I wrote this piece several weeks ago for SheWrites, a social networking site for women writers, and it was picked up a few days later by More.com. I’m reprinting it here because I’ve gotten more feedback on it than on any other essay I’ve written. People called it “brutally honest” and “courageously candid”; one writer said she could never imagine being so self-revealing. Another wrote that she burst into tears reading it because my experience was so close to her own. Perhaps because I’ve come through this to some kind of other side, I didn’t worry that I was being too candid — I just wanted to write frankly about my experience. But it’s hard for writers to speak honestly about the difficult times, I think, particularly when they’re ongoing.
I suddenly look rather prolific. In the past two years I have published two novels – my new one, Bird in Hand, comes out this week – and co-edited an essay collection, and I’m under contract for another novel. “I don’t know how you do it!” a friend exclaimed the other day. “You make it look so easy.”
I agree that it looks easy now – three books in two years is pretty good. But it took a long eight years to get to this point, during which time my confidence was so shaken that I questioned everything about myself as a writer. More than once, I wondered if I would ever publish again.
Here’s what happened: In the mid-nineties, after making a small but audible splash in the big pond with my first novel, Sweet Water, my second novel floated quietly on the surface. In truth, Desire Lines did nearly as well as the first, but the publisher’s expectations – and advance – had been much higher. Nobody would quite say it, but I sensed it: the book was a disappointment. I felt like a failure.
(A friend who got a large advance for a book that sold modestly described walking down the hall with the publisher himself and running into a famous, perennially bestselling author. “X, this is Y,” the publisher said dryly. “He’s the one who subsidized your book.”)
When Desire Lines came out I was working on a new novel. But my sense of having let people (including myself) down, combined with moving to the suburbs and raising three young children, played havoc with my self-confidence. On top of that, I was writing about the death of a child who was exactly the age of one of my own, and the subsequent dissolution of a marriage. This difficult, painful material, while not specifically autobiographical, cannibalized my own experience in myriad ways and often felt overwhelming.
In the middle of all of this, I took on what turned out to be a disastrous ghostwriting project to help pay for that house in the suburbs. Without an adequate contract (or, it must be said, a clear sense of boundaries), the whole thing eventually imploded. I took a full-time teaching job and other works-for-hire to make up the lost income when my kids were 6, 4 and not quite a year old, and at some point, without even quite understanding what was happening, I became completely demoralized. I sunk into what I now recognize as a mild depression.
With the help of a therapist and support from my husband, I eventually rallied. My children grew, my teaching job got easier, I acclimated to life in the suburbs. And after four agonizing years, I turned in an unwieldy manuscript. My editor at the time took forever to read it; I didn’t hear anything until one day her assistant called to say that the novel was “in the pipeline,” scheduled to be published in the spring. I was flabbergasted – I knew it wasn’t anywhere near ready. I went to lunch with my editor and she asked what I was working on now, and out of nowhere I summoned a new idea, fully formed, like a movie pitch, about a single woman who meets a guy online and moves to Maine.
“I love it,” she said. “Why don’t you write it quickly, and we’ll publish this book first? The economy is rough – people want to buy books that make them feel good. And the other one is dark and complicated. This book sounds like fun.”
So I did it. I wrote The Way Life Should Be in a fever of relief after the torment of the other novel. This new book was a lighthearted, humorous, first-person, present-tense story with recipes, and looked nothing like my life. It was a joy to write.
Within several years, this new book was published – and I was back on track. (The editor was right; people were eager for a light, funny read.) When I turned back to the old manuscript, I had regained my confidence. I had a new perspective and a new editor who proposed radical structural changes that helped transform the manuscript. And after all that time, I had distance enough to see it clearly. I finally knew exactly what I needed to do.
In my eight-year publishing drought, when I feared I might never finish another book and it seemed as if other authors were whizzing merrily by, writing one novel after another, I felt as if I’d blown my chances, fallen out of the race. But what I’ve come to realize – and what may be heartening to others who, like me, take a while to get their act together or go through ebbs and flows – is that when you do eventually publish, the intervening years disappear. The current book is the only thing that counts, and it doesn’t matter how long it took you to get there.
So yes, now it all looks easy. But I need to acknowledge just how hard it was, and how long it took, if only to remind myself how important it is not to get caught up in other people’s judgments and my own unrealistic expectations. Ten years after I wrote the first word of Bird in Hand, it is finally being published. During the fallow years, I gained insights into marriage and family life and the complicated choices people make that I didn’t have access to when I was younger. I developed the confidence to write from the perspective of mature characters, including men (which I’d never done before). And I think that, perhaps as a result of the many drafts and revisions, Bird in Hand is the best thing I’ve written. It’s certainly my proudest accomplishment — probably even more so because it’s not an overnight success.