When I was in grad school, working toward an MFA in creative writing, one of my professors read us a touching story. I don't remember the author or the title of the story -- only that it contained pumpkins and a woman who had cancer. This woman's husband commented on how skillfully she had carved the pumpkin, and what a talented artist she was, and his comment made the woman very sad. She -- bald and dying -- said something to the effect of: It's better to have no talent at all than to be mildly talented, because with no talent your disappointments in life aren't so great. As the teacher read this passage she began to cry, and then some of the other students began to cry, and I remember feeling a little left out because I didn't think the story was poignant enough to cry about.
But I was green then and I believed jubilantly in my newly discovered talent. The whole idea of writing -- as a living, as a life -- was new to me, and I was basking in its delights. I had only recently discovered that not only could I write fairly decently, but that I loved it. Until then I had never really been certain what I was going to do with my life, and then there it was: writing, reading, editing, teaching. It was a world of words and stories, of ideas and character, and I knew I wanted to stay in that world for the rest of my life. I loved, when my own life was in turmoil, to switch on the computer in the morning and spend my day with solid characters who enjoyed great loves and great conquests. And I didn't care so much that I wasn't getting published in the New Yorker because as a student I was in the process of Becoming; I didn't yet have to Be.
About a year ago I finished writing my first novel. And although I knew from the start it wasn't going to be the Great American Novel, I thought it was at least decent. And earnest. And a little daring. I had spent five years on it, and in those five years I poured everything I had ever learned about writing, craft, style, imagery, multiple narrators, life and love into its 500 pages in what I thought was a readable, entertaining and coherent way.
So I set out to find an agent. There were the established agents I had queried years earlier (prematurely) who said they would be happy to take a look at the finished product. There were the agents who had solicited me back when I was in grad school because I had won some awards and appeared in a fiction anthology. And there were the eager, young agents I knew -- or at least knew of -- from my job at a well-known magazine, agents who were reportedly "hot for fresh new talent." I sent my manuscript to about 18 of them all at once, and all of them -- in carefully phrased letters, e-mails and/or phone calls -- eventually turned me down.
Meanwhile it was the spring of 1998, and surreal things were happening in the literary market. Publishers were suddenly paying huge sums of money for literary fiction -- short stories; dense, cerebral novels -- and the reaction in the industry was electric. There were auctions, headlines. Every week Publishers Weekly ran another story on another unknown short story writer whose first book went on the block for a six-figure deal. Authors such as Heidi Julavits, Jon Billman and Melissa Bank -- all writers of dedication and talent -- were plucked from relative obscurity and placed at the crest of this wave. Agents were absolutely frothing at the mouth. In my case, the agents seemed to froth at the idea of me, at least at first. I had emerged as one of the most promising writers in my graduate program. I was young, I was eager, I had drive and I had product. Sure, my novel was a little experimental, they cautioned after seeing the synopsis, and some of the topics were almost passi, but I guess we all wanted to believe I could pull it off.
The rejection letters I received all began with a generous amount of praise and a reference to my talent. As in, "We think you're very talented, but ..." Then they would get vague. Some of the letters finished the "but" off with something generic: "this doesn't suit our needs." Or: "this is not what we're looking for right now." And because no one came right out and said it, I began to assume the very worst: We think you are talented but you are not talented enough. You're talented for an amateur, for a writing school graduate, but ...
After my novel got rejected for what came to be the final time, I went through a strange mourning period. It was almost as if I had gone through a loved one's death. I cried frequently. I stopped listening to music that would remind me of my book. At family gatherings, my siblings carefully avoided all subjects related to writing, novels, stories, books. My father, who used to inquire about my novel with kindness and interest (and perhaps, I
always hoped, some pride), now asked me about my husband's work. "So how is Ed liking his job, Ellie?"
And in many ways it was a death, my novel had died, my characters were stillborns, and I, worst of all, had been deemed "talented, but ..." In my worst moments, I saw that term as the death of the writer-me.
I began to ask big questions. I began to reevaluate my life and myself as a writer. Could I call myself a writer if I wasn't getting published? Was I just fooling myself? What kind of "talented" person could spend five years on the same 500 pages, revising and editing, reevaluating and recasting, without ever once realizing that it might not work? For months I felt stupid and naive and incredibly ashamed, the way I felt after coming out of a long, bad, emotionally tortuous but sexually satisfying relationship, where everyone but me had recognized about three years earlier that Mr. Right was sinister and unstable and totally, completely wrong. And no one had had the heart to tell me.
"But I loved this novel," I wanted to say to these agents, my family, my husband. You don't understand! I was blinded by love. Or ambition. Or need. Or whatever it was that made me spend five years believing in something, making efforts every day to make that something work. I just kept writing, sacrificing my social life, an income, the well-beings of my new husband and dog. I wrote to finish and I wrote for love. And in the end it was all wrong.
But there was another reason I was writing, I now see, and that was to get the thing published. (Here I think of Steven Spielberg accepting his Oscar for best director this year, when he tipped the microphone toward his mouth almost shyly and said, "Is it wrong to say I wanted this?") I never realized how ravenous I was for publication, and how modestly certain I was that this would happen, until it didn't. And my hopes and dreams and needs fell far and hard.
"Relax," was the advice that came from a writer friend I admire. "Don't beat yourself up about this. Your only competition is you. Go out and write another book and make it the best book you can write."
"But I can't write," I said. "I haven't written, since, you know."
"So go out and immerse yourself in the arts," he said. "Go to movies and museums. Listen to music, read the classics. Do whatever you can to get your brain going again. And trust that it will."
Because I could do nothing else, I did this. Every day I'd venture out to dark movie houses or obscure museums, studying the chain mail on a suit of armor or the way the sunlight passed through a panel of stained glass. Any time my stomach started to flutter and my brain started to whine, "I'm not a writer, I'm not writing," I'd plug it up with another Kurosawa video or blast of the Smashing Pumpkins, full volume, channeled straight into my ears.
Slowly, but surely, I began to miss the act of writing -- especially because I was reading good books. I read Cheever again and Fitzgerald and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." I remembered what it was like to read these stories for the first time in grad school -- that feeling of inspiration and discovery. That feeling of awe followed by, "maybe I could try that, too." I remembered why I loved reading in the first place, and why I loved writing in the first place -- because it's the best possible way for me to spend my time.
So I'm back, still wounded and slightly chastened, but back writing again. It's a new story, and each time I sit down to the computer I still feel shy and nervous, as if I were going on a date after a long hiatus from love.
Another former writing professor -- not the one who cried -- always used to say to us: Success comes from 10 percent talent and 90 percent applying the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair. I always liked that saying and, in the best of times, always want to believe it. Because it says, quite obviously, that even if at the beginning you are just a little bit talented, you can still mold this and shape it and develop it into a greater thing. I've realized that what I've come away with in the end of writing my first novel is not the disappointment of not having sold it, but the memory of five wonderful years spent doing what I love best: writing. It was my little bit of talent that took me there, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.