What is the unknown territory of your writing?

And how are you working toward making it more known?

I had a thought just now that I'm scrambling to put into words. It's the most obvious fact yet threw me for a loop: There were many, many years in my favorite writer's life when she didn't have any books published. She just had a collection of ideas, like me. Like you. Like all of us who want to become better at our vocation.

Take Ann Patchett. I use her as an example often because:

  1. She's a talented writer. (I mean, have you read Bel Canto?)
  2. We live in the same city, so she's top of mind.
  3. She wrote Bel Canto.

Patchett's first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, was published in 1992. I'm willing to bet it isn't the first book she ever wrote, and I'd stake my everything on the fact that her first draft isn't the version we read now. She had to overcome what she didn't yet know how to do.

E.L. Doctorow once said that, ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.
— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

A couple years ago, I stood in the stacks of Patchett's store, Parnassus Books, looking for a new read when she walked in. Ann Patchett herself -- there, in front of me. I clumsily shoved the book in my hands back onto the shelf (in the wrong place, no doubt) without taking my eyes from her. She carried several big boxes of books, talking and laughing with the staff. Like a human being. A published writer, in the flesh! Our own version of a star.

There were many years in your favorite writer's life when she didn't have any books published. She just had ideas, like you. What feels like the biggest hurdle for you right now? Are you too busy trying to survive it with the tools you already have to put a name to it, break it down and tackle it?

I wonder who Ann Patchett's Ann Patchett is. I wonder whose Ann Patchett I'll be some day. There can feel this huge division between the US and the THEM, with US being those unpublished novelists and THEM being the ones with a hardback to their names. Yet, my goodness, we all started in the same place. There was a time landing a literary agent seemed like reaching for the stars, as though we'd have more of a likelihood of being discovered in a shopping mall and whisked off to Paris for Fashion Week. There was a time none of us knew what a query letter was, how to format a writing submission, how to self-edit.

What's your scary unknown? Does it help to remember we all start in the same place?

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What feels like the biggest hurdle for you right now?

Are you too busy trying to survive it with the tools you already have to put a name to it, break it down and tackle it?

Here's an example: I worked on a book for many years believing it to be middle-grade fiction. The narrator's in junior high, it deals with young themes and the voice hasn't yet matured. Every time I sent it to literary agents seeking representation for the book, I got back the same feedback: This feels older than middle-grade.

It's stunted me for awhile because I think they're right -- not because they're agents and know better than I do but because so many of them are saying the same thing. I've been too busy wanting it to be middle-grade (and, therefore, be done revising it) to absorb their advice:

Research. Learn. Rewrite.

Be of good cheer. Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.
— Helen Keller

You are not the only person going through what you're going through. Most writers haven't yet been published. Most writers start with stories that are very nearly true before they learn to create their stories fresh. Most writers doubt themselves because the characters aren't coming easily, the time can't be found and their prose doesn't inspire even them. Oh, dearheart. Have we ever been right there with you.

So here's what I can commit to:

  1. I'll reread more adult fiction with young narrators, like Little Bee, Swamplandia! and Rabbit Cake.
  2. I'll digest how their authors created stories for grown-ups through language and themes while maintaining youthful narrators.
  3. I'll open that Microsoft Word file, and start with page 1. Then page 2. Page 3. Slow and steady.

There's grace on our side because the only deadlines right now are self-inflicted -- and that's an advantage writers without representation for their work have over the Ann Patchetts.

"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now."
-- Rainer Maria Rilke

What's your unknown? What's the small, bite-sized commitment you can hold yourself to today?

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