~ By Becke (Martin) Davis
When I was a schoolgirl, I held one truth to be self-evident: that I could write. I might suck at a lot of other subjects, but give me a creative writing topic or even an essay, and I knew I could pull off an A. I’m not a schoolgirl anymore, and in place of essays I now write blog posts. I sweat those as much as algebra these days – not that there’s been much call for algebra in my adult life, thankfully.
Along with a lot of my childhood beliefs that were tarnished by reality, my belief in myself as a writer is no longer set in stone. It isn’t enough to enjoy writing, I’ve learned, and a bright idea for a story isn’t the same as bringing that idea to fruition in the form of a completed book. Publishers, agents and readers have higher expectations than my lovely English teachers did. And there’s a whole world of competition now, instead of twenty-odd classmates who didn’t have “published author” on their career wish list.
A neatly typed essay with no spelling errors could make the content of my grade school papers appear almost scintillating. And I learned early on that a touch of creativity could disguise a multitude of sins. For example, when I tossed A CATCHER IN THE RYE aside after a few chapters (apologies to J.D. Salinger – I much preferred mysteries in seventh grade) it left me critically short of material when my teacher sprung an assignment on the class that could have severely tarnished my grade. He asked us to write an essay from the point of view of any character in the book besides Holden Caulfield. I wracked my brain and vaguely remembered a dog. There’s always a dog, right?
My essay, written from the point of view of the barely-remembered canine, garnered an A plus. The teacher raved about my paper, while I squirmed with the knowledge that the dog’s POV was an action of last resort rather than a brilliant stratagem. That’s when I began to suspect I wasn’t a real writer.
Instead of becoming the investigative journalist I’d planned on becoming, I married young and worked in the advertising department of a couple of newspapers and magazines. I knew writing ad copy wasn’t real writing, but it did help pay the bills.
When we bought a new house that had zero landscaping, I began a crash course of self-taught horticulture. I noticed all the books I’d come across were by British gardeners, and having lived in London for several years, I doubted that the plants I’d grown there would survive a Chicago winter. The garden was bland and miserable so I wanted to create something that bought it to life and added some charm. I considered using composite decking board to build a deck so that I could have plant pots and a small greenhouse to somewhat shield my plants from harsh weather. Decking also meant I could have some garden furniture and enjoy the sun while it lasted. However, I fell in love with the idea of flower beds so the decking went on hold for the time being. This thought kicked off a period of intensive research that led to a 20-year career as a garden writer.
This career shift confused my parents, since I had no training in horticulture. My dad couldn’t understand why professional landscaping associations would hire me to write for them when I had no credentials, specifically no horticulture degree. Instantly, I discounted all my research, all the workshops I’d attended, all the professors I’d interviewed about their work. Why were these people paying me, anyway?
I reminded myself that I’d been hired to speak to master gardeners at the University of Illinois, so that must count for something – getting a paycheck from a university instead of writing checks to them seemed like a win/win. My paychecks went a long way to convincing me I was real garden writer but wasn’t I just relaying factual information about plants? I had a talent for translating complicated facts, but did that make me a real writer? As always, I had my doubts.
The difference was, real writers invented stories out of the whole cloth. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – be a real writer until I succeeded in fiction. By that time, I’d sold over 1,000 garden articles and written five books on landscaping. Apart from playing with some mystery short stories, I hadn’t attempted to write fiction in years. I read about a book a day, so I knew fiction like I knew my own face. How hard could writing it be? Make something up and write it down. Et voilà – a book!
About a million words later, I knew exactly how hard fiction could be. Pretty. Freaking. Hard. I was old, for Pete’s sake, and I’d been a teenager when I got married. I hardly dated at all. How could I write a contemporary romance if I wasn’t even contemporary? Imposter Syndrome set up a suite in the writing quarters of my brain, reminding me of all the reasons I might not have what it takes to be a real writer.
But here’s a reality check: I am a real writer. Not published yet, but I will be one day. Believe it. I almost believe it myself.
Becke (Martin) Davis moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at BN.com until the forums were discontinued last year. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&Nâ??s Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. She has written six garden books and one book about â??N Sync, co-authored with her daughter. Becke has two adult children, an awesome granddaughter and two cats. She has been married almost 44 years and lives in Chicagoâ??s Hyde Park.