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Fiction: What You Really Want To Do Is Write
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
1. Third grade. You write your first play, "The Easter Egg Hunt," a semiautobiographical account of a shy, awkward, yet wise-beyond-her-years 9-year-old who gathers the most eggs during the highly competitive annual Easter Egg Hunt at Willow Street Park in San Jose.
2. Fifth grade. You author a compelling essay on the highly touted "very special" hour-long episode of Rhoda during which lead character Rhoda Morgenstern marries construction worker Joe Gerard. You argue that the scenes in which Rhoda is running along the streets of Manhattan in her wedding gown and veil to catch the subway to the ceremony lack both humor and tension.
"And why didn't Rhoda do something special with her hair for this 'very special' episode?" you write. "Why no baby's breath, no upsweep, no curls? I was thoroughly disappointed with the hair, the script, and Rhoda's dress."
3. Junior high. You begin writing short fiction. "Tami and Tina Toe Sock," your tale of an obnoxious pair of orange argyle toe socks plotting to do away with their Famolare-wearing owner, earns you an A.
4. High school. There is little time for writing. You are vice president of the California Scholarship Federation, senior class sergeant-at-arms, a candy striper at Good Samaritan Hospital, and head sales hostess at the Kentucky Fried Chicken near your home.
You plan to write about these experiences someday and really should be keeping a journal, but decide against it. After all, your thoughts are private, and knowing your mother she will discover your journal and read it when she's conducting her weekly snooping session of your bedroom.
5. College freshman. You want to major in English, but your father-the-accountant is not pleased with this decision and insists you major in business. "Writing and literature are fine as hobbies," he tells you, "but the purpose of college is to learn a vocation so you can earn a living. Besides, business can be very creative."
6. Sophomore. You enroll in "Introduction to Fiction Writing." You are the only business major in the class and are proud when you earn a B+ on your final story, "A Fish Out of Water." You are going to make time to keep writing. You really are.
7. Junior. You enroll in "Fiction Writing II." You are impressed that the professor has published two short stories in Harper's. Your goal is to revise "A Fish Out of Water" and publish it in Mademoiselle or Seventeen, but in your first one-on-one conference with the professor, he tells you that the characters in your story are lacking in substance and that the story is running in place. "I cannot encourage you to continue working on this piece," he says.
You wish your instructor from "Introduction to Fiction Writing" was teaching this course. You decide to drop the class.
8. Senior. You have no time to write. You are employed 15 hours a week as an intern at a global marketing and communications firm, and are interviewing with several Fortune 500 and high-technology companies. You must get a job before graduation to please your parents.
9. Two weeks before graduation. You are hired as a Level I junior brand manager by the frozen vegetables division of a diversified multinational food and household products corporation. Your chief responsibilities will be quantifying farm futures data and assisting in the coordination of new product rollouts. Your parents are quite pleased.
10. First year on the job. You spend 40 percent of your salary on DKNY skirts and blazers and Joan and David pumps. You attend industry conferences in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Fe. On your trip to Los Angeles, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid walk past your table at Spago. You observe that Meg Ryan is dressed in the most striking black pantsuit. You're sure it's Giorgio Armani.
aybe your father was right. Having a business degree isn't so bad after all. You haven't thought about writing in ages.
11. A year later. You receive your first promotion--to Level II junior brand manager. You are now responsible for developing the nomenclature and packaging architecture for all new frozen vegetable product lines. You receive a substantial salary increase, which you look forward to spending on a new fall wardrobe. Unfortunately, upon making visits to Saks and Neiman-Marcus, you learn that the skirts, blouses, trousers, and blazers in the new DKNY fall line look similar to those you already own.
12. Two months pass. You begin experiencing spontaneous facial twitches during the frozen vegetables division's weekly concept development and refinement meetings. While on conference calls, you often find yourself picking uncontrollably at the cuticles of your index fingers. Your roommate complains that your incessant teeth grinding while you sleep is so loud she can hear it through the wall that separates your bedrooms. You decide you don't want to work in business after all. What you really want to do is write.
13. Another month goes by. You decide to stop spending all your spare time shopping for clothes and accessories and instead start spending all your spare time writing, reading, and attending literary events at bookstores, except when there is a really big sale at Ann Taylor.
14. Three weeks later. You enroll in "Word Rap," a Saturday morning free-writing class. At the first session, when the instructor gives the prompt, "I see the deep blue sea," you write about the lavender sailor dress your mother forced you to wear to your grandparents' anniversary party when you were 15. When she reads the next prompt, "In the jungle, I saw but one eye of the Bengal tiger," you write about when you were 13 and became enraged with your brother because he was teasing you about liking a certain boy in your history class. You write that you bit your brother on the arm so hard that you left teeth marks.
15. A week later. You begin subscribing to Harper's, the New Yorker, and Publisher's Weekly. You scan every issue of Harper's and the New Yorker to make sure that the editors have not yet published a short story with plot and characters similar to the plot and characters in the short story you're planning to write. You monitor the reviews of forthcoming books in Publisher's Weekly to make certain no "coming of age" novels are being published with plot and characters similar to the plot and characters in the "coming of age" novel you are planning to write.
You start filling your bookshelves with books about writing: Writing Past Dark, On Writer's Block, Surviving a Writer's Life, The Weekend Novelist, Is There a Book Inside You?, The Way of the Woman Writer, The Writer's Journey, and How to Write the Story of Your Life. You promise yourself that you will start reading these books as soon as the nutritional claims are verified and the packaging redesign is completed for the new line of frozen petite peas you're assisting in rolling out next month.
You begin making a list of literary agents. You also start compiling a list of successful authors of literary fiction who did not begin writing fiction until they were your age but now earn a substantial income from writing novels.
16. Six weeks pass. You attend a reading at Barnes & Noble by a first-time author of a "coming of age" novel who did not begin writing fiction until she was your age.
When the first-time novelist steps up to the podium, you immediately fall in love with the gorgeous black leather double-breasted blazer she is wearing over a lilac-colored silk blouse. Her black leather hobo bag--you think it's Prada--is breathtaking. You want this bag. You need this bag. You know having this bag will make you a great writer.
During the question-and-answer period following her reading, the first-time novelist introduces the "mentor in my writing life"--a tall thin man with wire-rim glasses and no visible facial hair who is sitting in the front row of the audience, looking on admiringly at the first-time novelist. The mentor lives right here in your city and makes his living teaching private writing workshops.
17. The next day. You want to enroll in the mentor's private writing workshop, but it is quite expensive. Still, it must be worth it. You believe that fate is guiding you because your latest quarterly bonus from the diversified multinational food and household products corporation is about equal to the cost of the mentor's workshop.
18. An hour later. You call to enroll, and the mentor tells you that he must review your work before accepting you into the workshop. You haven't written anything since college, except for memos, proposals, and the free-write exercises in "Word Rap." You explain to him that you work long hours as a Level II junior brand manager and, consequently, do not have much spare time to write.
He seems sympathetic. "Many of my students have a difficult time balancing their work life with their writing life," he tells you.
You feel reassured and send him "A Fish Out of Water."
19. A week goes by. The mentor phones to tell you that he is accepting you into the workshop. All you need to do is send him a check. He seems to like "A Fish Out of Water."
"The story needs to be developed," he says, "but there are some very lovely paragraphs in it." He tells you he particularly enjoyed the fifth paragraph on the fourth page.
Before hanging up, he asks, "Who do you like to read?"
"Oh, modern women authors," you say. You hesitate for a moment and then spit out "Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore." You have seen these authors mentioned in Publisher's Weekly. You know they are well respected.
When you hang up the phone, you are bursting. A mentor is exactly what you need to get started writing.
20. Three weeks pass. The night of the mentor's first workshop, you spend two hours deciding what to wear. You select a black DKNY skirt with a hip-slung silver belt, a ribbed black turtleneck, black crochet tights, and a pair of black square-toed midcalf boots along with your new black leather Prada hobo bag. You are the best-dressed person in the class. You look like a writer should look.
21. That same night. During his introductory remarks, the first-time novelist's mentor talks about editing a story by Tobias Wolff--"Toby," he calls him. He mentions a discussion he had with Joyce Carol Oates and the famous literary agent Amanda "Binky" Urban over drinks at the Algonquin Hotel. You are impressed.
Next, he ambles to the chalkboard and draws a diagram of plot. You remember this diagram from your "Introduction to Writing Fiction" class in college, but you take copious notes as the mentor begins to offer his thoughts on plot structure.
Ten minutes later, he puts the chalk down and returns to his seat at the head of the workshop roundtable.
"This is the first and last lecture I will be giving in this workshop," he announces. "There will be no written feedback on stories in this workshop. Instead, we will work in the oral tradition of storytelling. We will read aloud, listen, and react spontaneously."
You are disappointed that you will not be receiving written feedback about "A Fish Out of Water," but you perk up during the break when you overhear two of the other students talking about the mentor.
"Yeah, I heard he had something to do with Ethan Hawke getting his first novel published," says one student.
"Really?" says the other student. "I heard he helped Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney, and Brett Easton Ellis with their first novels."
22. Four weeks pass. You are growing discouraged. You have been so busy analyzing gross sales, margins, and operating expenses for the new line of frozen petite peas that you have found no time to revise "A Fish Out of Water." Besides, many of the students in the mentor's workshop have MFAs. Some already have published stories in literary journals. Most of them don't have a demanding day job like yours. They work at coffeehouses or as office temps so they have more time to write than you do.
23. A week later. You still have not revised "A Fish Out of Water," and you're sched-
uled to read the story at tonight's workshop. As soon as you arrive at work, you leave a message on the mentor's answering machine.
"I have contracted a very serious ear infection," you tell the machine, "and although I am heartsick about it, I must drop your class because I cannot hear well enough to participate in the tradition of oral storytelling and spontaneous feedback."
You hang up. There. Done. Relief. You promise yourself that you will spend the three hours that you would have spent in the workshop every week writing stories.
24. Four and a half weeks pass. You still have not found time to write. You realize that you don't work well without deadlines. You need to belong to a workshop, if only for the deadline pressure it creates for you.
Your roommate, who also wants to write, tells you about a workshop led by the editor of a literary magazine who also writes novels (which he self-publishes). This workshop is even more costly than the one taught by the first-time novelist's mentor, but the editor of the literary magazine often publishes his students' work in the magazine.
25. The following Monday. You call the editor of the literary magazine and are disappointed to learn that there is a six-month waiting list for his workshop. You put your name on the waiting list.
26. A month goes by. You consider going back to school to get an MFA in creative writing. After all, you really did want to major in English in college. You read in Publisher's Weekly that the University of Iowa, Columbia University, UC Irvine, and NYU have the top writing programs in the nation.
27. The next day. You request applications from the writing programs at the University of Iowa, Columbia University, UC Irvine, and NYU.
28. A week later. You receive two of the applications in the mail and learn that each school requires that an applicant submit 25 pages of fiction. "A Fish Out of Water" is only 12 pages long. You need to come up with another 13 pages in time to meet the deadlines next month.
You do not have time this month to write another 13 pages of fiction. You are overwhelmed and overworked as it is, trying to obtain signoffs from five levels of brand management so the packaging for the new Vegetables 'n' Chunky Cheese Sauce line can be printed in time for the rollout next month.
29. That afternoon. You decide to borrow 13 pages of your roommate's "coming of age" novel in progress, Self-Sufficiency.
Unlike your father, who has done nothing but discourage your creative endeavors, your roommate's father helps her pay her share of the rent so she only has to work part-time and can write the rest of the time.
When your roommate is at her Pilates yoga class tomorrow night, you will borrow Self-Sufficiency from her desk drawer, type up a new title page that includes your name instead of hers, drive to Kinko's, make four copies of what you consider the best 13 pages of the manuscript, and submit them with your application to the creative writing departments at the University of Iowa, Columbia, UC Irvine, and NYU. This is just so you can be accepted into their MFA programs. Once you're in, you will do all of your own writing.
30. That evening. You ask your roommate's permission to read Self-Sufficiency. You read all 253 manuscript pages. It is a horrible novel, really, really horrible. You are a much better writer than your roommate. Borrowing 13 pages of Self-Sufficiency was a horrible idea. You promise yourself that an idea like this will never again cross your mind. You decide to postpone applying to the creative writing programs at the University of Iowa, Columbia, UC Irvine, and NYU. You will begin writing as soon as possible so that you can have 25 pages of topnotch material to submit with your applications next year.
31. A month passes. You conclude that it is impossible to find time to write while you are still working as a junior brand manager at the diversified multinational food and household products corporation. You do not do things halfway. You need to either write full-time or not at all.
32. A week later. You take a second job, working evenings and weekends at Ann Taylor. By working two jobs, you hope to save enough money so that by early next year you can resign from the diversified multinational food and household products corporation to write full-time but still maintain a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. In the meantime, working at Ann Taylor entitles you to a 20 percent discount on any clothes, shoes, or accessories you purchase there.
33. Six weeks go by. Business is often slow at Ann Taylor, so you have time to do a great deal of thinking. As you are folding silk camisoles and coordinating suitable trouser, blouse, and blazer combinations to dress the store mannequins, you think about writing, you think about your life, you think about your father-the-accountant.
You decide that it's your father's fault that you have no time to write. If only he hadn't insisted that you major in business--if only you'd been an English major--your life would be entirely different, entirely better. You'd be a published novelist by now. Shouldn't your father-the-accountant have listened when you told him a career in business was not for you? He never listens to you. But he always listens to your brother. Why is this?
34. Later that night. Your roommate suggests you schedule an appointment with her therapist to talk about your father. You decide that you can't possibly write anything until you resolve your feelings toward your father.
35. A week later. Your roommate's therapist advises you to stop thinking about your father-the-accountant. He tells you to just start writing if you really want to write.
36. Another week goes by. While you try to put the fact that your father has ruined your life behind you, you decide to take up baking. You soon come to believe that, like good writing, a fresh-baked blueberry peach cobbler is both beautiful and artful.
37. Three weeks later. You read an article in Publisher's Weekly about the growing popularity of cookbooks. The article mentions a couple who used to own a specialty bookstore, but sold it and decided to take a sabbatical to write a low-fat cookbook. Since then, they have published six cookbooks in eight years, three of which have become bestsellers.
38. The next day. You decide to write a cookbook. Writing a cookbook will be less time-consuming than writing a novel or a book of short stories. You can write a cookbook while you are still employed at Ann Taylor and the diversified multinational food and household products corporation.
Even though you don't have any of your own recipes for the cookbook, your mother and grandmother have hundreds of recipes. You can borrow their recipes, rewrite them, and include the best ones in your cookbook. By doing so, you will be sharing your family's culinary heritage with hundreds of thousands of readers. This could be a very important book.
Best of all, once the cookbook is published, you will be considered an established writer, and just like the first-time novelist you heard read at Barnes & Noble, you will be able to obtain a sizable advance for your next book, quit your two jobs and write full-time, just as you've always wanted to.
You can't wait. You will start first thing in the morning. 2
Kathy Dalle-Molle is a freelance writer and editor whose book credits include 24 Hours in Cyberspace by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters, and Escape from Cluelessness: A Guide for the Organizationally Challenged, by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal. She also is a regular contributor to Leader to Leader magazine and has written for the Noe Valley Voice for more than nine years.