Helping a Shadow Writer Step into the Light
FROM OUR FIRST CONVERSATION, I knew Mona was a writer … although that notion was in complete contradiction to the fact that she didn’t write! Still. There was something about her that just felt like a writer—and as someone who spends most of my waking hours talking with writers, I was pretty confident in my assessment.
Julia Cameron talks about shadow artists. These are folks who long to have a more creative life, but instead live in the shadow of other creatives. Perhaps they manage a gallery instead of painting themselves, or, in the case of shadow writers, read voraciously, but rarely put pen to paper. Before this past year, Mona may have been living in the writing shadows, but not anymore. Since we met, she’s taken many steps into the light. I’m grateful to her for sharing both a bit about her journey here and a beautiful piece of personal writing that shows her writer’s soul!
A Writer’s First Year
My writing year started when a friend invited me to join a blog group in early January. Participants received daily prompts from the organizer, wrote posts, and shared them with the group. Thinking I could learn from others and maybe connect with fellow wannabes, I jumped in, although I felt really insecure about my writing.
I am a rule follower, so I wrote to the suggested topic each day, though no one else seemed to. In fact, only a very few of the twenty or so other participants wrote at all. After a few weeks of limping along, trying my darnedest to get into the flow, I read our leader’s post about her writing coach, Jamie Morris.
Jamie’s enthusiasm gave me a positive vibe—I could do this. I could explore writing in a safe, fun, educational environment with a writing coach! I had asked and the Universe had delivered something better than the blog group.
Then I broke my wrist while skiing. Immediately, my very active life became sedentary. It turned out to be the break (no pun intended) I needed to slow down and explore the short “writing opportunities” Jamie offered me. I wrote about a painting in my living room, about hotel carpet, about my long-dead fish, Beta (see story below). As winter melted into summer, I took walks and wrote about what I’d seen along the way.
And Jamie and I wrote together, too. In those sessions, I noticed how unfamiliar I am with spilling out my ideas. I keep circling authors whose books I’ve read and am in awe at how they are able to write hundreds of pages of really good words, all strung together, while the writing I produce seems still to be so elementary.
I struggle to imbue myself in the pieces I write, and I struggle to find the words. And I still have stretches where I just don’t write. But when I do, sometimes I am actually pleased with what I write—like I am with this piece.
My friend Marcella was giving betta fish as party favors at her daughter’s high school graduation party. I decided to take one with me to my apartment, 350 miles away. Like my cousin Danette, my nephew Chris, and my niece Sonia, I took a bright red one. To make the fish’s trip as comfortable as possible, I carefully packed his bowl in a box with a towel around it. The temperature was in the 90s. Fortunately, my car had excellent air conditioning.
I’d never owned a fish before, but the idea of a pet in my little apartment put a smile on face. I named him Beta. Bettas are fighters; they don’t do well with other fish in their tank. Even when people stooped to talk to him at eye level, he’d do his aggressive dance, coming up to the side of his one-gallon tank, puffing out his gills to make his head look bigger, and attacking them, by swimming in reverse, then charging forward, stopping right before he hit the side of the tank.
But Beta was really friendly to me. He would greet me when I talked to him. I was convinced he recognized me! When he was feeling particularly friendly, he’d wave his little fins at me when I looked him in the eye. In the morning when I fed him, I would drop of couple of flakes into the tank; he would swim around one of them and then attack it, munching it down quickly.
My neighbors Peg and Mike took care of Beta when I’d leave town for more than a couple of days. After watching him for over a year, they would joke when I took him over to their apartment that he was going to camp—Betta Camp. He was pretty entertaining for all of us.
One day, though, after he’d been in my care for three years, he started acting less frisky, looking a little gray below his mouth. After researching on the internet, I concluded he was sick, not dying. The guy at the pet store who sold me the Betta Fix, which was the medicine to cure him, told me a typical betta lifespan was about three years. The internet said two to five years. I was determined to get Beta past three, even to five.
I changed his water frequently, didn’t overfeed him, and of course I talked to him. But he didn’t make it. After a few days of hanging out at the top of his tank on a floating plastic plant, he died. I came home from work to find him standing on his tail leaning against the little Buddha in his tank.
For his final swim, I took him down to the Roaring Fork River and let him go in the current, thanking him for being my companion. Hopefully, in a complete cycle, he was food for another fish, or a bird that spotted his bright red body from high in the sky.
In December, Mona asked herself, “Am I done with this experiment?” A gut check told her no, she’s not done. There’s more she wants to explore in this coming year. She reported that she’s signed up for two creative writing classes, one with Natalie Goldberg and one at her local college. She’ll also continue working on a longer piece, about Georgia O’Keefe and Mabel Dodge Luhan, that she started last year, hoping to find a place for its publication. But whether or not she gets that piece published, Mona told me she’ll keep going, approaching writing with perseverance and gusto, the way she likes to approach the rest of her life (especially skiing!).
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I hope you found Mona’s experience as a shadow writer inspiring. Got a dream? Be like Mona! Go for it—even if you take it tortoise-slow and with the tiniest of baby steps. Just give it a year and see how far you’ve come.