On Elevator Pitches, Persistence, and Reclaiming the Recovery Story

September 14, 2018 § 6 Comments

Tessa pictureBy Tessa Torgeson

This is the way I dreamed an editor’s reaction to my book’s elevator pitch:

  • A butler instantly appears holding a scroll chiseled with my contract, including a generous monetary advance.
  • An old-fashioned ink and quill materialize so I can sign the coveted contract.
  • A skywriter writes my name over a packed stadium. Preferably a true Nirvana reunion show because my book single-handedly brings Kurt Cobain back to life!
  • My name in flashing lights on a marquee.
  • My book on the shelves of ______ (Insert local chain book retailer here. My small North Dakota city didn’t have independent booksellers).

This is a bit of an exaggeration, of course. I know that writers are not rock stars and long ago shed the romantic notions of my unicorn-emblazoned girlhood diary. But I had high hopes.

This is the way it actually happened:

  • not according to plan.

A recent writing workshop I attended offered a chance to meet with editors in the second week, I buzzed with excitement at the prospect. I was buoyed by the past week at the workshop surrounded by peers, visiting writers, and workshop leaders who were equally passionate about creative nonfiction.

In opening remarks to the session, the editor said that he preferred written proposals because they allowed for complexity, nuance, and depth. I understood his point, but still ached to share. I knew that the verbal pitch is all bones, no meat. I hope vegans can excuse me for the meat metaphor, but the beauty of an idea often lies in the tenderness, the fat, and the juicy center.

Despite his hesitations, the editor kindly agreed to listen to our verbal pitches and acknowledged the difficulty of chiseling an entire book down to a 90-second verbal pitch.

Because I was nervous, my pitch was short and I omitted key points. I told him that my memoir is an exploration of heroin addiction and recovery from my first-person perspective.   

The editor’s shoulders slumped, his jaw slackened, his eyes turned dull. What he said next is still  singed into my brain: “The market is flooded with those kinds of memoirs. How is your book different?”

I knew that he was trying to help me polish and sharpen my proposal, but I felt flatlined, discouraged. I elaborated about what made my book unique. Most recovery memoirs focus on the 12-Steps Alcoholics Anonymous perspective, but I focus on nontraditional recovery with a controversial opiate replacement medication called Suboxone.  I also include reportage about nontraditional recovery communities in Minnesota.

A few more of the female class members delivered their pitches. Then a male workshop member delivered his tentative pitch, explaining that he didn’t like writing about his own life. He was planning instead to write about his sister’s experiences as a heroin addict.

The editor’s spine straightened. He made eye contact. “That’s fascinating! It sounds so French…The opiate epidemic is definitely a timely topic.”

When the editor asked if we had comments or questions, I summoned the courage to respond.  “I’m not trying to attack my fellow workshopper’s topic because there is value in different perspectives, but I feel sort of dismissed. I don’t understand why a man’s pitch speculating about his sister’s heroin addiction from her perspective would be more appealing than a woman’s first-person perspective with a similar experience?”

I didn’t want to burn bridges or sound ungrateful for the opportunity to be at this writing and publishing institute. The directors, visiting writers, and my peers were all gracious, inspiring, talented, and passionate. Yet I felt the urge to speak.

I’ve noticed that literary publications are quick to dismiss first-person addiction and recovery stories, assuming they are riddled with tropes and narcissism, and are overly confessional. These publications seem more likely to accept essays that examine addiction from a removed, distant, and objective perspective. I understand and appreciate the value of journalism and have read many impressive fact-based essays on this topic. Yet I particularly value reading essays that blend first-person with reportage because the writers truly understand and grasp the subject.

The editor responded in an apologetic manner and showed more interest in my book by asking more questions, which I appreciated. When I got home, I posted a status on Facebook about how dismissals by folks like the editor, while perhaps unintentional, are sexist. I also looked at the list of books published by the editor’s house and it was dominated by male authors.

There is a stigma linked to addiction, resulting in people often being more compassionate toward those with other illnesses. When someone dies of a heroin overdose, I’ve seen comments like this on social media: “survival of the fittest, it’s their fault.” People somehow feel free to make such cruel and thoughtless statements, treating addiction like a choice. I never chose to be an addict, but I do choose to tell my story.

After my Facebook post, my peers and the workshop director sent me words of support and even thanked me for speaking out. It lifted my spirits. I try not to be overly dependent on social media for validation, but I do lean on it for support because writing about addiction is hard. Thankfully, there are many fantastic trail-blazing writers who have fought this stigma and written kick-ass memoirs and essays. Some of my favorite include Melissa Febos, Lidia Yuknavitch, Porochista Khakpour, Maia Szalavitz, Elissa Washuta, Amy Dresner, Marya Hornbacher, Chelsey Clammer, and Nick Flynn.

This experience made me realize that we write not for money, name recognition, sky writers, or flashing lights. We write to fight the stigma, to let others know they’re not alone.

I no longer imagine my name lit up on a marquee. Instead, I see myself connected to a glowing string of lights with other writers who are shining, illuminating the once shadowy, taboo subjects of addiction.

Tessa Torgeson is a collector of words, polka-dot stuff, general awkwardness, and (bad) habits in Minnesota. Her writing has recently appeared in The Fix, The Star Tribune, Manifest Station, and other places. Embracing alternative recovery, she is currently writing a book that weaves memoir and reportage about addiction, recovery, harm reduction, and being a Midwest spinster from her non-traditional perspective. If you want to hop on the feelings train, follow her on twitter @tessa_tito


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§ 6 Responses to On Elevator Pitches, Persistence, and Reclaiming the Recovery Story

  • Penny Guisinger says:

    Keep telling the truth, Tessa, and keep telling it this well. And bonus points (big ones) for calling out sexism while you’re at it. KEEP DOING THE THING.

  • Love this–and am thankful for the author’s bravery. There is a double standard: women who share their personal stories are often seen as whining, while men are viewed as brave for divulging.

  • This piece just pissed me off royally. You’d think by now the sexism and misogyny in the publishing world would just shrivel up and die already. But no. It is alive and well. You are a brave woman and your writing is beautiful and YOU, my dear, are a badass. Keep doing it!!

  • kjboldon says:

    Thank you for speaking up for yourself and your work. This is a blatant and discouraging example of sexism, so let’s keep working to make it less common!

  • colbyjack5000 says:

    I have a recovery story as well and wondered if the glut right now might be too much. I do have a unique twist to the story in that I was overprescribed but did not become addicted – even after 12 years of increasingly strong prescriptions, no rehab was needed.
    With a first name like Colby, people are usually looking for a boy under 12-years-old, but always for a male. Would you recommend I not “out” myself as a female in any author bios or cover letters when shopping this (or perhaps any) story?

  • lbenton80 says:

    Good on you for speaking out, and getting a respectful, a useful response!

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