“Life can’t ever really defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death – fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant.” — Edna Ferber
For three years, I wrote a column called The Care and Feeding of the Girls in the Basement. It was a chronicle of my day to day struggles and rewards with the writing life. Much of it was written during an enormous transition in my life. The column was written for a group of professional, commercial fiction writers. (NINK, for those who might know it.) To my surprise, the columns were quite popular, and I really enjoyed writing it, but after three years, I’d written plenty and gave it up.
The story might have ended there. Except that people kept telling me that they had kept the columns to re-read. They gave them to friends who were feeling discouraged. And because the newsletters are private to the organization, they did not have a wide circulation. Aspiring writers never saw them.
So I decided to collect them for writers–aspiring and published alike–who might find a laugh or inspiration or encouragement in them. There are two volumes of columns, but my ebook genius and I are collecting three books of the most popular class materials for release in the fall. (First, the contemporaries to which I’ve regained the rights–stay tuned).
Without further ado, an excerpt from Book #1
Beginner’s Mind: Keeping the Faith
from The Girls in the Basement
Talk on one of my email loops has been exploring the changes and ups and downs we all experience after five or ten or thirty years in this business. Several writers are discouraged by crushing career news and financial setbacks and the challenges of living as a writer.
The discussion led to questions of faith. How do we keep going? How do we recover that fire? Where did it come from in the first place? And how did it get lost?
Writer Raphael Cushnir says the dark night of the soul comes to all of us in different ways, but the emotions we experience during that dark night are all the same. A long-time writer who is struggling with reinvention or renewal is struggling with a disturbing set of questions. Was she wrong, all this time, about her vision? Is he, after all, a fool for loving this work, just as cousin Harry and his mother and Aunt Jane have said? Should any of us try to make this our life?
While this discussion was going on, I was also talking with a friend who is beginning to sell to non-fiction markets. He’s been in the music business a long time and wants to write for a living so he can stay home with his wife and daughter. He’s a pretty talented guy. He’ll probably make it, and the writing life can’t be any worse than the music life. We had lost touch years ago, long before he actually made it into the music world and I made it into the writing world, and through the delights of the Internet, we have been spending many happy hours talking about old times and new.
And writing. He always understood creativity. Writing now burns in him the way songs once did.
He sent an email (from Ireland. I love writing that: my friend in Ireland. Very nice of him to end up there) that poured out his desires, his path thus far, what he thinks he might be understanding, what he has yet to figure out.
His longing filled me with a bitter-sweetness, a swift wish to return to the beginning, to the magic. I find myself feeling cautious in my replies, as if he’s just fallen in love and I’m an old married hag, reluctant to douse his fever.
“So, tell me,” he emailed. “How did it happen? How did you sell your first book?”
My flood of memories may be not unlike yours. I was twenty-nine. It was November 22 (never mind the year), just before Thanksgiving. It was a category romance I had called The Phantoms of Autumn, about a classical guitarist and a writer who met on a train journey. My advance was four thousand dollars, which was almost precisely double my annual income as a bowling alley cook and attendant—a job I’d taken to help make sure I stayed focused on writing work—and more than enough to get my phone turned back on.
Beyond the simple facts, of course, are a host of emotions and memories. The late nights with my headphones on while my very young sons and husband slept in their beds. The jumble of undone housework that meant I never, ever allowed anyone to “drop by”. The cloistered life I led during that passionate period when I had no time for anything but the books, the boys, the family.
I remembered, too, how I’d stood in my kitchen a few weeks before that magic phone call, weeping bitterly over a rejection that dashed a very real hope I’d had of making a sale to a literary magazine where the editor liked me. I didn’t know how much longer I could stand to see yet another SASE with my handwriting on the outside, knowing it meant a rejection. My fire, my belief in myself, was dwindling, and I didn’t know how I could keep going on like that, believing when no one else did. When I look back, I’m not sure how I discovered the chutzpah to believe so absolutely that I would sell a book eventually. But I did believe, with a depth of faith that—
Well, more of that in a minute.
The facts of that first sale don’t reveal how many pages I wrote trying to get there. Thousands. Many thousands, probably. As you did, I’m sure. I wrote poems and short stories and aborted novels, and finished novels that were not particularly good, and journals and papers and articles that were published, first in the college newspaper (where I also had my first column), then in the local newspaper. The facts don’t reveal how many pages I read, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, considering how fast and voraciously I put books away in my teens.
Telling Tom about that first sale, I found myself nostalgic for the time when I was yet dreaming. The time of magic in the pages of every writer magazine, every tale of every writer’s first sale, every breath of lemon-scented hope that came on rejections scribbled by editors. When I spent endless hours reading, dreaming, plotting out books, scribbling new ideas. There was nothing I didn’t want to know, no stone I could leave unturned. I thought of nothing much but writing for a living.
I’m sure you were much the same.
When I wanted to try to sell romances, I read them with a serious eye, taking them apart, highlighting the passages that illustrated the techniques the writers had used to increase curiosity or sexual tension, describe something, or create a mood. I kept my favorites at hand when I needed to know how to do almost anything, so I could refer to the masters’ techniques. I still remember the books I studied so intently: Rebecca Flanders had an entire section in my notebook, as did Sandra Brown.
I remembered, too, walking my five-year-old son to school in the mornings that fall. I would say to him, with a sort of Julie Andrews, Sound of Music lilt to my voice, “One of these days, there will be a note in that mail box that says, ‘Yes, Barbara Samuel, we would like to buy your book.’” He, small and blond and beautiful, would say, “I know!”
And he was the one, the day the call came in, who said, “Mommy, they said yes!”
(He is also the one who later said, “I will never be a writer. Give me a cubicle, a regular paycheck and health insurance.”)
I didn’t write all those things to my friend. I wrote just a few of them, to entertain, to inspire—he’s yearning so hard for book publication that his desire is a living being. After I wrote these things, I found myself tasting something in memory that I couldn’t quite capture. Not quite hope. Not quite dreams. Something else.
And as will happen when I’m being Instructed to Pay Attention, I experienced a most unhappy writing week. For one thing, the words themselves were being very, very stubborn. I’d sit for a day and write a total of three or four pages. It was agonizingly slow work in that beginning stretch where every detail is world building, and each new fact requires some thought.
I also had a business problem or two, and I felt sorry for myself for not getting exactly what I wanted exactly when I wanted it. I couldn’t seem to settle in and work, no matter how I chained myself to the monitor. I grumpily wondered what the whole point of it all was. Why bother? It would be much easier to open a restaurant or go lead adventure tours.
Oh, and let’s not forget that it was spring. I’m an outdoor girl with a passion for gardens. Who wants to sit inside and write books when there are flower beds to be weeded, roses to be pruned, trails to be hiked? Not I. Not when the grass is greening under a brilliant blue Colorado sky and the cats are coming in from the backyard with their fur mussed and scattered with seeds from rolls in the warm dirt.
Things felt stirred up in me, too. I was thinking of the discussion of long careers, and how to keep them going for even longer—the flexibility and lightness of attachment required, the terror of seeing how capricious the whole thing is. And I was having this discussion with my friend (in Ireland, remember).
I was also teaching an on-line voice class to a small group of very talented aspiring writers who are struggling to understand their vision and song. Their hunger to publish reminded me, too, of how important to me it once was to cross that line.
Where is our faith? How do we tend it during a dark night of the soul?
We need to try to hold on to a beginner’s mind, a beginner’s passion. When it becomes difficult to remember why we’re writing books,we should go back to the beginning. What did we dream about? What did we hope to accomplish?
In the beginning, we’re open to a dozen answers to whatever question might come up. We’re willing to fly, reinvent, start over, try again, always burning to have our words read. As we become experts, however, we can become entangled in the desire to be read a certain way, to receive certain rewards.
I don’t discount the difficulty of this business. It’s brutal, and only the most resilient survive. But those people do, and it’s worth considering how it happens if you want to be one of them.
As I type this, Julie Andrews is singing in my head: “Let’s start at the very beginning…” Which makes me think I should go watch The Sound of Music again. It’s one of my favorites, hopeful, uplifting, happy. It’s all about perseverance under difficult circumstances. Another one I like is Fame.
What are some of your favorites?
Are they favorites for the same reason? Has your faith faltered? What can you do to bolster it? What can you do to go back to a beginner’s mind? Become reborn? Believe?