A little slice-of-life essay put her on track
Breakthrough: A writer's success story
Published: April 6, 2010
|I began dabbling at writing when I was in my early 40s, but as a single mother working night shift in a factory, I couldn’t write in any meaningful way until my four sons were grown and away from home. By then I was 50 and had begun writing seriously —usually small slice-of-life essays about my childhood in rural Ohio.|
However, when I finished my first essay, “Caboose,” I shelved it for more than a year. No one, I felt, would want to read about a young girl watching a train (more specifically, a caboose) weaving its way across an Ohio landscape.
One day, while sorting through some files, I came across my caboose essay again. I reread it. Except for a few awkward lines, I thought, it was quite good. I polished it up and sent it out.
When it was returned in my own self-addressed, stamped envelope, I was sure it had been rejected. Sure enough, my work was so scribbled over with markings that I could barely see the original essay. “It’s so marked up! The editor must have really hated it!,” I thought. I soon discovered, however, that the scribbles were only minor edits the editor wanted me to make. His final scribble read: “We will pay you $100 for first rights.”
Several months later I received my contributors copy and a check for $100. I sat on the living room floor for hours that day, running my fingers over the glossy, full-color back page, reading my story over and over, and staring at the wonderful likeness of the little train and caboose the magazine’s illustrator had captured. It was just as I had described it in my essay and, amazingly, almost as I remembered it as a child—the artist had captured every nuance of my experience as a young girl. I could not have been happier if I had won an Olympic medal.
What I learned
That first editor at Northern Ohio Live had asked me to make changes to my story that I really did not want to make—I felt the essay was fine just the way it was. But I didn’t argue with him, and made the changes. This proved to be a valuable learning experience. Not only did I learn something from those edits (and subsequent edits from other magazine editors), but, possibly because of my willingness to work so well with the editor, Northern Ohio Live went on to accept three more essays before the magazine discontinued its back-page essays a few years ago.
I also learned that the writing life is not easy. It is hard work! Let me repeat that. It is hard work! A writer’s life is often one of isolation and frustration, and means pounding away for hours at the keyboard when your friends are at the mall shopping or down at the local café chatting it up with one another. Writing for money is one of the most competitive careers out there, and to be even moderately successful you have to be totally committed to and passionate about the written word.
The most valuable lesson I learned, however, was never to underestimate my ability to write something that others might want to read. Since that first publication in Northern Ohio Live, I have been published in more than 100 magazines, and many, if not all, of the stories I wrote were about fairly normal occurrences—listening to the sound of cicadas in Kentucky, crossing an ice-covered mountaintop in Tennessee, hiking a ranch in the Hill Country of Texas, and even mowing the lawn here in Wisconsin on a hot summer day. In addition, I have just written a novel (again, based on the most ordinary of circumstances and characters) and am in the process of looking for an agent. I am also currently working on a young-adult novel.
I would say to anyone who wishes to write to be passionate about what you write, constantly hone your writing skills (i.e., learn the craft), be persistent, be disciplined, and above all believe in your abilities and yourself. Once you’ve written a piece to the best of your ability, send it out! It will never be published if it is languishing away in an old file folder on a shelf. Somewhere out there, there is an editor looking for your particular style of writing and your particular story.
# # #
Barbara Weddle can usually be found at her computer working on essays, book reviews and articles, especially during the long Wisconsin winters. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, Chicago Life and elsewhere.|
(This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Writer.)