photo by Laura Mozes.
Photographer's page: CLICK HERE
Q: HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN A WRITER?
Yes. But until rather recently, it didn’t occur to me to become a writer. And though my reasons are layered and specific— I think this is typical for many women. Ambition is a feminist issue.
Q: SO WHAT DID IT TAKE FOR YOU TO TAKE IT SERIOUSLY?
More than a room of my own and money, which was the second and less popular prerequisite Woolf mentioned. For me, it wasn’t until someone in the industry told me my writing had potential that I was able to commit in earnest. Actually, it took two people: first an agent, then an author.
For years I’d been writing essays—mostly about motherhood and NYC. One night, after perusing the Internet, I decided to query a bunch of agents and say I had a collection of edgy essays. When they asked to see it, I worked like a maniac and sent off about a hundred pages. I kept getting the same feedback: I had strong voice, but the pieces lacked a cohesive thread. (They were right.) They also said I didn’t have a large enough following or platform. (Right, again.) Many recommended I turn the material into a novel, which I interpreted as a polite brushoff. Besides, over the years I’d tried to write fiction and had never gotten very far.
Then, unexpectedly, one of the agents emailed again. She said she’d been thinking about my work and wanted to know if I’d considered her fiction suggestion. I was stunned. An industry insider was contacting me not because she was being polite—she actually thought I had potential. I’d been near a Borders when I received the email, so I went right in and bought some books on structuring a novel. I started working on HENNY ON THE COUCH that night.
The second source of inspiration came after I’d written about thirty pages. I ran into an author I knew, though not well. She had a reputation for being smart and straightforward. I told her I was trying to write a novel and she graciously offered to take a look. When she called with feedback, she quoted a sentence I’d written that had moved her. Hearing my words read back to me was unbelievably empowering. She also recommended I get rid of the first seven pages and change the point of view from third person to first. (I ended up using some of the pages in a later section, but she was right—my story began where she suggested.) I suspect her feedback about point-of-view saved me months of toil. (The take away—don’t be defensive or fragile.)
It’s tricky, though—looking to others for validation. I’ve learned that I must be my own source of encouragement. Still, at that time, their encouragement was a game changer.
Q: WHAT’S YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
With HENNY, I was extremely motivated and wrote every day—usually at four different intervals. Right after drop-off, I’d go to a diner and read over what I’d been working on the day before. (My husband works from home most mornings; I needed to stay out.) I would tip the wait staff as if the table had turned over several times. Considered it cheaper than renting an office.
Then I’d go home and write until pickup. In the afternoon, our full-time babysitter and I navigated the needs of my four kids, which usually meant I went with the ones who had activities where I could write— violin lessons, orthodontist appointments, Hebrew School, drop-off-playdates, etc. After the dinner-bath routine, I’d put my youngest kids to bed and be back to the page from 8-10:00. (I went to the neighborhood diner, because I didn’t want my older kids—or husband—to suck me into a drama.
Two things to notice: One, Woolf is right about the money. All of the above required a lot of it. Two, The reason I offer this much detail about my routine is because mother-writers need this information. The artist-as-recluse archetype does us a disservice. We need to make our process visible. Using a privileged, white, male model for writing, a Jonathan Franzen, cabin-in-the-woods, was never going to work for me. That said, what I’ve outlined is most definitely a privileged, white woman’s model. It’s likely my race, and not merely my purse, contributed to my ability to loiter in many UES cafes.
Also, consider my domestic context at the time. The whole time I was working on HENNY, there was no evidence I would actually write it. I didn’t study writing in college; I’d never taken a writing class. And even if I did produce a manuscript, I had no idea whether I’d get an agent. (That agent hadn’t guaranteed representation.) And even if I got an agent, who knew if she’d be able to sell it. For one thing, it was 2008 and I was writing about a wealthy New Yorker.
And yet … I took my writing seriously. I learned to guard my time by saying no. No to volunteering at schools, no to attending every function, no to having lunch with friends, no to watching TV with my husband, no to letting guests stay at my house … no. I’d say, I’m working. And I felt like I was working. Except work usually involves money.
My husband was almost always encouraging, in words and actions. But this was not his world. Not only wasn’t he familiar with the publishing industry— but he wasn’t a reader of fiction, either. I was deeply immersed in a goal that was outside of his expertise and known to be highly unlikely. Basically, for many months, I was the only person who truly believed I would write a novel. (Okay, except for my mother.) I frequently felt like Annette Bening in American Beauty— I will sell this house, today. I will sell this house, today. (Only guess what? She didn’t.)
I did love the actual process of writing. There were times when I’d close my eyes and type scenes as I imagined them. And when the work didn’t flow, I learned that if I persevered, if I continued to show up to the page, an answer would come. I never went online to crowd-source a solution. (In fact, I wasn’t yet on twitter or Facebook.) Related, I never talked about what a character might do, or what I planned to write. Speaking diminishes my urgency to write.
Despite loving the process, I was often in a foul mood. I was terrified. What if all this work was for nothing? What if I wrote the damned thing and it never sold? I didn’t care if I made a lot of money—but I wanted the validation of a publishing contract. I wanted an ISBN number. I wanted it on bookstore shelves. And mostly, I wanted people to read it. Preferably, ones I’d never met.
And … I didn’t want my kids to see me fail.
A few years earlier, I’d ended my professional life as a psychotherapist to pursue painting. Like writing, I’d taken it seriously. I’d had some success—my work had been in a few galleries and I’d sold paintings for thousands of dollars (to strangers). But I was far from being an established artist, and here I was pursuing a new endeavor. While a case can be made for my children watching me work toward a goal— I didn’t want to be perceived as always striving and never arriving.
Here’s an understatement: I am grateful it worked out.
Q: AND YOUR WRITING NOW? WHAT’S NEXT?
Now, when I say I’m working, people believe me. I have to be even more vigilant about my writing routine because I no longer have childcare. My youngest kids are ten, so my workday basically ends at 2:30. (I rarely write at night, now.) My daily solitude is crucial. Stories come to me when I’m alone. I have to be disciplined. I have to make myself show up to the page. My social circle is smaller than it used to be and there are many people I care about, and never see. Or people I’d like to get to know better, and never do.
Since HENNY, I’ve had many false starts with novels and screenplays. I’ve had better success with shorter projects—essays, short stories. It’s disheartening, but I believe what I’m supposed to write next will come to me as long as I stay in the writing habit. At least I hope so. I’ve never done this: write a second novel.
In the meantime, all of my writing takes much longer than it used to. Even emails or a simple author bio. (I’ve probably put ten hours into this interview, which seems excessive.) I belabor sentences. And yet, I persevere.
Q: FINALLY, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE UPCOMING LTYM SHOW?
I’m excited. I love the personal narrative form. And as soon as I heard about LTYM, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
Telling the truth is a political act. It’s also spiritual—a way I connect with others by exposing my humanity.
I could easily focus on being nervous. Indulge in self-deprecation. But I’ve made a conscious decision to let that shit go. Instead, to behave like the kind of women I admire. The ones who recognize when they have something to contribute, and then they do so, without apology or feigned modesty, or trepidation.
I want listen to everyone’s experience. And witness everyone’s courage. And when my turn comes, I want to stand and speak with clarity. To be in the moment. To trust my story … and my ability to tell it.
I want to speak my truth. Standing. Both feet on the ground.