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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Melody Carlson on Faking It

Melody Carlson is an award-winning, best-selling author of more than two hundred books for teens, women, and children. She and her husband enjoy an active lifestyle of hiking, camping, and biking in the beautiful yet mysterious Pacific Northwest, where she says, “A new story seems to lurk around every corner.”

Faking It

I never trained to be a writer. Not in the academic sense anyway. I wasn’t an English major, I never took a writing class beyond high school, I’ve only attended a couple of writers’ conferences (as a conferee). And although I’d always admired authors, I never imagined I could be an author. In fact, despite having published around 200 books, I rarely use the word “author” when describing myself.

If anything, I say I’m a writer, probably because it sounds less presumptuous. Because the truth is I always have this underlying fear that someone is going to say, “You’re not really a writer, you haven’t been trained as a writer, therefore you must be faking it.” And maybe I am.

But I suspect that, from the very beginning, life was training me to be a writer. I could never really make up my mind about what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” As a result, I sampled a lot of jobs. I taught pre-school for a while. I spent a year in a third world country as I considered missions work. I worked for an interior designer as well as an international adoption agency. I dabbled at several other varied and unrelated jobs. But like shopping for jeans, it took a lot of trying on before I found what fit just right.

Even when I got the irresistible urge to begin writing, I had no idea where it would take me. I only knew that I had to write or burst. Sort of like my grandma’s old pressure cooker. She’d leave it on the stove for too long and too high and the next thing you knew green beans all splattered all over the ceiling. That’s how I felt. Like all these words and stories and sentences and characters and settings were boiling inside of me. The pressure was growing and I needed to loosen that release valve and get them out.

And so, without any real direction or (as aforementioned) real training, I began to write—on a yellow legal pad since I had no typewrite or computer at the time. Why would I have authentic writing tools when I wasn’t an authentic author? Then I joined a critique group of “real authors.” Naturally, that made me extremely nervous. Not only had these women been properly trained they were published as well.

I remember feeling like a total fraud in their midst. I even tried to “appear” more author-like by wearing tweed jackets (but hadn’t I always liked tweed?) and then I added dangly earrings (didn’t that make a person look more creative?). And although I loved being in this creative group, I couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t belong. I figured that eventually these genuine bona fide authors would figure me out and cast me from their midst.

Instead, they were encouraging. And they were amazed at how quickly I could “spit out” a story and then another and another. What they didn’t realize (and I probably didn’t either) was that those stories had been bubbling and percolating inside of me for years. But even as I completed several novels (three for teens and one for women) I didn’t feel like a real author.

Perhaps that was because “real authors” got published. And all I seemed to get was rejection letters. And so I began to think if I got published, I would become a “real author.” To my stunned amazement an editor became very interested in my work. She even presented my novels to her publishing committee, but for one reason or another they “declined” every one, which only seemed to prove that I wasn’t really an author.

But then she challenged me to write a nonfiction book, saying, “I think I can get that published.” So, feeling even more like a fake (since I was a fiction writer) I threw together a proposal for a nonfiction book. And they contracted it. But even a contracted book didn’t make me feel like an author. And then I began to work for a publishing company, interfacing with REAL authors (ones with BIG names) and I knew for sure that I wasn’t one of them.

Even as I began contracting more books (novels this time) I questioned my authenticity. I didn’t consider myself part of that elite group—real authors. After all, I didn’t know the secret handshake. I still don’t. Even if I got a good book review, I simply assumed I’d dodged a bullet. If a book sold well, I thought I’d just slipped beneath the radar. Even when I began writing full time, I was pretty sure the gig would soon be up…I’d get caught eventually. The Book Police would show up at my door and say, “You’re under arrest for impersonating an author.”

But then I discovered something that’s helped to change my thinking. Lots of other “authors” feel the same way—like they too are “faking it.” So maybe it just comes with the territory. After all, I am a fiction writer. Most of what I write is “made up” so I guess I am faking it.

5 comments:

Bonnie Doran said...

During the days that surfing was hot, we named our cockapoo Hodad. The word, as I understand it, means someone who looks like a surfer, talks like a surfer, and dresses like a surfer, but doesn't know how to surf. Sometimes I feel like a writer hodad. It's hard to stop dragging the surfboard and be the writer God called me to be, but I'm learning.

Ane Mulligan said...

Hey, Bonnie - if you write, you're a writer. Period. :)

Julie Garmon said...

Love this interview!! The picture drew me in. We have the same black Lab--just wish we had more snow (in Georgia).

Beautiful answers. :-)

I feel the same way.

wilsonwriter said...

Melody, I've always loved your honest approach to writing. You are definitely a "writer." Your book "Finding Alice" is a favorite of mine.

Tina said...

Melody, thank you. It is hard to imagine that You could worry about not being an authentic writer when the rest of us look up to you. I am glad I you shared.