Your First Book: When the Cheering Stops
October 16, 2019 § 21 Comments
By Alice Tallmadge
At first, you barely notice the drop-off. You still check your personal email a dozen times an hour, just in case someone has weighed in. You pull up your website email daily and hover over Facebook, counting likes. You track your Amazon page more than once a week, hoping for one more 5-star review.
Yes, there’s not quite the input there was a couple of months ago, when your pub date loomed, your on-line essay showed up on Huff Po, and your photo appeared above the fold of the Sunday paper’s arts section. You got used to the kudos from supporters, the notes from strangers. The flurry was so unexpected you didn’t have time to stand back and consider how ephemeral it would be. If you had, you would have told yourself of course it won’t last. But you didn’t. Instead you learned to swim, even enjoy, those new waters. Although nerve-wracking at first—a face-to-face confrontation with an angry reader, an email rant from another, the first radio interview—you came to relish being tossed from wave to wave, having to gather your words, respond to questions, to share with others the arduous process of birthing your book.
But months pass and you finally get it. Your FB messages and website email dry up. Local book clubs no longer seek you out. The number of Amazon reviews doesn’t budge. Book sales flat-line. No more emails from grateful strangers or appreciative friends show up in your inbox. The cheering has indeed stopped.
Your friends stop asking how the book is doing, and ask about your next project. But your writing mind is as empty as a flat pocket. You can’t imagine writing another paragraph, ever. You say are taking a break. And you do. You look around your yard and realize tiny suckers have grown into veritable trees while you were fact-checking your manuscript, filling out tipsheets and tracking down chapter notes. The fence along one side of the yard leans like a warped wall. A prickly plague of blackberries covers half your backyard. The lower limbs of the front yard pine have gone yellow and vestigial.
One day you walk into the back shed and the chaotic interior stops you cold—where did this mess come from? You spend hours culling, tossing and sweeping. It’s dusty labor, but therapeutic. You find the leak in the roof, the source of the nasty smell (cat pee on black plastic), the box of party lights you thought you had thrown out.
You do all this work with gusto, but your mind clatters away. You comb through your decisions, what you didn’t do, what you wished you had done, what you wish someone had told you, whether you should do more, and what that should be. The dust covers your arms, legs and face like a second skin.
In the 18 months since your pub date, one writing friend polishes off a long essay and three short stories. Another announces she found a publisher for her chapbook. Another says she expects her book will be done by December. Another says her manuscript is being considered by a university press. You are honestly delighted for all of them, but as they talk you feel formless and drifty. You talk about your growing brush pile, how tough it’s been to find someone to trim your trees, how you need to re-seal your backyard deck.
One day you run into a former yoga teacher, a young woman who looks frail but is rooted as an old oak, and has gathered far more wisdom than her years belie. She tells you she closed her studio, then stopped teaching classes. Now she works at a farm stand, which she loves because, she says, it brings her close to the earth.
“Sometimes you just have to let it all go, to get to the next step,” she tells me, her eyes a dancing sea of blue. “It’s tough because that’s who you’ve been for all those years, and it’s like, ‘without that, who am I now?’ But still, you just have to let it all go.” She spreads her long arms like a heron either about to take flight, or about to land.
You gather up your six ears of corn and a fat red pepper. You wave good-bye. You go home and make corn chowder and pick the last of the blackberries. You don’t wonder where you are on the spectrum – whether you’ve let it all go, or are at the beginning, or somewhere between the two. But you feel at peace. A few days later, you sit down, and begin to write.
Alice Tallmadge has been a journalist and essayist for three decades. Her memoir, Now I Can See the Moon: A Story of a Social Panic, False Memories, and a Life Cut Short was published in 2018 by She Writes Press. Her essays and stories have appeared in the Oregonian, Portland Magazine, Forest Magazine, Oregon Humanities, the Register- Guard, Oregon Quarterly, The New York Times and on Huffington Post. She is currently a grant-writer, free-lance editor, and committed cheerleader for first-time authors. Find her at www.alicetallmadge.com.