First off, I can’t believe almost a month’s flown since my last post. And tomorrow is summer’s official end. I picture those final days unspooling like fabric from a giant roll. The leading edge is the intense blue of late-August sky; then the material ombres toward rust and gold. We’re at bolt’s end now, the last length slipping from the cardboard core, about to spill free. It seems impossible we’re packing away summer 2013, but it’s happening. It always does. Same as ever. For me, though, this summer held a major difference.
Technically, at least by the standards of the traditional working world, I didn’t “work” much this summer—except for a few Friday hours at the office job I’ve held for years. My father runs the place; it’s family duty, sweetened with a paycheck. The last few summers have also included a contract at the college where I teach. I’ve taught (creative writing, a blast) and spent hours, desk-tethered, fulfilling admin duties as co-coordinator of our First Year Experience program (less glamorous than it sounds).
This summer, I vowed, would be different. Because, this summer, I am different. This is my first summer as a published novelist. Let’s take a moment, allow that to sink in…okay, it’ll take more than a moment. I’ll continue. As a published novelist—yeah, too pretentious. As a writer, I figured I should write. In fact, I spent the last half of spring semester telling folks at school I’d spend this summer writing my next book, sharing my intent to dive in “the minute the semester ends.” Even as I repeated this mantra, I knew I was setting up a crazy-impossible expectation.
The voice in my head kept saying, “Really? It took you over FIVE YEARS to write the first one. You honestly think you can crank out another over summer vacation?” My head voice rarely says anything positive. I swear I should just tune it out. Anyway, at semester’s end, I dove right in. And it was like that time I crashed nose-first into the cement bottom of the park pool. Stunningly painful, and not especially productive.
I spent weeks toiling (for no immediate pay; according to Parlato Family Tradition, that’s not work) on two different drafts—with mounting frustration. One’s a ghost story set in a Cape-May-like seaside town; the other’s a contemporary YA with a Holocaust link. Both were basically dead in the water, though I think they’ll happen in time.
At a loss to write, I floundered, wondering if I’d screwed up not taking that college contract. Maybe I needed the pressure of a “real job” for motivation. As I brooded, my friend, Andrea, wisely reminded me to savor the accomplishment of my first book. My wife, Janet, ever supportive, regularly assured me The Namesake was not a fluke. Though still plagued by angsty doubt, I enjoyed making a bunch of cool appearances in support of that book I’d actually managed to successfully complete. At a couple of these events, actual copies were sold. One was even a paying gig. I was earning money as a writer—even if we weren’t quite able to afford a world tour (more like an occasional day trip) yet.
Still struggling on the ghost story, I decided it might be good to devote some time to reading—after all, I was a big, fat writing dud. I read Andrew Smith’s Winger (awesome, quirky voice); my friend, Bill Bless’s book, Whoever We May Be At Last (gorgeous poetry and prose); the witty and moving manuscript of an essay collection, Flip-flops After Fifty, by my friend, Cindy Eastman; some poetry collections; and other stuff I can’t recall right now. Inspiration began, if not to strike, at least to tickle. Then I had my epiphany.
It came in the form of Stephen Chbosky’s wildly popular YA, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Since I teach a YA fiction class, I’d been feeling guilty about not having gotten around to it. Reading over the course of a couple days, I finished the book around 2:00 AM, Monday, July 8th. I’d heard hints about the novel’s big reveal (which I won’t spoil here, in case there’s anyone left who hasn’t read it), but it still shook me, and I was unable to sleep after closing the book.
Around 5:00 AM, I sat up in bed with a girl’s name, and murmurs of her story in my head. I knew it was pointless—and stupid—to roll over. Without bedside paper or pen (bad writer form, I know), I grabbed my phone, tapping out the first chapter on my tiny keyboard. Nearly two hours later, I had a fairly polished 500 words, which I sent to my email.
I haven’t looked back. July 8th was the starting point. I’ve written faithfully every day since. There have been birthdays and holidays, car troubles and dental work, early mornings and sleepless nights since that Monday. But every day, I have written; admittedly, some days only for minutes, belching out a few awkward phrases before surrendering to pillow. As of today, seventy-five days into the process, I have a 117-page draft.
Not exactly lightning-speed. But I’m a plodder, and I’ve made peace with my obsessiveness, my apparent inability to churn out a sloppy first draft. It’s okay. My batch is steadily growing, and the words have a certain shine. This feels right.
Of course, now I’m back to “work”; fall semester started August 28th, and I now have the writing of 128 students—not just my own—as a major focus. It’s okay. I love the process of working with student writers. Helping them build sometimes spindly writing muscles, I thrive on their realizations, their great strength. Teaching simultaneously exhausts and inspires me. I am a teacher; it is my life’s work.
But it’s not my only life’s work. I AM A WRITER. I give that prompt to my developmental writing students on day one. Many initially refuse to embrace the label. I can identify. I was once reluctant to declare it myself. It sounds far less concrete than Inside Sales Manager, or Teacher. But I’ve realized something: Writing is some of the hardest and best, some of the noblest work I’ve ever done. Writer is an occupation I’m honored to call my own, even if Barnes & Noble never has a “Steven Parlato Experience” end cap (Kudos, John Green!).
Tomorrow’s fall; before I became a teacher, traditionally my melancholy season. I always felt something was missing at autumn’s arrival. Turns out I wasn’t mourning the end of humidity and bug bites, but the anticipation of promise, the advent of possibility that accompanies the return to class.
What I’ll miss this fall is time. Time to write. Time to think exclusively about my own writing—or think about nothing at all. Now, my days (and many nights) swell with grading, department meetings, worrying about the complicated lives of my students. Still, I’m determined—and honored—to take up the mantle, to declare myself a writer. The price is I must write. And I’ve vowed to do just that. Each day, early or late, I’ll continue to carve out slivers of time to create. And, maybe not before the next shift in season, but one day, one day, I’ll be able to introduce a new person to the world. Her name’s Teddi Alder; I’m weaving the fabric of her experience. She’s taking shape.