try again

Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.

-Samuel Beckett

Once I wrote a novel for 10 years. I wrote it at varying degrees of productivity, but still, I doggedly persisted until the bitter end. The end was, in fact, quite bitter. Because even though I finished the book, it was hopelessly flawed. I had written and then re-written each sentence over and over as I went so that by the time I got to the end, it didn’t match up with the beginning. The book didn’t work as a whole.

On the upside, I did craft some really stellar sentences.

I never sent it out.

More recently, I finished another novel. This one only took six years. (In fairness to my timelines here, it should be noted that I had a baby during each of these novel spells.) I wrote this one all at once in a horribly messy draft to figure out the story. Then I went back and rewrote another draft. Sent it to writing friends. Rewrote. Sent it to writing friends again. Rewrote. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s gone through no fewer than 14 drafts total. And still, now that I’m “done”, which is maybe more to say ready to move on, I don’t really want to send it out.

It isn’t perfect.

But in looking back to my first imperfect novel, I wish I’d had the audacity to send it to a few agents anyway. Because why not? And that’s what I’m telling myself now.

Is my novel perfect? No. But I’ve taken it as far as I can and I think it’s good. And if done is better than good, then isn’t good better than perfect?

Today I sent it to an agent.

Daycare is My Superpower

Lauren Groff’s new story collection, Florida, is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in Fiction. Good for her. It was an excellent book (though her favorite of mine remains Arcadia). There was a delightful clip of an interview she gave to the Harvard Gazette when her new book came out that made its way around the internet, where she was asked to “talk about [her] process and how [she] manage[d] work and family?”

Groff responded: “I understand that this is a question of vital importance to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.”

Interview answers do not get more badass than this.

But still, inquiring minds want to know.

Fortunately for us, and maybe because she wasn’t asked directly, Groff does more or less answer the question in an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine (July/August 2018 Issue), which struck a profound chord in me and which you should rush out to buy and read. Alas, the article is available in print only.

Groff asserts that “American parenting remains a sexist enterprise.” As as a parent myself, I agree with her. But while we tend to assume that women will do the heavy lifting of parenting, we also tend to assume that writing isn’t “real” work.

No one would think to ask a female dentist: How did you manage to extract so many teeth this year AND have three kids at home? The answer is obvious: Someone else was watching her kids.

And (spoiler alert) that’s basically what Groff says in the P&W article: someone else–her husband–is acting as the primary parent. If you want to be a professional–to pull teeth or write novels (and aren’t the two things often one and the same?)–then you’re going to have to get someone to watch your kids. That’s it. That’s the secret.

That was the mystery I was so desperate to crack back when I was in a low-residency MFA program, staying home with a three-year-old and a one-year-old and finding it extremely difficult to get any writing done. Then, one day in the car, I heard an interview with Myla Goldberg on The Diane Rehm show (Does anyone else desperately miss Diane Rehm?). Diane asked her this very same question: With two young children at home, how do you do it? How do you write?

I leaned in, hungry for the secret.

“Well,” Goldberg said, “my oldest is in school and my three-year-old is in daycare. That’s how I do it.”

It seemed a very anti-climactic answer. And it blew my mind in the best way.

I eventually found a sitter for my kids a few days a week and got through grad school.

The secret isn’t staying up late or waking up early or writing with your toddlers in your lap, as well-intentioned people often tell me Toni Morrison did (though one of my mentors who knows her personally says this is a myth. That Toni Morrison lived with her mother and her mother watched her children while she wrote.) The answer is the same for writers as it is for dentists or Walmart employees. The mystery to getting so many customers through the check out line is simple: you don’t bring your babies to work with you.

The answer, in other words, is daycare. A stay-at-home husband. A Toni-Morrison-style live-in grandma. You are then able to, in the words of Seth Godin, put on your smock and get to work like a professional.

 

the process

This is an embarrassing writing selfie I took last year at an outdoor café in Cambridge. It’s part of my process, which goes something like this: Sit down to write, get up and make tea. Sit down to write, check my email real quick. Sit down to write, take a selfie of myself pretending to write. Surprisingly, after a long string of days like this, I actually manage to get an entire narrative down on the page.
IMG_0806

But I’m going out of order. I volunteered to follow Audrey Camp on the Writing Process Blog Tour. Audrey is my Postmasters Podcast co-host, a phenomenally poetic essayist/fiction writer, and basically one of my favorite friends of all time. You can read her process post here. So:

What am I working on?

Short stories. I’m writing new ones and revising old ones and trying to imagine them fitting together in some kind of collection. This fall when I hit the alone-time jackpot and both my daughters head off to school, I plan on revising a novel I drafted last year about a young girl with epilepsy growing up in rural Montana.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Mostly, I just pillage material from stories my mom tells me. And since I can safely assume no one else is listening to my mom’s stories, it makes mine different. (Love you, Mom!)

Why do I write what I do?

Pam Houston, in her book A Little More About Me, says: “There is only one story of our lives and we tell it over and over again, in a thousand different disguises, whether we know it or not.” So I guess I’m just getting that story out.

How does your writing process work?

As I mentioned at the outset, I’m a distracted writer. It’s difficult for me to write that necessarily terrible first draft. To convince myself to not give up writing entirely and learn to make scented soaps to sell at the farmer’s market instead. But if I keep showing up at the notebook or the computer, despite my many tea & toast breaks, something very satisfying emerges—usually a year or so later, but it emerges. I send it out to a million journals to see if someone will publish it, give myself the day off, and then it’s right back to that beautifully painful beginning.

Up next on the tour:

Yasmin Ramirez at And Then…

Sarah Shaffer at Everything Rhymes,

& my lovely poet-friend, Andrea Beltran.

wonderful introductions

I’m always regretting I didn’t have some kind of fanatical literature buff to have guided my reading education when I was younger. My mom—herself and avid reader—constantly tried pushing books on me but I shrugged them off. I thought everything my mom liked (oatmeal, talking to strangers in checkout lines, reading?!) was totally lame. Oopsie. So maybe what I actually regret is that I wasn’t open to having a literature-buff-guided education as a younger person. 

In my adult effort to catch up, I’ve recently come across the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, where authors are invited to read and discuss stories from the magazine’s archives. It’s an absolute delight. So if you—like me in so many things—are late to this party, now you know. Merry Christmas to all!

P.S. As a starting off point, I highly recommend the Maile Meloy reads Laurie Colwin’s “Mr. Parker” podcast. My favorite so far.

P.P.S. I was looking for an old picture of my mom and I in matching one-piece puffed-sleeve floral jumpers to illustrate how I didn’t always think things she liked were lame. But the ol’ scrapbook is nowhere to be found. Rain check, folks. Because it’s a true vision of wonder.

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