Looking at the Life of a Writer, Unedited

Looking at the Life of a Writer, Unedited

If Hannah Gersen ’00 could write in her ideal conditions, her days might look something like this: She would sleep in, then squeeze in a workout, followed by some reading. At around 10 a.m., she would start writing and continue until 4 p.m., when she would call it a day.

But Gersen’s days have never really looked like this. As is often the case, the romanticized life of a writer — in which their daily schedule is decided only by the timing of an intense and unpredictable whim of inspiration — does not match her reality. Instead, throughout her career, Gersen has had to learn to balance her passion for writing with other responsibilities.

Gersen has taught English in Greece, worked for New York City’s Parks & Recreation department and spent time at a Wall Street law firm. Currently, she is raising a 2-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. At first glance, these jobs may seem random and disconnected, but they are all threaded together by what they simultaneously allowed her to do: write.

The Girl with Magic Balloons Gersen spent much of her youth in small towns, living in Bethel, Maine, for the first five years of her life before moving to Exeter, New Hampshire.

Growing up, Gersen had always liked school. It made sense for a girl whose dad was superintendent of the school district. School was the dinner-table conversation and in a sense, “the family business,” as she puts it. School was also where Gersen first experienced the empowerment of the creative writing process. In fact, she wrote her first book in second grade for a school project. Each student was to create their own personal “mini-book” that contained a collection of their writings.

“Being able to see my book and hold it in my hands, that was a big influence,” Gersen said. Beyond just the symbolic significance of having her own book, her story actually found some success. Each year, a traveling theater company visited her school and chose one story from each grade to perform. That year, Gersen’s story, which revolved around a little girl with magic balloons, was selected by the theater troupe. Watching adults produce her writing on stage was exciting for second-grade Gersen. In a figurative sense, she had become the girl in her story. Except instead of magic balloons, what .elevated her was a newly discovered passion for writing.

Throughout the next couple of years, Gersen kept up with writing through her schoolwork. It was not until she was 9 years old when she moved to Boonsboro, Maryland, a small town in the western part of the state, that she began to write for herself outside of school. Though it was her third move, the transition hit her hard and she needed an outlet — and that outlet became writing.

A Lesson in Writing for its Own Sake It was not a huge surprise that Gersen ended up spending her undergraduate years at a writing college like Amherst. Between running on the cross country team her first and second years, and singing with a cappella group the Sabrinas for all four years, Gersen lived up to the Amherst College student stereotype: well-rounded and busy. An English major, her undergraduate education not only taught her how to write, but also how to live as a writer; that is, how to live creatively. Gersen attended as many live music performances as she could fit into her already packed schedule — though she still says she wishes she had gone to more. After all, if the task of a writer is to relay the human experience, immersing herself in art was how Gersen learned to tap into that experience.

For her senior thesis, Gersen wrote a biography of her great-grandmother; it was a difficult process that taught her a lot. Completing it, however, was not the happily-ever-after moment she imagined. To this day, Gersen is not fully satisfied with the final product. This is not an uncommon feeling among writers, Gersen noted. “I don’t think I’ve reached a point where I finish a book and I’m like [completely pleased],” she mused. “I don’t know a lot of writers who do feel that way.”

But the value of Gersen’s thesis experience was not lost on her. The process of learning how to approach a long-term writing project was an essential turning point in her path to becoming a professional writer. Learning how to write for writing’s sake, rather than for a finished outcome was not just a one-time lesson — it became the cornerstone of Gersen’s career.

The Emotional Rollercoaster Gersen’s first years in the so-called real world were intense, to say the least. For six months, she was teaching English in Greece. When it came time to return home, she wanted to extend her stay and continue traveling. Then, life happened.

Gersen’s mom had been diagnosed with cancer during Gersen’s first year of college. By the time Gersen was in Greece, the cancer seemed to be under control. Shortly after, however, the disease resurfaced, and she returned to the United States to live with her parents for the remainder of her mom’s life.

After her mom passed away in June 2001, Gersen landed several positions at the New York City Parks & Recreation department and chose to take on the role of correspondence secretary to the Manhattan borough commissioner. Why? Because it involved the most writing.

Just when it seemed like the post-college emotional rollercoaster might be slowing down, an unexpected drop kicked it right back into acceleration. Her first day of work in New York City was September 8, 2001. Three days later, the Twin Towers fell. Both the fact that she was living in New York in the wake of 9/11 and her mother’s death made Gersen’s first few years out of college “very, very vivid.”

In many other career paths, personal tragedy is viewed as an obstacle. For writers, it can serve as fuel. During this time, Gersen journaled consistently and drafted her first novel. “Even though most of what I wrote was awful, I did get into the practice of writing every day and working on things independently and just became a little more disciplined in general,” she said.

The 12-Year Push Renowned Irish author Anne Enright has said that when becoming a writer, “the first 12 years are the worst.” For Gersen, this was true. When she was 24, she enrolled in a novel-writing class at the 92nd Street Y, a community center on the Upper East Side with a well-known literary division where great writers teach classes. Throughout her 20s she wrote, submitted to publications, received rejections, wrote some more and continued the cycle.

“When I was in my 20s, I was very anxious about whether or not I would have any success with writing,” she said. These doubts circulated in her mind, making it difficult for her to finish projects. Her concern with the end product stifled her creative process.

But after spending time at three writers’ retreats, she realized that uncertainty comes with the trade. “That really helped me because I met writers of all different ages and I saw that they all were struggling with similar questions and doubts — it’s just part of it,” Gersen said.

At the age of 30, while doing administrative work for a Wall Street law firm, Gersen was published for the first time. Granta Magazine, a literary quarterly founded in 1889, featured her short story “Fox Deceived” on its website. Shortly after, the 2008 financial crisis happened. While her colleagues at the law firm were panicking over the looming recession, Gersen was finally beginning to find her writer’s groove. She published short stories in numerous other magazines, such as The Southern Review, The New England Review and The North American Review. At the same time, she was working on a second novel (she had let the first one go after deciding it could not be salvaged). After struggling to find an agent to represent the novel, Gersen tried to compile her short stories into a collection, but she came up against a wall. The rejections were piling up and it did not seem like her successes would outweigh them.

“At the time, I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to finish this book of short stories and if no one is interested in that book, then I’ll give up,’” she said.

And it was a wise decision. Fulfilling her promise to herself, Gersen finished the collection and ultimately secured an agent. “I feel like everything has been like that in my career … I always convince myself of one more little goal,” she said. Her next “little” goal was to write a third novel. At age 36, exactly 12 years after she enrolled in that first novel-writing class at the 92nd Street Y, Gersen’s debut novel, “Home Field,” was accepted for publication by William Morrow Paperbacks.

The Payoff Gersen began working on “Home Field” in 2011 while pregnant with her first child. After difficulties with her first two novels, she was hesitant to begin a third. Her agent pushed her to do it, however, and once she knew she had someone to hold her accountable, Gersen was in.

Besides her agent’s coaxing, Gersen was inspired to write “Home Field” in order to explore the dynamics of a small town and “a family that had to sort of regroup after a tragedy.”

The novel takes place in Willowboro, a small town in western Maryland, and follows a high school football coach named Dean Renner who is coping with the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. The story is simultaneously emotional and uplifting, reflecting Gersen’s own path up to this point.

The process of writing “Home Field” bore some similarities to her other books. She knew she would finish it just as she had the other two. She coped with the same doubt of whether it would be sellable. But once she began working with a publisher, the process became profoundly different.

“Publishing your first book, it does change you … Once people are really invested in it, there’s a level of attention to detail that I hadn’t ever brought to my work, which I really learned a lot from,” Gersen said.

text Gersen was inspired to write her debut novel, “Home Field,” to explore the dynamics of how a family from a small town copes with tragedy. It was her first to be picked up by a publisher. Photo courtesy of Hannah Gersen ’00.

“There’s no logic to it, I just want to do it.” Gersen’s devotion to writing has been almost entirely self-enforced and motivated. While working other jobs, she would write at night, take writing classes on the side and go on retreats to polish her skills. Now, while raising two children in Brooklyn, she is working on her next novel.

Through the rejection, the mental blocks and tribulations, Gersen has never given up, even when she was absolutely ready to. When I asked her what keeps her motivated, she had no real answer.

“I just want to do it for myself — there’s no logic to it, I just want to do it. I’m not working for anyone … I don’t have to sell this book. I don’t have that kind of pressure on me and I don’t think I could personally cope with that … It’s a good question. I honestly don’t know why I keep doing this,” she said.

And yet, she keeps coming back to it. It speaks to the natural instinct that has been ingrained in her since she wrote about the little girl with magic balloons. For Gersen, writing isn’t an unwanted obligation. She loves art, and she loves to create — no explanation needed.

Gersen’s path has not been linear. There have been beginnings, pauses, endings and resets.

When she talks about her career, she punctuates each sentence with humble laughter — she knows her story is not the most glamorous.

But shouldn’t that be the case for a writer? If she is to depict life as a real person in its truest sense on paper, then she must live it the same way in the real world — without sugarcoating or romanticizing. Maybe that means she will never achieve her ideal day, but maybe that, in and of itself, is ideal.