In my own personal writing experience, the path began like this: I sat down one day and decided to write a story. It didn’t come easily. I struggled and flailed around, trying to find the right words, the right moments, the right shades of meaning.
It’s tempting to think of one’s career path as following a straight line – a logical series of steps. One “climbs the ladder” to “get to the top.” Not so with writing – my writing, that is. For me it’s like spending decades inside a house that changes size and shape at will. You come in a door, go down a narrow dark hallway, enter a bright, pleasant room, get distracted by something in the corner of your eye, then go down another hallway, up a short flight of stairs, down a longer one, room to room, bright to dark, up and down. Sometimes you completely lose your sense of direction. Other times, you know just where you’re going. And once in a while, you go out a door and come face to face with the one you originally entered You’ve circled back to the very beginning.
In my new novel, What Is Found, What Is Lost, one of the main protagonists reflects that “time was a loop, from now to then and back again.” Freddie, who changed her name at age twenty-one, and moved Heaven and earth to put a troubled past behind her, finds that the past always lays claim sooner or later. Today I find that it’s not so much the past that cannot be escaped, but essential truths, immutable facets of ourselves, the starting point, or what V.S. Naipaul called “the center.”
That very first story I wrote – written on dingy brown paper with an old typewriter dating from 1918 that I’d found in a second-hand store – off to the Atlantic Monthly.
My mother, by temperament a critical person – used uncharacteristically great restraint when she asked me, gently, if I really thought that story would publish.
It didn’t. Nor did the next twenty, thirty, or forty.
My father, himself a failed writer – in that he wanted to be a writer and never gave it the time or effort – wasn’t impressed, either. He never openly discouraged me. In fact, he introduced my fledlging work to an old friend of his, whom luck would have it was the fiction editor at The Atlantic, Mike Curtis. Mike had been a student at Cornell where my father was a professor of English. Mike and my father’s second wife were classmates, hence their connection.
Mike read my story, “A Well-Appointed Room,” about working in a retirement home, something I did when I was nineteen and living in Boulder, Colorado, and while he found it lacking in many key ways, was nonetheless willing to share his surprise with my father, over lunch in Boston, that “it wasn’t all that bad.”
My father was surprised, too, and I soon realized that he’d passed my work to Mike not to encourage me, but to scare me off. Mike and I developed a reading relationship that didn’t include my father after that point. I sent Mike every single story I wrote over an eight-year period. His advice was hugely helpful. He summed up the problems succinctly: The story lacks a core, and This reads like two stories, and The narrator’s lack of motivation both confuses and discourages the reader.
I parsed everything he said. I went over every line in every story with his comments at hand. Then one day, the revelation came on the heels of his words: What’s needed is story. By the end, either the protagonist’s understanding of the situation must change, or the reader’s understanding of the situation must. With this revelation, some small success followed.
Mike helped me with my first publication, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, where my story, “A Painful Shade of Blue,” appeared opposite a poem by Tess Gallagher.
That was in 1995. Seven years went by before I placed another story. In 2001, the second publication came, and I’ve been placing stories every year since then. I won my first contest in 2002, and took first place in three others in 2003, 2007 and 2008. In 2008 I put a collection together and shopped it around. It wasn’t until January of 2011 that it found a home.
Of course I was thrilled! Here was my first book. However, the publisher turned out to be too difficult to work with. I had a second collection he didn’t want to look at. He told me to wait another year, and I didn’t want to, so I found a new publisher. That second collection came out in May 2013. Now my first novel will arrive in October, again with She Writes Press.
The transition to book publishing has been a hard one. Where I’m supposed to feel successful, I do not, because the two books haven’t sold all that well. Each book has won at least one award, and earned a number of glowing reviews. But I still don’t feel at the top of my game by any means. I find myself recalling the good old days when just getting a story placed felt like a huge achievement.
So, I’m back to square one, asking myself what I’m doing this for. It’s certainly not the money. There’s been very little of that. It’s certainly not the prestige, because outside of a handful of devoted readers, no one knows me from Eve. It’s not for the ego boost when my author ranking struggles to keep its head above water.
I began writing because I loved language. Then I learned to love stories and the idea of story. Then I tinkered with narrative voice, and eventually wrote my novel which addresses the difference between religion and faith. I hope it’s an important book. So much of the world is a mess because of religion and religious intolerance.
If it fails commercially, I’ll get over it. If it struggles along, that’ll be okay, too. And if it does brilliantly, then what? Do I stash my keyboard in the closet and never compose another sentence? Probably not. I’ll just keep doing what I’ve done for decades, which is to find the best way to handle all the complex components of the human condition, and then offer it up for consideration. That’s my immutable truth, my center. The place to which I’ll always return, no matter what.