"Was it worth it?" my son asks, referring to my unpublished novel, the 10-year endeavor that haunts our meetings, the elephant by my side.
How can I answer him? He is 30 and facing the big questions: What shall I do that has worth? How to manage the complicated pulls of a life?
It is 12 years since I started the novel that propelled me into the life I had always wished I could have: the life of a serious writer.
From the time I was a child, pouring over library books, a high school and college student passionate about literature, I have hungered to write. But I was not willing to pay the price: the testing of myself and my abilities, the solitary hours and manifold uncertainties. What if it all came to nothing?
As a young woman I did not have the strength to risk it. I wanted normalcy, marriage, a family, a home. I would teach and write when I could -- a compromise with the muse.
My sons grew up with their mother's writing room as a sacred part of the house. They honored the time I was there. Cheered when one of my works got published, or when the thick envelope arrived from MacDowell, the artist's colony in Peterboro N.H.
The novel in question was what sent me to MacDowell. I was already in my mid-forties, teaching in high school full time, tutoring at night. It was a complicated book with themes and characters I could barely keep up with. Yet from the earliest stumbling drafts I could feel it beckoning to me from the future, as if from a faraway shore.
The more I wrote the more I hungered to be in the world of the book. I would wake up at five in the morning, the words spooling out of my hands.
The energy it required led me to let go of life as I had known it. By the time I did, our younger son, the one beside me this night, was in college. The other had already graduated, and the marriage that had sustained us all had come to an end. The house we lived in, gone.
I found myself living in ways I had always feared. Without a net, without the usual trappings that make us feel safe.
But my fear of living this way had gone.
Other changes arrived: I was suddenly a traveler, spending months at a time in different homes, low rent, free, teaching freelance, doing whatever was necessary to keep body and soul together while preserving the many hours I needed to write.
The pain of our family's break-up, the disappointments and hurts of its end was braided into my new life as a writer.
I had learned to make family time whenever we were together. In restaurants, sublet apartments, and at the dining room tables of the young men who had been my little boys.
It would take 10 years of writing, thousands of pages, four agents, and all of my money before the book was finished. At last, I had reached the far shore where it had been waiting.
Twenty-plus publishers rejected it, and though it had wonderful champions, it did not sell. The last agent gave up, and the book ended up on my hard drive and in a white manuscript box on the hall shelf of my first permanent home in 10 years. I was considering self-publishing, but with a heavy heart.
How could I explain to my son that in spite of all this it had been worth it? That in doing what the book required of me, I had satisfied the part of myself that had called to me since I was a child. Whatever happened I knew one thing, I was the writer I had always suspected I could be. I had written the book I envisioned, and it was good.
I told him all this and watched his face as he took in the words. In many ways, my son and I are different; it has become the source of lively and stimulating discussions, for he always sees the flaws in my reasoning, my life, and never fails to point them out. "Write that," he said, "People need to hear it."
This conversation took place two years ago, and I cannot help but wonder if what happened next influenced my ability to tell this story. For in a stroke out of the blue that took me entirely by surprise, one of my very own students put me in touch with an agent who found a publisher. He subtitled it A Novel of Miracles. And so this story has the traditional happy ending.
And although publication brings me great joy and my sons, tremendous relief, not every person has this need, and not every life needs to be lived at such cost. It was mine to take on, but would I advise it to others? To him? Only if he feels the call. And knowing, too, that no matter what success may look like from the outside, there is always a price.