Excerpted from Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.
“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their own validity no matter what.”
— Madeleine L’Engle
Edna Staebler was born two blocks from the public library in what is now Kitchener, Ontario. As soon as she could read, she’d go to the library two or three times a week and return with an armload of books. As a teenager, she wrote daily in her diary — though, as she later lamented, “nothing exciting happened to me; Kitchener and my dates seemed very dull.”
Attending college at the University of Toronto, Staebler told all her friends she was going to be a writer. But during the year she spent on the campus newspaper, she only wrote one story — “about girls drinking buttermilk in the Women’s Union.”
After college, Staebler took a job with Kitchener’s daily newspaper. She wanted a job writing news stories, but her boss assigned her to collect money from the newsboys instead. Her poor math skills resulted in swift termination. She desperately wanted to write, but didn’t know how to go about it.
She recalled, “I read hundreds of books: novels, plays, biographies, and books about writing: Virginia Woolf, Mary Webb, Arthur Koestler, T. S. Eliot. Some of them expressed thoughts I’d had and I wondered, Why didn’t I write that? And all the time I felt guilty as hell because I wasn’t trying. … I just woozled around, not knowing what to write about.”
Staebler married a man who at first seemed talented and fun-loving — but after a few years, his personality underwent a change. He became a moody alcoholic and was diagnosed with mental disorder.
One summer, to escape the unhappy atmosphere at home, she went to visit her sister in Nova Scotia. She’d only planned to stay a few days, but ended up staying for two weeks in the little fishing village of Neil’s Harbour. Each day she told herself, “Tomorrow, I’ll leave.” She went out on the sea with the fishermen, square-danced at the Orange Lodge Hall, and got to know the men, women, and children of the village.
She awoke one morning and said, “That’s it! I’ll write a book about Neil’s Harbour!”
She went back to Kitchener and wrote about everything she could remember — the sound of the ocean, the voices of the people, the colors, the emotions. Her mother came to visit and found her on the sofa, writing in a notebook. “Why waste your time?” said her mom. “You can’t be a writer — you have to have talent.”
Just when Edna had finally begun to write, her mother — her own mother — sabotaged her! Staebler’s confidence wilted. She felt the chilling onset of writer’s block.
A few days later, an author came to town and spoke to the women’s club. Staebler talked to him afterwards and showed him her work. He told her it was good. He left town, but sent her notes of encouragement. “Keep writing,” he’d say. “Believe in yourself.”
She accumulated hundreds of manuscript pages — but never dared submit them to an editor, fearing rejection. During a lucid moment, her husband said, “You’re not a writer until you’ve had something published.” His words stung — but she knew he was right. She selected a story about Neil’s Harbour and submitted it to Maclean’s — her first-ever submission. It sold.
She was in her fifties when she made that first sale — it had taken her that long to summon her confidence. When her alcoholic husband ran off with her best friend, she decided to support herself by writing. She worked regular office hours, producing scores of articles. She sold them to Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Saturday Night, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications.
At age sixty, she published her first book. At age sixty-two, she produced a cookbook — recipes from Canada’s Mennonite region, enriched by Staebler’s personal stories. At sixty-six, she published Cape Breton Harbour, based on her two weeks in a Nova Scotia fishing village.
Edna Staebler died in 2006 at the age of one hundred after a memorable writing career that began at the precise mid-point of her life. The moment she summoned the confidence to do the work she was born to do, she became a writer.
More than talent, more than skill, more than a keyboard to pound on, a writer needs confidence. You have to decide to write, and you must act on that decision even if you don’t feel an ounce of confidence within your soul.
Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) said, “The best advice on writing I ever received was: Invent your confidence. When you’re trying something new, insecurity and stage fright come with the territory. … How could it be otherwise? By its nature, art involves risk.”
American novelist and writing teacher John Gardner empathized with the insecurities of a writer. “In my own experience,” he said, “nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends. To most people, even those who don’t read much, there is something special and vaguely magical about writing, and it is not easy for them to believe that someone they know, someone quite ordinary in many respects, can really do it.”
Romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz has more than 35 million copies of her novels in print under her own name and six pseudonyms. Her advice: “Believe in yourself and in your own voice, because there will be times in this business when you will be the only one who does. … An author with a strong voice will often have trouble at the start of his or her career because strong, distinctive voices sometimes make editors nervous. But in the end, only the strong survive. Readers return time and again to the unique, the distinctive storytelling voice. They may love it or they may hate it, but they do not forget it.”
When did Edna Staebler find success? She found it when she stopped listening to her mother, her alcoholic husband, and her self-doubt — and she made the choice to invent her own confidence.
Be yourself and believe in yourself. Tell your stories and live your dreams.
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”
— Neil Gaiman
Copyright 2015 by Jim Denney. For more writing insight and inspiration, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.