I think it’s fitting that I’m paraphrasing the title of the great Eugene O’Neill play for this post. Long Day’s Journey into Night deals with all sorts of dysfunction—alcoholism, regret, bitterness, denial—just a few of the pitfalls a writer has to deal with on the gruelling road to publication!
I’ll leave those issues for another post. It’s the word “long” I want to focus on today, because it has taken me many years to have a full-length piece of writing published. So many years, that when I read the phrase “debut writer” I feel a little embarrassed—I’m too old to be a debut anything. To me, the word “debut” suggests a teenaged girl in a pink prom-dress, or a gangly young man in an ill-fitting suit. I’m more like a “journeywoman” or even a “veteran.” You know—wily or grizzled—definitely not this “sparkling” person my book’s blurb refers to.
But, whether you’re grizzled or still bubbling away, the journey to publication almost always involves detours or dead-ends—even a washout or two. I’m sure there are many writers who, in their early 20s, produce good work, find an agent, get a publishing or production deal, then spend the rest of their lives in the lofty and lucrative company of other sensitive poet-souls.
For most of us, though, it doesn’t work like that. Life gets in the way—there may be a demanding job, there may be children, there may be darker surprises like illness or divorce or needing to care for an elderly parent.
Or we may be late-starters. I didn’t start writing until I was in my 30s, and that was at the same time as I had my children. Not the best timing, really, but I still miss getting up before they did (my son was usually awake and ready to go at 5:00 a.m.), sitting in a dark cold room, bashing out short stories on an old manual typewriter (probably while smoking an illicit fag, too—just to add to the romance of the scene).
So, I started late, had kids—but then some of my stories got published! And one of the stories was spotted by a young film director who helped me adapt it as a possible short film for Channel 4, and then I wrote another full length spec script that lead to meetings at the BBC and Channel 4 and phone calls from producers and interest from agents and then….well….nothing. No options. No productions. Not even on offer of representation.
I sold another measly story. That was it.
I’d hit a creative dead-end. And I’d had enough of having hopes raised only to be dashed to the ground again, so after the late start, the having kids, the dealing with years of rejection, I stopped writing. Not for too long a time, but long enough to finish a degree in English. Long enough to train as a teacher. Long enough for my kids to sleep in later than 5 a.m. Long enough for JK Rowling to make publishing history, and the section “Young Adult” to appear on bookshop shelves.
And when I started writing again, I re-read that “measly” story that had been published. I’d been thinking about the characters in it, and wondering where they might have ended up if their story had continued. Gradually (and very slowly, of course!) they found somewhere new to live—inside a new, longer story, about the nature of identify and family, about what makes a place “home.”
That story was the starting point for “At Yellow Lake.”
So, a long day’s journey it has been. I know that writers who are scrabbling to find the time to write, or are dealing with the numbing reality of personal difficulties, or are opening up their e-mails to find yet another rejection or piece of disheartening news, know only too well the bumps and twists on the writing road. Much of the time, the whole bloody trip can seem depressing, frustrating and completely pointless.
But sometimes there’s no other way to get to a place. It’s the only road and you’re on it, so you might as well enjoy the stunning scenery, the company of your fellow travellers, those mysterious little side roads that lead you to places strange and new.
And if it seems like it’s taking forever, well, maybe that’s how long it takes.