This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on Blythe Woolston tells us how she became a writer by accident…
Paper fortune teller for creative people made by my friend Ken Bova, a jewelist and teacher. Folding directions can be found here. —Blythe
This is a tool, a paper fortune teller. It might be helpful when you get lost and don’t know which way to turn. I’m an expert on that sort of confusion. Let me explain…
The falcated duck has an iridescent green head, slightly fancier than a common mallard’s. The crescent-shaped wing feathers sweep down like a calligrapher’s grace note. It’s a nice duck. It’s also an odd duck to see in California. The rest of the migrating ducks and Canada geese, even the monarch butterflies hanging from the tree branches in clumps, they all arrived on purpose. Not this duck. The lone falcated duck is what the birders call extralimital; its native range extends from the fringes of Siberia to India, with occasional visits to Vietnam. But it has no natural business being in California. If you ask the duck how it came to be there, it might reply with a gruff “quack” or low whistle or total silence. All of these things can be translated in the same way: “I have no idea.“
I am that duck.
I’m that confused about how I became a writer.
Writers often want to be writers from the time they are children. I gather this from the statements they make about themselves and also from my encounters with young writers. I have met 13-year-olds at library workshops who have already written several books. And I met many aspiring writers when I was a university teacher. It was a shy promise students were making to themselves: they would write books one day. When they shared that goal with me, I said things like, “Well then, it will be handy to know the difference between ‘of’ and ‘have.’ While we’re at it, apostrophes are both interesting and useful; we should talk about apostrophes.” I didn’t teach creative writing—I was there to help them drag their skinny butts through Civil Engineering or Comparative Anatomy.
When I told my students that I had been planning to study nursing until I switched my major to English at the last moment, they laughed. Imagine bloody-minded me providing care and comfort to the suffering sick instead of throwing chalk and spreading gossip about the mutant-hybrid nature of the semicolon. My existence as a teacher, their teacher, seemed as inevitable as the weather. I knew different. I zigged when I might have zagged. That’s all.
I spent more than ten years teaching writing. Then I walked away. I’m not at all sure what came of my time as a teacher. There may be some roads in the Himalayas that are marginally better engineered. There may be fewer beagles with hip dysplasia. I haven’t noticed any general improvement in the use of apostrophes, however. I was good, but not that good.
I didn’t leave teaching to become a writer. If anyone had asked me what my career plans were, I would have said I hoped to become a cowboy or an astronaut. That has been my answer since I was six. It’s a good dodge. Truth is, I’ve never had any career plans. That’s why I was a Dumpster diver. It’s also why I spent time in a cubicle, herding computer manuals through the publication process. Then I stumbled into indexing and became a squirrely recluse who paws through nonfiction for a living. So, I had no intention of becoming a writer just as that falcated duck had no flight plan that led to California.
One day I didn’t have any indexing to do, so I began writing to fill the time chinks. It was crazy fun. Slowly the crumbs of story accumulated into a weird fable full of talking foxes and footnotes. One word led to another and pretty soon there were seventy-thousand-some. I had written a book.
I didn’t know what to do next, but it seemed like I ought to do something. I took the first chapter with me to a retreat hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Linda Sue Park was encouraging. Alexandra Penfold introduced me to the concept of “edgy” YA, with the helpful clarification that “It’s not bestiality.” A couple of weeks later I started writing another book, The Freak Observer, which was actually publishable.
I do not recommend becoming a writer by accident. I imagine a lot of falcated ducks end up dead instead of in California. They are eaten by sharks while they bob along during a mid-Pacific nap or they just starve, beating their little pointed wings against the wind until their hearts stop. I was a very lucky duck. Editor Andrew Karre fished The Freak Observer out of the slush and bought it and its sister book, Catch and Release. The YALSA librarians noticed TFO and found it worthy of the Morris Award. Sarah Davies liked the look of my third book and became my agent. All of those events are significant turning points. Without them, I’d be a dead duck in the writing world.
If you look carefully at the paper fortune teller, you will see that it provides very solid advice for creative people—advice about mentoring, playing, and being grateful. If you turn in those directions, I think you will be just fine. Consult it as required while you migrate from here to there or now to tomorrow.
Blythe Woolston’s The Freak Observer won YALSA’s 2011 William C. Morris Award for a debut YA novel. Her second book, Catch and Release, was published in February 2012. She lives in Montana with her family.
Visit Blythe at www.blythewoolston.net.
Follow @blythewoolston on Twitter.
EDITED FEB. 28: WINNERS OF THE FREAK OBSERVER AND CATCH AND RELEASE ANNOUNCED!
Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to the author for donating the prizes! I’m happy to announce the winners:
Erica Beatone and Lulie won a bundle containing signed copies of both of Blythe Woolston’s novels: The Freak Observer and Catch and Release, which just came out this month! Congrats! I’ll email the winners for their mailing addresses. Thank you again to everyone who entered!
Want more in this blog series?
The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.
Here are the posts in the series so far:
- Intro to the Turning Points blog series
- Gayle Forman: on overcoming bitterness
- Sean Ferrell: on the Writer who never arrives
- Eileen Cook: on a “nasty” book and a teacher’s advice that inspired her
- Christopher Barzak: on how short stories changed his vision for his novel
- Saundra Mitchell: on deciding to quit and walk away
- Eric Luper: on not writing for trends
- Gretchen McNeil: on how “everything happens for a reason”
- Julia DeVillers on the life-changing fan letter she wrote when she was ten
- Daisy Whitney on the book that opened her eyes to writing YA
- Brandy Colbert on the book that inspired her to find her voice
- Courtney Summers on redefining failure
- Sarah Darer Littman on turning off the noise
- Léna Roy on how she came to call herself a “writer”
- Megan Crewe on not choosing the “right” path
- Jennifer Echols on her eighth anniversary of not being stupid
You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!
Series images by Robert Roxby.