Here’s the fairytale version: Our heroine has lost her way in the forest. She’s been trudging along for far too long and is of course, tired, hungry, and losing sight of where she was headed in the first place. And then, magically (because this is a fairytale, remember) a tiny cottage appears up ahead. It is warm, light, and stocked with delicious food. Perhaps even a writing desk.
Real life isn’t like that. Or I should say, life isn’t usually like that. But sometimes, when we’re in the thick of it, a moment of grace presents itself. And that moment carries with it exactly what we need. Maybe even exactly what our hearts desire.
Let me back up a bit here to tell you about my own trudging along through a forest’s worth of manuscript pages. THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY is my debut novel. But I’ve been writing fiction for years–decades, even–ever since I graduated with a degree in journalism and promptly realized that what I really wanted to do was make things up. I took a lot of workshops, wrote short stories, wrote a novel, wrote another novel, then wrote yet another. I worked as a copywriter, writing advertising and marketing and coming up with taglines for everything from potting soil to cities. I helped raise four incredible kids. I was married, divorced, a single mom for six years. I married again and became a stepmom. In between and around all of that, I kept writing fiction.
Several years ago, I came home from a writer’s conference motivated to dive back into my novel, the one that was on its way to becoming THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY. But soon after re-entry into the everyday chaos of my life at that time, I thought, if I were smarter and somewhat wealthy, I would have arranged to go on a writing retreat after the conference. Conferences are inspiring, but social. What I needed was solitude, a chance to burrow deeper into the work.
I wrote in my journal, I wish I knew someone who had a cabin they weren’t using, maybe at the Russian River. A few days later I was walking with my friend Kelly. We’d gotten to know each other while watching our sons play basketball. I hadn’t mentioned anything about wanting a place to write, but out of the mystical blue, Kelly said, “My family has an old, tiny cabin at the Russian River. No one’s used it for years.”
I love it when stuff like that happens.
Within a couple of weeks she and her brother and my husband, Stan, and I hauled a few loads to the dump, cleaned and scrubbed. I worked like a maniac to finish up my freelance copywriting projects early to clear the calendar.
And that fall, I stayed at the cabin for an entire month. I’d never had that kind of time alone. I walked my Lab under the redwoods and down to the river, stared out the window, stoked the woodstove, read, listened to the fire crack into the quiet; and I wrote and I wrote. I didn’t have Internet. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t even once get into a car. Stan brought me delicious meals and clean laundry once a week, and kept track of our brood of teenagers (or tried to, at least).
Truly, a writer’s dream. In fairytale fashion, a cabin appeared right when I needed it—writing desk and all. I’m happy to report that there was no hungry wolf or evil witch waiting inside—just the good kind of magic a writer sometimes feels when she’s writing. With that kind of complete immersion, the novel came alive to me in a way it hadn’t before, and the river town of Elbow in the forest was born.
THE UNDERSIDE OF JOY, which is not your basic fairytale version of a stepmom, was published in January by Dutton and is forthcoming in 16 other countries and territories.
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