Family Portrait

Kathleen, Leigh, Matt, and Jim Muller on the top of Pike's Peak.

I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend. I think I may be a writer, but I am too afraid to voice those words. I have nothing to go on, only a feeling, some terrible poems I wrote in sixth grade, a few decent essays in high school and college, and again, this tug to pick up a pen and write.

Perhaps even stronger than my need to write is the responsibility I feel as that wife, mother, daughter, friend. Writing takes hours a day; when I’m not physically putting down words, I am writing them in my head. What starts out as a tug turns into an embrace and I don’t feel I can be this selfish with my time.

So everything else, everyone else, comes first.

But at 2 am, the feeling isn’t a tug; it’s a drill sergeant shaking me awake. Characters flick on the overhead light in my brain and I can no longer sleep for the glare and the noise. They grab my hands and pull. Careful not to wake my husband, I slip out of bed and take a legal pad and pen downstairs. A couple of hours later, I have the beginning of a novel.

I don’t sleep much the next ten years, but that’s okay. I help my husband start a business out of our home and it does well. I drive five hours a day, ferrying our four children to their sixteen different activities, and they bloom. When everyone’s home, I carry my legal pad from room to room and finally drag a chair out into the yard where it’s less distracting. It’s better than okay.

Our youngest child starts preschool, and now there are a couple of quiet hours here and there when I can sit and write, join a critique group, practice making my characters speak and move in ways that express something deeper than mere dialogue and gestures would suggest. Some days I feel my ability swell.

But most of the time between the tug and the work, I hear the critic in my head, the same nasally harpy who told me I wasn’t Picasso so put down the brush. A degree in fine art, professors who believed, all were silenced by this inner critic, the only voice I could hear at the time. But I am older now, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend, and the people in my life believe in me. This time, maybe I should too.

So I embrace my manuscript, a thriller — not literary — get over it. Literary or not, I stretch with every ounce of will in me to make each word, each sentence, every page and every chapter the best I can, and when I am done, ten long years later, I am spent. I tell my husband I have finished and burst into tears.

But of course I am not. The manuscript is too long, too complicated, unfocused, and there is a whole other side of this business to learn. I study everything I can find on agents, queries, synopses, and publishing. It’s brutal out there. The inner harpy returns.

Most days I can shove her away, but I’m not going to lie, there are moments I almost quit. It’s the tug that refuses to let me. It’s my husband, mother, children, friends, who refuse to let me. I lift up my head and go on.

Writing a query is daunting. Writing a synopsis seemingly impossible. Finding an agent too ridiculous and far-fetched to consider. Instead of being discouraged, I open my arms. Published or not, I have held nothing back, and as I mail the manuscript, I know there is no disgrace in believing.

Questions For The Day:

  • Do you feel you must be published before you can call yourself a writer?
  • Does guilt keep you from writing? How do you strike a balance between family and writing?
  • What do you sacrifice to write?
  • What keeps you from throwing in the towel?

  • tgumster January 25, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Bravely written and valiantly won. You faced the heady harpy–most important, you gave her voice–and she is undone. Critics don’t last long on center stage.

    Writers write, Leigh, as you so aptly demonstrate.

    • Leigh Muller January 25, 2011 at 10:17 am

      Thanks, tgumster, and I agree, writers aren’t writers because they are published, writers are writers because they write. It’s something you are compelled to do. The hard part is acknowledging openly what you know in your heart but haven’t yet proven in the business world.

      • Leigh Muller January 25, 2011 at 12:18 pm

        I really like the point you make about setting your inner critic free to face him head on. A guest on NPR this week was talking about procrastination, and how a lot of those tendencies arise from fear. If we can face our inner negativity — address what validly needs change and dismiss what is simply fear — we can move forward with new confidence.

  • Laurie Hosford January 25, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Leigh, Just keep writing. Every time you write, anything, you get a little better. The talent is there.

    • Leigh Muller January 25, 2011 at 10:09 am

      Thanks, Laurie. This is a long trek we’ve taken together but little by little we haul each other up that mountain. Hard work, friendship, and good critiques will see us there.

  • tgumster January 25, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    I agree, Leigh, about fear.

    In my double-edged sword theory of life/writing, fear has two sides: what scares me, and what teaches me. It’s chaotic but good on the heart, ultimately, as I do get to the core of the energy.

    In writing, that core is the heart of the story, the point of the essay, the essence of the poem; of course, it is exhausting, disappointing, even surprising yet I write, anyway, to find out how it all turns out.

  • Leigh Muller January 25, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    One of my favorite quotes is by Anis Nin: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” This is especially true of writing. It is terrifying to expose your emotions and beliefs on the page, but all good writing requires just that. So when I’m wondering if I should follow Anis Nin’s advice and go for it, I also remember my other favorite quote by John Kenneth Galbraith: “If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.”

  • tgumster January 25, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    “Spectacular error” it is! I was just thinking about how much it takes to write–all gloves off, all the time–yet writing gives so much in return.

    Thanks for the great quotes!

  • Susan Heyboer O'Keefe January 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    A beautiful post, Leigh. So many of us are filled with such doubt it’s a miracle anything gets writte. But that’s what writing is, after all–a miracle.

    What keeps me from throwing in the towel? I honestly don’t know. It seems that I throw it in virtually every single day. I guess I no longer have a choice, and so what and why no longer matter.

  • Leigh Muller January 26, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Thank you, Susan. You are right, writing doesn’t feel like a choice, but I suspect the reasons we keep at it vary by the day for most of us. Tonight, Maya Angelou is my inspiration. I just got back from hearing her speak at Florida A & M University. She said someone paid for each of us to be where we stand today. Someone from Africa or Italy or Ireland got on a boat and risked their life to come to this country. If not for their courage and the struggle of each generation leading all the way down the line to us, we would not be here living as we do. And if you are the beneficiary of such sacrifice, the least you can do is pay it forward. That’s my motivation for this blog; I’m hoping this will become a community of writers who help each other learn craft and navigate the publishing side of the business.

    I really appreciate your taking the time to read and post.

  • Melody Harris January 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks for your post, Leigh and I love your blog! Sometimes I feel calling myself a writer seems arrogant. even though I have had a few things published. Other times, it just feels like part of my nature.

    Here is a little something I wrote a long time ago entitle “Why I Write”. It speaks of my need to write.

    I struggle to craft my shapeless mass of thoughts
    into a vibrant river of lexicons.
    I pull my past into the present
    in my desire to release the future.
    I write to cleanse the awful bloody secrets
    calling to me as a forbidden lover.
    Passionate. Powerful.
    I write because I must forgive.

  • Leigh Muller January 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    That’s a beautifully written poem, Melody. The emotions and truths you express are universal.

    Why do we writers find it so hard to call ourselves what we are? Painters don’t have that problem, or dancers or singers. Maybe it comes down to this: for so many years our form of work wasn’t complete until a middle man approved of it and printed it. Once it was in reader’s hands, then we felt we could call ourselves writers, but not until then.

    My hope is that with the internet and the emergence of blogs, more writers will break past that restriction and know themselves for what they truly are: writers.

  • Adrian Fogelin January 28, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Leigh, I think that painters, dancers and singers share the writer’s dilemma. Any act that can be seen as showing off, any act that begs an audience, makes the title hard to claim. What if we are simply wasting the time of that audience?

    Anyone in the arts takes a huge risk. What allows us to stay afloat is a belief in the power of what-if? Painters, dancers, singers and most definitely writers all are powered by an imagination with a long and hopeful reach. Maybe we should forget the middle man, that label of “writer” and follow the what-if? until we get there.

    I have to add that I was amazed to see Susan O’Keefe on this blog. She is another author who is published by Peachtree and I wonder how she found her way to the Roadhouse. The internet is mysterious indeed.

  • Leigh Muller January 28, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    You are dead on, Adrian, about the artist’s fear of exposing their innermost self to strangers. That must be true of artists in every field. But I think the identity crisis occurs most often not in your room when you’re typing, but once you walk into life outside and someone asks, “So what do you do?” That’s the moment when we stutter and feel unworthy of the name. Some of this hesitancy must occur in the other arts, but at least a painter or a singer can sell their work and be seen by their audience, no middle man necessarily required. Until recently, a writer had to find someone to publish them, to invest monetarily and with profit in mind. The extra step makes it feel more business oriented than art-based, so we tend to value our work (and our ability) in those same terms. But I agree, writers need to concentrate on learning their craft and love the work, not the reward. It’s too long a haul to be in it for anything other than passion.

  • Leigh Muller January 28, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    No one was more amazed to find Susan O’Keefe here than I. I ran across her wonderfully entertaining blog on the terror of clowns and was so taken with it, I left a comment. She followed it here.

  • Renee February 1, 2011 at 7:22 am

    I don’t think being published makes one a writer. It’s more a personality trait than a profession.

    And it’s nice to know I’m not alone with that inner critic thing.

  • Leigh Muller February 1, 2011 at 8:49 am

    More a personality trait than a profession? I love that, Renee. Much nicer than, say, an affliction?
    We all suffer the inner critic. Forget writer’s block; that critic’s the beast.

    • Renee February 1, 2011 at 9:58 am

      Affliction may be more accurate! :-)

  • Leigh Muller February 1, 2011 at 10:36 am

    It certainly is for Jim. :)
    I’m convinced we’re all obsessive compulsive, but it’s a good use for it. And fortunately, those around us are good sports.

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