“Stop trying so hard to be a writer,” I wrote the words carefully in my leather bound as he said them, smiling brightly to hide my shame.
I was sitting in the second row in a cramped basement of a writer’s workshop, “From Obsession to Publication.” I capitalized on the dessert tray and snagged a spot for my friend Kristen and I among a sea of retirees.
“Dude, everyone in here is like 40 years older than me,” I poked Kristen in the crook of her elbow. With the exception of her, 10 years my senior, I was the least wrinkled person in the room.
Kristen and I had signed up together a few days prior. On an endless competition to both simultaneously get published and take over the world with our literary genius, we enrolled ourselves in a workshop as a part of Denver Lighthouse Writer’s Lit Festival to gain insight.
This particular workshop was centered around using our obsessions –obscure, endearing, or otherwise –to hone our craft as writers.
Youthful and ignorant I, calling myself a “writer.”
I’d only even considered the title of writer after spending a year and some odd months writing my first manuscript. Followed by a blog, several notebooks full of stand-up material, and another manuscript. I knew my success so far as a “writer” was fairly limited and indeed laughable.
The only publication I’d yet to receive was a snippet in HealthOne Colorado’s “Spalding Rehabilitation Success Story” in which a picture of my own head was photo shopped onto a different picture of my own body.
It’s in my classroom if you want to see it.
I show it to my students sometimes after standardized testing when we all need a good laugh.
But despite the hilarious reality that my mother might be the only one reading this (thanks Mom, you the real MVP), I decided over the past year that I wanted to be a writer, author, publisher of all things witty and fun, and future resident of Ellen DeGeneres's lovely white couch.
I wanted all these things and more, and still do, and until recently nobody ever said that this was a bad idea.
“Yeahhhhhhh,” the leader of the workshop and successful and published author winced in my direction.
“Stop trying so hard to be a writer, I can just hear it in your tone. Also get rid of all the ‘fucks.’ It’s not precise and I don’t like it,” He might have said more, I can’t be sure.
But it was too late, the words had hit me like a jagged ice pick to my soul, or a rusty arrow to my arteries. I don’t know some stupid cliché that you’re not supposed to say because writers, they say, are above that peasant crap.
I didn’t actually disagree with him entirely. We’d only been writing these pieces for thirty minutes or so and, as any writer, I thought it was an absolute piece of shit.
What confused me rather was that Kristen and I were the only ones in that tiny cramped basement to get any negative feedback after volunteering to read our pieces out loud. Because I am an attention whore by trade, I loved the idea of practicing the art of writing and then sharing that art with complete strangers.
After all, everyone so far who read their work was getting great feedback, why should my art by any exception?
I wrote a piece about the first time I fell in love; a noteworthy obsession, I thought.
I’d been thinking about the topic lately, not because I missed him or wanted to relive the traumatizing event that was two years ago, but because my editor told me to.
“Your readers need to fall in love with him like you did, they need to know why you spent five years with this guy or else they’ll be like, ‘yeah, he was a jerk, we get it’ and will move on.” She said.
She couldn’t be more right. And now, two years later sitting in a room of elderly and experienced writers, I felt called to the task.
“James was my guy,” I wrote replacing his usual name of “Weasel” or “Shit-stain” with something a bit more humanizing.
“At 17 years old I could hardly manage my thick curly locks or my rambunctious spirit, but I was ready for my guy. To sweep me off my tiny feet, to love me for all my quirks, to call me his girl.”
Oh my goodness, how cute is that, I smiled to myself as warm memories of old dirt roads and tractors rushed back to my brain.
When it was my turn to read I perked up. I was slightly peeved that the woman ahead of me had just talked about her obsession with a Zach, but the fancy author man had loved it and I was sure that he’d love mine too.
I took a deep breath and tried to consciously remember to breathe as I read my heartfelt recollection of a first love.
Exhale. Boom. Crushed it.
Nope. Sure didn’t.
In addition to my apparent air of “trying too hard” he also took issue with my cursing. I’d used an F-bomb to describe how stupid I looked meeting him for the first time, bundled up in tight bell-bottoms, a heavy black hooded sweater, and a thick knitted hat.
In fucking July, my friends.
I suppose this feedback about the potty mouth might have gone over smoother in my brain had the leader of the workshop not been a potty mouth himself. At the start of the workshop he gabbed about his 4 year old daughter’s obsession with hummus.
“She’s such a fucking asshole, you guys. Really,” He chuckled. I liked him immediately.
So logically I threw in some colorful words thinking that he’d fucking love it.
Nope. He did not fucking love it.
When he finished giving me the feedback he smiled and moved on to what I thought would be the next bloody victim to his ego-crushing honesty. An older gentleman, easily in his 70’s, stood up and talked about his obsession with women’s bodies and experiencing puberty for the first time. I found it pervy, strange, and poorly written.
But alas, to the published author it was amazing and thoughtful. Not pervy at all.
At this point I started to cry quietly in my second row chair, trying not to make eye contact with Kristen for fear of bursting into absolute hysterics. Kristen read my body language and grabbed my notebook and began writing me a note:
“You are so brave to read and it takes a lot of courage to take constructive criticism –there will be a lot of disappointment followed by a lot of hard work and then a lot of success. I love you!”
Her words, while what I wanted to hear, turned me further into a sniffling pile of goo.
The workshop had ended. I ran my sleeves haphazardly over my leaking eyes.
“We gotta’ get out of here,” I announced as I made a mad dash to beat the sluggish old people out the door.
Kristen and I walked the breezy Denver streets for an hour as I cooled off and tried to figure out what in the hell had just happened in there.
“What if I’m not a writer?” I said.
“What if he’s right? What if I end up just like them? 75 years old at a writer’s workshop, still working on my Great American Novel?”
I was terrified. That this whole “trying to be a writer” business was a joke, or more accurately, that I was a joke.
The words cut me deeper than I expected, probably because I’d signed up to read a five minute passage of my book, Break Ups and Brain Hemorrhages: How You Can Make it Through Anything that evening at a Lit Fest event to about 50 strangers. And my mother.
If I received such criticism here, there would be no telling what would happen that night. And what if the leader of the workshop was there?
I could just picture it.
I’d fumble with the microphone just long enough to become immediately annoying to my audience.
“Stand up straight, you’re slouching again!” my mother would call from the front row, an inch from my face.
I’d line up my pages on the stand, but just as I opened my mouth a gust of wind would send them flying onto the face of the cute guy I’d invited. I’d graciously take the papers from his gorgeous hands only to realize that it was actually my grocery list, a crumpled up napkin, and a Comcast bill.
I’d laugh, trying to recall my most recent stand up routine without them noticing, but would soon be sent running from the stage as a garden variety of cabbage and heirlooms came flying at my head.
“Who brought the fucking cabbage? Amateurs!” I’d scream as I dodged another head of lettuce from behind the wine table.
“I tried to tell you,” Mr. Author Man would shake his head in embarrassment.
I know, I have very vivid stress dreams.
None of this happened, however. Because I totally crushed it. Watch the video below to see me slay the shit out of this reading, seriously. Slay.
The feedback and laughter from the audience was amazing and the boy I invited was cool as a cucumber about my surprise, “Oh look, my parents are over there, let’s go say hi” rendezvous.
I’m trying really hard to be a writer. I’m taking classes and asking stupid questions and spending a lot of time drinking coffee. It’s a grueling task and some days it’s hard to see if it’s ever going to be worth all the late nights, shitty first, second, third, and fourth drafts, and overwhelming self-doubt.
There will always be critics, cynics, and haters.
My friends and family will continue to cheer me on as I sob in public places about the condition of my books. I will soldier on for as long as it takes, counting down the days until I get to sit on Ellen’s couch and dish about who’s going to play me in a Broadway-adapted rendition of my book.
Which would be me, obviously.
Or, okay, Anna Kendrick. She’s about my size, has killer pipes, and would match well with Bruce Willis, who would play my neurosurgeon, Dr. C.
Shout out to Dr. C-Money. If you’re reading this, you’re still entirely too attractive to be that old. Calm it down, Dr. C.