Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tangled Destinies


I didn’t sleep well last night. A front moved through, triggering wave after wave of thunderstorms. Nothing overly threatening, but loud enough to keep me awake. And as so often happens when I can’t sleep, my thoughts turned to writing.

For whatever reason, I started thinking about my legacy of bad writing. I’ve been on this topic a lot lately, for some reason I can’t quite pin down. But last night, I found myself going back further than ever, to stories I’d written 20 or more years ago.

One story in particular came to mind. It was a dreadful piece I’d written for Redbook’s annual short fiction contest, a trite bit of crap titled “Tangled Destinies.” Lord, I’d had high hopes for that thing, in spite of the fact that I was entering one of the toughest contests out there, tantamount to climbing the Mount Everest of literature.

Not only was this a literary marathon, it was a test of technical endurance. This was back in the days of the electric typewriter, and I was about as good a typist as a writer, so I had to retype each page over and over, agonizing over creating a perfect copy. I can’t tell you how many sheets of paper I discarded, how many cuss words I uttered over my suddenly uncoordinated, clublike fingers. I must have worn out a whole ribbon on 19 lousy pages.

The premise of “Tangled Destinies” was simple. It was a romance set in Colonial America, just before the revolution. My protagonist, Miranda, is a spy named Rebel who ends up deceiving and falling in love with the Nicholas, a cousin she’s been engaged to since her birth. There’s enough romance, misdirects and adventure to choke on--a regular cavalcade of unbridled sauciness, clandestine meetings, and cascades of riotous auburn curls. There’s also quite a bit of spirited flouncing and flirtatious, snappy repartee. Ambitious miss that I was, I even included a prologue and an epilogue, because God knows every 19 page story needs those anchors weighing down the storyline. I remember sending it off with hope singing in my heart. It was a masterpiece and I was damn sure I’d win.

Obviously, I didn’t win. And the heartbreak of losing almost discouraged me from writing again. I’d been convinced I was so naturally gifted as a writer, I was sure to be a Nobel prize winner by age 21.

Last night, all these years later, with the sound of rumbling thunder and flashes of lightning silvering the walls of my bedroom, I found myself wondering: what if I’d given up back then? The thought was sobering. It would have been so easy to give up, to tell myself I didn’t have what it takes, to avoid the heartbreak that inevitably comes when we writers put our work out there for evaluation.

Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t. As bad as “Tangled Destinies” was, it represented a landmark on my journey as a writer. It was the first piece I ever submitted, so I learned something about the process. Most importantly, I learned about disappointment and how to bounce back from it. I still have a long way to go, but I’m a lot better writer now, with much tougher skin and a better attitude about working my way up the ladder. It’s been hard work, but it’s been worth it. And most encouraging, if I’m this much better now in my 40’s, imagine how good I’ll be in my 50’s and 60’s. There’s something innately encouraging in finally grasping that I’m a work in progress, not an aging old hack who missed her window.

I dug out “Tangled Destinies” this morning, all 19 yellowed pages held together with a rusted paperclip. One of the benefits of being a paper packrat and rather accomplished filer is that I have such things at my fingertips. It was every bit as dreadful as I remember, but still, I think there was hope for that young writer with the big dreams. I've recreated it in electronic form for my personal archives and submit it here for your amusement. Get a tissue. Empty your bladder. And get ready for the parade of jaunty adverbs, hysterical historical errors and glaring plot inconsistencies.

Oh, and one additional disclaimer: absolutely no meticulous research went into the creation of this literary masterpiece. My source was only what I remembered from a high school history class, where I spent more time writing notes to my girlfriends than listening to my teacher. I don’t even remember who he was, so that should tell you something.


Stephen said...

Thank God you never gave up. My writing would be the worse without your safe hand guiding me through the muck of my own work. I enjoyed this post, and I'll find the time within the next few days to take in your literary masterpiece. If only you could see some of the crap that I produced when I first took a stab at writing (oh about twenty years ago). In a word, it was bad.

Greta said...

Stephen, if you ever dig out some of that bad crap of yours, I'd love to take a look at it. The funny thing about Tangled Destinies--if I still had any interest in writing romance, I think the basic storyline would be salvageable. You might find some of your old stuff has merit, too.