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.”

 

Soul Retrieval: How an Ecuadorian Shaman Inspired My Transformation Into a Writer

katherine-a-sherbrooke-400x600 By Katherine Sherbrooke 


Only three days into my time in Otavalo, I began to understand that traditional Ecuadorians revere one thing above all else: Pachamama, or Mother Earth.  They believe she holds all answers within the branches of her hands, her mountainous breasts, and her river veins. They touch her skin by walking with bare feet on her rounded back, and they show their gratitude to her constantly—tipping a water bottle toward the soil, mid-hike, mid-conversation, to offer her a sip of water before taking a drink themselves, or laying a crushed cocoa leaf on the ground for her before chewing their own.

The emotional connection many Ecuadorians have with the earth was brought to life for me when I met Mama Concha, a revered shaman who lives just outside Otavalo. A stout woman with a kind smile and a face the color of honey, she struck me immediately as the personification of Mother Earth—wise, nurturing and powerful. She moved with a slow shuffle, her white lace shirt tucked into a long gray skirt, her waistband lost under the hang of her bosom. Her eyes were wise and girlish at the same time, her embrace loving and fiercely strong. I trusted her immediately and wondered what I might learn in her presence.

I had come to the Andes hoping to gain some insight into my future. Having recently left my job, I was struggling to figure out my next move in life. I wasn’t the only woman I knew feeling somehow unsettled, unsure of the future. A dear friend suggested to a group of us who were all facing transitions of some kind that a week in Ecuador might do us all some good. Whether it was curiosity about visiting the shamans she had told us about, or simply the chance to separate ourselves from the unrelenting chaos of our American lives for one week, we all jumped at the chance.

And I had high hopes that the trip might offer me some clarity. Should I start another company? Were the knots that tightened in my stomach when I thought about it normal, or were they a warning sign of some kind? Was my need to nap every day for six months after I had quit to be expected, or was this level of extreme exhaustion a marker of something else that I shouldn’t ignore?

I had spent a lot of time as a kid trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, what kind of job I could have that would make my mark on the world. “Writer” had perennially occupied the top spot on my wish list, but at twelve-years old I was already suspicious that I didn’t have enough story in me to be worthy of that profession. Having been taught to “write what you know,” I suffered from, as I recently heard Colum McCann put it, “the curse of the happy childhood.” Nothing dramatic or horrifying had ever happened to me. I had nothing to write about, and I was pretty sure wishing for good material to come my way wasn’t such a good idea.

Then I saw Ordinary People. You may remember the book, by Judith Guest, or the movie starring Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore. There was so much to wrench the heart in that story—the teen-aged boy, Conrad, who tries to commit suicide after the death of his brother, the stoic mother unable to accept the blemished remains of her family, the loving father desperate to fix his broken home—but it was the psychiatrist that grabbed me most. Played in the movie by Judd Hirsch, he is the one that helps the teenager come to grips with the crushing guilt of having survived the boating accident that killed his brother.

The story affected me so deeply that I added “psychiatrist” to the list of things I wanted to be. Even if I hadn’t lived a novel-worthy life, I was thrilled by the idea that I could help other people who had experienced trauma and needed help sorting through the rubble of their lives. Why I thought that same person, inexperienced in life and loss, could expertly guide someone through unthinkable hardship or heartbreak I’m not sure, except that the idea that psychiatrists undergo extensive schooling and training gave me some measure of confidence (I had always been good at school), and the psychiatrist of Ordinary People was presented almost as a non-person, that is to say, his background and personal story seemed not to matter in the slightest to Conrad’s plight. So I added the job to my list.

As happens with many young people, my career path was neither well planned nor a logical outcome of my childhood musings. I wound up co-founding a business. But my quest to build a great company had a lot to do with the Judd Hirsch in my heart. I was determined to build a company in which every employee mattered, where no one had to leave his emotions at the door—the excitement over a pregnancy or heartache over a sick parent— in favor of corporate efficiency. My co-founder and I knew our company would be more successful if we made it a part of our culture to recognize the challenges and triumphs in each person’s life and help them rise to those occasions in whatever ways we could—things a simple as allowing for a flexible schedule, providing sabbaticals, or even just encouraging real conversation with Kleenex at the ready.

It was a wonderful time. It is truly remarkable what giving employees permission to be a whole person in their work environment can do for their ability to rise into their best selves. And yet, as the company grew from fifty employees to two hundred to almost one thousand, I took the responsibility of each employee’s happiness personally, and it weighed on me deeply. Conversation alone couldn’t cure a sick child, couldn’t solve for a messy divorce. How much could I actually help anyone? How much could I fix?

fill-the-sky-3d-small-2

After more than a decade of building the company, and then selling it, I felt an exhaustion begin to overtake me that I couldn’t ignore. I needed a break. When I announced I was leaving, everyone’s first question was whether or not I was going to start another company. My most common answer was, “I don’t know if I can. Now I know how hard it is.” But even as those words came out of my mouth, I disliked their sound. I had never been one to shy away from hard work. Anything worth being proud of takes an enormous amount of hard work. We had been successful; we had built something of value. What was it then, that was giving me such pause? I had high hopes that my trip to the Andes might help me sort through it all.

The first shaman we visited essentially told me that I was tired. He said that to live a long and healthy life, it was important that I not let my energy get so low, that being with Pachamama would help me understand this. Great, I thought. I didn’t need to come three thousand miles to know that I’m tired. So much for major revelations.

Then we went to see Mama Concha. After feeling my pulse, waving lemon branches along the edges of my body, and working her hands up and down my legs, sometimes grasping my ankles tightly, she asked me through our interpreter what I did for a living. I paused. I wasn’t sure if this woman would understand the word entrepreneur, let alone the specific business I had founded, which was complicated to explain. Before I could come up with a suitable answer for her, she asked, “Are you a psychiatrist?” I felt a wave of pride wash through me. She had sensed that I was more than an entrepreneur, that I had helped people in an emotional way. She had recognized me as some kind of healer, someone like her. Tired or not, perhaps it was my true calling after all.

I smiled at her. “No, but I know what you mean,” I said. “That’s how it felt.” Then, to my surprise, she waved her index finger in front of my eyes like a scolding, and said in a stern voice, with no need for the translator, “No more. No more.”

I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. She sat with me then, and through the translator, gently helped me to understand that a true healer can take on the problems of others without feeling them herself, like Pachamama, who finds a way to heal herself regardless of what is thrown into her waters, who finds a way to sprout through the concrete we slather on her face. While I might have a certain amount of ability to help others, I simply don’t have the constitution for it. Mama Concha told me that for every person I had tried to help, I had unwittingly given them a small piece of my soul, and that my soul was scattered in pieces around the globe. This was the cause of my exhaustion, the source of my inner anxiety about doing it all again. She then performed what she called a soul retrieval, a ceremony to call back the lost pieces and make me whole again.

While I at first felt deeply disappointed that a role I had long valued above most others—the ability to heal— was not my true strength, it was also a relief to understand why trying to occupy that role had taken such a toll on my physical and emotional well-being. I realize now that we all have our unique gifts, some that we value more than others, some that it might take us much of our lifetime to discover. Trying to sort through which one has more “value” than another is a fool’s errand. Instead, we should simply focus on what fuels us, and gives us sustenance. Doing those things will inevitably lead to something positive, for ourselves and for others.

And then I had another revelation. The reason I had always dreamed of writing fiction was because of the power reading fiction had always had over me—to take me to a different time and place, to allow me to put on someone else’s clothes for a while and look at the world through their eyes, to understand something about myself by feeling deeply what each character feels. Brain science has actually recently proven that when we are transported deep into a story, our brain catalogs the experience in the same way as if it actually happened. Great stories build our empathy, swell our hearts. I realized it was finally time for me to give writing fiction a try.

And as luck would have it, after being in Ecuador, I realized that I just might have something interesting to write about after all.


Katherine Sherbrooke is the author of the just-published novel, Fill the Sky (SixOneSeven Books, October 2016) and a family memoir, Finding Home (2011). An alumna of Dartmouth College and Stanford Business School, she wanted to be an author from the time she opened her first book, and lived on books like food and water for a long time. Somewhere along the line, though, she caught the start-up bug and co-founded a Boston-based company called Circles. After more than 15 years with that entrepreneurial adventure, she “remembered” her original dream and finally sat down to write. She currently serves as Chair of the Board for GrubStreet, a writing center in Boston. She lives in a nearby seaside town with her family.