Writer on the Rocks?
On the edge of my retirement from academe, I made no secret of the fact that I was going to try my hand at creative writing.
“I’ve written about fiction for forty years,” I’d tell friends and colleagues. Now I’d like to write some fiction of my own.”
I knew that my goal was commonplace, and that retired people from all walks of life had the same ambition. I knew that in the era of blogs and self-publishing, breaking into print was a simple matter if you were willing to go it alone. Not for me this unconventional route to authorship! I’d do it the traditional way. I’d submit my work to respected literary magazines and before long I’d have enough published stories and essays to gather into a volume. Simon & Schuster or Doubleday or one of the other big publishers would be only too happy to publish my work because, damn, I was good! The doubts I’d had about my academic publishing did not spill over into my creative work. Oh, sure, I’d heard stories about famous authors who had submitted their fiction over a hundred times before getting an acceptance, but wasn’t that exceptional? “It’s a brutal business,” had warned a colleague who had gone before me and achieved an enviable degree of success. “So I’ve heard,” I said, but I didn’t really buy it. For you, maybe, I thought, but not for me.
It wasn’t that I believed I was profound or original. I was realistic enough to understand my shortcomings: a predilection for cliché, a tendency to create stereotypical characters, a style that, while occasionally witty, was chatty and facile. This self-awareness didn’t deter me: Wasn’t that the kind of thing that sold books? I didn’t aspire to write classics of world fiction, after all. I fancied that there was a whole population of (mostly female) readers just waiting to lap up my prose and nod in self-recognition. “Yes, that’s it exactly!” they would cry. “You have to read this!” they would say to their friends. And my fame would spread.
I didn’t expect reviews of my work in The New York Times. I wasn’t delusional enough to think that I could get my stories published in The New Yorker. But I did hope to earn a passable reputation as a light essayist, maybe even as a writer of amusing or thought-provoking short stories.
Where to begin? Well, my retirement datebook was filled with scribbles, and it was hard to find the time to launch my new career. But I was determined. So when I wasn’t babysitting for grandkids, tutoring ESL students, lunching with friends, or working out at the Y, I wrote. Not for me the 9 a.m. to 12 noon daily writing discipline. I’d wait for my muse to whisper in my ear and then I’d put everything aside and tap out a story or an essay. The files in my filing cabinet would grow fat. They did grow fat. I had a file for fiction, one for personal essays, another for as-yet-undeveloped ideas, still another for publishing outlets. My daughter, a journalist, helped me place my early pieces. I got paid for them! This was going to be a piece of cake. But money wasn’t important. A lucky beginner, I succeeded in getting a few things published without her help—a memoir, a short story, an essay. I was on a roll.
To force discipline upon myself and to prove (if only to myself) that I was serious about this new career, I took on-line courses in short-story writing, joined writers’ groups, participated in a retreat led by a famous memoirist.
I showed my work to friends and classmates, people I knew well and people I’d never met. My husband was my first reader, then my kids. Mostly, they told me what I wanted to hear. I soaked up their compliments.
One of my friends encouraged me to start submitting in a systematic way. Overwhelmed by my ignorance of the writers’ markets, I sought help from Writer’s Relief and Duotrope.com. I initiated searches and selected journals that seemed likely to accept my stories. I formatted them according to their specifications and wrote cover letters and bios.
And then I sat back and waited for the acceptances to roll in.
It was like waiting for Godot.
The rejections piled up.
Sometimes the rejection e-mails were kind, inviting me to submit again, suggesting that while this particular story didn’t fit their criteria, they hoped to connect with me in the future. Occasionally a letter demonstrated that the editor had actually read the whole story. More often than not, responses offered no proof that much had been read beyond the first paragraph. One particularly ingratiating editor rejected my story abruptly, thanked me for sending them “a small chunk of [my] soul” and told me that it was in my DNA as a writer to be stung by the rejection. Thanks a lot, I thought. Another editor offered to provide me feedback if requested. When I did so, I got evaluations from three readers: The first liked my story, the second damned it with faint praise, and the third, who had manifestly not read it, brought the axe down. “There’s not much here. No real story. No plot. Title doesn’t fit. Ending weak. The story wanders aimlessly.”
No story? No plot? The narrative, ironically entitled “The Love Boat,” featured an encounter between a man and a woman, a marriage, a cruise, a horrible revelation, and a drowning. What should I have added? A rape? A burglary? A shipwreck?
I shrugged off the rejections and rationalized my failures. Clearly, I hadn’t yet identified the right markets. Most of the journals seemed to be edited by young people, and I wasn’t young. Nor had I graduated from an MFA program. I avoided profanity and vulgarity; my work wasn’t “edgy.” It didn’t “transgress gender boundaries” or contain fantastic sequences that in other stories I strongly suspected were fueled by drugs. I had identified one editor who seemed to like my work, but I couldn’t submit everything I wrote to the same place. There must be others out there like him. I just had to find them.
While I looked, my muse went AWOL. My skin got thick. This is just a phase, I told myself. And I continued to read, as I had all along, on the theory that the best training to become a writer is to be a reader. Read anything, read everything, read, read, and read some more, the guides had said. So I did.
I had a somewhat contentious relationship with successful writers. Especially successful women writers. First it was Nora Ephron. She was just too good. I couldn’t read her work without experiencing a fit of pique based upon the conviction that I might have been capable of writing like her if I had nurtured my talent instead of taking a conventional job, thereby ensuring that my children would never want for food, clothing, and shelter.
I wallowed in self-pity, and then I broke up with Nora.
Anna Quindlen was next. And once again, I compared myself to her. I can do this! I thought. I went to my filing cabinet and dug out some of the personal essays I had written, amusing little things about memory loss, creaky knees, working out at the Y. I considered my work quite Quindlenesque.
I turned my attention to best-selling female novelists. I never fancied myself as a novelist, so I didn’t expect to have an emotional reaction to their writing. I was surprised when Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant made me cry, not only because it was sad, but because it was so good. Never had I read more poetic descriptions of the sea. Tana French’s novels, well-plotted and beautifully written, plunged me into a crisis of self-confidence that lasted six months. I read every one of them. Then I happened upon Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. I was stunned by the ingenious plot—where do people come up with ideas like this?—and the more I thought about it, the more inadequate I felt. Finally, I discovered Lucy Clarke’s elegantly written sibling dramas. How did she keep uncovering new ways to describe sibling rivalry? So humbled was I by the talent of these women, that I did not for one moment think, as I had with the short story and essay writers, I could do that!
Time for a change of my reading diet. Who needs a main course? I decided to go back to short narratives, to feast on hors d’œuvres. One Sunday The New York Times waxed lyrical about Sloane Crosley, who had written a collection of essays entitled I Was Told There’d be Cake. She wrote about everyday things—friend troubles, fear of illness, her flirtation with vegetarianism, her family—with an imagination that was anything but quotidian. I sighed. And I pounced on her errors. A friend was “a Westport-bread WASP”; she wished she could “be still like vegetables, lay like broccoli.” I tried to feel superior. It was no good. I hadn’t just met my match. I’d met a writer who had such a gift for narrative, whose comparisons were so fresh and unexpected, that she made me feel like a first-grader. Never mind the fact that she spelled disdain with a “t.”
My reading was not helping. Instead of inspiring me, it was paralyzing me. The rejections, coming in regularly now, were chipping away at my ego. My formerly encouraging friends assumed a new, sympathetic tone and suggested maybe “taking a break” from writing for a while. Nothing fails like failure.
Damn it! I would not be cowed! There was a secret to publishing creative work. I just hadn’t found it yet. Contacts, somebody told me. You need contacts.
As if on cue, I got an e-mail announcing a one-day conference in my town. Billed as a way to help aspiring writers towards publication, it offered ten-minute speed dates with editors of local journals “to get feedback on your work.”
I signed up.
The faceless, often nameless editors who had declined to publish my work by e-mail (how easy was that?) would now be replaced by real living, breathing people who would look me in the eye and be moved by my sincerity. They’d see a woman who was no longer in the first flower of youth, or even the second, but who had a nice smile and a stylish outfit. I’d hand them a writing sample. They’d read it, and they’d respond to me as a person. They’d remember me, and when I submitted something to their journal, they’d read it through with a sympathetic eye.
The day of the conference arrived.
I dressed with all the care of a woman about to set out for her first job interview, and then stepped out into the brilliant October sunshine. Looking down at my outfit, I gasped.
“Oh, crap!” I exclaimed.
“What’s the matter?” asked my husband. “You look nice.”
“Nice? Nice? You think I look nice? What, are you blind?”
“Okay, so you don’t look nice. What’s the matter, anyway?”
“Can’t you see that my skirt doesn’t match the sweater? The blues are completely different!”
“So who cares?”
“I care, that’s who! I look ridiculous. That’s what I get for dressing in the dark!”
“So what are you going to do about it? You’re already late.”
“I know. Never mind. Bye!”
I got into the car and sped off.
Five minutes later, I made a u-turn and returned home to try to find a better combination.
Even in the new outfit, I felt dowdy. But at least I didn’t look as if I were color blind.
The speed dates were a disaster. My first paragraph didn’t “grab” one of the editors. Another found my character too “talky.” “Get rid of these adverbs!” advised a third. I was accused of using information dumps, telling rather than showing, and failing to inject meaning into the anecdote I was recounting. Nobody noticed my outfit. Nobody was seduced by my smile. Nobody felt my pain.
My last editor did however offer me a compliment: “You write really well, you know.”
Like a dog with a treat, I grabbed the kind remark excitedly, devoured it, and waited for more. I looked at her expectantly.
“I have a novel coming out in May,” she said. “Would you like me to write down the title?”
At lunch, one of the other conference participants asked me about the editors I had met. When I mentioned one by name, he said, “Skip? Don’t you just love him?”
He’d been my harshest critic, and no, I didn’t just love him. I managed a half-smile and kept my mouth shut. You never know who knows whom.
The afternoon session of the conference featured a panel on “The Future of Publishing.” I learned that writers, all writers, not just those who self-published, needed to establish a “platform.” They needed a Facebook page, a Twitter account. They needed a blog. They needed to promote their work in any way they could.
I shuddered. No way would I be capable of such tireless self-promotion. I was finished. What little air was left in the balloon of my ego leaked out slowly. By the time I got home, it was flat as a pancake.
And, yes, I know that’s a cliché. I’m good at clichés, remember?
However, I managed to get myself puffed up enough to try one more trick that I’d learned at the writers’ conference. In a session entitled “Meet the Agents,” one of the agents had been asked what distinguishes a good pitch letter from one that is forgettable. He gave an example. The author of one of the (ultimately successful) pitches that he’d received had spared no effort in learning about the agent himself before writing. He had consulted the agent’s Facebook page, read his blog, incorporated information gleaned from these two sources in his pitch letter, subtly flattering the agent. And the agent had eaten it up. Hell, I’m capable of that, I thought. So on the theory that editors, like agents, are real people with their own egos and their own susceptibility to compliments, I wrote to the editor of a journal to which I had submitted a light-hearted personal essay about bad hair days and the trauma of changing hairdressers. It was entitled “The Final Cut” and three and a half months had passed since I had submitted it. Time for a query, according to Duotrope. I found the editor’s e-mail. I googled her. I found a photo of her. She had a good haircut. I wrote:
“If I am to judge by the photo on your bio, you have a good haircut. That will probably not predispose you to liking ‘The Final Cut,’ a fluffy little non-fiction piece that I submitted more than ninety days ago to your journal…”
I had a tart response within hours: “As stated in our submission guidelines, we do not accept emails sent to personal email addresses of our editors…I also don’t appreciate any reference to personal appearance based on my or any other editors’ photos on our masthead; I find that inappropriate.”
Foiled again! I’m done. I’m throwing in the towel of my ambition. Struck dumb by rejection, paralyzed by the brilliance of other writers, abandoned by my muse, betrayed by my lack of understanding of writerly protocol, I am bidding adieu to my retirement plans. This isn’t a case of “incomplete evacuation”: There’s nothing in there trying to get out. Nor is it a simple case of writer’s block. No writer here; therefore, no block. I once identified with the term “emerging writer.” No more.
But I need to believe that I haven’t wasted the past five years of effort. I need to believe that something good has come out of this.
I found it in church on Sunday when the priest said to the assembled congregation:
“Let us humbly confess our sins unto Almighty God.”
Humbly? I looked around at my fellow parishioners, their heads bowed over The Book of Common Prayer. They were about to “acknowledge and bewail” their manifold sins and wickedness. What was I doing here?
I was not what you would call a humble person. But then I had—forgive the pun—an epiphany. The whole of my creative writing effort had been a powerful lesson in humility. Never has an aspiring short story writer been thrown more heartlessly into the pit of self-doubt. A waste of time? Au contraire.
That said, I have just enough pride left that I do not want my friends to know I may be on the rocks. And the truth is that while I don’t really qualify as an “emerging writer,” I’m not yet completely submerged. I am simply forced by circumstances to put my writing career on hold.
A young friend is having a baby next month and I must devote all my spare time to knitting a blanket.
Knitting! What a find! Will it engage my mind? Check. Satisfy my creative instincts? Check. Keep my fingers busy? Check! Produce tangible results? Check. And will those tangible results be accepted with gratitude and without judgment by those to whom they are sent?
• • •
Once a professor of French literature, Mary Donaldson-Evans came down out of the Ivory Tower in 2011 and hasn’t looked back. Determined to publish for a readership outside academe, she started with TripAdvisor.com. (thousands of readers!) and finally “graduated” to stories and narrative non-fiction. Her creative work has been published in The New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary,” TheStir@CafeMom, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and Corner Club Quarterly,