When I entered the YA world in 2010, with the impending publication of Imaginary Girls (before that I didn’t feel a welcome part of it because my debut was middle-grade), I looked around at all the authors and thought there was one single kind of career to aspire to, the Best Kind, and of course I should be aspiring to it: The full-time writer who publishes a book a year and reaches out with savvy, fun marketing to her fans (ahem, she has fans) and goes to all the cool conferences and festivals.
This was what I had to try to be, and if I couldn’t, then I would fail at this, just like I’d failed already at trying to publish novels for adults.
I gave it a good go. At one point I was trying to propose a middle-grade trilogy along with a new YA novel, saying I could write both in one year, and then of course both proposals failed before we even showed them to editors because I lost my steam and I began to have this little tickling laugh at myself: You can’t do this. You can’t write this fast. My agent knew it, too, and never pushed me. I was the one pushing myself.
I guess I pushed until I sputtered and fell over.
Time passed. Attempts. Failures. More attempts.
Everything involving The Walls Around Us came to be, and that was good.
And through it all, and in the aftermath of Walls, I’ve been thinking this: But wait. What kind of author do I really want to become?
If I’m going to be honest with myself, what feels right?
It’s funny, but I think at heart you often want to emulate the people who were there to influence you in those eye-opening moments when you first get serious about being a writer. For me, that’s when I was 22. I keep going back to my time in grad school at Columbia University, when I was 22 and starting my MFA in Fiction and writing my short stories. The authors I admired then weren’t publishing a book a year. The authors I admired were so far from commercial, most people outside my circle had never heard of them. The authors I admired—basically, every single one of them—were teaching writing in programs like mine.
So why didn’t I try to teach way back when?
I was too shy. I had no confidence. I was well aware I knew nothing. So instead of trying for any teaching assistantships, I found my way into publishing and chose the most quiet and out-of-the-spotlight position a person could take in book publishing, the copy editor aka production editor. The person no one thinks about until she misses a mistake.
I sat quietly in this job, or another job like it, for about five, six, seven years. Sometimes I walked the hallways of the publishing company I was working at—whichever one—wanting to disappear off the face of the earth with a red pencil stabbed through my neck because no one wanted to publish me. But I needed to live this experience. I needed those years of rejection to make me a better writer, and to want it all the more.
When I found YA and Imaginary Girls got me a good book deal, I waited until the day my advance check was deposited in my bank account, and then I quit my job. I knew I didn’t want to be a production editor anymore, but I would soon find out I wasn’t so good at being a prolific full-time author either.
So what was left?
* * *
It is eighteen years after that fateful August I moved to Morningside Heights to start my MFA, all the light and starry hope in my eyes, and a batch of IKEA furniture on the way to furnish my side of the apartment (I could afford one table and three chairs, one black fabric couch chair, and one bookshelf, all the cheapest models available). Eighteen years later, and I’m about to finish teaching my last week of my YA Novel Writing course at Columbia, the same university where this all began, and went into debt for, and regret sometimes even while knowing those were the happiest years of my life. My Columbia class ends next week, and I absolutely loved teaching it. I’m sad it’s over. I want to do it again.
All along was I supposed to pursue teaching?
Maybe so. Funny not to realize, but now that I’ve been teaching, I’ve come to see how much I do love it—this June I led my third workshop at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program; it was so wonderful, I’m doing it again in March, twice (applications just opened this week). And I have two workshops this fall, coming up at the Highlights Foundation and the Writing Barn (spaces still open in each workshop), and I’m working privately with some writers, and I’m pursuing other things to teach regularly if I can, and I’m doing all of this because I am hoping it will lead me to be like the authors I admired all those years ago, to build the kind of career that feels right after some trial and error at other ways. The goal: Teaching at a college one day, taking the time I need to write my next novel, helping new writers be the best they can be, the way I was helped and have not forgotten.
Working with other writers feels right—it feels good. Not having to be so self-centered and solely focused on my own stuff, my own books, my own marketing chatter, my own author career and where it’s going or where it’s not going… what a fucking relief.
I am frustrated, sure, that it took me this long to realize this kind of career would be a better fit for me—imagine how far along I’d be if I’d known, imagine how much angsting I would have saved myself—and yet, it is what it is.
I think of a writer from one of my workshops who recently sent out queries for her beautiful work and I am hoping she finds an agent who believes in her writing the way I do. I think of all the writers I’ve worked with over these brief few years I’ve been teaching, and the struggles some have had in this industry, and I wish and hope I can be a helpful light when the doors keep closing in their faces, the way hundreds of doors did on mine. I think of the writer whose unpublished novel I was reading last night and how stunned I was by the last page I read, and how I know it needs to be published and I wish I could snap my fingers and make it happen, but I know that’s not possible and maybe the feedback I’ll give her to work to make it the best book it can be will help in another way. I think of the writer just at the beginning of a novel and all the potential and spark I see in there, and how I said, please email me when you’re ready, even if it takes years, I won’t forget you, and if I can do something to help when the time comes, I will. I think of all the writers who work hard through all the madness of writing a novel, even when that novel won’t get published in the end, a fate many novels have, and I want to tell them it’s not wasted work and it doesn’t mean they won’t make it, and to keep trying, keep writing, keep reinventing yourself. I did.
This is the thing: The kind of author we want to be can change, as we grow as writers, as we realize who we are meant to be. It can expand. And maybe it can shock and surprise you.
It does not have to be what everyone else sees as successful.
You do not need to covet a seat at the popular lunch table.
You can carve out a new path for yourself. Start your own table. Pull up a few more chairs. Change the dream.
One day in the far future when I let myself go gray (I started going gray at 20 and I’m still dyeing, thank you very much), I want to know I gave back as much as I put out in the world, in my own small way.