Elizabeth de Veer
Where I Started – Thank You, Grub Street!
Less than one month until the launch of my debut novel, The Ocean in Winter, and I am getting very, very excited! And nervous. And introspective.
It’s interesting to think about where and how all this started. I always wanted to be a writer, but it’s hard to know how to begin. If someone asked me for advice, I’d say: start where you are. Put words down on a page. Any page. Type them out. Write by hand. Get a fancy notebook. Get a sloppy notebook. Try a lovely fountain pen, and try a cheap Bic. Write in the morning; write at night. Try everything. See what works for you, what speaks to you, what gets your creativity moving. And once it’s moving, ask yourself, what do I want to say now?
Once I was really ready to write, it took me a while to figure out how to answer that question. I wrote about my life for a while, in the memoir genre. It was a good place to start, since I knew a lot about my life, but it wasn’t interesting enough to keep me going. When I had an idea for a novel, it came to me in a flash, like a religious experience, bundled up, complete with a setting, a situation, a character with a tangible problem, a timeline, and an ending. I knew the basics in one moment.
But how would I get it down? That was the tricky part. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I didn’t want lack of confidence to stop me. I needed a community and a mentor. I needed Grub Street. And luckily for me, Grub Street existed. And really luckily for me, author Jenna Blum was teaching at Grub Street.
Back up. There are many, many kinds of writing classes. Back in the early 2000’s, I was living with my then new husband (now husband of almost 20 years!) in a Massachusetts town just west of Cambridge and Somerville. And I had been taking writing classes. There were Adult Education centers where the price was low and the instruction and the range of types of classes available was hit or miss. Then I took a few classes at Harvard Extension School. Those were expensive but more serious, with excellent instructors.
Of course, if I’d wanted to get really serious with academics, the MFA, Master of Fine Arts, is the highest bar. But those can be a project to get into, a serious project to pay for, and in the end, they are mostly useful for those who plan to teach writing. I realized pretty quickly that the MFA wasn’t what I needed.
Somewhere in the world, there was A Class, the right class at the right time, but I wasn’t sure how to find it. And then, somehow, I found Grub Street.
It was the fall of 2003 (I am pretty sure) and Grub Street had been around for a couple of years, and had been a fully accredited nonprofit for just about a year. It was started by Eve Bridburg, a name I knew since she had lived below me in an apartment in Somerville. (I never met her while we lived there, but my apartment mates were always arguing with her about parking spaces in the small driveway. I didn’t own a car, so, luckily, I stayed clear of the drama!) Jenna’s debut novel, Those Who Save Us, was out, but she would become a NY Times best-seller almost at the exact time that she was putting up with us monkeys.
Author Randy Susan Meyers was there too, writing her first novel and trying to find an agent. Her first agent? One of those roller coaster sagas you read about in books. Her second agent? Well, that one worked out a lot better. All of this was still ahead of us.
In January 2004, I did a writing residency at the Jentel Artist Residency program in Wyoming, and when I came back, I had most of a draft and I was ready to get serious. Jenna invited me to join her Master Novel class, where a group of writers met every week – oh, yes, in person! In Grub’s space above a historic piano store (near the home of musician Peter Wolf). Each week, we read a hundred pages of each other’s novels in progress, and the group gave us feedback.
It was a lot. We wrote a lot and we read a lot. We were all looking for agents and sharing resources, sharing break-throughs and break-downs. We went to Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace conference and wished for the miracle that would catapult our novels into the world.
I continued in that class with that group for a year. At the end of the year, I had written a novel. It was MFA-level instruction and community, and it totally shaped me.
Today? Jenna Blum continues to write fiction, and her first memoir, Woodrow on the Bench, about her sweet puppy, Woodrow, comes out in the fall. Randy Susan Meyers is a HUGELY successful novelist, and her seventh novel, Waisted, came out last summer. And now, Grub Street is no longer a best kept secret, it's a Boston landmark, it’s the first place people think when they think about writing.
I cannot say it enough - Grub Street saved me and formed me. I made friendships and learned things there that changed my life. Eve Bridburg, if you ever read this, THANK YOU for creating Grub Street and for hiring such a wonderful group of people, including Christopher Castellani and Jenna Blum. You can park at my house any time!!
And me? That first novel has yet to find a publisher but I still have hope! And in the mean time, I have written three complete novels and am excited to put The Ocean in Winter into the world in just a couple of weeks. Before Grub, I didn't know if that would be possible.
AND: more details to come, but on July 7 at 7pm, Grub Street, in partnership with Porter Square Books (located very close to that apartment where I didn't live with Eve Bridburg) is hosting an online debut party for me. Randy will introduce me and Jenna will interview me (and a very special guest will do a toast in my honor!) Am I going to cry?
Nah. Not a chance.
Sniff. Okay, maybe I should keep tissues nearby, just in case.
(PS I don't know that we took any group photos back in those days when phones were not so great at taking photos. But in 2006 or so, Jenna and I and my husband met each other in the panhandle of Oklahoma. It's a long, crazy story, but there was tornado-chasing, and we kidnapped the wonderful Elvia Hernandez, met Melyn Johnson, hung out with Rachel Sides. And now I consider all of these women family.)