He is ready to hear our pitches. We are situated, the nine or ten of us, around a long dark table with him at the head, each of us rigid with the tension of this first test and he somewhat gleeful at the chance to have a go at us. N goes first. Her pitch is not enough story. It is full of bits and pieces, of “and thens.” She has no hero, no guide. Where is her pivot, the moment when she says, “But it’s not just about…it’s about….!”? She’s not wearing the pitch in a way that’s comfortable for her own skin, voice, body. It’s all great advice, but the room is a wet sea creature trembled ashore, terrified, anticipating suffocation. We all see ourselves in her position, all the hours of writing in the morning before teaching and in the evening pushing away neglected husbands, all the jubilant breakthroughs of fitting the pieces into place, all the afilate concentration of shifting words around until the sentence is agleam, all gone, poof. The work is a mosaic heap of shards.
I’m next, and I can feel my heart beating nearly out of my chest, cartoon-style, a perfect heart-shaped heart extending a foot or so out of my body on a red rope of muscle and pounding back in. I talk over my beating heart, feeling as though its pumping overshadows the words. I manage to get it all out – Mexico, migrants, modernity, tension between roots and opportunities – and then: stop! Halt.
First, the title. Second, the concepts: stories, not concepts; structure, not concepts. Third, don’t get naked! Stay big: the actual story is small, revels in the small, but the pitch is big, epic. I nod and scribble, nod and scribble. My book could obviously do well in an “academic niche press,” even though it is narrative nonfiction and not remotely academic and I’d like to think that its subjects – immigration, returning home, feeling lost between cultures – aren’t niche. My heart has settled, its beat still palpable like the eerie inner boom of a bass drum, but no longer leaping out. I need to be Mitt Romney: avoid statistics, just assert. Got it. The powdered cream-filled donut I just ate at this coffee-and-donut brunch is a cottony lump in my stomach. It is helpful, undeniably, it is all very very helpful, even though I feel as though my book has been reduced to a tea party, a cute quaint effort silly and esoteric as a monkey with a plastic teacup. Next K, “Your pitch might not actually be wildly inappropriate,” and M, “yours has bones,” all good stuff. A few more questions, and he stands, pulls on his suitcoat, and we give thanks, the thanks of the faithful, the indebted, the anxiously grateful.
It is not until I’m on the bus home that I begin to really feel the despair. There is a mess of shredded tissue on one of the seats, one of those details that feels too fitting to be true, but is. Another: there is a woman crying in the back of the bus. She has a frightened look on her face, her cheeks frozen by some news, her mouth an oval. It’s a beautiful day, the sky Photoshop blue and the trees a pointilist explosion of yellow, orange and red. But when I get home I just feel angry, and I want to apply for law school. Well, not law school, maybe. No, too yuppie, too much tedious bureaucracy. Med school! But I rely on my Dashboard calculator to do anything beyond single digit addition. There has to be some career out there, something I could excel at in a measured, calculable way, that would have clear milestones: if you work hard enough, you pass one, you move on, you “make it.”
This man, this agent from New York who swiped a finger down the screen of his Ipad over and over just to show us how many manuscripts he had in his queue, told us that it used to be three drinks and a story. Now it’s ninety seconds and two lines. That’s what it comes down to. Unless you can somehow elbow your way into the rarefied New York literary world and make yourself its darling, that’s the shot you’ve got. That, or one of thousands of queries landing on an agent’s desk or popping up in his/her inbox every day. “You want to say no,” the agent told us. “You find ways to say no. You hate to say yes.” So in that room during your ninety seconds when your heart is leaping out of your chest and your whole book – the eight months you spent traveling around Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, the drafts you read on your parents’ cabin porch, the Saturday afternoons of interviewing and the Sunday mornings of drafting notes, the writing paragraph by paragraph and page by page – flying through your head, you begin to feel the immense futility of it all.
You think, that work had nothing to do with anything. You think, what does the writing mean if I can never sell or publish it, what does it mean if I’m going to keep getting rejected and rejected and rejected, if I keep getting put in mislabeled boxes? What does the writing mean if I can never convince the infinitely busy people in New York to have a look at it? What does all that work, when it comes down to it, have to do with this room? I could have written nothing at all: would the outcome be any different? Would my chances be any different? You think, what am I doing?
I have spent the past five years writing. Writing at the center of my life. Defining myself as a writer (an anxious and unweidly title at first, with rickety training wheels, but now instinctual, natural). Reading, trying to make my work stronger, deeper, tighter, more complex. The past three years in the MFA deciphering writing, x-raying it for structure and “moves” – that beloved academic term that only reinforces everyone’s tired unsexiness, the ziplock bags of carrots on the tables – thinking that what matters is fleshing out the central question at the heart of the piece until it resounds in every scene, tweaking the language until it’s garnered the steady rhythmic lull of a passing train, the easy push and pull against its banks like a river, drawing the reader into a spell. This is what we pay attention to, this is what I worry about, and why I wake up in the morning and work all day until late at night, too much, and too obsessively.
But then there are the moments when you wonder: is this worth it? And not because you have no life. Not because it’s been ages since you’ve seen a movie or taken a whole afternoon to putz around doing nothing. Because there is no guarantee it’s going to pay off, financially or otherwise. In fact, there’s more of a guarantee it won’t. There’s more of a guarantee that you’re exactly who that New York agent sees: a little person with a little book and a little talent who might be able to publish a little something someday, sure sweetheart. It very well might be that you have just enough talent to make a few passes at memorability, to climb a few pegs up that big variegated wall of success – an essay in a lit mag here, a freelance gig there, a nice little book at a small press that sells a few hundred copies, an obscure contest win – but there’s nowhere to go from there. You won’t get any higher, because you either don’t have the talent or you don’t have the connections, can’t figure a way in, keep bumbling through your 90 seconds. Everyone wants to say no.
I remember reading submissions at a major magazine as an intern. Most were abysmal. Naked girls in socks straddling chairs, the global warming apocalypse, and the like. But some were OK. Some had potential, talent, even spare moments of beauty. But read through that lens – we publish twelve stories a year, half of whom are by writers who’ve already won Pulitzers or become legends, and the other half likely from up-and-comers who’ve been selected and groomed by the New York publishing industry, people we rub elbows with at parties or have heard of via a friend of a friend – none of those stories stood a chance in hell. There was contempt for them. Their efforts adorable, pitiable, misguided, and doomed. I felt a slight aftertaste of that in the Cathedral of Learning the other morning after five or six rounds of 90 seconds. It was nowhere near as blatant, or as hopeless, but it was that taste nonetheless, as distinct as the pungeant sooty funk immediately recognizable in the air of both Beijing and Pittsburgh. The sense that most of this, for most of us, might be in vain. If you really want to make it to the top, if you want your book to be widely read and celebrated in literary circles, your chances are tiny, and you are heaped in the slush pile atop trucker sex and talking dogs. To claw your way through all that to a “yes” seems a vertiginous impossibility, a near lottery ticket. And yes, I know that the chorus of offended writers will begin to shout, “It’s not all about The New Yorker!” No, it’s not, and that’s why I started Vela. I strongly believe that: it’s not simply about being recognized by important people and published in traditionally lauded places, no.
But there comes a point after so much work when I think, I want this book to matter. I want it to be big. And swallowing the idea that it might not be, probably won’t be, if it even gets published at all, makes me question why I sit down and do this every day. I simply don’t buy the writing-is-life writing-is-essential-to-one’s-soul explanation. It’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else, but I don’t think I want to love writing with passionate obsessiveness if it’s going to act like a neglectful boyfriend having affairs with hot young starlets. I keep trying to peek down the tunnel: is there anything there? Glimpses that someday this will pay off, that it will be meaningful beyond my own satisfaction and my own struggle to improve my work?
We’ve all read the poignant, wipe-the-sweat-from-one’s-brow-with-relief stories about the artist who struggled for years before the big breakthrough came, and then looked back on her decade of rejections and ambiguity with near-fondness, the way we can long for certain places that moved us and made us suffer. There’s Tom Grimes’s “Mentor”, one of my favorites, and Peyton Marshall’s “From the Hills of Fauquier County,” elegant and haunting and beautiful because we know, whew, she made it! How tender is all that stressful searching now! It all turned out alright in the end, didn’t it! But what if it doesn’t? What if you don’t get the shot five or ten years from now to write that essay about the year when you got 10 personalized rejections, one bam following bam on the bam heels of another, successive punches? What if you end up with one, two, three unpublished books on your hard drive and there is no bittersweet posthumous success story, just the dessicated little notion that “I write because it is some undeniable inner need that I must obey!”
Yeah, it’s been a rough month, I suppose, full of dessicated little notions. But I think I’m tired of all the palliatives, all those “how to be a writer!” articles full of advice that at first may seem comforting but after a while becomes grating, belittling. We don’t see “How to be a lawyer!” articles including ten platitudes about realizing you’re neither as good nor as bad as you think. There isn’t a constant stream of inspirational or tell-it-like-it-is “How I practice medicine!” and “Why I practice medicine!” essays full of advice on when to drink one’s coffee. So why writing? Is it in part because we hope that if we just understand it enough, if we understand these ten things on this list, and obey them, if we follow these rules and imitate the masters, we have a chance? We’ll make it? Maybe we won’t. And this is what I thought this week for the first time in a long time, hard, unflinching: maybe I won’t.
Of course, I thought all this, and then the next morning – a Saturday – I woke up and sat down before the blank page, unthinking as the bird seeking its nest.