A year ago today my first book, Message From a Blue Jay, was launched into the world by a small press called Buddhapuss Ink out of Edison, N.J. The press is owned by MaryChris Bradley, a 30-year veteran of the publishing industry who has seen and done it all when it comes to books. The fact that MaryChris liked my manuscript enough to publish it and put the muscle of her press behind its success meant the world to me. During every step of the publishing process she made decisions that turned the book into more than I could have hoped for: she designed the text, chose and tweaked the cover art, and made sure the press’s intern developed and distributed a beautiful media kit. On the day I held a launch party at Back Pages Books in Waltham (whose owner, Alex Green, also offered his support) MaryChris paid for a cake featuring the book cover.
Publishing a book is, for some of us, a life’s dream. I’ve been writing since I was a child; it’s embarrassing now to look back at the poetry I sent in with my college applications. I can imagine the rolled eyes in admissions offices of some of the country’s more prestigious universities. Maybe they sat around the conference table and laughed until tears fell. But I was between ten and sixteen when I wrote those poems, untrained and not well read. I just jotted down thoughts and feelings and images, and maybe once or twice I hit something that certainly was amateurish and silly and badly written, but showed a little hint of the writer to come. For example, I wrote this one somewhere around age twelve or thirteen (hopefully this one didn’t go to any admissions offices):
The trees become shadows.
The light disappears.
The houses, lit up, soon
fade into the night.
The crickets may chirp or
The wind may howl,
But a feeling of darkness and fright is about.
Soon all is silent but nature’s noises.
Wherever I look I see darkness and shadows.
The world has stopped turning
And sleep takes you away.
I wrote the next poem when I was eleven (I’m really embarrassing myself now), and it is as bad as poetry can get, and yet…it reveals who I would become and what would be important to me throughout my life:
A Special World
A world of animals would be a special world
So would a world of glee.
But a world with nothing but nature
Would be nicest for me.
A world with no pollution
It would have to be.
A world with no bad illusions
Would be a world for me.
Where animals could roam free,
And they all could talk to me.
I won’t torture you with any more of my bad childhood poetry, but I post these examples here to show just how long writing has been part of my life, a natural extension of the way I see and attempt to express the world. I’ve come a long way in my skill level since those early poems (I hope), but the heart inside the writer is much the same. I am still, in many ways, that young girl looking out the window and examining the darkness, the wildlife, the dreams of a better world.
Sometimes an author posts a writing announcement on Facebook, such as the publication of a book or the acceptance of a shorter piece in a literary journal, and it appears to the outsider as if that author experiences nothing but success and achievement. Maybe that’s true for some writers, but I can tell you that for me, the journey toward the publication of Message From a Blue Jay was long and challenging. After I started my career as a writer for non-profit environmental organizations, publishing a few poems in small journals, and segueing into freelance and briefly full-time journalism, writing took a back seat in my life for a number of years. I never left it completely behind; I took a graduate poetry work shop here, joined a writing workshop there, and found ways to fit writing into my professional life as I moved from job to job. But I reached a point about ten years ago when I hadn’t written creatively for years, and in one of those “ah hah” moments one has in life, I realized that time was passing and so was my opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream. Books don’t just happen. Writing one requires work, practice, and a serious commitment.
The path toward publishing a book is different for every writer. My first step was to enroll in the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, where, on my first day, one of the faculty members sitting at the table in our workshop constructively tore apart my first manuscript. I had applied in the “Creative Nonfiction” category because I hadn’t written poetry in years and most of the pieces I could submit from my journalism days were first person narratives. I was devastated; I’d won awards as a journalist and thought of myself as a good writer. What I didn’t realize is that creative writing is completely different. I had to start over. I had to let go of a lot of the rules and formats I was used to using and rediscover what it was like to stare out the window and let my mind go.
I worked with some great writers and teachers at the program, including Joy Castro, Michael Steinberg, Laban Carrick Hill, and Randall Kenan. Not all of them still teach at Solstice, but all have remained friends, colleagues, and mentors. Meg Kearney and Tanya Whiton, the director and associate director of the program, offered their unflagging support when I felt intimidated by the talented writers in any given room or was too nervous to do a required reading in front of a crowd. I’m generally a shy person; it’s challenging for me to network or interact with strangers. I’ll never forget the moment when I did a reading from “Forty-Six” (an essay that was eventually published in the literary journal Ascent and included in my book) in front of a packed crowd as a graduating student. Acclaimed writer Dorothy Allison was in the audience, and although I’d never met her, she smiled and nodded at me after I raised my fist in triumph and left the podium. At that moment I thought, “Yeah, I did it.”
I did do it. But that was just earning the MFA. For three years after I graduated in 2010, I wrote new work, revised old essays, submitted to literary journals, and learned what it meant to receive many more rejections than acceptances. To be a writer, you have to have an incredibly thick skin. You have to believe in yourself and your work, and hold onto that belief even when it wobbles or threatens (often) to leave you. For every post on Facebook that says, “Great news! My essay has just been accepted in…” there are many more mornings when you open your email to familiar form letters stating: “Thank you for sending us your work, but…”
The same was true for my full-length book manuscript. For ten months the manuscript circulated to publishers through Joan Schweighardt, an old friend, an accomplished author in her own right (her latest novel, The Accidental Art Thief, launches tomorrow, in fact), and a literary agent who agreed to help me shop the book. We got the usual number of form responses saying “no,” but quite a few really complimentary ones, too. Editors from major houses such as W.W. Norton & Company and several university presses, including the University of Nebraska Press, really liked my writing but for whatever reason couldn’t take on the book. One of the main reasons I heard more than once was that “essay collections just don’t sell.” My book is a collection of personal essays, and publishing houses, which need to make money like any other business, rarely take on books from unknown writers in low-selling genres.
For that reason it meant all that much more to me when several publishers finally offered to publish my book. Evolved Publishing is a hybrid publisher (which means the author often invests in some of the up-front development of the book in exchange for higher royalties upon sales) with a promising model, but I didn’t want to go that route with my first book. I wanted a traditional publishing house. Water Street Press is an impressive new small press that wanted to publish Blue Jay. They gave me some great feedback that helped me revise the manuscript into a text that read more like a memoir. I couldn’t have been more impressed with this new, small house that was publishing wonderful work. However, at the time they focused more on e-publishing than traditional hard copy books, and again, for my first book, I dreamed of doing it all the traditional way – with a traditional publisher publishing books that you could hold in your hands (and e-books, too, of course).
I connected with Buddhapuss Ink through, of all things, Twitter. For some time I had been part of a small group of authors who chatted on Twitter on a regular basis about everything from writing to cats (the press’s logo depicts a black cat). Buddhapuss was publishing modern romance novels and mysteries at the time, so I didn’t think they’d be interested in my manuscript. One day, however, MaryChris sent me the tweet that changed my life: “Have you sent your manuscript to the cat?”
A few months later I got the answer I hoped for. Buddhapuss Ink wanted to publish Message From a Blue Jay. I knew in my gut that this was the way the universe wanted me to go, and in the year between acceptance and publication I realized why. As someone who tends to “melt like wax” (as one of my essays, “Morning and Night,” notes) in the face of difficult human interactions, I would likely have struggled in what is often a harsh, competitive publishing environment. My skin had been thickened by numerous rejections, but not that much. What I found in Buddhapuss was a press that supported my book—and me—by throwing everything they had behind us both, even though the odds were against us from the start. Small presses fight a big battle out there in the world of book marketing and publicity. The big guns of that world have so much more money. I didn’t have the money to hire a publicist myself or the time to dedicate to selling my book door-to-door (I still had to work at a paying job). All I had was this little publisher who did their darndest to get my book out into the world. And although, a year later, I can’t say we made much of a dent in the publishing arena, I see the entire effort as a success. A number of readers wrote to say how moved they were by the book and that they felt less alone after reading it. That worked for me.
So, here we are, a year after publication date, two years after acceptance date, five years after I earned my MFA in Creative Writing, and ten years after I re-dedicated myself to the effort to write creatively and publish a book. I wanted to record this all today because it’s so easy, from the outside—or even from the trenches inside—to think that publishing comes easy to some people. Again, maybe it does. But for me, it took years of hard work that isn’t over, and I want to be honest about that. Maybe it will inspire others who find it difficult, too, and maybe it will draw attention to the hardworking professionals at small presses like Buddhapuss Ink, who have such a hard time making ends meet when they throw their efforts behind writers like me.
So now, here’s the thing. I need to be there for my publisher, too. I have to suck it up and let go of my pride and ask you, on this first anniversary of publication, to go online and buy the book. I can’t be shy about asking anymore, because my publisher has done too much for me and I have to do my part, too. They want to publish a short e-book featuring some of my new essays, but I have to show them that Blue Jay can still sell. Amazon has had 19 copies left for the past couple of weeks. Can you help me sell those out so I can make my publisher proud? Gift a friend, a family member, a writing colleague. Send me a note and I’ll sign a sticker for you to put in the book. That makes it a collectible! Ask other readers, read the reviews. I’m proud of this book, and I want to share it with more readers.