“Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?”

The life of an author can be peculiar. Certain experiences ought to be grand events accompanied by trumpets and elephants, or at least a little snowfall of confetti and cake served up by your bestie. Moments like winning an award. Or signing with an agent. Or plunging into a writing career possessed by a passion that surely will mulch any obstacle in the wood chipper of artistic devotion.

Sometimes, however, you fall down the rabbit hole and discover that the Duchess’ baby has turned into a pig. The first two weeks of my writing career, for example, were spent curled up under my dining room table.

Ten months before the plunge, I had moved from one coast to the other to accept a promotion. Unfortunately, my security clearance provided access to corporate secrets that staggered my ethics. Eventually I dropped a resignation letter on the appropriate desk, moments after which a very kind woman from human resources escorted me to the exit. Two weeks to hit the rest button wasn’t, I think, an inappropriate pause.

So, the unicorns that normally canter about and the fairy dust that usually besprinkles the launch of a new career couldn’t attend my tea party. But once I rose from that dusty space beneath the table, I really threw myself into this writing thing. Creating books and stories that showcased other lives was what I had always wanted to do. Why not cash in that retirement account and work on this forever dream?

Things started looking up when my first manuscript won a minor award. The memoir focused on the six months I’d spent camping alone in the Australian outback. I know, I know, a memoir as a first effort is so very cliché. But it won…well, something—a certificate, a few accolades—which certainly wasn’t discouraging. This also should have been a moment to celebrate, but what happened next sent me down a very strange rabbit hole.

That week, I attended a writers meeting. I was active in four groups, which indicated the level of abuse I was willing to endure in my quest to master this craft. In one of these groups was a guy who had, for nearly a year, never spoken to me.

On this day, however—the day the award was announced to my peers—he hunted me down the way Alice gobbling down cakes and mushrooms in her quest to become the right size. This man said he wanted to join the critique group I was in, and asked when and where our next meeting would take place. Which was a bit presumptive, perhaps, but I wrote it off to authorial passion. It turns out this guy was the Hatter.

The leader of the critique group had recently announced that, until someone left, new members would not be accepted. Makes sense, right? Enough warm bodies, enough inquiring minds and all that. When Monsieur Hatter heard that he could not join, he took me apart for being elitist. He mentioned the award and accused me of being part of the “literati” (his term), and of trying to suppress other writers to reduce competition.

Hey, buddy, the award didn’t include cash. No trophy, dig? Just a piece of paper and a sweaty handshake at the podium. But for him, that looked like fame.

Fast-forward a few years. By that point, I had applied to a ton of contests, watched the judging process for regional arts grants, and sat on the boards of award and residency programs. I’d won a few minor accolades, received two prestigious fellowships, been selected for one small grant, and attended a couple of residencies.

Then the big one arrived, a national honor with a significant cash payout. OK, six grand wasn’t going to fund a significant amount of living expenses, nor would it pay off the credit card debt that had accrued while I had written the award-winning novel. But the prize was larger than what most other contests offered.

One of the first places I shared the news was inside my family. That seems normal and well-adjusted, right? Who wouldn’t want their parents and siblings to partake of this wondrous news, this singular achievement? Particularly if your parents don’t really read (discounting, of course, the Washington Post newspaper, which my father complained was too liberal even though he subscribed) and your brother favors a genre that does not match the one in which you work.

Here, at last, was an award noteworthy enough that everyone could recognize the accomplishment as valuable (exactly six grand worth of value), and possibly an achievement that could validate a career choice that had been viewed quite narrowly as “not a real job” because how in the world were you supposed to earn an income writing fiction?

The first thing my mother asked about this fairy dusted, unicorn-bespattered award was, “Are you sure it’s not a scam?”

There. The Red Queen decapitated joy.

Let us skim past my attempts to sew the bloody head back onto the ragged neck with convoluted efforts to convince them of the award’s authenticity, the reams of proof I printed off the internet (which technology my parents still considered a shadowy, untrustworthy realm full of scammers and pornographers and pedophiles), and repeated assurances that the award would be paid without any required “prepayment” and no bank information changing hands.

Instead, let us zip forward to the moment when I signed with my first literary agent. Huzzah! Sound the angelic trumpets! Sing, the crystalline choir! What other milestone except the offer of a publishing contract for a debut novel can match this in a writer’s life?

This moment, at least, I knew to enjoy first and foremost with fellow authors, those who understood the depth of its meaning and who would celebrate with me. Then, after a bit, I shared it with my parents.

“Oh, good!” my mother said. “Your dad and I were talking about hiring an agent for you. How much will it cost?”

I had steeled myself before sharing this news but still felt a pang of frustration. Especially because, out of the goodness of their hearts, they had offered to “pay for an agent” numerous times before. Each offer had been gently declined. And, because my parents were so goodhearted that every refusal of assistance was accompanied by the same piercing despair as a rejection letter, each declination had been attended by a description of how agents work.

Years of freelancing will teach you one thing: you must have patience. Clients sometimes come to your door with little understanding of the publishing industry. Worse, they arrive filled with half-truths and misinterpreted industry news that utterly and completely decimates their passion after the third rejection. With this experience under my belt, I was able to summon some depth of fortitude and persist in this attempt to connect with my closest relatives.

“It won’t cost anything,” I said. “Authors don’t pay agents until the book is sold.”

Blank look. “Then how do you know this one is real?”

Long explanation—again—of how agents worked. Blank look persisted but was newly shellacked with worry. Long discourse on the literary histories of my agent’s other clients, which included Norman Mailer, Raymond Bradbury, Morris West, and Arthur C. Clarke. Unfortunately, my parents rarely read fiction, so these names only deepened the void.

Finally, driven by sheer desperation and the need to share one shining moment with my family, I asked, “Remember that movie 2001? That was written by Clarke.”

Of course they went to the movies now and then, but of course mostly to watch Nicolas Sparks-type flicks, so of course that didn’t work. The mention of a movie was, in fact, bad. Very bad. The introduction of Hollywood convinced my mother that I was being suckered. (Casting couches! Naked models! Sex for empty promises of fame!) Her new expression bordered on panic.

“Is this guy even in New York?” she asked, which should have been a moment of personal vindication because some tiny part of what I’d shared over the years had sunk in and she was at least aware that New York City was the center of the literary universe. Instead, I kicked the unicorn.

I said, unfortunately without wiping away the dripping sarcasm, “He’s on Park Avenue!”

“Oh!” She clapped with joy. “Then he’s a real agent! Congratulations, honey!”

She beamed happily. I, meanwhile, contemplated fleeing to Wonderland to join Alice in “going out altogether.”

Despite the richly composed soil that families provide authors, we shall allow the remainder of this ground to lie fallow. Let us now return to the fecund absurdity that can be unearthed among peers.

At times, grant applications will call for letters of recommendation from fellow professionals. Stay in the arts business long enough and you’ll become very familiar with how to garner favors from others and repay them in kind. Not always to the same person, perhaps, but certainly into the pool of fellow authors. Pay it forward, as they say.

Whenever I must beg for letters, I spread my requests among various individuals. The background of each reference is also matched with the grant’s mission. One year, I approached an associate I’d known for over a decade, a person I’d helped in various ways and with whom I’d celebrated when she had won prestigious awards.

“I’ll write the letter for you,” she said slowly, “but Laine, how many awards do you really need?”

My turn to stare blankly.

More the fool I for believing that she would actually submit the letter. She didn’t, and the application was never considered because her input was missing. Tweedledee had launched a battle without informing me that I was to play Tweedledum.

You would think that would have taught me a lesson. You would think that when I later applied for a very large grant, a fellowship that would have given me an entire year of time to write, that I would have read the signals from a different reference. And, seeing as how I’m discussing the event now, you surely know that you would be wrong.

My peer was encouraging and bubbly and bright whenever we discussed the letter. She emailed me updates to say that, although she had not yet composed the letter, she was aware of the deadline. Then another update and another, all reading, not yet, but soon. And then, the day after the deadline had passed, she emailed a final time. So sorry, so sorry, wrote the Gryphon, who was not a bit sorry.

Beware the writer’s life, my friends. Therein lurks the Jabberwocky.

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About Laine Cunningham

Laine Cunningham writes speculative and historical literary fiction that blends magic with modern sensibilities. Her novels have received the Hackney Literary Award, the James Jones Literary Society Fellowship, Writer’s Digest’s 2016 ebook award, and honors from national and international art councils. Her short stories have won the 2016 Hackney Award as well as the 2017 Writer’s Digest contest, and have been published by Reed Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, and Writer’s Digest in their annual anthology. Laine's extensive nonfiction book credits include The Zen of Dogs: Wisdom That Wags the Tail, The Wisdom of Babies, Writing While Female or Black or Gay, and a women’s adventure travel memoir called Woman Alone: A Six-Month Journey Through the Australian Outback. For over twenty years, she has been a ghostwriter and publishing consultant. Her clients have received film options and attention from The Today Show and The Dr. Oz Show, been published at the nation's top five houses, and been shopped to Disney and Pixar.