Making the leap: From writing to being a writer

A Hollywood agent called me 10 years ago after reading the first chapter of a novel I had been working on for 10 years before that.

"I loved it!" she shrieked. "This could be very big. I work on big movie projects out here. I'll call you when I finish it– I'm taking it on my vacation. I'm so excited!"

She had used the word "big" twice. A month later, I received a small, pathetic white postcard, mailed from Greece but lacking even a photo of Corfu; it had just my address and the following message:

"I'm afraid the rest of the book did not do it for me. I cannot work with this material. Since I'm currently overseas, I will discard your manuscript here." I had visions of papers scattered on the Aegean Sea, my characters drowning, flailing their arms helplessly.

A year later, I got a letter from another agent– my third, counting the Hollywood Homicide woman– saying he loved my book and, "I'm certain we'll find it a publisher." I found myself whooping and hollering. Five rejections later, however, his enthusiasm waned, as did his health: he died.

I decided to approach smaller presses without an agent. One of them said he would publish my book the following fiscal year. I was thrilled, and happy to wait. By the next year, however, he was taking out a second mortgage to keep his press afloat, and advised me to begin sending the manuscript out again.

I hooked up with my present agent, who began to submit the novel to three publishers at a time and to regularly send me three rejection letters in a single envelope, a new level of efficiency in spirit crushing.

On a whim, I entered several competitions, and one morning in Whole Foods, as I was deciding between a carb-free energy bar and a spelt croissant, my cell phone rang and I was notified that my first novel, Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, had been selected from 400 entries as the winner of the 2003 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, and would be published by the University of Tennessee Press in October 2004.

So one would think that after four agents, nearly 30 rejections, and 20 years, on and off, of writing and revising (sometimes very off), I'd be ecstatic to finally get published. But I find that I'm unusually sober, particularly after reading an article for writers that made the following astounding declaration:

"Don't expect your book to change your life."

That hit me hard, and I found myself wandering Barnes & Noble in a daze, realizing that my 20-year effort could quite possibly be a non-event, an infinitesimal droplet in a vast sea of books, and that my prize-winning work could easily wind up in that scary $3.98 aisle in no time, right next to Bathroom Wallpaper Design in the Deep South. Then it occurred to me that beyond the world of literature, in the greater scheme of things, the release of my book will be even less significant, possibly one of the least important things that has ever happened in the entire history of the world!

I also observed a peculiar psychological mechanism kick into gear when I reached this long-awaited milestone: instead of finally feeling acknowledged as a writer and propelled forward on a literary path, I felt more like George Plimpton playing quarterback in the NFL for a day– as if I had now officially had the experience of "being a novelist" and could move on, thinking, "I did that, so now what?"

I promptly ordered a half-dozen used books online, all with titles like Careers for the Creative & Semi-functional, No Clue What To Do, and so on. I also perused the Outward Bound website, and briefly considered a career leading Alaskan Sea Kayaking adventure tours, although I'm not crazy about being outdoors.

Then, after sitting in a local auto repair shop for six hours, only to be told that they had lost my keys– and being charged $847 to fix various things I hadn't come in for– I wondered how much training I would need to open my own auto shop, despite my limited understanding of all things mechanical, which basically comes down to something I was taught by my Uncle Louie: "Give it a zetz." (Yiddish meaning, in this context, to bang on the thing, whatever it is.)

But it wasn't until I downloaded the application for a long-distance "Qabbalah and Your Sinuses" home course that it slowly began to dawn on me that "being a writer" was actually now a legitimate possibility. I had spent so many years wanting to be a writer while doing other things that it was difficult for me to make that leap.

In addition, I had always maintained the vaguely Zen notion that I was only a writer when writing. When asked the dreaded question at social gatherings, "What do you do?" I would always immediately begin dripping with sweat and mask my anxiety by saying whatever the most recent thing I had actually done: "I went shopping today; I'm a shopper, I guess."

Twenty years is a long time to wait for external permission to consider oneself a writer. And now it's too late. I had no alternative but to cultivate another identity in the meantime, one that was independent of my success or failure as a writer. The best I came up with, though, was "person." A person who does lots of things. And sometimes writes.

Regardless, to actually live the life of the writer requires writing– the actual thing itself. I always wanted to skip the middleman. So I find it extremely intimidating that the publication of my first novel, like a first wife, implies a second– particularly since all the writing books advise one to "write about what you know," and I already did that. I don't know anything else. My next book, by default, will be about all the things I don't know. Here's an excerpt:

Ordinary stuff on earth filled him with religious wonder: Those big cement dividers on the highway? Where do they get those? Are there men somewhere pouring concrete into giant highway-divider molds? Can a civilian buy one if he wanted to? Who would I even call to inquire about it? Can someone help me out here? Anyone? And by the way, what's a transistor?

Needs a little work. Possibly 20 years.

Eliezer Sobel's short story "Schneiderman" was a runner-up in the Hook's 2003 fiction context. Author of Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Hearbroken and Wild Heart Dancing, he lives in Batesville.