Nonfiction

Rejection, Pep Talks Involving Oil, and My Biggest Fan(s).

I spent yesterday starting a piece called “Everest,” about my constantly evolving relationship with my daughter’s dad, until around 4pm, when I got an email from the one publisher who requested my full pregnancy memoir manuscript, back in December ’11. I submitted it in mid-January, after coming up with an ending, and I’d checked in with the publisher twice over the past five months, since I was initially told to expect feedback in 6-8 weeks.

Now, here it was. Right in my inbox on a Sunday afternoon, a holiday. I knew it wasn’t good news, and I was right. They don’t want it.

I could stop here–and I almost did.

I hate rejection. I’m not one of those slick-backed people who roll criticism off themselves like water and never let it make them question their worth, ability, or purpose. I’m the opposite of that; I absorb every rejection–whether personal or professional, merited or baseless–and try to figure out how to become unimpeachable and beyond reproach. It’s what kept me from submitting to more than 20 agents and small presses in this initial run, and what kept me waiting on this last company’s decision before deciding whether the manuscript is viable at all.

Since everyone else said no or said nothing, it would come down to them. They seemed interested. After the first follow-up, they said they were very carefully considering it. I believe they did.

But I also knew they’d likely pass. I wrote the manuscript the way I write blog entries: stylistically, flowery, purple. And there isn’t much of a market for that in the category of memoir (or in general, I guess, unless you’re exceptional at it and use it sparingly).

In the end, the feedback suggested as much, that if I were willing to be less gauzy and second-person-y and provide a substantial amount more concrete detail, they’d give it a second look*. They said I’m a good writer (“very, very good” is the verbatim quote and thank God for it), but the diaristic nature of the book (which is, they said, in some ways, its strength) ultimately leaves the reader adrift. And worse: the work is too inwardly focused, too inside my head and not conscious enough of the reader.

Craft talk confession: this is my mortal flaw as a writer. Being too inside-my-own-head. I write in ways that make sense to me, not with an eye toward the reader, nor with much attention to time or space. I write what feels urgent and necessary and I’ll stop here before I veer further into that embarrassing self-assessing space that works to reinforce this point.

Anyway, I decided after reading the rejection, that I’d table the memoir (and memoir altogether). It’s the second one I’ve written, both were rejected, and for two reasons, I was partially relieved each time: 1. I was writing about very raw experiences with people impossibly close to me; publishing my ideas about them would damage too many relationships. And 2. Dozens of rejections must mean the work clearly wasn’t as good as I thought it was** and I could spare myself further rejection by moving on right now.

I am not a self-confident person. Most people can sense this about me right off. But I’m also used to achieving my goals with relative ease–except with this one I want most: to make my career as a literary writer (blogging/online writing, awesome as it sometimes is, isn’t quite the same***).

Couple the fact that I’m not used to needing tenacity with my compulsive uncertainty, and you have your reasons why I don’t already have a book or two published.

I was all too eager to go on to my novel-in-progress (because surely, this is the most commercially salable material I’ve ever written and all those other failed projects were just target practice, right?), after a brief existential depression, that is.

And then I read the rejection letter to my daughter’s dad last night. And I kid you not: he gave me the best. pep talk. EVER. It was all the more impressive because, if you’ve been following the excerpts I’ve written about him here in the past two years, you know that the memoir doesn’t flatter him.

Here’s where I should also point out that I am only brave when I’m writing. Afterward, a kind of cowardice kicks in. It’s one thing to blog or to publish. It’s quite another to open your door and field the complaints of a whole torch-bearing village, regarding the things that you’ve written. It doesn’t matter if your account is true; it’s still embarrassing for them and by extension, hurtful.

So though I told him repeatedly that I was writing this book, I never offered to let him read it, and he never asked. It was just another elephant, another bridge we’d cross when we got there. But occasionally, he’d let on that, during our months-long estrangement, he’d read things–things I didn’t know he’d read–so he had an idea of what to expect.

In short, he told me that, even though we’re in an amicable place now, that doesn’t invalidate what happened. “And if that pain can yield you a paycheck…”

He insisted it didn’t make sense to shelf it, because that rejection letter was filled with suggestions for making the manuscript more accessible.

Our conversation contained all kinds of extended metaphors (On conforming to genre expectations–which I don’t: “The industry is a machine that needs to be oiled. You just have a different grade of oil, and no one knows your brand yet. For now, you’ve got to change your formula.”) and plaudits (“I’m your biggest fan. Well, maybe your mom. And Story. We’re your biggest fans.”****)

Suddenly, this Father’s Day skyrocketed from bearable to awesome.

I know I’ve written a lot, but here’s an excerpt from the Everest piece I abandoned, once we got the rejection note:

I promised you the climb, without pomp, with no parade, without paper. I just looked up and saw above me an impossible height and, toward its apex, the specter of you beyond mist, in thinner air. You, insurmountable, a boy fully grown but under-parented, a man without map, baring nothing: a pinnacle. And as sure as the snow caps, the scant breath, the cliffs, I made vows.

I will tether myself to your side, will pull up or scale across or camp in your clefts, will hold fast to the immovable ridges that round you. I will bundle myself against your bite and warm myself with small victories.

These were unconsidered oaths, incalculable and foolish.

I may finish it later.

* More concrete detail would make it a different kind of project, one about which I’m less enthused. I wanted it to read like a kind of fable, not like a series of unfortunate straightforward incidents.

** A writer I follow on Twitter has told me repeatedly how few twenty rejections are. She had a friend who submitted a project to fifty or sixty agents before one said yes. It’s the kind of story you need to hear, but it also makes you queasy and moves you to paper-bag breaths.

*** As much as I love this blog and as much as writing for other sites has affording me a scantly larger audience, it’s the literary writing that will make me a contender for full-time college teaching positions, which is part of my endgame.

**** I’d add my dad to that list. He asks to read everything I write. And then he does.

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Nonfiction, Parenting, Uncategorized

And Our Little Child Will Lead Us.

First confront the shame. Shame is the behemoth, the Goliath. Fell it, and anything else insurmountable will shrink to scale. The great transmogrifier, Shame takes any form you let it. It may shapeshift into a messy divorce, into unmarried coupledom gone awry, into the solemn head-shake of a disappointed God and the gloat of His more judgmental congregants, into pitying married couples arranging blind dates as though the sight of you alone is as heartbreaking as a one-eyed limping animal in an ASPCA commercial.

Shame, for me, is a vapor: insidious, poisoned, barbed. It is a twin air, near-indistinguishable from oxygen. In order to lessen its paralysis, I have fashioned an elaborate mask, a filter. It traps negative observations and complaints; it purifies the dark confession. It clears the air. But there is always seepage, in places where air is its thickest, in rooms with invisible elephants, in restaurants and grocery stores that become mini-high school reunions.

When the air is too thick to be cleared, when smugness is acute enough to smother, when the task of answering pointed questions threatens to close your throat, it is best to remove the mask. If Shame intends to suffocate, let it come. Let it stifle if it must, but hold deep with yourself, in flattened diaphragm, in taut, expanded lung, in blood that pounds what’s truest through the heart, the knowledge that you can withstand it.

Once you learn to circumvent the shame, develop convenient amnesia. Curtain the crueler scenes, the ones which hinder progress and impede impartiality. Do not rehearse the ugly dialogue, nor swell with the indignation necessary to deliver a self-righteous soliloquy. Forget the well-dressed set, with its four poster bed center stage, where you spent months weeping and rehashing in the fetal position. Retire the ticks you cling to, the shorthand you use to decide on an appropriate emotion. These things will not serve you well in the upcoming acts. Take a red pen to the past. Slash all things that do not matter. They will be many. Focus on the empty pages before you, on the ending that as yet unconceived.

This is how you’ll fill them: start with the loveseat you sat in together last weekend, with your toddler between you, turning bony somersaults across your laps. She stops and glances first at you, then at her father; she has only seen you together at length a handful of times, but never quite so cozily curled as the three of you are right now. She does a double-take, eyebrows raising, and the wisdom of all of her 21 months converge in the knowing curl of her lips. The smile she gives you both–appraising, befuddled, approving–speaks volumes of her expectations.

She wants you civil. Relaxed. At genuine peace with one another. She wants you statuesque and grinning within the white-edged confines of photos. She is not here for your bittersweet memory or mourning, cannot conceive of a life spent reminding each other of wrongs. What she wants is the loveseat. And she will not split hairs about the kind of love it offers, will not scrutinize whether her parents’ affections are romantic or filial, as long as their love for her is unconditional.

This is what you owe her, a relationship as uncomplicated as sitting. This is not something you would’ve been able to give her at birth. It has taken failed previews, missed openings, and more rewrites than you’re capable of counting. It has taken a meticulous removal of the cataracts of offense, which warp and color everything according to their own pain. It has taken admission of your own fault, of the strange revelation that there is more than one way for the two to become one flesh, of the recognition, stranger still, that your incarnation of one flesh streaks through sprawling fields of grass. She casts glances over her shoulder and expects both of you to follow.

As you do, first tentatively, then with reckless, laughing abandon, you forget all the rules you’ve assigned yourself. You are, more than a former couple, more than realigning allies, more than two people who’ve hurt each other profoundly. Your daughter has reminded you that, above all, you are a family.

In this manner, she will ever be your guide.

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Uncategorized

In the Land of At Least.

Twice I turned my back on you. I fell flat on my face but didn’t lose. – Yukimi Nagano

1.

This love is a leaden zephyr: it will always sink but at least it was made in the image of that which can fly.

Long ago, I gave you my heart in a kite. You wound the string around your neck: a floating pendant, an ascot that sailed against sky. And we walked together, two children in grown-up bodies: a girl in an eyelet dirndl, a boy in a sport coat and knickers. Playing school, playing doctor, playing house. You always wanted to be the teacher, always wanted to be the patient, always wanted to be head of the home. But at least I was never made to wear the dunce cap. At least I was not stricken with incurable disease. At least the home that we built was made of air.

Before long you began your proposals. The first was framed as algebra: if I asked you to marry me on your birthday, what is the probability you would wed me before gaining ground in your career?

n is the number of times you have asked for a compromise that solely benefits you. x is the absence of rings.

Solve for y.

You said my heart-kite became a noose. At least you didn’t die.

The bloom has long since fled this bouquet. It will shrivel like a cancerous thing. Its petals, if pulled, will portend our eventual fate: he loves me; he loves me; he loves me not. But at least you chose each flower yourself, at least you picked them from a garden you tend, at least you did not leave our outcome in the cold and scarred hands of a florist.

2.

These inner children have grown. The girl has turned in her dirndl for a rough-hewn maternity smock. The boy is donning track shoes. They are every bit as mature as we’ve always looked and as wary as aging requires. When the sedatives wear thin in her blood and she raises her heels to push, his hands are not the ones that act as human stirrups, his eyes not the first to be laid on their child. He is not there at all; he has left for a gig. But at least he is called when the infant wriggles free. At least he whispers her name through a telephone held to her ear. At least he flies back one month later, bearing diapers, sleepy midnights, and money.

At least when he arrived, she did not say: this is the least you can do. The literal least.

3.

This family is a disassembled mosaic: three shards of brightly colored glass, devoid of base and of hold. We float on the surface of waters, carried east and west on winds we cannot control. You have slit my sails and I have shredded yours; at least we are not without oars. At least we have not been submerged. At least we’re not lost to each other, in fog. At least you do not question the resemblance of the little shard to you. At least, should we ever find meet driftwood and fasten, we will make something beautiful, to be ogled, critiqued, and admired. At least on occasion, you roll a tiny scrit into a bottle. It says: my decision to remain on this water alone has little to do with whether we’ll wind up together. It says: this drifting will not always be, at least.

I know better than to read this as a promise. I have learned how to interpret you, at least.

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