How it’s supposed to work. How it really works: A Guest Post by Jo-Ann Mapson

When I was a kid I learned very quickly that I had a flair for writing rhyming poems, short stories and description (I’m embarrassed to say how descriptive I used to be.  You’d need a rake to get through my early efforts.).  Such talent got me out of homework assignments, placed in “gifted” classes where I did absolutely no work, and best of all, my writing made people laugh.  At that time other girls my age were deep into Tiger Beat and Seventeen Magazine.  Not me.  I read Mad Magazine, loved the comics where writers took well-known songs and made up hilarious lyrics.  I knew that was my job, waiting for me as soon as I finished the hell that was grades 1-12.  I’d write funny things and send them to that great-unknown address only writers knew about, where they were printed and enjoyed by my fellow miscreants.  Plus, I’d get a check back in the mail! 
Still waiting on that one.
Imagine my surprise when writing turned out to be so much harder than being funny.  And the money part—let’s not go there.  I freely admit that I thought my first novel (soundly rejected for years) would earn me enough to buy a beachfront property and a chestnut horse I’d been riding at the stables near my house.  But thankfully that novel is now in a box somewhere moldering.  I typed it by hand on a typewriter I was paying for by the month.  Agony then, but lessons I now consider gifts.  The truth is that most writers never give up their day jobs and maybe that isn’t so bad a way to live.  It certainly makes you take advantage of those precious allotments of writing time.  It’s hard to write, and I think it should be.  I won’t invoke the adage that only things that are difficult are truly appreciated, but I will say that serious effort creates wonderful products.  I love the hateful process.  I always think of a sculptor chiseling away at rock, dust in his hair, how slowly the lump eventually turns into a recognizable object.  Next time you’re in a museum, or walking around downtown, stop and look at a sculpture.  It came from nothing but an idea.  Imagine how long it took for the idea to become the object. 
Holy cow.
When I sold my first novel (the second one I wrote) I was given a contract for another, yet unwritten novel.  The first thing the editor wanted to know was what was it about.  Right then, on the phone. I stammered and made up a plot that surprisingly turned out to be quite accurate and that was Blue Rodeo, which is my favorite book, if a writer is allowed to have one.  I still think about that sometimes, how the subconscious is such a massive part of writing.  How it knows things I don’t.  The same thing happened with The Owl & Moon Café.  My literary agent called, waking me up (Alaska time and New York time have never been compatible) and said, “Quick, tell me the story for another plot, because they don’t like the one you sent,” and that’s how I embarked on that novel.  The title and everything was right there.  I pester my MFA students to tell me about their own subconscious moves, and beg them to articulate the role intuition takes in writing.  It’s such an intimate skill, yet so vital to making a story.    
In my early imaginings of what a writer does, besides sit at a desk and type into the void until something happens, was that the writer knows the germ when they type it.  That turned out to be true.  If only it were a matter of cultivating that knowledge and thus making the act of writing happen much more quickly and efficiently!  Alas, many pages are written that never see the light of day in pursuit.  Instead the writer writes and writes, tries to come up with something she does not hate, and that is what a novel ends up being, something not entirely hateful and not entirely embarrassing.  Eventually after moving commas around, it’s “done” and off it goes to the reader, the agent, the editor, or the drawer where far too many novels sit.
And then what?  The process begins all over again—that is, if you wish to write a second novel, or a third, or an eleventh—and many of those end up in the file drawer, too.
Why write?  It’s a foolish act.  Impractical.  The time I spend writing takes away from much more entertaining activities, such as going to the movies and talking walks and yet I always find time for shopping.  Less and less people read.  I have never found an activity that makes me feel as whole as writing.  I sit down at the computer, open a blank document, and all I have to do is type words!  I’m a terrible gardener.  I can’t sew or knit.  My husband took over cooking when we moved to Alaska and is much better at it than I am.  But damn, can I write a story. 
A former student writes about our November featured author Jo-Ann Mapson here.  

1 thought on “How it’s supposed to work. How it really works: A Guest Post by Jo-Ann Mapson”

  1. "I have never found an activity that makes me feel as whole as writing." How true, and thanks for putting it into words for me!

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