Becoming a Writer: An Introvert’s Story
I went to my first writing conference in 2006, nervous as a cat, carrying fifty pages of notes and journal entries in my briefcase. There were a thousand participants, all medical and allied health professionals looking to write. I’d signed up for a small writer’s circle, where less than a dozen total strangers read your pages and gave you feedback. They flipped through my pages quietly when it was my turn, and the leader asked me to explain my idea.
“The book I want to write is about my niece,” I said, “and her grief in the years after her mother’s death.” As a clinical psychologist, I would be the expert, the guide, the behind-the-scenes translator of childhood grief for readers, I explained.
“Was this your sister?’ the group leader asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Then the book must be about you: your loss, and your loving care of this child in the midst of your own pain.”
The silent assent from the rest of the room left me speechless.
It took me three years to recover from that moment.
I drafted, then dumped a book proposal about using poetry in therapy. I wrote a few essays about my work and got one published. I wrote some terrible poetry. I joined the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, so I could attend workshops. I fell in love with the language of writing and relished my new role as the “apologizer” in the room, the one who had to keep asking for definitions of terms.
But when people asked, “Why are you here? I had no answer. I still wanted to write that book, but the idea of putting myself in the story terrified me. The thought of stepping out from behind my professional voice was not only against the “rules” of therapy, it was against my own rules. I am a solitary soul, an introvert by anyone’s definition, a private, reserved, “none-of your business, thank you” kind of person. I did not want to write a book about me.
It was not until 2009 that I was convinced to try again. A new writer/friend said simply, “You are not going to get past this until you can go through it. I have an idea.”
This time I chose a different fifty pages, journal fragments of my story and my niece’s, my pain and hers, and submitted it to a professional author for critique. At a weekend writer’s retreat perched high over the ocean in Maine, I walked gingerly toward the rustic lunchroom where we were to meet. My heart was racing but my mantra was simple. “It’s OK. If she tells you to forget it, you can move on. If she says it’s just for family you can let it go and be free.”
Suzanne was slender, with long blond hair that whipped around her shoulders as she hurried toward me. I had been waiting only a few minutes, but already imagining she was not coming. “Are you Mary?” she asked, stopping at the end of the table, holding my manuscript in her hand. Before I could answer she continued, “Do you have an agent?”
It would be another six years before the book was done. Six years of learning to be a writer, and finding mentors who could teach me scene and dialogue and how to weave a story that covers a decade in time. Countless pages ended in recycling, multiple drafts got finished, then trashed and begun again.
But the thing that took the most time was my own resistance. My struggle with the simple truth that no book would be worth the reader’s time if it was not emotionally true. No professional wisdom or elegantly articulated path through childhood grief could substitute for coming out from behind that screen, and sharing my own story. That meant digging through notebooks, and calendars and records long buried. It meant unearthing the emotions buried with them. The more I did that, the more I discovered something else. This was never going to be a book about me, or a story about one child’s grief. That was never enough to center the story and give it meaning.
Only one thing could do that. And that was something bigger than both of us. Something we created together in those years after my sister’s death. The relationship of one tiny child and me, holding onto one another and figuring out how to survive.
Our columnist, Mary Plouffe, raised three children in beautiful South Freeport Maine, where she lives, writes and practices clinical psychology. She writes essays, memoir and creative non-fiction, and has been published on NPR, On the Issues Magazine, and Survivor Review among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for a memoir, I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and a book of essays, Listening Lessons: Reflections on the Grace of Being Heard. Additional information can be obtained at www.maryplouffe.com.