I recently acquired new dresser drawers, something I do maybe once a decade. This necessitated relocating the top drawer of my old dresser, which was basically my Treasured Memories Trove. I never looked at any of this stuff, mind you. If I thought I wanted to keep something for posterity, I just shoved it in the drawer, figuring one day I would be able to find it again. A fool-proof plan!
Unfortunately, in the middle of trying to transfer my Treasured Memories to their new home, I stumbled and completely unended the old drawer, spilling tons of stuff I forgot I had all over my bedroom floor. It felt like dropkicking my entire life.
Though I was alone in my bedroom, this filled me with a deep, red-face shame, and I tried to shovel all my Treasured Memories back into the old drawer in the most inelegant way possible. I didn’t dare glance at most of them, save for the most valuable items that caught my eye. A silver bracelet my grandfather wore throughout World War II. My dad’s last passport. The only foul ball I ever “caught” at a major league baseball game (quotes = long story).
I had to retrieve one errant piece that floated across the room, away from the other stuff, a rectangular swatch of pale posterboard that caught a drift and slipped away. I had no idea what it might be until I picked it up.
It was a postcard I received a long time ago. On one side, tour dates for a band. On the other, a note from one of my heroes, someone I was lucky enough to correspond with for a while.
I don’t mean to be vague or to tease, but for the purposes of this tale, it doesn’t matter who this person is to anyone but me. Suffice to say, this came from someone I admired immensely, and still do. This is what they wrote (in part):
Loved yr last letter. If yr book is 1/2 as good, it will change everything.
My heart swelled. I had completely forgotten all about receiving this postcard, and I felt like I was reading it for the first time, getting this praise for the first time.
And then, I turned over the card and looked at the postmark: 2000. Almost 12 years ago. And as much as my heart had swelled, it sank twice as far, because I felt the crushing weight of how much time had passed since then, and how far back the book it referred to had receded in my memory.
The book being referenced was one that I’d worked on through most of my college years. I finished a workable draft not long after I received this postcard and sent out some agent queries. Lots of “thanks but no thanks” followed. I wondered if I’d gone to school for fiction writing, if I’d have been on a better footing by that time, but it was pointless (and depressing) to speculate. Because as much as I wanted to be a writer, 18 year old me would never have spent a scholarship, student loans, and other people’s money on something as frivolous as “studying” to become one.
I suspected that the book wasn’t quite as good as I initially thought, but soon lost the will to make it better. Plus, I’d hit on a new idea for a novel that I wanted to concentrate on, and so that’s where I directed my energies I for the next few years. I entered an MFA program–doing so on my own dime didn’t seem frivolous to me now–and workshopped occasional pieces of it. The embryonic pieces received decent, constructive feedback, and by the time I worked my way through the program, I had what I considered a finished product and decent leads from some of my instructors.
I sent queries to anybody and everybody, doing all but handing it to strangers on the subway. I received a few requests from agents to read the whole manuscript, but none stepped forward to take me on. Some sent helpful advice on what they felt was missing from it, others sent form letters, others sent nothing at all. I concentrated on throwing this book in people’s faces for a long time, far too long, until I had to deal with the reality that nobody wanted it. At least nobody who was in a position to help me get it published.
At the tail end of my time in MFA Land, I wrote a short story that I liked a lot and drew a good response, something that I thought might have within it the kernel of another novel. But by the time novel #2 ran its course, I was worn out on fiction. To work for years only to see that work languish on a hard drive would make Sisyphus blanch.
And then, my life went through an insane number of changes in a very short time: death, marriage, kid, more or less in that order, with death making repeat appearances. My disinclination to write fiction was exacerbated by the complete lack of time to do so.
When I had the chance, I would halfheartedly work on this new novel idea, finding myself in a vicious cycle. I wrote about 90 pages, then combed them over, added a little, deleted a little, and repeated, never progressing. As if I was afraid to get much farther, because if I did, I would have to once again beg a very small group of people to read it so that the world at large might possibly read it or at least had the option.
In the dark days before I knew anything about CMSes, I did all of the templating and coding and archiving manually, which was an enormous pain in the ass. Still, it was preferable to writing nothing at all, even though I had no evidence anyone was reading my stuff. I did it without caring whether or not anyone was reading it, because it already existed in a form where anyone could read it. After toiling forever in a genre (fiction) whose gateways were guarded by a small, strict few, it felt good to have my writing be available to an audience, no matter how virtually nonexistent.
Eventually, I did get some evidence that people read my writing. Sometimes random strangers, sometimes other writers or creative folk who I admire. My whole life, I’d fantasized of becoming a renowned writer. I think what I really wanted was for people I think are awesome to say “We think you’re awesome!” But I found that having just one person, no matter who they are, say “I liked that thing you did” is pretty great. To get more than that is wonderful, but to want more than that is greed. What really counts is the work, having finished something that took actual effort and time and sweat.
Even in the Internet Age, I honestly believe that effort attracts people to your work as much as talent does. Especially when it comes to writing, because I don’t think a writer has ever lived who found writing easy.
For a while, it didn’t occur to me to do much more than this site. I didn’t think I had the time to do the hustle and networking necessary for that. I’d tried it before and it was humiliating and exhausting and full of diminishing returns, and that was before I had a kid. Within the last few years, I’ve finally been able to branch out and get my writing elsewhere. This probably wouldn’t have happened if other people hadn’t asked me to write for them, which was not only gratifying and flattering, but gave me the confidence to start pitching things to places that haven’t asked.
I even started work on a sociocultural/philosophical nonfiction book on a subject that is near and dear to my heart. My thought was, considering the advances in epub technology, I could work on this book at my own pace, and if it turned out no publisher wanted it (a distinct possibility), I could put it out myself as an epub. But while I toiled away on this thing, I began to feel the tug of the novel I never finished. There were still things I wanted to say that I could only say with fiction. I’d stopped working on it because of the depressing thought that it would never see the light of day. But if I could have an epub Plan B for a nonfiction work, was there any reason I couldn’t do the same with a novel?
Of course, there was no reason. But I still had just 90 pages of this abandoned novel, and I was afraid I’d get bogged down in endless revisions again. If I was going to pick up this work again, I’d have to resolve to finish a draft, plow right through to the end, and worry about tidying it up in draft number two.
So that’s exactly what I did. I vowed to devote the week to all my nonfiction (here and elsewhere), then find a block of a few hours on the weekend to sit and work on only this. Any amount of progress was okay. If I only tapped out one page, it was one more page than I had before. I’d keep going forward, not stopping to fine tune anything I’d already written. I resolved to finally finish this draft by the end of the year, sort of a pre-New Year’s resolution.
I was slightly off. On January 1, I went on a tear and finally marched my way to the end, eight years after I’d started.
I’ve said before that saying you’re writing a book is a lot like saying you’re trying to lose weight: it doesn’t mean much until you’re done. But if I’m not quite done, I’m 75 percent of the way there; one revision of this draft, I think, and it will be at showroom quality. And I don’t have the sense of doom I once had about fiction. When it is done, this thing will exist in some form, even if I have to do it myself.
After that, I plan to revisit one of my previous novels, the one that got nibbled but never eaten. I’m actually glad it was rejected everywhere, because I think I can make this novel better in a way I was unable to 7-8 years ago, when I last touched it. It is a good idea wrapped in some of the pretensions Younger Me, which I think I can finally unwrap. It is worth doing.
And so 12 years after I received that postcard from one of my heroes, I think I have changed everything. Where I once wanted glory, now I just work. How much and how well I work is the only thing I can control, and if there’s striving to be done, that is where I will do it.