THINGS I WISH PEOPLE WOULD ASK ME AT PARTIES #5: Clarissa Goenawan

I to confess I have a sparse social agenda and am unlikely to be at a party. If I eventually appear at one, I usually bring one (or more) of my kids. They’re good distractions for my nervousness and I need not to worry about standing awkwardly in one corner.

But when I do go to one and people learn that I’m a writer, the flow of the conversation usually goes like this:

  1. So what do you write?
    (“Mainly novels, but I do write short stories from time to time.”)
  2. Interesting. What kind of novels?
    (“Literary mystery with elements of magical realism.” At this point, I pray hard they’re not going to ask what that means.)
  3. So where can I buy your novels?
    (Cue awkward pause. “Err… My debut novel is not available yet, but it’s coming out very soon in March. You can buy it in most bookstores. Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Waterstones, Kinokuniya… but I always encourage people to support local businesses and get their books from indie bookstores.”)

I usually can tell whether they’re genuinely interested if they ask for the title. (“It’s Rainbirds. Yes, rain as in the weather and birds as in the animal.”) Others proceed to tell me they actually plan to write a book someday, “…when I have the time.” Well, all of us writers know that we don’t always have the time, but we make the time.

The more brazen ones ask about my income. Funny how no one asks that question of dentists, or policemen, or teachers. (Maybe they do, but I’m not aware.) Anyway, it’s no big secret. Most writers don’t earn much. J.K. Rowling’s financial success is well known because she’s an exception, an extremely rare one.

Quite a number of people tell me how nice it is that I am able to make a living from doing what I love. Yes, it’s definitely a childhood dream come true. I feel so thankful and blessed. But what I really want is for people to ask me about the hard work. The sweat, the tears, and the frustration. Moments of triumph, but also moments of disappointment.

Writing a novel is hard work—very, very hard work. Most published novels come from years of loving labor with no guarantee of ever finding a reader. I started writing my first novel, Rainbirds, in November 2013 for NaNoWriMo. It took one and a half months to write the first draft, one and a half years to edit it, and about a year to find an agent who found me a great publisher. The publishing process takes another two years. Rainbirds is finally going to be published in March 2018. Yes, almost five years. And I was told that in my case, the process was relatively fast.

The debut novels you see in bookstores might be the author’s first published novels, but they’re not necessarily the authors’ first novels. It might be their second, third, fourth novel. One of the most crucial attributes you need to be a novelist is to have patience. Plenty of it. It’s a slow process.

Behind every novelist, there is usually a history of a long string of rejections. I could still recall the day I checked my email and saw three rejections in my inbox, back to back. And I cried. I cried a long time, quietly in my room. But after I calmed down, I wiped my tears and sent three more queries.

Because that is what it means to pursue your dream, your passion. You chase very hard after it, relentlessly, no matter what happens. You get knocked from left and right, you fall down and injure yourself, but you quickly stand up and continue to walk forward. If being a writer is what you really, really want, then giving up is not an option.

The story of hard work and perseverance is one I would love to tell over and over. If you’re an aspiring writer, I hope it spurs you to work hard and never give up. If you’re an author who has gone further along in this journey, let this be a timely reminder to give yourself a pat on the back. The industry is so hard yet you’ve done so well. Or perhaps you’re not a writer and never plan to be one—maybe you’re a reader, even a very occasional one—I hope that the next time you go a bookstore and pick a novel, you’ll know that you’ve got something very precious in your hand.


Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Her award-winning short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in Singapore, Australia, the UK, and the US. Rainbirds is her first novel.

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RAINBIRDS
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