This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Gayle Forman, author of YA novels I love more dearly than I can express in words, reveals her own turning point as a writer in a deeply honest, inspiring post…
I am not a very enlightened person.
Oh, I try to be. I try to be kind and open and generous, but I’m a Gemini, so I have a flip side that is also begrudging and jealous and resentful. Really. I can be such a pissy little thing if I don’t watch out.
So the turning point in my career is actually kind of strange.
It was about six years ago. At that point, I had published many, many magazine articles and one book, my nonfiction travelogue called You Can’t Get There from Here, which was fun while it lasted but not something I saw doing again (I had to travel around the world for a year to report it; there is a reason a trip like that is called journey of a lifetime). I was on the verge of publishing a YA novel, Sisters in Sanity. After writing Sisters, I’d experienced something I’d never felt in all my years of being a journalist: contentment, a sense of this being what I wanted to do.
Of course, in my world, contentment is coupled with fear (I already told you I am not very enlightened). Because now that I’d figured out what I wanted to do—write YA novels—and I sensed I was pretty good at it—I’d been writing about and for teens for much of my career anyway—it all mattered. I mean, how many chances did you get to write books that bombed—and You Can’t Get There bombed, and the early signs for Sisters weren’t looking so promising—before the nice people in the publishing houses took away your chances to publish books?
Which is why what happens next—this turning point—is all so weird. A short while later, it became clear that the publisher of Sisters in Sanity was not doing anything to promote it, and that my homemade efforts—a song we recorded based on the book; a book trailer made by a Hollywood friend of mine, this being in 2007, in the dawn of book trailers—were not even being used, and that the book would indeed go the way of 99 percent of novels, i.e., slide quietly into the remainder bins. Shortly after publication, a friend of ours was over for dinner, someone in the alternative publishing universe. We were in my kitchen when he asked how the book was doing. I told him the sad truth. He asked, “Aren’t you bitter?”
The thing is, I am no stranger to bitter. I can be impatient and petty and easily embittered. Last week, at my daughter’s dance recital, I became bitter when a grown man cut in front of me in the popcorn line, thus getting the last of the batch of popcorn. Yes, it was rude of him to do so, but seriously, I get bitter over this? There is something wrong with me.
But when my friend asked me if I was bitter over the fact that the publisher had done squat to support my book and the book was going to bomb, I made a decision. I decided I was not going to be bitter. I was going to choose to not be bitter. Even if I had to work really hard at it. Because for one, as I explained to my friend, I was a published author, with two books to my name, and I was still, if barely, making my living as a writer, which is a pretty enviable position. But even more important, even then, I understood that if I gave in to the bitterness, it would do what bitterness does, it would corrode me from the inside out, eat away at the soft, open parts of me where I’m pretty sure the stories come from. So I told my friend this:
“I’m not going to be bitter. I’m just going to keep writing books and hope that one day maybe I’ll write a book that hits, and people will go back and read Sisters in Sanity.”
At the time, it was a most pie-in-the-sky dream. Like how when I was twelve, I used to fantasize about becoming friends with Bono. There was simply no basis in reality for it.
My friend looked at me like I was being very hippie-dippy. And then he said a very nice thing. “Well, I’ll be bitter on your behalf then.”
Somehow, I managed to keep true to my word. And Sisters did bomb. And then the editor I’d worked with on it left the publishing house—and editing—and my agent, who’d sold my first two books, shut down her shop. So I had no editor, no publisher, and no agent, and it wasn’t like anyone was clamoring to take me on. Ten years as a professional writer and I was back to square one. That seemed like a most justifiable reason to be bitter. But for the second time, I made an intentional decision not to go there. Instead, in a very Pollyanna move, I would view the crash-and-burn of my career so far as an opportunity!
So, with no agent and no publisher and no idea if it was even a viable novel, I started a book that was living deep inside me. About a girl and her family, and the love of her life, and music, and a choice. This turned out to be If I Stay. The book that launched me, I guess you could say.
Now’s the part in the story where I tell you that I have turned all Zen and learned to never be bitter again. But that’s not how it works. And I already told you about the popcorn guy, which was a couple weeks ago. And there is always something to feel pissy about. Every writer at every level experiences fear, and that fear seeds bitterness. And, yes, I’m still scared someone will take away this privilege I have of writing books for my job. But with writing and publishing, I have to re-teach myself the turning-away-from-bitterness thing all the time.
I do this for two reasons. There is the obvious karmic, good-energy stuff of not giving in to the dark side. It feels so much better to go to the gratitude place. And just as there is always something to feel bitter about, there is always something to feel grateful for. But there is also a practical side for writers, for all creative people, for all people, really. It can be oddly satisfying to wallow in bitterness. For about two seconds. And then you get pulled under and have to expend all this energy just swimming, keeping your head above water. Energy that would otherwise be spent creating.
Sisters in Sanity never did find its audience. Well, not in the U.S., anyhow. In France, they love that book. Some of my French readers tell me it’s their favorite of all three of my novels. Sometimes they tell me this while I am in France. And sometimes when that happens, I am transported back into my Brooklyn kitchen, back to that conversation with my friend all those years ago, back to that single fateful decision that has brought me here.
Gayle Forman is an award-winning author and journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Elle in the US. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Follow @gayleforman on Twitter.
Want more in this blog series?
The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.
Here are the posts in the series so far:
And look for open giveaways on the giveaways page so you can win some books!
Series images by Robert Roxby.