Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Don’t Quit Your Day Job

None of us can deny that day jobs eat up valuable time for writing. We accept but resent them, knowing that bills do pile up and, unless we are fortunate recipients of the largess of a trust fund, inheritance or a well-padded spouse, most of us have little choice but to forfeit some portion of our soul’s calling to fulfill the need for shelter, clothing and food.
Don't Quit Your Day Job
Many writers, especially those young or idealistic enough to believe we will one day “break out”, take on (intentionally or otherwise) dull jobs that eat our souls, but supposedly keep our minds clear for our literary vocation.

I spent years as one of those naive hopefuls, accepting underemployment as a logical consequence of a life dedicated to the pursuit of art. Besides, I was used to it. Having started as a professional dancer and then an actor, it wasn’t much of an adjustment to carry over the sacrifice-for-art theme into my underemployment as an aspiring novelist.

I had already worked as a waiter, a make-up artist, and one of those annoying people who squirt perfume in your face when you walk through Macy’s. I honestly found some comfort when I finally discovered that I could work as a temp, filling empty desk space to answer phones and type memos at corporate offices all over New York City.

In fact, I turned to writing in part because of those very dull days when there were no memos and all those stiff business suits were stuffed into a conference room down the hall. In those spare, odd hours when I was required to “look busy”, I turned to the voices whispering in my head. I started writing stories, poems, scenes from plays that would never be produced. Most of them were terrible. (Trust me, I still have a draft or two in boxes in my basement.) But they reminded me that I actually enjoyed playing with words and, in contrast to being the interpreter of someone else’s choreography or script, I enjoyed being the master of my own creation. When one of those stories grew too long and complicated to be stopped, I followed it down the path to becoming my first (and thankfully unpublished) novel.

Whether writing is our original passion or something that comes to us by accident, the way we spend our time deeply influences our work. “You are what you do,” says author Winston Groom (of Forrest Gump fame) in a recent NPR interview about a new collection of essays, Don’t Quit Your Day Job. “Experience in life is informed by all the things that you do, and work is most of it.”

The longest and worst of my day jobs was a soul-crushing stint as a legal secretary in a corporate law firm. That job inspired the theme of slavery at the core of The Thrall’s Tale. Why I accepted this torture for eight – yes EIGHT – long years is, at this point, completely beyond me.

But then I remember how it all began – how I used to write fiction between memos and briefs. I was an incredibly fast typist, motivated by my desire to get back to my own work; so they kept me on and paid me reasonably well. Yet I was plagued by paranoia that I’d be discovered and fired, and by certain co-workers who clearly resented that I wasn’t “one of the gals”. All this fed the drama that was growing in the password-protected document that was my manuscript. Read the first chapter of Thrall and you’ll see just a touch of how it all got intertwined.

So when I think back to those years of self-imposed torture, I feel a sense of gratitude equal to my relief that I’m no longer there. These days everything I do has something to do with writing. Yet I’ve learned more from my “real life” experiences than I ever could have learned locked up in a room all alone with those psychotic whispers.

In an excerpt from Don’t Quit Your Day Job published in The New York Times last week, John Grisham relates his sweaty trials with manual labor and the humiliation of selling men’s underwear at Sears. Somehow the path for him, as for so many of us, in the end led to writing success: “I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. …Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had — but it’s worth it.”

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Contest Opportunities for Young and Old

Here are a couple of contests that should be of interest to all The Writers Circle.

First, for adults, the latest round of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction contest has begun. The judge this time is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham. The rules are simple: write a story of no more than 600 words that opens with the line: “Some people swore that the house was haunted,” and ends with the line: “Nothing was ever the same again after that.” Complete information and a submission form are available online. The deadline for submission midnight on September 26, 2010.

For children under 14, here’s an opportunity a little closer to home. I’m judging an essay contest hosted by Words Bookstore to benefit a local charity, the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Essex County. Here’s the full information.

Young aspiring writers ages 14 and under living in Essex County, New Jersey, are invited to participate in a celebratory contest this fall in honor of families. In appreciation of the importance of family life, young adults should submit an essay entitled, “A Picture of My Family Illustrated in Words” by October 15th to Words Bookstore, 179 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood, NJ to be reviewed by published author and creative writing teacher, Judith Lindbergh, Director of The Writers Circle Creative Writing Workshops.

Three essays will be honored at Words Bookstore at a reception at their store at an upcoming event this fall. The authors of the essays will receive gift certificates to Words Bookstore.

Additionally, the winning essays will be shared at this year’s fundraising breakfast for Interfaith Hospitality Network. Scheduled for November 11th from 8-9 AM at Mayfair Farms in West Orange, this breakfast will highlight the important work that IHN of Essex County does to keep families together. The theme of this year’s breakfast is “Picture the Family”. We invite residents to attend the breakfast and share the words written by a young adult expressing the importance of their family life.

The charity of honor, Interfaith Hospitality Network began in 1988, when one woman recognized the need to preserve the family unit by providing emergency food and shelter through a network of local congregations. IHN of Essex County continues this mission of keeping homeless families together by helping parents secure permanent housing and achieve lasting independence. Please visit the web site: IHNEssexNJ.org for more information about this essential organization. A (suggested) contribution of IHN of $5.00 with each essay is appreciated.

Hope to see many of you submit your work. Good luck!