Monday, January 19, 2015

Ann Patchett and Writing For Publication

My daughter's high school English class has each student doing a special project on a specific American author. The list of allowed authors was fairly extensive, and more modern than I expected; it pleased me. I gave my daughter a minimum of advice--"stay away from Nathaniel Hawthorne"--then shut up, because she was glaring at me. She picked Ann Patchett, not for her novels, which my daughter has never read until now, but because Ann owns Parnassus, the wonderful bookstore in Nashville.

I went and fetched the books by Ann Patchett I currently have on hand. (I own her two most recent, State of Wonder and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, but they're out on loan.) In addition to some of her early novels, I have Truth and Beauty, Ann's memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a writer who died at age 39. I shelve it beside Lucy Grealy's memoir, The Autobiography of a Face.

This weekend I reread them both. I also made an early Saturday morning trip to our Starbucks, which is way out by Exit 7. I don't consider Starbucks enough of a treat over the coffee I make a home to drive that far to get it, but Saturday! Oh, Saturday! Starbucks was the one place in Bristol we judged would have copies of the weekend Wall Street Journal, and they did, and there on page C8 was a lovely review of The War That Saved My Life. (My publicist had alerted me of its publication.)

The Wall Street Journal is a big deal. Trust me. All sorts of cool things have been happening for TWTSML; it looks like it's going to be my breakout novel, the one that gets my name a little farther out there.

It's my sixteenth published book.

Ann Patchett is, in my opinion, one of our finest living novelists. She has extraordinary talent and she understands her craft. That said, when I reread Truth and Beauty, what struck me most was how hard she worked, how determined she was to become successful as a writer, and how long it took for her to do so.

After college she did an MFA in Iowa, which is almost stereotypical, really. She taught at a small college for a year, then retreated back to her mother's house, lived in the guest room, and worked as a waitress. She snagged a few stays in writers' retreats--you have to be pretty talented to do that--and she finished a novel. It was published to very modest success. She taught. She wrote magazine articles. Her second novel bombed. She taught. She wrote. Her third novel sold decently well in hardcover, then, inexplicably, became a paperback best-seller. That was Bel Canto. 

Suddenly Ann Patchett was an overnight success. At age 39. Eighteen years after she seriously started trying.

When I tell people it took me 9 years of continuous writing before I published a book, they look at me as though I'm not nearly as talented as they thought. Truth is, I'm plenty talented. You have to have some talent to write for publication, and you have to learn the craft, but after that it's pretty much hard work and the ability to withstand rejection.

My son told me yesterday that a guy in his dorm, a Creative Writing major, heard that I was a writer and asked my son what I'd done to get published. My son told him that I'd written a story worth publishing.

That's really all there is to it. Except that you've got to be patient, and you've got to work, and it helps a lot if you enjoy writing for its own sake, enjoy the process of becoming slightly better most days. That Starbucks is a long way away.