I took my first writing class at the age of 40. It was called Mothers Write, sponsored by the Public Library in Tempe, Arizona. Why did I wait so long, you might ask? For many of the same reasons it was decades before I hauled my butt into therapy. Convinced the shrink would tell me I was crazy (and snap his fingers for the men in white coats) I was also certain any writing instructor worth her salt would suspend my poetic license. This image was less drastic than the insane asylum, more like a slow folding of the tents I’d pitched around a desire that dare not be named, lest it be immediately quashed by those arbiters of literary talent with taste and judgment.
You see, even though I’d spent my childhood engrossed in books and even wrote plays we performed using the garage door as an impromptu curtain, it never occurred to me that I could be one of those godly creatures whose work I adored.
Add Catholic guilt to fear of failure and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a young woman who avoids college English altogether. She decides instead, after attending a lecture titled “Torture in Brazil” to major in saving the world. I put together my own course of studies, variously described, depending on my audience, as Latin American Studies, Agricultural Economics in the Third World and/or Ending World Hunger and Poverty and That’s Not Funny.
By my senior year, I was insufferable. I knew everything. I knew nothing. I could not buy a record album (def: midcentury spinning disc played on turntable to produce sound waves) because that five dollars would feed a family in Bolivia for a week. In reply to an innocent greeting by an unsuspecting stranger, I might very well say, “Well, it’s not a good morning in Chile.” The more I discovered about Latin America, the harder I found it to describe, the more its miseries weighted me down. There was nothing I could offer in the way of practical solutions, given the failures of so many well-meaning souls who’d ventured there before me, only to discover that the Law of Unintended Consequences is otherwise known by the last name of Murphy.
Besides, there were dictators in Latin America, commanding militias bent on eating do-gooders like me for brunch and spitting us out before siesta. Worse, I’d heard there existed fun-sized cockroaches bigger than your head.
It was by chance that I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then Mario Vargas Llossa, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende. These titans of Latin American literature were able to express that imponderable complexity that had so defied my powers of exposition. The byzantine nature of life, described from within a culture rather than above or outside it. Most important and redemptive of all, these writers took neither themselves nor their people’s struggles so much to heart that they forgot humor, valiance, happiness, love.
By George, they had it!
Exit, stage left, the missionary in faux-peasant dress. Enter stage right, a devotee of this glorious form of communication known as the novel. As in, that lovely relic from my childhood, that form of storytelling I’d been depriving myself of for years in the name of ‘doing good.’
I applied to study comparative literature at the University of Chicago, eager to find the truths that fiction could teach. I soon discovered that –in the Eighties – notions like truth, beauty and even inspiration were wildly out-of-fashion among serious scholars of the book. What they pursued instead was a fugitive meaninglessness which one sought by plunging along with them down the intellectual rabbit hole and through narrow ant-farm diagrams of sentences parsed to the Nth degree.
I barely escaped with my Master’s, prodded on by my patient boyfriend through the academic equivalent of Navy Seal tryouts. Susan Sontag, one of my program’s more famous alums, had been quoted as saying she never felt smart enough to be at the University of Chicago. This sentiment buoyed me during that difficult time, plowing through Ulysses and Proust over the same weekend I was to digest and regurgitate Foucault, Levi-Strauss and Lacan. The result became a melting pot of confusion, or as Woody Allen famously quipped about having taken Evelyn Wood’s speed-reading course, “I just read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.”
One of my favorite professors there taught Structuralism with a wink and a nod. She described the difference between our university and Berkeley. “Here, you go to a party and everyone talks about their work, sneaking away to see a movie or plant their garden. In California, they talk about their prize tomatoes or film, and sneak away to do their work.
I became a Californian, in spirit if not location. For years thereafter I waited tables, sneaking away to write novels, telling myself it was ‘just practice’ for the law I would someday practice. By the time my husband snagged a tenure track job at the University of Virginia, I was able to apply to both law school and the creative writing program. The MFA was my ‘safety school’. Both rejected me.
Fast forward through two children, several nervous breakdowns, midlife crises I and II. Through it all, including somewhat abrupt relocations to England, Boston and Arizona, I continued to write fiction. Even more important, I read. Voraciously, omnivorously, from soup to nuts, Nora Ephron, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, John Le Carre, John Fowles, Ken Follett, William Styron, Pat Conroy, Kaye Gibbons, Susan Isaacs, David Lodge, Helen Fielding, Elizabeth George, Mary Doria Russell.
Meanwhile, I avoided rejection with the same assiduous caution that repelled me from close encounters with foreign insects. Better to keep myself and my dream alive than expose it to the venom that might fell me with one blow, or slowly sap my strength and jaundice me towards that one thing I loved like no other, the fictional dream.
Every few years I’d gather myself up and send out queries to agents and editors. It took five rejections, even if they were encouraging, to sentence my first two novels to death. Not good enough, I’d tell myself, and begin again. From page one, a new story, a fresh four hundred pages until the next dreaded submission.
When I tell this story to would-be authors, it’s a cautionary tale. Rejection, I have come to understand very late in the game, is the rule, not the exception. Gird your loins, I tell them. How many years earlier might I have been published if I’d not taken an agent or editor’s ‘passing’ as indicative of the value of my work?
On the other hand, it may very well be that the detours I took taught me more than I realized. My insufferable know-it-all without a sense of humor morphed into Siobhan from Everyone She Loved. The insectaphobe turned rejectaphobe took life in Diana Lively is Falling Down. Academia provided the landscape of comedy much as my prior earnestness had doused its flame. In the end, I had acres of time to develop my own sense of what was great, enjoying popular writers as much as I had Austen, Tolstoy, and Garcia Marquez, aiming my sights on a middlebrow form where high meets low at the crossroads, slapping their hands in time and refuting the silence of one hand clapping, over and over, afraid to make a sound ‘til she gets it just right.