Inspiration and Apprenticeship

Here are the answers I provided to bloggers during the virtual book tour I took after the mystery was published last October.  They asked on why I write and the journey I’ve been on as a writer. I’m sure my experiences reflect those of many others.

I think my inspiration came from a lifetime of reading every chance I got and learning through osmosis what makes for decent writing. My mother loved mysteries, and so do I, especially the cozy kind. In essence, I wanted to do what these authors did, because what they did gave me so much pleasure. I was fortunate to be the descendant of people who read and wrote and taught, so that the writing basics came fairly easily.
 After a career as a social worker, I took a series of creative writing classes over a period of ten years to learn the ‘beyond the basics’, which extend well beyond a mastery of sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar. I found that dialogue and characterization came fairly easily, but not physical and sensory description or plotting.
I suppose the other inspiration has been my grounding in both social service and the religious tradition. I want to let readers know how ordinary people can make a positive contribution and receive much in return by participation in a loving community.
When I began to study creative writing in my 50’s, I wanted to document what it was like to have Stage Three breast cancer. Time was of the essence, since I didn’t know how long remained. I had translated my oncologist’s prognosis of “cautiously optimistic” to a fifty-fifty chance of long term survival. I had always wanted to be a writer, so now was the time.
I signed up for a week-long workshop in Cannon Beach, Oregon, taught by the memoirist and poet Judith Barrington, whose recently published book about her family had sent shivers up and down my spine. Her students were a diverse group. Two men, as I recall, were writing autobiographies to share with their families. One young woman’s parents had been involved with the famous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, and her description of assembling a Cassoulet with her father had the sensuality and beauty of a love sonnet.
I selected my fiercest writing to share, one a piece titled, “Cancer of Unknown Origin,” and another comparing my chemotherapy hair loss to the shaved heads of Auschwitz victims. I expected that Ms. Barrington would declare my work compelling, important, and ready for immediate publication. Possibly she could introduce me to her agent. I had been writing for about eight months at the time.
We spent much of the time outside our readings in free ranging discussion, and I challenged her when she criticized another, arguably more famous memoirist, for not being supportive of other women authors. I countered by saying, in effect, that geniuses operated under different rules.
Seeing that some of her students had gotten a little ahead of themselves, and knowing that her own “breakthrough” publication had emerged well into her middle age, Ms. Barrington decided to give us a traditional lecture. Its subject was the writer’s apprenticeship. She began by describing the ages old vocational training path of craftspeople, that of the apprentice. Blacksmiths, barbers, butchers, troubadours, Jesus the carpenter –  all learned from and worked with their elders. They could not ply their trade until worthy to do so. Room and board might be part of the deal, but in effect they were indentured servants, trading youth for livelihood.
Why should writers, or musicians, or poets need any less time or supervision to achieve competence, she asked. And it takes a minimum of ten years, she added. Even I knew enough not to argue with her. Hadn’t it been at least ten years before I could get through a whole day in my previous career as a social worker without being desperate for a social work angel to bail me out?
The apprenticeship system is a tattered one these days. With the decline of labor unions, the average youth of apprenticeship age today probably doesn’t know what the word means. A new hire is lucky to get one work shift to learn the ropes. Employers cry out for skilled workers, but can’t find them, and apparently can’t take the time for an apprentiship.
Ten years. I never forgot what she said. I studied writing for seven years after that workshop, and joined a writing critique group. I finished my unpublished memoir about having cancer. I started writing a mystery. Eight years and many drafts later it’s been published, after a year of revising with my editor. I’m now receiving Medicare. God willing, I’ve begun the transition from from apprentice to journeyman.

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