It started with a simple conversation with my friend, who is an editor in Portland, over coffee. One of her clients, the editor of a new independent press, had just won a prestigious local prize. “And hey,” she shrugged, quickly checking her phone for the press’ website, “maybe you should send your novel off to them. ‘Quiet novels by Oregon writers’,” she read from the site. “That sounds like your book.”
The book she was referring to was a novel I’d finished in 2009 and had sent around to dozens of agents and small presses to no avail. This was the second novel I’d written, the second one I’d sent out in the world hoping it would find a home, and the second one that ended up in the digital version of a desk drawer.
I won’t pretend I wasn’t bitter. The first novel was an exercise in trying to figure out what I was doing, and it had the same fate as many first novels do, so I got over that disappointment. But the second, which I’d revised nine times and spent seven years wrestling with, embracing, puzzling over, diving headlong into, and coaxing into being . . . well, that was a lot harder to watch slip away into obscurity.
By that time I had moved to the Ecuadorian Amazon, where I had hoped to eventually build a little jungle bungalow and write things that people would publish. But with the exception of a few short stories, I didn’t write much. My crisis of faith in the process was in full bloom. So instead I got busy with other things that brought me fulfillment, validation, and sense of purpose–working with Kichwa people in rural communities; understanding what it meant to be the outsider and foreigner; mastering a second language; learning the names of tropical tree species; making friends with people whose culture, history, and experience are different from mine; and figuring out how many different ways you could cook yuca, a bland tuber that could take the form of anything from a fried snack to an alcoholic beverage.
Fast forward to 2014. My life in Ecuador was behind me, and my new life as an ex-expat was unfolding in Oregon. The novel I had labored over was almost a vestige of another me, and I hadn’t even looked at it in five years. But the editor was interested in reading the manuscript, and suddenly there was a possibility that this story could take on life again.
I plunged back into the world of the novel, which is set in Guatemala in the late 70s and early 2000s, and began revising like a fiend. Despite the fact I hadn’t been that productive as a writer in the previous half decade, my technique had evolved and my confidence improved. I axed, I rearranged, I sculpted, I finessed. By the time I finished, I managed to resolve some plot and character questions that had plagued me through nine drafts. I felt proud to send it off to a publisher who was seriously considering putting it into print. I believed I had learned something about writing a good novel, and I believed that this time, a publisher would agree.
Then came word from the editor that she didn’t feel passionate enough about the story to turn my manuscript into a book. The sickeningly familiar swell of despair began to rise. I had been kidding myself. I did some pillow-sobbing, followed inexplicably by a blank-stared meander through the labyrinth of Ikea’s showroom and a meal of Swedish meatballs.
From my table in front of the huge plate-glass windows, I watched planes cruising to the tarmac at the adjacent airport and storm clouds gathering. I’m not sure why the field trip helped get some perspective, but it did. The editor had taken the time to give me some specific feedback and made it clear that she was expressing her opinion, not scientific fact, about my manuscript. She kindly let me in on some insider knowledge, that publishing decisions are personal, maybe like buying a wedding dress. If you’re choosing among options that meet a certain level of craftsmanship, you want something that fits you and makes you excited to show it off to the world.
Then I recalled advice from two writers I respect who have already walked this path, BK Loren and Summer Wood. Both of them said, in different ways, find your audience. Find the people who resonate with what you have to say. The people who get your writing will want to read more of it.
I didn’t quite realize it when I was sitting on the molded plastic chair in the Ikea cafeteria, but there was a nugget of beauty in the whole process that was working its way to the surface. As a writer, I’m not especially driven by an urge to play in the language and imagination sandbox, though I enjoy those aspects of writing. My creative impulse comes from a desire to connect with and understand people, to explore why we do what we do. It had never occurred to me that the same impulse might guide me not just when I’m in the private act of writing, but also when I’m in the public act of sharing my work.
If it weren’t for the time the editor took to explain her decision, I might have missed this insight. I thank that editor for connecting to me, for modeling to me what I am trying to do and reminding me of why I write. It may not be as thrilling as seeing your name on a book, but it’s hard to make a writing career without it.