Tamara Ellis Smith was my first student at VCFA. She was Student One, Packet One in my Semester One on faculty, back in 2006. I had to set aside everything I thought I knew about teaching and writing and pay attention to this low-residency experience–it was nothing like any of the teaching I’d ever done before. Packet One was also Test One for me.
Tam taught me a lot. She wrote a wonderful critical thesis on the picture book triangle of reader, text, and child listener. She pretty much taught me how to advise a critical thesis. She read furiously and passionately and wrote annotations as if the words had wings. In everything she did she tried to make meaning of life and writing and how they came together. Sometimes I’d tell her to just quit trying so hard and let the work take its own shape, always an easier thing to say than to do but I’d say it anyway.
And then there was the novel. It was beautiful, the story of two boys, loss, and a big, big storm. It reached deep and wide–maybe even wider than Tam was ready to reach at the time but she did it anyway. And now…fast forward.
How many years, you say? Seven. It took seven years from then to now, but I am beyond delighted to hear that my first student in my first packet, my first semester teaching at VCFA, before it was even VCFA, has just sold her first novel. Marble Boys will be edited by Ann Kelley and published in August 2015 by Schwartz and Wade.
I asked Tam what she learned as a writer from this long journey to publication. Here’s what she said in her reply:
I have learned a tremendous amount about longing. Wanting something so deeply and for so long was new to me, and when I would get discouraged (another rejection, another revision) I would ask myself the same question: Do I want to stop writing or do I want to continue to work at this? The answer was always the same. Keep on. And so I did. And as I did, my understanding of longing, as well as my relationship to it, changed. Sitting with it became a practice. Which, I think, taught me to sit with other feelings. Which, in turn, taught me to sit with my characters and their feelings too. It is not by chance, I believe, that as I got better at being with my own feelings I was able to write better characters.
Here are a few things I wrote on my blog about this:
I’ve been contemplating this longing for the last few weeks. I have noticed that there is a tendency to do one of two things with longing. One is to try to push it away. And I think the most common way to accomplish that is to transform it…so maybe, let’s say, you turn it into jealousy (she got that and I was supposed to get that and I’m probably entitled to that more than she is, damn it…) or into denial (I never wanted that, and even if I did, which I didn’t by the way, but even if I did, I certainly don’t want it now…) The other is to allow it to consume you (I feel this longing so badly and so deeply that I think I, in fact, AM this longing…where are my hands and feet and heart and mind?…they have been taken over by the body-snatching longing monster…)
But what about just letting it…be?
I used to think that desiring something for more than a minute was a sign that I wasn’t meant to do the thing, or have the thing…because it meant that I had tried to do it, or have it, and had failed. Failure the first time meant that the desire was off the table. Quite a fixed mindset, eh?
My New Year’s post, the one about last year being a cocoon year for me, is about exactly this. In all ways, but especially in terms of my writing. I have never worked so hard and so long at anything. I have never made effort and perseverance as much of a ritual as I have with the process of writing. This is key, I believe. The ritual of effort and perseverance.
And I would add to that, now that I sit for a moment and think about it. The ritual of effort and perseverance and longing.
Work hard, keep at it, and always, always honor the longing.
The work itself has taught me so much. Living with a story for this long, and revising it so many times (I think I counted something like 25 drafts), I became intimately connected to it…my characters, their journeys, their emotional landscapes, the arc of the story. I am guessing the goal is to be that intimate with all of the stories we write. (But maybe not take so long to get there?!!!!) But for this story, for me, for this first experience at seeing a novel through from idea to offer, this long process allowed me to not only become intimately connected but to become conscious of what that looks like. So I learned, for example, that it really helps me to talk through my characters’ emotional journeys; to map out where they start and where they end and how, step by step, to get there. What emotion comes after the first? What is the subtle difference? Where is the growth? What does that look like in terms of gestures and scenes and moments in time? I also learned that it helps me TREMENDOUSLY to take a big step back from the writing after a good few solid drafts and not write, but talk…A LOT…about the story. Have someone ask me questions. Tell the story to people and see what I remember, what I leave out, what is confusing. And then after synthesizing that taking-space/talking experience, I can go back and write with a much stronger understanding of the story. And there are other specific things I learned like this too. My hope is that I can take this consciousness into my next novel-writing process.
My advisors…you, Uma…oh my gosh. You have taught me all of this. All that I have already mentioned has come from you. Truly. You have asked me to be persistent, you have asked me to keep working hard, you have asked me, specifically, to re-vision my story (remember that amazing critique you gave me that allowed me to get Henry to New Orleans? he was stuck in Vermont until you suggested that…) You have taught me how to revise, and edit and cut. And then you have been such a support. You have believed in me. There were times when I couldn’t believe and you would do it for me.
Here is what I wrote to Erin (agent) a few days ago in response to some of the congratulations and support I have gotten about this book deal:
I wish, of course, that this book had sold all those years ago, but, Erin, all that I have learned, and all the amazing friends and colleagues I have made, and all of the gratitude it all makes me feel…that is possibly the best, biggest, shiniest silver lining I have ever ever experienced.
I don’t quite know how to articulate that clearly enough, but I really mean it. The outpouring of love, the ongoing support, the net of safety that I have created and that was created for me, has made me a better writer. A bolder one. A more vulnerable one.
Congratulations, Tamara Smith, for walking the path with integrity and persistence.