I had an email from a reader not so long ago with an interesting question. Of all the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren descended from Nathaniel Bonner, why did I chose to focus on Anna and Sophie? The reader wasn’t upset about this, as I read it. Just curious. Curiosity is catching, in my experience and the question got me to thinking. Except there’s no easy answer: creative process is a complicated thing.
The result is that I am about tell the story of 2010-2013. This is summarized and truncated to the extreme, but it is necessary to answering the actual question.
The Mathematician’s job disappeared about a year after the 2008 crash — or at least, he was reduced to less than 50 percent, so all our benefits disappeared. And we have some chronic conditions in the family, so this was a big deal. At the same time publishing was in free-fall, and two novel proposals were turned down flat by publishers who had been really happy with my work to that point.
The logical conclusion was that I should go on the job market and so for the next three years I focused on writing not fiction, but job applications (pretty much a full time occupation in itself). Now, I didn’t think it would be easy, and I knew that I had to be ready to do things I wouldn’t have considered ten years earlier, but health insurance was so important (we were paying a huge amount in monthly premiums for just average coverage at this point, on much reduced income), I went ahead and started applying for jobs. In the first year I applied only for jobs within driving distance of where we are now. I’ve got all of this recorded, but to be honest, I have no interest in revisiting that data, so I can say only approximately that I applied for about 200 jobs in that first year, had three phone interviews, and no offers.
It’s possible I could have found work if I was willing to accept something with no benefits, but the whole reason I was giving up writing had to do with health insurance. To take a job at $12 an hour — without benefits — made no sense.
So in the second year I did two things: I started applying for jobs further away, in places where we could realistically live. I also took a whole series of courses at the local technical college in medical coding, which required courses in everything from anatomy and physiology to the actual coding process Here I digress:
Did you know that there is an official International Classification of Disease code for misanthropy? ICD9 301.7. Really, you can see for yourself.
So the plain truth is, I loved the material — I really did — and it wasn’t a hardship to take these classes. If not for Dolores, I think it might have all worked out. Sometime I have to write about the experience, because the one person who taught all the coding classes was a Dolores Umbridge clone, minus about 3o IQ points. Let’s just say that we did not get along.
I was still applying for jobs while I took classes. Still not getting anywhere. Through some former colleagues I checked to make sure that my letters of rec weren’t the problem, and after consulting with lots of professional HR types and showing them my cover letters, etc., etc., I gave myself a pep talk and set out again.
I know you’re wondering about my many years in higher education, but there was no way to get back into academia. I had lots of encouragement from former colleagues, but encouragement is a long way from a job offer. University jobs were not within reach, because (1) there weren’t any within reasonable distance; (3) there weren’t any within any distance at all and (3) I had been away for ten years at that point. So even if (1) and (2) weren’t the case, the odds were not in my favor. Wait, I almost forgot (4): Age is an issue. Not one I could prove, but it was definitely a strike against me.
So the idea was the with retraining I could find a job in a local hospital, where the benefits were pretty good. My wildest dream (and this shows you how worried I was): I could find a 60 percent position, qualify for benefits, and be able to start writing again.
And of course none of that happened. There is more to this, of course, but I’ll spare you (and me) the details. It had little to with the creative process, and a lot to do with frustration.
In the third year I paid lots of money to a HR consultant, restyled everything, and started applying for jobs that would have meant moving far away. Some of the jobs really interested me, but nothing happened. For example: a job with the National Endowment for the Humanities, and another, in D.C. with the Peace Corp, for a writer/editor.
Have you ever looked at what goes into applying for a job with the federal government? Don’t, is my advice. It took me three days to get the application together (17 pages in all), which included a whole range of questionnaires and long essay questions. After you submit the application, if your score is high enough (they quantify everything) you’ll be notified that your application has been forwarded to the selecting official. On this particular application I got a score of 98% — and I still did not get even a phone interview. This probably had to do with the fact that veterans (very deservedly) get a ten point boost when they apply for a job. I do not begrudge veterans those ten points, but to score a 98% and never hear a word from them, not even a letter of rejection — that was dispiriting. Shortly after that point I realized I was not going to get anywhere, and I turned back to writing. Which meant turning the creative process back on. And that’s a lot like priming a pump.
So I sat there in front of my computer and debated about where to start. I made lists and notes and argued with myself. I considered multiple approaches, all the time keeping in mind that whatever I wrote, I had to be able to sell it. And that it would be at least two years before I saw any money. I was still pretty outraged about Umbridge, and one day it occurred to me that I could put all those courses to use anyway, if I had a medical theme.
Umbridge was the first step toward Anna and Sophie. They ended up in Manhattan in 1883 because I have always been interested in New York city history of that period, and it was chock-full of potential storylines, medical and otherwise. I did consider writing Birdie’s story, set in New Orleans, but in the end Anna and Sophie and Manhattan just worked better for me. I may, someday, write Birdie’s story. But don’t hold your breath, please.