I have had long hair since I was a teenager. One of the things that scares me the most about aging is the inevitable “old lady haircut.” When the time for that comes, I plan to go to the salon good and drunk.
Today, I cut over a thousand words from a piece of fiction. It was the story I wrote at the encouragement of my class instructor, to submit to the Writer’s Digest annual contest. I imagine the act of doing so felt a lot like what I’ll experience the day I sit in one of those swivel chairs and watch some perky stylist whack my to-the-middle-of-my-back locks into something short, bouncy and respectable.
It hurt like hell, but the end result when I re-read my story was good. It was crisper, cleaner, and lacking nothing that was there before. Somehow I don’t think Haircut Day will feel the same, but one can hope.
After the wordwhacking, I sent my story off to the contest. As soon as I hit the “send” button, I felt my heart beat faster. There’s something so final and serious in that act. Once you’ve sent it, you can’t call it back for one more fix. You can’t give it one more read-through.
That’s probably a good thing. Some writers, myself included, would never truly “finish” anything if they had endless one-more-chances.
I don’t have children. My stories are the closest I’ll ever get to offspring. I mean no disrespect to parents when I say that to me, sometimes I think the fact that I write brings me the closest I’ll ever get to motherhood. My stories aren’t alive in the biological sense, and I don’t have to feed them or save money to send them to college. I never have to worry that they’ll use drugs, be bullied at school, or get pregnant.
But like a child, they come from my heart and soul. As someone with no kids and no money, they are the only legacy I’ll ever leave behind someday. They are the only proof I’ll ever have that I was more than just a daily-grind-day-jobbing-drone. They are my desperate grasps for freedom and my pride and joy.
A writer builds a character’s personality and actions. But sometimes, the characters suprise the writer with the turns and twists they take and who they turn out to be. Sometimes they drive you crazy with the things they say and do. I imagine this to be a lot like instilling what you know about life and choices into your daughter, and then having her date a crackhead anyway. Other times, they turn into someone amazing in spite of your best efforts to make them an asshole. Maybe this is how it feels to have the child who struggles through his teenage years with barely passing grades and a sad familiarity with the juvenile detention center. But then he grows up to become a rocket scientist who volunteers at the local animal shelter.
I guess I’ll never be sure. But I do think the act of hitting that “submit” button, or dropping your manuscipt in the mail, is a lot like shipping your offspring off to college. The minute you leave him in his dorm room, you want to call him and remind him not to overuse the credit card and to separate his whites from his darks when he’s doing laundry. But unlike a college freshman, you can’t call a bundle of words. There’s no way to remind them to speak to the editor the same way they talked to you when you were putting them on paper.
When I left for college, my momma was relieved. I didn’t go that far away, but I wasn’t there messing up her house and bringing all my teenage drama to her doorstep anymore. I have to admit there’s something of that relief in sending off a treasured submission, too. Does the mother of a collegebound kid secretly (or not so secretly) rejoice that she won’t have to do his laundry and pick his crap up off the floor anymore, that the phone won’t be ringing at all hours, that the nights of watching the clock and wondering why he isn’t home yet are over? She must. And there’s a similar relief in knowing that all the copy editing and re-wording and adding this bit and deleting that one are over, for better or worse.
I work at a college, and am always amazed by what we call “helicopter parents.” You know – the hoverers. They’re the ones who have a 23 year old senior, and are still calling the college to complain if Johnny gets a C or can’t get into a class that’s filled because he waited until the last minute to register. I wonder if they’ll call Johnny’s first “real job” boss when his vacation request doesn’t get approved or he gets a “needs improvement” on a performance review. I wonder how these kids will make it in the world, because when I was 23 I had been handling my own business – from school to paying rent, tuition and bills – for 4 years.
The way I feel about my stories helps me understand these helicopter parents just a little. I have done my best by my tales. I have raised them well. I have instilled the best and some of the worst of me into them. I am proud of what they’ve become, and feel they are ready to go out into the world.
But when they fly, I always want to call them back for that one last bit of advice.
Fly free, little bird who took off on the “submit” button today. I hope the world doesn’t judge you too harshly. Don’t forget to write, or more importantly, to tell the editor to write.