By MELISSA D. SULLIVAN
For Montclair Local
“All Write Now” reflects the writing life. Melissa D. Sullivan is an attorney by day, writer by night, mother of two, and recipient of the 2016 Parent-Writer Fellowship in Fiction from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Melissa splits her time between Montclair, New Jersey and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. You can learn more at melissadsullivan.wordpress.com.
“So,” the literary magazine editor said, peering around the classroom at us over his wire-
rimmed glasses. “As a writer, what’s the goal?”
We all glanced at each other and laughed nervously. This was the last formal class of a week-long writer’s retreat at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing, and so far, it had been a dream.
For five whole days, I had done nothing but write, talk about writing and take classes about writing with 20 other people who also wanted to do nothing but write, talk about writing and take classes about writing. At night, we would sit around the kitchen of the seminar house, discussing our projects while the ocean breeze flowed through the open screens.
It was like the best summer camp ever. With wine.
But by Thursday morning we were starting to wilt.
The unseasonably cool temperature had broken into a full July heat wave, and after four days of uncompromising creativity, we were all starting to get a little hysterical. Yet, here was this editor from one of the top lit mags in the country posing a very serious question as the fans struggled to move the humid air around the wide conference room.
“So,” he asked again. “As a writer, what’s the goal?”
We all looked down, trying to avoid catching his direct gaze.
“Publication,” someone bravely said.
“Okay,” he said. “Poof! You’re published. Now what?”
“Write a bestseller,” one of the two guys said. We snickered.
“Okay,” the editor said. “Done. Now what?”
We all looked at each other again. What was he getting at?
“Make enough money to retire early,” I ventured. There were murmurs of agreement around the room.
“Okay,” the editor said. “Done. Now what?”
Now he was looking at me, his dark eyes intense behind his glasses.
“I guess keep writing,” I said, thrown off by his direct address. “Just get better.”
But the truth was, at that moment, I didn’t have an answer. How often do we as writers and artists ask ourselves why we do what we do?
Sure, we may all start out wanting to be J.K. Rowling or Ursula Le Guin or even Danielle Steel, but those of us who stay in the fiction writing game long enough quickly realize that sort of success is extremely rare. Even success on a smaller level – publication in a small press, stories in a few literary magazines – is hard to come by. And it’s almost never enough to live on.
So then, without blinding success or pressure to make a living, we are left with the writing itself. And the writing is not forgiving. Sometimes, the first draft flows, but the editing necessary to make it coherent is a bitch. Other times, the idea seems wonderful, but the words don’t roll off the pen. Sometimes, we sit alone with our notebooks or computer and face a wall of blankness that feels as intimidating and negating as death.
Then, if we do persevere and actually send something out into the world, there is the constant rejection, either of the coldly impersonal kind (“…not right for our needs at this time…”) or the agonizingly close-but-no-cigar kind (“…good but marketing is only looking for a sure thing…”).
So why, with all this drudgery, negativity and failure, do we insist on continuing?
One day, while taking a desperately needed break from my endlessly flawed novel, I came across a recent interview with novelist Elizabeth Strout. After a charming story about failing at stand-up, Strout told the interviewer that the goal of her writing “is always to try and understand what it feels like to be another person.”
It is truly one of the tragedies of the human condition that we are limited to our own experience of the world. But when I’m writing, I can take up the point of view of anyone: a teenage boy with a crush on the mysterious new girl, an African-American farmer with a sick wife or an 80-year-old woman living alone with a purple dog. Through the blessing of imagination, I can slip into these characters’ heads and understand a little more about what it feels like to be different than I am.
So, Mr. Editor, if we should ever meet again, I would tell you that my personal goal is to use writing to explore a world that is larger then my own experience of it, and if all my work ever gets me is a broader understanding of how other people may think, feel or live, that’ll be good enough for me.
Though I wouldn’t mind a bestseller or two.