The first scene in my new novel, Writers & Lovers, is based on something that happened during that time. My one duty while living in that storage room with my sister and her boyfriend was to walk their dog while they were at work. One morning our neighbor, who owned the big house and the carriage house we lived in, was out in the driveway when I was coming back with the dog. I’d been writing since before dawn, and was still in my sweats and hadn’t brushed my hair and was wearing these old slippers with the stuffing coming out.
He asked if it was true that I was writing a novel.
I told him it was. “Well,” he said, “I think it’s extraordinary that you think you have something to say.”
I went back to my storage room and felt like I’d been clubbed in the stomach. I wrote down his words in my journal, and went back to my novel.
I turned 33, then 34. My sister and her boyfriend bought a house and I moved into it with them. They began the process of adopting a child and I was part of the home visit, the maiden aunt, the “writer” in the attic. I’d sent out my novel to nearly 20 agents and the rejection letters were pouring in.
I was having panic attacks by then, and had stopped sleeping. I finally got some cheap health insurance and took a course they paid for on stress management. I went religiously to that class each week, and did my homework in the workbook they gave us. In the spaces between questions I wrote in small blue script about my physical discomfort: the burning in my chest, the stampeding of my heart, the heaviness of my arms and legs. What is the source of your biggest frustration? “There is so much I want yet the steps are so tiny,” I wrote. One of the assignments, Learning Exercise 18: Reducing Suffering, involved a chart with three boxes. The first box was labeled My Areas of Suffering and inside it I had to describe the difference between What you want and What you have. I wrote that I wanted to be an accomplished writer but that I was an aspiring writer. The next box was Ways to Reduce Suffering and below it a list of options: Forgiveness, Acceptance, Gratitude, Wisdom. I circled Acceptance. In the final box, My Specific Actions I wrote, “To be an accomplished writer is a process. It will probably take my entire life. I simply have to keep writing.
When my mother died suddenly, four years ago, I was working on a novel about a writer in 1901, traveling with his mother. I had done months of research for this book and liked the pages I had so far, but after my mother died I stopped writing fiction. I feared that desire would never come back, and when it did, nearly a year later, I could not return to the story of the young man and his mother in 1901. I could not even open the notebook with the first chapters in it. There was only one thing I wanted to write: the novel I needed to read in my twenties and thirties, a story of a young woman struggling to become a writer.