Friday, March 5, 2010

His Desk, Her Pearls

I've published four books in my working life, and edited and ghost written five more. There's a novel, a history book and two collections with my writing name on it, and a whole bunch more with my name in the acknowledgements. And in a closet at home is an entire manuscript, a novel about a homeless mother and daughter that was never accepted for publication because editors thought it was "just too sad." One editor was "appalled" by one of the characters, a hustler in the pre-Disney Times Square sex trade, who actually played a very sympathetic role in the book. I took my eight rejection letters for that manuscript, and tucked them in a drawer. I kept them because while they all said thanks but no thanks, they praised the writing. That was something. It helped justify the months I had spent with my characters rambling around in my head. It justified my effort to see their lives as honestly and with as much compassion as I could.

One editor was interested in publishing the book. We had a long breakfast in a Manhattan diner, discussing how to revise certain parts of the story. At first, I thought I would rewrite that book. But then I thought about the book tour, the reviews, the whole "after"of getting it published and it was even less appealing than it had been before. I was the sort who could take a glowing review that had one less-than-laudatory sentence, and I would forget everything in the review but that one sentence. Sometimes it was just one adjective! I have heard this is true of most writers, and that many don't even read reviews.

And the book tour. Someone once put it this way: You take people who have chosen to spend the larger portion of their days in solitary confinement with a computer, and then you ask them to get up in front of roomfuls of people and sell their soul. It's a disconnect for some writers. I know there are some who love that public part, but I never did. I was a nervous wreck every time. It always went well of course. As one publicist told me, "Most if not all of the people who turn out to a book signing are supporters. If they weren't, they wouldn't have bothered to come." It was generally true. And I usually managed to get comfortable once the reading actually started, because now I was committed, and soon it would be over. Ironically, I always felt heartened and affirmed when the event was done. But I never learned to love that public part. I'm too self-conscious and self-judging.

So I abandoned that book. The fact that my job became insanely pressured at about that same time (we got a new boss to go along with a corporate takeover) helped me walk away. And then, two years ago in June, I started blogging.

Back in the days when I used to talk to psychics, one told me he saw me publishing books into 2008. "And after that?" I asked. He said, "After that, you'll write for you." Another psychic (this was years ago in the early nineties) told me she saw me writing a particular kind of family memoir, where each chapter was about a specific thing, "my grandfather's desk," "my mother's pearls" were the two examples she gave. I think she saw me blogging before there was even such a thing as blogging!

Writing my life down (even fiction issues from your consciousness, so it's still your life in a sense) has been a way for me to keep sane. I'm not exaggerating. Ever since was I was eight, I've kept journals as a way to make sense of things. I think I only tried to publish books to justify a life of writing. But now I can practice my preferred form of therapy any time I choose, right here. I can reframe my truth as often as I need to, which makes me so grateful to have found this outlet. It is freer here.


  1. I'm so fascinated by the idea of a novel that's "too sad". Once a friend asked me why I loved a certain novel so, since it was about child abuse/racism/rape/suffering and didn't even redeem itself with a happy ending, and I thought about the cleaning lady in The World According To Garp who loved the difficult novel because it was "so true". Obviously a well-written novel is worth reading no matter what it's about... Well, maybe that's not obvious, maybe it's just in my head.

    I'm so glad you found this outlet, I'm glad it brings you joy, and I'm glad I found you! :)

  2. ellen, The World According to Garp is one of my favorite books ever. I'd love to know the title of that certain novel you love, the difficult one. I have always been drawn to the difficult novels, too. You make me want to get out my old dog-eared copy of Garp and read it again. Another book I loved so much back when I was reading Garp was Dinner at the Homesick Restuarant by Anne Tyler. It's a great book to read while working on a novel, because her characterizations are so subtle yet so rich. How is your novel coming? I hope you're enjoying it still. I'm excited for you.

  3. I haven't ever read that Anne Tyler book, and I am going to go look it up right now. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Yay, Garp is one of my favorite books ever, too! Finding out we both love Garp feels like discovering a mutual friend. :) Even though the book has a saddish ending, I always feel kind of inspired by Garp's spirit. (Just don't get me started about the movie. What part of Roberta being a beautiful woman did they not understand? Grr.)

    The difficult book is Shella by Andrew Vachss. It is also one of my very favorites. It really doesn't go into long gory descriptions of terrible things, but everyone is damaged, and there is a lot of anger and sadness.

    You have inspired my newest blog post! Thanks, Angella.

  4. ellen, I so agree about the Garp movie. I waited for it with such anticipation, and I too was disappointed. After, I decided that no movie could quite do justice to the book! But I would love to see someone else try, especially now that a few years have passed.

    A caveat about Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. It's kind of a quiet book. But you might just like it because everyone in it is quietly damaged.

    Off to read your new blog post!