You may recognize the writing instructor mentioned in this guest post. But that's not why I asked Vin to contribute a post. At my MFA graduation, a faculty mentor said he enjoyed working with me as a student, and looked forward to the future, when we'd be colleagues. I'm beginning to understand what he meant. I asked Vin to write a post because he exemplifies many of the behaviors that keep would-be writers from writing, as well as the actions that move writers from one level to the next, the steps and leaps necessary to go from secret writer to writer whose work is published.
In his other professional life, Vincent J. Fitzgerald MSW, LSW, is a psychotherapist with the Nutley (NJ) Family Service Bureau. In addition to the pieces he mentions in his post, he has work forthcoming in Longridge Review and Missing Slate. He's a father of two, and is soon to be married.
Please welcome Vincent J. Fitzgerald.
I first aspired to write when I was 17 years old. At age 44, I still aspired, and employed all known excuses for not writing: I have nothing to say. I have no voice. Print is dead!
The real barriers were poverty of drive and of confidence. From the moment I first put on a baseball mitt in Little League, I was paralyzed by fear of failure. I often asked out of lineups, exiled myself to right field, the Siberia of Little League, and never swung my bat. The same fears have dogged me through life the way Javert hounds Valjean. In my adolescence, I watched horror movies and blasted Metallica as a soundtrack to defiance while my youngest brother filled marble tablets with tales of dragons and sorcerers. I sidestepped failure at passion’s expense, until I allowed my little brother to inspire me.
In my 20s and 30s, I journaled in spurts; which is to say I whined in ink about unrequited love. I lacked the ego structure to tolerate solitude, and when I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder, my therapist helped me pinpoint the malevolent mental free radicals.
Today, I write this as both client and therapist. Anxiety is the flu of the mental health world. The symptoms suck, but hope lives through treatment and insight. When I was 43, a layoff further frazzled me to the extent I sought therapy myself, and introduced the idea of writing as a therapy topic. My therapist responded with a fleeting suggestion I give it a shot. Six sessions of redundancy forced her to diagnose me with “Ass-not-in-chair syndrome.” (No such diagnosis exists in the DSM.)
“Writing is that thing you always talk about doing, but never do," she said. "Get your ass in a chair and write. It doesn’t matter what happens.”
I empower the clients I see as a psychotherapist toward self-actualization, often parenting them. My therapist parented me and made failure a safe place, hence opening a door. The only danger was relegating me to cursory journaling. I contemplated memoir to build on my undergraduate experience as an English major, when my classes were enriching, but I was bogged down by doubt and fretted about my inability to turn phrases like my classmates.
Doubt is stubborn, and my need for reassurance mandated I search for writing classes. Even if I had talent, it was no doubt raw and undeveloped, and I needed to have whatever skill I possessed sharpened by someone willing to shove me out of my comfort zone the same way my therapist did.
I live in Jersey City, home to its own art district, an established writers group, and a PATH train ride from New York City, yet I looked to the ‘burbs for a less overwhelming small town feel conducive to keeping my nerves soothed. I also wanted to go to a place where nobody knew my name. When I discovered The Writers Circle in nearby Summit, I registered prior to reading anything about the program. I sensed most of my initial writing would be a purge of painful memories and exploration into the roots of anxiety. There was much I needed to get out of my system, and I was aware from my own therapeutic practice that divulgence is the difference between sadness and depression.
The interior of the Mondo building where the class was (is still) held, is embellished with art and album covers. The immersion in creativity made me feel at home, but when confronted with classmates with whom that home would be shared, I almost absconded. Then my instructor walked in, and I was pulled to my chair. While gravitas poured from her professorial appearance, she established a quick pace, stuffed with ideas, examples and advice about craft. I couldn't help but jump in. She was tough but honest, and I decided, perhaps unfairly, that I would continue my pursuit if she spotted any talent, and quit if she did not. I am writing this blog post because the former happened.
Immersed in that no nonsense approach, and without being blandished into taking subsequent classes, I wrote and wrote, but still struggled. I welcomed assignments as a catalyst for ideas shelved for the future. Workshopping my assignments was far less threatening than I had imagined. Anxiety bullies us into believing things are worse than they are. I embraced the community of writers whose platitudes were indulging, but whose criticisms reminded me they were invested. I remember it in every group therapy session I conduct. Life is not always about content. Process has its place.
My instructor sometimes veered to cranky, but I love and need her, as children need and desire structure. I defy any reader to find the word that in my work, and I learned adverbs are anathema as strong verbs are writing’s lifeblood. A few weeks in I asked if I was wasting my time. She responded in writing I was not. The exclamation point at the end of her answer drove the point home. Writers don’t just throw exclamation points around.
Buoyed by The Writers Circle, I decided to take some risks. A blog noticed my tweets about horror films, and the editor encouraged me to submit a piece. When my essay, "How the Exorcist Possessed Me" was published, I shared the link on Twitter, and Exorcist director William Friedkin offered a favorable comment -- priceless validation from an artist I admire. Soon after, I was encouraged to submit to The Writer’s Circle Journal and "From Video Games to Baby Names" was accepted after a competitive submission process.
From there, I answered a call for submissions to an essay anthology, Dads Behaving Dadly 2. When I submitted my first piece, the editor’s response was positive, and he requested a second. Seeing my effort in a book convinced me: print was alive, and I am a writer. I even reached out to a nearby bookstore that offers a local author consignment program. I can’t explain the feeling of seeing my own writing on a bookstore shelf.
No endeavor humbles me like the writing process. The blend of joy and frustration is inherent, but ensures I write daily, wherever, whenever. Editors never let me get too comfortable, and my mentors remind me they too experience rejection. I revel not in their occasional struggle, but in the resolve shown by writers much further along in their careers than I am. Failure is both a safe place, and a breeding ground for growth.
Before my first pieces were published, even before I found that first writing class, I got ahead of myself and submitted to Hippocampus, the selective, online creative nonfiction journal. After an extensive period of waiting, my piece was rejected for publication. The editors at were not as impressed with me as I was, and my respect for craft shot skyward. Writing scoffs at hubris.
But rejection was a watershed moment. I was in the game, and embraced my struggling writer status. Being a struggling writer was more invigorating than being a never writer. Now, I adopt each new rejection as a growth opportunity, yet I always remember my first. It motivated me to persist, and taught me success can live in failure. Without it, I would not have received the honor of guest blogging for a former instructor turned friend and mentor whose guidance has helped me turn writing into that thing I do.
Note from Lisa: You can connect with Vin via Twitter.