Monday, November 29, 2010

The Writer's Journey May Just Take a Village

Sheila Curran
Diana Lively is Falling Down, 2005
Everyone She Loved, 2009

I have such a pitiful sense of direction that in the world’s most notoriously inhospitable cities, New York and Paris, I’ve often found myself surrounded by strangers asking if I could use help finding my way.

And so it’s been with my writer’s journey

In 1986, I was 30 years old. I had fallen in love at 20, followed my boyfriend to Chicago, gone to graduate school in literary criticism and done a whole lot of waiting tables.

Graduate school was a bit like reading Camus. You know it’s good for you. You despise it. Half the time you think (like Susan Sontag, who was in the same exact program before me) that you aren’t nearly smart enough to have been admitted.  The rest of the time, you find yourself suspecting that much of what you’re being told might just be The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In the meantime, I LOVED waiting tables. Instant gratification, the ‘flow’ of utter concentration on something other than one’s pitiful self, and filthy, dirty, gorgeous money  It was a guilty pleasure, and sometimes, worse. Not degrading, not ever. Still I knew my parents had higher hopes for me, my peers were moving up the career ladder and new employers were starting to ask why I was applying to work in their restaurant when I had a masters’ degree from the University of Chicago.

That might have been the moment I found my calling. And my curse.

I did what fiction writers do: I made something up. “I’m actually working on a novel," I confided. "I just do this to make money.”

Enough said.

I got the job. And I started to wonder if writing might be something I could try, just so I could tell myself I was doing something other with my time than schlepping cocktails.

Being a mystery fan, I chose that plot form to begin with. I began writing, tore up lots of pages, but eventually completed my first novel, THE MINNESOTA CHOP HOUSE.

That was when I turned 30.  Through a friend of my brother’s, I found an agent willing to represent me.

I had no clue how lucky I was. Like most newbie writers, I expected the “call” any minute.

In the meantime, my new agent sent me an advance reader’s copy of Pat Conroy’s THE PRINCE OF TIDES. Already a fan, I was nevertheless unprepared for the way in which I would be held captive by this glorious book. For three days, I, a dedicated workaholic whose Catholic guilt colluded with a severe case of the Protestant Ethic, did nothing but curl up on my futon and read. It was one of the more exhilarating and memorable experiences of my life.

Inexorably shy, I had never presumed to write an author, but in this case I was so infatuated that I couldn’t help myself.  I typed out a note (which I sent to the publisher of THE PRINCE OF TIDES.)  I told Pat Conroy that 1) this was my first fan letter, and 2) I would never, ever measure up to the fantabulousness of his talent.  I wanted to thank him for writing the book..

Meanwhile, the rejection letters on my own novel started pouring in. I received single-spaced letters of three pages from top New York editors praising my work but finding some reason my mystery wouldn’t work for their particular ‘list.’ I cried. I sighed. I wrote my agent a ‘Dear John’ letter, saying it was wonderful that he’d given me a chance but there was no sense in trying to sell a book that had so many flaws.

I continued to mourn my premature death as a person of substance. Noisily.

Shortly thereafter I got a postcard in the mail from my idol.

front of card

This is what he wrote:

Dear Sheila,
You write a great letter and no matter what you feel about fan letters you praise too fully and too well to neglect the form. You also write beautifully. Don’t worry about the depressions, they come with the territory, no matter the degree of success or failure. It’s what makes you different as a writer. “oh Sheila, just write it down. Just do it.” All love and luck to you. And all thanks. This postcard is my family’s and my view of Rome this year.

Pat Conroy
I tacked the card  to my bulletin board and used it as a talisman against despair.

In the meantime, I tried to improve my writing. I started another novel, to which the publishing world also gave me encouraging responses but ultimately rejected. I began again and again. I had kids, took a professional job as a grant writer and continued to read novels for the transporting joy of living in a dream world built entirely from the human imagination.

I have never seen myself as persistent. However, just when I found myself thinking that maybe I should have chosen nursing or law school or multi-level marketing, some dear soul would give me the sort of encouragement or leg-up that allowed me to believe in myself just enough to continue doing that thing to which I’d become quite addicted, creating my own fictional dreams.

There were my family and my friends, who are too numerous to mention. (That abundance, of course, beats the pants off all possible  literary accomplishments.)

My first big publishing break came with the help of Joyce Maynard, who offered to show an essay I’d written to editors at McCall’s.  They loved it and the editor encouraged me to write more. I worked for magazines, raised my kids, wrote grants and hoped to someday finish another novel.

After I finished my next one, a decade had passed since my McCall's piece was published.  Finding an agent seemed next to impossible.  It took a LONG time. In the end, I found the absolutely perfect agent for me.

If Pat Conroy was my talisman, my literary agent, Laura Gross, was my shaman. She pressed my book into the hands of Susan Allison at Penguin, who treated my novel as if it were her first-born child. She ‘got’ it. Susan would call me out of the blue with insights about characters that had come to her in the shower or while walking her dog.

So many other kindnesses followed. Jodi Picoult was kind enough to take the time to read Diana Lively is Falling Down and give it a wonderful review. Julianna Baggott and Carlos Eire did the same. The book did very well and continues to yield fan letters of the sort I’d sent so many years earlier to Mr. Conroy.

It took me four years to finish the second novel, EVERYONE SHE LOVED, which was adopted by Simon and Schuster’s well-known editor, Emily Bestler, the champion of such writers as Jodi Picoult, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor and other household names. Emily pored over my second book with the same eye to detail and ear for dialogue as had my previous editor at Penguin..

Again, far better and more well-known writers than I decided to help me out. Joshilyn Jackson, Julianna Baggott, Masha Hamilton, Paul Shepherd. What lovely generous souls!

I’ve been so fortunate. I would never, ever think that I made it on my own, It has only been through the generosity of other writers, including my lovely compadres at the Girlfriends’ Cyber Circuit, to say nothing of my husband/bread-winner/cheerer upper and my dear, dear agent that I have had the great good fortune to get published and find a readership.

Through all of this, my family and friends have been at the very center of telling me I must keep writing.

And so I do.
Just a few weeks back, my niece sent me a photo she took at one of Atlanta’s biggest bookstores.

Note the book on the table just above Everyone She Loved!

This lovely coincidence  pleased me no end.
Mr. Conroy, you are one damn fine neighbor!

To celebrate the kindness of strangers, I will be giving away a copy of each book, wrapped for the holidays and inscribed to the person of your choice.  The winner will be selected at random from those who take the time to comment.  I'll email you and get your address.  Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. That is quite the story, and quite the coincidence! I love the picture that your niece took, and I would love to chance to win one of your books. Thank-you!


  2. What an inspirational post! I'm going to share this with as many writers as I can.

    Thank you for this, Sheila!

  3. What a lovely, inspiring, positive post. Thanks for sharing. (And thanks Ellen for tweeting it - will be doing the same.)

    I'm often dumfounded and always grateful for how supportive writers are of each other's work. We are involved in a very special community.

  4. I had not heard of you or your books until this post on FB. Your books intrigue me and I will try finding them asap - hopefully they will be in the stores here in Australia!
    Your story of your struggles along the way to success is a great inspiration and gives me hope that one day I too might find the agent who gets my book published!
    Good luck and God Bless. xx Jo Skehan.

  5. I love this post! And I love that your book appeared on a table with Pat Conroy-- so poetic!

  6. What a lovely post! And how cool that your book was placed on the table with Pat Conroy's book. Thank you for the inspirational words and for sharing your journey.

  7. Oh, Sheila, I love this . . . and that your book was right there with Pat Conroy.

  8. Such a journey! And what persistence--Pat Conroy may have inspired you, and these lovely pub world people may have lent you confidence and aid, but don't sell yourself short. :-)

    (As for grad school and the Emperor's wardrobe, I know just what you mean. But at the same time, I learned a great deal; one just has to see clearly, right?)

  9. Loved your story, Sheila. I well remember the first time I read The Prince of Tides back in my independent bookseller days. And as luck would have it, I recently finished reading My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, in which he mentions some time spent in Rome - perhaps that's when he sent that postcard!

  10. Sheila, this is a wonderful story--makes we want to read your books!

  11. I LOVED your post!And I'm sharing it with my online writers' group.And I can't wait to read your book!

  12. Dear Sheila,
    Just finished my third semester project for my MFA (grunt) DIARY OF A MAD NOVELIST: NETWORKING IN THE DIGITAL AGE. I can so relate to your story and as you can see on my profile page, I have met fantastic writers along the journey to publication that I am still on. The generosity I have received has been miraculous. Great good luck to you. I am with Pat Conroy - love your writing style and look forward to reading your novels.
    Deborah Henry

  13. Fabulous post. Your book looks very at home on that table schmoozing it up with Pat Conroy's book.

  14. Pat Conroy is my favorite writer, and I'm not a bit surprised that he wrote you that postcard. He is so approachable and generous. When I met him in January at the Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas, he stood in line to get the other, lesser-known authors to sign their books for him! I'm writing a novel (my third book, 2 others are on the shelf for now) and have 8 published essays, so I'm on the journey and like you, have so many people to thank for each step so far. I'm sure the list will continue to grow! Would LOVE to win a copy of one of your books!

  15. Love, lovely story. It is encouraging, thank you for sharing. I will write on. :-)

  16. Sheila, what an inspirational (and entertaining) post. As someone who has already read (and loved) Everyone She Loved, I can only say hurry up with that next novel!

  17. What a thrill to have your book right there with Pat Conroy's. That's a moment to treasure!


  18. Sheila, what a fitting story for the holidays! Full of spirit and hope and a happy ending! Love that photo (if that isn't poetic justice, I don't know what is). Keep doing what you're doing, and continued success to you!

  19. Wonderful story, Sheila! I love your writing, and so appreciate your sharing your journey (and your patience and perseverance) here.

  20. Sheila, Loved this. When I read The Prince of Tides I loved it...until I got to the rape scene. Creeped me out so bad I never finished the book. I'm so glad to hear that Conroy would take the time to answer back and encourage you, and so glad to see your book next to his in the bookstore! Good on you!

  21. Sheila, what a truly inspirational story!! I read it twice! You won't mind if we all take Mr. Conroy's advice... Personally, Jodi Picoult is/was my author inspiration. To me, a nod from her would be about as good as it gets! Thanks for sharing.

  22. Very inspiring indeed! Made mental notes to myself as well!

  23. Oh, the lovely misery of this life as a writer! The Muse chooses us, and then we must take our lot and walk the plank, ever hoping that someone will come along in a dingy, catch us as we step off the end of the ragged plank, and make our dreams come true by publishing our work!

    Thank you for your post. I'm right in the middle of this affair. Going to college, even though I'm getting really old, and writing...and working...argh!

    You have given me hope and inspiration. The two are, of course, more costly than gold. :-)

    ~Belle Whittington

  24. I LOVED this post Sheila. It was so honest and heartfelt but also a roller coaster ride. I couldn't stop reading, which of course is true of your novels as well. I adored EVERYONE SHE LOVED and wish I could remember who I gave it to so I could get it back. Meanwhile, you just keep going because you don't only have so many more stories to tell, you clearly have angels who have joined you on your journey!

  25. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  26. The more I hear of authors taking years to write a book, the better I feel. It's taking me forever. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Ah,there is nothing so good as that hearing people understood what you wrote. I so appreciate all of you. At midnight I'll pick a winner (actually, tomorrow morning I'll do a random number search on the comments after midnight. Will pick two people. Then you send me your address and how you'd like it inscribed and if it's a gift, I can send it on to them,wrapped with my own special messy flourishes. Check back every day to see who's giving you a chance to possibly lighten your shopping chores! love and kisses to all of you.

  28. oh the irony. I love the fact that your book ended up next to pat conroy's. what a great reasonto do a giveaway!

    meaghan_koci (at) yahoo (dot) com

  29. This is a lovely message of perseverance, and as someone whose first novel is currently on sub, I am memorizing every word. Congrats on every one of your successes!

  30. Love. Love. Love your post! I'm shouting out a big fat BRAVA to you, Sheila.

  31. I loved Pat Conroy's postcard to you and to now have his book be your books neighbour must be thrilling. Do you still have the postcard posted up in your office?

  32. Dear Girlfriends,
    All of your comments were wonderful. Yes Michelle, I DO have the postcard front and center on my bulletin board. I chose two numbers, 11 and 22, and the winners were JUDY and BUNNY.
    Please email me at and tell me whom you'd like the books inscribed to, whether they're a gift (and if so, what sort of wrapping (xmas, channukah, just pretty paper) and the mailing addresses for each. Judy, you'll get my first book, Diana Lively is Falling Down and Bunny, you'll get the second, Everyone She Loved. Thanks for participating!

  33. Love the way your post came full circle! Nice to know Pat Conroy is such a good guy. And congrats!

  34. Good to see your book next to Pat Conroys.......that is inspiring!