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?