On Luck

And you may ask yourself
Well…how did I get here?
– Talking Heads

The first time I spoke with my agent (before she was my agent), she asked me if the book I had sent her was my first.

I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. I think, at the time, I gave her a qualified “yes” – because it was the first novel-length work I had ever completed. I had finished two or three short stories in the past, and my 2010 NaNoWriMo novel had a handful of chapters left to go before I abandoned it; but this was the first time I had diligently written, completed, and polished something. It was, in a sense, my first serious work as a writer.

When my agent asked me that question, I was 48 years old, and I had been writing for 43 years.

I have a sense, sometimes, when I think about that – more than four decades of making up stories before I got anywhere near anyone who could help me become a professional writer – that I somehow squandered all that time. Shouldn’t I have regrets? Shouldn’t I be railing about having wasted my life?

I can’t. My life has been fascinating. And utterly distracting.

Writing has been a constant for me, since the first time I told myself a story when I couldn’t fall asleep. It has been everything from entertainment to therapy. I’ve stopped, now and then – it’s an accurate indicator that something is very wrong in my life, actually; it’s hard to write when you’re lying to yourself about where you are – but apart from that, I have always written.

What I didn’t do, for those 43 years, was spend a lot of time writing seriously. Generally I would have some story or another in my head, but I would never finish. I’d write the beginning, then revise it six or seven times until I was thoroughly sick of the whole idea. I’d skip around, writing only the interesting scenes, and never have a complete plot. I’d have vague ideas about story setup, but no idea how it ought to play out.

And through all of that, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote (and, yes, read and read and read as well). As I wrote, I learned. I practiced dialogue and description. I developed a voice.

I also lived a life. There is little, I think, that can teach a person about creating characters more than living a life. It’s not just getting to know other people, good and bad, and being exposed to people with different backgrounds, goals, and beliefs. Some of the most useful things I’ve learned about character are from my own failings. Why do we sometimes trust the wrong people? Why, when we think of ourselves as basically good people, do we sometimes do things that are selfish or just flat-out bad? Why are we afraid of things that are not frightening, and arrogant about things that should make us cautious?

Why do we hurt people we love, despite being convinced – even in the thick of it – that we would do anything to keep from hurting them?

I credit NaNoWriMo for preparing me to grab the opportunity I was given. In 2010, I participated for the first time. I had half a scene and a few characters, and I wrote 50,000 words in a month. And…wow, it wasn’t bad. I gave it several months, working on finishing it; but I eventually let it go. I didn’t love it enough. Part of me worried it was the same old habit: starting and never finishing. Maybe it was.

But in November of 2011, I wrote a different book. And this one, as I revised it, did not leave me bored. I held out bits of it to other people. I began to think that maybe – just maybe – this might be a book worth finishing. Worth putting out into the world.

I told myself I’d take six months to query. It actually took me a day, although I didn’t know it at the time. I queried two agents my first night (email is a luxury without which I never would have worked up the nerve to do any of this), and I ended up signing with one of them. It was not the smooth, yes-or-no six-months-of-form-rejections I had expected, nor was it the instant WE LOVE YOU PLEASE SIGN WITH US painless experience I had fantasized about.

Talk about living a life – the querying process taught me a lot about my own vulnerabilities, and my own belief in myself. I had a very bad spell in the midst of it. I questioned whether I could still write, or if I’d ever been able to write at all. I wondered what writing meant to me if that dream I had always had – that I hadn’t really started working toward until November of 2011 – was never going to come true.

I’ve talked to a number of writers about the querying process, and one thing we all agree on: nobody knows how they are going to cope with rejection until it happens. In the end, I sat down and started writing pieces I never intended to share with anyone. I wrote purely for myself. And I learned that even if that was the only writing I would ever do, that was enough.

In a way, I really have been lucky. I have only been a serious writer since late 2011 – just over three years. I have done incredibly well so far for such a newbie.

But in reality, I have been preparing for this my whole life, since I was that insomniac child, that earnest college student, that woman making passionate mistakes year after year after year. It’s far more accurate to say that yes, I’ve been a writer for more than four decades, and that luck, in my case, required finally taking the risk of seeing what I could really do. I can’t regret that it has taken this long, because this is how long it has taken.

And now I know, no matter what happens, I will always write.