It’s my own personal “Pinocchio” moment. I’ve become a “real boy”; my name is in a real book. On the list of writers contributing to “Shades of Blue — Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue,” you’ll find my name. Finally, after 24 years of writing a weekly column, I can legitimately call myself a writer.
Ironic, right? My writing is published every week, but in my mind, that doesn’t count because writing columns is just something I do. It’s just an organized version of the jumble of thoughts, opinions and musings that bounce around the pinball machine in my head. How I manage to assemble them into something resembling coherence week after week, I’m not sure. It’s not a skill. It’s just happens.
Over the years, I’ve been very careful to call myself a columnist — not a writer. Writers create things with permanence. Books, to be exact. And starting a book doesn’t count. It must be finished, published and on a shelf in a bookstore before one can legitimately put “writer” on one’s résumé. I won’t indulge myself with the “writer” label until I manage to finish something longer than 1,000 words that doesn’t end up in the recycling bin the same day.
But now: I’m a writer! I have proof!
I can say that now without feeling like a poser. I’m even working on a novel and have managed not to abandon it in a fit of perfectionistic frustration for the first time ever, thanks to a few skills I picked up at a writer’s conference I attended last May. For one, a strategy for self-discipline — not my best skill.
Also ironic, right? Writing a weekly column seems like the epitome of self-discipline, but it really isn’t. Without the deadline dominatrix whipping me along, I’d never produce anything, because — Squirrel!
Unfortunately, with novel writing, there’s no deadline to keep me on task. I’ll get frustrated or intimidated, and decide to go meet friends for beers rather than write, while my laptop sits in the corner, gathering dust and silently judging me. Part of my issue is toxic perfectionism. If something’s not perfect, I’m compelled to go back and work it until it is. That’s fine for 1,000 words… not so fine for 70,000. I’d always go back and “fix” what I’d written before, get off on tangents, mess up the whole plot, get lost and frustrated, and give up.
And again and again and again.
At that conference, I finally got it through my thick OCD head: It’s not a column. It’s a completely different animal. It doesn’t fit the familiar column-writing paradigm. You must finish before you can go back and edit, or you won’t finish at all. I had to learn to stumble, get back up and keep going, rather than insisting on starting back at the beginning. Now, I’ve hit 29,000 words — far more than ever before.
Self-discipline and tenacity weren’t the only gems I gathered from that conference. There was a reading one afternoon, and I came only to listen. But after the first few readings, I had a burst of desire to force myself outside my comfort zone, raised my hand, and with a pounding heart and lungs that suddenly couldn’t exhale, stood up and read my last column from my cell phone, in chunks, because the screen saver blinked back on every other minute and I’d have to stop, enter my password and pick up where I left off.
The kind group clapped politely for this unprepared, unpolished rookie weirdo, and a normal person would have been humiliated, but for me, it was liberating: I read my own work out loud and survived.
You know, like a real writer.
Real writers are expected to do real readings, not just rattle something off their iPhone. This is all sinking in, because my very first real reading happens on Sunday at the Avid Reader, which is a dress rehearsal of sorts for the official “Shades of Blue” book launch in Los Angeles on Nov. 19, when I’ll have to stand next to real writers on a real stage, fight the urge to shriek “I’m not worthy,” and walk up to the microphone and read from my story.
You know, like a real writer!
Here’s the odd part: I don’t have a fear of public speaking. I’ve done it a thousand times, without issue. Heck, I can even karaoke quite fearlessly (much to the disappointment of most everyone present). I’m not exactly “the shy girl.” But reading my own words about my own pockmarked experience feels different. It’s unturned earth.
You see, columnists exist in a silent bubble. We give a monologue to an empty room. There’s no feedback, no faces to read, no ripple of laughter or grumble of disagreement to react to. Aside from the few folks who churn out vicious emails demanding your resignation and banishment from polite society (okay, some email is lovely and affirming, but you never remember those), column writing is a solo gig. A really comfortable solo gig. Speaking my own words feels like walking out in public completely naked.
Gahhhh! I need some nice, warm newsprint to cover myself!
Adding to my anxiety is my voice. You read my words and hear them as smooth and silky or maybe raspy and assertive, or if you hate me but read my columns anyway (Why? Why do you do this to both of us?) in a whiny, snotty drone.
Surprise! You’re all wrong!
Although the voice I hear when I speak is quite lovely, videotape has proven that I actually sound like a cartoon. Why is Charlie Brown speaking my words? OK, who’s the wise guy who dubbed my voice in that videotape with a cartoon character?
Sadly, the evidence is overwhelming. That’s how I sound, so I better get used to it, because I need to get comfortable reading my work out loud.
You know … like a real writer.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at email@example.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com