Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the author of the just-released A Thin Bright Line, an American love story with Cold War complications which Publisher’s Weekly calls “Empowering and bold.” Her previous work has won a Yaddo fellowship, two National Science Foundation Artists & Writers fellowships, the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize, and the Saturday Evening Post Fiction Prize. And I love what Lucy has to say here about how we do our best writing. – Meg
Lucy Jane Bledsoe: The Art of Quitting
Twenty years ago, when I was thirty years old, I gave up trying to be a writer. This was devastating. I’m one of those people who never wanted to do anything else. I was literally announcing when I was six years old that I would be a writer. I spent summers sitting in the front yard poring over how-to-write-fiction books, and of course reading all the contemporary fiction I could find.
This passion of mine was not supported. I come from a literary family – we weren’t allowed to watch television and the seven of us sat around the living room in the evenings reading – but a pessimistic one. My parents told me I couldn’t make a living writing. My father thought I should take care of my love of adventure by joining the Merchant Marines. My mother just worried that I was too bossy and opinionated to find a boyfriend.
The message that a person can’t make a living as a writer hit its mark, so I tried to focus on something practical in college. I majored in philosophy.
Then, when I graduated, I did make a living writing! I got a job writing stories for a textbook publisher. I wrote dozens of “novels” that were used in conjunction with science and history special education curricula. To my unending mortification, these volumes still show up under my name in internet searches, without any indication that they were written to be used as supplements to specific textbooks.
I loved the work, but my dream of being a novelist, a real one, didn’t disappear. I was writing short stories on the weekends, publishing some, and even winning a few prizes. I finally screwed up my nerve, quit my textbook job, and sat down to write my first novel.
An agent took it on. She promised me a television mini-series. But the book didn’t sell. Nor did the next novel I wrote. I was getting dangerously close to forty and my dream was unrealized. It was time to move on.
I girded my loins, thought long and hard about my other passions, and decided to become a mapmaker. I love wilderness. I love maps. I love setting and physical space. It would be a different kind of storytelling. I applied to graduate school.
Shortly before the first semester began, I received, all in one week, three book contract offers. A wonderful press wanted to publish my short stories. More, they wanted to give me a two-book deal, and would give me an advance to write a novel to follow the stories. My first children’s novel was also accepted by a good publisher. I said yes to everything and dropped out of the graduate program.
It wasn’t lost on me that these wonderful opportunities arose shortly after the moment I’d quit. Was there a connection?
My stories, novel, and children’s book were published. I got great reviews, won some prizes, and thought I was on my way.
But of course, those of you who are writers know that the journey is rarely smooth. My sixth novel is coming out this month, and while that may look like success, and probably is success, the path here has been full of as many obstacles and disappointments as excitement and open doors.
I’ve had many more I’m-quitting-and-getting-a-new-career moments. And always, following those moments, another breakthrough has pulled me back to writing. So often, in fact, I started to look for a message in the pattern. There is something about letting go of the grip, directing my gaze elsewhere, deciding I have options, that somehow dislodges the obstacles. I do my best writing when I kind of don’t care what happens to it.
Now this presents a huge conundrum. I do care so much about my work, and yet to do it well, I have to not care. I have to pretty much quit. Give up. Decide my life can take a different course. But how do you give up on purpose? How do you give up so you don’t have to quit?
I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I know when it happens, when I say, f**k it, I’m walking away. I get halfway out the door, and bingo, a great idea that I have to write right now bursts into my mind. The problem is, the trick doesn’t work unless I’m sincere. I can’t pretend to quit. It has to be authentic. So the challenge becomes: how to care deeply and work hard, and simultaneously let go of the outcome?
I’ve learned so much over the years. Most important of all is that I love to write fiction. I love storytelling. I believe that storytelling is one of the most important things humans do. It’s how we understand ourselves, interpret our past, dream about our future. So I go on, writing and quitting, trying to stay philosophically nimble, and miraculously, the joy keeps coming back, if intermittently. – Lucy