I Am A Writer
by Marni Graff
George Eliot said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” and I am living proof of that. The bravest thing I’ve ever done is to forge ahead in my fifties and publish a novel.
I’ve been in love with books since learning to read before kindergarten, thanks to a mother who read to me daily in a big green chair, sounding out Mother Goose tales until I understood the words. Hooked on reading, I started writing poetry in junior high. My lofty goal developed to someday publish a novel.
You’re probably thinking, you and how many others? Instead of going to college to study English as planned, I ended up in nursing school (long story). I wrote articles for a nursing journal in addition to my day job and took evening classes for the writing profession I swore I would have one day. Others took summer vacations at the beach; I studied screenplay at NYU and fiction at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival.
The years sped past. I published poetry and an essay in an anthology. My goal solidified to write a novel in the genre I most enjoyed reading: murder mysteries.
Reading mysteries voraciously was an education in itself. I studied the conventions of the genre, noting why my favorite authors kept me anticipating their next novel. I decided a strong sense of setting was important, as was digging into the psychology of the main characters. People are complicated. My characters would face the same heartaches and decisions in life that I did.
Finally I managed to convince the publisher of Mystery Review magazine that I was such a wealth of information on mysteries, I should do interviews. For the next seven years, as my nursing career started winding down, I interviewed my favorite authors. Picking the brains of writers whose work I read helped me to formulate my own writing style. I learned from each author, meeting many in person, among them Val Mc Dermid, Ian Rankin and Deborah Crombie.
I retired from my nursing career to devote myself to writing full-time in 2000. When I was invited to Oxford University to study literature, I jumped at the chance to spend three weeks in that hallowed city and arranged an interview for Mystery Scene with my favorite mystery writer, P. D. James. The gracious octogenarian impressed me and encouraged me to never give up on my dream. Oxford impressed me, too, and I decided I would set a mystery there.
I plowed on and won a writing residency to The Vermont Studio Center, giving me a month to write without family responsibilities. My work impressed another writer who had an agent friend. He read my early chapters and signed me. I was elated! With a big-time New York agent in my corner, surely I would get my novel published.
Over a year passed as I finished the Oxford novel, then revised and polished it. My agent advised me to start another project, as the wait was just beginning. The rejection notices started a year later. They were glowing, if a rejection can be called that. “Graff certainly knows how to write a good mystery,” one noted. Another commented on my use of setting, three more on my good character development. The one consistent negative centered on their fear of being able to market an unknown American writing a British mystery. By the time the last rejection made me want to paper my bathroom with them, I put my novel aside and concentrated on easier non-fiction.
I wrote for the magazine and worked on essays. I added book reviewing to my resume, but I was frustrated, missing my fiction work.
In 2004 I decided to attend my fifth session at the University of Iowa. I brought pages from my Oxford novel for one last stab. In the class of twelve, four other women stood out due to the quality of their work and the honesty of their critiques. We shared our frustrations with the publishing world over nightly ice cream. During the following year we exchanged emails and sent each other work. The encouragement and support of that group was uplifting. Writing is such a solitary occupation, but here were people who understood what it meant to face that blank sea of white.
Workshops only allow submissions of twenty or twenty-five pages; we felt strongly that novelists require larger samples to have impact. We asked Iowa for a smaller class size, allowing each novelist a day to workshop an entire novel. They said no, but we were not to be deterred. “Screw Iowa!” one of the gals said, “we’ll do it ourselves.” So we did, submitting our entire work to each other. We met the following month for a week at my home that first year. Each writer had a full day to listen to what the other four found in her work as we flipped through it, page by page. It was illuminating and powerful. The Screw Iowa! Writing Group continues to meet yearly, developing a workshop method we haven’t seen anywhere else. This year will be our tenth anniversary, and we are renting a house near Concord, MA, to visit the homes of Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau.
I also started a Writers Read program in my rural area of North Carolina. Writers read from their works in progress and receive immediate feedback while gaining experience in front of an audience. I added a Young Writers section for those who, like me, are bitten early by the writing bug.
In 2007-8 our SI group wrote a book about our workshop methodology. By then we’d started a website and sold our offering, Writing in a Changing World. So now I was co-author of a book, but in non-fiction. Then one of our members, Lauren Small, decided to start her own press. Bridle Path Press was established in Baltimore, Maryland. A non-profit, the press developed into an author’s cooperative, publishing novels, poetry and short stories by authors all over the country. I’m currently its Managing Editor.
When Lauren asked if Bridle Path Press could publish my Oxford mystery, I responded with an enthusiastic “YES!” My agent felt being published by an independent press would make me more attractive to editors looking at my manuscripts and released the book. I threw myself into a final edit and worked for the first time with a copyeditor, making my own decisions on font, page layout, and cover design, one of the advantages of an independent press.
On April 1st, 2010, at the age of fifty-eight, I finally held my newly-published novel in my hands. Written in traditional British mystery style, complete with a cast of characters and chapter epigraphs, The Blue Virgin tells the story of American writer Nora Tierney, who lives and writes in England. Set in Oxford, Nora tries to clear her best friend of a murder charge. Did I mention she’s four months pregnant with her dead fiancé’s baby?
Now my days are filled with readings and signings, as today’s modern author has to heavily market herself. I write a weekly crime review blog and receive books from all major US and UK houses. Along the way I work on my mysteries and just sent the third to the printer. I’ve never been happier in my life. I’m a writer.