The Writing Life: Jilted – and Still Jazzed
Newly single, I was raising two little ones, working a day job, freelancing and turning every spare moment into a writing opportunity.
I wrote at red lights and in carpool lines. I wrote with one eye on Scooby-Doo cartoons and one on my notebook. I wrote while shivering on bleachers in unheated ice rinks during my 6-year-old’s hockey practices, and most of all, when my children were with their dad, Wednesday nights and alternate weekends.
While I hated being a single mom, a divorcée and a minus-one, I vowed not to be cowed by my new status. I’d never been a quitter, in love or the literary life.
I remember being in seventh grade, aching to go out with Richard Garfinkel and James Allen, and also longing for editors from Highlights and Hallmark to say yes to my short stories and greeting card verses.
Time after time, rejection letters sailed through the mail slot in our apartment door and dropped onto the shag carpet. But with pre-adolescent hubris, I threw them away – and shrugged off those uninterested boys – and went back to making my prose.
In my twenties, I bombarded women’s magazines with story ideas and got a string of no’s. Turned down, too, was a manuscript for a rhyming children’s book. The editor’s comment? “Dr. Seuss did it better.”
But I refused to let those snubs define me or my future. I vowed to reject the rejections.
Divorce felt like the ultimate rejection. But after many tears, much soul-searching and sadness, I was determined to push through it – and I did, to unexpected experiences.
To hone my craft, I joined three writers groups, read voraciously, and sought out author readings. Stretching beyond my urban roots, I took up camping, gardening, and contra dancing. And in my rare spare time, I dated, with one major stipulation: Don’t call between 8 and 10 p.m., my sacred writing time.
The first of many suitors was a free-spirited, never-married doctoral fellow who schooled me in the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of “flow”: people are happiest when totally absorbed in their chosen activity. I didn’t need the Ph.D. to tell me this. When my writing was going well, everything else seemed to fall into place.
There were plenty of lousy dates, including the owner of a lighting store (no sparks), an Apple computer salesman (I wasn’t sold), and an engineer – a sandpaper engineer (too rough around the edges).
Things were more interesting with the thrice-divorced flutist older than me by a decade and shorter by a head.
“Every person whose path crosses mine enriches me and sets me on a new path,” he said. Frankly, he was a little too New Agey-sagey for my tastes, and before long, I crossed him off my list.
But his Zen-like approach to dating intrigued me. Didn’t this apply to the writing process, too? Just as each disappointing date led me to a subsequent, more promising one, each rejection slip propelled me to the next editor, another rewrite, one more butt-in-chair session.
After the Sun Valley Writers Conference turned down my application to work with Ann Lamott and Ethan Canin, I looked to my own backyard, in Albany, N.Y., for inspiration.
Happily, I was accepted into a fiction workshop at the Writer’s Institute with Douglas Glover. His lectures on structure were mesmerizing – as were a classmate’s stories about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a mecca for writers everywhere. Suddenly, I lusted to go.
That summer, I gave myself a 40th birthday present and set out for Iowa City. In my class on short story cycles, I met Bill, a writer from Natchitoches whose laid-back southern drawl sharply contrasted with my native Queens twang. After morning workshop sessions, we pattered about writing, relationships, and life while driving across the plains in his pickup truck, often crooning along with Chris Isaak’s bluesy odes to obsessive love. Evenings, we browsed the books at Prairie Lights, visualizing our work on those same shelves.
I came home wanting more. More love. More writing. More adventures in both.
Enter the red-haired Russian artist. He doted on me and my kids and, unlike some others, didn’t mind when I holed up to write. After eight months together, the Russian proposed. I said no, genuinely sad to break his heart.
And I flung myself further into my writing.
Then one winter night, I said yes to a blind date with Ron, a recently divorced social worker with a passion for classic cars and carpentry. I’d been loath to go, grumpy with winter blahs, hockey fatigue, and tussles with my precocious, almost teenage daughter.
I found this man attractive and a wonderful listener. We talked for hours. I was sure we really connected and pictured us building something good together. The friend who set us up confided that he’d said I was “fabulous.”
For weeks, I waited for Ron’s call. It never came. I was furious.
Then it dawned on me: it was a great story.
Soon afterward, I poured heartache and humor into “Dating Redux and Other Cosmic Jokes,” my account of the absurdities of mid-life courtship, and mailed it to Newsweek’s “My Turn” column.
From among the 1,000 submissions sent in weekly, my essay was singled out and accepted. Newsweek wanted me. I was breathless with anticipation; more breathless than I’d been for most of the dates I’d endured since being back in circulation.
A photographer came and took my photo. At last, my piece was going to print. Friends prepared to line up at the newsstand; my former Norwegian babysitter promised to pounce on the international edition. My ex-husband showed up in my driveway, wanting to know if he was in my story.
“Go buy it,” I told him.
The scheduled publication date arrived, and with it, my Newsweek copy. I flipped past the masthead and first few ad pages, searching for my story. Not there. I searched again the following week and for weeks afterward. Nothing. The piece never ran, and the editor never responded to further inquiries. It hadn’t been my turn, after all. And a silent rejection – the worst.
I felt doomed. Devastated.
Yet deep down, I knew: Just. Keep. Going.
Ignoring the Newsweek brushoff, I later re-crafted that dormant dating piece for publication in a divorce anthology. Other successes followed. In a well-received Canadian hockey prose collection, my essay, “Confessions of a Reluctant Hockey Mom,” skates 100 pages ahead of George Plimpton’s. Recently, the New York Daily News printed one of my opinion pieces.
My partner, Ron, marvels at my resilience, my ability to build and maintain a creative life anchored by writing. Yes, that Ron. A year after our blind date, his message on my answering machine one day told me he’d been thinking of me, and could we get together again?
More than 16 years later, we’re still going strong. And when I weary of words or complain how hard writing is, he’s the first one to tell me to stop whining, go to my desk and just write.
Inevitably, I do.