It is a truth universally acknowledged that for most people who want to write, the urge begins early in life.
So it was with me. I can’t remember a time when I was young when I didn’t want to be a writer, even when I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I just knew I loved reading, and the natural partner to that was making up my own stories. I’m not sure where that came from. My parents weren’t readers; the only books we had in our house when I was growing up were the ones in my room. But I was a voracious reader in our library at Bagley Elementary School (my favorite books were the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series) (yes, I am that old), and lying in bed at night I used to pretend my hands were the characters and I would act out stories with them (most of which ended in finger/thumb fistfights accompanied by much tongue-clucking sound effects).
One day my father brought home an old monster manual typewriter from his office. As soon as I started playing with it, I realized from the letters that appeared through its raucous clacking that I had found my instrument, the same way a pianist is moved by the note made by the first touch of cool ivory on a keyboard. At one point, somebody gave me a toy printing press—surely an act of almost psychic precognition—and I started printing up my little stories.
My reading habits were helped along by my painful, almost pathological shyness while growing up. It seriously curtailed my social development, but gave me all the time I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. While other kids were out playing sports or going on dates, I was the quintessential bookworm, holed up at home discovering new authors and plowing through as much of their work as I could find.
As I grew older and life took shape for me with more clarity, I followed the well-trodden path of young writers everywhere. (I hate the term “aspiring writer” . . . to paraphrase a certain short green Jedi master: write or do not write, there is no aspire.) I wrote my stories and sent them out, got my rejections, revised the stories, and sent them out again. Occasionally I wrote a poem that was also rejected, but for me, fiction was where the heavy lifting of literature took place, so that’s what I concentrated on, with the aim of working my way up to writing novels.
I sent stuff out; I got it back. Once in a blue moon, I placed a story with some small journal or other, and that was enough to keep me going for a while. But for the most part, I sent work out; I got work back. This was pre-internet, so there were no online publication opportunities. There was no online, no internet, no word processing, just a typewriter and the US mail.
I kept at it despite the rejections, which is what people tell you to do. It goes out, it comes back. Sooner or later, I believed, if something was good enough, it would find a home.
Stories went out, they came back.
Then novel drafts went out, and they came back.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Finally, one day, when I was in my thirties, I thought all my hard work had paid off. I had written a mystery novel (The Ramp of the Chinese Dog), and after making the rounds of agents, I found one who accepted me. He was the real deal, the guy who sold a pair of books that became the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno. I thought I was in.
I went to meet him in New York City, taking the bus down from Binghamton, where I was living at the time. He told me he was “cautiously optimistic”; I remember the words to this day, as well as his soothing voice. He believed in the book. He believed in me. My spirits soared. Success was in sight.
Except now he was the one sending the manuscript out and getting it back. Periodically he would send me the pile of rejection notes he got from publishers, and they were not helpful (but were, gallingly, peppered with typos, grammatical errors, and misinformation about the book).
Finally, after three years of this, he returned the manuscript to me. “Sorry,” he said. “I like the book, but I just can’t do anything more with it.”
I sent him another manuscript that I had written in the meantime. He sent that one back, too. “Sorry, no.”
I was crushed.
After trying to break into publication for all of my twenties and most of my thirties, experiencing virtual nonstop rejection, I was back where I started. Cynthia Ozick writes about the little holy light like a pilot light that keeps a writer going. Mine went out.
This writing life must not be for me, I decided. I’m just not good enough. Don’t have what it takes. So I gave up writing fiction. It was painful, even devastating. I had failed at the one thing I had wanted to do since I was little.
Failure: a terrible word for someone in love with words.
But I still thought I had some chops as a writer, just not a fiction writer; I had already worked several public relations jobs. In what I now understand was despair-fueled self-flagellation in penance for my failure, I joined a small advertising agency as a copywriter. If I can’t publish the stuff I want, I thought, I’ll become a hack. I turned away from literature; I turned away from reading. I turned away from writing about important subjects and instead churned out dreck like copy for rebate ads for Masonite paneling, and news releases for small town jewelry stores.
And yet I did well in that world. Working freelance after getting fired from the ad agency for having a bad attitude (big surprise), I wrote reports and proposals and video scripts for companies like General Electric and IBM. I once wrote a video program promoting military attack helicopters for two wild-eyed crazies at IBM who ranted about the joys of “killing tanks” like a couple of tweakers playing video games.
When my wife and I moved to New York City so she could take a job teaching at Long Island University in Brooklyn, I found more work there. I wrote grant proposals and project summaries and donor appreciation letters for the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center Fund in upper Manhattan. I took a job as speechwriter for the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and wrote literally hundreds of speeches, articles, testimonies, and newspaper editorials on AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, window falls, pit bulls, child-care centers, and restaurant inspection scandals, among other public health issues. I wrote op-eds on needle-exchange programs for the New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The commissioner was delivering my speeches in Washington to Congressional committees; the mayor of New York was using my speeches to promote anti-smoking legislation at Sloan-Kettering.
It came to pass that working at such a high level of productivity and visibility, the writing I was doing for others relit that little holy pilot light. I started thinking about returning to fiction, and about writing under my own name. About the importance of stories in our lives.
The other thing that happened around this time was the birth of my grandson Jamie, whom I’ve mentioned before and whose presence had profound effects on me and everyone around him.
Except as soon as I thought, Man, I’d really to like do some imaginative writing again, the equal and opposite thought arose: Why? Do you really want to enter that world of rejection again? Seriously?
The answer, of course, was no. As much as I wanted to write fiction again, I couldn’t bear the thought of sending my work out and getting back into the cycle of rejection, especially after working so hard to wrestle back my confidence. So I resisted the urge, and instead retreated to private journal entries that alternately (1) agonized over my need to write fiction, and (2) scolded myself for even thinking about giving in to it.
But here was the problem: that little pilot light? It was on again. And the pressure to write fiction continued to build, along with my conflicted feelings about what that would mean.
When I started to have angry thoughts about pushing people off of subway platforms, I knew I had to do something.
So I screwed my courage to the sticking point and started another novel. Not a mystery, but a mainstream book about a group of people who lived together in one house in an effort to create a new type of family. I learned to put out of my mind any thoughts about what I would do with the manuscript once I finished it—and once I started, I knew I would finish. I brought to this new project all the disciplined work habits and writing skills that I had honed over the years I spent writing other people’s stuff. It took a few years, but the result was a novel, The House of Grins.
But what to do with it?
A friend put me in touch with an editor he knew at one of the big NYC publishing houses. When I called the editor, she told me to send her the manuscript, and if she “really loved it” she would recommend publishing it. Her tone of voice dripped with the kind of derisive smarm very few can match outside NYC publishing; it told me the chances of her “loving it” were somewhere between zero and fuhgedaboudit. To spite her, I decided not to send anything (I showed her!).
In the interregnum between my fleeing from imaginative writing and returning to it—a ten-year gap—a new development had begun in publishing. Prompted by advances in technology, the self-publishing movement was just starting to take off in the ‘90s, apart from the dreaded “vanity press” industry. I discovered that I could take back the means of production, like independent filmmakers and almost every other artist.
But more: in those ten years, I grappled with what success as a writer really meant, and more importantly what it wasn’t. I met editors, and became an editor myself, and realized how capricious and unpredictable the process really is.
I came through that decade of despair by learning that—yes—the writing and the changed qualities of mind and heart that accompany writing really are more important than the faux approval suggested by acceptance by others. As if that insight broke some self-imposed spell, in the years since I fantasized pushing people off subway platforms, I’ve published seven novels (six in the Martin Preuss mystery series), two books of poetry, a handful of stories, and dozens of poems in print and online journals.
That voice shouting in your ear, the voice my friend Jerry van Rossum personifies as “Sid”—Self-Inflicted Doubts—never goes away. But with practice and wisdom, you can silence it long enough to get some good work done.
And in the end, that’s really all that matters.