One Way to Get There

by Heather Siegel

December 2014

Teach yourself how to write. When you are fourteen years old, buy a black and white composition notebook, using your busgirl tips from Bob’s Luncheonette where you work on Saturdays, desperate to earn money and get out from under the absurd life you are living in the basement of your grandparents’ house in Bellmore, Long Island.

In that notebook, record the absurdity of your life: the worm’s view of grass outside the casement window, the inability to decipher whether it’s night or day when you wake up, the humming sounds the oil burner makes as you sleep on a futon next to it; the fact that your Jewish grandparents – for no good reason – barely speak to you or your siblings.

Write it all down and add lots of questions marks. Like why are you even living in this basement, in the middle of middle-class suburbia, when your father, a senior funeral director at a respectable funeral home, earns as much as your friends’ parents do; or why he is so mysteriously apathetic about life in general. Write, too, about your mother’s even more mysterious disappearance from your family eight years earlier.

Save your money, get out of that basement, and keep writing. Find a way to afford community college, then City University. Study literature and read anything you can get your hands on. Read to escape. Read to learn. Read to truly live.

Fill more marbled notebooks. Write about love and friendship and social etiquette. Write about lovers, loving, and not being able to love. Write about the awful world of meat production. Begin to develop a passion for the personal essay. Enter non-fiction writing contests. Miraculously win! Have professors pull you aside and encourage you to go to Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia. Laugh at this notion. Who are you to go to an Ivy League school?

Do an internship at a magazine. Then work for one. Write about retail selling and computers and make $17,000 a year. Live in a shitty rental apartment above a family with rambunctious toddlers. Feel the dark poverty of your early basement life chasing you and quit the magazine.

Go back into the restaurant business to earn money. Waitress, bartend, cook, and enjoy it. Eventually open your own coffeehouse and enjoy it. Find some financial stability with it. Turn thirty and take a breath, knowing you can provide for yourself. Upgrade from your apartment into a small, sunny, starter house. Then go back to writing.

Take classes at a university. Have a teacher pull you aside and recommend that you go for an MFA. Enroll at The New School in Manhattan. Graduate from the program no smarter or wiser, but closer to clocking in your 10,000 hours of mastery, as Malcom Gladwell calls it in his book, Outliers. Then finally have the ego and balls to consider writing a book.

Hate that it’s a memoir, but have no choice. It was always about the material in the basement that prompted you to write in the first place. Be fourteen again. Be six again. See it all in a new perspective at thirty-four years old. Work on it. Abandon it. Work on it some more.

Feel life speed up. Get married. Move to a bigger house. Get sidetracked. Start a second coffeehouse. Have a baby. Sell both the first and the second coffeehouses. Move to another house. Go back to the material.

Hate it. Love it. Feel indifferent about it. See it in a new light at thirty-nine years old, as a mother. Have the balls and ego to send it to agents.

Query nearly 100 agents. Then query more. Make it your little hobby at night in between cleaning up after dinner and your daughter’s bedtime.

Have agents respond, ask for material. Have one almost convince you to turn it into a detective novel, then have her not respond to your emails ever again.

Give up.

Keep going.

Feel grateful that you dodged the detective novel bullet.

Have another agent love it as is and send you an exclusive agreement to sign immediately.

Celebrate with your husband and daughter at your favorite Manhattan restaurant. Toast with a lychee martini. Hear a voice object in your head, the same voice that said you were not good enough for Ivy League, that you were nobody special enough to write a memoir; the same voice you developed after being abandoned by one parent, ignored by another: Who are you to be an author?

Have your agent tell you that your book will be the next The Glass Castle. Try to believe her. Read the glowing rejection letters she sends your way – absolutely glowing. Have one publisher reject you simply because your name is Heather. She has just signed a Heather, and “in this tough marketplace, it’s a handicap we just don’t need.”

Console your agent’s “broken-heart” two years later. Tell her it’s really okay, but don’t mention your little dirty secret: that you didn’t think you were good enough anyway.

Sit with the book. Hate it. Love it. Wish you wrote fiction. Be glad you didn't.

Let six months pass. A year. Look at the book and wonder if you should change it. Realize it’s actually pretty fucking great.

Consider self-publishing. Feel bad about that option, feel okay about that option—until you start asking for blurbs. Have a famous author tell you that he loves your book and will write you a blurb—once you find a publisher.

Give up.

Keep going.

Send your manuscript to twenty small presses. Get positive letters of rejection. Get three “almost” letters. Start working on a second book. Write it in three months. Love it. Hate it. Feel indifferent about it.

Consider going back to school for law. Maybe you can make a difference once and for all for those factory-farmed animals…

Open your email to find a letter of acceptance from one small press.

Spend a year waiting for a copy edit, a book design. When it is done, be blown away by small, important changes. Feel loved, coddled, adored.

Set a launch date. Let the world switch to slow motion as you await that date. Be unable to live in the present.

Start speaking to publicists and marketing experts; listen to their publicity and sales projections. Add up what it has cost you to reach this point, then put the calculator away, knowing it is not about the numbers. Start getting pre-pub blurbs and reviews that are excellent. Feel like you've earned them. Feel like your book deserves them.

Love your book. Know your book could not be what it is today without having gone through its journey. Know that you could not be who you are without having gone through your journey.

At forty-four, with a straight face, call yourself an author.

Heather Siegel holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from The New School. Her work has appeared on Salon.com and in The Mother Magazine, as well as in various trade publications. She was a finalist for the 2010 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Award in Nonfiction Writing, the 2011 San Francisco Writers Conference Nonfiction Writing Award, the Carolina Wren Press 2012 Doris Bakwin Award and the 2012 Kore Press First Book Award. You can find her at www.heathersiegel.net.

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