Writing a novel is a mess right now. I’m close, but I’m not done yet. I’m not done yet, I’m not done.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say, is the truth of it. I don’t know what I should say. I don’t know what my words mean. I haven’t found the meaning yet, though I’m digging in the dirt still and I’ve pulled out some stones and I’ve got a good hole going, I’ve gone deep in places even though so much is still so shallow.
Writing a novel is the most difficult thing and also the easiest thing in the world, because what else can I do? I said it was a gift to be allowed and able to do this, didn’t I? I told myself to not forget that the last I wrote here, didn’t I?
The worst of it is wanting to say something important, something memorable, especially when you’re surrounded by a fog and your mouth is full of jelly and everything itches with possibility but you can’t scratch every spot, you only have two hands.
Writing a novel is a messy pursuit. This close to deadline I’ve taken to wearing the mess on my sleeve—hair a jumble, roots screaming, T-shirt occasionally on inside out and I don’t realize until hours later. Makeup? I laugh. Bumping into signposts on the street? Yes, that was me, I’ll try to pay better attention.
I used to tell myself I could not do something. I would set limits. I would say, “I am a slow writer. A good day is five hundred words.” Then I blast through that number with barely a glance over my shoulder and I realize I can do things I thought I couldn’t. And also, I put myself in a small box. And also, I don’t do well when there are rules. And also, every book is different and if you sit in the audience at an author panel you’ll hear that a thousand times and you’ll be like yeah, yeah, yeah, but in fact it’s true.
Writing a novel is an exercise in hope. You hope you can finish it, first off. If you have an agent or an editor, what you are hoping is that your agent or your editor will see a spark in there somewhere and help you finesse and dig it out. If you don’t have those people yet, you are hoping this novel will be the way to lasso them to you. If you are not yet published, you hope this will be the one. If you have been published before, you hope you won’t get kicked off the boat. You hope to not disappoint anyone. You hope to not disappoint yourself. You hope you will make it to your pub date and an actual book will come out. You hope, too, that you make it through the gauntlet of reviews. That people will read it. Yes, that actual living people will read it. Will anyone? Will anyone? Three years between books—is that too long, is that too late?
These are not things you should think about when you’re writing.
Instead think of how it will feel when it’s all over. Think of how you can print out the novel then, and allow it to take up physical space in the real world. Only the space of it. The weight of it in your hands. The weight of all your work. Lie down on a bed, set it on your stomach, feel it hold you steady. You did this. You wrote a novel.
There is one thing—well, a few things… but here’s just one—that I’m often asked about The Walls Around Us, and it’s about the books mentioned within the story. The books that appear in the library of the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center. The books that Amber wheels around on her book cart to each of the young female prisoners, to see if they might like to pick a title to read today. Here’s more on how and why I chose the books that appear in the story…
“Most girls weren’t too interested in spending voluntary time flapping the pages of some stale, old book, but there was always someone needing the escape like a gulp of fresh water in the desert. Besides, not every book in our library was old. Some were fresh faced and still had the new-paper smell, and reading a new book before anyone else got to was like getting the first hot lunch and not the murky, lukewarm depths of the middle of the line, or, worse, canned-bean cold like the last few trays.
“Some were books we shouldn’t have even had, judging by the well-thumbed sections paged down for sharing, but thinking of what some girls did under cover of a strategically draped blanket while reading a certain section of The Clan of the Cave Bear made me squeamish. The point is, every book we had could save us in a different way—only, we had to open it. We had to drop our eyes to the page and drink in the words that were there.”
—Amber, in The Walls Around Us
One of the questions I asked myself while writing The Walls Around Us was what would my crime be, if I were one of the girls locked up in Aurora Hills at thirteen or fourteen or fifteen? What might I have done to end up behind those walls?
Out of all the characters, Amber was the one I related to the most. I, too, had a stepfather I wished could have vanished from our lives, and I, too, found an escape in books and clung to them for many years as if they were a life raft. If I’d committed the crime Amber is accused of, if I’d found myself spending the rest of my teenage years locked up in Aurora Hills, I would have handled my time much the way she does: That book cart would have been my saving grace, my most precious thing.
Maybe it’s because of this that the books Amber and the other girls encounter on the book cart and in the prison library were books I encountered at some point in my life, books that made an impression on me somehow, books that mattered. Every book mentioned has some kind of personal connection or resonates to a piece of my past in some way. Clan of the Cave Bear is the book we passed around and read to pieces in junior high (corners turned down at certain passages). Same with the Sweep series when I was a fully grown adult working in a publishing company and a group of us got addicted to the delicious series about witches. I slipped in some of my current favorite authors (Libba Bray, Jacqueline Woodson, Sara Zarr) while acknowledging Sister Carrie, a book I was forced to write an essay on in an independent study my senior year of high school that ended up breaking my heart in a definitive way. Isabelle Allende is there. Sylvia Plath is there. Zora Neale Hurston is there. And how could I not mention Jane Eyre, one of my favorites as a teenager, the book I chose for my acting class final presentation? My monologue was a scene from when young Jane was locked, so cruelly, in the red room. I was a terrible actress, but I performed with great conviction.
There are also the books called out in the epigraphs. It felt fitting to begin with Margaret Atwood, because she’s where my life as a writer began: I discovered her books on my mother’s shelves when I was twelve years old, and they are what inspired me to put my own words down on the page.
In The Walls Around Us, the story in a book is sometimes all a girl may have to herself in the world, now that her freedom has been taken away. I understood this deeply when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I would have been the girl in Aurora Hills who gravitated toward that book cart, who read every single title in that library at least once and probably more, who found an escape route in those pages… and stayed as long as she could. Surely that’s why I write books today.
What three books would I want to be locked away with in Aurora Hills and read and reread for eternity? Hmm… Probably The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, whatever Libba Bray is writing right now (you and I know it will be genius) and, for old time’s sake, The Handmaid’s Tale. How about you?
Once upon a time, there was a writer who was filled with doubt and questioning her every move. She was stuck. She had published three books, but now that she was facing what would be the fourth she didn’t know what to write or how to write it. She thought for sure she should try to be more commercial and relevant and give people what they wanted from her, if only she could figure out what that might be (???!!!???). She worried about all of these things until she worried herself into a stupor. And before her, staring back with ugly intensity, was a blank white page.
That writer was me. That blank page was my next novel.
I got out of this slump because The Walls Around Us pulled me up by the throat.
But how did I get from the death glare of the blank white page to the beautiful book object that is The Walls Around Us with its gorgeous and sinister vine-covered jacket?
I think we’re all hoping for a formula or a trick of the trade that will unglue us from that awful stupor. I don’t have a formula. I don’t have a good trick. Being stuck is not usually something that you can wave away with a nice nap and a walk around the block to clear your head. (I tried.)
There are those who say that writer’s block does not truly exist and that you must simply do the work and stop making excuses—you must sit yourself down in a chair every day and write, and that’s how you get unblocked. But forcing yourself to write when you’re not feeling it can be a waste of time and energy… and heart. The answer to being blocked isn’t flooding the room with random words and trying to choke your way through making them worthy.
Sometimes the answer is putting your novel aside for a while and writing something else. Yes, a whole new novel, even if you want to smack me for saying it. Sometimes the answer is some other creative pursuit that has nothing to do with books or writing.
Sometimes the answer is not thinking so hard about what everyone else wants of me.. That’s what happened when I was facing my fourth book. I was thinking of reviews I’d read of my previous books. I was thinking about how my books often confuse readers, because the explanations are left open to interpretation, and I was thinking that I needed to be more plain and clear. I was thinking about how my language and style don’t grab everyone. I was thinking that I really should add a romance. I was thinking of what a YA book is—what the most popular YA books are—and I was thinking to myself: OKAY, DO THAT.
And as I thought all these things, the blank page gazed back at me and sneered.
I was trying to be someone I’m not. And I did that for years, when I was writing under different names and mimicking voices for a paycheck, before I ever published under my own name. I didn’t want to do that anymore.
So this is how I got unstuck. I’ll warn you—it’s kind of ugly: I reached a breaking point. I banged my head against my desk and maybe I cried and maybe I had a series of really bad days as I warred with myself, stomping around my apartment and my life. Then something in me snapped. I realized I’d come to a place where I cared way too much about what everyone else thought of my books (lines from reviews swimming in my head, questions buzzing in my ears) and I’d hit a wall. All that caring flipped over and turned into CARING NOT AT ALL. I stopped reading reviews, of course, but there’s more to it. I stopped weighing myself against those reviews.
I would never be able to write a book for everyone, so the best I could do was write a book solely and completely for myself. And maybe someone else would see themselves in it, the way I have in books, again and again.
If I wrote a book for myself, what would it include?
Surreal, strange happenings that aren’t fully explained? Check.
“Unlikable” girl characters careening through the pages free and as alive as they’ll ever be? Check and check and check.
Voicey writing flooding my paragraphs. Oh my yes, check.
No romantic subplot. No easy commercial handle. No fear of being weird. In fact, I was embracing all the weirdness and rolling around in it and streaking through the forest with a crown of weirdness on my head.
This is The Walls Around Us: my weird and wild book about killer ballerinas and a ghostly prison. It’s everything I wanted to write and then some. And, because of that, I had no idea if anyone else on the planet would even like it.
Anyone who attended the New York launch event for The Walls Around Us will remember I was interviewed by a writer I love and admire, Libba Bray, whose books are daring and true and wonderfully strange and completely her. She called The Walls Around Us my “middle fingers book.” Let me explain.
This comes with a possibly offensive visual. I was writing with Libba in a café here in New York and I was somewhere deep in the wilds of The Walls Around Us, and I said that I had stopped caring what anyone might think of me or what I was writing. I told her I was writing this book for myself and putting in every single thing I wanted and reactions be damned.
Then, to illustrate how I felt about the publishing world and my own place in it at that defiant moment, I lifted my arms and raised my middle fingers in the air and waved them around like a maniac. Sorry. But there it is.
That came to illustrate this book for me: not so much my two middle fingers and acting ridiculous in a public café, but being defiant. Being myself no matter what. Not caring one iota about what was presentable and serviceable and… commercial.
So it was that The Walls Around Us came to be.
In a (weird? wild?) turn of events, this book that was my strangest… this book that didn’t even try to be likable or easy… this book that didn’t care what anyone thought of it… this book has found its readers. In fact, it has become the most well-received book I’ve ever published. If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll see some of the amazing things that have happened to this book and, thanks to the book, to me.
What’s the lesson in this? I’m a better writer when I’m not trying so hard to make everyone else happy. I’m more free on the page. More daring. I go deeper. And all that shows. And maybe, just maybe, readers respond all the more to a book that feels unique and specific to the writer in all its strange glory. Maybe they recognize the honesty in there, and that honesty is compelling. I think they do.
When I work with other writers on their novels, privately and in workshops and classes, I like to push the writers to go deeper. To not just do the easy thing. Even if it means tearing up what you have and starting over… Even if it means getting stuck first until you unstick yourself and break through that wall.
Because the writing on the other side of the wall is so very worth it.
I look back at my career and all the pages I’ve written over the years—pages that include unpublished novels and unfinished scraps of novels and of course the novels I have published. I look at all I’ve written and I know that the best writing came out when I was not trying to fit a mold or write toward a trend or appease an audience.
It came when I was alone in a dark room with only my book and me. When I was scared. When I had no worldly idea what might happen. When I took the biggest risk of my life and made a leap.
It wasn’t just the writing of The Walls Around Us that changed me—it ended up changing the trajectory of my career. I decided to leave the Big Five publisher I was with and I took this book proposal elsewhere, finding a home at a smaller, more boutique house. I landed happily at Algonquin Young Readers, a fledgling imprint at that time just about to launch its own first season of YA and children’s titles when I signed with them. This was the best decision I could have made for myself, for the book, for my career. But at the time, it was scary to go somewhere new and start over.
Once upon a time, in the future, I’m sure I’ll be facing new struggles. Writing is never a snap of the fingers and a word count from the gods. But I found something during my time with The Walls Around Us and I’ve been carrying it with me ever since: Confidence.
Simply put, I trust myself more now. I know I’ll find it. I know how.
If you’re struggling with what you’re writing—if you’re afraid to be your true self on the page—I dare you to stop listening to the outside voices and try listening only to yourself this one time. Write the book you most want to write. Write as if your fingers will fall off tomorrow. Write as if a ship of aliens is about to land on Earth and ask for one manuscript out of all the piles of pages on our planet that would communicate who you are to them, and this is that book.
Write the book that is the most unapologetically YOU, no matter how long it takes.
And know this: I want to read it. Let me know when it’s time and I’ll be there beaming at you from the front row, lifting my middle fingers if it comes to that, clapping my hands if it comes to that, or just simply grabbing your book off the shelf and drinking in every word.
The paperback edition of The Walls Around Us is available March 22. In the past year since the hardcover released, The Walls Around Us became a #1 New York Times Best Seller and garnered seven starred reviews from trade journals including Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It was named the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick for Spring 2015, a 2015 Edgar Award Nominee for Best Young Adult, a 2016 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, the winner of the 2016 Cybils Award in Speculative YA Fiction, and a Best Book of 2015 by The Boston Globe, NPR, School Library Journal, the Chicago Public Library, The Horn Book, and Book Riot.
Its author is shocked and very grateful. Now she’s hard at work on her next novel with Algonquin Young Readers, and whenever she feels stuck, she recalls her own advice to be daring and true, and she pushes that much harder.
I’m struggling with something, an ongoing thing I’ve been struggling with for years. It’s about the novels that live under my bed. The two unpublished novels I wrote before I almost gave up writing, and then discovered ghostwriting, and, soon after, YA.
Two novels totaling eight and a half years of my life.
Two novels encompassing almost the entirety of the writing work done in my twenties.
Two novels that, in their own distinct and specific ways, broke my heart.
Every once in a while, I think of them, the way you’d think of an old love, someone who disappointed you deeply, but someone who meant a lot to you way back when. Someone who could’ve been a real and solid someone… if only things had gone another way.
I’ve only ever been in love once—with a human—but with books? I fall in love with each one I’m writing, over and over, again and again.
Lately I’ve been thinking back to my first novel.
I think that’s because an important yet tiny little piece of The Walls Around Us was taken from this novel, and snatching that piece and heading off into the sunset with it got me thinking about it again.
Today, the day after spending Thanksgiving at my mother’s house, I found myself drawn for no conscious reason to the cobwebbed recesses of my hard-drive, where some old drafts of the very first novel I ever wrote can be found. This book was my heart in a shameless, undeniable, mortifying way. It was more autobiographical than a novel should be, and it’s not something I could publish as is now, even if I had the opportunity, because many of the people in this story are still out there, living. It would have to be rewritten if I wanted to do something with it. I know this… and the weight of that has stopped me every time.
Even so, every once in a while, every few years, I take this manuscript out of its dark place, and I consider it.
I think of what could be done and redone.
I think of the possibility.
(I think, too, of the five years I spent writing and rewriting it—who wouldn’t—and I think, I do admit, of how incredibly amazing it would feel if one day, years into the future, I was able to publish a shiny, new version of it and how much I’d celebrate and probably cry.)
I look at this manuscript every so often, with curiosity.
Could I do it?
Would someone publish it?
Is it worthy, after all these years?
I’ve often heard—and I tell this to writers I teach as well—that for many writers, you need to write some practice novels before you reach the one you are meant to publish. The first novel you write may not be the first novel you publish… and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe you are better than that.
In my heart, Imaginary Girls was that novel I was meant to publish first (complicated by Dani Noir, I know, but publishing is nothing if not complicated). So much of what I wrote before Imaginary Girls was what led me to be able to write it. See? See how it was meant to be? If I had to have all that practice time, all those pages, all those years, it’s worth it to me, to have Imaginary Girls.
I regret nothing. Well, I don’t regret putting it aside then.
But hey, what about now? When I’m a better writer and could make something of this story in a way I couldn’t before?
When I have the distance?
Maybe there is a reason I keep opening this old file and peeking at the scenes I wrote so long ago that there are actually two spaces between sentences… (Aaargh! I was young! I didn’t know!)
My heart hurts today because I read some of it. I didn’t let myself read the whole thing—it’s a tome, overwritten and meandering and clocking in at an even 500 pages. But I read the opening pages, and I went through each of the seven sections, reading the last pages of each. By the end of the sections, by the last scene of the book, where my character finds a kind of closure with the person who’d terrorized her throughout her life, I felt a hard, heavy lump in my throat.
But I also had some ideas.
This novel was written before I knew what YA was. Now that I do, now that I have a career here, might that change some things?
I would have to rewrite so much of it.
I would have to reimagine, rethink, re-plot.
I would have to disguise a great many things.
Barely anyone has read this—the manuscript was only ever read by a single (adult-fiction) agent. I put the manuscript aside mainly because it was too close to me, it was too true, it was too painful, and I was unable to separate myself. I wonder now… has enough time passed? Can I be honest, can I be serious, can I be ruthless?
It could be a YA novel, or a middle-grade novel, if I cut out some things—I’m not yet sure.
It could be something.
And yet, do I want to go back there?
• • •
I wonder, fellow writers: Have you ever returned to a long-buried novel that you relegated to live in your closet, or desk drawer, or deep under your bed?
Have you performed a resurrection?
And if you have, did it fail and did you have to shove the corpse back under your bed, or were you able to breathe new life into something that, it turned out, did ultimately deserve to have a day in the sun?
This has been my most public year, ever, in my life. It’s been wonderful… and it’s also been somewhat of an adjustment for a shy person like me.
So much of 2015 has been about teaching. I really made this goal a priority to have better balance in my life—the ultimate goal was to get a lot of experience so I could get a job at a low-residency MFA program, and I had a specific school in mind—and I’m astounded at how much I did this past year, and how, even before the year was over, I made my goal come true.
I’m going to talk about some of the not-so-good stuff, but first, let’s focus on the good…
Last week I was in Texas, at the Writing Barn, Bethany Hegedus’s wonderful retreat center in the heart of Austin, leading what was billed as A Week in Residency with, well, me. This was a weeklong workshop-retreat for YA and middle-grade novelists, and ten wonderful, enthusiastic writers signed up to spend the week with me. We workshopped, we did writing prompts, we talked, we got inspired, we had guest authors visit, we did readings, we had a real whirlwind… I was so thrilled by how well it all went, and I miss the writers now that it’s over. My TA Jess Capelle (one of my former Djerassi workshop writers!) helped me through the whole week and was rewarded one night by a visit from a possible chupacabra making noise on the rooftop of her cabin! I left the week feeling really inspired, really content and excited, and I hope the writers who worked with me did, too.
Here are some photos from the truly fantastic week (I am sorry to tell you there is no photo of the chupacabra):
I may as well take this moment to tell you that if you’re reading this post thinking it might be nice to take a workshop like this with me, I’ll have to calm down with the outside teaching very soon, because I’m now on faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. BUT, I am still committed to teaching this last weeklong workshop in 2016, at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California, quickly approaching in March. Apply now, before the deadline of December 17!
And I should tell you that Bethany has some wonderful programming upcoming at the Writing Barn in 2016, and keep an eye on the website!
Now a breath.
I do need a breath. It’s been a busy year of events, teaching, and coming to a great realization about the book I was writing, which meant shelving one thing and starting fresh on another.
I have one last thing before the year is out. In case you’ll be at this conference in Minneapolis, I’ll tell you:
This weekend I’ll be at NCTE/ALAN (I’ll be signing The Walls Around Us on Saturday, November 21 2-3pm at the Algonquin booth 525–527, and I’ll be on a panel at ALAN first thing Tuesday morning).
But after that I need to go quiet. The teaching and appearances have been important, but know what also is? The writing.
So what about the writing, you may ask? What about the writing…
I know I made the right decision about my next book. I know that in my heart and my gut. But what I don’t know is what’s ahead for me, for my writing career, and the weight of that has been pressing down lately, pressing down hard. Being online and seeing all the news of book deals flashing by makes me happy for the writers… and mad at myself for not being faster, more prolific, more career-minded, more smart. This ugly game of comparison is something that gets a lot of us down.
I’m worried my negativity is seeping out. Not to my students, no, not during my workshops—not when I’m talking one-on-one with another writer about her novel and wishing her all the great and lovely things. I mean when I’m alone with myself, in my writing corner, as I am today, when it’s just me and the page and my whole future is reliant on what I do there, what words come out, and how well they sound and how slow or fast they dribble onto the page.
Sometimes all those doubts and second-guesses and ugly thoughts get animated into a creature that follows you and wants to take you down: a chupacabra on your rooftop, and you’re huddled inside wishing it would go away.
I think what would help is some time off from social media (Twitter especially) and my bad online habits (Googling myself to see if there’s something I should know and seeing snippets of bad reviews of my novels by accident in the search results… Clicking away incessantly on distracting, unnecessary things… Comparing myself again and again to everyone else, when I have always and only been myself in all things and I need to remember that).
I may take off the month of December, apart from sharing the Djerassi deadline and book news, when/if I have things to share.
I may hide from the chupacabra for a while. I know so many of you understand.
I want to make real progress on this novel before 2016 gets here, so I can look at this year and see that I didn’t just make my teaching goal come true… I also moved forward as a writer. That’s what I am first and foremost. (Otherwise, why even bother teaching at all, right?)
For those of you feeling like you let this year slip away from you in some places… it’s not over yet. We still have time.
What if we wrote a ton of words that we felt good about to round out the end of 2015?
A truly amazing thing happened to me this year. The Walls Around Us was chosen as the first-year read at Salem College, a women’s college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which meant that all incoming first-year students read my book over the summer (and wrote an essay on it!). So many young women, at the start of their college lives, reading my novel! And this week, I visited the campus and met with two classes of honors students and then, one evening, gave a lecture to the whole first-year class on campus, here, in this room:
When I was thinking of what I might say before a large group of young women, I was brought back to why this book was written, and why all my books are written… Why I write proudly and exclusively about girls, and why these stories are universal and just as worthy as the stories I remember reading all through school about men and more men and boys. I spoke about something that happened to me as a teenager that told me girls’ stories—that women writers—weren’t thought of as worthy… and why everything about my reading life and writing life is to prove that wrong.
I won’t recap the talk here, since in fact so much of it is infusing an essay I’m currently writing at the moment, and I look forward to sharing that with you in the future.
But I looked out at that room of young women, and I saw myself there. I remembered who I was (I’m still that girl—aren’t we always?).
I couldn’t fit the whole room in this photograph, but here is my first sight of the audience when I walked out onto the stage:
My talk touched on a lot of things—within the book, and within my life. I made a small mention of the book’s dedication, which was all connected.
This is the dedication of The Walls Around Us:
For the girl who needs to hide her diary
For the girl who doesn’t think she’s worth so much
Astute readers and/or those who know me very well might realize who this book is dedicated to… Someone specific, whose diary was found and exposed when she was a teenager, making her ashamed of her giant ambitions because who was she to have them? Someone so specific, who was told by multiple men in her life that she wasn’t worthy… That same girl stood on a stage on a college campus this week, giving a talk about her fourth published book. And the men who told her she wouldn’t, couldn’t, would never accomplish much? Look how small they are now.
Who dares to dedicate a book to herself? Someone who was told she’d never be able to publish a book at all.
After my talk, there were questions (some of which I am shocked I even answered, as I don’t usually reveal the secrets in my books! don’t ever expect that to happen again!) and a book signing, and it was a wonderful thing to meet some of the students and sign the book to them and get the chance to chat with them.
A few of the students confessed to me that they wanted to be writers, too.
If any happen to have found my blog and are reading this post—specifically one aspiring writer in particular who didn’t know how she would ever be able to pursue her dream, I hope what I said was encouraging, and I am always here if you want to reach out. I mean it. You can email me.
A few of the students asked me to sign the book for them on the dedication page instead of the title page, as if they saw themselves in the dedication as I did.
As if the book was for them as much as it was for me—and I believe it is.
If you see yourself there, it’s yours, too.
Thank you so very much to Salem College for having me! What an incredible experience.
As I was traveling home, I was thinking of all the ways my life has shifted and surprised me this year. I never expected to have these opportunities or to even be this person—even though, yes, it’s what I dreamed of and it’s what I wanted. These were pipe dreams. And now, standing in the shoes shown here (gifted from a dear friend and now, clearly, my new lucky shoes!), it has somehow become my reality.
When I reached New York City, on the way home from the airport and stuck in traffic in Queens, I had a moment. I know I’ve turned onto a new path this year—one more focused on teaching; one more true to myself—but I also know I have a lot more to do, to say, to learn, to write, to become. There is more I want, there will always be more I want… that ambition I carried as a girl has only grown.
But it’s not daunting or debilitating, even if the new road I’m on is long.
I haven’t written in a true diary in years… not since I started this blog, so I guess this became my diary, my public record. I’m not hiding anymore. Look, no hands! Here I am, I’m here.
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.