My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Caroline Leavitt, an acclaimed novelist whose new book Is This Tomorrow has just been released by Algonquin Books. She is the prize-winning author of Girls in Trouble, Coming Back to Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Her ninth novel, Pictures of You, went into three printings months before publication. A New York Times bestseller, it was also a Costco "Pennie's Pick" and was on the Best Books of 2011 lists from the San Francisco Chronicle, The Providence Journal, Bookmarks Magazine and Kirkus Reviews. Her many essays, stories, book reviews and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, Parenting,The Chicago Tribune, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. Click here to visit her website.
My First Discouragement
I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I could first hold a pencil. I wrote novels all through my girlhood, scribbled and illustrated in tablets, always about an orphan (which tells you something about my home-life at the time), who had been left millions (which tells you I was practical) and who went on adventure after adventure. I had it all planned out, this writer’s life, and the only thing standing in my way were all the no’s.
“What’s wrong with being a wife and mother?” my mother said.
“A writer is an avocation, not a vocation,” said my teachers.
I didn’t listen. I kept writing and I began sending out stories when I was in my teens. They got rejected but I kept trying. When I got to Brandeis, I wrangled my way into an advance writing class taught by an author (a real author!) notorious for being a friend of Philip Roth’s and for being the target of Norman Mailer’s ire. The second class, we were to discuss my story, and that day, the professor picked up my manuscript by the edge of his fingertips, sniffed, and said, “Now. Let’s discuss this garbage.”
I flinched, but the boy next to me audibly gasped. Everyone slunk lower in their seats. The professor tore my story apart. He hated the characters. He disliked the language, which he said was sloppy and larded with adjectives. The story had no ending and my beginning wasn’t so hot, either. I didn’t realize tears were streaming down my cheeks until the professor spun a box of Kleenex towards me across the table.
I hated him. I wanted to leave class and never come back. But I wanted to be a writer more, and when I showed up the next session, he arched one brow at me. “Well, well, well,” he said, and he put the Kleenex next to me.
For the entire semester, he never liked anything I wrote. He actually loathed everything everyone turned in, except for one girl, who was already published, and who brought in Valiums and passed them out to all of us before class like party candy. My end of class evaluation? You’ll never make it.
Even after college, when I floated from one mind-deadening job after another, I kept writing, determined to prove him wrong. I kept sending stories out, two every weeks. And I kept getting rejected.
As soon as I saw those brown self addressed envelope come bouncing back in my mailbox, I didn’t even look at the form letters inside. I repackaged the stories and sent them immediately out again. A few years passed, and the more rejections I got, the more I began to wonder in terror: What if my professor was right about me?
One day, I came home to find two self-addressed stamped envelopes in my mail and I began to cry. Rejections. Two at once. It was too much to bear and I knew then I’d never be a writer. I’d always have to work terrible jobs that I would be fired from. I’d never be taken seriously. I took the first envelope and without even looking at it, ripped it in half. A page fluttered in front of me, and I glanced down and there it was, shining like a supernova. The single word: Congratulations.
Trembling, I sat on my front porch and carefully took out the torn pages. I had won first prize in Redbook’s Young Writer’s Contest! They were not only paying me handsomely for my work, they were publishing it! I opened the second envelope. The Michigan Quarterly Review wanted my story and they were paying me $50. By then, I was crying so hard, a man walking by stopped, his face a map of concern. “Are you okay?”
“I am now,” I sobbed.
Meeting Rozzy Halfway. I had a movie option from Paramount. I had foreign sales and reviews everywhere on the planet. I was interviewed on TV and the radio and in Publishers Weekly, and I got my first New York Times review. But amidst all the joy, I kept hearing my professor telling me I’d never make it. So I packed up a copy of the book and the slew of reviews, and sent them to him with a note: “You were wrong. Respectfully, Caroline Leavitt.” I didn’t think he’d respond, but it felt important to me that I lay claim to this, that he know that I had triumphed after all.
He wrote me instantly, congratulating me, and then he told me that he had known all along that I would make it, that he was just trying to get me angry enough to succeed. He pointed out an adjective he didn’t like, and then he signed off with “warmly,” and his name.
I published a second novel, and then my career began to boomerang, so I had to grapple again with the no’s in my path. The rejections. My publishers going out of business just as my book was about to come out.
But I kept writing.
So here it is, years later. I’m a New York Times bestselling author now (I still can’t believe it and say it out loud every chance I get) and my 10th novel is now out. Of course, I still have no’s in my pathway, but I’ve learned that sometimes success is really just refusing to give up. I teach writers at Stanford and UCLA online and I have private clients, and I would never ever tell any of them that they will never make it. I remember all the years of struggle and then those two brown envelopes and my first acceptances. I remember my professor being so sure I couldn’t ever succeed. So I tell my students the same thing I always tell myself: Don’t you dare give up. Because under all those no’s is always a yes, humming quietly, just waiting for you to claim it.