Hello Everyone – I’m happy to share a guest post today by Jane Berentson author of Long Division. Don’t forget to check out the details on the giveaway at the end of the post.
I wrote a novel about a teacher. I wrote the book with a sloppy mix of work experience under my belt: farm, coffee shops, science magazine, literary agency, library, sporting goods store, graduate school (not real work), greasy bar in the Upper East Side. And maybe a couple more. The point is, I had never actually been a teacher. Not even close. Sure, I had sat silently in front of dozens—subservient as all get out—listening, robot-ing out my worksheets, paying meticulous heed to syllabuses and rubrics. I had been a marvelous student.
While conceiving Annie Harper’s story (young gal left behind during Iraq war) and idling toying with the idea of getting cozy with my keyboard and writing it down, I couldn’t put the following nag of an emotion to bed: writing a novel (even with the pipiest of pipe dreams about getting it published) felt uncomfortably narcissistic. The only way to loosen the belt on that discomfort was to make some cautious, strategic choices that helped my rookie writerness feel more like a wholesome experiment rather than a flagrant exercise of vanity.
Wimpy But Strategic Novel-Writing Decision Number One: Structure your novel as a journal. That way, anything totally lame, semi-lame, or even remotely lame can be attributed to the character and her innate and numerous flaws. (Read: “Oh, that part of the book sucks on purpose because the character is supposed to be moderately sucky.”) While I don’t feel there’s any valid way to deflect authorial responsibility, having the journal format of LONG DIVISION sure helped me muscle through the writing at times when I felt especially pummeled by the one-two punch of my pals, ego and insecurity.
Wimpy But Strategic Novel-Writing Decision Number Two: Make your protagonista the type of person whom you have spent much of your life staring. A teacher! Going into the story, I knew I didn’t possess the creative chops to sculpt a character who operated her own flower shop or appraised 17h-century tea sets or designed internet pop-up ad campaigns. But I knew stuff about schools. I had spent mad time sitting and looking and listening in schools.
So I created my protagonist, Annie Harper, third-grade teacher, and she existed as this imaginary BFF/exasperating little sister in my brain. And then, without really thinking about it too hard, I became a teacher myself. My real-life sister was having such a rich time working with children, a totally fake person who I myself made up was having such a rich time working with children, and there I was shaking my legs under my desk-job desk and feeling more than a bit idle and wiggly. I should be a teacher! I became one.
My first two years of teaching have both triumphantly affirmed and viciously assaulted some of the notions I had about education back when I wrote a novel about an educator. But I no longer feel squeamish about how I spend my time. I am an okay writer who does research in totally backwards ways. And I am an okay writer who has essentially stopped writing to find her sea legs as a just-okay-but-moving-in-the-right-direction high school Spanish teacher. Today is the third day of summer vacation. The first day I went to the beach. The second day I did fifty pounds of laundry. In a few minutes I hope to hunker down and work on the neglected second novel I’m still terrifically (and thankfully!) excited about. It’s about a Broadway stagehand who moves back to her small hometown to take care of her mother and investigate her father’s past. And there’s an accidental murder. Oh, crap.
Thank you Jane for visiting Bookgirl’s Nightstand. I know I’m looking forward to reading about Annie’s 365 days without her boyfriend.
Giveaway: The publisher is offering two copies of Long Division to U.S. readers. Leave me a comment, (if you like you can tell me one thing you plan to do this weekend) and I’ll do a drawing next Thursday, July 8th.