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? Here is author Arlaina Tibensky revealing hers…
Guest post by Arlaina Tibensky
There’s this book called Feed by a guy called M.T. Anderson. A friend of mine from Columbia’s MFA program, who was really into like, Brecht and British existentialists, casually handed me this book one day. Like he was passing the spinach, tossing me a paper towel, holding the elevator door open. “I think you might like it,” is all he said.
OK. To be fair, I was having a kind of breakdown. I just had a baby. I was a hysterical nut job basically sweating hormones and weeping and covered in milk and pee 24/7. I hadn’t read a book in practically a year.
I had taken the maxim “write what you know” to dizzying new heights and embarked on a novel about a woman (exactly like an aunt in my family) who has a breakdown, moves back home with her Czechoslovakian immigrant mother and opens an “alternative health clinic” (aka hydro-colonic studio) in the basement. Meanwhile she gets ovarian cancer and dies. There is also a Goth teenaged boy, a motorcycle driving Slav, a penultimate scene in the giant heart at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It didn’t all suck, but every agent that read it loved it and couldn’t sell it or loathed it (one called it: DISGUSTING AND VILE) and wouldn’t even try to sell it and then I had this baby and dear reader ALL WAS LOST.
And then Feed landed in my lap and my brain was struck by lightning. I read it in 3 hours. It was the best thing I had read in years. It grabbed me by the guts and shook. It was so smart and real and risk-taking it could not be ignored. And I thought that maybe I should try a little YA. That was the beginning of the turning point, like the peak of the incline before the rollercoaster car plummets to the bottom in breathtaking magnificence.
But I still had a baby who was still, er, an infant. And I was trying to just figure out my life and I wanted to write, but I had no big ideas, no Great Topic to Explore Through Fiction. Write what you know, right?—so I put this on a sticky note on my laptop:
And went to feed the baby. And forgot all about it.
Six months later I’ve hired a part-time baby sitter. I’m taking a pottery class at night. On the way to the studio I listen to the now defunct “Meet the Writers” podcast from Barnes & Noble and who was on the VERY FIRST podcast I listened to?
Before that very moment I had never even HEARD of her.
And she was so smart and funny and kind and her laugh was warm and snarky and she seemed like a more accomplished version of myself and I thought for the second time, but this time with feeling—hmmm maybe I should try YA.
And that week, while the baby was out having a ball and growing up just fine without me for an afternoon, I opened up my laptop, read the sticky note, changed the font to Courier and started typing as if I was 15 and itchy. I was on fire. Writing for 4 hours straight I could actually feel my skin buzzing with joy and heat. This was it. Finally!
AND THEN THINGS FALL APART!
To be fair it’s not all wine and roses over here. I had a beautiful second baby, which quadrupled my anxiety and responsibilities. I’m still very hard on myself and my work and am always trying to impress my card-carrying MFA colleagues with my witty and literary prose. I owe Columbia University a LOT of money. Diapers ain’t free. But having figured out what I love to write and finding an audience that appreciates what I’m doing makes me feel a little more like the writer I have always considered myself to be.
I’m still waiting for that moment when I feel like I’ve “made it” or at least a great feeling of satisfaction that I am doing my best work. But I never feel that way. I have taped this quote about being an artist from Martha Graham to my laptop:
“No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
And then I take a deep breath, fix myself a nice cup of coffee, and get back to work.
They say you have your whole life to write your first novel and six months to write your second. It’s taking me a bit longer… But when I am actually writing, fingers on keyboard hours on end WRITING, I feel like after all these years I am at long last doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m so glad I FINALLY figured it out!
Arlaina Tibensky is the world’s oldest teenager. She lives in NYC where she curates the Pen Parentis Literary Salon at the Libertine Library. Her debut YA novel AND THEN THINGS FALL APART is about how Sylvia Plath and an old typewriter usher a reluctant virgin through the worst summer of her freaking life. She was a One Story Magazine Debutante on April 20, 2012. Visit her at arlainatibensky.blogspot.com and @ArlainaT.
GIVEAWAY WINNER ANNOUNCED…
Congratulations to the giveaway winner of a *signed* copy of Arlaina Tibensky’s debut YA novel And Then Things Fall Apart—plus fun swag like bookmarks, buttons, and a Sylvia Plath mask! The winner is…
Congrats, Britta! Thank you to everyone who entered—and to the author for the prize.