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Elaine Barlow has a bargain with her husband George: if she doesn’t find a new job by year’s end, he will choose their next move and re-establish his vet practice, which will probably spell the end of her career. Elaine used to be a high-flyer. She got her PhD, traveled all over Africa on a string of prestigious research fellowships, and landed a top-notch university teaching job. But she failed at the game of academic politics, she didn’t get tenure, and now she can’t seem to find another job. She’s lost her paycheck, her social status and her self-esteem. Stripped of her professional identity, Elaine lives a life of errands with her preschool daughter Stella. She listens to former colleagues being interviewed on NPR, while she has become invisible. Elaine studies the people she meets to see how they do it—how they live without tenure. She begins to imagine herself as something else. Lawyer? Teacher? Wildlife rehabilitator? Convenience store clerk? Long days with the spirited Stella leave Elaine feeling like a double failure. George stays out late several nights a week, supposedly working long hours at the job he hates. Can Elaine pull herself together before her marriage collapses too?

Finally, Elaine gets a chance at another academic job, but George refuses to relocate for it. He obviously has a secret, and Elaine fears the worst. But Elaine has been learning—from a manicurist, a flooring salesman, her former students, her parents, Stella, and their menagerie of special needs pets. She learns that it’s never too late to grow into a person you respect. And when that happens, anything is possible.





I'm an Author!

remarks made by the author at the award ceremony for the Xerox Aspiring Author contest.

When they told me a couple of weeks ago that I’d won and then that I should prepare some remarks for the award ceremony, I thought of a lot of things to say. Then I procrastinated. Then, fortunately for all of you, I got writer’s block. So I’ll keep this short.

Xerox Aspiring Author contest—what a perfect name for a contest. Like it was made for me. Because that’s what I am, one of the prime ways I’ve identified myself for several years now. Aspiring. Author. I don’t live in a garret, thanks to a nicely employed husband, but I still feel that I speak for aspiring authors everywhere, who toil in obscurity, writing and rewriting, imposing on our friends to read drafts of our stories. And then the next draft after that. Sometimes we pretend that we write for the sheer pleasure of writing, of getting the words down, of saying what we have to say, just right. And that’s not a total lie, because there is satisfaction in it. But really, the reason we write is to share stories, and to share a story, you need an audience, which is why we force our stories on our friends and relations.

So it’s a huge thrill to win this contest, because it means that now I expect that some people will read the story I’ve been working so hard to get right. People who aren’t reading a tenth draft out of sense of obligation, that is. And as a life-long reader, it’s a thrill to feel that I’m joining the ranks of those whose stories have nourished and inspired and entertained and challenged and informed me.

I admit that when I entered this contest, I had no expectation whatsoever of winning. I did it for the free book. That was just barely enough incentive to enter, because it doesn’t cost that much to have a book printed. And there’s always that hope, that expectation, that maybe next week, or maybe the week after, you’ll make some more revisions and have a draft that you’re happier with, that will be more worthy of print and of sharing with people. But all my friends were entering, and they had these cool books to show for it, so I figured, what the hey. And I have a wonderful artist friend, Kelly Cheatle, who volunteered to do my cover and she did such a good job with it that it obligated me to get the manuscript submitted.

I didn’t actually submit till the night of the deadline. And I hadn’t read the fine print, I didn’t realize until that night that there was a limit on the number of submissions that would be considered, or I would have entered sooner. And I wished I had entered sooner, because that night the server kept timing out. I had to submit my ms several times and then I got bumped during the process of submitting the cover. So I could feel people all over the country submitting and I figured I probably hadn’t made the cut.

When my book came, I thought it was beautiful. I took it over to give it to Kelly, because that’s the least I could do since I wasn’t paying her. She wasn’t home, so I sat and read the book while I waited for her, and I found a couple of typos in the first chapter. But the great thing about Publish on Demand is you can make small changes and reissue it. So an author could print a different version every week. It’s actually cheaper to print a book on Lulu than to have a manuscript copied at a copy center. Ask your friends which they’d rather read, a pile of manuscript pages, or a nicely printed and bound book. I even made a large print edition for my mother, whose eyesight is not what it once was.

I think Publish on Demand is going to be a real boon to authors. It is such a thrill to see your work looking like a book. One of the hardest things about being an aspiring author is to take yourself seriously. No one else can take you seriously, because you’ve never written anything, so you have to gamble on yourself before anyone else will gamble on you. And honestly, it takes a long time and a lot of work to write a book and you’re not even sure if it’s any good and if it’s worthwhile. And meantime, there are plenty of other things you could be doing with your time. I used to joke about the fact that I was always telling my daughter when she was a toddler, “Why don’t you go watch TV? I have to write a story about a woman who’s a good mother and who cares about her child so much she gives up on a demanding career.”

Seriously, there are a lot of other things to do, and where do you find the conviction that you have something worth saying and that you can say it well enough that someday people will want to read it? For me personally, the answer was always feedback. I always wrote short things while I was writing my book. I wrote a lot of essays that got published in newsletters for organizations I belong to. Here I need to mention Mothers & More, which is a terrific group that supports mothers, especially during transitions in their work lives, which is just where I was when I started writing. And I’m happy to see in the audience two dear friends from Mothers & More, Joanne Brundage, the CEO, and Joy Eatman, the Chief Operating Officer. Mothers & More and the friends I’ve made there has been a tremendous support in my life for the past eight years, I owe them a lot. Anyway, people read their newsletters and they know you and they say nice things to you. I got a lot of encouragement that way.

And I joined writing groups. Just having a schedule of meeting with some people who expected me to have written something helped me keep at it, even when I was discouraged. And when I was discouraged, my writing group members helped me figure out what was wrong, so that instead of just being discouraged, I was learning. I don’t know how some writers work in isolation. I shared my novel with a group of friends who were very encouraging. And being able to share in the form of a bound book is really helpful. It makes the reading experience what it should be cozy, comfortable, portable. It’s great.

I have a lot of hopes. I hope that Lulu continues to develop. Every author wants to walk into bookstores and see their book on the display by the door. I understand that it’ll be a while before that happens, because of the lack of economies of scale. But the next best thing would be for all of your friends all over the country to be able to buy it online.

I think there are drawbacks to Publish on Demand, speaking as a book buyer and as an author. I’ve read a lot of manuscripts in my years as a writer, and I know that there’s a lot of half-baked writing out there that writers are trying to get into print. Speaking as a reader with limited time, the publishers sometime are doing us a favor when they weed out the worst. When I read the ads from IUniverse in the New York Times each week, I see in the blurbs the telltale hallmarks of amateur writing. So as a reader, I’m skeptical, and as a writer, I would like to get myself into a different category. So I expect that we’ll see the development of new forms of marketing and reviewing that will help some writers make the jump from self-publishing to big time publishing. Or maybe there will be authors who hit the bigtime through self-publishing. I’m not sure if that’s happened yet. I’d be happy to be a part of that development!

I hope to write more books. Actually, I’m already working on my next one. And the award has helped, because it helps me take myself seriously. It helps me say no to other things, to busywork things that no one will remember five years from now. Including housework. My husband jokes about it—“Mommy didn’t have time to shop, she’s a famous author now, so it’s leftovers tonight, Rachel.” But actually, he’s a good sport and it really does help him to realize that all that time I spend on the computer neglecting the things that affect our family are worthwhile too.

Since I learned that I won, I’ve told pretty much everyone I know, many of whom didn’t even realize I was writing. So they ask me what it’s about. I tell them it’s about unfinished business. It’s about a generation of women who grew up after the second wave of feminism, believing that women can do anything. And then they discover that the world’s a complicated place. You can do anything you set your mind to, but you can’t necessarily do everything you want all at the same time. There are complicated compromises being worked out in homes all across the land. People ask me if my book is autobiographical, and I tell them there are certainly elements of my life that I’ve put in the story, but the story is a common story, it’s the story of my generation. I’m amazed sometimes when I meet women who seem very successful and I think that somehow they managed to keep all the balls in the air, while one or two of them fell on my head, but they understand the story exactly, because it’s the juggling that’s the story. A lot of men understand the story perfectly well too, though some of them would prefer that I add some car chase scenes or blow something up.

Once more, I’d like to thank the people of Xerox and Lulu, who are helping me tell my story, and open some dialogue. This is a wonderful day for me. I hope you all enjoy the book as much as I’ve enjoyed getting this award. And I’ve been telling all my writer friends about Lulu. I think you’ve got a great thing going here, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Barbara Grosh
Sept. 13, 2005
Chicago Public Library