When my students finished a draft, all I wanted them to do was sit inside of it for longer than was comfortable. To acknowledge and celebrate what they’d accomplished.
You cannot write a novel without getting to an ending. This might sound obvious, but it’s often a thing people forget. They’re so set on getting this scene just right, so busy perfecting the beginning, googling the star sign of their main character and her partner and her children and her parents’ parents. But books are objects, wholly contained things, and it is only, I would argue, once the first shaky and imperfect whole is done that the real work can begin.
On July 9th of this year twelve writers finished full drafts of their books for the first time. They were mostly novels. A couple memoirs. Some of their endings were not yet really endings, some of their middles were maybe one-hundred pages short. But if you’ve ever written a novel or tried to write a novel or lived with someone who writes novels, you know what a feat this is, that first draft.
Of these twelve writers, most of them had day jobs: Two were doctors, one a lawyer; there were teachers, mothers, certified MFA’ers. Some of them had had successes: a prize won, a coup of a publication, enough people reading their work over years and telling them that there was something there, but that something had never been brought quite so fully to fruition.
When I finish a draft, the first thing I think about is how much time I still have to spend on it, how much childcare I’m going to purchase, how many weekends I’m only going to pretend to hear what my husband says. I think of all the ways this draft won’t sell and how the few people who buy it will yell about it on Goodreads, about how even my friends won’t really like it—how, years from now, it will be in the world perhaps only to embarrass my kids.
But when my students finished a draft, all I wanted them to do was sit inside of it for longer than was comfortable. To acknowledge and celebrate what they’d accomplished. To not let their brains yet look toward what it must become for it to have worth.
The next two-and-a-half months were meant to unpack what to do with these drafts. I was proud of them and excited to start talking about what they’d made and how to make them better. We knew all their projects well by then, and I believed in, cared deeply about, each and every one. I wanted to give them language for their book’s wholeness and give them space for questions. Also, though, this was the portion of the class where we began to talk books as business.
This phase was built into the class from the beginning, a part of it I’d been proud of: We’d bring in agents and editors and social media people. We’d talk about the life and work of selling your writing, too. The parts that no one talks about.
The wisdom we received in the business talks was illuminating. One of the goals of the class when we started talking about it was to give the writers more on the ground practical engagement with the business side of writing and I also felt informed by and grateful to the people who came in. Agents and editors work nights and weekends for very little pay for the same reason most of us write. I hoped this was for my students, as it was for me, a comfort, to be reminded of their passion up close. We learned a lot about how to navigate the business side, how to get along with each professional person at each part of one’s career, how best to set one’s self up for success. But neither the agents nor the editors had clear answers as to how to make a novel actually successful, how to get a wider audience to like it. I’m not sure anyone knows this.
On one particular night during the third phase of our class, in which I said that publishing your first book is depressing for everyone I know who’s ever published, I also threw a pen. I meant this (not the pen, but the depression). But also, I felt bad for saying this. It’s still, more importantly, an accomplishment.
Part of what I was trying to tell my students was the business side is made up: luck and magic, skill and talent, also, but not in ways that are reliable or that always make sense.
I wanted to give them language for their book’s wholeness and give them space for questions.
I spent ten months watching these doctors, lawyers, teachers, mothers—grown up people with real and high stakes grown up obligations—make space not only for their own work but one another’s. They showed up and dealt with the lack of breaks I gave them and took commuter trains from Connecticut and New Jersey and Virginia. I watched them make dates with one another during weeks off, to get what they said they’d get done done. It was exciting, and impressive. During the first parts of the course, when the work was mostly generating material, fleshing out the characters, strategizing form, I didn’t have to think about what would happen to these novels after class ended. I could be proud of them simply, week after week, month after month, for showing up.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to my students’ novels. But completing a draft is where all the pleasure lives in writing. I wish for them the awareness, the patience and the ability to sit inside those moments, because if you don’t sit inside them they will disappear. If you don’t, you might become another bitter pen-throwing writing teacher talking too loud late at night about how things aren’t what you hoped them to be. You could spend a whole life “being a writer” and never notice how it’s filled with tiny pleasures. You could spend your whole life as a teacher and not remember that recognizing pleasure is something you can also try to teach.
I don’t see my students any longer. For a year, I saw them nearly every Tuesday, and it’s strange still, not sharing that space with them. But I still think about them. There’s still so much else I wish I could give.
I wish them an editor who gets them, who sees not just what their work is, but what it isn’t yet. Who, after two rounds of killer, rigorous edits, when they think they’re done and are feeling pretty confident, sends a third edit letter that makes them nauseous—it’s so true and right and scary. I wish them an editor who forces them to make the book that terrifies them, even when they think they already have.
You could spend a whole life “being a writer” and never notice how it’s filled with tiny pleasures.
I wish for them an email, in the middle of the night or in the middle of the work day, from a reader, maybe a colleague or a fellow student, a mentor or a stranger, an email in which someone has read what they have written and felt so much about it that they sat down and wrote back. An email they’ll keep and they’ll return to, when a less good thing happens, when a review comes in that’s less than stellar, or when they get their sales report.
I wish them one or two sentences they’re proud of, a sentence that, amidst all the others they have written, its cadence and its content, that they still thrill at when they hit upon it, reading through a draft of something, thinking, huh, I made that.
Most of all, I wish for them to keep going. To keep showing up, finding reasons, even now that this year is over, even as all the losses and disappointments and rejections start accruing, to keep making stories.
Lynn Steger Strong's first novel, Hold Still, was released by Liveright/WW Norton in March 2016. She received an MFA from Columbia University and her non-fiction has been published in Guernica, LARB, Elle.com, Catapult, Lit Hub, and elsewhere. She teaches both fiction and non-fiction writing at Columbia University, Fairfield University, and the Pratt Institute. Lynn's second novel, Want, is forthcoming from Henry Holt in spring 2020.