12.24.2009

on becoming a writer, part two

Part One here.

I wrote a young-adult novel, and then another. Allan moved to New York, and continued writing about music, as he had been doing in Vermont. Free music! Free tickets to shows! Interviews with bands we loved! We both wrote, and both edited each other's work, and learned more about writing and about working together.

My first book was more like an exercise; I was learning how to write a book. The great success was having writen it at all, and completing it. It would have been a huge long shot if it had been published, and when it wasn't, it wasn't a big deal.

My second book was - is - very good. A literary agent agreed to represent it, and I thought I was on my way. I was not. At least not in the way I envisioned.

Part of the creative process - and part of being happy in our own lives - is figuring out how to define success. Is success making a lot of money? Is it acceptance within our field? Critical acclaim? Being able to quit our day-jobs?

When I first quit my theatre career in order to focus on writing, success was simply writing. In my very brief experience with yoga and meditation, I remember the instructor saying that a successful yoga practice meant showing up. That's what my first writing goal was: showing up. Sitting down to write. Writing.

Next, success became finishing a project. Writing a book.

Everyone told me that was a triumph of sorts, and it was. But as we grow, we want new challenges. And I wanted this book published.

When that didn't happen, I had to re-define my goals. I had to separate what I could control from what I couldn't. Being published was out of my control. Being published depended on so many things other than the quality of my work. It especially depended on market forces, and the market and my writing were not in sync.

I had some near-misses. An editor told my agent, "Fifteen years ago, we would have snapped this up. We used to publish 30 young-adult titles a year. Now we publish three."

Editors no longer edited. They simply acquired. Publishing houses would no longer find a good but flawed book and invest the resources into shaping it into a finished product. Books were expected to appear on editors' desks in finished form. Writers were expected to pay "book doctors" - what was once called an editor - to make that happen.

But in earlier times, when editors edited manuscripts, there was an understanding - a contract - that the book would be published. The house invested the time and then published the book. Paying a so-called book doctor comes with no such understanding. We didn't have the resources to gamble.

As the rejection letters rolled in, I breezed right along. I didn't take it personally, and I thought I could take it endlessly. I'd tell myself, "It doesn't matter how many rejection letters I get - as long as I get one acceptance."

I was working on the first draft of my next book, when my agent dumped me. I was heartsick.

There was a terrible moment in the young-adult section of Barnes & Noble, when I broke down crying. "All these books, and where is mine? Why is there no room for me?" It might seem comic now, but at the time there was no humour in it. I felt my dream was curling up and dying.

If I was going to keep writing, I would need to figure out how to define success on my own terms. Otherwise it was just too painful.

Meanwhile, I was working. I worked at a huge variety of jobs to support my writing. I loved the diversity of experience, and it was a huge confidence builder. As you know, I was a nanny. I was also: a proofreader, a textbook editor, a personal assistant to a crazy art dealer, an assistant to the director of a March on Washington, a data entry operator, a legal secretary, and probably half a dozen more that I can't even remember.

I had been volunteering for a long time at an amazing youth centre and community called The Door, and when a teacher went on maternity leave, I was offered a temporary position. From there I got a job at another alternative young-adult school. I gained invaluable experience as a teacher of, and support for, inner-city youth who had dropped out of high school. I loved it.

But teaching and writing was not a good mix. I always felt torn in two, being neither as good a teacher nor as a good a writer as I felt I could be. When the school was shut down because of budget cuts, I didn't look for another job, and stopped teaching.

While working with Osborn Elliott at the Citizens Committee for New York City, I wrote a personal essay about my recovery from rape. I gave it to Oz to read. He pronounced it "very moving," and showed me how to take my story and craft it into a finished piece. It was the first time I had ever worked with a professional editor, and I learned more about writing from that single lesson than I did in four years of university.

Oz helped me get the story read at his former magazine, Newsweek, and the editor enthusiastically published it. Thus my first publication was: in a national magazine, paid very well, and was about an extremely personal topic. A strange experience! You can read it here.

Among the letters I received about that essay, there were two offers: one from Reader's Digest, and one from an educational video producer. Reader's Digest wanted story ideas. They sent me a contract... and that eventually turned into one of the worst experiences of my writing life.

The video producer said, "We need writers who can speak to youth. We don't care about TV or video experience, we'll teach you that." They promised I could write about sexual assault from a strong, feminist, progressive perspective.

I jumped in.

So as I was losing all motivation and hope to continue writing fiction, I discovered there were other ways to define and meet my writing goals. I could write about the same topics, for the same youth audience, in different forms. And I loved it.

I had loved writing fiction. I found it tremendously challenging and satisfying. But other than personal essays, I had never really tried anything else. Now I found that nonfiction was also hugely satisfying. What's more, being published was so much more fun than not being published! Maybe in a perfect world, I'd rather write fiction than anything else, but if the choice was between writing fiction that no one reads and writing nonfiction that reached an audience... audience, please!

For Reader's Digest, I was (supposedly) writing about a wheelchair athlete, an idea spun off from my book. As that crazy deal was souring, I looked for another place to sell the story. I connected with New Mobility, at the time - and to this day - the best disability-lifestyle magazine. They didn't have much money, but they had scads of talent and great ideas, and an amazing editor named Barry Corbet took a chance on me. Now my writing career was born.

So what was success at this time? One, writing about subjects that I cared deeply about. Two, educating mainstream audiences, while also entertaining. Three, challenging myself as a writer and increasing my understanding of my craft.

This became my three-pronged requirement, and my goal was being published. Everywhere, all the time, as much as I possibly could.

Part Three coming soon.

9 comments:

Amy said...

I have been waiting for Part Two---what a nice Hanukkah/Christmas/Festivus/WinterSolstice present (as I sit here on Christmas Eve with nothing on TV but you-know-what). Reading this just makes me want to read more, know more about your journey. Did the novel ever get published? Do you still write any fiction? I can't wait for Part Three. I also can't imagine all those different jobs. I never knew you had been a teacher!

BTW, did you see that Readers Digest is in serious financial trouble, selling their huge estate and headquarters in Chappaqua, and laying off thousands of employees?

Thanks for sharing.

johngoldfine said...

I deal every day with people very unlike you--people who want to be "writers" but who don't actually want to write....

I'm enjoying these OBAWs very much.

L-girl said...

Thank you both so much. As I said for Part One, I wrote this for myself and didn't expect anyone to be interested, so this is extra fun!

BTW, did you see that Readers Digest is in serious financial trouble, selling their huge estate and headquarters in Chappaqua, and laying off thousands of employees?

Print. This is the way of it. I hate the RD company with passion, but that is very sad to hear.

During that process, the editor invited me up to Chappaqua for lunch. It was astounding - an entire town!

I deal every day with people very unlike you--people who want to be "writers" but who don't actually want to write....

That was my driving impetus to quit my job and write. I meet those people every day, and I dreaded becoming one of them.

Amy said...

Are you going to share the rest of the RD story? I recall as a child that for some reason, our teachers often had us read articles from RD (maybe there was a scholastic version?). My parents were always so disdainful of the magazine, and I could not figure out why until I was older. Some of it was the politics of the magazine, some of it was the whole concept of reducing literature to something "digestible."

But it is sad for the many employees who have lost their jobs and for the local economy in general. Also for, as you suggest, what it signifies in terms of the future of print media in general.

L-girl said...

In addition to the impending, ongoing death of print journalism, the RD format is such a relic. The audience demographic was skewing older and older... then died off completely. Those former employees will have a very difficult time being reabsorbed into the economy. There's simply nowhere to go in publishing.

I wasn't going to go into the story further, but since you asked, I'll give a little summary.

RD was very enthusiastic about my idea and offered a contract right away - more money than I could imagine being paid for a single story. At the time joking, "I'd write this for the kill fee!" And indeed, that's what I did.

The editor wanted more, more, more - more story, longer, more interviews. I traveled to meet the subject and do lengthy in-person interviews. (Great opportunity.)

Editor would drop the ball for months at a time, not returning my calls, then reappear asking for a new direction. I was too inexperienced to realize I needed to set my own boundaries. He asked, and I delivered. This went on for two years.

Then one day he left a message on my answering machine. The story was dead, expect a kill-fee in the mail.

That was a big learning experience! It's also when I joined the National Writers Union.

To add injury to injury, it's very likely that they used the story anyway, and never told me or paid me. That is SOP there.

Amy said...

That sounds awful, being strung along for TWO years. Wow. I assume a "kill fee" is what they pay you if they decide not to publish? I have never heard the term before.

Thanks for sharing. Now I have another reason not to like RD!

L-girl said...

More about kill-fees in part 3. In this case, I was paid 20% of my fee, even though I did 200% of the work.

Miss H said...

Thank you for that, that was really moving and inspiring. Well done with all you hae achieved.

L-girl said...

Oh my. Thank you very much.