I spent some time polishing up the manuscript I had written set in the early days of the Afghan war. Then I found hourly work in a place that supported litigation by reviewing documents by the truck load. The idea was to search the documents for any occurrence of a litigant’s name. Every morning I’d get a list of name and a few cartons of documents. Then I’d shift through page after page circling any of the names I saw. It was a Second Circle of Hell job. It required a college degree but it paid only minimum wage. It was a home for lost souls, and we all made the best of it we could.
The only bright spot came the day I got a letter from an editor at Penguin Books. She said she had read the sample of Jihad I’d sent and she wanted to read the rest of it. During my book research, I had figured out there was a good chance the U.S. was supplying weapons to the Mujahideen. I also realized that the Afghans would never win while the Russians controlled the air. It seemed to me that the recently disclosed Stinger missile would be the ideal weapon to turn the tide. The story line of the book followed U.S. agents getting Stingers to the Mujahideen. And years later, the scenario turned to have been true.
With the letter from Penguin in hand, I sought out a literary agent in Georgetown. I signed a contract engaging her to handle the negotiations for the rights to Jihad. Months went by without a word. Finally the agent contacted me and said she had heard back from the editor. “I’ll read you her note,” she said. “Dear Michael – Didn’t like it as much as I hoped I would. Dictated but not signed by [editor name] Penguin Books”. Then my agent let me know that she didn’t handle fiction and didn’t see any point in peddling my work. I was shattered. In truth though, I wasn’t especially crazy about the book either. I put it on the shelf next to The Kimendo Road.
Earlier I said ‘this is about people who don’t realize their goals, and how they learn to cope’. That was me with my primary ambition of writing. But before I jump into that, it is important to reflect on how much effort I’d given it. Malcom Gladwell estimated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to develop ‘expertise’. He said that estimate is independent of the skill or field. While I wasn’t anywhere close to meeting the 10,000 hours, I estimated I had at least a third of that. This means that I had an average of two hours of writing every day for six years, so I was really giving it a shot.
When I started, I couldn’t write more than five pages with a correct story arc (beginning, middle and end). By the end, I could write several hundred pages that held together and told a tale. Even better, I could do it without falling into the trap of ‘leaving the gun on the mantel’. That’s writing jargon for throwing in irrelevant or misleading details. My basic problem was that my characters were paper thin which also made them hard to like. My other problem was my undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. It made it so I couldn’t even see the problem because I didn’t care about the characters myself.
It wasn’t as though I wasn’t given hints as to my deficiencies. While this is a bit out of chronology, here’s an example. My wife Nancy – my most ardent fan – gave me feedback when she finished my third manuscript, The Left Hand of God. “I can’t believe you killed the dog,” she said, shaking her head. “He was by far the most likeable character.”
So by the time Penguin rejected me, I knew that I could write a readable full length fictional manuscript. I thought of this as ‘being able to run a marathon’. But I also knew there was a world of difference between being able to run a marathon and being able to win one. And here winning meant being able to write well enough to generate a reasonable income. Further, I realized that I had only trained to ‘complete’. Winning would never be within my reach.
Here’s what I did: I put my goal of becoming a writer ‘on hold’. That way I could focus on something else without actually admitting that I had changed my goal. I wonder how much this holds true for others who have faced this dilemma. That is, among those who have realized they were not going to achieve their stated goal. I thought ‘ok, accept the fact that you are not going to make your living as a novelist’. Then I decided that I would go out and make enough money so that I wouldn’t have to make a living a novelist. If I made enough money first, I could just be a novelist. Problem solved.
If I had believed in my own potential enough, I might have been happy as a starving artist. But I knew that my problems were more of a ‘talent issue’ than a problem of ‘being discovered’. And besides, I needed money right away. I needed food and a place to sleep. And I wanted to have a family at some point. So I needed to be a viable wage earner. I’d finished my Peace Corps ‘writing fellowship’ and it hadn’t panned out. The time had come to accept that and move on. Now I would concentrate on making enough dough so that I could pick writing up again somewhere down the road.