I am SO delighted to host my SheWrites.com pal, Cassandra Dunn, and celebrate the publication of her debut novel, The Art of Adapting. Publisher’s Weekly calls the novel “a lively, engaging, and heartfelt tale of learning how to cope with change… thoughtful and touching.” Cassie received her MFA in creative writing from Mills College. She was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. I’m looking forward to her reading at the Books Inc. Alameda store Thursday, August 14. – Meg
I wrote my first short story in 4th grade, and I was hooked. From then on I scribbled stories and essays in notebooks or typed them up on an old typewriter. I wrote them, read them, patted myself on the back, and put them away. I have a rusty old file cabinet in my garage, 4 drawers full of decades of writing that not one other soul has ever seen. Fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, plays, poetry. I tried it all. I loved it all. I had zero confidence that anyone else in the world would.
My high school English teachers encouraged me to pursue writing, and I did. I majored in creative writing, and graduated with a lot of work under my belt, but did nothing with it. I sent in an essay to a magazine, received a hand-written reply from the editor suggesting a few revisions, and tucked the submission away as a failure without even attempting a rewrite. Then repeated this scenario again with a different article for a different magazine, shutting the door on myself before anyone else had a chance.
I got a job as an editor, because that was as close to a writer as I felt comfortable calling myself. But I still kept writing. I worked at UC Berkeley, and they had a writing competition that was open to staff as well as students. I took a chance and submitted. And won. I read my essay aloud at an awards ceremony, and I was so nervous that I don’t remember a single thing about that day, but I knew that it was time. Time to get serious about writing. Time to put myself out there. I applied to one MFA program, and figured if I didn’t get in, that’d be a sign that it wasn’t for me. I got in.
I worked full-time as an editor while attending school full-time for my MFA. It was a crazy schedule: work 8-3, rush across town for class until 8pm, back home to log on and finish my last two hours of work, up past midnight doing my schoolwork. Repeated day after day for two years. I gave up downtime, time with friends, sleep. I had three free minutes a day. And I absolutely loved it. Two years of total immersion in writing and reading, of being surrounded by writers so good that I had no idea why they’d need an MFA at all. I came down with mono and never missed a single class. I was determined not to lose my focus on writing.
By the time I completed the program, I was burned out. I put writing aside to rest, reconnect with friends, fall in love. Then it was time to buy a house, plan my wedding, have kids. Life got busy, and in no time at all I’d gotten away from the one thing that had always made me happy, and I wasn’t happy. My husband traveled increasingly for work, and I was alone: a stay-at-home mom, freelance editing while caring for my children, feeling adrift and anxious, exhausted at the end of every day with nothing to show for it. My marriage was stalled, slowly disintegrating, and I was scared. Scared to start over. Scared to raise my children alone. Scared to admit I’d failed. So I started writing about it. Motherhood, marriage, divorce, failure, fear, and glimmers of hope. I wrote essays, stories, screenplays. I wrote without inhibition, because no one was going to see any of it. And then I decided to take a risk and show some of it to the world.
I submitted short stories to literary journals, prepared for mountains of rejection. And mixed in with the silence and “not for us” replies, there were a few acceptances. There is nothing like that first moment of seeing your name in print. It makes all the years of doubt and failure evaporate. It makes it all worth it. And it makes you want more.
I submitted a novel to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It made it to the semifinal round. I sent it out to fifty or sixty agents, and all of them passed on it. But I wasn’t deterred. I had yet to make a dime as a writer, but I could see it now, the dream, the way it could maybe, possibly, one day become a reality.
When my husband moved out, I put the pressure on myself. I was looking down the barrel of returning to a full-time job as an editor, wondering who’d watch my kids before and after school, how they’d adjust to not only having their dad move out but having me gone most of the day, not knowing how I’d ever squeeze writing time into a full-time working and almost full-time single-parenting schedule. I knew, as I started working on The Art of Adapting, that it was a “now or never” situation. I wasted no time. I was disciplined and methodical. I wrote during every free moment in that first year as a single mom. I wrote more short stories, chasing publication, knowing that I needed more publishing credits on my query letter once the new novel was done. I wrote out of fear, out of longing, out of hope, and I put it all on the page. I didn’t tell many people what I was working on. I introduced myself as an editor, because I was still freelance editing, revising other writers’ novels and memoirs, keeping my skills up and making new contacts for future editing gigs and hoping I wouldn’t need them.
I polished, cut, revised, rewrote, and reshaped The Art of Adapting, until I could think of nothing else to tweak. I assembled a list of my top agent choices, and was signed by one of the first I queried. We began an extensive revision together. One week after the mediator said, in our divorce proceedings, “You’ll need to return to work full-time, to become self-supporting,” we sold The Art of Adapting. The dream was no longer a dream. I removed editor from my bio, and put author there instead.
It’s been an unnecessarily long road to get here, mostly because I had a habit of getting in my own way. But I like to think that it happened when it was meant to happen. That I got my big break just in time. And also that it was destined to happen in front of my daughters, once they were old enough to understand, so that it might shape their own self-images, so they won’t hold themselves back when it’s their turn to chase a dream. – Cassandra