A series of coincidences leads to the experience of a lifetime.
My first attempt at being a full-time writer came during graduate school. Though I was getting a Ph.D. in Biblical Archaeology, I was writing a novel on the side. Through an amazing set of circumstances/coincidences it came to the attention of the Nieman Foundation, who took me into their professional writers program. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
The idea behind the Nieman Foundation is to take the world’s top journalists out of their profession for a year and give them full access—at full pay—to all of the classes and resources of Harvard University. The idea was for these journalists to either explore a new field or go much deeper into their chosen field. There was only one rule: they couldn’t do any work for their employer during that year—it was just for personal and professional development.
Part of the Nieman program was a writers’ workshop, for those journalists who ‘had a novel in them’. But unlike other groups or workshops, this one had a guest speaker every week. And it was a roster that only the Nieman Foundation could attract. One week was John Irving, reading from his newest work. Then John Updike. Then Rupert Murdoch (pre-Fox). My favorite was Noam Chomsky, the world’s most renowned linguist and political activist. Here he was, facing down the world’s top investigative journalists and telling them that they were no different from their Soviet counterparts at Pravda, that they accepted the government’s starting point for virtually every global encounter. That led to the liveliest of all our sessions.
Another component of the program was pairing each writer up with a writing coach. Again, this being Harvard, I wasn’t paired with a graduate student or TA from one of the writing seminars. I was given Ann Beattie, the New Yorker short story writer nonpareil. She started with my strengths (dialogue and story) and helped me make them stronger. Then she got to work on my weaknesses, which were more numerous than the strengths. My characters were too standard, almost cliched. My descriptions weren’t unique or vivid enough. I described when I should have let the reader intuit. You get the point. But being coached by a world-famous author and getting insights from people like the above—my writing career was off to a start that I could never have visualized.
So with a start like that, how could I fail? The other amateur writer that the Niemans sponsored, Andrea Lee, spent the year after our internship in Moscow with her new husband—and my oldest friend—and then wrote a best-seller about her experience. I spent that time (with the Nieman’s help) flogging my finished novel to publishers in New York. Given the Nieman clout, I was given the benefit of the doubt and received feedback that I’m sure I would never have received otherwise. The advice was pretty consistent: I had potential but the novel was ‘too dark’ for a first novel from a writer that no one had ever heard from. I should get out in the real world—which was where I was headed, my degree in hand—and get some bumps and bruises. Then I should either revise my novel or take a whack at something lighter.
In retrospect, my biggest problem was that I had no voice. I was heavily influenced by whomever I was reading at the time. If I was reading Nikos Kazantzakis, my writing was almost mystical. If it was Steinbeck, it was more muscular. Each chapter was a new adventure, both for me and the reader.
Over the years, I found that the writers I admired most had unique and consistent voices. Read Cormac McCarthy or Elmore Leonard and you’ll see what I mean. But it also took them years and multiple books to find and perfect that voice. And, though I hardly put myself in their class, I found that, when I returned to writing after a career in education and then Silicon Valley, I had enough experience under my belt and enough confidence in my craft that I had a ‘voice’ that was consistent with who I am and distinct enough to draw praise from editors and early readers.
So was the Nieman experience wasted on me in a way that it wasn’t with Andrea Lee or other writers in the program? I hope not, because for me it was the experience of a lifetime, and I hope that something tangible results from it. So my hope is that the Niemans planted a ton of great seeds—and I’m just a late bloomer.