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The Write Start

Augusten Burroughs
Dry; Running With Scissors

I’ve been writing my whole life, but I never realized I was doing it until I was much older. My mother was a writer, and she was so crazy—she sent me to live with a psychiatrist when I was 12, who was crazy himself—so I always assumed doing so meant a hard and unhappy life. At 19, I ended up in San Francisco, writing ad copy for the Beef Industry Council, some of which got some media attention. When I had enough money, in 1989, I moved to New York, where I always wanted to live, and started working in advertising. That was a weird time. On one hand, I was this professional, and on the other, I was a total wreck, doing anything I could to forget my childhood, smoking crack with prostitutes in the South Bronx, going bankrupt by charging $60,000 at the Odeon—basically, I was Drew Barrymore on a smaller scale. All the while I was writing, working on something that I just called My Mess. I never considered working in advertising “selling out” the way I’m sure a lot of writers would. I mean, the last grade I ever completed was fourth, and I always figured I’d end up as a gas-station attendant. So it was great work and great training. I really learned how to cut things down, how there is no such thing as “waiting for inspiration,” just working no matter what and hoping something good happens. Eventually, the novelty wore off, and I started to really hate it and figured it was time to go into books. I had My Mess, but figured, for some reason, that you needed to have a novel, so I wrote Sellevision in seven days. After that, I figured I could show my agent My Mess, which had grown into 1,800 pages about my early times in New York. He managed to sell it, and then I was transformed, knowing that I could write about this stuff. Funnily enough, I told my editor about my childhood, and they decided they wanted to do a book about that first, and they’d put off the next one, Dry (published in May). That’s how Running With Scissors happened. The day it became a best-seller was when I quit advertising for good.

Edward Albee
The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I came a very long distance to reach New York City—seventeen miles, from Larchmont, where I was very unhappy living with my adoptive parents in this stiff, right-wing Republican world. I was 20 years old, I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I packed a single bag, and that was that. New York was a very different place then—you didn’t have to worry about things like tiny $2,000-a-month studios. My first place was sharing a three-room apartment on West 10th with nine other people. Then I moved into a great cold-water flat in Little Italy that was $18.50 a month. It was a great time for the arts—you didn’t need any money to see shows, nobody had agents or anything like that. As for work, I made sure not to take anything that was a nine-to-five, nothing where I could be considered “an employee,” nothing that could turn into a career. My favorite job was delivering telegrams for Western Union—basically meandering around the Upper West Side. Nights were spent mainly at the San Remo bar on Bleecker Street—it’s long, long gone—drinking and talking until very late. And somewhere in there I was writing. First it was poems, which lead to a wonderful collection of rejection letters. Then I tried writing a play when I was 28, which became The Zoo Story. With a play, your goal is not to get it “published,” but produced, and how it happened for that play was very strange and lucky: I sent it to a composer friend, who then sent it to a composer friend in Italy, who sent it to a Swiss-German actor, who translated it and arranged for it to debut in Berlin. That won me some pretty great press, considering it was the fifties: American playwright has to go to Germany to stage first play. I boarded an ocean liner, and spent most of the time there watching the audience. That’s when I was convinced I was a real playwright. Back in New York, Richard Barr had gotten ahold of it and optioned it for an Off Broadway run at the Provincetown Theater. It ran for four years. At Western Union, I was making $38 a week; the play made me $60, and so I quit. It’s funny, people have written about that time in my life as if it was filled with unhappiness—because my adoptive father died, and I didn’t talk to my adoptive mother for 26 years—but that’s not the truth. Granted, it was a long time ago, but as far as I remember, I was quite happy then.

Alice McDermott
Child of My Heart; At Weddings and Wakes; Charming Billy

Growing up in Nassau County, Long Island, I used to take the LIRR into the city whenever I was allowed—often when I wasn’t. I always wanted to live there, and, years later, it finally happened. I had just finished graduate school, and my husband was at Cornell Medical School. We had this great deal for 1980: $360 a month for student housing, a one-bedroom on East 70th Street. I spent every day going to the medical library at New York Hospital to work on my first novel—it was still legal pads and pens back then. I liked going there because it was sort of my office—a comfort since almost everyone I knew was starting to have careers that required real offices. For money, I read the slush pile for Redbook—back when they used to publish fiction—for 40 cents a manuscript. Once a week, I’d go down to their Park Avenue offices, fill up a Bloomingdale’s bag, and read away. That’s when I started to feel I’d begun to infiltrate that “literary world.” I also read young-adult novels for Disney, writing synopses for potential movies, and reading novels for Esquire to consider excerpting. When I had 100 pages of the novel written, I showed it to a writer friend I’d studied with named Mark Smith, who told me to send it to Harriet Wasserman, who was known as Saul Bellow’s agent. I remember walking to her office, nervously slipping about 50 pages under her door, and running away, all the while thinking: Okay. This is impossible. Now you have to get a real job. But then she called, invited me in, and a week later Jonathan Galassi, who was at Houghton Mifflin then, gave me a contract. Just like that—it was amazing to see that there were actually people in New York who cared about helping young writers. Sadly, soon after, my husband finished graduate school and we ended up having to leave New York for his post-doc studies. I haven’t lived in Manhattan since then.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex; The Virgin Suicides

I moved to New York in 1988 for the unliterary reason of having been dumped in San Francisco. It was time to flee the West Coast. Tony Bennett was singing on the soundtrack as my beleaguered Volkswagen smoked into Manhattan, loaded with all my worldly possessions. To the extent that I have ever been truly broke, 1988 was it. I had neither job nor savings. My broken heart accorded with all these troubles. My dire prospects went with how I was feeling.

But New York brought me luck. I bought a lottery ticket my first week and won $75. The next week I got a letter from The Gettysburg Review, accepting a short story of mine. It was my first.

I was 28 and had been set on being a writer since the age of 15. I had gone about it as methodically as somebody might become a dentist. I chose my college on the basis of the writer I most wanted to study with. I majored in the English honors program because it required me to study the entire literary tradition. I also took as many creative-writing courses as I could. I was monomaniacal about being a writer. But my monomania was dull. It consisted mainly of training myself to sit for long periods alone in a room.

From Virginia Woolf I had picked up the idea that you shouldn’t publish a novel before the age of 30. This made sense to me, partly because I didn’t know how to write a novel and partly because the activity of writing had always taken precedence, for me, over the product. I’d been writing for years and reading all the time and studying to get to the point of publishing a book. I was serious but not at all professional. In retrospect, this was the happiest time for me as a writer.

And yet that can’t be true. Because as I approached 30, I began to suffer. At parties, when people asked me what I did, I said, “I’m a writer.” The next question, like a handgun, was automatic: “Have you published a book?” Whereupon I did my best to smile, ignoring the neat little hole in the center of my forehead.

All this time in New York, I had been earning my living as executive secretary for the Academy of American Poets. On weeknights, I wrote fiction for two hours. On weekends, I wrote four hours a day. I also wrote at work, while pretending to type letters. The book I was writing was The Virgin Suicides. I submitted the first chapter to The Paris Review; George Plimpton liked it and published it; Lynn Nesbit read it and offered to represent me. I said yes. Then I kept writing the book for another two years.

If it hadn’t been for extraneous circumstances, I might still be writing it. But my clandestine fiction writing, it turned out, was no secret to my boss. In the spring of 1992, he canned me. I finally finished my novel.

My dream had always been a simple one: to have the time to write. My first book—published three years late, at the age of 33—gave me that. I was now a “published” writer. I had taught myself to sit alone in a room. The trouble now was to get myself to leave it.

David Amsden’s novel Important Things That Don’t Matter is published by William Morrow.