Today’s quote comes us from my friend and fellow VCFA classmate Janice Scully. I adore Janice. I love her thoughtfulness. I love her poetry. I love that she was a practicing doctor. I love that grew up working in her family’s restaurant. Mostly, I love how she looks at the life of being a writer.
“I have a journal that I jot down quotes and then look at them when I need inspiration. One quote, from a poem by W. S. Merwin, poses a question I often puzzle over:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
“I received a reminder last week from Highlights for Children Magazine. The deadline for the fiction contest was two weeks away. The topic? A funny story based on a newspaper article.
“All I needed to write was a 750-word story. What’s hard about that?
“I began leafing through the New York Times. I thought it might be fun.
“And it was at first. I enjoy the New York Times.
“But that day, after eight hours of scouring the news, trying out ideas and writing a first draft, I was sure the day had been a total waste. I was sure my story was not funny. I already knew from author John Vorhaus that only ten percent of funny ideas are actually funny. In addition, plot felt contrived and the language dull.
“But, I was a more experienced writer than I used to be. I’d been here before, tasting disaster and feeling discouraged. I could get past it.
“So I did what many writers do, I went to bed and started fresh the next day. I also found a trusted reader to critique it (My husband, Bart, is usually available on short notice). I read the story again with fresh eyes. Should I start from scratch or was there a seed of a promising idea hidden in those paragraphs, one I could grow during revision?
“Perhaps this 750-word story wouldn’t get the better of me.
“I deleted most of the previous day’s work, and began inching closer to the heart of the story.
“I hope to declare it finished and enter it in the contest soon.
“But will it really be any good? I won’t be sure even as I mail it in. But at least I’m having fun writing it. The story has meaning for me, and at this point in my writing career, that matters a lot.
“There is no litmus test to help writers, a paper strip that turns pink if the story is good, but dismal blue if it isn’t. In the late nineties, when I first started to write for children, five of my pieces, mostly non-fiction, found homes in kid’s magazines. What was it about those stories? The most popular, one, about a chipmunk burrow under my brick sidewalk, with a photo, has been purchased several times by educational publishers. My other stories were about such things as the shaggy mane mushrooms in my yard, about moss and rocks and another about the human liver!
“The core of a story has to be a compelling idea and all those stories seemed to. But when I submit my recent work, I am still never really sure. And the revision process is of course a lengthy one, maybe endless. I recently revisited several picture book poems, years old, and saw lines requiring significant revision. I fixed them . . . and resubmitted. Though it was gratifying to do this, I have no idea what will happen.
“While I submit and wait to hear from agents and editors about my work, I read the work of others. My blog, “Medicine and Health in Children’s and YA Lit” is an attempt to keep up on books and try to link my experience as a doctor. And though I don’t think children’s writers set out to teach, one can learn a great deal through stories about what all of us need in order to be healthy and happy.
“But I ask every day, is my blog or any piece that I am writing really any good? I’m not sure, but I keep at it because I’m a writer.”
Yes, you are.
Thank you, Janice, for sharing your thinking today.