The easy flow of words that I had known since I was ten, writing my first poems in a journal with pink corduroy covers, stopped for me twenty-six years later at 2 am on the night of the party my husband Stephan and I threw to celebrate the publication of my first—and so far, only—book. That was when my literary agent, the last guest to straggle out of our apartment, decided that those euphoric post-toast late morning hours were the perfect time to harangue me about what I ought and ought not to do next as a writer. I should build on the momentum I had gained from the reviews of the book, which were glowing and widespread (though they disappointingly did not include one in the New York Times, as she had expected and I had hoped), by writing another book within a year. I should not waste my time writing essays. Nor should I write another memoir, as I was then proposing to do, this time about my maternal grandparents. I should, however, apply the fragmented style I had crafted in my book about my father to a new research-based non-fiction subject that had nothing to do with my own family history. Most importantly, I must decide whether I was a serious writer with a career ahead of me or a dilettante who intended to spend most of her time traipsing around the world on exotic trips with her well-to-do, much older, soon-to-be retired husband.
A circle of Stephan’s graduate design students from Pratt Institute had also stayed late, and it was they who had gotten me talking about what I planned to write next. Lubricated by champagne and my own amazing good fortune, I had babbled away to them about all the essays that had been bubbling up in my mind for weeks, including one that followed up on revelations in my book, and the memoir about my grandparents, a subject animated by first generation immigrant rags-to-riches success, second generation American Communism, and the worlds of art and modern dance in 1920s and 30s New York. My agent sat listening in the midst of the students, a smile that I misinterpreted as warm and encouraging on her face.
It proved to be a good lesson in keeping talk about future writing projects to a minimum.
Being published by a major publisher and, on top of that, the positive reception my work had received, had given me a buoyant sense of license, the confidence that I was not writing into the void, but would find places to publish the pieces I produced. I had already been asked to contribute an essay to a small press anthology, judge a State Council for the Arts writing contest, write a blurb for another memoirist’s forth-coming book with a major publisher. After years as a student, I was now officially a writer. But, really, the sense of license had always been with me, the certainty that I would, in my own good time, publish. I don’t know where it came from. Teachers and peers, I suppose. My mother, in her own confused way. I had always somehow held the conviction that if I kept on, writing and rewriting with all the discipline and artistic integrity I could muster, the work would find a home. It was the writing I loved, the permutation and cadence of words in my head, and I was sure the publishing would eventually follow.
I wasn’t in a hurry. I never published anything before, at age thirty-six, I published my book, nor did I try. Perhaps I lacked the ambition and drive, or the competitive urge, but I also wanted to protect the work from outside scrutiny, to let myself develop as a writer before professional criticism could influence or possibly derail me. An essay by the editor and writer Ted Solataroff, “Writing in the Cold: the First Ten Years,” had found a fertile place in my mind:
For the inexperienced writer, a year or two of rejection or a major rejection—say, of a novel—can lead all too easily to self-distrust, and from there to a disabling distrust of the writing process itself…. The writer can’t get her spadework done, can’t lay in the bullshit from which something true can grow, can’t set her imagination to seeding these dark and fecund places if she is worried about how comely her sentences are, how convincing her characters will be, how viable her plot. But the self-rejecting writer finds herself doing just that. Instead of going from task to task, she goes from creating to judging: from her mind to the typewriter to the wastebasket. In time, her mind forgoes the latter two stages and becomes a ruthless system of self-cancellation (A Few Good Voices in My Head, 59).
My creative writing graduate program at the University of Minnesota had also done me the great good service of teaching me and my fellow MFA students not to expect anything from the publishing world: no matter how good we were, places to publish were few and ruthlessly competitive; money for the written word was scarce; if someone did happen to publish our work, there was no budget for promotion anymore and fewer and fewer pages or programs where books were featured anyway (though book review pages were already shrinking then, in the late 1990s, who knew that these were, in fact, the last days of a golden age). The message drilled itself into my head: we were unlikely to find any place to publish; if we did happen to find any place to publish, our work was unlikely to attract any notice; we would be paid little and read less. Such was the writer’s life. We should hope for and consider ourselves lucky if we came to the attention of a devoted few.
When a wonderful editor at Houghton Mifflin bought my book for a good advance, and the company then sent out a sizeable batch of review copies, booked radio and print interviews and financed a small book tour, I felt I’d won the lottery. Even when the book only sold 4,000 copies, failing to cover the advance, I wasn’t disappointed or discouraged. Maybe it was the soft tyranny of low expectations. I was still thrilled, having been given so much more than I ever expected to get. It was only the beginning, anyway. A very good start.
My agent, apparently, didn’t share this sense of accomplishment or my complacency. In the foyer of my apartment that night, I was so stunned by her strident lecture that I could barely speak, though I did have the presence of mind to say that I could not write based on some notion of a clock ticking in the marketplace. I was not a journalist or a commercial writer. If I’d wanted that sort of life, I would have stayed at my first job in New York, in publishing. I had worked briefly as executive assistant to the Vice President of Publicity at Doubleday, until the constantly ringing phones and endless series of critical deadlines frayed my nerves so badly that the stress, to my boss’ consternation, etched itself into my face. A life on deadline was not for me.
Like any other serious writer, I wanted a readership, but I didn’t think in terms of commercial success. I didn’t expect to make a living at it, for one thing: like every other writer I knew, I expected to teach, or perhaps, as a clever variation, to edit. And though I worked steadily, I didn’t sit down and bang things out. It had taken me six years to write the first book (or ten, if you counted all the foot-dragging and research) and I didn’t imagine that my process was likely to speed up for the second.
Everything else I should have said came to me later, of course. The fury I should have expressed at her suggestion that I was undisciplined, when I maintained a strict daily writing schedule. The realization that I had given my agent the means to track my movements: every time Stephan and I went on a trip—as we did often, it must be admitted—I sent her a postcard. The thought that perhaps my agent would like to tell me what the subject of this new, fragmented non-fiction work that had nothing to do with my own family history ought to be. Regardless of what I actually said, the anger in my face must have told her what I thought of her advice. She gave me a hurried kiss on the cheek and said goodnight.
In the days and then weeks and then months after this encounter, I sat down to write with the same regularity as before, trying to produce the essays I’d had in mind or a fragment of the new memoir, but every time I did, I heard my agent’s voice saying, Waste of time, waste of time, waste of time. No matter what I began to write, I thought I should be writing something else. As a younger, unpublished writer, I had sneered at the idea of writer’s block: words had always come easily, but if they didn’t, dedication—putting one’s ass in the chair day after day—would, I smugly believed, overcome any mental hitch. One of my favorite quotes was by Nöel Coward: “What I adore is supreme professionalism. I’m bored by writers who can only write when it is raining.” Writing for me had not been about publishing or a career. It had been about the pleasure of language. That pleasure was gone. I kept trying, but even when I did gain some momentum on a piece, I would abruptly stop writing, pulling an emergency brake in my mind. Waste of time, waste of time, waste of time. After a while, I stopped putting my ass in the chair. If writing was not about money, recognition, career—things that had never motivated me—and there was no longer any joy in it either, then why do it? No one needed, as Annie Dillard crankily puts it, “one more excellent manuscript on which to gag the world.”
Why was what my agent said so damaging to me? Clearly I was less mature as a writer than I had fancied myself to be. I’d never faced rejection or a serious obstacle. Writing had come too easily, perhaps, (I had “facility” a writing professor said to me, and she did not think that necessarily a good thing), and publishing, too. My agent had been a mentor to me, a close enough-friend that I invited her to my bridal shower and wedding, something of a mother figure. I was also a good girl, trained to be deferential to my elders and to suppress my own likely-to-be-errant impulses by an upbringing—long since rejected, but still potent—in a fire and brimstone fundamentalist church.
It was just a voice, but for me a voice of great authority. I let it perch on my shoulder, harping like an enraged Myna bird.
Ed note: This is the first in a series on writing, drawing, painting, and criticism. Read Tuesday's post here.sdh