The Getaway Car | Chapter 5 of 8

Author: Ann Patchett | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1891 Views | Add a Review

Please hit next button if you encounter an empty page

I WAS ALWAYS GOING TO BE A WRITER. I’ve known this for as long as I’ve known anything. It was an accepted fact in my family by the time I had entered the first grade, which makes no sense, as I was late to either read or write. In fact, I was a terrible student when I was young. I’ve always believed the reason I was passed from grade to grade was that I could put together some raw version of a story or poem, even if all of the words were misspelled and half of them were written backwards. Like a cave child scratching pictures on the wall of bison and fire and dancing, I showed an early knack for content. Only writing kept me from being swept into the dust heap of third grade, and for this reason I not only loved writing but felt a strong sense of loyalty to it. I may have been shaky about tying my shoes and telling time, but I was sure about my career, and I consider this certainty the greatest gift of my life. I can’t explain where the knowledge came from, only that I hung on to it and never let go.

Knowing that I wanted to write made my existence feel purposeful and prioritized as I was growing up. Did I want to get a big job and make a lot of money? No, I wanted to be a writer, and writers were poor. Did I want to get married, have children, live in a nice house? No again; by the time I was in middle school I’d figured out that a low overhead and few dependents would increase my time to work. While I thought I might publish something someday, I was sure that very few people, maybe no one at all, would read what I wrote. By ninth grade I was drawing from the Kafka model: obscurity during life with the chance of being discovered after death. Young as I was when I made this commitment, it wasn’t quite as morbid as it sounds—so many of the writers we studied in school were unknown in their lifetimes (or, better still, scorned and dismissed) that I naturally assumed this to be the preferable scenario. It was also in keeping with my Catholic education, which stressed the importance of modesty and humility. I did not daydream of royalty checks, movie deals, or foreign rights. Success never figured into my picture. The life I would have would be straight out of La Bohème (having never heard of La Bohème): I would be poor, obscure, alone, possibly in Paris. The one thing I allowed myself was the certainty of future happiness. Even though the history of literature was filled with alcoholics, insane asylums, and shotguns, I could not imagine that I would be miserable if I got to spend my life as a writer.

It turns out that I was right about some of the details of my future and wrong about others, which is fitting, given the fact I was making it all up. No writers came to St. Bernard Academy for Catholic girls on Career Day, and so I marched towards the vision in my head without guidance or practical advice. This is where it got me. 

At forty-seven, I am a veritable clearinghouse of practical advice, and since I have neither children nor students, I mostly dispense it in talks or short articles. There is a great appeal in the thought of consolidating the bulk of what I know about the work I do in one place, so that when someone asks me for advice I can say, Look, it’s here, I wrote it all down. Every writer approaches writing in a different way, and while some of those ways may be more straightforward than others, very few can be dismissed as categorically wrong. There are people who write in order to find out where the story goes. They never talk about what they’re working on. They say that if they knew the ending of the book, there would be no point in writing it, that the story would then be dead to them. And they’re right. There are also people, and I am one of them, who map out everything in advance. (John Irving, for example, can’t start writing his books until he thinks up the last sentence.) And we are also right. There are a couple of habits I have acquired through years of trial and error that I would recommend emulating, but either you will or you won’t. This isn’t an instruction booklet. This is an account of what I did and what has worked for me, and now that that’s been said, I will resist the temptation to open every paragraph with the phrase “It’s been my experience…” That’s what this is: my experience.

* * *

LOGIC DICTATES that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education that has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down. 

But it’s right about there, the part where we sit, that things fall apart. I’ve had people come up to me at book signings, in grocery stores, at every cocktail party I’ve ever attended, and tell me they have a brilliant idea for a book. I get letters that try to pass themselves off as here’s-an-offer-you-can’t-refuse business proposals: My story will be a true blockbuster, a best-selling American original. Unfortunately, my busy schedule does not afford me the time to write it myself. This is where you come in … The person then offers me some sort of deal, usually a 50-50 split, though sometimes it’s less. All I have to do is agree and he or she will tell me the (Compelling! Unforgettable!) story, and I will type it up in his or her own voice, a task that is presumed to be barely above the level of transcription. As in those random Internet letters that begin Dear Sir or Madam and tell of the countless millions that will be left to me, This is my lucky day.

I feel for these people, even as they’re assuming I’m not bright enough to realize where they’ve gotten stuck. I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize on the record to Amy Bloom. Once, when we were madly signing books at the end of a New York Times authors’ lunch (with Alan Alda, Chris Matthews, and Stephen L. Carter in between us—a very busy event), an older woman appeared at the front of my line to tell me that the story of her family’s arrival from the old country was a tale of inestimable fascination, beauty, and intrigue and that it must be made into a book, a book that I must write for her. I politely but firmly demurred, saying that I was sure it was a fantastic story, but I scarcely had the time to write about my own family’s journey from the old country, much less all the stories I made up. She kept on talking, outlining in broad strokes her parents and their sacrifices and adventures. No, I said, trying to hold on to good manners, that is not what I do. But she didn’t budge. She leaned forward and wrapped her fingers beneath the table’s edge in case someone thought to try to pull her away. Short of yes, nothing I said was going to dislodge her from her spot. The crowd was backing up behind her, people who wanted to get my signature quickly so they could be free to adore Alan Alda (who was, my God, so adorable). When I was completely out of tricks, I told the woman to ask Amy Bloom. Amy Bloom might be interested, I said, and pointed my pen three authors away. The woman, seized by the prospect of a new captive audience, scurried into Amy’s line. It was a deplorable act on my part, and I am sorry.

If a person has never given writing a try, he or she assumes that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick, a point that was best illustrated to me on one of the more boring afternoons of my life. (Boring anecdote, thoughtfully condensed, now follows.) I once attended a VanDevender reunion in Preston, Mississippi, about forty-five minutes from Shuqualak (inevitably pronounced “Sugarlock”). I went because I am married to a VanDevender. It was not a family reunion but rather a reunion of people in Mississippi named VanDevender, many of whom had never met before. The event was held in a low, square Masonic Lodge built of cinder blocks on a concrete slab that was so flush with the ground there was not even a hint of a step to go inside. All we could see was a field and, beyond that, a forest of loblolly pine. Because we had come so far with our friends, distant VanDevender cousins, we were planning to stay for a while. It was in the third or fourth hour of this event that one of the few VanDevenders I had not already engaged said that my husband had told her I was a novelist. Regrettably, I admitted this was the case. That was when she told me that everyone had at least one great novel in them.

I have learned the hard way not to tell strangers what I do for a living. Frequently, no matter how often I ask him not to, my husband does it for me. Ordinarily, in a circumstance like this one, in the Masonic Lodge in Preston, Mississippi, I would have just agreed with this woman and sidled off (One great novel, yes, of course, absolutely everyone), but I was tired and bored and there was nowhere to sidle to except the field. We happened to be standing next to the name-tag table, where all the tags had been filled out with vandevender in advance so that you could just print your first name on the top and get your lemonade. On that table was a towering assortment of wildflowers stuck into a clear glass vase. “Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them?” I asked her.

“No,” she said.

I remember that her gray hair was thick and cropped short and that she looked at me directly, not glancing over at the flowers. 

“One algebraic proof?”

She shook her head.

“One Hail Mary pass? One five-minute mile?”

“One great novel,” she said. 

“But why a novel?” I asked, having lost for the moment the good sense to let it go. “Why a great one?”

“Because we each have the story of our life to tell,” she said. It was her trump card, her indisputable piece of evidence. She took my silence as confirmation of victory, and so I was able to excuse myself.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, not later that same day, not five years later. Was it possible that, in everybody’s lymph system, a nascent novel is knocking around? A few errant cells that, if given the proper encouragement, cigarettes and gin, the requisite number of bad affairs, could turn into something serious? Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper. For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. (There will be more about this later.) This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversize butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book, of which I have not yet written one word, is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see. 

And so I do, even though I dread it. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.

When I tell this story in front of an audience, it tends to get a laugh. People think I’m being charmingly self-deprecating, when really it is the closest thing to the truth about my writing process that I know. The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write—and many of the people who do write—get lost. So maybe Mrs. X. VanDevender in the Preston, Mississippi, Masonic Lodge was right; maybe everyone does have a novel in them, perhaps even a great one. I don’t believe it, but for the purposes of this argument, let’s say it’s so. Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words. This is why we type a line or two and then hit the delete button or crumple up the page. Certainly that was not what I meant to say! That does not represent what I see. Maybe I should try again another time. Maybe the muse has stepped out back for a smoke. Maybe I have writer’s block. Maybe I’m an idiot and was never meant to write at all. 

I had my first real spin with this particular inadequacy when I was a freshman in college. As a child and as a teenager, I had wanted to be a poet. I wrote sonnets and sestinas and villanelles, read Eliot and Bishop and Yeats. I entered high school poetry competitions and won them. I would say that a deep, early love of poetry should be mandatory for all writers. A close examination of language did me nothing but good. When I arrived at Sarah Lawrence College as a freshman, I submitted my poems and was admitted into Jane Cooper’s poetry class. I was seventeen.

Jane Cooper was a kind and gentle soul whose poor health was exceedingly bad the year I studied with her. She faded in her own class, which was primarily run by a group of seniors and several graduate students, the best of whom was a woman named Robyn, who drove a Volvo and wore a raccoon coat. She was not only an astute writer, but the kind of critic who, in a matter of a few thoughtful sentences, could show that the poem up for discussion was a pile of sentimental, disconnected words. I admired Robyn and was terrified of her, and soon I had so assimilated her critical voice that I was able to bring the full weight of her intelligence to bear on my work without her actually needing to be in the room. I could hear her explaining how what I was writing would fail, and so I scratched it out and started over. But I knew she wouldn’t deem my second effort to be any better. Before long I was able to think the sentence, anticipate her critique of it, and decide against it, all without ever uncapping my pen. I called this “editing myself off the page.” My great gush of youthful confidence was constricted to a smaller and smaller passage until, finally, my writing was down to a trickle, and then a drip. I’m not even sure how I passed the class. 

At the end of that year, I moved my poetry books to the bottom shelf and signed up to study fiction with Allan Gurganus. I thank Robyn for that. I would have arrived at fiction eventually, but without her unwitting encouragement it could have taken me considerably longer.

Most of what I know about writing I learned from Allan, and it is a testament to my great good luck (heart-stopping, in retrospect, such dumb luck) that it was his classroom I turned up in when I first started to write stories. Habits are easy to acquire and excruciating to break. (Think cigarettes.) I came to him a blank slate, drained of all the confidence I had brought with me to that first poetry class. I knew I still wanted to be a writer, but now I wasn’t sure what that even meant. I needed someone to tell me how to go forward. The course that Allan set me on is one that has guided my life ever since. It is the course of hard work.

It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular, disciplined practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out. Think of diamonds or, for that matter, the ever-practical coal that must be chipped out of the mine. Had I been assigned a different sort of teacher, one who suggested we keep an ear cocked for the muse instead of hoisting a pick, I don’t think I would have gotten very far.

Why is it that we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and that there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, “I’ll be playing in Carnegie Hall next month!” you would pity her delusion, but beginning fiction writers all across the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you’re thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer’s art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art, you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath. Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we’re more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound—not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself. Allan Gurganus taught me how to love the practice and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice—I don’t know where exactly—I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

In my junior year of college, I studied with Grace Paley. The fact that I even met Grace Paley, much less sat in her classroom for an entire year, is a wonder to me even now. There was no better short story writer, and very possibly no better person, though she would smack me on the head with a newspaper were she around to hear me say such a thing. (Interested in being a better writer? Go buy yourself a copy of The Collected Stories by Grace Paley.) The lesson that Grace taught was a complicated one, and I will admit I had been out of her class for a couple of years before I fully understood all she had given me. I was used to Allan, who was as diligent a teacher as he was a writer. He was where he said he would be at the appointed minute, our manuscripts meticulously commented on in his trademark brown ink. He gave assignments and picked readings that spoke directly to our needs. But when we went to Grace’s classroom, there was often a cancellation notice taped to the door: grace has gone to chile to protest human rights violations or something of that nature. Or I would be sitting outside her office for our scheduled conference but the door stayed closed. I could hear someone in there, and frequently that someone was crying. After half an hour or so, Grace would pop her head out, telling me very kindly that I should go. “She’s having troubles,” she would say of that unseen person who had arrived before me. If I held up my poor little short story, a reminder of why I was there, she would smile and nod. “You’ll be fine.”

Oh, Grace, with her raveling sweaters and thick socks, her gray hair flying in every direction, the dulcet tones of Brooklyn in her voice: She was a masterpiece of human life. There was the time she came to class and said she couldn’t return stories because she had been robbed the night before. A burglar had broken into her apartment and tied her to the kitchen chair. She’d then proceeded to talk to him about his hard life for more than an hour. In the end, he took her camera and her bag full of our homework. I’m sure I was not alone in thinking how lucky that guy was to have gotten so much of Grace’s undivided attention. Another time, she came to class and herded us all into a school van, then she drove us to Times Square. We were to march with the assembling throngs to the Marine recruitment offices chanting USA, CIA, out of Grenada! It was crowded and cold, and after we were sent off down Forty-second Street with our signs, we never did find Grace or the van again. I once heard her read her story “The Loudest Voice” in a small room at Sarah Lawrence where we all sat on pillows. Somewhere in the middle of the reading she stopped, said her tooth was bothering her, reached into her mouth, pulled out a back molar, and kept on going.

Like most of my classmates, I was young and filled with a degree of self-interest that could rightly be called selfishness. Nothing was more important than the stories we wrote, the Sturm und Drang of our college lives. Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story. Grace turned out a slender but vital body of work during her life. She kept her editors waiting longer than her students. She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say. I would not begin to know how to teach another person how to have character, which was what Grace Paley did. 

The last time I saw Grace was at a luncheon at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was being treated for breast cancer. Her hearing was bad and she didn’t answer my questions about how she was doing. She gave me a hug instead. “You wouldn’t believe all the nice people I’ve met at chemotherapy,” she told me.

My last fiction teacher in college was Russell Banks, and the lesson I got from him came in a single conversation that changed everything I did from that day on. He told me I was a good writer, that I would never get any substantial criticism from the other students in the class because my stories were polished and well put together. But then he told me I was shallow, that I skated along on the surface, being clever. He said if I wanted to be a better writer, I was the only person who could push myself to do it. It was up to me to challenge myself, to be vigilant about finding the places in my own work where I was just getting by. “You have to ask yourself,” he said to me, “if you want to write great literature or great television.”

I remember leaving his office and stepping out in the full blooming springtime. I was dizzy. I felt as if he had just taken my head off and reattached it at a slightly different angle, and as disquieting as the sensation was, I knew that my head would be better now. The world I was walking in was a different place from the one I had been in an hour before. I was going to do a better job. There are in life a few miraculous moments when the right person is there to tell you what you need to hear and you are still open enough, impressionable enough, to take it in. When I thought about the writer I had wanted to be when I was a child, the one who was noble and hungry and lived for art, that person was not shallow. I would go back to my better, deeper self. 

I’ve run into Russell many times over the years, and I’ve told him how he changed my life. He says he has no memory of the conversation, a fact that does not trouble me in the least. I, too, have given a lot of advice I’ve forgotten about over the years. I can only hope it was half as good as Russell’s.

Truly, these teachers and their lessons changed my life. And while I give due credit to the college for hiring the right people and fostering a philosophy of education in which a young writer can thrive, I also realize that there is a large component of luck involved. It’s a wonderful thing to find a great teacher, but you also have to find him or her at a time in life when you’re able to listen to, trust, and implement the lessons you receive. The same is true of the books we read. I think that what influences us in literature comes less from what we love and more from what we happen to pick up in moments when we are especially open. For this reason I’ve always been grateful (and somewhat amazed) that I read The Magic Mountain in my high school English class. That novel’s basic plot—a group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society in confinement—became the storyline for just about everything I’ve ever written. Then again, that was also the plot of The Poseidon Adventure, a cheesy 1970s disaster flick I had seen several years earlier, which also had an impact on me (and kept me off cruise ships). I was greatly affected by Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift, which I read when I was fourteen or fifteen, not long after it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I read it because a copy was lying around the house after both my mother and my stepfather had finished it. I’m certain it was much too adult for me then, but still, I can bring up more of the imagery and emotion from that novel than from anything I’ve read in a long time. It was because of Humboldt that I went on to read the stories of Delmore Schwartz and fell in love with “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Even as a teenager I knew a brilliant title when I saw it.

Based on my own experience, I believe the brain is as soft and malleable as bread dough when we’re young. I am grateful for every class trip to the symphony I went on and curse any night I was allowed to watch The Brady Bunch, because all of it stuck. Conversely, I am now capable of forgetting entire novels that I’ve read, and I’ve been influenced not at all by books I passionately love and would kill to be influenced by. Think about this before you let your child have a Game Boy. 

* * *

IF THE GIFTS I received as an undergraduate were of fairy-tale dimensions, that was not the case for me at the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I arrived at the age of twenty-one. I never had a class in graduate school that approached what I had had in college, but I chalk it up to the luck of the draw. (Luck, I’ve come to find out, works in both directions.) Had I been at Iowa two years later, or two years earlier, or had I merely signed up for a different roster of classes, I would have had an entirely different experience. The same, of course, would have been true at Sarah Lawrence. The ability to write and the ability to teach are not the same, and while I’ve known plenty of people who could do both, there are also plenty of people who can do only one or the other, and plenty who do both who should be doing neither. That’s why picking an MFA program is tricky. It may give you the opportunity to study with your hero, but your hero may prove a disappointment in the classroom. The best way to judge a program is to look at the person directing it. I once taught briefly at the University of California at Irvine, a small program that was run at the time by the wonderful writer Geoffrey Wolff. He controlled everything magnificently. He did a meticulous job choosing both the faculty and the students, oversaw a financial aid program that didn’t pit students against one another, and in general set a tone that was congenial and supportive. All MFA programs rely on visiting faculty, and most of them change from year to year (if not semester to semester), so don’t go by the prestige of a name or by someone else’s experience five years ago. It’s always a work in progress.

The answer to how important a master of fine arts degree is to becoming a fiction writer is, of course, not at all. The history of world literature is weighted heavily on the side of writers who put their masterpieces together without the benefit of two years of graduate school. Still, MFA programs have been part of the mix, at least in this country, for a long time now, and many writers attend them. Even though it was an imperfect experience for me, it was not without benefit: Spending two years devoting myself to writing was indisputably a good thing, as was meeting the other students who had come for the same reasons I had. We all had such good intentions, and most of us were eventually distracted from them. I remember complaining one night on the phone to my mother that we spent too much of our time worrying about love and money. “Think of it as research,” she said. “That’s what everybody writes about.”

Iowa was where I learned how to tune my ear to the usefulness and uselessness of other people’s opinions. An essential element of being a writer is learning whom to listen to and whom to ignore where your work is concerned. Every workshop was an explosion of judgment. A third of the class would love a story, a third would rip it to shreds, and a third would sit there staring off into space, no doubt wondering what they were going to have for dinner. Sometimes an entire class would say that something wasn’t working and they’d be wrong. I had to trust myself and keep doing whatever I was doing. Other times, one lone dissenter would point out a problem and the rest of the class would disagree, but that person was right. Had I given equal weight to everyone who had something to say, every story would have turned into a terrible game of Twister (left hand, yellow; right foot, blue; nose on green; and so on). On the other hand, had I listened to no one, or only to the people who liked me, the workshop would have been a waste of time.

One misconception about workshops is that you learn the most about how to be a better writer on the day your story is discussed. Not true. People are nervous, sometimes deathly so, when their story is being dissected, and there’s always a great deal of ego involved. But it’s when someone else has their turn at bat that you actually get to see what’s going on; the view is always clearer without all those emotional defenses in the way. This is where MFA programs are most valuable: You can learn more, and more quickly, from other people’s missteps than from their successes. If we could learn everything we needed to know about writing fiction by seeing it masterfully executed, we could just stay in bed and read Chekhov. But when you see someone putting in five pages of unnecessary descriptive detail in a twenty-page story, or not bothering to engage the reader’s interest until the seventh page, or writing dialogue that reads like a government wiretap transcription from a particularly boring conversation between a couple of fourteen-year-old girls, then you learn and learn fast. You may not always grasp what you need to do in order to make your own work better, but if you pay attention you’ll figure out what you need to avoid. It doesn’t take long to identify who the best critics in the class are, and those people become the ones you seek out. Making friends with other writers you respect is reason enough to go to graduate school. You’re not always going to have teachers, but if you’re lucky, you’ll always have a couple of tough, loving, forthright peers who have something to teach you.

The best thing I got out of my time at Iowa was that I learned how to teach. In my first year, my financial aid package entailed teaching an undergraduate Introduction to Literature class. Then, in my second year, I taught undergraduate fiction writing. The degree to which I was unqualified for this work was appalling. I was twenty-one years old and had never given teaching a thought. For the literature class, the teaching assistants were told to cover two novels (any two novels, any of them), two plays (one Shakespeare and one contemporary), some short stories, and a section on poetry. We were given two days of group instruction, a class schedule, and a room number, and that was it. We were on our own. It was terrifying, and I learned more from that experience than from all the writing and reading I had done in my life to date. Being the one to stand in front of the class and talk about a book for fifty minutes made me read at a whole new level. I was forced to think through every idea I had about a story, to support all of those ideas with examples from the text, and articulate my thoughts in a cogent manner. In short, I started to study how writers did what they did with a great deal more diligence, because I had to explain it to someone else. I’ve often wished there had been a way for me to teach before being a student—Teaching made me so much better at studying.

Education aside, my most emphatic piece of advice regarding whether or not to attend an MFA program has to do with money: No one should go into debt to study creative writing. It’s simply not worth it. Do not think of it as an investment in yourself that you’ll be able to recoup later on. This is not medical school. There are many more MFA programs turning out many more writers than the market can possibly bear; the law of averages dictates that a great percentage of graduates are never going to make anywhere close to a living practicing their craft. Every MFA program has some level of financial aid that is based on how talented you are deemed to be, which is another way of saying how badly that program wants you. If you get into an MFA program without an offer of financial aid, sit out a year and then reapply. Who accepts you and how much money they give you is a capricious business, subject to who happens to be serving on the admissions panel (which in the early rounds is often composed of students). I applied to four MFA programs and I got into one—the one that was supposedly the most competitive—and I received financial aid. Would I have gone without financial aid? Probably, but only because I wouldn’t have known any better. At the time, I had no idea what I was buying. I will admit to being a profoundly practical person, especially where money is concerned, but unless you are independently wealthy, I urge you to listen to this. If you plan to roll the dice thinking, Well, surely I’ll get a big book contract at the end of the two years that will cover the loan I’ve taken out, there is an excellent chance it’s not going to happen.

And while we’re on the subject of writing programs, let me touch on summer programs as well. They can be a lot of fun, as long as you’re honest with yourself about what your goals are. If you want to make friends with other people who want to be writers, have a vacation with an opportunity to learn something, and have the chance to listen for a week or two to the wisdom of a writer you respect—and you can do it all within your budget—then summer programs are great. But if you think you’ll find an agent who will take on your novel, or the writer you love will love you in return and will mentor you beyond the parameters of the summer schedule, forget it. I stopped teaching in summer programs a long time ago, because I felt uncomfortable with the promises that were being sold. Those programs can be a lifesaving connection for people who are toiling away by themselves month after month with no one to share work with. Like an MFA program writ in miniature, it’s the chance to find friends and reliable critics among classmates. I imagine that every now and then a book is picked up by a prestigious New York agent and sold to a prestigious New York publisher, but it is statistically akin to finding a four-leaf clover. On the banks of the Dead Sea. In July.

After finishing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I got a job as the writer-in-residence at a small college in Pennsylvania. Two days before my second year of employment was set to begin, I left my husband, left the job, and very quickly left the state. I moved back to Tennessee and in with my mother. Having burned my last employers so badly, I had pretty much no chance of finding another teaching job, so I wound up getting a job as a waitress. I was twenty-five years old. It wasn’t the best time in my life, but at least I wasn’t mailing in a percentage of my tip money to pay down student loans for my MFA. 

I had a lot of time to think about stories in those days. I found I was capable of taking orders, serving meals, and picking up dirty plates while dreaming up plots, but I had a hard time writing them down. My hands were always full, and in the few moments they weren’t, I fell asleep in about thirty seconds. Up until that point, there had never been any reason to doubt that my life was going to work out exactly according to script. I had thought I was a writer when I was a student, but would I still be a writer now that I was also a waitress? It was a test of love: How long would I stick around once things were no longer going my way? (Illustrative anecdote: Many years later, I was in London interviewing Ralph Fiennes for GQ magazine. While we were at lunch, the waiter approached to tell Fiennes how much he admired his work. “I’m an actor, too,” the waiter said as he held out a piece of paper for an autograph. Later I asked Fiennes how long he would have been willing to be a waiter who struggled to be an actor. Things had gone well for him pretty much right off the bat, but let’s say for the sake of argument that they hadn’t and he had to pick up dirty plates and sweep up the crushed saltines of children. How much resilience had there been in his dream, and how far would he have slogged on without any signs of success? The actor shook his head. “I couldn’t have done it,” he said.)

There were things I learned about writing while working as a waitress that I hadn’t come to during my student years, and the first was my own level of commitment. As the months went by, I knew that I wrote because it was my joy, and if I kept on being a waitress forever, writing would still be my joy. But that didn’t mean I didn’t have plans to use writing as a means of escape. I had been unwaveringly loyal to my talent, and now that the chips were down, I expected it to be loyal to me. With so much time for thinking and so little time for writing, I learned how to work in my head. Between pilfering croutons off salad plates and microwaving fudge sauce for the sundaes, I decided I was going to make up a novel, and that the novel was going to get me out of the restaurant. The novel was going to be my getaway car.

From the moment I walked into Allan Gurganus’s class, I had been utterly devoted to the short story. When people asked me when I planned to write a novel, I would say, If I were a violinist, would you ask me when I was going to play the viola, just because it’s bigger? (Shake your head in pity here for the self-righteous undergraduate.) I still believe that, even though many writers work in both the long and short forms of fiction, you can always spot the ones who are really short story writers, in the same way you know who is truly a novelist. Very few people—John Updike being one notable exception—are equally gifted. I was a short story writer. I was sure of it. But I had gotten myself into a novel-size hole, and I knew it was going to take a lot more than a story to save me. The problem was that I had received a massive and expensive education in how to write short stories and not so much as a correspondence course in how to write a novel. (I realize now that this is largely a matter of time, logistics, and to some degree patience. A teacher may be willing to read fifteen short stories a week, but no one can read rambling, lengthy, decontextualized segments of fifteen novels. There is also the fact that novel excerpts rarely benefit from group critique. It’s one thing to get all those opinions when you’ve finished, but when you’re still in the middle of a project, it’s like having fifteen people give you conflicting directions as to how best to get to the interstate.) And so, with a couple of cheeseburger platters balanced up my arm, I began to teach myself how to write a novel while being a waitress. 

* * *

NO MATTER WHAT you’re writing—story, novel, poem, essay—the first thing you’re going to need is an idea. As I said earlier, don’t make this the intimidating part. Ideas are everywhere. Lift up a big rock and look under it, stare into a window of a house you drive past and dream about what’s going on inside. Read the newspaper, ask your father about his sister, think of something that happened to you or someone you know and then think about it turning out an entirely different way. Make up two characters and put them in a room together and see what happens. Sometimes it starts with a person, a place, a voice, an event. For some writers it’s always the same point of entry; for me it’s never the same. If I’m really stuck, nothing helps like looking through a book of photography. Open it up, look at a picture, make up a story.

If you decide to work completely from your imagination, you will find yourself shocked by all the autobiographical elements that make their way into the text. If, on the other hand, you go the path of the roman à clef, you’ll wind up changing the details of your life that are dull. You will take bits from books you’ve read and movies you’ve seen and conversations you’ve had and stories friends have told you, and half the time you won’t even realize you’re doing it. I am a compost heap, and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down, is digested and excreted by worms, and rots. It’s from that rich, dark humus, the combination of what you encountered, what you know, and what you’ve forgotten, that ideas start to grow. I could make a case for the benefits of wide-ranging experience, both personal and literary, as enriching the quality of the compost, but the life of Emily Dickinson neatly dismantles that theory.

When I was putting my first novel together in my head, I didn’t take notes, nor did I write down my customers’ orders. I figured that if I came up with something that was worth remembering I would remember it, and I would forget about the rest. (This approach did not extend to what people wanted for dinner.) I don’t think my theory on memory is necessarily true—I’m sure I’ve forgotten plenty of things that would seem good to me now—but not writing things down, especially in the early stages of thinking them through, does cause me to concentrate more deeply and not become overly committed to anything that isn’t firmly in place. Also, in the early stages of thinking up a novel, I’m not exactly sure what I would write down anyway. It’s like walking through a field in a snowstorm and for a long time you see nothing but the snow, but then in the distance there’s something, a tree or a figure or smoke, you just don’t know. I always have the sensation that I’m straining to see what’s in front of me. The snow lessens for a minute and I catch a glimpse of an idea, but when I get closer the light starts to fade. I squint constantly. It goes on like this for a long time. If I were taking notes, they would read: I see something. A shape? I have no idea. It’s not exactly the stuff that literary archives are made of.

The Patron Saint of Liars, the novel largely assembled at a now defunct Nashville T.G.I. Friday’s, started like this: There is a girl in a Catholic home for unwed mothers, and she goes into labor. The home is far out in the country, maybe forty-five minutes from the hospital, and the girl decides she’s not going to tell anyone what’s going on. She’s not going to cry out, because she wants to ride in the ambulance with her baby, although I think that should be plural—I vaguely remember she had twins. (Were I in analysis, I would say in retrospect that this idea probably had something to do with the fact that I had left my husband and was very, very glad I wasn’t pregnant and didn’t have a child. But who knows? I certainly wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I rolled some silverware into napkins, took daiquiris to the businessmen at table eight. It was 1989, and we sold frozen strawberry daiquiris by the tankerful.)

So here’s this girl giving birth in the middle of the night, and there are other girls in the room, girls who live on her hall, her co-conspirators come to help her. I looked at each one of them. I spent days thinking of their stories while I bused tables and ran the dishwasher and restocked the expediter’s table in the kitchen. (Parsley, parsley, parsley! We were all about parsley at Friday’s. “To have no green would be obscene,” another waitress told me.) I think the novel is going to be about the girl giving birth, but there’s another girl in the room named Rose, and she’s come all the way to Kentucky from California in her own car and she has a secret. This girl has a husband. From there I start to stretch the story in every direction. What happened to Rose in California? Who were her parents and who was this husband and why did she marry him in the first place? Whom does she meet and whom will she marry later and where did he come from? I puzzled it out, went down dead ends and circled back, made connections and plot twists I never saw coming. All in my head.

While this noisy novel dominated my thoughts during shifts, my actual writing time was devoted to applications. I was applying to every fellowship program I could find, desperately hoping to land someplace that would feed me and put a roof over my head and give me time to put my fully imagined novel on paper. The stuff of dreams for people in my position is all contained in a single book called Grants and Awards Available to American Writers, which is issued yearly by the PEN American Center. If you want to know when a contest deadline is or find out what prizes and fellowships are available, this is the place to look. I was down to being one of three finalists for a spot at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College (now called the Radcliffe Institute) and spent a few extremely hopeful weeks before finding out I hadn’t gotten it. That was a dark day of waitressing (though, happily, I got the fellowship four years later).

Just about the time I had enough seniority at Friday’s to land the best section in the high-cash Friday night/Saturday night/Sunday brunch trifecta, I heard from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a residency program that offered small apartments and a stipend of $350 a month to ten writers and ten visual artists, from the beginning of October through the beginning of May. I was in. It was the spiritual equivalent of Charlie Bucket finding the golden ticket in his chocolate bar. I quit my job, packed up my car, and drove to Cape Cod.

* * *

I MADE A DECISION on the trip up: I was going to put writing first. I should have done this earlier, but there were always too many other things going on. Mostly I was falling in love, and then falling out of love, and then falling in love with someone else. Love, with all of its urgency, wound up getting more of my attention than writing. Work had gotten a good deal of attention as well, and by “work” I mean waitressing. On top of that, I was a good friend and a good daughter. I budgeted in a certain amount of time to feel guilty about what I had done in the past and anxious about what I would do in the future. I didn’t know exactly where writing fell in this inventory. I was sure it wasn’t at the bottom of the list, but I also knew it was never safely at the top. Well, now it was being transferred to the top. I could see the genius in not having given 100 percent of myself over to writing before. It had kept me from ever having to come to terms with how good I was—or wasn’t. As long as something got in the way of writing, I could always look at a finished story and think it could have been a little better if only I hadn’t spent so much time on XYZ. How much better I never knew, because I never knew how much of myself I was holding back. Now, though, I would have seven months to write the novel that was in my head, seven months to live up to the incalculable gift that had been bestowed on me by the Work Center. It was my intention for at least this seven-month chunk of my life to do my best work and see how good it was. I had an impetus now: desperation. The only thing waiting for me back at home was my job at Friday’s. If I wanted a better life for myself, I was going to have to write it.

When I arrived at the Work Center, I lugged my computer—a mid-eighties behemoth whose parts were packed into many boxes—up the narrow staircase to my tiny apartment. I made my single bed, hung up my towels, and went to the grocery store. The last of the summer tourists were decamping, and I caught a glimpse of what a ghost town Provincetown would be in the winter. The next day I got up, made a cup of tea, and sat down at my desk. Even though I had spent the past year living with the novel in my head, I had not committed one word to paper. That was the moment I remembered that I had never written a novel and had no idea what I was doing.

Now that I was sitting still in front of a blank screen, I was appalled by all the things I hadn’t considered. Sure, I had some characters, a setting, a sketchy plot, but until that minute I had never considered the actual narrative structure. Who was telling this story? I wanted to write the story in an omniscient third, a big Russian-style narrative in which the point of view moved seamlessly between characters because these were people who were not forthcoming with each other and a single first-person narrative couldn’t possibly tell the whole story. But I didn’t know how to construct an omniscient voice. (I would take a running jump at it in the next two novels I wrote as well, and each time I retreated. It wasn’t until my fourth novel, Bel Canto, that I finally figured out how to do it.)

If I hadn’t put together a narrative structure, what in the hell had I been doing all that time? I panicked. From the moment I arrived in Provincetown, I felt the sand slipping through the hourglass. Seven months left no time to dither. I decided to give each of my three main characters a first-person point of view. The narratives would not go back and forth; everyone would have one shot to tell his or her story, and that was it. Like many decisions, this one was both arbitrary and born of necessity. Would it work? I doubted it, but I couldn’t identify any other options. From my window I saw the occasional writer or painter milling around in the parking lot. They would stop and talk to one another, head off into town. I was upstairs having the revelation that the gorgeous, all-encompassing novel that had been with me for the past year was junk. I had to come up with another idea, fast. I had to hit the delete key and get rid of every trace of the awful work I’d done so far. 

I did wind up writing the book I came to write, and a great deal of the credit for that goes to my friend Diane Goodman, who was living in Pennsylvania at the time. Long-distance phone calls were ridiculously expensive in those days, and I was ridiculously broke; still, talking to Diane proved a wise investment. She told me that I was not allowed to throw out anything I’d written. “Calm down,” she said again and again. “Stick it out.” It was lifesaving counsel. Without it, I could have spent the next seven months writing the first chapters of eighteen different novels, all of which I would have ultimately hated as much as I hated this one. I was used to writing short stories. I was programmed for bright, impassioned binges of work that lasted a day or two or three, and I knew nothing about the long haul. Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea. If I thought too much about how far I’d come or the distance I still had to cover, I’d sink. As it turns out, I have had this same crisis in every novel I have written since: I am sure my idea is horrible and that a new idea is my only hope. But what I’ve realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes the old idea. I made a pledge that I wouldn’t start the sexy new novel I imagined until I had finished the tired old warhorse I was dragging myself through at present. Keeping that pledge has always served me well. The part of my brain that makes art and the part that judges that art had to be separated. While I was writing, I was not allowed to judge. That was the law. It was the lesson I had been unable to learn back in Jane Cooper’s poetry class at Sarah Lawrence, but I was older now and it was high time.

Not only did I learn how to write a novel in Provincetown; I found the perfect person to read it. Elizabeth McCracken was another of the writing fellows at the Work Center that season, and she lived three houses away from me. If I looked out my kitchen window, I could see whether her light was on. Sometimes you don’t realize what’s lacking in life until you find it. That was the way I felt about Elizabeth. I had plenty of friends, and a few extremely close friends, but I’d never had a true reader, someone who didn’t automatically love everything I did, someone whose criticism and praise were always thoughtful and consistent. She knew when to be tough and when to just be encouraging. She read everything I wrote and could say, You know, you’ve already done this too many times. (She recently told me to cut about ninety-five percent of the dream sequences in State of Wonder, pointing out that enough of my characters had received wise counsel from dead people in my books already.) Whatever I gave her, she read immediately, which is what every writer desperately wants, and she brought the full weight of her talent and intelligence to bear on all of it. I tried my best to do the same for her. Of course, we didn’t know it was going to be like this when we first met. We went for ice cream. We talked about books and movies, swapped magazines, got along. But two writers becoming friends pretty quickly get to a point where they’re going to have to read each other’s work. It’s nervous-making, because if you like the person but you don’t like her work, you know the friendship is going to go only so far. For Elizabeth and me, the moment of truth came about two weeks after we met—she gave me a story and I gave her the first chapter of my novel, and after we had read the pages, we went down to the Governor Bradford, one of the few bars in Provincetown that stayed open all winter, and talked the night away. We had so much to say, so much praise and advice, so many good ideas. We had found each other.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that I write the book I want to read, the one I can’t find anywhere. I don’t sell my books before I finish them, and no one reads them while I’m writing them, except for Elizabeth. I write my books for myself, and for her. You might infer from this that our books and our writing processes are very much alike, but it isn’t the case at all. Not only is our work different, but how we work is incredibly different: I get everything set in my head and then I go, whereas Elizabeth will write her way into her characters’ world, trying out scenes, writing backstories she’ll never use. We marvel at each other’s process, and for me it’s a constant reminder that there isn’t one way to do this work. I love Elizabeth’s books, but the road she takes to get to them would kill me. 

* * *

PARADOXICALLY, a single winter day in Provincetown is somewhere between seventy and eighty hours long. I had never encountered such an overwhelming amount of silent, unstructured time. After years of saying I needed more freedom, I suddenly found that I needed more structure. My novel needed structure as well. Knowing I should write a long, beautiful description has never gotten me out of bed in the morning, which is probably why I never made it as a poet. The thing I relied on most heavily to get me up and typing was the power of plot. It was my indispensable road map. I also realized—and learned this more with every novel I wrote—that the plot needed to be complicated enough and interesting enough to keep me sitting in a straight-backed kitchen chair seven days a week. Below please find pretty much everything I know about plot:

If you wind up boring yourself, you can pretty much bank on the fact that you’re going to bore your reader. I believe in keeping several plots going at once. The plot of a novel should be like walking down a busy city street: First there are all the other people around you, the dog walkers and the skateboarders, the couples fighting, the construction guys swearing and shouting, the pretty girl on teetering heels who causes those construction guys to turn around for a split second of silence. There are drivers hitting the brakes, diving birds slicing between buildings, and the suddenly ominous clouds banking to the west. All manner of action and movement is rushing towards you and away. But that isn’t enough. You should also have the storefronts at street level and the twenty stories of apartments full of people and their babies and their dreams. Below the street, there should be infrastructure: water, sewer, electricity. Maybe there’s a subway down there as well, and it’s full of people. For me, it took all of that to stay emotionally present for seven months of endless days. Many writers feel that plot is passé; they’re so over plot—who needs plot?—to which I say, learn how to construct one first and then feel free to reject it.

The length and shape of the chapter goes a long way in determining how your plot will move forward. Maybe an understanding of chapters was one skill that was transferable from my short-story-writing days. (Which, by the way, were over. As much as I had loved the story, I now loved the novel, loved the huge expanse of space there was to work in. I never went back.) A chapter isn’t a short story and needn’t be able to stand alone, nor is it just a random break that signifies that the novelist is tired of this particular storyline and would like to go on to something else. Chapters are like the foot pedals on a piano; they give you another level of control. Short chapters can speed the book along, while long chapters can deepen intensity. Tiny chapters—a lone paragraph or a single sentence—can be irritatingly cute. I like a chapter that both has a certain degree of autonomy and at the same time pushes the reader forward, so that someone who is reading in bed and has vowed to turn off the light at the chapter’s end will instead sit up straighter and keep turning the pages. (If you want to study the master of the well-constructed chapter—and plot and flat-out gorgeous writing—read Raymond Chandler. The Long Goodbye is my favorite.)

Although my novel was written in three separate first-person sections, I wrote it linearly—that is to say, page two was started after page one was finished. This is one of the very few pieces of advice that I’m passing out—along with not going into debt for your MFA—that I would implore you to heed. Even if you’re writing a book that jumps around in time, has ten points of view, and is chest-deep in flashbacks, do your best to write it in the order in which it will be read, because it will make the writing, and the later editing, incalculably easier. Say you know the girlfriend is going to drown. It’s going to be a powerhouse scene. You’ve thought it through a thousand times and it’s all written out in your head, so you decide to go ahead and drown her in advance, get that out of the way. You have yet to work out why it happens, or what she’s doing in the water in the first place, but at least you know she’s going under, so why not go ahead? Here’s why: Because then you have to go back and write the boring parts, the lead-up, but you aren’t letting the scene build logically. Instead you’re steering the action towards this gem you’ve already written. When you write your story in the order in which it will be read, you may in fact decide that this girl shouldn’t drown after all. Maybe the boyfriend jumps in to save her and he drowns instead. You learn things about characters as you write them, so even if you think you know where things are heading, don’t set it in stone; you might change your mind. You have to let the action progress the way it must, not the way you want it to. You create an order for the universe and then you set that universe in motion. No doubt Shakespeare loved King Lear, but it was clear that Cordelia would not survive, and how could Lear go on without Cordelia? The writer cannot go against the tide of logic he himself has established; or, to put it another way, he can, but then the book ceases to be any good.

So if you originally plan to drown the girl and then it turns out the girl doesn’t drown, does that mean the characters are capable of taking over the book? No. If you’re building a house with a downstairs master bedroom, and then decide to move the bedroom upstairs, the bedroom has not taken over the house. You have simply changed your mind, and your architectural plans, something that is considerably easier to do before the house is completely built (or the novel is entirely written). No matter what you may have heard, the characters don’t write their story. Oh, people love to believe that, and certain writers love to tell it—I was typing away and then all of a sudden it was as if I had been possessed. The story was unfolding before me. I had been hijacked by my own characters. I was no longer in control. Yeah, yeah, yeah. What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God that you’re ever going to get. All of the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the leaves and all the trees and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world. As much as I might wish for it to happen, my characters no more write the book than the puppets take over the puppet show. (A few years ago, I was giving a talk in Texas and a woman raised her hand and said that her minister had told the congregation that they should never read novels with omniscient narrators, because the writer was trying to imitate God. “Really?” I said. “No Tolstoy? No Dickens?” The woman shook her head. I have to say it thrilled me to think that narrative structure was dangerous enough to rate its own Sunday sermon.) 

* * *

BACK IN PROVINCETOWN, winter went on and on. The ice cream shop closed. The few bars that hadn’t closed for the season stayed open later. I holed up in my apartment and wrote, and plenty of times I got stuck. Despite all the good plans I had made while waiting tables, I could see now that my strokes had been broad and there were plenty of details that had yet to be devised. Occasionally I panicked. I did not, however, get writer’s block, because as far as I’m concerned, writer’s block is a myth.

Writer’s block is a topic of great discussion, especially among young writers and people who think I should write their book for them. I understand being stuck. It can take a very long time to figure something out, and sometimes, no matter how much time you put in, the problem cannot be solved. To put it another way, if it were a complicated math proof you were wrestling with instead of, say, the unknowable ending of Chapter 7, would you consider yourself “blocked” if you couldn’t figure it out right away, or would you think that the proof was difficult and required more consideration? The many months (and sometimes years) I put into thinking about a novel before I start to write it saves me considerable time while I’m writing, but as Elizabeth McCracken likes to point out, it’s all a trick of accounting. There may be no tangible evidence of the work I do in my head, but I’ve done it nevertheless.

Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination. Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put it off. But don’t give “putting it off” a magic label. Writer’s block is something out of our control, like a blocked kidney—we are not responsible. We are, however, entirely responsible for procrastination, and in the best of all possible worlds, we should also be responsible for being honest with ourselves about what is really going on. I have a habit of ranking everything in my life that needs doing. The thing I least want to do is number one on the list, and that is almost always writing fiction. The second thing on the list may be calling Verizon to dispute a charge on my bill, or cleaning the oven. Below that, there is mail to answer, an article to write for a newspaper in Australia about the five most influential books in my life and why. What this means is that I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one—writing fiction. (I admit this is complicated, that I can simultaneously profess to love writing and to hate it, but if you’ve read this far you must be pretty interested in writing yourself, and if you are, well, you know what I’m talking about.)

The beautiful thing about living in Provincetown in the winter, and having no money and no place to spend it even if I did, was that there was rarely anything in the number-two spot on my to-do list. There was really nothing to distract me from the work I was there to do, and so the work got done. The lesson is this: The more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page. If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try this: Pick an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day. During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. Sit. Still. Quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your e-mail. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing. Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing—or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting. Either way, you’ll have your answer.

I once gave this entire explanation to an earnest group of college freshmen who had all suffered cruelly from writer’s block. When I finished, one girl raised her hand. “Clearly, you’ve just never had it,” she said, and the other students nodded in relieved agreement. Maybe not.

* * *

I FINISHED my novel at the beginning of April 1991. I printed it out, and then I stood on the pages. There were about four hundred of them, and I felt considerably taller. I went out and found Elizabeth in the yard hanging her laundry on the clothesline and I told her I was done and we hugged and made a lot of noise and went off for a drink in the middle of the day. Because Elizabeth had read every chapter as I wrote it, and because I took all of her suggestions and did my revisions along the way, I was able to straighten up the manuscript fairly quickly. Writers handle the process of revision in as many different ways as they handle the writing itself. I do a great deal of tinkering, but I never make any structural changes—putting in a different narrator, say, or giving the main character a sister. Elizabeth will do such major rewrites from draft to draft that every version could exist as a separate book. We both get to the same place in the end. One method of revision that I find both loathsome and indispensable is reading my work aloud when I’m finished. There are things I can hear—the repetition of words, a particularly flat sentence—that I don’t otherwise catch. My friend Jane Hamilton, who is a paragon of patience, has me read my novels to her once I finish. She’ll lie across the sofa, eyes closed, listening, and from time to time she’ll raise her hand. “Bad metaphor,” she’ll say, or “You’ve already used the word inculcate.” She’s never wrong. 

Back in Provincetown, April 1991, I finally had my book but was missing a title to go with it. I had had a title while I was writing it, and it was so bad that, lo these many years later, I still cringe to write it down: The Luck You Make. Not long before I finished the book, I was talking to my mother on the phone one night and she asked me to tell her again what my title was. And so I did. “What?” she said, long-distance. “The Lucky Mink?” Once your own mother has called your book The Lucky Mink, you pretty much have to throw the title out.

After that, I was at a complete loss, and then a friend told me to come up with ten titles. “Do it fast,” she said. “Don’t think about it too much.” She said to type each title on a separate sheet of paper, and underneath type a novel by Ann Patchett. I was then to tape them all to the wall. Every evening, in those last weeks at the Work Center, I invited the other fellows over to pull a single title off and throw it away. It was my one attempt at participatory installation art. At the end of the ten days, the only title left was The Patron Saint of Liars, a novel by Ann Patchett, so I went with that.

When the fellowship was over on the first of May, I packed up my manuscript and drove away. I cried all the way to the Sagamore Bridge. I knew I was leaving behind one of the greatest experiences of my life. I will forever miss what I had there: the endless quiet days, the joy of living a hundred feet from my new best friend, the privilege of getting to stay inside the fog of my own imagination for as long as I could stand it without anyone asking me to come out. It might not have been a realistic life, but dear God, it was a beautiful one.

* * *

WHEN I WAS TWENTY, I published my first short story in The Paris Review. An agent called me soon after and asked to take me on as a client and I said yes, though I didn’t have another story that was any good at all. Now, seven years later, I arrived from Provincetown at her office in New York with my novel in a box. I had borrowed money to make the drive home to Nashville, but I wasn’t in any hurry to get there. My agent had told me that the market for first fiction wasn’t what it used to be. (Note: This is what agents say. It’s probably what F. Scott Fitzgerald’s agent said when he brought in This Side of Paradise.) “But I’m young!” I said cheerfully. (Note: Young is always in fashion for debuting novelists. I was twenty-seven.) “You weren’t exactly packing up your college textbooks yesterday,” my agent said. (Fitzgerald was twenty-three.)

When I arrived home four days later, my mother came out to the driveway to meet me. An editor at Houghton Mifflin had bought The Patron Saint of Liars for $45,000. 

For the first time in my life, I was going to have money (paid out over three years in four installments), and the only thing I could think of to buy was a new air conditioner for my car. It had been out for two years. Now that I had a book contract and an advance on the way, I went to a mechanic. He said the air conditioner was low on coolant, a problem that was resolved for fifteen bucks. Somehow, that’s the detail of selling my first book that I always remember.

The question that people are likely to ask me (after I’ve politely declined to write their book for them) is how to get an agent. Obviously, I’m not the best person to address this question, since my agent found me just moments after the end of my childhood and we have been together happily ever since. Still, there are a few things I’ve learned along the way: My best piece of advice is to finish the book you’re writing, especially if it’s your first book, before looking for an agent. Most agents will tell you the same thing, unless you’ve already published half of said unfinished book in The New Yorker. Writers need agents these days. Not only are rights getting more and more complicated in this electronic age, but for the most part publishing houses no longer have slush pile readers. Agents now do the work of sifting and sorting the unsolicited manuscripts themselves. I was recently doing a book signing when someone came up in the line and asked me how to get an agent. You’d think I’d have a pat answer down for this one, but it always stumps me. Fortunately, my friend Niki Castle was standing close by and I turned the question over to her. Niki had worked at International Creative Management in New York for four years, and I thought her advice was excellent. She told the woman to go to one of the online agent sites that list agents who are looking for new clients, and then follow their submission guidelines to the letter. If they ask for a twenty-page writing sample, do not send in twenty-two pages. “The most basic infractions of the guidelines can mean your work may never get read,” Niki said.

Do not assume that finding an agent or getting published is something that automatically happens to well-connected insiders. I have sent my agent countless potential clients over the years, ones I believed were worthy, and I think she’s signed three of them. Publishing is still a market-driven enterprise, so an agent wants to find a great writer as much as the writer wants to find a great agent. But no agent takes on a client as a favor to someone if they really don’t like the book and don’t think they can sell it. Therefore, I suggest focusing your energy on the part of the equation you control: the quality of your work. You can also try to publish your work in general-interest or literary magazines in the hope that an agent will find you. (It worked for me.) If you try that route, I have two pieces of advice: First, read the magazine you’re submitting to. If you aren’t willing to read several back issues of Granta or Tin House, then you have no business sending them a story. Magazines really do have personalities, and you should be able to figure out if your story might fit in. Second, if you have one really good, perfectly polished story—wait until you have three or four. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a letter from the editor saying she liked this one but it wasn’t quite right and now she’d like to see something else. That’s a very depressing letter to receive if you don’t have anything else to send.

At every stage of writing a book, there is a sense of If only … If only I could find the time to write and if only I could figure out the third chapter and if only I could get my book finished. If only I could find an agent. It only some editor would buy my book. If only I could get a good publicist. If only the book would get reviewed. If only they would do more promotion. If only it would sell. It goes on like this forever, until you’re ready to start another book and kick off the cycle all over again.

After my book sold, I went to Boston and got dressed up to meet the people at Houghton Mifflin. My editor took me to lunch at the Ritz and we ate crab cakes and drank martinis. This was twenty years ago, and at the time it felt like something that must have happened twenty years before. I’ve always thought that book publishing was an old-fashioned business, and Houghton Mifflin, back in their long-gone warren of interconnected houses, seemed one step removed from Leonard Woolf’s Bloomsbury.

* * *

I’VE BEEN AT THIS writing job for a long time now, and yet for the most part I still solve my problems in the same ways I first learned to solve them as a college student, a graduate student, a waitress. There are certain indispensable things I came to early, like discipline. But other things, like serious research, I came to later on in my career. I have never subscribed to the notion of writing what you know, at least not for myself. I don’t know enough interesting things. I began to see research as both a means of writing more interesting novels and a way to improve my own education. Case in point: I didn’t know a thing about opera, and so I figured that writing about an opera singer would force me to learn. Conducting research, which had never even occurred to me might be part of writing when I was young, has turned out to be the greatest perk of the job. I’ve read Darwin and Mayr and Gosse to get a toehold on evolutionary biology. I’ve floated down the Amazon in an open boat just to see the leaves and listen to the birds. I’ve called up the head of malaria research at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and asked if I could spend the day following him around. He said yes.

As much as I love doing research, I also know that it provides a spectacular place to hide. It’s easy to convince myself that I can’t start to write my book until I’ve read ten other books, or gone ten other places, and the next thing I know a year has gone by. To combat this, I try to conduct my research after I’ve started writing, or sometimes even after I’ve finished, using it to go back and correct my mistakes. I try to shovel everything I learn onto the compost heap instead of straight into the book, so that the facts just become a part of my general knowledge. I hate to see a novel in which the author has clearly researched every last detail to death and, to prove it, forces the reader to slog through two pages describing the candlesticks that were made in Salem in 1792. 

No matter how far I venture outside my own experience, I also know that I am who I am, and that my work will always reflect my character regardless of whether or not I want it to. Dorothy Allison once told me that she was worried she had only one story to tell, and at that moment I realized that I had only one story as well (see: The Magic Mountain—a group of strangers are thrown together …) and that really just about any decent writer you can think of can be boiled down to one story. The trick, then, is to learn not to fight it, and to thrive within that thing you know deeply and care about most of all. I think that’s why Grace Paley was pushing us to be better people when we were still young and capable of change.

As much as I love what I do, I forever feel like a dog on the wrong side of the door. If I’m writing a book, I’m racing to be finished; if I’m finished, I feel aimless and wish that I were writing a book. I am diligent in my avoidance of all talismans, rituals, and superstitions. I don’t burn a certain candle or drink a certain cup of tea (not a certain cup nor a certain kind of tea). I do not allow myself to believe that I can write only at home, or that I write better when I’m away from home. I was once at a writers’ colony in Wyoming and the girl in the studio next to mine dragged her desk away from the window the minute we arrived. “My teacher says a real writer never has her desk in front of a window,” she told me, and so I dragged my desk in front of the window. Desk positioning does not a real writer make. I had a terrible computer solitaire problem once. I decided that my writing day could not begin until I won a game, and soon after that I had to win another game every time I left my desk and came back again. By the time I had the game removed from my computer I was a crazy person, staking my creativity on my ability to lay a black ten on a red jack. I missed computer solitaire every day for two years after it was gone. Habits stick, both the good ones and the bad. 

While I’ve had long periods of time when I’ve written every day, it’s nothing that I’m slavish about. In keeping with the theory that there are times to write and times to think and times to just live your life, I’ve gone for months without writing and never missed it. One December, my husband and I were having dinner with our friends Connie Heard and Edgar Meyer. I was complaining that I’d been traveling too much, giving too many talks, and that I wasn’t getting any writing done. Edgar, who is a double bass player, was singing a similar tune. He’d been on the road constantly and he was nowhere near finishing all the compositions he had due. But then he told me a trick: He had put a sign-in sheet at the door of his studio, and when he went in to compose, he wrote down the time, and when he stopped composing he wrote down that time, too. He told me he had found that the more hours he spent composing, the more compositions he finished.

Time applied equaled work completed. I was gobsmacked, and if you think I’m kidding, I’m not. It’s possible to let the thinking-about process become so complicated that the obvious answer gets lost. I made a vow on the spot that for the month of January, I would dedicate a minimum of one hour a day to my chosen profession. One hour a day for thirty-one days wasn’t asking so much, and I usually did more. The result was a stretch of some of the best writing I’d done in a long time, and so I stuck with the plan past the month of January and into the rest of the year. I’m sure it worked partly because I had the story in my head and I was ready to start writing, but it also worked because my life had gotten so complicated and I was in need of a simple set of rules. Now when people tell me they’re desperate to write a book, I tell them about Edgar’s sign-in sheet. I tell them to give this great dream that is burning them down like a house on fire one lousy hour a day for one measly month, and when they’ve done that—one month, every single day—to call me back and we’ll talk. They almost never call back. Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.

<< < 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 > >>

Comments

user comment image
Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

Share your Thoughts for The Getaway Car

500+ SHARES Facebook Twitter Reddit Google LinkedIn Email
Share Button
Share Button