Monday, May 4, 2009

I thought writers were dead people

How I got the call . . . My call has come in four parts: first, the call to write; second, the call to write mysteries; third, a call to pare down my life to only those things I can do well and most want to do; and fourth and most recently, a call to write books I've had on hold while I wrote twenty mysteries.

Until I was thirteen, I wanted to be a surgeon. At age five I designed a hospital that included a morgue in the basement. Apparently I was already planning to kill people.

In ninth grade, my civics teacher assigned us to report on a career and I missed (skipped?) class that day. When I returned, the medical field had been taken. I was baffled. "What else is there?" She sent me to a box of career booklets in the corner.

The Box had only three booklets left: "Farmer," "Mortician," and "Writer." I picked writer because I loved to read, but I thought writers were dead people. All the writers we read in school were dead.

When I learned that writers were actually living people who made a career of taking ideas and stories from their head and making them available to others--and in the process spent lots of time in libraries, got to travel for their work, and got to work at home--I had one of those aha! moments that go down to the pure core of our identity. My immediate reaction was not, "I want to be a writer," but "I am a writer!"

I have devoted the rest of my life to what Joseph Campbell calls, "following one's bliss." In high school I helped start a literary magazine. I went to a college that had a good writing program. After college I worked and saved for a year so I could spend seven months writing in the Scottish Highlands. The Highlands part was self-indulgence, but I did want and need an inexpensive place where I could isolate myself and see if I had the discipline to write and anything whatsoever to say. On the strength of a few sales over there, I came back home and have held mostly writing-related jobs ever since.

My second call came the year I got married. For years I had written stories, articles, and occasional short plays or poems, but my new husband looked at our budget after a few months and asked, "Why don't you write a mystery to pay for the ones you keep buying?"

Another aha! I discovered in my file cabinet a file nearly an inch thick labeled "mystery ideas." I had no idea I'd been keeping it for years. And I knew immediately what mystery I would write first. I had a former boss whom I disliked intensely. I would put a body in his basement. (Note: Mystery writers are the most well adjusted of all writers: if somebody annoys us, we either kill them or make them a prime suspect.)

But writing mysteries turned out to be too much fun. My Protestant ethic--and a few well-meaning friends--insisted that I write serious things primarily, and only write my mystery in spare time. It took me years to figure out that a deep yearning within us may indicate something we are created to do. In the process of figuring that out, I wrote a non-fiction book, Women Who Do Too Much. Writing that book, and meeting women and sharing stories as a result of that book, served as a third call: to focus only on those things that energize me, bring me joy, or I can uniquely do. Paring down life to the manageable has been a long but worthwhile process.

In twenty years I wrote twenty mysteries, two novels, and five non-fiction books. Occasionally a novel would float into the conscious part of my brain, but I'd jot down notes and say, "I'll write that later."

But in the past two years I've gotten a wake-up call. My mother has Alzheimer's. We had to put her in a memory care facility last year. I realized that life does not come with longevity guarantees. If I want to write some of the books besides mysteries that have been plaguing me for years, I need to get busy.

And so, last year, I retired in order to write. The novel I'm currently working on, Hold Up the Sky, tells of four strong women who discover through major crises in their lives that women's real strength comes not from independence, but from interdependence. It will be out from New American Library in March 2010. My call at the moment is to squeeze each of the books hanging from my writing tree and see which ones ripen into reality, as long as I am able to put a fairly coherent sentence together.

After that? Who knows what the next call may be?

Most of Patricia Sprinkle southern mysteries are still in print, as are two of her non-fiction books: Women Who Do Too Much and Children Who Do Too Little. Visit her and order books directly from Barnes & Noble online at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was so funny! Thanks for sharing your story.