[Miss Tilda ~ Photo taken by Anne Carmack]
The title of this entry was taken from a piece in the latest issue of the New York Times Sunday Book Review ~ a review of Emily Fox Gordon's Book of Days, a collection of personal essays. I am not familiar with Gordon's work, but the review explained that she has had two memoirs and a novel published, and this is her first book of personal essays. It was the last part of the review that inspired me to get online immediately and write this entry while the bundle of cuteness pictured above sleeps at my feet.
"Gordon raises the flag of cultural fatigue against the memoir and questions the essential honesty of memoir-writing. The dishonesty inherent in memoir, she argues, is that an entire life cannot be contained in one book, and so the writer is forced to follow only one story line: Me and my drugs, me and my dysfunctional family, me and my depression, me and my eating disorder.
The publishers forced her, she writes, to create a narrative arc to bolster her original personal essay ~ and that necessitated that her book become not the full story of her life but...the predictable contemporary memoir, a by-now threadbare template of dissolution, struggle and (cue sunlight parting the clouds) requisite redemption." ~Alex Kuczynski
I created a book proposal about a year ago for a collection of personal essays. That proposal was wildly different from the proposal that was recently accepted by North Light, and sent to a different publisher. The passage cited above hit home for me because of that experience. The short story is that after an inordinate amount of time passed, I finally had a phone conversation with the editor about my proposal. During that conversation, the main thing I did was listen and take notes, and the words I was writing down, for the most part, weren't at all complimentary. The proposal was pretty much torn apart.
Now, I don't mind such frankness, and I did not take anything personally, but after the phone call was over, one thing struck me, which was that the editor kept referring to the book as a memoir. I won't say that none of the comments were appropriate and constructive to what I sent, but I will say that by reviewing and considering my proposal as a memoir, the editor missed the entire point of the book. And as a result, was giving me feedback that was not in alignment with the actual book I presented. I must point out that one of the comments was that I needed to have the "...template of dissolution, struggle and (cue sunlight parting the clouds) requisite redemption" Gordon speaks of in Book of Days. The editor did not express that verbatim, but was essentially saying the same thing.
I don't want to make it sound like the editor was a cruel taskmaster, quite the contrary. Everything was shared with respect and kindness, and, as I said, I much prefer honesty - even if it isn't what I want to hear - than some sugar-coated half-truth. The editor also gave me the opportunity to re-work one of the chapters and review it once more, an opportunity I took. Ultimately, the proposal was rejected.
After my phone call with the editor, I initially walked around wondering, "Is my book a memoir? Is that what I am supposed to write? Was there something in my proposal that gave the impression I wanted to write a memoir?" I looked at that possibility, explored what story arc ~ what linear, parting-of-the-clouds narrative of my life ~ I could create and was willing to share with the world. And within 24 hours the clouds did, indeed, drift outside of my peripheral vision, leaving behind a bright, clear sky that confirmed what I knew all along: My book was not a memoir; my book was a collection of personal essays. I said these exact words in my second phone conversation with the editor, and followed that up by explaining that if it was a memoir the editor wanted, mine was not the book for that publisher. This wasn't meant to be a challenge or some kind of negative selling tactic, it was just the truth. If that truth meant the proposal would be rejected, then both the editor and myself would be saved from a world of agony. Not to mention that if the book ended up being some kind of tortured compromise between my intentions (and the stories of my life) and the publisher's idea of what would be most marketable, then the integrity behind every word would be completely lost.
I wasn't trying to stand on some kind of moral/artistic high ground, I simply wasn't capable of drastically altering the basic structure of the book in order to please a publisher. The proposal was returned to me this past March and I still haven't opened the box it came in. It is on my shelf, sitting quietly for the time when I can take it back out and decide what to do with it. I have begun working on my book for North Light, and I know this is the book I am supposed to be working on right now. This book is no less fulfilling, exciting or meaningful, it is just a different book. And the work I did on the other proposal might not ever serve any greater purpose other than teaching me how to stay true to my intentions even when certain entities, such as a publisher, tries to steer me in another direction.
Or maybe the stories outlined in that proposal will make their way into other projects, other books, other publications and maybe another self-published book. That story has yet to reveal itself, but I know it will, and I'm just happy I get to be along for the ride.