Tuesday, May 5, 2009

THE GIFT AND THE GRIT

I was doing a quick power-sweep to get a trail of cat litter off the kitchen floor this morning when I had what I thought was a nice realization. Earlier I had jotted down this long to-do list of things I needed to accomplish: several things for my agent, trimming an engulfing bush in our yard that the water meter readers left a threatening note about, a laundry pile that was fermenting, supper to plan, dishes to do, visiting the middle school for parent night, etc... Also, my turn to blog had arrived. Encouraged by my realization I picked up the cordless phone and held it under my chin as I swept a little pile of litter into the dustpan. “Looks like my blog for this month won’t take much time atall,” I said to my husband, Tom. “I mean, why re-invent the wheel. I can just copy and paste that story on my website about how I started writing. It’s kind of about ‘How I got the call.’ Couple hours trimming and polishing, and I’ll be ready to post!”

Tom sighed. I could imagine him frowning and shaking his head. “Julie, even a few hours is your time. You may as well go outside and follow Roxie around and pee in the road with her if you’re not gonna use this blog to sell books. The purpose of taking the time to blog is to SELL books!”

Well, I was a bit offended at his innuendo that being the neighbor’s dog was as productive as some of the time I spend here at my keyboard. Also, for me, it’s hard sometimes to merge that creative side of me, the “writer” who loves to tell stories, with the mercenary “author” who is supposed to be constantly hawking my books.

I thought and thought about Tom’s admonition. Was he right? Did I need to sublimely, or boldly weave stuff into my blog to get people to run out and buy one of my novels? Doesn’t getting “The Call” seem to indicate some sort of providential gift, a bequeathing of talent? And, if it’s a gift to you, shouldn’t you just share it, freely? When I hear “The Call” it sure sounds like all a writer/author has to do is “sit down, open up that vein, and let the words gush on out.”

But that’s not true. I know from experience. In fact, I get my feathers ruffled when I read articles about some author who is “an overnight success.” That’s because I’ve heard the real stories behind these stories, about the ten years plus spent studying the craft, writing and re-writing the novel, searching for an agent, waiting for an editor to bite, then re-writing again for the new editor, then and perhaps the most difficult, getting out there to market the novel. Personally, I know the emotional, the spiritual, the physical, the mental energy that goes into writing a book.

A line just zipped into my brain from this intense Bible study I recently completed on the book of Esther. The author of the study, Beth Moore, said, “Gift without grit is a pitiful waste. The blessed recipient is responsible for developing the integrity, humility, and work-ethic to know what to do with it.”

Gift without grit. The call without the balls (well, I don’t know what the feminine analogy ought to be), but she’s right, and Tom’s right. There’s no way I couldn’ve kept on, spending years and years writing novels, if I didn’t work at it and if I didn’t sell some books.

I’m absolutely positive that there are many fabulously gifted writers with partially finished novels, even completed novels, stuffed into their closets with their out-of-season clothes. These are people who got The Call, but either didn’t have the drive to carry it through, or sadly, the blessings of supportive folks behind them. An author friend of mine, Terry Kay, likes to tell groups of wannabe writers about a list of attributes a person with the call must possess. He talks about self-discipline, persistence, patience, and more. A person must develop a resilient ego in this business. You cannot be a fragile flower.

I got The Call early in life. I love writing stories. In my opinion, it’s the stuff a writer has to do from the left-brain that’s the hardest; writing compelling synopses to send out with queries and proposals, coming up with author bios, with “elevator pitches” to entice the media, of contacting radio stations, magazine and newspaper editors, bookstores...

Yep, you can get The Call, but it’s up to you (and Providence, I should add) to run with the ball. That sounds kind of dumb, but I’m running out of time; I’ve got to meet the schoolbus at 2:50 p.m. and then Sam will require my company. Below is what’s posted on my website about my call and my journey to publication, but after a quick read through I must say I don’t think I conveyed all the grit that went with the gift. Especially not all the sacrifices my husband, my kids, and even my parents contributed:

My family likes to remind me that as soon as I was able to string words together, I was telling my own stories, and in grammar school I began writing them down into little books crudely fashioned from stapled together construction paper. All my English teachers would put encouraging notes on my report cards, and for me, a particularly nerdy child (all knees, elbows, eyeglasses, and braces) it was a way to shine. To hold my head up a tiny bit even if I was picked last for teams at recess and P.E. In middle school I lived with a library book in my hand. Basically anxious and uncomfortable in social situations, one of my favorite things was to crawl off into a private nook and immerse myself in fabulous adventures, where there were no risks other than the hours flying by and my math homework left undone. A natural off-shoot of this voracious appetite and my love of story telling, I began to write even more, filling reams of lined paper with poems, haikus, and short stories. In high school (Cedar Shoals High in Athens, Georgia, class of ‘80) I became a contributor to a school sponsored literary magazine. One reason I had all that extra time to sit around writing was because no one ever asked me out on a date. I’m fairly certain that my social life was not enhanced by the fact that in addition to all my ceaseless writing, I raised chickens, and sheep, and showed 4-H beef steers (Perhaps had manure wedged up in the tread of my Pumas as I stepped into my classrooms). Still, I was a little sad that I turned no heads.

"Don’t worry, Julie," I consoled myself, "just follow your dreams. When you get out of here, you can write books for a living." But then, for one of those reasons that is never quite clear, except to say that I was a good little southern girl who listened when folks told her you couldn’t make a living writing books, I entered the University of Georgia’s Journalism school to earn a degree in advertising.

After graduation I landed in a string of torturous sales jobs, but still, I was a closet writer, capturing my ragged bits of history long-hand on clipboards full of notebook paper and then stashing them underneath the bed in Rubbermaid gift-wrap containers. Years passed and I married, and within three years the first two kids came along. There were many part time jobs, with money and time always a scarce commodity, but perhaps the hardest thing was that my insatiable and desperate need to create stories did not subside.

So I began to steal little "pockets of time" between chasing toddlers and dust balls to write. I wrote children’s books, as well as a novel. Impassioned and impatient, I began sending things off willy-nilly to publishers.

The first time I got a fat manila SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) back in the mail with a rejection form letter, I was just sure that there had been some mistake. I told myself that obviously the editor had failed to read the manuscript enclosed, that probably she was on some strong type of allergy medicine when my package landed on her desk and would later regret her error when my work was accepted at the next publishing house. I did not yet realize that there is a lot of homework to be done before you submit anything, both on the writing itself and on researching the publishing houses. So, after this happened four separate times, "the wind was out of my sails" as Momma puts it, and my literary dreams faded once again.

Life went on and I continued to write and ferret my stories away, and then, in October of 1998, my husband noticed an ad in a local entertainment magazine for a short story contest. It was co-sponsored by a small publishing house and had a cash prize. I fished a story out from my vast reservoir, dusted it off, and carried it in. One sunny morning not long after that, the phone rang. I picked it up, settled it on my shoulder, following my third and last baby as he crawled around the house, and listening as the enthusiastic male voice on the other end of the line told me that my story was "head and shoulders above" the other 60-something entries. The first thing I thought of was the hundred bucks. I’d never received a penny for my writing! He proceeded to ask me for some personal information to print along with my story and I said I was writing this particular novel. What I actually had on paper from it was one scene about an older woman, a widow, who was on a man-hunt, just months after her beloved husband was laid to rest. I had her cruising the frozen foods aisle of the super Kroger, looking for bachelors filling up their buggies with Hungry Man Dinners.

My idea was to break this poor woman’s heart again and again, and finally let her find consolation and healing outside in her vegetable garden. I pictured the farm in Armuchee as I wrote the story. My Mee-maw had been an avid gardener who worked out a lot of life’s troubles out there in the dirt. I thought of the garden as the "southern gentile’s therapist," and I was calling this novel Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes.

Soon after they printed my winning short story along with the little bio, I ran into the president of Hill Street Press, co-sponsor of the contest. "Bring us that novel you mentioned, Julie," he said. "We’d like to take a look at it."

"Fine. I sure will," I said calmly. But inside I was screaming "WOW! Here’s my chance!" I flew home and with the memories literally screaming through my veins, I spent every spare minute I could find in one corner of our tiny kitchen, writing Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes out in long-hand. With each stroke of that Bic, I sought to enlarge my scene to novel proportions, and I scoured my journals and memories to find the right details: I recalled touching incidents, what was blooming or fading in the garden at the certain seasons. I smelled crushed tomato leaves mixed with warm marigolds. I let my heroine, Imogene, see the spiritual side of composting, which is that life springs from death. I figured that would cheer her up and give her hope, and so the seasons in the garden and her passage from grief to wholeness wove themselves together, and even I was startled by the insights I received. This was all well and good, but I did not want a serious, grief-riddled book. I also wanted to make people laugh. Imo’s man-hunt was fun and I also added a conversation between the ladies of the Garden Club about Viagra and I put in the ghost of a dead wife to interfere with one of her romances.

Happily, Hill Street Press published Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes in the spring of 2001. It became a southern best seller and they then sold the paperback rights to Simon & Schuster, who released that in August of 2003. Simon & Schuster also bought all the rights to my second novel, ‘Mater Biscuit, which became book #2 in what Simon & Schuster calls the Homegrown series. ‘Mater Biscuit hit the book shelves in April of 2004, and eager to preserve my recollections of a way of life that’s quickly evaporating, I sat down and wrote book #3, Those Pearly Gates, released in September 2005. The Homegrown series has become for me a celebration of the gifts of my rural southern heritage.

My fourth novel, a stand-alone tale called The Romance Readers' Book Club, Penguin-Plume, January 2008, is actually the second novel I started. It was tucked safely away while I wrote the second and third novels in the Homegrown series. Currently I am finishing up my fifth and sixth novels, tentatively titled Judas That I Was, and Roots in Red Clay.

As you can see, not all of the highways and byways of my writing journey have been smooth. Even publication itself was not some totally fulfilling and apocalyptic experience. I wasn’t miraculously transformed. Instead, the very first time I held one of my novels, I was filled with gratitude and humility at the thought of the mountains of support from my friends and family that such a venture required, most especially my long-suffering husband, Tom. There were many times I would have thrown in the towel were it not for his belief in me.

I’m often asked about where my story ideas come from and generally I tell them what I told you at the top of this story. But that is not the full answer. It is a very mysterious process, even to me, when something gets transformed from an idea or thought into a story. I firmly believe the aptitude to write is a gift and entrustment from God and I take very seriously the commitment to co-create stories He won’t be ashamed of. I love country music and I once read a comment from country great Merle Haggard about his music that struck me as how I feel about my writing. He said, "Music is a positive vibration that we all need. It comes through me and I believe it comes from God. The Lord is just using me as an instrument and I’m just doing the best I can to respond to what He wants."'

When I sit down to write, the story is the first thing on my agenda, but somehow my plots always seem to interweave themselves with spiritual themes - with many different angles of "the human condition" as it pertains to that mystical relationship between the Creator and the individual. I believe that I am seeking to find out truths myself


Addendum: I’ve currently got two complete novels with my relatively new agent (since October of 2008) and she’s got it out at a respectable number of publishers. In addition to these novels, I’ve written two fairly detailed synopses because one editor at a large publishing house really loved my writing, but wanted something with more “women’s friendship issues” woven into it. I decided to strike while the iron was hot and these went to my agent last Friday, so you know I run to my phone answering machine whenever I come in from anywhere, and I’m constantly checking my email in-box.

Well, I don’t know if this blog of mine is any more profitable that Roxie’s elimination schedule as far as book sales go, but I do know I’ve poured out my heart, and that’s the best this writer can do today.


Visit Julie Cannon's website at http://www.juliecannon.info/

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. I really enjoyed reading it.

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John Jeter said...

I'm a little confused. If Simon & Schuster enthusiastically published the series, why would you be searching for another publisher? Why wouldn't S&S be all over any of your new projects? And, why would you have a new agent? ... This all seems so mysterious - at least, to me.

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