I ran an earlier version of this post right after selling my first book. Because it’s one of my favorites, and because I so often need to hear these words myself, and because May B. has been read and treasured for over eight years (what a gift!), I’m sharing them again today.
It was 2004. While driving to meet my writing group, I happened to catch an interview on NPR with Adrienne Young, a folksinger who was just starting out. She talked about her first album, inspired by some advice she’d gotten while struggling to make it as a musician:
If you want to do this with your life, stay focused and see this through. You’ve got to plow to the end of the row, girl.
That simple phrase – plow to the end of the row – was enough to push Adrienne to continue. It became the title of both her album and lead song. I can’t quite explain what that interview meant to me, hearing an artist choose to create despite the struggle, to push against fear and sensibility and make it “to the end of the row.”
I’ve carried this image with me for years, the plant metaphor standing in for artistic endeavor, the plow the unglamorous slog needed to dig deep and make it to the end. Sometimes I find it funny I’d choose a profession so bent on forcing me to wait, so full of uncertainty and disappointment. An almost foolish optimism has kept me working, trusting that the next editor or the next agent or the next story would be the one to launch my career. I’ve haunted mailboxes and inboxes, waiting for something positive to come through. I’ve ceremoniously sent off manuscripts, chanting, “Don’t come back!” (entertaining postal workers, for sure).* I’ve journaled again and again “this next editor is a perfect match!”, managing somehow to keep on plowing in the midst of little validation.
After twelve years of writing and hundreds of rejections, I sold my first book, May B., a historical verse novel about a girl with her own challenging row to hoe. May’s determination carried me through a rocky publication experience: losing my first editor; the closing of my Random House imprint, Tricycle Press; the weeks when my book was orphaned, with no publishing house to claim it and its future uncertain; the swooping in of Random House imprint, Schwartz and Wade; edit rounds seven, eight, and nine with editor number two; and finally, May B.’s birth into the world only three months behind its original release date.
I made it to the end of a very long, mostly lonely row, one that wasn’t very straight and was loaded with stones. But the soil got better as I worked it, and each little sprout was stronger than the last. The beauty of the writing life is I got to transplant the hardiest seedling and start again, this time working alongside others who nurtured it into something better than I could have ever created alone.
What is the dream of the artist-gardener? That our art will sprout and grow and one day stand apart from us, strong enough to thrive on its own.
*Anyone else remember the days of mailing manuscripts?
Melissa Sarno says
I love this, all of it, and so needed to hear it today.
What great words of encouragement! Thank you.
This! These words. I so need to ink this to my heart and not forget. I needed this today (need it all too often, perhaps) – thank you for sharing this!
So glad you’re finding encouragement in these words. Years later, they still speak to me, too.
Amy Rogers Hays says
What sweet words, Caroline. It is so encouraging to hear of how you have plowed until the end of your row. I knew that you worked hard and long for MayB, but I didn’t really know that depth and length of that work. As someone near the beginning of the row, it’s heartening to hear you call back to yourself and me that you indeed made it to end, and are turning to start another.
Keep turning that soil, Amy. xo
May B was well worth the wait… “Words crafted to last are chosen with care.” – Glynnis Whitwer
Thank you for re-posting this, Caroline. I needed this reminder today,
Caroline Starr Rose says
Linda, thank you. This really means a lot.
Wen Baragrey says
That’s a great quote 🙂 It’s so true. The only way you can ever really fail is if you stop trying. Until then, anything is possible 🙂
Caroline, such a lovely, inspiring post! I will keep plowing till the end of my row, even with all its twists and turns?
Jennifer Rumberger says
Loved this post, Caroline. Thanks for the encouragement!
Polly Scoutaris says
This has always been one of my favorites and brings tears to my eyes mindful of the many years of struggle for you. I am so proud of all you have achieved.
Love you, Ma. xo
Margaret Simon says
I can’t tell you how much I needed to read this today! I’ve gotten a nibble on a manuscript and while I’m over the top excited, there is so much work to be done. I’ve let this one sit for two years. It needs tilling and reworking. Your words today encourage me to go digging in the dirt, unafraid to get my hands dirty. It’s time to “plow to the end of the row.”
Thinking of you, Margaret!
Rose Kent says
Wonderful post, Caroline.
It applies to writing and life in America right now. We gotta keep plowing…
You’re absolutely right. There is work to be done, in community, that will better our soil. That’s my prayer.
*crying a little*. Thank you for the encouragement. I can always count on you for it.
You’ve got this, my friend.