So, What Else Do You Do?

My late mother-in-law, Jenny Feldman, left behind an extensive body of artwork that she made long after she gave up the dream of getting recognition as an artist. Even when her hands hurt too much to make large works, she adapted by making little spiral-bound books of drawings. At some point in her life, though, she tired of what she called the “fine arts slog” of promoting her work and instead, made art that pleased her. Some of that artwork covers our walls, and we are proud to show off our Jenny Feldman Originals.

I shared her writings in Patchwork and Ornament: A Woman’s Journey of Life, Love, and Art, in part because I loved her, in part because I found her writing compelling, and perhaps, to a larger degree, because I wanted her to have some of the recognition that eluded her in life. I wanted that for her because I want that for me. Perhaps that isn’t the highest and best motive, but I think any writer or artist would understand.

Sitting each day at my computer, I write new work and polish existing work, knowing that much of what I do may never see the light of day. My work is less visible than Jenny’s, stored on computers and websites, but it’s a body of work that continues to grow. Will it sell? I don’t know. I will do what I can to make it so. I will make the best work I can and, if I don’t find a publisher, will put it online as e-books and podcasts in hopes of building an audience.

Whenever I meet someone knew, and they ask me what I do, I explain that I’m a writer. They always ask, “What do you write?” closely followed by, “And what else do you do?” When I went to an office every day, miserable though I was, no one ever asked me “what else do you do?” They accepted that I had a full-time job. Well, I work harder as a writer than I ever did on the job. Each morning I get up and work, writing and polishing. I contribute and submit to a critique group. I read writing books. I read endless novels, some of them not very good, to learn my craft.  I blog to get in more writing practice. My husband, a playwright when he isn’t writing computer programs, understands. Writing is a profession and a practice, but for many of us, the work that we do goes unnoticed, even by family and friends.

So why do it, if there is, for most writers, little respect or money involved? What keeps us going when we have little to show for our efforts, including recognition of those efforts?

The other day I received a note from a grandmother in Massachusetts ordering a copy of When a Grandchild Dies. Her granddaughter, she explained, died at six months, and would I please send her a copy of the book? I knew that though my audience is small, I have felt much affection for those grandparents who sent me notes and told me their stories. People have told me that they passed the book around in their family so everyone could read it, and it helped them get through the pain. These grandparents may never realize how often their outreach to me has pulled me from a writer’s funk.

Today I pulled out a notebook from a novel writing class I attended a few years ago, and some loose pages fell out. When I looked at them, they were lists of possible agents, more people to research and query. Despite my moments of discouragement, I still felt hope when I saw the names. I took it as a message from my teacher, and perhaps a greater teacher, not to give up. Publication may never happen, but what if it didn’t only because I didn’t try hard enough? I don’t have enough rejections to say that I’m done.

Mostly, though, I write because that’s what I do. That is how I was hooked up from the beginning of my life, though it took decades for me to understand this. I feel better. I’m less cranky and more loving with my family. I feel alive. Maybe no one will ever know my characters, but I know them and love them as though they were real people. I laugh with them, weep with them, and sometimes get angry with them, but I can’t wait to get together with them when I get up in the morning. When I fall asleep at night, I ask questions about the story so that my mind can work in my sleep to come up with answers to plot dilemmas.

This morning I finished yet another draft of Change of Plans. Two weeks from Friday, I attend an Agents Conference, and I will share my novel, and my beloved characters, with an agent. I feel shy and afraid, but I know these women, these imaginary friends, inside and out. I will tell their stories in the hopes that the agent will agree that others will love them like I do. And, if I don’t get the message across, I have these lists of agents that fell onto my feet this morning. Hope springs eternal!

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