The Summertime Novelist

June 1, 2018

Tags: writers's groups, Adichie, mentoring writers, abandoned novels

Photo of the Lower Catskills © copyright by Carol Bergman, 2018
Once upon a time, a writing group friend told me I probably wasn’t a novelist. The qualifier “probably” didn’t help; it felt like a curse, one I was determined to defy, exorcise, or ignore. It was not a nice thing to say to a writer trying something new. It wasn’t a nice thing to say, period.

I have just finished reading a profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the current fiction issue of The New Yorker, and I am reminded that my experience was not unique. Adichie does not enjoy hanging out with other writers. And I paraphrase her strong words: the knives eventually come out. I don’t know if this is competitiveness, jealousy, or what it is. It’s certainly not helpful to tear a writer down in this way. Surely there are always passages of interest to discuss, something in the submitted pages that illuminates the writing process and the choices the writer has made to tell the story. The choices may have failed, but we all can learn from those failures and make constructive suggestions for improvements.

Since the curse befell me, I have written two novels—“Say Nothing & “What Returns to Us”, and two books of novellas—“Water Baby” & “Sitting for Klimt”—and though they have not sold in the quadruple digits, they were satisfying to me in the writing, publishing and modest sales. Now I am working on a third novel, one I drafted more than ten years ago and abandoned. Was it because of the curse? I am not sure. I am determined to make it work—by the end of the summer. That’s my goal. And though this may sound somewhat dilettantish—I do not work full time on fiction—I am primarily a nonfiction writer/journalist, it is not. I have been researching and attempting this novel for a very long time.

I don’t know if I’ll succeed and some days are hard, very hard. I don’t know how full-time novelists do it, in fact. Adichie likes to be in the place she is writing about and has homes in Nigeria and America. She’s married and has a new baby and has had to find time to write. I became a more disciplined writer once I had my daughter; necessity is the mother of re-inventing daily routines. Writers who don’t have children but work full-time have a similar challenge: how to carve out space in their lives to write.

Like many writers, Adichie also teaches, not to earn money—Adichie does not need to earn money from teaching—but to mentor. Mentoring is a valuable reminder to the more practiced and published writer that writing is effort and that effort is rewarded.

Wish me luck, dear reader, luck and fortitude, as I return to the pages of my abandoned historical novel set in colonial New York. Now that I have moved out of the city I have a different landscape to inspire me. And there’s the hawk feather I found in the apple orchard soon after I arrived. In days past, it might have been a quill pen. Now it sits in my pen jar as a talisman, silently encouraging me.


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