The Song of Writing

It took me a long time to believe I could write. I’ve always enjoyed biographies and have read numerous lives of authors who lauded an educator in adolescence as their source of inspiration—a flash of insight burst forth while reading lines of dead poets: Shakespeare, Emerson, Dickinson, Keats. But no such teacher manifested for me in my teens or twenties (that would come later). For me, the muse bloomed with poetical songwriters of my generation: Smokey Robinson, Johnny Rivers, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Carol King.

But it was my father, an encyclopedia salesman, who first planted the melodic seed. Filled with wanderlust, he never stopped traveling. Life with Daddy was spent in the backseat of a book-laden car, absorbing adventurous yarns, chirping along to Peter, Paul, and Mary. My Kentucky-born father crooned Stanley Brothers’ tunes and recited “The Raven.” Poe blended into a folk song of enchantment. So it was in the backseat of Daddy’s Ford Thunderbird (where my sisters and I hid kittens and candy) that I fell in love with the imagery of words, the rhythms of poetry, the song of writing.

But falling in love was easy. Hard was to realize I wanted to write. Harder was to believe that I could. The writers I craved were distinguished professors of the humanities. Columbia University PhDs or graduates and teachers of MFA programs; I had no degrees. I dropped out of high school, hitchhiked from the Louisiana bayous to the Oregon coast, picked beans on a farm, married young (and often) and birthed a family. But I grew restless for something unknown to me.

So I went to college in my thirties. I never finished. But now I could lay claim to teachers of literature and writing who encouraged me. Into my forties I continued to read and to study: The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Glimmer Train, and—yes—Writer’s Digest (long before I ever met Jane Friedman). Circled words, underlined phrases and sentences, lists of definitions littered the backs of my books and magazines. I studied libraries on writing and punctuation, even The Chicago Manual of Style.

When I began to write narrative, my restlessness ceased. But did I believe in my ability? The stories I wrote were printed and stuffed into folders and drawers. A few were lost on an old hard drive. Yes, I was still intimidated by the MFAs and PhDs and only wrote for friends and family. But even with their praise, I did not believe in my ability. Belief would have to wait. (And to make things worse, I was about to turn fifty.)

Unable to submit my stories, I printed business cards and worked as a freelance editor. I excelled at spotting clients’ errors, picking apart proposals and briefs. Red ink pen in hand changed me. It improved my writing by opening my eyes to writers’ mistakes. Taught me that writing is a place I can never be impatient or lazy. For a writer must never stop learning. As for intimidation, it has started to slip away. Because now I know it’s hard work that conjures words into music and not a degree.

Here are two verses my father would often sing. I’ve started to wonder if he knew that one day (years after his passing) the lyrics would serve to sustain me. I can still hear his voice

If I had the wings of an angel

O’er these prison walls I would fly

I would fly to the arms of my lover

And there I would lie till I die

Oh, meet me tonight in the moonlight

Meet me tonight all alone

For I have a sad story to tell you

It’s a story that’s never been told

Researching this old ballad, I found as many versions as strings on three guitars. So I stuck to the only two verses and lyrics my father taught me when I was only two or three. It took me nearly fifty years to grasp that as a writer “belief” is like an angel’s wings. If you, too, struggle to believe in your writing ability, I hope this will inspire you to grow some wings and tell your stories.

About Jane Friedman

Former publisher of Writer's Digest.
This entry was posted in Guest Posts for Writer's Digest. Bookmark the permalink.

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