I wrote my first novel, What Belongs to You, in the early mornings, in two-hour increments, sitting in an uncomfortable chair by a window that looked out on a district of huge, Soviet-style apartment blocks. These were dire by day but strangely beautiful before dawn, when their concrete facades were more or less invisible in the dark and the little rectangular windows lit up in an order that over time became familiar, as did the figures who appeared at them for their first cigarettes of the day. I was living in Sofia, Bulgaria, where I taught high school English from 2009 to 2013. I had learned that after a day at school, which usually meant six hours of classes and an afternoon meeting, I was too exhausted to write, so I got up at 4:30 every morning, set the water boiling for several cups of Nescafé, and settled in to work.
It took three years. I wrote the book by hand, in a series of slim spiral-bound notebooks I bought for a lev—about 70 cents—at a little stationery store on the way to school. They were wide ruled, meant for schoolchildren, and the ones I liked best had scenes of idealized village life on their covers, with the words Our Bulgaria scrawled across the top in Cyrillic. Something about composing by hand in a foreign country in the early morning dark, without a computer and its irresistible distractions, with just a small lamp lighting the page, turned writing into the most intense privacy I had ever known. I was working in a kind of figurative dark, too, since I had never written fiction before and was feeling my way forward sentence by sentence, without a clear model or shape in mind. For long stretches, months at a time, a year, I didn’t show my pages to anyone; I wrote without imagining a reader, and so without the anxiety of judgment.
It’s hard now not to think of that privacy with nostalgia, but when I reached the end of what I had slowly realized was a novel, it had come to feel like a trap. After so much solitary work, I wanted the book to exist in the world, and the business of publishing fiction was more than a little terrifying—especially when I thought of approaching it from abroad. More than that, I had been teaching high school for seven years, and when I turned 35—which for whatever reason inspired a bout of stock-taking—I realized I had barely begun to do what I hoped to do as a writer, and also that I would never know what I was capable of unless I could put writing at the center of my life. On lunch breaks, I caught myself scrolling through the pages of M.F.A. programs, imagining a return to university as a way both to get my bearings in the world of publishing and to figure out a sustainable model for a writing life. I felt sheepish at the idea, for various reasons. I already had one M.F.A., in poetry, earned more than a decade earlier, and it seemed frivolous to get another. I had fled graduate school after three years as a Ph.D. student, convinced I didn’t want the life of an academic. I loved being abroad, in a country where everything seemed as strange as a poem and where I spoke a language other than English every day. Most important, I had been living in a kind of provisional, preparatory way for so long—school and more school and then a career I felt sure wasn’t permanent—and when did I think real life would begin? I knew this was a matter not of external circumstance but of my own orientation toward the world. Another degree felt like further postponement.
But I applied, and when I got a call from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, offering me a place in the program and a fellowship that would give me a break from teaching for the first time in a decade, my ambivalence disappeared. I leapt. My first semester, I took Lan Samantha Chang’s novel workshop, and any jaded thoughts I might have had about Iowa’s hype dissolved as I read the first submissions of student work, and as I watched Sam, the best writing teacher I’ve ever had, respond generously, openly, rigorously to our pages. I took enormous heart from the class, not so much from the reaction to my own novel as from the confidence of the work we read each week, which ranged from multigenerational family sagas to an online “wikinovel.” There’s no question that reading this work was the most important benefit of being at Iowa, but there were others. Agents came, their visits helpful less for the 10 sweaty minutes of private conference than for the hour-long talks they gave, allowing us to pose questions under the cover of a group. I didn’t meet my agent at Iowa, but when I sent out queries in the winter, I had some sense of what to expect. By the end of February I had signed with the brilliant Anna Stein. Two weeks later she sold my book.
Once certain hurdles are cleared (a bit of talent, years of work), being a writer is like flying a kite in a storm in a field full of people flying kites in a storm. The fact that lightning strikes here and not there, and now and not a year or a decade from now or never—what can we call that except luck? I had been struck several times in quick succession—getting into Iowa, finding an agent, selling the book—and I felt dazed by a kind of good fortune nothing in my life had prepared me for. I didn’t know how to carry that luck, and I worried about the possible resentment of friends and classmates who had worked as hard as I had for something all of us wanted very much. There was some of that, some of it painful, but much more I encountered a generosity I would lean on hard over the next months. I’m not sure how I would have weathered the anxiety of edits, the anxiety of marketing and promotion, the anxiety of waiting for reviews, without my circle of friends here, all of them students in the program, who read and reread pages, sweating over edits and copyedits as if my sentences were their own.
I think I had a fantasy, maybe many writers do, that once the book found a home there would be some fundamental assuaging of the anxiety I suppose all artists feel, the constant buzz of doubt inherent in making things with no obvious purpose or sure measure of success. But of course that hasn’t happened. The edits are done now, and having the book finally out of my hands is exactly as bad as having it still on my desk demanding I make it better. I startle at every whisper of news. I’m learning that even after one big “yes” the world for a writer continues to say “no.” In January my book will come out, and there will be a little flurry of readings and travel; until then, I’m trying to find my way again to the solitude where writing starts. I’ve worked a lot in my time at Iowa: on revisions and edits, on essays and reviews. But in two years I’ve only written two new stories, and another rough chunk of something longer than a story. I haven’t reestablished the steady, focused writing routine I had when I was living abroad, which is the best defense against the anxiety of the writer’s life, or against the version of it I feel. I know that I have to do everything I can to help my novel find its readers; I also know that what really matters is the next book. And so even as I work with a publicist to construct an outward face of accomplishment, I have to try to reclaim the privacy that gives one permission to fail. So much of making art is the courting or indulgence of failure, of trying to make something you’re not sure can be made, of knowing that whatever you make will fall short of your vision for it. I hope so much that my novel will be a success, whatever that means. I also know that, where art is concerned, success can only ever be a distraction from failure.
Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, will be published by FSG in January. His short fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, A Public Space, and Vice.