Sunday, August 09, 2009

Mistakes, I've made a few

By David Heinzmann

Marcus' launch party for The Amateurs the other night was a great event, but the best part for me was the new sensation of walking in and immediately feeling at home.

Over the years, I've been pretty self-conscious about writing. Most of my colleagues at the Tribune--even good friends--had no idea I was writing fiction until I told them last summer that my novel was going to be published. It's just not something I advertised. I didn't belong to a writer's group and I didn't have many fiction-writing friends. I figured I'd come out of the closet when I had something real to show for it.

I know this is a deeply flawed approach. One of the ways you improve as a writer, moving toward having something to show for it, is to get out there and let people examine your work--talk about it, tear it to shreds, hear their suggestions, and generally commiserate about how nothing's ever going to come of it.

Why did I avoid all that? I have a handful of excuses, both painful and petty. I've mentioned before that I had an extraordinary writing teacher and mentor in college, A.E. Claeyssens. The summer after I graduated, just as I was setting out to take a year to finish a novel I'd started in his class, he became ill and died. He had been chronically ill for years with complications from liver failure. But he'd lived with so much adversity and pain, his students had come to feel he was industructible. I was devastated. I should have gone out and found some place to be heard, and read, and moved on. But I was crushed and instead retreated inward, feeling nobody would understand the book like he did. I wrote on, but in a funk. When I finished the rough draft I was exhausted and deluded myself into thinking I'd finished something. It withered and died.

When I moved to Chicago a few years later to take a newspaper job, I started writing again and joined a seminar, led by the editor of a literary journal. But it was a lousy experience. The other writers all had long relationships with the instructor, and it felt like they were all picking up a conversation that had merely paused at the end of the last seminar. I found the whole thing cliquish and off-putting. Oh, and they hated my stuff.

Eventually, the crime and corruption I was covering in my day job started to reverberate a little more forcefully in my mind and I began to write crime fiction. I found some safe harbors in which to open those early pages, including falling in love and marrying a woman who was an English major before she became a social worker. A couple of reporter buddies, and a lawyer friend I've known since high school were also supportive and constructive readers. They all helped me shape my voice and sharpen my stories.

I was thinking about all this the other night at Marcus' party. My wife and I walked in late because I'd been on deadline with a whopper of a story for the paper, and I was a little apprehensive that I wouldn't know anybody and we'd just stand in the corner sipping a beer, say hey to Marcus and then slink home. (With a freshly signed hardcover, of course.) But the first person I saw was a novelist I know, Bryan Gruley. The we spotted a reporter I know, who introduced us to the writer with whom he was hanging out. I felt like I belonged there. It was a lot of fun, and gratifying after years of more or less hiding the fact that I was writing fiction in my spare time.

So this is a little bit of the dysfunctional arc of my writing path. I'm interested in other folks' struggles along the way, especially those who are still working toward that first story that makes it over the wall and into a cover. Do you seek solace and support in groups, a few trusted people, or are you going it alone? What's set you back, and what are the moments that have kept you going?

And now back to the news. I mentioned I was on a big deadline last Thursday that made me late for the party. It was for this: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-olympics-real-estate-07-aug07,0,4603832.story?obref=obnetwork

Over the last six months I've branched out from crime reporting and I'm covering Chicago's bid to win the 2016 Olympics. It's starting to get interesting. Tempers are flaring. If you read through the link above, then watch this video to see what I mean about tempers: http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=6954328

And finally, read these, Kass on Daley's blowup: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-kass-09-aug09,0,2011958.column and my Sunday story on the fallout:http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-olympic-real-estate-09-aug09,0,6571115.story I know it's a lot but you're all excellent readers with curious minds.

5 comments:

Christopher said...

I can't even begin to go through all the mistakes that i have made over the years. So I started blogging about them instead.

I will say that I walked away from writing for a decade and the first time I did it all alone, which I think was a terrible mistake for me.

I just didn't have great self esteem when it came to my writing. I worked for a newspaper at a very young age and hated it. I never showed anyone my fiction. I wrote, I submitted, I was rejected, I quit.

After years of feeling like I had made a terrible mistake walking away from something I loved so much, I started slowly writing again.

This time I went with the route of finding people who would be honest and constructive. I needed feedback. I needed to know if there was anything there.

I am still trying to make it over the wall but I did finish my first novel. I am half way through the second and just now starting to send the first one out to agents.

I am not really worrying about the results this time. I enjoyed writing it so much that I will never walk away again. I might have 40 unpublished novels when I die but I will have them.

Dana King said...

I've belonged to a writers group for aver tne years now. My style of writing has evolved away from the group's taste, but I've continued to grow because I thought it kept me writing.

A few months ago the traffic and driving required to get to and from groups had worn me down until I dreaded going into work on the second and fourth MOndays of each month, so I took some time away. Sure enough, i've done less writing this summer than I have in years. Some of this can be explained away by external events (my daughter's high school graduation and college preparations, a home improvement project that has become a massive time sink), but I find my writing easier to skip because I have no place to take it.

I'm still deciding whether this is good or bad. Ive re-discovered some simple pleasures writing has kept me away from, and it's not like I ave any real deadlines. I'm just passing along the comment because it becomes clearer every day that the group does serve a key role in keeping my ass in the seat.

Matt Farmer said...

Covering Mayor Daley's pursuit of the 2016 Olympics? Sounds like a blast. The storylines just keep getting crazier.

In any event, please enjoy "Good King Rich," my recent musical statement on Hizzoner's crusade:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4v5ihLlYKQ

GOOD KING RICH (Matt Farmer)

(Spoken Intro)
This is an open letter to the International Olympic Committee:

As you travel the world these next few months
Being wined and dined in five-star restaurants
In Madrid, Tokyo, and Rio De Janeiro, remember this:

You're upholding the proud tradition of your predecessors,
Many of whom allegedly accepted bribes
In exchange for awarding the 2002 Winter Games
To that paragon of urban virtue - Salt Lake City, Utah

(Chorus)

Well, you can scrap that bid from old Madrid
Say adios to Spain
And just say no to Tokyo
With its fancy bullet train

And if you're ill at ease speakin' Portugese
Then Rio ain't your town
Oh, but Good King Rich, he'll scratch your itch
When he throws that cash around

(Verse)

Well, some folks say that it don't make sense
To hold the Games in the 312
They say our city's broke; schools are a joke
Well, friends, that just might be true

Oh, but Good King Rich, he'd rather fight than switch
You know how the story's gonna end
With all the King's family and all the King's friends
Lining their pockets again and again

(Repeat Chorus)

(Verse w/ tag)

From the two-flats and the bungalows
We applaud his every scheme
From a tax increase to a parking meter lease
He's helping us live the dream

Now with a wave of his hand and a line in the sand
He's gonna bring the Olympics home
So damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead
He's gonna get us a velodrome

We can't pay for salt when there's ice on the streets
But at least we'll have a velodrome

(Repeat Chorus (w/ tag))

Yeah, Good King Rich, he's gonna scratch your itch
When you bring those games to town

Adam Bourgoin said...

David, I know exactly where you're coming from. I'm not in a writers group, VERY few of my coworkers know what I'm doing (I work for an insurance company so I don't have fellow writers around me) and none of my family knows except for my wife.

It's not that I'm apprehensive, or I fear rejection, I just think that for the first time, maybe it's better to just be a little introverted. I do have a couple VERY carefully selected people reading as I write and the feedback is phenomenal.

I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to be "hiding" the fact that you are writing a crime fiction novel. I just think it's the way to go for some people, myself being one of them.

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