On My Mind: the writings of Sarah Bracey White                                                                                        

 
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(Speech given to high school symposium at Westchester Community College, 1998)


Mastering the Writer’s Life

            Since childhood, I’ve functioned best doing several things at once. In my mother’s words, I was a jack-of-all-trades, master-of -none. So, after dutifully earning a master’s degree in information services, I blissfully pursued every thing that interested me. And the list was mighty long. I’ve been a babysitter, chambermaid, waitress, cook, hairdresser, gift wrapper, amateur gardener, house painter, college librarian, law librarian, speech writer, poet, essayist, novelist,  newspaper reporter, editor, secretary, office manager, teacher, tutor, labor union official, conference coordinator, counselor, artist, art consultant, wedding planner, fund raiser, seamstress, interior decorator, picture framer, stonemason, photographer, coin-operated telephone owner, and writer.

            Writing has held a place of honor on my list for the longest time — ever since junior high school when I began a long-term correspondence with a South Dakota pen-pal.However, despite my love of writing, I never considered a career as a writer. I pictured great writers as solitary beings who lived alone in cold-water flats while they pounded away at the great American novel. I liked creature comforts and was not willing to suffer isolation and poverty for my craft. I also thought no one subject could hold my interest for the years it would take to produce a novel.

            In 1962, I was a junior in high school, and editor-in-chief of my school newspaper.  I had come to New York, along with high school journalists from across the United States, to attend the Columbia Scholastic Press Conference.  Edward R. Murrow, the doyen of would-be journalists, spoke at one of the events which was held at Overseas Press Club.

            Now to me, a starry eyed girl, that was the big time.  Edward Murrow told us "the sky was the only limit for our dreams." Mr. Murrow was the first person who told me I could be a writer and he had never read anything I had written, but I believed him.  It felt right with my soul.

            The next year, another young woman and I were selected to write a five minute report of events at our high school and broadcast it over a local radio station. I was in hog-heaven.  That event made it okay for me to ask questions and as I asked questions, I honed my skills as a journalist.  A year later, upon my graduation from high school, I wrote "The sky's the limit" on the page in my yearbook marked "Dreams" and set off for college.

            There, the rudiments of language rather than the beauty of its expression became the focus of my studies.  I became an English major and imitated the "masters."   Who I was, what I experienced, and what I thought were no longer considered good enough.  I aspired to be like the French short story writers: Balzac and Flaubert or the Americans: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville and Cather.  And I failed.  I could never be like them; so, I stopped trying.  I was afraid to trust what was inside me. My own personal critic reared her head and battered me into submission.

            I had the dream, but I didn't know how to express it.  Words are the medium through which we translate our experiences and I had to find words to express who I was and where I had come from.  I had to explore my past and this was a painful task.    First, I probed internally; then, I made the personal universal.   My ever vigilant critic reared his head because he knew my fragile ego  -- my founded and unfounded fears.  He remembered verbatim every negative comment I had ever received about my work; but he forgot every word of praise I had received.  I found that I could sedate the critic for brief spells while I wrote poetry.  So I concentrated on writing poetry.

            In response to the frequently asked question of why I write, I composed a very simple poem as an answer.

Laughter, joy, pain and sorrow

are all emotions that seduce my pen

and inspire it to act as scribe for my heart.

I must feel; therefore, I must write.

This is no mean task

which my heart must perform.

It is an obligation incurred in my childhood

and renewed at each milestone I encounter.

Like magic, my pen moves.

Like water, the words flow.

my head becomes the computer,

my heart the programmer,

my hand the tool.

And the message is set down on paper

As proof that the feeling existed somewhere.

 

            But, the interesting thing is that once I began to feel better, I didn't want to stop writing.  I had found the language to convey my feelings; I had grown fond of painting pictures on lined yellow pads.

            The world around me had caught my attention and I began to have a response to what I saw, and I believed that my response was valid.  I listened to the way people talked and I listened to what they said. I took to sitting alone in restaurants and listening to the conversations of people at nearby tables.  I began to imagine what the people they talked about looked like.  I began to dredge up memories from my past ... people I knew in childhood, high school, college and tried to capture their nuances on paper.

            When I passed people on the street, I tried to describe them on paper with words.  I painted pictures but without paint and oils.  I found the language of my expression.  For some writers, form and shape precede their actual writing; for others, a visual presentation is the commencement; for  others like me, characters present themselves and grow into full fledged people whose lives interact and provide plot outlines.

             The critic says not only must we produce, but we must be recognized as world class, win prizes an acclaim. (Pulitzer, Nobel, be reviewed in the NYT, hit the best sellers list, have our photo on the cover of Time or People, a la Scott Turov or Tom Wolfe.

            The production of something does not make you an artist.  The soul makes you an artist.  An artist is an artist before he or she has produced a single thing.  If you believe yourself an artist, you will find the tools to express what you feel.  Musician try a broad range of musical instrument; painters try pencil, ink, watercolor, oil, acrylic, clay, marble;  writers try poetry, short stories, plays, screenplays.  I wanted to be a painter but because I could not accurately duplicate the human face or specific animals, I was not encouraged to paint and did not believe myself an artist; thus, I stopped trying to draw with pencil and paint brush.  I never developed my talent for artistic design and layout.  I was an artist looking for a medium of expression. Then I enrolled in an "Early bird" journalist's class.  Suddenly, I was seized by the muses of writing.  I began to tell stories...I began to draw pictures with words.  I was ecstatic.  I truly felt creative.

            Once I began to write, every story I read or someone told to me took on a special significance.  I tried to find words to tell the story even better; to make the character more vivid, more real, realer than real.

            A writer's inside world creates his or her outside world. For the writer, life stories are the equivalent of flowers to a perfume manufacturer -- raw material.  In and of themselves, they may be beautiful, but when they are processed -- reworked with other ingredients -- they become evocative, provocative, extraordinarily heady scents that travel in glass bottles across oceans and evoke memories years after they are applied.

 The connection between our inner richness, our self concept and our work will give us a quiet peace and confidence.  It isn't as important for the world to claim your work as it is for you to claim your work for yourself.  Your writing is good!  Trust your gut!  The mere fact that you are here today says that not only are you able to write, but that you are good because your work has caught the attention of at least one reader and now is a time to celebrate that you have found a way to convey emotions on paper. 

             What does the decision to write down your memories entail?  The writer's business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader.  It is by reading and training that one learns to present one's fiction.  Not imitation, but finding out from the work of others what techniques work.  Mastery is the writer's constant goal.

            I have manipulated every job I ever had into utilizing my skills as a writer and writing is a talent that is improved, not depleted, by use.  I am amazed at the sacrifices I have made in order to be a writer and have not felt that they are sacrifices.  For me, writing has been a series of leavings in order to pursue the muse that beckoned.

            Thirteen years ago, my family was distressed when I quit my "good job" and moved to New York to be near the publishing industry and other writers.  I took a job working for a consulting firm which permitted me to use their computer equipment after work for my personal writing.  I wrote from 6 - 9 PM, four evenings per week and for five hours either on Saturday or Sunday.  I wrote short stories, children's stories, fairy tales, science fiction... I tried my hand at everything in order to make the transition from journalist to novelist.

            One Christmas, I took a trip back to South Carolina -- a place I had not seen since I left in 1963 to attend college in Baltimore.  I had no love for the south and never missed it or understood my parent's love of it.  Yet, when I went back to visit, my past became a living part of my present.  It gave me a handle on a particular place in time.  I began to use my southern background as the locale for several of my short stories. I returned to New York and began to write about my trip south.  I was surprised that as I wrote about my trip, it awakened feelings I had forgotten.... feelings I began to incorporate into characters in my stories.    One evening around 8,  as I worked alone in my office, I heard glass tinkling and went out to see what was going on -- as ever, the inquisitive child -- and walked into a burglary in progress.  I saw the burglar before he saw me and I ran into my office and locked the door.

            I phoned the police and in the thirteen minutes I huddled under a desk, waiting for their arrival, I evaluated my life.  I realized that I wasn't ready to die.  There were things left I had not accomplished.  I wanted my books to be required reading in the college syllabus fifty years from now and I had not yet completed my first novel.  Two months later, I retired from the world of 9 - 5 and entered a world where I worked constantly.  I set out to write a murder mystery, but after a few chapters, a southern character ( a young man) tapped on my computer screen and demanded that I let him out and I did.   That character evolved into an entire book which I am now in the proces of completing.  I have sedated my critic and feel that my work is moving along satisfactorily.  I have an agent who feels the same way.

            For a long time, my answering machine said "I'm sorry I can't take your call, but the Muses have me hard at work"  and I still feel like that.  I am amazed by the images in my mind that I struggle to record in words.           I am amazed that more keep coming. I can't seem to keep up -- the well seems to be bottomless and it is.  I am amazed that the very act of living in the world fuels what I do.  An interruption by a UPS delivery person results in my observing an unusual character trait which I can attach to a minor character.  That one small item helps to make the character real.

            It is as if my mind is filled with a storehouse of characters, settings, plots and it is my job as the writer to sort and select the appropriate ones.  By living my life, I am put in touch with the appropriate stimuli.

            There seems to be a limited number of subject in the writers world and much of it has been done before.  However, it is what the writer brings to the subject matter that makes his rendition memorable.

            Writers are viewed as possessing very special talent. When you tell people you are a writer, they have one of several reactions:

            1. their eyes grow wide and they say "I have a story that would make a great book" (and my answer is your story can only be told by you.  I don't have the same emotion about it that you do and without that spark, your story will fall flat.)

            2. their eyes grow wide and you can almost see them thinking about how much money you probably make for doing something so easy.  I don't bother to tell them that the average writer earns $10,000 per year.

            3. they say with a touch of awe in their voices, I could never be a writer.  It's too hard.

            4. or they say, "you must be very disciplined."   Whenever I hear the last statement, I always smile inside, because it is the closest to the truth.  Writing is 20% talent and 80% discipline or perseverance.

            Daily, I must steel myself against the beckoning lure of the real world:  sunshiny days, rainy days, trips to the post office, the grocery store, the movies, the mall, visits with friends, with dentists, with life in general.   I must be willing to persevere with what at times is a boring occupation... boring because it is done best in isolation.  Boring because after writing the piece, be it a poem, essay, short story, long story or novel, I have to go back and re-write.  I  have to make certain that what I meant to say is written on the page. I must make sure that I have not presumed certain knowledge by my reader and ascertain that the reader will not be distracted by errors I make in haste.  Always I must be faithful to my muse.  

            Now, as I look back at Edward R. Murrow's words - the sky's the limit for dreams, I think -- what a corny statement, but what a true statement.   My dream of writing has no security, no assurances, no promises, but I know nothing else that could give me the kind of satisfaction, during the process of its accomplishment, that writing does. I still pursue my dream and will continue to do so until the day I die.  I have no choice.  That's how dreams are, they possess us.  They sustain us.  They give meaning to our lives.

            Then in my thirties, when my life was not to my liking, and I couldn’t afford therapy to help me sort out what was wrong, I turned to poetry. On pages that I never expected to expose to the light of day, I poured out the contents of my heart. Writing eased my angst, and soon  I sorted out my desires, and made new life-plans. About that time, a friend who knew I wrote poetry asked it I would substitute in her continuing education poetry class at a local college. I agreed, and embarked on a new career - teaching. Once my students discovered I wrote poetry too, they asked that I share my work with the class, as they did. Since I believe we teach by example, how could I refuse? I read several poems to the class, fully expecting glassy stares and silence when I ended. Instead, several students said I had voiced emotions they had also felt but couldn’t find the words to express. When they asked for copies of my poems, I was delirious! Not since the days when my pen-pal wrote that she couldn’t wait for my next letter, had I experienced such joy.

            Once lured onto the literary stage, I wanted to stay there; so I sought out the Baltimore coffee-house scene and began to read my poems wherever I could find an open-mike. In addition to poetry, I began to write fairy tales, children’s stories and romantic fantasy tales. I even ventured into play-writing with an actor-friend. Non-writing friends gave my work mixed reviews: some tactfully said, “keep your day job,” while others said, “practice makes perfect,” and encouraged me to continue to hone my craft.

            Years passed and my writing drawers grew stuffed with myriad trials. It was time to attempt publication. SASE’s quickly filled my mailbox. Most were form-letter rejections. One handwritten note said,  “Your story has elements of violence unsuitable for our children’s magazine.” I was elated when a fairy tale that I thought perfectly suited for animation elicited a call-back from the Walt Disney Studio. My hopes sank when the woman informed me I needed to sign a waiver of responsibility or have my agent contact them before they would read the story. I had no idea how to get an agent and fears of literary theft, fueled by ignorance, prompted me to request that they return my story unread immediately. They did. And I filed it away with all the other things I had written.

            A career move to New York, where I envisioned joining legions of other writers working day-jobs while struggling for literary fame, set me on the right track. Within two years, I had self-published a book of poetry, Feelings Brought to Surface, and sold more than 900 copies. Then, I joined a local writers’ group and found my niche. Membership in the Westchester/CT Local of the National Writers Union assured me that I would never again be at a disadvantage when a publisher expressed interest in my work.I write to satisfy my heart. I'll never stop doing that.