Micah Perks won an NEA grant and The New Guard Machigonne Fiction prize for excerpts of her new novel, What Becomes Us, which is out this week and which Elizabeth McKenzie calls “exhilarating and terrifying … is a novel I love for its wild beauty, its offbeat inventiveness, its effervescent language, and the artfulness with which it has been shaped … a brilliant novel.” Micah has also published the novel, We Are Gathered Here, and a memoir, Pagan Time. She’s been nominated five times for The Pushcart Prize, and co-directs the creative writing program at University of California at Santa Cruz.- Meg
Micah Perks: Here’s to Mad Persistence!
About ten years ago, I was writing in a white heat. You know those rare moments where it’s just working, there’s more pressure to continue than to start, it seems easy? I always feel a little caffeinated, whether I’ve been drinking tea or not, and I begin to sweat. I know, glamorous. Anyway, I’d struggled through the first half of a new novel and then, in just a few blurred, sweaty months, I’d finished what I thought was a strong full draft.
Then the IT people at the university where I work told me they needed to update my email account. I brought the computer in. I was still wandering around in an extended dream state, mumbling to myself about the book, scribbling notes on scrap paper, getting ready to revise. But days went by, and I didn’t hear from the IT people.
I called and left a message. The next day I called again, left another message, told them I really needed to get back to work. Called again the third day, annoyed. On the fourth day they finally called back.
I have bad news, the guy said.
You’re still not done?
I erased your hard drive by mistake.
I’ve been trying to retrieve your information, but it’s gone.
Yes, I’m sorry.
Okay, I said, and hung up.
I only had a back-up of the first half. I’d lost the second half of the novel along with the daily journal I’d kept for over ten years. I was stunned. And ashamed that I hadn’t done a better job backing up. I didn’t talk about it. I told almost no one. I stopped keeping a journal, and I stopped working on my novel. I worked on other things, some stories. I half-heartedly took out my MFA thesis and tried to revise that. It was actually easy not to work on the novel. I was busy with my family, and my teaching, and so two sadish years tumbled by.
Then, in 2007, my friend and colleague, the writer Karen Yamashita, called me. She said the National Endowment for the Arts applications were due the next day.
You should apply, she said.
Eh, I don’t think so, I said. I’ve applied like five times, and I’ve never gotten it.
I have a feeling this is your year, she said. Use the first chapter of your novel.
I applied, mostly because there’s no entrance fee and the application is super easy.
Several months later, at about ten at night, I got another call, this time from Dana Gioia, the poet. I thought he was calling because he wanted to read in the series I host, and we had a confusing conversation for several minutes until I understood that he was the chairmen of the National Endowment of the Arts and he was telling me I’d won an NEA. Again, I was stunned.
And that award gave me the impetus to take up my novel again.
I completed a new draft of my novel, showed it to my writing group, they were totally supportive, but then my agent sent it out and couldn’t find any takers. I told her to stop sending it out. I decided to revise it to make it more palatable, less difficult. I revised for another year or so. I brought it back to my writing group.
We were sitting at a picnic table in the backyard of one of the writers. I sat down, and there was this awkward silence, like when you’ve gotten a really bad haircut, and then people tried to be encouraging anyway. But it was clear–they hated my revisions. I went home and cried. Eventually though, I asked myself what I had loved most about my novel, and I realized it was just the experimental elements I’d taken out. I started again. The new version, ten years and countless revisions after I began, is coming out this month.
When I look back at those many years, often really hard, I see some stunning bad luck, some stunning good luck, a lot of stubborn, unwillingness to give up, but mostly I see my writer friends, who were always honest and supportive and never gave up on me. So I’m thinking about all the support I received over so many years, and how it kept me going. Here’s to friends who believe in you!
And I’m also thinking about other women who’ve struggled to publish, maybe without the support I had. It’s not something we talk about that much—mostly we celebrate success. As we should! But I also wanted to raise a virtual glass of champagne to those of you writing against all odds, not giving up, even though maybe there’s more rejection than accolades. Remember Emily Dickinson only published a few poems in her lifetime! Remember Melville published almost nothing after Moby Dick bombed. Here’s to mad persistence! Cheers! – Micah