And yet, it also had the germ of a story I still wanted to tell. So after years of writing patient progress notes, journal articles, and some angsty poetry in long hidden away journals, I decided to write the story that eventually became THE WINGS OF WINTER, finishing it in 2005. That novel, less horrible than the handwritten chapters I had come across in cleaning out the basement a year earlier, is 'trunked' on my computer's hard drive, waiting for my willingness to burn it down to the ashes and start again someday. Since then, I have written 7 more novels, hundreds of blog posts, hundreds of poems, and dozens of short stories and in some way, every time I sit down to write, it feels like a 'first.' (See my post on the beginner's mindset.)
But when I think of first stories, what I think about is not what I have written, but the stories we tell ourselves even before we think of putting pen to paper.
The stories we convince ourselves are true about us--the deepest part of us. The stories we choose to believe, that shape the face we show the outside world. The stories that limit the full expression of who we can be.
The first story I turned into a kind of terrible truth was that my voice wasn't important. That other people had better things to say and more interesting lives. That if I spoke out, I risked the outside world's ridicule. And because I believed it, it became reality. I kept my silence, locked my words in notebooks no one read, kept my self hidden, too, believing that I wasn't good enough.
When I was a senior in college, a friend urged me to submit some of my poetry to the Dean's Prize in creative literature. I don't know what possessed me--probably because I just wanted her to stop bugging me about it--but I typed up a few poems and submitted them. I only entered the contest because I KNEW I had no chance to win. So there was no risk of rejection: I had already rejected myself.
When a slim envelope came in the mail, I nearly didn't bother opening it. It would just be confirmation of what I already understood. But masochist that I was, I figured I should read the rejection letter.
Inside was a letter of congratulations and a check for some crazy sum of money--maybe $150 or so (this was in 1984, so I really don't remember the amount.) I had won the Dean's prize for a poem I had written called "To An Artist on Cadman Plaza West." During the summer prior, I had to drive over the Brooklyn Bridge for work and would see this young man in a little triangle of land in the tangle of on and off ramps to the bridge. He stood there day after day with an easel and would sketch amid the chaos. It moved me and so I wrote the poem for him.
I still remember staring at that letter, convinced they had made some clerical error. That my rejection letter had gotten slipped in someone else's envelope. But it was my poem they chose and in that moment, the story I had clung to for so long became a fiction I no longer had to believe.
In that moment, I could create a new story.
My own story.
It may have taken me a few decades after that to open my heart to my identity as a writer, but I trace my current self--my writer self-- to that moment. Not of reading the prize letter, because that was something outside of me, but that moment when I chose to believe in my voice and in who I would become.
What is your 'first story'? And is it one you want to keep retelling?
Today’s post was inspired by the topic “First Stories”– February’s topic and theme in the Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour — an ongoing tour where you, the reader, travel around the world from author’s blog to author’s blog. If you want to get to know nearly twenty other writers and find out their thoughts on first stories, check out the Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour. You can find links to all of the posts on the tour by checking out the group site.