It was late October and I was nearing the end of my novel. Before I typed the first word of the story, I knew the ending, but as it evolved, I wanted the final pages to be somehow more. The problem was the scene I envisioned writing wasn’t something I thought the publishing world would find acceptable, certainly not for literary fiction. I should play it safe, I thought, go with understated, yet, touching.
About that time, Lynne and I attended a benefit for PEN New England, A Reading of Best American Short Stories (in the interest of full disclosure, I work for Houghton Mifflin). Though I wasn’t the Cinderella in this story, I still felt as though we were at the same ball. First there was the reception with publishing royalty. Giddy, Lynne and I chatted with some of our favorite authors: Tom Perrotta asked if we’d yet seen his film, Little Children; Ann Patchett regaled us with stories about her mother, Jeanne Ray; Michael Lowenthal told us a charming anecdote about Grace Paley; Scott Heim shared his angst about his third book; Mameve Medwed asked our opinion about the title of her latest book; Atul Gawande thanked me for gushing; and Paul Yoon accepted our compliments with grace and humbleness. I would have been content with that; I could have floated home. But there was more.
Soon we were ushered into the theater where Ann Patchett greeted the audience from the stage. Three stories were to be featured and as the editor of Best American Short Stories 2006, she chose to read Self-Reliance by Edith Pearlman. To be honest, I hadn’t yet gone through the collection and didn’t know what to expect.
What followed was perhaps the most important lesson I’ve yet learned in my writing journey: Be bold. Her story is the most breathtakingly beautiful short story I’ve ever read. Yes, better than Alice Munro’s best. Edith Pearlman is bold. She is bold and elegant and brilliant and stunning, quiet and touching, but most of all bold.
A week later, I wrote the ending I wanted. After my writers’ group critiqued it, I then wrote Edith Pearlman to tell her how much her writing means to me. Let me share with you a portion of her reply:
“I'm delighted you enjoyed the story; and further delighted that it inspired you to be unafraid with your own work. In fact, boldness is something we can all use. That and endurance. You can't imagine how many times I revised that story. You make me feel that it was all worth doing.”
So writer friends, heed Edith Pearlman’s advice. Be bold. Endure. Will you?
Tuesday, February 13, 2007