Fiction writer Téa Obreht rose to prominence at the age of 24 – before she’d even published her first novel – when she was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” best young writers. The following year, her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife was published to widespread critical acclaim, winning The Orange Prize (making Obreht this prize’s youngest-ever recipient) and being shortlisted for the National Book Award. It was also a New York Times best-seller. The novel is a family saga set in a fictional Baltic state that is recovering from a recent civil war. It weaves together realism and mythic stories in a prose style that is at once dreamy and precise. Obreht is currently working on her second novel, which is set in Wyoming in the 1880s.
That no amount of knowledge or tenacity or craftsmanship can substitute for the alchemy of working on the right project at the right time. My first book was written in response to the loss of a loved one – a grandfather who had essentially raised me – and eulogized not only a relationship, but also a particular phase of life. It took me a long time, and many false starts, to find my way to a project where I felt that same synthesis of subject and psychological state again. And when they come together, the writing itself changes: It doesn’t feel like work, it doesn’t feel like sentences in a holding pattern. It’s just necessity. (And then it’s revision, of course.)
I think writers tend to spend a lot of time seeking out a template of reassurance, asking themselves, “Is this how it’s supposed to go?” or “Did it feel this way before?” So any time you can identify a precise aspect of your own process is a small miracle. It was immeasurably helpful to come to terms with the fact that I really don’t believe in a wasted draft. And I tell students this: Even work you consider to be your worst is good for something. Every effort teaches you about your desires and tendencies, or guides you toward some new possibility, or shuts the door on an avenue you mistakenly thought was the right one. It’s a trial and error game, and every line you write – especially those that never make it to the printed page – has value.
Gabriel Packard is the associate director of the creative writing MFA program at Hunter College in New York City.