As you’re reading this, I’m locked in a hotel room, and I’m not coming out until my novel’s done.
Your answers to the question of the week are so heartstopping-beautiful, I hope you’ll go back to Monday’s Question of the Week and read every last one. Thank you to all of you who played or who considered playing. And thank you to Eric Spitznagel for giving me the idea for the question.
My mom and her twin brother – off to their 50th high school reunion.
In the closet of my childhood room, there’s a box containing everything I ever wrote from Kindergarten through high school. Year after year, I wrote in various school reports that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I drew typewriters. I did extra credit poetry units on death. I wrote bad sonnets about boys I no longer know.
Somehow it didn’t seem strange to me when I interviewed at Carnegie Mellon for their biomedical engineering program. The panic came when – 3 weeks into college – I realized I wanted to change majors. I crept slowly toward my creative writing degree, going first through the biology and psychology departments. I worried my parents would be disappointed and shocked. Instead, they wondered why it took me so long to realize the obvious.
But something happened as I took my classes there, maybe a couple of things, that made me feel guarded about my writing. One was the introduction to criticism and rejection. I had always written privately, and with the exception of my teacher and my mother, no one else saw my work. Sharing it, I discovered, did not often lead to praise. Classmates would say when they found my work boring or vague or convoluted – as they should have, but I wasn’t used to this. The second thing that happened was I learned how to tap the jugular and speak all of the things nice girls don’t say out loud. When I left CMU, I left with a habit of keeping my writing private. Even when my work was published, I didn’t tell anyone.
I wrote and worked as an editor here and there for years and years, always considering it a hobby and keeping it to myself. And one day, my mom sent me an email that linked the Oprah Winfrey episode where James Frey’s mother learned that her son’s book had been picked for the Oprah Book Club. My mother was so moved by this, by how hysterically happy and proud Mrs. Frey was for her son. And I didn’t feel right.
My mom and I have always been close. And when I saw Mrs. Frey and my mother’s reaction to her, I realized that I’d shut my mother out from the largest part of who I am by not telling her that I still write and not letting her read my work. If I had given it more thought, I would have kept my secret because the truth is, it’s terrifying to let someone see your most intimate thoughts. I was fine letting her know where I thought I was smart or wise or compassionate, but that’s not always what my stories revealed.
I didn’t give this any thought and instead sent my kids to play next door, and I called her, crying. This was last November. And until I spoke to her, I didn’t realize how much I had kept from her, that I’d edited maybe 20 books, that I’d published and won awards and knew many of her favorite authors as friends. She didn’t know I had an agent or that I’d written a novel that featured a mother-daughter relationship. Ironically, the novel is about a girl who is so terrified of disappointing people that she tells little lies until no one knows her.
My mom cried and she wrote me beautiful and sad little notes that were full of more heart and understanding and fear than I’d expected. And I sent her my novel (the one I’m fixing right now), because this was what worried her most. And all I can say is that I wish you guys could know what it’s like to have my mom, not just as my friend, but as my number one reader. That’s all.
Ellen Meister will be here tomorrow (and tomorrow is also her birthday!). If your comments get caught in the filters for any reason, I’ll fix everything when I’m back. Wish me luck!
Robin SlickNovember 17, 2006
Okay, first things first. You’re locked in a hotel room until your novel is finished? How am I supposed to compete with that? (Sue and I are having a race to see who finishes our respective books first and we both have set November 30 as our goal though I neglected to tell her it was November 30, 2007 har har). But seriously, I can see I’m in big trouble here. Not only did my family just get home and I’m seeing them for the first time in two weeks, next weekend we’re headed for Casa Belew in Nashville for a second Thanksgiving so there goes another chunk of writing time. Arghhh….
Okay, Susan. I can do this. Starting right now I’m on the novel and not coming up for air until I’m done.
Anyway, all kidding aside, what a beautiful, moving tribute to your mom and oh my god, speaking of beautiful, your mom is a knock-out! Now I know where you get your beauty from as well.
And yeah, we also have similiarities in our career paths. I knew at age eight I wanted to be a writer…why the hell didn’t I listen to my inner self?
Oh right. A relationship, kids, money…the usual.
Back on track now and that’s what matters.
Okay. I’m out of here. I have a goal to meet. Um, can we sweeten the pot with a gift for the winner? Or gifts for both of us if we both manage to do this?
Just asking. (ha)
(P.S. Don’t think I’m letting that editing/control freak remark slip by. I’ll deal with that later!)
Ellen MeisterNovember 17, 2006
These paragraphs are so touching, Sue. But your writing always has that affect on me.
Looking forward to tomorrow! Meanwhile, happy writing. Hope you’re someplace clean and comfy.
Carolyn Burns BassNovember 17, 2006
Could it be that your mom sending you the Oprah/Mrs. Frey link a subtle and motherly way of bringing you out of the writer’s closet? Mothers sense things in their children and even though you had never shared your writing and hopes with her, I think she knew.
Tomorrow I’m set to do the very same thing you’re doing today–holing away from everyone in a hotel for the uninterrupted pleasure of just me and my novel. I signed up for NaNoWriMo this year on a whim and I’m behind about 6,000 words according to the nano daily quota. But I’m way ahead by my own standards, which require quality over quantity.
You can preview Chapter 1 of THE SWORD SWALLOWER’S DAUGHTER on my website. And if you want to read a jaw-dropping blog comment that affirms the power of the internet, check out my latest post at Ovations.
Sarah RoundellNovember 18, 2006
I think this relationship you have with your mother is so wonderful. With each passing week I find you and I are alike in so many ways and in others I can only hope to be like you, Susan. Thank you for exploring this tough subject this week and thanks to everyone who shared the lovely and not so lovely relationships they have or have had with their own mothers. Happy birthday, Ellen! Looking forward to tommorrow…
Lance ReynaldNovember 18, 2006
I’d love to be holed up in a hotel til PS is finished, but somehow…..well, details some other time, they might be the next novel…
best of luck in there.
Gail SiegelNovember 18, 2006
Now this is a story with a very happy ending. I know you were wary for a long time about sharing your writing with your mom. Her reaction is better than you dared hope. I’m so glad she sees the beauty and wisdom in your writing. And I’ll look forward to seeing the new version of your novel myself.
Myfanwy CollinsNovember 18, 2006
Good luck getting that novel finished, Sue! I know you can do it. I love what you’ve written here. Your mom is so beautiful–seems the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in your family!
Susan HendersonNovember 20, 2006
Robin – Belew’s in Nashville? Sometime I’ll tell some stories about when I used to live there. The day after I graduated, we moved, if that’s any indication.
Thanks for the sweet compliment to my mom. Today and the novel are not working out, but maybe this evening I’ll crank something out.
Ellen – I was extremely close to your house, and I laid papers all over the floor and bed and there were balled up papers kind of everywhere. Places are only clean until I get there.
Carolyn – That could be the case! Good luck with NaNoWriMo!
Sarah – I like her. And I agree about the answers to the Q of the Week – wow.
Lance – We’ll both finish our novels on time, I have a good feeling.
Gail – The new version is going to get everything right. I’m excited about it so far.
Myfanwy – Thanks, Myf. xo