May 14, 2021 § 29 Comments
By Dorothy Rice
The e-mail from the publisher of my first book popped into my mailbox on a Saturday. I was sitting in the wooden bleachers at a baseball game. My nine-year-old grandson was pitching. I didn’t open it, not only because I was cheering him on through the chain-link fence. I had no expectation of good news. After the game ended and we’d all hugged goodbye, I sat behind the wheel of my Subaru, blasting the air conditioning in an unseasonably hot Sacramento spring. I clicked on the email.
“I am writing to give you notice that The Reluctant Artist will be removed from our active title list on June 30, 2021 (hereafter the Termination Date).”
Which meant they would no longer sell my book. All rights would revert to me following the ominous sounding “termination date.” Mention of my freedom thereafter to publish the entire book or any of its individual poems let me know this was a form letter; there are no poems in The Reluctant Artist. I imagined a purge was underway and that many poets had received a similar missive. Out with the underachievers. A list my book belonged on. No quibble there. Royalty statements for the last two years of the contract were in the red. I wondered if I’d get a bill.
If I’m honest, I’d considered it an unexpected gift that it was published at all. With 73 pages of full-color photographs, it must have been expensive to print. Then there’s the size, smaller than a coffee table book, bigger than most others. And the contents. Neither fish nor fowl. A hybrid memoir/art book, written by a little-known writer about her even more obscure father.
Sitting in the hot car, air from the vents blasting my face, I skimmed it quickly and tossed it onto the passenger seat. I was used to impersonal rejection emails. This was sort of the same thing. Wasn’t it?
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I’d decided not to tell anyone. Not my husband, my sisters or kids (the primary audience for the book in the first place). Telling anyone would have made it too real.
The news nested somewhere in the back of my mind, behind conscious thought.
The following Monday, I sat beside my seven-year-old granddaughter, shuffling math worksheets and reading packets, organizing her materials for Zoom school. In the kitchen, I poured her favorite juice and spread Nutella on a toaster waffle. Savoring the scent of warm grains and melty chocolate, the termination notice resurfaced.
I’d grown accustomed to thinking of myself as the author of two books from small presses—not one, two. Five years passed so quickly; my quirky book fading in the sunset hadn’t crossed my mind. With a typical rejection, I could consider where to send it next, or perhaps undertake another round of edits. A published book ceasing to be “published,” losing its home, its advocate and legitimacy in someone’s eyes other than my own, felt different. An erasure, an accomplishment withdrawn.
I could tilt at more windmills by sending it out to other small presses. I could self-publish. A viable option for an e-book. Even if I could finance printing an art book, I didn’t think I wanted to.
I snuck my granddaughter her breakfast. Eating “on camera” wasn’t allowed, yet making Eva wait until the 9:30 break wouldn’t go well for any of us, least of all the teacher. We finished the Number of the Day worksheet (32) and a math assignment about telling time, the “real” way, with two hands on a clockface. I brewed a fresh cup of coffee, poured Eva more juice.
“Drink it fast,” I said. “It might stop the hiccups.”
Ten years ago, when The Reluctant Artist was conceived, my dad had just died. The two essays that became the nucleus for the text were about finding my way back to writing as my father, a lifelong creative, was dying. I loved his art and harbored no doubts about its merits. I was not so confident about my own abilities or identity as a writer.
I retrieved a well-thumbed copy of the book from my office and smoothed the cover with the flat of my hand— a self-portrait of my father from the sixties. Returning to Eva, my steps were light. Proud, nostalgic, and grateful, for Dad, and the writer I was.
During the 9:30 break, we watered the vegetables we’d sprouted from seeds then moved to wood-framed beds in the backyard.
“Look Grandma, this tomato has flowers.” Eva pointed to a spidery yellow blossom.
I was reminded of something I’d read and heard said several times. That you could write the same book every ten years and each time it would be entirely different.
Eva flitted from plot to plot, waving the misting hose like a magic wand. I’d water more carefully after our morning together ended. The Reluctant Artist had felt safe, finite and contained, a package. Yet themes and ideas I’d struggled with before and since are there, embedded in the text, their surface barely scratched, likely only discernible to me.
With Covid-19 and quarantine, my writing had suffered pandemic paralysis. Perhaps it was Spring’s arrival or that the economy and schools were slowly reopening. Or maybe it was the vaccines in mine and others’ arms. A sense of emerging on the other side, ready to pick up where I’d left off, or, better still, to begin a new page.
I wasn’t the same person or the same writer I was ten years ago. No longer hesitant to explore deeper, murkier corners—to pose questions, struggle to answer them and not feel I’ve failed if I only manage to come up with more questions.
To the persistent hum of bees sipping lavender pollen, I sensed the delicate pulse of new words, new thoughts and new ways of expressing them. I was excited to discover what would grow. Much as I anticipated the bounty of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and beans to come. Promises for now, setting down roots, reaching for the sunlight, beckoning the bees.
Dorothy Rice is the author of two memoirs, Gray is the New Black (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing statewide environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Dorothy co-directs the literary series Stories on Stage Sacramento, reads submissions for Hippocampus Magazine, and works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit.