Monday, November 09, 2009
Today is, of course, the twentieth anniversary of when the Berlin Wall fell. Talking to my fiction workshop this afternoon, I realized that it's also the twenty-fifth anniversary of my first fiction sale, of a story called "The Woman Who Saved the World," to Shawna McCarthy at Asimov's.
I was still living at home then, since my mother was very supportive of my working part-time so I could spend more time on writing. She was the one who'd proposed the arrangement, in fact, after my first full-time job after college reduced me to tears every night. That was only partly because of the lack of writing time -- my boss was very, very difficult, and according to coworkers, the nine months I spent as his assistant was a record -- but whatever the factors, I gratefully accepted Mom's suggestion.
So I was working part-time in NYC and writing and submitting stories the rest of the time. On the days I worked, Mom always got home before I did; we lived in New Jersey and she worked a few towns over, whereas I had to take a bus home from Manhattan. She'd learned to recognize that stamped self-addressed envelopes contained rejections, and, as I went up the private stairs to our second-story apartment, would often be standing at the top, holding up an envelope and saying sadly, "I'm sorry, honey; your thing came back."
Because I'd sold a few poems, she'd also learned to recognize the business-size, window envelopes that contained contracts. On the evening of November 9, 1984, as I walked from the busstop into the courtyard of the garden apartments where we lived, I saw her standing in our lit window. When she spotted me, she started jumping up and down, holding up a business-size envelope. Then she opened the window and called out, "Susan! You sold a story! The Woman Who Saved the World!"
She'd held the envelope up to a lightbulb so she could make out the title on the contract. (I'm surprised she didn't steam open the envelope!) We spent the rest of the night on the phone, announcing the news to friends and relatives, although I also spent quite a bit of time dancing ecstatically around the apartment.
Going to my part-time job the next day, I kept saying to myself, "I'm a writer! I'm a real writer! Now I'll always be a real writer!" Of course, that wore off pretty quickly. These days I only feel like a real writer if I've written that day or have something fairly major forthcoming in a national publication. But I remember that evening very fondly.
The part-time job was in a Word Processing Department where almost everyone was working to make rent money while also trying to make it in the arts. We had one other writer, a painter, and several singers -- one of whom was in the City Opera Chorus -- and our boss had a PhD in French Literature from Brown. So they knew what my sale meant, and all congratulated me very warmly.
It was actually a great work environment. Most of the rest of the company (this was a snooty exective-search firm) looked down on us because we were only menial word-processors, but we had wonderful conversations when we weren't busy, and some of the people whose work we typed up realized that we were all really smart and asked us for writing help. I still remember a senior vice president sidling up to my desk, asking shyly, "Can you help me with this sentence?" That's when I started to think that I might enjoy being a writing teacher.
Also, since the higher-ups depended on us for their documents, we made out like bandits at Christmas: huge boxes of Godiva chocolates, silk scarves, and other high-class treats. The life of the starving artist wasn't so bad, at that place. Years later, right before I went to grad school, I wound up in their Corporate Communications Department as an in-house writer. The job wasn't nearly as much fun as working in Word Processing, although it certainly paid better!