As Thanksgiving 2010 was approaching, I was living in Iowa City, Iowa, where I was an MFA student in the Fiction program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had ached ardently to go to the Workshop, and when I’d been accepted I’d shrieked with joy. Now, trudging through brown snow to my classes; eating lumpy, bland Chinese takeout as I researched my thesis—I knew that I was in so many ways very lucky. But wasn’t I actively thankful anymore. This was just my real life.
That same fall, a friend and classmate of mine had been typing his novel so fast and for so many hours a day that he lost use of both wrists, and he had to complete his own thesis using clunky voice recognition software. His experience didn’t make me grateful for my own uninjured wrists. Instead I was scared that was going to happen to me, too.
That winter was particularly dreary one in Iowa City, with frequent blizzards that made it dangerous to even go outside. I gave myself over to writerly brooding. But the writing wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped, and when I turned in a chunk of my thesis for a class workshop, another writer in my class told me that my treatment of the subject matter was extremely shallow. Another writer commented that I’d spent way too much time describing how and what my characters were knitting. By the time I turned the thesis into the Graduate College, I’d gone completely off it. I’d been given this time at the Workshop to write something really great, and felt like I’d squandered the chance. I’d wanted to go to the workshop, and now that I was there I wanted everyone to praise my work, too. I wanted to write something that felt worthy of this famed place. So much wanting.
Roxanne Gay wrote in Salon a couple years ago: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.” It’s what keeps writers ambitious.
But what if we don’t get what we want? And if we do, will we ever feel fulfilled, and grateful?
Ever since I came to work at Book Country, Penguin Group’s online writing and publishing community, that yucky feeling of ingratitude has dissipated, leaving in its place something much more heartening. Book Country is a community of writers both published and unpublished. These writers come from all over the world to participate in a wide-ranging conversation about writing books of all types, from Erotica to Middle Grade Fiction to Epic Fantasy to Horror. We talk to each other on the Discussion Boards, trading tips about the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and we Tweet at each other to share our congrats on successes and our musings on pop culture. And because Book Country is a sponsor of NaNoWriMo 2013, this engagement with other writers has extended into the even wider Nano community of writers, who reflect that same positive encouragement at one another, too.
In hindsight I can see by the end of the Workshop, I was just in a bad writing funk, and that there was work I needed to do on my thesis that was hard and uncomfortable that I was petulant about doing—this made me feel both ungrateful and unambitious, a loathsome combination. In the years since we graduated, my gratitude for having gone to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with my particular cohort has swelled, so much so that this Thanksgiving I’m waxing nostalgic about that brown snow and bland Chinese food. I miss my friends from the program, and the way we trusted each other enough to say it when we thought someone’s manuscript felt shallow or boring.
I no longer think that writers are an ungrateful lot, doomed to a forever of only wanting. Open to the acknowledgments section of any Penguin book, and you’ll see a grateful writer taking a long and wonderful moment to thank their editor, their agent, their publicist, their writing teachers, their friends, their spouses, and their children. And then they move on to writing another, even more ambitious book.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for my community of writers (both from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and on Book Country), for the experience of NaNoWriMo and how it’s energized my writing routine in a way that feels almost athletic, but also for that wanting that Roxanne Gay wrote about, that feeling that my work can and should get better. The balance of these is a wonderful place from which to write.
Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, an online writing and publishing community, and the author of the Beautiful Americans novels for young adults.