Omphaloskepsis for the Midlife Writer: Finish Your Novel

BlogHer Original Post

The ghosts of novels past are coming to me nightly, paging me daily. They come as my own voice poking me to finish what I once started, but a few days ago a more unnerving ghost appeared, and her presence was louder and clearer than any self-recrimination. Her name was Elsie B. Washington.

Elsie is credited as the first African-American romance novelist to write and sell a romance novel with a black hero and heroine. Her novel, Entwined Destinies, was published under the name Rosalind Welles by Dell in 1980. She only wrote one. Elsie died in a geriatric home in Manhattan at age 66 last month from cancer and multiple sclerosis.

She would never have known this, but she has followed me around for the last 26 years. While others are writing about her death as author of a first, I remember her as a flesh and blood, attractive black woman with cropped natural hair, a poised and polished writer more than 15 years my senior who I met at a romance writers convention in the early 80s.

I went because of the buzz that publishers like Dell and Harlequin were interested in publishing African-American romance novels. While hers was the first, I don't think either of us grasped the implications of what she'd accomplished. She shared with me concern that her publishers were still a little skittish. Her book, Entwined Destinies, had sold 25,000 copies, and Dell was disappointed, hoping it would have sold more.

"But it seems 25,000 is not bad for the first," she said to me.

I told her that considering most African-American women weren't even aware that anyone had published a "black romance novel," 25,000 copies were good indeed. Her novel may have sold more copies later. I don't know.

As I studied her next to me, I saw a woman who was living the life I'd dreamed I'd live since I was child. She was a writer for Newsweek magazine, which to me made her a black goddess. She'd cracked a ceiling working for a major mainstream magazine, while I had gotten married, left college, had a baby, and put my life on hold.

But I was at this conference hoping I could write a romance novel. God knows I had started more than one, and had read enough of them to possibly write one in my sleep. In addition, I was a member of a romance writers group in Charlottesville, Va., which is how I'd heard about the convention in the first place. I'd also taken a class at U.Va., not for romance novel writing but for non-genre fiction. A woman who'd earned her MFA in the school's prestigious creative writing program taught the course, and I knew you could move on to take classes in the MFA program without a bachelors if you submitted your work and was deemed talented enough.

Hearing that I wanted to enter the program, the teacher told me to go for it, but as far as she was concerned my fiction was already "better" than some of the people graduating from the program, she said. That made me feel good, and I'm not telling you that to brag, but to say that she was one in a line of people to come who would make similar observations about my fiction writing, and yet I never cracked down and dedicated myself to fiction the way I'd always thought I'd do.

Later my family moved from Virginia, northward, and then moved again farther south than Virginia to a place where I finished my degree. One semester was paid by a fiction writing scholarship. I'd decided to apply at the last minute and wrote the winning short story, which was later published, in one night. The man who made the decision to award the scholarship to me said, "I think if you'd keep writing and start submitting your work, you'll be published."

WOW! I thought, and then when I took a literature course through him and realized that he was one of the pickiest English professors I've ever known (he only read books that had managed to stay in bookstores for at least 10 years, I think), I remembered his vote of confidence in my fiction and danced on a cloud a little longer.

And we moved again and the next person to tell me something similar to the professor was a published novelist who used to work at the William Morris Agency. Oooh, pat me on the back six ways to Sunday. But again, I didn't settle down and finish anything, and I've got excuses.

First, I would like to blame my ex-husband, next motherhood and sickness and death of loved ones, add hormonal imbalances, Hurricane Katina wiping out New Orleans, and the number of angels who dance on a pinhead, but I can't do that. Nevertheless, my biggest excuses are some my fellow writers may recognize: Fear, worry, and the tendency to over-analyze, seeing every flaw in my work and the worst possible outcome around every corner. For me the worst outcome is to find out I've spent my life working toward a goal but will die self-deluded, believing that I had a talent I never possessed. Yes, it's sad, but here I am 49 still worrying more about what others will think, that I look like a fool in others' eyes. I would rather cringe in my corner than follow my passion. Critics be damned.

See, I'm one of the people who watches American Idol and thinks, "Oh, my! Can't that person hear that she can't sing." As people laugh and call these folks idiots, I concede that they are indeed victims of self-indulgence and folly. I am the person who picks up the self-published novel and feels sorry for the poor sucker that got taken by the vanity press and embarrassed herself, revealing to the world her ignorance of grammar, flat characters, and penchant for predictable denouement.

Later I've been surprised to see these same authors get picked up by "real" publishing houses after proving somebody will read their books. Some of them have improved, some have not. Am I the dupe of a snobbish literary education?

This post will continue next week with "If it's Bad News for the Writer, My Mind's a Trap."

Until then, I leave you with Sesame Street's Don Music, who channels the voice of the fearful writer, and I'm sorry to say, sometimes I may think just like him.

 

 

Blogger's Note: O.K., all right. I can see it's killing you because if you're a writer, you probably have varying levels of word obsession. Omphaloskepsis from Dictionary.com: noun ... contemplation of one's navel as part of a mystical exercise." It pays to watch the national spelling bee.

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer Contributing Editor who also writes at Examiner.com.

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