Monday, June 13, 2011

Keep Writing, Even When It Hurts by Kathryn A. Brackett

Keep Writing, Even When It Hurts by Kathryn A. Brackett

When I was born, I was small enough to fit into an adult’s palm. My father was afraid to hold me as he peered at my premature shell, hooked to machines. I’d made my entrance into the world a month earlier than I should have. My brother, ten years old at the time, kept saying my face looked like a crumpled, red dishcloth.

My debut left quite a physical and emotional impression on my mother. She lay in a room somewhere, struggling through toxemia, a condition that caused blood pressure spikes and hazy vision that made it hard to see the baby she’d tried to hold inside her womb to full term. Doctors predicted we wouldn’t leave the hospital alive, but my mother and I did, eleven days later. She took me home, along with a long scar embedded in her skin. Her Cesarean mark carries a story to this day, a story she conveniently rebirths in her mind each time I THINK I’m too grown to listen to her, or one she shares with me when I feel like crawling into the ground after a large disappointment has beaten me nearly unconscious. As the baby of the family, you can imagine how many times I’ve heard the Caesarian story against my will. As a writer, you can imagine how many times I’ve needed to hear it to keep going in this profession.

It took eight years to publish a short story from my collection. Before then, I’d sent stories out to more publishers than I care to remember. The form letter rejections became snakes in my mailbox, waiting to bite me as soon as I pulled open the lid. The electronic ones waited boldly in my email inbox, while the notes of encouragement from editors were bitter-sweet gifts. Some of my work received recognition in fiction contests but all of them were rejected for publication over and over again in literary magazines. For a long time, I walked around with a hunchback of disappointment poking out from the back of my neck. Yet, despite the frustrations, I kept reworking the stories. I kept putting my work out there until my first acceptance came from an editor who wanted to publish the piece in an anthology. Another story was picked up in a print literary magazine a year later. This year I’ve placed work in my second national writing contest, published in an online journal, and received an honorable mention in an international magazine.

A woman in my writing group shared a quote with me from Winston Churchill that summed up my journey to publication: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Despite the physical and mental beating my characters have given me over the years, I couldn’t, and still can’t, let go of them until they are ready to sustain themselves. They have driven me to several degrees of insanity since I first ‘met’ them. I’ve worked entire days without moving from my desk, I’ve wrestled in bed with visions of their faces bubbling up in my head, I’ve soothed Ganglion cysts near my wrists from all the typing. Like any writer, I’ve loved my characters, I’ve hated them, I’ve even been afraid of them, not of who they are but of who they want to become and what it will take of my life, my soul, to fulfill their needs that have become my own.

Family members or friends who aren’t writers will often say, “I don’t get it. I thought writing was just putting ideas on paper. How hard is that?”

I tell them what Red Smith believed, “Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

And then they stare at me as if I’ve spouted out a mathematical equation in a foreign language. See, non-writers don’t understand that writing is an endless fight of passion, sometimes painful, sometimes completely enrapturing. They don’t comprehend why we cry when a character dies. They don’t get why we have post-it-notes all over the house or little notebooks in our purses/back pockets.

“You’re weird,” they say. “Why care about someone who isn’t real?”

“But they are,” I declare. “They are!”

And still, I get that confused look. Maybe some things should remain a mystery, like how I can’t figure out why anyone would eat beef that’s still bleeding on the inside, or interpret half the slang in my teenage cousin’s text messages when I have a master’s degree in writing. Her messages are an enigma, just as a writer’s way of thinking puzzles people who don’t compose stories on paper from their imaginations.

Writers are a special breed. We love our characters as much as we love people we can touch. We think it’s “normal” to talk to ourselves a little more than we should, and when people say we’re eccentric, we think of ways to put them stories without their permission. Writers embrace the oddities, the celebrations and the disappointments of their craft.

I can’t help but ponder what Dorothy Parker said about writing: “If you're going to write, don't pretend to write down. It's going to be the best you can do, and it's the fact that it's the best you can do that kills you."

Or Norman Mailerv: "Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day."

And Jessamyn West: "Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential."

As a writer, you have to accept the pain as much as you accept the pleasure. You have to listen to your characters as you listen to your mother’s stories of your birth. Being a writer is hard work, and if you’re fully embracing your talent, then you know how easy it is to think about giving up when nothing in the future looks promising, but you also know how hard it is to turn your back on a dream that’s kept you company from the moment you opened your eyes in the world. Though the process of writing can be a struggle at times, you keep fighting, you carry on, because you can’t imagine doing anything else that makes you this crazy while giving you such pleasure at the same time.

Kathryn A. Brackett earned her MFA in Fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work is published in or forthcoming from Waccamaw Journal, Mythium: The Journal of Contemporary Literature, and Expecting Goodness & Other Stories, an anthology of fiction chosen by C. Michael Curtis, senior editor of The Atlantic magazine, and runner-up in the Independent Publisher IPPY Awards for the top collection of short fiction in North America in 2009. Her stories have received national and international recognition in WordHustler’s Page to Screen Short Story Contest, judged by Sara Gruen; the Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Awards, the Stony Brook Short Fiction Prize, and the Carpe Articulum Literary Review, among others. You can find her and her blog at


Julia Munroe Martin said...

Great post and great reminders... I really like the Jessamyn West quote. As for the little notebooks and notes all over the house -- I can't imagine my life without them! (and it is comforting to know I'm not the only one!) Here's to the writing life!

Jessica McCann said...

What a lovely essay. I especially love when you wrote, "Writers embrace the oddities, the celebrations and the disappointments of their craft." It's so true, we must embrace it all, because the writing doesn't exist without it all. Thanks for this inspiration on a Monday morning!

Laura @ I'm Booking It said...

A thank you to all of the writers that create the characters that speak to us readers.

I love a book where I get attached to the characters, and feel their emotions. How much stronger your connection to them must be, and how much harder to feel their suffereing, and to walk away at the end...

Thank you.

Daisy Hickman said...

Nice to meet you, Kathryn. And hello there "bird sister!" Also took me 8 years to publish a short story -- fiction writing doesn't come naturally to me, but I still enjoy challenging myself with stories and characters and such. Can be a great break from the "real" side of life! But you're exactly right. It's a game of keeping at it, as Faulkner used to say. Have a guest editor in SunnyRoomStudio this week (Author Magazine); Bill points out that writers must discover their interests and be true to them. Take care! Sending all good wishes to you and RR :) -Daisy

Melanie said...

So, so, so true. This is what it means to be a writer. It is accepting that pain along with the pleasure. What a great a reminder. Goodness, it helps to know that I am not nuts to pursue this passion of mine, you, along with my other fellow writers, get why I continue to do it.

Wonderful post!

Melissa Crytzer Fry said...

Great post, Kathryn (I'm a former PA girl from north of PIttsburgh!). I enjoyed your post and especially your comment that "writing is an endless fight of passion, sometimes painful, sometimes completely enrapturing." It is. Indeed, it is.

Ms. First Line said...

Thanks ladies for the comments. None of you are crazy for pursing this career! Not to sound like High School Musical, but we're all in this together!-Kathryn

doreen said...

Kathryn your words were beautifully inspiring.

Essay Writing said...

I absolutely liked reading everything that is posted on your blog keep the posts coming. I enjoyed it.

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."