I grew up with the New York Times. Even though we lived in Philadelphia, my parents both read the Sunday Times. Naturally, when I lived in New York after college, the Sunday Times was sacrosanct. When I moved to New Hampshire, I would stroll up to the local corner store early Sunday mornings to buy it. I even, briefly, had it home delivered when I got a good deal. But the price of the Sunday paper kept creeping up, finally hitting $6.00. By then, I was already paying $15 a month for unlimited access to the Times’ website. I couldn’t afford to buy the paper too.
A month ago, though, the Times offered me a deal. For four months I could get the Sunday paper and my unlimited access for $18 a month. I signed up, and I am again reading almost all of the Sunday paper. When reading online, I normally could only stand to get through the Sunday review, the magazine section, and most of the book review before I just got tired of reading on the computer. Now I can at least page through every section, even if it’s a quick breeze through, say, business or travel. And as I do, I am reminded of the zeitgeist of the Times, something that is missing from the online version. I don’t notice the ads on the website, for I’ve gotten very good at ignoring online ads everywhere. But they catch my eye in the paper version, as do articles particular to the city that I never see online. They cast me back to the years that I lived in New York, when I was in my twenties, loving my publishing job and the city, and entranced with all the opportunities that I saw ahead of me.
Those opportunities focused on writing. I wrote all the time then. I sold five romance novels and worked on other fiction. I believed a writing career was not just possible, but probable. Maybe even imminent. I went to launch parties at the publishing company where I worked and imagined that someday I would be the author that the editors and publicists were toasting. Other writers would ask me for blurbs. The Times would ask me to write reviews. These were rather outrageous imaginings, but the world I lived in then, New York City’s publishing world, allowed for them, made them seem plausible.
Although I never forgot those dreams, I let go of them quite a few years ago, though it was long after I had left the city and the publishing company. Now, the Sunday New York Times brings them back. This is a curious sensation, recalling those dreams as well as that time of my life from the perspective of thirty years later. I can play the what-if game as well as anyone: What if I had stayed in New York? What if I’d gone back to school for an MFA? What if I hadn’t gotten married or hadn’t had children? What if I had been more willing to cast my fate to the wind and tried to make a go of it as a writer, working part-time jobs so I’d have more time to write, rather than opting for the safer route of holding onto a full-time job that required so much time and energy?
These questions rose again two weekends ago, when I attended the tenth annual Newburyport Literary Festival, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I went to a variety of sessions in the company of several of my students. For the most part, we enjoyed the authors we heard, and I have already read one of the books by one of those authors (Farewell, Dorothy Parker by Ellen Meister). Yet the same wistful sensation that I’ve experienced at the festival for the last two years kept washing over me as I listened to the authors. The same question arose: When will I have this sort of success?
Since I published those romance novels back in the ‘80s, I have written and published a young adult novel, Free Fall. I wrote a suspense novel that my agent thought was amazing and got so very, very close to selling. I wrote two more novels that I was pleased with—Lost Mothers and Every New Beginning. They did not find homes with major publishers either, though I was glad to be able to publish them as e-books and find readers in that way. I spent three years working on As the Crow Flies; my agent is still sending it out to editors.
These sorts of musings always end for me with a truncated, misused quote from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current …” The rest of the quote makes clear what Fitzgerald meant—“borne back ceaselessly into the past.” But I am well aware that I cannot go back, cannot find again paths I didn’t follow before and try them out now. No, I beat onward, my boat against the current of the odds of one day finding my name on the New York Times‘ bestseller list. That is no longer the goal, however. The goal is to sit down to my writing every day that I can and find joy in that. To create the best novel that I can, one that will be even better than the ones that came before, and then to offer it to the world at large.
So after I read the New York Times tomorrow, maybe I’ll pull out my notes on a novel about a young woman living in New York in the ‘80s, on the edge of poverty because the pay in publishing is so lousy, dating a guy almost as much for his car and his loft apartment as his company, wondering if her life is more like a Bruce Springsteen song or a Warren Zevon song, or maybe even a Joni Mitchell song. Because I remember it all so well.