October 31, 2017

Bzdury: The next chapter of the Poland Project

Two years ago, The Poland Project found me.

I think there are ideas that you discover, and there are ideas that find you. Writing
 a novel based on my grandparents’ experiences in World War II feels like the latter.

After my mother handed me that stack of brittle yellow typewriter paper, I translated my grandfather’s memoirs. I read books about the war. I took a fiction writing class, then another. I bought a new computer and fancy writing software. I visited Poland.

The only thing left to do was write.

I’m generally confident with words
. I like the way my voice sounds in work emails and PowerPoints, and my mom still calls me for the perfect phrasing for thank-you cards.

But when I wrestled myself into a chair, put my fingers onto the keyboard, and tried to write about Poland... I faltered.

Suddenly, I forgot how books worked. I pounded out paragraphs and was embarrassed by how bad they were.

My inner critic was bilingual, shouting at me for writing “Bzdury!” Nonsense.

Reading novels wasn't fun anymore because even the bad ones were so much better than anything I was writing. The gap between my taste and my skill was a chasm, and I fell in.

At the recommendation of several people, I picked up the book “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott. I’m currently reading the chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts.” That’s exactly where I am in my own writing process.

I am also in the process of forgiving myself for not being a good fiction writer. This isn’t false modesty; it’s the liberating humility of admitting that I don’t know what I’m doing and I need help.

I write like a journalist, hurrying to the essence of the scene and pushing my characters through doors without stopping to smell the air outside or examine the doorway. Only occasionally do they remember to knock.

I write like a social media user, a character count ticker running in my head. When it hits 140, the extra words turn red. I remove them.

I write like a blogger, inserting my voice into scenes that aren’t about me, and grasping at some insight that people similar to me might find relatable.

I don’t know how to write like a novelist.


This morning, I made a big commitment. I signed up for a year-long, intensive writing program through The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Several friends had pointed me to this program, and I kept dismissing the idea: It’s too expensive. Too time-consuming. I’m not qualified. There are only eight spots, and it fills up fast.

I decided to try, telling myself that if the class sold out before I could register, it just wasn’t meant to be. I’m one of the lucky eight.

Starting in February, I’ll trade my free time for the support of instructors and fellow writers. My evenings and weekends will fill up with class assignments and hours with my hands on a keyboard and my mind in World War II Poland. I know there will be times when I ask myself why I’m doing this.

I’m doing it for my grandparents, who wrote down their stories so they could be remembered. I’m doing it for my mom, who has shared vulnerable pieces of herself with me so I could better understand our history. I’m doing it for my kids, so they know the pursuit of dreams is a lifelong journey.

Mostly, I’m doing this for me. I wanted to finish this book before April, in time for my 40th birthday. Instead I’ll turn 40 as a student, learning how to refine my voice for writing the next chapter. That’s exactly where I want to be.

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