Terry McMillan calls this week’s guest author, Meredith Maran, “a powerful storyteller with a big heart and a big talent.” Her first novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes, is out this week from Soft Skull Press. Meredith was first published in Seventeen Magazine when she was … 17. She’s since published so many books and articles that you’d think she’s found the easy road to being a writer. Her lovely post is perhaps the most compelling evidence I’ve yet had that none exists. – Meg
Sitting here with my laptop in my, um, lap, pondering the question, “How do writers get started?” I have to laugh. What you’re reading now is the third start I’ve made on this little essay, and I’m still not sure it’ll stick.
And therein lies the story of starting. You start. You stop. You start. You stop again. And then suddenly you start—a blog post, a poem, a story, a novel—and you don’t stop. You can’t. You get stuck, you walk away, you throw a hissy fit, you break up with your project, but still the blinking cursor pulls you back. Can you leave a bowl of Chocolate Fudge Brownie half-eaten? No, you cannot.
You wrestle with the plot, the point, the characters, the structure. Most of all (and yes, this is inevitable and no, there are no exceptions) you wrestle with your demon doubts. Your writing sucks, publishing sucks, your childhood sucked, your computer sucks, you suck most of all. Still, you need to move that cursor down the screen. You need to fill the page, the section, the chapter. You need to find out what happens: to the story, and to you in writing it. Without realizing you’re thinking it, you think that maybe when you finish, nothing will suck quite as much as it did before. And there’s only one way to find out. Keep going. Finish. And see.
Sounds pretty airy-fairy coming from a writer who’s earned her living, paltry as it’s been at times, doing exactly that since I was seventeen years old. Following the thought to the words, the words to the page, the page to publication. True: when I published my first article in Seventeen in 1968, my first anthology contribution in 1970, my first book in 1971, I didn’t believe in shaving my armpits, let alone celebrity; money was irrelevant, almost unnecessary, and in my adolescent wisdom I believed that my smooth path from impulse to print would continue to roll on like that forever.
It did, and it didn’t. I’ve written books that have been denied publication despite the Herculean efforts of all concerned, and I’ve been paid shocking amounts of money for books that rolled off my fingers like honey spools off a spoon. I’ve rejoiced over my writing career and I’ve wept rivers over my writing career. But as the decades have passed and the technologies and the trends and the economics and the cruelties of the publishing-industrial complex have destroyed careers far hardier than mine, one thing has remained true: I can’t not write.
If I have to cut my so-called lifestyle down to the bone, if I have to write website copy for pharmaceutical corporations, if I have to soothe my fears of the future with vague dreams of miracles to come—I have to keep writing. Because the worst day writing is better than the best day in a grey flannel cubicle. (And believe me, I’ve got a long list of ex-employers who would agree.) Because there is simply no better feeling than the one I’m having right now: it’s flowing, it’s going, I’m in it, and it’s in me, so I don’t need to start over. I just need to start writing the next thing. – Meredith