Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mixed Signals

This afternoon I drove my cat to the Vet for her regular pedicure. Actually, it’s a $3 (yes!) claw trim. Oreo is close to 20 years old, and this is the only “treatment” she gets at the Vet. Just saying. As I left the neighborhood, I saw these gorgeous daffodils, just around the corner from our house. And then, driving down North Parkway was a study in contrasts. The sky was dark, with an overlay of melting, sun-dappled clouds. The trees on the median (boulevard?) were all dead—some still had dry, brown leaves hanging from them, others were bare. But all along the boulevard, between the dead trees, clusters of bright yellow daffodils were in full bloom!
So, who didn’t get the memo? Spring is here? In February? But the trees are budless and the ground is yielding golden daffodils. It seems that Mother Nature has sent out Mixed Signals and her children are responding in kind. Or not.

It reminded me of the replies I’ve gotten from various literary agents since I started sending our queries last May. Yes, I’ve been at it for nine months, this quest for literary representation for my book. And I’m really thankful that most of the rejections have not been form letters or worse, photocopied pieces of paper, about 2 ½ inches X 8 ½ inches, like strips cut from a single sheet. (I’ve gotten one of those. It’s pretty demoralizing)
But the Mixed Signals come in the verbage. When an agent says things about my work like “Your story is a remarkable one, and the stuff memoirs are made of,” and then goes on to say, “I didn’t see a cohesive, overarching narrative frame that tied it all together,” and other discouraging words, I feel like the daffodils. Is it time to come out, or not? So, does this mean I’ve got a good idea but can’t execute it?

The most recent letter was really disheartening. And yes, there was the 2.5 X 8.5 photocopied rejection slip, but on the back, the agent said, among other personal comments, “Despite your impressive marketing support, I found the story at times familiar…. While it is certainly your unique story, I encourage you to reflect upon the wider world, i.e. other women similarly challenged.”

So which is it, “familiar” or “unique”? “Remarkable” or “incohesive”? Mixed messages for sure. But hey, there are other fish in the sea, and I press on. And just in time for my pressing on efforts, two wonderful tools arrived in my mailbox this week:

First, the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It’s always useful, and this issue didn’t disappoint. Once I make it through the cover stories, like “Premier Editors: How They Decide Which Books to Buy and What They Never Tell Authors,” I find my way to the more helpful stuff, like Michael McGregor’s column for “The Literary Life” section: “Green-Haired Gunshoes or Hidebound Hacks?” Translation for my non-writing readers: Creative Nonfiction vs. Journalism. McGregor quotes from and refers to Dinty Moore and Lee Gutkind, both mentors of mine at Creative Nonfiction (workshops, conferences) and makes good points about memoir and personal essay (my two genres):

“‘ memory has its own story to tell.’ (Tobias Wolff) The same can be said of the personal essay, which by nature offers a deeply subjective view of things, no matter how many facts it employs….” McGregor talks about Moore “favoring form over content” and introducing a third form of creative nonfiction (in addition to memoir and essay)—“Literary journalism…. Which usually focuses outward, on an event, location, or person the author finds worthy of careful examination” Not a format I’m interested in, but one that is growing in popularity, for sure. I'm not doing a great job of reviewing the article, so please check it out yourself!

The next journal to arrive in my mailbox this week is Creative Nonfiction #36. On the cover I read the words, “Points of Entry: Choosing a story’s best beginning” and was encouraged to follow a link to a special online supplement and join the discussion, which I did, here. The entire issue is like taking a writing course in finding a good beginning. Great stuff, Lee! Kudos!

Okay, I just have to say that if this post seemed a bit disjointed, it was “assembled” while watching American Idol and “tweeting” about each contestant, here. Lots of fun. I voted for Megan, who designs fonts (yes!) as her day job, and did a unique presentation of “Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae.

Enough TV, Twitter, and Blogger. Time for a good book! G’nite all!

2 comments:

telhajj.com said...

I'm with you on the mixed messages that come with marketing. You've at least got your manuscript completed, which is more than I can say for myself. Each step has its own complications--the process feels like two steps forward, one step back (those steps back are so difficult)--but it's good to realize on some level it's all slowly moving forward.

I followed you here from one of your recent post on Brevity. Nice site, Susan!

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks for commenting, but my manuscript isn't complete. My 45-page nonfiction book proposal is being shopped out to agents, and several have requested up to 60 pages, but no contract yet. I've drafted about 200 pages. I'm kinda' slowing down the memoir right now to spend more time on essays. So, how did you get to join Brevity's blogging group? I also checked out your site, and added it to my favorite links, along the left side of my blog.