I have been itching to write this post.
This is the one where I tell you I am DONE. I finally polished my final draft of my novel and hit send to the publisher this morning.
It’s taken almost four years of writing, and lots of help, to get to the finish line, and I am thankful and excited and proud. Finishing the final draft is the reason I’ve not posted on this blog as much, but I hope to return to more regular blogging. I will definately post here in the next few weeks ways you can pre-order it. The book is called The Wideness of The Sea and it’s a novel about an artist from Maine who lives in New York City who returns home for a funeral, where she is faced with broken relationships and crushing grief that she ran from after her mother died eight years ago. It’s about her journey towards forgiveness and healing, and the need for grace we all have in our brokenness, set in Maine’s beautiful Mid-Coast town of Pemaquid.
Because I am always fascinated with the writing and publishing process, and want to help other writers, I thought I would tell the story of how this book got published here. I am SO aware that this little book is a drop in an ocean. But it’s other people telling their stories – fiction, non-fiction, culinary, spiritual, or blog posts – that has always inspired me. So here is the story of how my first novel, and in many ways, myself as a writer, were born.
First, some backstory: I grew up the sixth of eight children in a big Irish Catholic family in Chicago, and I was always a huge reader with my nose constantly in a book. After polishing off all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in the third grade, I thought I would most likely be a writer when I grew up. In middle school I started the habit of keeping journals, with plenty of bad prose and poetry, something my girls do now and I encourage mightily, since it helps to get in the habit of observing life. In high school, my sophomore English teacher had a storage closet full of all the rich, beautiful stories they encourage high schoolers to read, and gave us extra credit for every book we read in there. I think I read the whole closet, and after had a clear sense of how important books were to me. In college, I strongly considered being an English Major. Though I thrived in my English courses at Boston College, and my professors encouraged me to submit my essays to various magazines, I was afraid. It sounds silly now, but I was scared that becoming an English major would mean taking apart literature, dissecting it into parts and stripping bare all the inner workings, and it would break the spell that books had over me. The power of stories like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, A Tree Grow’s In Brooklyn, Catcher in the Rye, and so many others. I wanted books to keep their magic over me.
By the end of my freshman year, I settled on the practical major of Economics. This was my dad’s major at Notre Dame. He was in investments, and it was a safe and comfortable world that was easily understood and put to good use.
And then when I was a sophomore, he suddenly passed away. He had a heart attack after a very severe asthma attack.
After that, my Catholic faith, philosophy, and stories, while they were always important to me, became my focus. In the throes of grief, I followed through on a semester abroad trip to the London School of Economics. I took many Literature and Philsophy classes. George Orwell, Adolus Huxley, Virginia Wolf, and many English poets who wrote about WWII were such rich solace for me at that time. When I returned my senior year, I loaded my schedule with philosophy courses – many taught by Peter Kreeft – that focused on literature. Dostoyevski, Tolkien, CS Lewis, Augustine. I was only a few credits away from double majoring.
After using my degree and working at a mutual fund company for two years, and becoming close friends with the man who would soon become my husband, I decided that my love of reading philosophy books on the subway into work each day was far more meaningful to me then the work I was doing between 9 and 5. I decided to become a philosophy professor, and I applied to BC to return for my Master’s. Right when I told my then-best-friend Rob that I was planning to return to school, we started dating, and fell in love. When I went back to school, the teachers that I had loved there helped me build upon my love of Greek Philosophers and Russian Literature with philosophers and writers like Iris Murdoch and Flannery O’Connor, and I knew I was building a focus of philosophy in literature. I finished my MA the year we got married, and we moved to Rochester for his job, where I taught philosophy as an adjunct professor at Nazareth College and the next year I started my PhD program at SUNY Albany.
Then, our wonderful first child, RJ, was born a year and a half after I started. Six months later, I resigned. It wasn’t an easy decision and I didn’t take it lightly. But my dream of being a professor was born before my husband and I started dating. New dreams had replaced it – being a wife, and mother, and I hoped, a writer.
When I first started out reading books on writing, guess what they told me to do? Dissect my favorite books. I pulled apart A Secret Garden, State of Nature by Ann Patchett, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. By now I wasn’t afraid – I wanted to figure out how to create that magic. Over the course of the next eight years, I wrote The Wideness of the Sea, half of a food memoir called ‘First You Make A Roux‘ about growing up in my large family with a mother who cooked gourmet food almost every night, and I began to freelance write for several magazines. I also started the food blog. Merging my love of writing and food is a pretty natural place for me. (Food is basically a character in my novel, and there are recipes at the end of the book.)
I get asked a lot, when do you write? I write when my kids are sleeping. I used to write when I had a sitter. Now I mostly write when they are at school. I can’t write if they are awake and home. I know I could write at a faster clip if I had someone to pick up my youngest from preschool and help my big kids off the bus, but I want to be with them. One thing that has helped me tremendously is that my graduate work included a ton of writing, and it enabled me to be a very disciplined writer. The minute I sit down in a chair, turn on my computer, a cup of tea by my side, I focus hard. I remember reading an interview with Barbara Kingsolver, and she said something like, ‘If you want to be a writer, have children. They will make you use your writing time very productively because you’ll have so little of it.’ And I whole heartedly agree.
Since my book has been on the road to being published, I am amazed at how many people have said they would like to write too, and asked me how to go about finishing a book. And aside from the solid advice of read a lot, and write a lot, the thing I want to tell them is this: The road is long. It has very few cheerleaders, and plenty of doubters. It is just you, alone, every day, sitting with your dreams and your belief in yourself and in the story. If these are not strong, or if you are writing for praise, you will probably quit long before you are finished. If you are expecting accolades, you will be disappointed.
There are, fortunately, a tribe of writers and creators who have been there and they know this. And they wrote down their hard-earned wisdom. I studied their advice, devouring writing books for both their technical writing advice and their ability to combat fear and navigate the creative life.
I took to heart their advice that good writing only comes from a shitty first draft that gets polished. So I wrote a shitty first draft, and I worked and reworked the story that was in my head. I hung out with the characters, and spent a lot of my waking hours pretending to be in Maine. I thought about theme, and how to create meaning, and how to structure a plot. Eventually, after about a year or two, when I thought I had a book, I reached out to a friend who publishes children’s books who helped me in my first draft (thanks, Allison!). With her feed back, I polished it again, and sent it out to a 8-9 agents. One of them liked it, and he gave me edits that I quickly completed, and sent it back to them before my fourth child, Andrew was born. They sent it to several publishing companies who all liked the writing, but turned it down, saying it wasn’t the right fit. Getting that stack of rejections was a heartbreak. I tell you that so if it happens to you, you will know you are not alone. In fact, you’re in good company. Every published writer was once a rejected writer. It’s part of the process.
I remember reading at that time Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art. He is the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and many other books. In The War of Art, he told the story of writing his first screenplay for a movie. And when the movie was done and he went to go see it in a theater, the audience hated it. He knew it was going to bomb. And he went home and started writing another movie.
That’s when he knew he was really a writer.
So I put the novel down, and started with another idea. A food memoir. And feeling that – the sweet surrender that I wasn’t writing for success, or anyone’s praise, just a love of writing and good story telling, combined with everything I had learned from writing the first book- I became very peaceful. I was detached with the outcome, so it freed me up to try to do good work. I had been told in all my writing books that only persistence matters. Believing that and acting on it is what made me feel like a real writer. I wrote the food memoir in the same writing hours I had written the novel – two or three mornings a week, shooting for 10 hours a week. Those days of mothering and cooking and writing, with a handful of loyal food blog readers, were happy and meaningful and rich, the kind of days I hope my children’s life will be filled with.
Last summer, while I was writing the food memoir, my favorite book store in Portsmouth announced a novel contest. I thought of the book sitting on my computer, and entered it, sending in one chapter as they requested. And on a warm fall morning while I was out for breakfast with my family at our place in the White Mountains, over syrup and spilled coffee and requests for more orange juice, I noticed they had sent me an email. We like your entry. Can you please send the whole thing?
They announced I was one of the winners a few months later, and they were amazing, helping me turn it into an even better book. After I had totally given up and detached from it, the book found a home. Seeing how long it took me to do the final edits and run our life at home through the Christmas season, I am so thankful for the home it found, too. I didn’t have the pressure of a large publisher for my first book, nor do I have the pressure to market it in a way that would put stress on my family. The gentle, nurturing way this came about feels like what I would wish for ANY first time author.
And now, this April, you will get to read it. And then a new story will begin. One where I get to share these characters and this place with readers. And there will surely be critics. But I can’t wait to see if even just a few people are touched by the story, and found some magic in it.
I hope you will get to be one.
p.s. This post was SO long, but I have many of the books and resources that helped me written out, and I will post it soon as a Part II.