Turns Out The Problem Is Me

February 10, 2016 § 37 Comments

HoudiniI wrote a memoir. It took ten years–two years of blogging regularly about a category of experience in my life, eight years of rewriting and printing it out and literally cutting it apart and making notes and putting it back together and workshopping it in a class at Grub Street and having friends read it and hiring an editor and querying and getting an agent and having the agent shop it to publishers.

The first page is really, really good.

Good enough that when I did that “Writer Idol” thing at a workshop, where everyone’s first page is read anonymously out loud and the panel of judges raise their hands when they’d stop reading if it came to their inbox, the reader got through my whole page and the room paused for a moment and then applauded. Talk about a stroke to the writer ego! So I thought, hey, there’s a student reading tonight and I’ve never read any of this manuscript publicly before, why not capitalize on this momentum, and I started leafing through pages. And my reaction was:

Boring, boring, porn, boring, not a self-contained section, boring, boring, I am no way reading that, awful, porn, boring.

And that’s also when all of a sudden I noticed it was ninety-six thousand words, which for a memoir by someone not-famous is, as we say in the publishing biz, “really freaking long.” (How the hell did I miss that?)

Suddenly, the year’s worth of rejections my agent has amassed made sense. Suddenly I stopped feeling like maybe the world wasn’t ready or maybe we’d been submitting to the wrong people or maybe I’d ended up with the wrong agent, because clearly the problem was the manuscript.

It wasn’t good enough.

And boy, it sucks to realize that ten years of work wasn’t enough, and that in fact I may have burned through the chance of ever publishing this book, because once it’s been shopped around, it’s been shopped around, and you don’t get to shop the same book again even if you make it a whole lot better.

I might get to sell it if I sell another book and the publisher wants to know if I have anything else in the pipeline.

I might get to sell it if I self-publish.

I might get to sell it if I drastically revise and trim and find a publisher who hasn’t seen the previous version.

But a better choice is to let it go for now. To do something else with the material–maybe that wealth of experience is meant to back up a novel. Maybe the essential story, or part of the essential story, is an essay, or a radio story, or a magazine article. Maybe it was only ever meant to be a blog.

I still won.

I won the ability to write a whole book–now I know I can. I won three years of reading agent blogs and going to conferences and learning how the publishing world works and meeting writers I can help and who can help me. I won knowing how to write a query. I won when an agent I queried who read the full and didn’t want it seemed like the right agent for someone else, and I hooked up that agent with my author friend. I won finding out people liked the underlying story, that when workshop teachers and guest writers asked me about the topic of the book they got excited, that somewhere in that 96K is a set of facts worth sharing in some way. I won building a writing habit and sitting down every day alone or with a writer friend and living a life that feels like a writer’s life. I won knowing that my problem is structure and I’ll have to pay more attention to that next time. I won being able to step back and look at my work with a critical eye and say, “close but no cigar,” and next time I’ll know it faster. I won knowing that failure isn’t death, or even death to my career.

In the end, the memoir functions a lot like my MFA. The piece of paper is not the doorway to fame and success. But everything I did to earn it is.

Next project, here I come.



Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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