Last Thursday, I had a total breakdown in the Harvard Square post office. I was in the process of writing a message to my dad in my debut novel, Cottonmouths, which I was about to mail to him. This isn’t out of the ordinary for me. I’m a highly emotional person and cry at commercials and old men on park benches. But this was totally different. For the past few months, I’ve been wondering what’s wrong with me because all the other writers I know who have published a book have been emotional and I have not been emotional.
Am I dead inside? I must be dead inside.
Nothing quite prepares you for that moment when you realize that your book — that thing you’ve worked on mostly alone — is going to be seen by the general public and family and friends. It’s what you’ve always wanted, but it’s also terrifying. You think you’re going to be legit cool about it. But you’re not. You say you’ll never cry. But there you are, fucking crying next to the rental post office boxes.
According to the people who know me, who really know me, I should’ve ended up in a ditch somewhere. How did a dumpster-diving girl from Arkansas end up writing a book and actually getting it published?
The first creative writing class I took was my senior year of college. I don’t even remember why I signed up for the class. I have a swiss cheese memory thanks to — my best guess — a giant metal bar being dropped on my head at a fast food restaurant I worked at when I was 16. All semester, I read other people’s work and listened. I have classroom anxiety, so I didn’t talk much. I only submitted two poems because that was part of my grade. I can only remember one poem, it was about a dead girl whose soul wanted someone to find her before all the autumn leaves fell and covered her body. Uplifting stuff from me, as usual. I thought I was home free with my two poetry submissions, but no. There was a final. 20 pages. I thought I might die.
There was no way I could come up with 20 poems. But I had interviewed my Grandma Sue about how she ran away from home at 15 and decided to turn it into a short story. I got a B in the class. Turns out I enjoyed telling a story, but I hated writing a short story. So I went back to poetry.
Poetry was a bad habit I kept up until the late 90s, after I’d moved to Boston and realized I was gay. More! Bad! Poetry! But poems could not contain all the feelings, so I decided that I’d write a screenplay about a female guitarist in Allston I’d become obsessed with. It was my epic coming out narrative, full of despair and awkward dim sum outings and unhappy endings. I thought it was awesome. I took a screenplay seminar with that famous guy, Robert McKee. That’s when I realized that there were too many people involved in making movies. And I don’t really like people. (Kidding) So I thought: Well, gee. Let’s make it a novel!
So I made it a novel. Then I went though a breakup while on a trip to Alaska and listened to my aunt tell all these drug stories. I put away my gay guitarist opus and ended up writing a story about a woman who moves to Alaska to marry a man (because of an Oprah show I’d watched about how there were a ton of single men in Alaska who were looking for women, which I left out of my publisher’s author questionnaire because the story origins are convoluted enough) but then falls in love with a woman and commits a minor crime so she can see the woman where she’s working up on the North Slope. There’s also a ghost and a drowning. None of these first draft details ended up in the final draft of my novel.
My bad poetry habit had turned into a bad prose habit and I ended up joining the Novel Incubator program after a stint of classes at GrubStreet writing center. A year after the class, I wrote in my journal:
April 22, 2013
I recall wanting to be in the Novel Incubator class because I thought maybe I would learn that I was a terrible writer and I would decide to quit. That didn’t happen. I think maybe it didn’t because people in class were too nice.
This is the problem with everyone at GrubStreet, they’re so NICE. They won’t let you believe that piece of shit you wrote can’t be fixed. Rude. (Note: It can be fixed.)
And then they keep at you. They email. They meet up. They ask you how your novel is going, and all you want to do is scream, “It’s terrible! It’s the worst!” But you don’t scream because there’s no need. They’re all going through the same thing you are. Everyone is trying to get through the slush pile. So you start writing all about your travails of trying to get published in blog posts instead of your journal because it’s somehow funnier to feel pain in public.
And then one day, you get an email from an agent and then you wait some more, and then you get a phone call and suddenly you have a contract. You’re hurtling toward publication, but it doesn’t really feel like it because you’re still revising and still revising and the revising never ends except when it does and then you’re all, OH FUCK ME, THIS IS THE MOST TERRIBLE THING EVER because everything is out of your control and you’re a total control freak. All those words you suffered under for years are off to the printer. But then you relax a little, until you don’t, because now you have more waiting to do. This process makes you really stabby.
Things are okay for a while, quiet even, though lots of people keep saying, “You must be really busy.” And you nod along because maybe they won’t ask you to trek out in the snow and the rain for some event because you prefer to wallow in despair at home. Unless they want to go out for fried chicken and drinks, then you’re definitely not busy. You’re super available.
But because you’re not busy but feeling stabby and useless, you decide to revise that second novel, which is a total pain in the ass because you haven’t had to revise a first draft of a novel in years. But you figure it out and send it to your favorite Novel Incubator friends and say, “BTW, this is a Novel Incubator-style draft.” And they know exactly what that means and what to do. You don’t even have to say a thing.
And then you’re twiddling your thumbs thinking, this is going to be an easy month. I’m not emotional. I’m not busy. Maybe I should write some essays or something? And so you take a class and it’s wonderful except the part where you share something personal and you wish you could take it all back and you vow to never, ever write a personal essay ever, ever again because your soul is on fire. And just when you recover from that, you start getting tagged on Facebook. And you look and it’s your fucking book! It’s your book on your college roommate’s dining room table and you’re all, “Whaaat??”
You look at the calendar to see if maybe you slept though May, but you have not slept through May. Your novel has just passed GO! And then you start to curse pre-order mailings because YOU WERE NOT EMOTIONALLY PREPARED FOR THIS. But you are kind and gracious when people are excited and ask you if you are excited. But you’re totally going to hell because it’s a fucking lie. You’re an introvert. You’ve always been invisible. Your inner child is in the fetal position shitting herself. In workshops, you have a designated time and place for feedback. But out here in the pre-orders-have-arrived world, you trip over feedback every time you turn a corner and you try to surreptitiously untag yourself from all those posts because you cannot look. You fear the worst even when your kind friend tells you that you need to put aside that “poor kid worry.” Time to be a grown-ass adult, but you’re not. You may be part of the #resistance, but you still laugh at fart jokes.
You go to Goodreads. You cannot look. But you look.
You go to Amazon Author Central even though there’s no sales data. But, but! There’s sales and author ranking data! You cannot look. But you look.
And then you get asked to read from your book in front of people. And you hate the idea because you hate the way your thighs look because although you’ve been running and cycling and P90xing since forever you’ve also been drinking wine every night since the galleys went out for blurbs — until the nurse practitioner points out that you are drinking 7 glasses of wine a week and, yes, you’re right, that number does seem high.
So you practice and you dread and you practice and you dread, and you remind yourself that you have survived worse things than reading your novel in front of people, like that first time you read from your novel in front of people five years ago this month at the Novel Incubator graduation reading when it was still, truly and unequivocally, a piece of shit.
But then you buck up and you read from your book, and people are really nice. A prospective student thanks you for coming up to him to talk because he gets nervous in social situations, and you feel good about that because you were once in his shoes and you understand completely. And you get to hear other people read and they’re awesome. Way more awesome than you ever were as a student and you’re really happy for them and you’re reminded of where you are and how far you’ve come. Because this is what this is. A big community of well-meaning introverts who want to make each other laugh, cry, commiserate, and see themselves in stories for a change.
And you think: I can do this. The journey of this novel has been one of great good griefs, a la Charlie Brown. Lots of drinking and crying and cussing and confidence shaking. But you did it. And it’s out there. It’s no longer yours. It’s theirs. And you’re grateful. Incredibly grateful.
So I guess what I really want to say is, there’s no one way toward a novel. There’s only your way, and if you’re like me, it will likely take decades and multiple detours. But when you read from it in public at the place where you learned how to become a writer (one who writes and revises and submits and never stops because you have this sick need to prove everyone wrong who ever said you couldn’t do something). . . well, it’s pretty fucking cool.