Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Be Bold

By Amy

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?


Therese said...

Amy, this is such good advice. It's when we make the unusual, unexpected choices that our work becomes richer and truer.

The first time I spoke with my editor, she told me how much she admired a particularly pivotal scene in my novel. Without giving away the scene, I'll just say she told me if I'd come to her with the scene in an *outline*, she would not have believed anyone could pull it off.

It was a risk--and I'm so glad I took it, because I've now been told several times that that scene is the single most compelling one in the novel.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks, Therese. Now I really can't wait until January 29th when Souvenir is released. What a tease!


Therese said...

Huh, I left a follow-up comment here, but it looks like Blogger ate it.

I said something like, you should talk, Amy!

And I was wondering if you already have an agent. I ask because "literary suspense" sounds like it might be in my agent's neighborhood. I'm sure you have your own list of prospects, though.

In any event, I wish you all the best with your bold ending, and hope to read it--and all the words that come before it--one day.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

That's so gracious of you, Therese, but I do have an agent, my dream agent. Wendy was on my list, though. Isn't she on everyone's?


Patry Francis said...

What a marvelous, inspiring piece, Amy. I love Edith Pearlman, too. Definitely a writer who should be far more widely read.

Now I'm off to BE BOLD with my own recalcitrant novel.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Tally ho,Patry! Get to work on that follow-up to your rave success, The Liar's Diary.

Edith Pearlman is a genius whose work should be studied and celebrated. It's the most wonderful research of craft a writer can do.