Guest post, Sara Schaff: The Age of Success

My first book came out in the fall, which still feels miraculous to me. The stories took years to write and years to find a home for. Holding the actual book in my hands for the first time, I felt moved by the lovely cover and by the physical presence of words I had labored over in my thirties—which, by then, were almost over.

Next month I’m turning 40, a number that used to seem distant and possible to avoid. As my stepfather likes to remind me, when he turned 40, I made a giant banner that read “Over the Hill” and hung it on the wall as a snide happy birthday greeting. (I was thirteen at the time and probably more concerned with the fact that he was my stepfather than I was with his age, but whatever, he’s right: 40 looked ancient.) Alice Munro was 37 when she published her first book. Toni Morrison was 39. George Eliot 40. As a beginning writer I’d read the bios of brilliant, “late-blooming” writers and feel inspired. But also terrified: I couldn’t imagine waiting that long to find literary success.

When I began graduate school in creative writing almost a decade ago, I considered it reasonable to assume that my two years there would soon lead to the vision I had of “success”, which included not just a published book but tenure-track job and “a viable writing career.” To some of the twenty-somethings in my program, I probably already seemed old at thirty, but forty still seemed so far away. Of course I would publish a book before I was anywhere near forty!

One thing I couldn’t have known is how in my thirties the whole nature of time would change. Days and years used to feel full and incremental and possible to keep track of. Starting in grad school everything began to hurtle past.

Yet somehow the writing continued slowly. Mostly while I was working full time. And though sometimes the slow writing was painful, often it was the opposite: every word I made time for reinforced for me the joy of making art. Every sentence contained the promise of a magic trick—plucking something from my head and making it live on the page.

I’d like to believe that writing while working made me a better writer—or at least a writer who can usually find a few minutes to write, because sometimes that’s all there is. In grad school, I adored listening to professional writers talk about their schedules: the coffee in the hand, the butt in the chair for the hours of 8-to 5, or 9-2 while the kids are at school. It felt like a dreamy formula: caffeine + hours + story = bestselling/award-winning novel. For the majority of us who are working office jobs, or teaching, or taking care of tiny children, that kind of schedule is a luxury, not a mathematical proof.

Sometimes you have to write at work in secret. (I did some of my happiest writing in an office cubicle.) Sometimes you write only while the kid is sleeping or doesn’t realize you’ve slipped upstairs for some writing time but is about to realize it, so better write that sentence real damn quick. Sometimes you have to write late at night when the house is a mess. Sometimes early in the morning. (But never at 4am. Writers who get up that early are masochists and no wonder: they’re totally sleep-deprived!) If you want be a successful writer and you’re neither independently wealthy nor supported by a large advance for your Great American Novel, be flexible. Be kind to yourself. But don’t forget to write.

For me, the idea of success continues to be a moving target. I’ll never win any award for youthful brilliance. Probably not even for brilliance of the “over the hill” variety. My forties might slip by faster even than my thirties. But throughout the next decade I’ll be writing—ten minutes here, an hour there. My second book will come together slowly, and sometimes I will doubt whether it will come together at all. Every minute and every word along the way will be a small gift to myself. And, eventually, I hope to someone else.

Guest Blog Post, Sara Schaff: Waiting for the Story

Sara SchaffMy sophomore year of college, I wrote my first good story. Or I should say, for the first time I enjoyed writing a story and didn’t want to hide in my dorm room once other people started reading it.

But as soon I finished the story, I couldn’t get back the feeling I’d had while working on it—the sense that something glittery and magical was happening, that the characters were coming to me fully formed, that the story itself was mysterious to me and yet familiar and easy to tell.

I went to my writing teacher in something of a creative panic, and what she told me sounded reassuring: “It can be a long time between stories, and the wait can be difficult.”

I wrote down her words with the reverence of a disciple for her guru, and I felt comforted with the thought that a good story would come again. I just had to be patient.

The problem was that while “waiting” for the next story, I wasn’t actually preparing for its arrival. Sure, I jotted notes in my journal, copied bits of overheard dialogue, and wrote the first pages of dozens of possible stories, but I stopped short of ever writing past the point when inspiration ended and boredom with my idea set in.

It took six more years before I completed another story. By that time, I was teaching middle school and making my students write essays and stories from beginning to end and then, on top of that, revise them after the first draft. It seemed hypocritical to ask twelve and thirteen-year-olds to sit through the hard part of writing without doing it myself, so very slowly, one sentence at a time, I hammered out a story about a failed painter struggling to forget the memory of the New York plastic surgeon who had fixed her nose and then betrayed her heart.

Spoiler alert: it was a terrible story. Stilted language, heavy-handed plot, and—despite what the ridiculous description above might suggest—utterly devoid of humor. I put away the story and hoped it would never find an audience.

And then I kept writing. Because while that story taught me that I was capable of writing badly, I also learned how to stay at my desk when I really just wanted to get up for another cup of coffee. That’s the kind of waiting I think my teacher was talking about—more prosaic than the lightening storm of creative inspiration I once expected, but also more practical for someone who wants to make a long career out of writing.

I continue to write terrible stories—though hopefully not terrible in the exact same way. I continue to want to warm up my coffee or look for jobs in countries where I don’t speak the language—basically, anything aside from writing that next scene in a story I’m struggling with. Every once in a while though, because I’ve been waiting for the story by actually writing and revising it, a more fluid process takes over, and the characters suddenly know who they are, where they live, and what to say to each other. It’s a pleasantly familiar feeling, and yet it always catches me by surprise.