have a friend who's a very famous author, and the other day I asked her, "What's
the first thing you wrote that you were proud of?" And she said it was her first
novel. Which is a beautiful novel, but it was written when she was in her
thirties. And I thought, What? Because the first thing I remember being
proud of (and I'm talking proud, proud) was a poem I wrote when I was
nine. It ended with the soul-stirring line, "The beauty enchantment now was
broke." I actually submitted this poem to a magazine (where it was promptly
rejected, needless to say).
Never mind. I got proud again, very soon afterwards, of something I wrote in the third grade. It was a page-long essay about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, accompanied for no extra charge by a construction paper silhouette. The essay moved me to tears every time I read it. The last line here was: "He had always wanted to free the slaves, and now he had." So. There you are. Don't you have tears in your eyes?
I turned it my essay (well, essay-ette, I think I might most accurately say) and
waited for the teacher to plotz, or at least hold up my page before the class
and say, "Now, this is what I was looking for! Elizabeth, will you please
come forward and take a bow?" It did not happen. I handed in my essay and it was
handed back with a passing grade. Period. But! I still have that essay, hanging
out of some mildewed scrapbook, and I'll bet I could get five bucks for it on
eBay just like that.
In high school, I wrote an essay about the ills of smoking, and at the top of the first page I glued an actual cigarette on which I had drawn a little face and made hair out of tobacco. The essay was from the point of view of the cigarette, you see. The cigarette was named Charlie, and he was extolling the virtues of smoking, but really he was revealing the vices of smoking. Oh, it was very clever, I thought. And the cigarette glued to the front? Darling. Plus an astonishing feat of artistry, I think you must agree. I got an A on that paper. The teacher thought the cigarette was cute; she liked my "creative approach." She wrote that in the margin in red pencil with an exclamation mark after it. Creative approach! Oh, one lived for those exclamation marks in red, didn't one? Unless they said something like MARGINS!!
In junior high, I wrote a longish play and read the whole dang thing over the phone to my best friend, I was so proud of it. And I thought she loved it too, because she kept so respectfully quiet while I read it to her, but in reality she had gone off to make a sandwich. And eat it. And wash her plate. I discovered this because she did not come back to the phone in time to hear the end of my play. "The End!" I said, with great satisfaction, and then I said, "So! Do you like it?" I waited for a rush of adulation only slightly mitigated by jealousy and heard....nothing. "Hello?" I said. "...Hello?" When she finally picked up the phone again and I asked, "Where did you go?" she told me.
I have now written 19 novels, 2 collections of short stories, and 2 works of non-fiction. And despite the fact that I have won awards for my books and have been the grateful recipient of many glowing reviews, I have never felt the kind of surety I did as a kid about anything I've written. I may love my work, but I do not enjoy that deep seated confidence about it any longer. I've gone wobbly on the inside. I suppose it's an indication of the fact that I have, at least in some respects, grown up and become aware of the fact that book publishing is a business and I am dependent for my livelihood on the opinions of others. And I have become aware of the arbitrary nature of just about everything, the way that the same object can be called black by one person and white by another, and each person is positive they are right. But despite the fact that I'm not as blindly self-assured as I used to be, I still feel a thrill every time I turn a book in. There is still a breathless joy in waiting for the response to the question, "Do you like it?" even when one knows the answer may grievously wound the unprotected heart. I don't know, I guess I hope it will always be that way.
Elizabeth's latest book, Home Safe, will be available in paperback from all good bookstores on September 29th. She can be found online at www.elizabeth-berg.net