When I was ten, I had a stroke of luck that represented the first real growth of writer roots for me. My grandparents gave me the manual typewriter I played with at their house. It was a Remington Rand, with red and black ribbon, no correction ability, and a metal lever that I pulled to advance the carriage when the bell dinged at the end of a line. For months, I pecked out words mindlessly. I filled up pages of the onionskin paper Poppa had given me along with the typewriter. I wrote unconnected words, long words, words I had to look up in the dictionary, words whose sounds pleased my tongue and my fingers.
I don’t remember when I connected typing to the elaborate fantasy games I played with my best friend, but I do recall asking my mother if there was a job where you could just type for a living. She said, “Jessie, you don’t want to be a secretary.”
As soon as I realized that the correct answer was actually, ‘writer’, I composed a novel. It was 57 pages long. (Note to self: The logic that claims each page contains about ten thousand words is completely outdated and wrong.) It had a sex scene. But since I was a little confused about sex at age ten, the guy kissed the girl’s breasts, and I wrote, “And the rest I will leave to your imagination.” Probably just as well, since I had a masterful hold on explicit language, even if I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on.
Seven months later, in the midst of my second novel, I reread the first one and burned it. It was largely a retelling of Star Wars with a girl for Luke Skywalker and an evil Mother for Darth Vader. Then, I reread the in-progress novel and burned it, too, for being a retelling of Starman only with teens. I asked Mom if I could take a writing class. She bought me The Elements of Style instead.
I was fifteen and homeschooled before I took my first writing class. It was a correspondence course with an instructor at Northwestern University. No credit was associated with it, but the work was at a college level. The instructor constantly told me to read my stuff out loud, and I did. I went on to devour the few workshops offered by our local library over the next two years.
And here’s what I realized. By the time I was seventeen and in college, I was far from being one of the greats, but I wasn’t half bad, and I was better than any of the adults taking classes with me. (Arrogant? Yes. But also true.) In college, I almost never completed my work as assigned. I submitted historical fiction for my history essays (all thoroughly researched and appropriately cited). I turned in thrillers for my politics classes. Sociology got an imaginary case study. When I tried to write something nonfiction, I got a C. At one point, I wrote an essay for environmental science that started out with a famous quotation. The instructor remarked, “You actually used something from your sources in a straightforward way for once.” And my research partner said, “Oh, I thought she just made it up like she usually does.”
Only my English courses received good nonfiction. I loved (and still adore) lit crit. But when I got to grad school, I discovered that there’s a way of looking at literature that can suck the soul out of writing. My English Master’s also triggered the worst of my bipolar, and I suddenly stopped writing altogether. For four years, I had nothing substantive to say.
So I wrote letters, and I read. I read books and stories, fantasy and mystery. I tackled literature that I’d missed while I was supposed to be studying it, and when Zoloft finally gave me my writing back, I wrote a novel. Not as promptly as when I was ten, because this one was longer than 57 pages.
I worked a forty hour a week job when I started Divorce: A Love Story. And I struggled to carve out the writing time to finish it. It took me seven years to get 73,000 words. After I had submitted the first third of the book to a publisher for consideration, I tossed out the last half of the novel. The publisher accepted it, and I rewrote in six months what it had taken me seven years to compose in the first place. The publisher is a micropress, so the book is only available in electronic format. But it’s out there, and I’m damned proud of it.
I also started blogging in 2011, and I’ve written another book and a half since then (“and a half” means “fully written, poorly edited”). It’s as though the four years I lost were saving themselves to force momentum onto me later. I just submitted a second novel to a major press, and have hopes of getting targeted feedback, even if the editor rejects it. My third novel is in its perpetual editing stage.
The best advice I have for writers is to do what works for you and throw the rest out the window. Trust yourself and be prepared to listen to your critics. Writing is a collaborative effort, and a good editor is worth waiting for.
I’m not keen on self publishing because I want to get paid to go to work, rather than paying for the same. But I have a lot of respect for friends brave enough to risk this route. There’s still a lot to be said for traditional publishing, and I don’t advise you to discount it just because it takes a long time. At the end of the day, it’s more than the big names. Go to conferences; meet editors and agents, and put yourself forward as both a writer and a student of writing.
I’ve been called “goal-oriented,” but nothing could be further from the truth. I’m spastic, I write on an erratic schedule, and have to trick myself into coming back to a project once my muse is bored with it. But I’m stubborn. And I write a lot. And I will do this for a living. These three things drive me forward, give my tree leaves, and make my branches full.
Jessie Bishop Powell is a half crazed mother of two kids on the autism spectrum. Her husband is a saint. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama and teaches college English online. You can find her hiding from her parental duties at http://jesterqueen.com.