Monday, April 15, 2013

My First Time: Jessica Soffer

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 Jessica Soffer, author of the debut novel Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots which will be released tomorrow by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Here's how Vogue described the book: "Teenage Lorca, who has been cutting herself since she was six, still can’t win the attention she craves from her beautiful and inaccessible mother, and so she concocts an impossible scheme to save herself from being sent to boarding school: She’ll re-create the best dinner her mother ever ate, featuring an Iraqi dish called masgouf that here is as fraught with significance as Babette’s feast.  Lorca is a diligent dreamer, enlisting the help of a bookstore clerk named Blot and cooking lessons from a grieving Iraqi widow.  But in this novel of shifting point of views, you want to linger longest with Lorca; both her shortcomings and her desires are so identifiable you can’t help but root for her."  Soffer earned her MFA at Hunter College.  A Hertog Fellow and recipient of the Bernard Cohen Prize, her work has appeared in Granta and the Tottenville Review.  She teaches fiction at Connecticut College.  Her father, a painter and sculptor, immigrated from Iraq to the US in 1948.  Click here to visit her website.
My First Writing Award

I was not—I am not now—a poet.  I love and respect poetry immensely, but I’m not built for it.  It is far too exacting of a form for me.  I like to stretch my arms and legs.  I like breathing room.  I like meandering.  Poetry does not.  I did not know this when I was fourteen, however, and wrote a lot of poetry: naively, in the dark, and (because I didn’t know better) because it felt less intimidating than writing a short story or novel.  I wrote without editing, without feedback, and very much in a bubble.  The bubble burst when I turned in three poems for an English class, and my teacher asked if she might submit them for a contest, and one poem won the contest and things fell directly, effortlessly into place--more than they have ever since, writing-wise.

It was the first time I was recognized for my writing.  More than that, however, it was the first time that anyone other than my parents, grandparents, and English teachers came within earshot of my poems.

I was, of course, honored to win something, anything, but more than that, I was shocked.  The poem didn’t feel particularly honest, or pretty, or unique.  But when the committee asked me to read at the awards ceremony, and the awards ceremony was at a convenient time and place, I couldn’t say no.  My teacher would have been heartbroken.  My parents would have demanded a good excuse.  This was an award for adults, and I wasn’t one.  There was money involved, and I could have used some.  The committee offered to pay for my transportation, and that didn’t happen all the time.  Everyone kept saying, “This is a big deal.”  I tried to let that sink in.  But I was in equal parts not proud of the work, not certain I deserved recognition for it, and not familiar enough with myself to be representing that self with a poem that I didn’t like—really didn’t like, hated, in fact.  So, I felt weird and a little bit like a fraud.  It didn’t help that I wasn’t used to winning things: awards or raffles or swim meets.

Too, a funny thing had started to happen that gave everything a sudden weight: friends and family, having heard the news, revealed that they’d always known I’d be a writer.  And this award, small and surprising as it was, had validated that belief.  “You’d always thought that?” I’d say.  “Didn’t you?” they’d answer.  I guessed that maybe yes.  Now that I thought about it.  And now, I was thinking about it.  Though I’d never known I wanted to be a writer, I’d always known I’d wanted to write.  Call it a lack of vision, call it a lack of enterprise, call it teenage spirit: I’ve never been one to imagine, really imagine, the future in concrete terms, plotted out and colored in and shaded.  I’ve always been too busy imagining different versions of the past and present.

All that said, I’d won this award and maybe I was going to be a writer, but no matter how I felt about the poem, I was most definitely going to the ceremony.  And I was most definitely, I decided (like a big fat idiot), not going to practice reading aloud.  Ever.  Because I couldn’t stand the poem.  Because I was a big fat idiot.  And because I wasn’t one for public speaking or school plays, when I say “ever,” I mean ever.  Ev.  Er.

So at the ceremony, I winged it.  Wung it.  Wunged it.  Whatever.

And, I failed.  Very very soon into the reading, I broke down in tears.  Then worse: sobs. Big, guttural sobs.  So big that I could barely continue reading.  And eventually, I couldn’t continue reading.  I had to stop thirty seconds in, not anywhere close to midway through.

Of course everyone was very nice about it.  There was ample clapping as I walked off the stage, slapping at my eyes.  The poem was about losing a person that I loved and at the reception that followed, the committee and other honorees said how moved they were by my emotion.  Of course, this made me feel worse.  I wasn’t crying about grief or sadness, but about the poem itself, and about my own shame for writing something I felt was awful.  But I couldn’t admit the truth to them.  So I just kept nodding and apologizing, feeling exposed and misrepresented, both.

It was my first time.

Some things have changed since then, thirteen years later.  That I no longer write poetry seems like the most and least important fact of all.  Certainly, I practice reading aloud.  (My editor, bless her, is coaching me when to pause, look up, slow down.)  I try to commit emotions to words only when I fully believe in those emotions—whether they belong to me or to a character.  Maybe there’s no distinction there.  But most of all, I am careful—very, very careful—not to show my work to the light too soon.  So much of writing is an exercise in imagination. Merely that.  An exercise.  And when it’s something more, when it has the heft of something significant, when it has legs worth stretching, it’s worth fighting for, which requires editing, editing and more editing.  Always.  And after that, even then, there are certain pieces that should and must remain in the dark: tucked away in the farthest, dustiest reaches of a desk drawer, or nestled into a creatively-named, totally conspicuous electronic folder.  The test for this, I’ve realized, is to read those pieces aloud: if you can’t get through them, for whatever reason, they are not ready.  It is not right.  It is not time and may not ever be.  You can have your reasons.  I most certainly had mine.

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