Caroline Leavitt: “I was so wrong about the stages a writing career followed”

I used to believe that there was such a thing as a writer’s trajectory, with definite stages, marks you hit before you could move on. In my twenties, I figured first I would publish short stories, then I would publish a collection of them, and then, and only then would I write and get famous with my novel. I’d be a bright young flame everyone wanted to cozy up to and I’d grow into a blaze. And my next book would be even better. I was sure the film deals would come around next, of course, and the literary party scene wouldn’t be so attractive to me anymore. Then I’d get even older and my fame would calm down, because of course there would be all these young writers nipping at my heels. But that would be fine by me, because by then I would be a revered old writer.

That was the plan I thought all careers followed.

I was so wrong.

I didn’t publish short stories, but instead collected rejection slip after rejection slip for years, until in my late twenties, I became a “hot” writer after winning a young writers contest. Suddenly agents were calling me, wanting that story, “Meeting Rozzy Halfway,” to grow into a novel. But instead of being deliriously happy, I was confused. This wasn’t the plan I thought I’d follow. I hadn’t published my short story collection yet! I hadn’t even written it yet, plus I wasn’t so sure I even wanted to write a novel! Where was the plan? Didn’t matter. I got an agent and she helped me write an outline, and then I wrote the novel. 

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The joke was on me. My second novel didn’t do as well and then my publisher went out of business. I got a three-book deal from a major publisher, and not a single one of those books sold very well. I bounced around from publisher to publisher, and instead of growing more successful, the way my plan was supposed to help me do, I was barely holding on to the writing life with my well-bitten nails. Even worse, my ninth novel, Pictures of You, was rejected on contract by my publisher as being “not special enough.” No, they didn’t want me to rewrite. No, they didn’t want to see anything else from me. Yes, best of luck and goodbye.

I knew my career was over.

Panicked, I looked around at the other writers I knew and I suddenly saw, really saw, that their careers didn’t follow any stages either. A lot of them had won prizes and were well known. Some had huge successes followed by no success followed by more success. One writer I knew told me, days before she won the Pulitzer Prize, “I don’t think about any of that. All that matters is the writing, the work.”

That stopped me. Maybe, I thought, what’s on your mind about your career is far more important than what was on your royalty statement. I began to hunker down, to try to focus on what I was writing.

To my absolute surprise, soon after, Algonquin Books bought the book. When I confessed to them, “I don’t sell books,” they laughed and said, “Oh, you will now.” And that book that was “not special enough” proved the whole plan idea wrong, going into six printings months before publication and becoming a New York Times bestseller its second week out.

My career changed, but I had changed, too. Success to me no longer meant honors, prizes, or bigger or better happenings. I realized I was so thrilled by this book not because others were thrilled by it, but because it meant one thing to me: I could continue to write and continue to be read.

Because really, a writer is a writer and who knows how, when, and what you will produce. And if you are really writing for the beach house, the parties, the fame, then you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons, because then you will never be happy. A writer friend told me about her friend who got an Oscar for a film, and she asked him, “So now do you feel secure and happy?” He was very thoughtful for a moment, and then he said, “Well, I did, but it only lasted ten minutes, and now I am back to normal.”

Recently, I read that every decade we change. Our cells change. We have growth if we’ve been paying attention, which means that both the stories we want to read and the stories we want to tell change. And so does the way we look at our careers and ourselves.

I have no idea what the rest of my writing career is going to look like. Maybe my next novel will be a smash, but maybe it will be reviled. Maybe I will fall into obscurity. But isn’t the wonder of any journey the surprises along the way? The one thing you can hold onto is your love of writing, the work. Because in the end, writers write. And for me, that’s the only constant, the only stage, and it is amazing. It is enough.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of 12 novels, including her latest, With or Without You, which will be out in paperback in June. She’s also the co-founder, with Jenna Blum, of A Mighty Blaze, a website created early in the pandemic to help writers promote their books.

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