Thursday, January 8, 2009

Writer's Block

My college yearbook, the 1992 Jayhawker – pink cover with the title 'A Different Experience' houses my freshman photograph on page 238. Kelli Mustard. . . .Lansing. . .journalism. . . . freshman. (You know when I looked myself up I looked under Davis first?). It was optional to have your photograph taken and I would wager less than 10% of the students took part. But I had to appear in the book. . .because I was going to be writing stories for it. Because I was a writer.

It was my dream when I started college that I would complete my four years in journalism, graduate with honors and with camera and word processor in hand would get a job with National Geographic. I would someday find myself in jungles, photographing gorillas, monkeys and leopards. Then I would retreat to my campsite and write a moving and inspirational story about the animals’ lives and my observances. When I would return home I would pen a novel about my experiences – maybe a fictional account in which the woman falls in love with her guide – or maybe a memoir if I felt my own tale exciting enough to share.

So what happened? Why did that smiling, confident 18 year old journalism major turn away from that dream?

I think it started with the C. It was freshman English Literature. I wrote a paper on a novel I had read. It might have been Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Bleak House or The Scarlet Letter. I can’t remember what it was about, all I remember was it was a C. I didn’t get C’s on anything. Especially not what I was good at – writing! My high school English teachers had always told me how great my talent was. How easily writing came to me. They had boosted my confidence – I could do no wrong! And yet, here was a C?? How? I read the instructor’s remarks and found myself not understanding his point of view. I didn’t think he understood me or my voice. Or maybe I didn’t have any talent after all? Now I was pooled with such a larger, more advanced group of students and all of the sudden I went from above average to just plain ole average. The semester went on and somehow I ended up with an A in the class – mostly from my test scores, because I remember how much I struggled to write something that pleased this professor (graduate student to be exact).

Then there was the journalism class. It was intro to journalism. We were supposed to learn about the history of journalism - everything from Johannes Gutenberg’s first printing press to Marconi’s first transatlantic radio transmission. Easy enough, right? Only this professor was so enthusiastic about his trade that he wanted us to learn it all. Right now. He apparently was a journalism big shot. I was never sure what he had done, something great in broadcast journalism – but he wanted us to be as excited as he was about his profession. He held contests, games and gave prizes. He invited guest speakers and had us prepare questions for them as if it were a news conference. He had an end of semester, complicated contest for us to complete - kind of like a scavenger hunt/dungeons and dragons type event where we would finally end up with him as the prize (I don’t know, it was weird). I felt myself lost in this class. The other kids were so eager and enthusiastic. They clamored for his attention in class and many quickly became the teacher’s pets – his star pupils. I have to say I don’t think he even knew my name by the end of the semester. I got a B+ in the class. I wasn’t happy with it, especially since this was supposed to be my easy class and the only other B I got that semester was in Biology (and that WAS hard).

I mentioned that I wrote stories for the yearbook. Upon getting to campus the beginning of my freshman year, one of the first things I did was seek out the yearbook committee. I researched and found out how to become a part of that group. I had loved being the editor in chief of my high school yearbook. I enjoyed designing the layouts, taking the photographs and writing the stories as well as overseeing the rest of the staff. So it made sense for me to continue that in college. I was invited to meet one of the story editors and she asked to see some writing samples. When I found the yearbook office in the student union I was excited by all the computers and equipment. But the story editor ushered me out of the busy office and met with me on a row of couches away from the chaos. Little did I know I would never set foot in there again. The editor scrutinized my work quickly, shrugged her shoulders and gave me two assignments to write about with a deadline only a month away. The first – how do you meet people of the opposite sex? And the second, What is it like to live in the Jayhawker Towers surrounded by all the athletes? (which is where I lived). So my work began and I found myself having to approach strangers on the street to ask them questions, like “What is your favorite pick up line?” Or “What do you think of living across the hall from some of the best college basketball players in the country?” I found myself dreading the topics as well as approaching people about them. As I remember I threw together two stories that I wasn’t very happy with and I’m not sure the final version with my name in the by-line was really written much by me. I didn’t pursue writing any more stories for the yearbook after that.

One semester of college and several very startling revelations. I did not like to interview strangers, I did not like being told what to write about, I did not like having to compete against others for praise, I did not like deadlines (although I'm very good about meeting them) and I did not like criticism of my work (ok the last is a bit childish, but I was only 18, I crave feedback now - almost feel lost without it). Also, the final most startling revelation – maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was. Maybe this isn’t the right career path for me.

Then the voice of my ever logical father invaded my thinking, “In order to make any money as a writer you have to be really good at it.”

Of course I wanted to have a career where I made money. I wanted to be able to buy a house, car, nice things. I didn’t want the life of a struggling writer who is just waiting for my big break.

So, instead of meeting with an advisor to put me on a career path I was happy with, I pulled out my KU course book and started flipping through. What did I want to do with my life. Flip, flip, flip. I liked children. At one time I wanted to be a teacher. Flip, flip. The requirements to get into the school of education seemed easy enough, but half the people I knew were education majors. How much money could a teacher make? Did I really want to teach the same thing year in and year out? Wouldn’t I grow bored? (Another thing I had learned, I did not like monotony).

Flip, flip, flip. Hmmm. School of Allied Health. What was that all about? Physical Therapy? No – six more years of school. Occupational Therapy? Bells and whistles went off inside my head. I had been a candy striper in high school and the most coveted place to work was the pediatric OT clinic. I got to help children improve their fine motor skills by pinching colorful clothespins and improve their gross motor skills by leading them around in a wheelbarrow walk or pushing them on a big swing. That was fun. It was working with kids and it was different day in and day out. I studied the requirements and after some research realized it was an extremely competitive program. Several hundred people applied each year and they only accepted 35 (that may not be the exact number). You had to have an extremely good GPA – above a 3.5. Mine was 3.7 so far – I should be a shoe in. My confidence started to return. This was something I could do. After more research I found that OTs are in high demand everywhere in the country (job security!) and they are paid pretty well (more than a teacher or struggling writer!). This was it. This was the logical choice.

My next semester found me in classes to complete my requirements. Human Anatomy lecture and dissection (interesting stuff – I loved it!), intro to OT, then physiology, child development, psychology, ceramics (yes, it was still required to take an art class to get into OT school – therapeutic activities). To make a long story short, I did get accepted into the program and I was recruited heavily by employers. I was actually hired for a job during my first year of OT school. They paid for my school for me to agree to work for them in return upon graduation. What could be better?

I found that I was good at several things in school - writing papers, completing documentation and the research projects. Still, in a way I was a writer. In my student internships I could write up evals quickly and efficiently, drawing praise from my supervisors and then in my job, I would actually look forward to the time when the hands on portion of the evaluation was over and I could retreat to my desk to write it up.

Now, twelve years after graduating I have to admit the passion for therapy never surfaced. I don’t dislike being an OT, it’s a job that can be rewarding at times. I have worked with children over the years, but have to admit I enjoy the geriatric population just a little bit more. I can sit through a whole therapy session and just talk to some of my elderly patients about what it was like to live through the depression as a child; how they survived through the war while their husband was away and they were home raising six kids by themselves; or what it was like to run up the beach at Normandy (although I find they really would prefer to skip over reliving those details). So in a way I do interview people and I do consider writing what they’ve shared with me, although I never have.

I have become a closet writer. Writing is in my blood and I can’t escape it. I get these stories in my head and they don’t go away until they are written down. The first story was Mrs. Kitten Cake when I was six years old, followed by Triplet Trouble (my first novel) at the age of 10. Then several years of hard work completed Golden Rain, then Cape Bounty, Crossroads, Boy Crazy, Butterly Girl, When it Rains and most recently - In the Weeds. So I guess I have written seven novels in my adult life. Wow. I hadn’t counted before now.

Have I tried to become published?? Ha! Sure I have. But without formal training and instruction, without having short stories published in literary magazines (blah!!!) and without a list of awards under my belt, who is going to show an interest in me? With the book market the way it is – book publishers going out of business, turning long time authors away - there aren’t many agents looking to take on new, undiscovered talent. Sure I’ve had some interest. Some have asked to see completed manuscripts and some have even asked for rewrites and revisions before saying no.

Some might say I’m not willing to work hard enough for it. Sure I could publish myself (I have!) and market it myself to bookstores (this is now what you have to do even if a big publishing house picks you up), but I don’t want to. I’m not a salesperson or an editor. I can’t find all my mistakes myself and I’m not willing to fork over thousands of dollars for professional editing when I would never make that back by just selling a few copies to friends and family (half of which I just give away anyway). That takes the fun out of writing it. I love to write. I love to read what I’ve written and I’m willing to share it with whoever is interested. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. All that matters is that I do like it and that I am writing something that is important and dear to me. The first time I self-published, I had a hard time letting people read my work. I was nervous about their opinions. It was like they were reading my intimate thoughts. I’ve gotten over that somewhat and am ready to share more for those who want to read.

I wrote the final two books last summer, but haven’t self-published yet. They are a little different than other novels I have written, one is a little darker; one is more fun and lively with frank, intimate discussions among friends. After writing them I kind of stopped writing for awhile. I was dried up, out of ideas and out of inspiration. My dad was sick and thinking of him consumed my thoughts. I haven’t even blogged about anything – for a long time. (He is still very sick and now in hospice). I also received some advice from author Claire Cook that went something like this. "Wait. Wait until your children are grown and you have the time to really devote and focus on your writing and trying to market it to agents. It's is really a full time job."

Reading helps bring the inspiration back. But sometimes I get stuck in lifeless novels that once I finish I am depressed (they got published???). Then I’ll read something with so many twists and turns and controversial topics (if that’s what publishers want, I’m not doing it). Next I’ll read something amazing and think, “Wow, I could never write something that great.” Today I finished a novel by Elin Hilderbrand – The Love Season. It was definitely a “wow” moment and is what got my creative juices flowing again. She writes beautifully and makes me want to be better and try harder.

Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. We’ll see what the creativity brings me. But first, I will honestly work on finalizing my latest two novels for those of you who have been waiting patiently for them. After looking back over my life as a writer, I have realized that I can never escape it. Writing is as much a part of my as my curly hair. It's who I am and what I love to do as a hobby more than anything else. Even if I never get books into bookstore, I will always have them on my shelves for my children to read someday (for the most recent, they have to be at least 35!) So in a way I am living my dream (I never would have survived in the jungle anyway. I hate bugs and dirt!). I am a writer by my own terms. And I know my career as a writer is just getting started. Twelve more years till Kylie is in college. . .then maybe. . .we'll see!


Tom said...

Glad you enjoyed the book I got you.

Adrian said...

Kelli, I enjoyed reading this.