About Sam

(on stubbornness, and fixing what isn’t broken)

Sam and I met about eight years ago, in December of 2007. At the time, I thought we were going to have a quick-flowering, perfect friendship. Life took on new zest. I felt alive and then some, as if I had fireworks going off in my heart.

Before long, though, things started to change. There were doubts and struggles. There were fights and tears. There were long periods of this isn’t going to work, let’s forget it, it’s not worth it. It wasn’t worth the frustration, for sure. It wasn’t worth the heartache.

Most people have probably been down that road with somebody in their lives. Sam wasn’t a person, though; at least not the kind of person you could invite over for coffee. Sam was the character that drove my first novel.

**

In the fall of 2007, I had left a trainwreck of a job. I needed an anchor, and found one in a wave of inspiration – I want to write a book! – and an idea for a character. Not a chapter outline, not a plot, just a character. I had a vague idea that I probably needed more, but I also had a fire in the gut that kept me up writing long after midnight, and got me up to try again at dawn. I didn’t know what I was doing, only that something was banging away on the inside of my brain.

At first I thought, “I’ll finish this project in a few months.” A few months stretched to a year. Then another. During that time, I took writing classes and found out how much I didn’t know. I tried some short stories (pathetic) and sent a couple to journals (bad idea). The book blazed away in my head, but more and more often I seemed to be staring up at the summit of an unscalable mountain. Maybe a better writer could get there. I couldn’t.

Doubts and struggles, fights and tears. Why am I doing this? I should give up. I learned more about the writing world, and that vast unknown took on concrete and discouraging shape around me. Do you know how hard it is to get published? Do you know that people don’t read books anymore? Nobody’s ever heard of you: do you know you don’t have a chance? I had countless reasons to quit and only one reason to keep going. The book demanded it.

**

At the same time, though, Sam refused to do what I wanted. Where was the searing, gorgeous novel that was going to change the world? I was giving this book the best of my energy and discipline. Why was it turning out so quiet, so understated…so too much like its writer? It was supposed to be better. I was supposed to be better.

Sometimes you think you can fix a person. If you try enough times, if you do the right things, you will turn that person into what you want.

Sam and I started over more times than I want to remember. The radiance went out of the project and stubbornness took its place. Again and again, I looked for the perfect angle, the magic bullet. Every time, I felt like I was using up the last sparks of a fire I wouldn’t see again.

Finally, last spring, I dug out a draft from a few years ago and took a look. It was quiet and understated, everything it had always been, and I saw plenty of clumsy work by a writer who didn’t know the craft. But I saw something else, too: the old fire.

Maybe I was too tired to do better. Or maybe this was what Sam needed to be, and I needed to let the book – and me – be ourselves.

**

Now, eight years after we met, Sam has gone back out on submission and I’m playing the waiting game writers know too well. Rejection has happened a lot. It never seems to get less hellish.

At the same time, though, this book was the reason that my writing hobby became a life-driving force. It was also the reason that I learned to be proud of my work for what it was, not for what I thought it should be.

Sam and I have taken this trip together. No matter what happens next, I’m glad we did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Choosing

(about nearsightedness, collies, and putting words together)

One afternoon when I was in kindergarten, the school nurse called me down to her office. She had me stand behind a line of masking tape on the carpet and read letters off a chart on the wall. Sunlight glared on the chart and made a blurry haze around it. Panicky, because I couldn’t read the letters the way I was told, I kept trying to step across the tape line so I could see them better, but the nurse held onto my shoulder.

My first pair of glasses had blue plastic frames with a pair of tiny enamel strawberries on each arm. I showed off those strawberries to anybody who would look. See them? Nice, huh? The thick lenses sat heavily on my nose, but that didn’t matter because the world snapped into focus. Now I could march into the nurse’s office and read that letter chart like an expert.

At home, though, I learned to take the glasses off for every picture. Any time a camera was pointed at me, even before I smiled, I took off my “eyes” and held them behind my back. Girls were supposed to look pretty. Glasses spoiled that.

*

As a kid, I never had many friends. I don’t remember getting teased about my glasses, but they did make a kind of wall between me and the world. If I took them off, I couldn’t see much farther than my hand in front of my face. So I sat behind them, where it was safe.

I never had many friends, but I was never lonely. Real life was the temporary gap between books. In fourth grade, when I had graduated from colorful little-kid frames to a satisfyingly sleek chestnut-brown pair, I decided I was going to be a writer when I grew up.

The main reason behind my decision was a man named Albert Payson Terhune. Terhune wrote dog stories inspired by the collies he bred and raised. Those books were full of over-the-top heroics and the flowery language of the nineteen-teens. They make me smile now, but when I was a kid, they took me to another place, where the good man (or collie) always won, and no matter how feeble you might look on the outside, you could do anything if you had courage and love to power you along. I imagined having a real-life protector like Terhune’s Lad, who would be all strength to outsiders and all gentleness to me. Terhune himself became my first human hero. He had created that magic with words. Therefore I was going to do it too.

*

Now, some twenty-five years later, after trying out other things along the way, I’m carving out a writing career. For about twenty of those in-between years, I wore contacts, but these days I’ve gone back to glasses (no special cleaners or hours of soaking). My frames are metal now, silver, with scrollwork on the arms where the strawberries used to be.

The voice in the back of my head tells me that I still can’t be pretty when I wear them. That voice reminds me about a weird nine-year-old who didn’t know how to make friends. She wanted to be a writer, it says. Do you really want to be like her? And, She was so awkward. So strange. Does she deserve to have what she wants?

I know how tough it can be to reach for what you want. How hard you can pin your hopes on something, and how deep of a pit you can fall into when it fails. (“Dear Kris Faatz, thank you for submitting your work to us. Unfortunately/We regret…”) I know how every chance can feel like the last one, especially when the voice in my head says, You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not good enough. You don’t deserve it anyway.

But I remember the joy that child felt when she sat down to read about those braver-than-life collies. I remember the rich and bright something that filled her up as she decided what she wanted to do with her life. And now, every time I sit down to work and the words come to lead or drive me along, I tap into that brightness again.

Does that child deserve what she wants? Do I? In the end, I understand that’s up to me.

I choose to do this thing, one word at a time. I choose it again, every day.