1999-2013: The Short, Sad Life of an Unsuccessful Novelist

  

By Margaret Verble

I noticed my first symptom in 1999. A tingling in my fingertips. An odd feeling, like they were trying to grasp what they couldn’t reach, or, maybe, trying to run away. Definitely doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I, however, was doing exactly what I thought I should be doing: running a consulting business, playing tennis, vacationing in places that suited my self-image. Still, the tingling persisted. There was something wrong with me.

When I wasn’t on the road working, I began hibernating. My basement den is nice. Equipped with a computer, exercise equipment, and TV. The exercise equipment and TV didn’t alleviate the tingling. The computer keys, though, had a soothing effect. That’s what those fingers had been wanting to do. Tap, tap, tap, and so on.

And on. I spent every spare moment I had from 1999 through 2007 in my basement den at that computer. That’s nine full years. I decided early on that I could run a business and write fiction. But I didn’t have time to run a business, write fiction, and talk about writing fiction. The only person I discussed my writing with was my husband. He was also a consultant; but, when we’d fallen in love, he’d been the Poet in Residence for the Metro Nashville School System. David had once had a fine mind for literature. I’d had a fairly good one. But, you see, we’d chosen, instead, to earn a living.

To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

By 2007, I’d produced a couple of novels. And had tried to get agents for them. But I had no success at that. I began having other symptoms. A sinking feeling. A tenderness. Maybe, a perpetual pout. I decided I couldn’t get a novel published alone. I needed help. I used the handy computer and looked on the Internet. To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

I picked my first workshop on the basis of dubious criteria. 1. It had to be near New York, as even down in a basement in Kentucky it had come to me that the action is up there in the City. 2. It had to be near enough to drive to, as I fly too much for a living. 3. It had to offer critique sessions, because I had to know if I’d been wasting my time. 4. It needed nonfiction offerings, so I could entice my college roommate to go with me.

We picked The Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, and I was assigned Roxana Robinson as my instructor. I read a couple of Roxana’s books, as I wanted to be sure she could write. (She sure can.) I took the books with me, as you can’t expect anyone to take an interest in you if you don’t take an interest in them. Roxana critiqued my manuscript. After I left our session, I read what she’d inscribed on the title page of her novel, Sweetwater, “For Margaret, Already a good writer.” That’s what nine years in a basement will do for you. You have to write to be a writer. And write. And write. And so on.

You also need a mentor, because nobody, I mean nobody, is successful alone. Roxana was kind enough to try to find me an agent. But agents are running businesses and have agendas of their own. None of the ones we tried wanted to take me on. I was discouraged. Kept writing. By then, not really by choice. By addiction. In July of 2008, I wrote in a journal, “I thought I’d found an agent for my fiction. But I’ve just opened a letter that says I’m wrong about that. Likes the writing. Doesn’t know where to sell it. He’s not the first. I’ve failed at this so much that disappointment feels like destiny calling. Hard work isn’t enough. I need that confluence of forces called Luck.”

Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night.

In October of 2009, I wrote, “If I were inclined toward discouragement, that rock would be rolling me down a hill. Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night. I still haven’t found an agent. I may have lost sight of the line between perseverance and futility.”

In February of 2010, Roxana came to Lexington for a book appearance. On that trip, she suggested I try writing short stories to build some credentials. I’m a novelist at heart; I didn’t want to do that. And I was busy. I had a contract with the NHS in the U.K., and a new British partner who was going through treatment for cancer. I was also exhausted and frightened. I didn’t take up Roxana’s advice until the next year.

In January of 2011, I wrote my first short story, “The Teller,” and sent it off to the Arkansas Review. I didn’t hear anything for months. I finally followed up with the editor, Janelle Collins. She told me the story was in the “Maybe” pile. But on August 13, she e-mailed me to say she’d accepted it. The news gave me validation and hope. It justified all those years down the stairs.

I got a few more short stories published after that. But I still didn’t have an agent. And I still hadn’t given up being a novelist. By the fall of 2013, I’d finished a new novel, Maud’s Allotment; but by then, I knew I had cancer. Informed by the pathology report after surgery for something else. My cancer surgery had to be delayed until I’d healed enough to be cut open again. I went on to Scotland to work because I had a commitment there, and because, when you’re in business, if you’re not actually dead, you have to show up. While I was in Edinburgh, I had a bad meal alone, and a short story rejected by e-mail. You get the picture here: cancer, rejection, bad food, and half an island away from my partner. I e-mailed Roxana. Mentioned only the bad food, rejection, and novel. She e-mailed me back. Said her agent was taking new clients. To send her, Lynn Nesbit, a hard copy.

When I got back to the U.S., I had two days before surgery, but I mailed that manuscript off. When Lynn sent a request for an electronic copy, I was somewhere in the bowels of the University of Kentucky Medical Center, too ill to sit up. My best friend brought my computer to me, moved me up in the bed, and helped me hit the right keys. When luck comes knocking, you have to answer immediately, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how many pain meds you’re on.

Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see.

I was two days out of the hospital, still heavily doped, and sitting next to a bag of urine hooked over a drawer when Lynn called. She said she thought my book was “About 85% there,” and, before she tried to sell it, she wanted me to send it to an editor she would pick. I tried to sound coherent, and Lynn said she’d call back with a name. When we hung up, I looked at the bag of pee. Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see. Cancer puts things in perspective.

But the sailing has been smooth seas from there. The editor, Adrienne Brodeur, had good judgment and was helpful. I slowly regained my health. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought the book, and, Lauren Wein, my editor there, has been lovely to work with. Maud’s Line (the title was changed in New York) has a Pulitzer Finalist badge on the paperback cover, and is selling. I have a new manuscript with Lynn right now.

Fifteen years isn’t really a long time to learn a complicated task like novel writing. It really isn’t. It’s not painting by numbers. That unsuccessful novelist is dead and buried. For now. I am alive and healthy. Again, for now. My fingers still tingle. But I’ve gotten used to that.

* * * * *

This essay is reprinted from The Authors Guild Bulletin, Winter 2017.

Margaret Verble is a successful businesswoman and novelist. Her consulting work has taken her to most states and to several foreign countries. Upon the publication of her debut novel, Maud’s Line, Margaret whittled her consulting practice down to one group of clients, organ procurement organizations, tissue banks, and eye banks, to devote the rest of her time to writing. Maud’s Line was a Finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is available in hardback, audio, and paperback.

The Pulitzer Prize committee praised Maud’s Line as “[a] novel whose humble prose seems well-suited to the remote American milieu it so engagingly evokes: the Indian allotments of 1920s Oklahoma.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Verble, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation, tells a compelling story peopled with flawed yet sympathetic characters, sharing insights into Cherokee society on the parcels of land allotted to them after the Trail of Tears.”

 

ORPHAN TRAIN’S Christina Baker Kline on the genesis of a novel

christina-baker-kline   pieceoftheworld_frontcover-003   bird-in-hand

Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World, about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World. Kline has written five other novels — Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines — and written or edited five works of nonfiction. Orphan Train (2013) spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her adaptation of this novel for young readers, Orphan Train Girl, will be published in May. A collection of Baker Kline’s essays on craft will be appearing weekly in a new column in Poets & Writers.


Under the Influence

When I’m working on a novel I become obsessed with its themes, and look for inspiration anywhere I can find it. Paintings, photographs, films, poems, essays, novels — everything I take in is filtered through the lens of my current obsession.

Recently I opened a file I kept while working on my novel Bird in Hand. It’s filled with newspaper clippings, handwritten and typed pages, poems torn out of magazines, Post-it notes in soft yellow and acid green. One 2″x2″ fragment — the bottom of a “To Do” list — has only this, in my handwriting: Don’t worry about starting. Just begin. No story is too large to tell. (Did I write these words, or was I quoting someone? Either way, I must have found them inspiring.)

Leafing through this file, I can trace the genesis of my ideas. The scrap of paper, for example, with phone numbers on one side and “Four danger signs for a marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, emotional withdrawal” scrawled in black pen on the other. Below this I wrote, “Is this novel a love story or a tale of betrayal? Is it about finding your soul mate, or losing everything you hold sacred? How can the two stories be the same?”

 

Visual Stimulation

For years, a tattered newspaper clipping fluttered on the wall in my office. Leafing through The New York Times one day, just as I was beginning to work on a new novel, I had come across a full-page ad. The image floored me. I’d begun writing about a young couple, Ben and Claire, both expatriates living in England, who befriend another American named Charlie … who falls in love with Claire. Who may or may not be falling in love with him. This picture in the newspaper perfectly encapsulated the complexity of my characters’ situation.

A couple on a park bench sits close together, facing away from the viewer. The man has his arm around the woman’s back, his hand resting protectively on her shoulder. The woman’s arm extends along and behind the bench, and her open palm rests on the hand of a man on the other side, who kisses it tenderly. All the markers of romantic Paris — the French restaurant awning, the folded newspaper (Le Monde), the European car in the background and the baroque details of the streetlight in the foreground, a smattering of pigeons, even the man’s black turtleneck and the woman’s plaid skirt and sensible heels — contribute to the illicit thrill of this image.

Does the man on the bench have any idea that his girlfriend/wife is being unfaithful? Did she and the man kissing her hand plan to meet at this place, or was it happenstance? For that matter, do they know each other, or is this a spontaneous moment of anonymous passion? Did the photographer happen on this scene, or was he, perhaps, hired by the man with his back to us on the bench?

The image is shocking in its seeming casualness, in the brazen, in-broad-daylight transgression taking place before our eyes. I was fascinated by the contradictions: the woman so clearly part of a couple, yet making herself available to the man behind her, her demure pose contrasting with her open, searching palm. The man’s body language, too, is contradictory; he sits casually reading the paper, one leg crossed over the other, but his eyes are closed in passion as he kisses the woman’s palm.

Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways. Claire loves her husband, but she finds something different with Charlie — a passion she’s never felt. Charlie respects Ben, but is blinded by his love for Claire. And when Claire’s best friend from childhood, Alison, comes to visit and ends up engaged to Charlie, things spin even further out of control.

This novel is called Bird in Hand. When I sent the final manuscript to my publisher, I took the faded newspaper clipping down and put it in a cardboard box, along with the handwritten first draft of the novel.

Non Sequiturs: Finding Literary Inspiration in Stream of Consciousness

l-e-kimball-author-photo  Seasonal Roads

By L. E. Kimball


I’m not sure who came first, but it must have been either Chevy Chase or Steve Martin. It was too early for Tim Allen, though he comes often. Not Steve Martin, though. The last time he arrived in my dreams, he never went on at all. Just hid under my desk because he said if he came out, I’d force him to have sex with me.

I assured him I only wanted him to fix the oven.

I always have trouble with Steve, it seems. And that’s unfortunate because I always have such hopes for us. There was this one night he showed up (he was our next door neighbor and we all had sloping front lawns in the dream neighborhood) and he was exasperated because the trees and bushes—everything and anything he tried to plant–slid down out of his yard into a big pile in the road, accordion-like. We were used to this in our own yards. But Steve thought this was my fault; I thought so too.

                                                 “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

I dream about comedians. Lots of them. But I dream most often about Steve Martin or Tim Allen.

I write about comedians, too, sometimes, as in the excerpt above. Even when I don’t, they influence me and therefore, they influence my writing.  Once in a writer’s workshop, the members read my comedian story (above) and they said a character (and by inference the author who wrote it) must be a total narcissist to dream about famous people, comedians notwithstanding. But I can only say that when I watch them, the good ones, I realize I am looking at the smartest people on earth, that in order to understand the nuances and subtleties of comedy and language, they must be brilliant—and I suppose I identify with their neuroticism, their angst, their sadness. They influence me because even though they realize that tragedy and comedy are a heartbeat away, and they might even argue there is no difference between them, they do laugh and they make me laugh, and laughter is the only thing that gets me through this life.

 Tim Allen showed up one night and we spent the night looking for hood ornaments. Like in his book, I’m Not Really Here. Everywhere he turned there were hood ornaments. He looked at me seriously at one point. Comedians, he told me, are the only people who know that The Divine Comedy is a journey from Heaven through Purgatory ending in Hell, not the other way around. I wasn’t sure what Heaven and Hell had to do with hood ornaments.

But I was thinking how my comedian phenomenon itself is synchronistic in nature. Well, maybe it isn’t, I guess they’d have to really show up in my bed to qualify, but it seems synchronistic just the same.

                                                 Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads

 

All comedians are philosophical but none more so, it seemed to me, than Steve Martin and Tim Allen. Steve Martin studied philosophy; Tim Allen has obviously done the same in at least some limited context. Woody Allen and Robin Williams come to mind . . . .

But regardless, my fascination with comedians is something that needs to be said about me.

So one night I was lying in bed contemplating a character I wanted to write about whose husband had been cheating on her. The relationship was toxic, yet neither could let go of it.  Failed? Maybe. Yet toxic or not, nothing is truly “failed” until it is over, or so I was thinking. As I was pondering the complexity of this, I looked over and saw my husband snoring away in bed with me, mouth wide open, inhaling with enough force to rattle the walls and pull the curtains from the windows. I thought about how people in bad relationships sort of “feed one another” and I started to laugh. A short story, I think to myself: comedian sections interspersed with a second person Kafka-esque magical realism that might depict the paradoxical, sad (yet humorous) nature of toxic relationships, of marriage—a story where the woman sees her husband as a metamorphosed giant amphibian bug, the two of them trapped in a maddening purgatory…

 

You sleep naked now. Before he had insisted on it. Now it’s your personal revenge.

Next to your bed stands an oak nightstand that once belonged to his mother, dark, heavy grained, upon which rests a delicate lace doily, a pair of dime store reading glasses, a few books written by women he refers to as your “harpies” (Atwood, Oates, Moore, Proulx), and a book called Trout Stream Insects, an Orvis Streamside Guide. Oh, and that collection by Kafka you stumbled along at the library reading selection of the month.

Next to the books there is a square jewelry box your own mother gave you—made of glass the color of purple oxidized blood. It has a matching lid that is attached on two sides with antique brass hinges, the bottom lined with plushy white satin—stark against the red glass—and on top of the colorless satin the daily ritual:  the results of today’s foraging.

Not too extensive; certainly not a collection as diverse as what is featured in the Orvis Guide:  a couple mosquitoes (one you slapped after it had sucked a bit of blood from your kneecap), a medium-sized house fly, a papery mud-colored moth, and two tiny gray spiders … not the real fuzzy kind because, after all, that could be a little too much.

All dead.

Oh, and tweezers. You always need tweezers.

                                                    “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

There is some connection to luck—or lack of it—tied to writing for me. Some connection to the universe, a cosmic energy or whatever you want to call it, something one must “tap into.” Talent is involved– we writers always think there is at least some of that—and certainly fortitude. But synchronicity is part of it: that place where luck and fate meet faith.

You might, however, think luck and fate are antithetical to one another. I’m a mixed philosopher type, believing neither in determinism or indeterminism. (Mills maybe?) Causal relationships between one event and another somehow still related to volition/signs/luck/opportunity.  If three people are thrown into the sea, the determinist might say it’s all fated so he might as well not swim. The indeterminist might think it is all chaotic chance and not swim either, but a mixed philosopher, according to Mills, might swim until a boat or plane showed up. Now the determinist will stubbornly argue that the mixed philosopher only believed he had some control over the outcome because he was raised to believe it, while someone else believed they had no control because he (she?) was raised that way—or circumstances had conspired—so he or she couldn’t believe, but these are still, he’ll argue, all causal relationships. Well, OK, maybe, but I maintain that if a person believes a thing—for whatever reason (perhaps just reading Mill) – he might, nevertheless, actually change the course of events.

So these days, despite the nagging feeling that I really might be fated to believe in Mill and ultimately have no control over anything at all, I believe anyway.  And this belief has led to the next insane belief:  that someone out there at some point might indeed connect with my work—and therefore save me!

 

Your friends tell you straight out. About wine bottle and glasses on innocent shopping sprees, back rubs in chance moments they’d spent alone with him. Vague suggestions you had better keep him satisfied. 

Once you protected them from him. Now you no longer bother.

He doesn’t do confrontation.

You left the orange peels in the sink again, you say. No reaction. You’re tracking mud all over the house. Not a flicker. I don’t like it when you drink every night in front of the kids. Nope, not even an up-yours, kiss-my-ass kind of look. Nothing. What was it Margaret said? A riddle:  What is more powerful than God, more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich lack it, and if you eat it, you die?

Nothing.

The answer was nothing.

                                                     “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

Synchronicity. Jung coined the term and defined it as “meaningful coincidences” (if those coincidences occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related). I’d have some pressing life question or writing conundrum on my mind and suddenly someone on TV or in the grocery line would be talking about something completely unrelated to my problem and yet would seem to have the answer to my life/writing dilemma. This seemed to necessitate a sort of mindful living, a sort of Buddhist-type tuning into yourself while simultaneously turning outward to the universe around you. And that necessitated, in turn, an underlying sort of optimistic outlook toward life and my work that belied outward appearances to the contrary.

 

Why is it always funnier to watch someone doing something asinine if they run by a window or a door, far away? Like Chevy Chase in Funny Farm. Watching him wrassling that snake down the lawn looked so much funnier through the window with his wife unaware of his predicament than it would have up close and if she’d seen it—

That private joke with the audience.

Maybe it’s easier to laugh at people from a distance.

                                                        “Spinner Falls” – Seasonal Roads

 

So on this particular evening, I had seen Chevy Chase in Fletch, dancing with the animated characters in one scene and singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I giggled. Full of a synchronistic black humor myself, I sat up and finished the entire story in three hours. Here is the ending:

 

You remember the insects—how they hatch over rivers in the early evening.

Mate and die.

These days comfort comes only in your ritual. You do it not just for you, but because you know he needs it, has come to depend upon it as much as you do. He snores and heaves, mouth hanging open like usual. Pink sticky tongue oozing out of the gash that is his mouth, all of it vibrating with the shuddering gasps of his next breath. You’re tired and you think maybe tonight you’ll just skip the whole thing. But it’s the only thing left for either of you and it must be done.

You lift the tweezers from the bedside table, open the glass lid of the box and poke through the assortment. You look over to see if there is any further change in him. His teeth seem shorter, mouth bigger. Thumbs? Does he have thumbs? It’s something you’d like to know, but his hands are tucked underneath him.

What will it be? You decide on the mosquito, the one you slapped this morning while reading Margaret Atwood, and using the tweezers, you pick him up gently by one papery wing. Is he quite dead? Maybe a wiggle or two. You drop it then—carefully onto his tongue. As far back as you can manage.

Then it’s gone with hardly a falter in his breathing. What will it be next? Maybe the spider next. You lift one, a semi-fuzzy, grayish-brown one, by one of its back legs, hold it suspended over his waiting, eager mouth. You wait, you wait, keep waiting…

You drop one more insect—the moth—into his eager, greedy mouth.

It seems right—for both of you.

Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

“Spinner Falls” — Seasonal Roads


L. E. Kimball has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Washington Square (New York University), Orchid, A Literary Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Lynx Eye. Her first novel, A Good High Place, was published by Switchgrass Press. Her second novel, Seasonal Roads, was published by Wayne State University in 2016. She has also had creative nonfiction published in dozens of national publications such as ByLine, Exceptional Parent, and Country Almanac, and she’s been published in the op-ed section of The Detroit News. Author Lisa Lenzo reviewed Seasonal Roads for Read Her Like an Open Book on August 15, 2016.

Lynn holds a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA, both from Northern Michigan University. She is currently an Assistant Contingent Professor at NMU.

Writing Out of Rage: How Sexual Politics Inspired “The Unraveling of Mercy Louis”

This essay was originally posted on March 30, 2015, but it seems appropriate to post it again as 2016 crawls off into the sunset.

Keija_Parssinen_-_credit_Shane_Epping  Unraveling-of-Mercy-Louis-hcc-226x342

By Keija Parssinen

The advice goes that you shouldn’t compose an email while angry, but what about a novel? Can good art emerge out of rage? I’d argue that the answer is yes, but that’s because I was a flaming nova of fury while writing my second book, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. In an interview with the NEA Arts Magazine, Toni Morrison said, “Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on.” Maybe that’s why I sat down in early 2012 and started The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I didn’t like what was going on in our country, not at all. And I wanted someone to hear me roar.

It was election season, which meant that Republicans were attacking reproductive rights with increased zeal. But suddenly, the politicians weren’t just injecting themselves into the private health decisions of American women. They were also weighing in on sexual violence, to horrifying effect. In Missouri, where I live, Todd Akin infamously coined the term “legitimate rape,” when he told a local TV station: “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has way to try and shut the whole thing down.” The comments might have been laughable, the unhinged croakings of a drunken uncle at a reunion picnic, but Akin was running for the U.S. Senate, hoping to represent about three million Missouri women, and so his comments were deeply disturbing. Indiana’s Richard Mourdock soon blundered his way into the conversation, saying that even when a pregnancy resulted from rape, God intended it, and therefore, a woman should be forced to carry the baby to term.

At the time, I was pregnant with my first child, a planned pregnancy for which my husband and I were grateful. But the pregnancy evoked complicated feelings in me. I became hyperaware of the fact that suddenly, my body was not my own. Beyond the fact that people openly commented on and touched my body lay the fact that, if for some terrible reason I needed an abortion after twenty weeks, I would not be able to get one. The local Planned Parenthood clinic stopped doing the procedure at all that year. As my husband and I trekked to the doctor for our prenatal visits, I felt like Akin and Mourdock and Romney were there in the doctor’s office with me, micro-managing my pregnancy. I wondered how anyone—particularly any man—could have the gall to believe he should be a part of this intensely personal journey.

As the year wore on, the Steubenville and Maryville rape cases gained national attention. I cried tears of grief for those girls who lost their innocence so violently, and so publicly. And I cried tears of rage for how the respective communities responded to the crimes: by shaming the girls, excusing the boys, burning down houses, driving families out of town.

Throughout all of this, I wrote. Every day, heavy with the pregnancy, I sat down and wrote the story of the girls of Port Sabine, Texas—a community much like Steubenville, or Maryville, or Anywhereville, USA. In my story, I made the girls fierce—strong, smart and athletic—but I made the town a powerful oppressor, interfering in the natural development of its young women out of fear of their nascent sexuality. A fear that runs deep in this country, all the way back to Salem and the Colonies.

I wrote out of rage, and I wrote out of fear, hearing my teacher Elizabeth McCracken’s advice that “revenge is a fantastic reason to write” as I typed. “Don’t tread on me or the girls or women of this country, you Tea Party motherfuckers,” I would think as I wrote another scathing chapter. At times, I worried that my anger would somehow affect the baby growing inside me, so I did yoga and meditated, to try and counterbalance the high emotion that fueled the writing.

The morning of January 18th, 2013, I emailed a draft of the novel to my agent. Later that day, I gave birth to my son. It was a time of great happiness, and relief. I was glad to let go of my anger for a while, and embrace the special joy a wanted baby brings. But while I breastfed and snuggled my sweet infant, I found my thoughts wandering to the still burning world outside my door. And I thought about my characters, particularly the teenage mothers. Here I was, a thirty-two year old woman nurturing a son I wanted with all my heart, but still, it at times felt impossible. As I struggled with sleeplessness, difficulty nursing, and a body I no longer recognized, I understood viscerally the need for women to be able to make the decision to have babies on their own terms. Because it is the hardest thing we will ever do, and because it can be financially and emotionally devastating if you’re not in the right place in your life.

When my agent returned the draft to me with her comments, I was able to approach the manuscript with the cool detachment necessary to shape an angry screed into something more subtle, more artful—and hopefully more affecting. As we gear up for another election season (groan), I want to send a copy to Akin and Mourdock, Santorum and Cruz, Romney and Bush, and anyone else who has ever reduced women to second-class citizens by denying them domain over their bodies, not just to show them the devastating psychological effects that such a message has on young women, but to introduce them to some kick-ass female characters whose complex thoughts and desires might just shock the imbeciles into the realization that women are fully realized human beings, too.

Rebecca Makkai on the varieties of Literary Mansplaining

Rebecca Makkai 2013 Hundred Year House paperback Music for Wartime

Rebecca Makkai is the author of two novels, The Borrower (2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014), as well as the short story collection, Music for Wartime (2015)Her story “The Briefcase” was recently anthologized in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s high school literature textbook, Collections.

Makkai is smart, observant, and sharp-witted, and it is reflected in her writing, including this piece written for Read Her Like an Open Book (and originally posted on September 29, 2014).

You can read my review of The Hundred-Year House here and my interview with Rebecca Makkai here.

In this essay, she addresses an issue that continues to bedevil smart, accomplished women, especially writers. 

Few things have spoken to my soul like Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” the essay that indirectly gave rise to the term “mansplaining.”  And it’s no coincidence that Solnit’s key anecdote was about publishing – specifically, about a man not understanding that the seminal book he was lecturing her on was actually one Solnit herself had written. Although mansplaining exists just about everywhere, there seems to be something special about the writing world – maybe it’s that women are, you know, using their voices – that brings out the closet mansplainer. When women articulate issues within the publishing world, or issues they’re facing in their own careers, there’s always someone there to explain that this is not a real problem, or that the solution is oh-so-simple.

Of course #NotAllMen are mansplainers. Of the male writers and critics and bloggers I associate with, I’d put it at around 2%. But all it takes is one person peeing in the pool.

These are the varieties of literary mansplaining I see on a daily basis, both online and off:

“Let me tell you how the publishing industry works.” I get this one not from fellow writers, but – far worse – from acquaintances whose knowledge of publishing is limited to an article they read two years ago about Kindles. “You get a bigger percentage of sales from ebooks,” they say. “So you should be happy!” Or they’ll tell you about the one and only novel they’ve read in the past two years, and act shocked that you haven’t heard of it. “It’s very important! Read it and get back to me and tell me what you think.” And I’m always so grateful for this, because I have nothing in my to-read pile! I’m fresh out of ideas!

“Stop being surprised” / “What did you expect?” In which a woman says / posts / writes about something truly troublesome – unfair VIDA numbers, let’s say, or Amazon hijinks, or academic sexism, or a rat infestation at a writers’ colony — and a man eagerly jumps in to comment with something like “Yep. Get used to it. Them’s the breaks.” Which really adds nothing at all to the conversation, when you think about it. It’s simply a way of saying “Oh, yes, this issue? I’m five steps ahead of you on this issue. Ha-HA!”

 “Just lighten up / give up / grow a pair” A close cousin to the above, with the lovely addition of moral judgment against indignation. If the criticism had come from a man, it would be righteous anger, or thoughtful analysis, or warranted fury. From a woman, it’s irrational and shrill and must be stopped. (The giveaway here: the true mansplainer can only avoid use of the word “hysterical” for about twenty seconds, and/or three tweets. Hang in there long enough, and it’ll come out.)

“This wouldn’t be an issue for you if you would just…” …write more book reviews, write more nonfiction, write more commercial fiction, change your name to something more pronounceable, go with a smaller publisher, go with a bigger publisher, accept that critics are jerks, ignore the haters, ignore your editor, ignore your reviews, stop caring about your career, stop thinking about it too much. Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Here is my writing advice, o world!” This is a subtler and more insidious one – an exercising of privilege that is surely invisible to the privileged. Certainly there are times (like, you’re hired to speak to a conference) when an audience is waiting with bated breath for your wisdom. But shouting out, unbidden, on social media, your lesson of the day (“Here’s a little craft tidbit for you, folks…”) – I don’t know how to explain that it’s a manifestation of gender privilege except to say that I see men do this on a daily basis, and I’ve never, ever seen a woman do it. And come to think of it, I’ve only ever seen white men do it. Straight white men. Hmm… (1% of them, at most. But boy howdy are they loud.)

“Despite never having read your work, I’m going to assume that whatever issues you’re facing in the publishing world are due to the fact that you must be writing ‘domestic fiction,’ which – hey! – should certainly be given its due! I read an Alice Munro story once, and I loved it!” Sure you did. Also, define “domestic fiction.” Fiction with a house in it? So you mean, like, The Corrections? No?

“Let me explain how much I’ve done for you, female writer.” This can range anywhere from the benign but egocentric (“I’m so glad I wrote that one review of Alice Munro for the Winnipeg Free Press during the Reagan Administration, because look where my patronage has gotten her!”) to the deeply disturbing (see: the recent saga of Ed Champion). Toward that more disturbing end, there are some male bloggers and critics out there who seem to see praising women writers as the equivalent of buying your date a fancy dinner in 1962. In both cases, they seem to expect something afterwards. Eternal gratitude? Instant acceptance? Love? Sex? It’s hard to tell. And in cases like Champion’s, if perceived “favors” are not returned, the critic turns vicious.

“Your experience is false.” There is no male privilege in literature, there is no white privilege in literature, Martin Amis is not a sexist, Phillip Roth is not a sexist, 9/1 is a reasonable breakdown for the National Book Award nonfiction long list. You are imagining sexism, because I do not believe myself to be a sexist.

“Ah,” someone out there says, “that’s right. I remember reading about this in a magazine. When women complain, they don’t really want their problems solved. They just want to vent. They want someone to listen to them.”

No, asshat. We would love the problems solved. All the problems. It’s just that unless you’re my editor or my agent or my department chair, you’re not the one who’s going to solve them. You aren’t saying anything we haven’t already thought of. No one, male or female, wants someone to come in and pat them on the head and tell them the solution is actually very simple, and the solution is to stop worrying about it. Would you do that to a male colleague? Would you – on the roughest days of your life – want someone doing that to you? The difference between the sexes here isn’t that women want shoulders to cry on. It’s that only women have to put up with people handing them facile and belittling solutions (that aren’t really solutions) to their problems.

So… What to do? If you’re a woman, you already know your choices. Keep your head down and ignore it, or stick your neck out and fight it.

If you’re a man, a regular, fabulous man, keep being awesome. But if you think you might be guilty of mansplaining: Ask yourself, honestly, if this is what you’d say to another guy. If you’d accuse him of hysterics, if you’d attempt to explain the world to him, if you’d assume that because you praised his book once, he must owe you undying gratitude. Or if you’d think that his problems must not really be problems, or feel so proud of yourself for offering the most reductionist solution.

And if you still can’t help it, try to use your mansplaining powers for good, rather than evil. Best Buy is always hiring.

Three years and five drafts: Stephanie Gangi on the writing of THE NEXT

stephanie-gangi-sidesmile_tr-002  the-next


In a recent conversation, this blog’s proprietor, Bill, asked me a question about my debut novel, The Next (St. Martin’s Press): “How do you combine a fast and complicated plot with character study and writing that is ‘literary fiction’?”

That gave me pause. Did I do that?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the question. Because I wanted to write what I love to read, Bill’s classification of The Next as literary fiction is gratifying. To hear from a reader (and Bill is a voracious reader) that my novel delivers a complex story at a good clip about human beings of depth, with lyrical prose … that’s thrilling. That’s what I was going for!

But I have to stop and think. How, exactly, did I make it happen?

Let me count the ways. I bought a dozen craft books. I made an outline, a timeline, noted my key themes, embarked on character studies, defined plot points and subplots, made and hit my word count goals, created a climax and then another climax, and knew the ending in my bones before I even began. I workshopped, I recruited beta readers, I integrated feedback, I wrote and re-wrote my ideal “review” as a kind of mission statement. I had notebooks full of, well, notes, and titles, character names, playlists, chapter descriptions, on and on. I wrote and re-wrote two, three, four drafts.

Two years after I began, I felt finished. I had a draft I was happy with, and serious “interest” from a renowned literary agency. I handed The Next over and waited in a state of high anxiety while four professionals read it. An email was received, a meeting was set, and I turned up nearly giddy with hope. With readers’ reports and notes in hand, the agents said, in the kindest way possible, You’re not there yet. Try again.

Try again. Try again? I’d decimated my social life, neglected my real job, spent money I didn’t have on classes and readers and craft books, forgotten to return calls and pay bills – all to get to this point. I’d given it my all and my best, my very, very “good student” best! I had followed the advice and experience of real writers; I had been committed, meticulous, thorough. I thought I had cracked the novel-writing code, and yet: Try again. Now I was exhausted, sick of the whole enterprise. I sunk into a funk. After weeks of wallowing, I went back to the craft books for wisdom, for encouragement, for a solution. It was unanimous: Step away.

Ever the good student, I set the manuscript aside (literally, as I can write on screen with no problem but cannot for the life of me revise and edit on anything but paper) for three long months. When anyone asked me how it was going, I went stony, I shrugged, I shut down all conversation. (Pro-tip: Tell as few people as possible anything about anything if you are writing your first novel. Resist all urges. Shhh!) I busied myself. I binged on Netflix and endless “Law & Order” reruns. I concentrated at work, I went out with friends, I threw a couple of parties.

One evening, I poured myself a glass of red wine and sat in my favorite blue chair with The New Yorker in hand. I was unable to focus. All I can say is, I was called back. Something compelled me to physically set aside that wine glass and toss the magazine and reach the high shelf where I’d exiled my manuscript.

Okay, I didn’t really set aside the wine. I drank and I read and at some point, I got a pen and I started marking up the pages. A lot of pages. All the pages. The story seemed new to me, and rife with challenges and obstacles, but as those appeared, so did ideas to solve them or navigate around them. For the first time, I grasped the mechanics, the tactics, the behind-the-scenes of my own novel. It was a puzzle! It had taken me four drafts to create all the pieces, and I hadn’t realized there was more to do: fitting them in place.

When I sat back down after the long break, I was a different writer. I ignored outlines and timelines and reports and feedback. I started again. Draft five, page one.

With distance, I’d gained the confidence to rely on my own critical eye and ear. I got out of the way and let my characters live through dialogue and action rather than back story. I read out loud and listened closely for the rhythms of “my style” and then I applied my beat to sections that felt flat or expositional. I didn’t shy away from writing about sentimental things or angry things or pain or grief. I meditated (yep) and tuned in to the way my body responded to what I was writing. When I got teary, or raced along, or felt bored, I realized it was time to ramp up or tone down or create a conflict to maintain my own interest. Many, many times, I closed my eyes and typed like a madwoman, typos be damned. When I’d “come to,” I would be disoriented and shocked at how time had flown. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being high while not actually being under any influences.

Here’s Bill’s question again: How do you combine a fast and complicated plot with character study and writing that is “literary fiction” level?

Here’s what I think I did:

  • I learned as much craft as I could.
  • I applied my new craft knowledge to building the world of The Next.
  • I failed to make that world come alive.
  • I walked away in disgust.
  • I rested.
  • I couldn’t stay away.
  • I had an epiphany – it was all part of the process.
  • I recognized my own particular style and applied it to enhance the story.
  • I discovered my rhythm. Dare I say my breath, my heartbeat? Dare I say the “literary” aspect of my fiction? And I let it beat strong and consistent under plot and character.

Quite simply, I screwed up and tried again. I learned to trust myself. I would not quit. It is only now, in the writing of this piece, that I realize that is exactly what my characters go through, too. That is a major theme of The Next.

Damned good question, Bill.


STEPHANIE GANGI lives and works in New York City. She was born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, and raised her own kids in Tribeca, Rockland County and on the Upper West Side.

Gangi’s first publishing credit, many years ago, was a children’s book, Lumpy: A Baseball Fable, co-written with New York Mets pitching great Tug McGraw. She ghostwrote a tell-all about Liberace in 1984 but left the only copy in a taxicab. She has written jacket copy, pitch letters, business plans, speeches, mortgage checks, absence excuse notes, letters to editors, hundreds of poems, dozens of story starts, dating profiles, countless emails, texts, sexts, and random tweets. She once chalked a love note on the wall of a Paris alley in the rain.

Her poem, “Four,” was a 2014 award winner and appears in the anthology for The Hippocrates Society of Poetry and Medicine. The poem “Talking to My Dead Mother About Dogs” appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the New Ohio Review.

The Next is her debut. She is working on her second novel.

Memoirist Alexis Paige: On Manuscript Re-entry, Narrative Nonfiction, and Re-visiting Craft Basics

alexis-paige-portraits-_-ben-deflorio-photography-img_8893  not-place-on-any-map-by-alexis-paige-1925417212

Photo: Ben DeFlorio Photography 


By Alexis Paige

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts

For more years than I care to admit, I have been working on a memoir about my unlikely journey through the Texas criminal justice system, including a 60-day stint in the Harris County Jail, one of the largest and worst in the country, with a terrible record of inmate sexual assaults, in-custody deaths, and violations of health and sanitation standards. I say unlikely because I am white, educated, middle-class, and have good teeth. All these factors marked me as an oddity in the jail, but I was told by my pod-mates at some point weeks into my sentence that the combination of my whiteness and nice teeth in particular marked me as suspicious, possibly a narc. I started the memoir long before I knew what I was doing and became so mired by the labor that I began to write little scenes and vignettes for relief, to feel a sense of accomplishment. The vignettes became their own labor, for in them I found myself finally confronting the sexual assault I had buried like a drum of nuclear waste and stored in some Area 51 of my own consciousness. In sidestepping one book, I found myself writing another.

But now that this other book is about to be published, it’s time to re-enter the jail manuscript, and re-entry, unfortunately, is not at all like riding a bike, not a simple matter of picking up where I left off. I am different now than I was even 18 months ago when I set the book aside, which is to say that the memoir’s retrospective narrator is different, the vantage point altered. You become the writer you need to be to finish the book, my MFA mentor David Mura once said. I didn’t ask him what happens if you don’t become that writer. I’m not certain where this becoming has located me now in relation to my memoir project, but something palpable has shifted. In rereading the draft recently, much of it felt off—not the events of the story, nor, I don’t think, the structure, but some tonal nuance, some quality of insight. In the hopes of steeling myself for the task, I decided to go back to basics and to re-read two of my favorite creative nonfiction craft books, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Sven Birkert’s The Art of Time in Memoir.

For the writer of narrative nonfiction and other storytellers, The Situation and the Story is a revelation. Every other sentence is something that needs to be written down, remembered, revisited, and made into a writer’s tattoo. So much clarity and insight and depth are distilled into this small volume. It is the clarity I especially admire; it has the quality of carefully brewed wisdom, and inspires the feeling that we are getting her best stuff.

In important ways, Gornick’s ideas about the different components of nonfiction narrative—the situation and the story—dovetail with Sven Birkerts’ ideas in The Art of Time in Memoir. Though he talks about time, and she largely about person or persona (the nonfiction narrator), both writers are engaged in a complex discussion of structure, or of what Gornick calls “organizing principle.” Both writers, I think, are interested in the way in which good nonfiction emerges from a place of contact, collision, force acting upon force. Whether concerned with persona or time, we must not render a flat self or a flat experience. The voice and the events must rise out of an important shaping force, a kind of texturizing pressure, a place of axis as a place of access.

One of Birkerts’ examples of the important friction that time provides is in an analysis of Annie Dillard’s lyrical memoir, An American Childhood. The explicated passage is a nighttime scene of sense and felt memory as narrated by Dillard’s child self from her childhood bedroom. Birkerts writes, “The author here enacts in compressed form [that it is compression seems important] what the memoirist more commonly works out on the macroscale, namely, the collision of original perception and hindsight realization: the revision of the then by the now” (37). It is this place of collision that he highlights again and again, the place (or time) where story meets the apprehension of story.

Gornick uses different terms, but I would suggest that she examines fundamentally the same phenomenon—how friction makes the magic of narrative nonfiction (principles, which of course, apply to all storytelling). “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void,” Gornick writes. “The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, and experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts” (14). It seems that each is talking about this critical engagement—whether engagement with self or experience or time. Both writers assert a fundamental truth about writing, namely, that writing is art making, much like sculpture or painting; to locate narrative or self is to locate the right place/time/self of the story and the right place/time/self of the telling of that story. The right juncture, perhaps. This location must be one of moment and of movement—not in any traditional sense of drama—but in the mind of the memoirist. I suspect this location has changed for me now, and I need to locate some new juncture in my ever-becoming mind. The goal of the memoir, perhaps, is to find the wormhole from now to then; the problem, of course, is that the now is always moving.

What we remember has intrinsic force and value to us, but the force and value of the memory is driven by its active apprehension of that memory in the now of its rendering. My writing is never flatter than when memory is unearthed by way of a kind of forced dredging. Engagement might come in the form of a self in conflict or a time of conflict, but story can’t emerge from static experience or a static self. In re-entering my memoir, in particular the skin of the retrospective narrator who was cryogenically frozen in 2014, I have found that the fit is off. So how does a writer re-engage in order to make art? Confronting the narrative forces of time and persona, and re-calibrating my narrative persona to one of this writing moment, to this now, I hope, will make the difference. I need to start again, which is not to say that I need to start from scratch.

In the beginning of her book, Gornick takes the reader to a funeral, wherein eulogy after boring eulogy stretch on without texture or meaning—that is, until we come upon a story shared by a woman who spoke of the complexity of her relationship with the deceased. The difference between the stories that didn’t work and the one that rose in sharp relief from the others, the story that stayed with Gornick, was that the latter “had been composed” (4). It is not experience, even dramatic experience, that makes a great story, but a writer’s shaping that makes a story. On this point, I think that Birkerts and Gornick would agree that the shaping is the art making. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick says. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). If I use my own memoir as an example, I might say that the situation is this: middle-class white girl from the North gets in trouble with the law in Texas and confronts her alcohol problem in the process. But the story, the fulcrum of the experience, is the discovery or the recovery of identity amid failure. Wait, no, this was the story in some old version. Then, later, it was the story of confronting racial privilege. And now? It’s still all those things perhaps, but filtered through some newer, actively-grappling self-definition.

The situation or series of events can be anything, Gornick suggests, so long as it’s well made, so long as the situation is drawn through a compelling story. And a compelling story—emotional experience, the apprehension of experience—can be delivered only by a particular narrator, one who knows him- or herself at the time of the writing. First, the narrator must be reliable. Much is made of this reliability in nonfiction circles, but defining reliability is fraught. Do we mean a kind of competence, like a court reporter? Or do we mean something else, something akin to authenticity? Gornick suggests, by way of an example from Orwell, that a reliable narrator is one who inspires trust by admitting defect, wrestling with mixed feelings, and by rendering inner conflict. I have come to believe that this kind of narrator has tolerance for ambiguity and for his or her own unresolvedness—that trying to make sense of one’s mess is what makes the work interesting.

In response to Orwell’s reflection on the ugliness of imperialism, Gornick writes, “The man who speaks those sentences is the story being told: a civilized man made murderous by the situation he finds himself in” (16). Gornick argues that the reliable narrator must implicate him or herself; it is by the act of self-implication that we come to know and trust the persona of the story.

Interestingly, she distinguishes the narrator’s persona from the writer him- or herself, much in the way we distinguish the speaker of a poem from the poet, but I find the use of the word persona paradoxical. Persona suggests a construct, something not real. Perhaps this paradox fuels some of the wonderful friction out of which stories are made. Of course, as a practical matter, the writer must construct a narrator, a persona, in order to win over the disinterested reader. The writer can’t be all of her selves; Gornick points out that our real selves, all of our selves accumulated, are just boring and whiny. We save these selves—all of them in their accumulated banality—for our dear, patient friends and family.

Gornick draws some other important connections between writerly concerns and personae. She writes about style and persona, about persona rising from a kind of stylized, yet authentic, self. As in the case of Orwell, she writes, “the persona he created in his nonfiction—an essence of democratic decency—was something genuine that he pulled from himself, and then shaped to his writer’s purpose” (17). That this something was genuine seems an important point to make.  The other concerns she has us consider in terms of creating a narrator include distance and subject. She suggests that her own lack of narrative distance sank her early drafts of a memoir about Egypt. She was too close; therefore, there was no movement, no arrival at clarity.

Finally, Gornick suggests the writer keep in mind the “disinterested reader” to avoid the trap of memoir as therapy, testament, or mere transcription (again, these are pitfalls Birkerts has observed). She writes, “the shaped presentation of one’s own life is of value to the disinterested reader only if it dramatizes and reflects sufficiently on the experience of ‘becoming’: undertakes to trace the internal movement away from the murk of being told who you are by the accident of circumstance toward the clarity that identifies accurately the impulses of the self that Cather calls inviolable” (93). This movement toward clarity helps me to think about my own project because I realize that I have to re-enter the manuscript now and move toward a newer, fresher clarity so that the reader can experience “becoming” along with me. As Gornick points out, “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom” (91). The door to the wormhole has moved, even if only slightly, and I need to line up the portals once again in order to find the story. Re-entry, like everything else, is just a matter of time, work, and physics.


Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology, was featured on Longform, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize and twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not a Place on Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published on December 5, 2016. Paige teaches writing at colleges and universities throughout New England and writes from a converted farmhouse pantry in rural Vermont, where she lives with her husband, and their two dogs, Jazz and George. She can be found at alexispaigewrites.com.