The letter that got my writing life back on track arrived in a skinny envelope. Too skinny, in fact. My first thought upon holding it was that it felt like a rejection letter. I’m convinced that every writer knows this weight instinctively. It is the precise weight of despair. My wife, who brought in the mail, gave me a sad smile from the doorway. “Well,” she said, “it was fun to dream.” What we were dreaming about was the Rome Prize, a yearlong fellowship awarded by the American Academy in Rome. I had been placed on the shortlist a few months before.
“It was fun,” I said. Then I opened the letter. “We are pleased to inform you...” I’m told I let out a small animal-like yelp at this point; yet what sticks with me is not my joy, which was very real, but how quickly my insecurity showed up to the party.
You see, at the time, I was in a sort of slump (by which I mean a free-falling doubt spiral). My first book, The House of Tomorrow, had received good reviews and won a couple awards, but it had not taken the literary world by storm the way I secretly dreamed it might. In the time since its publication, I’d started no less than three novels, all of which flamed out.
Each day I could feel myself becoming more and more of a cliché. I second-guessed my instincts. I caught myself thinking about the market (which, it should be noted, I know nothing about). I became a certifiable expert in creative self-sabotage.
Then, one afternoon, some people I didn’t know decided to send me to Rome for a year. There was no catch. I would go to Italy. I would write. I’m still not sure how it happened. I don’t know who nominated me or why, but among all the brilliant young writers, I was chosen. I only know that it came at exactly the right time. Soon after I arrived in the Eternal City, something began to shift.
It started with the academy itself, a beautifully restored century-old building on the Janiculum Hill, complete with fountains and landscaped gardens. The little office I was given looked out over a sloped lawn with shaggy olive trees in the distance. If I cannot find peace in this setting, I told myself, then I am probably incapable of finding peace. It was quiet. It was breezy. It was a place wholly outside the bounds of my anxiety. So, I began to write—about death.
That’s right. I showed up in Rome with some notes for a novel about a funeral planner, inspired by an article about the pioneers of the modern death movement—those bold souls creating man-made reefs from human remains and blasting ashes into space. And as I began to explore my new city, I found plenty of inspiration. Rome is, after all, a city of tombs, crypts, and catacombs. There are a lot of dead people hanging around there. Churches sit atop the bodies of saints. Inside a crypt on the Via Veneto, pelvic bones of martyrs have been transformed into angels’ wings. There is even a museum dedicated to purgatory, a place I could easily imagine myself in at the time.
In the next 11 months, I managed to find my rhythm again. I read nothing about book deals and market trends. And instead of lying around in the fetal position, I did what I was sent to do. I read and I wrote. I had enlivening grappa-fueled conversations with fellow artists and scholars. I went for long, meandering walks, stopping occasionally at the Protestant cemetery to check on Keats, or going into a church to plunk coins into those magic machines that light the frescoes.
And when I came home, I had the first draft of a novel. I have no idea what will happen to it when it leaves my hands, but I feel calmer about this uncertainty than I have in years. Every once in awhile, the writing life tosses you a miraculous sign of reassurance, right when you need one. Sometimes you open a skinny envelope and find everything you need.
Peter Bognanni’s novel The House of Tomorrow (Putnam, 2009) won the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction at the L.A. Times Book Awards in 2010. He lives in Saint Paul, Minn., and teaches at Macalester College.