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.”

 

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.

Right, Like a Man: Chris Jane on the power of gender in an author’s name

Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane    Pretty Much True

I prefer the way I write when, while writing, I imagine being read as a man.

There’s an immediate freedom to not be apologetic. To do as we were taught in high school English and eliminate the self-conscious “I think…” from the writing.

I’m not sure when it happened, the shift into having to pretend.

My father, a single parent, never gave my sister or me the impression that being female was considered a weakness or would limit us in any way. Now and then we’d have to fetch him things, and we were tasked with decorating and undecorating the Christmas tree, but that was because we were his kids. It had nothing to do with being girls. That I was a “girl” was so separate from my identity that I would sometimes be confused about why I didn’t feel more like one. Females my dad’s age who had soft, styled hair and wore perfume and nail polish were curiosities. I wanted to ask them questions about womanhood. I wanted them to somehow infuse me with the kind of femininity I saw blooming in the girls my age who wore clanking bracelets and pink lipstick.

That absence of innate femininity combined with being raised by a man contributed to my being comfortable with – and preferring to be one of – the boys. I didn’t fear them and hadn’t been raised to defer to them. We were friends, and we were equals. It never occurred to me that their thoughts, perspectives, experiences, or opinions were (or should be) more valid than mine. I was pretty sure I was even as strong as they were.

It took a woman telling me I was not, in fact, as strong as a man to introduce me to what is often a completely arbitrary system of inequity: At around 20 years old, I applied to be a stock person at a liquor store in upstate New York. I knew I could lift the boxes because I’d done it for about a year at a previous job. The store owner, a woman in her late 60s, immediately said no upon taking my application. I asked why. “You’re a girl,” she said. I told her I could lift the boxes. I asked her to allow me to demonstrate. “I’m not going to hire a girl,” she said. “I need a boy.”

I wanted to scream at her, “BUT I CAN DO IT!”

Even if I had proved I was capable, she still wouldn’t have hired me. I was a girl, and that was that. Worse was that she wouldn’t even let me try. Automatic disqualification.

It took a little over ten years for gender as a hindrance to come up again (and ten years, when you think about it, is pretty good). I was looking for an agent for Pretty Much True, a book that would seem to have had everything going for it: It was a war novel about the first year in Iraq (2003) that was being shopped around while service members were still in Iraq and that had been written by someone who had first-hand experience with war.

Turns out it wasn’t the right kind of experience.

One agent wanted more action in the first few pages of his war novels.

Said another male agent, “The market for war stories is pretty saturated.” (If you and I were having a conversation, this is where I would pause to allow time for counting through all the new male-dominated, male-written war novels and movies that have been released in the last seven years.)

What he meant was that there was no market for a literary war story written by a woman about a woman if the female character’s war experience didn’t include guts (by this I mean bloody innards), guns, grenades, and guys’ guys.

After the book’s eventual release, I discovered that although a few men had been very receptive and had even endorsed it (one of them decided he liked it enough to publish it), I was having a hard time getting “regular” men to read it. It’s never been a goal to write specifically to women; male readers were/are just as desirable. But how do you get men to read about a woman who isn’t shooting a bunch of terrorists? (And would men who don’t typically read “women’s books” read that story, even?)

“Where’s the drama or action in waiting?” said one male reader who took some persuading to get to read Pretty Much True.

Some of the most suspenseful and intriguing stories involve waiting…waiting for a court decision, waiting to be found by a killer, waiting for an acceptance or rejection letter, waiting for the return of a loved one, and all other manner of waiting. And of course it’s never just waiting; it’s waiting “plus”—plus a story, plus characters, plus conflicts, etc.

But put a woman waiting up against the word “war” in a book by a female author, and the waiting – unless it’s a soldier waiting for the action to begin – is thrust into a male arena where it immediately suffers by comparison and becomes the object of perplexity. “Waiting? What? What are you—really?”

“Your novel will obviously appeal to other military spouses,” said a man, who hadn’t read Pretty Much True, while interviewing me about it for a literary blog. “Have you been focusing your marketing efforts on readers in the military community?”

I wonder whether, following the release of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, The Things They Carried, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, or American Sniper, the natural target markets were veterans and active service members.

(I don’t really wonder. It’s assumed that the general public will be interested in the masculine war experience.)

A military consultant working in Hollywood, when approached about the potential film viability of Pretty Much True, said – also without having read the book – that it would be a great story for a specific female-focused cable channel, but that America might not be ready for another “dark” at-home war story. After all, Brothers had just been released.

Yep. One movie that explored nothing at all having to do with waiting, but that did have a woman in a primary role, had just come out. Add 1984’s WWII movie Swing Shift, and there we were flooding the market again.

Amusingly, the same man had mentioned, just moments before, that he thought the public was ready for another war movie.

(You know, a real war movie.)

Because males were clearly having better luck selling their war stories, it was hard not to imagine a parallel universe in which Pretty Much True had been published under a male name. Men writing a lot like women, even about women, generally achieve higher literary acclaim and garner more universal interest than do women when the story has nothing to do with war (Irving, Eugenides, Franzen), so wouldn’t the same be true if it were a story about a female during wartime?

No idea. But the temptation to approach future writing and publishing projects as a maybe-male, if even just to experiment with reactions, grew.

I officially decided on the name change at a party in Florida over the summer. When I told a man that I was thinking of using a gender-ambiguous pen name, he said, “I apologize on behalf of my sex.”

It hadn’t even been necessary to tell him why I was doing it.

Said another man, upon seeing the cover for my latest novel and noticing the name change, “I wish it weren’t necessary, but I can see why you’d do it.”

“But people do take women (and women writers) seriously,” it will be, and has been, argued.

It might be easier to agree were people not still saying, “My favorite authors are X and Y. My favorite female authors, though, are ….”

It might be easier to agree had novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay for Wild, not recently thought it necessary to describe Wild as “not like any chick flick” he’d ever seen.

I’ve seen the trailer. Chick flick (read: movie directed expressly at women, and by definition pretty frivolous) doesn’t even come to mi—

Oh. Right. It stars a female.

Obviously that would be the natural conclusion.

My father raised me to be confidently outspoken, and to be myself. Until recently, I’d considered it the highest mark of honor to put my name on my writing—middle initial included. Anonymity was not for me. Pen names, I’d reasoned, were for the timid or the reclusive.

Now I just want to be reasonably sure I’m getting a fair shot at being read by a mixed audience and at being taken seriously as a writer. Life is short, and I don’t want to waste time fighting, no matter how legitimate the fight.

And as legitimate fights go, that this needs to be a fight at all is bleeping ridiculous.

Chris Jane, author of Pretty Much True and The Year of Dan Palace, is a former adjunct English professor, former feature writer for a daily newspaper, former instructor of expressive writing, play writing, and screenwriting, and a former editor at American Fiction (New Rivers Press). Jane’s series of interviews with writers and others in the publishing industry, 5 On, can be found on Jane Friedman’s writers’ resource website. For updates about this (or, if you just wanna), please follow Chris on Twitter at @chrismjane or visit http://chrisjane.net.

Chaos Outside the Study Door: Virginia Pye on Balance in Writing and Life

Virginia Pye author photo 2_0  virginia-pye-books

Last night, at a bookstore reading in Boston to celebrate the launch of her second novel, the author mentioned the “mental multitasking” required of women writers. We must live double lives, she said, or even triple, I’d suggest, as we juggle writing, paid work, and often, family.

The day before, an aspiring writer and friend sat on my back patio and lamented how she can’t make time to write during the academic year. Her job as an elementary school librarian and her community involvement are so time consuming, though also greatly rewarding, that there’s nothing left in her mind late at night or early in the morning when she finally pushes aside the tasks of the day and sits down to write.

Another friend, a best-selling author with three young children, recently texted me: “I’ve not been working, in any real way, for something like two months. And I feel almost panicky about returning to my manuscript.” That she is highly successful and widely respected seems only to ratchet up her anxiety, not calm it.

Frantic, worn out, and living multiple lives, the woman authors of probably every book that Bill Wolfe so skillfully reviews on this blog writes with chaos just outside their study door. Male authors no doubt face similar, difficult pressures as those experienced by women, and of course each artist’s challenges are unique, but for the purposes of this blog that focuses solely on women writers, I’m interested in sharing my own experience and that of other women I know who have pursued writing through various stages of life. They may not have recently made a big transition in their lives, as I have by moving to a new city, but with children careening about, or paid work to complete, not to mention spouses or partners who require a certain amount of attention, we women writers must struggle to block out the noise of our lives.

In her journal, Virginia Woolf wrote, “My mind is churned and frothed. And to write I must be a clear vessel.” If anything, achieving this ideal state of mind has become even more elusive for women writers. To succeed at putting meaningful words on the page, the woman writers I know juggle complex schedules, financial pressures, and the needs of loved ones in order to find the clarity Virginia Woolf described.

Before I had children, it was easier for me to create the ideal conditions for writing. I taught writing at a university and tutored at a high school, but I still managed to write daily. When my first novel didn’t sell, I pressed on and wrote another one. I had a strong second draft under my belt when I gave birth to my first child. The delivery was complicated and left me exhausted and debilitated for months. The experience of having almost not survived made me all the more grateful to be a mother.

In the first months, my attention was focused on recovering and and enjoying my daughter. The thought of writing hardly occurred to me. I remember my husband setting up the changing table on what had been my writing desk. The irony of that choice wasn’t lost on me, but it didn’t matter: I had no regrets about putting writing aside. And in the following years, I continued to prioritize being a mother over being a writer of long form fiction.

But eventually the urge to write began to return. I first found myself penning poems, mostly about motherhood, but also about nature and gratitude for life. Eventually, these became prose poems. Then they became short essays on mothering. Then finally, I wrote short stories in which I created fictional characters and worlds, my imagination reignited and engaged once again.

By then, my son, born three and a half years after my daughter, was ready for preschool. I had spent almost eight years being a full time mother. Although not every moment was idyllic or easy, I loved those years with my children. But as I returned to writing, I was now ten years older and with no published novel to my name. I felt greater internal pressure to write than when I’d been an aspiring writer in my late twenties and thirties and had all the time in the world. As a result, I dove back into the practice of novel writing each day when the children were off at school. I returned to my craft with a vengeance.

I remember feeling keenly aware that some of my peers had continued to write published novels while having children. That hurt my ego and made me ache for the legitimacy that being published bestows. But in looking back, I can see that I couldn’t have done it any other way. I needed to recover from childbirth then commit myself fully to being a mother, building up my reserves in order to raise my family, and perhaps also in order to have the mindset to eventually return to novel writing. Now, as a recent empty nester, I relish my uninterrupted days. At the same time, I miss the clamber and vitality that I had grown used to in our home.

Today, I see more women writers who are young mothers and who also somehow manage to publish highly accomplished work at the same time. I envy their sense of purpose and success, though I know it can’t possibly be easy.  The pressures on these women are enormous, but they still manage to maintain their imaginations and inner lives. Pursuing their work, even in brief, free moments, helps these admirable women maintain a sense of themselves when they might otherwise feel like they’re drowning in the monotony and challenges of motherhood. I remember that feeling and how hard it was to strike a balance.

The world continually distracts us from our work at the same time that it nags us to be successful. We feel we should be at peek productivity all the time, in every season of our lives. But for many of us, that isn’t possible. We need the fallow periods as well as the ones in which we write with sharp focus. Both of my published novels were written fluidly and with a clear sense of purpose, but I have a half dozen other unpublished ones, including the one I’m working on now, that took years to write. Each book has its own rhythms, its own demands on our imaginations and lives. If everyday living swamps us, then I think it’s helpful to accept that fact, until, once again, the balance shifts and we reach a place where writing can become a top priority.

On Facebook and Twitter, every other friend seems to be publishing a new book every other week. I’ve recently seen posts by women writers who have dashed out final scenes before going into labor, or written right through chemo treatments, or while dealing with the death of a parent. If true, those are remarkable achievements. But I’ve also seen mention recently in reviews and interviews that some authors have “lost” whole years to travel, or childrearing, or in the case of a recent young man who was compared to Dickens, to years of playing video games. While I don’t recommend that distraction, who can say what feeds the mind of the writer?

We need to have faith that our skills as writers will still be there when the time is right for us to create. My best-selling author friend and my school librarian friend will each get back to their writing when the time is right, and perhaps because their lives are so full right now, they’ll return to it with a new and more enlightened mind. The increased wisdom and empathy that we gain from living our lives well is surely reflected in our writing.


Virginia Pye’s second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by the Richmond Times Dispatch and was called “riveting” by Library Journal. Gish Jen wrote, “Gripping, convincing, and heartbreaking, Dreams of the Red Phoenix is a real page-turner and thought-provoker—wonderful.” Virginia’s debut novel, River of Dust, was an Indie Next Pick and a Finalist for the 2013 Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. Caroline See in The Washington Post called it “intricate and fascinating,” and Annie Dillard described it as, “A strong, beautiful, deep book.” Her award-winning short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Opinionator, Literary Hub, Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Tampa Review, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. Please visit her at www.virginiapye.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missing the Turn: Debut novelist Ashley Sweeney on the hike that led her to ELIZA WAITE

Ashley Sweeney

We missed the turn.

Bracken fern and wild salal must have covered a weathered sign marking the trail route along the seldom-used path to Eagle Cliff. My husband, Michael, and I were hiking the three-mile loop to the top of the cliff on remote Cypress Island in the Washington San Juan Islands on one of those rare and beautiful October days that we get here in the Pacific Northwest—with peppered sun, light breeze, and balmy fall temperatures.

We had anchored the night before in secluded Eagle Cove on the eastern side of the island with a half-dozen other late fall boaters and sailors. The morning chill disappeared after scrambled eggs and coffee—and when the sun finally peeked over the Cascade Mountains. Sometime in the late morning we rowed the dinghy to shore to explore the island.

Without a map, we ventured into the deep woods of the largely uninhabited island and relied on trail markers to guide us to our destination: Eagle Cliff, a 700-foot basalt outcropping overlooking the whole of the San Juan archipelago and Vancouver Island beyond. Eagle Cliff is a recognizable landmark for boaters and sailors for miles away, located at the northernmost tip of Cypress Island in Washington State’s Northern Puget Sound. From that vantage point, we would see for nearly 100 miles in almost every direction.

About halfway through the loop, we came upon a marsh buzzing with activity—frogs, dragonflies, and armies of insects skirting the pond’s surface of scum and debris.

“I think we might have missed the turnoff,” Michael said.

We sat by the pond’s edge for a half-hour as Michael offered his biologist’s observations about the marsh flora: its pond grasses, lily pads, and duckweed. The birds. The frogs. The constant hum of activity.

We swatted mosquitoes. Swigged bottled water. Sat for as long as our conversation meandered.

“Shall we go back and try to find the trailhead?” I asked. “Or should we follow this path and see where it takes us?”

We decided to follow the trail to see where it would lead, knowing we could easily retrace our steps back to Eagle Cove. Where the trail eventually led was to Smuggler’s Cove, a sheltered cove on the island’s north side at the foot of the massive cliff face we had aimed to climb. Picking our way down to the beach through brambles and errant twigs, we looked up to the top of Eagle Cliff, our missed endpoint.

Before us lay Rosario Strait, the major north-south waterway running through the center of the San Juan Islands. Several powerboats motored into view, with popular Orcas Island in the backdrop beyond.

As our eyes adjusted to the filtered light at the edge of the forest, we spied a structure almost completely hidden perched just above the cove.

Curious, and never one to shy away from intrigue, Michael tromped up to the dilapidated cabin and disappeared inside.

“Come and see this!” he hollered down to the beach.

I picked my way to up through the dense underbrush to the cabin and peered inside.

Barely 15 x 15, the cabin’s single room housed stood completely empty except for the memories of any former occupants and copious wildlife droppings.

Who had lived here? When? And why?

A small plaque near the cabin recounts the story of a Mrs. Zoe Hardy who lived as a hermit at the cabin in the 1930s. She farmed the area, eschewed strangers, and lived self sufficiently. Her story ends abruptly and mysteriously a decade later. After a terminal medical diagnosis she refused all supplies and visitors and eventually died, although her body was never found.

The find fascinated us.

“I can just envision it, a woman, alone on Cypress Island. What led her here, and why?”

That night, the seed for Eliza Waite was born. We stayed awake deep into the night discussing the plot arc and character development. Although completely fictitious, Eliza inhabits the same cabin that Mrs. Hardy once occupied. On the island, both Mrs. Hardy and the fictional Eliza scramble to feed themselves, stay warm, and remain sane in a remote and lonely place.

Thus began an eight-year journey to bring Eliza Waite into the world. Eliza Waite follows the story of a disenfranchised woman who faces tragedy and loss, first as the daughter of Victorian parents and later as the young bride of an arrogant minister. When her son dies in a smallpox epidemic, her grief knows no bounds. Although all but a few misfits leave the island after the tragedy, Eliza cannot abandon the only child she thought she would ever have, even though he was dead. She remains on the island for three years. As her grief wanes, she glimpses a brighter future and joins the throng of humanity traveling north to the Klondike in the spring of 1898 in search of gold.

When she arrives in Skagway, Alaska, Eliza has less than fifty dollars to her name and not a friend in the world. With a backdrop of historical events and historical characters, including the infamous Soapy Smith, who died in a gunfight on Skagway’s lawless streets, Eliza borrows money and opens a successful bakery on Broadway and grows into a confident and enterprising businesswoman.

Her story is full of surprises and yes, what could be perceived as wrong turns. Where Eliza ends up is a far cry from where she started.

And, just like our missed turn on a day hike on Cypress Island, it goes to show that making a wrong turn, missing the signs, or taking the road less traveled—whether by choice or by chance—can lead to another story, and even a fascinating life-changing adventure.

“Your story is the best one to tell.” Marian Palaia on writing who you are and what you know

Marian Palaia 2016  the-given-world-paperback

By Marian Palaia

Here is a thing I have been known to tell beginning fiction students: Write about someone who is not you. I tell them this because I am trying to get them to use their imaginations. I am trying to head off the production of another batch of more or less true “short stories” about break-ups, disloyal friends, summers in Paris or Stockholm, winter breaks in Cancun. Of course when you — most of you, of us, straight-out-of-high-school freshmen — are young, and have had our hearts broken, found out our best friends are not who we thought they were, or traveled to Mexico or Europe for the first time, the number of experiences we have had, against which to compare these, is limited. Because it is, these experiences shine exceptionally bright. I totally get this part, but it’s my job to push my students past their limits (as writers). They do not always go willingly.

When I ask students to try to imagine being someone else, whose stories might be more interesting and more complex than the ones they tend to gravitate to, it sounds simple enough, but it isn’t, because they have already been told, over and over, Write what you know. At face value, this is usually taken to mean, Write true stories, starring you. Also, as Willa Cather had it, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” And while I don’t disagree with this theory (though it might be a bit of an exaggeration), because there is much in each of our lives that is unique, I do believe it takes most writers a long time to recognize what parts are worth mining, what is most rare and distinctive about their stories. So they write about their trips to Paris, because trips to Paris are what is different to them. Because their lives have been normal, fairly uninteresting, for all they, so far, know.

So I try to explain what “write what you know” means to me. But it’s hard. Maybe because it is a moving target, and it means different things at different times. Maybe it is the DNA sequencing of a tiger, and maybe it is what you know on an emotional level to be true. In the latter case, you might find the proper combination of words and formation of imagery that what your reader experiences is exactly what you were after. Or maybe you won’t know what you’re after, which is not only fine, it is good, so long as you are writing what you know in your heart to be true. Another moving target, but moving targets come with the territory.

A middle ground is one I roamed often in my early writing years (like, 20 of them). It was more or less a schizophrenic place, where I did make things up, but at the same time felt beholden, too often, to adhere to the verifiable truth. My life has been other than ordinary (whatever that is, I know), in that my trajectory was pretty much all over the place, in that there was zero track-able trajectory at all — there was just me, launching myself, mostly blindly, into whatever space was in front of me at the time. Without going into too much detail, for many years I thought writing short stories meant tacking pretty endings onto true stories of fucked-up-ness. Or not pretty, but ways I wished things had turned out, things I wish I had done. Gotten a gun, for example, and shot the bad guy — the real guy, a poker player, who thought breaking into my house to beat me up was the best way to get me to come back to him — and driven off into the mountains with the good guy (the nonexistent one, the perfect boyfriend all the girls in workshop fell in love with) and the cat (also fictional, but the story needed something furry, as a foil) and the pint of Jim Beam (based on a true story lasting years). Etcetera.

For a long time I thought the fucked-up-ness was the story, and this mindset prevented me from creating anything that was more than a series of “punk westerns” (as my workshop mates in Montana called them). Eventually I ran out of punk western stories, and sort of grew up, or maybe it was the other way around. In my forties I embarked for a while upon a “normal” existence (job, benefits, bureaucracy, house, dog, alcoholic boyfriend), and when, after five or six years, it threatened to do me in (I really suck at bureaucracy, and boyfriends), I went back to school, at 54, to get my MFA. And even though I had “grown up,” I still felt beholden to writing old truths, until I took a nonfiction class, which gave me a place to put my real stories, which opened up a vast landscape of lying, which is what fiction writers are meant to do. Problem solved, as in, not exactly.

The first piece of what turned out, 12 years later, to be my first novel, The Given World, begins, “So that was me, going on 18, not too tall, no tits to speak of, brown hair to my ass, parted in the middle and brushed intermittently, worn just far enough out of my eyes so I could see, but my peripheral vision was not what it could have been.” That was me. She/I worked in a gas station, drove a ’67 Mustang convertible which looked like it had been through a war, dreamed of becoming a diesel mechanic (and perhaps joining the Army to do it), smoked copious amounts of dope but didn’t handle being stoned very well, and was more than a little crazy. Heard voices, really. Drove and drove, in search of, on the run from, imagining total wreckage at every turn. That kind of crazy. My kind.

Fast forward to the MFA, the nonfiction workshop, the addition to the story of more stories about this girl, who became Riley, who became (so the real-life story goes) less and less me and more and more herself. As she became more and more herself, the book became a whole lot better, until it became a novel about a girl who was not me. Whew. Except. At least half the book is still me. On the “write what you know” emotional and psychic level, a lot more than half. What goes around comes around.

Horror writer Stephen Graham Jones, in a recent interview with Indian Country Today, uses hypothetical vampire cats to talk about his experience:

. . . the trick is, whatever you write, you invest your whole self in it. So what I have to do when I write about vampire cats in space or whatever is find the story in there that’s actually me, dealing with my dad or with women or something like that. And once you have that emotional core, that dynamo spinning, it just makes the cats in space come alive in a good way.

That spinning dynamo is key (vampire cats, metaphorically, a little less so), and an incredibly difficult thing to teach. Lorrie Moore was my first MFA teacher. She told me, in essence, to write the hard stuff, the stuff that hurts. I believed her, and found that I could write “painful”, without soft landings or happy endings, and I began to, because I was ready. Because I had already gotten all the punk westerns I had in me out of the way. I just needed someone to tell me. And since I do not write horror, or any sort of speculative fiction, instead of vampire cats I had real people — real messed up people — and my relationship to them. A few of those who were closest to me had died by the time I wrote the book (a few others are now hanging on by a thread). My version of cats in space was to bring them back to life, which was a gift, but which also required digging my heart open with a dull implement, like a spoon. I did what Lorrie said. I am very attached to these characters, who were and are my people, and very protective of them, as it turns out. I wasn’t exactly prepared for this.

When I read about my book (newspaper and blog reviews, Amazon, Goodreads, etc.), I often encounter acceptance and understanding of these not-so-imaginary characters (“me” included), and I think, “Yay! Somebody got it.” Less often, but still often enough, Riley’s choice of traveling companions and her inability to get her shit together, in a linear fashion, are a huge source of frustration for readers. At first I was surprised by this, not to mention hurt by what some folks said. I have been advised by more experienced writers to not even read my Amazon and Goodreads reviews. (They say they don’t, and I believe, like, two of them, though it does become much less of an obsession as time goes on.) The easy thing to do would be to decide that these frustrated readers have clearly never had anything bad happen to them, and therefore do not have the perspective necessary to understand Riley and her posse of misfits. That would be the easy thing. But.

I have come to accept, not because I wanted to, but because I have had to, that if the problem is not some reviewers’ un-empathetic (my take, on my worst days) impatience with Riley, some of it must be with my stubborn insistence on telling a mostly relentless series of dark truths, to the point that a lot of readers want nothing more than to be let up, relieved, and released from them. I cannot express how hard this acceptance has been. I’m not even sure yet it has been acceptance. But I do get it, as much as, being me, I can.

Here is a connection, though, which is not completely tangential: a thing I have at times given some thought to, but had not applied directly to my work, but was reminded of recently, at an event at which three writers — all women — spoke about writing, and publishing, and being female in the world of books. They talked about Claire Vaye Watkins’s excellent Tin House essay on pandering, which is (loosely) about women writing what they know men will accept, because it is written, however consciously or unconsciously, to hew to a male aesthetic. They talked about “likable” characters, and whether or not female characters, written by females, are expected to be likable, whereas male characters, written by males, can be anything they damn well please. And it hit me: “Right? There it is.” Riley is not likable throughout much of the book. She is not meant to be likable; nor was I trying to write a character whose nature was to be disliked. Likability was the last thing on my mind as I was writing. Fuck likable. People are complex and messy and they do stupid things. Sometimes they do stupid things over and over for long periods of time, trying to sort it all out — three steps forward, two steps back, or two forward and three back. That. Is. Life. That is male life, and it is female life and it is non-binary life. It is what we all share. One would hope.

If I got to choose, I would say the book that The Given World most closely resembles, in structure, subject, trajectory, is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I loved when it came out, and still love after many reads. (I even have the movie poster.) I do not claim to be the writer Johnson is, or was then, but my writing is not, either, what seems to bug some readers about my book. What bugs them is its disjointedness, its main character’s inability or refusal to walk a straight line. I started wondering, so I looked at some reviews of Johnson’s book, and I don’t know if “gratified” is the right word for my reaction to what I found, but it might be. What I found was that readers (percentage-wise, as Jesus’ Son has many more reviews), found our main characters and our story-telling styles equally aggravating. The terms “hot mess,” “lost,” “disjointed,” “not inspiring,” and “broken” are very familiar to me, and would be to Johnson if he read his Goodreads reviews (which I doubt he does, with absolutely no evidence to back me).

One person’s take on Jesus’ Son, pretty much representative of both our one- and two-star reviews:

“Don’t waste your money on this book! If you want to read about drug use and wasted lives, feel free. (Angry at the book club member who picked this book over Tenth of December.)”

I know of at least one book club member who is in similar trouble for recommending The Given World, for exactly the same reason. Long story short, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is, when you are ready to go digging at your heart with a spoon, disregard the advice (from that exhausted teacher) at the beginning of this piece, about your story maybe not being the best one to tell. Your story is the best one to tell. It may take you a while to find it, but if you work at it long enough, you will. And maybe I was too relentless with mine, because I was telling a story I had to get out of me, because I had been carrying it around for so long. It is dark. It is bruising. It is fucked-up-ness piled on tenderness piled on more fucked-up-ness, leading to something that looks something like redemption might look after it has been buried in a pile of refuse under a pile of rocks for a very long time. It is still my story, in more ways than one. And despite its relentlessness, I don’t know, if given the chance, that I would write it any other way.

This essay was previously published on Medium on April 5, 2016. 

https://medium.com/galleys/fuck-likeability-write-what-you-know-write-who-you-are-f4fc7dba8176#.3sxwnz1jf


Marian Palaia is, according to her website, a “writer, wanderer, shit disturber.” Her debut novel, The Given World, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2015. It made the longlist for the PEN/Bingham First Novel Prize, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick and an Indie Next selection. Born in Riverside, California, Palaia currently resides in San Francisco and Missoula, Montana. To support her writing habit, Marian has been a teacher, a bartender, a truck driver, “chip girl” in a poker room, and the littlest logger in Lincoln, Montana, where she and Ted Kazynski were neighbors, sort of.

Of The Given World, Lorrie Moore said, “Marian Palaia has assembled a collection of restive seekers and beautifully told their stories of love and lovelessness, home and homelessness, with an emphasis on both makeshift and enduring ideas of family. It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world. She is a strong, soulful, and deeply gifted writer.”