As you know from yesterday's Thursday Tea post, I'm reading the wonderful American Rust by Philipp Meyer. This beautifully written novel focuses on two friends—Isaac and Poe—and how their lives were changed one early spring night that started out with promise and dreams but ended with violence and fright.
I am so pleased to introduce you to the novel's author, Philipp Meyer. Although the writing process is unique to each person, Meyer has discovered that most published authors share a common attitude and generate piles of unread sentences. Take a look at what I mean.
Philipp Meyer: Full-Time Professional
One question that seems to come up a lot at book readings is how one makes the transition from struggling writer to published author. It’s a good question—one I spent fifteen years asking without getting a straight answer, until I got a novel published. When I started writing American Rust, I was thirty-one, broke, living in my parents basement, and working two jobs—as a construction worker and an ambulance driver. I had two failed novels in a drawer. Four years later, things have changed quite a bit—I’ve got a published novel that’s been successful beyond anything I hoped for, great reviews, some best book of 2009 lists, prize nominations. Of course with anything in life, there is luck involved, but while I used to think that anyone who got published purely did so on luck, I can now sum up, in one word, the primary difference between my old life as struggling unpublished writer and my new life as an author. That word is practice.
A dirty little secret that many authors have is that our first published novel is not actually the first book we wrote. Maybe not even the second. In my case, I’d spent about ten years writing two novels and dozens of short stories, tens of thousands of pages in all. This entire time, I knew I was a writer. I thought about writing all day and all night. I had a very good job as a Wall Street trader, but I didn’t care about it. I cared about my writing. I feel like this is an important point to make—I did not consider myself a hobbyist at any point during this ten-year apprentice period—I considered myself a full-blown writer who happened to have a day job.
But while an NBA player doesn’t begrudge the thousands of hours he spent playing ball in high school, or college, writers tend to think their work is different. As writers, we expose a part of our soul, a part of something essential in us, to complete strangers. We can end up making ourselves intensely vulnerable. That should count for something, right?
No. It really doesn’t. You still have to practice to be good at anything, and unfortunately, practice for being an author often means writing several apprentice works for no reward and no pay. Take my first novel, for instance. It was very bad, but luckily was also very long. My best friend was able to read to page ten. My girlfriend got to page eighty, but only out of charity. That left approximately six hundred pages that no one would ever read but me.
This was around 1999 or 2000. By 2004, I’d realized that the second novel was much better, but still not good enough. Which, at the time, seemed impossible—I’d already left my job on Wall Street to make a leap at becoming an author, I’d spent every penny I’d saved in order to write as much as possible. I wrote fourteen, fifteen hours a day, I forgot to sleep and eat. But that didn’t matter. I didn’t know enough about people, or about writing itself, to create something worthwhile.
It’s now easy to look back and say of course, that’s what it took, a ten-year apprentice period. But I did a lot of soul-searching in that period. I was pouring myself, all my energy, my life, into something that was not giving me anything back. In the end, I decided I didn’t care. All I cared about was writing, about making art. I would keep doing it no matter what. And coincidentally, that was when things started to click.
A few years ago, while I was a graduate student at the Michener Center for Writers, Salman Rushdie came and spoke to a few of us. It turned out he had two unpublished novels saved away as well, written way back before he wrote or published Midnight’s Children. “I thought it was a work of genius,” he said about one of those unpublished novels. “Then I realized it wasn’t.” Listening to him, I began to suspect that this whole unpublished novel business was common. I began asking other writers about it. Turns out, it is common. It’s normal, in fact. Sometimes you write because you’re making art. Other times you’re writing just to get better at writing. Most of what you do, in terms of page count, is in this latter category.
And that outlook—that everything you write is helping you get better—is another thing that differentiates the pros from the apprentices. I now realize it may take me two hundred pages of writing just to figure out who a character is. And I can now discard those pages without thinking I need to use them somewhere in a book. I’m at peace with that. That is something I wouldn’t have been able to do ten years ago.
I think Meyer offers sage advice: follow your passion, practice your art, and don't be afraid to let go.
American Rust appeared on numerous top-ten lists for 2009; to learn more, visit Philipp Meyer's website and check out this list of book blog reviews. Look for my review very soon.
Philipp Meyer grew up in Baltimore, dropped out of high school, and got his GED when he was sixteen. After spending several years volunteering at a trauma center in downtown Baltimore, he attended Cornell University, where he studied English. Since graduating, Meyer has worked as a derivatives trader at UBS, a construction worker, and an EMT, among other jobs. His writing has been published in McSweeney’s, The Iowa Review, Salon.com, and New Stories from the South. From 2005 to 2008 Meyer was a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. He splits his time between Texas and upstate New York.
Source: Review copy (see review policy).