Robin Black’s New York Times commentary, What’s so Great About Young Writers?, struck a huge chord with me. Far more than European or Asian cultures, Americans embrace the cult of youth, likely because we still are a fledgling nation ourselves and equate energy, innovation, freedom and individualism, all prized American values, with being young.
I am among those lucky enough to have grown up in the relative safety of middle-class America, where there was always healthy food on the table, a place to rest my head at night, money enough for ballet classes or piano lessons, and parents who strongly believed in the importance of education and cultural and social awareness of the larger world. I also am a product of a childhood in which of series of tragic deaths and illnesses resulted in a chaotic family life permanently scarred by trauma, loss and embitterment. When I was a child, novels, and to a lesser extent, movies and live theater, served both as my escape from that traumatic chaos and also as a way to help me make sense of it. As such, books were these miraculous gifts created by mysterious, sentient beings known as authors, who were as remote as they were omnipotent.
It was only at Mount Holyoke, when an insightful professor suggested I sign up for a creative writing class my sophomore year that it occurred to me that ordinary people wrote books. Anyone with enough desire, a willingness to learn and practice craft and relentless persistence could be a professional writer. By the time I graduated at the age of 22, I had written more than a dozen short stories, my first novel, and thanks to an introduction by yet another professor, I had a New York agent actively interested in my work. At 22, time not only seems infinite, but we also foolishly believe that talent alone is enough to make one a success. I didn’t know I was supposed to stay in touch with that agent while I worked on my manuscript, or that I should cultivate relationships with other writers and publishers or that, eventually, when my student loans came due and I no longer could stomach yet another meal that consisted solely of Kraft macaroni and cheese and an apple, I would have to take a “grown up” job to meet my financial commitments.
Yet I kept writing, mostly on the weekends. I had lots of near successes, short stories that were runner ups in, but never actually won, literary contests; a promise by an editor of a major literary magazine to publish one of my essays that never was fulfilled; a contract with an agent who, though initially enthusiastic about my second novel, when she couldn’t place it with the first dozen publishers she tried, quickly cooled to my work.
When I was 39, a remarkable woman I knew in Seattle decided to launch a small independent press devoted to what she called fragmentary writing, journals, diaries, memoirs and fiction written in excerpt form. She casually asked me if I had anything that might be suitable for her new venture. Holding my breath, I sent her This is How I Speak, the memoir I had written drawing on a journal I had kept during my first year of graduate school, an extremely challenging year in which I moved three thousand miles away from my friends and family, survived a terrifying sexual assault, and fell in love with the man I would eventually marry. Two days later she called to say she wanted to publish it under her Impassio Press imprint. With a print run of 2,000 copies (how silly of me not to understand just what it took to for an unknown writer at a brand new publishing house to generate book sales of 2,000 copies) and drawing on my years of experience working in PR, I sent the galleys around to dozens of reviewers and book critics, certain that I and my work were about to hit the big time.
I did get some very lovely reviews, including in Library Journal and Bookselling Today, the newsletter of the consortium of independent bookstore owners which put out the once powerful, now defunct Booksense 76 list, and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association named me a 2002 Celebration Author, one of just 10 writers whose work they felt worthy of special notice. Mostly, I was touched and grateful when people who had read the book took the time to contact me personally and tell me how the memoir affected them.
Most writers dream about their words connecting with readers, that moment when the world makes sense in the same way all the novels I had read when I was child did. That’s what stays with me—that readers cared enough, were touched enough by what I wrote, that they made the effort to tell me so.
Despite the memoir’s small, but meaningful, success, no big time agent or literary house clamored to publish any of my other work. Indeed, after laboring on yet another novel for five years, one agent wrote me that the protagonist was a “silly, foolish girl that no one could care enough for to want to read about.” Over the decades in which I’ve been writing and trying to publish my work, I have received hundreds of rejections letters, but that one in particular sent me into an emotional tailspin that made it impossible for me to write a word of fiction for more than two years.
Book publishing has also been in a tailspin, trying to remain relevant in the age of Twitter and Instagram, where entities like Amazon view books solely as commodities to be sold at the lowest cost, regardless of quality or professional copyediting and proofreading standards. Thanks to Amazon’s aggressive anti-competitive assault on traditional publishing houses, most Americans no longer believe it is worth paying $22.99, or even $12.99, for a book that brings them hours of enjoyment and insight and they can return to time and time again, though they seem still to have no difficulty paying seven dollars for a grande double latte at their local Starbucks or spending $50, $60 or even $100 a ticket to attend a sporting event or live concert. Far too many writers themselves no longer think what they do has real value or else they wouldn’t so willingly give away so much of their work online for free.
Now, at long last, in my early 50s, I finally do have an agent who believes strongly in my work and am hopeful, as is he, that the current novel I’m writing will finally find a home with a well-established and successful publishing house.
I often fantasize about how great it would have been if I had been talented or lucky enough to have been one of those “bright young things” to establish a successful writing career early in my twenties. Perhaps if I had done so, I wouldn’t still need to work a full-time job, though given that less than two percent of all published authors earn more than $100,000 a year from book sales, it is unlikely I could have completely given up my day job.
In the meantime, though, perhaps if I realized success early I would not have labored so long and hard to turn myself into the best writer I can possibly be. I look at the fiction I’m crafting now and recognize that it is far more sophisticated and nuanced than anything I ever produced back then.
I have nothing but admiration and respect for those writers and artists who hit their stride early and wish them continued success. Yet, as Gloria Steinem once so brilliantly wrote in her 1978 essay, “Why Young Women Are More Conservative,” most (though certainly not all) women in their 20s and early 30s are filled with uncertainty and still deeply concerned about winning the approval of society, which, these days, means the chronic juggling and shape shifting that occurs in our efforts to be exemplary executives, lovers, wives, mothers, community volunteers, yoga goddesses and Botox gymnasts all at the same time, to devote themselves to radical acts.
And, make no mistake, writing is a radical act. Indeed what could be more radical, and therefore more freeing, than creating entire worlds, situations and characters, as novelists, short story writers and playwrights do, out of nothing? Than trying to capture and convey the nature of love, friendship, despair, even freedom itself, as poets or essayists do?
So for those of us who still dream of publication, I hope you too take comfort in Robin Black’s call to take age out of the equation when we talk about talent, success and achievement and hand out awards to “emerging” literary authors. In a time when most of us are living well past our 80s, it seems more than a bit absurd to recognize only those under 35 or 40 as “promising,” particularly now when most of us can’t afford to write full-time.
Sandi Sonnenfeld ’85 is the founder and managing editor of The Lyon Review.