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Monday, October 19, 2009

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Cracking the Code


I ran into someone I hadn't seen in a while, and they asked what I've been up to.

"I've been writing a book."

"Oh, that must be fun!"

Yes, if by fun you mean being dropped into an iron soul-compactor formed by two walls of pressure, external and internal, bearing down on you for ten months.

"It's...ah...been an interesting process."

At times, it has been...well, fun is a stretch. It's felt really good, at least as often as it's felt really hard. I turned in all but the last few chapters on Thursday, and have a few more weeks to get happy enough with those to turn them loose. Patrick has also been under the gun of several big projects, so it's been pretty crazy around here. The kids go to bed, and the coffee pot goes on. The emotional climate is completely different, but the physical tension is weirdly similar to the way it felt two years ago, when we were about to lose our house. I guess in the body, stress is stress.

We try to stay in gratitude. I walked through his office late one night on my way to refill my coffee, and saw how exasperated he was with the project he was working on. I stopped to rub his shoulders, leaned down and kissed his head.

"Two years ago this October, you were up all night, staring into your computer because you had no work."

"I know, I know."

He managed a smile. He does the same for me, when I've lost perspective.

Sometimes it is granted in other ways. Our last date was a month or so ago (I've completely lost track of time--when did summer turn to autumn?), and we spent part of it wandering around the big chain bookstore, with coffees in hand. He stayed in the graphic novel section the whole time, while I strolled around. A bookstore like that is one of my favorite artist's playdates, but I have to be careful to keep it playful, or it can quickly turn into a busman's holiday. For example, I have to avoid the memoir section right now, which is usually my favorite, because I can't help but do market analysis. I stick to cookbooks and travel guides lately.

I was on my way to the magazine rack when I passed the writer's reference section, and it almost stopped me in my tracks. I had forgotten how much time I used to spend there, trying to crack the code. I spent so many Sunday afternoons by that shelf, thumbing through books telling me how to write, how to pitch, how to get published. I spent far more time circumambulating writing than actually writing. It's tempting to harbor regret for all the lost years, but it just wasn't time yet. No amount of my strategizing and studying was going to hurry up time, either. It happened when it happened, not a moment too late or too soon.

I could almost see myself there, running my fingers along the spines, looking for the way in, like it was a secret door.

I see myself also in the queries I get lately--a couple a week--from people who are looking for the same elusive opening. I feel very inadequately equipped to answer these. "I really don't know much about pitching," I responded recently. "More about dreaming." I'm afraid I disappoint, that they go away thinking I am willfully shutting them out. I very well remember feeling that published writers and the most well-known bloggers had magic wands they could wave over me if they cared to. All I needed was an invitation to the ball. If only they would link to me, or mention me to their agent, or put in a word with the editor. Access was the key, I was sure of it. I'd be so despondent when I'd learn that someone got a book deal only because (I thought) they "knew someone."

Access is key, but it doesn't work the way I thought it did. Publishing isn't the Junior League. It's not as simple as having someone vouch for you, and you're in. People say that publishing isn't a meritocracy, that it's a crapshoot. I think that's only partly true. There are best selling books by people who can barely string a sentence together, and there are talented, dedicated writers who may never make it out of the slushpile. But those are the extremes. In between, I believe most authors work for what they get, and get what they work for: a book. It may not be with their dream publisher. Chances are, it won't make Oprah's bookclub or win the Booker. Fame and fortune is a crapshoot. When you see how much people love to hate Elizabeth Gilbert or Julie Powell, you really have to ask yourself what you're in it for, because the best case scenario is being publicly loathed and snarked at by thousands, and the worst case is being publicly loathed and snarked at by dozens.

But if you know all that, and you still want to get published, it's hardly an esoteric mystery. For what it's worth, here's everything I know:

  • Write. There came a day when I stopped reading about writing, and I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote things that embarrass me now, and things of which I'm still proud. I wrote when it made me feel good and people approved, and I wrote when it made me feel foolish and exposed-- worse, when it made others feel foolish and exposed and I felt like Edward Scissorhands. I wrote when there were no words for what I felt. I wrote when no one but Patrick and my mom was reading, when I was sure it was no good, and no one but Patrick and my mom would ever give a damn. I wrote when I read how impossible the odds were of someone like me ever being noticed, when I heard stories about editorial assistants whose job it was to keep letters from unknowns ever getting past the slushpile, when I was told that blogging was an utter waste of time. I wrote for the same reason Patrick and I stayed together through the darkest time of our marriage. Because there was nowhere else to go.

    There are times writing has made me miserable. But those are nothing compared to the misery I would suffer and inflict if I weren't writing.

  • Risk. We gave up our house. We gave up our savings, benefits and security. We lost sleep, sanity, and serenity. We almost didn't make it. Any rational person would have cried uncle, and gone and gotten a job when things took a nosedive like they did for us in 2007. We could have a predictable payday and two cars in the driveway instead of a budget based on anybody's guess, and a six year old minivan with which we play Korean roulette every mile. I find it best not to pursue that line of thought too far, so I'll move on. But rest assured, you can stamp my dues statement paid.

  • Persevere. Eventually I found agents and bloggers who would answer emails from unconnected nobodies like me. All it did was give me some more personalized rejections. Access turned out not to be the magical, mythical thing I thought it would be. I pitched, charmed, networked and sometimes just hurled myself at the door, but not ONE of those things is what gave me my first break. You know what was? See the top item: I wrote. I got rejected, I cried, I turned to my silly blog that no one read, and I wrote. And one day, opportunity stopped by without me knowing or engineering it, and there was a whole body of work for an editor to find. There was awful drivel, but there was also my best stuff, that people told me I shouldn't just give away.

So, there I was, "discovered," and the seas just parted before me: magazine articles, agent, book deal, code cracked, right?

Not quite. I just get to keep doing it all over at a different level. Write. Risk. Persevere. Repeat. The stakes and expectations get higher with the rewards. I try not to complain (much). If it doesn't ever get any better, if it all falls apart, I've still got Patrick and my mom. I'm good.

In my wildest dreams, I'd be that bestselling author whose influence is so great that I can make agents and editors read things that I think are wonderful and deserving, and have Oprah's number on speed dial. "Here's a blog I think you should read," I'd say to my agent, and a star is born. It would be fun to pretend it worked that way, so that people might try to buy me with candy and flowers, but in reality, my agent doesn't read my blog. She's busy selling books to publishers, which is exactly what you want an agent to be busy doing.

A lot of my regular readers have shared with me their aspirations to be published. I hope this doesn't discourage anyone. I hope you stick with it. I hope you have someone in your life who believes in you, no matter what. And I hope you believe in yourself, when it feels like no one will ever give a damn. If you don't have that foundation, I recommend Jen and Andrea's online class about dreaming big. I haven't taken the class myself, but I've been on the receiving end of Jen's infinite faith in possibility.

I'm very happy to answer any questions or read your insight about writing and publishing in the comments section. I'm not doing a great job with keeping up with email lately, and your query or experience might help someone else.

Posting will be very light for the next few weeks, but I'll be around. Thanks for all the good mojo. xo K.


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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

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In and out of weeks and through a year.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,


Henry and Julia

These are my great-great grandparents, Henry and Julia Rogers. A cousin I've never met sent me this photograph last week, along with a chart that showed our shared ancestry back to my great X 5 grandparents, Oliver and Sophia Leonard, who came to Newfoundland from England in the late 1700s. Beyond that, we don't know. I've kept the name Leonard in the family, through one of my sons.

The paper trail for the Pittmans is much shorter. My great-grandparents, Martin and Lizzie, died young, and their orphan children left Merasheen Island for Boston. Only my grandfather returned as an adult, to marry my grandmother Mary Leonard, and have eight children. My great-grandparents' death was a catastrophe, but it was the kind of catastrophe that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Outliers, that alters the arc of the narrative for future generations, arguably for the better. Because of it, my grandfather was educated in Boston and became the very epitome of a 20th century man. He and his siblings jumped the track and moved from subsistence living to the modern middle class. But roots were snapped off in that seismic shift. I have no record of who his grandparents were, or where the Pittmans of Merasheen Island came from.

That could be about to change. Tomorrow, I'm flying to Utah, where some people want to help me trace my roots. The visit is sponsored, so I will be writing about the help I get on Noteworthy, techniques that Alex Haley only dreamed of (I have my family in a frenzy of collecting dates and cheek swabs). But my heritage is all mine, so you can bet some of those stories will get told here.

Like discovering another cousin, on the Pittman side, by googling "Pittman" and "Boston" last Sunday, and getting a hunch about one of the 704,000 results: someone with the same given name as one of my uncles and a first cousin. The link took me to the profile of someone who writes and argues with people for a living. Oh yeah, he's one of ours, I thought. I emailed him.

He got back to me the same day. Yes, his grandfather had come from Newfoundland. Orphaned, he had always been told. I sent him a link to the ship manifest showing his grandfather's passage to New England in 1917. He was seventeen years old. His eyes and hair were brown. He was going to stay with his brother.

We had a couple of lovely emails back and forth, trading names and dates. He has kept our great-grandfather's name in his family, through one of his children. I don't know if we'll keep up correspondence, but I felt the way my kids do, when they are rummaging through a drawer looking for one thing, and come up with something else, something really neat, that they didn't even know was missing. That night, I told the boys a story about some children whose mother and father died. My five-year-old's eyes welled up.

I nodded and hugged him. "It was very sad. It was a long time ago, and people died from things we don't die from now." My great-grandfather died of gangrene after he broke his leg, chopping wood.

"But the children grew up, and got married and had their own children. And they had children. I found one of them today, and he has children your age. They are your third cousins. Isn't that amazing?"

I don't know if they thought it was amazing or not. I looked at the three of them, sitting up in bed, and thought how terrible it would be for them to lose us, but how much worse for them to lose each other. If I could have only one line in my will, it would be that my boys stay together. As I understand it, my grandfather's oldest sister was largely responsible for keeping her siblings together. They remained a family until they had families of their own. I don't expect my sons' grandchildren to be close, necessarily, but I would like them to know of each other's existence, to know where they came from. I think Lizzie and Martin would have liked it too.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

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Correcting Posture


Less than two weeks to my book deadline, and all three kids have come down with strep. I could crack walnuts between my shoulder blades. My son works beside me, and reminds me how making something is supposed to feel.


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