A full moon is rising peach-colored the night of the five-hundred-year anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the New World. Six months ago I planned for this to be the day I’d finish my novel. Instead it’s the day when I sit here, humbled again; I haven’t even finished the first draft of Burning the Sea. I didn’t go to any of the Columbus Day demonstrations either. And I still don’t have a lover, or a clean house, or perfect serenity. I’m sad.
It was so great to have the summer off, despite how broke it made me. Now that I’m back at work part time as an American Sign Language interpreter, I feel rushed. At lunchtime, I finish interpreting, take the kids back to the classroom, then race out to the woods on the other side of the playground fence and try to get another page written.
The early parts of the novel are basically done, but the rest is unformed and runny, like an undercooked egg. What are my fears about it? That I’ve spent a year and a half writing seventy pages. (Well, I’ve probably written five hundred total, but only seventy worth keeping.) No amount of “fixing” the first half is going to make writing the second half any easier. I have to forge ahead.
My arm hurts, and I’m anxious about the novel. I’ve spent too long dickering around with the first half, wanting it to be finished before I go on to the second. I’m in terror of not being able to finish it. I understand about developing discipline the way you develop muscles: slowly, through repeated exercise, over a long period of time. But what if it just dies in the middle? What if I freeze up? What if I can’t do it? What if, what if?
God, grant me the courage to write this novel.
Jaem said, “You will finish the book, because until you do, I’ll nag you to death.”
Our friendship has taken on another dimension: he’s become my muse, too.
I want this so badly. I know it’s not the will I lack. I get up early and write before I even shower. It’s not that I don’t have the discipline; it’s not that I’m not creative. Maybe the whole focus of the novel is shifting. I have to wait and see. Sometimes it seems like it should be easy: Just write the damn thing.
Here come the kids. What is their interpreter doing out here in the bushes?
Fred told me it takes three years to write a novel, which I found very comforting. Of course, he himself has never written one, but he is my godfather, stands six-foot-seven, plays banjo, guitar, and mouth harp, and sings, “Honey, let me be your salty dog.”
In May it will be two years since I started this book, and I don’t see it being finished by May of next year. I want to go to Barcelona with Jaem. It would be fitting if I could finish the book there: begun in the Dominican Republic and completed in Barcelona — the exact opposite of Columbus’s voyage.
I have this huge resistance to printing anything out. As long as it’s just on the computer screen, I can deal with it, but printing — it’s like looking at my face in one of those magnifying mirrors that show every pimple you ever had.
At writing group we asked the question: Why do you write?
Because I’m afraid if I don’t write, my life will have no meaning, or not enough meaning. Because I’m afraid of dying and leaving nothing behind. Because I may never have children. Because I am haunted by the deaths and secrets in the family I was born into, by the ghost of my grandmother and her dreams.
I remember when I found out, only last year, that my grandmother was a writer. At Aunt Heidi’s house I unearthed an enormous, half-rotten leather binder. Inside was a stack of pages in my grandmother’s hand. They were poems, maybe a hundred, at least thirty of them sonnets. Most were scrawled longhand, some typed, a few clipped from newspapers where they’d been published. Mom had always encouraged my writing, but she’d never told me that her mother was a writer. Anne Pemberton Hart Ehle had four daughters and four husbands, filled in a swamp in St. Croix and built a house on it, played the guitar, acted in plays, and wrote — then died at fifty of breast cancer and alcoholism.
Mom used to get stoned and type, but I never knew what she was typing. I also remember her editing a newsletter when she was in graduate school. And she always kept journals while I was growing up. Is my mother a frustrated writer? What happens to a dream deferred?
Again and again I write things I think are fiction, only to find out that they’re fact — that they happened to me.
My left arm hurts now. I’m trying to write five days a week, and I’ve managed to produce a page a day. It’s funny: Once, that would have seemed like so little. Now three hundred words seems like a lot.
It finally dawned on me that editing on the computer is no good. I need to put all the pages in piles on my bedroom floor, sit in the center, and crawl around doing cut-and-paste. It’s much faster and makes me happy. Rubber cement and scissors work better than this twelve-hundred-dollar hunk of technology.
The pain in my hands and arms has finally gotten so bad that I had to leave work. I’m off for a week, and then it’s Christmas vacation. The pain has been making it hard to sit down at the computer, too. After a couple of hours of typing, I get a burning sensation — the same one I noticed last fall and thought, with a touch of pride, Wow, I’m writing until my hands hurt. Shit.
Today San Francisco is cold and wet, and I’m far from the Dominican Republic. I remember sitting in a restaurant in Cabarete with Jaem, eating grouper sautéed in grapefruit juice. It was the rainy season, and our clothes were never dry. Then one evening the sky cleared, and there was a magnificent sunset. We raced to the ocean, had dinner, got drunk. We sat on the beach afterward in almost total darkness and laughed because we were so happy to be there. It felt as if we had escaped the madness of our childhoods, beaten the odds, and now were here together, best friends, sitting on the sand at the edge of the water under an insanely beautiful night sky. And then we were kissing, because there were no words for that happiness.
The germ of Burning the Sea was conceived that night, on that beach. I was twenty years old.
I recently went back to work after almost a month off. An hour of interpreting made my hands hurt so bad that I had to stop and go home. The physical-therapy exercises only make it hurt more.
If I have to give up interpreting, OK. But I can’t not type.
I’m not supposed to be writing this. I went to see the hand specialist today. He ran the usual tests and said, “No writing for six weeks.”
“You mean no typing?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “don’t write anything longhand either.”
“Don’t write anything?”
“Well,” he said, “you can write checks.”
I went outside and sat on the edge of a white marble fountain and sobbed.
I’m so close to being finished. How can this be happening? I went to my writing group and ended up crying. Jeannie and Martha have both offered to transcribe for me. Also Bart, whom I barely know. I am amazed and touched that he would make such an offer.
I bought a tape recorder and tried dictating into it. When I play it back, I sound like I’m on drugs. I can’t believe this will yield anything useful, but it appears I have no choice.
Jaem has been great about transcribing the tape-recorded material for me. In return I’m his personal assistant, which seems to involve bossing him around, telling him to clean up his house so that he’ll get his life organized and not spend the whole day repotting avocado plants.
I went to hear Stephen Mitchell read. He said it took him seventeen years to translate the Book of Job. After the first six years he had the words on paper, but he didn’t have it — the profound understanding of human suffering. He said his early translations sounded like Bach violin concertos played on a kazoo. Years later, when he was ready, he came back to it, “and the words flowed out of me.”
I went out this morning with sore feet, thinking, I have to buy some new shoes. After months of being on disability, I can’t afford it, but I need shoes that fit. Instead I came home with two books about writing. Why did I buy them? Not to learn technique. I bought them for reassurance. I need someone to tell me I’m doing the right thing, to say, “Keep at it.”
The novel feels like trash. I’ve spent so long writing the ending, and it’s still lousy. It’s not laid out well, and I don’t know what should happen.
Next month I’ll be back “on location” in the Dominican Republic. It’s so hard to get anything written there: no electricity, papers blowing everywhere, everything damp, no privacy. I want to have the book done before I go.
What baggage am I dragging around with me? The belief that I can’t write, that nobody will ever love me. I smell cat piss. There’s mildew everywhere, and my arms are crippled by pain. I’m full of negativity, I hate everything, and I don’t even have PMS.
It’s been decided that my carpal-tunnel syndrome (and radial-tunnel syndrome, and ulnar-tunnel syndrome) is “permanent and stationary.” Which means it’s not going to get better. I’ll never interpret again. Or type.
But I’m getting a workers’-comp settlement. I’m going to spend it on a new computer and voice-recognition software: five thousand dollars — more money than I’ve ever spent on anything in my life. Heidi just sent me an article about how lousy voice-recognition technology still is, but I don’t care. I want to be able to write without having someone else transcribe for me.
I have to decide whether to take a job as a Spanish teaching assistant in an elementary school. I want to make more money. I want health insurance. I also want to stop feeling like I have to choose between making money and making art. Every year I manage to save a thousand bucks, and then it’s gone: an airline ticket, a root canal. I’m sitting by the ocean writing this, but underneath I’m thinking about the book, about finding an end, about John Gardner’s definition of the novel as a “loose, baggy monster.” My ending is not tidy at all, but the deeper resonance is coming. Who was it who said that the question with writing is always first “Can it be done?” and second “Can it be done by me?”
I’m writing again after not writing for a whole week because I had bronchitis and a migraine and was too tired — all the ailments that go with working in an elementary-school setting. My thoughts feel slowed. (By reduced hand speed?) This handwriting position, the book almost perpendicular to my body, seems less taxing. Thank God the first three hundred pages are typed, because I don’t think I’d ever have the energy to dictate them into the computer with a pause after every word. There are still major problems, but I’m not going to list them here because it would only put me in a worse mood.
The day is half gone, and I’ve done nothing. My head aches, and I’m scared of finishing the novel. Is that it? I’m so close to the end, and yet there’s still so much to do. I work best when I’m in a trance and afterward don’t remember how I did it. Why did I waste the day like this? No, that’s another trick, the hate-yourself trick. Don’t do that. I’m so close. I want to be done by the end of May: ten weeks.
I found it. I found how it ends. I wrote the end: then I went out to the Lion with Jaem, and he helped me get the cadence of the last few sentences exactly right. A wonderful evening.
The agent that Olive recommended doesn’t want the book after all. I feel disappointed and somehow ashamed. I’m sitting on the front steps of this mildew-infested apartment waiting for the movers to show up. When I got back from the Dominican Republic last winter, all the baseboards were covered with mold, and the underside of my futon was green with mildew. I can’t spend another wet San Francisco winter in an uninsulated ground-floor apartment. I’ve just turned twenty-eight, and I’m not where I want to be at all.
Here’s what Pat, the New York agent, said about my novel: “I think it’s an extraordinary piece of work. I stayed up all night reading it, and that hardly ever happens to me. I’m really overwhelmed by what a good writer you are.”
We talked for half an hour. She said she’s going to have someone else on her staff read it, and then she’ll call me back in a couple of days. After we got off the phone, I paced around until lunchtime, when I took the bus downtown and burst in on Jaem at the language school to tell him about it. He was really happy. “You’re there,” he said.
A week goes by, and I don’t hear from Pat. I call her office; they say she’s in the city on business. Two days later my manuscript is returned to me with a letter saying how sorry she is, that she “really, really admire[s]” my writing, but she doesn’t think she can sell it.
So what the hell does it take for a book to be salable?
Everybody — Jaem, Jeannie, my writing group — is being sympathetic, saying it was rotten of Pat to lead me on that way. But in truth, I don’t feel that bad. Despite her turning it down, I believe she meant it when she said she loved my book. Someone else will too.
Looking for an agent has turned into just another chore: send out queries, occasionally get a bite, send the manuscript, never hear back, bug them until they finally return it with a polite note, and then start all over again. It’s like doing the dishes: not a task I love, but not something to cry about either.
I got an agent! After two years of trying; after the near miss with Pat and one fishy offer from that agent who was later indicted for fraud; after everything, I have an agent. It turns out Nancy the agent went to Cambridge School, too. She graduated the year before I got there. And she lived on St. Croix for a year and built boats. It’s meant to be.
Nancy thinks it will be much easier to sell the book if the reader can imagine what the characters are going to do after the last page. She wants me to write one more chapter. I went back and forth about this: should I change something just because she thinks it will make the book easier to sell? And then I realized that she’s right — from a literary as well as a commercial standpoint. It will make the story stronger.
I have to get rid of Nancy. I haven’t gotten any rejection letters in ten months, which means she isn’t sending the manuscript out anymore. I’ve called her numerous times, and she won’t call me back. I’ve gone from being on the back burner to falling behind the stove.
Nancy agreed we should dissolve the contract. She said she was sorry she’d “dropped the ball” on me, that she hasn’t been able to sell the book, and that I should look for someone else. I was furious but tried to be professional and polite because I still needed her to send the manuscripts back and tell me which editors have seen the book.
Then today Nancy called and said that after she’d talked to me she felt so horrible that she looked at the book again, and she really does love it and wants to take me back. I said I’d have to think about it. But what am I going to do? Say no? And start all over again?
I got an e-mail from Nancy. Alyson Books wants the novel. They offered me a $1,500 advance.
At first I thought it was a typo. I know it’s a small publisher, but still. Nancy’s e-mail says, “It’s terribly low, but Alyson advances always are.” I feel like I shouldn’t take it. But then what? I e-mailed Nancy and asked her not to tell Alyson anything until Monday. Then I talked to Nina from my writing group. She thinks turning them down would be a mistake. She held out for more with her first book and ended up having to self-publish it. And Nina is brilliant. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.
I dreamt I was running a race. I was on foot, and everyone else was on horseback. And yet I won.
It’s going to happen. Burning the Sea is going to be published. I called Nancy. Then I called Jaem. Then I sat on my bed in a wedge of afternoon sunshine and cried.
I got my first review, in Kirkus Reviews, and it’s fantastic!
Tomorrow is the official publication date of my novel.
Going through Burning the Sea this morning, looking for something to read at the publication party, I was struck by how the novel is not just the story in the book; it’s also a record of my life at the time I wrote it: not factually accurate, but emotionally accurate. The feelings in the book are real. What I wrote about building a house is also true about writing the book:
Building a house is not some big mystery that only certain people have the skill to master — it isn’t that at all. It’s like traveling: only certain people have the will to start. The hard part is starting. Once you start, then you’re doing it, you’re moving, you’re on your way. What happens out there? You don’t know in advance. Even if you have a map, blueprints, a plan.
On the front cover of my last journal, I copied in gold ink an old Yiddish proverb: “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”