Essays / Experience Required / Features / Fiction / Nonfiction

Experience Required: Growing the Roots

by Anne Korkeakivi

My publishing career as a fiction writer bloomed after I turned forty. But my life as a fiction writer began long before then. Getting published is not all there is to being a fiction writer. There is also gestation. And living. There is the process of writing.

Before my first novel, An Unexpected Guest: A Novel, was published in 2012, I had a career in non-fiction. My great love was fiction, but I needed to pay bills. So I sampled hummus with a celebrated Russian conductor and discussed water births with a towering Welsh bass-baritone. I visited a windswept, church-strewn Baltic island that had been closed to outsiders for forty-three years under the Soviet Union. I viewed prehistoric cave paintings in southwestern France. I also had stories killed, and story ideas stolen. I was paid a pittance for work I spent days on. Still, it was a relatively reliable paycheck, and I was schooled in both storytelling and a multitude of emotions.

During those years, I fell in love too. I had children. I sang lullabies, I explained lightning, I wiped tears, I wiped bottoms. I lost relatives and friends to disease, old age, and accident. I was robbed.  I had surgery. I drank white wine under the midnight sun in Finland. I lived in various cities in various countries, and argued and pleaded and commiserated and gossiped with various workers in a variety of languages.

I read.

Korkeakivi_authorphotoWhat does it mean to be a late bloomer? My adult life before becoming a published novelist was like the questing roots that grow wide and far to suck in the moisture and minerals that make the apple tree’s limbs blossom. The deeper and richer and greater the roots, the stronger the tree, the healthier the flower. I am not a late bloomer. I am a steady bloomer. I am an expansive and comprehensive bloomer. I am an ever growing fiction writer.

I always felt I was meant to write fiction. For years, I tried to squeeze it in on the side of professional and then also parental commitments: a short story here and there, without much success. When my children started elementary school, I made a decision. I gave up journalism and took a freelance editing job. Then I signed up for a weeklong short-story writing workshop.

I walked into the first day of that workshop with the gaudy wellbeing of self-empowerment. Everyone introduced him or herself and stated his or her background. I shared mine. The instructor reluctantly said it might well be more difficult for a good journalist to become a good fiction writer than someone who had no experience at all in writing.

He was supportive of my fiction-writing effort, though. It was another instructor who nearly did me in. She was a generous person who probably meant to be helpful with her discussion of successful nonfiction writers who had failed to write decent novels (sidestepping the likes of, just to name a few, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, George Orwell, James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mary McCarthy.) She was probably trying to save me from years of frustration.

For the first time ever, I developed writer’s block.

As a journalist I’d never had the privilege of not writing, no matter how I felt. Now I’d finally given myself the freedom to write what I wanted, and I was frozen. Had I taken the wrong path when I’d graduated, empty-pocketed, from college? Had I ruined a natural predisposition for fiction?

Age and experience stepped in. My years of working as a professional writer, my years of parenting, my years of living.  After a month or two, I told myself: Enough pathos. Figure out how to make your writer-for-hire background work for rather than against you.

In truth, it is hard to go from writing nonfiction to writing fiction. They approach storytelling from different angles. To cut myself a break, I made my first post-funk story about a photojournalist; the tangle of language and rhythms I was still working my way through would suit the story.

This story became my first piece of short fiction accepted for publication.

Over the next five years, leaning on the professional skills I’d learned over the years from writing for newspapers and magazines–self-discipline, how to research, how to write through lack of inspiration and, very important, how to throw words out when they don’t serve the story—I wrote a few more short stories that were published, and a polished draft of An Unexpected Guest. I found an agent. She found an editor.

Nowadays, I still like to write about journalists, but I also write about everything from war veterans to physical therapists. An Unexpected Guest takes place amongst diplomats in Paris. I don’t write fictionalized accounts of my life. I extract the lessons I’ve learned from it. I feel free. I have the skills, I have the experience, I have the passion. (Having enough time to write is another story.)

I don’t know that having lived, or even having lived in an exciting, adventurous way, is enough to inform one’s writing.  What makes the difference is knowing how to make the most of one’s experiences. How to spin gold from what initially feels like ruin. How to continue putting one foot ahead of the other no matter how the writing is going, no matter how life is going.

Korkeakivi_grapevineMy life as a published novelist began when my first novel was published. But my life as a fiction writer is like the grapevine outside my living-room window: sometimes heavy with fruit, a Tiffany pastiche of greens, blues and purples; sometimes barren bark and twig–but long alive, always growing. I don’t see a “before” to being a fiction writer any more than I think about an “after.”

Bloom Post End

The paperback edition of Anne Korkeakivi’s novel, An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown; 2012), appears on July 2, 2013. Her short fiction has been published by such as the Atlantic, the Yale Review, Consequence magazine, and the Bellevue Literary Review, and her nonfiction by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times (UK), Travel & Leisure, and Ms., among others. Born in New York City, she is married with two children and currently spends most of the year in Switzerland. Please find her on Twitter as @annekorkeakivi, online at www.annekorkeakivi.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AnUnexpectedGuest.

Author photo: Jörg Brockmann
Additional photo: Anne Korkeakivi

4 thoughts on “Experience Required: Growing the Roots

  1. A steady bloomer. I love this!
    I’m facing my first bout of writer’s block. I’m not sure that it’s truly writer’s block or simply fear of writing. My life is spinning in an unfamiliar manner which is making me crave all things stationary and predictable. My writing has never been predictable. Hense my writer’s block.
    I loved this post.

  2. What a lovely piece, Anne, and one I can well relate to, especially this sentiment: “I am not a late bloomer. I am a steady bloomer. I am an expansive and comprehensive bloomer.” Congrats on the publication of your novel!

  3. Pingback: Growing the Roots - Anne Korkeakivi

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