I still remember exactly when it happened: I picked up a non-fiction book by Elizabeth Berg. Back in the late nineties and early aughts, I read a lot of Berg’s fiction. I wasn’t terribly happy back then, having gotten married to the wrong man and all, and her books, while not exactly fine literature, were cozy and comforting like an old pair of slippers. On a whim, I checked out her book, Escaping Into The Open, which is all about how to get started writing.
Before I read that book, I couldn’t admit to anyone, but especially to myself, that I wanted to be a writer. I had been writing all my life, including a diary I started at age seven and dozens of stories and poems throughout childhood and adolescence, and had even won a couple contests with short stories and poetry, but no one ever said, “You should be a writer.” So it didn’t occur to me that I could. I went off to college and majored in history (the first time around, anyway. Later–much later–I went back and majored in English. Just because I wanted to)
I read Berg’s book–which was like having a chat with a friend over coffee–and immediately felt inspired. Right after I read it she came to town on a book tour for one of her novels (I can’t remember which one any more) and I stood in line for an hour to get her to sign my copy of Escaping Into the Open. I smiled at her and nervously said, “It changed everything,” and then Berg got distracted by someone saying something over her shoulder and she just signed my book and that was that. I was a little disappointed, but to be fair, she HAD been signing books all night. I still have that book and I cherish it deeply, not because it even gave me any practical advice, but because it gave me confidence when I had none. Less than none.
I embarked on a decade of writing, executed in tentative, fits-and-starts fashion. I bought fine leather journals with creamy paper and labored over them, filling them with horrid stories. I was so distressed when I read what I had written! It was so BAD! I recognized excellent writing–my favorite book is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I’ve read three times–but I couldn’t seem to produce it or even mimic it. I didn’t yet know that all those years of practice were necessary, and that it was okay to write lots of bad crap before I could start to produce anything decent. I still don’t feel like I can write a short story to save my life, but lucky for me, it’s not exactly the hottest market. 🙂
I’m grateful for all those years, painful as they were. They were the years in the trenches where I learned my craft from the ground up. And I’m still grateful to Elizabeth Berg.