August 19, 2008

Getting Not-So-Serious About Writing

Nothing satisfies my attention-seeking-middle-child-syndrome like making people laugh. I love to make people laugh, and have no problem making myself the brunt of any joke if I think someone will get a good laugh out of it.

Early in my writing career I tried my hand at writing a few short funny pieces. One of those humor pieces got me a job with a local newspaper whose editor must have liked the piece so much she hired me as a regular contributor to write serious pieces for the newspaper. Ironically, she didn’t invite me to write more humorous pieces for her. Each month the serious editor assigned a serious topic for me to write about, and requested I interview some serious people for the article. From that job I learned how to write about things I knew little about as well as the art of serious interviewing. It was a wonderfully serious learning experience.

Fast forward years later…I was at a writing seminar and I was joking with some people about two of the YA books I was working on--both of them on serious, edgy topics and one person asked me, “Why do you write about such serious topics? You seem so funny, I figured you’d write about funny things.”

And a light bulb suddenly flicked on in my overly-cluttered head where the lights don’t always work. Somewhere along the line of trying to be a serious writer, I lost my writing sense of humor. After I got home from the seminar, I took out one of the dark, edgy, serious-topic manuscripts I had written and started lightening it up a little. My characters became more sarcastic and funny. Serious parts were rewritten so they had some humorous scenes sprinkled in. And the story, which is about such a serious topic, has only gotten better taken with a little bit of humor. Kind of like life.

June 8, 2008

Autobiography of a Young Girl

When I was in 6th grade, my teacher had us write our autobiography. I was in a new school, having just moved to Massachusetts. I thought my autobiography was quite unique from all the other 6th graders in the class, because I was already experiencing hardships they had yet to discover—tragic hardships like moving to a new school in a new state, and having to make all new friends (oh, my!). I worked hard on that autobiography and I felt it was worthy of some kind of literary award, but the best I got was that it was displayed on the class bulletin board along with everyone else’s. After only four months at that school we moved again and the last I ever saw of my 6th grade autobiography was hanging by a thumbtack on a construction-paper-covered bulletin board.

Because I never got my autobiography back from my teacher (who, I was convinced, kept it because it was so good) I decided to write it over again. At first I tried to remember what I had written in the one I had done for school, but as time went on, I added a lot more to it—private stuff that I didn’t have to worry about my teacher reading or anyone else passing the sixth grade bulletin-board for that matter.

I added to my autobiography for years and when I stopped working on it, I started keeping a journal instead. My journal was told in story-like fashion complete with word-for-word dialogs that took place during my day. I wouldn’t write in a journalistic format like, My teacher yelled at me today when I was doodling at my desk instead of paying attention to her stupid lecture. I would write it like a story:
“Pay attention!” my teacher snapped at me as I sat doodling at my desk.
“Fine, whatever...,” I replied.

I didn’t realize it back then, but reading my old journals now--the ones I kept AFTER the burning diary incident (see "Before There Were Blogs" post below)--I notice I wasn’t just writing down my thoughts, I was writing my life story as it unfolded.

I guess not getting my autobiography back from my teacher was a good thing, because it got me writing things I might never have written about. Many of those events I wrote about would have been lost to frequent memory purges over time. Nevertheless, I still wish I had the original, first-edition copy of my autobiography. If by some chance my sixth grade teacher reads this, I'd appreciate it if you would mail me back the autobiography I wrote for your class. Maybe it was that good, you really did decide to keep it all these years.

May 28, 2008

My First Taste of Publication

Many people who become writers were encouraged to write at a young age, usually by teachers who thought they had potential. Growing up, not one of my teachers ever said to me, “Wow, you’re really good at writing! You should think about being a writer.” I suppose my teachers couldn’t see past my pitiful spelling and horrible handwriting to see my potential as a writer.

The first time I received the recognition I deserved was in fourth grade when I had a poem published in the school newsletter. My first published poem went like this: 

I have a sister named Pat.
She is very fat.
She ate a pig.
And did a jig.
And that’s the end of that.

Small wonder I never got much praise for my writing when I was young.

That first published poem not only brought me recognition at my school, it brought my quite-slim sister a ton of teasing from her fifth-grade classmates. As the underdog sibling at the time, it was slightly satisfying that my sister was suffering for the sake of my art. Of course I hadn’t originally intended to write the poem as a means of getting even with her—that was sort of a fringe benefit. I only wrote the poem because I was under a great deal of pressure from my fourth-grade teacher to produce something that sounded remotely like a poem when we were learning about poetry. That little verse happened to be the first rhyming thing that popped into my head. I had no idea the teacher was planning to submit all the poems the class wrote to the school paper.

Fast forward to high school. I wrote lots of poems and never showed anyone any of them, until my junior year when I decided to submit a bunch of my poems for publication in the school literary magazine. Sadly, none of them got in. That was major rejection at a vulnerable age, and it took me several more years before I attempted to get my poems published again. Luckily, I’m over that high school rejection that surely was the result of not being friends with anyone on the literary magazine staff (at least that’s what my teenage self convinced me). I don’t remember what poems I submitted, but surely if any of them were in the style of the Fat Pat poem and they DID get published for the whole school to see, I might still not be over it.

Moral of story: rejected writing hurts for a bit, but bad writing that gets published can live on forever (as my sister will tell you).

May 20, 2008

Before There Were Blogs

Like many writers, I kept a diary from time to time. I was ten years old the first time I started one. Each page began with “Dear Diary” because that’s how Daisy Duck did it in the comics, so I guess you could say she was the first writer I emulated. I primarily wrote about the important events in the day of a ten year old such as “today in gym I got out third in dodge ball” or something equally as exciting. Each page was usually only a paragraph long, but on really good or really bad days, I’d go on to a second paragraph. Below is a sample page from my exhilarating life as a ten-year-old.

Need I mention spelling was not one of my talents at that age?

Thanks to hard work, along with the invention of spell check, I’m happy to report my spelling skills have improved quite sufficiently since I was ten. But back then, spelling along with all those proper English rules didn't matter in my diary, because everything I wrote was for my eyes only, never to be shared with anyone.

By the time I got to high school my diary became a place to spill my guts about everything. I mostly wrote in my diary when I was depressed, which pretty much was during my entire teenage years. I wrote about all the torment and tragedy my adolescent self was suffering. Page after page of epic proportion teenage tragedies were written about in my diary, and all those tragic true-life stories I wrote about had me as the leading lady.

The year I was 15, I burned my diary, afraid that someone might find it and (gasp!) read it. With all the wisdom of a hormonal 15 year old, I lit the diary on fire right in my bedroom, instead of burning it outside like a somewhat-sane 20 year old might do. From the ashtray where my diary burned, tiny pieces of ash and paper began to rise and fly around my room and I had to chase them around so they wouldn’t land and leave burn marks on the carpet or walls. When the flames in the ashtray got bigger than I expected, I panicked and ran to the bathroom to get some water to douse them. After the flames came the smoke, and I got nervous my family would smell it and come to investigate and then I’d have to come up with a rational explanation for what I was doing. I opened the window and tried my best to usher the smoke out, and other than one sister commenting that it smelled like something was burning, no one bothered to come see what the smell was.

When the smoke cleared in my bedroom, I took what was left of the diary, tore the partially-burned pages into itty, bitty, tiny pieces that no one short of a forensic expert could piece back together to read, and then as a final added precaution, I buried that whole pile of burned confetti in our back yard. At that age, having someone read my inner-most thoughts was more terrifying to me than was the possibility of burning down my house.

Now, here I am writing out my thoughts on the internet for the whole world not only to see, but to copy, paste, pass on to their friends, and probably to never let me live down.

Go figure.