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 Emily Jeanne Miller, author of the new novel The News From the End of the World. Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, said The News From the End of the World is “A beautifully crafted, emotional portrait of a Cape Cod family whose teenage daughter may not be the only one out of options. The austere beauty of the off-season landscape seems to bring out hard truths and scour away secrets. I loved it.” Emily Jeanne Miller graduated from Princeton University and holds an MFA from the University of Florida. She lived in Missoula, Montana, where she co-edited an anthology of writing from the Clark Fork River basin (The River We Carry With Us, Clark City Press, 2002), and also earned a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her first novel, released in 2012, was the acclaimed Brand New Human Being. Click here to visit her website.
My Steady Stream of Firsts
I have to confess, writing this essay caused me grief—not only because it’s the first personal essay I’ve written in eons, or the first piece of writing I’ve tried to complete since my first baby’s birth. And not because I didn’t have any ideas. I had plenty, but each time I sat down and tried translate the most notable “first” I’ve experienced as a writer into words, I came up blank. I wrote lame sentences, drew weak parallels, and mostly, made little sense. It wasn’t that there haven’t been plenty of them—firsts, I mean: the first moment I knew I wanted to write fiction; the first time I got an “encouraging” rejection from a magazine; the first time I had a story accepted, the first time I saw my name in print. The first time I visited a writer’s colony, the first time I finished writing a novel, the first time I realized that that novel belonged in a drawer, not on a shelf. The first time I wrote a query letter, the first time I signed a book contract, the first time I held my book in my hands. The first time I saw that book in a bookstore; the first time I read a nasty review of it on the web. What I started realizing, trying to pick just one, is that being a writer, for me, has been a steady stream of firsts, and moreover, of ups and downs: a constant vacillation between exasperation and determination, pride and self-loathing, boredom and fascination, exhilaration and despair.
If this all sounds exhausting, well, it can be. We writers excel at living inside our heads, and consequently, wearing ourselves—and often those in close proximity to us—out. Because writing is like riding a raucous and unpredictable tide. One day you’re way up high, riding a wave’s crest, admiring the view, and then the next day you’ve got a mouthful of sand.
The first time I had a short story accepted for publication, for example, it was 2002, when I was finishing up my MFA. After a camping trip with my classmates, I was driving back to Gainesville and checked my voicemail. There was a message from the editor of the North American Review saying he loved the story I’d submitted and if it was still available, wanted to publish it. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I’ll never forget the feeling of elation, like I was flying; I couldn’t stop smiling, all alone in the car. A day or two later, by way of congratulations, I suppose, my teacher and thesis advisor said, “Enjoy this moment, because it’s all downhill from here.”
He’d been a writer for a very long time, so I believed him, accepting the notion that my own writing future was likely be bleak. As that future unfolded, I learned that his cynicism was hardly unique; writers can be big bellyachers, it’s true. But I also learned that disappointment and discontent are only part of a much richer, more nuanced, story. Writers may grumble, but they choose to do what they do, they keep at it for a reason, or perhaps a host of reasons, all of which at the end of the day boil down to the fact that they find some essential satisfaction, even pleasure, in setting down words. More to the point, as uncomfortable and unsatisfying as writing can feel, the only thing more uncomfortable and less satisfying, for writers, is not writing at all.
I have certainly experienced this phenomenon. The first time I finished a draft of a novel, after three years of toiling (and seven years after that message on my voicemail), it took a mere two or three weeks of ruminating on how to revise it to realize I wasn’t interested in it anymore. That it would never see the light of day. I remember sitting in my backyard studio one sunny Saturday morning, thinking I’d wasted so much time: the hours, the days, the weeks, the years. Maybe I should have felt despair, then—and maybe I did, but only fleetingly. What I knew, deep-down, was that the time I’d spent writing a complete dud wasn’t really wasted, it was necessary, and what I did was set the dud aside, open a new Word file, and start again.
A year and a half later, I’d completed the first draft of a new novel, and the difference was that this time, as flawed as the manuscript was (and believe me, it was flawed) this one kept pulling me back in. The characters had taken up residence in my head, and each day, once I’d reached my word count, I’d take a long walk and think about what they needed, what they might say to each other, what they would do. Toward the end of the walk, I’d let myself to think of fun, fantastical things, like whom I’d thank in the acknowledgments, or what the cover would look like, or who would play whom in the film. In this manner, I revised the manuscript four or five times, and when I decided I’d done all I could to purge every line of pointless dialogue, every implausible plot-points, and every sentence or word that made me cringe, I pulled together a list of agents I’d dreamt of having represent me, crafted a query letter, and after much agonizing, hit send.
Because I knew (having been told again and again since grad school) how brutal the publishing world is, I hunkered down, expecting to wait a few weeks—if not months—to hear back, if I’d hear back at at all, and girding myself for a resounding “no thanks.” But to my surprise, almost every agent I contacted got back to me right away, was courteous and kind, and said they’d be happy to take a look at my book. And when, ten days later, I woke up to an email from one of those agents saying she loved the book and would be thrilled to get to work selling it, I pretty much felt like my head was going to explode. It was, I think, the most incredible email I’d ever received—maybe that anyone had ever received—and I kept reading it over, waiting for my husband to return from his run so I could show him. When he finally came through the front door, though, he looked pale and weird, and was holding his arm in a funny way, and before I could say anything about the email, he said, “I got bit by a dog,” and then I saw he was bleeding, and of course my literary news climbed unceremoniously into the backseat. Which in retrospect feels like an apt metaphor for the writing life: it’s consistently elevating and humbling—and I don’t mean “humbling” that in that gross, humblebraggy way that’s so common on social media these days (“Thrilled and humbled to be published along side Famous Writer X, etc.”). No, I mean actually humbling—like what the word really means: making one less proud. In writing, I’ve discovered, every victory is served up with a healthy side of defeat.
Anyway, the agent (now “my” agent) was able to sell my book, and another one I hadn’t written yet, and a battery of firsts ensued: my first contract, my first visit to a publishing house, my first letter from my editor (on official, beautiful publishing house letterhead!). And then of course my first proofs and first galleys, and the first time I had to go through the icky process of asking for blurbs. And after that, my first newspaper review, my first radio interview, the first time I read for a crowd of six.
That was five years ago. Since then, I wrote my first second novel, which to my great consternation was, in so many ways, even more challenging an enterprise than the first. I also had my first editor leave my publishing house, missed my first (and second, and third) deadline, and last spring, in the midst of the editing process, had my first child.
Now this second novel has just entered the world, and I feel different than I did the first time around: less maniacally anxious, less worried about what others will think, and perhaps consequently, prouder of the book. Of course it’s possible, even likely, that my current Zen-master calm won’t last. I’ve already had a few prickly readers report “hating” it—thanks, apparently, to its controversial subject matter—in online reviews.
I have a wise writer-friend who believes the secret to life, including the writing life, is low expectations. I think there’s truth to what she says, but I also believe that’s not the whole story. Call me a sap, but I can’t imagine the rush that comes with holding your first book, or your second, or your third or fourth, in your hands for the very first time ever gets old.
Author photo by Eliza Truitt