Editorial by Nina de Gramont
In the late nineties, when I was just a couple years out of graduate school, something happened to me that all young writers dream about: I got a two book deal from a big New York publishing house. I remember the phone call exactly, where I was standing, which windows were open, and the temperature of the late spring breeze wafting through the hall. “Are you sitting down?” my agent asked. The deal wasn’t quite six figures, but close enough that I felt I had arrived. Finally, I thought. The struggle was over.
Before that, at the creative writing program I attended in Colorado, all the writers hoped for some version of this event -– or at least, all the prose writers did. One friend was so convinced her novel-in-progress would make her a star that she changed to an unlisted telephone number. When the author Mark Leyner, a recent graduate of our program, made an appearance on Late Night, we watched with hope and longing. It was obvious David Letterman had no idea who Mark was, but who cared? One day that might be us on TV! It would all begin with New York, and a phone call, and lots of zeroes.
The poets, I noticed, operated differently. I don’t remember any of them ever mentioning Leyner’s appearance on Letterman. Their discussions revolved around grants, teaching positions, and small literary journals. It’s not that they didn’t have dreams of glory -– some of the most ambitious students were poets. But maybe because everyone knew that poets almost never became rich and famous, “glory” consisted of different rewards.
Without the mythology of that phone call from New York, they were like fairytale maidens who -– out of love -– had married the pauper instead of the prince, committing fully to rewards of the heart and mind. Of course we prose writers had to an extent made this same commitment when we eschewed advertising or law. But if we had also married the pauper, it was with the hope that he would someday win the lottery and whisk us off to a castle that put Prince Charming’s to shame.
My own phone call from New York led to a variety of riches and disappointments. I had an amazing relationship with my editor, a warm and brilliant young woman who connected deeply with my short stories. Carla was an exceptionally fine person -– too fine, it turned out, for the publishing industry. After my first book hit the stores, she left the business in favor of her own artistic pursuits, leaving me in the care of another editor. We tried, this editor and I, to achieve the same sort of synergy Carla and I had shared, but it just never worked. After several years, manuscripts, and ideas, I got a phone call that was nearly as devastating as that first was jubilant. The big New York publisher had broken up with me.
I remember that moment very clearly, too. I’d just had a baby -– my daughter was four weeks old. I was sitting outside in the courtyard of our faculty apartment in that very particular sleep deprived fog. Late summer, impossibly bright light surrounded me as I listened to my agent deliver the bad news. When I hung up, I felt strangely unemotional. It didn’t seem real. My husband came outside, the baby in the crook of his arm, and I told him what had happened.
In that brief moment, before the flood of disappointment and emotion took over, I saw things clearly. After all: then, as now, publishing was purported to be crumbling. Other than the world itself, is there anything whose demise is so routinely predicted as the written word? For once I didn’t care. Let fiction go the way of dinosaurs, as far as readers were concerned. I knew that I, a writer, would continue to create it.
“We are all poets now,” I said to my husband, David, who happens to be a writer, too. The phrase captured his imagination, and we have both repeated it at various times to varied reactions of agreement and horror. Recently David posted a blog, using my line as his title, and it has generated some discussion.
If the sentiment –- we are all poets -– hasn’t exactly, entirely stomped out my own dream of success, it has redefined it, in many ways, in terms of what I want from being a writer.
That second fateful phone call wasn’t the end of things, not at all. Since then I’ve edited an anthology and published two novels. If these books haven’t brought me fame and fortune, they have brought me something that I must have always known I wanted even more: they’ve brought me a life as a working writer.
The three editors I’ve worked with have been the best teachers I’ve ever had. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I can answer with a sense of pride and achievement and personal fulfillment. I can tell them that I am what I always wanted to be -– a writer –- not because of a publishing contracts, or reviews, or TV appearances, but because of my relationship with the written word and my own imagination, which would exist whether anyone even read my work, let alone bought it.
So it turns out there are greater rewards in the life of a poet. And although I certainly wouldn’t say no to a big pile of money, or even a spot on Letterman’s couch, I prefer to let my daydreams revolve around the work itself. It’s better that way, which I must have always known -– in order to become a writer in the first place.
Nina de Gramont’s latest book is the novel for teens, Every Little Thing in the World, which was published in March by Atheneum. She is also the author of a story collection, Of Cats and Men, and a novel, Gossip of the Starlings. She is also the co-editor of an anthology called Choice, and her work has appeared in Redbook, Harvard Review, Nerve, post road, Exquisite Corpse, and Seventeen. She teaches Creative Writing in North Carolina.
DISCUSS: Is a writer’s expectation of riches now unrealistic?