Contributed by Debra Dean, author of The Mirrored World.
Many years ago, when I was still an actress, still living in New York, an acquaintance converted to Buddhism. He had never struck me as the religious type, but this turned out to be a peculiarly Americanized brand of Buddhism. With the enthusiasm of the new convert, he effused about its powers to bring you what you desired. He had chanted for a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan...and had gotten it. For New Yorkers, this was the ultimate coup, a visible personification of security, a home that could not be taken away.
The idea of adopting a religion for material return stuck in my craw. I was desperate for something ineffable, something I couldn’t name. On the other hand, there were many things I wanted that I could name, and I wasn’t entirely immune to the lure of chanting to get them. So I went with him to a meeting. It turned out to be disappointingly similar to the summer vacation bible schools of my youth, right down to sitting cross-legged on the floor and singing “Climb, climb up sunshine mountain.”
I didn’t chant; I didn’t get my rent-controlled apartment. It wouldn’t have mattered: what was missing in my life couldn’t be solved by real estate. I was working sporadically as an actress, enough to keep my union health insurance, but most of my energy was going into my career as opposed to my art. You can’t simply choose to act; you have to wait for someone to hire you. So, instead of acting, I was trying to book commercials, trying to meet the right people, all in the hope that one thing or another might someday lead to doing the creative work. I got hired as an understudy because I happened to resemble the lead and could fit into her costume. I lost out on another role because the director was looking for someone taller. I wanted more control over my life.
I had been writing stories. It was just for fun, a way to play in that deeply immersive way I missed when I wasn’t acting. But my husband thought they were good. I decided to become a writer. In many ways, it was a comically ill-advised move because writing as a profession so closely duplicates the pitfalls of acting: there is too little money and no security, and you have to endure the bemusement and pity of relatives who can’t understand why you don’t just get a job. But the difference – and this was crucial for me – was that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to write. If I was willing to work very, very hard – and I was – I could chart my own destiny.
Or so I thought. What I didn’t know then, what I have learned very slowly, is that art doesn’t work this way. You sign on, you show up, but then you must turn over the result. I went to graduate school, got my MFA, and before I knew it, I was getting up at five in the morning and driving down I-5 in the dark to teach composition at a community college. As a so-called part-timer, I could eke out fifteen thousand a year in exchange for nearly every moment of my waking life. During my summers, I wrote stories, and just enough of them were published in literary magazines to keep me going. I had a plan and, if I could just get my ducks in a row, if I could just find someone to publish my collection of short stories, I might get a better job that would allow me more time to write. But what I kept hearing was that I needed a novel. Okay, okay, I would try that.
With my husband’s encouragement, I took an entire year off from teaching. We lived hand to mouth, and I struggled to write a novel. It was hard, like breaking rock in a quarry, but I persevered in the belief that I could write my way out of this hole. Every day, I forced myself to the computer and put in my time. Or I found something else that really needed to be done instead. The grout in the shower had gotten grungy, and rather than spending another day pushing the rock of my dead novel up the hill again, I got out a toothbrush and scrubbed. I have never been more miserable in my life. My father, mystified at his bright daughter’s seemingly self-destructive impulses, asked me why I didn’t write something like Tom Clancy. He sold a lot of books, didn’t he? It was a reasonable question for which I had no reasonable answer.
A few weeks before I turned forty, underweight and exhausted, my lung collapsed. I woke up in the hospital with the last lines of a poem by Rilke repeating in my head: ”for here there is no place that does not see you./ You must change your life.” Recovering from surgery, I dragged myself to school and then home again to sleep. And then my father’s wife got drunk, set the family home on fire, and died in the fire. A few weeks later, my husband and I had to put down our beloved dog.
I was too tired to struggle anymore. I gave up the plan and finally accepted that nothing I wrote was going to change my life. There would be no rent-controlled apartment in my future, no matter how long or hard I chanted. I kept writing – but without expectations. I had lost my faith.
Remarkably, this is when it all began to open up. There was something I had worked on and then put away, a story set during the siege of Leningrad, in the basement of the Hermitage museum. It wanted to be a novel, but for practical reasons I had steadfastly resisted. I wasn’t Russian and had never even set foot in the country, I knew next to nothing about the subject matter, and I was a slow writer to boot. If I could only work during the summers, it would take years to research and write such a book. Well, I told myself, I was in no hurry now; I had no place to get to. I opened up the file and began to play.
There were days when, to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the act of writing again. The story unfolded in directions I had not anticipated, and I went along for the ride. I began to understand why the Greeks had believed in the muses: this was not an act of will, but one of faith. I did not know exactly where I was going, but I no longer needed to know.
Three years later, I wrote the last words of the novel and sent them off to my agent. School was about to start up again, and I figured I would pick it up again in the spring and revise. Unbeknownst to me, she sent the manuscript to some editors that Friday, one of whom called her on Monday morning and asked how much she wanted to circumvent a bidding war. My agent said, “Change her life.”
Debra Dean’s bestselling debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award. The Mirrored World, her new novel set in 18th-century Russia, is an exploration of the line between madness and faith. A native of Seattle, she lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. Follow her on Facebook.