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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Quotes!

Gabrielle_Chanel_en_marinière

cocoThat’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!

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

The Next Big Thing

big bear sign vintage

I’ve been invited by writer, performer and activist Nikki Patin to participate in an interview series called The Next Big Thing in which authors talk about their work. (Thanks, Nikki!) You can check out what Nikki’s up to at nikkipatin.com. Since I’m kind of new at this interview thing, I’ve asked my friend Lindsay to weigh in. Welcome, Lindsay! Let’s go! Continue reading The Next Big Thing

Thank You, Virginia

As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world. Virginia Woolf

Last week I rode my bike up to the post office on Main in Evanston. I like that branch because it generally only has lines at Christmastime and because I like the idea of a post office on Main Street. I was there to send in a grant I’ve been working on for two months – the reason there were no October posts at The Saltwater Twin. This is the first time I’ve applied for a big grant. The $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award is offered by A Room of Her Own (after Virginia Woolf’s famous essay), a foundation that supports women writers and artists, and according to their website, it’s the largest grant of its kind to women in the United States. So, yeah, $50,000? I had to give it a try. The application was massive – five meaty essays plus a writing sample plus tax returns and all kinds of paperwork. It took many, many hours to write and assemble. And a few days ago I was finally finished. It’s mailed in. Now I just have to wait five months to find out the results.

The day I sent it in, I thought I’d be riding high – relieved and hopeful and feeling like crowing over a job well done. Instead I felt tentative, sad and anxious. Go figure. It was hard to let go of the application. I’d put so much into it, it was hard to stop and accept I’d done all I could and that was that. I’ve been thinking back to my letting go posts of late summer/early fall. Here’s another opportunity to practice. While I was working on the application, I fantasized about winning that fifty grand. That’s how I faced the seemingly endless essays and rationalized the many, many hours it took away from working on my book. I pictured sitting down for a celebratory meal, drinking a fancy cocktail, quitting my part time restaurant job and settling in to write like crazy. But once that package left my hands, all I could think was, no way am I ever going to get that award. I just spent eight weeks working on the longest shot ever. But my last post here was “Everything Is Medicine.” Writing a massive grant application? Medicine. Yes, $50K would be awesome, but I’m going to see this accomplishment as a good thing, no matter the outcome. Maybe I’ll even drink a fancy cocktail regardless.

AROHO, the foundation that gives the Gift of Freedom award, goes out of their way to support women writers. They set up a Facebook page where applicants could commiserate with and encourage one another.

(I resisted the urge to Facebook trash talk, Muhammad Ali style: “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”)

They also offered an option to sign up to receive daily, personalized “Countdown to Freedom” emails to cheer you on in the process. The emails usually consisted of an inspirational quote like this one from Diane Ackerman: “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.” I love that they did that. When I was working on “We Got Spirit!,” a monologue I performed in the Live Bait Filet of Solo Fest some years back, I had an idea for a traveling cheerleader service. It would be akin to a singing telegram – a nice cheerleader would arrive at your home or office and cheer you on in whatever challenge you were facing – whether you were a student heading into a scary test, a lonely homebody who needed to get out there and make some friends or an unpublished writer working on a book – whatever your hurdle, the cheerleader would address that in a special cheer for you. So, although I will not be stopping by in a cheerleading ensemble (even though I have one), in gratitude for Virginia Woolf, the AROHO foundation and the wonderful friends who offered feedback on my application (Thank you Ann, Harry, Jordan, Lindsay, Nick, Rick and Ruiyan), I would like to send out some cheer. If anyone out there needs support and encouragement, tell me in the comments what goal you’re trying to reach or send me an email through my website maiamorgan.com and I will cheer you on.

And now, back to business as usual: working on The Saltwater Twin, submitting essays thither and yon and perhaps occasionally sipping something fancy.

Adventures in Storytelling

This book writing thing is a long, solitary haul, and it gets lonesome in my living room.  So in an effort to take the edge off my self-imposed quarantine, I decided to read something.  In public.  I investigated storytelling nights around the city, and there are lots of them.  I recommend checking some out.  It’s a lovely way to spend an evening; it feels so pleasantly classic to be drinking a pint and listening to a story. Anyway, I was offered a spot at This Much Is True, a storytelling series at the Hopleaf.And despite being wicked nervous, last Tuesday night I read an excerpt from a chapter called We Got Spirit! It was fun. They liked it. I’m going to do more. I’ll keep you posted here.  Here is an excerpt from the excerpt:

In seventh grade, my desire to play an orphan in a touring production of Annie was supplanted by an ardent wish to become a cheerleader.  I coveted the little white socks and beribboned ponytails, the thigh-skimming skirts with those sharp kick pleats and the spankies they wore underneath that were neither underpant nor bathing suit but something far more exotic than either.  Cheerleaders intoxicated every boy above third grade. I, on the other hand, was socially awkward and bookish, but I thought I might have a chance of getting on the team because I could almost do the splits.  I mean, it was really close.  Unless you looked super carefully, you’d probably think I was completely doing them.  Also, I could land in the almost-splits from a cartwheel or jump. I didn’t excel at jumping in general; I was largely unsuccessful both at achieving much height and at executing the mid-air herkies and pikes. I was good at that Presidential Fitness flexed arm-hanging test where you had to hold your chin above a bar because I was gritty and didn’t let go of things easily. Anything that pitted grim determination against gravity, I was prepared to kick ass.  Jumping, however, outwitted me. I was very sad in seventh grade.  Maybe being sad makes it hard to get off the ground.

I wanted to be happy.  And there was something about cheerleaders that made it seem like they might know how. It wasn’t just that they got attention from boys – or guys as they were suddenly called, as in, do you like any guys in our class, because I think Matt Hendricks totally likes you.  By the way, this new development, among others – like needing to wear shorts under your skirt so no one would see your underwear by accident – was honestly a little bewildering to me. But with their bright colors and staccato claps and their “Ready, okay,” cheerleaders seemed to be truly okay and ready for whatever life intended to throw at them. It was a mystery I didn’t know how to unlock:  the mystery of cheer.

Gonna Fly Now…or 72 Steps

Image

I have a picture of Rocky as my desktop image — a still from when he’s just run through Philadelphia in his gray sweatsuit and black wool cap, sprinted up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and triumphantly raised his hands in the air.  This is to make me believe I can do this.  I am working on a book, and I’m maybe about halfway through.  It came about as a result of winning a national non-fiction writing contest held by Glamour magazine.  Along with a 5K prize came a very fancy lunch (including a carrot marshmallow amuse bouche) with Glamour editors and some interest in my work from agents in NYC.  So I decided to keep writing essays, enough to put together a collection.  It’s going to be called The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures.  (More on that later.) So here I am, about a year in and halfway through and it is sometimes hard to keep believing that I will make it up the steps. (And that’s just the writing the book part; then comes the publishing journey.)  So I have Rocky on my desktop.  Also my friend Lindsay who believes this will happen.  Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone believe something for you when you’re finding it a bit impossible.  And, I suppose, to be a little bit thrilled about the small achievements along the way…every step.