A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Those words were taped to my desk decades ago, when I was a teenager with dreams of becoming a writer. It took a long time for me to take that single step, enrolling in a Gotham Writers’ Workshop class in the summer of 1998 after a career in teaching and educational administration.
Alex Joseph was my first Gotham instructor. “Find the pleasure in the writing itself,” he told us, as we discussed story structure. “Write every day,” he insisted, as we talked about the needs of our protagonists. “Draw your reader in,” Alex said, as we explored sources of conflict. We talked about sensory description. We examined uses of dialogue and narrative. We discussed setting and pacing. We studied points of view. “But never forget,” Alex said, “you can break all the rules and still write a great story.” At our last session, we talked about the business of writing. “Find the pleasure in the writing itself,” Alex reminded us. “And be ready for rejections.”
I wasn’t ready for rejections, but I was ready to take another step. So, I signed up for a second Gotham class, this time with Adam Sexton. “Write two pages of prose each day,” Adam said, as we reviewed classic story structure. “And remember that structure and plot grow out of character.” We talked about voice. We talked about “the music of prose.” Adam taught us that strong antagonists lead to strong protagonists. He taught us to look for “the texture of real life.” He taught us not to stay in a character’s head for too long. “Become your own editor,” he advised at our last class.
I still wasn’t ready for rejections, but I was ready to take yet another step, writing short stories. I wrote every day, as Alex had instructed, and I found pleasure in the writing itself, as he had taught. I always tried to draw my reader in, and I worked on sensory description. And every now and then, I gave myself permission to break the rules. Finally, I submitted a story to a prestigious contest, and my story won a prize.
I went on to write a novel, writing two pages a day. I focused on voice and “the music of prose.” I focused on strong antagonists (who turned out to be strong bullies) because I knew they’d lead to strong protagonists. I tried really hard to put “the texture of real life” (which turned out to be bullying) into every scene. And, when I completed my novel and revised and revised and revised, I was ready to face rejections; I started an agent search.
Alex had been right: the rejections came. But then a top New York agent signed me on. And I wrote another novel, which I revised and revised and revised. I had become my own editor, as Adam had suggested.
Despite all my work, though, the rejections continued –– this time from editors, who told my agent that they “loved my writing, loved my characters, loved my novels.” But the editors said I had written stories that were too small, because “who wants to read about kids being bullied?” So my agent and I moved on. But my characters continued to haunt me.
Fast forward. Now, sadly, we hear about bullying constantly because bullying’s gone viral. The timing was right –– and the climate was right for editors to act. My agent submitted my manuscripts again. CAMP, my young adult novel, sold quickly. And soon after that, Danny’s Mom, my adult novel, sold too.
Now I’m known as “the anti-bullying novelist,” with books that show what really happens behind the closed gates and doors of our camps and schools. My novels have given me a literal bully pulpit, a platform from which to keep the bullying conversation going so that, in concert with professionals in our communities, we’ll make our camps and schools kinder, gentler places for everyone.
My journey to publication has, indeed, been long. In fact, it feels as if it’s been “a journey of a thousand miles.” But I know that I wouldn’t be a published novelist today had I not taken that single step more than 14 years ago, when I enrolled in a Gotham Writers’ Workshop class.
Thank you, Alex Joseph and Adam Sexton. Thank you, Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
And to readers of this letter, I urge you to keep writing and keep submitting your work. Never give up on your dreams.