Last night, I hosted a Happier Hour Literary Salon with authors Jane Green and Mira Jacob. Jane talked about her sixteenth novel (!) Saving Grace and Mira talked about her debut The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing. The evening was simply wonderful. These women captivated all of us just as I predicted they would. And here I am on the day after, inspired, trying to capture some of the magic for those of you who weren't with us last night in the yellow living room.
What I've learned after doing this so many times is that this is an impossible feat. Something happens in that jam-packed room. Something happens when you mix thoughtful writers and thoughtful readers, those who are aspiring and those who are achieving, when you stir stories real and imagined and in-between. It's an alchemy that cannot be distilled on the page or screen. And yet. I do this. I sit down, take a breath, a bottomless cup of coffee nearby, and I try. So here you have it: 9 things I learned last night. You will notice that these are not just literary lessons. No, they are life lessons.
1. It can take months or years. There is no formula.
Saving Grace and Sleepwalker's Guide are both great novels I highly recommend. They are compelling, well-crafted stories about real people, real life, real love. Jane talked about how she's on a 1-2 book per year publication schedule and so she has learned to write quickly. She admitted that for her it's all about discipline, that she sets a word quota each day, sits down, turns on Internet-blocking software and writes. She does not edit when she writes. Mira, on the other hand, confessed that her book took the better part of ten years to write, that she wrote the bulk of it between the hours of 11pm-1am after working a full-time job. What I took from this: Speed is not dispositive. Good books can be written swiftly and slowly. Process is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
2. Sometimes bad things are the best things.
Mira told a story about losing her job and how this ended up being the best thing that could have happened. She was devastated at first of course, but then she realized that she had the time to actually finish her book, and did.
3. Real life is material/fodder.
Living in the world is research for the stories we will one day write. It's not necessarily a linear thing. It's not always about listening to a story at a cocktail party and thinking, that would make for a perfect plotline. Sometimes it's more subtle than this. We move through the world, have experiences, form relationships and all of it enters our minds and beings and informs who we are such that it might just show up in a story we write.
4. Characters can - and perhaps should - take on a life of their own.
Both authors talked a fair bit about character. About how when a character is well-drawn she will come alive in a way and dictate how the story will go. Mira talked about how the mother character in her novel was so strong that Mira often felt as if this character was hovering over her as she wrote, approving and disapproving of the story. Jane spoke about her experience writing one of her novels, how the narrative sprung organically and effectively from a slew of disconnected, but well-formed characters. This was all so interesting to me on a personal level because I'm now in the process of sketching my protagonists for my third novel. It's amazing what tough work this can be. Who are these people? What do they want most? What are their biggest strengths, struggles? It's such vital work though. I have a hunch that once I lock these characters in, once I know them, they will jump from the screen and guide me.
5. Writers tend to be (or start out as) introverts and observers.
This fascinated me, but I think it's true. I think we writers have lots inside us that we feel compelled to write about. It's not just about having a desire to tell a story, but about honoring on some level who we are as individuals. All of this really got me thinking last night because here I am hosting these big events month after month, getting up and welcoming a crowd, conversing with so many people and I suppose that makes me seem an extrovert, but I don't know... I also have a quiet, observing side. I like to take it all in, process, piece, connect dots... and then write. All so interesting to think about.
6. Writing is hard work.
Whether we are rookies or veterans, aspiring or achieving, some things never change. Writing is tough work. There will be brilliant moments of magic, of exhilaration, of flow. Moments when our fingers fly across keys, and words spill from us with liquid ease, moments when we forget the world. But the rest of the time can feel like an utter slog. The important thing - and Jane and Mira both stressed this - is to keep going, to show up, to persevere. What happens to us when we don't tell the stories we need to tell?
7. Connection is the best cocktail.
These evenings are of course about books, but more than that perhaps, they are about people. People who are living interesting lives and writing interesting stories. These evenings are about connection. About closing the laptop and stashing the phone and making eye contact and talking. About showing up and seeing and being seen. These evenings are full of realness, of energy, of vulnerability.
8. Giving and receiving genuine support are magical things.
Last night was special on a personal level for me because it was the first salon I've hosted since getting my book deal for THE RAMBLERS (forthcoming, William Morrow). I knew that many in attendance knew my news, but still I did something that's not entirely comfortable for me (and might never be): I stood up and announced that after four years of hard work and intermittent struggle, I'd sold my novel with the help of my brilliant and beloved agent Brettne Bloom. The smiles on faces, the applause, my goodness. A real moment. I felt so genuinely supported. And that's it. That's what these nights are about. Supporting. Being supported.
Speaking of which... Here Jane, Mira and I are flanked by fellow authors Jillian Lauren (right) and Sukey Forbes. Jillian (Some Girls, Pretty) has been hosting Happier Hours on the West Coast with my dear friend Claire Bidwell Smith (The Rules of Inheritance, After This) and her new memoir Everything You Ever Wanted comes out in May. Sukey recently published her gorgeous memoir The Angel In My Pocket.
9. The world can be very very small.
As thrilling as it is to meet and get to know writers and readers, it is also quite amazing to realize on these evenings just how small the world can be. Last night, I spent some time speaking with Mira's literary agent Michelle Tessler and it came up that she represents a man who was my very first philosophy teacher Dr. Tom De Zengotita. I took an elective in high school and remember being totally enraptured. I wrote a twenty page paper for him (even though the assignment was 3-5 pages or something). I came alive in that class and fell in love with philosophy and writing. I went on to major in Philosophy at Yale and stumbled my way toward this writing career that's dear to me. I love that this big world can feel so small sometimes.
Thank you, Jane and Mira, for joining me and all of us in the yellow room, for being so thoughtful and generous in your remarks and responses, for having written beautiful stories that inspire so many of us to write and live beautiful stories of our own. Thank you, Claire, for introducing me to Jane and thank you to my friend Meg Thompson of Thompson Literary Agency for connecting me with Mira!