Kathy Leonard Czepiel: This Way to the Back Door

I’m delighted to host as my first guest author of 2013 Kathy Leonard Czepiel–the author of A Violet Season, which Kirkus Reviews included on their list of the Best Fiction of 2012. She’s the recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and her short fiction has appeared in Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, and CALYX. Kathy teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. I love her story, in no small part because it mirrors mine (just substitute “lawyer” for “teacher”), and conveys what I so want 1st Books readers to walk away with: that you don’t need to know anyone or follow any particular path, that the road to publication is almost always longer than we expect, and that it’s the journey itself that matters. Happy writing in the New Year! – Meg

Many writers have done things the way they were supposed to. Somehow, they knew in college that they should find a mentor. Because they had a mentor, they knew to apply to MFA programs. Because they earned the MFA, they then had other mentors, who introduced them to agents and wrote beautiful blurbs for their first books and bought them champagne. I wrote fiendishly as a child and had my first publication in Cricket magazine at the age of ten. I took a couple of creative writing workshops in college. But I never got the memo about How to Become a Writer (though I did read Lorrie Moore’s story of the same name). Instead, as often seems to be the case in my life, while all the people who are appropriately dressed are drinking cocktails in the ballroom, I’m sneaking in the back door, hoping no one will notice how I got in.

Aside from doing the MFA, I could have taken one other “supposed to” route: move to Manhattan (if you’re younger than me, substitute Brooklyn), slave away at an entry-level job at a publishing house, write in an unheated railroad flat, and subsist on ramen noodles until being discovered by The New Yorker. But I didn’t do that either. In fact, I was forty-six years old when my debut novel, A Violet Season, came out last summer.

Instead of spending my twenties writing, I took an uncharted, random course. I followed a guy to Buffalo, ran back home, worked as a reporter, earned an MA in literature, took a job in public relations, married a different guy (the right one), and embarked on a road trip to Colorado that lasted six years. In those six years, I turned thirty, taught public high school, bought a house, and had two kids. All that time, I hardly wrote at all. To be honest, I wasn’t ready to say anything. It wasn’t until we had relocated back east and my kids were out of diapers and I was settled into the part-time teaching job I have now held for an astonishing nine years that I began to write again. Little by little, my short stories were published, first in a very small online magazine when no one was reading online. Then in a very small print journal, then one with a slightly larger circulation, and so on, until I’d had enough encouragement to decide it was time to write a novel.

One can work on a short story for a very long time without feeling it’s “finished,” but short stories have at least one thing going for them: they generally run somewhere between ten and twenty-five pages. When you are working on a story, it’s all there in front of you, in one whole piece. A novel is not like that. A novel is a big, floppy thing with sleeves and trouser cuffs and socks hanging out of the suitcase of itself, and even when you sit on it you cannot tuck it all in. It cannot be written in fits and starts. It cannot be abandoned for several days or weeks and returned to, not easily. The point at which I decided to write a novel was the point at which I had to confront yet another thing I was “supposed to” do: write every day.

I am here to tell you—at this point, you will not be surprised—that I did not write every day. Not nearly. What I did was write every day for the whole summer of 2006. I wrote the first draft of my novel from beginning to end (all the while trying not to cringe at how terrible it was, just to keep going). It was my own personal NaNoWriSum. Then my teaching year began, and I filed and backed up my first draft and returned to making a living. I kept writing, every Saturday morning, but mostly short stories.

In the summer of 2007, I wrote my second draft. In the summer of 2008, I wrote my third, which was supposed to be my last, but I realized I needed one more draft. Summer of 2009. Then I spent a year pitching my manuscript to agents. I had no personal referrals (was I supposed to?). In November of 2010, an agent called to say she wanted to represent me and my book. She sold it quickly to Simon & Schuster, and then we were in production for eighteen months. Twenty-four years after graduating from college with my BA in English literature, I finally saw my first book in print. I don’t regret having taken that journey. It was the way I had to do it.

Maybe you are still young enough to be called a “young writer.” Maybe you have figured out how to salvage an hour or two out of every day to write. Maybe you have the right degree or a friend at a New York agency or a famous mentor who will pave your way. That’s wonderful! But if you don’t, come on around the corner with me. The back door is here, up these chipped cement steps. Watch out for the sharp edge on that iron railing, and don’t trip over the garbage can—sorry, the lighting isn’t so great back here. One more step… Do you have the doorknob? Let’s go! – Kathy Leonard Czepiel