I was twenty years old when I presented my senior thesis to a room full of English majors and professors. Said thesis was a culmination of three years of creative writing efforts, fully informed by an obsession with the Romantics and Virginia Woolf, a grouping of twenty poems, the best I could glean from those years of work, plus my first attempt at a short story—new, unheard, un-workshopped words. I was in a Hemingway phase, and the story had a male protagon
ist, my first attempt at cross-gender writing. The Lighthouse was a murder mystery set on the English coast, overlaid with a Gothic, penetrating fog that whisked away souls.
Hands shaking, gorge rising, I stood in front of the room and read my work. When it was over, there was applause from my peers, but that was outstripped by the dour, uncompromising expressions of the faculty. They’d already read the compilation, you see, and formed their opinions.
Afterward, I was edified by the chair of the department, who stated the short story “was too informed by B-grade detective fiction.” My nascent voice was admittedly dark, and yes, it was a clumsy first attempt at fiction. But rereading the story twenty years later, it is clear the seeds for my career as a thriller writer had been sown.
The second blow of the afternoon came from the thesis advisor herself. After being given my grade, I asked for a recommendation to an MFA program in Virginia. She shook her head sadly and sighed, “This isn’t the path for you.” Upon further questioning, she told me my work wasn’t good enough to be published. The unspoken, bell-ringing “EVER” altered the course of my life.
Instead of spending the next several years writing fresh material, honing my craft, finding my voice, I believed her. And I quit writing.
I was a dual major in college—Politics and English Creative Writing with an Economics minor—and I spent my college years interning in Washington, D.C., in a variety of roles, from the White House to the Hill. I loved the intensity and intellectual challenge of the political world as much as I loved my poets.
So I dusted myself off, marched to my politics thesis advisor, and asked for a recommendation to graduate school in political science. To my shock and dismay, she too shook her head. “I’m sorry, dear, but you simply don’t have the temperament for graduate work.”
Furious, hurt, betrayed, I set out to prove her wrong. Three years later, I graduated with an MA from The George Washington University, held multiple government positions, and found a husband, to boot. As they say, everything happens for a reason.
I wonder now if this anti-advice was meant to drive me to succeed. I admit a certain laissez-faire attitude toward my life at the time. Rules and guidelines chafed. Being told what to do and when and how to do it drove me mad. (Not surprisingly, this attitude continues to this day. I blame the Muse, not my “temperament.”) And in the post-college world, there was a common theme to nearly every position I held. I struggled.
I was good at what I did, but I despised every minute of it. Time and again, I found myself in meetings with superiors, being asked what the problem was. I had no answers. The problem was not them, not the job. The problem was the voice in the back of my head that screamed at me all day and all night: This isn’t you. This isn’t right. This isn’t who you want to be.
I missed being a writer too much.
The farcical means by which I returned to a life as a writer—adopting a stray cat, going to work for the vet who saved her life, herniating a disc and having to have back surgery—is fit for fiction itself. During the recovery, I discovered John Sandford’s Prey series, and something clicked.
And I wrote a book.
Or what I thought was a book.
My professor was right, you know. I wasn’t good enough to be published. Not then, and certainly not when I started writing again. Knowing my work wasn’t there yet, I deconstructed crime fiction novels to see how the structure worked. I tossed my first attempt in the trash and wrote a proper book, which my agent couldn’t sell, and I was immediately plunged back into the abyss I’d been crawling out of for eight years. You aren’t good enough. You simply are not good enough.
That negativity lurks every minute of every day for a creative. We allow others to make judgments for us. We allow reviews and acceptances and complete strangers who hate our work to define us. One word, one sentence can derail us forever.
You can’t let it happen. You can’t. To be a writer, to come daily to the page, to slough off the voices of the naysayers, takes more than just a talent for stringing words together and machinating stories. It takes a rare breed to ignore the critics, the jealousy and pettiness of your muse, the collective voice of the imaginary literati chorus singing your daily demise. It is a process of natural selection, and only the strong survive. It takes courage and a wee bit of denial and a roaring ego—passion driven by a belief in yourself, a belief in what you’re capable of. We writers have to follow our gut and write with reckless abandon, and to hell with everything and everyone else.
I’ve written fourteen novels now, and I’ve had a lot of luck in this industry. My latest book, When Shadows Fall, releases February 25. That haunting voice, the one who screamed at me for eight years, is gone, replaced by the warm humming of my Muse. I don’t have eight years of work in a drawer, and that is a shame. But I have something better: the ability to look forward with reckless abandon to all the B-grade detective fiction I have left to write.