And grateful to be able to do so
Fiction writing, I believe, is two parts imagination, one part confession. So I admit this: I was very happy as a writer until I was published. Please don’t judge me too harshly for sounding ungrateful. I can see you rolling your eyes. What writer doesn’t want to be published? Actually, there are some. This I know for a fact, thanks to a friend who teaches writing at a prominent Southern university. She happens to know several such writers who view any form of commercial success as a sellout, and aside from literary journals (and only a select few of those), publication is synonymous with the death of art. For me, in the beginning—out of naiveté, not disdain—publication was no more tangible than a distant fog, a remote wish in an industry as capricious as the weather. I started writing because I loved to tell stories, the art of which was instilled in me by my North Carolina family ever since I was old enough to sit at the grown-up table for Sunday lunch. If you could hold your own in that forum over fried chicken, sweet corn, and banana pudding, there just might be hope for you in the world outside.
When I started working on The Sweet By and By, I didn’t know it was a novel. I was living on the Upper West Side, my home of almost 20 years, when I decided to go on the first writers’ retreat of my life. Yaddo it was not. A dear friend’s family had a worn, comfortable beach house (the kind where you’re not afraid to actually use the bathroom or put your feet on the sofa) on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina, and she invited me, along with an established author friend, down for four days of writing. I cried out, “I’m there!” before ever thinking about what, if anything, I was going to write. What ensued was a free-for-all on paper. There was no cell service, no Internet, not even cable TV. If you needed to send a fax, you had to go the island’s mom-and-pop general store and hope the owners weren’t out crabbing. At the end of every day, after dinner and ample wine, anyone who dared might read whatever sentences he had managed to eke out, followed by the perfect combination of encouragement and unapologetic, brutal critique. It was occupational therapy at its best.
I didn’t start writing because it seemed like the right career move. I had already had two careers, one as a New York session singer and the second as a Broadway producer. I also thought I was probably too old to be taken seriously as a new writer. (I still fight this voice in my head, sounding like an evil librarian who is the self-appointed keeper of the Western canon.) The truth is that no one seems to be much interested in a list of “20 Writers To Watch Under 80.” I’d love to see that list, not simply because if I work hard enough I might one day make the cut, but also because it could be incredibly liberating for writers and readers alike. Think about it: if a number of the writers to watch were truly approaching 80, then the good news is that no one would have to watch them for very long. That would mean a revolving door for plenty of others to find their way into the literary limelight, or at least, candlelight.
In fact, publication was for me more akin to the harsh fluorescent tubes of a hospital corridor. Everything unmercifully exposed. The more I came to know about the business of books, the harder I had to work to create the feeling of genuine play that had previously been my natural state when facing the blank page. In that state, there was plenty of room for fortuitous accidents. These, in my experience, arrive in two forms: the blissful sort that take you off guard, as when an intriguing character brazenly leaps onto the page unannounced and tap dances while your fingers try to keep up, or the messier kind of accident, no less fortuitous, to be cleaned up like spilled coffee grinds, when the same character who seemed so utterly beguiling on arrival turns out to be more boring than a barrel of hair.
When my partner and I moved full-time to Norfolk, one of the things we talked about every night was just how loud the quiet could be. We joked about the fact that if there was noise, it was coming from inside our own heads. I have a friend who likes to say, “Wherever you go, there you are,” and he’s right. No place, not even the idyllic Litchfield Hills, can provide solace on its own. But it does help that when the demons of expectation and productivity are perched on my shoulders like birds on a wire (most often invited by me), I can get up from my desk and go for a swim in the lake. I can run with the dogs. Or I can drive to the barn and take a long ride on my horse, who thankfully has never heard of any major publishers and has never received more than a carrot as an advance for his efforts. And for these small favors, every day that I live here, I’m grateful. As far as I know, gratitude is the surest path to a playful spirit. The artist in me bolts out of hiding. Free again, I can spend my writing hours looking for the happy accidents.