Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Very, Very, Very Long Year

Ever pick up a book at a moment in your life when that author has something to say to you, something you really need to hear?

That happens to me.

Sometimes someone gives me a book that they know I need to read, like Another Country.

Sometimes, I pick something up off the shelf at a bookstore that influences my thinking for years afterwards; like the diaries of Anais Nin, all of which I read at the outset of my adult life. (They certainly gave me a lot to think about!)

On my trip to the Women's March on Washington, I read Circling the Sun, by Paula McClain, a novel about Beryl Markham.

Markham's autobiography, West With the Night, rediscovered and published about twenty years ago, is one of my favorite books of all time.

I was dubious about McClain's novel because a) Markham's own book is incomparable, and b) the cover of McClain's book seems to suggest that I would be reading romantic schlock (which is fine for other people, but not for me). The fact that it isn't romantic schlock at all and that I was reading it in a feminist flurry of defiant resistance made me hate the cover all the more.

Nonetheless, the book is absolutely marvelous. It follows a woman of talent, character, and courage over a seemingly endless series of obstacles that she has to overcome in pursuit of autonomy and some semblance of happiness.

West With the Night spares us the full weight of Markham's heart ache and ordeals, while still holding close to the truth; but Circling the Sun tells it like it is. It's an emotionally difficult, but compelling read.

Actually, it reminds me in that way of my own book, in as much as both stories concern themselves with the question of how far the full compliment of gifts can take a person beyond one or two knock-out punches.  Inexhaustible, Fortune always seems to have one more trick up its sleeve.

So, that was interesting to read right after I'd finished my own book.

Frankly, it was humbling, and I wondered if I ought to have bothered writing my book at all, though I do love it still. I love the story and the characters--both on the page and in my life. (The story is based on the real Charlotte and Fire. Charlotte has become a dear friend, and Fire is a beloved horse that lives in my barn.)

I had the impression, briefly, that I was one of very few people to actually finish a novel. But now that I'm trying to publish it, it seems that everyone on the planet has in fact written five novels, and I have fallen way behind.

While I was still writing, I struggled to stay with it and not lose faith, but during the last trimester (which would be one year in literary time), I realized that I would inevitably finish it, and I had to finish it, and that felt a lot like being heavy with child.

But now I feel like a single sperm swimming for all I'm worth in the hope of fertilizing that one coveted egg--the literary agent or editor who's going to tell me they love my book.  I am among thousands of others, all just like me, swimming the same damn race.

I can't think of another way to describe it...perhaps one of the other sperms, a more talented sperm, could find a better metaphor.

The next book I read was Paula McClain's, The Paris Wife, which I owned already but hadn't read, and which I decided to read because I had liked Circling the Sun so much.

The Paris Wife is about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, their courtship and marriage, their early years in Paris. More pointedly, from my perspective, it's about Hemingway's coming of age as, well, Hemingway.

It was a rough read. I wasn't sure I should be reading it at this moment in my life.

Hemingway emerged out of the Midwest--St. Louis, Missouri, where he meets Sherwood Anderson, the famous author of the book, Winesburg, Ohio.  

Anderson advises Hemingway to go to Paris, and arranges for the dazzlingly handsome young Hemingway (in his early twenties) to meet Ezra Pound.

Pound befriends Hemingway immediately, and introduces him to Gertrude Stein, who becomes a close friend, and also to Ford Maddox Ford, who provides him with employment...

At this time, Hemingway has written just a few short stories, and none has been published yet.

McClain seems to suggest that Hemingway was more grounded and nicer before he was published, and that everything started to go to hell with the publication of the Nick Adams stories, and went absolutely all to hell after The Sun Also Rises came out. (Be careful what you wish for.)

I found his combination of bravado and self-doubt kind of comforting. He needed reassurance from Hadley, among others, that he wasn't just full of hot air, but in fact a potentially great writer.

But it doesn't exactly feel safe to identify with Ernest Hemingway. That could be a recipe for disaster: Am I like him in that I experience self-doubt?  Are we not all like young Ernest Hemingway, to that extent?  Self-doubt and greatness are not necessarily linked.

I'm definitely not comforted when Hemingway says, This is my one chance to make my mark--it may not come a second time.

Jesus, I think.  I too had an opportunity once before. I remember it clearly. I was 21 and working for a small weekly. I was starting to get noticed as a writer. But I left that scene to go to a publishing school in Cambridge. After that, I got a job in New York--children's books, production (couldn't have been more wrong for me).

But New York was a good place to be, wasn't it?  I met Anais Nin on a bookstore shelf, and visited St. Mark's Place, where she used to live.

Hemingway may have been equal to it, but New York proved too much for me. I felt like a ghost, walking the great streets, and felt the presence of ghosts everywhere, as though I had arrived much too late (or had been lingering much too long).

When I don't feel like a sperm, I feel like a mother with a feverish child. I need to do right by my book, and the characters, and when I consider the possibility of never seeing them walk...It's tough.

It's hard for to worry about something I love not making it in life. And this theme resonates in other areas of my life.

My horse, Belle, probably slipped on the ice that encased our area in early January, an ice that ended the lives of three horses that slipped and broke their legs. Six weeks later, what we thought must be an abscess in Belle's hoof has not resolved.  Tomorrow, there will be more x-rays. We're looking for a fracture of some kind. It's worrisome.

Our two-year-old cat got terribly ill. I thought she was going to die.

I find myself negotiating with God: Dash the book; save the cat!

Did God hear me say, Dash the horse, save the cat!...?

Two weeks ago, my Palomino, Tanner, impaled himself on a hook. At least, that's what we think must have happened; we couldn't find any evidence on any hook, stall latch, or anywhere. But, based on the relative height and position of the hooks and the injury, that is my best guess. It was gross, and alarming. It cut deep into the muscle. The vet came out quickly and stitched him up. He's going to be okay.

And the cat survived. She's good as new.

Belle's leg is still concerning.

Through it all, and into the immediate future, the fate of the book still hangs in the balance.

I do my sperm thing every day--send short stories off to contests, send query letters off to agents...
Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!  

Mostly, I feel various shades of desperate, determined, committed, and infinitesimally small.

Lately, in response to my own complaints, I hear Humphrey Bogart telling me that the problems of three small animals and a book don't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed up world...Because yeah, now is really not a good time to be so self-involved.

A couple days ago when I was feeling low, I clicked on the Binders Facebook page, (Binders is a secret network of women in publishing. Oops.) and the first thing I saw was a woman saying that after a long miserable year of receiving nothing but rejections, the manuscript that took her umpteen years to write has just been shortlisted for a major prize.

I congratulated her and thanked her for sharing both the pain and the glory. I said I was at the beginning of my long hard year and her story gave me reason to be hopeful.

In another comment, someone said that she didn't get published for 30 years, not until she had written seven novels....  That I found much less hopeful.

Yesterday, having spent the day laboring over queries and submissions that may never ever EVER yield a response, I clicked on Instagram and saw that a woman I know has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  I don't know why that should make me happy and not extremely jealous, but it did. It seemed like another hopeful sign.

It's an extremely humbling process, trying to get a book published.  I am finding strategies for  remaining sane.

I limit how many times I check my email.

I accomplish my goals, and then try to step back, and write if I want to (like I am doing now) or read other people's books without worrying that their voice will infect my own.

This is the time to work up a head of steam for my next novel, which is definitely percolating in my head.

This is the time to be outside of my head for a while--to pay attention to other aspects of my life and home that have fallen into disrepair.

This is the time that I promised myself I would enjoy, if ever I finished my book. (And I did! Yay!)

I haven't learned how to enjoy it, yet.  But, you know, What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

I'm reading Cleopatra for book club this month. So far, she's a teenager, living in a tent in the desert, trying to amass an army. I look forward to reading it, and hearing what she has to say (#Resist!).

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