Guest Posting

Hey guys! I did a guest post for Asher Witmer’s blog today.

I wrote the story of how I learned to love learning, and about how changes come into our life through difficult times. You can read it here.

Enjoy!

The Cliff and the Staircase: A Writing Journey (Or a sum of every bit of writing advice I know how to give.)

I used to see the prospect of being a “real writer” as a giant cliff, looming before me. Somehow I hoped to get to the top of that cliff, and look down over the not-as-lucky populace, and know that I, Emily Sara Smucker, was a real author.

How would I get there? I wasn’t sure. Those who stood on the cliff always seemed to dole out dubious advice on how to follow in their footsteps. “Read more and write more,” they always said, as though that alone would allow us to sprout wings and join them on the elevated plane where they resided.

I didn’t buy it.

I viewed myself as already on a higher plane than my peers when it came to writing. An in-between cliff of potential writers. After all, strangers were reading my blog, and my writing teachers praised my work. How had I gotten to this point? By reading more and writing more? No. It had just happened to me, like magic.

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I figured when it was time for me to reach the cliff of real writers, it would happen in much the same way. Magically. Boom. And I would live up there and publish books and drink sun tea for the rest of my days.

Everything worked out exactly as I’d imagined it. When I was 17 I sent my writing samples to a woman who was looking for teenage memoirists, and was chosen to write and publish a book. A real book, published by a real publisher. I had made it. I was on top of the cliff.

Now what?

Something happened which I had never anticipated. Now that I had this new identity, now that I was a “real writer,” I had to live up it. I had to write real things. Silly blog posts weren’t going to cut it anymore. The prospect of falling from that cliff, of letting this little memoir be the peak of my writing career, terrified me. Especially because, when I started researching other young authors, this seemed to be a trend.

I discovered The Outsiders during that obscure in-between time of life when my book was written but not yet published, and I was just beginning to grapple with the identity issues that came along with the process. I was living in Colorado at the time, and I used to ride my blue scooter up Main Street and visit the cute little shops that constantly popped up and disappeared overnight. My favorite was a used bookstore that was so crammed full of books that they were stacked up in walls and barriers, and I could slip into a corner where no one would see me and read for hours.

It was there that I discovered, and subsequently bought, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I sat on my porch reading it for hours, engrossed in the story.

I became even more fascinated when I googled the author. It turns out that S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was still in high school. A teenage author, just like me. How did she handle reaching “real author” status at such a young age?

Not too, well, it turns out. S.E. Hinton’s early success led to a huge case of writer’s block that lasted three years. It only ended when her boyfriend, tired of her depression, “made her write two pages a day if she wanted to go anywhere.” That seemed to help her, but she never became a terribly prolific writer. Today she is 66 and has only written about seven books, of which The Outsiders is still the most popular.

“When are you going to publish another book?”

One small success, and everyone seemed to want more from me than they’d ever wanted before. I was on the cliff, right? I ought to be writing more books, because that’s what real writers do, right?

I started to realize what nobody else seemed to notice; being on the giant cliff of published writers got me nowhere. It didn’t make novels magically flow from my pen. I still was the same Emily, with roughly the same level of talent as before. I could have easily written another book in the vein of my first book, but the books I really wanted to write were just as far out of reach as they’d always been.

I still wrote prolifically. I wrote a novel, but it wasn’t good enough. I blogged. When I started college I had less time to write, but I took classes exploring journalism and short story writing. And still, people wanted to know, “when are you going to publish again?”

Novel beginnings popped up with great excitement and then disappeared quietly overnight, the way the cute little shops on Main Street used to. My dreams of sprouting wings and nimbly flying up to another level of talent began to seem more and more far-fetched. I didn’t know what to tell people. I didn’t know how long it would take.

Even more depressing than the story of S.E. Hinton was the story of Zoe Trope. I found Trope’s memoir, titled Please Don’t Kill the Freshman, in a thrift store several years ago. I didn’t purchase it. I perused it a bit in the store and wasn’t impressed. However, I was quite interested in the author, who, like me, published a memoir while still a teenager.

At first I was somewhat jealous. Trope, it turns out, is from Portland, Oregon, and apparently received a six-figure book deal when she was fourteen. Her book was much more popular and widely read than mine.

Although I was able to dig up extensive coverage about Trope from 2004, when the book came out, I couldn’t find much about where she’s at today. That’s what I really wanted to know. Has she published more books? Does she still own a residence upon the cliff of real authors?

No, it turns out. She is a librarian at a community college.

Maybe she’s perfectly happy being a librarian. Maybe she never even wanted to publish another book. I have no idea. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to be a real writer, not a one-hit-wonder(ish).

I just had to accept the reality that publishing my memoir had not been a magic gateway into anywhere. If I wanted to write a novel, it was going to take a span of time. I had to be okay with that.

Reading about Veronica Roth derailed me a bit, though.

Veronica Roth wrote a New York Times bestselling dystopian novel called Divergent. I bought it for my brother for Christmas, and of course, read it first (that’s why books make the best presents). I thought it was interesting enough, though not particularly remarkable.

Then I read the author bio and my jaw dropped. Veronica Roth was only 22 when she wrote Divergent. 22! Being 23 at the time, I was jealous. How did she magically have the talent to do this, when I couldn’t even write a novel without plot holes?

Divergent turned into a three-book series, sold extremely well, and got made into a movie. However, when the third and final book was published, something happened that completely altered my beliefs about the magical cliff where real writers live.

It started when I noticed that Allegiant, the conclusion to the series, had a very low rating on Amazon compared to the first two books. 20% of Amazon reviewers had given it 1 star, as opposed to 1% and 2% for the first two books. Curious, I began reading the most helpful negative reviews, and what I read surprised me.

According to the reviewers, Roth set up the interesting world and wrote the first book without really knowing where the story was going. In order to wrap things up, Roth wrote gaping plot holes, had her characters act in odd out-of-character ways, and “explained” the dystopian world with strange reasoning that scientifically made no sense. The book was written from the point of view of two different people, but their voices were so similar that reviewer after reviewer reported getting constantly confused and having to flip to the beginning of the chapter to see who was talking.

The reviews completely de-bunked my notions of who Veronica Roth was. I was jealous that she had this magical writing ability that I couldn’t seem to grasp, but that wasn’t a complete picture. Yes, she had the talent to begin a fantastic New York Times bestselling series, but she still didn’t have the talent to finish it well.

What would have happened if she had waited? What if she had taken her time world-building, and working out the kinks, so that when she published she could present a satisfactory story with a workable ending?

It’s okay to wait, I realized. It’s profitable to wait. And it’s entirely plausible to be a young writer with the talent to write one thing, but not another thing.

That’s when I decided that being a real writer is not a cliff, it’s a staircase.

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Publishing was a wonderful opportunity, but it didn’t make me a better writer in any way. I still had to become a better writer, one step at a time.

It was somewhat saddening to realize that inborn writing talent would never give me wings to magically fly to a new level of talent. Being born with talent was like being born with strong calves. As a teen I was able to climb up the stairs faster than my peers, but I still had to climb them. Every writer has to climb them.

Even L. M. Montgomery had to climb the staircase.

My mom used to read A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery, and just marvel at the sheer talent displayed in the book. “It just doesn’t seem possible that I could ever write like that,” she used to lament to me.

I was re-reading Anne of Green Gables one day when it struck me that Anne of Green Gables, despite its charm and worldwide fame, is not nearly as well-written as A Tangled Web.

Anne of Green Gables is almost more a collection of short stories than it is a fleshed-out novel with a perfect rising action and climax and all that. Yes, there is an overarching story in which Anne moves to Green Gables, and Matthew and Marilla learn to love her dearly. However, the novel is made up of many small stories. The story of Anne dyeing her hair green. The story of Anne sinking her boat in Barrys’ pond and being rescued by Gilbert. The story of Anne and Diana jumping on Aunt Josephine in the spare room bed.

L.M. Montgomery didn’t roll out of bed one day suddenly able to craft the intricate masterpiece that was A Tangled Web. She began much, much smaller, publishing short stories and poems in magazines. Eventually, when she was about 34, she published Anne of Green Gables, her first novel.

As far as I can gather, L.M. Montgomery used this “collection of short stories” approach for most of her novels, and didn’t write a fleshed-out novel with a beginning-to-end plot until she was 52 and wrote The Blue Castle. A Tangled Web, which stylistically was her masterpiece, was written when she was 57.

She had to climb the staircase too.

 I don’t know if you want writing advice from me. But if you do, this is what I’ll say: kill the myth of the cliff.

You can’t accomplish anything by looking at the far-off things that seem impossible to achieve. Get your eyes off the cliff, and focus on the staircase.

What can you do right now?

Can you write a mediocre blog post? Write a mediocre blog post. Then try to write a better blog post. After that, try your hand a writing a good blog post.

Can you compose a good story in your head? Write it down. If it is horrible, who cares? No one has to see it, and you can move on to the next step of the staircase.

Remember this, though: You don’t have to be very high on the staircase in order to bless people with your writing. When L.M. Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables, it didn’t matter that she didn’t yet have the talent to write A Tangled Web. People loved that book. Whatever you can write, right now, be it an article or a blog post or a letter to your grandmother, it can be a blessing to someone’s life.

10 Year Blogiversary

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Today is my blogiversary. I have been blogging for 10 years.

10 years! That is a long time, especially in Internet years. Besides, it is a full 2/5ths of my life.

As I reflected back on that lazy Sunday afternoon when I decided I might as well start a blog, I tried to recall if anyone besides my mom has been reading my blog for all 10 of these years. I couldn’t go back to my old Xanga blog and check, because Xanga shut down. My memory would have to suffice.

I am fairly certain that Hans Mast commented on my very first blog post. And so, assuming that Hans Mast still reads my blog, he could very well be the person who has been reading my blog the longest (obviously not counting my immediate family members).

This prompted me to hand out some virtual awards to some of my most memorable readers. I am completely working off the top of my head here, so if I forget someone important I am very sorry.

Okay.

The Longest Reader Award goes to Hans Mast!

Congratulations Hans Mast! (Pause for applause.)

Funny story about Hans. For years I “knew” him online, and imagined him to be an extremely confident outspoken person. Then, after I’d been blogging for several years, I met him in real life.

He wasn’t at all like his online persona. In real life he was much more nervous and soft-spoken. Which was fine, but it sent me into a whirlwind of introspection about how people are not necessarily like they are online. I also worried that people would meet me and I wouldn’t be what they expected.

So what did I do after musing on this? I blogged about it, of course.

Wouldn’t you know it, Hans Mast commented and said, “was I like you expected me to be?”

And I was so embarrassed and didn’t know what to say.

(Keep in mind that this was like, eight years ago. I think Hans Mast’s real personality and online personality match up much better now. Though come to think of it, I haven’t seen him in several years, so how would I know?)

The First Internet Friend Award goes to Hans Shenk and Vonda Esh!

Yes, I’m giving out two awards because I can’t remember which came first. Although I suspect Vonda was before Hans Shenk.

Anyway, I remember that both of these fine folks found a way to go beyond the simple “I blog, you comment” aspect of blogging and have real conversations with me.

Vonda and I talked about writing a lot, and she told me her favorite book was this book about a hermit. I cannot recall what the title of the book was, but a few months ago I became so curious that I tried to go back into the shreds that remain of my old Xanga blog and figure it out. That’s when I discovered that while I can still access my old posts, all the comments and messages are gone.

Hans Shenk would post comments on my blog that were full of giant words. I had to read them three times before I got what he was trying to say, and then I had to try and craft a reply that didn’t make me sound like an idiot in comparison. We had some very long conversations/arguments in the comments but for the life of me I can’t remember what they were about.

Interestingly enough, though I have kept in semi-contact with both, I have never met either in real life.

The First Internet Friend to Become Real Friend Award goes to Esta Doutrich.

Honestly I don’t know if this is quite accurate, because I certainly befriended people I met online before she came along. However, she was the first to become a really really close friend.

I think (Esta, you’ll have to correct me if I’m wrong) that she knew who I was because of my blog before we ever met. However, I didn’t know who she was until she began dating my friend Justin Doutrich. At that point I befriended her online, which blossomed into a wonderful rich friendship in real life.

The First Real Friend to Become Internet Friend award goes to Rachael Sloan!

Weird award, huh? The interesting thing about the internet is that it not only gives you a chance to make new friends, but it gives you a chance to stay connected with people you meet in real life, sometimes even becoming closer to them online than you ever were before.

I met Rachael when I went to Bridgewater College. I met a lot of people when I went to Bridgewater College, actually, and Rachael is the only one I still keep up with at all, mostly because of her interaction with this blog. Thank you for that, Rachael, it’s been awesome!

The Most Long-suffering Reader Award goes to Gabrielle Marcy.

I’m throwing this in there because several years ago I made a New Year’s resolution to put more effort into my blog, and appreciate my readers more. At that time, Gabrielle was my nicest most interactive reader, so I decided I was going to send her a gift. Nothing big, just a handwritten thank-you note I think. So I emailed her asking for her address and I don’t think I ever sent her anything.

That New Year’s resolution was kind of a failure all around.

I’m sorry Gabrielle! I really do appreciate you!

And finally, the Carry the Torch Award goes to Annie Durrett!

Applause! More applause!

I’m highlighting Annie because she reminds me of myself, trying to live creatively and have an interesting life while also having to deal with health issues. She turned to blogging as a creative outlet, which, of course, I think is a fantastic idea. Check out her blog here!

Oh boy. It’s 12: 20 AM, which means that it’s not technically my blogiversary anymore. Anyone else notice that my blog posts always go up extremely late at night? It’s like I’m incapable of posting during daylight hours.

Anyway. Not that it matters. We’ll just pretend it’s still July 17.

Thoughts from the Combine: Organization and Defining Yourself

Today as I drove around and around the field, I planned a project. A big collaborative project. I grew more and more excited, scribbling ideas into my little notebook.

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“But how could I possibly do that?” I thought to myself. “I’m terrible at organization.”

“Wait.” The notebook was set aside for the moment as I tried to puzzle out this new problem. “Am I organized?”

There was a sudden swift and semi-brutal cognitive dissonance in my mind.

I’ve always partially defined myself by how unorganized I am. I’m the kind of person who’s always leaving the house three minutes late because I couldn’t find my shoes. I think of organized people as the types who have a planner and stick to it, and who have their lives together, neither of which I do.

However, when I’m lying in bed pondering injustices of the world or feelings for boys or whatever, I think in an extremely organized outline format. I summarize first, and then list the main points, and then the sub-points, like I’m writing a research paper or giving a speech.

I love the organization of composing speeches, and blog posts, and term papers.  I love directing plays and organizing who goes where at which time and says what. When I was a part of the ROV club I was in my element as the “mom” of the group, keeping everything organized.

So am I or am I not?

As a teen, I defined myself as completely unorganized. Defining myself was very important to me, partially, and somewhat ironically, because I wanted to organize people into categories and see where I fit. I imagined that the person I was when I emerged from my teens was the person I’d always be.

This has proved false. For instance, I defined myself as bad at math, when in reality I’m just slow at math. Even so, I still find myself making decisions based on somewhat outdated definitions I created for myself.

Like, “oh, you can’t do that project, Emily! You’re not organized!”

When I got home, I said, “Mom, can I ask you an odd question? It’s  not a trick question. Just answer honestly.”

“Okay.”

“Am I organized?”

“When you choose to be.”

Oh. Okay. I’m organized when I choose to be. Cognitive dissonance is over. Reason and order is restored to my mind.

Have you ever defined yourself a certain way only to find those definitions changing with age?

Birthday Giveaway Winner

Woah, what an amazing outpouring of interesting comments for my birthday giveaway! I’ll admit, I LOVED seeing longtime blog stalkers pop out of the woodwork. It makes blogging a little less weird if you know a little something about your readers.

Last night I wrote all the names on little slips of paper and stuck them inside a strawberry-shaped cookie jar.

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After dreaming about strawberry-shaped cookie jars, I got up this morning and put the jar on my sister’s desk (my room was too messy) and asked my mom to draw a name.

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And the winner is….

Jodie!!

Jodie, commenter #85, wrote, “I traveled to Europe when I was 16 under a passport with the wrong name on it. I also died once, but that’s probably not as interesting as the other fact….or maybe it is…Coming back to life was more interesting than dying, and way less scary for my family.”

Woah, Jodie, I must say you definitely had one of the more interesting comments! I sent you an email, and if you can’t see it, please check your spam folder. Whenever I get an email about winning a contest it usually goes straight to my spam folder, so just make sure! :)

Thank you guys again for entering. I especially admire the determination of BlessingsbyRenee, Austin Fahnestock, Joanna N, and Reyortdor, for managing to put in THREE entries each. Also, Karen, commenter #77, you win at having the most interesting life!

Oh, and Twila Smucker, I COULD NOT AGREE MORE about the moth situation.

You all should go read the comments, if you haven’t already. They are FASCINATING.

Again, congrats to Jodie on your win!

Harvest

Okay, first things first. My birthday giveaway is still live, and you can enter here!

It’s running until midnight Sunday evening. So get your comment in if you haven’t already.

While you’re there, don’t forget to read the comments. Oh my bunnyslippers. The most brilliant hilarious comments ever. I promise you will be inspired.

Unfortunately, as much as I’ve wanted to curl up and spend lots of quality time reading comments and replying to comments and stalking commenters on Facebook, I haven’t had much time for that at all. I’ve been too busy with my job.

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Yep, I’m combining again this year, from the moment the morning clouds clear away until the sun begins to set in the evening.

(If you’re wondering what that thing on my arm is, it’s a pink sparkly legwarmer. Yes, a legwarmer. The side dashboard where I rest my arm gets really hot, so I got resourceful.)

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Even though driving combine is almost a rite of passage for teenage girls around here, I avoided it for years. It seemed scary. It didn’t seem like my thing. It wasn’t until I was 23 and needed money for college that I finally decided to give it a whirl.

And I LOVED it.

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I love being a part of the frenzy of harvest. The urgency to get the crop in. The connection with everyone else in the valley who is also rushing to get the crop in as quickly as possible.

I love being able to work an 11 hr day without collapsing from fatigue. Driving around and around a field, in a cushy air-conditioned cab, is actually quite soothing.

At least, until a whirlwind comes through and does this to your row.

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I don’t know if you can really tell in the picture, but the whole row flipped in on itself. This has to be maneuvered through very carefully because if you suck up that whole chunk at once it will clog up the header.

Which means shutting the combine down, cranking the header backwards with a giant wrench, and pulling piles of straw out of the machine by hand.

(If you are a combine driver wondering why I don’t just push the button to reverse the header, let me just say I drive a very old combine.)

Where was I?

Oh yes.

I love combining because if I appreciate the beauty of Oregon summers much more when I’m out in it all day.

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But probably most of all, after a year of college, I just like to have a couple of weeks in the summer where I have an excuse to just sit and think for a couple of weeks.

To listen to NPR, or audio books, or just the rhythmic rumble of the engine.

To ponder what makes Americans so lonely, and what is the difference between racism and racial insensitivity, and why people define themselves as “city people” or “country people” as though they can’t be both.

Maybe driving a combine is just an excuse to spend whole days day-dreaming and pondering, and getting paid to do so.

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P.S. Don’t forget to go enter the giveaway! Only two days left!

Birthday Giveaway

Edit: This giveaway is now closed. I will announce the winner tomorrow morning!

Today I turned 25 years old. I knew I would be working all day, so I decided to celebrate by hosting my first ever blog giveaway.

Welcome!

I tried especially hard to craft a package that would be interesting to everyone who reads my blog, whether they are young or old, male or female.

Birthday

(I put the items on my head in a sad attempt to make the picture less boring.)

If you win the giveaway, you will receive…

1. A signed copy of my book, “Emily.”

2. A green pottery mug so that you can sip tasty beverages while reading good books.

3. The book “Paris Underground” by Etta Shiber.

…never heard of it? Neither had I, until I randomly pulled it off of our bookshelf and started reading it. I was immediately FASCINATED.

Basically, it is a true story about two middle-aged ladies who smuggled British soldiers out of Paris during WWII. It is equal parts funny and frightening and historical and enlightening.

Turns out it came into our household from Ben’s girlfriend Amanda, who gave it to Ben for Christmas. So far me, my mom, and my 98-year-old grandfather have all read it. None of us could put it down.

That’s why I bought a second copy for a blog giveaway. I figured it was a book that everyone would like.

4. Bonus gift! I’ll write you a short story in which you will be a primary character.

To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment on this blog post stating a random fact about yourself. If you win, I’ll use that fact in your story. (If you can’t think of anything to say, just make up a random fact. It will make your story more interesting)

Oh, and if you share this on Facebook or Twitter I’ll give you an extra entry. Or two extra entries, if you share on both. But PLEASE tell me in your comment if you shared it, because I’ll too lazy to go track it down. :)

The giveaway ends Sunday July 12 at midnight. Check back in a week to see if you’re a winner.

Okay, I’m just gonna say, doing a giveaway makes me feel like one of “those bloggers” who are more concerned about branding and traffic than anything else. Please know that was not my intention at all. Honestly, I am so thankful to all you loyal readers who keep coming back to my little blog. I stopped blogging for an ENTIRE YEAR, and you all came back. You are such a blessing to me, and I wanted to do a giveaway for you. I tried to specifically pick things that my readers would like.

Anyway.

Comment! Win! Enjoy!

P.S. I will ship anywhere in the world. So if you are my one reader from Finland, or the people from Columbia that sometimes show up, please enter!