You Don’t Have to Be an Insider
At age 19 I made the decision to become a writer. I hadn’t finished college yet (and wouldn’t) and did not formally study creative writing (though I delved deeply into good literature both contemporary and classic). And because from the start I possessed precisely zero affiliations in the publishing or academic worlds, I’m living proof that one needs no golden key or inside connections to pursue the work one most desires.
If you find doors closed against you, set your shoulder to them. Push.
I had no MFA degree, no roster of famous acquaintances, nor even any friends whose friends knew somebody’s friend who worked with Editor A at one of the big Manhattan publishers. Still, at age 22, in blind defiance of practicality and lacking all credentials save perhaps a singular passion for fiction and poetry, I began composing a novel set in my own backyard in the nineteenth century — that is, in the Black Diamond Coal Fields about 30 miles east of San Francisco, a place once inhabited mostly by miners from Wales.
Before starting this book, I knew nothing about coal mining, Welsh culture, or geology, though all were essential elements of the story. Neither did I know much about life in nineteenth-century California.
Furthermore, I hadn’t a single publication credit to my name, and hence not the slightest rational basis to believe that this historical novel would ever be published. I had, however, acquired a bit of writing experience, having fumbled my way through a learning process of intensive reading, compositional experimentation (i.e. bad writing), and minor personal successes in my chosen art. Some of my short stories had their virtues, but I’d also dashed off, already, the full manuscript of an entirely different novel, which I’d judged a failure and consigned to a drawer.
While working on my coal-mining novel’s first draft, which took me a year, I was employed fulltime as a bookstore clerk, earning $8.25 per hour. Later I temped in a commercial mortgage office for slightly higher pay.
Beyond these day jobs, my time was spent in long, solitary hours at my desk; or reading in a chair; or walking in the pastoral hills that surrounded my apartment-home; or watching movies with my wife; or receiving rejection slips in response to my endless outflow of short story submissions (to date I’ve collected enough to stuff two shoe boxes — size ten; see “Redefining Rejection“); or dreamily forecasting the future date when I’d have a full-length book published under my name.
A year after completing my novel’s initial draft, I received my first letter of acceptance from a literary magazine in Alaska. The following autumn, they printed a 30-page short story of mine. And the following year (2003), after 60-odd query letters to publishers and agents, a New York agent said she wanted to represent me and my coal-mining novel (which was then in its tenth or eleventh draft).
In autumn of 2004 that peculiar novel, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, appeared for sale in bookstores throughout North America. In the month of its release I traveled to Minneapolis, 2,000 miles from home, to give the first public reading of my career, and had the pleasure of meeting folks who had read and enjoyed my words. It was strange and wonderful, I remember, to be so far away from my home and the novel’s setting, and yet to talk with people about my local history and the landmarks relating to it — to find that these provincial details, because I’d featured them in a narrative, had become things of interest to these distant readers.
As it turned out, my profound experience at that first bookstore appearance was just the beginning, and the year ahead would become the most social one of my life, consumed with the fun and frenzy of first-novel promotion. More than 30 reviews of my book appeared, all of them (save one) complimentary and several of them glowing (I’d had hopes, but no explicit expectations). Booksellers across the nation selected the novel as a No. 1 Book Sense Pick, and it was nominated for the Book Sense Book of the Year Award.
Thanks largely to this avid bookseller support, the novel began to accrue a readership. It went into a second printing within a month of publication, was listed as a “Best Book of the West” by the Salt Lake Tribune, and enabled me to travel through 13 cities in seven different states. It was all much, much more than I could have hoped for.
Obviously, I am by no means famous. Nor am I what the publishing industry adoringly dubs a “bestselling author.” I did not rake in heaps of royalty payments. And the arduous, mystery-shrouded process of writing has grown no easier or more streamlined in the past four years. I still spend most of my time alone in a room with pieces of paper, and usually while writing I feel I’m fumbling in the dark. My vocation is by no means financially profitable, either. Figured on an hourly rate, my income amounts to barely a fraction of what it was when I clerked in that bookstore (this past year my earnings were well below poverty level). What’s more, I still receive a few rejections a week.
But…I’ve forever checked off “dreamily forecasting” from that list of pastimes I mentioned above — and this fact causes me wonder every day.
How could so much good stuff happen to a rather naïve, unassuming guy — an anonymous dreamer — in what cynics would call a celebrity-driven era of sales-obsessed publishing and corporate gluttony?
There I was: an upstart, undistinguished by privileged association, lacking formal education and hard life experience, unable to boast of past achievements. With qualifications no stronger than a high school diploma, some hard-won literary magazine publications, and a manuscript that people liked, I found myself embarking upon the literary life I’d dreamt about.
A charmed existence? In some ways, certainly. But with the passing of time, I’ve continued to think there’s more to it than that — and my experiences so far have taught me one thing conclusively:
You don’t have to be an insider. The golden key is yours already. The closed door can be opened.
As the samurai and teacher Hideyoshi states in our book, The Prosperous Peasant, “Conceivable Means Achievable”:
For every stage of a journey, one must keep a clear end in mind. If you can conceive of the steps along the way to your destination, isn’t it a straightforward matter to plot those steps and reach them one by one? Men fail less for lack of ability than for lack of clear intermediate goals…What can be accomplished that the mind has not first conceived?”
[Hideyoshi's] two listeners shook their heads. “Nothing,” they agreed.
“Precisely. But once the goal of your journey is fixed, it is simple to plot the course.”
My breakthroughs, such as they are, have all required a great deal of work and persistence, as much on my wife’s part as on my own — including (don’t forget) the writing and scrapping of that first novel I referred to above (a two-year process) before I could confidently write a book like The Green Age of Asher Witherow.
But though I’m still in an early and modest chapter of my career, I’ve learned that impractical hopes can become sustainable reality. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau:
Endeavor to live the life you’ve imagined and you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.