How Not Writing Made Me a Better Writer

by Diana Rowland

From the time I was a toddler, I dreamed of becoming a novelist. My parents nurtured that aspiration, and my education and extracurriculars were laser focused to support my heart’s desire.

HAHAHAHAHA

Seriously y’all, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a weirdo. Those of you who know me will be like yeah, no duh, Diana. But in this particular case, I’m talking about how—despite spending countless hours of my free time writing—it took me way WAY too long to recognize that writing could be a potential career.

It was a twisty and ofttimes counterintuitive path that got me from then to now, so let’s take a stroll through the weedy garden of my writing-related life.

My childhood was a minefield of uncertainty, bullying, and parental dysfunction (which I didn’t recognize as not-normal until many years later), and as soon as I learned to read, I escaped into fiction—mostly science fiction and fantasy. Not long after, writing became another refuge, with stories, poems, snippets, and scenes popping up like green shoots in spring. While cleaning out my mother’s house several years ago, I ran across a number of things I’d written in elementary school, and they were just as epic as you might expect. One was about people who lived in a puddle . . . and when it rained, they were in a terrible muddle!

Truly, my genius knew no bounds.

But, as I re-read that crude story from four-plus decades before, I tapped into the imagination-garden that little-girl-who-was-me had grown. She had something to say—she just didn’t have the tools yet to cultivate it. 

My interests widened as I grew older; science intrigued me, and I found math to be a breeze. But I still indulged in writing and looooooved theater/acting/singing. By the time I hit high school, I was a fully formed Theater Nerd, and my creative garden was lush and diverse and thriving.

As my senior year approached, I dreamed of attending a college with a solid theater program, but my mother insisted it was silly and short-sighted to get a degree in the arts of any sort. After all, I’d never be able to find a job after graduation! When I persisted, she broke out the big guns and told me, “You’d be wasting your time and money, because youhave no talent.”

Those awful words still haunt me. (Side note #1: The upside is that it’s a reminder to never crap on my own kid like that.)

Now, with time, distance, and experience, I can shake my head and acknowledge that my mother had numerous unaddressed issues. I’ve learned that talent is pursued interest that can/should be nurtured and cultivated. But back then, the naïve child I was took the words to heart, letting them poison all I had grown. I buried my withered dreams and, on my mother’s insistence, headed for Georgia Tech as a Mechanical Engineering major.

Unsurprisingly, engineering didn’t spark one iota of joy. Switched my major to math, then discovered that the required theory courses were birthed beneath Satan’s sweaty balls. Took me several tries to pass them, not helped by the fact that, when the lecture material confused me, I scrawled short stories in my spiral instead of, you know, taking actual notes. Finally, after seven years, I scraped out a 2.0 GPA and managed to graduate. D means Diploma!

Life galloped on. Got married. Got a job as a data analyst making absolute piss money. I started writing a novel or three—and stopped, mostly because I didn’t have a clue how to actually write a book. I was still writing for myself as an escape, but the prose I produced was clunky and untamed, like sprawling vines crawling every which way. But there was more to it. Despite a life-long passion for writing, not once during my childhood/teen/college/young adult years, did I ever think, “I could learn more about the craft of writing/publishing and pursue a career (or at least a side-gig) as a writer!” I knew, of course, that real-life flesh-and-blood people wrote published books and stories, but—even though I was constantly driven to write—it somehow never occurred to me that I could feed my passion and strive to be one of those people. 

When the casino industry started up on the US Gulf Coast in the early 1990s, the husband and I were like, Hey, we can make triple what we’re making now, so we went to gaming school and got jobs as dealers. Writing continued as a sideline. 

Enter, the Internet. I’d been on Prodigy and AOL, but not long after I turned thirty, I discovered IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and found a chat room about writing that even welcomed noobs-to-publishing like me. More astounding was that among the regulars were Real Writers Who Had Real Books Published.

It was only then that my dumb little brain woke up and said, “You’re a grownup and can do whatever the hell you want with your life. You’ve been writing forever and have an absolute ton of practice. Other people write stuff and get it published. Other people make money from their writing. Maybe you could, too?”

Epiphany! 

I wrote stories, sent them out, sold them, raked in obscene amounts of money . . .

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Sorry. No. Though it was, indeed, an epiphany, the result went like this: I wrote stories, sent them out, and got scads of rejections, mostly of the “Dear Writer” form letter variety, with the occasional, “interesting concept, but . . .”

I’m not going to lie; it stung. Apparently, my garden was still too weedy and overgrown. I had something to say, but still didn’t have the tools to hack it into a saleable story. I needed and wanted to learn more about writing, but . . . how? Luck was on my side. In that IRC chat room, a couple of people raved about a six-week writing workshop they’d attended in Seattle: Clarion West. Around the same time, my marriage was in the throes of divorce, and my casino job was destroying my soul, so I was like Fuck it, Ima gonna apply.

To my absolute shock, I got in.

Clarion West was an incredible experience, with a stellar lineup of instructors: Paul Park, Gardner Dozois, Lucy Sussex, Carol Emshwiller, Connie Willis. Oh, and some nobody by the name of George R.R. Martin. (Side note #2: To this day, George likes to tell people, “I taught Diana everything she knows about writing!” :D) 

I worked my absolute ass off, entering Miracle-Gro mode to churn out as many stories as I could in order to get the most out of the opportunity. 

After an intense and transformative six weeks, I returned home fired up, inspired, and changed in many ways—not the least of which was that my divorce had become final about midway through the workshop. (Side note #3: Gardner Dozois performed a divorce ceremony wherein he tied one end of a string around my waist and the other to a gorilla doll, then burned through the string with a candle. He then shoved the doll headfirst into a cake. It was awesome. Divorce ceremonies totally need to be a Thing.)

I resumed my job at the casino and, more than ready to reap the fruits of my labor, sent out story after story, each far superior to pre-workshop manuscripts—yet still I received rejection after rejection. How in god’s green earth could that be? I’d learned so much. I knew I was better than I was even six months prior. Right?

On top of my rejection dejection, I was miserable at my job. Though the pay was great, a) I was watching—and helping—people destroy their lives with gambling, and b) my now-ex-husband was still working at the same casino which, obviously, sucked hard.

I threw my newly-divorced self even deeper into writing (surely I would succeed if I just worked harder!) and also got serious about fitness and weight training. My gym was popular with the local Sheriff deputies, and I made friends and connections. As my job dissatisfaction progressed to pure, unadulterated hatred, and my publishing aspirations continued to fizzle, I realized—again—that I could do absolutely anything I wanted with my life.

To feed my need for a positive change, I applied to the Sheriff’s Office to be a road deputy and was hired. (Side note #4: It was a 60% pay cut from the casino job, and I never once regretted it.) The Police Academy and training became my life for several months. There was no time or brain space for writing. (Worth it, because I graduated #1 in my class AND won the Marksmanship award!) Once I was a bona fide road deputy, I stayed busy. I loved it, but my crazy schedule made it nigh impossible to maintain any kind of off-duty routine.

Eager to make the most of the new career and deeply discouraged by my inability to sell a story—any story—I stopped writing.

Had I given up on it? No. But that aspect of myself went fallow. 

I continued to read everything under the sun—not just science fiction/fantasy, but mystery, romance, the classics, etc. The written word permeated me, informed me in ways that can’t be taught. I didn’t know it at the time, but each page I read enriched the soil of my dormant creative writing garden.

In my work world, the very nature of my job as a street cop offered unparalleled opportunities to study human behavior and interactions, to see how people outside my own social class lived, suffered, raged, celebrated, and died. Daily, I observed how people, including myself, responded to stress, danger, frustration, joy, and anger. The best and the worst of humanity, along with the entire spectrum in between, was laid out before me. I filled my well with an abundance of varied life experiences.

And I didn’t write.

After three years as a road deputy, I was promoted to Detective. Though the hours were 9 to 5, and the schedule much less crazy, my life and brain were tied up with learning new investigative skills and doing that pesky business of solving cases. A couple of years later, I transferred to a position in computer forensics/video analysis, and my life settled down even more.

With five years of reading-enrichment and well-filling under my belt, along with brain-space available for writing, I unearthed a story I’d written during Clarion West. To my surprise and delight, I quickly spotted its flaws. I combed through my other workshop stories, and as I read, my pervasive thought was, “Well, no wonder no one bought this!” They weren’t bad, and the concepts were interesting, but the characters were shallow, and the execution mediocre. The stories were possibly salvageable, though most would need to be rewritten from scratch. But one of my post-Clarion stories showed far more promise. I could fix that one.

As I edited the story with a fresh eye, I realized I didn’t need to consciously tap into the resources I’d stockpiled during my writing hiatus; they were now an integral and invaluable part of me. I sent out the story and collected more rejections. But this time, I scored several extremely encouraging non-form responses.

I tweaked the story and sent it to a popular SFF writing contest, completely stunned when I won first place for the quarter. Along with receiving a not-insignificant cash prize, I was invited to attend a week-long workshop with other winners and runners up. The timing was perfect, falling between a job change from the Sheriff’s to the Coroner’s Office. 

I learned still more about writing in that workshop but, even better, I realized that I finally had the tools, skills, and perspective to make a solid go at this writing gig and reap an actual harvest. After I returned home, I started working on an urban fantasy novel about a cop who summoned demons to help her solve cases. I spewed that thing out in about four months, then, having learned the value of time and distance, shoved it aside and tried not to think about it.

Several months later, I pulled it out, edited it with a fresh perspective, got feedback from writer friends, did a rewrite, then started shopping for an agent.

Very long story short, found an agent, sold the book (Mark of the Demon) and a sequel to Random House. Not long after that, and with the incredible support of my husband, I left the Coroner’s Office to write full time. Later, I sold three more books in the series to DAW along with the first three books of the White Trash Zombie series. 

Today, I have fourteen books published, along with a handful of short stories. In 2018, for health reasons, I took another break from writing (with deepest thanks to Betsy Wollheim who was/is a very understanding—and brilliant!—editor) and returned refreshed and ready.

I think back to that little-girl-who-was-me, the one who had plenty of seeds for her garden but lacked the tools and skills and experience to make it from planting to harvest. What would I tell her?

First and foremost, to follow her passion, follow her dreams, nurture her talent. I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d gone for an arts degree. The only thing I’m certain of is that my life would have been different. Better? Worse? Writer? Actor? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be left wondering nearly half a century later . . . what if? (Side note #5: If I could, I absolutely would not go back in time and change anything. I have a wonderful husband and daughter, a solid career, and a wealth of unique and fascinating experiences, none of which I would risk losing. But I can have all of that and still wonder what if.)

After that, and related to writing, I’d tell her to read, read, read, then read some more before finishing up with a session of reading.

I’d tell her to not be afraid of planting seeds or, equally, of giving her writing-self permission to lie fallow or hibernate or rest. That sometimes to be a better writer (or just about anything, for that matter), she’ll need time and distance. Sometimes, she’ll need to listen and learn and observe and question. Sometimes, she’ll need community. Sometimes, she’ll need to fill her well with new ideas and experiences. Sometimes she’ll need to step way out of her comfort zone. Sometimes she’ll need to write and write and write until she feels like writing one more word will make her puke.

But sometimes, she’ll just need to give herself a break.

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