for that 'drive.' Sometimes it's hard to know just where it's directing us, but what a journey, eh?