Plain Folks (And The Best Writing Advice Ever)

Six summers ago, I was at a low point. I had just turned thirty and had just broken up with the man I had dared to hope might become my husband and rescue me from the sickening roller coaster of serial monogamy. I had just realized that the writing career I’d always planned for myself was…well, it didn’t exist.

I made half-hearted attempts to study the market, looking at what young female authors were selling, but what I found only depressed me. Women who were younger than I were publishing not only their first, but also their second and third novels, and were already selling movie rights. Internet searches ended in bleak comparisons:

Kristin Gore was born in 1977 and graduated from Harvard, where she was an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. She has written for several television shows, including “Futurama” and “Saturday Night Live,” for which she received an Emmy nomination and a Writer’s Guild Award. Her first novel, Sammy’s Hill, was a New York Times bestseller and is currently being adapted for the screen by Columbia Pictures. Kristin lives with her husband in Los Angeles.

Abby Byrd was also born in 1977. She graduated from a small liberal arts college no one ever heard of, where she was editor of a literary magazine no one ever heard of either. She has written for no television shows and received no awards, but she does have a twenty-year-long collection of neurotic ramblings and fake newspaper articles, which will never be adapted for the screen by anybody. Abby recently escaped from her best friend’s basement and is on a lot of medication.

Well, I didn’t actually live in the basement; I lived in the guest room. Everything else is true. (The guest room wasn’t any better, considering guests who walked by the kitchen could see into it, and Ray and his partner told everyone I was being kept there as a specimen for them to observe “the mating behavior of the straight.”)

Of course Kristin Gore has achieved a degree of eminence at 30! She comes from eminence. Don’t get me wrong; my parents are wonderful people. But we’re plain folks from a plain town. Neither of my grandfathers was a senator. One was a semi-professional cab driver and a professional drunk; the other went AWOL from the army several times before going to work at a door factory—only on days when my grandmother chased him out of bed with a butcher knife. Neither of my grandfathers went to school past sixth or seventh grade. They didn’t read or write in their spare time and they didn’t follow politics, unless you count what was going on down at the horse track. My paternal grandfather’s claim to fame was being able to piss all the way across the street; my maternal grandfather’s best stunt was getting roughed up at the corner tavern and returning home covered in footprints. So I ask you: HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO COMPETE WITH KRISTIN GORE?

My paternal grandfather and grandmother circa 1944. It is not known whether my grandmother knew of his long-distance pissing talent when this photo was taken.

In publishing, where you come from and who you know make a difference. The essayist Sloane Crosley, who is a year younger than I, got “discovered” while she was working as a book publicist in New York. She sent an email to a group of friends about how she’d moved from one apartment to another and managed to lock herself out of both apartments in the same day. One of the friends receiving the email? An editor at The Village Voice.

This isn’t to say that Gore and Crosley aren’t talented writers. The point is, regardless of talent, they’re connected—and I’m not. It’s going to take me, granddaughter of a champion street-pisser, ten times as much effort as it might take someone who’s well-connected. I’m going to have to do more than send an email to get a book deal.

Although at thirty-six, I’ve married, had a child, gotten my own home, and finished my first book, I still feel the frustration I felt at thirty. Yet I also still believe that no matter what a person’s roots, his or her experience and voice is unique, and there is room out there for all of us. This is why, as author Brenda Ueland says, “You are incomparable.” She writes:

I want to assure you with all earnestness that no writing is a waste of time…With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding. I know that. Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep on writing. 

Me too.