Two weeks ago, I reviewed Gina Welch’s In the Land of Believers, which chronicles the two years she spent undercover at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in an attempt to understand evangelical Christians. I’m thrilled to welcome Gina today as she shares this guest post about how it all began.
When I was 25, I met a woman on Craigslist who altered the course of my life. I was fresh out of graduate school, coming off a local magazine job where the appalling degradations had started to outweigh the happy challenges. I was back on cigarettes, drinking too much, flat broke.
Worst, I was a writer in self-identification alone. After school ended I’d quickly lost interest in polishing my short-story thesis, Daughter of the People, for publication. Something about the way I wrote fiction was bothering me. My stories were all templated from life, and didn’t really seem like Fiction so much as Memoir, With Liberties. And much of my templating felt like theft—I was using my family’s stories, the stories of life I’d shared with friends, and calling it invention. So I decided, with a kind of minute, internal repositioning, I wanted to write nonfiction. But I made few visible gestures in that direction.
I’d gone online one June day to find day gigs to pay down the phone bill and so on. In the past I’d found Craigslist work ladeling stew at the Virginia State Fair, work moving sofa beds. I’d once considered a job as one of those midriff girls at a car show. In the JOBS – MISC category this time I found something strange: a woman in Alexandria wanted writers to help her attack a shamefully overgrown garden, and in exchange she would offer a bit of money, a bit of lunch, and a bit of advice on getting published.
I don’t even think I Googled her name. I don’t think I really knew what she meant by “getting published.” In my graduate program it was considered sort of vulgar to talk about the business part of writing, and so I had very little sense of the magical process by which a thought-vapor became hardbound book.
I sent her a story, she sent me her address. That weekend I left Charlottesville at dawn, hungover from a friend’s birthday party, and by the time I arrived in Alexandria it was surface-of-Mars hot. The woman who answered the door was pathologically awkward, constantly distracted by something over my shoulder. Out back, she showed me the garden—a shadeless, scary chaos of tangled vines. Several would-be writers were already out there, frowning and sweating, dragging up long skeins of poison ivy. I got out there with a trowel and pulled up anything with a root. Hours passed. Someone screamed: a piece of retrieved tree bark was actually a petrified squirrel. My shins grew red with rash. As I stabbed into the dirt, I cursed myself for not asking questions before coming out to Alexandria. I couldn’t really afford the gas. I’d probably come out there for nothing. Who was this woman, anyway?
When we’d cleared the garden, we entered the sunroom for lunch. Over pita bread and hummus, the woman told us a little about herself. She wrote newspaper reviews. She’d written for something called Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I was tired and irritable, and suppressed the urge to roll my eyes.
She then interviewed each of us about our writerly aspirations. I gave her a vague but honest answer. I wasn’t too interested in writing fiction at that moment, I said. Maybe I wanted to write some articles. I’d been pitching some stuff about Christian rock, evangelical Christian megachurches. Maybe I’d look for a magazine job.
“What do you ultimately want to do?” she asked.
I thought about it. “I want to write books.”
She nodded. “The shortest distance between you and writing a book,” she told me, “is writing a book.”
Maybe that sounds like nose-on-your-face-type obvious advice to you. To me, it was as close as I’ve ever gotten to pure epiphany. In that instant the loose-change thoughts I’d been having about articles on evangelical Christianity and American fervor packed into a brick of metal: I had an idea for a book. I asked the woman my stupid questions. What comes first, agent or editor? How do I find an agent? How do I write a query?
I raced back to Charlottesville that afternoon electrified with certainty. I was going to pitch a nonfiction book.
When I think about this origin story, I feel a rush of shame. Shame that the urge to write a book predated the urge to write this book; shame that I’d almost written this woman off for superficial reasons. But it feels like a healthy moment to revisit, because it reminds me that rigorous openness is one of the best tools in a writer’s drawer.
Learn more about Gina Welch and In the Land of Believers at her website, and feel free to leave questions in the comments below; she’ll pop by to answer periodically.