Complex Marriages in Fiction

Since the moment my husband and I announced our engagement—twenty-six years ago—I’ve heard just about all the marriage advice imaginable. Marry your best friend.” Marriage is work.” Dont go to bed angry.  Cliches without specifics didn’t resonate with me then, and now that my daughter is about to marry, I’m thinking long and hard about the pearls of wisdom I want to impart to her.

While there are lots of terrific nonfiction self-help books aimed at couples starting out, getting hitched, navigating rough patches, or even contemplating calling it quits, for the deep dive on marital relationships, I turn to fiction.

Crossing to SafetyThere’s no limit to the power of storytelling to teach. And since there are many right ways—and wrong ways—to nurture a relationship, novels provide complex and meaningful examples of what’s in store once the honeymoon is over.

One story I return to again and again is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I nearly sigh at the sound of the title. It’s touted as a novel about the alchemy of friendship, and it is, yet it’s also a glimpse inside two very different marriages. Sid and Charity Lang befriend Larry and Sally Morgan while both men are on the professor to tenure track at a small mid-western university. The portraits of these relationships offer much food for thought about how couples care for their relationships in the face of personal desires for independence.

Stegner writes, It all comes back in broken scenes,highlighting one of Crossing to Safetys strengths. It explores marriage in retrospect, over decades in the lives of its characters. Similarly beautiful is Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel. Set in the community of houses built on pilings in the middle of Biscayne Bay (hence the book’s title) readers watch the marriage of Frances and Dennis DuVal unfold. Against a landscape that mirrors the calm and storm of relationships, Daniel paints an authentic, heartaching view of what it means to make a commitment—and then struggle to remain true to it.

I Married You For Happiness

One of the most poignant reflections I’ve read on this subject is I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck. This slim volume captures a wife’s remembrances of her husband and their forty three years together after she finds him in their home, dead of a sudden andunexpected event. As Nina waits by his bedside for help to arrive, she recalls the trials and triumphs of their long life together. A novel layered with romance and tenderness, tension and strife, this fictional story so closely resembles real life it reads like a memoir.

If you prefer depictions of marriage more contentious, then there is no better novel than Revolutionary Roadby Richard Yates. A finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, the novel was acclaimed and beloved long before Leo and Kate starred in the film version of the story. Frank and April Wheeler are a couple in love, but their undoing is the way each copes with frustration and yearning. Often referred to as the quintessential novel of suburban malaise, in an interview for Ploughsharesten years after the novel’s release, Yates said, I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbsa kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.Revolutionary Road

As with literary villains who are painted all bad, I’m not interested in reading only about overly dreadful marriages. I want characters and their interactions to be truly complex and multi-faceted—you know, like real relationships. Here are some more top picks in the category: reflections on marriage.

Life Drawing by Robin Black

A character-driven story about a painter and a writer navigating the intimacies and betrayals of their relationship—their art and mid-life. I fell in love with Black’s writing when I read her short story collection, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This. Verdict: read both!

The Forever Marriage by Ann Bauer

This compelling novel ponders the question, what if you longed to be out of your marriage and then suddenly your wish was granted? Reminiscent of the novels of Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg, I recommend this one often because of it’s originality and Bauer’s effortless storytelling.

Characters With Special Needs Make for Exceptional Stories

In May I had the honor of speaking at the American Montessori Conference in Dallas alongside the remarkable Temple Grandin, author of many nonfiction books, including The Autistic Brain. She mesmerized the audience, sharing anecdotes about her childhood and how her insightful mother nurtured her at a time when little was known about autism. Her real life stories stole my heart, and got me thinking about the fictional ones I’ve been impacted by over the years.

I’ll admit I was late to the game reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I tend to shy away from phenoms du jour, but my daughter kept putting the tome on my bedside table until I had no choice but to acquiesce. Ten pages in and I was as hooked as the rest of the world with this gorgeous novel loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, about a mute boy, his dogs, and his search for the truth about his father’s murder. The Christian Science Monitor said of the novel, “Edgar might be silent, but his story will echo with readers for a long time.” I couldn’t agree more.

 Shortly after reading Edgar, I became equally enchanted with Rachel Simon’s, The Story of Beautiful Girl. Hard as it is to fathom, as recently as the nineteen sixties, children born with disabilities such as deafness and Down Syndrome were institutionalized, forever separated from family. Simon (also the author of the acclaimed memoir, Riding the Bus with My Sister) believes like I do in the power of fiction to teachI spoke with Rachel about what it’s like to write from the heart about the plight of the most vulnerable among us (those put away as they were once referred to), who have been cast out of society, forced to make sense of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to find love. “She felt so lovely in his hands. She felt so loved in his eyes.”

Another deeply moving story is the powerful Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern. This hypnotic thriller centers on the disappearance of two children into the woods behind their school. Hours later a young girl has been found murdered and the only witness is a child who cannot tell what he saw. The child is autistic, and so begins his mother’s quest to give voice to the tragedy her child endured, and to find peace for the girl’sparents who desperately need to know what happened to their daughter.

All of these novels are as well-plotted as they are rich in authentic character details. Each hero goes beyond the stereotypical or sensational, working his or her way into our hearts because the challenges they face are both uniquely personal and universal. Readers will love them, not because of their special needs, but because they think and feel, as all of us do, about loving and being loved, about what it means to be part of a family. Readers will turn pages all the faster when these memorable characters are in jeopardy, and they’ll mourn each book’s closing despite their hero’s triumphs. All of these selections are must-reads because the stories are so compelling and the writing so beautiful.

Other Notable Selections:

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

Lark and Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips

Icy Sparks, Hyman Rubio

Young Adult

Wonder, R. J. Palacio

Out of My Mind, Sharon M. Draper

What stories/novels have you read featuring a special needs character that made a difference in your life?

Lynne Griffin is a nationally recognized expert on relationships and family life. She is the author of the novels, Sea Escape (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Life Without Summer (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), and the nonfiction guide Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment (Penguin, 2007). Lynne teaches family studies and leadership at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Wheelock College in Boston. She recently completed a second year as visiting scholar of education in Singapore. Lynne teaches fiction writing at Grub Street Writers in Boston, and co-created an innovative, intensive program for soon-to-be-published writers called Launch Lab.

Follow Lynne: https://twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin orhttps://www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin

 

 

 

 

Father-Daughter Novels

My father walks me down the aisle. He does not look ahead to the altar, but rather stares adoringly at me. He whispers, “You will always be my girl.”

Daddy is the first to arrive at the hospital after the birth of my daughter. He holds the tiny child so close and for so long that when others visit they claim he is keeping her for himself.

Three years later, he is first to arrive after the birth of my son. This time he bears gifts. An impossibly small Red Sox jersey and baseball cap. There are promises of evening games at Fenway when my boy is old enough, and afternoons of playing catch in Grandpa’s backyard.

All of these images are fantasy, little fictions I let my mind rest on when I miss him. My father died when I was fifteen, which means a treasure trove of experiences have never been mine, and never will be. This may explain why I’m drawn to novels about fathers and daughters. Simple stories of love and encouragement and conflict-rich stories fraught with the misunderstandings and missed opportunities that are germane to family life.

Who hasn’t idolized the confident and kind, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee? As the moral hero of Scout’s coming of age story, this father-daughter relationship is iconic, and the novel has clearly stood the test of time.

Well-suited to this category is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. Miles Roby is a down-on-his-luck dad living in the Maine town he grew up in, contending with his divorce, and trying to raise his beloved daughter Tick. From the town’s priest, to the high school principal, to the waitresses at the Empire Grill, the characters that fill these pages are beyond memorable, and the plot twists and turns reminiscent of another of my favorite town-centric stories, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious.

A new novel that explores this special bond is The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis. Motherless Hallie Costa has an enviable relationship with her father Nick. In fact, this loving dynamic between father and daughter is juxtaposed against an ill-fated love affair set on the coast of Massachusetts, in the colorful Portuguese neighborhoods of Provincetown. Spanning thirty years, this page-turner explores what it means to be family and what it means to have faith.

Since compelling fiction rests on high degrees of tension–and not all relationship stories are cherished ones–I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the novels that showcase a more tortured view of the father-daughter dynamic.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is such a story. This extraordinary novel, set on a farm in Iowa is loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and features three adult daughters coming to terms with a secret history of domestic abuse, generational gender roles, and the powerful forces of nature. Each time I reread this story, I find more subtle layers to reflect on, and always, writing that is both vivid and indelible.

Schroder by Amity Gaige first came to my attention via One Story, a literary magazine that published what would become an excerpt of this stunning novel that recounts the week a father spends on the run with his daughter after kidnapping her during a parental visit. Jennifer Egan says of the novel, “Amity Gaige explores the rich, murky realm where parental devotion edges into mania, and logically crabwalks into crime.”

Next up father-daughter novels on my to-be-read shelf include: This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash and Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat.

Are there father-daughter stories that have shaped or entertained you? Are you looking forward to reading books on this topic this summer? I’d love for you to add to this list in the comments.

Happy reading!

Lynne Griffin is an author, speaker and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her full bio here. Follow her on twitter @Lynne_Griffin or visit her website, LynneGriffin.com.

Editor’s Note: Patry Francis will guest host #LitChat on July 2, 2014 at 4 p.m. E.D.T.

Novels about Mental Health & Illness

We read fiction to learn about things we do not understand. We read it to imagine lives unlike our own, or to commiserate with lives exactly like the ones that we are living. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than 4 percent of all adults endure mental illnesses classified as serious. The number burgeons when you add in episodic mental illness, and diagnostic mental health issues in children and teens. I don’t know one person—family, friend, or colleague—who doesn’t love someone who suffers with one or more of the most prevalent of these: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or psychosis.

For when we share more openly, we judge less harshly.

Scary numbers to be sure. And while there is certainly a place for the clinical literature in our reading piles, and myriad memoirs to lend readers’ insight, I believe reading novels on this theme and topic provides a unique opportunity to get inside the experience—and how it impacts family—without being prescriptive.

Take the novel Halfway House by Katharine Noel, the story of teenager Angie Voorster’s psychotic break and subsequent roller coaster ride through treatment. Told through the points-of-view of each family member—mother, father, brother, and Angie, herself—it chronicles the crushing impact mental illness has on a family. Witnessing characters make poor life choices amid the backdrop of Angie’s struggles suspends judgment. It begs the questions, “What might you do if you walked in this mother’s shoes?” “What kind of brother would you be?”

Wally Lamb explores how schizophrenia both connects and divides a twin relationship in his masterpiece I Know This Much is True. “I remember the odd sensation of living in the middle of that experience and feeling, simultaneously, like it was something happening at telescopic distance. Like something I was looking at through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.”

It’s impossible to read this novel without walking away with a deeper understanding of how our sibling relationships shape us. We are forced to ask, “To what degree do our familial ties obligate us to care for each other?”

This roundup would be incomplete if I didn’t include one of my favorite novels about family, and  how grief can lead to profound depression. Ordinary People by Judith Guest, first published in 1976, is a story I’ve read countless times, and it opens with Conrad Jarrett, just released from a psychiatric hospital, deemed stable after an attempt to take his life. As this teen boy struggles to insinuate himself back into day-to-day dealings with friends, trying to be enough for his mother who’s still immobilized after the death of her other son—Conrad’s brother, Buck—readers can’t help but route for him to reclaim his life and heal. To rid himself of the guilt that led him to a place of deep self-loathing. This novel, which has stood the test of time, highlights the power of good mental health care and counseling.

No doubt these are heavy themes to read about. Yet it’s to the most emotional places we dare to travel that true compassion can be found. I invite you to add to my list of novels about mental health and illness those that have impacted you. For when we share more openly, we judge less harshly.

Additional selections:

Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Turn of Mind by Alice Laplante

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Lowboy by John Wray

Lynne Griffin is a contributing editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.

Changing The Way You Think About Women’s Fiction

It’s a reality that male writers are often taken more seriously than women writers. All anyone needs to do to become disheartened is read the Vida numbers. Trust me, I wanted to laugh with abandon when The Washington Post’s Ron Charles talked about “women gossiping about how their little books are treated by media,” except that too much of his totally hip book review was spot on.  Still I’m comforted to know that attitudes about equality among men and women do change–and have–through respectful discourse. To that end, I do my part to make a difference, working to empower our girls to use their voices and, like many educators, I use new research to focus my attention on how we socialize our boys. As a novelist, I’ve parlayed my experience as a family therapist into writing about the emotional and sometimes dark side of relationships in an effort to connect men and women any way I can. Recent studies confirm what every novelist knows: “The novel is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life.”

Though I don’t bristle at the term “women’s fiction” I do see it as narrow and exclusive. In a culture where we’re forever dishing about wanting a sensitive partner, do we really want men to think (or anyone to reinforce) that what women read is for their eyes only?

In an op ed reflecting on the fifty years since Betty Friedan’s seminal work on feminism, Stephanie Coontz, a noted historian and teacher of family studies, claims that the progress toward gender equity no longer lies in changing personal attitudes. Tell that to David Gilmour, who recently set social media on fire with his statements about why he doesn’t teach fiction written by women. No doubt we will always need to force attitudinal change with loud and clear voices, yet we must break down structural barriers to equity too. Readers and writers can play a role by merely turning the label women’s fiction on its head.

Nearly a year ago, Meg Wolitzer wrote an essay that got me thinking about how the term excludes. Nine times out of ten, the first question a reader asks when he or she learns I’m a novelist is, “What’s the book about?” Never once since I began writing fiction have I been asked about genre by anyone outside of publishing. If you’re aligned with Wolitzer’s thinking, that the women’s fiction label can relegate novels to second class status, why not consider a genre makeover?

I propose that like science fiction (fiction about science) and mystery fiction (fiction about a mystery) that we use the term fiction about family. #FamFic if you’re into hashtags. Take a look at the copyright page of any of your favorite family dramas and you’ll find the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data already does this. The first category listed in Justin Torres’s We The Animals is family. For Wally Lamb’sThe Hour I First Believed, Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, and Steve Yarborough’s The End of California you’ll see family fiction’s synonym, domestic fiction. And if you’re one to frequent Amazon, you’ll find family life fiction is a prominent label categorizing novels online.

So for readers who’ve got to have their labels–who are opposed to fiction just being fiction– fiction about family ticks all the boxes. Without playing the sexism card, it gives women the heads up a book is for them. And it tells men, this one’s for you too. Research shows that when anyone reads fiction, neurologically speaking, our emotional state is positively impacted. Reading trains our brains to work more efficiently. And better brains, lead to stronger hearts, and thus more compassionate action.

Women shouldn’t be the only ones reading about families. Without a doubt there are lots of good reasons for men to read fiction. In the thirty years I’ve counseled families, I’ve seen firsthand how family life education of any kind leads to positive attitudes toward motherhood and fatherhood, changing the way we think about children.

We all want to help women and men become better women and men. If we were to embrace a gender-neutral genre called fiction about family, then writers included in this category would be Meg Wolitzer and Jonathan Franzen, Chris Bojahlian and Jody Picoult, Joshua Henkin and Elizabeth Strout. Wally Lamb, Lionel Shriver, and the list goes on and on.

If you believe like I do that words matter and that novels have the power to influence attitudes about everything from the politics of childcare to understanding addiction, then join me once per month at LitChat.com for conversations about good books. Let’s use our voices to change the way we think about men and women and fiction about family. (#FamFic if you’re into hashtags)

What I’m reading now!

Lots of readers ask me what I read for pleasure. Favorite books. Go to authors. I read almost every genre and I read a lot, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse inside my reading list. I’ll try to post selections once a month and I welcome you to share what you’re reading too.

Here is my On deckReading now ~ Just finished list. Enjoy!

Looking forward to reading this one. Dennis Lehane says, “Visitation Street is urban opera writ large. Gritty and magical, filled with mystery, poetry and pain, Ivy Pochoda’s voice recalls Richard Price, Junot Diaz, and even Alice Sebold, yet it’s indelibly her own.”

Noa sits on death row for having committed a heinous crime and her fate is sealed until the mother of the murdered girl shows up with plans to help her seek clemency. This novel is unputdownable with characters that get under your skin.

 

With the psychological depth of Flynn's Gone Girl and the writing as taut as O'Farrell's, The Silent Wife is a cautionary tale about marriage. It's a story you will not forget.

The Power of Fiction to Teach

In my ongoing series, Conversations, I talk with interesting people who have something compelling to say about family relationships. Today I’m chatting with Rachel Simon, bestselling author of The Story of Beautiful Girl and Riding The Bus with My Sister.

Lynne: I often talk about what a wonderful vehicle fiction is for teaching. I found The Story of Beautiful Girl to be a powerful narrative that does so much to educate readers about people with disabilities, what they want and hope for, how universal our dreams and desires are. How do you think novels in particular educate readers, as opposed to nonfiction?

Rachel: Two answers come immediately to mind. In fiction you don’t have to come to a single way to respond to what’s being written about, you may even experience ambiguity. Fiction can prompt a reader to rethink previous positions on the issues at hand, about characters; the reader may go deeper than they’ve gone before emotionally. Enlarging their perspectives. In fiction, writers aim to move our hearts.

The second real difference between fiction and nonfiction, is that in fiction a writer with a great toolbox, real skill, can write from multiple points of view. Allowing readers to see the world through many different people’s eyes. With more than one story, many issues can be addressed, none of which have to lead the reader to any particular conclusion. Multiple points of view in a story, ask readers to imagine other lives. In this way, these stories are so powerful. I believe great novels of the past, even the bible, have stood the test of time for this reason.

Nonfiction on the other hand has only one perspective. And of course the danger of writing nonfiction, is writing with an agenda. It shouldn’t be a writer’s intent to write with specific messages in mind.

Lynne: You’ve written nonfiction memoirs. Most notably, Riding the Bus with My Sister. When do you choose to write a story from a nonfiction point of view or as fiction? When you get the germ or seed you know will become something, how do you know it will be fiction or nonfiction?

Rachel: For me there has always been a lot of considerations. When I was an event coordinator for Barnes and Noble, I saw fiction events not well attended. For nonfiction of all kinds, events were well-attended, we sold books. At that time, memoir was a big trend. It was the rise of the stories like Angela’s Ashes, The Color of Water. I’ve always wanted my work to be read widely, and I thought perhaps I can try my hand at memoir.

Enter serendipity. I wrote a piece on my sister and her bus schedule for the Philadelphia Inquirer. My colleagues said, “This is a memoir.” I wondered how would I structure it, and then with a lot of thought, hard work and support, I wrote Riding the Bus with My Sister. The book became a big deal, then movie, and led to speaking engagements about my experiences having a sister with disabilities.

For nonfiction, I have to have a strong need to say something more. It must be dramatic, and if others are writing about similar experiences, I’m forced to ask, “Why should I be the one to write it?”

Lynne: So you’ve written nonfiction about your experiences, and now a novel exploring similar themes. Do you consider yourself an expert on persons with disabilities?

Rachel: No. I’m only knowledgeable about my experience. Every day is a learning process. The older I get the more I listen. Both experiences—my writing in general—have invited people to share their stories with me. And each one reminds me what I know and what I don’t know. I am increasingly curious. I try to live consciously with an open mind and heart—even though at times I don’t.

My whole idea of society is informed by my sister. I believe we are here to help each other. From that you gain a strong sense of what social justice is. It’s part of why I’m here. To do the right thing. To encourage others to do the right thing. To be a translator. I see myself as playing a key role in helping others to understand her, to help her to understand the world.

What I’ve learned that’s so valuable is that so often our stories may at first may seem at odds with each other. The parent, the teacher. But in fact they aren’t. There is something larger at play.

A skilled writer writes from the vantage point of a person’s truth, about psychological understanding of themselves, who they love, or she invites others to go on a journey with fictional characters. Somehow this allows readers the opportunity to examine universal truths.

**

Rachel Simon is the award-winning author of six books and a nationally-recognized public speaker on issues related to diversity and disability. Her titles include the bestsellers, The Story of Beautiful Girl and Riding The Bus with My Sister. For more about Rachel, her books, and her speaking engagements visit her website.

**

Lynne Griffin is the author of the family novels Sea Escape and Life Without Summer and the parenting guide Negotiation Generation. You can find her online here: www.LynneGriffin.com, and atwww.twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and at www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin.

Summer Reading


Nothing says summer like a day at the beach with a tote full of books. Check out the picks I recommended on Boston’s Fox Morning News for great escapes through reading. The list has something for everyone in your family.

SUMMER READING TOP PICKS ON FOX


 

The Forever Marriage by Ann Bauer
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Mission to Paris by Alan Furst
Against Wind and Tide by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall
Fenway Fever by John H. Ritter
One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey
How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long & David Shannon
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

There are so many great titles out this time of year, Lynne had trouble narrowing the list down to ten.

For more reading pleasure, check out the following selections. And feel free to share your favorites in the comments section.

MORE OF LYNNE’S SUMMER READING SUGGESTIONS

FICTION:
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
An Unexpected Guest by Anne Korkeakivi
The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

NONFICTION:
The Receptionist by Janet Groth
I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert
Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach

NOW IN PAPERBACK:
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

FOR YOUNG READERS:
Deadend at Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

Lynne Griffin is the author of the family novels Sea Escape and Life Without Summer and the parenting guide Negotiation Generation. You can find her online here: www.LynneGriffin.com, and at www.twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and at www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin.

Inside My Office

This room without a door—through which you have to pass to get to our screened-in porch—is where I spend more hours than I care to count writing my novels. It’s affectionately called Boston. When my children were little and interruptions unremitting, I sat them down one day and told them some parents drive to Boston to a job while others work from home, but both deserve the same respect. No more coming in to ask what’s for dinner or will you get bunny food the next time you go shopping. These things can wait till my work is done. My son was the one with the bright idea that I should tell them I was going to “Boston” before I started writing so they’d know not to bother me except for emergencies. Though what constitutes an urgent request when you’re in elementary school is a subject for another blog.

There’s a comfy couch for early morning reading. A number of bookcases line the walls housing my favorite novels, books on craft, and resources for my works-in-progress. Behind me is a shelf of keepsakes. A copy of Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life sweetly given to me by my husband when I began to dream of writing a novel and my childhood copy of Black Beauty, a book that taught me about the power of good storytelling. A miniature Eiffel Tower sits there as a reminder of another dream—someday Paris. Pictures of my children, from the time of the office’s naming, remind me that building a career is a journey not a race. Both my son and daughter are young adults now and for the most part living away from home. Funny how all these years later, I wouldn’t mind a few interruptions, a welcome pause from the hours I spend in conversation with only imaginary people.

Lynne Griffin is the author of the novels Sea Escape, which is now available in paperback, and Life Without Summer. Her third novel The Last Resort will be published by Simon & Schuster spring 2012. You can find her online at here and on Twitter at @Lynne_Griffin.

The Art of Balance: What to expect when you’re expecting a writing career

Balance

You wait for your characters to reveal the heart of their stories to you. You read and reread your novel, begging it to sing so you’ll know you’re done. You wait for an agent to read your manuscript, then an editor to make an offer. Rejection slips come in the forms of radio silence and impersonal no-thank-yous; and while some are dotted with blatant encouragement—just as a kiss is still a kiss, a no is still a no.

The job description for writer should include a line in bold letters: Impatient pessimists need not apply.

Certainly leading up to the publication of my third novel, I’ve got my share of gloomy moments and faithless days, otherwise known as pre-pub jitters, but I’ve got a much stronger handle on how to manage expectations this time around. The trick for me, when it comes to persevering in the face of the obstacles to successful publishing today, is to sprinkle my hopes with a dash of reality and a pinch of practicality.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, the first step is to dream big. If you don’t believe—to your core—that great things are just around the corner, why would you keep on keeping on? Who will have faith in you, if you don’t have faith in yourself?

Sadly, there will be times amidst all the waiting, to say nothing of all the rejection and opportunities just beyond your grasp, when self-doubt will take up residence. Only your faithful inner voice spurring you on will be what sustains you. The emotional work involved in maintaining a healthy outlook involves the daily exercise of pulling negative self-talk from the brain like lint from a favorite sweater. I can’t do it must be replaced with, yes, I can. This is impossible must become all things are possible. Being positive is an essential ingredient to living a literary life. The bridge from writer to author to career novelist is paved with perseverance born of hope.

What some see as platitudes, I hear as mantras. Dream big. Believe. Be bold. Still, there’s a downside to trusting your abilities, to reveling in your accomplishments too readily. If you dream big and hope large, you leave yourself in the path of disappointment. Let’s say you’re new at this writing gig, and you envision yourself situated on a comfy couch at Harpo Studios holding your latest hardcover. When Oprah’s OWN doesn’t call—and I’m telling you, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning—you’ll be crushed. Worse, you might consider an appearance on WLS talk radio a letdown, when in fact who wouldn’t love to shout out, Good morning Chicago?

The impressionist painter Henry Matisse said, “What I dream of is an art of balance.” If this is the key–and I believe it is–then managing expectations means holding on to enough positivity so you can persevere, energized by all the possibilities, while still being realistic enough to protect your heart, so you can get up another day to face the blank page, the bad review, your lousy Amazon ranking, or someone telling you at your own reading that she only reads happy books.

The secret salve to managing expectations is a bucket of hope mixed with healthy doses of resignation. Want a reality check? Whether you’re working on your first novel or third memoir, some aspects of the journey stay the same.

Here’s what to expect when you’re expecting a writing career:

Lots of homework. You know what they say about luck; it’s what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Learn about the industry. Join online communities. Read success stories. Build your career on a solid foundation of knowledge and collegial relationships.

Regular mental gymnastics. I’m fortunate to have a fantastic agent and a marvelous editor, still the decisions about my career ultimately rest with me. Should I hold on to foreign rights? Accept a two book deal? Hire an independent publicist? These and other risk vs. benefit decisions can be informed by others, but I must process the options and decide what’s right for me.

Loads of advice. Other writers and industry insiders will insist you blog, tweet, and create a Facebook fan page; join Library Thing, Red Room, Good Reads…good grief! You should do these things only if you want to. And only if they fit your personality. Choose the tools to raise your profile that you know you’ll stick with. If you try to do it all but then never engage with readers or update your feed, it’s about as helpful as shouting out your bedroom window—buy my book. The way to get mileage out of your efforts is to pick what suits you, then be consistent, and be sure to have fun while you’re at it.

Cycles of writing followed by phases of publicity. No one will be as invested as you are in bringing your work to readers. Yet to build momentum, you need to keep producing. Balance time to write with time to promote by creating routines and keeping to a schedule. I’ve found it works best to write first, and then reward myself with time on social networks.

Perpetual waiting. Even after a grueling revision, another will be required. First novel or third, agents and editors take time to read, suggest edits, or make offers. Get used to delays and lag times. When action is required, things happen fast. The rest of the time it’s limbo. Though easier said than done, resist the urge to check and recheck email or waste time playing online scrabble. In those in between times, my best advice is to keep your head down and write your next novel.