Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.
— John Updike
I’m up to my eyes in query letters. I’ve had a few requests for the manuscript, so it’s out there with some peepers on it as well. It’s very exciting when I get those requests, and every time it happens I spend 24 mostly happily frenzied hours combing through the manuscript and making tweaks. The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, which weighed in at 84,000 words when I sent it to my first round of readers back in October, is just 78,000 now. Fighting weight I hope. Scrappy and trim.
This means some agents have seen earlier versions of the work. I worry sometimes, whether I should have revised and revised for another six months or a year before sending it out at all, but even back in October every essay in the collection had been through an average nine or ten revisions. It took almost four years to write the book. It felt like high time to send it into the world. Continue reading Searching for What I’m Saying: On Revision
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? ― Mary Oliver
I like having a February birthday. February needs something—it’s a rough month at this latitude—and Valentine’s Day just does not cut the mustard. Mardi Gras often falls in February which helps mitigate winter malaise. (In 2021 it falls on my birthday, which might be solid justification for a New Orleans trip in six years. Laissez les bon temps rouler, ya’ll.) But, anyway, I’m a fan of birthdays, in general, as opportunities for both merrymaking and taking stock.
As it happens, February is this blog’s birthday month as well. I didn’t plan it that way. It must just feel natural to me to start things in February. I came in just under the wire with my first post on February 28, 2012. It featured one Mr. Rocky Balboa, and it was basically a pep talk to myself. Continue reading Birthdays
I fell in love with Jane because she was dressed for the first day of second grade in a blue and white sailor dress like a girl from one of my books. I remember a hat and gloves to boot, but I don’t quite trust that memory because I’m sure as soon as I saw the sailor dress I gave her a hat and gloves in my imagination. She had a British accent: her family had lived in England and Africa and on weekends her father dressed in white trousers and sweater and played cricket in the park, which took like ten hours.
Besides Jane, I was in love with books. Lustfully, extravagantly in love. Jane’s father called me a bluestocking. He said it meant a girl who liked to read. I liked the sound of it: bluestocking. It sounded whimsical to me, old fashioned and romantic, like Jane’s sailor dress (and hat and gloves). Continue reading because, books
Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
I’m querying agents. This involves carefully crafting letters tailored to each individual agent on my list, which means researching what kind of work and which authors each one represents. My plan was to send out sixty queries before I let myself get too discouraged. I’m not sure why sixty. Somehow that number presented itself. Five dozen. I’m not even close to that yet, so it’s definitely too soon to despair. But the rejections have started to trickle in. They’re not rolling in—merely trickling. But the water is very cold.
I was feeling low last week. It was probably some holiday blues. Also I was immersed in researching Auschwitz for a study guide for The Passenger for the Lyric Opera. Also I had a behemoth of a migraine—which may have been in part a result of researching Auschwitz. And in the midst of all of that I got a very nice rejection from a fancy New York agent. My friend Lindsay pointed out that I should look on the bright side, which was that this agent used some lovely, glowing words to describe my manuscript—but I mostly felt bad that she said it wasn’t for her.
So Lindsay sent me a pep talk in the form of a link to a list of big time writers who got rejected before making it big, which of course led to further investigation on my part.
It seems Gertrude Stein submitted poems for over twenty years before one got published.
Louisa May Alcott was told to stick to teaching by the editor of The Atlantic who had to eat his words when she ended up outselling Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Henry James.
Rudyard Kipling received this note from The San Francisco Examiner in 1889: “I am sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just do not know how to use the English language.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald was advised by a shortsighted publisher, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 publishers. It went on to win the Newbery Medal.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was famously rejected a dozen times.
One publisher recommended that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (probably my favorite novel when I was twenty-two) be “buried under a stone for a thousand years.”
Not that I’m as brilliant as any of these authors, but it helps to think others have survived this particular roller-coaster.
In the words of Sylvia Plath, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
And Barbara Kingsolver:
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
I’m thinking of adding an appendix to The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. I enjoy the idea of supplementary material: glosses, annotations, illustrations, maps, footnotes. This appendix would list the mythical creatures that appear throughout the book.
The title of the collection comes from a story I told myself when I was eight, about a neighbor who drowned—a girl my age. The myth and accompanying undersea world I constructed for her gave me a way to escape the family in which I was submerged: Continue reading mythical creatures
That’s a quote from Coco Chanel that I used last week to kick off a theater/social studies residency with eighth graders in Evanston. We’re exploring the 1920s and ‘30s through theater and creative writing. The first week we looked at changing images and roles for women in the 1920s; then, the students investigated their own relationship to fashion by writing about an article of clothing that was significant to them in some way. The quote sparked a discussion about clothing and culture and the connections between the two, both in the 1920s and today. (Also, 1920s slang is the bees’ knees.)
As an eighth grader myself, I was fond of quotations and tended to season my writing liberally with them—drawing from top 40 songs as well as my mother’s trusty Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, which is apparently the longest-lived and most widely distributed collection of quotes there is. Its first publication was in 1855. (Side note: when I was in eighth grade, one couldn’t call a quotation a quote without risking the wrath of one’s English teacher. Quote was the verb, quotation the noun. Now, apparently one can although it’s considered informal usage.)
These days I feel like we’re inundated with pseudo-meaningful quotes photoshopped in every font imaginable onto pictures of sunsets or snowboarders. On coffee mugs. Reusable shopping bags. The internet is rife with sites devoted to cataloguing quotes on every subject under the sun. There’s even a primer on how to come up with a good quote of your own that offers up these helpful tips: Continue reading Quotes!
I mentioned a while back that “The Saltwater Twin,” the first chapter of my book, is included in this year’s Best American Nonrequired Reading. Well, it’s in bookstores now and you can go out and get one for yourself!
They sent me a contributor’s copy, but I couldn’t wait. I had to go out and get one the day it came out earlier this month. I tried to act nonchalant at the bookstore, but wound up telling the cashier I was in the book. Oy. I will never be one of the cool kids. Continue reading Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014
So many things remind me. When I open a jar of peanut butter, and I don’t hear him clicking into the kitchen. When I wake up and don’t have to roll out of bed, clip on his leash and head outside, whatever the weather. When I dropped Thai takeout on the floor and there was no one to accommodatingly gobble it up.
Last week I said goodbye to a dear friend and companion, an exuberant and lovable pooch named Levi. Twelve years ago, my roommate Amy talked me into adopting him. I was apprehensive because he was a pit bull mix. Like many people, I’d been influenced by the media’s portrayal of pits as mean and aggressive. But four-month-old Levi looked more like a bunny. So, I did some research. Continue reading In Memoriam: Levi, A Very Good Dog
I can write about years in a paragraph, but the years took years to pass. –Dorothy Allison
You may have noticed I’ve been absent a minute. That’s because I really wanted the next time I posted to be able to say—
Pop the bubbly, kids, I’ve finished my manuscript!
The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures is ready for the next stage in its journey to a bookshelves, beach bags and bedside tables. Next steps are to hear back from a small cadre of readers who’ve generously offered to give me their impressions and then letters letters letters to agents. Though I haven’t printed the manuscript in its entirety, I’ve been doing the screen equivalent of picking it up and hefting it in my hands by opening the document and scrolling through. It’s clocking in at seventeen chapters, three hundred eighty four pages.
I just read Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. She describes standing on her first novel the day she finished the manuscript to see how much taller it made her. I do feel taller. Very important allies and friends Jordan “Pittsburgh Road Trip” LaSalle and Lindsay “Self-appointed Biggest Fan” Porter helped me celebrate with an enormous pasta dinner.