“You do your best work after your biggest disasters.”
Tim Robbins, as quoted in The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Finding neither a publisher, nor an agent, for my memoir after three years of looking does not constitute my life’s biggest disaster, but in terms of my writing it did. There’s no creative project into which I have poured more time and energy.
I had the good fortune of serving as the 2014/15 writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home, and I spent a good part of that year querying agents and publishers. I stuck to the old adage that persistence is everything. Overall, I sent 70 query letters and/or proposals, which doesn’t include the 43 I had sent over the previous two years, after I finished my manuscript. Each time I pressed the Send button, hope rose again. Each email carried the possibility of success. I kept telling myself, “If I don’t try, I won’t succeed.”
There were lots of nibbles, requests for the manuscript or the book proposal, but none went anywhere. With each rejection my heart sank a little lower, and my composure got more frazzled. When I reached the end of my list of agents, I plowed through databases of similar books to find publishers who take un-agented work (of which, thankfully, there are plenty). One day, as I was finding similar books that got published while mine wasn’t finding a home, I got so mad that I texted my husband. My fury and frustration must have been evident in that text because he replied, “Maybe you need a break?”
So I took a break. I left my attic studio in the Hemingway House, walked to the French bistro down the street and had a glass of Chardonnay with lunch. Upon my return, I worked on other writing.
Soon thereafter an email from an editor came in, suggesting a rewrite and offering to look at my manuscript again after that. This made me even madder. I didn’t want to rewrite my memoir based on someone’s advice who had no skin in the game. A rewrite would be a lot of work, and I wasn’t even sure I could do it.
Then I had dinner with a good writing friend who yelled at me, “What do you mean you don’t want to do a rewrite? This is a terrific second chance! I wish some editor had given me such consideration. You better get to it!”
I really didn’t want to. I was scared.
“Change–changing the work and how we work–is the unpleasant task of dealing with that which we have been denying. It is probably the biggest test in the creative process, demanding not only an admission that you’ve made a mistake but that you know how to fix it.”
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, p. 218
“The unpleasant task”–that’s what I was dealing with! That’s why I had been dragging my feet. I hadn’t wanted to admit that this version of the manuscript had failed.
Thanks to my friend, by the time I was reading The Creative Habit, I was deep into attempting the rewrite. Up until then, however, I had seen my problem in terms of rejection. I had hunted around for advice on how to deal with rejection, how to keep up the fight in the face of it when really rejection had turned into failure.
When does rejection turn into failure? I wish I knew! I wish I could say, “It’s after sending out 70 unsuccessful queries,” or “when a second chance comes around.” Part of the challenge of the creative process is that you’re always operating in this foggy no-man’s-land. Other writers and artists can only give you advice, share where they have been, but it’s you who has to decide what to do about the work.
I am happy to report that I am glad I attempted the rewrite. The time to do it presented itself when my son attended summer school. We live an hour’s drive from his school, so coming home while he was in class for four hours wasn’t practical. Instead, I joined the Writers Workspace, a communal office for writers a 15-minute-drive from his school, and considered his six weeks of summer school my time to work on the rewrite. Turns out the rewrite was easier than I thought it would be. I shouldn’t have doubted myself so much. By week six I was proof-reading, and I was confident I had a better book.
Alas, the second chance did not pan out in the end. I had been dreading that, but at least I gave the second chance a chance.
In the meantime, I am well on my way to publication with She Writes Press. Looking back on four years of arduously pursuing traditional publication, I am wondering whether going with a press where I have more say in the process would have been the right way all along, but I had to fail in order to see that.
Annette Gendler is a writer and photographer. Her memoir, Jumping Over Shadows, about a German-Jewish love that overcomes the burdens of the past, is forthcoming from She Writes Press in April 2017. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, Bella Grace, Artful Blogging and Kveller, among others. She’s also in her tenth year of teaching the memoir workshop at StoryStudio Chicago.
Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteGendler