Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Still Want to Make Books

On the recommendation of my friend and former teacher Rob Roberge (author of Drive and More than They Could Chew), I drove through the temporarily green hills of the inland empire to Cal State U. San Bernardino last week to hear the co-founder and managing editor of Red Hen Press, Kate Gale (author of Lake of Fire and quite a few others), speak about writing and publishing. Coincidentally, I had plans to have drinks with Mike Davis (City of Quartz, In Praise of Barbarians, and others), a different friend and former writing teacher, later that evening. There were a lot of people I was happy to meet, ever-so-briefly: James Brown (L.A. Diaries), Susan Straight (Highwire Moon, A Million Nightingales, more).

The context for what follows is that I'm deeply grateful for that day and those people. I've been accepted to a PhD program at UCR, am still waiting to hear from USC, and so am thinking hard about My Career and My Work and What the Hell to Do.

The very sad fact of my career these days, though, is that I can't escape the emotional importance of all those parentheses in par. 1. I can have an afternoon of taking some notes on Kate's ideas, twenty minutes of hilarious story-telling with Rob that involves some little-known facts about Jon Travolta and guacamole, I can have an evening of listening to Mike talk about his son's garage band in Dublin while he knocks back a few mojitos, I can even relax enough around Susan Straight to tell her I loved a piece she did five years ago for Salon.com about Michael Jackson. It's ridiculous to be jealous of people who've been at this business for years longer than me, but at the end of the day, I still felt humbled.

The problem isn't that I'm star-struck around Authors--I grew up around them. My dad, when he was an editor at HarperCollins (Then Harper & Row) in the 80s, used to include me and Erica in many dinners on the expense account, during which I recall moments like: a well-dressed woman with big earrings saying sweet things to me; a good-looking, funny man in a dark sportcoat stealing Maraschino cherries from my Shirley Temple. That woman was Sue Monk Kidd (who was a nonfiction writer then, but eventually the author of The Secret Life of Bees) and that man was Jim Wallis (Founder of Sojourners, author of God's Politics). We hosted authors in our home, we took them into San Francisco and walked them through Pier 39. Dad treated them special--they were the people with ideas, who needed time to work things out, who produced new and wonderful pieces of thinking and feeling, who were individuals, creatives, brilliant, all.

Some of the authors became Dad's dear friends. (I don't presume to know how many or which ones were lovers. Hey, he was a bachelor.) I loved that world of writers and books, but I loved it without any knowledge of the difficult path between writing a manuscript and getting it made into a book, really. I would see Dad reading stacks of pages, and later in the year, he'd show me the book. I knew that the editorial process was grueling at times, that it was work, but that it was also immensely gratifying and usually ended with great parties and fabulous people smiling at me.

The problem is: I didn't understand that to become an author in the first place, you had to get your pages into the hands of someone like my dad. In fact, I really didn't understand how hard that was until I started sending stories out to lit mags during my MFA. I'd already published a book of nonfiction, with Dad's help, and I'd already published a series of nonfiction articles, with both Dad and SARK's help, and publishing, consistently being published, was already something I expected for myself. The fact that literary magazines were so difficult to break into shocked me. Kate Gale drove this point home in her talk when she made it clear that the only way she ever looks at a manuscript at Red Hen is if it comes by referral. Even with some nepotism, fiction is a beast of an industry.

In contrast: my first publication was a mistake--I was at a Conari Press party with Dad, bored out of my mind (the only kid there, of course), and the hostess of the party announced that upstairs there were two computers on which party guests were invited to write brief anecdotes about times they'd received or offered acts of kindness to strangers. "We're thinking of doing a book on Random Acts of Kindness," she said, and voila! I had something to do. I went upstairs and wrote two stories, both of which were pure fiction, and didn't think about them again until one of them made it into the book. I had a crisis of conscience. I was only twelve. Conari really had no idea.

"Dad," I said, looking at the brief contract they'd sent me,"I can't let them use this story, it isn't true."
"Listen," he said. "It will inspire people, and that's the point. Something like this has probably happened to someone somewhere. It's good writing. Getting published is amazing at your age. Let them use it."
So I did.

And there's my confession, and my outing of my father's complicity. I was already writing, but I got addicted to being published at the early age of twelve. Conari's Random Acts of Kindness ended up selling like crazy, spawning sequels and bumper stickers and imitations.

So why, when I sit in a university library, listening to Kate Gale say very sensible things about how engaged a writer must be in the literary goings-on of their world, how important it is to be a "literary citizen," why does my heart sink?

Because lately, and especially since I started writing fiction, I'm bad at the publishing game.

I'm ashamed that I don't have a much, much more impressive pub list at this age, at this "level" (whatever that means), and three years after finishing my MFA. I thought I'd have an agent for my novel, I thought I'd have some longer stories in more prestigious magazines, I thought, I thought, I thought. It turns out that the world of fiction, and especially the current climate of fiction publishing, has almost nothing to do with the models of nonfiction book-making I grew up with. The privileged access I had when I was younger trained me in certain important ways: I'm calm on camera, I'm charming at a cocktail party, I'm erudite in my questions, I'm articulate in my answers, I can quip for a radio show, and so on. But it did nothing to prepare me for the actual work of writing fiction, or, the work of trying to get fiction into the world. I love writing fiction. I don't send my work out enough. I say this with a stack of stuffed envelopes next to me on the floor, because I've resolved that 2010 will be a year of Carlisle Manuscript Barrage. Tomorrow I'm sending to (the first) ten mags a short story that is, at least, weirder than the rest I've sent out. Right now it's my favorite.

Of course it is possible that I'm not getting my novel picked up, or my stories published, because I'm just not that good at writing fiction. But I'd like to suspend that judgment for now, in part so I can go on living, and in part because it's a pretty illogical conclusion until I've sent out many more stories, written a few more books, and failed more miserably for a chunk of years. There are too many smart people in my life who've encouraged me for me to get irrationally, defiantly insecure now.

Kate Gale's theory about submitting work made a lot of sense to me. She says that men are in general more consistent at the task of sending out manuscripts than women are. She thinks this is because they are trained from adolescence to deal with rejection from women. They learn to live, they learn to try again, they learn that not every girl they want is going to want them back, and that the world will go on. Women, on the other hand, rarely have to go through this kind of trial, because most of the time if they are putting themselves out there and asking someone for a date, they're likely to get affirmed. "So women take it harder," she said, "and that means we stop sending manuscripts out when the rejections start pouring in."

I looked through my Submissions Log, which I started in 2006. I was doing alright with sending things out for a while there--got a long essay published in NinthLetter, which I was proud of. Then, I had a story I loved that got rejected from seventeen magazines. Then, an essay I loved that got rejected from thirteen. Bam! After that I sent out sporadically, mostly to online magazines, or to magazines where I already knew someone. Yes, I was working on a novel during that time. But I still had shorter pieces that could have gone out, and I could have been writing new ones. I just didn't do it. What's worse: I didn't even realize I'd gotten sad about it until recently.

I studied psychology as an undergrad. I know enough to see Operant Conditioning occurring here. And that embarrasses me too, because I think I'm too smart for all that.

So. I commit, yet again, to the day-to-day business of the writer-life, in addition to the practice of actually making work. And I wish more people would talk about rejection without the "just ignore it and keep going" tough-kid act that seems to dominate these conversations.

I don't want to ignore the possibility that I might want to start my own magazine. I don't want to ignore the possibility that self-publishing, which everyone in the "legit" world still looks down upon, might be the way to build a readership before I knock on the big doors in New York again. I don't want to ignore my tendency to write work that is neither straight fiction nor strict memoir, and what that might mean. I don't want to ignore the rejections. I want to figure out how to (a) make my work even better and (b) find homes for it.

Publishing is changing. I still want to make books.