January 11, 2019 § 59 Comments
By Sandra A. Miller
It’s the thing you most need to write, so for years that’s what you do, between teaching jobs and magazine gigs, between kids’ soccer games and the holiday dinners where you sit with the restlessness of the story wanting to be told, most inconveniently when your family expects your presence, but all you can do is wonder if the homemade gravy was worth the hours away from words.
You write and rewrite through the seasons, until autumn circles around again, and you find yourself making a familiar wish on your lovely white cream birthday cake: to finish your memoir and find an editor who takes it.
At last, one autumn day it’s done, and you send out queries, and when the email arrives like a Christmas miracle, your family dances you around the kitchen in the fading winter light. There’s a phone call and a contract and a trip to NYC where you sit across from your spunky agent in a Union Square diner on a custom-made spring day, and between bites of a salad, you whisper your thanks to the literary goddesses.
You go back to Boston and rewrite again, this time with—that magic word—representation. Then the agent sends it out, and you cross your fingers and look for signs—pennies, trinkets, stones, and fortunes—that the publishing world will soon shout yes.
Random House says, “It’s wonderfully written, earnest, humorous, and endearing. The problem is the author’s small platform.”
And Viking says, “I’m sorry not to be able to take it forward at this stage. She’s a compelling writer and something about the voice is quite good.”
And with every “almost, but…no” comes a pain as real as a punch to the gut, one that radiates to the heart, the head, the limbs. But then you recover and dive back in and tweak again and wish again and send again, until your birthday comes around again and your favorite cake tastes less like Chantilly cream and more like longing. You are starting to feel like you are made of longing.
Your writer friends throw lifelines, doing for you what you have done for them, reading and editing, praising, cheering. And you toast to their book deals with a bittersweet joy, wondering if your turn will come. At night in bed you count the years like mistakes. In the morning you scan LinkedIn for a job—any job—that’s not baring your soul into a void.
But then Cynthia says, “It’s no. It’s no. It’s no. Until it’s yes.”
And Erica says, “It took me 27 fucking years!”
And your husband says, “I believe in you,” which makes you cry because you are struggling to believe in yourself.
You are afraid to doubt. You are afraid to hope. And you’re afraid not to hope because the universe can hear the tick of your uncertainty. You plant a crystal in the dirt outside of the Flatiron building, but when nothing grows, you call Lisa in despair. “Trust that your book is strong enough to make the journey,” she says. But it’s your birthday again and the journey has worn you down, and you don’t really want the cake that your husband carries to you, as if cradling your pain.
Another Christmas. Another New Year’s. Spring flashes past, then it’s summer again, you rewrite again, and Graywolf says you have a great eye and a strong, resonant story, but it’s not a bulls-eye for our list.
And that’s when you quit.
You quit the agent. You quit the pain. You quit pretending that you can wait anymore for one of the cool kids to want you. So you shut your eyes and sail your words off to a place across the country where you feel like they might be heard.
An hour later the editor calls and wants more. Two hours later, she wants a phone call. And the next day, you talk to her, the editor you’ve been waiting for. But she’s only read half, so you have to wait. Five days later the email comes. “No, but almost…” She wants it shorter. She wants less thru lines.
You whet your knife and cut 100 pages, take it right down to a sharply focused story about a girl so full of longing that she spends her life on a search for treasure.
You send it back, this tiny gem that you’ve been shaping and polishing for years. You wait. Then one sunny December day you have a phone call. When you hang up, tears are streaking your face, and your heart is just a big, beautiful ache of gratitude.
Sandra A. Miller’s memoir Trove will be published by Brown Paper Press in the fall of 2019.
July 19, 2017 § 26 Comments
By Ann V. Klotz
How much do I really want to write this summer?
In early June, I finish an amazing on-line course with the incomparable Joelle Fraser in which I write faithfully every single day for ten weeks. The content of my memoir grows substantially. I write about my family’s century-long love affair with a tiny resort community in the Allegheny Mountains. I write about losing my brother one summer long ago, about creating a summer theatre program with my husband and then ending that program in that same time. I write about my mom’s death and how I still expect her to be on the porch when I arrive. I write and write. I struggle some with tension and conflict, try to set up more obstacles. Once school finishes, I’m going to take a stab at a real first draft; I’m going to use index cards to arrange what I have—three years plus a lifetime of material. I will write every day. By the end of the summer, which for the Head of a school means the first week of August, I’ll have a draft. I tell my teacher and my classmates as if by voicing my intention I will make it so.
Late one June afternoon, I return home from school. My son, twelve for another few weeks, says, “Mom, by accident, I spilled some iced coffee on your laptop this morning, but I cleaned it up.”
“Okay,” I answer, distracted by my father-in-law’s ill health, my husband at his bedside in another state. I am preoccupied with schoolwork still undone, by what to make for dinner. It is several hours before I open the laptop. The keyboard is sticky. I wipe it with a damp cloth. A moment later, I discover the shift key on the left doesn’t make a capital letter. Puzzled, I tap repeatedly. The letters cavort in a lowercase kick line. Like a trapped animal, gnawing on its own paw, I shift and over and over again, as if the act of repetition will suddenly remedy the problem.
I can’t make an appointment at the Apple store because I can’t shift in order to enter the capital letters of my laptop’s identification number. Suddenly, I discover there is another shift key on the right. Jubilation. I make an appointment. My son, worried now, accompanies me. A few nights ago, I had dropped his phone on flagstones, shattering the screen. The fast-talking young man warned us of dire possibilities; my son might lose all his pictures of his cat, might lose his high scores on various games, but in the end, the repair was uneventful. Everything was fine. With this in mind, I take my place at the genius bar feeling hopeful. My kind tech helper appears.
Coffee in the keyboard? His smile dims. He offers to send it away for days and days; it will cost $500. I might need a new computer; moisture isn’t a good thing. A new computer is only $1200. He smiles again, encouraging.
“I’m a writer,” I think. “I’m traveling. I can’t be without my laptop. This is my month! $500? $1200? At a moment when our expenses are already too high? No way.” I droop. We leave the shiny store.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” says my son.
I vanquish glum self-pity, reassure him that accidents happen. I phone my husband, guilty about bothering him with something as dumb as my keyboard while his father drifts in and out of consciousness.
He recommends rice, so we immerse the whole laptop in a rice soak, burying it deep in a baking dish. In the morning, the left shift key remains broken, as is the control key. I head to Pennsylvania to drop my son off at my sister’s, then drive back to Cleveland and fly to Washington, D.C. for a conference. My father-in-law grows weaker, slips away. I focus on how irritated I am with my computer.
In a bland hotel room in D.C., “I like writing by hand,” I tell myself, knowing it’s a lie. I cry. The shift key and grief. I can’t untangle them.
I try to teach my fingers how to shift on the right. It is the summer of 1975, and I am in Mrs. Romanofsky’s typing class at Lower Merion High School: “A-S-D-F-space; J-K-L-semi-colon-space,” she intones, blonde hair curled tightly and sprayed in a bouffant up-do, an imposing creature towering over minions at typewriters. My brother died later that summer, so I never finished the class, but I learned enough to trust my fingers without thinking about where they needed to go on a keyboard. I am fast and mostly accurate. I crank out emails, letters to families, notes, first drafts quickly. But now, clumsy, I fumble, impatient with my errors, tense.
I ask my husband, home again, to look at the offending key. He who can fix anything, especially computers, removes the key, cleans underneath with a toothpick, gets it to work, briefly, then declares it still broken. Some things can’t be mended. He offers ideas to try once get to Pennsylvania, to the house that is the center of my memoir.
For the past several years, in the middle of the night, my father-in-law would sometimes phone, frantic: “Seth, Seth—“ he would cry, oblivious to the hour. My patient husband would, long distance, soothe his dad, and solve the problem. My broken key is not a desperate situation, merely an annoyance.
I adapt, revise my practice. My computer automatically capitalizes the first letter of a new sentence and almost always makes ‘I’ capital, so that’s a gift. It is tempting to hold a grudge against the shift key, but this is my month.
Finally arriving in Pennsylvania for our fleeting summer, I take my laptop to the porch and begin.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer in the early hours of the morning and the Headmistress of Laurel School during the rest of the day and night. Her house is overrun with rescue dogs and tiny cats. She is trying a “do it yourself MFA” in Creative Nonfiction by taking one online course after the next, ordering too many books to read about craft and too many memoirs to read in one lifetime, studying recently with Kate Hopper and Joelle Fraser, and taking a zen position about the loss of her shift key.
June 19, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Kathleen Siddell
You try but it’s not quite right.
You try again.
And again. You feel like it’s almost right but not quite.
It doesn’t feel difficult. At first, it’s fun. You delete a word here, add a different phrase there. You cut and paste and cut and paste whole paragraphs. You like puzzling a story together. You like how suddenly the image will emerge.
Unless it doesn’t.
Then you work slowly and deliberately. You force sentences together because they seem like they should go together. When you step back, you know something is wrong. The picture is unclear, fuzzy, or distorted. You move sentences around some more but they all seem like the same shade of blue. Dull and obvious. Writing is no longer fun.
So you stop.
You try a different angle. You scroll down. Hit return over and over and over. In the endless white space, you start again, this time with the reds, splashing new ideas onto the page to see what splatters.
You clean it up. Backspace.
Back in the white space. This time it feels empty and hopeless. Still, you try.
You find inspiration in black and white with someone else’s name on the cover, someone smarter, more talented. Someone who is not you. You read and read and get lost. You forget who is who and remember only the words. The words are more important than the names. The picture more important than the pieces.
You believe this so, you try again. You try while you drive to work, chewing words like gum to see what will stick and what must be spit out. You write a phrase on the scrap of paper you found in your purse at the red light. There is a stain on the paper but the words don’t care.
When the words start to drain from your fingertips, you vow not to stop. You will not stop to look at the picture you are forming.
Until you do.
It’s not so bad. You take a step back. You think more critically. Maybe it is so bad. The page is filled. Maybe this is all that matters. But you know it’s not. A page can be so full, it blurs grey.
But this page is clear. Black and white letters you hope will read in color.
You’re not sure, so you try again. You try and believe, try and believe, and somewhere in the cycle, you believe you have formed a picture that tells a story. You believe you have created depth without sacrificing clarity.
You stop and submit because you forgot it doesn’t matter if anyone sees what you’ve done.
But you don’t really believe that. Why else would you spend your time agonizing over all these letters? You forget that you write because you can’t not.
“Unfortunately, we are overwhelmed by the quality of submissions.”
An opposite of submission is resistance. There is a resistance between the story you want to tell and the story you have told. But was it almost good enough? How much resistance is there? You’ll never know.
But maybe you do know.
Because you keep trying and believing.
You believe the picture is one people might like. You remember it doesn’t matter if people like it. You ask yourself if you like it.
But you’d like it more if other people also liked it. Because part of what drives your fingers to the keyboard is other people.
Why is that?
Why does it matter? You know you keep saying it doesn’t when really it does. You feel resistance between what you say and how you feel.
You try to release this tension onto the page; the page that is black and white and full of color.
You don’t know if they’ll see what you see. Maybe it was never really your story in the first place. Maybe it wasn’t your story but A story. Their story. The story. But here it is.
For the taking.
Kathleen Siddell is a sometimes writer and high school teacher. She, her husband, and their two boys have spent the past 4 years living in Asia. You can find her essays on The Washington Post, Mamalode, The Write Life and elsewhere.