Right after my agent sold my first novel to Harper & Row, I was invited to a very upscale Manhattan literary party populated by up and comers in publishing and writing. I brought a friend for protection and when asked what I did I said, “I’m a teacher.” I was an adjunct at Brooklyn College where I was obtaining an MFA in fiction writing.
“You’re a writer,” my friend hissed. “You just got a book deal with a huge publisher.”
“I’m not saying I’m a writer.”
“But you are!”
“It sounds like boasting.”
Blame my parents (stop showing off), the Catholic church, my Catholic grandmother (you’re going to hell), my writer father, and my own insecurity. At some point it’s no longer modesty but pathological. After receiving a rave review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review for my third novel I searched for and found a minor criticism and managed to have that become the only thing I remembered. At readings I advised people to check my book out of the library. I signed my books with the phrase, “Thanks for buying my book,” which is just sad.
I was so disparaging of my discipline as a writer at a Q&A one woman said, “It sounds like you don’t deserve this.” I don’t deserve this. I neglected to admit my routine for two years had been to rise at 5am, write for two hours, get my son ready for school and then drive to my full-time job as an English teacher in a massive and troubled suburban high school. I then spent the hours before bed with my son, read and corrected up to 100 essays and then went to bed, myself. Yes, I have spent two to three years writing novels that might never be read. Yes, I have persisted through rejections, criticism, the slump in the market, yes, I defied my family’s mixed reaction to my choice of a career, my ex-boyfriends’ jealousy, numerous poorly paid, demanding adjunct positions that demanded students write rhetorical analyses that were agony to read, to be treated by the English factory like an unwanted foster child, most of whom had never published a single word unless it was a friend’s press. I divorced and learned to single parent. But I was afraid of my own books, their solidity, and the evidence that I was someone to respect.
My father died. In his final years he was my greatest supporter and peer. We sat in his car together in the Princeton University store parking lot next to the house where I was born, where he had started his incredible career as a professor, novelist and literary critic, waiting for my reading to begin, for him to introduce me and I said, “Daddy, I’m afraid.”
“It’s a good book,” he said. “Possibly a great book.”
I didn’t believe him but it was a lovely thing for him to say.
I am more than thirty years into this career and finally decided to become real. No, I’m not a velveteen bunny, but I am neurotic, self-hating artist who equated promotion and marketing with bragging and wasted time. But I want my books to be read and I want to make enough money to stop reading freshman rhetorical analyses and teach creative writing at a good university or independently getting paid for what is a negation of my ego, sharing my secrets, exposing myself to jealousy, criticism and scorn. I’m a wonderful teacher. I have so much insight into the craft of writing combined with understanding the fear and loathing and yes, successful. Not rich, not famous but successful.
I have had many writing mentors, some of whom were actual teachers, some of whom I’ve admired from afar and others, long dead whose words I copied into notebooks trying to understand how the words created tapestries of passion, beauty and lives lived. Now, I am collaborating with a gifted and focused designer, a designer of web sites, of social media, and someone who shrugs when I confess to my fear and loathing of marketing and promotion, who reminds me of my passion for sharing stories and ideas. I still seek writing models but I have shifted my focus to a new goal, which is to create an accessible writer whose work is readily available and who will always answer the question “What do you do?” with the answer, “I am a writer.”