A few years ago, I had this dream of being in prison. It looked a lot like a college campus. Their so-called torture was a series of empty threats but no real torture. All in all, it wasn’t bad, but I felt trapped. I was, however, allowed to walk the grounds. One day, I decided to try to escape. So, I ran all the way to the edge of the grounds and found that there wasn’t a watchtower or a wall or even a chain-link fence with barbed wire. Those things weren’t necessary because, on the other side, was a gray desert. Unlivably scorched.
The dream wasn’t hard for me to unravel. It was about being an assistant professor and feeling like a caged writer.
That afternoon, I knew that I wanted advice. I pulled up to a red light – I remember the exact intersection – and asked myself, “If you could get advice from anyone, who would it be?”
I picked Richard Russo – a professor and writer who’d surely felt caged, if his novel Straight Man was any indication. I realized I couldn’t really track him down and ask him for advice – he’d once blurbed a novel of mine, but we didn’t know each other. So I closed my eyes and said, “Okay, Rick. I need some help. What should I do?”
The answer was immediate. And unless Russo is part-deity, it clearly sprang up from inside of me because I knew the answer all along. It was simple: “Insulate and go off.”
The advice was to find a way to protect myself – creatively, somehow, anyway I could – and to truly write what I felt I had to, needed to.
I did just that. I decided insulation was a state of mind. Did I really care what other people thought of my writing? I’d already learned there was little to gain from praise. I’d come to rely on criticism and to siphon energy from rejection. I encouraged my restlessness. I wrote a lot and I wrote it recklessly and playfully. I dabbled in bizarre fabulism. I found my appetite for world building. I opened up my canvas and decided to sprawl out.
I didn’t think of the market. I wrote to the page. I went off. Eventually, what emerged was the first book in a trilogy, a novel titled Pure. I honestly didn’t think of anyone in my profession reading the book until I’d sent it to my agent and, at that moment of hitting send, a flush rose to my cheeks – a delayed self-consciousness. I’m thankful it came when it was too late to dig its claws into the work.
Eventually, I had a lot of readers who helped shape the book. I went through what seemed like endless rounds of revision, but that all came later. Insulation had been essential. The publishing story has been a very happy one, including film rights selling to Fox2000. The final book in the trilogy comes out next month; it has been a wild ride. And I’m very thankful I took the advice.
So I guess my advice to all of you is that, most likely, you hold your own best advice. You know yourself better than anyone. You know what you’re stuck on and what you need to do in this new year. I hadn’t been listening to myself. I’d needed to call up the spirit of someone with greater authority, someone I’d pay attention to, and then the answer was there. Try it.
A couple of years later, I met Russo at a writer’s conference. I told him the story and thanked him for the advice he’d never really given me. He was gracious, funny, and generous. He was, in fact, the kind of guy to give the advice to insulate and go off. My inner Russo made a pretty good call.