When The Line Becomes A Circle

In my new novel, What Is Found, What Is Lost, one of the main protagonists (there are four) reflects that “time was a loop, from now to then and back again.”  Freddie, who changed her name at age twenty-one, and moved Heaven and earth to put a troubled past behind her, finds that the past always lays claim sooner or later.  She has no choice but to accept this, and navigates as best as she can.

Today I find that’s it not so much the past that cannot be escaped, but essential truths, immutable facets of ourselves, the starting point, or what V.S. Naipaul called “the center.”

It’s tempting to think of one’s career as following a straight line – a logical series of steps.  One “climbs the ladder” to “get to the top.”  I have to believe that a lot of careers are built exactly this way.  One achievement makes way for the next bigger one, and so on.

Not so with writing – my writing, that is.  For me it’s like spending decades inside a house that changes size and shape at will.  You come in a door, go down a narrow dark hallway, enter a bright, pleasant room, get distracted by something in the corner of your eye, then go down another hallway, up a short flight of stairs, down a longer one, room to room, bright to dark, up and down.  Sometimes you completely lose your sense of direction.  Other times, you know just where you’re going.  And once in a while, you go out a door and come face to face with the one you entered in the first place.  You’ve circled back to the very beginning.

In my own personal experience, the path was this:  I sat down one day and decided to write a story.  It didn’t come easily.  I struggled and flailed to find the right words, the right moments, the right shades of meaning.  I sent that story – written on dingy brown paper with an old typewriter dating from 1918 that I’d found in a second-hand store – off to the Atlantic Monthly.  My mother, by temperament a critical person – used uncharacteristically great restraint when she asked me, gently, if I really thought that story would publish.  It didn’t.  Nor did the next twenty, thirty, or forty.  My father, himself a failed writer – in that he wanted to be a writer and never gave it the time or effort – wasn’t impressed, either.  He never openly discouraged me.  In fact, he introduced my fledlging work to an old friend of his, whom luck would have it was the fiction editor at The Atlantic, Mike Curtis.  Mike had been a student at Cornell where my father was a professor of English.  Mike and my father’s second wife were classmates, hence their connection.  Mike read my story, “A Well-Appointed Room,” about working in a retirement home, something I did when I was nineteen and living in Boulder, Colorado, and while he found it lacking in many key ways, was nonetheless willing to share his surprise with my father, over lunch in Boston, that “it wasn’t all that bad.”  My father was surprised, too, and I soon realized that he’d passed my work to Mike not to encourage me, but to scare me off.  Mike and I developed a reading relationship that didn’t include my father after that point.  I sent Mike every single story I wrote over an eight-year period.  His advice was hugely helpful.  He summed up the problems succinctly.  The story lacks a core, and This reads like two stories, and The narrator’s lack of motivation both confuses and discourages the reader.

I parsed everything he said.  I went over every line in every story with his comments at hand.  Then one day, the revelation came on the heels of his words: What’s needed is story.  By the end, either the protagonist’s understanding of the situation must change, or the reader’s understanding of the situation must.  With this revelation, some small success followed.

Mike helped me get my first publication, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, where my story, “A Painful Shade of Blue,” appeared opposite a poem by Tess Gallagher.  That was in 1995.  Seven years went by before I placed another story.  Maybe I’d gotten ahead of myself, maybe I hadn’t really been ready to publish regularly before.  In 2001, the second publication came, and I’ve been placing stories every year since then.  I won my first contest in 2002, and took first place in three others in 2003, 2007 and 2008.  In 2008 I put a collection together and shopped it around.  It wasn’t until January of 2011 that it found a home.  Of course I was thrilled!  Here was my first book.  However, the publisher turned out to difficult to work with.  I had a second collection he didn’t want to look at.  He told me to wait another year, and I didn’t want to, so I found a new publisher.  That second collection came out in May 2013.  Now my first novel will arrive in October, again with She Writes Press.

The transition to book publishing has been a hard one.  Where I’m supposed to feel successful, I do not, because the two books haven’t sold all that well.  Each book has won at least one award, and earned a number of glowing reviews.  But I still don’t feel at the top of my game by any means.  I find myself recalling the good old days when just getting a story placed felt like a huge achievement.

So, I’m back to square one, asking myself what I’m doing this for.  It’s certainly not the money.  There’s been very little of that.  It’s certainly not the prestige, because outside of a handful of devoted readers, no one knows me from Eve.  It’s not for the ego boost when my author ranking struggles to keep its head above water.

I began writing because I loved language.  Then I learned to love stories and the idea of story.  Then I tinkered with narrative voice, and eventually wrote my novel which addresses the difference between religion and faith.  I hope it’s an important book.  So much of the world is a mess because of religion and religious intolerance.  If it fails commercially, I’ll get over it.  If it struggles along, that’ll be okay, too.  And if it does brilliantly, then what?  Do I stash my keyboard in the closet and never compose another sentence?  Probably not.  I’ll just keep doing what I’ve done for decades, which is to find the best way to handle all the complex components of the human condition, and then offer it up for consideration.  That’s my immutable truth, my center.  The place to which I’ll always return, no matter what.

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  • Mary Ellen Latela

    Anne, thanks for the stunning, gutsy story about the long struggle so far. It reminded me of my "7 years of famine" - writing diligently resulting in a pile of manuscripts, trying different genres, etc., with no acceptances. Then a day came and I had a thought - perhaps a thought CAME to me - that with my writing I ought to try to help others.... a couple of years later, the first book was accepted for publication. 

    Isn't the point to identify the gift and to keep working at it? If you had a chunk of marble, chipped away at it but it didn't seem to be taking form, you wouldn't discard the marble. Perhaps, after reflecting on the possibilities you would come to the point of "connecting" with the material and you would begin to pull away everything that was unnecessary and a la Michelangelo, uncover the art inside the marble.

    In your case, your Dad's friend turned out to be a wonderful connection, but only after you saw him as an ally and mentor, then YOU and HE looked at your work not from the view of parents or other loved ones but as two professionals. I think I told you I had to hide my writing for a time because of "issues at home." I had to write anyway, and write fearlessly!

    Thanks so much for sharing your story, which means a great deal to me, and I imagine to many other writers. 

    Best wishes, Mary @LatelaMary, [email protected]

  • Michelle Cox

    Keep going, Anne!  You're a wonderful writer.  What is Found, What is Lost is on my bedside table to be read soon.  I have to admit, I read some bits - and loved it!  

    You're right, we have to keep going because we love to write.  I just hope I don't have regrets at the end of my life.  It's hard to keep everything in balance and always know what the priority is.   

  • Barbarann Ayars

    Heh! Philippa, I'm so north of seventy the air is thinner! Living an extremely full life I couldn't fit in time to write. Three years at the knee of a gifted instructor and two years writing a memoir places me at sealed doors pounding to get in. Nothing so absorbs me as writing. The stew of story satiates my appetite to spread the page with who I was, who shaped me, who I am now and who I will be. You and I have lessons to share, hard won truths to tell and a cadre of thirty to forty somethings in charge as gatekeepers with bills to pay. Well, they too hope for success in a really challenging business. And Dana, I laughed aloud at your last sentence, it rings with Truth in every fiber of my being. But i' nowhere near full circle. I'm still trying to get out of the gate! What, did I think I'm going to live forever? Stay tuned!

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for this lovely reflection.  Sounds like you have a voice full of conviction and the world would be poorer not hearing it.  Keep going.  I have a non-fiction book I wrote back in 2009.  I now embark on my first novel.  I publish online through HubPages, but not am writing some essays to submit to writing contests. 

    I agree that it's hard to say one's a writer by vocation, especially if one's writing doesn't exactly make us a "living" and we need to supplement with "day jobs."  Yet, I love language, too. You are brave to tackle the subject you do, and perhaps those subjects will see a rise of interest that your following my rise with it.  I hope so.   May unforseen blessings come your way as you remain committed to your calling. ~:0)

  • Dana K. Schwartz

    Mmmm, sigh. I hear you, I understand you and I empathize with you. Writing is beautiful, agonizing, fulfilling and sometimes leaves me feeling empty, deranged and utterly confused. But I can't stop, short of cutting off my hands or ripping out my tongue. It's my poison that keeps me high, it's the poison that curses me and courses through my veins and keeps me tied to the last word wondering if it's the LAST word or the BEST word or another word that will never be read. 

  • Patricia Robertson

    I've heard that until you publish your 5th or 6th book you aren't taken seriously. Don't know if this is true but it helps keep me going. It's very hard to get noticed in today's over-saturated market. It's sad how sometimes mediocre books are successful while excellent works waste away unnoticed. I don't know what the answer is as I'm in the same boat as you. I just keep writing and learning and doing what seems right for each day. :)

  • Philippa Anne Rees

    This resonates strongly. I have had a similar trajectory, and come full circle. I am not sure that awards really help find readers. I have had four finalist stories in the last year and two book awards but few readers. The diminishing belief in success ( and I am not talking hordes or income)does erode conviction. But I started North of seventy so perhaps fatigue comes quicker. I have more ideas and projects begun than ever but now the actual writing ( which never had a stop button) is undermined although I think it gets better. The interface between writer and the 'market' is a kind of abyss that only a reader bridges.