When I graduated from high school I wrote a short story about two cats who got jobs to support their flakey owner. My mom liked the story. I had nothing better to do. I kept writing. I researched kid’s picture books and discovered my story was too long, yet too short for a young adult audience. I wrote some more. I lost the story when my computer crashed, re-wrote it from memory and a partial hard copy, and wrote yet more. This was my first novel, somewhere between 45-50,000 words, aimed at the 10-13 year old market. Definitely derivative from my favorite read as a kid, James Howe’s Bunnicula books.
After that, I attempted an adult novel that evolved into a much more entertaining screenplay, a format I used to tell stories for two or three more years.
My goal was to sell a novel or screenplay, earn a fortune, and move out of my family’s house with that income. Not to sell a short story or two, write a play for the theater I’d volunteered at in high school, win the fiction contest at the local paper, or do a reading during an open mic night at the coffee shop downtown. Those possibilities didn’t even occur to me until just now as I wrote this, seven years later. Nothing local mattered, it was “small time,” “beneath me,” “lame” to attract the interest of anyone who lived in my town. I was living in the bedroom I’d used in high school, had no friends left in town, no money, and knew no one in the movie or publishing industries, but I was going to write Sandra Bullock’s next hit or be on Oprah before I turned 25.
I felt that only a major publisher or producer could validate my talents. Looking back, I marvel at my stupidity. An editor in a corner office on the twelfth floor may decide to publish a novel, but only so that my fifth grade science teacher, the woman who sat next to me on the bus, and the kids sitting on a bench at the park can read it. If they don’t, the book doesn’t sell, and the author cries. At least, I would. I’m only writing so that someone will read me. So why the hell do I care so much about the big time when I haven’t even entertained the small time?
I remember standing as a kid at the foot of my grandparent’s driveway with three of my female cousins, talking about what we wanted from our adult lives: where we’d live, how many kids we’d have, what our first car would be. “What do you want to do?” the eldest asked me, and my eleven year old self said without hesitating, “Be a writer.” It was one of my earliest moments of self-definition, knowing it so clearly and feeling it so true once it had been said out loud.
But I’ve been trying to fly straight to the mountain on paper wings. Only one of those three cousins have ever read a story I’ve written. I can’t write a screenplay for the next Sandra Bullock if I can’t even write a short story a friend finds compelling enough to pass on to another friend. A first draft of a novel a family member can’t help but read through the night. Characters I want to return to, day after day, until their tale is finished.
I used to take pride in, and draw energy from tackling the crowds, pace and scale of New York, because I believed in the saying, “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.” But when it comes to writing, my eleven year old self is straddling her bike in her grandparent’s driveway, wondering what the hell I was thinking. If my stories can’t win a contest in a paper in a small town like Spokane or Buffalo, or survive a reading of friends, or flourish in the eyes of loved ones…
If they can’t make it here, they can’t make it anywhere.