Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Guest Blogger Sandra Hurtes on How a Writer Stays Committed With No Promise of Success

This blog, which I've been publishing for eight years, continues to bring me into contact with many wonderful writers. Sometimes a single email exchange grows into a week-long or month-long (or longer) conversation; often, I invite that writer to contribute a guest post. That's more or less how I found Sandra Hurtes, who emailed me after reading an interview here with Sue William Silverman, one of her "writing heroes." Sandra is an adjunct assistant professor at CUNY and also studies watercolor painting.

Please welcome Sandra Hurtes.  

When Poets & Writers began its “Why We Write” column, I felt the topic was made for me. I understood the myriad reasons why I put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard. I hurried off an essay, noting my early life as a painfully shy and compliant child and how through writing I had found my voice and myself. When my essay was rejected, I was surprised. Until I went back to work, rewriting, going deeper, and not stopping until I cried. I discovered that it is only through the laying down of word after word after word that I can get to the center of anything, whether it’s a personal essay or a book I’m teaching in a freshman comp class.

As a freelance writer, I’m guaranteed nothing. Not publication. Not a reader. Not a dime for my efforts. And so being aware of the gifts writing bestows upon me is vital; it keeps me returning to the page.

I didn’t always feel this way.

Though I had an early sense that I was a writer, and dreams of literary success, it wasn’t until I was 44 that I settled solidly into my chair to begin the work. It was the 50th anniversary of the Jews’ liberation from concentration camps; my parents were survivors, and I needed to be part of the emerging global conversation. I loved every second (even the tearful ones) of working on my first fully realized essay, “A Daughter’s Legacy.” It first landed in The Jewish Press, then it was republished in The Brooklyn Woman, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, and a small Israeli magazine. The thrill of fulfilling my goal and discovering the joy of writing set me on fire. The following year, I wrote four essays that all found homes in Na’amat Woman, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.  

When the Times called to tell me they were publishing my essay, I was giddy with happiness and nerves, certain I was headed for the big time. The Times piece led to messages from editors and agents who wanted to meet me, and the rush of attention filled a need I didn’t know I had. From my job as an office temp, I called in to my answer machine every half hour for messages. When the Times called to relay agent messages, I was ecstatic. But when there were none, I felt deflated. I was aware of this internal dynamic, and it made me uneasy.

I met with agents and an editor to discuss projects. My ideas included an essay collection or a memoir; I'd already begun a memoir draft. But each person I spoke with was interested in a novel; they assumed I’d been writing for years and had one ready (this was in the mid 1990s, before the memoir mania). My period of "fame" ended with no agent, no book deal, and a bit of insecurity.

I continued to write and publish essays. Sometimes readers wrote to say they connected with me; I loved that. Sometimes an editor reached out; that was an incredible high, underscoring my belief I would eventually make it big—a book turned into a movie turned into a move to Los Angeles to a house with an ocean view and writing as my day job. But in the real world, I still had no finished book manuscript. Wanting to have a book out in the world was a wonderful goal; but for me, it was also a deeply personal form of validation.

I branched out into writing service articles and hoped I’d make a living as a freelancer. This was still a time when you could call up editors and run ideas by them. But the few times I did, my voice trembled.  I felt as if I was putting my life on the line. I mailed my queries instead of calling, most of which received form rejections. Still, studying magazines and coming up with fresh topics was fun; sometimes I wrote entire articles on spec. I loved writing for its own sake, but each time I looked over my shoulder at peers who had agents or books on tables at Barnes & Noble, that pure love shifted. I became competitive and jealous.

I started the novel I thought might be my ticket to success while also working on my memoir and everything else I could squeeze in before, after, and during office jobs. I sent a self-help article to a magazine editor who had loved my Times piece. She left me a long voice mail. Sandra, you don’t have the skills for journalism. You should stick to essays. I’m passing on this article.  I sent it to a rival magazine, and six months later I received an acceptance. But by then I had given up waiting and instead placed it with a poor-woman’s (aka trashy) version of Cosmopolitan. 

My disappointment was blinding. The ups and downs of the freelancers’ life were too painful to manage. I continued to work on my novel, and believed in it enough to hire an editor. But it never quite came together in terms of character development.

One day, I told my mother I didn't want to write anymore. “That makes me very sad," she said.“I hear my voice in your words.” In that moment, I settled back into my chair and thought a lot about why I write.  

Since then, I've gone back to school for an MFA and I’m now an adjunct English professor teaching four classes a semester. I write all the time, mostly preparing lectures. It sounds dull. But the first time I prepped to teach Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I spent hours exploring how a scientist’s brilliance led to his demise. I was on fire with the process of learning and from the gift I was able to give myself (and my audience of students).

I discovered I could labor over essays, and if they didn’t find a home it was okay. When they did, I was gratified when I heard from readers. As for the most organic book project I had inside of me—the essay collection—I self-published On My Way to Someplace Else. My goal was to contribute a body of work on the Holocaust, and I exceeded that by garnering excellent reviews.

My second book, The Ambivalent Memoirist, has a quirky style of short, digressive chapters. I didn’t look for an agent. I found closure in writing memoir and have closed that "book".  A line in the Publisher’s Weekly’s review -- “Writing as art and psychological salvation is at the heart of this book.”  -- showed me more about what writing means to me.  

Being published in newspapers and magazines is important to me; the reach it provides into other people’s minds and hearts is significant. I still want that. But I no longer feel competitive or even aware of what other writers are doing. I’m wedded to my process that allows me to grow and develop in ways I could not have, had I not become a writer.

Note from Lisa: Sandra would like to give one lucky blog reader a copy of each of her books (print or Kindle, your choice). Simply leave a comment by the end of the day on Saturday, February 28, 2015. US postal addresses only for print). Visit Sandra's website to learn more about her.

Images courtesy Sandra Hurtes.


Lisa Allen Lambert said...

The satisfaction and freedom Sandra has found is a reminder to all of us creatives to look within and consider our true motivations. I imagine her teaching to be engaging, and that she inspires her students to read more deeply, to write from the heart.

Unknown said...

I like that thought: "the gifts writing bestows on me".
Because, you know, it really does, I think.

Unknown said...

Yes. I have just come to the realization that I write.
Writers write.
And if my writing never finds a public home – – that is okay.

drew said...

Hooray! This essay is full of spirit and encouragement. I like your attitude! Thank you Sandra (and I was going to write this comment even before I read of the book giveaway.) :)

Unknown said...

Thank you for your honesty. It is so difficult to stay centered in the writing itself. And what it will be or become for others you simply don't know. I am a beginner compared to you and I so appreciate your advice.

Rena said...

I also started writing at 44 and while I've only been at it a short time the it has been the happiest time of my life. I write a blog as I work on that first book and love every second of the sleepless nights. I feel like I started to late that the art of writing seems to be going away and that makes me so sad.

Middle-aged Diva (Carol) said...

I can't tell you how much I relate to that. I have always gone in spurts with my national publishing. Part of it is that if I'm happy with an essay, sometimes that is truly enough, because I write only because I must, the words are there waiting to come out. Yes, if others like them, it feels good, but sometimes it's not necessary to share them. Unless, of course, I'm getting paid for something I want to write anyway.

Sandra Hurtes said...

Dear Writers,
Thank you for your lovely comments. They inspire and encourage me. To Rena I want to say, keep loving those sleepless nights. The early days of being a writer are the best. Keep making art, regardless of the direction publishing is going.

Anonymous said...

"If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad."
Lord Byron.
I saw this quote today and said to myself, "Yes, exactly."
I write because I have to. Sometimes words swim around in my head and will not let me rest until they find a permanent home. If someone reads them, and they touch someone's heart, then all the better.

Andrea said...

I have been feeling discouraged about the whole writing/publishing/making a living thing lately, so this is good to read. Time to reassess the whys of writing. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Loved reading this. It really touches a chord with us essayists, especially this line: I discovered I could labor over essays, and if they didn’t find a home it was okay.

Lisa Romeo said...

Congratulations to
You are the random winner of the two Sandra Hurtes books.
Please email me with your choice of print or e-books (see left column of blog for my email link).
Thanks all for reading and leaving a comment!