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Burning the Manuscripts

Lit-Match-Macro-1200 [1]Today’s guest is author Henriette Lazaridis Power [2]. Henriette is a first-generation Greek-American who has degrees in English literature from Middlebury College; Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar; and the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Harvard for ten years, serving as an academic dean for four of those. She is the founding editor of The Drum, a literary magazine publishing exclusively in audio form. Winner of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant, she has published work in The Millions, The New York Times online, Narrative, Salamander, and the New England Review, among others, and her debut novel The Clover House [3] was published in April 2013.

Sharply observed and evocative, THE CLOVER HOUSE is a riveting story about desire, the cost of silence, and the power of a hidden secret from the past to change everything about the present. Henriette Lazaridis Power blends the stark, at times brutal, truths of war-torn Greece with the heady rush of Carnival into a brilliantly realized story about the consequence of an illicit love, the histories we come from, and the dreams that draw us back. This debut is a gem.
–Dawn Tripp, best-selling author of Game of Secrets

Henriette says, ” My idea for a blog post is to briefly tell the story of the time in 2007 when I was despondent enough about my prospects as a writer to make elaborate and thorough plans to burn all my manuscripts in the backyard and put the whole writer thing behind me. I didn’t, found new resolve, and buckled down finally the full dedication to writing that I hadn’t really been engaging in before. A half a year later, I had a draft of what would become my debut novel, The Clover House. But the point here isn’t that I was in despair and then found success by getting published, because that success was out of my control. The real success was in the lessons I learned about fear and risk and about pushing yourself to the limit. Even if I hadn’t found an agent and a publisher, those lessons would have stayed with me and made me a better writer–and a stronger person. So the message of the blog post is two-fold.

1. Even when you think you’re fully dedicated, there’s probably some way in which you’re holding back. Don’t.
2. You have to measure success in terms of what you yourself can control.”

Follow Henriette on Twitter [4] and on her Facebook page [5].  Enjoy!

Burning the Manuscripts

At the Association of Writers & Writing Program [6] (AWP) conference in Boston last month, I asked the audience at the panel I was on to raise their hands if they had ever experienced writerly despair. I believe every single hand in the room shot up. Including my own. This was no surprise. All writers experience those dark nights of the soul as we struggle to find an audience for our work–the delicate way of saying “as we try to find a publisher”. It seems to me, in fact, that there are only two kinds of writers in the world. Those who have experienced the despair of ever finding an audience, and those who haven’t, yet. It’s not, then, a matter of cushioning your experience so that you never have to experience a writer’s pain, but a question of discovering what you can learn from your despair, and how you can emerge from the winter of your discontent a better writer.

My particular discontent came during the winter of 2007 when I made meticulous plans to burn all my manuscripts in a giant bonfire in my backyard. I checked my town’s website to see if outdoor burning was permissible in January (it was), and to find out what precautions I would be required to take (a garden hose that would reach the flames). I sized up the hose in the garage and determined that it would reach from the faucet to the flames that would consume all evidence I had ever attempted to publish fiction. I was ready.

My methodical preparations for destruction were precipitated by two events that profoundly shook my apparently tenuous writer’s self-confidence. After years of sending out a novel manuscript and receiving encouraging–maddening–rejections from numerous agents, I received a rejection from an editor on whom I had pinned all my hopes. I had decided that this editor was absolutely perfect for my novel, and when she gave me a kindly no thank you, I was despondent. If she couldn’t like my book, I reasoned, then no one would. Soon after this, I ran into my college thesis advisor, a professor I had admired so much that I had abandoned my plan to become a writer for a career as an academic. Now, ten years after I had left academia, as she and I stood in the ski lodge of my alma mater in our mittens and boots, my mentor asked me how the writing was going. And then she asked the killer question. Was I publishing under my own name? To me, this meant she hadn’t seen my name on anything out in the world, and the notion that I wasn’t publishing at all was, to her, inconceivable.

I returned from that ski trip convinced that my pursuit of a writing career was self-indulgent, quixotic, and doomed. As I considered putting an end to it with my symbolic conflagration, I talked and emailed with my husband and two close friends. What I learned from them turned out to be enough to keep me from lighting the match.

One friend, an actor, pointed out that rejection was inherent to both our arts. She told me if I really was passionate about writing, I would learn to live with the rejections. Another friend reminded me that I could never not be a writer–a notion proven by the fact that as I planned the bonfire, I also began a short story about a man whose backyard bonfire sets his neighbor’s house ablaze. My husband captured the issue in one sentence. In an email, he wrote, “We can’t burn to reach a dream while feigning indifference to protect ourselves in case of failure.”

When I quoted this sentence in my panel talk at AWP, the room let out an appreciative sigh. As they should have. My husband’s words addressed the central question in my writer’s despair. What my actor friend had taken for granted–my passion for writing–was in me, but I had been pretending not to care about it. I had been hedging my bets, keeping something in reserve so as not to embarrass myself, staying safe. I came to understand that winter that you can’t even have a chance at success if you’re only pretending to strive for it.

So I didn’t gather up the papers, and I didn’t light a fire. But I did turn to my work with a new energy and a new commitment. I experimented with a different style. I ignored the imagined readers we all use to censor ourselves. In a few months, I completed a draft of what would become my debut novel, The Clover House, which came out from Ballantine on April 2.

It would be easy to look at the publication of The Clover House as the success of my wintertime revelation of 2007. But that would be to miss the point, because publication was beyond my control. What I could control was the attitude I took towards my writing. And that new understanding was the success–the understanding that it is vital, necessary, to push yourself more than you think you can, to take risks, and to commit wholeheartedly to your work.