By Michelle Seaton
I was listening to Deb Olin Unferth talk about her process for writing the novel Vacation. She said she had been trying to write a memoir about the time she dropped out of college to go to Central America. She worked on the memoir for years, maybe five years, and then sent it to her agent, who said, “This is bad, bad, bad.” Or perhaps that’s just the message the writer heard.
Either way, that’s a harsh assessment after so many years of effort. And Unferth was no beginner: She had won a Pushcart; she had a successful collection of short stories out; she had a teaching job.
Her despair was overwhelming, and I know the feeling. I’ve had it. An ambitious project falls through, or a number of small stories are rejected, and the sense of failure builds until it feels intolerable. Or, a work is published and the rejection comes from a critic, or from readers.
Unferth’s initial response to the rejection was to quit writing. She gave up.
It didn’t last long. A few weeks or months later she began toying with the idea for a story, one that had nothing to do with Nicaragua—at first. Over time the idea became a sheaf of index cards covered with notes. And then it took shape as a novel. It was not easier to write than the memoir. It also took years. She was often stalled, frustrated, confused. But she did finish, and then she went back to work on the failed memoir and published that as well. It’s called Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War.
Lately I’ve been hearing from friends and some former students about this kind of despair. They have spent years working on projects that, it seems, no one is interested in. They’ve switched from journalism to fiction, only to be told that fiction is dead. They’ve switched from writing novels to writing memoir, only to be told that the memoir is dead. Or they’ve quietly quit writing. They feel that a lack of publishing credits diminishes them.
I don’t have a cure for this feeling. I’m not sure anyone does. I remember something Charles Baxter said a few years ago when he gave the keynote address at the Muse conference: “Despair is a byproduct of making art.”
Writers who ultimately succeed—meaning they complete the works most important to them—have found a way to manage that despair so that it doesn’t destroy their ability to come back to the table to start again.
Michelle Seaton’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, The Pushcart Anthology among others. Her journalism and essays have appeared in Robb Report, Bostonia, Yankee Magazine, The Pinch andLake Effect. Her essay, “How to Work a Locker Room” appeared in the 2009 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the coauthor of the books The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009) and Living with Cancer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (HarperWave, 2018). She has been an instructor with Grub Street since 2000 and is the lead instructor and created the curriculum for Grub Street's Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced five anthologies.See other articles by Michelle Seaton