Before I was published, I didn’t have a clue.
Before I had an agent or any idea of which publishing house would release my debut novel, I didn’t know what it meant to be a novelist. Sure, I knew that it meant writing novels, and wanting to be published—i.e., wanting my writing to be read by more people than my mom and a handful of brave-enough friends—but I didn’t know yet how to write a novel that wasn’t drivel. So I read heaps of books on writing and publishing, like John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. I still adore his idea that fiction must be a “vivid and continuous dream.”
Now that my debut came out last year, and my second novel comes out today, I can genuinely, totally, absolutely say I have become a novelist. And while I found On Becoming a Novelist useful, to tell you the truth, I could really use On Being a Novelist.
Becoming a novelist is easier than being a novelist. At least, I catch myself thinking that nowadays. Before, my aspiration to be published was a fierce craving, a borderline obsession, a perseverance to climb over the mountain of rejections and make it to the other side. Once you achieve a goal you have worked toward for years, there’s bound to be some surprise, disorientation, and maybe even letdown. I’m pretty sure I had some sort of misty, heavenly vision of what Life as a Novelist would be like—before it actually happened.
Oh, I thought. This is a job. Also, I have to keep writing books. I can’t just sit on my butt—ahem, laurels—and expect praise, riches, and unadulterated happiness. True, I have gotten a tantalizing taste of each of these three things, but I doubt my debut will sneak into the realm of stratospheric popularity when I’m not looking.
I suspect my somewhat frenzied efforts to be published happened because I was rather young for a novelist at the time—I was twenty when I started writing Other, and twenty-three when it hit shelves. Since I reached the ripe old age of twenty-five on September 1, I’ve had some time to mellow, to slow down, to stop and smell the freshly inked pages. Even though there’s always the temptation to race to finish another manuscript, or follow the blurs of passing trends, I realize that being a novelist requires patience and maturity.
After the infatuation of the first sale fades, you had better love writing enough for a long-term relationship. Until death do us part and all that. Not that I would actually want a manuscript pried from my cold dead hands… but you get what I’m saying. I want to keep writing. Stories keep sprouting in my head. And considering my previous metaphor, that sentence sounds disturbingly like pushing up daisies, so I will leave it at that.
Perhaps becoming a novelist and being a novelist are one and the same. The desire to write, the love of reading, the lifelong learning—these haven’t left me. Maybe I had a clue all along.