About five years ago, I was under deadline to complete the first draft of a contracted novel and stressing the hell out over how I would finish on time while working my full-time job as a senior production editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. I had somehow sold my novel on proposal and agreed to a deadline that had seemed very doable at the time (in my haze and shock and delight, when the book was sold). But this was a serious, demanding day job that required eagle eyes and a very sharp mind, and I am a perfectionist at my jobs, so I could not phone it in. By the end of each week, I was exhausted and had little interest or energy in looking at any more words, even and especially my own. At the rate I was going, I would finish my novel in three years, and it was due in about four months. And to top it all off, after years of slowly working my way up in the publishing industry, the company had to consolidate offices and the children’s department moved into the same building with the adult imprints, giving us far less space than we had before. For me, this meant I had just lost my window office for a cubicle, which somehow made the job feel even harder.
I was facing a terrifying decision: Should I quit this day job so I could finish the book on time? Was that stupid? Too much of a risk?
While I was contemplating this and holding it in quietly in my new cubicle, I got a letter in the mail. It was from a famous artists’ colony up north that I had applied to on a crazy what-if whim, never expecting to get in: Yaddo. They had accepted me, to my shock, and given me a month-long residency.
I remember thinking this was a symbolic form of communication from the universe. My day job would not allow me to take four weeks off to go away to write. If I went to Yaddo for those four weeks, I could not have this job.
Was the decision made for me?
Is this stupid? I asked myself again. Is this too much of a risk?
I knew what I wanted. And, deep down, I knew that I would not be able to keep myself from taking what I wanted. It was a now-or-never moment, and if you know me at all you know I took the leap.
Let’s be honest. It was stupid, and it was too much of a risk, but I did it anyway and gave my notice at HarperCollins a week later. By the next month I had become a full-time writer (who still did some copyediting freelance work on the side), without health insurance and without a net. I wrote my heart out for the novel that you may know as Imaginary Girls, and I did turn it in on time, and I did go to Yaddo, and health insurance did come later, as did other opportunities, wild and exciting, including other artists’ colonies and books to write and teaching opportunities, and I know, looking back, that I would have done it again.
My life has been a series of leaps like this: chasing dreams, chasing better situations, falling flat on my face, getting up again, thinking I would regret it more if I didn’t try. It’s been kind of romantic and, I’ll admit, very irresponsible. But I’ve had these five great years, and I’m grateful. No regrets? Well, mostly no regrets.
I remember going to my first Teen Author Drinks Night here in New York City and sitting at a picnic table in the outdoor patio of a bar, admitting to some authors that I had just quit my day job. This was my first time meeting all of them. Barely anyone knew me. I’d published one book before this that no one had read. I don’t drink, so I sipped a nonalcoholic glass of juice and ice I’d snuck at the bar, feeling like a child at the adults’ table. One author, a successful male YA author with many more books under his belt, said he didn’t quit his day job until he’d published three novels, and the undercurrent of the conversation was that I’d done the most idiotic thing in the world.
I asked myself: Did I just do something horribly stupid?
I had a growing sense that I did.
Then I remembered Yaddo. It made quitting seem a little less insane, and I know how insane that sounds.
As I write this post it is a little more than five years after I gave my notice at HarperCollins, and I am about to leave for another residency at Yaddo, just like I was then. I haven’t been back there since. Going back now, of all moments, feels strangely, frighteningly symbolic. I feel like a chapter of my life opened with that first Yaddo letter, and I am not sure if it’s now about to close and a new chapter is getting ready to start.
Yaddo is in Saratoga Springs, New York, a city I slipped into The Walls Around Us before I knew I would be going back. Did you know “Yaddo” is meant to be pronounced like the word shadow? One of the founders’ young children named the estate this nonsense word, before dying soon after, which makes it seem all the more like a dreamland to me.
That’s where I’m headed, as of early in the a.m. on Thursday, for the rest of December. I will be trying to stay offline as best I can. This will be easy, because there is no wifi in the rooms or studios. I will be trying to keep a quiet space in my brain. If I don’t answer emails, please wait for me to return to the real world in January.