The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.
– John Ruskin, British art critic
In 1997, when I began researching and then writing my first novel, I could not have imagined that in 2012 I would still be working on the umpteenth draft. If I had known how much time would pass, I might have given up. Thomas Edison was credited as saying, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
The thing is: I did give up.
The first draft was 1,000 pages. It was easier to write when my husband and I didn’t have children and my job was not demanding. My son came, I changed jobs a few times, job demands grew, and sleep deprivation was my companion in the middle of the night when I sat in front of the computer screen, writing articles instead of fiction. I finished another draft when I went into labor with my daughter. In 2006, I was finally done and sent the trimmed-down (at 650 pages) manuscript off to literary agents, only to get rejected by 60 of them. One writer friend exclaimed, “I didn’t even know there were 60 different agents to be rejected by.” The manuscript was too long and there was no market for a novel about Filipino immigrant farmworkers, labor unions and grape strikes, I was told. And I believed them. I also believed that a more talented writer would have made the novel more compelling. I understood that I was not good enough to have made it work against any and all odds.
So I gave up. I put the manuscript away. I stopped reading fiction and book reviews. I didn’t go into bookstores anymore. I did other worthy and necessary things in my life. I had some inkling that I would come back to the writing, maybe to the novel. Every now and then, through the years, my two high school best friends would ask me when I was going to resurrect Fausto, my main character, and his story.
For anyone who has known the passion of creating, who has experienced the ecstasy of getting the emotion or moment right with the precise words in the only order that makes exquisite sense, who has stopped whatever ordinary activity she is doing because she has solved a niggling and bottlenecking problem with a character’s motivations or actions, the desire to create is never abandoned. Somewhere deep inside me, I knew that.
When we are ready on the inside, it may still take time for that desire to radiate outward and make us aware of its awakening. Sometimes it takes an event in our lives that turns the key or opens the window, and the desire is unleashed and demanding to be nurtured and given the tools to create anew. I took a week of vacation in April to start the next major revision of the novel, and my happiness was palpable. I did not want to lose it again. Getting stuck on a word or a sentence was a gift, not something to agonize over or dread as a tedious task. Carving out time to reintroduce myself to my characters was a gift.
In May I submitted the manuscript to a local independent book publisher’s annual contest. I had high hopes, but my novel wasn’t chosen. I was disappointed to be sure, but undaunted. Last month, I heard from my undergraduate professor who, along with his partner, is an independent book publisher. I asked him to consider my manuscript, and while he didn’t accept it, he told me that he and his partner “enjoyed it and admired the sometimes quite lyrical prose” and that they “liked the rendering of the setting, at once exotic and universal.” This time I was ecstatic. He was one of the best creative writing professors I’ve ever had, and he gave me the gift of his time and his advice for the next and hopefully last revision. His response – the outside world’s response, so to speak – validated what I’d been feeling inside: I’m getting there, I’m on the right track.
In September I sent the manuscript to the Poets & Writers’ California Writers Exchange contest. Last week, I received an e-mail announcing the winning poet and fiction writer. I honestly did not expect to win, but there was an itch of disappointment. Yesterday, however, I received a letter, letting me know that I was one of 15 finalists whose manuscripts, out of a total of 609 fiction manuscripts, were sent to the fiction judge for his final selection. I was quietly happy. I felt a warmth growing inside of me.
Fifteen years later, this is what I know: In 2006, the novel was too long and I was not a skilled enough writer to make Fausto’s story resonate. I am a much better writer now and the novel is almost there. All these years of toil have made it thus.