by Karen L. Hogan
In 1976, I took an eight-week trip to Europe to prove I was more than a 27-year old divorced administrative assistant with an English degree.
In Arles, I met and fell in love with a Canadian. He was going through a divorce; I was a few years down the road from mine, but still confused. We both liked Hemingway.
He followed me to Paris where we drank scotch and smoked little cigars and strolled along the Seine in the footsteps of Papa Hemingway. The night before I left to return to San Francisco, wrapped in sheets in a Latin Quarter hotel, I wept at the beauty of our love. He burst into tears. He hadn’t left his wife because she stifled his Hemingway-inspired commitment to grace under pressure. She had left him. And he was still in love with her.
Here’s what was good about that trip. Somewhere in the South of France, as I wrote in my journal, I had a revelation that I was a writer. I had something to say, and I wanted to find out what it was. Back home, by day, I was still an administrative assistant, but at night, imagining myself in a Paris apartment, I drank scotch, smoked little cigars and wrote about romances going badly.
I never have been very fond of hard liquor. And I don’t smoke. I ended up with headaches, bad breath, and drafty drafts.
But, it’s what I had to do to convince myself that I was a writer. I had a steamer trunk full of a family-given identity that I carried with me: girls weren’t writers. Girls cleaned kitchens and took care of everyone else. What could they possibly have to write about? But wasn’t it cute that they tried. Now get back to the kitchen.
I continued to write over the years, became a bartender so I could write during the day, and then a technical writer. But still, I whispered the word writer in sentences that began “I am a …”
In 2005, married to a loving man to whom I didn’t have to whisper writer, I finally got the nerve to send my writing out into the world. My husband asked someone he know in the industry if he could recommend an agent for me.
Sure, the man said. Have her send me some of her writing.
Two months later on an otherwise lovely Sunday morning, I received his email. There was nothing compelling or original about anything I wrote, he assured me. He was truly sorry my mother had ever been born because if she hadn’t been born then I wouldn’t have been born, and he would not have had to read my meaningless drivel.
Okay, he didn’t say that stuff about my mother in so many words. But he implied it.
Two days later, I scraped myself off the floor, printed his email, put it through a paper shredder and, with love in my heart and peace in my soul, listened to his screams as I imagined him burning along with the shredded paper I threw into the fireplace.
Here’s what was good about that episode. I faced my primal fear. He told me I had nothing to say. I didn’t believe him. I did have something to say. I went to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival that summer, and then returned each summer for five years. It taught me how to own myself as a writer. And so I became a better one.
I was sailing along, comfortable in my skin as a writer. Then, this past year, I listened to a Bill Moyers’ interview with Louise Erdrich. Here she was, a successful writer who had endured years of rejection letters. How, he wondered, could anyone continue to write after getting rejection after rejection.
It plunged me into a funk. How could I call myself a writer if I wasn’t published, and how could I ever get published if I wasn’t willing to go through the gauntlet of rejections. I was on the verge of whispering writer to finish the sentence “I am a …”
Instead, I asked myself three questions.
Am I a writer? Since I write, I answered yes.
Ah, but am I a successful writer? I thought, well, I write the stories I want to tell, and I write until I get them right. So, yes, I am a successful writer.
So, why do I want to get published? And then it came to me – because I have something to say, and I want to share it.
Here’s what was good about that dive into the abyss. As clear as the revelation that I was a writer enlightened me in the South of France some thirty years ago, it came to me that while getting rejection notices might deter me from sending things out for publication, it would not stop me from writing. Getting published is just a matter of beating the odds, a chore to complete. Send enough pieces out and eventually, something will be published. And then I will be a published writer. My life will be pretty much the same as it is now.
I write because I feel compelled to write and I write until I get it right. That makes me a writer. And, I can say it out loud.
Karen Hogan writes short stories, literary nonfiction, essays and poetry. She is currently working on her first novel. She has hosted a literary salon for the past seven years, a place where writers come to read their own writing and listen to others. She has published five anthologies that have come out of the salon. She has directed and performed in staged readings of short stories and The Vagina Monologues, and has appeared in The Diviners. As she wrote in a poem several years ago, Karen writes to make herself right with the world, to feel the truth that life is neither just, nor right, but a story unfolding in the order just right. You can read more of Karen’s work at the Writing Shed.