Are you a writer struggling with an identity crisis? Do you find it difficult to admit—even to yourself—that writing is more than just a hobby? If so, this story is for you…
Ten years ago, I read in the local Helsinki newspaper that Michael Cunningham was coming to my favorite bookstore to promote his most recent work, The Snow Queen. Of course, there was no doubt I would attend the public event, which included an interview and a book signing. I mean—the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours, flying all the way to Finland in dark, dreary November?! How often did a writer of his caliber grace our far-flung ice floe?
I contacted our mutual friend, April, a literary agent I had met a few years earlier at a writers’ conference in New York. April loved “all things Finnish,” so I knew she’d be delighted to learn that Mr. Cunningham was visiting my adopted country on his book tour. She asked me to deliver a personal message to the writer at the bookstore.
“He’s the best,” she added, although I didn’t need any prodding.
On a blustery November day, my husband Otto and I braved the elements and walked downtown to Stockmann’s book shop, where we joined a throng of other Michael Cunningham fans. As the author fielded questions about his writing process during the interview, I thought how fitting it was that he had come to Finland, a country with forty different words for “snow.” As a musician, I was also interested to hear that he had found inspiration in Brahms’s German Requiem (a personal favorite of mine) while writing The Hours.
After the interview, I purchased The Snow Queen for the author to inscribe, and while waiting in the long queue, mentally rehearsed the message April had given me, grateful to have something more to say to the famous author other than “I loved The Hours!”
When my turn came, Michael (we are now on a first-name basis) reached for my book and asked my name.
“Linda,” I told him. “A fellow American and friend of April (last name).” He looked a bit surprised at first, but then his smile broadened. I relayed her message, and he asked me to “send April my love.”
“I’m sorry the weather’s not so cooperative for your visit,” I continued, pointing to the bleak landscape outside the windows.
He flashed me a sympathetic look. “How did you wind up here, so far from home?”
“Because of this guy.” I pointed to Otto, who smiled shyly. The author nodded to my husband.
He then inscribed my book, addressing it to “Sister Linda.” Swoon. While handing it back, he asked a question I was not at all expecting: “Are you a writer, Linda?”
I froze. My mind went blank. After a few moments, the most coherent response I could muster up was: “Well … hmm … yes … But I’m more of a musician.” Rather than discuss my memoir-in-progress, I detoured into how I had recently sung in a performance of the Brahms Requiem at a nearby church. Michael smiled, and moments later, store staff whisked me away so he could meet his next fan.
Out on the street, I felt disappointed. Not with Michael, who really is “the best,” but in myself for fudging the answer. While I could say without hesitation that I was a musician after years of training and a B.A. in Music, why had it been so difficult to say, “Yes, I am a writer”? For the past few years, I had been diligently working on my memoir, Odyssey of Love, spending far more time at the computer keyboard than at my piano. During these moments, I certainly felt like a writer. But could I utter those words in all sincerity without having published first? Does one need to share her/his words publically to consider her/himself a writer?
Unlike other creative arts, where one can offer “proof” of one’s abilities—a painting, sculpture, or a piano/ballet performance—writers have no tangible evidence (other than a manuscript) of their efforts until the book is published. And the road to publication can take years, as I well know. I was also at a disadvantage because there was no English language writers’ group where I lived, so I missed the opportunity to workshop my memoir and receive feedback and support from other writers.
I finally decided to take steps to make me feel more confident in admitting that writing was a passion, not only a passing fancy. While my manuscript was being professionally edited, I attended the weekend-long Stockholm Writers Festival, overjoyed that such an opportunity existed only an hour’s flight away from Helsinki.
At the Festival, I learned the importance of creating a writer’s website or landing page, something that seemed presumptuous without an actual published book to offer. As I wondered aloud if this wasn’t putting the cart before the horse, the instructors reassured me that it was not only acceptable but necessary for aspiring authors. After all, how could a prospective agent or publisher find me if I didn’t have an online presence? I also bonded with lots of friendly writers at similar stages along the road to publication and noted that most of them listed author websites on their business cards. Perhaps the time for http://www.lindjamsen.com had arrived. Within one month, my website was live, as was an Odyssey book page on Facebook.
Now, two years post-Festival and ten years since meeting Michael, I am delighted that Odyssey of Love: A Memoir of Seeking and Finding will be launched into the world on June 1st. By hiring an editor, attending the conference in Sweden, and getting my website up and running, I’ve been able to grow a group of followers on social media and create advance buzz for my book. As Odyssey continues to receive positive reviews on Goodreads and Chanticleer, I can now say with certainty that I am not only a writer, but an author. Wow!
Mr. Cunningham—please publish another book soon so you can return to Finland and ask me that question again. This time, I promise not to fumble my answer.