I was having a bit of a bad day, you see. My stomach hurt and the cat threw up a hairball on my pillow and there was nothing good to eat for lunch.
Then, while browsing Facebook (Facebook is the most splendid way of avoiding writing one’s novel), I discovered that it was Robert Olen Butler’s birthday.
I’ve had a writerly crush on Butler for years. (For those of you who don’t know, a writerly crush is when you want to sleep with the books of a certain writer, when you want to carry them around with you everywhere and read them until the pages are crumbled and there’s peanut butter and jelly stains along the margins and the bindings break. Until you use them up.)
I remember the first time I “met” one of Butler’s books. It was years ago, when my son was still young and I was still young, and both of us had traveled down from Alaska to northwestern Pennsylvania to visit with my mother.
It was a warm summer day, the sun shining, and while my mother showed my son around her flower garden, I sat on the front steps and opened the book I
stole borrowed from my sister back in Philly the day before.
That book was A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain and it sort of, kind of changed my life. Or at least pushed my life forward. Or, to put it more bluntly, reading that book delivered the swift kick in the ass I needed to propel my writing life forward.
I’m not sure why. Maybe it was being back in my childhood home, place of so many discontents but also so many wild dreams. Or maybe I was simply ready to move forward. As I sat there in the sun reading those stories, written in such a strong, lyrical, beautiful yet often sparse voice, something sparked inside of me.
The following year, when I read about a contest judged by Butler, I entered. I didn’t normally enter contest. I was a single mother and couldn’t justify the entry fee (usually $20-$30). Besides, the chance of winning was so slight that there wasn’t any reason to enter. Yet, I stubbornly submitted an essay. I didn’t win; I didn’t even place.
But I began submitting to more contests and more magazines. My stack of rejection letters grew, and my son gleefully yelled, as he brought in the mail, “Mom, you got another rejection letter!”
I slowly began to rack up publications: A poem here, a short story there. It wasn’t easy. I never felt confident. I submitted each piece hours and often minutes before deadline. I obsessed over Every. Single. Comma. Yet, I eventually began publishing in better literary magazines, won awards, residencies and fellowships, found an agent, blah, blah, blah.
So, thanks for the unintentional kick in the ass, Robert (do people ever call you Bob, I wonder?). It was a good one.
Don’t miss Julie Valerie’s post on National Readathon Day, which happens Jan. 28 (and don’t even think about not reading that day, okay?). Check out more here.
Nice interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love on Luc Berthelette’s site, where she advises writers to not give up their 9-to-5 jobs. “I also advise against the goal of having your artistic work support your life, financially,” she says. “Of course this is the dream of dreams — to make a living by your art — but it is a rare thing, when that works out. Or sometimes it might work out for a few years, and then you run out of money.” Read the full interview here.