How Sonal got her groove back, over and over again.

The first story I ever had any success with was just published, four years after I wrote it. You can read it here. Here’s the story behind that story.

I first had the initial inkling for that story in 2004, not long after I found my way back to writing. It was just an image. I’d been planting tulips. I thought more about how clever I could be with this image, but had no idea what kind of plot or character would go with it, so I never started. Clever is not a starting point. Eventually, I forgot about it.

In 2011, I was in a writing rut. I’d been rejected by an MFA program. I’d turned in my best work, and it wasn’t good enough. I’d told everyone about how I was going to be pursuing a Masters degree in Creative Writing, perhaps as my own way of trying to say “I am a writer! Take me seriously!” and now I hadn’t gotten in. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t sure if I was up for writing. The MFA people said “Apply again” but I wasn’t sure I was going to. I mean, what was the point? Clearly, I sucked.

Dispirited, I took a writing practice class in the spring with Sarah Selecky. I almost didn’t take the class, because I sucked, but it got me jazzed up on writing again. Perhaps I did not suck. I wrote a story for her class–not this story, another one. I wanted to take another class. Sarah wasn’t teaching that summer, but instead passed over her online class to Matthew J. Trafford, and so I took his class. I needed to come up with another story and suddenly I remembered tulip bulbs.

I still had no idea what the story was going to be about when I wrote it. I just wrote it. It surprised me. Matthew made a number of positive comments about the story and suggested a restructuring. I hated restructuring stories (what, they don’t just come out perfect?) but I ran with it and it worked. I used that story and the other story I wrote for Sarah’s class to re-apply to the MFA program. I got in.

I sent the story to The Star short story contest. I made a resolution to write a new story every month and send it to a friend of mine. I made plans for what I was going to do with my winnings from the contest. I wrote nothing. I did not win. New rut.

But I got an email from Jessica Westhead, who had been a judge for the contest, saying that she had loved my story, but consensus, taste, blah, blah. I spent the next hour running around my apartment repeating “Jessica Westhead likes my story” to myself.

I started the MFA program, having published nothing, and faced a class where it seemed like everyone had a huge writing CV. I re-read Jessica’s email. I got up the nerve to ask her about working with me and with her help refined it a little more.

I sent that story around to a dozen places. I collected a dozen rejections. I decided it was done, it sucked, there was no point in sending it anywhere else. Clearly, I sucked. I put it away. Months passed. I pulled it out again, looked at it again. Everyone hated it, but I still liked it. Jessica had liked it. I sent it back out to a dozen more places. I collected a dozen more rejections. Put it away. Pull it out again. Collect more rejections. I sucked.

The other story I had written got published. My first publication. Other work I wrote got published. I had a play produced. Maybe I didn’t entirely suck. But this story was being rejected left, right and centre. Put it away. Pull it out again. Was there something wrong with me that I still liked this story that everyone hated? Was this hubris? Collect more rejections.

A few places gave me some feedback on the story. Conflicting feedback. One said it was too on the nose. One said it was too subtle. One gave me gardening advice.

I emailed Jessica. “Everyone hates this story but you!” She reminded me about persistence and taste. I stopped putting it away and kept putting it out there. Collect more rejections. Collect more rejections. Collect more rejections.

And then, four years and perhaps forty rejections later–we would like to publish your story.

I would like to say that I am now a supremely confident writer who has complete faith in everything I write. This is not true. This will never be true. Over and over again.

The Money Question

When I first found my way back to writing, a big part of my motivation was that I wanted to quit my job. I wanted to wake up mid-morning, drink a leisurely cup of coffee, write, meet my editor for a wine-filled late lunch, read, perhaps wander through a museum, have a nice dinner and then answer my fan mail. Wait, no, my assistant answers my fan mail, so I would be binge-watching Netflix.

But the burning question was, how do I do that through writing? How do I, while hating my job that sucks up all my time and energy, find time and energy to write something that will be sufficiently brilliant and best-selling that I can quit my job and have time to write brilliant and best-selling things?

It’s an impossible conundrum.

I come from a long line of accountants; knowing exactly how I’m going to pay for my food and shelter has always been front and centre in my mind.

I don’t have the answer to this because there is no answer. There are writers who make a living exclusively from creative writing, but very, very few and most did not start that way. There are writers who make a living from non-creative writing, some freelancing and some employed. There are writers who make a living from teaching. There are writers who are financially supported by their partners. There are writers with jobs. There are many, many writers with jobs.

Many of these writers, even with jobs or other financial support, still need the support of arts grants to enable their writing.

I am a writer who had a job and had a business and now has investments and a business. I am also a writer that grew up with financial privilege and had a lot of luck and family connections to help me have investments and a business to support my writing. I am a writer who makes money from writing but I still could not pay the mortgage with that.

I’m not tackling the issue about whether or not writers deserve to make more money, or if it should be possible to make a living from art instead of having to treat it like a thing you do on the side even if in your heart it’s the most important thing.

But you know, many writers do get disheartened that they can’t live the dream and financially survive solely on writing. And honestly, if I were set that as my goal, to live on writing alone, I think that I would personally feel so pressured to write the thing that makes money that I do not know how I would write at all. I don’t know that I would be able to put my heart and soul on the page and trust that my heart and soul would be worth enough in the marketplace to feed myself.

I think this is why many writers get so caught up in the idea of the biz and marketing yourselves and having a social media presence and chasing trends. Because we want to quit our jobs and write full-time. And it seems like short of winning the lottery, the only way to get there is to write something that sells so well that we can do that. So we stop thinking ‘writing’ and start thinking ‘marketing’.

It’s the kind of thing that’s bad for writing.

Listen, I can’t tell you how you are going to be able to afford to quit your job and devote your life to writing only things you love. Perhaps this is my inner bean-counter speaking, but I don’t even think that’s a realistic thing to aim for, not without some other source of income that ensures you do not starve to death whilst writing what you love.

But I can tell you that the business of writing is not writing.

The business of writing is not writing.

Marketability, trends, and a social media presence are not writing. Being able to feed yourself from writing is fantastic, but it’s not writing. Making money from writing is awesome, but still not writing.

Yes, one day you will write something and want to put it out in the world, and that day you will take off your writer hat and put on your business hat and go out and sell it. But the point is that these are two different hats. Don’t confuse them.