When my first novel didn't sell, I fell into a slow-burning sort of depression. It lasted for the better part of a year and began to fade only when I started to make some positive changes. For one, I moved, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I had stayed in Manhattan for too long because I had gotten a pretty good deal on a rent-stabilized apartment near Columbia, where I'd gone to journalism school. But, over the years, most of my friends had moved to Brooklyn. I was a lone holdout, and it wasn't as if I particularly loved my neighborhood anyway. I mustered the energy to do some apartment searching, and I found an apartment in Brooklyn — a sixth-floor walk-up, but it had a great roof deck. More importantly, I wasn't so isolated from my friends.
I had started working as an SAT tutor, but around the time that I moved to Brooklyn, I also began pitching freelance articles, something I'd resisted when I'd first returned to New York after writing my novel. At that point, so much of my inner life was wrapped up in the novel that I didn't think I had the psychological resources to hustle as a freelance writer, to deal with more rejections. I began to tutor as a way to make money that was wholly separate from writing.
But I got over that finally, and I began writing book reviews, which was fun for me. In my previous life as a journalist, I had written about business for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. Now that I was also tutoring, I could afford to do less lucrative assignments (book reviews, at least at the level I was doing them, are comically unlucrative). I also met the man who would become my husband. He was a friend of a friend, and he showed up at my housewarming party, on the roof deck.
I still felt sad and angry whenever I thought about the novel that hadn't sold. I was bitter, too. I wondered if my lack of connections in the book publishing industry had been the problem. I guess I wondered that a lot. Out loud. Because, finally, about a year after I moved to Brooklyn, my boyfriend told me thatI needed to stop going on and on about the novel that didn't sell. It was time to start another.
He was right. Soon after, I began working on The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. While the first novel had come easily — I wrote it in a few months — this one was much slower going. For one thing, I wasn't living in my old bedroom at my parents' house and writing full-time while eating my mom's meals.
I was back in New York, working as a tutor and teaching a class on nonfiction writing. I was also writing freelance book reviews for publications like the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker's Briefly Noted column. I was busy — I had, it seemed, six different jobs, none of which was quite the one I wanted and all of which were very demanding.
From September to June of that year, I managed to write only three chapters. In the summer, my teaching load was lighter, and I managed another two. In the fall, my boyfriend and I got engaged. I was initially wary of having a wedding — I favored the idea of going to city hall — but, in the end, we decided to get married in the backyard of his family's house in Maine.
A backyard wedding sounded simple enough, but in fact a fair amount of planning went into it. And because my fiancé was also writing a book, and because he had a contract from a publisher and a deadline just weeks before our wedding, many of the wedding-related tasks fell to me. In the academic year before the wedding, I cut down on book reviews to make more time. I managed an important revision of the novel — but I only produced another three chapters, only two of which I felt confident about.
Time was one problem. But I had another as well. Before we left for Maine, I gave my husband-to-be the most recent chapter I'd written. On the ride up from New York, he confirmed what I already knew — that the chapter didn't work.
I was trying to figure out how to show a relationship that was slowly deteriorating. It wasn't obvious to me how to do this in a way that felt realistic, true to how relationships really evolve over time. The changes I wanted to depict are subtle; they are often registered in tones of voice, posture that is less attentive than it used to be. I didn't want to exaggerate or insert artificial levels of drama — there weren't going to be any dishes thrown or lovers found in bed with other people. The deterioration I wanted to convey is so muted that even the people in the relationship aren't sure whether it's real or if they are imagining it, being paranoid or neurotic.
In other words, I knew what I wanted to show. But... I hadn't a clue how to do it.
When we got to Maine, I put the novel out of my head. It was time to focus on choosing wine and drawing up table charts and the billion other little tasks that needed to get done. It was time, too, to focus on being happy about marrying the man I loved — and about being supported so warmly by friends and family.
There would be plenty of time — the rest of my life — to get back to my stalled novel.
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Adelle Waldman is the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's journalism school, she is a freelance journalist and book reviewer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Adelle Waldman is the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.