|Photo by Terry Brown|
At the age of twenty-seven, I sat in the impressive 57th St. office of one of New York’s top literary agents and listened as she described how Meryl Streep should play the mother and Judd Hirsch the father in the movie version of my first novel. As we stood to shake hands, I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening so I asked outright if she was going to represent me and oversee my book’s publication. She smiled, because how my future was intended to unfold looked apparent to her. As I left the shiny chrome and glass building and walked up Fifth Avenue towards Central Park, I let it sink in that my life’s dream was about to come true, right on schedule. I would soon be a young star on the literary scene. I felt elated and satisfied and it all seemed too good to be true.
And it was. Because neither that agent nor anybody else could have told me that I would be lucky enough to write books for the rest of my life, but I would have to wait until I was fifty-three years old—almost precisely twice the age I had been when the impressive agent took on that first manuscript—until my debut novel was finally published.
Writing is a marathon sport. It’s not for sprinters. Nor is it for the faint of heart. If the act of trying to get the words right on the page isn’t enough of a trial, then there’s the marketplace to take you down a notch or two. As it turns out, my trajectory as a writer isn’t uncommon. Many successful authors have first, second, third, and up to six, seven or even eight unpublished novels in their drawers. I know authors who had three or four agents before finding one who worked out well. The key strategy to achieving success in the face of such set backs and discouragement is to keep writing: to finish one book and start on the next. To write with the faith that someone will read and cherish the work someday, but probably not according to a timetable the writer has in mind.
When that New York agent tried a dozen publishing houses, but failed to place my first novel and returned it to me six weeks later, I was stunned. The narrative of myself as a successful author had quickly taken up a central place in my mind.
But I had a baby on the way. After my daughter arrived, my writing desk became her changing table, replete with diapers, wet wipes and baby powder. As my computer accumulated dust, I remember thinking that was just fine with me. Worn out with the difficult business of trying to get published, I threw myself into mothering and three years later gave birth to another child, a son. The second novel became a distant memory. With a baby or toddler crawling on me, feeding off me, waking me in the night and generally taking over my every thought, I didn’t have the necessary distance on life required to write a novel and I even convinced myself I didn’t mind.
But finally, when my son went off to nursery school and the house was mercifully quiet in the mornings, I found myself returning to my desk. I wrote the next novel with great urgency, as if my life depended on it. A new agent tried to sell it, and came close, but the moment still wasn’t right. I tried to contain my disappointment but also realized that my battle with getting published was becoming secondary to my battle to simply write better.
In the new city where we had moved, I joined a writer’s organization and quickly became active, and then ended up leading it for seven years. It was easy for me to encourage other writers who were also struggling to improve our craft. I became less preoccupied with my own publication than with connecting to fellow writers as we shared the many ways we strive to gain wisdom from books—our own and others.
For me, it took a long apprenticeship to write a novel I ultimately feel proud to have published. In retrospect, I’m thankful that the high-powered agent didn’t place the first book that I wrote. It wasn’t nearly as good as my debut, River of Dust, which found itself between hard covers a quarter century later. And I think my new novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, might even be stronger still, because we improve with practice as writers —at least that’s how it’s worked for me.
Once I put aside the worry about publication and focused instead on writing well and helping other writers to do so, too, I started to achieve greater success. And I see now that the greatest reward of all isn’t the way my novels feel in my hands—though that’s pretty terrific—but that I have continued to use writing to make sense of my life. I’m grateful that a writer’s way of seeing the world, more than being identified as a published author, defines who I’ve been all along.