What follows is the rest of my chat with Gabrielle Burton. This is her story.
In Feb. 2006, despite having a screenplay made into a movie, winning prizes for another screenplay, writing fiction and non fiction steadily, some published, some not, I felt my career was at a dead end. I took out the draft of our CA/Oregon Trail trip and was sick to see that my editor’s last notes were in 1988! Where had the time gone? Oh, I could tote it all up–that was the year my daughters, husband, and I traveled from Branson, MO to Juneau, AK with our movie, Manna from Heaven, that was the year my mother, sister, and dog died, those were the two years I went to film school, that was the year my husband had open heart surgery, that was the year we moved… But although my life was rich, full, and blessed, I had not achieved what I wanted to in writing and felt the pressure of time, alone, and very sorry for myself. After a day of feeling bad, I talked sternly to myself, Look, G, this is a dead end track. No one is going to knock on your door. Anything that happens you have to make happen. Don’t expect it to be easy. Nobody cares about your writing as much as you do and you’re doggone lucky to be in a position to do something about it.
Then I wrote down what I wanted to do:
“1. write the trip book,
2. write the Tamsen movie, and
3. a distant 3rd, might be fun to write a Tamsen and George novel.”
And followed that with what I had going for me:
“drafts of 1 & 2 (dozens of them), people who will help me if I ask,
time, if I discipline it, enough money so I don’t have to stop to do something else, health.”
Then I listed in order all the things I needed to do. Read good non fiction to avoid indulgent writing. Exercise. Work hard. Believe in myself. Ask for help.
By the end of 2007, University of Nebraska Press had accepted the trip book, Searching for Tamsen Donner. I had also rewritten the screenplay, gone to Africa, and written the novel, Impatient with Desire, which was sold May, ’08.
It sounds smoother than it was, but it was pretty amazing. 19 agents gave rave rejections to Searching for Tamsen Donner–“Love it, but who’s the niche?”–before I found the perfect home. I said to my husband more than once, “If no one ever publishes this book, I’m going to publish Tamsen’s 17 letters myself and drive to Donner Pass and get the museum to sell them.” After U of Nebraska took it, almost a year passed of going through readers, committees, and boards and one more rewrite before the deal was sealed.
The hardest, scariest part was that after writing intermittently about Tamsen and the Donner Party for decades, I wasn’t always sure what was fact and what was my imagining. I pored over dozens of Donner books to make sure I hadn’t taken someone else’s words years before and now thought they were mine.
Kristin Johnson, the Donner Party scholar, who I met on the web, generously helped me update what was known at the time of our trip to what was known now–and incorporating “then and now” in a graceful way was challenging.
The book was nearly in galleys when randomly surfing the web one day, I came upon two letters by Tamsen I hadn’t known about. Yikes! Mark McLaughlin, the Storm King, generously let me have them for my book.
I’m an incredibly lucky woman. More than one person has said, Cream always rises to the top, and it makes me wince. A lot of people are talented but for a variety of reasons they don’t or can’t persevere in their art. Or maybe they do persevere and luck doesn’t come their way. Cream does not always rise to the top, and it’s arrogant and ungrateful to think so. A lot of cream curdles.
Tell your luck. Try to hold on. Help each other hold on. That’s true for writing and it’s true for life.
I love that line about cream curdling.
So what are you waiting for? Go buy Impatient with Desire and please join me in thanking Gabrielle Burton for her story.