Regrets, I’ve Had a Few; or, My Writing History and What I’ve Learned from It

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My name is Elise, and I am a writer. Or at least I try to be. In some senses I am; I did work as a ghostwriter for nearly a decade and write upward of fifty books in that time. So I think that qualifies me. And I have notebooks and thumb drives full of first drafts and incomplete scenes and unfinished stories that I take out and read from time to time and wonder why on earth I didn’t follow through on them. And then I remember: I am a procrastinator. I also get mental blocks and writing blocks, and then I had a kid and all my free time got tied up in diaper changing and cleaning up vomit (baby had reflux, I don’t recommend it) and back-to-school nights and weekend swim classes. Throughout all of that I continued to write at work; I’ve always prided myself on the fact that with the exception of a few years in social services, I have spent the majority of my career supporting myself—and my family—as a writer. Not many people can say that.

But let me back up a little. Or a lot. Thirty-two years, to be exact. (Yes, I am that old.) To 1986, to my childhood bedroom, all white and pastel blue, my posters of Duran Duran and Michael J. Fox on the walls, and my radio constantly blaring the weekly Top 40. It was around that time that I first started journaling; I’m not sure what gave me the idea, but somehow I ended up with one of those black-and-white composition notebooks that I scrawled in endlessly, page after page about what music videos were playing on MTV and what I was doing with my friends and what was happening on my favorite TV shows. (I still have this notebook. I take it out from time to time and cringe at it.)

It was also around this time that I began devouring my local library’s YA section book by book. Paul Zindel and Lois Duncan and Judy Blume’s stories about periods and sex, and this horror series called Twilight, which had nothing to do with sparkling vampires but did cover all sorts of macabre subjects like witches and evil twins and astral projection. It was also around this time that I discovered S. E. Hinton’s novels, and while I read them all repeatedly—Tex; That Was Then, This Is Now; Rumble Fish—I was particularly obsessed with The Outsiders. I didn’t have a whole lot in common with Ponyboy Curtis, the main character—we were both poor, but my parents, though split up, were still alive, and I didn’t have to worry about getting into any knife fights with the rich kids in town. But his story appealed to me. I liked his world, where grown-ups didn’t exist and loyalty was everything, where friends would do anything for one another, where your family at least tried to protect you from the harshness of the world. I read the book over and over; I would literally finish the last word then turn back to the beginning or go back to reread my favorite parts.

And then after a while, just reading it wasn’t enough. All the feelings and ideas it brought into my head, they had nowhere to go, and I needed an outlet. So one day instead of writing in my journal about pop music and John Hughes movies, I started writing a story. About two brothers with no parents (I don’t remember how I killed them off) and their tight-knit group of friends. There wasn’t much of a story line, but there was tons of drama. It was a complete Outsiders rip-off, but I was totally into it. Soon it got its own notebook, a white vinyl binder with loose-leaf pages crammed with my bubbly early teenager handwriting, whole lines and paragraphs scratched out and rewritten in the margins. Even then, I was not good at first drafts. I would write a little and then go back and edit and revise endlessly, until I got that buzz in my head I still get when I do some good writing.

I worked on that story for the longest time, mimicking what I read in teen novels and saw in teen movies and on TV. The brothers had arguments and differences, they pined after girls, they felt more existential angst than even I did in my real life at the time, which is saying quite a lot; writing was a way for me to vent my feelings, yes, but it was also a rather effective means of escape from my less than happy home life, which more often than not was full of shouting and hitting and general unhappiness. When I was writing, I could create the world I wanted, with absent parents and older siblings who looked out for you instead of abusing you. Where kids had normal kid problems and the support they needed to get through them. My characters might have been flawed and imperfect and were definitely complete copies of S. E. Hinton’s, but they lived in the world I wanted to inhabit. Consequently, they became the realest and most important thing to me.

Then Ferris Bueller rolled into my life, and everything changed. (My influences, I am first to admit, have been somewhat…eclectic. If not downright ridiculous.) Having had a massive crush on Matthew Broderick since WarGames in 1983, I was beside myself when the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out; I saw it twice, two days in a row, the weekend it was released. And now I knew this…this was how I wanted my life to be. Ferris was smart and so sure of himself and flouted authority at every turn, and though I was outwardly a fat, shy kid with braces, acne, and a middling fear of the school principal, I was Ferris at heart. In my mind I was calling myself in sick to school and joyriding in my best friend’s dad’s sports car. But in reality, I knew my life couldn’t be anything like his, with his successful parents and nice house and popularity. (Remember, the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, and dickheads all thought he was a righteous dude.)

So I did the next best thing: I wrote about it. My main character became a Ferris clone (named Scott, I believe…I don’t know why). Good looking, smart-assy, pretty girlfriend. No real story line that I can remember, just one rambling situation after another. But again, I loved it. It felt so important to me. And I worked at it in earnest whenever I had free time. Which at roughly fourteen years old was quite often. And I continued my journaling too, every day practicing in one way or another this craft I’d come to love. Words had become my life, stringing them together in pleasing ways the only thing I wanted to do.

Of course, as I was still a developing human, my writing continued to grow and change as well. I read new books, saw new movies, found new inspirations. At one point my family came into the possession of a home computer, an Apple Macintosh 128k, the neanderthal ancestor of the iMac, and so my writing notebook went from scribbled-on loose leaf to dot matrix printouts of my endless stories, though still with all the scratch outs and marginalia. (I still have all of these, too. It’s clear I was a tough editor even for myself, even back then.) Perhaps the biggest change of all came when my sister gave me Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire to read, and I followed that up quickly with The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. After getting sucked into that world (pun intended, sorry), my writing style changed and, I like to think, matured. I was crafting longer, more florid sentences, paying more attention to imagery and details, exploring characters’ inner lives more than their outward appearances and actions. Crazy though she might be, Anne Rice taught me a lot; I can still see her influence in my writing today, and I don’t consider that a bad thing.

Did I write about vampires? Thankfully, no, with the exception of one very short story when I was in college, just to see what it was like, and even then it was more implied than outright. I guess it was good, too, because it got published in the school literary magazine. But I did write about tragic figures—homeless runaway teenagers, rich kids whose parents didn’t care about them, all sorts of young people in sad, difficult situations. I wrote and wrote and wrote about them, and when I wasn’t writing about them I was thinking about them, to the point that I had a whole mental soap opera going on as well, an ongoing saga that I never wrote down except in bits and pieces here and there, when I didn’t have anything else I was working on. I always thought this was a little strange, that I had this constantly growing novel contained entirely in my head, but then I read an interview with Anne Rice where she mentioned that she did the same thing. She too had a cast of characters who lived only in her mind, and she put them into situations and crafted their unwritten story entirely for her own enjoyment. So I felt a little vindicated.

I still find it a bit embarrassing, though, truth be told; this is the first and only time I’ve ever publicly admitted I have this story in my head. And yes, that’s have, present tense. I still, some twenty-plus years later, think about these characters and their stories whenever I have a little time to daydream. At this point they’re like a security blanket; thinking about them is comforting. But I also know they will probably never see the light of day.

So what do I actually write, then? Well, blog posts, for one. And I’m also working on a memoir, which is both rewarding and difficult. That’s where I’m trying to focus most of my efforts these days, as it is one of my yearly goals to finish the entire thing. So far I have two chapters, and I’ve started a third. Guess I’d better get going on that one.

I did go to a memoir writing class at a local library, which didn’t help me that much in learning about the genre but did make one thing abundantly clear to me: I missed out by not pursuing a writing degree. Or at least taking some classes along the way. Aside from taking a creative writing elective in high school, I signed up for one writing class in college that I went to twice and then dropped. It was at 8:00 in the morning, first of all—far too early to be creative. Second, I read some of the other students’ writing in those two classes, and well, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I couldn’t imagine having to read an entire semester’s worth of it.

But I should’ve stuck with it; I see that now. Because when I went to this memoir writing class, it was taught by a woman pursuing an MFA in creative writing, and I could tell just from what she spoke about that she had learned things as part of her education that experience alone had never taught me. Yes, I am a good writer, I believe that. But I am entirely self-taught. And while I never saw this as a bad thing—in fact, I’ve worn it as a point of pride—these days I’m seeing more clearly how some formal learning could have really improved what I do and given me some tools I didn’t even know I need in order to make my writing the best it could be.

Still, I won’t let that stop me. In lieu of the education I should have had ages ago, I read books on writing, and I read as much fiction and memoirs as I can, observing the ways that other people tell stories and the conventions they use in order to get their points across. And I practice, practice, practice. With every word I type, I’m practicing, I’m improving, I’m building upon what I know and what I’ve learned over the last thirty-two years, and that is an ongoing process. I might not have a formal writing education, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning about it, about this craft that has come to define my life. I’m not a best-selling novelist or a literary great, but I am a writer through and through, in heart and in mind. No matter what else I do, that is always how I’ll describe myself.

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