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  • Writer's pictureDana Starr

Tiny Notebooks, Gangster Geese, Semicolons, and Self-Doubt

It's been so long since I've updated this website, I forgot my password. I had it written down, but, of course, I forgot where I wrote it. I finally found it in a tiny notebook at the bottom of a pile of tiny notebooks I use to jot down ideas for my writing. I own approximately 2,402 tiny notebooks. I only bought three for myself; the rest were gifted to me which makes them even more special. I keep several tiny notebooks on an end table next to my chair, aka my spot, where I binge Netflix, read, talk on the phone, eat, bitch at my husband, gaze at the geese on the lake, and only occasionally write.

Did you know that geese are the Tony Sopranos of the lake? They take no shit.

I used a semicolon in that first paragraph. The semicolon always gives me pause. I use it correctly only about half the time; I think. See. Did you see that? I just used it again. That's too much semicolon. Semicolons should be used sparingly, like salt, according to an editor friend of mine. Right about now is when I usually pause my writing to go to the internet to read about the correct usage of the semicolon. I've read the Grammar Girl article about semicolon usage at least 90 times. I've memorized it at this point. No matter, I'll use any excuse/distraction to stop writing once I've forced myself to start.

I'll also use any excuse to doubt my writing ability or lack thereof. I'm not unique in that regard. Most writers I've met, and I've met a lot, have days they feel like being a bestselling author is within their grasp. Other days, they feel like they can't even write a grocery list. Is this true of other professions? Do surgeons perform heart surgery on Tuesday and wake on Wednesday leery of picking up a scalpel?

I recently spent two days surrounded by writers at a workshop organized by SouthWest Writers (SWW) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Hopped up on four cans of Coke per day, I listened intently and took copious notes in my tiny notebooks. Odds are I'll never look at the notes again. Yes, I'm aware how strange that sounds but it's true. I've taken the same notes at similar workshops for at least a couple of decades. I've bought books about how to write. I've even read some of them. I've taken writing courses and joined various writer's groups online and in person.

I've spent much more time studying writing than actually writing. I suspect this is a problem.

Studying writing isn't a bad thing. Not writing is a bad thing. Comparison is another bad thing. I know that in my bones, but it doesn't stop me from doing it. For me, comparison leads to jealousy, and jealousy leads to inertia. I end up sitting in my spot, watching geese try to kill each other and not writing. Are you sensing a pattern?

I thought I'd made a little progress in conquering the green-eyed monster. To my dismay, that's not true. The workshop ended with a banquet and ceremony honoring the top writers in the annual writing competition sponsored by SWW. I'd entered an essay in the travel writing category and another essay in the memoir category. Both essays were going to be recognized and I was thrilled. I was also completely weirded out.

I'm conflicted about writing contests. On one hand, I like contests because there's a deadline that forces me to stop watching geese and write. Contests usually offer constructive feedback which most writers crave and can't get enough of. Contests can be helpful in getting your writing in front of people, another thing writers crave and can't get enough of. Plus, who doesn't want to buy a new dress to wear to a fancy banquet? If someone wants to drape medals around my neck while the audience claps, I'm certainly not going to stop them.

On the other hand, writing is so subjective. If I think a certain book is brilliant (This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone IS brilliant ) you might think the book is a piece of garbage. Most contests charge an entry fee. It can cost a little or a lot. I worry that I'll spend so much money on entry fees I'll be forced to become a dumpster diver in my old age. I can picture myself breaking a hip by climbing inside the dumpster behind the Sonic in the middle of the night. Most importantly, competition turns me into a person I don't like.

During the banquet, people attempted to make conversation with me. I heard them talking but I couldn't concentrate. I was distracted. I didn't know if my work would win bronze, silver, or gold until the medals were actually awarded. I tried to tell myself it didn't matter. A medal is a medal, right? Wrong. I entered the contest to win first place and that means gold, baby. I'm all about the gold. Yes, I'm aware I'm sounding a bit like Tony Soprano, or a lot like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby when he says, "If you ain't first, you're last."

I was sitting there trying to figure out why everyone at my table had their dessert but me when I heard the presenter announce the memoir category starting with third place. Thoughts of chocolate mousse with salted caramel disappeared. Third place was announced and it wasn't me. My heart sped up. I sat up a little straighter. I allowed myself a spark of hope. My name was announced next. The spark died. I heard my name and thought CRAP! No first and no dessert. Now you understand why I don't like myself in competition mode.

My travel essay won first. When I got back to the table with my gold medal, my dessert was there. You'd think I'd be happy, right? Wrong. I never touched the dessert. I was too pissappointed (pissed and disappointed) to eat.

I had gold and dessert and it wasn't enough. I don't suspect this is a problem; I know this is a problem.

I also know I'm too salty with my semicolons. I'll work on that, and my salty attitude too.

* * *

Speaking of contests, shortly before leaving for the workshop in Albuquerque, results were finally announced for the first half of the round one NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition. I was assigned to write a mystery set in a child's bedroom utilizing a fish tank in 1,000 words or less in 48 hours. I've never attempted to write a mystery, but it was fun and I was pretty happy with my entry, "Something's Fishy."

I knew it was far from perfect, but I'd hoped to at least place in the top ten out of thirty competitors in my group. I placed 13th and only scored three points. Yep, I was pissappointed. With only three points heading into the second half of round one competition it will be next to impossible to score enough points on my next story to propel me into round two.

I got my new prompts for the next story (horror, country club, photo booth) while in Albuquerque. I decided to blow off writing the horror story because I was right in the middle of the workshop. Studying about writing left me no time to actually write. Sound familiar?

After traveling all day to get home, and with only an hour and twenty minutes left until the deadline, I decided to try to write the horror story. It has problems, but I'm kind of loving it. I'll let you know if it scores any points with the NYC Midnight judges. Points or no points, I'm going to turn it into a short story and do something with it. I'm salty but I ain't a quitter.

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