Robin Black: There Was Only Moving Forward

Robin Black’s debut novel, Life Drawing, is an Indie Next pick for August, and on the long list for the Flaherty-Dunnun First Novel Prize. Claire Messud calls it “at once quiet and memorable.” Robin’s story collection, If I loved you, I would tell you this, was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. Her stories and essays can be found on The Rumpus, O. Magazine, and The Chicago Tribune. And if you are giving any thought to MFA programs, this post is for you. – Meg

Life Drawing CoverBy the time I applied to the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, I was just shy of forty-one years old and had been writing, after a long, long hiatus, for a little under two years. I decided on an MFA because I very much wanted to learn more craft – for which I’d discovered a strange love. All talk about such things as narrative distance and point of view felt like my native language to me. I couldn’t get enough.

But there was something else as well, what I still call the Wizard of Oz syndrome. I wanted the professional stamp. (If you have a Diploma, you must be a Writer!) I had been home with my kids since having my first at twenty-five, and I had come to recognize the dismissive way in which my claim to be writing was met by almost everyone. It was a dismissal that came with the unspoken words materializing in the air: “Oh, how sweet. You’re a wife and mother, and now you’re trying to write.” They might as well have pat me on the head.

And the biggest problem with that reaction was that I half believed the attitude behind it myself. It was incredibly hard to take myself seriously, especially as the rejections for my early stories began to arrive. And arrive. And arrive.

I didn’t stop writing though, even with my doubts. I was writing all the time – and I do mean all the time. My husband and I would go out for dinner and he’d catch me drifting away: “Are you writing?” he’d ask; and the guilty answer was invariably “Yes.” So, I was putting in the time, working away, but I just couldn’t imagine the path that would emerge connecting me, sitting at my desk making up stories that journals would reject, to me, as one of those august and seemingly god-like creatures: An Author.

Whatever the path, though, I thought some structure would help. Structure and a little institutional back-up for the identity I was trying to achieve.

On the first day of the program, a late June day in 2003, I woke up in Asheville, North Carolina, checked out of the B&B where I’d spent a couple of nights, and drove the fifteen or so miles out to Warren Wilson College. The campus was breathtakingly beautiful, a real working farm, and an old one with enormous gnarled trees dotting the backs of the fields, all stretched out in front of distant mountain views. I couldn’t remember ever being more moved by a landscape – or ever being as excited to be part of a place.

As I approached the buildings, I started to see what looked like giant yellow sticky notes posted everywhere, scrawled with the letters MFA, and then arrows. Then MFA Parking, and a final arrow.

I parked. I sat looking out at the campus, the portion in front of me, a formal garden, a manicured emerald lawn. I took a deep breath, got out of the car, turned to enter the building that was festooned with balloons and a few more MFA signs, took maybe five steps, spun around, got back in my car, turned on the engine, and drove away.

It was one of the strangest and in some ways one of the most honest moments of my life. This panic I felt. This sudden tear in the fabric of my resolution and my confidence. An absolutely pure emotion, leading to the logical next act.

I drove over the roads I had just been on, but in the opposite direction, and, in a true mental haze, I followed signs for a Museum – or maybe just a store – of Appalachian Folk Art. I parked, and went in, with no hesitation, no return to my car this time. No problem! I was good at being an observer and a consumer. What I was struggling with was. . .

I honestly didn’t know. I couldn’t sort it through. As I looked at the quilts, and a collection of finely honed wooden hats, I ticked off the anxieties I might be feeling – social, professional, missing my family; but nothing resonated. My panic had lacked any content.

Fight or Flight? It had felt that primal; and I had chosen flight.

The clock was ticking though, the afternoon nearing its deadline for checking in; and I had to either go back, or give up and drive the twelve hours home. There was no middle ground between facing down whatever fear I’d felt and giving into it. No middle ground, and really no choice. For all I had tried to turn back, in reality there was no turning back. There was only moving forward. And I knew it.

When I remember that day now, when I see myself in the car again, driving past those same fields another time, following the arrows, finding some parking, and this time walking into the building, into a new era of my life, there’s a twist. Though I know that it was pure panic I felt that first time, it doesn’t always seem like that now. In my mind, in my memory it often feels more like a kind of tribute I paid to the momentous nature of what I was about to do. As if I returned to my car to give myself just a little more time to be the me I knew so well, before stepping into a completely mysterious role.

But whatever it was I felt, panic or awe, within hours, I was immersed, surrounded by other writers, and on the path that I needed to be on, the one I hadn’t been able to imagine, not always a smooth or easy one, but the right one for me. – Robin

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Ellen Sussman: My Summer of Love

Ellen Sussman – my longtime writer-pal (since before either of our first novels released) and regular poker foe (see, e.g., my empty pocketbook) – has a wonderful new novel coming out next week! Christina Baker Kline calls Wedding in Provence “utterly charming and wildly romantic.” And Ellen somehow made time in her VERY busy schedule (read on to see why) to share a bit of wisdom about writing here. Enjoy! – Meg

A Wedding in Provence CoverI’ve been thinking a lot about love these days. My older daughter got married this past weekend. She’s chosen a guy who seems perfect for her – he’s smart, thoughtful, creative, and adores my girl. Gillian is twenty-eight, her fiancé is thirty-three. I am thrilled that they’ve chosen to commit to loving each other for a long time.

In a very odd coincidence of timing, two weeks after my daughter’s wedding (a week from now) my new novel, A Wedding in Provence will be published. No, the book has nothing to do with Gillian’s wedding – she wasn’t even engaged when I wrote it. It’s about a fifty-something-year-old’s wedding. Her twenty-something daughters cause havoc over the course of the wedding weekend. Both of the young women make wrong choices in the search of love. And the mom, who is in the process of making her right choice (she hopes) for love, tries to help her daughters find their way on this complicated path.

Autobiographical? No. None of what happens in the novel happened in my life. (Though my second marriage did take place in France. But my daughters were twelve and fourteen then. There were no romantic interludes or sexual escapades for the girls during our wedding weekend — whew!) But the emotional terrain of the novel – the complicated landscape of love – is all very close to my heart.

We writers do write what we know, even if we’re inventing stories out of thin air. It’s what’s at the heart of those stories that reveals the innermost workings of our psyche. And I think love – finding love, keeping love – is one of the most important accomplishments in our lives. It ain’t easy. I know the failures of love (marriage number one) and the success of real love (marriage number two). My daughters are working out their own loving relationships with their own remarkable guys while I watch and cheer them on.

So maybe it’s not really a coincidence that pub date and wedding date have come at the same time. Love – my daughters search for love, my characters fumblings at love, and my own tending of love – fill the air this summer. – Ellen

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Meg Waite Clayton: In Praise of Writing Friends … and Publishing and Bookselling Ones, Too

No guest today. Just me, since it’s my paperback publication week for The Wednesday Daughters - a sequel of sorts to my New York Times and U.S.A. Today bestselling The Wednesday Sisters, a writing group novel. The Chicago Tribune, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the San Jose Mercury News recommend it for summer reading. I hope you’ll have a look at it. - Meg

The Wednesday Daughters paperback cover

The Wednesday Daughters paperback is in stores now!

The history of my own writing starts with a brown paper lunch bag. My first writing teacher – at a college extension class - dumped its contents out over the table and told us to write for five minutes about anything that spilled out. She swore we wouldn’t have to read (just as the character of Linda does in The Wednesday Sisters when she’s pushing the sisters to write at the picnic table in the park). Then my teacher, Jennifer Allen, called on me to read first.

Which is the good news. If she hadn’t, I’d have ducked out before she could. It had taken all the nerve I had just to get to that class, to admit that, yes, I dreamed of writing novels.

To make a long story short from that point, I’m just going to say it: Ten Years. That’s how long it took me from dumped bag to first novel on bookstore shelves. The thing that kept me going: writing friends. Like the Wednesday Sisters in that second novel, none of my early writing friends was published when we started out, but we now count eight published books between the four of us, and a ninth under contract. We’re a stubborn bunch—which, if you’ve read any of the guest posts I’ve been honored to host on 1st Books, seems to be what it takes.

My Nashville Writing Group -- still my go-to gang

My Nashville Writing Group — still my go-to gang

It took me another five years (and a new agent) to get a second novel published after my first, The Language of Light, sold “modestly” despite having been a finalist for the Bellwether Prize (now the PEN/Bellwether). In the interim, I learned the hard way that while just being published is lovely, book sales are important, too. I’ve come to see that booksellers are the front line in helping new voices find audiences, and I do my best to support the booksellers who support writers. Selling books is as much a labor of love as writing is.

And so is publishing. I know the publishing world can seem impersonal. Believe me, I know what a form rejection looks like. But I also know that most people in publishing stay there because they love books, and work really, really hard.

Which leaves me with readers.

The Wednesday Sisters cover

The Wednesday Sisters

C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” It’s a funny thing to think that a solo activity connects us in ways that little else does. But I know reading has made me feel understood, and helped me understand myself in ways that nothing else does. Writing even more so. I hope that my writing will make you feel understood, too. And I appreciate all the precious time you commit to reading. Without readers, there would be no books. - Meg

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Tracy Guzeman: Writing to please myself, no slippers involved

Tracy Guzeman guest posted here when her debut novel, The Gravity of Birds, released last summer. It releases in paperback the same day The Wednesday Daughters does – next Tuesday! – so I’m rerunning her post to celebrate. When you visit your favorite bookstore next week, please look for us both! - Meg

Gravity of Birds Paperback CoverPeople have asked me what I was doing when I found out my novel was going to be published. I have to confess, that moment has become a pleasant blur. Most likely I was trying to get up from the floor, since I promptly fell out of my chair once I got off the phone with my agent. Quite honestly, I hadn’t expected it to happen.

When it comes to the fortunes, outcomes and successes of friends, I am an absolute optimist. I’m convinced the best things will happen for them, and I’m thrilled when I’m right. It’s only when it comes to myself that my attitude becomes more pragmatic. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Midwest, where the threat of tornadoes required families to have disaster plans at the ready. Maybe I took the Girl Scout motto a little too seriously: “Be prepared.” But no one ever fills in the obvious blank. You aren’t instructed to be prepared for the best; instead, you’re meant to anticipate the worst. That’s the outcome you need to prepare for.

For a long time, that was how I approached my writing. Realistically, getting anything published is difficult. There was no shortage of people anxious to share why it almost never happens: publishing is in a state of flux; it’s difficult to find an agent; bookstores are closing their doors; people don’t take the time to read anymore—they’re too busy catching up on all those television shows they didn’t have time to watch during the week. I had to admit this all sounded logical.

And besides that, the odds were not in my favor. I’d been writing for as long as I could remember. There was nothing I enjoyed doing more. You might think someone with such strong feelings would decide to major in English, get an MFA, intern at a literary magazine, start to publish short stories, gather accolades, move on to a novel. But right out of the gate, I headed in the opposite direction. Fiction writing was wonderful as a creative outlet, but as a vocation? Things didn’t look promising. After an honest self-assessment, I was forced to eliminate even those related occupations that might have helped augment a likely meager writing income. Lacking the quality of patience (and more patience), I couldn’t envision myself as an English teacher. I didn’t have the impartiality, the discipline, or the stomach for journalism, unable to make it through even a standard Hallmark commercial without tearing up. And technical writing seemed to require an affinity for left-brain thinking, a hemisphere I wasn’t sure I possessed. So I majored in landscape architecture. (See previous comment re: “left-brain thinking” and ask, “What were you…?”) All of which meant I was lacking in connections, experience, and training.

But strangely enough, optimism muscled its way into the room. In spite of all the reasons I probably should have, I never abandoned writing, because all the logic in the world doesn’t count for much when you’re doing something you love. I accepted the idea that getting published was unlikely, and found that removing it from the equation was incredibly freeing. Since I was only writing to please myself, I could experiment wildly with structure and form and voice. I created characters I liked, who were sometimes unlikeable, and did despicable things. I knew, that if nothing else, the stories I was weaving together were the stories I wanted to tell. And adhering still to that familiar motto, I focused my energies on working to become a better writer. Be prepared.

Tracy Guzeman author photoI sent stories out sporadically; I entered some contests. I was mentally ready to receive rejections, so when form emails arrived in my inbox, I scanned them, deleted them, then sent the same story out to the next several magazines on my list. I received some positive feedback. My focus remained on working to get better, on finding ways to spend more time doing what I loved. Be prepared. Some of my short fiction found a home. And then, it happened. An agent wanted to represent me. An editor wanted to buy my novel.

So it’s a Cinderella story. Only it’s not. (No slippers involved, unless the bedroom variety count.) It’s tenacity, kismet, serendipity, dumb luck, good timing, a blessing, a fluke, a fortunate confluence of the fates. I’m practically Seabiscuit. Regardless of what you attribute it to, it’s not supposed to happen. But it did. Somehow, my novel got published.

Maybe there is no missing end to that instruction. Maybe the best advice really is “be prepared.” Period. Perhaps that makes me an optimist after all. – Tracy


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Julia Fierro: Success in publishing means being able to publish a next book

Julia Fierro is the author of Cutting Teeth, which was included in Library Journal’s “Spring Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014″ lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine and Marie Claire. She also founded the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop; what started as eight writers meeting in her Brooklyn kitchen has grown into a creative home for over 2000 writers. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop … and you’ll hear a bit more of that in her wonderful post. Enjoy! - Meg

Cutting for Teeth CoverWhen I introduce myself to students at writer’s conferences and literary events, and in the writing workshops at The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop I founded in 2002, I make sure to mention that while Cutting Teeth is my first published novel, it is not the first novel I wrote. Or tried to write, I often add. When I tell the story of how I became a writer, I make sure to include the seven years I spent not writing. Even after all I’ve accomplished, I still feel ashamed of those years spent not writing. Not so much because I didn’t publish in time with my expectations, or write consistently, but because I was so cruel to myself, so impatient, beating myself up daily for not writing. I avoided my students’ requests when they invited me to read with them at the many Sackett Street readings I hosted to celebrate their hard work. I practically lied about the various “projects” I claimed I was working on when I was stuck in a state of paralysis, unable to write for years at a time. I used the F word to describe myself often—failure—until my husband banned it from our apartment. But that didn’t stop me from feeling like one.

While I know that we are all insecure, especially those of us who risk rejection and misunderstanding by sending our perspective out into the world through our creativity, I still find myself envying writers who are, at least, able to appear confident. Until recently, I relied solely on an external sort of confidence—the flush of accomplishment when my work was praised in class, the thrill of winning a writing contest. My first taste of this kind of confidence was when I was accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop when I was 23, an acceptance that allowed me to give myself the permission to think of myself as a Writer with a capital W. For all the talk and recent debate on “to get an MFA” or not, Iowa gave my insecure 23-year-old self the chance to imagine a new story for my life, and I still wonder if I would’ve been able to take that risk in believing myself as a Writer if I hadn’t gone to Iowa. For two years, I’d not only be allowed to talk about reading books, I’d also begin to investigate how to write them, a passion that would transform into the method I’d use in the earliest years of The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.

At Iowa I was surrounded with writers for the first time in my life. I was a blank slate and absorbed craft like a sponge. I had written little, and read even less. I was that annoying eager student in workshop, the one who talked too much, and was too enthusiastic on just about everything. My classmates, despite being just as young as I was, had been writing for many years, were comfortable with the terminology of craft, and were so well-read that I spent almost every afternoon at the library and left with armfuls of contemporary authors I’d never heard of. These were the first writers I’d known. I was raised in a family where the definition of “work” was not synonymous with creativity. And so I adopted the lofty expectations of my Iowa classmates. I would publish before I was thirty years old! I would get a two-book deal! I’d sell film rights and head off on a book tour around the world!

I wrote my first novel at twenty-four (way too young) in 6 months (way too fast), and revised for only another few months (and way too sloppy). I signed with an agent, one of many who came to the Workshop to recruit young writers. After I graduated (my teachers said they had high hopes for me!), I moved to Brooklyn, found a low-paying adjunct teaching position, and my book went out to publishers. It was then rejected again and again for almost a year. But it’s really for the best, I told people (and myself). It wasn’t a very good book, I said. And while this part is true—I’d only been writing for a few years, after all—that truth didn’t lessen the sting. With every pass from another editor, my acceptance at Iowa, the praise I’d experienced there, and the hope my teachers had in me, started to feel like a fluke. The confidence I’d pieced together while earning my MFA suddenly felt like temporary scaffolding. It fell down.

It took seven years worth of teaching hard-working Sackett Street writers—each and every one a model for me as I worked to rebuild my faith in myself as a writer—before I returned to writing with solid commitment. And when I did sit down in front of my computer, I was a better writer. A better person. I needed that time off to grow. I needed to learn how to write.

Julia Fierro bio photoI imagine it would be wiser professionally notto mention those years I spent not writing, years I spent doubting myself so fully that it was torture to pound out a page. But who else is going to tell that story? Many of the successful published writers I hear talk on panels at conferences make it sound as if they are writing machines, as if they haven’t taken a day off from writing in years. Part of my success as a writer was not writing. If I hadn’t spent all those years teaching and reading and editing the work of other writers, I am certain I wouldn’t be the writer, and person, I am today. There are infinite ways to be a writer with a capital W, just as there are infinite ways to tell a story. After so many years of writing and not writing, of failing and succeeding, the best advice I can give my students (and myself) is a reminder that there are many definitions of success. My favorite definition of success as a writer is one I heard at the annual Slice Literary Conference, from author and writing teacher Fiona Maazel, “Success in publishing means being able to publish a next book.” That’s my story for now. – Julia

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Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke: An out of body experience that will keep us grounded

This week’s guest authors, Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke, have been best friends for 25 years even though Liz now lives in San Diego and Lisa in Chicago. They host a blog together, and now they’ve co-written a novel – Your Perfect Life – which is just out from Atria Books! Jen Lancaster calls it “a delicious page-turner,” and Claire Cook and Sarah Jio both call it hilarious. Liz and Lisa have such a lovely (and unusual) story about how their novel found it’s way into print, which to me says a lot about how simply being friendly and generous often circles back to you. Among the good things that came to Liz and Lisa: an editor who wanted to publish their novel, and their agent, Elisabeth Weed – in that order. Enjoy their story, and take a look at Your Perfect Life the next time you poke your head in a bookstore. – Meg

YPLCoverWe always dreamed that when our book launched, it would be featured on a website like Meg Waite Clayton’s. And we have to admit, it feels amazing! But it also feels out of body, like we’re the characters in our novel, masquerading as people they are not. Maybe we feel this way because we have our own blog (formerly, and we’ve made it our mission to support other authors—whose books we’ve devoured for years, the ones that make us act like two teenage girls at a New Direction concert when we get to meet them in person. Each time we come into contact with a Jennifer Weiner or a Liane Moriarty, we wonder when security is going to come, grab us by the collar, and toss us out!

Our path to publishing was a little bit different than most. Even though we worked tirelessly to get published for five years, juggling daytime jobs and families, we still feel like luck played a huge part in how we got our book deal. We love attending author events and it was at one of those book signings that Lisa, at the encouragement of a tremendously supportive author friend, introduced herself to our now editor, Greer Hendricks. At the time, they didn’t discuss our book, just babies and other books, but Greer remembered her. And later, when Liz wrote a post about her favorite books of the year, Greer reached out and personally thanked her. A discussion began about the book we were writing about two childhood friends who wake up the morning after their high school reunion to discover they’ve switched bodies. She said she loved the concept and would read it when we were finished. And a few days after we sent it to her, she emailed to say she wanted to buy it! We realize this isn’t how it usually works. But we’re thankful we came about our deal this way, not only because Greer is an editorial genius that we had longed to work with, but also because it’s another thing that keeps us grounded. It reminds us that you have to keep working hard and eventually, all the pieces will fall into place. But once they do, you better be ready to get in there and prove why they took a chance on you. Yes, a writer needs to have talent. Yes, they need to work their butts off. But we believe luck plays a part too—it certainly did for us.liz and lisa 2014_DebbieFriedrich

So here we are, eighteen months after getting that incredible phone call from Greer (we may have squealed!), pretty much dying from the anticipation of our book launch and tour. This is where it all begins!

We like the fact that we will always consider ourselves just a couple of childhood best friends who are realizing a dream, one that wouldn’t be possible without a combination of the support of other authors and a fantastic team at Atria. At the end of the day, no matter what happens with the launch of Your Perfect Life, we are thankful to have taken this journey together. – Liz and Lisa

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