Grateful for a Miracle

Miracles don’t appear on demand, to deliver happy plot twists. They storm stories too weak to resist.

I am writing this entry to clarify my thoughts on the latest swerve in my journey towards publication, and light this stretch of path for other writers. If you have written a book you always assumed would at least be published by a small press, if not one of the Big Five, and you are half-welcoming, half-dreading the prospect of releasing that assumption – this post is for you.

Throughout the ten years I spent drafting, revising, and refining my memoir, I believed (with a few blips – I do remember telling a fellow writer, at Byrdcliffe in 2007, that I’d self-publish if I had to; she spoke up for the benefits of creative collaboration with a publishing partner) that it would be corporately published. I believed, further, that I could control the two key variables affecting the success of my pursuit of corporate partnership: my manuscript’s quality and my own persistence.

If you want to, you can find stories of authors who were rejected by a thousand agents, only to hit the jackpot with number one thousand and one. Authors who heard crickets from a hundred small presses, only to receive a roar of welcome from the hundred and first. The moral of these stories is, roll with the punches. Stagger up from the mat. If you rise enough times, if you endure enough bruisings and batterings, you’ll wear out your opponent. Black-eyed and staggering, you’ll ascend the dais, wearing the crown.

What’s wrong with this moral? It glorifies abuse.

At Zendik, I hoped that one day, if I worked hard and endured, Arol would induct me into her inner circle. She stood above me, empowered by my acquiescence to someday dispense – or forever withhold – the ultimate reward. Therefore, I feared her. And (to a lesser degree) I feared those already gathered ’round her. I also envied them; they had what I craved. So I could never partner with Arol or her intimates, could never engage them in fruitful relationship.

As an aspiring author, I hoped that one day, if I worked hard and endured, a corporate entity would induct me into its inner circle. People in publishing stood above me, empowered by my acquiescence to someday dispense – or forever withhold – the ultimate reward. Therefore, I feared them. And envied those who had what I craved. So I could not engage them as colleagues, or friends.

I did not know that quality matters little, absent partners bewitched by the peculiar flavor of a particular text. I did not know that persistence can be a vice.

If I sound melodramatic, I apologize. I have belonged to this version of my own cult for a long time.

I choose, now, to get out. To re-form my relationship to publication. To step forth as a whole human, subject to no one, serving my book-being. Knowing it will flourish, no matter what path it takes into the world.

Bookbeing Seeks Body, Home

Four months after sending my memoir manuscript to a small press (at their request), I mustered the gumption to write them and ask for a rough sense of when they might make a decision. Four days have passed; I haven’t heard back. This lack of response does not give me any definite information about the press, or the status of my manuscript; how I feel, in relation to it, does give me information about how I might like to proceed.

How do I feel? Like a dog scratching at a window, whining to be let in.

I notice a string of accusing questions: What’s wrong with you? Why haven’t you landed a book deal? What do you lack?

I try to answer: I’m not good at networking or self-promotion. I haven’t worked hard enough at composing shorter pieces and submitting them to periodicals. I don’t tweet. I’m barely on Facebook. I haven’t built a big enough platform.

Then, I question the questions: Where do they come from? Whom do they serve?

Charles Eisenstein, who self-published The Ascent of Humanity, going bankrupt in the process, interprets his failure to attract the partnership of a publisher as a test: Was he really serious about delivering his story to the hearts and minds of other humans? Or was he simply attached to the money and glory he imagined publication would bring him? If he’d been after money and glory, he would have given up.

In the past nine months, many of my motives for delivering my book to the public have fallen away. What remains? Gratitude for the gift of books I’ve been shaped by; desire to contribute my own book to the stream, to honor that gift.

I’m realizing that the words I’d use to describe my book to a field of potential reader-supporters would differ dramatically from those I’ve used to describe it to publishers and agents. Why? Because, in the past, I’ve been trying to make my book sound sexy, garb it in dollar signs. But, were I to describe my book directly to readers, I could speak with greater honesty and intimacy – I could speak as I would to a friend. One inclined to want what I offer, as opposed to one seeking reasons to say no. I think now of Zendik – of seeking belonging from this entity that needed a certain amount of human-power for survival, but had no particular attachment to my unique being. Is violence – dispensing of persons – inherent in any process of application? Any situation in which humans drop themselves, their work, into some kind of pool?

Were I to interdependently publish (thank you, Rivera Sun, for this term), I would need to make the final decisions regarding date of completion, finished form, and the like. I would need to choose whether to hire a copy editor, whether to request writer friends to give it a last close read. I would need to decide on a cover. I would be the final word. How could I be sure, in this situation, that the book produced would be good? Fully realized? The highest version of its most beautiful self?

The truth is, I’ve read corporately published books that were not fully realized – books rushed, it seemed, through the process and off the presses. Corporate publishing, small press publishing – neither guarantees a fully realized text.

I want my book to be fully realized. I want to deliver it to readers. I want to pay forward the priceless gift of books I’ve been receiving all my life.

Tunnel to Prairie: Escaping My Story

The perennial pitfall of being human is getting stuck in shitty stories. These stories are like dark tunnels: Once we’ve entered, we see no choice except to keep going, hoping that maybe, if we’re lucky, the chute we’re in will intersect with one that’s a touch taller or wider. We forget that the tunnel roofs are mere sod-clumps, through which we could easily bust, to the fresh air and full sun of the prairie.

I am wondering, this morning, about the tunnel I’m in with respect to book publication, and what the view might be from the prairie.

For years I assumed I’d get an agent, who’d sell my book to the Big Five; all I had to do was write the best query letter ever, and revise my book till it shone. My query must have been pretty good, since it did win me quite a few requests for the manuscript – but none of those reads turned into offers. After an agent who’d given extensive feedback rejected my revision, saying she still didn’t have a vision for the book (meaning, I presume, an idea of how to sell it), I began to doubt its market prospects – maybe it did not have potential for wide appeal, or maybe it had the kind of potential only its author could see.

I revised my expectations. I entered a couple contests, queried a small press seeking Southern stories. One judge said no; the other is set (I believe) to decide by September; the small press has sent my full manuscript out to its panel of reader-advisors and will get back to me sometime.

So, I’m in limbo. I don’t wish to self-publish. I hope for news, every day.

The stock advice, for those shopping manuscripts, is to start something else. I’ve done that; I’ve been writing other things. Still: I wonder what I’d see, if I sought a bigger frame.

Stuck in my tunnel, I’m a lone writer, fighting other writers for limited space on a publisher’s list, on bookstore shelves. I obsess over whether I’ll edge them out, in the races I’ve entered. That light a long way off? Is it brightening? Dimming? Pulsing? Will it flicker out, before I reach it? How far must I trudge? How long must I wait?

Now I’m looking up. I’m seeing that the tunnel roof is matted with roots. I’m raising my hands to touch it, then shove it upwards. I’m surprised to find it gives easily; I glimpse a sliver of light! I push harder. Pop! goes the sod patch. I see sky. I hoist myself through my makeshift hatch onto a sea of grass.

I’d thought I was alone – but the prairie teems with writers, readers, writers who love other writers, writers who love to read. They neither race, nor wait in line; with dancing grace, they – we – interweave.




Cult Stories: Novels vs. Memoirs

Since beginning work on my Zendik book, more than ten years ago, I’ve read dozens of cult memoirs. (In 2008, on a train from New York to Seattle, I binge-read maybe seven or eight.) Many are terrible; some are decent; a few kick butt. The terribles fall into two categories: self-published exposés with a side of catharsis (“You wouldn’t believe what happened to me; listen while I spew it all!”) and corporately published exposés of groups in the news (“Ignore my incoherent narrative and jerry-built sentences; I’m the only source of the inside scoop!”). The decents tend to recount experiences with groups notorious enough to attract investment from a major publisher, either in the form of payment to a ghostwriter, or ample support and editorial help for the ex-cultist. The ones that kick butt? They’re written by writers. Meaning, these authors were going to write anyway, and their cult episodes begged to be stories.

When I first turned to cult memoir, I was eager to gobble down any tale I could find that paralleled mine – and I’d yet to get past the “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me!” stage in my own project. This meant I absorbed many emissions from what Chuck Wendig has hilariously termed “the self-publishing shit volcano” (just saying that phrase makes me giggle). By now, my standards have risen (and I’ve read widely enough that works in certain genres – like the Mormoir, in which the heroine stages a daring escape from the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints – seem repetitive). Plus, the pool of excellent cult memoirs is growing glacially, if at all. So I’ve resorted to reading cult novels – most recently, Josh Emmons’s Prescription for a Superior Existence and Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.

In Prescription for a Superior Existence, Jack Smith gets kidnapped into a cult, and becomes a believer, only to discover that the organization is a scam started by his biological father. In Woke Up Lonely, Helix founder Thurlow Dan, pining for his estranged wife and child, takes hostages in a bid to re-form his family. He’s just as desperate for love as the throngs who’ve come together, under his aegis, to share their loneliness.

In both cases, I found it hard to rejoice with the characters, or grieve for them; neither book hooked me till maybe a third of the way through. (If not for my addiction to completion, I might have finished neither.) What put me off, I think, was a sense that the authors were observing the cult phenomenon from a distance. Using their characters to play out a plot, instead of stepping into their skins.

Do you need to have been in a cult to render one with heart? I think not. Peter Rock never belonged to the Church Universal and Triumphant (or any other cult, as far as I know), yet his novel, The Shelter Cycle, based on CUT’s construction of an epic bunker, in preparation for the apocalypse, reads like he might have. What’s the difference? Rock interviewed, and befriended, ex-members of an actual group, whereas Maazel and Emmons made their cults up. Maybe those ties tethered him to a deeper form of truth.

Yes, the average novel is probably better written than the average memoir. But when novelists fail fully to inhabit the worlds they create – I dive for the nearest true story.