Monday, April 28, 2014

My First Time: Laurie Lesser

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 Laurie Lesser.  A native New Yorker, Laurie went to Paris “for six months” after graduating college – and stayed more than 25 years.  Back in the States, she now lives in Washington DC, where she works as a writer/editor for a government contractor on international development projects.  She is finishing her MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University.  She writes mostly non-fiction – personal essay and memoir – but is increasingly tempted to play around with the facts through fiction and screenwriting.  Her work has appeared in, the Washington Post, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, the Huffington Post – and of course, Making Bread.

My First Stab at Making Bread

Twelve years ago, I was not only a virgin, I was in the closet.  As a writer, that is.  Married to a successful journalist, I was intimidated, not inspired, by him and his friends – foreign correspondents, documentary-makers, writers of novels and biographies.

Sucking up all my courage, in 2001 I signed up for a week-long workshop with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, New Mexico.  This was no hop, skip, and a jump for me (I was living in France at the time, and pretty broke), but I used air miles to get myself there and scraped together enough for the tuition and room and board at the famous Mabel Dodge Luhan house.  Writing furiously all day long for five days – and reading my first drafts out loud! – relieved me of the terror of sharing my work and I came home charged up and invigorated.  I even kept up the maniacal writing pace for a while.  I shudder to remember how I would say “As Lesser wrote,” to my friends, quoting from my latest morning free-write.

Back in Paris, I signed up for an online one-on-one writing course with a British writing school.  Since they had a money-back guarantee if you failed to publish one of your pieces, the part of each assignment that included possible markets was taken very seriously.  I wrote what I considered a humorous piece about my inability to manage my finances and searched the web for magazines that covered women and money.  I found, among the long list of magazines, a new women’s e-zine called Making Bread: The Magazine for Women Who Need Dough.  I sent my piece to the features editor listed on the website and to my instructor at the same time.

I was knocked off my seat by the writing instructor’s comments; she obviously did not find my piece very humorous.  “You are boasting about something that you should be ashamed of!” she wrote, falling just short of telling me that my piece was an insult to all women.  I regretted having been so quick to send my piece off to Philadelphia, not intending to insult womankind with my new-found vocation.

Still, the show-off I’d become couldn’t resist showing the piece to a few of my friends, mostly women, who thought it was hysterical.  “This is so you,” one said to me.  “Many women will identify,” said another.  Confident from that praise, I wrote a follow-up e-mail to another name on the website, this time the editor-in-chief, a woman named Gail Harlow.  Gail answered my e-mail within hours.  “I love your piece!” she wrote.  “You remind me so much of myself!”  She asked if she could publish it.

Maybe it was a question of American vs. British humor (or humour).  Maybe my instructor was just a sourpuss or maybe Gail was desperate for copy.  All I know is that Gail – who has since become a good friend, especially since I moved back to the States almost nine years ago – published that piece, plus several others of mine over time.  She gave me the confidence to continue writing and even included my essay in the book, Making Bread, that she edited in 2004.  Although I vowed to myself when I graduated college some 35+ years ago that I would never again do a degree course, I am now finishing up my MA at Johns Hopkins University.  (At this rate, I suppose I’ll have my PhD in time for my one-hundredth birthday.)

I learned two important lessons from this experience.  First, don’t be discouraged by one reader who doesn’t like, or understand, your work, even if he or she is an instructor.  Get a range of comments and, ultimately, trust your gut.  If you like it, chances are good somebody else out there will, too.

The second lesson is to follow up on your queries.  Years after the Making Bread experience, I sent a submission to the (now-defunct) Style Plus page in the Washington Post, which published personal essays by non-professional journalists.  After about two weeks, discouraged that I hadn’t heard from the editor, I wrote back and asked if she had read my piece on what it was like to move to Washington, DC after more than 25 years in Paris.  She wrote back, almost immediately, to say that she hadn’t seen the piece but it sounded interesting and would I mind resending it.  She published it a few weeks later, as well as another piece of mine the following year.

“Persistence and determination are omnipotent,” one best-selling author is known to have taped to her computer (quoting, as it happens, Calvin Coolidge).  Thomas Edison put it another way, when he said “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and stars from Andie MacDowell to Diane Keaton tell us shamelessly, on behalf of L’Oreal, that they are worth it.

What does all this have to do with writing?  You have to keep at it.  The first key to getting published is of course, to write something you are proud of – and then rewrite it and revise it and keep tweaking it until it’s the very best that you know you can do.

And, believe in yourself.  That is, without a doubt, the best first step to fooling the rest of the world into believing in you, too.

1 comment: