This weekend I am going to a writing seminar, the first I’ve attended in years. On Saturday night I will go to a banquet where the winner of the Royal Palm Literary Award will be announced. I am one of three finalists in the memoir category.
I am not particularly excited or anxious about the results. I’m just going to see what happens. This particular contest fills me with memories and reflection and serves as a poignant reminder that life can be filled with important lessons, the kind of lessons that must be viewed through an honest lens.
I won the Royal Palm Literary Award ten years ago for the first full book I ever wrote, a historical romance called SISTERS OF FATE (the book was renamed more than once during a long, slow evolution.) I was thrilled beyond belief, except for the fact that my husband and I had a fight after the awards ceremony. He felt I didn’t thank him enough during my moment on stage and the focus of my winning this exciting award was quickly diverted from my writing and personal accomplishment, to his feelings that he was not appreciated enough or given enough credit for his part in my success. In retrospect, his needing to be given credit for anything and everything I did and his having to be the center of attention was a common theme in our marriage and not something I will get into here. But because of that memory, I know that when or if they call out my name tomorrow night, my delight will be dampened by the nagging resonance of my disappointment and hurt over a 20 year love affair that was completely out of balance. Memories and the baggage we can’t seem to put down are a bitch. While some people can shrug and move on easily from a broken past, for others, the sorrows of a failed life linger like ghosts making the hair stand up on your arms for reasons you can’t quite explain. I fall into the latter category. Sigh.
Writing. What a journey it’s been.
Winning this particular award way back when gave me something much more important than an ego rush. Dumbo was handed a feather and told that as long as he held it, he could fly. Damn if the elephant didn’t take to the air after that, convinced he could defy gravity just because someone gave him a symbol proclaiming his potential. Confidence is a wonderful thing.
I had been dabbling in romance writing for some time. I’ve wanted to write since I was a child, and in those tender years when I was expected to pick a career, I came darn close to going to school for journalism, but dance had such a grip on my heart and had a short shelf life, I moved to New York to pursue that dream instead. Still, I clung to the notion that when dance was done with me, I’d tackle the writing dream. I held that plan close to my heart for as long as I could remember and years of writing articles for magazines and journaling privately while I worked as a dancer kept writing a vibrant hope for me.
I opened a dance studio out of necessity to support myself way back when I first moved to Sarasota as a single mom, and some ten years later when it at long last became stable enough to afford me snippets of time and energy I could allocate towards something other than survival, I started writing fiction again. I wrote romance for reasons I won’t go into here, but to be honest, I was living vicariously on paper. My personal life was greatly devoid of physical intimacy, but I loved and adored my husband, so I found myself acting out, having the affair of the century with a complex, handsome man who lived in 1847 England. He was sexy and had ethics and absolutely loved his woman with conviction. He was everything I longed for, and the romance I plunged into on paper provided me with the passion and tenderness I needed and lacked in my real life. Acting out on paper was a good thing, because it won me the Royal Palm Literary Award for Historical Fiction. In that way it is fair to say my husband WAS the reason that book won the award, because sheer loneliness and isolation in my marriage drove me to write the dang thing.
Anyway, I won the award and, with it, a lovely burst of confidence, but selling a book is much harder than writing one, especially when you are unwilling to make compromises and write books that are format friendly for the genre publishing arena. I suppose I could have plowed on and eventually made enough adjustments to the book to get the dang thing published, but I chose to go another direction. If everyone was so convinced I had talent (I kept hearing this from teachers and agents and publishers who felt the book needed more work, but the “writing” was deeply promising) and if I was winning awards on sheer talent without so much as a lick of training, imagine what I could do if I seriously studied the craft! I didn’t want to be a published author. I wanted to be a GOOD published author. So, I applied for some very competitive MFA programs and low and behold, was accepted by Lesley University in Boston.
I got my acceptance notification on the very day we received an offer from someone to buy our business. Fate was giving me a sign, I thought, so I readily and willingly let go of dance to embrace the second dream. I had worked hard for 20 years building a business at great personal cost, and now I had earned the right (and enough money) to retire and try my hand at something that meant the world to me. At least, that is how I viewed the choice to sell FLEX and walk away from my dance career at the time.
The rest of the story is told in my memoir, My Million Dollar Donkey, which may or may not win the very same award that started it all. Life has a twisted sense of humor sometimes. I did all I could to get my ducks in a row to achieve this latent dream, but my chance was stripped away by someone with a different agenda. It was a bit like Jack in the Beanstalk, selling the cash cow for a handful of beans. Only in our case, Mark didn’t plant the beans in rich soil so a towering beanstalk leading to another world would rise from his choices. His choices were not out of character for him and after a 20 year history of watching him make similar mistakes, I should never have expected things to unfold differently. What happened next makes for a sad and miserable personal life story, but a good book – one that just might be good enough to win me the Royal Palm Literary Award again. There is good in everything, I suppose.
Anyway, this weekend I will sit there in a room with other aspiring writers and while I should be gaining inspiration, my mind will no doubt slip to the dream that almost was, the man I loved more than I ever should have, and everything I endured to lead me to my writing this memoir.
I worked like a dog to get through my MFA program, harboring a wonderful anticipation that when I was through, I’d be ready and able to pursue a writing career full steam. But no sooner did I have the skill and the education to follow “the plan” than life took a turn and my entire world fell apart. Instead of love and happiness and the happy, creative life that was right within grasp, my life became a nightmare of financial stress, isolation and loneliness. Voila – I landed back where I began 20 years prior, a single mother needing to open a business to support herself out of necessity, (and this time with far fewer resources and time to accomplish the deed than when I began last time.) Sadder still is that this time, I am dragging that heavy bag too – a bag that I continually strive to let go, but seems chained to my wrist, a perpetual warning that love takes more away from your life than it gives – or at least that has been my experience. (And now we know why this girl can’t write romance anymore.)
Maybe I’ll win the award this weekend. Maybe I won’t. It doesn’t really make a difference. What counts is that life often comes full circle, giving you opportunity to see behind you without your having to turn around or walk backwards to see where you’ve been. This award is symbolic in that way, a tangible reminder that dreams never die, they just get buried or sidetracked or chained up by someone else so that no matter how much you do to give them their darnest shot, they may never get the space to breathe.
I will meet with two agents on Sunday. They will probably ask to see the book, they always do, because it is impolite and awkward to sit fact to face with a hopeful writer and say no. I understand that nothing may come of the opportunity, but there is always the long shot chance. Because of my personality, I have no choice but to hang in there, throwing darts, because someday, eventually, I believe if I keep writing and winning awards and hoping and dreaming, someone will say “yes” and one of my books will at long last manifest on paper. When that happens, I have every confidence that, thanks to my grit, determination and natural gift for business, the story will sell well. That, in turn, will affect my teaching, my career; my attitude and most importantly, it will give purpose to all I’ve endured and explain why my life has unfolded in such challenging ways. That would be the best gift of all.
It is not enough to be a good writer. What counts is that you have something of value to say. Having a voice that resonates with the world at large begins with a broadened perspective of the human experience. Life certainly gave me that.
This weekend, I’ll be remembering every step I’ve had to take in this long painful journey to get where I am now . . . right back where I began. Bags in tow.