On Shark Agents, Writer Candy and Momentum
By Jennie Fields This is the fifth in a series of posts leading up to the 2013 AWP Conference at which Eric Olsen will moderate a panel on “What We Wish We’d Known.” Please join us in Boston Saturday, March 9, 1:30-2:45 pm, in room 206 of the Hynes Convention Center, when novelists Jane Smiley, her daughter Lucy Silag, Vu Tran, and Doug Unger will discuss what they didn’t learn as MFA students, but wish they had, what they learned later, often the hard way. The world that Jane, Doug, and Eric entered a generation ago is very different from the world that Lucy and Vu entered more recently, and thus what they wish they’d known may be different as well. Or not. The panel will explore all of this, and much more.
I’ve been asked to write about what I wish I’d known back in my Workshop days. But that presupposes that I’ve grown wise. Truthfully, I felt I knew way more back then, when I was a grad student waiting for my real writing life to begin, than I know now. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was six years old. I decided nothing was going to stop me. And I was chillingly pragmatic. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich quick so I’d need a day job. Early on, I decided that I didn’t want the job of a university professor because I was vain enough to detest the concept of growing old and sere and sad while my students were perpetually replaced with younger, juicier specimens. Besides, ivory towers weren’t for me. I wanted to see, to feel the real world, and needed to experience something worth writing about. When Vance Bourjailly, one of my writing professors, offered the name and number of an ad man who’d shot a commercial on his farm, I was the only one who raised my hand. That simple gesture gave me an advertising career in Chicago and then New York…for thirty-two years. And honestly, I don’t regret it. I traveled to Australia, South Africa, the wilds of Alaska to shoot commercials. I lived in the real world. I bumped my head continually on a glass ceiling. I have a hematoma there to prove it. And I still wrote, albeit slowly.
I wish I’d known that it doesn’t matter when you publish your first book, it’s that you manage somehow to do it. The social pressure to be a successful writer at a young age dropped away for me out of necessity. What with working full-time and raising a child, I didn’t publish my first novel until I was forty. And since then, I’ve finished and published three more, and am now working on my fifth. I discovered it’s delicious to be a published writer at any age. There is no biological clock associated with giving birth to your first novel, thank heavens.
I wish I’d known more about how to write a novel from my time at the workshop. There was little talk about mechanics: how to begin a work so large, how to structure it. Or even philosophies as to why one writes a novel. I could have used that information. We always talked about short stories—oh how we all wanted to appear in The New Yorker—and good writing. Not a word about novels.
I had to invent my own method of writing a novel and it’s served me well. In short—and things can sound ridiculous in synopsis—I try to create complex, interesting main characters, then give them what feels to me like an “insoluble” problem and let them solve it. It gives shape to the book, and lets me see the very souls of my characters. But it was a challenge for me to come up with any idea how to structure a book. Think of the time I’d have saved if I could have discussed it with the brilliant students with whom I shared my time at Iowa.
And it would have helped so much if I’d known, for example, how important it is to keep up one’s momentum on a work so large. Because my life wouldn’t allow me, I wasn’t one of those people who was able to sit down at the same time every day and write, and as a result I would lose track of where I was in the novel, what my characters were doing, why I even cared about them. After a while, I learned out of necessity that when I had a project in the works, I needed to go over what I was working on a few times a day, fifteen minutes during my lunch break, ten minutes between meetings. I’d pull up my manuscript and start working on it, and just a few minutes of living in the world of my novel would keep me thinking about it the rest of the day. Now that I’ve quit advertising after thirty-two years to write full-time, my life has totally changed. I can see what a fantastic difference consistency makes. My book is the focus of my work life. I don’t have annoying clients, two-hour commutes, or anything else weighing on me.
I wish I’d known that the best part of writing a book is rewriting it. I love puzzles and once I have all the pieces, it’s great fun putting them in a satisfying order, cleaning up the floppy bits and seeing it all polish to a beautiful shine. When I finished the first draft of my first novel, I was terrified of what lay ahead. It would have been nice to know that I was now headed into the good part—writer’s candy.
I wish I would have known a tough agent is a girl’s (or boy’s) best friend. A good agent should not coddle you. Should not lie to you. Should not promise you the stars. A good agent has to fully, viscerally understand your writing and be willing to fight for it. Like a shark. I was lucky to find that agent at the very beginning of my career. But it was sheer luck. It would have been helpful to know what I was looking for: someone I’m afraid to call too often because she’s busy, a little ruthless, and has my back already.
I wish I’d known that writing a book that I deem wonderful may not make me a bestselling author and it doesn’t matter. In the end, the toughest audience to please is myself. And having done that, no editor who gives me the cold shoulder, no nasty critic with talons and a spear, no drunk at a party who didn’t like my book, can take away the warm joy of creating a book I’m proud to leave behind when I’m gone.
What do you want your legacy to be?