Yeah, so I set fire to my book last year: every page of it, after a minor and tearful ceremony, in the brick cavity of an undersized fireplace in an average vacation rental on the McKenzie River.
(This wasn’t the children’s book—that’s what I wrote to make myself feel better after I burnt up the “real” book).
I did this not because it was a pile’o’crap, but because it was consuming me. Four rewrites and five dozen rejections and the thing had taken on a life of its own; its rejection, my own; its subject, my identity.
The thing about memoir is that it’s easy to take a bit too personally, as well as make you begin to treat your life like a Hollywood movie.
As I was living, I was thinking about the book constantly. “Is this the climax?” I’d ask myself. “Is this thematically relevant?” Finding the ending had become a bit of a quandary because life kept on happening while I was trying to write. “Should I wait another week—will the happy ending show up by then?”
This process was eating me alive, not to mention keeping me from enjoying the day-to-day imperfect beauty of my own wacky life rather than trying to turn it into a plot point.
So I lit fire to the thing. It was instantly, wholly liberating. And, within a week, I started editing it again. (I hadn’t burnt up my hard drive; no, I am not quite that fond of finality, or commitment for that matter.)
“So you burnt it like the phoenix?” my sister asked, kindly, but sarcastically.
Yes. I burnt it like the phoenix.
Yesterday afternoon I stood before a row of humidifiers, trying to make a decision. Would it be the adorable, frog-shaped one that would make Chicken Little smile, or the practical, cheaper one that would make sense beyond the animal-appliance-friendly days of young childhood? The world swayed and my mind went fuzzy.
Maybe if I weren’t so tired, I could perform this simple task.
My day had started at 5 a.m. when I’d loaded a croupy and feverish Chicken Little into the car and drove her to the ER. But really the previous day had never ended. I’d been up most of the night with her vomiting, wheezing, hot little self. The ER meds had helped, and we’d spent the day since in a dreamy daze; she’d wanted to be held, so the two of us had curled up on the couch with blankets, videos, and several copies of the New Yorker.
The day had reminded me of so many similar days before, when she (and her sister before her) was a newborn: when having a small person in my lap meant the phone rang and I didn’t answer it; showers were delayed if considered at all; laundry and the dishes languished; nothing was written but maybe a barely sensible email; consciousness swam in and out of focus and bleary-eyed exhaustion became forever correlated with a bliss never known before and never matched again—the utter contentment of holding your own gorgeous child for an entire day; the peacefulness of what it means to finally know the truth of family, and of love.
I reached out with both hands, tucked the frog humidifier under my arm, and headed for home.
I’ve just spent an hour identifying eight new publishers to submit my children’s book manuscript to (must get back on the bus!), and am feeling chagrined about my rant of last post. Namely, because now I recall that there are warnings all over the listings in Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market that some publishers, when uninterested, will simply not respond.
It’s still a sorry state of affairs, in my opinion. But I recognize that it is much easier (and far less useful) to rant than to simply accept the conditions one must work under and persevere anyway.
“Adapt and overcome!” my wise step-father has begun to declare at the tiniest sign of challenge. I will submit these eight and try not to take personally the absolute nothingness that might (or might not! must remain hopeful!) follow.
Twelve weeks ago I sent out seven queries+manuscripts for my children’s book. I think it’s safe to say at this point that I’ve gotten all of the responses that I am going to get: which is to say, precisely one.
That lonely reply was a boomerang (what I call the rejections that come back so fast you just know they couldn’t possibly have made it to New York and back); one of those preprinted form letters, barely a half-sheet of paper, which read something like:
“Dear Author/Illustrator (because we can’t be bothered to distinguish between the two of you), We are sorry to tell you that your manuscript doesn’t seem right for our list (because it sucks, or, possibly, because we didn’t read it). We are grateful to you for thinking of us (really, we are) and we wish you the best of luck in finding a publisher (as long as it’s some other sorry bastard) for your work. Sincerely, Editorial Department (or more likely some slightly depressive 19-year-old intern who thought she’d made it in the big apple until she found herself slaving away ten hours a day for soup money in a cubicle wearing her roommate’s borrowed heels).”
The sad news is that this crumpled mass-produced rejection letter counts as tremendous feedback compared to the deafening silence from the other six publishers.
I read in TIME magazine today that Stephanie Meyer sent out something like nine queries, got three rejections, five non-answers and one interested person. We hear these stories all of the time; they are meant to buoy us, apparently. I just think it’s pathetic and depressing. Can the publishing world not be bothered to reject us with the SASE we supply? But: none of that nasty negativity, now. We shall forge on, in search of an actual human being to one day read our slaved-over words and perhaps even tell us what they thought of them.
We went to an inauguration playdate this morning. On the way over, Chicken Noodle (not yet four) was convinced that Barack Obama himself was coming to Ethan’s house.
“When he gets there, I am going to freak out!” she said. I didn’t correct her for a few minutes because it was so darn cute.
Last night, I caught her telling her toy trucks, “Tomorrow, we get a new president!”
I said, “What do they think about that?”
“Trucks don’t talk, Mom.” Oh, right. How could I forget.
Barack didn’t show, except for on CBS, but the inauguration playdate was a success. Just like any other playdate, only with the additional detail of witnessing history. The kids ate muffins and played, the moms watched TV and cried.
Chicken Little clapped her hands and hollered “yay!” after Obama’s speech, and all the kids ran in to the room in time to wave goodbye to Bush as he boarded the helicopter destined for the rest of his life.
“Bye-bye, Bush” said Chicken Little, waving her one-year-old hand. Bye-bye, Bush, indeed.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article titled “Late Bloomers” for the New Yorker last year. It was based on work for his book “Outliers” and compared two kinds of creative genius. There are two styles of going about achieving a work of art, he wrote. In the first, a person sees their project fully formed in their mind and sets forth, often at a young age, to achieve it quickly and entirely. The other is much more experimental and time consuming. We (yes, this one is me) thrash about, putting together one version and then another of whatever it is we mean to create; we fail, we fling the last draft into a tree, we beat ourselves up, we get a new idea, we try again. Every time, we are filled with hope that this time we will get it right. Mostly, we don’t. We despair. But we can’t stop working at it. We keep trying. And eventually some of us do get it absolutely, gorgeously right.
There is no guarantee that I will be one to eventually bloom. There is no guarantee that my book will be published someday, or that I will publish some other book instead. But Gladwell’s article gave me a renewed sense of hope. It was nice, in the first place, to recognize myself in a methodology occasionally witnessed to produce great art. I thought myself simply neurotic, insecure and slightly deranged; well, then, so was Cezanne, and look what he managed to do? But even more helpful was an understanding of the bottom line when it comes to achieving success as a late bloomer—persistence. All of that trying and flailing takes time, and also, it counts as practice. The key is not giving up (also one of messages in Bradbury and his write-three-million-words-and-gain-mastery theory, perhaps). Gladwell’s article was also, of course, the inspiration for this blog.
Deep inside, I believe that my book will be published. It might be in ten or twenty years, but someday, I feel that it will be published. I believe this partly because I can’t stand the thought of it not being published, but also because I know that I am self-abusive enough to carry on long past any reason. Allow me to live long enough; allow me to steal enough hours from my children and husband; allow me to demure from other hobbies I might otherwise take up, like guitar-playing or surfing or scrapbooking (well, probably I’d never take up scrapbooking); and I will produce something worth publishing in a book-like object. Trust me.
How many “new yous” are left for Captain Daddy and I, I wonder? Maybe because I am approaching 40, lately I have been feeling the weight of the doors which have closed behind me; the narrowing of the possibilities which define my current life.
I don’t regret one single thing that has happened to me (well, maybe the loss of beauty, and one or two other things unfit for print), or any of the circumstances which anchor me now. But those closed doors lately linger like ghosts in my mind. The fact that so many of the Ys in the road that I have encountered were one-chance-only is only really clear to me now, in hindsight.
This, when you think about it, is pretty damn exciting. Perhaps even more so than the trapeze.
I sit down to write my first blog entry. I begin the first sentence. I hear, “Mommy, we want popcorn!” I get up. I pop popcorn. Never mind that it is 7:43 a.m. and some other mommies might think popcorn isn’t a breakfast food. I deliver the bowl to the requesting parties. I return to my office. I begin sentence two. “Mommy, my juice spilled!” I get up. I fetch paper towels to clean up the half-apple juice/half-water mixture which has disobediently escaped from the sippy cup. I replace the sippy cup with a new and hopefully more obedient one. “Tanks,” says one of the two requesting parties. I return to my office. I begin sentence three.
And now, allow me to introduce my children, Chicken Noodle and Chicken Little: co-conspiritors, helpmates and hinderances on my writer’s journey, depending on the day. Also included in the cast of my life is Captain Daddy, but he’s not here this morning, which is either a bad thing (if he were here he might possibly play with our chickens and give me some time to write) or a good thing (equally possible is that he would serve as judge and jury to the video/popcorn situation).
I predict that in just a moment, Chicken Little, who is not yet two, will lose interest in “Toy Story” and appear here at my desk, her little blond curls just coming to my elbow. “Up, Mommy,” she will say. I will lift her on to my desk alongside photos and seashells and stickers and to-do lists until she destroys something (the possibilities here are endless: the phone? The picture of her and Santa? A magazine contract?), at which point I will accept defeat for this writing session, having completed 200 words.
This leaves only 2,999,800 to go to meet Ray Bradbury’s criteria of success (he said that the accomplishment of writing one’s three millionth word would equate with achieving writing mastery).
Here I go…