I was writing in a vacuum. Actually, I was writing in a three-by-four-foot carrel at the Mercantile Library on my lunch hour, but it felt like a vacuum. Would I ever finish this novel? Would anybody read it? Would anybody care that the protagonist, a burned-out copywriter named May Ney Graves (Many Graves, get it?), worried she was losing her survival instincts? Had I lost my survival instincts? What made me think I could be a writer? Eudora Welty was a writer. What if the only person who read me was me? Did that matter if I loved hunting for what Maugham called the gypsy phrase? May Ney Graves wore a braid. I grew a braid.
A friend introduced me to his agent. The agent would get 10 percent of this novel if it sold. A year went by. The agent raised his fee. Now he would get 15 percent of the novel if it sold.
I groused: "The agent raised his fee!"
"What's 15 percent of nothing?" my friend said.
He had a point. I sent White Light in. The agent didn't like it. "Rewrite it," he said.
I applied to an artist's community called Yaddo, froze 17 days' worth of meals, lined up babysitters and grandparents, laid out checks, and left for Saratoga Springs with Wite-Out and a typewriter. I was alone with my work for the first time. No kids, no husband, no job, no night school, no in-laws, shopping lists, nothing. Unencumbered, I wrote in a frenzy. Seventeen days later, I mailed in the revise.
"Usually, when people revise a book, they do very little," the agent said. "They think they've changed it, but it's the same book. You've written a new book."
He sent it to publishers. Joyce had 22 rejections on Dubliners. I was up to 14 when the phone rang.
"I want you to remember this moment," the agent said. "I want you to remember exactly how you feel because, no matter what happens after this, you will never feel this way again. Your novel has been sold."
He was right. I never felt that way again. I never again felt an all-encompassing, head-to-toe visceral shock that says, "You are not an idiot. You did not waste your time. You wanted to do this and you did."
I hung up the phone. I imagined someday being on a bus, seeing someone reading White Light (that never happened), someone who might be moved or changed as I've been by books. I was no longer a hopeful dreamer. I was something else.
Patricia Volk is a frequent contributor to O. Her most recent novel is To My Dearest Friends (Knopf).