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From Chrysalis to Butterfly

Wanting, Becoming, Being: A Writer’s Journey

Years ago, when I was a pigtailed schoolgirl, my school saw fit to bring in a real live honest-to-goodness writer to talk to us about her life and her work. I was fifteen. I had been scribbling stuff down since I was five (at which age I wrote my earliest preserved piece of writing, a “poem” my father still fondly cherishes the memory of), and I was a voracious reader – but up until this moment that signified nothing. I loved to read books – perhaps somewhat obsessively so, given the pursuits of my peers, but that was it, I just loved reading. I was an experimental scribbler. That was all. And then, the epiphany.

Writing wasn’t what I DID. Writing was who I WAS, and writing was the only thing I wanted to do. No, the visiting writer didn’t hand me a pair of rose-tinted spectacles and tell me fairy stories about her art. On the contrary – she was blunt to the point of being painful, and told us of the misery as well as the joy. The days and weeks and months and sometimes years of waiting, waiting, waiting. The hurtful things people say. The rejections. The dismissal of your passion as a “hobby” that will never amount to anything. The constant reaching for that brass ring, which some never ever get to touch at all. The sense of a published book being somewhat equivalent to winning the lottery.

But she said all this with the light of angels in her eyes, and it brought home one very important thing to me. A writer is someone who is heartbreakingly, achingly, indelibly and hopelessly in love with language and with words. Writing is something you do not because you are searching for validation or monetary success (although it does come, to some) or a meaning for your life. A writer is someone who is able to transcend all the pain and all the frustration and all the crashing failures that lie strewn beside the path of the writing life – and get up, sometimes broken and bleeding, and cradle the precious Word in a cupped hand like a thirsty man in a desert does water, and go on.

I went on to study science at university, and I even got a master’s degree in molecular biology – but underneath it all, throughout that brief detour that my life took, I knew one thing about myself – I was, I would remain, a writer. I learned that on one rainy evening when I was fifteen years old, in the company of one of the truly Anointed.

You are all here because an epiphany along those lines happened to you. And it is my turn, in my own way, to pass on what was given to me.

You meet an artist, someone who works with clay or with pigment on blank canvas or with charcoal on paper, and if the artist is any good at all you immediately know that you are in the presence of something extraordinary, a different way of seeing the world we all inhabit, a talent, a gift, a vocation. An ARTIST. Someone who is doing something that an ordinary common-or-garden Joe Schmoe could never do – transform an idea into an image, or a dream into reality.

It’s almost painful how much this dictum doesn’t apply to the writers amongst us.

Part of it is that the tools used are the kind where familiarity breeds contempt – we all use language, after all, we’ve all known how to string a sentence together when communicating with our fellow human beings since, well, since we learned to talk. We were BABIES, for crying out loud. We were toddlers, children, many of us learned to lisp words before we were fully potty trained. How hard can it be, to string words together on a page and get a book?

A writer is measured by his or her success more than any other kind of artist. Meet a sculptor at a party and your questions will center on how he works, what sort of thing he makes, what inspires him. Tell someone at the same party that you’re a writer, and the response is usually, “Oh, would I have read anything of yours?” (i.e. – “Are you published…?”) And yet, the person who asked that question is just as likely to follow it up with something like, “Oh, I’ve thought about writing a book. Maybe I will, when I have more time/when I retire/when I get around to it.” Implying strongly that this putative masterpiece is easily the equal and possibly even a superior product to the thing that the writer at the party has produced.

The truth of it is, writing is HARD. And pursuing a writing life is even harder. It needs perseverance, even stubbornness; an ability to take hard knocks and then pick oneself up off the floor and start again; courage; wisdom; passion; an ability to walk a tightrope between believing in yourself absolutely in the face of whatever anyone else says, and being able to accept others’ suggestions as to where there is room for improvement. A huge dollop of luck. And talent.

Note that I leave talent last. Talent in a writer is less easy to perceive on an immediate level than it is in a visual artist. Depending on your taste, you can look at a work of art (or “art”) and be able to judge whether or not it sucks. With writing, one page of writing is much the same as another. It requires a certain amount of application of attention to discover whether an author of a book you’re holding is an actual storyteller or, well, or not. And publication is no real yardstick, either – there are plenty of books out there for which the only sane response is “what were they thinking?” But I guess tastes differ, at that, and a book that would appall me would be gleefully snapped up by the next reader in line.

But the publishing industry is a kind of modern equivalent of that medieval quandary about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin – the more contemporary question being, how many authors can dance in a publisher’s catalogue. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of manuscripts are submitted to publishers’ offices and mailed to overwhelmed literary agents. A bare fraction of them pass muster. A mere handful is published every year.

But still, they come.

There are three stages to writerhood – to professional writerhood – the Wanting, the Becoming, the Being. And the Wanting is where all of us begin.

In a recent issue of Poets and Writers magazine a newly published debut novelist writes about a life littered with “encouraging rejections” – the kind that tell you, you were THIS close, but sorry, no cigar. The kind that makes you want to scream, “Just what is it that you WANT from me???” It is a measure of the depth of mental exhaustion that this can bring you to that our author, the one in the article, relates of his own success in terms that might appall us, but that all of us who are writers are eminently capable of feeling empathy with. After two disastrous agents, our protagonist hooks up with Agent #3, who is everything that a writer could dream of. The agent says that the author’s novel will sell, and sell well, and sell fast. The agent says, phone me next Tuesday so we can discuss which houses I am going to be submitting this MS to.

The author is overjoyed.

Next Tuesday happens to be September 11, 2001.

In the midst of an appalled sense of watching the world coming to an end, our writer admits to a burning, unworthy thought that comes unbidden and stings like a wasp. If this is what it takes to stop me from publishing a book…

He got over it. The world staggered back into some sort of normalcy. The novel got published. All’s well that ends well – but there are days that all of us are watching some sort of end-of-the-world scenario and thinking “Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this? It will never happen. It can never happen. Look what happens when I even try.”

But it’s a measure of that Wanting that we struggle through these bitter dregs of what seems to be a poisoned chalice, and soldier on. It’s the Wanting. It’s the words that want out, it’s the stories that need to be told, it’s the voices in our heads telling us to go on, go on, go on. We carry on writing. We submit. We get rejected. We repackage and submit again.

At least one writers’ conference has had a presenter who has underlined the hard slog of it all by concrete evidence. One writer said, “These are my credentials for being here” – and unrolled a thick cylinder of paper which turned out to be rejection letters taped end to end. The honour roll ran the length of a hotel conference room.

Other writers wallpaper their studies with the stuff.

Yet others keep it piled up in boxes under the bed.

We’ve all got them. The rejections. The form rejections with a tick in a box which is so meaningless as to signify simply, “we hate you, go away”. The letters that are actually signed by a real person, or have a real handwritten scrawl on it: not QUITE, but keep trying.

I once submitted a story to the venerable London Magazine – a literary mag hoary with credentials and credibility, a stellar market which publishes some huge names in the literary game. I, a newbie, a raw beginner of no standing and no reputation, sent in a story to a place like that – just because. If you don’t stretch, how do you know how far you are from your goal…?

The editor of LM, who had been in that position for decades and was a respected figure in literary circles, was prone to responding to submissions on postcards – arbitrary things of sometimes abstract nature on which he would scribble something in his instantly recognizable spidery scawl. In response to my submission, I received a postcard that read, “Not enough background.”

I did what you aren’t supposed to do. I wrote back to him. I said, “Well, what kind of background would you like?”

Another postcard arrived in reply. “We’ll take it anyway.”

That is how a short story of mine came to be included in an anthology published to mark the 30th anniversary of London Magazine.

It was the Wanting that made me do it, honest. Break the rules, flout the expectations, talk back to the editor. I am a shrinking violet out in this cruel old world, honest I am – in everything except writing. It’s the Wanting that made me brave.

The story in that anthology led me to the publisher of the anthology, who referred me to an agent, who sold my first book of three fantasy short stories to Longman UK in 1995 – a book that has seen six reprintings in its ten years of existence, and which STILL brings me in a dribble of royalties twice a year.

Years rolled by, and I found myself in London again, this time with a novel-length manuscript under my arm. The Wanting set up its insistent call once more, and yet again I broke the rules. MS in hand, I marched into the London offices of the agent who I knew represented one of my favourite authors, and asked to speak to that agent.

“She’s in conference,” the well-trained receptionist replied.

“Fine,” I said, “I’ll wait.”

And I proceeded to do just that, parking myself in the waiting area with my box of papers and giving no indication that I would ever move again. The flustered receptionist sat there for a while shooting me occasional disbelieving looks, and them, when she couldn’t take it any longer, suddenly vanished into some guarded fastness behind her desk… to return with a somewhat astonished literary agent who got handed a manuscript box and politely asked to read it.

The agent was so blown away by the sheer chutzpah of this, that she did. She spent nearly forty minutes on the phone to me, after, discussing it with me. She tried to sell it. it didn’t quite come off.

No matter.

Ten years later, with new and potentially wonderful novel in hand, I emailed this agent, and I said, “You probably don’t even remember me, you must have had hundreds of manuscripts on your desk since that time, but this is who I am – and right now, I need an agent. Would you be willing to take me on?”

She emailed back that not only did she remember me but that she was thinking of me just the other day – that she thought I had a good story before, and that she was sorry that she couldn’t sell it for me at the time (it did get published in the meantime, by the way, but that’s another story…), but that she was in the process of winding down towards retiring and that she was cutting down on her list rather than taking on more clients. But she gave me the name and address of another agent who might be interested.

I sent the MS to the second agent, marking the envelope “by recommendation”. And sent it in. And received a phone call – from a New York literary agent! – not two weeks after I had done so, telling me that she loved it.

Less than six months after that, the book that became “The Secrets of Jin Shei” was sold in seven countries and four languages. To date, that has grown to twelve languages and more than twenty countries.

The Wanting had done its job. I was now no longer a chrysalis. I was a cocoon. I was in the process of transformation.

I was Becoming.

I was suddenly thrust into a world of contracts and deadlines and editors.

The galleys of “Jin Shei” turned up in the mail, with a note asking if I could go through it and get back to the editor two days before the parcel got to me. There were consultations, rewrites, times where editorial comments and suggestions were taken and implemented and times where I wrote screeds of emails defending a particular point and making sure it was left untouched. They wanted an entire character axed from the novel and I explained why it couldn’t be done, and they said, oh, okay. Contracts piled up in my filing cabinet – British, American, Italian, Dutch, Turkish, Catalan. I juggled manuscripts and editors and demands and deadlines. This was the BUSINESS end of the deal. The contracts named me “Author”, and there was suddenly a lot to do to live up to that title…

…and then the book arrives, after all this, and you aren’t Becoming any more. It’s changed into something different, into Being. You are holding a child of your heart, shaped and forged and formatted and designed and edited and marketed by dozens of other hands and minds but yours, your own, your story, YOUR book. And you know what? No matter how many times you go through this, no matter how many contracts there are in your cabinet, every book’s birth is something special. They smell so delicious. And there’s your name, on the cover. And you open it up and lo! You recognize the words within. They were born in your soul.

And you know what? You get to this point, and the fear really sets in. Because now you have to do it again. Before, you were measuring yourself against an outside bar, a set of standards given to you to meet – but from here on, you’ve MET them, and now you have to keep meeting them.

And the Wanting comes in again, howling, because there is another story waiting to be written.

And it all starts again.

This, this is what it is all about. A writer writes. The other aspects of this life are secondary, immaterial – the publishers of “Jin Shei” sent me on a seven-city tour to promote the book and it’s absolutely WONDERFUL to fly into a city knowing that there’s a book shop in it with your book in the window awaiting your presence to bring it to life – but it’s the words that are in your blood, not the chance to smile and sign and do readings at the local Barnes and Noble. You’re already writing the next one – in defiance of your fears, in the glory of your call to arms. You’re a writer, and you write.

No, it isn’t romantic. It isn’t glamorous, or glitzy, or high-flying – well, perhaps it is if your name is Stephen King and you’re an icon rather than a man in front of a typewriter. But for most of us, it’s simply this – it’s what we do. We get up in the morning and we do what needs to be done – we do laundry, go buy groceries, set the dinner to simmer, clean out kids’ rooms and cat litter boxes, weed the garden, feed the dog, take the garbage out – and then we sit down, and we open a door in the back of our mind, and we step out of that world and into another.

And the journey is worth every painful step of the way.

First posted at Storytellersunplugged 30 Dec 2007


About AlmaAlexander

I'm a scientist by education, a duchess by historical accident and an author who shares writing tips and glimpses of a writer's life, the mundane and the magic

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  1. Pingback: Indian Handicrafts » From Chrysalis to Butterfly

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