This week I had the opportunity to attend a writing conference – my first. I alluded to it a while ago. A friend, who I call my Jewish Writing Mother, encouraged me to attend as there would be opportunities to meet with editors and agents. I committed to going as well as to having several essays completed. And then I panicked. Pulling all my teeth would have been less painful than the writing of “my book” these last months. With prayer, the persistent encouragement of several self-assigned coaches, a re-perusal of Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird and the remembrance that there is just a certain amount of fear and self-loathing that goes with writing – I got back on task.
So I knocked myself out, got some things together, surmounted seemingly Satanic technological challenges to get them printed, went shopping to get myself presentable and drove off early Thursday morning excited and nervous.
My friend had intended to call me the night before so we could set up a time to meet and kind of schedule our day as she wanted to personally introduce me to some of the editors she knows. Calling my house that morning she was surprised to find I had already left and called me on the cell.
“Wow, way to get an early start…A++ to you.”
“That or the title ‘Total Nerd’. I wanted to make sure I got a parking space and I did…about a thousand. If you want I’ll save a hundred or so for you.”
We settled on a time to meet. As it was in a large auditorium we told each other what we were wearing to, hopefully, help catch the eye. I was in a pink sweater and pearls.
“I look like a youngish First Lady. If you find yourself wanting to pitch me a literacy program, go right ahead.”
We found out the first day that there weren’t going to be slots available to meet with editors and agents. This was disappointing, but I was philosophical. It had been a good thing to have the conference to force me to get writing. Now I just needed to go home and write the rest. There were public presentations of about 20 minutes where various publishers explained what they were about and were looking for. I tried to attend as many as I could trying to determine who might be a good fit for my book, which is a spiritual memoir on motherhood.
I was reluctant to say I was writing a memoir, as it seems one might as well hand out a card that says: I am self-absorbed. This is true, but I like to delude myself. I soon learned that Christian publishers would rather play Russian roullette than publish a memoir by a first time writer. This is when I heard the terrible word “platform”, as in “what is your…?” Awkward questions were asked about if we happened to have a large public, celebrity friends who might endorse our book or extensive writing credits elsewhere that might indicate an established readership.
I was terribly disappointed that I had neglected to found a mega church, become famous or, at the very least, curry favor with some famous people. Who knew! I considered mentioning that I had at least three faithful blog readers as well as a very large family…
I was beginning to feel like I was one of a million women on an island with only 2 men, one of whom was gay and the other refused to date anyone until we were married which is to say, a little discouraged.
The days were packed. I scurried all over this campus trying to fit everything in, sometimes needing to skip workshops with writers I would have really liked to hear, in order to go to dreary presentations where editors waved guns in the air and yelled, “I mean it! I would rather shoot myself than TALK about a memoir by a first time writer…what’s your platform?”
It was all a tiny bit disheartening. Friday I called Paul in a slight slump. I told him the situation and then to the sound of quiet typing in the background I said all the keep my pretty chin up things I could think of before falling silent. Only the sound of gentle keystrokes could be heard.
“Look, if you are dying to tell me something encouraging I don’t want to get in the way of that…”
I waited to hear the opening strains of “Wind beneath my Wings.”
“Babe, I’m trying to get some work done.” This was said in the neutral voice of one adult to another. I felt like an amoeba -maybe a paramecium – but I reminded myself that I was, in fact, a fully grown woman. I knew that Paul had not signed on to be my 24/7 life support and that that was a good thing despite how attractive co-dependence was then appearing.
We said good-bye and I dragged myself over to the main area and wandered around the vendor displays trying to appear focused and sane, as little like an unpublished stalker as I could manage, which – as I was one – wasn’t very well. I bought a book at one of the largest publisher whose presentation I had attended the day before.
At the end of the tables stood one of the editors who had presented. He works for the publisher that is responsible for a terrible children’s series that Lydia likes. I allowed her to read them when she heard about them from her cousin. I could tell they weren’t going to be very enriching but if they got my then second grader to read a full novel without illustrations, the potential benefit seemed to outweigh the risk. Since then I have read several. Terrible doesn’t really cover it. They are mysteries set in the turn of the century in the South. Land Sakes! is interjected at least once a page and the heroine is a self-absorbed, stubborn girl who rattles off one particular Bible verse whenever she gets in a dilemma. There is a Native American man who acts as a guardian and a crew of cheerful Colored Folk. I am not kidding.
As I walked away from the book table my eye met the editors. Immediately I thought of these wretched books and felt sheepish. I thought he might recognize me from the presentation the previous day. I smiled nervously and waved quickly before turning to hurry away. I hadn’t even pivoted when the girl (she was no woman) beside him asked,
“Who was that? That was really weird.”
I wanted to go back and say, “Could you at least let me turn before you talk about me,” and try to explain my awkwardness, “See, we kind of met and I feel a little silly because this guy is responsible for producing absolute schlock for young readers, which makes me feel sheepish, because I know that and he doesn’t seem to…”
I kept walking and tried to encourage myself that maybe the gay man would marry me so I could try to get a date with the straight guy…if one of the 999,999 other women didn’t beat me to him.
At this point I remembered I had been invited to dinner with my Jewish Writing Mother and her writing group. I scanned the room and saw some of them clustered together.
“Have you seen Lorilee?” I asked one of the women on the edge of the group.
One of the others in the middle turned and grabbed my arm, “Have you seen Lorilee!”
“She’s been looking all over for you. She signed you up with an editor from – at 5:30.” It was then 5:00.
I thought I was going to cry. I went to find Lorilee. A quickly located her. She gave me a little pep talk and then had to run to meet with someone else. I didn’t know how I was going to pull myself together to change my shoes, let alone be intelligent, engaging and charming while pitching an editor on my spiritual MEMOIR.
I hustled to the bathroom, took off my tennies, put on my cute heels, refreshed my lipstick, tussled my hair with my fingers then went through a series of focusing exercises I recently learned. As I calmed down the urge to lock myself in the fetal position slowly subsided. I presented myself at the publisher’s table right at 5:30. One of the sales guys took me to where the editor was meeting with a group in the lobby. As we approached, she looked up in surprise.
“Is it 5:30 already?” The three people with her shifted their weight, preparing to get up. She indicated an open chair. “Do you mind joining us? I was just about to explain some things I would like you to hear too.”
I agreed. She started to tell us about her publisher, what they were looking for and the realities of today’s market. She talked with one of the men beside me who has published his first book with another house and the sales had been poor. They discussed the dilemma of reaching the sort of audience to whom he was writing. She mentioned another writer who was writing her second book and they weren’t sure it would be a good fit for her publisher. She asked us if we minded if she grabbed her. We all said it was fine.
When she left they all leaned in, the woman asked, “So what’s your book about?” I was just starting to tell them when the editor returned. “I couldn’t find her…Did you pitch your book without me? How did it go?”
“It went well. I think they’re going to publish me.”
“So what’s it about.”
I don’t think I actually said please do not publish my book it is terrible and boring – but it was something like that, and then the editor spotted the writer she had sought.”
“Oh there she is! ” And then she ran to grab the writer. We all shuffled our chairs around to make room. Mainly the editor, the woman writer and the published man spoke. I listened and tried to maintain a pleasant Non – Stepford wife expression.
I had been concerned that “my time” was seemingly dissipating, but as the interview got busier, I calmed down. Either God was holding me or he wasn’t. I chose to go with he is and then completely relaxed. I felt peaceful about my silence. To say something would have been only to push myself forward, to make myself heard, rather than to contribute something to the discussion. I continued to listen. Eventually the woman writer needed to leave as did my group of three who were beginning to feel like my friends. We all rose. While the editor finished up with the men, the woman told me she was interested in my book. I suspected her of undue kindness but she elaborated before being drawn away to say goodbye to the editor. And then it was just the two of us.
I told her my idea. We discussed the challenges facing memoir in general and the whole platform issue. I told her my plans and she invited me to submit a proposal. I thanked her and then we stood up to leave. I asked her about her flight. I had know she had been delayed the day before and we kept talking. It wasn’t a let me kiss your bum, have I mentioned you are fascinating and brilliant?, please oh please publish me sort of conversation. It was simply two travelers bitching about airports which devolved into a discussion of California, earthquakes, bathing children and parenthood in general. You know how that happens. And then we wished each other well and said good bye.
I spoke to another editor the next day, an appointment also arranged by my Jewish Writing Mother, Lorilee. This editor, a friend of the JWM offered, once I have my proposal written, to go over it and give me some feedback before I formally submitted it.
Lorilee and I met after and I told her how it went.
“I just want to find Ann so she can introduce you to her publisher.” We had talked about this as a possibility.
We found Ann who introduced me, quite graciously, and then slipped away, shouting back, “You should publish her book.”
He asked me what it was about and I just told him without any fear or concern. He said it sounded interesting and that he would like to read part. At this point I did get scared. I had some of my manuscript in my bag but I felt reluctant to hand it over. Lorilee’s voice hissed in my head, “You give him that folder right this minute, Young Lady!”
“I do have part of it here.”
He seemed to hesitate.
“Or if you prefer I could send it to you later…I know you are probably busy after the festival. Would you rather I sent it in a few weeks?” Months? Years? Never is good.
“Now would be fine.”
I handed him the folder.
“I can have this?”
“Certainly.” And my car, my house…
Again in saying goodbye we got involved in a lengthy conversation. Those of you who know me are laughing – but it amazes me that I was in a place where he was a human and I was a human who were simply having a friendly chit chat. I had begun to see myself as a wraith like creature, flapping my hideous black wings, emitting terrible shrieks whilst thwacking people with my manuscript.
Peace is so much better.
I rejoined Lorilee who invited me to dinner with her writing group again. We went around the table and told the highlights of the festival for each of us. It was so great to celebrate with and encourage each other. It was one of those rauckus, funny, joyful, lovely times and I was grateful to be a part of it.
So I have been invited to submit a couple of proposals and a publisher is going to read a bit of my stuff. I told Lorilee, “Even if he spits on it and then burns it that will be feedback and I can ask, ‘Exactly when did you begin to spit?”
Lorilee, good Jewish Writing Mother that she is, said, “He’s going to love it.”