When I was in third grade, I wrote a short story about a young girl and her family fleeing Earth because giant, intelligent cockroaches were taking over the world. Our class sat on the rug around our teacher, Mrs. Braaten, as she read the first page out loud, yelling the dialogue attributed to the cockroaches; I had handwritten their speech in all capital letters four ruled lines tall. I can’t remember the denouement, but it probably went something like this:
Human: “Oh no it’s a ROOOAAACHE!!!”
In my mid-twenties, after returning from two years in Japan, I decided to go to San Francisco to do what I’d always wanted to do: write a novel. I spent months huddled in a tiny apartment beneath a bridge in Soho. I lived on charred microwave popcorn and the occasional kindness of friends. I went for long, solo runs along the water, stopping as I walked back to my apartment to pick up a free copy of The Onion, my only source of news. I also made a few questionable decisions, one of which was not reading over my novel once, afraid I wouldn’t like it.
When I got brave enough, I realized the truth: it was awful. I don’t think I ever knew what it was about. (“It’s not about something. It follows themes,” I’d tell people when they asked.) There was a girl. There was a brother. There was a lot of unrealistic dialogue. There was a character who may have been mentally ill or may have been wise in a way the world wasn’t yet evolved enough to understand; it wasn’t clear. Nothing was clear except that the book was appalling. I deleted it from my computer. I threw away the copy I’d printed. To those of you that read it: I’m still sorry.
The awfulness of that book actually strengthened my resolve to write another, better book. Good God, I could do better than that.
The first time I didn’t hate my fiction I was living in Gastineau Apartments in Juneau, which have since burned down. I didn’t have any furniture — since I was applying to MFA programs, I figured it would just be a waste of money and time. I did have stacks of books, a nest of blankets on the floor, and a preference for writing while lying flat on my stomach, listening to a woman who sounded like the Wicked Witch of the West as she cackled beneath my fourth floor window in the early hours of the morning.
I wrote a story based in Delcambre, Louisiana, a town near the place I’d lived for the last year and a half. It was about an old woman with a secret she can’t bear to tell her son and all the ways that secret complicates their lives. I finished it, and then I read it over. I remember lying there, stunned, as the wicked witch cackled.
I had written fiction that wasn’t horrible. What a novel sensation.
I remember hearing about the theory of “steps” a while back, when I was learning Spanish. Progress doesn’t really happen gradually, at least not in a way that you can see. Instead, you feel you’ve plateaued for a while. Then, whoosh — up you go. All the sudden you understand a few jokes. You can join a conversation instead of following along a sentence behind. You start dreaming in the language you’re learning. I think progress in most worthy long-term endeavors happens the same way, writing included.
As writers, we balance two very different stories: the knowledge that we may fall short and the encouragement that helps us keep going. As the writer Saul Bellow advised, we just have to fail better. I love that advice, and the way it turns failure into a kind of triumph — I may have failed, but this time I did it better.
The cockroach story, of course, is the exception. The cockroach story was awesome.
Mary Catharine Martin is a Juneau writer currently sending out her book, The One that Ran Away. It interweaves the stories of three generations of runaways and spans rural Louisiana in the 1930s to modern-day Las Vegas and Southeast Alaska.