As a child, I would sit down to our Compaq computer after chores and bang out stories until it was time for dinner. Over dinner, someone would ask me what I had been writing, and I would plunge into detail: The story, the world, the character’s backstory, the reasons for the antagonist’s behavior and his/her backstory. My time was limited, but I could and wanted to discuss this for hours. After a few minutes, perhaps as long as ten, my mother would get this look of absolutely no interest and say, “That doesn’t make sense.”
A few times I tried to explain myself, but the conversation turned to the next boy scout outing or my brothers’ mutual dismissal of their homework or grades. The rest of dinner I would sit with the knowledge that my story didn’t make sense, which I thought was a forgiveable fault, but also saddened by the fact that no one wanted to help me fix it.
At first I thought I was simply being less-than-elegant in my pitch of the story. I knew it sounded nothing like the summary of the back of books, and would continue on with my tale after homework, but I was less enthusiastic and as I wrote I heard their comments in my head. Usually I abandoned the story, but I can’t fairly say if this was because of nagging doubts or due to my hyperactive imagination and slow finger-pecking.
Still, as the years passed I learned how to alter my pitch some. I would say, “It’s about a girl in (a certain situation) who has to choose (between some unsavory choices) but it isn’t as easy as choosing, there are consequences.” There would be some lukewarm interest at this point, but more likely scepticism. “Why is she in that situation? Why are those the choices?” And then I would explain, since the situation always arose from the role of women in the story world. Once or twice I got the conversation to last twenty or thirty minutes before my mom would say, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
I went through a frustrated period, where I was angry that my written skill far exceeded my verbal skills since I was both an introvert and a non-confrontationalist. This knowledge made me print out the story and take it to my mother, to ask that she read it. It was my way of asking, Does it make sense on the page? She didn’t read it, and my brothers weren’t interested in proofreading for me, not that I thought them credible to do it—though my elder brother revolutionized my typing by introducing me to the magical “Tab” key so I didn’t have to count the number of times to hit the space bar before every paragraph.
Often I would rather read books than eat, too, and I’d do my best to re-write the stories in the books by my own hand. “Sam, the Horse” was written in this way when I was eight. It was a whomping 20 pages long and the teacher’s aide even bound it for me and sent it to a competition, which I won, and I got to go on a special field trip which was basically a mini writer’s retreat with workshops and a guest author speaking. She said she earned $1,000 a year on her one book, to which my mother commented that wasn’t very much. Later I found out that a low yearly salary was $20,000 so I naturally thought that if I wrote 20 books each earning $1000 a year, I could at least get by with life.
But there was one crucial problem: That doesn’t make any sense.
In order to really understand the impact of this statement, I must explain the broader use of the phrase in our household. It was used to comment on the news: “Why would someone bomb a car? It doesn’t make any sense.” It was used in the movies: “Wait, why would he do that? It doesn’t make any sense.” It was used when us kids were being stupid: “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would you touch the electric fence with your palm? Use the back of your hand so you jerk away, not grab it when your muscles tighten.”
At the age of nine, my father walked me out to the cow pasture and told me to pick a heifer. “And next year, she’ll have a calf. You can sell it if it’s a bull, or keep the calf if it’s a heifer. Then she’ll have a calf in two years, and you’ll have two calves a year.” And we counted how many animals I would have by the time I graduated high school in ten years. “And you can pay for college. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
At first, the cattle didn’t cut in too much to my time. One heifer in a herd of twenty is pretty easy to take care of, but my responsibilities grew exponentially as I aged. Between my initial contest winning and when I went to college, I had exactly three major events in writing: A weeklong writing summer camp with my aunt while I was a child where they published one of my stories in the camp anthology, and the two times I was one of ten or fewer students in the state of Idaho to score a perfect 5 on the statewide essay writing assessment for grades 6 and 8. I don’t know if I was the only person to do this or not; it was all anonymous.
I never gave up on writing during this time, but not once did I submit anything for publication. I didn’t understand what the ‘how to publish your novel’ books were saying, and my parents were far less than helpful in this regard. Soon I was out of time for such things, and anyway, I didn’t know if my stories made sense. Being an author sure didn’t.
My whole life I’ve been trying to make sense of writing. When I was depressed after miscarriage and completely lost the ability to write, I lost myself. My own husband has said that writing is such a part of me that I’m lacking when I can’t do it. None of it makes sense. Why I have to do it, why I am obsessed with it, why nothing else in the world is something I would rather do for my day job. I’ve been trying to make sense of my stories, and more than that, I’ve been trying to make sure my stories make sense to my reader.
The other night I was with my writing club. They asked me what I’d been up to, and I realized that I had two tales sitting in a ‘Beta Reader’ folder which had not been sent out to anyone, at all. I was still trying to make sure they were good before I sent them out.
This morning I realized this was because I wanted to ensure that they made sense. This morning I realized that at some point in my adolescence, my parents asked how writing was going, and I would say “good” and leave it at that. Today I realized that I need to learn to put “that doesn’t make sense” behind me.
But it is such a hard lesson to leave behind.