You’re Not Faulkner
Have you ever found something in your life that honest-to-heaven really helped you every time you truly, soulfully needed it? Take a minute to think about it, it’s okay. Has there ever been one thing you knew you could rely on—not necessarily another person but something deeper, something that made you believe in yourself, gave you strength from the inside out? Something that felt like a gift, something you recognized, even if only subconsciously, was a resource for healing and for joy.
Fortunately for me, I have several things that help keep me grounded and emotionally well. Prayer & certain Scriptures, music, my mom & sister…. But set aside in its own room in my heart is writing. It’s been my constant companion since I was barely old enough to write–I was about six or seven when I penned my very first story, “Sweet Shelby.” I wrote on napkins and on my hand. I wrote after terrible things happened, I wrote when impossible dreams were realized like my trip to Europe. I wrote when I was bored. I wrote when I was sick. 109 books, many of which were over one thousand—1,000— handwritten pages long and a couple of which were over two thousand–2,000– handwritten pages, complete before high school graduation. I had a series about a group of teenage friends, I had a story about a remarkable man who turned his abusive past into a ranch for troubled children, I had a book about four high schoolers who were abducted and held hostage on their Senior trip to a foreign country. There was a book about a woman who overcame a difficult past to marry and have a child— but that child died from a mysterious disease and it ripped her marriage apart. One of my favorites was called “The Journal”, which was an ill-fated, Romeo and Juliet type love story with a happy ending. I even turned the life story of one of my mom’s childhood friends into a novel called “Graduation”—included in that one was Mr. Daniels, the Bible teacher upon whom I had a serious crush. A book about the orphan train, one about the Holocaust. While other kids played on playgrounds or went on dates in high school—I wrote. And, through writing, told increasingly more detailed pieces of my own, true story which allowed me to ultimately heal.
Writing was more than a hobby. It was part of who I was. It still is. Several years ago, I decided to Google “sites for writers” and found a whole host of sites dedicated to writers. Some encouraged participants to post chapters of their work to be edited and critiqued by other writers. This idea intrigued and snared me. Help to improve my writings? Yes, absolutely, sign me up!
I became rather involved on one site in particular, mainly because I found it to be the most reputable: in order to sign up, you had to first post a work AND critique a number of other writings. No one would go through that much trouble unless he was really a writer. It made me feel safe posting my work, and I was super stoked about the comments that started rolling in. At first, they were very positive, with the occasional house-cleaning grammatical advise. I soaked that in like a sponge because I hate grammar and, frankly, I’m not very good at it. I needed that kind of constructive criticism, the kind that helped me make my writing clean and easier to read. I applied the advise.
Then, a few unsavory characters took to commenting on my writings. Their comments were about the content more than the mechanics. One told me to make it a point to avoid the word “that” because it serves no purpose and is usually an “extra” word in a sentence. Okay, I thought, I’ll try it.”. And even though it wasn’t natural, the idea stayed in my head and I found myself re-writing sentences in which that word was used. It did, I noted, make my writing more precise. Other comments started coming, and these were more about my choice of topics than anything.
Slowly, but surely, my writing took on a different tone. It didn’t sound like me. It didn’t feel like me. Where were the paragraphs that detailed emotion? Where was the stark realism that had always been a part of my stories? I decided not to seek publication for the book that other writers had influenced. It was clean and it was precise–but it wasn’t me and it didn’t say what I needed it to.
I wrote “Broken” instead and started backing away from the online club. Posting less, participating less frequently in the often confrontational threads. I wanted to belong to a group of writers — but I didn’t want to write their stories. I wanted to write mine. Well, after publishing “Broken”, I’ve found myself with a bit of time on my night-owl hands so I’ve visited this online community more frequently again, and the threads. This has resulted in a surge of new comments on my writing—and not just on the unpublished novel, but also on the excerpts found on this blog of the published ones. Tonight, I got a very harsh email that ripped my feelings apart, primarily because of the following paragraph: “Competent writers don’t use writing as therapy but rather a tool to distract the masses from reality. So I wouldn’t expect much success to come from an overly simplistic style like yours, especially with topics that have such a small market.”
This hurts my feelings so deeply my muscles clench involuntarily reading it.
I didn’t respond to the comment because I knew the writer was just wanting to argue. Arguing seems to be a game to him and to several of the other combative writers that participate in this community. But I can’t let it go.
Ultimately, I stopped visiting the site so frequently not only because my writing felt different but also because I started questioning my status as a “real writer.” My confidence in my ability to write well was shaken and that scared me because writing is the one area in which I have always felt confidant.
What are “competent writers?” Writers that sell thousands? Millions? I don’t sell thousands, but I sell hundreds. I’m making money—does that count for competent? Or do you have to be legendary to be a real writer? I’m not Faulkner, Hemingway, King or Grisham–and when I try to imitate them on purpose, I fail miserably on all accounts. Does that mean I will never really be a competent writer? Or does being a competent writer mean I have to accept, and use, every piece of advise other writers give me? If they tell me not use a certain word and I make sure
that word is never used again or if they tell me that a ten year old wouldn’t really use the words “tennis shoe” so I re-write it using a different phrase—is that competent? What if they tell me I’m not writing worthwhile topics? I’m supposed to be writing with the intent of distracting the masses from reality so child and domestic abuse, neglect, the Holocaust–none of that will work. I have to create an entire fictional land where vampires fall in love with mortals or something because that’s never going to really happen and so that’s so much more distracting from reality. The masses would like that. Only a few people want to read books in which the only violence that takes place are wars against children, so I’m never going to become a millionaire and therefore I’m probably never going to become a “competent writer.”
I don’t know what inspired Hemingway to write. I don’t know what really inspired Faulkner; what planted the idea for “As I Lay Dying” or “A Rose for Emily”? It doesn’t seem like they used writing as therapy–the bottle seems more likely to have acted as a therapist for those brilliant authors. I don’t know… But I can’t care.
To tell you the truth, I would still happily give my books away for nothing but a promise to actually read it. I’m not interested in becoming rich. Or famous. I just want to write, and to feel the peace settle like a calm wind over my heart. I want my stories to provoke tears and laughter because, when stirred, emotion can inspire someone into action. I haven’t made a best seller’s list and may never do so–but readers from all sorts of different countries email me to tell me that one of my books impacted their lives. One told me that “The Character” helped him understand someone he loved and had tried to understand for years. Another said that reading my work was like giving her thoughts a voice. My book on the Holocaust helped me spend time with a Holocaust survivor, talking to him privately. I receive multiple emails a month, and new subscribers to the blog almost daily. My newest book, which has only been out a month, has sold very well already. Strangers read my books. But that’s not even my definition of success.
When I write for no reason except the character that’s shadowing me, something happens to my heart. It is stirred, it melts, it turns. I cry my way through a painful chapter and the tears help wash the real hurt away. I can talk out loud about my past–but only because I first wrote about it. Writing helped pave the road to healing. And when I write, I am happy. Whether it be a sad story with a tragic end or a wrenching plot with a grey ending–writing makes me laugh and smile and believe in things like true love and good men and happiness. It allows me to be whatever I need to be with no judgment–a princess, a crusader, a hurting child. It is therapeutic — but it’s also more than that. It’s where I feel friendship and acceptance. It’s where I feel the most confident and sure. It’s one of very few places where I trust my instincts without reservation. It gives me solace and joy; that, in my eyes, is success.
Gifts like writing can’t be manipulated or changed. It can evolve into something beautiful and crafted but it can’t be forced. No matter how much I want to be writing again, I have to wait on a character and on the story to reveal itself. If I try to force a story, it won’t be finished. I joined the writer’s online community because I wanted to be around other writers–One of them said he had spent the weekend in his writing office, surrounded by loose leaf paper everywhere. “A perfect fire hazard” he quipped, and my heart melted. Because even though fire stone cold terrifies me, paper comforts. I wanted friends, someone who understood how I love to talk to and about fictional people. I see my characters—I wanted to communicate with others who understood, and appreciated, that. I wanted to talk with other writers about the emotional roller coaster that is learning about the nuances of a new character or being presented a logistical challenge in the story and having to creatively solve it. I dreamed of lounging the day away while passionately explaining why we had chosen to create the stories we did. I wanted solidarity. And I took their comments to heart because I valued the opinion of another writer. But if we all start trying to become like each other, we lose our individuality. And if we lose that, none of us will ever be as legendary as Hemingway, Faulkner, King or Grisham! I can’t compete with other writers because the playing field isn’t even: what I’m trying to say in my stories is personal and difficult while what you may be trying to describe is a fantasy. Both will sell. Both will be read. It doesn’t matter by how many or which crowds. At least, it shouldn’t. And I know for sure that helpful critique never, ever demeans another writer simply because her style doesn’t match your own. If it does, then it comes from a community to which solidarity, nor I, can belong.
Readers are smart. They know when a story came from the heart: one of my readers, whom I did not know, stopped me and said: “you could not have written that without having experienced it. I know.” Readers know when something is forced–or genuine. Connections have been made through my writing; it has been a catalyst for public speaking and personal growth. What is competence if not that?
Writing means a great deal to me. I firmly believe God gave it to me to help me heal and to help me find joy. If I try to please the masses, I’ll fail because it won’t be from the heart. But if I stay true to what He puts on my heart to write, then my successes will be sweeter and more powerful. Because, after all, I’m not Hemingway, Faulkner, King or Grisham… But I am Tiffini.
And that will do.