Wednesday, August 31, 2011

One Trick Ponies

Can anyone learn to write? Yes.

Can anyone learn to be a writer? Not really.

No matter what people and teachers will say, not everyone has it in them to be writers. That's a good thing. Everyone has a talent, a desire to do something or be someone, but not everyone can or should be a writer. That is a lesson that came home to me again this week.

The publishers of the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies send me regular call-outs for new books. Since my stories have been featured in six books, it makes sense they want to hear from writers who have been published with them before.

One such call-out came a month ago. The book was for stories about caregiving. While I have taken care of my ex-husbands and children (the kids were much easier), I don't consider myself a caregiver. I have helped out with relatives and friends, but still no real caregiver stories. I did, however, know of two people who had stories to tell and it would be a nice to see their stories in print.

My sister Beanie took care of our father in the last months of his life without the help of my other sister Hoity-Toity and my brother The Mushroom. What began as a bit of resentment for having to do it all alone and put her own life and family on hold, turned out to be a rich and memorable experience full of love and laughter. We are talking about my dad and there was always laughter, even when the cancer was devouring his bones and he was in great pain. That was just Dad. I've written about him before, but this story was Beanie's to tell.

I didn't help out because they all lived in Ohio and I live in Colorado. I wouldn't mind the commute, but I really couldn't afford to fly back and forth every day.

I told Beanie about the book and urged her to write about taking care of Dad, explaining she had until August 31st to get it done.

"That's not long enough," she complained. "Why don't you do it?"

"Because it's not my story. It's yours."

"I could tell you and you could write it."

"Nope. It has to be your story. I'll help with editing."

I could have heard her sigh without the telephone. "You'll rip it to pieces. You always do."

After a short explanation of editing and a discussion about how my ripping her work to pieces helped her earn As in her college composition classes (a required subject), she relented and agreed to give it a try.

My next call was to my aunt. She had just lost her youngest son Timmy and had taken care of him in his final days. Timmy was forty-eight when he died a few months ago. I knew it would be a tough sell, so I suggested it gently. She took to the idea right away and said it might help. (She's been crying for months now and I thought writing the story about caring for Timmy would be cathartic even if it was never published.)

We were off to the races -- or rather they were off to the races and I waited . . . patiently.

Beanie sent me her first draft about two weeks ago. I edited it, suggested some changes and sent the edited version (marked up in red and "ripped apart"). She was reluctant to open the files and finally did. She found out it wasn't quite as bad as she thought it would be. I suggested she add more about what it was like to take care of Dad and she said she'd get to it. "Better yet," she said, "why don't you write it and send it in? I've done the hard part."

"We talked about this and the answer is still no."

That's when the truth came out.

"I worked on that for three weeks. I tried to write it when we went camping, at night when the kids were asleep, at work when there was nothing to do, everywhere. Every time I started writing or thinking about it, I got a headache. I have too much going on and I can't go through that again. Either make the changes yourself -- I'll tell you what I did -- or forget about it."

I really do not and did not understand what there was about writing that gave her a headache. Writing helps clear my head and gets rid of any tension headaches I get.

We went back and forth and finally I agreed to her solution. I'd write what she said and incorporate it into the story. I submitted the story yesterday with her information. She can use the money, but I thought getting a story published would also boost her confidence and show her that she could write. "It's just not my thing," she said. "That's more your turf."

She's right about that.

My aunt was easier.

Aunt Anne worked on the story, did a bit of tightening and rewriting, but couldn't get it printed out. Her desktop computer was ancient, at least ten years old, and Timmy's printer wouldn't interface with it. She told me about it after the fact, but I would have suggested copying the file to disk, going to Kinko's, and printing it out there. Cheap, fast, and reliable.

Aunt Anne bought a new printer. The computer didn't recognize it at all and the printer said she needed to upgrade her software. She wasn't about to pay $129 for a Windows upgrade, so she took her grandson's advice, went to Best Buy, and got a laptop for $298. The new printer installed quickly and she printed out the story, put it in an envelope, and sent it overnight to me. The clock was ticking.

Her grandson told her to get the computer, print out the story, and take the computer back. She wouldn't be out any money and she'd get the job done. The only problem with that idea was she liked the new laptop so much she decided to keep it.

I received the story today, looked it over, and noticed that it needed a little more about what it was like taking care of Timmy. I called. We talked. She answered my questions and gave me the go-ahead to add to the story and submit it, which I did this evening well ahead of the deadline.

Aunt Anne did good. The story was clear, touched the emotions, and there were only a couple of spelling errors. (She couldn't find the spell check on the new computer.) I told her I was impressed and I could hear the big grim over the phone."Well, you're the expert," she said.

"No, I'm just a writer with some experience."

"I'm a one trick pony," she added when I suggested she might like to try writing something else. "I love the new laptop, but I'm no writer. That's your thing."

I teased her a little (she used all caps to write the story) about getting older (she is 77 years old as of last Wednesday) and she laughed and teased me. We're family. She is definitely not interested in writing any more stories, but she did appreciate this challenge because it gave her a chance to write about being with Timmy those last days after he decided not to get the liver transplant, and she had something to share with her other son Jeff and Timmy's children. I learned something, too, about what it was like for her, although I knew because we talked on the phone nearly every day. She lives in Ohio, too, and it's still nearly 2000 miles away.

My sister and my aunt rose to the challenge and got a little satisfaction from writing about their experiences, but Beanie isn't fond of headaches and Aunt Anne only had one story she wanted to tell. They are content with what they've done but they don't want to be writers. That's my thing, as they both reminded me.

No, not everyone wants to be a writer, nor should they. Someone has to read the books, stories, and articles writers create.

I would have welcomed both my aunt and my sister into the family of writers if that had been their choice. It just is not going to happen. I'll keep correcting Beanie's grammar, spelling, and punctuation when she emails and Aunt Anne will keep me on tap to help her get the most use from her laptop. That I can do.

Even though they're not writers, nor do they want to be writers, it's nice to know they appreciate the work and talent that goes into my writing. If nothing else, they understand me a little better. I guess that is enough for me -- and for them.

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