• Shan

PATHS TO WRITING & THE BEST ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED, PART 2

(Originally written for Creative Pinellas, as a Professional Artist Grantee!)


In a continuation of last week’s blog, I’d like to keep talking about stepping stones and butterfly effects. All those little things, seemingly small at the time, that build and grow and launch you exactly where you were supposed to be all along.


STEPPING STONE #5 I was in elementary school one day when I suddenly began feeling very sick. It got worse throughout the day until I finally caved and visited the school nurse. By that evening, I was fully hospitalized with a terrible case of pneumonia, and doctors said I would be under their care for at least a few days.


Hospitals are boring. And a little girl needs something to do.


I asked my dad to buy me a new notebook so I could continue writing my stories, and he was more than happy to oblige. What he didn’t know was that the stories I’d been writing were all about…sex.


I was about 11 years old, perhaps a bit younger, so no one could blame me for my curiosity. In those days, curious little boys might’ve scavenged their older brother’s bedroom for Playboy or Hustler, but girls are a bit different. Especially creative girls. In order to satiate my own curiosity, I drew (what were likely terrible) pictures, and wrote (which were undoubtably even worse) stories. Young though I may have been, I sure thought I was a big girl. These stories were graphic. Dirty. They were not romances. They were hardcore depictions of an innocent child’s interpretation of sex. And I had plenty of downtime in the hospital to let my creative freak flag fly.


On the last day of my hospital stay, I woke to my father standing over me…holding my notebook. I am a parent now, and can imagine he had a good laugh about it later. But at that moment, I thought my entire world had just collapsed to the ground. My parents were so mad. “This is what you write,” they said, “when we buy you a new notebook?”

I still don’t know whatever happened to that notebook. I’d give anything to see my first attempt at writing dirty stories. If only I had the confidence back then to laugh and say something like, “At least it’s fiction and not memoir.” Now that would’ve been a funny story.


STEPPING STONE #6 One day, my mother gave me a unique gift. She gave me the gift of swear words. I don’t recall being reprimanded throughout my childhood for swearing – probably because I was super stealthy – and this was a revolutionary idea for 14-year-old. Why would she do such a thing? you ask. My mother said she didn’t want to stifle my creativity in any way, and from that moment on, there would be no repercussion for using language however I saw fit. Not a common parental practice, for sure, but what did “common” ever do for anyone anyway?

Even though I’d been given her blessing, it still made me uncomfortable. My mother and I used to watch the musical, A Chorus Line, with ferocious frequency, and sing along to all the songs. The first time I ever tapped into my new acquisition was during the song, “Tits and Ass”. In years prior, I would sing the song, leaving out that final word of the chorus. And this time, as the first chorus came to its conclusion, I still hesitated. That’s when my mother looked at me, smiled, and said, “Go ahead.”

So I sang my heart out.


STEPPING STONE #7 The first novel I ever wrote was titled, Soliloquies. I began in 2012 and it was written entirely in…longhand.


I’m no luddite, but have always carried some “luddish” tendencies. I believed at the time that putting a real pen to real paper was the purest kind of writing. The only kind of writing. I was working at a design & print shop, and much of my day was spent at a desk, alone and unchaperoned by management who might pop their heads in once in a blue moon. So I wrote, notebook after notebook, in an effort to look busy. If I’m furiously scribbling on a notepad, surely I’m working, right? Yep. Just making notes for customers, Sir. Nothing to see here.


The entire first draft of Soliloquies, from first sentence to last, was written in pen. And while this is now a charming literary anecdote, I don’t recommend it. Everything was later transcribed by keyboard, but I still have all the notebooks. Soliloquies will always be special to me because it’s the first novel I ever wrote, and though I tried my best to land an agent with it, Soliloquies went nowhere. I pulled it out recently to give it an overhaul, and I have to say, it’s TERRIBLE! I officially apologize to my beta readers back then, and earnestly thank them for being kind enough to offer only a smile, and words of encouragement. That was very diplomatic of you all.


STEPPING STONE #8 About two months before I found my agent in 2020, I gave up writing. I’d just finished my second novel, Thieves Beasts & Men, but finding an agent had again eluded me. I was officially done. I had a lot of faith in myself and my writing, but had begun to believe I was delusional. This clearly wasn’t my path. So I considered alternatives.


I’ve always been fascinated with bacteria and disease (this had nothing to do with Covid, even though we’d just landed in the thick of it. I’ve been obsessed with ebola and other fun afflictions since I picked up The Hot Zone as a teenager), so I decided to give up this whole writing fiasco and go back to school for something else entirely. Cellular Biology. I’d always regretted not going into research medicine. Perhaps a tall order for a high school dropout, but nothing is ever truly impossible. In another life, I would’ve been a research doctor, toiling away in the lab, surrounded by test tubes and notes, staining bacteria under a microscope.

The week that my first payment was due to the college, I had a bit of a mental breakdown. I’d already begun my third book, Bands of a Small Hurricane (forthcoming), and was having trouble with this new decision. Once I started school, writing would be shelved indefinitely. I was trading one dream for another.


About a year before this moment, I taught myself to read Tarot. It had always fascinated me, so when I stumbled into a large amount of free time, I invested all my energy into learning this unique art/skill/ability. The day before payment was due to the college, I was still undecided. Maybe I should just finished that damn book. Or maybe I should leave it all behind. So I left my future to fate, and I read the cards.


First, I laid down the Hierophant to represent knowledge. Beside it, I laid down the Six of Cups to represent nostalgia, since Hurricane was essentially a coming-of-age story set in the 1960s. I then placed three cards atop each of these to give an overview of each distinct choice. I remember laughing out loud to myself because my path was so crystal clear it was comical.


The very next day, I canceled my enrollment and got back to the real work. Because when you ask fate to show you the path, you have to follow, otherwise she may not show up the next time you need her. And that’s how Tarot saved my career.


THE BEST WRITING ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED Let’s backtrack. It was about ten years ago, in the days just before I began Soliloquies. It was New Year’s Day. I was with a friend and I was terribly depressed because I felt wasn’t doing the one thing I was put on this earth to do. When asked what that was, I said, “I was supposed to be a writer.”


Prior to this conversation, I’d not written much. A few poems in my teenage years. A short story or two, dirty and otherwise. But stringing together long storylines and interweaving concepts, themes and characterization had proved more challenging than I’d expected. Being an author was something I’d wanted since childhood, but had done very little in the way of making those dreams come true. It was just too….hard.


This friend was not a writer in any sense of the word. But sometimes it takes an outsider to deliver the cold, hard truth. After I confessed out loud that I was supposed to be a writer, my friend looked at me like I was an idiot (which perhaps, in hindsight, is not far from the truth), and then delivered the words I’ll never forget. The words that changed my entire life. She said, “Then write a book.”


So I did.