Seven Things My Writing Professors Never Told Me*
by Lev Raphael
This article originally appeared on Bibliobuffet.com.
While I had the good fortune in college to have an inspiring writing professor, neither she nor any other writing profs I took classes with later on talked to me about the writing life itself. I studied other writers and I studied my craft, but career was terra incognita and what I discovered has often come as a surprise. Here's a partial list, since over three decades after publishing my first short story, I'm still learning about the life I chose.
1) Writing puts miles on you
As a kid, I wanted to write, as opposed to be a writer, but when I did imagine my future work life, I saw myself at work in a very serene large study with green velvet sofas face each other in front of a fireplace, walls lined with leather-bound books, and a desk in a bay window overlooking the Hudson River. My visions were solitary, except when I imagined being interviewed in that serene, solid room. But since publishing my first book twenty years ago, I've been all over the country many dozens of times and traveled abroad to places I never dreamed of: Oxford University, Israel, The Jewish Museum in Vienna—all to speak about my work. Luckily for me, I'm an extrovert, took theater classes in college, and taught for many years, so being in front of an audience is second nature. Otherwise, I think the public side of my career would have been too draining. That was only the foundation, however, since I had to learn to do something most writers don't understand is vital: make the work I do in private a public entertainment.
After twenty years of touring and several international tours, although the glamour and excitement have worn somewhat thin, there's enough there that I can still enjoy myself thoroughly engaging in the performance side of being a writer. And I still get revved up
2) Agents aren't super heroes or magicians.
I've known many people who feel that securing an agent, or switching to a different agent, is all they need to find fame, fortune, and glory. Well, as hard as it is to get an agent, and as indispensible as they may be for placing your work with a major publisher, having one doesn't guarantee anything. My first agent, in a time before e-mail, never answered a phone call or letter, never sent me rejections for my novel, and I later found out that her lack of contact was due to over-involvement with her most famous client.
My second agent sent my mystery to editors who didn't like mysteries and before we could talk about that, she left the business. My third agent was so slow editors would ask "Is he dead?" My fourth agent was charming, but didn't move my career forward in the slightest. My fifth agent got bounced from her agency. My sixth agent moved to Japan. My current agent took my newest book to New York just as the bottom fell out of the stock market and publishing, too. I think you could safely say I have odd Agent Karma.
3) Being a writer takes more patience than writing does, and you have far less control.
Five years passed between the publication of my first and second stories. Five years of endless rejections. Some days, two to three manila envelopes would slide out of the mailbox in my apartment building's lobby into my hand when I opened it up. I'd won a prize for my first short story, which appeared in Redbook–how could I have hit a dead end so quickly? Surely some other editor somewhere would feel the same way about my stories?
I'm stubborn, so I kept going, but with a diminishing sense of mission and hope. I reached such a low point that I was prepared to abandon writing as a career and seek another life path. For a while in the early 1980s I contemplated rabbinical school or training as a psychologist. I didn't get far with either venture.What happened? Joseph Brodsky's poem "Aeneas and Dido" says it best: "But, as we know, precisely at the moment / when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir." A story I wrote in less than forty-eight hours, in almost a repetition of what led to my first publication, was accepted and the drought was over. That first dry spell was the longest, but it wasn't the last, and they don't get any easier to cope with.
4) You'd be surprised where your name or work might show up.
Back in the early 80s, I had two unexpected publications. A literary magazine in Ohio answered my submission of a prose poem with five copies of the magazine including my piece. Not that long after, a Jewish newspaper printed my short story without having told me it was accepted, and this bothered another editor who had already accepted it (though she ran the story a year later). A friend said, "Lev, head down to the book store and start checking magazines, who knows where else you were published without knowing it!"
I would go on to see my work quoted, referenced, written about in conference papers, academic articles and books. My first appearances in the New York Times weren't when a book of mine was reviewed, but surprisingly when my name was mentioned in an article about other Jewish authors, and then later when a review of mine from the Detroit Free Press was quoted in big print on the back page of the Arts Section.
5) No, I mean really surprised.
In the late 1980s I started combining research on the emotion of shame with my love for the writing of Edith Wharton and published some articles about her lesser known books like The Touchstone. A Wharton scholar to whom I'd sent some of my articles used my ideas about this novella in her next book without crediting me, and when I phoned her to mention it, she said, "We must have been working along the same lines." I reminded her she'd read my articles and enjoyed them, suggested her publisher put an errata slip in the book. She said, "But that would look like plagiarism!"
I grew up reverencing The New Yorker before I could even read more than its cartoons in issues lying around in the doctor's office. While I've never been reviewed there, or had any work accepted there, I have gotten in sideways, so to speak. A photo of one of my readings wound up in an ad supplement a few years ago, which was unexpected fun. Not so amusing: Daniel Mendelsohn recently echoed my unique linkage of Oprah, William Dean Howells, and a faked Holocaust memoir—without mentioning my name. See page five of his review here.
6) Fans share more than you would imagine.
A book is such an intimate exchange between author and reader that fans may tell you very personal details of their lives, their histories. It's an honor to be the recipient of such revelations. I've met many readers who shared stories about their own problematic Jewish upbringing, which has made me feel my work gave them a voice, or at least catharsis. While touring with my book Winter Eyes, in which survivors of the Holocaust abandon their Jewishness when they come to America and hide their past from their son, I kept meeting people who told me even more dramatic stories of discovering they were Jewish. And then more recently on tour in Germany, listening to Germans tell me privately, and with great pain, about Nazis in their family made me find myself glad to be the son of Holocaust survivors because I didn't have to deal with their kind of legacy. My own had always seemed a burden, but by comparison, it seemed far lighter.
7) Not writing can be as wonderful as writing.
It's only in recent years that I found myself truly enjoying time off between books. Previously I'd never felt so alive as when I was writing, thinking about writing, or even just revising something I'd been working on. But having sold my literary papers to Michigan State University, I feel my legacy for the future is secured, and the pressure to publish is off. I didn't work on any new book at all in 2009. I've been living what a friend half-mockingly called "The Countess Tolstoy Life" when she was briefly unemployed, a life of relative leisure. Reading without being in a rush. Building a fire in the winter. Listening to music. Sitting in the hot tub. Cooking. Going to the gym. Having lunch with friends.Taking the dogs for a walk. Getting massage therapy. Watching a movie. Napping.
I've spent so many years turning the world into words, feeling not just bound by a project but surrounded by it, that it's a profound and pleasing release to not be experiencing the intense level of concentration mixed with abstraction that governs my life when I'm in the middle of a book. I'll be doing another book tour this spring in the U.S. and one in Germany in the fall, so I don't expect to be working on a new book in 2010 either. Time off. There's music in those words.
In one of my favorite Henry James stories, "The Middle Years," a writer sums up his life and the life of many artists: "We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."
It's good, for a time, to not feel that driven.
*My thanks to editor and memoirist Mike Steinberg for the discussion that led to my conceiving this essay.