How To Be A Writer: The Map Is the Territory
Ramona Ausubel's Winding Path to a First Novel
I was talking with a student who asked, “How did you get from here to there?” And I wanted to tell her because she was a good writer and a hard worker and I wanted to make the map clearer for her. But I found I couldn’t tell her the story of the stories without also giving her the map of my life in those years. Before my first books were born they were with me everywhere, growing babies, part of my body and my every move.
We are not ever just writers—we are also sons and daughters of good parents and disappointing parents and we are partners who need to pick up a quart of milk on the way home and parents who crawl into bed with the little ones late at night to admire them when they are still, even though we know we don’t have any tiredness to spare. We are students and teachers. We are readers, taking in the universes created by other minds. Our stories and poems and essays are written in and amongst and because of these moments. A scene is not the only thing that takes place in space and time—the writing of that scene takes place in space and time, too. I remember working on a particularly dark section of my first novel, No One is Here Except All of Us, in which the character based on my great-grandmother escapes into the Russian wilderness with her children and survives on tree bark, and it so happened that this writing day took place beside a Southern California hotel swimming pool where my visiting father-in-law was staying. I spent the morning in the shade surrounded by Disneyland-bound families and I wrote about starvation.
The stories are woven together with my life and my life moved across the globe as I wrote, so the stories too took that long journey. My map of becoming a writer goes all the way around the world.
* * * *
A few months before finishing graduate school, my grandmother was in a minor car accident while riding shotgun to the grocery store with her boyfriend. She was hurt and needed surgery, but it seemed like she would be fine, until it didn’t anymore. My family members and I all gathered in Chicago to be with her while she died, and I stood by the window of her hospital room where the machines beeped, and looked out at Lake Michigan. There happened to be another old woman in the ICU near her and a sentence came into my head: the grandmothers find themselves at sea. It immediately felt true. On the plane back to California, I wrote a story—all these women, floating on a freight boat in the big wide ocean, not knowing where they are or where they’re going. I needed to make a world where I could look for my grandmother once she left this one. I invented a world because death is unknowable and someone I loved was about to live there.
My grandmother and I had always been close, and she was the most unwaivering supporter of my writing. Even when I was 19 years old, she took me seriously as a poet and as a writer.
A few weeks and several drafts later, one of my teachers submitted the story of the grandmothers at sea to a contest. It didn’t win but the magazine editor called to ask if they could publish it anyway. I was thrilled. There was a new green shoot of her life, sprouting.
* * * *
When I finished graduate school the next summer, I received a small fellowship. It was a few thousand dollars, and a total surprise. I refused to cash the check for weeks because I was afraid it would disappear the way money does. I badly wanted this to be a doorway rather than a stop-gap.
Then I got another check in the mail, this one much more complicated. It was the insurance settlement from the car accident that had eventually killed my grandmother. Another few thousand dollars and also a total surprise. I thought about returning it, upset to think that any dollar amount would ever equal a human life. The more I thought about it the more I wanted to do something she would have loved. Writing and travel were the things we had always shared, so I convinced my husband to quit his job and travel around the world.
My uncle donated frequent flier miles for our flights and I made a plan to research a book of nonfiction about families. It seemed like a practical project, a good idea. One of those things people out there think is worth doing. I scheduled interviews, did a ton of reading, and booked flights from San Francisco to Marrakech and another pair home from Beijing.
Soon, my story about the lost grandmothers was published and I received several emails from editors and agents who were interested in seeing what I was working on. I cried a lot that week. It felt like my grandmother had sailed her ship up and out and into fancy offices in New York and said, “I’d like to introduce you to my granddaughter. I think she’s a pretty good writer.” It felt like she had found a way, in death, to support me as energetically as she had in life.
I had been working on No One is Here Except All of Us and because writing a first novel is an exercise in ambient terror I really, really, really wanted it to be done. I knew in my heart that it wasn’t finished but I wanted it to be because I had gotten it in my head that the end was the part that mattered. There was that castle up there on the hill, all glittery. So I sent it to the people who’d written to me. And I waited.
While we got a zillion immunizations and made critical decisions regarding the two pairs of shoes we’d wear for a year, I started to receive rejection letters from agents. At best, they thought the writing was good but the story confusing. At worst they had no idea what I was doing. When we finally left for our trip, I’d heard back from everyone except one editor at a small press. I held hope.
Teo and I landed in Morocco and it was beautiful and wonderful and we ate lamb sausages at a street stand where they periodically rewarmed your dish of fat so that you were better able to soak it up with fresh bread. We rode camels. We ran down dunes in the Sahara. We drank tea in a tent with nomads who had ten children each and I took notes in my official non-fiction writer notepad, which was my only credential.
And then I got a long email from the lone editor. The only thing I remember was the answer: I don’t want to publish this book. Maybe I’d been wrong, I thought. Maybe I had misread the signs. Maybe I wasn’t such a good writer after all. We ate more lamb sausages and also these really amazing donuts on a string. Rejection sucks. Food helps.
Since then I have gotten to know a lot of writers and I know now we’ve all been there. Not the same thing at the same time, but the truth is always there: sometimes it’s so hard, and you really don’t know how to make your work work, and it feels like months or years of may have been wasted and you continue to be, beyond all heroic efforts, right smack in the middle of the job, rather than at the end, as you had so brightly hoped. People will tell you that you need a thick skin to be a writer, what with all that disappointment and rejection, but I think part of what makes a good writer is the ability to be porous, to be able to feel all the intricate and complicated notes, the particular music of each moment. No writer should turn the volume down on her own emotional register. That’s her instrument. We have to feel everything. Which also sucks. That’s where the donuts come in.
* * * *
I let the novel drift to the back of my mind. We explored Gaudi’s buildings in Spain, spent our entire daily budget on pasta in Venice, found the villages in Ukraine from which both my husband’s and my own family came. We bought postcards in a museum in Syria—neither of us could imagine the war that would soon overtake that beautiful, warm country—of these disarmingly sweet Sumerian clay statues with grass skirts and huge eyes who look as if they want to make your whole life better, and we sat at the shore of the Euphrates writing poems on the postcards in the voice of those statues about living and loving during the bronze age. I remember wishing so much that I could mail one to my grandmother who would have been the most appreciative of anyone.
Over those weeks between the final rejection letter and the Middle East, there had been a lot of long bus and train rides and one very vomitous crossing of the Black Sea by ferry and on all of them, I thought about my possibly dying novel. Some days I thought, forget it, it’s over. I’ll try something else. Other days I missed working on it, remembered it fondly, like a favorite cousin. Other days I thought maybe I’d make five beautiful cloth-bound copies to give my relatives and forget about writing after that.
And then I had an idea that seemed like it might change the story. I saw the next step towards making the novel better. This was great news, of course, except that there we were in Egypt. Fortunately, my sweet husband was glad to take a break from travel and he swam in the Red Sea and snorkeled and drank milkshakes with a litter of stray kittens curled up on his lap while I sat on our two-foot wide porch with a package of locally branded “Boreo” cookies and a view of Saudi Arabia in the distance, and I changed the point-of-view for my entire novel. It was a total experiment. When I’m stuck, I tell myself, “You’re right. It’s a big mess, probably irreversible. How about we just pretend to try and fix it?” Richard Bausch says, “You can’t ruin a piece of writing, you can only make it necessary to go back and try again.” So I dove in. And it felt good to be trying something. And I could feel how the change was opening the book up. At the end of the week we had a little party. The Boreo cookies were joined by a bottle of “Gordoon’s” gin. I had lots and lots of work ahead, but a passage is a passage.
* * * *
We continued on in our journey. We watched huge herds of giraffe cross the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, rafted down the White Nile in Uganda, rode on a bus driven by an actual giant who ate what can only be described as bouquets of chicken skewers as he honked and weaved. I was completely filled up by what the world was made of—the beauty and the sadness and the lives being lived in fancy cities and humble cities, in grasslands and deserts. I dutifully conducted my interviews, continued my research and tried to believe in my journalist alter-ego. We made our way to the far north of Kenya where I talked to a Samburu woman who was one of five wives and had six children who, once weaned, often subsisted on a mix of cow’s milk and blood let from the living animal’s neck.
The research was fascinating, but something started to happen: I began to dread the job ahead. I hadn’t even begun to begin and I was already running out of spark. The project I had outlined was something I wanted to read, and not so much something I wanted to write. I thought of one of my favorite pieces of writing advice, from Jim Shepard. He says, “Follow your weird.” In other words, only spend your time on things that are your very own. I knew that this was not my dearest wish, this book I’d been researching. I knew that I this wasn’t my work. It was sad to let go, and I also felt like I had wasted my fellowship money and made a promise I couldn’t keep to my grandmother.
* * * *
India was our halfway-point. In a small city in Rajasthan, in a half crumbling hotel that had once been a palace, I began to panic. I began to think of plans B through Z. No one wanted my novel. Maybe it was better now, after my binge revision, but maybe it wasn’t. Even I didn’t want my nonfiction project. While we ate butter masala and naan, I considered becoming a midwife. While we walked through the marigold scattered temples, I thought maybe I should be a zookeeper. I even emailed a friend who raised money for the Portland Zoo and asked how a person became the elephant tender. She wrote back, “Um, you need an advanced degree in zoology. Last I checked you were a fiction writer.” At night, listening to the tuk-tuks whiz by, I planned to open an artisanal snow-cone stand. I spent weeks this way, manufacturing alternatives.
Then I ducked into an Internet café and found an email with the subject line “Your Work.” It was from an editor at a big publisher in New York who’d read the story of the grandmothers, of my grandmother, and wanted to know what I was working on. The power went out in the café while I was sitting there and I was pretty sure I’d dreamed the whole thing. I waited half an hour, the power came on, and the email was real. It was a tiny crack, just a sliver of light, but my desire to walk through that opening filled my entire self. That was what I wanted to do most of all—the fact-gathering, zookeeping, baby-catching, and snow cones would have to wait—I wanted to finish this novel, not be done with it, but to actually see it through because it was a story that mattered to me to tell. And I realized how much energy I’d been spending thinking of plans B through Z. I had been all but insuring that what I most wanted—to write—would fail, by spending all my time drafting insurance policies against it. I resolved to ignore the fear until I had really and truly let this story become its biggest, most complete self.
I was relieved that I didn’t have to keep up the pretense of being a journalist, though I kept talking to people because their stories interested me. I didn’t think of it as research anymore. I didn’t worry about whether it was productive.
A few months, a few countries later, it was time to go home. I was sad that our trip was ending but I was looking forward to having a kitchen and a couple of bowls and I was looking forward to getting back to work.
My husband and I lived in a two hundred square foot house for a few months to keep expenses down so I could write full time. While it snowed and thawed and snowed and thawed, I sat on a child-sized couch for twelve hours a day, feeding the wood-stove and working. I fell into the novel in a way I never had. I was completely in it. I kept thinking of more and more that I wanted to breathe into it. It took up my entire self.
I corresponded with the editor who’d written to me in Calcutta. I did not offer to show her my novel because it was not ready yet, but she sent my stories to her favorite agent and he loved them. Finally, several months later, I was ready. I emailed what I think was the 16th draft of the book. By then I could practically recite the novel by heart.
That weekend I was looking through old boxes at my mom’s house and discovered some of my grandmother’s travel journals. One was from Syria, and out fell a photograph of the exact same Sumerian clay statues that I had seen in Damascus. At the top of the photograph in her handwriting it said, “Our attentive staff are here to make you feel at home.” Not only had my grandmother and I fallen in love with the same figurines half a world away and 20 years apart, but we’d had the same joke. She’d been with me all along, of course she had.
A couple of weeks later, my agent submitted the novel manuscript to publishers. I flew to New York. I was standing on the corner of 86th and Broadway in front of an exuberant grocery-store fish display when my phone rang. The editor whose email I’d received in Calcutta, into whose hands the story about my grandmother had sailed, had bought my books. I tried to play it cool on the phone and then I hung up and screamed and jumped up and down. It was New York so no one even noticed.
But this part surprised me. My very first thought was pure joy: “Now I get to write another one.” There I was at the finish line, that dreamed-of place, the goal I had once sprinted so hard to get to, and the best part, the magnificent part, was that I’d get to start all over at the beginning. Spend another few years in the dark mysterious chambers of a story I would understand a little better by the day. We’re all rushing along towards the end, but it turns out the middle has been the prize all along.
* * * *
Seven years later I am putting the polishing touches on a collection of stories about people far away from home the world over. So many of the places we went on our trip are in the book. So much of what I thought about on those buses and trains are in the book. Some of my research for the abandoned nonfiction project is in the book. Except there’s no pretense, no stretching to do what I think others would want. This version is all me. There are innumerable challenges to writing but there are also blessings. No work is ever wasted. Even if one throws something away, it leaves behind seeds. I’m so glad I tried the book that didn’t work because it turned into another one that does.
* * * *
When that student asked me how to write a novel I told her every true thing I know: Read 50 pages a day, which is the quickest way I know to get better. Stay in the chair until you’ve done that day’s work. Sit there right until the moment when you think you’ve had enough, then stay 20 minutes. Turn the Internet off. Leave the page knowing what you’ll work on tomorrow. Go places, love people, be good, be bad. Live as much life as you possibly can and then give it all away to your pages.
I did everything I could to give this writer the map to the castle. But here’s what I know: when she finally gets there, all she’ll find is a chair and desk. And it will be the most beautiful thing in the world.