It’s hard to believe that June is more than half over. Time passes that way, flying so fast you can’t catch it. For the past few weeks I’ve been adjusting back into the schedule of writing and working at home. I’ve found it strangely difficult to get back into the swing of things; the writing is getting done, but I’ve been falling asleep later at night and waking up later in the mornings. I’ve also been living alone while my husband is away at school, so I’ve had more household chores to handle when I first wake up. Today I didn’t start writing until 7, and that meant the rest of the day didn’t begin until 9.
I’ve been concentrating lately on trying to complete a collection of my personal essays. I have an agent, the wonderful Joan Schweighardt, who is also a long-time friend and colleague. Joan has worn every hat in the writing and publishing world; she has written four published novels of her own, as well as a memoir that was recently accepted for publication by a small press. Joan was in fact a publisher herself for a time after founding a small press called GreyCore Books. After a number of years in the field and the successful publication and marketing of quite a few books, she found that the financial challenges publishers faced at the time were too difficult to conquer (today there are more printing options that might have sustained her venture). As a result, she transformed GreyCore into a literary service that assists authors with manuscript editing, marketing, and occasionally, agent services. Joan has successfully placed a number of fiction and nonfiction titles with publishers, and I felt lucky when, after I worked with her as an editor on a couple of titles and she read some of my work, she agreed to be my agent once I finish a completed essay collection.
There are many facets to the idea of attempting a full-length book, especially if you are an essayist. Personal essay collections are notoriously difficult to publish, because publishers have to work with books they can sell and essay collections traditionally don’t attract a broad audience (even when they’re very good). A number of small and/or independent presses are working to boost general interest in essays, and I am forever grateful to the editors and publishers who believe in creative nonfiction and take this work seriously as a publishable genre. Fiction, biography, memoir, and poetry are generally easier to sell – but personal essays are becoming more popular, thanks to the many great essayists out there and a growing number of readers who are interested in the shorter forms of personal writing and reflection.
When I decided to earn an MFA, I wasn’t sure which genre to pursue. I had written poetry throughout my childhood and young adulthood, and had taken a poetry class at The New School and a graduate poetry workshop at the State University of New York at Albany. I received solid, positive feedback from my teachers and saw myself as a poet. But by the time I decided to apply to an MFA program, I hadn’t written any poetry for some time. Instead, I had been working as a journalist and writing a lot of feature stories. Fiction was the genre with which I had the least experience; I had written just two or three short stories in my life, and although one of them had been published by an online journal called Void Magazine (now defunct), I wasn’t confident that I had either the skills or the portfolio to apply as a fiction writer. I also wasn’t sure what “creative nonfiction” was exactly, but it sounded like the type of writing I was doing even in my spare time – I used to distribute a tongue-in-cheek newsletter called The Rapoport Times to friends and family that shared humorous stories about my life. One of my stories, about the culture shock experienced by a young woman from New York who was adjusting to the “new age” lifestyle of Boulder, Colorado, was published in a special Boulder edition of The Intermountain Jewish News.
When I was accepted as a student of creative nonfiction, I still wasn’t quite sure what creative nonfiction was. But I fell in love with the personal essay as soon as I learned about it, and I have been writing personal essays ever since. The form feels the most natural to me right now, and seems closest to what I want to achieve with my writing, although I haven’t ruled out a return to poetry or another try at fiction in the future.
Currently, my goal is to combine the essays I’ve been publishing over the last few years with new work in order to form a collection. And after re-dedicating myself to my morning writing routine I’m getting closer to my goal: enough words that I feel good about to complete the generally accepted required length of a manuscript (a minimum of 50,000 words for essay collections).
A couple of years ago I actually held myself back by worrying too much about completing a book; I needed time to improve and to focus on individual essays without worrying about finishing a book manuscript. Rushing things led me to produce inferior work in the quest for a manuscript with “enough words.” So I set aside my hope for a book and focused on individual pieces. That was the right thing to do at the time, and it’s possibly an approach I should continue with even now. I certainly don’t think that I’m already the best writer that I will ever be (at least I hope not). But I have worked long and hard and have had the quality of at least ten of my pieces verified by acceptance for publication in respected journals. And lately I have felt the desire to see my work in a larger context. So I’m going for it. You have to go for it at some point, right? The worst thing that can happen is that you fail, and then you just keep writing until you get better.
One of the challenges an essayist faces is how to “link” individual essays (which usually have been crafted from highly varied events and at different times in one’s life) so that they make sense as a collection. Usually this requires some kind of thread or theme that runs through the book, or an over-arching idea or frame that drives the text as a whole. Thankfully, I think I’ve got that part down when it comes to my collection. A couple of targeted themes as well as the desire to reflect on a specific period of life do drive my current work.
The funny thing is that I never think about some of the basic things a lot of writers think about when they are approaching a book. I never think about money. I never think about producing a best seller, or about getting reviewed in The New York Times. Of course, if a publisher agrees to publish my collection, both Joan and I are prepared to market the book; we both have strong professional backgrounds in public relations and marketing, and Joan is willing not only to “agent” the book but to work with me on a marketing plan that will help publishers feel confident that we can help them actually sell the book. The publisher is in business to make money, after all. But in truth, I don’t think about those things now. I think about only two things – writing work that I (and others) think is good and that will make me feel proud, and one day holding a published copy of my book in my hands.
I have been cautioned by more than one experienced writer that it’s a mistake to push for a book too soon and to end up putting out inferior work. As one former teacher told me, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” That’s one reason that this first time around, at least, I do hope to have the backing and verification of a publisher. I’m not considering self-publishing right now, although that approach is becoming more of an option for many writers.
I have also been cautioned that “having a book” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You can end up mortified by bad reviews, discouraged by slow sales, and humbled to discover that your life hasn’t changed much just because your book was published. In fact, you might feel pressure not to end up as “just a one book writer” – and that pressure can be worse than the pressure to publish your first book.
So I’m trying to be level-headed about all of this, and to focus, first and foremost, on the quality of every word that I write. And I don’t want to jinx myself by saying too much more. This is a tough, tough goal to achieve and I have no illusions about that. But if you don’t dream, you don’t achieve, right? So I am letting myself dream. Stay tuned.