You can sleep late—a hypnogogic state is good for writing. You can write in your head in the shower or while walking half a mile to Whole Foods. You can read a book and consider it working. You can put your writing in a drawer and be surprised by it a year later. You can hate it and be surprised when a friend finds it “amazing.”
You can believe your friend.
My mother was a writer, but I didn’t know it until she died in 1979. It took many years for me to realize that her journal entries that she read aloud to Overeaters Anonymous were extremely powerful. When I wrote my first novel, Jilted, I remember her saying, “I made up my mind: I am going to love this novel, no matter what!” I inherited her handwritten notebooks and collaborated with her posthumously for Gates of Pearl, a book-length poem published in 2018. I braided three strands of writing the way my mother braided my hair when I was a child: “Pearly’s Journal” (what she wrote for OA), “Daughter of Pearl” (my poems to and about her), and “Telephone Poems” (I smoked a joint every morning, called her and wrote down what she said).
To her, writing was a “soothing balm”: “Talk to the reader the way you would talk to me,” she advised. In the end, she was my mentor.
My daughter followed in my footsteps and became a writer. My son complained we were the same person—that his sister was a ‘clone of me.’ She wrote her first novel in my workshop, then she taught her own writing workshops. After a hiatus of 13 years since publishing her fourth book, she told me that she decided to write a novel that was a road trip. I didn’t know that she was going to use my manuscript for a work-in-progress, Stoned, as a road map for her road trip. When she finally let me read her work, I felt betrayed.
When none of the major publishing houses picked the book up, she felt betrayed. I felt I had led her down the wrong path. I worried that I was not as good a mother as my mother had been. She now thought that being a writer was a terrible job—that you exposed yourself to humiliation and rejection, even though she had been amazingly successful, having published her first novel when she was 18.
In Stoned, Maud Diamond picks up both her children from their summer camps and takes them back to Bennington, where she’s been a visiting poet for two weeks. She’s in the middle of a divorce, and has just met a handsome young artist after being jilted by a world-famous one. There is a new rule: no children allowed. They’ve been barred from entering the artist house and have to sleep in the hooded bed of her new boyfriend’s shiny black truck, The Adventurer.
“At the last minute,” my daughter explained, “I decided to use the scene where Kazimir brings the TV out to the truck in my book.” To her chagrin, the scene backfired. Despite her intent to make Kazimir Noble (as well as the mother) unlikable, “the workshop liked him!” she exclaimed indignantly. For a minute, I thought she was talking about my workshop. I had already written that scene. I had worked on Stoned for 40 years. She had heard it and read it many times in my TriBeCa workshop, which I started in 1990.
“When none of the major publishing houses picked the book up, she felt betrayed. I felt I had led her down the wrong path.”
I had just started to read her novel when I came upon a lengthy description of the truck she and her brother were forced to sleep in. I told her to leave it out—that the long description was boring and irrelevant. “But I think where she lives for two weeks is very important,” she contested.
“The reader doesn’t know she’s going to live there yet,” I argued back.
She took it out. Shortly thereafter, I was at the hairdresser sitting under a tilting halo of heat, when suddenly I remembered a dream. I dreamed I saw the truck from my daughter’s novel. It was parked and as real as day—vile green and rusty. And it looked important; it didn’t look boring or irrelevant—I worried I had again given her bad advice.
But the story has a happy ending: my daughter found a publisher. Her book is coming out.
The morning after she told me, I had another dream right before I woke up. I was standing at the open door of a small plane I had been flying. I was the pilot and the only passenger. I hesitated; I had to jump. “I have to do this right,” I said to myself. “It’s a matter of life or death.”
I knew at once what it meant. I was publishing my next book.
Jill Hoffman is a poet, novelist, painter, and the founding editor and publisher of Box Turtle Press.
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