How I earned my scarlet letter – Cathryn Novak

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By Cathryn Novak

I’ve always been someone who writes. When I was very little girl I made up stories in my head and when I was older, I used to beg my mother, who had gone back to get her college degree, to bring me empty “blue books” so I could write my mini novels in something that looked like an actual book.

At some point, however, I abandoned my story making and turned my writing skills toward academic and professional pursuits. I was a skilled writer; in my freshman year one of my professors accused me of plagiarism because he did not believe a beginning student could be so precise. The accusation was compounded by the fact that, while my completed paper rested in the in box by the professor’s office door, another student actually stole it and copied it wholesale. Although imitation is alleged to be the highest form of flattery, I felt anything but flattered.

Once out in the cold cruel world, I continued to write in service of my career. At various times I was a policy analyst, a speech writer, and always the “go to” person whenever something needed to written competently and expeditiously.

Periodically I would stick my toe back into the waters of fiction. I took UCLA extension classes, wrote some short stories that went over well with the class but went nowhere else and joined a writers’ group composed primarily of serious young men working on their degrees from UCLA and USC. They worked on ponderous novels dealing with angst and the meaning of life; I wrote quirky, off-beat short stories. Needless to say, when I would bring in my latest effort, they shook their heads and as one voice, asked me when I was going to actually write something worthwhile. Overcome with writers’ block, I left the group and focused exclusively on my day job which was stressful and demanding enough to make me forget any outside writing ambitions.

Finally and blissfully retired, I spent the first few years learning how to breathe again, bought a house, and devoted myself to cultivating a native plant garden which would attract wild birds and other assorted creatures. Then an old friend, a talented painter and visual artist, began raving about this amazing writing class she had found. She described the class as transformational, the teacher Linda Schreyer as amazing, and the bonding among their small group as a wonderful example of supportive sisterhood.

I absolutely knew at this point that the universe was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Hey kiddo, it’s time to write fiction again,” but my first anguished response was a loud no. I was pressure free for the first time in my life, but even more important, I was terrified to face the challenge. I had always thought about myself as a writer, with a small “w”, but I had been blocked for years. What if I took this class and found out that I was just a great wordsmith, but unable to create characters and stories that would mean I was a real Writer, with a capital “W”.

After much soul searching and pumping up of courage, I contacted the instructor and asked if I could fill the next opening. I remember walking across the stone pavers that led through Linda’s garden to her airy and open studio; I hadn’t been able to sleep and I was literally trembling. A craven part of me whispered that if I fell and broke something vital, I would have a good excuse to pass on the class. I didn’t fall.

I walked through the door and saw my two fellow students with whom I would share my prose and then bond. One was a woman who dropped out after the first class. The second was a broad-shouldered man with a shaved head and a German accent, who was working on a dark, dystopian cyberpunk novel. I’ve always like science fiction, and had read a number of cyberpunk novels, but I was pretty certain my chances of sisterly bonding were nil.

Cover (8)That first evening, Linda handed out a questionnaire designed to help us describe our current project. What project? The whole reason I was taking the class was because I had no projects. I felt angry and betrayed and disappointed. Then it occurred to me; what if I pretended I was working on something just so I could understand what this exercise was all about. I reached into the dark recesses of my mental filing cabinet and pulled out a macabre little story that I had loved and most people had hated. I dusted off my main character and went to work. His name was John Frederick, he was very large, and he lived to eat.

I never intended to write a novel; hell, at that point, I couldn’t even grind out a short story. Besides, I didn’t have the patience to keep work on anything that long. However, all the questionnaire required was that I come up with a few “moments”, little pieces of narrative and description. That at least seemed doable.

As the class continued, I began adding moments, digging deeper into my main character and exploring how John Frederick might react to various experiences and situations. A second character, a young woman named Lexie Alexander, began demanding a larger part of the narrative, developing from a foil into a character in her own right. The composition of class also changed; the cyberpunk author left after a few sessions and his place was ultimately taken by Paula Bernstein, a prolific and talented writer of mystery novels. And yes, I got my bonding at last.

I began developing a plot line and more moments, which I strung along the line like ornaments on a branch. I worked at a much slower pace than Paula who turned out chapters at a prodigious pace, and my approach was quite different, but we truly respected each other both as writers and as people. She and Linda provided support, invaluable criticisms, and put up with my mood swings as the writing process dredged up every issue I had ever had in my life. (I was surprised by the latter; I had thought this sort of thing happened only to memoir writers who essentially had to relive their lives to get words on paper. I didn’t realize that I too was excavating little parts of myself and sprinkling throughout the narrative, not to mention issues connected to the writing process itself.)

As my work continued, almost all of the elements of the original short story dropped away; the only things that remained were the names and general descriptions of my two main characters and a variation of the original theme, food equals love. A second underlying motif also emerged: maintaining an eccentric core identity. I’ve always been disturbed by those stories where a very idiosyncratic and quirky individual was forced by circumstances to change into some more “normal.” I was particularly struck by this development in one of my favorite films called The Ruling Class. In this oldie but goodie movie, Peter O’Toole plays a happy, delusional and totally demented individual who unexpectedly becomes the heir to an earldom. In an attempt to make him more acceptable, he is stripped of all his non-traditional behaviors, and, in a wickedly funny development, becomes instead a homicidal maniac. (Yes, this is a comedy!) John Frederick is not nearly as bizarre as Peter O’Toole’s character, and his solution, while perhaps as off-beat, is definitely more upbeat.

After numerous drafts, rewrites and even a professional edit, I was in possession of this remarkable thing, an actual manuscript. Not only that, but I was quite proud of it and even thought it was worthy of going out into the world. Size Matters is getting lots of good reviews, but I got my reward much earlier. I have now claimed my bright shiny red letter, the capital “W” that means I am a real Writer.

Cathryn Novak has had a love affair with words that began as soon as she could read. After graduating with a degree in Communications and Public Policy from U.C. Berkeley, Cathryn did a stint in advertising before devoting the rest of her professional career to public service. During that period she wore many hats including speech writer, policy analyst, and investigative report writer. Now retired, Cathryn has returned to her first love, the world of fiction. Size Matters is her first novel.

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