Please welcome back guest H.M. (Heather) Bouwman, author of A Crack in the Sea (forthcoming in January 2017) and The Remarkable & Very True Story of Lucy & Snowcap (2008). Heather lives with her two kids in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she teaches at the University of St. Thomas and writes novels for middle-grade child readers. She is a martial artist, a homeschooling mom, a reader-aloud of books, and a baker of cakes. In her free time, she does not clean house or care for her lawn. Her neighbors love her: she makes them look good. Connect with Heather on Facebook and on Twitter.
Writing (in the) Happy Middles
I tell my creative writing students—I got this from somewhere, but I no longer remember where—that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is in the last ten minutes of the movie or the final tenth or so of the story. A comedy is made, in other words, by its ending. Middles aren’t happy.
But what if they’re all we ever have? The story of a writing career isn’t necessarily one with either a happy ending or a tragic one. For most of us, the writing life is a story without an arc—or at least without an arc that is discernable from our perspective as we slog away in the trenches.
I write this essay as someone who spent long years (between book one and book two) in the arid desert, my writing receiving rejection after rejection. And I write this essay now as someone who finally did get a second book contract (and a third) with an amazing editor, at a wonderful publisher. Things are rosy. But that’s not the writing life. And this essay isn’t a story about trudging to reach the bright horizon.
About a year ago (before the sale of book two), I started a once-in-a-while journal about my writing path, taking stock of how things were going and checking my emotional temperature. I won’t quote from the journal here: I’m pretty sure the actual words are of no use to anyone but me, mainly because they don’t go anywhere. There is no trajectory. Every entry—some of them spaced months and months apart—is essentially the same: publishing is currently stinking; this is a low point in my publishing career; but I love writing.
I don’t think it’s healthy to think of failure (failure to write a draft at the level we’d hoped for; failure to nab an agent or a publisher; failure to get the reviews or sales that we wanted) as simply a “conflict” on the way to a happy or—if we’re unlucky—tragic ending. When I hear that Marlon James, recent winner of the Man Booker Prize and an amazing writer, was turned down 78 times on his first manuscript and almost gave up writing, I don’t think it’s fair to talk as if he embodies a story about how, if you just hang in there and keep plugging away, you’ll achieve your dreams and write and publish something amazing. Some people won’t. And hanging in there won’t make it happen.
There has to be some other way to think of the story of the writing life.
A good writer friend and I have talked at great length about the guiding myths in our lives. By this, we don’t mean the myths or stories that we live by, the ones that are psychologically or spiritually important to us, but the ones that seem to be thrust upon us, time and again. (For me, that story is the fairy tale of the seven swan brothers—but that’s a different blog post.) My writer friend’s guiding story is the tale of Sisyphus, who pushes his rock up the hill again and again, only to see it roll back down. My friend feels, often, that the work she does in one novel needs to be done over again in the next, that she’s constantly relearning the same writing and publishing lessons, that each book is a new hill to push a rock up.
One day she said, “How can I move past Sisyphus to something that has a happy ending?” And in a rare moment of clarity (which I can achieve much quicker with other people’s lives than my own), I said, “Why do you need to move past it? Maybe instead you need to learn to enjoy pushing rocks up hills.”
My friend and I both sat on our ends of the phone line, the silence extending for a brief moment all the way from Minnesota to California and back. What I said so flippantly suddenly made sense of something in our lives: writing is a Sisyphean career. There may be no publication waiting at the end, no fans, no large readership or big awards. You may in fact be writing only for yourself and your Wilson ball and your doting grandmother. There is no happy or tragic ending to this story—because there is no ending. A writer writes, pushing the rock up the hill over and over again, because a writer has managed to find some joy in the pushing of rocks, not because she harbors the hope that the rock-pushing will be over someday and Zeus will put a smiley face on her sticker chart and let her move on.
Move on to what? The writing life is a story with no arc.
What seems to be the guiding myth of your writing life?