Susan at her work

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

Tossing Away That First Novel

Reinterpreting our personal narratives

(Published Sept 24, 2021, in Found In My Journal on Medium)

Our stories about ourselves harden with age. We remember the remembering. In my essay “Ignorance of a Child Author,” you read the tale of the adolescent who threw away her 300-page novel in a fit of humiliation, never to write fiction again till 25 years had passed. I’ve been telling that story for decades. What a nervy little girl I was, being so creative. But traditional high school English class told me I’d been all wrong. A mini-melodrama. A tiny, silent tragedy.

Or was it?

Coming of age

First of all, I was not a child prodigy. Graduating from eighth grade, I was the product of an overcrowded parochial school, whose writing instruction seemed limited to diagramming sentences. I read Nancy Drew books. I could imitate the cadence and vocabulary of the author, but my plot meandered. Characters came and went. My buddies gave me a willing audience without much effort. Writing was a breezy pastime.

Then, the honors curriculum at a Catholic girls’ high school blew me away. Learning about structure, principles, and rules was a revelation. I might have been embarrassed not to have known them sooner, but I was ready to embrace them wholeheartedly. I was ready for the grammar of adulthood, ready to put behind me the indulgences of childhood.

Throwing away my silly old unfinishable novel was a rite of passage. The easygoing, intuitive comfort zone of childhood was over. Bye-bye Nancy Drew. Hello, Jack London and the lessons of “To Build a Fire.” Hello, Joseph Conrad and my academic near-death experience trying to decipher “The Lagoon.”

I may have given up on fiction, but I damn well learned how to write a proper essay.

And I loved learning how to sift order from chaos and to tease out principles from the yakkety-yak. I learned foreign languages. I got a Master’s of Science. I made a career of developing standards and designing metrics. None of it suffered from lack of creativity. All of it depended on my ability to understand the structures that form the armature for elegance.

I needed to lose my childhood novel.

But did I learn anything from all that innocent scribbling?

Years ago, when my mother read a version of the original lost novel story, she emailed me. “You didn’t lose anything,” she said. “You found a way to make friends over four years.”

Come to think of it, she was right.

For me, storytelling became a relational activity, not a transactional one. Oh sure, I submitted papers for grades and reports for paychecks — necessary transactions. But overall, being able to tell a story (with words, charts, diagrams, or drawings) gave me a place within a community and continued to make me friends.

Writing, with or without illustrations, allowed me to enter worlds where I might otherwise be a misfit. It gave me a role. I sat on the Board of a large fitness organization, where everyone else was an aerobic dance instructor. I evaluated programs and made policy in a large family service organization, where everyone else was a social worker.

I was shy about meeting my extended family in Ireland, but because I dove into writing up all the known family history, I became popular as “that cousin” who had all the stories.

I needed the audience. At a low point in my life, when I started regular journaling, I wrote it raw, online, not as a “content creator” hoping to make a buck off my “views,” but as someone looking for conversation.

It pays to rethink the stories we tell about ourselves. I’d gone for decades thinking my lost novel was the tale of a nerdy girl whose creative childhood got nipped in the bud by traditional education, whose precious work got pitched out in a rush of regrettable shame.

But in fact, telling the story in public, getting feedback, not only from my mother a decade ago, but also from my best friend just last week, forced me to probe deeper. My writing didn’t stop. My creativity wasn’t stifled. I made a decision. I took a leap of faith out of my comfort zone and never looked back.


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.