The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures: A Memoir

photo by tata_aka_T on flickr
photo by tata_aka_T on flickr

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.

Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”

Five years ago, an essay I wrote won Glamour magazine’s “My Real Life Story” essay contest. Part of the prize package was a chat with a literary agent. That essay was the first I’d ever written outside of schoolwork; prior to that, I’d been a poet and then a playwright and monologuist. But when the agent asked me what I was working on, I told her I was writing a book.

Then I had to figure out what kind of book it was.

A memoir had crossed my mind; after all, the Glamour essay was a personal narrative. But that piece dealt with a painful chapter of my life; it was draining to write. I didn’t fancy the idea of spending months dredging up childhood hurts. So I opted for essay collection in lieu of memoir. My thought was that I would tackle ideas, something I’d done in my work for the stage. I’d investigate what mattered to me, things I had questions about or couldn’t entirely figure out—like friendship and fear and love. I’d write about those things and tell some stories from my life in which they played a part.

Last fall I finished The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, a collection of seventeen linked essays, and crafted a query letter. Out of thirty queries, I had five or six requests for the manuscript. Almost every agent who read it said something along the lines of, I love the writing but it feels like it wants to be a memoir.

I took another look and understood what they meant.

Through writing about the issues I’d struggled with, the questions I’d had, the discoveries I’d made over the years, I’d constructed a roundabout memoir—a looping, back and forth journey through my life.

So this spring, I set about remodeling The Saltwater Twin from a not-quite memoir into a memoir memoir. I rearranged and reconstructed chapters, cut one entirely, added connective tissue and arrived at something new, something I like. Definitely something that packs a bigger punch.

And—I found an agent!

ellen
Ellen

I’m represented by Ellen Geiger at Frances Goldin Literary Agency. I really like Ellen, and I really like the agency. In one of our first conversations, Ellen told me to go online and find Frances Goldin’s Occupy Wall Street video.

Frances Goldin
Frances

 

 

 

Frances is eighty-seven in the clip, which is from 2011, and she’s trying to get a cop to arrest her. He refuses. She’d been arrested nine times for civil disobedience and was working toward a dozen. She passes out buttons that say “Tax the Rich.”

I hope I get to meet her.

One of the reasons I queried Ellen is because the agency represents Barbara Kingsolver and Dorothy Allison, both of whose work I love. In fact, though I’ve never met Barbara Kingsolver, her advice got me through the first round of rejections to my query letter (I wrote about that here):

“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.”

Ellen also represents the estate of poet Adrienne Rich. With all the undersea imagery of The Saltwater Twin, I thought often of Rich’s famous poem, “Diving into the Wreck” when I sat down to write. I almost used a few lines from it as the book’s epigraph:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

It goes without saying I’m over the moon at being in such august company!

On Ellen’s advice, I did one more round of revisions this summer. I sent the new manuscript to her this week. After Labor Day, we take the next step on the journey: finding a publisher. In Barbara Kingsolver’s words, we look for the right address.

It’s out of my hands for now. So, between daydreams about what’s next for The Saltwater Twin, I’ll be thrifting my back to school wardrobe, beginning the search for a new puppy, and oh yeah—starting work on a novel.

photo by Anthony Albright on flickr
photo by Anthony Albright on flickr
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Birthdays

photo: Wikimedia Commons
photo: Wikimedia Commons

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

On Rejection: Keep Looking for the Right Address

stack-letters
photo credit: pixabay

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.

photo credit: Wikipedia
photo credit: Wikipedia

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.”

photo credit: Friends of the San Francisco Public Library on flickr
photo credit: Friends of the San Francisco Public Library on flickr

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.

photo credit: Laura on flickr
photo credit: Laura on flickr

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.”

Just keep looking.

Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014

BANR coverI 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!Mingus reading2

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

7 Things I’m Looking Forward to This Summer

photo by Julie Falk
photo by Julie Falk

Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.  —Henry James

 

Even though the official start to summer is solstice on the 21st and even though I like the idea of kicking things off with a nice pagan ritual and bonfire, the real onset of summer feels like the last day of school. And it’s here! My fourth graders at Morton performed their superhero stories, we said goodbye and now it’s onward ho to long days, leisurely dog walks and summer adventures. Here are a few things I’m excited about this summer:

1. Writing, writing, writing.

I’ve got two essays that are a hair’s breadth from being ready and four that still need a fair amount of elbow grease. Then, at last, I can start querying agents.

One of the essays I’m working on is called “Sweet Tooth.” At this stage it’s essentially a collection of notes on the topic of having a sweet tooth and sweetness in general. As an initial step, I decided to try to catalog my history in sweets, remembering things like— Continue reading 7 Things I’m Looking Forward to This Summer

New Year’s News

The_Two_Jungle_Books_1895_Akela,_the_Lone_Wolf
Now this is the Law of the Jungle—
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
                                    Rudyard Kipling
 

 

Another excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures appears this month! It’s called “Law of the Jungle” and it’s featured in the current issue of The Chattahoochee Review, “The Animal.” I described the process of writing that chapter in March of 2012 (see “wild truth” and “finding the trail”). The issue’s not available online, but the curious can get their paws on a copy here.

The cover art is kind of spooky, no?
The cover art is kind of spooky, no?

Continue reading New Year’s News

Whose Story? The Ethics of Writing Memoir

I’ve been jittery ever since I found out my essay “The Saltwater Twin” would be published in Creative Nonfiction this summer. peering through curtainI know that’s the objective: I want stuff I write to be published, to be out in the world and part of conversations and all of that. But I don’t think about that while I’m writing, I just write. I sort things out, I investigate what troubles me, what makes me curious and what I don’t understand. Sometime later it sinks in that people are going to read what I wrote and that I’ve written about real people, living and breathing in the world, people who might also decide to read what I’ve written. Continue reading Whose Story? The Ethics of Writing Memoir

Strange but True Stories of Survival

photo by Sean Munson

Summertime update: My essay “The Saltwater Twin” (which the observant among you will notice shares a name with this blog) is coming out in a great magazine called Creative Nonfiction. This month! As in, you can order it nowcreative nonfictionCreative Nonfiction, according to their website, “was the first and is still the largest literary magazine to publish, exclusively and on a regular basis, high quality nonfiction prose.” This issue is subtitled, “Strange but True Stories of Survival and Unlikely Events.” Editor Lee Gutkind called “The Saltwater Twin” a depiction of “the author’s struggle to avoid drowning, both literally and metaphorically.”

The essay that appears in Creative Nonfiction is essentially the first chapter of my work-in-progress, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. While I continue to work towards the goal of publishing a book, a chunk of my time each week has also been spent looking for online and print publications that might be good places to submit chapters and excerpts of chapters. I was initially somewhat frantic about this task and the hours it took away from The Writing of the Book, but it’s actually been a pretty significant learning opportunity – I’m a better writer for it.  Continue reading Strange but True Stories of Survival