I write this sitting cross-legged on the nubby zebra-print carpet of Seattle’s SeaTac airport. A friend dropped me off an hour early and I couldn’t be happier with the extra time to just chill. At the risk of sounding cheerleader-ish, what I want to say to all the beautiful passersby is can I get a what-what? They don’t know I am bound for Minneapolis to co-pimp the Goddard College table at AWP 2015, where my colleague Samantha and I plan on making waves in the great sea of programs for lit groupies the likes of us. I am beyond excited.
As a recent MFA grad, I get asked what I’m writing. At first I was I felt proud to say I was revising my thesis. Then I was even more proud to say I was sending it to agents. Now I tell those well-wishers I write lots and lots of….cover letters.
My excuses: I am job hunting! I am a professional dog sitter! I am a single mom! I see how they want to spit in my face, so I relent and bow my head a little and say, I do send essays and little poems and stuff out. I call it Saturday Submission Day. And like job hunting and dog sitting and being single, it all feels like dating, which is to say I’ve become damn good at rejection.
I naively thought by sending my manuscript to local agents I’d have a better chance at piquing their interest. Wouldn’t they appreciate my Seattle landscapes and hospital scenes? Not so much. One such agent, recommended by my adviser after graduation, was so super kind. Months into the handfuls of email exchanges, she wrote that she “…loved the way you captured the events that turned your life upside down–the way a trauma like this is inevitably one step forward and several steps back…” Then came the inevitable But. “But I’m afraid I don’t feel I’m the right agent for it–I’ve simply had too much pushback from editors on memoirs lately.
The other local agent was ever gracious, too. She thanked me and said the memoir was moving, but that ultimately, she found the story “too sad for me to connect with it right now.” I gave her pushback. I told her I had a thick skin, so just lay it on me. Should I make it funnier, or change the tenses, or alter the ending? She wrote me back (SHE WROTE ME BACK) to say, “we’re working on many serious projects, and sometimes, I have to sit back and acknowledge that I have limits on how many emotionally intense books I can work on at once.”
Fair enough. Three more agents turned it down. It’s tough out there, and yet, I know if the manuscript were truly reader-worthy, they would have jumped. I think. It’s true what my colleague, whom my other colleague Alison, calls PhDoug, said to me when I shared with him my fear that my sad story was a bore, and I’m paraphrasing here: “…Katherine Boo’s book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, is set in a slum adjacent to the airport in Mumbai. It strikes me as a good example of a story that is unbearably sad, yet so beautifully depicted that you simply can’t not read it. Maybe something in there will help you when you’re ready to re-tool. Sad is the furthest thing in the world from boring.”
I hear the ticket agents calling out time for our flight. Getting up off this airport floor I must first stretch my legs out and shove everything I’ve littered around me — phone, laptop, water bottle and purse — back into my daughter’s pink-and-blue checked Jansport backpack I’m using for the trip. Because I want to trim down my middle age spread, I choose a pleasantly rounded bottle of organic, mango-flavored coconut water, which rings up at over four dollars. I blanche and apologize for my blanching because I, too, sling overpriced beverages at a coffee shop and should know better than to balk. I grab a bottled water instead, which I use to swallow a tiny crumb of leftover Mexican Xanax for the flight.
Writers need friends — writing friends. Another colleague told me of my rejection letters that he got one too, only shorter. Longer is better, he said. You’re in the game. (I’m not sure if I told him I bullied the agents into telling me exactly what it was that sucked.) Really the whole reason for this post is so I can share what my colleague Marty wrote when I forwarded him the e-mail rejection: “You need an agent who is going to punch the publisher in the face, slam your manuscript down on their desk, say “If you don’t publish this, you are not only fucking stupid, but you also hate making money,” flip off the suits, and waltz out the door.”
Marty, will you please help me sling my book? But first, tell me the truth: Is it a misery memoir? Should I wait another five years to tell this story? Let it breath? I’ll say it again: Give it to me straight.
Now I’m up in the sky, thinking about how Meredith Hall will be sitting on a panel at AWP tomorrow at 10:30 am. I am eating a Gluten & Dairy Free, Kosher Vanilla-Raspberry flavored Fig Bar on whose packaging I note a few extra adjectives I would eliminate would someone please just hire me for an editorial position somewhere. I nibble on it and am reminded of something I read last night when I picked up from my bedside table a copy of the 2005 book In Fact: The Best of Creative NonFiction. In it, Anne Dillard writes a forward titled, Notes for Young Writers, in which she tells us how “publication is not a gauge of excellence.” She goes on to say what I already know to be true, but a wise reminder nonetheless: “Put it away and rewrite it later. Don’t keep reading it over or you’ll have to wait longer to see it fresh.”
It’s time for my glass of occasional flight chardonnay. I’m never alone like this, on a plane, sans children, doing something professional. I’m halfway aroused by the aloneness. As my belly grows warm, I’m thinking maybe, after hosting the Goddard table, hearing a reading or panel, and meandering the bookfair with a healthy degree of overwhelm, when I return I’ll be inspired — and take ACTION — to revisit my work.
. . . .
At home I am still thinking about the hotel room in Minneapolis and how it had an ample bathroom with those modern all glass sliding double doors. How I saw an old friend with whom I saw the Martha Graham Dance Company on the University of Minnesota campus. How the AWP 2015 event was exactly the literature drenched cool nerd fest I expected. How I fought a nasty cold. How I met an editor from a lit mag who rejected my work. How I met Elissa Washuta, a former Hugo House artist-in-residence with a beautiful memoir from Red Hen Press who just moved from cool Seattle to less cool Edmonds, the slow-moving beach town I call home. (New writer friend – Yessss!) And how meeting Goddard alums, collecting lit shwag, and buying Maggi Nelson’s new hardback restored my energy levels.
When I shared this post with Samantha, who during the conference promoted our college like a hardcore tweet champ, she told me I was silly to worry about my stuff being too sad. Remember the lecture in the catalog on the Art of Melancholy we circled in red? Neither of us made that one; perhaps I should have made it a priority. And yes, I’m poetry deficient, but I do love Robert Bly – a native to Minnesota. He is almost 90, and he was at AWP! Listening to Bly read his poems I wept. The last two stanzas of this poem I will carry with me while I revise, and (try to) be gentle with my natural human limitations:
It’s hard to grasp how much generosity
Is involved in letting us go on breathing,
When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief.
Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many have gone down in the storm
Sarah Kishpaugh is a recent alumnus (MFA WA ’14) who has a memoir she’s trying to revise. She teaches Creative Writing for a continuing education program through Edmonds Community College. She does dog sit, and she also edits books and other stuff when people let her. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahkishpaugh.