Debut author Joanne Ramos talks about letting herself get lost in the world of her book, when she knew to let others in and when to let The Farm out into the world.
Writing a first novel is a leap of faith. Some people, I imagine, take the plunge headfirst. When I approached the precipice after a 20-year hiatus from writing fiction, I did so tentatively; when I finally leapt, I held my breath.
Step 1: Commit to Writing
Since I was a child, I’d loved writing stories. But life took me in a different direction, and it wasn’t until I turned 40 that I dared to give writing a real go. I remember my first year of committed writing as one of flailing and experimentation, riddled by uncertainty and pursued in isolation. Ideas teemed in my head, but I couldn’t find a way to get them on the page in any satisfactory way.
Every weekday morning while my children were at school, I forced myself to write—short stories, flash-fiction pieces for online contests, countless “first chapters” that led to dead ends. Sitting for hours at the kitchen table on my own, I had no sense whether my work might capture a reader’s interest or bore her death, if it was flawed-but-promising or irredeemable.
Step 2: Seek Community and Critique
Around this time, an acquaintance suggested that I enroll in a writing class—an obvious idea that hadn’t been obvious to me. In my mind, writing was a journey taken solo. Luckily, the options in New York for a would-be writer seeking instruction are plentiful. I did my research and settled on the Ditmas Writing Workshop, because I liked how the teacher, Rachel Sherman, described her classes, and I liked the subjects she chose to tackle in her own work.
She’ll understand what I’m trying to do, I believed, another leap of faith.
It turned out that she did. By the time the workshop started, I had written the first three chapters of what would become The Farm, my first novel. Rachel understood what I was attempting. Her critiques of my submissions were smart, and her suggestions of books to read were helpful. What I didn’t expect from the class, though, turned out to be just as important: a community of writers who took their work, and mine, seriously.
I didn’t always agree with the feedback from my fellow classmates, but the act of leaving my children at home each Tuesday and taking the subway to Brooklyn to discuss writing with writers was crucial. I learned to read my classmates’ work and mine with a critical eye—and in doing so, began to better understand what worked in a narrative and what didn’t, and why. I learned to share my work and accept criticism with an open mind—not always easy. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that my commitment to my book was real; that I was going to see it through to the end.
Step 3: Back to the Writing Desk (Or Café)
I signed up for a second session of the workshop, in part because I was afraid that, on my own, I’d start to flail in my writing again. Looking back, this was one session too many—and, yet, it was probably exactly what I needed to have the confidence in my work to go it alone. By this second go-around, I was farther into my book. While I don’t make outlines, preferring to write with ideas effervescing but without a map, I did know better what I wanted The Farm to be. It became clear to me which of my classmates “got” my vision for the book, and which ones didn’t. Suddenly, the time it took to truly engage in the workshop—the hours spent carefully reading my classmates’ weekly submissions, commuting and sitting in class—was better spent on The Farm.
I continued to meet with a few of my classmates to share work and support. As I sunk deeper into my book, though, even these voices got in the way of mine. I can see now that this “middle” stage of writing The Farm—when I knew the contours of the world I’d created, and the characters were taking on a life of their own—was a fertile one that needed to be protected. I was alone a lot during this period—writing in various cafes near my children’s school, living in my head for hours on end. I remember feeling that I was becoming a weirdo. Pick-ups at school, when I had to smile and interact like a normal human, were trying—because while I went through the motions, my mind was still stuck in the parallel universe of my book.
At some point, a friend introduced me to the writer Hilary Reyl. She became my primary reader. I marvel, often, at the mixture of chemistry and luck and timing that caused us to become friends so quickly and led me to trust her with my work so immediately. All I know is that it is my great fortune that it happened.
By the time I was ready to send my manuscript to the first batch of agents, I’d shared it in full with only a handful of friends and family. I remember pausing ever so slightly before clicking “send.” Almost five years of work was embedded in that email—five years of thinking and writing and arguing with myself. I wondered what it would feel like to have the book loose in the world, exposed and, also, static. And then I let it go.
Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was six. She graduated with a B.A. from Princeton University. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she became a staff writer at The Economist. She currently serves on the board of The Moth. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
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