Kelly O’Connor McNees guest posted here when her first novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, an Indie Next Pick and O Magazine Summer Reading List selection, released. I’m rerunning that post in celebration of the publication of her third novel, Island of the Doves, which released earlier this month. – Meg
Like Caroline Leavitt, I learned as a young kid that I had a knack for writing. In elementary school, teachers told me my stories were imaginative and insightful, and I knew I was on to something. I can still remember standing at my fifth-grade teacher’s desk and defending the title of one of my stories when she questioned its relevance. The story was about two friends who are constantly fighting but in the end come to peace because they realize they aren’t the same. I wanted to call it “Seesaw.”
“But there’s no seesaw in the story,” my teacher said, confused.
Ten-year-old Kelly sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s a metaphor.”
So much confidence! I look back on that from where I stand now and think, where did that confidence come from? (And can I get some of it back, please?) The answer is that nobody had told me no yet. Adults were, generally, kind of impressed by what I could do, and they told me so. So I kept doing it, kept churning out the pages, and while the practice made the end product better, what I really loved was the act of doing it, the sitting in a room and making up a story, the bending of sentences into shapes, like a clown making balloon animals. I didn’t worry very much about who would read my work or what they would think. I knew it was good.
Then I went to college, and college treated my confidence like a wrecking ball treats a building. My fellow English majors all seemed to come from families with more money than mine, to have grown up in places with outstanding schools. In writing workshop, classmates compared their writing styles to the styles of contemporary writers I had never heard of. All the male students seemed to be writing about fishing trips with their fathers, but the stories weren’t really about fishing, they explained. They were about what it means to be a Man, with a capital M.
Oh, I thought, glancing in terror at my own collection of stories. One was about a couple of street performers in the Florida Keys, training their son to take over the act so their house trailer wouldn’t get repossessed. Another was about an old widow who works at a department store makeup counter and feels appalled that the young women of today are so unencumbered by the rigid manners and hair arrangements and girdles of the past. At the end, she comes to work without any makeup on and lies down in the mall parking lot to take a nap.
In short, my stories were wrong, wrong, wrong. They weren’t stories about me, and they weren’t stories about anything that began with a capital letter (Gender or Freedom or Knowledge). They were just stories about people I made up in my head. So I concluded I wasn’t a writer after all.
I stuck with the classes but didn’t enjoy them. I entered a few contests but never won and interpreted that as a message from the universe that I should quit. In that especially narcissistic way that adolescents have, I thought quitting would be this monumental moment—how could I quit writing?!—but it wasn’t. I stopped. No one noticed.
I was sad. I tried to live life the way everyone else seemed to be doing it. I tried to forget how much I had liked writing. I got jobs, I quit jobs. I read approximately ten thousand novels.
Then I met my husband. In one of those early-relationship conversations where you reveal embarrassing stories about yourself, I confessed my secret past. “Well, I think you should try again,” he said.
“Nope,” I said. “Nope, nope, nope.” I was nothing if not committed to giving up.
I said nope for about five more years and kept hating my jobs. Then my husband’s job took us to an out-of-the-way town in Ontario for two years where winter is approximately fourteen months long. I found work as a nanny and, for some reason I probably will never know, started reading about Louisa May Alcott. I was writing a novel about her in my brain for a while before it occurred to me to copy the words down on paper. For a long time I just called it a “project” or “this thing I’m working on.” I had to sneak around before I figured out what my cheeky little self was doing. Eventually I had a novel and, amazingly, it got published.
I still feel like I have no business being a writer, but who cares? Over time I have come to realize that everyone in those writing workshops was full of shit—the teachers and the students. I had some great teachers—really, really great teachers I admire—but they were full of shit in the way that all writing teachers have to be. Because the teachers are in the front of the room, they have to tell us what the rules are. They are paid to know the rules. But the only real rule (and some of them are honest about this) is, Does the story work? Does the reader care what happens to the characters? Does the reader keep turning the pages?
And speaking of being full of shit, I was definitely full of shit. What a quitter! What a baby! I gave up on the one thing in life I really loved to do because some frat boys wrote stories about fishing. Well, never again. Writing is a business full of rejection and to keep going, you have to find a way to push past it. I can’t control whether my novels will continue to be published, but I can control the act of writing them, of improving my craft and creating the best novels I know how to create. I can quit quitting and get to work. – Kelly