How John Gardner convinced me to stop being an idiot

Those of you who read my other blog know by now that I spend a great deal of time researching and writing answers to other peoples’ questions. The Four-Year-Old asks the questions on Caterpickles. A slightly older audience asks them for my technical writing.

Turns out I’m not a completely selfless person. In fact, those who know me best may not think of me as selfless at all. That’s because they know that since 1997 I’ve been entertaining myself in my off-hours by writing an extended answer to the question, “What would compel a woman of means to divorce her husband in the late 1800s?”

All sorts of research ensued. Years of reading about marriage, the culture of marriage and gender expectations in America in the late 1800s at night while I worked by day as first a marketer, then a technical writer who placed the occasional article in the now defunct Group Computing Magazine. Years of developing plot after plot, all in an attempt to come up with a believable scenario to explain one woman’s decision to divorce her husband in an era when divorce was a scandalous, status- and often life-destroying event (when it was even possible).

Finally about three years ago, I decided that it was time to get serious about actually writing the book. Encouraged by my husband, I pruned my client list down to a few predictable, recurring gigs that would basically cover the cost of 24-hours-a-week’s worth of child care, and spent the rest of my time working on my as-yet unnamed novel. When I finally completed the first draft of one of the two major story lines about a year later, I celebrated by promptly accepting a full-time (by my standards) technical writing contract at a genetic testing company.

Six months passed without me so much as looking at my manuscript. When the contract finally ended, I picked up the novel again, intending this time to write the second of the two major story lines. Work progressed slowly for a while, as I was still trying to make a decent living as a freelance technical writer. Still invested in padding our checking account instead of my StoryMill file, I reserved the daylight writing hours for my billable clients, and attempted to cobble together a masterful work of literature in the evenings after 9 o’clock, well after my best words had left the building.

This would still be going on today if I hadn’t read John Gardner’s classic On Becoming a Novelist in November 2010. It had been recommended to me years before by a fellow technical writer who was in the process of getting his MFA. I had envied him his willingness to openly think of himself as a fiction writer, but I had never found the courage to allow myself to do the same until that November, as I was traveling to meet my husband in New York City for a long weekend. Just as the train was pulling into Penn Station, there they were, the words that would drastically reshape my life:

The best way a writer can find to keep himself going is to live off his (or her) spouse.

My husband had been begging me to take a break from technical writing for years. He was tired of hearing me complain about never being able to find time for my own writing. But I was determined to contribute to the family. I didn’t want to be completely dependent on anyone. I didn’t want to put my husband in the precarious position of being the sole bread-winner in a faltering economy.

After years of trying to carve out time for writing fiction in between my technical writing projects, I had pretty much decided that my need for fiscal security meant that I would never truly be a novelist. I wasn’t willing to risk starvation for myself, my child, or my kitties. Clearly, I just didn’t have the stuff. Fiction writing would continue to be something I did to entertain myself (and occasionally my family) in the off-hours between technical writing projects. But those words…

The best way a writer can find to keep himself going is to live off his (or her) spouse. The trouble is that, psychologically at least, it’s hard. Even if one’s spouse is rich, it’s hard. Our culture teaches none of its false lessons more carefully than it teaches that one should never be dependent. Hence the novice or still unsuccessful writer, who has enough trouble believing in himself, has the added burden of shame. … But if a writer finds himself living, for honest reasons, with someone glad to support his art, he or she should make every effort to shake off the conventional morality and accept God’s bounty, doing everything in his power to make the lover’s generosity worthwhile. (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, p. 117)

I read the passage to my husband in the hotel room after dinner. His response: “So what’s stopping you?”

And that’s when I decided it was ok to stop being an idiot. To stop expecting to write readable fiction two hours after I’d used up all my words for the day. It took a few months to disentangle myself from my remaining writing contracts, but by April of 2011 I was ready to declare myself a full-time novelist.

Have I been the most focused writer ever?


Did I write the best book ever?

No. Not yet. But I’m 175,883 words closer to it.

And this afternoon, this arrived. The first fully complete draft of that novel I’ve been working on, more or less, since 1997. It’s a bloated mess of words I don’t want anyone else to read (yet), but that’s ok. Because it’s my manuscript, and there it sits on my dining room table, all dressed up as if it were a real book.


    • Thanks! I’m still carrying the book around the house like a teddy bear. Although in my own defense much of that carrying is just between the kitchen table and my comfy spot on the couch so I can see it while I’m drafting my editing plan.

      The editing book I’m reading for tips this week says the average novel is only 75k words. Which means I have even more cutting to do than I thought.


  1. […] off playing with her grandparents in Texas and that means I can work from sunup to sundown on this bloated mess of words I call a novel. This is a rare and precious gift, and I intend to make the most of it. Which means I won’t be […]


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