Long, long ago in a United Kingdom far away a thirteen-year-old girl (a thoroughly unpleasant age for all involved) prepared for a weeklong skiing holiday in Austria (as you do). She asked her mother, who was staying behind in London (already giddy with the prospect of solitude and books, books, books), “What will you DO while we’re away?”
“Why, I’ll be suspended here awaiting your return, of course,” her mother replied. Because, really, isn’t that what they all thought? To her daughter she was either a complete numpty or utterly indispensible but as in most things, the truth lay somewhere in between.
“No, Mum,” the girl said, “What would you do if you could do anything at all?” What indeed?
“I’d write a novel,” the mother said, surprising herself entirely more than her daughter.
“Great, can I read it when I get back?” the daughter asked and bopped out the door.
That novel was a failure in every way. Oh, it had elements that were fine and some good writing, very good, even. But mostly it was silly and amateurish. Still, it was a thing.
Slow forward and that little girl is 18 and that mother (me) is somehow still younger than springtime and we are living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and no one is zipping off on European jaunts or nipping down to Portobello Road for some fruit and veg. There is, however, another novel, a better one, I think. One day I ginned up the courage to enroll in a local writing course to bring it into the light. I am a recovering publishing executive. I know how ugly this business is, how cruel and unforgiving the blue/red/pencil/track changes, Michiko Kakutani can be. It took a lot of self-talk and wine to push the ‘sign up’ button one night.
In the fall of 2013 I had never shown anyone The Sparrow Sisters, never let anyone read even a sentence, never read it aloud to myself. I sat down in a Novel 101 class on that very first day and was certain that my head would blow off and leave a stain on the ceiling. Instead I found a circle of bright, interested writers who were gentle and careful in their critique and fearless as they shared their work. And so over the weeks and months, I was transformed into a fearless, gentle, caring and careful writer. I learned craft and structure, process and revision. I was taught that throwing things out could be as creative as writing things in. Less is more, more is more, more is less, and rules are rules are meant to be broken only after you’ve learned the rules. Right, my point (which by now is so dull as to be a crayon) is this: I became a student again because I needed teachers and the company of other students. In becoming a student I became a professional. And now, The Sparrow Sisters takes flight at last.