About the Author
Done Yet? Struggling with the Novel
In May of 1994 I returned to St. Louis, after a six-year absence, and tried to rent an apartment. The search took me to South City, to neighborhoods I’d barely explored during my childhood and adolescence in St. Louis County, to lane after lane of stately, affordable, near-identical two-family flats -and to a prospective landlord who studied my credit application with a degree of weariness and skepticism. I’d left the line for employer blank.
It was the first time that I’d had to explain, in any official capacity, that I was a writer. Attaching myself to the occupation sounded preposterous. Nevertheless, I told him that I was writing a book, a fiction book, a novel, and that I was being funded for a year by a writing award from James Michener.
The news didn’t appear to lessen his doubts. "Fine," he said. "I’m going to need to talk to this James Michener."
In the end he settled for a phone call to the writing program at the University of Iowa, through which the award had been granted, and I bought a pick-up truck load of salvation army furniture and moved into my second floor flat on Sutherland Avenue. I’d inherited a large office desk from my father. I set it up in the second of two bedrooms and got down to work.
Each writer has his or her own big idea. Mine originated with an actual incident. I was living and teaching English in Taiwan in the late 1980’s, when, one evening, a Taiwanese businessman appeared at the restaurant where I and a group of other expatriate teachers dined each evening. He pretended to want to learn English. In fact he’d befriended us in order to make an extraordinary proposal. Months earlier he had gone to the Mainland China to seek out business opportunities and had met and fallen in love with a beautiful young mainland woman. He wished to marry her. At the time such a marriage between a Taiwanese and a Mainland Chinese was extremely difficult, if not impossible. He suggested that one of us go to China, find the woman, marry her (as Americans, Australians, Canadians, we would not face the same obstacles as he) and bring her out of China back to Taiwan so that they could begin a life together. Was he sincere? Hard to know. It was late. We’d all drank a lot of beer. Some in our group were interested, others not. Eventually the matter was dropped. But the proposal itself seemed to me to be a kind of gift, an evocative idea that I might someday build a novel around.
The best way to describe the slow evolution of a beginning writer is to say that you write with a misplaced belief in your own work. The scene, the characters, the story become vivid for you, and this allows you to inch forward and create connections and insights that you hope are distinguished, perhaps even exceptional. Except they’re not. At some point you’re able to reread your work with a cold, critical and fairly impartial eye and understand that what you’ve created is thin, unfocused, pale, unexceptional. The realization hurts. The uncommitted writer gives up. The committed writer continues on, because, after a day to two of moping, you recall a technique used by a favorite writer, and you read over a particular passage from that writer, and a light bulb goes off, and you think maybe you’ve discovered a way to correct one of several glaring problems in your novel. You forge ahead. You think you may just have solved the problem. Except you haven’t. This is what writing is, a long series of hopes and sudden disappointments on a small, daily scale and also on a large scale that occurs over the course of many years. This is difficult to bear. And yet the opposite condition -always believing that the work you produce is distinguished-is far worse because it allows you no room for growth and dooms you to certain failure.
Eventually the Michener award money ended, and I went out and did what nearly every struggling writer does: work in a bookstore, wait tables, adjunct teach. On Friday morning I might stand before a class of undergraduates and extol an incisive and passionate story by Alice Munro or John Cheever, and then later that night, embarrassed, I might be called upon to serve one of these students pasta at Farottos restaurant. Perhaps to compensate, I told friends, family, students and coworkers I was writing a novel. At home I worked nearly everyday on the book, four hours on the days I taught, more on the days I didn’t. I worked most weekends. I worked steadily throughout the day, three hours in the morning, several more in the afternoon and a few hours in the evening. The pages began to stack up. "Done yet?" my friends and family asked. "Almost," I answered. My girlfriend, Jen Jen, moved from Taiwan to St. Louis and began her own career odyssey-banking, hat sales, pharmaceutical franchise work. By early summer 1996 I had nearly 280 pages. Just before a weekend trip to Iowa City, I took a few days to sit down and read what I had accomplished so far.
For the first time I saw --or allowed myself to see-- enormous problems in the book. To begin with I was writing a novel that chronicled a Christian volunteer’s experience in Taiwan and then progressed into a journey across mainland China, and yet, foolishly, I’d begun the book with eighty pages set in Red Bud, Illinois and another thirty in a Taipei parish --all pages designed to convince the reader that my protagonist, Vincent, was serious about his vocation. But good writers could accomplish the same thing in a few paragraphs or short scenes. And much of the rest of the novel was functional but not really good.
This dismaying discovery settled in in waves. All weekend I brooded. Then I confessed my misgivings about the book to Jen Jen. The next Monday I cut the first 110 pages and started over.
The writing proceeded slower now because the sentences needed to be more articulate, more reflective of a character’s thoughts and feelings, wiser, deeper. In good books each sentence is doing three or four or sometimes ten complicated things at once. The demands of good prose --clarity, compression, precision, evocativeness-are almost overwhelming. Some days it is impossible. Most days it is close to impossible. And when you are successful in shaping a sentence, a paragraph, a passage or a scene, to your satisfaction, it immediately outshines the less developed writing it stands beside. Thus you’re always rewriting, bringing the level of your prose up to match the very best writing. And so I kept on. I taught. I waited tables. I lived my life. I continued to work on my book. In1998 I reached the halfway point. By then I’d been working on the book five years. Friends and family, who’d once been encouraging, now, out of concern or embarrassment, avoided the topic of my novel. That summer I grew tired, more than tired, fatigued, and a doctor discovered the source of the fatigue: a benign tumor near my thyroid. The ordeal was frightening. The surgery took time to recover from. In spring of 1999 I was passed over for a tenure-track teaching position at a local university. Why? I had no published book. I’d been teaching all the fiction classes at this university for two years, and these classes now belonged to another teacher.
It is somewhat romantic to be a struggling artist in your mid-twenties, less so in your early thirties. By thirty-five you begin to realize that, while the rest of your friends are laying the foundation for a secure life -a viable career, a house, children-you have taken what is turning out to be an enormous gamble. There is a popular and entirely false belief that every talented person who follows a dream eventually meets with success. In truth, talented and determined people fail all the time. Perhaps they didn’t get their lucky break. Think of the talented shortstop who, because there was no big league injury, did not get invited to play in the majors and did not bloom. Or in the case of writers, perhaps the work is too eccentric or demanding for publishers to deem profitable. Perhaps the novel is set in wearisome Akron, Ohio rather than alluring Paris, France or China. The other misconception is that artists are free spirits, that a life in the arts is less stressful and competitive than a career in business or law. Consider though that Master of Arts programs in writing graduate thousands of new writers each spring; yet only ten percent, perhaps less, will have a career via their work or through teaching writing.
After the loss of my teaching job, Jen Jen and I upped the stakes in our gamble. Among other fine qualities, South St. Louis had been wonderfully affordable. We’d managed to save some money, and we decided that I would focus almost exclusively on the book while she quit her jog and pursued a masters degree in Public Health. Privately, I had little hope that the gamble would pay off. But then something curious began happening. At the low-point of my career as a writer, the writing itself was getting noticeably better, deeper, more mature. The reasons for this, I suspect, are complicated and mysterious. Maybe all the struggling -and the compassion that struggling engenders-- was allowing me to see deeper into my story and to craft sentences that reflected some of that wisdom. Whatever the case, there were no big breakthroughs, no moments of "Eureka!" that allowed me to race through to the end. Instead there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of small breakthroughs that occurred over time, especially when I struggled the most, when I spent all afternoon or evening perfecting just the right phrase or thought. Those small victories, accumulated over months and years, made all the difference.
I began querying agents in the summer of 2001. It was eight months before one of them, a woman at a large New York literary agency, agreed to read the first 500 pages. I finished the novel in June of 2002, and she sent it out, all 667 pages, to more than a dozen commercial publishing houses. Nearly half were interested in publishing the novel. She sold Heaven Lake in six days.
I asked a writer friend of mine, who’d endured a seven-year struggle and the rejection of his first book, how he felt when his second novel was at last accepted. He said, "The nightmare is over." I felt differently, though probably no less relieved. I felt rescued. I felt as if I’d survived my gamble by the skin of my teeth.
Acquaintances are often startled when I tell them it took eight years to write my first novel. Writers barely lift an eyebrow. Some beginning authors write two or three books before they’re able to publish. Others, like myself, write the same book over and over. And I was far luckier than most in ways I haven’t yet mentioned. During those eight years, I received two fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center on Cape Cod. Even though I’d lost out on a teaching job, the university that denied me also provided me steady employment as a visiting writer for two years. Friends at UMSL and Wash. U. and the St. Louis Writer’s Workshop invited me to read and teach various classes. Far more valuable, I had a partner in the struggle, Jen Jen, a girlfriend who became a wife, who didn’t complain about the gamble or the setbacks and worked full-time most of those eight years while my teaching and part time jobs brought in little income, while my writing brought in nothing.
In truth, I was never really tempted to give up, though I often feared circumstances might force me to give up. And it wasn’t because I knew it would eventually work out, or that I was being brave and determined. It’s just that, year after year, I meant to finish and was dismayed and ashamed when I did not. I wish, in retrospect, that I hadn’t felt such shame at not finishing. To be a struggling writer is an honorable enough thing, no more or less honorable than any other honest endeavor. All along I felt toward the book the way a railroad hobbyist might feel toward the elaborate model railroad he’s building, piece by piece, in his basement. I wanted it to be detailed and beautiful and convincing. As creator, I’ll never know to what degree I was successful. Nor is it possible to escape the struggling that comes, inevitably, with each new book, including the second novel I’m writing now. But how lucky I’ve been. And what a privilege it is to choose your own project and sort through life’s dilemmas in the form of a grand story. What a pleasure to spend the morning shaping a scene, a description, a bit of dialogue, writing, rewriting, struggling, and feel, for the time being at least, that you’ve gotten it just right.