Last year, when I read Courtney Sullivan's take on An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer - “A moving and bittersweet coming-of-age story about love, loss, friendship, ambition, and the power of memory. This complex and satisfying tale introduces a cast of quirky, hilarious, intellectual young women, struggling to find their place in the world.” - I rushed right out and got it and read it, and agreed! This fall, I happened to meet Elizabeth at a Marilyn Yalom-organized event at Djerassi. Elizabeth is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize who has twice been honored by the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation - and she is a lovely person. Her paperback is just out, and I'm delighted to host her this week on 1st Books. - Meg
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I ever got started as a writer, in the sense that there was never a point in time in which I perceive myself as going from “not being a writer” to “being a writer.” But it took me at least thirty years to get going as a writer.
I always loved to write. Even before I could read, I’d make up stories for my brother and me to act out. Half the time I acted them out just fine all by my lonesome. Before that, I collected flat rocks in the back yard that I painted scenes on for my mother. Yes, I was one of those kids. The scary kind who sings and talks to herself in the corner. (Though I’m willing to bet that most of you reading this were, too. Can I get a what what my sisters?)
Yet despite all these obvious signs, I fought my desire and inclination to write – for years and years and years. First I pretended I might be a marine biologist, but I get seasick looking at fish tanks. Then I thought I’d be a veterinarian, but I nearly passed out at my first shadow surgery (though in my defense, the surgeon was doing tooth extractions on a cat). Also, I couldn’t ace a science class to save my life.
So in college I figured I’d be a philosopher. Stop laughing. I actually entertained this idea for more years than I care to recall in your presence. Then I thought I’d be a lawyer, but I hate living by laws. Finally, I decided I’d just “pursue an academic career,” which I shaped into a doctorate in education with an emphasis on studying the creative process. (Wherever you go, there you are, yes?)
You are probably wondering by now why I didn’t just call a spade a spade, just come out of the writer’s closet, or cupboard, and admit to myself and everyone else who I was and needed to be? I had so many reasons. Here are just five, in reverse order of importance:
5. As the daughter of an immigrant who grew up wanting, I inherited a visceral fear of poverty. And in my mind, writers were poor, soulful creatures who eschewed materialistic conventions and lived for their art. (This also made them sound totally crazy, to me, and there was more than a good chance that I’d inherit a little crazy from my family, too, without having to nudge it along.)
4. I wanted to have kids, and I believe that having kids meant giving up on all my private dreams.
3. My fear of failure was as wide and deep as my controlling nature. I wanted to be Secure and Established, I thought, more than I wanted anything else in the world.
2. I was really good at being an academic. And if you’re good at something, it means you should do it, right?
1. Every time I sat down to writer, drivel came out.
And so I limped along for – literally – decades. Until finally, FINALLY, my fears started coming true.
5. I experienced poverty. I lived in San Francisco on $21,000 a year with four roommates, two of whom were sleazy and peed on the floor. Yet I didn’t collapse. The world didn’t fall in. I would have liked to have lived cleaner and eaten better, but I managed to get by. I got really good at Scrabble, for example, and learned the easy satisfaction of dragging my laundry to the Laundromat, getting it clean, and bringing it home. That’s really not a bad way to spend the day.
4. After many years of living off a little money, I got married to someone who had Real Life Skills and money became less of a problem. Then I had a kid. Then another, and just to be sure we were the advanced procreators we thought we might be – just one more. And I found, after having these kids, that I just didn’t have a lot of room for bullshit – my own or anyone else’s. I found this out while completing a post-doc at a major university, working almost full time away from my family and crying in the bathroom and in the car and on my pretty babies when I finally got home. All this dissembling left just my core self, and I felt as though I were emerging from a chrysalis, smaller but more whole.
3. I failed. Spectacularly. I wrote a novel and got an agent for it and the agent couldn’t sell it and moved to Colorado, at which point no one wanted to see my novel. I thought I had it made – I had the book, the agent, I was on my way – and it all fell apart. I had to start again, literally, from scratch. And, to my amazement, I did. Through all my pissing and moaning and self-induced anguish, I started writing again.
2. Thanks to the events mentioned at the end of #4, I stopped being such a great academic.
1. And thanks to #3, once I actually started writing regularly and more often, I learned that drivel is what always comes out when we start writing. Drivel and mess are the writer’s best friends; they remind her to drop her standards, play with what she has, and keep going before she dies and everyone is left to read only the reams of crap she’s left behind.
My first published novel came out in paperback yesterday. In many ways it’s a reverse coming-of-age story, just like this post. I hope that those of you who are still denying yourselves of yourselves will read it and gain just a little more courage, give yourselves a little more space to be that truer self, the one you’ve always been. She’s still in there, I promise, and she can’t wait to come out. - Elizabeth
This post originally ran on 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started, hosted by Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel), the forthcoming The Wednesday Daughters, and other novels (all available from Random House/Ballantine). 1st Books features award-winning writers blogging about how they got started writing and publishing, as well as other readerly and writerly delights.