By Tea Benduhn
Part one of a series.
We all have dreams. For those who count among theirs “making it” as artists, that dream usually has a “first” milestone. Publishing a novel. Making and showing a film. Opening a show in a major city. Releasing a CD.
And it’s kind of amazing how many hard-working creative types actually achieve that first major goal. But for most artists, as the dust settles after the intense effort, anticipation and planning of pushing your debut work out into the world, a question arises: Now what? Very few artists write their own ticket after their first at-bat, and they are left with the reality of their everyday lives. Things didn’t change much, after all. Not this time. Surely the next. If there is a next time.
Vital Source is publishing a series of personal essays written by artists who’ve jumped the first hurdle. They’ll address the creative forces that propel an artist to reach a milestone, how they gear up for a repeat performance (or choose not to) and what it all really means. In our first installment, Tea Benduhn, an author who achieved her goal of publishing a novel before she was 30, reveals how she got there, why she struggles with how she stacks up to others and questions her identity as a writer.
Five formative instances led me to write a novel.
Two: My parents had their favorite punishment for my brother and me when we were little. Any time we did something of which they disapproved, we would have to write 100 times, in Bart Simpson chalkboard style, “I will not….” and fill in the blank with our infraction of the day. My brother devised and instructed me in the method of writing a column of I’s all the way down the page, followed by a column of will’s, etc., until each sentence was completed. What my parents didn’t know was that while my brother loathed this exercise and did everything in his power to cheat, I happily wrote out each sentence to its fullest, getting lost in the rhythm of pen against paper.
Three: After my father began his steady stream of getting laid off (probably due to showing up at work drunk or hung over and the company finding a polite way of firing him – unemployment was never his fault), he spent an enormous amount of time in the basement. He would open beer after beer, leaving a collection of cans from half-empty to half-full, lukewarm to ice-cold, fresh to god-knows-how-long stale. He would pace the brown tile floor, pulling on his mustache, filling lined yellow notepad after notepad of lyrics, letters-to-the-editor, political rants, essays, script ideas and other musings. Sometimes when one of us would cross his path he would stop us and say, “Listen to this” or “Tell me what you think.”
Four: When I was really young, my parents gave me my first favorite gift: a plastic two-toned blue typewriter that typed only capital letters. I used this typewriter to draft my homework assignments and got points taken off for not using lower case. I abandoned my use of the typewriter for homework assignments, but worked typing into other activities. My brother was obsessed with our few Atari video games. But I always preferred our Odyssey version of hangman. Then, at least, I could type.
Five: When I finally admitted my insomnia to my parents, my father said “You know what I do when I can’t sleep? I get up and write.” He added, “Why don’t you try that? Try writing some poems or something. I’ll bet you’re a good poet.” That begat a Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton obsession that included some awful, embarrassing poetry readings at the Liquid Bean, a dive coffee house in Atlanta.
I packed up these experiences and went to college for a practical degree in secondary education and English. After coming home from student teaching every night with a splitting orange burst shivering through my head, coupled with a lava-perfumed sickness and a wrecked relationship from forgetting to pay attention to my personal life, I decided teaching wasn’t for me. That, plus it turns out I’m not all that great at discipline.
I reevaluated. I decided that I only get one shot at life, so I may as well do the thing I want to do. I promptly enrolled in writing school. I went to Emerson College in Boston for my MFA in creative writing. The entire first year was boot camp: fellow students breaking me down with their boredom, indifference, and periodic annoyance towards my writing.
The second year I decided I had nothing to lose and abandoned my attempts at writing the next great American novel, or even a solidly quaint literary short story with quiet movements. I launched myself into a young adult novel about high school lesbians. And that’s where I found my voice.
I made a pact with myself: if I wasn’t published by the time I was 30, I’d quit writing and go back to school for library science.
So I sent out a few query letters in December of 2000, after completing my thesis. A week later, I got most of the editors’ responses, requesting the manuscript. I sent it out to the first requester, and waited a few months. I started to get a little impatient and called the editor at Simon and Schuster, leaving him a voicemail message. He called back ten minutes later and said he wanted it, but that he had to present it at a meeting at the end of the month. After the meeting, he sent me a contract and we went through some minor revisions for a few months. The graphic designers had it for a while after that, and finally in 2003, Gravel Queen was in print. I just turned 30 last week.
What did I do in the meantime? I had three years from the time I wrote Gravel Queen until the time it was in print to write a second novel. I’ve now had four years. And I’m still wondering what I’ve done with my time. I can track my geographical chronology: I moved from Boston to Atlanta to Milwaukee. I can track my non-novel writing career: I left my job as a travel writer for a dot-com to work in marketing writing for an NPR/ PBS station to do the same job for a local independent bookstore. In between, I’ve also worked as a bookseller, tutored college writing in Atlanta, and taught a memoir-writing class at UWM’s extension school.
I can even track my fiction writing progress: I’ve done nothing.
I started my second novel in 2001, and finished three-fourths of it before moving to Milwaukee. I promptly abandoned it in pursuit of learning my new city. I wrote a 300-page third novel in the month of October 2003, and it was quite possibly the most horrible thing I’ve ever written in my life (no exaggeration there—seriously). I then stopped writing altogether and decided I wasn’t a writer at all, even though I was still far enough away from 30, the magic number.
When I tell my friends I’m a failure, they tell me I’m nuts. But the part that is always hard to explain is that I’m not looking at what I’ve done; I’m looking at what I’m doing. I’m measuring myself against other people my age who have done and are doing more. Emma Donoghue, for instance, published nine books by the time she was 30. Moreover, the part that I keep in mind is that while I’m not doing much to optimize my time, I always know that I could be doing so much more. So even if I have achieved the one glimmering goal I had as a kid, it isn’t enough. I need to expand my goal. Move beyond it.
Last fall, I decided I should start painting instead of frustrating myself with trying to write. It was a trick I learned from one of my teachers in writing school—try an art that’s not your own. So in lieu of getting my stories onto paper, I water-colored them onto planks of wood.
Finally, last December, I wrote a fairy tale. When that one wasn’t enough, I wrote another. And another. I kept writing them until I felt like I’d said everything I needed to say on the subject. There are fifteen of them, totaling about fifty pages. When I looked back at my paintings and read my fairy tales, I found a good deal of overlap in their themes. So I’m now in the process of combining my fairy tales with images, which I’m crafting into a storybook of sorts, though it’s not for kids. I have a vague idea of where this project is going to lead, but have no clue if any publisher will be interested in it, or even how it should be marketed. I’m just putting together the project as my vision dictates, and will construct a plan for it afterwards. And maybe when this one is finished, I can finally go back to that second novel that’s nearly complete, and put on the final touches to send it away, out into the world.
Until then, I’m perfectly happy promoting other people’s books. After all, there sure are a lot of good writers out there. VS