Monday, November 29, 2010

MFA Monday: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Books

When I was accepted into the Pacific University MFA program, one of my first goals was to read at least one book by each of the fiction faculty before I left for the residency in January. Part of the reason was because I had to list my first choices for advisors, and I wanted to make sure I picked people whose writing style was closer to mine... at least for the first semester. The more personal reason was that I wanted to be able to have conversations with these authors about their books. Now that I've read nearly one of everyone's and sent in my advisor choices, I'm circling back to reading second books.

One of the first books I read was Tayari Jones's Leaving Atlanta. It's a story told from the point of view of three children in Atlanta during the Atlanta Child Murders of the 1980s. I was a kid, then, myself, and so it seemed strange to me that I'd never even heard of the murders.

The book itself is not really about the murders, but about how the uncertainty and terror of that time affected the fifth-graders who were just trying to get through a rough year in their lives.

The thing that struck me so much about this book was the uniqueness of the idea and the way it reminded me so much of the sniper attacks here in the DC area just a few years ago.

In 2002-2003 two men terrorized my town, and the suburbs around us. Like ghosts they picked off their victims, random people walking into a store, pumping gas, sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. From the quiet streets, from nowhere it seemed, a bullet would fly through the air and find it's target, killing these strangers across several counties with no motive, no connection, inciting fear and eventually dictating behavior. Like in the book Leaving Atlanta, school recesses were cancelled, football games postponed, the stores and streets and parking lots like a ghost town. People ran, literally, from their car to their destination if they had to get out. No where was safe. No one was safe.

As I read this book, that fear was palpable again.

The book I'm reading now is The Untelling. Sophomore books are so hard, I think. There is, after a successful first novel, such pressure to get it right again. I think more often than not, the second novel is in general disappointing.

That is not the case in The Untelling. While I'm not finished with it yet (I expect to be by this evening), it's even better than Tayari Jones's first. The writing is better all over... more beautiful and lyrical and haunting. It reads more smoothly, the word choices vivid and distinct. Although it isn't the kind of book that races from beginning to end with a breathlessness, it is still what I would call a page-turner, one that I found hard to put down last night at midnight.

Just this past week, Tayari posted a blog on SheWrites about her third novel, Silver Sparrow, due out May of 2011.  Her article, titled Writing in the Wilderness, is a worthwhile read for any writer, and you should head over to read it yourself. But in short, the post is about her experience writing that third novel, and how, in the midst of the writing it, her agent sent it out to dozens of publishers who all rejected it. With a hundred pages done and an overwhelming negative response, Tayari stopped writing. Why, after all, finish a book no one will buy?

It took a while to get back to it, but eventually she did. This is what she said the rejections did for her:

I also wrote in my journal like crazy trying to remember why it was that I wanted to write this novel. It was a tricky thing because I had to think of why I wanted to actually experience it as an author, not why I thought the book needed to be in the world. What did I hope to get out of the process? Any reward would have to be in my own heart, because I had been pretty much assured that SILVER SPARROW wouldn’t see the light of day.

Oddly enough, this “guaranteed rejection” freed me up. I remembered what it was like when I was a young writer putting words down just to satisfy my own need to write. I started feeling my momentum coming back. I started talking to my friends about the characters as though they were actual people.

When the book was finished, she not only had one publisher interested, but multiple publishers.

There is a lot to be learned from other authors.... from watching their writing progress and following their journeys as closely as they'll allow you. It's good to know as writers that we aren't alone in our struggles.


  1. I've got friends and family in the D.C. area. The sniper attacks were a scary time for us all.

    Thanks for the link. Going over now.

  2. I love this aspect about freeing from the expectations. That's where I am now--I am writing this book to write the story in my head--not to get published.

  3. In the world according to Jen... I think that the best writers write from where their passions come from. That passion should be from writing... not from selling or pushing through a book just to meet others expectations. Not just in writing, but in anything we do. Who are we trying to please, what is our overall goal? Where is our passion, and is it as real as the day it was first discovered? That is where the freedom comes from.. In my lil world anyway.