Today’s guest is quite the rebel (and we wouldn’t have it any other way). Caeli Widger is the author of the debut novel, REAL HAPPY FAMILY, which published in March and has been described in reviews as a “page-turner that strikes the balance between humor and heart”; a member of the “Tolstoyan literary tradition, offer[ing] both a scathing social critique and a sympathetic look at relationships and moral indiscretions ; a “sharply funny [skewering] of Hollywood fame-seekers” and “an unsparing take on damaged family ecosystems [that] makes for compulsive reading.”
Caeli joined us in blogging about this week’s topic, with a twist. She’s also offered to give away a copy of Real Happy Family to one lucky commenter (details at the end of this post). Welcome, Caeli, and thanks for joining us!
First off, I’m breaking the rule of this post! Instead of broken writing rules, I’m focusing on how I broke rules conventionally championed as important to a successful writing life.
Here are two things I did that were crucial to becoming a serious writer:
1) Invited many more priorities into my life other than writing
2) Stopped taking myself too seriously as a writer
I’m not sure that these steps constitute “rule-breaking,” but they definitely felt in opposition to what people had been telling me for many years: Do not hesitate to identify yourself, first and foremost, as A Writer. Do everything you can to make writing center stage in your daily routine.
After finishing my MFA program in my mid-twenties, I set out to make those two tenets a way of life. My husband-to-be and I moved to New York, and I tried hard to look people in the eye and say Write when faced with the inevitable question, So what do you do? Problem was, I could never help myself from quickly qualifying my answer with mumblings like, But I’ve only published a couple of stories, a few poems here and there, in, like Pocket Lint Quarterly. Followed by a self-conscious laugh.
I also made sure to live as economically as possible, so that I could work only part-time and spend a good chunk of my day working on the story collection I’d drafted after grad school. I planned to spend a year or so polishing it to a literary diamond, and then another couple of months writing 50 pages of a novel, and then I’d pitch to agents, who would fight over me, before the most prestigious one quickly signed me landed me a two-book deal. (Okay, I wasn’t quite that grandiose, but I definitely had my eye on Literary World Cred.)
Now fast-forward eight years later.
My story collection was finally done. Or rather, done-ish.
Those fifty novel pages were, er, technically written, but not much of anything.
Now I was in my early 30s. Somehow, in the process of forcing myself to self-identify as a Writer and putting lots of pressure on myself produce a story collection that would blow Cheever out of the water, I’d begun writing less and less. Inspiration and ambition had been replaced by anxiety and avoidance when it came to my fiction.
I basically quit writing altogether. Husband-to-be became Husband. We had a kid. I stayed home for a year with him – something my ex-Writer self had viewed as loathsome – and then got a real job as a technical recruiter (something I’d dabbled in as a Writer, part-time and with disdain). We moved to Los Angeles, near the beach, and I made lots of new friends who weren’t writers. I got really into vegan cooking and riding my bike on the beach and hiking and having more babies. I stopped identifying myself as anything in particular. Fortunately, people in L.A. don’t really ask.
And then, three years ago, I woke up one morning, pregnant with another kid, and suddenly wanted to write something. It wasn’t anything deep or burning, but rather a small itch to capture on the page a scene between a mother and daughter I’d witnessed the day before. It was a small moment that had struck me. I tiptoed past my son sleeping in the dining room we were using as his bedroom to the desk where my laptop was closed in a drawer.
I opened it and began to type.
REAL HAPPY FAMILY was published three years later, almost to the day.
I wrote my book from 5-7am in the morning, because that was the only window of time available to me. Those two hours of the day are still the only time I write (mostly!). Writing is deeply important, but it is not the only thing. Not by a longshot. My life is full of other important things too, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I do call myself a writer now, though, without batting an eye. Because I am. I always have been.
Are you as inspired by Caeli’s post as I am by live an unconventional writing life? What rule will you break first?
GIVEAWAY! Comment on this post by noon EST on Friday, April 25, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of REAL HAPPY FAMILY. U.S. and international entries welcome. Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Caeli Widger earned her MFA from the University of Montana in poetry and has published work in the New York Times Magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, and The Madison Review. Her debut novel, REAL HAPPY FAMILY, was published in March of this year. She writes, teaches, and works a most unliterary corporate day job on the west side of Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and three children.