The torturous, wonderful life of the fiction writer

Guest column by Meg Wolitzer

There are a few things I’d like to say about writing fiction, a subject I’ve been thinking obsessively about for as long as I can remember.   I’ve been asked to keep this to under a thousand words, and I promise to do so.  My essay will be like one of those abridged classic novels––those versions that children sometimes read:  “All happy families are alike.  But Anna Karenina’s family was different.  They had some problems.  Look out, Anna, here comes a train!  The end.”

Being a novelist is both a gratifying and an excruciating way to spend one’s time; on a given day, you can easily swing from grandiosity to shame and back again.  When my older son was very little, he seemed to think there was something slightly suspicious about having a novelist for a mother––something even perhaps a little pathetic about it.  I remember once walking along the street in New York City with my son when he was about five; we passed a McDonalds, and there was a sign in the window that read, “NOW HIRING.”  He got excited and said to me, “Look, Mom!  You could get that job!”  He really thought he was doing me a favor.  He understood in some intrinsic way that being a writer was an unstable life.  He felt that it wasn’t, in fact, a real life.

To a child, truly, being a writer doesn’t seem like a serious job, perhaps because so much of the work is interior.  In this respect, writing can seem like more of a hobby, a pastime, and in the very beginning that’s all it really has to be.  My particular situation was unusual, in that my mother, Hilma Wolitzer, was and is also a writer.   She never once said to me, “Your writing’s a sweet hobby, but here’s a study guide for the LSATs.”  Actually, after a reading I once gave, a woman stood up during the Q-and-A and said that her daughter wanted to be a playwright, but that she, the mother, was worried, because she thought her daughter would never be able to make a living.  I said to her that she ought to tell her daughter it was wonderful that she wanted to be a playwright; I said that the world would likely whittle her daughter down a little, but that a mother never should.

My own mother hadn’t been to college, because her parents didn’t believe it was essential for girls to receive an education.  But she was intelligent, and she read fiction all the time, and by the time I was in kindergarten, she was writing short stories.  This was also, not coincidentally, around the time of the women’s movement, and she really got a lot out of it, including the courage to take her own thoughts and talents seriously.  (On a side note, I was affected by the women’s movement too, and I started a consciousness raising group in my junior high school.  We were about fourteen, and we wrote away to the National Organization of Women to ask them for a list of topics we could talk about.  They sent us a pamphlet with topics in it like “Sexual Satisfaction and You,” when we really wanted topics like: “PSATS?  Don’t stress out!”)  My mother, in her fledgling liberation, sold her first short story to the old Saturday Evening Post, which at the time was a very literary magazine.  To give you a sense of her mindset at the time, the story was called “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.”  I think if she hadn’t become a writer, she would’ve gone mad.

But writing also tortured her, too, the way it tortures many people who practice it.  I would leave in the morning to go to school, and she’d be sitting there in her bathrobe, at the quivering electric typewriter.  It was a Smith-Corona, and you had to use white-out whenever you wanted to make a change, which made writing a novel a little bit like doing some kind of elaborate craft: like making lace, or doing calligraphy.  You’d fix your novel with this teeny little brush.  So I’d come home at the end of the school day, and my mother would still be sitting there in the exact same position she’d been in when I left in the morning.  And she never looked particularly happy, either.  She sometimes looked like someone from “The Days of Wine and Roses.”  Kind of wrecked, though she hadn’t been drinking, just writing.

However, there were other days when she was extremely pleased with what she’d done, and there was a little prance to her step, maybe even her version of the Snoopy Dance.  I know these moods very well; I’ve had my own bad and good writing days.  My mother passed down the writing gene, but also gave me the gift of encouragement.  From her, I saw that it was possible to make a life out of this thing that I too was beginning to love to do.  And many years later when I was in college, I sold my first novel.  The first time I ever went to meet my editor, I had my fairly small, 200-something-page manuscript with me in one of those cardboard boxes from a copy place.  A priest got on the elevator in the Random House building, carrying an enormous manuscript with him, about three times as big as mine.  His wasn’t in a box, but was just a couple of reams of paper tied up with rope.  He turned to me said, “Do they know you’re coming?”  I said yes, they did.  And then he said with a light chuckle, “They don’t know I’m coming.”

I’ve thought about this exchange over the years, and it strikes me as a great metaphor.  Readers may not know we’re coming––or may be ambivalent about our work once we arrive––but we can’t really be too concerned with that.  All that any writer can do––same as ever––is write.