Coming in from the Cold (Part Three)

In his essay, Solotaroff encouraged young writers to work on their craft for many years and think about publication—and possible glory—later. Write “in the cold” now, and you will eventually get your day in the sun. Some writers, undoubtedly, go from obscurity to fame, and they manage to maintain a relatively successful writing career the rest of their lives. For years they walked, head down, into the wind, and then they turned a corner and stepped into sun. But for most of us, writing success is more intermittent. One of my friends had some early high-profile journal publications, got the attention of a New York agent, and has been working on her novel for over a decade. Another was notified several times that her short story collection was a contest finalist; only recently did it finally win. My novel was pulled out of the St. Martin’s slush pile by an assistant editor, but it was fifteen years before another editor felt as enthusiastic about my work again.

Brautigan’s success, too, was uneven. In one sense, he did astoundingly well, publishing ten novels, ten volumes of poetry, and numerous stories. For many baby boomers, his work was a touchstone; during my book tour, Brautigan fans have told me about their own pilgrimages to Eugene and San Francisco. But the critics could be critical. Near the end of his life, Brautigan complained to his agent that he was being systematically ignored by the literary establishment. At a party, he pretended to aim a gun at his critics and shoot them. In those moments, it didn’t matter that he was, by most people’s standards, walking in the sun; he felt shadowed.

Solotaroff wrote that “durability” is key to a successful career as a writer: “For the gifted writer, durability seems directly connected to how one deals with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment.” He thought this was true especially in the early years of a career. But it’s true throughout careers, especially for those of us whose names will never be widely known. And the key to durability, at least my durability, is community. My community of writers here in Seattle is what warms me. We attend each other’s readings and book launch parties, take each other’s workshops at Richard Hugo House, and cheer each other on Facebook. Groups of writers create their own residencies, renting hotel rooms together for long weekends. However cold my writing career may feel at times, I know that someone in this community will, when I most need it, hold open a door and beckon me to the fire.

Brautigan came into a stormy world in 1935 and left his stormy life in 1984. His self-destruction was, perhaps, related to his standing as a writer, although it seems mostly the result of his extreme abuse of alcohol. He had his writing—stories, poems, novels, and lists in pocket notebooks. He had a beautiful sunny day in Bolinas, California, on September 14, 1984. But it wasn’t enough. Still, he predicted that one day his work would be rediscovered, and it has been.

Be sure to check out parts one and two of Allison Green’s “Coming in from the Cold.”

Coming in from the Cold (Part Two)

After the success of Trout Fishing in America and other early books, Brautigan faced the challenge of following them with equally compelling work. He began writing a series of genre-bending books: a Western, a mystery, a “Japanese” novel, and a detective story. Each garnered mixed reviews, and print runs decreased from book to book. Ten years after Trout Fishing in America, Dreaming of Babylon sold only 60 percent of its initial print run. Brautigan never stopped writing, but he drank excessively, angered easily, and burned through a number of friendships.

I did not have Brautigan’s spectacular success, but like him, I wanted to follow my first publication with something as good or better. When three years went by, then five, then seven—and no second book, I considered my options. My summers off from teaching at a community college had always been my time to write, but what was the point? I was spending a lot of time on sentences that would never see a reader’s eyes. I could spend summers learning to sail or taking Spanish or just reading. I had had my moment of glory, I thought; no one will care if I stop now.

But I didn’t quit. Because whatever had propelled me to write poems to my second grade teacher, short stories in college, and a novel in graduate school was still there. The process of writing itself was often satisfying, even if the business of publication wasn’t. So instead of stopping, I gave up on trying to follow my first novel with a second. I started experimenting with creative nonfiction. I began a blog, so that at least once a month, even during the academic year, I would write a short essay and practice my craft.

And something good happened. My voice strengthened. My purpose sharpened. Themes emerged—my themes: nostalgia, longing for connection, fragility, and vulnerability. Solotaroff’s point that it’s important to grow older and gather some worldly experience is spot on. He said that successful writers ultimately realize that writing is “an ongoing practice rather than a higher state of being.” It’s the work that matters: “At this point,” he argued, writing “has become one’s way, in the religious sense of the term.” It’s true that now my writing practice is akin to meditation; I simply feel better every day having done it.

Brautigan, too, kept writing even as he ran out of money and ran through friends. He often wrote in pocket-sized notebooks; when he wasn’t writing stories, novels, or poems, he was making lists. In January 1984, he made a list of everything in his Amsterdam hotel, including the elevator, the bell at the front desk, and every item in his bathroom. Hjortsberg says Brautigan never had writer’s block. Just a month before he killed himself that September, he wrote a seven-page poem about the Olympics. Writing was, as Solotaroff defined it, Brautigan’s “way.” As much a part of his life as breathing.

“Coming in from the Cold” continues in part three here. Read part one here.

Coming in from the Cold (Part One)

In January of 1935, rain fell in the Pacific Northwest as it had never fallen, at least as far as non-indigenous folks knew. On the Washington peninsula, thirty-seven inches of rain fell in five days; on the east side of the mountains, fifty-two inches of snow fell in one day. An ice storm, floods, landslides—they killed four people and destroyed $1.5 million dollars worth of bridges, roads, pigs, cows, trees, telephone lines, and other property.

And on the penultimate day of that apocalyptic month, Richard Brautigan was born. According to his biographer, William Hjortsberg, Brautigan first lived in a Tacoma house forty miles south of where I’m writing this. His parents had already broken up, and his mother raised him while moving from apartment to apartment, remarrying and re-divorcing and remarrying, barely making ends meet. The chilly month of his birth was followed by years of poverty and, at times, violence and neglect.

In the mid-1950s, Brautigan moved to San Francisco, where he would spend much of his adult life. He had some collections of poetry published, but it was the novel Trout Fishing in America, published by a small press in 1967, that turned him into an icon of the counterculture. Although he had spent years writing, his success seemed, to the rest of the world, to have come overnight. A New York publisher gave him a twenty-thousand-dollar advance, and universities paid him handsomely to give readings. Rolling Stone and Vogue published his stories. Students in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organized a Trout Fishing in America parade. Brautigan stopped taking the bus and started hailing cabs.

A number of women in my Seattle writing community have recently celebrated the publication of their first books. They are Women of a Certain Age; their hair is beautifully graying, and they fit writing around children, grandchildren, and work that pays. They have all been writing for decades. They are not, by any stretch, overnight successes. My new book, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, came fifteen years after my first, a novel that made its small ripples and then sank beneath most of the world’s awareness. These recent publications reminded me of an essay I read in graduate school, “Writing in the Cold” by Ted Solotaroff. The essay, which first appeared in Granta in 1985, is about the failure of some young writers to persist long enough to write much worth reading. Solotaroff said that writers of his generation—he graduated from college in the early 1950s—expected to spend at least ten years writing before they had a major publication, ten years of “writing in the cold.” But young writers in MFA programs in the 1980s wanted instant fame.

A desire for glory certainly permeated my own MFA program in the late 1980s; it pulsed through the classrooms, workshops, and conversations over coffee on Boston’s Newbury Street. We were all, it seemed, desperately in love with writers not much older than ourselves who were lapping up awards and attention, writers like Susan Minot and Jay McInerney, both twenty-nine when their first novels, Monkeys and Bright Lights, Big City, respectively, were published. We MFA students loved writing, but we also loved the idea of being writers, and we craved the approval and validation that publication would bring.

After graduation, I tried and failed to turn my MFA thesis novel into something readable. I started a new novel upon moving back to Seattle in the early 1990s, and, right on schedule, after about a decade of writing in the cold, Half-Moon Scar was published by St. Martin’s Press. When I read at a bookstore in Boston, a group of new students in my MFA program came to listen, and their eyes gleamed envy.

What I didn’t know was that my years of writing in the cold were not over. In some ways, they had just begun. Between my 1991 graduation and 2000, when the novel came out, I often struggled with writing, but I never gave up hope. I just knew that persistence would pay off. Small successes fueled my faith: The Loft in Minneapolis gave me an emerging LGBT writer award. The story that became the novel won the Willow Springs fiction award. It seemed that step by step my writing career was moving forward.

But after Half-Moon Scar was published, progress stalled. I wrote another novel, but no one wanted to publish it. I started others, but they never gelled. Eight years went by, and, because I was focusing almost entirely on novels, I had no shorter works to submit to journals; there were fewer of those small successes to inspire hope. Finally, I considered quitting.

“Coming in from the Cold” continues in part two here.