Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Love Your Guts: Part 2


Nobody likes waiting.  Not at the grocery store or doctor’s office or subway platform or CVS pharmacy where it takes fifty-three minutes to reach the front and hear, “Sorry, sir, but your spouse isn’t covered under your plan; you’ll have to call your insurance provider,” who puts you on hold for thirty-seven minutes before you’re finally able to explain—and, on cue, the call is dropped.
You grind your teeth and check to see if they spelled her name right.
“We have her name as Janie,” the pharmacist says.  “J-A-N-I-E.”
“Her name’s Jamie!  Janie’s not even a name!”
“Well that’s what the doctor has here: Janie.  J-A-N-I-E.”
“But, the handwriting—”
“Sir, it was typed.”
“THE ‘N’ IS NEXT TO THE ‘M’ ON A KEYBOARD!”
“Sir, calm down.”
“I AM CALM!”
I.  The Wait
You get close to a manuscript.  It’s your blood and sweat and tears and time—all that time!—and if you’re lucky, you’ll finish a few drafts and become even closer.  You’ll become friends.  Not friends of friends or Facebook friends or John McCain’s “(my) friends,” but friends.  Real friends.  Friends as tight as family.  Homies—yup, you and your manuscript become homies.
You know deep down, really deep down (if you dug long enough to reach China) that your homie is only a Microsoft Word file, a stack of paper filled with words, words that make a book—not even a book, almost a book, but it’s your baby, your friend, your homie and though you don’t have a history of ascribing love and friendship to inanimate objects, you can’t help but feel sad and scared and apologetic when you mail it out because you’re tossing your baby into the wild, into the ocean, into a wild, oceanic mission all by himself and suddenly you understand why in Cast Away Tom Hanks screamed “I’M SORRY WILSON! I’M SORRY!  WILSON I’M SORRY!”  when the current carried his volleyball away.  You take back all the times you’ve mocked that scene when punting a basketball out of your little brother’s reach—“I’M SORRY SPALDING, I’M SO SORRY”—but you don’t feel bad for all the times you got that scene confused with Titanic, when Kate Winslet gasps for the rescue crew to “come back . . . come back . . .” because each and every time you send out your story, you want to quote both scenes and say to your precious characters, “I’m sorry, come back.  I’m sorry if they don’t like you as much as I do.  Come back, please.  I’m sorry, come back.”
And all that’s left is The Wait.  Worse than the DMV, for the line doesn’t end: it stretches down the aisles, into the streets, into your living room; it eats into your mornings, nibbles on your afternoons, swallows your evenings.  If you mailed your query letters, it’s an endless date with a mailbox that dumps you every afternoon.  If you emailed your materials, it’s a battle of self-control that you lose, lose, lose, because the more you hit refresh the worse you feel but you have to check because maybe this will be the day and you want your night to be a good one and the only way this will happen is if the email comes through but you won’t know if it came through unless you check, refresh, check, refresh, refresh.  You realize that refresh is a terrible word, a truly terrible word to describe what you’re going through because you feel a lot of things, but none of them are refreshment.
You hate yourself for throwing your characters into the wild.  (Refresh.)  You hate that they’re all alone and buried in a pile of slush.  (Refresh.)  You picture them slashed and bloody and shredded into a million little pieces.  (Refresh.)  You feel bad for James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, for getting spanked by Oprah on national television but you envy him now.  (Refresh.)  You hate the word "refresh" and hate that you’ve been a sucker for it all your life: soda, slurpies, Gatorade, frozen lemonade—all them tasty but none of them nearly as refreshing as a glass of water.  (Refresh).
But all you can do is wait, which feels like the cable company putting you on hold with Kenny G. for hours into days into weeks into months into years.  The baby who you’ve created and nurtured is all alone at sea and all you hear is Kenny G, which rhymes but isn’t the least bit soothing—because you, too, are all alone.  You can’t tell people your book is on submission because if it doesn’t sell then everyone knows about it.  Knows you put yourself out into the world and said, “Hey, world, it’s me, _____ (insert name) of _____ (insert home address), I’m here and I've got lots of good ideas and I want you to like me” to which the world said, “No.”  Or more specifically, “We’ve already decided who we’ll like in the upcoming year and you aren’t it” or “We don’t like you but who knows, someone with really bad taste might” or the very worst, which shakes you to your core: “How ironic! We liked someone similar to you last week!  Same ideas, same story—crazy, huh?  Good luck finding a home!”
II. Another Homie
This happened to me.  All of it.  I didn’t call my manuscript “Wilson,” but it was my buddy.  My homie.  My pride.  My joy.  Plus, it was about me:  You All in the Kool-Aid but You Don’t Know the Flavor was a memoir about my Teach for America experience, from the boot camp of summer Institute to the streets of West Baltimore; from political corruption ($50 million was stolen from the city budget) to crumbling schools (my principal at Frederick Douglass High School changed students’ grades, graduation was a fraud—things got so bad that HBO spent a year in our school filming Hard Times at Douglass High).
So I was invested.  I hunted down former students on Facebook.  I queried agents, lots of them, all of them, recycled enough rejection envelopes to stop global warming, got hooked and strung out on Gmail Refresh, and a few months later I signed with an agent.  In Like Flynn, right?  The Wait a thing of the past?  After three months of revision and three rounds of submission all I had to show for it was a note from my agent that said there was nothing more to do.
Cue the grieving process: the wish to rewind the clock and keep “Wilson” stored safe and sound in a filing cabinet.  The urge to never again compose another sentence.  To quit and hide and join a monastery or the traveling circus or the Blue Man Group.  To change identities: vote for the Tea Party, wear sweater vests, use the words “sublime” and “balmy,” wear a fake nose and mustache and glasses, drive a sublime sports car, cover my face in sunblock and carry an umbrella even in balmy weather.
Cue the prayer to eliminate Facebook.  The disappearance of Mark Zuckerberg.  The impulse to change my name to John Grisham or Stephanie Meyer or even Rudyard Kipling so that when students ask how the book is going I can say, as only a Mr. Foncy Ponts would, “Oh just marvelous, darling, just marvelous.  The Muse, though fickle, fancies me I suppose!”
Cue the hermit crab.  The cave dweller.  The mole.  Cue hypochondria. Aversions.  Phobias.  Fear of Barnes & Noble.  Fear of Katherine Barnes, Barney Gumble, Nobel Energy, all the noble men in history.
Cue denial.  Dreams of book signings.  Parties.  Schmoozing with Larry King.
Cue acceptance.  Longer conversations.  Crawling out of a cave.
Cue clarity: Kool-Aid made me a better writer.  A more confident one.  I can write 80,000 words. I know my butt, however sweaty it gets, can stay seated.  I know I can finish, whether others like the final product or not.
Cue forgiveness: other people have the right to their opinions but that doesn’t mean they’re right; maybe they're like the dopey pharmacists who can’t admit that Janie is a typo and not a name, but you won’t know unless you keep writing.  Keep creating.  Keep calm.  Keep telling your butt that you don’t care about its feelings.  Keep networking; they'll push you and guide you and be there at the finish line.  Keep avoiding beverages (and people) that aren’t refreshing.  Keep growing characters in your cave.
Keep lookin’ for your next homie.

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