Feeling like an Impostor

A few weeks ago, my editor at Ruminate asked if I’d be interested in reading submissions for their annual non-fiction contest.

Anyway, I agreed. Reading fiction submissions has been beneficial, so I looked forward to learning more about non-fiction writing. What I didn’t anticipate was this:

Feeling like an impostor.

Who was I to say what’s good non-fiction? What if a piece is simply not to my taste? What if I cut a strong essay that some other, more knowledgeable judge would put on their top ten list? What if I’m not a good enough judge? I know fiction so much better.

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Sometimes I think I came from the this factory!

I knew exactly where this sense of inadequacy was rooted. Years ago, someone (let’s call her Gretchen) used to pal around with me. When people heard that I was a writer and Gretchen was there, she would say,

“Laura’s a good fiction writer.”

That sounds complimentary.

But there was this slight emphasis on the word fiction, a delicate inflection of tone, one that conveyed a different message. Yes, Laura may be a good fiction writer but she’s not good at non-fiction. In her unstated but clear opinion, non-fiction was harder to write; writing a novel was all very well and good, but writing a scholarly book was harder and more important.

(Incidentally, both types of writing are difficult to do well. One is not inherently harder or easier than the other, though they require different skills. What’s easy is writing badly.)

I resented that. I wanted to grab the attention away from her—pluck the megaphone from her hands—and yell,

“I’m a damned good writer. Period. Scratch that, exclamation point. I can write anything I jolly well please!”

(Except poetry. It’s a beast of a different species. Anyone who can tame that wild creature has my admiration.)

Gretchen probably didn’t even realize there was an inflection in her voice. I also don’t think she ever read much of my non-fiction: not my blog, and certainly not my narrative essays, nor my master’s thesis or other academic works.

(One paper was published in an online undergraduate journal. The journal is defunct, but I believe my paper survives as a resource on a site that sells academic papers “for research purposes.” Yes, for $29.99, you too can download my paper on feminine identity in Sophocles’ Antigone and turn it in to your professor. I hope she gives me an A and flunks you. Just sayin’.)

My professors liked my work. And if writing a 100-page thesis (roughly 25,000 words, or one-third of my current novel) on annihilation in Moby-Dick couldn’t be considered difficult, then I’m not certain our definitions of “difficult” are the same, and maybe you haven’t read Melville’s masterpiece, either. Whales are scary.

In regard to her statement, I think I’ve gotten over the resentment—mostly—but the insecurity has remained. The fact that I had to prove my non-fiction credentials to you, my loyal readers, by citing a paper I wrote 16 years ago shows that I’m still dealing with it.

So when I began reading non-fiction submissions, I doubted myself. I read all of the assigned submissions, took notes on each one, intending to sort them into Yesses and Nos later. It was tough. But yesterday, as I was compiling my final top ten picks, I realized something.

Most of the essays were narrative. They told a story.

What makes a piece of narrative writing compelling is the same for both fiction and non-fiction. Polished writing. Original ideas. Emotional depth. Strong voice. A hook, a conflict, a turning point, a resolution (in tone, if not in the conflict).

The same problems in a weak short story were present in the weak essays. Misspellings. Odd punctuation. Confusion. Clichés. A sense that the piece wasn’t quite finished at the end; the last line didn’t have a finality to its tone.

Realizing this gave me a boost of confidence. I’m still more comfortable in the realm of fiction, but I’m not feeling quite so much like an impostor.           

Michelangelo explains his artistic mastery

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Coming from a genius like Michelangelo, those are powerful words.

And, yes, I cropped this photo from the original. I wanted the emphasis to be on the words, not the nudity!

Strong Women and Confident Men

Tim's Blog - Just One Train Wreck After Another

Confidence and Strength “One of the most underrated revealers of a man’s confidence and character is how he responds to a strong, intelligent woman.” Sharon Hodde Miller

If anyone is threatened by the strength God has given his people – women or men – it might indicate they lack confidence in him as well.

Those who belong to Jesus, though, are children of the Living God. Be confident in him because of that. He makes you stronger than you could ever imagine.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. … But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. … Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:25, 27, 31.)

People might not understand it, they might even think…

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Reading for depth

6ecab839eb5342c69f859cfb825b9f17As a writer, I try to read well. After all, that’s part of a writer’s work: read, read, read. I’ve always interpreted that advice to mean reading widely. Read lots of different authors, lots of different books, lots of different styles.

To a point, that’s good.

To a point.

Yesterday, I reached my tipping point.

I was sitting in the carpool line, reading a literary novel, when I suddenly thought, “I’m sick of this.” Yet another middle-aged bored housewife who starts an affair because she’s depressed.

Admittedly, the novel was inspired by Anna Karenina, which I enjoyed. And the prose was beautifully written. And it was (according to the blurb writers, all acclaimed authors themselves) brilliant.

I couldn’t stomach it.

On some level, I sympathize with a housewife feeling like an outsider in her community: she’s an American living in Switzerland who doesn’t speak German, and I’m a writer living in a tech-oriented community who doesn’t speak engineer.

But an affair? Really? She couldn’t do something productive: learn the language, volunteer, write a book, take up knitting, something akin to getting a life?

(Okay, before someone chews me out, I will clarify: yes, Anna is depressed, her mental illness is real, and someone who is depressed cannot necessarily just “get a life.” If Anna were a real person, I’d have more sympathy (but not a lot, because lying to your therapist, who is trying to help you, is self-defeating. And Anna lies about almost everything. Does she even want help?) In fiction, though, passivity is boring. And Anna is very passive; everything from her marriage to her pregnancy to living in a foreign country just “happens” to her without any interference from her. If I wanted to read the internal angst of a depressed person, I’d read my journals from high school and college; at least I’d know who the other “characters” were!)

I’ve read numerous literary novels with the bored-wife-begins-affair plot. (If all you did was read lit fiction, you’d think no one in the world is happily married!)

The plot points are different.

The characters live in different worlds.

The end is the same.

I’m tired of it.

I shut the book. It’s too depressing to read about some depressed person who ends up throwing herself under a train. (I read the end.) I had just finished reading Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, a page-turner with a negative, chilling tone about murder and cutting, among other things. I didn’t want to read another book with death and depression and depravity running through it. I needed something with hope and redemption.

In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna begins the book as a morally upright woman; she is devastated by her own actions when she and Vronsky begin their affair. She’s sympathetic. Plus, Tolstoy has other characters wrestling with big issues and coming to various conclusions; with 800+ pages to fill, he can afford to delve deep into more than just the Anna-and-Vronsky affair.

As the carpool line started forward and children raced to their vehicles, eager to tell their mamas and daddies about the school day, I wished I’d left the literary novel at the library and gotten Anna Karenina off my bookcase instead. Re-reading Tolstoy never hurt anyone.

Recently, Glimmer Train published a short essay by Anthony DeCasper in which he addressed what it means to read like a writer. It’s not enough to read widely; we need to read deeply. Deep reading requires time, attention, and multiple readings of the same texts.

“So choose a few books that have held the test of time and reread them, studying the design by asking the whys and hows from the perspective of design and audience.” (Anthony DeCasper, “On Reading for the Beginning Narrative Artist.”)

We should find the great works and study them carefully. Find those books that are worth our time. Dig deep. Pay attention. Study, absorb, analyze, take notes, apply the principles to our own work, do what it takes to benefit from their depth.

When I get home, I’m going straight to my bookcase and finding Anna Karenina. It may not be an easy read. But it’s one that is worth my time.

 

What makes your day better?

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The Anatomy of a Church Search

Dissection was never my favorite science lab. I appreciate the value of it in theory. Just don’t hand me the knife.

Still, sometimes a dissection is the best way to learn how things are structured—a frog, a pig, a human body—after that structure no longer serves its original purpose. So now that my family has found a new church home, I’ve been thinking about the structure and shape of our multi-year search. What worked? What didn’t? What did I learn, about God, myself, Christianity as practiced in my sliver of the cosmos?

It’s painful to remember.

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To begin: Watch our beloved church split. It was a bit like watching a person die, in that it was almost impossible to see the exact moment when our unity died. All I know is that one day, I woke up to find myself a stranger in my church. It was like someone had changed the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, and overnight I was an alien in a foreign country even though I hadn’t moved.

Grapple with questions. Uncertainty. Anger. And always, under it all, depression, one that threatened to cover me. Quit work on my third novel, mid-first draft. Contemplate taking down my blog. What’s the use?

Remain silent about my depressive episode at church. There was no one left to tell.

Realize that we need a new church.

Take a deep breath, make a game plan, consider where to visit. Hear invitations from friends:

“Come visit, we’d love to have you!”

Week 1, visit Church #1. Traditional service, older congregation. Feel the novelty of a different style of service, the warmth of greetings, and a jolt of relief at what is absent: talk about church conflict. My children are baffled by the organ and unfamiliar hymns.

Week 2, visit Church #2. Contemporary service, congregation based on small groups, not Sunday school. Feel rejected. Miscalculate driving time, arrive too early, and sit in a coffee-bar styled narthex for a long time. No one speaks to us. My children complain that the music was too loud.

Week 3, visit Church #3. Blended service. The church meets in an elementary school cafeteria. It’s a church plant from our old church, so we know some people. Feel welcomed. I wonder if this is it? Is this home?

Week 4, visit Church #4. This, too, is a plant from the old church, who partnered with several other congregations to start a church in this area of town. I enjoy the service, but my children complain about the loud music.

Week 5, revisit Church #3. We stay there for two-to-three months. It’s a long drive, and despite the apparent friendliness of the congregation, I have a hard time connecting.

Truthfully, I’m having a hard time overall. My previous life had revolved around home and church. I lost all my friends when the church split, and I didn’t have anything to mitigate my loneliness. I hadn’t grieved the split, the loss of friends, the loss of a place where I had felt accepted.

Back to Church #1. Stay there long enough to realize that we weren’t making friendships.

Go to house church. No. The less said, the better.

Go to Megachurch. Try four Sunday school classes before one class is friendly to us. We settle for the next few months. After a while, certain teachings ruffle my feathers (or, more accurately, pluck them out altogether). But where can we go that we haven’t already gone?

Another school year begins. The school system goes wonky and my previously school-loving kids come home each day whining, “We hate school.” At Christmas, we transfer the kids to a private school far away from our home. The transfer is a success: both kids make friends, are adequately challenged in their academic studies, want to be involved in extracurricular activities. But the drive is a hassle. The house goes on the market. Sells in a month. We move out one day, close on two houses the next, and move in a third day.

And I start looking for a church alone.

At some point, I look in the church directory published in our weekly newspaper. A full third of the area churches are Southern Baptist; another third are Church of Christ; the final third is an assortment of conservative denominations and non-denominational startups run by people younger than me.

Church #6 is recommended by my psychiatrist. It’s small-group based. That means that if you’re not in a small group, everyone will ignore you, even if you tell the smiling greeter that it’s your first time in the building. This happens two Sundays. So even though the preaching is excellent, I don’t return for a third visit.

Church #7 is recommended a new neighbor. It’s decent. But no one but my neighbor talks to me, and the sermon feels a bit more inspired by Guideposts than Scripture.

Church #8 is an unfamiliar denomination, with a liturgical service (a new thing for me) in an extremely small church. Even though everyone is friendly, there are hardly any children, and none that are my daughters’ ages.

Week Number-I-Lost-Count: I melt down after my husband and kids leave for the megachurch. I thought I would return to the liturgical church, but I can’t bear to walk into a building by myself again.

That week, my mother took takes the girls to the pool and meets a member of Church #3, who invites us back to that church. They’re moving into a building—no more sharing space with school cafeteria equipment—and our new house is close.

Why not?

And that’s where we have been for the past year-and-a-half.

It’s been three years since we started looking for a church. The kids like it, especially the almost-teenage girl. My husband works in the nursery and has friends there. Me?

I like the music.

I like the preaching.

I dread Sunday mornings.

But what other options are there? I won’t throw away 9/10ths of what I believe to attend a church that allows for female ordination. I agree with much of what this church teaches, but not everything. My husband has urged me to continue speaking up in Sunday school class.

“These men need to understand other points of view because they only see things from a white male perspective of privilege. You’re showing them alternate perspectives.

True.

But it’s hard to keep talking when I’m interrupted.

It’s irritating to have my words misunderstood.

It’s frustrating to keep talking when I know that if my husband isn’t around, then no one will openly side with me.

It’s lonely to walk into a Sunday school class filled with men who ignore me because I’m female and God forbid they make small talk with someone of the opposite gender! (Friendship is out of the question.)

It’s humiliating to continue speaking up when I’m not treated as an equal; to be treated as an ignorant child instead of a knowledgeable adult; to be told that if I believe in egalitarian principles, then I don’t take the Bible seriously.

They may need my perspective, but why do I have to feel beaten down afterward?

Now I understand why people quit church. I haven’t; I’m not attending Sunday school anymore, that’s all. But now I know why other people might walk away from church entirely.

 

P.S.: Two things I should make clear.

  1. This church does have good things going for it.
  2. I don’t expect to find a church that believes EVERYTHING I do; but I do want respect for my differing opinions, which aren’t that strange.

 

 

 

 

Am I repeating myself?

9f4a3a16481f4b32baa216b70914661fNow that I’ve written four novels (yikes! how’d that happen?), I’m starting to realize a problem that probably every fiction writer has. Repetition.

Character types. Themes. Plot points. Phrases.

It’s easy to accidentally repeat myself. Self-plagiarism creeps in and catches me unaware.

For example, I’m currently working on two different novels. (Numbers 3 & 4, if you’re counting.) In both novels, at certain points, the protagonist passes out; neither Kellyn nor Cady eat properly, and they skip too many meals and end up on the floor in a very public place. (Starbucks for one, a high school classroom for the other.) It’s embarrassing. Though it leads to different outcomes for the two, I got a distinct sense of déjà vu while I re-read the scene from the 3rd novel after I’d written the scene in the 4th novel.

I’m not certain what writer wrote this (it might’ve been Stephen King), but someone once said that if you’ve ever read it anywhere else, it’s cliché. It doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or Woolf or your own work. If it’s been written before, it is cliché.

I’m not certain I’d go that far. That writer might’ve been exaggerating a wee bit to make a valid point. It’s a caution to be mindful. Don’t grab the first image that comes into your mind. Don’t resort to the same weary phrases. Don’t mindlessly repeat the same story over and over and over.

That’s boring.

Another writer, Gore Vidal, said that every writer has a set number of character types.

Every writer has a given theater in his head, a repertory company. Shakespeare has fifty characters, I have ten, Tennessee has five, Hemingway has one, Beckett is busy trying to have none. You are stuck with your repertory company and you can only put on plays with them. (quoted by David Corbett on Writer Unboxed)

I’ve started seeing the limitations of my “repertory company,” too.

  • Overly-thin female with eating problems, smart but dealing with mental health issues.
  • Bossy but good-hearted best friend who helps the fashion-impaired female build her wardrobe.
  • The good guy love interest who respects the woman he’s wooing, usually a former Eagle Scout.
  • The older male authority figure who takes a fatherly interest in those under him.
  • The older female who is given to speaking her mind, sometimes with crude language, but genuinely cares for those around her.

Sometimes my “types” are split among different characters. The male authority might be both a sympathetic teacher and the antagonist, for example. But there’s definitely repetition, even if the relationships between the characters are different.

Freud might conjecture that the bossy but well-dressed BFF is a manifestation of my younger self’s desire for an older sister/friend to guide me through the mysteries of dressing my body type. The former Eagles Scout love interest? Let’s just say that my husband was an Eagle Scout, as was the college crush who inspired the protagonist’s husband in my 1st novel.

And do you really have to ask where the “overly-thin female with mental health issues” comes from?

Now that I’m aware that this is an issue, I am trying to work on it. I’m changing the fainting scene from book 3. It’s less important in this novel than it is in the next one, and it undercuts what happens later in the book. Which is where I’m off to now . . . back to work.

Two questions:

If you’re a fan of a particular author, have you noticed this issue in their work?

If you’re a writer, how do you combat this problem within your own work?