Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Winding Road

If only my life hadn’t included so many detours and distractions from writing. In that case – what? I would have written a critically-acclaimed bestseller? Probably not.

I’ve been told I look younger than I am. If only I could subtract twenty years from my age and still claim credit for every published piece of mine (including on-line posts), I could claim to be prolific. Sort of.

I have produced a body of work. All printed out, it would make a sizeable stack of paper, for what it’s worth.

Stephen King once claimed he made a do-or-die pact with his wife that if he didn’t succeed in getting a novel published while she was supporting him, he would rejoin the world of wage slavery. He was determined to launch a writing career because, as he said, he did not want to spend forty years explaining the difference between a gerund and a participle as an English teacher in the public school system.

I’ve never had a wife who could afford to support me. I have spent roughly thirty years explaining the difference between a gerund and a participle to first-year university students. Apparently I am the anti-Stephen King: his unsuccessful shadow side who is not male, not heterosexual, not completely white or American. I sound like a character in a Stephen King novel.

I’m not prolific, but I’m versatile. Or genre dysphoric. As a teenager I wrote structured poetry, and made pen-and-ink illustrations. What couldn’t be expressed in words could be expressed in visual form, and vice versa. I wrote my first villanelle in memory of an old family friend who died suddenly of cancer after sending my mother a letter saying she had “turned a corner” and was recovering. Old Friend had been a social activist who was willing to go to jail for her beliefs, and she had been like an aunt to me. At age seventeen, I wasn’t sure I would ever be willing to risk arrest in defense of exploited immigrant farm workers, but I could write a villanelle. I rhymed “earth” with “worth.”

Eventually, I got several poems published in magazines, and had half a book of poetry published by a local publisher. At that time, the Canada Council for the Arts (a national funding body) would subsidize the publishing of poetry, but not in the form of slim volumes by individuals. Therefore Canadian publishers would combine two or more unknown poets in one book to minimize the financial risk. This is why my poems appeared beside those of another woman in a paperback titled Double Visions. I had never met her. I think I was more thrilled than she was.

I continued to write poems while trying my hand at short stories. One of my stories won first prize in the short-fiction category in the annual writing contest of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. It was also published in an anthology by the same local press that had launched me as a poet.

However, my actual life seemed unspeakable. I had given birth, escaped from my husband, escaped from my parents and “come out” as a lesbian. I was raising my mulatto child in poverty, and well-meaning strangers kept offering to help me find her real mother. My life was full of raw material that I wanted to write about. I had no reason to believe this stuff could be published.

I produced a lesbian newsletter every other month, and sold subscriptions to cover my costs. I got a lesbian story accepted by the Women's Press (of Toronto, Canada, not to be confused with several other presses by the same name) just before the editorial collective was torn apart over the issue of "cultural appropriation" (long, messy story).

I became terrified of being ostracized by my community of choice for being "politically incorrect." I was also afraid of being ghettoized as a "minority" writer, or simply having all my work rejected by those who found it incomprehensible or inauthentic (if I wrote what I didn't believe).

I found a one-dyke publisher who published my collection of lesbian stories between slick, deep-pink covers. I was delighted to get a few glowing reviews in lesbian-feminist journals.

I wrote a long fantasy story about an all-female community which is increasingly divided by cultural/ethical differences among the four quarters of the village. Vesta, my narrator (elected governor of the East Quarter), is desperate to prevent a civil war which would make the women's village vulnerable to the male-dominated tribe nearby.

Vesta is secretly attracted to a leather dyke (governor of the hunter/warrior quarter) who wants to heat up her sex life. Most of the women who elected Vesta to office are against violence on principle, even in self-defense – and they define “violence” broadly. They refuse to acknowledge the protection the hunter/warriors are providing for the whole village. Most of the hunter/warriors think the vegetarian peaceniks are useless. Job chauvinism takes various forms. The construction workers think their skills are absolutely essential, and some of them matronize the cooks and seamstresses as hobbyists. The condescension is resented. And not everyone worships the same Goddess.

I wasn’t really making anything up.

I sent this piece to the one-dyke publisher, hoping she would recognize a core of reality in it. I also hoped she would like my characters as much as I did. She wrote back to say that the story needed a lot of work because the narrator was "very weak." She said she would be willing to read a completely revised version.

I didn't write another story for years. I learned to be genre-flexible. I was hired to write research-based articles for the journal of a government-funded feminist organization. For two years, I was a kind of unofficial, unpaid staff reviewer for a leftist magazine. The Globe and Mail ("Canada's national newspaper") ran a series of articles on small, grassroots journals across Canada. I was amazed to see my name mentioned in this series as a magazine writer to watch.

I read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. I wrote three, sent them off, got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went bust. The editors told me they were seeking another publisher. Then they stopped responding to my queries.

My partner and I bought a computer. I surfed the 'net for writers' groups and found the Erotic Readers Association. I posted my lesbian erotica, got some friendly critiques, and kept writing. I ventured into male-female sex stories, threesomes, and even male-male scenes. (I was proud when a clearly embarrassed gay-male friend told me that one of these stories had the intended effect on him.)

By now, I've had over eighty stories published in anthologies, not including print journals and websites. (I stopped counting at eighty.) Two collections of my diverse erotic stories have been published by different publishers. My local-colour erotic novel, Prairie Gothic, was available in e-form from a British publisher from 2002 until 2006, when the publisher went bust.

I'm not prolific. It has taken me over forty years to accomplish what some writers do in five. I rarely manage to bind and gag the Inner Critic. I doubt whether I'll ever be identified with a "brand," to use a current buzz-word. I continue to write rants, reviews and articles as well as stories, so I'm probably too much of a shapeshifter to become a household name. Sometimes I will put a rant or a poem into the mouth of a character in a story, or will stop writing a story to get a rant out of my system. And as long as other writers continue to inspire me, I might as well review their work.

I envy writers who earn enough in royalties to pay off the Greek or American national debts. There are days when I don't want to explain the mysteries of English grammar to young adults ever again. Yet I haven't been silenced as a writer, not even by myself. And I tell myself that my best years are still ahead. It gives me a reason to get up every morning.


  1. Hi Jean

    I'm always amazed at your history. I never knew you had so much stuff out there, 80 stories. To me that's prolific as hell. You and Lisabet have paid your dues at the keyboard.

    King says that of all the active writers in the US, only about 5% are full timers, earning their income only from fiction writing. Everyone else has the day job, same as us. I had wanted to be a full timer when I was a kid, that was my dream before I got side tracked for 20 years, but now I realise how hard that would be. A person has to be really cut out for that life, and not many of us are.


  2. Jean - I think there are a lot of us "anti-Kings" running around. Millions of us. But didn't he dump his first manuscript in the trash? Even though he wanted to be a full time writer, he was willing to throw his work away. He thought it belonged in the trash. We're all a bit more King than we think.

  3. Thank you both for commenting. I didn't know (or didn't remember) about King's trashed manuscript, but I know of several other writers who have done similar things.

  4. Jean,

    Somebody's got to draw those grammatical distinctions for the new generation...

    I'd love to read your politico-feminist fantasy. Do you still have the manuscript? And if your publisher for Prairie Gothic went bust and you now own the rights, why not find a new publisher?

    Anyway, I find your insistence on survival over political correctness to be inspiring.


  5. Prolific is relative, I think. I thought I was prolific until I read the last three columns! I do a happy dance whenever I get a $5 royalty cheque! I'd rather be a sparse writer that is well published, I think.

  6. Lisabet, yes, I still have that long-unpublished story somewhere.
    I have stacks of yellow pages of my writing in a closet! I'll look for the story & send it to you. (I just hope I have it saved on a computer or flash drive, but I'm afraid not - it's that old.)

    Leatherdykeuk, you've been underpublished and underpaid. I'm sure you'll seem prolific in the next few years when material you've already written bursts into print. :)


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