On Writing, Ranée

Spark

The creative spark runs in my family.  My father has it.  My mother has it.  I have it too.

My father’s surname means distaff or spindle, the part of a spinning wheel that holds the thread.  Like that ancestor long ago who first bore the name, Dad is a weaver.  Not of cloth but of stories.  He’s woven a great tree of life from our family genealogy, an entire tapestry that connects our families to every other one in the small rural area of southwestern Pennsylvania where we grew up.  Back in college, he wrote poems and when my brother and I were kids, he told us a whole series of stories about a character named Grouchy Grump who had a pet skunk called Odie Colognie (a play on eau de cologne).  At some point in every one of those stories, we’d hear the line “Out popped the black and white tail.”  We would wait for it and every time I heard it, I’d squeal and laugh.

My mother’s surname was the German equivalent of farmer and like her grandfather who was one, Mom has nurtured things to grow.  As a girl, she had all sorts of animals as pets—everything from horses to a skunk—and growing up, we always had a dog or a cat or both.  Dad created worlds with words, but she created them with her hands, landscaping in the yard, planting beautiful trees and flowers, and creating a little fairyland complete with a small pond in the back yard.

That spark of creating lives in me, their daughter.  The best way I can think of to describe what happens to me when I write or get an idea for writing is indeed a spark or, as Emily of Bright Moon called it, “the flash.”  It can happen at any moment anywhere, so I’ve learned to carry a notebook and pen with me at all times.  Sometimes I wake up with a sentence or two in my head or I’m out walking and something strikes me and I get an image.  Sometimes it’s a few lines of dialogue.  It comes just like that—a sudden flash of inspiration, like a spark igniting a tiny flame.  And there are moments when I’m writing that the act becomes sort of unconscious.  Fellow writers know what I’m talking about—those times when you give yourself over to the craft, let yourself become so immersed in the world you’re creating that the words just flow out and when you come out of your little trancelike state, you look back at what you’ve written and go “wrote that?”  For me, those moments have always been the ones that produced my best writing.

But you need to feed a fire if it’s to burn steadily and grow.  That requires time, something I’ve lacked until relatively recently.

I’ve had several stops and starts on the way to fully embracing my gift.  When I was a kid, my best play time was spent using my imagination like when my brother and I sat in mom’s hooded dryer chairs, put the hoods down over our heads, and pretended we were astronauts on a space mission.  I started writing my own stories when I was in junior high.  I was a rather morbid, reclusive, and contemplative teenager who dwelt a bit too much on death and “dark” stuff (think Raven from Teen Titans).  I begged to have my room painted black but had to settle for black bedding and a black rug.  Obsessed as I was with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, most of my stories were bloody tales of horror.  I lacked confidence, though, and didn’t think that I could “make it” as a writer.  Who, I thought, would want to read the garbage that I write?  That sort of self-disparaging remark is the hallmark of someone who doesn’t believe in herself.

That lack of belief in myself prompted me to study psychology in college instead of English, but it was my English courses where I came alive.  I wrote a novella about a vampire plagued by all the pain of his life and the absence of God.  It was an expression of my own emotional torment.  I asked one of my professors to read it and although she didn’t care for the subject matter, she told me “I think you should be writing professionally.”  Those words were all I needed to stop lying to myself about becoming a psychologist (shit, I didn’t want to spend my days listening to other people’s problems; they unloaded on me all the time anyway!).  I changed my major to English the summer before my senior year and ended up having to go an extra semester to fulfill all of the requirements.  All I had needed to do for the psych degree was take a bio psych course, write my thesis, and do an internship, but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t for me, so I switched and never looked back.

I submitted my work for a creative writing fiction course and got accepted.  It was the one thing that got me through a very tough time—writing and sharing stories.  I got valuable feedback from the professor who called me a “master revisionist” and praised me for telling a story almost entirely with dialogue.  But I stalled after that.  I submitted some stories to indie publishers, but gave up after a few rejections.  Self-doubt had got me again.

I worked some boring retail jobs for a while, but although I liked helping people find something they liked, I hated having to push stuff on them that they didn’t want.  My first full-time job was working for a bully patent attorney in a technical writing position.  When I say bully, that’s putting it mildly.  I’m talking about a man who belittled staff, paged them over the intercom to phone his extension and when they didn’t immediately do it, paged them repeatedly until they did (up to seven times in a row for the poor older woman who worked as the receptionist).  Stories circulated around the office about how he had abused employees in the past, causing someone to have a nervous breakdown, and punching a pregnant woman.

After that nightmare ended, I was at a loss as to what to do next, so applied to grad schools.  I got accepted into Kent State’s English program, so moved to Ohio to earn a master’s in English with a concentration in literature and writing.  It’s a really useless degree, I have to say.  I didn’t need it for any of the work that I did subsequently, nor did it give me an edge over other candidates.  It was just a couple of letters after my name if I wanted to show off and put them there.  I didn’t and don’t.  While there, I had a fellowship and taught some introductory composition courses, teaching expository writing to college freshmen, which I continued to do as an adjunct faculty member for a year after I graduated.  The class was a required course so the students didn’t really want to be there.  Neither did I most of the time, but there were a few students who actually enjoyed my classes and one in particular whom I remember.  I don’t recall his name, but I can picture him just as clearly as if he were standing in front of me now—a white guy with dirty blond hair under a backwards cap, round brown eyes, and an ugly purple bruise across his broken nose from a rugby injury.  He stood there in front of my desk on the last day of class, the last student to leave, and thanked me, said he’d really liked my class, and extended his fist for a fist bump, but it wasn’t me or the class he’d really liked, it was the encouragement I’d given him.  I’d had the class read High Fidelity, one of my favorite books, and he’d written a heartfelt thank-you for me in the style of the opening about how I wasn’t up there with all the other teachers who’d influenced him only to flip it and say that I’d been one of the best.  It meant a lot to me that I’d seen something in him that others hadn’t, that I’d made a difference for him as some of my teachers had for me.  Students like him and interactions like that made me love teaching and helping others with their writing.

That was one of the highlights of my two years at Kent State; that, discovering the poems of Carol Ann Duffy (primarily her fantastic book The World’s Wife), and meeting my mentor.  Ironically, the creative writing course I took there wasn’t helpful because the only valuable feedback on writing came from the teacher and as always, we didn’t receive any guidance about how to actually get one’s work published.

After KSU, I wrote less and less because I moved to the DC Metro area for a job working at a strange little publisher of dead journals, another messed-up anxiety-inducing situation.  I tried doing National Novel Writing Month a couple of times, but I found that I didn’t have time to write.  Work consumed most of my time and then family life took up the rest.  It stayed that way for over a decade.  Every now and again I would find something calling me back to writing and I’d pick up a pen or sit down at the computer to bang out some personal or creative work and I’d realize once more just how much I needed that spark.  It filled a void in me.  It was something that I loved and thought I couldn’t have or had to give up.

Back in 2016, I changed jobs in the name of self-care.  I took a position that was a step down from my current role career-wise but paid a higher salary and offered me a substantial amount of flexibility and freedom.  I didn’t have to go into the office every day; instead, I could work at home if I chose.  I could set my schedule around my son’s so that I could be there to get him on the bus in the morning, was close enough that if something was going on at his school I could easily be there, I could get him off the bus in the afternoons, and I would be able to take time off when he had sick days or snow days.

I really didn’t start taking advantage of this freedom for myself until a couple of years ago.  I met a couple of fellow writers and started workshopping with one of them and coaching the other.  I enjoyed that experience so much.  It was, as always, like rediscovering a part of myself that had been missing.  I decided that if writing was important to me, then I needed to make time for filling that void (along with a lot of other things that I needed to do for me).  Now a portion of every day is devoted to writing, whether it’s personal journal writing, writing this blog, or jotting down notes and inspiration for fiction stories.

My current job is ending in December and I see this as the perfect opportunity to finally embrace my gift.  I can have a career doing something that I love.  I’ve decided that I want to use my skills to help others with their writing.  Embracing my passion and becoming my own boss will not just bring me financial wealth, it will bring me even more in the way of emotional and personal wealth because I’ll be doing it for my soul.  It will be the combination of the creative gifts my parents passed to me—the love of storytelling, the craft, and the impetus to grow something that I love, the act.

The spark is my calling.  It’s time I heed it.

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