by Lauren Francis-Sharma
I was in line waiting to have a novel autographed by a famous author who had written her first critically acclaimed book at the ripe age of 25. She was brilliant, thoughtful, even glamorous. I stepped before the table.
“Hi, I’m Lauren Francis-Sharma and I am a huge fan of yours,” I said. “My debut novel, ’Til the Well Runs Dry, will be published by Holt in April. Do you have any advice for a first time author?”
She projected a reserved but soft smile and congratulated me, then politely leaned in and asked, “What have you been doing up ‘til now?”
I was not offended; rather, I was shocked. I was hardly prepared to explain the three years of law school, the ten years of legal practice, the time off to raise children. I was unable to coherently explain the two failed books locked away in my basement. Instead, I said, “Reading your books, I guess.”
The truth, however, was that for years reading her books had pained me. You see, back when I was 25, working at a Wall Street firm that seemed to be squeezing out the last drops of my youth, I had written what I thought was the great American love story. I thought it was so very fresh and so very witty; the passion, hope, and energy of my twenty-something self was all over those pages. I wrote that novel late at night (mostly hiding out from the dating scene in New York City, which can be horrific for an average-looking woman with no fashion sense even if she isn’t burning to write a novel). And I dreamed of a big break.
Which almost happened. Sort of.
The rejection letters arrived, six of them from agents who had taken the time to scribble notes offering tidbits on how I could improve the work. But instead of seeing them as opportunities to rework the material and send it out again, I felt defeated.
Soon afterward, however, I met a well-respected author who taught at my alma mater. She offered to put me in touch with her agent; the agent said she loved my book.
“But I’m not taking any new clients. Call [Name Reserved] over at [Another Name Reserved]. He’ll love it,” the agent said.
He didn’t love it.
“It’s passé,” he said over the phone. “I’m working on dark fiction these days. Clive Barker, Tananarive Due, Stephen King. If you write anything in this genre let me know.”
I was crushed. “Sure,” I said.
So I wrote my second novel. It was dark and a bit gory. I wrote not out of love for the subject matter or the characters, but because—more than anything—I wanted to get published.
I finished that second novel within a year, and though I received plenty of positive feedback from agents, I never landed one.
I was a failure. So I gave up writing. And I was firm with myself about giving it up. “You’re not a writer,” I’d remind myself.
Yet I ached to write. Oh, how I ached, for almost six years. Every hour that I did not write, and every germinated idea that was not allowed to flower, became a tine in the pitchfork pressing at my heart. Still, I found comfort in being a lawyer; there was consolation in a work identity not dependent on seemingly impossible odds.
Then that comfort too was gone. With two small children, the raising-a-family rat race, a bad nanny experience, a child with sleep apnea—I needed to stay home for a while, to focus on family full time. And it was just like so many said it would be: really hard. Gone were the twenty-hour work days; now we were talking twenty-four hours. Seven days a week. The emotional, psychological, and physical needs of two human beings, non-stop. And the dream of being a writer seemed not only impossible but also, quite frankly, inconsequential.
By the outside world’s standards, I had struck gold: I was a successful attorney who could take time off to be with her children. But in my heart, I knew the truth. I had failed at writing. I had failed at maintaining a healthy work/life balance. In my mind’s eye, my identity lacked definition—it was the blurriness I felt in the carpool line, or at Chuck E. Cheese on President’s Day. I hated that feeling. I hated knowing that one day someone might look at me and say “What have you been doing up ‘til now?” and I would not have an answer that would make me proud.
So I began to write again. Secretly. I was ashamed to keep trying something that clearly did not seem meant for me. Yet as I wrote ’Til the Well Runs Dry, I could feel the complexities of settings and plot, of my characters’ lives, coming together. And it felt so damn good to be writing again.
I was plagued with doubt every step of the way. Even after landing a superb agent and a venerable publishing house—even after the editing, after the book was in production, after rave blurbs and prepublication reviews came tumbling in—even then I found myself standing across the table from a lauded writer, holding up a long line of her fans, unable to answer What have you being doing up ’til now?
But as I sit here writing this piece, I can reflect for a moment on that first book and the lessons I learned just from getting all the way to “The End,” and how, despite my misguided reasons for writing the second book, I got it done. As I contemplate that journey of failure, transition, self-doubt, acceptance, and getting it done over and over, only now—writing this sentence—am I finally able to say what I should have said to that brilliant and glamorous interrogator: “I’ve been living stories. I’ve been becoming a writer.”
Lauren Francis-Sharma was born in New York and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic High School with no hopes of ever becoming an engineer, Lauren graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan Law School, distinguishing herself as a lover of baggy sweatshirts and bottles of Snapple. She practiced law in New York, D.C. and Maryland before giving what was left of herself to raising her two children. After several months of building her stamina with Sudoku puzzle all-nighters, she began to write ’Til the Well Runs Dry, a novel set largely in Trinidad and loosely based on her grandmother’s story. Lauren lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.
Click here to read an excerpt from Lauren Francis-Sharma’s debut novel ‘Til the Well Runs Dry.