The first time I started writing my debut novel, I was a senior in college at Oxford, Ohio. I sat outside my dorm room, because “sexiled” was a word I had recently added to my vocabulary, and wrote in longhand about a young woman who was sitting outside of her dorm room. She had just had a conversation with her college mentor in which she’d asked why they’d spent the past four years studying the ways in which famous people made art, even though very few of them were going to become famous artists.
Like the young woman in my story, I’d also recently had that conversation. “Where are the biographies of ordinary people?” I had asked. I already knew that The Biographies of Ordinary People was going to be the title of the book.
The second time I tried writing the novel, I was a temporary receptionist in Washington, DC. I’d gone to grad school, learned even more about how to be a creative artist, still wasn’t famous, was pretty sure I’d never be famous, but equally sure that I wanted to make art — and I’d start by writing this book about a young woman who also wanted to figure out how to make art even though she lived an otherwise ordinary life.
I wrote paragraphs between phone calls, still in longhand, in a notebook I had purchased myself so I couldn’t be accused of misappropriating office resources. This time the character was doing something very different from what I was doing, since I was uninterested in capturing the life I was currently living. (When they told me my temp contract was for six weeks, I was grateful for the money and then went back to my sister’s apartment and cried because I could not imagine going into that dismal office every day for six whole weeks.)
I filled several pages of the notebook before I realized my story had no plot, and I couldn’t figure out how to get one started. In that way my character’s life still felt a lot like mine.
The third time I tried writing the novel, I was sitting with my laptop in a frozen yogurt shop. I was a few years into my job as an executive assistant at a Washington, DC think tank, and I still wanted to make art, and I also really liked frozen yogurt. I told myself that I could buy a yogurt every weekend if I worked on my novel at the same time.
This plan lasted exactly one Sunday. It’s hard to type while you’re eating frozen yogurt.
The fourth time I tried writing the novel, I was in my bedroom in Los Angeles. It was one of those roommate situations where every room is a bedroom, and my bedroom wasn’t large enough for an actual bed. I slept on a futon, on the floor — and that’s where I sat when I started the draft.
This time I got a lot further into the novel, in part because I’d finally had some experience with the whole “making art when you’re not famous” thing. I’d become a singer-songwriter, since I could write songs faster than I could write novels, and get an audience’s reaction right away. I’d done the convention circuit, had a residency at a L.A. dive bar, sold $20,000 worth of albums (gross, not net — my profit at that point was in the negative and dropping fast).
I stopped writing the novel because the character was too much like me, and her family was too much like my family. That story was familiar, but it wasn’t the one I wanted to tell.
Also, I’d started picking up freelance writing gigs, since I couldn’t put rent on a credit card. It was the first thing I’d done that hit the center of the “how to choose a career” Venn diagram: I was good at it, I enjoyed it, and people were willing to pay me to do it.
I let them pay me, and my career started to grow.
The last time I started writing my novel, I was in Seattle. I had a readership, thanks to my years of freelancing. I had fans who were ready to fund my Patreon project, providing financial support in exchange for two chapters, every week. I also had an outline, which I’d never written for any of my previous drafts, and a group of characters who weren’t just me and my family wearing adjectives as clothing.
Plus — and perhaps most importantly — I’d learned how to write both to spec and to deadline. After years of writing 5,000 words a day on topics ranging from saving money on summer camp to landing page optimization, I could turn nearly anything into a story. I’d also written actual short stories for a handful of publications, and had become adept at the 1,200-word narrative—the close focus on a single perspective, the plot that twists in the middle of a sentence.
So I wrote two 1,200-word chapters every week, along with all the freelance pieces I was writing about user testing vs. A/B testing and the year we all wore kigurumi. It came so easily, after all the work I’d tried to do for the past decade. I had the outline, I had the deadlines, and I’d finally found my voice as a writer. It wasn’t a famous voice, but it was mine, and I was going to use it to tell the story of how ordinary people made art.
Which is funny, because that isn’t the plot of the book at all.
I did, however, keep the title. The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989–2000 published in May 2017, and Volume 2: 2004–2016 published in May 2018 — fourteen years after I sat outside my dorm room and started my first draft.
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer, the editor of The Billfold, and the host of the Writing & Money podcast. Her work has appeared in Boing Boing, Popular Science, Scratch, The Write Life, The Freelancer, The Toast, and numerous other publications. The Biographies of Ordinary People is her debut novel, if you don’t count the speculative fiction epic she wrote when she was in high school.
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