I am always thrilled for my writer friends when they achieve a writing goal -- that first byline, getting published in a choice spot, snaring an agent, snagging a book contract -- and after I say Congrats! the next thing that usually comes out of my mouth is: How did that happen? What I don't mean is how-did-you-get-so-lucky. I know it's not luck (well at least not all luck). What I am interested in is the backstory. I want to know what happens when sheer writing talent (a given among all my brilliant writer-buds), intersects with revisions, self-censoring, rewrites, critique, instinct, contacts, chutzpah, business savvy, whim, gut feelings and, above, all, perserverance.
And so it wasn't too much of a surprise that when I achieved one of my long-standing writing goals -- a personal essay published in the New York Times -- a few weeks ago, many nice emails from writing pals included inquiries along the lines of: How'd ya do that?
Let's go back about 19 months. I was just starting to think about applying to the Stonecoast MFA program. The piece began as a 2-page exercise based on a prompt from an instructor at an NYU continuing ed class. Then I expanded it into a 5-page piece for a different private class last winter and included it as part of my portfolio for admission to the MFA. When it came time to submit manuscripts for workshops at my first MFA residency, I rewrote and expanded it into a 12-page piece. My terrific workshop leaders, Richard Hoffman & Baron Wormser, had some input, of course, as well as the other writer-students around the table.
The workshop input led me to revise it, this time into a 4,000-word piece which I submitted, in September '06, to the editor of an anthology of mothers of special needs kids. When it was accepted, I began to submit it, in December '06, to magazines, with an eye for a prepublication excerpt, hopefully in a magazine that runs longish pieces. It didn't work out that way.
Oh, and on a dare, I also sent it to the New York Times. One can dream. A few magazines expressed interest; one was noncommital (we're thinking about it); one couldn't run it until six months after the anthology was due to be published; another simply confused me, with an elaborately worded semi-acceptance that had many strings attached.
In January '07 (on the day I arrived home from Stonecoast), a NY Times editor called to say she liked the piece, but of course it was entirely too long. Would I be interested in trying to adapt it into a 1,100-word piece? That sounded difficult and it was, because the difference between 4,000 words and 1,000 is not about line edits or cutting a few paragraphs here and there. It's about revising in the literal sense: Re-seeing, and thus, rewriting.
With the helpful critique of my MFA faculty-mentor, the fabulous Ann Hood, and critique from my friend and recent Stonecoast grad Kathy Briccetti, I did it. Well, I got it down to 1,200 words, and the editor helped me see how to trim the rest (trust me, there is a reason editors do what they do).
The piece was scheduled to run on April 1 (I shuddered to think my first crack at the New York Times was on April Fool's Day), but a week before, it was postponed to May 13 -- Mother's Day, a better fit for the tone of the piece. And that's when it ran.
Phew. If you had told me 10 years ago, when I was churning out P.R. copy by the boatload, most of which was completely disposable an hour later; or writing short newsy features with weekly deadlines, that I stick with a piece so long, I would have laughed.
I read the piece at the Montclair library last week, and afterward someone asked me, "How long did it take to write that?" I told her a short version of my write/edit/rewrite/revise/adapt saga. She looked horrified. Later, I thought about the previous 13 years -- of observations and scribbled notes while raising my son Sean (the star of the piece).
So, how long does a piece of writing "take"? And how does publication"happen"?
Depends. What's your story?