By Marie Mutsuki Mockett
I wrote the first draft of my novel when I was thirty-one. My husband, who is Scottish and warm and funny but schooled in that British way, read the early manuscript and murmured: “Hmm. I like this one paragraph.” So I put the novel aside, then wrote and published short stories for a while. At thirty-five, I dragged the manuscript back out again. The one paragraph is the only thing from the original draft that is still in my book.
I had always wanted to be a writer, and I sometimes wonder if I might have succeeded earlier in life if I’d attended an MFA program in my youth. We’ll never know. Instead, I worked a variety of jobs—test prep question writer, online store manager, non-profit administrator, failed antique picker—while writing in the corporate toilet stall, on the weekends and during company meetings. When I was disappointed or hurt by rejection, I would try to remind myself to take the long view; it takes time to become a writer, and many of the people I admire have had long careers.
In the beginning, I was often told what many female writers hear: I was talented, but my writing was “too quiet.” I revised. An editor rejected me because she “already had a half-Asian writer.” I was devastated. Much as I loved this other writer’s work, I knew that our material was different. Would anyone else notice? Another editor rejected my book because: “I have just had a child and I cannot accept what the mother in your book has done.” I tried to tell myself that another editor would not confuse her personal experience with an unmarketable product. These rejections were often paired with variations of this one line: “I know someone else will publish this work with the enthusiasm it deserves,” which I dismissed as an empty compliment. As I got to know other writers who had been through the same grueling process, I learned they too had heard the same semi-praise. When I finally met my editor Fiona McCrae, from Graywolf, I was absolutely positive I wanted to work with her. She understood what I was writing, and saw ways to strengthen the novel that meshed completely with my vision. I was relieved. And then I was grateful for all the other rejections that had kept me from working with someone who might not have been a good fit for my book.
My wonderful agent said to me earlier this year, “Sweetheart, you are the perfect age to get started.” I think I know what she means. As writers and artists, it’s our job to develop a vision of the world—to see what others are missing. This is the kind of thing that takes time, and that you cannot learn in school. It’s wonderful to see a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, turning out even more probing material as he matures. I do not mean that younger writers don’t manage complexity, because of course I can think of plenty of examples where they do. It’s just to say that writing generally takes time and can be painfully slow. About the only thing you can really control is the quality and uniqueness of your work. Make this your focus, and I really and truly believe that you too will find someone who will publish your book with the “enthusiasm it deserves.”
By Marie Mutsuki Mockett