My First Non-Pretend Published Novel
I used to fly a lot for my (real) job, and I don’t know what it is about me, but no matter how hard I tried to ignore the person sitting next to me, he or she wasn’t having it. It was like cats–you know, whenever you ignore them, they rub all over you? What’s worse is that I looked forward to those few hours in the air. It was “virtual” time, time without borders, time without physicality, time when I could fade into my own space and write.
“What are you writing?” he or she would ask, even though I was clearly engrossed.
I’d get immediately irritated. “I mean, seriously,” I wanted to say. “Can’t you see that I don’t want to talk to you? I haven’t made eye contact with you. I haven’t smiled. I didn’t even look up when you were loudly and chaotically organizing your person, or when you hemmed and hawed about getting the aisle instead of the window.” Invariably, being the polite person I was taught to be, I’d try to think up some nice, but curt response that would nip the conversation. I couldn’t tell him or her that I was writing a novel because though I was, technically I wasn’t. Can you call it a novel when you don’t have an agent or publishing contract? Because certainly the next question my row mate would ask is when and where they could buy it, or they’d tell me about the novel they planned to write. I didn’t want to say I was working on some sort of report for work because then I was risking the, “What do you do?” question.
Now my job wasn’t easy to describe. I wrote master plans for the creation of public art programs. Not surprisingly, most people didn’t know what a master plan was, or a public art program for that matter, which just raised a bunch more questions. So usually I just smiled and said, “A thesis on the mating rituals of the Pygmy Marmoset.” Generally, that shut them up.
I remember the exact day I told a woman sitting next to me the truth. There was just something about her, a kind face, warm smile. Or maybe it had something to do with my long day, the politics of the job I was working on, or the three glasses of wine each of us had had, but I was feeling like I’d met my new BFF. I was aglow with bonding potential and the prospect of sharing my deepest secrets with her like I once had with my best friend Cindy Bishop, who lived down the street from me.
“I’m writing a novel,” I said.
“You are?” she asked. “How wonderful. I love to read. What’s it about?”
I gave her some long explanation, which included a bunch of plot points and character names, which should have been my first clue to the fact that I wasn’t writing a novel at all. More like a long, drawn out manifesto. But, this woman being the sweet, nurturing person she was, took out a pad and paper and wrote down my name and the title of the book. And I mean, wow.
For many years I only wrote on airplanes, or late at night after my daughter was asleep. I was a single mom, and balancing my writing life with my work and family lives was challenging. For many years (the exact number will go unsaid) I wrote and wrote and wrote whenever I could fit it in, and as previously indicated I finished more than one novel. Sometimes what I finished went right into a drawer or a computer file, but twice I thought what I’d finished was worthy of publication, so I did what every starry-eyed (read green) writer does. I sent it out. And I got the standard rejection letters. Always polite. Generally more than merely form letters. Often encouraging. But by then I’d all but convinced myself that writing was no more than a guilty pleasure. I’d gotten remarried, so I was clearly writing at the expense of more important obligations. I needed to be a better friend, a better mom, a better wife. And who was I fooling? What made me think that I, out of all the brilliant and talented writers out there, would be published?
Seven years ago, I decided to give up. Not on writing. I’ll never give up on writing. I gave up on pretending. Instead, I decided to just write without the pressure of worrying about publication. I decided to explore the craft of writing. I decided that meant I should attend a writing conference. I lived in North Carolina and there was this small conference in the Blue Ridge Mountains called Wildacres. I sent in my writing sample, got in, went, and met the folks that would change my life: actual writing friends, and an actual novelist workshop teacher–Ann Hood. Ann was the first person other than my good friends who told me I was a good writer. The next year I went to Tin House and then Bread Loaf. I got thrown some hard criticism. I cried. I thought I sucked. I received positive feedback. I thought I didn’t suck. I was told, “this is an interesting concept (about my synopsis) but it’s not on the page.” I had no idea what that meant. I thought I more than sucked. I met a few agents, all of whom very nicely told me to send them my novel when it was finished, all of whom I saw again the following year, all with whom I periodically checked in. But, though I guess you could call this networking, that’s all I did.
In those six conference years, which included two Wildacres, two Tin Houses, and five Bread Loafs, I never once sent anyone anything. Perhaps all those previous rejections and the tough workshop feedback had shattered my confidence, or perhaps it had something to do with being around all that amazing talent–clearly people much more talented than I–or perhaps I’d just not been sending stuff out for so long that it had become my story, but I’d take the cards those agents or editors gave me, stare at their names and their agency or publisher logos, and for whatever reason tell myself I wasn’t ready yet. I needed to get better, I needed to write something more amazing, and in the meantime I just needed to write. Write for the sake of writing.
You’ve probably figured out by now that this story has a happy ending, but I must say it came about in the most unusual manner. My husband and I were having an argument. I’d cut back my real job work schedule because it was giving me major anxiety attacks and, truthfully, so I could also write more. AND I’d decided I wanted to get my MFA in Creative Writing. My diminished workload had greatly challenged our financial situation, and this on top of spending even more money for school, had gotten us to the point that we’d need to consider lifestyle changes. So maybe it wasn’t exactly an argument as much as it was a Come-to-Jesus. We said a lot to each other that night–all good and valuable of course–but what I remember the most was him saying something like, “Jen, if you want to write instead of work you might want to consider taking a risk and sending something out,” which ticked me off. So I went upstairs, opened the novel I’d just finished and pushed Send.
Three days later I had an agent, Mitchell Waters with Curtiss Brown, a few months later I Love You More was purchased by Doubleday, and around a year-and-a-half later, it was a real book.
I’ve heard many stories about how authors got their first novels published, and everyone has a unique story, but there are three things most of us seem to have in common: it took several years to get there, the ride was circuitous, and no matter how many years it took them or how many stops and starts there were along the way, ultimately the ride was worth it.
So my advice to other writers out there is this: Keep writing and keep sending your work out. It just takes one agent. It just takes one editor. I say this while thinking back on that plane ride with that woman whose name I now can’t remember. I’ll call her Josephine. She looked kind of like a Josephine.
“Josephine, if you’re out there, just in case you’re still looking for a book by some slightly inebriated woman you met on a flight from San Diego to Charlotte eight years ago, there really is one now.”