Tuesday, April 8, 2008

My Miracle Notebook, Part I

Reading Sharon K. Souza's words last week put me in mind of a story I wrote up a couple of years ago, telling about my darkest day in my writing journey--and the incredible turnaround that God brought out of it. So I decided to share the story with you. I'm posting Part I today, which ends on sort of a discouraging note. Tune in tomorrow for Part 2--the part where God steps in and does something amazing.

I have a miracle notebook. It looks pretty ordinary. In fact, it’s a dollar-store special. But to me it’s a treasure, absolutely awe-inspiring. God used it to show He was right beside me on a day I would have sworn He was hanging out on the far side of the universe. It reminds me He was working out his plan for me at the very time I was ready to give up.

I started that fateful day full of optimism—which is not to say I wasn’t also nervous. It was the beginning of yet another writers’ conference, and my quest to become a published novelist had gotten a bit long. When I was only seven years old and discovered the magic of reading, I decided I wanted to write books for a living. At eighteen, I sent my first full-length novel manuscript (co-authored by my cousin) off to a publisher and discovered the magic of rejection. No problem. I was only eighteen. Then nineteen. Then twenty. . .

Now I was forty-three. Yes, that’s right. Twenty-five years since I put that first manuscript in the mail. I had learned the value of writers’ conferences for learning and for networking, but I have to admit that conferences were getting pretty tough for me. There I’d be, packed in with a herd of bubbly, excited writers seeking their fortune—none of whom, I suspected, had experienced twenty-five years of rejection. Normal people who go through that sort of thing quit and stay home. But not me. I always came back for more.

Without fail, the other writers I met fell into two categories. First came the helpful , friendly type who had just decided to become a writer eighteen months ago. Since then, she had published several articles in her church newsletter and was therefore a professional and would be happy to share her secrets of success with me. I wished I could share newsletter-lady’s contentment and enthusiasm, but doggone it, I wanted to be a novelist!

Then there would, of course, be the authors who had accomplished everything I wanted to. Usually with great ease. Need I say more?

I approached each conference with increasing desperation. Look here, Robin. Do you know how much this thing is costing? You won’t be able to afford another conference for two or three years. You must sell a manuscript NOW! With that kind of pressure, plus my previous track record, is it any wonder I found it hard to bubble and smile along with the other writers?

But this time would be different. First, I had spent serious time in prayer, offering to God to give up the whole notion of being a novelist if that wasn’t what He intended for me. I truly felt he had answered that I should go forward. Second, I shored up my confidence by remembering how close I had come to success in the past, the positive reactions I had received from editors and agents about my writing. Above all, I reminded myself I had never had a bad experience at a conference, never had anyone tell me my writing just wasn’t good enough.

Well, never say never.

I bubbled, I schmoozed, I collected email addresses from editors and invitations to submit my work. I was bolder and more confident than ever before. Unfortunately, this all occurred during the first half hour of the conference.

Immediately afterward, I met with the editor assigned to critique my sample chapters. This woman worked for a publishing company and also had a business “doctoring” people’s writing. Ironically enough, I had hired this woman’s doctoring partner to work on this very manuscript a few weeks earlier, and she had been very enthusiastic about my work. Another good sign. Maybe this would be the day when the editor would take off her glasses, lean toward me, and declare, “Forget the critique. My company wants to publish your novel. Sign here!”

She did indeed take off her glasses and lean toward me. But then she frowned and sighed. “I’ve found some problems with your work.”

My heart sank a little. Okay, it dropped to my ankles. “Really?”

“You see, stories must have conflict. Do you understand what I mean by that?”

After thirty-something years of writing and an English degree? Aloud I said, “You’re saying my story doesn’t have conflict?”

She lowered her voice to a whisper, as though she hated to say it. “I think you tried, but it’s very. . .shallow.”

The whole interview only got worse from there. She asked if I had ever considered taking a writing class so I would understand the process. I asked her (yes, I admit, I was not taking this in the proper humble spirit) if my graduate work in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California counted. She even started to point out specific sentences that were awkward and showed poor writing skills—the very sentences her “doctoring” partner had helped me rewrite.

Finally I made it out of there, absolutely crushed. I crawled into my car in the parking deck and sat there, stunned, for ages. I thought that eventually, I would start to recover and be able to go back inside.

But what was the point? Obviously, when I prayed about giving up on writing, I misunderstood God’s answer. He had been trying to tell me to quit, but I hadn’t listened. I heard what I wanted to hear. So now he was shouting at me. And I heard Him. This was the end. I cranked up the car and started home.