Buying a Christmas present for a child in need today (can I digress and say how hard it is to buy a present for a 12 year-old girl you have never met and know nothing about?) I discovered erasable pencils crayons. What wonders. Made me want to repost this rather depressing meditation on what it means to live up to your own standards (or not). Anyway…
Back in March, Jodi Meadows, the author of INCARNATE tweeted “Colored pencils should be easier to erase”. Now I know she meant “they should be easier to erase than they are”, because let’s face it, they are unholy hard to erase. But how I read it was “They should be easier to erase than regular lead pencils”. And I found that kind of profound. I tweeted her so, of course to which she replied “sage nod”.
So what is profound about that? It’s funny how sometimes a whole new universe of understanding can pop out of one little phrase. “Colored pencils should be easier to erase.” What my mind immediately jumped to was that they should be easier to erase than lead pencils because to use them suggests more of a commitment, represents more of a risk. Any schmuck can doodle with a lead pencil. We’ve all done it all over the margins of our math homework and on library tables. But colored pencils are a whole other thing. You’re not just doodling with colored pencils, you’re drawing. There are more ways you can go wrong with a colored pencil. As anyone who has ever tried to draw with them knows, it’s hard, much harder than with a lead pencil. And mistakes are easily made, but not easily unmade. Where is the reward for the extra bravery it took to choose colored pencils in the first place? Those who venture into colored pencil land should be granted a couple of extra do-overs. Life is so unfair.
For some reason, today, this made me think of my short story, written in grade eleven, The Seventh Grade. As a rather lengthy aside I should point out that for those of you who are interested, this story can be found here, not only in the original English, but also translated into Chinese. How and why it was translated into Chinese and uploaded to the web is something of a mystery. Suffice it to say, I was never paid Chinese money for this story, which I wrote in 1983, at least ten years before the Internet came into public use. Long story short, I think I’ve become a Chinese bootleg, like that Return of the King DVD my friend sent me from Hong Kong and my NOT Prada handbag.
Anyway, back to my story. Interestingly, to me anyway, this story was maybe the first thing I ever wrote that wasn’t in some way religious. In grade five I wrote this poem, for example:Listen, listen, what do you hear? The sound of God talking, deep in your ear. The sound of the angels singing in choir Their beautiful voices sing higher and higher The sound of …
Urgh. I can’t go on. You get the idea. Then I wrote a short story about Jesus looking through a window and another one about dying and eternity, or something; it’s possible they were both the same story. I also wrote a sci-fi-ish kind of thing in which a human meets an alien on another planet and waxes poetic on the way home about being like Noah’s dove and how Columbus means dove and how Columbus discovered America and she had discovered another planet and so on. As you can see there was all kinds of wrongness in my education.
In grade eleven, in Mrs. Crooks’s creative writing class, I wrote a short one man play called Whatsoever You Do which is not exactly a bible quote, but is the title of a hymn based on a bible quote (Matthew 25:35-40 for anyone who is interested, or doubts my pedigree). Perhaps this was the last hurrah of a fading belief system because I’m almost certain The Seventh Grade, which has no religion allusions that I can remember, was what I wrote next.
Here’s what you should know about this: up to this point, no one, least of all me, had really thought that anything I wrote was any good. In fact several times I was told that things were not very good. Lots of things I never showed anyone. But for some reason, somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I was going to enter a short story writing competition. I had, the previous year, wanted to enter the one about Jesus looking through the window (I’m pretty sure it, and a similarly themed painting I did in art class, were inspired by a Pete Townsend song. I was a weird kid) but my teacher at the time told me, and I quote: “It’s not very good.”
Look, I’m sure she was right (this story did not survive the 80’s, much like my sisters purple, black and green Peter Pan boots which were stolen from me at a party, leading my friend Erich to have to carry me out to the car, leading me to fall in love with him, leading to a whole world of pain for me, him and his girlfriend, Rita). The story was probably crap, but “It’s not very good,” is hardly encouraging for a young writer who shows, if not exactly promise, then at least enthusiasm. But I overcame this minor setback, and armed with the things Mrs. Crooks taught me about conflict wrote The Seventh Grade and entered it into the province wide Permanent High School Short Story Contest.
Well, I won the contest. And that should have been a wonderful moment for me. My teachers were proud. The principal was proud. Hell, they announced it over the school PA. My parents were proud, and the prize was $500. In 1983, for a 16 year old girl with a fake ID, this was a lot of money. But it wasn’t a wonderful moment. It was a terrible moment, full of doubt and humiliation, because I didn’t think the story was very good. The story was later awarded another high school writing prize, published in two magazines, used as study materials in at least one school and translated, as I said, into Chinese and I think, included in a book of young Canadian writers published in China.
I still don’t think it’s very good. Read it and judge for yourself. Even for the 16 year old that I was, it’s shit. I kind of hate it. But most of all I hate what it did to me, because after that I didn’t write another short story for nearly ten years. I barely wrote another word. I was, in a word, mortified.
In about 1995 I wrote Hildegarde as a screenplay first. I re-drafted it once and sold the second draft to the first producer who read it. Then I won a national screenwriter development grant for it. I signed with a top agent. I got another development grant. I got a contract to write the novelization.
And I didn’t think it was very good. Don’t get me wrong. I like the movie, and the novel is kind of cute. But I don’t think it is very good. And I want to write something very good.
When you’re drawing with colored pencils, there comes a time when you just have to walk away from your drawing. You can’t erase, you can’t add anything else, you can’t color over mistakes. You just have to live with it the way it is. Even if you don’t think it’s very good. And to me, that’s not fair.
Writing for publication or production takes many things, perseverance, a thick skin, a certain madness, imagination, but above all courage. It takes courage to fill up your page with colored pencils, knowing there comes a point you can’t change anything. Knowing that you will be judged on your colors the way they turn out, not the way you imagine them. Knowing that you can only improve one drawing by starting another one.
We writers can change things, of course we can, but only until our work is published or produced. Then it’s out there. My first published short story contains the phrase “pierced my heart like a dagger”. My “debut” novel is a not very well written novelization of a children’s movie that went direct to DVD. Harper Lee’s debut novel was To Kill a Mockingbird .
Pass me the colored pencils. I’m starting another drawing.