Monday, July 14, 2014

My First Time: Kelly Barnhill

Photo by Bruce Silcox
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 Kelly Barnhill, author of The Witch's Boy, which has just been published under the Algonquin Young Readers imprint.  Kelly Barnhill lives in Minnesota with her husband, three children, and very old dog.  Her debut novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack, received four starred reviews.  Her second book, Iron-Hearted Violet, was a Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner and an Andre Norton Award finalist.  You can read more about The Witch's Boy at last month's Front Porch Books feature here at The Quivering Pen.  Click here to visit Kelly's delightful blog (subtitled "Author. Teacher. Insufferable Blabbermouth. I also make pie.").

My First Failure

This is a lie.  This isn’t my first failure.  I’ve had lots before this, frankly, and will have lots after.  But this is the first time that I actually enjoyed failing.

Let me explain.

Prior to publishing my first novel for children, The Mostly True Story of Jack, I wrote a lot of truly terrible fiction.  I am not saying this as a backhanded way of garnering sympathy or compliments.  No, I am only speaking the truth.  The fiction written in those years was terrible.

I recognize now that it was terrible for a reason.  Terrible, as it turns out, is an excellent teacher.  One of the benefits of writing truly terrible fiction is that it requires a certain tenacity to continue to produce knowing full well that the product produced will be absolute dreck.

Ray Bradbury, one of my heroes in life, would often recommend to young writers to spend five years writing one story per week--stories that would be thrown out as a matter of course.  He said this was important in the process of writerly becoming because of one simple reason: it gets the dreck out.  We make; we discard; we make; we discard.  And eventually, we realize that we’ve made something with eyes and skin and teeth--something wholly separate from ourselves.

I wrote a book called A Stand of White Pine.  You will never see it.  It is terrible.  I wrote another book called The Incredible Disappearing Girl.  You also will never see it.  And then I wrote a book called Little Girl Blue.  Now that book I was proud of.  It had legs and lungs.  It walked and breathed.  It was an adult novel in which I had used the form of the murder mystery to explore the social dynamics of a particular town in Oregon--and its uncomfortable intersection of race and class and intolerance and greed.  It had been drawn largely from my experience as a student teacher in one of the most tightly-wound, racially-divided schools I had ever seen in my life.  And I imagined an exhausted teacher, burdened by a crushing sense of ambivalence, being thrust into action in the wake of the murder of one of her favorite students.

I liked that book.  I still do.  It was my first real novel.

So I sent it out.  All over the place.  I wrote a query letter, and I must have done a good job of it, because a lot of people requested the full manuscript.  And a lot of people said no.  And I was stuck in that limbo in which so many aspiring writers find themselves--that obsessive email-checking and agent-blog-hounding and tweet-o-mancy.  It is a soft stalking that erupts in the online habits of many a horrified and self-loathing writer.  And I admit it: I did it, too.

And it’s foolish, of course, because it doesn’t actually do anything.  It is a creative wheel-spinning that causes a terrible brain-paralysis.  I wasn’t writing; I wasn’t creating; I wasn’t imagining; hell, I wasn’t even reading.  I was just waiting.  And waiting is terrible.

Eventually they all said no.  An across-the-board failure.  I was a wreck.

And then it happened.

I got another letter.  This one from a very prominent Big Shot Power Lady Agent--or BSPLA for short.  She was a long-shot, but I figured what the heck.  And I had given up on hearing from her, because she had held onto my manuscript for well over six months.  I figured she was just giving me a silent no.

What she sent me was still a no.  But it was bigger than that.  What she sent me was this:
Dear Ms. Barnhill,
      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read Little Girl Blue. I enjoyed it mightily, and read it three times. However I am still going to have to pass. I know this may be hard to hear, and I apologize for it. It’s just that even as I enjoyed the story, and even as I furiously turned the pages, I had this phrase running around the back of my brain, and it was this: “Right writer, wrong book.” I love your writing. And I will want to read more of it. But you’ve written the wrong book.
      Write me the right book, and I will likely represent it.
      Yours truly,
It was the kindest and best letter that I have ever received in my life.  It was my most beautiful failure.

In about a hundred words, she set me free.  And I no longer had to spin my wheels in email-checking or blog scouring or tweet-interpreting.  Instead, she gave me the gift of accepting that the book had failed.  That it was okay that it had failed.  That the failure was not an indication of perpetual failure--no!  Instead, it was another step along the creative process: we make; we discard.  By discarding, I could make again.  I could do what I needed to do: write the next book.  Write the right book.

Now, in truth, none of us are ever writing the right book.  We only ever attempt to get as close to right as we can.  We do the work we were born to do, and we stumble and fall along the way.  We make mistakes.  We write terrible prose.  We produce dreck.  Still, there is something wonderful about being set loose in a wide open space.  There is something wonderful about setting aside a project that simply isn’t working, and making something new.

Because making things matters, you know?  And sometimes failure is the best thing that can happen.

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