When I finished my first book, a journalistic account of Spanish Harlem (Island in the City) I eagerly started writing a novel – that was my dream. I was nurtured on Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the literary stars of the nineteen-fifties, and I could recite from their work as readily as I had once recited the Boy Scout Oath and The Pledge of Allegiance. I once won a bet for dinner at a fancy French Restaurant in Manhattan because I knew the last line of The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (not, as the loser had insisted “Isn’t it nice to think so?”)
I was writing magazines articles to make a (subsistence) living, but I made time to write the first fifty pages of a novel and eagerly sent it to my always supportive agent. He praised it and sent it off to Houghton Mifflin, who had brought out the journalistic book. I fidgeted and drank and prayed while I waited for a response, and finally my agent called and said the publisher had invited me to come to Boston from New York at their expense and have lunch with their editor-in-chief and managing editor at Locke Obers (where JFK liked to have his lobster stew.)
“Is this good news or bad?” I asked my agent.
“It could be either,” he said.
It was bad. Over lobster thermidor (which I have never eaten since, though I am rarely in the kind of places that serve it), the head honchos of one of the country’s leading publishers told me – as one succinctly put it – “We think you’re a fine young journalist, but you’re not a novelist.” I later wondered why they might not have said “we don’t like the fifty pages you sent us,” but perhaps they felt that sample was conclusive enough.
I was devastated, but I knew one older writer I greatly respected who I knew believed in me, and she gave me encouragement and hope. I have often found that it only takes one person to believe in you and your dream. On top of that, I literally had a dream in the form of a novel. It was a confirmation of the old line “I have a novel in me.” I woke up elated, and sat on a bench in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village and listened to cheerful birds at dawn, above the rattle of the Seventh Avenue Local.
Although “I had a novel in me,” it wasn’t easy to get it out. It took ten years of false starts and new beginnings and hundreds of pages tossed, in between writing more articles and journalistic books to make a living, and finally a foundation grant from out of the blue that gave me a year’s time to concentrate on the novel alone.
My still faithful agent sent the novel to ten publishers, and three liked it, but only one of them really loved it. (Again, it only takes one.) That novel, Going All The Way became a selection of The Literary Guild, made the Time magazine bestseller list, became a movie, was republished and is still in print (and is now even an e-book.)
I believe my “lesson” applies not only to novels, but to dreams of any kind, including your own identity. People now fight for that, too, and all of these battles are worth fighting, many of them far more difficult than writing a book. Kurt Vonnegut said: “There’s only one rule I know, babies – Goddam it, you’ve got to be kind.” I second that, and I add one more that I think my friend Vonnegut would also endorse: “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.”