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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reflections from an Aging Writer


I started trying to create fiction in college in the 1960s. Reynolds Price was guest lecturer during one of my creative writing classes. I didn't have much to show him, but he called the few paragraphs I gave him, "lovely." But then he was a lovely Southern gentleman.

I did that young man in Europe thing. Florence. Short stories. Very short. Some not bad.

Best thing for me was I went to work for a newspaper whose publisher/editor wrote a wonderful column. I got into doing columns and editorials along with reporting and editing. Doing the column helped me find my writing voice.

Ideas came. Longer pieces were tried. Nothing really worked. Everything seemed forced. In my 40s things finally started to click. I was up by 5 a.m. and my eight-year-old son was up, too, practicing the piano (Koji Attwood, google him). I'd write for two hours and go to work at the paper. Then you start to try and get published and query letters to agents, some interest, no cigar. I had an address for Walker Percy. I sent him a letter and the first two chapters of "The 41st Sermon." "Reads fine. Send rest" he responded. I thought I might finally get a break. I waited and waited. Three months later I read his obit in the paper.

Keep writing. New idea worth pursuing. Opening scene worth getting on paper. See where it might go. Characters get born and you wonder what will happen to them. Keep exploring.

Writing conferences, small literary magazines, writers groups. None of it turned out right or helpful for me.

Internet arrives. Easier to email queries. Web based magazines appear. Some accept my work. Got paid $150 for one story. Found a couple of agents, amateurs it turned out. And work and life and all that brought a long period in my life where I shoved the fiction aside with a "I tried. I couldn't have written any better than I have."

Got laid off near 60. Freelance writing helped, not financially, but the ego. Interesting consulting work developed. Re-approached the whole effort of finding an agent. Nada.

Could be self-delusional. Maybe my stuff is junk. Time to test myself with comedy. If you could make a reader laugh, you've succeeded. Had an opening scene idea and the damn thing almost wrote itself in three months. Never had anything come that fast. I have a novella that took me 30 years.

Finally snared an agent. "Reminds me of Hiaasen." Nice. Work got before editors at good houses. Close, but no cigar. Recession hits, Kindle happens, publishing business turned upside down.

Never wanted to self-publish. Seemed like admitting defeat. Then the agent says a couple of editors urged self-publishing. Now they can use author-paid test marketing.

So here I am. And now semi-retired so I have more time to pursue all this and plenty of completed works beside the agented one to promote. It actually feels pretty good that my stuff can find a home outside my file cabinet. Now it's up to me to go out and find an audience for them. What a brave new world that is.

I wonder how young writers do it now. I spent a lot of time with my writing and my ideas. Rereading, rethinking, rewriting. The internet is a huge distraction. Especially when you're involved in self-promotion. To create, I need a lot of stare-off-into-space time. But now I bounce around websites and follow tweets and Facebook messages and blogs. Overload.

Thanks for giving me your eye time.

27 comments:

  1. Hi Randy,

    Great post. I am a lot like you. I graduated high school in the late 60s, lived a lot of life, and then one day decided to follow my dreams. Fortunately for me I couldn't get a job in journalism, and wound up writing in Hollywood. I was fortunate because I learned what studios do to market TV shows and movies. I'm pretty new at this so I can't tell you I have all the answers, and I am not self published. But I am now with an indy publisher and it is pretty much the same thing. The internet is our tool and our weapon. Marketing is as important as writing. You must be equal parts writer and marketer if you want to sell books.
    Anyway, that's my two cents. Nice meeting you. I'f you'd like to be in touch, my email is ehvanlowe@aol.com
    -E

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    1. Randy,

      I started writing at forty also but it was a catharsis over the grief of losing a daughter to a DWI. It did however, give me a new career in journalisn and freelance humor and short stories. Like you, I didn't get rich. I wrote a humorous, sad book on the dwi incident and it's published--not getting rich there either but like you I feel I am creating a legacy for my family and friends. Keep up the good work!

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  2. EVL: thanks for your comment! What I'm finding out is that great thing about being semi-retired is the time to market and having now the stuff to market! And also some recent things as the first two stories of 3 Very Quirky Tales. Will email you!

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  3. Hi Randy,
    Love the way you document your writing life here and love your sense of humor. So glad you found self-publishing. I'll look for your books.

    I'm just getting started myself. My first book, A Reel Cool Summer, is a picture book. I started my own publishing company (I'm the only employee!) and decided to just do it. It's a 24/7 job but I'm enjoying it. Like you, I spend a lot of time on-line trying to promote the book. It's slow going for now but hoping it picks up.

    All the best to you!
    Martha

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  4. Hi Martha,
    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. It must be tough doing a picture book. Look forward to knowing more about your work.
    Randy

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  5. As a self-published, award-winning author I can tell you, the need to do more never stops. While both books are now in the black, the frustration of always having to learn more and still write continues to grow. I now have relegated one evening a week to learning some new form of technology...running like a hamster on a wheel.

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  6. Age has brought me some respite. I'm focused now on epublishing works written. But, you are right, I have an idea for a novel that I keep trying to push away that pushes back. Some characters and scenes are starting to appear to me. They may take over. No title has appeared to me yet, so that's a good sign I may fend off the fiends of imagination a bit longer.

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  7. Distraction is something I think most writers struggle with, and the Internet can be a huge distraction engine. Controlling it instead of letting it control you (see Douglas Rushkoff's book "Program or Be Programmed") is vital.

    The shift toward digital reading left me dejected and uneasy at first -- my dream of having a published book on shelves everywhere seems further away than ever. But I think we're in the middle of an exciting time when writers can be more in charge of their own success than ever before.

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  8. Thanks for the comment, Daniel. Exciting times, indeed. I really had given up: told myself I did the best I could but getting published just wasn't going to happen for me. Now I've got 11 works live and another close to ready. I'm energized and busy promoting and ideas for promotion keep bubbling forward. I worry for younger writers, however, because I see a rush to publish material that just isn't ready. Sometimes it's good to have a manuscript sit in a filing cabinet for a decade.

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  9. Yeah, the rush to get work out there is a siren song, and many a new writer runs up on the shoals pursuing it. I've deleted more bad books in the last couple of months than I've probably read in all my pre-Kindle years. The fellow from Zero Punctuation once said that the Internet has made it easy to produce something very mediocre and still gather a loyal fanbase -- so I'm not sure this phenomenon's going to disappear anytime soon.

    I'm glad you didn't give up.

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  10. Randy, Enjoyed reading the post. I am a retired music teacher who began writing six years ago. Having been around children all my life I had quite a few ideas that had been simmering for many years. I now have published three children's books. The hardest part of writing is the marketing. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  11. Thanks, Dicy. I see you are a retired music teacher. In my post I put in a plug for my classical pianist son. Hope you might google Koji Attwood and listen to some of his playing. He's gotten into composing many transcriptions lately. Do your children's books deal with music?

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  12. Found you through linked in. I have a contract for a picture book that's two years old and still not published. I've been marketing a dead book I think. It may never see the light of day. I, too have written since age fifteen and may just selfpublish stuff now.
    Write on,
    Clarbojahn

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  13. What a powerful post and I'll definitely Google Koji! I began writing after I retired as a clinical psychologist at 55 and I could hardly wait! My second career--my writing career--has been the "dessert" of my life. Love your blog and I'll be back!

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    1. Sandra, Thanks for your reply. One of the great things I've found in retirement is the lowering of general stress level. It's quite amazing how important that is to one's general health! I look forward to exploring your own writings.

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  14. I found your page via my link with the Writer's Place in KC. I keep swearing off blogs since they are seductively distracting, but hey--yours is about writing! and that is what I do as well (and for the same length of time).

    My first 'published' piece was in 1969--naive and angst-ridden, but it was in print at the urging of a professor who said "you WILL write some day." I had never thought of myself as a writer until then even though I'd filled journals and written 'just to write' since I could hold a chubby pencil and was given a Big Chief.

    So here I am (with early morning coffee, in the center of the state) responding to a square of irrepressible language but with a somewhat different mindset--I've never really sought publication. No, I cannot adequately explain why it is not important to me as a writer. Maybe because I've timorously wondered if I solicited a reader's attention, I would somehow lose my own intuitive and subliminal relationship with the blank page (there would be these invisible eyes waiting for their scrap to fall.) So other than a few happenstance contests I've entered or journal editors I've courted as a result of professor or fellow writers' goading, I continue to write just to write. And I write daily. Usually in my car or restaurants where a line will enter my mind and I cannot turn away from it until it is recorded. Years ago (when I was young) I read an admission in one of Anais Nin's journals which I understood completely: I cannot seem to experience life completely until I write it down and sometimes that requires writing while it is happening.

    I did not mean for this to become about me because I did relate to what you say here (it so mimes the fizzle and foiling of other writing friends)and I love your style of writing. I will enjoy reading more. If the truth be known, I'd much rather be an editor than a published writer and if that were the case, you'd have a venue! And it would be on paper--holdable and smellable ;-)

    Time to start my day out in the world. Thank you for THIS and I will definitely return to your site. Take good care.

    Ruby

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  15. Dear Ruby,
    Thanks for the thoughtful and self-revealing reply. There were certainly times when I tried to stop myself writing fiction, but failed. It seemed that the various aspects of my personality that I showed the world were only unified when I was at work on a fiction project. It absorbs one. Writing can be like a meditation and so I can see the inclination to keep it private. But for me it now feels very good to have much of what I have done (more is coming) on the web for discovery however it may be discovered. Glad you found me on the Writer's House site. You might send them a note that you appreciated that posting because they have taken it down because you are not supposed to use the post to promote yourself. They fear that would clog it up and it's supposed to be used for events. They suggested I apply to present at a future event, but they are booked up through 2012. Quite remarkable. I doubt I could ever give a public presentation or a reading. I'm just too shy and feel like a fraud when I stand in front of a group. But the need to market one's self to market one's writing may force me to find out which drug I could take beforehand to get through the experience. Thanks again for the comment. I hope some of my fiction might connect with you and I'll hear from you again.

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  16. Do you still have an agent? Following you from the blogfest. :)

    http://anallegedauthor.blogspot.com/

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    1. Yes, the work they are representing is SPILL http://www.amazon.com/SPILL-ebook/dp/B005MRA588/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1316031857&sr=1-7

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  17. Well, does 26 count as being young? Or does it border on gray hairs and emerging wrinkles? I don't know about other writers.. but to answer your question, yes! I do it all the time.. I find myself becoming the characters and that takes a lot of stare off into space kind of time.. Also, I picture these characters having voices and all that good stuff and more!! Nice blog. Good luck to you on your writing projects!

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  18. Crystal, I didn't write much that I thought was good until I hit my 40s. But women develop earlier than men. Glad you understand that whole stare-into-space thing. The other thing I learned as I grew older was not to push a piece of writing, but to back off and be surprised what my subconscious worked out for me. Now that I'm retired, I'm going back and examining pieces I started that went no where and now seem to have direction. Fantastic!

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  19. And all these years later, you make a comment on Goodreads and I'm reading your blog and wondering, did you / will you EVER get Attwood published? Well, of course you will. Also, by the way, Getting Attwood Published should (SHOULD) be your next book. I mean it just screams to be written. Eh?

    The Sixties Generation! Ah me. The fun. The music. The War. The trials and tribulations. And the you-know-what. Survivors is what we are. Pushing 70, passing 70. Still rockin' and listening to the beat. It never too late to write. NEVEAH! Why you could go another twenty years, easy. Eventually we can get computers transplanted into our heads and we won't even have to type. Just tap right into that writing vein. Tunes running over and over - Jimi, Zeppelin, Santana - stories just pouring out and being transmitted across the globe.

    Just keep writing and don't every stop.

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  20. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  22. Came here from LinkedIN.

    If I were 20 years younger I would continue, but 26 years in this "second career" has taken its toll. I have spent many times the energy and time trying to get published than I have writing. I am a writer, not an entrepreneur. In this profit focused culture anything creative, non-commodity is non-grata. These are the lost souls of the generation--or two or three. I will try to complete the current processes, three manuscripts "for sale": memoir, novel, model for improved teaching and learning. I have short stories, essays, poems and a 13 CD music series that I narrated. All represent input with no "pick-up."

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  23. It's a pleasure to give you my eyes, that was so engaging. To see how things have changed. I'm one of the "young ones" who gets distracted by the internet and all other manner of things. What I got from above was write any way you can, because their is no right way, but as long as you're writing, you're doing good.

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